Thursday, July 31, 2008

Get Ready For Longer Bus Rides

The school system is trying to manage its higher fuel costs this fall by changing bus routes, according to a report on Baltimore TV channel 2.

David Drown, the Director of Transportation for Howard County Public Schools, told ABC2 News Kuren Redmond, "Based on the cost of fuel this year compared to last year we're going to spend about $800,000 more so it effects our bottom line in terms of the services we provide."

Drown says 40,000 Howard County school students ride over 425 buses, totaling 24,000 miles driven each school day.

With numbers like that, Drown says changes must be made, "We'll have to route the buses tighter, so we would have more students riding then we normally would want. And we're probably going to have routes that are longer than we normally would want so the result is you'll see more kids on the bus for longer times."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No More Free Rides

The Examiner reported that HoCo Exec Ulman is sharply reducing the number of county-owned vehicles that are issued to employees.

The 207 take-home vehicles in service will be reduced by 119, saving the county as much as $700,000 a year, according to county officials.

Officials spent time reviewing commuting miles versus job-related miles and found that some cars were being used for long-distance commutes from as far as Pennsylvania.

The Sun detailed some of the cuts:

The move would restrict more than half of the 207 county vehicles driven home by employees, including police public information spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. Others affected include several deputy department heads, 25 fire officials, 29 sheriff's deputies and 44 Public Works employees, according to county Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins. Sheriff James T. Fitzgerald, who is elected, will not lose take-home use of his vehicle.

No executive staff members would lose their take-home vehicles, Robbins said.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Columbia 2.0

Every big development discussion produces its own set of protagonists. Who will lead the charge on downtown development? General Growth's Gregory Hamm? State delegate Liz Bobo?

Columbia 2.0?

The Sun and others say a small group of "young, business-oriented" folks gathered Monday to push for the redevelopment of the downtown.

The new group drew about 25 people to a news conference yesterday on the parking lot of The Mall in Columbia, a short distance from a restaurant where David Yungmann, 41, a Columbia real estate agent and one of three leaders, began the event.

"We wanted to highlight how hard it is to walk from there to here," Yungmann said, explaining that his group wants to involve more young people in the discussion and push for the kind of redevelopment plan proposed by General Growth Properties Inc., the Chicago-based firm that bought the Rouse Co.

"The status quo is not an option," Yungmann said, noting how difficult it is to move around Town Center's vast parking lots on foot.

Columbia 2.0 seems very much a work in progress right now. The Web site includes little information beyond a statement of purpose. A video on the site quotes a guy saying Columbia is going downhill and needs renovation, and a young couple saying GGP's vision is great. Not exacting thought-provoking stuff there.

The video links to a Flickr site for a Laurel entrepreneur named Glenn Garnes, who also registered the Columbia2pointo Web site back in May, which was about the time GGP started its presentations.

It'll be interesting to see if a new generation of folks really steps forward; we saw inklings during the big battle over Merriweather. Read this piece for one account.

If nothing else, maybe debate over downtown will produce some more local bloggers ;)

Monday, July 28, 2008

High-Speed Wireless For The Schools?

The Sun has a story saying Baltimore County is bringing high-speed wireless access to all its schools, ready when students return to classes next month.

The move was prompted by the growing number of laptops in use in the county's 171 schools and centers and the increasing use of digital media-based instructional tools, along with the high costs associated with cabling and installation of wired networks, according to school officials. In addition, schools will be able to make greater use of video learning programs.

Baltimore County appears to be the only school system in the region that anticipates being fully wireless by the coming school year, but others, including Carroll and Howard counties, are looking into it. Baltimore City has a half-dozen schools that are "centrally managed for wireless," and about a fourth of Anne Arundel County's public schools have some form of wireless access, according to spokesmen for those systems.

"It's part of our technology plan," said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County public schools. "We're beginning a network redesign next week."

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sad News: "Last Lecture" Prof Dies

From the AP via WaPo:

PITTSBURGH -- Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist whose "last lecture" about facing terminal cancer became an Internet sensation and a best-selling book, has died. He was 47.

University spokeswoman Anne Watzman says Pausch died early Friday at his home in Virginia.

Pausch was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer in September 2006. His popular last lecture at Carnegie Mellon in September 2007 garnered international attention and was viewed by millions on the Internet.

