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Category — DC

DC intersections with Mathematica

Without the quadrant designation, several intersections in Washington–“6th and C,” for example–are ambiguous. “6th and C” can refer to a place in NW, NE, SW, or SE DC. Because of this duplication of streets and intersections, the quadrant is usually–but not always–specified. I’ve been curious  for some time to know exactly how many doubly-, triply-, and quadruply-redundant intersections there are in DC, and it’s another fun example combining Mathematica 7‘s .shp file import with the GIS data that the DC government makes available.

How many are there? I calculate:

Quadrants: 2 3 4
Intersections: 418 71 28

The 28 intersections that appear in all 4 quadrants are:

14th & D, 9th & G, 7th & I, 7th & E, 7th & G, 7th & D, 6th & C, 6th & G, 6th & D, 6th & I, 6th & E, 4th & M, 4th & G, 4th & E, 4th & D, 4th & I, 3rd & M, 3rd & C, 3rd & K, 3rd & D, 3rd & G, 3rd & E, 3rd & I, 2nd & E, 2nd & C, 1st & M, 1st & C, 1st & N

Plotted on a map:


Color coded map of intersections in DC.

Color coded map of intersections in DC.

Update: Here’s a larger PDF version.

Here’s how I made the map and did the calculations:

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March 1, 2009   4 Comments

The Inauguration

Tuesday, I joined the 1.8 million others on the Mall to watch the inauguration. I suppose I had underestimated just how important this event would be to the million or so people who got to the mall before I did. I had a good experience, and in retrospect a series of nearly random decisions that we made all turned out to be the right decisions.

A friend, in town and staying with us for the inauguration, and I left the house at 7 in the morning, somehow thinking that would be early enough. The station platform at the Brookland Metro was crowded when we arrived, and the inbound train that arrived was so full that only a handful more could board. We instead rode outbound one stop, thinking that either we’d catch a slightly less full train, or could get on one of the special presidential bus routes. Miraculously, there was just enough space for us on the next inbound train, which otherwise looked as crowded as the first.

We managed to meet a bunch of my friend’s friends downtown, at their hotel, at 8. We were north of the mall. Since all of the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House was walled off, we had to choose a route south.  Among the many roads closed to motor traffic that day was 395, the freeway in a tunnel that goes under the Capitol reflecting pool. It was open as a pedestrian route, and in part because of the novelty of walking it, that’s were we went. Later, we heard that the handful of crossovers through the parade route became impossibly backed up. We entered at about 3rd and G NW and exited at E Street SW. We made our way along E, then up 7th to D, then along D to 14th, where we crossed into the Mall, finding spots at the base of the Washington monument by about 9am.

And then we waited, in the cold. A half hour of relative stillness was enough to take away the warmth that physical movement generates, and I was reminded how much colder it is when you’re not moving. I knew this, but hadn’t really thought about how long we’d be out there. As was widely recommended, I had layered, and soon wished I had layered more. Perhaps what one should do is to subtract ten degrees Fahrenheit from the actual temperature for every hour you’ll be standing in the cold.

We had a decent view of a Jumbotron, and we could see the Capitol, but even with binoculars I couldn’t see any individuals. (Our view was partially blocked by trees.) What was significant was to be a part of the 1.8 million assembled, and of the 1.12 million Metro rides that day. It occured to me, standing there, that one had to understand what was going on in order to get anything out of the experience. I was glad that my son was safely and warmly at home; to be able to tell him in later years that he was there would have been a useless gimmick.

So what did I understand the experience to be? On the one hand, under the former administration, I (in chronological order): earned my Ph.D., got a permanent research job, got married, bought a house, had a child. Am I better off than I was eight years ago? Unquestionably, yes. Not bad for living a few miles from the epicenter of what was quite possibly the worst administration in United States history. But of course I was out there in the cold, celebrating with everyone else.

