Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Tuesday 31 December 2013

My evening is kicking off soon. It will be relatively low-key: GMT New Year at O'Shaughnessey's (mostly because I'm curious about the neighborhood), back home for a quick bite, thence my remote office where all us regulars will talk quietly until about 12:30 when Eddie calls last orders. We might even notice when it's midnight. (We missed it in 2011 and 2013, and awkwardly made festive noises when someone called out, "Hey, it's 12:05 already!")

This is the 537th Daily Parker post of 2013, the 3,907th since its launch in November 2005, and the 4,104th since the proto-blog braverman.org kicked off in May 1998. Sometime in 2014 I'll post for the 4,000th time in this iteration; move to a different part of Chicago; watch my nephews turn 2 and my dad turn redacted; visit five or six states and three or four countries (including Canada); and maybe rewrite the UI for Weather Now and finish the 30-Park Geas.

For the next 16 hours, though, I'll be offline.

Happy new year, З Новим Роком, bonne année, cheers, 謹賀新年, and नया साल मुबारक हो, y'all.

Tuesday 31 December 2013 16:16:15 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

WFM Lincoln Park Store Team Leader Rich Howley responded to my complaint right away:

We are really sorry for the inconvenience in our garage this afternoon, we realized immediately that we were over-whelmed and brought in additional security, they unfortunately had not yet arrived.

They are doing exactly what you had suggested.

I walked the entire area around the store, and what exacerbated the situation was traffic on North Ave was bumper to bumper in both directions, and this gridlocked traffic trying to get from Kingsbury/Sheffield Sts onto North, which in turn backed up the traffic directly in front of the store, in clogged up people trying to get out of the lot.

We are terribly sorry that you got hung up in our garage.

My response after the jump.

Tuesday 31 December 2013 15:47:39 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink#

I go to Whole Foods Market twice a week or more, almost always the Lincoln Park, Chicago store. Even when they have lots of customers, they have plenty of space and plenty of parking, so I didn't worry about ducking out of my house this afternoon to pick up lunch and dog food.

Here's the result. Don't let the international units confuse you; that's an hour and 13 minutes to go about 4 miles:

Here's the situation when I arrived, which looked remarkably like the situation when I left:

Click through for a view of the store from above and for my note to Customer Service explaining how their incompetence wasted my afternoon.

Tuesday 31 December 2013 15:11:40 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink#

Here's the Tribune's weather infographic for today:

The warmer-than-normal temperature formerly over Alaska has now swung around into the arctic, dragged by a persistent high pressure over the pole. That's pushing cold air down into the Prairie Provinces and the upper Midwest. Meanwhile, warmer-than-normal temperatures over the south-eastern U.S. and Caribbean is dragging moisture right over the lower Midwest.

Consequence: it's -12°C here right now, and in 36 hours we'll have 250 mm of snow.

We're getting a real winter this year. W00t. :/

Tuesday 31 December 2013 12:10:57 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

Well, I mean, it's already 2014 in time zones east of UTC+8 (Singapore, Tokyo, Australia), but here in Chicago it's 10:30 in the morning. Which means, here in Chicago, many creative works created before 1 January 1924 are still protected by copyright. Many, like the last 10 stories about Sherlock Holmes:

A US district court in Illinois found itself wading into the details of the fictional detective's imaginary life this week in a copyright ruling on a forthcoming collection of original short stories featuring Holmes characters.

Ten Holmes short stories, however, were published after 1923, the public domain threshold pinpointed by Melville Nimmer in his authoritative Nimmer on Copyright. Details from the last ten stories could still be subject to copyright claims by Conan Doyle's descendants, Judge Rubén Castillo ruled on Monday, in a decision that went unnoticed until Friday.

In protecting the last ten stories, however, Castillo reinforced access to the rest of the Holmes oeuvre. Castillo rejected an argument by the Conan Doyle estate that some aspects of pre-1923 Holmes were not plainly in the public domain because the stories and characters were "continually developed" through the final ten stories, which will not entirely enter the public domain until 2022.

Yes, 2022, thanks to the Mickey Mouse Protection Act that extended corporate ownership of copyrights to 90 or even 120 years in some circumstances. (The last Holmes story is from 1932.)

This is an interesting ruling to me. The court has drawn a clearer distinction between ideas and expression, which I think is the intent of copyright law in the first place.

It's not an earth-shaking ruling, though, and I don't think it changes much. Still, I'll be watching for an appellate ruling on this.

Tuesday 31 December 2013 10:41:53 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business | Writing#
Monday 30 December 2013

I just saved myself hours of pain by creating a unit test around a simple method that turned out to have a subtle bug.

The method in question calculates the price difference between two subscriptions for a product. If you're using the product, and you use more of it, the cost goes up. Every day, the application looks to make sure you're only using your allotted amount. If you go over, you get automatically bumped to the next subscription level and charged the difference, pro-rated by how much of the subscription term is left.

Here's the basic code:

var delta = subscription.IsAnnual ? 
   newTier.AnnualPrice - currentTier.AnnualPrice : 
   newTier.MonthlyPrice - currentTier.MonthlyPrice;

All well and good, except MonthlyPrice, for reasons known only to the previous developer, is nullable. So in order to prevent an ugly error message, I made sure it could never be null using the ?? operator:

var delta = subscription.IsAnnual ? 
   newTier.AnnualPrice - currentTier.AnnualPrice : 
   newTier.MonthlyPrice ?? 0m - currentTier.MonthlyPrice ?? 0m;

Do you see the problem? I didn't. But I learned today that - takes precedence over ??. So here's the correction:

var delta = subscription.IsAnnual ? 
   newTier.AnnualPrice - currentTier.AnnualPrice : 
   (newTier.MonthlyPrice ?? 0m) - (currentTier.MonthlyPrice ?? 0m);

I discovered that when the unit test I wrote kept insisting that 6 - 6 = 6. This is because without the parentheses where I put them, the compiler thinks I meant this:

newTier.MonthlyPrice ?? ((0m - currentTier.MonthlyPrice) ?? 0m)

In English, the compiler thought my first attempt meant, "Take the new monthly price, except if it's null, in which case take zero minus the old monthly price, unless that's null too, in which case take zero." What I meant, and what my correction means, is, "Take the new monthly price, or zero if it's null, and subtract the old monthly price (or zero if that's null)."

I'm glad I use NUnit.

Monday 30 December 2013 14:02:01 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Software#
Sunday 29 December 2013

Two popular Evanston restaurants, Pine Yard and Taco Diablo, burned to the ground this morning:

Fire crews from several neighboring communities -- including Morton Grove, Wilmette and Skokie -- were called to the scene to assist Evanston firefighters in battling the blaze.

The fire apparently broke out sometime before 3 a.m. and fire crews were still fully engaged in battling the blaze nearly three hours later.

