Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking Ahead: 2013

I am almost 100% certain that this will be my last blog post of 2012. Looking at the schedule, my work load and my planned time in the real world, I'm not thinking there will be any more substantive output from me until at least the beginning of 2013 possibly later.

In blog vernacular this is called a "hiatus".  It's a fancy word for "too damn lazy to update the blog" but it adds some class to the joint and is easier to type so we'll call it a "hiatus" from this point out. Given my past proclivities regarding shuttering my blogs I can almost guarantee that this is not what's going to happen in 2013.  I think I finally settled on something w/the personal blog and plan to keep this format for quite some time.  Plus, I really like the bullring backdrop.

What is going to change in 2013 is the "how" and "when" regarding updates.  Currently I struggle with the concept of "update every day" as you might have noticed.  I'm not one for senseless blockquoting and I find link-posts to be of increasingly little value since I've become a heavy user of PinBoard.  Strangely, my social media habits are changing as well.  While I'm not happy with some of their privacy issues I'm finding myself spending more and more time keeping up with actual friends on Facebook, and less and less time watching the ADD social-awkwardness on Twitter.

Most of all, however, 2012 was about disengaging from the electronic world and reconnecting with friends, loved ones and real life.  I expect this trend to continue apace in 2013, if not increase.  As a matter of fact, I'm sure it will increase greatly.  I have a lot of friends with which I've reconnected and many more friends that I haven't seen in quite a while.  There were some personal revelations in 2012 that have served to kick me off the Internet as well.

That being said I still enjoy blogging, as a place to snark about things I find funny and as a vehicle to keep my writing chops sharp.  To that end this blog will continue to be updated on a semi-regular basis for the foreseeable future.

What I do plan on changing is the posting schedule, in fact, I mean to try and create one and keep to it.  What this means, for you, is not having the need to check here everyday (and by 'you' I mean my three (or so) regular readers) knowing with some certainty that blog posts will only appear at a certain day and time.  Right now I'm fiddling with Monday, Thursday & Sunday as my "update" days with posts probably scheduled to 'go live' somewhere around 9AM.

I'm also declaring war against blockquoting, link posts, anything that's not long form, filler posts, advertisement posts and credit card referral links.

There might be a name change, there might not be, although "No Upgrades" isn't really accurate any longer since I've started to get them fairly regularly. I will also work hard to avoid listicles and other such space-fillers. One thing I am hoping to add is increased pictures and even some video.  I might also play with some aughts technology and consider a monthly podcast, or something along those lines.  Something I can do live with real people, in the real world.

Hopefully, for you the reader, this means more tightly focused (although more infrequent) writing of some actual worth as opposed to wandering, rambling, stream-of-consciousness posts such as this.  In other words, stuff that's easy to read, tightly edited, and focused on one point.  In (still) other words: good writing, which I haven't been producing of late.

Until then, the hiatus begins. (see how classy that sounds?)

Have a Happy New Year and may all of your resolutions last through June.

Speed humps on the road to urban bliss.

Today, in a change of editorial direction, the Apple Dumpling Gang came out in favor ($$) of urban density projects, even those constructed near traditionally suburban-like, inner-loop, neighborhoods such as the so-called Ashby High Rise.  This reverses a long-standing trend of only advocating for urbanization projects that a.) are of great expense to the taxpayer and, b.) only displace the poor.  It's a situation that I've long mocked on this blog and I have to admit that I'm more than a little disappointed that this piece of low-hanging fruit is seemingly going away.

However, this being Houston, we still live in a target-rich environment when stupidity in urbanization is the norm rather than the exception.  In short: "we're doing it wrong".

Currently, we have news that the Heavily taxpayer subsidized, and financially struggling, Houston Pavilions is losing an anchor tenant in Books-A-Million  and they didn't even throw a goodbye party. Next we hear that Houston's transit backbone was severely hampered by a downed power line which is to be expected with trains, but it's never fun when it happens. Finally, despite some rather silly opposition Houston Metro is considering (again) a proposal to add advertising to buses in (another) attempt to find funding for the much-anticipated "University Line".

Buying into all of these efforts to turn downtown into Houston's go-to destination for drinks, fun and dancing ignores the Houston history that the Apple Dumpling Gang claims to love.  For one, Houston's entertainment districts have constantly changed.  I remember back in the 80's everyone would head over to Richmond and the Loop to places like Fat Tuesdays, The Blue Planet dance club and several other bars.  Eventually, Houston's gangster element started to take over and you were more likely to get mugged than get a beer so the people moved on.  Somewhere in the '90's Midtown was huge.  This was the mid-city centralized location that the urbanists were clamoring for.  Unfortunately, the panhandling population soon figured out that slightly to moderately inebriated people with disposable income were also walking around and could be endlessly hounded for money, so the scene moved again.  The next location was, amazingly, downtown.  With the Super Bowl in Houston and Metro Rail open every effort was made to move all of the partying to Houston's central business district.  This worked for a while, until it was overrun by douchebags and parking problems.  Suddenly the scene needed somewhere else to coalesce for a while, and it was a decentralized mess of wine-bars and boutique wine-bars, at none of which you could find anything worth drinking.

This all changed with the opening of Max's Wine Dive on Washington.  Taking advantage of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of the Heights, Max's leveraged a decent wine list and overpriced food into the beginnings of the Washington Ave. entertainment district.  My prediction is that this district will stay around for two reasons.  One, it's sufficiently centrally located that the urbanists are very happy.  You can read between the lines of today's Apple Dumpling Gang editorial to see this is true.  Second, it's next to a hip neighborhood where there are sufficient numbers of aging hipsters who enjoy paying $25 for a cocktail made from bourbon flavored with sheep pancreas.  As with everything however, this will eventually move on as well, I'm thinking that eventually the relatively low-priced East End is going to see some development.

And that's the problem with the planning behind MetroRail. It's an inflexible system that lacks the ability to react to Houston's ever flexible vibe. 

Let's look at it another way.

In "World-Class" cities such as London, Paris, etc. the design of the mass-transit system is such that you can take a train into the city, and then take buses or an underground Metro throughout the urban core.  You don't see at-grade rail much anywhere and that's the way it should be.

In Houston, you have to take a bus (or drive) on fixed freeways into the city center, and then the plan is for you to ride at-grade rail to where you want to go.  But, and this is a big but, what if, 10 years from now, where you want to go isn't adjacent to the rail system?  Because that is what's going to happen.  Contrary to rail proponents belief, the building of MetroRail hasn't led to a boom of development around the rail line.  Instead, what's happened is that speculators have run up the price of land around the line and developers have started to look at other areas, where land is slightly cheaper, in order to build their cookie-cutter town homes that are far superior to the cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs.

Speaking of the suburbs, has it ever occurred to anyone that the reason their population is booming is due to the fact that a majority of people don't want to live in hotel-style condominiums but would rather have a house, a yard, a dog and 1 5/16 children?  You might not have noticed, but much of Houston's vaunted diversity is currently happening in suburban communities, and many of these communities are the "walkable neighborhoods" over which new urbanists swoon.

After the last election there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Houtopian set who finally settled on the belief that all Houston voters, besides themselves of course, were stupid, fast-food obsessed, brain-rotted simpletons who lacked the ability to understand simple ballot language.

I think they're wrong.  What the voters rejected was a bad transit plan created by bad transit planners who have no real-world experience in how things work.  It's not that Houston isn't open to transit, it's that we're not open to stupid transit designed to cater to only one selected class of privileged people.  The Houtopians have spent a lot of time telling all of us that our lifestyles are "not-sustainable" and that we're shallow, ever-fattening fops for our choices in food and beverage and that if we just live life as they want us to all of Houston will be fairy-farts and unicorn kisses.

They're wrong of course, because if they would have gotten their way you'd have to drive downtown to catch a toy train that wouldn't go where you wanted it to and would be filled with sweaty bikers who would then stain your date's very expensive evening gown.  That wouldn't matter however because, after getting off the train, you'd have to walk 10 blocks to a bus station in 97 degree heat in August to ride somewhere in the vicinity of the restaurant where you wanted to eat but would be turned away from due to you smelling like the back-end of one of the sheep whose pancreas was harvested in order to create your $25 pre-dinner cocktail.

