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Houston suspends “sister city” ties with Tyumen

Of interest.

Houston Mayor Turner Sylvester on Friday suspended the city’s partnership agreement with Moscow and its sister city relationship with Tyumen, Russia, on the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

Turner said that while he believes in the value of city diplomacy in times of crisis, Russia’s decision to censor the media and crack down on anti-war protesters has made it impossible to maintain city-to-city relationships.

“In challenging times, city to city, and people to people, diplomacy can sometimes be the only opportunities for exchange,” the mayor said. “This is the purpose of Houston’s more than 90 foreign consulates, including those from Ukraine and Russia and of our 19 sister cities – to create and maintain opportunities for global dialogue.”

Since Russian launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, at least 8,000 civilians have been confirmed killed, including 487 children, with the actual numbers likely to be substantially higher, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than 14 million people have also been displaced from their homes as the humanitarian crisis widens, further straining diplomatic ties with Russia.

“Russia has blocked the people’s access to social media and global news outlets, cracked down on protests and any form of discontent, and criminalized public opposition to the war,” the mayor said. “It is clear that we have lost the ability to have an open dialogue.”

Meanwhile, HTX4UKRAINE, a local nonprofit that raises money and that advocates for Ukraine’s cause, organized a rally Friday afternoon in front of the Russian Consulate in Houston to commemorate the war’s one-year anniversary.

My first reaction on reading this headline was “wait, we’re just doing this now?” Having read the story I get the rationale, and I understand wanting to maintain a diplomatic relationship even in times of war, but it’s still a little weird. I also had no idea this relationship existed. I knew we had a few “sister city” partnerships, though I couldn’t have said much about what that means beyond some fumbling about exchanging culture and stuff like that. I knew we had a few such relationships, with the one with Chiba, Japan, being the one that stuck most prominently in my mind, but again couldn’t have told you much beyond that. The list of Houston’s sister cities, which includes a brief overview of what that means, is here, though now that will need to be amended. I wonder if we will keep them there but consider them to be in a timeout, or if we will fully cut ties and go looking for a new sister to replace them. Maybe that will be a question for the Mayor’s race. Anyway, now you know.

Egg smuggling

We live in strange times.

As the price of eggs continues to rise, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are reporting a spike in people attempting to bring eggs into the country illegally from Mexico, where prices are lower.

The jump in sightings of the contraband product can be best explained by the high price of eggs in the U.S., which soared 60% in December over a year earlier. A combination of the deadliest bird flu outbreak in U.S. history, compounded by inflationary pressure and supply-chain snags, is to blame for the high prices shoppers are seeing at the supermarket.

It’s forcing some drastic measures: some grocery store chains are limiting how many cartons customers can buy.

And some people are going as far as smuggling eggs from out of the country, where prices are more affordable, and risking thousands of dollars in fines in the process.

A 30-count carton of eggs in Juárez, Mexico, according to Border Report, sells for $3.40. In some parts of the U.S., such as California, just a dozen eggs are now priced as high as $7.37.

Shoppers from El Paso, Texas, are buying eggs in Juárez because they are “significantly less expensive,” CPB spokesperson Gerrelaine Alcordo told NPR in a statement.

Most of those people arriving at international bridges are open about their purchase because they don’t realize eggs are prohibited.

“Generally, the items are being declared during the primary inspection and when that happens the person can abandon the product without consequence,” Alcordo said. “There have been a very small number of cases in the last weeks or so” were eggs weren’t declared, and then subsequently discovered during inspection, Alcordo added.

If the products are discovered, agriculture specialists confiscate and destroy them, which is routine for prohibited food. Those people are fined $300, but the penalty can be higher for repeat offenders of commercial size illegal imports.

There’s a joke in there somewhere involving Greg Abbott and the Texas National Guard, but I don’t quite feel up to the task. If you want to know more about why eggs are so expensive right now, it’s all about avian flu, as Your Local Epidemiologist explains. If you’re planning a visit to Mexico sometime in the near future, please be aware of what you can and cannot bring back with you. (If you’re planning a, um, unofficial trip to Mexico, you’re on your own.) In the meantime, know that this too shall pass. CNN and the Current have more.

Houston leads the way in resettling Afghan refugees

Nicely done.

The sudden crush of thousands of Afghans who arrived in Houston last fall forced local refugee resettlement agencies to drastically expand services in a matter of weeks.

Houston’s role as the top destination for evacuated Afghans stressed these agencies, which had diminished in scope following Trump-era cuts to refugee resettlement.

But leaders for these groups say there’s an unforeseen silver lining to the logistical hurdle of resettling more than 5,500 Afghans: Refugee resettlement in Houston is back and organizations are better prepared to welcome refugees from around the world.

“That was a test,” said Ali Al Sudani, who oversaw the quick expansion of refugee resettlement at Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston last fall. “That’s going to help us prepare for coming years.”


In the unpredictable world of refugee resettlement, organizations rely on a mix of public and private funds to maintain their programs. Agencies get money from the U.S. State Department for each new person they resettle. So when the Trump administration dropped the number of refugee arrivals to a fraction of Obama-era numbers, that funding stream largely dried up.

The Houston area has been a historic hub for refugee resettlement. During the time of these funding cuts, local agencies took a major hit, limiting their capacity to serve local refugees. Larger groups got help from the region’s deep-pocketed philanthropists. But one small Houston-area organization retained just a single staffer to handle all new arrivals; other agencies shuffled positions or didn’t replace staff when people quit.

Elsewhere in the U.S. small refugee resettlement agencies shut their doors.

Then, about a year ago, everything changed. In September 2021, planes began shuttling beleaguered Afghan families from U.S. military bases to Houston. Many were starting new lives with just a suitcase, limited or no English and still wrecked from the trauma of a violent and sudden departure from their homes.

Agencies staffed up and scaled up their operations — refugee resettlement was back.

It was a rough ride. Some frustrated Afghans waited weeks in extended stay hotels and overworked caseworkers drove pregnant mothers, who suddenly had to worry about insurance and health care costs, to doctor appointments. Social Security cards were mailed to addresses people had left.

Staff stepped up, working long hours to meet Afghan families’ needs, and faith communities, veterans, hotel owners also came together to lend a hand — one person even donated a cow that could be slaughtered according to halal guidelines. A significant boost in support could be attributed to Americans’ rare bipartisan support for this particular immigrant population, due in part to the fierce allyship of U.S. veterans who depended on Afghans during the 20-year occupation of their country.

More evacuated Afghans resettled in Houston than any other U.S. city — in fact, Houston took in more of these families than 47 U.S. states — some 5,600 evacuated Afghans. Houston became home for about half of all Afghans who resettled in Texas.

Now that early interventions — the airport pickups, the apartment placements and school enrollments — have concluded the next phase of services involves language education, career counseling and time-intensive case support to help immigrants file the paperwork to remain in the country legally.

I don’t really have anything to add here except “welcome”. It’s not that long ago that Greg Abbott was demonizing Syrian refugees, so at least we’re not going through that again. God bless all the helpers, and I wish our new neighbors the very best.


Great story about the abortion access community in Mexico, which arose while abortion was criminalized there and continues now that it is legal in much of the country, and how it is starting to help women in the US, especially in Texas.

Hi, I’m four weeks pregnant. Eight weeks. Six weeks.

The stream of pings and messages through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp reach Sandra Cardona Alanís at her home in this mountainous region of northern Mexico. She is an acompañante and a founder of Necesito Abortar México, a volunteer network that has helped thousands of people across Mexico access abortion, usually at home, by providing medication and support.

With the constitutional right to abortion in the United States eliminated and numerous states moving swiftly to cut off all access, more and more of the calls to Mexican organizations like Cardona Alanís’ are coming from places like Texas.

People seeking help are reaching not just over a border but across a cultural divide between two countries following distinct paths in providing reproductive health care. As abortion access is being restricted in the United States, it is expanding in Mexico.