The bike shop next door suffered water and smoke damage. Twelve pets at the Bramer Animal Hospital (where Parker went to the vet for his first year and a half) got evacuated.

Pine Yard was Evanston's go-to Chinese restaurant. Taco Diablo also had a large following.

Sunday 29 December 2013 13:48:12 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink#
Saturday 28 December 2013

I'm a few minutes from leaving my folks' house, looking at the weather forecast for Chicago. We may set a new record:

The unseasonable late-season 10°C “warmth” which greets Chicagoans Saturday has swept into the area from southern Missouri over the past 24 hours. It’s stay is to be one of limited duration.

A bitter southward plunge of frigid arctic air begins a downward temp spiral here Sunday which is to culminate in colder-than- -18°C Monday morning lows and single digits daytime highs—the coldest readings to occur here in the nearly five years since January 16, 2009 when the high temp rose no higher than -15°C

A temperature drop of that magnitude would become the 2nd greatest three-day late December temp dive on the books over the past 143 years. The only 3-day temperature drop more significant than this is the 34°C drop—from 15°C to -19°C back in January of 2009.

This is why I've just booked a trip to somewhere warm for February.

Saturday 28 December 2013 08:51:20 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | Chicago#

Another shot from Christmas afternoon, as promised:

Saturday 28 December 2013 07:37:25 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | San Francisco#
Friday 27 December 2013

Nephew #1 arrived yesterday evening while I sat a mile away talking with the manager of San Benito House and, apparently, challenging people to a Scrabble game later today. Nephew #1 is a much lighter sleeper than the rest of us, which causes him frustration, and when he gets frustrated he sets out to determine how much noise is required to make everyone exactly as light a sleeper as he.

Fortunately, I'm on Chicago time, so getting up at 5am PST (7am CST) does not bother me. And it gives me some time to read the articles that crossed my inbox overnight:

It's still an hour before dawn here, so I'm rocking out the nearly-empty Peet's, about to resume some client work. I promise another photo of the ocean before I return home tomorrow.

Friday 27 December 2013 06:15:59 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | Geography | Kitchen Sink | US | World#
Thursday 26 December 2013

What is it about the right? I have difficulty imagining what it must be like to have such a constricted worldview that every provocation requires an escalation.

The latest example of right-wing anti-diplomacy comes not from a state representative somewhere in the southern U.S., nor from a local Chinese official, nor from Marine le Pen. No, this time it's serial dick-swinger Shinzo Abe, who decided to help diffuse the tense diplomatic situation in the Sea of Japan by poking his finger in China's and Korea's eyes:

At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right? 

It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.

Really, this is the right-wing mindset. Aggression, nationalism, belligerence, and domestic policies that completely undermine foreign policies. Shinzo Abe, Binyamin Netanyahu, Recep Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Yanukovich...there sure is a lot of this going around recently.

Good thing none of those people has the power to start a major regional war that would suck the U.S. into someone else's crap.

Thursday 26 December 2013 08:30:09 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | World#

Check these out:

More later, including, I expect, more photos of the ocean. Why? Because ocean.

Update: Speaking of the ocean, via George Takei's Facebook feed comes this gem. Just read the product reviews.

Thursday 26 December 2013 07:59:32 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink | US | San Francisco#
Wednesday 25 December 2013

Not when they're 13 months old. And not when the weather looks like this.

And not when someone needs a nap:

Yes, these are the privations and suffering that my 13-month-old nephew must endure:

A little earlier, he was chasing what my sister calls "California snow:"

For those who care, it's a very un-Christmaslike 21°C here. I can see the appeal.

Wednesday 25 December 2013 14:57:58 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | San Francisco#

The intemperate, irascible judge's dissent in U.S. v. Windsor is the gift that keeps on giving:

For the second time in a week, a federal judge embraced U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent from this summer's ruling overturning the federal Defense of Marriage Act in a case challenging a state's ban on gay marriage.

Scalia was adamant in his dissent that the logic of the DOMA decision would result in state bans being overturned. In his decision Monday declaring that Ohio must recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages on death certificates, federal district judge Timothy Black wrote: "And now it is just as Justice Scalia predicted -- the lower courts are applying the Supreme Court’s decision, as they must, and the question is presented whether a state can do what the federal government cannot -- i.e., discriminate against same-sex couples … simply because the majority of the voters don’t like homosexuality (or at least didn’t in 2004). Under the Constitution of the United States, the answer is no."

It brings to mind a conversation between the Pirate King and the Major General in Penzance:

Major General: You would rob me of the last remaining props of my old age, and leave me unfriended, unprotected, and alone!

Pirate King: Yes, that's the idea.

Thank you once again, Justice Scalia, for your prescience.

Wednesday 25 December 2013 05:34:45 PST (UTC-08:00)  |  | US#
Monday 23 December 2013

Back in October, Chicago O'Hare International Airport opened its fourth east-west runway and promptly switched most operations to east-west from the diagonal pattern they'd used before. Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevich, a private pilot, explains the implications:

Today taxi times to the gate are generally longer than they were several months ago because of a longer route that takes arrivals an extra mile or more around the airfield. The purpose is to have the planes taxi behind other planes waiting to take off so as to reduce the possibility of collisions, airline and FAA air traffic officials said. The taxiing time and distance vary, based on the runway and the gate involved.

Any time saved in the air can be canceled out by the additional time spent on the ground.

"It is a longer taxi route, designed to keep you from taxiing across active runways," said Halli Mulei, a Chicago-based first officer who has flown for United Airlines for 17 years. "But we are flying a shorter final (approach) into O'Hare, saving fuel and about 10 minutes."

From the Oct. 17 opening through Dec. 11, O'Hare has been able to accommodate 112 or more landings per hour on average on 68 percent of the days, according to the FAA. That compares to a rate of 112 or more arrivals per hour only 20 percent of days in November 2012, FAA data show.

The airlines, in other words, love this new configuration, because fuel use while airborne is quite a lot more than fuel use on the ground. Of course, if there are stiff crosswinds, it's a different story:

During winter, when winds often howl out of the north, wet or icy runways are another condition pilots confront.

"The combination of an icy runway and high wind gusts is where we can have a problem," said Mulei, the United first officer and also a spokeswoman for the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. "If braking action is poor, my crosswind limit on a Boeing 767 could go down to 17 knots" from a norm of up to a 40-knot crosswind on a dry runway, she said.

Monday 23 December 2013 09:09:47 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Chicago#

I had a reasonably productive morning cleaning up the Inner Drive Technology World Headquarters, including removing all all the decommissioned hardware from the Inner Drive Technology International Data Center. Contrast the before with the during:

Both DSL modems are still there; so is the NAS, the PDC, and the switch. However, the dead UPS (thank you, TrippLite, for creating a UPS whose battery you can't replace), four decommissioned servers (including one in the back you can't really see), and a whole bunch of cables, are now out of my apartment.

