Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Holiday Shopping and The $348 Laptop

It used to be that holiday shopping began the day after Thanksgiving. Then, online shoppers started getting a jump on the season, doing their buying on turkey day. Now comes Wal-Mart, which is starting its super sales super early, a jumpstart other merchants are sure to follow.

To wit, tomorrow the mega-retailer will reveal what hot items it is putting on deep discounts on Friday. Cue TV B-roll of nutty people fighting in the aisles. You can see a peek at one of the offers, a $348 laptop (1 gb ram!) right here.

We can only hope everyone will have spent all their money by the time the holiday season really gets here and there will be plenty of parking spaces at the mall.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Columbia's Little Vegas

There's always been a certain "charm" to the Route 1 corridor, what with its gritty mix of cut-rate motels, bingo halls, massage parlors, and, of course, the horse track at Laurel.

Now, the gov wants to add slot machines.

The Examiner says in this story that O'Malley's plan would bring to Laurel Park 4,250 of 15,000 slot machines statewide. The gov claims he wants the millions of dollars generated to pay for schools and save the horse industry.

Some Anne Arundel officials worry that the move could be a distraction to economic development efforts. But the executive director of the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce says she supports well-regulated slots as a last-resort remedy to improve the area.

“I’m more concerned about the infrastructure around the track, which is discouraging," Claire Louder told the paper. "Places like Biloxi, Miss., and Las Vegas seem to do just fine.”

Now there's a vision for downtown Columbia.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Toy Train Rivals Back On Track?

Just in time for the holidays, Columbia's toy train magnate, Mike Wolf, has apparently reached a settlement with Lionel over stolen train designs and other mischief.

Here's what WaPo had to say:

"Century-old Lionel of Chesterfield, Mich., and MTH Electric Trains of Columbia have forged a tentative agreement to settle a multimillion-dollar, seven-year-old lawsuit over allegations that Lionel stole train designs from MTH.

"The dispute focuses on a patented computerized technology that synchronizes the sound, smoke and speed of the locomotives as they zoom and puff around the track. The technology is critical to the two companies as they seek a leg up on each other in a small market and try to remake one of America's favorite pastimes for the 21st century.

"The settlement should allow Lionel, one of the enduring brands of the 20th century, to escape bankruptcy protection, which it entered while fighting MTH's claims for roughly $88 million.

MTH founder Mike Wolf told WaPo the settlement is contingent on resolving several other issues. "It's not over until it's over," Wolf said. "We don't like each other. It's personal. It's been very difficult."

Friday, October 26, 2007

But Will The Nurses Be On Roller Skates?

The Flier says HoCo will be offering free flu shots to anyone who drives up to a county clinic at the Gateway Business Park on Nov. 4.

They'll poke you while you are sitting in your car!

"The event is designed to both deliver flu vaccines to residents and test the county's capabilities during an emergency event, such as a 'bird flu' outbreak," the newspaper says in this story.

A flu-shot drive-in reminds us of the days when it was a really family event to head up to the local Tops and order some burgers, fries and root beer and eat in the car. We know that sounds old hat to folks today, who not only eat in their car but talk on the phone, send e-mail, fix their makeup and such but it was a big event for a 9-year-old alllllll those years ago.

Details for the vaccine event can be found here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Putting the Ed Back In Driver's Ed

Getting a learner's permit now means you have to stay in school, according to this story in WaPo. Fortunately, all members of the Columbia Talk team are regular attendees...

"Educators and motor vehicle officials have teamed up to enforce a new state law that is the latest strategy to deter habitual truancy.

"The measure, which took effect Oct. 1, denies a learner's permit to students younger than 16 who have more than 10 unexcused absences during the prior school semester.

"Whether they are in public or private school or are home-schooled, teens must submit a certified, sealed school attendance form as part of their application. The MVA will not accept forms from students if they show evidence of tampering or alteration, agency spokesman Buel Young said. The law likely will affect thousands of teenagers, based on the fact that last budget year more than 14,500 16-year-olds received provisional driver's licenses.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Signs of the Times

No more touts for exotic diets and college kid movers?

HoCo is on a crusade. Folks are fanning out to crack down on all those little illegal signs that "pop up like dandelions" along our streets and byways, according to our fair county exec.

According to this story in the Sun, state and county highway workers are gathering up the unsightly distractions during a three-day roundup.

"Letters will be sent to first-time offenders. If inspectors continue to see an illegal sign, a written violation notice will follow. The sign owner will have 10 days to remove the sign before fines may be assessed. A first offense can cost $50 per sign per day, doubled for second offenders," the story said.

You can alert the authorities to signs you don't like by filling out a form here.

Former council member Lloyd Knowles wonders if the county will also go after all those semi-permanent office lease signs showing up with more regularity these days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


One of our longtime local murder mysteries now has closure -- and police have arrested a pair of men in a series of recent robberies.