The president has called upon Americans to rise up to our nation’s challenges. He is not the first to call for service to our country and to others, but unlike the mawkishly sanctimonious appeals of virtually every other public leader, his carry a sincerity and gravitas that is convincing. This is perhaps because of his extensive service as a community organizer. As hope and competence replace fear and cronyism as dominant motifs in the administration, I expect that the appeal of satire and detached irony will fade in popular culture: these are for those who are comfortable, detached, and powerless. Anger and self-absorbed drama are out; hard work and careful planning are in. Does this signal an ascendancy for The University of Chicago? The President taught there, of course. David Axelrod, chief campaign stategist, went there, as did Nate Silver, whose reality-based analysis beat all the other pundits this time around. 

Four years ago, the progressive blogosphere wanted everyone to read Don’t Think of an Elephant, and now we have a progressive President that has intuitively understood framing and the use of language longer and better than anyone else on our side. Democrats should now be done with Triangulation. And Mark Penn and Terry McAuliffe, too.

On energy and environment and global warming and scores of other policies, Obama can already be said to be turning things around. Although Obama is not the first to mention science in his inaugural address, his reversal of the previous administration’s anti-scientific outlook is heartening. Perhaps our nation can be done with the celebration of anti-intellectualism. Perhaps patriotism will no longer be associated with flag-waving belligerence, but will be understood instead to be a celebration of those extraordinary characteristics of our nation that made our President’s story possible.

This was my hope, as I stood in the cold on the National Mall last Tuesday.

January 27, 2009   1 Comment

Red Street, Blue Street

In the end, I went with the upgrade to Mathematica 7. Of all the new features, the one that really hooked me–which is comparatively minor, compared to all the other new features–is the ability to import SHP files. The importation is not terribly well documented nor is there much additional support, but it was pretty easy to do a few nifty things with the DC Street Centerline file.

As you may know, there is a street in DC for every state in the union. Pennsylvania Avenue is probably the most famous of these; the White House sits at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW. I used to live on Massachusetts Avenue. So my first idea was to make a street map of DC in which the state-named streets were colored red-ish or blue-ish depending on their vote in the recent election.

Here it is:

Read on to see how I made it:

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January 17, 2009   1 Comment

Bringing streetcars back to DC, part 3

Parts 1 and 2 of this series looked at the public side of the DC Alternatives Analysis process that took place between 2002 and 2005. Several newsletters were published, public meetings were held, and the study team met with civic groups and maintained a presence at various community events. The widely distributed documents only tell a small fraction of the story, and if one wants to understand why the final report had such disappointing recommendations, one needs to delve into the more technical study documents, which weren’t widely distributed. The contrast between that which was published publicly and the technical documents kept internally is instructive for anyone following a similar engineering study of similar scale.

Broadly speaking, these technical documents attempt to quantify the decision-making process in order that every subsequent decision have justification. The process obscures the study biases by shifting them into the methods of quantification, and ultimately confuses quantifiability with importance.

Setting the Stage

The formal program of the study was documented in the Project Work Plan, in January 2003. One of the first of the study documents was the short Quality Assurance Program, an eight-pager released in November 2003. It establishes the tedious tone in which all further study documents will be written with empty management-speak such as “All DMJM Harris staff performing tasks on the project will utilize the appropriate implementing procedure for the work being performed.”

Two reports were finished in August 2004: The Needs Assessment and the Evaluation Framework. These followed the extensive series of community meetings in late 2003. The Needs Assessment was the only technical document that was published on the (now-defunct) study website. It examined population, employment, and overall destination patterns across the city in relation to existing transit service. The Evaluation Framework brought together all the input–from DC agencies and from the community–about routes and goals and needs and defines what sort of analysis is to be done. A structure of seven routes is proposed, two of which have alternative routings, but the stops along those routes are not defined yet. The project goals are laid out, and the measures and criteria used to evaluate choices in terms of those goals are defined. The general work plan for several documents that follow is laid out.

Route and Mode evaluation:

Screen 1, released September 2004, evaluates seven potential transit modes (streetcars, “bus rapid transit,” light rail transit, diesel multiple units, automated guideway transit, monorail, and heavy rail), and ends up recommending only streetcars and “bus rapid transit” for further evaluation.

The Definition of Alternatives, released in November 2004, analyzed the routes given in the Evaluation Framework for the two chosen modes. Station locations were assigned and propulsion technologies are considered. For each route, a “service plan” was developed, including the headways between successive runs and calculations for route travel times. Although there are separate calculations for streetcars and for “bus rapid transit,” no details are given about the assumptions that went into the calculation of the travel times.

