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June 13th, 2005:

How does my TiVo love me?

On the very day that I confess that The Night Stalker scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid, I discover that my TiVo has gone and recorded three episodes off of the SciFi channel for me. I’m pretty sure I won’t be freaked out in the way that my eight-year-old self was back in the day, but hey, you never know. I’ll report back after I’ve had a chance to sample these recordings.

Traffic light camera mystery solved

I’ve found a story in the Chron archives which definitively answers the question about the existing cameras at certain intersections inside the Loop. Basically, Kevin was right – they’re there to facilitate traffic flow along certain roads, though they’re not specifically tied to the US59 roadwork. Here’s an excerpt:

The city began using the Video Image Vehicle Detection System more than a year ago in the Reliant Park and Texas Medical Center areas. Since then, the number of cameras in the city has expanded, and Montrose, Westheimer and Richmond are three main roads where they are prominently featured.

“We have a few dozen of them around now and we’ll be installing more throughout the coming months,” said city of Houston Public Works spokesman Wes Johnson. “We’ve resynchronized all of the major corridors in Houston and as we get more money to install more of the cameras , we’ll do so.”

The city’s Traffic Signal and Timing Optimization Program began in January as part of Mayor Bill White’s plan to increase mobility throughout the city.

According to Public Works’ Web site, the TSTOP program will affect more than 1,500 traffic signals in the city on 85 corridors, in areas including downtown, Midtown, Uptown and the Medical Center.

[…]

The cameras are used to count cars that go through light cycles at intersections during off-peak hours, so the city can potentially make programming changes at those intersections if they’re needed.

The cameras can also prompt the traffic signals to change based on who is waiting at each light.

Four cameras are in place at each of the intersections, one monitoring traffic flow coming in each direction.

What the cameras do not do, Johnson said, is record what vehicles do at the intersections. The way they’re set up now, he said, is such that even if the police or the city wanted to use them to monitor drivers’ behavior, they couldn’t.

“We haven’t even gotten close to that,” he said. “They’ve been set up intentionally so they don’t pose any invasion of privacy. They can’t see drivers, and they can’t read license plates. When you get into looking at license plates or drivers, that’s a gray area.”

So there you have it.

Wanna see something really scary?

Ray in Austin has an amusing tale of watching scary movies with his kids, something which began as a Halloween tradition a few years back. They called a temporary hiatus after both children were terrified by the 1936 Bela Lugosi classic Dracula, but recently his son wanted to get back in the saddle.

So I puzzled through a pile of movies at Blockbuster tonight. Almost all of them were either too gory, or rated R, or were black-and-white (I didn’t want anything too similar to the Lugosi debacle), so after much hemming and hawing and talking it over with Gina and with the film geek at the Blockbuster store (who I incidentally turned on to The Warriors, which he’s gonna watch tonight, heh heh), I finally settled on The Lost Boys and Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Lost Boys is rated R, and I knew there was one rather intense vampire feeding scene, but I was guessing the R must be just because of some bad words, so I figured “what the hell”. We can always stop it in the middle. And both of these movies are horror-comedies, not straight scary.

Right up until the feeding scene, Liam kept going “This isn’t scary. When is it gonna get scary?” And right after the feeding scene, half of which he didn’t see because my hands were over his eyes, he got up off my lap and went to sit with his mother.

And now he’s in my bed. Head of garlic on my nightstand. Celtic cross over my side of the bed, my grandmother’s crucifix over the TV, a little cross medallion hanging on the bedpost. Watching “That’s So Raven”. With all the lights on. I don’t think I’ll have to whip up any holy water, at least, which is good since I don’t really know how to bless anything that hasn’t sneezed.

On the way upstairs he said, “I think PG-13 should be my limit for a few more years.”

So, OK. Oops. My bad.

