Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Tuesday 10 May 2011

Sunday the temperature in Chicago couldn't crest 16°C, a temperature more typical of March than of May. Today it's already 26°C and rising—the warmest Chicago has seen since October 11th. Tomorrow will be even warmer, possibly passing 31°C. But don't worry; this is Chicago, so March will return this weekend:

Computer models are advertising a sharp pull back in temperatures by this weekend. A pool of unseasonably cool air is to settle over the Midwest, spinning up a blustery storm system over Illinois which is to remain essentially stalled in place over the coming weekend. It's a scenario which could generate gusty easterly winds in Chicago and temperatures which fall back to the low 10s Saturday and Sunday. That the system is to be part of a blocking pattern is the reason it's to be such a slow-mover. Model rainfall estimates put potential weekend rainfall of up to an inch down here.

NOAA also released new data this past week confirming what we in Chicago have suspected for a while: our autumns are getting sunnier while our springs and summers are getting gloomier. Winters, however, remain unchanged in their character building cold.

Tuesday 10 May 2011 11:44:13 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 9 May 2011

The costumed head of a Tea Party organization this morning clarified the movement's small-government ethos:

[Tea Party Founding Fathers chairman William] Temple said that "if the House Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon slow down on injecting open homosexuality and females into forward combat roles," tea partiers might be able to put up with their new Republican House voting to ensure American government services paid for with more borrowed cash.

Temple's line of reasoning:

When the Pentagon's own studies show that military effeminization may have an extremely costly impact on recruiting and retention, when Islamists have shown their willingness to sexually brutalize American female reporters, why would John Boehner's House Republicans be caving to political correctness? Why would House Republicans who know better be fostering inappropriate attractions in the intimacy of tents, bunks, barracks, platoons, subs, tanks, convoys, cockpits, latrines, showers, toilets and locker rooms when we are fighting wars in three Muslim nations?

This is, of course, the kind of reasoned argument one would expect from a man standing in front of video cameras wearing a tricorn hat.

Monday 9 May 2011 12:31:18 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | US#
Saturday 7 May 2011

They aired two back-to-back stories on Weekend Edition. First, they reported that for reasons that passeth understanding, the NRA got Florida to pass a law prohibiting doctors from asking about guns in the house:

For decades, the American Academy of Pediatrics has encouraged its members to ask questions about guns and how they're stored, as part of well-child visits.

But Marion Hammer, the National Rifle Association's lobbyist in Tallahassee, says that's not a pediatrician's job.

"We take our children to pediatricians for medical care — not moral judgment, not privacy intrusions," she says. NRA lobbyists helped write a bill that largely bans health professionals from asking about guns. Hammer says she and other NRA members consider the questions an intrusion on their Second Amendment rights.

"This bill is about helping families who are complaining about being questioned about gun ownership, and the growing anti-gun political agenda being carried out in examination rooms by doctors and staffs," Hammer says.

What the...? Getting shot causes medical problems, right? And there's a demonstrated (but not necessarily causal) link between gun ownership and medical risks, right? So asking about guns and other dangerous items in the house might be part of a good medical history, don't you think? Apparently the NRA don't. If they're so concerned about gun-owner privacy, why not pass a privacy law instead? Oh, right—doctors are already forbidden from sharing medical histories.

The story immediately following that one had Barbara Bradley Hagerty asking, completely straight-faced (which is easier to discern on the radio than you might imagine), why people believe May 21st is judgment day:

Most Bible scholars note that even Jesus said he had no idea when Judgment Day would come. But May 21 believers like Haubert are unfazed.

"I've crunched the numbers, and it's going to happen," [actuary Brian Haubert, 33,] says.

Haubert says the Bible contains coded "proofs" that reveal the timing. For example, he says, from the time of Noah's flood to May 21, 2011, is exactly 7,000 years. Revelations like this have changed his life.

"I no longer think about 401(k)s and retirement," he says. "I'm not stressed about losing my job, which a lot of other people are in this economy. I'm just a lot less stressed, and in a way I'm more carefree."

Only last week I read a Mother Jones article about denial science, which opened with a description of The Seekers, who believed aliens would spirit them away on or before the end of the world, which would happen 21 December 1954. After giving up all they owned and waiting for their version of the Rapture, they concluded from the lack of cataclysm that the aliens had seen their devotion and decided to save the planet, thanks to the Seekers. I wonder what Haubert and his friends will say on May 22nd?

Not only that, but: he's an actuary? On the basis of the available information, one must conclude he's not a very good one.

