Thursday, April 30, 2015

Houston Airports: Welcome to Houston...Side Boob!

News that all of the Hudson News stores within the Houston Airport system would be shutting drew a collective sigh. To be honest, the stores themselves are fairly nondescript retail outlets that charge large amounts for bottled water, sodas, junk food and almost every magazine that you have no desire to read.

What is replacing them could prove to be a little bit more interesting....

CultureMap to take over Hudson News Shops at Houston Airports. Danielle Abril, Houston Business Journal

The CultureMap stands will similarly offer convenience items as well as concierge services, which will be powered by CultureMap content. This means customers will be able to see content about where to eat, shop and visit while they are in a specific city. All of the content will come from CultureMap.

I would imagine that the store-fronts themselves would be an improvement over the old Hudson News outlets (wouldn't take much). And while I'm slightly concerned that "(a)ll of the content will come from CultureMap" having concierge services at the airport could be a boon to travelers arriving at Houston.

One hopes that they stay away from the obvious click-bait trolling stories such as this and focus instead on their more straight-forward review reporting such as can be found here. The HBJ article did go on to say that CultureMap would be changing their reporting staff and methods on reporting some news, so hopefully this means more of the latter and less of the former going forward.

An ideal situation would be for CultureMap to supplement their own content with that from other publications through licensing agreements and other avenues. I realize that their goal is to increase their page hits but, if you really want to give visitors an overview of Houston, there are other news outlets that need to be included.  Off hand I'd suggest that it would be journalistic malpractice to exclude the restaurant review section of the Houston Chronicle given that they pump out consistently better material than does CultureMap.

For Houstonians traveling through the HAS I doubt this is going to have much, if any, impact. One would guess that bottled water and sodas will still be overpriced, the snacks on offer will still be nutritionally suspect, and the magazine selection will continue to be abysmal.  To be fair, there's little on offer at any airport in stores of this type.

This has the possibility of being an improvement for the HAS. Time will tell if CultureMap: Houston has the organizational chops to pull it off however.  The overriding concern, as noted in the post title, that visitors come into the shop looking for a place to have a cocktail in Houston, and end up being directed to a slide-show titled "Best places in Houston to see some side-boob."

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: What's not being said about Houston tourism.

Yesterday I posited the theory that throwing more money at Houston's supposed tourism 'problem' is not the say to fix said 'problem'. I realized, later, that this doesn't answer the dual questions of a.) whether or not there is a problem at all and b.) what can be done to address it. So, from that perspective, today I'm offering up a rather simple solution to something that is being overlooked, but that I don't see as a 'problem' per se.

First off, Houston does not draw its "fair share" of tourists.  In the behind-the-pay-wall article I linked to this was clearly spelled out.

(Hopefully, the Houston Chronicle takes no issue with my fair use quoting from their story but, to be safe, here's the full link again)

Tourism Board offers aggressive agenda for drawing visitors. Erin Mulvaney, LM Sixel, ($$$)
Already, most of the visitors to Houston are classified as leisure travelers. Of the 14.8 million who came to Houston last year, about 9 million were leisure travelers while the others came on business. The majority of visitors come from inside Texas, including Dallas/Forth Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
By comparison, Chicago gets 42 million visitors annually, New York City attracts 54 million and San Antonio 31 million.

Clearly, there is a gap. I believe this gap is driven, in large part, by Houston steadfastly failing to recognize the attractions that it does have in a continually blind effort to make itself into something it is not.  The facts are these. San Antonio has the Riverwalk, the Alamo and El Mercado. Chicago has the El, Wrigley Field and a host of Frank Lloyd Wright homes among other things. New York has Times Square, Rockafeller Plaza, Central Park and (to be honest) most of the City including Long Beach.  Houston has none of these things, and it's improbable to think that throwing additional money to "build attractions" (as some in the comments suggest) is ever going to build 'stuff' that has near the tourism appeal that the comparison cities do.

Let's face it, the New York Library has more tourist appeal than does anything Houston can offer. The library for goodness' sake.

What Houston does have, as I've mentioned before, is a business climate that brings in business travelers, the Galleria that brings in leisure travelers (primarily, as mentioned in the article, from Mexico) and conventions which bring in business travelers as well.

What I think Houston is missing is a viable marketing push to tie all of this together.  Here's the rub. Tourists are not going to flock to Houston to check out Mongoose vs. Cobra no matter how edgy we presume their manifesto to be. The fact is, in most major cities, there are bars just as hipster as this popping up almost everywhere. Nor are they going to spend their vacation dollars to check out Miller Outdoor Theatre or, unless they're from somewhere really small, The Houston Zoo. You can up the Houston advertising budget to a Million Billion Dollars, bring back Jordy Tollett in his prime and it's just not going to happen. I don't care what squishy marketing campaign you dream up or how many celebrities you have working (for a fee) to sell the City.

However, what the people at Houston First seem to be chronically missing is that the true driver for families coming to Houston lies in the fact that they have something to do while the bread-winner is in business meetings.  In other words: Houston: Where business gets done and families have fun.

(OK, I'm sorry, I'm an accountant not an ad designer.)

Let's face it. All of the things we LIKE about Houston are things that people would like to, were a family to come along on a business trip.  Their are museums and parks and shopping and outdoor markets and educational opportunities for the kiddies and brewery tours and (with a small drive) boardwalks and amusement rides and battlefield memorials and the Strand and Space Center: Houston and a host of other things that would allow a family to while away the hours why Mommy or Daddy spend the day cooped up in an office attending meetings with bad coffee and dry, catered chicken with some almost identifiable sauce.

If one partner is in meetings then the other partner can go shopping in the Galleria, or they can go take a brewery tour, or (on most Thursdays) catch the early afternoon Astros game. If they have kids they can visit the museums and go shopping in the Galleria, at night after the meetings they can go out and dine and (if the kiddies are taken care of) hit up bars like Mongoose vs. Cobra or the Anvil or a host of other locations.  They might even have so much fun that they can stay through Saturday and drive out to visit Kemah, or NASA.

The important thing to realize is that all of this is on top of their primary reason for visiting Houston in the first place i.e. getting business done.

Yes, the numbers in the study suggest that a majority of travelers through the Houston Airport System are here on leisure. I'm willing to bet that many of them are here specifically to either shop the Galleria, or rent a car and drive somewhere else. How many people do you see in Houston, especially downtown Houston, just hanging around wishing that some attractions would be built so they would have something touristy to do?  The answer? Not many.  And there are even less that come here to ride the DangerTrain, although they don't realize that they could be missing out on one of the most Houston of things: Dodge Train.

Here's the thing. None of what I'm talking about here involves 'increasing the budget' or 'making a bigger push' to try and get people to come to Houston.  The City already has the resources and existing attractions in place.  Granted, this might mean that many of the Houston First employment positions and consulting contracts would suddenly become redundant, but there's plenty of work to go around.

Maybe some of those consultants could be persuaded to bring the family along next time as well?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Throwing more money at the 'problem' won't fix the 'problem'

Here we go again.

Tourism board unveils aggressive agenda for drawing visitors. Erin Mulvaney and L.M. Sixel. ($$$)

About once ever two to three years, Houston is hit with a bone-headed proposal of this type in "increase the number of tourists" driven by the ill-thought out idea that we're just not branding our city properly.

The solution has always been 'more money' and, to be honest, it just hasn't worked in the past and there's little reason to believe that it's going to work this time either.

First, the fallacies:

1. Houston is a hidden tourist "gem" that people don't know about because we have an identity as a business city.

It's true. Houston is viewed as a place where people come to get business done.  There's a reason for that and it's because Houston is a place where people come to get business done. No amount of branding, or catchy slogans, is going to change that.

2. There are a lot of fun things to do in Houston.

This is also true.  But it's only true if you happen to live here. In fact, outside of NASA there are few things in Houston that can't be done better elsewhere. The Kemah Boardwalk?  It's a decent place to visit if you live here but if you're thinking about spending your travel dollars Coney Island or (still, despite their financial worries) the Jersey Shore offer much better boardwalks with many more tourist attractions.  Galveston?  Again, if you live in Houston it's the closest beach area.  If you're a tourist however you'd be much better served heading down to either Corpus Christi or South Padre Island. Washington Avenue is a decent bar and entertainment district for locals, but it's not going to ever, ever be a tourist draw. Perhaps the only truly touristy thing that Houston has going for it, outside of Space Center Houston, is the Galleria. And it's hard to convince people to spend a week in town during their vacation walking around the inside of a very large shopping mall.

