Friday, September 28, 2007

Got $1.13M?

WaPo published a piece designed to shock the metropolitan masses yesterday with news of median new-home prices in Montgomery Co. "rocketing" to more than $1.1M.

The article quotes Karl Moritz, a research chief at Moco Planning Board:

"What we see when we look at the data, though, is not so much that all the houses are becoming more expensive, but that in the current market, builders stopped building middle-of-the-market houses. What they continued to build was the most expensive."

It doesn't seem that we're comparing apples to apples here. Moritz says what's at the root of the upswing is larger, affluent homes cost more money, and since the wealthy are the only folks who can afford new homes right now, builders are playing to that market.

The rich keep getting richer? You don't say.

Heck, just last week we reported that Forbes' list of the 400 richest people had a $1B minimum for the first time (look for #204 and #220 - John and Richard Marriott, of the Montgomery County-based hotel chain).

A few months ago, the AP reported that CEO compensation had also risen exponentially: half make more than $8.3M each year.

Really, is anyone surprised by this latest, closer-to-home development?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Feds, states fight for health insurance control

I stumbled across an interesting post this morning (thank you, Google Alerts!) that questions whether federal health insurance laws should pre-empt state ones.

The State Policy Network, which blogged on the topic, bills itself as the “professional service organization for America’s state-based, free market think tank community.” The post centers on the federal ERISA, or Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

From the post:

Organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are concerned that some legislators want to punch holes in ERISA. Most of these legislators are on the wrong side of things: they are unhappy that a court found that a Maryland law that would oppress Wal-Mart's ability to freely negotiate health benefits with its workers violated ERISA.

Nevertheless, such federal intervention unsettles free-market activists. After all, if your state government is messing up health insurance, vote them out and get better lawmakers. If you can't do that, and Wal-Mart bails out of Maryland, go to one in Virginia or Pennsylvania. Eventually, the state will feel the economic pain and improve its policies.

What, ideally, should Maryland do -- legislatively or otherwise -- on this issue?

And is there a viable compromise between state and federal regulation?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Verizon gets message on users’ right to choose

Reversing an earlier decision, Verizon Wireless announced today that it will allow NARAL Pro-Choice America to send text messages to Verizon customers who sign up on the advocacy group’s Web site for the messaging service.

The New York Times reported this morning that the telecommunications company had a policy against carrying messages from any group that promotes an agenda or distributes content that, in Verizon’s opinion, can be seen as “controversial or unsavory” to its users. The “unsavory” issue in this case was abortion itself, not necessarily NARAL’s pro-choice position.

Verizon’s ban sparked a debate about the rights of a private company to effectively censor certain messages. In response, NARAL launched a Web campaign today where people can sign a form letter asking Verizon to “end this ill-advised policy and reassure its customers that they can receive the legal information in the form they have asked.”

Now, according to the Associated Press, Verizon has “reviewed the decision and determined it was an incorrect interpretation of a dusty internal policy.”

What do you think? Is Verizon putting itself at risk by carrying advocacy messages from a third party, or are they simply supporting free speech?

-LIZ FARMER, Legal Affairs Writer

AG’s office blocks Asti settlement

So, the Attorney General’s office has apparently decided that $400,000 is $143,000 too much to pay Alison Asti to go away.

If you thought that call belonged to the governor, comptroller and treasurer — collectively, the Board of Public Works — think again. First, the deal needs the attorney general’s blessing.

(And as a short aside, how is it that the Attorney General himself, Douglas F. Gansler, has managed to keep himself out of this entire episode? Check back on all the stories in our paper and in Brand S Major Metropolitan Daily … his name doesn’t appear.)

Maryland Stadium Authority board member Howard J. Stevens Jr. is none too happy that the AG’s office has decided not to forward the deal that was worked out between the board and Asti on to the Board of Public Works for approval.

“I don’t know what happens next, but I do have a question: Why?” Stevens told The Daily Record's Louis Llovio. “We have a board and chair and we approved this unanimously, I don’t understand this,” he said. “I’m just wondering why we even took a vote.”

Is Stevens right? Should the AG’s office have approved the settlement that was worked out between the parties?

-ED WALDMAN, Managing Editor, Business

Court keeps Hanssen’s secret

Physician discipline cases are rarely a laughing matter, but did anything about Salerian v. Md. State Board of Physicians (PDF), Wednesday’s opinion by the Court of Special Appeals, strike you as a little funny?

No, I don’t mean Judge Peter B. Krauser’s choice of “irrefragably” when “undeniably” or even “irrefutably” would have done just as well. I’m talking about the court’s painstaking refusal to name the patient, or rather, the “Evaluee,” when he is clearly one of the most infamous figures in recent history.

So, rest easy, “spy of the century” Robert P. Hanssen: You may be an admitted turncoat; you may be the subject of countless stories, several books and even a major motion picture now out on DVD; but your secret identity is safe with the Court of Special Appeals.

Health care privacy is a laudable goal, and I understand why the Board of Physicians doesn’t name the patients in disciplinary actions against the doctor. But do the same restrictions apply to the court? In a case like this one, why should they?

-BARBARA GRZINCIC, Managing Editor, Law

Stem cell debacle

The Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission heard last week that none of the $15 million in research grants it approved four months ago had been awarded because scientists were late submitting paperwork and university review processes were slow.

Now, they are hearing a different story. Karen Buckelew reports today that University of Maryland officials have refused to sign grant agreements because they are burdensome, onerous and unsuited to this kind of research.

What’s going on here? Why can’t we lock a couple of assistant attorneys general in a room and tell them not to come out until they have an agreement everyone can live with?

