Rachel Monroe

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Baltimore’s Outdated Office Towers Are an Inner Harbor Problem

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When people talk about Baltimore’s vacant real estate, they’re usually referring to the blocks of dilapidated rowhouses in some of the city’s hard-hit neighborhoods. But there’s another kind of structure that worries city planners:  the 1970s-era office tower.

“Several Downtown buildings do not meet today’s standards and are considered functionally obsolete for office use, even with substantial investment,” according to the Office Vacancy Task Force. Which is a big problem, since Baltimore’s tallest building — 100 Light Street, the former Legg Mason building — is one of those outdated models. “Stuck in between the perceived coolness of early 20th century facades and the newness of all-glass towers,” Mark Byrnes writes in the Atlantic Cities blog, “these buildings are having a hard time retaining existing tenants, let alone attracting new ones.”

Another worrisome structure is 2 Hopkins Plaza, built in 1970 and smack in the middle of the Inner Harbor. It’s currently 42 percent vacant, and that’s including PNC Bank, which is scheduled to move out this summer. Some developers hope that renovations and mixed-use use residential conversions will save the buildings. Or does something more drastic need to be done?

Ten Years Post Wire: David Simon Looks Back

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David Simon’s invitation to speak at MICA last night was pegged to a new course being offered by the art school, The Wire & American Naturalism. So it was perhaps appropriate, then, that Simon himself made a comparison between his critically beloved five-season HBO program and that famous (and famously hard-to-read) American masterpiece, Moby Dick. They’re both, in Simon’s words “slow starters.”

Simon reminded the standing-room-only crowd that the show was never a fait accompli. Ratings peaked in the second season and went down from then on. The show found new life in DVD box sets, which allowed audiences to watch at their own pace — but the show wasn’t available on DVD until the third season was on air.  Many TV critics ignored the show entirely (“I don’t want to name names,” Simon said. “Nancy Franklin from the New Yorker”). And once the show started gaining momentum, that caused some problems, too. Then-mayor Martin O’Malley got “petulant” and took it out on the state’s film industry.

But in general, Simon seemed loath to talk about the show that’s brought him so much adulation and attention. Instead, he apologized for not being able to help turning every speaking engagement into a stump speech against the drug war — “a war on the underclass,” and one he says makes him ashamed to be an American. This rhetoric is familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to Simon’s work, but it’s still compelling to watch — Simon is angry and smart and happy to tell us what is wrong with the world he sees. (Simon says that it’s not so much that he’s angry, but that his family’s dinner table discussions featured rousing discussions of the day’s issues, and so he grew up with a healthy enjoyment of arguing… a quality that wasn’t so appreciated, he says, by his bosses at the Baltimore Sun.)

The question implicit in all of Simon’s pessimism (about Baltimore, sure, but also about past and present presidents; gas prices; the movies we choose to watch) is well, what can we do about it? Predictably, Simon doesn’t advocate change via established methods like voting or calling your senator. “What can you do?” he says. “If you’re a resident of Baltimore City or Baltimore County, and you’re called to serve on a jury for a non-violent drug case, you can nullify that jury. It is your absolute American right.” By refusing to flood the prisons with non-violent offenders, he says, we can all play our own small part in rebelling against a failed drug war.

Loyola Offers Innovative Online Counseling for Students

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Everyone knows how you’re supposed to deal with crushing depression:  exercise, take a walk with a friend, talk about it. But the problem is, all of those require getting out of bed, and in the toughest times even that is sometimes too much to ask.

Which is why the idea spearheaded by Loyola University’s counseling center is such a great one:  they’re using an online program intended to provide immediate, 24/7 help for students coping with trauma. The new and innovative program offers a host of benefits. It allows the school’s therapists to reach those who might not otherwise step foot into the counseling center — either because they’re too depressed to get out of bed, or because they’re embarrassed to admit they need help. Furthermore, it allows counselors to meet students in a place they’re eminently comfortable:  the internet. “They’re communicating in different ways than we grew up with,” says Jason Parcover, who oversees the center’s outreach program. “So we have to evolve with them.”

When the program launched last November, it was an immediate hit. More than 1,500 students — some from other campuses — used the program in its first two months. The program offers privacy and instant access. What it doesn’t offer is an intimate one-on-one conversation. Instead, visitors to the site can watch videos of counselors offering tips and defining terms. When users indicate they’re suffering from a certain symptom, the program reassures them that their reaction is completely normal. In this way, REACT is less of a replacement for counseling than a useful stop-gap measure that’s available 24-7, no questions asked.

It’s Final: Ripley’s Odditorium in the Inner Harbor This Summer

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The carousel’s out, so families searching for fun in the Inner Harbor this summer will be strapped for options — at least until Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (exclamation point mandatory) opens its “odditorium.” Despite eye-rolls from some quarters, the plans have been finalized and the two-story festival of wackiness is set to open its doors this June.

