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June 8th, 2014:

Weekend link dump for June 8

How not to get hired by the firm that brought you in as a summer intern.

“It may be too soon to know if the Affordable Care Act is making Americans healthier. But there’s a smattering of data that suggests the law is making the health care industry healthier, at least.”

Will the last country that wants to host the 2022 Winter Olympics please turn out the lights?

Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu has some excellent thoughts about misogyny, entitlement, and nerd culture.

“The problem with the VA system right now is that, for an entire decade, we sent people into the meat grinder of a war the architects of which conducted completely off the books. They kept it off the books used to keep the federal budget, and they did all they could to keep it off the books of the nation’s moral conscience as well. They lied and they cooked their estimates on everything far worse than did the likely criminals who fudged the documentation at the hospital in Phoenix.”

When even the NRA thinks you’ve gone too far…Or not. I guess it isn’t possible to go too far.

I don’t think God loves me enough to tell Herman Cain to run for President again in 2016.

“Electronic Arts, the maker of popular college sports-themed video games, will pay current and former college athletes $40 million in damages as part of a deal to settle multiple lawsuits against it, the NCAA, and the Collegiate Licensing Company.”

RIP, Ann B. Davis, best known as Alice from The Brady Bunch.

On punching down.

As the author of this award-winning blog, I recommend you read this post about how to win on social media.

RIP, GOProud. Tough row to how ya got there.

“Yes, malaria is still a plague; it’s not Rachel Carson’s fault, and your saying so probably kills kids”.

Charlie Pierce schools Maureen Dowd on the proper ways to consume cannabis comestibles.

John Oliver causes massive FCC headache (via Therese, who brings the GIF).

The minimum wage is worth a lot less now than it was in 1968. Of course, wages overall aren’t worth what they used to be, too.

“It is like watching a man confidently explain why a mousetrap could never work on the assumption that the trap will be laid with no bait.”

RIP, Father Rivers Patout, founding chaplain of the Houston International Seafarer’s Center.

“A German museum has put on display a living, 3D-printed copy of Vincent van Gogh’s ear that was grown using some of the Dutch artist’s genetic material.”

“Even casual readers of the Bible may have noticed that there is no reference in Genesis to human sinfulness (or Martian sinfulness, for that matter) leading God to flood Mars.”

RIP, Don Zimmer, one of the great characters of baseball.

Even if the option had existed when they were babies for my children to lounge in spa pools with floaties supporting their heads, I would not have indulged in such an extravagance. I mean, seriously.

“Has Obama done everything within his power to protect future generations against climate change? Yes. Is everything within his power enough? No.”

When doing cartwheels is outlawed, only outlaws will do carthweels. Or something like that.

We missed you, Bill Watterson

Stephan Pastis wins the Internet, and pretty much everything else, this week.

Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?

But he was. And he had a great sense of humor about the strip I had done, and was very funny, and oh yeah….

…He had a comic strip idea he wanted to run by me.

Now if you had asked me the odds of Bill Watterson ever saying that line to me, I’d say it had about the same likelihood as Jimi Hendrix telling me he had a new guitar riff. And yes, I’m aware Hendrix is dead.

So I wrote back to Bill.

“Dear Bill,

I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”

So he wrote back and explained his idea.

He said he knew that in my strip, I frequently make fun of my own art skills. And that he thought it would be funny to have me get hit on the head or something and suddenly be able to draw. Then he’d step in and draw my comic strip for a few days.

That’s right.

The cartoonist who last drew Calvin and Hobbes riding their sled into history would return to the comics page.

To draw Pearls Before Swine.

And so he did, for three days. It was right there on your comics page this week. Did you notice? Did you realize what was behind it? Read the whole thing and see for yourself how it went. How often does magic happen right before your eyes? See this followup interview with Watterson in the Washington Post for more.

McClelland’s response

I have to say, I’m not impressed.

Defending his department’s failure to investigate thousands of crimes last year, Police Chief Charles McClelland on Thursday said the understaffed Houston Police Department does not and should not have a goal of aggressively probing every crime reported to it.

“We work violent crimes first. If someone steals your trash can or your lawn mower out of your garage, there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned,” McClelland, a 37-year veteran of HPD, told City Council members during a budget hearing. “There has never been a time that I have been employed there that the Houston Police Department has had the capacity to investigate every crime that’s been reported to the agency.”

[…]

The chief bristled at the idea that his agency should be expected to throw manpower at all 1.2 million annual calls for service and stressed that his command team knew it had too few officers long before the report was released.

“If you read the work demands analysis, it only recommends 100 additional detectives; the greatest staffing recommendation is for patrol,” McClelland said. “A hundred more detectives will not give the capacity to work 20,000 cases. They’re very minor crimes. I don’t want to dismiss that if someone was a victim of crime, but they are.”

McClelland said he has read the 207-page document and has asked his executive team members to do the same. The chiefs will meet to discuss the report soon, he said, then will present staffing recommendations to Mayor Annise Parker.

“It’s something we know cannot be resolved in one budget year or two budget years,” he said, “but we do have to put a plan in place to address it.”

[…]

HPD is budgeting for 5,305 classified officers in the new fiscal year, a rate of 246 officers per 100,000 people. Comparing Houston to the nation’s 10 largest cities that rate of police staffing falls roughly in the middle, well behind Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, but solidly ahead of cities such as San Antonio and San Diego, according to 2012 FBI data.

Within Texas, Houston falls similarly in the middle. Dallas has 283 officers per 100,000 people. The rate in Austin is 204; in San Antonio, it is 166.