Will the airlines please provide the media with a list of unplanned events?

Ah Winter travel. For all of our rambling about man-made climate change an other what-not it's humbling when we're reminded that we don't have the level of weather control we think we do.

Case in point, Winter snow-storms caused thousands of flights to be delayed and hundreds to be cancelled.  These events have caused the media to revert to "Those mean ol' airlines" mode which has meant that you can read tales of people "trapped" in airplanes (although they could de-plane at their own risk) and self-styled legal experts cautioning against possible violations of the passenger bill of rights, although we are only hearing one side of the story.

It sounds like, in the case of DFW anyway, those stuck in the airport were taken care of in the best way possible by the airport, although there's not much that would make having to sleep at the gate be all that much fun.  Judging by the tone of the passengers the feeling is that the airlines didn't do "enough" to make their flight experience enjoyable and stress-free, even though there's nothing the airlines can do about the weather.

Delayed flights are no fun, I can promise you that.  In 2012 the wife and I were on the bad end of a mechanical cancellation (the airline's fault, so they had to provide accommodations, food etc.) and a weather delay (not the airlines fault, so there wasn't a whole lot they were willing to do for me, nor should there have been).  I can assure you that each case was equally as stressful, but life is life and, through some clever and proactive action on our part, we made ends meet and eventually got to our final destination.

While I feel for the travelers I also feel for the airlines who, based on my observations, are constantly having to deal with a sizable portion of customers whose brains go into shut-down mode once they hit the airport.  It's our collective belief that we are wards of the airlines that gets us into this mess, and our inability to take proactive steps are what drives our frustration. 

What the airlines are asked to do today is closer to adult babysitting than it is customer service.  People whose flights are delayed or cancelled typically walk up to a customer service desk, plop their boarding pass on the counter and say "My flight was (delayed/cancelled)" and then.......crickets.  I've seen people stare at the gate agents for almost five minutes without saying another word. I've also seen people who walk up shouting, and don't stop shouting until they've received the same offer everyone else got but with a drink voucher or something that makes them feel they've being dealt with in a special manner.  I've seen some world-class fits thrown as well, including one gentleman who (honestly) kept saying "passenger bill of rights, I know my rights" over and over again.

I've seen gate agents berated for a thunderstorm in Chicago, heavy fog in London, and flight delays due to Air Force 1.  I've also seen people just give up at the first sign of trouble, or go into "do you know who I am?" mode.  The latter is my favorite, especially when that person is holding some type of elite status. (it's usually the lowest level elites who try this)  Now granted, if you have Elite status there are certain things that you should "expect".  Shorter times in the check-in line for one (unless you're flying UA out of HNL, which has the WORST Premier check-in line of them all), better boarding for two.  What you shouldn't expect is for the clouds to part and flights to take off with you in Business/First.  When it comes to flights being delayed/cancelled, you have exactly the same status as everyone else, although you might have more options to salvage the situation should you decide to act in a proactive manner.

Most people don't act proactively however so, during irregular operations, the affected airports more closely resemble day care centers for the chronically needy than they do transportation hubs.  Look on the bright side however, when you're delayed at an airport either the airport itself or the airlines (depending on the circumstance) is probably going to go to some lengths to make your ordeal a little more manageable.  Compare this to say Houston Metro whose de facto wait policy is "oh well".

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Compare & Contrast: (Texas Politics Edition)

Exhibit A: Those mean, evil payday loan companies with loads of cash to throw at politicians.

Exhibit B: Those plucky, underdog pro-gambling folks who are overcoming long odds to achieve their goal.

Both of these stories ran today on the Chron's pay-site, both describe groups facing large opposition, and both are considered (by many) to have a detrimental effect on the community as a whole.

So why then is one characterized as Satan incarnate while one is considered the Rocky of political groups?


You tell me.

Beware! It's year in review time

As if it's not bad enough that pretty much every "traditional" media outlet has devolved into either opinion outlets masked as "fact checking" public-services or inane providers of "lists" that (for the most part) are nothing more than the writers personal feelings in journo form we've now hit that time of year where year in review pieces are going to become all the rage.

Already the Texas Tribune has assaulted us with four (4) examples of the genre (which, amazingly, are nothing more than silly lists with a healthy dash of the writer's opinion thrown in for good measure) focusing on education, energy, the environment & transportation, news apps, interactive and something called "visualizations" and a handy-dandy video mix-tape where, presumably, the Trib is trying to burnish their hipster cred by seamlessly integrating the mix-cassette-tape trend of the 80's with their Trib Talk (or whatever it's called) video interviews.  You just know that the idea for this was dreamed up over a meeting in which everyone was sipping on Starbucks and admiring their trendy eye-wear.

Soon the national media will step into the void and provide us with "The Top Stories of 2012" based on.....

Exactly. Based on nothing more than some group's opinion of what the top stories were, with a few laughers thrown in for good measure. The idea that they want to put in your mind is a group of dedicated reporters huddled in a conference room pouring over the big news makers for the previous year providing you with a time-capsule-like retrospective of the year that was.  The reality is a group of interns going back and looking at page-hits and facebook likes working over the holiday while the big-hitters sip egg-nog.  Not in all cases, sure. I'm sure that the reporters at the Tribune either did the page-hit counting or selected the stories themselves,  but do you really think David Gregory and Diane Sawyer do?

Even worse is the disturbing trend of "best of" blog posts compiled by amateur bloggers where they self-select their "best" posts and regurgitate them in list form. My advice, avoid these at all costs.  Choose instead to read substantive stories involving hard-hitting investigative journalism.  Yes, this probably means that your media soak time is going to be greatly reduced but at least you'll have more time to spend with real people, in real life.

The important lesson here is one we often forget:  The media is a for profit enterprise that's ultimately reliant on the customer, just as any other going concern.  We tend to let the media tell us that they're performing a public service and should be treated differently than other companies from which we buy goods and services.  That could not be further from the truth.  In order to survive the media needs to provide content that's accurate, meaningful and presented in a professional manner.  By choosing to click on listicles (h/t Kevin for the name) and recycled end-of-year round-ups we're letting them off the hook.

By way of end-of-year Holiday tip then I advise you to limit your news media reading only to that news which is real news.  What this means is that you should have a lot more time to spend out in the real world, with real people doing real things.  The alternative is that you look up in February and wondering what that dead tree with all of the baubles hanging off of it is doing in your living room.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Merry ChristHanukkahKwaanzamas

Seeing that this will, in all probability, be this little blog's last update before Christmas I wanted to wish my 3 (or so) regular readers a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwaanza, Winter Solstice or whatever other tradition (including none) that you choose to celebrate during this season.  Have a good one, over-indulge, and remember that we'll all be making New Year's resolutions next week that we will have broken by Jan 15th.

As a public service I'd also like to remind everyone how NOT to act this holiday season.  I can find no better way to illustrate that than the world of politics and media.

First, settle down.  There's a time to be legitimately angry and a time to be angry for political reasons.  Democratic Reps Trey Martinez-Fischer and Dawanna Dukes are doing the latter, and it's unbecoming of an elected representative during the Holiday season.  I realize it's hard to not feign some type of anger when your entire policy position is promising your constituents that you'll engage in some sort of "fight" for them but, given the fact that you're not REALLY fighting at all and that, if a real fight came your way, you might just soil your britches maybe we can stop with the "tough-folks" Obama-style interviews for a few days eh?

Dear Rep. David Simpson (R): Just because they're not out to get you doesn't mean you have no reason to be paranoid.  I would like to point out at this time that, for a candidate running for speaker (I'm looking at you as well Straus) wasting time on anonymous bloggers is petty and trite.  I would like to remind both candidates for speaker that this is a LEADERSHIP position.  So show some would ya?

