The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Coffee and maths

From Matthew Yglesias, information about coffee consumption worldwide, which apparently peaks in Finland:

The Swedes are actually a bit less coffee-mad than the Finns, Norwegians, Danes, or Icelanders but as you can see here all the Nordic peoples drink a ton of coffee, in the Swedish case a bit less than twice as much per capita as Americans do. The Södermalm area of Stockholm where Mikael Blonkvist and Lisbeth Salander live and Millenium and Milton Security are headquartered is just littered with coffee houses like nothing I’ve ever seen in America (incidentally, this is where I stayed when I was in Stockholm on the recommendation of a blog reader—it’s a hugely fun neighborhood, definitely stay there if you visit). Personally, I drink way more coffee than the average American and find this aspect of Swedish life congenial. Even I, however, had to balk at the extreme quantity of coffee I was served in Finland where consumption is absolutely off the charts.

And another from math teacher Dan Meyer:

It is exceptionally easy for me to treat the skills and structures of mathematics as holy writ. My default state is to assume that every student shares my reverence for the stone tablets onto which the math gods originally etched the quadratic formula. It is a matter of daily discipline to ask myself, instead:

  • what problem was the quadratic formula originally intended to solve?
  • why is the quadratic formula the best way to solve that problem?
  • how can I put my students in a position to discover the answers to (a) and (b) on their own?

This last is particularly intriguing because not only would I like those answers about the quadratic formula, I'd also like those answers about the Capital Asset Pricing Model and Black-Scholes.

Off to San Francisco this afternoon, to put off dealing with my head-exploding workload for three days. If the guy sitting in the row ahead of me leans back so I can't use my laptop, I will cry.

Four examples of mathematics in our lives

Exhibit the First: This morning on NPR, a "retired banker from Eagle River, Wis.," when interviewed about the retirement of Rep. David Obey (D-WI) claimed, "I think the majority of people up here are independent thinkers."

Exhibit the Second: via Gulliver, a study of airfare fluctuations in the U.S. market found airfares fluctuate millions of times per year for some city pairs in the U.S. For example, airfares between Atlanta and Las Vegas changed almost 2.5m times last year. Gulliver pointed out that this reflects intense price competition and really good pricing strategies. As for the number of changes? Multiply out the number of seats available times a modest frequency of changes (hundreds of seconds between changes for each seat) and you get into the millions. I'm interested what my marketing professor would say.

Exhibit the Third: via Sullivan, a Spanish mathemetician has examined marital breakups, complete with colorful charts.

Exhibit the Last: Glenview, Ill., police arrested four kids over the weekend for trying to tip cows at a local museum farm. The mathematical tie-in comes from the mass differential between a 500 kg cow and a 80 kg human. Said Wagner Farm director Todd Price, "cow tipping has never been a major concern, mostly because it's harder than people think."

Nobody puts USAirways in a corner

Apparently United danced with USAirways just to make Continental jealous. It worked:

"What happened here is very simple," Continental President and Chief Executive Jeff Smisek told analysts and reporters on a Monday conference call. "I found out through the news media that Glenn [Tilton, CEO of United] was looking at a potential other combination. I recognized that United is the best possible partner for Continental...I didn't want him to marry the ugly girl. I wanted him to marry the pretty one, and I'm much prettier."

... Executives added on Monday that they expect US Airways to continue being a "valued partner" in the Star Alliance.

Of course, major business combinations like this one happen because of cold, hard finacial logic, not because of petty gossip. But does anyone really think American hasn't started passing USAirways notes in study hall?

Unidental? Continited? Either way, have fun at O'Hare

United and Continental have officially voted to merge, which won't suck for Chicago:

The new United's operations headquarters will be located in Chicago's Willis Tower, which was formerly known as the Sears Tower. United will move forward with plans to place its crucial nerve center and 2,800 staffers in the skyscraper starting in October.

