May 2005

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As part of my new-found photography hobby, I was exploring the Riverwalk in Naperville, Illinois. It’s a nice little park with lots of interesting walkways, bridges, and gazebos. It would make a great background for some outdoor portraits.

Just before I left, I spotted, across the river, what looked like a whole wall with faces carved on it. I thought that might make a nice background for some pictures, so I snapped a shot of it to remind myself it was a possible shooting location.

When I reviewed the pictures a few days later, I noticed something in one small area of the photo:

Face Wall Detail
Face Wall Detail

Is that an eternal flame? If this was a memorial of some kind, it would be disrespectful to use it as a background for a whimsical portrait.

A few days later, I went back to the Riverwalk and made a point of visiting the wall of faces. It was in fact a memorial, inscribed as follows:

Wall of Faces

Faces created by Naperville school children and molded by local artists to represent the casualties of September 11, 2001.

Here’s a better shot of most of the monument area:

9/11 Monument
9/11 Monument

You can see the wall of faces, the eternal flame, and the central jumble of granite and steel representing the crumbled buildings.

I didn’t pay much attention to the central figure of steel and granite, except to note several pieces of debris enclosed in glass:

Debris Protected by Glass
Debris Protected by Glass

The was apparently the real thing, some part of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I don’t know if you can tell in this picture, but the scarred granite is clearly carved to look that way: It’s not a piece of any of the real damaged buildings.

I then took a look at the twisted girder. An artist had bent it and cut jagged edges on it and leaned it against the carved granite to represent the fallen buildings. Pretty standard modern sculpture.

Until I stumbled on a detail that made me have to sit down:

Unknown Broken Part
Unknown Broken Part

This was no artist’s detail. Artists add things to a sculpture because they have meaning. The warp of the beam, the jagged edges, the dings and dents, all these could be explained as an artist’s representation of the battered building.

But why this? Why have this tiny, complicated, meaningless thing attached to the side of the sculpture? Unless it’s not a sculpture.

This was the real thing. A piece of steel that was once part of the World Trade Center, then part of the burning pile. Consecrated by heroism and death, cut loose, and brought to this peaceful place in the quiet suburbs of Chicago to remind us all of the events of that day.

I found a sign that explained it. The beam is from the World Trade Center and the small debris fragments are from the Pentagon. That granite is quarried from Pennsylvania, “symbolizing the freedom fighters of Flight 93,” which crashed in Pennsylvania.

There is also a placard, inscribed as follows:

Freedom Isn’t Free

In memory of Commander Dan F. Shanower and the thousands of others who died in the attack on America on September 11, 2001.

Dan Shanower grew up in Naperville, attended Disctrict 203 schools and graduated from Naperville Central High School in 1979. He was commissioned a naval officer in 1985. He was killed at his Pentagon post, serving as chief of the Intelligence Plot for the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations.

These are his words: “…Those of us in the military are expected to make the ultimate sacrifice when called…the military loses scores of personnel every year…Each one risked and lost his or her life in something they believed in, leaving behind friends, family and shipmates to bear the burden and celebrate their devotion to our country…Freedom isn’t free.” (Naval Institute Proceedings, May 1997)

If you’d like more information:

Eric Zorn has an article about Richard Sherman who was almost hired to teach science in High School District 211 in Palatine. Last Monday, however, the officials at the District changed their minds and decided that they weren’t going to hire Sherman to teach there after all.

Eric Zorn:

It couldn’t be–could it?–that officials at High School District 211 in Palatine yanked a job offer away from a prospective teacher this week simply because administrators don’t like the religious views of that teacher’s father?

Sherman, 23, is the son of civil rights activist and atheist leader Rob Sherman of Buffalo Grove, whose relentless crusades of the last 20 years, most over church-state issues, have alienated many who don’t share his interpretation of the Constitution or God.

One of Zorn’s readers, Andy, responds:

Richard Sherman doesn’t have a God-given right (pun intended) to work at District 211. The district can hire whomever they determine is the best candidate for the job. All they are guilty of is poor judgment in even considering hiring this guy. There are enough liberal wackos attempting to poison the minds of our youth working in the public schools already…

Well, Andy is right that Richard Sherman may not have a God-given right to work at the District, but he certainly has a Congress-given right. Employment descrimination against an applicant on the basis of his beliefs about religion has long been against the law.

