Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Sunday 30 September 2012

Just two more photos from last weekend in Cincinnati, though to be precise, I took both from Kentucky. I love repurposed obsolete infrastructure, like the New York Highline and the coming Bloomingdale Trail. In Cincinnati, they have the Purple People Bridge, which one imagines used to rain soot and cinders down on what has become, since the bridge was built in 1999, a beautiful riverfront.

Here's the bridge from the Newport, Ky., side:

Closer to Ohio—Kentucky owns the entire river, almost up to the bank—you get this view:

I'll have to go back there, as long as I can explore the city and not the depressing exurbs to the north.

Sunday 30 September 2012 09:25:38 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Baseball | Travel#

Nate Silver finds no consistent bias in the history of presidential polling:

In the 10 presidential elections since 1972, there have been five years (1976, 1980, 1992, 1996 and 2004) in which the national presidential polls overestimated the standing of the Democratic candidate. However, there were also four years (1972, 1984, 1988 and 2000) in which they overestimated the standing of the Republican. Finally, there was 2008, when the average of likely voter polls showed Mr. Obama winning by 7.3 percentage points, his exact margin of victory over John McCain, to the decimal place.

In all but three years, the partisan bias in the polls was small, with the polling average coming within 1.5 percentage points of the actual result. (I use the term “bias” in a statistical sense, meaning simply that the results tended to miss toward one direction.)

On the whole, it is reasonably impressive how unbiased the polls have been. In both presidential and Senate races, the bias has been less than a full percentage point over the long run, and it has run in opposite directions.

That does not mean the pollsters will necessarily get this particular election right. Years like 1980 suggest that there are sometimes errors in the polls that are much larger than can be explained through sampling error alone. The probability estimates you see attached to the FiveThirtyEight forecasts are based on how the polls have performed historically in practice, and not how well they claim to do in theory.

So in 2012, as Krugman puts it, "the facts have a well-known liberal bias."

Sunday 30 September 2012 08:38:40 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Friday 28 September 2012

Finally, by the end of 2014 Chicago will have one transit card to rule them all, called Ventra:

The CTA and the Regional Transportation Authority are leading an effort to create an open fare system in which bank-issued cards and universal transit cards will be accepted on CTA, Pace and Metra.

The RTA system faces a 2015 deadline to fully implement an integrated fare system. Part of the challenge is including Metra, which is slowly modernizing its antiquated fare-collection system that still involves conductors punching paper tickets and passes.

When Ventra begins next summer, CTA and Pace will continue to offer special fares for students and senior citizens and various-priced fare products, like 30-day and 7-day passes, and will still accept cash on buses.

The official site explains:

Here’s how it works:

Ventra Card: This contactless card works like the current Chicago Card Plus, only better! Just tap on a card reader for quick and easy boarding on trains and buses. Plus, you can manage your account and balance at Ventra vending machines in CTA stations, numerous retail locations, online or over the phone.

Ventra Ticket: These contactless tickets work just like the current magnetic stripe cards but are even easier to use. Just tap and ride! Choose from a single-ride or 1-day Ventra ticket.

Bankcard: Ventra introduces another way to pay for transit fares by using the bankcard already in your wallet. Simply register your personal bank-issued contactless credit or debit card, add transit passes and value or pay as you go for rides.

And someday, they hope, they'll have a mobile phone option.

Other transit systems, including those in San Francisco and London, have had similar systems for a while.

Friday 28 September 2012 12:09:59 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Travel#
Thursday 27 September 2012

A couple weeks ago, I finally tasted whisky from the FEW Distillery in Evanston, Ill. FEW is named for Frances Elizabeth Willard, who, in the mid-19th century, ran the Women's Christian Temperance Union and later bequeathed her house to the organization.

In other words, this is a distillery named after one of the leading advocates for prohibition, headquartered in a city that was dry for more than a century.

Also, FEW's master distiller, Paul Hletko, is one of the first people I met in law school. Mazel tov, Paul: you've made a great collection of spirits.