The good news is that Liam actually liked the movie, and will probably get over the feeding scene when he sees it again in the daytime. It’s when Ray mentioned the old Darrin McGavin series The Night Stalker, which was, hands down, the scariest thing I can recall watching as a kid, that I got to obsessing about what sort of psychic damage I may someday do to Olivia by accidentally exposing her to something too intense for her to handle. I don’t think The Night Stalker caused any lasting damage – heck, I’m a bit excited to hear that there’s a remake of it in the works – but I do know people who, years after seeing some Really Scary Movie as a kid, remain freaked out about it.

So I’m curious. What (if any) movie, or TV show, or book, or whatever, that you consumed as a kid still haunts you? What (if any) beloved children’s story should I keep Olivia away from if I want to minimize the therapy bills later on?

Far out development followup

Last week I linked to a Chron article about development farther and farther away from Houston’s core. This article is a followup of sorts to that, and it’s a nice discussion of some of the issues that way-out development causes, especially for those in between the new places and the big city, plus a look at what Houston is doing about some of this. Take a moment and read it.

One thing I want to highlight:

[T]he expansion of the Katy Freeway — cited by executives of two companies planning developments near Fulshear as one reason their projects are feasible — has required the condemnation and destruction of numerous homes and businesses. The city of Spring Valley, which lost 90 percent of its commercial tax base to make way for new freeway lanes, raised property taxes by 27 percent last year.

Among the dislocated residents was Suzanne Wetzel, who had lived in Spring Valley for 17 years. She moved to a leased townhouse after all the homes on her block were razed for the freeway expansion. Wetzel said that because of rising area property values, the payment she got for her house wasn’t enough for another of comparable quality.

This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about when I said that the real cost of destroying an established neighborhood in order to enhance “regional mobility” far exceeds the dollar-and-cents total of the eminent domain process. Spring Valley may never recover from this. Who wants to put a price tag on that?

Get ready to avoid Kirby Drive

This is going to suck like a shop vac on steroids.

On an average day, about 50,000 vehicles traverse West University Place along the four lanes that are Kirby Drive.

Sometime before the year-end holidays, though — and for at least the two years that follow — the definition of “average day” will be drastically altered by construction work that will systematically reduce the number of lanes by half, with no such reduction in traffic likely.

“West University is like an innocent bystander in this,” said project manager Martin J. Cristofaro of the Houston Stormwater Management Program. “Still, you’re looking at major impact in the community. Right around Christmas is when you’re really going to see something.”

The “something” Cristofaro referred to is the fallout from the Kirby Drive Storm Sewer Relief Project, as its crane and heavy equipment approach Holcombe Boulevard. The Kirby project is the largest of three systems that make up the $72 million Medical Center Drainage Project, which recently began at North Braeswood Boulevard and will move slowly north until at least late 2007.

During this period, each of the more than half-mile long project segments will require the closing of one lane in each direction of the street.

This project is already going on, at and near the intersection of Kirby and both Braeswoods. It’s completely messed up my quickest route from where I work to most places that I go to eat lunch. I hadn’t realized it was going to continue north on Kirby. That’s going to be an unmitigated disaster from a traffic flow perspective. Kirby between University and 59 is a parking lot much of the day to begin with. You may have to be born north of 59 to get there once this kicks in.

In an attempt to minimize what he calls “cut-through traffic,” Cristofaro said efforts will be made to educate drivers about alternate ways to cross the area, such as Buffalo Speedway or Greenbriar Street. A Web site, www.swmp.org, will update construction progress.

“We’ll try to time the signals on Buffalo to move traffic much quicker,” Cristofaro said. “We’re going to try to get the word out.”

Um, you do know that this section of Buffalo Speedway is in West University Place, right? Where anyone who’s ever driven on it refers to it as Buffalo Speedtrap thanks to the vigorous efforts of the West U gendarmery to enforce its 30 MPH speed limit? Good luck with that.

If all goes well, paving will be completed in mid-2008.

Just shoot me now. Link via blogHOUSTON.

Ready or not, here come the cameras

Like it or not, now that the Lege declined to ban cities from installing red-light cameras, Houston is set to roll them out soon.