I'm still debating whether to break my domain or move it to the cloud, so the domain controller gets a stay of execution for a week or so. Either way, it's gone next weekend.

All the rack servers, along with the rack itself, are free or nearly so. Let me know if you want one.

Sunday 22 December 2013 23:30:52 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business | Cloud#
Sunday 22 December 2013

One of my favorite groups played at Evanston SPACE last night. They don't tour very often anymore, so I was glad to catch them live.

From left to right, Robbie Schaefer, Julie Murphy-Wells, and Michael Clem:

(Drummer Eddie Hartness—he's not really from Ohio—was hard to photograph from where I was sitting.)

Another shot of Murphy-Wells and Clem:

It was a fun concert. Their opener, Jake Armerding, played with the group during their entire set, and added something to what was already a pretty tight quartet. It's unusual that adding someone to a band after 22 years makes things better, but in this case, he really works.

The band had CDs of the evening's performance ready for sale 15 minutes after they finished.

Sunday 22 December 2013 10:05:50 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#
Saturday 21 December 2013

A couple of days ago people wigged out that car-share service Uber had significantly increased prices during a snowstorm out East. I posted on Facebook that this made perfect sense, and people getting all mad about it just didn't understand economics.

Today on his blog, Krugman adds Keynesian context:

Uber, it turns out, doesn’t charge fixed prices; it practices surge pricing, in which prices depend on the state of demand. So when there’s a snowstorm or something that makes everyone want a car at the same time, prices go way up — sometimes sevenfold.

This makes a lot of sense from a rational economic point of view — and it makes people totally furious. It turns out that people are OK with fluctuating prices when it’s really an impersonal market — but they get really angry at any hint that someone with whom they have some sort of ongoing relationship is exploiting their distress. In fact, Uber’s surge pricing is really bad public relations, and I won’t be surprised to see the company modify its strategy if only for marketing purposes.

What does this have to do with [Keynesian macroeconomics]? Well, back in the 1990s the economist Truman Bewley...found...that issues of fairness and morale were key. Employers didn’t cut wages, even when unemployment was high and they knew that employees had no place to go, because they believed that morale and workplace cooperation would collapse if their employees felt that the company was exploiting a bad economy for its own gain.

This was part of a set of posts he's written concerning the difference between saltwater (Keynesian) and freshwater (anti-Keynesian) economics.

On a similar theme, in his column yesterday Krugman made a solid argument that UK Chancellor George Osborne is a stooge. I have to agree; but why Ed Milliband doesn't run with this (or at least with the sound economics behind saying it) I cannot figure out.

Saturday 21 December 2013 14:55:37 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US | World#
Friday 20 December 2013

Just a day after New Mexico allowed marriage equality, Utah has become the 18th U.S. jurisdiction to do so:

At about 4:15 p.m. ET, the AP wire reported that a federal district judge had declared Utah's ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional. Within an hour, one gay couple reported on Twitter that they had gotten married.

Now 123 million people live in marriage-equality jurisdictions in the U.S., 38.8% of the population. (Yesterday's number statistic left out New Jersey. Oops.)

Friday 20 December 2013 17:49:32 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

Astronomical winter officially begins tomorrow at 11:11 CST. But as anyone in the Midwest can tell you, meteorological winter began three weeks ago.

The Chicago Tribune has a nice, clear graphic today showing the problem:

The late, strong Alaska block this year is almost certainly hanging around because of anthropogenic climate change. Usually by this point the North Pacific has cooled enough not to drag the mid-latitude jet stream all the way up to the Arctic.

Welcome to the new climate.

Eventually, average temperatures will likely increase the Gulf of Mexico's persistent high pressure area such that the mid-latitude jet stream doesn't get as far south as Chicago during the winter. At that point our winters will likely be wetter and warmer, more like North Carolina's. Meanwhile, though, we're likely to have a frickin' cold winter, one hopes followed by a cooler summer due to a cooler lake.

Friday 20 December 2013 10:43:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#

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Friday 20 December 2013 09:47:47 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business#
Thursday 19 December 2013

The New Mexico Supreme Court was unanimous:

New Mexico's highest court ruled on Thursday that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry.

"We conclude that the purpose of New Mexico marriage laws is to bring stability and order to the legal relationship of committed couples by defining their rights and responsibilities as to one another, their children if they choose to raise children together, and their property," the court's ruling read. "Prohibiting same-gender marriages is not substantially related to the government interests advanced by the parties opposing same-gender marriage or to the purposes we have identified."

With this ruling, New Mexico joins 15 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex marriages. That means 111 million people in the U.S.—36% of the population—live in marriage-equality jurisdictions.

The opinion is here.

Thursday 19 December 2013 14:56:48 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | US#

The Inner Drive Technology Worldwide Data Center (IDTWDC) will shortly be decommissioned. I first wrote about this in June 2012, when it looked like I could migrate all the apps running on my servers to Azure quickly. (It actually took until March.)

Now, however, I'm done. And now I have about 100 kg of equipment to remove from my apartment.

So: does anyone want some equipment? Here's the inventory:

  • Two Dell PowerEdge 2950 2U servers with 1.6 GHz Xeon dual-core processors. One has 4GB of RAM, the other has 2GB. These were my Web and database servers.
  • Another Dell PowerEdge 2950 2U server, but with a 1.8 GHz Xeon single-core processor and 4 GB of RAM. This was my Exchange server.
  • A Dell PowerEdge 860 1U server with a 1.8 GHz Xeon single-core processor and 2 GB of RAM. This is my PDC.
  • All four servers have SCSI PERC RAID controllers.
  • A Netgear gigabit switch with 24 ports.
  • A 42U steel rack, as pictured, with removable shelf.
  • A 17" LCD screen, Dell keyboard, and 4-port KVM switch.
  • Assorted network cables, power cables, and APC battery backup units, some of which may need new batteries.

Since I'm essentially giving these things away (except for the rack, for which I'm asking $50), they're conveyed as-is, no liability. And again, the servers will not have disk drives.

If you want these, or know anyone who might, let me know through Inner Drive feedback.

Thursday 19 December 2013 09:26:12 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Business | Cloud#
Wednesday 18 December 2013

Shortly after my last trip to London I blogged that UK Prime Minister David Cameron's crowing about Britain's economic recovery entirely missed the point of how awfully and slowly that recovery was going. This morning Krugman freshens the evidence:

A couple of weeks ago I tried to get at what’s wrong with the latest tactic of the austerians in terms of a classic Three Stooges scene. Curly is seen banging his head against the wall; when Moe asks why, he replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

As Simon Wren-Lewis tries to explain, this is exactly the basis of the Cameron government’s triumphalism now that UK GDP is growing again.

