Tuesday, April 30, 2013

There's a reason they call him "Burka the Clown"

Want to change Burka's mind?  Blow in his ear.

Water, water everywhere? Paul Burka, Texas Monthly
Sylvester Turner has been in heavy negotiations with Republicans. One plan he was supporting was to go with a 2 + 2 + 2 bill: $2 billion each for water, transportation, and education. But Republicans have pushed forward with water alone right now. In the meantime, Jim Pitts is concerned about a "nuclear bomb"—that is, attempts by Republicans to fund the water plan with general revenue, which would implode not only HB 11 but the budget. This is not an R vs. D issue; Democrats care about water too.

The next day:

How the water bill dried up. Paul Burka, Texas Monthly

Still, my sympathies in this brouhaha lie totally with the Republicans. Straus and Pitts have bent over backward to restore the education cuts. They didn't restore all of them, but they came pretty close. Now, when the leadership wants to enact its top priority, all they hear from the Democrats is that their priority is more important than the leadership's.

More & more the 'Dean of Texas Political Journalism" seems to be just writing whatever he feels like depending on whom he's angry with at the time of writing.  Yesterday the Democrats were "very concerned about water" and this wasn't a "R vs. D" issue.  Today it's the Democrats holding everything up because they seem to only care only about education.

There's an overarching story to be told about the Texas Lege and the fight over funding. Unfortunately it's pretty clear that no one in Texas' Lock Step Political Media is able, or willing, to tell it.

More from the Comb's follies

For someone who is marketing herself as the "State's CFO" it's becoming increasingly clear that Susan Combs knows very little about finance.....

Shale Boom has major impact on State's budget. Kate Galbraith, Texas Tribune

But the most significant effect from the boom may be seen in the state’s coffers. Taxes on oil and gas production have soared past estimates from the state’s comptroller’s office for fiscal 2012. And with production expected to continue to rise over the next several years, the economic benefits will continue.

The inability by the State Comptroller to provide meaningful and accurate revenue estimate is severely hampering the State Budgeting process.  And this is an elected official who wants to be trusted with an even more meaninful role in the future?

Good news for International arrivals to IAH

Hopefully this gets expanded fairly rapidly....

IAH gets first roll-out of faster international documentation. Molly Ryan, Houston Business Journal

U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to introduce a new technology at IAH that will automatically fill out I-94 forms when CBP scans international visitors’ passports and visas.
I-94 forms include the same information that is on travelers’ passports and visas. Non-U.S. residents must fill out I-94 forms when coming into the U.S., and the forms verify alien registration, immigration status and employment authorization.

Coupling this with Global Entry would be fantastic.

Friday, April 26, 2013

On Climate Change

Presented without further comment......

Climate Scientists come to terms with lack of Global Warming. Daily Caller

“While, some climate scientists continue to resist the obvious that the climate system is more complex than they assumed, others are starting to accept that the multi-decadal climate projections provide very incomplete simulations has to how the real climate system works,” Roger Pielke, Jr., environmental studies professor at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Establishment media outlets have been reporting about the unexpected stabilizing global surface temperatures over at least the last decade, and even former NASA scientist and environmental activist James Hansen has recognized the the decade-long lull.

This has frustrated some environmentalists who recently sent a letter to major news networks urging them to have more coverage on global warming, and to stop portraying the issue as a “two-sided debate” by featuring global warming skeptics.


Looking at the discussion of the Uptown TIRZ

Last week it was Mattress Mac weighing in against the proposed plan while this week Ed Wulfe editorialized in favor.  Both articles are (sadly) hidden behind the Chron's newly installed pay-wall* which means that only a fraction of Houstonians will read, or pay any attention, to either piece.  It also illustrates everything that's wrong with the debate in Houston surrounding transit issues, and why only one set of ideas is seriously considered.

So far, I've seen references to McIngvale's opinion piece use "screed" and "diatribe" and a host of other words designed to make him seem as if he's some wild-eyed Luddite attempting to stop any and all progress in our fair city.  Fortunately, for most, these things have been limited to bloggers and organizations to whom few pay attention, and who don't really add anything meaningful to the conversation in the first place.  Ed Wulfe on the other hand is described as even-handed, transformative and dare I say it, world class in his vision for the region. Where McIngvale is self-serving and underhanded, Wulfe is a benevolent benefactor of the Houston region who's certainly not hoping to pad his wallet through increased development.

This is the problem with most of the discussions in Houston surrounding mobility and other issues.  If a person does not support the key-tenants of the sardine-urbanists then they're either misstating their argument intentionally, or just evil/stupid/moronic etc. and are trying to fleece the Houston population.  It's a land where factual statements are derided through the mis-use of context, through the creation of straw-men and through many a logical fallacy that would give an ancient Greek debater the hives.

It's not a debate strategy that's designed to find the "best" solution, but to advocate for one single solution. Houston might have a stereo of opinions, but in our news and commentary outlets one of the speakers is definitely blown.

Even worse, it's becoming increasingly clear that the debate over HoustonFuture is increasingly being conducted on the fringes, either behind pay-walls in the old media which few read, or in partisan blogs (yes, like this one, I'm aware of this) that are nothing more than glorified echo chambers where finding intelligent, decent commentary is akin to finding a gold nugget on the Kalahari. It's because of this reason I'm considering shutting down the comments function on this blog. I get a few good ones (Stephen Seagrave's comment on the IAH Terminal B expansion is an example) but most are lame attempts at personal attacks because I have the audacity to not want to move inside the Loop and give up my yard, or think that enormous sums of taxpayer money should go to subsidize the play-things for that thin slice of the community who continually wish that Houston was Portland.

It was said that, during the recent Presidential election, the biggest Google search on election day was "Who's running for President in 2012"  While it's true that this is a sad commentary on where we stand in 'Merica today, I wonder what the vast majority would say if you asked them what a "complete street" was?  Or, how many miles MetroRail ran?  Or how much all of the sardine-urbanist's new plans were going to cost, and what the trade-off would be?  Looking at it another way, what would be their answer if you explained to them how much concrete would need to be poured (and at what cost) to handle the increased vehicle traffic if Metro is allowed to shut-up shop and stop providing any public transportation whatsoever?

What seems to be missing from any of this is a centrist view.  I admit you're probably not going to find that here (I'm as anti-inner-city-at-grade rail, sardine urbanist as they come) but it really doesn't seem that you're going to find it anywhere at all.  At lest, not in Houston, a city where bloggers can win multiple awards for ripping off huge pieces of journalism and then adding "we'll see what happens" or where organizations that consider themselves 'news agencies'** can post 1/2 naked pictures of women one moment, misspell the name of the Texas Speaker of the House the next and then demand that we take them seriously. 

And I haven't even made it to the former newspaper of record yet.

The fact is, Houston has a discussion problem.  It's a problem that's driven by our lack of integration among the different communities and the maddening need for people to personalize political issues.  A loss is no longer just a loss, it's a statement of personal failure. A win is not just an election outcome, but it's been morphed by the small-minded and gormless into a personal triumph over one's political opposites. These things have somehow become personal vindications for those with very tight world-views.

In other words, partisan political bloggers and amateur pundits.  Unfortunately, they're driving most of the debate these days and that's a problem. With the collapse of the professional media here it's much more a problem in Houston.  I'm not sure what the fix is going to be.

*As pointed out to me via e-mail, ChronBlog has now moved both of these pieces to their "free" site so they're searchable on Chron.com.  Adding to the confusion of what the Chron is trying to do with their pay-site.
**Yet another big problem is the confusion between what is a blog and what is a news agency, and expecting the former to live up to the standards of the latter.  You will rarely, if ever, see me chastise a blogger, working on a budget of zero (usually) for a misspelling or something along those lines. However, media outlets are different.  The media has budgets and income and editors. There's no excuse for them to be making simple spelling errors and errors in grammar. A blogger's editor is usually a quick electronic spell-check and (possibly) one quick read-through. That's not to excuse grievous errors, or to ignore repeated spelling errors, but the bar should be somewhat lower.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

If you notice Smiling Jeff looking just a little bit more toothy today......

...well, this is turning out to be a good week for him.

