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April 17th, 2016:

Weekend link dump for April 17

That Amazon Galaxy Quest project will sadly not be happening in part due to the death of Alan Rickman.

A richly deserved honor for Sonia Manzano.

I do love a good Joel Kotkin takedown, yes I do.

What’s at stake in Texas’ lawsuit against the Obama immigration order, which will be heard by the Supreme Court tomorrow.

“A brown goat with a white marking that bears a striking resemblance to one of NASCAR’s most famous car numbers will have a permanent home at Texas Motor Speedway.”

“What might it mean to have five justices on the Supreme Court who were appointed by Democratic presidents?”

Begun, your training has.

“Born in 1982, my childhood was filled with more biblical prophecy than Sesame Street good times. The urgency of avoiding hell surpassed any trivial education the world had to offer. After all, if you’re staring down the barrel of eternal torment, who has the time for algebra?”

Know your Panama Papers people.

“How many trans people have been arrested for sex acts in bathrooms? As best as we can tell, zero. How many GOP politicians? At least three.”

“Since 1977, there have been 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 185 arsons, and thousands more incidents of criminal behavior directed at abortion providers, according to NAF’s press release.”

Same sex couples do just fine as parents.

What Martin Longman says.

My dog can just about climb a tree when he’s chasing squirrels, so I can totally believe that a Great Dane could tree himself if he got a good running start.

Now that hurts.

Good for you, Stan Van Gundy.

Those ubiquitous anti-microbial soaps aren’t such a good idea.

“There is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship.”

Nobody likes Ted Cruz, no matter what his wife may say.

“This is the worst argument about the national debt you’ll ever find”.

“The NCAA constantly punishes athletic departments that show a lack of institutional control over sports programs and athletes. So it would seem that the NCAA should really be checking out head coach Art Briles and the Baylor football program, because if anything speaks of an institutional lack of control over an athletic program, it’s got to be a football program thats seems to implicitly condone criminal sexual misconduct.”

Turner announces his budget

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Utilizing a shared sacrifice approach, Mayor Sylvester Turner today unveiled a proposed Fiscal Year 2017 General Fund budget that eliminates a projected $160 million shortfall that was the result of cost increases, voter imposed revenue limitations, a broken appraisal system and the economic downturn. The budget totals $2.3 billion, which is about $82 million less in spending than the current FY2016 appropriation. The decrease was accomplished while still meeting $60 million of contractual and mandated cost increases the City is forced to cover in FY2017. The mayor is unveiling his preliminary budget plan more than a month ahead of the normal schedule and has requested accelerated City Council approval in an effort to send a positive message regarding City budget management.

“This was the largest fiscal challenge the City has faced since before the Great Recession,” said Mayor Turner. “By bringing all parties to the table to engage in shared sacrifice, we have closed the budget gap and started addressing the long-standing structural imbalance between available revenues and spending. Each City department, the employee unions, the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, City Council and various other parties have worked together to identify cost savings and efficiencies while preserving a healthy fund balance, minimizing employee layoffs and maintaining the City services our residents rely on and deserve.”

Due to an arrangement negotiated by the mayor, the City’s tax increment reinvestment zones will send $19.6 million back to the City to help cover increased operating costs citywide. The rest of the budget gap was closed utilizing a combination of savings from debt restructuring, spending reductions, revenue from anticipated land sales and a small contribution from the City’s fund balance. Even with this fund balance contribution, the City’s savings account will remain well above the threshold necessary to satisfy the credit rating agencies.

The budget includes the elimination of 54 vacant positions and 30 to 40 layoffs, most of which the mayor hopes to accomplish through attrition. There are no significant reductions to park and library operations, which have been hit hard in the past and there will be no layoffs of police officers or fire fighters. There is funding included for an additional police cadet class, for a total of five classes and the mayor continues to look for ways to streamline operations to get more officers back on the street.

The budget was balanced using both recurring and non-recurring initiatives. If non-recurring items had been taken off the table, there would have been drastic cuts in City services and another 1,235 City employees would have lost their jobs.

