Monday, December 19, 2011

Callipygian: A lonely but useful word

Photo via Robert L. Peters
How many words can you think of that have no synonyms, where there is literally no other, single word to describe a concept? I learned a new one this morning: "Callipygian," which means "having well-shaped buttocks," according to The Thesaurus entry on the word, by contrast, yields no results. A related form of the word, as evidenced in the accompanying photo, is "callipygous."

There are perhaps slang synonyms - "bootylicious," comes to mind - though a web search came up with surprisingly few others. But "callipygian," with its etymological referent to Aphrodite, lacks the same misogynist air while capturing the same concept.

Excellent word.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Facing middle age, or, procrastination on a rainy December day

On a rainy December day I enjoyed thinking back to our trip to Galveston this summer.

Not to mention our trip right after session to Mexico City:

 Not so nice here at the moment. We need the rain, but the gray weather's a bummer.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Austin Water’s bond rating may look better if Water Treatment Plant 4 delayed

In the wake of a breathtakingly high estimate from city staff on the cost to shut down construction of Water Treatment Plant 4 (WTP4), the temptation for city council to just build the project out as planned may be overwhelming. Some have even claimed that the city’s bond rating might go down if the project isn’t completed immediately.  But city staff estimates throughout this process have been notoriously unreliable and always directed towards getting a “yes” vote to build out the plant.
A more realistic review of the utility’s finances reveals a strong argument for delaying WTP4  as perhaps the only fiscally prudent decision. Weather patterns and individual conservation have combined to reduce water use so much that the plant simply can’t be paid for without massive, politically unsustainable rate hikes that punish the poor and those who conserve most.
But first, a little context. Austin Water’s bond rating (AA-) is already lower than the city’s general revenue bonds because their income flow long-term appears not to match their increased spending and debt load. Truth be told, I suspect any ratings agency that looked too closely at the Austin Water Utility’s future water sales projections in their bond prospectus might consider downgrading the debt further if the plant goes forward.
The entirely predictable effects of a half-billion in new debt are starting to kick in: Before the City Council’s vote last year to begin construction of WTP4, the water utility told the council and the public that water rates for the average residential customer would go up 34 percent over six years if the project went through. The SOS Alliance hired me to separately analyze rate projections and in a report (pdf) titled “The Perfect Storm,” I projected rates would rise 74% over six years (including last year’s rate hike).
After construction of  WTP4 was underway, the city quietly admitted that predictions of much-higher residential rates were accurate, and then some. In the current proposed budget, not only will the city raise residential rates by 66% in the next five years, city staff wants to tack on immediately an Orwellian-named $6 per meter monthly “sustainability fee.”
 I say “Orwellian” because the fee really pays for an unsustainable business model that depends on the city selling far more water over the next decade than appears remotely likely. The “sustainability” fee is both front-loaded and heavily regressive; including it results in immediate rate hikes of 26% for the "average" residential customer and 66% for those using the least amount of water, according to city estimates.  Residents using the most water would see only a 7% increase. That’s a dramatic shift from the focus in recent years on “conservation pricing,“ which raised prices most on the most profligate water users.
Which brings us to the issue of the credibility of city estimates. If I could tell last year that rates must rise that much to pay for all this debt (as could, by the way, any kid with an A or B in 9th grade algebra), why couldn’t Austin Water? City staff projections have erred consistently and dramatically throughout the long debate over WTP4, but were always biased in one direction: favoring the plant’s immediate construction. So I don’t know what the cost of mothballing WTP4 would be, but the $138 million figure seems incredible and unlikely considering city estimates that just 15% of the work is done.
The far bigger problem is that the city has told bondholders that their water sales – especially peak use in the hottest days, which is all even proponents say the plant is needed for – are on a steadily rising trend that will generate enough revenue to pay for the bonds. In reality, though, conservation measures have reduced per-capita consumption. So, for example, even on the hottest day this summer Austin’s peak use hasn’t topped 221 million gallons (Aug. 28), while in its bond prospectus, the city estimated to purchasers of its debt that peak use would reach 254 mgd in 2011, a number we’ve virtually no chance of hitting.
Indeed, somewhat confusingly, in that same prospectus, sworn truthful as of November 1, 2010, the city told bondholders that FY 2010’s “projected” peak day was 249 mgd. In fact, the fiscal year had already ended by that time and the peak day (of a quite rainy year) was just 193 mgd (Aug. 29). Similar, the actual total annual water pumpage in FY 2010 was 21.6% below what was told to those purchasing the city’s debt.  Especially considering about 8% of that was leakage that never actually reached the customers (or their meters), the city is simply not selling the quantities of water bondholders were told would be necessary to pay off the debt. Notably, the bond prospectus estimates fail entirely to take into account the effects of higher rates and recently adopted conservation goals to reduce per capita consumption to 140 gallons per capita per day by 2020.
The confluence of all these factors leaves the utility one, predictable option and we’re now seeing it: Raise rates even higher, and preferably (from the standpoint of selling the most water) in a way that deemphasizes conservation and encourages more water sales. That’s not in the city’s long-term best interest. Given low levels in the Highland Lakes it may not even be physically possible to sell as much water as the city has projected in representations to bondholders. This plant won’t produce more water, it only treats water we already have. Conservation remains our most effective approach to drought conditions, and should be reinforced, not undermined, by pricing decisions.
Even if it cost millions to mothball WTP4, launching such a high-dollar project without sufficient demand to justify the expense was just a bad management decision. If they chose to pause construction because the plant’s not needed, the City of Austin would be no more likely punished by the bond raters than was the Intel Corporation after they stopped construction of a large new building mid-stream just two blocks from Austin’s city hall. The company did so because their changing economic situation couldn’t support it and they were flexible enough to recognize it and make a decision in their long-term fiscal best interest.
The question is whether a majority on the Austin City Council will do the same, injecting some fiscal sanity into management of the water utility? Or will Austin just raise rates ad infinitum to secure promised revenues to bondholders from increased water sales that it’s obvious won’t be forthcoming? Will the city council protect ratepayers before this self-inflicted debt bubble bursts or just soak them afterward and pretend they had no choice? When you find yourself trapped in a hole, the saying goes, the first thing to do is stop digging.

