Chicago truly has a grid

Looking at a map of Chicago or seeing it from above coming in and out of the local airports shows Chicago’s road network is a grid. A recent study examined just how much of a grid it is:

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It is right to compare Chicago’s street network to something so obsessively exact. A recent academic study, “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy,” by Geoff Boeing, looked at the maps of 100 major world cities, and found that Chicago’s “exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid.” Nowhere else have urban planners been so successful in imposing Euclidean order on natural surroundings. On a scale of 0 to 1, in which 1 is a perfect grid, Chicago scores 0.9. (The least-perfect grid is Charlotte, a Sunbelt city whose street system is more entropic than Rome or São Paulo.)

Why such a design?

The man hired to plat a town at the mouth of the Chicago River was James Thompson, a surveyor from Kaskaskia, and the father of the Chicago Grid. Illinois had already been divided into square townships and sections by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. Since Thompson was subdividing a township section, he simply repeated that pattern in miniature when he designed Chicago’s first street map. It was less than half a square mile, bounded by Kinzie on the north, Washington on the south, Jefferson on the west and Dearborn on the east, but it was the template for a network that would eventually cover the 234 square miles of Chicago—and extend into suburbs beyond its borders…

Thompson’s grid was interrupted only by the river, and by established Native American trails which became diagonal streets: Elston, Clark, Milwaukee, Archer, Ogden. By 1869, the grid had become so integral to the city’s identity that the Tribune boasted, “There is no city where the opportunities for straight streets are so advantageous as in Chicago,” and demanded, “Give us straight, broad streets, running uninterruptedly from one extremity of the city to the other.”…

In our quest for orderliness, Chicago also has the advantage of being one of the flattest cities in the U.S., lying on a plain that was once the bottom of a proto-Great Lake. It would not be practical or possible to impose an uninterrupted grid on Pittsburgh or San Francisco, where streets wind sinuously around hills. As the study notes, “Boston features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, but they tend to not align with one another. Furthermore, the grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in various directions, resulting from its age (old by American standards), terrain (relatively hilly), and historical annexation of various independent towns with their own pre-existing street networks.”

This sounds like a perfect storm of factors: a planner who applied methods from the Northwest Ordinance, a unique landscape that was flat and had only one waterway, and a quest for land development and profit with land that could be easily marked and developed.

Of course, this question of spatial order could be combined with consideration of how these different spatial orders are experienced. Do residents of Chicago and visitors have a better experience because of the grid or are cities, like Boston or San Francisco, with different spatial orders more interesting and vibrant? The grid has particular advantages for navigation but has less charm or uniqueness.

Trying to add round-the-clock, year-round activity at a suburban football stadium

If the Chicago Bears are to move to the suburbs, the change would not just include a stadium: the land all around would be valuable and needed to generate the kind of revenues the team and community would hope for:

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SoFi Stadium was built on the former site of Hollywood Park racetrack, presenting a solid comparison to Arlington Park. According to Noll, the reason SoFi Stadium is in position to be financially successful is the mixed-use development also being built on the property.

Noll believes a stand-alone stadium is no longer a realistic option for NFL franchises because a $5 billion stadium can’t be financed by eight football games a year and the random big-name concert. Year-round revenue must be part of the package…

Glendale city officials, for example, added residential neighborhoods to the area so the entertainment establishments would be frequented at night and on weekends when no game is in town. They added office space so workers would patronize the restaurants in the daytime and not take up parking at night.

“If you’re not able to capture benefit in a meaningful way outside of the football games, it’ll be an expensive proposition,” Phelps said. “We’re seeing tremendous growth in and around the stadium, kind of creating this sports and entertainment hub. I think that’s the future where these kinds of venues are going.”

Creating this sort of suburban entertainment center is a dream of many larger suburbs. Not only would this boost the status of the community, it would add jobs and tax revenues. Metropolitan areas only have so many stadiums and major revenue generators and this could be viewed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (or gamble).

