Eastern Market, after the fire

It’s a very, very depressing day here on Capitol Hill, because last night, Eastern Market suffered a devastating fire that appears to have pretty much gutted the 134 year-old building. The Market has been operating continuously since 1873, and housed a dozen stands selling everything from fresh produce to meats and cheeses; for most people in the neighborhood, including Shannon and me, it’s the primary place for getting groceries and weekly staples. As of now, firefighters think that the blaze started in a dumpster behind the Market building, but don’t know anything more than that.

Mayor Fenty and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (who also shops there nearly every weekend) have already vowed to rebuild and restore the Market, but it’s unclear how quickly they’ll be able to get that done, and what the vendors (most of whom depend on daily operation to stay afloat) will do in the mean time. Over the past year, Shannon and I have gotten to know most every one of the people who work there; I feel horrible for what they all must have felt as they got to work this morning and saw the building surrounded by firefighters who were still battling the smoldering blaze. Tommy Wells, the DC Council member for Capitol Hill, has specifially thrown his weight behind immediate plans to help the vendors survive the interim period; his weblog post also seems to intimate that there was serious structural damage to the South Hall, meaning that there will have to be more than just rehab work before it’ll be able to open back up for business.

Wow, this is just awful.

a closeup of the radiator cover

Two weeks ago, while planning a few new projects, Shannon and I decided that a table saw might be a worthwhile addition to the tool collection and ended up deciding on a Bosch 10” contractor’s saw. Of course, it rained cats and dogs from the moment we got home with the saw through the end of the weekend, and then we were in Boston for the whole of last weekend, so yesterday was my first chance to break it out of the basement and give it a spin.

Like any good tool-obsessed woodworker, the first project was building accessories for the tools — a basement shelving unit — but after that we moved on to furniture. Some of our friends saw our perfectly-narrow antique bench and thought that something similar would work out well in their own entryway, so a few weeks ago we picked up some salvaged mahogany to use for the task. Today we sawed, sanded, drilled, nailed, and stained that wood, building a slightly simpler matching bench for their house and a cover for the radiator in our house that sits just in front of our original antique bench. All three projects were incredibly satisfying, and since we did it all on the sidewalk in front of our house, we got a lot of comments as people walked back and forth to Eastern Market!

There’s an interesting journal article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine that reports the results of a recent survey of over 1,600 physicians in six different practice areas, results which found that 94% of the physicians reported some type of a relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. That’s a pretty shockingly high number; even when you look at the numbers for specific relationships, 78% of doctors report receiving free drug samples, and over a third report accepting reimbursement for academic meeting expenses. (On the flip side, merely meeting with a pharm rep is considered to be a “relationship” by the survey, something I feel pretty secure saying is as likely to be totally innocuous as it is to be suspect in nature.)

I consider myself pretty fortunate to be in what appears to be the very small minority of this survey — I trained in a residency which banned pharm reps from having any contact with the residents and in a fellowship which had a similar restriction, and I now work for an entity which has the same proscription in place across the entire organization (as well as a very strict ethics process which even requires me to divest myself of any stock holdings in any part of the health care industry). I can probably count on one hand the few things in my life that came from pharm money — and thinking it through, they were all provided by unrestricted educational grants that were given to national societies like the American Society of Hematology rather than as directed contributions to me or my program.

All that being said, it bears stressing that the NEJM article makes no conclusions about the outcome of the relationships; for example, while there are clearly some doctors whose prescribing practices are altered by the availability of pharm perks, there are others who use free samples (like vaccines) because it’s the only way their patients can afford any kind of treatment whatsoever, and that’s the kind of relationship that some would say might have a positive effect on at least a certain segment of healthcare. I fully expect that these survey results are going to make waves in the press in the coming days, but I also expect that most press coverage will do a piss poor job of making this distinction clear. (I also would love to see the same survey done of a few other industries, making the appropriate substitutions — like of elected Federal officials and the groups they regulate, or of financial services reps and the financial sectors they cover.)

