Dirty Cougar tricks

I have no personal beef with the University of Houston or any of its past or present faculty or students. In fact at one point I had considered attending UH as a student. However, deceptive and unethical tactics such as those uncovered by Texas Watchdog regarding UH’s purchase of the Rice University radio station KTRU have me questioning a lot about the university which most prominently bears the name of my hometown.

This quote from an e-mail by Erik Langer of Public Radio Capital, which represents UH in the purchase of KTRU from Rice, comes across as rather damning (note in particular the italicized sentence):

We recognize that Rice is going to have a hard time generating a complete list of assets without some of the station personnel’s input, and we agree that tipping off some of those individuals may not be advisable. … We request that Rice provide a cover story for an independent 3rd party engineering consultant, to be chosen by UH, to perform an inspection of the transmitter building, transmitter equipment, transmission line, tower and antennae. Rice should actually hire the consultant we specify, so there will be no question as to the source of the inspection, which of course will have to be coordinated with the station engineer somehow. Rice can use any reason it chooses, some of which can include change of insurance, inventory needs, or any other plausible explanation. UH will reimburse Rice for the cost of the inspection.

So, not only is UH asking Rice to do their dirty work for them, they are actually encouraging Rice to lie to its students and staff about the real reason these engineering consultants are poking around the KTRU building.

Not surprisingly, now that the cat is out of the bag, students and alumni at both UH and Rice are quite unhappy. And for good reason. The ethics and morality of  UH’s actions, either directly or through third parties, fall way short of what I would expect from an organization with “Houston” in its name. We as a community would be better off if both UH and Rice had been more open and actually listened to students, alumni, and faculty about the case for KTRU changing hands. Trying to “sneak it by” only breeds mistrust and resentment.

As it stands now, staff at many university or college radio stations across the country will likely be second-guessing the real reason engineering consultants are poking around their studio. They’ll be remembering the KTRU debacle and the dirty Cougar tricks that have now been exposed. On one hand, it is good that they will have learned from history, as those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. On the other, it’s a real shame that this is how we as a community learn who we can really trust, and who we cannot.

The story of OpenTable versus the restaurants

A recent post to Incanto’s website answers the question often asked of the San Francisco eatery “Why are you not on OpenTable.com?” For those of you that don’t know OpenTable is a restaurant reservation service. The case against Incanto accepting OpenTable is, in summary, that OpenTable takes too much away from the bottom line and also shifts customer loyalty away from the individual restaurant, replacing it with customer loyalty to OpenTable.

Put another way, the real cost of OpenTable goes beyond just the monthly fee and the per-reservation fee. The cost is also the ownership of  the customer relationship, which no longer belongs to the individual restaurant. At first glance one thinks “the restaurants are nuts to pay for the alienation of customer loyalty” and this is distressingly close to the truth.

I don’t disagree with the general principle of being able to book a restaurant reservation via the Web. However, I agree with Incanto and others that OpenTable’s lofty goals have been overrun by greed, especially now that it is a public company. If OpenTable were to place more emphasis on helping individual restaurants succeed, and encouraging loyalty to specific restaurants instead of merely its own reservation service, my opinion might be different. But for now, my advice is for restaurants to close the book on OpenTable and do what Incanto has done: offer reservations via its own website.

Ode to Houston’s switched-off red light cameras

Just under two weeks ago, voters in the city of Houston, Texas, defeated Proposition 3 by a fairly wide margin, bringing the city’s controversial photographic enforcement of traffic signals (red light cameras) to an end. This morning, at 10am, as mentioned in a post to Swamplot and a story on KPRC’s (Channel 2) website.

And not a moment too soon. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions, and while the intentions of installing red light cameras may be good, the implementation and eventual result was bad. For one, any time you have money changing hands for something like red light violation fines, there’s an incentive for greed at the expense of safety. Even if the city or county governments don’t get the fines. Even if they go to local hospital trauma centers. Greed is greed.

