The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Lunchtime links

Just a few head-to-desk articles this afternoon:

I'm going to continue writing code and trying not to think about any of this.

Capital flooding

Yesterday, Washington D.C. experienced its heaviest rainfall on record:

In just an hour, about a month’s worth of rain drowned the District, a staggering 83 mm falling at Reagan National Airport.

This hourly output was Washington’s highest since at least 1936 (National Airport is the city’s official weather observing site), the Maxar Weather Desk, a consulting group based in Gaithersburg, Md. discovered.

“According to data from the Iowa Mesonet ... the 83 mm recorded between 8:52-9:52 AM yesterday was Washington DC’s highest hourly precip report in records dating back to 1936," Maxar tweeted.

As Monday’s torrent raged, the first-ever flash flood emergency was declared for the city as well as nearby Arlington and Alexandria, which suffered damaging downpours.

In total, it rained 11.4 billion litres on the city.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Great Lakes remain at or near record levels.

A Chicago factory is making 3-flats

This is kind of cool, and could really help the city:

Skender, an established, family-owned builder in Chicago, is making a serious play in a sector associated with young startups: modular construction. The company is building steel-structured three-flats, a quintessential Chicago housing type that consists of three apartments stacked on top of each other in the footprint of a large house. It believes it can deliver them faster and at lower cost at its new factory than by using standard methods of construction.

Even with humans and not robots doing the work, the company is confident that continual refinement will yield efficiency. A three-flat apartment building can now go up in 90 days, Skender claims, instead of nine months. Swanson estimates that the three-flats will cost $335,000 per unit to build, not including land. In time, company leaders hope that economies of scale and increased efficiency will bring down that price.

As well as economies of scale, proponents of modular architecture tout its freedom from weather-related delays, unpredictable site conditions, and fragmented supply chains. Those all stand to benefit Skender. No subcontractors will work in the factory, which will avoiding squabbles between HVAC or plumbing specialists who might blame each other when something goes wrong. But that also means Skender assumes all the risk. That has undone some past experiments in prefab and modular building.

At the factory’s opening, 25 people worked there, and Skender plans on hiring five more per week till it’s fully staffed at 150, all union labor.

I might not want to live in a pre-fab building (I'm partial to 100+-year-old historic buildings), but lots of other people would. At $335k to build, a 3-bedroom apartment could sell for $500k and make some money for the builder. $500k implies rents around $3,200 per month, but that or more is what many landlords already get in affluent parts of the city.

I'll keep my eyes open for the first Skender apartments that open near me.

Speculative fiction in the Economist

This week's Economist features a collection of "what-if" stories that attempt to present near-future events well within the realm of possibility. First up, what if an American destroyer were surrounded by small Chinese boats in the contested waters of the South China Sea...next October?

The official account of the crisis begins with a terse Pentagon statement, issued on October 9th, that the McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, had been forced to stop in international waters by vessels “answering to China’s military chain of command” while conducting a “routine, lawful transit in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands”.

The Pentagon demanded that China allow the McCampbel“and all its equipment” to continue its passage. The reference to equipment was clarified an hour later when Xinhua, China’s state news agency, released a video showing Chinese fishermen with boathooks grabbing at a half-submerged underwater drone fouled in a net, described as an American spy submarine. A second Xinhua video showed an inflatable speedboat, manned by armed American sailors, apparently adjacent to the drone but trapped by two dozen Chinese fishing boats organised into a ring formation.

Both countries agree on some of what happened next. After about 30 minutes the American inflatable broke through the circle of fishing boats as sailors fired shots with their small arms, and returned to the destroyer, where Ji-Hoon Kim, one of the speedboat’s crew, was reported missing. Soon afterwards a growing fleet of Chinese fishing trawlers, many of them flying large red flags, surrounded the McCampbell.

Could this happen? Absolutely. How would it end? I suppose that depends on the temperaments of the leaders in both countries...

Other speculations include the departure of Facebook from Europe, the failure of most antibiotics, America's withdrawal from NATO, and an historical one speculating on the Allies being more reasonable with the Central Powers in 1919.

