Friday, September 30, 2011

Solar Decathlon in Washington DC seems to be largest ever

This year the Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon (link) is held West Potomac Park on the Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson Memorial and the FDR Memorial (the MLK Memorial is farther away, toward the other end of the Basin).  This was considerably less convenient for visitors than having it right on the Mall, next to the Metro. 
There was a Shuttle at the Smithsonian Station, but the first small bus filled up. A second much larger bus showed up in five minutes, and it took about fifteen minutes to get there, weaving around L’Enfant Plaza.  Returning, the crowd was overwhelming, as there was confusion as to the expectation that everyone leave at 2 PM.  I walked  (an “Adventuring mini-hike”) to Foggy Bottom, past FDR and MLK and the Lincoln Memorial, about two miles, forty minutes.

There were long lines at many of the houses.  I visited the Ohio State exhibit first.  Small, it had many explanatory signs, including a curious lifestyle placard talking about a house that a single person buys, and then changes as he (or she) gets married and has a kid.  (No mention of the same-sex marriage and gay adoption debate, but it seems to invite the question.)

The New York house had the longest line, but I did visit Massachusetts, then Indiana (Purdue) – the largest house, which was available for sale and contract build now, and then Florida, and finally Tidewater Virginia.  A few houses had bizarre exteriors, including Belgium, New Zealand, southern California, and New Jersey.

There was a lot attention to appliances, especially washing machines, and to passive heating and air conditioning and dehumidifying systems, and to window placement.  Are these homes sturdy enough to stand up to tornadoes and hurricanes, or built away from flood risks? What about steel construction, promoted by an Arkansas builder as protection from tornadoes?
 I think it runs through Sunday, Oct. 2, slightly longer hours on the weekend. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Landslide case in Stafford County VA shows that "California-type" disasters do happen in the East; insurance for these problems is often inadequate

To follow up on my tours of flood damage, I’d like to mention WJLA-7’s report on a landslide in Stafford County VA that has reduced the value of several $300000+ homes to zero, and it appears that insurance doesn’t cover it. The development was called Austin Ridge.

A landslide in the backyard close to the houses caused them to be condemned.

The report is not clear, but it would appear that repeated heavy rains in the two major tropical storms and possibly previously in a wet summer contributed. It’s conceivable that an earthquake of moderate severity could contribute to a hill’s instability.

The report says the developer has refused to meet with homeowners.

Apparently in this case, the unstable land was beneath the homes. In Woodbridge, there was an issue of unstable land walls above townhomes.  However, in all these cases, property must be graded very carefully to make sure it is robust enough to handle the heavy  or even torrential rains that occur occasionally in the regions’ humid climate and proximity to major storm tracks.  Building standards may simply not be strict enough.  These problems are more common in California.

The WJLA link is here. I did not encounter this area on my day trip Monday and do not know the exact location.  Comments are welcome.

As noted in this blog before, the rules on homeowner’s insurance are tricky, with large deductibles. At least one attorney has told me that homeowners in northern Virginia (and other East Coast areas) should consider earthquake insurance and reevaluate the need for flood insurance even in higher areas if there are hidden, long buried streams around or any unstable grades.

Picture: a swampy area in Prince William County, about 20 miles from the site in this story. 

The following video from CS&A explains landslides and mudflow, but in Tennessee.  Many times these hazards are not covered by insurance and cannot be bought, even with federally-endorsed flood policies. (The only company selling it in TN was "Ace".)

Update:  Oct. 20

WJLA reports the release of county funds for repairs to the hillside, has more pictures.  Two homeowners had USAA insurance which did not cover this. It is viewed as similar to a flood. Link.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Threshold of guilt for conviction of federal crimes is diminishing; lack of knowledge of the law is no excuse

A story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, by Gary Fields and John R. Emshwiller, “As federal crime list grows, threshold of guilt declines”, link here  discusses the weakening of a legal concept “mens rea” or “guilty mind”, the idea that one must know he or she is breaking the law to be convicted of a crime.

Not necessarily, and back in the 1950s programs like “Day in Court” emphasized that point. But now there are so many more laws to “know” -- a point that will ring with libertarians.  The WSJ story talks about a bizarre case involving a fur trapper in Alaska, where federal law limits what can be done with the animal remains by tribal nationality, in order to regulate hunting and protect animal populations. One would think the libertarian party there would have fought this. Would Sarah Palin say this is too much federal regulation?

On the other hand, a sidebar story on p A12 talks about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which would imprison environmental demonstrators if they caused their marks to “feel threatened.” Very overbroad.  This point is covered in the indie film “If a Tree Falls (Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman) which I reviewed on my movies blog Aug. 13.