Paul Stephen Riggins Jr., now serving a life sentence for killing his wife more than a decade ago, has apparently revealed where he hid Nancy Lee's body. WaPo said he directed authorities to a site in Hanover, where remains were recovered. Police are awaiting DNA tests to determine conclusively.

Nancy vanished in 1996 and Riggins has steadfastly maintained that he had nothing to do with her disappearance. According to testimony at his 2001 trial, Nancy Lee had discovered he was having an affair with the family's teenage babysitter, and threatened to tell the girl's mother. Riggins told the girl he would "take care of it," according to this Sun account.

The newspaper speculates that Riggins may finally have come clean in hopes of gaining favor from the parole board. He is eligible to be released as early as 2016.

Meanwhile, the Sun reported that police have charged a man and a teenager in a shooting and three armed robberies that occurred this month around town.

"Shawn Timothy Crockett, 14, and Terrence Edward Boone, 24, both of Baltimore, have been charged in the Oct. 16 shooting of an Exxon station clerk during a robbery attempt in the 10100 block of Little Patuxent Parkway, across the street from Columbia Town Center, said Howard County police said in a statement.

"The two have also been charged with the Oct. 5 robbery of a 2-Go convenience store in the 9000 block of Washington Blvd. in Savage and the Oct. 11 robbery of the Harwood Convenience Store in the 6600 block of Washington Blvd. in Elkridge."

Monday, October 22, 2007

County Considers Office Space in Oakland Mills

HoCo Exec Ken Ulman is considering moving some of his government into a new office condominium building slated to go up on the site of an old gas station at the Oakland Mills Village Center, according to this story in the Sun.

The county would pay $4 million to buy one 15,000-square foot floor of the four-story building.

The developer of the project is currently courting tenants, saying Meridian Square's "modern yet classic design" makes for "the perfect business atmosphere."

What do you that atmosphere helped or hindered by having government offices take up a quarter of the suites?

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Schools Talk About Staph

Here's a letter the school system sent out to parents. It would be nice if the county also included what it is doing to counter the problem. The Sun reported that "health officials have instructed school administrators to conduct regular, daily cleaning and disinfecting of 'common surfaces' such as tables in libraries, lockers and desks in classrooms."

October 18, 2007

Dear Parents,

There has been recent media attention regarding the bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, often referred to as “staph” and MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infections in the United States. MRSA is a type of staph that is resistant to some antibiotics. Many healthy people, carry staph, including MRSA, in their nose or on their skin and do not know they are carrying it. They usually do not get skin infections and do not have any signs or symptoms of illness. Sometimes staph can cause an infection and most of these skin infections are minor (such as pimples and boils) and can be treated without antibiotics. However, sometimes staph bacteria can cause serious infections. MRSA infections occur most frequently among persons in healthcare facilities who have weakened immune systems. Here and elsewhere in the country, MRSA infections are becoming more common in community settings, including schools and among athletes.

Staph, including MRSA, are spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, such as shaking hands, wrestling, or other direct contact with the skin of another person, or contaminated objects.

The symptoms of a staph or MRSA infection include pimples, boils, red/warm skin, or a wound that doesn’t heal. Most MRSA infections are treated by good wound and skin care. Sometimes treatment requires the use of antibiotics.

Routine cleaning procedures can reduce the transmission of staph or MRSA in the school setting, especially among users of athletic equipment. In addition the following have been shown to be effective in preventing spread:

* Clean hands regularly with soap and water or alcohol-based hand gel.
* Maintain good general hygiene with regular bathing.
* Keep wounds that are draining covered.
* Do not share items that may become contaminated such as towels, clothing, bar soap, razors, and athletic equipment that touches the skin.
* Launder clothing that has come into contact with wound drainage and dry thoroughly.
* If wounds are unable to be covered, refrain from activities that have skin to skin contact.
* Use a towel between skin and shared gym equipment
* Clean equipment and other environmental surfaces with which multiple individuals have contact with appropriate disinfectants.

Any questions or concerns may be directed to Donna Heller, Health Services Coordinator, 410 – 313-6812 or contact the Communicable Disease nurse at the Howard County Health department at 410-313-6110. More information may also be obtained, at


Donna Heller, RN, MHSA, CSN
Health Services Coordinator
Howard County Public School System

Maura Rossman, MD
Medical Director
Howard County Health Department

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Staph Scare

WaPo reports today that "as national estimates focus on an increase in serious infections caused by an antibiotic-resistant germ, officials in the Washington region have identified more than a dozen cases among students and are organizing extensive cleanups of numerous schools."

Including two at Wilde Lake High School.

"According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of skin infection in the United States. A contaminated cut or scrape can become red, swollen or increasingly painful. The danger with MRSA is that it is often not correctly identified and treated with the right antibiotics, giving the germ a chance to become invasive."