To CPRIT I award the Lance Armstrong Memorial Grade A Screw-Up award.  You had a simple goal, provide grants to organizations to aid the fight of cancer.  I would point out that the cronyism and graft in this organization is the same reason that I dislike the Governor's Enterprise and Emerging Technology funds and believe that all three should be eliminated.  In the interim: Boo.

On a National level: Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is incapable of cheer.  For this reason alone she should me mocked endlessly and ignored on substantive policy issues.  That she takes pot-shots at Republicans despite taking no policy risks herself is strike two.  That she's nothing more than a glorified attack-dog for Obama is strike three.  The Republicans have these types of operatives as well, Grover Norquist comes to mind, Sean Hannity and others.  Anyone actually inside the Republican machine is currently too ineffective to be given much thought.

Dear Patty Murray: When the Nation is looking at fiscal pain maybe now is not the time to be making jokes at the taxpayers expense.  I realize that, in today's zero-sum political world almost everything is fair game, and I'd be OK if it was either a fairly humorous or fairly clever joke.  Sadly this was neither.

Once more into the "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think." files: Both Robert Shrum and Paul Krugman are obviously sharing talking points in their writing.  They're also continuing to mis-cast non-extreme policy positions as extreme because they've run out of arguments.

To all of our elected officials, let me say this.  The Sandy Hook shootings were a terrible tragedy, something that we should make every effort to not see again.  I don't think it's totally possible to eliminate violence of this sort because I think there is no stopping dedicated evil. However, what I do know is that knee-jerk legislation never works out well.  It's the public's job to wail and gnash teeth and demand overreactions.  Historically it's been your job to be the adults in the room and check the mob's simple tendencies.  I question whether or not you retain that ability but, for America's sake, I hope so.  More and more however it seems that you're inciting the mob rather than calming it.  Prove me wrong.

On a local level:  excessive blockquotes with poor attribution is NOT "blogging about it."  It never has been and it never will be.

And finally.....

No, I won't click your referral links, and if you continue to author post after post doing nothing other than pimping them out to me I'll stop reading your blog as well.


Now that you know what NOT to do......Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas! (Which is my holiday of choice.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Have yourself a local, sustainable, vegan, zero carbon footprint Holiday.

Looking at recent surveys by firms interested in having people eat less meat, the trends are revealing that more and more of you are choosing Tofurky over Turkey for your holiday meal.  Given that I'm a hard-core omnivore you might think that this news would discourage me. The fact is that couldn't be further from the truth if it was presented in pie-graph form by His Royal Highness Al Gore.

That's right, I'm happy that fewer or you are deciding to take a nibble out of Tom Turkey or that you've decided chomping on Wilbur's rump roast is a bad idea.  What this all means is, in the long run, lower prices for me when I decide that a nice juicy steak from Bevo's rib region is to be on my evening menu.

As a matter of fact, I heartily support the movement of the foodBorg from actual, tasty food to artisanal foodstuffs produced by former hippies using only seeds, stems, sticks and leaves.  Eventually this means I'm going to be able to enjoy a meal at Underbelly with only a few people stopping mid-meal to take a flash photo of their food, thus blinding those sitting next to them and making the overall experience much less enjoyable. The way I see it the more diners of an Eating our Words bent that decide to gnaw on tree stems the better off the legitimate Houston dining scene will become for those of us who have no issue noshing on something we might have pet as a child at the petting zoo.

Despite my general avoidance of foodBorg types I would like to offer them something in the way of a Holiday season public service.  It has to do with your fascination, and confusion, over chalk-board menus being in anyway at all related to ecomental eating.

If you think almost every restaurant has some type of hand-written looking menu on a chalk (or white) board these days you wouldn't be too far off base.  In Houston you see food-carts setting up a-frame boards in the middle of the sidewalk, vendors at food markets have them everywhere, restaurants have them plastered on the wall, and even Starbucks and McDonalds are getting in on the act. (to be fair, Starbucks has been there for a long time.)

For some unknown reason foodies flock to places like this, I guess feeling that any menu written in chalk has to be something that's toiled upon daily, and that the artwork and pretty colors at Starbucks are spontaneously created by the local baristas and not shipped in from the corporate office or created using nothing more than glorified color-by-numbers stencils.  Of course, the vegan set will tell you that Starbucks is a different kind of company, one whose mission is the betterment of the world one cup at a time.  Hard-core Eating Our Words readers will state that they never touch Starbucks unless at a last resort, say, a time that they're about to die due to caffeine withdrawal.

In an effort to end this confusion over what is artesanal and what is not might I offer the following suggestion.  Given that the economy is sputtering along and people need jobs, restaurants of a ecological bent should employ the pretty unemployed people to act as temporary menu boards.  You see this on the streets of Houston every day, people standing their with iPods in place waving signs asking you to come and either buy gold, get one month free rent, or to visit some pawn shop for your holiday shopping.  Of course, the paper signs would be problematic, and that's why you would want to hire pretty people with flat stomachs on whom you could write your daily menu using ink derived from local grasses.  It's nothing that Abercrombie & Fitch haven't done for years, their ink being tribal armband tattoos of course.

This would solve two problems:  It would allow you to better identify which restaurants will have daily specials consisting of twigs in bayou water, and it will decrease the wait time for the rest of us at Starbucks because we won't have to wait five minutes while you repeat endlessly your order of a fair trade, half-caff, low-acid, ran through an elephant's digestive tract, lactose, sugar, artificial sweetener, animal cruelty free, hand processed using only top-of-the-line French presses from the Alsace region, carried on the back of happy yaks from the Nepalese holy mountains Latte w/vanilla almond milk.

Some good news on the eve of the Mayan apocalypse

As the Mayan calendar trundles forward to the end of history and the world apparently I have some good news for those of you worried about the coming ruination of all things Gaea.  There are, in fact, a great many things that you're worrying about now that seemingly won't matter after tonight.

1. Sequestration - Let's assume for a minute that the United States of Obama really is planning to put on a squirrel suit and hit the air for a leap off the fiscal cliff.  Doesn't matter.  Because when the great rogue planet smashes into the Earth your personal income tax rate (and the rate of those making slightly more than you) won't matter one iota.

2. The dismantling of the 2nd Amendment -If (or when, depending on your point of view) Mother Earth goes blammo is it really going to matter whether or not you're carrying your Glock 9 into the hereafter?

3. Whether or not Chris Bell will ever run for public office again. - I understand that, for a few years now, you've been worrying about that, Democrats wanting him to run because he's a solid progressive and Republicans hoping he runs for the comedic potential, and maybe he will, I hear there's going to be a need for administrators in the afterlife, possibly we can get a 'moon-shot' for gold-paved road repair?

4. Miss USA is now Miss Universe - Great, you're saying, we finally win one and it's going to be the shortest reign ever.  Look on the bright side.  This means there's less time for a nudie-picture scandal to come to the forefront. (Miss. Brazil should have won, or Miss South Africa.)

5. Climate Change - All that infrastructure laying by Al Gore and his investors, all of that speechifying and factually challenged movie making, Nobel prize wins, and countries fleeced only to have it all crashing down as the seas ultimately boil away due to nothing caused by man.  Must be a downer.

6. Who wins the Garcia/Alvarado pillow fight? - Thankfully (for the people soon to be represented by one of these two) it's not going to matter as the projected population of the district will soon be naught.

So, as you move along today, trying to meet deadlines, trying to finish off that last-minute Christmas shopping list for the people you forgot to shop for keep in mind this thought:  It's all possibly meaningless tomorrow. 


Unless, that is, you actually wake up in the morning.  That's because it will already be the next day in Japan, and the Mayans were wrong.  In which case you should re-load your worry list and you can resume your normal state of barely controlled panic over the state of things.