Today, I figured I’d do a one-month check-in on the fact that Google Maps is lost when it comes to mapping Washington, DC, and the verdict is: still totally, completely horked! It’s horked in a different way now, though; the link from my original post works, but other ones don’t work worth a damn at all. (And while neither of those is a link to our house’s address, our house is one of the addresses that’s unmappable… meaning that all the various bookmarks for directions we’ve sent people over the past year still don’t work at all.) There’ve been no further replies from the folks at Google, either; Matt Cutts replied to that prior post of mine in the comments and followed up with me by email a few days later, but he now appears to be going on a one-month work hiatus and doesn’t look to be receiving email.

I seriously can’t believe that the folks at Google don’t care about the bug in their address parsing routines, but the truth appears to be evident in the fact that they remain broken.

Update: I just got an email reply from Matt Cutts (too quickly for it to be due to this post!), and in working through some examples, it looks like the breakage might be specific only to the various C Streets in Washington, DC — addresses on C Street SE (and the other four quadrants) don’t work, and addresses on all other one-letter streets appear to map fine. He’s going to bug the mapping folks again, so we’ll see what happens!

Yay — we get to keep Butterstick for another two years! (For those who didn’t know, the panda born here at the National Zoo back in 2005 was nicknamed Butterstick before he was given his official name, Tai Shan, on his 100th day of life.)

Since Shannon and I found our antique bench back in mid-February, I’ve been spending a little time here and there hunting for good sources of salvaged and recycled wood in the DC metro area, but wasn’t having much success. This past Thursday, though, I stumbled on an EPA report from 1999 that had the following tease in it:

A significant development in the collection and distribution of salvaged materials in D.C. is the recent formation of Community Forklift, a non-profit organization that seeks to establish a permanent distribution center for salvaged building materials. Currently, Community Forklift is in the process of legally incorporating, attaining tax exempt status, and drawing up a business plan.

One Google search later, I found Community Forklift, saw that their warehouse was a scant seven miles from our house, and got insanely excited about waking up early this weekend and checking it out. And after having now been, I can now say that it’s easily one of my favorite finds since moving here — as an architectural and building material salvage warehouse, they’ve got tons and tons of old wood (mostly salvaged joists and beams, some dimensional lumber and plywood, and a bunch of other bits and pieces), bins of vintage hardware like doorknobs and hinges, about a million old doors, windows, cabinets, and countertops, a lot of tile, and aisles and aisles of all the other stuff that gets saved when old buildings get torn down to make way for new construction. We ended up getting a great variety of widths of beautiful mahogany boards that we’ll use to build a shelf for ourselves and a bench for a friend (and they even lent us a circular saw so I could cut the wood down so it’d fit in my car!). There’s no question in my mind that had I been there alone, I’d likely have stayed all day.

One other benefit of finding Community Forklift is that mentions of it on the web also led me to learn about a few other places I’m going to have to check out, like the two Habitat for Humanity ReStores and the HoH Renovation Station in the region (all of which look to be similar in their missions), and then the great granddaddy of the area, Baltimore’s Second Chance (holy crap, five warehouses full of salvaged materials?). I suspect that this has the potential to become an addiction…

Jeff Atwood has an post worth reading about what he views as the failure of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, a service that’s baffled me ever since I saw it spring up. (For those who haven’t heard of it, Mechanical Turk is a clearinghouse set up by Amazon for organizations to solicit assistance in completing rote tasks, paying people a certain amount per task. For more background and info, Wikipedia has a reasonably good article about the service.) To be clear, I understand the idea behind the service — there are certainly a bunch of things that pop up in everyday work life that are worth hiring someone (in effect, a short-term contractor) to help you finish — but every time I browse Turk, it seems that there’s a vast disconnect between the available tasks and the amount people are willing to pay to get them completed.