You’ll have to just trust me on this, but months ago I once had occasion to make a trip by bus to the Willowbrook mall area, where one of the red light cameras is installed at State Highway 249 and FM 1960 (which is now named Cypress Creek Parkway in addition to its FM number, but was not at the time). I got to observe the intersection enforced by the red light camera. Most of the red light runners were not the “zoom through trying to beat the light” type that usually come to mind when someone mentions “running a red light.” No, these were people trying to sneak across on the tail end of a yellow, going by my estimation 20-25 mph (maybe even as low as 15 mph in some cases), well below the limit of 35 mph on the exit ramp/service road for FM 1960. These were not the menaces to safety that got the red light cameras up to begin with.

To make matters worse, after pacifying the angry citizens with a promise that red light cameras would not be used to issue tickets to right turn violations, the city reneged on this and quietly started ticketing them too. Why? Greed! Pure greed! My mom got one of these tickets.

The Houston red light camera era overlapped significantly with my run as a courier/messenger in the Houston area; thankfully, I never got a ticket from one, either on or off duty. However, knowing the cameras were there and I risked a rear end collision every time I stopped on a fresh yellow light just to make sure I didn’t get a ticket did nothing to ease my already stressful life on the road.

Maybe now that the people have spoken, the city of Houston can time yellow lights properly on traffic signals, a move proven to increase safety. It won’t make the city any money, of course, but wasn’t this whole thing about safety to begin with?

It should be noted that Baytown also voted out the red light cameras in the same election. However, other cities such as Pasadena, Jersey Village, and Humble, appear to be retaining their cameras at least for the short term. It is my sincere hope that these other cities seriously consider following Houston’s lead and put the matter up for referendum in the next election. It’s time to make the entire greater Houston area safer–by getting rid of the cameras and actually focusing on safety, not money.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hunt down my recording of “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead.” Good riddance, red light cameras. You won’t be missed.

Nightmare on Shepherd Drive

I will admit Wayne Dolcefino drew my ire years ago with one of his investigative reports that had some annoying consequences for me personally. I’m not going to go into details but it’s been well over a decade ago now and it’s water under the bridge. Anyway, this is 2010, and Wayne’s latest report about the Houston Police Department’s dubious speed traps got my undivided attention for a few minutes yesterday. As a former courier I would frequently see HPD officers, almost certainly including the mentioned and shown “ticket champion” Matt Davis, staked out at the 700 block of North Shepherd, in both directions (as it happens, I made a fair number of my paycheck deposits at the Capital One branch in the area).

The interesting part of the story here is from Victor Trevino, Precinct 6 Constable, who is quoted as saying:

If you’re writing tickets at this location, and we don’t have any complaints from citizens and you don’t have any accidents out here, then what is your logic?

I don’t think anybody in law enforcement or any public official is actually going to admit that [this is about money instead of public safety], but it’s what it would look like to the common-sense person.

It is indeed rare for me to praise a law enforcement officer. However, I applaud Constable Trevino for his efforts to defend the public image of law enforcement in and around the Houston area. It looks bad on not just HPD but every law enforcement agency in the area when these kind of speeding tickets are written for what must be obvious revenue generation as opposed to safety. Like it or not (and believe me, I don’t), the image of the entire city can be affected by what its police officers do.

So this is what I suggest to my readers: If you get a speeding ticket written by Officer Matt Davis, don’t get mad, get even. Plead “not guilty” and set it for trial. Talk to an attorney. If enough people do this instead of quietly pleading guilty and paying up, Officer Davis and HPD will get the message, because there is no way a million dollars’ worth of traffic tickets will ever make it to trial. And that message is that we as a community condemn the practice of traffic tickets for revenue generation.

Wayne’s story includes a link to a Google map showing the ticket hotspots for surface streets and the number of tickets issued. It’s worth a look, especially if you regularly travel the entire city as part of your job as I once did.