The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Feeling stuck?

The New York Times had two opinion pieces today that seemed to go together.

In the first, literary critic Hillary Kelly notes the prevalence of pop-culture stories about people not so much in dystopia, but stuck in something else:

On one sci-fi show after another I’ve encountered long, zigzagging, labyrinthine passageways marked by impenetrable doors and countless blind alleys — places that have no obvious beginning or end. The characters are holed up in bunkers (“Fallout”), consigned to stark subterranean offices (“Severance”), locked in Escher-like prisons (“Andor”) or living in spiraling mile-deep underground complexes (“Silo”). Escape is unimaginable, endless repetition is crushingly routine and people are trapped in a world marked by inertia and hopelessness.

The resonance is chilling: Television has managed to uncannily capture the way life feels right now.

We’re all stuck.

What’s being portrayed is not exactly a dystopia. It’s certainly not a utopia. It’s something different: a stucktopia. These fictional worlds are controlled by an overclass, and the folks battling in the mire are underdogs — mechanics, office drones, pilots and young brides. Yet they’re also complicit, to varying degrees, in the machinery that keeps them stranded. Once they realize this, they strive to discard their sense of futility — the least helpful of emotions — and try to find the will to enact change.

I think she has a point. And just a few stories later, we get a glimpse of why that kind of story may reflect the experiences of our 2020s existence. Urbanist Stephen Smith has studied residential elevators, here and in the rest of the world, and concluded that the particular failings of the way we build elevators in the US reflect larger failings that have held us back from addressing problems that Europe and the rich Asian countries have already solved:

Elevators in North America have become over-engineered, bespoke, handcrafted and expensive pieces of equipment that are unaffordable in all the places where they are most needed. Special interests here have run wild with an outdated, inefficient, overregulated system. Accessibility rules miss the forest for the trees. Our broken immigration system cannot supply the labor that the construction industry desperately needs. Regulators distrust global best practices and our construction rules are so heavily oriented toward single-family housing that we’ve forgotten the basics of how a city should work.

Similar themes explain everything from our stalled high-speed rail development to why it’s so hard to find someone to fix a toilet or shower. It’s become hard to shake the feeling that America has simply lost the capacity to build things in the real world, outside of an app.

Behind the dearth of elevators in the country that birthed the skyscraper are eye-watering costs. A basic four-stop elevator costs about $158,000 in New York City, compared with about $36,000 in Switzerland. A six-stop model will set you back more than three times as much in Pennsylvania as in Belgium. Maintenance, repairs, and inspections all cost more in America too.

The U.S. and Canada have also marooned themselves on a regulatory island for elevator parts and designs. Much of the rest of the world has settled on following European elevator standards, which have been harmonized and refined over generations. Some of these differences between American and global standards only result in minor physical differences, while others add the hassle of a separate certification process without changing the final product.

As kids in the 1970s we dreamt of flying cars and arcologies. As I shuffle through middle age in the 2020s, I dream of the social safety net and built environments that Europe takes for granted. Give me a train to New York that takes 5 hours and the end to people going bankrupt because of a treatable illness and you can keep your flying car.

It's in the cards

I'm heading off to a Euchre tournament in a bit. I haven't played cards with actual, live people in quite some time, so I just hope to end up in the middle of the pack. Or one perfect lay-down loner... A guy can dream.

When I get home, I might have the time and attention span to read these:

  • John Grinspan looks at the similarities and crucial differences between the upcoming election and the election of 1892.
  • Andy Borowitz jokes about the latest of Robert F Kennedy's conspiracy theories: that his own brain is being controlled by a complete idiot.
  • Why do so many of the country's most infamous serial killers come from the Midwest? (Perhaps because it's the home of Kellogg's and General Mills?)
  • Michael Sweeney reviews all the errors of navigation and judgment that led to the RMS Titanic sinking 110 years ago tomorrow.
  • Speaking of navigation, researchers have found evidence that a sense of direction comes from experience, not genetics.
  • Meagan McArdle describes the Oedipus Trap that led Dr Walter Freeman to continue lobotomizing patients years after the horrors of the procedure became clear to just about everyone else, and what this means for some contemporary medical thinking.

