Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Weight of Ink: a very short review

Who can resist a love story?

Who can resist a love story, set in a library?

It's two great tastes, that taste great together: Rachel Kadish's The Weight of Ink.

Well, I'm not really being fair. It's not set in a library, it's set (partially) in a Rare Manuscripts Conservation Laboratory.

In a library.

Well, it's also set in a kibbutz in Israel.

Oh, and it's also set in 17th century London, during the time of the Inquisition, and the Plague, and yet also, the time of the birth of modern Philosophy.

It's a book about Baruch Spinoza, who you might never have spent much time thinking about (certainly I never did), and it's a book about being Jewish in England during a time when that was only barely legal.

And it's DEFINITELY a love story.

But it's rather a non-traditional love story, not least because a lot of it is about People Who Love Books, both now and then, back in the days when a book was still a thing that People Who Love Books built by hand, with agonizing care.

Our heroes and heroines are the sort of people who know immediately what a rare thing it is to find a 350 year old book, or even writing of any sort:

Her eyes were on the book. "Iron gall ink," she said after a moment.

Following her gaze, he understood that the damage had been done before he ever touched the ledger. The pages were like Swiss Cheese. Letters and words excised at random, holes eaten through the page over the centuries by the ink itself.

And they are the sort of people who can survive the most horrible tortures and injuries, and yet the thing that pains them the most is the loss of books:

Before she knew what she was saying, she turned to the rabbi. "What do you see," she said, "behind the lids of your eyes?"

For the first time there was unease beneath his silence. She felt a hard, thin satisfaction she was ashamed of.

"I shall not, at this moment, answer this question," he said. "But I will tell you what I learned after I lost my sight, in the first days as I came to understand how much of the world was now banned from me -- for my hands would never again turn the pages of a book, nor be stained with the sweet, grave weight of ink, a thing I had loved since first memory. I walked through rooms that had once been familiar, my arms outstretched, and was fouled and thwarted by every obstacle in my path. What I learned then, Ester, is a thing that I have been learning ever since."

The literary technique of trying to tell two stories, one old and set in the past, and one new and set in the current time, is well-known, and although it can be powerful, it can also be a bit of a crutch.

It also leads to a situation in which the book is packed full of characters, and can be a tad confusing when you jump back and forth, although I felt like, overall, The Weight of Ink pulled this off well, and did not over-burden the reader.

Some of the characters are extraordinarily compelling, and front and center is surely Ester, the 17th-century orphan girl who comes to live in the household of a blind, dying rabbi.

Other characters are, well, not quite so gripping, such as the young heiress Mary, or the extremely annoying graduate student Aaron.

But for my money, my favorite was the aging scholar Helen, absorbed in the study of history, dragging herself out of bed every day, overcoming her advanced Parkinson's disease, to get into the library and spend her time with The Books:

For a long time, Helen sat in the silent laboratory. All around her, on shelves and tables, on metal trays and in glass chambers, lay a silent company of paper: centuries old, leaf after leaf, torn or faded or brittle. Pages inked by long-dead hands. Pages damaged by time and worse. But they -- the pages -- would live again.

The climactic scene in which Helen must go to face the Dean, who waits for her to deliver her requested resignation, is remarkably more vivid and compelling and heart-wrenching than you could possibly imagine.

A large part of The Weight of Ink is the painstaking detective story of the literary historians, discovering The Books, poring over their contents, and then, slowly, but surely, reading between the lines to understand what they really say.

But The Weight of Ink succeeded, for me, because it balances that detective story quite nicely with the fill-in-the-blanks story of Ester and her adventures in London.

Bit by bit, page by page, Aaron and Helen come to understand what Ester's life was like, and what she did and thought and felt.

And yet, how could they? How could any of us know what it was like to be a young girl, alone in a city of tragedies at a time of horrors, still consumed by those most elemental of human passions:

"No," she said. "No, it's not that way. I choose with my heart, and my heart is for you." As she said it she felt her heart insisting within her ribs -- indeed, for the first time in her life she almost could see her heart, and to her astonishment it seemed a brave and hopeful thing: a small wooden cup of some golden liquid, brimming until it spilled over all -- the rabbi breathing in his bed, the dim candlelight by which Ester had so long strained at words on the page, the dead girl with her father in the cart. All that was beautiful and all that was precious, all of it streaming with sudden purpose here -- to this place where they now stood.

