Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Saturday 31 March 2012

Via Sullivan, the Royal Canadian Mint has stopped producing pennies and will withdraw them from circulation this year, saving $11m outright and eliminating a $150m drag on the Canadian economy:

It costs the government 1.6 cents to produce one penny, which has been made of copper-plated zinc and copper-plated steel since 1997.

The penny, with two maple leafs on one side and Queen Elizabeth II on the other, can continue to be used in payments. As they are gradually withdrawn from circulation, price rounding on cash transactions will be required, the government said.

The calculation of the federal goods and services tax and provincial sales taxes will continue to be calculated to the penny and added to the price, with rounding only taking place on the total payment.

Non-cash payments on checks and credit cards will continue to be rounded to the nearest cent.

Here's hoping we can eliminate ours as well, as they cost the U.S. 2.6¢ each. Of course, the Canadian program I really want to see would save our economy tens of billions of dollars a year...but apparently we're ready yet.

Saturday 31 March 2012 09:33:19 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | World#
Friday 30 March 2012

The Mega Millions lottery, held in 42 states including Illinois, now has an estimated jackpot over $540m. (The amount will probably be higher as more people buy tickets.) But how much do you really get if you win?

First, you have to choose whether to get 26 annual payments or take the award as a lump sum. The lottery uses a discounted cash flow analysis so that the amount you get as a cash lump is worth the same as 26 equal payments of the whole thing. In other words, if you get a lump sum, you actaully only get the amount that the total award would be worth if you took it in the future.

Take that $540m prize. If you take it as an annuity over 26 years, you get 26 payments of just under $21m each. But a promise of $21m in 2038 is worth a lot less than $21m right now. Think about it: if you have that $21m today, instead of 26 years from now, you can make investments, give it away, buy a lot of stuff that gives you happiness, etc. So how much is $21m in 2038 worth right now? Only $10.7m. Or, put another way, if you take $10.7m in 2038 or $21m today, it's worth about the same—according to the lottery.

We can figure this out by looking at the lump-sum value you would get if you opted for it. If you won today's lottery, Mega Millions will give you $540m only if you take it in 26 payments. Or they'll give you a steaming pile of $389m in cash right now. Because to them, it's the same value.

Why? If you win, you have to make a bet on whether they've estimated something called the discount rate correctly. The discount rate is a guess about how much money will be worth in the future because of things like inflation and the risk that investments change in value. For example, if I bet on a discount rate of 4% (which is historically about middling in the U.S.), I'm betting money gets less valuable by about 4% per year on average. In that case, if I give you the option of taking $100 today or $104 a year from now, and you think the discount rate is 4%, it's an even bet. But if you think the discount rate is 3%, you would take the $104 in a year—because by your estimate, $100 invested today is only going to be worth $103 in a year.

Using a quick Excel function, I figured out that Mega Millions uses a discount rate of 2.6%, well below historical averages but close to what we've seen in the last five years. Here's the calculation:

Yeah, but watch this. If you increase the discount rate to 4%, the estimate of the present value of that $540m drops to $332m, a difference of $57m. In other words, because the lottery uses such a low rate, if you bet that the rate is 1.4% higher, you're betting that you'll come out ahead $57m by taking the money right now instead of over 26 years.

So, great, you're getting $389m in one big pile. Excellent.

Later today I'll talk about your Federal (36%) and Illinois (5%) taxes...and what they might do to the calculation.

Friday 30 March 2012 08:48:10 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | US#
Thursday 29 March 2012

Via reader MG, a beautiful visualization of the wind on a map. A static example, from Tuesday:

Thursday 29 March 2012 14:48:14 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Weather#

Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel has crunched the numbers, and thinks (contra my own fears) that we might not get melted into little puddles of goo this summer after all:

Historically, a warm March has been followed by a colder-than-normal April on average (first map). That’s true not just in Illinois but across the U.S. On the other hand, precipitation for those same April periods was a mixed bag in Illinois (second map). Most of the state was near-normal while west-central Illinois was slightly wetter-than-normal.

I considered the entire May-August period in one set of maps. One popular question I get is “Does this warm weather now mean that we will get a hot summer?” At least historically, the growing season following a warm March does not show a pattern of above-normal temperatures. On average, they have been remarkably mild in temperature.

I still worry that the really warm lake temperatures and the lack of snow cover during the winter, followed by an unprecedented 8 days of 27°C weather this month (not to mention the hottest March in recorded history), can't help but yield a brutal summer.

Angel has the data, though. I tend to trust data. I should be reassured...but I'm also from Chicago.

Thursday 29 March 2012 10:23:05 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Wednesday 28 March 2012

The Atlantic has noticed a trend among millenials: they aren't buying as many cars as we did.

The Times notes that less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has also dropped. And according to CNW research, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, a far cry from the peak of 38 percent in 1985.