The author is a consultant for the Save Our Springs Alliance hired to analyze Austin Water Utility finances and their effects on residential water rates, though this article was not pre-vetted by SOS or any other group.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trannsforming Tragedy

I wanted to share with readers a remarkable story that provides a happy coda to a dark, sad episode in Grits' personal family history: Readers may recall that two years ago (on Tuesday, to be exact) my 12-year old niece, Maggie Lee Henson, died after a tragic church bus accident and three anguished weeks lingering in an intensive care unit in Mississippi. Rather than rush to the state capitol to push for a new criminal statute named after their daughter, my brother and his wife instead designated Maggie's birthday, October 29, "Maggie Lee for Good" day, challenging those who knew and loved her and others whose lives she touched to perform one good deed on that day in her memory. Thousands responded, from small gestures to grand ones. In the Shreveport Times this week, her mother Jinny, shared stories of how the Maggie-Lee-for-Good movement became an unexpected blessing for their family during from the first 24 months after Maggie's death. On her blog this morning, Jinny (who is a Christian comedian by trade) linked to the Shreveport Times story and added these sobering thoughts:
While I would give anything to have her back, and hear that that feeling subsides little as the years go by, I know that we will always be a table with three legs.  As time goes by, you learn to put the heavy stuff on one corner and just where to place the chairs in case things topple, but these gymnastics only serve to remind you of what you lost.

Then again, at least I have a three-legged table while some people have no table at all. I am vastly aware of what I have left. August 2nd marks the one year anniversary of 6 Shreveport teenagers drowned while swimming, one mother losing three children on the same day. That is a pain I cannot fathom.

