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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pot of metaphorical gold

I had a bunch of grad school friends over for dinner last night on the occasion of Maura being in town for a few days. At one point, John took out his cell phone to show us a photo he snapped from the window of his office last week -- a huge rainbow with one end planted directly in the Pentagon.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Presidential candidate John McCain demonstrates for an audience what it was like when he beat Mortal Kombat 3 on PlayStation. (Reuters photo)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tiny houses

Mark my words -- someday I will own one of these:

I spent a while looking at tiny prefabricated and kit houses after remembering a New York Times article on tiny prefab homes that I read a year or so ago. A lot of cool modern designs, but most are still relatively expensive (e.g. $75,000) and involve substantial expenses to get them set up or installed at your location. (You can get a Modern Cabana for about $10,000, but it's not intended to be a standalone house, unless you don't feel the need for a bathroom or kitchen.)

Which is where Tumbleweed Houses, builder of the WeeBee, pictured above, comes in. While not using that sleek modern aesthetic that is so alluring, their homes do appear quite attractive and well-designed (check out the interior photos on their site), and have a couple important advantages. One, they're comparatively affordable -- the WeeBee is $46,000, and comes totally complete. They're also built directly on a trailer, so you can tow it to where you want to put it (they are, literally, trailer homes). This also means you can move it somewhere else later if you like. And apparently you don't even need a building permit in many areas because they're so small and aren't on a foundation.

So, let me sketch out a scenario. You buy some land in a scenic rural area a few hours from your permanent home that can be had relatively cheaply, maybe even someplace that wouldn't be suitable for a normal house. You wheel your WeeBee in and leave it there. Doesn't even need to be connected to utilities, because it uses propane for heat, hot water and cooking, and you can attach a solar panel. A composting toilet is an option. Maybe you can set up a rainwater collector or just do without showering (who showers when they go to the country for the weekend, anyway?). Then, you've got a cozy off-grid place to really get away...maybe do some hiking, read outside, or ride your bike into town. Sounds pretty good, right?

One obstacle (if you're on the east coast, anyway) is that these houses are built in Sebastapol, CA. They charge $4 a mile to deliver, or you can pick it up yourself. A cross-country road trip towing one of these Tumbleweed houses would be interesting -- you could sleep in the house, and you'd attract a lot of attention at the RV parks...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Arty news

I recently saw David Byrne make an offhand observation (in the midst of a characteristically long blog post) that NY Times photos are "getting increasingly arty these days." I thought of that comment when I saw this photo on front page, linked to their article about Egypt trying to reestablish its border with Gaza:

It's a pretty cool photo, but it's remarkably uninformative for a news photo. I guess it's informative in a moody sort of way, but I'm sure there were other photos available to the editors that conveyed much more info about what's happening. I'm not really criticizing, but it's an interesting trend.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wolf Like Me

I posted this video a long time ago, but I keep going back to it every month or so and it still rules. You should really check it out. It's TV on the Radio performing live on Letterman -- definitely the best television music performance I have ever seen, and you can tell Dave was pretty impressed, too.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Slippery hiking

Alex is in town visiting for the long weekend -- yesterday we went to Colonial Williamsburg (dovetailing with his grad school studies), and today we went hiking in Shenandoah National Park. Specifically, we did a well-known hike called Old Rag [pdf] that climbs up to a jagged (by Appalachian standards, anyway) peak. It's really quite impressive that this trailhead is pretty much exactly two hours from my house -- it feels worlds away.

Given its proximity to the metro area, I guess it isn't surprising that Old Rag can be crowded in nice weather. But today, the temperatures never got out of the 20s, and there was snow cover, so there weren't many people there. However, it was quite slippery:

Except for a few places, it wasn't that hard to get up the hill, though we did stop at a peak prior to the real Old Rag. But on the way down, I think I fell down six times.

On drive out there, I had to stop at a gas station to ask for directions. On the way back to DC, we stopped for an early dinner at a diner-ish place, and our waitress was the same woman who had given me directions that morning! She asked if we had found Highway 211 (her directions had been accurate). She was very friendly in both instances, especially considering her workday is obviously pretty long. She also let me substitute mashed potatoes for the cole slaw and chips that normally come with my reuben. In the rural Virginia style, they contained a gravy reservoir so large that I considered installing a small hydroelectric (gravylectric?) plant to take advantage of the outflow.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Never too cold to bike

Andrew posts about an NY Times article, with the upshot being that it's never actually too cold to excercise outside, no matter how much you might want to wimp out.