The original story said these were cases “with workable leads”, so Chief McClelland’s statement about “there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned” is disingenuous. I’ve no doubt that all police departments prioritize, but on the surface this looks and sounds really bad. One way to demonstrate that maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks would be to provide comparisons to other large urban police departments. I suspect that’s outside the scope of this report, however. It would still bee interesting to know. It would also be interesting to know what HPD is prioritizing over these cases, since Chief McClelland refers to working violent crimes first. The main problem with that statement is that we know that HPD has also had an issue with homicide cases not being worked. One presumes those are the highest priority cases. All of which is to say, what’s going on in the department? Claims of short-staffing may be accurate, but they only go so far, especially for a department that has seen its funding go up by more than fifty percent over the past decade. I hope the Chief’s executive team members read that report very closely.

Now, for sure we’re going to have a debate about staffing levels at HPD, and how its resources are being deployed. Just keep in mind those statistics cited above regarding the relative number of officers in Houston compared to other cities. In terms of cops per population, we’re in the middle of the pack, not near or at the bottom. Maybe we do need more cops, or maybe we just need to use the ones we have more efficiently. And that much-ballyhooed report itself adds some context, on pages 27 and 28:

The appendix at the end of the report contains a number of benchmarks comparing Houston to other state and national jurisdictions in several crime categories. First is a comparison of 2012 FBI UCR violent and property crime data benchmarking Houston’s crime and department staffing levels against San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth in order to make baseline crime comparisons. Of the five cities, Houston had the highest violent crime rate but fell in the middle for property crime rates.

Staffing comparisons were made to benchmark Houston’s sworn, civilian, and combined staffing against the same four state and five national jurisdictions using 2012 UCR data. For each agency, the percentage of each department’s sworn and civilian personnel is shown.

Next, 2012 UCR data was used to compare Houston’s crime and staffing levels against those of five relatively similar police departments nationally: Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Memphis, TN; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, MD. Compared nationally against other large cities, Houston had the second-lowest violent crime rate but the second-highest property crime rate.

Lastly, crime trend analysis was performed for the City of Houston by reviewing FBI Part I UCR data. We analyzed violent crime and property crime rates (including rates per thousand), and analyzed each of the four individual violent crime categories (homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery) and three individual property crime categories (burglary, larceny/theft, and auto theft) over a 10-year period. Both violent crime and property crime rates show a downward trend.

You can see the charts they reference in the first appendix, starting on page 149. To cut to the chase, from 2003 to 2012, the violent crime rate in Houston has dropped from 11.8 per 1000 residents to 9.9 per 1000, and the property crime rate has fallen from 58.8 to 49.5. The amount of crime isn’t increasing, despite some gloom and doom predictions a few years ago. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think we could and should be doing better with the resources we’ve got.

But let’s stipulate that some more resources are needed. What should we prioritize?

McClelland stressed that recruiting is a struggle for the agency, in part because HPD’s starting salary is lower than those of other Texas police agencies. Council recently approved a $5,000 bonus for new cadets. The last class before the bonus started with 30 applicants, he said, and has dropped to about 25. Another class starting in the coming days – after the bonus was implemented – will begin with about 70 cadets, he said.

The chief’s view was echoed by Officer Doug Griffith, of the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

“A 24-year-old Marine coming here could care less if we have a botanical gardens or Uber or anything else,” he said, referring to issues the council has discussed in recent weeks. “What they want is starting salary, and until we get them up to match other cities in this state, we’re not going to get them. We need y’alls help. This is a crisis we’re going to have to work through.”

I’ll grant the salary problems for hiring cadets, but if the report says we only need 100 more detectives, why not start with that? That would cost a lot less than 800 patrol officers, and would likely have a much greater effect on solving these unworked crimes. Patrol officers aren’t there to solve crimes, after all. Texas Leftist and Campos have more.

County to challenge vacant lot appraisals

It’s a start.

Harris County is challenging the local appraisal district’s valuation of vacant commercial land after a study it commissioned concluded the agency had undervalued those properties by more than 80 percent this year.

The finding was based on a random sampling of two dozen vacant commercial properties across the county with a collectively assessed value of $75.3 million. College Station-based consultant Ted Whitmer found those vacant lots – among nearly 30,000 on the rolls – were worth a combined $140.8 million, or 83 percent more.

The County Attorney’s Office filed a challenge based on the preliminary findings with the Harris County Appraisal District on Monday, the deadline to submit challenges. The action could evolve into a lawsuit if the district’s Appraisal Review Board does not settle, but agency and county officials said they hope to avoid that.

[…]

Unlike home and business owners, who can protest appraisal values for individual properties, the county can challenge appraisal values only for entire categories of property. Vacant commercial properties make up about 2 percent of the county tax base.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted in February to hire Whitmer to monitor the appraisal district’s valuations of all commercial properties, concerned the appraisal district could be undervaluing certain business properties at the expense of homeowners.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who requested the study, said at the time that district’s Appraisal Review Board in recent years had agreed to set values for commercial and industrial properties far below what those properties later sell for, suggesting the independently governed agency did not adequately fight property owners who challenged their appraisals in court.

Whitmer’s study found that the appraisal district largely had accurately appraised commercial properties, including downtown skyscrapers and apartment complexes. That is a sign, according to one HCAD critic, that agency efforts to more accurately appraise business properties have paid off.

“I am delighted that we have reached the point where the Harris County Appraisal District, the largest appraisal district in Texas, is vastly closer to true market value,” said blogger George Scott, who worked for the district as a spokesman until 2012.

Scott said the report will help the appraisal district defend values in court against deep-pocketed companies trying to lower their appraisals for commercial and industrial properties.

See here and here for the background. This won’t make a big dent in the appraisal gap, but it’s a good first step in the right direction.

It takes time to park, too

The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.

That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.

That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.

One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.