Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rockets win first postseason series since 1997

Congratulations are in order for the Houston Rockets, who just finished off the Blazers and won their first playoff series since 1997. Finally, no more underachieving!

They'll be dispatched by the Lakers in the second round, of course, but this is nevertheless an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Here comes swine flu! Let's all panic!

Concern about the spread of swine flu is causing causing havoc with the nation's school system, as any school with a suspected case of the virus within its student body is shut down. It seems like another school is added to HISD's list of closed schools every few hours due to flu fears, while yesterday Fort Worth ISD shut down its entire district after a single middle school student was discovered to have the disease. This is especially problematic given that this week was supposed to be TAKS testing week.

Sporting events are being canceled.

People have stopped eating pork. Egypt has ordered that all of the pigs in its country be slaughtered. Many countries have stopped importing pork products from the United States and Mexico. Some countries, such as the UAE, have stopped importing pork altogether, regardless of origin. Never mind the fact that it is impossible to contract the virus from eating pork or that the so-called "swine flu" H1N1 virus actually contains genes from avian and human flus as well as pig flus.

There are demands, generally coming from the usual xenophobes, that the border with Mexico be closed, even though doing so would pose a huge logistical and economic nightmare and won't do any good now that the flu has reached the United States.

People are hoarding bottles of hand sanitizer. Anybody who sneezes is considered suspect, and the slightest sniffle is causing people to rush to, and overcrowd, emergency rooms.

And now our foot-in-mouth-prone Vice President is suggesting that people not fly on airplanes or be in other "confined spaces."

Hysteria, anyone?

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be taking the current swine flu scare seriously. This is by all accounts a potentially lethal disease.

But there is a line between rational, prudent precaution and irrational overreaction, and I can't help but wonder if we've crossed that line.

I know that this disease is suspected to have claimed many lives in Mexico (although only a handful of deaths have been confirmed to have been caused by the virus), but it's important to note that, as of this evening, the cases presenting here in the US generally seem to be milder and nobody who contracted the flu in the United States has died as of yet. It's also important to note that the H1N1 virus appears to respond to anti-virals such as Tamiflu and Relenza. It doesn't hurt that ths virus is making its appearance in late spring, towards the end of flu season.

In other words, while there is reason for concern, there's no reason to panic. In fact, there's never a reason to panic; panicking never solves anything and only makes things worse.

Wash your hands often. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. If you feel sick, stay home.

Most importantly, stay calm.

UPDATE: Hysteria? More and more people seem to be agreeing with me.

Gexa Energy sucks.

Gexa Energy is a Retail Electric Provider headquartered here in Houston. We used them from the fall of 2006 until yesterday, when I switched to another company because I discovered that Gexa was screwing customers like me.

My trip down the rabbit hole that ended with this revelation began yesterday when I finally decided to investigate an annoying anomaly regarding my bank's online bill pay service.

All of my other payees - from credit cards to gas cards to other utility providers such as the City of Houston, Comcast and Centerpoint - now all receive their payment within one to two days of my online payment authorizations. For several months now, Gexa has been the lone outlier - it takes five business days from the time I authorize payment online to the time they get it. This means that the effective due date for my electricity payment is really one week prior to the due date printed on the bill; if I miss it, I get hit with a late fee.

So yesterday I called Bank of America to ask them why it took so long for my money to reach Gexa, when all the rest of my payees get their money within a day or two.

"It takes longer because we have to send this company a paper check," the customer service rep said.

A paper check? Really? Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of online bill pay?

"Why can't you send them the money electronically, like you apparently do for everyone else?" I ask.

"Because this company does not accept direct electronic transfers from our bank," the service rep explained.


Now, I have no idea why Gexa does not accept electronic transfers from my bank. Maybe their system isn't capable of handling and processing electronic transfers, or maybe their system has a problem that's unique to transactions involving Bank of America. The conspiracist in me, on the other hand, wondered if they did it on purpose: after all, if it takes longer for their customers to get their payments to them, then there's a higher likelihood that the payment will arrive late. That, in turn, will allow Gexa to make some extra money from late fees.

So I decide to do some online sleuthing to see if other Gexa customers were having similar problems in paying their bills. What I quickly discovered was something far more troubling than bill payment: it turns out that Gexa has been overcharging me for electricity.

I freely admit that I hadn't been paying attention to my electricity bill's per kWh rate lately. When I receive the electricity bill, I look at the monthly charge, I look at the power usage, I say "damn, we use a lot of electricity in this house," and then I throw it on top of the incoming bill pile and don't give it another thought. And that's only when I actually see the electricity bill; I was overseas for so many billing cycles last year wherein never even saw the actual bill.