And, of course, in and around it all, there is that Birth of Modern Philosophy business, with plenty of Hobbes and Descartes and Spinoza.

And whether that's your thing, or not, probably depends a lot on how you feel about Philosophy.

The folly of her own words astonished her. She pulled the papers back from over the water, and read more, and as she read she saw the enormity of her blindness. In her arrogance and loneliness she'd thought she understood the world -- yet its very essence had been missing from her own philosophy.

The imperative -- she whispered it to herself -- to live. The universe was ruled by a force, and the force was life, and live, and live -- a pulsing, commanding law of its own. The comet making its fiery passage across their sky didn't signify divine displeasure, nor did it have anything to say of London's sin; the comet's light existed for the mere purpose of shining. It hurtled because the cosmos demanded it to hurtle. Just as the grass grew in order to grow. Just as the disfigured woman must defy Bescos, who'd consider her unfit for love; just as Ester herself had once, long ago, written because she had to write.

But I suspect that most People Who Love Books are also people who are quite interested in Philosophy, so I suspect that it's actually a pretty fair bet that if you want to read a love story (actually four or five different love stories, as it turns out) set in a library (yes, yes, I know, a Rare Manuscripts Conservation Laboratory), then you probably want to read a fair amount about the early days of Rationalism and its conflicts with the major Religious Philosophies of the day.

Or maybe you just want to read a great love story!

Oh, to heck with it: go read The Weight of Ink. It's well worth your time.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Responses to the Letters to the Editor in the local paper

To the woman who was upset that she found herself sitting in her car, waiting for the traffic lights to change:

Drive less.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

I really need to plan a trip

I keep thinking that I ought to plan a vacation in which I'd set my signposts based on Destination Libraries:

  • Oodi Helsinki Central Library
    The design divides the functions of the library into three distinct levels: an active ground floor that extends the town square into an interior space; “book heaven” on the upper level; and an enclosed in-between volume containing rooms to accommodate additional services and facilities within the library. This spatial concept has been realised by building the library as an inhabited bridge, with two massive steel arches that span over 100 meters to create a fully enclosed, column-free public entrance space, clusters of rooms grouped around the structure, and the open-plan reading room carried above.
  • The new Deichman library
    The library's architecture is closely tied to its role as a public space. The top of the building cantilevers out to announce its presence to the visitors that arrive from Oslo's city center and the central station. Cuts in the facade mark the entrances the east, west and south, welcoming people from all sides of the city. Diagonal light shafts cut through the building and connect indoor spaces with the streets outside and the nearby Opera House. After dark, the building will glow and change looks as a reflection of all the different activities and events that take place inside.
  • Look Inside the Most Cutting-Edge Public Library in the World
    Library lovers have a reason to visit Denmark: the Dokk1 in Aarhus was just crowned the best public library in the world.

    The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) awarded the Dokk1 with the best library title at a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, throwing a spotlight on the futuristic building that opened in June 2015. The largest public library in Scandinavia has books and workspaces like most public libraries, but serves other functions for the community by housing meetings, performances, art installations and places for kids to play.

Aww, who am I kidding? There's an entire web site: 1001 Libraries To See Before You Die.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Just some completely random stuff I had lying around

Came across it, thought it was interesting...

  • What It Was Like Being Criticized by Feynman
    Unlike any other physics textbook that I have ever encountered, The Feynman Lectures on Physics never bothers to explain how to solve any problems, which made trying to complete the daunting homework assignments challenging and time-consuming. What the essays did provide, however, was something much more valuable—deep insights into Feynman’s original way of thinking about science. Generations have benefited from the Feynman Lectures. For me, the experience was an absolute revelation.

    After a few weeks, I felt like my skull had been pried open and my brain rewired. I began to think like a physicist, and loved it. Like many other scientists of my generation, I was proud to adopt Feynman as my hero. I scuttled my original academic plans about biology and mathematics and decided to pursue physics with a vengeance.

  • What Happened to the 100,000-Hour LED Bulbs?
    There’s more to an LED bulb than just the LEDs. Outlets in our homes are actually fairly dirty sources of AC power. LEDs want clean, constant-current DC sources, so circuits inside the bulbs must rectify and filter the incoming AC, then limit current to the LED packages.