The billion-dollar question for automakers is whether this shift is truly permanent, the result of a baked-in attitude shift among Millennials that will last well into adulthood, or the product of an economy that's been particularly brutal on the young.

[But] Millennials are more likely than past generations to live in an urban community, and this may be part of what terrifies car markers. About 32 percent reside in cities, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X'ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center report. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in an urban environment. When they're forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities like Bethesda, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia, which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation to nearby Washington, DC.

Absent Parker, I don't know if I would own a car. With two ZipCar locations within 400 m of me, I'd hardly need one. My takeaway, however, is that we're becoming more urban, and that means less car-dependent. This is one American trend I particularly like.

Wednesday 28 March 2012 17:20:22 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | US | Travel#

Josh Marshall explains what the right has really been up to with judicial appointments:

he real issue has always been the regulatory state. In any case, it is the height of judicial activism for the Court to consider striking down legislation on grounds that was barely considered — certainly not in the mainstream of jurisprudence — only two years before when the legislation was being considered. But what struck me more was how the the critical questions from the conservative bloc on the Court grappled so little with the actual economic role of health care provisions in society and the systemic market failure. These would seem to be precisely the issues the Commerce Clause is meant to address. Simply because the problem is serious doesn’t mean every possible solution is constitutional. But again, no real grappling with the practical issues the law was meant to address but rather a hyper-focus on academic and ideological points.

The right wants to get and stay rich. That's it. And chipping away at regulations while reducing enforcement of existing regulations does exactly that.

If you want to see what it's like when the government stays out of business, just look at Russia. That's the society Grover Norquist wants us to have.

Wednesday 28 March 2012 13:09:42 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Tuesday 27 March 2012

And now Chicago is back on track for a record March. We woke up this morning to the gray 5°C weather we had all day yesterday, but right now O'Hare is up to 23°C—a normal temperature for Memorial Day.

Warmest March ever. Warmest January to March ever. Let's see if we get the warmest spring ever...

Tuesday 27 March 2012 17:49:58 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 26 March 2012

The Washington Monthly makes a case for it being a disaster for the medium markets:

St. Louis, for example, has seen “available seat miles”— an industry measure of capacity—fall to a third of their 2000 level, following the American Airlines takeover of TWA and Lambert International Airport’s subsequent downgrading as a mid-continental hub. Two of Lambert’s five concourses are now virtually empty, and another, which housed the TWA hub, is only partially used. A third runway—the building of which required demolishing hundreds of homes and cost local taxpayers a billion dollars to finish in 2006—is now redundant. “This scenario,” notes Alex Marshall, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, “can be likened to states building highways and then having General Motors, Ford, and other auto companies suddenly telling their drivers to use different roads.”

St. Louis’s loss of service comes despite the fact that the population of the St. Louis metropolitan area, the eighteenth largest in the U.S., grew by more than 4 percent between 2000 and 2010. The city is also the home of eight Fortune 500 companies and is a major center for such international players as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Monsanto, Boeing, Emerson Electric, Express Scripts, and Nestlé Purina. The GDP of the metro area, which is also propelled by such large research institutions as Washington University and a fast-growing medical sciences sector, rivals that of oil-rich Qatar. Yet like most other midsize American cities, St. Louis’s economic development is now hostage to the shifting, closed-door deals and mergers of a mere handful of airline executives and their financiers. The prevailing mood was captured by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial that quoted “The Serenity Prayer” in advocating philosophical acceptance of the distant forces shaping the region.

The article mentions other similarly-sized markets, like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, facing the same problems. We take cheap air travel for granted here in Chicago, but as a traveling consultant for much of my career, I've seen the decline of other cities.

On the same theme of private control over what should be public resources, Paul Krugman today warns about the rise of private prisons and the closed-door deals that encourage them:

What is [the American Legislative Exchange Council]? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

[Y]ou have to think about the interests of the penal-industrial complex — prison operators, bail-bond companies and more. (The American Bail Coalition has publicly described ALEC as its “life preserver.”) This complex has a financial stake in anything that sends more people into the courts and the prisons, whether it’s exaggerated fear of racial minorities or Arizona’s draconian immigration law, a law that followed an ALEC template almost verbatim.

Think about that: we seem to be turning into a country where crony capitalism doesn’t just waste taxpayer money but warps criminal justice, in which growing incarceration reflects not the need to protect law-abiding citizens but the profits corporations can reap from a larger prison population.

We've been turning into a corporate-run country for so long we don't even notice it anymore. What baffles me, and saddens me, is how most people continue to support this trend indirectly, by voting for cynical politicians (I'm looking at you, Mr. Romney) who sound like social conservatives but really want to acquire wealth through political means. But that's a longer conversation.

