Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Wednesday 12 September 2012

Major League Baseball released its 2013 schedule today. Here are the highlights for the Cubs:

  • They start the season April 1st in Atlanta.
  • The home opener on April 8th will be against Milwaukee.
  • The first appearance at a park I haven't gotten to yet won't happen until they visit Seattle on June 28th; but:
  • ...with their first-ever trip to Oakland immediately following on July 2nd, I sense a trip to the West Coast coming next summer.
  • Same with back-to-back series in two other parks I haven't seen, Colorado (July 19-21) and Arizona (July 22-25).
  • They end the season in St. Louis, playing our arch-rivals, the Cardinals.

The Cubs will not be visiting New Yankee Stadium, Minnesota, Texas, or Toronto, the other four parks in the 30-Park Geas I haven't visited yet.

Chicago's local CBS affiliate has a Cubs-specific schedule.

Wednesday 12 September 2012 15:50:22 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Cubs#

Last night, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, died in an attack on our consulate in Benghazi. The attack initially seemed predicated on the release of an anti-Muslim film funded by infamous Florida bigot Terry Jones (of Qu'oran burning fame), as the film caused riots in Egypt at the same time.

The New York Times is now reporting that sources in the US suspect the Libya attack was planned:

Officials in Washington studying the events of the past 24 hours have focused on the differences between the protests on the American embassy in Cairo and the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, the Libyan city where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans were killed.

The protesters in Cairo appeared to be a genuinely spontaneous unarmed mob angered by an anti-Islam video produced in the United States. By contrast, it appeared the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Intelligence reports are inconclusive at this point, officials said, but indications suggest the possibility that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney immediately used the violence as an excuse to lambaste President Obama with a statement that has put Romney way out in front of his party. Romney's (and RNC chair Reince Priebus's) willful misstating of facts to score political points after what could be a paramilitary attack against an American diplomat clearly shows he is unfit to serve:

The obvious responsible thing to do when American citizens and public officials are under physical threat abroad and when the details are unknown, and events spiraling, is to stay silent. If the event happens on the day of September 11 and you are a candidate for president and have observed a political truce, all the more reason to wait to allow the facts to emerge. After all, country before party, right? American lives are at stake, yes? An easy call, no?

But that's not what the Romney camp did. What they did was seize on a tweet issued by someone in the US Embassy before the attacks in order to indict the president for "sympathizing" with those who murdered a US ambassador after the attacks. ...

The knee-jerk judgments, based on ideology not reality; the inability to back down when you have said something obviously wrong; and the attempt to argue that the president of the US actually sympathized with those who murdered his own ambassador in Benghazi: these are disqualifying instincts for someone hoping to be the president of the US. Disqualifying.

At the time the United States was trying to calm down violent, unpredictable situations in two mostly-friendly countries, in which it appeared that an American ambassador was assassinated, before all the facts were known, Romney and his campaign made scoring political points their highest priority.

Romney showed us what we could expect from him as president: making ill-informed decisions for short-term political gain that put Americans at further risk.

Look, attacking the president's policies is part of his job as challenger. But for dog's sake, wait until the shooting stops. And try, just try, to think things through before speaking. In other words, if you want to be president, Mitt, stop acting like a spoiled child who feels entitled to the highest office in the country, and start acting presidential.

Wednesday 12 September 2012 13:03:54 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | World#
Tuesday 11 September 2012

I'm trying to make sense of why the Chicago Teachers Union's fight with the Chicago Public Schools has blown up into a teachers' strike (the first in 25 years).

One of my neighbors, for years a member of the local school board, said "every parent in Chicago will vote against Rahm Emanuel" in the next Chicago mayoral election. My experience of the strike, however, was being trapped in the Loop for an hour yesterday as the teachers' rally outside the school board building stopped traffic.

