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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Now is the time for a visit to the Skyline Drive

     Somehow a visit to Skyline Drive in Virginia is something I wanted to do the past few autumns but never got around to it until last weekend.  The best news is that it is something that can be done in a day trip.  The start of the Skyline Drive in Front Royal Virginia on the weekend is just a 90 minute drive from Columbia.  The views are more than worth the drive this time of year.  Last weekend the trees had not reached their peak but this weekend and next should be a good time for a visit.

  The road winds its way alone the mountain tops of many ridges in the Shenandoah National Park

   An added bonus for a visitor is the chance to hike on the Appalachian Trail. The Trail crosses the Drive at a number of points.

  The trail surface is somewhat rocky in some parts but nothing too difficult

  The views from the trail are worth the hike.

P. S.

   For those who would like to make a weekend out of your visit a trip 30 minutes down from Front Royal is Luray, Virginia and the Luray Caverns.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why was I outside a building in downtown Baltimore at 5:15 a.m. yesterday?

   You may have noticed that I didn't post a blog yesterday.  Instead I was waiting outside the University of Maryland Dental School Urgent Care Clinic in the dark at 5:15 am waiting with a neighbor of mine who had a severely infected tooth.  Here is the background to that situation.
     Five months ago my neighbor lost his job and then his car for lack of payments.  Having a middle class life in Columbia can change so quickly.  About six weeks ago he started having pain with a tooth and had tried doctoring it with salt water rinses but the pain and infection were only getting worse.  A couple of days ago he mentioned that he had even tried to pull the tooth with some pliers but nothing worked.  I told him I would call around to see what resources I could find to get inexpensive dental care.  I had some idea of the challenge with getting dental care for people without insurance and little money.
     I started by calling the United Way 211 Information and Referral Service to see what I could come up with.  They gave me three possible resources.  The first was a dental foundation where dentists volunteer their time for dental emergencies.  I call this resource but found out there were no resources in our area and the few dentists they had in other areas couldn't see my neighbor very quickly.  Next I tried Chase Brexton which has a dental clinic in Columbia.  This seemed promising as they could see my neighbor that day and they were only a couple of miles away.  Driving my neighbor there was easy and the $100 cost seemed affordable.  Unfortunately my neighbor's infection had gone into his jaw so they were not equipped to pull the tooth in that condition.  After striking out twice on resolving the problem he was down to the last choice of the University of Maryland Dental School.  They told me that it was first come first serve at their Urgent Dental Care office and that the clinic provided services starting at 9 am.  I asked what time we needed to get there to be sure to be treated.  I was told that people start lining up outside their door between 5 am and 5:30 am.  So now you know why I was outside that door yesterday at 5:15 am.  We were the first in line.
     Being a good blogger I couldn't help striking up a conversation with some of the other 10 people in line.  After some general conversation about the cool weather I heard a little of their circumstances that led them to be there waiting in line.  The openness of a one person seemed to make others comfortable comparing how the can to being in line. A couple had been there the day before in the rain and found out they hadn't come early enough to be treated. One man was someone who traveled around the country laying flooring tile without any insurance.  He seemed to have many of his teeth missing and he said he was there to have the rest of his teeth pulled and eventually get dentures.  He hoped they could pull all 10 of his remaining teeth.  Another young man with a foreign accent was a student at a local college on a student visa.  Each of the people that spoke that morning talked about how they had hoped the problem would go away or how they had tried to correct the problem themselves.
     6 am came and in we went to wait inside.  At 7:30 a staff person handed out instructions and waiver papers.  We were told that to be treated you needed a picture ID and the cost of treatment would be $150.  Two people left because I assumed they didn't have one of these two requirements.  It was hard not to think about what those two would do next.   This resource seems to be the last resort for most people.  The good news is that my neighbor had his tooth pulled and yesterday he happily said it was the first time he had been almost pain free in a long time.
     I couldn't help but think of how different my neighbor's experience was to the one I had last week when a had a small chip broke off one of my teeth.  As someone who has always had great medical coverage and affordable dental insurance I called up my dentist's office and was asked if was causing me any discomfort or problem.  Not really I said.  Could I come in to the office in 3 hours?  Sure, that was no problem.  Three hours later I walked out with a new filling repair.  I know from other fillings I will have a $25 co-pay.  Somehow I felt a little guilty with having a minor dental issue resolved so quickly when so many other people in more serious situations had to wait in the cold in the very early morning hoping they had arrived early enough to receive treatment.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Elections turn negative in last few weeks

    One of the nice things about having a DVR is that in addition to being able to watch TV programs when you want you can also skip through the commercials.  This is especially nice with the campaign season now in full swing were half the commercials are for political candidates.  However not having a DVR this past weekend, on a trip to Front Royal Virginia, forced me to watch the negative political commercials from Virginia candidates.
     It has been a belief of political consultants that voters still undecided at this point in the election cycle are more likely to vote against someone than to vote for someone.  For this reason most political ads from now till election day will be heavily weighed toward the negative side.  Scaring voters about your opponents beliefs is all we will get.  I saw commercials warning voters that one candidate believes that being a mother is not really a job and another candidate offered a possible job as a federal judge .
    If you haven't made up you mind on who you want to vote for in Maryland yet I would suggest that you not listen to any of the negative ads or mailers that you may see.  They won't address the real issues or positions of the candidates.  This is especially true for those that come out a couple of days before the election.  These ads are the most false because they know that it is so close to the election that there will be no time to refute the charges.  If you want to know what the candidates real positions are check out their websites before making any decision on which candidate to vote for.  Here are some links to candidates websites for Howard County Executive and Maryland Governor.

