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May 1st, 2022:

Weekend link dump for May 1

They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.”

“Mark Meadows is registered to vote in how many states? Three and counting, apparently”. That sounds like, I don’t know, what’s the phrase, oh yes, voter fraud.

“Now, in a move that rudely interferes with everyone’s ability to make excuses that they’re only buying five boxes of the cookies to practice their splitting technique, a scientific study has found it’s impossible to break apart an Oreo so that the filling distributes evenly on both halves.”

“In other words, the restrictive nature of the law does more than hamper a patient’s access to abortion. It distorts her decision-making process.”

“Most people who are really into disinformation and conspiracy theories don’t believe in a single conspiracy theory […] Rather, they’re drawn into a self-reinforcing conspiratorial worldview in which conspiracies build on one another. While the theories can seem disparate, they often have unifying themes: They feed distrust in sources of authority; they claim insider knowledge that makes the believer feel valuable; and frequently, that knowledge includes a secret plan to defeat the forces of evil.”

RIP, Johnnie Jones, Louisiana civil rights attorney and World War II veteran who was wounded during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the Army’s first Black warrant officer.

“The previous analysis, which examined data through 2016, showed that firearm-related injuries were second only to motor vehicle crashes (both traffic-related and nontraffic-related) as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents, defined as persons 1 to 19 years of age.4 Since 2016, that gap has narrowed, and in 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death in that age group.”

RIP, Cynthia Albritton, artist better known as Cynthia Plaster Caster. If that doesn’t make sense to you, I suggest you click the link.

RIP, David William Kearney, Texas blues legend known as Guitar Shorty.

Feel better soon, Cary Elwes!

“One of the likeliest and most dramatic things that Elon Musk will do once he has acquired Twitter is let Donald Trump back on. The effect on our nation’s discourse will be disastrous. And, sadly, I fully expect the news media to go back to its old ways of serving as Trump’s megaphone.”

“Reality Check: Seven Times Texas Leaders Misled the Public About Operation Lone Star”.

“Right now they’re doing surgery where people used to buy sheets and towels.”

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is the US Christian Right’s new Vladimir Putin. It’s all about the homophobia.

“The ‘anti-woke’ agenda is going to cost taxpayers big bucks”.

“The key insight to all this work is that those who distrust vaccines, science and expertise aren’t doing so necessarily because they have a knowledge gap or a misunderstanding. Distrusting experts is part of their identity. Motta and his colleagues’ work suggests that being anti-vaccine has become an identity, too. In some respects, distrusting experts has become a political choice, which means that any message from an official source — whether it’s a researcher, head of a government agency or a journalist — is more likely to inspire the opposite of its intended reaction from those who view that source as part of the political opposition.”

Too soon, Travis Scott. Seriously.

“We need to sanction the hell out of this guy.”

RIP, Naomi Judd, part of the Grammy-award winning country music duo The Judds, mother of Wynonna and Ashley Judd.

Debtors’ court

This is not good.

In this court and others in Bexar County, debt collection lawsuits more than doubled from 2012 to 2020.

“I’m trying to manage this behemoth, but there are some guidelines I have to follow as well,” said Roger “Rogelio” Lopez Jr., justice of the peace for Bexar County Precinct 4, who operates out of the Loop 410 courthouse.

Similar scenes are playing out from Houston to Dallas to Fort Worth as debt collectors sue a skyrocketing number of Texans over claims of unpaid credit cards, medical bills, student loans and other debts, a Houston Chronicle examination has found.

Debt collection lawsuits filed statewide have exploded by 73 percent from 2012 to 2021, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from the Texas Office of the Court Administration.

For the first time in history, the 374,000 debt lawsuits filed in the Lone Star State last year made up nearly half of all civil cases in Texas, which include traffic tickets, landlord evictions and small claims such as disputes between neighbors. The crush of debt cases raises concerns that overwhelmed Texas civil courts can’t adequately review each lawsuit and deliver justice while juggling higher-priority cases, consumer advocates say.

That means judges face pressure to move debt lawsuits quickly to keep their dockets manageable. With only minutes to review cases, judges can miss important details, consumer advocates say. The rapid-fire justice puts a sharp focus on whether defendants can get a fair shake, said Mary Spector, professor of law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Any public perception that the courts are merely rubber-stamping for the creditors is bad for the system,’’ said Spector, who directs a law clinic that works on behalf of consumers in debt litigation.

