Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Last Midnight Madness?

Ellicott City’s annual Midnight Madness celebration will be held once again this Friday night. The activities will kick off with a tree lighting at six in front of the old post office and most stores will stay open until midnight. Judging from past Midnight Madness celebrations it will be a fun evening in the old town. It also may be the last.

I spoke with Dave Carney, the proprietor of The Wine Bin and the current president of the Ellicott City Business Association. Dave expressed his frustration at the merchants and businesses that benefit from ECBA activities but don’t belong to the organization and pay dues. Out of approximately 100 businesses in the old town only about 35 are members. It can get pretty aggravating.

Dave isn’t giving up, yet. He told me that he’s agreed to stay on as president another year and try to increase participation but if he’s not successful, there may not be enough members and money to pull off events like Midnight Madness again.

That would be a shame. 

A Do Nothing Congress

It’s finally possible that the best thing that the United States Congress could do for the country is absolutely nothing. Given their recent track record, that would seem reasonably easy for them to accomplish. According to this story by David Gura on Marketplace, if Congress allows the Bush era tax cuts to expire next year and the automatic tax cuts resulting from the failure of the super committee to take effect in 2013, the deficit could be cut by $7 trillion over the next 10 years.

“Basically, Congress could slash the deficit by closing up shop and going home.”

Don’t hold your breath though. Just when we actually could benefit from Congress doing nothing, they’re likely to finally do something.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy Birthday Bertucci's

The Bertucci's restaurant chain is celebrating its 30th year in business with a special birthday menu. At the bottom of the menu is a timeline from its inception in 1981 up this year, highlighting about four key milestones in the chains growth. One of those highlights was 1993, the opening of the company’s 50th restaurant in Columbia, Md.

Happy Birthday Bertucci's!

E-Readers & Airplanes

Last week as I flew south for the Thanksgiving holiday, I discovered a clear disadvantage of e-readers. Unlike a “tree book”, as BethTribe describes printed books, an e-reader must be turned off once the plane leaves the gate. It may not be turned back on again until the plane reaches 35,000 feet. Similarly, as the plane begins its descent, the e-reader must again be shut down.

This is a problem. As soon as I settle in my seat on a plane, I pull out my book. Sometimes, if the book is really good, I barely notice when the plane leaves the ground. My colleague TW says he does the same thing. “I like to establish right off to anyone seated next to me that I’m not looking for conversation,” he told me.

Staring at a blank screen during these critical initial strapped in moments may leave you vulnerable to chatty chap in the adjacent seat. “Say, is that one of those e-readers….”

It’s time for the airlines and the FAA to take another look at this. In his column in The New York Times, Nick Bilton suggests that “maybe it’s time to change these rules.”

“Michael Altschul, senior vice president and legal counsel for CTIA, the wireless industry association, said a study that it conducted more than a decade ago found no interference from mobile devices.”

In fact, the current rules that have everyone turning their devices on an off again may actually pose more of a hazard.

“The government might be causing more unnecessary interference on planes by asking people to shut their devices down for take-off and landing and then giving them permission to restart all at the same time. According to electrical engineers, when the electronic device starts, electric current passes through every part of the gadget, including GPS, Wi-Fi, cellular radio and microprocessor.

It’s the equivalent of waking someone up with a dozen people yelling into bullhorns.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

HoCo Tax Deadbeats Online

A HoCo business has earned the distinction of being one of top five delinquent taxpayers in the State of Maryland. According to this list published online by the State Comptrollers office, Columbia based M&S Carpet Outlet owes over $400,000 in sales and withholding taxes.

They are not alone. Besides M&S, one other company and two individuals from HoCo also made the Comptrollers top 50 list. According to this story by Steve Kelly in, this list represents “nearly $21 million in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest,…”

“Franchot released the names as part of the comptroller’s“Caught in the Web” initiative, which seeks to “send a message to those who have ignored all attempts by the state to collect overdue taxes,” according to a news release Franchot issued on the initiative.”

Scene This Week In…

With the holiday season officially underway I figured it was time to update the STW pictures here at To2C and what better way to do than the feature the iconic shopping districts of Ellicott City and Columbia.
 To encourage shoppers to venture down to the historic district, the Ellicott City Business Association, Ellicott City Restoration Foundation and HoCo Government have joined together to suspend metered parking for the holidays. They have been doing this for four years now and each year they seem to expand the free parking period. This year the free parking period runs through January 2nd.

It should be noted however that this courtesy only applies to metered parking. The two hour limit for parking along Main Street still applies and violators of that rule will still be ticketed. I spotted a parking enforcement officer writing someone up near Ellicott Mills Brew Pub this past weekend.

Parking at The Mall during the holidays can also be a challenge. I know of some HoCo locos who actually forswear going anywhere near the The Mall between Thanksgiving and New Years.

It isn’t all that bad. I’ve learned that it is all about timing, especially on the weekends. The trick is to go early. Yesterday I arrived at about 11:00 AM and found plenty of parking and found the manageable crowds in every store except the Apple store.

