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June 2nd, 2013:

Weekend link dump for June 2

Charles Ramsey will have free burgers for life. Well deserved.

The dark side of Greek yogurt.

If you’ve ever wanted to eat at Krusty Burger, you will soon get your chance.

“If Gingrich or Romney in 2005 could be counted as a liberal today, something has gone wrong in the way we’re labeling the political spectrum.”

Kaitlyn Hunt is not a criminal and should not be treated like one.

Reinhart and Rogoff have their poor widdle feewings hurt by Paul Krugman, the big meanie.

What Canadian bacteria could tell us about life on Mars.

The dispute about privacy and wearable computing mirrors the debate over privacy and handheld cameras of a century ago.

“Why are men who turned traitor against our country for a terrible cause and were responsible for the deaths of so many American soldiers honored by having some of our largest military bases named in their honor?”

“If you oppose Obamacare solely because you think it should be more generous, then you’re not part of the group that’s commonly thought of as the opposition: tea partiers, conservatives, Republicans, and so forth.”

Don’t mess with Hannah Robertson if you know what’s good for you.

We won’t have Michelle Bachmann to kick around any more, at least until she gets a gig with Fox News. She leaves behind an impressive legacy of non-achievement, and no lack of crazy colleagues to pick up where she left off.

If you’re looking for some good mammoth cloning news, you’re in luck.

It’s maybe barely possible that the Republicans in the Senate are backing away just an inch from nomination nullification. Maybe.

It’s good that Facebook is finally starting to face up to its uneven treatment of offensive content.

I for one would watch “Married To A Mime”.

Making a big production out of prom invitations is a bad idea, says the guy who didn’t even know when his prom was.

RIP, Father Andrew Greeley, priest, novelist, sociologist, and all around interesting fellow.

“So what’s the positive public policy agenda for misogynists these days?”

“This is the way the weird, heterodox pop-theology of premillennial dispensationalism has always evolved over the years. It grows and spreads and changes in the same way that any urban legend does in the telling and retelling.”

Sir Patrick Stewart is a mensch. See the video of that exchange here. By the way, that all took place at Comicpalooza, which is right here in Houston.

“Yet I cannot convince my Republican colleagues that one of the best ways to eliminate abortions is to ensure access to contraception.” That would seem to be an occupational hazard.

RIP, Jean Stapleton, best known as Edith Bunker from “All In The Family”.

The redistricting road show is coming

The House Redistricting Committee is taking it on the road.

Rep. Drew Darby

Rep. Drew Darby, chairman of the House Select Committee on Redistricting, said at a hearing Saturday that he’s decided to hold informational sessions in three of the state’s largest cities for members of the public who can’t make the trip to Austin.

Specific dates and locations for each city are still up in the air. And Darby noted that final plans for the field hearings are still being worked out right now.

“This is a very fluid process,” he said.

On that point, Darby at the beginning of Saturday’s hearing had set provisional dates for all three hearings to take place by next week. But by the end of the hearing, and after talking with committee members, he’d already switched up those tentative dates to reflect the likelihood of holding one field hearing next week and saving the other two for the following week.

That effectively nixes any notion that the House committee will be ready to vote out a bill by the end of next week — the tentative timeline Darby laid out at a hearing a day earlier.

“June 7 is no longer even under consideration,” Darby said.

Aside from San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, Democrats on the House panel asked for additional field hearings in El Paso and Laredo. Darby didn’t commit, saying the time crunch — remember the special session can only last for 30 days — could prevent the committee from branching out beyond the three cities already pegged for field hearings.

I suppose the Senate could pick up the slack with hearings in other cities as needed. Along those lines, Sen. Sylvia Garcia sent out an email yesterday saying she would be holding a community briefing on redistricting this Wednesday, June 5, from 8 to 9 AM at her East Aldine district office – 5333 Aldine Mail Route Road, Houston, TX 77093. For more on what happened at the House hearing yesterday, see Greg’s liveblog. Finally, if new Census data is taken into consideration for any further map revisions, Texas Redistricting points out that most of that growth, in terms of CVAP as well as raw population, came from Latinos. Battleground Texas, I believe that’s your number being called.

The townhomes are indeed coming

I have three things to say about this Lisa Gray column.