The fact is that Houston is just not a destination city. It never has been and it never will be, no matter how much money the unelected, quasi-public agency Houston First decides they want to throw down the rabbit hole in an ill-fated effort to convince people otherwise.

I've often thought that the only possible concept that would save the Astrodome is to convert it into a giant hotel/casino. However, casino gambling (and most other gambling besides the State-ran scam that is the lottery) is outlawed in Texas and the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo would never agree to a venue that would utilize parking spaces and resources when they're operating so that's a moot point as well. Ironically, it could be casino gambling (or, expanded gambling options at horse and dog tracks) that could, potentially, bring in tourists. However, we live in Texas where the government's main objective seems to be to save us from ourselves while lining their pockets so those ideas are really a non-starter.

Instead, Houston is going to, once again, waste Millions of Dollars in an attempt to make the tourist board feel important, and to try and compete with other cities to which it is not comparable. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it and all of that.

Unsurprisingly, the comments on this pay-walled Chron story are focusing on Downtown (the Central Business District) and public transportation, as if adding a bar or two and building a rail from the airports will be the elixir that cures all ills. It's thoughts like these, and people who say that the Astrodome, Kemah and Galveston induce sprawl, that are why Houston cannot have nice things and why we're doomed to one of Dante's Circles when it comes to visitor planning.

Houston Tourism Planning: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Social Media: Give us back our gun emoji and we spare the horse!

Last night, minutes before beating the Dallas Mavericks and closing out the series 4 games to 1 the Houston Rockets Twitter account released this bomb:

Cue outrage.

What few people are saying is that most of this outrage was from what's now being known as "butthurt" Maverick's fans.  Given the holier-than-thou attitude that follows all decent jokes these days, the Dallas Maverick's Twitter folks responded thusly:

If any team has no room to speak on what is 'classy', it's the Dallas Mavericks.  From articles on how to 'troll' Rockets fans to Mark Cuban's statement that the Rockets "were not a very good team" this series has seen boorish behavior from the Mavericks at all levels of the organization.

To which I say fine. This silly idea that fans and staffers and owners of a team have to live up to some imaginary set of 'unwritten rules' when rooting either for their team or against the other team in professional sports is a silly one.  If you can't poke fun at your rivals then why even try?  Furthermore, for all of the talk in the Houston Chronicle about the "Houston/Dallas rivalry" this series of events, and the fact that the Mayors of Houston and Dallas apparently didn't have a bet on the game, illustrates that the rivalry is dead, except in insipid Houston Chronicle slide-shows.

All of this wailing and gnashing of teeth illustrates a larger point.  In short: We've become a Nation full of sore losers and hyper-sensitive concern-mongers who aren't even capable of accepting the fact that our side has 'lost' and the other side is allowed their moment in the gloating sun.

I blame outrage culture, which has convinced us that it's OK to be angry to the point of incoherence about even the slightest perceived slight. What outrage culture has done is replace "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" with "you said mean things and turned me into a simpering pile of human goo". If anything, America needs to grow a spine again. We need to rediscover our steely determination and sense of purpose and inform the concern-mongers that they may politely take their hurt feelings and jump off a cliff.

You see, the Houston Rockets were never going to shoot a real horse last night. An emoji gun only can fire emoji bullets which are nothing but pixels really. Nor was any harm going to come to any of the Maverick players. Or Mavericks fans for that matter. I realize that losing sucks and that, in today's age of participation trophies and leagues that don't keep score, our younger generations are typically incapable of coping with loss. In fact, we are rearing a generation that thinks there are no losers. That 'fat shaming' is found in an ad for a weight loss company and bullying has been expanded to people saying anything about you that is not 100% flattering.

Kirk Schlichter is right when he says that It's time to unleash the power of no.  Now, granted, he's speaking from a political perspective while I'm speaking from a societal one. I don't care whether or not you are liberal or conservative or somewhere outside that or in between, if you are grousing about the other side taking a victory lap, if your feelings are hurt when someone gets one over on you to the point you lash out, or if you just can't handle the concept of losing then you are the problem.

The sad offshoot of this is that we are giving away our right to free speech by turning on one another and demanding censure. The American public seems to have forgotten that free speech was designed to protect us from the government, we now seem to think that it should be limited to protect us from hurt feelings. Have we grown as soft and flabby mentally as we have physically?

Apparently yes, we have.  Because if the losing side is going crazy over a fake gun fake shooting a fake horse then what's going to happen when they lose on something really important?  How far is it from throwing a temper-trantrum over electronic horse murder to calling for the silence and arrest of those who hurt our feelings in real life?  Are we guaranteed the right to never be offended by the Constitution?  Of course not.  What we are guaranteed is the right to fire back verbally, to try and win the argument with wit and wisdom instead or through forced censure caused by whining and false outrage.

In other words, if your response to being out-witted is to cry foul then not only have you already lost, but you've outed yourself as being somewhat gormless and dim-witted as well.

Things Bad Media do: If you're reporting on something, it's best to know the facts

The Chron's new NorthEastern transplant doesn't understand the State he covers all that well.

If you're going to cover something, and expect us to believe that you are an authority on the issues. It might help to understand what it is that you are covering.

Here are a few friendly links:

Texas State Guard Home Page

Texas Government Code Authorizing State Military

Texas State Guard History and Federal Authorization

You're welcome.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Nothing close to this car is ever going to see production.

Photo courtesy of GM
It's a pretty thing, the Chevy FNR and it's designed to try and make us imagine what automotive design can be.

And....You'll never, ever, see anything like it anywhere on the road.  Which is too bad because it is a pretty thing, the clear side panels and the angular, sweeping lines.  The problem is that concept cars such as this skew the average motorists idea regarding what is possible.

First, there appears to be no storage, so this would not be a practical car then. It also appears that the car will only have wheel engines only so it will move slower than you currently move in rush hour traffic.  Yes, the car will drive itself, but possibly not much faster than you can make the walk.

Oh, and the ride. With those paint on tires it's a given that by the time you reach the office you will be shaken so much as to be homogenized.

My last problem with this is that it's got the power source all wrong.  All electric cars just aren't working in the real world. Neither are hybrids despite their sales success.  The future of automotive fuel is hydrogen gas.  Yes, as nay-sayers continually point out, hydrogen production is currently very thirsty in terms of fuel. I predict this will get better.  As will hydrogen fuel-cell technology.

It's not fair for me to say that electric-drive technology won't improve at the same time, but the floor for hydrogen cells are much higher and it appears that the ceiling is as well.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that GM shouldn't have built the thing, I'm just suggesting that it's wise to temper our expectations based on a concept that's clearly not designed to be be brought to the mass market.

These futuristic car designs don't excite me, as pretty as they may be.  What excites me are concept cars that are fairly close to being ready to hit the mass market. That's more of a future vision than a pipe dream and what we should focus on to begin with.  Treat these as what they are......


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Wi-Fi at NRG Stadium

For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over proposed Wi-Fi upgrades at NRG Stadium, I'm surprised our "conservative county leaders" haven't embraced the one, most simple, solution...

NRG Stadium Ponders Joining Wi-Fi World. Gabrielle Banks, ($$$)

The Chron doesn't want you to read their journalism, so I'll oblige and just quote a very small piece for discussion's sake.

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he believes the county does "not need to go in there and spend money" on the Wi-Fi.

Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle reviewed background materials for the bid and "noted he needs to know the source or sources of funding," said his spokesman, Mark Seegers.

How about trying this on for size?

If the tenants at NRG, and the NFL, feel that Wi-Fi service in and around the complex is a priority then let them pay for it and recoup the cost as part of a "connectivity fee" included in the price of event tickets?

This allows the market to work, only those who feel the service is of value will ultimately be paying for the service, and it removes the thorny political issue of having citizens who can not, or will not, attend functions at NRG paying for the service.

