I’m freaked out.

So I just got word that one of the second street businesses is looking forward to our play on Saturday. I’m a bit freaked out.

I don’t do audience participation pieces. I don’t do improv. I’m amazed by them. I like to watch some of them. The ones where they don’t single out the most uncomfortable person in the audience and make them the butt of every joke in the show.

But I’m doing a somewhat political comedy about cats on Saturday. From 1:00 to 2:30 in the second street district. It starts outside Austin Java. Moves to the Lofty Dog at 1:30, and then to the City Hall Amphitheater at 2:00.

Yes, we reserved the City Hall.

I’m writing this in collaboration, and that provides some inoculation, but I’m also producing this thing. And I’m a bit freaked out. I know more or less what makes people enjoy themselves with scripted theater. I know the beats you have to hit. I know how much set and costume and light people expect for their money.

But we’re throwing all that to the wind. All volunteer. Lots of chaos. Something like 7 total actors with actual scripted lines. Inviting the public to participate. Frightening.

There’s a potential for rioting here.

I mean I hope not. But the public at large can be somewhat frightening.

I have a lot of respect for people who live outside the black box right now. I don’t know how you deal with the idea that what you’re about to put out there could be very, very un-entertaining.

But it’ll be great, right?

Oh yeah, there’s free parking in the city hall parking garage ’till five.

Please don’t vote the bums out!

In the US we like to “vote the bums out” every 4 years or so. It’s amazing how frequently we’ve done this in our history. Yet if you look at history we’ve gotten nothing for our effort.

This year I encourage you to try something different. Vote for the party in power. Give them an overwhelming majority. I think the best way to create real change is to strangle the Republican party off completely. The reason that Democrats have trouble reaching consensus is that they represent pretty much every reasonable adult in our nation. They’ve got fiscal conservatives, labor unions, most of the LBGT community, and most importantly the majority of US citizens vote for Democrats. Sure the electoral college and Senate give the appearance that there are a lot of people voting Republican, but it simply isn’t true.

I’m not saying the Democrats are deserving of your vote because they have all the answers. I think they’re deserving of your vote because they will be good stewards of your vote until the Republican party is choked off completely. Once Democrats get 60-70% of the vote almost all corporate funding will go either to Democrats, or to the best third party. Suddenly the Republican party will start having to compete with the Libertarians, Greens, and who knows whom else for cash and ideas. Votes that prove you follow through with your beliefs will again become important. Once this ecosystem emerges the Democrats unnatural majority will instantly evaporate as voters move towards viable third parties that more accurately reflect their views. Hopefully this could be done within just one or two election cycles.

So don’t vote the bums out this year, vote them in! Spread the word and vote for real change.

Mackey’s should be fired

Just posted this is a comment on Spike’s piece at the Austinist on Whole Foods CEO Mackey and his stupid ideas to “fix” healthcare.

Mackey sounds like he’s got all sorts of great ideas and is the savior of private health-care. The problem is that his solutions don’t work. My company recently moved to an HSA (which he advocates). It’s only 20% less than our previous health plan, and yet it provides almost no benefits. The only benefit is for me. Since I and my family are healthier than average we can afford to bet (and make no mistake, HSAs are gambling) on the fact that we won’t be too unhealthy in a year to make it cost too much. And since our household makes more money than 80% of households in the U.S. we can afford the high deductible by putting away over $5000 a year as a hedge against getting sick. That $5000 is to cover our full deductible on top of the over $300 per month I pay. But how exactly does a Whole Foods “team member” afford that plan?

I wholeheartedly endorse these “healthy” plans as a benefit for workers. In much the same way that other employee assistance programs (gym memberships, flex time, etc.) are good. It’s great to encourage your employees to be healthy. But being healthy doesn’t prevent accidents, or genetic diseases, or disease caused by external factors like pollution.

It does not solve the problem of how a minimum wage worker without $2000 hanging around in the bank (because what percentage of workers in that bracket can afford to sock away over 12% of their income for health care? and then they’re supposed to save 12% for retirement too?) can afford care with an HSA. Maybe because I’ve had minimum wage jobs I realize how ridiculous that idea is.

HSAs exist. The market, that great god at whose altar Mackey worships, has wholeheartedly rejected them. Why? Because they cost too much and do too little. They’re health care for rich people. If you’re having trouble deciding where to invest your money an HSA might be for you. If you’re wondering how you’ll pay your rent this month, it’s probably not.

Until we expand the insurance base to include all healthy and unhealthy citizens it will become increasingly unaffordable. And conservatives have presented no ways to fix that. Democrats have presented three – socialized medicine, a public option, and requiring the purchase of health insurance. HSAs don’t fix this problem. They just temporarily make health care cheaper for employers. CEOs who think this is a solution rather than a stop-gap should be fired for being ridiculously short-sighted.

