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February, 2003:

Why they bother

Kevin Drum, in commenting on this entry about zapping the TeleZapper, asked a very reasonable question:

Sarcasm aside, why do they want to defeat devices like the TeleZapper? Surely anyone willing to spend $40 and expend the effort to install such a thing is pissed off enough about telemarketing calls that they are genuinely unlikely to respond to a call. Why would you want to contact such a person?

Now one of his readers has suggested a very reasonable answer:

This, I think, has to do with an old door-to-door salesman’s rule of thumb, namely, that the best doors to knock on were those where there were signs saying “No Solicitors.” These signs were mostly (at least in the salesmen’s worldview) put up by people whose “sales resistance” was nil, people who knew (or whose spouse, perhaps, knew) that any salesman who got them to open the door was pretty well guaranteed a sale. People who could easily growl, “get lost” to a salesman didn’t need “No Solicitors” signs. So, anyone who goes to the trouble and expense of buying and installing a Telezapper is quite likely someone who has little to no sales resistance and is probably a pretty good mark.

Very interesting. I still see it Kevin’s way, but I can certainly understand this viewpoint.

With friends like these…

You know, for all of the crabbing by some conservatives about Martha Burk and her quest to get the Augusta National Golf Club to admit women, I think I’d rather be on her side of the issue than a Ku Klux Klan splinter group.

“This equal rights stuff has gotten out of hand,” Joseph J. Harper, imperial wizard of the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said Friday. “We’re not concerned with whether they want us there or not. We’re concerned with their right to choose who they want to choose” as members.

Harper wrote the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department on Thursday, requesting a permit to protest during the Masters in April.

I suppose it ruins all the fun to point out that the kind of publicity that a KKKesque protest at an event like the Masters would generate is exactly the sort of thing that gives network executives and corporate sponsors a terminal case of the heebie jeebies, and that their prescription to make it go away is to call Hootie Johnson up and tell him to invite a chick into the club, pronto. Joseph Harper, therefore, is very likely to do exactly what Martha Burk was unable to.

I’m gonna have to buy myself a new Irony-O-Meter, because this story just broke the one I have now.

Mac also picked up on this.

Poor folks don’t need health care

Today’s edition of Worst Case Budget Scenarios is what the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid look like after a 12.5% budget cut as mandated by Governor Goodhair. It ain’t pretty.

The worst-case-scenario budget that reduces funding 12.5 percent for Health and Human Services would result in the following:

· Cutting 251,200, or 51 percent of children served, from the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

· Cutting 69,800 needy adults from the Medicaid rolls.

· Cutting Medicaid reimbursement to providers by 33 percent, likely meaning fewer doctors and hospitals would accept Medicaid patients.

This is the guy that Perry himself appointed to oversee these programs saying these things, not some namby-pamby limpwrist liberal who just wants to confiscate your paycheck. As always, the Guv himself is demonstrating genuine leadership:

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt refused to offer any specific assurances to increasingly alarmed, affected Texans.

“The governor is confident that as the Legislature moves through the budgeting process the Legislature will exercise sound judgment distinguishing between wants and needs” she said.

Translation: If y’all can make this work, I’ll take the credit. If it goes to hell in a handbasket, it’s the Lege’s fault.

The figures are too depressing to quote any more. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that even I can’t believe that Perry and the Lege would go this far. Something will have to give, I just don’t know what or when.

Another bloody anniversary

Man, the last week of February really sucked in 1993, didn’t it? Today is the 10th anniversary of the BATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, a raid that left four agents and six Davidians dead, and which climaxed 51 days later on April 19 with the fiery deaths of 74 other cultists.

Among the things I didn’t know that I do now after reading that article and this one is that there are still followers of David Koresh out there, and that they don’t seem to be carrying around much of a grudge against the government for what happened. I can’t say much about their theology, but I certainly admire their ability to forgive and move on.

Stray thought: What do you think the threat level will be on April 19? After all the wolf-crying that’s been done, will anyone take it seriously? Just curious.

A little something silly

Scott points me to this excellent photo of poker-playing snowmen. Now all they need is someone to paint the whole scene on black velvet.

Now that’s a double latte!

I feel the need to drive some new Google searches to this site, so I’m happy to point out that Playboy will be photographing the Women of Starbucks later this year. As a dedicated non-drinker of coffee, let me say that this will probably be more tasteful than what usually comes out of Starbucks.

Amusing sidebar: Normally, the Chron‘s “Newsmakers” section on Page 2 just lifts a paragraph from stories like this without any additional content. Today, though, they added a distinctly Houston spin to it:

Hold on to your travel mugs: Playboy Magazine is planning a “Women of Starbucks” pictorial for late 2003. The monster coffee chain offered a frosty reaction to the brewing controversy on Thursday, saying it doesn’t endorse the project. Nonetheless, the magazine — inspired by the success of similar spreads featuring Enron and 7-Eleven employees — has given baristas everywhere an April 1 deadline to submit pictures that would make Mr. Coffee blush. With more than 100 stores in Houston — including one on each side of the intersection at Gray and Shepherd — it’s a good bet Playboy will select a latte lady from the Bayou City. Especially if they used to work at Enron.

Sometimes you just have to sit back and admire the Chron‘s ability to do Houston boosterism.

Batter up!

The team practice last night was at an indoor batting cage. I’d made the decision to do that instead of work out on the regular field because of the recent nasty weather which forced the cancellation of our last practice. The weather yesterday actually turned out to be pretty decent, but the field would have still been wet and muddy.

We started out with me pitching to the kids. I was behind one of those batting-practice screens you see major leaguers use. It’s basically a seven foot square hurricane fence, with a small rectangle cut out in the top left for me to throw through. After everyone had taken a turn, I offered a dollar to anyone who hit a line drive back through that cut-out section. The first kid to do so was the smallest one on the team. He’d swung and missed at most of the pitches before that, so it was really gratifying to see him connect like that. One other kid collected later on.