So, in no particular order, here are some sources of information about the strike, its geneses, and its likely outcomes:

  • Washington Post reporter Dylan Matthews, writing on Ezra Klein's blog, modestly provides "Everything you need to know about the Chicago teachers’ strike, in one post". My key takeaway: the CPS faces a $665m deficit this year, despite moving millions from reserves, and next year faces a $1bn deficit. (I can't wait to see my 2013 property tax bills...)
  • The Tribune reports that CPS has offered 2% raises over the next four years and some concessions on its proposed policy of not calling laid-off teachers back in the order they were let go. The article doesn't make clear how the CTU disagrees with the proposal, saying the union hasn't released details.
  • The local NPR station, WBEZ, asks What's really driving teachers to strike? Teachers want air conditioning, smaller classes, more social workers, and yes, last-out-first-in recalls after layoffs.
  • CTU president Karen Lewis may have miscalculated, however, having "openly feuded with Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, accusing them of not caring about schoolchildren or their education," which made her no friends. Still, 90% of union membership voted to strike, so it looks like they may have gotten the leadership they wanted.
  • New York Times columnist Joe Nocera yesterday wrote a cogent and balanced summary of the issues that nonetheless drew a comparison between this fight and the auto manufacturing fights of the 1970s and 1980s, "with the two sides fighting each other so fiercely that neither noticed that imports were on the rise and globalization was making their squabbles irrelevant."
  • And, of course, both the CTU and CPS want everyone to remember the children, who certainly have their own opinions but aren't being asked by either side.

Even though I have a natural inclination to support labor in general and teachers in specific, it looks to me like the strike over-reached and may have handed the PR war to the city. Ultimately the CPS and CTU run up against arithmetic, and the annoying problem that only the U.S. government can print money. We can't pay for the schools we have right now (or, more precisely, for the teacher pensions we owe), so the teachers won't get everything they want. Are they willing to give back on pensions and salary in exchange for smaller class sizes and air conditioners? (Of course, how medieval are we as a city that we can't provide children with adequate classrooms in the first place?)

And again, the kids are getting the worst of it. As goes an African proverb, "when elephants wrestle, the grass suffers."

Tuesday 11 September 2012 12:03:26 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | US#

I'll have something about the Chicago teacher's strike after lunch, but first, I must complain about the returning heat:

The warm-up brings Chicago its 100th day of 27°C-plus degree temperatures; another due Wednesday putting us 2 days from 2005's all-time record annual tally

Tuesday afternoon’s predicted 29°C high is an early August-level reading and 4°C above the September 11 average maximum of 25°C.

The warm-up follows a chill Monday morning, the likes of which hasn’t happened here since early June when the official morning low dipped to 9°C.

I'll probably have to turn on the A/C for the first time in almost a week. I am so looking forward to autumn...

Tuesday 11 September 2012 10:46:52 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Slate's Mark Vanhoenacker wonders whether the lock-down at lower Manhattan's World Trade Center memorial is a monument to something other than intended:

Advance tickets are required to enter this public, outdoor memorial. To book them, you’re obliged to provide your home address, email address, and phone number, and the full names of everyone in your party. It is “strongly recommended” that you print your tickets at home, which is where you must leave explosives, large bags, hand soap, glass bottles, rope, and bubbles. Also, “personal wheeled vehicles” not limited to bicycles, skateboards, and scooters, and anything else deemed inappropriate. Anyone age 13 or older must carry photo ID, to be displayed “when required and/or requested.”

Once at the memorial you must go through a metal detector and your belongings must be X-rayed. Officers will inspect your ticket—that invulnerable document you nearly left on your printer—at least five times. One will draw a blue line on it; 40 yards (and around a dozen security cameras) later, another officer will shout at you if your ticket and its blue line are not visible. Eventually you’ll reach the memorial itself, where there are more officers and no bathrooms. You’re allowed to take photographs anywhere outside the security screening area—in theory if not always in practice.

Security expert Bruce Schneier wryly (and, given the math, correctly) explains how one could remain safe visiting the memorial even if it didn't have any of these security measures in place: "On the drive to New York, or in your taxi downtown, buckle up, he warned. It’s dangerous out there."

I keep hoping (as does Schneier) that we will someday get past our obsession with fighting the last war. It seems to me that if we have massive security around a memorial site, the terrorists win. What are we protecting? Eleven years ago a psychotic religious criminal gang attacked us, and we went crazy. Even knowing that a goal of the attack was, in the words of the nutjob who planned it, to cause us to over-react, we did exactly what he wanted. Isn't it time we went back to normal—if for no other reason than to prove the terrorists wrong?