The dark side of density

“So the bad stuff we’re going to see today,” I asked, “it’ll be a cautionary tale for the suburbs?” I was driving west from downtown on what I thought of, privately, as the Terror o’ Townhouses Tour, a sort of scared-straight exhibit for suburbanites like me, who haven’t realized what a boring-sounding change to city development rules may be about to unleash on our outside-the-Loop neighborhoods.

David Robinson and Jane Cahill West were my guides. As neighborhood activists, they’d both seen firsthand how, 14 years ago, a similar change to Chapter 42 of the city of Houston ordinances made high-density development possible inside Loop 610, transforming entire neighborhoods lot by lot. One-story houses with yards gave way to townhouses so quickly that it became disconcerting to drive down a street you hadn’t seen in a while.

“Yeah,” Robinson said from my Hyundai’s back seat. “We’re interested in how the city is going to educate the suburbs.” (Robinson, an architect, is one of those civic activists who seem to be everywhere: head of the Neartown Association, former president of the Super Neighborhood Association, former member of the planning commission, a candidate for City Council, veteran of a bazillion stakeholders’ committees.)

“Just getting the word out is a problem,” said West in the front seat. (Her résumé is as overstuffed as his: vice president and resident expert on development for the Super Neighborhood Alliance, recent president of Washington Ave/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a former board chair of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for the Old Sixth Ward, and on and on.) “It’s a tough subject to cover.”

“They’re getting hit by a tidal wave,” said Robinson.

1. Some neighborhoods have had it worse under the previous tweaking of Chapter 42 than others. The West End/Rice Military area had the worst of all possible worlds – narrow streets, drainage ditches with no sidewalks, lax or nonexistent deed restrictions, small lot sizes, and initially affordable property values that made it so alluring to developers that wanted to cram as much living space onto the land as they could. Montrose at least generally had sidewalks, and the Heights generally had either sidewalks or deed restrictions, sometimes both. Nobody really knows what will happen to the parts of Houston that will now be subject to the same density rules as the Inner Loop, but if you live in a decent neighborhood in Houston but outside the Loop and are worried about the possible consequences in your area, I’d advise looking at your deed restrictions pronto. You may be protected from some of the rapaciousness that so changed the landscape in the inner core, but it’s best not to make assumptions about that.

2. The problem isn’t so much density as it is density plus car dependence. Montrose was always supposed to be a walkable neighborhood, and to a large extent it still is, which helps it remain as desirable a place to live as it is. Where it all goes wrong is not when you have more residences on a block than before but more cars that need to be parked than the block can handle. Houston has taken a lot of strides towards being less car dependent, at least in the areas most affected by the increased density, since the last revision of Chapter 42, with things like light rail and a vastly expanded bike infrastructure, but as long as every residence with multiple inhabitants of driving age has at least one car for everyone of driving age in it, these problems become intractable. Housing and transportation are two sides of the same coin, and we can’t solve one without the other.

3. For all of the problems that increased density have brought to these historic neighborhoods, we shouldn’t overlook all of the good that has happened in them. I lived in Montrose from 1989 to 1997. When I first went hunting for rental housing with two friends who would be my roommates back in 1989, there were plenty of cheap options to pick from. Unfortunately, they were cheap because they were mostly rundown old houses in sketchy neighborhoods – burglar bars were a prime feature on many of the places we looked at. The Heights was a place that single women were told to avoid because it was too dangerous. I don’t know about you, but on the whole I’d much rather have the Inner Loop of today than the Inner Loop of 25 years ago. I’d much rather have growth than decay. We absolutely need to learn the lessons of the past changes to Chapter 42, and work to fix the things that have gone wrong while working to avoid making the same mistakes elsewhere. But for all the issues, Houston is a much better place economically, culturally, and politically if it’s a place that people want to live in and can afford to live in. That above all is what we need to work towards.

Making San Antonio more musical

San Antonio is a little jealous of Austin, it seems.

Nelson Wolff

Tired of San Antonio playing second fiddle to Austin when it comes to a live music scene, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Friday laid out ambitious plans to change that.

Wolff said he’s ready to work with two top-notch promoters to raise San Antonio’s profile in the music world.

“I want to see Bexar County make its mark,” he said.