Eventually we got the manager to set up the Jugs pitching machine to give them a different look. We set the machine for 40 MPH, which was a bit faster than they were used to seeing. All of them started out swinging too late to make contact, but by the time they finished they had the timing down. That was encouraging.

The Jugs machine uses these weird rubber-coated yellow balls that are dimpled like golf balls. I could swear we used to feed the Jugs machine regular baseballs when I was a kid at baseball camp, but maybe that was only in the arm-style machines.

The other major accomplishment was handing off the candy to the parents who had signed up to sell it. They all seemed to know what they were doing, which was a relief to me. They have until March 31 to complete their capitalistic mission.

No practice this Saturday due to a Cub Scout conflict. We’ll be back on the field on Tuesday.

The Veterans Committee

Well, the reconstituted Veterans’ Committee failed to elect anyone to the Hall of Fame. While I think there were a couple of worthy candidates, I’d rather get this outcome than the enshrinement of a “who’s that?” by the former committee, which was a bigger bastion of cronyism and closed-room politics than anything Tammany Hall or Mayor Daley ever conceived of. Jayson Stark also approves of this, and Rob Neyer predicted the outcome when the new Committee was first formed, though given his usual crankiness about the Hall I’m more than a little surprised at how many guys he stumped for.

Personally, I’d have voted for Ron Santo (the only player enshrined by Internet voters), Marvin Miller, and Billy Martin. Yes, Billy Martin, whose record as a manager is criminally overlooked. Anyone who can take four different teams to the postseason is worth consideration, but Joe Torre will get in before Martin ever does (not that Torre’s record is anything to sneeze at, especially if you overlook his early years with the Mets).

Finally, I can’t believe that people are still stumping for Roger Maris. Look, he had a couple of great seasons, but his career record doesn’t come close to Hall standards. For cripes’ sake, the players whose career stats are closest to his are as follows:

Bob Allison (946)
Hank Sauer (939)
Jay Buhner (922)
Jesse Barfield (918)
Tony Armas (914)
Dean Palmer (912)
Eric Davis (907)
Danny Tartabull (905)
Bill Nicholson (902)
Raul Mondesi (896)

If there’s a Hall of Famer in that bunch, I’m the queen of Romania. Maris was a great guy, but he wasn’t a Hall of Famer. Sorry.

Yet another budget in distress

The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority is $20 million poorer than it expected to be due to missed financial projections.

By this time, after the Christmas shopping season, Metro officials expected the transit agency’s 1-cent sales tax to have generated $175.3 million.

But only $156 million has been collected for this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. That’s $19.3 million or 11 percent less than what Metro predicted in its 2003 budget.

Despite the numbers, which Metro President Shirley DeLibero called “disappointing,” officials insist there will be no cuts in service. And if necessary, the agency can fall back on $246 million in reserves.

At least they have reserves, which should avoid any nasty cutbacks. Of course, this sort of thing is a clarion call for political opportunists.

[In November,] Metro will ask voters to approve a multibillion-dollar plan to improve mobility that will include rail and other projects.

Financial problems and faulty budget projections could become fodder for transit agency critics long before voters go to the polls. For example, Metro forecast that sales tax revenue would jump 6.1 percent in 2003 — a prediction made in June, well after the economy started its nose dive.

“This was outrageously overforecasted,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. “There is simply no guess or estimate like this, post-Sept. 11 and during this economic slump, that could be made in good conscience. … I was shocked at the amount of the increase Metro forecasted, and these numbers show there is simply no basis in financial reality for them.”

Bettencourt, a Republican who will decide whether to openly oppose Metro’s plan once it’s released, said the flawed projections will definitely be an issue with voters.

Such miscalculations could be used to argue that Metro is not a good steward of public money, said Bettencourt, who estimated that Metro’s sales tax revenue shortfall could reach $40 million this year.

Hey, Paul, where were you when our state Comptroller fessed up to bigger deficits than she’d originally forecast, forecasts that were derived by wildly optimistic revenue projections? Oh, wait, our Comptroller is a fellow Republican, so no blame attaches there. Move along, nothing to see here.

DeLibero dismisses such talk and said Metro can easily show voters it has been responsible with public money.

DeLibero said she has run the agency like a business. There has been zero-based budgeting every year, costs have been held down and officials have spent about $40 million less than budgeted during the past two fiscal years.

“I think the folks out there ought to have seen that,” she said. “I feel very confident (voters and any potential critics) should feel comfortable with the way Metro operates and how we look at our fiscal year and how we operate our budget.”

To address the sales tax revenue shortfall, DeLibero said the agency will cut administrative costs, such as employee training and enrichment programs and travel. DeLibero has also told administrators to look for other ways to cut their budgets.

Don’t forget to stroke Bettencourt’s ego while you’re at it.

Slay no more

I thought it was pretty clear from the plotline, but just in case there was any doubt, Sarah Michelle Gellar says that this is the last season for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Well, in its present form, anyway:

But the show may come back to life in some form: Its creator, Joss Whedon, is planning a spin-off that may include some “Buffy” cast members. It will be pitched first to UPN, “Buffy’s” home for the past two seasons; for five seasons before that, it was on the WB.

All I can say is that I sincerely hope they don’t give us something that resembles After M*A*S*H. Eww.

RIP, Mister Rogers

It’s a sad day in the neighborhood:

PITTSBURGH – Fred Rogers, who gently invited millions of children to be his neighbor as host of the public television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” for more than 30 years, died of cancer early Thursday. He was 74.

Rogers died at his Pittsburgh home, said family spokesman David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the show. Rogers had been diagnosed with stomach cancer sometime after the holidays, Newell said.


Rogers’ gentle manner was the butt of some comedian’s jokes. Eddie Murphy (news) parodied him on “Saturday Night Live (news – Y! TV)” in the 80’s with his “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” a routine Rogers found funny and affectionate.

