The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

What news?

Not one single new. Even though MSNBC sent me this urgent update:

msnbc.com: BREAKING NEWS: Poll: 47 percent of Americans support an increase in troops in Afghanistan.

As I shake my head, I feel impelled to blog the following questions:

  1. Who did they poll?
  2. What question or questions did the pollsters ask?
  3. Why did the people they polled answer one way or another?
  4. In what way is a poll that shows less than a plurality in any way newsworthy?
  5. Why did MSNBC feel this important enough to send a news alert?
  6. What do the people responsible for (5) want to happen as a result of this news alert?

Call me crazy, but I think the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is so difficult and complicated that I really don't care what popular opinion has to say about it. I think we all deserve more complete information, as this is a republic; but I also think most people haven't got enough of a clue to have an opinion that matters.

Possibly the major news media in the U.S. would have more relevance if they tried. But a news alert like this? Heavens.

Highway robbery? You bet

Chicago Tribune transport columnist John Hilkevich is shocked—shocked!—this morning to find that Chicago parking tickets are up 26% this year:

The stepped-up enforcement contributed to a $7 million year-over-year increase in parking ticket revenue, which totaled $119.2 million from January through August, the Chicago Department of Revenue reported.

Fines assessed from tickets go to the city's nearly depleted general fund. Revenue collected from a four-fold increase in parking rates this year is kept by Chicago Parking Meters LLC, which paid the city $1.15 billion as part of a 75-year lease to manage on-street parking.

The extra emphasis on enforcement may be contributing to an abundance of parking spaces in many parts of the city where finding street parking was previously luck of the draw.

The clampdown also is discouraging some suburbanites and others to limit their trips to the city.

Discouraging? No kidding. I'm in North Carolina this weekend, where I took advantage of a clothing sale I could have gone to at the same store in Chicago, because even N.C.'s 7.5% sales tax is better than downtown Chicago's 10.5%. (Maine was just too far to go for one suit.)

Mayor Daley fils has done some great things for Chicago, but the biggest things—privitization of public assets, unbelievable taxation, etc.—threaten his legacy. Perhaps now that we don't have the distraction of the 2016 Olympics anymore, he'll turn his energies toward making the city more financially livable again.

High-speed train robbery? Not really

The state of Illinois mysteriously doubled its funding request for upgrading the Chicago-St. Louis rail corridor to handle moderately-high-speed trains. First, of the $4.5 bn now requested, only $1.2 bn will go to the actual track upgrades; the state now wants additional funds to build a second track along the route. Second, the upgrades will increase the route's top speed from 126 km/h to only 176 km/h, not exactly a serious rival for other HSR projects worldwide (like, for example, Shanghai's MagLev, which has hit 501 km/h, or France's TGV which routinely travels at 320 km/h.)

Here's Crain's:

"The state's plan is not high-speed rail," says Richard Harnish, executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Assn., which advocates a new, 350 km/h Chicago-St. Louis route. "Four hours doesn't change a lot. It's not transformative. What is transformative is two hours."

That would cost $12 billion to $13 billion, he estimates, in line with a detailed, 256-page proposal for a complete Midwest high-speed rail system centered on Chicago that French National Railways, known by its French acronym, SNCF, filed recently with the Federal Railroad Administration.

... With Chicago's status as the nation's rail hub, the state's longtime subsidization of passenger rail and its unprecedented clout with the Obama administration, Illinois is considered likely to get a big chunk of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds for high-speed rail to be disbursed soon, plus billions more expected in future years as Congress embraces one of the president's top priorities

Is it worth billions to improve rail traffic between Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Detroit? I don't think there's an objectively correct answer, but I vote yes. The European experience of moving more people more cheaply (and more quickly) by rail than by air, with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, shows that HSR can make a huge difference in a region. But Europe makes different choices than the U.S., and in a democracy it's permissible for one population to decide that its quality of life has a higher price than for another.

Still, two hours to St. Louis? Thirty minutes to Milwaukee? That would be cool.

I guess the parking meter deal wasn't all that

Mayor Daley found another $500m hole in the city's budget this year, so he's proposing...nothing new:

Mayor Richard Daley unveils his new budget this morning, and he's going to call for spending more money from the controversial parking meter lease, slashing the tourism promotion budget and ending Chicago's longest-running public party, Venetian Night.

A key labor union that bankrolled challengers to Daley's council allies in the last election praised the mayor's decision to raid reserves from the $1.15 billion parking meter deal. The 75-year lease, which aldermen quickly approved last year, ushered in sharp rate increases at more than 36,000 public parking spots.

More than $400 million was used to balance this year's budget, records show. And the city already has announced plans to spend at least $146.3 million in privatization proceeds next year.

Remember that, even at a conservative discount rate, the $1.15bn parking meter deal was about $3bn too cheap. So we've given up 75 years of parking meter revenues worth $3bn in exchange for, what, about 6 years of partial operating revenue?

