You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Volunteering in the flood zone

Posted in Miscellaneous by Stacy McMahon on June 30, 2006

The downpour this past weekend created a lot of problems for the DC area, including a flash flood along Cameron Run which somehow managed to rise high enough to dump mud on the Beltway. Folks, that is something like 30 feet over its normal trickle. This flood also filled up basements in almost all the houses north of Huntington Avenue, which is my old neighborhood. I live in an apartment complex over by Route 1, but I walked past that neighborhood to the Metro many times, biked through it, even looked at a couple houses there this spring when I was house hunting.

Obviously, I’m glad now that I went elsewhere! But I felt like I should lend a hand, so when I read that Volunteer Fairfax was putting together a work day, I signed up. It was very efficient and well-organized, and the modern wealth of northern Virginia was on full display. Volunteers (and there were a lot of us) were provided with tools, plenty of water and food, and even safety gear including duck boots, filter masks, protective eyewear and paper hazmat suits (no, we didn’t have the astronaut helmets to go with them. I am your father, Luke.)

I was certified for every kind of job, and mostly did a lot of heavy lifting. These houses were built in the 40s so they all have washers and dryers in the basement, which were all ruined by the water. I helped pull the machines out of 5-6 houses. Several of us spent much of the morning working in one particular basement where a very sharp and matter-of-fact elderly woman had to throw out a lifetime of memories ranging from a dresser her mother owned as a child to a large box full of old checkbooks and other files. The afternoon saw more washers and dryers come out. Most of the basements also contained water heaters and furnaces, but we were ordered not to mess with gas appliances. This was in spite of solid information that the gas was shut off throughout the neighborhood, so maybe there’s another reason to leave those to the pros.

Probably the most fun job of the day was removing the lower 3 feet of drywall from the basement of an empty house that had been almost ready to go on the market. Four of us got started with hammers and prybars and were making painfully slow progress. Then one of the firefighters slipped us a couple of tools off a firetruck. Those things (he told us the name and history of them but I forget) are designed to rapidly expose fires inside the walls, and they tear out drywall like it was wet paper towel. Of course once the breaking-stuff part was done all the scraps had to be shoveled into bags and carried outside, which was a lot more like work.

The teams were organized into specific work areas, and ours was on relatively high ground. The peak water levels had ranged from a couple feet to 3-4 feet above the basement floor. Further down it was much, much worse. People were coming back from the bottom of the street covered in mud. Even a county supervisor who just came to tour the site had mud and slime up to his chest. One of the gas company guys told me that he saw the flood and that the water rose so fast people didn’t even have time to move their cars …then fell again. Just long and high enough to destroy half or more of everything the residents owned.

I can’t say enough how newly impressed I am with people in my community. I bitch a lot about how materialistic and silly the DC area has gotten, but there are clearly still hundreds, maybe thousands of people here who will pitch in when the chips are down. All you need is good people.

The Hunley was NOT a recycled steam boiler

Posted in History by Stacy McMahon on June 26, 2006

I just edited my first Wikipedia article. It’s the one about the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that sank the U.S.S. Housatonic outside Charleston, S.C. The article had perpetuated the myth that the Hunley was made from an old steam boiler, which is not the case. It was built from the keel up as a submarine, and its 1863 design incorporated several key features found on all modern submarines:

  • One forward and one aft ballast tanks, trimmed independently.
  • Dive planes mounted on the hull just behind the forward ballast tank.
  • Shrouded single propeller and rudder.
  • Snorkel tubes to recycle the air inside without surfacing. This is especially significant since it was ignored or forgotten, then reinvented at the end of WWII and is now standard on all submarines.

People tend to see the south as backward and hidebound, which is partly the truth and partly the result of a smear campaign dating from Reconstruction. Think of the Hatfields and the McCoys, which was basically a sensationalised story made up to sell newspapers in the north. It’s interesting, then, to think about those admittedly rare examples of cutting-edge innovation from that region.

No, Virginia, there’s still no free lunch

Posted in Computers and Software, Economics by Stacy McMahon on June 23, 2006

I read a post on Slashdot today about a guy who got arrested for freeloading on a coffee shop’s free wi-fi. For three months, he consistently parked in their lot for long periods of time and surfed the web. Unsurprisingly, plenty of commenters claimed that hey, the WAP is open and unsecured, so he’s justified in using it. The fact that he never came inside and bought anything is irrelevant.

Well, it’s not irrelevant. One of the comparisons made was to someone sitting on a bench outside the store at night and reading by the light coming from the windows. You wouldn’t have someone arrested for that, would you? Of course it’s absolutely not the same thing. The light coming from the window is there whether anyone’s “using” it or not. You reading your book doesn’t raise the store’s electric bill. You connecting to their WAP however, a.) uses up one of the fixed number of clients and b.) uses up some of their bandwidth, probably a lot of it since they are probably not shelling out for a DS3 in order to give it away. So, unlike the light on the sidewalk, using the WAP costs the store something in the sense that the more people freeload, the more expensive it will be to make sure paying customers can still go online.

Of course that doesn’t stop the people who think the internet is a Star Trek-zone where normal economics doesn’t apply and they should be entitled to get everything net-related for free. Unfortunately, I think this is in part another bad side-effect of the RIAA’s attempt to hold onto its moldy old business model: conventional wisdom at this point has it that any attempt to clamp down on online freeloading is based entirely on the bad motivations of Evil Giant Corporations(tm) and that supply and demand is just a quaint concept from the Old Economy(tm).

And Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia!