Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Saturday 30 April 2011

Gulliver this afternoon examines whether we might want to examine them:

A new academic paper [PDF] from John Mueller (of The Ohio State University) and Mark Stewart (of the University of Newcastle in Australia) attempts to determine whether the return on investment justified those huge expenditures. ... [T]he findings in this paper are truly remarkable. By 2008, according to the authors, America's spending on counterterrorism outpaced all anti-crime spending by some $15 billion. Messrs Mueller and Stewart do not even include things like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which they call "certainly terrorism-determined") in their trillion-plus tally.

"[A] most common misjudgment has been to embrace extreme events as harbingers presaging a dire departure from historical patterns. In the months and then years after 9/11, as noted at the outset, it was almost universally assumed that the terrorist event was a harbinger rather than an aberration. There were similar reactions to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 truck bomb attack in Oklahoma City as concerns about a repetition soared. And in 1996, shortly after the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo set off deadly gas in a Tokyo subway station, one of terrorism studies' top gurus, Walter Laqueur, assured the world that some terrorist groups 'almost certainly' will use weapons of mass destruction 'in the foreseeable future.' Presumably any future foreseeable in 1996 is now history, and Laqueur’s near 'certainty' has yet to occur."

The paper also found that anti-terror spending has outpaced anti-crime spending by some $15 bn, despite crime costing society significantly more. The paper doesn't go into the politics of why this might be so, but I'll hazard a guess that cutting crime benefits more people a little while spending on anti-terror measures benefits a few people quite a bit. Lowering the likelihood that my car will suffer $300 in damage from a break-in has less immediacy than a $30m contract for a new security gadget would were I in that line of business.

Saturday 30 April 2011 18:06:06 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | Security#

Today's gloomy morning makes it official: April 2011 was the gloomiest and wettest April in recorded Chicago history:

Going into the last day of the month, this April has received only 32 percent of possible sunshine. Even with some morning sunshine, thickening cloudiness should cut out a significant amount of Saturday's sun - probably enough to hold this April's total sunshine number under what looks to be the old record low of 34 percent possible sunshine back in 1953.

State climatologist Jim Angel reports the Illinois state-wide average rainfall of 7.45 inches broke the old record of 7.13 inches set back in 1957. There was a wide range in average rainfall from 4 to 6 inches in the north to 10-15 inches in the south. Anna reported the highest total in the state, 20.01 inches.

The weekend forecast?

Today: A 20 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after 1pm. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 19°C. Breezy, with a south southeast wind around 35 km/h, with gusts as high as 50 km/h.

Tonight: Showers and thunderstorms likely, mainly between 10pm and 1am. Mostly cloudy, with a low around 11°C. Southwest wind between 15-30 km/h, with gusts as high as 45 km/h. Chance of precipitation is 60%. New rainfall amounts between 1 to 2.5 mm, except higher amounts possible in thunderstorms.

Sunday: Mostly sunny, with a high near 15°C. West wind between 15-25 km/h, with gusts as high as 36 km/h.

Sunday Night: Mostly cloudy, with a low around 6°C. West northwest wind between 10-15 km/h, with gusts as high as 25 km/h.

Better walk Parker before 1pm, then.

Saturday 30 April 2011 08:00:31 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Friday 29 April 2011

In the mythical Land of Uk this morning, millions fled drunken mobs surrounding the palace as an evil magic spell cast by the House of Saxe-Coburg melted brains across the Uk Empire's former colonies.

Moving on. As much as I like the United Kingdom, and might even live there given the chance, I am a committed, small-r republican, who thinks any monarchy more ostentatious than, say, The Netherlands', seems like an inappropriate use of public funds. Sure, separate the ceremonial functions from the political by having a head of state apart from a head of government, but upwards of £40 million per year plus another £60 million for the wedding (not counting lost productivity from the public holiday) seems like a steep price tag.

Speaking of costs, The New Republic makes the case this morning that Donald Trump's ridiculous candidacy reveals the worst of our traits in a way the Republican Party really ought to condemn:

What Trump actually stands for is an exaggerated sense of victimhood. This is the theme that unites his personal style with the political views he has thus far expressed. Are you tired of being pushed around? Are you tired of our country being pushed around? Trump’s political acuity lies in his ability to take these grievances and turn them into politics. His foreign policy views in essence consist of a pledge to bully other nations.

America is currently engaged in three wars. The country faces major economic challenges. Global warming is continuing apace. There is no chance any of these issues can be solved by yelling at foreign countries, or stirring up anger at Iraqis or Libyans or minority applicants to elite colleges. Donald Trump has appointed himself spokesman for some of the nastiest impulses in American politics, and he seems to have a following. The sooner the Republican mainstream rejects him, the better.