There was even plenty of room to take a break and put up your feet for a spell.
For me, no trip to The Mall during the holidays is complete without a visit to our poinsettia tree and I do consider this particular shopping center holiday décor item to be uniquely ours. While there are other poinsettia trees across the country, ours has a history. You can read more about that here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Ruminations on Black Friday

Amongst our small gathering of the clan here in St. Augustine Beach there were no Black Friday shoppers. That isn’t to say all were against the concept. Out of eight of us, at least one openly admitted that, in years past, she has happily woken up in the wee hours of the morning after Thanksgiving and headed off to the stores with her mom.

“We’d shop til eight or so and then return home for breakfast followed by nap, comforted by having all of Christmas shopping completed.”

This ran counter to what I read yesterday in this article by Stephanie Clifford in The New York Times who reported that “the differences between how affluent and more ordinary Americans shop in the uncertain economy will be on unusually vivid display.”

“Those in a more modest income situation are the people who are going to the Wal-Marts and the Best Buys and the Targets at 8, 9, 10, 11 p.m. with little kids in tow because they can’t afford a baby sitter,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultant firm. “It’s a very unpleasant shopping experience, frankly, for a lot of people.”

I tend to think that income levels don’t necessarily determine whether or not someone enjoys shopping for bargains. For some, the very fact that they’ve learned to be shrewd consumers has become its own path to personal wealth. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkeys of the Year

For the second year running, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney, is celebrating the holiday by honoring the DC metro areas “Turkeys of the Year.” While he singles out notables such as Redskins owner Dan Snyder and former PG county councilperson Leslie Johnson for his roasted bird toast, no HoCo locos made his list.

I think our loco school board member Allen Dyer should've of at least gotten an honorable mention. How about the former board of the Domestic Violence Center too?

There’s still a chance for to celebrate our own HoCo loco birds. Thanksgiving is a good time to start thinking about the year end Dookie awards for the best and worst of HoCo as seen through the lens of the HoCo blogosphere. I’m hoping this early warning will help bring back more of the biting sarcasm of the 2009 Dookies. I blame myself for setting the gratuitous back slap tone of last year. I’ll endeavor to do better this year.

As in years past, I’ll kick off the 2011 Dookie nominations the day after Christmas, the perfect time to celebrate a season of overindulgence.

Fast Turkeys

Wherever you are, I hope you are able to catch your turkey today. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Marylanders On The Move

In case you didn’t notice, there is a mass movement of Marylanders going on right now. According to this story by Ryan Sharrow in the Baltimore Business Journal “Some 871,000 Marylanders are projected to travel 50 miles or more for Thanksgiving, a 3.5 percent increase over last year…”

The movement is starting earlier too. As Michael Dresser wrote in The Sun, “Tuesday before Thanksgiving is becoming the new Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”

It was for Peanut and I. We caught a flight out of BWI yesterday for Florida. Our early departure may have been fortuitous. As reported in this story by Olivia Katrandjian at ABC News, “Two forecasted storms are expected to make air travel rough across parts of the country, causing delays and cancellations at airports.”

I can’t imagine that it will be any easier driving. Rain has almost the same effect on Maryland drivers as snow.

Be careful out there.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Existing Conditions

This afternoon, as I headed over to the airport, I happened to get stopped as a CSX train rolled through the grade level rail crossing in Hanover, adjacent to one of the more controversial sites for the proposed intermodal terminal. As I sat there waiting for the train to pass I was reminded that this is already a busy, noisy rail corridor. It's an important factor to consider when weighing the concerns from the neighboring communities. This patch of HoCo has been an established industrial corridor long before people made a decision to live there. 

Create Jobs Columbia Connection

By now many people know about Starbucks Create Jobs for USA program. What you may not know is that Enterprise Community Loan Fund based right here in Columbia is one of the Community Development Financial Institutions that is where the rubber meets the road in this grassroots effort to get people back to work.

Yesterday, Lori Chatman, the president of the Enterprise Community Loan Fund, was on Mid Day with Dan Rodericks on WYPR, along with Adam Brotman from Starbucks and Mark Pinsky with the Opportunity Finance Network giving examples of how this money gets from your pocket and out into communities to create jobs. Enterprise is both a local and national CDFI

Dan also wrote a column about the Create Jobs for USA program in The Sun. He makes the argument that this is type of thing that cuts across partisan lines.

“This effort should appeal to fed-up Americans of all political stripes, even those who don't like Starbucks coffee or prefer locally owned home brews instead of a chain with more than 7,000 locations. (There's no obligation to buy Starbucks java if you only want to purchase a bracelet.) The Occupy Wall Street protesters could fold their tents if all of them, and their extended family of silent supporters, were to buy bracelets and help the CDFIs grow jobs from the ground up, in the local economies in which the 99 percent of us live, work and consume. Tea party members should admire the effort to do an end-run on government to kick-start some job creation.”

According to Adam Brotman, in the first week of the promotion which started on November 1st, over $1 million was donated by Starbucks customers.

I also ran across this video of a company that bought Create Jobs for USA bracelets for all 500 of their employees.

I can tell you that every stocking in my household will have a red white and blue bracelet this Christmas too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Who’s Watching You

During our podcast with the HoCo Chief of Police last Friday we talked a bit about the increasing role of cameras and license plate readers in law enforcement. Paul asked Bill about how the department balances privacy concerns with public safety since these cameras actually store the images they capture for a period of time.

