Friday, 8 January 2010

From the department of bad statistics

I’m glad to see that some things never change; in this case, it’s the low quality of local news reporting in Laredo. Pro8News breathlessly reports that Mexican drivers are ‘less likely to be ticketed’ since less than 25% of parking tickets in Laredo are issued to Mexican-licensed vehicles.

This story just begs to be placed on a research methods final as one of those “identify all of the problems with this analysis” questions. Bonus points for invoking Bayes’ theorem.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Where the books aren't

The Associated Press visits the community which soon is to be the largest city in America without a bookstore, quotes a colleague, and gets the name of my employer wrong.

But at least we’re getting a snow park!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Why the dead tree media is in trouble

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

There's your problem

Laredo’s population: well over 200,000.

Number of bookstores in Laredo, effective January 2010: zero.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


Many of my good friends and esteemed colleagues at TAMIU often lament the absence of what we might call “Anglo culture” in Laredo. No less a figure than our university’s president has recently spoken of this problem, stating ”[i]n that most universal of all media, radio, Laredo today has no station which connects us… to our national dialogue.”

Yet I wonder if the real solution for this problem lies in bringing NPR to Laredo. I have no doubt that my colleagues would enjoy listening to All Things Considered, and some bright, motivated teenagers might enjoy it as well, but the bulk of public radio programming is not of regular interest to most Americans, particularly young people.

Rather, there is a far more pressing absence from our local airwaves: PBS television. PBS may be available on cable and satellite, but much of our population—particularly those most in need of English-language programming aimed at young people, like Sesame Street—cannot afford those sources of programming (and PBS is unavailable at all to people in Nuevo Laredo, who comprise the majority of the population of our metropolitan area). I know that several years ago KLRN, San Antonio’s public broadcasting channel, applied for a permit to construct a retransmitter of its broadcasts in this area, but apparently nothing came of that.

But due to the advent of digital television, there is a low-cost solution: including PBS programming on a subchannel of an existing digital broadcaster. With the exception of KLDO and KGNS, the remaining local digital television stations (both in Mexico and the United States) are only providing one channel of television in their digital allotment, even though at least four standard definition (non-HDTV) channels can be carried on a digital channel (even with HDTV programming on the channel, one SD subchannel could be carried with little loss of quality—KGNS is currently carrying two, with noticeable problems on its main feed during some broadcasts). No federal permits need to be applied for; all it would take is an agreement between a local station and KLRN to retransmit their programming, and for the local station to receive the programming from San Antonio via microwave or satellite transmission (which is already being done to supply Time-Warner Cable and DirecTV and Dish Network subscribers with KLRN), and adapt its existing digital television encoder to multiplex the KLRN signal as well.

Realistically, young people in Laredo who need to be exposed to standard American English, including the wealth of childrens’s programming available on PBS, and the culture of the United States outside our community—and our friends in Mexico as well, who may not be familiar with what American society is like beyond brief visits to the border zone—are much more likely to benefit from television broadcasts than radio. And while I do not seek to discourage those who seek to bring NPR to Laredo, we can get PBS here and on the air at much lower expense with the cooperation of a local digital broadcaster like KVTV, XHBR, XHLNA, or XHLAT.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

When all else fails, pray

Your War on Drugs Headline of the Day: Sheriffs pray for an end to border violence. Because Lord knows all the billions of dollars we’ve spent to try to end it haven’t even come close to working…

Thursday, 21 May 2009

We're immobile

Today’s Laredo Morning Times has a lengthy article discussing the wrangling over whether or not the various local government agencies should create a Regional Mobility Authority to help advance local transportation projects in a more timely fashion. Frankly I find this passage in the article to reflect the lack of contact with reality in the discussion:

Because other cities and counties in the state have created RMAs to build toll roads, RMAs are sometimes associated with tolls, according to Jerry Garza.

“I want to stress, and I cannot stress enough that we here in Laredo, Webb County would never consider a toll road,” Jerry Garza said.

He meant turning the loop into a toll road, but added that he personally would not support a toll road in any part of the county.

I think realistically, if Laredo wants anything beyond the bare minimum of transportation improvements, it is going to have to turn to using tolls to finance them. Certainly Laredo’s experience with tolls has been mixed—the spectacular failure of the Camino Colombia under private ownership being the most obvious example—but all four international road bridges are tolled with few objections in evidence. Tolls may be the only way to ensure that truck traffic—which is the user group most likely to see economic benefits from overpasses and direct ramps along the loop—is paying its fair share for avoiding congestion.

More to the point, despite the mini-revolt over tolls in Austin at the legislature, it is highly likely that federal and state transportation funds derived from gas taxes—to say nothing of carbon taxes, or however “cap-and-trade” will be implemented for motor fuels—are going to be diverted away from road construction to other efforts such as urban mass transit and high-speed rail (projects that, frankly, Laredo will see little benefit from in any realistic time horizon, unless private investors can be conned into building a high-speed rail line from Monterrey to San Antonio and building a station here too) or general fund demands like shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Like it or not, I think more tolls are coming sooner rather than later.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Must… resist… snark

von at Obsidian Wings writes:

I’m fairly confident that the US would respond with overwhelming military force if the de facto government of Mexico was randomly firing rockets at Laredo and McAllen, TX.