Because abortion-inducing medication can be obtained in Mexico without a prescription, networks like the one Cardona Alanís helped found exist alongside the more traditional medical clinics that typify abortion in the United States.

The Necesito Abortar México network is one of several that operate outside the formal medical establishment, offering people the ability to manage their own abortions without visiting a clinic. They usually hear from two or three new people a day. The day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against abortion rights, they heard from 70, half of them calling from the United States.

Even before the full effects of Roe v. Wade’s reversal kick in, Texas is being stitched into the Mexican system as the networks build out their models of helping provide safe abortion at home on an international scale. For months, they’ve been helping train volunteers that will prop up new U.S.-based networks. And they have moved thousands of doses of abortion medication into the United States, creating informal stockpiles to more easily distribute the drugs.

Exporting their model likely will not come easily, though, as the legal landscape continues to shift. Abortion-inducing drugs must be discreetly transported into the United States where they’re available only with a prescription.

Those in the United States involved in building an accompaniment system face potential legal risks both criminally and civilly, especially as Republicans in states like Texas seek to choke off any and all possibility of allowing their residents to access abortion.

Adopting the Mexican model would also require a revolution in thinking about abortion in the U.S., removing the procedure from a system of doctors and clinics and shifting it into homes across states like Texas.

But that autonomy, Cardona Alanís and her partner Vanessa Jiménez Rubalcava often say, changes everything.

“This is an opening for women to realize that they can have abortions in their own homes,” Jiménez Rubalcava said. “When they realize it can be in their hands — and not in the hands of government or the medical system — there’s going to be no stopping them.”

Read the rest, it’s well worth your time. “Acompañamiento” is the collective term for this social movement created by women looking to help each other access safe abortion. Ensuring that misoprostal and mifepristone can get to women who need them for a medication abortion and expanding clinic access in Mexico for Americans who can travel there are a part of it. There’s a ton to admire about all this, but if you think that the border is politicized now, wait until abortion becomes part of that dynamic. It’s just a matter of time before someone claims that part of the justification for the border wall is to keep American women from crossing into Mexico to seek abortion care.

From Harvey to Ukraine

Good story.

The former Marines from Houston had no idea what to expect what then they finally arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border.

What the members of the CrowdSource Rescue team found was “a heart-wrenching mess” — a miles-long caravan of Ukrainians attempting to flee their home country and a similar mob from across Europe trying to shuttle supplies to beleaguered cities.

For weeks following news of Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian forces, members of the Houston volunteer rescue group tried to figure out how to best help, just like they had dozens of times before.

“We have to do something,” CrowdSource Rescue founder Matthew Marchetti recalled thinking. But almost instantly, he doubted the instinct, telling himself: “That is a terrible idea.”

The DIY rescue organization was born in the torrential downpours of Hurricane Harvey, when good Samaritans from across the region banded together to rescue stranded neighbors. The impromptu rescuers then formed an organization to help during natural disasters and emergencies, including other tropical storms, last year’s deep freeze and the COVID-19 pandemic.

So when Russia began bombarding Ukraine in February, members of the volunteer rescue organization immediately began brainstorming ways to help beleaguered residents there, Marchetti said.

His volunteers didn’t speak the language or know the region. And while some have combat experience, they’d be entering Ukraine as civilian rescuers, not as heavily armored soldiers.

“We have a unique set of skills,” he said. “We’re combat vets who understand war zones, really adept at search and rescue, and have medical experience, and we have folks who understand the finer points of communications security.”

Eventually, a trio of volunteers — former Marines who’d served in combat deployments and then responded to multiple hurricanes — decided to travel to Ukraine to work with a local group to help evacuate disabled residents having trouble getting out of dangerous spots.

They packed go-bags with a few days of clothes, portable phone chargers, flashlights, emergency blankets, gas masks, and other sundries. And they filled other luggage with donated medical supplies.

“We’re just some stupid Marines who decided we wanted to make difference,” Christopher said. “People have been kind enough to give us a purpose again.”

There’s more, so read on. You can follow their exploits on Twitter. As you might imagine, this kind of self-appointed effort is not without some criticism, to which they have responded here. I wish them well in their efforts and hope they can make a difference for whoever they can.

Pity the poor lion hunters

Gag me.

Houston was once the nation’s top destination for African lions killed by U.S. trophy hunters, but public backlash and new federal restrictions have all but ended the sport, according to a group of big game hunters that has launched a campaign to bring it back.

Since 2015 when a dentist from Minnesota killed Cecil, a famed lion in Zimbabwe, the U.S. government has made sport hunting of lions and elephants so difficult as to discourage most hunters from even trying to navigate all of the paperwork, said wildlife attorney and hunting advocate John Jackson III.

“It’s worse than it has ever been,” said Jackson, who is chairman of a group called Conservation Force that advocates for big game hunting. “Now it’s almost impossible to get permits.”

While animal rights groups might see that as a victory, Jackson said they are losing sight of millions of dollars that hunters — and Texans in particular — have poured into African nations to support animal conservation. Over 10 years, almost $1.1 million went from just the Dallas Safari Club to lion conservation projects around the world. The Houston Safari Club — which has about 1,200 members — has reported donating more than $3.7 million for animal conservation work worldwide.

In May the Houston Safari Club launched a federal political action committee to raise money that could be used to influence political campaigns. And the club has increased its political commentary on its website, declaring it is “ramping up its legislative and policy efforts” and vowing to “grow our voice.”

Federal records confirm that imports of lions to Houston and other U.S. destinations have plummeted.


The Humane Society of the United States, on the other hand, has argued that hunters are overstating their impact and that lions and other endangered species can be promoted by supporting wildlife tourism expeditions.

Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International, said trophy hunters like to claim their actions promote animal conservation, because that is what they have to prove legally in order to go on their hunts. She said on the face of it, it’s clear that killing individual animals doesn’t add to protecting the species.

“At the very least it is counter intuitive, and we would argue unethical and biologically unsubstantiated,” Frostic said.

Yeah, the whole “we must be able to kill lions in order to save them” argument doesn’t carry any weight with me. The Houston Safari Club could – stay with me here – just simply donate that same amount of money to conservation efforts without hunting lions. Maybe photograph them instead, I dunno. Beyond that, I can’t imagine a less sympathetic group right now than a bunch of rich guys whining about not being able to shoot things.

Get ready to fly to Cuba

You’ll be able to get there from Houston in a few months.

A new weekly flight from Bush Intercontinental Airport to Havana was announced Thursday as part of the government’s historic effort to unwind more than 50 years of political tensions, family divisions, trade embargoes and travel restrictions with Cuba.

The United Airlines flight, tentatively scheduled for Saturdays beginning as early as the fall, positions the city to benefit economically from expanded Cuban travel and trade. Business leaders foresee opportunities for exporting agricultural products, collaborating on health-care research and upgrading the island’s aging infrastructure.

“Access is opportunity,” said Bob Pertierra, senior vice president and chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership. He said the flight will enhance “economic and personal ties to Cuba.”

United was one of eight U.S. airlines given tentative approval from the Department of Transportation to begin scheduled commercial flights between 10 U.S. cities and Havana, the Cuban capital. The United flight will depart Bush Intercontinental for José Martí International Airport.

Houston and Los Angeles are the only cities west of the Mississippi River granted flights to Havana. Bush Intercontinental, a major hub for United Airlines, will make Cuba a one-stopover flight for 20 other United markets across the central and western U.S. Steve Morrissey, United’s vice president of regulatory and policy, said that network helped secure approval.


Twelve U.S. carriers collectively applied for nearly 60 flights per day, exceeding the 20 daily flights made available by the U.S.-Cuba agreement announced in February.

For Houston companies, many already accustomed to doing business in English and Spanish, a scheduled flight would connect people and help build relationships, business leaders said. There’s a geographic advantage, too.

