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July 12th, 2008:

RIP, Bobby Murcer

Former Yankees center fielder and broadcaster Bobby Murcer has died at the age of 62.

The Yankees said Murcer died Saturday due to complications from brain cancer. He was surrounded by family at Mercy Hospital in his hometown of Oklahoma City, the team said.

“Bobby Murcer was a born Yankee, a great guy, very well-liked and a true friend of mine,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said. “I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife Kay, their children and grandchildren. I will really miss the guy.”

Murcer was diagnosed with a brain tumor on Christmas Eve 2006 after having headaches. He had surgery that week in Houston and doctors later determined the tumor was malignant.

The only person to play with Mickey Mantle and Don Mattingly, the popular Murcer hit .277 with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBIs in 17 seasons with the Yankees, San Francisco and the Chicago Cubs. He made the All-Star team in both leagues and won a Gold Glove.

“All of Major League Baseball is saddened today by the passing of Bobby Murcer, particularly on the eve of this historic All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, a place he called home for so many years,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “Bobby was a gentleman, a great ambassador for baseball, and a true leader both on and off the field. He was a man of great heart and compassion.”

Always a fan favorite in New York and known for his folksy manner as a broadcaster, Murcer won three Emmy Awards for live sports coverage. His most dramatic words came on one of the saddest days in Yankees history.

Murcer delivered one of the eulogies in Ohio after captain Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash in August 1979. The team flew home after the funeral and, that night, Murcer hit a three-run homer and then a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth to beat Baltimore 5-4.

A tearful Murcer fell into the arms of teammate Lou Piniella after the game and gave his bat to Munson’s wife.

“There is no way to explain what happened,” Murcer said. “We used every ounce of strength to go out and play that game. We won it for Thurman.”

I watched that game on TV, and I remember it like it was yesterday. There was, as you might imagine, a lot of emotion in that game. Seeing Murcer, who had only recently rejoined the team and who was one of Munson’s best friends, win the game like that, well, I can’t adequately describe how that felt. It’s a moment that will live forever in Yankee history. Rest in peace, Bobby Murcer.

Weekend link dump for July 12

Time for some more interesting links for the weekend…

Americans Against Cornholing.

Can Guitar Hero save the music industry (via)?

Tony Soprano is dead (via). If so, that probably means there is no Sopranos movie in the works.

However, the guy who did “The Wire” is apparently now aiming at Major League Baseball. I say he need to figure out a way to give Jim Bouton a role in that.

When Fox News is the story.

It doesn’t really matter what The Bloggess writes about. Whatever it is, it cracks me up.

“Innumeracy”, 20 years later.

Joss Whedon! Neil Patrick Harris! Nathan Filion! Fanboys everywhere give thanks.

Fiorina’s fuzzy math. She’s also a bit confused about where her preferred Presidential candidate stands on the issue of birth control.

The Top Ten Awesomely Bad Moments of the Perry Administration. Well, plus some honorable mentions. I couldn’t limit it to just ten, either.

Dahlia Lithwick talks about the Supreme Court as a voting issue for Democrats.

A prenatal curriculum? I don’t think so.

Obama does NASCAR. There’s a Mark Penn joke in there somewhere, I just know it.

RIP, Michael DeBakey

Houston icon Dr. Michael DeBakey has died at the age of 99.

Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey, internationally acclaimed as the father of modern cardiovascular surgery — and considered by many to be the greatest surgeon ever — died Friday night at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. He was 99.

Methodist officials said DeBakey died of natural causes. Dr. Marc Boom, executive vice president of Methodist, said DeBakey was taken to the hospital on Friday night after the surgeon’s wife called 911. He was prounounced dead shortly after arriving.

Medical statesman, chancellor emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine, and a surgeon at The Methodist Hospital since 1949, DeBakey trained thousands of surgeons over several generations, achieving legendary status decades before his death. During his career, he estimated he had performed more than 60,000 operations. His patients included the famous — Russian President Boris Yeltsin and movie actress Marlene Dietrich among them — and the uncelebrated.

“He was a great contributor to medicine and surgery, of course,” said Dr. Denton Cooley, president and surgeon-in-chief at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and a longtime DeBakey rival.

“But he left a real legacy in the Texas Medical Center and at Baylor College of Medicine, where he’s brought so much attention. Together we were able to establish Houston as a world leader in cardiovascular medicine.”

Cooley had known DeBakey since 1945. “In the first half of the 20th century, very little went on in this field,” he said of cardiovascular surgery. “So when he and I began our careers, we pretty much had an open field.”

“Dr. DeBakey singlehandedly raised the standard of medical care, teaching and research around the world,” said Dr. George Noon, a cardiovascular surgeon and longtime partner of DeBakey’s. “He was the greatest surgeon of the 20th century, and physicians everywhere are indebted to him for his contributions to medicine.”