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Times’ “Nine”

Trust the New York Times to link some of the coolest cats around and nine of the traditionally “un-coolest” cats around.

The cover of this week’s book review snappily boasts a clever takeoff of the Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve, and presumably Thirteen) movie posters, with nine Supreme Court justices coolly walking across an elongated number “9”.

The review is for CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s latest book, “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.”

The article touches on the difficulties covering the closed vault of the Supreme Court and praises Toobin’s “engaging” writing. But it also criticizes him for not digging deeper into the secrecy of the court and for taking too long to get to the newest recruits, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Anthony Alito Jr.

Call me a sucker for Supreme Court gossip (I’m in the middle of reading Jan Crawford Greenburg’s “Supreme Conflict” right now) but even with a not-quite-glowing review, I still plan on checking out Toobin’s latest dish.

If anyone has read The Nine already, or wants to read it too, I’d love to hear from you. Keep in mind, if I don’t like it I’m not above another post blaming you all for not warning me, so speak up!

-LIZ FARMER, Legal Affairs Writer

Downtown Partnership: "Center Plaza has growth potential"

Strolling downtown (PDF), I’ve often marveled at the way the crowds thin out as I make my way away from the Inner Harbor up Charles Street. Sure, the area around City Hall — and lately the area around Charles Center — seem to be busy at lunch time, and Mount Vernon is busy at night.

Still, it seems like tourists and others who aren’t familiar with Baltimore are reluctant to travel north of Pratt Street, let alone Baltimore Street. I saw something different last night at the recently-updated Center Plaza, where the
Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. brought together hundreds for its annual meeting.

Guests described an area with the
potential for growth in retail and entertainment where flat, somewhat uninviting concrete and several empty storefronts stood as recently as a year ago.

Is it possible that Center Plaza, once a key piece of Charles Center’s 1960s redevelopment effort, could begin to draw visitors northward? What do you envision there, and is there any value to keeping tourists by the water so we locals can have the rest of the city to ourselves?

-ANDY ROSEN, Business Writer

Canton company brings MySpace ads to cell phones

The hearts of MySpace users were surely aflutter yesterday with the creation of a new scaled-down version of MySpace for mobile phones - and, oh yeah, it's FREE.

Of course, you do have to subject yourself to a few ads, but, hey, it's better than paying the previous $3/month. That's 36 whole dollars a year.

A Canton-based company, Millennial Media, is responsible for streamlining the ads that support the service, The Sun reports.

I do have to outright disagree with Fox Interactive Media VP John Smelzer:

"We believe that everybody who's accessing the Internet from a PC will access the Internet from a mobile device. ... It will become a mainstream activity."

Hold up.

No offense to the power of the Web, but mobile device-browsing a "mainstream" activity? For mainstream America? I don't know about that. Somehow I can't picture my grandparents (or parents) - who use a PC to connect to the 'net - ever surfing from a cell phone.

Am I way off base?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Supreme Court to hear voter ID arguments

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments next year on whether voters can be required to show photo identification at the polling booth. The court is expected to decide the cases (Crawford v. Marion County Election Board and Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita) by next summer, in plenty of time for the November 2008 elections.

Maryland’s General Assembly has taken up this issue each year since 2005, but the legislation never made it out of committee. (Current law requires voters to state their name and birth date for identification at the polls.)

What do you think: is a photo ID necessary to combat voter fraud? Should the General Assembly take it up for a fourth time, or wait until the Supreme Court rules?

-LIZ FARMER, Legal Affairs Writer

HoCo chooses civility

I was on Route 175 in Columbia last week when I saw an odd bumper sticker on the car in front of me: “Choose Civility in Howard County.”

At first, I thought it was imploring Columbians to be more racially tolerant.

Since the (albeit small) sample of Howard County residents I asked didn’t know, I turned to the
local blogosphere.

Sure enough,
Hometown Columbia was able to point me in the right direction: Choose Civility is an initiative led by the HoCo Library that “intends to enhance respect, empathy, consideration and tolerance in Howard County.”

Their strategy for doing so? Recommended reading (“
Choosing Civility” by P.M. Forni of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project), a Facebook group and car magnets.

At least they’re aiming near and far.

Anyone out there involved in this initiative care to comment? Are people in Hoco becoming more civil, or are those involved already the pillars of civility?

I, for one, will honk for joy if area drivers truly mend their ways.

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

No girl power at comp sci class

On Monday nights, it's 17 vs. 2 in my computer applications class at Montgomery College. If you count Bill, 18 vs. 2.

I'm taking a night class to learn Adobe Flash, a computer program that creates flash animations for the web. (When you see a message on your computer that asks you to install Macromedia Flash Player, you're trying to view a file that I am learning how to create). I'm learning along with one other girl and 17 guys; Bill Humphrey is our teacher.

I expected a gender gap, but not this wide - after all, my class isn't advanced computer programming, it's an instructional course on a program that's becoming increasingly widespread.

According to a recent AP story, however, the programs themselves might be at the root of the discrepancy: new research suggests that they aren't designed with female thought processes in mind.

What this class has taught me in just two weeks is that those processes truly are different.

Right down to naming our files, I've taken a completely different approach to my exercises than my male counterparts. (I'm sure they enjoy glancing over at my screen to see short animations of dancing teddy bears and the like, but I could do without the World of Warcraft on theirs, so we're even.)

Seriously, though - should we be working towards a middle ground, or are separate programs for separate genders worth considering?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Hip-hoppin’ into court

Baton Rouge rapper Webbie and his Trill Entertainment label mate Lil Boosie are the latest Louisiana lyricists to find themselves in the crosshairs of a Baltimore lawsuit.