That period of time varies by jurisdiction too. According to this story by Allison Klein and Josh White in The Washington Post the collected data is kept for “three years in the District, two years in Alexandria, a year in Prince George’s County and a Maryland state database, and about a month in many other suburban areas.”

As I wrote in this post back in September, the HoCo police have had cruisers equipped with license plate readers for awhile now but they also have cameras mounted at key intersections as well, watching us twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

Law enforcement sees these cameras and readers as a valuable tool.

“Having the technology during the Washington area sniper shootings in 2002 might have stopped the attacks sooner, detectives said, because police could have checked whether any particular car was showing up at each of the shooting sites.”

Civil libertariansof course, are concerned.

“That’s quite a large database of innocent people’s comings and goings,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program. “The government has no business collecting that kind of information on people without a warrant.”

Then again, maybe not.

“Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University who has been closely watching the Supreme Court case, said the license plate technology probably would pass constitutional muster because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy on public streets.”

There is some good news for HoCo locos though. In September I ended the post by saying that I’d be sure to pay all my parking tickets on time from now on. It turns out that, as far as the HoCo loco police, I needn’t worry about that. Bill told us that they are not using the license plate readers for that…yet.

On the other hand, an unpaid parking ticket in HoCo could soon bring you another kind of grief.

WikiLeaks Suspect Coming to Fort Meade

The soldier who is accused of slipping “hundreds of thousands” of classified documents to Julian Assange will be coming to Fort Meade for a military hearing on December 16th. Army Private First Class Bradley Manning is currently being held at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and, according to this story by Matthew Hay Brown in The Sun, "faces a court-martial on nearly two dozen charges related to the leak of hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks.”

“The primary purpose of the Article 32 hearing is "to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the government's case as well as to provide the defense with an opportunity to obtain pretrial discovery," attorney David E. Coombs wrote Monday on his website.”

Of course he has a website. In a free country even someone who breaks his oath and betrays his country gets a website and followers who support him, just like another famous traitor, Jonathan Pollard

The hearing is expected to last five days.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Voting for Marvin Schlopnick

I’m a big fan of Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post humor columnist. This week, in his column in WP Magazine, he hits on one of my favorite topics, local politics or specifically, awareness of local politics and politicians. Gene admits that he comes up short in this department. When it comes time to vote in local political races, he writes that he has “seldom taken the time to familiarize myself with the candidates, a sin I then compound by not letting my ignorance deter me.”

“Because it is childish, I won’t use the eenie-meenie method; instead, I’ll pick the candidate with the funniest name, or, if the names have an equal humor quotient, I will revert to the shameful method employed by my parents’ generation (they, too, disdained eenie-meenie) and “pick the Jew.” On the rare occasions when more than one name is Jewish, I pick the Jewiest. “Cohen” loses to “Rosenflutz.”

This works as long as you don’t care about what goes on in your own backyard. Sooner or later however, an issue is bound to come up which hits home, or for Gene, his ability to park near his home. He now knows that his city councilman is a guy a named Tommy Wells and that it is Tommy who is responsive to needs and concerns of his neighborhood, not some faceless character named Marvin Schopnick.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Shop Local

Anthony Hardwick is my Thanksgiving hero. He’s the guy who started the online petition at urging his employer to respect the holiday and not open at midnight on Thanksgiving. He suggests that even a 5 AM is plenty early enough for those who believe that the best part of the Thanksgiving holiday is snatching up bargains like five dollar Barbie dolls.

186,000 people have signed his petition so far.

Then again this was a pretty easy call for me. You won’t catch me anywhere near a retail store on Black Friday, a pub or restaurant maybe but never a store.

Usually I’d also include Saturday in this category but this year I'll  make an exception, but not for the major retailers. I’ll likely visit a small business. American Express is running a nationwide promotion urging shoppers to support small business on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The credit card company is encouraging consumers to shop small businesses on Saturday, November 26th and they are even providing free marketing tools for these businesses to compliment their nationwide ad campaign. That’s the kind of effort I can get behind.

I’ve already resolved to make an extra effort this holiday season to support my fellow small businesses. Today for example, following the recommendation of HowChow, I visited the Caspian Market in Ellicott City to pick up some pistachio nougat to take as a gift for Thanksgiving dinner. After that I stopped at the Wine Bin and bought a bottle of Sloop Betty, the only premium vodka that is distilled right here in Maryland.

Its really not that hard to do and make a world of difference to our local economy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Top Cop

When the Chief of Police agreed to come on our show I was prepared for a rather dull interchange with a lot of “Yes sirs” and “No sirs.” Obviously, I didn’t know Bill McMahon. Our HoCo top cop is a very engaging guy who gives as good as he gets in an interview. It was an unexpectedly fun show.

His appearance was pretty timely too given the police shooting last week of Jeffrey Nichols in Elkridge, the school bus incident in North Laurel and the expiration of the new speed camera warning period this week. We also got a chance to hear Bills thoughts on police technology, local police priorities and what is like to come to come up through the ranks to the top job in HoCo.