This dovetails with an article in this month's Mother Jones about the psychology of belief and denial:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call "affect"). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it. That shouldn't be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It's a "basic human survival skill," explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

... Sure enough, a large number of psychological studies have shown that people respond to scientific or technical evidence in ways that justify their preexisting beliefs. In a classic 1979 experiment (PDF), pro- and anti-death penalty advocates were exposed to descriptions of two fake scientific studies: one supporting and one undermining the notion that capital punishment deters violent crime and, in particular, murder. They were also shown detailed methodological critiques of the fake studies—and in a scientific sense, neither study was stronger than the other. Yet in each case, advocates more heavily criticized the study whose conclusions disagreed with their own, while describing the study that was more ideologically congenial as more "convincing."

Add to that the profitability of telling people what they want to hear (I'm looking at you, Murdoch) and we are going to Hell in a handbasket. Then again, every generation has thought that, and we haven't seen the handbasket yet. So maybe wishing their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge well is worth a having a party for.

Friday 29 April 2011 10:01:46 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | World#

Every day a few minutes past midnight UTC (7pm CDT), I get a report from The Daily Parker about its health, wealth, and wisdom. And every day, someone hits the blog from somewhere through a search I never thought about before. In the last day, for example, people have hit the blog looking for:

I'm glad I could help.

Thursday 28 April 2011 21:24:07 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Cool links#
Thursday 28 April 2011

A tongue-in-cheek alternate take for a PSA describing the benefits of AFSCME (NSFW):

Thursday 28 April 2011 15:41:54 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Jokes#

Via Fallows, the President today took a few minutes to remind the press that we have serious issues to look at:

Fallows is pessimistic this will change anything: "if 'actual knowledge' mattered, the number of people who thought Obama was foreign-born would approach zero by next week -- with exceptions for illiterates, the mentally disabled, paranoid schizophrenics, etc. My guess is that the figures will barely change."

Wednesday 27 April 2011 21:06:25 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Wednesday 27 April 2011

With Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke becoming the first in his office ever to hold a press conference, I wonder whether he'll actually say anything. As I mentioned yesterday, and as Krugman has said for years, Very Serious People worry about inflation even though elementary economics shows there isn't anything to worry about.

Fortunately, other reporters are catching on:

One question more than any than other is crying out for an answer: Why has Mr. Bernanke decided to accept widespread unemployment for years on end, even though he believes he has the power to reduce it?

The Fed’s own forecasts suggest that the unemployment rate won’t fall below 5 percent for perhaps another five or six years. Mr. Bernanke believes the Fed “retains considerable power” to reduce unemployment faster, despite the fact that its benchmark interest rate is zero, as he’s said before. Yet he has been hesitant to use that power.

As he has explained many times, the Fed has alternatives. It could announce that it would keep its benchmark rate at zero for a few years, which would probably hold down long-term rates. It could say that it was comfortable with higher inflation for a limited period of time, given how low inflation has been since 2007 and how high unemployment is. Above all, Mr. Bernanke could make clear that he considers years of widespread unemployment to be unacceptable.

He has not done so, and he has yet to offer a satisfying rationale.

So, later today, will he explain?

Wednesday 27 April 2011 10:02:25 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Tuesday 26 April 2011

Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) doesn't seem like a Tea Partier on the surface, but he's started to experiment with right-wing populism. Today his office sent out an email suggesting inflation will destroy us all climb in the near future and hurt Illinois businesses. He even shows a chart from the St. Louis Fed showing how the monetary base spiked during the 2009 recession. Only, the chart doesn't have anything to do with inflation except to show how (but not why) we didn't spiral into deflation during the crisis.

You have to remember three things about inflation: first, we haven't got any right now; second, inflation hurts lenders more than it hurts debtors in the long run; and third, deflation—the danger of which has not yet passed—is a lot worse.

Here's my note to the senator's office in response:

The Senator's office recently sent an email to constituents on the dangers of inflation. Only, the data show that core inflation remains below historical levels, and certainly below the Fed's target. If inflation were really a worry, we'd see the bond markets react, as they usually lead other indications of inflation. However, bond yields are at historically low levels.

What we need right now are jobs. Decreasing the money supply during a period of low inflation and high unemployment will not only hurt our already anemic job supply, but also possibly plunge us into *deflation,* which is far worse. Just ask Japan. Or look back at President Jackson's disastrous policy of paying off the national debt in full.

Senator, it's disingenuous of you to argue in favor of policies that hurt average people while claiming it's in their interest. The current policy of quantitative easing, far from hurting the economy, doesn't go far enough to help it. I'm in favor of weakinging the dollar even further, to help exports, boost jobs, and--here's the part your banker friends hate--reducing the real debt burden on families.

For more on how wrong Kirk is, see Krugman on austerity from a couple weeks ago.