Tuesday 11 September 2012 07:32:13 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Monday 10 September 2012

As Josh Marshall tweeted just now, "If a Mayor from NJ can be arrested on corruption charges, what's left for us to believe in?" I don't know:

Trenton, N.J. Mayor Tony Mack and at least six other people were arrested by federal authorities on Monday morning as part of a corruption investigation, according to WNBC.

The arrests follow the FBI's search of Trenton City Hall in July. Federal prosecutors are expected to announce the details of the investigation later on Monday.

Monday 10 September 2012 18:00:29 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#

Over the weekend, a tornado hit Coney Island. And there's video:

Note to people unaccustomed to tornadoes: when you see a tornado that appears stationary, it's either going away from you or coming straight at you. In the northern temperate zone they usually move northeast, so if you're looking southwest at a stationary tornado, you might want to take cover. Just sayin'.

Monday 10 September 2012 16:25:21 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Weather#
Sunday 9 September 2012

Despite my enthusiasm for Microsoft Windows Azure, in some ways it suffers from the same problem all Microsoft version 1 products have: incomplete debugging tools.

I've spent the last three hours trying to add an SSL certificate to an existing Azure Web application. In previous attempts with different applications, this has taken me about 30 minutes, start to finish.

Right now, however, the site won't launch at all in my Azure emulator, presenting a generic "Internal server error - 500" when I try to start the application. The emulator isn't hitting any of my code, however, nor is it logging anything to the Windows System or Application logs. So I have no idea why it's failing.

I've checked the code into source control and built it on another machine, where it had exactly the same problem. So I know it's something under source control. I just don't know what.

I hate very little in this world, but lazy developers who fail to provide debugging information bring me near to violence. A simple error stack would probably lead me to the answer in seconds.

Update: The problem was in the web.config file.

Earlier, I copied a connection string element from a transformation file into the master web.config file, but I forgot to remove the transformation attributes xdt:Transform="Replace" and xdt:Locator="Match(name)". This prevented the IIS emulator from parsing the configuration file, which caused the 500 error.

I must reiterate, however, that some lazy developer neglected to provide this simple piece of debugging information, and my afternoon was wasted as a result.

It reminds me of a scene in Terry Pratchett's and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens (one of the funniest books ever written). Three demons are comparing notes on how they have worked corruption on the souls of men. The first two have each spent years tempting a priest and corrupting a politician. Crowley's turn:

"I tied up every portable telephone system in Central London for forty-five minutes at lunchtime," he said.

"Yes?" said Hastur. "And then what?"

"Look, it wasn't easy," said Crowley.

"That's all?" said Ligur.

"Look, people—"

"And exactly what has that done to secure souls for our master?" said Hastur.

Crowley pulled himself together.

What could he tell them? That twenty thousand people got bloody furious? That you could hear the arteries clanging shut all around the city? And that then they went back and took it out on their secretaries or traffic wardens or whatever, and they took it out on other people? In all kinds of vindictive little ways which, and here was the good bit, they thought up themselves. The pass-along effects were incalculable. Thousands and thousands of souls all got a faint patina of tarnish, and you hardly have to lift a finger.

Somehow, debugging the Azure emulator made me think of Crowley, who no doubt helped Microsoft write the thing.

Sunday 9 September 2012 18:12:33 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Software#

This month's Atlantic explains:

"So you want to make a map," [former NASA engineer Michael] Weiss-Malik tells me as we sit down in front of a massive monitor. "There are a couple of steps. You acquire data through partners. You do a bunch of engineering on that data to get it into the right format and conflate it with other sources of data, and then you do a bunch of operations, which is what this tool is about, to hand massage the data. And out the other end pops something that is higher quality than the sum of its parts."

The sheer amount of human effort that goes into Google's maps is just mind-boggling. Every road that you see slightly askew in the top image has been hand-massaged by a human. The most telling moment for me came when we looked at couple of the several thousand user reports of problems with Google Maps that come in every day. The Geo team tries to address the majority of fixable problems within minutes. One complaint reported that Google did not show a new roundabout that had been built in a rural part of the country. The satellite imagery did not show the change, but a Street View car had recently driven down the street and its tracks showed the new road perfectly.

