Monday, December 11, 2006

Christmas Sparkle

Still on a Christmas high, enjoying the seasonal cheer, even when shopping. Shopping at a Target on the weekend was a civilized experience (granted, it was before noon, when things tend to take a turn for the worse).

In addition to purchasing a gift card while there, I bought a couple of candles, the Method brand. Yes, the company that brought wallet-friendly, environmentally correct cleaning supplies does it again, offering fragrant, affordable candles. The store carried 'gingerbread spice' ones, just in time, so I was suckered into buying a pair. Mmm, mmm, good! That homey, holiday scent, on the cheap...

In the past, I've been wary of candles, because they're a leading cause of fires, which is why I insist on candles that are enclosed in jars or tin.

Earlier this year, my aunt related a story of how her daughter's house almost caught fire when one of her [admittedly large, open] candles flames shot out of control, a vivid warning to me on the potential dangers of this source of beauty.

Of course, Method's candles are soy (read: nonpetroleum), which are all the rage in the candle/gift world. Web sites wax effusive (pun intended) over the 'superior fragrance throw' of candlewax from the oil of the humble bean, glycine max.

It's good news when a popular category of products can be transitioned, almost en masse, from being polluting, petroleum-produced health hazards, to non-petroleum, non-polluting, less-wasteful pleasantries. This welcome development is one small step away from petroleum, which, has of late, been showing a mini-creep upwards in price at the pump. Considering the events in the Mideast as of late, you had to see that upward tick, and more gas price instability, coming...

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

This being World AIDS Day, the one message that everyone should take away is: Get tested, because it can happen to anyone, anywhere...(Hey, if superstar Obama can do it, anyone can!)

More Christmas Merriment...

I've been getting in the holiday spirit greatly, as of late...the other elves at work decorated the office yesterday, and it brought everyone's spirits up to see the display this morning!

Of course, I had to go into my Martha Stewart mode, and go to Whole Foods before work to pick up some seasonal accoutrements...They call that store 'Whole Paycheck' not just because of the price of much (but not all) of the merchandise, but because the variety of products will have you spending that paycheck before you know it! For instance, not only did it have the tempting tiny rosemary and stone pine trees, but garlands, just waiting to be picked up and given new homes. Which I promptly did, for one of them. I took the garland apart, and put parts of it in various areas of the office, so that there could be a fresh pine smell throughout, because the office tree is artificial.

Now, I couldn't stop there, of course. I had to find a jar or tin-enclosed candle, preferably soy, to impart a spicy, holiday aroma. Although I didn't find a candle with the exact name 'gingerbread,' I did find a nice facsimile, a cinnamon/almond scented soy candle from Pacifica, for $13. (All the candles that Whole Foods sells are soy, instead of parafin, according to a sales associate.) That one candle made the entire office smell even better, with the scent wafting up multiple floors! Next on my personal holiday list: a candle wick trimmer, which is recommended to keep candles burning clean, as you are supposed to trim candle wicks after putting out the flame. Even spilling a little candle wax after putting out the candle didn't faze me, because the wax wasn't extremely hot, but it gave my finger a nice cinnamon fragrance.

* * *

My attitude toward holiday leftovers is very relaxed (most of them now being gone), even though I had much food left over, much was eaten and given away on Thanksgiving, as well. While I've tried (and enjoyed) specific recipes for leftovers in the past, such as turkeyless tetrazzini, I mostly have a new attitude toward leftovers.

I like to have the first dinner after the big feast as a mini-feast, with the fancy plates and decor, to keep it special, but because it's just the immediate family, it's relaxing, too.

After that, I like to eat the leftovers in any way, shape, or form. I might microwave part of one dish to eat for lunch one day, such as the green bean casserole, and, for the morning, microwave some macaroni and cheese for breakfast.

My least favorite holiday food is mashed potatoes, not only because it's relatively ordinary compared to other feast foods, but because it's my least favorite form of the spud, being pure mush, more or less. This time, I patted most of the leftover mashed potatoes into two patties, heated some oil in a cast iron skillet, and fried them into crispy, golden brown potato pancakes. (Eaten with gravy, of course.) Umm, umm, good!

Homemade cranberry sauce, which, if you make it yourself, you have tons left over (thankfully!), is so versatile, being like a jam or conserve. Post-feast, I like to eat some as a quick breakfast or dessert, often layered with applesauce and ground nutmeg, served like a parfait. However, my favorite way of eating cranberry sauce is with fresh chopped apple or pear on top. Yum!

* * *

I have yet to begin my Christmas baking yet, but I'm keeping gingerbread in mind, both in cake form and cookies. It should be fun, and I'm looking forward to all the baking and warmth, blah, blah, blah...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Merrier Christmas?