FAA Order formally lifts Boeing 787 grounding. AP via TIME.com

Federal regulators are telling airlines they can fly Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners again as soon as they replace its problematic lithium ion batteries with a revamped battery system.
A Federal Aviation Administration safety order posted online Thursday applies to all U.S. airlines, but only one airline — United — currently has 787s in their fleet. They have six. The FAA estimated the repair costs for those planes at $2.8 million.

Fortunately for Smiling Jeff, he's got a way to recoup that $2.8 Million expense:

United Airlines ups domestic change fee to $200. Ben Mutzabaugh, USA Today

The nation's biggest airline upped its charge for making changes to domestic itineraries to $200, a $50 increase. The change — which also covers itineraries between the USA and Canada — took effect April 18.
United also boosted its change fee to $300 for changes to certain destinations in South America, up from the previous $250. The change fee for other international itineraries, including to Asia and Europe, remains at $250.

If you're a United executive and have been thinking about asking Jeff for that raise, now would probably be a good time.

Health care for thee, but not for me.

You can't make this stuff up.  Presented without further comment:

Lawmakers, aides, may get Obamacare exemption. John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman, Politico.com
There is concern in some quarters that the provision requiring lawmakers and staffers to join the exchanges, if it isn’t revised, could lead to a “brain drain” on Capitol Hill, as several sources close to the talks put it.
The problem stems from whether members and aides set to enter the exchanges would have their health insurance premiums subsidized by their employer — in this case, the federal government. If not, aides and lawmakers in both parties fear that staffers — especially low-paid junior aides — could be hit with thousands of dollars in new health care costs, prompting them to seek jobs elsewhere. Older, more senior staffers could also retire or jump to the private sector rather than face a big financial penalty

Monday, April 22, 2013

Houston homebuying trends, not to say I told you so

but I told you so.($$$)

Sadly, this story is hidden behind the Chron's pay-wall, which is the Houston journalism equivalent of Comcast SportsNet meaning that most aren't willing to pay to gain access.  And while you should go read the entire article, the main take-away is that 80% of new-home sales in Houston are occurring outside Beltway 8.

Eighty percent.

What this means is that, despite the protestations of Houston Metro and The Unproductive Class a vast majority of our region's residents have taken a look at the promise of sardine-urbanism, and have decided to take a pass.  The reasons for this are not hard to figure out.

 - You can get more home for your buck the further away from the city center, and people will always be attracted to larger homes, and yards.

 - In many cases, the idea that downtown is the biggest jobs center in Houston is false.  More and more companies are locating elsewhere, including along the Energy Corridor and in The Woodlands, which means that, in many cases, commuting into town is no longer a necessity.

 - Taxes are lower outside of the Houston city limits. Given the passage of the new rain tax, much lower.

There are many more reasons but you get the general idea.

Now that we have this data the question should be asked:  If 9 out of 10 new home purchases are being made outside the Loop (if you include the 12% Loop to Beltway 8 purchases) why are our elected officials and transportation agencies continuing to forward transportation plans that don't provide them any benefit?

If you think either ChronBlog or the Apple Dumpling Gang are going to ask this then I've got this Casino Galveston I'd like to sell you.  Houston's transportation planning is, currently, a disaster, yet no one wants to address the reasons why.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Hotel "free" breakfast buffet, and why it doesn't matter to me.

As someone who really enjoys traveling, I used to be a frequent reader of travel blogs.   I've gone away from reading them in detail now because, in many cases, their posts are either credit card blegs or another set of images from inside a plane/hotel/airport lounge.  Occasionally they offer up a nugget that gets me thinking however (as is the case here) so I keep them in my RSS feeds just in case.  That said, a better source of information are the two major travel boards, FlyerTalk and MilePoint

What caught my attention last week was Gary Leff's blog post on 'free' hotel breakfasts and why this is an important amenity for him and others. I guess, if you spend most of your hard earned vacation hours taking pictures of plane interiors and your hotel room sitting down to a buffet of reconstituted eggs, some bacon, sausage, cold cereal and a variety of breads might seem like a worthwhile perk. Also, if you're traveling for business it is a welcome thing.  And I will admit, on my trips to Singapore and Puerto Rico recently, that the wife and I did partake in the free buffets on one morning due to time restraints, but these were occasions when we had early morning excursions planned and didn't have time to leave for breakfast. It didn't hurt that the Intercontinental Hotel in Singapore had the best coffee in the immediate area.  In Puerto Rico we had a ZipLine tour pick-up at 9 AM so we decided to grab a quick bite before the driver arrived since we wouldn't be able to eat until the afternoon.

In both of the above cases, however, we probably would have paid for the breakfast without batting an eye.  In most cases, we wake up and try to find something that's not a knock-off of the classic American buffet.  I can cook an omelet at home, or two eggs over easy, I don't want to waste my vacation eating food that's very similar to what I can find at home.

In Paris, you can walk into pretty much any bistro and get an espresso with a croissant and a baguette (yes, a French breakfast is bread with bread) for just around 3 Euros.  In Madrid you can get cured meats and Manchego cheese for around 5 Euros, and in London it's possible, just, to find a proper fry-up without breaking the bank.  In Dublin we and some friends found a farmer's market which was offering roast pork, potatoes and purple cabbage for 5 Euros and there was a coffee shop nearby.

For some people, dining in on the breakfast buffet or using room service is an amenity they covet, for the wife and I however it's something that we rarely take advantage of.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think that most people, if they gave the matter some thought, would be better off venturing out and finding something local to eat before hitting the tourist hot-spots where they will spend the rest of the day queueing.

Often, these 'free' breakfasts aren't free at all.  A simple search on Hotels.com often shows two different rates available for sale.  For example, one room choice might be $129/night and not include breakfast, while the other option runs $149/night and has the 'free' breakfast included.  Even if you're an elite and receiving this as a 'free' amenity, the usage of the perk is priced into the room rate for all.  In essence, your cold scrambled eggs and bacon are adding to the bill for the rest of us.

I understand that people value items differently and, for some, feeling that you're getting a free meal from your hotel of choice is key to your loyalty with them.  I would suggest that it might be better to forgo this perk and venture out into the world and see what's available elsewhere.  I'm not suggesting that the miles/points/credit card bloggers are wrong, just that they're missing something unique in their continuing quest for getting the best value out of their credit card churns.

In the end, and almost every blogger says this, traveling is supposed to be about having fun and experiencing new things.  I feel that you can experience more new and have more fun leaving the Americanized hotel buffet restaurant and dipping a spoon into a bowl of soup in Singapore's Chinatown.  That's what I did, for 2.45 SPD.  That's about $1.50 American.

Friday, April 19, 2013

In Houston, you have to drive to bike to work apparently.

This Friday is NOT, bike to work day.  Last Friday was.  And, judging by the responses ChronBlog aggregated from Twitter Houston isn't even getting that right.

Parker pushes pedaling as way to get to work. ChronBlog

For many in Houston, every day is a day to bike to work.
Mayor Annise Parker gave them a shout-out with today’s Bike to Work Day by encouraging cyclists to pedal the short jaunt into work from seven locations. Departure points included bike stores and bike repair shops.
The mayor’s office estimates that the trip from each spot would take about half an hour

Isn't that great?  If you live at one of the seven destinations that is.  However, I know few people who live at either a bicycle store or a repair shop so that travel time estimation is silly, much like the rest of the commute to work bilge that's being pumped through our local media by City Hall.

Of course, most Houstonians live in the suburbs, from which it's almost impossible to mount a bicycle and ride down a Houston freeway to get into the office.  Plus, this only works during selected months in our fair city. Note that these days aren't held in June, July, August, September.  In Houston, for a very select group of people who live near their offices, commuting to work via foot power is an option for around 90 days out of the year.  Possibly March, April, October and November, at least the parts that don't rain.  For the rest of us, biking is not a viable option.  Unless we want to do it the way favored by the sardine urbanists, who would like us to ditch our cars somewhere outside the Loop and bike in on a rented BCycle.

Political events such as bike to work are only good for the unproductive class (h/t Kevin for the name) who don't have to work at jobs but want to try and convince us that the city should be structured around their chosen lifestyle at the expense of the overwhelming majority. People with paying jobs, on a schedule can't afford the luxury of waiting for all of the interested politicians to speak and get photo ops before heading in the final 5 miles to work in a pool of sweat and flash photography.  One guesses that Ma Parker's people chose one of the few routes in Houston that was relatively pot-hole free, or she'd have a better idea of the issues facing work-a-day Houstonians.