Pausch grew up in Columbia. Here's a link to our previous post.

Comcast Cuts Off Washington Viewers

Hey, this happened to us: The Flier has a story about how Comcast users who rely on analog service (meaning, we don't use boxes or subscribe to the digital tier of service) can no longer receive the local Washington channels. We just see fuzz now. Comcast said they did this to offer more content digitally. Others think it is a way to force people to pay more. Bottom line for us: We won't be able to see all the Redskin games next season unless we go back to the old rabbit ears -- or upgrade.

Until two weeks ago, Columbia resident Stephen Hall enjoyed watching news programs and Washington Redskins football games from local Washington D.C. stations on the four televisions in his home.

But when his cable provider, Comcast Corp., began to require its Howard County customers to change from an analog to a digital plan in order to view the Washington stations, Hall believed that Comcast was forcing him to pay extra for a service he already had.

"This is a cautionary tale for everybody," said Hall, who receives analog service on two of his four televisions. "This is a backdoor rate increase and everybody is in jeopardy."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Searching For The Internet

WaPo has an interesting story about the quest to use the unlicensed airwaves between television channels, known as white spaces, that could provide a new form of mobile broadband Internet service.

Apparently many of the world's largest technology companies --Google, Microsoft, HP, Dell, Phillips -- are racing to figure out how to do it and not interfere with signals for Seinfeld reruns and other programming.

A lot of the testing to persuade the FCC to approve the technology is going on right in our backyard:

First out of the gate was a team from Motorola. On a recent steamy day in the middle of Patapsco Valley State Park about 10 miles west of Baltimore, Dave Gurney, an engineer for the company, set up shop in a parking lot surrounded by dense forest.

A large black box the size of a suitcase hooked up to a laptop sat near the base of a tree-covered hill. An antenna perched on a tripod rested a few feet away. A group of engineers stared intently at the contraption, as if it were about to spring to life.

"It's done!" Gurney said. He held his breath as the men leaned in further and quickly jotted down a cryptic list of numbers. Then he ran the test again.

...For more than a year, the agency has been testing prototypes with mixed results. An early prototype built by Microsoft failed to operate in the FCC's lab. Microsoft later determined the device was broken.

The FCC is now testing other prototypes built by Philips and Motorola as well as Silicon Valley start-up Adaptrum and Singapore-based Institute for Infocomm Research. The Motorola device connects to a database of TV stations operating within 200 kilometers and scans the airwaves nearly every second for other signals that may pop up unexpectedly, such as a wireless microphone.

If the device senses that it is within or close to a TV station's coverage area, it is supposed to avoid that station's frequency. It then ranks empty frequencies by their proximity to existing signals. If a new signal suddenly appears, the white-space device should automatically switch to another open channel.

Gurney ran the scan twice and recorded the results. He then covered the machine in bubble wrap, rolled it across the parking lot and ran the test again. Signal strengths can change by location, depending on how many trees, hills and people are nearby.

"We're testing multiple times to make sure the results are consistent," he said.

But the results can be hard to decipher. At the first location, Motorola's device indicated that channel 51, for example, was open and available. At the second location, the device picked up a weak signal on the channel, suggesting that it was already in use.

Motorola's engineers say that means the signal changed slightly between locations, and the device would be able to avoid that channel as soon as it was detected. But Bruce Franca, vice president of policy and technology for the Association for Maximum Service Television, a broadcasting industry group, is skeptical.

"The results of every single test were different," he said. "The device failed to recognize that certain channels are actually being occupied by TV signals. . . . Clearly this is not ready for prime time."

A prototype built by Adaptrum also got its turn in the hot seat -- literally. The sun was so bright in the parking lot that Haiyun Tang, chief technology officer of Adaptrum, shaded his device -- a jumble of wires and computer chips -- with an umbrella to protect it from the heat.

"Don't want to take any chances," he said.

Tang has traveled to Washington at least once a month since December to oversee the FCC's testing of Adaptrum's device. He is eager for the field tests to be concluded, he said, so the agency can use the data collected to write rules governing how white space products can be built. Because Adaptrum is a small start-up, Tang's ability to raise venture capital funding hinges on the FCC's decision, which is expected by summer's end.