Monday 26 March 2012 10:57:00 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | US#
Sunday 25 March 2012

I mentioned getting a list of recommendations for things to see in Marylebone. La Fromagerie was one of them:

Also, I did stop and notice other artwork in the Louvre; here's one of them, by Botticelli:

I really need to go back to both.

Sunday 25 March 2012 15:46:00 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Travel#

Oh, my, where to begin?

Former vice president and war criminal Dick Cheney now has a heart. Here's video from the hospital:

Of course, we have to consider the donor:

And the long-term implications:

Sunday 25 March 2012 09:43:12 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Saturday 24 March 2012

Via reader DB, a report of a coyote captured in downtown Boston:

At about 3 p.m., the 40-pound animal was finally located by Animal Rescue League workers. It was found cowering next to a downtown building near the corner of Lincoln and Summer streets, surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers and police. Using teamwork, a large net, and a catchpole, the rescue workers were able to catch it.

[A Boston Animal Rescue League spokesman] suspected that the animal most likely was able to enter the city by following train tracks, but couldn’t find its way back. He said this happens a few times a year and that coyotes are much easier to catch than deer.

We've had coyotes in Chicago news a few times in the past couple of years. I've seen them as well, the last time right by the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. I love how they've learned to adapt to us—and what they're doing to the rabbit and Canada goose populations. (Sorry, Bugs, you're just a long-eared rat.)

Saturday 24 March 2012 09:01:42 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink#
Friday 23 March 2012

The New Yorker takes a look at why Mitt Romney seems so out of touch:

in the nineteen-seventies and eighties consultants tended to figure employees as simply part of a firm’s costs. In the whirlwind of creative destruction, employees are subject to the “churn”—the turnover that is an inevitable by-product of the struggle among firms to compete.

[O]f the approximately one hundred deals that Bain Capital made during Romney’s tenure there either lost money or only broke even, the successful deals were astronomically successful. Bain invested about two hundred and sixty million dollars in ten major deals under Romney’s direction, and it made nearly three billion. Annual return to investors was eighty-eight per cent.

And that, of course, is the goal of a private-equity business: maximizing the return on investment. Jobs may be “created” in the process—although sometimes jobs are lost, a company goes broke, and the private-equity firm still makes money. But a firm like Bain is concerned exclusively with buying low and selling high. Any other outcome it might pursue at the expense of that concern cheats its investors. This is why talk of job creation or job destruction in the companies Bain invested in is beside the point. Bain was not about jobs.

This is the guy most likely running against the President this fall. Does Mitt Romney care about you or your concerns? To him, the question itself doesn't even make sense.

Friday 23 March 2012 17:47:46 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Thursday 22 March 2012

The hits just keep on coming as Chicago hits yet another new heat record (28°C):

In Chicago...prior to this year there had only been 10 days in March with highs in the 80s [Fahrenheit, 26.7°C], which means on average, Chicago only sees an 80 degree high in March once about every 14 years. Already this month, there have been seven [now eight—db] days at or above 80. Including the [eight] days at or above 80 this March, there have now been a total of [18] March days at or above 80 in Chicago. This means about one third of one percent of all March days have been in the 80s in Chicago.

The last time Chicago saw an 80 degree temperature during the month of March (prior to this year) was over 22 years ago back on March 12, 1990, when the high temperature was 81.

Here's the updated table:
Date Old record New record
March 14 25.0°C, 1995 27.2°C
March 15 23.3°C, 1995 27.2°C
March 16 25.6°C, 1945 27.8°C
March 17 23.3°C, 1894, 2009 27.8°C
March 18 23.3°C, 1903, 1918, 1969 27.2°C
March 19 25.6°C, 1921 25.6°C (tie)
March 20 24.3°C, 1921 29.3°C
March 21 25.0°C, 1938 30.6°C
March 22 26.3°C, 1938 27.8°C as of 1:51pm

No, no global warming here, you can go about your business...

Thursday 22 March 2012 14:50:47 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Researchers at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station have been watching the sun set for weeks. At the poles, the sun traces an excruciatingly slow corkscrew between equinoxes, first spiraling up to a point 23° above the horizon (only about as high as the sun gets in Chicago around 10am on December 21st) on the solstice, then slowly spiraling back down to the horizon over the next three months.

In about an hour from now, the last limb of the sun will slip below the south polar horizon, the twilight gradually fading for another three weeks. The sun won't appear again until September 20th.

Fourteen people will spend the next five months at Amundsen-Scott, with no possibility of leaving until the end of August.

Thursday 22 March 2012 11:45:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Astronomy#
Wednesday 21 March 2012

First, just a nod to the eighth record temperature in a row that Chicago just set. Tom Skilling's blog entry this morning maps out the carnage, including record pollen levels, the hottest lake temperature readings ever for this time of year, and a forecast for above-average temperatures going into April. Let me tell you how thrilled I am that we've skipped spring and gone straight to July. As my servers start to melt and I lose sleep because the house is too hot, I find myself wishing for autumn the day after the March equinox.