The first winter I lived in Minneapolis, when it got down to 40 or so and my hands got cold riding my bike, I was like "That's it, I guess I'm done for the year." But by the second winter, I was commuting to the train by bike and really enjoying it. As it got colder, I kept making adjustments to my clothing, each time telling myself that this way, I could bike for a couple weeks more. Then, before I knew it, I was happily riding my bike at zero degrees and realizing that there wasn't really any reason to ever stop on account of the temperature.

Actually, the ride home tonight here in DC was about as bad as it can ever get: dark, slush-covered roads, and 33-degree rain. Blech. But still better than any other way of getting home. (Except catapult -- if someone can come up with a way to safely catapult me home from work, I will gladly pay the catapult fare.)

I've gotta say, though, that I do miss the grade-separated bicycle freeway that I used to commute on in Minneapolis. Peaceful, safe, plowed in the winter and faster than driving, the Midtown Greenway is pretty much the gold standard of urban bike commuting in my book. I look forward to the day when every city will have facilities like it; they won't all be grade-separated, of course, but bike boulevards have indeed already entered the urban planning discourse. And as for automobile highways, PlanPhilly has a nice compilation of ideas on what to do with your urban freeway -- including Portland's approach of tearing it down (in 1974!) and making it a park with bikeways.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Snow, but not here

I was surprised to see snow falling when I stepped out of the building at lunch today. But sadly, it wasn't the accumulating sort, and DC certainly doesn't look anything like this picture my dad took, looking down the driveway yesterday morning:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bike commuting incentives

I thought this bike commuting program, at Silicon Valley firm Juniper Networks, was pretty great:

"With bike racks at every building, bike lockers at the main building, and three onsite private showers, and showers in the onsite gym, it seems that biking to the Juniper campus doesn’t have many cons. Juniper also provides an emergency ride home program through their subscription to VTA’s Eco Pass. And if that wasn’t enough, Juniper has a bike to work rewards program that offers a twenty dollar spending card for every ten bike commutes (with a maximum of forty dollars in any given week) which can be used at the campus cafĂ©."

But then I saw this:

"Employees in the southern region of the Norwegian Public Roads Administration are rewarded for riding their bikes or walking to work. They can look forward to an extra week of holiday per year."

Man, that's awesome. (Then again, it probably sounds a lot better to us here in the US than it does in Norway, given that they tend to get twice as much vacation as us to begin with.) I don't think that's ever going to be widespread, but I think it would make sense -- even in bottom-line terms -- for employers to give a small monetary benefit ($20/month?) to cover cycle commuting costs. Providing the parking is far cheaper than for cars, and such a stipend could be much less than a transit benefit. Plus, I know that my productivity increases, especially in the morning, as a result of biking to work.

For now, though, I guess I'm pretty happy with our secured bike parking in the garage, and the recent policy change that allows us to be enrolled in bike parking and the transit benefit simultaneously for part-time riding.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Songs of the Moment (An Occasional Feature)

> Liars - Plaster Casts of Everything [YouTube]
> Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Give Me Some Salt [YouTube]
> Halo Benders - Foggy Bottom
> Belle and Sebastian - The Boy With the Arab Strap [YouTube]
> Spoon - Anything You Want [mp3]
> Battles - Atlas [YouTube]

Monday, January 07, 2008

Reverend Billy

In the rush to head out of town just before Christmas, I didn't post about a cool event I went to: a screening of Reverend Billy's new documentary, What Would Jesus Buy? The film, produced by Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame), chronicles the efforts of anti-consumerism advocate Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir to push back against the frenzy of Christmas-season shopping.

Reverend Billy, if you've not heard of him, is a performance artist who is not technically a reverend, but does a pretty good job of pretending to be one (of the televangelist variety). Here he is on a talking head cable news program:

It's pretty hilarious stuff, much of the time. There's also a pretty serious message that is much broader than the attention-getting plea to stop shopping, including a critique of our economic system and a belief that how we relate to each other and the world has been perverted by consumerism. You can laugh at the method of delivery, but it's entertaining, and something this far on the fringes of popular discourse can't worm its way into the discussion without being a bit over the top.