We also got some bad news from recent arrival Boeing, which lost $1.6bn last quarter:

Boeing, the world's second-largest commercial plane maker after Europe's Airbus, has struggled with a series of setbacks: Production problems have delayed its eagerly awaited 787 passenger aircraft and a bigger version of its 747 jumbo jet, resulting in charges from write-downs and penalties.

Those charges, which were expected, led the company to cut its 2009 profit forecast to $1.35 to $1.55 per share, down from $4.70 to $5 per share. Analysts had predicted $1.53.

On the other hand, today is probably the warmest day we've had in a month, and probably the warmest we'll have until next spring. So Parker and I will now go for a long walk.

Another predictable outcome

Of course the Taliban treat their prisoners better than we do. It's excellent P.R. for them, and makes us look really bad:

At first, our guards impressed me. They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day and never beat me.

But they viewed me — a nonobservant Christian — as religiously unclean and demanded that I use a separate drinking glass to protect them from the diseases they believed festered inside nonbelievers.

My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban.

Of all the reasons to treat prisoners well, P.R. ranks at the bottom. It's still a reason, however. It's also something that we Americans invented, and usually do reasonably well. So, even if you don't agree that all prisoners deserve, by virtue of being human, a basic level of decent treatment, possibly you could agree that treating captives worse than the Taliban does will damage our brand a bit?

(Via Andrew Sullivan, who says: "So that's one more feather in Cheney's cap: he brought prisoner treatment under the US to below that of the Taliban.")

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying

Via Wired, the U.S.S.R. built a fail-safe device à la Dr. Strangelove—not to deter us, but to deter themselves:

The point of the system...was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn't matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point...was "to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished."

Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually occurred at some point. If they had happened at the same time, Armageddon might have ensued.

Perimeter solved that problem. If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil is far easier than confirming distant launches.

As long as no one rides an H-Bomb down like a bronco...

News scan

So what news story should I focus on today? The Cubs using the bankruptcy code to speed up their sale to the Ricketts family? General Motors ramping up production by 45% to see if we'll bail them out a second time? Former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court?

No, I want to point people toward the Night of the Stripping Dead event at the Admiral Theater tomorrow night:

Exotic dancers and zombies, the two grand pillars of American subculture, have finally joined forces -- thus proving our nation's obsession with the walking dead has irrevocably crossed the line of mainstream consciousness, where now strippers are parodying a trend.

Wednesday night, club organizers are throwing an event...where professional makeup artists will transform otherwise pious dancers into undead dancers.

Riiiight.

For completeness, the Admiral Theater is on Lawrence just east of Pulaski.

Full of sound and fury signifying...what, exactly?

A number of confusing changes occurred to the world while I slept:

  • President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I love the man; I voted for him; I gave lots of money[1] to two of his campaigns. I'm still confused. It might offend some of my fellow progressives to say, but possibly the prize means nothing more than "thank you for not being like the last guy, and keep up the good work." The President is, in fact, the second person who is not George W. Bush to win the Prize in the last four years.
  • For reasons which passeth all understanding[2], we crashed a rocket into the moon. We want to find out if the moon has enough water to make long-term habitation possible. Otherwise, we'll have to build a pipeline from the Great Lakes, which poses certain engineering challenges.
  • Both of these stories came to me during WBEZ-Chicago's pledge week, which started yesterday. Please, I beg all my readers in Chicago, please make a donation so they'll stop begging. The only glimmer of good news in the timing of the Fall pledge drive comes in the form of an exquisite torture perpetrated upon me and my 118 classmates by Fuqua. I won't be able to listen to much NPR this weekend because:
  • I have two final exams due this weekend, both take-home, one 90 minutes long and the other with 24 hours to complete. (The clock starts when we download the exams from the school's web portal.) The professor for exam #1 says it's relatively straightforward, everyone will pass, don't worry. The professor for exam #2, who served six years on the Financial Accounting Standards Board and who drafted important regulations of the accounting profession itself, says "someone who is reasonably prepared and who doesn't need to use notes should be able to complete it in 4 or 5 hours." So, a former FASB member who's taught accounting for 30 years will find it "challenging." One hundred eighteen people started crying. (One dude in our class is an accountant who got 117 out of 120 on the midterm.)
  • The U.S. dollar continues to slide slowly into uncomfortable depths. I got an alert while writing this entry that the Canadian dollar has risen against our currency from a low of 76c in March to 95c today. We're also slipping against the Euro and the Yen, but not, I'm happy to say, against Sterling or the Emirati Dirham, the two currencies I'm concerned about in the next few weeks.[3]
  • Finally, a dear friend from North Carolina sent a delightful finals-weekend care package to Parker and me, including doggie fortune cookies and human chocolate-chip cookies. And now Parker has the whole world in his paws (see below).

[1] Lots for me, anyway; NPR wouldn't have given me a mug for the amount I gave.

[2] Aaron Sorkin's favorite phrase, from Phillippans 4:7. Yes, athiests quote Bible verses sometimes.

[3] I'm concerned because I'm about to go to Dubai, via London, for school. The Dirham hasn't changed because it's pegged to the dollar...for now.