Monday, February 28, 2011

HoCo Lags in School Value Proposition

The Center for American Progress determined that the HoCo Public School Systems delivers “high achievement at a relatively high cost.” According to this story by Nick Anderson in The Washington Post an analysis of test scores and spending by the liberal think tank concluded that “Manassas Park and Calvert County have the most efficient schools in the Washington area.”

CAP charted the spending per pupil in the sixteen counties surrounding Washington, D.C.. HoCo had the second highest at $11,439 per pupil. Calvert spends $8,091 per pupil. Then again, it’s a lot cheaper to live in Calvert County.

Still, HoCo also got beat out by Montgomery County where they spend $10,199 per pupil.

“Elsewhere in Maryland, on an index called "basic return on investment" - one of three methods the center used for comparison - Frederick County received a top mark. Schools in Montgomery, St. Mary's and Anne Arundel counties were rated just behind. Then came Howard County…”

Of course a school system shouldn’t give too much weight to it’s value proposition but it does belong in the conversation. 

Sirens Song

Cars don’t always move out of the way when an emergency vehicles blast their sirens. In some cases this is due to the fact that driver may not actually hear the siren because of the din of music inside the vehicle. To rectify this situation the Federal Signal Corporation has developed a new siren device that drivers can feel as well as hear. According to this story by Ariel Kaminer in The New York Times, the new siren makes “ people sit up and take notice — even people accustomed to hearing sirens all the time. Even people wearing ear buds or talking on the phone. Even people insulated from street noise by a layer of glass and steel.”

“Rumblers, as Mr. Bader called his invention, achieve their striking effect with a low-frequency tone, in the range of 180 to 360 hertz (between the 33rd and the 46th key on a standard piano keyboard), which penetrates hard surfaces like car doors and windows better than a high tone does. When it is paired with the wail of a standard siren, the effect is hard to ignore — like the combination of a bagpipe’s high chanter and low drone, or perhaps like a train whistle and the caboose that moves that whistle through space. “

No word yet as to whether HoCo will be adopting Rumblers.

Catholic Church Buys and Sells

Just across the HoCo border in AA county, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has purchased the Blob’s Park polka hall and about 12.5 acres of land surrounding it. According to the Howard/Arundel Report newsletter the church paid $2.5 million for the building and the land. The long range plan is to build a church and a school on the property but for the time being at least, the oompah music will play on and the beer will continue to flow.

In HoCo the church sold property. Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ellicott City has sold 14 single family lots adjacent to the school and church for $90,000 per lot to Security Development.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The BRAC Billions

Fort Meade is inarguably the most significant economic engine for HoCo. According to this story by Elizabeth Janney in Elkridge Patch “it is difficult to picture the amount of money the fort brings to Maryland each year, because the number is so large: $18 billion.”

And that is before we take into account the additional growth coming to the fort as a result of BRAC and after five years of talking about it, BRAC has arrived. The first employees of the relocated Defense Information Systems Agency began moving into their new million square foot campus at Fort Meade in October. All 4,300 employees of the agency should be in place by September.

Helping HoCo to cope with this growth is Kent Menser, the HoCo BRAC Director. Until 1993 he was the garrison commander of Fort Meade when he retired from the military. On our podcast he shared his outlook on the transportation challenges associated with this growth. “We have a plan,” he told us.

We also asked Kate Essing, the general manager of The Mall to join us to discuss the newspaper story about the Malls alleged hostility to certain homeless people. She denied that the mall singles out any classification of people and insisted that the banning of an individual is behavior based.

That’s a tough call and I can easily understand that it is a nuanced approached that can sometimes be unfairly applied. On the other hand, the mall is private property. It depends on people feeling comfortable to shop and not being accosted.

Dave Bittner, our producer, also shared some great news with us this week. Each episode of the podcast now gets an average of 10,000 downloads. Thanks to all those who tune in.

You can listen to the 35th episode of “and then there’s that…” here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Blue Can Dilemma

When I arrived home this afternoon I immediately noticed that my big blue recycling can was missing. When I placed it at the curb this morning the air was calm and the can was full. Later today, when the winds gods let go their wrath, presumably the can was empty.

I rather doubt that anyone would steal our blue can. We’re not the first house on the street with a blue can sitting in front.  Wind was the obvious culprit.

A quick look two doors down from me revealed two blue cans at the end of a three house flag lot driveway. There were no other blue cans within the immediate range. I figured it could be one of those so I went over to take a look.

How could I know if one of these identical blue cans was mine?

I then noticed that the blue cans all have bar codes. I pulled out my Droid X and scanned the barcode on one of the cans. I got nothing. That information is apparently unavailable to us mere mortals.

I looked up the three house flag lot driveway and saw one another blue can in front of a house. These cans could belong to one or both of the remaining houses, or not. I made a decision. I took the can with the bad wheel.

 The thing is I know that the Department of Public Works knows which can was delivered to my house. I recall reading that each of the blue recycling cans has an RFID chip for some odd reason. I watched when it was first delivered. After the guy took it off the trailer he scanned the bar code before putting it in our driveway. DPW knows whether either of these cans was mine but they were nowhere around this afternoon so I took action on my own. As I hauled it back it occurred to me that I was doing so at risk of breaking some blue can covenant. If I was to call and try and get it replaced because of the bad wheel and it is determined that I have somebody else’s can, I could be in some real blue can doo doo.

I think I’ll just live with the bad wheel for now.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Three Daves of HoCo Blogging

When Dave Kile and I got together to discuss the recent blogging seminar he let slip that he had a blog too.