Of course, I get that the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo aren't too keen on this idea. The feeling of entitlement by venue tenants (note to Chris Tomlinson, THIS is what entitlement looks like) is something that was quick to take hold and has been hard to shake. The Texans especially are sensitive to perceived high-ticket prices for a middling product. When you think about the sheer volume of patrons that attend activities at NRG however you're really only looking at a $1-$2 charge per ticket. For the Houston Texans this would equate to $10-$20 per season for the average fan (not counting playoffs *snort*).

Before you get all hot and bothered by that remember that the Houston Chronicle's New Mrs. White and a host of other local politicians often snipe at homeowners in Harris County for being upset about new taxes that will "only" increase the tax burden on the average citizen by $300-$400 per year. In the grand scheme of things this is a fairly small price to pay for having the ability to take a selfie with a Texans Cheerleader and transmit it out over Twitter and Facebook to remind the world that, when normal folks take pictures with cheer leaders, it really just makes them look a little creepy.

Would such a thing like this have a chance at passing?  Probably not. For one thing the Texans have to answer to the NFL, which is never in favor of teams picking up the cost of anything they can pressure local governments to pass on to taxpayers. The HLS&R has never been keen on spending money that can otherwise be directed toward improving their fancy offices in Downtown Houston. Finally, people only REALLY like Wi-Fi service when they think it's free. Having a ticket surcharge for this would probably generate more complaints than would a tax.

And, sadly, they're complaints that the Chronicle, and other news outlets, would take seriously. There would be a ton of stories penned about "World Class(y) Houston" and the things we need to do to keep up with cities in the Northeast (which are looking down the bankruptcy barrel) while encouraging us to go ahead and pay for this through an expansion of the hotel occupancy tax. They would then mean that this means "Houstonians never pay for it" unless you use a local hotel or have relatives in town for the Holidays, then you would.

The solution above is the fairest and most transparent of all proposed solutions, which is why, given Houston's current leadership vacuum, it has a 100% chance of never even being seriously considered.

Going Green: Earth Day is the Worst Day

If you've been reading any of the various and assorted blogs (Isolated Desolation, Lose an Eye, It's a Sport, Harris County Almanac, No Upgrades or this, current, one) then it should not surprise you to read that I am no big fan of Earth Day.

Oh sure, I'm a fan of conservation and reducing pollution and generally protecting the outdoors. But Earth Day isn't really about any of that. It's about attempts (and speeches) that try and guilt people into working against their own financial interests to forward the financial interests of companies who have figured out that there are very large profit margins to be had from convincing people that scary things like "evil oil" and "rampant population growth" are somehow destroying the planet on which we reside.

Earth Day is the worst of all the "guilt-trip" holidays (as I call them). Think about it....for Earth Day there are no decent parties, no cakes baked for Mother Gaia, no beer specials, no sales down at the shopping malls and nothing of any consequence except (I'm not kidding here) holier-than-thou green scolds FLYING to Florida to tell us that our tailpipes are damaging the Everglades.

Apparently the fix to this is two-fold:

1. We all need to stop (immediately) emitting any sort of carbon dioxide or methane in an effort to reduce the 7% of total CO2 that humans are dumping into the atmosphere.

2. Stop having babies.

Of all the solutions it's the latter that is spoken only softly by the more verdant climate change true believers the population bomb is one of the most problematic. IF you're going to decrease the human population of the Earth to say 4 Million people, that means over 2.5 Billion people have to be eliminated from the equation.  The question then becomes: Who needs to go?

My answer to the environmentalists?  "You first."

Until they volunteer to take the leap off the bridge first, I think it's fair to say pretty much everything they say can be ignored.

In a similar way it's fair to ignore their dire predictions about the climate. If they truly believed that Gaia was reaching her natural end due to human activity they would not be doing wasteful things like flying in Air Force one to warn us about it, a webcast would probably do fine. Nor would they be using energy and resource wasteful items such as computers, smart phones, Prius and electric cars (which use coal-fired electricity as their power source).

So, instead of getting all worked up about your personal .0000001% contribution to the Earth's CO2 and methane levels, instead worry about the things you can control.  Recycle when possible, if you go outside leave it cleaner than you found it, make sure your car is running efficiently and don't be wasteful.  If you're in a charitable mood donate to organizations that focus on conservation not environmentalism. At the end of the day these actions are more likely to clean the planet than are any high-minded speeches by wealthy, entitled politicians or rallies by the terminally unwashed and the wealthy, hypocritical celebrities that the worship.

And somebody bake the planet a damn cake will ya?

Houston News: Lisa Falkenberg's Victory Lap.

By now you probably know that Chron.columnist Lisa Falkenberg won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Apparently the Chron celebrated by opening up bottles of Champagne in the news room (given their budgetary problems I'm assuming it wasn't high-end) and all has been hunky-dory over at 801 Texas as we can no longer call the Chronicle the "largest daily newspaper to have never won a Pulitzer".

To be fair, however, this should really be the Chron's 2nd Pulitzer as it was ridiculous that they did not win for their coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

Unfortunately for the Chron, in 2009 they didn't have a staffer serving as chair of the jury making the decision.

Granted, I'm not one of Ms. Falkenberg's fans and typically find her opinions on certain issues to lack either significant substance, understanding of the realities of modern Texas society, or very much insight.  That all said, the reporting that Ms. Falkenberg did regarding grand juries and the curious case of Alfred Dewayne Brown was solid reporting that was probably deserving of a Pulitzer for commentary regardless of whether or not one's colleague was guiding the decision making process.

And that's what makes this so bad.  Because it LOOKS wrong.  If anything, in a moment of brilliance, Ms. Falkenberg did turn out a compelling bit of reporting that could have won on its own merits. That Jim Newkirk, Viewpoints Editor of the Houston Chronicle was the chair of the jury panel is unfortunate. It would have been better had he simply recused himself, in which case Ms. Falkenberg's work would have had a good chance of winning anyway.

Instead we're just left with another reason that those who pay attention don't have much faith left in the media.  Even when something good happens, there's reason to doubt that it was done in the most forthright way.  This does not imply that Mr. Newkirk did anything wrong. To the contrary, it implies that, to the Pulitzer Foundation, the concept of what is right and wrong has been lost to the mists of time.

For all of the reporting and screaming about conflicts of interests by the TLSPM, it's almost comical to see just how big of a problem they have with it themselves.

All that said, congrats to Ms. Falkenberg. She really did do a fine job of writing about this story and is deserving of all the praise (and reward) she gets from it. It would be nice to leave it at that but it really does a disservice to journalism (which it is pretended this blog critiques) to praise the deserving winner while ignoring the holes in the nomination and selection process. This would be like praising the Texas Legislature for the rainy day fund, but ignoring the politicians who operate under the Peter Principle.

In that sense, Ms. Falkenberg's piece stands on its own. It won under the same set of rules and regulations that past winners have, and this fact does not diminish her award at the exception of past winners. Ms. Falkenberg is now, officially, a Pulitzer Prize winner and deserves all of the congratulations she is currently receiving.

Also, as one of her biggest critics, I offer up congratulations to her for winning the award where 114 years of Chron staffers have come up short. That is an impressive feat no matter how you look at it. That said, one can't help but wonder how Ms. Falkenberg is going to work into almost every column that she is (in order) a sixth-generation Texan, a natural red-head, AND a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Houston News: Time for the Chornicle to find a new business columnist.

If you work in the oil and gas industry, or know someone who does...... (full disclosure: I am employed by a large oil and gas company)

You understand just how wrong-headed Chris Tomlinson is in his thinking here:

Responsibility and entitlement to public lands debated at CERA this week. Chris Tomlinson, ($$$)

It's been clear since his start with the Chronicle that Tomlinson doesn't understand the industries he's covering and, in most cases, takes a hostile view of the people that are working in them.

Then again, there are enough experts in Houston that cover these things that it's probable a 'business columnist' is an archaic position. Like most of the Chron's opinion section, they would be better served cutting the column and hiring another reporter or 3 to cover the energy sector.

