Tuesday, November 30, 2010

MD Ranks Third in New Economy States

Maryland has been recognized as one of the top five states in the country “at the forefront of the nation’s movement toward a global, innovation-based new economy.” A report issued by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, ranked Massachusetts, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut as the top five states in their 2010 State New Economy Index.

Maryland remains third (as it was in 2007 and 2008, as well), in part because of the high concentration of knowledge workers, many employed in the District of Columbia suburbs and many in federal laboratory facilities or companies related to them.”

Though third overall, Maryland ranked second in technical jobs, workforce education, broadband telecommunications, and non-industry investment in R&D. Our lowest ranking was 36th in health IT, the “total number of prescriptions routed electronically as a percentage of total number of prescriptions eligible for electronic routing.”

Panhandling Columbia Style Part 4

“He’s becoming a regular.”

My colleagues and I were crossing Route 175 at Dobbin Road yesterday and I commented when I saw him in his regular spot in the median. He wears a sort of olive green suit uniform and ball cap, He carries a sign saying he’s hungry or something to that regard and tries to make eye contact with drivers waiting at the traffic light. I believe his sign also says “God Bless You.”

He’s a big guy and moves with a pronounced limp.

I haven’t given him any money, yet. It gets harder to resist his entreaties as the weather turns colder and the holidays approach. I’m really not as hard hearted as I appear to be from some of my previous posts about loco panhandling. I often recall the line from the Tom Waits song, Cold Water, “beggin on the freeway’s bout as hard as it gets…”

I thought of olive uniform man this morning when I read this column by Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post about the “parade of broken humanity that's an in-your-face part of daily life in our region as the numbers of homeless and unemployed remain stubbornly high.

She also feels increasingly guilty this time of year.

“So what should we do when we encounter panhandlers? The constant assault of their woe is painful, and doing the dead fish gaze and ignoring them can be brutal on your humanity, especially during the holidays.”

There are no easy answers. Giving them money may assuage some guilt for us but it isn’t always the best course of action for the panhandler. Linda Kaufman, the executive director of Pathways to Housing, told Dvorak “Every study around says that cash handouts don't help, she said. The top uses when they get cash are always alcohol, tobacco and drugs."

Perhaps the simplest act of humanity is the best approach.

“Acknowledge is a word I heard a lot while talking to panhandlers in our region.” 

Monday, November 29, 2010

It’s All About You

It has been seven months since I last shared some Tales of Two Cities readership fun facts so I figured it was time to do an update. As I mentioned before, I primarily use three audience tracking widgets, Site Meter, Google Analytics and Quantcast to get an idea of who is reading this stuff.

Since April, the number of you has grown from 14,000 visitors per month to about 19,000 per month. According to Google Analytics, 8,500 of you are unique. Not surprisingly, the top five places that you come from are Columbia, Ellicott City, Baltimore, Washington, DC and Laurel, in that order. Over 3,000 of you have stopped by here over 200 times.

According to Quantcast, 55% of you are male, are older (74% over 35), highly educated (46% bachelors’ degrees, 28% post grads) and generally well off with 35% of you making over $100 K.

Most of you like other HoCo blogs too. The top five referring sites for Tales of Two Cities are Google, HoCo Rising, The Sun, hocoblogs and Blogger. Back in April it was hocoblogs, HowChow, FreeMarket, HoCo Rising and Columbia Talk.

I also find it interesting to see what posts are the most popular with y’all. The current top five are Mr. Normans Nightmare, Acronym Angst, Morning Chill, HoCo by the Numbers and Texting While Driving & You.

Thanks to all of you for dropping by.

Reinventing Vaillancourt

Newly elected school board member Cindy Vaillancourt is trying to cast herself as a non affiliated board member. In this story by Joe Burris in The Sun she notes that her narrow victory “came as a surprise, particularly since, unlike many of the candidates, she didn't receive any official endorsements.”

I suppose she doesn’t consider the support she received from current school board member Allen Dyer as an official endorsement. This is the guy who continues to divert precious resources from our school system by continually filing frivolous lawsuits.  Cindy Vaillancourt is a big fan of Mr. Dyer who has openly admitted that she “ has volunteered time and money to some of my board of education campaigns and i have volunteered time to cindy's campaign.”

Of course he openly admitted this after the election.

In a comment to this post she reiterated her support of Mr. Dyer.

“I was happy to see Mr. Dyer join the BOE, and I am proud to call him my friend.”

Her choice of friends is worrisome. In addition to his litigious nature, Allen Dyer has some pretty scary notions about authority. He believes the school system is better a judge of what is right for your children and that the government should have seized Doughoregan Manor from the Carroll family.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Speed Read

My sister Pat is a reader, her home is full of books. As an avid bibliophile, she is often the source of great book recommendations. During my last visit she handed me the The Art of Racing in the Rain. This time, shortly after settling in at her home last Tuesday, she handed me “City of Thieves” by David Benioff.

“I think you’ll enjoy it,” she said.

That would be an understatement. Despite five days full of various Thanksgiving activities I still managed to tear through the book, finishing it on the flight home. I found it difficult to put down. Boris Fishman in The New York Times liked it too

Back Home

We wrapped up our Thanksgiving trip yesterday and arrived back in Baltimore at eight o’clock last night. After five days of warm and sunny weather the blast of cold air that hit us as we stepped off the plane was a fitting reminder of our return to reality.