Good and thoughtful people sometimes disagree about whether the proper response to discrimination by private employers is government regulation. Some people feel that getting the government involved interferes with the natural progression towards tolerance, or that it causes problems that are worse than the problem of intolerance, or that the private employment decision simply isn’t a proper matter for government scrutiny.

But this isn’t a private employment decision. High School District 211 is the goverment. Maybe the government shouldn’t force other people to be tolerant, but the government damned well ought to be religiously tolerant itself. The establishment clause is in the constitution for very good reasons.

Oh, and one more thing. By all accounts, Richard Sherman isn’t an atheist like his father.

I did some more exploration of the local electrical power situation I outlined in my previous two postings. (Part 1 and Part 2.)

I drove to another block fed by a different phase of the same three-phase distribution lines that feed my building. After a couple of times around the block, I spotted an apartment building with an outdoor outlet, so I parked and walked up to test it. Unlike the night before, this one had power: at almost exactly 120 volts too. So not all phases were affected.

I drove around the remaining block on the third phase until I spotted a guy watering his front lawn. I wasn’t looking forward to trying to explain my purpose—this is serious geek territory—but I got out of the car and walked up.

“Excuse me. I…I live in the next block, and we’re having trouble with our electricity. Are you having any trouble with yours?” If he was, or even suspected he was, I’d have an easier time getting his cooperation.


“Well, I’m trying to figure out how far it spread…how many people are affected.” I pulled out my digital multimeter; I had already spotted an outdoor outlet. “Do you have an outlet where I could check the voltage?”

“Go right ahead,” he said waving to the outlet. “We usually get 127 volts.”

Thank you, brother.

“Well,” I responded, “I’ve been getting 137.”

I walked up and plugged in.

“122 volts,” I read off. “So you’re fine.”

He suggested it was a problemn with the transformer, and I explained why I didn’t think so. We spent a few more minutes discussing it, then I thanked him and left.

So, it’s only my block. That means it will be harder to rally a crowd to pester ComEd to fix this.

On the other hand, maybe they’ll fix it this weekend, when the down time won’t bother people as much. We’ll see.

Google just released the next version of their Keyhole software. It’s called Google Earth, and of course it’s a beta release.

(Update: All I got was a message from a Google email address saying that they were making the beta available to current Keyhole subscribers, which I am. The message included a download URL that has a parameter that looks like some random key that probably links it to my keyhole license. Otherwise, I would have posted the link. More about the release here, and here’s a link to the original Keyhole software.)

I first heard about Keyhole last October when Google bought Keyhole Corporation. I use Keyhole LT—the non-professional version of the Keyhole software—and it’s a fascinating piece of software that allows you to view satellite imagery in an intuitive way.

Although it seems likely that the satellite images in Google Maps use some of this technology, Keyhole takes it a few steps further. For one thing, Keyhole is a whole lot smoother than Google Maps imagery because it’s an application that runs on your PC and renders the images locally, essentially distributing this task out to the end-user’s computer.

The application starts with view of the whole Earth floating in space.

Google Earth Screenshot

You can use your mouse to drag it around in any direction, and then you can zoom in and out with the mouse wheel. There are also controls to rotate the image and to tilt the camera up toward the horizon.

The program downloads images from the database in the background, leaving the user interface to run smoothly: Zoom in on a city and the display reacts immediately. The initial image is blurry, but as Keyhole downloads updates from the server, it makes the image progressively smoother. Naturally, it caches the images so that the next time you zoom in on the same place it’s clear all the way.

There’s nothing quite like the feel of zooming from the whole earth down to my condo building. I can even see my car in the parking lot.

Google Earth adds a bunch of improvements to Keyhole. The most visually interesting is the 3D buildings available in 39 cities. Here’s what Chicago’s lakefront looks like from the southeast with 3D buildings enabled:

Google Earth Screenshot

If you want, take a look at the whole Google Earth user interface. It’s prettier than the old one, and does some more stuff.

