The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Boring Company will bore Chicago

Elon Musk's Boring Co. has gotten approval to start work on a high-speed underground connection between O'Hare and downtown Chicago:

The promised project: A closed-loop pair of tunnels from Block 37 in the central Loop to the airport that would whisk passengers to their flights in 12 minutes, using autonomous pod-like vehicles, or electric skates, that would depart as frequently as every 30 seconds and carry up to 16 passengers and their luggage.

If all goes as it should, [Deputy Mayor Robert] Rivkin said, construction work could begin next year with actual service in operation around 2022.

The Chicago project generally would use already existing "electric skate" technology, though it would link them together in a form and length that is unique to this country. The direct connection via a dedicated tunnel would allow those vehicles to accelerate to over 100 miles per hour, according to the city and Boring, slashing the time on the 27 km O'Hare run. And the project would-use the long mothballed CTA "superstation" under Block 37 as a terminal, with the end point located near the CTA's Blue Line terminus close to O'Hare terminals but outside of the airport's security perimeter.

I really, really hope the project succeeds. It will be nice to get from O'Hare to downtown that quickly, though I doubt the $25 fare will last long. For comparison to other under-20-minute express trains, the Heathrow Express costs $29 while the Schiphol Fyra (to Amsterdam) only costs $6.25. If you want to take an hour, the El costs $5 and the Tube $4.10 (off-peak).

Second, third, and fourth looks

Every so often I like to revisit old photos to see if I can improve them. Here's one of my favorites, which I took by the River Arun in Amberley, West Sussex, on 11 June 1992:

The photo above is one of the first direct-slide scans I have, which I originally published here in 2009, right after I took this photo at nearly the same location:

(I'm still kicking myself for not getting the angle right. I'll have to try again next time I'm in the UK.)

Those are the photos as they looked in 2009. Yesterday, during an extended internet outage at my house, I revisited them in Lightroom. Here's the 1992 shot, slightly edited:

And the 2009 shot, with slightly different treatment:

A side note: I did revisit Amberley in 2015, but I took the path up from Arundel instead of going around the northern path back into Amberley as in 2009, so I didn't re-shoot the bridge. Next time.

Japanese train station psychology

CityLab's Allan Richarz reports on the techniques Japan uses to get 13 billion passengers through its rail system each year:

Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.

Standing at either end of a platform in Tokyo’s labyrinthine Shinjuku Station, one might detect a small square LED panel emitting a pleasant, deep-blue glow. Nestled among vending machines and safety posters, the panel might be dismissed as a bug zapper. But these simple blue panels are designed to save lives.

Operating on the theory that exposure to blue light has a calming effect on one’s mood, rail stations in Japan began installing these LED panels as a suicide-prevention measure in 2009. They are strategically located at the ends of each platform—typically the most-isolated and least-trafficked area, and accordingly, the point from which most platform jumps occur. Some stations, such as Shin-Koiwa Station in Tokyo, bolster their LED regime with colored roof panels, allowing blue-tinted sunlight to filter down on to platforms.

It is an approach that has proven to be surprisingly effective. According to a study by researchers at the University of Tokyo published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2013, data analyzed over a 10-year period shows an 84 percent decline in the number of suicide attempts at stations where blue lights are installed. A subsequent study revealed no corresponding increase in suicide attempts at neighboring stations lacking such lights.

Japan also uses short ditties to let you know your train is leaving (cf. the horrible klaxon they use at O'Hare's Blue Line stop), point-and-call safety checks, and 17 Hz infrasound at busy platforms to shoo away teenagers.

So why haven't we adopted these things here? Maybe if half of Americans commuted by train instead of by car, things might improve. Notably, the UK and other European rail-friendly countries have adopted some of these techniques.

Two Londons

Citylab has an excerpt of Stephen Griffith's and Penny Woolcock's new book exploring the parallel worlds in London:

Penny: I’m halfway between Upper Street with its snooty estate agents, boutique shops and dozens of expensive bars and restaurants and the Caledonian Road—the Cally—still shabby but sprinkled with the telltale signs of gentrification. Apart from remnants of the white working class and Asian market traders on Chapel Market, it’s uniformly posh and very safe.