I know, this won't happen but I think the Chron would have a better product if it did.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Newsish: The Texas Tribune Blurs the Line (TLSPM)

A funny thing.  When you navigate to The Texas Tribune you're greeted by a pop-up advertisement that leads you to Texas Wins a pro-LGBT advocacy group. One assumes they paid for the right to advertise on the site.

Unusually, the top story on Texas Tribune is a very LGBT-friendly piece on so-called 'gay conversion' therapy.
Here's an example of some of the prose:

The suicide of a 17-year-old Ohio transgender girl whose parents sent her to a therapist to "convert" her has refocused national attention on so-called gay conversion therapy. But despite calls to end it from President Obama, gay rights groups and medical associations, the controversial practice isn't likely to face a statewide ban in Texas. 

I say unusually because this is not what I would call a "hot-button" issue when you take into account the bill the article is referring to is still mired in committee and unlikely to get out. Given that this is fairly low on the Lege's radar it's curious that it's receiving much space at all.

Whether or not you're a supporter of reparative therapy (I'm not FWIW) both the tone of this article and the language on the two other articles relating to LGBT issues  are decidedly pro-LGBT and anti-the opposition. Also the last linked article appears to refer to a rally in which Texas Wins seems to have participated (or even ran, sponsored and organized) but the doesn't note who the organizers were, OR that Texas Wins, an advocacy group who advertises their membership includes religious leaders, and that they advertise for LBGT rights, anywhere in the story. Regardless of your position on LGBT rights this should concern you as a consumer of media because it appears that the Tribune's coverage on the issue is tainted at best, slanted at worst, diminished in credibility either way.

Even more concerning is that most of the Tribune's advertising appears to be advocacy based including this ad from Parkland Hospital discussing their unpaid medical care while articles about Medicaid expansion have no mention that there are groups actively advocating for expansion who advertise on their site.  So this is a systemic problem for the Tribune then, not just something related to a single issue.

All news reporting organizations who wish to remain a going concern basically receive revenue from one of three sources, sales of the product (newspaper, magazine etc.), donations (for non-profits) and advertising revenue.  It is a necessity that any donors or advertisers who are related to a particular story be specifically and fully identified in the same way it's key that their product (if for sale*)be labeled with a price. It's OK for a news organization to have an editorial point of view, in fact, overseas it's understood that they do and it's fully disclosed what that point of view is. In America however the media is a true believer in a neutrality that doesn't exist, and the Texas Tribune is one of the biggest apostles of this fallacy.

The thing is, it's very clear, in their wording and who they select as experts to provide quotes, which way the Texas Tribune is leaning on any particular issue. It's no secret then that the web-site is pro LGBT rights, pro-increasing state funding for infrastructure, and pro-Medicare expansion. What's not clear is that these are advocacy positions adopted by Tribune advertisers, featured prominently in banner ads. These advertisers are not disclosed at all in the stories themselves.

Not only does this do a disservice to the readers but it opens up the Tribune to questions of journalistic intent that is not really fair to the reporters and editors. Minus official Tribune disclosure and policy it might seem as if the opinions come from those who wrote the stories or that the advertisers swayed them to write from a certain perspective.  Whereas, if the Tribune would properly disclose, within the stories, that groups advocating for "position X" advertise or are donors to the site then it would give the reader a full picture of what is going on, and who might potentially be involved in the editorial process.  Again, it's not wrong for the Tribune to be the progressive leaning news of Texas, but it's improper for them to try and do so by omitting information that allows readers to make their own determination.

By failing to disclose key-advertisers who are taking advocacy positions on the stories in which they report the Tribune is failing a basic tenet of good journalism.  They could fix this pretty easily but, given their poor history and reactions to calls for the same in regards to donors, I suspect everything will just remain the same over there and Texas' Lock Step Political Media will continue it's downward spiral into irrelevance.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

I need a car: Capsules of Cars that Didn't make the grade. (Part 5 in a series)

Note: What follows are my thoughts on cars that I have driven in my search for a new vehicle. I'm hoping to focus on how cars would react in real, Houston conditions. Not whether they have "tech" or how sporty they are or what their 0-60 time may be (although I will discuss those things). I hope that you come away from this with a better idea how a car would be in everyday conditions, not around a test track.  What follows is my opinion, and my opinion only. I have not received any compensation or influence in writing this other than my own impressions on each vehicle. Your mileage may (and will) vary.  Finally, the following should not be considered either an offer, or advice, on whether YOU should buy a particular car or not. Go out and make your own decisions.

Part 1: The KIA Optima

Part 2: The Dodge Dart

Part 3: The Toyota Camry

Part 4: The Mercedes CLA 250

When searching for a car there are always quite a few that don't make the grade. After all, despite the fact that your intention is to take everything out for a test drive you do eventually get tired of the constant high-pressure and (at times) downright rude treatment by car dealers.  Since it's impossible to write full reviews of all the cars, I've decided to do a summary post of some cars there that I felt didn't warrant further consideration after my first look-see.  Since I didn't spend any time driving these cars (although I did at least sit in most of them to get a feel for the interior) I don't think it's fair to rate them or say too much about how they drive.

Acura ILX: When Toyota created Lexus they designed the cars under that badge to be among the best engineered and built cars they could possibly make. Acura's have never quite reached that level and feel more like Hondas with just enough baubles to allow them to charge extra. I took a peek at the ILX but didn't feel it was a serious contender for many of the reasons I didn't go with the Mercedes Benz CLA 250. It seems a little pricey for what you get and, if you want the standard options, it becomes fairly expensive. I also worried about build quality and have a latent distrust of any 4-door sedan marketed as "sporty". Although states the ride is pretty good it also knocked the ILX for a dodgy transmission and cheap feeling interior. If I'm paying a premium price, I don't want to think that the company has designed something on a budget.

Chevrolet Malibu: The car that always has the non-automotive press buzzing but fails to awe the automotive community. The Malibu reminds me of the American Camry, a car that's just kind of there. Add to the fact that I'm not a fan of GM and you have a car that I'm just inclined to ignore. It's also bone ugly. When I buy a car I plan on owning it for a while, I just couldn't see myself happy in a Malibu.

Audi A3 - Starting at $30,000 it's really just a Jetta with 4WD and nicer 'stuff' tacked onto the chassis. When you start to add amenities the price of this can really start to climb.  The question for Audi's is always the same (to me): How much more than a similarly equipped Volkswagen are you willing to pay for what is basically badge prestige?

Mercedes C-Class - With the introduction of the CLA it appears that Mercedes has upped the price about $8K but made no improvements to the product.  Yes, they put in a bigger base model engine (the C 250 has gone the way of the dodo and the C is now the bottom of the range) but properly equipped this car is going to cost nearly double any non-luxury badged car with similar equipment. There was a time, in the past, that Mercedes purchase made sense because they were head and shoulders above everyone in terms of reliability.  That's not so much the case today on the C & CLA.

Nissan Altima  - Actually, I was intending to test drive an Altima but when I went to AutoNation Nissan in Katy we walked around the lot for 45 minutes without a dealer in sight.  I'd driven one a few years back however and wasn't impressed with the value for money, or the CVT transmission they use.

Mitsubishi Lancer - The only Mitsubishi that I like is the EVO, which they no longer make. That said, if you wanted to get into budget rally racing I would recommend finding a second-hand Outlander to strip down and retrofit allowing you to have a lot of fun for the money.

Infiniti Q40 - First off, it's not an attractive looking car. Secondly, I have difficulty paying this price for what is basically an Altima with nicer stuff added to it. Again, properly equipped this car is going to get pricey.

Lexus IS - Except for the front grill it's a pretty thing.  I would also feel constantly like I overpaid for a sporty Toyota Avalon.

BMW 3 Series - Price wise, the base model 3 Series is actually OK. The problem is that when you start trying to equip it in a similar manner as the non-luxury badges it gets very pricey.  Behind Mercedes, I've always had a soft spot for Bavarian Motor Works and when I drove a 528i as a rental on a business trip (No, I didn't pay that rate, it was given to me because they were out of intermediate cars) I thought it might be the best road car I've ever driven. The problem with the 3-series is that it won't be near as good as the 5-series that I drove but I'll still be paying a premium.