The "intent" issue could complicate First Amendment law in an area called "implicit content", a point I have covered on my main and COPA blogs. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger laws could get school boards, administrators, teachers replaced in CA and some other states

This YouTube “Parent Trigger: A New Right for Parents in California” explores parent triggers laws, especially a law passed in California in 2009, as explained in this YouTube video:

A few other states (Texas, Mississippi) have them and many  legislatures are considering them.
In California, future parents (that is, parents of pre-school children who will enter the public school system) can vote on a petition.

There are four “options” in California.

There is more material on a site called “Parent Revolution”,here

The New York Times has a recent story by Jennifer Medina on the attempt by parents in Compton CA to force a school to become a charter school, link here

Petitions can cause current school boards, school administrators, and teachers to be fired in some cases.

Also, note that "The Parent Trigger" has its own link by that name, here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A field trip to look at flood risks along VA I-95 toward Richmond

I made another day trip Monday to look at the flooding preparedness issue, this time to Woodbridge, VA, in Prince William County, and later to Garrisonville and Aquia, in Stafford County, all near I-95 25-40 miles south of Washington DC.

On US-1, Jefferson Davis Highway, a couple miles south of the Occoquan River, one encounters a dip at Marusmco Creek, which is surrounded by ramshackle businesses, leading to a Denny’s on the East Side, up the hill, with a Catholic School across the road way up safely perched on a higher bluff.  The area next to the creek is taped off with yellow, and cannot “legally” be viewed up close (without trespass). From a bluff and parking lot above, one can see the mobile home parks and destruction.

Nearby (slightly toward the river) is an neighborhood called Belmont, which has smaller homes, maybe some apartments, older, for lower income people, likely minorities.  There is a creek that is partially covered underground, but exposed in places, as near a sports field, where it could flood. The area did not look damaged, but it’s obviously exposed and vulnerable.

About three miles away you encounter Prince William Parkway, and an area where the media says a retaining wall behind some condos almost collapsed, forcing evacuations. The exact location was not published and was not apparent from the street.  The condos and apartments along the drive look nice and modern.  But the whole area consists of rolling sand hills (below the Fall Line), with dips for streams. To develop properly, usually the land is leveled for parking lots and buildings, and steeper slope-walls are built. It’s critical that these slopes be terraced and planted properly to prevent erosion during very heavy rains that can occur in the humid climate of the East Coast.   Tropical Storms and heavy thunderstorms normally happen, and there is no excuse for not building in a robust manner so that residences can withstand sustained heavy rains.    And there is no excuse for relegating low lying areas to lower income people, as I have seen consistently in northern Virginia. (The problems of mudslides and wildfires are even worse in California, and I don’t understand why the engineering codes there seem so lax.)

I also drove by some senior apartments (that I once considered moving into  -- ironically I did not partly because of the 2008 financial crisis) a couple miles down Route 1.

They are situated in a bowl that could conceivably flood, but seemed to have survived these storms.

I believe I saw the shelter in Dumfries where people were taken.

Farther south, in Stafford County, there are numerous gulches and streams on the country roads going west from I-95.  These can flood and no one should build too close to them.

Most of the single family homes and apartment buildings in this area (particularly the large ones), however, appeared to be built high enough away from streams that they do not face a real flood risk, despite the media reports.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Presbyterian minister talks about difference between government and partisan politics; says rich must do more, and supports gun control

Sunday, Sept. 25, Dr. James Atwood spoke at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA about “Government: God’s Gift, or a Problem”?,  referring to Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-17.  Dr. Atwood is Pastor Emeritus for the Church.

Dr. Atwood focused, in his address, on the difference between effective government, which he says is necessary, and partisan politics, which he says is now seriously undermining the economy and jeopardizing national security.  His remarks followed a theme often heard on CNN on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square, where Fareed has noted that our political system may become totally unworkable, and where he has suggested a constitutional convention and conversion to a parliamentary form of government. (As I noted, some friends of mine in NYC have made fun of the system in musical works, proposing a “Timocracy”, or benevolent dictatorship, just to get anything done. Well, that sounds like how Facebook gets changed, to affect the lives of all of us!)

Standard and Poors reduced the US credit rating to AA+ because of its concern over inherent gridlock in our system. Again, a government shutdown is threatened for Sept. 30.

Atwood gave a brief history of the American Revolution (in front of quite a few high school students, who certainly, in church now, can learn a second view of their American history and government before taking on the SAT’s and SOL’s). He said that it had been a “Presbyterian Revolution”, with checks and balances built in because of Calvinist distrust of placing too much power in one person or group (eg, rejection of potential “Timocracy”).   Calvinism is itself controversial, because it seems to view individuals’ own worth as preordained by God, and not susceptible to better opportunity, as is supposed to be offered by American style capitalism.

