January 31, 2003
The state of education

Awhile back I asked When is a tax increase not a tax increase?

Answer: When you can get someone else to do the tax-increasing for you, as the Lege is fixing to do by cutting $1 billion out of their education allocation, thus passing the bucket to individual school districts. Those that can raise tax assessments likely will; those that are already maxed out will either agitate for higher property valuations or start sharpening the knife.

Between this and George Bush's 1997 property tax cut, there's a lot of pressure on local school districts and their rising populations to find money for classrooms. So what does our Lege propose to do to help? Why, slash the maximum amount that an appraisal can be raised by, of course.

The bills would lower the maximum increase on a home's appraised value from the current 10 percent. Freshman Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston, has proposed cutting the cap to 5 percent. Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, has filed a bill to drop the limit to 1 percent.

Both bills would require that Texas voters approve constitutional amendments before the cap could be changed in 2004.


Proponents argue that lowering the cap will not preclude elected officials from raising tax rates to generate the money they need.

In fact, Wong and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt say bringing the cap down would force accountability on local officials, who have reaped record revenue increases in recent years without having to take the political risk of increasing tax rates.

"It's really aimed to help the taxpayers," Wong says. "But at the same time, requires taxing entities, if they need more money, to raise their rates."

Bettencourt said local governments have not altered their taxation policies to reflect economic fluctuations.

"What is happening is simply that they (local governments) are plastering the homeowners for their overbudgeting or for their spending," Bettencourt says. "This is the way we're really forced to go about it because, over the last few years, there has been no control over government spending."

Amazing, and I say this as someone who paid an awful lot in property and HISD taxes last year. The level of denial is incredible. Has anyone told Paul frigging Bettencourt that many school districts have already maxed out their tax rates? Not that he cares, of course - he wants vouchers, and damn the consequences.

I'm just gona say this once, because there's a greater chance that I'll be the next "Joe Millionaire" than of this happening in my lifetime, but here it is anyway: Texas needs a state income tax.

We get revenue in this state from various fees, various corporate taxes (some of which are extremely sensitive to volatile market forces), sales taxes, and property taxes. Sales taxes place a big burden on low income folks. Property taxes are felt most strongly by middle income folks. There's nothing that puts a remotely comparable burden on high-income households. As such, especially in a year when sales tax and Natural Gas Production Tax revenues are in the crapper, budget crises ensue with no obvious answers for them.

Oh, and by the way: One of the biggest and fastest-growing revenue sources for Texas in recent years has been federal aid. What are the odds that trend will continue this year?

I can only hope that the system isn't irrevocably broken by the time someone gets around to trying to fix it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The state of the state

Things were pretty busy for me this past week, so I haven't had much time to write any analytical stuff. I'm finally getting things back to normal, so in that spirit let's take a look at the state of the Texas budget.

As we know, Texas is staring down a $10 billion deficit. It's a little misleading to say that without any qualifications, since Texas budgets are biennial. What we've really got is a $1.8 billion shortfall for this fiscal year, which ends in August, and a projected $8 billion or so shortfall for the following year.

You may recall that last year, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn insisted that Texas was short about $5 billion for its budget, despite warnings that her projections were based on optimistic growth estimates. Only recently, in particular after the November election, did Strayhorn change her tune. This has caused some Democratic legislators to accuse her of sandbagging.

"Y'all held it back," [Sen. John] Whitmire [D-Houston] told Strayhorn's staff at the first meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. "To quote you, you didn't want to create a crisis in fall. You just wanted to drop it on us in January. If they give an award on accuracy in projections, you better hope they grade on a curve."


Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston and a current member of the House Appropriations Committee, said trouble was obvious by last summer and that Strayhorn might just be "the world's greatest optimist."

He said instead of sales taxes growing at the projected 4 percent for the biennium, they began sloping downward last spring, particularly in May. In order to meet the projection, the sales tax would have to grow even faster to catch up.

In May, they would have needed to start growing 6 percent and by early December they would have needed to grow 11 percent, Hochberg said. Yet, the gap just kept widening.

The real problem now is the $1.8 billion that comes due in August. About $400 million can be borrowed from unencumbered state accounts. State department heads were recently given a directive to cut $700 million immediately from their budgets. That still leaves $700 million with no obvious way to get it. You can be very sure that various accounting tricks, such as deferring payments, will be used to bring the budget into "balance" as mandated by the state Constitution.

While $700 million is a small piece of the overall budget, it's nearly 20% of what's needed just to run the state government:

If the state's 80 general government agencies turned out the lights, locked the doors and completely shut down for the next two years, it would pay for a little more than a third of the shortfall.

If there were no governor, no attorney general, no comptroller, no Public Utility Commission, no Department of Insurance, no judiciary, no Legislature or any other general agency of state government, it would save $3.5 billion in state spending.

In that context, $700 million by August is a huge undertaking.

Long term, of course, the two biggest items in the budget (as I've noted before) are education and Health and Human Services. There's an excellent reason why these line items have boomed: The population that most needs them has also boomed.

The driving forces of state spending since 1992 have been a 21 percent increase in public school enrollment, a 25 percent increase in junior college enrollment, a 23 percent increase in the Medicaid caseload of health care for the poor and a jump in the state prison population from 50,900 in 1992 to 147,157 last year, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

The jump in public school enrollment and Medicaid caseloads reflects the dramatic rise in the state's Hispanic population over the past decade, a population that is mostly young and poor.

There are about 5,000 fewer Anglo students attending Texas public schools today than there were a decade ago, and the black public school population has grown by about 90,000 students. But there are almost 500,000 more Hispanic students in the state's schools today, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The Texas Department of Health and Human Services reports that the number of Anglos receiving Medicaid grew by 30,000 between 1995 and 2002, and the number of blacks in the program declined by almost 20,000. But almost 250,000 more Hispanics enrolled in the state-sponsored health care program.

Thirty-one percent of the state's population was Hispanic in 2000, but Hispanics make up 42 percent of the student population and half the Medicaid enrollment.

Which in my mind neatly demolishes the argument by Republicans like Sen. Florence Shapiro that Texas' spending is "out of control". Texas is like a fast-growing company that needs to make large an increasing capital investments to keep up with the explosion in its work force. Unlike a business, though, we can't initiate a hiring freeze to slow growth down. What we get is a lot of denial about our spending problems instead of our revenue problems.

Even worse, the Legislature is practically designed to be in denial about the budget:

More than two-thirds of the Republican lawmakers come from districts that are more than 60 percent Anglo. Almost all of the Republicans come from districts with family incomes above the statewide mean of $45,861 a year -- with a fifth of the House Republicans in districts with family incomes of more than twice that.

"A lot of representatives who are on House Appropriations or Senate Finance (Committees) are going to have to do a lot of dual thinking of what's good for my constituents and what's for the state as a whole," said [Eva de Luna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities]. "At times, those are going to be at cross-purposes."

So it's really propitious timing for new Speaker Tom Craddick to make wholesale changes in committe memberships.

As he had promised, Craddick made major changes in the appropriations panel after winning a change in the House rules to eliminate seniority as a factor in the committee's makeup.

Only eight of his 29 appointees served on the committee in 2001 under Laney. Seventeen members of the revised panel are Republicans, including two freshmen.

You can thank redistricting for a lot of this, which means it'll be another ten years before demographic changes will be likely to have any effect.

So what we've got, in short, is a rapidly growing population that's increasingly in need of government services, and a Legislature that's largely made up of people who don't represent those people. This is a recipe for disaster. I am not looking forward to the next few months.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Dubious Distinctions Department

One of the underappreciated aspects of our Governor Goodhair is his high standards. How else can you explain his recent remarks in which he said that he doesn't want Texas to be "like Mississippi"?

[Rick] Perry, a Republican, was quoted as saying on Jan. 18: "I don't want to become Mississippi." He went on to mention transportation, economic development and education -- three areas in which states are struggling in tight economic times.

For some odd reason, the folks in Mississippi didn't take this as a compliment.

Mississippi House Speaker Tim Ford said Perry was being just plain undiplomatic, and he told the Texas governor as much in a two-page letter Thursday.

Ford, a Democrat, told Perry he didn't want to launch "an achievement contest" between the two states, but he mentioned a $1.5 billion Nissan plant that is opening this year in Mississippi and bragged on the state's lawmakers for working early this session on a comprehensive education funding plan.

"We elected officials in Mississippi are of the opinion that denigrating a sister state is not statesmanlike conduct," Ford wrote.

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said the governor had not received a copy of Ford's letter.

"His comments certainly were not meant to cast any bad light on the state or its citizens," Walt said. "His father-in-law is a Mississippi native."

But Ford said the remark offended many Mississippians.

"I invite you to come visit us to learn more about Mississippi, and I respectfully request that you refrain from criticizing Mississippi and its many assets and accomplishments," Ford wrote.

Some Texans just have a superiority complex, a trait that explains most local TV commercials and a whole subcategory of country music. When you combine the two, it can be really scary. I can still recall a Lone Star Beer commercial jingle from the 80s:

Give me love, give me Lone Star, give me Texas
Give me hard work, soft ladies, and good friends
Don't mess with me or mess around with Texas
The Lone Star is on the rise again (yee-hah!)

I'm not sure what's worse, the rhythmic structure of this little verse, or the many possibly useful facts that have been displaced by its retention in my memory. But I digress.

Once in awhile, this tendency to self-aggrandization really riles up another state. About 10 years ago there was a debate in the Lege over a proposed motto that was to be added to license plates. Noting that "Texas" is derived from a word ("tejas") that means "friendship", one lawmaker proposed putting "The Friendship State" on plates. Apparently, some other lawmaker thought this was not in keeping with Texas' image (in his mind, anyway) of rugged cowboys and whatnot. He complained that "the Friendship State" was the sort of "wimpy" slogan you'd find in places like Kansas.

Well. Kansas didn't much care for being called wimpy. One newspaper there held a contest to suggest a more appropriate slogan for Texas' license plates. There were a number of good entries - "The Blowhard State" and "The Savings and Loan Failure State" were two examples - but the winner was truly the best: "Texas - Half As Big As Alaska". I don't know if these suggestions were forwarded to Austin, but if so they must have gotten lost in the mail.

If nothing else, it's nice to know that our Governor is in tune with tradition. Let's hope we can get a budget passed without any other state declaring a need for "regime change" here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 30, 2003
What if there are others?

By now I expect most of you have heard about the affair of John "More Guns, Less Crime" Lott and his missing survey and bogus statistics. Were it not for the revelation that Lott has posted defenses of himself under an assumed name in various fora, even going so far as to post a glowing review of his own book as his alter ego/sock puppet "Mary Rosh", I'd chalk the whole thing up as just another case study of academic fraud. The Mary Rosh thing brings in a whole new level of absurdity, the sort of thing that you'd immediately dismiss as ridiculous in any other context.

But now that we know it can and has been done, I have to wonder: Do you think any other writer with credibility issues has been doing the same thing but just hasn't been caught at it yet? The mind reels at the possibilities...

posted by Hairy Tush Reading Ann Coulter's Slander has totally changed my life! I used to be a pathetic America-hating liberal who took his marching orders directly from Dan Rather and Hillary Clinton, but now that Ann Coulter has opened my eyes I won't be fooled again. Her writing is crisp and unassailable, and anyone who doesn't agree with her should be shot as an example to the others.

Oh, and for those who'd say that Ann has a bony ass, I recently had the opportunity to feel it for myself, and I can assure you that not only is it squeezably soft, it's irresistable. So there!

Wait, here's another one:

posted by Terry Posh When Mickey Kaus writes that welfare reform is the most important issue facing American today, I can say from personal experience that he's totally correct. I used to be on welfare, and for the entire time that I was receiving government checks I had no self esteem and actually blamed the government for my sorry state of mind. But once they passed that beautiful, life-altering, far-sighted welfare reform bill, I got off my lazy ass and found a job, and now I live in the suburbs and send my kids to private school. And I don't have any icky terroristic urges any more!

PS - I don't know why so many people make fun of Mickey's baldheadedness. Don't you know that it's testosterone that turns a bushy haired man into a chrome dome? (ed. They do now!)

Help me out here, people. I know they're out there.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The state of the union today

One look at today's business section and it's obvious why President Bush had so little to say about the state of the Union in his State of the Union address. We'll start with Markets Dipping in Shaky Session, in which we see the Dow threaten to dip below 8000. Drilling and oil equipment companies had bad fourth quarters and have gloomy outlooks for 2003, despite the fact that oil prices are rising due to fears of supply shortages. The number of new jobless claims increased for the second straight week. AOL Time Warner posts a ridiculously huge loss, and closer to home Reliant posts a larger-than-expected loss. Luby's Cafeterias may default on an $80 million loan payment.

Overall, war jitters put the brakes on the economy last quarter. And how about President Bush's demonstration of Genuine Leadership? Well, at least the press is buying it:

To help jolt economic growth, Bush has offered a 10-year, $674 billion tax-cut proposal. Democrats have their own, smaller-scale plans.

There goes that darned Liberal Media again. I guess I should be glad they didn't call it a "bold" plan.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 29, 2003
He's gone

Didn't take long to find out Captain Mark Aguirre's fate: He's fired.

Acting Police Chief Tim Oettmeier announced Aguirre's firing during a briefing to City Council on the Kmart raids.

"What we witnessed was nothing more than the political lynching of Aguirre and they used Oettmeier as the henchman," said Aguirre's attorney, Terry Yates.

Aguirre, who had his first chance to speak out today, said the department is using him as a scapegoat and HPD is trying to paint him as a rogue.

"They treated me like a department pinata," Aguirre said. "This department is hopelessly corrupt and this is a grotesque charade posing as justice."

It should get more fun from here, now that Aguirre has no reason not to speak up. I don't expect any bombshell revelations from Aguirre, but the bluster ought to be worth a few giggles.

One thing not mentioned in this story but noted on the Channel 11 newscast is that the union is not standing by Aguirre. Given that they vocally backed all of the other officers who were up for discipline, that says something to me. I don't know what will happen at Aguirre's trial, but it's pretty much him against the world at this point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Will he stay or will he go?

Now that we know that while Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford may have a potty mouth, he at least doesn't lie about it (and I for one am sleeping better at night with the security that this knowledge brings), we can safely turn our attention to the disposition of Captain Mark Aguirre, who will find out this week if HPD plans on terminating him.

Aguirre, indicted on five counts of official oppression in connection with the raid on a Kmart parking lot, attended his Loudermill hearing in acting Police Chief Tim Oettmeier's office.

Lawyer Terry Yates, who represents Aguirre in the department investigation into the raid, said Oettmeier told Aguirre he will announce his decision soon.


Loudermill hearings take the name of a Cleveland, Ohio, school bus mechanic who was fired after he failed an eye examination. The mechanic appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1985 that tenured employees must be granted a hearing before being terminated.

After Oettmeier read the allegations against Aguirre, "we spoke our piece," Yates said. "Our position is, we did nothing wrong, either criminally or administratively."

Oettmeier listened attentively to his points, Yates said. "I'm going to take him at his word," he said. "He said his mind was open."

All well and good, though apparently no one has ever come out of a Loudermill hearing at HPD with his job intact. Fellow indictee Sgt. Ken Wenzel chose to resign rather than go through with it. But we'll see.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
RIP, Maury Maverick, Jr.

Attorney and writer Maury Maverick, Jr., died Tuesday at the age of 82.

SAN ANTONIO -- Attorney Maury Maverick Jr., a descendant of early Texas settlers and known for his passionate legal defense of the downtrodden, feisty wit and unrelenting opposition to war, died of kidney cancer Tuesday at the age of 82.

In recent years, many knew Maverick as a cantankerous Sunday columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, where he penned more than 1,000 columns -- the last on Jan. 5.

But San Antonians who lived through the end of segregation in the 1950s, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s recalled him as a giant of his time who made a mark as a rebellious state lawmaker and a flamboyant lawyer for liberal causes.

Never a wealthy man, Maverick did have a rich family history. His father was a congressman and mayor and his great-grandfather was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. Another ancestor perished in the Boston Massacre. The family's history is so colorful, its name was converted into a common English expression dating to the 1870s that, according to Webster's Dictionary, means "an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party."

Born Jan. 3, 1921, Maverick as a youth had a front-row seat for the making of San Antonio history. His father presided as mayor during construction of the city's famed River Walk, and in 1939 he saw his father deal with rioting that ensued when he allowed Communist Party members to meet in Municipal Auditorium.

A few years later during World War II, wearing the uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps, Maverick was fighting his own battles on the Solomon Islands. Returning from military service, he earned a law degree from St. Mary's University in 1949. Working without pay, he gradually became an outspoken lawyer for hundreds of disenfranchised individuals and groups.


In his final column published earlier this month, Maverick pondered the legitimacy of a possible war with Iraq, saying "why, for some 60 years since World War II, have we the people tolerated a non-declaration of war? Patriotism includes showing a proper respect for the professional military. Members of the military cannot speak up. We civilians must," he said.

They don't make 'em like that any more. Rest in peace, Maury.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 28, 2003
Room for one

Interesting article in the NYT about how colleges are starting to accomodate the growing number of students who've never shared a room with anyone and don't want to start now.