Webbie, born Webster Bradney Jr., and Boosie, born Torrance Hatch, were slated to perform at two popular city clubs last winter but never showed up, Baltimore-area promoter Tracye Stafford alleges in a lawsuit (subscriber-only link) filed Sept. 20. Entertainment lawyer Paul Gardner is representing Stafford.

New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne has been sued twice recently by students who were injured when loose cash was thrown from the stage into the audience at his concert at Morgan State University last year.

What’s with Baltimore’s bad legal blood with hip-hop artists from the Bayou?

-BRENDAN KEARNEY, Legal Affairs Writer

Monday, September 24, 2007

Law blog round-up

Why troll the Internet yourself for news about the law and the legal profession?

Here, as the beginning of a semi-regular feature on the On the Record blog, are a few of the stories and blog entries you’ll want to check out:

  • Ron Miller over at the Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog has a post on what he calls the medical malpractice “crisis” in Maryland. The quotes, by the way, are his.
  • Above the Law has a funny post on an inmate who included something strange when he filed a lawsuit protesting his non-kosher diet — and the judge’s Seussian response to said strange object.
-CARYN TAMBER, Legal Affairs Writer

One tax at a time

What do you think of Governor O’Malley’s one-tax-a-day announcement strategy?

In his article in today’s Daily Record, reporter Andy Rosen quotes Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson as saying, “It’s a very shrewd way to do it. To lay it all out at once would give the opportunity to different groups who are opposed to provisions of the program to join together.”

Crenson also said the gradual rollout gives O’Malley the opportunity to pull back pieces that draw heavy political flak.

House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank, D-Washington, was not impressed with the O’Malley dribs and drabs gambit. “Marylanders are not fooled by smoke and mirrors,” he told Rosen. “They are smarter than that.”

So which is it—a good way to help people grasp the intricacies of a complex plan or a crass attempt to manage the news and give the governor maximum political cover?

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

What’s up with the stem cell money?

Reporter Karen Buckelew reports today that more than four months after the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission announced recipients of its first $15 million in grants, the group still has not cut checks to any of the 24 winning projects.

Late paperwork from scientists and internal bureaucratic delays at universities are the main reasons.

Several commission members were angry. One, Suzanne Ostrand-Rosenberg, a professor of biological science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, had a suggestion.

“If people don’t get all their paperwork in in six months, this offer is no longer open,” she said.

What do you think of her idea? What else should be done?

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

Friday, September 21, 2007

Baggy pants & crime

A member of the Baltimore City Council, Helen L. Holton, is looking to add one more thing to the to-do list of Baltimore City police: busting kids with baggy britches.

So I guess it’s not the drugs, guns and gangs on the street that reflect the “moral decay” of our society; it’s that darn hip hop fashion/culture that youth embrace so much. Should this even enter the legislative realm? Should it burden police who are already struggling with a soaring homicide rate? And what about the white kids in the ‘burbs who do the same thing?

This just takes me back to the glory days of junior-high teachers telling me that my Ozzy Osbourne jean jacket back patch meant I worshipped the devil and that our parachute pants were too tight.

So do oversized pants reflect a criminal nature, or just a lack of respect for belts?

-FRANCIS SMITH, Special Publications Assistant Editor

McDonald's rolls back "morning" to 5a.m.

When I turned on the car this morning, I heard back-to-back advertisements for the McSkillet burrito.

It seems like McDonald's and I were destined to spend the morning together.

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You'll have to forgive me if I seem less than lucid; there's a good reason - it's 5:25a.m., and though it looks like the middle of the night outside, here in McDonald's, time stands still.

In 2.5 hours, when I begin my commute to work, the streets will be congested and pedestrians will clamor to run in front of my car's path. Right now, there's peace and quiet for all.

Except maybe for those in line.

That's right, at 5:30a.m. in the McDonald's on Rockville Pike and Marinelli Road, there's a line. A middle-aged businessman, a retired war veteran (noted on his hat) and several Metro employees are waiting in line to order a hot breakfast. Having beat them by a few minutes, I'm already sitting with my helping of fast food.

This morning's menu might be the same as always, but it's hard to complain; I mistakenly received 2 hash browns, but hey, they're two for $1.

As I look out the window, it seems traffic's already picked up considerably since I arrived. Guess you (the early bird) have to rise promptly at 5a.m. to truly beat traffic (the worm).

Oh well. Time for some more fruit n'yogurt parfait as I try to determine whether this small contingent of the world is on to something.

Any early risers out there care to offer some insight?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Film or digital? A photographer’s perspective

Any professional photographer who has been in the game more than 10 years is going to have a soft spot in his heart for film.

If anyone would have told me back in 1990 that a decade later I would be spending more time in front of a computer than behind the camera, I would have laughed. The transition hasn’t been overnight, but technology has definitely taken over the industry.

But as a recent Kodak survey brought to light, two-thirds of professional photographers continue to use film for special projects, even though they shoot digital out of necessity.

I have to admit digital photography has become almost 100 percent of what I shoot in my professional career. That’s because, for the most part, digital has surpassed film in image and reproduction quality, and nobody in the industry wants to deal with film anymore. Photo labs have been going out of business and most camera stores don’t carry darkroom chemicals now.

The truth is we live in a very “need it now” society and for that it seems we are willing to sacrifice a little bit of artistry.

I’ve heard people say that digital photography has made amateurs better and professionals worse. Anyone can take a decent photo these days because the camera does most of the work, and all the knowledge once needed to take a great photo without seeing an instant outcome is thrown out the door. Most pros I know (like the ones Kodak surveyed) still shoot some film for more personal and creative projects as a way of staying sharp.

