Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lance takes of the training wheels and it will get worse

Sometimes perusing is a task, especially since they dropped the pay wall and created to handle local news, columns and wire reports.  However, occasionally, after surfing through multiple stories involving female celebrities in various stages of undress (sexist?) you stumble across something you might want to read.

Last week, buried in the lower left corner, The story of Lance Armstrong's tell all interview with Oprah was one of those which peaked my interest.  In part I was interested because, at one time I was a defender of his.  That defense was made in a simpler time however, before the Floyd Landis admission (whom I defended as well) and before I got involved with the bodybuilding industry (No, I didn't compete, I write) where I became educated about PED's and masking agents and the entire industry behind them.

I decided to hold off in writing this until sometime after the interview aired for a couple of reasons: 1. I'm not going to watch the interview because I doubt he'll say anything that will surprise. 2. I wanted some soak time.

After thinking about it for a while I've decided this:  It's going to get a lot worse for Lance before it gets better, and no one is really going to care.

That's the extent of my thinking on this, and after thinking about it I don't care enough to expound any further.  We've learned that Lance isn't a Texas "hero" he's a drug cheat.  From interviews with him and other stories on his personal actions we can also form a pretty good opinion around his being a jerk as well.  From kicking teammates off of his team for not using drugs to aggressively attacking those who were, according to him now, telling the truth all along.

Goodbye Lance.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Some of us would like to have our downtown and be able to get to it as well

Last week a David Kaplan profile of Downtown Management District Executive Director Bob Eury ($$$) popped up behind the Chron's pay wall.  The piece was unremarkable in the fact that it was a typical fluff piece about a private investor who's properly leveraged The Houston Way to his personal benefit. Now, given my personal proclivities, I'm sure you're sighing right now and saying "Oh no, another gripe piece from No Upgrades" and, understanding the sentiment, I'm here to tell you that you couldn't be more wrong.

Good on Bob Eury, that's what I say.  As far as I know he never used a letter written on City of Houston letterhead to promote his development as a matter of fact, from what I understand about the man he's genuine in desire to see Downtown Houston transform, and he's done great work getting that done.  In fact, I would argue that Houston needs more people with vision like Eury and less people with limited vision like (Kaplan's words) "quality of life advocacy group Houston Tomorrow" and yes, it's true that Eury and David Crossley's little urban Borg hive often see eye to eye, you don't hear from Eury the dogmatic, my way is the only way, pessimism that you often hear from the new urbanists.

I think this is an important point that gets lost in all of the cacophony that surrounds Houston's Urban/Suburban class wars.  Most people, truly want Houston to be a better place.  We'd all like to see the quality of life in Houston improved, that we have different ways of getting there gets lost in the wash by activists who feel that any opposing view is an attack on their person. It's hard to move forward in any discussion when the default response is to shut down the opposing arguments with straw men and appeals to authority etc.

If you want to know why Houston public transit has suffered, don't look only at the mean Republican local majority who, we're told, is totally fixated on road construction.  Look also at the so-called "transportation advocates" who refuse to listen to any argument that doesn't involve at-grade, inner-loop, car-smashing light rail. I know that it sounds like a broken record, but having grade-separated rail from the suburbs to different points in the inner city would be a winner.  You won't find much at-grade rail in world-class cities like Paris, London, Madrid, New York etc.  What you will find are trains leading into the city, and then a grade separated infrastructure (and buses) which move people around the middle. In other words, we have it all backwards in Houston and we're going no where fast.

When viewed from that perspective, I'd love to see more people like Bob Eury get involved in the transportation debate and less people like Metro Board Member and committed new urbanist Christof Spieler.  Certainly I'm not suggesting that Spieler be muted, his voice is an important one that should be heard, but increasingly the argument is becoming more one-handed than the Texans running game.  If you listen to activists like Spieler and Crossley the recent Metro voter referendum was a death-blow to mass transit in Houston handed down by a majority of low-information mouth breathers too dense to understand the ballot language. I think this view is wrong-headed and damaging to the debate as a whole.  What I think the vote signified was a collective call by the voting public for Houston Metro to stop and reassess. I think the Houston region is tired of being fed "boarding statistics" that are inflated due to forced boardings driven by extra connections added to bus routes. They're tired of being told that Metro Solutions is working when it's clearly not.  That bus service is increasing when the bus routes are decreasing, especially to areas where the people need them most.

Houston Metro has a great chance to look at things as they currently stand and come back to voters with a plan that will actually work. A plan designed to get workers into the city to a variety of job centers and not just to downtown.  The key is going to be bringing in the champions of these job centers and convincing them that a commuter-rail based network with circulator bus routes is going to be a boon for all.  That not asking someone on the far Northwest side to go to downtown and then back out to the Galleria makes sense, that transit to/from the Greenway Plaza area to a host of destinations is practical, and that not requiring people to drive downtown, park their cars and riding a train for 7 miles is the path to true growth.  One thing that was said in the article by Crossley with which I agree is that (paraphrasing) what is around the central core matters.  This extends to the suburbs as well.  The great cities understand that suburban access to job centers is key to reducing congestion and shortening the commute times for those who don't want to ride.  It's a tide that raises all boats, just not the ones favored by a select few.

It's time Houston started gleaning ideas from it's practical thinkers, not just those who make a lot of noise and generate warm and fuzzy thoughts of a Downtown Houston from the 50's and 60's.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Suburbs rise.

Recently, there was an interesting story on analyzing the retail growth currently being experienced by Houston suburbs.  On the surface, this is a fairly easy conclusion: retail is booming in the suburbs because that's where the people live and people want to shop near to their residences. Unfortunately this isn't a theme that jives with the mantra of New Urbanism so the chron.comments area river of fire.

I've linked before to this Keep Houston Houston post about ethnic diversity in Hosuton's Suburbs vs. it's inner, urban core and I believe it's pertinent to the results found here.  Big box retailers love diversity, it provides a fruitful market for a variety of goods and services which allows them to keep shelves well-stocked.  For the most part, niche, small stores tend to serve a much narrower demographic, so they tend to locate near where that target demographic resides. Pedestrian Pete may have a desire to walk into a gourmet, fake-French Bistro in Houston's museum district for an espresso and croissant but the average Houston-area resident is just fine driving through some chain to pick up a coffee and breakfast sandwich.  Of course, Pedestrian Pete doesn't work any longer, is very wealthy, and spends considerable time in the South of France luxuries not enjoyed by a vast majority of the citizenry.

For the average Houston-area work-a-day citizen that breakfast trip is just a precursor to trying to get everything done on Saturday.  While the fedora wearing Pete is sitting idly and watching the world go by Johnny suburb is running to Home Depot to grab a part to fix a toilet, heading to the store to pick up a last minute item for lunch, taking the kids to the mall to buy new shoes because the ones they have are wearing out and trying to decide what his family is going to eat for lunch today because there probably won't be time to cook for them given their busy schedule.

Based on that schedule, they're more likely to head to a big-box department store for their purchases than they are to hop-scotch their way through several boutique stores all while trying to find a good parking spot that won't result in the City of Houston issuing them a violation.

When you take those items into consideration it's no wonder the outlying cities are out-pacing Houston in terms of retail growth.  They're meeting the needs of the market, which is nothing more than economics 101.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

We can do better, we're the 2nd largest State in the Union.

So, about that budget...Paul Burka, Burkablog @ Texas Monthly

I don’t get it.
We know this Paul, we understand that you don't "get" it.  And still you're treated by the State's lockstep political media as some type of political savant, that you know where "all the bodies are buried" and that you understand the inner-workings of Texas bicameral legislature and that you understand what's going on.

Except you don't Paul.  You don't understand what's happened to politics in Texas over the last 20 years, you don't understand how the State works since W left, and Perry took the reins. You've decided to live in an old-school, the-way-we-used-to-do-things-in-Texas, howdy pardner, handshake and a smile bubble and the State has passed you buy.  The thing is Paul, Texas has just come full circle.  Instead of the Democrats dominating state politics within their party, Republicans are now doing the same.  Yes, there are less moderates, in both parties and politics has devolved into a "woe is me" pity party by the supposedly wounded side but, and this is important, it's still the same one-party rule that Texas has experienced since Reconstruction, only the letters behind the names have changed.

