Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Tuesday 6 December 2011

I just stumbled upon an article from last March by Michael Lewis, in which he explains how thoroughly Irish banks screwed themselves:

A single bank, Anglo Irish, which, two years before, the Irish government had claimed was merely suffering from a “liquidity problem,” faced losses of up to 34 billion euros. To get some sense of how “34 billion euros” sounds to Irish ears, an American thinking in dollars needs to multiply it by roughly one hundred: $3.4 trillion. And that was for a single bank. As the sum total of loans made by Anglo Irish, most of it to Irish property developers, was only 72 billion euros, the bank had lost nearly half of every dollar it invested.

[W]hile Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places—trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia—the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another. An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.

Fascinating reading. Given its growth and prosperity ten years ago, it's staggering how a few dozen stupid people could have derailed the country entirely.

Tuesday 6 December 2011 10:57:05 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#
Monday 5 December 2011

Apparently they came from China:

While the descent of dogs from wolves through domestication is non-controversial in genetics, determining the region in the world where this occurred has been more of a question. Earlier studies had suggested a Middle Eastern origin for dogs.

A new study focusing on the lineage of the Y-chromosome indicates that dogs originated somewhere in eastern Asia, south of the Yangtze River.

Monday 5 December 2011 14:20:36 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Parker#

The Economist's Gulliver blog looks at JetBlue's new landing slots and concludes it may not work for them long-term:

JETBLUE, the low-cost American carrier, won an auction last week for the right to operate eight additional round-trips from both Washington's Ronald Reagan airport (DCA) and New York's LaGuardia airport (LGA), essentially doubling its presence at both sites.

JetBlue bid $72m for the slots, over $26m more than its rival Southwest. The deal is widely seen as part of JetBlue's recent effort to gain more of a following among business travellers, especially because Reagan and LaGuardia are so close to their respective downtowns.

But in the longer term, the real question for Reagan and LaGuardia is whether Amtrak will ever operate true high-speed rail service between New York and Washington. The existing Acela Express service between the two cities takes under three hours, and is relatively competitive in terms of speed and price with flying—especially when taxis to and from LaGuardia are taken into account. Penn Station, where the Acela stops in New York, is in the heart of midtown Manhattan; Washington's Union Station is just steps from the US Capitol. It's hard to imagine flying could remain competitive if Amtrak were to cut travel time between New York and Washington to under two hours.

My recent experience in Japan suggests that two hours between Washington and New York is not only feasible, but wouldn't even require Shinkansen-level high-speed rail. Washington Union Station to New York Penn Station is 360 km, which, including stops, requires trains to go 200 km/h—coincidentally, the speed that the Acela actually achieves through parts of New Jersey. In other words, two hours New York to Washington only requires better track maintenance.

Monday 5 December 2011 13:52:46 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Sunday 4 December 2011

Two of them, the first in Kyoto:

The other in Tokyo:

Sunday 4 December 2011 15:25:10 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Photography | Travel#
Saturday 3 December 2011

Tokyo has maps in all the metro and train stations showing where you are and where everything else is. However, throughout the city I found exactly one map where north was on top. Otherwise, they were all oriented in different directions. Here are two maps near Ueno-Koen within sight of each other that illustrate the problem. Exhibit A, with north towards the bottom left:

Exhibit B, with north in exactly the opposite direction:

Exhibit C, near my hotel, shows two maps next to each other with completely different orientations:

Why does this matter? Because whenever I looked at a map in Tokyo, I always had to spend several seconds figuring out what it represented. And it wasn't as if the orientations followed any pattern, for example showing what happens if you turn right or left from your current position, as the photo directly above shows.

I have no idea what, if any, principles are at work here. It's almost as if every map's orientation is completely left up to occident.

Saturday 3 December 2011 17:35:08 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography | Travel#

Republican party big-wigs want Romney to win the nomination, for the simple reason that he's the only one with a chance of winning next November:

"Bigfoot dressed as a circus clown would have a better chance of beating President Obama than Newt Gingrich...." quipped a Republican.

"Newt can't take the scrutiny," agreed a Democrat, "and he has the personality of an angry badger."

Only 340 days remain until President Obama's re-election.

Saturday 3 December 2011 00:11:43 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Thursday 1 December 2011

Just now, going into hour 32 of the (technically) longest day of my life, I noticed that the blog's comment view feature isn't working. This is Case #2869 in FogBugz, and will be fixed as soon as possible.

Not tonight, though. Just like Saturday, my goal is only to make it to 9pm. If I can do that, I will defeat jet lag in one stroke. I must not fail. Sleep deprivation leads to pointless blog entries, and we can't have that, can we?

