Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A third-floor pop-up done right

I've railed in the past against some of the atrocious renovations taking place in my neighborhood, which are epitomized by this house, recently made infamous on Prince of Petworth's blog.

A few months ago, a house across the street from me sold, and was gutted within the week. Next thing I knew a third story had been added, and my heart sank. Not on my block, please! Dammit, I just got here! First, the speedbumps, and now this? Not that my block is the most attractive block in Columbia Heights. It's got a lot of different styles on the block, including a little apartment building. But I've always felt that the mix of architecture is eclectic and cool. I was sure this would ruin it. Then, they put in the new windows a few weeks ago. Casements. In the front. Seriously? This was not a good sign.

Well, within the last week they've done a lot of exterior work and it's all come together. They put stucco over the brick, and have started installing faux slate roofing. And honestly I think it looks great. The third floor isn't obtrusive, and the overhang is very tasteful. The casement windows work perfectly with the stucco exterior. And they're using copper flashing! Who does that? I think this is going to be a nice renovation.

View from across the street.

View from below
11th Street Addition #2

Monday, January 28, 2008

Scared myself suburban

Like any other Sunday in recent memory, I had some work on the house to do. So, on my way home from Baltimore, I stopped at the convenient Home Depot in Columbia off Snowden River Parkway to pick up supplies. Pulling up to a red light at some generic intersection between I-95 and the mall, I noticed a couple teenagers holding signs and cans. Oh god, I thought to myself. Now there's homeless people even in the damn suburbs? And they're teenagers! Unfortunately, I was turning left, so I couldn't move to the center lane to avoid the imminent guilt trip. As I pulled up to the light, though, I read the signs they were holding. "Help Save Children With Cancer." OK, maybe I've been living in the city too long...

I turned the corner and soon I was in sight of the megamall that held my Home Depot of choice. Then I remembered that I'd been trying to find a couple other things for the house. I desperately need a coat tree, as my house has exactly three closets, and none of them are on the first floor. Coats have been hanging from doors, chairs, or simply piled on the floor. And in the last case, they will inevitably be shed upon severely by the cats, requiring great efforts with a lint roller. This situation had gone far enough, and I figured the suburban shop-o-rama would be as good a place as any to find such a thing.

Strangely, this particular mall has no department store, like a Target. So the best option seemed to be Bed, Bath and Beyond. I wandered in, wide-eyed at the vast array of kitchen and bathroom supplies. Towels. How many different kinds of towels can possibly be needed to satisfy bland suburbanites? I never dreamed it could be so many, but there they were, plush and vibrant in their many pastel colors.

I found my coat tree. It wasn't even a bad one, for $69.99. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks as I was walking back to the truck with my new coat tree and doormat that I'd spied on the way to the register.

I've just gone to Bed, Bath and Beyond, and I'm on my way to Home Depot.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Another nail in the coffin for DRM and the old school...

Here is the story of how author Paulo Coelho benefited from the free distribution of his work, in this case, a book called "The Alchemist." He said, in his keynote speech at a conference in Munich called Digital, Life, Design:

"In 2001, I sold 10,000 hard copies. And everyone was puzzled. We came from zero, from 1000, to 10,000. And then the next year we were over 100,000."

This is a pretty odd pattern for a book - to go from almost no sales to hundreds of thousands as years go by. It turns out, pirates had made electronic copies of his work available online through BitTorrent. The free availability of his work exposed him to millions of new fans. So, Coelho actually went out and located links to torrents of all the different language translations of his books and published them on his web site. Sales skyrocketed.

I've long held that restricting distribution of artistic work works against the artist. While people who closely guard copyrights will maintain that 100,000 illegal downloads of a song (or book) is equivalent to 100,000 lost sales, I believe exactly the opposite. This is for several important reasons:

1) People do not buy something they can't afford. Kids especially have limited amounts of discretionary income. A pirated CD or computer game or whatever does not equate to a lost sale.

2) Increasing distribution of artistic work increases popularity. It's free advertising. How many bands did you get into because a friend of yours made you a copy of their album? Electronic distribution is this same basic idea to the nth degree.

3) Your potential audience is almost limitless. By restricting distribution you rely on old-fashioned word-of-mouth to spread the word. The benefits of viral distribution of art far exceed the potential losses because some people aren't paying for music. That is, even if some portion of the people who downloaded your music would have paid for it, the benefit of an exponentially larger number of potential customers being exposed is far greater that that loss.

