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April 3rd, 2016:

Weekend link dump for April 3

“Why has marriage declined in America? Here’s my dorm room bull theory: it’s because men are pigs.”

You kids today don’t know how good you’ve got it. In my day, we didn’t have illustrations by XKCD artist Randall Munroe in our science textbooks.

Honestly, the real crime was renting Freddie Got Fingered in the first place.

“A class action lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco contends that movies using tobacco imagery should get at least an R rating.”

They sure don’t make Easter egg hunts like they used to.

You fans of Orphan Black, which should be all of you, you’re going to get more this season.

“Descendants of a bison herd captured and sent to Canada more than a century ago will be relocated to a Montana Native American reservation next month, in what tribal leaders bill as a homecoming for a species emblematic of their traditions.”

“In fact, Obama is the first president since polls existed to have never gone above 25 percent approval from the other side, not even in the honeymoon glow of the first days of his presidency. He could defeat ISIS, make America secure and prosperous, save a baby from a burning building, then cure cancer and invent a pill that would let you eat all the ice cream you want without gaining any weight, and no more than a handful of Republicans would ever say they think he’s doing a good job. Which means that if his ratings have gone up, it’s because he’s doing better among everyone who isn’t a Republican.”

“Every time we hear a young progressive kinda sorta suggest that Hillary can’t be trusted, we want to strangle someone. It’s the ultimate proof of how the right wing’s big lie about the Clintons has successfully poisoned not just the electorate in general, but even the progressive movement itself.”

“And that is why I whisper into the minds of all who will heed: Cthulhu endorses Donald Trump. Who better to usher in a new and monstrous age of ultimate chaos?”

Or was that a fake? You decide.

“As is always the case, to understand why Apple has become so fanatical about customer privacy over the past five years that they’re taking on the US government, you need to follow the money.”

“Big companies which own big properties need to deal with the fact that a great character has his or her breaking point; that you can devalue a precious commodity by letting this producer do one version of it, another writer do that version of it, another director do yet another version of it, etc. The more that is changeable about a character, the less he or she is really about. And the more different interpretations you have out there, the greater the chance that some will damage the affection that audiences have for the character or that the variance will water it down to the point where it’s not very special at all.”

“Warner Bros will make the same amount of money whether you hatewatch or not, so long as you watch, one way or another, and you will. Nerds always watch.”

RIP, Patty Duke, Oscar-winning actor best known for “The Miracle Worker”.

“Perhaps, then, the only real alternative to GOP derangement on the question of holding hearings for Garland is to unspool a little corresponding derangement on the left. But how, you might ask, how can you shame the shameless? How can you call out those in government seeking to take down government? If an Escher staircase falls in the woods, what can a Democrat do? A modest proposal follows.”

“Many relatives and friends providing financial support or care to people with dementia have dipped into their retirement savings, cut back on spending and sold assets to pay for expenses tied to the disease, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Alzheimer’s Association. About one in five go hungry because they don’t have enough money.”

An open letter from Wonder Woman to Batman regarding the events of Batman v Superman.

Our long national cookie trademark nightmare is finally over.

Calling all Mythbuster-wannabes! This is your moment.

“The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness.”

“Rennie Gibbs in Mississippi, Purvi Patel in Indiana, Amanda Kimbrough in Alabama, Nina Buckhalter in Mississippi (again), Melissa Ann Rowland in Utah, Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana, and others. All of these mothers are being prosecuted because their children were either stillborn or died shortly after birth. All charged under laws protecting the health of the fetus (most charged with ingesting drugs or poison to intentionally cause the death of the fetus). It took me longer to type this paragraph than it did to google the articles.”

There are enough old people watching baseball. We need some younger fans.”

What are the chances that Hillary could carry Texas in November?

According to the bookies, not as bad as you might think.