Tuesday 26 April 2011 10:58:55 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Monday 25 April 2011

At the moment, this is Chicago's cloudiest and coldest April since 1953. With more clouds predicted through Friday, we look likely to set a new record.

At least Saturday we had good weather.


Monday 25 April 2011 08:47:56 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Sunday 24 April 2011

(Via Gulliver.) All right, when I said Michelle Obama was not in any danger, I was right, though the National Transportation Safety Board has more information. Apparently the First Lady's plane came within 2.94 miles of the C-17, which is a loss of separation warranting disciplinary action.

Now, should the FAA have fired the controllers? No, that seems like an overreaction. Instead, the FAA has changed the rules slightly so that all flights carrying the First Lady will be handled by a supervisor. Well, that's Doing Something, anyway.

Sunday 24 April 2011 11:51:13 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation#
Saturday 23 April 2011

I finally took my bike to a shop for a cleaning and tune-up. I haven't ridden in a while, mainly because of my knees, but I miss it. My doctor recommended taking some ibuprofen an hour before riding as he believes it's simply age-related arthritis. I hope he's right. Even if he isn't, I estimate the ride from my house to work will take about 20 minutes (cf. 45 by bus or train), which isn't even long enough to work up a sweat.

I'm not planning to ride the North Shore Century this year, though. Let's take it slow. If I'm up to 50 km without pain by mid-July, I'll reconsider.

Saturday 23 April 2011 17:22:50 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Biking#

Via Fallows, UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen watched a used book price war between two bots that ended...oddly:

Once a day profnath set their price to be 0.9983 times bordeebook’s price. The prices would remain close for several hours, until bordeebook “noticed” profnath’s change and elevated their price to 1.270589 times profnath’s higher price. The pattern continued perfectly for the next week.

But two questions remained. Why were they doing this, and how long would it go on before they noticed? As I amusedly watched the price rise every day, I learned that Amazon retailers are increasingly using algorithmic pricing (something Amazon itself does on a large scale), with a number of companies offering pricing algorithms/services to retailers. Both profnath and bordeebook were clearly using automatic pricing – employing algorithms that didn’t have a built-in sanity check on the prices they produced. But the two retailers were clearly employing different strategies.

What’s fascinating about all this is both the seemingly endless possibilities for both chaos and mischief. It seems impossible that we stumbled onto the only example of this kind of upward pricing spiral – all it took were two sellers adjusting their prices in response to each other by factors whose products were greater than 1.

When Eisen published his blog entry the book had dropped to $106—or $135 through bordeebook. Just now, though, bordeebook has it for $977, and profnath seems not to have it any more. I wonder what happened there.

Saturday 23 April 2011 14:10:37 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Business#

Apparently cluing into my accidental theme this week of things that scare people irrationally, Patrick Smith had a pair of child safety scissors confiscated, even though he's, you know, the one flying the plane. He worries things will never change:

When it came right down to it, the success of the Sept. 11 attacks had nothing—nothing—to do with box cutters. The hijackers could have used anything. They were not exploiting a weakness in luggage screening, but rather a weakness in our mind-set—our understanding and expectations of what a hijacking was and how it would unfold. The hijackers weren't relying on weapons, they were relying on the element of surprise.

All of that is different now. For several reasons, from passenger awareness to armored cockpit doors, the in-flight takeover scheme has long been off the table as a viable M.O. for an attack. It was off the table before the first of the twin towers had crumbled to the ground. Why don't we see this? Although a certain anxious fixation would have been excusable in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks, here it is a decade later and we're still pawing through people's bags in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items.

How depressing is that, to be stuck with this nonsense permanently? Not only the obsession with sharps, but the liquids and gels confiscations, the shoe removals, etc.

These policies aren't just annoying, they're potentially self-destructive. Self-destructive because they draw our security resources away from more useful pursuits.

I remember when people weren't scared all the time. I'd like to go back to that era. I can only handle so much irrationality.

Saturday 23 April 2011 11:17:44 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | US#
Friday 22 April 2011

The news shows were hyperventilating earlier this week about a "near miss" involving an Air Force plane carrying the First Lady and Jill Biden. Only, it wasn't a near miss. It wasn't even a loss of IFR separation (though the planes did come too close for strict wake-turbulence safety). The planes were never close enough to warrant even a stern talking-to by the FAA. No, instead, Obama's plane—a military version of a Boeing 737—came within 8 km of a landing C-17 transport, which is close enough that the air traffic controller at Andrews warned the 737's pilot of wake turbulence. I mean, it's one thing if a Cessna takes off behind a 747: that's dangerous. But a 737 landing behind a C-17 might suffer, at worst, a momentary bump.

Then, because the C-17 took its time getting off the runway, Obama's plane had to go around to prevent a loss of separation. (Ideally, you don't want to land when there's something on the runway ahead of you, particularly when that something is large enough to carry your house inside.) Ten-hour student pilots do go-arounds routinely; it's a standard procedure.

