Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Adventures in identification (the I don't think that word means what you think it does edition)

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." -Inigo Montoya

There are two truisms you must keep in mind when speaking about Texas' Lock Step Political Media (TLSPM).

1. They've never met a government program they didn't like.
2. Any new Democratic Party advocacy group will be met with open arms and no questions.

This is why an overwhelming majority of the TLSPM news coverage coming out of the current Lege session is in favor of spending all available money, draining the rainy day fund and increasing Texas taxes to spend more.  It's also why the new Democratic "Turn Texas Blue" group Battleground Texas is being described as "grass-roots" by former Austin bureau chief (and current lefty political columnist) Richard Dunham of the Hearst Austin Bureau.  Even the National media is buying the line, choosing to ignore (along with Dunham) the organizational structure and funding behind Battleground Texas.

At heart, these are members of Obama's (successful) campaign team that are being dispatched to Texas by the DNC to make another attempt to wrest it from GOP control.  That's all well and good, but calling the group "grass-roots" gives it an authenticity that it doesn't deserve.

Another argument, and one I'm in agreement with, is that the term grassroots doesn't have any real meaning in politics any longer.  So calling a group such as Battleground Texas a grass-roots organization is meaningless.  However, that's from a political perspective.  With the low-information voter the term 'grass-roots' still has real meaning.  Why else do you think the Democrats worked so hard to get the various Tea Party organizations classified as "Astroturf" and were dead-set against letting the grass-roots moniker stick. Why else do you choose a vulgarity used by homophobes as a means of derision?

Here's where everybody is getting it wrong.

At the beginning, the Tea Party was a grass-roots movement that got co-opted by moneyed interests and players within the GOP.  In it's current iteration it's nothing more than a GOP advocacy group that veered from it's low-spending, waste-cutting message toward a no taxes at no time no matter what the cost, eat-your own pressure group designed to 'keep the Republicans in line" by advancing the interests of some small-government conservatives.  Again, this is OK, but calling the current Tea Party grass-roots isn't really right, neither is it correct to deride them as Astroturf.  What they have grown into is the fiscal equivalent of the Religious Right.  With the same ability to make or break a primary candidate.  They are a force within the GOP which has had moderate success placing candidates in several levels of government.

Which brings us back to Battleground Texas.

I don't believe, for a second, Rick Perry's assertion that Texas will "always" remain a red state.  Nor did I believe Karl Rove's declaration of a "permanent majority".  I view politics as a large pendulum that swings back and forth between Democrats and Republicans and anyone predicting the "end" of either party is either raising money through scare tactics or is revealing a political agenda.  In short: I think there's a chance Battleground Texas is going to be successful, but it's ultimately going to boil down to how successful they are identifying the right candidates, moderating their rhetoric toward the average Texas voter and bringing in cash sufficient enough to challenge Republican candidates on TV.  In order to do this, they're going to have to NOT be "grass-roots" but are going to need professional organization and financing.  Given the early evidence and the media coverage, they appear to have both already. 

I'm not sure what you call it, but it's certainly NOT "grass-roots".  It would be nice if TLSPM could get that kind of thing correct from time to time.  It's easy to understand while your gut feeling might be the old "media bias" saw, and that might play a role. But I get the impression that most of TLSPM just doesn't care about word choice or accuracy much any more.  Just get it out there seems to be the thinking, without much actual thought placed into the opinion. It's the same thing that's going on with a lot of political blogging these days.  Regurgitate, regurgitate, regurgitate.  Pimp the party line and don't worry about the details.  And, for whatever little it's worth, I'm not just singling out one party here, especially in Texas where the state of political discourse is dire.

On a related note, you have to give Battleground Texas credit, they succeeded in generating a lot of media coverage for their gambit, which will have to help for fund-raising and legitimacy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Last weekend in Las Vegas (The day after the shooting edition)

Up front, I freely admit, that I'm a fan of Las Vegas.  I also understand why many people are not.  If you have been there then you already know on which side of that fence you fall and whether or not what I'm about to write is of interest to you or not.  Hey, it's a polarizing town.  As a poker enthusiast and dedicated people watcher Las Vegas is one of my favorite travel destinations.  The wife and I never tire of the city and we find something new every time we visit.

This time, we arrived on the same day as car chase/shoot-out/explosion tragedy which pretty much dominated the conversation over the weekend.  On the other hand, given the heightened security after that mess, this was probably one of the safest weekends to find yourself on the Strip.  So, without further ado, here are some high and low points of our recent trip.

Hotel: We stayed at New York, New York Hotel and Casino taking advantage of a casino marketing invitation that averaged out to about $60/night including a $25/night 'resort fee'.  There's a lot of controversy about these fees which, in my opinion, raise very valid questions about pricing.  IMO the fee should be included as part of the room-rate since there's no way to avoid them and they allow access to what I consider to be basic hotel amenities. (pool, fitness center, online access, etc.) When evaluating room-rates I always ignore what the published rate is and calculate the deal adding in the fee to get a better idea of total cost.

As far as the hotel/casino itself is concerned it was just OK.  The front registration desk was always understaffed leading to long lines at check-in that moved very slowly.  Even showing up with ID/credit card out and ready didn't seem to speed up the progress any. Unfortunately, the marketing promo that we were promised (with the rate, and an accompanying upgrade) did not come to pass.  I had requested a King bed which they were out of, instead we got two Queen beds and a "free upgrade" to a Strip view.  In reality we got to see the roof of the hotel, the back of the mock Statue of Liberty and could hear the roller coaster quite loudly in the morning.  Added to this, the room was tiny and felt cramped.  The shampoo was terrible to the point that we went to Walgreens and purchased a travel sized shampoo of our own.  At least the beds were comfortable and they paid attention to my request for polyfill pillows for my wife's down allergy.

The casino at New York, New York is spacious, it has a good air circulation system so you don't really notice all of the smokers (unless you are sitting right next to one) and it has a good selection of games and 24 hour $5 Black Jack which seemed to be pretty popular with those who like that game. (I'm not a fan) However, there's no poker room in the casino so I spent most of my time elsewhere. Until the weekend nights*, the slots seemed to be fairly loose and at least let you play bonus games while they were draining your bankroll.  However, if you're playing slots for anything other than entertainment, you need to rethink you're gambling strategy.

One new(er) trend in the casinos of which I'm not a fan is the sudden need to have "party pits" of gaming tables surrounding dance floors for hired dancers in lingerie.  It's not that I'm a prude (this is Las Vegas after all) but I find it distracting and, especially this time, slightly uncomfortable.  What didn't help is that one of the dancing queens on the stage at NY/NY was noticeably pregnant.  If I had to guess she was late 2nd trimester.  While I'm sure that union rules required the casino to allow her to keep working, perhaps they should have had the good sense to put her in a position where she didn't have to bare (almost) all in front of thousands of drunk gamers?  I won't even talk about that in front of children (of which there were many). If you're bringing your child to Las Vegas then you deserve to have to answer the questions they're going to have about what they see.

Food: Eating in Las Vegas is always a mixed bag. You can eat VERY well on the Strip (and we did) but you are going to pay for it.  Our big meal this time was on Sunday night at Gordon Ramsay Steak in the Paris Hotel and Casino.  On our last trip we ate at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak at the MGM Grand and it was one of my best dining experiences of 2012.  Given that, I was very excited to try GR Steak as I have heard good things about it.  Unfortunately, the experience was just OK.

Our reservations were for 8:00 and, having plans that fell through earlier in the day, we arrived at 7:00 with our hats in our hands apologizing, but requesting to sit at the bar for cocktails until our table was available.  The door staff, to their credit, handled this with no problem and by 7:05 I was drinking a Vesper and the wife had a pear cider in hand while we watched the Oscars on TV.  The drinks staff at GR Steak is very efficient, very professional and staffed completely with very pretty people.  They are not, however, very chatty so don't expect to hold a long conversation with them.  That was fine with me, but your mileage may vary on that point.