People in Laredo have problems dealing with such basic things as rain and temperatures below 80 degrees; I can’t imagine how they’d react to mortars and rockets.

Thursday, 5 March 2009


Laredo managed to wedge its way up to the trough to get $31.5 million in stimulus money (along with $57.2 million in other funds) to build the Cuatro Vientos project in south Laredo, which is basically a bypass for U.S. 83 (Zapata Highway). Hopefully TxDOT can move relatively quickly on this project, since I know based on the MPO long-range planning workshop I went to last month that folks on the south side have been looking for some traffic relief.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Electronic voting machine injunction in Laredo

The GOP challenger in the local state senate contest plans to seek an injunction against the use of electronic voting machines, and in the meantime has gotten the county elections administrator to require paper ballots for non-disabled voters during early voting. While I’m not very convinced by the fear of widespread vote fraud, having worked as an elections officer over the last year in New Orleans (where we used electronic machines) I can’t say that I’m incredibly confident in the workings of most electronic voting systems as a practical matter, especially given the limited training that most election workers get and the generally low level of technical expertise of those workers. And, particularly given the problems with the recounts in the Webb County sheriff contest earlier this year, serious caution with electronic machines would seem to be advised.

At least for non-disabled voters I think the best solution I’ve seen to date is to use optical-scan ballots with at-precinct scanning (which is what was used in my precinct when I lived in Oxford); that method ensures a paper trail that can credibly be recounted later, along with reasonably fast counts and instant feedback to the voter if their ballot cannot be recorded.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Making friends and influencing people

One of my hobbies since before accepting my new job at TAMIU has been to peruse the Laredo Morning Times, so I can at least pretend to hit the ground running when I arrive in town. The occasional article provokes a bit of a double-take; this one, on the search for a new vice president for instruction and student development at Laredo Community College (the two-year institution that TAMIU was sprouted from back in the dark ages of academe) induced a bit more of a startled reaction:

After three attempts at hiring a vice president for instruction and student development, LCC has narrowed its search to one finalist: Beatriz Treviño Espinoza. The Yuma, Ariz.-based Espinoza is the former vice president of learning services at Arizona Western College and is now serving as assistant to the president for program development.

Last September, faculty at AWC gave Espinoza a vote of no confidence, just two months after she was named vice president of learning services, according to news reports from Yuma and AWC. ...

According to new reports, faculty became upset with Espinoza when she attempted to enforce a requirement that faculty work at least 30 hours a week and stop selling for personal gain textbooks mailed to them by publishers.

On a personal level, I really don’t think faculty should sell free textbooks—in my case, they usually accumulate on my bookshelf, although I’ve been known to give some of them away when moving. I wonder, however, how Espinoza thought she would be able to “enforce” this rule in practice.

I’m rather more intrigued by the idea that Espinoza would attempt to enforce a 30-hour work week for faculty. The typical teaching expectation for full-time community college instructors is around five courses per semester, or 15 hours (where an “hour” is usually 50 minutes). Presumably faculty then have office hour expectations; I’d say something like six hours per week is a reasonable standard for “posted” times for first-come, first-served meetings, maybe a little more during advising season. Assume that committee service and department meetings and miscellaneous crap (student-related extracurricular/cocurricular activities and the like) add about three hours per week, on average over the course of the semester. That would get us to around 24 hours or so of “face time”—e.g. some visible presence on campus.

Now, faculty also have to do other things—grade assignments, prepare for classes, keep up with (in the case of community college faculty) or produce (in the case of four-year college faculty) research—but these things can’t really be done during “face time” in any intensive way; I do accomplish some minor stuff during office hours, but you can’t expect to accomplish anything substantial in advance because you could have a student or six decide they are going to meet with you then. These things take several hours per week (I’d give a rough estimate that, for the average faculty member who’s teaching courses they’ve previously taught and not doing anything all that intense research-wise, we’re probably in the ballpark of ten hours or so), spread rather unevenly throughout the semester. And the ideal place to be accomplishing these things is rarely one’s own office, which is the first place that additional work seems to find faculty members.

Again this gets us back to the question of enforcement. If Espinoza wanted her faculty to teach 15 hours a week and sit in their offices with their doors open waiting for random students to decide to show up for another 15 hours with no expectation that they’ll accomplish anything worthwhile during the bulk of that time just so she can see more warm bodies on campus, and then add all the other stuff that faculty are expected to do—well, let’s just say that the no confidence motion would carry my household handily.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Run for the border

I’m very happy to announce to all of my readers that I’ve accepted a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of political science in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas beginning in the fall. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach and conduct research at one of America’s newest universities in a dynamic, rapidly-changing community.

Perhaps most happily, I won’t be getting there until well after all the politicians leave town!