Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Saturday 30 August 2014

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates spent seven weeks this summer at an immersion French course at Middlebury College:

I was there to improve my French. My study consisted of four hours of class work and four hours of homework. I was forbidden from reading, writing, speaking, or hearing English. I watched films in French, tried to read a story in Le Monde each day, listened to RFI and a lot of Barbara and Karim Oullet. At every meal I spoke French, and over the course of the seven weeks I felt myself gradually losing touch with the broader world. This was not a wholly unpleasant feeling. In the moments I had to speak English (calling my wife, interacting with folks in town or at the book store), my mouth felt alien and my ear slightly off.

he majority of people I interacted with spoke better, wrote better, read better, and heard better than me. There was no escape from my ineptitude. At every waking hour, someone said something to me that I did not understand. At every waking hour, I mangled some poor Frenchman’s lovely language. For the entire summer, I lived by two words: “Désolé, encore.”

From this he examines scholastic opportunity and achievement, how different ethnic groups approach intellectuals in their midst, and class conflict in general, as only Coates can. It's a good read.

Saturday 30 August 2014 10:26:01 PDT (UTC-07:00)  |  | Geography | US | World#
Friday 29 August 2014

Jim Angel, the Illinois State Climatologist, wrote yesterday that Chicago-area precipitation seems to have shifted around 1965:

First of all, northeast Illinois (Cook and several surrounding counties – see map below) has experienced a shift in precipitation over the last 120 years. This plot shows the amounts for each year as green dots, and an 11-year running average showing longer periods of dry conditions (brown) and wet conditions (green). There is a pretty remarkable shift from a drier climate between 1895 and 1965 with lots of brown, towards a wetter climate from 1966 to present where green dominates.

If you compare the average annual precipitation between the two periods, you get 836 mm for the earlier period and 935 mm for the later period. That is a 99 mm increase, or about 12 percent.

Of course, we have still experienced drought conditions in this later wet period, as noted in 2005 and 2012. However, the wetter years far outnumber the dry years since 1965. BTW, this pattern is not unique. I have seen this across the state.

So, with slightly warmer weather, milder winters, and more precipitation, it looks like Illinois might suffer less from climate change than other parts of the country. However, those conditions have led to increasing insect populations and more-frequent large precipitation events, with non-trivial costs.

At least we're not in South Florida, which not only faces complete inundation from rising sea levels, but also a climate-denying Congressional delegation.

Friday 29 August 2014 07:22:20 PDT (UTC-07:00)  |  | Chicago | Geography | US | Weather#
Thursday 28 August 2014

On those rare occasions when I opt for it, I usually enjoy having in-flight WiFi. At this particular moment, however, I'm staring down another two hours of flying time with WiFi throughput under 200 kbps. That speed reminds me of the late 1990s. You know, half the Web ago.

This is painful. I'm not streaming video, nor am I connected to a remote server like the guy next to me. I'm just trying to get some documents written. I believe I will have to write a complaint to GoGo Inflight, as this throughput is completely unacceptable.

But enough about that minor sadness; I've found something truly horrible.

Everyone who took English 1 at my college had to read George Orwell's Politics and the English Language. (I would actually extend this mandate to everyone on the planet who speaks English if I had the power.) In the essay, Orwell calls out a specific passage from Ecclesiastes to show how business English can destroy thought:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

He renders it in modern English thus:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Two things. First, "modern" English in 1946 seems a lot like modern English in 2014. Frighteningly so.

Second, there are worse translations of that passage in actual, printed Bibles. Now, I'm not a religious person, as even a causal reader of this blog knows. But I have an appreciation for language. So it pains me to see that some people learned Ecclesiastes 9:11 like this:

I saw something else under the sun. The race isn't [won] by fast runners, or the battle by heroes. Wise people don't necessarily have food. Intelligent people don't necessarily have riches, and skilled people don't necessarily receive special treatment. But time and unpredictable events overtake all of them.

