Thursday, May 28, 2009

When City Employees Care

This morning I happened to see the parking meters outside my Silver Spring office being emptied. I was literally stunned by the efficiency with which this operation took place. Sure, this is not exactly rocket science. But having dealt with DC city employees for so many years, and generally been apalled with the priority they place on talking on their cell phones or to their coworkers instead of attending to their duties, it was a bit of a shock. Oh yes. I'm not in DC, I'm about 1000 feet north of there.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. For example, one of the services in DC that I actually have been very happy with over the years is trash collection. I realize that some people have problems. Like this poor guy who's been unable to get DPW to pick up his trash in 4 months on Sherman Avenue. Of course, he is unfortunate enough to live in the only house on that block that receives city trash services. While there are certainly some issues, having watched the city employees pick up the trash behind my house on many occasions, they are actually extraordinarily efficient.

I know why that is. It's because they are not paid by the hour. They are paid to complete their route every day. The sooner they do it, the sooner they get to go home. If only the average DMV or OTR employee was paid by the job instead of by the hour.

Obviously, we can't have someone who works behind a desk be allowed to go home as soon as they finish serving some arbitrary number of customers, but certainly there should be ways to compensate people for working faster or more efficiently. Because the current system, whatever it may be, seems to encourage (or at least not punish) laziness. DC blogs are rife with stories of dealing with city employees over motor vehicle, tax, or any number of other issues. Something that should be resolvable with a single communication takes weeks or months with countless letters, calls, and in-person visits. Because the prevailing attitude seems to be one of "don't deal with the problem - just send back a screw-you form letter."

The end result of which, of course, is more work for the city, and endless frustration for the residents. In the end, you can usually get your problem solved through persistence. Or writing about your tales of woe in a public forum. But wouldn't it be better if the people at the other end of the phone actually had an incentive to get your problem figured out, rather than getting you out of their hair as quickly as possible?

This is nothing new. If you reward productivity, people will be more productive. In the case of trash collection, they are rewarded by getting off work sooner. For other types of city service providers, surely we can implement some kind of metric for how well they do their job. The number of cases a DMV employee handles each day, or the number of tax-issues that are resolved and closed over some time period.

I would really like to be impressed more often than I am disappointed by city services. I love living in DC. As long as you don't have to deal with the government, it's great. I wish I could remove that caveat.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Happy Memorial Day, Welcome To Sarajevo

P1030367Washington, DC isn't well known for it's culture and traditions. We don't have New Orleans' Mardi Gras parades, or New Year's Eve in Times Square, or Boston's distinctive accents. And brawls. Actually it's hard to think of any really well-known uniquely Washintonian traditions here in "the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm." Outsiders probably think mostly of the politics and the bullets when they think of DC. Oh wait, not the bullets, the Wizards. How ironic, that people were so concerned that calling our basketball team "The Bullets" was offensive because of the crime here. Nothing wrong with "The Redskins," though, that's just kind of racist.

But anyone who's lived here for a while knows this is far from the truth. Actually we have many wonderful traditions and cultural institutions. Like the half-smoke, and mambo sauce.

But one lesser-known tradition to outsiders is the annual July 4th celebration. I don't mean the one downtown where a million sweaty people stand for hours and get covered with ashes. I mean the Columbia Heights/Petworth July 4th celebration that begins every year on Memorial Day and ends sometime after July 4th whenever everyone's supplies are gone. Right on cue, on Monday night I heard a bang outside.

Now even though I am the first person to make an uncomfortable joke about all the crime that goes on in my neighborhood, I honestly don't hear gunshots from my home often. In fact, in two years, I don't think I've heard a single one. So my instinct was not to hit the deck when I heard the noise. Rather, it was to go outside and see what was going on. Sure enough, the sky was lit up. It was the beginning of the annual shifting of funds from DC to China, as my neighbor shot off some pretty impressive pyrotechnics.

But something was different this year. After a mere ten minutes had gone by since the first blast, I saw flashing lights as two cop cars blocked off the end of my street and proceeded to shut down the celebration. The show was over before it had even begun. Eventually they left, and I did hear one more get shot off later, but the police had pretty much put a stop to it for the night. It was a much different story than in years past, where such activities went largely ignored by law enforcement.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. July 4th itself is an unbelievable show. From my back yard last year, I saw a nearly 360 degree display of rather impressive fireworks being shot off from the surrounding blocks. We talked with one of the "shooters" who excitedly told us of their annual pilgrimage to states south where you can buy big stuff that is not available around here. Three neighbors together had spent over $3,000 to put on their show last year. And it was quite a show. While obviously not the same caliber as what was going on at the mall, it was pretty impressive stuff, and having it right overhead is a lot more exciting than something blowing up a mile away. My alley was a war zone of smoke, flying bottle rockets and falling paper shreds. By the end of the show there was so much smoke you couldn't see fifty feet.