It was also a loaded news week. We talked about the controversy over the pilot program for women only swim times at the Columbia Swim Center, the MDOT / CSX public workshop for the proposed intermodal terminal, school redistricting and the charter review commission. Paul also talked about an article in the Baltimore Business Journal that found Ellicott City and Columbia to be among the top 25 of smartest communities in the U.S.

We also debuted a new feature we call our “Rants.” This is a short segment at the end of the show where each us shares something that we want to rant about. Paul focused on a new requirement for Small Business Administration loans for borrowers to certify that they have never been convicted of or pleaded no contest to sexual molestation of a minor while I ranted about the desecration of the Thanksgiving holiday by some major retailers.

You can listen to the latest episode of “and then there’s that…” here.

Big Bet Goes Bad

Almost exactly three years ago, I lauded Eric Stein for his “big bet” in opening The Wine Seller in Shipley’s Grant. It was then the early days of the recession and this was his second HoCo store. Eric was one of the few loco businesses that dared to expand during those dark days.

Sadly it looks as if he lost that bet. When I drove past the store early this week I noticed the store had closed.

Three years ago few suspected that the economy would still be limping along in 2011.

It is also a sort of weird coincidence that it was overcast and raining when I took my first picture of his then new store and the weather was exactly the same when I snapped this picture on Wednesday.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It’s All about Jobs

Starbucks is flexing its big company muscle to help small business. Beginning this month they have launched a campaign in their stores to raise money to help create jobs in this country. The coffee company has teamed up with Opportunity Finance Network for The Create Jobs for USA program and seeded it with a $5 million contribution from the Starbucks Foundation.

They further claim that every $5.00 donation from their customers “can provide $30.00 of additional financing to support community business.”

Contributors also get a bracelet so they can wear their support on their sleeve, so to speak.

It is pretty much an accepted fact that small businesses are biggest generators of job growth in this country and as such they could be the key to reducing the stubbornly high unemployment rate. According to this story by Carol Roth in The Huffington Post:

• If one out of every two small businesses (50%) hired just ONE person, we would have zero unemployment;

• If each of the 6 million small businesses that has employees hired just two people, we would only have 2 million people unemployed in the US (1.3% unemployment);

• In contrast, business with more than 500 employees would need to hire an average of 655 people each to get to hire the same 12 million employees (i.e., to achieve 2 million people unemployed).

So I pitched in my five bucks today. I’m not sure if this will work but it seems like a small price to pay to give it a try.

Pick Up Artists

About eighteen months ago, at a meeting in Kahler Hall during the final stages of the debate over the redevelopment of Columbia Town Center, I first learned about a group of young people who were just beginning a cross country quest to raise awareness about littering. Appropriately enough, they called their mission Pick Up America and one of the original members of the group was Kelly Klein, daughter of CoFoCoDo activist, Alan Klein.  Alan, regular readers may recall, led the effort to stop the Town Center redevelopment legislation and then, having failed at that, attempted to unseat Councilperson Mary Kay Sigaty in last years council elections. 

According to the Pick Up America website, Alan still serves as Chairman of their board though Kelly is no longer listed as a crew member.

Over 272 days on the road, they've walked over 2,000 miles, crossed nine states and picked up almost 150,000 pounds of trash.

Last night they were featured on NBC Nightly News.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

No More Warnings

During their first month roll out “warning” period which ended today, HoCo’s new school zone speed cameras racked up 650 warning tickets. According to this story by Andrea F. Siegel in The Sun, it is now game on as “$40 citations start Wednesday.”

Of course this is all about safety for our children and has nothing to do with a potential new revenue stream for the county of thirty grand or so a month.

Then again, if you happen to run afoul of the robocops, sometimes you can fight city hall and win.

Hanover Intermodal Site Gets Favorable Review

Though the officials involved will insist otherwise, it would be hard not to conclude from the current MDOT/CSX public workshops that the proposed Hanover site is the best candidate for the CSX intermodal terminal. All of the four main factors that the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) selection process must take into consideration, the Hanover site has only one negative while the other three sites have at least two. According to Dominic Wiker, the Project Manger for MDOT, none of these individual factors carry any more weight than the others.

The Hanover site has the zoning, is not in a flood plain, contains virtually no wetlands, and does not impact any historic areas or structures. The Beltsville site does not have the zoning, is located in a flood plain and includes a historic area. The Montevideo site has the zoning but also has significant wetlands and is in a flood plain and historic areas. The Jessup site lacks the zoning and is almost all floodplain and wetlands, not to mention the home of an endangered species, the Glassy Darter.

And then there is the cost.

Preliminary analysis has further determined that the Hanover site would be the least costly to develop and not by an insignificant amount. It is estimated to be at least $35 million cheaper than the next lowest cost alternative, Beltsville. According to this story by Kevin Rector in Explore Howard these preliminary cost estimates take into account “a variety of projected expenses, including cost of acquiring land from private owners, the cost of gaining water, electric and utility access, the cost of shifting or relocating existing infrastructure and the cost of mitigating specific environmental concerns…”

The only area where Hanover comes up short of course is proximity to existing homes and some of those homeowners have been trying to get the Hanover site eliminated from consideration. These opponents were somewhat heartened last week when the HoCo school board sent a letter to Beverly Swaim-Staley, the Maryland Secretary of Transportation “strongly” urging her to consider an alternative site. The school board is concerned because they recently approved putting a new middle school just down the road from the Hanover site at Oxford Square. They did this knowing full well that an intermodal terminal in Hanover was a real possibility. It kind of makes you wonder what they were thinking.