If you're noticing a trend from me on luxury badged cars you would be correct, especially at the lower end of the range.  I said at the beginning of this that I'm not a believer in badge prestige. I also am shopping for what amounts to a commuter car so paying a premium to keep up with the Joneses doesn't make sense to me.  This doesn't mean that these are bad cars.  In fact, I think the Mercedes C-300, the BMW 3-series and the Audi A3 are very good cars. I think the Lexus IS and the Infiniti Q 40 are good cars as well. I just can't justify the extra expense that would be required to purchase one.

You might feel differently about this and, I should note, I think that is wonderful.  If everyone had the same taste in cars as I we would all drive the same thing and that would be boring. I didn't want to purchase any of these cars, but I'm not advocating that you shouldn't have the choice to do so.

After this I'm down to basically 3 cars:

1. Ford Fusion

2. Subaru Legacy

3. Volkswagen Jetta

I did purchase one of these three and you won't be surprised to find out it was the highest rated on my list.

Shutter the Editorial Board: Proof of Case in a single paragraph.

It's not everyday that a group makes the case for their own obsolescence. The New Mrs. White provided just that evidence in an editorial today:

State of the City,

Mayor Parker's State of the City addresses have been warnings, campaign stumps and celebrations. This one will be valedictory, a capstone speech by an outgoing mayor. It is her victory lap, and after her time as a council member, controller and mayor, we're content to let her take it.

Amazingly, before making this statement Mrs. White admitted in the editorial that Mayor Parker had made mistakes and accomplished little on the following:

1. Public works -  The editorial board admitted that Mayor Parker waited too long to address infrastructure repairs, and that she seemed disinterested in addressing existing problems now, in lieu of  focusing on future items that may, or may not, come to fruition.

2. Pensions -  Not only did the editorial board admit that Mayor Parker has made little progress on this, but they also admitted that the much ballyhooed "deal" that Parker made with the Firefighter's union failed to change the financial projections.

3. Public Safety - The Chronicle all but admitted that the HPD clearance rate is unacceptable and that Mayor Parker had little clue of how, or any inclination to, fix the problem.

Forgive me for thinking that this is not the resume of a Mayor that deserves to take a victory lap. Nor should a supposedly watchdog media be "content" to allow her to do so. This is not to say that Mayor Parker's career in city politics has been without success. As a member of City Council she was viewed as a very effective representative for her district. During her time on Council she earned a reputation as a fiscally conscious progressive who paid attention to her constituents needs. She should be applauded for that.

As City Controller however there is no doubt that Ms. Parker was not an effective fiscal watchdog for the City, serving often as a rubber stamp for then Mayor White's many efforts to shuffle the deck of assets and liabilities to cover debt. (To be fair, her successor is even worse) And, as Mayor, Parker's signature issue (The Great Urinal Compromise of 2014) is still languishing in the courts as opponents try and overturn it.

It is ruinous and petty to suggest that Mayor Parker does not deserve the chance to say goodbye on her terms. She won every election in which she ran once being elected to City Council and her departure from City Hall is certainly a personal milestone for her. But to sugarcoat the rough edges of her administration, and to allow her to walk away without a serious review of her record is proof of case that the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board currently serves no practical purpose in the Houston marketplace of ideas.

Repeating: Shutter the Ed Board, redeploy the assets to the local desk. There are plenty of Houstonians who can, and are, doing a better job commenting on local political issues.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: The Sorry State of Roads and Infrastructure.

I will be the first to admit to you that, from time to time, I feel a strong urge to just totally dump politics and never blog about them again.  As a matter of fact, I think I've penned a post or two suggesting that this is what I would do.

Inevitably however, the silly season (elections) start ramping up and I find myself interested again so I pen a political blog post. I feel that I can do this because a.) I offer no claims of credibility and b.) I'm sure many of the people who would like to call me on this have either stopped reading this blog long ago because of some imagined slight or they just don't remember.

With that said, what follows is a political post.

Not national politics, of course, because I find it too easy to just pen a post saying "Democrats are Stupid!" (many are) or that "Republicans have turned their backs on the voters!" (many have) and then make some snide remark about either Obama golfing while the world burns, or Obamacare being a tax disaster, or Hillary and Chelsea Clinton not grasping the fact that THEY are the .001% of the 1% and their entire campaign being built on a false premise, or Boehner crying or John McCain being an idiot again.  While the above is a sure-fire way to get page hits and praise/condemnation from those who believe in the black/white hat theory of partisan politics I find it much more interesting to blog about local politics.

One reason for this is because the hats politicians wear are often different shades of gray. For another, the decisions, obsessions and indifferences of the local pols are more likely to have a direct effect on my daily life.  Another reason is simple: In Houston, the coverage of local politics is (mostly) awful. You are either stuck with whatever institutional source material the Chron has decided to regurgitate unquestioningly, hi-ho party bloggers or (worst of all) smartest-guy-in-the-room contrarians who shit allegiances with the tide or, more realistically, toward whatever politician decides to pay attention to them at the moment.

All of this leads us, conveniently, to Harris County traffic.

It's awful, we all know this.  I could end this post here but that wouldn't be right considering that there's a LOT of blame to go around.

First: Harris County drivers.

It's easy to look at Houston's dilapidated streets and say that our ruling class is 100% to blame. This is easy but not entirely fair.  So before we go any further I think it's right that you, Harris County car driver, are reminded of a few simple rules of the road:

1. Stop cutting in line.  If you know your exit is coming then pull into the lane early. Don't wait until the last minute to try and wedge in between an 18-wheeler hauling gasoline and a family of six trying to get the kids to school. Even worse is when you (usually driving a pick-up) forget the fact that your truck-bed is actually attached to your car and it's still sticking out into the lane you are trying to leave blocking those people as well.  Have a little foresight and get over earlier.  Finally, if you leave the line and then try to get back in line later I believe that the police should have the legal option of shooting out your tires, and immediately towing your vehicle.  Especially if you commit the two previous sins listed above.

2. Stop cutting in line. I just felt I needed to say this twice.

3. In addition to speed limit maximums, there are speed limit minimums as well. Not that I'm intentionally picking on pickup trucks here, but they seem to be serial offenders. For some reason your standard pickup driver in Houston is only capable of two speeds: Either a warp level that would make Mr. Scott nervous or glacially slow. There is no in between.  How you drive on the open highway is none of my concern.  But if you can't stay within the flow of traffic during rush hour then please, take the bus.

4. Please stop talking/texting and trying to make 7-lane changes. At some point, we're going to have driverless cars and you'll be able to sext to your side-piece while in your car, until then, just stop.  People who do this like to point out that there's no law banning texting or talking on one's phone while driving in Texas but, in fact, they are wrong.  It is illegal to drive while distracted in Texas and it's a law I wish officers would enforce more strongly.

5. If you are going to make a right turn, please stop rushing past someone only to pull into the lane, slam on the breaks and turn right in front of them. Were I King of Texas the penalty for this would be caning. Not only is this dangerous, but it says to everyone around that you either have no depth perception or that you're such a gormless prat that you don't care what happens to anyone around you.

6. Finally, and most importantly, there are others around you. Please be cognizant of that fact. I've often said that Houston drivers are not especially bad, they just lack spatial awareness. Understand that when you attempt to make a 5 lane change to get to the exit you forgot you needed to take there are, in fact, other motorists behind you who don't expect someone to drive like a directionless twit. I understand that checking mirrors and signaling before lane changes is quaint, but it sure would cut down on the accident rate.

Second: Harris County Elected Officials

Thought you were getting off easy didn't you?  Well, the truth is you're a big part of the problem as well.

1. Potholes. I realize that the Houston Chronicle has now decided that all is hunky-dory since Mayor Parker issued a call-to-arms (before throwing a tiny amount of money at the problem then immediately leaving for another party-with-others-in-the-ruling-class junket) but the fact is that there are still an awful lot of potholes out there and, in most cases, the 'fix' that Public Works claims to have done does nothing more than turn a tire killing pothole into a suspension killing speed bump.  I'm entirely serious here.  I've seen fixed potholes that look like scale models of the Matterhorn. Even someone who hasn't completed Jr. High can work a trowel after all. Here's another quaint idea: Do the job correctly and completely the first time.