Thursday 27 September 2012 11:49:31 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink#
Wednesday 26 September 2012

Monday's SSD crash took an annoying, but reasonable, amount of time to fix. Otherwise I would have posted this photo of Great American Ball Park yesterday:

And, of course, an obligatory photo of Cincinnati's most recognized landmark:

I'll have a couple more in days to come.

Wednesday 26 September 2012 11:58:43 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Baseball | Geography#
Tuesday 25 September 2012

Last night, while watching the Seahawks-Packers game (and rooting for the Seahawks for the same reason I wore a Giants hat to a Reds game), I saw the end of the rule of law.

For three weeks, the National Football League referees have been locked out in a pensions dispute. The NFL has called in refs from the lower rungs of college sports, causing, to put it politely, controversy. Games have gotten longer by about 15 minutes as the replacement refs double-check the rules and the replays, causing players to test boundaries and fans to scream blue murder.

Last night's game ended with a disputed call in its final seconds—disputed, in fact, by the two line judges standing a short meter from the thing they were disputing. Touchdown? Stop the clock? Pass interference? No one knew. On TV, it clearly looked like an interception, and a Packers win. The head ref for the game called touchdown, and under review, let the call stand.

If almost no one trusted the replacement refs before, after last night, their authority has completely vanished.

The owners have little incentive to end the labor dispute, and strong incentive to stand firm. They're thinking ahead to negotiations with players; appearing to cave in their dispute with the refs might look bad. And fans keep watching, for fifteen extra minutes each week, so the league has an actual financial benefit.

Without trusted referees, though, games will get nastier, messier, and more disputed. Remember the 1994 World Series? Superbowl XLVII may look a lot like it.

Tuesday 25 September 2012 11:57:40 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Baseball#
Monday 24 September 2012

My laptop's solid-state drive died this afternoon. It had a long, long life (23 months—almost double what they usually get). I am thankful to the departed SSD for that, and:

  • for dying after the client presentation, not before;
  • for dying on the first day of a three-week project, not the last; and
  • for living 23 months, which is about as spectacular as a dog living 23 years.

I am now rebuilding my laptop on a larger but slightly slower SSD, which I hope lasts nearly as long.

Monday 24 September 2012 18:33:25 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Work#

Yesterday I posted a shot of the Cincinnati Reds clinching the National League Central Division title. Here's the whole park, from the cheap seats:

And here's a little nerd humor for you. Why can't anyone hit a home run over Cincinnati's center-field wall? Because no one can find it:

More Cincinnati photos after my 1pm meeting...

Monday 24 September 2012 12:20:22 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Baseball#
Sunday 23 September 2012

Yesterday afternoon, I saw this happen:

That's the Cincinnati Reds just after they beat Los Angeles to become the National League Central Division champions this year. And because they beat L.A., they helped San Francisco clinch the West, making it an all-around fun afternoon. (N.B.: I wore a Giants hat to the game.)

More Cincinnati and Great American Ball Park photos when I get back to Chicago.

Sunday 23 September 2012 09:24:41 EDT (UTC-04:00)  |  | Baseball#
Saturday 22 September 2012

It's a beautiful afternoon for a ballgame, at least here in Cincinnati, where I hope to see the Reds become the first team this season to clinch its division outright. I'll actually be wearing a Giants hat, as a Cincinnati win against the Dodgers today moves San Francisco's magic number to 1—and I want to see them in the playoffs.

Anyway, it's 21°C, partly cloudy, and Oktoberfest is right outside my hotel room. I am optimistic about this trip to the 24th park in the Geas.

Update: O noes! I missed the world's largest chicken dance!!!11!1

Saturday 22 September 2012 15:19:16 EDT (UTC-04:00)  |  | Baseball#
Friday 21 September 2012

As a person with a bachelors degree in history, this compilation of Republican ideas about history made me laugh. And cry:

1500s: The American Revolutionary War begins: “The reason we fought the revolution in the sixteenth century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown.”—Rick Perry

1619-1808: Africans set sail for America in search of freedom: “Other than Native Americans, who were here, all of us have the same story.”—Michele Bachmann

1812: The American War for Independence ends: “ ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’…that song—written during the battle in the War of 1812—commemorates the sacrifice that won our liberty.”—Mitt Romney

Oh, my eyes.