The basic fact of UK economic performance since the financial crisis is that it has been terrible — in fact, as the NIESR documents, GDP performance has been substantially worse than during the Great Depression.

It's tragic, really. The only question going into the May 2015 elections will be: do Britons understand how much better off they could have been?

Wednesday 18 December 2013 11:52:29 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | London | World#

The Chicago Transit Authority cleaned out its attic recently and put a bunch of artifacts up for auction. The auction just ended, and I'm sorry to say I did not win anything.

I bid on a couple of 1990s-era station signs, one from Main and one from Davis. I didn't want to risk getting both so I dropped off the Davis auction once it hit $50. Because, rusty 30 x 45 cm sign with the paint chipping? Yeah, $50 sounds right.

But I kept going on the Main St. sign, using the ancient eBay technique of waiting until the last few seconds to make my last bid.

So, the first day of bidding, I put in $25. Auto-bids pushed right past me. Then I waited. Just now, with the bidding at $95, I put in what I thought was a ridiculous (but still acceptable) number: $130. Bam! Bidder #37522 auto-bid right past me!

Now, I'm thinking, as attractive an artifact as the sign might be, is it really worth $150? Oh, the pain, the pain...yes. All right. It's a unique part of history, part of my history in fact, so it's worth $150 to me. Bid.

D'oh! Bidder #37522 thinks it's worth more than $150, and his auto-bid won.

Well, I'm glad the sign is going to a good home. I hope Bidder #37522 finds a nice place on his wall for it.

But I have no idea what Bidder #37961 is going to do with the rail car he bought for $13,150...

(Fun fact: the CTA Gift Store sells signs.)

Update: Looking through the closed lots, I discovered that someone bought two sticks of rail for $50. Let's do the math here. The sticks are each 11.8 m long, and the description says they're 115-lb rail. That means the rail weighs 115 lbs per foot, so the two sticks together contain 4,068 kg of steel. I don't know scrap prices, but it seems to me that 4 tons of steel scrap might be worth more than $50. So assuming the costs of removing the rails aren't too high, someone may have just made a tidy profit on the auction.

Update: It turns out, scrap steel goes for about $350 a ton. So that $50 investment could bring the buyer a tidy $1300 profit. But then one has to ask, why didn't the CTA just sell the surplus rail for scrap in the first place?

Wednesday 18 December 2013 11:13:08 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Cool links | Travel#
Tuesday 17 December 2013

From The Atlantic Cities blog:

Over the past decade, 1,300 London pubs have emptied their cellars and wiped down their tables for the last time. It's not just obscure, unloved bars that are dying. This winter, two well-known historic pubs, both open for over a century apiece, will likely be turned into private housing. One is the Old White Bear, a red-brick building hidden away in village-like Hampstead, a former spa town swallowed up by Victorian London. The other, just down the hill, is The Star, an inn dating back to the 1820s with a wood-lined interior (featured in this 1980s pop video) that makes drinking there feel rather like sitting inside a whiskey-soaked violin.

Under the British system, the pub "landlord" (in British pub terminology, this actually means a manager that rents a premises, rather than an owner) must buy their booze from the company they rent the pub from. With no competition, the prices they pay are generally inflated, meaning that even if landlords trim their profit margins, beer still comes out pricier than it otherwise needs to be. While pub companies turn a profit, individual landlords are pushed to the wall. The pub companies then sell off under-performing premises, even though pubs wouldn't actually be unsustainable if landlords got a better deal.

There's a silver lining, and not just from pubs like Southampton Arms: The City of London has taken steps to preserve some landmark pubs.

Tuesday 17 December 2013 13:47:17 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | London#

Yes. And snowy:

Snowfall’s been quite relentless here. Flurries (or more) have fluttered to earth 8 of the past 9 days. And, with just under 250 mm on the books to date, the 2013-14 season has been accumulating snow at nearly twice the normal pace and ranks 33rd snowiest of the past 128 years. That places it among the top quarter of all Chicago snow seasons since records began here in 1884-85.

There’s been only one day with a temperature even briefly above freezing in the past 12. An eight day string of above freezing readings came to an end after a November 28 through December 5th run.

This coming week will see some warming, and possibly a few days above freezing starting tomorrow afternoon. Then Monday we'll see more frigid weather coming in behind either a snowstorm (according to European models) or a dusting (according to American models).

You know, I don't mind a few weeks of this every year, particularly if we don't see it until January, like last year. But this? Snow and sub-freezing temperatures for most of December? I'm not looking forward to three months of this crap.

At least the lake will be cooler come June, which should moderate our summer. Still: before Chicago's climate gets consistently warmer in a few decades, we'll keep having crushingly cold winters alternating with warm ones. I can't be sure this is an improvement.

Tuesday 17 December 2013 08:08:06 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 16 December 2013

Apparently, Chicago's Divvy is really popular with tourists—and tourists have trouble returning the bikes on time:

Chicago's Divvy bicycle-sharing program took in up to $2.5 million during its first five months, a figure driven by tourists and others who bought daily passes and racked up the majority of overtime fees, according to a trove of preliminary customer data provided by city transportation officials.

As much as $703,500 came from late charges, which kick in when bicycles aren't returned within 30 minutes. Just a sliver of that money was generated from Divvy's clock-conscious annual members, who checked out bikes for short trips instead of hopping into taxis or riding public transit, city officials concluded.

It's not clear whether the Divvy public-private partnership, supported by $25 million in federal funding and $6.25 million in local matches, is turning a profit.

The article goes on to suggest that tourists have trouble understanding the point of the 30-minute time limit. It's not to prevent you from riding Divvy bikes; it's to keep Divvy bikes moving. If the program didn't have a 30-minute window, people would ride to their destinations, park the bikes, and ride back, possibly tying up a bike all day.

So the problem seems to be user education.

Still, I'm glad the program is making revenue. I really hope it's profitable.

Monday 16 December 2013 15:20:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Biking | Chicago#
Sunday 15 December 2013

This weekend's cover story in New York Times Magazine looks in detail at Google's grand plan to map everything:

Street View cars have already mapped six million miles. Depending on your perspective, that’s either a quite a lot (equivalent to 12 trips to the moon and back) or not much at all (only one-tenth of the world’s estimated 60 million miles of road). Either way, Google’s huge investment in the camera-equipped cars — not to mention trikes, boats, snowmobiles and, yes, rafts — has yielded the most detailed street atlas on earth.

Early last year, Google’s United States market share for where-type queries topped 70 percent, and Google started to get serious about recouping the fortune it has been sinking into making its map, putting a tollbooth in front of its application programming interface. Henceforth, heavy users would be charged for the privilege.