At exactly 8PM our table was ready and we were brought upstairs to our semi-enclosed booth after being instructed to look at the red lights overhead, which were supposedly representative of Ramsay's hand movements when he makes his signature Beef Wellington. I didn't see it but that's OK.  As opposed to Craftsteak, with it's more muted tones and steak-house feel, GR Steak is loud and British punk.  Think Ramones meets neon lights and you get a feel for the room.  Prior to ordering your waiter will offer you the prix-fixe menus which comes with a signed picture of GR the rock star.  It's a five-course tasting menu that includes the Wellington. I passed because it's (oddly) for two only, so if one person gets it the other diner is required to eat the same thing.  Given that my wife is Celiac the tasting menu was not an option. They also roll around a "wheel of meat" cart with uncooked portions of the steak that's available for purchase.  It was a big round shiny thing with slabs of steak backed by little round mirrors and was somewhat comical.  That said, if you're a carnivore......

Speaking of my wife's dietary restrictions, GR Steak did a fine job accommodating.  We ordered the sauteed mushrooms to go with our steaks and they informed us that my wife could not eat them due to soy sauce in the marinade.  They checked everything with the kitchen that she ordered to ensure there were no issues.  They asked, when I made the reservation, if there were dietary issues so that was nice.  My wife ordered the 24oz bone-in prime rib and I had the 8oz rib cap Wagyu steak.  Both were excellent.  We also ordered whipped potatoes and sauteed spinach, both were fine.

Where I felt the restaurant fell down was in the service.  It's all very slick at GR Steak, the wine list comes in the form of an iPad that's very user friendly.  The wine list is expansive (and the layout on the iPad is by region which is nice) although not very interesting.  There are, of course, plenty of 1st classification Bordeaux's on the list for thousands of dollars a bottle, some fairly basic Italian wines and the usual assortment of Robert Parker approved wines from California, Australia and South America. I finally settled on a Chateau Fontenil 2008 Fronsac at $99.  It was a good, although not great wine that was not overly fruity or jammy but lacking the minerality needed to balance everything out.  Considering the bottle retails for around $35 it wasn't too bad of a deal in a Las Vegas restaurant setting.  The sommelier was extremely knowledgeable and very friendly, his service was perhaps the best that I received the entire night.

As is typical in a fine dining setting, we had a waiter and assistant who were serving us this evening.  Apparently, several other tables had the same waiter and assistant serving them as well because there were long stretches of time where we received no service at all.  I don't expect world class service when I'm having a steak at Outback or Texas Land and Cattle Co. but when I'm paying $300-$400 for a meal I do expect the service to be up to a certain standard.  For example: If you're going to place the water bottle and wine out of my reach on the table then I shouldn't have to either sit 5 minutes before a refill or slide around to where I can stand up and pour it myself.  On several occasions I had to do this.  As I said earlier, the booth in which we were seated was semi-enclosed with high walls separating us from the adjoining seats.  It was also semi-circular with both of us seated at the back of the curve.  After finishing my appetizer (a ricotta and egg raviolo (more on that later) I wanted some more water and had to slide around to the end of the booth, stand up and pour some for my wife and I.  This happened on multiple occasions as the waiter and his assistant were nowhere to be found. In my mind it all comes down to managing expectations.  If you're listing yourself as a fine dining experience, then the service needs to be up to that level.  When I ate at the Steakhouse at Camelot in the Excalibur Hotel & Casino for instance, it was not billed (or priced) as fine dining so I happily poured my own wine. It's also not acceptable, again in the context of fine dining, for an empty plate to sit in front of a diner for 15-20 minutes, this happened. 
I don't mean to keep comparing GR Steak to Craftsteak but such comparisons are inevitable because they are competing for the same customer, with similar price points and food. Overall the quality and taste of the food, the environment and customer service at Craftsteak was just better, the wine list was more interesting, and the braised short-rib ravioli starter that I ordered knocked the pants off of the Ramsay raviolo.

One final thing:  I don't understand the need now in restaurants for the servers to instruct diners on how to eat the food.  The food-runners did a good job explaining to us what they were placing on the table, but then they proceeded to tell us how we NEEDED to eat it.  I get that not everyone knows, when ordering a raviolo with egg, that you should cut it down the middle and mix the yolk with the brown butter to make the sauce but some of us do.   I could even understand offering the advice as a suggestion, but the commanding nature made it sound a little extreme.  Again, your mileage may vary on this matter.

Overall I rate GR Steak at a 7 out of 10, with the deducts coming on the service side.

We also ate at Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill in the MGM Grand for brunch on Sunday morning.  The wife ordered an iceberg salad & mushroom omelet, I had a bowl of their clam chowder and corned beef hash.  Both were excellent.  With drinks, coffee, food and after dinner coffee and liquor the bill only came to around $100.   I highly recommend this restaurant for a more casual meal.

Finally, we had Friday night dinner at Il Fornaio in New York, New York Casino which is a West Coast chain that served up some decent pasta.  If you're on a gluten free diet it's handy to know that they can substitute gluten free spaghetti for almost any pasta.  Again, the bill for appetizers, entrees and after dinner drinks was around $100.  Be prepared however, because most of the seating here is "outside" next to the casino floor in an effort to mimic Italian al fresco dining.  What this means is that the people watching with your meal is outstanding, but you're going to smell cigarette and cigar smoke throughout.  And, whether you like it or not, people will be watching you eat as well.

Entertainment: On this trip we didn't see any shows, although we have in the past.  I will say this, if you like Cirque du Soleil then you're probably going to like most of the shows they offer. My problem is that I've seen many of them and they are all starting to run together. The exception to this is Zumanity, which was the most disappointing Cirque show I've seen to date.  I had high hopes for it, thinking Cirque would add an interesting, more adult, twist to the standard run-of-the-mill Las Vegas topless show.  Instead we spent the whole night listening to juvenile jokes about lesbian fantasy and the supposed homophobia of the male audience with very little that could be considered romantic or seductive. It was more hype than heat with the biggest joke being that one young man didn't understand that the host for the evening was really a man in drag.  Blah.

You'll get a million offers on the street for "discounted shows".  I suggest you pass on those.  They always come with a time-share tour string attached and the shows you can see are discounted for a reason.

Finally, one of my Las Vegas rituals is to schedule an appointment at The Art of Shaving on Sunday morning for a shave and (occasionally) a haircut. It's an hour of pampering while relaxing in a barber chair.  My last barber, Wayne, summed up Las Vegas perfectly when he said "Vegas is the only town that I've seen where people bring a bunch of money they're prepared to lose."  He's dead on.  The more we travel to Las Vegas the less we gamble, but the more we do. You see people there plunking good money after bad in the slot machines hoping to win big or get back what they've already lost and that's sad.  But you're increasingly seeing people there who aren't gambling much at all and are just out to have a good time.  The casinos are responding to this by creating extravagant night clubs and massive pools where slot machines and table games used to be.  Gambling will always be a part of Vegas, and their economy relies on it. Now though, more than ever, it's a party town with much of the old style sucked out of it.  The hotels are all the same and the casinos are interchangeable.  I'm not quite convinced that this is a good thing.

*The casinos will deny this, but I'm convinced the slot machines don't pay out as much during "peak" hours. I've found this at almost every casino that I visit: At around 5PM on Friday and Saturday, the bonus games and free spin features seem to turn off almost completely.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Fear, loathing and devaluations (Or, why I'm not a fan of Hotel loyalty programs)

In the world of travel blogs there are isolated incidents (when one blogger is wronged and proceeds to tell the world how this insult was the greatest insult in the long history of travel-related insults) and then there are apocalyptic events (when an airline/hotel makes changes {usually a devaluation} in their customer loyalty program) usually leading to a system wide bitch-fest that leads to several blogs deciding that they all need to make a point by declaring their association with said company over. Yesterday's announcement by Hilton of changes in their HHonors loyalty program sparked the latter as you can see.  While granted, this has not been treated in the manner of a cut in bonus points by a branded credit card (something viewed as an ELE by referral-fee dependent travel bloggers) it did create some ripples throughout what United airlines has famously called the over-entitled elite travel community.

Before going any further I want to admit that, for the most part, I've sorta tuned this community out for a while.  Not only does hearing about every business decision as viewed from an angry customer standpoint get old, I'm halfway convinced that, with the current flow of information and exposing of deals, the blogs are doing more harm than good.  That doesn't mean that I don't keep up with the news, but I think the echo chamber has all but played its course.  Mistake fares are rapidly vanishing, the fuel dump is all but dead, and the 'tips' provided (for the most part) for getting the most out of your travel dollar are pretty much common sense.

