Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Tuesday 28 December 2010

Reader MB sent some art from Murphy, N.C.:

She writes:

[I] saw your request for winter wonderland pictures on Facebook and thought you may be interested to see what Murphy, N.C., looked like during the past few days. We were supposed to get a max of 8 cm on the 25th according to initial reports, but I think the total was closer to 40 cm as of 10am [Monday] morning when the sun finally decided to show its face.

Meanwhile, the rest of the East Coast continues to dig out. Today's snow pack map from NOAA's snow center still shows pretty heavy coverage from Maine to the Carolinas:

Tuesday 28 December 2010 10:06:16 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Weather#
Monday 27 December 2010

I've just pushed out an interim build of the Inner Drive Technology demonstration project, Weather Now. In addition to fixing a couple of annoying bugs, I added a significant new feature. The weather lists on the home page now can show whatever text I want for the weather station names. Before, it could only show their official designations, which made the lists harder to use.

You can see how useful this is immediately. The list of NFL football games now shows you what game the weather goes with. Also, I added arbitrary sort ordering and station begin/end times, so the lists you see today may not be the same as the lists you see tomorrow.

These features take the site a half-step closer to the next major release, due at the end of January, that will allow you—yes, you—to set up your own lists. That feature set will take a while to develop, which explains why I wanted to get this half-point release out first.

Monday 27 December 2010 16:23:02 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Cool links | Weather#

I'm not entirely sure what I think of this:

Amazon is working on a solution that could revolutionize digital gift buying. The online retailer has quietly patented a way for people to return gifts before they receive them, and the patent documents even mention poor Aunt Mildred. Amazon's innovation, not ready for this Christmas season, includes an option to "Convert all gifts from Aunt Mildred," the patent says. "For example, the user may specify such a rule because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user." In other words, the consumer could keep an online list of lousy gift-givers whose choices would be vetted before anything ships.

The proposal has also brought into focus a very costly part of the e-retailing business model: Up to 30 percent of purchases are returned, and the cost of getting rejected gifts back across the country and onto shelves has online retailers scrambling for ways to reduce these expenses.

Amazon's patent is 12 pages long, with numerous diagrams, including a "Gift Conversion Rules Wizard" that shows how a user could select rules such as, "No clothes with wool." The document makes for curious reading, reducing the art of gift giving to the dry language of patentry.

So, someone buys you a gift through Amazon, who in turn send you an email warning you about the gift, so you can take the money the other person paid and apply it to something you would prefer. That seems kind of...rude, don't you think?

On the other hand, it might cut economic deadweight loss around the holidays....

The patent is number 7,831,439.

Monday 27 December 2010 12:28:23 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Business#

The Economist's Anthony Gardner didn't mind getting stranded:

Sure, there were dark moments. The first came with the news that our delayed flight from Cairo to Heathrow was being diverted to Brussels; the second, when we learnt that all the airport hotels were full. But thereafter things began to look up. Though it was after midnight by the time Egyptair despatched us to the Hotel Le Plaza in the city centre, its elegant lobby told us that we had landed firmly on our feet.

Brussels—a city I had never previously had a chance to explore—looked magical through a veil of snowflakes. The scene at the Grande Place could not have been more Christmassy: a large, brightly-lit tree; a life-size crib with real sheep; stalls selling Glühwein and waffles. As we feasted on moules et frites in a cosy restaurant with an open fire, our ordeal felt like a holiday at someone else’s expense.

In fairness, one should note that Brussels' city center and Newark's airport have different, ah, characteristics. A year ago I had a 13-hour delay at Heathrow—but I also had an Oyster Card. Never mind my winter coat was in checked baggage; I popped out of the Tube at Piccadilly, bought a warm-enough jacket for £20, and spent the day wandering London.

This demonstrates a problem with most American airports: they aren't near anything. We joke about Newark, but at least from there you can catch a commuter train straight to Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. If you're stuck at LaGuardia or Kennedy, you're really stuck, unless you're happy taking a bus for an hour or taking the A train through some "colorful" parts of New York.

Chicago, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and to some extent Philadelphia have relatively easy access from the airport to the interesting parts. Stuck at Mid-Continent International? Maybe you find yourself at Hartsfield for a few hours? Enjoy. At least you're not in Denver International, an hour away from the city by car, without any reasonable transit options.

So, sure, Mr Gardner had a delightful time stranded in Brussels. Who wouldn't, in his circumstances? I only hope that my friends who can't get home today and can't leave the airport either manage to stay sane.

Monday 27 December 2010 09:41:51 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation#

Yesterday's storm, which right now has parked itself over Cape Cod, dumped 80 cm of snow on parts of New Jersey and pretty much shut down New York:

Morning commuters faced the daunting prospect of cutting fresh tracks in over a foot of snow along roads and sidewalks that looked more like Colorado than the urban north. In New York City, a badly crippled subway system hobbled along, but Long Island Rail Road service remained suspended early on Monday, as did some New Jersey Transit and Metro-North Railroad lines.