In any event, based on what is being presented in the public workshops, the final selection of the intermodal terminal is still a long way off. According to this story by Michael Dresser in The Sun, “Residents who go to the workshops hoping to find clues to the eventual location are likely to be frustrated. Officials at Tuesday's briefing remained studiously neutral about the choices under consideration. Residents who may be concerned about the future of their neighborhoods are unlikely to know the outcome before late next year, when a site choice is expected to be announced.”

E-Readers 101

Last night the HoCo library hosted a seminar about everything you want to know about e-readers. As it turns out there’s a lot to know including formats, screen resolutions and weight. For instance, up until last night I was seriously considering buying an iPad that would also serve as my e-reader but last night changed my thinking. After comparing the heft of the iPad to the milieu of available e-readers, I’ve now concluded that might not be such a good idea.

It’s like the difference between reading a big book like Hero versus a short novel like The Art of Racing in the Rain. The short novel is much easier to hold when you are reclining. I read a lot while reclining.

Before I go any further, I should note that the e-reader seminar was conducted by Beth Tribe, the Information Technology Instructor and Specialist with the library (she has a blog too!). She was excellent. In addition to giving a thorough overview of the pros and cons of  the various readers on the market and those about to come on the market, she also had most of the readers with her and passed them around. I got to mess around with a Kobo (the lightest), a Pandigital, a Nook, Nook Simple Touch and Nook Color, Sony, iPad and Kindle.

Beth also pointed out that since I owned a smart phone I already had an e-reader. I knew that but I find the phone to be just a little too small for reading a novel. It’s fine for reading newspaper articles while waiting in line but not for the serious commitment of a book.

So where did I end up after the class?

For me, it looks like the Nook Tablet would be the best fit, which coincidentally became available in stores today just in case Santa is reading this. Though it isn’t as light as the Kobo it is a couple of ounces lighter than an a iPad and features an Android operating system.

And speaking of the Art of Racing in the Rain, while working on this post I ran across this video promotion for the book. It still ranks as one of my favorite reads.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New Elkridge Market Opens Tomorrow

As I drove past the Elkridge Corners Shopping Center this afternoon I saw workmen busily putting the final touches on the new Green Valley Market. The new grocery concept store from food wholesaler B. Green is scheduled to open tomorrow morning and, from the outside at least, its looking pretty good.

In fact it looks like the whole shopping center got a bit of a facelift. Nice.

I may actually be in that corner of HoCo again tomorrow so hopefully I’ll get a chance to drop in and check it out.

UPDATE 11/16: Mo over at the Swim Write Run blog provides an opening day report here.

A Seat at the Table

The Maryland Department of Transportation held a “Media Roundtable” today to give members of the press a preview of the information that will be presented in a series of public intermodal workshops scheduled for this week in Beltsville, Jessup and Elkridge.

They also invited a couple bloggers to the somewhat rectangle roundtable, specifically, Brian Dunn and yours truly.

No doubt we were included because our blogs have weighed in on the issue but I was still a bit surprised at the invite. From my perspective this speaks volumes to the perceived influence of loco blogs.

I think it’s a good thing. The more writers covering a topic like the proposed intermodal facility the more chances for the public to be informed.

Afterwards, in the parking lot, I had a brief conversation with Elizabeth Janney, the editor of Elkridge Patch.  
“We’re you here for HoCoMoJo?” she asked.

Actually I was there for the readers of Tales of Two Cities. I told her that my report on the information presented would likely be different than hers since mine would include the obligatory blogger personal opinion. In fact, I’ll likely wait to see what the working press has to say before I write a post about it. That way I can link to their words as well.

After all, that’s the luxury of blogging.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Junk Calls

Is there anything more annoying than getting a robocall on your cellphone?

Okay, so maybe the person who uses the express check-out lane with a cart full of groceries and a fist full of coupons might be more annoying but still…

Nobody likes getting an automated call on their mobile phones…or do they?

According to this story by Randall Stross in The New York Times there are good robocalls and there are bad robocalls.

“A robocall to a cellphone about a scheduled softball game that has just been rained out is welcome. A robocall to the same cellphone from a debt collector may not be.”

Some in the telecommunications industry would like to make it easier to make the bad kind and “are pushing for a clearer path to making those calls.”

“Telemarketers cannot make prerecorded calls to either residential landlines or cellphones, unless the recipient has provided express consent or has a business relationship with the caller. For commercial calls that do not involve an explicit sales pitch, the law extends special protection to cellphones: automated equipment cannot be used unless the recipient has provided consent.”

This consent has proven to be fairly ambiguous so the FCC is working on stricter rules to define what actually qualifies as consent. Powerful interests including the American Bankers Association and the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals are pushing back, arguing that the current rules are outdated.

“The lobbyists try to argue that the protections extended to cellphones in 1991 were necessary only because the per-minute cost of receiving calls was high. Those costs have fallen greatly since then — so, they argue, there is no need to continue to treat cellphones differently.”

Judging from what Steve Kroft reported last night about the way Congress works these days, it looks like we’re screwed.