You might not be surprised then to find out that my reaction to the Hilton HHonors program changes (which are technically a devaluation only on the higher end properties, but actually represent somewhat of a bargain on the lower end) is a big, solid Meh.  I understand that people are angry, that staying at nice hotels and taking pictures of the toiletries are a fave-rave in professional traveler land.  I get that suite upgrades are the bomb yo, and that getting a free breakfast of scrambled-boxed eggs with sausage shipped in two days ago from a processing plant in Iowa is a perk that must be saved.  I get that, and I don't begrudge anyone their feelings regarding those issues.  Different people value different things and that is why the hotel free breakfast, or a suite upgrade is worthless to me.

Don't get me wrong, I love upgrades, especially on airlines.  Even domestic Business/First upgrades on United come with perks like comfortable seats, (sometimes) meal service and an adult beverage or two to help you get a proper sleep if needed.  On my recent flight to Singapore, the wife and I scored upgrades to/from Hong Kong/Singapore which were in fully lie flat business.  This was, put simply, the best 3 hours of sleep I ever got on a plane.  Even on routes where you're not upgraded, for mid-level and above (gold and higher) premiers the ability to sit in econ+ is much preferred to being shuttled back to baggage class.

Hotel suite upgrades are usually a different beat however.  The ideal is that you're going to be placed in the Presidential suite where you might wake up naked surrounded by three European Countesses with peacocks wandering around and a tiger in your bathroom.  That dream, of course, is hooey.  The reality is you're going to get a sofa with rough fabric that was probably once the dalliance point for a weary business traveler and his escort for the night, and a desk that's designed for you to get work done. I'm on vacation, I don't want to get work done.  As a matter of fact the only benefit that I've seen (occasionally) from a suite upgrade is a nicer robe and superior bath facilities.  For someone like me, who views my hotel room as a way station on my travels; a place to sleep, shower and sit quietly on the toilet in the rare instances I've eaten something dodgy and the Imodium hasn't kicked in, as long as I have a comfortable bed, a climate control that works properly and hot water that's somewhere between scalding and tepid I'm generally pretty satisfied.

Another perk of "loyalty" is purported to be early check-in/late check-out.  But to be honest, I've rarely had a problem in this area either.  If the room isn't ready, the hotel is always more than happy to check your bags for you (and you'll usually find them in your room already when you do check in) and they'll let you use the restroom to freshen up before you go and have your first cup of coffee or a beer, depending on when you arrive.  I also have had good luck being given breakfast vouchers by being nice to front desk staff everywhere.  After being treated like the working class all day, it's amazing what a smile and personal compliment can do for your perks.
That being said, you're as likely to find me eating the free hotel breakfast as you are to find me in the fitness center taking pictures of the equipment.  It's just not something I value.

For the most part then, the Hilton HHonors devaluation means little to me.  My default booking tool is where I usually get good rates, pretty good customer service when things go pear shaped, and one free night for every ten nights stayed through their welcome rewards program.  I'm also given the option to stay in hotels that are not part of a chain, and I've found those stays to be some of the most rewarding of all.

To be sure, I don't blame the hotel loyalists for their grousing. After all, any devaluation to a program is a bad thing and goodness knows I've been guilty of piling on United for their changes to MileagePlus. But after all is said and done I've constantly reiterated my willingness to stick with Smisek and Co. for two important reasons: 1. Their program is still pretty good and 2. Their route network out of Houston cannot be matched. I imagine that you'll see the same sort of thing play out here.  After all of the initial bitching and moaning HHonors will up the sign-on bonus and the referral payouts to their branded credit cards and most of these bloggers will find a reason to do business with them again.

And so it goes.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Adventures in identification (Part: I'm losing count)

They never cease to amaze me, Texas Lock Step Political Media.  Perhaps this perpetual amazement is a sign of irrational optimism I'm not sure. But every time I check my news feeds I'm dismayed that the arbiters of what passes for truth in Texas politics have gone and done it again.  I'm not sure where in Austin they are meeting to discuss how to identify ideological groups, or what they're drinking when they do meet, but whatever the drink it must have some ability to diminish one's ability for free thinking and intellectual honesty.

How else can you explain Wednesday's constant mis-identification of the Progressive advocacy group Texas Freedom Network from multiple sources, all using what is basically the same descriptor?  If not outright colluding they have to at least be sharing notes right?

First up is Dallas Morning News reporter Christy Hoppe, who has never met a group she considers progressive, choosing to punt, by not identifying them at all, except by name.  Can you imagine her doing the same for the Conservative Texas Right to Life?  Of course not.  It's quite possible that Hoppe either missed the meeting or didn't get the message, because two other reporters in Texas certainly did.  Both The Austin American Statesman's Chuck Lindell and Hearst Corp's Peggy Fikac decided that the groups' self-description as a "watch-dog monitoring far-right issues" was sufficient enough to give readers a clear picture of a group co-founded by Democratic Party activist, progressive and wanna-be (by many Democrats) future Texas (D)Gubernatorial candidate Cecile Richards. That's like saying PeTA is a group that monitors animal issues.  While technically accurate it omits a hell of a lot.  Even the former alternative news publication, and now glorified gossip blog Houston Press Hair Balls had the decency to call the group left-leaning, and even that's wrong.  "Left leaning" is all soft and fuzzy, indicating a type of PR driven Bill Clinton 3rd way approach.  It's the kind of stuff that indicates this is a group that would support work-fare reforms in return for concessions on the minimum wage.

Of course, it's not really all that balanced to identify them to the left of Lenin either.  The fact is most committed communists aren't really communists these days, and the ideals of socialism have been buried underneath the shouting of Hannity and Co. Nor is this group really liberal, a term which has no real meaning any longer as far as modern political practitioners.  Nope, what the group is, is solidly progressive.  Progressive without apology I might add.  And that's OK, because I think it fair for the media to point out when a group is progressive in idealism. Of course, Progressivism has it's own baggage to carry around. Most people think of it as liberalism, which it is most certainly not. While liberalism and progressivism do share some common goals, the "how" between the two is decidedly different. While a classical liberal would be a fan of free trade and a fair and free economy, the progressive is more likely to be populist and controlling.  Where liberalism is/was all about equality (and no Republicans, you are not the linear descendants of liberalism so stop it.) progressivism is actually very elitist in nature.  It assumes that progressive ideals are somehow elevated above others and that only the enlightened few can rule the masses. In a way, it's a humanist yen to theocracy's yang. This, in part, explains why the progressive movement is so hostile to the religious right, both groups want to place their godhead on the throne.

The problem is not with progressivism then, but in how the media are defining progressive groups. In other words, instead of calling them left-leaning how about owning up to the truth by calling them the "progressive Texas Freedom Network"  then follow that up by correctly identifying the "conservative Heritage Foundation" and just leave it at that.  Drop all of the "far-right" or "center-left" nonsense and just call them what they are.

Because here's the problem:  Within the political spectrum "social conservatives", "fiscal conservatives", "social progressives" and "fiscal progressives" are now pretty much all mainstream. (Quick note: being in the minority does not make someone "outside of the mainstream" that's a stupid, silly argument proffered up by partisan spin-doctors who understand that J-school grads with no grasp of real life are going to buy it) By refusing to classify progressive groups as progressive and by classifying everything to the right of Blue Dog ideology as "far-right" Texas' lock step political media is doing the state yet another disservice. It's the type of reporting that leads to the acceptance of ideas like amending the Constitution to limit free speech and the idea that certain Presidents are the nation's daddy. It also does the unfortunate work of allowing marginal candidates to claim their opponents are somehow "outside the mainstream" despite seeing 60% support in pre-election polls.

None of this should be taken as questioning the validity of the poll in question, but it does mean that the group's agenda has to be taken into consideration.  If the progressive greens can disparage polls commissioned by the Oil and Gas industry as biased because of the funding then why can't the other side be offered the same opportunity?  In many cases, it's because the reporters in question have been allowed to get away with burying uncomfortable facts about causes with which they hold some sympathy. If you're so partisan and simple as to believe bias lies in only bashing Republicans and hold up every negative article toward the Democrats as proof of case bias doesn't exist then all of this I just said will fly over your level of understanding.  If you're a Republican who's retreated to the world of Fox News and talk radio you're probably going to miss this point as well.