Thanksgiving was great--the folks came to my house, and were satisfied. Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike got along, as all the sides were veg-friendly (the gravy was made with vegetarian bouillon, etc.), and everyone loved the green bean casserole, a recipe which was adapted from the Silk soymilk website. (My change was to fry some shallots separately, and mix half of them in the casserole, and put the other half on top.) To me, however, one of the best things about the whole week of Thanksgiving is having sweet potato pie for breakfast, the best breakfast in the world!

I should have known--they want me to host Christmas, too! Actually, that sounds wonderful, as Thanksgiving went without a hitch because I started planning in October, around Halloween, decorating, and all that good stuff.

I like to decorate au naturel, in part because of principle, but also because it's cheap. I mean, why pay for faux leaves when you can, literally, pick them up off the ground? That's what I do--I walk through the neighborhood, and look for dropped pine cones, and for the tree that's dropped small branches of needles, to use indoors as short garlands. Actually, as long as they're still green while on the ground, the pine branches will look fresh for weeks indoors and, of course, dry pine cones are usable forever. (So, again, why do people buy fake ones?)

However, the tricky plant, at least in terms of trying to keep it fresh when cut, is the holly. Fortunately, I have a decent sized holly right outside, with large, glossy leaves, and its brimming with berries, so I decided to test how to best keep them fresh when cut. Last week, I cut quite a few from this tree/bush, and kept half in a plastic bag; the other ones I applied oil to, in an effort to help them keep moisture, in order to keep them fresh longer. Well, last night I peeked in the plastic bag for the first time in almost a week, and those holly branches look fresher than the ones that I babied with all the oil! [Another year, I tried Future floor polish as a holly preservative, which worked for a couple of weeks, but made a mess in the house, as you can imagine, when it began to dry in the bowl in which I dipped the plants. ]

Let's not even discuss those lovely tiny stone pine and rosemary plants available at Whole Foods for the holidays, as they tempt me to take them home, and promptly kill them with my black thumb! (However, I have found that rosemary branches do quite well when kept submerged in water, whether on the table or in the refrigerator. Just change the water every few days...whether they retain enough flavor to use for potato dishes is another matter, though.)

* * *

This may be the time of year to consider when, and how, to give gifts to colleagues and other business associates. Of course, sites offering gift ideas are a dollar a dozen, but there are also websites with guidelines on appropriate corporate gift-giving (and not just from American Express), knowledge which makes the holidays less stressful already!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Oh, go jump in the lake...

Do you get the sinking feeling that chemicals that have affected critters' reproductive systems are starting to affect animal behavior as well?

I mean, when otters attack (as there have been two that I've heard of this year, including one involving a pregnant woman in Roanoke), deer jump into the Tidal Basin, and a man is critically injured by a (normally docile) sting ray, something's rotten in Denmark. Now, the case of the deer may be different, as another sad situation may be causing their flights into futility--huntin' season. That's right, it's been demonstrated that deer-automobile collisions (like the one that took place the other morning in Virginia) increase dramatically during deer hunting season, which is also the time of year they are most likely to be reckless, being also mating season and all. The Tidal Basin rescuers showed stamina and bravery in rustling the frightened critters out of the basin, considering the unusual nature of the situation. Before this week, I was unaware, like most folks, of the deer's desire to perform aquatic ballet!

Unfortunately, with the end of daylight savings time coming tomorrow, I'm more afraid than ever of hitting one of these walking (and leaping!) studies in grace.

* * *

Perhaps I should save my worries for driving the Beltway (which I studiously avoid anyway), as this past weekend youngsters threw rocks and bricks onto vehicles. Miraculously and thankfully, no one was seriously injured. Whatever possesses people to commit such simultaneously stupid and cruel acts? (Especially after someone was seriously injured only a couple of years ago in Virginia by just such behavior.) Considering that this happened on a part of the road near the construction for the National Harbor project in Oxon Hill, it's a wonder that even more confusion didn't ensure, as the general area, as you can imagine, is a maze of turns, with traffic lights placed in new locations, and a new exit to the Wilson Bridge being built there, too, the rock-throwing idiots are fortunate that they didn't get run over getting to the construction site to find objects to lob at people's vehicles.


One thing that puzzles me about planning for the harbor is whether anyone has openly considered what effect this hubbub will have on historic Oxon Hill Manor, which is right next door, so to speak, to this glitzy megapolis-to-be. When the manor's renovation is completed, will people want to pay the county to have weddings and other events there, now that the peace and quiet that used to be there(although it was never far from Route 210), will be gone? Considering that the area near the manor is primarily residential, single-family homes in the immediate area, what impact will Vegas east have on traffic on the adjoining streets? (I can't properly consider Livingston Road a side street, but still...) Have there been plans to upgrade public transportation in the area, as buses only run morning and evening weekdays in that area? I don't recall a politician bringing up the subject, which is odd considering the exponential increase in congestion that the project is likely to scare up.