Screen 2, released March 2005, takes the service plans and route structure from the Definition of Alternatives and tries to evaluate how well each would fulfill the project goals by applying a set of “Measures of Effectiveness,” which are defined in the Evaluation Framework. Claiming that “the operational characteristics of BRT and Streetcar are similar at the level of detail” under study, it lumps both into a “premium transit service option” to decide whether a particular corridor should have “premium transit,” or whether it should only receive some bus service enhancements. Corridors were ranked (high, medium or low) based on a few criteria for each of the four project goals, leading to a composite score. Further analysis on meeting corridor deficiencies and operational considerations, and concluded by recommending some routes for “premium transit” and relegating some to get only “local bus enhancements.”

Screen 3, released May 2005, takes the “premium transit” corridors of Screen 2 and applies further “Measures of Effectiveness” to determine whether each corridor should be Streetcars or  “bus rapid transit.” Each corridor is broken into segements, and the effectiveness criteria are applied to the segments individually. Where applicable–which isn’t as frequently as one might think–Streetcars and “bus rapid transit” are evaluated separately. The scores from these evaluations are totaled, to come up with proposals for streetcar routes, “bus rapid transit” routes, and “rapid bus” routes.

And onwards

Further study documents, released May–September 2005, looked at the finances of the proposed system and put forward the timetable. All the study findings were summarized in a final report, published in October 2005. Future posts in this series will look in detail at some of these technical reports.

December 15, 2008   No Comments

Bringing Streetcars back to DC, part 2

Part 1 of this series looked at the beginnings of the DC government’s effort to expand the transit network. We left off in the Spring of 2005, having been to several meetings and having received several newsletters.

The study finishes

The final project newsletter, Fall 2005, and an “Executive Summary” of the whole project were presented to the public at a final meeting, held September 29, 2005. For transit enthusiasts following the project, the end results were disappointing and frustrating. Instead of a visionary transformation of mobility in the District, the final recommendations proposed a meager streetcar buildout that, despite its modest size, would take 25 years to build. The report was frustrating because it relied on tortured reasoning that bordered on downright dishonesty, it used self-contradictory and mutually inconsistent reasoning, and offered little more than poorly-defined chimeras wrapped up in wishful thinking.

Added to the project was “Rapid Bus,” as a lower-class technology mode, joining streetcars and “bus rapid transit.” Modes were assigned to routes. The newsletter used separate streetcar and “bus rapid transit” assignments, while the executive summary lumped these together as “premium transit.” In the newsletter, streetcars got a handful of routes: the crosstown Georgtown to Minnesota Avenue route; the north-south Georgia Avenue route, which would end at K street; a Union Station to Anacostia via Eastern Market route; an M Street SE/SW route, and a short Bolling AFB–Pennsylvania Ave route. A bit of “bus rapid transit” was added: mainly Woodley Park to Eastern Market via Florida Avenue, while the rest of the 50-mile route structure developed over the course of the study was designated “rapid bus.”

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November 9, 2008   1 Comment

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

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


To be fair, it did cool to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. But that was at 6 in the morning, at the very minimum of temperature, after a whole night of radiative cooling into the night sky and before the sun has had a chance to warm things up again. And with 84% humidity, there was no relief to be had stepping into air during this moment of relative cool. By the time I leave the house, just before 8, it’s already 80 degrees. By 11am, it has hit 90, a mark it won’t drop below until the sun sets. The weather’s been at this for a few days now, and with each successive afternoon bake, the overnight relief becomes more meager. 

To keep the house habitable–which has meant keeping the (upstairs) bedrooms at or below about 81 degrees, I have to keep the downstairs at about 76. Such is life when your house is under-insulated, and your central air system is grafted on to early 1940s ductwork that was put in place presuming the house would only be heated.

This evening brings a chance of thundershowers: if they’re big enough, we will get cooling, but if they’re too small, then all we get is an increase in humidity.

To do this summer: install ceiling fans, and upgrade the insulation.

