About Mark Cathcart

I am an Executive Director of Systems Engineering and a Senior Distinguished Engineer at Dell. Formerly I was an IBM Distinguished Engineer working for the Systems Group in NY and Austin. I'm also the ride leader for Jack and Adams Bicycle shop rides; I own the new Austin Triathletes and ATxD Multisports, a sports management company.

Greed, taxes and a lack of empathy

It’s tax time in Travis county and Austin, that means it’s the annual hand wringing and whining because the property values are up again, by huge amounts.

gop_greed_over_people_badge-r5803b6831b244f1ab8d9e1519c522292_x7j3i_8byvr_324[1]Taxes are all relative. The total of tax paid is still stunningly low compared to the quality of life and services you get for that. Yes, property taxes are high, but sales tax is relatively low, there is no state income tax, and while the Ledge and Republicans have you convinced that Federal Taxes are high, and money being wasted on drug taking, idle, work shy, “minorities”, it doesn’t matter that that is or is not true, taxes are not really high.

I have never had children in school in Austin, and will never have. I would guess I’ve paid over $60,000 for that choice alone. I’m guessing when most people complaigning were born or arrived in Austin, there were already schools? If thats true, someone paid for them. Probably a lot of people paid taxes for them and couldn’t use them as they were still being built. I’m guessing when they arrived the city had services, roads and other common amenities. How did they get there, someone paid taxes for them.

Those complaining are simply paying for the next generation and you are paying so that those families who can’t afford private education, have some expectation of having children who have a chance in life, and don’t become a burden on the same tax paying society.

I think the problem many of us have, is, those that complain about taxation seem out of touch or sheltered by comparison and lack empathy or sympathy for the real challenges. While I don’t know you, or anything about your quality of life, I’m guessing you don’t worry about water, food, and live in fear because you live in a dangerous environment?

All the facilities, effort, and labor that goes into providing the conditions that allow you to live that way, were in general, provided by taxation. Usually that taxation was provided by someone else, your forefathers, others, the people that founded your city etc.

Too many people these days lack empathy, they are, in some respects selfish. They demanding they keep more of THEIR income, and not understanding that if they had to pay their fair share for the free facilities they get to use, in what is essentially a pretty dam good 1st world life, would be paying way over 50% of their total income in taxes. Even if taxes stayed the same, that would mean real cuts being made. Those cuts almost always are targeted at the people who will complain least, because they often are in real fear, too busy getting by.

Yep, I hate the way property taxes are done in Travis County, it’s a sham. Businesses are not assessed fairly, there are too many suspicious valuations. However, while my income has stayed relatively flat since I arrived in Austin from the UK via New York City, my total gross income is still way up and I do not participate in any tax avoidance schemes.

So when the politicians promise homestead exemptions, reducing the tax bill etc. they are doing nothing but pandering to the lowest common denominator, and increasingly that represents a generation who don’t understand how good they have it.

Greg Abbotts Audacity of Change

Governor Abbott, has been defending the moral and ethical freedoms of a bunch of scared, angry old white Christian men, and declared that it was time for Texas to defend the rest of America. Just in case there is any confusion about what he means, between him and Attorney General Paxton and their once every two years Texas leaders, here is a summary of what they have or are bringing you America.

If you hanker for the 1950’s, Texas is bringing them back a fast as they can. The Old Christian White guys shouldn’t be afraid of change though, they keep getting voted back in. So, that’s alright then.

Fraccidents coming to a neighborhood near you, soon

The “Texas House Approves “Denton Fracking Bill”” aka HB40, marches closer being signed into law by Governor Abbott. All those places, like say, Austin, where fracking is something mostly invisible that happens way out west, need to wake up.

The bill at his heart, stops cities from banning fracking within the city limits. When fracking is out of sight, it’s mostly out of mind. Flying into Dallas Forth Worth airport this morning surprised me though at the scale of the problem. You can see from the following picture I took out the window of the plane, to many it’s already a reality.

Fracking 1

Which would all be fine if you are inclined to believe the industry, and that the earthquakes are coincidental, and the groundwater pollution is unrelated and the methane naturally occurring, you’d think you’ll be OK. With this State law in place, there is nothing to stop them fracking the Eagle shale in say Zilker Park or Auditorium shores. Seriously.

