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April 5th, 2020:

Weekend link dump for April 5

“Aspects of America’s identity may need rethinking after COVID-19. Many of the country’s values have seemed to work against it during the pandemic. Its individualism, exceptionalism, and tendency to equate doing whatever you want with an act of resistance meant that when it came time to save lives and stay indoors, some people flocked to bars and clubs. Having internalized years of anti-terrorism messaging following 9/11, Americans resolved to not live in fear. But SARS-CoV-2 has no interest in their terror, only their cells.”

“Chain messages warning that cities will be shut down, saying martial law will be imposed, or promoting hoax preventative measures have spread far and wide in the last several weeks, not just on bulletin boards and social media, but through text messages and emails. Their original sources are unknown, and the information they pass along is usually misleading or outright wrong—just like the postal nuisance chain mail of old.”

A brief but entertaining Twitter thread about the etymology of “Triscuit”. It does not mean what you think it means.

Build your own bagpipes out of a trash bag and record and learn to play in quarantine”.

“Walmart Was Almost Charged Criminally Over Opioids. Trump Appointees Killed the Indictment.”

“Bosses Panic-Buy Spy Software to Keep Tabs on Remote Workers”.

“Even experts who favor masking the masses say their impact on the spread of disease is likely to be modest. Many are also afraid to promote mask buying amid dire shortages at hospitals. But as the pandemic wears on, some public health experts think government messages discouraging mask wearing should shift.”

If I point you to a story with the headline Astrophysicist gets magnets stuck up nose while inventing coronavirus device, you’re going to read it, right?

Production on your favorite TV show has probably been halted due to coronavirus.

RIP, Dr. James T. Goodrich, New York neurosurgeon whose career included separating conjoined twins.

RIP, Burt Ballanfant, former Mayor of West University Place.

For Law and Order: SVU superfans. You know who you are.

“One of the craziest things about this crazy-ass show is the bad edit that it gives to Carole Baskin, making a murderer and a bona fide reality TV villain of one of the few participants who has not actually been convicted of anything murder-adjacent.”

“The captain of a nuclear aircraft carrier with more than 100 sailors infected with the coronavirus pleaded Monday with U.S. Navy officials for resources to allow isolation of his entire crew and avoid possible deaths in a situation he described as quickly deteriorating.”

Being an expert in one thing doesn’t mean you’re not a complete effing idiot in another.

Super Bad Transmittable Contagious Awful Virus,” your new favorite COVID-19 tune.

RIP, Adam Schlesinger, Emmy winner and co-founder of the band Fountains of Wayne.

Breaking news: The governor of Georgia is an idiot.

“So Monday morning, we had our meeting and I usually try to do a camera, and when we started the meeting, I saw myself as a potato. I was so confused as to why I was a potato. Of all the things I could be, why a potato?”

RIP, Ellis Marsalis, Jr, New Orleans jazz legend and father of Wynton and Branford.

“A choir decided to go ahead with rehearsal. Now dozens of members have COVID-19 and two are dead.”

RIP, Anick Jesdanun, longtime AP technology writer.

RIP, Bill Withers, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter best known for Lean on Me.

“The Syfy Network is making all fours seasons of Battlestar Galactica available for streaming online. No registration is required.”

Another obstacle to releasing inmates

One step forward, one step back.

As fear and COVID-19 crept though the Harris County Jail, felony judges halted the release of low-risk inmates on Friday, blocking the county chief executive’s order to free them to await trial.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez discontinued the releases Friday after District Judge Herb Ritchie voided the order to free inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. People had begun to be released from the jail Thursday night and Friday morning under Judge Lina Hidalgo’s decision from earlier in the week, but only a handful walked free before Ritchie put the hammer down.

Public health experts have warned that the cramped conditions at the jail mean any significant outbreak could spread “like wildfire” among the jail population, spreading to staff and the wider community. Five people who work at the jail and three inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 800 more inmates quarantined. The sheriff has been calling for releases for weeks to avert a contagion that could ravage the jail and overload the region’s health care system.

[…]

Hidalgo earlier this week ordered Gonzalez to prepare a list of inmates accused of certain nonviolent offenses and who did not have previous convictions for violent crimes. That list was being reviewed and pared down by other county departments.