"A report this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that serious incidences of this strain are far more frequent than previously thought. Every year in the United States, the researchers said, MRSA causes more than 94,000 acute infections and nearly 19,000 deaths."

According to the Sun: "Health officials have instructed school administrators to conduct regular, daily cleaning and disinfecting of 'common surfaces' such as tables in libraries, lockers and desks in classrooms.

"Howard school officials also plan to send a letter to parents in the wake of a second case of staph reported in less than a week at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia."

Here's a link to a Sun blog recounting what safety tips Wilde Lake administrators shared with parents when the first care was identified.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Filling The Gaps

The papers are full of stories today about Howard County's new initiative to offer health care to the uninsured for fees of as little as $50 a month.

The county estimates that about 20,000 people in the county are eligible, and that about 2,000 will probably take part the first year (at a cost of $2.8 million, coming from fees, $500,00 in county subsidies and the rest from donations).

The latest effort is an attempt to fill in the gaps in the confusing matrix of state, federal, and private insurance programs that exists today. Here at Columbia Talk Central we struggle with our own patchwork of company insurance, health care spending accounts, donut holes, co-pays, mail-in prescriptions, negotiated fees, in-plan providers, flexible spending accounts, lifetime maximums, etc etc etc. And somehow, each year when the enrollment forms come around, the cost of it all keeps going up.

Heaven knows how the less fortunate figure it all out. We're guessing they don't.

Such confusion is why companies like Steve Case's Revolution Health even exist, to help people navigate their choices, and that seems like perhaps one of the chief benefits of the county's new Healthy Howard provide a little guidance in how to manage the system and steer folks to affordable clinics and low-cost pharmacies when possible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Think Pink

Everywhere we look these days we see pink. The Soccer Association of Columbia just wrapped up its Think Pink fight against cancer weekend, prompting one member of the Talk team to join his teammates in coloring their hair for the occasion.

Lots of merchants have come up with tie-ins. For instance, Bailey Banks and Biddle, the mall jeweler, is selling a breast cancer awareness bracelet for $125 with $25 going to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

What events have you heard about?

Monday, October 15, 2007

What Would You Do With $500?

Howard County seniors saved an average of $539.73 by applying for a property tax break, according to this story in the Sun.

About 500 elderly homeowners "received a collective $272,563 in property tax breaks, and 300 others could still benefit, according to a report given to a citizens committee studying whether to make more changes in the Senior Tax Credit law."

The averages could change once the final tally is in, the paper says.

People age 70 and older who own their homes, have household incomes of less than $68,450 and assets of less than $500,000, excluding their homes, are eligible for a 25 percent property tax break from the county.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

If You Hurry, You Can Still Shred

Howard County Government Shredding Event

The County will be hosting a Shredding Event on October 13th, 2007 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Long Gate Park and Ride at Meadowbrook Park just off of Route 100 in Ellicott City. Residents may bring their documents (up to three bags or boxes) and watch them as they are shredded. Electronic storage devices (such as hard drives, discs, etc.) may also be brought to the event for destruction, but those will be destroyed offsite. If you have any questions, please call 410-313-6444 or e-mail

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hollywood on the Patuxent

It's beginning to dawn on us that we might have a budding video industry forming here.

First, we learned that HBO had been shooting scenes of "The Wire" at a soundstage here (after some urban explorer got caught urban exploring on the set).

And now we discover there is a real live cable channel based in our fair town. It's not quite ABC, NBC or one of those other major networks, but Retirement Living TV does have carriage deals with Comcast and DirecTV.

What is it, who's behind it?

"Retirement Living is television for Americans 55+. We inform you on topics including health, lifestyle, finance, and politics. We provide you with engaging stories about ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives. We inspire and involve you in order to improve your own life.

"Our roots are in Erickson Retirement Communities, the National Institutes of Health, non-profit research foundations, the University of Maryland's School of Aging Studies, and leading gerontologists across the country. We are the foremost experts on aging and seniors. We are the new voice of a generation under-served by the media industry. We hope to change not only the way you watch TV, but the way you live your life."

The company employs about 200, many of whom work in DC, New York, Hollywood and at a studio on the campus of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

This is not your grandmother's 55+ TV. This week's lineup features sex, drugs and rock n' roll!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Never Mind...

...about that Sun report claiming two 11-year-old boys were shot by pellet guns; the newspaper has since offered an update:

"Two 11-year-old Elkridge boys who reported that they were shot by a man with a pellet gun on their way to school last week lied about the attacks, Howard County police said yesterday.

"Police said they did not know what prompted the boys to fabricate the story. The boys admitted Monday night that the story was a hoax, police said."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Pellet Guns and Paintballs

The Sun has a story about two 11-year-old boys who were shot with a pellet gun at an Elkridge area bus stop on separate days last week, prompting authorities to step up patrols near Mayfield Woods Middle and Deep Run Elementary. The kids suffered minor injuries.