All of your Mister Rogers-related questions are answered here. He enjoyed the parodies of himself:

And, all you basketball fans, he doesn’t mind at all that San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson is doing his thing in that “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood” Nike ad. “I’m so impressed with David Robinson’s spirituality,” he said. Mister Rogers even had a kind word for Eddie Murphy, who spoofed him on Saturday Night Live. “When I met him, finally, he was so affectionate and gentle,” he said.

I recall reading that Eddie Murphy went into total fanboy mode when he met Fred Rogers, which seems right to me.

Lastly, Salon did a nice retrospective of his career in 1998, to mark the 30th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. USA Today had an equally nice retrospective in 2001 when Mister Rogers hung up his sweater for the last time on the show.

Rest in peace, Mister Rogers.

UPDATE: Sam Heldman notes that Mister Rogers had an impact on a Supreme Court case as well. As one would expect, he was on the right side of the issue.

The torture never ends

I don’t know how they’re going to do it – I’m afraid to even think about it – but Fox is preparing another Joe Millionaire. Not that I’ll watch anyway, but I confess the speculation interests me.

One of NBC’s top priorities for this summer and next year is to develop a successful relationship-based reality series along the lines of Joe Millionaire and The Bachelor, he said.

Meanwhile, ABC announced Thursday it was preparing a fourth edition of The Bachelor that “has the heir to a well-known family, a Dynasty-like family,” ABC executive Susan Lyne said.

Fox is about to debut Married by America, a series based on the idea that it can marry off two longing-for-love people who had never met, In April, Fox presents Mr. Personality, a series that “explores how looks effect love,” said entertainment President Gail Berman.

Obviously, our interest in disposable celebrities has not yet peaked. Jason Alexander’s quote about fame comes to mind:

I once went to speak at a school, and there was a 16-year-old girl… And the girl says to me, ‘You know what? I don’t care what I do, I just want to be famous.’ And I thought, you know, I should really just shoot her in the head because it would serve two things: It would make her famous as the girl that Jason Alexander shot in the head, and it would, you know, spare the world of the banality of the rest of her life.


Strange Bedfellows Dept.

It’s an anti-abortion/pro-tort reform smackdown!

Historically, social conservatives have stood beside business interests pushing what proponents call tort reform — damage caps and other limitations on lawsuits.

Tort reform advocates say ambulance-chasing lawyers have fed a growth in frivolous lawsuits, which have raised the cost of doing business in Texas.

But now, as legislators debate proposals to cap damage awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, some abortion opponents argue that the caps proposed could result in a higher number of abortion providers. They worry that physicians who don’t perform abortions now because of malpractice liability might consider the procedure profitable if potential damages were limited.

A bill proposed by state Rep. Joe Nixon, R-Houston, and state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Addison, would put a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages, such as those sometimes awarded for pain and suffering. Quantifiable economic damages, such as medical expenses and lost earnings, would not be capped.

While proponents of the bill argue that it won’t hurt the family values issues dear to social conservatives, some who want Christian values in government promise a holy war to amend the bill. A vote for this brand of tort reform, they warn, is an unintended vote for more abortions in Texas.

“This isn’t going to go away,” said Houston attorney Mark Lanier, who is leading an effort among social conservatives to have the legislation changed to exempt abortion malpractice cases from the caps, among other amendments. “This bill undervalues human life.”

I love a useful idiot. If it takes a bad argument by bad people to beat a bad bill, then so be it.

I should note that this particular bill is unlikely to pass the Senate as is, since Senator Bill Ratliff (R, Mount Pleasant) is the chair of the Senate Affairs Committee, and he opposes a hard cap on non-economic damages. A compromise bill could get through, but these are the kind of opponents who don’t believe in compromise.

At the heart of Lanier’s argument is the concern that capping damage awards would result in lower insurance rates, which could make abortions more profitable for doctors who provide them.

The great irony, of course, is that now even the insurance industry says that “tort reform” has not lowered rates. Not that he’d let an inconvenient fact slay his logic, mind you.

Anyway, have at it, fellas. We’ll be on the sidelines egging you on.

Ten years ago

Ten years ago today the World Trade Center was bombed by terrorists who hoped to bring the Towers down. Looking back on it, we never really realized it for what it was: a declaration of war. Pretty easy to see now, unfortunately.

Among the many things that were lost on 9/11 was the memorial to the six people who were killed on February 26, 1993. The artist who designed that memorial writes about it here. I must say, for all of the stories that are supposed to commemorate those six people, the only article I could find that actually mentioned their names is this one, written during the trial of bomber Ramzi Yousef. That’s just wrong. Let us never forget Monica Smith, Wilfredo Mercado, Steven Knapp, William Macko, Robert Kirkpatrick, and John DiGiovanni. May they rest in peace.

And it’s 1,2,3, what are we debating anti-war resolutions for?

Looks like the two proposed anti-war resolutions before the Houston City Council will meet the same fate as the slavery reparations resolution did. Though I thought the whole thing was a waste of the Council’s time, I do want to thank them for providing me with one shining moment of high comedy:

Most council members who are against the resolutions argue that council should not be discussing issues of international importance.

While the argument has been little used, most of them also support the direction President Bush is taking.

On Monday, the executive committee of the Harris County Republican Party passed a resolution in support of Bush and called for council to “reject any efforts to have a municipal government weigh in on international diplomacy.”

The executive committee is made up of Republican precinct chairs.

“Rarely do 400 members speak with one voice,” Jared Woodfill, the party chairman, said of those in attendance for the vote.

Umm, Jared, how many Republican precinct chairs would you normally expect to oppose a resolution in support of a Republican president? I’m just asking.

“There are more pressing city issues the council needs to deal with. It’s anti-American and inappropriate for them to debate a resolution and it’s not within the province of council charter and purpose.”

You’re wrong, Jared. Dissent, no matter how misguided or grandstanding, is not anti-American. Suppressing dissent is anti-American. Shame on you.

Telemarketers gain upper hand in technology

Uh oh, telemarketers now have a way to defeat privacy tools like the TeleZapper and SBC’s Privacy Manager.