Goosebumps for Math

Thirty some years ago, UMBC was often derided as a second rate college. Some wags said the initials stood for U Must Be Crazy and that the Catonsville campus was the school you ended up going to if you couldn't get into anywhere else.

That all started to change in 1992 when Freeman Hrabowski became president. Today, UMBC is a honors university that ranks right up there with Loyola University in terms of admission requirements. The academic elevation of UMBC is largely credited to President Hrabowski, a guy who says he gets “goosebumps from math.”

Last night he was featured on 60 Minutes.

It was big night on 60 minutes for the Baltimore area. Frederick Bealefeld, the Baltimore City Police Commissioner, was prominently featured in this report about the use of tasers.

Talk about goosebumps!

Sunday, November 13, 2011


The voting for the third annual Mobbie competition for loco bloggers wrapped up last week. Out of eleven blogs nominated for Best HoCo blog, Tales of Two Cities finished ninth.

It’s a pretty far fall from that heady first year of the competition when I took home the Mobbie for Best Political Blog, a category that was retired after Hedgehog won it last year. 

Of course there were other losers too.  HowChow, arguably one of the highest trafficked blogs in HoCo finished seventh. That just doesn’t make sense to me. I could understand second or third but not seventh.

Then again what do I know?

The one thing that the Mobbie competition did demonstrate to me is that HoCo has one the most vibrant blogging communities in the Baltimore Metro Area. Only Baltimore City had more nominees than HoCo.


UPDATE 11/14/11: In case you are one of those readers who don't bother to read the comments, please note that I got this WRONG! The listings I mistook for the final tally were in fact simply alphabetical as fellow HoCo blogger Sarah Says helpfully suggested. Sometimes the only exercise I get is jumping to conclusions...

A Solar Farm Grows in HoCo

On top of a former county landfill in Ellicott City a solar farm is taking shape. According to this article by Joe Burris in The Baltimore Sun, the 2,000 solar panels sprouting up next to Worthington Elementary School “will supply the school with solar energy year-round.”

Well not really. The roughly 600,000 hours of kilowatt energy produced by this installation will be sold on to the power grid. The school will receive renewable energy credits to offset their fossil fuel energy costs. In addition to the free land donated by the county, the project received a Project SunBurst Grant of about a half million dollars from the Maryland Energy Administration.

In other words, this little sustainable energy project is being sustained by a host of credits and subsidies.
Sadly, it also took away a walking trail that was popular neighborhood residents who regularly risked the wrath of the DPW and their No Trespassing signs in order to get a little exercise.

Of course this little solar demonstration project is also being touted as a learning laboratory for the students at Worthington. I doubt the curriculm will also cover the role of government subsidies in energy policy.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Master Number

Today is one those dates on the calendar that numbers people love, 11/11/11. Today, there will be more weddings, more movie releases and even more lottery ticket sales than your normal second Friday in November. As Jessica Dickler November points out in this story on CNN Money “that set of numbers won't roll around again for another 100 years.”

In this story by Monica Hesse in The Washington Post, numerologist Sonia Ducie Dip explains the significance of the number eleven.

 “Eleven is a master number,” she patiently explains, meaning that it’s the same digit, doubled. When a digit is doubled or tripled, its qualities become more intense. “The issue with 11 is that it’s meant to wake us up, spiritually. It’s a number for inspiration and passion.” Many celebrities have 11 in their numerical charts, she says. Also, because the two ones in 11 add up to two — a number of sharing and collaboration — the 11th could be a good day to get married.”

Then again, for most people its just another day. As Hesse points out “11/11/2011 might come around only once, but you know what other date that’s true of? 11/12.”

Politics & Old Dogs

At the end of Ken Ulman’s fundraiser last night I chatted briefly with Delegate Guy Guzzone and his wife Pam. Guy was the emcee for Ken’s gathering and his remarks were notable for their brevity.

“The best speech in history was only 265 words,” he observed.

Indeed, and it was written by a Repub to boot.

I don’t think Guy even used that many words. I took the occasion to probe him a little about his future political plans to which he was predictably coy. Then I turned to Pam and asked what she would like to see him do.

“I’d like to see him become county executive,” she said without the slightest bit of doubt or hesitation.

I like her. Pam works in organizational development at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, not quite a rocket scientist but you don’t really need to be one to understand the HoCo loco politico scene.

It was also an evening about old dogs, another subject near and dear to my heart. I was catching up with Ian Kennedy when he shared with me that his dog, a Husky named Atticus, is not doing well. “He has good days and bad days,” Ian said, “he still has the spirit of a young dog though some days he has difficulty just standing up.”

Ian knows it is only a matter of time before he has to say goodbye to his loyal friend and dreads the inevitable. It couldn’t come at a worse time either, with a new baby due in a matter of weeks. Joy and sadness at the same time seems so unfair. I felt for him.

I also spent time with HoCo loco energy guru Bert Wilson. Bert is the Managing Member of Castlebridge Energy Group. His wife Suzanne and her partner Tee run The Olbadi Inn in Ellicott City. Bert has a 12 year old dog at home with doggie diabetes. He showed me a picture of Buster on his phone. He told me that he had to get home to give Buster his insulin shot.