The recurring initiatives mark the start of institutionalizing a new way of running City government. The elimination of redundancies and increased efficiency in operations has generated $36.2 million in recurring annual savings. In addition, the TIRZs will continue to contribute at least $19.6 million in subsequent years. Yet to come is a new approach for the City’s pension liabilities. Productive discussions are underway with stakeholders and I am committed to having an agreement ready to take to the legislature by the end of this year.

“I strongly urge City Council to resist the urge to tinker with this budget,” said Turner. “Even one small change will upset the delicate balance we’ve achieved as a result of shared sacrifice and put the City at risk for a credit rating downgrade. This plan prepares us for the additional fiscal challenges anticipated in FY18 while also improving public safety, increasing employment opportunities and meeting the critical needs of the less fortunate in our city.”

City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 25, 2016, nearly a month ahead of last year. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2016.

Details are here, and the Chron story on the budget is here. I confess, I’ve only scanned the details so far – sorry, but it was a long week, and it’s been a busy weekend. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the details between now and May 25. Have a look for yourself and feel free to tell us what you think.

UberACCESS debuts in Houston

Good to see.

Uber

A partnership that has helped disabled people connect with a popular ride service launched in Houston at midnight.

Uber officials confirmed UberACCESS, which offers wheelchair-accessible rides for the same price as UberX, began service Wednesday. Like all Uber service, it is available via smartphone app, 24 hours a day.

“I’m thrilled to see Uber applying the same creative ingenuity to provide more consumer choices and opportunities for Houstonians with accessibility needs,” former California Congressman Tony Coelho, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said in a statement. “UberACCESS will empower people requiring wheelchair accessible vehicles to get a ride when they need one by simply pressing a button.”

The service fulfills a goal of the city’s transportation accessibility task force that helped write regulations related to allowing Uber to operate legally in Houston. As part of its suggestions, the task force allowed taxi companies and app-based companies a choice of having a set number of vehicles that were wheelchair accessible or provide service to disabled residents based on how quickly they could provide a ride.

Toby Cole, who led the accessibility committee, said the goal of both options is improved quality of service for those who are blind, wheelchair-dependent or otherwise in need of assistance.

“I am hopeful,” Cole said of the rules leading to better service. “We tried to close down as many loopholes as possible.”

[…]

In other markets where UberACCESS has debuted, the company has partnered with other firms capable of providing rides to wheelchair-bound riders. Company officials would not disclose the name of the Houston area partner.

See here for the background. The story emphasizes that the regulations for UberACCESS were agreed to by Uber and the cab companies, in addition to the disability activists. One hopes that means this will work well for everyone, and will provide a decent, cost-effective option for a greater population. If it does work as hoped, then it ought to attract the attention of Metro, since like many other transit agencies around the country it has had to deal with an increasing budget for its MetroLift service, and needs to seek less expensive alternatives to provide that.

Several U.S. transit systems looking to defray costs of providing services for the disabled are weighing partnerships with Uber and Lyft, unsettling some advocates who note that ride-hailing services have themselves faced criticism over accessibility.

Paratransit, better known under names like “The Ride,” ”Access-a-Ride,” or “Dial-a-Ride,” is required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. But the costs, which include door-to-door pickup and drop-off, can be steep.

The average cost of operating a single paratransit trip is about $23 in the U.S., compared with less than $4 for the average trip on bus or light rail. In Boston, the average cost per ride is about $45, in Washington, about $50, and in New York, nearly $57, officials said.

Transit agencies nationwide logged about 223 million paratransit trips at a cost exceeding $5.1 billion — about 12 percent of total transit operating costs — in 2013, according to the most recent data from the American Public Transportation Association. The price tag is particularly high in major cities, where agencies struggle with regular service and maintenance.

[…]

A potential incentive for riders: Uber or Lyft can be summoned immediately with an app; trips on MBTA vehicles must be scheduled a day ahead.

“My guess is it will be very appealing to people who need to go shorter distances where the fares are under $15 and they can get an on-demand ride as opposed to booking 24 hours in advance,” said Brian Shortsleeve, the agency’s chief administrator.

But convenience comes with a catch.

With a limited number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles, the ride-hailing services would be available largely to people who can walk. And while a majority of individuals certified to use paratransit fit that bill, advocates worry about creating an unfair and possibly even illegal two-tiered system for the disabled — one serving people who can walk, the other those whose needs the private vehicles can’t accommodate.