Once again, our journey through the security checkpoint at the Jacksonville airport was smooth and unremarkable. The body scan machines were in place but weren’t being used. I did not see any pat-downs.

It turns out that the travelling public opted out of the National Opt-Out Day as well. According to this story by Jeffrey Rosen in The Washington Post, “many appeared to have opted out of opting out. The TSA reported that few of the 2 million people flying Wednesday chose pat-downs over the scanners, with few resulting delays.”

I suspect that the TSA may have gotten the message anyhow.

Since all of my sisters Thanksgiving guests had flown in for the feast, the subject of airport screening was a topic of conversation. No one reported any issues with their own screening. A few suggested that the TSA should use profiling like the Israelis. I think that is easy to say for a group that likely wouldn’t fit any threat profile, but it is an idea that seems to be gaining some popular support. The dust up over Juan Williams firing from NPR after his comment to Bill O’ Reilly on Fox News about profiling has only added to the debate.

"Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Rosen also reported that the current use of full body scans and pat-downs may actually violate our constitutional rights.

Although the Supreme Court hasn't evaluated airport screening technology, lower courts have emphasized, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 2007, that "a particular airport security screening search is constitutionally reasonable provided that it 'is no more extensive nor intensive than necessary, in the light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives.' "

And therein lies the problem. The full body scan technology hasn’t proven to be that effective in detecting explosives.

“A member of Britain's Parliament who evaluated the scanners in his former capacity as a defense technology company director concluded that they wouldn't have stopped the bomber who concealed the chemical powder PETN in his underwear last Christmas.”

I wonder if they would have noticed it had they touched his junk.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sheppard Pratt Settles in Elkridge

With the impending redevelopment of their campus on College Avenue, the Sheppard Pratt Health System has been searching for a new site in HoCo for the past year. That search is now over with the acquisition of about 40 acres of raw land at the intersection of MD Route 100 and I-95 adjacent to Meadowridge Cemetery.

In the latest issue of the Howard/Arundel Report newsletter, Jim Troy writes that the hospital paid $8.95 million to H&H/Rock Companies for “700,000 square feet of planned density…”

The existing psychiatric campus in Ellicott City will eventually become part of the Taylor Village development.

Exhibit Center Gets New Tenant

The top floor of the former Columbia Exhibit Center has been vacant since WCI Communities closed their condo sales center in early summer 2009. Since then there has been speculation that the building might be torn down as part of the Town Center redevelopment plans.

For now at least, it appears that the building will remain as is. Red Arch Solutions, a cyber technology company, recently signed a lease to occupy the former sales center space above the restaurants on the lake level. The approximately 10,000 square foot suite will be the firm’s new headquarters. They will be relocating from the Symphony Woods Office Center, also in Town Center.

This news will likely cheer the folks at Preservation Howard County who have placed the building, along the former Rouse Company headquarters building, on their top ten sites of endangered sites in HoCo. They believe that this building is important because it was designed by world renowned architect, Frank Gehry. In truth the building was actually designed by Dave O’Malley, a partner of Gehry when his firm was called Gehry, Walsh & O’Malley. Dave also did the design work on Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Banneker Road fire house. The former Rouse Company headquarters building is the only building in HoCo that Gehry actually designed

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Snow Babies

Last December, the precursor to the Big Kahuna storm hit us. Though this storm was subsequently over shadowed by the February snowmageddon, it was still ranked as one the top ten snow storms in the record books. Back then I wrote a post predicting that by late summer the maternity wards at Howard County General Hospital would be doing a land office business.

Once again, the Big Kahuna stole the show from the Blizzard of 09. This story by Kellie Woodhouse in The Howard County Times was all about the baby boom that resulted from the double barreled February storms.

Howard County General Hospital has seen a noticeable surge in births this month, according to spokeswoman Sharon Sopp. In the first two weeks of November, she said, 136 babies were born in the hospital's maternity ward -- 30 more than the same time period in 2009.”

"Historically, it is a common occurrence to see a spike ... after an event, such as a snowstorm or a blackout," Sopp said. "We kind of expected it, knowing that we had many inches of snow and many days off of work."

What about December’s storm?

By my reckoning late August and early September should have been pretty busy in the maternity wards too.

Postcard from the South

My sister often reminds me that Marylanders are southerners. I know she is technically correct but in reality most southerners I’ve come to know tend to warily regard the Old Line State as being more of a northern state. Even some of our political leaders think we have more in common with our neighbors to the north.

The differences between northern and southern cultures generally become more pronounced the further you go into the others country. For instance, I have never seen an issue of Garden & Gun until I came to St Augustine. My sister had it prominently displayed on her coffee table.

It’s a nice magazine too, full of articles about cooking, hidden getaways, and hunting camps. Every issue also has a story about a dog. In the December 2010/January 2011 issue the dog story is written by Guy Martin and is about an Alabama hunting dog that ends up living in New York City. It’s called “The Urban Gun Dog, Tales of a canine expatriate.”

Overall the story is a good read about a country dogs adjustment to city life but the best line is about dogs in general.

