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Posts from — December 2007

A (small) Christmas flood

Our houses protect us from the elements, keeping us in an environment that’s usually more comfortable than that of the outdoors. I can deal with a house that’s too cold in the winter, or too hot in the summer. Water, on the other hand, I’m more touchy about. I expect a house to keep water in it’s place, and really get agitated when water appears in places it isn’t supposed to be.

Which is what happened Christmas eve day.

It started a month ago or so, with a leaky toilet. Not very leaky: there was just a steady drip, from one of the bolts that holds the tank to the bowl. When I discovered the leak I didn’t really want to figure out what the problem was, so I put a bucket under the toilet to catch the drips. The bucket couldn’t fit under the place where the drip was coming from, so I had to make a little plastic chute to direct the water into the bucket. This is the way I’d left it for several weeks.

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December 27, 2007   No Comments

The reason for the season

The solstice is the reason for the season, of course, which usually fell around December 25th in the old Julian calendar. The moment of the solstice, of greatest angular tilt, happens on different days this year in the US. In the Eastern and Central time zones this year, the solstice is actually early morning of December 22nd, at 1:08am EST. But since I don’t consider the day to really change over until 3:30am, today is solstice day. Days will get longer for the next six months!

The morphing and mixing of various winter-solstice celebrations eventually gave us Christmas. Much of this happened when Pope Gregory I told his missionaries to re-brand Pagan traditions as Christian. The pagan roots of Christmas celebrations and, no doubt, the fact that seventeenth century English celebrations of Christmas had degenerated into something that resembled a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween were part of the reasons that the Pilgrims started the War on Christmas by outlawing its celebration. Now, I don’t particularly extol the puritanical approach to life, but as an atheist whose cultural background is nominally Christian, I have occasionally been conflicted about whether to celebrate religious holidays, including Christmas. In the end, I decided that I’m comfortable keeping those Christmas traditions that the Christians borrowed from the Pagans, which fortunately covers most of the good stuff.

Including, of course, gift giving. The Pagans were well-attuned to the natural world, and knew that as the winter Solstice approached, the sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky. They believed that through an intense flury of forth-quarter consumer spending, the invisible hand of the market economy would pick up the sun and move it higher in the sky. Which is more or less what everyone believes these days.

December 21, 2007   1 Comment


Perhaps the best reason to listen to Sierra Club Radio is to hear the fascinating guests that come on the show, who often manage to say something insightful despite host Orli Cotel’s bubbly demeanor and loaded questions. But one theme has come up in two recent programs–indeed, you hear it often from the Sierra Club–that really gets to me: the notion that the answer to the problem of our nation’s oil consumption is to “go farther on a gallon of gas” by raising fuel economy standards. Since raising fuel economy standards is just about the only progressive thing left in the energy bill that made it through Congress, much has been made of this phrase of late.

It seems simple enough: increase the fuel economy, and our fuel use goes down. But there’s a really big if here: that’s if the number of miles driven doesn’t go up. I will argue in this post that there’s no evidence to support the notion that the amount of driving will stay fixed. This is the problem with the phrase: “going farther” implies more driving, by using the same amount, “a gallon,” of gas.

From the standpoint of an individual, many environmentally-minded folks buy high fuel economy cars in order to achieve “guilt-free” driving. When faced with a transportation decision: whether to travel, and if so, which mode to choose, the fact that one has a car with higher than average fuel economy certainly makes it easier to choose to drive. This is actually a well-known phenomenon known as the Jevons paradox: improvements in efficiency of consumption of some good leads to a larger overall rate of consumption of that good, because use of that good becomes feasible for more uses as the efficiency grows. It’s the same reason you spend more time online when you have a faster Internet connection. Overall, America’s gasoline consumption is analogous to a (faltering) dieter who eats a whole box of fat-free cookies because they’re “healthy.”

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December 19, 2007   9 Comments

Spontaneity on Metro

When asked if the Washington Metro is “safe,” this is how I’ve responded:

Yes, absolutely. Inside the system–on trains and in stations, generally anywhere inside the faregates, the system is safe for everyone at all hours. I even consider the station platform areas to be safe for those stations that are in neighborhoods that tend towards rough. The system was designed and built in the 1970s, and has a much cleaner, space-age, modernist feel than the older systems of New York, Chicago, or Boston. The stations are open and airy, creating far fewer places for hoodlums to hide. Almost all the entrances and exits are supervised at all times by a station manager: there are no cage-like revolving door exits and no lonely staircases framed by rusting steel girders. On the trains, its very rare to encounter a bum or panhandler or street preacher or some sketchy guy selling socks and batteries.

Metro’s first general manager was a retired army general, Jackson Graham, whose military background contributed much to the culture that grew around Metro. Metro is safe and comfortable, and clean and uniform, and slightly dull. There are no abandoned stations or little-known gems or interesting or historic artwork. Metro is straightforward: unlike New Yorkers, who can have endless discussions about the most efficient way to get from one part of Manhattan to another, Metro riders have little lore to learn and share. Riding Metro is, generally, uneventful.