Even still with all the bits, bytes, and bucks involved in the modern digital photography era, there is still nothing like the sight of a perfectly exposed transparency on the light table or the smell of fixer in the darkroom as your black and white masterpiece slowly appears under the safe light.

What about it, photographers?

-MAXIMILIAN FRANZ, Staff Photographer

Asti (eventually) stepped down

Well, it looks like Alison Asti can finally sleep at night.

After about seven months of intense media scrutiny, rampant rumors and political infighting, the Maryland Stadium Authority’s executive director is out of a job.

Wednesday, she reached a deal to resign with the MSA board and the Attorney General’s office.
A visibly relieved Asti talked to reporters afterward, and, while not happy with losing the job she’s had for 14 years, at least she has the closure.

On the phone Thursday morning, she sounded relaxed and even joked around a bit.

Fred Puddester, the MSA board chairman, also was relieved. He stepped into the MSA in July and was immediately confronted with the political hand grenade that was Asti’s future, litigation with the Orioles and a threatened hunger strike by day laborers.

“This is a tough job,” he joked with reporters after Wednesday’s meeting. Wednesday afternoon, while reporters with looming deadlines sat for three excruciating hours like expectant fathers in one of MSA’s conference rooms, Puddester did his best Henry Kissinger imitation, going back and forth between the board, Asti and J.B. Howard — deputy attorney general — brokering a deal that would make everyone happy.

In the end, it seems to have worked. The board approved her resignation unanimously and now all that’s missing is the dotting of the I’s, the crossing of the T’s and the approval of the Board of Public Works. But take it from someone who has been covering this story with so many peaks and valleys for a while now, until the ink is dry on the agreement anything can happen.

So, do you think Asti was treated fairly? What happens at the MSA next?

Let us know what you think.

-LOUIS LLOVIO, Business Writer

Taxing Matters

Now we come to the income tax part of the governor’s revenue-raising plan. He’s proposing to create new brackets that would tax wealthier taxpayers more. By doing that, he says he can lower income taxes for most Maryland taxpayers and still raise an additional $163 million to apply against the projected budget deficit.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, do you have a verdict? Good idea, bad idea? Too much, not enough? Wrong approach? Whatever happened to the idea of a simple flat tax anyway?

The floor is open for discussion.

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

TimesSelect: R.I.P.

The New York Times on Wednesday pulled the plug on its TimesSelect Web subscription program, returning parts of the online Times to entirely free status.

Although the pending action was widely reported — including in our own On the Record blog on Aug. 11 — the move came exactly two years to the day after the Times began charging $7.95 a month, or $49.95 a year, for online access to its columnists, its editorials and op-ed pieces, and its archives. Print subscribers to the Times, and some students and educators, were given free access. Paid Web site subscribers will get a prorated refund.

According to the Times’ own story of the switch:

"The Times will also make available its archives from 1987 to the present without charge, as well as those from 1851 to 1922, which are in the public domain. There will be charges for some material from the period 1923 to 1986, and some will be free."

This leaves the Wall Street Journal as the only major newspaper in the country to charge for access to most of its Web site. And Rupert Murdoch, the soon-to-be new owner of Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of the Journal, has talked openly about allowing the online Journal to be freely available. Yet some Dow Jones executives, including CEO Richard F. Zannino, think should be kept at least a partially paid site, according to an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, the Times has instituted a new service, MyTimes, which allows users to create their own personalized web pages on the Times’ site – with content from outside the Times’ domain. Seems like The Powers That Be at NYT have embraced the concept of aggregation.

It’s a brave new world.

-PAUL SAMUEL, Associate Editor

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where everyone (at the designer-discount store) knows your name

A Filene’s Basement opened Wednesday morning in Columbia.

In yet another area where many of the residents seemingly can afford to pay full-price, the new designer-discount store will offer Ralph Lauren sweater sets and the like for just $29.99.

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Although it's been six years since I lived in Howard County, when I visit now, it looks like a rival sibling of a Montgomery County town.

You know what I mean — how you can't walk 25 yards without passing a Panera Bread or seeing a little kid decked out in Crocs.

It used to be a refuge, with less traffic, less development, less pressure, less people.

Anyone love the new Columbia?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Office killers? Cheap alternatives to Microsoft

Still running Microsoft Office 2003? ’95? Or, maybe even working off of the Works programs that came pre-installed on the machine because it would cost too much to upgrade everyone’s machine?

Microsoft’s suite of productivity programs has long held the lion’s share of the marketplace even though upgrades can cost hundreds of dollars. But, if you’re looking for a low-cost, or even free, alternative, the time has never been better. A growing number of companies, including IBM and Google, are releasing free products in an effort to wean people off of Microsoft Office.

Tuesday alone saw the release of two new, would-be Office killers. First up is Google’s Presentation, a take on the popular Microsoft PowerPoint, which joined the Document and Spreadsheet programs of the search giant. And, IBM rolled out Lotus Symphony, a free suite of programs drawing on the venerable Lotus name.

Additionally, OpenOffice, another free, open source suite of office programs, released a major upgrade this week. Or, you can always get Sun’s Star Office, which used to run for $70 or so, for free as part of Google’s “Pack” of essential software.

What’s your favorite freebie software?

-BEN MOOK, Assistant Business Editor

What now for same-sex marriages?

Now that Maryland's highest court has upheld a state law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, where should we go from here?

Should the legislature act, and if so, how?

Should we have civil unions in Maryland for same-sex partners? Should there be a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage?

Should we do anything at all?

Join the debate and let us hear from you.

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

‘Audacious ideas,’ anyone?

Want to know who has the most “audacious ideas” to improve Baltimore? If so, you might want to connect with Audacious Ideas, a new blog launched by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore that was created to stimulate ideas and discussion about solutions to difficult problems in Baltimore.