On Friday afternoon Ritchie, who supervises the felony judges, issued an “Order to Disregard Directive by Harris County Judge.” He ordered the sheriff to “ignore and wholly disregard” Hidalgo’s directive to arrange for the release of inmates. Ritchie’s order said that each violation “may result in criminal contempt of court penalties, which may include up to six months’ confinement in jail, as well as a possible fine not to exceed $500.00.”

Hidalgo said, “We are reviewing the order and hoping for a swift resolution because the health of every Harris County resident is at stake.”

Michael Fleming, former Harris County Attorney, said Ritchie has a very strong argument on constitutional grounds. “It’s not a frivolous thing that he did,” Fleming said. “A district judge under the Texas Constitution has supervisory control.”

It’s a thorny legal issue, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at University of Houston. “The judiciary almost always has precedence in matters involving release from incarceration,” he said, but noted: “In times of crisis, discretionary powers to protect public safety have a way of finding priority, so a higher court may agree that the county judge has jurisdiction in an emergency.”

The effort to secure inmate releases has crawled along for weeks, impeded by squabbling among the county departments involved, disagreements about who should qualify for release, threats from the state Attorney General and social media potshots from Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and others warning of dire consequences should people be freed from jail. For all the effort that went into Hidalgo’s order, it appeared Friday that only a handful would end up being released under its terms.

The sheriff sought to prioritize 125 people whose health would be especially compromised if they were exposed to the virus. The district attorney objected to all but 14 of those people, who had all been released as of late Friday morning. According to an estimate by the sheriff’s lawyer, only 150 to 200 on the list of 1,470 people would have gone free.

The Hidalgo order excluded anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or temporary restraining orders. The inmates released on Thursday night and Friday include people charged with drug possession, unauthorized use of a vehicle, evading arrest, interfering with the duties of a public servant, theft, fraud, and tampering with a government record. But the vast majority on the sheriff’s list were being stricken.

See here and here for the background. Boy, you really have to watch out for those document-tamperers. They will straight-up kill you if you look at them funny. Kidding aside, I sure don’t know if Judge Ritchie is correct that county judges don’t have the authority to order the release of inmates who have been held on bond. There’s likely little to no precedent, and there are good arguments to be made either way. (Former CCA Justice Elsa Alcala has some interesting discussion of this on her Twitter feed.) Individual judges can certainly change bond conditions as they see fit, and eventually we will get this sorted out either through the courts or subsequent legislation. The point, though, is that this is an emergency situation, and every day increases the risk and the infection rate, which is exactly what Judge Hidalgo was trying to mitigate. This is just another way in which we as a society were totally unprepared for this kind of problem. We damn well better learn from it for the next time.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Congratulations, Rudy T!

Long overdue.

At last, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame no longer will underestimate the accomplishments of a champion.

Rockets icon Rudy Tomjanovich will be named Saturday to the Hall of Fame Class of 2020, a person with knowledge of the voting said Friday.

While Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett undoubtedly will headline the class in their first season of eligibility, the coach who long had fallen short in the voting will receive the call his peers and successors had so badly wanted for him.

Tomjanovich, 71, received at least the 18 votes necessary from the 24-person Hall of Fame panel after he fell short of being a finalist last year and couldn’t garner enough votes in two previous seasons as a finalist. He had been the only coach to lead teams to multiple NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal who wasn’t in the Hall of Fame.

An All-American at Michigan and a five-time All-Star as a Rockets player, Tomjanovich will be inducted as a coach who long has been celebrated by his peers.

“Everybody knows when he said, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion,” he was talking about his team,” former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “But unfortunately, that’s what’s happened to him. Everybody’s underestimated him and his accomplishments and his heart and his class. To me, it’s an absolute shame … I hope they rectify.”

Besides Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Tomjanovich, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, former Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, former Indiana Fever and Olympic star Tamika Catchings and Bentley coach Barbara Stevens were named as finalists.

That story was written before the formal announcement, which confirmed Rudy T’s enshrinement. If there’s one thing that cemented my identity as a Houstonian, it’s the 1993-94 Rockets’ championship run, which was just amazing to watch. (Their encore in ’94-95 didn’t hurt, either.) Great team, super coach, well-deserved honor, I’m overjoyed to see it. Congrats all around.

(By the way, kids, did you know that back in the year 1994, the first round of the NBA playoffs was mostly on pay-per-view? I watched several of those games, in ’95 as well, at sports bars because of that. It boggles my mind to think about it now, but that was the state of the NBA on TV at that time.)