Thursday 1 December 2011 16:57:42 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Blogs#

I recognize it may signal mild mental illness, but I don't mind 12-hour flights. I built up to this, of course, starting with 4-hour flights from Chicago to L.A. when I was a kid and growing into almost daily flights during a particularly annoying part of my career as a consultant. These days, Chicago to London (7 hours) isn't too long for a weekend; and Chicago to Tokyo (12 hours) only requires dumping a few frequent-flyer miles to ensure that I do the overnight flight in a premium class.

That helps, of course. Twelve hours in first or business is a lot more tolerable than 12 hours in coach. Ultimately, though, I'm engaged in an activity that was totally inaccessible to all of my ancestors, even my parents: cheap, convenient air travel to almost anywhere on the planet in less than a day.

"But wait," you cry, "they had airplanes 30 years ago." Yes, but before the Boeing 777 and Airbus 330/340, all three of which entered service only in the mid-1990s, fuel costs made cheap tickets to Europe or Asia impossible. When I first went to Europe in 1992, the ticket cost in nominal terms about what it would cost today: $600 or $700 for the round trip. Only, in 1992, $700 went almost 50% farther in real terms.

Also in the last 25 years or so, visa regimes have relaxed throughout the world. For all that politicians worldwide complain about illegal immigration, in reality citizens of the U.S. can visit almost anyplace in the world without a pre-arranged visa. As recently as 1985, most Western European countries required Americans to get visas from their consulates before visiting; now, Americans can get a stamp at entry in 173 countries, which includes all of the OECD, all of the Americas (except Brazil and Venezuela), all of Europe (except Russia and Belarus), and all of Oceania.

None of that, of course, makes the actual flight more fun. For that, I have:

  • A Kindle, with two novels I've yet to read;
  • An iPod, with the last 10 episodes of This American Life; and
  • A laptop, with three projects I can work on, two of them billable.

Still, thirty years ago, the idea of spending a week in Japan, posting photos of the trip in near-real-time, and keeping in touch with people by text and phone for pennies—all of this would have seemed like science fiction.

Welcome to the 2010s and cheap travel. I wish more people would take advantage of it. I'll have more thoughts on that point when I land.

Thursday 1 December 2011 17:51:42 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#

My last meal in Tokyo came off a conveyor belt:

For ¥600 I got this:

...plus a salmon roll, a pair of shrimp nigiri, and a pair of grilled salmon nigiri. And it was yum.

If you're ever southwest of the Shinjuku train station, look for this place:

And in a little over an hour, the long voyage home begins...

Thursday 1 December 2011 13:34:10 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel#
Wednesday 30 November 2011

While most people back home have yet to down their second coffees of the day, I'm about to go to bed. Tomorrow—December 1st—starts for me in 10 minutes and ends 39 hours later thanks to the miracle of air travel.

I go to bed happy that I've had a great little vacation, and that the FCC told AT&T where to take its merger with T-Mobile:

Although the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday granted AT&T’s request to pull its merger application from review, giving AT&T time to retool the plan in private, the FCC also published a damning, lengthy report outlining why it wasn’t convinced the merger was in the public interest in the first place.

“…The Applicants [AT&T and T-Mobile] have failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that the competitive harms that would result from the proposed transaction are outweighed by the proposed benefits,” the report states.

This comes after the Justice Department slammed the brakes on the merger last month. For some reason, the government sees duopoly in nation-wide mobile phone service anti-competitive, and thinks that AT&T will raise prices and cut service if it becomes the only GSM carrier in North America. I mean, AT&T has never behaved that way before, right?

As someone who fled AT&T for T-Mobile years ago, I am relieved that the merger will probably not go forward now. I hope T-Mobile either stays in the U.S. or sells to a company other than AT&T, like U.S. Cellular. At least I never have to go back to Ma Bell for mobile service.

Oh, and the U.S., U.K., the ECB, and three others injected liquidity into the Euro Zone this morning, which may (everyone hopes) save the world economy from utter ruin. That this means more dollars have started circulating, and therefore my next trip abroad just got more expensive, which I think is a small price to pay for avoiding, you know, a global depression. In the last hour, Sterling, the euro, and the yen have all risen 2% against the dollar, though. I'll be interested to see how much the yen in my pocket is worth in the morning.

Wednesday 30 November 2011 23:48:04 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | US | World#

Tokyo at night, with a 6-second exposure:

(Here's the daytime view.)

Wednesday 30 November 2011 17:16:54 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Photography | Travel#

I had planned to visit the Tokyo National Museum today, and possibly one of the other museums at Ueno Park, but then this happened:

Yes, a sunny autumn day with the temperature passing 21°C simply did not allow me to go inside. I spent a few hours just walking around Ueno-Koen, encountering the local fauna:

More fauna:

Oh, and hey, my camera shoots video:

(Apologies for the jerkiness; I was hand-holding a 250mm lens.)