Phil Bertorelli, editor of AVWeb, does a facepalm:

I award first place to Lisa Stark, of ABC News, who consistently reports aviation stories, no matter how minor, in urgent, 72-point type. Her report on this incident, while not wildly inaccurate, lacks the balancing perspective a lay viewer could grasp if the story weren't so dumbed down. Her gatekeeping of facts proceeds from the notion that this was a dangerous situation when, in fact, is was just less than optimal. Too tight sequences get fixed every day.

As a journalist, I judge these stories on the reporter's apparent ability to listen, digest and understand technical issues related to aviation. There are exceptions, but most general assignment reporters don't do this very well for aviation stories, although not many mangle it to the extent that Lisa Stark does. She is in a league of her own.

This is just another instance of dispensing fear instead of information. Perhaps I'm cranky because Parker needed to go outside at 4:45 this morning, but this kind of story makes me crankier.

Friday 22 April 2011 09:08:43 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | US#

As the extreme right-wing lunatics in the U.S. continue to wring their hands over our debt—completely ignoring how we're the world's reserve currency—it's helpful to examine what happens when a country actually collapses:

The yield on Greece ten year bonds increased to 14.9% today and the two year yield is up to 23%. Sounds like a credit event might happen soon. If so, I wonder if it will be haircut or an extension of maturities?

Here are the ten year yields for Ireland up to a record 10.5%, Portugal up to a record 9.5%, and Spain at 5.5%.

The problem, of course, is that Spain, Portugal, and Greece have to accept Euro-zone financial policies, which are generally anti-inflationary. Of course, if the pesteta, escudo, and drachma still existed, none of these countries would have the problems they face today. They'd have instead rampant inflation, which sucks for creditors but isn't so bad for debtors. They would, as well, face specific and predictable other problems, but as none of those issues has attracted the attention of cable news, few people understand why these countries have any problems at all, or who's responsible for them.

Most relevantly to the U.S., however, is that despite the loony right beating the debt-ceiling drum, and despite all the idiocy about the U.S. budget deficit, our biggest asset right now is that we're the world's reserve currency.

Few people seem to have noticed that if we threaten to default on our debt, or if we fail to pay any of it back—even for a brief moment—we're done.

There was a time, years ago, when the left went all to pieces over ideology. And I expect the right believed that the left were going to ruin Western Civilization if people voted for McGovern. But the key difference between then and now that I see—though in fairness through my leftish proclivities, which probably count for something—is that the left tried to end wars and reduce suffering in their craziness. It seems pretty clear the current right-wingnuts trying to take over the House of Representatives are fine with wars and poverty.

I think we'll get through this extreme swing of the pendulum, and 50 years from now we'll bemoan the ridiculousness of the left.

The frightening counter-example is, of course, Rome, which drifted so far right over three centuries that the citizens invited the Visigoths in to help them get out of Roman oppression. So who should we Americans look to for a similar salvation? I mean, if we're not going to fix things ourselves, which is probably the best long-term solution.

Thursday 21 April 2011 23:19:33 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Thursday 21 April 2011

Ezra Klein found Michele Bachmann's latest policy pronouncement frightening; I find it frighteningly ignorant:

In short, her plan is that we don’t raise the debt ceiling, but we use the revenue still coming in to pay off creditors first and whatever we think most important second. That way, we “don’t violate our credit rating” and “prioritize our spending.” Makes perfect sense.

At least, it makes perfect sense unless you, like me, had spent the previous few days talking to economists, investors and economic policymakers about what could happen if we start playing games with the debt ceiling. Their answers were across-the-board apocalyptic. If the U.S. government is so incapable of solving its political problems that it can’t come to an agreement on the debt ceiling, they said, that’s basically the end of the United States as the world’s reserve currency.

Klein concludes, "Her plan is the equivalent of setting off a bomb at the center of the U.S. economy."

Thursday 21 April 2011 13:12:37 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Wednesday 20 April 2011

Scott Adams likes to provoke people. On occasion, like today, he writes something that provokes other people. He makes a good case that Donald Trump's presidential campaign is a practical joke:

The magnificent part of this whole thing is that he's putting no effort whatsoever into concealing his prank. That's what I love about the guy. He knows that no level of clownery in a field of clowns will single him out as the one clown that doesn't really mean it.

He's a graduate of the Wharton School, which means his intelligence is in the genius range. He's a world-renowned businessman with attention to details. He's also famous for a trademark form of self-parody that has boosted his brand for decades. There isn't the slightest chance that this man hasn't looked at the birther evidence. He knows the President of the United States is American. That's the hiding in plain sight part of this prank. It isn't the least bit credible that Trump thinks the birther issue is real.

