Friday, September 30, 2011

Dash cam, unlucky number 13: postscript

So, one day after I publish a post describing two recent hit-and-run car accidents, someone hits my husband's car, and leaves the scene. 

My husband was not IN the car at the time, so even if he'd HAD a dash cam, it wouldn't have done any good because it would have been switched off. 

But in this case, two eye witnesses got the license plate # and a description of the offending vehicle as it left the scene.  So that's worth observing: eyes are also very, very good things to have around.  Eyes can be made to work very well in situations where dash cams really can't get the job done.  Point noted.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dash cam, unlucky number 13: Two hits and a miss

From the recent local news, the sad story of a motorcyclist, a military vet and former police officer, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident a few miles south of here in La Marque.  Statements from the family suggest that, had this not been a hit-and-run, had he received prompt medical attention, he might have survived. 
What piqued my curiosity was the fact that the perpetrator was tracked down using video footage - mysterious video footage that was obtained HOW?? 
It took a bit of digging to come up with this interview by Galveston County Daily News.  It seems to imply that some of the video was captured by a nearby hotel security camera.  But at the 52-second mark of the interview, the officer clearly says "we've got footage from our motorcycle...".   It sounds like the deceased man may have installed a dash cam on his bike. 
And speaking of dash cams being used to assist law enforcement, we had a doozie of an experience the other night, one which I communicated to Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia directly, and with dash cam pics as evidence.  I was driving my family northbound on IH-45 feeder just south of El Dorado, and a Sheriff's Deputy was stopped in the traffic lane assisting a disabled motorist.  I slowed WAY down (a) because that's the law and (b) it's overwhelming common sense on a road that has no shoulder: this motorist and officer were directly in the path of oncoming traffic.
So as soon as I slow down to pass safely, a driver comes roaring up behind me.  It's only a two-lane feeder, so he cannot pass.  He goes into road-rage mode and starts flashing his lights and surging forward aggressively, literally right up to my bumper, threatening to ram my car!!  Nevermind that there's an officer right there and that people are standing in the roadway. 

When we both came to the El Dorado overpass, I didn't pull up along side him, for fear that he'd take out a gun and shoot us... because we slowed down to pass a peace officer safely.
That gap between me and the white truck ahead of me is for safety.
Anyway, one of the neat things about a dash cam is that you don't have to distract yourself with taking notes or writing things down, because they record audio as well as video.  You can just talk the whole incident through as it's happening and then transcribe it later or save the video for future use in case it's needed.  I was able to call out the license plate on this idiot's truck and then get it off the recording later, so that I could relay that to Sheriff Garcia.  And I saved the video segments before putting the thing back into continuous-loop recording mode. 
And in other theme-related news, last night I went to Burger House, a wonderful little place (so much better than junk food chain restaurants) just north of Centerpointe on Main Street (FM 518) between Calder and Highway 3.  There were two LCPD cars in the parking lot taking a report from a driver who had just been the unlucky subject of yet another hit-and-run.  The driver had pulled the semi-functional car into the Burger House parking lot to get it off the street.  Nobody appeared hurt, but a fine mess was made of the car.  A dash cam might have helped with that investigation.   In the fluster of the moment, the driver might have been able to at least call out the plate number, and of course there would be footage of the fleeing vehicle.  I've been in those kind of wrecks and they can be extremely scary and disorienting.  There's little chance of someone remembering or writing down a license plate in such an upset frame of mind.   But the dash cam can almost do it all for you. 
I'm looking forward to the day when dash cams are standard equipment in all cars.  They may not save your life, but they might help convict the person who killed you, who road-raged on you, or who destroyed your property. 
And there you have it, A Tale of Three Motor Vehicle Bastards, for this Thursday morn. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wail and rail

A thought-provoking letter to the editor appeared in Bay Area News recently, concerning the proposed development of container terminal facilities at Pelican Island, a "spoil island" created by dredging sediment from ship channels near the City of Galveston, and currently home to a number of offshore service shorebases, Seawolf Park, and the Sea Aggies.  (If you'd like to read more about this geographic oddity, there's a short and somewhat bizarre Wiki entry here.)
Display of military vessels at Seawolf Park.
Photo courtesy of
While most of the mainstream media reporting has focused on the economic and political ramifications of Pelican Island's development, local resident and community volunteer Fred Swerdlin raised an important point: such a facility could dramatically increase rail traffic along the Highway 3 line, which runs through the middle of both League City and Clear Lake. 

