Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apologies and aggrepost

As my regular readers (all three of them) have probably noticed, I have not been very busy writing new blog entries over the past few weeks. Part of the reason is that we're simply stuck in the mid-summer doldrums and there's really not anything going on that I feel compelled to write about. This will probably remain the case until football season begins.

The other reason that posting activity has been light has to do with some pretty significant changes currently underway in my personal life. I am not going to go into details right now - everything will be revealed once things are resolved - but my attention right now is focused on these changes and not on keeping this blog current.

With that said, I did want to follow-up on some previous postings of mine:

FIU's cheerleading program might survive after all. Last month, it was reported that budget cuts at Florida International University had forced the elimination of its marching band as well as its award-winning cheerleading squad. FIU's cheerleaders, however, refused to go quietly into the night and used their, uh, assets in a bid to save their program:
Proving once again that there are very few problems in the world that a bikini car wash cannot fix, Florida International has announced that its cheerleading program has been brought back from the dead. The university had said that it was cutting the program — plus the marching band — in an attempt to shave $1 million from its operating budget. But the cheerleaders, and the general public, would not take this lying down.
Through fundraising efforts that included bikini car washes, blood drives and most probably a few large individual donations, it appears that our long national nightmare is at an end. According to [...] the Save FIU Cheerleading group Facebook page (via BUSTED COVERAGE), enough money has been raised to reinstate the program. Hooray!
Well, ya gotta do what ya gotta do. Good for them. Hopefully the persistence of the cheerleaders will inspire FIU's struggling football program to have a successful season this fall.

That didn't last long. Ultra-low-cost airline JetAmerica appears to have been grounded before it could even take its first flight:

JetAmerica officially will not get off the ground in August. The airline announced in a press release this afternoon that it is "suspending sales to all markets and that it would immediately begin to notify affected customers and process refunds to all customers who have booked on the public charter flights." A spokesman for the company says JetAmerica would refund more than $900,000 in ticket reservations for flights since Aug. 14, which was JetAmerica's latest project launch date.

The Associated Press picks up the story, saying the "fledgling discount airline that garnered attention with $9 promotional fares, has folded without ever getting off the ground. ... Service was originally supposed to begin July 13 to underserved markets in Toledo, Ohio; South Bend, Ind.; Melbourne, Fla.; and Lansing, Mich. Flights were also scheduled to larger airports in Minneapolis and Newark, N.J."

Apparently, the airline ran into difficulty in securing the landing slots it needed at Newark's heavily-congested Liberty International Airport. No word as to whether the realization that the creation of another airline, even an "ultra-low-fare" one, is not a sound business decision in this depressed economy played a factor in the decision.

JetAmerica's management is not giving up the ghost, however. They're still trying to convince people that this news simply represents a temporary setback and that the carrier will indeed take to the skies sometime this fall once they find a replacement airport for Newark Liberty. Color me unconvinced. Right now, the last thing the nation's struggling domestic aviation industry needs is another airline.

They'll still find a way to screw you! Although the The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009, signed into law last May, prohibits the credit card industry from implementing some of its sleazier and more predatory practices, they'll still find a way to squeeze as much money as they can from their customers.

Case in point: the legislation prohibits credit card issuers from enacting sudden or retroactive interest rate increases. So what do the banks do? They simply change their fixed-rate credit cards to variable-rate credit cards, which are not subject to the same restrictions. A few weeks ago, I received notices that this change was happening to at least two of my cards. How nice.

More on shrinking cities: a few months ago, I wrote about the rising movement to "shrink" post-industrial cities, such as Flint, Michigan, by bulldozing entire dilapidated neighborhoods and returning the land to nature. There's been a lot of good discussion about the topic since then, with some critics arguing that large-scale demolition will not solve these cities' social and economic problems any more than the now-discredited postwar theory of "urban renewal" solved urban problems of its time, or that such bulldozing forecloses any opportunity to one day revitalize these cities and encourages further urban decentralization.

Perhaps the liquidation of entire neighborhoods is an extreme response, but, as one urban consultant writes, some sort of "planned shrinkage" through demolition is simply necessary for blighted post-industrial cities:
One consequence of persistent business loss and depopulation is the emergence of a growing number of unoccupied vacant residential and commercial buildings, many of which will remain vacant indefinitely. Some of the houses can be rehabilitated, and some of the former office and factory buildings can be redesigned as lofts, condominiums, art galleries, and restaurants. But many of these vacant buildings will have to be demolished. Last year, an administrator in Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections told me that city housing inspectors were identifying an average of thirty "imminently dangerous" buildings each month, an average of one a day. These structures are not fixer-uppers—they’re about to collapse. Although a wholesale razing of neighborhoods would be foolhardy, some demolition activity will need to be ongoing in older cities in order to remove the most dangerous or most blighted buildings.
The author goes on to explain Flint's demolition process, undertaken by a specially-created Land Bank Authority, in detail. It's an interesting concept to remedy a very real problem, but I'm quite frankly glad we don't have to deal with it here in Houston.

