Friday, July 27, 2007

Breaking The WR Grace Stalemate

A long-running bankruptcy case involving one of Columbia's biggest corporations, WR Grace, is about to get interesting.

A judge on Thursday said the company is no longer the only party in the case that can submit a Chapter 11 plan to get the specialty chemical company out of bankruptcy. Its creditors can submit their own plans.

That's an unusual step. But this is an unusual case. WR Grace filed for bankruptcy way back in 2001, forced there by people who claimed they were harmed by the company's asbestos products.

Ever since, WR Grace has been unable to come up with a bankruptcy plan that would satisfy asbestos claimants.

In a three-page order, Judge Judith Fitzgerald of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., granted a motion by lawyers for asbestos claimants that cut off WR Grace's control of the process:

"Termination of exclusivity will facilitate moving the case toward conclusion by changing the dynamics for negotiation while permitting (Grace) to continue to operate their business, resolve claims and participate in negotiations," the judge wrote.

Earlier this week, WR Grace said that it spent $23.6 million in the second quarter on legal expenses stemming from the case, up from $11.5 million in 2006. It warned that its liabilities and contingencies could grow depending on the outcome of the case.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brown Grass

We just returned from a little trip to Myrtle Beach to watch some baseball and were surprised by how brown the grass seemed to get while we were away. Then we saw this map, which shows Howard is suffering from moderate drought conditions, just one level down from severe. Then we read in WaPo that the governor is going to seek federal relief for farmers in the lower and middle Eastern Shore. And then we learned the blue crabs harvest is in trouble. And so we dutifully followed today's gardening tip of the week in WaPo, and avoided fertilizing in hot weather (ok, that last one is just because we are naturally lazy).

We report all this in hopes it serves as our little rain dance. The more we complain about the dry weather, the sooner it will pour.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Farmer's Market Malaise

We make a point of getting over to the Oakland Mills farmer's market whenever we can each Sunday but there's no getting around it: the pickings are rather slim. The Sun reports that the number of vendors have dropped from about seven to five at the various markets around town.

Some farmers say there are not enough shoppers. Higher gasoline prices have made it more costly for others to go from one market to another. Still others say they do a better business with subscription services in which they deliver produce directly to people's homes.

But with fewer vendors, fewer people turn out. Fewer shoppers means fewer vendors etc etc.

It certainly seems like a service everyone professes to want is headed in the wrong direction.

And that's unfortunate. We spent a holiday in Italy last year and marveled at the weekly community markets, bustling with meat wagons, produce stands, and a traveling flea market offering shoes, clothes and all sorts of household goods.

Why doesn't something like that work here?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cyber-bullies Beware

As of July 1, it is now a punishable offense in the HoCo school system to bully someone over the Internet. The school system's student code of conduct defines cyber-bullying as "harassing, humiliating, and/or threatening others on the Internet or via cell phones and other technology (e.g. emails, web pages, instant messaging). "

Punishment could range from a phone call to a parent to outright expulsion.

The school board also revised the code of conduct to address gang-related behaviors. See the new rules in pdf format here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Man Arrested For Trying To Sell Bear Hide

Lake Kittamaqundi was named for the first recorded Native American settlement in Howard County, and local lore has it that the name literally means "meeting place." We were taught the settlement was a trading grounds of sorts.

That bit of history that comes to mind after a Gettysburg man was arrested over the weekend for trying to sell a bear skin at a Native American event at the county fairgrounds, according to this story in the Sun.

"Trappers, for instance, can sell mink, coyote, beaver, otter and possum pelts, among others. But selling hides from larger species, such as bears or tigers, in Maryland is illegal - no matter where the animal was killed," the story says.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Education Value Proposition

Magazines love to produce lists. Forbes ranked school systems nationally based on who produced the best results for the tax dollars invested. Howard came in at No. 7.

Some derided the survey for "failing to consider other factors, such as wealth and parent education, that affect test scores and graduation prospects," according to WaPo.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A New Pavilion?

The Sun reports that the folks at General Properties are considering enclosing Merriweather in the colder months and turning it into a year-round facility.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Magical Mystery Tour

This came to me over the e-mail transom:

“Magical History Tour” Reveals Columbia’s Past

Birthday Contest Features People, Places, Events

Columbia’s history will be the focus of a 40th Birthday contest on Saturday, July 14. The Magical History Tour includes a city-wide hunt for answers to questions about Columbia’s past.