To be fair, this isn't all your fault Paul.  Your contemporaries aren't any better.

On one side we have Wayne Slater the Dallas Morning News political columnist with the Karl Rove obsession and a habit of appearing on Current TV, the ultra-left Al Gore founded TV channel that recently sold out to oil-money funded Al Jazeera.  Wayne's current idea of a witty riposte is to throw around the vulgarity "tea-baggers" at anyone slightly to the right of Bill Clinton.  When he's not pimping his next Karl Rove book that is.

On the other side we have Patricia Kilday-Hart the former Texas Monthly cub reporter at the capital who's stepping into the columnist role despite exhibiting no insight that's particularly unique among her peers. If anything, Kilday-Hart learned too well from you.  Believing that things have really changed in Texas when, in actuality, they're much the same.

Oh sure, there's the usual batch of ideological writers, Bud Kennedy fills the role of angry progressive just fine and Ross Ramsey, now writing for the Newsish Texas Tribune, is playing the role of above-the-fray, old-school, liberal just fine.  Republicans, to their detriment, have ceded the public space to you, choosing to retreat to Fox News and Lord Dan Patrick's talk radio channel and that's on them. I don't hold you responsible for the Republicans decision not to communicate.

The big problem with Texas' lockstep political media Paul is that y'all are still living in the agrarian, Democratic controlled historic age while the rest of the State is moving on.  Yes, you pay lip service to Texas vibrancy being in her cities, and much of this is true, but you still want the Texas Lege to run itself in the good ol' boy style where everyone is a friend and policy differences are something to be hashed out in smoke-filled back rooms over a Lone Star while Willie strums his guitar in the corner.  It's not that we still don't like Willie, we do, but politically the State has diversified.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't some slack-jawed "liberal bias in media" rant Paul, quite the contrary.  This is a running commentary on quality, not ideology.  But the point is that you have to at least have an understanding of the majority party mind-set in order to commentate on it in an intelligent manner.  Where you, and your contemporaries fail Paul, is in your inability to do that. In that sense you, especially, have overstayed your welcome.  Maybe it's time to change roles, to write your memoirs. I'm guessing those would be pretty interesting.  Perhaps it's time to let some new blood into the political trough and see what they come up with?

I'm not sure who that would be because, truthfully, the media bench is weaker right now than that of the Texas Democrats, but maybe it's time to get someone in there on a pass/fail basis?  Surely there's someone on the backbench.  Robert T. Garrett of the DMN possibly?

Too often the lament from the media is that people don't pay enough attention to the local politics which plays a very real, and hefty, role in crafting legislation that affects their daily lives.  What the media forgets is that the street runs both ways.  In order to possess information most people need to be provided with information.  Right and left wing blogs, Pay-wall protected inside-baseball gossip sites and political writers churning out the same clap-trap aren't going to get it done. To quote Pogo Possum "I have seen the enemy, and he is us."  By "us" I mean Texas' LockStep political media Paul, and you're the so-called "Dean".

It's time to either step up or move out of the way.  Meaningless analysis like "I don't get it" is a disservice to your readers and Texas.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why Texas Democrats (and the Houston Chronicle) lose.

Back in late 2012 when they announced the creation of the press release was full of the usual bluster about "deep analysis, enterprise reporting, exclusive photos, and the work of your favorite columnists". It was hailed as being a new frontier in local journalism.  As is often the case with Chronblog, they've botched the execution.  Instead of enterprise reporting they often run wire reports behind the pay wall (which can be had for free online elsewhere) and a host of things that just don't seem to add much value or that would cause a non-dead tree subscriber to part with their hard earned money that came as part of their smaller paychecks in 2013.

Now the Chron has a new problem, what's behind the pay wall ($$$) can, at times, be found for free, on their sister publications.  In short, you can either pay the Chronicle money to read Patricia Kilday-Hart's column on Texas politics or you can jump over to and get it for free. Tough choice. (by "tough" I mean "not tough in the slightest")

Of slightly more interest is what's in the column in the first place.  And, because one of my new year's goals was to be nicer to local media, I encourage you to head over and read Ms. Kilday-Hart's report on the rumored Republican goings-on for 2014.

Her column, and other stories focused on the 2014 races are almost exclusively right-handed. You know that there are going to be quite the Republican primary battles for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller, Attorney-General, Agriculture Commissioner, Land Commissioner etc. but you hear nothing about what Texas Democrats are planning.  They have to be planning something am I right?

Sure, there are rumors of a Draft Castro campaign bubbling up from the Bexar County Democrats, but we've seen how these "draft anyone" campaign's have gone before, and we've also seen how running a progressive mayor in a statewide race against a well-funded Republican conservative has worked as well. *cough*Bill White*cough*.  In fact, it could be that their insistence on 'drafting' and 'fighting' are hurting the Democrats because it leaves voters with the impression their candidates are similar in nature to the virgin sacrifices offered to Dragons in fantasy novels.  Sure, they're running, but it's to be kicking and screaming while tied to the alter rather than charging out with swords drawn and "fighting" to the finish.  Not helping this impression is the fact that Bexar Democratic Party Chairman and instigator of the draft movement, Manuel Medina, owns a polling Panama.  If anything screams "lord of the manor sending out the peasantry" more than that it's probably named George Soros.

The sad thing for Texas Democrats is that not drafting a candidate, and relying on the "Oh why the hell not" candidate often results in embarrassing results.  In 2011/2012 an angry Houston Area progressive seriously floated the idea of drafting actor Tommy Lee Jones to run against Ted Cruz in the US Senate race. Not surprisingly, this fired up other angry, Houston area progressives and a tiny movement was born.  Sadly, those tens of angry, Houston-area progressives couldn't convince Mr. Jones to run and the Democrats were saddled with Paul Sadler. Underfunded and hopelessly out of touch with the Texas electorate his campaign reminded Texas political wonks of the massive campaign failures of Chris Bell (of Ring the Bell! and "Moonshot for Texas Education" fame) and Rick Noriega (You're saying "who???").  At least it wasn't as bad as the quote stealing and "Big Oil, I'm coming for you!!!" amateur-hour campaigning exhibited by David Van Os, who tried to channel Jim Hightower only to remind everyone that Hightower wasn't all that good of a candidate, politician, or particularly funny for that matter.

Now I realize that, if you're a Texas Democrat, you are reading this and are thinking that I'm making fun of you and being unreasonably harsh.  And yes, I am making fun of you in the same vein that I poke fun at Shelley Sekula-Gibbs on the Republican side.  But I don't think that I'm being unreasonably harsh here.  The fact is that you've fallen asleep on the job when it comes to finding and placing qualified candidates on the state wide ballot and I'm a firm believer that the lack of honest competition is bringing down the quality of my side as well.  We're getting to the point in Texas that anyone who can spell their name and put an (R) behind it has a decent chance, if they survive the primary, of scoring a 14 point win over the virgin sacrifices that your leadership is placing on the statewide ballot.  I don't care how you look at it, that's not good for Texas.

Onward downtown soldiers, or something.

Once the announcement was made that Houston's downtown Macy's was closing there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Houston's insider set.  This, almost immediately, led to the Mayor creating a downtown retail task force of questionable need (Something! must be done.) and, now being a few weeks on, the cities former newspaper of record deciding to go whole hog for downtown by dedicating many column inches in the Sunday opinion section to ideas on creating a vibrant central district.

Apparently, Houston, your crazy affection for staying dry and cool are destroying our fair downtown's ambiance.  Granted, not us much as your stubborn refusal to go along with the idea of packing 4 Million people inside the Loop but your avoidance of the streets in 100 degree Summer weather and Spring rain showers are eating at the heart of our area.