Specializing vs Generalizing

The US Navy's latest ship class, the triple-hulled Littoral Combat vessels, have small crews chosen for their adaptability. This has given the Navy insight into how people learn:

The ship’s most futuristic aspect, though, is its crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of “hybrid sailors” who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly. It was designed to operate with a mere 40 souls on board—one-fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer. The small size of the crew means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not, as 240 years of tradition have prescribed, a master of just one.

Minimal manning—and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists—isn’t a particularly nautical concept. Indeed, it will sound familiar to anyone in an organization who’s been asked to “do more with less”—which, these days, seems to be just about everyone. Ten years from now, the Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects, 70 to 90 percent of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or superjobs—that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles. Visit SkyWest Airlines’ careers site, and you’ll see that the company is looking for “cross utilized agents” capable of ticketing, marshaling and servicing aircraft, and handling luggage. At the online shoe company Zappos, which famously did away with job titles a few years back, employees are encouraged to take on multiple roles by joining “circles” that tackle different responsibilities. If you ask Laszlo Bock, Google’s former culture chief and now the head of the HR start-up Humu, what he looks for in a new hire, he’ll tell you “mental agility.” “What companies are looking for,” says Mary Jo King, the president of the National Résumé Writers’ Association, “is someone who can be all, do all, and pivot on a dime to solve any problem.”

The Navy knew early on that not just anyone could handle this kind of multitasking. By the early 2000s, the Office of Naval Research was commissioning studies on how to select and prepare a crew for the new ships. One of the academics brought in was Zachary Hambrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State University. Instead of trying to understand how well naval candidates might master fixed skills, Hambrick began to examine how they performed in what are known as fluid-task environments. “We wanted to identify characteristics of people who could flexibly shift,” he told me. To that end, in 2010 he administered a test to sailors at Naval Station Great Lakes—and when I traveled to Michigan State to find out more about his work, he invited me to give it a try.

It turns out, experience and openness to new experience have good and bad points. Distractability correlates positively with noticing important new information and negatively with showing up to work on time, for example. Spending 10,000 hours hitting a baseball makes sense if you want to make it in the MLB. Spending 10,000 hours studying sorting algorithms does not (at least to a professional software developer).

Before the Interstates

An army convoy left the White House on 7 July 1919 and finally arrived in San Francisco two months later:

The Army’s road trip got off to a rocky start, with several vehicles breaking down that afternoon on the hilly roads leading out of the District. The party made camp the first night in Frederick, Md., where a brevet lieutenant colonel joined the group as a last-minute observer for the Tank Corps. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then 28, was there “partly for a lark and partly to learn,” he wrote later, because “nothing of the sort had ever been attempted.”

In the weeks ahead, engine troubles plagued the convoy, which progressed at an average pace of less than 6 mph. Still, the expedition continued to attract national attention, and large crowds regularly turned out in town squares as the convoy worked its way west. In Pennsylvania, newspapers reported that the vehicles were greeted by “a large delegation of State and city officials to accompany the convoy into Gettysburg.” State police escorted the convoy across Ohio, and politicians in Iowa opened their dining rooms to the traveling soldiers.

On Sept. 6, 1919, the vehicles limped into San Francisco, where the daily log appreciatively noted “fair and warm” weather and fine “paved city streets.” 

Eisenhower, we all know, later signed the Interstate Highway Act. Today a motivated driver can get from Washington to San Francisco in a little more than three days.

Today in earth science

We woke up in the US to two major stories about the planet, one with a short-term effect and the other with a long-term effect.

The acute problem: a 7.1 mw earthquake in central California caused only minor damage and no fatalities because it happened in the middle of nowhere. But people reported feeling it from Phoenix to Sacramento:

Southern California was jolted by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake at 8:19 p.m. on Friday one day after the region was hit by a 6.4 quake, the USGS reports.

The epicenter was 10.5 miles away from Ridgecrest, Calif., and there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. According to the USGS, the quake was felt as far north as San Jose and as far south as parts of Mexico.