I better get a few more good looks at the area before it's developed to a point that I won't recognize it, which won't be too long.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Not for Kids Only, Part II, or, the Mo' Money Edition

I'm pleased with myself, finally taking to heart Suze Orman's advice not to spend the change, but save it. The practical difficulty, until recently, has been in finding a good place to park the coins.

A small "toy" (well, that's how it's marketed, unfortunately), to the rescue--the Money Savvy Pig. I got one as a giveaway, at the Wachovia booth at a convention, and I've been using it ever since. A modern-day incarnation of the old faithful savings device, this piggy is translucent, and available in a number of colors to boot. Most important, instead of the one drop-in slot for the loot, there are four slots, as well as four piggy feet that you use to empty the plastic porker, each slot corresponding to a foot, which you open to empty that particular chamber.

Although the four chambers are labeled "save," "donate," "spend," and "invest," I use the compartments my own way, of course, and ignore the labels. Instead, I designated each slot for a particular coin denomination--the first for pennies, the second, nickels, etc. That way, as each compartment fills up, I can open its foot, and slide its coins into a roll or rolls, which will prove a big timesaver over having the coins mixed, which meant having to separate them into separate stacks for rolls.

The pig is available at, of course, as well as other Internet sites, for about $15. It's the creation of a company called Money Savvy Generation, a corporation started by a mother wishing to teach her children about money and saving. (It markets another product called 'Cash Cow.')

As great as I think the product is, I think it's a mistake to limit the marketing primarily to the schoolyard set, as people of all ages need help learning how to save, and all the practical encouragement that they can get, if the recent statistics on the dismal American savings rate are any indication.

* * *

Mo' Money, Mo' Money...

A website that generally dedicates itself to the time management principles of GTD ("getting things done") has recently focused on sites that deal with money management--the other side of the coin to time management, so to speak. 43 Folders' emphasis on all things monetary had various strategies for keeping (and even earning) more money. What a concept!

I agree with many of the sentiments in the Free Money Finance article, The Fastest Way to Get Out of Debt, because it works! (I've used the same principles in the past to pay off debt.) I would add that to take full advantage of the timing of your income, particularly to pay off the largest debts (or to make a large purchase in cash), it's best to take a calendar to map out a year at a time, circle every payday, and note the months in which you have more than two paydays. Depending on the day of the week you are paid, the number of months in which you have more than two paydays works out to two to four months of the year! Combine this knowledge with snowballing the payoff of debts, as Dave Ramsey recommends [which, I can say from experience works, and which I did before I even heard of Mr. Ramsey], and you will see great progress in debt reduction in a year's time.

* * *

The most practical book I've read (and, more importantly, purchased) on personal finance is All Your Worth, co-authored by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter Amelia Warren Tyagi, because the ladies tell you which financial moves you should make, and, crucially, in which order you should make them--should you pay off your debts first, or save for retirement first? (Or at the same time?) Warren the Elder and the Younger tell you how, why, and even give permission to have a little fun money! (Thankfully, the book is a no-scold zone.)

Elizabeth Warren, who used to be a Republican until she started research on the reasons that people declare bankruptcy, currently writes a column, Warren Reports on the Middle Class for the blog TPM Cafe, concentrating on financial issues that affect the average person, particularly on how companies are trying to wheedle more money from our pockets. A must-read.

* * *

Granted, this topic does not affect me, as I use a prepaid cell phone (don't blab enough to justify a bill of $40 a month, at a minimum), but bet'cha didn't know that you can ditch your cell phone contract without incurring the wrath of a termination fee! In fact, you don't even need to give up your phone number. Good news!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Text Messaging for Grown Folk

OK, so text messaging won't help this little guy out... (is he on the payroll of the Farmer's Almanac, which is predicting mucho snow this year? Hmm...)pembroke welsh corgi burying himself in snow

Text messaging has been in the news a lot as of late, especially the story about the teen in South Carolina who sent a distress call via text message from her kidnapper's cell phone, which proves that there are uses for text messaging that involve something other than passing e-notes in class.

Why should teens have all the fun? There are uses for text messaging that would benefit anyone, as the quick-witted South Carolina teen showed. One of them is a new (and free!) service from Google. A cell phone, any cell phone, can be used to access Google to obtain answers. Sweet! Best of all, it works--I used it a couple of time to get definitions, using Google's 'define' function. The only limitation might be your cell phone service's text message rates. I'm even getting faster at texting, although I won't be winning contests anytime soon.

Another grown-up use of text messaging, which you may have heard of, as it has received much recent publicity a few weeks ago, is the website, which is a text messenging reminder service. You type your cell phone number, desired date and time, and the message at the website, and at the date/time you specified, a text message reminder will appear on your cell phone. Nice! It's also free, although the program's creator accepts donations.