Colleges have always offered single rooms, and students have long moved off campus in search of greater privacy. But for the last decade, colleges across the country, in a high-priced competition for students who may be just as concerned with residential amenities as they are with the number of volumes in the library, have been responding by creating housing in which the single bedroom is the mainstay.

College administrators say they feel compelled, in part, to create more singles to keep students, mainly upperclassmen, on campus, where they will be more engaged in college life. In addition, the revenue that would go to private landlords is attractive.

The new buildings are called residence halls or even living/learning centers. (Do not call them dorms; to housing officials and builders, the term is as obsolete as the dorm mother or the telephone down the hall.) Students often live in suites, where they share living rooms and, sometimes, kitchens, but can retreat to their own bedrooms, with their own computers, television sets, DVD players and telephones.

"It's a statement about the affluence of America," said William Rawn, a Boston architect who is building residence halls, many of them with single bedrooms, at Northeastern University here in Boston, Trinity College in Hartford, Amherst, Swarthmore and Grinnell College, in Iowa. "And part of that affluence is that we lose the ability to share."

I had pretty good luck with roommates and suitemates in college (at Trinity, two rooms share a bathroom; the people in that other room are called "suitemates"). After freshman year, you can pick who you want to live with, which helps a lot.

The first roommate I had was a guy who had clearly never shared a room with anyone else in his life. He had no clue how to get dressed or undressed while someone else was in the room sleeping. (This was never much of a problem when I lived with my buddy Greg for my junior and senior years. We usually went to bed at the same time, I always got up earlier than he did, and he could sleep through Armageddon. The only problem was his chainsaw-like snoring, which I eventually learned to tune out - another life experience that a roommate-free existence deprives you of.) Other people had issues with things like boundaries, food ownership, taste in music, and of course, roommates' boyfriends/girlfriends. If nothing else, the worse the experience, the better the war stories. A guy I know has a story about a tennis ball in the toilet bowl, which is still one of the funniest (and most disgusting) roommate tales I've ever heard.

Not that any of this is a big deal. Given the costs of the colleges listed, only a privileged few will make it out into the Real World without ever having to share a bathroom or refrigerator with non-family members. Those who go on to live with a spouse or partner will undoubtedly come to wish they'd learned a few basic lessons in Roommate Maintenance first. Karma always evens out in the end.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 27, 2003
A little obsessiveness goes a long way

A national figure makes a racially insensitive remark. The mainstream media doesn't pick up the story for several days. Meanwhile, a lone website operator who operates anonymously beats the drum until the rest of the world is forced to take notice.

Sound familiar? It's the story of Shaquille O'Neal and the operator of YaoMingMania.com, as told in this Houston Press article.

Although a columnist for AsianWeek blasted O'Neal's pronouncement as racist and alerted mainstream media in early January, the comments by the Laker big man went unreported by TV and the big dailies. Unlike other sports gaffes by the likes of pitcher John Rocker, it seemed that when Shaq Daddy made fun of Chinese folks, it wasn't considered newsworthy.

That's when the half-Asian Houston Webmaster, a lifelong Rockets fan who goes by the nom-de-Internet "John," decided to take things onto his own keyboard.

"It's unusual for me to post an article and make a comment, but in this case I feel it's warranted," wrote John. The thirtysomething asked The Insider not to divulge his real name because it would cause problems with his employer, an Internet company. "As much of a disappointment as it is for the media to not cover this story, it's more deplorable what Shaq said about Yao."

John's Web site proclaims itself "100% dedicated to Yao Ming's life in the NBA." No way was he going to let O'Neal's blather go unchallenged.

He posted a link to the AsianWeek column by Irwin Tang and encouraged site visitors to contact sportswriters at the L.A. Times and the Houston Chronicle to express their outrage. Within three days of the posting on the heavily traveled Web site, the national media finally picked up the story of Shaq's insult. It provoked a less-than-convincing apology by O'Neal, who could not resist a few sarcastic kung fu feints as he walked away from reporters.

Chalk up one more testimonial to the growing power of Web site commentators like Matt Drudge.

It's a good story, even if The Insider hasn't figured out that Matt Drudge is, like, so 1998. The original Asian Week article is here. And on a side note, the next Asian basketball star in America may be a woman.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Politics, schmolitics

Ginger says the following in the comments to this entry about the decision to prosecute Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford for perjury:

Anyone who didn't think this was all about HPD internal politics wasn't paying attention. At least it didn't result in arresting hundreds of people the way other parts of the Aguirre-Bradford feud have done.

Today, Chron metro politics columnist John Williams speculates on that very topic and decides that there's at least a little smoke, if not a raging fire as he compares Bradford's treatment to that of Republican activist/kingmaker Steven Hotze, who was nobilled on a drunk driving charge awhile back:

On Oct. 26, 2000, Hotze failed a field sobriety test after his car was seen weaving and crowding several vehicles, including a police car that veered onto a curb to avoid a collision. He refused to take a breath test.

While humiliating for almost anyone, drunken driving charges could have been politically devastating for Hotze, who believes that biblical teachings should play a bigger role in government. He has said that laws against drunken driving are among the moral laws derived from religion.

The DWI case lay dormant in Rosenthal's office until last summer because the officer who administered Hotze's field sobriety test was accused, in an unrelated case, of tampering with a document. Prosecutors were concerned that the cloud could damage his credibility in cases requiring his testimony, such as Hotze's.

After the officer was cleared, Rosenthal's office took the unusual step of presenting Hotze's misdemeanor DWI case to a grand jury because of the high-profile suspect.

Hotze's attorney, Terry Yates, said at the time that Hotze was innocent and suggested he was the victim of selective prosecution. Last July, a grand jury threw out the DWI case, saying it lacked sufficient evidence for an indictment.

Since grand jury proceedings are secret, we don't know exactly what evidence prosecutors presented or whether they made a recommendation. We do know that grand juries typically follow the lead of the district attorney, and nothing suggests the Hotze grand jury was an exception.

Similarly, nothing suggests there was a runaway grand jury in the Bradford case.

To the contrary, Rosenthal's office has said it had enough evidence to justify an indictment and conviction against the chief, who was accused of lying under oath.

Note that Hotze's attorney is Terry Yates, the same man who is representing Captain Mark Aguirre in his official oppression trial, which was a result of the K-Mart case. Recall that Yates has alleged that the charges against Aguirre were the result of personal animus between him and Bradford, and you might begin to see some possibilities.

Williams concludes that while there may have been different standards for Hotze and Bradford, the more likely result is that neither man should have been indicted. Maybe. I still think Hotze's treatment was easier than Bradford's was rough, but since grand jury proceedings are secret, we'll never know. Only Rosenthal can say for sure, and either you trust his impartiality or you don't. This certainly won't make him look good in the eyes of those who believe that the appearance of impropriety is at least as important as actual impropriety.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 26, 2003
Tell me more about that work/life balance thing

Nothing like putting in a 15-hour day at the job on a Saturday, especially after having been there till 1:30 AM on Friday. Yes, I was affected by the latest Internet worm. No, it wasn't my job to fix it (thank $deity). I was here (and am here again on Sunday, hoping to make it to my inlaws in time for the Super Bowl) as part of a project. The worm caused some delays, but we overcame.

I'm not too cheesed about losing the weekend, though. The weather sucked, and I'll get it back in comp time. The main annoying thing was that Tiffany was out of town from Wednesday through Friday, so I didn't really get to see her until I returned home last night at nearly 11. Life is scheduled to return to normal (whatever that is) this week.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 25, 2003
Let the second guessing begin!

Now that a judge has unceremoniously tossed the perjury charge against Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford, the dogs are howling about the District Attorney's lack of judgment:

"I bet if you spent the rest of your days looking for a lawyer outside the district attorney's office who thought that was a good prosecution, I don't think you'll find one," said trial lawyer David Berg.


Six lawyers who followed the case were dumbfounded that those remarks were the basis of a perjury prosecution.

"It was extremely bad judgment to bring the case," said Ron Woods, former U.S. attorney in Houston and now a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. "The statement by the chief was vague enough that it never should have been brought before the grand jury." .

People are not convicted of perjury based on equivocal statements, several lawyers said.

"The answer has to be the total opposite of the truth," Berg said. "Here's a guy searching his memory. What made Chief Bradford's indictment incapable of being proven was the equivocation in his answers."

David Crump, who teaches criminal law at the University of Houston Law Center, said, "An equivocal answer that shows you are struggling and can't remember is not perjury."

Several lawyers said they were astonished a prosecutor convinced a grand jury to indict Bradford.

The indictment provides further proof of the system's inadequacies, said trial lawyer Joel Androphy, a longtime critic of the grand jury system.

"The grand jury system doesn't work and hasn't worked," he said. "They only get the evidence the prosecuting office shows them."

Once Bradford was indicted, Androphy said, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal or a prosecutor should have made sure the case went no further.

Woods agreed: "The district attorney's office dismisses cases all the the time after an indictment."

Others said Bradford's case was so flimsy, prosecutors should never have taken it to a grand jury. "It should have been trash-canned the day it came in," said veteran trial lawyer Tom Alexander. "The reason it wasn't was politics at the Police Department."

Prosecutor Don Smyth gave it his best shot:

"He was very Clintonesque in his responses," Smyth said. "I would prosecute this case again (if given a second chance) and might very well get a different result in a different court."

Yeah, maybe the next judge will be less polite and snicker audibly when granting the motion for a directed verdict.

Smyth said he believed in the perjury case and that no one had pressured him to prosecute Bradford.

Once Bradford was indicted, he said, "We would have been condemned regardless of what we did. If we failed to prosecute the chief, people would have written letters to the editor and said we didn't prosecute because the chief is a highly placed person.

"And if we went forward, people would be saying we were after him because he was a highly-placed person. It was a no-win situation."

Dude, we're on Internet time. No one would ever remember that a complaint had been brought. You went scalp hunting and you missed. Get over it while you still have a shred of dignity left.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The sex offender next door

Here's one of those stories that's so forehead-slappingly obvious it makes you wonder why, exactly, it's news: Residents of poor neighborhoods are shocked to find registered sex offenders living among them, and where you find one, you tend to find many.

The house at 3514 Canal is an extreme example of a trend that's beginning to concern many cities: clusters of sex offenders that infect low-income neighborhoods.

The Canal rooming house is just one of 16 sex offender residences clustered in an area of about a square mile just east of downtown and south of Buffalo Bayou.

The area takes in one other multiple-offender address, a small apartment building in the 400 block of Hutcheson where three registered sex offenders live.

That's a total of 24 registered sex offenders in the area. All but two were convicted of offenses involving children.

Look, I don't mean to make light of legitimate concerns here, but where do you think registered sex offenders are going to live? Every time one of them turns up in a "good" neighborhood, it leads the local TV newscast that night amidst screaming graphics that ask "Could They Be Next Door To You?"

The problem is growing in other cities as well.

The Arizona Legislature has formed the House Ad Hoc Sex Offender Clustering Committee to deal with the problem there.


In St. Petersburg, Fla., civic associations are banding together to fight sex offender clusters at cheap motels revealed in a St. Petersburg Times article last year.

Again, where else are they going to live? We've broadened the definition of "sex offender" these days to the point where it covers a lot of relatively minor crimes, so locking them up for good is not really an option. Given that many of them will sooner or later be back on the streets, would you rather have them clustered or spread out? Which is the greater risk?

Probation and parole rules prevent registered child sex offenders from living near places where children gather: schools, daycares, parks, playgrounds, youth centers, public pools, video arcades.

"It's so limited, so strict," Enax said, "and there are so many parks and schools."

Yet another reason why you'd expect to find them grouped together. There's only so many places they can be without violating parole. Some of them can't visit their attorneys without violating parole. I'm certainly not going to weep for them, but it seems a bit hysterical to put such stringent restrictions on their movements and then get bent out of shape when you realize they're all in the same places.

Although studies proliferate on recidivism among sex offenders and how it is affected by treatment, notification laws and other factors, no research could be found on whether living in proximity to other sex offenders affected them negatively, or at all.

We sure will feel silly if it turns out this has no negative effect on their treatment and recidivism, won't we?

I certainly understand why people would be frightened and upset to realize that a bunch of sex offenders live in their neighborhood. All I'm saying is, what are we going to do about it that won't simply push the problem into someone else's neighborhood?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Man versus dog

Came across this story on Larry's page about a man who attempted to beat his dog to death with a shotgun and wound up shooting himself dead instead. It would be nice to say that this is a case of poetic justice being served, but alas, the ending isn't so happy. Via Greg Hlatky, I see that the dog was euthanized by request of its owner, the dead man's wife.

I have exactly no sympathy for anyone who would try to beat a dog to death for any reason. I'm going to give Harry a few extra treats today in this dog's memory.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 24, 2003
I'll stick with Supercuts, thanks

Female office workers in Japan have a thing for English soccer star David Beckham. They like him so much, in fact, that the hip thing to do is to have their pubic hair styled to match Beckham's hair.

"All women put a lot of care into their hair, but they don't do so much with the hair down below. About the most they'd do is brush it back from behind the bikini line," Yuri, a 22-year-old electronics company employee, tells Shukan Jitsuwa. "(Pubic hairstyling) can make the difference for a girl when she's competing with another girl whose looks are about the same as hers."

Minako, a co-worker, concurs.

"Some women's magazines have carried articles about styling your pubic hair and they referred to the Beckham look. But we'd been doing it for a while before those stories came out," she says. "By the way, I like (crew cut Japanese midfielder Shinji) Ono, but I don't think I want to copy his hairstyle down there."

Kids these days, I tell ya. Via Justin Slotman.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Jerry! Jerry!

Once again I marvel at The Onion's ability to stay ahead of the satire curve as I read this story about Jerry Springer, who's contemplating a run for US Senate in Ohio in 2004.

Springer, a Democrat, said he'll decide by summer whether to challenge George Voinovich, a Republican who has said he'll run for a second term in 2004.

He acknowledged that his nationally syndicated "Jerry Springer Show" could work against him. Guests divulge their intimate secrets — and frequently strip down to their intimate apparel — on episodes with titles like "Your Lover Is Mine!" and "Explosive Betrayals!"

"Intimate apparel" must be some code for "bare-assed pixillated nekkidness", without which products like this would never make it to the market, let alone be top sellers. But whatever.

"There are pluses and minuses," Springer said. "The plus is that I'm known by everybody. The minus is that I'm known by everybody."

Springer figures it would take $20 million to beat Voinovich and as much as $5 million to win a Democratic primary.

"I have the resources," the 59-year-old millionaire said Wednesday night before speaking at the winter meeting of the Ohio Democratic Party Chairs Association.

Springer is a former Cincinnati mayor and councilman who lost the Democratic primary for governor in 1982 and considered running for the Senate in 2000. He said he also may run for Cincinnati mayor in 2005 or governor in 2006.

"I want to be helpful in rebuilding the party," he said. "Whether I have to be a candidate is a totally separate issue. ... I don't need a job."

Well, hell. If Ted Nugent can think about running for Governor in Michigan as a Republican, I guess Jerry Springer can think about running for Senate as a Democrat. I don't think it'll do much to help the national ticket, but I won't be surprised if conditions are such that the result is preordained one way or the other, so I may as well have something entertaining to look forward to.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Bradford speaks

Along with the story about the directed verdict of "not guilty" in his perjury trial, the Chron has a short interview with Police Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford. Nothing much of great interest, though it's pretty clear that he plans to return to his chiefly duties and believes he has the support of the rank and file.

We now return you to the drudgery of daily life. You'll have to wait for the next sideshow to come along.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 23, 2003
Bradford acquitted by judge

Houston Police Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford was acquitted by a directed verdict this afternoon. That's pretty much a slam dunk for those who thought this whole trial was borderline at best.

Minutes after the state rested its case against Bradford, state District Judge Brian Rains directed the jury to find Bradford not guilty.

The quiet of the court crackled with the applause of more than 50 supporters who had packed into the courtroom during the two-day trial. Supporters wanting to shake hands and hug Bradford made it impossible for the chief to even leave.

As the jurors left the courthouse, several of them said all 12 would have voted to acquit Bradford anyway.

"You're innocent until you're proven guilty. They could not prove it," said juror Rosia Moore. "All 12 of us were on the same page. We all agreed."

I thought this was a thin case, but I'm still surprised that the judge granted the motion to acquit. Harris County is not known for being friendly to defendants. I'm truly amazed.

The prosecutor, naturally, defended his efforts:

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal could not be reached for comment.

Prosecutor Don Smyth said he did not agree with the Rains' ruling.

"There's no question the chief knew what these questions were all about because he had had notice that they were coming, he had notice exactly what words were going to be attributed to him and the setting. . . " Smyth said.

Smyth defended his prosecution of the chief.

"We got a complaint," Smyth said. "Now, is it my job to take that complaint and flush it? Or is it my job to investigate it and present it to a grand jury if there is evidence to show that it may be a truthful complaint. . .

"The grand jury heard the same witnesses and even more than the judge and that jury heard. And the grand jury returned a true bill of indictment."

Yeah, yeah. We all know how little an indictment means. Simply put, someone in the DA's office should have asked themselves if there really was enough evidence to have a decent shot at a conviction. They misjudged pretty badly, and they look foolish as a result. I don't blame them for investigating. I blame them for hubris.