It's not that warm in Paris. Here's another view of the Pont Neuf, which I like a little better than the one I posted Sunday:

And thank you, Eurostar, for making this all possible:

Wednesday 21 March 2012 13:18:09 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Travel | Weather#
Tuesday 20 March 2012

I don't want to lose these things:

That is all. More UK and France photos later today.

Tuesday 20 March 2012 12:05:45 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | Chicago | Kitchen Sink | US | Security#

Happy Spring. The equinox happened less than 11 hours ago, which usually means Chicago has another six weeks of cold and damp weather. Not this time. Trees have buds and flowers, insects have started buzzing around, and as of about an hour ago, we've broken (or tied) our seventh consecutive heat record. This, by the way, is also a record (greatest number of temperature records broken consecutively), breaking the record set...yesterday.

Here are the temperature records we've set so far this month:

Date Old record New record
March 14 25.0°C, 1995 27.2°C
March 15 23.3°C, 1995 27.2°C
March 16 25.6°C, 1945 27.8°C
March 17 23.3°C, 1894, 2009 27.8°C
March 18 23.3°C, 1903, 1918, 1969 27.2°C
March 19 25.6°C, 1921 25.6°C (tie)
March 20 24.3°C, 1921 25.0°C as of 10:53am

Today's forecast high would make it feel more like mid-June than mid-March.

Meanwhile, it's snowing in Arizona...

Update: O'Hare temperature is 28.9°C at 13:51.

Tuesday 20 March 2012 11:49:30 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 19 March 2012

Mostly, I walked, from Gare du Nord to the Pont Neuf and thence Châtelet. I also stopped at the Musée du Louvre, unfortunately only about an hour and a quarter before closing time. Fortunately, it wasn't that crowded. Apparently on a busy day I'd never have gotten to see this:

Oh, wait, that's the wrong angle. I mean, this:

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a great painting. But if you look at the top photo, you'll notice it's not the only painting in the museum. I think this is a fascinating phenomenon: going to see something because it's something to be seen. Well, I've now seen the actual Joconde—from two meters away, with a few score of my best friends—but I really feel I should spend some time seeing the rest of the museum.

On the other hand, I'd never been in the building before, so I just had to see the thing. I think it's a good start from a promising young painter. I can't wait to see what else he does.

Monday 19 March 2012 17:55:07 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Travel#

I'll have more weekend photos later today (but probably not another post on our record heat wave. Before that, I just found out some great news about Chicago's next major park:

[Chicago mayor Rahm] Emanuel said [at a press conference last week that] initial funding had come together for the $100 million project, which is expected to begin construction later this year and be completed by 2014. Designed by Arup, Ross Barney Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the new park will have benches and foliage on either side of a two-way path.

It looks in renderings much like New York City's High Line, but will be nearly twice as long and with gentle curves and dips. It will also allow bike traffic and include several green space access points at ground level.

Besides offering expansive views across several Chicago neighborhoods, the new park will improve local transport links. The multi-use trail will connect the west side to areas near the lake and the Loop, and the anchor parks will link the trail to L train stations and major bus stops.

The Chicago & Pacific Railroad originally built this 4300 m stretch of rail line at ground level in 1872. After a series of accidents involving pedestrians, the tracks were elevated about a century ago, but have been out of use since the mid-1990s. Within a couple years, the determined and the curious will no longer be forced to slip through fences to use the space and enjoy the view.

I've been looking forward to the project getting off the ground moving forward for years. I haven't taken Parker up there yet, because it's (a) trespassing and (b) covered in broken glass, but possibly in the next week or two I'll go up there with my camera.

For more background, the Chicago Reader had a long article about the trail a couple years ago.

Monday 19 March 2012 14:14:43 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago#
Sunday 18 March 2012

Apparently I've missed some unprecedented weather back home this weekend:

Saturday's high temperature at Chicago's official O'Hare International Airport observing site hit 28°C—the unprecedented fourth consecutive day in the 80s [Fahrenheit]. Sunday's anticipated 29°C high will make it a record 5 straight 80-degree days. Weather records dating back to 1871 should continue to fall as Chicagoans experience a stretch of warm temperatures never before observed in March. Sunday will mark the 6th straight day of 70-degrees or higher, eclipsing the previous record 5-day run on March 12-16, 1995.

The other shoe will drop mid-May or early in June. After the previous 5-day record in 1995, we experienced the hottest summer on record. The lake never froze over this year, and right now it's 6°C warmer than usual, so it won't hold off the summer heat effectively.

I'm afraid. I'm very afraid.