Finally, I wouldn't advise cashing in your 401(k) and flying to Las Vegas for an end of world bender just yet.  I'm doubtful that we should take too seriously predictions of the end of time from a culture who was unable to predict something as simple as their own demise.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Die!!! Gun-Owner (figuratively)

There have been multiple examples of instant, on-line meltdowns that immediately send the originator back-pedaling faster than an Akin endorser.  Ashton Kutcher (not a smart man obviously) has had several, athletes get in trouble all the time for silly things, and have you seen any of Anthony Weiner on social media these days?

Typically the items people go red-faced over are stupid comments made in the heat of the moment after one tragedy or another has inundated the news, for Eddie Nimibutr, this was the case and I'm guessing his business is going to be severely depressed for a while because of it.  Apparently he's seeking business survival advice from the Almighty which is probably not a bad idea.

In Houston, we had our own Lone Ranger running through the streets on a rhetorical Silver.  Former Hatch Act violator John Cobarruvias (always full of wit) is at it again.  This time he's decided that all members of the NRA should die a most horrible death. At least, that's what he tweeted in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting:

h/t to Rhymes with Right for the image (linked above)
According to KTRK reporter Deborah Wrigley, Cobarruvias says that "it's just his personal opinion" and that "it wasn't a death threat".  What he never did say was that he's sorry for saying it (not even the fake-apology of "I'm sorry if anyone was offended") or that he really didn't mean it.

That's all well and good and really I don't care much about the ramblings of one very angry member of the Texas Democratic leadership team spleen-venting on Twitter. What does concern me is the lack of thought that went into this rant, and so I guess it falls to me to, once again, provide Texas Democrats with a little bit of free advice.

A lot of gun owners have money.  A lot of NRA members, and their defenders, have money.  Shooting them, ignoring the fact that they have most of the guns and that would be difficult, is going to make a mess of the President's idea to "tax the wealthy so they pay their fair share."  I'm sorry but it just is.  Now, there's the argument that the Fed would receive a temporary bump due to increases in the death tax, but that would be fleeting and would put us right back in the same financial hole we currently find ourselves, but with far fewer of the wealthy hanging around that you folks like to demonize.

Therefore, in the future, I would advise that you go way back to a John Cobarruvias classic and just threaten to stick your size 9's so far up their hind-quarters they smell Desonex for a week.

Problem solved.  Cobarruvias would still look like an angry idiot, Texas Democrats would still be substituting hollow threats of violence for actual policy, and Obama would still have in place his plan for economic "fairness".

It's a win-win really.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Don't panic, third arms will be in style soon.

Going back to a travel topic (This is why you want me traveling, you never know what I'm going to write about when I get bored) it was announced today that the TSA has agreed to allow an independent review of their backscatter scanning machines for radiation by the National Academy of Sciences.

On the surface this appears like a good thing. It's always nice to know if you've been exposed to high amounts of radiation so that you can start making shopping plans for shirts with a third sleeve. Hey, yoga and eastern mysticism are in right? So what if you look like Ganesh dressed down to business casual? Think of the advantages you'll have at cocktail parties.

Digging deeper into this I'm not quite sure how well this is going to work however, given that the NAS is of the groups who tend to blame everything technological for global warming. Would anyone be surprised to find three scientists in lab jackets informing us that residual heat from our hair follicles being microwaved has increased the Earth's temperature by .00000001 degrees leading to a rise in the Earth's sea levels that might make the carpets in certain exotic Maldives hotels slightly moist in the morning? Mainly I think the reason for this is that the scientists performing these studies are jealous that they don't get invited to the Maldives. 

I'm kidding of course but these are the types of things that drive conspiracy theorists wild and that's a problem.  Because having a safe, reliable scanner is the first line of defense in security theater to keeping your private parts well....private. I have to admit that I'm not happy thinking that some TSA agent with a Clint Eastwood complex might get his willies off looking at a (somewhat) transparent picture of my wife, but it sure beats her being led to a room and having them actually give her the once over. I'm not worried about myself. I'm 40 and somewhat overweight. I can't imagine my nekkid images would be at the front of the line for archival purposes. Then again.....

What this all covers up is that our security procedures aren't really about stopping the terrorists, they're about giving the impression that they are. People now feel (somewhat) safe in planes because we really believe the lightly-trained baggage scanner is alert enough at 6AM to pick out the pieces of a disassembled gun in one bag out of the thousands they're going to screen. Sadly, we know this isn't true because we've seen story after story of people getting on planes with everything short of a bazooka in their bag, and who's to say that hasn't happened?

The good news out of all of this is that, if the machines are shown to be highly radioactive, there's a good chance our children's children will have an extra arm with which to fight off the anti-social zealot of their day. No, the terrorists won't have them because all of their radiated fore-fathers will have died in suicide bombings.

I Call Shenanigans (Local Media Edition)

For those of you interested in the inside baseball of Harris County politics today's story by Mike Morris on the Chron's paysite discussing the lack of cooperation two County incumbents are providing to their future successors is an amusing look at the proclivities of a pair of local politicians with anger management issues over being unelected last November

For ChronBlog this is low-hanging fruit. One right-leaning District Attorney and a Tax Assessor-Collector who ran on the slogan "I was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool" are easy targets upon whom to heap scorn with little to no danger of political ramifications (read: future lack of access to the office).

My issue here is not with out-going DA Lykos or T-AC Sumner. The election is over, they lost and will soon be back where they belong, out of the public eye. And while I'm happy to see our local media shining some light on these types of actions I'm more than a little concerned with whatever it is we don't see, and why we possibly don't see it.

Probably the worst-kept secret in Houston media/politics has been the Wednesday evening Houston Media Roundtable. There's no official date when this tradition was started but best guesses place it Somewhere around 1995, when Tim Fleck (the founder) returned to the Houston Press. For years, the roundtable was akin to fight club, and rule number one is that you don't mention roundtable. Recently, however with the rise of blogging, that rule has softened and you hear about this little politico/scribe chat sessions with more and more frequency. With declining budgets in the media and increasingly desk-bound reporters, the rumor is that many of the "best" stories are pitched and framed by politicians over drinks shared with a willing audience. Sadly, this little blog's readership has always been too low to garner an invitation. As a note of full disclosure I have attended several publicly announced blog/media meet-ups organized by BlogHouston and Texas Watchdog. I've found those to be fun and enlightening, as I've had the chance to discuss local, state and federal politics with fellow bloggers, members of the media, and (yes) elected officials from both parties. To continue to hammer in this nail: These meetings can be very beneficial if carried out under the right circumstances. (public, open to everyone, and fully disclosed).

However, it gets to a point where the media and the officials they cover start to get a little too chummy, a little too friendly and I think this causes a problem.

Last night, on Twitter, two members of Houston media, both who cover City Hall, sent out tweets about how much fun it was to attend Mayor Parker's holiday party, about how nice the tree was, and how stimulating conversations were had. I'm not suggesting that the two reporters in question are bad people for attending, but I do question their professional judgement in the matter. Miya Shay used to write KTRK's political blog when it was active and is still posting reports on City Hall happenings in Houston for channel 13. While Mary Benton is not assigned to the "City Hall" beat for KPRC Channel 2, she is a "general assignments" reporter and her coverage is sometimes focused on the goings on there. In several cases these two reporters coverage could be focused on an elected official whom they spent time celebrating the Holiday season and partaking in Parker's dairy-free, soy-based, sustainable, vegan, alcohol-free eggnog.

I'm not suggesting that neither of these ladies should not have a social life, far from it. Shay is married to District 137 State Representative Elect Gene Wu and I think that is grand. Her employer also did the right thing by promising to keep her off of any stories related to Wu which is also appropriate. By all accounts both reporters are professional and do good work. But you have to question just how willing they would be to do the same quality of work on a negative story involving people with whom they share yuletide cheer?

The journalism mantra is "trust us, we're professionals". It's used to deflect any criticism, no matter how valid, of potential conflicts of interest and, in reality, to make them go away. We've been led to believe from the crib that all journalists are dedicated professionals capable of putting aside human nature and reporting a story as-is, without the possible hint of bias. As the Internet has opened up internal communication and shed the light on faulty reporting we know now that they are humans just as the rest of us. Personal biases matter. They have to or we wouldn't be human.