But, this would also be a major change. The article noted that this site in Arlington Heights is surrounded by residences; would a mixed-use area of denser housing, restaurants, and entertainment venues be welcomed? Can Arlington Heights go full[speed into such a project?

As the article notes, it could turn out poorly. There is a lot of money at play. Getting any taxpayer dollars involved could be a risk. It all could take time to develop fully into a true center for suburban football as opposed to a football stadium stuck in the middle of single-family homes near highways.

Given all the history of the Bears in the city, I would be more than 50% confident that they stay in Chicago. The allure of a new, large stadium that could serve other uses much of the years is incredibly appealing. There is money to be made in the suburbs. But, it would certainly be a change for all involved, including Chicago leaders who would have much to answer for if the Bears become the Chicagoland Bears.

Bears stadium at Arlington Park? Just keep the taxpayers out of it

With the announcement that Arlington Park will be for sale, ideas are swirling about how the land could be used. I have heard a few times already the possibility of the Chicago Bears constructing a new stadium there. Here is one example:

The Loop from the North End of Soldier Field

Now it is urgently incumbent upon regional politicians and civic planners to begin a campaign to get a global-class Chicago Bears stadium built as a profitable symbol of the rebirth of the 326-acre site.

Fulfillment of such a bold and visioned plan would bring about a marriage of an NFL team and a suburb that was first discussed between “Papa Bear” George Halas and then-AP empress Marje Everett in 1968…

The question of “How?” can only be answered if there is an enormously creative and concerted joint effort put forth by such potential game changers as Bears chairman George McCaskey, Arlington Heights Mayor Tom Hayes and Gov. J.B. Pritzker…

Said Mayor Butts: “From my experience — and I’m talking about my suburb, which is 52 percent Hispanic, 47 percent Black and 1 percent ‘other’ — if you have an inspired plan, proper financing that does not put the host municipality at risk and a resolute ‘will-get-done’ attitude, toss in hard work and you can make a great thing happen.”

On one hand, this is a unique opportunity. It is rare for parcels of land this large to open up in suburbs developed decades ago. Filling a large parcel can be difficult; what can add to the existing community without threatening the current character? This particular location provides easy access to highways, easing travel for thousands of fans. The surrounding area is already used to sporting events on the sites. A suburb could become home to a major sports stadium.

On the other hand, the “creative and concerted joint effort” required to pull this off could become an albatross to taxpayers who often fund large stadiums for wealthy team owners. This is a tax break of massive proportions for a feature economists argue does not necessarily bring added economic benefits to a community. The stadium may provide status to a suburb but this does not always translate into financial gains. And Illinois has a history of this already: just see the state deal where taxes are still funding the White Sox stadium.

How to balance these competing perspectives? Many suburbs would jump at the opportunity as growth is good, having a pro sports teams is an important status symbol, and hearing the Bears are playing in Arlington Heights could be part of a branding strategy. But, I would recommend leaving the taxpayers out of this: they will likely not benefit economically from a new stadium.

Asking tough questions of American athletes

The story of a Danish journalist who covers the NFL and asks certain questions of players hints at cultural differences in approaching both sports and important social issues:

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Back in 2016, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen lived in Burbank, Calif., for a year with his wife and son. It had always been his dream to spend some time in the States, so when his parent company asked him to help its esports arm transition from Twitch streaming to television studio production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity. He had a great house and a pool. He had friendly colleagues at work.

But what he noticed over time is that he’d end up having a version of the same conversation every day, one that never broke beneath the surface. He remembered, for example, being confused about a situation involving how to get the local water authority to turn the water on at his house and wanting to ask someone about it—a step beyond hello and how are you. He felt like there was an immediate recoil…

It shines a light on something that seems to permeate culturally, reverberating from the sporting world that Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen finds himself thinking so much about. Maybe it’s the end result of widespread, rigorous media training, which creates a fast-food experience of well-meaning words pieced nicely together but ultimately containing no substance, an appeal to our innate desire to move on. In some unconscious way, does our lack of exposure to actual humility and openness inform our default setting, which is to simply wince through the tough stuff and avoid it in real life, too?…

The phenomenon is not necessarily unique to the U.S. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen saw, for example, the further any players drifted from Denmark (perhaps to the English Premiere League) the less likely they were to be interested in answering difficult questions or exhibiting any kind of remorse for something negative that had happened. It creates a situation where it feels for Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen like he is doing something wrongwhen he’s merely asking fair questions.