Strangely enough, many of the things that the new urbanists want to eliminate in downtown Houston are most of the things that make it a nice place to work.  As someone who used to work downtown, I can attest to the joy of being able to take tunnels and climate controlled pathways when you wanted to go somewhere. Yet, in terms of returning Houston to the 50's, they're viewed as a large part of the problem. You have to wonder if these pie-in-the-sky ramblers in bowler hats realize that pedestrian bridges and the tunnels are the solution to a problem that's not going to go away no matter how much you plan?

It's clear that the urbanists don't like Houston's climate, and that they'd like to change it, but their ideas for forcing people out into it seem insane at times.  Take building more residential space downtown.  Don't you think that if there was sufficient demand developers would be falling all over themselves to build high-rent luxury residential space in the center district? Of course they would.  However, the market has priced itself in and people have decided that MidTown and the Heights are where they'd like to reside. The plus to the Heights is that they can keep both their urban pretentiousness and a suburban-style back yard in many cases.

The odd thing about downtown Houston is that everyone seems to have an idea on how to save it but, for all of those ideas (many of which include increasing the number of residents) you don't see anyone acting on them.  Living downtown is the residential equivalent of mass transit for the wealthy, it's something for other people to do so their drive-in is less congested and they can feel better about their city all while keeping the things they hold dear.  In most cases, people like the idea of having a quaint, Norman Rockwell downtown with streets bustling, tiny shops open selling artisan goods, newsies hollering Extra! Extra! and brandishing their iPads every time the Chron releases as new photo slide-show full of 1/2 naked women, and the toy train running back and forth, they really do.  Where the resistance comes is when you ask them to trade out 1700 square feet and a driveway for 500 square feet and a dodgy lift.  This resistance increases exponentially when they have children.  Throw in no pet (or small pet only) policies and well, urban living doesn't stand a chance.

Don't get me wrong, I know that there are some of you reading this who like the idea of high-rise living and I think that's grand.  Unfortunately, not enough of you are out there because you're not seeing that type of development really take root.  Don't blame Houston, blame the numbers. You might want to take an inward glance as well, toward some of Houston's champions for all things urban.  In many cases, the things that they're advocating do nothing to advance urban life and in others, they're harming it.  The argument against advertisements on Metro buses due to "visual blight" is just silly, as is the refusal to admit that MetroRail is a bad idea built on top of a senseless route network. The Chronicle is to blame for this as well, with their admitted bias toward the toy train and their inability to understand the city that they're reporting on.

I've stated before that Houston is not a world class city. It's just not.  Part of the facts that back up this assertion are items like this where it is striving to be something else.  A real "world class" city is comfortable in its own skin, it embraces what makes it great and is constantly creating new, which then becomes trends that the regional cities try and emulate.  In Houston, we're constantly trying to tear down the things that make us great and unique in favor of creating copies of things we find in say, New York. Modern Houston doesn't invent, it copies.  At one time Houston did invent. It gave us the downtown Foley's which was a truly unique experience and the Astrodome.  Given the current state of those ground-breaking buildings it's no wonder that many in Houston's urbanist set want to see a return to those heady days. Unfortunately, you can't go back, the only choice is to move forward, and Houston's leadership is too used to playing small-ball and copycat to really allow us to do that.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

We don't like our government, so let's call for more of it.

As the 83rd version of the Texas Legislature sputters to a start it's time for Texas' Lock Step political media to revive the age-old tradition of hating on the Texas system of government while deciding the solution is to call for more of it.  Seemingly even more amazing, is that what they're demanding now echoes the political position of Republican bloviator Dan Patrick.  When you stop to think about it however, this is really not amazing at all.  It all boils down to a matter of self-interest.

For our elected officials the math is simple:  They can make more money working (fighting?) for themselves us if only they were allowed to meet for more than 140 days every other year.  Now, granted, many of them would have to relocate to Austin full-time, and there's a very real chance that this move would take Dan Patrick off the air, for the most part, on his Houston talk-radio show.  While both of these would be personal negatives for Lord Dan, they would be positives for Houston as a whole.  If we're lucky, Dan would sell KSEV and it could turn into another sports talk channel.  Almost anything would be an upgrade from what they have now.  Further thinking (on their part) suggests that, were they paid a living wage, the influence of outside money would be reduced because they'd now have enough to afford that extra condo in Austin while maintaining a sham residence in their districts.  It's a win/win, for them, and despite the fact that it would cost Texas Taxpayers a lot more, it would be presented as a win for us as well.

For Texas' Lock Step political media, it's really nothing more than a matter of scheduling.  I can imagine that it's hard to work a full-time job reporting on part-time employees.  The presumption being that a full-time lege would offer more, better news coverage than what we currently have.  The counter argument to this is the proliferation of list-based and "fact-check" reporting on a National level.  Currently, under the present arrangement, political action occurs at a fast and furious pace when the lege is in session.  Were the Lege expanded to full-time the same amount of "work" would get accomplished but it would take much longer.  Needing to fill space, Texas would be subjected to the same type of "Top 5 things" & "fact-checking the subcommittee on Climate Change" tripe that we're served up daily by the National press.

All of this is not to say that some expansion is a bad idea. Democratic Representative Richard Peña Raymond's bill calling for off-year budget meetings is something that probably should happen. Texas is a huge State, and it's budget for government is also huge.  Thinking that a 2-year budget designed around income projections of questionable accuracy will not need alteration is pie-in-the-sky thinking. As is the assumption that Legislators with financial skins in the game ($$$) are going to not favor bills that are self-serving.  With that said I'm not entirely convinced an expansion of the Texas Lege to full-time status is going to solve the problem either.

The problem, of course, is one of lifestyle and income. The current salary for a non-leadership team member of the US. Senate and Congress is $174,000 per year. Viewing this let's set Texas' pay-rate for a full-time legislator at somewhere around $50-$60 thousand.  There is no way under this, or even a slightly elevated, salary structure that these legislators are going to make near the income to which they are accustomed.  What this means is that they're still going to keep their companies and their jobs, but they're going to be spending more time in the echo-chamber that is Austin, where SXSW is still considered a meaningful cultural event and where 6th street is still viewed as a neat place to hang out.  It also makes the jobs of the special interests easier.  Instead of having to track down representatives in their home-towns for one-on-one discussions (and campaign donations) they're now going to have easier access to many elected officials at the same time.  If you're using the full-time legislature as an argument against special-interest spending then you're requiring that we ignore the example of Washington D.C. and I just don't think that's intellectually honest.

Finally we have the problem that full-time legislatures tend to get bored, and this causes their attention to turn to regulation and the passage of silly laws.  I'm not suggesting here that, under it's current structure, Texas is immune to silliness. But I'd much rather have a Pork-chopper bill than a bill to regulate the volume of television commercials.  There appears to be an inactivity avoidance gene in every elected official that makes bills like these possible, after long-arduous work none the less.  Given that information I'd much rather Texas decide to allow the legislature to meet more often, but only to look at a specific set of important things. I'd feel a lot more comfortable with the knowledge that they're meeting to decide just how wrong Susan Comb's projections were than being afraid that they're going to decide that all Texas cable providers are required to offer the Longhorn Network.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Are the dominoes that are falling constructed of carbon composite?

Lately there's been an excessive amount of spleen venting by the participants in travel-related social media over announced changes by Delta to their frequent flyer program and American Airlines announcing that, for the first time in over 40 years, they're going to paint their planes. 

I'm not sure what the hub-bub is regarding the latter item, I happen to like the new AA livery and think that, over time, it will become widely accepted.  If anything (and I've said this before) it illustrates just how serious they are about becoming a "flag" carrier in the vein of British Airways or Air France.  Even when the much anticipated merger with US Airways manifests itself, I believe there are enough US Air design cues within this that it will be pretty close to the final design.  Then there's this: The "New American" livery is sharper than both Delta and United's looks.

The first item is the one that's really got tongues wagging however and I can understand why. In short: Due to the construction of their spend requirements Delta is telling it's customers that a large part of their routing structure will not gain full qualification in their awards program, and I'm not talking about eliminating just tricks and mileage runs either.