Reverend Billy and his wife were present for a Q&A after the free screening sponsored by Sojourners (note, actual Christian group holding event based around a mock preacher!) Although I thought the movie was good (not quite excellent, but good), I particularly enjoyed hearing what they had to say. There's no doubt that they really believe in what they're doing, and they spoke very passionately about their message (Rev. Billy was mostly out of character, but slipped into it at a few moments). I don't buy into (heh) their entire message -- for instance, my own views on globalization are significantly more nuanced than theirs. But they were very effective in making an overarching, coherent argument about the things that make me uneasy about consumerism. I do think that, to some extent, our economic system has cultivated in each of us an unhealthy worldview that is just as all-encompassing as a religion, and that it has done so on such a basic, subconscious level that we don't even realize it. My own personal bugaboo has long been marketing, which often explicitly sets out to create a worldview centered around products (and, perniciously, convincing you that your life is not complete, that you won't be accepted by the group, etc. if you don't participate). And given that the industries making and marketing products have thousands (millions?) of people who work full time to figure out how to most effectively influence us, and we experience all these messages without possibly having the time to think critically about all of them, it's really asymmetric psychological warfare. (For evidence, see this terrifying blog, which basically boils down to a catalog of scientific efforts to find out how to exploit the way our brains work in order to affect our decisions very reliably, on a level we won't even be aware of consciously. I can't imagine it's hard raising grant money for this sort of research!)

Better stop before I start sounding like a crazy street preacher myself. Anyway, thank God for Reverend Billy preaching against the Shopocalypse!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"The safety factor is...unsafe"

So, you've created a pedal-powered Buick Regal. The police, unfortunately, do not understand how awesome this is.

I must say, I think the main takeaway from this video is how much extra weight you have to cart around with a car (even if you have removed most of its car-ness).

(via the TerraPass blog)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


I like living in Columbia Heights, and part of the reason is that it hasn't been completely gentrified. It has some of the amenities that come with gentrification (e.g. a nice new Giant grocery store, a few good restaurants), but still retains its character and the amenities that come along with a "real" neighborhood (e.g. a good taqueria, a small hardware store). Of course, the problem with gentrification is that it's never satisfied with going partway. Once a neighborhood has the sort of cluster of expensive condos that have sprung up around the Metro stop here, the inexorable economic forces of development tend to conspire to condo-fy and Starbucks-ilate everything else in the "up-and-coming" area.

There does seem to be little bit of tension in the neighborhood between its traditional residents and the newcomers. According to Wikipedia's listing of our 2000 census racial demographics, Columbia Heights is "58 percent African American; 34 percent Hispanic; 5.4 percent white; and 3.1 percent other." Those are basically pre-development figures, so if I had to hazard a guess, I would suspect that the white population (the overwhelming majority of people moving into the condos) has risen to 20%; I also suspect that the Hispanic numbers are a little low. Actually, when I say there's some tension, I guess what I really mean is that some of the new yuppie residents appear to wish the lower-income residents would just hurry up and move somewhere else. I'm afraid that the somewhat-natural tendency to want to live around people who are like you has been supercharged by an obsession with real estate values among recent arrivals for whom buying their condo was as much about playing the real estate market as finding a place to live. There's recently been a small wave of violent crime around 14th St, which is apparently due to disputes among "crews" (basically, small gangs) of minority youth, and reading the comments about it on Columbia Heights News, a lot of people seem to have downright racist views on the subject, and the subtext to these comments is property values.

Columbia Heights News in general is a site that speaks to that very narrow segment of the neighborhood's population, and sees everything in terms of real estate development. They have a very specific, very boring vision for the future of the neighborhood -- for instance, speaking enthusiastically of "the neighborhood's first Starbucks" opening recently, blithely assuming that we ought to have a bunch of them. What really got me to come and start ranting on my blog, though, was reading the site's coverage of a potential Whole Foods Market in a new development by the Metro station. The whole thing is ridiculously self-centered. The Giant Food is diagonally across the street, and despite one of the commenters calling it a "pit of despair," it's actually a very nice grocery store (though I admit they should hire more cashiers). When it started to look like there would be a Ross discount clothing store instead of the Whole Foods, the site was utterly disdainful about having something like a discount clothing store, which would be very useful to the majority of the neighborhood's residents. They mounted a petition to Whole Foods, and started an email campaign as well. One article discussed their disappointment that Whole Foods had not been convinced, even though "Nearly every email was extremely heartfelt." 332 heartfelt emails to the corporate office of a yuppie grocery store? Ugh, get a grip. I should also mention that the largest Whole Foods in the DC metro area is 1.3 miles south on 14th St.

Anyway, I guess I'm not really sure where I'm going with my rant. This closed-minded view of the neighborhood that's driven in large part by property value considerations is really aggravating. I realize that people actually do want to shop at Whole Foods, have Starbucs, etc., but if a huge portion of their assets wasn't tied up in the value of their condos, I don't think they'd be so insane about it. However, I've got to say that even though I won't need to go there often, I am looking forward to the Target that will be opening soon in that development.