The storm’s timing was diabolical — too late for a white Christmas, but just in time to disrupt the plans of thousands of people trying to get home after the holiday, return unwanted gifts or take advantage of post-holiday bargains at stores. Public schools were not in session, much to the dismay of many children.

By 7 a.m. Monday, 50 cm covered Central Park, according to the National Weather Service. The deepest snow was recorded in Elizabeth, N.J., where 80 cm fell. By sunrise, the storm had largely moved on from New York City, heading northeast out past Long Island and up over Nantucket, gradually weakening, the weather service said.

I'm hoping friends out East will send photos. Meanwhile, here's one from the New Year's Eve storm 10 years ago, on 30 December 2000:

I know this will incite some regular Daily Parker readers, but we should get used to storms like this more often. They're a predicted consequence of climate change.

Monday 27 December 2010 09:20:15 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Weather#
Sunday 26 December 2010

I can imagine that my friends in the Northeast aren't too happy today:

URGENT - WINTER WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW YORK NY
1240 PM EST SUN DEC 26 2010

...DANGEROUS WINTER STORM IMMINENT...

...BLIZZARD WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 6 PM EST MONDAY...

More details and a view of today's classic Nor'easter weather pattern at The Daily Parker.

Sunday 26 December 2010 14:20:00 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Parker | Weather#
Saturday 25 December 2010

This came to me in 1988 from the Internet (though back then no one called it "the Internet" and we ramped onto it through CompuServe). Enjoy.

Hotline!

By James Zachary

Every now and again, a caller to the water and wastewater department will ask about issues of national concern.

RING!

Southeast plant, this is Zack.

"I am taking a survey for my organization. Do you have time to answer a few questions?"

Ma'am, this is a sewage plant...

"You are a taxpayer and a voter, aren't you?"

Yes Ma'am, but...

"This will only take a few moments. Do you think prophylactics should be on television?"

Say what?

Read the rest at The Daily Parker.

Saturday 25 December 2010 13:21:23 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Jokes#
Friday 24 December 2010

From 1995, various historical figures answer the age-old question, "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

Plato
For the greater good.
Karl Marx
It was an historical inevitability.
Machiavelli
So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a manner is the princely chicken’s dominion maintained.

Read the rest at The Daily Parker.

Friday 24 December 2010 12:33:14 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Jokes | Kitchen Sink#
Thursday 23 December 2010

A spokesman for Pat Robertson has clarified the Rev's stance on pot:

Dr. Robertson did not call for the decriminalization of marijuana. He was advocating that our government revisit the severity of the existing laws because mandatory drug sentences do harm to many young people who go to prison and come out as hardened criminals. He was also pointing out that these mandatory sentences needlessly cost our government millions of dollars when there are better approaches available. Dr. Robertson's comments followed a CBN News story about a group of conservatives who have proven that faith-based rehabilitation for criminals has resulted in lower repeat offenders and saved the government millions of dollars. Dr. Robertson unequivocally stated that he is against the use of illegal drugs.

Yes, faith-based rehabilitation for the criminals who use the Demon Weed will surely result in less economic deadweight loss and fewer ruined lives than, say, accepting that prohibition failed. (Whoops! I mean marijuana prohibition, which is obviously and totally unlike the 18th Amendment's prohibition of alcohol. I mean, everyone knows that was a disaster. Alcohol, as everyone knows, is safer than pot and more culturally relevant, so of course drawing a general lesson about drug laws from the 1930s isn't appropriate.)

Thursday 23 December 2010 16:21:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

Do you know why the Senate doesn't seem to get anything done? It might have something to do with the 63 filibusters they perpetrated in the current Congress. That's more filibusters than the Senate had from 1919 to 1982 combined, and two more than the previous record, which they set in the last Congress.

Drill down into the lists of individual cloture actions in each Congress, and you get a sense of just how obstructionist the Republicans have become.

Thursday 23 December 2010 12:31:19 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

Even Pat Robertson—yes, that Pat Robertson—can no longer pretend that U.S. drug policy has in any way succeeded:

The salient part:

We're locking up people that take a couple of puffs of marijuana and the next thing you know they've got ten years—they've got mandatory sentences and these judges, they throw up their hand and say, "Nothing we can do, it's mandatory sentences." We've got to take a look at what we're considering crimes, and that's one of them. I mean, I’m not exactly for the use of drugs, don't get me wrong, but I just believe criminalizing marijuana, criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot, and that kind of thing, I mean it's just, it's costing us a fortune, and it's ruining young people. Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths, and they come out as hardened criminals.

Wow. Decriminilization has forded the mainstream all the way to the other side.

Thursday 23 December 2010 11:03:16 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Wednesday 22 December 2010

Strange Maps finds our state mottoes through Google:

Google any word, and the search engine will suggest a longer phrase, based on the popularity of current searches starting with the same word.

This so-called autocomplete function (1) is, like any good advice, in equal parts helpful and annoying. Also, being a clever piece of statistics, it offers a fascinating insight into the mind(s) of the Great Online Public.

The same principle of random revelation can be applied to geographic terms, which is exactly what this map does. These United States of Autocomplete have been collated simply by typing in the name of each US state, then plotting the autocompleted results on an actual map of the US.