He said that some government is necessary, because individuals, families, or small communities cannot do everything for themselves, like defending against foreign invaders or perhaps threats like pandemics or asteroids.  He supported the idea of social security and moderately run universal health care systems, including Medicare and probably mandatory insurance like that in Massachusetts or (in time) “Obamacare”.
He said that Biblical principles suggest that those who have the most contribute the most to the common good, at least partly through taxes.  The New Testament is quite clear on the idea that you pay your taxes.

He discusses the danger of privately armed militia around the country (as was the case with the Michigan Militia that influenced Timothy McVeigh)  and also mentioned that in the southwest people were arming themselves because the federal government (AZ governor Jan Brewer notwithstanding) could not control illegal immigration.

He suggested that some in the Tea Party (Michele Bachmann wasn't mentioned by name) were extremists who would destroy our country just to rebuild a quasi-fascist world according to their own ideology. 

Dr. Atwood has lobbied for assault weapons and even small arms control, as noted in this link. He has an organization dedicated to ending gun violence called "Heeding God's Call" here.

The church says that it started a Sunday School class today on the First Amendment and Faith.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Personal visit to Huntington-Cameron Run flood area (near Alexandria, VA)

I made a quick visit to the Huntington-Cameron Run area of Alexandria, VA late this afternoon. This is an area hit repeatedly by floods and hit very hard by Hurricane Irene and particularly Tropical Storm Lee.

The Cameron Run area along Eisenhower Ave. seems high enough, but near I-95 Beltway, at the Telegraph Road underpass, there is obvious flood vulnerability on the highway. Just to the north, along Huntington, there are side streets that go down toward Cameron and an area of old houses and garden apartments,  obviously built on the flood plain in an unusually precarious place. Some homes had condemned stickers on them. There is a part which has been roped off.  It’s clear that residences should be built here only under strict codes that anticipate a flood risk. To find residences in this location built the way they were was shocking to me. 

This area is actually in Fairfax County, not the City of Alexandria, and there is a political fight over what the County will do about it. Here is the County’s report

Here is WUSA’s (Washington DC, Channel 9, CBS)  video on the controversy.

Congressman Jim Moran’s page on the problem is here.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

A field trip to Ellicott City MD: floods can run down from higher ground

I took a day trip Thursday to Ellicott City, MD, a charming little town west of Baltimore, in Howard County, just to see how affected a typical town was by the floods from Irene and then especially Lee.

The high water mark, I was told by the B&O Museum, wasn’t much over the beginning of the white “yardstick”, whereas Agnes in 1972 (at 14.5 feet) and an 1868 flood of over 21 feet.

The biggest problems, the museum said,  ironically, came from water ran downhill from the higher ground, where the “Tiber River” runs down into the town and drains into the Patapsco River, where floods are measured.  So living on higher ground doesn't always protect you, if there are small or even buried streams (in the 1950s in some areas in Virginia and Maryland it was common to bury small streams underground under larger back yards; anyone buying an old home should check for this).  

Most businesses were open.

A City (coin pay) parking lot on the Patapsco warned that cars would be towed when there are flood warnings.

There is a restored 19th Century “Colored School” on the top of the hill, on Rogers Ave., resembling another school in Boyds, MD (see Movies Blog, July 7, 2008).  Nearby, on a wooded hiking trail, is an odd 19th Century gravestone site.
Shades of "Blair Witch Project"?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Markets tank after Fed action because of poor leadership, debt, and demographic winter; why has ING stock collapsed?

The Fed’s swap of short-term bills is, in itself, pretty much a non-event. What brings to mind NBC’s series is its statements that we are likely to be stuck in doldrums for a long time.

CNBC has the best analysis, here.  "Investors are dumping everything."

The Fed has its own benign explanation, here

David Gergen on CNN has it right, there is no leadership, anywhere.  Our debt commission will deliver its turkey this fall, and Congress is again threatening another shutdown.

And Europe seems unable to control its debt crisis, partly—perhaps largely—because of its welfare state policies in the past combines with today’s demographic winter. We have lived beyond our means. 

It’s interesting that the Fed talks in terms of getting banks – and people—to take more risks.  Apathy is turning into the biggest of all sins.  Psychiatrists know that.

My favorite XOM is down a bit (below 70) with lower crude prices, but this has happened before.  It’s always come back.