The George Soros-funded institute launched the blog only a week ago, on Sept. 10, with a posting by OSI-Baltimore Director Diana Morris laying out the parameters of the site.

This week’s entry is by Baltimore City School CEO Andres Alonso; in it, he urges schools to rethink themselves as "part of a supportive, connected ecology that embraces innovation and a rethinking of what cities, neighborhoods and schools offer a citizenship in need of a reinvention of teaching and learning."

Deborah Rubino, OSI-Baltimore’s director of communications, says the blog “is by invitation at this moment. But my feeling is that this is really going to be an evolving thing.

“OSI believes in the idea of discussion and debate, and that all members of our society should be able to be participants,” Rubino said. “At this point, we want for people to go to the blog and comment on what’s there.”

Future bloggers who will post their ‘Audacious Ideas’ include Dr. Josh Scharfstein, Baltimore City health commissioner; Hathaway Ferebee, director of Baltimore Safe and Sound; Victor Capoccia, program director of OSI's new national initiative to close the drug treatment gap; and Jane Sundius, director for the education and youth development program at OSI-Baltimore.

Then, too, you can always come to The Daily Record’s blog to see what’s on our mind. We, also, invite your comments to any of our postings.

What are some of your "audacious" ideas?

-PAUL SAMUEL, Associate Editor

What’s BRAC mean to you?

BRAC is coming. No, this big, ugly acronym is not the newest nemesis of Godzilla. Though, Mothra has got to be collecting mothballs by now (yes, a sad pun, but I couldn’t help myself).

BRAC, translated from governmental jargon, is the Defense Department’s base realignment and closure process. And the areas near Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground are set to reap the bounty of defense workers who will soon be flooding into our state from the soon-to-be shuttered Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

Yes, it means more jobs for Maryland, which will be a boost to the state’s economy, along with more people looking to buy homes and possibly more home construction to accommodate the new residents, which could boost a slumping housing market. All positive things, I admit.

But to me, and further confirmation that I’ve slowly morphed into a grumpy old curmudgeon, BRAC just means more traffic and more profanity-laced rides to work. Yes, I’m happy for the state of Maryland, but I’m full of fear and loathing for the state of commuters who already seem to suffer from declining motor skills and mental capacity in larger and larger numbers.

Barring my rage-fueled roadside rant, what does BRAC mean to you?

-FRANCIS SMITH, Assistant Special Publications Editor

Montgomery menus

Undeterred by the legal setback of similar legislation in New York City, Montgomery County officials are moving forward with a proposed bill that would require chain restaurants to post nutritional information on menus.

For example, Ruby Tuesday locations in the county would be forced to disclose that its "Handcrafted Classic Cheeseburger" weighs in at a whopping 1,074 calories and 78 grams of fat.

The next step is a public hearing at the Council Office Building at 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. Do you think the law should move forward?

—BEN MOOK, Assistant Business Editor

Monday, September 17, 2007

Molded in their image

Bob Woodward and Marion Barry will soon be rubbing (wax) elbows.

Figures created for a new D.C. wax museum are being readied for an Oct. 4 opening.

Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman, Robert E. Lee, J. Edgar Hoover, Bob Woodward and Marion Barry will be among the attraction's more than 50 figures.

Once the museum opens, the sculptures - which are painstakingly researched and designed - have to be touched up every day after close.

"Sometimes we have to remove lipstick marks from some of the more popular figures," Lisa Partridge, the museum's hair color artist, told the AP. "The George Clooneys get a lot of attention from women who touch them and kiss them."

While Woodward was a frontrunner, his reporting partner Carl Bernstein will have to wait. Bernstein is on the waiting list for future museum additions.

Which other local figures should be on the list?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Above: The wax heads for Thomas Jefferson, left, Johnny Depp and Beyonce Knowles, wait for installation at the newest Madame Tussauds wax museum in Washington.

Doctors to roll up their sleeves

According to a report by the Associated Press, British hospitals are revising their dress codes — and making doctors dress down. Physicians will be banned from wearing neckties, long sleeves and jewelry, and even the ubiquitous long, white coat.

Why, you ask? It’s an effort to curb the spread of hospital-borne infections.

Think it will work? And would you trust a dressed-down, short-sleeve wearing doc more than a traditionally attired one?

-BEN MOOK, Assistant Business Editor

A hearty helping for DOJ

An audit of the Justice Department released Friday shows it spent $7M to plan, host or send employees to ten conferences over the last two years.

Most of the dough was spent on … dough. Pasta, chips, sodas and popcorn – fuel for our hardworking government servants.

Among the story’s juicy tidbits:

-At one conference, The Office of Justice Programs provided employees with a sandwich buffet lunch ($44/person) and a themed “at-the-movies” snack ($25/person).

-At another, OJP spent $156 on 40 granola bars ($3.89 each) and $7,410 on 2,280 bags of potato chips ($2.50 each).

Anyone hungry for retribution? Or remorseful?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Friday, September 14, 2007

What, no Ford Ranchero?

In case you missed it, Hagerty Insurance Agency (a Michigan vintage automotive insurance company) released the results of a survey highlighting the top 10 most “questionable” car designs.

Its customers were apparently none too fond of the now-defunct AMC stable of vehicles, which had three vehicles on the list.

Chevys were well represented as well, with the unsafe-at-any-speed Corvair scoring a little better than its car-that-rusted-in-the-showroom brother, the Vega.

Other notables were the quintessential car bomb, the Ford Edsel, along with the literal car bomb, the Ford Pinto.