“The opportunities are across the board from health care to energy to engineering and general infrastructure,” said Felix Chevalier, a Houston lawyer and member of the Texas State Council of Engage Cuba, a nonprofit working to end the travel and trade embargo.

“The airlines would not be petitioning the Department of Transportation to fly to various parts of Cuba if the demand wasn’t there,” Chevalier said.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which didn’t apply for flights from Houston, received tentative approval to fly to Havana from Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, Fla.

The Transportation Department has a comment period before its proposals become final. Airlines have 90 days to begin service after that.

In June, the department approved six domestic airlines to begin scheduled flights to nine other Cuban cities.

See here and here for the background. There have been a bunch of complaints from various Republicans in the state about President Obama’s outreach to Cuba, but I suspect now that there’s business that directly benefits Texas firms going on, they’ll tamp it down a bit. We can hope, anyway. The Mayor’s press release touting this win for IAH is here, and CultureMap has more.

Don’t know much about international relations


Not Greg Abbott

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday continued his campaign against the controversial Iran nuclear deal, urging fellow governors nationwide to ignore President Obama’s suggestion to lift economic sanctions.

In a two-page letter, issued after he met in Dallas with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Abbott urged his colleagues in other states to strengthen existing sanctions, much as he has proposed that the Texas Legislature approve when it comes into session next January.

In the letter, he calls the Iran Deal “foolhardy” because Iran “has consistently and blatantly flouted the terms of previous international agreements” and already has conducted “long-range ballistic missile tests in defiance of United Nations resolutions.”

“I strongly oppose the Iran Deal because it undermines the national security of the United States and its strategic allies abroad — especially our most important Middle East ally, Israel, ” Abbott stated in the letter, labeling Iran “the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism.”

“Entering into an agreement with a country that consistently calls for ‘death to America’ and articulates anti-Semitic policies is short-sighted and ignores geopolitical realities.”

Abbott said the Iran Deal “does not eliminate Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear warhead — much less completely and permanently dismantle its nuclear capability. Expecting Iran to actually adhere to the deal is equally foolhardy.”

I suppose that I could point out that objective reality since the agreement was signed contradicts everything that Abbott claims, but we all know about reality’s well-known liberal bias, so we’ll just move on. Abbott’s gonna do what Abbott’s gonna do, but if I were a private business, I’d be just a little worried that Abbott might not want to stop at just forbidding government agencies from doing business with Iran. I mean, what assurance do you have that he won’t?

John Bradley does John Bradley things

From Grits for Breakfast:

Former Williamson County District Attorney and Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley – who left Texas to become Attorney General of the island nation of Palau after facing national disapprobation, losing reelection, and struggling to find work in Texas as a prosecutor – has been suspended “for ten working days without pay on grounds of insubordination” by Palau’s Vice President, reported Pacific Beat.

In response, according to this source, Bradley issued a statement declaring the VP had no authority to suspend him, defending his record in Texas, suggesting the veep committed a felony by suspending him, and threatening a defamation suit.

Some people seem to make friends wherever they go.

This is vintage John Bradley; our man appears in top form.

The President, who is out of the country, was quoted as saying he hadn’t reviewed Bradley’s suspension but expected the vice president’s decision was made in the “best interest of the Republic.”

See here and here for the background. I admit, it’s a bit unseemly to keep piling on the man, who clearly can’t help himself. But honestly, how can one resist?

On Texas and refugees

Greg Abbott does not speak for Texas.

Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Texas to escape persecution or political violence, and Texans have often offered their hearts, lands and money to the dispossessed. What has changed that makes it so easy for Governor Greg Abbott to declare Texas closed to Syrian refugees fleeing the murderous violence of ISIS and other rebel factions in their homeland? (Of course, Abbott cannot keep Syrian refugees out of Texas, but he can make certain the state does not cooperate in their re-location.) I spent a few minutes searching old newspaper archives to see how Texas handled refugees in the past.

When Russia began a purge of Jews in 1888, a Texan named J.B. Brown offered to give 100 acres of land to each Jewish family who wanted to relocate to Motley County on the plains of West Texas. Similarly, in 1939, a search was made around Texas for land that might be purchased for the relocation of European Jews. The city of Plainview notified Governor James Allred that 46,000 acres could be made immediately available if needed. There’s no evidence that any families took these offers, but the offers were at least made.

In 1956, when Hungarians revolted against oppressive Soviet control, people in Dallas welcomed refugees. Eighty-seven were greeted at Love Field by a local delegation, with the Southern Methodist University band playing the Hungarian national anthem, and the Lone Star flag of Texas joined by the national flags of the United States and Hungary. As The Dallas Morning News reported: “Refugees from blood-drained Hungary representing such diverse occupations as laborers, musicians, teachers, knitters and typists, Saturday will land in hospitable Dallas—their peaceful haven after bloody riots.” However, one group of six refugees had refused to come to Dallas because they believed the city was still the Wild West that they had seen in Hollywood movies. It was our violence they feared, not us fearing theirs.

(Indeed, Dallas continues to exhibit its welcoming spirit. The Morning News reported yesterday that Mayor Mike Rawlings said “he didn’t see what authority any mayor or governor had to keep legal U.S. residents out of a city or state. He said no one has contacted him about Syrian refugees but, if they did, it would be ‘the spirit of Dallas’ to help in a crisis.”)

When Cuban refugees started arriving in 1961, Texas Methodists, Baptists and the Catholic Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth organized to find them new homes and new jobs. “No church is too small to help meet the refugee problem,” the Texas Methodist wrote in an editorial. Will the churches of Texas be as welcoming to the Syrians now?

Similarly, Texas Quakers and Catholics in 1982 organized an underground railroad to help those fleeing violence in El Salvador find refuge in Texas by going around federal immigration officials. At one point, it was estimated that 25,000 Salvadorans were living illegally in Houston alone. Both sides in El Salvador’s civil war engaged in terroristic acts and death squads. Nothing could guarantee that some terrorists had not entered the country, nothing except the belief that most, if not all, of these people simply wanted to live their lives in peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the 1970s, Texas welcomed 27,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.

He does not speak for Christians:

A push by Republican presidential candidates to ban Syrian refugees “does not reflect what we’ve been hearing from our constituencies, which are evangelical churches across the country,” said Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy at World Relief, an evangelical organization that helps resettle refugees. “Most of the people have been saying we want to continue to work with refugees, that what happened in Paris … doesn’t reflect who refugees are.”


The United States so far has admitted roughly 2,100 Syrians since the conflict in the country began in March 2011. To be allowed in, refugees have to undergo the most stringent security checks of any traveler heading to the United States, according to the State Department. Officials from the Obama administration on Tuesday began reaching out to the media and lawmakers in a bid to explain the screening process, which takes an average of 18-24 months.

Meanwhile, faith-based groups have also stepped up their advocacy efforts for refugees. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement expressing distress over calls by elected officials to halt the resettlement program.

“These refugees are fleeing terror themselves — violence like we have witnessed in Paris,” said the statement by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the conference’s committee on migration. “Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees, I call upon our public officials to work together to end the Syrian conflict peacefully so the close to 4 million Syrian refugees can return to their country and rebuild their homes. Until that goal is achieved, we must work with the world community to provide safe haven to vulnerable and deserving refugees who are simply attempting to survive.”

Since the Paris attacks, World Relief has used a website to urge people to contact their governors to express their support for resettling Syrians. The Anti-Defamation League also has spoken out in favor of helping the Syrian refugees, noting that U.S. wariness to accept Jewish refugees during World War II is an example that must not be repeated.

I don’t know who Greg Abbott thinks he’s speaking for, but he doesn’t speak for them, he doesn’t speak for Fred, and he doesn’t speak for me.

Ireland votes to approve same sex marriage

As the old song goes, when Irish eyes are smiling, all the world seems bright and gay.

Irish voters have resoundingly backed amending the constitution to legalize gay marriage, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday after the world’s first national vote on the issue.