"It’s never the right time for a new dog, no matter what, and always the right time for a new dog, no matter what."

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Airport Angst

Yesterday we flew out of BWI as part of the holiday hordes moving around the country for Thanksgiving. Peanut and I arrived well ahead of our scheduled departure in order to allow time for anticipated delays in the security screening process.

That didn’t happen.

We breezed through the process with minimum wait and perhaps the most notable thing was that neither of us was subjected to the full body scan nor a pat down. I didn’t see anyone else getting this intensive screening either. We simply walked through the regular old metal detecting arch and were on our way. When we finally reached my sisters home in St. Augustine and settled in with a beer, I compared notes with another sister who had flown down on Monday. She had the same experience.

Could it be that the recent uproar over TSA screening practices has resulted in a more selective screening process?

I’d love to hear if other airport travelers had a similar experience.

As it turns out the security screening wasn’t my biggest gripe with BWI yesterday. Instead it was their Wi-Fi setup.

BWI does not provide free Wi-Fi. You need to subscribe to Boingo and pay ten bucks for a one time 24 hour access to the web. I think this is gouging. Considering that even Starbucks now offers Wi-Fi at no charge, the fact the airport still charges for this service really raises my fur. I mean for godsake, its not like they aren’t getting enough money from the traveling public already in parking fees, landing fees and retail rents so high that a small smoothie and a pretzel for Peanut cost me $6.23. I felt like I was at Ravens stadium.

And here’s the real kicker.

I am not a frequent flier. The last time I flew out of BWI was back in April when we made the same trip. Again on that trip I allowed ample time for security delays and figured I’d use any extra time to hop on my laptop at the gate, perhaps even write a blog post. I sucked it up and signed on to Boingo.

Yesterday, when I decided to go ahead and pay the Wi-Fi toll, Boingo recognized me and asked for my username and password. I remembered my username but the password had long been forgotten. In order to get password assistance I had to call an 800 number which in turn resulted in waiting on hold for about twenty minutes. When I finally got the password thing worked out and got online, Southwest announced a gate change. No problem, I simply closed my laptop and moved down the terminal to the new gate. When I reopened my laptop, the connection was lost and I had to login to Boingo all over again.

As it turns out I spent about fifteen minutes online before having to pack everything up and get on the plane. That's hardly enough time to get caught up with my loco blogging brethren. I didn't even have time to really read Sarah's excellent post much less comment. 

Boingo blows.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dazzle Stroll

A few posts ago a commenter, I believe it was Jen, suggested I do a post about the Symphony of Lights might be interesting. As it turns out, Mama Wordbones, CG and I were already planning to participate in the Dazzle Dash again this year. Actually, the true Dazzle Dash was held on Saturday when runners actually dashed through the 1.4 mile outdoor lighting display. We did the walk on Sunday which is more of a stroll than a dash.

As we began our walk we ran into Vic Broccolino greeting participants as they headed off into the lights. Alongside him was Chris McCabe who heads up the hospital foundation. I asked Chris if he could provide me with facts about the annual event and the next day I received an email with almost everything you could possibly want to know.

Over 1,300,000 people in 355,194 vehicles have passed through the holiday display since its inception 16 years ago. The display consists of 250,000 light bulbs. This year, in addition to our Sunday evening stroll and the Saturday evening dash, there is a Blinkin Babies stroller friendly walk on Thursday, December 9th and a Tail Lights pet friendly walk on Sunday, December 14th.

This year will also be the first ever New Years Eve celebration called Midnight at 7. It will feature the lights walk thru but will culminate with a fireworks display at 7PM.

The proceeds from all Symphony of Lights events benefit Howard County General Hospital.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The State of State Blogs

Since 2007, Maryland Politics Watch has tracked the readership of state and local blogs in Maryland that openly provide their readership stats. Over the years, the blogs author, Adam Pagnucco, has noted the rising popularity of local blogs in relation to blogs devoted purely to politics. I first became aware of his rankings in May of 2009 when Tales of Two Cities was cited as the fourth most popular local blog in the state behind Inside Charm City, Just Up The Pike, and Rockville Central.

Adam just published his latest, and likely his last update of these rankings and Tales of Two Cities finished out on top of local blogs. Not surprisingly, fellow HoCo blogger HoCo Rising joined the ranks coming in at Number 7.

Curiously, MPW does not include The Hedgehog Report in his rankings. Perhaps Adam considers that THR is more of national blog than a state blog. For comparison sake, Adam ranks his own blog, MPW, as the top state political blog with 443,217 visits between January 2010 and October 2010 while during the same period THR recorded 585,179 visits. Both of these political blogs enjoy much heavier traffic than the local blogs, though local blog visits grew by 22% over the same period in 2009.

Overall, blog readership in the Free State is healthy and growing.

“In the first ten months of this year, the 46 Maryland state and local blogs that release their site statistics recorded a combined total of 1,770,058 visits. That is 32% higher than the first ten months of 2009 (when they collectively totaled 1,341,387) and 95% higher than the first ten months of 2008 (when they totaled 906,864). The last four months have been the best period ever in the Maryland blogosphere.”