Anyway. Mark Aguirre's official oppression trial is still a few months away. That'll be the real fun. This was just a minor diversion. In a year's time, I doubt anyone will even remember it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Yes, you can change the world for the better

Here's a fantastic story about the international campaign by the Rotarians to eradicate polio. They started in 1985, have raised $1.8 billion, worked with WHO and UNICEF and government health agencies everywhere, and have reduced polio outbreaks to almost nothing. Go read it, it's the best thing you'll read today. Via Nathan Newman.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Your daily Chief Bradford Perjury Update

The trial of Houston Police Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford has begun, and the fur is flying. Bradford's lawyers say the whole thing is a political vendetta. The prosecutor says it isn't. I can barely keep track of who's saying what, which suggests to me that the jury may get a tad confused.

It does look like Bradford is getting full value out of his high-priced mouthpieces:

Tina Snelling, the hearing examiner who presided over Aguirre's grievance hearing, testified Wednesday that she thought the chief had lied and felt his punishment was too harsh for Aguirre. Her ruling was later reversed by a civil service commission.

"I was embarrassed for the chief that day," Snelling said.

Snelling told prosecutor Lester Blizzard that the chief should have remembered using such language in a meeting.

"If I got in your face and called you a mother ------, would you remember it?" Blizzard asked.

Snelling responded, "I remember calling my boss an ass---- in 1984."

But Snelling often seemed confused about her own testimony Wednesday under cross-examination by Rusty Hardin. At one point, Hardin had Snelling admit her conflicting statements might be considered perjury.

That can't be good for the prosecution. The state will be calling Assistant Chief J.L. Breshears today before it rests its case. It was Breshears being called the bad word by Bradford that led to where we are today. If there's a chance of conviction, we'll know it after he testifies.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Roosters from the sky

What does it mean when you and your dog are nearly beaned by a rooster that's falling from the sky? In this particular case, it means a neighborhood pet has had a close encounter with a hawk.

On a cold, gray afternoon last week, Becky Earle was visiting her Woodland Heights neighbor Margaret Storer. Their chat in Storer's back driveway off Tenth Street was interrupted by the sudden barking of Storer's white boxer, Tilly. Earle recalls that the yelping sounded "like a danger bark," but the two neighbors saw nothing unusual in the backyard to upset the dog.
Then Earle glanced skyward.

A large brown mass came flying toward her, swerving and diving erratically toward the ground. "I thought, 'Holy shit! Look at the size of that thing!' "

Two birds -- a powerful red-tailed hawk and a rooster struggling in its clutches -- were zooming in. Earle says the rooster was putting up a game fight to free itself from the hawk's sharp talons. Within seconds, the hawk dropped its dinner about ten feet from Earle. "It went plop! right on the driveway," she says. "It landed like a wet bag of cement, except feathers flew up."

The rooster is a pet that belongs to a neighborhood boy. He came through the ordeal unscathed and was reunited with his master later that day. Who says you need to live in the country to see this kind of Wild Kingdom stuff in your backyard?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 22, 2003
For thee but not for me

Rob reports on this article about abstinence-only education as it's practiced in Lubbock, Texas (which as Rob also notes has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Texas). Abstinence-only is how Team Bush wants sex ed taught around the country, with an emphasis on the dangers of sex and contraception.

I'm curious about something. If sex is as dangerous as they make it out to be, then surely everyone in the Bush White House would have practiced celibacy before marriage. I mean, I'm certain they would never tell Americans not to do something which they themselves have done. Still, perhaps a few reporters should start to ask about it just so we can be sure:

"Ari, you were married last year. Were you and your wife virgins at the time of your marriage?"

"Ari, I understand that Condi Rice has never been married. Is it fair to say that she's a virgin?"

"Ari, I know that President Bush considers sex before marriage to be risky and unhealthy behavior. Would Jenna and Barbara say that their parents have taught them to remain chaste before marriage, and would they say they have listened to their parents?"

I feel confident that President Bush, his staff, and his family have been leading us by example on this important issue. Don't you?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Why blogging is better than old media

Blogging is better than old media because I can do things like quote Ted Barlow:

From today's Howard Kurtz profile of Paul Krugman:

Online columnist Andrew Sullivan, a frequent Krugman antagonist, derides "the extreme partisanship, the self-righteousness and the moral condescension toward his opponents, who are obviously evil to him."

If you listen closely, you can actually hear Irony dying.

I thought I heard some moaning earlier, but I'd attributed it to the heater clicking on. Silly me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Next on COPS: When political extortionists attack

Michael Morales, brother of onetime Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Attorney General Dan Morales, will plead guilty to a charge that he attempted to extort money from the Tony Sanchez For Governor campaign.

The criminal investigation began churning last September when Sanchez campaign manager Glenn Smith received telephone calls and faxes from a man claiming to have evidence that Sanchez committed a felony crime more than 30 years ago.

Smith said the man wanted between $200,000 and $500,000. Smith turned the information over to the FBI.

Dan Morales said his primary campaign was approached last year by a San Antonio woman who had been urged to come forward by her psychiatrist. He said the woman accused Sanchez of a crime while he was attending St. Mary's University law school.

Morales said he turned the woman's information over to a lawyer, who could not find evidence to prove her allegations were true.

"There was insufficient corroboration for us to come to any other conclusion than there was simply no role for our campaign to play with her allegations," Morales said.

Printed copies of the woman's statements were included in the materials sent to the Sanchez campaign with a threat to make them public

The guilty plea has not yet been entered, so no word yet on sentence, though the charge carries a maximum of two years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The Bradford trial: Why are we here?

Several jurors in the perjury trial of Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford expressed confusion and frustration about why they were all there in the first place:

"I don't see how this issue is worth the court's time. ... It seems like a trivial matter," said juror No. 51, who was not selected.


Although 58 percent of the jury pool said they had heard of the case through the media and friends, several seemed confused about the alleged crime. Some thought Bradford was on trial for using the profane words.

The most vocal prospective jurors often engaged in a give-and-take with prosecutor Don Smyth about whether the chief intentionally lied.

"I do think it's trivial," said juror No. 15. "Hell, the president of the United States didn't get convicted of perjury."

The pool erupted into applause at the reference to former President Clinton.

But when Smyth asked the group how many thought "lying under oath was no big deal," the group was silent.

The prosecutor's question has merit, and in fact is the only reason for this trial at all. The perjury charge stems from testimony Bradford gave at a grievance hearing. Bradford had issued a letter of reprimand to Captain Mark Aguirre for using harsh language on his subordinates. (Ironically, this overruled a sterner five day suspension sentence for Aguirre.) Aguirre appealed, and Bradford was questioned about whether he had cussed at his subordinates as Aguirre had done. He denied it and was later contradicted by one of those subordinates, and here we are today.

Perjury is obviously a serious charge, and if the chief really is guilty of it he deserves punishment. I think the main reason for the disgruntlement is that anyone who's read about this case would have a hard time believing that the prosecution can prove this.

What we have here is basically two pieces of evidence: Bradford's testimony, which is vague and waffling, and the eyewitness account that contradicted his testimony. The eyewitness is likely credible, but I can't get past the chief's words, as seen in the transcript:

"I don't remember calling Joe that in any casual term much less in a mandatorily called meeting where I'm talking to supervisors or subordinates. No, I categorically deny having done that. Do not have any recollection of it. And would be thoroughly embarrassed. And if I did it, I would be wrong, and it's still not acceptable," Bradford said at the hearing, according to the transcript.

That sounds to me like a man who doesn't remember. I guess the DA sees it differently. We'll know what the jurors think in a week or so.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Fifty thousand

Well, by my inexact and arbitrary reckoning, my 50,000th visitor arrived last night at 11:54 PM CST. Woo hoo!

At my current traffic rate, visitor number 100,000 will likely arrive in September. Thanks again to everyone for reading.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 21, 2003
Bradford trial begins

Jury selection is complete for the cussin'-and-lyin'-about-it trial of Houston Police Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford. Twelve stouthearted and true fellow citizens will get to decide if he perjured himself or just has a (possibly convenient) leaky memory.

Twenty potential jurors were excused because they were related to police officers. One was excused when she indicated the case was "a waste of time."

I've said before that I have no patience for whining about jury duty, but I gotta say, were I in this panel, I'd be vigorously agreeing with that one woman.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Latino voting

Received a link to this interesting study of Latino voting patterns in my mailbox the other day. Here are the highlights:

* The Latino vote for GOP Senate candidates was similar to prior years, at about one-third; gubernatorial candidates fared better, at close to one-half.

* But Latinos who voted in 2002 had higher income and education levels than the Latino electorate as a whole. Turnout of lower and middle income Latinos was much lower in 2002 than in 2000.

* Latino voters who identify themselves as "independents" are, in fact, likely to vote Democratic. The fact that many of these independents stayed home in 2002 helped Republicans.

* There is no "Latino" voting bloc, as such ó after controlling for party identification, income, and education, there is no difference between Latino voting and the voting pattern of non-Hispanic whites in either the Senate or gubernatorial races of 2002. This is not true of African Americans, who are a distinctive voting bloc even after controlling for education, income, and party identification.

Pretty interesting. The polling data comes from Fox News, for those who care. One subject of some controversy is how Latinos voted in the 2002 Texas elections:

What about the Florida and Texas governorships? Didnít Hispanic Democrats surge into Republican ranks in these two states? Not according to the FOX News polls. In Texas, almost no Latinos who had supported Gore in 2000 cast votes for GOP Senate candidate John Cronyn. And in the governorsí races, about 8 percent of Latinos who had supported Al Gore cast votes for Rick Perry and Jeb Bush ó a respectable improvement, but no evidence of a surge. In Florida, Jeb Bush polled much worse among Latinos in 2002 (57 percent) than he had in his narrow loss to Lawton Chiles in 1994 (71 percent). If I learned first grade mathematics correctly, these figures are headed in the wrong direction ó surprising given that 2002 found the Presidentís brother a well-entrenched incumbent whereas 1994 found him a relative neophyte. Moreover, the Latino Democrats who voted for Perry and Bush look very much like Republicans, and most of them voted Republican in the 2000 election ó so there is meager evidence of Latino political movement between 2000 and 2002. The consultants who consider themselves so adept at manipulating votersí allegiances are living in a dream world. The evidence strongly supports the conventional view of political science ó that partisan commitments and policy preferences are highly stable, and campaign messages matter much less than political consultants would have gullible politicians believe (Green, Palmquist, and Schickler 2002).

It still doesn't settle the question of how many Latinos actually voted for Rick Perry, but I'll take what information I can get.

Posted by Charles Kuffner

Salon has a nice article (in Premium, alas) about how executions are often seen as giving "closure" to the families of the victims, when in reality this is not the case. Here's an excerpt:

No psychological study has ever concluded that the death penalty brings "closure" to anyone except the person who dies, and there's circumstantial evidence that it can prolong the suffering of grieving families. That's why Bud Welch, an Oklahoma gas station owner who lost his 23-year-old daughter Julie in the Oklahoma City bombing, says, "George Ryan in Illinois did a tremendous service to the victims' family members, though they don't realize it. Now those people will understand that it's over with and they have to move forward."


McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001. Since then, Welch says, "Not a single person has told me they benefited from it. I've had about five people tell me that it really didn't help them any," he says. Some came to that realization while McVeigh was still alive. Welch says that at one survivors' meeting several years after the bombing, a widower who'd wanted the death penalty suddenly said, "You know what? Hell, it ain't going to help me when they kill that guy."


"If anything prevents closure, it's the death penalty," says Richard Moran, the author of last year's "Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair" and a criminologist at Mount Holyoke. "If you have a trial in which the person is sentenced to life imprisonment, it's over, that's it. If the person is sentenced to death, you will be contacted by authorities and will relive that murder every two years for the next 15 years. Then, if they finally do execute the person, then you can start beginning your closure. What it does is, it puts off any healing. Wounds are being reopened and whole process is being prolonged."


"Most of the psychiatric literature would say those who forgive have a better chance of letting go of it. Some people can find it in themselves to forgive, and they do the best. I don't know if I would be capable, but if I were to advise myself on what I needed to do to survive if something like that happened to me, that's the strategy I would try to follow. It's the only one that works."

Meanwhile, Dwight Meredith has a post about litigation versus the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program for people who are damaged by vaccines, possibly including parents whose autistic children may have gotten that way as a result of thimerisol:

More than 85% of marriages into which an autistic child is born fail within 5 years. In order to save one's marriage, raise children and move forward with life, the parents and siblings of an autistic child have to find some level of acceptance of their circumstances.

That acceptance can only be found when moving forward and focusing on the future. Becoming obsessed with the causes of a childís disability and the assessment of blame does not aid the search for acceptance.

Litigation is by definition backwards looking. Litigation is solely focused on the cause, blame and damages for something that happened in the past. Liitgation focuses on the problem and not the solution.

Unlike litigation, life must be lived looking forward not backward. The qualities that make for successful litigation often make for an unsuccessful life.

Having a functional family and a functional life is far more important than unlimited damages for pain and suffering. Functionality is achieved only through accomodation and acceptance. We have spent more than five years trying to find acceptance. While we may not have reached that goal, we have traveled some distance towards it.

I find the parallel to be striking.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Sponsored by...

Today is Inauguration Day in Texas, and like many things here and elsewhere it's being brought to you by the generosity of a variety of corporate sponsors.

Atop the list of contributors is ACS, a Dallas-based government services firm awarded a contract last year to become the state's primary Medicaid contractor; telecommunications giant AT&T; and Philip Morris, which has a former lobbyist now serving as Perry's chief of staff.

They were among nine "Gold Underwriters" that contributed $50,000 each to help pay for the inauguration, which includes a downtown parade.

Sixteen companies and individuals made $25,000 "Silver"-level contributions, including Houston-based Reliant Energy; TXU, a Dallas-based electrical provider; and the Houston-based law firms of Fulbright & Jaworski and Vinson & Elkins. Forty-one others gave $10,000 each.

On the one hand, I have to applaud not using state money to pay for an essentially private party, especially in a lean budget year. On the other hand, $1.5 million is chickenfeed (0.015% of the projected $10 billion shortfall) and it would avoid any appearance of impropriety if this shindig were underwritten by someone other than these not-exactly-disinterested parties. Surely in a state where the likes of Bo Pilgrim have been known to hand out $10,000 checks on the Senate floor just before a vote that affected his business came up, one can understand why suspicious minds may do a little gritching about this.

I'll stipulate that people would also get crabby if the Inauguration were publicly funded - indeed, I might be one of those crabs if I thought the planners were a bit too free with the funding. Overall, though, I think that's a much lesser concern.

Companies say political contributions are part of doing business in the state, and that every inauguration, for both Democrats and Republicans, has had corporate sponsors.

"I've been around here since '85, and it's the way it's always been," said Bill Miller, a consultant whose firm lobbies for AT&T. "It's the way it'll always be."

I'm sure that's true, which is why you haven't seen me type the name of any political party in this post. It's still a bad idea.

Kathy Walt, a Perry spokeswoman, said corporate sponsors, by helping underwrite the costs, are making the inauguration more affordable.

"These companies and individuals are helping sponsor inaugural festivities so that the cost to attend can be lowered for Texans from all across the state," she said.

Audrey Rowe, spokeswoman for ACS, said the $50,000 contribution is among the firm's myriad political and philanthropic activities as corporate citizens.

"If there are a few concerns that this contribution is giving us access, that is an incorrect perception," she said.

Since the pundit class is often accused of pointing out problems without offering constructive solutions, I want to make a suggestion as to how to make a corporate-sponsored event like this more palatable to me: Require all of the inaugurees to wear jumpsuits containing corporate-logo patches of all of the sponsors, NASCAR style. In addition, display large banners that spells out who paid for what - "This barbecue stand is brought to you by a generous grant from ACS, the worldwide leader in government services". If we're so damn proud of our underwriters and how they help serve the public good, then let's be up front about it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 20, 2003
Can idiots ever really be useful?

Jim Henley, Oliver Willis, Atrios, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden say they are not bothered by protesting the specter of war in Iraq alongside some extremely disreputable characters. Tacitus and Greg Wythe say they should be.

I'd like to come out foursquare in Jim/Oliver/Atrios/Patrick's corner, but there's the inconvenient fact that I bashed Christian conservatives awhile back for working with various rogue regimes in the United Nations to push their anti-sex agenda (see here, here, here,and here). How can I dismiss allying, however loosely and narrowly, with a bunch of brutal-dictator-loving jerks like A.N.S.W.E.R. on a cause I support when I decry allying with brutal dictatorships on causes I oppose? How close must your association be before you're guilty by association?

I think we know that in the real world, just about any cause that one might consider worthy of support is going to also be supported by some unsavory groups and individuals. We also know it's good politics to attack causes we oppose by tying their mainstream supporters to their undesireables, however dirty our own hands might be on this score.

It's easy to say that one's cause is sufficiently worthy that it swamps any negatives generated by unsightly sympathizers. It's easy to say that your alliance with whichever thugs you're yoked to is strictly limited to this one crusade for righteousness. Even goons can be pointing in the right direction, and when they are shouldn't they be put to good use?

Of course, when dealing with people who have their own agenda, it's hard to say they you're not helping them, they're just helping you. Can you be sure they're not building on this achievement? Do you really know that you haven't made them a teeny bit stronger? How far do you have to advance that worthy cause if the answer to either of these questions is No?

