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January 16th, 2011:

Weekend link dump for January 16

Happy MLK Day tomorrow!

The tax code is complicated because rich people want it that way.

“When the connection between productivity and income is broken, the CEO might as well send a memo to every employer reading: “Please do not work very hard and make sure you never do your very best work. I want lazy, shoddy and just-barely acceptable output from all of you.” Their intent could not be made any clearer or more explicit.”

Muppets With People Eyes. Some things, once they have been seen, can never be un-seen. Study that sentence before you click.

From the “Stuff you just can’t make up” department, the dog that annoyed Hitler.

On the usability of passwords.

If you enable nutcases, you shouldn’t be surprised when they embarrass you.

No Pants 2011, for those who missed it.

Has Google lost its mojo?

For the umpteenth time, most so-called deficit hawks are big phonies.

Spam volume is declining, though it’s not clear why.

No, “both sides” do not do it. See here for an example.

I’m not sure the world needed another “Wonder Woman” TV show, but it’s a moot point now.

Since it bears repeating: How to make a Schadenfreude Pie. Oh, my goodness…

It’s okay for Newt Gingrich to rush to draw conclusions from tragedies. The rest of us better watch our steps. At least, according to Newt Gingrich, these things are true.

A tale of two sheriffs, which is really just the same old story.

A wee little eclipse of the sun.

How an armed hero of the Tucson massacre nearly shot the wrong man.

George Will is a factually-challenged hack. I know, who could have guessed?

Substance matters more than tone.
While I definitely understand the motivation behind this, I’m not sure it’s a good remedy.

There really is an app for just about everything these days.

Paranoia may destroy all of us.

After reading about Perfection Salad, I was moved to recall some stuff I’d found before about things you could do with Jell-O but shouldn’t, and whether or not Jell-O has the salad nature. It’s a more subtle question than you might think.

The Internet by the numbers. 107 trillion emails sent last year? Wow.

If you survived a bout of swine flu recently, you might never get the flu again.

Man versus machine on “Jeopardy!”. Engadget liveblogs it.

From the “Pride goeth before a fall” department.

Republicans who are now talking about focusing on mental health care will vote next week to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which will expand mental health coverage to millions of people. Yeah, I don’t get it, either.

Don’t discriminate. It’s that simple.

If class size doesn’t matter…

…then why do private schools boast about their small classes and low student-teacher ratios? That’s the question former Lite Guv and State Sen. Bill Ratliff asks in the Chron.

When confronted with public decision-making, many people find it instructive to turn to the free market and examine its treatment of an issue. To examine the free market empirical evidence regarding school-class sizes, one only has to look at class sizes in private schools.

An analysis of the 91 Dallas-Fort Worth area private schools providing an education to students in kindergarten through grade four shows that the average class size for these private schools is 16 students — many have average class sizes of only 10 to 15. It seems illogical to assume that privately owned schools would adopt such costly class-size measures without some convincing rationale as to their value.

The argument is being made that class size doesn’t matter – that an excellent teacher can be more effective with 25 students than a poor teacher can with 15 students, and therefore we should not worry about class size but concentrate on putting an excellent teacher in every classroom. No doubt an excellent teacher in every classroom is a worthy goal.

However, that begs the question. It is not realistic to believe that all of our teachers will be excellent. Nor is it realistic to believe we will never have any marginal teachers. We have a dedicated teacher corps in Texas, but if you believe in the bell curve widely used by businesses for staffing decisions, our teacher corps will, for the most part, be made up of average teachers.

Therefore, the question that should be asked is, can an average teacher be more effective with fewer students than with more? No doubt parents think so, and by all evidence decision-makers in private schools also think so.

I for one would like to hear how our Republican state leaders answer this.

Department of rail-related corrections

Council Member Sue Lovell writes a letter disputing certain aspects of the recent story about Galveston commuter rail being off track.