"The suspect is described as a young male with a thin build. He was wearing a black ski mask and camouflage," the story says.

The report reminded us of this notice that went out in River Hill recently:

"On Monday, October 1:
The occupants of a blue car shot paintballs at a jogger on Great Star. Later in the day the eighth grade classes at Clarksville Middle School were outside and students were participating on the fields, when four to five teenage boys in the woods shot paintballs at them. When one of the PE teachers went over toward the trees, the teenagers ran off. Both incidents were reported to the Police Department. The Police Department is continuing area checks in the community. Detectives assigned to the case are following leads ."

Anyone with information is asked to call police 410-313-3200.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Those Sneaky Kids

Seems some high schoolers have been sneaking in drinks they are too young to have, according to this story in the Sun. Howard High has joined Wilde Lake, Centennial and Atholton in prohibiting fans from bringing beverages to sporting events.

"The beverage ban, which applies to students and adults, allows fans to possess only beverages that have been purchased from concession stands," the story says.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Another Cable TV Company?

Cavalier Telephone has submitted an application to the county to sell cable television services here, competing with Comcast and Verizon, according to this story in the Flier.

There are lots of hoops to jump through before our mailboxes get stuffed by another company begging us to switch. Everyone has tales of woe about service outages at one company or another. But beyond the basics, is there really much difference between what companies are offering these days?

If you were starting a cable-phone-Internet juggernaut what would you do to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack? Real local programming? A Tivo service you could program from your cell phone? An Internet television cloud that would follow you anywhere?

How about do-it-yourself channels, the Cranky hour, or a Hometown Columbia hula-hoop-a-thon?

Now that would be real competition.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Setting Sail

WaPo's WashBiz Blog recently posted an item about CACI International, an Arlington-based information technology and network services provider, announcing that it had snapped up Columbia's Dragon Development.

We had not heard much about Dragon before, and that's probably because the company provides professional, technical and engineering services to the intelligence community. According to CACI, the company's revenue is expected to eclipse $32 million in 2007, and its workforce includes 75 people who hold top secret security clearances with special access.

Those sorts of people are really hard to come by these days, what with the boom in post 9/11 security spending, especially for smaller firms. Dragon's secret? Could it be the "Dragon Club?" The company offers Caribbean cruises and such to hard-working employees and their spouses.

We wonder if the boss is reading this...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Blue Ribbon Schools

River Hill High School and Burleigh Manor Middle are Blue Ribbon schools.

That's according to the feds, who bestow the honors on schools that meet one of two criteria: "
1) Schools with at least 40 percent of their students from disadvantaged backgrounds that dramatically improve student performance to high levels on state tests; and 2) Schools whose students, regardless of background, achieve in the top 10 percent of their state on state tests or in the case of private schools in the top 10 percent of the nation on nationally-normed tests."

We assume River Hill and Burleigh Manor made the grade because of No. 2.

The two schools were among seven in Maryland, and 287 nationwide, according to the Education Department's list.

What do the honorees get?

Bragging rights of course.

Two people from each school, the principal and a teacher, also will be invited to a ceremony in Washington in November. There they will receive a plaque and a flag signifying their new status.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Price Of History

The county has reached an agreement to buy the old stone Post Office on Main Street in Ellicott City, "pending an inspection period during which the viability of the building and the County’s ability to make the necessary improvements to ensure its long term preservation will be assessed."

The county plans to convert the upstairs mailroom into a tourism center (there's currently an information office downstairs, along with an office for U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings).

What caught our eye was the price for prime 1940s-era Main Street real estate: $640,000. Either this is some fixer upper, or maybe the feds took pity on poor Howard. Here's a listing for another nearby property, which is going for close to $1 million.

(Of course, it's possible the feds are keeping title to the land, the releases we saw just mention the county is buying the building).

Monday, October 1, 2007

County Releases Downtown Plan

County Exec Ken Ulman is seeking public comment on a draft report for coming up with a community vision for Columbia's downtown.

The document, the product of discussions going back at least to 2005 (and probably earlier), lays out some of the challenges and goals and includes an assessment of traffic. The "framework" really doesn't provide a roadmap to how we actually accomplish anything. That comes later after General Growth (which bought the Rouse Co.) comes up with its own master plan, and the county approves any necessary zoning changes, according to this article in the Sun.

When it comes to land use, planning is not done on Internet time.

Here's an excerpt from the county report, to get an idea of what you'll read:

"The public discourse on Downtown Columbia has shown a clear and strong consensus for a
livelier Downtown, but there are also broad concerns about infrastructure capacity, building
heights, housing affordability and other issues. A new plan for development in Columbia
must reflect the community’s priorities and adequately address its concerns."

Lots of big words there. Lots of disagreements embedded there.