“I fly fish so it’s a blog about fly fishing,” he told me.

His fellow fly fishers seem to like it as well. Dave gets around 50,000 visits a month to his fly fishing blog.

I am humbled by his numbers and he’s not even the biggest of the three Dave bloggers. That distinction would go to Dave Hobby and his Strobist blog. Dave writes a blog about his passion, flash photography. His blog averages over 300,000 worldwide visits per month and was even recognized by Time magazine as one of the top 25 blogs in the country.

And still another Dave in Columbia, Dave Wissing, writes The Hedgehog Report which covers just about every political poll in the country. Dave’s blog is extremely popular during elections. This past October he had over 100,000 visits.

Of course you won’t get much HoCo loco stuff from these Daves. They have a much more global focus. Still, all three are active in the HoCo blog scene. Dave Kile serves on the HoCo Tech Council, Dave Hobby also maintains a HoCo loco blog called HoCo 360 and Dave Wissing is a regular at the HoCo blogtail parties.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Poster Child for Sustainability

This morning I participated in a panel hosted by the HoCo Tech Council called “Local Blogging: A New Media Voice in the Community.” Actually it's called the Howard Tech Council but Ho Tech Council just didn't sound right. 


This panel was part of a series of monthly seminars that the council sponsors on various HoCo loco technology issues. The seminar was attended by about 20 people from a variety of fields, both in the public sector and private sector. One of them was a guy named Duane St. Claire.

In addition to his real job, Duane is one of the co-founders of Columbia Freecycle. Freecycle is a non profit service that helps people find new homes for items they might otherwise throw out. Instead of adding to the nations increasing solid waste problem the organization gets an extra mile or two out of stuff by connecting those who no longer want stuff with those who could still use that stuff, for free. Hence the name.

Duane said that since he’s been a part of the Columbia group they’ve facilitated in the transfer of something in the neighborhood of 150,000 items. That’s just in the HoCo loco effort. In a little over seven years Freecycle has grown into a global movement. In their own words:

“The Freecycle concept has since spread to over 85 countries, where there are thousands of local groups representing millions of of members -- people helping people and 'changing the world one gift at a time.' As a result, we are currently keeping over 500 tons a day out of landfills! This amounts to five times the height of Mt. Everest in the past year alone, when stacked in garbage trucks!

By giving freely with no strings attached, members of The Freecycle Network help instill a sense of generosity of spirit as they strengthen local community ties and promote environmental sustainability and reuse. People from all walks of life have joined together to turn trash into treasure.”

Duane talked about being inspired after a trip to the dump. He marveled at the things that were being tossed, many still quite serviceable. The second best place to live in the country has lots of stuff.

Ironically, the dump won’t let his group have some sort of presence at the landfill. Duane thinks the HoCo Public Works Department just couldn’t get their heads around the concept. He believes they saw it as more of a trading post type of thing than a viable solid waste reduction alternative.

Maybe Josh Feldmark could look into this. It looks to me like this would hit his sustainability sweet spot.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How to Text a 12 Year Old

I stumbled across this handy little app today. It translates your texts into a language that a twelve year old can more easily relate to. OMG!

Clearance Logjam Broken

It wasn’t that long ago that it could take up to a year for a private contractor to get a security clearance. It wasn’t that much faster for potential Department of Defense hires either. This resulted in a significant backlog in staffing and in some cases caused potential employees to seek work elsewhere instead of waiting. According to this story by Lisa Rein in The Washington Post after September 11th the “need for clearances for civilians, contractors and service members grew, but the Defense Department was ill-equipped to handle the surge, and it persisted for years.”

‘The clearance wait grew so long by 2005 - to an average of 200 days for Defense Department applicants and 325 days for contractors - that the Government Accountability Office put the program on its high-risk list, a scarlet letter for federal agencies that raised concerns about mismanagement and a big need for change. Congress stepped in, passing legislation that set targets to clean up the problem and requiring the agencies responsible for it to work together.”

Apparently that worked. The wait has now been reduced to an average of 63 days for private contractors. Now if Congress could just pass the Defense budget... 

Back to Lanham

A little over two years ago, Integral Systems announced the move of their corporate headquarters from PG county to HoCo.

Earlier this month they announced that they're moving many of their Columbia employees back to their former facility in Lanham in order to cut expenses. According to this release, the company “has entered into a sublease on February 8, 2011, for the majority of its headquarters facility located at 6721 Columbia Gateway Drive, Columbia, Md. In conjunction with the sublease, the Company will repopulate the remaining portion of its facility in Lanham, Md.

Things have not gone well for the defense contractor since the move. According to this story by Soyoung Kim in Reuters, the company recently “hired financial advisers to review strategic alternatives, including a potential sale of the defense technology company…”

Though many employees are now headed back to their former digs the corporate headquarters will remain in Columbia...for now.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dead Presidents Day

This afternoon I made it all the way from New Cut Road in Ellicott City to Lakeside Coffee in Columbia Town Center without hitting a light. Even more noteworthy is the added luck I had of making it all the way back to my office on Dobbin Road with all green signals. I just had to tell someone.

Of course traffic overall was pretty light today. I suppose this was because today is Presidents Day. It’s one of those holidays that aren’t as universally observed in the private sector as they are in the public sector. For me it’s one of those days where the person I really need to talk with is out for the day. I look for the mail before catching myself.

It’s an odd holiday too. In my formative years we celebrated George Washington on his actual birthday, just like the country had been doing for 90 years. By the time I was in high school that changed with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

Seriously, I’m not making that up. This is what Congress was working on while a war was raging in Southeast Asia…but I digress.