Ripley’s, based in Orlando (somehow not surprising) is known for its ostentatious facades and showcases of strange things. One of those strange things was the gigantic sea serpent sculpture that was planned for the museum’s exterior. Ripley’s wanted the neon-green monster to burst out of the building, its teeth bared, its tentacles coiled around a three-masted ship; city officials balked at the tackiness, and Ripley’s has agreed to tone it down. Now the giant sea serpent will appear to be devouring only the museum’s second story. Much more tasteful.

Inside the museum itself, visitors will find a 3D movie theater (although aren’t all movie theaters showing everything in 3D these days?), a mirror maze, and hundreds of “oddities,” including a mysterious yet-to-be-revealed centerpiece that’s valued at more than $1 million. If you’ve happened into the Ocean City boardwalk building that’s got a shark sticking out of it (also a Ripley’s property), you’ll have some idea of what to expect.

Christopher Schardt, senior general manager of the Harborplace calls this “the biggest change since the grand opening [of Harborplace].” Also anticipated:  Bubba Gump shrimp company taking over the former Phillips Seafood spot, a new food court, and a re-opened Johnny Rockets. So, will you be spending your summer at the Inner Harbor?

Coolest New College Minor: Space

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Having a college minor always seemed a little silly to me. It was like officially declaring a hobby — here’s something I’m interested in only enough to take six classes in it. But a just-announced program at Johns Hopkins may have changed my mind.

Because now you can minor in space. Yes, space. Not physics, or Earth and planetary sciences, or engineering, or astrophysics, or whatever. Space! More broadly, “space science and engineering.” Space-minors will have to take an introductory course, plus four extra classes that fit around a particular theme. (The program’s website offers a few awesome-sounding ideas:  exoplanets! exosolar biology! spacecraft design!) To cap things off, students will find an internship that allows them some hands-on practice with all their cool new space knowledge.

Hopkins students have reacted to the new minor with predictable, endearing, nerdy enthusiasm. “Dinosaurs and space are my two passions,” said Hopkins sophomore Jessica Noviello, who gets to take dinosaur classes as part of her Earth and planetary sciences major. Now that she can be a space minor, she is, as she says, “living the dream.”

Baltimore County Boy Ira Glass to Speak at Goucher College Commencement

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Everyone’s favorite empathy-fueled public personality, Ira Glass, is coming back to Baltimore (he was born here) to deliver this year’s commencement speech at Goucher College.

Glass, who attended Milford Mill High School in Baltimore County, is the one whose ever-so-slightly whiny voice has become a touchstone for NPR listeners, 1.7 million of which tune in to his weekly program “This American Life.”

I saw Glass speak back when I was in college, and he was — predictably — great. He’s got a way with an anecdote, and a talent for sneakily shifting the silly til it’s suddenly profound. This makes him pretty much perfectly suited as a commencement speaker. Good job, Goucher!

Other local schools — Johns Hopkins included — have yet to announce their commencement speakers. But no fear, we’ll stay on top of it — and let you know if anyone else exciting is coming to town.

A Look Inside the New Johns Hopkins Hospital

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The new Johns Hopkins Hospital buildings are going to be huge. Literally (1.6 million square feet, two towers connected by a pedestrian bridge, a main entrance that’s larger than a football field), but also figuratively. Johns Hopkins has long been known as a leader in medical innovation, and these new buildings allow them to put that innovation into practice.

And, while the official opening is a few months away, a nifty virtual tour lets you go on a sort of 3D walk though the brand-new space. There’s a garden bistro! An oddly-shaped purple couch! Colorful walls!

But all silliness aside, the adult patient rooms look comfortable and (relatively) sizable; every in-patient will get a private room, and come with a sleep-sofa for friends and family. And the whole place looks like a magnet for natural light, which is a good counter to the usual drab hospital atmosphere.

You can’t see everything in the virtual tour, of course. For one, Hopkins is promising the dramatic reveal of “exciting” sculptures and paintings by national and international artists at the hospital’s opening in April. Judging by the hospital art we’ve seen in the past, we’re not holding our breath. But the art selection is approached with anything like the innovation that’s going into every other part of this project, we just might end up pleasantly surprised.