Or is it?

Look carefully and you might notice a uniformed security guard outside the McDonald’s on Chapel Market, a sign that there is a parallel world right here. There are teenagers for whom this tranquil area is a deadly battlefield, laced with landmines and traps and this particular McDonald’s is one of its most hotly contested territories. These same streets have doppelgangers, not elsewhere in the universe but under our noses. In London we literally don’t see the young people dying right under our noses, their bloodstains just seem to evaporate. My eyes were opened after making two films about gang life in inner-city Birmingham, leaving me no longer able to conveniently unsee this parallel world.

Steve: O J said, “Say I need to go Angel now, it’s only a short walk. Maybe I catch the 274 [the 274 bus] and maybe that’s safe. But it’s a warm evening so say I decide to walk, well I could be caught slipping and something happens.” Sadly, a year later O J was in intensive care after a stabbing. It seemed he had been caught slipping. O J was one of the lucky 1,000 London stab victims every month who survive. Over a single fortnight in May, 11 young people were stabbed to death. This is not Chicago but we’re on our way.

I've spent plenty of time in Islington, and saw only a few hints of the divide between my world and the Cally Boys'. It's kind of freaky. I will have to read this book on my next trip to London.

Biggest plane ever now at O'Hare

British Airways has started daily service between Chicago and London on the Airbus A380:

Last year, British Airways said it would begin using the A380 on one of two daily flights between Chicago and London. The aircraft seats up to 469 passengers in four cabins, including 14 first-class suites, 97 lie-flat business-class seats and 55 premium economy seats, with the remaining 303 in coach, British Airways said.

It’s only within the past couple of years that O’Hare has had facilities to accommodate the A380, which is 72.5 m long and 24 m high, with a 79.5 m wingspan. O’Hare has had a runway big enough for the A380 since 2013 but lacked gates that fit two-level planes at the time.

There is a non-zero chance, therefore, that I will fly on one of these bad boys before 2018 ends. (It's not a great chance, but it's at least a chance.)

New deal to extend 606 Trail

Sterling Bay, the company developing the Finkl site in Lincoln Park, has reached a deal with the Chicago Terminal Railroad to extend the 606 Trail across the Chicago River:

Sterling Bay, which plans a big development on the former Finkl steel plant site and neighboring parcels, has resolved its dispute with a rail company that owns train tracks that run across riverside land and on to Goose Island.

The rail company, Chicago-based Iowa Pacific Holdings, infuriated Sterling Bay and Goose Island landlords last fall when it rolled a couple dozen empty tanker cars across the Finkl property and onto Goose Island and left them there.

In October, Sterling Bay asked a federal agency to force Iowa Pacific to give up the tracks, arguing that they would derail development in the area. Other landlords complained that Iowa Pacific stored the cars on Goose Island merely to shake them down for money to remove the cars.

But the fight didn't last long: In January, an Iowa Pacific unit, the Chicago Terminal Railroad, gave up, agreeing not to oppose Sterling Bay's application with the federal Surface Transportation Board to force the rail company to abandon the tracks, according to a recent decision by the board.

The proposed extension to the trail would also include moving and modernizing the Metra station at Clybourn Junction.

Y is for Y2K (and other date/time problems)

Blogging A to ZI should have posted day 25 of the Blogging A-to-Z challenge. yesterday, but life happened, as it has a lot this month. I'm looking forward to June when I might not have the over-scheduling I've experienced since mid-March. We'll see.

So it's appropriate that today's topic involves one of the things most programmers get wrong: dates and times. And we can start 20 years ago when the world was young...

A serious problem loomed in the software world in the late 1990s: programmers, starting as far back as the 1950s, had used 2-digit fields to represent the year portion of dates. As I mentioned Friday, it's important to remember that memory, communications, and storage cost a lot more than programmer time until the last 15 years or so. A 2-digit year field makes a lot of sense in 1960, or even 1980, because it saves lots of money, and why on earth would people still use this software 20 or 30 years from now?