Castel, a maker of automated dialing technology, boasts that its DirectQuest software is immune to the TeleZapper, a $40 gadget designed to thwart sales calls by faking the tones of a disconnected number.

Beverly, Mass.-based Castel has been mailing brochures to telemarketers and other prospective customers touting the software, which also includes a feature that lets salesmen transmit any phone number or text message to caller ID displays.

That second component allows DirectQuest to dodge such phone company privacy services as SBC’s Privacy Manager and Sprint’s Privacy ID, both of which reject calls that don’t provide caller ID information.

Castel’s software is built for the high-volume “predictive dialers” that use multiple lines to phone residential numbers.

Remember this the next time you hear a flack for the DMA or some other telemarketing organization solemnly swear that they only want to reach people who want to hear from them. And as a public service to you, my faithful readers, if you happen to be one of those people who loves to hear from telemarketers, here’s a handy letter you can send to your Congressfolk that tells them to back off on that nasty federal no-call legislation.

(For the rest of you, until said federal legislation kicks in, the DMA is kind enough to provide this list of state no-call-list info. Tough luck if you live in the wrong state and all that.)

Blood and oil

I haven’t seen anyone blog about this Salon article, which rather surprises me. The article discusses why Big Oil really doesn’t want war with Iraq, at least not now. A lot of the points this article makes are quite sensible when you think about it: We don’t need to go to war to free up Iraqi oil, we could simply drop our sanctions against Iraq instead. Given that the US is easily the biggest consumer of oil, it hurts Iraq a lot more than it hurts us for their oil to be unavailable to us. Most critically from the point of view of US oil producers, once Iraqi oil is freely available on the world market, the price will go down as the supply has increased.

This doesn’t mean that the United States doesn’t have a vested interest in securing Iraq’s oil. There’s a whole lot of oil in Iraq, and it’s certainly in our long term economic interests to have that oil be under the control of a government that’s not as loony and despotic as the current one. One could say the same about oil in Iran and Saudi Arabia as well, two other countries that the Perle/Wolfowitz crowd is surely thinking about. And it’s absolutely in George W. Bush’s political interest to bring about a more stable oil supply; if that in turn leads to lower prices at the pump, a happenstance that will surely boost his reelection prospects, so much the better. The point is simply that the long term economic interests of the United States and the short term political interests of President Bush are not necessarily the best interests of ChevronTexaco or ExxonMobil.

Another reason why Big Oil is queasy about invading Iraq is the fact that none of the US-based oil companies have any contracts to drill in Iraq. Guess which country stands to gain the most from opened-up Iraqi oil fields?

The U.S. lost a three-quarter share of Iraq’s oil production in 1972, when Iraq nationalized its oil fields. The oil company with the most — and best — contracts to extract Iraqi oil is France’s TotalFinaElf. Russia’s LUKoil runs a close second. Chevron’s bluntspoken CEO, Kenneth Derr, supported sanctions against Iraq in 1988 because, he said in a 1998 speech to San Francisco’s tony Commonwealth Club, “Iraq possesses huge reserves of oil and gas I’d love Chevron to have access to.” Sanctions offered a chance to pressure Saddam into making room for the American companies.

But sanctions are different from war. Some analysts say that removing Saddam will make it harder for American oil companies to gain the foothold Chevron covets, rather than easier. France and Russia, recalcitrant Bush allies, may be holding out for promises that the U.S. will require a post-Saddam government to honor the preferential contracts their oil companies enjoy — starting with commissioning French and Russian oilmen for billions of dollars of restoration work. Ironically, as a political price for winning French and Russian support for war in the U.N. Security Council, American oil companies could be frozen out of postwar Iraq.

“There’s absolutely no guarantee that U.S. Big Oil will participate” in post-Saddam Iraq, says Kyle Cooper, an oil-industry analyst at the brokerage Salomon Smith Barney in Houston.

Yes, the one country which will undoubtedly profit from an invasion of Iraq is none other than France, that beacon of Old European obstinacy. One can only wonder if their stubbornness and threatened Security Council veto isn’t actually part of an elaborate scheme to strengthen Bush’s resolve and possibly whip up American support for an invasion. Since everyone knows that anything the French oppose must be good for America, the best way for them to facilitate an invasion and thus reap the eventual rewards is to appear to be blocking our every step. It’s a rope-a-dope strategy that’s as brilliant in its audacity as it is in its subtlety. I can’t believe Stephen den Beste hasn’t already written 50,000 words on it.

While the article goes on to discuss how an influx of Iraqi oil will be bad for several other oil-based economies, especially Russia, it doesn’t talk about some of the other costs that US-based oil companies will incur with an invasion. War in Iraq will threaten the security of many American and European expats who are currently based at large drilling sites in Africa and the Middle East. You can be sure that their companies are prepared to evacuate most if not all of their staff in places like Kuwait should the US invade Iraq. Not only is that a large expense for them, it also means their production capacity is reduced. (It’s also not just Americans and not just oil workers, too.) I think it’s pretty clear why that’s bad for business.

The bottom line is that while oil is certainly a component of the rationale for invading Iraq, it’s a lot more complicated than “blood for oil”.


I cancelled team practice today because of the nasty weather today. We’ll try again on Thursday. I’m going to try to find an indoor batting cage that we can use as a backup in case the weather doesn’t cooperate then.

We’re back down to 11 players. Nia, the one girl on the team, decided to play in a YMCA league instead. She’ll be with smaller kids who are also fairly new to playing baseball, which is a better fit for her. Having 11 kids will make it easier to ensure everyone plays, but it means we have less slack if there are no-shows. I don’t know what the forfeit rule is, and I hope I don’t have to find out.

I’ve gotten some feedback from parents that the kids are excited about playing. I’m glad I made a good first impression. I hope to build on their enthusiasm.

I’m supposed to pick up some candy from a league volunteer tomorrow. Apparently, candy sales are part of how the league pays for itself. A couple of the parents are signed up to do the selling, which is fine by me because that’s something I’ve never been comfortable with. Better anyone else than me.