What really happened with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was the denigration of one of the most important figures in American history. We took away his birthday. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act degrees that “Presidents Day” shall be celebrated on the third Monday in February. That means that the holiday that supposedly still honors Washington a little more than the other guys will never fall on his actual birthday. This year is about as close as it gets. George's birthday is tomorrow.

To add insult to injury, I just read this story by Hank Stuever in The Washington Post about an interview with Bill Clinton that will air on MSNBC this evening, get this, in honor of Presidents Day. Chris Matthews apparently conducts a one hour love fest with the former president.

“For much of the hour, you'll wonder if you're watching one of Robert Smigel's old "X-Presidents" cartoon parodies for "Saturday Night Live." Matthews, aided by the likes of Terry McAuliffe, Mary Steenburgen and various biographers, remarks again and again how smart Clinton is, how generous, how famous, how friendly, how productive. Perhaps this special is some sort of MSNBC covert-op to cause paralytic apoplexy over there on the right?”

Decorum should dictate that you at least have to be dead to be honored on Presidents Day.

Hank Stuever summed up it well.

“We need more time apart, him and us. Bill Clinton is too young - and too alive - for anyone to make a good one-hour special about, just yet. Matthews has merely made a promotional film for someone who isn't running for anything.”

My colleague TW pointed out that Ronald Regan also has a birthday in February and he’s already dead too.

Happy Presidents Day!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Junk Drawer Forensics

I have a drawer in our kitchen dedicated exclusively to my stuff. It is the repository of my car keys and other essential stuff. Yesterday, for the first time in five years, I decided to clean it out.

I should note that Mama Wordbones also has a junk drawer in the kitchen but hers is decidedly different. It is orderly and logically arranged. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. Regular cleaning/purging is not required.

My drawer on the other hand is a study in chaos. There were things shoved in the back far reaches of the drawer that had long since lost their utility or meaning. The things I actually still used were being crowded out by the seemingly self replicating detritus of true junk. It was time to purge.

The biggest surprise of the purge was this pile of keys. I can honestly say that I have no idea what any of these keys unlock Obviously, at some point in time I was entrusted with these keys. I suppose the good news for those who entrusted me with them is that I didn’t lose them. The only question now is what to do with them.

One thing is certain though, they are not going back into my junk drawer.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blowin’ in the Wind

The winds made it sound colder than it was this morning. As I dressed to begin my morning hike I kept it light. I should have also kept it tight. My hooded sweatshirt and warm up pants acted like sails in the wind. The gusts at times were strong enough to completely stop my forward progress.

Still, my body in tight fitting clothes is not something I wanted to subject my neighbors to on an early Saturday morning.

A near miss from a tree limb that came crashing to the street as I passed by reminded me of my main Saturday chore that I needed to tackle when I got home.

Like many other HoCo homeowners, that last heavy snow we had on February 5th wreaked havoc on some of the trees in our yard. Today was the day to saw off the damaged limbs so that the restorative process could begin.

It actually felt good to get and do some work in the yard, a real harbinger of the approach of spring.

I experienced another “spring” moment when I came back inside.  As I was working at my laptop in the kitchen, a stink bug dropped on my head. This reminded me of the quote from Eric the Red on Frank Roylance’s Maryland Weather blog in The Sun yesterday.

"The only other time I've seen a wind field like this in the models were last year's Feb blizzards and also with tropical storms. Things is gonna be a'blowin folks. Maybe it'll blow all the stink bugs into the Atlantic. One can only hope."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Mind-Blowing Speed

Every so often my inner gear head manifests itself and I find myself drawn to check out another car. It happened today on Dobbin Road.
As I was leaving my office I spotted this red Lotus Exige in the parking lot. I stopped. I captured  couple of images. Later I read this description of the car on the US News & World Report website.

“The Lotus Exige is a track junkie's dream come true -- offering mind-blowing speeds and unrivaled handling dynamics. However, it rides stiff and lacks luxury, making it less fit for daily use than some of its rivals.”
This is the kind of car that even looks fast.

Banished from The Mall

The Mall in Columbia made the news today for taking a hard line against some homeless people who congregate there. According to this story by Henri E. Cauvin in The Washington Post, over the past few weeks “at least two homeless people have been banned from entering the mall, and about 20 more have been told that they should stay out during the early morning, according to some homeless people and their advocates.”

Since moving our podcast to the Mall in October, we’ve had two experiences with people who obviously had some mental health issues. On the first occasion, just after Christmas, a woman approached Paul and I at a table in front of Nordstrom discussing our show. The conversation started innocently enough with her asking what we do for a living but soon denigrated when she began insisting that we call the governor on her behalf. (She told us they took her phone away). She did not take it well when we told her that we were not going to call the governor and that we were trying to have a meeting.

A week ago, just as we starting to begin taping our latest show, an older gentleman approached our table and immediately began questioning us about what we were going to do about “Chinese hackers.” Once again we attempted to gently get him to move on which he eventually did after determining that we weren’t going to do anything about them. He continued to stalk around us until we wrapped up the show.

I’ll readily concede that I don’t know if either of these individuals was homeless. Our brief dialogue never entered into that realm. It was obvious to us though that these were not your typical shoppers. Neither of them carried any shopping bags. Both were alone. I think it would be safe to assume that we were not the only people they approached. I think its also safe to assume that their odd and somewhat belligerent behavior would be unsettling to some customers.

I can understand the concerns of The Mall in this case. The reporter notes that The Mall actually contacted Grassroots about the problem.

