Friday, March 26, 2010

National Marathon from Columbia Heights

By some miracle, N. and I managed to get to 11th and Harvard around 8 AM to see all those crazy people running the National Marathon last Saturday morning. There were almost no spectators other than ourselves, which was surprising. I thought the Columbia Heights crossing would be a pretty popular place to watch, but apparently I was wrong. But the lack of a crowd made for some nice pictures of the race. You can see more pictures on flickr.

I think he's running faster than they are...

Fjording The Marahon

I'm Batman.


"Yeah, the race is going pretty well... I paid my taxes online at mile four, but I haven't updated my facebook status since mile 6."

Textin' and Runnin'

No Loitering. And That Woman Is Hard Core.


Look in the dead-center of the picture. Is there nothing that cyclists won't do??


I just like this picture.

Waiting To Cross

Monday, March 22, 2010

Of Marathons and Mini-Projects

Though the list of mini-projects* is long, it was hard to get much done this weekend with the fantastic weather. My best intentions fell to the wayside, beginning with an unplanned trip with N. to the National Marathon finish. The point was to see my brother finish what I thought was his first marathon. We'd gotten up at the crack of dawn to see him around the 8 mile mark in Columbia Heights, which we did achieve. Unfortunately, he didn't actually run the marathon, but just the half. If I had an attention span greater than that of a three-week-old cocker spaniel, I would have known this.

Go MomBut we turned my mistake into a fun afternoon. Watching the marathon finish was enjoyable even though we didn't end up being there for anyone in particular. I haven't run a race in a while, which I will blame on several unrelated foot injuries beginning with the "Spiderman" incident last May, so being there woke up the running bug. Hopefully I will turn that inspiration into action, which means actually doing all the stretching exercises I'm supposed to do in order to get my current foot issue fixed.

After we left the race finish at RFK stadium, we stopped at Eastern Market for an hour or so on the way back home. I must say - Port City Java makes a kick-ass coffee milkshake. Delicious. It was a perfect day for just walking around and taking in the city. Even Metro worked out pretty well. Despite the obligatory train breakdown, which happened at L'Enfant Plaza while we were changing to the Orange/Blue line, we were hardly set back and didn't wait long for any train. When the doors open and close a half-dozen times while the train is making odd grinding noises and bucking slightly, you can generally assume you're going to be there a while. But they cleared the malfunctioning train quickly and we were on our way only a few minutes later on the next one.

*Mini-Project: A project which takes between 15 minutes and 2 hours to complete, unless escalated to "Major Project"

I have this habit of starting some project or other when there's some time to fill. This could be anything from fixing a latch that doesn't work right, or changing the batteries in a flashlight, or putting insulation in the attic.

"Mini-Project" is typically something that I think will take only a few minutes, but could expand into several hours, or possibly spawn several other related mini-projects. N. has devised a classification system for my projects. Anything that is generally unplanned and begun spontaneously is termed a "mini-project." In addition, there are:

Micro-Project: This is something that takes only a few minutes, but is likely to interferes with whatever we were going to do at the time, like leave the house or eat dinner. It usually involves something like collceting dirty drinking glasses from around the house, or organizing the mail table. Typically, does not become a mini-project because typically does not involve tools.

Medium Project: This is a project that actually must be planned somewhat and could involve an entire day or two. While mini-projects can be home-improvement related, and can spawn other mini-projects, they usually can be completed the same day they are started. Not so with medium projects. Examples include: refinishing a door, or installing a new plumbing fixture.

Major Project: A major project is remodeling a room, or building a fence, or resolving a parking ticket dispute with DMV. These can span days, weeks, or even months. When you begin a major project, you should plan on living with it for a while. Most of the time, I think that a major project will be a medium project when it starts. Example: Bathroom. Initial estimate: 4 days. Actual time to completion: Not completely finished after 9 months.

Mega Project: The mother of all projects, this is life. My house is a mega-project. Goes on for years. Most people do not complete any mega-projects in their lifetimes. Examples: renovating the entire house, or learning to leave your wallet and keys in a place where you can find them later.