Not such a sure thing after all

Would you believe that one cause of our recent economic downturn is because not enough people are dying?

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Stewart Enterprises Inc., America’s No. 3 funeral home and cemetery operator, cut its earnings estimate for the year, partly because, to put it bluntly, not enough people are dying.

For an industry that profits from death, the first quarter is not shaping up well. Stewart said Monday there were fewer deaths than expected in the quarter just ended, which is historically a season of harsh weather and flu epidemics.

In addition, more people were choosing cremations over higher-priced burials and also it is becoming more difficult to sell funeral packages in advance to Americans who are focused on near-term problems like the economy and possible war with Iraq, the company said.

The announcement that Stewart was cutting its 2003 earnings estimate sent its stock plummeting.

Via Larry Simon.

Crime and punishment, NCAA-style, take 2

Steve Smith has a followup post to his obituary of crooked Michigan booster Ed Martin, which I had commented on here.

Where we disagree, I believe, is on the notion of whether there should be a statute of limitations on NCAA sanctions. It is perfectly reasonable for the NCAA to punish a program for violations that occurred before anyone on the current team was at the university; since the regulations in question are geared towards maintaining competitive balance for the schools, a program that cheats will develop advantages in the area of recruiting, which affects the decisions of student-athletes to attend their chosen schools. In the Ed Martin investigation, it should be relevant that Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock were receiving “gratuities”, since the school’s success during their careers at Michigan directly impacts whether subsequent players, such as Lavelle Blanchard, would decide to go there.

The problem, though, is that Michigan has already been punished for those crimes; the school was on probation several years ago, and Steve Fisher, the coach at the time, was let go. The current investigation, as well as the criminal prosecution of Chris Webber, concerns events that took place going back to 1988. Webber himself left the school in 1993. While it may be appropriate to discredit the accomplishments of the Fab Five teams for what Webber allegedly received from Martin (and the school did forfeit the wins of that team, as well as striking their accomplishments from the record books), it is unfair to punish an individual today for the crimes of someone else a decade ago, when that person has received no advantage from those acts.

Fair point. I have no quibble with any of this, and I think we agree on the larger matter. Thanks, Steve!

BTW, Steve has his own lefty political blog that’s worth your time to check out as well.

The city council and the war, take 2

Last week I chastised the Houston City Council for taking time away from cleaning up its perilous finances (today’s cheery news is the possibility of unpaid furloughs for city workers and even fewer services for the city’s 100,000+ mentally ill folks) to discuss a resolution opposing an invasion of Iraq. While I am with them on the issue of invasion, I firmly believe that it’s not the City Council’s purpose to spend time on such questions.

The op-ed pages of today’s Chron are chock full of discussion on this topic. There’s an unsigned editorial that disagrees with me on the relevance of this issue for the Council:

Houston City Council Wednesday will consider two resolutions opposing precipitous war in Iraq. Foreign policy is not council’s bailiwick, but there is no harm and some virtue in using part of one council meeting to debate an issue that has captured most of the world’s attention.

The editorial goes on the specifically criticize some portions of Council member Carroll Robinson’s resolution. Robinson has his own op-ed piece which defends the Council’s position:

Elected officials at the local level must now be aware of the domestic threat level based on events happening all around the world in order to help ensure the safety and security of our residents and community’s infrastructure — from airports to seaports to water and sewer systems to tourist attractions and beyond.


Locally, I believe it is necessary to combine our police, fire, and health and human services departments into a new Public Safety Department to more effectively and efficiently respond to the new threats to our city’s safety.

What our nation does abroad now more than ever has life-and-death repercussions and consequences at home.

The discussions and decision about disarming Saddam Hussein are now as much a domestic as foreign affairs matter.

Decisions about the use of U.S. military forces and foreign aid throughout the world are now both domestic as well as foreign affairs matters.

How America is viewed in the world has consequences at home.

How we balance investing in domestic priorities such as funding first responders, universal health care, prescription drugs for seniors and education for our children against maintaining foreign military commitments is an issue that must be addressed by local elected officials. It impacts our constituents, our bottom line and our ability to improve homeland security.

These are just a few of the reasons why I believe that City Council now has a responsibility and obligation to share its thoughts and let its members’ voices be heard on what use to be considered solely foreign affairs issues.

His position, implied though not stated, is that the proposed invasion would increase the risk of domestic terrorism, not decrease it. That’s a position I share, though I’d argue that we’d get more bang for our buck on this issue by having our city lobbyists harangue the local Congressfolk and our Senators.

(Those of you who favor invasion, by the way, might note that if the focus had been strictly on containing Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, instead of getting bogged down in bogus al Qaeda allegations, Robinson’s argument would be essentially rendered moot. Another example, in my opinion, of the piss-poor job Team Bush has done in explaining the reason why we’re going down this path.)

Finally, there are six (count ’em) letters to the editor trashing the Council, not one in support. Given how far backward the Chron bends to try and present a “balanced” picture of such things, that’s a pretty strong statement.

Will the tide finally turn against electronic-only ballots?

Like many counties around the country, Santa Clara is getting ready to adopt electonic voting machines. Also like many of those counties, Santa Clara is getting warnings from computer security experts who say that machines which do not produce paper ballots are inherently unsecure and potentially subject to undetectable fraud. Unlike those other counties, the experts in Santa Clara may actually be taken seriously.

National experts on computer security have raised alarming questions elsewhere about the validity of elections run on touch-screen machines, which currently don’t produce a paper record a voter can use to check that the machine has recorded decisions accurately. But scientists didn’t get far until they spoke up late last month in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors delayed buying 5,000 ATM-like machines for 730,000 registered voters after hearing their concerns.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley followed up on the decision by convening a statewide task force on the security of touch-screen voting. And now, three voting machine vendors vying for Santa Clara County’s $20 million contract are saying they will install a paper audit system at no extra cost if the county becomes the first jurisdiction nationally to require it.