Of course, the poor and middle class aren't on the minds of our fair Mayor these days, as she moves mountains to try and shore up her support with the Caucasian, upper-class progressive set.  She's going to need their money to win re-election after all.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tirelessly advocating for the children while voting to give taxpayer dollars to Billionaires.

(Or, why those great progressive/conservative hopes aren't all they're cracked up to be.)

It seems that every legislative cycle there are new (and sometimes old) 'stars' that emerge on either side as legislative champions for those of a ideological stripe who are instantly moved to the front of the class any time a higher office is mentioned in passing.  In the current, eighty-third, Legislature the wunderkind of the Left is Texas Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth). On her legislative website, she includes such glowing quotes about herself as follows:

Wendy Davis has been called "courageous," "articulate and gutsy" and "inspiring" by the Fort Worth Star Telegram, which also described her as a legislator who "will stand up and fight."
Wendy has been taking on tough fights her entire life.
She's also been cast as a "tireless advocate" for children's issues which means, as near as I can tell, that she occasionally pens some letters (sternly worded however) and gets in verbal arguments with her political opposites over the issue. Sen. Wendy Davis is in the sweet spot of journalistic accolades, where the misuse of the word brave is right up there with the watering down of the words "hero", "tireless" and "fight".

On the opposite end of the Spectrum is Texas Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) whose website bio describes him as such:

Dan Patrick is a strong fiscal and social conservative who has led the charge on important legislation like small business tax cuts and the sonogram bill. Since arriving in the Senate in 2007 he has learned to build coalitions to pass over 100 pieces of legislation and has become a key ally to others. In his three sessions, Dan has not missed one day on the Senate floor and has only missed 6 of more than 13,000 votes.
Patrick also characterizes himself as the "Senate's leading conservative" apparently standing on the thin line between Senatorial restraint and fiscal insanity.  Unlike Davis, Sen. Dan does has not traditionally received Hosannas from Texas Lockstep Political Media. However, given his new found penchant for spending money, this tune is changing.

I was amused then that a bill overlooked by most of TLSPM, which involved the potential spending of Millions of dollars got so little attention that no one thought to question the two rising stars about their votes on it, votes that could, in theory, shuttle large amounts of Texas' taxpayer money to Jerry Jones in return for a football game.

The Texas House on Thursday tentatively approved a bill that would advance Cowboys Stadium’s bid to host college football’s first playoff title game after the 2014 season.
The measure, passed on a voice vote, already has passed the Senate unanimously.
Now, in case you've forgotten, the monies from this will draw from the State's major events fund.  This is the same fund that State Comptroller Susan Combs raided to pay for Bernie Eccelstone's F1 event in Austin.  It's also the fund that many conservatives believe is not necessary.  Given that Sen. Davis is a leading advocate of auditing the Texas Enterprise Fund (administered by Republican Rick Perry) you'd think she might have some reservations about sending money that could be dedicated "to the children" to a Billionaire why she's in opposition to doing the same thing to bring businesses to the State.  Sen. Dan is, on his radio station anyway, supposedly a impregnable firewall against runaway government spending.  Yet, here, without much fanfare or debate, two of Texas' top firebrands, tireless advocates dripping with political bravery and courage, went along to get along on expenditures that will neither benefit the State economy all that much, nor will they create meaningful, long-term jobs.

Think about this vote, this under publicized vote, the next time you hear about how wonderful each of these legislative points of light are in the tireless fight to protect your money. Especially, think about it come election time. Because you're going to be inundated with campaign ads from politicians telling you how great they are and that, without them, you might as well be prepared for Texas to slouch toward third world status.  This is the same kind of thinking that keeps Susan Combs in politics, despite the fact that she seemingly has difficulty with the basic functions of her job.  Even sadder, the Comptroller is now chastising Obama for his budget and she is going to run as a conservative despite the fact that she was ready to give away the taxpayer farm to F1 and was directly responsible for the Amazon sales tax in Texas.

I'm unsure what's led to the dumbing down of our political leadership in America, but when you pay attention you notice that it is a very real and disturbing thing.

Monday, April 15, 2013

United unveiling renovated Terminal B South

Nancy Sarnoff, writing in ChronBlog today, provides some details regarding the opening of the "new" terminal at IAH:

United showing off new terminal, Nancy Sarnoff, Prime Property a Chron.com blog

The $97 million south concourse will be open to limited flight operations over the next two weeks, with the first 15 gates planned to be fully operational by May 1, according to United Airlines, which will add 15 more gates by the end of the year.

“This modern and spacious new terminal is a significant investment in the future of George Bush Intercontinental as a major international hub,” Parker said in a statement.

The 225,000 square-foot facility — nearly four times the size as the previous south concourse — will be dedicated to United Express regional flights.

This is good news, and based on what the airline is saying this doesn't sound like a company that's "abandoning" IAH to me:

“Bush Intercontinental’s extensive connecting traffic makes it a premier international gateway and a key hub in United’s network,” Jim Compton, United’s vice chairman and chief revenue officer, said in a statement. “We’ve designed our newest terminal to offer travelers a more customer-friendly airport experience where they can relax in comfort or work with greater ease.”
Any way you view it, this is good news for Terminal B. This was an area at IAH that was really starting to show it's age. Not only did it aesthetically resemble a scene from the 60's, but the food choices were sub-par and the gate areas cramped.  I've got a few United Express flights on the docket this year, I'm hoping that at least one of them is routed out of the renovated terminal.

This is good news for IAH as well, given that there was some concern (among a few of us who travel out of the airport) over what impact the Parker administration's decision to alter a long-term agreement by shifting resources to Hobby would portend for the future.  While it's true that United's justification for cuts on the heels of that decision was shaky at best (and dishonest at worst) many feel that there will be some capacity shifting from IAH going forward, with Denver being the odds-on favorite as the beneficiary.  Given this it's refreshing to see United make statements regarding the strategic importance of IAH to it's plans going forward.  One thing that was noticeable in the statement however, was IAH's repositioning as a "key" hub and not United's "largest" hub, a distinction it currently holds.

I'm expecting United to milk this piece of good publicity for everything it can, and then announce the formal cancellation of phase 2 (something they've strongly hinted at since the WN/HOU decision).  This will mean that at least some capacity is going to be siphoned off to other hubs, and IAH will diminish slightly in importance but will still be a workable regional hub.  Given how bad things could have been on the heels of Parker's short-sighted call, Houston travellers should be happy with that result.

City of Houston to discuss passage of safe-passage law for bicyclists, which most will also ignore.

Groups like BikeHouston want room, lots of room.  Up to three feet when passing and six feet when trailing ($$$) (actually they want more than that but it looks like this is what they're going to get) from automobile drivers who have the bad taste to think roads are designed for automobiles as well.  As you might imagine, this is not going over well with those who prefer cars (see comments) the biggest issue being (rightly) that many bicyclists don't view vehicle laws as applicable to themselves. Judging from the comments (even from some bicyclists themselves) the biggest offender (in Houston) is the 'inclusive' group Critical Mass.

My feelings on safe passage laws dovetail with my feelings on no-texting-while-driving laws.  You can pass all the laws you want, but they're worthless if people ignore them and the police don't enforce them.  Also, the idea that we can pass a law/ordinance/edict/directive etc. and solve a problem is a symptom of the Something! Must be done. attitude displayed by too many of our local, state and federal elected officials.

Bicycles, which I enjoy riding for recreation, are classified as vehicles.  As a result they're subject to the same laws & regulations (in theory) as are automobiles.  This means that you can't bike/drive distracted, you have to obey the rules of the road and you have to follow various laws to ensure safe operation.  Ideally this would mean that minimum/maximum speeds are enforced, people would yield the right-of-way, safe following distance would be maintained, and passing would be done in a safe manner.

As we all know, this is not the case.  If only bicycles had license plates the City could have made a ton of money when the red light cameras were active due to the number of bikers who run read lights.  If a police officer really wanted to help the city, he/she would stake out on Allen Parkway and get all of the bicyclists who run up between cars at red lights as well.  Aggressive driving/biking?  Never ticketed.  Distracted driving/biking? Phaw!  So while the police are ignoring these laws, what's left to make people think that just a few more laws would change behavior?