4) Every artistic work has potential for sales other than the item that can be distributed electronically. Increasing your fan base can only increase those kinds of revenues. Authors sell printed books. Musicians sell tickets to concerts, physical and electronic media, merchandise.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that this only works if you're GOOD. If you let people try something before they buy it, well, you better be offering something worth buying. In some ways, this is the crux of the fear that has taken hold of the traditional record-label recording-industry model. Their business is less substance than sparkle. I remember the days when your favorite band put out a new album and you'd rush to buy it, and listen to it start to finish over and over. Now, the vast majority of what comes from the major labels is driven by a single hit song. So who wants to buy a whole album of crap for one song? While this is great for record labels, as they rake in the bucks for a load of drek, consumers naturally weren't as excited. The consequence: album sales are down, individual MP3 sales are up as a result.

Free distribution of artistic work is the future. And it has almost universally benefited good artists of any kind who have embraced it. But the old guard continues to fear it, because it puts them out of a job. The writing is on the wall, though. The floodgates are starting to open. Let's just hope that the unfortunate breed that continues to cling desperately to the protections of our backwards copyright laws dies off soon.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kitchen... Major progress

As of last weekend, the plumbing is officially complete. There is not one inch of steel pipe left in my house. Well, in service anyway. The carcass of the old pipes to the bathroom will remain embedded in the concrete subfloor until such a time as I completely renovate the interior of the bathroom. Which will probably not be for some time, because that will probably involve expanding into the rear bedroom and possibly turning it into two bathrooms. That is part of my grand vision that includes rebuilding the sun room behind the kitchen, expanding the bedroom upstairs over it, and building a balcony. Maybe next year... or, given astounding amounts of energy, this summer.

My cabinets & appliances arrive next week. I still have some prep to do, like repairing the walls and roughing in electric, but mostly it's ready to start installing stuff. After the base cabinets are in, the only thing left to do is order a countertop. Cross your fingers, it's looking like I'll have an operational kitchen in less than a month!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fenty: Love/Hate

Fenty announced today changes to the new meter regulations. Okay, so the whole Attorney General thing is unforgivable, but he definitely recovered some ground on this one:

* The flag drop is being reduced from the proposed $4 to $3.
* There will be no rush-hour surcharge.
* There will be no additional-passenger surcharge.
* Fares will not double during “snow emergencies.”
* No fare between points in the District can exceed $18.90, plus surcharges.

Basically, this addresses the problems with the original proposal. The high fare drop would have made short trips just as outrageous as they are under the current system. And the rush-hour surcharge would make absolutely no sense in a time/distance system, where the cabbie is already compensated for heavy traffic.

So, it looks like we're actually getting a real cab system in DC! This is all supposed to start on April 6. I can hardly believe it...

Once again, Fenty is a paradox. Sometimes he acts like a third world dictator, doing whatever the hell he wants, public opinion be damned. The school closings, replacing the AG with his buddy, firing the guy who wrote the handgun brief. All crazy. Then he goes and does this. Actually listens to the citizens. We wanted meters, we got them. We bitched that the proposed fare structure made no sense, he fixed it. Truly, he is a man of mystery. Or maybe he's just using stuff like this (which isn't a big deal at some level, but everyone actually cares about) to win brownie points so we'll let him have his way on the other stuff...

As if we weren't confused enough already...

One of my DC mailing lists included this note from police chief Diane Groomes:

I met with the Office of Unified Communications last Friday and it has been discussed that ALL POLICE RELATED CALLS MUST BE CALLED INTO 911…311 will now be used for the Mayors Customer Service Requests

911 – all police related matters – emergency and non emergency, need of ambulance, fires

311- all other governmental agency requests/city services – cars towed, streetlights replaced, streets repaired, animal issues, abandoned vehicles, trees trimmed, trash pick ups, etc.

Does this strike anyone else as completely idiotic? A month hardly goes by without some fiasco involving problems with 911 response. So apparently in an effort to further reduce the possibility that someone with a real emergency will be able to get through to a 911 operator, our government, in their infinite wisdom, has decided that all police matters, specifically to include non-emergency calls, should be directed to 911.

I can see it now. I'm sorry that you were on hold for for five minutes while bleeding out from a gunshot wound. But we were busy taking down the details from a citizen about the theft of a flower pot from the front of their Mount Pleasant home.