    Since the LED bulbs contain a number of parts, it’s natural to ask which ones might be responsible for failures. The US Department of Energy (DoE)’s solid-state lighting program supports research and development of LED technologies, and their website contains volumes of data on LED lighting systems. Their Lifetime and Reliability Fact Sheet contains data on the failure rate of 5,400 outdoor lamps over 34 million hours of operation. Interestingly, the LEDs themselves account for only 10% of the failures; driver circuitry, on the other hand, was responsible almost 60% of the time. The remainder of failures were due to housing problems, which may not be as applicable for bulbs in indoor use. This data shows that at least for catastrophic failures (where the lamp ceases to emit light), extending lifetime means improving the power supplies.


    Certainly moving away from incandescent bulbs to more efficient lighting makes sense, but maybe we never really needed 100,000 hour bulbs in the first place. The lifetime of even 7,500-hour bulbs is long compared to the rapid pace of advance in lighting technology. Does it makes sense to buy expensive long-lived bulbs today, when better, cheaper, more efficient ones may be available in the near future?

  • Where Do I Start? A Very Gentle Introduction to Computer Graphics Programming
    If you are here, it's probably because you want to learn computer graphics. Each reader may have a different reason for being here, but we are all driven by the same desire: understand how it works! Scratchapixel was created to answer this particular question. Here you will learn how it works and learn techniques used to created CGI, from the simplest and most important methods, to the more complicated and less common ones. Maybe you like video games, and you would like to know how it works, how they are made. Maybe you have seen a film a Pixar film and wonder what's the magic behind it. Whether you are at school, university, already working in the industry (or retired), it is never a bad time to be interested in these topics, to learn or improve your knowledge and we always need a resource like Scratchapixel to find answers to these questions. That's why we are here.
  • The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight
    On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

    The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth.

  • All the Bad Things About Uber and Lyft In One Simple List
    Here’s the latest evidence that Uber and Lyft are destroying our world: Students at the University of California Los Angeles are taking an astonishing 11,000 app-based taxi trips every week that begin and end within the boundaries of the campus.

    The report in the Daily Bruin revealed anew that Uber, Lyft, Via and the like are massively increasing car trips in many of the most walkable and transit friendly places in U.S.

    It comes after a raft of recent studies have found negative effects from Uber and Lyft, such as increased congestion, higher traffic fatalities, huge declines in transit ridership and other negative impacts. It’s becoming more and more clear that Uber and Lyft having some pretty pernicious effects on public health and the environment, especially in some of the country’s largest cities.

    We decided to compile it all into a comprehensive list, and well, you judge for yourself.

  • Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings
    Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert where O'Keeffe lived and worked. But as the protrusions began to grow, spread and eventually flake off, people shifted from curious to concerned.

    A multidisciplinary team from Northwestern University and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico has now diagnosed the strange paint disease: The micron-sized protrusions are metal soaps, resulting from a chemical reaction between the metal ions and fatty acids commonly used as binder in paints.

    Inspired by the research, the team developed a novel, hand-held tool that can easily and effortlessly map and monitor works of art. The tool enables researchers to carefully watch the protrusions in order to better understand what conditions make the protrusions grow, shrink or erupt.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Somehow, "transient ischemic attack"...

... sounds both terrifying, and yet abstract and innocuous, all at the same time.

When it's your mom, doncha know, those stupid words are just noise in your ears.

All you hear is your dad saying: "she didn't sound right, and so when she said she just wanted to go home and rest, I said: no, dear, we're going just down the road here, to the E.R.".

My favorite part from the email he sent me later:

I let her off at the curb and she walked in to the ER so in a few seconds I realized there was valet parking and I gave the man the keys and rushed in to stand next to her.

If there's anything that sums up my parents, and the 65 years they've spent together, well, that's it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

This, as they might say ...

... is littoral-ly bloggable: A stealthy futuristic ship is docked at Pier 30-32 in SF. Here's what it is.

When commissioned this weekend as the USS Tulsa (LCS-16), the 421-foot-long vessel will be the newest in the U.S. Navy's Independence class of littoral combat ships. Littoral refers to operations near shore, or just off the coast.

"It looks like something out of Star Wars," says Mike Rainey, a Navy public affairs officer, who is helping organize a ceremony on Feb. 16 to commission the ship.