Sunday 18 March 2012 15:48:08 GMT (UTC+00:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Two photos from yesterday at a plausibly recognizable location:

The rain didn't even bother me, because it looked like this:

More when I get back to Chicago.

Sunday 18 March 2012 15:41:08 GMT (UTC+00:00)  |  | Photography | Travel#
Friday 16 March 2012

When visiting a familiar place, it helps to sit on the plane next to someone who lives there. The local person, recognizing that you've already done the tourist stuff, can recommend places that you might not see otherwise. I had this good fortune yesterday.

This afternoon I traipsed around Marylebone, which is just north of Hyde Park. My seat-mate recommended two places specifically, so I went to them. First, Daunt Books, on Marylebone High Street:

I love bookstores; I miss real bookstores; I could spend a day in this one:

After wishing for half an hour that I could buy half a tonne of books, I went around the corner to La Fromagerie. Next time I'm in London, I'm going to eat everything in the store. Even the little cold cheese room made me swoon. Instead of getting a 10-kilo variety pack, I settled for a simple, £2 medallion of unpasteurized goat cheese. Words are insufficient to describe it, other than to say, it was yum.

Then I hopped on the Tube to this famous location:

Yes, that's Abbey Road, and those are a bunch of tourists blocking traffic. In the 30 minutes I hung out there, no fewer than 10 groups posed on the zebra crossing. (I confess, I took photos for two of them.)

Now, off to find food and ale. Relatively early bed tonight: tomorrow the Chunnel.

Friday 16 March 2012 17:14:27 GMT (UTC+00:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Photography | Travel#
Thursday 15 March 2012

I've just boarded a flight to London, but it was a lot closer to a miss than I've had in years. Fortunately, the cab to the Blue Line (after trying to flag one down for 10 minutes), the El, and even the friendly TSA pat-down in the "Discrete Room" weren't enough to stop me from boarding this plane. I will, however, take a few moments to calm down before settling in.

Thursday 15 March 2012 09:29:19 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#
Wednesday 14 March 2012

As of 13:51 CDT, the official temperature at O'Hare hit 26°C, passing the previous March 14th record by a degree. Will it get warmer?

Wednesday 14 March 2012 14:49:39 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

The high temperatures at O'Hare the last three days have been 21°C, 18°C, and 21°C, all of them very close to the normal temperatures for mid-May. Right now it's 21°C, and forecasters expect record temperatures today and tomorrow (with a brief interlude tomorrow afternoon as temperatures plummet 11°C for a few hours).

The record high for March 14th is 25°C, set in 1995, during Chicago's longest string of 21°C-plus temperatures in history (5 days, from March 12 to 16). With a forecast (record!) high of 27°C tomorrow (beating the record of 23°C, also set in 1995), it's more like June than March.

Not to beat the drum or anything, but warm springs usually lead to really hot summers. Expect whinging from The Daily Parker in about two months.

Wednesday 14 March 2012 11:23:51 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Tuesday 13 March 2012

Yesterday, probably when I got on the bus going home, I lost my Starbucks card and a credit card. I have another card on the same account, but with a different number, that I keep out of my wallet in case something like this happens. As soon as I discovered the missing credit card, I called the issuer's customer service line, and...you can see where this is going, right?

Yes, they closed the card I still had and left the lost one open. I discovered this a few minutes ago. Fortunately, the person I talked to just now understood what I was saying, saw what had happened, and is now sending both replacement cards overnight. (The haste is required because I'm going to the UK this weekend, and I need at least one credit card overseas.)

So, points to the issuer for correcting a mistake expeditiously. That just about evens out my frustration this morning trying to get coffee.

Oh, and about that trip to the Land of Uk: it's a pretty quick weekend, courtesy of ridiculously low fares from American Airlines earlier this year. I also scored a ticket on the Eurostar Saturday for £49.50 outbound, which was too good to pass up. I'm so looking forward to the weekend. I just hope I have at least one credit card to use...

Tuesday 13 March 2012 09:28:16 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel#
Monday 12 March 2012

The United Kingdom has no Constitutional prohibition against established religion; in fact, the head of state is also the head of the church. But the UK has a much deeper secular grain than we have, to the extent that many people in the country get quite exercised about even public prayer. The Washington Post explains the latest row:

Local lawmaker Clive Bone, an atheist, was backed by four of his peers in challenging the long-standing tradition of opening public meetings with blessings by Christian clergy. After losing two council votes on the prayer ban, Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.

Bone, a transplanted Londoner and retired management consultant who has given up his seat on the council, said: “This isn’t about freedom of religion. I will defend their right to pray in their churches to my dying breath. Just don’t make us listen to it anymore. It is a backwards tradition that alienates people in this country.”

Most people I know in the UK say religion is entirely private, and would likely be offended at having to listen to prayers at minor public meanings. It's yet another example of how really out of step the rest of the Western world are with us.