The secret is not just to insist that all progressive groups are labelled as such, but to insist that conservative groups are as well.  If the media can't get the basic facts such as ideological position correct (and I'm not talking about the silly "non-partisan" disclaimers here, but true ideology) then they might as well give it up and dedicate all of their resources to side-boob shots and star-catching.  Texas media consumers will just have to retreat to the Newsish sites and apply the appropriate filters.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Houston Should just tell the USOC no and be done with it

It's that time again, time for the USOC to go out begging cities to raise Millions of dollars in attempts to bring home the Games.  This is sure to cause the Apple Dumpling Gang to get the vapors, and I'm sure that Houston's New Urbanist denizens will be awash with joy over the prospect of an East End revitalization of the type London experienced with the construction of the athlete's village and all.  Plus, nothing says "world class" like bringing the world to Houston to participate in the bi-annual "will they or won't they test positive for PED's" fest that has become the Olympic Games.

In the linked article it stated that New York and Chicago each spent an estimated $10 Million on their prior bids alone, that figure doesn't account for the massive amount of infrastructure spending Houston would need to complete in order actually put the games on.  I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong.  No we don't have a stadium in place that can handle track n' field.  If you read in the comments a smart reader rightly points out that the footprint of Reliant is not near wide enough.  Therefore an entirely new stadium will have to be built that will be instantly obsolete because there is no professional team that could use it.  Yes, there's the Alkek Velodrome, and that would work fine, but you can't exactly white-water down a bayou so an artificial course would have to be constructed, and there's no hill to build it on unless you want to shut down the Galveston Causeway and have them shoot down that.

Houston has no Olympic-quality swimming venue, no Olympic-quality tennis venue and do you really want to see Olympic wrestling at Hofheinz?  Now granted, we could probably host the shooting events in a decent venue, as long as we allow the public to participate.  More importantly, where are we going to hold Badminten?  Didn't think of that did you? I haven't even gotten to field hockey and hand ball yet, or water polo even.

Fortunately, there are several events, given their interest level in America, that you can pretty much shoe-horn in anywhere expecting attendance levels to be minimal.  Air Pistol could probably be held in the gym of a local Jr. High and, given the recent turn of bad press of late, weightlifting could probably be held at a local VA club.

The bigger problem is the infrastructure, and holding an Olympic Games in Houston would require quite a bit of it. I'm not sure who would get duped into being the one to tell Hakeem Olajuwon that all his valuable parking lots need to be seized so Jacques Rogge can have his palace built for him but that couldn't be a fun job. And sorry all you small businesses who bought into the East End hype, you're out so McDonald's can build the athlete's food court. Then there's the problem of transportation.  What if, as has been rumored, Metro decides to add advertisements to their buses and the advertisers aren't Olympic sponsors?  Uh Oh.

So, to recap...The USOC is asking Houston to spend Millions of dollars to bid for an event that's going to cost Billions, is going to require the building on infrastructure and stadiums that no one wants or particularly needs for an athletic event that is going to see around half of its results vacated due to the use of performance enhancing drugs.

The good news is, as Mitt Romney demonstrated, there's no longer a political benefit for those attached to these Games so I'd guess the USOC now has a better than 50% chance of being ignored.  Rahm Emmanuel sees that way at least.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Giving World Class Gondola

I don't know about you, but I found myself severely depressed while reading today's Texas Watchdog story (by Mark Lisheron) outlining Round Rock's idea for building a gondola for public transportation.  Given my image as being starkly anti-public transit you might think my sad feelings spring from what I view as a terrible waste of taxpayer dollars on yet another boondoggle of a transit plan.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  What actually depressed me was that Houston didn't think of this years ago, instead choosing to build 7 miles of toy train as it's terminally poor transit backbone.

We used to live in a city that imagined the Astrodome and made it so, that had a downtown Foley's with such a unique conveyor belt system that it was the wonder of the retailing world. Sadly, that Houston has been replaced by a Brown and White vision so milquetoast that it's one claim to fame is a doggy-poop park where a Sunday farmer's market and Thursday evening viewings of mediocre 80's films are the cultural high point.  It didn't have to be this way, Houston could have been a transit innovator building something that would have been the envy of every city in the flat, snow-less, mountain-less South.

You may think I'm poking fun but I'm being not at all unserious here. While the MetroRail has been given the moniker of "DangerTrain" due to its annoying habit of running over automobiles and pedestrians, it would have been a feature (not a bug) of the gondola system to take cars off the road. Remember former Metro Police Chief (and current Interim Metro top-dog) Tom Lambert's much mocked SWAT team?  Yes they are mostly relegated these days to conducting drills and providing cool back-drop for photo-ops but they could have been placed in prime-position on specially marked gondola cupolas where, with the aid of high-powered sniper rifles, they could take pot-shots at vehicles on Main Street with exhaust problems. This could have served an entertainment function as well.  Make say, one out of every 20 rounds an incendiary round and all of the downtown worker bees could celebrate a carbecue.  During the two-weeks or so that Houston's temperatures turn cold in the winter the homeless population would benefit as well.

Not too long ago ChronBlog was ecstatic that Houston got its own superhero.  Sadly, living in Houston, this knock-off of Spiderman with insecurity issues so deep they could have struck oil (perfect for Houston when you think about it) faces a lifetime of hailing Yellow Cabs and navigating Metro's ridiculous bus route map in order to get to City Hall and thwart the diabolical plans of Bayou Man.  With an elevated gondola system in place Mr. Spider could easily affix his web to the hair of a medical center N.P. while hustling over to the downtown transit center to take a bus to City Hall where he would arrive 30 minutes after the explosion instead of 1 hour using the current system.

Then there's the Houston Live Stock Show and Rodeo.  Instead of piling onto the train and riding through pretty much nothing on the way to Reliant Center, weekend cowboys who drove downtown in their sparkling clean pick-up trucks with shiny chrome trailer hitches festooned with plastic bull testes could take tobacco juice pot-shots at the PeTA protesters who, having met up at Mongoose vs. Cobra, would be marching down Fannin toward Reliant Center before getting lost in a cannabis fog.  I don't know about you, but the idea of a greenist hipster screaming after getting hit in the face by projectile spitting is way more entertaining than watching Billy-Bob Cowboy jump off his horse and wrestle a baby calf to the ground.  As in bull riding, at least the hipster has a fighting chance.

In addition to all of that, the pedestrian mall on Main Street could have remained a street, improving mobility downtown and eliminating the need for the financial black hole that is Houston Pavilions.  Of course, those who enjoy gourmet bowling would be chuffed about that, as would the tens of people who frequent Forever XXI. On the bright side, the House of Blues would be located somewhere accessible.  This would also save the University of Houston-Downtown from the embarrassment of having to constantly accept almost-empty trains every 15 minutes.

Yup, Houston really missed the boat with this one, choosing to build a train that gets shut down by the debilitating force of a spring shower instead of something that would truly be innovative.  This is what happens when you let the chronically dull take the lead in your transportation plans.  I'm looking at you Crossley.

Silence is not always golden.

When we were all children there were times when our parents reminded us that "silence is golden" that we should be "seen and not heard" lest we went home and faced the prospect of their hand on our bottoms.  Of course, spanking one's child now is viewed as something worse than starving them so that threat is out the window but the old mythology lives on. 

Of course, you weren't supposed to stay silent should you say, notice that the roast in the oven is burning or that you accidentally might have let the dogs into the tulips your parents just spent all day planting, but as an overall rule, during social situations when the adults were speaking, we were supposed to stay silent as a mouse and only speak when spoken to.

Amusingly, there are times when the rank & file of our two main political parties wish their elected officials, or prospective elected officials would just shut up and flash back to those times of their youth.  To my way of thinking, this is a horrible idea.  For all of those Republicans aghast that Todd Akin was a vocal idiot who most likely played a (small) role in costing them control of the Senate there were those of us who were happy he piped up, if only to keep someone with his beliefs from having a vote that could, in many ways, have an effect on us.  Yes, Republicans failed to gain the Senate, but we were also able to prevent a six year National embarassment from occuring, limiting the damage to Colorado where everyone is now either stoned or suffering from oxygen deprivation so it doesn't matter anyway.