Friday 21 September 2012 12:12:18 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#

Via writer Daniel Vergara, the Guardian U.K. newspaper posted a quiz on Mitt Romney's gaffes:

Who said:

1. On making the case for greater consumer choice in health insurance: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

  • Mitt Romney
  • John McCain

Et cetera. Well, it seems Mitt made a cracking impression on the Brits, what what!

Friday 21 September 2012 10:15:36 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#

Deny thy boardroom and refuse thy chiefs,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn on-time,
And let the Cactus purchase you!

Sorry. For those joining our program in progress, "Cactus" is the callsign of US Airways, who are now in merger talks with the airline I fly all the time, American. Today American's pilots are trying to make that merger happen more quickly, but they have come to bury American, not to praise it.

American's pilots, who spurned management's "last best" offer before the company went into bankruptcy protection, have gotten surly that management has gone ahead with its rule changes anyway. Pilots picketed outside O'Hare yesterday, while coincidentally finding an unusual number of "maintenance problems" over the past few weeks that caused flights to be delayed or cancelled. This has dropped American's on-time rate to 54% and prompted a nervous but defiant Air Line Pilots Association to deny in a statement yesterday that this is a work action:

One area of increased operational unreliability we have observed is in mechanical delays, which isn’t surprising. Although American Airlines operates the oldest fleet of any major U.S. carrier, management has decided to furlough a large number of mechanics and close one of its largest maintenance facilities. Management also decided some time ago to reduce its inventory of spare parts.

In addition, management halted the recalls of furloughed pilots late last year, which has resulted in an insufficient number of pilots to maintain the schedule properly.

It’s also important to remember that management chose to reject the APA-American Airlines Collective Bargaining Agreement, which served as an operating manual for our pilots. Management’s action has generated significant uncertainty for our pilots with respect to employment protections and operating rules, which are now under management’s unilateral control.

APA members are experienced professionals who conduct themselves as professionals under whatever circumstances they encounter. Any negative impact on our airline’s operational integrity is of management’s own making.

I'm going to watch this closely, particularly while finalizing plans to visit the UK next month. I'm outbound from Atlanta on British Airways, and getting to Atlanta isn't a problem at all if American cancels tons of flights; but returning from the UK might be. Now, where did I put my Tums?

Update, 10:49am: The president of American's frequent-flyer program has just sent an email announcing some changes to the company's schedule through October: "We are proactively reducing the rest of our September and October schedule by approximately one to two percent. These schedule adjustments will enable us to provide our customers with more reliable service while minimizing impact to travel plans. Additionally, we are increasing staffing of maintenance, reservations and airport personnel to offer you more flexible travel options." Let's see how that affects my trip.

Friday 21 September 2012 09:34:57 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation#
Thursday 20 September 2012

Before I forget, and get lost in my work again today:

All for now...

Thursday 20 September 2012 12:23:42 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink | US#

Last night, around 11:30pm, the power went out in my apartment building and the ones on either side. I know this because the five UPS units around my place all started screaming immediately. There are enough of them to give me about 10 minutes to cleanly shut down the servers, which I did, but not before texting the local power company to report it. They had it on again at 1:15am, just after I'd fallen asleep. I finally got to bed around 2 after bringing all the servers back online, rebooting my desktop computer, and checking to make sure no disk drives died horribly in the outage.

But unlike the last time I lost power, this time I did not lose email, issue tracking, this blog, everyone else's site I'm hosting, or the bulk of my active source control repositories. That's because they're all in the cloud now. (I'm still setting up Mercurial repositories on my Azure VM, but I had moved all of the really important ones to Mercurial earlier in the evening.)

So, really, only Weather Now remains in the Inner Drive Technology Worldwide Data Center, and after last night's events, I am even more keen to get it up to the Azure VM. Then, with only some routers and my domain controller running on a UPS that can go four hours with that load, a power outage will have less chance of waking me up in the middle of the night.

Thursday 20 September 2012 11:46:58 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Business | Cloud#
Wednesday 19 September 2012

My latest 10th Magnitude blog post is up, in which I dig into Microsoft's changes to Azure Web Sites announced Monday. The biggest change is that you can now point your own domain names at Azure Web Sites, which solves a critical failing with the product that has dogged them from its June release.

Since this Daily Parker post was embargoed for a day while my 10th Magnitude post got cleared with management, I've played with the new Shared tier some more. I've come to a couple of conclusions:

  • It might work for a site like Inner Drive's brochure, except for the administrative tools lurking on the site that need SSL. Azure Web sites still have no way to configure secure (https://) access.
  • They still don't expose the Azure role instance to .NET applications, making it difficult to use tools like the Inner Drive Extensible Architecture™ to access Azure table storage. The IDEA™ checks to see whether the Azure role instance exists (using RoleEnvironment.IsAvailable) before attempting to access Azure-specific things like tables and blobs.
  • The cost savings isn't exactly staggering. A "very small" Web Role instance costs about $15 per month. A Shared-level Web Site costs about $10. So moving to a Shared Web Site won't actually save much money.
  • Deployments, however, are a lot easier to Web Sites. You can make a change and upload it in seconds. Publishing to a Web Role takes about 15 minutes in the best circumstances. Also, since Web Sites expose FTP endpoints, you can even publish sites using Beyond Compare or your favorite FTP client.

I did upgrade one old site from Free to Shared to move its domain name off my VM. (The VM hosted a simple page that redirected users to the site's azurewebsites.net address.) I'll also be moving Hired Wrist in the next few days, as the overhead of running it on a VM doesn't make sense to me.

In other news, I've decided to go with Mercurial for source control. I'm sad to give up the tight integration with Visual Studio, but happy to gain DVCS capabilities and an awesomely simple way of ensuring that my source code stays under my control. I did look at Fog Creek's Kiln, but for one person who's comfortable mucking about inside a VM, it didn't seem worth the cost ($299).

Wednesday 19 September 2012 10:31:54 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Cloud#
Tuesday 18 September 2012

Crain's Chicago Business yesterday ran the first part in a series about How Chicago became one of the nation's most digital cities. Did you know we have the largest datacenter in the world here? True:

Inside the former R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. printing plant on East Cermak Road, next to McCormick Place, is the world's largest, most-connected Internet data center, according to industry website Data Center Knowledge. It's where more than 200 carriers connect their networks to the rest of the world, home to many big Internet service providers and where the world's major financial exchanges connect to one another and to trading desks. "It's where the Internet happens," Cleversafe's Mr. Gladwin says.

Apparently Chicago also hosts the fifth-largest datacenter in the world, Microsoft's North Central Azure hub in Northlake. (Microsoft's Azure centers are the 5th-, 6th-, 9th-, and 10th-largest in the world, according to Data Center Knowledge.) And then there's Chicago's excellent fiber:

If all of the publicly available fiber coming in and out of the Chicago area were bundled together, it would be able to transmit about 8 terabits per second, according to Washington-based research firm TeleGeography. (A terabit per second is the equivalent of every person on the planet sending a Twitter message per second.)

New York would be capable of 12.3 terabits, and Washington 11.2 terabits. Los Angeles and San Francisco are close behind Chicago at 7.9 and 7.8 terabits, respectively. New York is the primary gateway to Europe, and Washington is the control center of the world's largest military and one of the main connection points of the Internet.

Chicago benefits from its midcontinent location and the presence of the financial markets. "The fiber optic lines that go from New York and New Jersey to Chicago are second to none," says Terrence Duffy, executive chairman of CME Group Inc., who says he carefully considered the city's infrastructure when the futures and commodities exchange contemplated moving its headquarters out of state last year because of tax issues. "It benefits us to be located where we're at."

Now, if I can just get a good fiber to my house...

Tuesday 18 September 2012 17:34:31 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Cloud#
Monday 17 September 2012

It seems that the more I have to do, the more I'm able to do. In other words, when I haven't got a lot of assignments, I tend to veg out more. Right now I'm on a two-week development cycle, with an old client that predates my current job anxious for some bug fixes. Oddly, the old client tends to get his bug fixes when I have more to do at my regular gig.

