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Satellite images from NASA show just how aggressive we are with the holiday decorations. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via NASA.

There are a lot of places around here to see great holiday-light displays, but the seasonal decorations don't just make an impression at ground level. Washington—and most everywhere else—is so lit up during this time of year that the added glow from millions of tiny bulbs is visible from outer space.

Nighttime lights shine 20 to 50 percent brighter around Christmas and New Year's than the rest of the calendar, according to images taken by the Suomi NPP satellite, an orbiting installation operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to NASA's findings, the light given off by populated areas, not surprisingly, starts getting brighter on Black Friday and continues through January 1 before fading down to typical levels. A team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt compared images of light intensity between 2012 and 2013. The differences in light intensity aren't as noticable in urban centers, which typically shine brightest regardless of season, but suburbs and exurbs still increase their luminosity between 30 and 50 percent. The image above, focusing on the mid-Atlantic region, shows a solid belt of increased light intensity between Washington and Baltimore. The darker the green dots, the brighter the lights are.

Here's a video from NASA explaining the science:

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 10:29 AM/ET, 12/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Secrets of the Arsenal digs up artifacts from hidden Washington vaults. By Luke Mullins
Geoff Edgers with a test bomb. Photograph courtesy Discovery Communications.

A new television series starring Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers premieres tonight on the American Heroes Channel.

Edgers, who became the Post’s national arts correspondent in September, is the host of Secrets of the Arsenal, which uses rare and hidden artifacts to explore some of history’s most important stories. The cameras follow Edgers as he scours historic vaults around the country and discovers everything from a trophy pistol found on a World-War-II-era German submarine to a shotgun owned by a notorious stagecoach robber.

“The key is you go places, and bring your viewers, where they can’t normally go,” Edgers says.

Although most visitors won’t get the access Edgers and his crew enjoyed, much of the show was filmed in popular Washington-area tourist destinations. Among the sites the show visits are Ford’s Theatre, the National Archives, and the National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic Museum.

“The big challenge on a show like this is telling stories about some of the most important moments in history and making them seem fresh,” Edgers says. “Everybody has written a book, done a movie, or done a documentary on every war we can think of. So how do you put a fresh spin on it? Our approach was to find a cool object that has something to do with the subject and then focusing on that.”

Edgers spent 12 years at the Boston Globe before joining the Post in August, but this isn’t his first crack at television. He produced a PBS documentary about his effort to reunite The Kinks, and also hosted the Travel Channel's Edge of America. (“For my first episode, I had to castrate a bull,” he says.)

In addition to Edgers’ reporting, Secrets of the Arsenal uses historical reenactments to appeal to what Edgers hopes will be an audience that extends beyond the hard-core history buffs. “My hope is that [the show will appeal to] somebody kind of like me,” he says, “somebody who’s really into great stories, who’s read David McCullough, and David Halberstam’s book on the Korean war, but isn’t collecting [military] uniforms.

Tonight's episode airs at 10 PM, although the show will air the rest of its episodes at 9 on Tuesdays.

Find Luke Mullins on Twitter at @lmullinsdc.

Posted at 05:52 PM/ET, 12/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Carlyle Group cofounder lays down some beats. Seriously. By Benjamin Freed

The Carlyle Group is known for sending its investors clever thank-you videos every December, but this year's reaches either new heights or an unprecedented low, depending on how you feel about 65-year-old billionaires trying to lay down beats. This year's clip, sent to Carlyle's investors on Monday night, features the company's cofounder, David Rubenstein, stepping into a recording booth and rapping a verse.

Rubenstein rhymes:

Takes a lot of brains to do what we do,
Looking for a way to make some dough for you.
Energy, commodity, we do it all,
So pick up the phone and give us a call.
Corporate mezzanine, private equity,
Carlyle Group is the place to be.
We’re global, we’re mobile, we’re aiming to please.
Only goal in mind: serve our LPs

It appears Rubenstein took inspiration from his business partner, Dr. Dre. Carlyle acquired 25 percent of Dre's Beats Electronics in 2013 for $500 million; Apple purchased the company in August for $3 billion, doubling Carlyle's investment.