The most interesting new trick is the integration of Google’s Local Search and Driving Directions services directly into the application. You can search for local businesses or type in addresses and then generate a driving route between them. Here’s a simple route between two Wendy’s restaurants on the northwest side of Chicago:

Google Earth Screenshot

There are lots of other tweaks and changes. In particular, the program is faster now because it has been modified to make efficient use of Google’s servers to provide the images.

I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. It’s pretty cool.

Update: You can now add lines and polygons to your map markup, in addition to the point placemarkers it’s always had. Here’s the site of the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 on May 25, 1979, the worst single-plane crash in U.S. history:

Google Earth Screenshot

Update: Nope. Got that wrong. According to the NTSB report, the actual site is the field just to the left of the marked area.

Here’s the complete list of new features from the Release Notes:


People driving between downtown Chicago and northwestern Indiana have for several decades now had the option of taking the Chicago Skyway. This is a toll road built and operated by the City of Chicago, and it’s the only toll road not operated by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority. That’s a bit of a problem, because it doesn’t participate in the I-Pass electronic toll collection system: You hand your money to the people in the toll booths.

Actually, it’s not so much a toll road as a toll bridge over the Calumet river, plus a few miles of feeder ramp. The river is active with shipping, so the bridge has to rise up 125 feet. It’s a substantial structure. It’s priced that way too. For the last decade or so, Illinois tolls have been 40 cents, but the 8-mile Skyway costs 2 bucks.

It’s a shortcut in terms of driving distance, but during busy times it hasn’t always been a time saver. It gets pretty congested. A few months ago, the Skyway decided to try to improve driving times with congestion pricing, as shown here:

Skyway Congestion Pricing
Skyway Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing is an economically sound approach to fighting highway congestion by increasing the prices during normally congested times. With enough of an increase, some drivers will choose to start their trips earlier or later, and congestion will be reduced.

It almost worked. The only problem is that the Skyway combined congestion pricing with an across-the-board price increase for cars from $2.00 to $2.50. Suddenly, thousands of cars an hour needed change at the toll booths. The result was predictable:

Skyway Congestion
Skyway Congestion

The previously efficient toll plazas started having long lines of vehicles.

It looks like it’s going to work out for the better, however. The City has responded to the congestion by doing something I’ve been wanting them to do for years. Starting June 17th, the Chicago Skyway will start accepting I-Pass transponders for electronic toll payment.

As I mentioned in my last entry, we’re having a few electrical problems at our house. ComEd is supposed to supply voltage at 120VAC (Volts Alternating Current). That’s just a nominal value, it can vary a bit. ANSI standards supposedly permit 5% variation, from 114 volts to 126 volts. ComEd’s rule book says they may have 5.8% variation, from 113 volts to 127 volts. This past week, I’m measuring anything from 133 volts to 139 volts. The speakers attached to my wife’s PC blew out last week, and one of the 300W quartz-halogen lamps burnt out a few days ago.

I’ve called ComEd twice, and they haven’t fixed it. On Monday a truck came by and they took a look at the transformer drum mounted on the pole in the alley behind our house. (Here’s a few pictures of a transformer drum at HowStuffWorks.) However, since then nothing has happened. I’ve been compulsively checking the line voltage ever since with my DMM (Digital MultiMeter). It was 137 volts just a few minutes ago.

There must be tens of thousands of transformer drums in the city of Chicago alone, so ComEd must be replacing them all the time. I’ve been wondering why they haven’t replaced ours yet. The rule book says that voltage shall not exceed 127 volts for more than one minute, but it’s been more than that for a whole week.

I think I’ve now got it figured out. I was restless tonight (this morning) and couldn’t get to sleep, so I took a walk. I took my DMM with me. I was looking for outdoor outlets. I wanted one right on the side of the building, so I could get to it without entering anybody’s backyard.

Down at the end of the block is a small apartment building that has an outdoor outlet in their parking lot. I flipped on the DMM, turned on the backlight for the display, flipped up the cap on the outlet, and stuck in the probes. 138 volts AC. Bingo.