As the official ballot counting continued, the only question appeared to be how large the “yes” margin of victory from Friday’s vote would be. Analysts said the “yes” support was likely to exceed 60 percent nationally when official results are announced later Saturday.

Gay couples hugged and kissed each other amid scenes of jubilation at counting centers and at the official results center in Dublin Castle, whose cobblestoned central square was opened so thousands of revelers could sit in the sunshine and watch the results live on big-screen televisions.

“We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate. That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world, of liberty and equality. So it’s a very proud day to be Irish,” said Leo Varadkar, a Cabinet minister who came out as gay at the start of a government-led effort to amend Ireland’s conservative Catholic constitution.

“People from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Ireland are a minority. But with our parents, our families, or friends and co-workers and colleagues, we’re a majority,” said Varadkar, who watched the votes being tabulated at the County Dublin ballot center.

“For me it wasn’t just a referendum. It was more like a social revolution,” he said.


The “yes” side ran a creative, compelling campaign that harnessed the power of social media to mobilize young voters, tens of thousands of whom voted for the first time Friday. The vote came five years after parliament approved marriage-style civil partnerships for gay couples.

I included that last paragraph strictly for academic interest. I’m sure it has no relevant application to any other election anywhere else ever. Well done, Ireland. I’ll sing a song to you today.

The Slacktivist has more.

Flying to Cuba

You can get there from Houston, or at least you will be able to soon.

United Airlines made it clear Thursday it intends to offer regular commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, saying it would look to offer service from its Houston and Newark hubs to the Caribbean island.

The Chicago-based carrier’s statement came Thursday, following the administration’s announcement that it would begin steps to ease restrictions against Cuba starting Friday.

“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” the airline said in a statement.

Many details remain to be worked out before such service could begin.

The Department of Transportation said Thursday the U.S. regulators will work with Cuba to explore air service expansion. A specific air service agreement between the two countries would be required before regular commercial flights could start between the countries.


The infrastructure is in place here to capitalize on the travel changes. In 2011, Bush Intercontinental Airport was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers. Several charters have flown from the airport since, but none on a regular basis.

American Airlines, which has operated flights to Cuba for 15 years, dominates U.S. travel there. JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines were among the companies that started flying charters in 2011 from Florida

We’ve already discussed Cubans coming to Houston to visit and shop, so this is only fair. Houston is a hub for a lot of Latin American travel anyway, so the surprise would have been if United didn’t plan to play in this market, whenever it officially happens. Until then it’s a matter of dumping enough money on recalcitrant Republicans lobbying Congress to get the ball rolling.


Now this is what I call going old school for Christmas.

Long before parents relied on the powers of Santa Claus to monitor their children’s behavior, their counterparts in Alpine villages called on a shaggy-furred, horned creature with a fistful of bound twigs to send the message that they had better watch out.

Tom Bierbaumer recalls the trepidation he felt every Dec. 6, when the clanging of oversize cowbells signaled the arrival of the Krampus, a devilish mountain goblin who serves as an evil counterpart to the good St. Nick. He would think back over his misdeeds of past months — the days he had refused to clear the supper table, left his homework unfinished or pulled a girl’s hair.

“When you are a child, you know what you have done wrong the whole year,” said Mr. Bierbaumer, who grew up in the Bavarian Alps and now heads a Munich-based club, the Sparifankerl Pass — Bavarian dialect for “Devil’s Group” — devoted to keeping the Krampus tradition alive. “When the Krampus comes to your house, and you are a child, you are really worried about getting a hit from his switch.”

Besides visiting homes with St. Nicholas, the Krampus has for centuries run through village and town centers spreading pre-Christmas fear and chasing away evil spirits. That tradition dwindled across much of Bavaria during the 1960s and ’70s, as postmodern society moved away from its rural past.

But with cultural homogenization spreading across an increasingly unified Europe, a new generation is bringing back the customs that defined their childhoods, and those of their parents and grandparents.

A decade ago, Mr. Bierbaumer, 46, persuaded Munich authorities to stage an old-fashioned Krampuslauf: a spectacle in which the fearsome seasonal beasts run through rows of adorned wooden huts at the Bavarian capital’s oldest holiday market. He saw it as a way to ensure that future generations would share his childhood ritual, which takes place between late November and Dec. 23. At that point, similar beasts, known as Perchta, take over the fun until Epiphany.

The Munich Krampuslauf celebrates the history of the custom, including the artistry of the hand-carved, hand-painted masks. Advocates of the ritual say reviving it is important because American Christmas customs, which they see as more commercialized, have made their way into the German holiday.

Only old-fashioned Krampus, mixed with their cousins, the Perchta, are allowed to participate in the Munich runs, held on the second and third Sundays before Christmas. To join the run, they must be dressed in wooden masks with horns and goat or sheep pelts, and carry bells and switches — though only for show.

Upholding the seasonal ritual is of “absolute importance,” said Günter Tschinder from Lavanttal in Austria’s Carinthia region.

“This is a tradition that our great-grandparents were already doing that must be handed down to the next generation,” said Mr. Tschinder, a member of the Höfleiner Moorteufel from Carinthia, one of 27 groups that participated in Munich this year. “But properly handed down, as it was 40, 50, 60 years ago, not with a lot of commercialization, like from Hollywood films.”

This just makes me happy. Also, “Old Fashioned Krampus and The Perchtas” will be the name of my Scorpions tribute band. Merry Christmas, everybody.

I’ll see you in C-U-B-A

Among the many likely winners of the new US policy towards Cuba will be the city of Houston.

As an established travel gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, Houston is positioned to benefit from any potential easing of tourism restrictions in Cuba.

“There’s a lot of fascination with Cuba,” said Michelle Weller, a travel agent with Travel Leaders in Houston.”It’s human nature to want to explore that final frontier. … If Cuba opens for American tourism, it’s going to be great for Houston.”

Much is already in place to capitalize on any travel changes that might follow President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that put the U.S. a step closer to re-establishing ties with the island nation. In 2011, for example, Bush Intercontinental was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers.

Several charters have taken off from the airport since, but none have flown on a regular basis, Houston Airport System spokesman Bill Begley said Wednesday. He said the airport welcomes the latest changes in the U.S. relationship with Cuba.

“Houston currently is enjoying an unprecedented increase in the number of passengers flying aboard international flights and the possibility of adding yet another global destination to the route map is always appealing,” Begley said in a email.

While most Cuban travel activity is based in Florida, three travel agencies in Houston are authorized to arrange trips for Americans. Observers say the new initiative could lead to regular flights between Houston and Cuba as there is a pent-up demand for leisure and business activity.

“It means daily flights from Houston to Havana,” predicted Philip Howard, an associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Houston. The potential change has him thinking he’ll be able to “take some grad students and maybe undergraduates to Cuba.”


The Houston Airport System has already been working to broaden the Bayou City’s reach to Latin America, citing demand from business and leisure travelers. Several new nonstop flights have been announced in the last year, including to Mexico City, Monterrey and Cancún in Mexico; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; and Santiago, Chile. Southwest Airlines, which is building a new international terminal at Hobby Airport, also recently applied for federal approval to fly from Houston to destinations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize and Aruba.

“We are very spoiled in Houston. We can have a weekend trip to Mexico and now we have so many other new flights,” Weller said. “Cuba is so close. … It’s something exotic and people will want to try something different.”

I have no doubt there will be daily flights from IAH to Havana, probably within a year of the formalities being worked out. It’s a no-brainer. Energy companies will be right there to do business as well. I know that Texas Republicans are currently goin berserk over this. Gotta say, I think they’re letting their Obama hatred get the best of them again.

Who else will benefit from this? Major League Baseball, for sure.

Major League Baseball said in a statement that it is monitoring the president’s announcement.

“While there are not sufficient details to make a realistic evaluation, we will continue to track this significant issue, and we will keep our clubs informed if this different direction may impact the manner in which they conduct business on issues related to Cuba,” the statement read.