Participants pick up contest directions and other materials between 8 a.m. and noon Saturday at Slayton House community center in Wilde Lake, the city’s first village. The self-guided Magical History Tour requires contestants to visit every village and Town Center in order to complete the contest questionnaire about the city’s history.

A shorter, “Walking Shoes” version of the Magical History Tour limits the contest to questions about Wilde Lake and Town Center and is designed to be “family-friendly.”

Completed questionnaires for both tours must be turned in to Slayton House by 5 p.m. on Saturday. Questionnaires will be entered in a raffle drawing for gift certificates and other prizes that will be awarded Sunday, July 15at 6 p.m. at the “Celebrate Merriwether” day of family activities. The day’s festivities start at noon and conclude with a free concert at 6 p.m. featuring a reunited troop of Young Columbians, followed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Register for the Columbia 40th Birthday Magical History Tour at Slayton House on Saturday.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Long Reach Fish Take a Vacation

The Sun writes about efforts to dredge the 3-acre Jackson Pond in Long Reach. The project will remove about 15,000 cubic yards of sediment and truck it to a field somewhere in King Contrivance.

About 7,000 fish from the pond, which is dry now, were moved to other ponds in Columbia, Denis Ellis, assistant director of CA's open space management division, told the newspaper.

"After the dredging, Jackson Pond, which will have an average water depth of at least 4 feet, Ellis said, will be refilled with water and aquatic life."

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

40th Anniversary Coupons

How did I miss this?!

The 40 days of Columbia b-day celebrations are wrapping up this Sunday with a big picnic and concert at Merriweather, but what caught my eye was the discounts available at Princeton Sports, Eggspectation and various hair and skin care places.

You mean we could shop and pamper ourselves too?

Better late than never I guess.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Champs Elysees For Oakland Mills?

Or how about our version of Mexico City's Paseo de la Reforma?

Here's a chance to let the imagination run wild: Oakland Mills has received a grant from the county to pretty-fy the stretch of right-of-way between the courtyard by the Other Barn and the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center. This is a pilot project.

There's a public work session to discuss ideas on July 19 between 7 p and 9 p at the Other Barn.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Sad Reminder About Ocean Dangers

WBAL filed this report about a Columbia family that lost its father and daughter to a rip current. The station said the Martins spoke out hoping their story would save others' lives.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Tatyana Wins Two Gold Medals

From the AP, courtesy of

MARIETTA, Ga. Wheelchair athlete Tatyana McFadden won two gold medals in the 200 and 800 meters at the U.S. Paralympic National Track and Field Championships this weekend.

The Columbia resident says she loves the competition.

McFadden was originally scheduled to race the 400- and 1500-meter events. But she decided to return home to prepare for a competition in Canada.

Next month she'll travel to Ontario for several races, including the Boiling Point Classic in Windsor that could qualify her for the IAAF World Championships.

McFadden sued the state school board to be able to earn points for her Atholoton High School track team at regional and state tournaments. Last month, a federal judge found that the state rules may be unfair, but they are not discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

More On That Lightning Laptop

WaPo's Mary Otto brings us the details on that laptop incident in today's paper:

"It was Wednesday afternoon, and Martin Fischer, an Ellicott City sales representative, decided to log on and finish a little work before celebrating the Fourth of July holiday with his family. Thunderstorms were moving through the area, so the picnic plans were on hold.

"He went to the basement. The battery on his laptop computer was running low, so he plugged it in. He settled down with the computer on his knees.

"Then, normalcy exploded. A surge of power shot through his legs.

" 'It really jolted me,' he recalled. Upstairs, a flash of light made his wife scream.

"Everyone was shaken. The family, worried that lightning had struck the house, called 911.

"A fire-and-rescue team that arrived at the brick colonial on Walt Mill Court about 5:15 p.m. could find no evidence of a lightning strike and no trace of fire, said William Mould, a spokesman for the Howard County Fire and Rescue Department.

"The rescue workers concluded that the house had been hit by a power surge.

" 'We believe it was because of the storm,' Mould said. 'I can't say he was struck by lightning.'

"According to the National Weather Service's Web site, 'In addition to direct strikes, lightning generates electrical surges that can damage electronic equipment some distance from the actual strike.'