Unscathed in the survey is the Chrysler family of vehicles. Somewhere, the Diplomats, Cordobas and K Cars are chuckling to themselves. Also, surprisingly, the respondents failed to highlight the car/truck/station wagon combos so popular after Starsky & Hutch were in primetime — I mean, of course, the Chevrolet El Camino and its brethren the Dodge Rampage and Ford Ranchero (pictured above).

Outside of the lone Eastern European entry, the Yugo, the Old World car companies also were not on the list.

The first three of the dubious Top 10:

1. AMC Pacer – The Pacer’s interesting styling prompted one respondent to wonder “I’d like to know what planet the designers were from.”

2. Yugo – Mechanical flaws and poor quality put the Yugo near the top. “My Yugo improved my mechanic skills greatly,” said one respondent. “Somedays I miss that car, but then I remember the bad ride, poor brakes, no guts and bad interior.”

3. Ford Pinto – The majority of respondents cited a notorious design flaw that caused explosions in rear-end collisions. “Underpowered, cheap plastic, bodies prone to rust and, oh yeah, they blow up too,” said one.

BusinessWeek also featured a slide show of the cars, in case you need a refresher in their enduring ugliness.

How do they stack up against your vote?

—BEN MOOK, Assistant Business Editor

Man’s best friend gets royal treatment

As I recently discovered in my quest for the perfect kennel, the time of cold, concrete dog runs and warden-style kennel owners has … well … gone to the dogs. Where once you would simply drag Fluffy to a prison-style cell while you vacationed on the beach, now dog owners — with the inclination and the budget — can find such amenities as puppy massage, hydro-sessions and even “pawdicures” in many kennels.

Of course, you pay for what you get — and this kind of care does not come cheap. But for peace of mind and ease of guilt, more and more “parents” are checking their “children” in for a week of fun and frolic.

The trend of pampering our pets has grown precipitously over the past few years. According to Newsweek:

As the demographics of America have changed, so too has the nature of pet ownership. It used to be that most pets were bought by families. Now, the majority of pet owners, 61 percent, are childless — singles, unmarried couples waiting to have kids, gay couples, empty-nesters.

Invariably, these owners tend to treat their pets like surrogate babies, and they spoil them accordingly.

Naturally, this has captured the attention of the expanding pet supply industry — ready to reap the benefits with organic dog food, salon-quality shampoo and diamond-studded collars.

Now dog kennels are following suit, with acres of indoor and outdoor play, “cageless” boarding, climate-controlled suites and even classical music during naptime. Many also offer Webcams, so you can always check in on your favorite furry friend.

Your dog has a request: Please go on vacation.

Who has a story or a comment to share about pet spas?

- EMILY ARNOLD, Special Publications Editor

Who dares hang up on Captain Snooze?

I'm perusing the Web site of Snoozester, a Rockville-based startup company that provides wake-up calls to users who schedule them online. I'm thinking it's a snore, until I land on the characters page.

Now that I know I can be awoken by a swashbuckling pirate, $3.99 per month for a job an alarm clock could do sounds more reasonable.

And as a 24 year-old, I'm close to the company's target demographic: sleepy college students who have trouble making it to class on time.

Snoozester also has a corporate "arm:" you can use it to remind customers about appointments, invoices or upcoming promotions.

All that you've dreamed of, or a business nightmare?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Breaking news: corporate boards lack estrogen

Network 2000 reported Tuesday that the number of women who serve on the boards of publicly traded corporations in Maryland has declined in the last year.

Down from 9.35 percent to 8.9 percent, Maryland dramatically lags the national average of 14.7 percent.

One of the reasons for the gap: Maryland’s industry profile doesn’t match the national one.

Our state has a larger percentage of bioscience/technology companies, which tend to employ fewer women; Maryland also lacks significant manufacturing and retail.

Another factor is the consolidations and mergers over the past year. Two board seats held by women were lost by the merger of Mercantile Bankshares. But that’s not the complete story – the fact remains that there are few women running companies.

I’m curious what others believe the reason is for Maryland’s lack of female representation on boards.

And (do I dare say) is it even important to be concerned about?

-NANCY SLOANE, Assistant to the Publisher

Why isn’t this guy studying?

My (hollow) laugh for the day came in the morning e-mail, in the form of a video called “Law School Musical” — with, by the way, no apologies of any sort to Disney’s “High School Musical.”

Now, I’ve lived more than half my life since I was a first-year law student, but it looks like some things never change … Can I get a witness?

Sensitive viewers, beware - there is minor offensive language in the video.

-BARBARA GRZINCIC, Managing Editor, Law

Uncontrollable growth?

The immigrant population in the Baltimore area grew by almost 40 percent between 2000 and 2006, the Baltimore Sun and the Census Bureau reported Wednesday.

In those same six years, the immigrant population in Howard County alone increased by a whopping 59 percent.

With all the talk of development due to BRAC, has the state been preparing for the infastructure changes that this increase in population demands?

Is the state of Maryland really prepared to handle this massive influx of new residents?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

HD Radio - what’s the big deal?

I see where iBiquity CEO Bob Struble, flush with success over his company’s alliance with Apple Inc.’s ubiquitous iTunes software, is predicting the end of analog radio.

Analog radio is what most of us still call radio.

“Five years from now, people won’t walk into a Best Buy and say, ‘I want to buy a HD Radio,’” Struble said. “They’ll just say, ‘I want a radio.’ This will be the standard, it will be everywhere.”

Really? Is this a prescient prediction or a wildly optimistic dream? What do you think?

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In the eyes of the law

University of Maryland police are treating the hanging of an alleged noose on the College Park campus last week as a possible hate crime.

But, before an act can be a hate crime, it has to be a crime.