The ship's relatively small size, a trimaran design with three hulls and a helicopter flight deck astern make this ship fast, agile, maneuverable and able to perform a wide array of missions. Earlier ships of this size and mission type maxed out at around 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour), while the LCS (powered by two gas turbine engines, two main propulsion diesel engines, and propelled by four water jets) can zip through the open seas at speeds up to 44 knots (51 mph).

I suspect that the closest the USS Tulsa has ever been to Tulsa is when she was first launched from the boatyard in Mobile.

At any rate, welcome to the Bay Area, USS Tulsa and her crew!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

ProPublica and the Navy Times on the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions

This weekend, ProPublica's website is running two blockbuster hard-hitting reports on the McCain and Fitzgerald destroyer accidents of the summer of 2017:

The two reports make a strong case that technology by itself is worse than meaningless; you have to invest in people. Training, communications, support: all these things are critical.

Copeman fired off a couple more memos before retiring, hoping he might at last get the leadership’s attention.

The first warned of the fleet’s increasing “configuration variance” problem: The same systems operated in dozens of different ways on different ships, confusing sailors as the Navy shifted them from one vessel to another.

“I liken it to this,” Copeman told ProPublica. “You have a car with a steering wheel and a gas pedal and one day you walk out and get in your car and an iPad sits were your steering wheel used to be and the gas pedal is no longer there.”

Copeman enlisted a four-star admiral, Bill Gortney, to sign the memo and distribute it in the upper echelons of the Navy. His memo would prove prescient. Four years later, confusion over the McCain’s new steering system caused the ship to turn in front of an oil tanker.

See also this set of articles in the Navy Times:

a lack of training in basic seamanship fatally combined with material deficiencies to create “a culture of complacency, of accepting problems, and a dismissal of the use of some of the most important, modern equipment used for safe navigation.”

Wow, there's a lot to think about in these articles.

It's interesting, although perhaps a stretch, to consider the above information against the recent report of the Lion Air tragedy in Indonesia: Lion Air’s deadly flight was a 13-minute struggle between man and machine:

A little over a week after the crash, Boeing put out a bulletin advising airline operators on how to deal with erroneous sensor information that would lead to “uncommanded nose down” maneuvers, while the FAA ordered flight manuals to be updated with the process to follow in such a situation. Boeing has said that the aircraft is safe, and that it is working with regulators and investigators to understand the factors leading up to the crash.

The directives prompted several of the biggest US pilots’ unions to say this was the first time they were hearing of the new anti-stall system. “Before the crash we were not provided any information on the MCAS or even its existence,” captain Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union for American Airlines pilots, told Quartz.

He added that bulletins after the crash provided clarity on differences between the override process for this 737 variant compared with the older 737NG model, which the Max succeeds. “We have those differences… [and] are asking further questions to better understand our airplane’s automated flight control systems,” said Tajer.

Tajer added that the directives and bulletins describe a “fairly complex emergency situation,” involving a system that can engage soon after takeoff, when the plane is still at a low altitude, and a number of alerts that could prove confusing or distracting.

Powerful technology is worse than useless if you can't figure out how to operate it.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

How Schools Work: a very short review

Frankly, I was rather pre-disposed to have a bad attitude toward Arne Duncan's How Schools Work: An Inside Account of Failure and Success from One of the Nation's Longest-Serving Secretaries of Education.

For one thing, political memoirs generally leave me cold. It's too much "history is written by the victors," for me, for one thing. And they are written (duh!) by politicians, who while they may be very smart in many ways, are usually not experts in the particular field in which they are commenting.

Moreover, over the years, I hadn't really paid much attention to matters of public education policy (shame on me!), so I didn't have a lot of burning questions of my own on which I was hoping to hear from Duncan.

So I approached How Schools Work with a fair amount of trepidation.

But I was quite surprised!

Duncan is a great writer; How Schools Work moves right along, with a nice mixture of concrete anecdotes, more abstract material about policy struggles, and frank and honest self-evaluations of where he felt he got things wrong versus where he still feels strongly that he understands the way things ought to be.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this (slim!) volume is that Duncan attempts too much. He covers a lot of ground and necessarily leaves many critical topics covered in only a cursory fashion.

