Thursday, November 29, 2012

Concerns with the League City Post Office

If anyone has noticed irregularities with the League City Post Office, you might want to email me ( gmail) so we can compare notes.  (Update:  You can read my more detailed description of this incident in this subsequent post).

My husband and I are working a case right now where some of our mail went missing.  There doesn't seem to be any record of what happened to it.  We went to the Post Office with the usual peach-slip within the alotted timeframe, but there was nothing to be found.  It's not clear whether the material got misdirected or whether it was stolen from inside the Post Office.  The only thing USPS will admit to at this point is that their own procedures were not followed.  Meanwhile, the formal investigation continues. 

Like I said in a recent post, 'tis the season where you have to watch out for weird things happening. 
This method might have been a better bet for us.
(MS Office clip-art.)

Sign of the times

So I'm mired in traffic at Five Corners around 7:00 a.m. this morning, and I spy this billboard in my field of view:
FM 518 WB at FM 270.
I'm not a doctor.  I'm not a medical practitioner of any kind.  I don't represent any medical institution.  But I'm sorry - I personally do not agree with either the sign or the sentiment that it conveys.  In my observation and opinion, good health does not begin with primary care - it begins with healthy lifestyle, of which the main components are diet and exercise.

And you may be thinking, "Oh, good grief - it's just a marketing slogan - why do you care?!"

I care because human beings are exquisitely sensitive to environmental cues and messaging.  Exquisitely sensitive.  A year and a half ago, I wrote a post that discusses at length the "broken windows" theory of criminological behavior, which asserts that signalling has a dramatic effect on behavior. 

By analogy, I also postulated that environmental signalling  might be the reason why Walnut Pointe has a higher historical incidence of petty crime than any other street in Centerpointe.  Walnut Pointe is usually littered with un-garaged cars.  This jumble of jalopies signals would-be thieves that the area is ripe for the imposition of additional disorder.  By making itself into a physical path of most resistance (clogging up the street and sidewalks), Walnut Pointe made itself into an existential path of least resistance (for crime).

This is just a theory, of course.  But it's one that has precedence. 

That UTMB billboard above sends a signal that, in my opinion, is dis-empowering.   All the "primary care" in the world is not going to help the person who doesn't take responsibility for their own health by engaging in appropriate self-supportive behaviors.  Healthy diet.  Daily exercise.  No harmful levels of alcohol or recreational drugs.  No smoking.  The billboard doesn't promote those kinds of things, with primary care being the obvious incrementally-empowering adjunct.  Instead, it shows a woman with submissive body language clinging to the telephone instead of reaching for her own internal resourcefulness and self-discipline and then counting the telephone connection to her doctor as just one of a collection of health-promoting tools available to her. 

That segment of FM 518 handles about 30,000 vehicle transits a day.
Or at least it did as of 2004, per this H-GAC reference.  It would not surprise me if it's higher now.
Is it in the public interest to have that kind of message seen by that many people every day?  Absorbed through the corner of the eye like subliminal advertising?  Or absorbed straight-up consciously, as it was with me?

It's just an isolated example of a little thing, yes.  But when you start adding up all of the "little things" that characterize our society, my bet is that there can be some big impacts derive from the antagonistic sum total.  And then from there, who knows what bizarre things might result.  Maybe even a 36% national obesity rate

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Get ready for some noise...

...especially if you live on the south side of Centerpointe Section 9.  They've loaded heavy equipment onto our adjacent tract, so it looks like work there will commence in earnest.  Just in time for the holidays - hah!
The scene on West Walker Street yesterday around mid-day, Harvard Pointe homes in the background. 

Chuyos is worth stopping for

I don't know if Alison Cook was being tongue in cheek when she wrote this, or simply innocent: 

"Suddenly I was looking for excuses to set out along the Gulf Freeway for League City, where this mom-and-pop Peruvian spot has opened, somewhat improbably, in a strip mall on the Kemah end of the main drag." 

Actually it's solidly in League City a short distance past Clear Creek High, and some would argue that Marina Bay Drive isn't really the main drag, but we'll forgive her for that stuff.  And judging by those imprecisions, her comments may have represented more of an innocent framing, rather than a veiled reference to League City's reputation as a place people drive through on their way to somewhere else.

She was talking about Chuyos, the "Peruvian fusion" place.
2500 Marina Bay Drive.  If driving northbound, it's probably most convenient to get to it via turning onto Constellation and then reversing direction back out.
The menu that is posted on the web link given above is a one-page PDF that appears to be limited to lunch offerings.  We went for dinner last night, and the relevant things to know are that most dinner entrees are priced as either $9.99 or $10.99, and the proprietors supply photographs of each dish to better communicate what your ordering options are.

Speaking of photographs...
This is THE absolute worst photo form on my part, because I'd already taken a few bites before snapping the photo, thus totally ruining the presentation.  But I didn't realize in advance that it would be worth taking a picture of, so there's my lame excuse.

This is the dish called "beef seco".  Beef in a spiced sauce that was heavy on its cilantro base, with beans and rice.  All fresh home-made. 

Here's one way to gauge the quality of a restaurant: you can eat the pinto beans without getting "digestive upset" afterward.  A good chef knows how to prepare beans to avoid that kind of thing, but it's a longer more involved labor process and most restaurants cut corners and simply do not make the extra effort. 
This was really good food, the type of stuff that many would call "comfort food", albeit with the obvious ethnic twist.  Actual food that is quite obviously home-made from scratch, rather than being franchise fodder hauled out of a freezer, incinerated, dressed up with greasy "smotherings", and served up as a mass-produced excuse for something you're supposed to actually pay for.  The latter being what is almost exclusively available in the suburbs, of course. 