Speculating that Texas will go blue in the near future has a certain trollish quality. In fact, it’s also been a downright spectacular way to sound like you don’t know much about the Texas electorate in years past. Wendy Davis’s sound defeat in the 2014 gubernatorial election proved that the Texas Democratic Party isn’t ready to compete, and bringing the prospect of a blue state up at all seems almost futile. If you’re confident that Texas is going to stay a deep shade of red in 2016 and for years into the future, well, recent history hasn’t offered much evidence to the contrary.

But for the first time, you can actually put your money where your mouth is in the debate. PaddyPower, the Irish gambling site, recently released odds for five different swing states, and users can bet on which party’s candidate will win the state’s electoral votes in the general election. The list includes four familiar states to poll-watchers (North Carolina, Iowa, Florida, Ohio), and one that bookies tend to stay far away from: Texas.

To be certain, the odds that Texas goes blue in November aren’t good. At 14/1, they’re slightly better than the odds the site offers for the Astros (15/1) or Rangers (16/1) winning the World Series. They’re all in the game, but none of them are particularly likely propositions (even if Hillary Clinton selects Dallas Keuchel as her running mate). And the other side of the bet—putting your money down that Texas stays red in November—is even more intense, where gamblers will have to put down $100 to make a dollar.

That discrepancy relates to the real goal of betting sites. They don’t want to predict with scientific precision the likelihood of a given event coming to pass (stick with Nate Silver for that), but rather find a balance that gets a roughly equal amount of action on both sides of a bet, and that will help them avoid losing a fortune in the face of an unpredictable situation. So they’re conservative on both sides here—they need one person to see Texas going for the GOP in November as enough of a sure thing that they’ll put down $100 to win a dollar for every seven people who think that it’s worth a buck to bet that Texas could be a surprise pick to go blue.

But the mere fact that a gambling site sees the chances of a blue Texas as something worth offering odds on is surprising.

[…]

All of this is to say that the odds right now favor a November election that puts Hillary Clinton and Julián Castro up against Donald Trump and John Kasich. Clinton is well-liked in Texas—she received nearly a million votes in the primary—and Castro is a native son who left his tenure as the leader of San Antonio to join Obama’s cabinet, which suggests that he’d add a fair bit of popular support to the ticket. Trump, on the other hand, is not particularly beloved by Texas Republicans. Despite the fact that nearly twice as many people voted in the GOP primary as voted in the Democratic primary, Clinton pulled nearly 200,000 more actual votes than Trump did in the state on Super Tuesday.

When you factor all of that together, it doesn’t necessarily add up to “Hillary Clinton is going to win Texas in November,” of course. But we’re just talking about the odds here, and 14/1 doesn’t sound so crazy with all of that in mind.

You can go here to put your money down on this proposition, if you’re so inclined. It feels a tad bit optimistic to me, and I’m a pretty optimistic guy, but hey, it’s only money.

Lawsuits and low oil prices

Both are threatening the next Texas budget.

BagOfMoney

Last week, lawyers for the state of Texas got the latest in a string of bad legal news.

A lawsuit challenging the state’s foster care system as inhumane appeared to gain steam when an appeals court rejected the state’s request to stop the appointment of two “special masters” to recommend reforms.

The overhauls that have been discussed so far would be pricey to implement — as much as $100 million per year, according to rough estimates from the state comptroller’s office. But they actually are on the lower end of all the extraordinary legal expenses the state is facing at a time when stubbornly low oil prices are simultaneously threatening to blunt its coffers.

Three other lawsuits against the state — two of them pending before the Texas Supreme Court, with rulings expected soon — could cost the state billions if it ends up on the losing side. Experts say the state may have the cash to cover one of them in a single budget cycle, but probably not any more than that — especially if low oil prices persist, dampening the state’s stream of tax revenue. That could mean budget cuts when lawmakers meet for the 2017 session, at least if the Republican-dominated Legislature remains steadfast in its refusal to tap the state’s nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund.

Two of those three lawsuits, both tax cases, could cost the state a combined $10.4 billion in tax refunds and up to $2 billion in collections per year beyond that, according to the comptroller’s office, which is closely monitoring them.