Shure, which makes microphones and other audio equipment used in Broadway shows and sports games, argues the tests have not proven that the prototypes can consistently detect TV signals, let alone wireless microphones that hop on frequencies without notice.

The FCC plans to test the white-space devices at an entertainment venue in the next few months. The National Football League has offered the Baltimore Ravens' stadium or the Washington Redskins' park as possible venues. And the Recording Academy, which puts on the Grammy Awards, has offered up the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago next month for testing.

"That's where the rubber will meet the road," said Mark Brunner, senior director of brand management at Shure.

FCC engineers said the tests were not intended to give passing or failing grades to the devices but simply to determine whether the prototypes are capable of sensing occupied signals. White-space proponents say they recognize the technology has a long way to go before it can be offered to consumers.

"The FCC is looking for evidence that using white spaces can be done -- any consumer device will have to go through a rigorous testing process as well," said Ben Scott of Free Press, a consumer advocate group. "Our goal is to take advantage of the available airwaves to offer much-needed broadband service."

Although the companies are working toward the same goal, the FCC's tests have brought out the competitive spirit between the engineers. Motorola's device is the only one with built-in access to geolocation data, while the Philips device can instantly sense a wireless microphone signal. Adaptrum's device has performed well in the tests, but it takes over an hour to scan the airwaves.

"Ours can do it in under six seconds!" Vic Tyagi, a member of Motorola's team, said with a smile. "Beat that."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

CA To Demur On Downtown Plan?

The Sun/Flier's local news blog says CA's Board of Directors is set to vote on a motion to oppose a developer’s plan to construct buildings and roads in Symphony Woods as part of the proposed rebuilding of downtown Columbia over the next 30 years.

Some members of the board believe that developing Symphony Woods, which encloses Merriweather Post Pavilion, would disturb a serene, natural and forested area in downtown Columbia, according to board member Cynthia Coyle, of Harper’s Choice, who proposed the motion.

“I think it has the potential to be developed into a nice park,” Coyle said.

...On July 10, the board’s three-member Planning and Strategy Committee, which includes Coyle, passed a motion stating that the board wants General Growth to protect Symphony Woods’ natural setting for community use and would oppose the construction of buildings or roads there.

“The motion is saying that we’re not ready to accept buildings yet in Symphony Woods,” said CA board chairman Tom O’Connor, of Dorsey’s Search. “We haven’t had that full discussion with General Growth yet, so we’re not signing up for it.”

The full 10-member board has scheduled a vote on the motion for Thursday, July 24.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rodricks On DWI Sentencing

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks compares the sentences of two recent DWI-related cases:

Friday, for instance, 26-year-old Matthew Miller pleaded guilty in Baltimore County Circuit Court to one count of manslaughter by vehicle in the death of Kevin M. Ryan, the 18-year-old Towson University freshman who was struck last October by Miller's vehicle while walking on Hillen Road and thrown into the path of another car on Goucher Boulevard. Miller fled the scene, hid his car in an alley and called police to say his car had been stolen.

Judge Robert N. Dugan sentenced Miller to 18 months in the county detention center. Dugan said he "could not in good conscience" send Miller to the state penitentiary, which he described as a "hellhole."

Now, wasn't that considerate of the judge?

Compare Dugan's treatment of Miller with Howard County Circuit Court Judge Louis Becker's treatment in late May of an illegal immigrant from Mexico.

Another terrible tragedy -- a driver drunk beyond drunk slams his car into another, killing a Marine corporal and his date. The parents of Cpl. Brian Mathews were upset with the 10-year prison sentence imposed by Becker on the 27-year-old Mexican who killed their son. The corporal's dad told reporters that the sentence was not sufficient. The corporal's mother said her son "fought for the system and it failed him." But how does the sentence compare with those in other cases in Maryland, particularly those where the defendant's citizenship is not a factor, as it obviously was in this one?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Restaurant Week

It's time to go out. Several of Howard's pricier restaurants are offering three-course meals for $30.08 from July 21 to Aug. 3 as part of the county's first restaurant week. Many establishments are also offering a two-course lunch for $20.08.

While not exactly cheap, those prices are less expensive than one might ordinarily pay.

The Sun says Howard is sometimes perceived as a haven for chain restaurants, but the campaign is an attempt to show off some of our locally owned restaurants.