So here's my suggestion: For all the folks who are inclined to diss the suburbs for being homogeneous cultural wastelands, get out there and patronize a family micro-businesses such as this, because it's destination-worthy, just like Ms. Cook claimed
I had to partially redeem my own awful photo above, so here is a screengrab of another dish from this gallery.  My husband and daughter both had this one, and it was also very good.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A more secure front door

Almost two years ago, I published an account of a burglary that my family experienced while living in Pearland.  Since that time, I've also talked about new technologies such as security cameras, but there are a few basic physical loose ends that I never got around to covering. 

And now is a good time to do it, given that we're in the holiday season when there's typically an escalation in bizarre burglaries.  This is the time of year when a certain segment of our population realizes that they've over-spent on crank to the point where they have no money for holiday gifts, and so they better go steal something to cover the gap.  It was just over one year ago that the lady on Walnut Pointe emerged from her shower to find that men had broken into her house

As always, this is not legal or professional advice I'm supplying here, and I'm not a home security expert.  These are just some personal observations as to what I've chosen to do, and why.

My Pearland burglars gained initial access to the house by using a battering ram to break the frame of our front door.  The door itself was a heavy solid mahogany number and would not yield, but the frame was simply builder-grade pine plus common hardware and it splintered accordingly.

This was the same approach used back in August of 2012 by the individual(s) who apparently attempted to break into that home on Cypress Pointe.
Except in that case, they targeted the BACK door rather than the front.  That attempt was not successful, but the door and frame were reportedly damaged beyond repair (according to the account published in the neighborhood newsletter).
Screengrabbed from
And by the way, it's been delightfully quiet around here lately, crime-wise.  This grab shows reported incidents from August 1, 2012 through November 27, 2012.
Why do burglars insist on breaking down heavy doors when every house has about fifteen fragile ground-floor windows they could choose instead?  I don't know - perhaps it's just a failure of imagination - but they do this fairly predictably, so here is a photo sequence showing how we reinforced our front door several months back.
Well, a partial photo sequence at least, because my husband had already commenced this particular honey-do before I had the camera ready.

Basically our front door has this very common configuration: door knob below, and deadbolt above.  As delivered by the builder, each of these components had its own separate small strike plate held in place by two screws (you can see the original holes here). 

My husband went to the hardware store and bought a single larger, thicker strike plate which fit this standard spacing (I believe it cost about ten bucks).  However, given that the frame had been fitted with the original separate plates, he had to trace the outline of the new one and then use a chisel to chip out the extra wood, so that the new larger plate would sit flush with the frame.  This job is a pain in the lower anatomy requiring patience, but it doesn't require a lot of skill or special tools.  What you see here is the finished chisel-out. 
Here's the new single-piece strike plate dry-fitted in place.  Notice how it has nine screw holes instead of the original four that the two smaller plates had. 
But THIS is the picture that really tells the thousand words.  That screw on the right is one of the original screws installed by the builder.  The one on the left came with the new strike plate.  Which do you think offers more protection: four of the right screw or nine of the left? 

The reason why doors break down so easily is that the frames are pretty flimsy.  These longer screws were designed to anchor way back into the stud wall and provide substantially more strength. 

I can't imagine what it would take to break down this door with this new hardware installed.  I think the door itself would have to be reduced to splinters (and it's mahogany, so it's stronger than it looks).  The frame is a lot less likely to let go now. 
Of course, all this effort would be for naught if it were not coupled with the use of double-sided deadbolts:
It took us a while to get to this frame-reinforcement honey-do, but I had a locksmith installing these deadbolts within 48 hours of us closing the contract on this house.  The original house came with one-sided deadbolts, meaning, there was a knob you turn on the inside to open it. 

With this configuration...
You need a key to get into the house.
You also need a key to get out of the house.
This idea freaks some people out, but let me explain.
If you don't use double-sided deadbolts, you can have the strongest door and door frame in the world and it wouldn't amount to a hill of beans because the burglars can simply pop a small hole in that door glass, reach in, turn the latch, and walk through your now-unlocked door. 

I can't remember who put me onto the idea of double-sided deadbolts.  It may have been the Pearland police officers who investigated our burglary, because I've used double-siders on every house I've owned since that time. 

This idea scares some people because they think, "OMG, what if there's a fire and I can't find my keys?!  I'll be trapped!!" 

Well, first of all, exercise a bit of self-discipline and keep a spare key near every double-deadbolted door, but keep them:
  1. Beyond the reach of anyone who puts an arm through the door glass, and
  2. Near the door but hidden.
We do this in my family and it's not a burdensome procedure - we're accustomed to it.  And woe to anyone who screws up and moves a key from its assigned location. 

Secondly, remember that you still have your fifteen-odd ground-floor windows to choose from if you need to get out in an emergency.  Overcome psychological inertia and see the senselessness of requiring a door as an egress point in an emergency. 

Double-sided deadbolts also offer the following additional advantage:  They impair a burglar's ability to get back out of your house if they do get in, say, through a window.  Even if they come in by the riskier means of a window (visible window transits clearly signal something wrong at the house - door transits may be ambiguous and less noticeable to neighbors and passers-by), they're most likely going to want to exit through a door because they'll be carrying your goodies and it's inconvenient to try to muscle flat-screen TVs and other items out of windows that were never designed for such activities.  Faced with these kinds of efficiency barriers, they may just conclude, "Oh, to hell with this!" and go find an easier target. 

Our back door is a different configuration and I'll try to deal with that in a separate post.  In the meantime, may your holiday weeks be burglar-free. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Once-per-week trash option now on public radar

First, for the benefit of those viewers just tuning in, I will summarize this blog's coverage to date of the $30 million League City trash contract that was recently approved by City Council

Following that, I will summarize new developments including the cost increases that are now expected to impact League City's approximately 26,000 households (the election is now over - can you tell??).