Potential cost estimates do not exist for the last case — a high-profile challenge to the state’s public education funding system — but past school finance rulings have cost the state billions.

Such sums would handily eclipse the state’s $4.2 billion projected surplus, which could itself dwindle if oil prices remain low and further blunt tax collections. (Comptroller Glenn Hegar has already lowered projections once.)

“Any of those by themselves are a huge hit,” said Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “But if you start losing two or three of those issues then, yeah, it’s much more questionable that the state’s general revenue reserves are sufficient to cover that.”

See here and here for some background. There’s not much that can be done about the price of oil, though after years of living it up, and of politicians claiming credit for all that robustness, I doubt there’s much sympathy out there for us. The rest are the result of policy and/or legislative decisions, some of which may well bite us in the bottom line. I’m rooting for the Supreme Court to stick it hard to the Lege on school finance, but the other cases I’d rather see the state win. As much political hay as there is to be made in a chaotic situation, there’s nothing good from a public policy perspective on those cases, and I have little faith the Lege would do a good job cleaning up the mess. But on school finance, all bets ought to be off. We’ll see how it goes.

We haven’t heard the last of TMF

He’ll be back.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer says he laments nothing about a failed gambit for the state Senate that will end his 16-year stint with the Texas Legislature.

The boisterous San Antonio Democrat, however, is leaving office at the end of the year with a message: Don’t write off his political career just yet.

“Last time I checked this wasn’t a retirement party,” Martinez Fischer, 45, said in an interview. “I don’t want anybody to misconstrue my words to think this is my political obituary.”

[…]

Experts say they expect to see Martinez Fischer back in action and point to possible scenarios for another run at a high-profile public office, potentially Bexar County Commissioners Court or U.S. Congress. But, they note, the right opportunity would have to present itself, requiring in most cases for an incumbent to move on.

Democratic consultant Christian Archer said Martinez Fischer’s immediate choices appear limited.

Two seats on the Commissioners Court could present options, he said: Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo, 80, is up for re-election in 2018 and hasn’t said what he plans to do. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, 74, also hasn’t committed to another term.

Archer said running for either spot on the Commissioners Court would make perfect sense for Martinez Fischer.

“It keeps you home in San Antonio. It also comes with real check. And there’s a lot of power,” he said. “I would think that Trey would have to look at running for county commissioner or county judge if it were available.”

But Archer noted that Elizondo and Wolff are powerful and entrenched incumbents and would have to decide against running to make it feasible for Martinez Fischer.

Another scenario political observers are floating involves Martinez Fischer running to succeed U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, if he were tapped for a role in a potential Hillary Clinton White House or if he makes a run for another office in the near future.

There are some obvious parallels to Adrian Garcia here, as TMF lost a bruising primary against an incumbent after being in what was essentially another primary, one that was just as bruising, last year. The first order of business is to patch up damaged relationships and get everyone to remember why they liked him in the first place, and the best way to do that is to go all out to help Democrats win up and down the ballot this year. In Bexar County, that means working to retake HDs 117 and 118, and the Dems there have a Sheriff’s office to win as well. His old colleague Pete Gallego could use some help winning back CD23 as well. Do those things, with enthusiasm and visibility, and the potential possibilities become more possible. Like Garcia, TMF is a young man, so he could take a cycle or two off if he wants or needs to, and still be in good shape. We will miss having TMF in the Lege, but I feel confident that he has more good to do, and I look forward to supporting him in that again when the time is right.

Reimagining public transportation is hard work

Noted for the record.

Four years ago, Helsinki launched an innovative bus service as part of a long-term plan to make cars irrelevant.

It was called Kutsuplus—Finnish for “call plus.” And it was one of the world’s first attempts to reinvent carpooling for the algorithm age.