But surely the purpose of a book like this is to take people like me, and get them to comprehend a least a little bit of the enormous complexity of trying to fashion a social system that will help each child as much as possible.

If Duncan can manage to get his readers to at least fathom some of the underlying issues that are under debate, that by itself is worthwhile.

Sadly, the problems he wrestles with are hard, very hard, but I can report that How Schools Work is certainly worth your time.

Get educated!

Saturday, January 19, 2019

For Jazz super-fans? Or maybe for all music lovers...

Natalie Weiner, whose day job is sports journalism, has initiated a project she calls The 1959 Project, with a simple goal: each day, she'll publish some notes about This Day In Jazz History, 60 years ago.

As a nearly-60-year-old reader, I applaud!

It's a photoblog, so a big part of the appeal are things like this:

The above photo is undoubtedly the best-known part of the package. 57 jazz musicians, from Thelonious Monk to Mary Lou Williams to Lester Young, photographed on a Harlem stoop by Art Kane in order to demonstrate the genre’s vitality. It inspired its own documentary, and in 1998, a hip-hop version from XXL.

Looks like this will become a daily read for me, at least for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Elements of Eloquence: a very short review

Perhaps my favorite holiday gift this year was a delightful little book that my daughter gave me: The Elements of Eloquence

In high school (or perhaps earlier), we all learned about some basic techniques of language, such as simile, analogy, metaphor, alliteration, meter, and rhyme.

If these things interest you, then you might (or might not) be surprised and fascinated to learn that they are just the start of an entire menagerie of techniques, studied and refined for thousands of years.

For example, there is synaesthesia, where one sense is described in terms of another ("music that stinks to the ear").

Or hyperbaton, in which the word order is intentionally incorrect ("Take you to him I will").

Or diacope, in which the same word or phrase is repeated, after a brief interruption ("Bond. James Bond.")

Or assonance, which is sort of like rhyme, and sort of like alliteration, except it involves the vowels in the middle of words ("a stitch in time saves nine", "high as a kite").

And on, and on, and on.

In this marvelous little book, which I recommend to everyone who has any interest whatsoever in the way that language becomes literature, Forsyth dives deeply into all sorts of little-known, but extremely powerful, techniques like these.

In the same way that learning just a little bit about music helps you treasure Beethoven, or learning just a little bit about painting helps you be astounded by Rembrandt, learning just a little bit about these language tools will enrich the next essay you read.

And the next book. And the next poem. And the next play.

Which is an example of scesis onomaton, and of anaphora, and of tricolon.

Thank you, Mr. Forsyth!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Old and boring

Periodically, I happen to fly into or out of Chicago, and, for various reasons, I often use Chicago's secondary airport, Midway Airport, located on the South Side of Chicago.

If conditions are just right, it's not uncommon that our flight path takes us along an easily-visible east-west trunk route in Chicago's far south suburbs, a stretch of Interstate Highway that is, simultaneously, I-80 and I-294, and which also connects I-90, I-94, I-57, I-65, I-355, and probably more freeways that have been built since I lived in Chicago.

Anyway, right in the middle of that part in the world, in between the cities of Harvey and Homewood, sits a Gigantic Hole In The Ground, with a 10-lane super-highway running right through the middle of it, which always fascinates me when I fly over it. (Yes, this is the sort of thing that fascinates me.)

I recently came across a nice article about what this hole in the ground is all about, and it spurred me on to chase some more links: Tunnel Vision

The history of Chicago can be told as a series of escapes from wastewater, each more ingenious than the last. Before the Civil War, entire city blocks were lifted on hydraulic jacks to allow for better drainage, and the first tunnel to bring in potable water from the middle of Lake Michigan was completed in 1867. In 1900, engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River to protect the city’s drinking water, shifting its fetid contents from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, enraging the city of St. Louis (which sued, and lost) and, years later, making Chicago the single-largest contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineers declared the river reversal one of the seven engineering wonders of the United States, alongside such better-known undertakings as the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, and the Panama Canal.

By the mid-20th century, the metropolis was once again plagued by persistent flooding problems. In 1978, Illinois Republican Sen. Charles Percy, looking back at decades’ worth of damage, declared Chicago the site of “the worst urban flooding known to any major city in America”—structural damage in neighborhoods, plus sewage in the river and the lake to the tune of 200 million solid pounds each year.