Today, Google’s map includes the streets of every nation on earth, and Street View has so far collected imagery in a quarter of those countries. The total number of regular users: A billion people, or about half of the Internet-connected population worldwide. Google Maps underlies a million different websites, making its map A.P.I. among the most-used such interfaces on the Internet. At this point Google Maps is essentially what Tim O’Reilly predicted the map would become: part of the information infrastructure, a resource more complete and in many respects more accurate than what governments have. It’s better than MapQuest’s map, better than Microsoft’s, better than Apple’s.

The article also looks at Open Street Map, the Wikipedia of GIS, and wonders whether Google's proprietary database will ultimately win.

Sunday 15 December 2013 09:07:59 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Geography | Business | Cool links#
Friday 13 December 2013

I posted a photo of the Korean Joint Security Area the night after visiting it, while still in Seoul. Finally, today, one of my colleagues had time to assemble a high-dynamic-range image from a set I took for that purpose. I think it's a much better photograph:

Not only did I get the colors closer to reality (always hard to do with a laptop), but combining three different exposures into this one HDRI brings out the details in the shadowy foreground as well as on the DPRK building we were facing.

Thanks, Matt.

Friday 13 December 2013 14:57:55 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Photography | Travel#

After a string of days when the temperature was so low even Parker didn't want to go outside, this morning's -4°C felt downright balmy.

Of course, it's warming up ahead of the 15 cm of snow forecast for tonight.

Looks like we're getting a real winter this year.

Friday 13 December 2013 10:14:22 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Thursday 12 December 2013

It happens in every form of art ever invented. First the tinkerers discover the art form, aided by a new techology. Then come the dilettantes, people who figure out the rules and structures of the medium. Next the amateurs refine the techniques, pushing a fad into a form that has commercial possibilities. Finally, the professionals—people who make the art for a living—push everyone else out. Eventually you wind up with nothing but the last two groups—and the amateurs that remain do it because they love it, but have chosen some other avocation.

Via Sullivan, the Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has woken up to this pattern as it applies to YouTube:

When it comes to putting together a really great video and ginning up a global viral push, people with resources are winning.

And it's actually been this way for a while. While, for example, 2007's "most memorable videos" featured several homemade videos of people and cats, as Marshall Kirkpatrick pointed out years ago, the most played items have long been music videos from major label artists.

So, after a brief flowering of user-generated online media rivaling the scale and reach of professional online media, we've seen a retrenchment of traditional media structures. Sure, millions of people still have blogs, but the bulk of content that's read is produced by a small number of people who do this for a living (inside completely retooled media companies).

Anyone paying attention knew this would happen, and quickly.

Think about it: if an art form has commercial possibilities, then basic natural selection will favor people who can devote more time and resources to it. And if you spend most of your waking hours on art, unless you're seriously untalented you'll eventually become much better at it than people who only spend an hour or two a day.

As Madrigal says: I think that's a good thing.

Thursday 12 December 2013 14:50:56 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Blogs#

My company's holiday party happens tonight, preceded by a stop at a client's party, so it makes a lot of logistical sense just to hang out at IDTWHQ and bang away on work. But there's another practical reason:

With the opening 11 days of December 2013 running 9.2°C below a year ago, the Chicago area moves into an 8th consecutive day in this early Deep Freeze.

The past 7 days have averaged -8.7°C, a jarring 7.8°C below normal—-cold enough to have ranked 8th coldest on record here and the coldest such period in 8 years!

Chicagoans shiver through the season’s second sub-zero night

Temperatures Wednesday dropped below zero [Fahrenheit; -17.8°C] at the official O’Hare thermometer for only the second time this season.

At the moment it's warmed up a little, to -16°C. And I don't have to go outside.

At least the forecast looks better. Temperatures should return to a more-normal 1°C (above freezing) by Tuesday.

Thursday 12 December 2013 08:05:00 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Wednesday 11 December 2013

While London's bike-share program seems to have some problems, Chicago is expanding its Divvy program, and asking for user input:

To cap off the Year of the Divvy, the city is crowdsourcing all you urban dwellers for suggestions on where to install 175 more stations across Chicago next year. Still no word on if they will make sure Divvy riders know not to ride the bikes on crowded Michigan Avenue sidewalks.

They bred like rabbits this summer, popping up in succession so close to each other. I could literally crawl from Divvy station to Divvy station if I had to. Doesn’t seem like the best use of multiple resources, especially in an area so accessible by transit. Sure, a Divvy station next to a major road or train stop makes sense, but four of them seems excessive.

The suggestion map shows interest in Divvy bikes clear up into the northern suburbs, but not so much on the south and west sides. Some wag even suggested a station at O'Hare.

Wednesday 11 December 2013 13:46:24 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Biking | Chicago#

The Atlantic Cities blog sounds the alarm about London's bike share program:

While the system recorded 726,893 journeys in November 2012, last month there were only 514,146. To cap these poor user figures, today Transport for London announced that the scheme's major sponsor, Barclays Bank, will pull out of its sponsorship deal in 2015. Given the bad publicity the system has received recently, it may be hard to find a replacement sponsor without some major changes.

None of this would matter much if London’s scheme was entirely self-sustaining. But while Paris's bike-share scheme actually makes money for the city, London's 4,000 bikes cost local taxpayers an average of £1,400 per bike per year. As the Daily Mail points out, this would be enough to buy each of the scheme's 38,000 registered users a £290 bike. Barclays has thus found its sponsorship deal a mixed publicity blessing – though the bank itself may be part of the problem. The £50 million it promised was never going to be enough, and the amount it has actually handed over so far suggests their ultimate contribution could be at little as half that.

So, Toronto and London are having problems; Chicago and Paris are booming. This is turning into a fascinating natural experiment.

Wednesday 11 December 2013 12:50:17 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Biking | Chicago | Geography | London#
Tuesday 10 December 2013

Yesterday's forecast really didn't go far enough. We weren't expecting -16°C until tomorrow night, but we got -21°C early this morning:

The temperature dipped below zero overnight at O'Hare International Airport, the earliest that has happened here since 1995. The cold will hold through the week, bringing a burst of snow in time for the morning rush Wednesday.

The temperature fell to one degree below zero around 12:55 a.m., according to the National Weather Service. That's the earliest subzero readings here since a low of minus 4 on Dec. 9, 1995.

It could warm up Thursday or Friday, but not before we get another 50-100 mm of snow tomorrow morning, smack in the middle of rush hour.

Parker and I are working from home today so I haven't had to spend much time outside. That, and my body has finally decided it's had enough of me, which led to an uncomfortable early morning. (I'll spare the details.)

Tuesday 10 December 2013 12:13:01 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink | Weather#
Monday 9 December 2013

It's cold in Chicago right now: -7°C with a wind chill of -13°C and gradual cooling predicted towards a low of -16°C Wednesday night. This is only the second time in 30 years it's been so cold, so early.