I don't know. I really don't. I believe that the antiwar marchers were right and the Christian conservatives were wrong, but I know that I'm standing on rhetorical sand. I want to draw a line, but if I do it'll look more like the coastline of Norway than it will the Colorado/Arizona border.

I oppose this war. Had I been in DC, I'd have been marching. I can't help it if bad people marched, too. In the end, I do believe that opposing this war is the greater good and that any aid given to the likes of A.N.S.W.E.R. is unfortunate but of secondary concern. I don't believe the conservatives at the UN can make that claim. I just don't think I can defend both positions.

UPDATE Max has a pretty clear conscience, too. Patrick, in my comments, thinks I'm bending too far backwards to be fair, and that I'd get no such consideration in return. He's very likely right.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
To the Batcave!

Now here's a made-for-TV movie that looks promising:

Hollywood- Holy blast from the past, Batman! Adam West and Burt Ward are reuniting for a TV movie they hope will score bop-socko-pow ratings for CBS.

But West and Ward aren't playing Batman and Robin in "Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt." The former co-stars of ABC's "Batman" series play themselves in a comedy-adventure about a plot to steal the original Batmobile from a charity event.

While they try to solve the mystery of the missing mobile, flashback sequences explore some of the batty and bizarre moments that occurred during their show's 1966-68 run, from run-ins with network executives to encounters with overenthusiastic fans.

Along for the wacky ride are three of Gotham City's beloved Bat-villains: Julie Newmar (Catwoman in some episodes of the series), Lee Meriwether (Catwoman in the 1966 "Batman" film starring West and Ward) and Frank Gorshin (the Riddler in the series and the film).

"We decided we should do something that was fresh - a modern-day caper comedy-adventure with Adam and Burt and an occasional allusion or reference to some of the escapades in our past," West said of the TV movie, which has finished production but has not yet been scheduled. "You know, there are things in there that are true, but mostly it's fabrication."

I'm so there. If only Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith were still alive. Via Mark Evanier.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
"The Crooked E" wrapup

Former Enron employees pretty much hated The Crooked E, that cheeserrific made-for-CBS movie from a couple of weeks ago.

Of nearly 200 SEEC [Severed Enron Employees Coalition] members who responded to an e-mail survey, 58 percent found the CBS movie, which aired Jan. 5, offensive and insulting. Another 36 percent said it was trash and that former employees should just forget it. Only 6 percent said they liked the movie. And 14 members said they didn't tune in.

Of course, that means that over 90% of them did in fact watch. The Nielsens don't care if you're lobbing spitballs at the screen.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
A bit more on SUVs

One more point that needs to be made about SUVs is that there's no technical reason why they don't have better fuel economy. MIT's Technology Review magazine did an article in November pn this topic. You can only get an excerpt here, but the bottom line is this:

Itís not that automotive technologies havenít improved; itís that the improvements have been geared toward delivering power, not efficiency. Since 1981 the auto industry has hiked horsepower 84 percent, allowing vehicles to accelerate faster even though they have gotten heavier, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As noted in Gregg Easterbrook's article, SUVs are exempt from a wide variety of regulations that smaller vehicles must adhere to. Until the industry is forced to do something about fuel economy for SUVs, they won't.

This is how the auto industry has always operated. They resisted seat belts and air bags because they claimed it would make cars too expensive for consumers. Of course, when they were finally forced to make these features standard, they changed their marketing to focus on safety and voila! Contrary to their dire predictions, people kept on buying new cars. Turned out, in fact, that they liked and even demanded those nifty new gadgets. If and when Detroit is forced to make SUVs more fuel efficient, I guarantee that one of the first residual effects will be TV ads that tout the new and improved MPG numbers.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 19, 2003
Milestone approaching

Sometime soon, I will get my 50,000th hit, counting visits on the old site plus the current one. I don't know exactly what my total is right now, since there was some overlap with the hit counters, but I know about how much I had on Blogspot. As such, I've picked a somewhat arbitrary yet easy-to-remember target and will declare that to be The Big One. I'm a bit more than 500 hits away, so I figure #50,000 will occur late Tuesday or early Wednesday. I first installed a counter on February 8 last year, so I'm rather pleased that I'll reach 50,000 within a year of counting.

I'll say something when we get there. Thanks as always to everyone for reading.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Bradford trial begins Tuesday

Embattled Houston Police Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford goes on trial starting Tuesday for perjury. The charge stems from an incident in which Bradford said under oath that he had never cursed at his assistants, a statement that was contradicted by one of those underlings.

If convicted of aggravated perjury, a third-degree felony, Bradford could face a range of punishment from probation to 10 years in prison. He could also lose his license as a certified Texas peace officer and his license to practice law. He has been suspended with pay -- and has temporarily surrendered his badge and his gun -- until the outcome of the trial.

Under Texas law, it is misdemeanor perjury if someone "with intent to deceive and with knowledge of the statement's meaning" makes a false statement under oath. To prove aggravated perjury, prosecutors must convince a jury that Bradford's statements were made during an official proceeding and were material to the proceeding.

As this is basically a he-said/he-said case, it's hard to see how the prosecutors will prove intent.

The Bradford case dates to Nov. 14, 2001, when the chief issued a letter of reprimand to Capt. Mark Aguirre for using threatening language with subordinates. Aguirre was accused of calling officers under his command "sons of bitches" and "lazy bastards" and threatening to "chop (the officers') heads off starting at your anus" and "grind them up into dog patties and stomp them into pancakes."

In issuing the reprimand, Bradford overruled a more serious punishment recommended by a disciplinary committee, which wanted Aguirre suspended for five days.


On May 22, Bradford was called to testify under oath at a grievance hearing in which Aguirre was appealing the reprimand. Bradford testified that he himself had used profanity in meetings with subordinates but never directed it at anyone specifically or in such a way as to threaten them.

According to transcripts from that hearing, Bradford seemed to get tangled when Aguirre's lawyer, Terry Yates, asked about a specific meeting, during Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, in which Bradford may have called Assistant Chief J.L. Breshears a vulgar name.

"I don't remember calling Joe that in any casual term, much less in a mandatorily called meeting where I'm talking to supervisors or subordinates. No, I categorically deny having done that. Do not have any recollection of it. And I would be thoroughly embarrassed. And if I did it, I would be wrong, and it's still not acceptable," Bradford said, according to the transcript.

During the same grievance hearing, Breshears told Yates that the chief did call him the name, "mother ------." Breshears said he had testified to that effect during an earlier, unrelated hearing for another captain.

I dunno. "I don't remember" sounds innocent enough, certainly enough for reasonable doubt. "I categorically deny" certainly confuses things. Either the chief has a porous memory, or he never thought anyone would call him on this. I'd put the odds on him getting acquitted, especially with the lawyers he has on his side. We'll find out soon enough.

Oh, and although I'm filing this in the K-Mart category, the incidents are completely unrelated. Someone please notify Glenn Reynolds of this, as he seems to be confused on that point.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 18, 2003
High and Mighty

Though I dislike and won't drive an SUV, I don't care to make judgments about people who drive them. I have too many friends and family members who own them, and my house has enough glass in it, thanks. That said, it's hard to read Gregg Easterbrook's article in The New Republic about Keith Bradsher's book High and Mighty and not feel outrage at the special treatment, legislative exemptions, corporate coverups, and cynical marketing that has helped fuel the SUV revolution. Easterbrook covers many of these points, and I recommend his piece to all. Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite:

Insurance-company data, Bradsher writes, show that SUVs and light pickups have much higher loss rates than regular cars. That SUV owners generally do not pay higher insurance premiums is a perverse consequence of 1970s-era laws that discouraged insurers from linking auto premiums to vehicle weights. Those laws were enacted when the well-off had glistening new small cars and the poor had old land yachts; in the era of the SUV, they represent a subsidy from the poor to the well-off. Buyers of luxury SUVs may also get tax breaks denied to buyers of regular cars. As the Detroit News recently reported, the Internal Revenue Service has been allowing affluent business owners who buy SUVs and classify them as business "trucks"--even if they are actually burlwood-trimmed Cadillacs for personal use--to knock as much as $25,000 off their taxes through a special depreciation. The special tax break only applies if the SUV weighs more than 6,000 pounds, which represents still another reward for waste.

Almost makes that tax cuts on dividends seem populist, doesn't it?

On New Year's Day, the incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was praised for racing to give emergency aid to victims of a vehicle wreck in Florida. Two children died despite his efforts. What was largely overlooked in the coverage of Frist's heroism was the character of the crash. A tire blew on an SUV and the monstrosity flipped, ending two young lives; tire-caused fatalities are rare among regular cars. Will Frist become an advocate of SUV reform, or will he return to Washington and join his colleagues in the next round of cover-ups and exemptions? Frist has now seen with his own eyes the folly of government's coddling of the SUV: the harm done by leading Americans to believe that these vehicles will protect people. In fact, the doctor-senator has now had their blood on his hands.

Fascinating. Thanks to ArchPundit for pointing this out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Death versus life

One of the stronger things I've seen written about the recent decision by outgoing Illinois Governor George Ryan to commute the death sentences of every condemned inmate is the following by The Talking Dog:

For the record, I am "operationally opposed" to the death penalty. If we saved it for the McVeighs and bin Ladens (or in New York, for the "Wendy's killer"), and made damned sure these few monsters got an absolutely fair trial, then I would say -- execute away. But as a regular participant in the uneven legal system of a state widely regarded as having one of the BEST court systems in the country, and almost always only dealing with CIVIL matters, I can tell you, justice is dispensed far too arbitrarily for life and death decisions. Further, given that most death penalty recipients tend to have appointed counsel paid absurdly low compensation by the state ("if you can't afford an attorney one will be provided for you") that it’s very hard to conclude the penalty is meted out on a basis that can reasonably called "fair". Better to adopt George Ryan's approach: commute 'em all, and let the courts sort 'em out.

Philosophically, I have no objections to the death penalty. I don't claim it's a deterrent, I don't claim it's an efficient use of scarce resources, and I certainly don't claim that it's meted out in a fair manner in this country, but in the abstract I accept it on the grounds that it's a suitable response to certain crimes and certain criminals. Still, if the death penalty were to be greatly scaled back or eliminated altogether, I would not consider it much of a loss.

I've never quite understood the love affair that some people have with the death penalty. I remember discussing it once with a friend of mine who's an anti-government conservative Republican and whose position on this issue is basically "kill 'em all and let God sort it out". I asked him why, if he's so mistrustful of government power, he's happy to let the government have the power to kill citizens like that. He didn't have an answer that I found satisfactory.

Dwight Meredith recently asked this same question in a different way: "If tort reform is needed because juries make terrible decisions in civil liability cases, why do conservatives think that death penalty juries are infallible?" More to the point, there's a well-defined system of appeals for civil cases which frequently reduces the kind of civil awards that tort reformers point to as being the sort of thing they oppose, yet we've consistently restricted avenues of appeal in capital cases in recent years, to the point where actual innocence is no longer considered sufficient grounds for overturning a verdict. I don't know how any death penalty supporter could not find that a teeny bit disquieting.

It's long been clear to me that the driving force behind the most ardent supporters of the death penalty is a desire for vengeance and a belief in "an eye for an eye". I consider this to be a lousy basis for public policy. It's also, for those who list Jesus as their favorite philosopher, not in line with his teachings:

[38] Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
[39] But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
[40] And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
[41] And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
[42] Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
[43] Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
[44] But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
[45] That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
[46] For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
[47] And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
[48] Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Maybe that whole government-by-Biblical-principles thing isn't such a good idea after all.

Until the day that we can honestly say that there are no undeserving people on Death Row, I join The Talking Dog in his operational opposition to the death penalty.

UPDATE: Via Kevin Drum, I see that Rod Dreher at NRO has doubts about the death penalty. I'm glad to know it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Political State Report

If you haven't visited the Political State Report yet, I highly recommend it. It's full of interesting information that I never would have known about from places like Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming (here and here), and Pennsylvania. And of course, a few contributions from yours truly (see the Texas archives for my stuff - none of the other Texas contributors have posted anything of substance as yet), some of which will be familiar to Regular Readers.

More contributors are still needed, especially from the currently-unrepresented states of Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico. You don't need to have your own blog, just the willingness to keep us informed about your home state. Drop me a note if you want it, and I'll pass it along to the site admin.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 17, 2003
Yes, we have no bananas

Will bananas go extinct? Maybe, say Noted Scientists:

It is one of the world's favorite fruits, but the banana hasn't had sex in years and its days may be are numbered.

Without scientific help the sterile, seedless fruit could disappear with 10 years, according to a Belgian plant pathologist.

Emile Frison, the head of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain in Monpellier, France, said the fruit lacks the genetic diversity to fight off diseases and pests that are plaguing banana plantations and only biotechnology and genetic manipulation may be able to save it.

"Frison sees it as the only hope for the banana," New Scientist said on Wednesday.

Without assistance banana production could drop and mark the beginning of the end of the fruit.

"We may even see the extinction of the banana as both a lifesaver for hungry and impoverished Africans and as the most popular product on the world's supermarket shelves," the magazine added.

I can't wait to get my first referral from a Google search for "banana sex".

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Prison reform touted for budget relief

An op-ed in today's Chron suggests reducing the prison population as a means of helping the current budget crisis. It's something I've talked about before (see here and here), and it's something that I hope picks up momentum. As the piece notes, if Louisiana can pass this kind of reform, surely Texas can.

The good news is that amid the continued lock-em-up fervor, there are reforms brewing, according to this Atlantic article. Here's a good example of common sense yielding good results:

A few prison systems, notably Oregon's, have been trying out more-practical kinds of vocational training, geared to job openings in fields such as telemarketing and computer-aided mapping of water and tax districts. This has cut recidivism. Meanwhile, Missouri's prison system, under the leadership of Dora Schriro, has come up with a more comprehensive approach whose premise is that prison life should actually resemble real life as much as is practicable. Every offender engages "during work and non-work hours in productive activities that parallel those of free society," as Schriro describes the rules in a paper written for the National Institute of Justice. "In work hours offenders go to school and work and, as applicable, to treatment for sex offenses, chronic mental-health problems, and drug and alcohol dependencies. In non-work hours they participate in community service, reparative activities, and recreation."

The payoff is that "from 1994 (when the program went into effect) to 1999 the proportion of inmates returned to prison in Missouri for felony offenses fell from 33 percent to 20 percent." Sounds pretty good to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Like state, like city
In case I wasn't concerned enough about federal and state budget shortfalls, now we know that the CIty of Houston is $67 million in the hole. There is some good news in that this number spans the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years, but after that it's all taxes, fees, and cutbacks. This is going to be such a fun year, isn't it?
I posted that yesterday, or I would have if my blog config hadn't changed under my nose. Here's the followup story in today's paper. Remarkably, for a polarized City Council and a mayor who's about as strong as a used Kleenex right now, there's not a lot of posturing and fingerpointing going on right now, unlike certain others in this situation.

As such, I'm trying to be hopeful that this will get dealt with in a mature manner. I'm not the only one grasping at any straw of hope, either:

As part of his budget presentation to council's fiscal affairs committee Wednesday, [city chief administrative officer Al] Haines noted that cities across Texas and the country are facing similar budget problems.

Dallas, for example, is looking at a projected shortfall of $90 million this year, and Austin faces a $58 million gap next year. The Houston Independent School District is expected to cut spending by $154 million next year.

It could be worse. Haines said Los Angeles could face a $500 million shortfall by 2005, and New York City is wrestling a $1.1 billion deficit.

There now. Feel better?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Malcolm survives recall effort

Texas Democratic Party Chair Molly Beth Malcolm has survived an attempt to oust her before her term expires in 2004.

Shortly before Malcolm's speech [before the State Democratic Executive Committee], a small number of hard-line Democrats pushed a resolution urging Malcolm to step down midway through her third term.

The group wore buttons saying "Regime Change for Texas Democratic Party" and "Party Reform Now."

Among their complaints was that party leaders abandoned traditional party positions and crept too close to their Republican counterparts during the November elections.

The Malcolm-backed ticket of centrist candidates with diverse ethnic backgrounds was trounced, the second time during her tenure as chair that the GOP has swept all statewide offices.

"The first rule of politics is you've got to win," said former Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Rolando Rocha. "We cannot wait until 2004 for new leadership. She has led us to ruin."

After the resolution failed 77-10, the Executive Committee voted 79-1 to support Malcolm.

Either there weren't that many dissidents, or a few waverers saw the writing on the wall and stuck with the winner, I guess.

When I blogged this on the Political State Report, I wondered what a "hard-line Democrat" is. I'm still not sure. Does that mean those who supported Malcolm are "soft-line Democrats"? Couldn't the Chron have come up with a better description than this?

(This post was lost from yesterday.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Anyone seen my stuff?

I posted a couple of entries yesterday afternoon, and was rather dismayed to see that they never made it onto my main page. After dinking around unsuccessfully, I finally posted a message to the Movable Type support forum. A few other people who also use DreamHost piped up to say they were having the same problem.

Turns out DreamHost did some server shuffling, and my MT install was moved to a different cluster (which I determined by running mt-check.cgi). I also discovered this morning that I couldn't log in to MT. I wound up ftp'ing in to download MT.cfg so I could fix the clustername in the database path. That got me in. On the advice of a support forum poster, I've removed the cluster name from the Local Site Path in my blog config - that is, instead of


I now have


I need to go back and fix this in MT.cfg as well, since it points to the location of my database.

