The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

The frustration of US infrastructure spending

Every time I travel to a country that competes seriously with the US, I come back feeling frustrated and angry that we consistently lose. In every measure except our military, on a per-capita basis we keep sliding down the league tables. We have more people in prison, more people in poverty, worse health-care outcomes, more health-care spending, more regressive taxation, worse environmental regulation, and more crime (and more gun crime) than most our peers.

We also have horrible infrastructure. For a book-length list of reasons, we've spent the last century building out a car-dependent environment that contributes to all of the problems I listed above. (Oh, right: we have by far more road deaths than any of our peers, a direct result of our built environment and car fetishization.)

City Nerd really drives home (ah, ha ha) how our infrastructure priorities continue to degrade our economic power by making travel unnecessarily difficult. In today's video, Ray Delahanty explains why Spain (GDP: $1.5 T, rank 15) has half-hourly trains to whisk people from Madrid to Valencia (359 km) in under 2 hours, while the United States (GDP: $26.9 T, rank 1) can't get people from New York to Boston (362 km) in under 3½—and for 4x the rail fare:

Some things Delahanty doesn't mention: First, we've built so many roads that we can't even maintain all of them, even with a $1 trn infrastructure bill that struggled to get through Congress. Second, even if we wanted to upgrade our rail network (for example, to electrify anything outside the Northeast Corridor), governments or transit districts will have to buy existing rights of way or the land to create new ones, because private companies own almost all of the railways in the US. (Notably, of the three heavy-rail lines in Chicago with public ownership—the Rock Island district, the Metra Electric, and the South Shore Line—two are already electric and there are plans to electrify the third.)

Look, I'm not a socialist; I believe in private property. But as I've said often, governments can do things private interests can't or won't. We put 14 people on the Moon and we won World War II. We could, if we collectively wanted, get the US out of the 20th Century on so many issues. Transit infrastructure would be a good place to start. The more I travel and see how our European peers do things, the more I wonder if I'll ever see my own country get back on par with them.

Another ding against "10,000 steps a day"

The Post rounds up more doctors saying 7,000 or 8,000 steps a day is just fine:

The notion to take 10,000 daily steps stems from a marketing ploy: As the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics approached, a Japanese researcher decided to nudge his nation to be more active by offering pedometers with a name that loosely translated as “10,000-step meter.” (The Japanese character for the number 10,000 looks a little like a person walking.)

In the past few years, multiple large-scale studies have stepped up, looking closely into how many steps we probably need for our health and longevity. In the largest, published last year in the Lancet Public Health, dozens of global researchers pooled data from 15 earlier step-count studies, some unpublished, covering 47,471 adults of all ages, and compared their typical daily step counts to their longevity.

The sweet spot for step counts was not 10,000 or more. In general, the pooled data showed that for men and women younger than age 60, the greatest relative reductions in the risk of dying prematurely came with step counts of between about 8,000 and 10,000 per day.

For people older than age 60, the threshold was a little lower. For them, the sweet spot in terms of reduced mortality risk came at between 6,000 and 8,000 steps a day.

Walking more than 10,000 steps a day wasn’t bad for people — it didn’t increase the risk of dying — but also didn’t add much, in terms of reducing mortality risks.

Chicago historian John R. Schmidt tells the story of a guy who would have had some amazing step counts in his day:

His name was Edward Payson Weston.

By 1867 he was deeply in debt when he met a promoter named George Goodwin. Remembering Weston’s inauguration trek, Goodwin bet fellow businessman T.F. Wilcox $10,000 that Weston could walk the 1,972 km from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in thirty days.

Weston eagerly agreed to the plan. His share of the possible winnings would be $4,000. He would also receive a $6,000 bonus if he walked 100 miles in a single day.

Weston stepped off from Portland at noon on October 29, 1867. He covered the first 105 miles to Boston in two days without incident. Then, as he moved through New England, crowds began to gather. In anticipation of the turn-out, Weston carried with him a supply of studio portraits, which he sold for twenty-five cents each.

Thousands of spectators lined Wabash Avenue as Weston made his victory lap on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. They waved American flags and cheered themselves hoarse. As the conquering hero approached the Sherman House hotel, the crush was so thick that police had to clear the way. At the hotel he gave a short speech to his admirers before retiring.

Assuming he had a normal stride, his walk from Maine to Chicago would have taken about 2.4 million steps, or a little over 92,000 per day. And, one would expect, a few dozen pairs of socks.

Canadian smoke

A persistent weather system continues to bring smoke from Canadian wildfires through the Chicago area:

You may have been wondering about the recent vibrant, reddish sunsets and hazy skyline in Chicago. What’s behind these phenomena can be traced back to a combination of particulate matter and smoke from Canadian wildfires and pollutants that create ground-level ozone.