For example, as of this morning, the Missouri Department of Purchasing and Materials Management has a Mechanical Turk post requesting assistance extracting details from around 250 state purchasing contracts. To complete each of the 250 tasks, the user has to:

  • search a web-based Missouri contracts database for a specific contract number;
  • visually locate a few fields on the detail page for the contract and cut-and-paste the information into a Turk form;
  • download and open up the actual contract (sometimes a Word document, sometimes a PDF) using a link on the contract detail page;
  • manually search through the dozen-plus pages of the contract for a bunch of other details, and cut-and-paste them into the Turk form;
  • cut-and-paste all the various document links from the contract detail page over to the Turk form;
  • and finally, submit all the extracted data back to someone in Missouri.

Once all that is done, someone (ostensibly from the Missouri Department of Purchasing and Materials Management) then evaluates the submitted information before agreeing to pay the Turk user the piecework fee — which is a whopping ten cents. And the funny thing is, this isn’t some isolated case; browsing the available tasks page, most are asking for someone to do something reasonably time-consuming, and are willing to pay reasonably little… and the fact remains that payment of the worker is still at the sole discretion of the person requesting the work. It’s hard for me to understand who’d be willing to participate in the service, and I’d love to see someone take a more longitudinal view of the posted tasks and provide real stats on such things as how many tasks get completed, how many users end up getting paid, and what kind of money ends up moving through the service over a given increment of time.

A few short takes:

  • Michael Lopp, the man behind the weblog Rands in Repose, has the computer monitor setup I can only dream about. That’s a 30-inch Cinema Display on the left, and a 20-inch Cinema Display — turned vertically — on the right… all I can say is wow. Maybe if I lead a good, clean life from here on out…
  • I’m generally not the largest fan of Walt Mossberg’s, but he’s dead-on in his evaluation of today’s typical first-run experience on new Windows PCs. It literally takes hours to wade through all the crapware that manufacturers load onto a new PC these days, getting rid of trialware and all the other useless dreck that comes along for the ride; it’s one of the biggest differences between the first-run experiences on PCs and on Macs.
  • Mostly as a bookmark for myself: here’s how you tell your Mac to stop creating the annoying .DS_Store files on Windows file shares. Damn, these are one of the more irritating things that come part and parcel with using Macs in a Windows networked environment…
  • ImgRed.com, a new “service” that claims to provide a good cache for images you’d like to link to on the web, has collected a good number of links over the past few days; I’d love to know what their privacy policy is, though, and how the service plans to give webmasters the ability to prevent caching of images on a given site (since it’s fundamentally a whopping copyright violation in the making).

Ah, crapola: the Vonage verdict is in, and it bars the company from signing up any new customers during the ongoing patent fight with Verizon. Seeing as how Vonage loses 650,000 customers a year, and now can’t gain a single one for the foreseeable future, I’m pretty sure this is the sign of the apocalypse for the VoIP company.

My cursory research of other options for our home VoIP phone service brought me to the doorsteps of Packet8 and AT&T CallVantage, and then to two smaller companies, SunRocket and BroadVoice. Does anyone have experience with either? Specifically, the features I like a lot with our Vonage service are its rock-solid reliability (we’ve never had an outage or problem), the free calling to England (my sister and her family live there), and the feature where it attaches voicemail messages to email and sends them to us. Looking at the feature sets of all four of these options, it looks like the voicemail thing is pretty universal among them all, but only BroadVoice has a reasonable plan with free calling to England, and (of course) there’s no way to know about reliability other than asking for users’ experiences.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only tangentially been paying attention to the lawsuit Vonage is involved in with Verizon — I knew that Vonage was found to have violated a few Verizon patents, but I had no clue that my home phone company might be forced to shut down its service this coming Friday! Apparently, in an effort to avoid a court-ordered shutdown, Vonage struck a deal with VoIP Inc. today to carry all its calls on VoIP’s network, a move that both companies claim routes around at least two of the technologies that Verizon has patented. But in the end, we still have a phone company that is a quarter of a million dollars in debt, now owes Verizon over $50 million for the use of its patents, and is churning through subscribers at increasing rates. So even if Vonage makes it through Friday — hell, even if the company makes it through the next few months — I’m not naive enough to think that I don’t need to be doing any research on who our next phone provider will be. Anyone have any suggestions?

Update: Clint Ricker has a bit more about the patents involved in the dispute over at IPUrbia.