“We don’t want racial segregation, and we also don’t want disability segregation,” said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the California-based Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

Uber and Lyft have both cited efforts to improve offerings for disabled riders. But the services have argued they are technology, not transportation, companies, meaning they are not required to provide accessible vehicles. Advocates for the disabled have filed a handful of lawsuits.

Again, if the service works as designed in Houston, then perhaps that can serve as a model elsewhere. The first indicator will be if Metro gets in on it. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Here come the drones

Look! Up in the sky!

Companies in Austin and Addison on Wednesday became the first two firms to become officially credentialed to operate unmanned aircraft systems under a new training and safety program that officials said promises to boost Texas’ place in the emerging drone market.

At a statewide conference hosted by the Texas A&M University System’s Corpus Christi campus and its engineering extension service, officials presented HUVRdata, of Austin, and Aviation Unmanned, of Addison, with their certificates, among the first granted in the nation since the Federal Aviation Administration announced new rules governing the use of drones.

The new program, though voluntary, provides a way for drone operators who register with the Federal Aviation Administration to become certified in safety and operational procedures, a step advocates say will be key to expanding the commercial applications of low-level unmanned aircraft without endangering commercial air traffic or clogging airspace since drone use mushroomed in recent years.

Under current FAA rules, “it’s like getting a tag for your car but not having to get a driver’s license,” said Joe Henry, director of outreach and commercialization at the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence and Innovation, which is part of new program. “This certification is the driver’s license.”

“Through this credentialing program that will ensure the safety of operations for unmanned aircraft systems, Texas is in a position to be a leader in this emerging industry,” he said.

With the new credentials, which the A&M center and similar programs in five other states have been approved to grant, conference officials said operations safety can be assured, a step that will allow the drone industry to grow as more companies find ways to utilize the technology, and perhaps slow a surge of new state laws aimed at privacy and safety issues.

[…]

In Texas, drones already are used by the wind-power, oil and gas and transportation industries to provide aerial inspections and mapping, and for port and border security and coastline monitoring. As a business hub for many of those concerns, as well as home to the NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which is developing unmanned craft to explore Mars, Houston stands to be a center for the growing industry.

“If you have a public company that’s trying to integrate this new technology into their operations, they want to make sure that whomever they hire to do that work is qualified to it properly and safely,” said Bob Baughman, CEO and founder of HUVRdata. “This credentialing program is important because it’s an industry partnership with the FAA to make sure that operators know the FAA rules, know how to safely operate their UAS, and so companies know who is certified and qualified when they hire them. As this technology develops, as UAS isused more, credentialing will become even more important.”

Drones have also been used by, among other things, environmental scientists to track bird habitats and invasive species, and S&R groups like Texas EquuSearch, which had to fight for their right to employ them. They’re employed for movie and TV filming as well, as the Mythbusters can attest. The drone has flown, so it’s a matter of how we regulate them now. I won’t be surprised to see this issue come up in the 2017 Legislature.

I now pronounce you man and machine

Yeah, no.

Chris Sevier says he’s being denied his right to marry – his computer.

The persistent Tennessee lawyer – who has carried his challenge to same-sex marriage to courthouses across the nation – has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Houston saying he and his 2011 MacBook were rejected for a marriage license in Harris County.

He is suing the Harris County District Clerk, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying his 14th Amendment right to marry is being denied. Sevier has filed similar challenges for the right to marry a machine in Tennessee and Utah.

Paxton’s office, however, is asking U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett to hit the delete button on the lawsuit.

His office filed court papers asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell decision in June allowing same-sex marriage does not extend to man and machine.

“The right to marry one’s computer is not an interest, objectively, deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition such that it qualifies as a protected interest,” Paxton’s brief argued.

You will, I’m sure, be shocked to learn that the plaintiff is an activist who believes that same-sex marriage has “hijacked the Constitution”, whatever that means. I had thought it would be impossible to make an argument against same-sex marriage that is stupider than the “man on dog” and box turtle claims of the recent past, but clearly I was wrong.