You might want to skip these review bullets if you've already read this stuff:
  • On October 28, 2012, I asked the following question: Why do League City residents pay for twice-weekly trash pick-up when our neighboring two million Houstonians only pay for one?
  • On November 4, 2012, I presented my own limited but telling data in which I had measured a mere 56% trash participation rate in my study area's second weekly collection day (i.e., on November 3), but even more strikingly, I presented photos documenting the fact that many of those people who did bother to participate put out almost no trash.  By my own conservative fiscal viewpoint, I asserted that such little bags of almost-nothingness could easily have waited another three days for pickup without any deleterious impacts to public health or quality of life.
  • On November 6, 2012, I described how I'd measured just a 43% recycling participation rate in my study area (also on November 3).  And, of course, Leaguers are using those tiny little recycle bins that hardly hold anything to start with.  I questioned the financial efficiency of this strategy.  Recycling is about conservation and yet it wouldn't surprise me if we were actually expending far more resources in fuel alone than we could ever hope to recoup through such a dismally-ineffective process that couples low participation with inefficient containerization.
  • On November 9, 2012, I wrote an open letter on the contract following my participation in the first public meeting held by City Council.
  • On November 11, 2012, I used general data published by the federal government to conservatively estimate how much League City taxpayers could save by going to a once-per-week collection scheme, concluding that the savings should be at least $4.5 million according to those published figures.
At one point in November 2012, in a discussion thread in a Galveston County Daily News article, I also made the observation that our newly-elected City Council members Bentley, Thiess, and Kinsey (I've used campaign URLs there in case they are still monitoring their own linkbacks) basically have no choice but to examine this trash contract very closely. 

If they don't do this, they're leaving themselves open to a serious spanking down the road, if not sooner.  They have a Tea Party affiliation and were elected on a platform of fiscal conservatism and "no more government as usual".  Geri Bentley specifically made reference to the $200,000 spent to move the Ghirardi Compton oak as an example of questionable government spending.  I ain't no political strategist, but if someone agitates about $200,000 but then declines to parse a contract for which millions of dollars could potentially be saved if only it were managed in a way that flew in the face of "government business as usual", it seriously does not pass the smell test. 

Quoth Galveston County Daily News on November 23, "Councilwoman Heidi Thiess also asked if the city had looked into going to a once a week trash pickup service for residential customers instead of twice a week."

Hallelujah.  Baby steps.   

Of course, Republic Waste's reported reply sounded like pure saber-rattling to me:  "Republic Waste Services representatives said that judging from other city’s (sic) that have gone to once a week, service costs may actually go up for the League City if it were to go to once a week." 

Yes, that's usually the way it happens in the real world - significantly decrease fuel consumption, equipment wear and tear, and labor hours, and program costs usually do go up as a result.  Not.

But I'm digressing as well as rambling. 

Here is the other important point to take away from GCDN's November 23 article:
Here is another very important point that was debated in the first public meeting but which has received scant news coverage to date:
  • Republic Waste refuses to collect recyclables on the same day as trash, as Ameriwaste now does.  Furthermore, they refuse to collect anything whatsoever on weekends.  What this means under this new contract as it now stands is the following: League City in its entirety will be littered with the sight of refuse collection containers three out of every five business days!!  We're collectively going to have containers out there visible to the transiting public three days per week!  In the first public meeting, OKeeffe was horrified by the thought of that, and so am I.  We're trying to attract new business and new consumer spending to League City.  Will projecting a trash-centric OCD vibe help those goals?  Obsessive-compulsive disorder raised to a municipal scale: they can't seem to get their trash collected efficiently, so they have to keep putting their containers back out there most of the time.  Good grief. 
Anyway, we'll see what happens next with it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Galveston County population distribution

It occurred to me this morning that I'm really quite ignorant about how Galveston County's population is distributed among its various areas.  Even if I had been educated locally, which I was not, things have changed so much in the past decade or so that everything I might have learned in school would be way beyond obsolete by now.  I'm always searching for the 30,000-foot view on any given issue, such as why commercial news coverage in this area seems to be less comprehensive than it rightfully ought to be, but if I don't have a foundation of basic facts, my resulting perspectives are liable to end up partly standing on unecessarily-shaky ground.

Enter two of the most powerful ignorance-dispelling mechanisms ever invented by mankind: 
  1. The computer spreadsheet.
  2. The world-wide web.
And in the course of using those two power e-tools, I resolved a question that has resided as an infinitely-low priority in the back of my mind for years now: Why does the Galveston County Daily News online edition have exactly sixteen places listed under it's "Communities" tab?  (Note that there's a format change scheduled and this organizational feature may not persist into the future). 

Answer: Because those sixteen really do appear to represent about 95% of the county's entire population.  This wasn't obvious to me.  I think of Galveston County and I visualize all this open land, and I intuitively conclude that there must be a fair number of folks diffused all over the place in rural areas, old homesteads, farms, ranchettes, etc. that are geographically independent and outside of defined communities.  But that's actually not so much the case. 

Anyway, for future reference, here's what I derived using the aforementioned powerful ignorance-dispelling mechanisms.

But we must also have the picture that tells the proverbial thousand words:
Same sixteen communities listed by Galveston County Daily News, but arranged clockwise in order of descending population per the referenced data sources.  GCDN arranges them alphabetically instead (at least they did as of November 2012).  This pie chart exhibits a few rounding differences but is based on the table presented above. 
So there's my morning tea exercise for today, to stand on its own merits for future reference. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Time to pay the newspiper

If you weren't reading carefully, you might have missed it:  Galveston County Daily News's announcement that they are going behind the paywall in a couple of weeks.