A big thanks and a wag of the wordbones tail to all blog readers and commenters. If you keep reading, I’ll keep blogging.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Surviving Holiday Travel

This year I will be part of that great migration of holiday humanity passing through BWI airport to all points everywhere. Though I’m no stranger to this experience I approach this years trip with a bit of impending dread. As if it there isn’t already enough stress on the system, the latest backlash to the increasingly invasive security checks threatens to only make matters worse. A nationwide protest dubbed “Opt Out Day” is planned for this Wednesday. Thankfully, we’ll be traveling on Tuesday.

And just in time for our impending visit to BWI, The Sun has published a BWI Survival Guide.

One less Gadget

I’m a little hard on my gadgets. In addition to my recent smart phone debacle, I have dropped my digital camera more than a few times. As a testament to the toughness of Sony cameras, the optics were unaffected from this repeated battering…until the most recent drop.

After the latest spill the camera was suddenly challenged to produce pictures that weren’t blurred. I had resigned myself to the fact that it had succumbed to its injuries. I needed to get a new camera.
I should note here that I am not a big fan of cameras in phones. Rarely have I used a picture in this blog that was taken with my phone. Though it has a pain to always carry around both a camera and a phone, for me at least the end result was always worth it.
My new Droid X may have made me a convert. Yesterday I gave the phone’s camera feature a workout during a visit to Savage. We took in a little hike down the Historic Mill Trail, said hello to Santa, enjoyed some live music at the Whatchamacallit restaurant and finished up with a beer at the Rams Head Tavern.
 If this phone can replace my need to carry around a separate camera, dropping my phone in the toilet may have produced an unexpected benefit. So far so good

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Red Comfort

Ever since the poinsettia tree was put out to pasture three years ago, there is a foreboding sense around the county that it could happen again. This year, as soon as crews began assembling it in the malls center court fountain, I immediately received emails and phone calls informing me of its return.

It is as if our community breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Cyber U

The US Naval Academy wants to become a major center of cyber security training. According to this story by Childs Walker and Jessica Anderson in The Sun the academy superintendent, Vice Admiral Michael H. Miller, “wants his campus to become a center for cybersecurity education, with a $100 million building and a slate of new classes devoted to the emerging discipline,…”

Citing the proximity of his campus to the National Security Agency and the headquarters of the newly formed Cyber Command “makes it a logical center for cybersecurity training.”

It could still be awhile before he is able to make this happen though.

“The academy has yet to request funding for a cybersecurity building, and Miller acknowledged the difficulty of asking for construction money in the current fiscal climate. He said the academy might first need to "prime the pump" by collecting private donations for the project.”

If he is successful the academy would join UMBC in training the next generation of cyber warriors. UMBC recently announced that it had entered into a partnership with Northrop Grumman Corporation to establish a cybersecurity incubator at the Catonsville campus.

Closer to home, HoCo Community College has also gotten into the cyber game with the establishment of a Cyber Security and Information Technology major.

Friday, November 19, 2010

HoCo Arts Chat

I count myself as one of those people who wasn’t exactly sure what the Howard County Arts Council does.

Until today that is.

Our guest today on “and then there’s that…” was Colleen West, the executive director of the HoCo Arts Council. Among the things I learned was that the council gave out $350,000.00 in arts grants this year. For many artists in our community that is a crucial life line.

The arts and their role in HoCo are very much in the news these days with the meetings being held by Gail Lord on behalf of the Howard Hughes Corporation. Gail is the consultant hired by HHC to design and implement an arts program as part of the Town Center redevelopment. Colleen has been very involved in those conversations as well.

In the middle of our interview with Colleen, a nice lady from Williams-Sonoma appeared with hot cider and some sort of pumpkin pastry for us. It threw us off for a minute but the gesture was nice. We’re finding our mall experience to be very different from our other podcast locations.  It's all good.

You can listen to 28th episode of the podcast here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Schools Still Out on These Two

The drawn out electoral contest for the final two seats on the school board appears to be finally over. The voters have spoken. Brian Meskin and Cindy Vaillancourt are the apparent winners along with returning members Frank Acquino and Sandra French.

Cindy and Brian did not get my vote. I actually campaigned against them. I now hope I was wrong about them.

Time will tell of course. We’ll soon see whether Allen Dyer has found a true ally in Cindy and whether Brian is more concerned with his next political race than with the mundane business of being a good board member. Both have given me cause for concern.

According to this story by Sara Toth in The Columbia Flier, Cindy Vaillancourt wants to give the student member of the board more voting rights, “including those dealing with financial matters.”

The student member is a high school student. The school system budget is almost $800 million, 56.26% of the county budget. Giving the student member a vote in budget matters seems a bit reckless, seeing as they aren’t even elected by the voters.

Brian is little harder to pin down. He seems to frame all of his comments with an eye towards running for county council in 2014. One of his stated goals is to “make our schools the best in the world.”

Nothing like saying you want to build on success. Who could argue against that?

Okay, maybe Allen Dyer but he will argue against anything.

As a parent of kid in the school system I hope both Brian and Cindy will prove me wrong and turn out to be good school board members whose primary focus is delivering the best possible product for our students.

In the meantime, I’ll be watching.