("GOD'S WORD® Translation")

Or this:

I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn't always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn't always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don't always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.

NO! No, no, NO! This isn't a children's book. Why does anyone need to dumb it down? I mean, fine, vernacular and all, but can't we at least keep the poetry?

It's no wonder the religious right have such poor cognitive skills. The one book they were allowed to read as children has been reduced to pabulum.

Thursday 28 August 2014 17:57:34 MDT (UTC-06:00)  |  | Aviation | Kitchen Sink | US | World#

United Airlines and Uber have quietly entered into a partnership to help United passengers get rides out of O'Hare (hat tip RM):

United launched the service Thursday that allows passengers to use the United Airlines mobile app to find UberTaxi information including the types of vehicles available, estimated wait times and prices.

The airline’s passengers can hook-up with the Uber service by using the airline’s mobile app to select a ride, at which point they are either directed to the Uber app to complete the transaction or to sign-up for an Uber account.

Only UberTaxi cars can participate, because they're licensed cab drivers.

Meanwhile, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn vetoed legislation that would have made it more difficult for Uber and its competitor, Lyft, to operate in Chicago, and Uber is coming under fire for poaching drivers from the competition.

Thursday 28 August 2014 10:21:58 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | Chicago | US | Travel#

Cranky Flier has his hypothesis:

From everything I understand, this particular spat is really about economics and there’s not some underlying hidden issue. While published commissions have disappeared, agencies with heft like Orbitz still do get paid by airlines. They also get paid by the reservation systems they use. How does the reservation system get the money to pay them? They make the airlines cough it up. So really when someone books on an online travel agent site, the airlines are paying for it twice. The airlines have to look at the total amount and decide whether or not its worth the price to play.

Now, if you’re a traveler and you go to Orbitz, you aren’t going to see American or Southwest. ... Sure, United and Delta can pick up some of the slack, but Orbitz becomes significantly less useful domestically. International is a different story, I suppose. That being said, if you really love using an online travel agent, then why not just use Expedia now? There is real risk for Orbitz.

There is also real risk for American, but it’s less than it probably would have been in the past. Before consolidation took hold, there were so many airlines out there you might not notice, as a consumer, that American had disappeared. But now, you’ll notice. At the same time, American has upped the percentage of traffic coming direct, so Orbitz really feels more pressure now than it would have in the past. The balance of power has shifted.

As a loyal oneworld frequent flier, I almost always go to aa.com directly (though I sometimes follow up by checking Hipmunk when I see suspicious direct pricing). But for occasional passengers, the Orbitz is a useful resource. And if Orbitz no longer shows American Airlines prices, will United and Delta raise theirs?

Thursday 28 August 2014 09:25:16 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation#
Wednesday 27 August 2014

Electric bikes that move between bike share stations may solve the bike-rebalancing problem:

The goal of this research is to derive algorithms directing the vans and trucks that bike-share operators use to shuffle bikes from station to station within a city. Trouble is, rebalancing is a moving target with several layers of complexity. You not only need to predict how many bikes a station will need at a certain time, but you need to minimize the (costly and time-consuming) movement of these vans and trucks—and you need to do it all while the system is in use.

Algorithms aren't the only option. Wald reports that at least one researcher is modeling a system in which driverless bike-share trucks could rebalance stations automatically. Of course, an easier way would be for bike-share systems to use electric bikes that shuffled themselves. But the thought of a bike traveling without a rider does bring up the problem of, you know, balance.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Divvy system will add another 100 or more stations next year, all the way up into Rogers Park and down to the far South Side.

