The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Out of the office

I was traveling yesterday, which prevented me from commenting on Lincoln's 200th Birthday, Darwin's 200th birthday, and the NAACP centennial. All three events deserved recognition, but fortunately, the other seven million bloggers in the U.S. covered them just fine.

As for the travel, I have only once in my life gone someplace just because it was warmer than Chicago; today, briefly, I'm back in the same place. Tonight I press on to the Mecca (or Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, depending on which monotheistic faith you follow) of aviation; photos and description to follow, I hope next week. Also, I'll be accepting donations of spare livers on Tuesday as I expect mine will need replacing by then. That is, if I ever drink again, which this afternoon seems unlikely.

Right now, though, it's 1°C in Chicago and 27°C here, so I'm going back outside now.

Better driving through variable tolling

Now that Illinois has started the long process of removing our ex-governor's name from tollway signs, this essay from the New York Times' Freakonomics blog extolling the virtues of congestion tolling is worth a read:

[I]t can be hard to convey this because the theory behind tolling is somewhat complex and counterintuitive. This is too bad, because variable tolling is an excellent public policy. Here's why: the basic economic theory is that when you give out something valuable — in this case, road space — for less than its true value, shortages result.

Ultimately, there’s no free lunch; instead of paying with money, you pay with the effort and time needed to acquire the good. Think of Soviet shoppers spending their lives in endless queues to purchase artificially low-priced but exceedingly scarce goods. Then think of Americans who can fulfill nearly any consumerist fantasy quickly but at a monetary cost. Free but congested roads have left us shivering on the streets of Moscow.

(In an odd bit of timing, the concepts of "shortage" and "free goods" will be on my Intro to Microeconomics exam next Thursday.)

Now, living as I do only a 20-minute bus ride from the Chicago Loop, and dreading any time I have to use one of our area's expressways, I think congestion pricing makes perfect sense. Especially when you see, for example, the traffic loads on the Kennedy Expressway during the week. Check this out:

This shows the average travel times from the Circle (downtown Chicago) to O'Hare, a distance of about 27 km. The blue line shows inbound traffic, the red line, outbound. At 40 minutes, the average speed is 40 km/h; normal expressway speeds (90 km/h) get you to O'Hare in under 20 minutes.

Ah, but see this week's chart:

Yes. This week, on average, the trip from O'Hare to downtown took almost an hour during the morning rush period. (For the record, the El takes 35 minutes, you can spend the time reading, the odds of dying are much lower, and it only costs $2.25, as opposed to typical Loop parking lots which cast $28.00.)

Now imagine you had the option of paying $5 to use the reversible lanes, knowing the trip would take 20 minutes. Is 40 minutes worth $5 to you? Forty extra minutes of sleep, 40 minutes with the kids, 40 minutes doing something other than stop-and-go traffic moving slower than a bicycle?

Two on technology

The first, from the Poynter Institute, concerns how Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's staff made Twitter into journalism:

I tuned in an Internet broadcast of ... Granholm's annual state of the state speech because it was expected to be laden with energy and environment issues. On impulse I logged into Twitter and asked my followers if there had been a hashtag established for the speech. There was: MiSOTS (Mich. State of the State).

To my amazement, the hashtag had been established by the governor's staff—who were tweeting major points of Granholm's speech as she made them.

Meanwhile, many, many, many other people used this hashtag to challenge points, support points, do some partisan sniping, question assumptions, add perspective, speculate about what was going on, and provide links to supporting information—including a transcript of the speech and the opposite (Republican) party's response.

(Emphasis in original.)

The second, Mark Morford musing about technology in general:

To paraphrase a renowned philosopher, we just keep making the pie higher. This is the nature of us. It is, in turns, both wonderful and terrifying.

It seems there are only two real options, two end results of our civilization's grand experiment. Either the stack becomes so high -- with our sense of wonder and integrity rising right along with it -- that it finally lifts us off the ground and transports us to some new realm of understanding and evolution, or it ultimately topples over, crashes and mauls everything that came before, because we just didn't care enough to stop and smell the astonishment.

You have but to remember: How many ancient, advanced civilizations have collapsed under the weight of their own unchecked growth, their own technological advances, their own inability to stay nimble and attuned to the crushing marvel of it all? Answer: all of them.

Both are worth reading in full.

Geeks and economics

In case you were thinking about building one, Rick Gold has calculated the approximate price of constructing your own Death Star:

While watching [Star Wars], an odd question popped into my head, “How much would it cost to build the damn thing?”. Impossible to figure out? Truthfully … yes. A complete and utter waste of time, absolutely! So why not try and find out!

... Add it up, and we have a figure of exactly $15,602,022,489,829,821,422,840,226 and 94 cents. Tell you what, I’ll pitch in the 94 cents.

In other words, only 1.15 trillion times the U.S. debt. And that doesn't include feeding the Stormtroopers.

Announcing the Original Meaning Society

While I am, with the rest of Chicago, holding my breath to learn how extensively fire damaged the 130-year-old Holy Name Cathedral this morning, I actually hit my head on my shower wall when a reporter at WBEZ described the fire as "tragic."

I am almost certain it wasn't a tragic fire, but I'm willing to bend on that one if it turns out (a) a person who (b) through his own character flaws (c) accidentally set it (d) killing himself in the process. There are other scenarios that would be tragic, too. But none at all is likely.

I have gotten so tired of lazy writers calling things tragic when the things in question don't involve human beings failing because of their own character flaws. Enough.

An example may help (yes, I'm poking Alanis Morrisette): If it rains on a couple's wedding day, that's unfortunate. If the bride and groom are both meteorologists, that's ironic. If one of them dies—say while trying to kill the other because of the botched weather forecast—that's tragic. If, however, they finally get married at the end, that's comic.

The tragedy and the irony of all this, of course, is that I believe languages evolve and generally (but not in this specific case) like that, and this post will probably get me written off as a crank.

The first day of the Obama Administration

Life goes on:

Now I'm going back to the NPR story about all the stuff we're not shipping from our major ports.

Potpourri

In no particular order:

  • Three cheers for the US Airways crew who executed a good landing[1] in the Hudson River this afternoon. I'm not joking: it's hard enough to glide any airplane after a total power loss, something else entirely to land on water without flipping the plane or sinking immediately. That all 155 passengers got out means Capt. C.B. "Sully" Sullenberger and his first officer deserve medals. Let's remember that one kilometer in either direction would have led to a horrible outcome. This wasn't a 20-mile glide from 30,000 feet over flat farmland; this was a crippling bird strike[2] at 3,000 feet over Manhattan.

  • My cousin and I got our Cubs home-game tickets today, all 13 games worth. Woo hoo! First game: Friday April 17th against the Cardinals. But before that, as part of my continuation of the 30-Park Geas[3] I'm considering going to Houston to see the Cubs on April 7th.

  • I had a third point, but at my age I feel lucky to remember the first two.

[1] After a good landing all the passengers get out safely. After an excellent landing you can use the plane again.
[2] Yet another reason to declare open season on Canada geese. Disgusting birds.
[3] Speaking of geese...

You are Number Six

The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan, dead at 80.

Yesterday, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) died at 88.

Imagine the conversation:

"Where am I?"

"You didn't expect to find me...you thought this was a dead planet. Tell me: why are you here?"

"Whose side are you on?"

(Come to think of it, that gets too silly, too quickly...never mind.)