‘About a month ago, the mall's management contacted Grassroots Crisis Intervention, said Douglas Carl, the nonprofit group's manager of emergency and outreach homeless services. Grassroots was told that residents of the emergency shelter should not enter the shopping center before 10 a.m., Carl said.

The mall management, he said, expressed concerns about incidents involving people believed to be residents of the emergency shelter.’

The bottom line is that The Mall is private property. It is a commercial enterprise that exists for the safety and comfort of shoppers. If that safety and comfort are compromised by a few individuals they would seem to be well within their rights to rectify the situation.

Delegate Liz Bobo was quoted in the article saying that she is “going to be pursuing this for a while…”

Maybe she can call the governor and do something about those Chinese hackers while she’s at it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

And So It Begins…

It is often said that the next campaign begins the day after the last campaign. That certainly seems to be the case with our county executive. First it was the new website, now it’s his first big gun fundraiser.

Yesterday I received an invitation to an event for Ken on March 22nd  at Turf Valley and the A Team of Maryland Dem politocos are headlining the affair. Barbara Mikulski, Ben Cardin, Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes have all lent their names to “honor” our county executive that night. Presumably they will have passed a budget by then and thus will be able to make a physical appearance as well.

Could this showing of support be construed as encouraging nods from the Dem establishment towards his expected gubernatorial bid in 2014?

No word yet as to whether Peter Franchot or Doug Gansler will drop by to pay their respects as well.

The Amazing Meshkin

The amazing Brian Meshkin continues to do amazing things. After attending only three board meetings he has published a newsletter that lists some of his amazing achievements so far. These include the posting of online citizen committee reports, a new employee wellness plan and new policies for textbook review.

And just like in his campaign,  he enlists his kids again to help project the imagery of the concerned parent, just like you.

"At the end of the day, it's all about the kids. I am reminded of that everyday as I look into the eyes of my three young children in the HCPSS."


There’s more amazing stuff too. He has a new website HoCoInnovations. The objective of the site is to create an amazing online community “where parents, students, educators, administrators, and every taxpayer can submit ideas, vote on ideas, and comment on ideas about how to improve our school system.”

So far it’s a small online community with some familiar names like David Thalheimer and Julie Reybold. I guess he doesn't think Allen and Cindys forum is amazing enough.

He also wants his people to know that he is also updating his campaign site. The amazing Meshkin has big plans, big plans indeed.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Safe Haven

In development of an office building, the developer and their architect pay as much attention to the lobby design as they do to the exterior design, sometimes more. The object of the exterior design is something we call curb appeal that is intended to draw you in. The object of a good lobby design is to make a statement.

In our Emerson office project we chose to make our statement with local art. We commissioned Tilghman and Will Hemsley, a father-son artistic team from Kent Island, to craft something specifically for the building.  This is the same team that sculpted the Maryland Waterman’s Monument on Kent Island.

After two years of working with sketches and models, the result is a piece entitled “Safe Haven” which consists of three bronze geese in various stages of flight as they come to rest on a body of water, in this case a fountain in the middle of the two story lobby.

Tilghman, who also happens to captain a charter fishing boat called the Breezin’ Thru, explains that geese only land where they know it to be safe. Since EmersonOne features several construction upgrades that protect the buildings occupants in the event of a terrorist attack, this sculpture helps us reinforce that message to prospective tenants.

The geese were cast at the New Arts Foundry in Baltimore.

CA Hires HoCo Blog Lady

The cofounder of hocoblogs, Jessie Newburn has been hired as a Community Engagement Strategist for The Columbia Association. This is a newly created position that reports directly to the association president, Phil Nelson. Though Jessie has been an enthusiastic proponent of using social media to build and nurture community she resisted using that label to describe her new role.

“It’s so much more than that,” she tried explaining to me. We had a brief phone conversation this evening as she headed off to the latest HoCo Blogtail party in Savage.

I was simply looking for some sort of reference point. I’ve never seen a job description for a Community Engagement Strategist before, but then again perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough.

Maybe instead I should have asked her if she was going to be working with that Web 2.0 ecosystem thing.

Another New HoCo Blog

Last night I received an email from Tim in Elkridge informing me of his new HoCo blog called “I Want to be a HoCo Blogger.” Since he’s already put up eleven posts I’d just have to say “Tim, you is a HoCo blogger!”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bean Sprouts, Record Breaking, & Sex

If you happen to have a package of locally packaged bean sprouts in your fridge you might want to give them a toss. According to this story by Liz F. Kay in The Sun, Woodbine based Vegi-Pak Farm was shut down by state inspectors that “found equipment coated in food waste and a fly infestation inside the facility in September. In addition, workers were not adequately washing and cleaning the soybeans, and reported they were instructed by the company president to fabricate disinfection records, according to the complaint.”

BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport continues to rack up passenger traffic growth records. According to Dr. Gridlock in The Washington Post, the airport had a record year last year. “More than 21.9 million commercial passengers flew through the airport last year. That's an increase of 4.7 percent over 2009 and eclipses the previous record of just over 21 million set in 2007.”

I received a tip from a commenter this weekend that the woman who brought down Representative Chris "Craigslist"  Lee last week is a HoCo resident. Yesha Callahan, who also went public last week, lives in Columbia. This reminded me of another former Columbia resident that found herself in the middle of a national political sex scandal, Linda Tripp

Monday, February 14, 2011

Temple of Commerce

Back in 1995, a local photographer named Arvil Daniels enlisted me to help him find space for a studio. He was hoping I could find him something that was a little different than your run of the mill suburban office building. He was also looking for space that could act as an interesting backdrop for some of his portraits. That’s how I came to know Charles Wagandt.