Indeed they are, as are we all. SciGuy has more, including a podcast interview with DeBakey from 2005. Rest in peace, Dr. Michael DeBakey.

Steffy on the Pickens Plan

Loren Steffy adds his two cents to the discussion of the Pickens Plan.

It’s hard to grasp, though, how parts of the plan would be implemented. Assuming all the rights to millions of acres could be acquired and the wind farms built, there’s still the problem of wind itself. It doesn’t always blow.

A recent study by Cambridge Energy Research Associates found that wind power is least available between June and September, the peak months for electricity consumption.

When the turbines are becalmed, we’ll need other power plants — primarily gas-fired ones, which can be started more quickly than other types of generation — to meet demand.

What’s more, someone has to pay for building transmission lines to carry the power from the prairies. Guess who? In Texas, the cost of new transmission lines is born by consumers, not the generators.

Pickens argued that wind technology will improve as more farms are built, and as commodity prices rise, it will become a cost-effective power source.

“As it moves in, the natural gas will move out,” he said. “The price of natural gas will still be better for vehicles and still be cheaper than foreign oil.”

Pickens has championed natural gas vehicles since he converted his Cadillac and drove around Dallas in the early 1990s, but it’s unlikely average drivers would do the same.

The point about infrastructure is valid, though that’s part of what Pickens wants to spend all that money on. I don’t see why “average drivers” wouldn’t convert to natural gas vehicles if they were demonstrably cheaper to use and there were enough places to go for fillups. People are switching to hybrids, after all.

That’s just a quibble, because I agree with Steffy’s larger point, also made here, that it would be much more efficient to encourage plug-in hybrids instead, as the infrastructure is already there. I suspect that will be the consensus criticism, so hopefully it will have an effect on Pickens and his plan. As before, Pickens deserves credit for pushing this into the forefront. If he makes some adjustments, this could really go somewhere.

And since Steffy brought up the fact that consumers wind up paying for new transmission lines, I’ll note that there’s a new poll out suggesting that most Texans would be willing to pay a few bucks extra a month for just such a thing to carry wind energy.

The survey, commissioned by a group of wind generation companies, is being released in advance of state utility regulators’ debate over how much new transmission to require for wind-generated electricity. The Public Utility Commission is considering several plans, at costs ranging from about $3 billion to $6 billion.

The commission staff estimates the plans could cost average household electric consumers from $2.50 to $5 extra a month.

“This is a clear picture of strong support for wind energy and a public willing to help pay for the transmission lines needed to access Texas wind farms,” said Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for a wind power group.

The poll of 804 registered voters was conducted July 1-2 by Baselice & Associates. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percent.

When asked about a new charge of $4 each month for power line construction to carry electricity generated by wind farms, 55 percent said they would favor paying the new fee and 42 percent said they would be opposed, with 4 percent unsure.

However, there was less support for a similar question about whether they would be willing to pay “a few dollars more each month.” That scenario drew a favorable response from 49 percent with 46 percent opposed and 6 percent unsure.

That’s still good enough to go with. I mean, who’s going to lead the opposition on this, and on what basis? This strikes me as a scenario where the more people hear about the concept, the more they’ll approve of it. Let’s make this happen.

UPDATE: Patrick in the comments asked what CD07 candidate and wind-power executive Michael Skelly thought of the Pickens plan. I sent an email to the campaign to inquire, and got this response:

Michael Skelly has spent over a decade working in the renewable energy business. He applauds T. Boone Pickens for his call to action and for his intriguing proposal to increase renewable energy production.

So there you go.

Mayor White challenges the EPA

I’m always happy to see action being taken on behalf of cleaner air.

Mayor Bill White on Thursday challenged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s methods for calculating emissions from large refineries and chemical plants, saying that the approach significantly underreports the amount of pollution in Houston’s skies.

White said studies show that actual emissions can be 100 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on industry-provided data.

To produce more reliable information, the federal agency should require refineries and chemical plants to verify the accuracy of their emissions with emerging laser technology and fence-line monitors, among other steps, White said.

“Up until now, the EPA has relied on rough estimates, and the companies themselves have done the estimates,” he said. “It’s a simple request, but it’s a very bold request. It’s a request that will allow the people of Houston to know what’s in their air.”

The mayor said federal, state and local governments must have reliable data to make decisions regarding public health. The push comes as state regulators work on a new pollution-fighting plan for the eight-county Houston region, one of the nation’s smoggiest.

It’s also White’s latest attempt to confront regulators in his fight over toxic chemical emissions. In May, the city challenged the permits from a nearby plant to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to limit the levels of the carcinogen benzene in the air.

Challenging the agencies that are tasked with enforcing standards to do a better job of it is a good tactic. Someone needs to hold them accountable, and as things stand right now such pressure isn’t going to come from the federal or state level. So we may as well do it ourselves.