Tourism officials are also encouraging restaurant patrons to take pictures of themselves partaking in restaurant week, with the restaurant identified in the photo. Diners shown at the most participating restaurants will be entered to win a $100 gas card..

Friday, July 18, 2008

Bobo's Questions

Del. Liz Bobo asks lots of questions about plans for downtown Columbia in a commentary published by the Sun. What is to be done about schools, the environment, traffic and the like? Give them a read here.

She concludes:

Some have labeled those who raise these questions as anti-growth and afraid of change. Looking around at the many examples of development gone awry, I call these voices wise. We must realize that as much as Town Center can be improved through well-planned and well-executed development, it could also be seriously damaged by poor planning. In Columbia's Town Center we have the opportunity to plan thoroughly and well, and we have the responsibility to do so as a model others can follow.

General Growth has clearly put much effort into its proposals. In doing so, it has also reopened to the public the beautiful Spear Center in its building overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi. I am grateful for this. Now, we need a plan for the first five years of development that could be well monitored from a social, environmental and economic perspective.

There has been much discussion, and some disagreement, in Columbia of late about who represents our beloved Jim Rouse's vision. One of his many meaningful quotations comes to mind now: "What ought to be, can be, with the will to make it so."

Smart answers to the questions above can "make it so" for Town Center if we neighbors and friends work together respectfully for our community to be a model of inclusion and excellence.

Tennis Champ Visits Wilde Lake

From Stan Ber's "Bits and Pieces" column:

The USTA Maryland Adult League Championship tennis tournament, a three-day event with 1,000 players on 63 teams, will be held here this weekend and there is one huge draw. Two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin will be at the Wilde Lake Tennis Club Friday, July 18 from 11 a.m. to noon. Austin, a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, will join participating tournament players for team photos and autographs.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Construction Ahead

Anyone who has been on Route 175 lately has encountered the traffic cones of work crews. The Examiner explains what's going on:

Pedestrian “countdown” technology and sidewalks ramps will be installed on traffic signals along Route 175 at Thunder Hill Road, Tamar Drive and Dobbin Road in addition to resurfacing.

Motorist should expect delays along MD 175 Westbound in Columbia, Howard County through the end of the year as the State Highway Administration begins a $1.5 million project to resurface three miles between US 29 (Columbia Pike)and Dobbin Road.

The closures will occur from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Monday through Friday.

For any questions about traffic operations, call SHA’s District 7 Office at 301-624-8100 or toll free at 1-800-635-5119.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Shoppers Start Your Engines

This event promises to blend two of our favorite indulgences: Splurging...and watching the hordes fight over shimmery blouses and pointy high heels:

From the mall's Web site:

Nordstrom's Anniversary Sale Tailgate Party

Nordstrom customers will be invited to enjoy a morning of Fall fashion fun as we countdown to the biggest sale of the year, our Anniversary Sale. The event will take place in the Nordstrom parking lot and the morning festivities will include an exclusive view of Anniversary product, while highlighting Fall fashion trends from select departments, music, coffee and donuts and a tote gift with a $100 purchase before the store opens.

7/18/2008 7:00am Nordstrom

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Officers Cleared In Teenager Shooting

The Sun reports that new county prosecutor Dario Broccolino has once again cleared police in a shooting case, concluding that the incident was an accident.

No charges will be filed against the undercover officer who accidentally shot two Jessup teenagers police suspected of dealing drugs in April, the Howard County state's attorney's office said yesterday.

About 5 p.m. April 7, undercover narcotics officers stopped two teenagers, Dwain Usery, who was 14 at the time, and Garcia Wilson, who was 15, in the 8300 block of Pleasant Chase Road in Jessup, police said. One of the officers, who was not named because of his undercover status, drew his gun to approach the boys. Police say the gun discharged as the officer tripped while getting out of his car, and a single bullet struck both boys. Wilson was grazed on the arm, and Usery was hit in the torso.

The Sun said the police department has yet to wrap up its internal investigation. Police chief William McMahon released this statement:

"It is reassuring that after a thorough, independent review of this case, the state's attorney's office determined that this shooting was unintentional.

"While we acknowledge that accidents do happen, we have reinforced with officers our expectation that they take every precaution to reduce the likelihood of this type of incident happening again."