Welcome to Ainabulak-3!

So from 1990-1992 I lived in the Soviet Union. My family were officially there as students, so we were placed into foreign student housing in Ainabulak-3. A brand new micro-district in Almaty, Kazakhstan. It was indeed ugly and bleak. Oddly enough in contrast to US development practices they put in the roads last. It’s an interesting practice in a place that has very little rainfall (Almaty is desert). You don’t destroy your roads with construction traffic. So here’s the view out of our back window. The central area became essentially a cul-de-sac. There was a road that curved along one side of it and the central area was used for football and gardens. Essentially a neighborhood park. Of interest are the buildings you see in the near distance. Those are public service buildings. Schools in this case, if I’m remembering correctly.

Here’s the view of the front of the building. I’ve blurred my sister as she tends to not enjoy pictures of herself from this time period. Our building is on the right. The shorter buildings in the near foreground are more public service buildings. If memory serves a kindergarden and grocery strore. In between the six story building and the magazine is a minor arterial with bus service.

So why do I bring this up, other than to show off some pictures illustrating how ugly the Soviet Union often was? Because I was panning over google earth recently looking at the area, and saw the term “microdistrict”. So I looked that up and found this info:

Microdistrict, or microraion , is a residential complex—a primary structural element of the residential area construction in the Soviet Union and in some post-Soviet states. … According to the Construction Rules and Regulations of the Soviet Union, a typical microdistrict covered the area of 10–60 hectares (30–160 acres), up to but not exceeding 80 hectares (200 acres) in some cases, and comprised residential dwellings (usually multi-story apartment buildings) and public service buildings. As a general rule, major motor roads, greenways, and natural obstacles served as boundaries between microdistricts, allowing an overall reduction in city road construction and maintenance costs and emphasizing public transportation. Major motor roads or through streets were not to cross microdistricts’ territories. The entrances to a microdistrict’s territory were to be located no further than 300 meters (1000 ft) apart. Standards also regulated the accessibility of the public service buildings (excluding schools and pre-school facilities) by imposing a 500-meter (1,500–foot) limit as the farthest distance from any residential dwelling. One of the city-planners’ tasks was to ensure that the fewest number of public buildings was built to cover the microdistrict’s territory in accordance with the norms. Typical public service structures include secondary schools, pre-school establishments (usually combined kindergarten and nursery), grocery stores, personal service shops, cafeterias, clubs, playgrounds, and building maintenance offices, as well as a number of specialized shops. The exact number of buildings of each type depended on the distance requirement and the microdistrict’s population density and was determined by means of certain per capita standards.

I had no clue it was that planned, but it was very easy to walk. It was easy to get out of our cluster of buildings to a main road to catch a bus. While the store near us wasn’t that great, it was close, and schools were very close. Most of the vehicular traffic were taxicabs and it was easy for them to learn the district since they only had to learn how to get to a particular area and then the customer could direct them into the correct building segment or just drop them off on the main road, since it was a very quick walk into any given segment.

So before I go into what we could learn from this, here is the Google Maps view now.

View Larger Map

I’m blown away by the amount of green now. As you can see from my pictures it was pretty lifeless.

It’s interesting to me, though when we think about cul-de-sacs and planning. We tend to think of cul-de-sacs as the enemy, but when you look at this area, pretty much everything is a cul-de-sac. I take away some pretty good planning ideas from this:

  • Access to arterials. No residence or business should be more than ‘x’ distance from an arterial
  • Access to public services. Every ‘x’ area should have space for schools, restaurants, grocery stores, and commercial.
  • Buffer space. Every residential and business area should have a buffer from the main road, but should be a walkable distance to it.

While most people see the Soviets planned to a joke, there’s a lot of sense to what they are doing. And this should appeal to fiscal conservatives as well, because this sort of planning makes the best use of government provided resources like roads and public transit. It’s very SimCity, but it’s amazing how little of this sort of planning actually goes on.

It would be very interesting to me to see what strong central planning for infrastructure would create in an unzoned city like Houston.

Syncing Comments with Facebook

I’m posting this here in case anyone else wants to pick it up and run with it. I wrote a piece of code to sync my facebook notes and blog post comments. All of my blog posts already are added to facebook via RSS feed, but I was ending up with essentially two conversations. First install Services_Facebook from the PEAR repository. Then you’ll need to create a new private application with a Facebook developer account. Set the “Connect URL” to point at this script. Then uncomment the commented out section. Visit the page and you’ll be redirected to facebook. Authorize the app, and then take the session key that is returned when your are redirected and insert it into the appropriate place in the script. Comment out the code again.

You’ll need to replace all references to “blog/Blog.php”, “blog/Post.php”, and “blog/Comment.php” as those are custom to this site, but it should be fairly easy to replace them with something like a wrapper for blogger or wordpress.