Thursday's quake struck at 10:33 a.m., and was the largest temblor to strike the region in 20 years, until Friday night. According to the USGS, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake is 11 times stronger than the 6.4 earthquake.

Meanwhile, parts of Alaska got up to 32°C Thursday, breaking records and (probably) allowing methane to leak from melting permafrost farther north:

At 5 p.m. local time Thursday, Anchorage reached 32°C for the first time in the state’s recorded history, topping the previous record set at Anchorage International Airport of 29°C on June 14, 1969.

Kenai and King Salmon, Alaska, both hit a new all-time high temperature record of 31.7°C, according to the National Weather Service. The previous high in Kenai was 30.6°C on June 26, 1953 and June 18, 1903. Palmer, Alaska, reached 31°C, matching its previous record of 31°C on May 27, 2011.

The state has been battling several wildfires, with a dense smoke advisory in effect until noon local time on Saturday for the interior Kenai Peninsula, including the cities of Kenai, Soldotna, Homer,and Cooper Landing, the National Weather Service said. Smoke from the Swan Lake fire will reduce visibility to a quarter mile or less at times, the weather service said, with the worst conditions taking place overnight through the morning hours.

Wildfires, particulates, subliming methane gas...yeah, even though the earthquake has gotten more press today, the heat in Alaska actually matters more.

Submitted without correction

This bit:

I mean:

Historians ⁠— at least the ones fact-checking the president on Twitter ⁠— were not impressed. One likened the speech to “an angry grandpa reading a fifth grader’s book report on American military history.”

On Friday, Trump confirmed he had problems with the teleprompter, telling journalists: “I guess the rain knocked out the teleprompter, so it’s not that, but I knew the speech very well, so I was able to do it without a teleprompter. But the teleprompter did go out. And it was actually hard to look at anyway because there was rain all over it.”

Right. Obama, maybe Clinton, could have given an extemporaneous speech about the Revolution. This guy? Well, we saw.

It's a world gone: Mad

Beloved humor magazine of my childhood and my father's Mad Magazine will effectively end its 67-year run with the August issue:

Sources tell [The Hollywood Reporter] that after issue 9, MAD will no longer be sold on newsstands and will only be available through comic book shops as well as mailed to subscribers. After issue 10, there will no longer be new content in subsequent issues save for the end-of-year specials (those will be all-new). Beginning with issue 11, the magazine will only feature previously published content — classic and best-of nostalgic fare — from its massive fault of the past 67 years. DC, however, will also continue to publish MAD books and special collections.

The venerable humor magazine was founded in 1952 by a group of editors led by Harvey Kurtzman. Although it began as a comic book, bimonthly issues were published and became the norm for the satirical content. MAD, with it's always memorable covers featuring the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman, has been highly influential on successive generations of comedians, artists, writers and performers.

Fweep. So long, and thanks for all the jokes.

Trump's National Mall event is both better and worse than you think

That's what screenwriter Jeff Greenfield, writing for Politico, says:

Celebrations of the Fourth do not tend to benefit both parties equally, and here, Trump may well be demonstrating his instinctive grasp of which way a big event tends to nudge the populace. In 2011, two academics who studied the political effect of Fourth of July festivities concluded that: "Fourth of July celebrations in the United States shape the nation's political landscape by forming beliefs and increasing participation, primarily in favor of the Republican Party. … The political right has been more successful in appropriating American patriotism and its symbols during the 20th century, [so] there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican Party.”

For all that, history also suggests there's good reason that his plan is rubbing people the wrong way. For one, it really is rare; it's far more common for presidents to vacate Washington on the Fourth of July, or to remain at the White House, than to insert themselves into the proceedings.

Someone who can say of himself that he has been treated worse than any president in history—four of whom were assassinated—has an impressively unique understanding of his own role in the American story, to say the least.

NPR says the event will cost taxpayers millions. And Rick Atkinson takes a broader view, comparing us on our 243rd anniversary of independence from Britain to Britain of that time.