The combined airline would have revenues of $29 billion, based on 2009 results, and hold an unrestricted cash balance of about $7.4 billion. The carriers said in a press release Monday that they expect to complete the transaction in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Unlike the earlier merger that United had contemplated with US Airways, this deal isn't expected to involve large-scale cuts since United's and Continental's networks have little overlap. The carriers expect to continue serving the 370 cities where United or Continental currently fly, and will operate 10 hubs, including bases in the four largest cities in the U.S.

(The photo above shows the new color scheme on a Boeing 787, of which Continental has ordered 25 and United has ordered none, as of November.)

American and USAirways will have to merge, really. Or USAirways will have to join oneworld. That will leave three major international airlines in the U.S., which won't do a lot to help prices.

EU phasing out liquid restrictions

By 2013, the EU will stop confiscating your lunch:

Liquids, gels and aerosols will instead be run through a new generation of explosives scanners able to screen them for harmful materials. Getting these machines up and running will be very expensive, and the technology is not yet foolproof. But nothing in aviation security is foolproof, and anything is better than the chaotic confiscation policies now in place.

Why are the Europeans always one step ahead of us?

... The 3-ounce container rule is silly enough -- after all, what's to stop somebody from carrying several small bottles, each full of the same substance -- but consider for a moment the hypocrisy of TSA's confiscation policy. At every concourse checkpoint you'll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? So why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are harmless. But it's going to take them anyway, and either you accept it or you don't fly.

Smith also, bless him, acknowledges another problem with the US enforcement regime: "The maximum allowable container size is actually 3.4 ounces, by the way, or a hundred milliliters."

In other aviation news, United is eating Continental. That will cause American to eat USAirways, leaving only three major airlines in the US, and a Herfindahl-Hirschman Index climbing to heaven. Lovely.

Anchor Brewing sold

Via reader MB, one of the best beers in the world has been sold to a pair of beer-loving entrepreneurs:

Fritz Maytag, the washing machine heir who launched the microbrewery movement, has sold Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco to a pair of Bay Area entrepreneurs who plan to preserve and expand the iconic brand.

No terms were disclosed for the sale of the 70-person Mariposa Street brewery and distillery that traces its roots to the Gold Rush, when local brewers produced a heady elixir known as steam beer.

In 45 years at the helm of Anchor Brewing, Maytag helped spark a revival in the craft of making beer by hand and inspired thousands of entrepreneurs to follow him in creating small, artisanal breweries.

Judging by the reactions of people in my class to a case we read on the Boston Beer Co., it's likely that overseas readers don't appreciate what Maytag did for beer lovers. Within a few hours of Chicago there are dozens of craft breweries, including Tyranena and, of course, Goose Island, two of the best in the world. Only Japan has anything like the American craft-brew culture, but sadly they don't export it. Neither do most of the craft brewers; their batches are too small even to ship farther than the next state over. So, in Chicago, I get to have a Mad Hatter, and in Raleigh I get to have a Angry Angel; but throughout this fine, beer-loving nation, we'll still have Anchor Steam.

Why you shouldn't check email at midnight

You might see a news story like this:

Chicago would be headquarters to the largest airline in the world if United Airlines successfully consummates a deal with Continental Airlines.

Where to base the world headquarters of the merged entity is one of many potentially thorny "social" issues that have been resolved as the two airlines move rapidly toward a deal that could be completed as soon as next week, said people close to the situation.

The implications make my brain hurt. This would be tremendous for Chicago, at the expense of making O'Hare a fresh kind of hell for Conited (Uninental?) travelers. But United would gain a major hub in Houston to compete with American's in Dallas, and would solidify its Asia-Pacific lead even while essentially conceding the North Atlantic to oneworld. (For the record, I will continue to fly American regardless. The article mentions that US Airways, twice to the altar but never wed with United, may jump into American's arms instead.)