Wednesday 27 August 2014 12:50:49 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Biking | Chicago | US#
Tuesday 26 August 2014

Noam Scheiber writes today that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and other right-wing Republicans are fighting the most important elections in this cycle:

But consider what happens if Republicans fail to win the Senate, in which case Walker’s re-election may loom even larger. The GOP will be coming off its third disappointing election in four cycles. Some Republicans will insist it’s long past time to moderate the party’s stance on issues like immigration and gay rights, as they did after the 2012 drubbing. But those voices will almost certainly be drowned out by right-wingers who say Republicans haven’t stood firmly enough in defense of conservative principles. And Walker, the governor who managed to destroy the left and live to tell about it in a swing state, will loom as an incredibly appealing model. His brand of aggressively partisan, aggressively conservative politics will immediately vault him to the top tier of presidential candidates for 2016.

Of course, if the GOP loses the Senate and Walker loses, too, I have no illusions that the GOP’s moderate reformers will suddenly win out. The party that rallied around Ted Cruz and ousted Eric Cantor partly over his supposed liberal heresies isn’t tacking to the political center any time soon. But, in a way, that’s exactly the point. What makes Walkerism so dangerous is that it puts a moderate face on what’s actually a pretty extreme set of policies. A politician working from Walker’s playbook can always say he or she is out to save taxpayers money and make government more efficient even as they’re really out to upend a decade-olds arrangement between workers and employers. (If you think Walkerism would stop at public employees unions, I have a beautiful timeshare in Green Bay to sell you...)

But why is Walker in so much trouble, despite surviving his recall election 53-47? Possibly because people really wanted the Medicaid money he turned down:

To get a look at whether a Republican governor’s policy stances matter, I re-plotted some of the relevant polling data. This time, I used two symbols to represent a governor’s stance on Medicaid expansion (and other aspects of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act):

According to these data points, Republican governors who bucked their party’s stance and accepted the policy are faring better with voters—in these races, an average of 8.5 percentage points better.

We've got two months until the election, so a lot could happen. But this is starting to look like the pendulum swinging back to center. And wow, do I hope so, because these right-wingnuts have been so depressing for so long...

Tuesday 26 August 2014 13:42:20 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Monday 25 August 2014

Mainly, since I'm going there soon, I should have mentioned the 6.1 earthquake in Napa yesterday morning.

Also, a few blocks from where I'm sitting, Chicago is building a new river walk for $100 million.

Anyone else looking forward to Rick Perry's next political campaign? It should be fun.

Oh, and I went with the REI duffel.

Monday 25 August 2014 13:23:00 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | US | San Francisco#

Someimes—rarely—I disconnect for a couple of days. This past weekend I basically just hung out, walked my dog, went shopping, and had a perfectly nice absence from the Web.

Unfortunately that meant I had something like 200 RSS articles to plough through, and I just couldn't bring myself to stop dealing with (most) emails. And I have a few articles to read:

Now back to your regularly-scheduled week, already in progress...

Monday 25 August 2014 12:25:01 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | Baseball | Chicago | Kitchen Sink | US | World | Travel#
Friday 22 August 2014

The Sun-Times reported last night that the Cubs organization's desire to avoid paying heath-care benefits required by Obamacare led to the tarp-rolling error Tuesday night that, in turn, almost caused a forfeit:

The staffing issues that hamstrung the grounds crew Tuesday during a mad dash with the tarp under a sudden rainstorm were created in part by a wide-ranging reorganization last winter of game-day personnel, job descriptions and work limits designed to keep the seasonal workers – including much of the grounds crew – under 130 hours per month, according to numerous sources with direct knowledge.

Sources say 10 crew members were sent home early by the bosses Tuesday night with little, if any, input from the field-level supervisors.

Tuesday's game was rained out in part because the ground crew couldn't deploy the tarp over the infield correctly. This caused water to pool on the infield dirt and grass, making the field unplayable. Since the game had gone into the 5th inning, and the Cubs were ahead, a rain out would have meant a Cubs win. The Giants successfully protested, the first time since 1986 for a Major League team.

Keep in mind, the Cubs have more revenue than 26 of the 29 other MLB teams. And they don't want to provide basic benefits to their employees?

Why do I keep going to games again?