Is putting a noose in a tree an actual crime under Maryland or Prince George’s County law? What are your thoughts?

-CHRISTINA DORAN, Assistant Legal Editor

A taxing matter

The governor has telegraphed his fiscal punch - a sales tax rate increase plus extending the tax to cover a host of goods and services not currently taxed.

What do you think? Is this the way to go? Do you have a better idea?

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

Someone please stop the bleeding

In the latest blow to Maryland’s film and TV industry, Discovery Communication’s TLC channel is moving to LA, taking about a third of its 50 employees.

This comes less than two weeks after HBO’s crime drama “The Wire” wrapped up shooting for its final season. Heck, even “Hairspray” was filmed in Canada.

Meanwhile, the state of Maryland cut its incentive money to lure film companies this year.

Have we lost our drawing power for television and filmmakers? If so, how do we get it back or should we care?

-BEN MOOK, Assistant Business Editor

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Is this election really necessary?

In a city like Baltimore, with voter registration skewed overwhelmingly toward one political party, do we really have to go through the motions of a primary and a general election?

How about one non-partisan election with runoffs when needed?

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

Coast Guard leaves FOIA out at sea

Unlucky boaters and ice fishers of the world, take heart: Apparently the Coast Guard believes that its rescue duties encompass the duty to save you from embarrassment.

Journalistic watchdogs over at the Poynter Institute report that the Coast Guard is withholding names of people it has rescued.

It embarked on the policy after the Cleveland Plain Dealer sought the names to determine if, as rumor had it, the Guard was rescuing serial offenders – specifically, people who put themselves in peril while ice fishing each year. (It should be noted that the Coast Guard first held a TWO-YEAR review).

One might think that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should cover this information, or that civilian rescue records aren't privy to medical privacy laws.

But Poynter quotes a Navy Times' story on the new policy:

The Coast Guard believes the names of individuals rescued are protected under a FOIA exemption that prohibits disclosures that “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy."
What do you think? Is this the sort of peril from which the government should protect those it serves?

Anyone out there have any experience dealing with FOIA and the Coast Guard or military?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Ever heard of TMZ?

I was working at a marketing firm last year when my boss rushed out of his office, clutching an industry magazine. "Have any of you ever heard of" he breathed. Almost everyone shook their heads.

A few of us, looking very guilty, raised our hands.

I take comfort in the fact that I wasn't alone: more than 9 million unique visitors feast on the celebrity-news site, which has more than 120 million monthly page views, according to comScore Media Metrix.

Yes, 120 MILLION page views. Every 30 days.

And TMZ's about to get even more eyeballs: Monday marks the premiere of “TMZ TV,” the brand's foray into on-air entertainment news.

A lot of industry folk are calling it “groundbreaking:” an online success story that is hoping to spin off a (even more lucrative) TV component.

But Harvey Levin, the former-lawyer-turned-celebrity-reporter who runs the site, claims he isn't aiming to be a pioneer.

From the AP story:

The program has a good shot at making it, said Bill Carroll, an expert in syndication for Katz Television.

"In a million years, I never would have believed that the national conversation would have been Paris, Britney and Lindsay," Carroll said. "No organization is better at covering that than TMZ. If they can take the tongue-in-cheek sensibility that the Web site has and translate it to broadcast, I'd be very surprised if it's not a success."

Who's willing to fess up: any of you have a guilty-pleasure site like TMZ at the top of your "favorites" list?

To our lawyer readers: ever thought about going the Harvey Levin route?

-JACKIE SAUTER, Multimedia Editor

Monday, September 10, 2007

“Making it rain” sound financial advice

Rap mogul Russell Simmons is a genius at diversification. After co-founding Def Jam records more than 25 years ago, he’s become quite a businessman. He’s used his entrepreneurial spirit to launch a clothing line (Phat Farm), bring spoken word poetry to HBO and Broadway (Def Poetry), and even held a political reception last year for Maryland Republican U.S. Senate candidate Michael Steele.

To say Russell Simmons (pictured at right) wears many hats is an understatement. Over the weekend in Greensboro, N.C., an organization Simmons co-chairs called the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) held a financial investment seminar entitled “Get Your Money Right.”

The organization’s mission statement says, “The network is dedicated to harnessing the cultural relevance of Hip-Hop music to serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the empowerment of youth.”

The summit featured current rap music artists including Jim Jones and Lil’ Mo explaining the benefits of home ownership, investing intelligently and trying to avoid debt.

I wonder if the current real estate crisis couldn’t have been avoided if there were more organizations like Simmons’ talking about the benefits of smart investing or trying to appeal to people through their current favorite celebrities.

Imagine if Madonna did a public service announcement saying: buy a home, settle down, invest your money wisely and retire when you’re 50. Or maybe if Britney Spears did one saying: I really love playing the stock market. Invest your extra pennies and you’ll always be able to take care of yourself.

It’s time we start demanding more from our celebrities and public figures. You wouldn’t expect sound financial advice from rapper Lil’ Mo, but at the summit she made a very sage comment:

"Everybody wants to make it rain, but they never have enough saved up for a rainy day.”

The phrase “make it rain” is taken from rapper Fat Joe’s album entitled “Me, Myself & I” and means to let dollar bills fall from the sky like it’s raining money.

So listen to Lil’ Mo, and hopefully others will follow her lead in offering sound advice for those of us who really want to “make it rain” common financial sense.

What favorite celebrity of yours would you like to see offering financial advice or investment tips?

-TODD ZIMMERMAN, Presentation Editor

Bush vs. Osama—Child’s Play?

My daughter couldn’t resist. She was walking recently on the outskirts of the medina in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, when the product being hustled by a teenage street vendor caught her eye.