At the least, this story sheds light on how others in the world can view what many Americans would take as normal. The NFL is the NFL. Except when you are viewing it with a different lens. Americans also have the ability to watch many sports around the world through an American lens with an American network and broadcasters providing the commentary and interpretation.

At a deeper level, this asks what we expect to hear from athletes and others regularly in the public eye. Does it generally ring true that Americans just want to stick to sports, rather than consider the actions of athletes and those associated with teams? Probably, even as sports has been an important social scene regarding social change (and resisting it).

The current holy grail of sports: cheaper labor with stars, MVPs on rookie contracts

Sports leagues have always had a few teams with a lot of money and a willingness to pay players. See the leaked details of Lionel Messi’s contract. These teams with resources tend to do well as their resources allow them to regularly compete for titles and pay to rectify mistakes.

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But, for the majority of teams, there is a regular pattern now: look for players on the cheap. Keep labor costs down. Do not pay too much for past performance. Sometimes this is due to limited resources, sometimes it is about ensuring profits, sometimes it has to do with salary caps or structures that try to ensure competitiveness.

This can occasionally lead to magical runs. The Leicester City title in 2015-2016 defied all odds. In baseball, teams like Tampa and Oakland regularly compete on the cheap and ship away players when they become too expensive. The Detroit Pistons could win an NBA title in 2004 without a major star. Tom Brady can be found in the sixth round.

But, these are rare. Without stars – who often are paid a lot of money – it is hard to compete year after year. Everyone hopes to strike gold now with a top pick, to find good fortune with home-grown talent, or to find diamonds in the rough missed by others. Hence, we see tanking and massive rebuilds as teams tear it all down and trust they can put together the right combination. This is the holy grail: have young players at a reasonable price and then hope it happens.

If it does not, teams often follow patterns. The Rockies pay to send the best third baseman of his generation to the Cardinals. The Lions and Rams paid big contracts to #1 overall drafted quarterbacks and now they swap them amid disappointment. The Blackhawks won multiple championships but now are burdened by big contracts paid to aging stars. Once these players command big money, it limits what else the franchise can do.

In each league, only one team can win it all each year. This would be true even if everyone spent all they could. But, when that does not happen, it is easy to see the interest in keeping labor and operational costs low as an impediment to winning. Even as the public debates inequality, the inequality in sports is real and affects outcomes and wages.

Peytonville, the suburbs, and football

With the return to the airwaves of Peytonville ads from Nationwide, I noticed something in the commercials I had not thought about before (see Peytonville Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5): the possible connection between suburbs and football. Notwithstanding a possible caveat that Nationwide might want to appeal to suburban customers, here are some ways the suburbs, football, and Peyton Manning might go together.

First, the majority of Americans live in suburbs. It is a slight majority but the percent in suburbs outnumbers the percent living in cities by a little more than 20%. Where is football played the most? Which communities have the most interest in football? The romanticized image of a football community might be a small town in the Heartland obsessing about football on fall Friday nights but much of the activity might be happening on suburban fields and on suburban television screens.

Second, the Peytonville commercials at least hint at college and pro football as well as suburban and urban life. For both college and pro football, where are the majority of fans? For college, perhaps the thousands of alumni for major football schools have largely settled in suburbs. With a college degree, people have the opportunity for higher-paying jobs and put those resources into suburban single-family homes. For pro teams, the majority of residents in a metropolitan region are suburbanites. Take Chicago as an example: there may be a lot of Bears fans in Chicago but there are over 6 million more residents in the suburbs than the city.