Of Last Weekend's Mini-Projects

DSC_0143Now that you understand what I'm talking about, I was able to get a couple mini-projects done. One of them was finishing outside the new bathroom window. The picture here, taken many months ago, shows you what I was dealing with. In the gap at the top of the glass block a stained-glass transom is now present. While I was able to lay the block and finish the outside up to here from inside the house, it's impossible to do that last bit when you can no longer reach outside the window.

The bathroom is on the 2nd floor, and my basement comes out only slightly below ground level in the rear. This means the top of the window is nearly 30 feet up. I have a 24-foot ladder, which doesn't quite cut it. Luckily, there's a major house renovation going on right behind my house. The conractor was kind enough to loan me his 30-foot ladder so I could get up to here and do the final sealing. While I absolutely hate ladders, especially really tall ones, this wasn't too bad because it's in a corner so I didn't feel too exposed at the top. I cut an arched piece of wood to fill the space between the top of the transom and the brick window arch, and caulked everything up. At last - the window is finished, which is one of the things on the "punch list" for the bathroom that is, finally, growing shorter.

On the downside, I re-hung the interior door to the bathroom that I showed you last week. The stain doesn't match the stain I used for the casing. This falls in the category of "face-slapping incidents" since it was, basically, a stupid mistake.

Even though they were stained from the same can, I am pretty sure that I forgot to throughly stir up the stain when I did the casing. The result is that it's much lighter than the door. I could just restain the casing, but as it turns out I think the color I got from not mixing it is a lot better. This probably means, another round with chemical stripper to remove the new stain. It's not nearly as bad as getting all the paint off was - it's mostly just annoying when you think you've finally finished something and you realize it's not right. But such is the life of the home improver, and we learn from our mistakes. You get used to taking one step backwards for every two forward with this kind of thing. You just have to remember that you are, actually, moving forward.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ironic Thursday

Worst Perk Ever

DC Depot during Snowmageddon.

Worst Perk Ever

We Really Hate Unsolicited Faxes. We Swear.

Used the fax machine at work for the first time in at least a year, and saw this on the top of the pile of incoming faxes (which nobody ever checks since nobody ever gets one).

We'll Send This To You until You Respond

My fiancee gave me this.


No Bag Tax For Charm City

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, (Lucky) Charm City declined to move forward with a proposed 25 cent bag tax.

What they appear poised to do instead, however, is a remarkably reasonable sounding alternative. Rather than outright banning bags, they would require any affected business that wants to hand out plastic bags to participate in a "plastic bag reduction" program.

The terms of this program are as follows:

  • Stores must not give out bags unless the customer asks for them.
  • Stores must collect bags for recycling.
  • Stores must offer reusable bags for sale, and post signs encouraging their use.

The new policy would also require stores to report on the number of disposable bags they hand out, as well as the number of reusable bags they sell. This information will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

Nobody in the US is likely to pass a 25 cent bag tax.

Typical denizens of Seattle
If there's one thing we can all agree upon, it's that Seattle, Washington is a bastion of patchouli-wearing, clove-smoking, bio-fuel-using hippies. And yet even so, these guys soundly defeated a 25 cent bag tax in a referendum last year. If Seattle isn't willing to tax plastic bags like they were unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes, then really, who is.

I have to believe that anyone who proposes such an onerous tax on something that has about the same environmental impact per person per year as driving your car for a half-hour, really doesn't think it's going to pass. Well, maybe in Seattle, the tofu-eaters really thought they could pass it. But not anywhere else.

The reality is probably slightly more sinister: whoever wrote this legislation in Baltimore knew full well it would never pass the laugh test. But in doing so, they were able to appear to be progressive among the compost-heapers, while being able to quietly reassure the business community that it would never pass.

And sinister though this may be, it's also smart. Because it paves the way for a much more reasonable approach to the issue.

Sin taxes in DC

DC has among the lowest taxes in the United States on gas, beer, and liquor. Yet we choose to raise revenue though a regressive tax on consumer purchases.

Beer: $0.09/gallon. Tied with one state for lowest in the nation.
Liquor: $1.50/gallon. Only Vermont is lower.
Cigarettes: $2.50/pack - slightly above the median.
Gasoline: $0.20/gallon. Only 11 states are lower.