All the buildings on that end of the block are fed by a different drum transformer than our building. That means the problem is not in the transformers in our alley. The problem is further upstream in the distribution grid, at some substation nearby. It’s a bigger problem that’s taking longer to fix.

The drum transformers tap into three-phase lines running high up on the utility poles. Both transformers I tested are attached to the same phase. I walked down the street in the other direction to where the buildings were on a different phase and found an outside outlet I could get to, but it wasn’t turned on. I wonder if all the phases are affected?

Anyway, now I have a plan.

This high voltage is against the rules for electrical service in Illinois. It damages delicate equipment, strains motors, and causes light bulbs to burn out faster. It also raises peoples’ electric bills.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll follow the power lines a little further and find a few people who will let me check their voltage, especially in some of the businesses on Milwaukee Avenue. If enough of us bitch to ComEd about the problem, maybe they’ll hurry up and fix it.

Here’s a question that’s turning out to be harder to answer than I would have thought: What’s the acceptable voltage range for your house?

A few days ago the lights flickered and the speakers on one of my computers started making funny noises. Turns out they’re fried. That computer system wasn’t on a UPS, so I went out and bought an APC Back-UPS 800 for it.

When I plugged it in, it wouldn’t go on-line. It would provide power from the internal battery, but it refused to pass through the power from the wall outlet. Reading through the troubleshooting materials, I decided either the UPS was busted or there was something wrong with the household power. This latter possibility made some sense, as my other UPS had started switching to battery several times an hour.

I don’t know much about electricity, and I have no real idea how to evaluate electrical noise, so I checked the only thing I know how to check: Voltage. Household power is supposed to be at 120 volts and when I’ve checked the wiring on outlets, I’ve usually seen something close to that.

When I check now, however, I get a reading of 135 volts, give or take a volt. I figured out how to hook two of the UPS boxes up to my computer, and they are reporting about 137 volts.

That’s high, but is it too high?

I assume ComEd has a commitment to provide electrical power of a certain quality. Somewhere there’s a spec that says what voltage range is acceptable. For example, if voltage is allowed to vary 5%, then ComEd would have to deliver household power at somewhere between 114 and 126 VAC.

I’ve tried to find out what this is, to see if I would be justified in calling and complaining, but I can’t find it anywhere. The ComEd website has all kinds of information about bill payment, energy prices, and safety, but nothing about the specifications of their product. They invite me to report blackouts or downed wires, but they don’t tell me what to do if the voltage gets out of spec.

The local Citizen’s Utility Board website is also useless. Lots of stuff about regulation and pricing, but nothing about the quality of ComEd’s product.

Well, I’ve had equipment damage, my UPS rejects line power, and the voltage is measurably high, so I decided to call the blackout report number on Friday and complain. I called again on Monday. On Monday evening a couple of trucks were parked next to the pole with our transformer on it. They were there at least half an hour. However, nothing has changed: I still measure 135 volts.

Also, one of the quartz-halogen lights just burnt out. Was it about due, or was it hurried to its demise by the high voltage?

So, am I getting poor products and customer service from a big corporation that has a monopoly? Or am I the crazy guy who keeps calling to complain about the voltage? And even if I’m crazy, what do I do about the UPS that won’t work in my house?

Update: In something called The Information and Requirements For The Supply of Electric Service provided by Exelon (ComEd’s parent company) section 1.051(a) says:

On the Company’s 120V standard, the range of acceptable voltage is 127 volts maximum and 113 volts minimum.

So I’m right. The power supplied to my house doesn’t meet spec.

Now the trick is getting them to fix it…

…The Royal Dragoon Guards now carries with it the traditions and history of four of the finest regiments in the British Cavalry; the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 7th Dragoon Guards and the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons. All four were raised between 1685 and 1689, during the protracted contest between James II and William of Orange for the English throne.

—History note on the website of the Royal Dragoon Guards.

Now go here and watch the video.

I think the American military might frown on that sort of thing. Those Brits have been stuck on that island of theirs way too long.

(Hat tip: Stillettos and Sneakers)

Mary Kay Letourneau and Vili Fualaau should be celebrating their wedding night by now.