I am not going to lie - I like the show. It's fun, it brings people together because everyone's out on the street (at least, those brave enough to risk getting hit by a bottle rocket or roman candle), and it's a lot better than moshing at the national mall. At the same time, the month-long lead-in of firecrackers in a neighborhood where people are a little edgy about gunfire is not that cool. I'd probably be a lot more comfortable with the tradition if it was limited to July 4th weekend rather than the six weeks around it.

So I wonder what will happen this year. Police responded to the very first fireworks I heard, whereas last year I don't remember a single incident of them enforcing the fireworks ban. Without question it's a sign of the times. Columbia Heights is gentrifying rapidly with the completion of the DCUSA development and a massive influx of new, wealthier residents. And this process always involves a lot more vocal response to petty crime, and consequently a greater police presence. After all, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

It's a mostly harmless tradition, and it's sure a lot of fun. But it's also a pretty uncomfortable one for a neighborhood that is dealing with gang and gun violence on a regular basis. While I'm not sad to see the police shutting down the routine jackassery of shooting bottle rockets and fireworks every night for a month, it would be sad to lose the spectacular neighborhood show that is such a neighborhood experience, and which I've thoroughly enjoyed for the last two years. Sure, it's illegal and maybe just a little dangerous, but it's also something uniquely ours and a rare DC tradition. We'll see what this year brings.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

News from My Front Porch

I have been spending a lot of time there lately. So it may be the only news I'm qualified to report on. It's rather nice, actually, with Spring slowly coming, and going, and coming, and going, and possibly getting lost and/or mugged on the way back from the store, and WHERE THE HELL IS SPRING IT WAS #&$(*&@ 45 DEGREES LAST NIGHT!!

Ahem. Anyway, apart from the rain/wind/cold/fog/brimstone and stuff that we've had in lieu of balmy May nights, it's been lovely. Sunday, I killed the hideous thorny shrubbery thing that inhabited my front yard and planted four Azaleas. And I mowed the lawn last week, an annual event. Though I was unfortunately in the house at the moment of truth, I was told that one neighbor, upon seeing that transition from ghetto to Martha Stewart, did a triple take. Most likely, he thought I had moved out, or he was on the wrong street.

  • A stray cat with one blue eye and one red eye is trying to crash in my house. She also has no tail and can't meow. I like her already, except that she puked on the porch. But considering that one of my friends peed on my porch recently, and you know who you are, this is a small transgression for a cat. So I can forgive that.
  • A pretty decent bike was abandoned in my backyard. Assuming it was stolen and left there by the theif, I took it inside, hoping I could track down its owner with a craig's list notice or the like. Either I have done a good deed or I have stolen someone's bike.
  • Google Street ViewI am going to the baseball game tonight. Nine innings of watching that Nats suck ass... this is some serious payback for Star Trek! Just kidding... ha ha... seriously, the weather is supposed to be nice, finally, and I've never been to the new stadium before so I'm looking forward to it.
  • I absolutely hate it when people who double-park and honk their horns to pick someone up.
  • I have become extraordinarily camera-lazy. Why don't I have pictures of my front yard or the funky cat?
  • I Google Street Viewed my house to see if it had a shot of my awful old shrubbery. It does!! Here ya go, google street view above. Aren't those awnings awesome? Okay, maybe not so much. This pic was apparenty taken in Summer 2007, becase the fern you see hanging there fell down and I hung it somewhere else after that. But you can clearly see the wretchedness that is (was) the front-yard shrubbery. It's much better now, I'll take a picture when I can remember to do so.
  • Coconut milk and red curry paste: GOOD

That's about it. The azaleas are really my only accomplishment for the last week. Or maybe even month. Other than that, I have been extraordinarily negligent on house stuff. But this is a long weekend coming, and I have plans to fix some holes and put glass block in my bathroom where a window now resides. Hundred-year-old wood-frame windows really make bad backsplashes in a shower enclosure.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Super Geeky Star Trek Post

Not that this will be a big surprise to anyone, but I am a geek. There, I said it. I program computers for a living and I like Star Trek. And Dr. Who. It probably gets worse but I'm not going to go into it any more. I'm not the worst kind of geek, though, because I don't dress up in chain mail and stage medeival swordfights with my friends. On the chart below, I think I fall under "Science Fiction Televison Fans" or "Heinlein Fans." Or maybe even "Trekkies," do I need to own Star Trek paraphernalia to be there? I do own a light saber... but moving on. My point is, I haven't rolled a 20 sided die in at least 25 years. But I've still seen every Star Trek movie ever made and probably 95% of the TV show episodes. All of them, even Voyager. OK - maybe I'm a trekkie.

