en español: El Innovador de Texas
Homeowners deserve better protection
Last August, I received a legislative request to research, analyze and report on the impact of the Texas Residential Construction Commission (TRCC) on Texas homeowners and the economy. My research found no evidence that TRCC has had a favorable impact on the homeowner.
In a homeowner survey conducted by my office, I found that 86 percent of homeowners who responded said their builder failed to fix construction defects in their homes—and that was after going through the mandated State Sponsored Inspection and Dispute Resolution process that verified the defects.
While the mission of the agency is to “resolve differences through a neutral dispute resolution process,” there is no dispute resolution. The agency merely issues a report that either confirms or denies home construction defects. After the report is issued, the agency has absolutely no enforcement power to make the builders fix defects.
Homeowners are disappointed and angry that the Texas Residential Construction Commission’s costly and bureaucratic process does not get their construction defects fixed. Their only recourse is to go to binding arbitration, as required by most builder contracts, or go to court—precisely the outcome the agency was created to prevent.
Homebuilders play a critical and prominent role in our economy. Most are ethical business people who want to give people the home of their dreams.
But it isn’t the role of government to throw up bureaucratic barriers to protect unethical or inept builders from their customers. Caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—is the motto of the unscrupulous. It should not be the hallmark of state policy.
To balance the needs of both the homeowner and the homebuilder, the Texas Residential Construction Commission should at least have statutory authority to make builders fix defects confirmed through its process. At the very least, the agency should not shift builder fees to the homeowner, should not allow public members of the commission to have ties to the construction industry and should enforce builder registration laws.
In fiscal 2005, the agency spent $3.7 million on its operations. That same year, the agency collected $6.6 million from builders and homeowners. As a result, the agency transferred $2.9 million to the general fund, effectively helping balance the general state budget on the backs of homeowners.
In the next two years, the agency is estimated to raise about $9.7 million a year from its fees and spend only $4.2 million a year, meaning that the agency will be putting more money in the general budget than it does into doing its job.
For these reasons, if it were up to me personally, I would blast this TRCC builder-protection agency off the bureaucratic books.
To see the full report, go to www.window.state.tx.us.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn
The eyes have it
Residents of Wise County, Texas, are helping fight crime in their county through the “Wise Eyes” program.
Wise Eyes members have helped bust up burglary rings, methamphetamine labs and recover stolen property because bad guys aren’t looking for ordinary folks, according to David Walker, Sheriff of Wise County.
“If grandma next door knows we’re looking for a white pickup with a particular marking on it, [criminals] may know to look for patrol units but may not know to look out for grandma,” he said. ”She can contact us and let us know.”
Started by the county in 1993, Wise Eyes uses e-mail communication to notify members of burglaries, fraud and scam artists and other crimes. They also provide general information on burn bans and gas and power line construction. In return, recipients help keep watch in the county and have incident report forms available on the Internet or portable forms that they can use to phone in information.
The program gives residents a voice in protecting their community, Walker said.
“Folks like it because they’re involved,” he said. “They feel if they can get a hold of the sheriff easily, and they can, they like it.”
For more information, contact David Walker,
See-through metal stops bullets
Another science fiction dream appears to be coming true, this time it’s a transparent metal that can be used to armor military vehicles.
A joint project of the Army and Ohio’s University of Dayton Research Institute created the ceramic compound called aluminum oxynitride, a strong, scratch-resistant material that weighs about half as much as glass. Windows are made by sandwiching aluminum oxynitride, glass and a backing polymer.
The resultant product has stopped .50 caliber armor-piercing rounds, and University of Dayton researchers believe that only slightly thicker windows of the material will be able to survive explosive attacks. The new material may lend itself particularly well to providing windows for the Army’s Humvees and low-flying aircraft susceptible to ground fire.
While the new windows are more than twice as expensive as conventional armored glass, the research team said prices should come down with mass production, and the windows’ longevity in service should make them even more economical.
For more information, contact Ron Hoffman,
University of Dayton Research Institute, 937-229-3861
Open your online textbook
Backpacks got a bit lighter for about 5,000 students at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in 2005. Students taking introductory government courses at UT are using an online textbook called “Texas Politics“ so they don’t have to lug around the real thing.
The College of Liberal Arts’ technology support unit, Instructional Technology Services (LAITS), developed the site. It brings the Web’s advantages to a Texas government course with video and audio clips, and interactive charts and graphs. The site, <http://texaspolitics.laits.utexas.edu/>, saves each student about $60, the cost of a physical textbook, according to LAITS.
The site features video clips of the politically inclined from all walks of life, from elected officials and student interns working at the state Capitol to the state chair of the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association.
The online textbook is available to all students and to the general public at all times, according to James Henson, a UT government lecturer and executive producer of Texas Politics. Henson said the university’s proximity to state government and access to the political process and the people involved gives students an advantage.
“Students benefit from the perspective of the actual officeholders, candidates and activists that we interview,” he said.