I think the whole situation is a bit disturbing. After all, they first had sex when he was in sixth grade and she was his teacher. She went to prison for that. I think they’re both a bit crazy.

My opinion doesn’t matter, however, nor should it: Now that they’re both adults they can do whatever they want. Apparently the State of Washington agrees with me, because even though she is convicted of raping him, nothing in the law prevents them from getting married.

Now can someone please explain to me how a same-sex marriage would destroy the sanctity of marriage when a rapist marrying the victim does not?

I’ve been slowly working my way through Choice: The Best of Reason, edited by Nick Gillespie, Reason’s Editor-in-Chief. I subscribe to Reason, and I normally read through each issue over a period of a couple of hours. Then I have to wait a month to do it all over again. Choice, however, is a collection of very meaty material, so I’ve been waiting after each article to let it soak in a bit.

I just finished the fourth article in the collection, Glenn Garvin’s “No Fruits, No Shirts, No Service: The real-world consequences of closed borders.” The title of the piece is a way of pointing out that immigrants do a lot of work in this country, and that if we kept the immigrants out, we’d have to find americans to do the work…and Americans don’t like that kind of work.

Here’s my favorite passage:

Study after study shows that immigrants are at worst a break-even proposition in terms of creating jobs and paying for the government services they consume.

Perhaps the most dramatic was a study by Princeton economist David Card, who looked at the impact of the 1980 Mariel boatlift on Miami employment. That was the year Castro, in an ill-considered fit of pique, briefly opened Cuba’s doors to permit free emigration. In just a couple of months, 125,000 refugees flooded into Miami, boosting the city’s work force 7 percent overnight.

Card tracked Miami’s unemployment statistics for six years after the boatlift, comparing them with those of half a dozen Sunbelt cities with similar economies. What he found was–nothing. Miami’s economy swallowed the newcomers without a trace, like a boa constrictor gulping down a pig.

That’s a classic piece of Reason writing. It’s an amazing fact, it proves the author’s point, and nobody else is talking about it.

Here’s another passage I like, just a few paragraphs later:

“When I read letters to the editor, it’s plain that most people seem to think that the number of jobs is fixed,” he says. “So, in their view, if you add one more worker to the population of a city, it just means that that guy will have to fight with somebody else for an existing job. It’s an extremely narrow and very non-economic view of the world….If you look across cities, the number of jobs is proportional to the number of people in the city. The fact that more people have moved to New York than to Atlanta does not mean that a lot of people have been thrown out of work in New York. What it means is that there are 10 times more jobs in New York than there are in Atlanta.”

Of course. How obvious. The number of jobs is proportional to the number of people in the city. The populations of America’s cities have been fluctuating for years, sometimes shrinking, mostly growing. Although some growth is due to people having children, much growth also occurs because people are moving there. And yet cities that experience sudden growth aren’t giant pits of unemployment; more often they’re boom towns. Why would it matter if the people come from inside our borders or out? From Atlanta or Guadalajara?

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The busybodies in the Chicago city council have banned the use cell phones while driving. I don’t use the cell phone all that much, but my wife is going to be really pissed-off.

They say you can use hands-free phones, but since the State of Illinois banned headsets, I’m not sure what that leaves. So if you want to make a call, you have to pull over. I guess I could get used to that.

But what if you receive a call? You can’t control what you’re doing when that happens. I guess I could try to pull over real quickly, but wouldn’t that be dangerous? How many accidents are caused by people suddenly slowing down to pull over?

Or what if you’re stuck in heavy expressway traffic during rush hour and the cell phone rings? What do you do? Pull onto the shoulder, potentially creating a hazard? Wait until you reach an exit, leave the expressway, and find a place to pull over in a neighborhood you’ve never been in and which might be dangerous?

No wonder the ordinance’s sponsor had to use a parliamentary trick to bring it to a vote without warning the opposing aldermen.

Let’s see, in Chicago you can’t use your cell phone for the reason you bought it, you can’t buy anything without paying a higher sales tax, you can’t protect your home with a handgun, and you can’t even buy a can of spray paint. Sometimes I don’t know why we still live in this city. We should sell this place and move to the ‘burbs a.k.a. the Illinois Free-Zone.