Monday 12 March 2012 18:23:33 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | World | Religion#

As I mentioned last night, the U.S. Census Bureau uses a different algorithm to estimate world population than the U.N. So despite all the stories last October about the U.N.'s population estimate hitting 7 billion, the Census estimate hit 7 billion...about 20 seconds ago:

Thanks for playing. Check back in about 12 years for the 8th billion mark.

Monday 12 March 2012 07:51:08 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | World#

Back in October, the United Nations declared that the world population had hit 7 billion. The U.S. Census Bureau, however, believes differently. Here are the World and U.S. population clocks from a moment ago:

So, as far as the Census is concerned, we'll hit 7 billion tonight sometime.

That the Census didn't update its estimates to match the U.N.'s suggests they're confident of their more conservative model.

Sunday 11 March 2012 22:08:18 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | World#
Sunday 11 March 2012

I've never felt great about the Daylight Saving Time switch happening in the beginning of March, but here it is. Oddly, I have no trouble changing eleven or twelve time zones, but the one-hour change in the spring (but not the fall) always messes me up.

Anyway, if you live in the U.S. or Canada (excluding Arizona and Saskatchewan), it's probably an hour later than you think it is.

Sunday 11 March 2012 10:47:25 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Astronomy#
Friday 9 March 2012

In general, people using words they don't understand, presumably to sound smart, drives me up a tree. In specific, I wish against reason that more people knew how time zones worked. Microsoft's Raymond Chen agrees:

One way of sounding official is to give the times during which the outage will take place is a very formal manner. "The servers will be unavailable on Saturday, March 17, 2012 from 1:00 AM to 9:00 AM Pacific Standard Time."

Did you notice something funny about that announcement?

On March 17, 2012, most of the United States will not be on Standard Time. They will be on Daylight Time. (The switchover takes place this weekend.)

Now, I'm one of the few people in the world who has implemented a complete time zone package for Windows systems, and regular readers will already know about my vocal defense of the Olson/IANA time zone database. So I don't expect most people to know the ins and outs of time zone abbreviations. But this is the point Chen makes, and I would like to make: if you don't know what you're writing, don't write it. Say "Central time" or "local Chicago time" instead of "Central Standard Time," if for no other reason than you'll be wrong about the latter 8 months out of the year.

Friday 9 March 2012 13:33:51 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Software | Astronomy#
Thursday 8 March 2012

Two days each week I have to go out to a client's office about 40 km from home. Only one route works to get me there, and that route includes the infamous Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) leading to the west from the Chicago Loop.

In the last few years, though, the Illinois Dept. of Transportation and neighboring agencies have created Travel Midwest, which has vast stores of traffic data. This has helped me stay sane. The site allows you to query the database to find out, in simple visual charts, when traffic is worst.

This chart compares my morning commute from the Circle Interchange to Wolf Road (22½ km). The red line shows travel times Monday through Thursday; blue line shows Friday times. (The data are from the last 12 months.) This shows why I hit the road around 8:30, instead of earlier, which gets me to the Eisenhower around 9 and here by 9:30:

But here's the return trip; again, Monday-Thursday is red and Friday is blue:

Then there's the chart going the opposite direction right now:

In the chart above, the thick red line shows the mean travel time, and yellow area shows 1 standard deviation on either side of the mean. The lines at 15, 23, and 56 minutes represent 88 km/h (full legal speed), 56 km/h, and 24 km/h. At the moment, the 65-minute travel time means traffic is moving at the breakneck speed of 20.6 km/h, which most bicyclists would find a relaxing speed.

I think I'll stay put for a while. Damn.

Having this information makes it relatively easy not to travel when everyone else is on the road. Yeah, I get home a little later, but the cost to me of spending 30 minutes in slow traffic is higher than the cost of shifting my commutes an hour forward.

Thursday 8 March 2012 17:30:45 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Travel#
Wednesday 7 March 2012

Atlantic Cities contributor Feargus O'Sullivan reports from London on the city's preparations for, and apprehension about, this summer's games:

As a recent survey by pollsters ComRes showed, public ambivalence still reigns, with only a third of respondents agreeing that the Olympics were worth the money. Londoners in particular are anticipating the games with more dread that excitement. With a heavy tax bill and an already stretched transport system, it’s easy to see why they’re feeling curmudgeonly. The city’s roads are routinely clogged as it is, and many fear planned Olympic lanes for athletes and VIPs on major routes will make congestion unmanageable, driving people out of cars and into a temperamental subway system that already makes the average sardine can look roomy. Add to this London’s role as a prime target for international terror and you’re looking at a long hot summer of tension and stress.