Bert wonders if Buster will it make it through the holidays.

When I got home I saw facebook posting from Mickey Gomez about the passing of her dog, Indy. She wrote a warm tribute to her old friend on her blog. Fair warning, if you love dogs you’ll have a hard time keeping your tear ducts in check.

And since this is Veterans Day, I offer this Veterans Day dog story by Steve Hendrix in The Washington Post. Just one day after rescuing a batch of puppies in Iraq, Army Specialist Justin Rollins was killed by roadside bomb. In one of the last photos taken of Justin he was cradling one of the puppies.

“When his flag-draped transfer case arrived at an airfield in New Hampshire, an Army general asked the family members if there was anything he could do for them.

As a matter of fact, there was.

“I want one of those puppies,” Rhonda answered immediately.”

The story of how Hero made it home is about as good a tribute to vets and the dogs they love as I could find.

To all the vets who stop by here, thank you for your service.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Mothers Milk of Politics

County Exec Ken Ulman is holding a fundraiser tonight in Columbia and some of his supporters are already openly touting his gubernatorial bid. According to this post by Jessica Anderson on the Maryland Politics blog, Evergreen Advisors sent out an email promoting tonight’s event saying that Ken “desires to attain the Governor's seat for Maryland, so that all citizens will benefit from his administration's initiatives.”

He’ll have to do a few more of these events to catch up with another Dem who has eyes on the governor’s mansion, Doug Gansler. According to the last campaign funding reports Ken has $439,668.00 in his campaign war chest while Gansler had $2,905,529.00.

Peter Franchot, the state comptroller has also been waging an unannounced campaign for the states top job, He reports having $515,458.00 in the campaign kitty. The Lt. Guv, Anthony Brown is at the back of money pack with only $126,300.00.

Of course, 2014 is still a long way away. There could yet be another fresh face on the Maryland political scene and there is still time for someone to start from scratch. In the meantime, these front four will continue to build their respective bank balances and take advantage of an getting an early start, even without any “official” announcement.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A Field Hockey Phenomenon

In the thirty five years that Virginia Kincaid has been coaching Glenelg High School's field hockey teams she has amassed an impressive number of state and county titles. So when she says that she’s never seen a player like Alyssa Parker, its something to take note of.

This season, Alyssa Parker has scored over 100 goals which in and of itself is pretty impressive. What is even more impressive is the fact that she also has 100 assists. According to this story by Greg Schimmel in The Washington Post, she is “only the second player in the recorded history of the National Federation of State High School Associations to reach triple digits in both stats.”

“I like the 100 assists a lot more,” said Parker, who has orally committed to play for Maryland, the defending NCAA champion. “It’s about the team effort.”

It’s likely to get even better. Tonight the Gladiators played Queen Anne’s High School in the Maryland 2A Semifinals. The results of that 5 PM game were not available as I wrote this post but hopefully a commenter can provide an update later.

Regardless of tonights outcome, Alyssa has had a memorable senior season. Congratulations!

Innocent but Politically Damaged

Senator Ulysses Currie, once one of the most powerful members of the Maryland General Assembly, was found not guilty of extortion and bribery charges by a federal jury in Baltimore yesterday. According to this story by Tricia Bishop in The Sun, the trial that lasted over six weeks “took a mental toll on defendants who could have faced decades in prison if convicted, on jurors who described the process as taxing, and on lawyers from both sides of the aisle who collectively devoted years to the case.”

"It's been a rough four years," Currie said outside the courthouse, thanking his legal team and constituents for standing by him. He characterized the acquittal — delivered on Election Day in Baltimore — as "the greatest moment" of his life."

It took a toll on Senator Curries stature as a statesmen too as even his defenders described him as not being very bright. In this story by John Wagner in The Washington Post, Timothy F. Maloney, a former member of the House of Delegates “described the 74-year-old lawmaker as “a wonderful person” and “nice,” but insisted the Prince George’s County Democrat is not known by his colleagues to be smart.”

That’s not what you want to hear about the man who, until he was indicted, served as the chair of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Even Congressman Steny Hoyer described Currie as someone “not particularly taken with details or organization."

And these are his friends!

When Currie stepped down as chair of the powerful committee, he was replaced by HoCo Senator Ed Kasemeyer. Even though he has now been acquitted of criminal charges he still faces a review by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics before he could reclaim his chairmanship.

Given these damaging statements about his intellect and capacity for organization, even if he clears this ethics hurdle, it’s hard to imagine his committee colleagues supporting a return to his former leadership role.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sayonara Santastic

Four years ago The Mall attempted to replace a treasured HoCo holiday tradition with a new one. After thirty six years the iconic poinsettia tree in the center court fountain was replaced by a Santa on steroids exhibit dubbed Santastic.

The resulting community uproar eventually led to the departure of the mall manager and the return of the poinsettia tree the following year.

This year, Santastic got the boot. Instead of the towering Santa House and faux toy factory, replete with a Naughty or Nice meter, a much more toned down Santaland is taking form in the court adjacent to the fountain area.
When it first debuted, the Santastic display even included a snow making machine that rained fake snow down on Santa at regular intervals throughout the day. In the past couple of years this feature, arguably the coolest thing about the monstrous display, had been disabled.