Short answer: It won't.  What it will do is aggravate the already aggravated band of militant Houston bicyclists who feel that every car passing them, whether at a safe distance or no, is committing an aggressive act.  The police will yawn and then those who are against cars will advocate (even more strongly) for complete streets, which cost a lot more money while reducing automobile capacity.  If you're shooting for a Inner Loop grid that's as congested as Rome, Paris or London, you might be onto something.  If you were seriously trying to improve the lives of those who enjoy wearing Lycra bibs, vented helmets and the loudest walking shoes ever, then you might give serious consideration to separating the motorized vehicles from the non-motorized ones and building out the bike trail system.

Of course, there's no money for this so it'd have to be a toll-trail, which would prove difficult for bikers because those spandex shorts don't have pockets and their shirt pockets are constantly filled with packets of GU, Cliff Bars and "the stuff that made Lance go." (no, not that stuff, the OTHER stuff)  At least they're not using the stuff that made Landis go right?  All this means that coins are hard to carry when you're cycling.

Still, despite the fact that there's no money for it I believe the best option is to separate the bicyclists from the automobilists.  It may cost some but, as we've seen with Houston's silly little toy train system, trying to intermingle two disparate means of transportation typically ends with a loud crash followed by emergency response sirens and pools of blood.  Of course, those of a complete-streets, sardine-urbanist persuasion don't worry too much about that.  They live in neighborhoods close to the trails, and their chauffeurs will deal with the bits of bone and splotches of blood on the paint job before it does significant damage.

Mao may have told the people that biking was good for them, but you never saw him on one did you?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Is it possible that we look back on the current time-frame as the good-old-days for air travel?

For all of the whingeing and moaning about the current state of air travel, when you get right down to it things are humming along fairly smoothly right now.  Yes, occasionally it seems as if you're speaking to a hippopotamus in a polyester jacket at times when things have gone pear shaped and you're dealing with a gate agent, but overall we're still in a market where flying can be enjoyable.  Granted, sitting in cramped quarters in a seat designed for someone lacking hips while being fed a meal that makes microwaved cardboard seem desirable isn't up there with 16 hours in a day spa, but when you consider that many airlines are now offering seat-back in-flight entertainment systems at no additional charge on some International flights it's way better than it was when passengers in canned-meat class were forced to squint at a relatively small screen on the bulkhead where a rom-com was constantly playing.

In other words, I'm not saying flying today is great, it's not, but given other travel alternatives it's still a relatively cheap way to get from point A to point B without having to risk being run over by an 18-wheeler, or ending up at the bottom of the ocean wondering if your insurance will cover death and/or hantavirus.

Even the food is getting, slightly, better.  The good news is airport food, in the bigger hubs at least, is really improving as top-tier chefs are starting to open storefronts inside some airports where you can grab a to-go meal and tell the flight attendant that you neither want the chicken dish or the beef dish thank you very much.

Of course, frequent flier programs are rapidly deteriorating, many to the point that the tipping point between loyalty program and credit card is starting to blur.  So prevalent are perks for branded card holders that the faux elite are now considering paying extra for their red carpet treatment. (the REAL elite still choosing to stay, for the most part, on chartered or private birds).  As a non-pampered flier the dilemma is obvious: As more and more resources are directed toward the front of the plane, what are the options for those of us relegated to the back?

We've reached the point where VIP security lines are just as long as the cattle-class security line and, in some cases, it's better to skip the carpeted lines and just fall in with the rank & file.  In many cases you'll process through the system faster.  Last year, in Honolulu, the wife and I went to check in at the United desk and there were six kiosks for non-Premier customers with four agents working them while Premiers were stuck with one line and one agent.  As we walked up to the gate we noticed there were two people waiting in the normal queue and seven waiting in the Premier queue.  Guess which one we picked? I only looked at the agent slightly cross-eyed when they noticed our Premier status and asked "Why didn't you go through the Premier line?"

Of course, most of the passenger complaints harped on by the media are focused on those people who fly only during the busiest times of the year, and then slow things down to a crawl because the airline won't let them take their 25 gallon drum of family wine on the plane or that their children actually do have to have a passport to leave the country and "no one told them that."  When you think about all of this in the context of what's coming, we could be experiencing the golden age of air travel.

Think about this, the current spike in late arrivals/departures is largely being driven by Mother Nature. Coming soon however are wider seats (fee based of course) for the fat and slovenly which is going to mean that the rest of us will need to find ways to squeeze in to even narrower seats than the hip-compactors we're currently seated in.  Since hip removal would be expensive, and not very practical for walking around at your destination, people are going to get well stuck in to their seats which means that, for almost every Airbus flight, a maintenance crew is going tn have to be called bringing along a pry-bar and a pound of butter.  Given union rules, this will be a crew of five men with 50's style glasses, one of which will have no idea which way the crowbar goes and another one who will have eaten all of the butter.

Then there's the little matter of the American Airlines/US Air merger, something that is now probably a certainty and which is going to bring price increases (due to diminished competition) and the abolishment of the bottom for uncomfortable seats and bad food.  We will miss you USAir, because, for a long time, you've persisted in retaining your lightly padded vinyl seats and your meals were best described as pig sinus au jus served with mashed asbestos and soylent green beans.  Not only that, but you kept the screen on the bulkhead wall as well.  With this merger that means that USAir is going away.  Granted, the management team is still there and they may respond by bringing AA's quality down to US Air levels but I doubt it. They're going to be a big, not-so-shiny, new airline now and they're going to want to make an impact.

All of this means that we're going to have to find a new standard for the bottom.  It'd be very easy to select Spirit airlines and be done with it but I'm afraid a lousy discount carrier just won't cut it.  Therefore, in the interest of the self-preservation of my sits bones, and my desire to see United get better, it is with great sadness that I'm afraid we need to ask Delta to take one for the team.  Talk to Airbus, they seem to have some good ideas.

Friday, April 12, 2013

First the beer summit and now this.

The Comcast/(insert television provider here) debate over the pricing for airing their little sports channel is still dragging on.  You know this because of several "here's the facts" commercials Comcast has decided to constantly bombard you with.  Never mind that the commercials are neither factual or all that helpful. The idea that people are willing to pay more to watch the Rockets, Astros & Dynamo is proving to be laughable.

Enter Houston Mayor Annise Parker. She who sees a campaign opportunity and, having decided that all of Houston's serious problems are now resolved, has decided that dedicating resources to ensure 60% of the city has the option to tune out the Rockets, Astros and Dynamo is priority one. Herein lies the disconnect between elected officials and the general public, and I'm not just singling out Annise Parker here.

No doubt, for a fraction of Houstonians, the opportunity to watch the Rockets lose to a two or three seed in round one of the NBA Playoffs is high up on the priority list. Watching the Astros set new records for futility is important to an even smaller fraction, and watching Minor League Soccer appeals to even fewer.  Are there enough votes here to push Parker over the top should a run-off with Benjamin Hall III become a reality?  Possibly, although it seems that Hall's apparent lack of respect for government already has many of a Statist lean against him and given that many in Houston often cast a vote for Mayor on ground flimsier than the Astros starting line-up, I'm not even sure Parker will need this to propel her to victory.

Of course, there is the concern that pushing this deal through might backfire.  Not only could Parker be viewed as the Mayor who foisted the futility of the Astros to a wider audience, if cable rates were to increase because of this people might get mad as well.  You might think this is in jest but, when you consider the biggest Google search on election day 2012 was "who's running for President in 2012?", no-one ever came up short underestimating the American low-information voter.

The reality is we live in a city where bike-sharing is propped up as a transportation plan by elected leaders, instead of as a form of recreation as it should be, where a taxpayer-subsidized downtown convention center hotel is currently being rubber-stamped despite low occupancy rates in the area.  Voters within the Houston city limits consistently re-elect Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee despite the fact that she doesn't have anything closely resembling common sense.  State Sen. John Whitmire is running around Austin convinced some far-right prison gang is out to get him (the threat was later determined to be a scam) and The Al Green/Boris Miles campaigns were proof of case that anyone who can fog a mirror has a chance of being elected.  Given this voting pool Parker has a very good chance of positioning herself in campaign ads as the "Mayor who gave Houstonians back their sports teams" and that could be just enough for her to eek out the win.

