The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The creepiest forest on Staten Island

Arborist William Bryant Logan takes a trip to the botanical hell that is the Fresh Kills Landfill, and finds something wonderful:

From a coyote’s-eye view, you could see what the trees were up to: Growth, failure, decay and the drip of acid water through the gravel were mixing a dirt out of the detritus. This hideous forest, I suddenly realized, was there to repair the damage done, and not at our bidding. Its intent was not to look good. Its intent was to stay alive, year by year, century by century, until at last it had recycled even the nylon stocking.

We know how long it takes most kinds of leavings to decay. Organic material goes quickly: cardboard in three months, wood in up to three years, a pair of wool socks in up to five. A plastic shopping bag may take 20 years; a plastic cup, 50. Major industrial materials will be there for much longer: An aluminum can is with us for 200 years, a glass bottle for 500, a plastic bottle for 700, and a Styrofoam container for a millennium.

The forest does not know this. It does not think. It just acts. Because it is so good at sprouting, resprouting, reiterating, and repeating the entire process, it can keep up the living and dying for as long as it takes, even if that is a thousand years. The trees are not conscious. They are something better. They are present.

It almost makes one want to visit the place. Almost.

Why can't we live on the moon?

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing Saturday afternoon, CityLab asks the obvious question:

Many experts say there was nothing stopping humanity from following the Apollo missions with a permanent settlement. We had the technology to do it. But given the huge expense involved in such an endeavor, humans opted to spend limited resources solving (and, well, creating) problems here on Earth.

“The bottom line why we’re not there is there hasn’t been political will for it,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi.

A range of experts agreed that technology was never the primary obstacle to establishing a permanent presence on the moon after humans had proven the capability to travel there and back. Instead, it was a cost-benefit analysis that settling the moon didn’t have enough payoff for the cost.

“It’s kind of like asking, ‘Why don’t we have condos in Antarctica?’” said Darby Dyar, a professor of astronomy at Mount Holyoke College who has worked on lunar geology for decades. “We could get stuff there. We have the technology to build structures there. But it would be incredibly expensive to heat them. And why would anyone want to live there?”

Still. It would be great to see a permanent settlement up there.

While we're on the subject, where the hell is my flying car?

What's the fastest way to O'Hare?

Four Chicago Tribune reporters had a race from Randolph and Michigan to O'Hare:

We sent four reporters, with carry-on luggage, in a personal car, a ride-share, on CTA and on Metra, starting at 2:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Prudential Building at Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. The destination was Security Gate 3 in O'Hare's Terminal 1, with the goal of catching an imaginary 5 p.m. United Airlines flight.

The winner was an Uber ride-share that took 69 minutes, followed by the CTA at 80 minutes, a private car (parked at an economy lot) at 90 minutes and Metra at 98 minutes.

It's clear from our test that the fastest way is not the cheapest, while the cheapest way may not work for everybody. We also know the fastest way could have been the slowest if we had tried the race during rush hour. Improvements to the Blue Line and more frequent and/or express Metra North Central Service trains would have made these options even better than they already are.

The more nuanced verdict: If you're coming from most parts of the Loop, the Blue Line is probably your best value, especially during rush hour. From the West Loop (close to Union Station), at certain times of the day, Metra would be.

The article's graphics and animation are kind of cool. It's almost like the Tribune has brought itself into the 21st Century.

It's hot. Damn hot. Real hot.

The forecast for much of the US Friday calls for hot and shitty weather, with continued hot and shitty weather into Saturday:

A heat wave featuring a life-threatening combination of heat and oppressive humidity has begun to spread across the United States, with excessive heat warnings and heat advisories in effect for at least 22 states and the District of Columbia. According to the National Weather Service, 51 percent of the Lower 48 states are likely to see air temperatures reach or exceed 35°C during the next seven days, with 85 percent experiencing temperatures above 32°C during the same period.

Washington could see its first high temperature at or above 38°C since 2016. In Chicago, the air temperature is also forecast to approach the century mark.

The heat index, which is a measure of how hot it feels to the human body when air temperatures are combined with the amount of moisture in the air, are forecast to climb into rare territory in many cities, from Chicago to Kansas City and eastward all the way north into southern New England.

According to the Weather Service forecast office in Chicago, “The heat is forecast to be oppressive and dangerous everywhere, with possibly some of the hottest conditions since 2012."

Yuck.

Stay cool, y'all. Excessive heat is the most dangerous weather. Hydrate, stay inside cool spaces, and limit your activities. Fun times, fun times.

Your morning Schadenfreude

The President's properties have fallen on hard times, thanks mostly to the President's politics and his childrens' incompetence:

The PGA Tour pulled out of Doral during the 2016 campaign after the World Golf Championship had trouble finding a sponsor. Cadillac had quit; speculation abounded that no new brand wanted to be associated with a Trump golf course. So the PGA Tour pulled up roots and moved elsewhere: A five-decade tradition of hosting the event at the course, started in 1962, came to an end. NASCAR also pulled out of an event planned for Trump Doral, and business began to dry up at the course.

According to tax documents reported by the Washington Post, the club’s net operating income dropped 69 percent between 2015 and 2017. During a 2017 visit, the Miami Heralds’ sports columnist noted barely any golfers on the course and listened forlornly to crows and the wind whistling. “I went there and it was so empty you could shoot a machine gun,” another golf writer, Rick Reilly, told Rolling Stone.

If Michael Cohen was right when he said Trump ran for president as a “marketing exercise,” then the experiment has massively backfired.

But hey, if you want, you can sign up for the "caddy girl" auction at the Doral's upcoming strip-club event this weekend.

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).