Anyway, the upshot is that I'll be reposting what I lost later (the backup is at home). It appears that a couple of comments from yesterday afternoon got lost as well, so if you don't see the comment you left, I didn't delete them. I will try to recover them as well, but I don't think I'll be successful there as I don't have a backup of them. Sorry about that.

Things should be back to normal (such as that is) today.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 16, 2003
Owners to vote on All-Star Game change

Baseball owners are set to vote on a proposal to award home field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game. They're doing this, they say, to Put Some Meaning back into the so-called Midsummer Classic:

"The game has lost importance. It's turned into an exhibition," Montreal Expos president Tony Tavares said. "Last year was embarrassing and difficult."

Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane and Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino also endorsed the idea.

"It used to be that players were interested in the outcome," Lucchino said. "For years, players cared about it and played and hard and took a chance."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The All-Star Game is an exhibition game. It's never had any importance. I just don't understand the fuss.

Here's a dirty little secret: One reason for the esteem of the All-Star Game in the past was because you might otherwise never get to see a star pitcher from one league go up against a star hitter from another. Remember Randy Johnson versus John Kruk, where Kruk was bailing out of the batter's box while the Big Unit was still winding up? Well, with interleague play nowadays, Kruk might've faced Johnson a few times before. He would've known what to expect, and that would have ruined the moment of its memorableness. Whatever mystique there may have been has been greatly diminished.

Interleague play isn't going anywhere, and admitting that the All-Star Game is just a fancy pickup game would damage TV ratings, so I guess this sort of tomfoolery was inevitable. Doesn't mean I have to like it, or accept the reasoning behind it. Jayson Stark does like the idea, while David Pinto and Dan Lewis are with me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 15, 2003
How many Ted Barlows does it take...

Man, it's hard to pick a favorite joke among Barlow's Bulb-O-Rama, but I think I lean towards this one. I must say, despite the excellent efforts of Ted and Hesiod, there's still room for more joking at Instapundit's expense:

Q. How many Instapundits does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. Look, I'm not saying it's necessarily wrong to oppose the President's position on preemptive light-bulb removal. It's possible that what's best for the bulb is what's best for America. I am saying that there are plenty of misguided people who don't seem to realize that their movement is the key to the survival of a nasty and outmoded form of lighting. It's harsh, but it's unarguably true that those who oppose halogens are objectively pro-fluorescence.

Yeah, I know - don't give up the day job. Here's something we know you'll like: the canonical list of light bulb jokes for Texas universities. This one, naturally, is my favorite:

Q. How many Rice students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. One to screw it in and the rest of the student body to relieve the stress of screwing it in by running naked through campus.

Thank you and good night.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Even better than peanut butter and jelly

When I die, I want Trish's son to write a rap for my funeral.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Another one will bite the dust

Dang. I just discovered that RAWbservations is not long for this world. Sorry to hear it, Alex. Hope you'll be able to rise from the ashes someday.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Potter publication date set

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will make its debut on June 21. Woo hoo!

At 768 pages, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is more than one-third longer than its predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," Britain's Bloomsbury Publishers said.

Geez. No wonder it took JK Rowling so durned long to write it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
When is a tax increase not a tax increase?

Answer: When you can get someone else to do the tax-increasing for you, as the Lege is fixing to do by cutting $1 billion out of their education allocation, thus passing the bucket to individual school districts. Those that can raise tax assessments likely will; those that are already maxed out will either agitate for higher property valuations or start sharpening the knife.

"The magnitude of the number surprises me," said Catherine Clark, an associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

Clark said the property tax values reported for some districts do not reflect the current economic decline. Clark said local taxpayers would have to make up the loss of increased state funding.

"A lot of districts will have to raise taxes," she said.

Karen Soehnge, an associate director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said a $1 billion shift in public education costs to local districts "would be catastrophic."

Soehnge said most districts are already under "great pain" to pay their bills without additional funding from the state to pay for enrollment increases.

"If they were to cut $1 billion, there would be serious decisions to be made involving learning," Soehnge said.

Two other items of note:

While the first day of the legislative session was mostly ceremonial, the Legislative Budget Board quietly delivered to each lawmaker a 4-inch-thick, 11-pound stack of documents that outlined a proposed $124.5 billion budget to pay for state services in 2004-2005 with state and federal funds.

The state's share of the LBB budget would cost $64.6 billion -- about $10.5 billion more than Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has said the Legislature has to spend for the next two years.

Strayhorn's estimate of the revenue shortfall had been $9.9 billion, but it did not include some items in the LBB budget.

The LBB budget does not include funding for a projected increase of 140,000 public school students over the next two years as estimated by the Texas Education Agency. If funding of that enrollment increase had been included, the revenue shortfall would have risen to $11.5 billion.

Underestimating growth, like forestalling expenses to future years, is exactly the sort of reality-denial that eventually bites you in the ass. Of course, if those rumors about Governor Perry and Senator Hutchinson attempting an office switch in 2006 are true, then maybe Perry can do like Bush and be elsewhere when the bill comes due.

The Texas Education Agency's budget request to the LBB said the enrollment increase would push the cost of the state's Foundation School Program to $22.6 billion in the upcoming biennium, which begins Sept. 1, but the proposed LBB budget allocates $21.6 billion.


Public education cost $25.8 billion in state and local funding this year, according to the LBB, with the state paying a decade-low 40.7 percent share. The state paid 47.2 percent of the cost in 1998, the high point for the past decade.

Someone's gonna have to explain all these numbers to me, 'cause they don't add up. We know from the expenditure history that the state budgeted $20 billion for education in FY 2002. The $22.6 or $21.6 billion figures would represent a reasonable total for FY 2003. So where do the $25.8 billion and 40.7% figures come from? Maybe they're mixing public education costs with higher education costs, I dunno. What I do know is that a chart or graph would have been awfully helpful in this story. Certainly more useful than the panoramic views of the House and Senate that the sidebar includes. Hey, look, multimedia!

Posted by Charles Kuffner
So long, K-Mart

K-Mart is closing all of its stores in Houston as part of its reorganization efforts. This ends a 40-year relationship between K-Mart and our fair city. You won't find a K-Mart in a 100 mile radius of Houston. Nationwide, over 300 stores employing 37,000 people will be shuttered.

Among the stores to be closed, of course, is the infamous Super K-Mart in the 8400 block of Westheimer, the site of the K-Mart Kiddie Roundup. I suppose that's one way of making sure it never happens again.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 14, 2003
What about the tax cuts?

With all of the blame for the state budget shortfall being assigned to that bad ol' 2001 Legislature, I started wondering what effect the vaunted Bush tax cuts of 1997 and 1999 may have had on the state's revenue stream. Not that these tax cuts are in any danger of being reversed - there's a greater chance that I'll become Carole Keeton Strayhorn's fourth husband than there is of Saint Dubya's tax cuts getting rolled back - but surely they must have had some effect on state revenue.

First we need to determine just what those tax cuts were. The 1997 tax cut mandated a $10,000 increase in the homestead exemption for property taxes. These taxes go to school districts, so this has no effect on the state's revenue, whose recent history can be viewed here. I will note, for what it's worth, that in a July 11, 1999 Chronicle article, one Karen Hughes is quoted as follows:

"Had the state not enacted the two largest tax cuts in Texas history, and had the state not increased funding for public schools by $8.3 billion under Gov. Bush, local property taxes would be going through the roof across the state and driving people from their homes," Hughes said.

Emphasis mine. Obviously, as a Good Liberal, I support spending on schools, so I'm certainly not decrying this. I'm simply pointing out that Bush and Perry are both happy to take credit for spending increases when they consider it good politics to do so, especially when they have capos like Strayhorn to blame the Lege for being profligate.

The 1999 cut directly affected state revenues, as it was a cut in the Corporate Franchise Tax and the creation of state Sales Tax Holidays for the back-to-school shopping period. These things are of course hard to nail down, but we can take a reasonable guess.

From 1992 to 1999, the Franchise Tax brought revenue increases of about $100 million per year - it raked in $1.096 billion in fiscal 1992 and $2.077 billion in fiscal 1999. (There was an 82% increase in Franchise Tax revenue betwen 1991 and 1992, meaning there had to have been an increase in that tax rate at that time.) Had those increases continued, fiscal 2002 would have seen about $2.4 billion in this revenue. Instead, there were three years of modest declines, with fiscal 2002 seeing $1.935 billion from this source. Roughly speaking, this tax cut took about $450 million out of the coffers in 2002.

The sales tax holiday is a three day weekend in which most clothing and footwear which are priced under $100 are exempt from the 8% sales tax. I found precious little in terms of numbers on this, save for the following from a Chron article dated July 31, 2002, just before this year's holiday:

Surrounded by children in a department store, Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander said Tuesday that the state's annual sales -tax holiday will save consumers $42 million and boost the state economy by drawing visitors to Texas for the tax -free weekend.

This year's tax holiday begins midnight Thursday and runs through Sunday.

Most clothing and footwear priced under $100 is tax -free. For every $100 spent on qualifying items, shoppers save about $8.

Since the tax holiday began in 1999, $334 million in state revenue growth has been attributed to the annual three-day freebie. The state gets an overall bonus from hotel, restaurant and other travel-related receipts, and from the purchase of items not exempt from sales taxes, Rylander said.

So the direct revenue loss due to the tax-free weekend is about $40-$50 million, which is relative chump change. Personally, I don't buy the claim that travel in to Texas for this boosted the economy by $100 million per year. I have a hard time believing that a bargain-hunting family looking for cheaper school clothes would blow all that savings and then some in hotels and restaurants. Clearly, this is a matter of faith, and I don't have it.

Thus, I calculate that Bush's tax cuts cost the state about half a billion dollars, a lot of money but a fairly small dent in the deficit. Looking at that revenue history, other big hits came from the Natural Gas Production Tax, which raised nearly a billion less last year than in 2001, and income from interest and investments, which dropped $400 million. The sales tax, which had increased by $500-$900 million per year over the past few years, dropped by $100 million, presumably due to the sluggish economy. (In fairness, the Franchise Tax may have declined anyway, or at least not grown as fast, because of the weak economy as well.) Put all that together and you've got about $2.5 to $3 billion, which is a pretty good start.

If you're curious where the money goes, by the way, this expenditure history can help. The two biggies are Education (growing from about $12 billion in 1992 to over $20 billion in 2002) and Health and Human Services (from $9.5 billion in 1992 to $20 billion in 2002). One interesting tidbit here is that from Fiscal 1995 to Fiscal 2000, the six budget years that Bush was in the state house, education expenditures rose from $14.5 billion to $19.1 billion, an increase of $4.6 billion and not $8.3 billion as Karen Hughes claimed. Even comparing Ann Richards' last budget ($13.4 billion for education in FY 1994) to Rick Perry's first ($20.1 billion in FY 2001) gives only a $6.7 billion increase. Not that it really matters, I guess.

It's pretty clear that what the state budget really needs is some better economic times. We have a fast-growing population, with a large percentage of people in need. Cutting spending will only accomplish so much because the long term demographic trends will put a great deal of pressure on existing programs. Sooner or later we need to get a handle on our revenue streams as well. Too bad we didn't give this much thought when times were better.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
New leader, new troubles

Harris County Democrats selected Gerry Birnberg as their interim party chair to fill out Sue Schecter's unexpired term. Birnberg will have to run for reelection in the 2004 primary.

He promised to raise enough money to hire a full-time executive director. Birnberg said the current county party budget is about $60,000 and he hopes to raise an additional $150,00 this year.

He also promised to adopt a more traditional Democratic Party message and move away from the failed strategy among some Texas Democrats of running as "Bush lite" -- trying to link themselves to the popular president from Texas.

The new focus, Birnberg said, will be on health care, jobs, environment and other issues that he said Republicans shy away from.

"The Democratic message is: People matter," Birnberg said. "My honest belief is that that message resonates."

We'll see. How you say it is also important, and without some obvious and memorable values behind it, a message like that is just a meaningless slogan. We'll need more than just a message to be a factor.

Meanwhile, there's trouble brewing in the state party as some dissidents have taken aim at Molly Beth Malcolm, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party.

Malcolm malcontents characterize her as "Republican lite," unwilling to push traditional Democratic positions after switching from the Republican Party in 1992.

Last year, Malcolm helped keep national Democratic leaders away from the party's convention in El Paso. She said she wanted to keep the spotlight on Texas candidates, but Republican critics quickly charged that the state Democrats were trying to distance themselves from a more-liberal national party.

Malcolm's critics also say she has become too Austin-centric, turning a deaf ear to grass-roots efforts in other parts of the state.

"She's a nice lady, but we need to do something to shake up our system and light some fires," said Pharr insurance agent Juan Maldonado, a state party vice chairman.

I didn't know she used to bat for the other team, but given how many Republicans are former Democrats in this state, I don't think it really matters. What I do know is that we deserved better in 2002, and its way past time for the state party to get its act together. Everything I said about Harris County Democrats is equally true for the state. Let's get a move on.

Oh, and by the way: "Tart-tongued Texarkanan"? "Malcom malcontents"? Someone get me the Alliteration Police on the line. I need to report a felony.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
New AG says Enron should liquidate

New Attorney General Greg Abbott has some harsh words for Enron's bankruptcy attorneys:

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott blasted Enron's bankruptcy attorneys Monday, saying they are "lining their pockets" with fees at the expense of taxpayers, former employees and investors.

At the present rate of spending, Abbott said, the money spent on lawyers and accountants sorting through Enron's remains could approach $1 billion. He said the company should consider an immediate liquidation.

Since going into bankruptcy 13 months ago, Enron has spent more than $300 million on professional fees -- easily a record -- and is burning through $25 million a month. The situation could linger for months, even years.

"What have we gotten for our money?" Abbott said. "There's been no reorganization plan, and there is no reorganization plan that is imminent.

"Not only are we not even coming close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, I don't think we're even in the tunnel yet."

Abbott goes on to say that Enron should be in Chapter 7, not Chapter 11. I'm not a bankruptcy guy, so I'm not sure what the legal details are. Anyone know better?

UPDATE: I posted this entry in a bit of a hurry, so let me clarify. I do understand that Chap7 means "liquidate" and Chap11 means "reorganize". I'm not clear on what that means in practical terms. Is he just mad at the pocket-lining people, and if so how would Chap7 stop them? What's the state's interest in this? That's what I don't understand. Sorry for the confusion.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 13, 2003
Looking forward: Harris County Democrats

Seeing this article about the resignation of Harris County Democratic Party Chair Sue Schecter reminds me that I never did follow up on this post, which pointed to this article about the many things that the local party did wrong last year. I will now rectify that oversight, so if this sort of thing bores you, feel free to come back later.

Now then. There are three things that I think a party chair should be focusing on: Raising money, organizing, and crafting a message. All three are bread-and-butter tactics, and the Harris County GOP kicks our butt at each of them. The political machine built by conservative activist Steven Hotze is fearsome to behold and wildly successful. And there's no reason why the Democrats can't be better at it.

There's no inherent party advantage to these things. The GOP may be able to raise more money, but I sometimes feel that the Democrats don't really try all that hard. I've voted in every Democratic primary since 1992, yet I can't recall ever being solicited by the local party to attend fundraisers or rallies. How hard is is to crosscheck my name against the property tax rolls and figure out that I'm the kind of prospect that the Dems should be eager to recruit? There's no excuse for this.

For this reason, I'm already leaning towards Dalia Stokes, organizer of the River Oaks Area Democratic Women (ROADWomen), as the next chair. I think the whole county party has to be rebuilt, and I think someone who's already built an organizaton is the best person for the job.

As for the message, we've certainly learned that We're Just Like Republicans sucks as a campaign slogan. I don't expect that to happen again, and just maybe the pain of that lesson will drive our efforts next time. I would suggest that there is a page in the local GOP playbook that we can steal, though. The local GOP has a pretty strong brand identity. When you see an ad for a Republican candidate, you will almost certainly hear a few key words: "Conservative values", "fiscal restraint", "low taxes", and so on. I think they have a template somewhere and build their ads based on it. It's effective - you know exactly what you're getting with these guys. The Democrats lack such an identity, and I think it hurts them. If I were Democratic chair, I'd spend some time studying these ads and come up with a few key words of our own, words that would contrast us with them in a positive way, and encourage candidates to use them.

I would work on expanding the party base, both with voter drives and GOTV efforts, and also by making sure the message I craft will be reasonably appealing to non-Democrats. I don't mean trying to peel away GOP voters - remember that painful lesson from last year? - I mean working to make our message broad and universal. I laid out a few such themes in the immediate aftermath of the election.

I would reach out to every already-existing progressive group, as these people are the party's core. I would want them to feel like they are an integral part of our future success. We need them and we need to make them feel like they're fully invested in us. I'd reach across county lines to groups in Fort Bend and Montgomery. We should share strategies and mailing lists where appropriate, and we should work together in races that cross county lines.

Finally, I would hire a couple of savvy web and database techs, and have them get to work on a web page and mail server that will have a steady flow of new information and will be used for our outreach projects. Again, there's no excuse for not having the best tools at your disposal.