Gaffes on the Democratic side of the aisle have been just as illuminating. Democratic Rep Joe Salazar thinks women are too batty to own a gun, Democratic Rep Hank Johnson think the US Navy can tip over Guam unfortunately, he also thinks it would be a swell idea to amend the Constitution to restrict free speech. That just goes to show you that some gaffes are funny, some are scary.

Which brings us (finally) to the point of this post and things said by Texans over the past week.

The first is from Democratic Rep Senfronia Thompson, who has a history of mildly humorous grandstanding weighed in this week with the laugher of a suggestion that expanding liquor sales to Sunday is a 'family friendly' item. You know, Scotch Sunday's "for the children."  Of course, I'm not opposed to the repeal of this blue law but it would be anti-family for my family.  As it currently stands the wife has a guaranteed day of the week off from work.  If this passed she would lose that.

The second quote is a little less funny.  It's from Democratic Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings who made the following comments in regards to Texas water regulations:

Texas Lawmakers take-up $2B Water Bill, Chris Tomlinson AP via Fort Worth Star-Telegram)*

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called on lawmakers to change the permitting process to make it easier and cheaper to build new water facilities. He cited the experience of Dallas, which tried to build a new reservoir on the Neches River called Lake Fastrill. The city spent millions of dollars on developing the project, filing permits and ultimately on litigation, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule against the city, killing the project. "The lengthy permitting process creates a situation where local governments must make a wager on getting water," Rawlings said. "If we don't deal with these water needs, in 2060 it will cost us about half a million jobs in the area and $64 billion in projected income."
What Mayor Rawlings omits is the fact that the land in question where Lake Fastrill was scheduled to be located had already been scheduled as a wildlife refuge by the US Department of Fish & Wildlife  as this wound through the courts it really looked like Dallas trying to impose it's will on other communities without really asking them for much input.  That people were going to lose their residences and property to this project, and that it is difficult for an entity to do that, is the crux of his argument. He also fails to admit that, while he's wanting to make it easier to deprive people of house and home, he's working to make it harder to start a small business in his city due to an influx of 'new urban' regulation.

That's why I remind you today that what we really want is to hear, loud and clear, what our elected representatives are saying and also what they really mean.  Too often however the media decides their job is not to focus on the issues but to bring us the silly while the serious is under reported.  The easy out is to make fun of 'low information voters' and to characterize the other side as a bunch of mouth-breathing simpletons who have to be given phones to ensure their vote.  It's easy but it's misguided.  The real response is to blame those who know better and are supposed to have the public interest at heart.

This assumes that today's modern media are still practicing journalism, and aren't sales persons trying to increase viewership to drive up ad rates.  The first question is: Why are we allowing these private companies such unfettered access into our lives if they're not going to do the jobs they're supposed to do?**  The second is: If they're not going to report the news, why in the hell are we paying attention to them anyway?

*I should note that I found this piece originally on, the Chron's paysite.  However, since it was an AP report (which I thought they weren't hiding behind the wall) I went out and found the same story on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  Since it was not behind a paywall I feel the small quote here is well within fair use.

**I'm not saying that media should be restricted.  We all know that's a First Amendment right.  Just to clarify. I just mean that, as private citizens, we need to understand what they are and respond in kind.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Why is Texas creating something it already has?

Upon reading that They Mayors of Houston and Dallas came out in support for creating a $2 Billion fund to be dubbed the "State Water Infrastructure Fund for Texas" (SWIFT as in, how swiftly can we blow through $2 Billion one guesses) I first thought back to other State grant programs and how well they were working.

CPRIT?  Ummm...Errr
The Texas Enterprise Fund? Comparatively it's not THAT bad...
Texas Emerging Technology Fund? Eww, no maybe not.

The point it Texas Republicans suddenly have it in their minds that the local grant-based model of solving government's problems is the way to go.  That somehow creating a well-funded organization with limited oversight and lacking strong institutional controls (and with a fuzzy mission statement) is a good way to pay for basic infrastructure needs State wide.  That this has not materialized in other examples is a prime example of repeating the same actions but expecting differing results.  For those of you not paying attention that's the definition of insanity.

To me, SWIFT seems doubly insane because Texas is on the verge of creating a program that already exists.  At least, according to the Texas Water Development Board it exists, and they're estimating $53 Billion will be needed by State and local water boards between 2010 and 2060 to meet Texas additional water demands.  One assumes this doesn't include the cost of fixing leaky water systems, a problem that caused Houston to enact a drainage charge that's going to generate so much revenue for water projects (presumably) that it will soon dwarf the gross domestic product of North Dakota.

Which still leaves us with the problem of the existing Water Infrastructure Fund, created in 2001 by the 77th Lege.  Is the reporting incorrect? (not unheard of in Texas) Or have legislators just forgot that the thing is there in the first place? (Also, not unheard of)  Or are we creating another funding tier inside an outside shell?  (The TWIF-SWIFT if you will?)  It's all very confusing and, to be quite honest, very poorly reported and thought out.

Because of this I decided to go read the original bill and discovered that the "fund" they are talking about creating is indeed a sub-fund that is housed inside the Water Development Fund.  So this initial $2 Billion in 'seed money' will be used to supplement additional funds that are already in place. Except that, the monies in this fund will be administered by a board (which, not reported, has the authority to issue bonds for funding) whose primary job will be to redistribute the money into the already existing funds (their legislative authorizations altered to allow them to accept this money) to send money out for projects related to additional water facilities, education programs regarding water facilities, conservation and reuse initiatives.  In other words: Texas is creating an entirely new level of unelected bureaucrat inside the existing bureaucracy of the Texas Water Development Board.  This "new" group of unelected "experts" will be appointed by the Speaker of the House, the Lieutenant Governor and the Governor.

One of the biggest arguments that Democrats (especially Texas Democrats) use when describing the Republican Party is that for all of their wailing and complaining about fiscal discipline they don't really show much themselves when they decide to act. Of course, on the flip-side, the second biggest argument against that they make is that Republicans won't spend every dime on the table and then raise taxes more (on the rich or those evil, job-providing businesses) in order to spend even more so there's that to consider.  However, in this case the Democrats just may have found the one time of the day their stopped clock is bang-on.

This law, as currently written, is a waste of time, resources and, given past history, potentially taxpayer money. I've said all-along that I believe there are certain things that government at each level does well, and that they should focus on those things before contemplating all others.  At the local level, first responders and local infrastructure should be key.  I like the idea of rebuild Houston but I dislike how the City focused on it (sorta, there's still really no plan to spend the money) after worrying about trinkets such as sports stadiums and doggy parks. At the State level, anything involving intra-State transportation and commerce.  This includes roads and, yes, State water supplies. At the federal level national defense (both military and domestic) and providing us with a good laugh every time Rep. Jackson-Lee speaks is sufficient. If we can occasionally fret over the tipping of Guam by the US Navy that's a bonus.

The problem is, in Texas, we've gotten so adverse to having government do ANYTHING that we're becoming complacent with it doing nothing.  I'm not recommending that Texas go out and develop a Trillion dollar plan for water, but it sure seems like the fix for the problem requires more coordination than just a few people sitting in a room deciding what's best for all Texans doesn't it?  That's exactly what we're going to get however and, while on one hand criticizing the existing grant plans, the state's lockstep political media will be cheering this on madly, and won't even come close to realizing why that's so wrong.

The Chronicle's post NBA All-star hangover resolved with calls for central planning

It appears that the poor, star-struck media types at the Chronicle are in somewhat of a funk now that all the stars have left Houston, seemingly without a one declaring us to be the world class Houtopia they so desperately yearn for us to be. ($$$) But OH! (Sorry, channelled Lisa Gray there for a minute) what a weekend we had.

Ignore for a minute that Houston's infrastructure pretty much ground to a halt, that the roads around the Galleria were impassible and that "most" Houstonians chose to avoid the downtown and Galleria areas like the plague, as you read in the above pay-walled editorial Houston has "made its point" that we should get the Super Bowl (again) including all of the Pimp & Ho balls and flown in prostitutes that we can handle.