Believe it or not, I do understand the tight-rope journalists walk in a city where the media tradition is friendly. In my day job, as an oil and gas regulatory accountant, I spend most of my time dealing with State auditors and, in many cases, some of them have been working with people in the department (and myself) for years now. We're on a first name basis with some. There are many with whom I know that I share the same likes, interest in travel etc. But we're always sure that we keep it civil and friendly without actually being friends. We may go to lunch during on-site visits, but the payment plan is Dutch. We may discuss other issues, but it's in that superficial way that co-workers do. You will not find me out with them sharing drinks and we don't exchange Christmas gifts, although I might receive a Holiday card from one or two as a matter of course. So I get the fact that it's hard to cover someone and not be friends with them, but as a journalist you have to try.

Let me put it another way:  Since she was first elected to office, we have been inundated with a slew of negative stories surrounding the actions of Houston Councilwoman Helena Brown. In most cases these stories have been of some merit, in many cases however they've been silly exercises in minutia.

Do you think the City Hall reporters attended her Christmas party? I'm saying the safe guess is no, and there's the potential problem.

We keep using the word extremist....

....but I'm starting to think we've lost track of what it means.

Note: This post should not be taken as a position of policy, only as a critique of how certain people are commenting, blogging & reporting on it.  How you feel regarding these issues is your own personal choice.

It's pretty easy to toss out the "extremist" card today.  All it takes is an unedited blog and a total disregard for the meaning of the word.  Jeff Balke's open letter to extremists on Houston Press Hairballs is example of that.  In Balke's screed he takes on the so-called "extremist" positions of Pro-Life (supported (in part) by 55% of the electorate), gun control (where a super-majority supports "some restrictions" but 1 in 10 support both "no restrictions" and "total ban" equally), global warming (where 30% have "little to no" trust in science reports), health care (Where 51% oppose the Affordable Care Act), Taxation (where opinions are split 50/50) and (of course) GLBT marriages/civil unions (where 40% oppose said unions).

Following up on Balke's missive is the one man who most epitomizes the fall of Texas political blogging, Paul Burka.  Burka's determination that one scientific study is proof of case discounts everything we know about the scientific method and his flawed logic in determining the intention of the founders is laughable. Given that Mr. Burka is held up as the "dean of Texas political reporting" you would think his analysis would be based on more solid footing.

None of this is to say that either writer is wrong in his assertions.  There are mainstream arguments to be made on the issue from either side.  Looking at both their posts however what is inherently clear is that, among Texas political writers, there is a frustrating trend of declaring every right-wing idea with which they disagree as "extremist".  Not only is this incorrect, but it desensitizes us to ideas that are truly extreme.  During the last election it was so bad that Democratic candidate for Senate Paul Sadler was allowed to say his Republican opponent Ted Cruz was "outside the mainstream" repeatedly with no-one in the media pointing out just how silly that assertion was. (Cruz beat Sadler by over 16 points. 56.6-40.5)

And this is not just a Texas-only trend in the manner of electing Republicans to office, it's a trend that's being replicated across the country in mainstream media outlets without question whether or not this rhetoric matches reality.  As the numbers above illustrated, many so-called "extreme" Republican ideals are squarely in the mainstream.

Abortion: A slight majority (55%) agree that there should be some restrictions on abortion. 1 in 5 feel that it should not be available at all. While that number (20%) is far from the majority it hardly qualifies as "extreme".  Unpolled in the link I researched were thoughts on whether or not abortion should be illegal in ALL cases, including rape & incest specifically.  When the Washington Post surveyed on the matter they found that 25 percent (mostly evangelicals) are opposed.  Again, while certainly not "majority" these people certainly make-up a sizable mainstream minority.  That they are losing the battle over this issue right now is of no importance to their extremism or lack thereof.

Gun Control: This is the area of political debate where you could come closest to making the extremist argument, but for which you'd have to equally apply the standard to both sides.  For example, in the polling link I referenced 10% of the responders stated that "all guns should be illegal" and 13% responded that "there should be no restrictions on firearm ownership.  It's fair, statistically speaking, to categorize the 13% against restrictions as "extreme", but to follow that logic you have to categorize the 10% who are for no guns at all as equally, if not even more, extreme. For whatever it's worth, new polls, done in the wake of the CT school tragedy, only reveal 2-9% majority support for assault weapon's bans and bans of high capacity magazines. There are clearly a wide range of "mainstream" positions on gun control.

You can go on down this road on every issue, and make the case that what these so-called journalists (paid bloggers is closer to reality) are calling extreme are, in-fact, very mainstream positions that just happen to fall on the other side of the political aisle. It's a lazy man's way of arguing, casting your opponent as "outside the mainstream" and "extreme" but it's one that's been working because no one, in the media or otherwise, has had the gumption to stand up and say "Hey, wait, I may think they're wrong but that doesn't mean they're extreme."

The hard reality is that there are a lot of positions that exist up and down a continuum of mainstream positions.  Most people are not political activists for one party or another and might hold positions (based on religious or moral beliefs) that place them at odds with their party from time to time. Balke can call AGW deniers or those against the Affordable Care Act extremists all he wants, he can make up Bible verses to mock the religious and can act like he's a beacon of reasonable, prudent discussion until his hands fatigue from writing so much but none of that will make his definition of extremist any more accurate.  Paul Burka can continue to hid behind his self-created pragmatist label but he still can't obscure the fact that his writing betrays a lack of understanding of the Conservative agenda.

There's so much talk about "gridlock" in DC and rightly so.  We're now to a point that there's no benefit for either side to reach out and compromise. What we ignore in that is the unwillingness of the media and those with a political opinion to frame their opponents arguments correctly.  Republicans have a point when they suggest that raising taxes on the "rich" will do nothing to cure our budget woes, but they also err when they state that doing so will ruin the economy and destroy small business.  No it won't. It's certainly not going to help matters any but that alone will not shut down, or significantly hinder, America's still-giant economy.  Democrats running hither and yon stating that Republicans want to kill the poor or place them in internment camps are just silly.  Nor is either side trying seriously trying to ruin America. However, you may feel they're going to due to disagreement with their policies but that's OK.  We wouldn't feel so strongly that we were "right" if we didn't feel the other side was "wrong."

Yes, there are fringe groups out there that would do us harm, ecomentalists who want to shut down everything and return us to the 17th century for one, troglodytes who would have us tear up the Constitution and become a theocracy for two. The TSA, FDA and EPA for three, four and five. (kidding, just seeing if those of you on the Left are still paying attention) The problem is you hear about the fringe on the right, while the (very real) fringe members of the left are pooh-poohed as being insignificant to the point of no influence.  That may (or may not) be true, but is it any more likely that the fringe on the right is going to exert more?

No.

But even if they do, as some have said happened in the Texas Department of Education for instance, don't we still have the mechanism of the election to vote them out of office?  Of course we do. We also live in an age where those who do hold extreme views are typically outed, Senate candidate Akin comes to mind. Unfortunately, in the House, the districts are gerrymandered to a point that it's becoming somewhat of a problem, but the sheer numbers outweigh Rep. Hank Johnson's fears that the US Navy will tip over Guam or Sheila Jackson Lee saying just about anything.  We handled the whole DeLay/Abramhoff thing and we even survived the nutty fun of Ron Paul. All-in-all I'd say we're doing OK.