That's what I'd do. I'd like to know what the three candidates plan to do. I'm going to try to find their email addresses and ask them, and if I hear back I'll let you know what they say.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Texans for Joe

Fellow Houston Democrat Greg Wythe has announced the launch of Texans for Joe in support of Joe Lieberman's announcement that he is in fact running for President. I confess that Lieberman is not my first choice (I'd rank him behind Edwards, Kerry, Dean, and Graham, and ahead of Gephardt and Sharpton), but I can guarantee that this will be a useful resource for those who want to know more about him. So drop in and check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
We have a number

The New and Improved Budget Deficit Estimate is $9.9 billion, nearly double the $5.1 billion estimate that Comptroller Strayhorn had once insisted on. This is an early AP wire story that mostly recycles its previous story, including Governor Goodhair's attempted heroics. Expect a fuller treatment from an actual Chron reporter tomorrow.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
It's snowin' down in Texas

The Dallas area got some snow over the weekend, causing minor problems for some people. It was cold and nasty here in Houston, but none of the white stuff - it wasn't quite cold enough.

Folks from Northern climes may not realize just how fascinating snow is to those who grew up where "winter" means "temperatures may dip into the 40s at night". The last noticeable snow in Houston occurred a few years back when I was working in a downtown highrise. I heard a coworker cry "Look! It's snowing!", then you could practically feel the building tilt to one side as everyone raced to the windows to ooh and aah at the wonder of it all. All this for a light dusting that had no chance of accumulating.

Back in 1985 when I was a freshman at Trinity, San Antonio was hit by a snowstorm that dumped 13 inches of the white stuff on the River City. The snow started on Friday night and continued through Saturday. To say that San Antonio was completely paralyzed by this is to understate. As far as I could tell, San Antonio drivers (not the best on the road under any conditions to begin with) believed that since their tires weren't getting good traction, the solution was to floor it and hope for the best. The result was predictable. Then-Mayor Henry Cisneros spent a lot of time on TV during the storm imploring people to stay at home.

There was a lot of excitement about the snow on campus as well. Trinity draws a lot of its students from Texas and neighboring states, so there were a lot of snow virgins. One friend of mine, from Florida, wanted to play in the snow naked. We managed to convince her that this was not as good an idea as she thought. Overall, the main effect was that all the trays disappeared from the cafeteria. Trinity is on a hill, and it has these large stairways that go from lower campus (where the dorms are) to upper campus (where the academic buildings are), and when covered with snow they made an excellent sled run, with the trays serving as sleds. We had a tray shortage in the cafeteria for the rest of the year.

Classes were cancelled on Monday, even though the roads were starting to clear. They have these raised lane markers in Texas (known as Botts Dots) which prevented the use of snowplows, but by Monday temps were back in the 50s and the snow was rapidly losing its grip on the city. By Tuesday, it was if everyone had had enough of the snow - the day was bright and sunny, the high in the 70s. I actually saw a few people sunbathing amid dying snowbanks. The last remnants were gone by that evening.

Personally, I've experienced all the snow I'll ever need. Wake me when it's warm again, OK?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 12, 2003
A little taste of tort reform

This Chron editorial raises some interesting points about the tort reform - namely, medical malpractice damage award caps - which is being proposed by Governor Goodhair:

[A] look at the data does not confirm the charge that the wave of malpractice lawsuits is mostly frivolous and the damages unwarranted. On the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that the medical malpractice insurance crisis is at least partly due to actual malpractice and the failure of the medical profession to adequately supervise its members.

Just under 35,000 licensed physicians practice in Texas. Formal complaints against Texas doctors have nearly doubled since 1996, and so has the number of investigations opened by the Texas State Board of Medical Examiners.

In the first three months of 2002, the board began 1,725 investigations, discarding thousands of other complaints. Yet during the same time period, the board took only 187 disciplinary actions against doctors, from revoking licenses to assessing modest fines.

At its December meeting, the state board revoked or required the surrender of 10 doctors' licenses, but allowed three of the doctors to continue to practice on probation. It suspended 15 doctors, but allowed nine of them to keep treating patients. It restricted 13 doctors, reprimanded four and fined 15.

The lack of will by professional organizations such as the AMA (and, in fairness, the American Bar Association as well) to mete out real discipline to its truly bad apples is nothing new. One does wonder why the good apples, who are the ones that are really getting screwed, don't make a bigger stink about it.

By the way, there have been a total of about 30 lawsuits since 1997 resulting from the HMO reform law that was passed over Dubya's objections. The "flood" of lawsuits that the hysterics cried about has been a trickle.

The Chron goes on:

The 14th Court of Appeals, which sits in Houston, just issued an opinion guaranteed to make matters worse. In overturning multimillion-dollar damages against a hospital awarded to a brain-damaged patient, the court ruled that hospitals are not liable for botched operations just because they know a doctor is taking drugs and allow him to keep operating.

In order for hospitals to be liable for damages, the court ruled, patients must prove that hospital officials actually wished them to be harmed. If not overturned by the Texas Supreme Court or the Legislature, this ruling is practically an invitation to lax supervision leading to malpractice.

Now that's really awful. I wish I could find out more about this - I struck out on Google. Anyone have some more information about this case?

And a parting shot:

When Rep. Tom Craddick visited the Chronicle's Editorial Board last month, the presumptive speaker of the Texas House was asked if the Legislature might ease the malpractice emergency by trying to get bad doctors out of the medical corps.

The Midland Republican said, "You can't legislate morality." This no doubt will come as a surprise to some of Craddick's supporters in the House, who hope to use the Republican Party's ascendancy to advance their moral agenda.

Yes, let's do keep this in mind during the predictable outcry that will follow when the Supremes get around to ruling on the constitutionality of Texas's sodomy law. The Lege is perfectly happy to legislate morality when it suits its purposes.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Old ways, modern times

Here's a fascinating article about a Mennonite community in Mexico and how it has adapted its traditional ways of making a living by farming and dairy farming in an increasingly competitive environment. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The many faces of diversity

O-Dub recently mentioned the topic of blogger diversity (here and here) in reference to a recent blogger get-together in San Francisco. Oliver noted, in response to this approving InstaComment, that there wasn't much in the way of racial diversity in those photos, which sparked some heated comments in his posts.

There are several things that I'd like to mention here. One is that my first thought, upon looking at the names that accompanied the pics, is that (to my eyes, at least) there wasn't a whole lot of diversity of political opinions in the attendees there. All of the names I recognized belonged to right- and right-libertarian political types. If there were any liberal bloggers there, they were either unphotographed or unknown to me.

I mention this not because I think it casts any aspersions on those who were there but just to make the what-should-be-obvious point that "diversity" means different things to different people. As well it should, since it covers a lot of ground. InstaPundit was referring to diversity of professional backgrounds. Oliver was talking about race, and I noticed political leanings. There's a chart where I work that talks about different kinds of diversity, and it covers about two dozen distinct categories. We all have differences and similarities, and you can find them if you take the time to look.

Secondly, Oliver is speaking too broadly when he says that "bloggers are not exactly the most diverse group racially". Maybe that's true of political bloggers (more on this in a second), but we political bloggers sometimes forget that there's a lot of non-political types out there busily publishing away. The Houston bloggers group has over 90 members, but only about a dozen regularly talk about politics. That's a pretty small percentage.

(By the way, for those of you who never venture outside the political blogosphere and are thus of the impression that blogging is a mostly male thing, I invite you to read this post, which asks if male bloggers are taken seriously by their mostly-female readers. The question comes to me via Trish .)

Third, I don't think anyone really knows how racially diverse the political blogworld is. I know of three bloggers on my blogroll who are black, four who are Hispanic, and two who are of Asian or Middle Eastern extraction, but I can't say for sure that's the whole total because, well, this is the Internet and you just can't always tell. Last I checked, that was still considered a feature.

Whatever the status of Political Blogtopia's diversity is now, I agree with the comment Joanne Jacobs left in Oliver's first post, which is that it will get more diverse over time since there's such a low barrier to entry. You just may not realize it right away.

Finally, a question: Has there ever been a blog post which has attracted a comment from Richard Bennett in which he has not acted like a total asshole? See the comments in the second post from Oliver that I linked above for a prime example.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 11, 2003
Reinventing government, Texas style

State Comptroller Carolyn Keeton Strayhorn has released her report on money saving measures for the upcoming budget. Called "Reinventing Government" Limited Government, Unlimited Opportunity, the report claims to find a total of $3.7 billion in savings, mostly from efficiencies, as well as some ways to increase non-tax revenues.

I haven't read Strayhorn's report (I'm waiting for Greg Wythe to do it for me), but I do have two observations. One is that her recommendation to combine the Railroad Commission office into the Public Utility office would oust the highest ranking black Republican in the state, Michael Williams. I don't think that has any bearing on the validity of this idea, but it's interesting nonetheless.

More broadly, Texas has a handful of statewide offices, and the general progression up the political ladder here is to start in one of the lower offices - Agriculture Commissioner, Land Commissioner, Railroad Commissioner - and work your way up. Rick Perry moved up from the Ag Commish office, David Dewhurst was the previous Land Commissioner, Strayhorn herself was once Railroad Commish. Eliminating the Railroad office means one less stepping stone for politicians on the rise to aim for. In recent elections at least, you just haven't seen people giving up State Lege jobs to run for a statewide office.

(There is precedent for this sort of office elimination, by the way. There used to be a State Treasurer office, but it went bye-bye in the 90s. True to form, it was a good place to groom for bigger and better things - the last two Treasurers were KB Hutchinson and Ann Richards.)

The other thing I want to mention is that even if all of these recommendations are adopted and meet their stated levels of savings or revenue enhancement, it's still only one-third to one-half of the total projected deficit. In other words, this is the easy stuff, the stuff that's (mostly) noncontroversial. The hard stuff - cuts in services and increases in taxes/fees/whatever - is yet to come.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Flushing out the problem

And so the saga of Lubbock and its problematic prairie dogs, which I've reported on before, is on the road to a conclusion, as Prairie Dog Lady Lynda Watson has begun flushing the critters out of the Oglalla Aquifer recharge zone so they can be relocated.

Since the 1930s, Lubbock has been disposing of large portions of its "gray water," or treated sewage, by spraying it through massive irrigation systems on portions of the site. The gray water produced bumper crops of corn and other grains, but the city switched to rye grass in the late 1990s and leased the land for grazing.

That created an unnatural but attractive environment for prairie dogs, who thrive on rye grass, explained Heather Whittlaw, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist. As a result, thousands moved onto the site. Burrowing owls, a federally protected species that occupies uninhabited prairie dog holes, moved in as well.

Over the years, however, nitrates from the "gray water" had percolated down to the Ogallala Aquifer, and the natural resource commission had cited the city for polluting that major water source in 1989.

When the agency filed an additional citation against Lubbock this summer, it mentioned prairie dog holes as possible contributors to the pollution. The city's first response was to plan extermination of the animals.

That plan was thwarted when several groups opposed it. Animal rights activists and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission disagreed with killing the prairie dogs, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service threatened action if the burrowing owls were injured. A study was done and, this week, Watson contracted to begin removing the prairie dogs from the irrigated portions of the fields, leaving the animals that live on the periphery.

"I'm reclaiming as much land as I can for the city now," said Watson.

In the process, Watson slowly fills a hole with water, places traps over escape holes and catches fugitive prairie dogs as they are flushed from their tunnels. Workers follow and pack dirt into the flooded holes to prevent prairie dogs from moving back into them.

Long live the prairie dogs in their new home.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 10, 2003
Gun toting coach resigns

What is it with coaches named Nolan Richardson?

Nolan Richardson III resigned as men's basketball coach at Tennessee State University on Wednesday night, two weeks after he was indefinitely suspended for bringing a gun into the school's arena.

Richardson, 38, got into an argument with assistant coach Hosea Lewis on Christmas night concerning the time of practice after only four players showed up. Richardson admitted to campus police that he then went to his car and brought a handgun into the Gentry Center, the school's gym.

Assistant coach Christopher Graves said in a written statement to police that Richardson asked where Lewis was because he "had something for him."

Richardson, who told police the gun wasn't loaded, was suspended Dec. 26.

School officials said they will not pursue charges against Richardson for bringing the gun on campus.

Here's a tip, Nolan: Switch to decaf.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Our friends the Saudi phreakers

The Texas A&M phone system was hacked by some Saudi Arabians, who used it to make free long distance calls.

Phone carriers alerted the school to the suspicious activity Thursday, said Walt Magnussen, A&M's associate director of telecommunications. The university sent an emergency e-mail to employees about the attack that urged them to change their mailbox passwords.

The fraud affected five voice mailboxes among the university's 25,000 phone lines. The number or cost of the unauthorized calls wasn't immediately known, The Eagle reported today.

"Initial indications look like we caught it pretty quickly," Magnussen said.

The hackers guessed each mailbox password because it was the same as the phone number.

"It's like using your name for your password," he said. "It's one of the first things people are going to guess."

The hackers manipulated the outgoing messages by recording "Hello?", followed by a pause, then "Yes." The new recording was designed to fool international operators into thinking they were talking to a live person who answered the phone, then agreed to take a collect call.

Once inside the mailbox, hackers could transfer the call anywhere they wanted at A&M's expense. It may take a month or more to learn how much damage was done, Magnussen said.

This is a pretty common technique, though the recording of "Hello" and "Yes" to fool an operator into thinking that collect charges had been accepted is a new one to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
For want of a zero

In 2002, Montgomery County got a $2.5 million grant from the Justice Department for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, an initiative aimed at easing the burden for housing illegal immigrants jailed on state or local charges. The size of the grant was based in part on the county's salary costs at its jails, which was listed on its application as $40 million. Unfortunately, the real cost was $4 million, which means that their grant should have been $300,000. The error, attributed to a typo, has now been discovered and the feds want their $2.2 million back.

The county may have to take $2 million from its reserve fund to pay back the money, which could affect its high credit rating at a time when the county is going to market for $60 million in bonds for new roads and $10 million for three new libraries.

"It potentially could have an impact on the credit rating, which may result in greater bonding costs," said Frank Ildebrando, managing director of RBC Dain Rauscher, the county's financial adviser.

And this all comes during a tough budget year. On the bright side, at least County Judge Alan Sadler and his merry band of Montgomery moralists will have something substantive to deal with, which should help keep them out of trouble for awhile.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
More "The Crooked E" bashing

If you managed to sit through The Crooked E for any length of time this past Sunday (about 20 minutes was all I could take), you might have noticed that pretty much all of the female employees portrayed at Enron were ex-strippers. Some women who actually did work at Enron are none too happy about that.

At a party the day after the movie aired, [Habiba] Ewing said, an older woman who had seen The Crooked E glanced at her chest.

"She asked me if my breasts were real," said Ewing, former director of international public relations.

I believe the correct response to such a question is "I'm not sure. Why don't you feel them and let me know?", but I'll want to run that past Miss Manners first to be sure.

The movie's producer gave them the standard Trent Lott apology:

Robert Greenwald, an independent distributor who produced The Crooked E for CBS, said, "I'm sorry if they feel that the movie in any way diminished them."

He said he and others tried to avoid painting women employees with a broad brush because their research had verified that there were "thousands of accomplished, articulate, competent women throughout Enron."

"It's just that we knew we'd get better ratings if we filled the place with silicone," he did not add.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Know your spammers

File this one under When Good Things Happen To Bad People:

SLIDELL, La. -- He's a 30-year-old self-taught computer programmer and electronics repairman with a fondness for Scooby-Doo, cars and camping.

He's also one of the country's better-known spammers, one of the people critics say are responsible for the deluge of unwanted e-mail flooding the Internet.

Spam has been good to Ronnie Scelson of Slidell. An eighth-grade dropout who used to live in a mobile home, he now drives a sleek late-model Corvette and lives with his family in a five-bedroom home, complete with an in-ground pool and a game room.

Like most spammers, he doesn't understand why people hate him.

"What I do is not illegal. There's nothing wrong with it. It's a form of advertising -- the only form that is totally environmentally safe. You push one button and it's gone."

It's also the only form of advertising that imposes most of its costs on other people. He's quoted in the article later saying that he sends out 560 million emails a week. Someone's paying for all that bandwidth and server space, but it's not Ronnie Scelson.

But maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on him. After all, he does have some standards:

Scelson said unscrupulous mailers -- "the ones who spam porn, chain letters, get-rich-quick schemes, multilevel marketing" -- have given bulk e-mailers a bad name.

"I don't believe in that," he said. "I don't find anything wrong with it, but I have a certain guideline for what I send."

He said he honors requests to be removed from his mailing lists, which he said contain millions of e-mail addresses.

He also denies hiding his identity behind forged return addresses and says he doesn't bounce e-mail through foreign relays. But he admits he once did both.

He says he now discloses his company name, phone number and address on his bulk e-mail and sends it only through his own equipment, including a bank of floor-to-ceiling mail servers in a back room of his shop.

"If you're going to do this, use all your own equipment. Plus, you can do it faster, better," he said.

"If you do it the right way, it's more profitable. But at the same time, if you do it the way everybody wants you to, they'll shut you down quicker."

My heart is bleeding for you, Ronnie.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 09, 2003
Read my lips: More and higher fees

Having boldly declared that he would have balanced last year's budget all by his lonesome if only he'd had the time, Governor Goodhair has now proclaimed that there will be no new taxes this year. Fees, on the other hand, are still fair game, assuming of course that people can agree on what is a fee and what is really a tax, since taxes are bad but fees aren't.