Oil, when used to make a plastic bag: $10.00/gallon (approx. 200 bags/gallon)

Anyone who reads this blog knows I oppose DC's bag tax, primarily because I think that it's using a big stick to swat a tiny gnat. I don't think bags are a major contributor to the trash problem, and I know they represent a tiny fraction of the oil/greenhouse gas problem. So I think that implementing a brand-new tax that's regressive, inconvenient, and is likely to have inconsequential benefits, is a really bad idea. Apart from the minimal benefits it will likely create, it wastes valuable political capital that could have been saved up for something that would be really effective, like a bottle bill.

But I'm an environmentalist and I am 100% behind efforts to change people's habits -- but without legislating that change where it's not absolutely necessary to solve a big problem. In this case, the problem is not big, and the tax is not necessary to effect change.

There's something about human psychology that makes people resist doing things that are good for them, even if they're easy, when you tell them it's going to be illegal to do that. But if you encourage people, and help them understand the benefits without shoving it down their throats, they will, in time, usually adopt that change. It's a simple as catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.

An example of this kind of policy is the U.S. EPA and U.S. DOE's ENERGY STAR program -- which I actually work on in my career. ENERGY STAR is a labeling program that identifies the most efficient products in its class. The basic premise is to change consumer attitudes with education. Let them know that they'll save money, educate them about energy use in consumer products and appliances, and make it easy to distinguish between energy-hogs and energy-sippers. The program, which has been around for nearly two decades now, has been remarkably successful. And the industry changes and reacts to consumer preferences. For example, the market share of front-loading clothes washers, which use much less water and electricity than conventional top-loading clothes washers, is over 35% in the U.S. today, compared to essentially zero fifteen years ago.

And all that without a law that told you what you had to buy.

Kudos to Baltimore for rejecting the "big stick" approach to the bag issue. I hope this passes and am very interested to see the results.

Monday, March 15, 2010

House Update: Door Prize

Time for a brief house update. While I feel like i've been working on the house all the time, despite a couple weeks off because of the broken foot, progress is slow. Partly because I'm actually doing some finishing work, and partly because life keeps preventing me from working on the house as much as I'd like.

Finish work is rewarding, because things go from being just functional to being nice. But the detail work -- cleaning up messy paint splashes from over the decades, wall/casing boundaries, patching holes, painting, and so on-- is really just as much the devil as they say it is. You think you're just about done with something, but you can spend hours, even days, on one little thing.

A couple months ago I mentioned that the bathroom was nearly finished. That's still the case. Is anything ever really done? In order for it to actually be finished (at which point, I'm sure I'll have bashed or broken something that will need fixing), there are a few details left to take care of.

Bathroom Door
You may be able to see some off-colored splotches. These
are wood filler repairs that still need to be sanded.
The burn marks near the bottom (really the top... it's
upside down) may have come from my heat gun... doh.

One of these was the door. I was very fortunate in that this old wreck of a house I bought, for all its problems, had some very thoughtful previous owners in that the radiators, woodwork and doors had never been painted -- only stained. For the most part, anyway - the inside of the bathroom door had the standard 27 layers of paint on it. Stain is relatively easy to remove or clean up, if needed, whereas paint removal is a tremendously laborious ordeal.

I love original details in old houses, and the largely pristine condition of the finishing elements in this house was one of the major attractions it had for me. Removing paint from woodwork is terrible work no matter how you slice it, and I finally got around to tackling the one door that needed it last weekend.

I had hoped to finish it this weekend, and almost did. The picture here is the result of about 8 hours of paint stripping: Major toxic chemical bath last weekend, followed by several hours of heat-gun paint removal, followed by another chemical bath to clean up the residue. Lots and lots of work with rubber gloves, a wire brush, and a toothbrush to get all the details clean. It came out really nicely, and the door was generally in very good shape under all that paint. Though I have probably suffered irreperable brain damage from all the paint and stripper fumes I've inhaled, I think the result will be worth my reduced IQ.

All that's left to do is some finish sanding and then staining, and I can put it back together and re-hang it. At that point there are just a couple more things to do and I can really close the door on the bathroom (pun intended). The sink support structure needs to be rejiggered a little bit before I can permanently install and seal around the sink, and the floor needs to be cleaned up and sealed.

Oh - and we need the perfect shower curtain, which remains elusive. At that point, it will really be done, and I'll take pictures.

One more project (almost) down, 874 to go.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Child Safe, Amber Alert System Dangerous

A commenter on yesterday's posted noted that the full story was available from, of all places, Fox News.

