The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Clarifying my last post

Overnight, a commenter from Ireland took issue with my last post. I responded directly, but I thought my response might be worth repeating. I'm not sure I stated my point clearly enough: I wasn't actually discussing Snowden's leak; I'm saying we can't have an adult discussion about the leak any more, because he screwed up the end game.

The anonymous commenter wrote, inter alia:

Einstein fled. So did Hedy Lamar. So did thousands of others - including many who aided Germany's enemies. Were they cowards? Is the Dali Lama a coward?

It's interesting, I've just finished a history of inter-war Berlin, so I have some insight into Einstein's and Lamar's flights from Germany. The commenter essentially suggests that the U.S. has degenerated to the point where a plurality of voters are considering giving power to a group of armed thugs who have publicly and repeatedly announced plans to commit genocide.

Lamar, Einstein, the Dalai Lama—these people were persecuted for who they were, not for what they had done. Their departures from their home countries reflected their beliefs (correctly, it turns out) that their governments weren't worth preserving, that disobedience had no hope of changing anything, that they'd given up hope. Well, I haven't given up.

The commenter also pointed out:

Multiple nations collaborated to aid Snowden's journey. They did so in spite of huge amounts of US pressure. American soft power is an incredibly important thing if America wants to push her agenda - and this incident shows how damaged it is. Mass spying and deception has consequences.

Exactly right. And that's why I say Snowden scored an own goal.

We need to have an open and vociferous debate in the U.S. about the trade-offs between security and liberty, and Snowden could have done a lot to open up that discussion. Instead he ran, and that's all anyone will ever say about him. He conceded the argument on irrelevant grounds.

I agree that Manning and Schwartz deserved better. So did Mandela. But take a look at the example Ellsberg set. Snowden, if he'd been less narcissistic, might have done a lot of good for the country. It's really a shame.

Edward Snowden scores an own-goal

Someday, when a far-future Gibson writes about this time in the American Republic, he'll have a paragraph about Edward Snowden. I've got a fantasy in which the future historian remarks on Snowden sounding the alarm against unprecedented government and private collusion against personal privacy, and how his leak sparked a re-evaluation of the relationships between convenience and security, and between government and industry.

But I've actually got a degree in history, and I can tell you that the future Gibson will probably write about how Snowden's cowardice gave those who crave security over liberty the greatest gift they could have gotten. (The same study of history, by the way, leads me to the conclusion that this happy circumstance really does come from Snowden and not from some shadowy conspiracy. Never mistake incompetence for malice.)

I don't have a lot to say, other than Snowden's flight to Venezuela by way of Russia and China allows the people who value security over liberty to claim that Snowden was an enemy of the state, so we shouldn't pay any attention to his message. Have American security services over-reached? Do we have less privacy than ever before? Does this give a future politician the tools to take the United States from a republic to a dictatorship? Yes to all three. But no one will be thinking about that any more.

For the record: I don't think we have any immediate worries. I don't know what the consequences of these disclosures will actually be; no one does. And I'm not scraping together all the gold I can find so I can make a midnight passage to Canada.

I am saying only this: Edward Snowden is an idiot. King went to jail. Mandela went to jail. Hell, Ellsberg was willing to go to jail, but he at least had the pulse of the public before stepping forward.

The thought has occurred to others, I'm sure: Snowden could have done a lot more good as a confidential source, or as a man of conviction, than he can do as a defector.

Oh, and Ed: good luck enjoying your freedom in Venezuela. There's a reason we have chilly relations with the Venezuelan government, and it's not entirely about oil.

Battle of the Titans of Little League

Going into yesterday's game against the Astros, the Cubs and Brewers were tied for 4th place in the National League Central division, and the Astros were the second-worst team in all of baseball. (Miami, with a 24-49 record, is firmly in last place overall.)

So no one expected anything exciting in the game, and we got what we expected. Both teams played at a level familiar to parents with children in Little League. Baserunning mistakes cost the Cubs three outs in two innings; simple relays between fielders went all over the field like electrons in a cloud.

We did get to see a rare play when Houston executed a perfect suicide squeeze in the top of the 9th to score the winning run. With a runner on 3rd, shortstop Ronny Cedeno bunted the ball just to the left of pitcher Kevin Gregg, who got the ball in time—but with catcher Wellington Castillo infield of the plate, neither he nor Gregg saw Justin Maxwell barreling down the line from 3rd until his foot crossed the plate.

