The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Not looking good in Houston

Hurricane Harvey has dropped so much rain on Houston that two 1930s-era dams have been overwhelmed for the first time in history:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Tuesday morning that water was spilling from around the dam gates of the Addicks Reservoir, which has been overwhelmed by extreme rainfall from Hurricane Harvey. Officials said they expect the Barker Reservoir, to the south of Addicks, to begin overflowing similarly at some point Tuesday.

A Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist said the overflow from the reservoirs would eventually flow into downtown Houston.

The reservoirs, which flank Interstate 10 on the west side of Houston, flow into the Buffalo Bayou and are surrounded by parks and residential areas. Water levels in the two reservoirs had already reached record levels Monday evening, measuring 32 m at Addicks and 30 m at Barker.

Engineers were unable to measure water levels at the Barker Reservoir on Tuesday because its gauge was flooded overnight, said Jeff Lindner, the Harris County flood control meteorologist.

In response, City Lab asks, why can't the U.S. manage flooding?

For New Orleans, whose below-sea-level position makes it particularly imperiled, the August floods were a reminder of something we should take much more seriously than we have. We ought to apply more aggressively the lessons we claimed to be learning from the Dutch after Katrina. It’s a course of action that would amount to a sea change in how we approach the wet threat that surrounds us on every side.

We need to get as smart and wily about water as Rotterdam. New Orleans’s continued viability as a population center and commercial hub depends on it. We must learn to live with water, to absorb rainfall and storm surge in massive retention facilities, to designate greenspaces that double as parks. We need to stop paving our yardsto make nifty little pads for the family car. We need to build absorbent rooftop gardens on as many buildings as can be put to that purpose.

Speaking of, I'm planning to visit New Orleans this weekend. Harvey is expected to pass northwest of the city tomorrow and land in the Tennessee Valley by Friday afternoon. I'm still bringing water shoes and an umbrella.

Thoughts on a day that seemed cooler earlier

Walking to work is an easy way to hit my step goal before lunch. It's 6.75 km and 8,500 steps. At just over an hour, it takes only about 20 minutes longer than the bus or 30 minutes longer than the train.

The problem is the dewpoint. When I left my house, the temperature was a delightful 19°C...and the dewpoint was a sticky 17°C. By the time I'd gone ten blocks I was already uncomfortable.

Note to self: bring a fresh shirt when you walk to work, no matter what the weather looks like.

Have a Zima with your Zestimate

On Tuesday, a Federal judge in Chicago dismissed with prejudice a case against Zillow that alleged its "Zestimates" made houses harder to sell:

In the suit, first filed in May, Glenview homeowner and attorney Barbara Andersen alleged that the estimates Zillow posts with for-sale listings essentially act like an appraisal of exact market value. Under Illinois law, only licensed appraisers can issue an appraisal. Andersen's suit alleges Zillow is engaging in illegal practices.

Not so, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve wrote in her dismissal. "The word 'Zestimate'—an obvious portmanteau of 'Zillow' and 'estimate'—itself indicates that Zestimates are merely an estimate of the market value of the property," St. Eve wrote.

"We always say that the Zestimate isn't an appraisal," [Zillow's] Emily Heffter told Crain's earlier this year. "It's a starting point that people can use when they're working with a professional appraiser or a professional agent to determine the home's value."

St. Eve also wrote that Zillow's estimates do not constitute an invasion of privacy because they are based on public records, with additions submitted by the homeowners if they choose to.

It zeems obvious, when you think about it.

Existence proofs and military robots

Via Bruce Schneier, an essay on how the fact that something appears in nature means it can exist, and what this means for military robots:

In each of the [Planet Earth II] documentary’s profiles of monkeys, birds, and lizards, I saw what technologists refer to as an “existence proof.” Existence proofs are the simplest way to resolve an argument about what is technologically possible. Before 1900, people argued whether building a human-carrying powered airplane was possible. In 1903, the Wright Brothers ended the debate with an existence proof. As I watched Planet Earth II, I saw existence proof after existence proof of technological capabilities that, applied to warfare and espionage, would make global militaries and intelligence agencies significantly more powerful – but also significantly more vulnerable.

I realized Hollywood has it all wrong. The future of military robotics doesn’t look like The Terminator. It looks like Planet Earth II.