But while some fear that the games will make the city a living hell, others are predicting the opposite – that Olympic price hikes will leave London empty and that tourist revenues will plummet. In December, the European Tour Operators Association warned that the games are already deterring regular sightseers, with hotel bookings down by a fifth compared to the same period last year. Musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, meanwhile, has said advanced bookings for London’s theaters are so bad for the summer that the sector “faces a bloodbath." Given these two contradictory extremes of anxiety, it’s hardly surprising that the official response to such pre-games jitters has been one of bullish confidence, with London’s eccentric mayor Boris Johnson memorably dubbing Olympic skeptics “Gloomadon poppers."

I, for one, plan to avoid London from June to September this year. But I'm going next week, and while there I'll check out the stadium and the public's mood. Remember, many of us Chicagoans didn't want to bid on 2016 because of the mess we thought it would bring to our city. Let's see how London does.

Wednesday 7 March 2012 12:45:54 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#

From a co-worker:

Wednesday 7 March 2012 11:57:35 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | World#

I refer here to the brilliant David Mamet line, delivered by Sean Connery: "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue." This is tonight's result in Ohio.

Ultra-conservative Republican representative Jean Schmidt lost her primary against an even crazier candidate, Brad Wenstrup. This makes the Ohio 9th a contested district this year, for the simple reason that Cincinnati isn't as far to the right as the Republican nominee.

But one of our guys is out, too. Dennis Kucinich got squeezed out in a forced primary against his colleague in the House, Rep. Marcy Kaptur. The Ohio legislature's redistricting after the 2010 Census pitted the two against each other, in the same way that Illinois' redistricting will pit two Republicans against each other later on this year.

I've always liked Kucinich, though I thought he was a bit on the edge. This election means that the Democratic Party has a stronger candidate (and a likely win) in November, while the Ohio 9th has a weaker candidate and a possible upset. The net result may be a more-Democratic Ohio, and a more-Democratic House. Here's hoping.

Tuesday 6 March 2012 23:54:49 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#
Tuesday 6 March 2012

We have our first really great spring day—it's 18°C and sunny—and I'm inside. It's also the warmest day we've had since November 13th (21°C).

That is all. Back to the mines.

Tuesday 6 March 2012 13:35:22 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Via Sullivan, an awesome TV ad from The Guardian:

Tuesday 6 March 2012 08:48:22 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Cool links#
Monday 5 March 2012

I'm close to naming the new baby ("Lena" is the front-runner). Meanwhile, I took it to the local dealer so I could get a full inspection, and so they could update the navigation software. It turns out, the car's still under warranty, so (a) the inspection was free and (b) so was the scheduled service they did for me.

So at least for the next few months, until the warranty runs out, I'm not going to have to sell Parker to pay for car maintenance. Whew.

Monday 5 March 2012 17:56:49 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel#
Sunday 4 March 2012

Two more views of my new car, with accurate color corrections:

(Yes, that's Parker in the background.)

I'll do proper photos when I get the right combination of light and location. Also, because we've had some rain and snow, she already needs a bath before we can do it right.

So, what to call her? She's 3 years old, born in München, very German. A friend suggested Brigitta, Brigid, and Mädchen, but that none of those seems right to me. Freya? Hanna? Lena? I think I'll have to live with her for a bit to figure it out.

Sunday 4 March 2012 14:04:33 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel#

The City of Chicago received its first city charter 175 years ago today:

Chicago's earliest charters reflected its small population, restricted geographic area, and limited governing needs. These first town charters were conferred in 1833 and 1835, when only a few hundred settlers clustered on a small site along Lake Michigan. Under its town charters, Chicago was governed by an elected Board of Trustees which wielded little political or financial power. In 1837 Chicago received its first city charter, which divided the city into six wards, allowed for a mayor elected to a one-year term, and legally incorporated Chicago as a municipality. The city grew so rapidly thereafter that new charter legislation was constantly needed. In 1847 charter legislation increased the wards to nine and designated annual elections for a city attorney, treasurer, tax collector, and surveyor. Still another charter was granted in 1851, followed by more charter legislation in 1853, 1857, and 1861.

On 4 March 1837, Chicago had 4,170 people spilling out of 250 Ha; today, with 2.6 millions in 567 km², we're the 3rd largest city in the U.S. and the 53rd largest in the world. (The metropolitan area, with 9½ million people, is 29th largest in the world.)

On the day Chicago became a city, the spot where I'm sitting was a few meters above a marshy beach, 4 km outside of town. Today it's considered "downtown" in one of the most vibrant and well-balanced cities in the world. And it's my home.

Sunday 4 March 2012 09:31:44 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago#
Saturday 3 March 2012

Last night I said goodbye to an old and faithful friend:

João took me all over the country—well, from here to Maine, Iowa, and North Carolina, anyway—and suffered in silence being parked on the streets of Chicago most of his days.