As we begin our third year of life without Maggie Lee, I have to be thankful for God’s sustaining grace, a loving family and the most unshakable friends in the world.
I was already thinking about Maggie and my brother's family a lot these last few weeks, so I wanted to both share the Shreveport Times story with y'all and publicly express my admiration for Jinny, John, and their son Jack. They each have weathered this terrible storm with remarkable courage and dignity, transforming grief into literally a constructive force. I couldn't be more proud of them for it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Austin water rate hikes foreseeable, foreseen

Here's a letter I sent to local Austin city beat reporters about rising water bills, decrying the city's efforts to downplay and/or mislead the public about massive rate hikes required to pay for Water Treatment Plant 4:

Perchance you received, as I did, an email from the SOS Alliance mentioning Bill Spelman's calculations of future Austin water rate hikes. It read, in relevant part:
Last summer the Austin Water Utility projected a five-year total increase in residential water rates of 30 percent.   ... Recently the Water Utility released its initial budget figures.  Councilmember Bill Spelman has analyzed the data - and calculated a projected 5-year water rate increase for residential customers of 66%.  Go to and click on the "spreadsheets here" link and look at the "monthly bill" chart.
That is an eye-popping sixty-six percent rate increase - and more than double the Water Utility's projection from just last year.  And it follows seven years of annual rate increases.  (If you just count last year's increase, the six year increase thru 2016 is projected at 74 percent.)
In that context, please recall that last year's SOS Alliance report on this very topic (attached, titled "The Perfect Storm") predicted - wait for it - a 74% residential water rate increase over six years from publicly available data !  I remind you of this to ensure that, if and when you report on the subject, you make it clear to your readers and/or viewers that these rate hikes were not a surprise. Don't, in your coverage, allow the Mayor, Greg Meszaros, Daryl Slusher, etc., to greet Spelman's calculations in your stories with quotes saying "We couldn't have known." They could, and they did. But they wanted to keep this fact out of the public debate until WTP4 bonds were issued, construction began and it was too late to do anything about it.

Spelman's calculations differ from mine mainly in that they cover the years 2011-2016, whereas my report estimated them for 2010 - 2015, and he's including sewer rates whereas I focused solely on water. (City staff shifted some of the increases from water to sewer in response to criticisms in the report.) But both analyses document the same, inexorable trend - water bills headed upward on a dramatically steeper curve than city staff and WTP4 backers were last year willing to admit, with most of the increase (far more than the city lets on) attributable to WTP4.

The calculations are not rocket science. Staff knew exactly what it would take to repay the city's huge new debt burden. The bond prospectus for new Water Treatment Plant 4 debt simply lied about growth in water use to make the numbers work, but in real-world budgeting such phony, politicized projections carry no weight. The future rate hikes Spelman and I documented were an inevitable and foreseeable outcome at the time they took that vote.

Though I'm no longer employed by SOS, having been retained only for that one research project, this still offends me. I've been around this town a long time and I don't mind losing a fair fight. But I certainly do mind losing because public officials don't tell the truth, or worse, as in this case, actively attempt to discredit truth-tellers.

This episode also speaks to the fact that Austinites were poorly served by local media in this affair. Anyone who investigated city claims about water rates last year would have easily documented these misrepresentations, as did my report, from available public records. But local media just took pols' word on rate hikes and adopted a "quote both sides" approach that equated falsehoods with facts. City staff based their public calculations on higher use levels even as the city was adopting per capita conservation goals that would on their face leave AWU short of revenue needed to pay for WTP4 debt (and demonstrate that we don't even need the thing). The situation would have been obvious if any reporter had independently examined the subject instead of simply quoting officials without verifying what they said.