Thirteenth paragraph down in the article:

Additional online changes will take place Dec. 12 as The Daily News switches to a subscription-based site. Nonsubscribers will continue to have access to the home page and advertising-related features such as banner ads and classifieds, but only subscribers will have complete access to the website and all of its features.

Not surprisingly, the reader comments at the bottom of this announcement are mostly negative.  At the moment, I don't have enough information upon which to base an evaluation of whether or not this will prove to be a good idea for anybody - either the paper or the readership.   In the comments section, I explained why I can't yet predict - it's because GCDN's strategic intentions with this move are not stated.  Specifically, it's not clear to me whether they want to be a whole-county newspaper, or primarily a south-county newspaper analogous to The Facts, which touts itself as a "Brazoria County" newspaper while offering only minimal coverage of the news that happens in its largest population center - Pearland. 

What question did I ask just eleven days ago?  How big does League City have to get before it can support its own newspaper?  I hereby ask that question again.
THIS right here is our essential problem as a city
Our center of everything is located
in the exact middle of nowhere
We are 26 miles from Galveston, which has a newspaper, and 23 miles from Houston, which has a newspaper.  We seem to fall into a journalistic no-man's land, despite having a population that is approaching six figures. 

Sign on FM 518 WB near IH-45 screengrabbed from Googlemaps, which explains the crummy resolution.
I'm partial to "League City Ledger" as the title for our yet-to-be-born newspaper, as it has nice meter and alliteration while remaining crisp and not cumbersome.  Anyone care to start this venture??  Without question, you will have a paying subscriber in me, if you do. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Local food for thought

You'd hardly know it's the morning before one of the biggest American holidays of the year.  The freakin' sound storm is so intense this morning that I couldn't continue to sleep once rush hour began (why are there so many people on the roads?).
When I stepped onto our back patio at 0630 to feed our dog, I felt like bellowing at the top of my lungs,
(As if that would do any good.) 

Right at the moment, MD6282 is not logging any wind, but I think there's a very subtle mass laminar air movement of sorts coming from the west or northwest, and moving excessive noise toward us like a freight train.   And the air is so dense that the high relative humidity is not doing a thing for us in terms of freeway noise suppression. 
Anyway, I mentioned in a recent thread that Dimassi's restaurant had been one of the few places in Clear Lake where I could get a decent healthy meal according to my definition of it...
Gone but not forgotten.  Done in by a really bad location, it had really great food (and at a fair price, to boot).  Screengrabbed from Googlemaps.
Given that folks will be engaging in the annual Thanksgiving shop-a-thon over the next few days, I thought I'd showcase a couple of other decent healthy meals that are still attainable around here.  If you're running your tail off going from store to store, ya gotta eat, right??

This showcasing thing is pretty easy to do because I'm one of those nerds who occasionally takes camera phone pics of my lunch and sends them to unsuspecting friends.  We pretend to be five years old again, declaring with visual evidence that my lunch is better than your lunch - nah nah, nah nah nah!!  And then we laugh hysterically over the absurdity of it.  A small techno-driven ritual reminding us that we're never too old to play. 

So let's see a couple of those:
A dish called Karai Don in Tokyo Bowl, which is located in the strip center at the corner of Bay Area and Space Center Blvd.  I can't tell you how many times I've ordered this only to have another patron peer closely at me and ask, "Wow - what's that?!?"  It's like a spicy tossed salad with avocado, vegetables, ginger on the side, and many kinds of raw fish.  It used to be served on a bed of white rice, but a few years ago, the sharp-eyed proprietor Jay noticed that I would never eat all of my rice.  "Too many carbs," I responded to his agitated question, sidestepping the more complex glycemic index topic.  Since that time, my Karai Don always arrives on a bed of mostly bean sprouts with a little bit of rice at the bottom, which is perfect for me.  But I don't know if I'm the only person whose Karai Don was adjusted accordingly, or if everyone now receives it that way.  I just show up at the restaurant, and they know how to make it for me without me having to ask.

It'll set you back more than $20 with tip, but it's worth every penny as far as I'm concerned.  You get what you pay for and I can't imagine any single dish having better nutrient distribution and density than this. 

Tokyo Bowl currently boasts almost 1,600 followers on Facebook and has probably the largest astronaut fan photo collection in the area.  A veritable Clear Lake institution with a cult following. 

They usually close for a few weeks at the end of each year in order to give their staff a break.  Phone before going.
Second local example of healthy eating:
The "stone bowl" in Korean BBQ which is located in a strip center on El Dorado between Highway 3 and IH-45. 

I lived in Clear Lake for many years without knowing about this place, but reviews by Alison Cook brought it to my husband's attention a few months back...  
... in fact, she rated it at #77 of her top 100 Houston restaurants for 2012.  Not a bad ranking, considering that Houston is estimated to have about eleven thousand restaurants!!
Screengrab from this source, which appears to be affiliated with Houston Chronicle. 
Of course, you don't leave the egg and vegetables all segregated like that.  The stone bowl sizzles, and so you do your own stir fry number in your dish before you eat it.  Alison described the procedure enchantingly in this 2007 Chron article.  The dish has a fair amount of rice in it, so it's not my ideal glycemic scenario but hey - a person has to live a little sometimes.

It's a small family-run restaurant, so it's good to call to see if it's open, and avoid peak times or else you might not get a table.
Anyway, there are a few eatin' ideas to balance out the turkey tradition.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The *real* boogey men (and women)

Almost as if on cue, an Amber Alert was called this afternoon, five days after I wrote about KTRK's coverage of the "free range kids" parenting movement and two days after my corresponding spoof went very-mildly-viral, the spoof of over-hyped news coverage that sensationalizes the rare stranger abductions that do occur.
The scene on IH-610 NB just south of IH-10 about mid-afternoon today.
Well, yeah, "they" are everywhere, if it's crankheads we are referring to.  According to published reports (not spoofing now), allegations of methamphetamine use compelled child welfare workers to attempt to remove a child from her mother's custody.  The mother snatched her, the grandmother was implicated along the way, and the child was retrieved safely.  It wasn't the boogey man come to snatch an innocent baby off a quiet suburban street - it was just another in an endless series of domestic dramas. 