The package said “Path Crash 911—Super Funny Children’s Toy, Ages 3- and up.” Looking closer, she saw a miniature train set featuring small figures of President Bush and Osama bin Laden. The young small businessman had one in operation, and she watched as Bush—armed and in a military vehicle—raced around the track after bin Laden—riding a skateboard—pursuing but never catching him.

The vendor wanted 40 dirham, or about $5, for the toy. My daughter, experienced in the local ways, bargained him down to 15 dirham, or about $2. He was pleased with the transaction so she knew he was still clearing a substantial profit.

Ah, the power of commerce. We may be locked in a struggle involving geopolitics, ideology, culture and religion in the Middle East, but in the midst of all that, there are still enterprising entrepreneurs who know how to capitalize on the situation and make a buck.

Oh, and Tom Friedman would want you to know that the toy was made in China—more proof that the world is indeed flat. Now, inquiring minds want to know if Halliburton has a toy-making subsidiary in China.

-TOM LINTHICUM, Executive Editor

My fantasy: No fantasy

I am clearly in the minority here, but I am thoroughly sick of fantasy sports.

To me, fantasy takes away the appeal of sports – especially team sports.

How could I – a Philadelphia Eagles fan by birth and a Baltimore Ravens fan by choice, ever pick a fantasy team that included a member of the Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals or Cleveland Browns? Why would I want to see any of those players do well? And why would I want to participate in a venture where I could lose money if I won’t pick any player from nearly 20 percent of the teams in the NFL?

Team sports are about the team – not about the individual.

Of course, I don’t bet on the outcome of individual games, either. I want to be happy when my team wins the game – not angry that they won but didn’t cover the spread.

As I said, I know that I’m in the minority. Former Ravens owner Art Modell told me for a story I wrote for The Sun in January 2005:

“There’s no question in my mind, and I hate to say it in public, but I have to be honest about it, the element of wagering by the average fan in office pools, man-to-man betting, even with bookmakers, has added a tremendous dimension to our game. It’s brought millions of people to the TV set if they have a buck or two on a team.”

Do you play fantasy football? What is the appeal to you?

-ED WALDMAN, Managing Editor, Business

Friday, September 7, 2007

A night at the (Keys) ballpark

It was THE perfect night for baseball... temperatures dropping through the 80s, a light breeze, the warm setting sun yielding to a light panoply of stars, and $11 seats three rows back from the field in my favorite stadium.

It’s sure not Oriole Park.

We’re maybe an hour’s drive west, at Frederick’s Harry Grove Stadium, a ninth the size of Baltimore’s purported baseball palace (which I have long bemoaned as grossly overrated, despite my masochistic love for the team in black and orange that plays there). Thursday night, the team that plays in Baltimore was losing 7-6 to the Red Sox in a game devoid of meaning, save for the Boston fans who find tickets easier to get for Oriole Park than for their own Fenway Park But I was in Frederick, with my daughter and son-in-law, for a game that mattered – though you’re unlikely to read much about it in big-city newspapers.

Just try to find news about the lowly Class-A Frederick Keys, who were seeking to sweep the equally lowly Wilmington Blue Rocks in their best-of-three Carolina League Northern Division Championship Series.

Now why blog about this game for THIS newspaper’s Web site? Well, a lot of people say baseball is a business, and we cover business. And the owner of that team down in Baltimore, he’s a lawyer (albeit, an increasingly unpopular lawyer), and we cover lawyers. And that team in Frederick – it’s an Oriole system farm team.

So it makes sense, sort of, to share a few insights gleaned from a starry night in Frederick, where a Keys pitcher with the unlikely name of Chorye Spoone took a no-hitter two outs into the ninth inning before giving up a solo home run. And then he was carried off the field by the team, which took the division championship in a 3-1 victory before an enthralled crowd of some 1,726 fans.

Yup, the stadium was just about one-third filled (or two-thirds empty).

Mary, a 50-something fan sitting with her husband in the second row, explained: “It’s a school night.”

I couldn’t tell you, offhand, who hit the Keys’ decisive two-run homer earlier in the game, or which of the Blue Rocks spoiled Spoone’s no-hitter. The bottom half of the scoreboard that used to have such information went on the fritz last year, according to our new friends in the second row. The field was refurbished this year, and the scoreboard is next year’s project, they said.

But it didn’t much matter. I’m sure it’ll show up on the Keys’ Web site, and in the hometown Frederick newspaper, maybe with pictures of the young ballplayers doing the champagne thing just outside the cinderblock entranceway to their locker room.

(Actually, as I passed by the celebration on my way to the free parking lot, it smelled a little too yeasty to be real champagne... and some of the players looked too young to do more than bathe in it.) They were having the time of their lives.

I had a pretty nice time, too. I was the guy with the loud kazoo, playing the theme “da-da-da-da-da-tah-da!” that leads up to the fans screaming “Charge!” (though what that has to do with baseball has long eluded me). In any case, my cheap kazoo seemed louder than the stadium P.A. system’s version. It was also a keen instrument for playing a funereal theme as the Blue Rocks pitcher was replaced late in the game.

The kazoo notes carried better in the night air than the whizzzzzz sound of the little plastic whistle I used for the Blue Rocks’ swinging strikeouts.

Shame it was a school night out there, in semi-small-town America, where the National Pastime was alive and well and nobody was getting rich.

Just enriched in spirit, the way it ought to be.

-DAVID ETTLIN, Special Correspondent

(Note: The Keys advanced to the Carolina League's Mills Cup Champion Series, with the first two games scheduled this weekend in Frederick - at 7 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Ticket information here).