I've always been a map geek (which drove my Weather Now demo/application). The idea that Google will have a complete digital map of the entire world, and will presumably continue to maintain this map over the next several decades, warms my geeky heart. I wish some of this data had existed 50 years ago—or, alternately, that Google can integrate some of the existing photos and maps from earlier eras.

Sunday 9 September 2012 10:44:54 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Cool links#
Saturday 8 September 2012

They just launched high-resolution aerial photos of another batch of cities:

Improving the availability of more high quality imagery is one of the many ways we’re continuing to bring you the most comprehensive and accurate maps of the world. In this month’s update, you’ll find another extensive refresh to our high resolution aerial and satellite imagery (viewable in both Google Maps and Google Earth), as well as new 45 degree imagery in Google Maps spanning 30 new cities.

Google Maps and Earth now feature updated aerial imagery for more than 20 locations, and updated satellite imagery for more than 60 regions. Here are a few interesting locations included in our latest release.

Below is imagery of Mecca, Saudi Arabia where each year more than 15 million Muslims visit this important religious site. Here you can see Abraj Al Bait, one of the world largest clock towers, visible even from space!

Pretty soon they'll have photos of every square meter of the planet—at 10-cm resolution. I find it both really cool and really creepy. As long as they don't have near-real-time photos...

Saturday 8 September 2012 13:43:08 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Cool links#
Friday 7 September 2012

President Clinton Wednesday night:

President Obama last night:

Friday 7 September 2012 16:19:04 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Thursday 6 September 2012

Apparently all that junk DNA in your cells isn't junk after all:

Now scientists have discovered a vital clue to unraveling these riddles. The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.

As scientists delved into the “junk” — parts of the DNA that are not actual genes containing instructions for proteins — they discovered a complex system that controls genes. At least 80 percent of this DNA is active and needed. The result of the work is an annotated road map of much of this DNA, noting what it is doing and how. It includes the system of switches that, acting like dimmer switches for lights, control which genes are used in a cell and when they are used, and determine, for instance, whether a cell becomes a liver cell or a neuron.

In one of the Nature papers, researchers link the gene switches to a range of human diseases — multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease — and even to traits like height. In large studies over the past decade, scientists found that minor changes in human DNA sequences increase the risk that a person will get those diseases. But those changes were in the junk, now often referred to as the dark matter — they were not changes in genes — and their significance was not clear. The new analysis reveals that a great many of those changes alter gene switches and are highly significant.

By the way, this is consistent with natural selection theory, and resolves a problem biologists had reconciling the two. It's difficult to explain how useless genes would remain in the genome, because organisms that got the same results from fewer base-pairs should have an advantage. The new evidence agrees with the theory.

This is why I love science: it's only wrong until we learn new things.

Thursday 6 September 2012 09:02:25 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
Wednesday 5 September 2012

Seriously:

Within the bottle, a postcard written in June 1914 by Captain CH Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation promised the finder a reward of 6 pence. It had been part of a scientific experiment in which 1,890 such bottles were released, in a bid to chart currents around Scotland.

Even odder, the person who found this 98-year-old message worked on the same boat as a man who found a 93-year-old message back in 2006. The bottles were part of an early-20th-century research project to map Scotland's sea currents.

Wednesday 5 September 2012 17:40:13 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

We're doing some very cool things at 10th Magnitude. Here's my boss, CEO Alex Brown, explaining:

Notice, by the way, how often I have mentioned an employer on this blog. I'd discuss the company more right now, but I have to get back to writing some pretty cool Azure code...

Wednesday 5 September 2012 08:52:46 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Business#
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Cubs announce 2013 schedule
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Chicago Teachers Union strike, day 2
A very long summer isn't over yet
Security at the 9/11 memorial
Trenton, N.J., mayor arrested
I don't think we're in Queens anymore, Toto
I wish stuff just worked
How Google builds its maps
More Google Earth imagery released
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Not junk after all
Message in a bottle...from 1915
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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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