2. Capacity. I'm not entirely sure what the engineered vehicle count limits are for Houston's infrastructure, but I'm almost positive that we've exceeded them. While the easy solution is to "pour more asphalt" I understand that, in the current political environment, this is both cost-prohibitive as well as sure to bring a round-of cries from Houston's unproductive class (more on them in a minute.)  I saw a local Houstonian (and for the life of me I can't find the link, so if it was you, please link your story to the comments and I'll edit) recommend remaking Houston's Interstates into double decker expressways. I like this idea for two reasons:  1. It wouldn't involve troublesome issues of imminent domain and 2. If designed properly (big if) it could allow 18-wheelers easy access in and out of the city while the local commuter was able to actually get to an exit without having to bob and weave like Barry Sanders running behind the Lion's colander of an offensive line.

3. Light sequencing. Note here that I don't say synchronization. The latter would be a horrible idea.  The fact is however that in most of Harris County much of the congestion is caused by shoddily sequenced traffic lights. Want to test your patience? Try to drive down West Little York between Hwy 290 and Hwy 6 almost any time of day.  As a matter of fact, try to drive down almost any street in Houston at the posted speed without being stopped at almost every light. In many cases, it cannot be done even if you drive above the speed limit (illegal) or creep along slowly (unsafe). There was a story printed at one time (which, again, I can't find online) that Harris County actually had a chance to purchase light-sequencing software for $500K but "it had other priorities".  One assumes that power-washing the Astrodome was more important than people being productive and getting to work safely and on-time.

4. Public Transportation. This hurts to say because I love me some public transportation when done right. Unfortunately, Houston Metro is not doing it right so it's time to starve the beast and redeploy the monies to road maintenance and construction.  Maybe, once the current regime is gone we can get some people in who understand what the real role of public transportation is (to move people from point to point efficiently) versus what they want it to be (wedding venues for the unproductive class and baubles designed to bring events to town).

Last: The Unproductive Class

For you, I have only two things.

1. Just. Stop. We realize that you have just as much a right to make an argument as the next person. We also acknowledge that, as residents of Houston, you probably paid sales tax on a mixed drink from time to time and have put money in the city and county coffers.  However, just because you went to Europe once or twice and rode on a really neat train or streetcar there doesn't mean that the same set-up is going to work well in Houston.  Also, your insistence that everyone move inside Loop 610 is impractical.  A better use of your time would be to try and figure out how to get people from outside the central core, into job centers.

2. You cannot have your cake and eat it to. This goes out mainly to Critical Mass, the cycling group that violated traffic lights, berated motorists and generally created civic danger situations during their monthly protest rides. I get that you are angry that motorists are parking on the dedicated bicycle lane downtown. For the most part, I'm sure most of this is due to ignorance.  But, if the motorists would be doing this as some kind of protest how is this any different than the idiocy that you used to partake in when you blocked intersections illegally, banged on the hoods of cars who tried to pass on a green light, and (according to reports) delayed the access of first responders to get to victims?  One of the biggest problems with activism is that the activists typically choose to pick and choose when rules get followed. Were I you I'd focus on lobbying Houston to continue to develop a real, workable bike path system that let's you get where you need to go, and also to ensure that the last 1000 yards that require you to ride on surface streets is safe and efficient. Of course, that's just me, I'm not an activist.

Transportation infrastructure is bad across the State, either through negligence or buffoonery our local and State elected officials have been desperately attempting to provide content for election hand-outs, trying to swap trinkets for votes, or supplying red meat to the laundry-list of political activists who issue voter guides. They also suffer from "Something! Must be done." syndrome which supposes that for every imagined problem, there is either a law, ordinance or regulation that can fix it. Better governance would be to fully handle requirements first, the important things next, and only after everything is fully funded and everything is running at peak efficiency do you start asking questions.  Even at that point (and Houston and Texas are nowhere NEAR that point) the default answer should be to leave well enough alone.

First though, let's get things moving.  Of course, this might mean that $243 Million for the Astrodome be directed toward better uses, as might the proposed $50 Million for Reliant Park upgrades.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Selfish Blogging: The Cannondale Giveaway.

I want this bike, and I get more entries if you enter here:

So go ahead, give it a try.

You heard me.

Enter now dangit!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Texas Lock-Step Political Media: Opining (wrongly) on the proposed Texas Religious Freedom Act.

Whether or not you're for or against the wave of so-called "Religious Freedom Acts" that are popping up in state-houses (and the news) with much frequently lately, it's important to realize that some of the arguments both for, and against, are just not based in reality.

Unsurprisingly, the Texas Lock-Step is leading the charge in our fair state in getting this 100% wrong.

Hammond is one not like the others. R.G. Ratcliffe, Texas Monthly

With companies such as AT&T, American Airlines, Apple, Dell, Chevron, BP, and Shell now offering same-sex partner benefits, it is easy to see why Hammond and the Texas Association of Business oppose the religious freedom law and other perceived anti-gay measures. “These amendments are bad for business. They’re bad for Texas. They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business,” Hammond said. “Major corporations across the board oppose this legislation. They would not want to come to Texas or expand in Texas. Conventions, the Super Bowl, the Final Four, all those things would be at risk in Texas if this was to become part of the constitution.”

The biggest problem with this argument?

For one, there's nothing in the law that compels a company to NOT offer same-sex partner benefits. In fact, I would think that, if these companies believe these policies are "good for business" they would view it as a competitive advantage that other companies are able to 'opt-out' on religious grounds.

As a market mechanism for drawing the best talent then, this should be a boon to  American Airlines, Apple, Dell etc.  To suggest that companies be forced through coercion to offer these benefits flies in the face of the very market principles that Ratcliffe is suggesting Hammond champions.

There are many reasons that I would never consider starting a business, in Texas, that serves the public directly. Groups like the Texas Association of Businesses are one of those, high-minded moral crusaders are another. What the TAB really wants to do is tilt the cost structure to favor  their lager members. Almost every policy position that they espouse would add burdensome costs to small and medium-sized businesses.  They are also not genuine in their reasoning for opposition to the sanctuary city bill (they like the below-market cheap labor) but that's a different story for a different post.

In theory I'm opposed to acts like the RFA*. I believe that, as a business owner serving the public, you have an obligation to do so fairly. I worry that people will use these to object to a variety of things outside of what the scope intended.(Yes, I realize that's a slippery-slope objection, guilty as charged)  In practice, I'm opposed to the opposition to these bills. I don't see anything good resulting from a long-term program of coercion that forces people to accept the GLBTPC lifestyle if they feel it stands in direct conflict with their religious beliefs.  I find the opposition tactics to be disingenuous and, at times, downright untrue. Perhaps I would be more sympathetic to them if they also stood in opposition to Muslim's who wouldn't cater to a Bar Mitzvah, or a GLBTPC baker who refuses to bake a cake for a Defense of Marriage rally.

And that's my biggest problem with all of this. It's not really about religious freedom or the right to believe as one chooses is the best fit. It's really all about providing protection to the groups the political sides have decided to allow most favored nation status. In the end, this is for-votes, what can you give me to make me feel good politics, on both sides.

The fact is this, Texas Democrats are trying to cater to two groups, upper-middle class to wealthy Caucasian progressives who currently form the back-bone of their party financing structure, and the GLBTPC groups who currently are among their most vociferous supporters and who they use to attack Republicans without getting their hands dirty.  Republicans are also pandering to the evangelical right (NOT, it should be noted the "evangelical tea party" which doesn't exist, another of Ratcliffe's many erroneous assumptions in the piece.). Republicans have always pandered to the so-called moral-majority for votes.

The two parties are shouting over one another while the TLSPM has decided that they are going to insert their framing of the issue to further muddy the waters and, they hope, drive outrage and (most importantly) page-views. If anything Ratcliffe's piece suffers from two main faults.  First, he clearly displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the underlying issues. More egregiously, he falsely applies the Great Man Theory to Hammond in all areas.  Not only is Hammond "right" on the issues but Ratcliffe asserts that he is "right" in his motivations as well, subtly implying that anyone in opposition to Hammond and his fellow travelers is not. This is wrong-headed thinking at best, intellectual dishonesty at it's worst.