“They are going up, you bet,” said Mayor Bill White, during a recent news conference. “Every time that somebody is killed or seriously injured in an intersectional collision, where somebody was speeding through a red light, I and council members take that as a personal responsibility.”

The timetable isn’t certain for setting up the cameras, which the City Council approved in December. The goal is to have some working by the end of the year, city officials said.

The city had planned to get cameras installed by April, but that was delayed while the Legislature considered the issue. The House approved measures to outlaw red-light cameras, but none made it through the Senate.

Precisely where the cameras might go isn’t yet clear. The mayor, council and several city departments are working out the details of the plan before soliciting bids from prospective private vendors, who would install and maintain the cameras.

The mayor and the police department have said the city’s most dangerous signal-controlled intersections would be first on the list. The initial rollout of the system could involve as few as 10 sites, eventually growing to as many as 50.

“Whether we do all 50 all at once, I’m not sure,” said Councilman Adrian Garcia, whose public safety committee will discuss the issue today.

Like Grits, I’m concerned about the collection of biometric data and the possibility that it will eventually be used for things we won’t like in the future. Before that happens, though, there’s something I’ve been wondering about:

The city — which might give the vendor a cut of ticket revenue to save money on the installation — also is exploring the option of setting up decoy cameras in some places to serve as deterrents, officials said.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’ve noticed that there are already cameras at various intersections in Houston. Drive on Shepherd between West Gray and US 59 and you’ll see what I mean. I’d never paid attention to this before, but I suppose all the talk about this made me start looking. Does anyone know who’s operating these cameras, and what they’re doing with the images they capture? I’m more than a little curious.

There’s speeding, and then there’s speeding

We all already knew this, right?

Authorities patrolling U.S. highways tend to give motorists a cushion of up to 10 miles per hour above the speed limit before pulling them over, says a survey by a group of state traffic safety officials.

I’ve always heard that the unofficial speed limit on the highways is 7 MPH above what’s stated, but that’s close enough for these purposes. For sure, the flow of traffic pretty much anywhere you go is faster than the posted limits.

This practice creates an unsafe comfort level at high speeds and is a potential safety hazard, according to the report being released today by the Governors Highway Safety Association. The group found that 42 states allow drivers to regularly exceed the speed limit before they are stopped.

“This cushion truly exists across this country and in some cases is more than 10 mph above posted limits,” said Jim Champagne, the association’s chairman.

“Law enforcement needs to be given the political will to enforce speed limits and the public must get the message that speeding will not be tolerated,” said Champagne, who also is executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue that it’s okay to break the law a little bit. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that the political will Jim Champagne speaks of exists. Part of the problem, and again I daresay this is something we all experience regularly, is that while you may be crusing along at (say) 70 in a 60 MPH zone, there’s always a steady stream of drivers zipping past you. We feel safe with this lesser kind of violation because we know that it’s those real speed demons who are flushing out the cops for the rest of us. Those are the people we expect to get busted, not ourselves, and I think most people get upset when they get nabbed because of this.

At current levels of highway patrol staffing, enforcement of speed limit laws is pretty much a crapshoot. The reason I believe most officers let the 70 MPH drivers go by is because they don’t want to be on the shoulder writing a ticket for doing 70 while half a dozen cars doing 80 or more zoom by. They pick their spots and try to catch the most egregious offenders.

Now of course, states could choose to spend a bunch more money to hire highway patrol officers and crack down on speeding. For sure, there would be benefits to this, both in terms of reduced accident and fatality rates, and also probably in finding folks who’ve been evading warrants for other criminal activity. Does anyone really think this is going to happen? Can you even imagine a candidate for governor somewhere running with this as a plank in his or her platform?

Until someone shows me polling numbers that say otherwise, I believe this situation exists because most people are more or less okay with how it is right now. As with tolerance for drunk driving, public opinion can certainly change, and perhaps we’ll start seeing MADD-like grassroots groups spring up to agitate against too-fast driving. All I’m saying is that I’m not holding my breath.