Unfortunately there's no electoral college for journalism, so (especially in Texas) we're just going to have to keep taking all of the bad with the little good that's popping up from time to time.  At least if they could get the definitions correct that'd be a start.  Perhap's we're long past time for another revision of the Texas Political Dictionary?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Houtopia Delayed

It's been a rough couple of months for Houston's New Urbanist crew. (also referred to as "Houtopians" in a derogatory manner.)  First you have the overwhelming voter acceptance of the Metro mobility fund referendum which has slowed (although not killed as Crossley whines) the future growth of the toy train that is MetroRail, then you had the sudden announcement that porn surfing CEO George Grenias is submitting his resignation effective immediately (on a side note, is anyone else uncomfortable that Tom "What part of safety do you not understand?" Lambert is in charge of things now?) presumably to free up more time to peruse the net for potential "boy" related porn sites* though it's a good bet that his resignation has something to do with the Houtopian faction of the "new" Metro board's (headed by Christoph Spieler) anger over the compromise agreement that ended up on the recent ballot. Now we hear that the City is looking to expand it's urban-density supporting land-use regulations to the entire city of Houston and not just inside the inner Loop. ($$ Reg. req'd)

I would imagine that this is a sign the developers have run out of new areas in and around the Heights on which to tear down bungalows and build 3 to 4 townhouses in their place.

Which leads us back to Houtopia.

Apparently David Crossley's dream of shoe-horn every well-off Caucasian inside the Loop and forcing those less fortunate to scrape out an existence in the hinterlands has hit a snag. While it's not been released what the snag is for certain assumptions can be made that the efforts of Rep. Garnet Coleman to stop the gentrification of the 3rd ward and ongoing battles over plans to redevelop the East End have left the developers looking for other, target-rich environments.  When viewed from that perspective, the very affluent West side neighborhoods surrounding Memorial Drive seem to follow the urban development blueprint.  Not only are single-family homes in that area built on very large lots, that can be easily sub-divided, but they carry hefty price tags ($1MM easily) that allow for a multiple townhouse lot to be priced at a high profit margin.

This would be a departure from the previous business model, where a home owner would purchase a mid-century modern and then tear it down in favor of, as Houtopians term them, a McMansion.  As a fan of the classic mid-century modern house I have to admit that I am not a fan of this development.  That said, I also believe in something called property rights so I recognize an owners right to do pursue this path provided they follow local deed restrictions.  If passed, I expect the new normal to continue tearing down houses built in the 50's and 60's but in favor or 3 or 4 townhouses instead.  This serves two purposes, it increases the profit margin for the developer (why sell one home at $1.5MM when you can sell 3 or 4 townhouses at $900M each?) while increasing that mystical product known as "density" to levels acceptable to the Houtopian true-believers.

Acceptable in theory however, as those density targets are really meant to be applied to blighted areas where gentrification provides some mythical benefit that allows DINK (Dual-income, no kids) households to immerse themselves into a walkable, urban environment of the type approved by Pedestrian Pete (I'll pause a minute, while you look at that site and laugh.)

Which brings us to the real problem the Houtopians are going to have implementing their dream:  There's little money in it for those who can make it be, and the general public cannot afford "affordable" townhouses that run north of $500K.  Despite all of the rhetoric however moves of this type are never about "affordable" homes.  True affordability, say a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home for around $100M, isn't going to be found inside the Loop, for that type of deal, a deal that most can afford, is really the sole franchise of the dreaded suburbs.  Because of this you're seeing an increased diversification of neighborhoods outside the Beltway and increased gentrification within.  In the inner-loop areas where diversity could occur, powerful political forces are aligned against it.

All of this doesn't mean that the Houtopians are going to stop trying.  In actuality, I expect we will see a redoubling of their efforts.  Already David Crossley has accused Houston voters of being too stupid to understand his vision, and Peter Brown has as well. Despite overwhelming support for plans that continue to fund road maintenance and construction Metro continues to promise that MetroRail will continue to be built.  In short, nothing has changed for those who want to take everything that makes Houston rank so high on "good city" lists and get rid of it in an effort to make us more like something we're not hard-wired to be. It's just going to take them a little longer now as they try to figure out a way to pay for it.  My guess for the next Metro CEO is Spieler, which would make the Houtopians very, very happy.




















*It should be noted that, at the time, Grenias and Co. took the line that the sites in question were not related to "boy" porn although research by local bloggers indicated that the sites in question contained graphic images of very young people in graphically sexual situations.  The links are there, come to your own conclusions.

Jeff Smisek Rises

Good news for United CEO Jeff Smisek, he can soon add the title of Chairman to is CV as he was appointed to the position effective December 31st in a symbol that the merger between Continental and United is nearing completion.

In another bit of good news the pilot's unions for both Continental and United agreed to the joint labor agreement cutting down one of the big Damoclean swords hanging over the head of the super-airline. With that out of the way the union can get down to the brass tacks of hammering out the seniority tables as United truly becomes one airline.  Perhaps this even means that we won't be hearing any more "proud TRUE United crew" or "Proud Continental crew" flight announcements.

On the competitor front the news is even better. American remains a disaster as they struggle to come out of bankruptcy and decide whether or not to merge with the mess that is US Airways forming a "super airline" of aging planes and inside economy seating humor while Southwest airlines is starting to realize just how faulty their no baggage fees policy truly is (my guess is they are forced to abandon this going forward due to market and price pressure, you notice that they're not mentioning it in their new commercials).  Already going the way of the Dodo are Southwest's "no change fees" policies which were the focus of a huge advertisement push just a couple of years ago.

Inside the airports things seem to be moving along for United as well.  Their proposed airport lounge re-design has been called "pretty dandy" by the travel blogging site Gadling which must make His Jeffness' hair stand on end with joy.

Things are going so well for SeƱor Jefe that he can be excused for blowing off the recent maintenance issues with the 787.  So far, the fallout from that has been mainly limited to some spleen-venting from a few over-entitled travel bloggers and, as we all know, that type of damage is easily overlooked.  United is still offering refunds to people who paid the premium to fly the new super plane, and Boeing assures us that things will get worked out eventually.

As it stands United is still living off the vapors of the positive vibe of the inaugural flight where the scored a double coup convincing several travel bloggers that his upgrade didn't clear.  By all accounts, the 787 is an awesome plane, when it actually gets off the ground, and Smisek has invested heavily in this plane, (Some suggest to the expense of other, more mundane, areas of operations) so that its success, or lack thereof, could be the determining factor as to whether or not the company is successful going forward.

For now, however, the stock is enjoying some upward movement and the analysts seem happy that the labor issue is starting to sort itself out.  After months of public relations and operations messes United must be happy to finally see things on the upswing.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

UA club passes at Chase VIP Lounge - Galleria

By now you've all probably heard about the Chase VIP Lounge available for use by United branded credit card holders in the Houston Galleria.  What you might not know is the following:

Toys for Tots Tuesdays.

This is a great way to do some good for children who might not be getting anything for charity and providing yourself with the Christmas gift of United Club Passes at the same time.  It's only good on Tuesdays and the toy has to be new and in it's original packaging, so no sloughing off used toys in an effort to game the system.

But if you do have a chunk of change to buy a toy for a good program and could use club passes (I know I could) then this is a really good deal for all involved.

Now that all the countries problems are fixed.....

.....we can start working on the critical problem of TV Commercial volumes.

New Law in Effect: TV ads can't blare anymore. AP via KHOU.com

TV viewing could soon sound a little calmer. The CALM Act, which limits the volume of TV commercials, goes into effect on Thursday.

CALM stands for Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation. The act is designed to prevent TV commercials from blaring at louder volumes than the program content they accompany.

I understand that ads like this are annoying, and that low production values typically are what lead to them, but is this really something that our august body of legislators really need to focus their time on?  Further more, do we really want society's least common denominator telling us how loud our commercials can be?  Have we lost the ability to reach over with our increasingly obese arms to grab the remote control and change the channel?

Laws like this make me wonder.

And to note: This is not a Republican vs. Democratic thing.  For this law to have passed and been implemented there were scores of mind-numbingly stupid votes cast by members of both.  The sad thing is, there was probably a speech or two given about how this is "a matter of decency" or some-such hogwash.  And why not, we already have elected Representatives who believe islands can tip over, and there was a turnip on the ballot last election cycle who famously said that rape could somehow be legitimate.  We have a comedian in the Senate and, for some reason, people actually care what Angelina Jolie, Kid Rock, Clint Eastwood, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Longoria think on certain policy issues.  That the number one choice to replace Senator Jim DeMint is Stephen Colbert should worry you, that Kentucky could possibly elect Ashley Judd to the same body should cause alarm, and the fact that, during the last election cycle, the best idea the Texas Dems had for their Senate nominee was Tommy Lee Jones should bring tears.