I moved to Chicago in 1981, but I didn't really know any of this. Yes, they told us the stories about reversing the river, and how the city had terrible water quality problems, and I knew about dying the river green for St. Patrick's Day ("to cover up the sewage", the wags said).

But I don't remember hearing anything about the Deep Tunnel project, which is a bit odd, as it's the sort of thing that I would have remembered.

Meanwhile, the project went on.

And on, and on, and on.

Renamed the TARP, or Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, the project finally started to come operational about a dozen years ago.

Although the tunnel itself is enormous, what really makes the project work is the Thornton Composite Reservoir, which can hold ...

... brace yourself ...


The tunnel took a long time to drill (excuse me, to "bore"), but the reservoir was no simple project, either:

the north lobe of the Thornton Quarry was converted into a reservoir with the capacity to retain nearly 8 billion gallons of CSO prior to treatment.

It sounds nicer if you say CSO, rather than "combined sewer overflow," doesn't it?

You can see a great picture of the Thornton Reservoir partially full in this article, which has lots of other detail: Chicago's Deep Tunnel Project Holds 17.5 Billion Gallons of Sewage Underground

You may say that all of this could have been avoided if the city was not designed on a combined sewer system, but the problem is, that was the best thing engineers knew how to do in that day. You might be surprised when studying the past of waste engineering that modern day practices really weren't developed but in the last 50 or so years. Many places around the world have combined sewer systems, mostly stemming from successive waste management developments. As cities transitioned from open channel sewage systems, many places simply covered the channels with metal plates or concrete arches, creating 'closed channel' systems. For a long time, no engineers saw the need to manage and treat wastewater or stormwater, as the effects of maltreatment were largely unknown.

Well, those effects are known now, and we're finally starting to deal with the mess properly.

And even if sewage systems aren't really your thing, it's nifty to know those little details; for example, that you can schedule yourself a tour of a bit of the Chicago City Limits which is located 365 feet underground: This Is The Deepest Depth A Human Can Go In Chicago City Limits

How low can you go within Chicago city limits?

About 365 feet below ground, according to Kevin Fitzpatrick, managing civil engineer for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

That's where the floor of the Calumet TARP Pumping Station pump rooms rest far below Chicago's Riverdale neighborhood at 400 E. 130th St.

It's the lowest inhabitable point in Chicago.

The pumping station is part of the Calumet Water Reclamation Plant, which is a component of a massive system in Chicago and the suburbs designed to protect water quality in Lake Michigan and the Chicago Area Waterway System and to manage stormwater.

And you can try to wrap your head around its size and complexity by contemplating strange metaphors, such as those shared by the Slate article:

“I’ve been hearing about Deep Tunnel forever,” Frank Pajak, director of the Central Stickney Sanitary District, told the Tribune after that February storm. “I was at the ribbon-cutting (for the reservoir), and it looked great. So why am I still getting calls about people standing in ankle-deep sewage in their basement?”

One retort from the MWRD: If you think this is bad, imagine what shape we’d be in without all these tunnels. Small storms no longer contaminate the river, and the capacity of the system is still increasing—McCook will nearly triple in size by 2029. That being said, on account of an EPA funding dispute in the 1970s, the final system will be smaller than its designers envisioned. The congested network of neighborhood sewers in Chicago and its suburbs—local roads leading to the Deep Tunnel highway—also remain an unresolved issue. In many storms, says Aaron Koch, who served as chief resilience officer for the city and now works as the Chicago director of the Trust for Public Land, the Deep Tunnel is helpless to empty undersized sewers battling against supersize storms and sprawl. “What the Deep Tunnel system represents is a bathtub, and if you don’t have big enough straws to get to the bathtub, it doesn’t matter how big your bathtub is.”


It’s a cautionary tale for a time when climate change has the nation’s planners, scientists, and engineers contemplating enormous endeavors like storm surge barriers or more radical, long-term geoengineering schemes. It’s also a reminder that any project that spans six decades from commencement to completion will be finished in a different world than the one in which it was conceived.

So, the next time you find yourself flying into or out of Midway Airport in Chicago, you can look out the window over the immense South Side of Chicago, and see if you can see that enormous quarry with the freeway right down the middle of it, and now you can understand just what exactly it is being used for, nowadays.

Friday, January 11, 2019

It's not just a game, ...