Saturday 7 May 2011 08:53:10 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | US | Religion#

Via Gulliver, an Irish cabaret group experiences the joy of a 75c air ticket:

Friday 6 May 2011 22:29:44 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Aviation | Jokes#

On Tuesday, Andrew Sullivan posted a note about the South's economic lagging after the U.S. civil war. Yesterday, he posted a follow-up quoting one of his readers repeating the destruction-of-wealth canard, which posits that $4 bn of wealth (about $400 bn today) got wiped out with the 13th Amendment. The reader, an historian, said:

Perhaps the most important factor in the South’s economic underdevelopment was the fact that emancipation, while a milestone in human freedom, was an economic calamity. There were approximately 4 million slaves, with an average value of $1,000. Emancipation meant the destruction of $4 billion of Southern capital. Slavery as a symbol of status had encouraged successful professionals and entrepreneurs to invest in slaves rather than industry. With the end of the war, that “investment” was rendered valueless, and that put severe limits on the available local capital for investment.

Fortunately, this evening Sullivan posted a response from another reader (presumably an economist) who corrected the record:

If the economic value of a slave was the value of his future expected labor, less the cost of his subsistence, then to destroy his value as an asset would require that he be killed or disabled. In fact, Emancipation simply took that value from the slaveholder and returned it to the former slave, the rightful owner. For this transfer to be destructive of economic value workers would have to have been more productive enslaved than working freely for wages, which is unlikely.

The historian seems to suggest that possession of slaves had become a status symbol, causing overinvestment in this variety of asset. If this is true, then there was a "slave bubble", the popping of which would have erased value with or without Emancipation. In fact, if slavery had still existed when the bubble popped, the result would have been terrific brutality, as slave owners attempted to use starvation and the whip to salvage what profit they could. The rationalizing force of the market took the evil that was always present in slavery and made it an efficient evil.

I think the second reader has got it right. The whole thread is worth a read, though. I've always found the regional differences fascinating, even more after spending six months in North Carolina.

Friday 6 May 2011 22:07:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | US#
Thursday 5 May 2011

Apparently "gardener" makes more sense than "engineer:"

So why do so many gardens fail, yet so many skyscrapers succeed? With a few exceptions, the technique for building a skyscraper is similar whether you are in Europe or you are in Singapore. Gardens do not work that way. Every garden is different because the environment it is in is different. Even gardens that are within throwing distance of each other can have wildly different soil. That is why the lowest bidder can probably build the same bridge as the highest bidder, but your company can’t grow the calibre of gardens that Google can grow.

Remember that time when someone in your company unsuccessfully used an Agile gardening methodology, and then went around saying that it was horse shit that doesn’t work? Well horse shit does grow gardens, it just wasn’t enough to save your garden. Your garden was probably dead before it started – a victim of the climate of your organisation. Were you trying to grow a rainforest in the desert? You can’t just plant the same plants as Facebook, Flickr or Twitter and expect them to take root regardless of the quality of your gardeners or the climate of your organisation.

(Hat tip MVT.)

Thursday 5 May 2011 15:12:39 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Software | Business#

Via one of my cow-orkers, a company that can tell you all about yourself at a hitherto-impossible level of detail. All you have to do is spit:

23andMe is a retail DNA testing service providing information and tools for consumers to learn about and explore their DNA. We utilize the Illumina OmniExpress Plus Research Use Only Chip which has been customized for use in all of our products and services by 23andMe. All of the laboratory testing for 23andMe is done in a CLIA-certified laboratory.

How does 23andMe genotype my DNA?

Once the lab receives your sample, DNA is extracted from cheek cells in your saliva. Your DNA is then copied many times so that there is enough DNA to use for the genotyping step. Next, the DNA is cut into smaller, more manageable pieces. These DNA pieces are then applied to a DNA "chip." The DNA chip is a small glass slide with millions of microscopic beads on its surface. Attached to each bead are "probes"—bits of DNA complementary to sites in your genome where SNPs are located. There is a pair of probes for each SNP, corresponding to the two versions of each SNP. Because two complementary pieces of DNA stick together, your DNA sticks to whichever probes match your versions of a SNP.

The service claims to do the following:

  • Identify health risks based on genetic propensity (and quantify how much of the risk is genetic);
  • Tell you where your family came from, and when they got there, going back several thousand years;
  • Find your long-lost cousins; and
  • Send you updates as new research comes in.

My colleague paired this suggested site with this TED talk about the future of human evolution.

Remember when Gattaca was just an interesting fiction? Let's hope not all of Andrew Niccol's predictions come true...

Thursday 5 May 2011 14:21:45 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Cool links#

Via AVWeb, French investigators have recovered the cockpit voice recorder from the crash site:

The investigation team localized and identified the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) at 21h50 UTC on Monday 2 May, 2011. It was raised and lifted on board the Ile de Sein by the Remora 6000 ROV at 02 h 40 UTC this morning, on Tuesday 3rd May, 2011.

AVWeb adds details:

A remotely operated vehicle retrieved the CVR from the ocean floor, 3,900 m down, on Tuesday morning, and it appears to be intact and in good condition.... The units are designed to withstand impact and immersion, but only for 30 days. French transport minister Thierry Mariani said investigators hope to report on their data-retrieval efforts within about three weeks.