Imagine a low-cost drone with the range of a Canada goose, a bird that can cover 1,500 miles in a single day at an average speed of 60 miles per hour. Planet Earth profiled a single flock of snow geese, birds that make similar marathon journeys, albeit slower. The flock of six-pound snow geese was so large it formed a sky-darkening cloud 12 miles long. How would an aircraft carrier battlegroup respond to an attack from millions of aerial kamikaze explosive drones that, like geese, can fly hundreds of miles? A single aircraft carrier costs billions of dollars, and the United States relies heavily on its ten aircraft carrier strike groups to project power around the globe. But as military robots match more capabilities found in nature, some of the major systems and strategies upon which U.S. national security currently relies – perhaps even the fearsome aircraft carrier strike group – might experience the same sort of technological disruption that the smartphone revolution brought about in the consumer world.

The next war won't look anything like the last one. (Then again, it never does.)

Just add water

...to your whisky:

[A]dding water releases molecules that improve the flavor. Water and ethanol don’t make for a perfectly uniform mixture. Aromatic compounds could become trapped in ethanol clusters and never reach the surface. Our tongues are only capable of identifying the flavors, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory), so aroma is really important for detecting all the other flavors that connoisseurs appreciate in whiskey.

Guaiacol is what gives whiskey that smoky, spicy, peaty flavor. Chemically, guaiacol is similar to a lot of other whiskey aroma compounds like vanillin (with the scent of vanilla) and limonene (citrus). These and other flavor compounds are not attracted to water and are more likely to become trapped in ethanol clusters.

So, just add a couple of drops to your dram, especially if it's cask-strength. But start with good whisky; diluting crap won't improve it.

ACLU changes its policy after Charlottesville

The organization will no longer defend armed hate groups:

The change in policy followed the ACLU of Virginia’s decision to file suit to ensure that an assortment of white supremacist groups could hold the now-notorious “Unite the Right” rally earlier this month in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park. While the ACLU wasn’t responsible for the fatal violence that ensued, the entire organization was convulsed in the fallout. One ACLU of Virginia board member resigned in protest. In a historic gesture, three California affiliates broke with the Virginia branch and the national organization to condemn the lawsuit. “If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution,” they said.

In a statement to the New Republic, an ACLU spokesperson said the new policy will be applied on a “case by case” basis, meaning greater scrutiny will be applied to possible clients. “If we determine that any potential client intends to subvert their rights under the First Amendment to cause violence, we wouldn’t represent them. The First Amendment doesn’t protect violence, that hasn’t changed,” Noa Yachot said.

Interesting. And sad. But necessary.

Forty years ago today

...the United States launched a space probe that is now one of the three fastest-moving and farthest human-made objects in the universe.

Voyager 2 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 9:29 CDT on 20 August 1977. As of today it's about 115 AUs (1.72×1010 km) from Earth, moving about 15.4 km/s or 55,000 km/h away from the sun.

It's still alive. NASA expects the probe to continue transmitting from interstellar space for at least another 7 years, by which time it may be able to sample the interstellar medium itself.

Happy birthday, V'GER. We hope to see you again someday.

About those statues

Via Mother Jones, the Southern Poverty Law Center has published a report that examines the statues to Confederate heroes of the sort that sparked last weekend's violence in Charlottesville, Va. It should surprise no one with a modicum of historical knowledge that they went up during periods of exceptional violence against African-Americans:

[T]he argument that the Confederate flag and other displays represent “heritage, not hate” ignores the near-universal heritage of African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by the millions in the South. It trivializes their pain, their history and their concerns about racism — whether it’s the racism of the past or that of today.

And it conceals the true history of the Confederate States of America and the seven decades of Jim Crow segregation and oppression that followed the Reconstruction era.

There were two major periods in which the dedication of Confederate monuments and other symbols spiked — the first two decades of the 20th century and during the civil rights movement.

Southerners began honoring the Confederacy with statues and other symbols almost immediately after the Civil War. The first Confederate Memorial Day, for example, was dreamed up by the wife of a Confederate soldier in 1866. That same year, Jefferson Davis laid the cornerstone of the Confederate Memorial Monument in a prominent spot on the state Capitol grounds in Montgomery, Alabama. There has been a steady stream of dedications in the 150 years since that time.

But two distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols.

The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.

Mother Jones prepared this handy graph:

So, yes, these statues represent history: the history of Southern oppression of African-Americans throughout the Jim Crow era. Southern whites erected them as symbols of white supremacy and violence.

And they need to go away now.