I'm not sure where Fred got his info, but he signs himself as a resident of "Clear Lake City" (which has never existed as a legal entity - long story), so we can bet that he has lived here a long time, and there's a good chance that he's right. 

This is a concern to us here in Centerpointe (and the rest of League City east of the Gulf Freeway) for two reasons:

(1) It could further snarl traffic in a city already sliced in half by a rail line for which few east-west crossings exist.  That rail line is a significant contributor to many of our mobility issues.  Can you imagine traffic getting worse on FM 518??  Talk about descending into lower and lower rungs of Hell.  The visibility of the historical studies dealing with FM 518's wider congestion problems have recently been eclipsed by complaints about the five-corners intersection of which FM 518 is a big part, but the fact remains that the road itself is a huge problem for us, in large part because there are no relief corridors, and there are no relief corridors in large part because there are so few rail crossings.  What good would it do you to move more efficiently through five-corners if you then have a bottleneck a mile further west at the rail line?!

(2) The noise pollution impacts could be significant for Centerpointe.  Are you ever awakened by that train that periodically blasts up the Highway 3 line around 3:30 a.m.?  You sure are if you live on the north or east sides of Centerpointe, because we are not that far from those tracks.  And if Pelican Island development increases, you might hear a heck of a lot more of that noise, day and night.  Have you ever spent time in neighborhoods inside Houston's Loop 610, especially overnight?  Those residents are plagued with train horns to the point where I don't know why more people don't hurl themselves off the Waugh Street bridge from losing their minds.  It's such a lifestyle dichotomy: many inner-loop residents pay $750,000 for a modest house (location, location, location), and yet they have to live with this constant and exhausting sleep-destroying racket.  They've made some progress in forcing the rail companies to establish quiet zones where train horns are prohibited, but it's still a huge problem for them. 

As the old saying goes, ya can't stop progress, and I would not suggest trying to stop the development of Pelican Island.  But we have to make sure that our community don't inherit the short end of the stick because of this, by way of quality-of-life degradation: if there are deleterious effects expected from increased use of that rail line, a plan needs to be developed and deployed to mitigate them.  Not just empty political promises - an actual enforceable plan.

I'll report further on this potential issue as more info becomes available.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fiscal electrocution

It's early in the morning and I'm having trouble wrapping my brain around this news article in Galveston County Daily News:

A 34,000 League City residences are getting "smart" electrical meters for which we will each be forced to pay FOUR HUNDRED NINETY DOLLARS?!

Not only that, it apparently might happen for us in Centerpointe quite quickly.  Here's an excerpt from the installation schedule in the article cited above: 

Oct. 10-14 — south of FM 518, east of Calder Road, west of Interuban St., North of Link Road. 

That sounds suspiciously like us. 

The article states that affected residents will receive a postcard notifying of the change.  I never got a post card.  I just re-checked my mail stack, and there's nothing. 

It concerns me that we get no say in this matter even though we are the ones paying for it.  And the cost seems ridiculously high:  my husband and I installed a TED energy monitor in our house about a year ago.  It provides much more finely-tuned measurements than what the GCDN article mentions, at a fraction of that cost!

I have to dash to work right now, so cannot research this further.  If anyone has additional insight, please contact me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dash cam, Part 12: Smoke over Centerpointe

For posterity, I thought this screengrab should be included: Centerpointe against the backdrop of the smoke from the tri-county fire which, as of Friday, had consumed seventy homes and eighteen thousand acres north of Houston, one of four hundred eighty fires currently burning in Texas.   
Driving northwest on Walker near SH 96.
One may wonder what inspires me to talk about improving landscaping while we are subject to water restrictions and the worst drought in recorded history

Well, is it preferable to invest at the bottom of the stock market, or the top of the stock market?  Nobody knows exactly where we are in relation to our current climatological analog to a stock market, but I'm fairly certain of one thing: we're nowhere near the top. 

