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Naturalists

March 7th, 2011 by Matt

Armed with paper, crayons, and pencils at the Cockrell Butterfly Center of the HMNS, C&D and a friend drew pictures of what they saw.

photo

After lots of hard work, it was time to play.

Tags: Dynamic Duo · Learn Something

Amateur Photographer

March 3rd, 2011 by Matt · 2 Comments

The first part of the 2011 Houston Rodeo Parade, as photographed by Carmen.

And later that day at the George Ranch, as photographed by David, featuring 2-week-old piglets

Tags: Dynamic Duo

Transportation Funding

February 25th, 2011 by Matt

I got perhaps more involved than I thought I would in a decision by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on how to divide up transportation funds. In brief, H-GAC is a council of city and county governments for the region, and the Transportation Policy Council of that group was deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds for transportation projects. The proposal considered today was described by Houston Tomorrow as:

The proposal calls for increasing road and freight spending while limiting projects that would improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit access, livable centers studies, and other projects listed as “Alternative Modes.” Particular projects to be eliminated from the TIP are not yet determined, but all proposed projects are presumably listed in the Preliminary Project Scoping (pdf) provided by H-GAC. Projects to be cut would include things like walkability projects in Midtown and a pedestrian realm project to provide better sidewalks and neighborhood access to light rail along the future East End Light Rail Line.

As I tried to understand the issue, I was blown away by the complexity of the system by which transportation money is provided and spent. Here’s a summary of how I surmise the system works, and what appears to be at stake in the decision today. I would much appreciate any feedback on how right or wrong this is:

  • The basic transportation framework (“Unified Transportation Program”) considers 12 major categories, with a few extra categories added because 12 just isn’t complex enough
  • About half of the money considered statewide goes to rehabilitation/maintenance projects for roads and highways. These aren’t decided by H-GAC at all, and aren’t part of the decision today
  • A goodly chunk of the money goes to categories 2 and 3, which distribute money to big and small cities for major highway projects. Another big chunk is Propostion 12, which dedicated bonds to transportation projects. Locally, Highway 290 appears to be almost all funded from this (from the department of transporation project website, all but one phase of the project is listed as category 2, and the last is Proposition 12). This funding isn’t decided by H-GAC, either
  • Another goodly chunk of the money goes to bridges and road safety improvement projects. Again, not decided by H-GAC
  • Locally, a large piece of the funding comes from the toll road authority, whose mission appears to be to help developers make as much profit as possible by building highways through currently unoccupied sections of the Katy Prairie. Again, not decided by H-GAC

To summarize the points above: There is a sizable chunk of money that is essentially baked into the system as money spent for roads and highways. H-GAC has no control over this money, and it isn’t on the table for discussion today. The funds that appear to be under discussion today are:

  • Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds are about half of the pot, perhaps $50 million per year for the region. These are assigned to regions based on how bad the air quality is, and are designed to be used for activities to improve air quality standards.
  • Metropolitan Mobility funds are the other half of the pot, also about $50 million per year. These can be spent on any transportation project

H-GAC has a process for doling this money out, which is pretty much all federal funding. Cities and other local government groups apply, and their applications are graded. Half of the grade is due to cost/benefit analyis (with the benefits based completely on air quality improvement), and the other half on subjective factors. The H-GAC are working on the plan for the next four years, and have already doled out maybe 3/4 of the money. They were trying to figure out what to do with the last quarter when someone woke up and realized that more money than usual had been spent on pedestrian and bike-related projects. The specific resolution today was to try to get funding back in line with historical trends

The interesting part is that historical trends spend 78% of this pot of funds on roadway projects, and 11% on alternative transportation modes. The only way you can hit 78% is to spend all of the “metropolitan mobility” funds on roads, plus half of the air quality improvement funds on roads as well. In other words, we have decided that the best way to improve our air quality by building more roads so that more cars can drive on them.

The funding scores reflect this mentality – all of the pedestrian-related projects have horrible cost/benefit analysis (perhaps $5000 total in air quality benefits). The roadway projects, however, have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in benefits. The analysis obviously takes great credit for the idea that a wider road = less idling = less emissions. This is presumably backed up by an engineering assessment done by a contractor, and may even follow some sort of national guidelines on how to do the estimate. Does the estimate also include the concept that a wider road = more cars wanting to use the road = more development guided by the road = more driving = more emissions? I don’t know

Even with this logic – which seems a bit twisted to me – bicycle and pedestrian projects have somehow been able to win a share of the funding. The council decided that they wanted to stop this, hence the proposal today.