It's nice to hear good news from the computer world for a change, as so much of it consists of news about the latest virus or Trojan horse or other nefarious plot to make your system take a dive.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Apres le deluge

After leaving work one evening, I headed toward the subway parking garage with fear, trepidation, and self-loathing for putting off a minor purchase.

The day's events, however, impeled me to wait no longer. An impending storm was the impetus for me to finally creep toward my local Radio Shack (yes, the friendly chain with the high-tech employee firing methods), with sheets of rain pounding, to inquire about Grundig radios, the shortwave ones that come with hand cranks as an alternative energy source.

Well, dropping by le shack turned out to be a good thing, as there were, count 'em, not one, not two, but three shiny specimens of the radio species, modern hand crank models.

While two of the three were the Radio Shack brand, I chose the third, most expensive model. (Mind you, it cost, with tax, just over $50, so the hit wasn't too hard.) The other two radios were a reasonable $29.99 each. The machine I purchased, the Eton FR-300, has the curious distinction of being licensed by the American Red Cross. (So, for every such radio purchased, 65 cents goes to the Red Cross.) The reason I chose that model over the other two was that it could also be used to charge a cell phone, and comes with various cell phone adapters for that purpose. Unfortunately, none of those fat-ended adapters fit the newest, sleek cell phone models.

In addition to cranking (which means the radio doubles as an exercise machine!), the device can also be powered by batteries, and comes with three rechargeable ones, although it can run without any batteries, as well, thanks to the crank.

The radio also has a nice strap on top, for easy carrying without a case, but also comes with a strappy black bag that resembles a canvas purse. Nice touch, particularly if you need to carry it out of the house in an emergency...

Anyway, I followed the easy operating instructions and got clear FM reception (eureka!), as well as reception on some of its TV stations. One of the tuning options, unsurprisingly, is a frequency dedicated to the weather.

I cranked the contraption for a minute or so before turning it on; those measly two minutes of arm power made me feel more muscular, and the thing ran for about 15 minutes. As the manual says, playing time is affected by volume as well as the length of time (and rapidity!) of cranking.

A few of the radio's controls, while useful in emergencies, nonetheless give me the willies. (I suppose the possibility of ever needing such equipment is what frightens me.) The 'alert' button is on the left side of one knob, and on the right is the 'siren,' which sandwich the 'off' portion of the knob. Another button has , on its left, 'light,' and on its right, 'flash.' Uh oh...

The sales clerks were as surprised as I to see that there were still such products still on the shelves. I was especially taken aback because the storm was predicted to have the potential of this past June's storms, with all that local flooding.

Because none (that's right, none) of the cell phone adapters worked with my cell phone, my next emergency oriented purchase might be a dedicated cell phone hand crank charger. I thought I saw such an item while glancing through the window of a Verizon Wireless store. You never know...

salt peanuts, salt peanuts...

An unexpected find when picking up a couple of things at Shoppers Food--raw peanuts. Immature raw white (?green) peanuts, as these were, can only mean one thing--time to fix boiled peanuts, that Southern staple! Another woman, from Africa, was as excited as I to find them, and shared tips on preparing the delicacy (specifically, not to boil them for too long, only for an hour or less).

I first tasted the treats over a year ago, when a supervisor brought some to work, and it was instant addiction. Soon after, I asked local stores about them, but none carried them. I then trolled the Internet, which did bring some finds, but the shipping charges made me think twice (and three times).

To be a first-time peanut boiler, I didn't do too badly; the taste of the snacks improves marked, however, upon sitting overnight in the brine, and they can be microwaved so that they will be hot. The flavor is reminiscent of edamame, but the peanuts, even this relatively rare variety, are much cheaper.

Some time back, I stumbled across a study which ventured that boiled peanuts are considerably less allergenic than roasted goobers. Of course, more research needs to be done to verify whether this intriguing hypothesis has a basis in fact, but I'm waiting with baited breath to discover the facts on this debate.

A meditation on pizza--a defense of slow food

Now I realize why people swear by Ledo's Pizza (which I first tried a year ago, when one opened near me), and have their favored pizza emporiums, and know why there is such affection for pizza eaten on premise, regardless of the popularity of delivery pizza (which, I have come to find out, should be considered a different food altogether). Ledo's does not deliver, and while I first thought the stance was unreasonable, I understand it now.

I decided to order pizza from my personal fave, Washington Deli, which only does orders of three or more pies, as they are a small establishment--or so I was told. The pizzas came in a timely manner, and were tasty, with much better flavor than the national chains, but something was missing...