The Geek Heirarchy

I finally saw the new Star Trek movie last night. I am not going to pretend to be a movie reviewer, but I wanted to throw out a few things that crossed my mind during the film. Most people (e.g., my friends who won't shut up about it) seem to be gushing endless praise and making vacation plans around seeing it at least four more times, I wanted to throw in my two cents. I really liked the movie. It was fun, well cast, and looked great. I did not think it was the second coming of Star Wars. And by that I mean Star Wars, the first time it came out, before it was called "Episode IV: A New Hope." You know, that would have been a great name for this latest Star Trek movie... a new hope for a dead franchise, that is.

Anyway, what follows is not criticism or praise so much as observations. So here we go. Yes... many spoilers follow.

1. The bad guy, Nero, wasn't that scary. After the vicious and dark opening sequence, it was looking like we had a live one. But he just never really got under your skin. I mean, blowing up the planet Vulcan is pretty badass, but what intergalactic bad guy hasn't done that? Darth Vader blew up Alderaan a long time ago. Well, it was in a galaxy far, far, away, but the point is, it's been done, and a lot more dramatically.

2. Nero's motives weren't pure evil. It's hard to hate the guy that much. Mostly, he was trying to prevent his homeworld from being destroyed in the future. Okay - his methods might have been a little extreme, and he definitely had some personal issues with Spock over the original Romulus blowing-up incident, but his raison d'etre wasn't totally revenge - it was also self-preservation.

This isn't the first time we've had this problem with Star Trek. Dr. Tolian Soran from Star Trek: Generations, was much the same kind of jerk. (I had to look up his name. I'm not that geeky.) He just wanted to go back to this Nexus thingy. In the Nexus, in case you don't remember, it's basically the same as being doped out of your mind on the most awesome heroin and LSD at the same time for all eternity. One can hardly blame him. Unfortunately, the only way he could get back into it required... wait for it... destroying a planet. But you had a hard time really hating this guy, because even though he was a dick, he didn't have any personal beef with anyone. He just had a massive Nexus jones.

3. The Romulan ship was pretty scary looking but it didn't make any sense. That thing can travel at Warp 9? You must be kidding. All those tentacles or crazy robot arms or whatever would fly off in a second. All the other ships in the history of this show look aerodynamic, at least. This thing looks like a trash barge on the Hudson river. All right, I'm not here to debate minor plot holes and all that, since I'm sure there are expanations involving forcefields and gravitivity and relativity and whatnot. I'm just saying it just doesn't look like a spaceship.

4. Back to the bad guy not being that scary. There weren't really any times in the movie where you felt like the home team was doomed, facing impossible odds, with no solution in sight, when suddenly they come back from certain death and vanquish the bad guy. Actually, it mostly felt like things were going pretty OK for the good guys, with the exception of the planet being destroyed thing. But where are the impossible odds? Where is snatching victory from the jaws of defeat? Our heroes were never more than a step behind the bad guys.

In fact, the only time I really felt like the home team was kinda screwed was when Kirk was on the Ice Planet Hoth being chased by that creature from Starship Troopers. That was pretty sketchy. Of course, it was a total sidebar having nothing to do with the real bad guy. That scene, while kinda fun, didn't have anything to do with the movie.

5. The Enterprise was badass. It looked cool and high-tech on the bridge, and like a boiler room elsewhere. Perfect.

6. The scene with Scotty materializing in the water pipe... umm... can you say Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

7. That guy playing Kirk. Jesus. He could BE William Shatner at age 23. Awesome. Actually, I thought the leads were all great and captured the essence of their originals without coming off as a sad facsimile. Well done on the casting.

8. The ending... Galaxy Quest. So, the reborn franchise borrows from the (actually very good) film that made fun of the original franchise... hmmm....

9. Nero is not dead. I predict he returns in the 3rd sequel.

10. Spock and Uhura? Yeaaaahhhh.....

Overall I enjoyed it immensely, it was a lot of fun. My complaints are minor and didn't detract much from my enjoyment of the film. It's just that I'm a geek, so it is my responsibility to be nitpicky. Oh - and Leonard Nimoy should have a cameo in every future Star Trek movie as long as he is alive. I don't care if that means time-travel has to be part of the plot every single time. The guy just gets more and more classy as he gets older.

And thanks to my excellent movie date, who also provided the geek chart. This post would not have been possible without you. Hopefully, this won't make you reconsider taking me out to the movies in the future...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Remembrance Of Beef Barbecue That Wasn't

About two years ago, a group of us at my office phoned in an order to the Parkway Deli in Silver Spring. This normally fine establishment provides wonderful and fattening lunchtime delicacies of the kosher variety. On this day, however, I was dealt a crushing lunchtime blow. It was an affront from which one does not soon recover. It left me scarred, no, devastated. And hungry.