And it's not just the Chron, several local media outlets provided almost breathless, fawning coverage of the weekend that was.  And who can blame them?  The NBA All-Star game brought real celebrities to Houston, much more fun to cover than Whats-her-name Rose or Chloe Dao or a host of other D to E list celebrities that they usually have to cover.  This was a chance to maybe, possibly bump into a real star upon passing by.  Maybe even Beyonce! (Sorry, Gray again) Now we're stuck with the funk.  A post celebrity hang-over if you will which has the editorial folks at the Chron realizing that this fun-factory won't last forever and that something new and exciting needs to take place in order for the stars to come back.  Houston's media need celebrity like the Kardashians need attention. It's hard-wired into their DNA.

While most people rehydrate and take a vitamin B complex as a hangover cure, the juice that Houston needs (according to the Chron Ed Board) is a rather large (and presumably expensive) program to re-engineer Downtown's East side.  Now, you might think this odd, considering we were told that the building of Dynamo Stadium would generate Trillions of dollars of income and revitalise the area, the idea of spending even more money to accomplish what the first money didn't but, to urban planners, this is exactly the right thing to do.

The problem you see, although it is unspoken, is that the economic resurgence we're seeing is of the wrong type.  In other words, the wrong people are benefiting.

It's very easy for Houtopians to lay out a laundry list of good things that they wish to accomplish and, on the surface, they sound grand.  I'm of the firm belief that most of this lot are good people who really want to see blighted neighborhoods improved for the good of the community.  My problem lies with their vision and what they see as the community. While it is true that I view the motives of many "activists" with a jaundiced eye for the most part I think the average person who isn't a part of some "urbanist-activist" group really does have pure motives for what they are wanting.

When it comes to the "acitivsts" group however, that's a different story. In theory, new urbanism is pretty simple. At heart it's about building a bunch of things that Caucasian progressives like very much.  It's all about complete streets and urban lofts and coffee shops "like the kind you find in Paris" and trains that that can be taken to downtown, office jobs. To the true believers, this is what the next urban dynamic should be.  Of course, if minority groups reside in a central neighborhood with the right type of historic housing and a good road infrastructure with access to job centers (i.e. The Heights) then those can be easily gentrified (except in the case of the The 3rd Ward, where Garnett Coleman is a one person firewall against re-honkification) to keep the bungalows and cottages minus those distracting poor minority groups of course.  And what of the areas, such as the East End, where the houses are not so charming?  Well, in those cases the neighborhoods must go and "multi-unit" housing (preferably high end) needs to move in.

And what's to become of the displaced minorities? (who, to be fair, probably have some money since they sold their house for way more than what they paid for it)  Well, they can re-locate to the suburbs, and they're doing so, in large numbers. I, and others, have stated before these relocation patterns have been great for the 'burbs leading to new businesses popping up everywhere.  Of course, this has led to a different dynamic in the city center, which appears to be just what the new urbanists are looking for.

In closing, I should point out the first candidate in 2013 for most useless opinion piece ever. Frank M. K. Liu's 1 1/2 paragraph "I'm a capitalist but..." missive doesn't even rise to the level of a joke.  It's embarrassing for him and it should be for the Chron's opinion page staff. This doesn't even qualify as a letter to the editor, much less a well reasoned entry into the public debate.

Shame on you ChronBlog, hope you're hangover is better though, becasue that's the only reason I can find for only presenting one side of the debate on your editorial pages and letting the Liu piece get in at all.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A pair of boobs.

One literal as continues to publish skimpily clad Houston women in their continuing onward rush toward irrelevancy. (On another note, if every Houston "big" event requires the objectification of women then I feel better about passing on these things.  And I'm one who's been said to posses "thinly veiled misogyny" by some on the left because they ran an unqualified female candidate for Statewide office to boot so make of that what you will.)

One figurative as Paul Burka continues to take a look at Texas politics and come up with the wrong sets of questions and answers.  It's not that Julian Castro can't beat Dewhurst in a race (although I think it's highly unlikely that he would) it's that Burka is missing the obvious here.

It's not whether or not the "D's" have a shot at Dewhurst it's whether or not any "R's" do.

I'm constantly amazed that Texas' Lockstep Political Media doesn't understand that.  Instead we're given a breathless recap telling us what we already know, Julian Castro is the state's most popular Democrat who one day could possibly make a strong run for state-wide office.

Where have we read that book before?

A more likely scenario, for the next election cycle, is that Dewhurst will spend a lot of resources fighting off a pretty strong slate of primary challengers who will all run sharply to the right.  Who these people are is not being discussed much in the media partly because, in my opinion, TLPM doesn't have any clue themselves who those candidates are likely to be.  It's very easy to sit at your desk, look at a poll and write out a column.  It's much harder to go out and do some field research (especially with the 'other side') to try and determine what is really going on within the state's dominant party.  Doing grunt work such as that is not in Burka's DNA.  It's just not.

Maybe it's time for Texas Monthly to start focusing more on the side-boob?  They already have one boob in full view of the public it seems.

The US Airline Industry: It was always going to come to this.

With yesterday's news that US Airways and American are going to stop courting and get around to the hanky panky of merging it seems that almost every travel blogger worth their salt is taking the opportunity to weigh in on what this means for the consumer or, more accurately, what they hope it means.

As with any merger we're hearing talk, from the airlines, of stunning new efficiencies that are going to open up a world of possibilities and wonderful new flight options powered seemingly by fairy farts and unicorn pee.  This great new behemoth of an airline (the combined airline will replace United as the US largest carrier) will suddenly gain advantages over its competitors that did not previously exist (some of this is true due to scale) and flying will, once again (?) become a kumbaiyah moment for customers once they get past the gauntlet of TSA security theater.

The travel bloggers seem to be taking a more modest tack on this one, hoping for the best while expecting the worst and, to be honest, you really can't blame them.  After all, many are still reeling from the United/Continental merger which has resulted in fewer routes, reduced benefits, higher prices, and the beginnings of a gutting of one of the best loyalty programs around. Of course, you have to give United a small break, since they're spending a lot of time working with their vendor to keep their newest flagship plane from melting.

To my way of thinking this merger was the final step into the long path of inevitability once the airlines decided that networked alliances were the right thing to do.  The problem, after the United/Continental merger, was that you had three alliances, OneWorld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance working with four US Domestic airlines:  American, Delta, United and US Airways.  Since US Airways was tucked in under "United's" Star Alliance they always felt like the little guy jumping up and down in the corner desperately vying for attention.  And while I don't think that this merger will do much good for the consumer long-term, I do believe that it will be good for the respective airlines and will position them to really leverage stronger hubs to higher prices across the board. I think we'll see the first true revenue-based "loyalty" program emerge from this, and I truly believe that the budget carriers are going to benefit the most due to some new flexibility that they're going to have in marketing "bargain" pricing. As the ceiling raises, so does the floor.

In Houston I don't think we're going to fell much of anything from this merger, neither airline has much of a presence here and there's little chance they'd take whatever combination emerges and make a strong run at United.  The power of the hub is strong and will become even more so after this.  If you're a United Premier member you have to think that Star Alliance will take a small hit, as US Airways was always good for the occasional cheap fare to Europe but not much else.

Dallas is going to be where all of the Texas fun is.  I haven't seen or heard where the new airline is going to be headquartered but I'm guessing Dallas is going to be the location.  If they do move to South Carolina however it will be fun to see if Big D reacts in the same childish manner as did Houston when Continental left town.  The routing is also going to be interesting from there,  as are what the new livery looks like (I can't imagine them sticking with American's new disaster*) and the make-up of the management team.  It's assumed that US Airways management will run the combined company and I wonder whether or not they're going to really try and brand this new company as a tail-flag brand?

Besides that everything "fits" now in the US Airline industry.  This is something that may, or may not, cause some stability to take over for a while.  Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen but, in my experience, there's nothing more dangerous than a VP with some extra time on their hands and with mergers probably off the table for a while they're going to have a lot of that.

*For the record: I don't HATE American's new livery but I'm not terribly excited about it. The problem that their having is that most of their customer base DOES hate it. I'll be surprised if it survives.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Missing Houston's Mainstream Meme

Somebody needs to reach out and offer some assistance to Brian Caswell and Bill Floyd.  They have a great idea in opening a merged concept restaurant within the Houston Airport System but they've really dropped the buzz ball here by deciding to build out within Intercontinental Airport Terminal B.