Third, the social and cultural life of the suburbs might lend itself to football (and other sports as well). With games on the weekend, many suburbanites are free to sit at home and watch or attend games. For kids, families have the resources to enroll them in activities and there are plenty of organizations ready to funnel kids into high school and college football.

Perhaps this is off yet certain sports are associated with certain places. Is football truly a suburban sport or does it belong to all of American places?

Televised sporting events as vehicles for commercials

If people were looking for more reasons not to watch major sports – and there are plenty at the moment – then consider the commercialism involved in any televised sporting event. I quote from an article featured in an earlier post:

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The 11 minutes of action was famously calculated a few years ago by the Wall Street Journal. Its analysis found that an average NFL broadcast spent more time on replays (17 minutes) than live play. The plurality of time (75 minutes) was spent watching players, coaches, and referees essentially loiter on the field.

An average play in the NFL lasts just four seconds.

Of course, watching football on TV is hardly just about the game; there are plenty of advertisements to show people, too. The average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. The Journal’s analysis found that commercials took up about an hour, or one-third, of the game.

The game itself could be interesting. I have watched numerous games that contained amazing sports moments and I am consistently surprised how often something new or rare happens.

But, even with those great moments, I always get a big dose of commercials. Break after break after break selling me products, brands, and an American way of life based on buying more and more.

Perhaps this is the true message of American sports: the observer, someone who probably was not able to play the sport in question at a high level, can live the good life through purchasing goods and experiences. Even while I am watching, I can purchase a lot through my phone or computer. And I can upgrade the sports watching experience with an even bigger television, more food and drinks, tailgate accessories, and ways to travel to the sporting sites.

And this may be the big message of American life in general. Community might be nice as might finding contentment with what you have. But, the guiding impulse that will help keep the economy humming and the consumer satisfied by novelty and acquisition is to just keep wanting and buying.

A Patrick Mahomes word cloud, strengths and weaknesses

The season-opening NFL broadcast included a word cloud of descriptions of Chief’s quarterback Patrick Mahomes from his teammates:

On the broadcast, they noted that “leader” was mentioned the most times and several people mentioned “smart” and “competitive.” And, since this came right after a conversation of Mahomes’ record contract, it was noted that no teammate said “rich.”

A few thoughts on this graphic:

  1. It highlights the popularity and/or spread of word clouds. If it makes it to a football broadcast, it is all throughout the United States.
  2. It remains a way to highlight words or themes across a series of interviews or texts. It can take time to relay thoughts from multiple interactions; the word cloud tries to summarize the concepts. But…
  3. The size of the words do not easily convey their frequency in this particular graphic. Leader is clearly the biggest, competitive and smart are somewhere in the middle, and then there are a lot of other words. Yet, the length of certain words – “courageous” or “extraordinary” – take up a lot of space even if they were just mentioned once.
  4. The colors of the word cloud are tied to the Chiefs’ colors. But with the background changing a bit behind the words (“add a dynamic background to that boring word cloud!”), it can be hard to read some of the words in red (see “smart” above).
  5. Without knowing the number of interviews or how many total descriptors were given, it is hard to know how many words stand out.

An interesting choice of graphic and still some work to do to make this even a better presentation of data.

Background noise and less seismic activity caused by humans during COVID-19

Measuring seismic activity often requires locating instruments away from population centers. During COVID-19, the seismic activity caused by humans dropped a lot:

architecture bedrock bridge building

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Writing today in the journal Science, dozens of researchers from around the world show that the seismic activity from our civilization plummeted as lockdowns went into effect. This “anthropogenic seismic noise,” as seismologists call it, comes from all manner of human activities, whether that’s running factories, operating cars or trains, or even holding concerts. Seismometers pick up these activities as a kind of constant din, which actually peaks on weekdays, when more people are moving around, and falls on weekends when economies slow down. All this activity that seismometers detect mixes with the natural rumbles that scientists are really interested in, like earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