All of this sound and fury while it has gone unmentioned that this is a private business deal in which the government probably shouldn't be involved at all.  I realize that there is a strong public aspect to television in the form of regulation, but people have no inherent "right" to watch their local sports teams lose.  Nor do I see any benefit of having this summit in the first place.  It's probable that all of the major players will be there, and there will be many a photo op with Mayor Parker (which will also be used in campaign literature) but in terms of actual results I just don't it, unless CSN is willing to lower their price.  This is unlikely as well because, "we're working day and night for you" rhetoric to the contrary, Comcast is just as concerned about the bottom line as all of the other companies involved.  A quick meeting with Ma Parker and team is not going to change that.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Of taxes, good schools and kinks in the demand curve.

For years now, Houston leaders and sardine-urbanists have used the results of the Kinder Houston Area Survey as a de facto guide star for navigating the choppy waters of city planning.  In the 2012 survey those who would like to see everyone crammed inside the Beltway (or, even more ideally, the Loop) squeed with joy as 51% of survey respondents expressed a desire to live closer to work in livable, walkable neighborhoods.  39% even said that they would move into a smaller home to do so.  The problem, based on the questions, is that the "city/suburbs" qualifier didn't apply to the "where to move or live" questions.

Whereas the "move" question read as such:

 If R lives in a suburban or rural area (WHERELIV2): How interested would you be in someday moving to a more urban area? Would you say: very interested, somewhat interested, or not interested? (12)

The "urban living" question was not broken down:

If you could chose where to live in the Houston area, would you prefer: - [ROTATE:] A single-family home with a big yard, where you would need to drive almost everywhere you want to go; or: A smaller home in a more urbanized area, within walking distance of shops and workplaces? (08, 10, 12)

What this means is that, of all the respondents, several of the "I would like to live in a smaller house" answers could have been answered by people already living in that environment. Given that only 39% of respondents answered that in the affirmative, there's a very good chance that a large majority of people who desire a smaller home and urban lifestyle are already taking advantage of those amenities.

The problem with the "suburban move" question is that it doesn't offer any trade-offs.  Therefore it doesn't surprise that 51% of Houston area residents think moving in closer to the City would be a swell idea.  Most of us would like to have a shorter commute would it mean giving up nothing in the way of lifestyle.  In other words, all of these questions are asked in a vacuum, missing several external variables that go into the home-buying decision, schools, taxes, etc.  Given those points it is no wonder that the HAS has no explanation for why people are increasingly moving to the suburbs, survey answers to the contrary.

It's also no surprise that Houston's local elected officials have decided that encouraging development that packs people in tightly is the way to go. ($$$)  In the story, which is pay-walled so I will not blockquote, Houston Mayor Annise Parker bemoans the absence of homes "like she grew up in" within the city limits.  It seems to elude her that the construction of townhomes, patio-homes and condominiums are not going to bring her childhood home back either.  The resulting neighborhoods are going to be too dense to provide a meaningful substitute for what is currently found in most suburbs.  It's a fool's mission.

While hardly scientific, the comments to this ChronBlog post asking whether people would move back into the city if the price was right are very illuminating.  Overwhelmingly the response is "no".  I would assume the move-rate would be higher than the comments, but would it be enough to generate meaningful investment in previously unlivable areas?  Or is Houston setting itself up for "The Heights II: Invasion of the slightly less wealthy Caucasian DINKs?  In reality what's going to happen is that developers are going to find existing single-family home neighborhoods where people are already living and start knocking down homes and rebuilding 2-3 townhomes on the lot.  Think Rice Military or the old 6th ward if you think that hasn't happened before.

Finally, attempts at price control never work out as planned. The goal of any smart developer is to maximize profit and they realize that their are profits to be made from certain groups on residences of this type.  What resulted inside the Loop when this was allowed was not an increase in the number of homes available to the middle-class, it was an increase in the amount of homes available to the affluent while the poor and middle-class were shunted to the outer locales.  If you've been paying attention, this is exactly what those of a sardine-urbanist lean really want.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What Houston Metro (and ChronBlog) wants MetroRail to be vs. what it actually is.

(and what ChronBlog's new transportation scribe is willing to accept from Metro's bloated PR department)

The cacophony that surrounded MetroRail yesterday was, for once, not the sound of a crash followed by emergency response sirens, but a celebration of (per Metro) 100 Million train boardings that have occurred since Houston's 7-mile long amusement park ride was placed into service. Houston's boosters for world-classiness in the transportation system were giddy. One imagines that the Apple Dumpling Gang is currently consulting with Houstonians of a sardine-urbanist lean to author an editorial that's sufficiently gushing while not sounding like it came directly from the agency's bloated PR department.

Before that however, the Chron's newly minted transportation blogger/reporter has come out with what is supposed to be a reasoned analysis of the numbers. And while he gets a little bit correct, he has hopped aboard the train on at least one major issue.

100 Million reasons to celebrate, and a few to condemn. Dug Begley, The Highwayman, ChronBlog.

Here’s the actual news: To celebrate its 100 millionth boarding, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is offering free rides on Tuesday. The agency said it ferried its 100 millionth rider last month, four years ahead of schedule.
If you like trains, you point out that in less than a decade, and quicker than projected, the little trains that apparently can have handled 100 million trips. That’s 13.3 million riders per mile and 33,200 people per day, through March 31. For February, the rail system averaged 37,538 trips every weekday.
Those sound like big numbers, and they bolster the point that people will ride rail in Houston. That’s millions of car trips taken off the road and millions of people getting to jobs that maybe they could not afford to drive to, all feeding the local economy.

Emphasis mine, and it illustrates a fallacy about MetroRail that is never properly addressed in the media.  Namely, MetroRail, in its current configuration, does not take car trips "off the road" in the numbers that they are claiming. There is probably some reduction of vehicle travel on an intra-day basis. After people drive into work they might hop onto the rail to go to the Medical Center or somewhere to run an errand.  In this sense some of those trips are "avoided". The more likely scenario is that people are taking mid-day rides on the train that they otherwise wouldn't take at all.  In other words, they might hop on the train after work to head to another location along the line for drinks, or to run a shopping errand. These are not "avoided" trips but "extra" trips. It doesn't mean that this type of trip isn't a benefit of MetroRail, it most certainly is, but it also doesn't mean that "cars have been taken off the road".  At some point in this a car trip was required to board the train, so congestion (in a commuting sense) is not affected. It is more accurately argued that MetroRail has taken more cars off the road via collisions than by people choosing to ride the train vs. drive.

A second boarding scenario (a far worse one) is that the current Metro system is using the train as a transfer vehicle, or as a means to handle the "last mile" problem in the downtown core/medical center.  In this case people ride a bus into town, and then board the train to transfer to the point where they would get on the next bus, to head to their final destination.  The "last mile" issue is when riders disembark from a transit station, and then take the train to a train stop nearer their destination. (I know, it's not an entirely accurate descriptor because, many times, they still will need to walk to their final location.) Metro's (not so) dirty little secret is this: They've intentionally routed their train system to 'force board' passengers already on the bus system onto the rail to boost ridership numbers. 

The big problem with using the train as a transfer vehicle is that it's a horribly inefficient use of resources.  A more well planned out system would use fixed-rail, grade separated trains to move people into transit centers, and then buses to ferry people to and from somewhere near their final destination.

The last incorrect statement is the contention that Millions of people are now reaching jobs they might not be able to afford to drive to otherwise. This is patently false. There is nowhere that MetroRail has significantly improved service to the point that a once inaccessible job is suddenly reachable via public transit.  The toy train services downtown, the museum district the medical center, and Reliant Park. These are hardly areas where prior bus service did not exist.  MetroRail didn't expand service, it simply change the mode of transportation to something more expensive, and less flexible.

The biggest problem with MetroRail is that it was designed and implemented to serve a customer that no longer exists. If you remember, back when it was rolled out, much hey was made over getting the system in place before Houston's Super Bowl. The early focus was to move people from an (imagined) long-term downtown entertainment district to Reliant Park. Rail planners envisioned this happening during Texans game and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Unfortunately, the entertainment center in Houston has moved on and the inflexible system has been forced to rely on forced loads and other gimmicks to inflate ridership.

It's mission has also changed. Beyond being an entertainment vehicle MetroRail is now viewed by the sardine-urbanist set as the cog in the wheel of Inner Loop living. Unlike other, more practical, transit systems throughout the world, the idea is not to move people but to try and change how and where they live. On this front MetroRail has been a spectacular failure. Infill development has been slow to materialize, has not shown long-term staying power and is now hampered by speculative land owners. Then there's the fact that the people most likely to use public transportation (the poor and lower middle class) are being priced out of the areas where most of it exists.