I run this as a cron job on my server every 20 minutes.

require_once 'Services/Facebook.php';
require_once 'blog/Blog.php';
require_once 'blog/Post.php';
require_once 'blog/Comment.php';
ini_set("display_errors","1");


class FacebookUtils {
    private static $instance;

    public function getInstance() {
        Services_Facebook::$apiKey = '<>';
        Services_Facebook::$secret = '<>';
        if(!FacebookUtils::$instance) {
            FacebookUtils::$instance = new FacebookUtils();
        }
        return FacebookUtils::$instance;
    }

    public function getApi() {
        $api = new Services_Facebook();
        $api->sessionKey = '<>';
        return $api;
    }

    public function getNoteId($user, $title) {
        $title = addslashes($title);
        $fql = "SELECT note_id
                  FROM note
                 WHERE uid = $user
                   AND title = '$title'";

        $result = $this->getApi()->fql->query($fql);

        $notes = array();
        foreach ($result->note as $note) {
            return $note->note_id;
        }
    }
    public function getUserName($uid) {
        $fql = "SELECT first_name, pic_small
                 FROM user
                 WHERE uid = $uid";

        $result = $this->getApi()->fql->query($fql);
        foreach($result->user as $user) {
            return array(
                "first_name" => "$user->first_name",
                "pic" => "$user->pic_small",
            );
        }

    }
    public function getComments($id) {
        $fql = "SELECT post_id, fromid, time, text, id
                  FROM comment
                 WHERE object_id = $id
                 ORDER by time desc";

        $result = $this->getApi()->fql->query($fql);
        $comments = array();
        foreach($result->comment as $comment) {
            $comments[] = array(
                "id" => "$comment->id",
                "text" => "$comment->text",
                "time" => "$comment->time",
                "from" => $this->getUserName($comment->fromid),
                "post_id" => "$comment->post_id",
            );
        }
        return $comments;
    }
}

    $api = FacebookUtils::getInstance();
    /*
    if(empty($_REQUEST["session_key"])) {
        header("Location: http://www.facebook.com/login.php?api_key=" 
            . Services_Facebook::$apiKey 
            . "&connect_display=popup&v=1.0"
            . "&next=http://www.facebook.com/connect/login_success.html"
            . "&cancel_url=http://www.facebook.com/connect/login_failure.html"
            . "&fbconnect=true&return_session=true"
            . "&session_key_only=true"
            . "&req_perms=read_stream,publish_stream,offline_access");
    }
    else {
        print $_REQUEST["session_key"];
    }
    exit;
    */
    $blog = new Blog("NDLKM2VHYWYTZDZHMI1MYTG1LTHKN2YTZWU5NGZLNMI4ZGU0");
    $posts = Post::getPosts('OWNER_UID',Array($blog->UID), 
        " and visible = 'True' order by DATE desc limit 0, 5 ");

    $map = array();
    foreach($posts as $post) {
        $map[$post->UID] = $api->getNoteId("675098370", $post->TITLE);
    }

    foreach($map as $postUID => $noteID) {
        $localComments = Comment::getComments('POST_UID',Array($postUID));
        $fbComments = $api->getComments($noteID);

        $addLocal = array();
        $addRemote = array();
        foreach($fbComments as $fbComment) {
            $foundComment = false;
            foreach($localComments as $localComment) {
                $fbText = preg_replace("/^.* on Tim's blog says.../", "", $fbComment["text"]);
                if($fbText == $localComment->COMMENT) {
                    $foundComment = true;
                }
            }
            if(!$foundComment) {
                $addLocal[$fbComment["id"]] = $fbComment;
            }
        }
        foreach($localComments as $localComment) {
           $foundComment = false;
            foreach($fbComments as $fbComment) {
                $fbText = preg_replace("/^.* on Tim's blog says.../", "", $fbComment["text"]);
                if($fbText == $localComment->COMMENT) {
                    $foundComment = true;
                }
            }
            if(!$foundComment) {
                $addRemote[$localComment->UID] = $localComment;
            }
        }
        print "Post " . $postUID . "n";
        print "Add locally:n";
        print_r($addLocal);
        print "Add remote: n";
        print_r($addRemote);
        foreach($addLocal as $fbComment) {
            $c = new Comment();
            $c->set('POST_UID',$postUID);
            $c->set('NAME', $fbComment["from"]["first_name"]);
            $c->set('ICON', $fbComment["from"]["pic"]);
            $c->set('TITLE', $fbComment["from"]["first_name"] . " on Facebook says...");
            $c->set('COMMENT', $fbComment["text"]);
            #$c->set('EMAIL', $this->director->getPostParam('commentemail'));
            #$c->set('URL', $this->director->getPostParam('commenturl'));
            #$c->set('NOTIFY', $this->director->getPostParam('commentnotify'));
            $c->set('DATE', date('Y-m-d H:i:s', $fbComment["time"]));
            #$c->set('IP',$this->director->getServerParam('REMOTE_ADDR'));
            $c->update();
        }

        foreach($addRemote as $comment) {
            $result = $api->getApi()->users->callMethod('comments.add', array(
                'session_key' => $api->getApi()->sessionKey,
                'object_id' => $noteID,
                'text' => $comment->NAME . ' on Tim's blog says...' . $comment->COMMENT,
            ));
        }
    }