The players’ association released its own statement: “We will watch this situation closely as it continues to unfold and we remain hopeful that today’s announcement will lead to further positive developments.”

Jaime Torres, who has been the agent for numerous major leaguers who have defected from Cuba, told “Outside the Lines” that “this is the beginning of something big, and I was hoping for it shortly after President Obama was elected in 2008. It’s finally on the way.”

However, Torres, who is based in Miami, said that “it’s too early to jump up and be excited” about the potential effects on Major League Baseball.

“I’ve seen what MLB and the MLBPA said, but now we have to see how they proceed and what is done,” he said.

More here, here, here, and here for more. Existing Cuban teams will do well, as any system MLB and Cuba come up with will pay them well for signing their players. The players themselves will do well for the simple reason that they won’t have to defect and make often very perilous journeys to the US to play.

And finally, you will benefit from hearing this classic Irving Berlin tune:

The Austin Lounge Lizards have a great version of this song, but I couldn’t find a video of it. I’m glad I came across this one.

Feral hogs cross the border

You can’t stop them, and hoping to contain them is not looking so likely, too.

If nothing else, the voracious wild hogs that years ago destroyed the lucrative melon and cantaloupe harvests in this isolated border city — and are now ruining the alfalfa, corn and oat crops — have discriminating tastes.

“They like vanilla. It really attracts them,” Leonel Duran, an animal control agent for the state of Chihuahua, said as he stirred two bottles of Vera Cruz vanilla extract into a blue barrel of fermented corn.

When the concoction was ready, the crew hauled it to a large octagonal trap in a fallow field near the dry, narrow channel of the Rio Grande. The mix was quickly spread inside, followed by dry corn and stale rolls.

With the sun going down, the wily, nocturnal hogs would soon be up, and drawn to the trap.

The people who farm the oasis-green irrigated croplands around here, just across the border from Presidio, are just the latest to suffer from hog predations.

Omnivorous and intelligent, the non-native beasts now roam almost all of Texas, as well as most of the continental United States and Hawaii.

Some 5 million feral hogs are found throughout the country and in almost every habitat, spreading as far north as Canada from their original territory in the South.

“They have expanded their range from 17 to 39 states in the last 30 years, and cause damage to crops, kill young livestock, destroy property, harm natural resources, and carry diseases that threaten other animals, as well as people and water supplies,” said Edward Avalos, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, noting in a news release that hogs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage and control costs each year.

In April, the USDA launched a $20 million hog-control program, a move some see as a long overdue.

“We’ve been singing about pigs from the choir loft for years. Congress finally caught on. They didn’t hear us, they heard the landowners,” said Mike Bodenchuk, state director for Texas Wildlife Services, a federal-state cooperative.

We’ve been exporting feral hogs domestically, so I guess this was the natural next step. I’m sure that somewhere Ted Cruz is muttering incoherently about “sealing the border”. Beyond that, the most interesting thing I learned from this story is that El Paso is the only one of Texas’ 254 counties to not have any hogs in it. I don’t know what your secret is, El Paso, but good luck maintaining that.

Shark Week in the Gulf

You got your goblin sharks.

Goblin shark

Shrimpers fishing in the Gulf of Mexico have pulled up an incredibly rare, almost prehistoric looking goblin shark. It’s only the second sighting of such a beast in the Gulf.

The freakish shark is one of the least-known of the shark family, usually living in deep waters off the coast of Japan. The goblin is so rare that the first Gulf sighting of one over 10 years ago resulted in a scientific paper being written.

The new shark, estimated to have been 18 feet long, was accidentally hauled up by shrimpers off the coast of Key West, Florida.

The crew had a net down in 2,000 feet of water and were shocked when they pulled up the usual barrel-load of shrimp. Mixed into their catch was the bright pink giant, which preceeded to thrash around on deck.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” said lifetime fisherman Carl Moore. “I didn’t get the tape measure out because that thing’s got some wicked teeth, they could do some damage.”

Instead, Moore quickly hoisted the creature back into the water. It was only luck that any photos were taken as Moore had only just bought a cell phone with a camera.

“My 3-year-old grandson, he just loves sharks so I’ve been taking pictures of every one we find, when I showed him this one he said, ‘Wow, Pappa!'” Moore said.

I can’t stop looking at the photos in that news story. That is a creature from your nightmares, no doubt about it.

Speaking of nightmares, you’ve also got your great whites.

Gonna need a bigger boat

Divers taking a dip in the Gulf have captured amazing video of a Great White shark that paid them a visit as they explored a wreck about 80 miles off the coast of Florida.

The video shows the group at depths of around 100 feet, looking down through a school of fish. A dark shadow can been seen swimming by with diver Dane Kelly’s brother madly trying to point it out to his dive buddies.

“My brother’s going crazy because he realizes what it is before we do,” Dane Kelly explained to NBC2 News in Sanibel, Florida.

At times, the giant fish is hard to make out but the shape of a shark is as distinctive as it is ominous. Scientists say there is no doubt it was a Great White.

“Fortunately, most other sharks in the Gulf do not resemble white sharks at all,” said Nick Whitney, staff scientist and manager at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota via email.

“About the only species that looks similar is the shortfin mako shark, which does not get as long or as girthy as the white shark. And the shark in the video is long and girthy,” Whitney said.

Whitney estimates the shark in the video is about 12-14 feet long, saying that the body proportions and tail beat give away the fish’s massive size.

I don’t have anything to add here. I just think sharks are cool.

Saving the T Rex skeleton

How cool is this?

Little did Houston attorney Robert Painter know that his decade-old friendship with the president of Mongolia would lead to unraveling an archaeological mystery worthy of Indiana Jones.

In a story that reads like a Hollywood script, Painter played a leading role – including flying to Dallas and New York over a single weekend ­­- to thwart the sale of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to a private buyer.

Although the rare skeleton was initially sold in May at an auction in New York, the transaction hinged upon resolution of litigation and ultimately was canceled after the U.S. government in June seized the bones.

After further investigation, Florida resident Eric Prokopi, the consignor who had placed the skeleton for auction, pleaded guilty Dec. 27 in federal court in New York to two counts of smuggling and one count of conspiracy.


The remarkably intact set of bones looks like a smaller version of its Tyrannosaurus rex cousin, measuring about 30 feet long and 10 feet high, Painter said.

It was set to be auctioned May 20 in New York through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

Two evenings earlier, Painter received an urgent email from an adviser to Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Could anything, she asked, be done legally to stop an auction in less than 48 hours in New York.

Painter flew into action. He got involved in the case through his 10-year friendship with Elbegdorj, whom he met at a conference in New Orleans, while Elbegdorj was studying at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The two quickly hit it off and began collaborating on projects.

“We would have never thought of dinosaurs,” Painter said, although in the past year he has learned that many of the world’s dinosaur fossils are found in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

“So what did you do this week?”

“Oh, not much, really. I teamed up with the President of Mongolia to save a T-Rex skeleton from being illegally auctioned. How about you?”

“Well, I was going to say I wrote a memo about the need to clean out the office coffee pot when it’s empty, but I think I’ll just sit here quietly instead.”

The case for keeping the penny

The Canadian penny is about to become a collector’s item.

They clutter your dresser and cost too much to make. They’re a nuisance and have outlived their purpose.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was talking about the Canadian penny and why the Royal Canadian Mint will end its production this fall as part of his austerity budget.

“The penny is a currency without any currency in Canada, and it costs us 1.5 cents to produce a penny,” Flaherty told reporters.

Responses Friday were mixed, with some Canadians saying it would make life easier, while others worried it would become an opening for sneaky price hikes.


Flaherty said a Canadian senate committee held hearings on the penny last year and not one witness came forward to say it should be spared.

A government statement said New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Sweden and others “have made smooth transitions to a penny-free economy.” It said penny production cost $11 million a year, and that the coins, which feature two maple leaves and Queen Elizabeth II in profile, would remain legal tender until they eventually disappeared from circulation.