Two things: first, though I don't have time to link to anything right now, it turns out this cold in Chicago is caused by abnormally warm temperatures in the North Pacific. So, yeah, aggregate global warming causes localized cold snaps.

Second, thanks to celestial mechanics, tonight's sunset will be later than last night's for every point on earth that has a sunset. (Inside the Arctic and Antarctic circles, there are no sunsets today.) Sunsets continue to get later everywhere until well past the March equinox, even though sunrises in the Northern Hemisphere will also get later until January 6th. (See the Chicago sunrise chart for details.)

So, despite this really unpleasant weather, there are definite signs it will get warmer soon. Relatively soon, anyway.

Monday 9 December 2013 13:26:03 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather | Astronomy#

American Airlines and US Airways are now legally one company:

While we’ve legally combined as one company, we'll continue to function as two separate airlines for quite some time, and very few changes will happen immediately. This is especially important throughout the busy holiday travel season, as our first priority will be delivering a smooth operation for customers of both airlines. There is no impact to any existing travel reservations you may have with American Airlines or US Airways at this time, and any mileage balance or elite status you have earned in either frequent flyer program are completely safe.

Throughout the process, we’ll continue to provide you updates on benefits we plan to begin rolling out in early January, such as the ability to earn and redeem miles on both carriers and reciprocal lounge access. In early 2014, you’ll also enjoy easy access to our combined premier global network through our codeshare agreement with US Airways, which will offer a convenient travel journey when booking, checking-in or connecting on flights between our two airlines.

Cranky Flier has some advice for the new company:

Be American With a Healthy Dose of US Airways
The management team comes from US Airways but they need to quickly get into the mindset that they are now running one of the great global airlines. I really don’t think this is an issue – there has been plenty of time to plan for this and President Scott Kirby is already talking the talk – but it can’t hurt to repeat it. At the same time, don’t lose a lot of the forward-thinking that made US Airways so successful.

Do Tech Right
I’ll end with one last note. We saw it with US Airways/America West and it’s been a bigger nightmare with United/Continental. Don’t rush the tech transition, especially the reservation system combination. Just make sure it’s done well. Take all the time you need. Just don’t mess it up.

American is now the largest airline in the world, with 6,700 daily flights to 330 destinations.

Monday 9 December 2013 10:23:19 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation#
Sunday 8 December 2013

Yes, that's why you should buy this book:

This is right up there with the (in)famous marketing of the same play in 1968, when movie posters proclaimed it "Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet."

Sunday 8 December 2013 10:37:17 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink#

My cousin and I, who have season tickets to Wrigley Field, went to the park on Thursday to see what other seats were available. Last season we were in section 518:

After walking around a bit, we decided on a change of view, to Section 524:

The seats are nearly equivalent, just rotated 90° to the south, and without the foul ball catcher between us and the pitcher's mound.

We're not optimistic about the Cubs' chances this season, but we'll be there anyway. Opening day against the Phillies on April 5th.

Sunday 8 December 2013 10:26:11 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Cubs#
Saturday 7 December 2013

The Illinois Supreme Court recently overturned the "Amazon tax" that caused the online retailer to drop all of their Illinois affiliates (like me) a couple years ago.

Well, they brought the program back to Illinois, so The Daily Parker is once again an Amazon Associate.

All that means is, when I link to books or content—like, for example, the Deadwood Blu-Ray box set—the link will include an ID that lets me take a piece of your purchase.

This is the only way that I monetize the blog. Note, for example, the complete absence of ads. So, if you enjoy the blog, and you occasionally buy stuff from Amazon, check here to see if I've linked to it, and if so, click through. That's it. That's as commercial as I'll get.

Thanks for your continued support.

Saturday 7 December 2013 10:30:26 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Blogs#
Friday 6 December 2013

Wow, do I hate eastbound overnight flights.

Wednesday I felt totally fine. I got up normally, went through a normal day, and felt pleased with myself for conquering jet lag. After picking up Parker, I went to Duke of Perth for a nice cheeseburger (I never eat American food while abroad if I can help it), had an Old Chub, and got home by 9:30.

At this point, my body decided that since it was only noon (in Korea), there was no crashing need to go to bed. So it kept me up for another seven hours. I finally drifted off to sleep around 4:30.

Yesterday, therefore, was a disaster. Last night I slept from 9:30 or so until 7 this morning, and right now I want to crawl back into bed for about three days. Also, I feel chilly, which I hope has to do with the weather (it's -8°C outside) and not with some pathogen trying to get a beachhead in my respiratory system.

Note to self: no more short trips to Asia. Or, at the very least, plan to return during the long weekend, not leave for the long weekend.

Once again, American flight 90 looks like the best thing on their schedule. Next time I go overseas I'm doing that, and avoiding the overnight.

Friday 6 December 2013 10:58:06 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#
Wednesday 4 December 2013

I'm back in Chicago, trying to determine what day it is (Wednesday, I think). Tuesday was very long—39 hours for me, if you go by the book—but the only way it makes sense to me is to think of it as two separate days. For instance, I think I started trying to get some sleep somewhere just east of Japan somewhere around 9pm local time, which would be 30 hours ago. Then I woke up somewhere just east of Sacramento about 24 hours ago. The evening and the morning of the first day, sort of.

All right, so I had two Tuesdays. On the first Tuesday of this week, I walked around Neodaemun Market, then back up to Cheonggyecheon, where, a propos of nothing, this happened:

There might have been some reason for it but no one I asked could tell me. OK, then.

Also a propos of nothing, this was my $6.80 lunch on Monday:

I tried all of it, except the pink liquid that smelled evil, and I've decided I'm not a big fan of kimchi.

I should get gradually more coherent as the week goes on.

Wednesday 4 December 2013 11:57:02 CST (UTC-06:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | Travel#
Tuesday 3 December 2013

Oh, so this is the world's greatest airport. All right, I can go to aviation heaven now, and shop on the way.

Don't get me wrong: less than 10 minutes after I checked in, I was through security and immigration. Kind of like at O'Hare the day I left, it turns out, but Incheon extends that efficiency to everyone, not just those of us who have gotten our Pre-Check clearances.

And I do appreciate the "best shopping chance" advertised on the train, in the check-in area, on the escalators, and in the loo. Yes, because who doesn't like buying luxury goods while waiting for a flight?

And I'm totally down with thinking DFW and O'Hare are not the best airports in the world. In fact, I'll go so far as to put DFW in a category that includes Atlanta, JFK, Newark, and Dulles. If you've flown to any of those five airports you know what I'm talking about.

Maybe I'm just tired and feeling negative about things. Maybe I should remember that I'm about to go a third the way around the world in half a day, taking a trip that 50 years ago required stops in Alaska and Japan and took three days.