I can think of absolutely no reason that 911 should ever be used for non-emergency reasons. We have been trained since birth that 911 is the universal emergency number. There are lots of reasons to call the police when it's not an emergency. I have called 911 once in my entire life. But I've called the non-emergency police number to report a car alarm that went for days, to deal with visitor permits, to report minor crimes like my car being broken into, the list goes on. So I may be only a sample of one, but I expect I've called the police at least 10 times for my one 911 call. So can we expect 911 operators to be dealing with 10 times as much call volume, 90 percent of it which is non-emergency? Why on earth would you want to have trained emergency response staff handling thousands of routine administrative calls?

As for 311, it's purpose seems to change so often, and mean something different in so many places, that I have never actually called it. So I really don't care one way or another what that number's for. But I'm sorry. I refuse to call 911 if it's not an emergency. If I need to call the police, I'm still calling 727-1000.

Friday, January 11, 2008

New Hampshire primary miscount scandal? Not!

There has been a bit of a tizzy over a perceived inconsistency in the ballot counts between hand-counted and machine-counted votes in the New Hampshire primary. And today, Kucinich asked for a recount because of the "unexplained disparities between hand-counted ballots and machine-counted ballots."

I am constantly amazed at how people completely fail to understand statistics and just look at the bottom line. This web site does a nice job of presenting all the data, and breaks it down by type of ballot and small towns vs. large cities.

Overall, there were 228,307 machine ballots cast, and 59,157 hand ballots cast. Clinton: 39%, Obama: 36.4%. The supposed fraud is because if you look at the results of just hand-counted and just machine-counted votes, the results are different:

New Hampshire - Hand vs. Machine


So if you just count the hand votes, Obama wins!! There must be a scandal. Well, sorry to burst your bubble o' conspiracy, but it ain't so. Is it even remotely possible that there are demographic differences between the people who cast machine versus hand-counted votes? Well, that would hardly be surprising, if anyone bothered to look at where these votes are coming from.

Small towns are far more likely to use hand-counted ballots than cities. In small towns, 86.7% of the votes were counted by hand, whereas in cities a mere 2% were counted by hand. In fact, only 7% of all the hand-counted votes cast came from cities, and 63% of them came from small towns. What this means, is that the hand-counted votes are almost entirely representative of people from small and medium towns, whereas the machine-counted votes are almost entirely representative of people from big cities.

That is a major demographic difference. It is well established that rural areas vote more conservatively than urban areas. For example, see this analysis of the 2004 presidential election from the Carsey Institute which clearly shows urban areas voting for Kerry, and rural areas voting for Bush.

Each precinct uses only one method of vote counting. If you look at the town-by-town results, you will notice dramatic variation in the outcome from town to town. It's amazing how differently they each vote. But each county uses only one method of vote counting - either hand-counted or machine-counted. So, when you're comparing machine versus hand counts, you are not looking at a cross-section of all voters. You are looking at the results of a certain group of towns compared to the results of a different group of towns. This is very different than if all towns used both hand and machine counting, so there was an equal distribution of hand versus machine counting across the whole state. But this is not the case.

The machine-counted results favor Clinton in small towns, but Obama in large towns or cities. The vast majority of machine-counted votes (nearly 80%) came from larger towns or cities. Yet when only looking at large city votes, Obama did much better for machine counted versus hand counted votes - 36% verus 31% voted for him. Kind of an odd conspiracy - to boost the loser's numbers? And if the conspiracists think it was the hand-counted votes that were tinkered with, then that would be a HELL of a conspiracy - since the vast majority of them came from precincts with less than 750 votes, and Clinton actually lost to Obama when only looking at those small-town hand-counted votes! And finally, if you think it was the big-town hand-counted votes that were tinkered with, wrong again. Clinton kicked Obama's ass among those votes - unfortunately, there were only 4,281 votes in that category. Even if Obama had gotten every last one of them, he still would have lost.

Ironically, Kucinich, our man for the recount, is basically dead even for hand vs. machine statewide. Of course he only got about 4,000 votes, so who cares.

The bottom line: the disparity between hand-counted and machine-counted votes in New Hampshire is not a result of fraud - and in fact is entirely to be expected. There is absolutely no reason we would expect the outcome to be the same between them, because they do not represent a cross-section of voters.