It said it expected businesses to round out the numbers on price tags where necessary.

This explains the details of rounding out the prices.

The 2012 federal budget states: “The government expects that businesses will apply rounding for cash transactions in a fair and transparent manner.”

The rounding will not be done on single items but on the total bill of sale. If the price ends in a one, two, six, or seven it gets rounded down to 0 or 5; and rounded up if it ends in three, four, eight or nine.

Businesses will not need to adjust their cash registers.

That’s only for cash transactions – if you pay via credit or debit card, you get charged the original, un-rounded amount. Call my cynical, but I have a sneaking suspicion that large retailers will have pricing software that is sophisticated enough to adjust retail prices on various items in a way to tilt the roundoffs in their favor. You’d never notice it, of course, but in the aggregate I bet it would add up to some real money.

Indeed, there’s some empirical evidence for that, which leads to the case for keeping the penny.

A 2001 economic analysis by Penn State’s Raymond Lombra found that a post-penny economy—in which we round to the nearest nickel—would probably hurt the poor disproportionately. In theory, rounding would balance itself out over time—with some transactions rounding up and others rounding down. Lombra’s simulations, however, which were based on the price book of a major retail chain, found that between 60 and 93 percent of transactions would round up, costing consumers nearly $600 million a year. Because the poor tend to use cash more often, they would shoulder most of that burden.

Admittedly, that’s just one study from a decade ago, but is there any reason to think it wouldn’t be at least as valid today? For sure, lower income folks disproportionately use cash, so even a relatively small effect, which $600 million in our economy would be, would still be mostly felt by those who could least afford it. I’m one of those people who likes the penny, for strictly sentimental reasons, but this is enough to make me want to defend that position. You’ll need to show me a fix for this problem before I’ll listen to any penny-elimination talk for the US.

The “Crazy College of Qatar”

As you may know, Houston Community College opened a satellite campus in Doha, Qatar, a couple of years ago. Apparently there have been a few bumps in the road along the way.

HCC Qatar West Bay Campus

The dean chosen by the Qatari government was replaced in November by a veteran HCC employee, Butch Herrod, as part of an administrative overhaul. Enrollment has reached 750 students, less than two years after HCC signed an agreement with the Qatari government to create that nation’s first community college.

But students have not received HCC credits for their classes there – a cornerstone of the promises made when the partnership was announced – and for now it appears unlikely their coursework will transfer to the six U.S. universities with operations in Qatar. After months of student protests, a deal signed last month will allow graduates of the new community college to enroll in Qatar University.

Things were so bad last spring an HCC administrator in Qatar wrote HCC Chancellor Mary Spangler that Community College of Qatar, or CCQ, had become known as “the Crazy College of Qatar.”

From the beginning, Spangler said the Qatar contract was a way to earn money as state funding dropped and property tax revenues remained flat. HCC records indicate the college has collected $640,034 from the deal; it projects a profit of $4.6 million by 2015, slightly more than expected.

Deputy Chancellor Art Tyler said in a recent interview that things now are running smoothly, and that misunderstandings are unavoidable in any international operation.

“The world is not exactly flat,” he said. “It may have gotten smaller over the years, thanks to technology, but when you’re dealing with people, with communities, you can’t know everything.”

There’s more here. I included that bit about the profit HCC expects to make from this deal because I’m sure you’re wondering why they would open a campus overseas like that. I know I discussed it in my interview with new Trustee Carroll Robinson. Anyway, my take on this is that part of the problem was the usual growing pains with any new operation, part was the dean that has since been replaced, and part was attributable to cultural differences. If they can get the issue of being able to transfer credits resolved, then this venture can be judged a success. If not, it’s a failure and there will be some embarrassing questions to answer.

To help Haiti

I received the following email from the American Red Cross:

I’ve got a brief update for you on Haiti.

The situation is dire. Hundreds of thousands of people are feared dead. Government offices, including the Presidential Palace, have collapsed. Hospitals and the local Red Cross office have

sustained major damage. Children, families and communities are still suffering aftershocks following yesterday’s devastating earthquake.

We’re sending a team of trained Red Cross responders to support our local staff and the Haitian Red Cross volunteers already providing food, water, and medical treatment to survivors. We pledged $200,000 from our International Response Fund in relief services yesterday, and increased our commitment this morning to $1 million thanks to your advance generosity.

Additional help will be needed. To support our International Response Fund and help victims of disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, please click here:

Matthew Marek, who runs our office in Haiti, managed to relay the following details to us last night using Skype, an online messaging service:

some neighborhoods are completely flat. major individual home damage. no telephonei’ve seen untreatable issues. bones broken and exposed. lacerations of all kinds

medical attention is needed all throughout the capital. people are scared and gathered in the streets

there is really no place to go in many of these neighborhoods

the dust from the collapse is still lingering in the air.

If you can, please contribute to our International Response Fund today. If you already donated, please share this email with a friend. Your donation will help provide immediate relief and long-term support to victims of disasters like the earthquake in Haiti:

The next 48 hours are critical for life-saving operations such as search and rescue and first aid.

Thank you,

David Meltzer
David Meltzer
Senior Vice President
International Services
American Red Cross

P.S. To get the latest updates on the situation in Haiti and view photos and video, visit out our online disaster newsroom or follow us on Twitter: @RedCross.

Needless to say, every little bit helps. You can also donate $10 quickly and easily to the Red Cross by texting HAITI to 90999. More information is here.

UPDATE: From the inbox:


Contact:  Roselene Alexis


Houston Haitian Community

News Conference on Earthquake Relief Efforts

WHO:              Houston’s Haitian Community

WHAT:             News conference to announce community meeting on earthquake relief efforts

WHERE:           Multi-Ethnic Community Center, 9819 Bissonnet

(north of 59 on west side of Bissonnet in back of shopping center)

WHEN:             10 a.m.

Friday, January 15

Houston’s Haitian Community is several thousand strong.  They will discuss what they know about what’s happening in Haiti with personal stories and announce a town hall meeting to be held Friday night to update Houstonians on the situation there and how they can help the people of Haiti get through this terrible disaster.

Mr. Goldberg goes to Iraq

Former Houston City Council Member Mark Goldberg has a new gig.

[Goldberg] will work as a local governance adviser for RTI International, a North Carolina nonprofit research and development organization that works in Iraq and other countries.

RTI employs 79 Americans in Iraq and 500 Iraqis and has operated there since 2003.

“What we’ve really worked to do is put in place the fundamental building blocks of a local government structure,” said Patrick Gibbons, an RTI spokesman.

Goldberg will coach and mentor Iraqi leaders of regional councils about how to develop democratic local governments.

He will help leaders draft budget plans and develop a plan for holding elections so Iraqi citizens have more influence over their local governments.

Working with Iraq’s tribal councils, Goldberg will try to teach them how to build roads, libraries and parks, among other projects.

“If you want to have a stable government in the Middle East, you have to start at all levels and not just at the national levels, but on the local levels,” said Goldberg. “I think they’ve (U.S. government) come to realize that regime change is very difficult from the top down.”

I wish him nothing but success in this new endeavor.

Now that’s a prank

I’d never heard of this before, but it’s very cool.

t was probably the most ingenious student prank of all time.

In June 1958, Cambridge awoke to see a car perched at the apex of an inaccessible rooftop, looking as if it were driving across the skyline.

The spectacle made headlines around the world and left police, firefighters and civil defence units battling for nearly a week to hoist the vehicle back down before giving in and taking it to pieces with blowtorches.

The shadowy group of engineering students who executed the stunt were never identified and the mystery of how they did it has baffled successive undergraduates and provided fodder for countless tourist guides.

Now, 50 years on, the group have reunited to disclose their identities and reveal how they winched an Austin Seven to the top of the university’s 70ft-high Senate House.