June 10, 2008   No Comments

“We should” vs. “I will”

“We should”: one of the most counter-productive phrases in existence.

As a progressive, and with my student days behind me, I’ve come to feel that civic engagement shouldn’t be considered optional. I’ve looked to local organizations for involvement: while in DC, I’ve volunteered with three organizations, plus one political campaign,  and will probably work with others as my priorities nd responsibilities evolve. 

In every setting that involves a group of volunteers–or more generally, a group of people in which the individuals each decide how they will invest their time–the words “we should” are a sure path to inaction. What the words really mean is “I won’t but hope someone else will,” but without the candor to admit that the speaker, in fact, won’t do whatever it is he is suggesting. 

These words are usually spoken in meetings, gatherings that many people claim to disdain. The fact that nothing actually gets done during meetings compels some to ask if everyone shouldn’t really use their time to actually do something. Someone might suggest meetings every other month, instead of monthly.  If a project does require the input of more than one person, however, you need meetings. In the case of volunteer groups, in which everyone has a myriad of other obligations and interests, the truth is out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Nobody’s time is so carefully managed that he could take the time that would have been spent in a meeting and use it on a project: there are plenty of other things that rush in to fill the temporal void. One might read a few more threads on Daily Kos, or watch the television program that comes on after your favorite program, or skim through catalogs you get in the mail instead of sending them straight to the recycle bin. The way things get done in a volunteer organization is through mutual accountability: we agree to take on tasks, and follow through because we value the value of our word.

Meetings are necessary: the trap is to think that meetings are sufficient. I think that even the complainers like their volunteer meetings, perhaps secretly. For one, it’s a chance to hang out with like-minded people for a few hours. There is also a sort of perverse satisfaction from attending a meeting: you get to feel that you’ve accomplished something but you actually haven’t had to expend much effort. You’ve spent a few hours getting updates and making plans for next steps; you’ve thought about the issues at hand, so it seems like you’ve done your part. 

And truthfully, for many, that’s all they do, as the meeting is the only space they’ve made in their schedules for the issues at hand. Of course, we’re all so busy, and it’s tempting to just be thankful that they care enough to show up, but if everyone at the meeting is like this, nothing will get done. Some would do well to re-evaluate their own priorities–they do so much, they get nothing done.1

Calling out the “we should”s, and insisting on “I will”s is one tool with which to separate the do-ers from the rest. Perhaps meeting organizers should keep tallies of each phrase. Each time “we should” is uttered, put the utterer on the spot, and ask if he’s volunteering to do the task he suggests. Now, this is not to say that someone can’t have good–even inspiring–ideas that he can’t carry out himself,2 but in such cases he should simply say so.

A particularly pernicious form of “we should” are the obstructionist “we should”s–that when person A volunteers to take on some task, person B pipes up with an impractical pre-condition that “we should” do before beginning on person A’s task. More than just a waste of time, this could actually derail a real action. In physics, we are occasionally encouraged to “make mistakes as fast as possible.”3 That is, you won’t learn anything, and you won’t get anything done, without doing something. So do something. Say that you will do something, and do it, and if it turns out to be not quite the right thing, then you can do something else.

  1. One of Paul Sally’s graduate school advisors apparently told this to him, when in his early grad student days he wasn’t getting much mathematics done. []
  2. One idea I’ve had for the organizations I’ve worked with, but can’t do myself, is to create a coloring page based on your organization’s work, so that if you’re tabling an event, and a parent comes by with his or her child, you can let the child color the coloring page (supply crayons) while you talk to the parent about the organization. []
  3. A sentiment attributed to the late John Wheeler. []

June 5, 2008   No Comments

murky no more

DC recently suffered the inglorious closing of murky coffee, which had served what was by far the best coffee in town. First reported on in DCist, the Post later picked up the story, and owner Nick Cho has posted his version of the events on the murky coffee website. I did not visit murky as often as I would have liked: it was in a part of the city, near Eastern Market, that was awkward for me to reach. But whenever I was in the area, I would make a point of stopping in, usually for their amazing Classic Cappuccino. Fortunately, their branch in Arlington (even more awkward to get to) remains open, and I do hope Nick is able to follow through on his determination to open another DC store once his present mess is cleared up.