Update 1/14/2008:I got the data for this post from this web site. Since last Friday, the summary data has been changed. He no longer breaks out small (<750 votes), medium (750<1500) and large (1500+). Now, medium and large are combined, and the cutoff for small has been changed to 700. I am not sure why he did this, but this reworking of his analysis means you can no longer see what's important -- that only a tiny fraction of the hand-counted votes came from the largest precincts, though overall 78% of all votes came from the largest precincts. The base summary data that I used, which used to be published there, is as follows:

New Hampshire - Hand vs. Machine by Precint Size

MachineMachine %HandHand %
Small (<750 votes)5,79913.5%37,30986.5%
Medium (750<1500 votes)42,36370.1%59,93029.3%
Large (1500+ votes)180,14597.7%4,2812.3%

It is plain that the vast majority of hand-counted votes came from precincts under 1,500 votes, whereas overall the vast majority of votes overall came from 1,500+ precincts. There is a huge demographic difference. The way the medium and large precincts were combined on the CheckTheVotes web site now doesn't emphasize this any more, since they broke it down basically where the number of hand counted votes would be the same in the two sections (small vs. medium + large).

Monday, January 7, 2008

The deconstruction and reconstruction

One of the consequences of tearing apart my kitchen was discovering that the plumbing in my house is effed. I expected that. What I did not expect was learning that the built-in cabinet in my kitchen was built there for a reason. It has false sides which conceal the main stack of the house, a secondary stack (whose purpose remains a mystery, it's right next to the other one), and the water supply to my bathroom.

Seeing as these items would be in the middle of my future countertop, they all had to move. So basically, I have to re-do all the plumbing in my house. This weekend was spent removing about 800 pounds of cast iron pipe. This was often tricky because the bathroom waste pipes were embedded in the old concrete tile base under the bathroom floor, and less than an inch away from the water supply pipes. Especially fun was cutting the main stack in my attic. The stack was near the back of the house, where there was less than a foot of headroom in the crawlspace.

Seven sawzall blades, many cuts and bruises, and enough cursing to offend most sailors later, I have liberated my abode from the old plumbing. Now, of course, I have to put in the new, but installing a bunch of PVC is a breeze compared to what I went through.

I went on my roof for the first time yesterday as part of this process, since I had to get rid of the two old stacks and patch the holes. I was a bit nervous about this since I fully expected my roof to be in awful shape, but was pleasantly surprised to find it was actually looking pretty damn good. That makes it the about only thing in my house that is NOT a mess. I was also treated to this spectacular view of Petworth, facing northeast from my house. The two cranes are at the construction site by the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro. I love the American flags flying at the top of the cranes. This is a cell phone picture so it's not the best, but if you enlarge it -- just click on it -- you can make them out.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I'm famous!

Well, maybe just a little. A photo I took was picked for DCist's Morning Roundup today. Coincidentally it's the one I used for my new banner above. OK, not like winning a Pulitzer prize or something, but not bad considering it's the first one I ever submitted to them...

I've got thousands of pictures I've taken over the years on a hard disk at home. I'm slowly going through them to pull out the ones I want to keep or print. This happened to be the first one! Anyway, to aid in this effort I set up a flickr account and will have begun putting up some of my favorite photos from over the years.

The picture above, by the way, I took in 1999 from my old house in Mt. Pleasant. So it's not exactly fitting since I live in Columbia Heights now, but my house looks like shite right now. When the front is fixed up (probably in about 4 years) I'll revise the banner with that one...

My flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamietre

Destruction Resumes

After a several-month hiatus of not much work on the house, I finalized my kitchen plans and ordered the cabinets. In the month or so it will take for them to arrive, there's a ton of work to be done getting the room ready.

First off, the bathroom is above the kitchen, and as anyone who's lived in an old house before knows, this means the ceiling has been assaulted by plumbing leaks over the years and probably never fixed properly. So at a minimum, I wanted to tear down the bulging plaster under the bathroom. Then, there's the nearly complete lack of electricity in this room (as in every other one).

Finally, I have this built-in cabinet that needs to move to the other side of the room, since it's presently on the outside wall of the house where the windows live, which will become my counter at some point.

Upon beginning the ceiling removal, it quickly became clear that the whole thing had to come down. It didn't take a lot for that to happen. The plaster was rotted and crumbling, and it more or less took itself down with a little nudging. This revealed the horror that is the plumbing in my bathroom. This was all more or less expected, though I was hoping that SOME work had ever been done. It looks like it's all original. Steel water supply pipes? I don't think so.

Finally, the built-in cabinet, as it turns out, was hiding a stack that sticks out about a foot from the wall. That also has to move, since I'm not having a 2" steel pipe sticking out of the middle of my countertop. On the plus side, the there is no evidence of any structural problems. Everything except the utilities looks great.

At right: the plumbing to my bathroom. Oh yes. That's got to go.