Charles Wagandt runs the Oella Company out of a converted church in Oella, just across the Patapsco from downtown Ellicott City. At one time his great grandfather, William J. Dickey, owned the W.J. Dickey Company Mill which owned most of Oella. After the mill closed in 1972, Charles purchased all the companies land holdings except the actual mill. Those holdings included this church which he converted to office space.

Arvil liked it so much he stayed for sixteen years and now he’s decided to wind down his business and forgo the cost of maintaining a studio. He plans to vacate his church office at the end of this month.

Charles gave me a call the other day and asked if I might help him find another tenant. Last Friday I drove up the hill from Ellicott City to see him.

There have been lots of changes to Oella since I last sat down with him, most notably being the former mill which overlooks the river. It has been converted into 147 luxury apartments .

It’s wired too. Charles told his church building has both Comcast and FIOS. This is quite a change from the mid seventies when residents of Oella were still waiting for public water and sewer.

I don’t think he’ll have a hard time finding a new tenant. The 1,700 square foot space has wood floors, lots of windows and skylights and a enclosed choir loft office overlooking the rest of the building. Around these parts, spaces with this much character and all the modern conveniences are pretty rare.

The last guy stayed sixteen years.

The Pompatus of Love

Years ago my sister Pat asked me if I knew what the “pompatus of love” meant. She was referring to the line in Steve Millers song “The Joker” which was a big hit in 1973.

“Some people call me the space cowboy.
Yeah! Some call me the gangster of love.
Some people call me Maurice,
'Cause I speak of the pompatus of love.”

I remember doing a little research back then but I basically came up blank. Apparently Steve Miller even once told an interviewer it was a meaningless word.

That’s partly true. I now have new insight into this classic rock riddle. As it turns out “pompatus of love” is derived from the line “puppetutes of love” in a song called The Letter written by Vernon Green and performed by the Medallions in 1954. This musical mystery was first revealed by Cecil Adams in The Straight Dope on October 25, 1996 after talking to Jon Cryer, the producer of the movie “The Pompatus of Love.”

“Speculation about "pompatus" was a recurring motif in the script for The Pompatus of Love. While the movie was in postproduction Cryer heard about "The Letter." During a TV interview he said that the song had been written and sung by a member of the Medallions named Vernon Green. Green, still very much alive, was dozing in front of the tube when the mention of his name caught his attention. He immediately contacted Cryer.”

Vernon made up the word puppetutes. He told Jon Cryer that it means “a secret paper-doll fantasy figure who would be my everything and bear my children.”

Now you know what I know.

Happy Valentines Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sex and Farts

Yesterday Mama Wordbones and I went to see the "What Makes Us Smile" exhibit at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore and we smiled, a lot. The exhibit was co-curated by Matt Groening (Simpsons), Gary Panter and Rebecca Hoffberger and included a bench covered in Whoopee cushions. I learned that the two most common themes in humor throughout world history are sex and farts.

“Ancient Greek playwrights, 14th century Japanese Buddhist monks, Queen Elizabeth I, and classic authors like Shakespeare, Chaucer, Blake and Swift all took well-documented delight in flatulence humor.”

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin wrote about them?

Of course the exhibit is not just about sex and farts either. There are lots of things that make us smile like the old metal lunch boxes you see when you first walk in. Behind the ticket counter is a giant frame made up entirely of vintage metal lunch boxes, at least 60 of them, each one different. Mama Wordbones said she had one of those. I asked which kind.

“I don’t know but I’m pretty sure it would have been a Barbie.”

There was a Barbie and a Davey Crockett too. That would have been more my style. The whole "what makes us smile" thing was already working and we hadn’t even paid admission yet.

The exhibit runs through September 4th so there’s plenty of time to see it. Keep it as an option for one of those times you could really use a smile.

This is one of my favorite places in Baltimore. Even the gift shop is a blast. We spent as much time in there as we did some of the exhibits.

The AVAM  has a HoCo connection too.

This is actually Mama Wordbones' favorite building. She really digs the whirligigs

Story’s Ending

Until last Thursday night, Dick Story had served as the head of the Ho Co Economic Development Authority for the eighteen years. Thursday night at the Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center, County Executive Ken Ulman issued him a framed “Stop Work” order from the Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits. It was one of many accolades he received at the retirement party that drew over 500 HoCo locos to celebrate his many years of service to the county. For eighteen years Dick has been the Master of Ceremonies of choice for just about every major HoCo event but Thursday night he finally got the opportunity to sit down and enjoy himself.

He received honors from NSA, the State of Maryland, the County Council, and the Boy Scouts. He was recognized by his regional economic development colleagues as well. Tom Sadowski from the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore commented that though he had worked with Dick for years, he “never saw his hair move.”

I can attest to that. I’ve known Dick since he first came to HoCo and I can honestly say that I've never seen a hair on his head out of a place. He's our own Mitt Romney.

It was a fun evening but it won’t the last. The Chamber is hosting a “Dick Story Celebrity Roast” on March 30th at The Spear Center in Town Center. I suspect that the accolades foisted upon him that night will be a tad more irreverent.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Valentines Perspectives

While preparing for our show yesterday I happened to mention to Paul that since Valentines Day was Monday this should be our Valentines show. This led to a discussion of how this holiday is celebrated in the Skalny household.

“Cindy and I pretty much consider it to be a Hallmark holiday and consequently we really don’t do anything special.”

Our producer, Dave Bittner pretty much agreed. He said that he and Ilana think of it the same way and they don’t plan on doing anything special  on Monday either.