Around DC, Rubenstein is known for being the financial savior of many cultural treasures, including the Kennedy Center, pandas, the Washington Monument, and the Magna Carta. We believe he is now also the first Washingtonian of the Year to drop rhymes.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 12:53 PM/ET, 12/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The District's drinking water infrastructure needs $1.6 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

Metro passengers are still working their way out of Tuesday morning's hellish delays caused by a ruptured water main near Metro Center, which flooded the Silver, Blue, and Orange line tracks for most of rush hour. The burst pipe briefly flooded the tracks, forcing tens of thousands of commuters to seek refuge on the Red Line or shuttle buses.

Today's commute will go down as one of the one of the worst in recent memory, but not because of anything Metro did. The culprit is a 12-inch, cast-iron pipe laid down in 1953, according to DC Water. Even more incredible is that at 61 years old, the busted pipe is "actually on the young side" for Washington's water infrastructure, says DC Water spokeswoman Pamela Mooring. The median age of the District's water system is 79 years old—beyond most pipes' useful lifespan—while the sewer lines are even older.

Crippled infrastructure isn't anything specific to DC—the American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $1 trillion to upgrade the entire country's water systems over the next 25 years—but the systems here are especially critical. The American Society of Civil Engineers diagnosed DC's drinking-water infrastructure with needing $1.6 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years and the sewer system needing $2.5 billion in fixes.

The District endures about 400 water main breaks a year, with more coming in the winter as pipes react to fluctuating ground temperatures and an excess of cold water, Mooring says.

DC Water is in the early phases of a ten-year, $3.8-billion capital improvement project that includes funding for several projects, including pipe replacement, but fixing the system completely will take much longer than that. Mooring says the utility recently switched from replacing one-third of 1 percent of its water mains every year to a full 1 percent annually, meaning the city will have all-new pipes by the early 22nd century.

"But we were on a 300-year schedule," she says.

In the more immediate future, Metro has resumed its regular schedule on the Silver, Blue, and Orange lines, but it'll take DC Water up to 12 hours to fix the busted pipe, causing a closure of 12th Street, Northwest, between E and F streets.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 09:47 AM/ET, 12/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Nobody expects public radio to do traffic reports, so the station is cutting them off after the morning shift. By Benjamin Freed
Not WAMU's problem anymore. Photograph by Flickr user Dome Poon.

Washington-area commuters who preferred dulcet traffic advisories between segments of All Things Considered will have to make do with more manic, commercial-radio reports to get home in the afternoons, following WAMU's announcement that it is cutting traffic reports after the morning shift.

WAMU's marketing director, Kathleen Allenbaugh, tells Washingtonian the decision comes after market research led the station to conclude public-radio audiences just don't have that big of a thirst for traffic reporting. The review followed a few listeners complaining that there were too many traffic reports throughout the weekdays, Allenbaugh says.

"We know that there are other traffic sources," she says, noting that few look to public radio for round-the-clock traffic updates. Allenbaugh also says that WAMU's research showed that more people are relying on social media and smartphone apps for commuting information. The other big contributing factor is more public-radio listeners tune in at home than in their cars.

But WAMU is keeping its morning traffic reports by retired NBC4 reporter Jerry Edwards, who broadcasts four times an hour from his home in Florida. Edwards and afternoon traffic jockey Mike Cremedas work for Radiate Media, a DC company that supplies traffic reports to area radio stations. Allenbaugh says WAMU is keeping Edwards in the mornings "because we feel the commute is so complex."

Edwards will file his last traffic report at 10:04 AM, Allenbaugh says. WAMU's news staff will report on major traffic incidents if needed.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 05:13 PM/ET, 12/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
We're all lit up for the holidays. Take a break from the gift shopping and have a look around. By Hallie Golden, Kay Wicker
The 2013 National Christmas Tree. Photograph by Flickr user Tim Evanson.


National Christmas Tree

An obvious choice, perhaps, but still worth the tourist-heavy trek. Located directly adjacent to the White House, it has more than 350 red, green, and white LED lights that can be viewed in all their brightness every night through New Year’s. Then again, shouldn’t we expect the White House to set an example of not leaving one’s lights up after Christmas Day?

When: Through January 1
Where: The White House
Cost: Free

Photograph courtesy Friends of the National Zoo.


This is the much better federal light show, featuring elephants, sea lions, octopi, Komodo dragons, and other fauna in holiday-light form. And yes, there are Christmas-light pandas.