What the supervisors decide Tuesday, when they’re scheduled to adopt a new voting system, will ripple through other California counties and is likely to affect the overall move toward electronic voting, the most popular antidote to the hanging chad debacle of the 2000 presidential election.

“You’re at the beginning of what’s becoming the modern argument in voting systems,” said Kimball Brace, president of Washington, D.C.-based Election Data Services political consulting firm and an expert witness in former Vice President Al Gore’s court case to get a Florida recount in 2000. “What we have out in your jurisdiction is the first cut of people saying, ‘Wait a minute, shouldn’t you have a physical ballot in case there is a recount?’ It hasn’t come up elsewhere because a lot of people haven’t thought about it, or comprehended the need for it.”

The article goes on to quote my buddy Dan Wallach, who unsuccessfully raised these issues when the Houston city council was debating the eSlate machines that have since been implemented.

Other blogs such as Seeing the Forest and Ruminate This (see here and here) have been following this story a lot more closely, and I recommend you check them out.

The methods of King George’s madness

David Pinto points to this Rob Neyer column in which Neyer defends George Steinbrenner from some recent carping. The Yankees’ busy winter, along with the Boss’ criticisms of Derek Jeter and Joe Torre, have brought out the nattering nabobs, some of whom have implied that the return of a high-profile Steinbrenner could lead to tough times for the Yankees. Neyer demurs, pointing out that the high-turmoil period of 1976-1981 was quite a successful one for the Bombers, while the team’s low point from 1989-1992 partly coincided with Steinbrenner’s forced absence from the game.

As a lifetime Yankee fan, I’m a bit conflicted here. It’s certainly true that the good times were turbulent. There were days when you were afraid to read the sports section for fear of hearing about another fight, pissing contest, personality conflict, and so on. The only thing that allowed you to keep your dignity in the face of snarky Mets fans was the winning. Once that stopped, and the Yankee wurlizter careened out of control amidst disposable pitching coaches and free agent flameouts, it was nearly enough to make you start following the professional bowling tour.

But through it all, you always knew that what Steinbrenner wanted more than anything was to win. So while I view his recent rumblings with more than a tad of trepidation, I’m still comforted by that thought. And let’s face it, his latest statements are downright calm compared to some of his prior outbursts. He hasn’t fired any coaches, he hasn’t personally sent any prospects back to the bush leagues, and he hasn’t tried to blackmail a star player. All in all, he seems to have mellowed a bit.

I wish I could have illustrated this piece with a picture of General Von Steingrabber, the caricature drawn by Bill Gallo of the Daily News, but my Googling failed to turn up a picture. I did get this nice feature article about Gallo and the General, which at least gives you a taste of it.

Let’s not be hasty here

Whatever else you may say about this op-ed piece in the Chron that comes to the shocking conclusion that the recent perjury prosecution of Chief C.O. “BAMF” Bradford may have been a waste of time and/or politically biased, you can’t say they rushed to their judgment, since the trial ended a month ago. It mostly recapitulates the points that have been noted here and elsewhere (the best reporting on the case comes from this Houston Press article), though it does contain one nugget to file away the next time you hear an assistant DA insist that they “had” to take this case to trial:

Very few cases of disputed testimony between two or more witnesses testifying under oath in an evidentiary hearing end with a grand jury indictment for perjury, even when those witnesses have completely opposite versions of the facts. For example, a judge referred Anna Nicole Smith to the Harris County district attorney for allegedly lying on the witness stand in the will contest of deceased oil tycoon, E. Pierce Marshall’s estate, but the district attorney has not taken any action.

I’d love to hear Chuck Rosenthal’s answer to that assertion. Perhaps they didn’t want to appear to be grandstanding.

Anyway, the next sounds you’ll hear from this case will be when Captain Aguirre goes to trial in a few months.

Why Tiffany rocks

Jack points me to this article about how to get away with reading the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue without getting your wife or girlfriend mad at you. Well, I have an even better way: Find a wife or girlfriend who’ll buy you the subscription in the first place. Thanks, Tiffany!

BTW, the most amazing picture in this issue is that of Debbie Clemens, wife of Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens. She’s in her late 30s (I presume, since he’s turning 41 this year), has four kids, and appears to be in better shape than pretty much all of the featured professional models.

And of course, the funniest thing written about the whole thing is by Gregg Easterbrook, who estimates how much the swimsuits cost on a per-pound basis.

It’s tax scam season again

As April 15 draws near, you will inevitably hear about all kinds of hare-brained tax avoidance schemes. Many of them, like those mentioned in this article, are scams being proffered by con artists. Quite a few of them rest on ridiculous and long-discredited legal arguments. I wish this article had spent a bit more time on that, but since it didn’t I will.

I’ve already discussed one particular case (see here, here, here, and here), and it bears examining because it’s representative of many such schemes. Basically, someone comes up with a convoluted argument that says that the federal income tax is illegal, or only applies to “federal” citizens, or is voluntary, or whatever, and for a small but reasonable fee the person peddling this scheme will tell you the secrets of how you, too, can legally not pay your taxes. I highly recommend you read the Tax Protesters FAQ for a thorough discussion of these arguments and what can happen to the poor souls who try using them.

One of the ironies of the tax-avoidance industry is that the people who hold the biggest grudges against the government for its policies are often the easiest marks for this sort of thing, almost always by people who claim to be one of them. For example, the so-called “Patriot” movement of the 1990s was quickly followed by the “Pure Trust” scam, in which supposed “Patriot” sympathizers preyed on the true faithful who really wanted to believe that they could stop paying taxes.

A horse of a different color is the anti-war movement, which has long railed about the percentage of taxes that goes to the military. They continue to advocate partial or complete nonpayment of income taxes as a protest against it. They do at least seem to realize that there are potential legal consequences to this, and I respect them for that. It’s still quixotic, but at least it’s not a plan to separate some fool from his money.

