The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Back on the saddle next weekend...maybe

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

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

Amazon's $24m book

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

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

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

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

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

Nonsense is here to stay

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

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

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

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

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

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

More scary things that aren't, really

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

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

Phil Bertorelli, editor of AVWeb, does a facepalm:

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

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

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

Everyone just chill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willfully stupid

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

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

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

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

Donald Trump's practical joke

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

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

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

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

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


Old photos

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

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

Why do people think beavers and dogs work hard?

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

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

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

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