Back to the blame game for our current situation. Here's Goodhair defending his record:

Perry said he was not to blame because he vetoed $500 million in discretionary spending from the budget. But he admitted the state's budget will be tight.

Of course, he's only too happy to take credit for new spending when it suits his purposes. Fine; that's politics. Just bear it in mind.

Which brings us to the issue of those big delayed Medicare payments that Comptroller Strayhorn blamed on the Lege yesterday. Turns out, as Charles Dodgson notes, that there was another hand in that particular bit of budget chicanery:

[I]n 1999 the governor of Texas ó yes, him ó justified new corporate tax breaks with a budget that not only understated Medicaid costs by $550 million but hid regular payments for nursing care and other services by moving them from the last month of fiscal 2001 to the first month of 2002.


Posted by Charles Kuffner
Seabrook's cussin' councilwoman resigns

Margaret Kidd Duncan, a kindred spirit to Houston's semi-deposed Police Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford, has resigned from the Seabrook City Council in the wake of her profanity-laced tirade at various Seabrook police officers.

During an afternoon news conference, a teary-eyed Duncan said she wanted to publicly apologize for her actions.

"If I could turn back the events, I would. Accept my apologies, as I have no excuse," she said.

"I resigned my title as mayor pro tem, which I felt was the appropriate and gracious thing to do. And today, I resign my position on City Council. I think it's time that we move forward and deal with the issues facing this city. I'm not resigning because of public pressure. I'm used to dealing with pressure."

Duncan said she had embarrassed herself, her family, her friends and the council. Earlier this week she said she had apologized to the officers and dispatcher as well as to each council member.

That's a pretty good apology if you ask me, much better than some others that we've seen recently. Jack disagrees, but this is closer to home for him than for me. In any event, those of us in Houston can go back to ignoring places like Seabrook until the next embarrassing-small-town-politician incident erupts.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 08, 2003
Murray, Carter enter Hall of Fame

Eddie Murray and Gary Carter were elected to the baseball Hall of Fame yesterday, meaning the baseball writers' judgment matched that of Internet voters. Ryne Sandburg did get jobbed by the voters, but at least it was his first year on the ballot. He could well climb into contention in a few years, unlike the equally unlucky yet deserving , who got about half of Ryno's vote total.

I see that Scott is not impressed by Gary Carter's enshrinement. Sorry, big guy, but you're just wrong. I'll even abide by your wishes and make a non-sabermetric argument. Here's the list of all Hall of Fame catchers. Can anyone honestly say that Gary Carter wasn't better than at least some of them? I'd rank him above everyone except Bench, Campanella, Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Josh Gibson, and Carlton Fisk. Anyone who can reasonably be considered one of the top eight or ten guys ever at his position is a Hall of Famer in my book.

(Yeah, Piazza and I-Rod are better than Carter. They ain't in yet, and even counting them Carter's still Top Ten. And I'm not a Mets fan, either.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Council will pay outside firm to expunge K-Mart arrests

The Houston City Council will go ahead and pay that outside law firm to expunge the K-Mart arrests despite its previous concerns. I still think it's too expensive, but at least it'll get done.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
It's official: The hole is deeper than we first thought

Our newly married state comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander Strayhorn has announced that the state budget deficit isn't $5.1 billion as she once insisted but really will be significantly more.

Strayhorn said she will release the official estimate of what lawmakers can spend on their 2004-05 budget early next week. But she said a "spending spree" by the 2001 Legislature, combined with a sluggish state economy, will force lawmakers into cutting current state services.

"It's going to be cuts. It's going to be painful," said Strayhorn, who changed her last name from Rylander after getting remarried last week.

So what changed between 2001 and September of 2002 when she last claimed the deficit would only be $5.1 billion? My guess (since the article doesn't go into that) would be that the state economy did not grow at the 2.1% rate for 2002 that Rylander/Strayhorn said it would. In other words, one way or another, she was just plain wrong.

But whatever. Let's look at the reasons she now says we're in deeper doodoo than we first thought:

As the last session ended -- and before Perry signed the budget into law -- Strayhorn predicted lawmakers would face a $5.1 billion shortfall this year.

She said lawmakers went ahead and pushed back major payments for Medicaid and Medicare and created a new system of health insurance for teachers that will cost more than $2.2 billion every budget cycle.

"The last Legislature had a party and left this Legislature with a hangover," Strayhorn said Tuesday.

I'm not sure what "pushed back major payments for Medicaid and Medicare" means, but it sure sounds to me like the kind of accounting tricks where you charge something to one year's budget instead of another's. If so, what difference does this make? It was an obligation, and one way or another it had to be paid. I'll bet it was deferred to help balance the 2001 budget, since we're constitutionally mandated to have a balanced budget. Maybe the Lege pushed this obligation back out of craven unwillingness to make tough budget decisions in 2001, and maybe they did it out of an optimistic faith that the overall economy would get better (after all, we now had a Republican in the White House who was busy stimulating the economy via massive tax cuts) and we'd be able to grow our way out of that particular mess. In any event, we chose "pain tomorrow" over "pain today", and now the bill is due.

As for the teacher-health-insurance thing, I have no doubt that it was politically popular, just as the massive tax cuts that Dubya gave us in the 90s were popular. In fact, it's an accomplishment that Governor Goodhair touts on his web page:

"Last session, we made a needed investment in our public schools with an across-the-board $3,000 pay raise for every teacher, counselor, nurse and librarian. I would like to see that trend continued by freeing up close to $700 million in capital gains from the Permanent School Fund to be used for teacher compensation or benefits."

HB 3343

$1.2 billion in budget for school employee health insurance without impacting the Permanent School Fund; funding from available revenue.

So why is this the Lege's fault? Silly question. What was the Texas Lege in 2001 that it isn't today? Majority Democrat, of course. Never miss an opportunity to remind everyone that today's problems started when the other guy was in charge.

UPDATE: Just posted on the Chron webpage is this AP story in which Governor Goodhair joins Strayhorn in piling on that bad ol' Lege:

"I vetoed one half of a billion dollars worth of spending and, frankly, I would have vetoed more had I been able to get to it," Perry said. He said he did not remember what else he would have nixed with his line-item budget veto power.

"Had I been able to get to it"??? What, was he too busy moussing his hair to give the budget a thorough review? What the hell is that?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Yao thinks differently

Rockets center and budding cultural phenomenon Yao Ming has done a TV commercial for Apple Computers:

The ad, first shown Tuesday at the semi-annual Macworld trade show, features Yao and Verne Troyer, the actor who plays Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films.

Seated on an airliner, Yao pulls out a PowerBook notebook computer with a 12-inch screen. Troyer pulls out his own PowerBook with a 17-inch screen and begins watching the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As Yao looks on with envy, the two smile at each other.

You will be able to download this ad at www.yaoming.net shortly (according to the article, it's not operational yet). Get on the bandwagon now, folks.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 07, 2003
You did know that they tape these things, right?

As expected, Jack Cluth is all over this story about Margaret Kidd Duncan, the now-former Mayor Pro Tem of Seabrook, and her potty mouth. Duncan was pulled over by a traffic cop and accused him of singling her out for political reasons:

"You're harassing me on behalf of our white trash mayor, Robin Riley, and those white trash people on council," Duncan tells [Police Sgt. Sean] Wright.

Wright told Duncan that neither he nor Officer Charles Skinner, who pulled her over for speeding and running a stop sign, knew who she was.

"Of course, you do. I'm white," Duncan tells Wright. "There's one woman on the City Council. I'm a white woman on the City Council. You know who I am. Everyone in town does. Everyone in the Clear Lake area does."

Wright and Skinner are black.

Then, just to make sure that she really got into trouble, she went home and tried to reach the police chief, Nona Holoman, on the phone. She spoke to a dispatcher, Shannon Swetman. She gets a little upset when told that the chief is unavailable:

"Well, listen, ... hillbilly. I am the mayor pro tem of the city of Seabrook," Duncan says.

"Ma'am, I don't care who you are," Swatman responds.

"(Cursing.) I want to talk to Nona right now. Nona Holomon. Have her call me," Duncan says.

The actual audio, which we heard last night on the news and which you can hear on the Chron, is pretty priceless. Have a listen, but you might want to wait till you're not at work.

Anyway, she's stepped down as Mayor Pro Tem and has issued an apology, but Jack wants her gone:

Date: Tue, 7 Jan 2003 04:50:55 -0800 (PST)
From: "Jack Cluth"
Subject: unsolicited but sensible advice
To: mkduncan@seabrook-tx.com

If I could offer one word of advice to you, it would be this- RESIGN. Now. Your actions and your appalling verbal abuse of a Seabrook police officer have demonstrated your unworthiness to hold the position that you do. You are a disgrace to your office, a disgrace to the people of Seabrook, and worst of all, a disgrace to yourself.

Your utter disdain for those you represent, you intolerance of dissenting opinion, and your sense of entitlement have convinced this Seabrook resident that you are no longer fit for office. Seabrook deserves better than your self-righteous, inflexible, racist attitude. For your own good, resign now before the people of Seabrook recall you. It's been done before, and it can happen again. Spare yourself the embarrassment.

You tell her, dude. The real kicker is in the update to Jack's post. The rules really are different for some.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
She's back

By the way, in case there weren't enough depressing news to go around, our new Senator John Cornyn has a seat on the Judiciary Committee, which means that the renomination of Priscilla Owen to the federal bench is pretty much a given. All you fans of judicial activism should be pleased as punch.

UPDATE: And she's bringing Charles Pickering with her:

"This is not an issue like affirmative action where people of good faith can disagree," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and a member of the judiciary committee. "To renominate Judge Pickering, who has not built a distinguished record and is probably best known for intervening on behalf of a cross burner, shows that Nixon's Southern strategy is alive and well in this White House."

Among Pickering's supporters is longtime friend Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the former Senate majority leader forced to step down from his leadership position over racially insensitive remarks.

We can certainly argue over whether or not Judge Pickering is qualified, impartial, fair, whatever. Is it really smart politically for Bush to give the Democrats a Trent Lott-related talking point this soon after supposedly putting that embarrassing incident to bed?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
"The Crooked E" scores in ratings

Like it or not, the CBS movie The Crooked E was a ratings winner, both in Houston, where it was #1 in the time slot, and nationally, where it was #2.

The article quotes various critics who offered mostly mixed reviews of the movie. Personally, I'm with Ken Hoffman:

Now I'm thinking the government should un-indict Andrew Fastow and leave the other Enron executives alone.

Instead the feds should go after the producer, the director and the actors who appeared in that wretched Enron TV movie I watched Sunday night.

I hung around to the end for one reason. I wanted to see if Houston cosmetic surgeon Franklin Rose was in the closing credits. Thanks, CBS, for portraying every Houston woman as a breast augmentation junkie and the rest of us as greed monsters and hillbillies.

The only thing CBS left out was, we're all fat, too.


UPDATE: Well, if my referral log is any indicator (and by now we all know what great power the blogiverse wields over the world), we can see why "The Crooked E" was a hit:

#reqs: search term
-----: -----------
82: women of enron
43: enron movie
12: women of enron photos
9: the crooked e
7: the women of enron
7: crooked e
6: enron women
6: it's a ming thing mp3
5: crooked e miss august
5: the junction boys
5: amber kulhanek
4: miss august crooked e
4: the crooked e miss august
4: mastercard moments
4: the crooked e august
3: miss august the crooked e
3: shari daugherty
3: linda lay
3: enron indictments
3: marnie rose

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 06, 2003
Behind the walls

Here's a great interview with Mark Pitcavage, former proprietor of the Militia Watchdog and current fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League, not to mention a classmate of mine from Trinity University. Mark's been tracking hate groups for years now, and he has some excellent insights as to how and why our jails are a fertile recruiting ground for them:

IR: You note in your report that the men who murdered James Byrd Jr. in the Jasper, Texas, truck-dragging incident had developed their racial beliefs while behind bars. What is the link between incarceration and politicization?

PITCAVAGE: Exactly what dynamic occurs varies with each particular individual, but there are some universals. Prisoners have a lot of time on their hands, and as a result they are desperate for reading materials. They are desperate for stimulation. Some of them are just fine with pumping weights, but others aren't and seek out extremist publications as well as non-extremist publications. You see prisoners asking for free subscriptions, for correspondence, for people to send them materials, anything. They may not be ideological at that point, but they want something - and the material they get can lead to their politicization.

Another thing is that many prisoners want to justify or rationalize what they have done or what has happened to them. They don't want to say that they did something wrong or deserved what they got. This is true whether you are black or white. By adopting a particular ideological slant, you can rationalize that you are not a simple criminal, that you are in jail for political reasons.


IR: Is there a relationship between getting recruited into these racist groups and then committing hate crimes or other violence after leaving prison?

PITCAVAGE: My suspicion is that there is probably not a huge link, because a lot of these people just join the gangs while they are in prison, then leave them when they get out. But the fact is that some prisoners do get genuinely politicized, and on top of that prison gives them an education in violence. It's a mess. I think that is what happened in Texas [with the murderers of James Byrd Jr.], and the result was one of the most inhumane acts ever perpetrated in modern America.

I've written about the perils of a punitive approach to criminal justice before, and I firmly believe that locking up broader classes of offenders is the most expensive and least effective way of dealing with crime. Mark's interview provides a lot more ammunition in this argument.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Dan Morales' brother in extortion probe

The brother of former Attorney General Dan Morales is the target of an extortion investigation.

Quoting sources speaking on condition of anonymity, the [Dallas Morning News] said federal agents have identified music producer Michael Morales as the person who called the gubernatorial campaign of Tony Sanchez and threatened to make public an allegation that Sanchez committed a felony more than 30 years ago.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Michael Morales tried to extort between $200,000 and $300,000 from Sanchez, a Laredo banker who ultimately was defeated by Republican Gov. Rick Perry last fall.

Rick Perry's campaign received an anonymous solicitation in April for this information as well. They declined. In October, the Sanchez campaign was contacted with threats to make this info public. Apparently, the seller struck out both times.

Don't know if anything will come of this. Just another chapter in the history of Texas politics, I guess.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The Boring E

I tried, I really did, to watch The Crooked E last night, but after about 20 minutes of inane dialogue and Houston stereotyping, I gave up. I bought Tiffany a boxed set of the Harry Potter books from Amazon UK for Christmas, and a couple of hours with The Goblet of Fire was a much more productive use of my time.

I will say this, though - if the rest of the movie hammered the connection to Team Bush as relentlessly as the bit I watched did, I can certainly see why some people didn't want it to air in November, just before the election.

Meanwhile, back in reality, the Enron prosecutors are looking to build on their successes from 2002 this year. Let's all wish them the best.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 05, 2003
Chron spanks Mayor Brown

The Chron has a pretty strong editorial lambasting Mayor Brown for the latest developments in the K-Mart Kiddie Roundup. Like me, they wonder why it's so danged expensive to expunge arrest records:

The city legal department can't perform the task because it will be defending the city in the numerous lawsuits filed by those arrested. However, it is not clear why it should cost the taxpayers $484 each time a private lawyer perfunctorily asks the city's chief municipal judge to order a victim's arrest record erased.

The challenge will be for the private lawyers to make certain the records are actually expunged. A Police Department spokesman said the municipal courts were the custodian of the arrest records. A court official said the police had the records, and the police officials in charge of the records referred all questions to the police spokesman who had denied their existence. Good luck to anybody trying to get the city bureaucracy to accomplish anything.

Boy, that really fills you with confidence, doesn't it?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
You gotta fight for the right to organize

Students at various area high schools are trying to organize Gay-Straight Alliances as others across the country have, but some of them are running into resistance from principals and superintendents.

Debate over whether GSAs should be allowed to meet in schools has been percolating across the country in the past eight years and has now arrived in Harris County. Klein [High School] students say their application has been held up, and students at Cypress Falls and Jersey Village high schools in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District say their requests this year have been turned down.

Proponents point to court decisions allowing GSAs to meet under the Equal Access Act, a federal law passed to protect students' First Amendment rights. The act prohibits publicly funded schools from discriminating against the establishment of student clubs based on their points of view.


These clubs remain rare in this region, however. The Chronicle asked the 58 school districts in the eight-county metropolitan area if they have any alliances in their high schools. All but three districts responded, though information provided by the Houston Independent School District was incomplete.

The survey found only three GSAs currently meeting in 123 area high schools: Bellaire and Reagan in HISD and La Porte in La Porte ISD.

Opponents of such groups say it is inappropriate for schools to promote gay rights and fear the clubs will turn into dating services where kids will talk about sex and seek partners.

"Their behavior is risky behavior that results in disease and death," said Kathy Haigler of Houston, executive director of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative pro-family organization. "We would be against a high school allowing them to meet together. It'd be like having a smoking club or a drinking club. It's unhealthy behavior.

"Why would the schools want to promote minors having sexual discussions with each other?"

Yes, God knows, if they talk about it they might actually learn something about it. Can't have that. Of course, those of us who weren't in the Beautiful And Popular Students Alliance back in the day would have rather eaten live slugs than talked about our sex lives in front of our peers:

"I'm not interested in knowing about the other people's sex lives and not interested in having people know about mine," said Amanda Dillon, a 16-year-old junior at Jersey Village High who came out as a lesbian her freshman year.