But along the way, those freeway bulletins reinforced unspecified boogey man terror in the hearts of perhaps one million Houstonians today.  Seriously.  I don't know how many motorists use the local freeways each day, but HCTRA alone reportedly handles a half-million.  And I think that the Amber Alert system is a good system except it has this unfortunate drawback:  these announcements don't provide any context as to what motorists are seeing.  Many people see "kidnapped child" and they assume that it must be a pedophile who intends to leave the child's lifeless body on the train tracks after he gets done violating it repeatedly. 

Sigh.  Ilona Carson presented the statistic the other day that there are only about 100 abductions of kids by strangers nation-wide each year.  Contrast that with this little gem:
Screengrabbed from this source
Two hundred and four thousand, give or take.  Versus one hundred.  Children are almost exclusively snatched by family members, but that type of thing doesn't usually make a compelling news story, so we rarely receive that vital piece of perspective through the "regular" channels (pun intended).  We mostly just get a distorted view and then we develop a distorted perspective to match it. 

Two hundred to one odds, give or take, given the vagaries of any particular year's statistics.  Remember that the next time a freeway marquee stops your beating heart. 
It was a family member.
It almost always is. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Unsupervised children overpower helpless dog

A roving band of children cornered and seriously entertained a loose dog yesterday in the League City, Texas suburban neighborhood of Centerpointe.
It is suspected that the children were between six and nine years old.
Neither the dog nor the children were subject to any obvious control or supervision by hovering adults at the time of the incident.
The dog was rendered blissfully passive as she was alternately rubbed, scratched, and petted.
Witnesses report that the children and the dog also spent close to an hour engaging in games of chase and fetch within the public right of way, also without direct adult intervention, and without the dog being leashed.  The children had no prior knowledge of the dog's training or temperament, but successfully negotiated the play interaction with the animal despite this limitation, as evidenced by their constant screams of delight.  The witnesses refused to identify themselves for fear of social, legal, or regulatory reprisal. 

It is believed that no similar incidence of spontaneous, unchoreographed play has occurred anywhere in League City since approximately 1984, prior to the time when stranger danger paranoia swept American society. 

In the intervening years, normal children's activity has become increasingly criminalized, as evidenced by the case of the Virginia mother who was interrogated repeatedly by police for allowing her children to play unsupervised within their own yard

Much closer to home, a La Porte, Texas mother recently made national news when she was arrested and jailed for allowing her two children to play unsupervised on their suburban street despite her defense that she was, in fact, visually monitoring her children from her position in a lawn chair that may have been situated out of the public's direct line of sight.  Her children are the same ages as the children depicted above, and La Porte is located just sixteen miles from League City.

What prompted yesterday's bold demonstration of trust and affection is not known.  However, greater Houston's primary English language commercial news network, local ABC affiliate KTRK-TV, recently distinguished itself by documenting the "free range" parenting movement and showcasing with actual statistics the degree to which "stranger danger" fears are unfounded, and follow-up reporting by independent sources emphasized these facts.  It is possible that some local parenting attitudes are quietly evolving in the face of this compelling information.

League City police are not investigating yesterday's incident. 
Neither the children nor the dog were harmed during the event, although the dog's owners now wonder if her future expectations for affection will become a bit over-inflated. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bizarre bird behavior

My double-take was so strong, it almost gave me whiplash.
At first glance, it looked like a very normal scene: a sunny Saturday morning in Clear Lake Shores, a handful of feral Muscovy ducks lounging by the waterside. 

But waitaminute - let's zoom in on that...
Notice anything a bit odd?
How about now?
Those two with the grey heads were apparently only thinking they were Muscovy ducks.  They were actually black vultures
Getting ready for flight.
Unfortunately, all I had with me was my crappy camera phone, which does not do well while zooming in direct sunlight.  I have never been this close to a "wild" vulture before (or at least, one who should have been acting wild), and here was the experience for me, in a gravel parking lot in Clear Lake Shores.  Who'da thunk. 
I have never seen vultures intentionally flocking with Muscovies before, but apparently this type of behavior has been reported in greater Houston previously, at least to a limited extent. 

It's no secret that suburbanization has assisted certain wild species.  Just yesterday, GCDN published a short piece describing the three thriving coyote dens that are located pretty much in the heart of Galveston.  We all know from visual experience that both black vultures and their larger cousins turkey vultures thrive on road kill. 
Seen daily above a freeway near you.
Screengrabbed from this site.
But wider social integration??  Inter-species??  What is the basis for this association?  Do the vultures perceive of themselves as being indistinguishable from Muscovies?  They are basically the same size and of similar gross appearance, but it's not typical vulture behavior to lay down and chill out in the middle of human activity - in a grassy swale at the edge of a commercial parking lot which had just received about fifteen cars filing into it for the opening of the Farmers Market.  That type of nonchalant hanging out is typical Muscovy behavior, however. 

Nature's great mysteries, unfolding in a suburb near you.