Of course, even if the earthquakes and methane laced water are not their problem, the frackers still have their issues, these are captured and documented on the earthjustice page. I’m left wondering though if these are all the accidents, or just those reported. If you cruise around some of the Texas County Roads it’s not unusual to find this sort of hastily laid pipe which crosses creeks on pieces of wood support, hastily strung under bridges, and generally, out of sight, out of mind, in this case County Rd 615 in Alvarado, Texas

Healthcare – Points mean Prizes!

Back on April 6th I wrote a blog called “Healthcare Stupidity“. In a work email today it contained the following:

It may surprise you, but prices for medical services can differ depending on where you go. For example, identical cholesterol tests can run between $10 and $270 and an MRI can range from $300 to $3,000. Need a minor outpatient procedure? Searching in Castlight could save you hundreds. With Castlight, you can compare costs for doctors and medical services before you make an appointment.

Earn more points! Sign up, perform a search and review your medical plan in Castlight by June 30 for a chance to win 10,000 WOWPoints on e-Deals (valued at $100)*! For rules and more details please visit Castlight Rewards Sweepstakes.

Speechless, you can’t make this stuff up. As Bruce Forsyth used to say, Points mean prizes, play your card right!

Watch the video, If you are one of my US Friends… It will dispel any notion you have of the British being intelligent and articulate, much like the US Healthcare system it seems.

Hello Lamp Post Austin

hello-lamp-post-banner-jan-2015[1]

I must admit when I heard about the Hello Lamp Post project at the Art Alliance Austin annual party*, I was pretty interested.

I regularly run past a number of places that have the project, but since I’m running and don’t have my phone, I’d not tried it until the other day. I found myself at Austin Bergstrom Airport, waiting for my my luggage, at #3. Right there in front of me was a Hello Lamp Post project. I tried.

Apart from the superficial novelty of txting an object, one of the Art City guitars, the “conversation” didn’t last long.

#512: Good evening [etc.] How do you like to express yourself?

Me: Quietly, with confidence

#512: I’m only just getting the hang of talking. Someone told me “playing the guitar” Another thing. Can you play any instruments?

Me: Nope

#512: I must learn to play something myself. Let me ask another question. Have you any songs stuk in your head?

Me: American Pie

#512: Simon and Garfunkel are stuck in mine. I’m going to have a think about wht you said now. Come and Find me again soon! Want to know why objects like me are waking on? Visit hellolampostaustin.com

Me: Thanks I know… I”m an Art Austin VIP

Screenshot_2015-04-15-17-22-21and that was it. I have to say, less than I was hoping for. Surely artificial intelligence can do better, not even an Austin fact of the day, or details about the project, number of objects, or anything actually engaging for me.

* I’m an Art Alliance Austin Collectors Circle member. Join me. While my experience with this project may not have met my expectations, the various Art Night events, and the upcoming Art City Austin events are well worth supporting and they’ve had both some great art, and great experience art.

In stark contrast

texasWhile a lot of todays action in the Texas Capital, as covered by social media, is about the “open carry”  bill being sent back for procedural reasons, given we still have a full 7-weeks of the Legge before they remount their horses and get out of dodge for the next 1.5 years(I know, how weird is that?), there is no doubt the bill make to it the Governors desk, where Governor Abbott has said he’ll sign it.

I’m left feeling pretty empty and hollow about Texas today though. I heard the news today on the Texas Standard about SB 204. I don’t know anything about this subject, but when I saw the justification

that the state could “no longer afford” the cost of operating all of its 13 state-supported living centers.

I was left wondering how. in what universe can Texas not afford to run these? Neither the Texas Tribune or the Texas Standard had any details on how the some 3,000 beneficiaries of these State Institutions would be cared for.

A few minutes later the Texas Standard went on to cover this story, about Sex trafficking and human slavery. The article makes a number of claims, all of which are appalling and repugnant.

the Polaris Project says 100,000 children are trafficked a year for sex in this country. The Polaris Project maintains the national human trafficking hotline. Texas ranks second in the number of calls to that hotline.