The photo of the car on the roof is so bizarre, it’s like a Magritte painting. The schematic of how the pranksters got it up there are truly impressive. Check it out, and ask yourself why you never did anything that cool in college. Thanks to Dwight on Twitter for the link.

Good times in Ireland are bad times for the pubs

Behold the dark side of prosperity.

As recently as the 1980s, young people had to leave Ireland to find work and millionaires were as rare as hen’s teeth, as the Irish say. But by 2005, according to the Bank of Ireland, the country of 4 million people had 30,000 residents worth more than a million euros, or about $1.5 million. A year later, the number of millionaires had jumped another 10 percent.

Ireland’s per-capita income is now among the highest in the world, surpassing those in the United States, Sweden and Japan, according to the World Bank.

Wealth has given the Irish more options and less time — a bad combination for the local pub. More people are spending sunny weekends in Spain rather than evenings of “craic,” as good times and conversation are known, down at the pub.

Fewer people are farming the valuable rolling green hills around Carney’s, about 50 miles south of Galway, and more are commuting long distances to better-paying jobs. And all over the country, when the weary commuters return home, many now prefer to stay in their comfortable homes with a glass of chardonnay in front of their flat-screen TVs.

The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland, which represents rural pubs, said the number of pubs outside Dublin has dropped from 6,000 to 5,000 in the past three years. Some estimates suggest the number may soon dwindle to 3,500.

That’s just wrong. I suppose if I ever want to experience a real Irish pub, I’d better get a move on before it’s too late.

RIP, Dith Pran

Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist on whose life the movie “The Killing Fields” was based, has died of cancer at the age of 65.

Dith was working as an interpreter and assistant for [New York Times reporter Sydney] Schanberg in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, when the Vietnam War reached its chaotic end in April 1975 and both countries were taken over by Communist forces.

Schanberg helped Dith’s family get out but was forced to leave his friend behind after the capital fell; they were not reunited until Dith escaped four and a half years later. Eventually, Dith resettled in the United States and went to work as a photographer for the Times.

It was Dith himself who coined the term “killing fields” for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.

The regime of Pol Pot, bent on turning Cambodia back into a strictly agrarian society, and his Communist zealots were blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people.

“That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp,” Schanberg said later.

With thousands being executed simply for manifesting signs of intellect or Western influence — even wearing glasses or wristwatches — Dith survived by masquerading as an uneducated peasant, toiling in the fields and subsisting on as little as a mouthful of rice a day, and whatever small animals he could catch.

After Dith moved to the U.S., he became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, dedicated to educating people on the history of the Khmer Rouge regime.

He was “the most patriotic American photographer I’ve ever met, always talking about how he loves America,” said Associated Press photographer Paul Sakuma, who knew Dith through their work with the Asian American Journalists Association.

Schanberg described Dith’s ordeal and salvation in a 1980 magazine article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.” Schanberg’s reporting from Phnom Penh had earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.

Later a book, the magazine article became the basis for “The Killing Fields,” the highly successful 1984 British film starring Sam Waterston as the Times correspondent and Haing S. Ngor, another Cambodian escapee from the Khmer Rouge, as Dith Pran.

The film won three Oscars, including the best supporting actor award to Ngor.

“Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people,” Schanberg said. “When cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made my brother so special.”

I saw “The Killing Fields” in the theaters with some buddies when I was in college. It was one of the most emotionally wrenching movies I’ve ever seen, and I cannot begin to fathom what it must have been like for Dith Pran and those like him who survived it. My sincere condolences to his family. Rest in peace, Dith Pran.

The “doomsday seed vault”

Is it just me, or does anyone else get a wee bit edgy when sci-fi plotlines become news?

A doomsday seed vault on a remote Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean opened Tuesday, creating a bank of more than 100 million seeds representing every major food crop on Earth.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is meant to be a Noah’s Ark for plant genetics. At 4 degrees below 0 F, it will preserve the thousands of regional and local crop varieties farmers worldwide have bred for thousands of years.

Were war, disease, plague or global warming to wipe out any one species, it could be replenished from the seeds stored deep in the permafrost of the mountain vault.

“Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facility capable of protecting what are not just seeds but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in comments relayed by a spokesman.

Numerous seed repositories exist worldwide, but the Svalbard vault is the most comprehensive.

I guess that’s a good thing to have, as long as someone remembers it’s there in the event it’s needed. But I’d prefer to live in a world where this sort of contingency is not seen as needed. Oh, well.

The Irish bag tax

We’ve talked about recycling and voluntary reduction as a way of dealing with the plastic bag problem. Here’s another approach, taken by Ireland, which has been very successful.

There is something missing from this otherwise typical bustling cityscape. There are taxis and buses. There are hip bars and pollution. But there are no plastic shopping bags, the ubiquitous symbol of urban life.

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them for their purchases must now pay 22 cents per bag at the register.

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.


Efforts to tax plastic bags have failed in many places because of heated opposition from manufacturers. In Britain, Los Angeles and San Francisco, proposed taxes failed to gain political approval, though San Francisco passed a ban last year.

Today, Ireland’s retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags. “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” said Sen. Feargal Quinn, founder of Ireland’s largest homegrown chain of supermarkets. “But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”

Hard to argue with that kind of result. I think as the use of plastic bags becomes increasingly frowned upon, it’s inevitable that the same kind of tax will be passed here somewhere, and then once that happens, it’ll spread the same way anti-smoking laws have done.

No thank you for not smoking

Now that’s what I call a backlash.

The owner of a small German computer company has fired three non-smoking workers because they were threatening to disturb the peace after they requested a smoke-free environment.

The manager of the 10-person IT company in Buesum, named Thomas J., told the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper he had fired the trio because their non-smoking was causing disruptions.

Germany introduced non-smoking rules in pubs and restaurants on January 1, but Germans working in small offices are still allowed to smoke.

“I can’t be bothered with trouble-makers,” Thomas was quoted saying. “We’re on the phone all the time and it’s just easier to work while smoking. Everyone picks on smokers these days. It’s time for revenge. I’m only going to hire smokers from now on.”

Apparently, the revolution has begun. You have been warned.

The bridge protest

As you may know, I’m a tournament bridge player, though not as frequent a player as I once was, thanks to other obligations. I can honestly say that in nearly 20 years of playing at tournaments, I have very little idea how most of the folks I’ve played with and against vote. It just doesn’t come up in the conversation. So I guess I’m as surprised as anyone to hear about this.

In the genteel world of bridge, disputes are usually handled quietly and rarely involve issues of national policy. But in a fight reminiscent of the brouhaha over an anti-Bush statement by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, a team of women who represented the United States at the world bridge championships in Shanghai last month is facing sanctions, including a yearlong ban from competition, for a spur-of-the-moment protest.

At issue is a crudely lettered sign, scribbled on the back of a menu, that was held up at an awards dinner and read, “We did not vote for Bush.”

By e-mail, angry bridge players have accused the women of “treason” and “sedition.”

“This isn’t a free-speech issue,” said Jan Martel, president of the United States Bridge Federation, the nonprofit group that selects teams for international tournaments. “There isn’t any question that private organizations can control the speech of people who represent them.”

Not so, said Danny Kleinman, a professional bridge player, teacher and columnist. “If the U.S.B.F. wants to impose conditions of membership that involve curtailment of free speech, then it cannot claim to represent our country in international competition,” he said by e-mail.

I look at it this way: If you think these women are representing all US bridge players, then I’d agree they were out of line. If this had occurred in 2002, with someone holding up a sign that said “9/11: Have You Forgotten?” superimposed over a map of Iraq, I’d have been mighty pissed if I felt they were somehow speaking on my behalf. If that’s your view, that the USBF team represents all of us, then sanctioning them is appropriate.

This view isn’t crazy. You hear Olympians talk all the time about “representing their country” and how proud they are to do so. But it seems to me that if you are representing your country, then as Ronald Reagan used to joke about, one of the ideals you’re also representing is the right to criticize its leaders openly and publicly. That doesn’t immunize you from criticism of your actions, of course, but it is something that the sponsoring organization, in this case the USBF, should respect and leave alone.