As good as the pizza was when delivered, it is that much better consumed at the deli, eaten at one of the outdoor tables, which catch a decent's not just the atmosphere of a pizza place that's superior, but the pizza itself undergoes an unpleasant transformation as it's being delivered. To remain hot, and to keep from being damaged, of course the pizza must be contained. However, when a hot item such as pizza is enclosed for more than a couple of minutes, condensation develops, which toughens and sogs up even a thin crust, and renders it non-crispy. (Yuck!)

So, while pizza may be the original fast food, if I need food delivered, I think I'll stick to Chinese!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Redux? (Or, will we ever learn?)

It's reassuring to discover that I'm not the only serial plant killer. A few former black thumbs even agreed to reveal themselves, and how they overcame their killer tendencies, in a recent Washington Post article on indoor care for your leafy green friends.

Granted, there are issues in container gardening that don't present themselves as intensely with regular outdoor gardening. This is the situation even with herbs, which are supposed to be hardy and easy to grow, indoors or out. As I found out the hard way, t'aint' necessarily so.

Foolishly, I once purchased a lush baby Mediterranean bay laurel (because the flavor of the California variety is disgusting) and set it on the deck, figuring that such a plant would be perfect for the hot weather, in that it wouldn't require water. Wrong! The leafy guy began to droop, yet I was afraid to water it, for fear of overwatering (although the plant was burning up in the summer sun). Quel horreur!

I later (much too later, however) asked knowledgeable gardening folk at the National Cathedral's greenhouse about the plant's fall from grace, and they told me that greenery in a pot needs to be watered lightly on a regular basis. When in the ground, the slow-growing beauty's roots are able to tap deep on resources in the soil, in search of water and nutrients. But in a container, people need to provide water for their plants. Oops!

* * *

True horror...hard on the heels of the first "anniversary" of Hurricane Katrina come a solemn pronouncement from Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center:

"I think the day is coming. I think eventually we're going to have a very powerful hurricane in a major metropolitan area worse than what we saw in Katrina and it's going to be a mega-disaster. With lots of lost lives...

"I don't know whether that's going to be this year or five years from now or a hundred years from now. But as long as we continue to develop the coastline like we are, we're setting up for a disaster."

Uh-oh, time to reconsider purchasing that cute bungalow by the beach. Seriously Mayfield is not the first to predict major coastal flooding (others have been saying that more frequent and serious coastal flooding is an effect of global warming), but he's a person whose prognostications should make us sit up and take note.

* * *

Last night, the second installment of Spike Lee's documentary, When the Levees Broke (Acts 3 and 4) aired on HBO. It focused almost as much on the rich cultural roots of New Orleans, such as the black Indians of Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras itself, and jazz funerals, as on Katrina's socio-political, psychological, and physical after-effects.

In fact, trumpeter Terence Blanchard held a one-man jazz funeral lamenting the almost-demise of his neighborhood. His mother Wilhemina, on breaking down upon seeing her home for the first time since the storm, said what epitomizes the entire post-Katrina situation, that rebuilding is "easier said than done." (The mountains of debris in the area made the "Not as Seen on TV" sign posted in the neighborhood a perfect, unfortunate fit.)

A full neighborhood jazz funeral was shown in Act 4, interspersed with commentary from a young man who spoke of coming back and getting lost in his own neighborhood, the devastation is still so extensive.

The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of cleaning up the debris in New Orleans? Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse--the agency that didn't build a levee that would protect the city is now in charge of that city's cleanup--no wonder the rebuilding process has been so slow!

* * *

Perhaps the best anti-Republican screed this year is Alan Wolfe's recent article in the Washington Monthly (a publication which is one of the best political magazines around), "Why Conservatives Can't Govern," an in-depth examination of conservative governing philosophy, which explains, in great part, the Bush administration's general incompetence (FEMA, the war in Iraq, the budget deficit, losing ground in Afghanistan, ad nauseum.)

* * *

A disaster of a completely unnatural kind is scoped in Malcolm Gladwell's eye-catching article in The New Yorker, "The Risk Pool," which delves into labor history to show how General Motors and other companies got into the pension mess that they're in, and what this means for America.

To wit:

"Under the circumstances, one of the greatest mysteries of contemporary American politics is why Wagoner [General Motors' C.E.O.] isn't the nation's leading proponent of universal health care and expanded social care. That's the only way out of G.M.'s dilemma."

The unwillingness of the captains of industry to even consider broad-based pension and universal health care is depressing to contemplate. Is this what the b-schools hath wrought, with their emphasis on teaching their charges, the executives of America's companies, how to maximize (not merely create) profits? (There is a world of difference.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Up, up, and away...

This year, as events have conspired to keep petroleum prices (and, thus, prices in general) on the upswing--the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict (though, thankfully, at a temporary ceasefire), the BP gas pipeline mess in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay--it's an opportune moment to explore conservation measures, as well as petroleum alternatives.