When the runner arrived with a bagful of greasy delights, I paused for just a moment. I made myself wait just a little longer, anticipating the delicious sweetness of the slow-cooked barbecue beef. Tender and moist, and dripping with succulent sauce, it would surely satisfy my angry belly and arouse my taste buds. But when I finally lifted the lid from the styrofoam carrier, my pleasure quickly turned to horror.

I stared in disbelief at the spectacle you see here. Can this truly be? What horrible, heinous error resulted in my being delivered a beef barbecue sandwich with no beef barbecue? What twisted, or more likely hung over, individual could so callously package an empty roll where a sloppy scoop of saucy stuff should sit?

Beef Barbecue Bummer

My Beef Barbecue Sandwich - Perfectly Preserved

I felt myself losing control. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind in less time than I could process even one. There was no rationality, no reason behind this terror. These thoughts ranged from self-flagellation to horrific retaliation, but summoning great strength, I clenched the chair in front of me and the redness began to fade from my vision. Cool now, the rage subsided, I was able to evaluate my lot.

It was too late to go back - from ordering to eating at Parkway is easily a 45 minute full circle. By that time, my stomach would have eaten itself, or regressed into a state of abject starvation, capable only of accepting pea soup. No, that was not an option. But Parkway must pay! There must be balance and order restored to the world of carry-out crudites. No - there is no sense in vengeance, nor is there any lunching. I set that aside.

Luckily, my comrades showed compassion. I was given scraps, halvsies of other's food. It was not beef barbecue. No, it was the likes of turkey and swiss, a shallow substitute, but sustinence nonetheless. And the fries weren't bad either. I perservered, I survived, to lunch another day.

I regret that I did not document the date of this incident. Because I saved the sandwich, exactly as it was delivered to me on that fateful day. It still sits on my bookshelf, a monument to the terrible toll that can result from failing to check your order before leaving with carry out. The date on the receipt, as you can see, gentle reader, has been eradicated from the slowly spreading stain of the butter spread on the bread.

I cannot explain why this "sandwich" has avoided mold, rot and decay, as one would expect of a two-year old food product. Perhaps it is symbolic of the lesson that I have learned - it's stoic survival a reminder that we should never forget the immortal words of Joe Pesci.

They fuck you at the drive through.

Always remember to check your carry-out orders.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Go Away Rain, Or: Nothing New Under The Sun

I am pretty sure it's been raining since the last time I posted. I'm not here to cry about it, but rather to use this fact as an excuse for not posting in more than a week. It's not that nothing's been happening, quite the opposite. It's just that if I told you about it, I'd have to kill you. Secret agent stuff, I'm sure you understand.

So instead, I am going to post some pictures of old stuff that never made it up here before. Yes, this is one of those mid-season episodes that starts off with everyone trapped in a cabin in a blizzard with no electricity, and since they have nothing else to do they tell stories about all the crazy stuff they did over the last year. You know, the awful ones with about four minutes of new footage and 22 minutes of rehashed crap from previous episodes. Probably aired during a writer's strike. Sorry about that. At least the pictures are new.

I put in my new transom a couple weeks ago. Here's a cool nighttime shot of my mostly-finished doorway.

Transom 1

I never posted about Mardi Gras this February. (Is it really May already?) I don't have time to tell the whole story right now.. but here are a few of my favorite pictures from the weekend. Lots more on flickr.

Mom's Ball


... you win.


Frenchman Street


Wandering around Uptown looking for stuff to use on my costume


Where we parked in the Marigny...


I just liked this


Really reaching back into the archives, I never posted about my trip to Austin last fall for the 2008 Austin City Limits festival. It was my first time to this particular festival, and I was fortunate to have a friend who had just moved into a new place about a mile from Zilker Park. ACL isn't a whole lot different on the surface than other big music festivals like Jazz Fest, but the lineup was great, and the organization was top-notch. It was hot and dusty, but plenty of free drinking water was available. Bathroom and beverage lines were never too bad and even though it was a capacity crowd on Saturday, it didn't seem oppressively crowded. These sorts of festivals have their pros and cons - while it's probably not the best way to see your favorite band, it's a chance to get exposed to dozens of performers and probably discover something new. Also, the lesser-known, or local bands often perform early in the day, when crowds are light. Until late in the afternoon when the bigger-name acts start playing, it's easy to get right up to the front at many of the stages and get a great view of the performances.

Here are some pictures, lots more here.

I think this is Sharon Jones...


Light crowds early... I especially liked the "no chairs" policy which prevents people from creating wagon-circles in the middle of prime real estate.


Patty Griffin


Just something about this one...


Yeah, it got crowded later..


Finally, when are we going to get some of this action around here? My house as at the end of that rainbow, by the way. I am not kidding, anyone who recognizes where this picture was taken and knows where I live can confirm that. But in case you were thinking of looking for the pot of gold, just FYI, this is Columbia Heights. I already found it, but then got robbed about 30 minutes later. So don't bother.

14th and Quincy Rainbow 3