Anyway, I hadn't noticed until yesterday that Gexa was charging me 21.09 cents per kilowatt hour for my electricity.

I called my parents, who live two blocks away from me, and asked them who their provider was and what they were paying. They weren't using Gexa, and they sure as hell weren't paying 21.1 cents per kWh. So then I went to a local electricity cost comparison website to see what other companies were charging for electricity. Nobody else was charging 21.1 cents per kWh, or even coming close.

It definitely appeared that I was being ripped off.

Wondering how long has this been going on, I pulled out all my old electric bills (which, being the pack-rat that I am, I save) and reviewed our recent electric bill history. We joined Gexa in the fall of 2006 because our previous electricity provider was charging us an average of 17.8 cents per kWh. Gexa promised us a better rate and, as my review of old electricity pills showed, they initially delivered on that promise, with per kWh rates hovering around the 13.4 cents mark.

But then, after about a year, the per kWh rate went to 14.1 cents. In February of 2008, it jumped to 14.5 cents. A month later, 15.5 cents. In May, it was 16 cents; in June, 17 cents. By August, I was paying 19.6 cents for kWh for my electricity. And by October of last year I had reached 21 cents per kWh.

Curious, I took a look at natural gas and coal prices, which according to Gexa's latest "electricity facts" mailer account for 45% and 39%, respectively, of Gexa's sources of power generation. Sure enough, both natural gas and coal had experienced a significant increase in prices through the latter part of 2007 and the first half of 2008, which explained Gexa's rapid increase in rates during that time.

But, since around mid-summer of last year, as the global economic crisis began to take hold, both natural gas and coal prices have fallen rather dramatically. So why, then, is Gexa charging me more for electricity now than they were back in the summer of 2008 when coal and natural gas prices were at their peak? They're not doing this to all of their customers; I noticed on that aforementioned rate comparison website that they were offering fixed-rate plans for as little as 11 cents per kilowatt hour. A guy up on Tomball, who has created a website entitled Gexa-Gouges, thinks this is all part of their game:
Here’s how it works. Gexa attracts you with a competitive rate. The rate is especially good on their short term 6 month contracts, so you sign on. But, almost all of us lose track of time and the end of the contract comes before realizing it, especially with power as we are not used to having a predatory vendor. There is no notice (or of late a short notice) that your contract is at an end. You do however finally notice that they've hit you with several months that are at least double your previous rate, their so called month-to-month rate.
If true, that's exactly what happened to me. We signed up with Gexa back in 2006, got a competitive rate for about a year, then paid no attention as the year contract expired and the month-to-month rates slowly inched higher and higher.

Of course one could point out that I could have kept from being ripped off had I paid closer attention to my electric bills, and that would be a valid critique. But on the other hand, why would a company want to screw its customers in this fashion? Once their customers find out that they are being gouged, they'll go to another provider (as I did yesterday, to a company that charges 14.1 cents per kWh) and they'll tell people about Gexa's rip-off (as I am doing with this post).

It all seems very short-sighted on Gexa's part, but the perception that Gexa doesn't appear to care about its customers, other than to screw them, is underscored by the fact that they can't even protect their customers' private data. About a year ago Gexa's computer systems were hacked and the security of sensitive information - names, birthdates, social security numbers of customers - was compromised.

We got a letter from Gexa about the intrusion a few weeks ago. The letter claims that they waited an entire year to inform their customers of this security breach because "law enforcement authorities directed Gexa Energy to withhold this notice until now, pending their investigation." I'm not sure if I totally believe that, but the fact is that this breach should not have occurred in the first place; companies have a responsibility to keep their customers' private information private.

So, to summarize:

1. Gexa Energy does not accept electronic payments from banks (or, at the very least, the second-largest bank in the country), making payment transmission times longer and thereby increasing the likelihood of late payments.

2. Gexa Energy is charging its older customers with ridiculously high electricity rates that do not appear to be justifiable under current energy market conditions, even as they entice new customers with competitive rates for fixed contracts.

3. Gexa Energy has failed to protect the private and personal data of its customers.

Oh, and did I mention that Gexa has an "unsatisfactory" rating from the local Better Business Bureau?

No doubt about it: Gexa Energy sucks. Do not do business with this electricity provider.