Consider this: It's not unusual for airlines to offer up prices to destinations in Asia for five to seven cents per mile.  These are not 'mileage run' fares or fares that need to be tricked using fuel dumps etc. but advertised rates, purchased on their website straight up.  By introducing a minimum spend requirement at ten cents per mile Delta is basically devaluing these routes by 30-50% on their award charts.  Even worse, I expect that when United and American/US Airways eventually release their revenue minimums they're going to be around the same level.  Delta has set the bar, and it's unusual to see airlines try and limbo beneath it, instead they often choose to high-jump the thing altogether. 

Many people are expecting United to be the next airline to introduce revenue minimums to their program, possibly in the next three months.  If they do, given United's history on program changes, I'm guessing the minimum spend requirements will be somewhere around ten cents per mile, possibly even higher.  United also probably won't provide the extended lead time on their program that Delta has, their idea being to spring these changes on customers at the eleventh hour providing very little lead time for planning and reaction. (For example, when United recently devalued Gold and Silver Premiers for 2013 by reducing their early boarding privileges they announced the change in January, after the 2013 year had already begun and many people had part of their travel plans already drawn-up for most of the year)  It's not in the new United's DNA to be overly customer friendly, unless you're flying in BusinessFirst or First.  I still think United will be the next airline to announce something like this, but I think it will be either closer to the end of the year or effective in 2013 for 2014 qualification.  In other words, after people are already invested in the previously announced program and when the opportunity cost for switching airlines is very high. Unlike Delta, United wants to keep a large portion of their Elite members, they just don't want to provide anything to them in the way of benefits.

Being fair though, all of this is just my uneducated guess based not on inside information, but on observation alone.  I could, and am most likely, wrong on at least some counts.  It could be that United is going to do right by the Silver and Gold Premiers that they don't seem to value in the name of customer service.  They could feel that their recent run of negative press has caused the airline to rethink their plan of running off over-entitled elites (to be fair, again, many elites ARE over-entitled in a big way.)  To quote many a blogger: We'll see what happens.

Finally, if you'll permit me a small tangent, I find it funny that some bloggers are stating that there are easy ways to avoid Delta's new revenue requirement. Unfortunately, these "easy ways" involve either moving out of the Country (they only apply to US fliers) or spending $25K per year on a Delta co-branded credit card.  There does come a point that your travel blog offers nothing of interest to the flying public, I believe that some bloggers are snuggling right up close to that line, if they haven't crossed it already.

The economy is in shambles, so let us drink.

My favorite political dissident, the ancient Roman poet Juvenal famously termed the efforts of the Roman Emperors to distract the populace from the decline of the Empire as "Bread and Circuses".  In his case, this was literal. Romans were given bread through massive food programs (sharing the "wealth") and were provided cheap tickets to Gladiatorial Games (that era's equivalent of reality TV) and were kept happily distracted as the Muslim armies sacked the outer territories while the Empire crumbled from within under the weight of ruling class largess and depravity. As we reach the declining age of the American "little e" empire (more a financial empire than a military one) we are watching history repeat itself as our politicians offer bread and circuses to the rest of us while the house of cards shatters under the weight of ruling class largess and depravity

More recently, a lesser political dissident George Orwell (who is more well known only because many Americans believe history started in 1776) invented Victory Gin as a religion free "opiate for the masses" designed, in part, to keep them mildly intoxicated and under control.

What then, are we to make of this?

Bill would allow liquor stores to open on Sunday. Erin Mulvaney,

A state lawmaker from Houston is reviving an effort to revoke a "blue law" that keeps liquor stores closed on Sundays.
Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson filed a bill last week that proposed liquor stores be allowed to operate seven days a week
Not that I'm opposed to the law, I'm actually in support of it.  And while I don't believe the pie-in-the-sky estimates of "$7.5 Million in new revenue every other year" I do feel that Texas blue-laws, and the Kafkaesque Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission are wealth killers rather than wealth creators.

It's telling however that the same legislators who want to increase regulation on major industries such as banking and oil & gas, are taking such a strident anti-regulation position when alcohol comes into play.  And yes, you're going to hear the argument that opening liquor stores on Sunday is the event horizon for the start of the Texas Apocalypse but this just isn't true.  Having stores open on Sundays just means that less people will stock up on Saturday, that's it.  Yes, it's going to suck for workers in liquor stores, but it could also create some part-time positions (again, positions that Democrats like Thompson pay lip service to hating) and it will make things easier for fans of the Astros, Rockets, Texans, Cowboys, Mavericks and Stars when their teams ultimately go tits-up during Sunday games.

Eliminating blue laws isn't going to be a key component of improving Texas, there are many more important issues than this that need to be addressed, but it will make our policy just a little bit more modern in relation to the rest of the country and that's not a bad thing.  The next, logical, step would be to end Texas' insane three tier alcohol distribution system and wrest control of what we drink from the big players who all posses tin palates.

Until then, an inebriated population is a docile population (except in pool bars and in cars obviously) which would allow Texas politicians to keep from focusing on the hard issues like water supply since we could all drink Scotch.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Houston is on a roll! (So we need to change everything)

Judging by this blog piece by Nancy Sarnoff on Houston is currently being added to more lists than Rick Perry's "oops" moment.  Whether it's for being "cool" or having "jobs" or "affordable houses" or for "touristy things" (What?) Houston is moving and shaking as a job center and regional city on the come.  Even though Houston is hot, sprawled-out, lacking in public transportation, needing good sidewalks for walking around in that oppressive heat, dominated by its suburbs and fat people we're being inundated with folks from other locales looking for a nice, cheap place to live where they can be employed and not have to subsist on a diet of twigs and soot.

At least, one imagines, listening to the hip, trendy eyeglass wearing new urbanists, the obvious answer to this run of good fortune is change everything that's working right now!  And I concur, change needs to be made fast before we're overrun with more people who might, possibly, be from Mississippi.

Well, OK, we can't change our relatively mild Winters overnight but if you drive your car a little more you'll soon have warm Winters and Summers set to "blast furnace" if you believe The Warmists.  Those affordable homes? Not sustainable! Say the Urbanists. Much better to build expensive homes that the rabble can't afford inside the Loop.  Besides, as we all know, it's far better to segregate people based on race and class inside the Loop than it is to have them co-mingling in the Suburbs.  Hell, EVERYTHING is better when viewed through a new urbanist prism.

Besides, we really don't want to be on these lists anyway.  Houston's not in a green belt so feeding everyone will involve increasingly large carbon footprints. Our cool, new restaurants will be filled to the brim with slightly pudgy food bloggers taking pictures of dinner. You have to assume that, at least, half of the people coming to a "cool" city are going to be of a salad persuasion, which is going to lead to a protest outside of Vic & Anthony's over Houston's lack of vegetarian establishments. If Mayor Parker's history is any indication her first course of action will be to conduct a City funded study, I'm guessing she'll tab one of those slightly obese food bloggers to lead the charge. Of course, having no income (as food bloggers typically don't) the ultimate proposal will be to establish a fund of $800 Million to encourage vegan dining options. We'll be told, obviously, that Houstonians won't pay for it because it will be funded by a 275% restaurant tax thus ensuring that none of us can ever eat at a restaurant inside the city limits.

Houston Restaurant Week(s) will have to be relocated somewhere. Fortunately Pete Brown has offered up his Summer home in the South of France so that shouldn't be too much trouble. Houston chef's will be happy because they get a trip to the South of France, and the River Oaks people will be ecstatic because they no longer have to sit next to slightly pudgy food bloggers taking pictures of their foie gras and asking if they can have their menu because the camera lens knocked gravy all over the bloggers menu and they just have to have something to photograph at home. You know, "for the blog". The Chronicle will be ecstatic because they can outsource the picture taking (hey, they already outsourced some of their local news reporting) and soon will be able to claim 1 Trillion unique page-views to They will announce this in a press release that buries the fact their circulation has slipped to their entire staff +15.