As it turns out, this was an Amber Alert. The person who was actually missing was a six year old boy named Rashaun Robinson. He was apparently picked up by the "ex-girlfriend of the boy's mother," a phrase which only now raised my eyebrows, even though I've read it about five times. I guess since gay marrige is now legal in DC that should hardly come as a shock, and it didn't. It's not that the boy was picked up by his mother's ex-girlfriend that surprises me. It's just that girls with girlfriends is a lot more DC than Suitland.

But moving on. I was thrilled to discover that I had kept the recording of last night's prime time comedy extravaganza. Or rather, Tivo had kept it in it's "recently deleted" folder. I pulled out every bit of video-hacking geekery that I could muster and figured out how to get that video from my Tivo to YouTube. Now, I'm sure to all you people who watch TV online and download new Hollywood movies before they've even left the "cutting room" (if that's what they still call a digital editing studio), this is no great feat. But to me, this required at least 20 minutes of googling, and downloading two piece of free software. As it turns out, I already had said software installed on my computer from years ago, but had forgotten all about it. Apparently, I have done this before and entirely erased it from my memory, much the same way I would erase a bad Saturday Night Live rerun from the Tivo.

Behold, the Emergency Broadcast System message, above. Though in many ways you heard all this yesterday, having the actual broadcast in front of us presents me with a new opportunity to point out all the ways in which it fails.

Top Five Ways DC's Amber Alert System Stinks

At least Battlezone, circa 1980, had color.
5. 1960's technology used to produce message will convince most people their TV set has switched into "service mode."

Seriously. Is this the best you can do? A black screen with white text that will make most people think of "Pong" on their Atari 2600? I'm more likely to believe that Comcast has been hijacked by rebels, than there's a serious message I should be paying attention to.

4. The useful information is only in the audio track.

I made fun of this alert yesterday because I thought it had no information at all. I could not be more wrong. Actually, it included a name and description of the abudcted child. But only in the audio. Which, of course, I had muted, since the the message began with a seizure-inducing noise that had led me to a single, inescapable conclusion. A pteradactly must have thawed from the glacier in which it had been frozen for 100,000 years, woken up, realized that it was the only pteradactly on Earth, let out a heart-rending scream that was heard for 500 miles, and then laid back down and died.

3. What does "effective until 21:40 mean?"

The only actual information offered by the video feed is that the child abduction emergency ends at a certain time. In this case, 9:40 PM. I am dying to know how they could have predicted that the child would be found, and within two hours!

Also of note: this is not an Amber Alert, it's a Child Abduction Emergency. I guess they haven't updated this text since about 1996, when that term came into common use.

2. The MPD release gave totally different information.

From yesterday's post you can see the email I got at almost exactly the same time I saw this on TV. It said nothing about a missing child. Actually, it said the the abductor was the missing person and made absolutely no mention that, in fact, we were really concerned about the child she had kidnaped. Awesome.

1. No pictures.

Apparently, the only outlet that was capable of providing the correct information about who was missing, and also providing a photograph of that person, was Fox News.

I am not a religious man. But seriously, if Fox News is now more reliable than MPD and the Amber Alert system, GOD HELP US ALL.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Google Maps as accurate as year-long NTSB investigation

If I was that worker, I'd get the hell out of there
before someone starts moving the train without warning.
NTSB has released some very exciting documents related to the ongoing investigation into the June 22, 2009 Metro crash that killed 9 people. One of those is a line-of-sight analysis which concludes that the operator would not have had a full view of the rear of the stopped train until they were approximately 470 feet away. The investigation is not expected to be completed for several more months. The picture here is from the report and shows the line of sight from the train.

Metro line of sight
My analysis included
this awesome photoshopped
aerial view. Where's
yours, NTSB? Huh?
Apparently, it takes the NTSB about a year and god knows how much money to do what I was able to accomplish in about 30 minutes using Google Maps. On June 24, two days after the crash, I posted this analysis of the accident site using only google maps and concluded that "...the operator couldn't even have seen the train until she was within about 500 feet of it!

Yes, I am indeed quoting myself. Thank you, thank you. So with Photoshop and the Internet, I came up with the exact same conclusion as NTSB, almost down to the foot.