More Fiber for HoCo

A new fiber network connecting Baltimore to Washington, D.C. and the northern Virginia suburbs will run right through HoCo. According to this report by Gus G. Sentementes in The Sun, the network will be completed in the next 45 days and “will run 104 miles from downtown and western parts of Baltimore south through Columbia, Laurel and Greenbelt, where it ties into the company's existing Washington and Northern Virginia telecommunication networks.”

The network is being built out by FiberLight, a Georgia based telecommunications firm that already operates about 3,000 miles of fiber-optic networks across the country.

“The company sees growth in the region's information-technology economy, where the federal government and large hospitals, universities and other sectors are looking for faster data services as networks endure greater workloads.”

Coupled with the HoCo broadband initiative this area will soon have enough bandwidth to beat the band…so to speak.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart Toast

Last night, after I got home from the HoCo Tech Council dinner, I inadvertently dropped my smart phone into the toilet. I am really at a loss to explain how this actually happened I just know that one minute it was in my hand and the next moment I was fishing it out of the toilet.

The phone was toast.

This morning I was the first customer in the door at the Verizon store in Snowden Square. Even though I was the first customer I was still told I had to cool my heels before a customer rep could assist me.

“Feel free to browse the store,” the reception person said.

I wasn’t in a particularly browsing mood. I was without a phone on a day that I could ill afford to be without a phone. I needed to get this situation rectified, quickly.

Before long Melvin Bond came up to me and offered his assistance.

“I dropped my phone in the toilet last night and I need a new phone quickly. Just grab me  a Droid X,” I told him.

“How about some screen protectors to go with that?”

“No thanks, just the phone.”

“Are you sure,” he persisted, “it’s a pretty good idea to have these.”

“I don’t like them and I don’t want them,” I replied, beginning to get slightly annoyed.

“What don’t you like about them?”

“I don’t like how they work with touch screens,” I said, trying to sound polite yet firm.

“Perhaps you didn’t install them correctly. I’d be happy to put one on for you.”

“I don’t want a screen protector Melvin. I just want the phone.” 

“How about a case? I can give you 20% off if you buy the screen protectors and the case.”

By now I’m figuring that Verizon’s got some kind of sales contest going on and Melvin is determined to start his day off strong.

The thing is, when you start off your day off having to drop a couple a hundred bucks because you dunked your phone in the toilet, accessories are the last thing you want to consider.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Scene This Week In…

When I dropped off my car at Benchmark Motors on Red Branch Road last week this classic roadster stood out amongst the Mercedes and BMW’s parked outside. I asked the owner Danny Grant about it.

“It’s a 1936 Ford Phaeton.”
It’s in pretty impressive condition. Danny told me that the car has been in the same family since it was two months old. When it’s not being attended to at Danny’s place it resides in a garage in Farside.

This past Sunday Peanut and I decided to have breakfast in Ellicott City before dropping in on the November edition of the Second Sunday Market. As we crossed back over the river from the Trolley Stop, a pile of red leaves stood out in an otherwise carpet of golden leaves. It was Peanut who got it first.
“It’s a heart!”

We usually look for the artfully stacked rocks in the water when we cross over the Patapsco at the gateway to Ellicott City. This time the art was on the shore. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hedgehog Rules!

Last year, when Tales of Two Cities won the Mobbie for Best Political Blog, I commented that The Hedgehog Report would have been the better choice.

This year the Mobbie voters agreed and The Hedgehog Report won.

Dave Wissing, the author of THR is also the elder statesman of HoCo bloggers, having maintained his blog for almost seven years now. Congratulations Dave!

I take solace in the fact that at least we’ve kept the political blog award in the county. Thanks to all who voted for Tales of Two Cities and all of the other excellent HoCo blogger nominees.

Winning by Losing?

When Northrop Grumman chose Northern Virginia over Maryland for it’s coporate headquarters earlier this year, many laid the blame for the loss at the feet of Martin O’Malley. In a Letter to the Editor in last weeks Baltimore Business Journal, the retired Chairman and CEO of another large defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, defended the governor and the incentive package he put together.

Norman R. Augustine, who retired from Lockheed in 1997, was the leader of the CEO Work Group “charged with helping to attract the aerospace and defense giant here…”

“Not only did Maryland put forth a very competitive financing package in conjunction with Montgomery County, but to strengthen the state’s case to Northrop Grumman, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development brought together Team Maryland, a unified non-partisan group that included congressional leaders, state, county and legistlative partners, and some of Maryland’s top business leaders.”

“During my career, I cannot recall witnessing any such effort that was more thorough or better coordinated than this one.”

That’s a pretty strong statement from a heavy hitter like Mr. Augustine.

Despite ultimately losing out to Virginia, Augustine still thinks the state benefited from the excerise.

“…Maryland now has in place a coordinated strategy that will help the state attract more companies and create more jobs…”

I sure hope he’s right.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Verizon KO’d

Last night, the super welterweight championship fight between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito was supposedly offered on Verizon’s On Demand service and Verizon apparently wasn’t up for the game. Not only were some fight fans frustrated by not being able to get the fight, the On Demand servers crashed in Maryland, leaving even non fight fans high and dry.

Peanut and her friend were in the middle of watching “How to Train Your Dragon” when the movie suddenly stopped. I tried to restart it by rebooting the cable box but nothing worked. I reluctantly called customer service and after waiting on hold for at least a half hour for tech support I was finally told by "Antwon" that the system had gone down all over the state. I asked to be transferred to billing so I could get a refund for the movie.