When: Through January 1
Where: Smithsonian National Zoo
Cost: Free


Symphony of Lights

Columbia residents might bicker over developers’ plans for the Symphony Woods park, but there should be no argument over the allure of its annual holiday display, which this year adds a bike route to the usual walking and driving tours. If admission seems a bit steep, remember that the light show’s proceeds benefit the Howard County General Hospital.

When: Through January 4
Where: Symphony Woods at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia
Cost: $20 per car, $45 for vans, and $125 for buses

Photograph by Flickr user Glyn Lowe.

Washington DC Mormon Temple

The local LDS headquarters decorates its temple and surrounding grounds with 600,000 bulbs, accompanied by nightly nativity scenes between 6 and 9. There are also live musical performances at 7 and 8 every night.

When: Through January 1
Where: 9900 Stoneybrook Dr., Kensington
Cost: Free

Seneca Creek State Park

The Winter Lights Festival at Gaithersburg's Seneca Creek State Park dazzles with more than 300 displays and 65 illuminated vignettes. For an additional $2, car passengers can get prism glasses that make the show appear extra sparkly. (No special specs for drivers, natch.)

When: Through December 31
Where: Seneca Creek State Park, Gaithersburg
Cost: $12 Monday through Thursday, $15 Friday through Sunday


Photograph by Flickr user Howard Ignatius.

Winter Walk of Lights

It took more than three months for Meadowlark Botanical Gardens to transform itself into this winter light show. The park includes a scavenger hunt, family photo spots, and a tree decorated with 50,000 LED lights.

When: Through January 4
Where: 9750 Meadowlark Gardens Ct., Vienna
Cost: Ticket prices vary

Bull Run Festival of Lights

Take a drive through this two-and-a-half-mile-long light show, made up of 40,000 animated lights set to music. This event also includes a pop-up holiday village with rides, food, and shops.

When: Through January 3
Where: 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville
Cost: $15 per car Monday through Thursday, $20 per car Friday through Sunday

Find Hallie Golden and Kay Wicker on Twitter at @HallieGolden4 and @kaycandlewick.

Posted at 04:52 PM/ET, 12/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The only thing sadder than Washington's football team is how miserable it's made local sportswriters. By Benjamin Freed
How it probably feels to be covering Washington's NFL team right now. Photograph via Shutterstock.

Another week in the NFL schedule down, another reminder that Washington's professional football team barely qualifies to be called one. While the season's not over yet, the team's professional chroniclers gave up hope long ago. Every Washington defeat brings a fresh set of downer reviews from the Washington Post's roster of sports columnists, and as you'll see from below, the malaise has only grown.

Washington's passers are being written off in print as quickly as they're being carted off the field, special teams are a dismissed as a gallery of dangerous buffoons, and reactions to yet another miserable squad under the Dan Snyder era have transformed from worry and anger to desperation and hoplessness. It's the pornography of Monday-morning quarterbacking—just how sad will it get? Read on for a timeline of how our terrible team has sapped the Post's writers of the will to even cover this pathetic franchise:

Week 1: Texas 17, Washington 6. One game in, Sally Jenkins smells a rat:

A 17-6 loss to the Houston Texans in the NFL’s Week 1 isn’t a season-definer, of course. But if this habit of making the shiny, happy best of lousy performances doesn’t stop, it will be. Hit rewind, and listen.

Week 2: Washington 41, Jaguars 10. Down goes RGIII! Mike Wise offers to help bury the corpse of the third-year quarterback's flailing career:

“You ever see a postgame locker room this happy after the face of the franchise and the number one free agent in the offseason went down?” I asked a longtime team employee.

“No,” he said, adding he’d rather not elaborate.

Week 3: Eagles 37, Washington 34. After a close loss, Dan Steinberg sees a dumpster fire in progress:

"Oh weird, a kickoff returned for a touchdown at a crucial moment. It’s actually not weird, you see, because Washington has regularly displayed stinking refuse fires on special teams about every other week for the past decade or so. There are so few disaster plays that Washington hasn’t explored on special teams."

Week 4: Giants 45, Washington 14. Wise writes off the first replacement quarterback:

The vehicle carrying the new and true believers of Kirk Cousins careened into a Prince George’s County embankment Thursday night, and the wreckage was total and complete: four good-night interceptions in nine second-half pass attempts.