I know, I know the argument is that the Republicans had Ronald Reagan.  I get that, but when he ran for the federal office he at least had a gubernatorial tenure under his belt.  OK, Arnold Schwarzenegger, I give you him, but that's California and they've long ago tossed the plot anyway.

It used to be said that politics was nothing more than show business for ugly people.  The point was they were ugly but (at the least) capable of reading a bill and understanding it.  How did we get from the elegant prose of the Founding Fathers to John Conyers and Nancy Pelosi?  How did Republicans let a teary-eyed Representative with the spine of an earthworm get elected to a leadership position in the House of Representatives?  We currently have a President who's incapable of giving an off the cuff speech without saying "um...uh" so many times you're afraid they're going to have to jump start him to keep the speech going, a Vice President who may, or may not, share a brain with a 5 year old, and an opposition party who can't even agree on what their core values are.

You know what the Nation wants?  We want a leader who's not afraid to stand up for what he believes and who doesn't believe that this whole "politics" thing is nothing more than a Jr. High game of "gotcha" to the opposition.  Instead we're stuck with a government that's only slightly more coherent than the British House of Lords.

And here's the sad thing.  As America plunges full speed into sequestration our lackluster, lazy, boneheaded media is more worried about "who's to blame" than they are about reporting on serious solutions to the problems.  The so-called "fifth column of democracy" is more concerned with gaffes and gotchas than they are policy and governance.  Instead of an honest reporting of sequestration we get breathless proclamations that the "fiscal cliff" is going to be the end of us all, that the scary red menace of China is rearing up it's head to a point that Palin is going to see them soon. In today's media world you can be viewed as a serious thinker by starting off every Tweet with "Why is the GOP screwing up.....?"  Trust me, it's being done right now.  If you're really lucky you can get a Dem activist with anger management issues to tell people he's not even sure WHAT party you're affiliated with.  Of course, you still have to have good business sense to land a reporting job until you find a way to live on Democratic good will but hey, money isn't everything right?

"Ah-ha!" you might say, "It's the media's fault".  No, it's not.  It's our fault for allowing it to get to a point that the number one Google search on November 6th was "who's running for President of the United States?".

Are you about to say goodbye to your frequent flyer program?

To those who profit from the miles industry, the answer appears to be a resounding "yes".

Gary Leff of View From the Wing takes a break from his usual blegs for his referral links or pictures of airport terminals to discuss this point today citing a USA Today piece addressing what many feel to be the impending change from "miles based" programs to ones that focus on "dollars spent."  Instead of distance, or number of "legs" flown, the new programs would focus solely on revenue.  In other words, a passenger flying the airline two times to Europe in Business would have an advantage over someone flying 10 times domestically in deeply discounted coach.

Should this happen, it would greatly alter the construction (and worth) of these programs and lead to lower average economy fares over the long haul.

On the surface the above statement appears contradictory, you would think that people would pay more to achieve a higher level of status. Looking at the current trends in loyalty program usage I believe the exact opposite is going to happen.  I'm not sure if a study has been released to the public on this, but judging by anecdotal evidence, frequent fliers (those who are the most loyal to one airline over the other) are generally more price conscious than the casual flyer.  Now, a HUGE caveat here, what I'm about to present is in no way a scientific example, it's one very small data point that (admittedly) dovetails with what I've noticed when in the air. that said, this MilePoint thread shows that around 85% of frequent fliers choose to purchase deeply discounted economy fares when flying.

The reason for this?

Upgrades.

The allure of any frequent flyer program is the ability to receive perks that are typically outside of one's budget.  As a United Gold I receive economy plus seating at booking.  This means that I save a minimum of $29 (the cheapest econ+ upgrade rate I've seen on United) per flight segment.  Because I receive this perk, plus 3 free bags on International flights per person (the wife is also a Gold Premier) I'm more likely to choose United even on flights where upgrades are not available.  I'm also allowed free same-day flight changes should my plans change (say, I wish to take an earlier flight with space available) I'm given a bonus for miles flown, and I'm allowed to use Star Alliance lounges on International itineraries.

All of this and I haven't even gotten to upgrades yet.

In 2012, as a Silver Premier, I received BusinessFirst upgrades on approximately 50% of my domestic flights.  As you know these upgrades are space available and, while I don't expect them, I always view them as a nice bonus for the free drinks and better seats alone.  I'll be honest and admit that the meal service is not a big draw for me.  United's domestic business food is now edible (since they made changes to their menu) but it's hardly something I cannot do without.  I'm still more likely to hop on a plane with a Schlotzsky's in my bag no matter which seating class I've been assigned to.

If you take all of that away, then there's no reason for me to remain loyal to United.  There's no benefit in it because I don't have the travel budget to compete with the contracted rates of the Corporate flyer who's travel is subsidized by their company.  My pittance paid to the airlines is not going to even get my toe in the door, and I'd probably have to spend more time in an aluminum tube at 36,000 feet than I really want to spend to obtain anything resembling what I get today.

Because of this, I'm going to start price shopping without regards to brand loyalty.  I'm going to find a cheap option or I'm not going to fly at all. The money that I have been spending is going to go away, and I expect that most others view things the same way as I do.  What the airlines are going to be left with are the business traveler, the occasional traveler, and the credit-card churning miles hunter who flies in Business and First for relatively free.  Surprisingly, this could be exactly what the airlines want.

I stated above that these changes could lead to lower average fares, and I believe that, for economy.  My belief is that the airlines don't care about economy much, they view them as capacity fillers and would be quite happy running less flights with fuller loads provided they could sell higher percentages of their business and first fares.  It's a "shrink to grow" business model that might accidentally make sense.

Everything that I've written here outlines perceived negative changes to the program....for me. (and possibly for you if you're also a frequent flyer) What I'm not suggesting (as others have) is that these changes are bad for the airlines themselves.  Nor would they be all that bad for the infrequent traveler.  Certainly, service will decline in economy as airlines devote almost all of their focus to the "premier" sections, and fees will increase and be invented that will make up some of the cost savings, but overall I predict profits will increase for the airlines if they do this and that's why I think it's going to happen.  All the industry needs is a first mover, and it appears that Delta might be the one willing to make the leap.

Whoever does it will need to brace for howling from those customers who are losing out, they'll receive a brace of bad press initially, just as they do when new fees come out, but then customers will begrudgingly accept the changes and life will go on.  Once the other airlines see this they'll do the same thing and miles-based loyalty programs will be dumped into the dustbin of business history, the friendly skies will become a little more less friendly unless you're an investor that is, and then you'll probably be more than happy with the improved bottom line.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Airline Industry crackdown on points aggregators.

(Sub-titled: Why I'm OK with it despite losing functionality)

In what's being billed as David vs. Goliath the airline industry is cracking down on points aggregators such as AwardWallet.com with increasing frequency. Coming as a shock to absolutely no-one, all of the big travel bloggers have taken the stance that this is either the worst business decision since New Coke or proof-positive that the airlines hate you and are constantly devising new ways to make your life more difficult.

This is all well and good except.....They're really not.  And I say this as someone who finds his Award Wallet account to be a useful tool.

What I see right now is a hefty dose of cognitive dissonance on the part of the travel blogging industry.  This is a group that can contort itself into complex geometric patterns defining the value of an airline mile, a hotel point or a credit card (provided you apply by clicking through their referral links that is) but who seem incapable of realizing that the data behind these numbers has a value as well.

The sexy item at the heart of these aggregators is that, for basic functionality, they are free to the end user. Sure, you can pay for some type of upgraded account that (I'm guessing) will give you your points balance equivalence in Drachmas but, for most people, their use is basically free.

In the world of business it's not common for proprietary information to be handed out with no cost attached, especially when the retrieval of such involves data scraping which puts additional load demand (read: costs) on the website being scraped. 