So, I've got about 15 hours before I land in Dallas, and with a little help from some frisky yeast I expect to sleep for at least 5 of them. I've got this month's Atlantic, the Economist's "World in 2014" survey (both on paper), and a full Kindle* that includes Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and today's entire New York Times. Plus I'm still about 8 episodes behind on This American Life.

I'm still processing Seoul. I have a couple of conclusions, which I'll hazard here even though they make me look uncultured. First, after trying a lot of it, I don't like Korean food. I don't know why. I like Japanese food; I like a lot of Chinese food; Thai; Indian—Indian!—and lots of others. Bulgolgi is OK, and so is galbi, I guess. But I just didn't fall in love with Korean street food. And they have crap sushi, I'm sorry to report.

Second, there's something exciting and new about young East Asian cities like Seoul. I can feel the determination, the drive, the shabu shabu. But it's not my thing. I mean, London is my favorite place to be in the world, and I really loved Tokyo, so it's not like I'm all about rocking a hammock for a week or anything. But Seoul doesn't know how to chill. Even their relaxation is intense, like it's work. It's not a good fit.

It's not you, Seoul; it's me.

Like I said, I'm still processing. I may not come to any considered conclusions for a while. Just the same, I feel no need ever to come back to Seoul.

* I have an Asus tablet running Android, not a proper Kindle, but Amazon decided that they're about the content and not the device and made a pretty good Android reader.

Tuesday 3 December 2013 16:20:10 KST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Aviation | Geography | Travel#

After going to the Korean history museum on Sunday, I went over to the War Memorial. This isn't entirely a memorial to the Korean War, though about half the building is devoted to it. The basement has artifacts and busts commemorating two millennia of wars on the peninsula.

Outside the memorial building is an assortment of weapons from World War II onwards, including OH MY GOD THAT IS A B-52:

A B-52 that children can climb on, apparently:

They also have a Nike missile next to a SCUD, which was disconcerting. (Not nearly as disconcerting as discovering that I live 2 km from a 1950s-era Nike battery. Yes: we had nuclear bombs in Belmont Harbor.)

I've threatened promised to talk more about the Korean War's influence on Seoul, and I will, possibly even this afternoon. At the moment, I'm about to check out of the hotel and spend my last couple of hours exploring the city. Plus, I found a sushi place. I can't leave East Asia without getting sushi!

Tuesday 3 December 2013 09:36:40 KST (UTC+09:00)  |  | US | World | Travel#
Monday 2 December 2013

Now that I've slept on it, I see it's possible I was a wee cranky yesterday. After a good night's sleep, for instance, I realize I don't hate my Windows phone (but it does annoy me frequently).

But also upon waking up I read Andrew Sullivan's reflections on visiting London he published a few hours ago. He wrote:

Beneath the packed busy streets, there’s a quiet, low-level order that can become so familiar you lose sight of it. On the tube, for example, despite being crammed in like a container of skinny McDonald’s fries, people actually wait for passengers to get off the train before getting on (with some helpful corralling from conductors). On the escalators, people reliably stand on the right, while the left lane is for striders. Parks are ubiquitous, and convey a constant sense of the English countryside in the densest of urban neighborhoods. Buildings, from domestic architecture (I was constantly struck by simple Georgian beauty or Edwardian elegance) to commercial buildings (some of the new structures are breathtakingly good), are not obviously disposable or purely utilitarian. The exceptions are those constructed when post-war austerity met architectural isms – but mercifully those are slowly being demolished. The resulting affect is a constant struggle for a livable city, as well as a workable one. Maybe that is what has made London perhaps the premier global city. The whole world can find a home here and increasingly does, from the newest Polish immigrant and Brazilian dreamer to the Russian oligarch and the American banker.

Perhaps London has honed these habits so relentlessly because it has no serious British competitor. London is it. So people have made the best of it – over twenty centuries of communal living. The level of politeness you see had to be learned through the centuries, as the least disagreeable way of getting along in such close crammed quarters, and passed along to successive generations. It simply makes life easier en masse, even if it can be inconvenient in anyone case for the individual.

Seoul, with only about 20 years in its present form, has a long, long way to go. Chicago (100 years) and New York (200 years) are still young and brash to Europeans, but mature and settled to most middle-class Asians.

I also had a chance to talk with a few expatriates last night, including Mike and Tyler, who own Rocky Mountain Tavern in Itaewon. Mike moved here 6 years ago from St. John's, Newfoundland; Tyler came over in 2002 from Whitehorse, Y.T. After making some obligatory jokes about coming to Seoul for the weather, we talked a bit about living and working in Seoul.

I'm still thinking about a lot of what they told me, but essentially they confirmed that Seoul is still all business, and hasn't really found its center. (Me: "It feels a lot like Cleveland." Tyler: "Yeah, I can totally see that.") They also pointed out that the first week of December doesn't really show the city at its best, and that I should return in March or October when it's not too hot or too cold.

So, still processing. I've got a 12-hour flight to Dallas this evening on which to ponder it. Before then, I'll have some more photos from Sunday, and I'll have explored Incheon International Airport to find out why it's called the best airport in the world.

The "headwaters" of Cheonggyecheon, the stream covered by a highway for 40 years before being rebuilt in 2005.

Tuesday 3 December 2013 07:06:48 KST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Travel#

I have an HTC Windows 8X phone. I work for a Microsoft Partner, so this seemed like a good idea at the time. After nearly a year, I can report that I am tired of this phone and want to go back to Android.

The one thing my phone does well is manage two Microsoft Exchange accounts. And it does Skydrive all right too. Those are Microsoft products, so Windows should handle them.

I find the touch-screen waaay too sensitive. It can't determine what letter I want more than half the time, and its auto-correct suggestions hardly ever make sense.

Bing, however, sucks ass, compared with Google. And there's no way to change the hyper-sensitive search button on the phone, which fires up Bing every time my thumb goes near the search icon. Sometimes when I'm trying to take a photo, or do something else that involves the phone not switching applications.

Bing Maps is even worse. I won't spend too much time on a rant when I could just show you.

Let me preface this by saying Seoul's WiFi situation is amazing. I have free WiFi nearly everywhere I go. Which is how I was able to run the following comparison.

Exhibit A, where the Bing Maps application thought I was this afternoon:

(Click for full-size image.)

Exhibit B, where Google Maps thought I was at the same moment:

Google wins.

Note that the Bing Maps application on my phone failed to produce a usable map; Bing Maps itself has the data. Here's what the Bing Maps website shows inside a browser window:

Attention, Microsoft: Having a nicely detailed map on my laptop does not help me when I'm in the middle of Gangnam. That's really exactly the moment that I want a good map.

Oh, and to add insult, Google Maps doesn't really work that well on the IE11 mobile browser. As in, it won't search unless you really make sure you touch exactly the right pixel on the screen.

My next phone? I'm going back to Android.