UPDATE: I notice via my StatCounter that the folks at Gexa have come across this entry. I'm hoping that this post will alert them to the error of their ways. But there's also a possibility that upon seeing this they'll come after me with a SLAPP. If that happens, I'll lawyer up.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cheap terabytes

Yesterday, Lori went to the store and purchased a 1.5 terabyte external hard drive for her computer. It cost her $110 after rebate.

While this might not seem like such a big deal for those who are younger or more "techy" than me, I find it absolutely amazing.

I remember well the days when it was a big deal to measure memory in megabytes. And I'm only recently gotten used to the fact that we now regularly measure memory in gigabytes.

Now you can pick up a drive with one-and-a-half trillion bytes of memory for just over a hundred bucks.

Maybe I'm just getting old, but this just blows me away.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Shrinking a city

Faced with an ever-decreasing population and budget shortfalls, the city of Flint, Michigan is considering physically shrinking itself:

Instead of waiting for houses to become abandoned and then pulling them down, local leaders are talking about demolishing entire blocks and even whole neighborhoods.

The population would be condensed into a few viable areas. So would stores and services. A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval.

“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”
While the idea of actively demolishing blighted, sparsely-populated neighborhoods and consolidating the city's population into areas deemed to be viable might sound like a drastic response to urban decay, if the costs of doing so are less than the costs of continuing to maintain streets and utilities and providing police, fire and waste removal services to these moribund neighborhoods full of abandoned buildings that attract criminals and vermin, then there's logic to it. While we normally think about city planning being about accomodating growth, "planned shrinkage" is simply the process done in reverse:

Planned shrinkage became a workable concept in Michigan a few years ago, when the state changed its laws regarding properties foreclosed for delinquent taxes. Before, these buildings and land tended to become mired in legal limbo, contributing to blight. Now they quickly become the domain of county land banks, giving communities a powerful tool for change.

Indianapolis and Little Rock, Ark., have recently set up land banks, and other cities are in the process of doing so. “Shrinkage is moving from an idea to a fact,” said Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s finally the insight that some cities just don’t have a choice.”
There are certainly a host of issues involved in the process of shrinkage: eminent domain versus property rights, the extent to which people can be compelled to leave neighborhoods slated for elimination, how the decision as to which communities survive and which are demolished is to be made, what happens when historically-significant or hazardous waste sites are found in neighborhoods slated for destruction, and so on. It doesn't sound like it would be an easy process.

But as continual changes to America's economy and demography take their toll on older manufacturing cities like Flint (and, notably, its larger cousin Detroit, where unemployment is now 20% and the median price of a house is now a paltry $5,800), these places are going to have to come to grips with the reality that citywide regeneration or revitalization will never occur and that their population will continue to decline. These cities need to address not how they grow but rather how they become smaller; the process of liquidating defunct neighborhoods and returning the land on which they sit to nature (or perhaps turning them into farmland) seems like a solution that could provide the most economic, environmental and emotional benefit:
“If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” Kildee said. “Create the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.”

UH Athletics Director Dave Maggard retires

Given that he is 69 years old, it was clear that Dave Maggard's days at the helm of the University of Houston Athletics Department were growing short. But I don't think very many people expected his departure to occur as soon, or as suddenly, as it did when he announced his retirement at a hastily-called press conference last Wednesday. The abruptness with which the announcement occurred raises suspicion, as the Chronicle's Steve Campbell explains:
On the other hand, the timing is a bit of a head-scratcher. Just two days earlier, Maggard told the Chronicle of his desire to call an audible on his plan — approved last August by the board of regents — to build a $38 million end zone facility at the stadium. Maggard called for a more ambitious, expansive plan for the whole stadium that likely would have added another $10 million to the price tag.

Indeed, informed speculation on the various UH sports forums is that Maggard's retirement was forced by UH President Renu Khator after he went "over her head" and announced his desire to scrap the end zone facility plan with a more ambitious stadium renovation plan without first having her or the Board of Regents consider or vet the proposal. Furthermore, it was never a secret that not everybody - high-dollar alumni and administrators included - was happy with some of Maggard's other decisions, be it his refusal to fire head basketball coach Tom Penders (although the fact that Penders has three years remaining on his contract made such a move financially impractical) or his proclivities regarding fundraising.

In the end, though, the true story behind the reasons for Maggard's retirement doesn't really matter. What does matter is what Dave Maggard accomplished during his seven years as Athletics Director on Cullen Boulevard, and there can be no question that he is leaving the program in much better shape than it was when he inherited it:

When Maggard arrived in January 2002, the programs that make an athletic department go — football and men's basketball — were heading nowhere. He inherited a 0-11 football team and a men's basketball program that was in the middle of an 8-20 season. The football team had gone 31-79-1 in the 10 seasons before Maggard's arrival. The basketball team was in the middle of its third consecutive losing head coaching regime (Alvin Brooks, Clyde Drexler, Ray McCallum).