This should not be read to mean that I'm anti-train. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've vacationed throughout the world and partaken in some really great public transit. From Seattle to London to Rome, Dublin and Singapore I've been on and enjoyed them all. Rarely on vacation do I rent a car because I simply do not need to. I spent 2 weeks in the Black Heath suburb of London where I took a train into the city every day and then rode buses and the tube to get pretty much everywhere inside the city that I needed to go. MetroRail, because of the agendas of its planners, is designed specifically to prevent people from doing that.  It's designed instead to make them want to move inside the Loop. Given the recent census numbers it has failed miserably even at that.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

You think Houston has an inferiority complex? Try New York.

Most of the time on this blog I choose to keep it light, poking fun at the so-called creative class in Houston and Texas as a whole, maybe a puff piece on travel, pointing out the obvious flaws in the sardine-urbanist's theories and then calling it a day.  Semi-frequently I'll step into the deep end and point out how terrible Texas Lock Step Political media is, or how hypocritical (and bad) ChronBlog has become etc. but there's a pretty good chance that I'm not going to attempt to take on the big issues, mainly because this is a personal blog (used mostly for writing practice) and I really don't have the time, or desire, to really dig my teeth into something serious.

Today however we're going to talk about a rather meaty topic, something of utmost importance to all of us (excepting rabbit/human hybrids of course) Bar-B-Que. (or BBQ, or barbecue, 'cue, etc.)

It's become a necessity because a really brash, fast-talking, know-it-all food writer from New York has recently generated somewhat of a storm by suggesting that New York City is now a better BBQ "city" than Texas.  Ok well, first, I think you see the problem here. No, not that Texas BBQ is a State thing (there is that) but that comparing different BBQ regions is an exercise in insanity.  There are people in Memphis who believe that the dry ribs at Rendezvous are the best ever, and disparaging KC Masterpiece is almost a criminal offense.  If you try to explain to a Carolinian that, in Texas, we use pork ribs as training meat for our kiddies until they're ready to cook brisket it could lead to fisticuffs.  BBQ is more cultural than definitive, it's hardly a set-in-stone proposition.  I blame Texas Monthly for much of this.  When they named Snow's as the "best" BBQ in Texas, veering away from a long tradition of naming the "top 5", they opened up a world where BBQ was not a cultural experience, but something to be rated, something for people to judge others on, much like the silly wine rankings issued by Robert Parker. What Ozersky is really saying, is that New York City finally has a BBQ scene worth mentioning and that they now view themselves as the best, just like every other BBQ region in the world.

In a way, this is indicative of the problems surrounding the entire FoodBorg. This reflexive necessity to bring a caste structure to food is becoming overwrought.  That you have found you lack an affinity for pickled pork sinus garnished with the reduced gall bladder fluid of virgin robins served over a bed of slightly charred nutria fur is not simply a matter of palate, but it has morphed into an indication of your class. Because of this blight, a seemingly very nice lady was brutally mocked for having the audacity to enjoy her dining experience in (GASP!) Olive Garden. More recently, some FoodBorg blow hard enjoyed his 15 minutes of national fame by doing nothing more than picking on the lower class.  This is not a defense of either Olive Garden or Guy Fieri, but it is a warning that, when reading food reviews from the FoodBorg, it is necessary to realize from whence the author is coming.

This angry, classist bit of food opinion does seem to have found its epicenter in New York City however, and I believe this is a big problem.  Because when New York, undoubtedly America's greatest city, starts thumping its chest in a "me too" style every time another region starts gaining accolades, you are looking at a deflation of our national identity. Old New York was a trend-setter.  It did what it wanted and didn't really give a rat's ass if you didn't like it.  They were ahead of the curve and most trends that mattered flowed from its boroughs like cultural water. Modern day New York is not the same.  Especially among the bloggers and the indie-media set it's more of a trend follower, taking the best ideas from the rest of the country and loudly bragging that they are now doing it better. The old New York food scene gave us the cupcake fad, and you knew that, three years later, Houston would finally catch up.  The new New York food scene has taken a look at Texas BBQ, decided they don't like someone else taking their food thunder, and have co-opted it with the flimsy excuse that the rest of the country is their "farm system".

What they're really suggesting here is that, from an ideas standpoint, they've fallen behind.  They've become the Food Network of the real culinary world, choosing to take the creativity of others, loosely copy it, and then roll out something that is now a "trend" to the rest of the country who are supposed to show the proper amount of deference toward their ability to market.  The problem this attitude creates is something of a perpetual inferiority complex because they're constantly having to compare themselves to others.  The "farm system" analogy doesn't work because the farm system in baseball is controlled by the major league club, and they have a 100% control over what is fed into it.  New York used to have that control over the US food scene, setting trends etc. but they don't any longer.  This is a big problem for them psychologically.  It's gotten so bad that David Letterman feels the need to remind us that New York is the "greatest city in the world" five nights a week. (it's not, but hey)

Most importantly, as a consumer, you have to realize that this is a temporary tempest in the tea pot that is the semi-professional FoodBorg community.  BBQ, as much as many hate to admit it, is, outside of its core regions, a fad.  Like all things, this fad will pass.  Eventually New York's foodborg will strip the businesses clean of originality and will move on to the next big thing, baked beans with animal testicles or something of that nature.  The New York BBQ scene will fade (although not go away) and Texas, the Carolinas, Memphis, Kansas City and the other BBQ regions will still be there. Ozersky will then turn his pen toward Denver, instructing them that New York cow testicle is far superior to Rockey Mountain oysters because New York chefs personally give the cows scrotum massages before performing the snip. California might have happy cows, but New York cows are far more laid back.

In the interim, you should not feel guilty because some guy sitting in an efficiency flat in Manhattan thinks he's got it all over Lockhart. In honor, go eat your favorite BBQ this weekend and wash it down with an ice-cold Texas beer.  Or better yet, eat on your back patio, in March next year.  The odds are while you're doing this, Mr. Ozersky will be huddled inside complaining about the snow ordering Thai take-away.

Houston's salad days

Give it up for our fair city.  It's been one long run of stories celebrating the finer attributes of H-town and writers everywhere start to go ga-ga over what the Bayou City brings to the table.  Yes, Space City is now awash in critical acclaim finally taking advantage of all of those drummed up nicknames and increasing its National profile.  It seems Houston is finally threatening, one assumes, to reach the mystical plateau of world-classiness to which it has long aspired.

Just today we see that one travel writer has declared Houston's superiority over those twig-chompers from Austin and only yesterday it was discovered that Houston has been declared the most walkable of ALL major cities in Texas.  Given that Houston is now blessed with an amusement park ride that has (maybe) ferried around 100 Million passengers, we're told that things are looking up. It's even possible that a fifth of those aren't the transient looking for an air conditioned place to grab a quick nap before being hustled out by Metro's high-tech SWAT team. Houston also now has (get ready) an alternative transportation system that's predicted to handle dozens of commuters although probably not on days when it rains, is too hot, too cold or windy, meaning that it will in reality be a transportation system available for a couple of days in March and possibly October.

These are wonderful things.  Things so great that it should have sardine-urbanist groups such as Houston Tomorrow dancing in what used to be car-infested streets, now reclaimed as pedestrian walkways.

Except, they're not.  Because none of these things really indicate any type of improvement to Houston's transportation grid that will be taken advantage of by an overwhelming majority of commuters.  The "most walkable major city in Texas?"  That's like getting a slightly larger participation medal than the kids who finished last in tee-ball and had to forfeit several games because they kept hitting themselves in the head with the bat.  "100 Million riders on MetroRail?"  OK, but considering most Houstonians either have to drive downtown, park and then ride the train for several miles, or take a bus in, be force-boarded onto the train because of asinine routing, then be moved down three stops to hop on another bus which will take you somewhere not even remotely close to where they're going, this is a hollow, forced number as well. And, let's be honest with each other here, is besting Austin really something which should generate a round of chest bumping?