The park erupted with ennui. Not a peep. About half the fans had already left. When the Cubs went one-two-three in the 9th, we shrugged and went home.

With Milwaukee's win yesterday, the Cubs are back in 5th place, at 30-43. Houston rose to 29-47 with the win, and Miami rounds out the benighted trio of losers at 24-50. Yay, us.

How to photograph a sunset in Chicago

It helps if you can get a few hundred meters off shore:

That was Thursday Night, on the Sarah's Inn Cruise for a Cause. We got excessively lucky with the weather, so I brought my real camera with me.

This morning I did some more publicity stills for Comedy of Errors; I'll post some of those as soon as I have approval from the cast.

Now I'm off to Wrigley. The Cubs won last night, but so did the Brewers, so we're still tied for fourth.

How to conquer Chicago

Via the Atlantic Cities blog, this is pretty awesome:

World domination is all well and good, but sometimes taking over a city is more than enough for one night. That's the feeling that Luke Costanza and Mackenzie Stutzman had a few years back while playing the board game Risk in Boston. So they sketched out a rough map of the metro area, split neighborhoods into six distinct regions, and laminated the pages. Then they invited over a few more friends to test it out — and discovered it was a rousing success.

"That's when it kind of clicked that we could maybe make these for other cities," says Costanza. "It's just tons of fun to be able to play this classic game in a place that you know."

That initial urge to conquer the Bay has since expanded into Havoc Boards: a series of 15 Risk-style games that Costanza and Stutzman are funding through a Kickstarter campaign. Instead of limiting the action to the global stage, Havoc Boards offer a variety of territories for conquest. To date they've created boards for ten cities —Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles among them — as well as two countries, a continent, a college campus, and even the solar system.

Check it out:

Cranky Flier on UA's elite spending program

As I mentioned yesterday, United Airlines will start requiring their elite fliers to meet spending thresholds to keep elite status. Here's the Cranky Flier's take:

If you’re actually earning 25,000 miles from flying and haven’t spent $2,500 on United, then United might not consider you to be worth trying to keep in the program. Either you’re trying to game the system through a really cheap mileage run, or you’re getting incredibly lucky with low fares since those are pretty tough to find these days. Or maybe you’re just flying a lot on partner airlines. I do think it’s odd that joint venture revenue on Lufthansa/Air Canada over the Atlantic or ANA over the Pacific doesn’t count, because United should view that to be the same as revenue on its airplanes. But my guess is that it’s simply a tracking problem. Either way, if you’re really flying that much on joint venture partners and not on United, then you should probably join the other airline frequent flier programs anyway.

On the whole, I don’t have a problem with this move. In fact, I applaud United as I did Delta for trying to tweak these programs to reward the kind of behavior United wants to encourage (spending money and flying a lot instead of just flying a lot). But unlike Delta, which is in a position of strength right now, United’s timing leaves something to be desired.

Again: what will US Airways do?

Frequent flyer spending minimum on United?

This could make it harder to qualify for elite status:

Starting next year, United Airlines frequent fliers will have to spend minimum amounts to achieve elite flier status, in addition to flying a certain number of miles or segments, the Chicago-based airline said Tuesday.

Those who want to achieve the lowest elite tier of the MileagePlus program, called Premier Silver, will not only have to fly 25,000 miles or 30 segments, but also spend a minimum of $2,500 on United tickets. Purchases on partner airlines and extra-legroom upgrades, called Economy Plus, count toward the spending threshold.

One tactic some people use—I'm not saying everyone, just some people—is called a "mileage run," which is where you book a flight for no purpose other than getting to the next elite tier as cheaply as possible. For example, if you've got 48,000 miles and you want to make the 50k tier for the next year, you can take a trip to nowhere to earn the last 2,000 miles. From Chicago, for example, you could fly to Tampa (1,018 flight miles) or Albuquerque (1,118 miles) and back, which is great if you find a super-cheap ticket to do so.

I am curious whether US Airways will follow United's lead. (American can't make any changes of that magnitude to its A'Advantage program without US Airways' approval.) If so, I would probably lose my 50k-tier status, because unless I have a lot of business travel at full rate, I'm unlikely to spend $5,000 a year to keep it.