Monday 2 December 2013 15:15:29 KST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | Software#

(I promise, no more "Seoul" puns. Promise. Really. Swear.)

Yesterday I started my shpatziring at the Seoul Museum of History. Now, if you know about my love maps, you can imagine what happened when I walked into this room:

That is a 1:1500 scale model of the city. Every. Freaking. Building. With an electronic system that put a spotlight and a little CCTV camera on whatever point of interest you wanted to see.

(Aside: Would it have killed them to do the electronic interface in multiple languages? Sheesh. Every other public interface I've seen has English, Japanese, and Chinese translations. But not the super high-tech electronic touch-screen that controlled the lights on this model.)

After spending about half an hour poring over the model, I went through the rest of the museum's main collection. (Fortunately most of the descriptions were in English, and it turns out I could have picked up a translation earpiece that works off bar codes next to the exhibits.) I believe I now understand one of the chief reasons I haven't really connected to Seoul.

Throughout the museum, I got two big themes: first, until the 1970s, southern Korea was poorer than northern Korea. Second, Koreans hate their own history. I'll have more on the second part later today or tomorrow, other than to say it informs their architecture and urban planning hugely.

Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 15th August 1948. Had Korea reunified three years after V-J Day as the Allies originally planned, sparing the North the some of the worst economic and social mismanagement the world has ever seen, it's possible Seoul would be a sleepy capital city like Ottawa, with Pyongyang as the principal economic hub. Instead, North Korea invaded the South in 1950, and after this bloody civil war, millions of people poured into the city from all over the peninsula. Seoul went from 1.5 million people in 1949 to 10 million people in 1990. (Since 1990, its population has hovered around 11 million, which I'll get back to.)

The only major city in the U.S. to grow that fast in that period was Las Vegas, which had just 24,000 people in 1950 and 478,000 in 1990. And you know what? I don't connect with Las Vegas much, either.

See, Seoul had to build enough infrastructure and housing for its 8½ million new residents in just a couple of decades. Unfortunately for Seoul's architecture, those decades included the modernist-brutalist 1960s and 1970s, when evil fascist inhuman controversial figures like Le Corbusier stalked the halls of urban planning commissions. And Seoul had no Jane Jacobs.

You can see, if you look closely at that model, or if you even scope the Google Earth images of the city, what happened next. The history museum documents how the city government razed entire neighborhoods of traditional houses (like these) and replaced them with cheap high-rises. The Gangam district across the river popped up out of a swamp in 10 years' time.

Result: A sprawling city comprising almost entirely brutalist buildings from the 1970s and 1980s, with the occasional 21st-century structure thrown in. In fairness, it's not all bad; the Jonggak Tower, for example, is kind of cool:

Jonggak Tower, Seoul

Chicago also had a period of rapid growth, followed by massive urban renewal: from 1830 to 1870, Chicago's population grew two orders of magnitude, from 4,500 to 490,000. Then in 1871 most of the city burned to the ground, clearing all the shanties and wooden structures out. When we rebuilt, we did it with a pretty logical plan. And when we expanded six fold in six decades (1870 to 1930), we did so with essentially no geographic barriers in three directions and during a period in architecture when things were unavoidably human-scale. (Don't forget, though: Chicago built the first steel-framed skyscraper in 1884, and also built its share of ghastly, vertical Corbusian slums in the 1950s.)

In sum, Seoul's architecture makes me want to stay in my hotel room.* The city feels, it pains me to say, a little soulless.

There's a little glimmer of hope: the city's stability since the 1990s. Thanks to family planning programs and social pressure, the Korean population is more stable than it was before then, and Seoul's infrastructure has had time to catch up with its needs. People still prefer to live in cheap high-rises, but with a couple more decades of stability, the city might start sanding off its brutalist edges.

Look at Chicago again as an example. After a century of wild growth, Chicago's population stabilized around 3 million, declining a little in the 1980s but picking up again since 2000. Instead of building as fast as we can, we've spent about 60 years revising: tear down the crap we hate, preserve the stuff we like. Chicago has a large contingent of people like me, who will spend a lot to live in neighborhoods with hundred-year-old trees flanking hundred-year-old three-flats, and whose ideas about affordable housing don't amount to "round them up and stuff them in."

Seoul isn't there yet. They might never be; it's entirely possible that ten million Koreans really do like Corbusian modernism, and I'm postulating a difference of quality rather than a difference of taste.

There's a lot of great stuff in Seoul. It's a ridiculously easy place to live, it seems, as it's the most convenient and efficient city I've ever seen. (Sorry, Tokyo.) It's just not a place I'd want to live.

- 30 -

* A room, by the way, that overlooks the Seosemon Overpass, a structure similar to the part of Western Avenue that flies over Belmont in Chicago. The history museum specifically called out this 1968 structure as a model for the rest of Seoul. They liked the model so much they built dozens of raised highways right atop other highways, buildings, railroads, and even rivers, and then started removing them in the 1990s when the soul-crushing lack of walking spaces finally got to them. And so little do urban planners here think about history that only 50 years after covering up Cheonggye Stream, they rebuilt it from scratch because they couldn't find it again. Here's Cheonggyecheon today:

Monday 2 December 2013 09:37:07 KST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | World | Travel#
Sunday 1 December 2013

Saturday's tour of Panmunjeom was surreal enough. But even before we got to the Joint Security Area, we stopped at Peace Land:

The clash of civilisations was never better dramatised than at Peace Land, in Imjingak, on the 38th Parallel. Here, the starving people of the world's nastiest dictatorship can look across the border at capitalism quite literally putting on a funfair. For the Southerners, of course, the North Koreans are the principal attraction.

Right alongside the Pirate Ship, the Wriggly Worm and all the other fantasy rides run the perfectly real electrified fences and watchtowers of the border. The organisers of the theme park provide special viewing platforms and free telescopes for visitors. A key attraction is a bombed-out steam locomotive, still standing on its original tracks in front of a blown-up railway bridge across the River Imjin marking the frontier.

In fact, this bombed-out locomotive:

And that blown-up railway bridge:

See that barbed wire? Understand, that's not part of the theme park. Those are a real, live, deadly anti-personnel defenses that the theme park incorporated into its exhibits.

This theme park, to say the least, confused me. So I asked our tour guide why they have a fun fair within sniper distance of North Korea. She said that when relations with North Korea improved in the 1990s and early 2000s, people would meet their North Korean families nearby, so they'd bring their children to Imjingak for a few days. So, in the midst of this reminder that the Korean War has never really ended, they built a bunch of rides the kids can enjoy.

This is one more piece of data in figuring out Seoul. Yesterday I got a lot more, which I'll lay out in a few minutes.

Monday 2 December 2013 07:17:12 KST (UTC+09:00)  |  | Geography | World | Travel#
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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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