It seriously makes you ask, why are we not focusing on this as a problem, are there State programs, State hospice care, State rehab centers?

But most of all, what kinda of Men are the “buyers” and facilitate this in Texas? It’s just disgusting.

Almost as bad though is that the Legge is busy debating open carry, meaningless tax cuts, and closing State institutions because it can’t afford  them. A fine example of “you get what you vote for”.

A Change Is Gonna Come

Then and now

Then and now

Notwithstanding Sam Cookes heavily racially motivated “A Change is gonna come“, that is exactly what is happening in Texas. Change is coming. The freedoms that have been held here as a right, are being diluted, and by that, I don’t mean the ridiculous moves by the far right, mostly white Christians.. Sure, they may win in the short term, but in the long term, they’ll have to change.

Why? They very growth former Governor Rick Perry espoused and celebrated as often as he could, proclaiming the Texas miracle, the traditional freedoms can’t hold at the growth rates we see in Texas cities. This is more pronounced in the big cities of Austin, Dallas, and Houston, but there is spill over into the mid-size and even the small cities.

This article from BBC amply illustrates the issues and what one, very small place, Kingsbury TX is doing.  I assume at least Kingsbury residents pay property tax to the county, and sales tax goes to the state, so in practice they are getting what they pay for. If they don’t have much of anything for a city government then that’s fine until they need it, at which point they won’t be generating enough property tax and sales revenue to cover it, and like everyone else in smalltown Texas, they’ll be expecting the “big city folk” to pickup the slack.

Metropolitan Texas is coming, when people live in close proximity, their priorities and problems change, and that drives the laws and loss of freedoms these people, and apparently a lot at the Texas State house are afraid of. Along with that liberty, also comes a change in attitude to toleration for everything from LGBT to the non-white community.

Instead of historically being able to segregate them, divide, force them to the fringe, more and more people live alongside those formally discriminated against, and learn that, really, they are just people too.

Of course this will take time, looking at the ridiculous, gerrymandered districts that include swathes of big cities intersected with sub-urban and rural areas will make it difficult to unset the time travelers that want to keep Texas in the 1950’s. However, as we’ve seen in the Indiana Religious Freedom debacle, big business, mostly metropolitan based, now holds all the cards and they will halt the journey back to 1950, because their success is dependent on being able to hire and keep the best and the brightest, and they don’t want to work in the 1950’s.

Healthcare stupidity

Only in America!

I’m an employed executive, I do OK. I have company provided healthcare insurance. I find the annual waste of time crawling through the policy details and trying to work out which one will pay out for real healthcare and which ones are just superficially attractive frustrating, annoying and the height of absurdity. If you make the wrong selection, you are screwed for the whole year. If you forget to make a selection you are possibly even more screwed as you’ll default into a plan which is totally inappropriate for your needs.

Then there is the whole debacle of co-pays, deductibles, out of network and a whole raft of other ways you can be screwed and charged even more. So, I’m guessing I’m not alone with this and in one of those only in America moments, there apparently is a business model for this.

My company has been promoting and I’ve been getting flyers in the mail, and emails at work in the HR Newsletter for a company called Castlight. The latest email from Corporate HR Said:

Castlight is your one-stop shop for healthcare. With Castlight, you can find a high-quality doctor at an affordable price before making an appointment. Already registered? Start searching today for the best healthcare options for your family. Castlight is provided to [—] team members, spouses or domestic partners enrolled in [—-] PPO 600 and Health Fund medical plans. Register for the Castlight Rewards Sweepstakes for a chance to win 10,000 WOWPoints redeemable at e-Deals@[—-]—a $100 value! For rules and more details please visit Castlight Rewards Sweepstakes

So, lets summarize.

  1. Healthcare providers are charging employees too much, otherwise why does the service exist?
  2. Healthcare Insurance companies are failing to negotiate the best deals.
  3. My employer is paying the company, or is getting a kick-back when employees use the service
  4. Company provided health insurance still isn’t affordable.
  5. None of this is important because you can get rewards and points for being sick and needing a doctor.
  6. If you pay by a cash back credit card, you too can make money, oops I meant save more money.

Yep, only in America would any of this be acceptable because hey, people are making good money out of it.