You can see (or remember) what happened: the year 2000. If today is 991231 and tomorrow is 000101, what does that do to your date math?

It turns out, not a lot, because programmers generally planned for it way more effectively than non-technical folks realized. On the night of 31 December 1999, I was in a data center at a brokerage in New York, not doing anything. Because we had fixed all the potential problems already.

But as I said, dates and times are hard. Start with times: 24 hours, 60 minutes, 60 seconds...that's not fun. And then there's the calendar: 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 (or 366) days...also not fun.

It becomes pretty obvious even to novice programmers who think about the problem that days are the best unit to represent time in most human-scale cases. (Scientists, however, prefer seconds.) I mentioned on day 8 that I used Julian day numbers very, very early in my programming life. Microsoft (and the .NET platform) also uses the day as the base unit for all of its date classes, and relegates the display of date information to a different set of classes.

I'm going to skip the DateTime structure because it's basically useless. It will give you no end of debugging problems with its asinine DateTime.Kind member. This past week I had to fix exactly this kind of thing at work.

Instead, use the DateTimeOffset structure. It represents an unambiguous point in time, with a double value for the date and a TimeSpan value for the offset from UTC. As Microsoft explains:

The DateTimeOffset structure includes a DateTime value, together with an Offset property that defines the difference between the current DateTimeOffset instance's date and time and Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Because it exactly defines a date and time relative to UTC, the DateTimeOffset structure does not include a Kind member, as the DateTime structure does. It represents dates and times with values whose UTC ranges from 12:00:00 midnight, January 1, 0001 Anno Domini (Common Era), to 11:59:59 P.M., December 31, 9999 A.D. (C.E.).

The time component of a DateTimeOffset value is measured in 100-nanosecond units called ticks, and a particular date is the number of ticks since 12:00 midnight, January 1, 0001 A.D. (C.E.) in the GregorianCalendar calendar. A DateTimeOffset value is always expressed in the context of an explicit or default calendar. Ticks that are attributable to leap seconds are not included in the total number of ticks.

Yes. This is the way to do it. Except...well, you know what? Let's skip how the calendar has changed over time. (Short answer: the year 1 was not the year 1.)

In any event, DateTimeOffset gives you methods to calculate time and dates accurately across a 20,000-year range.

Which is to say nothing of time zones...

Three on climate change

Earlier this week, the Post reported on data that one of the scariest predictions of anthropogenic climate change theory seems to be coming true:

The new research, based on ocean measurements off the coast of East Antarctica, shows that melting Antarctic glaciers are indeed freshening the ocean around them. And this, in turn, is blocking a process in which cold and salty ocean water sinks below the sea surface in winter, forming “the densest water on the Earth,” in the words of study lead author Alessandro Silvano, a researcher with the University of Tasmania in Hobart.

In other words, the melting of Antarctica’s glaciers appears to be triggering a “feedback” loop in which that melting, through its effect on the oceans, triggers still more melting. The melting water stratifies the ocean column, with cold fresh water trapped at the surface and warmer water sitting below. Then, the lower layer melts glaciers and creates still more melt water — not to mention rising seas as glaciers lose mass.

"The idea is that this mechanism of rapid melting and warming of the ocean triggered sea level rise at other times, like the last glacial maximum, when we know rapid sea level rise was five meters per century,” Silvano said. “And we think this mechanism was the cause of rapid sea-level rise.”

Meanwhile, Chicago magazine speculates about what these changes will mean to our city in the next half-century:

Can Chicago really become a better, maybe even a far better, place while much of the world suffers the intensifying storms and droughts resulting from climate change? A growing consensus suggests the answer may be a cautious yes. For one, there’s Amir Jina, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies how global warming affects regional economies. In the simulations he ran, as temperatures rise, rainfall intensifies, and seas surge, Chicago fares better than many big U.S. cities because of its relative insulation from the worst ravages of heat, hurricanes, and loss of agriculture.