I recently stumbled across a petroleum alternative in the realm of fabric. That's right, while lolligagging around the Takoma Park Farmer's Market, I strolled around the nearby storefronts, which were having sidewalk sales. One such place, the store Now and Then, was having a special on yarns. Hip-looking feathered yarn is a product I always assumed was completely synthetic--you know, all petrol. Was I wrong! (OK, the yarn is partly petrol, at 12% nylon.) The material is however, mostly bamboo, 88% in fact. More to the point, this yarn is soft and shimmery, and I got the notion to crochet a scarf after purchasing a couple of skeins. It only took two days (three hours spread over the two days, in reality), looks and feels fabulous, and cost less than $12 to make! However, I wouldn't advise that crochet newbies attempt to use a feather-type yarn, as it's tricky to handle.

Bamboo is the up-and-coming environmentally friendly darling of the moment, because the grass (who knew?) grows extremely quickly, making it a renewable resource, potentially. Of course, if you're a gardener, you've heard about the difficulty (in fact, the near-impossibility) of eradicating bamboo once it's established, so much that it's considered an invasive plant. Its tenaciousness and proto-weediness gives credence to the old saw that a weed is merely a plant that's out of place.

However, a dilemma presents itself with the use of bamboo products, as almost all of them hail from China, land of institutionalized prison and otherwise non-unionized labor. While some commercial bamboo is grown in other countries, much of the industry is sino-centric. (Unfortunately, so many other items are manufactured there, including many petroleum-based products, it makes the head spin as to when to try to choose an alternative to the old polluting order.)

Decisions, decisions!

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Gross Domestic Product of Washington--Hot Air...

All hail the king, oops, the President, who finally deemed the NAACP convention worthy of his presence, although desperation on the part of the Republican Party was the most likely reason that propelled him there (to a venue only a few blocks from the White House, but, for him, the longest mile). He finally acknowledged that racism still exists (in an accidental nod to reality), in what frankly was his most dignified moment this week, in lending his support to extending the Voting Rights Act another 25 years.

The venue for the convention, the Washington Convention Center, is a beautiful behemoth befitting the Nation's Capital. Several employees there saw me wandering around and took pity, asking me if I was lost, because, as one of them put it, "you had that look," of total bewilderment, when I entered. My only gripe with the place/palace is the relative lack of seating in the outer/entrance areas. You can meander around quite a bit, and not see a place to settle down until you reach an exhibit area or the convention hall proper (unless you are near the Starbucks concession).

One hopeful development was the fact that the booth to sign up for NAACP memberships had long lines through much of the day that I was there (Sunday). I hope that translates into increased civic participation in the NAACP, and in myriad ways.

* * * * * *

Of course, that Sunday being one of the hotter days of the year, naturally the subject of air conditioning, or the lack thereof, gets one's attention. This summer, I've noticed something of a reversal of trends--while plenty, perhaps even most, people on the steamy East Coast have been driving around with the a/c blasting (yours truly included), many of the cars that are deciding to go sans artificial coolness include many luxury vehicles and SUVs (which are basically luxury vehicles gone slumming). In fact, the other day, I saw a minivan in which not only were all the windows open, but the DOOR was open, while the vehicle was moving, which made quite the spectacle...

* * * * * *

PEPCO's website is urging Washington-area residents and businesses to conserve energy, to avoid brownouts and blackouts, such as one that occurred today in part of New York City. I wonder what it's doing to help Maryland residents pay for energy efficiency measures? Hmm...

* * * * * *

The Tom Brokaw special, Global Warming: What You Need to Know, is an informative program that's best at demonstrating exactly how and why scientists believe that the scale of global warming that's occurring is partly caused by human activities. (Duh!)

However, it was disconcerting to see, throughout the program, all the ads for Suzuki, seemingly during every commercial break. I mean, I'm sure that the car is fairly fuel efficient, but still, it was jarring overkill.

You might know that increased use of public transportation as an option to mitigate the deleterious effects of global warming got short shrift. Unfortunately, that was part of a trend, because the part of the program that dealt with practical methods of fending off some of the more odious effects of global warming was the weakest part of the show.

This means that, unfortunately, an intelligent program dealing with the important topic of climate change itself became a source of hot air.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Green, and red all over...

I finally decided to call the county and order a recycling bin, so that I could have the satisfaction of not contributing so much to the landfill, etc. Thankfully, the container didn't take long to arrive, about a week. However, I was in for a nasty surprise; when I called to find out where the paper that residents recycle goes, not only did the county employee not know, she told me that the only paper that could be recycled were newspapers, glossy magazines, and telephone books. What?!? Of course, I let her know how ridiculous that situation was, as I purchase recycled office paper, and much of the paper that needs to be recycled is office paper. She countered that the county does not have the capacity to process office paper! (One good thing, the county does also recycle plastic, glass, and metal containers, so I suppose I shouldn't grouse too much.)