Of course, blogging might suffer a bit. In fact I just submitted a draft blog entry for the 10th Magnitude Developer Blog that should hit tomorrow sometime. Until then, it's embargoed (which I hate because it's a timely and useful topic), and I have a feature to finish.

I guess all of this means, with apologies to René Magritte, ceci n'est pas un blog post.

Monday 17 September 2012 16:10:46 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Business#
Sunday 16 September 2012

Remember how I've spent the last three months moving stuff into the Cloud? And how, as of three weeks ago, I only had two more services to move? I saved the best for last, and I don't know for sure now whether I can move them both without some major changes.

Let me explain the economics of this endeavor, and why it's now more urgent that I finish the migration. And then, as a bonus, I'll whinge a bit about why one of the services might have to go away completely.

Sunday 16 September 2012 18:23:25 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Cloud#

I've banged away at the 30-Ballpark Geas for four seasons now, long enough for three new parks to spring up since I started. Next weekend I'm visiting Cincinnati, the 24th park, leaving eight to go. (Citi Field and New Yankee Stadium got added to the list because they replaced parks I visited before finishing the Geas. The third new park, New Marlin Ballpark, replaced one I hadn't ever visited before, and therefore wasn't already ticked off only to be un-ticked by new construction.)

With the MLB 2013 Schedule released ridiculously early this week, a path forward has presented itself. Barring rain, war, or other unpredictable misfortune, here's the likely End of the Geas, five years after it began:

City Team Park Built Potential visit
Toronto Blue Jays AL Rogers Centre 1989 2013 May 3
New York Yankees AL New Yankee Stadium 2009 2013 May 4
Seattle Mariners AL Safeco Field 1999 2013 Jun 30
Oakland Athletics AL O.Co Stadium 1966 2013 Jul 2†
Colorado Rockies NL Coors Field 1995 2013 Jul 21†
Arizona Diamondbacks NL Chase Field 1998 2013 Jul 22†
Texas Rangers AL Rangers Ballpark 1994 2013 Jul 23
Minnesota Twins AL Target Field 2010 2013 Aug 17
St. Louis Cardinals NL Busch Stadium 2006 2013 Sep 28†

† vs. Cubs

The trip to O.Co in July is a bonus game, added simply because the Cubs have never played there before, and going to the West Coast would likely result in a stop to see the family regardless.

So, there it is: An early-season road trip to Toronto and New York; a mid-season West Coast trip followed by a triangle trip through the Great Plains; sneaking in a quick overnight trip up to Minneapolis; and ending at the home of the Cubs' ancient rivals, the Cardinals.

The Cubs might even win one or two of those games...

Sunday 16 September 2012 13:42:50 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Baseball#
Friday 14 September 2012

Everyone knows that San Diego has year-round perfect temperatures, lots of sun, and great pizza. Except today, only two out of three:

The National Weather Service issued a hazardous weather outlook for Friday and Saturday, saying temperatures could reach up to 38°C near the beach.

Extremely high temperatures are unusual for the coast, which is where people typically go to escape the heat. This weekend the beach could be as warm as the inland areas.

At this writing, the temperature has hit 41°C at Miramar MCAS and 39°C at Montgomery Field, both within 16 km of downtown San Diego. (Lindbergh Field, right on the bay, is a more-palatable 27°C.)

This makes San Diego the hottest place in the world tracked by Weather Now.

Friday 14 September 2012 14:27:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Weather#

Via the Economist's Gulliver blog, Airbus Industrie has some ideas about the future:

More flights, fewer emissions and quicker passenger journey times. Welcome to Smarter Skies, the latest installment in The Future by Airbus. For the first time, our vision of sustainable aviation in 2050 looks beyond aircraft design to how the aircraft is operated both on the ground and in the air in order to meet the expected growth in air travel in a sustainable way.