Week 5: Seahawks 27, Washington 17. Steinberg forsees more doom, thanks to the special teams:

This week, the fake-field-goal-for-a-first-down narrowly sneaks past the messily failed onside kick, the ineffective pooch kick and the punt downed at their own 1. Tune in next week, when the Redskins’ special teams unit torches the team bench and releases stink bombs inside the locker room.

Week 6: Cardinals 30, Washington 20. Team sinks to 1-5; Wise is bored and sad:

"Personally, it really would be nice to write about a winning NFL team again. There’s only so much bad news you can be the bearer of before people start treating your stories like the team: If the destination is always the same, at some point you stop making the journey.

Week 7: Washington 19, Titans 17. Tom Boswell isn't swayed by a rare win:

"When losing franchises have comfort-food victories gifted to them, as the two-turnover, 11-penalty Titans helped Washington to this win, then a few days of healing for damaged confidence are in order. But this team’s knee-jerk flaw, season after season, is to use any good performance—or just a lucky win—to pound themselves on the back with self-congratulatory happy talk and please-the-owner boasts."

Week 8: Washington beat the Cowboys, and there was much rejoicing.

Week 9: Vikings 29, Washington 26. Griffin says "God has a plan." Wise sees no hope for salvation:

The Creator was unavailable for comment, but it’s clear in just scheduling the Vikings as a road game that the plan is either to inflict physical and psychological pain on the lads from Ashburn or to teach a severe lesson going forward: Preparing for an athletic contest is damn near impossible with this many distractions.

Week 11: Buccaneers 27, Washington 7. Jason Reid throws that ruinous question out there:

"As fans booed while exiting FedEx Field early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 27-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a question hung in the air: Are the Washington Redskins even worse than last season?"

Week 12: 49ers 17, Washington 13. Reid to Griffin: Get lost:

Before Griffin returned, Colt McCoy led the Redskins (3-8) to consecutive victories, including a road win against the NFC East-leading Cowboys. Now, the Redskins are reeling again and it’s easy to identify their biggest problem.

Week 13: Colts 49, Washington 27. Boswell joins Reid in trampling on Griffin's career's grave:

After McCoy’s third straight strong performance—in the other two, he was a key to victory—every Washington blunder or penalty won’t have to be seen through the distorting prism of “what did Griffin know and when did he know it?”

Week 14: Rams 24, Washington 0. Reid is out of explanations:

Even by their poor standards, the Redskins appeared inept while losing their fifth straight and being shut out for the first time since 2011. And in addition to the Redskins’ recurring on-field problems, the ongoing drama of their unstable quarterback situation continued to cast a shadow over the franchise.

Week 15: Giants 24, Washington 13. Boswell appears to have the bottom of the pit in sight:

Yet, in reality, this is the worst NFL product Washington has put on display in 50 years—losers of 19 of their past 22 games. And still in full “dive, dive” mode, heading for the depths.

Washington's final two disasters-in-waiting are home games against the playoff-contending Eagles and Cowboys. Barring a pair of shock victories, the Post will have to break new ground in coming up with depressing superlatives.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 10:26 AM/ET, 12/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Students who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say George Washington University makes it difficult to obtain their GI Bill benefits. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Adam Fagen.

Jonathan Fields did not anticipate that when the Corcoran College of Art and Design was absorbed into the George Washington University, one of the effects would be having to scramble to keep the lights on at his Arlington apartment.

Fields, 27, spent six years in the Army before enrolling in Corcoran in 2013 as an undergraduate photography student. When Corcoran merged with GW over the summer, Fields assumed there would be no impact on receiving his veteran’s housing stipend to cover his living expenses. But on September 1, he woke up with $23.42 in his bank account. Fields got a $600 bridge loan from GW’s military and veterans office to buy groceries and pay the bills at home, but he’s now worried he won’t be able to cover what he owes to GW.

For serving in the Iraq War, Fields receives benefits under the Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistant Act (also known as the New GI Bill), including tuition assistance, a housing allowance of about $2,100 per month, and a book stipend. The GI Bill covers up to $20,235 of tuition and fees at a private college. Many schools—including Corcoran and GW—participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program, an additional benefit in which tuition expenses above the nominal cap are split between the institution and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Fields received $18,077 in base GI Bill benefits for the 2013-14 academic year. Yellow Ribbon payments kicked in another $6,527 from the VA and $6,292 from Corcoran to cover the rest of his tuition. Corcoran also awarded Fields a scholarship of $3,000 per semester when he matriculated. But with his GI benefits covering 100 percent of his education and associated costs, the scholarship effectively turned into a cash refund. Fields used the money to pay his rent over the summer, when the GI Bill did not apply.