However, that incapacity leads me to a greater frustration. A number of my colleagues are as disgusted as I am with the waste generated by our office, and similar offices, so I decided to look into recycling options. Now, why did I do that? Every jurisdiction makes recycling difficult for businesses and nonprofits, which would seem to make it impossible for them to reach their recycling goals. For instance, if Prince George's County is unable to recycle office paper from residences because it lacks the capacity, then the county is not equipped to process this material from businesses and nonprofits, which, if anything, generate as much or more of this type of material than residences!

Prince George's County, MD is far from the only jurisdiction that makes it impractical for businesses and nonprofits to recycle. Even progressive Montgomery County, MD requires that interested establishments contact a waste hauler to pick up their recyclables (making recycling an additional expense, on top of fees for having regular trash hauled), and submit an annual report. (More bureaucracy!) Confusingly, all jurisdictions in the Washington area have similar requirements for businesses and nonprofits that wish to recycle, while making it practically effortless for residents to recycle (e.g., supplying free recycling bins, free pickup of recyclables, etc.).

One might think that Washington, DC itself would be keen to motivate busineses and nonprofits to recycle, considering that it's in even more dire landfill straits than its neighbors (and, according to a city employee, may soon be losing a site, as one is in the process of being sold), but you'd be wrong. A business or nonprofit can either go through the dog and pony show of contacting a hauler, or become a "self-hauler" and obtain a sticker so that your business/institution can haul its own recyclables to the recycler. (You also get to pay $24 annually for this privilege!) Argggggghhhh!

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On a brighter green note, the recent gorgeous weather prompted me to take a nice long stroll to the Washington Deli for pizza. This eatery boasts of having "Long Island" style pizza. Well, whether the pizza is authentic New York-style or not, it's some mighty tasty pie! I had the soy cheese variety one day, which came with various toppings and had a nicely charred, smoky crust. Yum! The next day, I tried the white pizza, which was a tad salty, but was a flavorful combination, nonetheless. The crusts are nice and thin, and the sauce well seasoned; apparently, many people agree, judging by the crowds there! When the weather becomes pleasant on a regular basis, I may try one of its various vegetarian sandwiches, that is, if I can tear myself away from the pizza (which may be a challenge, for when you find a place in DC that serves good pizza, you keep going back for more).

This place seems to put green principles into practice, if only to save dough, so to speak. (Perhaps the fact that the headquarters for the Humane Society of the United States is nearby is also influential in this regard.) For instance, the deli seems to eschew excessive packaging and containers, as everyone's pizza is served in thin pizza boxes, even customers who eat at the tables outside. Also absent are those ridiculous napkin holders; in fact, napkins and other accoutrements are kept in flat containers, which may not please the germ-phobic. However, I didn't notice any tiny beasties anywhere in the vicinity of the place--perhaps the natural spiciness of the food kept insects away. (This notion is not as wild as it sounds, as many natural insect repellant formulas contain garlic and chili pepper, or some combination thereof, as people seem to be the only creatures that consume hot peppers, pickled or otherwise.)

* * * * * * * *

One productive way of re-framing a divisive issue--Thom Hartmann says that America's immigration dilemma is really an "illegal employer problem." To wit:

"Encouraging a rapid increase in the workforce by encouraging companies to hire non-citizens is one of the three most potent tools conservatives since Ronald Reagan have used to convert the American middle class into the American working poor. (The other two are destroying the governmental protections that keep labor unions viable, and ending tariffs while promoting trade deals like NAFTA/WTO/GATT that export manufacturing jobs.)

As David Ricardo pointed out with his "Iron Law of Labor" (published in his 1814 treatise "On Labor") when labor markets are tight, wages go up. When labor markets are awash in workers willing to work at the bottom of the pay scale, unskilled and semi-skilled wages overall will decrease to what Ricardo referred to as "subsistence" levels.

Two years later, in 1816, Ricardo pointed out in his "On Profits" that when the cost of labor goes down, the result usually isn't a decrease in product prices, but, instead, an increase in corporate and CEO profits..

Republicans understand this very, very well, although they never talk about it. Democrats seem not to have read Ricardo, although the average American gets it at a gut level."

'Nuff said.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Oh dear, the deer..

For the second time in a month, I saw deer. In a close-in suburban park. More to the point, these two sightings were the first times that I've seen deer in broad daylight (OK, in the evening) outside of the late fall or winter. I spotted them while on the Green Line, as the two were peacefully munching in Oxon Run Park, perhaps a doe and her fawn (neither had antlers).