Some of you are thinking he's gone too far with the joke. Or maybe he went too far when he said we should take Iraq's oil by force as payment for a war they didn't ask for. This is not a man who thinks he might someday debate serious politicians in a public forum. This is a man who is winking at the camera and daring you to see the obvious.

Now, other than the silly assertion that he's smart because he went to the Wharton School (it's not Fuqua, after all), Adams hits a stand-up double with the post. I'm convinced.


Wednesday 20 April 2011 13:33:05 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Jokes | US#
Tuesday 19 April 2011

I mentioned earlier today that I've got a new film scanner, which makes scanning negatives leaps and bounds easier than my old flatbed scanner did. As threatened promised, I've started sending people some copies. But unless someone spontaneously grants me publication permission, I'm going to restrict myself to posting only shots of subjects that have no privacy interests. Like this creek, for example:

My notes have that one at the Walters Ave. bridge in Northbrook, Ill., looking south, mid-November 1985.

Monday 18 April 2011 20:10:30 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Photography#
Monday 18 April 2011

I am neither a beaver nor a dog, so I don't get to sleep through the winter nor do I get to lounge around all day and eat free food every night.

Which is all a long way of saying my blogging velocity might drop a little for the next week or so.

I've also gotten a new film scanner, and I've started scanning some of my negatives from the 1980s and 1990s. So if you went to school with me, you might get some frighteningly old photos over email in the next few weeks. I've discovered, after calibrating the scanner, that Kodak Tri-X and T-Max held up really well while Fuji FR-1600 did not. Fuji films had a reputation in the 1980s for weak magenta dyes, and after 20 or 25 years they've gotten even weaker, yielding greenish photos. The Kodak VR-100 looks pretty good.

Of course, a lot of the Tri-X that I shot from 1985 to 1992 came in 400-foot bulk packs, which I cut by hand and rolled into reusable film cans, and usually developed myself. The scanner dutifully records all the flaws, streaks, pits, and developing errors that never quite showed up on the proof sheets.

Monday 18 April 2011 13:16:54 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Photography#
Sunday 17 April 2011

Worth the trip:

Sunday 17 April 2011 11:40:48 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Jokes#
Saturday 16 April 2011

Patrick Smith ("Ask the Pilot") weighs in on Tuesday's A380-v.-Commuter Jet altercation at JFK:

The Airbus A380 is the largest commercial aircraft ever built (and the ugliest too, but that's another story). From the start, concerns over the plane's size have been about apron and taxiway space, not runway space. It requires no more runway for takeoff or landing than most other widebody jets, but presents serious challenges when it comes to maneuvering around terminals and along congested taxiways. It is only marginally longer or taller than the Boeing 747, but its wingspan is more than 60 feet wider. Many taxiways are off-limits, and A380 pilots need to be extra vigilant when operating at busy airports. The same goes for ATC ground controllers. With relatively few A380s in service, controllers are still getting familiar with their requirements.

Was the Air France crew on the correct assigned taxiway? Had they obeyed any requisite "hold short" instructions? Was the Comair plane stopped where it was supposed to be stopped? Did the controllers miss something?

One or more of those things is possible. But looking again at that video ... Regardless of who or what is to blame, perhaps the most important take-away is that old, in-one-ear-and-out-the-other dictum from the flight attendants: PLEASE REMAIN SEATED WITH YOUR SEAT BELT SECURELY FASTENED UNTIL THE SEAT BELT SIGN HAS BEEN TURNED OFF.

As an aside, I have a little dream, that someday, more nervous fliers will read Patrick Smith, and more nervous computer users will read Bruce Schneier. I think we'd have less panic in the US if that happened.

Saturday 16 April 2011 11:49:54 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation#
Thursday 14 April 2011

The New York Times reports on new data about how languages diversified:

A researcher analyzing the sounds in languages spoken around the world has detected an ancient signal that points to southern Africa as the place where modern human language originated.

The detection of such an ancient signal in language is surprising. Because words change so rapidly, many linguists think that languages cannot be traced very far back in time. The oldest language tree so far reconstructed, that of the Indo-European family, which includes English, goes back 9,000 years at most.

Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language. He has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: a language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it.

I'd like to get more information about this; in particular, how does it account for languages like Basque that seem unrelated to their neighbors?

Thursday 14 April 2011 16:26:55 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink#

Via Gulliver:

ONE of the obvious difficulties with lead times in the magazine industry is the way events can overtake stories. This is problem enough with a weekly publication such as The Economist, but the results can look even more bizarre in a monthly. Thus, in an article in its April issue titled "The 15 Best Places to See Right Now", Condé Nast Traveler tells readers to head to Libya.

"With Syria being called the new Morocco and Beirut the new (gasp!) Provincetown, travelers with an eye for antiquity are moving on to Libya."