Front Seat of the Red LineI also managed to duplicate those scientific-looking pictures, such as the one you see above, using my cell phone on my way home from work one day, here. Now admittedly, their picture is slightly better because the train it's taken from is not moving, which is evident by the Metro safety worker on the tracks in the picture. I give them points for having Metro workers present, it definitely adds a little "je ne sais quois" to the photo.

Metro StrollHowever, I would like to submit the following picture from the Silver Spring metro station, which does involve Metro workers walking in the tracks. I realize this has nothing to do with the crash, but I think you will agree the composition is much better than NTSB's pictures.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dog Park Disillusionment

DSC_0174I'm a relatively new dog owner. The deceptively cute fellow you see at right is Jumby, who is a four-and-a-half month old terror. I mean terrier. N. thinks he is the ugliest dog in the world. That guy, ugly? Okay - he's not going to win any dog shows. He looks more like a hyena than a dog, but just look at that face!

His habits include charging full speed into Sully, the other dog, not eating his food until Sully tries to eat it, and destroying everything. Favorite thing to destroy this week: bed sheets. We now have to lock the dogs out of the bedroom, as he has eaten a hole in three sheets in the last two weeks.

Jumby's First Dog Park Excursion

N. took Jumby to the Metro Dog Park at 11th and Park, across from Red Rocks, for the first time on Saturday. The three of us went again on Sunday. I had never been inside this particular dog park before. It's really nice in many ways - plastic dog poop bags are provided, it's well fenced in, and there's plenty of space as well as some chairs and tables.

What was disappointing was the amount of trash and dog crap in the park. While I would like to blame the recent snow for some of the trash buildup, it seemed pretty clear that much of what I was looking at had been there for a long time.

The thing is, dog owners get special dispensations. We need to go out of our way to be good citizens. Anyone who doesn't own a dog probably has little good to say about dog owners. Though most are responsible, from the other perspective, what do dogs add to your life? Dogs left outside at all hours, barking endlessly. Dog crap on the sidewalk to step in. People who let their dogs run off-leash in public parks and even on the sidewalks. Aggressive dogs that can be scary to walk by, even on leash. It really doesn't take many bad eggs to spoil it for everyone. At the end of the day - there are many negatives to dogs from the perspective of people who don't own or like them. So dog owners, as a group, should bend over backwards to be responsible.

So, the Metro Dog Park was a true victory for dog owners. Technically, there is no such thing as a "legal dog park" at all in this city - the law says dogs must be on leash at all times. So when this place was actually handed over to the dog owners as a rare place that was truly set aside only for the dogs, many rejoiced. It was really perfect, since it didn't actually take a usable space away from anyone else. The land is owned by Metro, so was not technically public land, but WMATA agreed to this use.

And this is what we've done with it. Let piles of disgusting dog crap pile up all around the edges. Let trash collect everywhere. While I'm sure the users of the park aren't generally responsible for much of the trash there, how hard would it be for them to pick it up once in a while? Would you let your own yard look like this if someone else's trash blew into it? It's not going to go away by itself.

When someone goes out of their way to make a special dispensation for you, you go out of your way to show that you appreciate it. If anyone reading this also appreciates this park, why don't you show it by picking up some dog poop or some trash. Forget your self-righteous indignation because it's not your trash or your dog's poop and just pick it up. If everyone who uses this park spent even five minutes a week keeping it clean, it would actually be clean.

... and so how was Jumby's first day at the park?

Now that I've gotten my obligitory trash rant out of the way, let me just say that Jumby finally met his match at the dog park. At home he is fearless. From the day he moved into our house, nothing fased him. He has willfully attacked and goaded the much larger Sullivan from when he was 7 pounds. (He probably weighs close to 20 now). He is always anxious to meet people and dogs on the street when we walk him.

But the half-dozen dogs, all larger than him, was too much. He spent most of his time trying to jump up into someone's (anyone's!) arms. Apparently, people are far less threatening than other dogs. He hid between N's legs. It was pretty cute actually. I'm sure it must be tough to be the only small terrier in a field of retrievers and other much bigger dogs. But it was pretty funny to see him actually not be an alpha for the first time.

We're determined to socialize him, though. Sullivan has never been very good with other dogs, and we don't want Jumby to learn the same behavior, so we'll keep coming back.