Of course this conversation was between three guys, the female perspective was notably absent.  When our guest, former State Senator Sandy Schrader, joined us that was somewhat rectified. Though she doesn’t expect her husband Dennis to go overboard she does think that a handwritten card and a simple gesture are appropriate. She see’s the holiday as a celebration of the “us.”

Sandy is now a lobbyist in Annapolis and she also happens to be a close friend of Diane Wilson. She was more than happy to share her perspective on the controversy. No sooner had the show gone up on the web we learned that the ethics complaint that Diane had filed against County Executive Ken Ulman and Council Chair Calvin Ball had been dismissed.

You can listen to the 34th episode of our podcast here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Flier Building Going Dark

The Columbia Flier building in Columbia Town Center will soon be vacant. The white metal and glass building located next to Princeton Sports on Little Patuxent Parkway has served as the home of Columbia’s free weekly newspaper for over thirty years. Now the the current owner, the Tribune Company, is moving out of the building.

The Columbia Flier was started by Zeke Orlinsky, a Columbia attorney, back in 1969. In those initial years the paper was housed in a variety of spaces around the county. When I was in high school  in the early seventies my buddies and I used to earn spending money by hand collating the weekly advertiser in a storefront of a printing company Zeke also owned on Main Street in Ellicott City. By the time I graduated from college the paper had grown to well over a hundred pages a week and had established itself as the dominant local media in HoCo. By the late seventies it was outgrowing its editorial and advertising offices which by then were in the offices above the Bagel Bin in the Wilde Lake Village Center. In 1978 Orlinsky moved his media empire, now called Patuxent Publishing, into its own building, cementing its ties to the community.

The building design was controversial at the time. It was the first metal clad building in Columbia’s downtown and that was not initially embraced by The Rouse Company design gurus who held final design approval. Orlinsky and his architect, Bob Moon, persevered and finally convinced them to allow it.

Patuxent Publishing was sold to the Times Mirror Company in 1996 and the 35,000 square foot building was sold to the same group in 1998 for a little over $2.5 million. The Times Mirror Company was acquired by the Tribune Company in 2000.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Diane Wilson Affair

By now the story of Diane Wilsons ill fated one week stint as the HoCo Chamber of Commerce legislative director is old news. For the past few weeks it has been one of the worse kept secrets in HoCo politico circles but it hadn’t been made public until the Cross Purposes blog wrote about it this past Monday.

I first became aware of the story almost a month ago when I received an anonymous email from someone who identified themselves as “disappointedinhoward” that said they were writing me “ because I’m really appalled about this and politics will not allow me to say anything on the record...I’m hoping one of you will look into this.” The email asserted that Diane Wilson was “far more qualified than any of the other candidates” for the legislative directors position. At the time Diane had been in the job for one full week and had not yet resigned. Tom Coale, Trevor Greene and Frank Hecker received the same email.

The writer made some pretty serious allegations about County Executive Ken Ulman and Councilperson Calvin Ball. They claimed that Ken “contacted a board member at home to express his concern and ask that the decision be changed” and that Dr. Ball “contacted the Chamber and demanded that her offer be rescinded.”

I now believe allegations in that email to be wildly overstated. Though Ken admits that he did contact a Chamber board member Mark Thompson about Diane and Calvin did speak with Pam Klahr, the Chamber President, I seriously doubt that either of them asked or demanded that Diane be fired. Was it inappropriate for them to express their displeasure with her hiring? Perhaps, but consider that the county government is also a chamber member and for many years has enjoyed a good working relationship with the HoCo loco business group despite some ideological differences. As chamber members they have the same right to weigh in on the organizations actions as any other member.

The night I received the email I also received a call from a member of the Chambers Government Affairs committee asking me if I was going to write about this. I told him that this would only be a story if the Chamber reversed course and let Diane go. As far as I was concerned, if the Chamber had determined that she was right person for the job after interviewing all the candidates there should not be a problem. I just naturally assumed that the Chamber had properly vetted her before making their decision.  Once that decision had been made the only proper thing to do is to stand by their choice and defend it but as we now know they didn't exactly do that.

I won’t pass judgment on Ms. Wilson’s qualifications for the job because I don’t know her but this whole episode certainly doesn’t speak well of the chambers decision making process.

Now that Diane has filed a formal complaint against Ken and Calvin with the Howard County Ethics Commission, this whole sad affair will get a full public hearing and I suspect that in the end there will be no winners.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An Impending Traffic Tsunami

The wave of new jobs coming into Fort Meade as a result of BRAC is a double edged sword. While the expansion of the mission at the fort is a an economic boon for the area it also threatens to overwhelm an already overburdened transportation network. According to this story by Ashley Halsey III in The Washington Post, “about $786 million in highway projects is needed to accommodate workers arriving at Fort Meade by September and the adjacent National Security Agency.”

Given a projected budget deficit of $1.3 billion, the state doesn’t exactly have a spare $800 million lying around. Maryland, along with Virginia, is looking to the Pentagon for an assist.

The article cites a congressionally mandated report by the National Academy of Sciences that found that the Department of Defense has “shirked responsibility to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation improvements…”

“Predicting a "near perfect storm of problems," the report chastises the Pentagon for focusing primarily on problems within its bases without sufficient regard for the effects of decisions on surrounding areas.”