Walking wonderland, Part 3

OK, following up on this post, I finally managed to get into the danged CAD in order to look this up.  The tract I had in mind for walking is marked as a right of way with no assigned parcel number.  It does not appear to be anyone's private property.
Near the top of the photo, do you see the words "40' R.O.W." (those letters stand for "right of way")?
And the Interurban easement running perpendicular to it to the lower left.  This strip is accessible from the Interurban.
That's just a wonderful little "secret passage" type of route connecting the Interurban to State Highway 3.
It's about 700 feet in length.  This is the best-kept local secret I've stumbled upon (literally) in quite a while now. 
 A walk along this segment has something special associated with it:
Instant walking companions!!  Bonus!!
I remember back in January when I was sifting through records trying to track down who was developing the Gas Dude property, I stumbled upon a record for a nearby tract which actually had an ag exemption on it.  "Holy crap!" I thought to myself, wondering who was attempting to skirt their property taxes.  "There's no livestock near Centerpointe."  Well, someone slap me, because yes there is!  It's amazing what you discover when you actually get off your suburban duff and explore the world.  This is an absolutely beautiful 15-acre tract that is owned by someone who is very lucky to have both the land itself and these happy and very curious bovine munchers.  This is the northwesterly tract that the R.O.W. runs along. 
And following up on this other recent post (which I'm delighted to say was tweeted and read by like-minded folks world-wide), here's a very telling vignette from my yesterday.  While I was getting my head shaved hair cut, I mentioned some of this walking stuff to my stylist barber.  He paused thoughtfully and asked, "Is it safe?!"

Again we see an expression of fear based on a statistical misperception.  Nothing in this life is completely safe - even writing blog posts carries risks (what if the ceiling of my room spontaneously collapsed on my head?!  What if the house caught fire and I couldn't get out?!).  But walking around in daylight in our suburbs is pretty darned safe, especially with a feisty shepherd mix at the end of the leash. 
I didn't vet the quality of these particular data, which were screengrabbed from this site, but for the sake of argument, let's take them at face value.  Basically what they show is that the odds of getting murdered, raped, robbed, or assaulted around here are statistically miniscule.  But that's not the perception that folks tend to get from watching the evening news on TV.
Anyway, the Clear Lake Shores Farmers Market is beckoning, so I must close for the moment.  Happy walking!!  It sure is a perfect day for it. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Walking wonderland, Part 2

Good grief, Galveston Central Appraisal District (CAD) is a pain in the lower anatomy sometimes.
This error message occurs frequently.  And it often persists for days at a time.  Screengrabbed from what should actually be   
I wanted to provide some additional ideas on walking routes around here, but in order to do that, I first have to verify which parcels are owned by whom, to ensure that I'm not accidentally describing something that would have the potential to be a trespassing scenario.  And that verification can't be done with an apparently-crashed CAD server.  Again. 

Anyway, what I'll offer instead today are a few cool pics of our neighboring subdivision, Oaks of Clear Creek

It's that subdivision due east of Centerpointe, on the other side of the retention ponds and the easement.
Screengrabbed from Googlemaps.
This development is almost 20 years old, and land in League City was a heck of a lot cheaper back then.  What this means is that this subdivision ended up with a larger ratio of common area to single-family lots compared to what Centerpointe has. 
This subdivision can be accessed on foot via the Interurban easement which is just on the other side of our stormwater retention ponds.
There's a foot gate in the wrought-iron fence that surrounds the subdivision's common areas.  It's got collision posts to prevent any type of small motor vehicle (such as ATV) from passing through from the Interurban easement. 

In a previous post, I questioned the strict legality of walking in the Interurban easement (I don't know the answer to that), while at the same time noting that it's not posted and many local people walk there on a daily basis.  Furthermore, at least half of the easement-flanking properties in Oaks of Clear Creek were constructed with back fence gates allowing property egress directly into the easement, as was this community park.  There is substantial evidence suggesting that this was conceived as an area where the public would, in fact, walk. 
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's common areas?  Well, I do.  The pool and park areas are HUGE by present-day subdivision standards.  It's so cool to see open areas like this.  Kids can throw balls here and whatnot - there's enough space for that.  Unfortunately, we don't have this kind of resource in Centerpointe. 
They didn't call it the OAKS of Clear Creek for nothing.  I don't know who the developer was, but the number of shady oak trees in the park is just fantastic.  The subdivision is also unique in that some of its single family homes have water oaks in their front yards, instead of the usual live oaks (and there's a street in the subdivision named Water Oak).  Water oaks are native and grow quickly into absolutely massive, upright trees - they can reach 100 feet in height.   
Free rodent control for the surrounding homeowners!! 
Lucky them!!
I did notice that one of the park's playscapes seemed to have met with some kind of recent misfortune.  Vandalism?  Arson?  I don't know.  I didn't hear anything about this in the local news, but then again, I don't hear about a lot of local things that happen, in part because League City doesn't have its own newspaper yet
Back in April of this year, I described a public outreach initiative pertaining to a new pipeline installation that was scheduled.  Initially it was suspected that the pipeline would be in "our" Centerpointe easement, but in fact, it's probably due to be installed in the Centerpoint  easement, which we think is the Interurban easement. 

I haven't seen any physical activity to date regarding that, but unless plans have changed, there's a good chance that there will be some construction-related disruptions in this area in the future.
Until such time, if watching sunsets is your thing, there's hardly a better wide-open location than this.  This is the view last night, looking west across the fields toward Centerpointe.  You can see our iconic pine tree just left of photo center.   

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fantastic free-range feature

A few thousand years ago, Greek mathematician Archimedes legendarily distinguished himself by running naked through the streets screaming something along the lines of, "Eureka! I found it!" following his bath-time realization that hydrostatic displacement could be used to determine the volume of an irregularly-shaped object such as a king's crown.

Whether or not there's any truth to this famous scientific anecdote, I felt much the same way yesterday after watching a reporting segment produced by our local ABC-TV affiliate KTRK, which I will embed at the end of this post.

Fortunately for y'all, I did not proceed naked through the neighborhood, but the fact remains that I found it:  An unusual example of responsible journalism, and an uncommonly introspective one at that. 

Let me explain in detail, because hell might freeze over before any of us have the privilege of seeing the likes of this again.

