Monday, October 29, 2007

Here come old flattop...

Just a couple quick notes on the first fall-like day of 2007…

I know others have already posted about this story, but I can't help myself. How's this for coming together to work for the common good?

After a chance encounter followed by a friendly chat and a later lunch date, County Executive Ken Ulman has submitted former rival Christopher J. Merdon's name to the County Council for appointment to the county's new revenue authority. The nomination will be formally introduced Nov. 5.
With his title, Freemarket paints a hilarious picture, while Wordbones gives it some additional context:
This speaks well for both men. It is not that often that we see this type of post election collaboration after what can be conservatively described as a nasty campaign. Nicely done!

In other news, here's an excellent piece about my old employer, Enterprise Community Partners. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of news in the story, but it does provide a good overview of what Enterprise does (hint: not renting cars) and what it has accomplished.

Unfortunately, two of the most interesting tidbits didn't make the story, but reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins nonetheless makes them public through a couple blog posts.

The first one reveals Jim Rouse's preferred name for Enterprise (The Robin Hood Trust), while the second discusses Enterprise Chairman Bart Harvey's idea to eliminate or reduce the mortgage interest tax deduction and use the money to pay for affordable housing, something I wrote about when he first floated the idea almost a year ago at a speech at Harvard. Now, I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is on affordable housing and therefore, would support such a move (not like it will ever happen), assuming it wouldn't totally tank my finances. My house, dog, appliances, and cars, to name but some, are doing a good job of that already.

Finally, it's almost here! The new Trader Joe's opens on Friday! Too bad for me. I'll be in beautiful western Maryland, soaking up the cold air and what's left of the fall foliage.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Someone saved my life tonight...

You know what's fun?

Giving blood.

You get free cookies and juice and the satisfaction of knowing that you probably helped someone who really needed it. And really, what more can you ask for?

If you'd rather not let innocent people die because they didn't have access to blood when they needed it most (shameless), why don't sign up to give blood this Friday at the Columbia Mall.

The Columbia Foundation's twentyfivefortyfive initiative and the Chamber of Commerce's Young Professionals network are teaming up (actually, kind of competing) to take your blood. Between 10 am and 3 pm next Friday, the Bloodmobile will be parked at the mall, awaiting donors. If you're interested in participating, you can schedule an appointment here (use sponsor code 14839). Not only will your blood buy you cookies and juice, but you'll also get a t-shirt and a chance to win a $500 gift card and two tickets to a Ravens game, which, if you're a Redskins fan, you can probably sell on eBay.

Who is he and what is he to you...

One of the most vexing issues facing us in HoCo Blogdom is that of anonymous commenters and whether contributions from the nameless are more or less constructive, informed, civil, etc.

Obviously, I allow anonymous comments on this blog and for the most part, always have. Also for the most part, discussions on this blog have generally been fruitful and productive, especially if you exclude the period from September to November of last year, when politics was too central to really discuss anything intelligently.

That said, I've never fully been sold on completely anonymous comments, for both pragmatic and philosophical reasons. Pragmatically, trying to maintain a discussion with several people named "Anonymous" is like herding cats. Philosophically, I tend to lean towards Jessie in the sense that a name -- even a made up one -- creates an identity and reputation that need to be protected and therefore an incentive to "think twice" about saying something foolish, inappropriate or out of character. Using Tom Berkhouse as the counter argument to this isn't appropriate because, for good or bad, he has a reputation that needs to be maintained, too.

That's a long way of shrugging my shoulders and saying "I don't know." Much of my (and others) thoughts on anonymity stem from experiences and observations, both of which are susceptible to personal biases. Not to say that it's perfect in anyway, but here's an external data point we can add to our assessment on the anonymous situation.

The beauty of open-source applications is that they are continually improved and updated by those who use them and care about them. Dartmouth researchers looked at the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to determine if the anonymous, infrequent contributors, the Good Samaritans, are as reliable as the people who update constantly and have a reputation to maintain.

The answer is, surprisingly, yes. The researchers discovered that Good Samaritans contribute high-quality content, as do the active, registered users. They examined Wikipedia authors and the quality of Wikipedia content as measured by how long and how much of it persisted before being changed or corrected.

“This finding was both novel and unexpected,” says Denise Anthony, associate professor of sociology...

...By subdividing their analysis by registered versus anonymous contributors, the researchers found that among those who contribute often, registered users are more reliable. And they discovered that among those who contribute only a little, the anonymous users are more reliable. The researchers were most surprised to find that the reliability of Good Samaritans’ contributions were at least as high as that of the more reputable registered users’ contributions...

...According to Anthony, Wikipedia now requires that anonymous contributors who make numerous edits must register.

“This will probably limit the number of low-quality contributions we find among high-use anonymous contributors, because in exposing their identity, they will have their reputation to consider,” says Anthony. “I don’t foresee this new policy affecting the quality of those Good Samaritans, though. Their presence should continue to be valuable.”

(Emphasis mine.)