As beautiful as that little scene was, it made me wonder what would I do if I saw a deer bound across the road while driving to or fro my relatives' house, which is in walking distance of the park? In fact, what should drivers in general do if they spot deer crossing, or about to cross, the road? (I did, in fact, see a chicken cross the road from a gas station in Richmond a few years back, but...) There are some busy roads near that park, as it's bordered on one side by Naylor Road, and the Suitland Parkway on another, and is situated between two subway stations that are only five minutes' driving distance from each other, so you can imagine the traffic.

I'm a little rattled about the fauna because it's not even deer mating season, yet there they were, in an urban/suburban area, completely unfazed by a passing train. (At least they weren't grazing right by the roadside.) Let's hope these critters are more citified than is usually the case.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The (Real) Deal

Some time ago, I got off a roller coaster without setting foot in an amusement park. The other side of a real estate deal forfeited, and I decided to get off the whirligig, for now.

For a while before that nondeal, I have been extremely annoyed by ads from slicksters claiming how they will buy or sell your home (realtors, and scarily, nonrealtors) in less than 7 days. The simple fact is that if your house is in good condition, attractive, in a "hot" real estate market, and is priced appropriately, you'll have little problem selling your home within that period of time, regardless of who sells it for you. In any case, selling your home is the relatively easy part of the real estate dance. (It's the buying part that's the true headache.) When everything goes well, that is.

If you're selling your home to buy another one (which is what many people do), it's best to use an agent, who can handle both transactions--the selling of your current home, and the subsequent purchase of another. Using an agent can make it easier to maintain your privacy in the process, by, for instance, allowing you to restrict inquiries to serious buyers (e.g., by appointment only, with an agent), and request that no sign be posted on your property--with all the people scouring the Internet to find a home, no sign is needed (which attracts gawkers and other nosy folk, not all of whom may have honest motives).

The big daddy of real estate databases, the MLS, has listings of homes, with basic information for the general public, including the all-important MLS number, which comes in handy when discussing a property with an agent. (In the Washington, DC area, that database can best be accessed at As you might imagine, there are more details in the portion of the MLS that only agents are privy to (such as condo fees, if you're perusing condos), but there is still lots of information in the publicly accessible part of the database. (Be sure to ask the agent the MLS number of your home, when it's put on the market, so that you can see the the wording of the ad for your house, etc.)

Within the MLS listing, you can request that prospective buyers bring copies of loan pre-approval commitment letters in order to make an offer. As you peruse offers, please do so with such letters in hand. They will help you evaluate the soundness of potential buyers, and thus the strength of the offer. (I wish I had done that when I was selling my home!) This step is extremely important, because the most common reason for snags in the settlement/closing process is "homebuyer denied mortgate with initial lender," which is related to the next reason, "seller unwilling to extend closing for mortgage delays." Hmm...

The loan commitment letters from the potential buyers should contain a number of features. One is the name of the financial institution that will be processing the loan--if it's an unfamiliar name, or one that makes you uncomfortable, or the name of the actual lender is unclear because a mortgage broker is being used--these are signs that you should consider a different offer. You also should be able to see from this document how much of a down payment the seller is willing to put down on the house--the bigger, the better. A larger down payment demonstrates that the buyer has more capital to purchase your home without a hitch (and can do so without an oppressively large mortgage).

Counterintuitive as it may seem, do not automatically sell your home to the highest bidder! My relative the real estate agent (who was not involved in my latest real estate transaction, to my chagrin), says that most contracts have an appraisal contingency, which means that the bank will only loan up to the amount that the home appraises for, not a penny more. So, if your home appraises for, say, $325,000, and the person making the highest offer offered to pay $330,000 for your home, the bank will only loan that buyer up to $325,000--that buyer would have to make up the $5,000 difference! As you might have guessed, most of the time the price is re-negotiated down to within a couple of thousand dollars over the original listing price, as most buyers do not have the cash to pony up another $5,000, $10,000, or more over the asking price. (Which means that agents and other others who send mailings proclaiming that a home sold for xxx amount over the listing price are hustling you! [Check that claim against your county's real estate database to confirm that reality.])

Side rant: Why would you even consider doing business with someone who claims not to be a realtor (as some radio ads do)? That person is saying, in effect, that he or she does not have to know anything about real estate law! (And you would have no legal recourse if that person shafted you!) If you're trying to save on the deal, it would be better to get a realtor who is willing to work for a commission of three or four percent, instead of the traditional six percent.

* * * * * *

After you pick an offer, and sign the contract, between selling and settlement are such matters as inspection, walk throughs, and appraisal (not necessarily in that order). Ask for a copy of your home's appraisal report from your lending institution. It can be an eye-opener, especially when you look at the "comps" (the other homes in the neighborhood that are being used as a comparison, a standard part of an appraisal report).

Time to take a breath. Or two. And remember that this, too, shall pass. (And then it will be time for settlement/closing!)