ING is horrible – at 6.09.  I depend on ING for my pension, although I think a spinoff of US operations into a separate finance company (centered around Aetna and ReliaStar) would be better for employees and retirees  and investors.    Analysts, however, speak well of ING, here. I sold what I had as a former employee in 2003 at 16, and it sounds good that I did.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How do "solo entrepreneurs" affect the job market?

Look at this little op-ed ditty in the Washington Post Wednesday from Dana Milbank, “I am a job creator who creates no jobs”, link here.  

He says his company is “Ink Stained Inc” but I can’t tell if that’s “Ink Stain” (link) and “IFCulture” (link) which sound like reasonable fits for what he writes about.

He says he is set up as a “C corporation” but is essentially a “one man operation” like me, sometimes hiring consultants, sometimes his spouse.  But in the eyes of the “law” he could be Facebook. So could I.
Is it his duty to change his message and intentions in order to hire more people? Is it mine?  That sounds like a real threat to “rugged individualism” of the Ayn Rand type.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How could you have a "Buffett Tax" without making the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) even more intrusive?

When President Obama says that billionaires (whether Warren Buffett or Mark Zuckerberg) should pay taxes (Income taxes?) at the same rate as their “secretaries”  (ooh, a throwback to the sexist 50s), the first thought that comes to my mind is horrible Alternate Minimum Tax. Yup, HRBlock reminds of it even when I do mine.

I thought that some of the deals floated during this past summer’s debt ceiling “debate” promised to do away with the AMT.

How would you impose the Buffett Tax and not keep or even make worse the AMT? 

The Washington Times, in an oped by Emily Miller, weighs in on the BT (a BLT sandwich?) today , here

I call to mind going to a Libertarian Party symposium in Manassas, VA in May 1996 when Harry Browne said, simply “End the income tax and replace it with nothing.” I remember Irwin Schiff’s carting out his “The Federal Mafia” and recounting his own experiences. 

Seriously, though, I don’t think the “rich” mind paying an Obama-share of their taxes, and I don’t think they hire fewer people when they do.  The Bachmann-Perry arguments really don’t resonate in real life.  It’s more than just distribution of wealth into people who have to spend. We have enormous infrastructure issues to tend to now. Protecting the power grid not just from terrorists but inevitable solar storms is just the opener. 

As for the "Math" vs. "class warfare" question, note that Elizabeth Warren says, "nobody ever got rich on his own."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bill Clinton says that GOP intransigence could exacerbate 5 year depression; suggests focus on mortgage relief

Bill Clinton talked to Lester Holt about his “Clinton Global Initiative” with Lester Holt on Today. He is very critical of GOP “ideological” rants against “no taxes” and says that rich people don’t mind paying their fair share. 

Clinton says that we could have a lost decade, and that the most serious drag is still the mortgage problem.  He says mortgage payouts need to be extended even further or even converted into rent, so that people are not evicted.

The AOL Huffington Post has an article about Clinton’s remarks, here

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Heritage Foundation raises indignation with its comments on Census report on increase in poverty

The “conservative” Heritage Foundation has raised some wrinkles with a report “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts about America’s Poor”, link here. This report refers to a Census Bureau data report that shows a marked increase in official poverty between 2009 and 2010, yes, during Obama’s presidency, but certainly partly a legacy of the Bush years.  Try the Wall Street binge for openers. (Even George W. said that Wall Street got drunk.)  For the record, here is the Census Bureau’s own public link on the whole report and discussion (url ). No question, a lot of this has to do with JOBS.  And too many "jobs" are of the low wage "pay your dues" variety that Barbara Ehrenreich writes her books ("Nickel and Dimed") about. 

Washington Post Metro area columnist Courtland Milloy has a piece this morning “One think tank’s positive spin on poverty in the US”, titled online “Study dismisses poverty, but try telling that to the poor”, link here

Yes, the poor here are better off than kids in Somalia. “To join the middle class, all you have to do is drop Comcast or Fios”.  You can ration your way back, just as you expect others to ration their lives and sacrifice for you.

My posting here yesterday distantly refers to the way we put “immutable” circumstances (and personal "external trappings") in a moral context. We view life as a competitive game and then say some people, like the old Washington Senators baseball teams of the 50s (the new Nationals really are better) wind up losers (even if some of the “loss” is part of natural process).  We say, “If you don’t want to be poor, don’t have heterosexual intercourse until you make enough to raise children.”  Or “don’t try to get something for nothing.”  Don’t fall for the pitches for more house than you can afford and wind up upsidedown.  And make sure you can smell the Bernie Madoff’s of the world.