This report could cause some workers who are being relocated from jobs in Northern Virginia to Fort Meade to rethink their commuting plans and consider moving to Maryland instead.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Wine Wars Three

Maryland’s Prohibition-era three tier alcoholic beverage distribution system has driven some otherwise law abiding citizens to a life of crime. In order to shirt the current state laws that prohibits residents from buying wine directly from out of state wineries and retailers, some Marylanders have wine delivered to their offices in Washington, D.C. or Virginia where the law allows it. According to this story by Ann E. Marimow in The Washington Post, “wine aficionados in the Maryland suburbs of Washington are routinely, and in many cases unknowingly, breaking state law to get around rules that restrict residents from having wine shipped to their homes.”

Lawyers, government consultants, high-tech workers and even members of the General Assembly - all typically law-abiding residents - have developed an indirect route for smuggling their favorite vino. They have wine delivered to offices in the District or to the homes of friends in Virginia - two of the 38 jurisdictions nationwide that allow vineyards to ship wine directly to consumers.”

When these folks bring that wine home they are committing a misdemeanor that could result in a fine of up to $10,000 and up to five years in prison.

And while it appears that the General Assembly may finally pass a law allowing direct shipping in the Free State this year, the powerful state liquor lobby looks like it will succeed in stopping the state from allowing direct shipping from out of state retailers.

“There are signs that the industry is willing to compromise after years of opposition. J. Steven Wise, who represents retailers, said the industry is willing to back another planned version of the legislation that would allow shipments from wineries but not from out-of-state retailers.”

I suspect that this already a done deal. Recently I asked Delegate Guy Guzzone about the prospects for a direct shipping bill this year. Guy told me that he thought it pass. When I asked him if the final bill would include direct shipping from out of state retailers he told me that was unlikely. The fact that he told me this near the beginning of this years session suggests to me that it was already wired for the liquor lobby from the git go.

I shouldn’t be surprised. You may recall that in last years General Assembly, Guy teamed up with Republican Delegate Warren Miller to try and limit the number of liquor stores in HoCo and thereby stifling competition. Fortunately consumers got lucky and that effort failed to gain enough traction making it one of the few times that the liquor lobby didn’t get its way.

I don’t think we’ll be as lucky this time around.

Meltdown Monday

Count me as one of those who would rather see the Super Bowl on a Saturday night than Sunday night. All day today I feel like I’ve been operating on a half tank. I feel worse for those who hosted Super Bowl parties. Those folks would be lucky if they got to bed by midnight last night.

The weather today was a nice little tease. With temperatures rising to the mid forties one could easily be lulled into thoughts of an early spring. Tomorrow’s weather should crush that fantasy as the big chill returns with a vengeance. We’re not likely to see the mid forties again until Sunday. Sigh.

Still, it was nice to see the snow cover receding across HoCo.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Wine Wars Two

In the Local Opinions section of The Washington Post, David White weighed in on the issue of allowing wine sales in Maryland from out of state retailers. David issues a call to arms of wine enthusiasts against any compromise in the direct shipping bill that would eliminate the provision allowing for direct shipping from out of state retailers. He points out that doing so would “prohibit residents from ordering wine from Internet retailers, joining wine-of-the-month clubs and taking part in out-of-state wine auctions.”
“Such a compromise should be offensive to wine snobs and beer swillers alike. Maryland residents must fight for this bill as it’s written.”

On one side are the consumers, on the other are the entrenched and well heeled interests that support the states antiquated three tier liquor distribution system that was originally put in place following the repeal of prohibition.

“The wholesaling industry is quite generous to politicians. Between 2000 and 2006, according to the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, which opposes restrictions on wine sales across state borders, wholesalers contributed nearly $50 million to state campaigns. These donations make perfect sense, since politicians keep the wholesalers in business by protecting the middle tier.”

David White is the editor of the daily wine blog, Terroirist.

Super Sunday

Last night at dinner Mama Wordbones asked me who I was rooting for in the Super Bowl today. I didn't have a ready answer.

After the Ravens were knocked out of contention by their arch rivals I begrudgingly resigned myself to root for the Steelers. They are the AFC champions after all and that is our division.

I even told the hostess of our neighborhood Super Bowl Party that I would cheer for them this year. Danielle is Pittsburgh native and a diehard fan. She even offered to lend me a jersey to wear for the game. I told her that wouldn't be necessary. My support for her team is lukewarm at best and by game time today it may evaporate completely.

I don’t particularly like the Steelers but I really dislike their quarterback. When Haloti Ngata broke his nose back in December, I cheered. I realize that this is a completely juvenile reaction but frankly I don’t care.

Mama Wordbones told me that in her travels around Baltimore this week she had pretty much heard the same thing. For Ravens fans, rooting for the Steelers is akin to rooting for the Redskins. It’s just  not done.

So when the game gets underway this evening I won’t be wearing a Terrible Towel or a cheese head. I will simply be enjoying the company of my neighbors and hoping for a good game of football.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Wine Wars

It now appears that the Maryland General Assembly will pass some sort of bill allowing residents to buy wine online this year. In its current form the legislation would allow consumers to purchase wine directly from out of state wineries and retailers. Though the powerful state liquor lobby is beginning to come to terms with the concept of direct shipping from wineries, the prospect of Marylanders being able to also buy direct from out of state retailers is where they draw the battle line.

I decided to ask a HoCo loco wine merchant about this so I checked in with Dave Carney at The Wine Bin in Ellicott City.

“I’m all for it,” he told me.

Did that mean direct shipping from retailers too?

He told me he didn’t support that. When I asked him why he explained that some out of state retailers have an unfair pricing advantage over a retailer like him because of the volume of business they do.

“They can sell some wines cheaper than what I pay for it,” he explained.

I can certainly understand that. An out of state retailer isn’t likely to support community causes like The Wine Bin does either.