Mayor Emanuel's latest press

On Sunday Salon published a description of Rahm Emanuel's management style that suggests he may inadvertently end the Imperial Mayor system we have in Chicago:

Emanuel faces scrutiny from groups [former mayor Richord M.] Daley never alienated: public sector unions, liberal progressives and minority coalitions on the city’s South and West side. Since his election, Emanuel’s approval numbers started dropping, and some are charging him as racist — a “murder mayor” deaf to the marginalized swaths of Chicago suffering from escalating street violence, inadequate transit and the largest mass school closing in U.S. history. While he reigns as mayor in a city traditionally ruled by Democrats, many consider him a Republican in donkey blue clothing, who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), swept into office and immediately hauled out the budget cleaver.

Emanuel is proposing a new [parking meter] deal [with Morgan Stanley] that once again made Sunday parking free, in exchange for allowing the company to extend parking hours, up to 10 p.m., in some neighborhoods. Emanuel’s talking point for selling the swap is “trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.” But many aldermen, spurred by local media reports that Emanuel’s numbers were flawed — and worried their constituents will run them out of town on a rail — are demanding hard data from city hall to determine if, indeed, the numbers add up in their favor.

And then today the Tribune has an embarrassing bit about red-light cameras:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel accepted $10,000 in campaign contributions from the spouses of two top executives of a longtime city contractor that is also vying to take over the city's beleaguered red light camera program.

The mayor's Chicago for Rahm Emanuel campaign fund has reported two contributions from the wives of SDI's top executives, although in neither case is the connection to SDI disclosed by the Emanuel campaign. One $5,000 donation was reported Dec. 28, 2012, from Gupta's wife, Dawn. Campaign records identify her as the founder of a small holistic health company created in September called Balex LLC.

The other $5,000 contribution to Emanuel was reported Jan. 10 from a woman listed as a “homemaker” named Debra Diver. She is the wife of Brian Diver, the president and chief operating officer at SDI.

Notice that both of these scandals revolve around Chicago's largest public asset: its road network. We have over 6,000 km of streets, and tens of thousands of metered parking spaces. People understand roads. And schools, but that's a bigger topic.

Opaque airfares

Last night I poked around, musing about taking a pair of trips this fall. Two, because during the fall and early winter, airfares and hotels are cheaper than the rest of the year, at least in the places I like to go.

My original thought was to buy a trip to London and use miles for a second trip somewhere else, on the theory that with 8 daily non-stops between Chicago and London, fares would be lower than to somewhere that has only one daily flight. No, not so much.

For travel the weekend of 10-15 October, here are the best airfares I found on oneworld carriers:

Dublin5,910 km$776
London6,360 km$1,144
Honolulu6,826 km$808
Berlin7,099 km$889
Tokyo10,094 km$1,159
Hong Kong12,538 km$1,200

All of the options save London have one daily non-stop from Chicago. As you can see, they're in order by distance, and also as you can see, there seems to be no connection between the distance (a proxy for the cost to the airline) and the airfare.

To add more confusion, all of those destinations cost 30,000 frequent-flyer miles (except for Honolulu, at 22,500, and Hong Kong, at 35,000) each way in coach or 50,000 each way in business. I say "confusion" because now I'm trying to balance two competing miles forces and coming up with a deranged result.

The pressures are these: earn the most flight miles per dollar—flight miles are super valuable compared with other kinds—and spend the fewest flight miles per trip. As you can see from the data, it actually works out better if I use miles on the shorter trip (to London or Berlin) and buy my ticket for the longer trip (to Asia).

Just a little more figuring, including the cost of upgrading to business class on overnight segments and each city's hotel costs, and holding the dates constant, puts 10 possible trips in this order:

Quito, Ecuador; Honolulu; Hong Kong; Dublin; London; Madrid; Manchester, U.K.; Dusseldorf; Tokyo; Berlin; Paris; Santiago, Chile

How did that happen?

Quito is cheapest because without overnight flights, I won't upgrade from coach. And their hotels are really cheap.

Santiago comes out most expensive because both directions have overnight flights.

Hong Kong comes in so inexpensive because I can't use miles to upgrade on any airline other than American, British Airways, or Iberia. The Chicago-Hong Kong flight is Cathay Pacific. I will fly that route someday—but not all the way in coach. Fourteen hours on a plane is fine; but not overnight in coach.

Dublin looks like a back door into London, since flights from Dublin to London are around $150 round-trip; but London works out to be cheaper because AA runs a morning flight from Chicago. No upgrade needed.

I have to conclude the following: because of the insane airfares to Europe and the equally insane airfares to Tokyo, caused by the weak yen and European departure taxes, the cost-per-mile to Tokyo is about half the cost-per-mile to London. Ergo, buy the Tokyo ticket and get the London one for free.

Will I actually take these trips? I can't say. I hope so though.