While the red sun and milky-looking skies might give the city an otherworldly, even awe-inspiring appearance, Chicagoans — especially those with respiratory or pulmonary disorders, as well as active children and adults — should take precautions.

Because blue light has the shortest wavelength, it’s scattered the most effectively. But a high concentration of particulate matter in the air, which may travel from faraway fires carried by the wind, allows longer wavelengths of orange and red light to scatter around as well. Recent dust storms have also caused vibrant, colorful sunrises and sunsets in the state as well.

Right now at Inner Drive Technology World Headquarters, our outside weather station shows an AQI of 40, with pm2.5 the primary pollutant. So at least for now, the smoke isn't reaching the ground. But I only have to look out the window to see what NOAA sees from space:

The Elizabeth Line, a year on

The billion-pound London rail project called "Crossrail" when it began opened a year ago as the Elizabeth Line. I rode it for the first time to West Ealing last Sunday, and thought it absolutely the slickest, cleanest train in the UK. (I'll ride it again tomorrow thanks to industrial action and construction on the Piccadilly Line.)

British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker takes it every time he comes home from a trip, and loves how it connects the city in all new ways:

Running from Reading and Heathrow Airport in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east, the Elizabeth line brings an additional 1.5 million people within 45 minutes of the capital’s busiest districts; eases congestion on older lines; and makes London more accessible to all, as wheelchair users can reach its platforms from street level. As a pilot who commutes to Heathrow — I fly the Boeing 787 for British Airways — I’m often among its 600,000 weekday riders. The line, which runs alongside the Heathrow Express, offers another comfortable way to get to work.

[T]he line empowers travelers to leave behind the familiarities of Zone 1 — the often tourist-clogged core of the city’s transport network — and embark on fast, inexpensive journeys to fascinating outer-London destinations.

On the line’s northeastern branch lies the market town of Romford. Start at the Havering Museum, whose exhibits include a model of the long-gone Havering Palace, where Queen Elizabeth I occasionally stayed. You’ll also learn about Romford’s link to William Kempe, an actor in several of Shakespeare’s original productions, who morris danced around 100 miles from London to Norwich in 1600, and about the weights and measures that once set standards in Romford’s market.

It’s fitting, then, that the first station beyond [the eastern Thames] tunnels is Woolwich, where armaments were manufactured for around three centuries, including by one Henry Shrapnel. Woolwich was also renowned for music — its Royal Artillery Band, Britain’s first formal military band, was organized in 1762 — and for football: Arsenal, based today in Islington and still nicknamed “the Gunners,” was founded here in 1886 as a team for armaments workers.

Between my arrival this afternoon and my departure tomorrow afternoon I'll be in the UK only 23 hours, many of them in my hotel room asleep, so I won't have time to explore the places Vanhoenacker describes. But I have a hunch I'll return to the London before too long.

Alpine beauty? Yes, please

I took a quick trip to Berchtesgaden, Germany, this afternoon. I think it might be the most beautiful place I've seen in Europe:

I didn't stay too long, but I did get in a 2½ km walk that included part of a river path:

The whole area looks like Bavarian storybook hour:

To get there, you take a train from Freilassing, a nondescript town just over the German border from Salzburg. The train meanders through Alpine meadows at a slow but steady pace, passing through this kind of scenery:

I will pass through again and make sure to stay longer.

I did have a bit of an uncomfortable moment at the border. The German police held the train from Salzburg for a few minutes before letting us off, as four armed officers walked through from end to end. It was at about that moment that I remembered I left my passport in my room safe back in Austria. Turns out, they didn't check passports (both countries are in the Schengen area), but still. I do carry my passport card with me at all times overseas, but that's only proof of citizenship at US land and sea borders—and, crucially, at US consulates and embassies. But I don't believe the Bundespolizei would recognize it as such.

Not that I needed to worry. I just have to be more careful about that. (I did bring my passport book to Bratislava, for instance.)

Staré Město, Karlův most, a Senát Parlamentu České republiky

I took a short (5.5 km) walk and ended with a Czech open-faced egg sandwich:

For the record, I didn't stop in the Sex Machines Museum, tempting as that sounded. Stopping ever few meters to take photos didn't help my time. Neither did the perfect weather.

I did stroll around the Czech Senate grounds, which felt a lot different than our Capitol Hill:

It almost felt as if our Senate sits in a building designed to dominate the city around it, while Czechia's sits in a walled garden. There's some profound political theory in there, I'm sure.