Friday 22 August 2014 14:03:23 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Cubs | US#

Crain's has the story this morning about how the airline is adapting to reduced travel expense accounts:

Waning customer interest in the costliest tickets prompted American Airlines to drop first class as it adds seats to its 47 long-haul Boeing Co. 777-200s. The aircraft will get new lie-flat business seats — plusher than coach, but lacking first- class flourishes such as pajamas, slippers and an amuse bouche.

“We're responding to what demand is,” Casey Norton, an American spokesman, said yesterday. “We've looked at what the demand level is for business and also what we need in the main cabin as well. That's where we think we've hit the sweet spot.”

The changes will leave American with international three-class service — first, business and economy — only on the 777-300ER, the carrier's biggest aircraft. Fort Worth, Texas- based American has 14 of those planes flying on some of its most-lucrative overseas routes, such as Miami-Sao Paulo, while using the 777-200 for city pairs including Chicago-Beijing.

There are some other factors here. Intense competition for business-class passengers—but not for first-class—has driven most airlines to build business classes that would be incomprehensibly luxurious to passengers who flew first class as recently as 1995. The last time I flew first class overseas on American was Tokyo to Chicago in December 2011. I didn't pay the $12,000 for the seat the airline charged other people on the plane; I paid $400 for a fare-class adjustment to my coach ticket and used frequent-flier miles for the upgrade.

If you want to travel Chicago to London next week on American, you'll pay $7,700 to fly American or BA in business class and $10,600 to fly in first class. Four weeks out the business class price remains the same but first-class seats dry up as the airline moves the refitted 777-200s onto the route.

I love flying in American's business class overseas. But like most people who do so, I'll probably never pay full price for it. And this is the root of the airline's problems with first class.

Friday 22 August 2014 10:08:17 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | Travel#
Thursday 21 August 2014

Philip Shorer on the Atlantic's CityLab blog argues for a 4-day work week:

Beyond working more efficiently, a four-day workweek appears to improve morale and well-being. The president of the UK Faculty of Public Health told the Daily Mail that a four-day workweek could help lower blood pressure and increase mental health among employees. Jay Love of Slingshot SEO saw his employee-retention rate shoot up when he phased in three-day weekends. Following this line of thought, TreeHouse, an online education platform, implemented a four-day week to attract workers, which has contributed to the company's growth.

In this scenario, employees still work 40-hour weeks, but they do so over the course of four days rather than five. This arrangement still sounds sub-optimal, though, as working at full capacity for 10 hours is more demanding than doing so for eight. Despite that, the employees at Stephens’s company still preferred 40 hours in four days to 40 hours in five days. They might be even happier—and work even better—if they worked fewer hours in addition to fewer days.

Of course, counting travel, as a consultant I frequently do four 10-hour days followed by an 8-hour day. Cutting one of those out might be a good thing.

Thursday 21 August 2014 16:01:51 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | World | Business#

The Wall Street Journal explains why the Cubs can sell 38,000 seats and only get 19,000 asses in them:

Since 2009, ticket sales are down almost 6,500 a game. Where have all the Cub fans gone?

The answer may be that they've in effect awakened from a beer-soaked party.

Over the first four years of Ricketts ownership, attendance sank 13.7%. It is flat so far this year versus 2013, but the figures don't include the legions of no-shows. "I have plenty of friends with tickets who can't get rid of them," said Jon Greenberg, executive editor of Team Marketing Report.

Count me in that group. After sitting through six innings of last night's sad 8-3 loss against the Giants (in which the Giants hit and fielded better than any team I've seen this season), we left shaking our heads. We've still got tonight's game available, plus the 4:05 pm back half of Tuesday's game, but we can't sell them. The Cubs will count our tickets as "paid attendance" even though no one will be using them.

It's even odds whether we're going to renew our season tickets next year, especially if the Cubs don't drop the prices. Unfortunately, it's even worse odds that the Cubs will end the season out of last place.

Thursday 21 August 2014 09:05:36 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Baseball | Cubs#
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David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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