This time I waited over an hour.

By the time I got someone on the phone I was more than a little annoyed. I spoke with a guy named Dave. He told me he was in “central Illinois.” He wouldn’t give me his last name but he gave me his “badge number.” It was 2111.

“Don’t you think it is ludicrous to have someone wait on the phone for over an hour just to get a five dollar credit?”

“Yes sir, we’re sorry.”

“I know it’s not your fault, you are merely the poor guy who ended up on duty tonight. Who can I contact to register a formal complaint?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about this, who signs your pay check?”

“I’m not permitted to tell you that.”

“Okay, how about giving me the name of the president of Verizon?”

“I don’t know that.”

“Let me get this straight, you don’t know the name of the president of your company?”

“No sir.”

Note to Badge number 2111, it’s Lowell McAdam

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Talk About Fast Tracking a Project!

A 15 story hotel was constructed in Shanghai China in just six days. This feat is even more incredible because it was also built to withstand a level 9 earthquake. No workers were injured in the round the clock construction.

Old News

This is somewhat old news but still seems worth mentioning. Newsweek has identified HoCo as the third richest county in the U S of A with a median household income of $101,940.

Perhaps the bigger story is that four of the top ten richest counties were in Maryland and three, including the top two, were in Northern Virginia.

Despite this ranking we still seem to have an easier time attracting retailers like Big Lots instead of a Crate & Barrel.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Slaughtering a Sacred Cow

If the country wants to really get serious about reducing the national debt, a few sacred cows will need to be slaughtered. One of those cows is the mortgage interest deduction for homeowners. This week the co-chairs of the bipartisan deficit reduction commission suggested that the time has come to do just that.

The mortgage banking and real estate interests are already mobilizing their forces to see that this doesn’t happen. They are claiming that this will put the final nail in the coffin of an already beleaguered housing industry.

Maybe, maybe not.

When you get beyond the sound bites that always to seem to frame our national debates, you learn that the proposal isn’t to eliminate the deduction entirely. According to this story by Carla Fried on Moneywatch.com, the idea is to “end the mortgage interest deduction on primary-home mortgages above $500,000, down from the current limit of $1 million. The deficit-cutting duo also proposed to completely eliminate the deductibility on second homes and home equity loans and lines; currently up to $100,000 of interest on such loans and lines qualify for the tax break.”

This would net the government a savings of approximately $131 billion as early as 2012.

“That’s the White House’s official estimate of the 2012 revenue cost of the mortgage interest deduction.  A study that looked at proposals to reform the mortgage deduction put out by the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute points out that sum is “much more than the total of all outlays by the Department of Housing and Urban Development ($48 billion).”

I realize that this may sound like heresy from someone who is in the real estate business but if we are going to be serious about reducing the deficit, we have to be willing to offer part of our own government subsidized largess. As David Stockman so eloquently put it, it is delusional to think that we “don’t have to tax ourselves to pay our bills.”

That being said, the proposed elimination of this mortgage interest deduction and other tax deductions will have a corresponding cut in tax rates. According to this story by Tamara Keith on NPR’s Morning Edition, the commission is further “proposing a restructuring of the whole tax system, eliminating all kinds of tax breaks while reducing tax rates overall.”

Will it kill the housing industry?

There is no question that the impact would be felt hardest by those who develop higher end housing, but considering that the average sales price of a home in HoCo this year is $355,000., the majority of homeowners would not be affected. 

This Just In…

I stayed up a little too late last night witnessing that nail biter ending of the Ravens Falcons game. While the other occupants of our household were nestled warm in their beds I was pacing around the family room yelling into a pillow so as not to disturb their peaceful slumber.

It is taking me more than one cup of coffee this morning to get into the game.

While I gather my wits for a more thoughtful post I’ll just share this enlightening news report from the BBC.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Whole Foods and HoCo

First things first; Whole Foods will never locate in a Columbia village center, not in any foreseeable future anyway. The reason is that there is simply not enough population density and corresponding demographics to support it.

It will likely be awhile before they will locate anywhere in HoCo too. The reason for that is Wegmans. About  a year ago I heard that either Whole Foods or Fresh Market was close to making a deal with GGP for the Gateway Overlook shopping center but when they caught wind of Wegmans impending arrival they demurred.

Wegmans is your basic category killer for high end grocers. Their stores are three times the size of a Whole Foods or Fresh Market.

So will Whole Foods or Fresh Market ever come to HoCo?

In my not so humble opinion, the greatest likelihood of that happening would be in Columbia Town Center, in five years or so, in the Crescent District behind Merriweather Post Pavilion. And that would have to be in conjunction with the development of a few high end condominium projects to support it.

And while I am on the subject of retail, kudos to the Columbia Association for hosting a retail seminar with Tom Moriarity this past Monday. If another entity like GGP or the Howard Hughes Corporation had hosted this event it would have been derided by the flat earth society members as self serving.  