I raised a "free range" daughter, to the point where we were literally a local poster-family for the movement, widely known (and occasionally vilified) in our community, appearing briefly in a European TV documentary, and making other public appearances that I will not reference here.    

For those of you who are not familiar with this child-rearing approach, it's difficult to capture all the nuances and underlying philosophies in one easy sound bite, but the underpinnings boil down to this:

Kids are a lot safer today than our pathologically-suspicious and histrionic American culture is publicly representing.  And they're a lot more capable than we give them credit for.  If we grant them the types of appropriate freedoms that we grew up with when we were children, they will develop stronger situational awareness and self-regulation skills than they would if we were to simply overparent them into a psychological no-man's land

You've probably heard the term "helicopter parenting"?  Free-range parenting is, in many respects, the antithesis of that.  In my view, helicopter parenting is a subtle but gruesome form of child abuse because it communicates a wholesale lack of faith in the child's intrinsic capacity to mature.  It instills groundless fears and literally erodes a child's ability to develop his or her own distinct identity. 

Anyway, as I started to say, my child grew up free range in north Clear Lake.  From the age of about seven onward, she was allowed to go outdoors, meet up with a few friends who were also granted the same limited but logical freedoms, and explore our neighborhood without any adult hovering over her head in a state of sub-panicked paranoia.  And for several years, that's just what she did with her free time - she would leave our home with her friends on a weekend morning, and then re-appear perhaps six hours later, all smiles and sparkling eyes, to tell me about their collective adventures. 

I watched that small group of kids flourish in the face of these basic freedoms.  From afar, I saw them develop fantastic cooperation skills, such as subtle but highly-sophisticated intra-group communication protocols to warn of approaching cars as they were riding bikes and playing ball games in the streets.  They climbed trees unassisted.  The built a secret fort in the shrubbery behind one of the Pineloch neighborhood monument signs, a bower into which they would retreat for hours at a time.  They knew every squeezable hole in every fence within a half mile of our house.  Even if the Boogey Man had attempted to pursue them at any point, he wouldn't have had a chance.  They had mentally mapped their surroundings so thoroughly that they would have simply slipped away, vanished like four-foot phantoms, as the masters of their suburban environment that they had literally become. 

My daughter, now a teenager in high school and beginning to feel the inevitable performance pressures of impending adulthood, looks back upon that time with pure reverence.  "Those were the best years of my life," she often says, with a twinge of sadness in her voice, mourning their passage. 

I can't imagine what either of our lives would be like today had we not lived that way when she was young.  What's the point of living if there's no available access to life's everyday moments of pure magic?  How does a child go on to explore and relish the wider world and successfully face adult challenges if they start from way, way behind the existential eight-ball, cement-shoed with the type of abject fears and suspicious world views that are transmitted to them through helicopter parenting?  I don't know the answer.  I do know that, even as we were free-ranging, I was seeing some other children - a mere seven or eight years old - already beginning to take psychoactive medication to manage their anxiety and depression.  It's easy for me to understand why they were succumbing to those afflictions at such tender ages. 

Anyway, the great gift that KTRK gave us all yesterday was to shine a CG spotlight on the extent to which many helicopter-style fears are actually groundless.  Free-rangers have known this all along, of course, but in the chronically-sensationalist commercial news media, that part of the message is almost always sacrificed on the altar of "bad parenting" rhetoric and "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality. 

KTRK reporter Ilona Carson showcased quantitatively the relative risks posed by the "stranger danger" hysteria that is usually the excuse parents give for hovering and prohibiting unsupervised play. 
An American child's odds of dying in a car wreck are TWENTY TIMES HIGHER than their odds of being abducted by a stranger.  And yet which of those two possibilities dominates every child autonomy decision made by many parents?  The snatching scenario. 

Screengrab from KTRK.
This is obviously a disturbingly-poor risk assessment that many parents make, yet it's not difficult to understand what drives their mistaken priorities.  We are constantly surrounded by over-hyped media presentations of those few children who do become victims of this incredibly-rare type of crime (even when they are not really). 

But here's where KTRK's production progressed from important to revolutionary:  They actually shone the spotlight squarely on their own contribution to the problem by referring back to their coverage of a recent Houston abduction - the type of story that may work well where subscriber ratings and advertisement revenues are concerned, but which arguably does a disservice to our society by helping to distort public perception of the associated risks.  That took real guts. 

This wider risk prioritization issue, by the way, is also why I am so strident on certain public service priorities such as traffic enforcementsidewalk availability and sidewalk maintenance.  There are risks posed to young children who are playing and exploring outdoors with a minimum of direct adult supervision, but they are not the risks that most parents assume.  The primary risk derives from the auto-pedestrian threat.  THAT is what we should be working to ameliorate, not the much-lower risks associated with imaginary Boogey Men. 

Anyway, thanks for slogging through my usual long-winded preamble.  When I immigrated to Houston many years ago, the first words I heard uttered were, "Say it out loud!  I'm Houston proud!"  I was never Houston-prouder than I was yesterday when I saw this news segment, and I give my heartfelt thanks to both Ilona and Lenore.  Enjoy the 3.5-minute show.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Eagle Ford echoes?

If you read the news these days, you can't escape the headlines declaring American energy independence to be within our reach (although some are skeptical about what it would mean or whether or not it's even possible). 

All this, of course, is due to advances in drilling technology coupled with high global oil prices, a synergistic pair of circumstances that have increased production - and employment - in a number of key areas nationally, including the nearby Eagle Ford shale, for which the increases in productivity have just been jaw-dropping

And then there's the curious case of the Webster Steak and Shake, which was recently constructed in fine franchise form, but then never opened.  It sits there not far from us (you can see it as you drive on NB IH-45 near the new NASA Road fly-over) like a virginal retail monument to... something we're not quite sure of. 