But GW does things differently. Although it officially honors Fields’s Corcoran award, GW applies scholarships and grants to tuition first, with the GI benefits paid afterward. The upshot: Fields won’t be getting that refund this year.

“Aside from screwing vets out of actual earned GI Bill benefits, they are also effectively screwing vets out of our awarded scholarships,” Fields tells Washingtonian.

Read More

Posted at 02:05 PM/ET, 12/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
President Obama will sign a government funding bill even though it blocks a widely popular District initiative. By Benjamin Freed
The District is somewhere under there. Photograph via Shutterstock.

The White House's signal that President Obama will sign a massive spending bill that keeps the government from shutting down—even though it contains several unpalatable amendments from House Republicans—effectively ends the District's hopes for legalizing marijuana. The $1.1 trillion continuing resolution includes language prohibiting the District from using its own resources to enact Initiative 71, which more than 70 prercent of city voters approved last month.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said during a Thursday afternoon press conference that while Obama does not believe Congress should overrule DC's local laws, he's not going to risk a government shutdown over one city's cannabis reform.

"[T]he Administration objects to the inclusion of ideological and special interest riders in the House bill," reads a statement of administration policy released today. The one-page document mentions several amendments, although it does not call out the anti-marijuana language placed in the bill by Representative Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican who has appointed himself DC's iron-fisted drug czar.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who previously promised Initiative 71's meddlers "the fight of their lives," has said she believes there's a loophole in the referendum, which was written with the intention of not affecting the District's budget. Because the legalization of possession of up to two ounces of cannabis and home cultivation of up to six marijuana plants for adults 21 and over does not explicitly impact DC's finances, Norton believes it could be "self-enacting."

Even if Norton's theory pans out, the reluctance of congressional Democrats or the White House to put up a fight is another kick in the teeth for DC. More sobering is that District officials and marijuana activists are resigned to a situation like this.

"I like the President, but you can never say he’s an activist President," says Council member David Grosso, the lead sponsor of a DC Council bill that would have created a regulated and taxed retail mariijuana market similar to those established by Colorado and Washington state. "To protect the District of Columbia? I don’t see it happening regardless of the issue."

Harris's meddling with Initiative 71 has sparked several Capitol Hill demonstrations from its backers, but the protests appear to be in vain, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying the anti-marijuana language will be difficult to remove from the negotiated bill.

Obama's reluctance to jump to the defense of Initiative 71 stings a bit more than Reid's, though. Last summer, when Harris unsuccessfully attempted to block DC's marijuana decriminalization law, the White House said the President would veto a spending bill if it contained such an amendment.

"[T]he administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally-passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of states’ rights and of District home rule," an administration policy statement read then. Perhaps it should have specified that such opposition only applied when it was politically convenient.

"I’d love to be pleasantly surprised someday," says Grosso.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 02:29 PM/ET, 12/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
“It’s an indictment of local media in DC.” By Harry Jaffe
Photograph of Amico by Douglas Sonders.

Laura Amico arrived in DC five years ago and saw two cities: one where more than 100 people were murdered every year, most without a shred of news coverage, and another where homicide was rare but reported on as if life actually mattered.

“I found it so hard to believe,” she says. “I decided to investigate.”

Her investigation resulted in Homicide Watch D.C., a website founded with her husband, Chris, that charts the grim details behind the District’s homicide statistics—the parents executed as their infants slept nearby, the 26-year-old woman found shot at a fire scene. Its motto: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.”

In four years, Homicide Watch covered 435 cases, posting photos, maps, and court documents. Friends and family mourned the deceased and defendants alike in the comments section.

Two years ago, Amico won a fellowship at Harvard and she and Chris moved to Boston, running the site—which averages a half million page views a month—with the help of interns. But when she landed a job at the Boston Globe, the couple began talking to DC outlets about taking it over. “It’s a local news site,” she says. “It shouldn’t be run from Boston.”

The Amicos estimate the annual cost of operating the site at $60,000. So far, no takers. “It’s an indictment of local media in DC,” Amico says. “It sends the message that the cases don’t matter. It’s a shame that didn’t make a difference.”

But for many faceless victims and their families, it already has.

This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 11:46 AM/ET, 12/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()