For more information, contact James Henson,
Watching what you eat
School lunch prepayment systems are doing more than allowing parents to add money electronically to their kids’ meal accounts and check account balances, now they are allowing parents to track kids’ eating habits as well.
Systems like Loganville, Ga.-based MealPay and Angleton, N.J. -based PayPAMS, which serve a combined 51 Texas school districts, tell parents exactly what their kids have purchased each day and can help parents ensure the kids are eating healthy, help them plan dinner meals and monitor spending habits.
The MealPay system even allows parents to prevent their kids from purchasing certain foods, which is especially useful for parents of kids with food allergies or diabetes, said Heidi Monroe Kroft, public relations director for Horizon Software International, makers of MealPay.
“Parents like it because they can actually see where their money is going,” Kroft said. “They can tell if their kid is buying extra food for all their friends or if their kid goes to school and buys all junk.”
For more information, call Heidi Monroe Kroft, MealPay, 800-741-7100
or Dov Abramsom, PayPAMS, 800-247-3061
An equation to celebrate
University of Houston (UH) geophysicist John Castagna is helping mark the X on the spot in the hunt for oil and gas reservoirs.
Castagna developed algorithms that would predict seismic-wave velocites needed for detecting oil and gas reservoirs. More advanced than echo sounding, which is used in submarines and radar systems, subsurface reflection seismology detects not only fluid but also the type of fluid—oil, gas or water. The algorithms also help researchers image, explore and identify oil and gas subsurface reservoirs more cost-effectively, according to UH researchers.
“Utilizing the full seismic record and more advanced ways of collecting and processing the data means that explorers have yet another seismic tool to explore the subsurface,” said John F. Casey, chairman of UH’s Department of Geosciences. “They no longer have to drill costly holes to penetrate the reservoir before there is a much higher probability of a hydrocarbon discovery.”
In November 2005, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists awarded Castagna the Reginald Fessenden Award for his breakthrough.
For more information, contact John Castagna,
Can it draw money?
LeapFrog SchoolHouse has developed a new learning tool that literally brings drawings to life.
The tool is a computer the size of a large pen, called the FLY Pentop Computer. FLY is a ballpoint pen, but it’s a pen with oomph. The pen contains a computer and when used with a special electronic paper, FLY lets users interact with their drawings. For instance, a user can write a word in English and hear FLY translate the word into Spanish, draw a piano keyboard and then listen to the notes played back when the pen taps the keys, or draw a calculator and then use the calculator to solve math problems.
FLY accomplishes this seemingly magical feat thanks to an optical scanner embedded at the top of the pen that reads what the user draws onto the special paper. FLY comes loaded with a number of applications, but users can purchase additional applications, both educational and entertaining, as accessories.
LeapFrog said its target market for the pen is “tweens,” kids aged 8 to 14. FLY hit shelves in October 2005 and sells for about $100, with applications priced between $4.99 and $34.99.
For more information, contact Jaeme Sines,
Heart’s best friend
When it comes to feeling better, “going to the dogs” can be a good thing, according to new research from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center.
The researchers studied 76 hospitalized heart failure patients and their reactions to a 12-minute visit from either a human volunteer and dog, a volunteer with no dog or no visit, said Kathie Cole, lead author of the research and a clinical nurse at UCLA Medical Center. Scientists measured patients’ blood pressure and hormone levels before, during and after the visits. Patients who received visits from the dogs were allowed to pet and interact with them.
Anxiety levels dropped 24 percent in those patients visited by the dog and volunteer team, and only 10 percent in those visited by just a volunteer. The scores for patients with no visits remained the same.
Heart pressure rates dropped 10 percent after the visit by the volunteer and dog, but increased 3 percent for those visited by a volunteer only and increased 5 percent for those who had no visitors.
“This study demonstrates that even a short-term exposure to dogs has beneficial physiological and psychosocial effects on patients,” said Cole. “Dogs are a great comfort. They make people happier, calmer and feel more loved. That is huge when you are scared and not feeling well.”
For more information, contact Amy Waddell, UCLA,
Looking in a mirror at a reflection of a healthy hand or arm could help ease the symptoms of people suffering from persistent pain, said researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom (UK).
The researchers asked patients with complex regional pain syndrome—a condition affecting some 20,000 patients in the UK—to carry out routine exercises in front of a mirror. Patients could only see the healthy “half” of their bodies and were told to concentrate on the images. More than half reported their pain was relieved after the exercise.
For more information, contact Andrew McLaughlin,
University of Bath Press Office, A.M.McLaughlin@bath.ac.uk
A new device developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory, the I/O brush, can digitally capture colors, patterns and movements in the real world and save them to a computer “palette” for use in digital artwork. Its developers anticipate that the brush ultimately will be able to sample sounds and smells as well, allowing the system to push multimedia artwork into an entirely new realm.
For more information, contact Hiroshi Ishii,
MIT Media Laboratory, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Editor: Angela Freeman
Contributing to this issue: Magdalena Hamner, Ann Holdsworth, Karen Hudgins, Greg Mt.Joy, Edd Patton, Clint Shields, Suzanne Staton, and Bruce Wright