... it's an equine-bonding, ASMR-inducing stress release exercise: The Only Part of 'Red Dead Redemption 2' That Matters Is My Horse

Though I’ve put a lot of time into the game, I haven’t made much progress in the traditional sense. I’m still stuck in the early missions, but I’ve maxed out my bonding level with Jeffy, and she’s eaten better than the entire encampment of humans I’m supposed to be caring for. We’ve galloped beneath the arc of rainbows, lassoed deer, and ignored troubled citizens attempting to wave us down for assistance. The only time I dip my toe into the wilder aspects of the Wild West is so I can earn enough money to upgrade Jeffy’s saddle, stirrups, or stock up on horse reviving tonics in the event of the unthinkable.

My son watches me play, some weekends, and he says: "Why did you just ride by that person? That was a quest; you could have stopped and had a new mission to go on!"

And I say: "Yes, but I'm just having too much fun riding around on my horse."

I haven't had any ASMR, though.

Maybe I haven't ridden far enough on Penny yet.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Suspended Sentences: a very short review

Patrick Modiano was the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which I think is often given for an entire body of work, not a single piece of work; Suspended Sentences is part of that body of work.

The three novellas in Suspended Sentences are all stories set in France, specifically in Paris, during and shortly after World War II.

Reading the stories, I felt very strongly reminded of the famous 1942 movie, Casablanca; in fact, one of the primary characters in "Flowers of Ruin," the third novella in Suspended Sentences, is a Moroccan man who is (probably) a smuggler:

He invited us to dinner, as was his wont, at the restaurant on Avenue Reille. His friend from Air Maroc was there that evening. And, as usual, he handed out "duty free" cartons of American cigarettes, perfumes, and fountain pens, and little souvenirs he'd brought back from Casablanca.

While the movie Casablanca, with its wide-ranging collection of miscreants, people on the run, and chance encounters, was in the end hopeful, Suspended Sentence is much grittier, much more honest, much more real, and, inevitably, much sadder. Things are lost, and not found. People come, go, and do not come back. Connections are missed; opportunities go wanting.

Still, it is somehow peaceful to follow along with Modiano as he tells the stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things, and what happens as they do so, even if they don't manage to actually save the world.

Life, after all, is not a movie.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Current score: Pacific Ocean: 1, Ocean Cleanup Project: 0

Well, darn: Ocean-Saving Device to Clean Up Great Pacific Garbage Patch Breaks, Will Return to Port

An ocean-saving device deployed in September to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has malfunctioned and will have to be towed back to port.

During a routine inspection on Dec. 29, crew members discovered that a 60-foot end section of one of the booms that scoops up trash from the surface of the ocean had detached, 23-year-old inventor Boyan Slat wrote in a Jan. 1 blog post.

"Although it is too early to confirm the cause of the malfunction, we hypothesize that material fatigue (caused by about 106 load cycles), combined with a local stress concentration, caused a fracture in the HDPE floater," Slat wrote.

There's a lot more posted on the Ocean Cleanup website.

Happily, they're not giving up:

We are returning to port with terabytes of data that we will use in coming weeks and months to develop the necessary upgrades.

It's not just a game, ...

... it's an interactive birding simulator: Birding Like It’s 1899: Inside a Blockbuster American West Video Game

I spent most of my time finding birds, and was impressed with the breadth and relative accuracy of the species represented. Birds change with habitat: Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets feed in the bayous of Saint Denis. Laughing Gulls and Red-footed Boobies roost along the coast, while eagles and condors soar over mountain peaks. Each of these are crafted with accurate field marks and habits. There are dozens of species I couldn’t even find, including Carolina Parakeets, Ferruginous Hawks, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Like real life birding, you’re never guaranteed to see anything.


But that doesn’t mean it’s a game for birders. This game exists in a time where humans mainly viewed birds—and all of the natural world—as ripe for exploitation rather than appreciation.


In fact, the disastrous intersection between humans and the environment is the game’s major theme. A sense of foreboding follows me around the lush world, knowledge that humans were at work destroying it all.


The trouble is, as a birder, it’s not a lesson I needed to learn. I know full well about the continued decline of bird populations, habitat loss, and environmental degradation. That the game could elicit such deep feelings of sadness and regret is to its credit, but I was often left feeling hopeless and wanting to get outside to enjoy real nature while I still could. My mom always used to tell me to stop playing video games and go outside, but this is the first game that made me want to.