The cheap thrill was gone.

The poinsettia tree on the other hand, has retained its charm.


Tales of Two Cities netizen Erik DeVito sent me a note yesterday about the opening of Books A Million in Columbia. It was only two months ago that the company won approval from the bankruptcy court to take over the former Borders space in the Columbia Crossing Shopping Center.

BAM moves fast.

Actually, as the “pardon our progress” sign on the front door suggests, the new bookstore isn’t quite ready for primetime. I couldn’t even get a cup of coffee in the rechristened Joe Muggs Café though an employee told me it should be open by the end of the week.

Book lovers familiar with the old Borders will find the new store easy to navigate. The café is in the same place as are the registers and music section. This is probably why they were able to reopen so fast. The changes that they’ve made to the store are relatively minor.

One thing that did strike me was a display (still being put together) for Barnes & Nobles e-book e-reader, The Nook. According to this story by Robert Nelson in gadgetell, this deal was announced a year ago.

“In a slightly surprising move, Books-A-Million has announced that they have begun selling the Barnes & Noble NOOKcolor ebook reader. And when we say slightly strange, that is only because while customers will be able to purchase and read BAM! eBooks on the device—they may not be as easy to purchase and get on the device as say—Barnes & Noble ebooks. Sounds like a risky move for Books-A-Million, but then again maybe any customer is better than none.”

Though I swore I wouldn’t buy any more hardcover books I made an exception today and help support HoCo’s newest bookstore. Dana Priest has written a book based on her Top Secret America series in The Washington Post and she told me she’d sign a copy if I sent her one. That’s not so easy to do with an e-book.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Personally, I Prefer a Blowout

Tonight, on WBAL-TV News, they ran a cell phone survey asking viewers whether, when watching the Ravens, they prefer a blowout or a close game like last night. 72% of the respondents picked close game.

Not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a good close football game as much as anyone. It’s exciting. I just don’t like it when it’s my team. When my team is playing I like total, unconditional dominance from the opening kick-off to the last play of the game, like the last time we thumped the Steelers on 9/11. 

Last night I was so pumped up with adrenaline when the game ended around midnight it took me another hour to get to sleep.

A blowout would have been much more relaxing

New Library to Open December 17th

The new Miller Branch library in Ellicott City will officially open its doors on Saturday, December 17th at 9:45 AM with a ribbon cutting by the exec.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Running Man

At the end of our last show we announced that this week’s special guest would be HoCo’s new economic development chief, Laura Nueman. Unfortunately, due to what I’ll simply refer to as scheduling snafu, it turns out that Laura didn’t know anything about it. We needed a Plan B.

Robert Vigorito has been a guest we’ve had on our radar for awhile but so far we hadn’t been able to find a date that worked. “Vigo”, as many in town affectionately call him, is literally a man in constant motion.

Fortunately for us, when this weeks slot suddenly opened up he just happened to be available and was happy to sit down in The Mall with us. Vigo is the man behind the Columbia Triathlon, one of the premier triathlon events in the country that this year alone attracted athletes from 38 states. Over 28 years the Columbia Triathlon has contributed over $3 million to loco charities.

In 2006 he started the first Iron Girl triathlon in the nation right here in HoCo.

We’re lucky to still have him around too. Last October, while training in Hawaii for the Iron Man competition, he was struck by pick up truck while riding his bicycle. He got pretty banged up with nine broken ribs, a fractured scapula, a collapsed lung and a cut lip.

Judging from his appearance Friday, he has completely recovered. He said he feels fine.

In the news stories we had talked about everything from Whole Foods to the weather.

You can listen to the latest episode of “and there’s that…” here.

Hard Rock in Woodstock

Yesterday we headed out to Woodstock to explore some of the hiking trails in that area of the Patapsco Valley State Park. We parked next to a group of mountain bikers who were packing up after their morning ride.

One of the guys asked if we were familiar with the trails in the area and I him told we weren’t. He helpfully recommended a trail leading up to an abandoned granite quarry that is now a hidden lake.

“It’s pretty awesome up there,” he offered.
 He was right. After crossing over the river into Baltimore County we easily picked up the trail with the help of an excellent trail map I purchased last year from the Department of Natural Resources.
 This portion of the park is pretty popular with the horse crowd. We shared the trail with groups of riders as we trekked up about a mile to the quarry.
This quarry is one of many that once thrived in this part of the Patapsco River Valley. According to this history of the area written by Paul T. Morgan, the granite mined here is considered “the finest, hardest granite rock on the North American continent.”

“Granite from Granite made the walls of the Baltimore Custom House. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. sent a Dr. David Owen on an inspection tour of building material sources. Of Waltersville and Fox Rock quarries at Granite he reported: "For about a mile square at this locality is an outburst of quartzose, granite of magnificent quality, both as regards beauty of appearance, compactness of structure and uniformity of color, texture and composition. I have never seen anything superior in this country. Indeed, I doubt whether it can be excelled in any country. It cannot be surpassed for strength and durability by any building material in the world." The original Smithsonian Institution in Washington is built of granite from Granite.”

Having Patapsco State Park so close by is one of the best parts of living in HoCo. This trail just across the border is one we will definitely visit again.