The students, who quite reasonably feel they've been given a runaround on this issue, are prepared to sue if they don't get a fair hearing. I sure hope it doesn't come to that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
It's A Ming Thing

Music sales were down last year. The RIAA blames the Internet. I'll quote Hilary Rosen:

Blah blah the Internet yak yak those damn kids! gobble gobble back in my day we had to walk uphill through the snow to pay lots of money for scratchy records and we liked it that way yadda yadda I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too! blah blah why do they think we paid good money for those Congresscritters? blah blah...

You get the idea. Meanwhile, here in Houston, a couple of songwriters who give their stuff away have suddenly struck it rich with a silly song about Yao Ming:

It's just a hobby.

Pals Chance McClain and Kevin Ryan write funny songs about Houston athletes -- absurd, whimsical bits on anything from a third-string Texan quarterback to Astro Daryle Ward's waistline.

"We write 'em fast, record and never perform 'em again," McClain said. "After our little chuckle, we move on to the next one."

But they're not letting go of the Yao Ming song.

So these two goofballs, who've written songs about Matt Bullard, Texans' third-string quarterback Mike Quinn, and Moochie Norris' hair, wrote a ditty about Yao Ming to the tune of the soccer song Ole, sung it on a sportstalk radio show, and are now signed to a record label, with the song being performed regularly at Rockets' games. They're getting paid royalties and are getting interviewed on CBS and MTV.

McClain and Ryan's strategy of first giving their music away may be a wave of the future in the record industry, according to Dan Workman, president of Sugarhill Recording Studios in Houston.

"There is a big paradigm shift in the music business," Workman said.

Traditionally, musicians first perform their songs live and try to reach an increasingly large number of people to get the attention of a record company.

However, the music world realizes it has to change in part because of the Internet which makes it so easy to download music.

McClain and Ryan did not set out to make money from their music. Nevertheless, Workman is impressed by their accomplishment, which was to "go about things totally backwards, cultivate a market by giving it away, which created a huge buzz."

"They didn't try to carefully control the entry of their product," Workman noted.

In comparison, many musicians are stingy with their artistic property and extremely protective of their work, and Workman will sometimes tell them, "If you're not famous, chances are they're not going to steal from you anyway."

Giving one's product away to create consumer interest is a long-standing business marketing practice.

In the music business, Workman said, other artists are trying something similar: They offer their music free online and hope to make money by charging for live performances.

The troubled music industry should welcome new approaches, Workman said.

Indeed. Are you listening, Hilary Rosen?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 04, 2003
"Boondocks" battle continues

People are still writing letters to the Chron to express their views on the all-important Boondocks issue. Today we hear from the Silent Majority and a fan of Geech, the comic that Boondocks replaced, who was shocked to discover that Chron columnist Leon Hale is "some kind of peacenik" that he doesn't understand. Tune in tomorrow to see if the fabric of our society continues to be rended by Aaron McGruder and his ilk.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 03, 2003
The color line in other sports

Want to win a bar bet some day? Ask someone to identify the following people: Earl Lloyd, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, and Willie O'Ree. Give up? They are, respectively, the first black players in the NBA, NFL, and NHL.

The NBA integrated in 1950-51. While Lloyd was the first black man to play in a game, Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted (by the Celtics), and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton was the first to sign a contract (with the Knicks). The impetus for NBA integration was the Harlem Globetrotters, who beat the National Basketball League/Basketball Association of America champion Minneapolis Lakers two games out of three in 1948 and 1949. Many innovations in dribbling and passing can be traced to the Globetrotters as well.

(I saw the Globetrotters live as a kid a couple of times. They were tons of fun to watch. I can totally relate to this quote from that ESPN article:

Said longtime Globetrotter "Sweet Lou" Dunbar: "Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal were so popular because they were on TV. We'd be on ABC Wide World of Sports, although you had to endure a little bowling first."

I happily endured bowling any number of times in the 70s to catch a few minutes of the Trotters.)

An interesting commentary on integration and competitive advantage can be found on this page, which has photos of all of the Celtics' NBA championship teams from the 1950s on. Start at the top and count the number of black players on the team each year for the 11 seasons that Bill Russell was their center. Equally interesting to contemplate is that the recent influx of players from Europe and Asia likely means that NBA champions of the near future (such as, perhaps, the Sacramento Kings or Dallas Mavericks) will feature more non-black faces than champs of the near past. The circle we've come is so full we're on our second or third lap.

The NFL has a longer history of integration, as the precursor leagues of the early 20th century featured black players. The NFL was integrated when it was founded in 1922, but it adopted a no-blacks policy in 1933. That lasted until 1946, when the league faced competition from another league, the All-American Football Conference, which was integrated. The AAFC folded after four seasons, partly because they had one team, the Cleveland Browns, that thoroughly dominated the rest (the Browns won all four AAFC championships, going 52-4-3 overall). Absorbed into the NFL in 1950, the Browns served notice of their abilities right away, defeating the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles 35-10 in their first game, on their way to winning the Eastern Conference for six straight years.

The NHL has been a mostly white league for its entire existence. Though they never had an official color line, they also never had a black player until O'Ree debuted in 1958. Unlike the other pioneers, O'Ree did not lead a wave of black athletes into his league. The NHL reverted to being all white from O'Ree's departure in 1961 until 1978.

For what it's worth, when Grant Fuhr came up in the 80s, the explanation I always heard about hockey's whiteness was that the vast majority of players came from Canada, which presumably had a lower proportion of blacks in its population. Regardless, the NHL is more American and international now, and while Willie O'Ree sees more blacks and Hispanics making it in pro hockey, it wouldn't surprise me to see players from Asia make an impact some day.

As for baseball, I just want to mention that the first black player in the major leagues was Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker, who played with Toledo in the American Association in 1883. His brother Welday also played a few games with Toledo that year, but the infamous color line in baseball was erected after that season. Eighty-eight years later (twenty-four years after Jackie Robinson broke in), the Pittsburgh Pirates played a game in which all nine of their starters were black. The Pirates were one of the most integrated teams in the 1970s. They also won two World Series titles and four other divisional titles from 1970-1979.

(Though the idea for this post was my own, I took some inspiration and information from Tony Pierce.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Baseball, the international game

A bunch of interesting baseball articles out there right now. We'll start with Dr. Manhattan's look at how the breaking of the racial barrier in baseball was not just the correction of a grievous moral failing, but also an opportunity for smart franchises to gain a competitive advantage:

All this was, or should have been, understood at the time by those whose primary priority was to win. While Branch Rickey certainly deserves tremendous moral credit for providing the means for Jackie Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues, he was just as undoubtedly interested in the competitive advantage his team would derive. When the Dodgers combined black players such as Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcome and Junior Gilliam with white players like Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo, the result was a team that won six pennants in Robinson’s ten seasons. As Adam Smith might have predicted, the Dodgers’ self-interest was a moral force.

The National League generally followed the Dodgers’ example to a greater extent than the American League did, with the expected result: according to Bill James’ Win Shares method, there were 11 National League players in 1963 that were better than any American League player that year. (The contrast is especially stark because Mickey Mantle was injured for most of that season, but the general point remains true.). Probably not coincidentally, the National League dominated the All-Star Game in that era.

Dr. Manhattan goes on to tie the slothfulness of the Red Sox and the Yankees in scouting and signing black and Latino players to their respective woes in the post-Jackie Robinson era (it took awhile for the Yankees to feel this effect, but feel it they did from 1965-1975). David Pinto and Eric McErlain also have some thoughts on this. McErlain makes the following point:

Simply put, the Yankees lead in acquiring talent over the rest of the Major Leagues was so great, that their opponents in the National League had little choice but to stock their rosters with talented African-Americans. In the end, they really had no other option if they wanted to close the yawning talent gap with the most successful franchise in baseball history.

Once the Yankees fell out of contention for that decade-long stretch, the American League teams that were the most successful were the Orioles (who featured Paul Blair, Frank Robinson, and Mike Cuellar) and the Oakland A's (with Vida Blue, Bert Campanaris, and of course a fellow named Reggie). The Yankees have learned their lesson with a vengeance, pursuing Japanese and Latino players with all the usual Steinbrennerian vigor and money. They may get Irabued on occasion, but signing an Alfonso Soriano more than makes up for it.

In a way, with the lack of a worldwide draft, getting a leg up in finding talent today is similar to how it was back in the days of DiMaggio and Mantle. Joe DiMaggio was purchased from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, which served as a nearly-major league for people on the wrong coast in the pre-TV days. He was already a hot commodity thanks to a record-breaking hitting streak (62 games). Mickey Mantle was signed by a scout who saw him play a game in high school in tiny Commerce, Oklahoma. It's safe to say that no one had ever heard of him at the time of his signing. As it is now, a combination of buying established stars from other leagues and getting lucky with out-of-nowhere phenoms is a pretty good road map to success.

Where will the next untapped talent source be? According to David Pinto, it could be Malaysia. You can bet that the Yankees will monitor this closely.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Sylvia and Gabriel

Here's a nice article about newly elected County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the first Latino and the first woman to serve on this court. As noted, this makes her one of the more powerful Hispanic politicians in the country.

Garcia has her work cut out for her in the insular old-boys club that the Court is, as Greg Wythe notes. She's taking over her seat from a man who'd been greatly slowed by Parkinson's disease and who apparently left things in some disarray, so I wouldn't expect her to get much of a honeymoon. Still, she's already overcome some odds to win this election in the way of well-organized opposition and a district that is not particularly favorable to her demographically (though it is trending that way).

Meanwhile, in Houston, there's already a lot of jockeying going on for the city election that will occur in November. The mayor's race already has a crowded field, while a number of term-limited politicians are looking around for the next office to run for. One person who'll likely be in the same place is my City Council member, Gabriel Vasquez. Vasquez can run for his office one more time. I'm not sure what he'll do next, but I am sure he'll do something.

Vasquez lives a couple of blocks away from me. We've had a few encounters with him, all of which have been positive. The city has scheduled a major repaving of the main road into our neighborhood for later this year, which will cause all kinds of pain. Vasquez has held a couple of question-and-answer sessions for residents regarding this. The one I attended was at 6 PM at a school. Vasquez, who'd clearly come straight from work, had brought members of the city's planning department as well as representitives from TxDOT. They answered questions for over an hour.

More recently, we had a trash pickup problem. Tiffany called Vasquez's office, and the problem was solved in a few days. You better believe that even if I didn't already like this guy, he'd have my vote for as long as he wants it.

I bring all this up because rumor has it that Kay Bailey Hutchison wants to retire from the Senate and run for Governor in 2006. Rick Perry will presumably run for KBH's vacant seat. Who would run against Governor Goodhair after his impressive showing in 2002? One person who I hope will consider it when and if it happens is Sylvia Garcia. If she can succeed as a Commissioner, she'll have a natural base of support to build on, and I think she'd make a race of it.

As for Vasquez, I'm not sure what his career path should be. I'd love to see him run for Mayor, but the timing is not favorable to him. What might work would be if the 2003 race is fractious and the new mayor has a rough go of it, he could make a successful challenge in 2005. Congress is not an option unless he moves or Sheila Jackson Lee gets out of the picture.

Whatever happens, keep an eye on these two. You'll be hearing more from them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 02, 2003
Boondocks update

The Chron devotes half its lettercol today to Boondocks-related mail. Six letters, evenly divided among supporters and naysayers. This letter, responding to a prior complaint, is my favorite:

Michael Watkins (Dec. 28 Viewpoints letter, "New comics are offensive") believes that The Boondocks "does not belong on the comics pages of a family newspaper" because it attacks Southern Republicans. Did he make the same complaint over Mallard Fillmore, which is just as "mean-spirited" in its attacks on liberals?

Why do conservatives, with their supposed support of American liberty and values, always want to quash any expression of opinion they disagree with? How about, if you don't like a column or a cartoon, just don't read it? Or are your beliefs so fragile that they cannot survive any dissent?

I don't care for such broad generalizations, but I certainly agree with his advice. This writer is from The Woodlands, while two of the dissenters were from Houston, thus neatly demolishing my thesis that it's only the urbanites that get it. And I'm glad to see it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
"The Crooked E" makes its debut

The Crooked E, a "tell all" TV movie about Enron (see here and here) finally makes it to the small screen on Sunday. Chron TV critic Mike McDaniel is not impressed.

An exceptional scandal cries out for exceptional storytelling. CBS' The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron is not it.

Those who make time for the movie (8-10 p.m. Sunday, Channel 11) have every reason to expect either an intense docudrama or a film with unbounded sarcasm or unfettered satire. This is neither.

Instead, we get something in between -- a mix of fact and fiction so obliquely depicted as the same that to categorize the movie as satire or docudrama takes a bit of research or an act of faith or both.

McDaniel gave the movie a C+. Well, The Sopranos is done for the year, Angel is still in reruns, and there won't be any football, so you may as well tune in. It could be worth a giggle or two. There's also apparently a cheesecake and beefcake factor to consider:

It inaccurately depicts a company filled with people thriving on greed at any cost. It shows a permissive culture that made room in its ranks for busty women who worked at gentlemen's clubs. It shows, at film's end, the women and men of Playboy and Playgirl.

Brian Cruver, the author of this little Mary Sue story, says that this aspect was one of many that got Hollywooded by the screenwriter and director:

As for the buxom babes, such as the movie's "Miss August," "People did joke about different nicknames for different months," Cruver says. One executive "had his hottie board, as he called it. But was every woman at Enron from a strip club? No, they definitely played that up."

I'm sure Erica will be relieved to hear that. One last bit of artistic license, though, is spot on:

Not able, for legal reasons, to use the real crooked E or its likeness, the movie makes use of an E with an extended middle bar -- a middle-finger metaphor that sums up the company's attitude and its near-term future.


Posted by Charles Kuffner
Virginia apologizes

The University of Virginia has offered an official apology to West Virginia for jokes that the UVa pep band made at the Continental Tire Bowl.

This incident has sparked some discussion on the Rice MOB mailing list. We've been in the position that the Virginia band is in now, though we don't put ourselves there nearly as often as they do. One member of the band is from West Virginia and was at the 1985 game where the UVa band made similar jokes. He sees a distinction between making fun of people for their actions and making fun of peoplee for their heritage, as the former is a choice and the latter is not. Another member feels that this is all much ado about nothing, and that taking offense over such a trifle is itself a tad bit offensive.

It's entirely possible, as a third person suggests, that the apology offered by the UVa president is insincere, in the sense that he personally doesn't care who was or wasn't offended by this halftime show but recognizes that it costs him nothing to give the West Virginia governor what he wants. The differences between this kind of insincere apology and the ones offered by Trent Lott and why they work while Lott's didn't are left as an exercise for the reader.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
January 01, 2003
Psychics get it wrong again

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has published its annual lookback on how tabloid psychics did in predicting the just-ended year. As has always been the case, the psychics went 0 for 2002. Here's something I didn't know:

[M]ost of the tabloids that still publish forecasts have now resorted to using "psychics" who may not even exist. They don't show up on Internet search engines. That turns out to be true for the Sun and Weekly World News. The best known tabloid, the National Enquirer, gave up its tradition of publishing beginning-of-the-year psychic predictions a few years ago.

Things have sure gone to hell since Jeane Dixon died, haven't they? Better luck this year, guys.

UPDATE: Nice to know that at least one well known "psychic" is still willing to publish actual predictions. Not exactly Elvis and Princess Di stuff here, but we'll take what we can get.

Posted by Charles Kuffner
The one-time charges of sin

They say that the adult entertainment industry is essentially recession-proof. They say that adult-oriented web sites are the only ones making money. Well, tell it to Rick's Cabaret International, which is posting a $2.3 million loss for the year after taking a $2.5 million one-time goodwill charge.

The Houston-based operator of adult nightclubs and Web sites also reported lower revenues for the year as it continues to cut back on its unprofitable Internet activities in favor of running Internet auctions. It's shifting because the auction business generates higher margins even though it has lower sales.

Rick's owns seven adult-related auction Web sites and two others it classifies as online entertainment. The company is focusing heavily on the auction sites because they require low overhead, said Allan Priaulx, who manages Rick's investor relations.

For example, on one of its sites, porn stars sell items of clothing they've used in their performances, props from their films and other personal items. The seller of the goods delivers the products.

Now don't you wish you'd known about that before you'd done all your Christmas shopping?

Posted by Charles Kuffner
Council demurs on hiring outside law firm

Deciding that $484 per case is a bit much for erasing the arrest record for those caught in the K-Mart Kiddie Roundup, the City Council has decided to wait and consider other options.

Councilman Gordon Quan said he did not think the city needed to hire lawyers to handle such cases, saying it could be done more efficiently.

"Two attorneys and a legal assistant who knows how to use a word processor can erase these records. It's pretty perfunctory," Quan said.


Posted by Charles Kuffner
One year down

Happy New Year, everyone! With the start of 2003 comes the first anniversary of this blog, a distinction I share with Matthew Yglesias. I managed (just barely) to finish importing and publishing all of my old Blogspot archives before the new year began. You can now find all 1400+ of my posts right here. I plan on adding a Search button soon.

I wound up just north of 6500 visits for December, making it easily my best month ever, thanks in part to Atrios, who also had a pretty good December.

Thanks again to everyone for reading. I hope to make this year even better.

Posted by Charles Kuffner