Look at UH now. Yes, the program is still stuck in Conference USA, but it's going to take more than an athletic director and some wishful thinking to change that. Maggard's first football coaching hire, Art Briles, led the team to three consecutive bowl games before taking off for Baylor. The next coaching hire, Kevin Sumlin, took the team to the postseason again last season, with a twist: The Cougars won bowl game for the first time since 1980.

Oh, and the graduation rate of the athletic program has gone from 27 percent to an all-time high 59 percent the past seven years. We do want to at least pretend that's an important part of intercollegiate athletics, right?

"I feel real good about what our staff has done here," Maggard said. "I think Kevin is going to be sensational. I think Tom is outstanding."

Well, I don't know if a guy whose team just lost to a team with a losing record in some cheesy, also-ran tournament can be considered "outstanding," but even then Maggard really can't be faulted for his original decision to hire Tom Penders. The basketball program is clearly better today than it was during the Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude, even though Penders has probably taken the program as far as he can go with it.

Even on his way out the door, Maggard was lobbying on Wednesday for UH boosters to help with the effort to upgrade Robertson Stadium. His revised plan called for improvements throughout the stadium that would cost from $41-$48 million.

"Does that stop? Absolutely not," Maggard said. "This may have been my idea, but it's the University of Houston's project. This university needs it. To be in Division I-A, to do the things everyone wants to do ... I feel really good about it."

I was never clear as to the necessity of a $38 million endzone facility (Central Florida recently built an entire stadium for $55 million) that would duplicate many of the services already provided in the Athletics and Alumni Center (itself a relatively new structure), when the existing Robertson Stadium critically needs upgrades to its seating capacity, its press boxes, its restrooms, its concession stands and even its steep, non-ADA-compliant concourse ramps. In that regard, I sincerely hope that Maggard's vision for stadium-wide improvements does become a reality. But it's going to take some serious fundraising - the funds raised for the endzone facility had been stuck at $12 million for quite some time - and Maggard has apparently not made fundraising for capital projects a priority, focusing instead on soliciting donations for the Cougar Pride athletic scholarships program. Given the programs's capital facilities needs - Hofheinz Pavilion needs some upgrades as well - UH's next AD will probably be expected to put a stronger focus on capital facilities fundraising.

As to Maggard's eventual successor: many names are on the table but the search process has only just begun. One thing to consider during this process is the importance of finding somebody who plans to stick around for awhile: the fact that, at seven years, Dave Maggard was the second-longest-tenured AD at UH speaks volumes. After the departure of the legendary Harry Fouke in 1979, the AD position became a veritable revolving door; people used the University of Houston as a stepping stone, staying for only a few years and, in many instances, making decisions that were detrimental to the program while they were here. This instability led to the decline of UH's sports programs over the 80s and 90s, a decline that appears to have reversed under Maggard's leadership. The next AD needs to be somebody who wants to be at the University of Houston long enough to continue this rehabilitation and be accountable for his decisions. If the wrong hire is made, UH athletics could slip back to the abyss it found itself in before Maggard got here.

With that said, Dave Maggard did an excellent job at the helm. He deserves our thanks and our good wishes.

Fourth and Fifty's take is also worth a read.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tax time!

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past couple of weeks. I've been occupied with other things.

Like taxes. Today, of course, is Tax Day.

And I'm glad I procrastinated this year and waited until this past weekend to do them.

Last Saturday, I received a notice in the mail from the IRS saying that we owned a few hundred dollars in back taxes from last year. It had to do with the dependent care benefit Lori receives from her job that wasn't included in our 2007 return's Schedule 2441 (Child Care Expenses). Oops.

As much as it sucks to owe the IRS money, two good things come out of this:

1. Lori did our return last year, because I was in Dubai at the time. So I get to blame her.

2. If I hadn't gotten the letter from the IRS last Saturday, before I had finished the taxes for 2008, I would have made the exact same mistake on this year's return.

Anyway, I went back and re-figured 2008's return, and e-filed it on Sunday. It looks like the
return I expect to get back from the IRS this year should be enough to cover the back taxes from last year. Yeah!

Even though Lori and I try to go it alone with our taxes, we completely understand why people gladly pay CPAs and other tax specialists to do their taxes for them. It really can be complicated, and costly mistakes are all too easy to make.