Already today, if the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system and technology on board aircraft were optimised (assuming around 30 million flights per year), Airbus research suggests that every flight in the world could on average be around 13 minutes shorter. This would save approximately 9 million tonnes of excess fuel annually, which equates to over 28 million tonnes of avoidable CO2 emissions and passenger savings of over 500 million hours of excess flight time on board an aircraft. Add to this new aircraft design, alternative energy sources and new ways of flying and you could see even more significant improvements.

Specifically, they envision:

  • Eco-climb – save energy by launching aircraft using an assisted-take-off mechanism. Since planes use so much power to leave the ground, the idea is to source that power from devices on the ground, rather than have them weighing down the plane. Then you could shorten the runways and lighten the aircraft, which would reach cruising altitude faster than at present.
  • Express skyways – planes travelling in formation, like a flock of birds, will use less energy. In Airbus's example, three aircraft heading east from Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco would meet over Utah and fly onwards together. Planes could also reduce the distances they have to fly if they take genuinely direct routes between A and B, rather than zig-zagging round different countries' airspace.
  • Free-glide approaches and landings – with better air-traffic management planes would be able to glide smoothly into airports, as opposed to descending in stages and wasting energy.
  • Ground operations – "autonomous receiving vehicles" that would get planes from runway to gate faster are among the ideas for improving operations at the airport.
  • Power - biofuels and other alternative sources of energy would reduce CO2 emissions and improve the security of energy supply.

Cool stuff. And the "taxi-bot" is already here.

Friday 14 September 2012 09:48:51 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation#
Thursday 13 September 2012

The area of Chicago approximately bounded by the river, North Ave., Clybourn St., and Division St. used to house factories, warehouses, loud Goth clubs, and—who could forget?—the Cabrini-Green towers. Here's the area in 1999:

Since the Whole Foods Market moved in and Cabrini-Green came down in the last few years, the area has changed. And over the next year or so, it will become unrecognizable to my dad's generation:

Target Corp. is readying a big box at Division and Larrabee streets that would extend the corridor by more than a half-mile from its heart at North and Clybourn avenues, where Apple Inc. has a store. Also imminent: Nordstrom Rack, Dick's Sporting Goods, Mariano's Fresh Market, Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie and Sephora as well as a 14-screen movie theater.

The first of the new stores are set to open later this year. Deerfield-based CRM Properties Group Ltd. has leases with kitchen accessories seller Williams-Sonoma Inc. and Anthropologie, a women's apparel chain owned by Urban Outfitters Inc., for its site on Fremont Street, near Whole Foods' flagship store it completed in 2009 on Kingsbury Street.

To those of us who grew up in Chicago, this boggles the mind. The Target mentioned above will occupy the vacant Cabrini lots, for example. And Kingsbury St. no longer resembles a post-apocalyptic horror movie.

I can't wait to see the traffic, too...

Thursday 13 September 2012 16:22:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Geography#
Wednesday 12 September 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's all?" said Ligur.

"Look, people—"

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

Crowley pulled himself together.

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

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

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

This month's Atlantic explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

President Clinton Wednesday night:

President Obama last night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 5 September 2012 08:52:46 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Business#
Tuesday 4 September 2012

Just when you thought it was September, along comes more hot weather. Chicago officially hit 32°C for the 46th time this year, putting us one away from tying the record number of days above that temperature in recorded Chicago history.

Can we please have autumn now?

Tuesday 4 September 2012 15:13:18 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 3 September 2012

I've just finished Jane Jacobs' foundational work on urban planning. I first came across the book in 2010, started reading it in May, then put it down and picked it up a few times.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published 51 years ago, Jacobs demolished the philosophy of urban planning that had prevailed since the 1920s. The Cabrini Green housing projects, massively disruptive road-building like the Dan Ryan and Congress Expressways, and a way of top-down analysis that looked at thriving neighborhoods like Boston's North End as slums, all exemplified post-war urban planning; Jacobs tried to reverse it.

Some things that stood out:

[One] category of uses is conventionally considered, by planners and zoners, to be harmful, especially if these uses are mingled into residential areas. This category includes bars, theaters, clinics, businesses and manufacturing. It is a category which is not harful; the arguments that these uses are to be tightly controlled derive from their effects in suburbs and in dull, inherently dangerous gray areas, not from their effects in lively city districts.