Finally, the weather forecast this weekend calls for some real Chicago spring weather: 19°C and sunny today, 22°C and sunny tomorrow...and 9°C with a stiff breeze from the northeast tomorrow afternoon. If you head out to enjoy the warmth tomorrow lunchtime, make sure you have a sweater because it'll be 15°C by dinner.

My brain is full

Almost always, during the last few days before a performance, a huge chunk of my working memory contains the music I'm about to perform. I have two concerts this weekend, so right now, my brain has a lot of Bruckner in it. I feel completely prepared, in fact.

Unfortunately, I still have a day job, and I need a large chunk of my brain to work on re-architecting a section of our app. Instead of loading data from Microsoft Excel files, which the app needs to read entirely into memory because of the way Excel stores the contents of cells, I need to allow the app to use comma-separated values (CSV) files that it can read and throw away. So instead of reading the entire Excel file into memory and keeping it there while it generates an in-memory model of the file, the app will simply read each row of a CSV file and then throw that row away while building its model. I believe that will allow the app to ingest at least 5x more data for any given memory size.

I'm finding that the "In Te, Domine speravi" fugue from Bruckner's Te Deum keeps getting in the way of thinking about the re-architecture.

And oh, the irony, that I don't have enough working memory to think about how to get more working memory for our app.

Meanwhile...

  • James Fallows shakes his head at a pair of New York Times headlines that tell exactly the opposite stories as the articles under them. Salon's Lucian K Truscott IV elaborates.
  • The Mary Sue does not hold back on dismissing retiring US Senator Kyrsten Sinema (?-AZ), a "useless corporate Senate shill who accomplished nothing." "The only thing Sinema accomplished was outing herself as a toxic narcissist who deceived her supporters to make herself wealthy."
  • Monica Hesse has a similar, but more restrained, take on Sinema: "The interesting thing actually wasn’t her clothes. The interesting thing was that we wanted her clothes to mean something."
  • Nicholas Kristof pounds his desk about how the bullshit anti-Woke school battles coming out of places like Florida distract from the real problem: Johnny can't read.
  • A Santa Fe, N.M., jury convicted Hannah Gutierrez Reed of involuntary manslaughter for putting a live round in a prop firearm on the set of the movie Rust in 2021.
  • Cornell professor Sara Bronin leads the effort to create a National Zoning Atlas, which hopes to show what places in the US have the most onerous housing restrictions.
  • Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry has launched a new exhibit on "the science of James Bond."

Finally, prosecutors agreed to dismiss (without prejudice, I believe, though the Post left out that detail) the criminal case revolving around Don Henley's handwritten notes outlining the Eagles album Hotel California when Henley's lawyers got caught withholding evidence from the defense team. In civil cases, this is bad, but in criminal cases it's much, much worse. Like, reversible error at best and dismissal with prejudice at worst. It appears that Henley himself blew up the case by changing his mind about waiving attorney-client privilege after his attorneys had already testified. Perhaps he thought he could score points against the defense that way, but like most victims of the Dunning-Krueger Effect, he didn't understand that "gotcha" moves are generally not allowed in US courts. We'll see if the prosecutors move for a new trial or just take the loss. (It looks like the latter.)

Three seasons in one day

It's official: with two days left, this is the warmest winter in Chicago history, with the average temperature since December 1st fully 3.5°C (6.3°F) above normal. We've had only 10 days this winter when the temperature stayed below freezing, 8 of them in one week in February. This should remain the case when spring officially begins on Friday, even though today's near-record 23°C (so far) is forecast to fall to -6°C by 6am. And that's not even to discuss the raging thunderstorms and possible tornadoes we might get as an energetic cold front slices through tonight. By "energetic," I mean that the NWS predicts a drop by as much as 16°C (30°F) in one hour around 10pm.