Thursday 14 April 2011 13:43:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | World#

Back in my last term at Duke our technology strategy professor, Wes Cohen, assigned us two chapters from The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I'm reading the whole book now that I've got some time. Anyone who has the least interest in how teams work and where technology comes from should read it.

Kidder embedded himself in a team at the Data General corporation from early 1978 to late 1979 as they struggled to bring a 32-bit minicomputer to life. He describes borderline-Apergers engineers, 14-hour days, building motherboards from scratch, untested technologies, irresponsible schedules, burnout, and success—all around a computer that expressed the state of the art for perhaps six months after it came out. When Kidder wrote the book, in 1980, neither he nor any of the people he wrote about knew that minicomputers had become obsolete as a class already. None of them could see that IBM's toy computer, the PC, was about to make Data General irrelevant.

Kidder describes the team debugging prototype CPUs using oscilloscopes. He explains the near-impossibility of writing microcode—the instructions that tell a physical set of chips what to do and in what order—without using a second computer to write it on. He talks about engineers carrying around punchboard covered in blue and red wires, the red ones representing bug fixes, the blue representing the first attempt. You think it sucks figuring out which class broke the build in a modern C# development environment? Try imagining your joy at discovering that the CPU didn't work because a piece of solder came undone.

I imagine my reaction to this book might be similar to that of a modern nuclear submariner reading a contemporary account of building a state-of-the-art wooden battleship in 1862 (with only a brief mention of the Monitor and Merrimac, because almost no one understood in 1862 what those ships meant to naval combat). There are parts that made me wince, exactly as I winced in the episode of Mad Men when they showed an invitation to a wedding—to be held 22 November 1963.

About two years ago I read Pete Peterson's account of the heyday of WordPerfect Corp., which I also recommend, but for different reasons. Peterson wrote knowing the outcome, and he also had an axe to grind; but "Almost Perfect" still hits me right in the gut as a practicing software developer.

Twenty or thirty years from now, I'll look back and laugh at everything I didn't know in 2011. The Soul of a New Machine is a brilliantly-written monument to getting the job done, and advancing the profession right into a cul-de-sac.

Wednesday 13 April 2011 21:04:18 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Business#
Tuesday 12 April 2011

On this day 150 years ago, the United States began its bloody civil war that left the South in ruins and 600,000 Americans dead. And on this day 50 years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to leave the planet and return safely.

But who, other than James Fallows, remembered that 10 years ago today, Microsoft strangled Clippy?

But what about Clippy? It's a big day for him too. Ten years ago, he was finally given the deep-six at Microsoft, or at least turned off by default as the first step to full elimination, so he would no longer automatically pop up with such helpful observations as, "It looks like you're writing a letter!" At Microsoft's Mix11 conference for web developers today in Las Vegas, Dean Hachamovitch, head of IE activities at Microsoft, announced the anniversary of Clippy's demise.
Tuesday 12 April 2011 17:31:14 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | World | Business#

An Air France A380 collided with a commuter jet at JFK yesterday:

The tip of the left wing of the Air France Airbus 380 - the largest passenger plane made - bound for Paris hit the tail of a stationary Delta Comair Regional Jet 7 at 8:08 p.m., officials and witnesses said.

The Delta flight, which had just landed from Boston, was a connection to JFK for many London passengers. Those onboard exited onto the tarmac.

The NTSB press release reported no injuries among the 537 passengers and 29 crew members involved.

Tuesday 12 April 2011 16:26:56 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation#
Monday 11 April 2011

For several reasons—about 730 of them, really—I'm at Raleigh/Durham Airport for a couple of hours between London and Chicago. Yes, a direct flight to Chicago today would have cost $730 more. Someday, we'll discover that airline pricing schemes actually tap into the deepest secrets of the universe; for now, I'll just scratch my head and sit at RDU until 5pm.

On the way out to London, I got a photo of a phenomenon I've seen many times but never documented clearly. You know how the planet is more or less spherical? Here's some proof:

You can see this if you fly about 15 minutes past the terminator between night and day. The dark-blue wedge with the point on the left and the wide part under the wingtip is the earth's shadow.

Monday 11 April 2011 15:45:58 EDT (UTC-04:00)  |  | Geography#
Sunday 10 April 2011

I spent an unremarkable afternoon wandering an unremarkable suburb of London. Oh, Kew Gardens is pretty enough, and so was the weather, that I had a relaxing time, and I may even have avoided a major sunburn. The only remarkable thing about the walk was the Thames at low tide, which, even this far up, still ebbs and flows about 5 meters:

After the walk, I sat outside with a book and a beer. Sadly I did not have a dog, though the folks at the next table did, so all was not lost.

Sunday 10 April 2011 17:33:26 BST (UTC+01:00)  |  | Weather#

I met one of my oldest surviving friends in York this afternoon, thanks to the fast and cheap railways they've got in the UK. It's one thing to stay in a hotel built before my home town was founded; it's quite another to walk along a wall built over a thousand years before that.