Based on these assumptions, I am left with the following conclusions:

  • The discussion today is not about Highway 290, not about road maintenance, and not about any part of a huge bank of funds dedicated to car-focused projects. That money will be spent on roads regardless of H-GAC’s decisions.
  • If the status quo is retained, the council will continue to spend essentially all of the “metropolitan mobility” funds and a notable portion of the “air quality improvement” funds on roadway projects. 60+% of the total of these two will be spent on roadways.
  • If the proposal under discussion passes, the council will spend 78% of the total on roadways. This is all of the “metropolitan mobility” money and more than half of the “air quality” money. Many bicycle and pedestrian projects would be delayed or cancelled.
  • A truly progressive council would consider spending most or all of the “air quality” money, plus a portion of the “metropolitan mobility” money on things that aren’t focused on cars. This would lead to perhaps 40% of the total being spent on roadways. Note that there is still a huge chunk of other funding sources devoted to roads, so Highway 290 would still get bigger and the Katy Prairie would still be bulldozed for more highways and subdivisions. This step would be progressive, not revolutionary.

Tags: Bigger Pictures · Go Joyce Go

Ode to the Jogging Stroller

February 19th, 2011 by Matt

Our jogging stroller never knew what it was getting into when we bought it.

Red, bought on craigslist, originally sold by a bike shop in a college town well north of the Mason-Dixon line. Probably enjoyed several years of light use with small, light kids. The seller included two sheets of paper with it. One was a page of the manual giving an absolute weight limit of 100 pounds. The other was another page from a different owner’s manual with the same warning, but with a limit of 150 pounds.

Today the stroller carried:

  • 2 kids, approx. 50 pounds each, with heads brushing against the cloth canopy designed to protect them from the sun. No problem, the canopy rolls back, and we can always wear hats. Problem solved.
  • 3 water bottles, full
  • 4 granola bars. “Stroller Snack!”
  • 1 small doll, on Carmen’s side
  • 1 small stuffed monkey, on David’s side
  • 1 bike lock, with key, just in case we need to stop
  • Enough money to take the bus home, just in case
  • Map of city, in case we venture further than we thought
  • Camera bag, including two lenses and lots of doodads. An extra granola bar in it somewhere, because you can never have too much snackage

Ignorance is sometimes the better part of bliss, and I purposely shy away from taking a real inventory of the weight involved. On a nice flat road, not too bad. Going uphill, yeah, it’s a lot of pounds. But 11 miles later, its still going strong; the glass on the street did not puncture the tires, the many curbs did not rattle the frame, and the storage pocket did not give way. Yet.

Tags: Dynamic Duo

Story Time

February 8th, 2011 by Matt · 2 Comments

(a post by Matt)

I have been in charge of at least 50% of bedtime duty since we started this experiment of trying to raise two babies at the same time, and 100% of it since the babies stopped really being babies. I think I kind of fell into it because A) I was in charge of 0% of the baby-feeding duty and B) I’ve always been pretty happy with the concept of going to sleep long before the really late-night shows (the 9:00 news, for example) hit the television, and I’d gladly put in the effort of getting the little people to sleep if I could use it as an excuse to take a nap myself.

Somewhere in this evolution a bedtime story became part of the ritual. The stories started simply, more a history of the events of the day than anything else. But soon a few key rules appeared, all of my own making:

  • The story must be told in a dark, quiet room. We’ve got enough distractions and distractability, and from my perspective, the story must serve a very real goal at the end of a long day
  • The story must capture the interest of its small (in both size and numbers) audience. Usually, this means to make them the main characters.
  • The story must always, always end with the tired, tired main characters snuggling in bed and quietly going to sleep. I had every hope that real life would follow fantasy in this regard, and it often would.

All of this worked well enough until the story of the magic sunglasses.