Think about it.  Austin is still running on the vapours of the 70's and 80's, when Willie was King and South by SouthWest was something other than a bunch of journalists running to workshops between free concerts put on by street musicians all of whom are trying to prove a base level of cool.  UT-Austin is just this school you know?  Their athletics program has regressed under Dodds to a level of very profitable mediocrity.  The Texas Lege is currently there stinking up the place and their single biggest attraction (the capitol) is locked down tighter than a US Airport.  Austin's traffic is 21st century, but their infrastructure is mid 20th century. Returning to the youth sports analogy, their the kid that gets picked last because you're afraid they're going to spike themselves rounding first base.

That's not to say that Houston is a bad place. Clearly it's better than say....Detroit, or any city in California (financially speaking) but all of these "accolades" that Houston is receiving are really just flower dressing designed to give the self-conscious set something to feel good about themselves.  The reality is, most Houstonians (you and me) don't care two licks about winning ginned-up competitions designed to make us feel good about our collective selves.  These are for reporters with nothing better to do, and local public officials who need fodder for campaign fliers.  Instead of going to voters and saying that she passed a huge tax increase for some hazy, underdeveloped water scheme Annise Parker's campaign staff is now dancing in their cubicles because they can put this walkability survey front and center.  They're trinkets in a trinket city, where a majority of voters are low information and are fascinated by baubles in the same way the penguins at Moody Garden are fascinated by a light on the wall. 

What makes Houston great is not being the most walkable city in Texas, or being somehow cooler than Austin, or having a bike-share program that's used by tens of people on weekends as they head to a thread-bare farmers market where vegetable wholesalers unload the stuff they couldn't sell to HEB for twice the price.  What makes Houston great is that you can get on fairly well here for relatively cheap.  That you can have a job and a house with a yard and 2.35 kids and a dog and cat and a two-car garage in which to store your junk.  And you can do all of this for the same amount of money that would, in some other areas, get you an efficiency apartment with view of some back-alley and an electric cook-top that was aging in the 60's.  If Austin is a city of hipsters, then Houston is a city of business.  Most people would much rather live in the latter.

And that is why Houston is currently winning.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Burka wants to despise the "bias" of others while keeping his intact

This is more than just a little disingenuous by the "Dean" of Texas Lock Step Political Media.

Area 51. Paul Burka (the clown), Texas Monthly

The debate was a victory for Democrats and pro-school Republicans, but it could easily have turned into a catastrophe for the anti-vouchers forces.

My quibble is not with his conclusion.  Yes, the passage of the Herrero amendment was a victory for Democrats and some Republicans.  The problem lies with Burka's revelation of a bias-slip.  Being pro-voucher does not necessarily make one "anti-school" when you consider the vouchers (as conceived) would still send children to schools, just schools outside of the Texas public school system.  Nor is it clear that a voucher program would "decimate" the public school system, so saying voucher supporters are "anti-education" isn't really correct either.  If anything, the anti-vouchers team is pro-public school above anything else.  In many cases they truly feel that public schools offer the best education, and in some cases (I'll leave it to you to decide which) it's pretty clear that the Representatives are working to preserve a voting base.  The pro-voucher team is similarly split, with many believing that providing students in struggling districts an "out" is a good way to improve education, and some who are just knee-jerk against government anything and are using this view to damage a constituency of the other side.  Again, I'll let you decide who's who.

The problem, well OK one of the problems, is that there are currently two ideas for "fixing schools" neither of which addresses the issue in its entirety.  Vouchers should be a piece of the puzzle, but it should accompany solid plans to reform the education system to make it more responsive to the needs of individual students, and streamline operations, cut waste and put a lid on schools crying poor while spending Millions of dollars on athletics, trinkets and other items.  I have yet to see anyone come up with something other than "Vouchers!" or "Throw more money at it!"  Neither strategy is going to work.

Further down the Burka laugher is this statement:

I would say the TPPF's biases are showing.
Well, OF COURSE they're showing.  That's because TPPF doesn't pretend to be a "down the middle" journalist without an agenda.  Later on down the line he states that "no legitimate think tank would state such obvious bias."  This is just wrong.

Consider two groups.  Texas Public Policy Foundation and Center for Public Policy Priorities.  Both are think tanks, both espouse a certain political agenda, and both openly advocate for that agenda to be adopted politically.  Guess which one Burka (the so-called unbiased political journalist) takes issue with?  If you guessed the one arguing for market-driven, conservative solutions then you would be correct.

Why is he doing this?  Because Burka is a Statist.  It's clear from his writings that he believes in a large government with a very active regulatory hand.  This doesn't mean that he's Democratic or Republican, but it does mean that he is incapable of honestly reporting on one (very large) side of every issue due to his political (not party, some STILL confuse the two) bias.  This would be OK, would he admit it.  Instead he's writing and acting as if he has no agenda, no public policy preference and is only pointing out the flaws in groups that he views to be noticed by "reasonable people". 

Burka, and the rest of the TLSPM, are very big on reasonable.  They also are fans of preferring "common sense solutions" despite often possessing very little themselves.  The problem is not that TPPF is advocating for vouchers and against Medicare expansion, it's that the entirety of TLSPM is reporting on these issues the exact same way, with a negative spin.

You don't have to believe in TPPF's policy positions to understand why this is wrong, but you probably have to be a blind partisan to think it's the right thing to do.  I've said on here, many times, that I'm not a huge fan of the Tea Party.  I believe that they react too-often on an emotional level and that, on most issues, they haven't thought much further down the road than "I hate Guv'mint" and "no taxes".  They often fail to realize that the government has many (specifically identified) roles to play. I think they're easily led and are too willing to back marginal candidates provided they come wrapped in the flag with tax-cut rhetoric flowing from their mouths.  I think tax cuts work at times, but there are also times where increased funding is needed to pay for things like roads, education, water needs etc.  You know, the basics.

The problem, especially with education and on some other issues, is that it's impossible to tell where the real problem lies.  Much of this is due to the TLSPM's refusal to report on these issues honestly.  If Burka is the "Dean" of the TLSPM then he shares a large portion of the blame. 

Airline rankings released to much joy among those on the United death watch.

Today's story that Virgin Airways is the "best" airline in terms of raw numbers of customer complaints has many in Houston who are oddly rooting for the death of United Airlines casting their Hosannas to the air travel gods.

You see, United has come in last.

Virgin America Best US airline performer in 2012, Joan Lowy, AP via Chron.com

Virgin America, headquartered in Burlingame, Calif., did the best job on baggage handling and had the second-lowest rate of passengers denied seats due to overbookings. United Airlines, whose consumer complaint rate nearly doubled last year, had the worst performance. United has merged with Continental Airlines, but has had rough spots in integrating the operations of the two carriers.

That last part is key.  United did struggle (mightily) with the task of merging the two companies operations, but they've improved (mightily) in recent months.  The last couple of flights that I've had on UA metal (Singapore, Vegas) have gone pretty seamless.  In fact, the wife and I have a lot of miles upcoming on UA metal and we're really not all that concerned.

Yes, things will go pear-shaped, there's always force majeurs to consider as well as mechanical issues on planes that spend a lot of time in operation, and the grounding of the 787 is a mess, but much of these are items outside of United's control.  All in all?  I'm a happy UA MileagePlus member right now. It doesn't hurt that I'm finding some good (not great) fares on United.com which are making this year's Gold qualification much cheaper than last.

Given all that I'm constantly amazed by the segment of Houstonians who are actively rooting for the demise of United.  Yes, they decided to keep their HQ in Chicago instead of Houston, mainly to take advantage of a sweetheart deal offered by the Windy City to do so and yes, they struggled, and their PR in dealing with IAH during the whole SouthWest/HOU deal was disastrous.  At times Smisek's PR shop seems as tone deaf as that of Jim Crane and the Astros.

Putting all of that aside, United still is the employer or record for many in Houston and they still have the best route network of anyone flying out of Houston.  Globally, it's not even close.

So looking at these numbers it doesn't seem that the prudent thing to do is to start dancing on United's grave, it's to hope that 2012 was the low point and things can only get better from here.  Based on real-world evidence, I'd say that is happening.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

When politics becomes show business, we all lose.

Much of the media coverage around what should be serious political issues are devolving into Hollywood-style comedies.  Recently there was the ginned-up drama surrounding whether or not political fringe activist (and actress) Ashley Judd would run for the US Senate in Kentucky shortly followed by the news that comedian Stephen Colbert's sister is running for US Congress. The debate on this candidacy is not surrounding her policy positions, but what role the jester is going to assume in the campaign.  And we're already saddled with comedian Senator Al Franken proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the US Senate is truly societies least common denominator.