The CVR, if it still contains usable data, will help the investigators immensely. Also, locating the CVR makes it more likely that the investigators will find the flight data recorder (FDR), which could still contain enough data to reconstruct the accident sequence moment by moment.

Thursday 5 May 2011 06:55:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Aviation#
Wednesday 4 May 2011

As I ride my bike past all the cars stuck in traffic this evening, I will think, briefly, about gasoline prices. So far this year, I've filled up my Volkswagen twice, for a total of $90 or so. Ouch, I said as I paid $50 for a tank last week, that's a lot. Of course, living in a dense urban area, taking public transit, and using my own legs to get around almost all the time (plus driving a car that gets 8 L per 100 km), I think gasoline eats up about 1% of my annual spending.

According to the Chicago Tribune, it actually doesn't make up that much of anyone's budget, but people still freak out about high gas prices for obvious reasons:

For consumers, there's no escaping the high prices, which helps explain their obsession.

Not only do many drivers see gas prices every time they fill up, but tracking the price is unavoidable because gas is about the only product consumers regularly buy that requires visiting a special store. So, they're intensely focused on a single product, as opposed to noticing the price rise of tomatoes when buying a full shopping cart of goods.

They also stand in front of the pump and feel the financial pain as the price digits whiz upward.

And why are gas prices so high? Economics 101, baby. Combine low supply with high, inelastic demand and you get high prices:

So how can we get lower gas prices? Use less of it. Increasing supply won't change the price much because of gasoline's demand inelasticity, meaning how much gas we buy doesn't respond to price increases very much. (The actual rate is about -0.25; that is, for every increase in price of 1, demand goes down about 0.25.)

Wednesday 4 May 2011 17:55:13 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Geography | US#

Despite taking my bike in for a tune-up two and a half weeks ago, the combination of weather and after-work commitments since then put off riding it to work until today.

It turns out, I'm a little rusty. The bike isn't; even in jeans, a coat (it's 6°C on May 4th!), and a backpack containing shoes (my Felt 65 has cleat-only pedals), I still managed to barrel down Wells St. at 30 km/h. Bottom line, I got to work in 26 minutes, including the 4 minutes or so to get the bike out of its locker. In other words, I cut my commute in half, and burned a few extra calories along the way.

It's supposed to rain the next couple of days, but Saturday the forecast calls for biking weather. More details to follow.

Wednesday 4 May 2011 09:04:24 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Biking#
Tuesday 3 May 2011

Yesterday I passed on Andrew Sullivan's thoughts about the role of torture in finding bin Laden. TPM makes the same point this morning: despite what torturers like Dick Cheney say, we found bin Laden using conventional interrogations and a tiny bit of sloppiness by bin Laden's flunkies.

As AP reports, the principal source of information about bin Laden "did not reveal the names while being subjected to the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding, former officials said. He identified them many months later under standard interrogation, they said, leaving it once again up for debate as to whether the harsh technique was a valuable tool or an unnecessarily violent tactic."

Leaving it up for debate? No. We settled that debate in 1949, shortly after the details of Hitler's crimes became public knowledge.

Torture is morally wrong, even if it were "a valuable tool." Except it isn't a valuable tool at all: it produces crap intelligence, because someone being tortured will generally say anything to stop the torture. Plus, if people think being captured by a particular enemy will lead to torture, they'll do two things which really suck: they'll fight a lot harder to avoid capture, resulting in more of your guys getting killed, and they'll torture your guys in retribution. Armies have known this for centuries. Recall that at the end of World War II, German soldiers readily surrendered to the Americans and British but fought the Russians to the last man. Why? Because they believed we would treat them humanely and that the Russians wouldn't. (Generally the Russian army treated them humanely as well, but the Germans didn't believe that, which emphasizes how important reputation can be.)

Again, and I can't stress this enough, torture is morally wrong. So really, arguing about how effective it is misses the point. But what is morality and what are facts when you're really pissed at the terrorists, right? This is how they win, by the way: by making us diminish ourselves.

Tuesday 3 May 2011 10:14:56 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | US#
Monday 2 May 2011

'Nuff said:

Also, as Sullivan pointed out: "All I know at this point is: seven years of torturing = no Osama. Two years without torture = Osama."

Monday 2 May 2011 13:06:27 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | US | World#

I don't know what to say, so I'll let CNN, the AP, the Trib, the Economist, and the Times say it:

[1] Look, you know, it's 5 am in London. I suspect they'll have more to say after they've had their morning cuppa.

Sunday 1 May 2011 23:08:32 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | US | World#
Sunday 1 May 2011

Fascinating, and not bad at all. Writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez assembled a top-notch cast (Danny DeVito, Carla Gugino, Zachary Quinto) and put them into a watchable, funny film—only available on YouTube. If your line supports it, watch in HD. Alas, I think it's only available in the U.S. for the time being.

Sunday 1 May 2011 15:45:17 CDT (UTC-05:00)  | Comments [0] | Cool links#
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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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