Plus at a certain point, it becomes a matter of principled defiance.  As contrarian philosopher (and Carl Rogers disciple) Richard Farson memorably said (and apparently Clarence Darrow before him), lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Property values: Centerpointe first impressions

As one of the very first buyers to sign a contract for a house build in Section 9, it may surprise you to learn that my first reaction upon seeing Centerpointe was absolute horror.  We examined all Clear Lake neighborhoods prior to making a buying decision, and my first response to the possibility of buying here wasn't "No" - it was "HELL, NO!!"


Because THIS is the first thing I noticed about the neighborhood:
Not a single scrap of vegetation anywhere.
Most of the cheap apartments I've rented in my lifetime have offered greater privacy than what is seen here.
That commonly-repeated neighborhood scene reminded me overwhelmingly of THIS:
This is a screengrab of a corridor in a maximum security prison - I believe this may be Alcatraz.  Same general configuration - rows of windows facing a completely sterile intervening space through which sun shines down.
Now, some of you may be thinking, "Hey, wait a minute - this is a new neighborhood - there hasn't been time for vegetation to grow."

There are two rebuttals to that as follows:

(1) Centerpointe is actually not that young.  Some parts are a decade old.  The conditions depicted above are not restricted to its youngest sections.

(2) At this price point, it is appropriate to invest in the kind of landscaping that would be visible from common areas from Day One of installation.  So even if the houses are young, one would expect to see good landscaping conspicuously in progress.

What I concluded initially as a house-shopper was that Centerpointe is the kind of subdivision where people throw up tract homes and then fail to incrementally improve them.  And that is THE kiss of death from a property values standpoint.  
The same phenomenon is visible in aerial photograph throughout the neighborhood: two builder-grade trees in each front yard, a few one-gallon foundation shrubs, and virtually nothing in any back yard.
Homes in far-flung Houston subdivisions generally do not appreciate in value.  In recent years, there has been value contraction.  Additionally, those of us who contracted new houses to be built according to specific tastes paid a premium for that service, a premium that we will not necessarily realize upon resale.  The only way the average Houston suburban homeowner can hope to recoup anything close to their original purchase price is to make smart incremental investments in their properties, investments that cause the properties to stand out from the competition.
Screengrab from a real estate listing of many months ago.  Rest assured, no potential buyer  ever responded to a scene like this by declaring, "Oh, look, honey - absolutely no privacy - how wonderful!!"
Artist's rendition of the Meritage Aspen, as shown on Meritage's Centerpointe marketing page.
What makes the big impression here is not the house - it's the ambiance, the feeling of richness.  Without the landscaping, the house is just another generic tract house.
So what ultimately compelled us to buy in Centerpointe, if our first reaction was wholly negative?

It's a long, long story involving the types of necessities and compromises that characterize our unusual family life.  Suffice it to say that one of the compromises I made with myself is that I would offer to the neighborhood my knowledge on how this kind of incremental investment deficiency can be rectified - and for far less money than you might think.  In order to build in Centerpointe, my husband and I each sold our individual Clear Lake houses at a profit during the Great Recession when many local sellers were probably not able to break even - both of them, at a profit.  We know how to maximize return on investment where suburban tract homes are concerned.

And so in an upcoming series of blog posts, I'll offer some small-yard, privacy-maximizing landscape ideas, complete with budgets and sourcing.

Several families have already asked me to lend a hand in this regard, and our own investment efforts to date here in Centerpointe have elicited some humorous responses from other homeowners.  One resident confessed to sneaking into the upper floor of a house under construction so that he could get an elevated view across the neighborhood and into our back yard, because he wanted to see what is growing there.  Another resident referred to me in conversation as "the one with landscaping".  I was trying to explain to him where I lived, and I was saying, " turn right and then make a left and then make another left --" when he cut me off and said, "Oh yeah - I know who you are.  You're the one with landscaping."  Note the use of the phrase "the one".  THE one - the ONLY one with landscaping on this side of the neighborhood.  Maybe it should be my Native American name: instead of Dances With Wolves, Crazy Horse, or Maria Tallchief, I'm The One With Landscaping.

So stay tuned for those upcoming posts.  And happy Labor-Day-plus-first-cold-front-of-fall.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trash by any other name

Last June, I got fed up with rampant soliciting in Centerpointe, and posted this warning near our front door:
Since posting it, only one bandit flyer has been left there, and I opted not to "out" those folks because I don't think they spoke any English.  Therefore they weren't defying my request, exactly, because they didn't know that the request was being made.