Yes, after a little more than ten years, we've parted ways. In his place is this gorgeous thing:

I sure will miss my old Volkswagen. Sometimes.

Saturday 3 March 2012 12:41:50 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Travel#

I don't mean the tax is stupid; I mean a tax on stupidity. As in, mine.

I'm planning two baseball trips this year, the first to Florida to see the Cubs play the Marlins on April 19th, and the Twins at the Rays on the 20th. So far, I've got my flights, the Rays ticket, and a car reservation. Marlins tickets went on sale this morning.

This is when I discovered I have to pay a stupid tax. Because, when I checked out the Marlins' schedule a couple of weeks ago, they were planning on a night game on the 19th. Unfortunately, the final schedule has the April 19th game at 12:40pm. Remember how I have my flights already? Oops. I need to come in Wednesday night for the Thursday day game.

American Airlines will be pleased, I'm sure. I will not, as this is suddenly the most expensive set of flights I'll be taking this year, including this month's trip to London. Stupid.

Update: This is why I love American Airlines, and why talking to an actual person is helpful. It turns out, the fare to arrive the night before is $11 less. Unfortunately, I had to pay a penalty to change the ticket—but it was a lot less than I had feared.

Saturday 3 March 2012 09:39:08 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Baseball | Travel#
Friday 2 March 2012

While Chicago finished its ninth-warmest (meteorological) winter in history on February 29th, Illinois as a whole finished its third warmest:

This year the average winter temperature was 1.2°C, 2.9°C above normal, and the third warmest winter on record. Here are the top four warmest winters. As you can see, we had a two-way tie for second place.

  • First place, the winter of 1931-32 at 2.8°C;
  • Second place, a tie between 1997-98 and 2001-02 at 1.4°C;
  • Third place, this winter at 1.2°C.

Not only was it warm in terms of the average temperatures, but this winter lacked the really cold weather. Only a few place had temperatures drop below zero [Fahrenheit, -17.2°C]. The coldest reading for the winter was a mere -21°C at both Galena and Elizabeth in the far northwestern corner of the state.

Chicago had no days below zero Fahrenheit, thanks to the inland sea next to us.

We're now looking forward to a warm and wet spring...

Friday 2 March 2012 13:10:14 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg spent 45 minutes with President Obama this week. The President laid out his thoughts on Israel and Iran, and reminded us why we voted for him:

President Obama: I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let me describe very specifically why this is important to us.

[A]s Israel's closest friend and ally, and as one that has devoted the last three years to making sure that Israel has additional security capabilities, and has worked to manage a series of difficult problems and questions over the past three years, I do point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.

In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.

It's a long interview, but one worth reading. And I think it sends a clear message to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: don't go rogue on this.

Friday 2 March 2012 12:32:32 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | World#
Thursday 1 March 2012

The last 24 hours have been modestly eventful in U.S. politics:

  • Just a few minutes ago, Maryland became the 8th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Only 42 to go...including Illinois.
  • Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart died at 42. He was known for his casual, bordering on abusive, relationship to the truth. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Breitbart.
  • An appeals court judge in Montana yesterday sent a racist email to colleagues. Today he apologized and filed a complaint against himself with the 9th Circuit. This is called "taking responsibility," which is good to see in our public officials.

More, I'm sure, later.

Thursday 1 March 2012 17:40:00 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

Via Bruce Schneier, a retired counter-terrorism expert rants about the TSA's airport screenings:

The entire TSA paradigm is flawed. It requires an impossibility for it to succeed. For the TSA model to work, every single possible means of causing danger to an aircraft or its passengers must be eliminated. This is an impossibility. While passengers are being frisked and digitally strip-searched a few dozen yards away, cooks and dish washers at the local concourse “Chili’s” are using and cleaning butcher knives.

TSA’s de facto policy to this point has been to react to the latest thing tried by a terrorist, which is invariably something that Al Qaeda identified as a technique not addressed by current screening. While this narrows Al Qaeda’s options, their list of attack ideas remains long and they are imaginative. Therefore, if TSA continues to react to each and every new thing tried, three things are certain:

1. Nothing Al Qaeda tries will be caught the first time because it was designed around gaps in TSA security.
2. It is impossible to eliminate all gaps in airline security.
3. Airline security screening based on eliminating every vulnerability will therefore fail because it is impossible. But it will by necessity become increasingly onerous and invasive on the travelers.

Nothing new in the critique, but it's good to hear it from someone who knows his stuff.

Thursday 1 March 2012 11:16:05 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | US#
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On this page....
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A carless generation?
Right-wing court packing
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The legacy of airline deregulation
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Dick Cheney's heart
More coyotes in cities
Romney the Robot
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Daylight saving time
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That's the Chicago way
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The Three Little Pigs in the Guardian
Surprised by the warranty
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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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