(In my defense: it's cold and rainy this weekend. I might just do most of my birding indoors for a little while longer.)

Up up and away (on the ferry!)

The big new ferry enhancements funded by last summer's Regional Measure 3 are starting to roll out.

The new gate G is now open: Alameda/Oakland Passengers Now Board at Gate G in San Francisco.

All San Francisco arrivals and departures on San Francisco Bay Ferry’s Alameda/Oakland/San Francisco route now occur at the newly opened Gate G. Gate G is further south from Gate E and can only be accessed at this time via a pedestrian bridge that connects to The Embarcadero.

The dock expansions have been underway since 2012; you can see the original plan here: Downtown San Francisco Ferry Terminal Expansion. Make sure you scroll down through that large document to see the wonderful historical pictures of the Ferry Building as it looked nearly 100 years ago!

Meanwhile, the new maintenance facility is now in full operation: WETA Opens New Ferry Maintenance and Operations Hub in Alameda

The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) Board of Directors officially opened the new Ron Cowan Central Bay Maintenance and Operations Facility in Alameda on Thursday, December 13, 2018.

The $50 million facility serves as an operations and maintenance hub for WETA’s San Francisco Bay Ferry fleet serving Alameda, Oakland, Harbor Bay, San Francisco and South San Francisco. The project represents the first new major construction at the former Naval Air Station Alameda and is a part of the Alameda Point development.


Features of the new facility include:

  • Marine facility with berthing slips for 12 ferry vessels
  • Equipment and working yard that supports light repair and maintenance work
  • Dispatch and operations hub
  • Emergency response center
  • Fuel facility with a total storage capacity of 48,000 gallons
  • Site improvements including expansion of the San Francisco Bay Trail
  • New harbor seal float to prevent habitat displacement

I need to find a good (i.e., a dry) day to go out and see if I can find this new trail expansion segment.

Also, the new ferry line to Richmond is beginning operations!

  • Richmond ferry to SF begins Thursday, ushering new era for water travel in the Bay Area
    Promising an alternative to the harrowing Interstate 80 grind from Hercules all the way down to the Bay Bridge, a new Richmond terminal will on Thursday begin offering weekday commuter service to San Francisco. It’s the latest upgrade in a series of expansions for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), also known as the San Francisco Bay Ferry, which runs routes from Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda and South San Francisco.


    The ferry will also be a significant driver of development in a city that has largely been passed up by the Bay Area’s real estate boom, said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt. A private operator had tried to implement ferry service from Richmond to San Francisco in the early ’90s, he said, but a sluggish economy and the lack of public subsidies made it unfeasible. It didn’t help that the ferry was slow, Butt said, with trips lasting just shy of an hour. WETA’s ferry will shuttle passengers in roughly 35 minutes.

    Brooke Maury and Sarah Rosen sold their San Francisco apartment for a condo in Richmond’s Marina Bay neighborhood, roughly a mile-and-a-half walk from the new terminal, in anticipation of the ferry’s opening. Both commute into San Francisco, packing themselves into overcrowded BART cars, an experience they’re looking forward to leaving behind.

  • SF Bay Ferry services starts heading to Richmond next month
    "The ferry really sells itself. It kind of goes around all that traffic that you experience there on I-80. You avoid the Bay Bridge and you come right into San Francisco after a nice, relaxing ride on the boat," said Hall.

Lastly, a rather confusing message from announces an additional run from Harbor Bay to San Francisco:

San Francisco Bay Ferry is adding an additional departure from Harbor Bay to San Francisco on weekdays beginning Monday, January 7. The vessel will depart Harbor Bay at 9 a.m. and arrive at the San Francisco Ferry Building at 9:30 a.m. This run will be in place on a trial basis -- we'll send out another BayAlert if anything changes.

Beginning Monday, the morning departures from Harbor Bay will occur at 6:30, 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30 and 9:00.

The website, however, still lists only 4 morning runs.

What's this about a 8:00 morning run?

Perhaps the email meant to announce an 8:00 AM run, not a 9:00 AM run, and somehow the confusion turned into a message that listed both?

Who knows?

But ferries in the San Francisco Bay are the way to go, believe me!