Monday, July 14, 2008

Curbing The Curve

Curvy streets were once thought to be part of Columbia's charm. But the Examiner says county officials are looking into options to fix one curve on Harper's Farm Road near Twin Rivers that has seen its share of one-car accidents and damaged light poles.

The problem isn’t really the distance of the light poles from the road, but rather speed, Diane Schwarzman, chief of the Howard County’s Traffic Engineering Division, told the newspaper.

County officials are exploring two options for the road, estimated to cost between $150,000 and $275,0000: modifying the cross slope on the curve by building up the road so it’s higher, or making the curve longer, she said.

“It’s just the way the road’s aligned,” said Caryn Lasser, assistant to Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, D-District 4.

Friday, July 11, 2008


We saw this on the Sun/Flier's Explore Howard site and it had us hankering for a road trip:

Clarksville teens Alex Fast and Emily Woodhouse fed dolphins in Sea World in California, had a tea party with teddy bears in the Teddy Bear Factory in Vermont and experienced what it would feel like to walk on the moon at Space Camp in Alabama -- all in one summer.

During a whirlwind summer in 2006, the pair hit 25 U.S. landmarks in two months as they served as hosts for a DVD intended to introduce children to famous and quirky national sites.

The DVD, dubbed "TripFLIX," was produced by Columbia-based Pixel Workshop and released in November 2007.

Fast, now 20, and Woodhouse, now 18, landed the traveling gig by chance, when each impressed Pixel Workshop's co-owner Ilana Bittner during performances at River Hill High School.

Here's a promo video:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Good Work If You Can Get It

We couldn't help but smile at the energy-saving hyperbole in this release -- but admit it, wouldn't you like to work a four-day work week? Or even just a normal 40-hour week?

ELLICOTT CITY – Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced today that effective immediately he is reigniting the county’s alternative work schedule policy and encouraging supervisors to review alternative work options with their employees. Recognizing that escalating energy costs are having a huge impact on employees’ wallets and their personal lives, Ulman instructed County officials to broaden the scope of this program.

“Many County employees are being hammered by soaring fuel costs, and it’s imperative that we look for solutions to help them, and in this case help the environment as well,” said Ulman. “We have instructed supervisors to look for ways to help employees who want this kind of flexibility; but I have also stressed this program cannot reduce services to county residents --- that is job #1.”

County Executive Ulman has always been an advocate of employee-friendly policies and continues to encourage supervisors to consider the approval of a compressed work schedule to accomplish three primary goals: significant fuel savings to benefit the employee; lower stress levels to benefit the employee; and decreased pollution to the environment.

The following is an overview of the two most common compressed work schedules Howard County is offering:

* 4/40 – Working 4 ten-hour days each week
* 9/80 – Working 8 nine-hour days plus 1 eight-hour day (frees up one day bi-weekly)

In the event that a compressed work week is not feasible, another option is flex time. County employees that meet the criteria and express an interest can adjust their start and ending work times so they may drive outside heavy commuting periods, reducing both stress levels and pollution levels.

This is one piece of Executive Ulman’s long range plan to conserve energy.

Police Justified In Shooting Of Senior

Howard's new state's attorney Dario Broccolino has determined that a police officer was justified in shooting 62-year-old Pearl Harris after she lunged at his partner with a foot-long knife.

The Sun recounts the incident in this story and adds:

Last month, a grand jury indicted Harris on charges of attempted first- and second-degree murder, first-degree assault and reckless endangerment. A judge ordered that she undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Two More Charged In OM Slaying

From WaPo, via the Associated Press:

Two men from Owings Mills, Md., were charged in the slaying of a Columbia man in May in the parking lot of a Columbia apartment.

Howard County police said Daymar Wimbish, 18, and Lamont Johnson, 24, were charged with first-degree murder and assault. Johnson was charged Tuesday and Wimbish was charged Thursday.

Police said Johnson shot and killed Jason Batts, 23, on May 17 with a shotgun in a parking lot at the Stevens Forest Apartments. Police said that Ronald McConnell, 21, ordered the killing over an ongoing dispute.

McConnell was charged three days after Batts's death with first- and second-degree murder and assault. Howard authorities have Wimbish in custody, and Johnson is in Baltimore County's detention center on unrelated charges.