That failure, of course, is now water under the bridge (or from the perspective of ratepayers, over the dam). But with a regressive new fee proposed which would assign the cost of AWU's misrepresentations disproportionately to the poor, you now have a chance to really dig into this and not just accept whatever falsehood is handed you in some official's formal statement. Rapidly increasing water rates and the new, regressive fee are a real burden on the public, and an honest discussion of that burden should have been part of the WTP4 debate. It's not too late. Good reporting on this issue still matters...a lot. Perhaps we'll eventually see some.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Drawing conclusions about illusions and the failure to perceive them

Over the past few months, based partly in an ongoing interest in the brain science behind eyewitness errors, partly on being immensely impressed with the related artwork by Salvador Dali I saw in Berlin and Spain last year (e.g., at left), and partly thanks to the need to generate ever-new drawing projects for my 4-1/2 year old granddaughter, I've been teaching myself to draw rudimentary optical illusions (sometimes while sitting in lengthy committee hearings at the Legislature waiting for a bill to come up). In furtherance of that effort I purchased a slim book by a fellow named Robert Ausborne titled  "How to understand, enjoy and draw optical illusions," which was a good starting point for a ham-handed beginner.

One thing I've learned through this process is that, for whatever reason, I cannot see certain types (but not all types) of color-based illusions, in particular so-called "afterimage" illusions, which is when you see the negative or complementary color, i.e., the color across from it on the color wheel, after staring at an initial image then looking at a neutral color. (See examples here and here.) I understand them. I can even create afterimage illusions others can see (it's easy on Photoshop following Ausborne's instructions: With the image in an active layer, perform the following commands: Image > Adjustments> Invert). But as I wrote to the author, "I have discovered that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot see after image illusions … EVER … having now looked at dozens of examples, and comparing notes with my wife (who does see them). I’m not color-blind and my eyes react to illusions based on shading tricks, but I don’t ever get an afterimage." He graciously replied:
The question you ask is a good one.   While I am not a scientist, but as a long suffering, pestering enthusiast I can offer up anecdotal evidence.

The most obvious demographic quirk I've noticed about illusions is age.  The young quickly realize almost all illusions with no trouble at all.  They seem to walk into them guileless.  The older a witness is the harder it becomes.  You don't see that many optical illusion shows in Florida.

As for After-image illusions.  My own research has turned up several factors which affect the ability to "see" them; such as heredity, eye color, color blindness, and a host of other vision problems, including bad lighting.   I have never found a definitive answer and suspect that nobody really knows.  Perhaps you were born with an extra supply of photo chemicals, and just don't run dry that easily.  Perhaps your eyes have an Indianapolis 500 Pit Crew and the photoreceptors are replenishing too quickly.  Perhaps your eyes are making tiny movements which are undetectable, thus making it difficult to expose a single patch of neurons to the illusion.  Perhaps you are an alien plant, and have just inadvertently given humans a sure fire test to discover and weed out your kind.

As an artist who draws illusions for a living I can tell you that it is possible to oversaturate oneself with an illusion.  Most illusions do not stop working while I draw them, and with some illusions it can be like trying to paint a leaf while it's falling; as things tend to wander out from under my eyeballs.   But with some illusions I can become burnt out; I just can’t see them easily anymore.  I run the risk of ruining the illusion, making it too obvious by far in order to stimulate my own burnt out senses.  The reason for this phenomenon may be that we are human; we learn.  The brain adapts.  Just as the brain can make your nose invisible to both eyes, it can make an illusion invisible, once it figures out you don't really need to "see" it.   Perhaps you are just more adaptable than the rest of us.
I appreciate the author's response, and he's probably right nobody knows. I'm still curious about it, though.