Our new, and suddenly crowded bike lanes and walking paths (since, if you dine out, you can't afford a car) are going to lead to a requirement that EZTags be surgically implanted into our foreheads, thus allowing the City to utilize congestion tolls to prevent overuse of a public resource. Miraculously, no elected officials will get EZTag implant surgery, as their car allowances remain intact, and are financed through bike lane and walking path congestion fees. Speaking of cars, you can park yours downtown, provided you earn the GDP of Uruguay. If not however you donate your car to all of the new charities set up to encourage dining in restaurants by the poor and middle class.

After this we can get onto the serious issue of Saint Arnold's Divine Reserve rationing. With all of these new Houstonians, you get a thimble.(non-transferable) Of course, then you'll need to pay the city a beer-thimble fee to have it properly registered and licensed, and before you get your beer poured into your thimble there will be an inspection fee to ensure you don't catch e-coli and have your inner organs melt. Spec's downtown will be taking reservations, and it will take a week to get in, at which time the bottle of wine you wanted will be sold-out and there will be an 8 month wait for the new vintage to come in.

This is all terrible. We need to find out who David Crossley supports for Mayor and get them elected quickly to put a stop to this. Better yet, we can make him Mayor and all of this talk of Houston's population growth will cease overnight.

Jeff Smisek achieves his goal in making United a market leader.

In the area of fare increases they have no peer.

Fortunately, due mostly to Americans struggles through Bankruptcy, they've fallen out of the "delayed/cancelled flights" leadership role although I do still believe they are the leaders in customer complaints, although that lead is shrinking. You can see the latest complaint report here.

To top it all off, The 787, Smisek's strategical linchpin, has been temporarily grounded while Boeing tries to figure out why the planes are spontaneously combusting.

Rough start to 2013 eh?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sun Country Airlines switches Mileage Plan to Revenue Plan (UPDATED)

*Note: The post below was updated at 7:17 PM CST to add the Delta information

Courtesy of Frequently Flying comes the news that Sun Country Airlines has relaunched their Ufly awards program based solely on revenue dollars spent instead of miles.  This is something I (and many others) have predicted was coming to America for quite sometime. Although, as Frequently Flying points out, Southwest has been there for a while.

What's discouraging to me is to see the award chart that Sun Country is utilizing and realizing that award flights are soon going to be very unattainable if the other airlines follow suit.  Maybe it's just me, but the 'price' for the ticket that FF illustrates is $4,000 for a round tip awards ticket (This assumes 10 points to a dollar, and 20,000 points for redemption each  way.)  That's a very, very low valuation for points, considering you can get the same round trip flight for somewhere around $412 on AirTran (I'm assuming a Friday departure, 3 night stay using Feb-Mar as my travel months on ITA Matrix).  Under this new reality, and given the airlines increasingly treating co-branded credit card travelers as identical to elites, I see no reason to bother with Sun Country's new program at all.

We're getting close to the point (My projection is that 2014 will be the final year we'll see mileage based plans) where only full-fare business and government fare travelers will be included on any airlines 'loyalty' plan.  The age of mileage-running for points and credit card churning could very well be reaching its end.

This is not, entirely, a bad thing.

For one, travel blogging could improve.  Once mileage rewards are eliminated and credit card churns become a thing of the past the prevalence of "please click my referral links" posts on travel blogs will, most likely, go away. A second benefit could be slightly lower fares going forward. When you consider that awarded miles are a cost to the companies, it makes sense that those costs are passed on to customers. By removing attached miles to most tickets it's possible that this, and increased fare competition, would act to lower fares by (this is a guess) somewhere around 5%.  Ending complimentary upgrades might help some as well. I've a feeling the airlines would much rather fly with an empty premium seat than give it away.

The downside to all of this will be the end of complimentary upgrades (for the most part) and increased competition to find seats in economy.  The airlines, given their history, will use this to their advantage to game the system and try and force customers to pay for premium upgrades. Because of this travel booking will become more of a contact sport going forward, customer service will decline (at least on the American flag carriers) and the flight experience will become slightly more fee-based and less enjoyable.

The fact is, how we view budget airline travel is going to change rapidly once these new programs start to emerge. Having knowledge of the system is going to be key, and there will be some smart operators who leverage this and build an airline that takes advantage.  Sadly, I don't think any of the American flag carriers will lead the charge.  I have a feeling the International airlines are going to be the beneficiaries, provided their governments don't mess it up. 


After I wrote this post Delta airlines posted and then almost immediately retracted their own version of something resembling a hybrid plan.  I will admit that this is going to happen a little bit earlier than I expected, and I HOPE that United doesn't follow suit.  Hopefully Delta doesn't go forward this late in the game either. Many people already have at least part of their travel plans booked for the year and a mid-course correction could be impossible. I'll update as I can but, for right now, Delta has been silent on the matter.

Welcome to Houston our North Eastern friends.

Well, it's happened.  Over the weekend our friends from the North East have listed Houston #7 on their "46 places to visit in 2013" list which, presumably, means that a wave of New Englanders are going to be descending on our fair city to partake in the sights, sounds and entertainment that is Houston.

The release of this list has Houston media in a frenzy.  While I'm sure that you're going to receive a lot of red carpet invitations from Houstonians there are a few things about our fair city of which we probably should advise you before you book your tickets here.

 - Rent a car. For some of you, especially those who live in New York, this could be problematic. And while you're used to moving around town on foot, via cab, and by using a fairly extensive public transportation system you're going to be shocked when you come to Houston and hop aboard the toy train. While 7 miles of light rail is enough to make Houston deem its cute little transportation option a "success" somewhere around the 2nd trip you're going to get very bored with the ride from just past Reliant Stadium to the University of Houston-Downtown.  The good news is, everywhere on the train that you want to go, you can reach by car fairly simply. The bad news is, you can see better versions of many of the Museums in Houston in your home-town, so that side-trip might not be all you want it to be. But, given that only a few museums in a few cities in the world are worth vacation visits, this probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise.  Don't get me wrong, I love Houston's museum district, as someone who lives here. Were I traveling here from New England I think I might be slightly underwhelmed.  Also on the rail line is the Medical Center.  Don't get me wrong, it's great but, for reasons I hope are obvious, we hope you don't have to visit there. One last note: Don't try to make sense of Metro's bus routing.  Just don't.

 -  Don't worry if you're in Downtown at night, you didn't miss the Rapture. You're going to read in our media, and from our visitor's bureau how Downtown is grand, a veritable cornucopia of hip, urban fun. How we have the Houston Pavilions and Disco Green, so Downtown is not really a tourist paradise, especially when you're coming from Central Park and Times Square. (I know, I know, locals don't go to Times Square much but you get my drift)  You also might not be all that impressed with our theater selection, you having access to Broadway and all.  You're going to read a lot about how nice it is to stay in Downtown Houston and how many "world class" hotels we have there. Unfortunately, unless you're traveling for business, they're not really conducive to a happy family vacation.  The problem, of course, is a lack of entertainment options.  I'm sure Forever 21 is a nice store, but I would imagine that the excitement for the kiddies will wear off after the 2nd or 3rd trip through.  House of Blues?  Meh. I guess you could go bowling every night at Lucky Strike Lanes or watch the New England Patriots play in the AFC Championship game at Comcast SportsNet but you can do this at home as well.  The fact is Downtown Houston at night is the perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic urban movie scene, utterly devoid of life.

 - The places you want to go are South of Houston.  Wanna see the Texas equivalent of Coney Island (where we'll prove that everything is not bigger in Texas?) Visit Kemah, the Space Center is nice, as is Moody Gardens. Also in Galveston is The Strand which can eat up an afternoon, and The Pleasure Pier which can eat up your entertainment budget.  And remember, despite the perpetually angry hipsters at Free Press Houston declaring it the "worst park" the San Jacinto Battleground Historic Site is actually a nice place to learn about some pretty neat Texas history.  Yes, the place is polluted and if your children jump in the water they'll come out green, but it's a neat way to spend an afternoon doing the most Houston of activities: driving 2 hours to get somewhere that will take you about an hour to see.