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The New Howard Hughes Corporation

As of today, the company that will be orchestrating the redevelopment of Columbia's Town Center will no longer be General Growth Properties, instead it will be the newly created Howard Hughes Corporation. The new entity, whose stock began trading on the New York Stock Exchange today under the symbol HHC, will be headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

And in a different twist on “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” Greg Hamm, the General Manager of Columbia and the guy who spearheaded the redevelopment effort since December of 2007 for GGP, has assumed the same role for the HHC.

Gateway Overlook Sold

Coupled with the Reuters report this morning of  GGP’s emergence from bankruptcy, it was also reported that they had sold the Gateway Overlook Shopping Center in Columbia for $90.1 million “as part of its plan to shed unwanted assets. It did not identify the buyer.”

Gateway Overlook is home to Costco, Best Buy and Lowes, as well as the only Trader Joe's for miles around.

The undeveloped land adjacent to the center apparently was not included in the sale.

Happy Ending for GGP Bankruptcy

It’s official, General Growth Properties has emerged from bankruptcy. Accrding to this story in The Sun “the second-largest U.S. mall operator, said it has emerged from bankruptcy, 11/2 years after becoming the biggest U.S. real estate company to seek Chapter 11 protection.”

In contrast to most corporate bankruptcies, it appears that all of GGP’s creditors will also be made whole.

“Creditors were paid in full, and equity investors who often get wiped out instead obtained a "substantial" recovery on their claims, General Growth said. Both are unusual.”

The company is even expected to begin paying a dividend in the first quarter next year.

As part of the reorganization, GGP has spun off most of the assets in their Master Planned Communities division to a new entity called Howard Hughes Corporation. According to this story in Rueters “shareholders of the old General Growth received common stock in the new company and in Howard Hughes. Shares of the new General Growth and Howard Hughes began trading on Wednesday.”

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Mr. Normans Nightmare

The temporary closure of the HCCA listserv to non registered users was apparently related to a post made late last night by Chris Carnavos. Mr. Carnavos is a neighbor of Marc Norman who has grown tired of Marc’s attempts to portray himself as a victim of evil developers. Marc has led the effort to try and keep Harris Teeter from opening a store in Turf Valley.

Chris takes issue with Marc’s moral character by pointing to a criminal summons from 2005 that was settled with a plea bargain. I am not comfortable with going into greater detail here but Chris did provide enough backup documentation complete with sordid details to prove his point. 

In a post on the listserv yesterday Mr. Norman claimed his “family has been harassed in Turf Valley for years.  In addition to workmen questioning my grade school daughter and taking her picture, Turf Valley was responsible for placing a port-a-potty on my back lot line last year to see if they could “have a little fun” with me and my neighbors.”

Chris provides a somewhat different version of events:

Norman refers in the email I’m responding to about Turf Valley “workmen questioning his grade school daughter and taking her picture”. The circumstances of the incident with his daughter, as he describes it, are totally distorted. His daughter was found trespassing on the Turf Valley golf course property equipped with a walkie talkie talking to her father. So, who was spying on who?  In the last few days, Norman was “outraged” at being “monitored”, and now has distorted the circumstances around his daughters incident with workmen. I ask, how does she encounter workmen if she is not trespassing on Turf Valley property? I guess when he uses an underage kid to spy, and gets caught, it is harassment; when it’s done to him, its harassment.”

And finally, Chris takes issue with Marc’s failed petition drive and his association with the food workers union:

“And now, I get to the really big one, how the referendum issue against CB58 on the Turf Valley Town Square was planned and conducted, led by Norman. Under the guise of being a grass roots effort conducted by concerned citizens, it was really a collusion between Union 27 (who represent grocery employees), large retail grocers (e.g Safeway, Super Fresh, Giant), and activists led by Norman to get Howard County citizens to sign petitions by deceiving them as to the purpose, which was largely commercial – being to stop a non-union store (Harris Teeter) from entering the local Turf Valley/Ellicott City market. That was what I was prepared to testify about tonight because I get tired of hearing about disenfranchised voters when the very thing they signed for was based on total deception. This referendum effort severely injures proponents of good referendum processes when such a process is so severely abused. Again, I attach my testimony and my detailed backup proving the assertions in the testimony.”

I have reviewed the attachments that Chris references and they appear to corroborate his statements.

Circling the Wagons

It appears that the recent electoral setbacks of the Howard County Citizens Association have resulted in a circling of the wagons. As of today they no longer allow non registered readers to peruse their listserv.

Scene This Week In…

I suppose it’s time to take down the Halloween stuff on my STW feature. I hate folks who leave holiday décor up long after the holiday passes.
 In Ellicott City I received inspiration when I dropped in for a cup of coffee at the Little French Market this morning. The historic mill town exudes that feeling of fall and this Sunday it will be on full display with the November edition of the Second Sunday Market. The monthly market does a fairly good job of presenting seasonal offerings. Since the Ravens play on Thursday this week my Sunday afternoon will be free.

Right now it looks as if the weather will hold out too.
Yesterday I attended a press conference at HoCo General Hospital for the new LIFENET system. The LIFENET system “is a state-of-the-art system that connects emergency medical service (EMS) teams and hospital personnel with emergency patient data.” It is basically an EKG with a modem that gives the hospital critical data on heart patients in advance of their arrival at the hospital. In heart attacks, time is critical to preserve heart muscle. With the LIFENET system the doctor can even review an incoming patients EKG on their smart phone.