Indeed, the Great Lakes could be considered our greatest insurance against climate change. They contain 95 percent of North America’s supply of freshwater—and are protected by the Great Lakes Water Compact, which prohibits cities and towns outside the Great Lakes basin from tapping them. While aquifers elsewhere run dry, Chicago should stay flush for hundreds of years to come.

“We’re going to be like the Saudi Arabia of freshwater,” says David Archer, a professor of geophysical science at the University of Chicago. “This is one of the best places in the world to live out global warming.”

There’s just one problem: Water, which should be our salvation, could also do us in.

The first drops of the impending deluge have already fallen. Every one-degree rise in temperature increases the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor by almost 4 percent. As a result, rain and snow come down with more force. Historically, there’s been a 4 percent chance of a storm occurring in any given year in Chicago that drops 5.88 inches of rain in 48 hours—a so-called 25-year storm. In the last decade alone, we have had one 25-year storm, plus a 50-year storm and, in 2011, a 100-year storm. In the best-case scenario, where carbon emissions stay relatively under control, we’re looking at a 25 percent increase in the number of days with extreme rainfall by the end of the century. The worst-case scenario sees a surge of 60 percent. Precipitation overall may increase by as much as 30 percent.

And in today's Times, Justin Gillis and Hal Harvey argue that cars are ruining our cities as well as our climate:

[T]he truth is that people who drive into a crowded city are imposing costs on others. They include not just reduced mobility for everyone and degraded public space, but serious health costs. Asthma attacks are set off by the tiny, invisible soot particles that cars emit. Recent research shows that a congestion charge in Stockholm reduced pollution and sharply cut asthma attacks in children.

The bottom line is that the decision to turn our public streets so completely over to the automobile, as sensible as it might have seemed decades ago, nearly wrecked the quality of life in our cities.

We are revealing no big secrets here. Urban planners have known all these things for decades. They have known that removing lanes to add bike paths and widen sidewalks can calm traffic, make a neighborhood more congenial — and, by the way, increase sales at businesses along that more pleasant street. They have known that imposing tolls with variable pricing can result in highway lanes that are rarely jammed.

We're adapting, slowly, to climate change. Over my lifetime I've seen the air in Chicago and L.A. get so much cleaner I can scarcely remember how bad it was growing up. (Old photos help.) But we're in for some pretty big changes in the next few years. I think Chicago will ultimately do just fine, except for being part of the world that has to adapt more dramatically than any time in the last few thousand years.

Quick links

A couple stories of interest:

OK, back to being really too busy to breathe this week...

City approves $8.5 bn airport ordinance

The Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved a massive package to restore O'Hare to its former glory as the busiest airport in the world:

With legal approvals in hand and O'Hare's tenant airlines scheduled to formally sign new lease deals later today, the path appears clear to implementing a plan that, if all goes as scheduled, will add 3 million square feet of terminal space and 30 to 35 additional gates for planes to load passengers, up from 185 now, by 2026.

City aviation officials say doing so will attract an additional 20 million passengers a year to O'Hare (up a quarter from today), many of them arriving on lucrative international flights, an area in which O'Hare has fallen behind competitors such as Los Angeles International and Atlanta's Hartsfield. And if those targets are reached, the plan sets the stage for further terminals in the future.

With American Airlines having dropped its earlier opposition to the deal, the last potential obstacle melted away when African-American and Latino aldermen agreed to set up a working group, or commission, that will regularly monitor activity and report back to aldermen on whether minority businesses and workers are receiving an adequate piece of construction and related legal and financial contracts.

The gate expansion follows a decade in which O'Hare added or lengthened several runways and converted many of them from a diagonal configuration to six east-west parallel runways. Most of that work already has been completed, with more expected soon.

O'Hare's mostly-complete runway project vastly increased the number of operations (takeoffs and landings) the airport could handle, well beyond the capacity of the terminals. The new terminals and gates should alleviate that.

Passengers will also finally have the ability to change from international arrivals to domestic departures without collecting their luggage, which right now makes O'Hare a real pain in the ass for inbound international travelers.