White said the EPA uses formulas, equations and assumptions to determine pollution levels from refineries and chemical plants that the agency itself described as flawed 12 years ago.

The formulas, for example, assume that equipment is operating as designed under normal conditions, and do not account for environmental variables, such as wind speed.

“The factors should be based on reality instead of idealism,” said Elena Marks, the mayor’s director of health and environmental policy.

EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the agency would review the mayor’s request and respond accordingly.

Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, said he had not had a chance to study White’s request. Even so, he said, “Houston’s air quality is the most accurately measured in the nation, thanks to a combination of Houston’s extensive air monitoring network, industry’s voluntary use of infrared technologies to detect and report emissions, and industry’s efforts to strictly comply with EPA’s reporting requirements.”

Those efforts have helped to improve the region’s air during the last 30 years despite population growth, he said.

Well, if these other methods are accurate, then getting the EPA to use more accurate tools should simply serve to confirm what we already know. And if the EPA’s findings turn out to be different, then maybe what we’ve been doing wasn’t so hot and could stand some improvement. Either way, what’s the problem? Let’s make sure we’re doing this right across the board so we can feel confident in the results we get.

The 1960 blues

I couldn’t tell you the last time I drove through the FM1960 area in northwest Harris County, so I couldn’t have told you that it isn’t aging well. But I can’t say I’m surprised.

The problems affecting Houston’s aging suburban communities drew the attention of a panel of national experts from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real estate organization, who studied the Houston region’s unique growth patterns earlier this year.

In a report being presented today, the experts call on local leaders to use transportation funds to guide growth into compact, interconnected urban centers, rather than isolated subdivisions sprawling across the region’s dwindling open spaces.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, which allocates billions of dollars in federal transportation funds, should support projects that reflect the vision supported by almost all local leaders the authors interviewed during their Houston visit in February, the report says.

This vision includes connecting growth centers through roads, rails and trail; promoting walkable neighborhoods where people live close to where they work and shop; and encouraging voluntary, market-based standards for high-quality developments.

The FM 1960 corridor, in contrast, reflects what happens when developers throw up subdivisions wherever they can make a deal to buy land served by a county road, said Roger Galatas, the chief executive of a real estate consulting business. Galatas is also a board member of the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future, which commissioned the Urban Land Institute report.

The area’s design, common to many American suburbs, is characterized by residential neighborhoods full of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs to discourage cut-through traffic, forcing residents to use the adjacent thoroughfare even for short trips to a shop or a restaurant.

“At one time, that was the place to move to,” Galatas said. “But as more developments occurred that were not connected to each other, they built rather ugly retail centers that took advantage of the traffic and created more traffic. People started moving away, and you’ve got declining home values, empty retail centers and a declining tax base. The only thing still functioning is a very wide strip of concrete called FM 1960.”

The traffic issue should have been obvious from the beginning, but I guess the idea that you had to take the main road to get anywhere was appealing at one time. The main problem with the solution being offered is that it seems unlikely to do anything to help the 1960 area. I don’t see how you can undo its disconnectedness and unfriendliness to transit and pedestrians. If we had to do it all over again, sure, this is a much better blueprint. I just don’t think you can get there from here. Tory has more on the report.

By the way, it’s amusing to see some people in the comments blame the arrival of Metro bus service on 1960 for the area’s crime problem. Because Lord knows, unlike everyone else in Houston, criminals don’t have cars and thus must rely on buses and light rail to get to the better neighborhoods.

The Urban Land Institute report is not the first to call for a new approach to suburban growth management in the Houston area. A program sponsored by H-GAC in 2005 known as Envision Houston Region reached similar conclusions about the need to guide growth into interconnected activity centers.

The new report, however, goes further than others in urging local leaders to award or withhold federal transportation funds based on how closely the projects adhere to these principles. This approach, the report says, has been used successfully in other areas where metropolitan planning organizations, such as the H-GAC, expand their roles from research into policy development and implementation.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he sees some merit in the idea of using transportation funding to guide growth. But some decisions will always have to be reactive rather than proactive, since people decide where to live based on school quality and other factors besides just transportation, Emmett said.

Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a real estate group formed last year to limit local regulations on development, said the Houston region’s traditional approach has worked well.

“We believe that the market should determine growth with government supporting consumer demand — not the other way around,” Sanders said.

Way to keep an open mind there, dude. Judge Emmett is certainly correct to note that factors other than how long it takes to get somewhere go into people’s homebuying decisions. The point here is that we’ve spent plenty of money over the years on projects that encouraged growth and helped create demand in empty, isolated areas (two words: Grand Parkway). Why not do a little of the same in areas that will scale better?

UPDATE: Jay Crossley has more.