Barry Goodman blames lack of a regional transportation policy as a big obstacle. The eight-county transportation planning region represented at TPC has begun review of commuter rail options with the Houston-Galveston Area Council Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study that analyzed existing freight rail lines for their commuter service potential.

More importantly, Harris County and Fort Bend County joined with the city of Houston in 2007 to create the Gulf Coast Rail District. Since then, Galveston County and Waller County have joined, and Montgomery County Commissioners Court is expected to approve membership.

Each of these entities understands that the region cannot continue to rely on roadways for movement of goods and commuters. H-GAC estimates that the exceptional regional growth will double freight truck traffic, causing significant increases in congestion for all vehicles. New capacity will be required, and even the Texas Department of Transportation will admit that it cannot all be on roadways.

I disagree with Bill King, who was incorrectly identified as a current member of the TPC, when he asserts that rail projects “don’t add any extra capacity for cost.” Freight rail lines represent existing capacity that could be used for commuters.

It is incumbent upon regional officials to determine if, where and at what cost partnership with the railroads is a viable option. The Gulf Coast Rail District is charged with that responsibility for the region. Only when those costs have been determined can there be real discussions about how to pay for these projects.

Elsewhere, the Chron story that was the basis of this post about a more suburban Metro has been amended to include the following:

Correction: A story on page B1 of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle incorrectly stated the manner of appointment of new board members if the Metropolitan Transit Authority board were to expand from nine to 11 members as a result of the federal census. The Texas Transportation Code calls for one new member to be appointed by Commissioners Court and an 11th member, who would be the chairman, to be appointed by a majority of the 10 other members.

As we know, currently five members, plus the Chair, are appointed by Houston’s Mayor, with two members being appointed by Commissioners Court and two by the other cities. The change described, if and when it happens, isn’t quite the seismic shift that Commissioner Steve Radack made it out to be. The relevant statute is 451.502 of the Transportation Code, in particular subsection (e):

(e) In an authority having six additional members, the additional members are appointed as follows:

(1) two members appointed by a panel composed of:

(A) the mayors of the municipalities in the authority, excluding the mayor of the principal municipality; and

(B) the county judges of the counties having unincorporated area in the authority, excluding the county judge of the principal county;

(2) three members appointed by the commissioners court of the principal county; and

(3) one member, who serves as presiding officer of the board, appointed by a majority of the board.

So now you know.

How many soccer leagues are there?

I happened across this story about a new professional soccer team coming to San Antonio, and was struck by this bit:

[Team owner Gordon] Hartman and Aaron Davidson, CEO of the NASL, said that efforts by Spurs Sports & Entertainment to field a United Soccer Leagues franchise in San Antonio, also by 2012, won’t be a conflict. The NASL, Davidson stressed, is a second-division league only one step below Major League Soccer.

Two current NASL franchises, in Vancouver and Montreal, are scheduled to move up to MLS in 2012.

“I introduced the USL to the San Antonio Spurs and the Spurs to the USL, but the reality is that the world of soccer has changed,” said Davidson, whose Traffic Sports placed the Mexico-Dominica World Cup qualifier in the Alamodome in 2004. “The USL is now a third-division league.”

Okay, so there’s MLS, which with we in Houston are all familiar. There’s the North American Soccer League, which the new San Antonio Scorpions will be joining; speaking as someone who remembers the old New York Cosmos, the league name amuses me. And there’s the United Soccer League, which is apparently a lesser league than the NASL, which in turn is a lesser league than MLS. I had no idea there were this many pro soccer leagues in existence in the US. Clearly, WUSA was ahead of its time, though there is now a successor. Are there any other leagues out there, or is this all of them?

The state of school food

Bettina has a feature story in Houston Family magazine about the current state of school food, which takes into account recently passed legislation by Congress and what’s going on in HISD. She also has a report from an HISD “Nutrition Strategy Event” that was an attempt to “define a clear direction and priorities for Houston ISD Food Services and its partners”, and a report on the USDA’s new school food regulations. If you have kids in public school as I do, these will be of interest to you.