The biggest problem with the TLSPM is that they ALL think this way.  Hence the term "lock-step". The second biggest problem is that, on most issues, they get it factually wrong.

*Before the session started I opined that the Texas Legislature should just pass a solid budget (the only thing they are required to do by the Texas Constitution) and call it a day. When the Lege starts believing the key to Texas' problems lies in their legislative actions? That's when the problems start and the TLSPM rushes blindly forth.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Texas Leadership Vacuum: A National Beer Day Shotgun

Shot: The Distributors speak out on Houston Matters

Chaser: The Craft Brew Lobby Answers Back.

As someone who's been watching this go on for a while now it's no secret that I'm sympathetic to the craft brewers.  When you consider that some (although not all) distributors are subsidized in part by the big brewing companies you have what basically amounts to a rigged market. The "deal" that passed in 2013 was both a win and loss for craft brewers.  Yes, they won the ability to sell a small amount of product out of their tasting rooms but they also lost the financial rights to their local distribution.

I'm not going to quote too heavy from either argument but I will close with this from the Craft Brew Lobby.....

In addition, The Beer Alliance's characterization of the changes in 2013 being something they 'allowed to happen' borders on ludicrous. Senators Eltife and Carona and Rep. Wayne Smith were the architects of the 2013 compromise that resulted in the package of bills including SB 639. In addition, Open The Taps and the Texas Craft Brewers Guild played large roles in helping to advocate and advance the benefits of those same bills. The very idea that the distributors feel they have the power to 'allow' or 'deny' things to happen in Austin IS THE PROBLEM - for too long they have been the only voice heard in Austin, and have a misguided sense that they make the rules, they are the gatekeepers, and that progress only comes from back room deals held outside of the public eye.


Happy National Beer Day.  I'm going to go enjoy one of the craft variety.

Houston Leadership Vacuum: Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! This Editorial Board has got to go!

For what is really a fairly decent City, Houston really suffers when it comes to media, especially political opinion on State and Local matters.

For the most part I'm not including our TV news media here, they're not set up for that type of analysis. But when you take a look at the rest of the media landscape you're more likely to get a firm slice of political opinion from a passer-by on the street than you are one of Houston's new media outlets.

You shouldn't expect much from entertainment outlets such as CultureMap: Houston, The Houston Press or Houstonia. After all, these outlets are basically entertainment/food/fashion/lifestyle sites/publications who dabble in news from time to time. In the grand scheme of things, they're blogs with a budget.

You should expect solid political opinion from the Editorial Board of the Houston Chronicle however, as they still occasionally try to do 'news' and make comments regarding the same.

How are they doing?


Ups and Downs. The New Mrs. White, ChronBlog

1.  City Council moved fast to unanimously approve the awe-inspiring master plan for Memorial Park drafted by philosopher/visionary landscape architect Thomas Woltz. It isn't going to be inexpensive and the Uptown TIRZ is opaque regarding funding. But we're ready for a land bridge and a new jogging track now.

So, it's going to cost a LOT and it's not quite clear how it's going to be funded. Plus, it's being backed by a TIRZ which (from time to time) the New Mrs. White claims to have issues with.  But hey, there's a land bridge and jogging track so damn the traditional job of the media to hold government fiscally accountable and let's go forward whole-hog!  What's a few Billion dollars (if you include the money they want you to spend on the Astrodome) amongst friends?

2.  When you have a part-time Legislature, stupid things happen. The House of Representatives pulled an all-nighter Tuesday into Wednesday to pass its version of the budget. We shouldn't have to bring our blankie and a pillow to the Capitol to watch elected officials do business. And it is impossible for the elected ones and their staffs to do their due diligence on no sleep. Why not schedule the debate over two days?

For their next act the New Mrs. White reveal to us that they believe that the Texas Legislature is 100% there to react to their timeline.  I'm sure it's tough, writing fluff material for Gray Matters and then being expected to stay up late to watch the Legislature work.  This is no doubt very taxing and tough for one to swallow.  We all feel for you I'm sure.

State Budget Disorder. The New Mrs. White, ChronBlog

There's nothing inherently wrong with a low tax, low services governmental philosophy as long as Texas is able to meet all of our baseline needs while balancing a budget. However, over the past several legislative sessions, our elected officials have failed to make the key investments necessary to foster a top-quality workforce and business-friendly environment. That's why Gov. Greg Abbott used his State of the State address to focus on the meat and potatoes of governance: transportation, pre-K and higher education. But the recently passed state House budget fails to adequately address these concerns.

For example, the budget contributes nothing to the Texas Tomorrow pre-paid college tuition contracts, which face a $594 million unfunded liability. That's a promise made to Texas families that politicians must keep. The budget also falls $502 million short of fully funding the Hazlewood Act, which requires Texas' public universities to provide tuition breaks for veterans and their families. 
Even when they might be on track the cognitive dissonance of Mrs. White manages to get it wrong. It's impossible to take the State to task (rightly) for their underfunding of these programs if you refuse to call the City of Houston to the carpet (rightly) for their underfunding of the municipal pension programs.  Sure, Mrs. White has paid lip-service to the problem over the years but she was strangely silent when former Mayor Lee P. Brown created the mess in the first place, she's been complicit in the kicking the can down the road that happened during the White administration and she seems more interested in providing political cover for friendly city politicians now.

This is not to say that the current State of Texas proposed budget doesn't have problems (it does) but one needs to show some consistency in one's criticism if you want to be taken seriously.  Mrs. White is nothing on these issues if not inconsistent.

Slideshows galore. The New Mrs. White, ChronBlog.

Texas voters last spring rejected two candidates, one Democrat and one Republican, who had impressive agriculture and administrative credentials. Miller had neither, and yet he's the man who has the job. He has said that his top priorities are water and rural health care. Both issues are important. Our hope is that he'll cease with the distracting sideshows and focus on what's important for this state. 

If there is one thing for which the Chron should never criticize anyone, it's for having too many distracting slideshows.

From time to time I feel it's time to repeat the call:  Shutter the Ed Board Chronicle, redeploy the resources to hard news reporting. There's no opinion coming from you in-house columnists, rapidly deteriorating editorial cartoonists and joke of an editorial board that is not being more well-written by outside sources.  In fact, in most cases, the "other voices" and guest editorials make much-more compelling, sensible arguments than do that generated by Chron staffers.

The New Mrs. White long lost her credibility when the infamous rail memo was accidentally leaked online. In the years since, if anything, they've regressed even further to the point now that they're just embarrassing themselves.

There are some good reporters still working at the Chronicle, it's long past time to give them the resources and staffing they need to cover Houston.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Houston Media PSA: Unless you're in Seattle, Starbucks is NOT a tourist draw.

I mean, c'mon......

Houston to get a monster-sized new Starbucks with special evening service perks: A tourist draw? Eric Sandler, Culture Map Houston.


I need a car: The Mercedes CLA 250 (Part 4 in a series)

Note: What follows are my thoughts on cars that I have driven in my search for a new vehicle. I'm hoping to focus on how cars would react in real, Houston conditions. Not whether they have "tech" or how sporty they are or what their 0-60 time may be (although I will discuss those things). I hope that you come away from this with a better idea how a car would be in everyday conditions, not around a test track.  What follows is my opinion, and my opinion only. I have not received any compensation or influence in writing this other than my own impressions on each vehicle. Your mileage may (and will) vary.  Finally, the following should not be considered either an offer, or advice, on whether YOU should buy a particular car or not. Go out and make your own decisions.

Part 1: The KIA Optima

Part 2: The Dodge Dart

Part 3: The Toyota Camry

For those of you who know me you also know that I consider Mercedes Benz to be the best car-maker on the planet not named Ferrari. Some of the best cars I have ever driven have been rear-drive Mercs including my current favorite car on the road, the AMG CLS 63.

Of course, with a starting price of right around $106,000 (But you're going to spend much more than that to get it well equipped) it is more of a "dream car" and not one that I would seriously consider buying. I could never, in good conscience, pay more for a car than a large portion of the country pays for their house. So, while it's a beautiful thing to look at and admire, I would never seriously consider it even if I could afford to purchase one.