So put me down as someone who thinks these women should not be made to issue any perfunctory apology, or to be suspended from international play. It’s the USBF, and not the individual team captained by Gail Greenberg, that represents me in some sense, and as such I’d prefer they butt out and let the ideal of free speech speak for itself. Link via Jon Swift and The American Street, who has an amusing alteration of the sign.

Prosecute or not?

The Humane Society is applying pressure to the Justice Department in an effort to get them to prosecute Dan Duncan.

Duncan testified before a grand jury in Houston last week about the hunting trip in which he killed a moose and a sheep while flying with a Russian guide. He said he wasn’t aware hunting from the air was illegal in Russia, as it is in the U.S.

“The Humane Society of the United States urges prosecution to the full extent of the law and we thank the Department of Justice for giving this case the attention it deserves,” the group said in a statement today.

Duncan’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, said he “respects everyone’s right to have an opinion” but would not comment further on the group’s statement.

Hardin said last week that the government might prosecute Duncan under the Lacey Act, a law designed to prevent the interstate and international trafficking of rare plants and animals, although the animals he shot were not endangered.

As distasteful as I find Duncan’s actions to be, I don’t want this decision to be made in the media. I support there being an investigation to determine if any laws were broken, and if so, then I support a vigorous prosecution. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Call it something else, please

I’m not a hunter. Compared to me, even Mitt Romney looks like Daniel Boone. I have nothing against hunting, it’s just not my idea of a good time. But I can at least understand the allure, on some level, of matching wits with your prey on even terms, on their turf.

This, however, I don’t understand at all.

Dan Duncan may not have known it was against the law to hunt from a helicopter in Russia, but some say the Houston billionaire should have.

Duncan, 74, appeared before a grand jury in Houston this week to answer questions about a 2002 hunting trip he took in Russia where he shot a moose and a sheep from a helicopter.

Duncan told the Chronicle he believed he was within the law because his Russian guide instructed him to take the shots.

It wasn’t until he was recently contacted by U.S. investigators that he learned the practice was illegal in Russia and that by bringing the trophy heads back to the U.S., he violated a law here known as the Lacey Act.

But some believe the executive with pipeline giant Enterprise Products Partners shouldn’t have used the assistance of the aircraft when making the shot anyhow.

“Hunting from aircraft has long been prohibited in the U.S. So I’d think any experienced hunter from the U.S. would know it’s illegal elsewhere,” said Michael Bean, an attorney and chairman of the wildlife program for Environmental Defense in Washington, D.C.

I’m sorry, but taking a potshot at a moose from a helicopter, I don’t know what you call it, but I don’t call it hunting. It’s not a fair fight. I feel the same way about the “canned” hunts on private ranches, where the game is basically trapped in an enclosed area, and every two-bit Kit Carson who pays for the privilege is guaranteed to kill something. To me, this has more in common with Michael Vick than it does with anything that can reasonably be called a sport. I have no opinion on whether or not the feds should pursue a case against this guy – maybe he really didn’t know it was illegal, and for sure they have better things to be doing – and to some extent, I don’t really care. I’ll settle for him feeling shame for taking part in this. If he’s not ashamed of himself, he should be.

Le Wi-Fi, oui oui

Add the city of Paris to the municipal Wi-Fi revolution.

If Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has his way, free wireless Internet soon will be in public places throughout the city – including the cafe haunts on the Left Bank where the master of the chiseled phrase used to write longhand in small black notebooks.

While it might be a little hard to imagine Hemingway writing A Farewell to Arms on a laptop, Delanoe is betting that le Wi-Fi (pronounced wee-fee here) is one of many changes in Paris that will attract creative spirits as well as legions of young people who might otherwise flee the tradition-bound city for places closer to the cutting edge.

Delanoe, 56, a socialist with strong views about how to make Paris competitive in the 21st century, has been reshaping the city’s image since he was elected the French capital’s first openly gay mayor in 2001. He wants to make Paris greener, more high- tech, less uptight.

“Paris is extremely strong when it is most welcoming,” Delanoe told a news magazine shortly after his election. Previous mayors and the national government, he said, had “museumified” the city.

His goal is both to attract young people, some of whom have chosen to move to London for employment, and to attract new business, which increasingly looks to Eastern Europe or the Far East.

“We can’t leave Asian cities like Seoul or Tokyo, or American cities like San Francisco or Philadelphia, to make the running (to dominate) in digital matters,” Delanoe said earlier this year when he announced plans to create 400 free wireless hotspots.

I forget what the technical term is for what Mayor Delanoe has in mind here – ideopolis, I think – but I’ll leave that to folks like Tory to comment on. Y’all know that I love seeing more Wi-Fi access in more places, so I’m just happy to note this for the record.

Question of the day

So am I a big ol’ sap for admitting that reading this choked me up, or do I get a pass for being the father of a little girl? Help me out here.

RIP, Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin, the famed Crocodile Hunter, died with his boots on over the weekend.

Irwin died doing what he loved best, getting too close to one of the dangerous animals he dedicated his life to protecting with an irrepressible, effervescent personality that propelled him to global fame.

The 44-year-old Irwin’s heart was pierced by the serrated, poisonous spine of a stingray as he swam with the creature today while shooting a new TV show on the Great Barrier Reef, his manager and producer John Stainton said.

Marine experts called the death a freak accident. They said rays reflexively deploy a sharp spine in their tails when frightened, but the venom coating the barb usually just causes a very painful sting for humans.

“It was extraordinarily bad luck,” said Shaun Collin, a University of Queensland marine neuroscientist. “It’s not easy to get spined by a stingray, and to be killed by one is very rare.”

Maybe karma finally caught up with him. Anyone who’s watched a few episodes of his TV show knows that he’s had more than a few close calls in his career. This time he wasn’t so lucky.

Conservationists said all the world would feel the loss of Irwin, who turned a childhood love of snakes and lizards and knowledge learned at his parents’ side into a message of wildlife preservation that reached a television audience that reportedly exceeded 200 million.

“He was probably one of the most knowledgeable reptile people in the entire world,” Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, told ABC’s Good Morning America.


He was a committed conservationist, running a wildlife park for crocodiles and other Australian fauna, including kangaroos, koalas and possums, and using some of his TV wealth to buy tracts of land for use as natural habitat.

Say what you want about Irwin’s style, and about some of the choices he may have made. From where I stand, he did a hell of a lot of good for the cause of conservation, and for making all kinds of animals normally considered nuisances or dangerous less threatening to skittish humans. He put his money where his mouth was, and he died the way he lived, doing what he loved. The world could use more people like that. Rest in peace, Steve Irwin.

Iraq Internet cafe

However you feel about the current situation in Iraq, I believe this proposal by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson is something we can all support.

This May we are returning to Iraq with the intention of dedicating a twenty-four station “Internet Cafe” in Taji. Our goal is to make the World Wide Web available via satellite link in outlying areas of rural Iraq where that service is severely limited.

Some of the hardware and equipment for this project has already been donated. The remaining need is approximately $140,000 to fund the satellite services and equipment for two years.

The Department of Texas VFW Foundation, a 501(c)3 entity, will manage the collection and disbursement of the tax deductible contributions. Corporate contributors are welcome, and it is our goal to have these resources in hand no later than May 15.

I am asking your financial support in this project. This is a personal priority of mine, ahead of re-election fundraising or any other work. I would sincerely appreciate your help.

Information about the cafe and how you can help are at the link. I’m told by Patterson’s press secretary Jim Suydam that Patterson has been hitting up elected officials in Austin to give from their campaign cash. That’s as good a use for it as I can think of.

Take a look, and if you agree that this is worthy of support, pass the link along to someone else. Thanks very much.

UPDATE: In the Pink puts it all in perspective.