Texas adopted key provisions that have spurred debt collectors to crank out more cases in recent years.

From 2012 to 2020, state lawmakers passed legislation that gave debt collectors more flexibility to file cases in justice of the peace courts, where filing costs are lower and it takes less time to move cases on the docket. The changes, which included actions by the Supreme Court of Texas to revamp the debt collection process in civil courts, ultimately made it cheaper and faster for debt collectors to win judgments, consumer advocates said.

The Supreme Court of Texas, which is responsible for adopting processes and rules to ensure that state courts are efficient and fair, has been alarmed by the rise in caseloads, Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht told the Chronicle.

“You need to worry about it,” Hecht said. “This is where the public meets the justice system.”

To address those concerns, the Legislature ordered the state Supreme Court to publish new rules that will require debt collectors to provide additional notification to debtors of their rights, he said. The rules take effect May 1.

Big corporations have high-powered attorneys to manage their interests. When they have a problem, they can ask for help from the Supreme Court. Hecht said they also can lobby the Legislature to prompt changes in state law.

“But this is about the little guy,” he said. “What the justice system has to do is to provide justice for the people who come to it. We want everybody walking away from the court saying, ‘Well, thank God for the court. I may have lost, you know, I wish that had not happened, but I got a fair shake.’ That’s why it’s so important to work on these cases.”

A Chronicle review of dozens of court documents, observations of legal proceedings and an examination of statewide data found that:

  • Last year, 45 percent of lawsuits filed in the state’s civil courts were against Texans for debt, according to data supplied to the Chronicle by the Texas Office of the Court Administration, the state agency that collects the data and operates under the direction of the Supreme Court. In 2017, debt lawsuits represented 30 percent of all civil filings.
  • Harris County saw a similar trend. Last year, debt collectors filed nearly 68,000 lawsuits in the county, an increase of 111 percent from 2015.
  • Cases settled by default judgment have increased since 2012. That means more cases are decided with defendants not present to fight a claim, and the court cannot weigh both sides equally before making a judgment. The number of default judgments in the Houston region and other large Texas counties totaled nearly 74,000 cases in 2021, an increase of 86 percent from 2012.
  • No court in the state has seen a more dramatic increase in debt suits than justice of peace courts. JPs, as they are known, preside over weddings, misdemeanors and truancies. Many JPs are not lawyers. Of the hundreds of thousands of debt collection lawsuits filed in Texas in 2021, 80 percent were in JP courts.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. Hopefully, the new rules will help, but this seem like a much deeper issue than that. Obviously, a lot of this is societal – poverty, access to attorneys, the ability to take time off from work to attend court hearings, and so on – and there’s not much the courts can do about that. But they can do their part to make sure the playing field inside the courthouse is level, and they need to do that. And the Lege needs to revisit this as well.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

No collegiate gymnastics in Texas

I did not know this.

Ragan Smith did not lack options when it came to choosing a college, as tends to happen when you’re an elite gymnast with a national title on your resume.

One option was unavailable to Smith. It doesn’t exist.

Texas, the site of this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, the state that’s produced Olympic champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles, the state that has over 20 colleges and universities currently classified as Division I, the state that features some of the most prominent gymnastics programs in the country if not the world, has exactly six women’s gymnastics scholarships available, all of them at Division II Texas Woman’s University.

That meant that Smith, who moved from Georgia to the Dallas suburbs as a 13-year-old to train at the gym owned by former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal, had to leave Texas to compete at the Division I level.

“All these great clubs are in Texas, and you would think (the big schools) would have a program,” Smith said. “But they really don’t.”

Things worked out just fine for Smith, now a junior at Oklahoma. She and the Sooners will aim for their fourth national title in eight years on Saturday when they take on Florida, Auburn and Utah at Dickie’s Arena, the opulent facility located less than three miles from the TCU campus.

The Horned Frogs offer 13 varsity women’s sports, including equestrian, rifle and triathlon. Just not gymnastics.