Finally, a more recent but clearly popular idea is that there’s a tax credit for slavery reparations. As with the “Pure Trust” scheme, the scammers target members of their own communities, banking on the trust that people give to friends and neighbors:

Noting that the promoters appear to be targeting church congregations, the IRS has urged churches in the African-American community to be on the alert for the scam. “Good people are getting caught up in this scam,” [IRS Commissioner Charles O.] Rossotti said.

Perhaps some of the legal victories that the feds have won against these scammers will help to shut them down, though I doubt it.

Forewarned is forearmed, people. Now get to work on those 1040s.

Allison’s floods could have been worse

Not sure how useful this actually is, but this Chron article discusses some alternate scenarios to Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded out most of Houston in 2001. Apparently, we got off lighter than we had to, since the areas that received the most rain were less populated than some others, and the nearest bayous were best equipped to take it. Hard to say if there are any lessons to learn from this, since TS Allison was such a freak occurrance, but it’s interesting reading nonetheless.

The business of beating drug tests

It’s nice to know that in these tough economic times that there are still growth industries. One of them is the beat-the-drug-test business, as a simple Google search would seem to indicate. This article is about the continuous arms race between drug testing companies and companies that try to neuter them, but what I want to talk about is here at the end:

Workplace drug testing pays, supporters say. A study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that the nation lost $110.5 billion in productivity in 2000 because of drug use, and the Labor Department estimates that 6.5 percent of full-time and 8.6 percent of part-time workers are illicit drug users. Marijuana is the most frequently detected drug, showing up in about 60 percent of the positive tests, followed by cocaine. Critics of the tests say that they pick up more marijuana users because the drug stays in the body longer.

That $110.5 billion figure sure sounds impressive, but I have several questions. How exactly is productivity being measured? What assumptions are being made about weekend drug users, who may show up for work on Monday clean and sober and yet test positively for various toxins? Is alcohol considered a drug for these purposes? What would the costs be of firing all of the marijuana users in the workplace and replacing them with people who are currently unemployed (assuming there are enough non-drug users among the unemployed to do so)? Do you think that a government agency whose existence would be made superfluous by a deemphasis on the perils of drug use might possibly be tempted to make the problem appear as bad as it could? I’m just asking.

Critics fault widespread drug testing as an unnecessary invasion of privacy. While it makes sense to test people in safety-sensitive jobs for drug usage, many of the tests contribute little to improving either workplace safety or productivity, said Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drug Policy Litigation Project. Employers test anyway, he said, in an effort to reduce their workers’ compensation and insurance costs.

“The fact that so many people are doing so much to subvert the system” suggests widespread disdain, he said. “You don’t see that with laws about embezzlement because there is a shared moral code that embezzlement is bad. If you don’t buy into that, you really are an outsider.”

One can, of course, make a similar argument about traffic laws. I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice that plenty of people still get pulled over for speeding even after the limit went up on most freeways. That doesn’t mean that traffic laws are bad or misguided. I’d go a step further, though, and note that I have a lot less sympathy for people who get caught speeding in a 70 MPH zone than I do for people who get caught in a 55 MPH zone. Perhaps if the business of drug testing were more about catching the flagrant violators than foisting suspicion on all of us, I’d feel the same way about it.

Practice notes: Getting to know you

My Little League team (the Twins) had their first practice today. We’d had quite a bit of rain and nastiness in Houston over the past couple of days, so I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do much of anything, but in typical Houston fashion the weather today was totally different – bright, sunny, moderate temps. The practive field was even reasonably dry, though with some large puddles scattered around.

There are twelve kids on my team, eleven boys and one girl. Nia has never played before and is the smallest kid on the team. She probably belongs in the 7-8 year old league, but she turns nine during the season, so league rules say she has to be in the 9-10 year old group. I’m going to do what I can to get her up to speed, but it won’t surprise me if she drops out. Her parents were at the practice and told Tiffany that they were concerned that she’s too little. We’ll see how she does.

Ten kids showed up for practice. One had a prior engagement, the other was home sick. The sick kid’s dad had agreed to be one of my assistant coaches, so he was there. I know Logan, his son, played last year so I expect he’ll be one of the better players. Both he and the other assistant coach would likely have made fine head coaches, but apparently neither could commit to it time-wise. Both will be very helpful to me, though I’m a little concerned about there being a too-many-cooks problem. Not too worried, just a little.

Most of the kids had decent throwing mechanics, though they will definitely benefit from drills. I attended a baseball camp every summer as a kid for eight years, and I can still remember most of the workouts they put us through. The best part of that was playing the games, of course, but that’ll have to wait here. Practices are going to be an hour to an hour and a half, which hopefully isn’t too long to hold their attention through this sort of thing.

Today we ran an infield/outfield drill. Each kid was at an infield position, and I’d hit them a groundball and have the throw to first. I then moved some kids to the outfield and we went through cutoff man drills. That’s a complicated thing to do, and it’ll require a lot of repetition. The kids were all pretty rusty as well, and when you toss in the various water hazards on the field, it got a bit comical at times. At least I didn’t whiff too often hitting the ball to them.

Next practice is Tuesday evening. A bunch of the boys will be on a Cub Scout campout this weekend, so we’ll have a Thursday practice as well instead of next Saturday. I’m going to start auditioning pitchers on Tuesday, and let them get some hitting in also. That ought to get them excited.

I’m still working on matching names to faces. I know all of the names, but I can’t tell who’s who yet for the most part. Next practice, I’m going to make a point of using names when I can and making the kids say their names when I’m unsure. That ought to do it for me.


Links to the A Few Things About Me and Texas Political Blogs posts have been added to the sidebar for your convenience. There’s a total of 36 political blogs listed, though of course some are more political than others. Check ’em out, you might find a few to add to your blogroll. I know I’ll be adding a couple to mine when I do my next update.

Off to Little League practice! I’ll have a report on how it went later.

Explosion on Staten Island

There’s been a big explosion at an oil storage facility on Staten Island, my hometown. One person is confirmed dead so far, one is missing, and one is in critical condition.