Allan Kittleman
Courtney Watson

Anthony Brown
Larry Hogan

    Notice how the attacks on the Affordable Health Care program have been very muted by opponents of the program?  Wasn't this supposed to be a major issue in the mid-terms?  Maybe it is hard to attach something that has benefited so many voters.  Or maybe the attackers are waiting for the appearance of the "death panels" that they warned us would come.

    I have never understood undecided voters when you have a race that presents two candidates with such different agendas and political views.  I suspect that often undecided voters are just the least informed voters who may not make their voting choices on a rational basis (i.e. oppose Obamacare but support the Affordable Health Care program without realizing they are the same thing).  You can be independent in your political choices just don't be independent because you are uninformed.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

When wrong proportionality defines a crisis

     We now have an Ebola czar when the number of Americans that have died from Ebola is zero.  Ebola is a serious health care issue that has to be addressed before it becomes a significant issue in our Country.  However, every year in our Country 45,000 people die from a preventable cause yet no national czar has been appointed to address this health crisis.  The 45,000 die from a lack of health insurance to receive medical treatment.   The irony is that many of the same elected officials calling for an Ebola czar are the same officials who have tried to demonize the Affordable Heath Care program by labeling it Obamacare and have stopped getting a new Surgeon General appointed.  It is hard to know exactly how well the new Affordable Health Care program will lower the 45,000 unnecessary deaths but the reduction in the number of uninsured in our Country would seem to be a first step in addressing the issue.  I just wish the 24 hour news cycle found it as sexy to talk about a crisis that exists today as much as they like to drive our fear of a potential crisis with Ebola.  All I am saying is that setting priorities on using our public dollar resources in addressing health care needs should bare some resemblance to the size of the problem.

  Reminder for tonight:

Meet the Author  sponsored by Friends of Howard County Library System.

    " Drawing on the lives of five great scientists, Dr. Mario Livio illuminates the path to scientific discovery through its inevitable missteps. An internationally acclaimed astrophysicist, popular lecturer, and bestselling author, Livio presents his New York Times bestseller, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein -- Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. Books available for purchase and signing."

HCLS CENTRAL BRANCH (410.313.7800)
Tuesday, Oct 21
7 - 8:30 pm

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Howard County too wealthy?

      We all know that we live in a wealthy county. But when is a good thing so much that it develops a significant downside?  Can you ever be too healthy or too wealthy?  Forbes magazine listed us as the fourth wealthiest county in the Country with a median income of $108,000. It is no wonder that every upscale retailer wants to open a store in our County.  Our location, close to DC and the federal government, and highly educated population certainly has a lot to do with our wealth.  In fact, 4 of the 5 wealthiest counties in the Country are in the DC area.  Quick question--which county has a higher median income, Fairfax County Virginia or Howard County?  If you guessed Fairfax you are wrong ($108,000 Howard County, $106,000 Fairfax).  Montgomery County doesn't even make the list of the top 10.
    So is there a downside to being a wealthy county?  That thought occurred to me on a recent bike ride through Western Howard County. It was not hard to notice the fact that modest homes built there in the 1950's and 60's are being replaced by homes in the $500,000+ range.  It is a little strange to see an older 1000 sq ft home next to a 6,000 sq ft home but it tells you where we are headed in our County's housing stock--at least in Western Howard County.
       It seems that new reasonably priced starter homes are a thing of the past.  The affordable homes that Ryland and others sold in Columbia in the 1970's provided young families with an opportunity to buy a new home to start a family on a modest salary.  Those options today seem much more limited.  Buying an older home in a school district that has low test scores maybe the only way to find an affordable home today.  The choice seems to be between affordability and being in one of the "desirable" school districts.  The idea of having diversity of housing choices seems to have been diminished starting sometime in the 1980's as Columbia and Howard County became a desirable place to live.  This desirability certainly pushed builders to want to maximize their profit by building larger more expensive housing.  I have blogged before about a small rancher in Oakland Mills (one of those "California ranchers" so common in our early villages) being replaced by a $500,000 brick colonial when the original rancher burned down.  Today even the small remaining out parcels in Columbia usually have larger colonials squeezed together with very small yards.  Is the finding of the 2010 Census showing that the only age group that had declined from the 2000 Census in Howard County was the 0 to 4 age group.  Some of this may just be a result of couples having smaller families but I wonder if it also reflects the lack of affordable starter homes.  I remember moving into our new affordable starter home in the late 1970's and 90% of us having kids in this age group within the first couple of years.  We got to know all of our neighbors because we had to be out watching our young kids as they rode their big wheels up and down the sidewalks.
      What we see today is the older villages of Columbia that were built with affordable homes and apartments carrying an increasingly disproportionate share of our County's affordable housing.  This has led to a stigmatizing of certain villages, neighborhoods and school districts.  This trend is hard to reverse once these perceptions become ingrained.

   Ask any realtor  about the number of families looking to buy a home in Howard County and they will tell you that usually the first requirement is to only show them homes in the desirable school districts.  The cycle of desirable schools creating desirable neighborhoods has a profound impact on how our County can continue to provide for the diversity of our population.  It is not diversity to only have a mixture of high performing schools and low performing schools, some desirable neighborhoods and some undesirable neighborhoods.  The challenge going into the future for our County is to provide that diversity in every community and school in our County.  This may have to start by having affordable new homes for young families.  Often it seems if we are moving in the opposite direction.