For example: a shopping mall surrounded by parking lots has a few restaurants attached to it. Who wants to walk to these restaurants? How likely are people to linger there, or to happen upon a previously-unknown, independent night spot? Contrast that with, say, North Clark Street in Chicago, where a person can walk for almost 30 blocks, from Lincoln Avenue (1800 N) up to Irving Park Road (4000 N), and never be more than a few meters from a restaurant, a bar, an interesting shop, or a three-flat. In fact, the restaurants and shops often occupy the ground floors of the three-flats. As Jacobs writes, along a street like that, people are always around, throughout the day, living their lives—unlike in the suburbs, where shops close and the area is deserted.

Or this, in the chapter "Gradual money and cataclysmic money," in which she takes on blacklisting and slum clearing:

The immense new suburban sprawls of American cities have not come about by accident—and still less by the myth of free choice between cities and suburbs. Endless suburban sprawl was made practical (and for many families was actually mandatory) through the creation of something the United States lacked until the mid-1930s: a national morgage market specifically calculated to encourage suburban home building. ...

City people finance the building of suburbs. To be sure, one of the historic missions of cities, those marvelously productive and efficient places, is to finance colonization.

But you can run anything into the ground.

Fortunately, over the past 50 years, communities and their planners have listened to Jacobs. She herself worked tirelessly (and successfully) to prevent Robert Moses from destroying SoHo and Chinatown with the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

I should note, I put the book down several times because it made me mad—not at Jacobs, but at people like Le Corbusier and Robert Moses. I'm about to put Robert Caro's The Power Broker on my reading stack*, as I put Jane Jacobs next to Suburban Nation in my bookshelves.

Monday 3 September 2012 16:41:07 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | US#

Beloit College's Mindset List has me thinking: what will future lists look like? Some ideas:

The 2024 List

  • The Class of 2024 were born in 2002.
  • The World Trade Center has never existed.
  • There has always been an American military presence in Afghanistan.
  • Monica Lewinsky means as much to them as Christine Keeler meant to their parents.

I thought of a few more...read on.

Monday 3 September 2012 12:20:36 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

Clearing out the ballast:

  • Despite the initial forecasts, Hurricane Isaac's remnants missed Chicago.
  • Beloit College, just outside Rockford, Ill., has published its Class of 2016 Mindset. Since 1998 they've published a list of facts about the way incoming first-years think. This year's list includes "Women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles" and "A bit of the late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, has always existed in space."
  • The Economist's Gulliver blog bemoans Tampa's and Charlotte's piss-poor walkability, and how Tampa especially repudiates the loony-right conspiracy theory about Agenda 21.
  • The wackos also got on NPR this morning with a story about yet more efforts to forbid Sharia law, which ended with the vacuous understatement "The proposals are a solution in search of a problem, according to many." Apparently NPR just wanted to shine a light on the crazy without correcting it.
  • Speaking of crazy, with just four weeks left in the season, the Cincinnati Reds are the best team in baseball right now, with the Washington Nationals just behind them. The Cubs, now 51-82, earned their "E" just yesterday, fully two weeks after the Houston Astros (41-93) became the first team to earn mathematical elimination this season.

Updates as conditions warrant.

Monday 3 September 2012 10:27:18 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Cubs | Kitchen Sink | US | Weather#
Sunday 2 September 2012

August marked Chicago's 11 straight month of above-normal temperatures:

[A] string of warmer than normal readings never before observed here. Meteorological summer itself is to finish as the third-warmest in 142 years of weather records here. Not surprisingly, the season’s been a sunnier than usual one producing 76% of its possible sun—more than summer’s usual 66% here.

The Climate Prediction Center forecasts an above-normal autumn as well. Good thing the election is about empty chairs at empty tables...

Sunday 2 September 2012 16:41:51 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | Weather#
Saturday 1 September 2012

Parker came home with me six years ago today. Here he is a few minutes ago, wondering why we were outside but not walking anywhere:

And, of course, here he his six years ago:

Saturday 1 September 2012 10:41:34 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Parker#
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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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