Correspondingly, I was delighted to see this article in today's Houston Chronicle which describes bandit signs as "trash on a stick" and which describes the activities of volunteers who are working hard to gain an upper hand on its distribution. 

"Bandit signs" are those advertisements, usually professionally printed, that seem to appear spontaneously in every conceivable location: public rights of way, the lawns of government and commercial buildings, parking lots, empty fields, you name it.  They are illegal and they are ugly, turning our environment in its entirety into one contiguous screaming billboard.  That article I linked above reported that the City of Houston disposed of eleven thousand bandit signs just last month - and they're only scratching the surface.  Three full-time civil employees are dedicated to that job - peoples' tax dollars at work. 

And, I note with supreme annoyance, this trend is not limited to a growing assault on front doors and unguarded outdoor areas.  When I walk into the women's room at my health club, WHAT do I often see littering up the vanity counter in front of the mirror and hair dryers?  MORE bandit flyers and business cards, placed without permission by third parties unaffiliated with the health club, advertising all manner of female-oriented consumer crap.  Picture this: I've just come out of an hour's worth of challenging yoga, and I'm in a settled mental state.  I drift into the women's locker room to wash hands and wipe face, and the first thing that greets me is a clamoring imperative to buy scented candles that actually smell worse than my dog's rear end.  The mood suffers, eh?  And what do these peddlers imagine - that the entire known universe qualifies as their personal graffiti stage??

Trash on a stick, trash on a door, trash on a counter.  With these trashy things in mind, it is declared that henceforth ALL bandit advertisers that impact our local area will be subject to being outed-by-blogging.  We'll see you trash-distributor guys in cyberspace. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Almost went to the dogs

Those of you who aren't here during normal business hours missed a lot of commotion two days ago, with choppers overhead and email blasts about an armed gunman who was, indeed, briefly at large here or just west of here. 

This, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with our neighborhood, per se.  Reportedly, a chase originated in La Marque after the gunman hijacked a cigarette truck.  It must have been one hilarous sight to see ten million cigarettes flying all over the place and people swarming like flies-on-you-know-what to abscond with them.  After unintentionally distributing his ill-gotten gains thusly, the perp fled into Leage City's deep suburban bowels and escaped. 

At any rate, this incident served as a good reminder for me of the potential for a normal day to suddenly turn badly entropic, not because there was a gunman, but because of what happened in our house as a result of it.

As soon as I got the email blast, I went to fetch a means of personal protection which must be kept under constant lock and key.   I left our dogs in my office and was retrieving said device from a bedroom when all of a sudden, the dogs came barreling down the hall, snarling and vicious.  

Fortunately, after a split second of cold fear, I realized why this was happening: I opened my lockbox with a key that lives on a ring I almost never have to handle.  That set of keys makes a different jingling sound than my everyday keys.   When the dogs heard an unidentifiable noise in a bedroom, they assumed it was an intruder and thus launched into attack mode.

If I had not been able to make this swift association, I, too, would have assumed that an intruder had just entered or was about to enter. That's a very logical conclusion when faced with:

(a) an email blast informing of a gunman headed this way,
(b) physical confirmation of this urgent situation in the form of choppers circling overhead, and
(c) trained dogs going berserk.

If I had not realized what was actually going on, I, too might have come out of the bedroom and down the hall in a corresponding attack mode, which would have been extremely bad for me, the dogs, the infrastructure of the house, plus everything and everyone else with the misfortune to be in momentary linear alignment with me.

Moral of the story: a deleterious conspiracy of variables can occur very quickly in a perceived emergency situation.   You need to set yourself up properly if you ever think there'll be an situation in which good split-second decision-making depends entirely on accurate information.  For me, among other things, this means discarding a lockbox that requires the rattling of any unfamiliar keys, thus nullifying a previously-unrealized canine attack trigger.  I'm thinking about one of those products that is said to be as silent as it is secure.
NOT an endorsement of any specific manufacturer,
but I have friends who are quite pleased with these types of keyless finger-pad safes (they are available with or without biometric ID).