The grammar of Great Andamanese languages

Linguist Anvita Abbi studied the language family on Great Andaman (just south of Myanmar in the Andaman Sea) and made a fascinating discovery:

Somehow my extensive experience with all five Indian language families was no help. One time I asked Nao Jr. to tell me the word for “blood.” He looked at me as if I were an utter fool and did not reply. When I insisted, he said, “Tell me where it is coming from.” I replied, “From nowhere.” Irritated, he repeated, “Where did you see it?” Now I had to make up something, so I said, “On the finger.” The reply came promptly—“ongtei!”—and then he rattled off several words for blood on different parts of the body. If the blood emerged from the feet or legs, it was otei; internal bleeding was etei; and a clot on the skin was ertei. Something as basic as a noun changed form depending on location.

The grammar I was piecing together was based primarily on Jero, but a look through Portman's and Man's books convinced me that the southern Great Andamanese languages had similar structures. The lexicon consisted of two classes of words: free and bound. The free words were all nouns that referred to the environment and its denizens, such as ra for “pig.” They could occur alone. The bound words were nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that always existed with markers indicating a relation to other objects, events or states. The markers (specifically, a-er-ong-ot-or ut-e-or i-ara-; and o-) derived from seven zones of the body and were attached to a root word, usually as a prefix, to describe concepts such as “inside,” “outside,” “upper” and “lower.” For example, the morpheme er-, which qualified most anything having to do with an outer body part, could be stuck to -cho to yield ercho, meaning “head.” A pig's head was thus raercho.

[My] studies established that the 10 original Great Andamanese languages belonged to a single family. Moreover, that family was unique in having a grammatical system based on the human body at every structural level. A handful of other Indigenous languages, such as Papantla Totonac, spoken in Mexico, and Matsés, spoken in Peru and Brazil, also used terms referring to body parts to form words. But these terms had not morphed into abstract symbols, nor did they spread to every other part of speech.

I envy Abbi's ability to do that. I've spent 8 weeks now trying to sort out Czech grammar and have only just started to understand the accusative case. It makes a guy want to stick with German...

Even smokier

As the wildfires in western Canada continue to burn, we in Chicago continue to live under the smoke plume, going on four days now. NASA's Earth Observatory has art:

Raging fires filled the skies of southern Canada and the northern United States with smoke in mid-May 2023. The fires had scorched 478,000 hectares (1,800 square miles) in Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, as of May 16, which is 10-times the average area burned for this time of year.

As of May 16, there were 87 wildland fires burning in Alberta, a quarter of which were classified as out of control, meaning the fires were expected to grow in size. A majority of the 478,000 hectares burned have been in Alberta, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System, but several fires were classified as burning out of control on that day in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Wind brought smoke from the fires down to Maryland on May 10, making the Sun look milky in the sky. The AERONET instrument at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, had an average AOD value of about 1 in visible wavelengths on that day. On May 16, smoke contributed to hazy skies and hazardous air quality in North Dakota and northern Minnesota. An AERONET sensor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks measured an average AOD of 2.3 on May 16, with peak values close to 3.

Unseasonably hot weather is expected to continue over the next few days in Western Canada. In British Columbia, temperatures are expected to reach 30° Celsius (86° Fahrenheit) through May 18, according to Environment Canada.

New York Times columnist David Wallace-Wells forecasts a hazy future:

[A] new lesson from the evolving science of wildfire is about how far its toxic smoke spreads and how widely its noxious impacts are distributed. You may think of fire in terms of scorched homes and go bags sitting ready for sudden evacuation. But distance is no cordon sanitaire for smoke. In fact, according to one not-yet-published study led by Stanford researchers exploring the distribution of wildfire smoke, an estimated 60 percent of the smoke impact of American wildfire is experienced by those living outside the states where the trees are in flames. Eighty-seven percent of the impact is experienced by those living outside the county of the original fire. And the problem is getting much worse.

[W]hile Americans often think of wildfires as a California problem, it’s much bigger than that, with more burning elsewhere in the country every year. By some estimates, land burned across the American West grew ninefold between 1984 and 2015. It may increase several more times over in the decades ahead. The number of people exposed to what are sometimes called extreme exposure days — when particulate matter is about seven times as high as the World Health Organization safety standard — has grown 27-fold in just the last decade.

In recent years, wildfire smoke accounted for up to half of all air pollution in the American West — meaning that if you live there, as much particulate matter has blown into your skies and your lungs from the burning of trees and brush as from all other human and industrial activity combined. And the grim effects are not locally constrained: Approximately half of American deaths from all forms of air pollution come from out-of-state sources, according to one study published in Nature in 2020 — a finding that implies a remarkably large toll, given that estimates for the total number of premature American deaths attributable to fossil fuel pollution in a given year run as high as 350,000.

Today's layer of smoky haze is pretty high up over Chicago, so my ground-based AQI is a healthy 23. But you might want to reconsider your getaway weekend in Calgary.