First obligatory photo: York Minster, which opened as a small wooden church in 627 CE, and achieved this form somewhere around 800 years ago:

We also took advantage of an open house hosted by the York Glaziers Trust, who work to restore the stained glass at the Minster. I snapped this before seeing the "no photographs" sign:

That's one panel of the 120 or so that make up the east wall of the Minster. John Thornton installed the windows about ten years before Columbus got lost in the Atlantic, or about 300 years before my country came into being. My friend and I both wondered if they'd ever dropped a piece of 15th-century glass, but we were both too chicken to ask the conservationists.

Getting out of York required jumping forward to the last few years, when York restored its Victorian-era railway station:

I've got one more day in the Land of Uk, so tomorrow look for some nighttime shots.

(About this post's title: for some reason I keep hearing the Swedish Chef in my head.)

Sunday 10 April 2011 02:42:43 BST (UTC+01:00)  |  | Geography | Photography#
Friday 8 April 2011

I've walked on the Queen's Walk along the Thames about a half-dozen times, but on a day like today, I just had to do it again. This time, though, I had the beast with me, so I could do this:

And this:

When I last photographed Tower Bridge on a sunny day, the painting crews hadn't finished yet. Today it looked perfect.

Friday 8 April 2011 19:55:36 BST (UTC+01:00)  |  | Geography#

This is the Brompton Oratory, South Kensington, London, just today:

The answer, and more photos, at The Daily Parker.

Friday 8 April 2011 15:51:12 BST (UTC+01:00)  |  | Geography | Weather#

Because coming to the UK and not moaning about something would be like going to Wrigley and not having an Old Style, here goes. My troubles began last night when my plane arrived fifteen minutes early at Heathrow, and then we had to collect our bags from the spot where the baggage handlers had them waiting for us when we got through Border Control. This got me through the airport from touchdown to the Tube in 40 minutes, which is unacceptably efficient. The Tube itself cost almost £2 all the way to Central London, took nearly half an hour, and didn't even have any drunk people on it.

At least the lifts were out at Earl's Court so I could carry my bag up some stairs, and I had to deal with a comforting cock-up involving the hotel's credit-card machine, both of which made me feel like I'd gotten to the real UK. Unfortunately, the night clerk ruined it by working efficiently and professionally to get through the issue and get me checked in. Then, once that was done, I was unable not to find a curry restaurant still open, and I had to have a chicken tikka with actual spices and flavor procured by a polite and smiling—smiling, in London, the thought!—server.

Finally, this morning, when my room's Internet connection went out, the day clerk completely broke from British custom and offered to fix the problem himself, so that when I got back from getting some coffee, it worked fine.

Don't even get me started on the weather. I came all the way to the UK only to have the trip ruined by sunny skies and 20°C temperatures. I mean, not even one bloody cloud in the sky. Now I suppose I'll have to spend the entire day walking around in it, and possibly eat lunch sitting outside. One just doesn't do that in London in April; it's just not done.

I really don't know if I can take four days of this.

Friday 8 April 2011 10:54:31 BST (UTC+01:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink#
Wednesday 6 April 2011

Chicago Public Radio is calling Chicago's 43rd Ward for Michele Smith. I don't have the final figures, but so far it looks like she spent over $1.4m—or around $150 per vote.

I hope it's worth it.

Wednesday 6 April 2011 10:55:05 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Politics#

I counted the Rs. I counted the blanks. I thought of the likelihood that Terence could form any other words out of what I left him. And then, of course, it turned out he had a D:

I feel like Bill Buckner all of a sudden.

Wednesday 6 April 2011 10:47:23 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
Tuesday 5 April 2011

In my final installment from beautiful Hempstead, N.Y., I present two buildings that sprouted from parking lots. Check out the before-and-after photos at The Daily Parker.

Tuesday 5 April 2011 13:52:04 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink#

Voters in Chicago's 43rd Ward, including I, will choose a new alderman in today's general election. The two candidates, Tim Egan and Michele Smith, have spent $387k and $1.1m respectively.

Is it really worth $1.4m to become an alderman? The ward has a population somewhere around 50,000, or about 1/12th of a U.S. Congressional district, and aldermen have almost no power in city government. Of course, they do have power over things like snow removal contracts and liquor licenses. So possibly both Smith and Egan have deep and abiding senses of civic duty, willing to sacrifice so much for the good of the city.

Not to be cynical, but perhaps it's more than that:

Aside from $3,000 in "in-kind" contributions—apparently in the form of food for fundraisers, provided by O’Brien’s Restaurant—another $22,500 was donated to the Egan campaign by four other companies that share the same Wells Street address (found here and here), and that city records show are affiliated with the O’Brien family.