This Week in Research: Vinyl NOT Better Than CDs?; Immigration Good for MD

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Anyone who’s ever known (or, worse, dated) a music snob knows the old refrain:  music on vinyl just sounds more authentic. Let them rhapsodize on and it’ll start to sound as though you’re discussing fine wine — LPs have a sound that’s rich, deep, velvety, full. But hold on a second. Scott Metcalfe is someone who should know — he’s the director of recording arts and sciences at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins. And he says he “definitely” prefers CDs. It turns out that the physical limitations of vinyl — its grooves and pre-set disc size — mean that dynamic range often gets reduced. CDs are, simply put, a more useful technology for capturing a wide range of sounds and frequencies. But what about vinyl’s much-vaunted “depth”? Metcalfe has an answer to that:  “In some cases, the depth of field, the depth of sound that people talk about, enjoying about vinyl that they say is missing from the CD may, in fact, be a result of the compression to make that old recording more competitive for the modern market.” And CDs trump even MP3s, Metcalfe says — “there’s a loss of depth of field in a smaller format… Occasionally, I’ll hear somebody playing, you know, through a PA system at a party or, you know, a reception or something from an MP3, and it’s almost painful for me to listen to” However, Metcalfe does grant that old-fashioned records do allow for a more ritualistic listening experience.

Meanwhile, over at the University of Maryland researchers have found that the state’s immigrant population makes a substantial contribution to our economy, especially in the science, information, and medical fields. (Twenty-seven percent of the state’s scientists are foreign-born!) Which is good news, as more than half of the growth in the state’s workforce was due to foreign-born workers. (The national average was 45 percent; in Maryland, it was a full 57 percent.) Nearly 14 percent of the state’s population is foreign-born, which is slightly less than Texas, but more than Arizona and Virginia, and about one-third of those live in or around Baltimore. According to the study, immigrants tend to be clustered either in high-income groups or low-income groups, which is one reason they’re a boon to the economy — they complement the pre-existing labor force. The relatively unskilled immigrant labor force, which is concentrated in the agriculture, seafood, construction, personal services, and tourism industries, also helps out:  “Without the influx of foreign-born workers, expansion in these labor-intensive industries would have been choked off, increasing prices and discouraging growth across the economy,” the report says. In all, the study’s authors urge lawmakers to think twice about leaving immigrants and their children out of education and state services plans: “Most of foreign-born young people in Maryland, regardless of [legal] status, will make up a substantial part of the productive, tax-paying work force in a few short years. We will also depend on them to be informed voters and capable leaders so we can maintain strong and dynamic communities throughout the state of Maryland.”

Towson Considers (But Vetoes) A Plan-B Vending Machine

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Plan B, known more commonly as “the morning-after pill,” is an emergency contraceptive pill that prevents or delays ovulation, thus preventing pregnancy. Though it’s come under fire from some corners, it’s widely available throughout the country. But not, alas, in a vending machine in Towson University.

The idea of a Plan B vending machine first came about when the school’s Health Services department heard about a similar machine at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, which offeres Plan B for a discounted price. “We already dispense Plan B now at Dowell Health Center and we try to make it simple, but students still must see a nurse to request it,” said Student Health Services director, Jane Halpern. Getting Plan B from Shippensburg’s machine isn’t quite as simple as buying yourself a bag of Doritos; the machine is in a private room, which can be accessed only by students, who must first check in at the lobby. No state-supported or taxpayer-supported dollars are used for the program.

The vending machine makes access to emergency contraception easier and more confidential. An anonymous Towson student told the school’s newspaper that “it’s more embarrassing to go to a CVS and buy it than at the health center.”

While the proposal interested some members of the Health Services community, no plans were made to move forward — perhaps because birth control is suddenly a touchy topic these days. What’s your take — does an emergency contraception vending machine make sense for a college campus?

UM Sends Its Best and Brightest Math Stars to High-Needs Schools

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Everyone’s got a theory about how to close the education gap, and they range from the lofty to the simple. Starting this year, some members of the University of Maryland College of Education will try to change one small thing:  putting well-trained, quality math teachers in high-needs schools.

“We’ve known for years that there are not enough well-trained, quality mathematics teachers to meet the staffing needs of schools,” says UM assistant professor Lawrence Clark. The reasons are many — one big one being that those of a mathematic or scientific bent have the potential to earn way more in the private sector. In an attempt to fill the gap, some schools are recruiting teachers from the Philippines, while some teaching programs offer alternative pathways to certification. This is working to a certain extent, but the lack is still there — and high-needs schools are the hardest hit.

Enter the National Science Foundation, which is teaming up with the university to fund 42 $14,000 scholarships to juniors and seniors interested in teaching math in high-needs middle or high schools. The chosen Noyce Scholars (named after Robert Noyce, who co-founded Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel) will have to commit to two years of service for every one year of scholarship support. The program will also provide support for its students during those tough early years of teaching.

Clark says he hopes that the project will “dispel myths about high needs schools and show students that high needs schools can also be good schools with great teachers, supportive parents, and amazing kids.” The first group of Noyce Scholars will be chosen this spring.

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