IAH is yesterday's news.  It's so former Continental when compared to the new, exciting soon-to-be Hobby International.  By launching at InterContinental Caswell & Co are going to miss out on Billions in business dollars that are going to be available due to a sudden influx of South American business persons laying over at HOU in order to be re-cattled into planes with few amenities in order to be shuttled to other domestic destinations.

Heck, even United has said that Phase II of the Terminal B expansion is not going to happen.  As a matter of fact, if you listen to the Chron.commenters on almost every United story running on the Chron's site it's just a matter of time before United goes belly-up because a few dozen Houstonians have decided to switch their business elsewhere.  And good on 'em.  What are job-losses in the thousands when a city's fragile pride is at stake?

This surprises me a little because Caswell, except for Stella Sola, has been one with his ear to Houston's social tango.  He's someone who, for the most part (when he's not misunderstanding people's points and telling them to leave Houston that is), "gets" where Houston's movers and shakers want to be.

I can understand someone like Johnny Hernandez, of San Antonio fame, not "getting" Houston's social scene. After all, San Antonio only has one airport available for use by the general public so he wouldn't understand the need to keep current on these matters.  Caswell & Floyd however are a different breed.  They should understand where Houston is going and they should get that Hobby is now the preferred location of departure for the powers that be.  So why aren't they jumping at that chance?

Of course, there IS also the possibility that Caswell and Floyd are pretty smart guys and understand that IAH will remain the dominant player in the region despite HOU offering up a few more slots allowing people to cattle themselves to what is basically going to be Mexico and a few other periphery destinations.

Given that the best dining option in Terminal B is currently Scholtzky's, I welcome Caswell & Floyd to the Terminal.  Now, if we can just get a decent bar in there we'll be onto something.

On City/Corporate naming rights, why settle for playing defense?

So, an online dating site has offered the City of Sugarland $500K to change their name to which has the Houston Business Journal harnessing their creative side in order to offer suggestions for other Houston area cities to follow suit. (I'm especially fond of Clearasil Lake City)  And while I agree with the HBJ that the idea has some merit, I feel that $500K is way to small of an amount for what is, essentially, advertising in perpetuity, and would also require taxpayer expenditures in order to change the signage, letterhead etc.

I think however, that the real opportunity here is in becoming the aggressor and finding these branding opportunities instead of having companies just come to us with products for which we might not have any interest in the first place.

Changing the name of Huntsville to "Heinz' Ketchup Ville" sounds OK on the surface, but what if they went totally outside the box and changed their name to "Microsoft?"  Who says the names in question need to match up with the corporations involved?  Wouldn't it be better to try and curry some political favor by actively seeking out companies given taxpayer subsidies through the emerging technology fund?

I don't know about you but I think Houston is ideally situated to capture emerging economies in Central and South America.  We already know that "EaDo" is a terrible name for the area encompassing Eastern Downtown Houston and it's surrounding area, so how about renaming it "Bimbo Downtown Houston?"  If you don't like that, PEMEX Houston could work as well.  The good folks on Washington Ave. need to be talking to Pabst Blue Ribbon if they aren't already, and River Oaks should be in serious discussions with Rolls Royce if, for no other reason, than preventing Maserati from stepping in.  And if we don't sign up Lionel to sponsor MetroRail we're failing as a city.

I think it goes without saying that the biggest renaming opportunity of all has yet to be discussed.  Given the obsession with celebrity that's currently holding Houston's media and hip-class in thrall it's quite obvious that we all should be living in Beyonce, TX.

Granted, Bimbo Downtown Beyonce would be out, but suddenly Cover Girl would be a shoe-in.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lisa Gray suggests Houstone Tango Blast as a foundation for "world class" culture.

Of course, it's hidden behind the Chron's new paywall, which ensures few will read it, but the Chron's Lisa Gray took a lot out of some gang graffiti and decided to use it to define Houston culture. 

And what IS Houston culture?  Well, we're given a pass, seemingly deemed too adolescent to rise to the level of our (supposedly) intellectual betters in New York, Chicago etc.  Which brings to light the bigger problem of Houston for Houston's former newspaper of record.  Houston has always been just a touch unruly, difficult to shoehorn into the new-urbanists' pre-determined molds for a city.  It's a constant and ever-changing recipe of shifting ethnic groups and newly-emerging plurality that's slowly changing how business is conducted.

While Gray chooses to focus on the hip, trendy eyewear wearing, adventurous eater set as an example of Houston's change, I think it's better to look at Houston through her small business culture. More specifically, the increasing rise of Houston's ethnic small businesses, whose numbers are growing in leaps & bounds both inside, and outside the Loop.

More importantly, is what to make of all this change.  To Gray's mind Houston's current dynamic environment is a sign of the city's adolescence, a sign of our inferiority to the more well-established "world class" cities in which new urbanists so strongly wish to reside.  She views Houston current as something that needs to be "ridden out" as we morph into something more palatable from a central-planning standpoint.

I view things just the opposite.  I think Houston's current complexity is a sign of vitality, something that needs to be embraced and held on to, something that Houston doesn't want to lose for fear of becoming stagnant.  Currently, in cities within the North East, we've seen the problems that manifest when a city becomes complacent with who they are, infrastructure begins to crumble, the outside world is somehow viewed as inferior and new ideas are eschewed in favor of more heavy-handed regulation.  Despite the fact that New York is (still) America's greatest city, it's far less nimble and able to react to new dynamics than is Houston. 

I've said before that I don't believe that Houston is a "world class" city and, while that's often taken as a slam against Houston it needn't be. Houston is the South's greatest city despite not having the things most frequently identified under the New-Urbanist code.  We don't have central planning (mostly), we still don't have a regulatory system that's over-burdening (although we're getting there) and we still maintain a majority aversion to zoning (or even, form based codes).  All of this leads to a city that is willing and able to accept all comers, to constantly re-define itself when market forces change.  Think about this, during the great oil-bust Houston stayed afloat, the automobile bust all but killed Detroit.

One city was able to diversify and change itself until the market rebounded, the other is gutted.

In which would you rather live?

Friday, February 8, 2013

The very taxing problem of special taxation districts

Whether you know it of not, you might be paying much higher taxes than your neighbors due to the rapid expansion of special tax districts in Texas.  Such is the warning siren that was sounded by none-other than Patricia Kilday-Hart in her behind-the-pay wall column penned for the Houston Chronicle last Sunday.

Kudos to Kilday-Hart for tackling the subject, because it's one that I feel needs wider viewership in Texas politics.  Not only is the percentage of our taxes that are subject to the whims of unelected bureaucrats rising, but we're also failing to watch what it is these groups are doing in the first place.  Most people don't even know what districts they might be included in due to escrow on their houses etc.

Boo to her however for not recognizing the old Texas Watchdog series of reports that focused on this way back in 2011. (h/t Kevin for remembering that)

The common refrain by those of a Tea Party persuasion is "no taxation without representation!" it hearkens back to the days of the Founding Fathers and gives everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling as they feel they've done their part to restrain the leviathan that is the Federal Government.  Yea! for them.  My problem with the Tea Party is that, while they've mis-spelled signs and worn silly hats and generally had a good time walking around in a no-tax echo chamber, they've allowed local and state government to run amok with almost no oversight and very little attention paid.

The idea that those 'greedy Democrats" are looking to increase taxes and destroy the wealth creators is novel, but it ignores the fact that most of these special taxing districts were created by Republicans.  That's not to say that the Democrats don't want to spend all of the money and then tax for more (in Texas, they certainly do, and on a National level as well) but it's also not fair to gloss over the taxation problems of politicians with the letter (R) behind their names.

These are very important matters since the special taxing groups, once their in place, become very hard to eliminate due to some creative districting which often serves to minimize the voting population within.  That's not to say that none are needed, but I'm willing to bet you that many are not, or have outlived their usefulness and are just hanging on as jobs programs for those too lazy to fill out a proper CV.