"Rescue workers treated Fischer, Mould said.

" 'He suffered some minor burns to his legs and asked to be evaluated,' Mould said. An electrocardiogram ruled out lasting damage, he said.

"Fischer said that the family usually turns off electrical appliances and takes other precautions during storms but that in this case, the weather did not seem imminently threatening.

" 'We just heard a couple of rumbles, and then it just hit,' he said. 'It was a bizarre incident.'

"Sarah Rogowski, a spokeswoman for the National Weather Service, said a severe thunderstorm warning had been in effect for Howard County from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. Wednesday.

"The Weather Service urges people to go indoors during storms but also cautions them to take precautions while inside, such as avoiding contact with corded phones, electrical equipment and plumbing.

"Fischer, who said the welts on his legs had subsided by about 10 that night, considers himself lucky that he emerged largely unscathed.

" 'I think it was just a big scare,' he said."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Laptops and Funnel Clouds

We always tell the kids to step away from the computer during a thunderstorm. Now comes this from the Sun last night:

"A strong and fast-moving storm system produced lightning today that injured a Howard County man and two reported funnel clouds did minor damage to separate parts of the county.

"Light rain and ominous clouds from the thunderstorm led officials to temporarily evacuate the National Mall before the annual fireworks extravaganza.

"In the Ellicott City area, a man in his mid-40s suffered minor burns when an electric surge moved through his laptop computer after lightning struck his home, said Bill Mould, spokesman for the Howard County Fire Department.

"Emergency personnel were called about 5:15 p.m. to the home in the 3800 block of Walt Mill Court, but the man -- whose name was not released -- was not taken to the hospital, Mould said.

"Fire officials said they had received two reports about funnel clouds in the county, one in West Friendship that knocked down several trees and another east of Columbia. A spokesman for the National Weather Service could not confirm that a tornado had touched down anywhere in Maryland or Washington, D.C.

"But meteorologist Brian LaSorsa said the weather service had received "a couple reports" of sightings of a funnel cloud south of Damascus in Montgomery County.

- Bradley Olson and Jennifer Skalka"

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Teacher Wins Harassment Suit

From the Sun:

"A Howard County jury yesterday awarded English teacher Michelle Maupin more than $235,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for harassment and retaliation during her time at Centennial High School in Ellicott City.

Maupin remains with the school system, teaching at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.

The Howard County Board of Education is responsible for $225,000 of those damages, while former Centennial High School principals Lynda Mitic and Scott Pfeifer and English department leader Margaret Polek are responsible for a combined $12,000, according to Maupin's attorney, Mike Coyle."

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Gypsy Moths Are Coming

From WaPo:

Officials Warn About Gypsy Moth Outbreak

Maryland is experiencing its worst outbreak of gypsy moths in a dozen years, state officials said yesterday, and they encouraged homeowners to report trees denuded by the pests.

State officials said the moth's caterpillars emerge in the spring and eat the leaves of oak and other trees. This year has been worse than most, they said, because of the moth's population cycles and dry conditions that encourage their growth. Anyone whose trees have been attacked by the caterpillars is asked to report the outbreak to the Maryland Department of

Agriculture. Residents of Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties should call 301-662-2074. Residents in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and the three counties of Southern Maryland should call 301-782-7155.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Counting Graduates

WaPo says the trade newspaper Education Week has come up with a new way to do an apples-to-apples comparison of graduation rates across state lines.

The analysis measures the change in the number of students enrolled in a high school class from freshman year to graduation. "It's only an estimate," the paper says, "because it doesn't account for students who transfer in and out of schools or those who repeat grades."

Howard County comes out looking pretty good, graduating 86.6 percent of its students, more than another other Maryland, Virginia or District school system except Loudoun and Frederick, according to the new metric.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Parading On The Fourth

Longfellow hosts its 37 annual parade at 10 a.m. Wednesday, starting and ending at Longfellow Elementary School on Hesperus Drive.

The parade lasts about an hour and then the neighborhood heads over to the ball fields behind Harper's Choice Village Center for a traditional softball game.

River Hill kicks off its 8th annual parade at 9:30 a.m. The route runs from Pointers Run Elementary School to the River Hill Village Center, and Great Star Drive will be closed to traffic during the event.