... But Smith has a major contributor of her own. That would be the retired Helen Meier, of Wilmette. This election cycle, Meier has given Smith’s campaign $95,000. Going back to Smith’s previous run for alderman in 2007 and her 2008 win for Democratic ward committeeman, Meier has donated roughly $360,000 to Smith.

And this is only one race out of 14. (There are 50 wards in Chicago.) Welcome to the political earthquake caused by Mayor Daley retiring at the end of this month. Pass the popcorn.

Tuesday 5 April 2011 08:58:55 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Politics#

Can they arrest you for criticizing the war?

Can they send your state's national guard to fight, even if your state opposes it?

Can they make you open your house to a few soldiers, and call you a traitor if you don't?

And can the soldiers go through your things while they stay in your house?

And if one found something illegal in your sock drawer, should you go to jail?

And if you got a lawyer, can they prevent her from using legal "tricks" to keep you free?

Can they ruin your reputation on the Evening News, even if you're not convicted of a crime?

But if you were convicted, could they make you stand naked in a cell at Guantanamo Bay for eight years?

And if you're not with them, are you against them?

Is there even any law against it?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you're not alone. And that's what scares me.

(Hat tip to Sullivan for inspiration.)

Monday 4 April 2011 23:51:16 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Monday 4 April 2011

I've posted a couple more photos from Hofstra at The Daily Parker, as promised. Also as promised, they might not mean anything to people who didn't live there, but to us alumni, they might bring back either memories or today's lunch.

Monday 4 April 2011 17:36:33 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
Sunday 3 April 2011

More Hofstra photos are coming soon. Before I get to those, here's an image from my drive home from O'Hare this afternoon. It's the last Cabrini Green high-rise in its death throes:

The site, on Division between Halsted and Larrabee, contained the last two high-rises of a blighted urban complex that covered over 2.5 sq km and had some of the worst crime in the city. The Encyclopedia of Chicago describes the history:

The large new apartments and large swaths of recreation space failed to mend the area's poverty. The difficulty blacks had finding better, affordable housing gave Cabrini-Green a permanent population. CHA failed to budget money to repair buildings and maintain landscaping as they deteriorated. Cabrini-Green's reputation for crime and gangs rivaled Little Hell's. The murders of two white police officers in 1970 and of seven-year-old resident Dantrell Davis in 1992 drew national attention.

Increasing real-estate values in the late twentieth century led housing officials to propose replacement of the complex with mixed-income housing. Residents argued however that such a move would displace them permanently, completing the slum removal effort begun with the building of Cabrini Homes half a century earlier.

Those "increasing real-estate values" mean that you can now spend $500k on a townhouse in the former no-go zone around Wells and North, and the Cabrini-Green site could wind up selling for many tens of millions. And if you're wondering what happened to all the project's residents, you're not alone.

Sunday 3 April 2011 18:02:29 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Politics#

I visited my alma mater for a reunion of Chronicle alumni today. I think I last saw the campus in 1999, though I might have seen it as late as 2003, but it doesn't seem that recent. No matter; except for a couple of buildings that sprouted from the North Campus parking lots, everything looks just enough like it did when I lived on campus that I feel vaguely weirded out right now. Walking into the Chronicle office, which looks pretty much the same (except with bigger computers and younger editors), made me remember so many Wednesday night layout sessions that I felt a residual wave of sleep deprivation wash over me.

Only a few people from my era came to the reunion. I blame, in no small part, the Alumni College for not reaching out to more alumni. The Chronicle invited one of my classmates to speak on a panel months ago, but he didn't receive his invitation from the alumni office until two weeks ago. A few other people I emailed didn't know anything about the event.

I didn't take enough time to shoot everything I'd hoped to, and some of the things I wanted to photograph have disappeared or moved (like the WRHU offices, which now live in their own special annex of the TV building instead of the basement of Memorial Hall as I remember them). As I offloaded the photos I realized I'd taken shots of the most evocative parts of campus to me, even though they'll look completely banal to anyone else. For example, I have two shots of a particular stairwell—the one leading from the Student Center Atrium down to what used to be the Small Clubs Offices—because seeing it brought back such an overload of memories.

Anyway, here are two less-banal shots. First, the library, which has a new extension, but otherwise looks the same as it did when it opened in the 1950s:

This, also, hasn't changed since 1960, if I have my information right:

Saturday 2 April 2011 23:35:36 EDT (UTC-04:00)  |  | Geography#
Friday 1 April 2011

There is no reason for this post beyond the obvious:

Friday 1 April 2011 09:38:15 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Daily#

Someone has put something in the water today. News organizations seem to have made some surprising discoveries today:

Oh, wait—that last one is real. It's still a foolish story.

I'll post more throughout the day as I discover them.

Friday 1 April 2011 09:10:24 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
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David Braverman is the Chief Technology Officer of Holden International 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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