“Our best opportunity to rival Austin would be to stage a major music festival featuring the new sounds of music along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River,” Wolff said.

[…]

Wolff debuted the proposal during the annual “Bexar Facts” state-of-the-county report to the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. He reported progress on transportation and flood-control projects and urban enhancements including the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

“But there is still a major piece missing in attracting the best and the brightest, and that is the lack of a first-class music scene,” Wolff said.

Despite having venues for major events at the AT&T Center, Freeman Coliseum and theaters, Wolff said, “we are on the losing end to Austin when it comes to attracting tour acts and festivals. Witness Paul McCartney’s sold-out show in Austin this week while he skipped San Antonio.”

Wolff said he’s encouraging two prominent promoters to bring more independent music to San Antonio.

I get why San Antonio feels overlooked. At least back when I was in college, it was fairly common for big music acts to skip San Antonio when they toured Texas – a typical visit would be Houston, Austin, and Dallas. I have several friends who drove to Houston in 1986 to see Pink Floyd at the Astrodome. I might suggest that San Antonio figure out a way to build up its local scene, especially at smaller venues, as a complimentary path to enhancing its appeal to traveling artists. Again, my only frame of reference is my college days in the 80s, but the North Mary’s Strip between Trinity and downtown seems like an obvious place to begin with that. The thing about Sixth Street in Austin is that you walk down it and you hear music coming out of one bar after another. There’s plenty of bars along the Strip, there just needs to be the music. A music festival along the lines of the Free Press Summer Fest would be a good idea as well, especially if the river can be used as a backdrop/venue. I’m not exactly sure what Bexar County Commissioners Court can do to abet either of these, but I wish them luck in their effort.

Don’t be surprised if we have brownouts

That’s the message I take from this.

Temperatures in parts of Texas have started hitting the upper 90s, and they’re likely to stay above normal this summer, according to a forecast by federal climatologists.

That means another difficult summer for the Texas power grid. In a recent report, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation projected that the Texas grid will have the lowest percentage of power reserves this summer of any region of the country.

“Sustained extreme weather could be a threat to supply adequacy this summer,” the report stated.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid, also expects summer conditions to be “tight” and will probably ask Texans to conserve power on some hot afternoons when air conditioners put extra strain on the grid. Rotating blackouts are a possibility, ERCOT says, if the summer becomes as hot as 2011, which is not expected.

The Texas grid has struggled to keep up with demand, especially on the hottest days of the year. The problem is fast-growing demand combined with few new power plants being built. According to the reliability corporation, ERCOT’s projected reserve margin this summer — defined as the amount of power available above and beyond the anticipated peak needs of the grid — is 12.88 percent. That’s below ERCOT’s target, which is 13.75 percent. Other parts of the country all show more than an 18 percent reserve margin, according to the reliability corporation report.

And though the say they will have enough reserves for next summer even if no new power plants come online, the future beyond that isn’t looking so good.

Kent Saathoff, an executive adviser to ERCOT, said that the economic growth forecast ERCOT used for its future projections “may well” need to be raised. ERCOT currently uses a “low-growth” economic forecast from Moody’s to make projections 10 years into the future. If higher economic growth occurs than ERCOT has projected, that means power demand will be higher and ERCOT, once again, may not have adequate reserves.

If the grid operator does change its current “low-growth” projections — a question Saathoff said the grid operator is still weighing — a new long-term forecast incorporating those projections would not be issued until the end of the year.

Longer term, ERCOT’s reserve margins are projected to fall still further behind, but Saathoff noted that natural gas-fired power plants can get built “relatively quickly,” in two to three years.

“Just because we don’t show some of those plants for 2015-2016 doesn’t necessarily mean that those plants won’t show up,” he said.

Environmentalists say that ERCOT should move more rapidly to incorporate programs that cut peak-time power demand. For example, home electric systems can be set up to cycle air conditioners or pool pumps on and off, thus reducing power use when the grid is strained.

Texas “lags far behind” other states in such programs, according to Colin Meehan of the Environmental Defense Fund. ERCOT says it has some pilots programs in place, and some large companies already participate in such programs.

As with water, the cheapest and most effective strategy is always going to be conservation. Reduce your peak usage and the rest takes care of itself. Sure would be nice if we paid more attention to that.