But boy, are they interested in the anthropogenic seismic noise now—or the lack thereof, as humans began to shelter in place. “We see it effectively moving around the globe as a seismic lockdown wave,” says Royal Holloway University of London seismologist Paula Koelemeijer, one of the paper’s coauthors. “So starting in China originally, then in different places in Italy, and then going through Europe. And whenever lockdowns happened in different countries, we see the effect that’s up to an 80 percent reduction in the amplitude of the seismic noise in some places.” The average was about 50 percent…

Normally, seismologists don’t bother monitoring urban environments for just this reason: There’s way too much noise muddying the signals of Earth’s natural processes. But for the past few years, citizen scientists have been collecting signals thanks to a clever little device called the Raspberry Shake, a Raspberry Pi computer outfitted with sensors to create an internet-connected seismometer. “Those instruments have been popping up more and more in people’s homes,” says Koelemeijer. “And so about 40 percent of our data stations that we looked at have been these citizen science instruments. It’s just people finding it funny, geeky, to have one of them. Like, I’m one of those people. I have one in my house.”…

But it was in a remote part of Germany where seismologists recorded perhaps the most surprising lockdown data. The Black Forest Observatory is not only isolated, and thus considered to be a reference low-noise laboratory, but its instruments are stowed over 150 meters below the surface, in bedrock. Yet they, too, picked up a small noise reduction at night during the lockdown. “Germany was a big surprise for us, because that station is very much a remote station, and seen as a very good seismic station for looking at natural signals,” says Koelemeijer. “So the fact that we saw it there was quite remarkable.”

Human activity influences all sorts of spheres that we do not often consider. Here, humans create a lot of noise and activity below the surface of the earth. There are occasionally complaints about noise pollution but most people put up with a certain amount of noise and vibrations in the places where they live.

This reminds of several different aspects of working with “background noise.” Working in radio, I often used sound effects for promotional material. The sound effect CDs we had contained a variety of background noise or din. For example, the city options largely contained traffic noise with vehicle rumbling and honking mixed together.

More recently, sports broadcasts have adjusted to teams playing in stadiums with no fans present in the stands. They often use recordings of fans where a sound technician has the ability to respond to play on the field (such as cheering for a good play for the home team or a negative response from fans). Without such background noise, the broadcast sounds very different: voices echo, the players can be heard, and a comforting or familiar element of the broadcast is lost.

All together, the background noise of our lives matters in everyday activity and in scientific measurement. If COVID-19 changes human movement and interactions, what we hear by ear and scientific instruments also changes.

Michael Jordan embodied the American value of winning at all costs

An interview with Todd Boyd, featured in ESPN’s “The Last Dance,” included this answer regarding evaluating Michael Jordan’s competitive fire:

I would say it’s American, that’s what I would say. I wouldn’t characterize it as positive or negative, it’s American. I think what Michael represented was an especially American desire to win at all costs, to dominate.

Sports have the ability to both reflect America and lead to social change. Jordan’s example could serve both. He was wildly successful in American terms on and off the court as a winner and earning oodles of money. He helped usher in a new era of global superstars, taking a third-place American sport (behind football and baseball) to global heights, and a lasting brand built around shoes. He is still successful today as an NBA owner.

It can be easy to chalk up his success to his legendary work ethic and a quest to become better when others who had similar skills or athletic gifts took it easier. But, it would also be helpful to place Jordan in his context. He came along at the right time for multiple reasons: he built on the NBA stars of the 1980s, he was around at the spread of hip-hop (also discussed in the interview), he succeeded during an era of capitalist growth (“the end of history” and the demise of communism), and technology helped spread his play and brand (even down to the crying Jordan meme of recent years).

All of this means that Boyd’s answer is two-fold: Jordan exemplifies America (work hard and you will get ahead!) and what it considers success (become a winner and global icon!). Is this what Americans want to promote for their children or in schools or in politics? That is a much bigger debate.