The argument against this is that the airlines are big enough, and making enough money, that this infinitesimal cost should just be accepted and overlooked in the name of "customer service". I disagree.  The same argument is being used for increased business taxes, health care fees etc.  Business should just accept it.  For anyone who's ever worked on the cost control side of things in a corporation you understand how off-base this logic is.  As my good friend Kevin says, "United (and the other airlines) are a BUSINESS".  As a business they're a going concern, and they have a fiduciary responsibility to the share-holders to maximize profit, returns etc.

I realize that, in today's economic/political environment profit is held forth as a dirty word.  Without profits you don't have businesses, you don't have investors and you don't have growth, expansion, and (in the airline industry) the ability to travel around the world on nothing but points and a nominal fee.  Asking the airlines to work against their own self-interest is like asking you to give a room in your house to someone, for free.

Despite all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, there is a fairly simple solution to this.  Data access agreements. As I stated earlier, the data costs for the airlines dealing with these aggregation sites is fairly small.   I'm confident that agreements could be worked out that would allow these sites to access the airlines data, under agreed-upon terms, for a nominal fee.  What this would mean is that the aggregation sites would have to charge a fee for their service.

(I'll wait a minute until your hair-fire is extinguished)

Now that you're back with me let me explain why this is a good thing for all involved.

IF, and let's run on this assumption, the services provided by these aggregators have real value, then it's better from an economic perspective that they charge a fee for access rather than giving away functionality for free.  It might not be better for those of you who feel that the travel industry is a freebie, but it would be better for the industry as a whole.

I've stated before that, when it comes to utilizing 'loopholes' to my benefit, I'm very risk-averse.  I've been using Award Wallet because I found it to benefit me.  Having a single portal to access all of my accounts is very handy, and I would probably be willing to pay some fee to continue to have that privilege.  That said, as with any other financial decision, what I paid would depend on the level of service I received.  Could the owners of the aggregation sites come to terms with the airlines that made financial sense?  Some would.  Or, if there was sufficient demand, some enterprising company would find a price point that worked and fill the hole in the market.  It's how markets work and it would be a great thing for travelers to have a simple place to go and track all accounts.  An even more enterprising sort might figure out that bookings and other travel necessities could be handled at the portal as well, possibly through a partnership with Kayak or Hipmunk, even Orbitz.

The overriding point I'm making is that the clamor for freebies is threatening to cause long-term damage between the travel industry and the increasing group of amateur pundits who are offering advice to people on how to make it work for them.  If the travel blogging industry is to survive it needs to not poop their big boy pants and realize that they're commenting on an industry and that strengthening that industry is in the best interests of all involved.

Finding Texas in odd places

Although it's somewhat of a National (and local) parlour game to poke fun at the Lone Star State, there's no doubt that our influence is fairly sizable throughout the world.  Case in point:

The "Alamo" in Dublin, IRE

Tex-Mex in Rome, ITA

A taunt in Anchorage, AK
The wife and I are constantly amazed at the amount of Texas we find in different locales across the globe.  In previous blog posts I've mentioned the Texas Embassy in London, a Texas flag flew over Paris when Lance Armstrong was drugging his way to 7 Tour de France wins (now vacated) and you'd be surprised how many people are genuinely excited to meet someone from the Lone Star State upon introduction.

Of course, the biggest misconception is that all of us still ride horses to work and carry six shooters.  I've only ridden a horse once in my life, but I'm OK letting the local pick-pockets wonder about the six-shooter thing.  Most of the time, the local populace isn't anti-Texan at all, leading me to believe that this is a unique trait of the ruling class and media types, constantly trying to drum up controversy.

Of all the Texas symbolism that I've seen in my (admittedly limited) travels the most prominent is the Texas Steakhouse.  Almost every city has a place advertising itself as such, yet I've never been compelled to photograph one.  Odd. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You think YOUR Monday was bad?

This is not exactly "travel related" but still....


18th Century French chateau razed "by mistake". Thomas Adamson, Yahoo! News

Residents of a sleepy French village in Bordeaux have been left dumbfounded after discovering their local 18th-century chateau was completely bulldozed "by mistake." The mayor's office in Yvrac said Wednesday that workers who were hired to renovate the grand 13,000-square-meter (140,000-square-foot) manor and raze a small building on the same estate in southwest France mixed them up.

Seems the plan was to "renovate" the gorgeous building and tear down a little small building on the side.  Somehow, the construction crew got it all knackered and tore down the main building.  My guess is someone is getting fired over this.  Of course, this being France, they will probably face criminal charges as well, and spend some time in jail, or at least the authorities will try.

So, if you had planned to travel to see this building you'll have to content yourself with the few remaining pictures on their website.

Ouch.

IAH Terminal D modernization

As spotted on the Houston Business Journal:

Bush Intercontinental Terminal D modernization is underway. Molly Ryan, Houston Business Journal

More and more international airlines are calling on Houston, Simmons said, including Turkish Airlines, which plans to begin Houston-Istanbul flights in 2013, and Lufthansa, which launched a daily service to Frankfurt on its A380 passenger jet — the largest in the world — in August.
With this additional activity, Terminal D will need more concessions, lounges and gates, which are allocated for in the modernization plan, Simmons said.
An interesting tidbit: The Houston airport’s concessions fall far below the offerings in airports in areas such as Dubai and Singapore, Simmons said, and international customers are demanding a more, let’s say, high-class experience.
"High-class experience?"

Oh boy.  By that I'm assuming IAH is going for the Luis Vuitton brand of "faux luxury" that is all the rage in airports these days.  What this means is that we'll see a bistro or three, probably bearing the name of some semi-well known TV chef, serving basically the same ingredients as the other food outlets only with more sophisticated spices and a ton of sea salt.  There will also be very expensive shopping outlets bearing name brands you know and love, possibly even a spa.

What there won't be is a good duty free.  I'm not sure why this is but American airports don't seem to 'get' proper duty free and I'm unsure why that is.  In Europe, when you walk through a duty free store there's the typical array of liquor, tobacco products and perfume, but there are also several items of local origin.  In Spain they had Spanish wines, cheeses and cured meats. Of course, as Americans we were prohibited from purchasing Spanish chorizo to bring back home (boo!) but we did get some wine and cheese.  In London we found stuffed animals and British knick-knacks which helped us finish up our souvenir shopping, and at not terrible prices as well.

In America?  Nope.  I add this to restroom facilities as things we don't quite understand how to do right in American airports.  Shame.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

More United Dreamliner troubles

As if delivery delays weren't enough of a headache the Boeing 787-8 "Dreamliner" is already starting to experience mechanical problems....

Dreamliner flight from Houston makes emergency landing in New Orleans. Kiah Collier, Chron.com

A United Airlines flight en route to Newark from Houston Tuesday morning was forced to make an emergency landing in New Orleans because of a mechanical issue with the plane, a brand-new 787 Dreamliner.
This story led to another winner comment from a chron.com reader:

TX1836

12:41 PM on December 4, 2012
Way to go United. You screwed Texans fans out of flying the Dreamliner home from Chicago. I really really miss Continental.

Of course, the cancellation of the Dreamliner flight to/from Chicago was due to delivery delays by Boeing, and would have been the same even if Continental were still in Houston.

Not that it means all that much at this point, and there have been no grumblings that I've heard of, but United CEO Jeff Smisek has bet heavily on the success of this plane to differentiate United from the domestic airline field.  You'd have to think that if delivery dates don't start materializing and if this mechanical error is a sign of things to come (on a very complicated plane) then Smisek might start feeling that luxury padded executive seat get just a little bit warm.

For right now United's profits are moving in the correct direction but their operational stats, while improving, are still trending near the bottom of the industry. (Thank goodness for American Airlines)  Personally, I've had good flight experiences on United since my Puerto Rican trip in August.  Things are definitely on the upswing now.  It'd be sad to see that momentum halted due to a plane that didn't deliver on its promise.

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