 - Despite it's size, Houston is very small-town in thinking.  This came to me the other day while talking to a friend who now lives in London. She was back in Houston for the first time in a couple of years and, after spending two days driving around and (sadly) watching and reading the news, she realized how big the chasm was between a real "world class" city (London) and a regional city play-pretending (Houston).  You're going to find that the thinking here is different, that the so-called New Urbanists here don't really want an active, urban environment like you're used to. Instead they want an altered form of a Norman Rockwell painting returning us to a time that men wore suits in 95 degree weather. Our political scandals are amusing, but nowhere near the level of say, Chicago.  As a matter of fact, our local politics are closer to the frontier Texas, kow-tow to the local cattle-baron level (The Houston Way, for instance, is more about crony capitalism than anything else) than it is to anything resembling a political machine. (That's not a bad thing) So, when you come here, don't expect to find the burgeoning urban metropolis that's advertised, think frontier Wichita, spread-out, with spotty wi-fi, more baubles and an unusual attraction to art cars and you have Houston pretty much down pat.

In closing I think it best to say this:  Welcome to our humble abode travelers, just make sure to do a little advanced planning, budget some extra time if driving in moisture or on Sundays (we drive slow here in Space City) and dress appropriately.  If you're intent on going out on Washington Ave. for drinks make sure you wear good shoes for the game of dodge-car that's sure to follow, and hip, trendy eye wear is required apparel.  Fortunately, the Galleria has you covered on that front.

Monday, January 14, 2013

If you can't beat them pay one of them and try again...

Recently, on the Chron's paysite, there was an opposing view series of editorials discussing both the pros (authored by Court Koenning) and cons of tort reform.  Court Koenning you might know, he's been an active player in conservative politics for years and was once the Chief of Staff for State Sen. Dan Patrick before branching out on his own to form Koenning Consulting.

The "anti" tort reform opinion author might ring a bell as well.  He's Mark McCaig, one-time member of the Young Conservatives of Texas (since denounced), identified by ChronBlog as the head of something called Texans for Individual Rights which identifies itself as " a conservative, non-partisan organization dedicated to the protection of personal liberty, individuals’ access to the civil justice system, and private property rights."  In fact, McCaig is employed by Mostyn law-fim and TIR is one of many groups acting as "conservative" groups but who have ties to Democratic trial lawyer Steve Mostyn. 

Mostyn has long been one of the key player's behind the attempt to Implement the Colorado Model by Democratic operative Matt Angle who's plan to "turn Texas blue" was a failure but who's activists have seemingly switched tactics.

Note, before going any further, and before Mostyn and Co. swoop down on this little blog with an army of cease & desist orders and threats of lawsuits, I should point out that I'm not suggesting Mostyn and Co. are doing anything untoward here. As a matter of fact, I think that what they are doing is 100% on the up and up and it falls to Texas Republicans to convince their rank & file that groups such as these are really Democrats in Republican clothing.  As the old saying goes: "When fate shuts the front door, you go in  by the window" and, given the terrible state of the Texas Democratic Party right now this is probably the best path to victory available to Mostyn and his lawyer friends.

It will be interesting to see if their work continues on the campaign finance front.  If they stop donating to progressive Democrats and move their funding to create liberal Republican office holders? For that matter, will today's Republican party even consider a liberal candidate who casts himself as a conservative?  I don't think so because the Mostyn connection seems, to me, to be an automatic disqualifier.

All that said, stranger things have happened and we do live in the age of the low information voter so anything is possible.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

We'll fight for you in the legislature providing we can stay in our seats.

Last Monday I wrote about how our elected officials were no longer the adults in the room.  Near the end of that post there was a small history lesson about incivility and how we're much better off in modern times then we were in days past.

Today I'd like to add a couple more bullet points to reinforce that theory.

Clearing Texas Rape-Kit backlog brings hefty price tag. Brandi Grissom, Texas Tribune

In 2011, Texas lawmakers approved a bill by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that required law enforcement agencies to audit the number of untested rape kits in their evidence rooms and report that information to the DPS.


 in May, Davis sent a memo reminding police agencies that they were required to obey the law.

New Women's Health Program launches amid provider concerns. Ben Philpott, Texas Tribune

(State Rep) Howard was worried when she wrote a letter to the Health and Human Services Commission, or HHSC, asking for information about new providers.

Both Sen. Wendy Davis and Rep. Donna Howard are of that new breed of Texas Progressive that promises voters they will go to Austin and fight for them tooth and nail.  That is, provided they can do so while sitting behind their computer screen. (I'm sure they both have staffers who can get up and mail the letters and send the memos for them after all.)

Thankfully, no pistols or canes are involved in their actual "fighting".

All in all I'd say this is a big step UP in civility from where we used to be.  Fight on ladies, fight on.

Friday, January 11, 2013

It's all fun and games until someone cuts the 2/3 rule.

As Texas, and Texas news junkies, spiral down into the 140 days of purgatory otherwise known as the 83rd Texas Legislative Session it's probably good to try and stake out some ground and examine what's really going on behind the pink-ish walls of the State Capital.  In doing this you won't be surprised to find out that Republicans are acting like Republicans and Democrats are acting like Democrats, the former looking at the rosy revenue projections provided by the Comptroller and deciding that now is the time to look at reforming the terrible Business Margins Tax while the latter have decided that the only solution for the State that makes sense is spending every penny, raiding the Rainy Day Fund and spending all of it, and then "reforming" taxes so that they bring in even more money, which can then be spent on increased entitlements.  With that said, there's nothing new there so it's probably not of much importance, although it does give an indication that the next budget will probably be a little bigger and will (hopefully) have something in place to revamp (or eliminate) the Margins tax while reforming Texas tax code in a way that doesn't place undue burden on any one group.  I'm not holding my breath but that's the hope.

Unfortunately, Texas LockStep Political Media (TLsPM) has decided to fixate on the idea of reforming the business tax while downplaying Democratic efforts to tax "the rich" (Or, as we've seen in the Obama-led 'fiscal cliff' deal, to raise taxes on everyone).  Now, as someone who's lived in an income tax state (Missouri) I'm not entirely opposed to the idea of a State Income Tax if it's established correctly (a flat tax would be best) and it it was offset with equal reductions in property taxes.  I realize that Texas waves around it's no income tax status like a seventh flag, but the fact is that state income taxes can be written off when paying your federal income taxes up to a certain point.  What Texas would have to ensure is that the tax rate doesn't exceed that point.  The way I view it is like this:  There's a good chance that the sales tax exemption in the federal tax code is going to go away.  Currently I see no Democratic will to extend it.  If we can't deduct the bulk of our State taxes from our Federal returns going forward I do see an argument where it makes sense for us to move to a system that does so.

I'm also very sympathetic to the counter-argument against state income taxes, perhaps even more so.  The idea behind implementing a tax now is that the Republicans are in charge and would be more likely to implement something that would work.  The problem with this idea is that, eventually, the Texas Democrats are going to regain power in Texas (all politics being cyclical) and will then have an income tax in place that they can proceed to make more progressive, and job killing.  When viewed from this perspective I'm against a state income tax, and I believe this is the overriding principle for conservatives that must be followed.  As such, I'm not in favor of any deal that creates an income tax for Texas, preferring to keep the state tax structure intact. However, I am in favor of a repeal of the horrible Business Margins Tax. Even IF the income tax could be constructed properly (which I doubt) it would not stay that way and therefore is not a workable solution.  See: California.

Another issue that is, strangely, being pressed by those cloaking themselves under the conservative mantle is the abolition of the 2/3 majority rule in the State Senate.  To my way of thinking this is short-sighted thinking of a non-conservative bent.  The idea of the 2/3 rule in the Senate is simple: Make it harder to pass laws.  What it's really meant to ensure is that only laws with fairly strong bipartisan support can make it through the chamber.  If you're really a conservative, this is a good thing, and something that should not be trifled with on the whim of a Senator who's bound and determined to get his legislative priorities passed.  If Sen. Dan Patrick wants to win passage of his priorities, then craft good, solid laws that pass muster with a super-majority.  It really is that simple.