Nick, through his store and his through his efforts in the specialty coffee industry, has done wonders for the local coffee scene. I’ve been a coffee enthusiast since receiving a coffee grinder for my birthday while in high school. I soon picked up Kenneth Davids‘s Coffee: a Guide to Buying, Brewing, and Enjoying—my first in what is now a collection of many dozens of books about coffee—and Sacramento, fortunately, had a good number of respectable coffee shops.

Out of high school, I didn’t really keep pace with the specialty coffee industry. Chicago’s coffee scene was comparatively underdeveloped when I was at college, so although my collection of books grew, my coffee experience stalled (although a friend of mine and I did experiment with roasting our own coffee). The coffee shops in downtown Ithaca (but not on campus) were an improvement, but I didn’t have much opportunity to hang out in them. What I hadn’t realized, during this decade, was that a new movement in coffee was taking shape, calling itself the “third wave.” In a sense I kept missing it: Intellegentsia Coffee opened in Chicago just after I had left, and Gimme Coffee opened in Ithaca just as I was entering the intense dissertation-writing last year of my graduate school career.

Characteristic of third-wave coffee firms a never-ending pursuit of sensory quality, a bean-to-cup acknowledgement and appreciation of everyone in the coffee industry, and an ideal that everyone along that chain, from coffee farmer to barista, can make a comfortable living and have a successful career in their crafts. (Whether that last one is actually feasible remains to be seen.) Barista competition, travel “to origin,” direct-trade relationships, and critical cupping are part and parcel of the third wave. It seeks to move beyond the diversions that plagued the specialty coffee industry that I grew up with, such as flavored coffees and “sell-by” dates on coffee beans that are months after the roast date. It stands in marked contrast to the strategy adopted by Starbucks, which in order to keep up its relentless pace of expansion, replaced its La Marzocco espresso machines, which need a trained barista to operate, for push-button super-automatics, that any fool can use. That’s my take, anyway, on the third wave.

Nick brought third wave coffee to Washington. I met him once, when I took the espresso skills class he taught at his Arlington shop. Nevertheless, like many coffee aficionados, I feel as if I know him well, primarily because I listened to his podcast.1 The podcast, which Nick does with friend and Baltimore-area coffee shop owner Jay Caragay, is aimed at those working in the coffee industry. It’s heavy on insider gossip, often long and rambling, reliably entertaining, and occasionally brilliant. In part because of the podcast, Nick has (had?) been a rising star in the specialty coffee business, notably including a successful run for a seat on the board of directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Murky coffee was first closed by the DC government for failure to pay taxes, then evicted by the landlord. A controversy has erupted in online forums: is this, as Nick claims, the result of financial mismanagement spiraling out-of-control, or is murky trying to cheat on its taxes?

I’m convinced Nick is being honest. The picture one gets of him, from the podcasts, is of someone completely committed to quality coffee, with a purist streak that often puts his vision of great coffee ahead of business sense. He won’t, for example, sell you a straight espresso to go, and he wasn’t interested in selling the big-name soft drinks that the previous incarnation of a coffee shop had sold. And one also gets the sense that he’s prone to bouts of bad judgement: see podcasts 64 through 70 to see what I mean.

But please, don’t let those be your only sample of podcasts. Some of the most interesting ones:

53: An interview with Temple University historian Bryant Simon, who is working on a book about Starbucks.

27: Once you get past the first hour or so, which is mostly insider gossip, there’s a fascinating interview with Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans, revealing why Fair Trade is a far more complicated subject than one might think.

26: Interview with Rob Stephen, then ascending president of the SCAA board of directors, on his vision for the SCAA and his experience working on Dunkin Donuts’ coffee program.

56: Interview with the directors and producers of the film Black Gold, which examines Ethiopian poverty in the context of coffee.

I suspect that the next podcast will go into tremendous detail about the shop closing; Nick has never shied away from discussing his personal difficulties. While his account of the events might leave a few things out, I really do think he’s being honest.

  1. The “explit” warning on the podcast is an understatement: several episodes become vulgar in a manner reminiscent of An Evening with Kevin Smith. []

March 25, 2008   1 Comment