Wednesday 30 November 2011 16:35:20 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Weather#

Yesterday (er, earlier today in the U.S.), American Airlines filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, hoping to reorganize itself into profitability. A few hours after the news, the head of the frequent-flyer program sent out a reassurance to us members:

We want to assure you that your AAdvantage® miles are secure. The AAdvantage miles that you've earned are yours and will stay yours, subject to usual policies, until you choose to redeem them for a great award with us. Likewise, your elite qualifying miles and your elite status, including lifetime status granted under the Million MilerSM program is secure and remains intact. You will continue to earn miles through all our existing AAdvantage participating companies and you will be able to redeem those miles for the same great awards — flights, upgrades, car rentals and hotels just to name a few. And, throughout the coming year, we will be adding even more opportunities to earn miles, as well as new ways to redeem those miles.

(Emphasis in original.)

Of course, the X factor remains the attitudes of the pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, and other front-line employees who stand to lose the most (other than, obviously, bondholders) from the restructuring. I'll keep an eye out—and I'll keep flying American and it's oneworld partners.

In a related bit, private pilot and journalist James Fallows has a lively debate on his blog today about electronic devices on airliners, and how your Kindle most certainly will not crash the plane if you forget to turn it off.

I'm off on my penultimate day of exploring Tokyo. Yesterday I hit the photography museum; today, I think, the Tokyo National Museum.

Wednesday 30 November 2011 09:24:49 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography#
Tuesday 29 November 2011

My airline has filed for bankruptcy, to the relief of some and the surprise of none:

AMR was the last of the major legacy airlines company in the United States to file for Chapter 11. Analysts said that its reluctance to do so earlier had left it less nimble than many of its competitors.

The company says it intends to operate normally throughout the bankruptcy process, as previous airlines have done. AMR does not expect the restructuring to affect its flight schedule or frequent flier programs.

Actually, the frequent-flier programs never get cut in bankruptcy, because we frequent fliers keep the airline aloft. Still, a part of me had hoped the airline could stay out of chapter 11 if only to prove it could be done, even while most of me realized that it couldn't.

AMR's bankruptcy won't hurt customers, but it will make the flight attendants, maintenance crews, and TWA pilots uncomfortable. In fact, the TWA pilots, who lost most of their seniority when AMR acquired their previous employer in a bankruptcy sale, will probably hate this development the most. The Times continues, "[t]he company had been in contract talks with its unions until the negotiations stalled earlier this month when the pilots’ union refused to send a proposal to its members for a vote. Because federal bankruptcy rules allow companies to reject contracts, AMR may take a harder negotiating stance with its unions."

As long as I can get home Thursday...

Tuesday 29 November 2011 23:51:37 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation#

I didn't get up at 4am to go watch the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market, but I did go there for lunch. Oh, what a lunch. This man knows how to make sushi:

And I found the place by looking for a line:

Then I had one tekka maki roll, one tai nigiri, one hamachi, and because the tekka maki made me want to cry, I had a maguro.

Let me explain this tuna.

No, there is no time to explain, let me sum up: It came off the boat this morning.

From the first bite of the tekka maki, when the tuna started melting on my tongue, I understood sushi. I'll still enjoy Green Tea, Ringo, and a couple other places in Chicago, but now, I've had the ur-sushi, right at the source. I might have to go back there tomorrow or Thursday for lunch... (Tomorrow and Thursday? Possibly.)

Oh, and the miso soup? Unbelievable.

Tuesday 29 November 2011 15:47:26 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

Yesterday I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. The 476 km trip takes two hours and twenty minutes, averaging 200 km/h including stops.

The best we have in the U.S. over the same distance, the Acela from Boston to Philadelphia (511 km), takes just over five hours on a good day and more if it snows. Chicago to St. Louis (457 km) is scheduled for five and a half hours, but I haven't ever made the trip in under six.

The U.S. made different choices than Japan (or Europe: London to Newcastle, 483 km, takes 2 hours and 50 minutes), because our vast depopulated spaces made an automobile-based infrastructure deceptively appealing. Wouldn't it be incredible if the U.S. experienced some kind of economic situation where it made a lot of sense to start correcting that monumental error? Oh, right.

In any event, I left the Tokyo train station a little past 10 in the morning and got to see this by 2, which is really the point:

Tuesday 29 November 2011 09:27:19 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Photography | US | World#
Monday 28 November 2011

Exhibit 1, a very fast train:

Exhibit 2, autumn at Tenryu-ji, one of 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto:

Exhibit 3, a juxtaposition of transportation technologies:

Explanation, to the extent required, follows tomorrow morning.

Monday 28 November 2011 22:48:36 JST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Photography#
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Ueno-Koen
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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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