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Posts from — October 2008

Bringing Streetcars back to DC, part 1


Bringing a 50-mile streetcar network to Washington DC is the top priority for the DC Chapter of the Sierra Club. I have been following this issue with the Sierra Club since 2002, and it was recently suggested to me that I write down a brief history of the effort, to provide context for those new to the subject. Current progress on the issue is blogged at

The DC Transit Improvements Alternatives Analysis gets underway.

The last time streetcars ran in DC was the early morning of January 28th, 1962, after which all lines were converted to buses. Such was the state of public transit in the District until March 27, 1976, when Metrorail opened. Metrorail, of course, has been a tremendous success, but it does not serve all areas of DC, and was designed primarily to move suburban commuters to their jobs in downtown DC.

The District government has, in principle, been planning to bring streetcars back to DC for some time now. My involvement began in September 2002, when I testified on behalf of the  at a joint oversight hearing of the DC City Council. A relatively small, two-year study had recently been completed (DC Transit Development Study), and then-DDOT director Dan Tangherlini, and then-DDOT Mass Transit Administrator Alex Eckmann went before the council (read their presentation) to ask that a more expansive study be funded. Plans to expand transit in the District stretch back further than that, and are generally said to have begun with the Barry-era DC Vision Study of 1997, itself 2 years in the making. And after more than ten years of talk and study, there are still no streetcars.

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October 29, 2008   2 Comments

My new line for telemarketers

I actually don’t talk to many telemarketers anymore–I’m on the do not call list, so nobody’s been calling to sell me aluminum siding or vacation get-aways. Ever since cell phones really took off, it seems that the long distance companies aren’t falling over themselves to get you to switch to their plan, although I do remember plenty of this in the late 90’s. And although we don’t have caller ID, we’ve gotten pretty good about catching the second or so delay from the robodialers and hang up before the telemarketer comes online.

But sometimes someone does get through, and it’s usually either a charity (usually one that I nominally support) or a political campaign, asking for more money. However, I really, strongly prefer to give on my own terms and on my own schedule, and not theirs. So I want to get rid of them, in some way that’s still polite. So this is what I say now:

Although I will continue to support [your cause], I do not make financial commitments over the phone due to identity theft concerns.

All I have to do now is think of a line to get rid of the (overpriced) identity theft “protection” sales pitches that my credit card companies foist upon me.

October 21, 2008   1 Comment

Peregrine espresso

For those that live on Capitol Hill, this is old news, but the good news is that Peregrine Espresso has opened, in the space that once occupied by Murky Coffee. The better news is that Peregrine is co-owned by a former Murky Coffee employee (and 2005 Southeast Regional Barista Champion [warning:pdf]) Ryan Jensen. Which is to say, Peregine continues, and expands upon, Murky’s pursuit of coffee excellence.

I visited Peregrine for the first time Saturday. The space has been remodeled to look much cleaner–in fact, nothing from the old Murky remains. Their blog has several pictures. The chalkboard menus are gone, the walls are painted, the floors are freshly finished. The menu has been simplified, to the point where each drink comes in only one size. The brewed coffee offerings are given more prominence. 

Peregrine gets its coffee from Counter Culture Coffee, the same supplier that Murky uses. Their milk comes from Trickling Springs Creamery, a relatively local dairy in Pennsylvania that sells milk in re-usable and returnable glass bottles. This is one step beyond Murky, which as far as I know used ordinary supermarket milk. 

I had a cappuccino–regrettably, to go, as there were no free seats. Even in the (appropriately sized) to-go cup, the barista poured a small rosetta. It had been months since I’d had a “third-wave” cappuccino: the way-beyond-starbucks, hand-crafted expression of exactly how amazing coffee can be. Delightful.

Coffee lovers in Washington do owe much to Nick Cho, owner of Murky. That his business skills are sloppy is unfortunate, but he planted the seeds of coffee culture in DC. That a former employee is able to open a cafe that improves upon its predecessor reflects both the technical training and the enthusiasm for coffee that Nick imbued his employees with.

October 20, 2008   No Comments

Bailout and Mathematica

A friend of mine (and regular commenter here) has pointed out that, even if the $700,000,000,000 bailout passes, and adds to our National Debt, we’d still have a Debt-to-GDP ratio that was less than Germany’s.1 Wikipedia says that the US National Debt is 60.8% of our GDP, that Germany’s is 63.1%, and that our GDP is $13.8 trillion. Well, add $700 billion to 60.8% of $13.8 trillion and the new figure is 65.8%–pretty close; there are different ways of measuring both GDP and the Debt.

But I realized that this sort of comparison is something that Mathematica 6 is supposed to be good at. Mathematica is an amazingly powerful system for doing mathematics on a computer. Its strength, traditionally, has been symbolic manipulation–I most often use it for the Integrate command, which can do most of the integrals that in grad school I’d look up in Gradshteyn and Ryzhik. Version 6 has added, amongst other things, a huge library of curated data, loaded over the Internet, that’s relatively straightforward to use.

The command CountryData gives access to all sorts of country-by-country information, including “GDP” and “GovernmentDebt”. So following one of the examples in the documentation, I produced this graph, plotting the Debt-to-GDP ratio versus GDP for (nearly) all the countries for which Mathematica has data. (Note that the x-axis is a logarithmic scale.) The United States, before and after a $700 billion bailout, are shown in green and red, respectively.

If the xhtml export actually works the way it’s supposed to, you should be able to hover your mouse cursor over each point and have a little ToolTip pop up telling you which country the data are for.



Mathematica has a syntax that strikes many as arcane. Since I learned about computers with procedural programming, and haven’t really done any functional programming, I too struggle to get Mathematica to do what I want it to do. But one can often do complicated things, such as the above graph, with a very compact command. To make the main graph–the red and green dots are relatively trivial additions–the command I used is:
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  1. He is, nevertheless, against the bailout. []

October 1, 2008   1 Comment