I have concerns about reading too much into the study because I think there is a key difference between high frequency anonymous commenters on this and other local blogs versus high frequency anonymous Wikipedia editors. I suspect that on Wikipedia these folks are focused on poisoning the well, so to speak. For ideological, political or other reasons, they are compelled to purposely spread misinformation on certain controversial topics (evolution, global warming, the Laffer curve, etc) or to continue beating a single drum. For these people, a name is a signal to all others that the content they've added should be ignored.

Although there is likely some of that going on on the local blogs (for instance, the person who continues to comment on posts on another blog that are over a year old), I think the vast majority of anonymous commenters of all frequencies make positive contributions to the discussions by addressing the issue at hand and maintaining a respectable level of civility.

Clearly, this study doesn't hold the answers to the questions we face -- indeed, it might even raise a few more -- but it does provide an interesting perspective on the idea of anonymity in general, even if its conclusions are pretty much aligned with intuition.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hypnotized, mesmerized by what my eyes have found...

This might not be the most cogent post I've ever written, but whatever. For the sake of my good name I think I need to say something.

You see, it all started when I had the gall, the nerve, to write a pretty straightforward post with a pretty straightforward message. Here's the post I'm talking about. Most people with decent reading comprehension skills could probably figure out what I was trying to say, but just in case, here are two bullet points that sum it up.

  • Big box stores are a fact of life that I have grudgingly come to accept as, on the whole, pretty good, and;
  • There are ideas and examples of better ways of dealing with them that mitigate some of their bad stuff and that we as a community could consider implementing
Clearly, it's not rocket science or, I would think, particularly controversial, but judging from some of the responses, I am a very poor drawer of conclusions.

Not only did the post raise the ire of at least one anti-Big Box person, but my dear old friend Tom Berkhouse took it as a proof of something nefarious. Because I rarely read closely what Berkhouse has to say (I gotta look out for what's best for my psyche, after all), I'm not sure entirely what he was trying to prove. However, I believe he used my conclusion that Big Boxes aren't all bad to prove yet again that I am a hypocrite of the highest order.

A few years ago when I was trying to save Merriweather from an owner that apparently never intended to close it down (right, Tom?), I opposed potential Big Box development in Town Center. Which clearly means that, at the time, I hated all Big Boxes, regardless of location, while the post from the other day means that, today, I love them, regardless of location. Silly me, I thought I could have it both ways -- that is, Big Boxes in appropriate areas (car-friendly Snowden/Dobbin) and no Big Boxes in inappropriate areas (people-friendly downtown Columbia).

There is only love and hate in this world, after all. Take your wishy-washy BS somewhere else, chief.

Sorry. Lesson learned.

If only it would have ended with the incessant need of Mr. Berkhouse to make it All About Town Center (and by extenison the evilness of me and Ken Ulman), but it didn't. Some crafty anonymous commenter decided to call Mr. Berkhouse by another name in an attempt to "out" him, or expose his true identity. By failing to respond in due course to this bit of pettiness, I tacitly endorsed such actions and, again, demonstrated absolute proof of my hypocrisy, at least according to David Keelan.

Mr. Keelan took it upon himself to admonish me for failing to admonish someone whose identity I still have yet to ascertain and who may or may not have ascertained the identity of Mr. Berkhouse. Normally, this would just be a failure to enforce the Choose Civility edict in effect for The Howard County Blogs, but since I had the nerve to question Mr. Keelan's decision to entrap a previous anonymous commenter over a year ago, I just demonstrated a "double standard."

Mr. Keelan drags up this comment of mine from Back in the Day:
I do want to say that I strongly disagree with David Keelan’s decision to expose the true identity of a commenter he doesn’t like, and one with whom I disagree (and am frustrated by) regularly. Regardless of how you feel about her, David’s decision sets an ugly precedent. Commenter’s [sic] can be held to different standards depending on their views and the threat of tracing identities through IP address (which are available for all to see by looking at the Site Meter reports — see bottom of the page) looms over all. Such things help stifle diverse debate and might prevent many worthy commenter’s [sic] from participating.

(Note: The [sic]s are mine, added to what Keelan posted, as I used proper grammar in my original comment. See here.)

My thoughts on involuntary outing remain the same. I still think it's wrong and wish the anonymous commeter didn't do it. But I have no idea what I was supposed to do in this case. Immediately delete the comment? Right, then I'd get in trouble for patrolling my blog on government time. Oh, and I'd probably be in trouble for failing to allow free speech, as has happened in the past when I deleted totally unsubstantiated rumors (coincidentally, written by Mr. Berkhouse). I also caused quite a fervor when I tried to get everyone to use a pseudonym because I was limiting speech.

Damned either way, I suppose.