Then there was this, via Sullivan, which has to be a first in American history, in Philadelphia yet:

Veteran Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) last Thursday accused her primary opponent, Gregg Kravitz, of pretending to be bisexual in order to pander to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender voters, a powerful bloc in the district.

"I outed him as a straight person," Josephs said during a fund-raiser at the Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant, as some in the audience gasped or laughed, "and now he goes around telling people, quote, 'I swing both ways.' That's quite a respectful way to talk about sexuality. This guy's a gem."

Kravitz, 29, said that he is sexually attracted to both men and women and called Josephs' comments offensive.

"That kind of taunting is going to make it more difficult for closeted members of the LGBT community to be comfortable with themselves," Kravitz said. "It's damaging."

Add to all this the increasing likelihood (though still well below 50%) that Nick Clegg could become Britain's prime minister in two weeks, and I think it will be a fretfully long night. (In a good way. If I were a UK citizen, I'd vote Lib-Dem this time. Seriously.)

Two short notes on a too-long flight

Over Great Bear Lake, N.W.T., 16:20 MDT

Note the first: A westbound 13-hour flight seems a lot shorter than a 9-hour flight the other direction. We left Chicago a little more than four hours ago, which equals the flying time from Chicago to San Francisco, the farthest place you can go within the Lower 48. It doesn’t feel that far. The sun confounds perceptions of time: we took off at 1pm and we land at 3:30, chasing the sun across the Canadian permafrost most of the way. I get to Shanghai at 7pm. My clock at home will say 6am. My brain will not have a clue.

Note the second: It turns out that flight attendants covet the Chicago-Tokyo route. Our cabin crew includes a husband-and-wife team, both of whom have worked for American longer than 30 years. The husband told me that the Chicago-Beijing route starting at the end of this month has become the most-sought trip for flight attendants; he expects he’ll be able to bid for it in a couple of years. Let me repeat that: when he has 40 years with the airline he might get on the Chicago-Beijing route.

Bad food choices

First, a housekeeping note. This is the one of three entries posted after the fact. Almost always, a post time you see on The Daily Parker accurately records when I first posted the blog entry. At this writing I’m on an airplane over Canada’s Northwest Territories, so the post time shows when I took notes about the entry that follows. This all may seem, as my dearest friend might say, “a bit Asperger’s-y.” Perhaps. Another very close friend blogs retrospectively, because she wants her entries to correspond in time to when the experiences happened. I think either is fine as long as it’s consistent. Otherwise, it’s almost like lying to yourself.

(We now rejoin the blog already in progress.)

If you have to fly out of O’Hare, you really can’t beat mid-morning on Tuesday. It took me 11 minutes from the time my cousin dropped me at Terminal 3 to check two bags through to Shanghai and get through security. Eleven minutes. Yes, I have Platinum status, but there weren’t any lines I could see at anywhere else. Always do things when no one else is doing them, someone once told me. Good advice.

In a moment of stupidity I forgot they would feed me on the plane, so I got lunch. The stupidity compounded itself by suggesting that, since I was heading to China, maybe I should skip the usual Terminal 3 two-item combo from Manchu Wok and get something impossible to get in Shanghai, like, say, a Quarter Pounder. Understand, the last time I ate at McDonald’s, ridiculous comparatives hadn’t been invented yet, so all we could say was “it was a long time ago.” I think I last had a Quarter Pounder during the Daley administration. The first one.

I think they’ve changed the recipe. The Quarter Pounder and small fries I had didn’t taste anything like I remembered. What happened to the salt? Where was the grease? What kind of cardboard bun was this? (At least they still make cardboard buns.) What a disappointment. I wanted my last meal in the United States for two weeks to be something quintessentially American, and obviously fattening and hypertensive. Instead I got what tasted like...well, it didn’t taste like anything, actually. Then American Airlines added to my culinary confusion by serving me a quite tasty beef filet in garlic ginger sake sauce with wild mushrooms paired with a decent Australian cabernet.

What is America coming to, when airline food is better than McDonald’s?