That led me to take a peek at the Mercedes Benz CLA 250, the front-drive little nephew to the CLS.
Picture courtesy of Mercedes Benz
First off, it's a pretty thing. Styled to mimic the CLS, but at a much cheaper price point, Car and Driver Magazine described it as looking like an arrow that has just left the bowstring. This is not a bad thing. While some people like the interior I found it to be a bit "blah".
Picture again courtesy of Mercedes Benz
Performance-wise it has an inline 4 cyl engine that generates 208 horsepower. This provides what I consider to be class leading acceleration but it also hampers the car with poor gas mileage. They say the car will average 30 MPG but any test that I've seen has not come close to those numbers.

The car that I drove retailed for $34,750 and came fairly nicely equipped with leather seats, an electronic nanny (drive assist), power driver and passenger seats with a memory feature, comfort suspension, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing intermittent wipers (which never work) Bluetooth and a keyless start system.

The first problem here?  You can get all of that technology, and then some, on either a Kia Optima or a Hyundai Sonata for around $5- $7 thousand dollars less.  In short, to purchase this car you would have to be enamored with the Mercedes Benz badge.

If you've ever driven either a Mercedes E or S class then you understand that the appeal of Mercedes cars are their refinement.  They are like driving a cloud that will go wherever you want it to without much effort on your part. The biggest problem that I found with the CLA is that it was (to quote Douglas Addams) almost entirely unlike any other Mercedes that I've ever driven.  How can I put this?  The ride of the CLA was what is only known as "hard". Especially when traveling over Houston's moonscape roads.  I hit one bump and honestly thought that the car left the road for a minute. The steering is also disconnected, not as bad as the KIA Optima, where I felt you needed to give the car some advance warning before making a turn, but oddly sluggish, nothing like I've experienced in previous Mercedes that I've driven.

It also had a cheap feel to it. Most Mercedes feel like they've been constructed to the limit of our current technical knowledge of auto-building.  The CLA feels like the folks in the factory just said "well, that's good enough" and went out to watch their favorite soccer team.

To me, this is the biggest problem with the CLA, it's a good 4-door sedan but you don't get the sense that it's much better in construction or handling as are other, much cheaper, cars in the class. This is not to insinuate that the CLA is a bad car. In fact, it's a very good car. The engineers have done a good job taming the torque steer that plagues most FWD cars, especially ones with this amount of horse power, and the inside, while dreary, was clearly well thought out. The 7-speed automatic transmission is smooth, and seemed to work very well, even at slower speeds which is something other carmakers need to figure out.

To my way of thinking the biggest problem with the CLA is one of price. And I just cannot justify paying a premium for this car over several other in the class, not with the inherent flaws which include the ride and my suspicions about the build quality.

In Summary: I've said it before and it bears repeating. The CLA 250 is a nice car. It has touches that remind you that you're driving a Mercedes, including a very well thought-out (if a little bland) interior and some intriguing options.  That said, the price of the car is just too high. It has a ride that is too harsh for a family sedan, especially one that carries a luxury badge. I can't see living with this car on Houston's roads. It does have a great transmission and good power, but I worry that you're not going to see anywhere near the fuel efficiency Mercedes is advertising. There is a 4WD version of this car available, but the prices come in at around $45K. There is no way you're going to find a version of this car that's under $33K in America, due to the lack of options it would possess.  Also, I've said this before, I have dogs, and leather seats, while important to some, are not something I'm all that interested in having. It's not a big thing but it is a thing.

Why you might want to buy one: You want a good family sedan and are willing to pay the upcharge for the Mercedes badge. I think you have to make several trade-offs to have that badge with this car however, and I just don't see the value in buying one like I did in the old C-Class. To me the CLA requires you to make too many concessions to get the price point down, and I still have a sneaking suspicion that the reliability is not going to compare with the other trim models. That said, if badge prestige is your thing, then this is an option for you.

Rating: 7.1 out of 10. The car gets points for styling and the transmission, but loses points for price, build quality, fuel economy and (most importantly) the hard ride.

The Central Texas Railway: A Case study in why entrepreneurism is dying.


Misinformation circles proposed Houston to Dallas High Speed Rail Line. Dug Begley, ($$$)

Normally, I'm not impressed by the transportation "reporting" that Mr. Begley produces. He's a fan of institutional sources and often seems to be doing little more than parroting the company line, with the company being either Houston Metro or local public transportation advocates such as Houston Tomorrow or other groups.

In the linked story above Mr. Begley refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room.  Much of the opposition surrounding the Texas Central Railway project is focused on Government control. The biggest complaints of the municipalities, counties and other government groups is not that their constituents would be "disturbed for the benefit of the few" but is instead focused on the fact that they won't have a big enough influence over how the pie is sliced.

For all of the gripes about "foreign investment" what the local officials are really suggesting is that they can't use the procurement process as they wish.  And this is a big issue in massive construction projects as the rail is sure to be. Billions of dollars in contracts are going to be rewarded and there are many in the ruling class who will naturally resent that they are not positioned to have influence over that.

The administrative red tape in this is going to be unbelievably complex. And this in a state that often likes to beat it's chest about how "business friendly" it currently is.  The fact is Texas is only business friendly if you're willing to play ball with politicians.  For all of the chatter about "not picking winners and losers" the Governor's Economic Development funds have done this for years. It's one of the main reasons this blog has called repeatedly for their elimination.

Administratively, the State of Texas is broken, and the reason for this is not because Texas needs to "spend more money" which is the siren call of the Left.  The major reason for this is because Texas one-party domination of the political system has led to Texas Republicans getting lazy and Texas electing officials to positions of administrative authority for which they are ill-qualified. Jerry Patterson was more interested in his failed run for Governor than he was in being the Land Commissioner. We are seeing the same thing currently with George P. Bush.  In the cities it's not much better. Houston Mayor Annise Parker is more interested in establishing her progressive street cred for a future political office than she is in fixing pot-holes and City Controller Ronald Green might as well not even be present judged on the amount of fiscal watchdog work his office has produced.  Our City Councils have decided that the best way to solve problems is to pass an ordinance, often creating new laws and new regulatory hurdles for prospective business to navigate.

Want to start a restaurant in Texas?  Good luck.  Because once you clear the Byzantine Maze that are the state regulations you also have to comply with all municipal regulations (which, as we've noted, are likely to change on a whim) and we haven't even gotten to all of the Federal regulations which doesn't even begin to address the impacts of the ACA and other payroll withholding obligations.

And that's just for a mom and pop restaurant in one city. The Texas Central Railway is trying to build something that travels across several municipalities and counties and will be subject to that patchwork quilt of negotiation as well. Either they're certain that they can make money or they're masochists. I'm not sure which.

For all of the talk of "streamlining government" from the right and "better government" from the left what no politicians seriously addresses is the mostly broken system of regulation.  This is not just a Texas thing (spend a day dealing with a Federal regulator and you'll see what I mean) but it is growing slowly worse in a State whose economy seems to be thriving despite this.

I worry however that our well-meaning politicians are going to price small businesses out of the market, much the way the unproductive class has effectively priced the poor out of Houston's central core. More so than education the ability to open and run a small business is a stepping stone for the poor into the upper class. If you have a marketable skill, and can make money off of it, the government should not exist to prevent you from making that dream a reality. This is not to suggest that food safety standards should go away (although some will read this and suggest that's what I'm claiming) only that the permitting and regulatory framework for operating and running a business should be greatly streamlined and the permitting process be simpler, and cheaper.

Again, the cities, counties and State governments mainly object to this because they operate under the believe that they are entitled to their 'fair share' of any businesses profits. They feel this way despite the fact that they invested no money, took no risk, and did nothing to contribute to the businesses success.  Obama's "you didn't build that" quote was emblematic of this line of thinking.

It's as wrong-headed as the idea that profit is evil or that the game is rigged by evil multi-national corporations against the little guy.  If anyone is rigging the game, it's the government and over-regulation. Even in a supposedly limited government state like Texas.