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March 12, 2006

Remembering Roosevelt, Einstein, and WWII

Today was an adventure where we walked across all of Washington DC, stopping off at a few of the well known (and less well known) monuments along the way. We easily logged over 8 miles on what had to be the most beautiful day we've had since I arrived in DC, with temperatures around 70 degrees F. I wore short sleeves and even left my jacket at home!

Washington has a tower, Lincoln and Jefferson have monumental buildings, but Teddy Roosevelt's monument is an island, literally. In the middle of the Potomac, it's covered in trees and has several miles of hiking trails. It's a wonderful oasis from the City.

After leaving the island, we crossed the river into the City and joined another lesser known-memorial devoted to Einstein and his contributions to science. The statue is moving, with Einstein's endeering expression of wonder gazing down upon us. The three of us (me, L, and Einstein) enjoyed a picnic lunch together. We also took a peak inside the original National Academy of Sciences building, which has a fantastic ceiling with depictions of humans harnessing the power of nature through science.

We spent some time at the WWII memorial and went on a nice Park Service tour. We try to take advantage of these whenever possible because they are informative, personal, and free! This one gave nice insight into the intricacies of the memorial that has been criticized as too plain and simple to honor the efforts of millions of Americans during wartime and the 400,000 soldiers that lost their lives.

We ended the evening well beyond Capitol Hill where we joined some of L's friends for a housewarming party. It was great to stay late into the night discussing all sorts of topics. And it was even better to be able to take the Metro home, which runs until almost 3 am on weekends!.

See photos from today's adventures...

March 7, 2006

Meeting with Representative Chris Shays

We went back to "The Hill" for a personal meeting with Connecticut Representative Chris Shays, a friend of L's uncle. When he finally arrived for the meeting (ten minutes late), he greeted us with hugs and brought us into his office. He asked about what we were doing in Washington and what our future plans are. L then asked him about some energy policy issues. As a moderate republican, he has led the House on many of these issues, including being a sponsor of the House version of the McCain-Lieberman climate change bill. He said that he was afraid that future generations would look upon his generation's "rape of the environment" with disbelief and disdain. L asked him about specific remedies for these problems and, among other things, he advocated increasing fuel economy standards. When she asked him if he thought this was actually achievable from a legislative standpoint, the response was saddening. He basically said that we can't go anywhere on this issue with our current president and political climate. Three more years and counting...

March 4, 2006

Panda time!

Today we visited Tai Shan and his family at the National Zoo! We booked our tickets three week in advance and woke up early in the morning to get there in time for our reserved time at the beginning of the day. We were lucky enough to see him in the middle of an exciting play session with his mother, full of rolling around and very active. We also enjoyed spending time with the primates. The zoo was, however, kind of dismal with tiny cages and many of the animals were forced to stay inside because it was too cold for them to go outside.

See more photos

March 2, 2006

On Capitol Hill

This afternoon, we went to Capitol Hill to watch Congress in session. We made our way through the maze of the Capitol building towards the Senate gallery where we were excited to hear the debate on the Patriot Act renewal. Before entering the chamber, we were informed that the Senate was currently in session. The door opened to... one Senator in the empty chamber. It was completely quiet. Over the next hour, a few senators came in and gave brief speeches before walking out. During that time, I'm not sure that anyone in the room was listening (I'm not even sure about the stenographer). So much for a debate.

At 3pm, senators started filtering in for the vote. The clerk called the roll, but almost nobody seemed to respond -- even if they were in the room. They would eventually go up to the desk and put their thumbs up or down to indicate their final vote. Many would walk in, vote, and walk out.

After that, an actual exciting debate came to the floor. Senator Snowe from Maine wanted to borrow $1 billion from next year's budget as emergency heating oil relief. It pitted cold states versus warm states -- both on the Republican side so there was real debate. There was yelling by at least one senator, accusations about some states asking for help from the hurricane but not willing to make similar help for this cause, threats about stealing from our children to pay for a warm winter, and even Senator Lott's story about how he didn't have air conditioning or screens on the window when he was growing up. Quite a bit more lively. The eventual vote was 66-31, with the heating oil emergency funds allowed to move forward to additional debate tomorrow.

We headed over to the House chamber and got a chance to watch the House Democrat's 30-Somethings caucus -- three congress people preaching to the choir (themselves) in an empty house chamber. Very interesting. Watch video from a previous session on C-SPAN.

Democracy in action was not pretty...

March 1, 2006

Tuesday Debate

I woke up early and went to Miriam's Kitchen to volunteer at the soup kitchen. I served "juice" (actually a very strong Tang). It's really great when we get finished cleaning up after breakfast. It's around 8:30 in the morning and I've already been up for three hours and feel like I have done quite a bit. A great way to start the day. After working from home for a few hours, I headed downtown to L's work. Part of her fellowship required her to help organize a seminar on a science policy topic. Her group invited speakers to discuss the idea of a universal DNA database where all US citizens are included. She moderated the debate between a representative of the ACLU, and an academic from Johns Hopkins, and the director of the FBI's CODIS division that oversees the national DNA database. I learned a lot -- read more to find out the highlights... 1) The DNA database consists of 13 sections of DNA that have no known function, but vary widely between individuals. These sections are limited enough that they contain no important genetic information that could be used to tell about diseases, background, or any other info. It's basically no more descriptive than a fingerprint. 2) The threat to privacy comes from the fact that almost all states save the original biological sample. This could be re-analyzed for a complete characterization of the person's DNA -- resulting in information that could potentially be used by insurance companies, potential employers, or the government to get too much information about an individual -- a violation of privacy standards. If we could ensure that the biological samples were all destroyed, the invasion of privacy would be substantially lower. On the flip side, the advantage of keeping the sample around is that it can be re-tested for quality control or run with newer and more accurate techniques. It's a hard trade off. 3) Currently, the national DNA database allows states to include those convicted of a crime and those arrested of a crime without a conviction. States can compel these individuals to surrender their DNA because convicts are stripped of many of their privacy rights. While I understand this logic for convicted criminals, it seems totally antithetic to our justice system's devotion to the ideal that we are innocent until proven guilty. We ended the evening with a walk across the river into Georgetown. A friend from work was visiting the DC area to give a talk and we hosted him at our house. It was really nice to have a friend come by because it is so quiet for me around work.