The service matched passengers who were headed roughly in the same direction with a minibus driver, allowing them to share a ride that cost more than a regular city bus but less than a taxi. It was a bit like anUber for buses—or more accurately, likeUberPool—except that Kutsuplus was running for nearly two years by the time Uber got into the ride-sharing side of its business.

Operated by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, Kutsuplus was the best-known component of Helsinki’s and Finland’s intelligent traffic system. Ridership grew steadily. But late last year, Helsinki authorities shut down Kutsuplus, deeming its cost to taxpayers too high. The blue minibuses picked up their last passengers on December 31.

[…]

For passengers, the system was fairly straightforward. You would log onto a website, top up your account, select the starting and ending points for your journey, and walk to the closest bus stop to wait for the pick up. The average fare in 2014 was around €5—about US$5.50. By comparison, a single ride by bus or metro is €3. Taxi fares start at €6 and can go much higher depending on the distance traveled.

The project had two main targets: assessing technological feasibility and user acceptance. Judged on these goals, it was a success.

“The research proposal tackled a number of different problems and we were able to solve them to a surprising degree,” says Sampo Hietanen, who until recently worked at ITS Finland, a nonprofit that promotes intelligent transport systems. “We made some wild promises, such as predicting arrival times. That’s not really something you can control yourself, because congestion and other circumstances affect it too.”

Riders took to it. The growth rates matched what the researchers had projected: Eventually the system had 21,000 registered users.

[…]

Two things ultimately killed Kutsuplus. First was the need for massive scale to make the economics of ride-sharing really work. Second was the significant public cost of doing that.

The transport authority had big expansion plans for Kutsuplus. From the original 15 buses, the fleet was to grow to 45 vehicles in 2016, 100 vehicles in 2017, and later into the thousands.

Achieving scale with this model is crucial in order to optimize trips across an entire fleet. With a small number of buses and users, it’s more difficult to match up passengers who are going in the same direction around the same time. This explains why Kutsuplus buses were frequently close to empty. The two times my family and I used Kutsuplus, we had the bus to ourselves.

The math looks different if you add lots of riders and lots of buses. Scaling up to 100 vehicles would have increased the efficiency of Kutsuplus threefold, Rissanen says. Hietanen agrees. “There’s a huge difference between mass transit that works in some areas some of the time, and mass transit that works everywhere all the time,” he says.

Scale could not come without funding, however—and in an austere budget environment, that was a problem. Although the €3 million it cost to run Kutsuplus was less than 1 percent of the Transport Authority’s budget, the service was heavily subsidized. The €17 per-trip cost to taxpayers proved controversial.

Rather than investing many millions more into Kutsuplus to bring it to scale, city officials backed away. They let the pilot come to an end. Rissanen wasn’t happy with the decision.

“The minibuses were meant for high-volume usage,” Rissanen says. But the politicians “got scared and didn’t want to invest in it in an economic downturn.”

See here and here for some background on the Kutsuplus service. Thomas highlighted this story in a comment on my post about driverless cars and the future of mass transit, in Houston and elsewhere. Kutsuplus is an awful lot like what Tory Gattis had hypothesized, except that these vehicles still had human drivers. Given the economic factors cited, it may well be that taking those human drivers and their salaries out of the equation would have made this viable, but we’ll have to wait awhile to know that for sure. (Although there are some services like this in other cities, including New York and Washington, DC, so perhaps we’ll have a better idea sooner than that.) A couple of points to note here: One is that the reason this system came about is because Helsinki’s existing mass transit system has a key flaw: its buses run mainly north-south, so taking east-west trips are hard to do. Two, despite the initial success of the Kutsuplus, there’s no evidence to suggest it caused any reduction in driving. To be sure, it may not have lasted long enough for an effect to be seen, and as we know from Christof Spieler, it’s not about getting people who drive now to stop and change what they’re doing. It may be this was a glimpse of our future that was snuffed out before it had a real chance to succeed, and it may be that this was another pie-in-the-sky vision from people who will support any form of transit except the ones we have now.