Speaking of urban demolition: over a year ago, I wrote about the movement to replace or even eliminate urban freeways that have reached the end of their design lives. They're currently having this discussion about an aging elevated freeway in New Orleans:

Now, shifting national trends and looming maintenance expenses have experts talking about the possibility of removing the Claiborne Expressway from the Pontchartrain Expressway to Elysian Fields Avenue. Traffic would flow on surface streets or along Interstate 610.

Removal of the Claiborne Expressway was proposed by the two-year-old Unified New Orleans Plan and is a key recommendation in the city's draft master plan.

"I-10 is something that lots and lots of people complained about, especially in terms of its damage to Treme," said David Dixon, a principal with Goody Clancy, the firm that is creating the draft of the master plan.

Claiborne Avenue, with its wide neutral ground and routing that takes it close to the Big Easy's Central Business District, was a natural location for a freeway during the interstate building boom of the 1960s. But with the freeway structure now forty years old, is the Claiborne Expressway still necessary? Or can it be torn down and Claiborne Avenue returned to its original state?

What would be the traffic effects of such a decision? It's hard to say. Through traffic could continue to travel along the 610 bypass along the lakeside edge of the city (or along Interstate 12 on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain), and freeway access to the CBD, the Quarter and the Crescent City Connection would be maintained by the western portion of I-10 (Pontchartrain Expressway), which is not being proposed for demolition. The disposition of the traffic that currently uses the Claiborne Expressway to access the CBD from eastern New Orleans is a legitimate concern, but, as the article notes, the traffic nightmares that were feared when other cities tore down their urban freeways, such as the Westside Highway in Manhattan or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, never materialized. Drivers just found other ways to get to their destinations.

Freeway demolition isn't the biggest issue facing post-Katrina New Orleans, however, and he article points out that the dismantling of the Claiborne is not a priority of Nagin's administration. It's also far from certain, given the city's current demographic and economic predicament, that pulling down the elevated freeway will have much affect on the potential revitalization of the Treme. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if this goes anywhere.

And finally, more Dubai-bashing! From - where else? - The Times, which has firmly established itself as the vanguard of the western media's hatred of the Emirate. Here's a sample of their latest sneering missive:

“Why did you leave Britain?” I ask him, slung well below sea level in the bucket seat as we cruise the baked streets past the filthy, crumbling apartment blocks where the Bangladeshi slave labourers live or die, 10 or 12 to a room, and then into the hideous bling of downtown Dubai, a vast architectural experiment conducted by, seemingly, Albert Speer and Victoria Beckham. One skyscraper appears to be gilded in gold leaf, another looks like the birthday cake of a spoilt five-year-old brat — and all of them trying desperately to be taller, flashier, more grotesque than the one next door.

“Well, you know,” he says, in a soft Scottish burr, “I think it was the immigration more than anything else.”

“But Andrew, you’re an immigrant now…”

He looks astonished at this, as if the notion had never occurred, then says: “Yes! Ironic, I suppose. But the difference is, I’m a wanted immigrant.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Up to a point. In truth, needed more than wanted. As one local put it: “We are fed up of westerners who come here thinking they deserve an easy meal ticket. You were nothing in the West, so you came here for the houses and cars you could never get back home, you stole through taking out excessive finance that is not justified by you [sic] salaries. Then when you cannot pay you run, this is theft born out of greed and arrogance.

“Anyway despite all of this you still disrespect our cultural and religious values with your behaviour, dress and conduct in our malls and on our beaches and comments about us our race and our religion. You spend all your time critizising [sic] our laws, society and systems. Yet, you could never have the lifestyle you have here back in your system. You people are no longer welcome, please go and pollute somewhere else.”

That was the message posted by a disgruntled Emirati on an expat website recently, and, as a description of the British, South African, Australian and eastern-European workers now living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it has a certain truth about it. The Emiratis are a minority within their own country, the UAE, and an even smaller minority within Dubai, the most populous city of the UAE, where they number about 20% of the population.

On the other hand, it seems a bit rich coming from an Emirati, the inhabitant of a country that lucked into oil money about 43 years ago and is now utterly dependent on foreign labour for its current, unsustainable prosperity — the ranks of the skilled and talented working class from Europe, who come here and run their absurd, extravagant and now faltering construction projects, and the traders and the dealers.

The British expats I spoke to believed, without exception, that the Emiratis are utterly useless, corrupt and indolent, and, according to several, some British managers are leaving rather than abide by a new law that requires them to employ a certain percentage of Arabs on every job. They’re simply not up to it, they say. As it is, the locals make up less than one-fifth of the total UAE population, the westerners roughly half that amount. The majority population in Dubai is the criminally low-paid, enchained, abused, dispossessed peasantry from south Asia.

Let's see: snide remarks about Dubai's "hideous" architecture? Check. Prominent mention of the "enslaved" (or, in this case, "enchained") construction laborers? Check. Anti-western vitriol from some anonymous Emirati? Check. Description of Emiratis as lazy, spoiled and arrogant? Check. Looks like this author followed the Dubai-bashing template to the letter. You'd think that, after so many months' worth of articles saying the same negative things about Dubai and the UAE, these writers would come up with some new material. But I guess not.

Seabee's take is here.

That's all I have for now. You may now resume your summertime monotony.

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