So good-on Kilday-Hart for bringing this matter to (some) of the public's eye.  Here's hoping she, and other in Texas media, stick with it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

You can't be world class without giving bicycles 3 feet of space

Last week, with an article once again placed behind the pay wall, new-ish Chronicle transportation writer Dug Begley informed Houstonians that one giant impediment in our fair city's move to world class status is our lack of share the road laws for bicyclists.  This is disturbing stuff, I mean, how can we possibly continue to function knowing that a driver of an automobile can come within two feet of a cyclists without any fear of repercussion from police officers, or that a long-haul commercial vehicle can come within 5 feet of the same cyclist and be well within his/her right to the road?

Of course, the reason given for Houston not having a law in place is that no one has really raised the issue before now, so thank goodness we have the good folks at the Houston Chronicle willing to bend an ear toward the silent super-minority in favor of an ordinance that, seemingly, no one really wants and which will affect a select few.

Naturally, the all-natural fiber wearing, vegan population of a complete streets persuasion think this idea is grand. The key word here being "activists" who are the sort who doggedly ride their bikes to work in the Summer despite the fact that their offices don't have showering facilities and who can frequently be seen in the bathroom, toweling off with patchouli oil and lilac.  Of course, they would see the benefit of the law because they view bicycling as their great grab against the ugliness that they find in every aspect of American life.

How about for the rest of us?  Those of us who are OK with capitalism and automobiles but do enjoy occasionally heading out on the old bicycle for a bit of fun and fitness?  What should we think about passing yet another law to solve a problem that's very rare and possibly won't do anything to solve a problem that might only marginally exist?

If you go and read the article, and you probably should, you will find that Houston has a pretty good master plan for bike trails and the lot which are perfectly sufficient for most to enjoy their bit of two wheeled exercise without needing (too often) to plunge into the traffic main lanes and play chicken with a poultry delivery truck. You also might think "well, most people are conscientious around cyclists on the road" and you'd be right there as well.  The problem is, most people are going to do what they can to NOT hit a bicyclist because their blood would clash with the color of paint on their car.  Well, that and there are sure to be some legal issues if they hit them, and hurting a fellow citizen (even one in a biking outfit) is not a part of our social DNA.  That there are people out there who deliberately try and run cyclists off the road is another matter entirely.  As a matter of fact, passing such a law might just double their resolve because then they might feel they're losing the war.

But the point is, we already have laws to deal with the idiots among us, those who would deliberately hurt a fellow citizen on a bike, and it's typically not the case that more laws deter those with a leaning toward jerk-dom.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Move along, nothing to see here

Last week the Chron ran another story, behind it's pay wall, centering on troubles surrounding the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, this time talking about how they're being sued by MBIA, their bond insurer, for not collecting enough in revenues (read: taxes) to cover the minimum cash requirements to which they are contractually obligated.

Interestingly, to me anyway, is that the response of the HCHSA is to call MBIA a "second rate" insurance company and basically disparage them.  This brings to light a couple of questions.  One, if MBIA is really a second rate insurer then why did the HCHSA contract with them in the first place?  This seems to be inconsistent with good business practices.  Second, if the MBIA is on the hook for the payments and their really is nothing to see here then why the harsh response from Mr. Friedman?

We've been told during this whole process that there's nothing to be worried about, that the stadiums and land are "not at risk" in the slightest and that there's no way area taxpayers are going to end up on the hook for any of this and that basically we're dealing with zero risk.  OK, I'm willing to suspend disbelief for a moment and accept that proposition on its face, but this still leaves me with one nagging question in the back of my mind that just won't go away.  Namely, if the result of this is going to be the eventual increase of the hotel and cab tax which would then mean higher rates for hotel rooms and cab rides, then isn't their a concern that Houston's already low hotel occupancy rate is going to suffer even more?  And this at a time when the City of Houston is going all-in (again) for convention business?

I'm sure we'll be told that this is no big deal either, that even a 10% increase in hotel/motel costs aren't going to matter much and that what Houston needs to really focus on are improving its amenities to bring in additional business.  OK, but if rates and costs are higher for the traveler then don't the amenities also have to be just that much better?

The entire thing just doesn't make any sense.  It's as if the HSHCA and the other groups are talking out of both sides of their mouth while ensuring us that the coming storm on the horizon is nothing of concern.  The problem is they're doing this while casting nervous glances toward the storm that's not supposed to affect us and getting more and more harsh in their rhetoric.

They may be right, there may be no problem, but I get the willies when no one even addresses the possibility that there is.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Food In Singapore is (mostly) cheap.... is expensive however (and seafood traps abound).

Consider this a cautionary tale.

Having just returned from a week in Singapore I thought it might be a good idea to talk about some of the food there.  While it's true that Singapore is a business center (as opposed to a tourist 'destination') the wife and I found plenty to see and do (and eat).  The good news is, the variety of cuisine is only slightly exceeded by it's (high) quality.

A Coconut, no lime.

A ChinaTown Meal
The most talked about place for cheap eats in Singapore is ChinaTown. More specifically, the "hawker" stands found on Food Street where you can get almost anything.  However, on the second level of one of the ChinaTown markets you find a host of hawker-like storefronts serving the same thing.  Not that the hawker carts are bad (they're very good) but the lines are typically shorter in the food court, the prices are just as low (the coconut above was S$2, the sugar cane juice was S$1 and the noodles you see were S$3) and their are more tables and chairs at which to sit.  You also find better signage in the food court:
Not as well known, or sought out, by visitors are the Indian restaurants in (Yup) Little India.
Curried Goat and sides
The wife ordered this curried goat dish and I got basically the same thing (substitute fish for goat) with two Indian teas and two orange drinks for S$13 all-in.  This is Southern Indian food so you eat it with your fingers, although (pictured) they do provide forks for those not used to digging in finger-tip style.  The wife and I went in full force with our fingers, which were stained turmeric red for a day after the meal despite washing them.

There are also cheap eats on Arab St. (not pictured) but, be aware that most places there do not serve beer or wine due to Islamic restriction:
And they mean it.
Oddly enough, there are pubs and bars in the district so it's not a total alcohol free zone.

Finally, the seafood.  A word to the wise, be careful when dining out on "local" seafood. A quick trip to Trip Advisor illustrates why.  Forum Seafood looks nice from the outside, they have fresh seafood in tanks that look inviting:
Seafood at Forum
Once you get in however the uniqueness is gone.  Their prices, showing S$33 for Chili Crab for instance, are based on 100g serving sizes.  Even 1/2 an Australian King Crab is going to run around 600g - 1kg.  That's over S$180 (US $ around 140) per dish. Unfortunately, the wife and I didn't read the online reviews and fell victim to the high-price trap at Forum.  Our final bill, for Chicken Satay, one beer, one wine Geoduck clam and Chili Crab was S$450.  Ouch.  The dishes were good, but not near that good.  Only when we walked out did I notice the "per 100g" on the price signs in print that you had to lean forward and squint to see.
Chili Crab
The point is that you can get good seafood at a reasonable price by listening to the locals. Jumbo seafood came highly recommended, as did a handful of other restaurants. We found a local restaurant while wandering around.  Were I a good travel blogger I'd remember the name, but it wasn't in the Quay areas. While I recommend you go by Forum and take a picture of their fish tanks, I would not recommend eating there due to the price.  There are horror stories of people paying S$800 on a meal for two so in retrospect we got off lucky. (except for the ribbing and "that was stupid" comments I'm sure to get from some of my savvy traveler acquaintances that is)

While food can be had (mostly) cheap, alcohol prices are killers.  A local Tiger beer goes for S$10 at the least, and import beer is even more.  Wine by the glass is a minimum of S$12 and mixed drinks can run anywhere from S$16 - S$50+.  The Singapore Sling runs around S$20-S$36.  Most of that is taxes, it's the same for tobacco products, and you won't find cheap beer at the many 7-elevens around town either.  We saw a sign for a 24-pack of Tiger on sale for around S$200. When I first saw it I thought it was a mis-print.

All in all, despite the obvious setback at Forum, I enjoyed my dining experiences in Singapore, and it's not really fair to say I didn't enjoy the food at Forum because the crab and clam were delicious. If anything, it was a rather expensive lesson.  Just pay attention to the prices, moderate your drinking, and you will get out of there fairly cheaply on the food front.  This is good because most of your money is going to the hotels, which are very expensive as well.

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