It’s the same at Texas (which offers rowing, among others), Baylor (which has acrobatics and tumbling, a cousin of artistic gymnastics), Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston and Rice and all the rest. Contacted this week by The Associated Press, representatives at Texas and Texas A&M both indicated there are no plans to offer women’s gymnastics as a varsity sport.

[…]

There are 12 full scholarships available at Division I women’s gymnastics programs, with a move being made to potentially expand the number to 14. Throw in training, travel, coaching salaries and everything else, and it’s not cheap to launch a competitive team. Add in the ripple effects of Title IX — which requires “ athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated ” — and the math can be tricky.

Still, there is hope in some places that women’s gymnastics can be “revenue neutral.” It’s a model LSU coach Jay Clark hopes his program can reach by the end of the decade, though the Tigers may be the exception. LSU is typically among the national leaders in average attendance and drew an average of 11,691 fans to their five home meets this season, tops in the country.

While adding scholarships could be a hurdle for potential programs to navigate, Clark sees it as a supply and demand issue.

“We haven’t had an increase since 1995 and the pool of talent has grown four-fold,” he said.

He’s not joking. Within the last decade the number of active Level 10 gymnasts — which comprises the vast majority of college athletes — has nearly doubled from 1,600 to nearly 3,100.

As you can see, OU’s gymnastics team went on to win that national championship, so indeed all worked out well for Ragan Smith. I confess, I had just assumed that schools like UT and A&M would have had women’s gymnastics programs, because why wouldn’t they? Sure, a gymnastics program might cost a few bucks, but have you seen what schools like these pay their football and (mostly men’s but increasingly now women’s) basketball coaches? If there’s one thing I expect these big schools at the Power Five conferences to be able to do, it’s extract enough money from TV networks, advertisers, and fat-cat boosters to cover whatever expenses they have and then some. Obviously, there hasn’t been the demand for that largesse to include these programs as yet. Given how popular gymnastics is overall, and how many alumni must have had daughters that competed in gymnastics as kids, I’m a little amazed by that.

In Houston, the trucks drive you

Yet another driverless truck story.

Autonomous freight trucking company Embark will make Houston the hub for its new Texas operations and launch an autonomous trucking route along Interstate 10 to San Antonio.

The San Francisco-based company this month said it will begin hiring “aggressively” in Houston at the start of 2022 as the company begins to expand across the southern U.S., said Stephen Houghton, chief operations and fleet officer at Embark.

“Texas is the center of America’s trucking industry, and it’s the perfect home for Embark’s expanded operations. We’re excited by the talent and entrepreneurial spirit that Houston has to offer,” he said.

[…]

In previous interviews, officials with both Waymo Via Trucking and Aurora said Texas was an obvious choice to test their technology thanks to the favorable regulations, relatively mild weather, major population centers and vast stretches of monotonous highways.

Officials with Embark said Houston will prove to be at the nexus of the industry’s development and growth because it sits at the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways that human drivers can’t complete in a day because of regulations limiting the number of hours they can drive. While it usually takes a human driver about 22 hours to complete, autonomous trucks could do it in about 12 hours, Embark officials said.

The region is also home to research institutions that have been studying autonomous vehicles for years, with Embark officials citing Texas A&M University’s work in the field. A cornerstone of its Texas operations will be an extensive partnership with Texas A&M University, Houghton said. Embark will use the university’s Engineering Experiment Station test track to pilot its technologies, and company engineers will work with the university’s mechanical engineering faculty and Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, or CANVASS, to prepare for a driverless trucking test program in 2023.

See here for some broad background on the subject of driverless trucks in Texas. I fixated on that bit about Houston being at “the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways” for awhile, and eventually concluded that they meant the stretch of I-10 from San Antonio to (more or less) Biloxi, MS, as Google tells me it’s just over 600 miles, and Houston is close to the center of it. I can tell you that I have driven that far on I-10 by myself in the past, but I was much younger and a whole lot dumber back then.

I don’t believe I had heard of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems before – there’s nothing in my archives about them. Sounds cool, I’ll keep an eye on it. And also on that 2023 date, since it seems like other autonomous vehicle promises that have been made in the past have been a bit overly optimistic. We’ll see about this one.

(Note: This is one that has sat in my drafts for awhile, and I decided to publish rather than let it go to waste. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this exclusive look behind the curtain of my editorial process.)