Not to worry: it'll be 17°C by Sunday. (The normal high temperatures are 4.7°C for February 27th and 5.4°C for March 3rd; the records are 23.9°C and 26.7°C, respectively.)

Meanwhile, I don't have time to read all of these before I pack up my laptop tonight:

And now, back to getting ready for the Sprint 103 release. That's a lot of sprints.

Sunday morning link clearance

Google Chrome is patiently letting me know that there's a "New Chrome available," so in order to avoid losing all my open tabs, I will list them here:

Finally, XKCD traces the evolution of most Americans' thoughts about urban planning and transport policy, once they start having any. I feel seen!

Papagena lebe!

I'm just over a week from performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, so as I try to finish a feature that turned out to be a lot bigger than I thought, I'm hearing opera choruses in my head. Between rehearsals and actual work, I might never get to read any of these items:

Finally, New York City (and other urban areas) are experiencing a post-pandemic dog-poop renaissance. Watch where you step!

And now, I will put on "Dank sei dir Osiris" one more time.

Atlantic thermohaline circulation wobbles

Back in 1990, journalist James Burke produced a documentary for PBS called "After the Warming," which looked back from an imagined 2050 to explain how and why palm trees came to grow in Boston. The framing device he used was to set the documentary as an explainer for an important report on the Atlantic thermohaline circulation study due to be released during the broadcast. I won't spoil it for you except to say as pessimistic as Burke was in 1990, he may have been, in fact, overly optimistic:

The Atlantic Ocean’s sensitive circulation system has become slower and less resilient, according to a new analysis of 150 years of temperature data — raising the possibility that this crucial element of the climate system could collapse within the next few decades.

Scientists have long seen the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, as one of the planet’s most vulnerable “tipping elements” — meaning the system could undergo an abrupt and irreversible change, with dramatic consequences for the rest of the globe. Under Earth’s current climate, this aquatic conveyor belt transports warm, salty water from the tropics to the North Atlantic, and then sends colder water back south along the ocean floor. But as rising global temperatures melt Arctic ice, the resulting influx of cold freshwater has thrown a wrench in the system — and could shut it down entirely.

The study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications suggests that continued warming will push the AMOC over its “tipping point” around the middle of this century. The shift would be as abrupt and irreversible as turning off a light switch, and it could lead to dramatic changes in weather on either side of the Atlantic.

The consequences would not be nearly as dire as they appear in the 2004 sci-fi film “The Day After Tomorrow,” in which a sudden shutdown of the current causes a flash freeze across the northern hemisphere. But it could lead to a drop in temperatures in northern Europe and elevated warming in the tropics, Peter Ditlevsen said, as well as stronger storms on the East Coast of North America.

Exactly: palm trees in Boston and the extinction of most food crops in Scotland, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. London in January may only have 6 hours of daylight but it rarely gets below freezing, even though it's at roughly the same latitude as Calgary. If the Atlantic stops bringing warm Caribbean water to the British Isles, the UK will have to invest in snow plows.

The main thing that Burke predicted in his film has come to pass, however: decades of inaction by politicians who have no incentive (other than having to live on the planet) for taking long-term action on climate change. And we're the worst offenders.

Life, uh, finds a way

Razib Khan looks at where modern humans came from in light of recent genetic analyses, and how the Toba eruption 74,000 YBP gave our particular lineage an opening our ancestors exploited, wiping out the competing varieties of humans within 10,000 years:

The most powerful explosion of the last 2.5 million years, the Toba eruption triggered a decade-long cold snap that wrought havoc even amid the last Ice Age’s already inclement conditions. When the cataclysm hit, Neanderthals had reigned supreme from the Atlantic to the Siberian Altai for hundreds of thousands of years, while their Denisovan cousins dominated East Asia. To the south, diminutive small-brained human populations occupied Indonesia’s Flores islands and Luzon in the Philippines, coexisting with both modern humans and Denisovans. But thirty thousand years after Toba, a blink of the eye in geological time, the landscape of human geography was abruptly transformed. Neanderthals, Denisovans and Southeast Asia’s enigmatic hominins were extinct or under extreme, terminal pressure from African newcomers. Neanderthals, by then resident in Europe for over 500,000 years, disappeared 5,000 years after that mass arrival of African humans to northwest Eurasia. Denisovans, by then as far into their East Asian sojourn as Neanderthals their western one, disappeared soon after their cousins. Finally, the small human populations of Flores and the Philippines also died out 50,000 years ago, after modern humans’ final expansion. This radical homogenization of Eurasian humanity is associated with the expansion of the Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP) archaeological culture, which radiated out of the Middle East 50,000 years ago, washing over the whole of Asia, Europe and Australia by 45,000 years ago.

Our naive late-20th-century idea held that a single modern tribe burst out of East Africa 50,000 years ago, replacing Neanderthals and other human lineages inexorably and in totality. In reality, almost all modern humans have some Neanderthal ancestry, while Denisovans contribute nearly 4% of the genome of Papuans and other Melanesians. But it remains true that the entire world’s genetic legacy outside Africa today does come from a single intrepid tribe, a lone population with a unified early history. But these were not the first Africans to venture out of their ancient homeland; they were the last.

He includes a flow chart of human genetic lineages following the Neandersovan exit from Africa 650,000 YBP, and it has more dotted lines than a Fortune-500 org chart.

Week-end round-up

I think I finally cracked the nut on a work problem that has consumed our team for almost three years. Unfortunately I can't write about it yet. I can say, though, that the solution became a lot clearer just a couple of weeks after our team got slightly smaller. I will say nothing more. Just remember, there are two types of people: those who can infer things from partial evidence.

Just a few articles left to read before I take Cassie on her pre-dinner ambulation:

  • Titanic director James Cameron, who has made 30 dives to the famed wreck, slammed the news media for "a cruel, slow turn of the screw for four days" as he, the US Navy, and probably most of the rescuers already figured out the submarine Titan had imploded on its descent Sunday morning.
  • The US Navy in turn reported that its Atlantic sonar net had picked up the implosion when it happened, but didn't explain (see re: inferences, above) that it waited until the accident had been confirmed by other sources because the Navy's sonar capabilities are highly classified military secrets. And since the Titan didn't have any kind of black-box recorder, they would not make any effort to bring it up from the bottom.
  • New York Times columnist Jesse Wegman slaps his forehead and asks, "Does Justice Alito (R) hear himself?" (See re: inferences, above.) James Fallows argues that "it is time for outside intervention, and supervision" of the Court. Josh Marshall sees the "fish and flights" as emblematic of deeper corruption: "The guiding jurisprudence might best be described as 'Too bad, suckas' or perhaps 'Sucks to be you.' "
  • Biologists Jerry A Coyne (University of Chicago emeritus) and Luana S Maroja  (Williams College) argue that ideology is "poisoning" the study and teaching of biology.
  • The 2 quadrillion liters (give or take) of groundwater we humans have pumped out in the last 30 years found its way to the oceans, redistributing the mass of the earth and shifting our planet's axis by about 800 mm—not enough to change the seasons, but enough to subtly interfere with global positioning and astronomy.
  • LEDs in street lights and houses have added about 10% more light pollution to our skies each year, according to new research. Of course, LEDs provide more light and save 90% of the energy we used to waste on incandescent and nonmetal-vapor lights, so...

And finally, the Illinois legislature extended by 5 years the Covid-era regulations allowing restaurants to sell go-cups. We're not New Orleans by any stretch, but you can continue to take that margarita home with your leftover burritos.

I will now retire to my lovely patio...

Meanwhile, in other news...

If you haven't got plans tonight, or you do but you're free Sunday afternoon, come to our Spring Concert:

You can read these during the intermission:

Speaking of huge animals, two amateur botanists kayaking on the Chicago River near Division encountered the biggest snapping turtle I've ever seen. Chicagoans have named the specimen Chonk, short for Chonkosaurus. I have to wonder what Chonk has been eating...