It's also pretty funny that this was not the first time somebody tried to guess the real identity Tom Berkhouse. Indeed, the first such instance was on Mr. Keelan's blog and his response to the commenter was just as lame, if not more so, than my non-response:
Thanks for posting. Your inaugural post is telling. I am sure we can rely on you for more interesting and insightful commentary. Keep up the fine work anonymous Slim.
Look, I don't really care if Mr. Keelan wants to call me out on his blog; I just wish he would be more direct about it. If he thinks my failure to act was shady, come out and say it. Instead, we get this:
The people trying to out Berkhouse are treating Tom as if he did something terrible like threatened a county employee for trying to shut off his water for non-payment or something when in fact all Tom does is forcefully and at times very forcefully expresses a strong difference of opinion with Ian. At times Tom will criticise [sic] Ian for what Tom perceives to be a twisting of the facts in order to reach a desired conclusion. Tom is often (not always) rather enjoyable to read and makes good points but often (if not always) fails to elicit a reaction from Ian. So in fairness to Ian perhaps Ian is just simply ignoring all commenter’s [sic]. Perhaps Ian is too busy with his new job which is perfectly understandable. I have a full time job too, a family, and I just started an MBA program (which is going great so far) so I understand finding time to stay up on the local scene and one’s blog isn’t easy.

Yes, I'm busy. But, frankly, I don't have the time or the inclination to get involved in these silly bloggy squabbles (says the guy writing over 1000 words about one -- I know), rehashing the same arguments, fighting the same fight. If anonymous and semi-anonymous commenters can't discuss things without feeling offended or offending others, perhaps they should spend more time with puppies or flowers. I'm nobody's mother.

It's also kind of sad that Mr. Keelan finds the need to again apologize for completely inappropriate behavior from Mr. Berkhouse (lies, character attacks, etc.). I know a lot of people like to disagree with me about a lot of stuff and some of my more vocal critics likely revel in the treatment I receive from the resident jerk. But in a community like ours, the fact that Mr. Berkhouse still has a group of people that accept and condone his vile words is pretty lame. Disagree all you want, that's fine. But is it too much to ask that you do it with some class?

Finally, there's a lot of stuff going on locally right now that hasn't been talked about at all, yet time gets spent on this? Please, discuss and argue about the big stuff and leave the drama to the high schoolers. Continuing to worry about which anonymous person said what about some other anonymous only dooms our little blogging enterprise to irrelevance.

Speaking of irrelevance, the icing on the cake of this whole thing is that -- as I told someone recently -- my blog is about two steps away from reading like a little girl's diary. Over my "two weeks" of silence I've only had two ideas for posts -- one about the rather large amount of acorns falling on my house and the other about my awesome dog. I'm being totally serious. There's a ton of acorns coming off our big oak and my dog is freaking awesome (for instance, he recently started "talking" in his sleep, which is probably the cutest thing I've ever seen).

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to write either post and my silence on the subjects is probably proof of my true disdain for oak trees and huskies.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

As much as it may hurt my anti-establishment cred (as if there's really any of that left), I think I'm coming around on big box stores. Sure, they're soulless, harmful to local businesses and the idea of buying jeans, lawn furniture and iPods in the same store is kind of silly, but they do offer convenience and great prices. And, really, who doesn't like easy shopping and low prices?

On balance (and in economist-speak), I'd say Target, Best Buy, Borders et al have produced net gains in our collective welfare. Which is a good thing, I think. What's more, they're so entrenched in today's consumer culture that fighting them doesn't really seem like the "good fight."

All that said, I still have a special place in my heart for local businesses and do what I can to support them. While big boxes may be great for getting mass produced items on the cheap, customer service is borderline nonexistent and the quality of the goods is questionable, both of which are fine for some things (jeans, lawn furniture, iPods, etc) but not so much for others (bicycles, suits, dinner, etc.).

Of course, over the last several years, we've seen the imbalance between big box, chain retailers and smaller, locally-owned shops grow. This is an unfortunate, but not intractable, situation. See, for instance, Washington DC:

The shells for what will be some of the biggest big-box retailers Columbia Heights has ever known are rising along 14th and Irving streets and Park Road NW. They include Target, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond .

Yet below these retail giants, space has been reserved for the little guys.

A Peruvian restaurant has signed a lease, as has a local African American franchiser of the Quizno's sandwich chain. A Vietnamese grocer is negotiating to bring a Pho restaurant to the development. A locally owned spa may also come.

The $149.5 million DC USA project is being developed by Grid Properties of New York. President Drew Greenwald said the firm will reserve 15,000 square feet, or about 11 percent, of ground-floor retail space for local and minority-owned businesses, under an agreement with the District to buy and develop the land. He will reduce rents by 30 percent to encourage smaller tenants.

"With all the projects, it is going to be a nice mix," Greenwald said. "It kind of has a little bit of everything."

Throughout the District, developers are carving out space for locally owned or small businesses. While small businesses tend to be riskier bets than their better-financed corporate counterparts are, mixing local and national retailers is a goal of city officials when selling or leasing public land.

So, the circumstances aren't perfectly analogous, but the idea is good, right?

Thanks to Jamie for the link. Also, for more on local restaurants, Jessie's got the scoop.