A minister here in Arlington recently said “Compassion is our hidden resource.”   Think about it, before you do anything about it, personally.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Warning to men: Get married, become a dad, "lose hormones": an Army barracks joke comes true (study in the Phillipines)

Here’s a good one, from the front page of the Sept. 13 New York Times (sorry, paywall subscription needed), “Fatherhood cuts testosterone, study finds, for good of the family”, link here

This refers to a study done in the Phillippines. It found that when men become fathers, their testosterone levels are lower than that of age-matched counterparts, particularly if they spend a lot of time in actual child care.

It’s a little unclear if formal marriage fills in here, or if men who give care to other people’s children (like special education teachers) could be similarly affected.

From a biological viewpoint, it makes sense, especially with humans or any animals with very dependent infants.  The mother doesn’t have to do it all alone, and the father provides more attention to offspring, and is less “attractive” to other potential partners (usually other females). On the other hand, young males, before fatherhood, putatively need higher hormone levels to enhance "masculinity" or gender surplus in order to be appealing to the most nubile possible females.  

It’s also apparent that behavior affects hormones, as well as the reverse way. It sounds like relativity, doesn’t it.

Men who have become -- and behaved  -- as fathers may actually have a lower risk of prostate cancer at any particular age in their later years, much as is the case with women, mothers and breast cancer. 

Mara Hvistendahl had reported a similar finding (on fatherhood and testosterone) in her book “Unnatural Selection” (reported on my Books blog, Aug. 7, 2011).

I wondered how this finding applies to gay men, who apparently do not have the “taming” influence of women, or parenthood --- except that two-dad families are now more common.  If you look over a gay disco floor, you see a lot of slender younger men probably at the solstice of their biological “masculinity”.

When men stop childrearing, do their hormone levels return somewhat? What happens after divorce?  Do divorced men become more “masculine”?  Probably not; the damage is probably done.

When I was in the Army, at Fort Eustis, in 1969, there was actually an intra-barracks joke about men who had started to “lose hormones” (or “go downhill fast”, and that's not just post-nuptial weight gain).  That tied in to the Chickenman Saturday morning cartoon, although the nexus is a bit obscure now for most people.  But maybe it really wasn’t so funny. 

Another coworker, in the early 70s, made some sort of joke predicated on the idea that "male sex hormones in the bloodstream" would be a bad thing if they kept increasing. 

Friday, September 09, 2011

Media discusses "named storm" insurance deductibles

Joe Stephens has an informative story in the Sept. 9 Washington Post Metro, “For some homeowners, Irene delivers an insurance shock”, link here  After Irene, some companies in Maryland tried to impose much higher deductibles on claims.

State laws control the use of these deductibles for specific kinds of events, especially “named storms”.  Hurricane deductibles are often 1-5% of the insured value of the home.

Homeowners, even in higher areas as in much of the Piedmont, might well consider riders for sewage blockages and backups, which might occur in events of prolonged rains. 

Liz Crenshaw and Kate Roberts of NBC4 (NBC Washington) have an informative article here

The changing, warming climate means that periods of prolonged rain or snow and ice, or prolonged drought, are much more likely than a few decades ago. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

APA study shows that school bullying affects test scores

On the first day of school for many districts, Donna St. George has an important story in the Metro Section of the Washington Post, “Bullying tied to lower test scores in Va. high schools”, link here. Understandably, this observation also extends to middle schools (where I had the worst problems) and grade school.  (My own experience in high school 1958-1961 was much better.) 

The article mentions a study by the American Psychological Association, which has a statement here

It also mentions a new tough anti-bullying law in New Jersey, after Tyler Clementi’s tragedy at Rutgers (which happened in college, however – see my GLBT blog Nov 23, 2010 and Sept. 30, 2010). 

The NBC "Today" show covered bullying this morning, and one expert talked about training target children to become more assertive, and talked about the problem in terms of personal competitiveness.

Wed Sept. 7 NBC Nightly News aired this video on the new New Jersey anti-bullying law for schools, which would also include off campus Internet activity.  Note the word in the banner, "Respect".

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Rehoboth, Ocean City appear to be in good shape after Irene (personal visit)

Well, it looks as though both Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City came through Irene in good shape.

There was only slight evidence of boarding of businesses, and only very minor damage at most to beachfront homes near “Queen” street in Rehoboth.

It ‘s apparent that the absence of tall trees near beachfront buildings makes a big difference.

Farther north, along the Jersey shore, however, it’s apparently much worse; and everybody missed forecasting the catastrophic flooding that would happen in northern mountain areas (“orographic uplift”).  The same thing has happened before in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, as with Agnes in 1972.

A reader of the Baltimore Sun comments on the news reporting by Childs Walters with the phrases “down come the trees and off goes the power” aka “Here come the environmentalists, up go the trees”, link here