It only makes sense then that Texas Lock-Step Political Media, in true Texas "me too" fashion, has decided that the Texas Legislature is better covered from a pop-culture angle than via serious policy journalism.  Pop-culture drives page hits (and, hopefully, revenue) while serious policy is often passed over by the low-information voter.

Cue yesterday's appearance before the Texas House Committee on Culture, Recreation & Tourism. What should have been a rather minor tweak to the release date of captive white-tailed deer prior to the hunting season morphed into a rock & roll concert where breathless members of the TLSPM decided to revert to pop-culture references and seemingly everyone focused on the "fever" (cat-scratch, get it?) that permeated the room before Ted Nugent took the microphone.  Lost in any of the reporting was the actual issue at hand, the opinions of either side, and their justification for feeling that way.  What we got was Mr. Nugent comparing himself to the late Jimmy Hendrix and something about the soul of hunting etc.

It would be OK if Mr. Nugent's feelings were included as part of the overall discussion of deer hunting. There is no doubt the man is an expert on the matter.  But the TLSPM became so enthralled by his celebrity that they all seemingly forgot to tell the story behind why he was there.  Yes, there were some back-handed slaps to hunting culture (in what writers are now contractually obligated to call the "increasingly urban" State of Texas) and we all know that everyone who lives in a Texas city is now required to view white-tail deer hunting as shooting Bambi in the face, but there wasn't really any serious discussion allowed in the stories where celebrity was king.

Neither is this an isolated incident.  More and more what passes for political journalism is devolving into catty quips about Freshman hazing, personal rants against Michael Quinn Sullivan (who must be hated by everyone reporting in Austin) and one big Governor Perry gaffe watch.  Whether it's Paul Burka telling us that Perry's career is over one day and then deciding he's going to be "Governor for life" the next, or Wayne Slater carrying on his odd Karl Rove obsession, or Gardner Selby writing glorified opinion pieces on PolitifarceTx our media is taking a look down the hard road of serious analysis...and choosing to slap the reader in the face with a pecan pie.

Never mind that, when we DO actually get something that almost reads like journalism, our young, trendy reporting staff either misses the main point totally, chooses to arbitrarily establish 2009 as the Holy Grail for school funding without an explanation as why, or frames the issue in a way that's so slanted the term Newsish had to be invented to describe what they're churning out. 

In all fairness, it's probably not right to blame all of this on Texas Lock Step Political Media.  A large portion of the blame falls to us, the voting public.  Because it's we who have decided that flashy yard signs and large-group identity are more important than actual know-how.  We've asked-for, and been given, the government we deserve.  Is it any miracle than that the for-profit companies who report on it are giving us the type of media coverage we've asked for as well?

Either eye-witnesses are credible or they're not. (You can't have it both ways)

Recently there has been a lot of noise from innocence types about the flaws that run rampant in eye-witness identification.  If we're talking about murder, there could be 500 people that watch the event live and the good folks from the Innocence Project are going to do their darnedest to convince you that each and every one of them are a bunch of racist, classist buffoons who couldn't ID the President in a line-up if you spotted them two guesses and limited the sample size to the man himself. 

I say this not to disparage the work that the Innocence project is accomplishing, but to highlight the inconsistency as presented in the following....

Houston man shot multiple times while investigating noise outside. Dale Lezon, Chron.com
Racus said investigators don't know why the man was shot and have no descriptions of the suspects who shot him. He said investigators at the scene found several shell casings from two different guns. A witness said one of the suspects may have been carrying an AK-47 rifle.
Emphasis mine.

So, let's get this straight.  You have man who was tragically shot and killed while eyewitnesses stood around, none of whom could provide the police with any description of the shooters, yet the Mr. Lezon, and his editors presumably, have decided that the same people who couldn't tell who shot the man were experts enough on firearms to make a positive identification of an AK-47 to the point it had to be in the story?

This from a newspaper that publicly stopped, years ago, providing skin color information on shooters because of concerns people were 'scorekeeping'.  I understand not wanting to get it wrong when it comes to a suspect, but you can't have it the other way around and choose to possibly get it wrong on hot-button issues (gun control) just because it happens to be a belief you personally hold. You certainly cannot do this when your employer has run several opinion columns disparaging the accuracy of eye-witnesses.  Either eye-witness testimony is worthy of being included in a preliminary news story or it is not.  It really is that simple.

Leaving the pro-gun control bias out of the story what we do know is that a man was tragically shot multiple times and died.  He was shot by two men, for whom we have no description, using guns of what type we also don't know.  There is no credible eye-witness testimony available because the eye-witnesses in question were unable to provide even a basic description of the shooters.  We don't know what type of gun was used, nor does anything the eyewitnesses say regarding gun type have any credibility since they obviously weren't observant enough to provide even basic information to the police.

We also have a former newspaper of record who's trying to have it both ways on eyewitness ID.  They want it to not count when the death penalty is on the line because they oppose state executions, but they want to keep it in place when gun identification is on the line because they support the idea of banning certain types of guns from the public.  That's not journalism, that's advocacy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

It's BadMedia week in Texas one gathers. (A non-listicle, listicle)

Texas Lock Step Political Media is on a roll....

Sheila Jackson-Lee takes on Ted Cruz on Gun Control. Joanna Raines, Texas on the Potomac

Jackson Lee is asking the senators to back down. At a planned Thursday press conference, she will call on the lawmakers to refrain from a filibuster. Jackson Lee is expected to advocate for “common-sense steps” to end gun violence.

Call it me, but holding a press conference and attempting to dictate strategy to the other chamber is not "taking on".  It's just bluster.  That this is going to have no effect at all on the debate is not mentioned in this piece.

New IAH Terminal will include high-profile chefs' restaurants. Erin Mulvaney, Chron.com

There's too much wrong in this story to even start quoting errors.  Tough read with factual errors.

Democrats, Families, Hospitals plead for enlarged Medicaid, Robert T. Garrett, Trail Blazers Blog

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said it’s unacceptable to leave a large bloc of the population relying on safety net hospitals’ emergency rooms for care when their maladies could receive earlier attention and treatment.
“Do we want to insure the 1.5 million uninsured Texans that need this primary care and are eligible under the expansion population?” he said. “It’s time to put politics aside and stand up to the extremist factions of political parties and work together on the local, state and federal level to find a plan that fits the unique needs of struggling Texans and expands our Texas economy.”

Perry, Cornyn, Cruz assail Medicaid expansion as unwise. Robert T. Garrett, Trail Blazers Blog

“Texas will not be participating in Medicaid expansion,” Perry said at a Capitol news conference.
He was flanked by top state and federal officials; two doctors wearing lab coats; and leaders of several anti-tax groups, which help re-enforce the Legislature’s conservative fiscal leanings by encouraging people to oppose incumbent lawmakers who defy the groups by mounting challenges in Republican primaries.

Interesting how Garrett chose to frame all of this, in two different stories, is it not?

And, in closing, I give you the biggest argument against PolitifarceTx to date:

Mostly false: Perry says only 3 in 10 physicians accepting Medicaid patients. Gardner Selby, PolitifactTx

The 3-in-10 claim, brought to our attention by analyst Anne Dunkelberg of Austin’s liberal-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, sounded familiar, especially after spokespeople for Perry and each senator said by email that it was based on a 2012 survey of Texas physicians by the Texas Medical Association.

Preliminary results from the survey figured into one of our fact checks earlier this year.

Final survey results are now compiled, Donna Kinney, the association’s lead researcher, told us by phone. Kinney said the results break out to 32 percent of Texas physicians saying they accept all new Medicaid patients and 42 percent declining all new Medicaid patients--with 26 percent limiting their new Medicaid patients.

Put another way, the final results indicate that about four in 10 Texas physicians decline all new Medicaid patients while about six in 10 accept at least some new patients. "They may accept them only in the emergency room," Kinney speculated. "The limits could be anything."

Early this year, we rated as Mostly True the association’s claim that only 31 percent of Texas physicians accept all new Medicaid patients, compared with 67 percent in 2000. The group’s Twitter post about the figure was missing clarification that the figure came from a survey.

Bad logic, bad writing, BadMedia.

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