Beyond those issues, there are a host of funding priorities that are going to need to be addressed.  From education funding, the lie of 'education cuts' seems to have topped out at $5.4 Billion dollars, I'm in favor of tying increased funding to reform, especially in the area of administrative pay.  For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that school districts made about fiscal Armageddon, we still have multi-million dollar stadiums and LED displays being built, and administrative pay far outstrips teacher pay. As it stands, I'm not sold on vouchers. I realize that they're tops on the conservative wish-list, but I just don't see them as being an effective tool for anything but stripping under-performing school districts of funding.  Your mileage may vary on that, I'm still not sold but am willing to listen to arguments. Any argument must start with a convincing case that the amount of the vouchers could cover full tuition in a private school. Anything less blunts the argument of allowing poor students to escape under-performing public schools and enrolling in private institutions.

Something needs to be done about CPRIT, the State's anti-cancer slush-fund.  For all of Gov. Rick Perry's conservative bona-fides (and there are many) his moth-to-a-flame attraction to crony capitalism ($$) is a concern. I'm unsure if the health care market, with it's insistence on curing symptoms in favor of attacking cause, is the right place to handle cancer funding, but I'm sure it's better than providing grants to political cronies.

Finally, there is a Democratic bill that I like, and it pertains to ending the practice of double-dipping.  That a conservative did not author this bill should be of concern to conservatives.  It just goes to show that even bills authored for purely partisan reasons can be worthy of support.  I'd also like to see casino gambling get an up or down vote by the people, and I'd like to see an end to Blue Laws and Texas' three-tiered alcohol distribution system.  On those however I'm a realist.  I'd like to make a Million dollars per year writing a blog but I realize that has just about the same chance of happening as most of the things I've listed here.

So bring on the 83rd Lege, and let's see what they have in store for us this time around.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Something must be done! Even if it's the wrong something.

Last Friday, on their pay site and in the dead-tree edition, The Chronicle ran an AP story focusing on a recent poll around public opinion on solving the obesity "crisis". ($$$)  Given that this is a story for which the Chron is inexplicably charging for access to I went out and found the same story (for free) at the Denver Post's online site.

There's a lot in this poll that will not surprise you.  Most Americans like the idea of calorie counts on menus, we like increasing physical activity for children, and we like the idea of nutritional education for children. We don't want the government telling us what we can and can't eat, and we definitely don't want the government limiting our choices. Unfortunately, for those of a progressive persuasion, the things that we don't want are exactly what they think we need, provide what we 'need' is in line with what they 'want' that is.
What bothers me, and what is the point of this post, is the following comment by one of the poll respondents:
"That's a start," said Khadijah Al-Amin, 52, of Coatesville, Pa. "The fat content should be put up there in red letters, not just put up there. The same way they mark something that's poisonous, so when you see it, you absolutely know."

Read more: Poll: Obesity's a crisis but we want our junk food - The Denver Post
Read The Denver Post's Terms of Use of its content:
The emphasis is mine.  And therein lies the rub.  Of all the things you ingest when you eat out the fat content is probably the least of your worries.  Those who fixate on it have fallen prey to something that's called the lipid theory.  What we've found out, after years of it being applied and the nation growing fatter, is that the science behind the lipid theory is not science at all.  In fact, it's almost totally junk science. It might help at this time to take a hard look at what the lipid theory has produced:

Margarine:  Which, we now know, is less healthy than the animal lard and butter that it was intended to replace. This is mainly due to trans fats, which are nasty little things that can actually go significant damage to your heart.

"Low Fat" supermarket items:  Which are loaded down with sugar, carbohydrates and other substitutes for fat, many of which have increased the rates of diabetes to never before seen levels.

"Safe" cooking oils:  We now know that the best cooking oils are natural ones period.

As a matter of fact, were I to list the dangerous things on a mythical, fast food, menu fat content would be well down the list behind carbohydrates, sugars and artificial flavorings and colors.  This is not to say that you should go out and eat a bucket of lard. But by focusing, and singling out, fat as similar to something that's "poisonous" is just wrong.

Then there's the argument that the government, who we're now looking toward to solve all of our problems has, in large part, gotten us into this mess in the first place. By subsidizing the corn and soy farmers they have inadvertently shifted our diets from leaves to seeds.  You can read a lot more about how they've done this in Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food".  By cheapening corn the government has reduced our dietary spectrum, made our meat less healthy by switching feed-stock from grass to meal, and we haven't even gotten to the stupidity that is ethanol. As for soy, there is an increasing amount of research showing that over consumption of the bean is bad for men.  Can we really trust the same people who have done this to us to bail us out of the issue?

Finally, there's the entire issue of What is really obese, and it it really all that bad for you to be overweight?  There's no doubt that, at this time, certain diseases are called "obesity related" but the fact is many of them might not be.  First off, it has been known for years now that BMI is a terrible way to measure health.  According to BMI measurements Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster are all obese.  As a matter of fact, pretty much everyone who is not an ecotomorph is probably going to be labeled "obese" by the measurement whether they are or not.

All of this brings us back to the poll which, as we're seeing, is the opinion of people who don't fully understand what is happening in health sciences these days.  And that's not meant as a knock on the public.  In my side job, as a features writer for Iron Man Magazine, it's my job to keep at least somewhat up to date on fitness and nutrition trends, and even I struggle with weight issues mainly due to my past acceptance of the lipid theory.  How in the world do we expect people to sort through all of the government provided misinformation to make dietary changes that might not even be necessary?

Once, on Twitter, I got into a discussion with a Texas Progressive about calorie counts on menus. He, naturally, thought this was a grand idea.  Even when I started to address the accuracy of the counts, and the enormous expense on testing foods to ensure accuracy, he wasn't deterred.  He figured the food industry would absorb the cost without passing it onto the customer if only they were made to.  He didn't understand that accurately tracking calorie counts would involve new government bureaucracy that would cost a lot and, to be honest, he didn't care.  All he wanted was for "big corporations" to pay for the damage that they had (in his mind) inflicted on society. I was able to walk him through a maze of regulation and testing that ultimately would cost taxpayers Millions of dollars to implement (because, that's what it would take) and he didn't skip a beat.  "Make 'em Pay".

Sadly, it doesn't really matter if what we're making them pay for is the true problem, or that they provide the right information, or if, given societies apparent inability to correctly apply the data, it would do any good at all.

Something! Must be done!  And I have a feeling something will be done. That it's going to be another wrong something is not the problem of those who are hell-bent on making it seem like we're addressing it.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I'll take your MileagePlus status and raise you a credit card.

Yesterday, as The news for Jeff Smisek's dream plane got worse and worse, United unloaded an announcement on travel message boards regarding more changes they think you're going to like, this time regarding their boarding process.  The changes are pretty simple, they're moving from 7 boarding groups to five and the new pecking order is going to be as follows:

  • Pre-Boarding: Customers with disabilities, then Global Services and uniformed military personnel
  • Group 1: Global Services, Premier 1K, Premier Platinum, premium cabins
  • Group 2: Premier Gold, Star Gold, Premier Silver, Star Silver, MileagePlus Presidential Plus and Club cardholders, MileagePlus Explorer and Awards cardholders
  • Groups 3-5: General boarding

While I believe the future of the 787 is going to be OK, once they work out the bugs, I continue to believe that the future of United's MileagePlus program is in dire straits.  Certainly this change is not the end of the program in and of itself, but I do believe it's a significant erosion of mid-to-low level elite status, with Gold Premiers taking the biggest deduction.

Let me explain.  When flying United as a Silver Premier you basically have three perks.  One is the chance for an upgrade, two is a waiver on some bag fees, and three is a better than average chance of getting to your seat and finding ample carry-on bin space due to pre-boarding.  For Gold Premier customers you're perks are basically Silver perks with a more generous booking window (economy plus at booking rather than check-in for example) a slightly higher place on the upgrade pecking order, club access on international itineraries, and an even better chance that you'll have bin space due to a higher boarding number.  Yes, there are mileage bonuses and what-not factored in but those are the main, hard product, items that make being a MileagePlus member worth you while.