Montana's, and Washington's are, for different reasons, the most surprising.

Wednesday 22 December 2010 11:22:07 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Cool links#

Gulliver follows up on the 'sno-good situation at Heathrow:

Gatwick used to be owned by BAA, like Heathrow. But under its new owners, Global Infrastructure Partners, it has coped better than its London rival and is now fully operational. Part of the problem at Heathrow, of course, is that it operates at up to 98% capacity so small problems can have massive knock-on effects. But even so, the differences between snow-fighting provisions at Heathrow and Gatwick are notable, as the BBC has reported:

Earlier this year, BAA published an investment programme of £5.1bn for Heathrow over five years, of which £500,000 was invested in snow and ice-fighting technology this year, with another £3m planned for the next four years. By comparison, reports suggest that Gatwick Airport, which is half the size of Heathrow and was sold by BAA last year, spent £1m on snow and ice this year and plans to spend another £7m next year. Heathrow's "snow fleet" is made up of 69 vehicles; Gatwick's is a reported 150.

It reminds me of a statistic I encountered in 2003, when I worked for a time in Richmond, Va. That year, as many on the East Coast remember, the mid-Atlantic states had 12 snowstorms in three months. I got trapped in DC for two days in February returning from New York; I watched panicked Virginians buy all the bread and milk they could carry upon seeing the first snowflake.

Anyway, it turned out that the Commonwealth of Virginia (area: 110,785 km²) owned the same number of snowplows as the City of Chicago (area: 606 km²). It may be an unfair comparison—after all, municipalities also have snow-removal equipment—but I swear I didn't see Richmond start plowing until the snow had gotten at least 50 mm deep.

And if you want a laugh, the title of this post harks back to this old Monty Python ditty:

Wednesday 22 December 2010 09:34:30 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | World | Weather#
Tuesday 21 December 2010

Back in 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic lost re-election to Jane Byrne mostly for his failure to clear the streets of snow after the worst snowfall in the city's recorded history. His story didn't end too badly, as he ultimately became Chief Justice of Illinois; but it taught all the city's subsequent mayors to get the snowplows out before the first flake hits the ground.

The Spanish company Ferrovial—owner of the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow—hasn't, apparently, learned this lesson, according to Daily Beast aviation blogger Clive Irving:

[Y]ou might think that, given its importance, the ability of Heathrow not simply to wreck the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people but to undermine economies, disrupt international air cargo and, most significantly, to visit disaster on the travel industry, plans would be in place to ensure that it can function after a 13 cm snowfall. After all, terrorists would be delighted to have wrought such harm.

Here we are, though, four days after the weekend shutdown of Heathrow and even now the airport is still barely functional.

And it’s all because the people in charge of Heathrow could not muster the resources to plow two runways and clear ice and snow from terminal gates—not exactly rocket science and something hundreds of airports have to face on a regular basis in winter.

It's interesting how O'Hare manages to keep 7 runways clear (or at least the three in use at any point) during 30 cm snow events, without resorting to the army.

Tuesday 21 December 2010 15:44:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | World | Weather#

The first official 2010 Census results are out today. As of April 1st there were 308,745,538 residents of the United States. California, the most populous, had 37,253,956; Wyoming, the least, had 563,626.

We have a decennial census in the U.S. because our Constitution mandates it. Every 10 years, we reapportion representation. This time, very much like the last time, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are losing a seat; New York and Ohio are losing two; Washington, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina gain one; Florida gains two; and in a sign of the Apocalypse, Texas gains four. Louisiana also lost a seat, most likely as a result of people fleeing after Katrina in 2005 (though the state did have a net gain of around 70,000 people). With these results, each member of the House represents about 711,000 people.

Oddly, only Michigan and Puerto Rico lost population since 2000. Nevada had the biggest proportional gain, its population increasing 35%. Texas had the largest numeric gain, of about 4.5 million. Other big gains include North Carolina (about 1½ m), Arizona (25%), Utah (23%), and Idaho (21%).

The Census has an interactive tool that has data back to 1910 for more information.

Tuesday 21 December 2010 13:32:18 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | Cool links#

The good citizens of Missoula, Montana, exercised their 6th Amemendment rights to tell the state they believe minor marijuana possession is not a crime:

No way would they convict somebody for having a 16th of an ounce.

In fact, one juror wondered why the county was wasting time and money prosecuting the case at all, said a flummoxed Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul.

District Judge Dusty Deschamps took a quick poll as to who might agree. Of the 27 potential jurors before him, maybe five raised their hands. A couple of others had already been excused because of their philosophical objections.

In the U.S., the right of every citizen to have a jury trial in criminal cases means American juries have the power of nullification. This means juries can refuse to convict someone for a crime on principle, regardless of the law. In this case the Missoula jury pool thought 1.7 g of marijuana shouldn't be criminal.

Excellent. Maybe a few dozen more juries like this will encourage Congress to end the destructive and wasteful war on drugs and allocate resources instead to treatment and prevention.

And maybe the Cubs will win the World Series.

Someday.

Tuesday 21 December 2010 10:43:42 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
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David Braverman and Parker
David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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