This facility is about as far away as you can get from where I grew up and still be on Staten Island. I’m pretty sure there’s no housing around there, but it is close to a major highway and the Outerbridge Crossing, which means it’s also close to Woodbridge, New Jersey. Indeed, the blast was strongly felt across the Arthur Kill in Woodbridge.

So far, no indications that it was an act of terrorism. Let’s hope it was just a terrible accident.

UPDATE: It’s been officially ruled an accident. And in the map of Staten Island that they show in this article, my old neighborhood would be a bit north/northeast of the N in Staten.

And speaking of commerials…

I want to take this opportunity to plug the Political State Report, a collaborative effort to monitor political news and events around the country by contributors in each state. There’s always something interesting there, stuff you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Check it out.

I should note, by the way, the the PSR is always looking for contributors. I seem to be the only person from Texas to post there, and as obviously wonderful and insightful as I am, that’s only one perspective from an awfully big state. A few other states could use some new voices as well, so if you have any interest, drop me a note. Prior blogging experience is not a requirement.

A lawsuit we can all get behind

A Chicago teacher has filed a class action lawsuit against Loews Cineplex for all those damn ads they now show before the movie:

[The lawsuit] claims the theater circuit’s policy of playing pre-film product commercials amounts to a deceptive business practice because the ads begin at the time advertised as the start of a feature movie.

The legal action reflects the reaction of many moviegoers jarred by the increasing prominence of onscreen advertising in theaters industrywide. In fact, the succession of such pre-movie ads now often lasts up to 10 minutes or longer in many venues.

The story notes a solution that’s in place in certain European countries that I for one would find to be perfectly acceptable:

[N]ewspaper listings and box office signage stipulate both movie times and times for pre-show ads and trailers.

Admit it – if you knew that the ads started at 1:30 and the movie started at 1:40, would you be in any rush to get there by 1:30?

I should note that I don’t consider movie trailers to be advertising. Trailers are fine, since after all they’re sometimes better than the feature film. Hell, I went to see Wing Commander in 1999 solely for the purpose of seeing the Phantom Menace trailer. (If I’d had half a brain, I’d have left after the trailer, too.) Making me sit through six or eight commercials beforehand, though, is just torture.

Not every budget is feeling the pinch

While the City of Houston is $67 million in the hole, the County of Harris has $172 million in cash under its mattress. This, not surprisingly, has led people to grumble that the County takes in too much tax money for its needs:

“The county is so flush with money, it’s unreal. They have way too much money,” says Bob Lemer, the chairman of Citizens for Public Accountability, a local government watchdog and research group of retired accountants. “They’re very flush because they budget like crazy, but then don’t spend it by huge amounts.”

As an example, he cites the county’s fiscal 2002 financial report. According to the report, the county budgeted $114 million for road and bridge work, but spent only $44 million.

“I don’t buy into the idea that Harris County is efficient,” Lemer says. “They’ve got a revenue stream that is grossly more than they need.”

Not surprisingly, county officials disagree. Budget Officer Dick Raycraft and County Judge Robert Eckels point out that Harris County began including a 15 percent reserve in its annual budget in 1998, a goal borne of dismal experience.

“If we were not to budget those reserves, we could do more things, but the reserves are an important part of the fiscal health of the county,” Eckels said.

I can see both sides of this. How big a cushion does an entity need? I wish I could give some kind of answer to that question, but I can’t make heads or tails out of this thing, which claims to be the County Auditor’s Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2002. My non-accountant’s take on it says that the assets and liabilities balance out, and if that’s the case, then where’s the surplus? If this makes any sense to you, feel free to enlighten me in the comments.

Oh, and by the way: It was a bitch finding this thing in the first place. A Google search on +”harris county” +”commissioner’s court” takes you to this totally useless page. There are pages for each individual Commissioner linked on the Harris County home page (and am I the only one who finds it amusing that Robert Eckels’ page looks more like a campaign site than a government site?), but to find this report I had to find the County Auditor first.

As for the city, it’s just all confusing:

Although the city’s revenue over the next 17 months is expected to be $67 million less than projected, the city is not actually in the red. City officials still expect to end this fiscal year June 30 with a balance of about $81 million, slightly exceeding the required reserve of 5 percent of its operating expenses.

But almost all of that $81 million exists only on paper, in the form of revenue expected later in the year.

As for why the city’s finances are a mess compared to the county’s, an old bugaboo is cited as a cause:

To city Councilwoman Annise Parker, the difference between the two governments is largely one of philosophy: The city sees its responsibility as providing the best services it can, while the county provides only those services it can afford under its budget.

“I think there is more long-term thinking at the county,” she says.

Parker is not alone. Almost everyone interviewed for this article cited the county’s long-term outlook as the key to its current fiscal success. Such a philosophy is easier at the county because, without term limits, county elected officials tend to enjoy more stability. Until Sylvia Garcia took office as Precinct 2 commissioner last month, for example, there had been no change in the makeup of Commissioners Court for eight years.

Moreover, Harris County government is less bureaucratic, with elected commissioners having far more control over projects in their districts than do City Council members.

Because of term limits, city budget planners, mayors and council members come and go at least every six years.

Critics say term limits — combined with the city’s “strong mayor” form of government, which all but guarantees an adversarial relationship with council members — result in short-term thinking on long-range issues.

“In the city of Houston, everything is political,” said George Scott, president of the Tax Research Association of Harris County. “If it’s good for politics tomorrow, then it’s good. If it makes sense today, we’ll worry whether it makes sense next month or next year.”

Yes, it’s our friend term limits again. Not a single member of city government was in office the last time there was a roster change on the Commissioner’s Court in 1994. That has to have some effect. To be fair, you really can’t compare how the city works with how the county works. As the articles note, the county is limited by the State Legislature in what it can spend money on. In addition, the individual Commissioners have a lot more direct influence in their precincts, and they operate in a much more collegial environment that’s farther out of the limelight. That’s probably the biggest factor.