What could these two things possibly have in common?!

Well, there's a chance that they are all part of the same tightly-interconnected phenomenon that sent me hiking to no less than three different Clear Lake grocery stores last week in order to obtain the type of milk that I buy for my family (organic skim).
These days, I'm having more and more trouble with what should be one of the easiest jobs that any domestic goddess has to do.  Here's a shelf with one lone gallon sitting in the organic section - and this pic was taken before noon on a Sunday, so we can't blame this run-on-the-milk-bank on the lateness of the day.
This shows conditions in another local store just a few hours later:
None whatsoever.  I'm not trying to accuse any one g-store in particular here - this is happening with all of them.  I've greyed out identifying marks in these photos so as not to appear to be picking on any retail chain in particular. 
And it isn't just milk.  I'm often greeted with the same empty-shelf phenomenon when searching for my other favorite grocery products. 
I'm a great fan of this brand of granola bar because they are reasonably priced while at the same time lacking the usual low-nutritional-quality carbohydrate fillers that characterize so many other brands.  But finding them on the shelves?  Difficult. 
This scene may not look significant to you until you understand why it's only ONE lineage of this pomegranate juice that is missing here (and which is almost impossible to obtain locally, by the way).  The product that usually fills the gap to the left is the plain straight-up stuff - the pure pomegranate juice.  The others are diluted with other juices such as cherry or grape.  Pomegranate juice is extremely expensive but is widely believed to convey significant health benefits, so the consumers who spring for it are educated and not so dumb as to spend their money on a cut or watered-down version of the product, which is arguably what these other choices are. 
So how might this third issue, namely grocery scarcity, relate to Eagle Ford and Steak and Shake?
  • They might all reflect workforce availability which has been impacted by the lure of great jobs and good money in the revived Texas oilfield, both within the producing areas themselves, and in spin-off industries, of which Houston has a mother lode. 
  • It has been speculated that the Steak and Shake was built but then failed to open because the operators may be having difficulty finding the people they need to staff it. 
  • I suspect (but have no proof) that this lack of stocking across multiple grocery stores may also reflect significant staffing problems.  It does not matter what time of day I shop:  if I go early in the morning, the shelves are empty from the night before, and no staff can be seen actively stocking them.  If I go mid-day, a few stocking clerks can be seen in the store, but many shelves are still empty. I have not been able to identify any local store where I can pick a specific time of day or a day of week and consistently find product on the shelves. 
  •  Tellingly, I now tend to see staff working to stock shelves during peak grocery rush hours - which is extremely inconvenient as huge fork-lifted pallets of stock block grocery aisles and exacerbate shopper congestion in the stores.  I suspect this might be happening because the managers cannot find a sufficient number of staff who are willing to work the night shift, which is the time when most re-stocking traditionally occurred. 
And it's not just the products I've shown above for which these stocking shortages are happening.  Those are just the pictures that I happened to take in an isolated photographic effort about a week ago. 

There are shortages of other products as well, including certain meats, cheeses, and snack foods, but they all have one thing in common:  the products I've found to be missing (including the sub-set depicted above) are generally higher-quality, more nutritionally dense than the bulk of the factory-farmed, highly-processed, mass-produced big-brand alternatives that comprise the bulk of any given grocery store's offerings.  So there may be a two-fold issue manifesting here - an employment shortage PLUS the fact that the Clear Lake's healthiest consumer segment is chronically underserved in the marketplace to start with.

And we were painfully aware of that second part already, of course.  Several years ago when HEB Clear Lake Market opened to great pomp and ceremony, I attended a "grand opening" meet-and-greet that was held by their corporate management staff (not the store management - the higher-ups).  I spoke to this one important-looking lady in particular and asked the following question:

"It's great that you've moved into this new space, but why, why, why didn't you make it into a Central Market instead of into an ordinary HEB store?!?!"

She looked at me with this grin that was both cheery and absolutely dismissive and replied,

"Our market research indicates that this is not a health-conscious community."

I was completely stunned.  Struck dumb.  I was so shocked by the directness and decisiveness and lack of political-correctness of her reply that I couldn't even muster a feeble rebuttal.  I simply wobbled away like a cartoon character whose head had just been clashed between two cymbals.

I couldn't find an example cartoon showing my beloved Bugs Bunny, so here's a low-res partial screengrab from this site.
I quoted her exactly there.  I know this because her choice of words reverberates within my head to this very day. 

I'm not sure how this conclusion was reached.  Here in "greater Clear Lake" we have a highly educated population concentrated largely in the medical, petrochemical, and space sciences industries, and yet what falls out of who-knows-what formulaic analysis is this notion that our scientifically-apprised residents prefer to stuff their collective faces with cheese puffs and the like

Meanwhile, local competition for nutritionally-dense alternatives is becoming downright ridiculous.  I know what health-conscious people have started to do, because I've started to do it myself:  once you locate a desired product that is actually in stock, you simply buy out the entire shelf, because you know it's not going to be there on your next trip to the store.  But this, of course, makes things worse for everyone else who is attempting to buy normal weekly quantities of those same products.

So on every recent occasion where I've gone shopping only to be greeted by this particular comestible consumer vacuum, I have muttered under my breath, "D*mn the Eagle Ford, anyway, for doing this to local labor supply!" but grocery stocking labor is probably only part of the supply and demand equation here.

At any rate, if this were our worst problem in life, we'd have to declare ourselves to be in pretty fine shape.  Still, I look forward to a future when we have better access to the healthier alternatives that so many of us obviously demand. 
Some people hear this message from their doctors.
The rest of us simply use common sense, and we try to grocery shop accordingly, with only limited success.
(Microsoft clip art.)