Monday, July 15, 2013

Measuring the Metra Mess

     This is one of those start-one-place-and-end-up-somewhere-completely-different kind of columns, beginning with a dollop of fractal theory, then commenting on the conflict between speed and significance in news, and, finally, wading into the Metra brouhaha, almost as an afterthought, which it was — I got the first two subjects out of the way and had a little room left at the end. Any of the three themes could easily have been teased out into an entire column. But people are busy, and want some bang for their buck, so I try to cram a lot in there and not just hobbyhorse on a single subject. I hope people enjoy skipping from one idea to the next, as opposed to being, oh, annoyed and confused.

     How long is the shoreline of Chicago? That’s a more complicated question than it sounds. If you eyeball it on an AAA map, using the distance key, it looks about 24 miles from Rogers Beach Park, at the far north, to Calumet Park, at far south.But the more accurate answer—as anyone who is mathematically savvy could tell you—is that when calculating the shore of Chicago, or any coast, the final length depends upon the unit of measurement you start out with.
     What does that mean? If you took a 10 yard piece of string and walked the beach, you’d get one answer. And if you took a foot long ruler, measuring every outcropping and inlet, you’d get another, bigger figure. And if you took a measuring stick an inch long, following every bump and notch along the sand, you’d get a third, even longer distance.
     None of them is “correct.” All depend on how finely you focus. Which has an echo with the news industry, as I was reminded Friday, when two concurrent events took place.
     First, I was talking to the governor’s press secretary about a story that should be published this week.

To read the rest of the column, go to:

Measuring the Metra Mess (This link is broken; apologies). 


  1. That is not the most subtle insight involved here. If the measuring stick is reduced in half by what percentage does the coast line become longer. It is not the same for all coastlines or for all jagged objects. This percentage thus becomes the metric for jaggedness.

    In a similar vein take two lean athletic men. A jockey and a basketball player. The BB player has twice the body mass. His blood must be filtered by his kidneys. Yet the kidneys are not twice as massive. This is based on the fact that most chemistry in the body is surface chemistry and is related to the coastline dimensionality problem set forth above.

  2. Pagano didn't kill himself over the political mess at Metra.
    He did it because he stole almost a half-million.
    And why did he steal that money? Well, according to Greg Hinz at Crain's, Pagano had a secret second family he was supporting! In other words, he was a bigamist.
    What's far more surprising was that Hinz never wrote about it again, but more importantly, no apology had to be given, someone sued over it being wrong.
    Even more important than that, no one else picked up the story!
    Now who killed that off?

  3. Here is an even simpler measure theoretic problem. The boss is happy with Sue’s performance last year. Thus he tells her “Congrats! I am doubling your wages from $20,000 to $40,000.” He is also happy with Steve’s performance and thus says “I am increasing your wage from $100,000 to $130,000.”

    Who got a bigger raise?

  4. @Becca -- but why could he steal the money? Because no on was watching where it went, at first. Maybe the second family story wasn't true. Or maybe it was seen as off the main point of Metra. Not everything is a conspiracy, though of course, thinking so keeps life simple.

  5. @Becca: Google "Phil Pagano" and on the first page of hits, 3 of 10 mention the other family. Not a very good coverup.

  6. @Anonymous -- Good point. I find often people have an easier time conjuring a "cover-up" than taking the 10 seconds to see if anybody wrote anything about the subject supposedly being covered-up.


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