On the other hand, not all out of state retailers are high volume operations either. Some offer wine of the month clubs or selections of otherwise hard to find wines.

I also believe that there will always be bargain shoppers who will go out of their way to save a buck or two on a bottle wine. Some of these folks already make illegal forays across state lines to restock their wine cellars and most of them aren’t visiting wineries when they do.  

In the end I suspect the General Assembly will succumb to the pressure from the licensed beverage dealers and remove the provision for direct sales from out of state retailers in the final bill, regardless of popular support.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Grasping at Straws

Back in November I received a late night phone call from Marc Norman, the lead protagonist in the attempts to derail the Town Square at Turf Valley development. Marc had called me to discuss what he considered to be defamatory statements in a post I had written. I should note that, initially at least, our conversation was cordial.

Our little talk eventually returned to his beef with the Mangione family and the shopping center they are building in the Turf Valley community. The site is a little over a mile as the crow flies from his home.

“I can hear the bulldozers from my home,” he informed me somewhat indignantly.

“I’ll bet you can also hear the cars whizzing by on I-70,” I replied, noting that the highway is actually is closer to his home than the shopping center site, "and that noise is constant."

He acknowledged that this was true but insisted that this was different.

I thought about this conversation after I read this story by Larry Carson in The Sun. On Tuesday, the Howard County Board of Appeals rejected Normans appeal of the Planning Board approval of the shopping center project. Jim Walsh, the Chairman of the Board of Appeals was quoted as saying that “Residents' fears "are not enough to overcome the presumption of correctness given the Planning Board.”

The issue this time wasn’t about noise, it was about the potential traffic on Turf Valley Road. Marc and his supporters now claim that the shopping center will dramatically increase the traffic on the community road endangering children, small animals and perhaps even world peace. In fact, the only people likely to use Turf Valley Road to get to the shopping center are Marc and his neighbors. The majority of shoppers visiting the new center will come in off of Marriottsville Road which is adjacent to the site.

“Walsh argued that Norman's own traffic consultant never raised issues about Turf Valley Road, and the board may reverse the Planning Board only if they find a decision was arbitrary or capricious, or was clearly erroneous. "You may not like the Planning Board decision, but you cannot say it is clearly erroneous," he said.”

It’s just like his noise complaint. The opponents continue to grasp at straws in their attempts to derail this project and the food workers union is more than happy to continue to finance their efforts. The union sees any delay in the opening of another non union grocer in HoCo as a victory.

Though this decision was certainly another setback in their efforts it is not the end of the saga. Both sides are awaiting the final ruling from the Court of Special Appeals on the rejection of the petition effort to put this zoning issue up to a referendum. 

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Tone Deaf

I had to pick Peanut up early from school today for a Doctors appointment. While I waited for her by the guidance office I thought back to when I was in 7th grade and my mother would come get me at school. Those rare occasions were usually for something that was less pleasant than being in school. I'm certain Peanut feels the same way.

As we pulled away from Ellicott Mills Middle School I asked her how they let her know that I was there.

“The teacher gets a phone call.”

“On her mobile phone?”

“No, she has a regular phone on her desk.”

More or less just wanting to keep the conversation going, I asked her about the ring tone on the teachers desk phone.

“I can’t remember but it’s not as crazy as some of the kids.”

“The kids have mobile phones on them?”

“Yeah, a lot of them do but they’re not supposed to use them in school. When a kids phone rings in class he usually gets yelled at and told to turn it off. Sometimes the teacher even takes the phone away.”

“Have you ever seen a teacher take a phone away from a kid?”

“Yeah, it happened once in sixth grade to Ben.”

In the interest of protecting the minor’s identity I will simply refer to him as Ben because Peanut tells me his head is in the shape of a football.

Apparently Ben’s mobile phone went off right in the middle of quiet reading time.

“He had a really funny ring tone,” she told me. “The whole class laughed.”

“What did it sound like?”

“It went dada dada dada da, dada dada dada da…”

"It's called the chicken dance song" I told her. I was admittedly surprised by Ben's musical taste. Then it occurred to me that this might be a tone assigned to a particular person.

 “Did you ever find out who called him?”

“It was his aunt.”

I immediately conjured up a vision of Ben's aunt.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

And This Was the Warm Day!

Most of the people I encountered today made some remark about how warm it was, or was supposed to be anyway. In a post on his blog this morning Tom Coale wrote that he had just “heard Marty Bass say the temperatures may get up to 50 degrees today!  That would be a pleasant surprise (although the vast majority of us will be overheating under winter garb).”

I decided not to wear my wool overcoat.

On the radio while driving to work Storm Center 4 meteorologist Tom Kierein informed me that the temperature could climb into the “low fifties” today.

At the Starbucks on Dobbin Road the baristas Robert and Alex were almost giddy at the prospect of a warmer day.

At work my colleague Bill Harrison remarked that it was nice outside.

I beg to differ with all of them. It was still cold in my book. In fact, I don’t think it got any warmer than 45 today.

I realize that some of this weather optimism is based on the fact that we seemingly dodged the Groundhog Day blizzard that hit over a third of the country. Compared to Chicago it was downright balmy in HoCo…for some anyway, not for me.

You see I’ve forgotten what  a 50 degree day feels like. I yearn for a complete day of sunshine. I’m rooting for Punxsutawney Phil, not Maryland Murray.

Tonight, while making dinner, Tom Tasselmyer on WBAL gave me no hope for any immediate relief from winters chill. The next seven days are going to be a mix of cold and wet.

And so this was the warm day and it looks like I missed it .