One day, Carmen and David wanted to go to the playground on a hot, summer day. But there was a problem – the sun was so bright and so strong at the playground that it would hurt their eyes and make it difficult to swing. So first they walked to the sunglasses store, and told the people there that they needed some sunglasses for the playground. The people at the store pointed at all the different glasses in the store – big ones and small ones, black ones and brown ones, metal ones and plastic ones. So many types of sunglasses! But Carmen and David said that their favorite colors were purple and pink, and asked if they had any of those colors. Then they said – look, here at the bottom! There is a pair of pink sunglasses and a pair of purple ones! But the owner of the store said, “Oh, no! You don’t want those sunglasses. Those sunglasses are magic. Why don’t you get some nice black ones instead?” Carmen and David said “But we like magic things!”, and so they bought the sunglasses and took them to the playground.

First, Carmen put on the pink sunglasses. And she looked around, and she could not see David – he had disappeared! But she could see her pink shoes, and the pink slide, and the pink picture of the flamingo. She could only see pink things! David put on his purple sunglasses, and he looked around – and he could not see Carmen! But he could see the purple ladder, and his purple shoes, and the purple flower. He could only see purple things! And when Carmen and David walked around, they banged into the swing and into each other because they could not see – they almost fell down! Finally, they took off the sunglasses and walked back to the sunglasses store and said “These sunglasses are too magic! Can we have some normal sunglasses instead?”

And with the normal sunglasses, Carmen and David went back to the playground and played and played and played. And when they were very tired, they came home, snuggled into bed, and went to sleep.

The audience loved it, it met all of my criteria, and most importantly – it worked. Since that day, we have been lulled to sleep by the magic hat, the magic ice cream, the magic coat, the magic shoes, the magic bowl, the magic shovel…. The magic kale that lets you double in size in just one sitting. The magic blanket that can generate enough heat to start a fire.

And when there’s no magic, there’s usually tractors, especially if David is restless. The time that Carmen and David wanted to ride a tractor, so they asked a crane operator at a construction site if they could operate his crane. “No, no, no! You have to go to tractor school to learn how to drive this tractor.” After a series of rebukes, they get a chance to ride the trailer of a hay ride, enjoying the view until they get very, very sleepy. Or the time that Carmen and David wanted to bake a gigantic cake, a cake big enough to have a party with all their friends and neighbors. But their cake pan was far too small and their oven was even too small. So they went and borrowed the steel scoop from a backhoe, washed it sell, poured in the batter, and set it on top of a fire to bake. When they were done, they returned the scoop to the backhoe operator along with a piece of cake.

As long as the stories keep working, they’ll keep coming. Today, we told the story about the magic pecan. The magic pecan? What makes it magic? Well, if you want to find out, you’d better brush your teeth quickly and get ready for bed, because the story will start in just a few minutes…

Tags: Dynamic Duo

Winter Games

February 6th, 2011 by Matt

A few pictures from recent going-ons.

David at the playground, about to go down a slide.

We like to play in the garage, bringing tables, chairs, and elaborate setups down to enjoy the big open space. Sometimes the space expands to the driveway and beyond.

A project for a cold day: Rolled beeswax candles, with beeswax decorations molded by warm little hands. Two rocket ships and a heart.

Another winter project: biodegradable packing peanuts stick together with a little water and make, well, anything. Igloos were a favorite, and even furniture (below).

Another indoor game: A variation of cornhole with positive and negative numbers on the squares. Aim for the five – but the negative five is right beside it if you miss! Points awarded in tiny chocolate chips; our aim was good enough to break double digits.

More playground pictures. The monkey bars are a new favorite; arm strength has finally caught up with the rest of us, even after eating the chocolate.

Tags: Dynamic Duo

Static on the line

February 6th, 2011 by Matt

Static on our phone lately, and I think we finally figured out why. To the best of our knowledge, the two black wires near the bottom of the page are the phone line to our place (and that of our neighbor, whose home was built at the same time). Both travel under the ground in water-filled pieces of conduit to get to this fine spot of ground behind an apartment complex’s dumpster. One of the wires goes through a plastic bottle (!) full of brown goo, and then both go into an oversized box that appears to be the height of technology from 1980. Four exposed telephone wires leave the box on the lower right, and then are bundled together and travel up the telephone pole and off to the digital world.

Tags: Home Ec