Solar Homes have returned!

As an engineer and conservationist, I was energized by the 2005 Solar Decathlon, and I spent the next two years looking forward to the next contest. This year, I took my wife and a local friend to tour the current offerings of this year’s contestants. Twenty teams, two more than in ’05, lined up two-by-two along the National Mall. There were many of the same innovations pioneered two years ago… green construction materials, induction cooktops, LED lighting, waste heat recovery, combo washer-dryers, high-efficiency solar panels and insulation, much as I expected. It’s neat to see the teams converge upon a solid solar house design, making small improvements ever more vital toward victory. The new contest catagory, Market Viability, kept radical innovations at bay this year, but I think the spectators were more receptive to today’s less risky designs.

But what I didn’t expect were the crowds! Last time, I just stumbled into the contest right out of the Metro station, and then got into line at the first house. I was able to tour most competition entries that afternoon, spending time learning all I could from the teams’ engineers. This year, there were NPR and newpaper articles touting the event days ahead of the opening weekend. What were once ten minute lines for some of the local teams are now theme park sized 30 minute lines to get into *any* house. Teams were getting a crash course in crowd management, trying to funnel sightseers through their abode as efficiently as possible, unfortunately unable to linger on good questions posed by inquisitive visitors. I spent over 10 hours on the Mall, and only got to make cursory passes through half the homes. I was glad to see this showcase of green tech getting much-deserved attention, but at the same time I wondered how I could beat the crowds in 2009.

On the following weekend, I was visited by my mother and grandfather, who took Amtrak here from Indiana to visit my wife and I. My granddad enjoys caves, so I took him to Luray Caverns for the day. We all had a blast in their excellent hedge maze! Then we went up the road to Skyline Caverns, and played inside their mirror maze.

Let me tell you, these two caves, despite being only 20 miles apart, couldn’t be any more different. Well, they could be, if one were full of packing peanuts, and the other were painted pink… but I digress. Luray Caverns is festooned with a cornucopia of stalactites and stalagmites, flowstone and draperies, all arrayed in the spleandor of nature’s slowest freak show. Luray had rocksteady handrails and a paved brick floor, perhaps the first wheelchair accessible cave I’ve ever been in (there were many baby strollers taking advantage of this). Of the thousands of formations, 37 stalactites were selected throughout the cave for their natural resonance, and were arranged into a cave organ. To hear this organ ply the subterreanean rhythyms is an experience that can only be done justice by direct sensation, truly a "you had to be there" phenomenon.

On the other hand, Skyline Caverns was far more low-key and down-to-earth. Formations of any kind were sparse, and the lighting, though more colorful, was dimmer. But instead of sprawling vaults of spires and spikes, Skyline was a serpentine water-carved path with a dirt floor. Much more confining, personal, and dirty, this cave felt more like a good old-fashioned cave crawl. And they did have some unique formations of their own… anthodites, a world rarity.

And what about the mirror maze vs. the hedge maze? Although the mirror maze was a fun toy to walk through and play in, it was a juvenile challenge compared to the labyrinthine hedge maze at Luray. If I had to recommend just one, I’d recommend the hedge maze.

Last but not least, our good buddy Chris led us through the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Chris was excited to show us one of his favorite museums, which in his estimation contained the best collection of tanks in the western hemisphere. "To see a bigger collection," he said, "you’d have to go to England or St. Petersburg, Russia." It was indeed a comprehensive collection, and it’s the kind of exhibition best done with an expert in tow.

My niece just celebrated her first birthday! I hope she enjoys the hat Evelyn made for her. Also, I’ve invented a new game… sneaky tile game which I call Wanderlust. More on that later, pending favorable playtesting.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: Microcars

Amusing Internet Video: Animator-vs-Animation

Hundred-dollar-T_shirt-idea: "The dice made me do it."

Movies I’ve Seen:

Topaz ~ best spy film I’ve ever seen, but a weak Hitchcock offering

Torn Curtain ~ a later Hitchcock film more like his early British works

Mister Roberts ~ surprised by the amount of drama in this comedy

What I’m Reading:

"Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz


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