I've been interested in how we see color ever since learning with fascination and borderline envy about synesthesia and how differently synesthetes see and interact with colors (which are often associated with numbers, music, or other mathemtaically based facets of life). Then, in researching eyewitness identification in a criminal-justice context, I became acutely aware of just how little of the world around us our eyes actually see and how much is filled in by our memory. That's why eyewitness accounts are extremely reliable when people previously knew the person they're identifying, but exceptionally unreliable when trying to identify someone they'd never seen before. Writing in the June 30, 2008 New Yorker on an unrelated topic (itching, to be precise), Dr. Atul Gawande described the nuts and bolts of vision mechanics that explain why that's the case:
The images in our mind are extraordinarily rich. We can tell if something is liquid or solid, heavy or light, dead or alive. But the information we work from is poor - a distorted, two-dimensional transmission with entire spots missing. So the mind fills in most of the picture. You can get a sense of this from brain anatomy studies. If visual sensations were primarily received rather than constructed by the brain, you'd expect that most of the fibres going to the brain's primary visual cortex would come from the retina. Instead, scientists have found that only twenty percent do; eighty percent come downward from regions of the brain governing functions like memory. Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist, estimates that visual perception is more than ninety percent memory and less than ten percent sensory nerve signals.
So memory is filling in most of the image you see when you "see" something, which is why eyewitness errors are much more likely when identifying strangers. As for the optical illusion: No wonder most people see afterimages if our memory is generating 80-90% of our visual perception. Your brain is busy filling in all the gaps in the image you're looking at, and when it's taken away it can't immediately shut down that extraordinarily complicated function. Who knows why I'm an exception, but there always is one. I'd still like to know.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Texas road system being constructed on credit cards

This story really pissed me off, in part I suppose because I haven't paid close attention to road funding issues for the last decade:
Texas soon will be shelling out more per year to pay back money it borrowed for road construction than it spends from its quickly vanishing pile of cash to build new highways.

Legislative leaders characterize the state's transportation funding as a crisis. Most Texans, they say, are unaware of its severity and must be educated before the state can find new ways to finance new roads.

The gasoline tax pays for road maintenance and construction but has not increased in 20 years. Gas tax revenue peaked in 2008 and likely will decline as vehicles become more fuel-efficient.

"It's not a crisis until everybody agrees that it's a crisis. Right now, people who don't understand it are saying, 'You're crying wolf,'" said House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso. "Yes, it's a crisis."

Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, agrees.

"The gravity of the situation is that in the absence of further action by the Legislature this session, we will literally be out of money for new construction in 2012 in the fastest-growing state in the country and in one of the largest states in the country," he said. "We need to begin to have a discussion about it."
The whole story is worth a read. That makes me mad because state government - especially Texas - supposedly pays as it goes, as opposed to the federal government which has run up a $1.5 Trillion annual deficit. We're not supposed to be borrowing for our entire damn road budget! The feds do that. "Oh, let's have a couple of wars and put it all on the credit cards." But state government at a fundamental level shouldn't be operating that way. Apparently the bonds we're currently operating from were issued in 2007 and we'll completely run out of road money by next year. Genius. (/sarcasm)

It sort of reminds me of the spate of county "road districts" we saw for a while during the go-go '80s S&L fiasco, where developers owning empty land would move several employees onto it in trailers, have their employees "vote" to declare a "road district," then issue county-backed bonds to pay for essentially private road construction, making roads a) much more expensive than they should be and b) designed in service to suburban developers instead of overall public need. Some of these, like the one built at the behest of former Governor John Connally and former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes southwest of Austin, were paid for essentially with junk bonds back when credit was cheap and easy.

Road districts, though, were at most only ever a small fraction of county road building. By contrast, state government is using debt to finance our road system entirely, in many cases proposing to pay for them by building or designating toll roads. TXDoT now mostly doesn't pay to build roads, a majority of its budget will soon, and for the foreseeable future, go to pay bondholders. What a friggin' mess. I honestly don't see how the Lege can get a budget that pays for everything it needs to without raising some taxes somewhere. If Texas just stopped building roads in 2012 because the Lege didn't allocate enough money, I'll bet that 101 member majority presently enjoyed by the GOP would evaporate as quickly as it appeared.

This is one of those issues that voters really want government to get right. They don't like "tax and spend," but "borrow and spend" has even greater drawbacks, and on roads, "stop spending" is not a viable option..