801 Barton Springs Denied

So the 801 Barton Springs PUD was looks like it’s going to be a no go. PUD’s are meant for large developments. Over 10 acres. This project was simply a single building. There’s no reason for the city to be helping developers build single buildings. The city got nothing from approving the PUD. There were no public parks. No bike cut throughs from Bouldin to Barton Springs. No affordable housing. Nothing of value for the community at all.

This is a great example of when a PUD should not be used. The economics easily justify building a 60′ building with ground floor retail in that space. This is a clear cut example of requesting a variance for no reason.

At the same time the neighborhood needs to not say that a 60′ building in this space is “[not] compatible with neighborhood plans” and “[not] compatible with adjacent property and land uses”. A 60′ building in between a 60′ office building and 100′ office building across from what is essentially a convention center is not compatible with neighborhood plans or adjacent property and land uses? Really? This is why ANC is losing credibility. They should just change their name to the Austin Surface Parking Preservation Council. There is no excuse for defending the ruined foundation of a restaraunt in this location.

Both sides are wrong.

Here are the ANC notes that address it.

And the citiy’s case review.

Eliminate Property Taxes?

So in case you haven’t been following the Republican gubernatorial primary (and you should be, best reality show on TV), things are getting upended in the Republican world. An upstart tea-party candidate – Medina – has been making massive inroads. In the latest polls it looks like she’s trending to upset Hutchinson and the possibility of her being in a runoff with Perry is not out of the question. She has some interesting ideas and is smart and prepared. All things that are completely unexpected in a Republican candidate.

One of her radical platform ideas is to change our state to being completely dependent on the sales tax. Which I thought was crazy, but then I realized that Hutchinson and Perry were talking about building new infrastructure and creating new jobs without any additional revenue. I think that might be more crazy.

She’s getting this idea from this position paper. It requires that we raise sales taxes to some level that they are on parity with what’s raised via property taxes. I can accept the fact that there’s some level at which that can be done, and that they’ve basically done their math right. I think they have the base rate at somewhere around 12%. My guess is that would mean we’d see about 15% in Austin.

My gut reaction to this is the “sales tax is regressive” and it is. But in Texas I don’t see any chance of an income tax anytime soon, so perhaps regressive isn’t so bad. And the problem that I can’t figure out how to solve is rising property value. The most controversial part of Medina’s plan is that real estate will be taxed at time of sale (she’s actually backed away a little bit from this which I think is stupid, this is what the plan hinges on). So essentially the state still gets a decent income off of real estate. In addition homeowners on fixed incomes won’t be forced out of their homes. If they chose to sell they can. If not, they stay in their home. It’s a much better system than the community trusts that Austin has been playing with (although those are better than nothing).

While there’s an inherent boom and bust cycle to the sales tax, there’s also one for property taxes, as we’ve seen recently. So perhaps a lot of the traditional thinking on this one could be wrong. Neither property taxes nor sales taxes are good at extracting money from the rich, so I can’t really use that as a reason to recommend one over the other. You really have to have an income tax for that purpose. And I see zero change for that in Texas, so moving on…

That said, I’d really be interested in seeing what this does to our cities. Currently our suburbs are heavily subsidized by our cities tax dollars. They get to put in massive housing developments that have long roads stretching to other city’s massive retail centers. There’s the potential for this to change the way cities plan. Since they’ll be trying to get more of those tax dollars as their sole source of revenue they’ll have to add commercial into the mix for any new development. Since each house would no longer be a revenue source, a mix of x commercial would become required to sustain y amount of new development. Don’t know what the value of x and y are, but this could potentially do for mixed-use what good intentions alone could not.

Stella Quote

Dad, I have to tell you, you’re making me very angry right now. You’re making me very angry Dad.

At Meme and Pappy’s getting ready for nap, when Dad had the audacity to try to pack up Stella’s new Play-Do set.

Austin’s Development Mantra

I think this should also be Austin’s development mantra:

If we just changed our zoning so that anywhere you have a single family home you could build a double with a carriage house in back, you would triple the effective residential density of Indianapolis without any change to the visual scale of the city. Moderate densification is what we need.

from here.