So we were pleasantly surprised today when a talented accordionist boarded our Metro train and played as we rode. Like most Washingtonians, it took me a while to realize how fortunate we were, and what a joyous addition to an otherwise cold and gloomy day his music was. (Read Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s brilliant social experiment, to see how Washingtonians react to a busking Joshua Bell.) (See also the followup discussion, which describes the unimaginative intransigence of Metro in preparations for the experiment.)

The accordionist rode a few stops, by which point I’d lost any unexpected-event-induced grumpiness, and I happily contributed when he came by with his outstretched hat. He was very gracious, smiling at our son and playing a few notes for him. While he was playing, I took a picture.

Accordionist on Metro

December 16, 2007   3 Comments

Gift giving

This weekend I begin my Christmas shopping, and it’s of course the first year I’ll have the opportunity to buy Christmas presents for my son. He will not quite be old enough to understand what’s going on, though, for his first Christmas. The concepts of owning things, having things, and getting things are several months away, as is the notion of how fun it is to get new things. Next year will be different, of course, but for now we can get away with things mostly for our benefit, such as books we’d like to read to him, or outfits we’d like to see him wear. With a child in the house, though, the focus of Christmas changes completely, and this gives me an opportunity for me to reflect on the whole enterprise of gift-giving.

My theory on gift-giving is that there are two elements to a good gift: that it is something the recipient will appreciate, and that it is something which the recipient would not have acquired otherwise. Additionally, there should be some element of surprise; the recipient should not know in advance what the gift will be. It sounds straightforward enough, but it has very different results for children compared to adults. For children, the primary reason they haven’t already acquired something is that they don’t have enough money to buy it. That doesn’t really work with adults: when I want a book, or a new frying pan, or new hiking boots, I just buy them. (Well, I used to, before we had to rein in our spending to make sure we had enough money for child care.) Adults have a whole host of other reasons not to have acquired something, even if they would appreciate it: they don’t know about it, they haven’t had time to find it, they haven’t had time to select the most appropriate version. Or, something has seemed too much like a splurge. But it’s always seemed silly to me to ask (financially stable) adults what they want: if they want something, why not just go buy it? If its the thought that counts, whose thought is it?

Of course, it’s not always easy to pick something that the recipient will appreciate; I’ve been hit and miss over the years but I do think overall the usefulness of the hits makes it worthwhile to try. Some of the best things I’ve given and received over the years: a nightcap, an electric kettle, a laser pointer (before they became ubiquitous), my first coffee grinder, an iPod. I wonder, in the coming years, what sorts of things our son will consider to be his favorite gifts–and will I have to assemble them Christmas eve?

December 14, 2007   No Comments

iPod again

I finally listened to my iPod again, during my commute, but not, of course, while walking to the Metro. Mostly, I listen to podcasts. Today I listened to:

Sierra Club Radio, the Dec. 1st episode. Excellent interview with Ken Weiss who wrote the LA Times series on the plight of the oceans. 

The Splendid Table, an NPR show about food, with ebullient host Lynne Rossetto Kasper. 

This American Life, which is consistently the most captivating radio show around. When I was in grad school, this came on Sunday mornings and I almost always listened, but here in DC it’s been on at a time when I’ve almost always been doing something else. Which is why I love the podcast. 

December 12, 2007   No Comments

Dutched out

I trust Cook’s Illustrated far more than any other cooking resource. Before I discovered Cook’s, I would rarely try a recipe and serve it to guests without having (successfully) made it for myself first, but recipes from Cook’s are generally so reliable that I will experiment like that. So when Cook’s Illustrated finds that Dutch-processed cocoa works better than natural cocoa in most recipes, I’m willing to believe them.

But finding Dutch-processed cocoa! We’ve been unsuccessful looking in: The local natural food coop, the local organic store that serves as our neighborhood’s grocery store, two Safeway stores, one Giant supermarket, a Trader Joe’s, a Korean grocery store, and finally, a Whole Foods, where I had thought I had previously been able to buy Droste brand Dutched cocoa.

What’s really irritating about trying to find Dutched cocoa at Whole Foods is that can make shelf space for, from one brand: All natural unsweetened cocoa, all natural hot chocolate, new world drinking chocolate, old world hot chocolate, traditional hot chocolate, Aztec spicy hot chocolate, and mocha hot chocolate. But no Dutched cocoa!

December 9, 2007   1 Comment

Zwei peanuts ver valking down der strasse…

and von vas… assaulted!

Except in this case, it’s not a joke; I was assaulted Friday evening while walking home from the Metro, about 3 blocks from my home. This is, in large part, why I haven’t posted anything lately.

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December 5, 2007   5 Comments