With this new boarding policy United is basically taking away pre-boarding privileges for all but Platinum, 1K and Global Services members, placing Gold and Silver Premiers on the same level with those who just happened to purchase their ticket with a United branded co-branded credit card. Given that complimentary upgrades are becoming more and more rare what with flight capacity decreases, and credit card holders get free bags and, in some cases, have greater access to United lounges than even Gold Premiers, I think United is getting to the point where Gold and Silver are just going to go away and there will be some type of credit card issued which allows for mileage bonuses, a certain number of space-available complimentary upgrades per year and even economy plus at booking.

This resolves two problems for the airlines, it cuts down on the overall member count in their frequent flier programs, and it increases the likelihood (in their eyes) that those members dropping out of the program will purchase a co-branded credit card and continue flying as normal.  Given the hub & spoke structure of airline routing, this might be a good gamble for them to make.  Airline elites are a curious bunch, they make a lot of noise about their loyalty not being properly valued but only a handful of them make an actual change when the airlines do thumb their noses at them.  Certainly, were I a Platinum Premier, I'd be happy about this because I would feel like this is a great value-add to me.  However, being a passenger who has lived in the Gold to Silver level you bet I'm unhappy.

Unhappy enough to leave the program?


And that's where the airlines win.  Flying out of Houston I have very little flexibility on most airlines other than United for my travel so it behooves me to stick with them and take whatever it is they provide to me as a "perk" and continue to watch the program erode over time. Premier status, for me (Your mileage may vary) is a side-effect of my travel and not the sole reason for it.  I travel to see interesting places and do interesting things.  The wife and I enjoy it and, for now, interesting destinations can still be had for value. Additionally, there's still a (shrinking) value-add for staying loyal to United and the Star Alliance.  That additional value is getting less and less with every "enhancement" they make to the program however and eventually it's going to disappear altogether.  At that point I, and I'm guessing many like me, will stop worrying about where we are status wise and will either drastically change our travel patterns or we'll become hyper-price conscious. Contrary to what most travel experts think, this is exactly what the airlines want.

Houston's war on all things interesting continues.

Swamplot, which is the "go-to" blog for all things Houston real-estate, ran a post on Monday regarding what appeared to be a Mini Cooper suspended on a local business wall for which the City had issued the business-owner a red-card violation of....well, we're not exactly sure which City ordinance was violated but we're sure it was one of them because a "second notice" was on the door and that can't be good.  The guess is that the issues is that the replica car hangs over the sidewalk, which could, presumably, pose a danger to the tens of pedestrians walking on the sidewalk below.

All of this led the Houston Chronicle, which used to be Houston's newspaper of record but has abdicated that throne in place of becoming Houston's leading society rag, to counter with their own story which provided further detail, without crediting the original Swamplot post one should add, explaining that the City viewed the car as a "sign" for which the company, Internum, a furniture store, had failed to receive the proper permits thus sending into a frenzy Houston's do-nothing-outside-the-box internal machinery leading to the violation notices and a whole lot of talk about proper procedures and protocols.

So far public reaction tends to be on the side of the Mini, with the overwhelming majority of respondents buzzing over the car's "cool" factor while chiding the City for doing it's level best to ensure that nothing fun or quirky happens in today's modern, world class mind you, metropolis that is Houston.  I think this cuts into a vein that runs much deeper beneath Houston's skin however and it's something that should disturb even those of a New Urbanist humor.  In short: The City is declaring a fatwa on anything that might make Houston unique.

Hear me out. 

One of the Houtopian's largest complaints about the suburbs is that they're "cookie cutter" and bland.  Fair enough, but is their anything more cookie cutter than a downtown Houston that counts as one of it's anchor tenants the House of Blues?  Forever Twenty-One?  Even on Kirby, which is a thriving, bustling "walkable-urban" (mostly) area you're more likely to be enthralled by rows and rows of corporate, strip-mall same-ness than you are cute boutiques that remind Pedestrian Pete of his 7-8 months spent in the South of France.  In fact, other than some local and chain restaurants there's very little in the Upper Kirby district that can't be found somewhere else, even other places in Houston.

Ask yourself this:  Would the beer can house or Orange Show be granted permits today?  We currently live in a city where amateur car-decorators can attach a blow-torch to a golf cart and call it an "art car", parade it through the city releasing flames that could, potentially, burn the eyebrows off of every spectator in the first three rows and the City does nothing.  Yet one company has professionals hang a mock car on a wall and everyone goes bonkers.  Can you imagine if the powers that be in Houston were in charge of Camden Lock in London? Over half of the bars would be red-carded before 6 AM on the first day.

This is not to say that all signage and creative building add-ons should be willy-nilly.  Far from it. If you don't have some regulation then people would be installing cowboy apparel and modern art everywhere and nobody wants that.  But, if a licensed sign installer does their job and installs a sign then so be it.  Of course, the City would lose money then and I think that is really the issue in the first place.  It's hard to subsidize failing downtown retail, build downtown hotels despite low occupancy rates and market for downtown residential space that few want if those businesses not in the preferred zone refuse to put money into the coffers.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Its time to jettison Twitter as political reporting tool

Today marks the first day of session for the 83rd Texas Legislature. Historically it's a day for speeches, some unintentional humor, and the election of the Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tempre etc.  In short, pomp, circumstance and little else.  This is a day tailor made for the recap blog, for hitting the highlights, for cutting out the mundane,  the boilerplate and  the parliamentary and focusing on what, if any, policy meat could be found.

For example:  The story of the day should have been Rick Perry talking about what are sure to be his legislative priorities. As expected, Perry addressed the fetal pain bill, he talked about school vouchers, and he discussed a laundry list of other issues ranging from water and transportation needs to fiscal restraint and tax relief.  In short, it was exactly the speech that you expected him to give, and one much fuller in policy than Texas lockstep political media has led you to believe he is offering. As a matter of fact, if you listen to the media, all Perry offered was abortion, drug testing for medicaid recipients and tax relief. Sadly there was more attention paid to a sweater vest  and some poor staffer who passed out during the speech  than their was policy.

As predicted, it was the race for Speaker of the House that dominated the media Twitter feeds for most of the morning. (When they weren't patting themselves on the back or continuing to be fascinated by iApple that is.) Once Straus was re-elected by acclimation the tweets of the media then went into policy wonk mode for his speech. It's interesting that Perry, who is very conservative and who the media doesn't like, gets the lightweight treatment while Straus, who's more moderate and well-liked by the media, gets his speech taken seriously.

And this is the problem with today's Texas lockstep political media.  There's not one dissenting voice out there who views things other than through hip, trendy eye-wear from the perspective of a 6th street bar.  It's too monochrome, too one-note, political reporting in Texas is more fast food than haute cuisine, it's flip-flops rather than designer shoes.  It's the easy, rim-shot, laugh in place of thoughtful commentary.

I get that poking fun at Rick Perry is amusing, and can be great entertainment, but I also understand that Perry's office is going to release the full text of his speech online and I can now go to that and read the thing for myself rather than have some folks who don't like him all that much tell me what they want it to say, or focus on what they think is important.

We're to the point, in Texas, that our political media is quickly running out of ways to keep our attention.  There are so many ways for the politicians to reach out to us directly that we really don't need to 5-30 year veteran reporter with their J-school sensibilities telling us what to think on the larger issues.  That's not to say they don't, occasionally, still serve a purpose.  On election day, for instance, they offer an invaluable service. in many ways their summaries of committee meetings can be of benefit, unless the minutes are available for public consumption, then those are out as well.

Most importantly however is that we stop paying attention to them on Twitter because, if we don't, we're going to end up thinking the Texas water shortage was solved by a staffer who collapsed while wearing a aTm sweater vest that was given to Laticia Van De Putte.

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