I’ve had a little first hand experience with this.

Coincidentally, as I was driving down to EC this morning I heard another report about heart attacks on NPR’s Morning Edition. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Michigan speeding up the treatment of heart attacks has not reduced the overall survival rate.

“The study's author believes the problem is with the patient, and says educating people to recognize heart attack symptoms and getting victims the hospital faster is key.”

I did everything wrong when I had mine.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Acronym Angst

A group of enterprising students at Howard High School has caused a bit of stir with a t-shirt. According to this story by Lindsey McPherson in The Howard County Times, Conor Soop and some fellow classmates started a t-shirt company and“created their first T-shirt design in the interest of school spirit using the acronym "FLR."

The students innocently claim these initials stand for “Fierce Lions Roar.” The school mascot is the lion. Others however have interpreted the shirt a bit differently. Howard’s main rival is Long Reach and the t-shirt made its debut before a recent football game between the two schools. The principal of Howard, Gina Massella determined that “many students interpreted the acronym as a derogatory expression against Long Reach.”

Ya think?

Still, this t-shirt controversay seems tame by comparison with Wakefield High School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Their track and field team boosters garnered national attention last week when they began selling “WTF” t-shirts. 

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Yentruoc Nostaw

While watching the Ravens I thought I’d jot off a quick post with a couple weekend observations during half time.

Last night Mama Wordbones and I spent the night in Baltimore. She won a night at the Marriott Camden Yards at silent auction last year and we just now got around to using it. After checking in around 6:30 PM we walked down towards the Inner Harbor looking for a place to eat when we stumbled upon the newly opened Kona Grill. We decided to drop in for a cocktail to check it out.

We stayed for dinner. As I have stated before, I consider myself wholly unqualified to be a food blogger. There are others who do a much better job and I willingly defer to them for all things food. That being said, we eat out quite a bit and therefore when we come across someplace that we both find exceptional, I feel compelled to comment on it. The Kona Grill is one of those exceptional places. It could be my new favorite place to eat out in Baltimore.

In her column in The Sun today, Janet Gilbert relates her first time experience working the polls in Howard County. It turns out that she was drafted for this task by the same candidate that drafted me for my first time stint at the polls, only Janet decided to make a tongue in cheek attempt to mask the candidates identity by spelling her name backward.

Her most interesting observation was how it felt to be one the people she generally tries to avoid.

“For years, I have walked briskly past these individuals on Election Day, feeling uncomfortable when they greeted me with a cheery "Thank you for voting" as I approached my local elementary school.”

It’s always enlightening to walk in another’s shoes, even if you do get cold feet...literally.

Half time’s over…back to the game. Go Ravens!

Saturday, November 06, 2010

One Year Later

This week our podcast, “and then there’s that…” marked it’s one year anniversary. When we started out with that first show with Len Lazerick in the Lakeside Café I really wasn’t sure how it would play out. We didn’t know if we put together a show that anyone would actually want to listen to much less whether we could commit the time to actually do a new show every two weeks.

Twenty seven shows later we’ve learned that yes, there is an audience for a hyper local podcast about “people, politics and punditry.” According to our producer Dave Bittner, each show now generates about 2,000 downloads. And though we sometimes find ourselves in a last minute scramble, we can successfully put up something new every two weeks. We have also been fortunate to have had some great guests from politicians to just plain interesting loco personalities. It is these guests that really make the show.

Our latest show also marked a new milestone. We have moved to The Mall in Columbia after stints at the Lakeside Café, Clyde’s and the Howard County Fair. The Mall bought out a whole new dynamic for us with more people passing by and wondering what the hell we are up to. We hope to address this curiosity in future episodes by having handouts about the show available and providing a means for passersby to listen in as we record.

This show also marked the return appearance of Tom Coale, the author of the loco politico blog HoCo Rising. This past summer Tom joined us for our two minute segment and this time he came on as our main guest. Anyone who has read his blog will attest to his humor and thoughtful commentary on the local political scene. I think it is safe to say that he’ll be back again sometime in the coming year.

You can listen to the latest podcast here.

Tying the Hands of the Cyber Command

The new established Cyber Command at Fort Meade is being asked to defend the nations computer networks with the equivalent of one hand tied behind its back. According to this story by Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post “senior policymakers and administration lawyers want to limit the military's offensive computer operations to war zones such as Afghanistan, in part because the CIA argues that covert operations outside the battle zone are its responsibility and the State Department is concerned about diplomatic backlash.”

General Keith Alexander, the chief of the Cyber Command wants “maneuvering room” to protect the countries interests globally. In fact, the so called war zone countries are the least of our worries when it comes to cyber attacks. The greatest number of these attacks are currently coming from China and Russia.

According to this artcle by Jay Bavisi and Joseph M. Grimm in The Federal Circle  “The greatest cyber advantage of Russia and China is its wealth of human capital. Both nations have a very high education rate that, when combined with the legacy of emphasizing math and science education, has created a large labor pool of well-educated technology specialists, capable of sophisticated cyber attacks.”

“…it is also important to note that Russia and China also consider us to be their primary cyber foe.”

It doesn't seem to make much sense to go through all the effort of creating a robust cyber command to defend the country and then holding it back from doing its job.