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June 23rd, 2013:

Weekend link dump for June 23

Summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime…

We may never get the flying cars we were once promised, but flying bicycles appear to be a possibility.

Vota por un gato! I’ll bet Eric Dick is wondering how it is that he didn’t think of that.

When animals attack news reporters, on live TV.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas think the current business model for the moviemaking industry is in deep trouble.

“A vast array of heart defibrillators, drug infusion pumps, and other medical devices contain backdoors that make them vulnerable to potentially life-threatening hacks, federal officials have warned.”

Turns out throwing children in prison is a bad idea.

“It was custom-designed to communicate with a similar antenna that would be floating by in the stratosphere, over 60,000 feet above sea level. On a solar-powered balloon. Oh, and the men work for Google.” It’s called Project Loon.

Classical sculptures dressed in hipster clothes. Because, sure, why not.

RIP, Mott Green, whom I knew a million years ago as David Friedman, when we both played the saxophone in the IS61 Morning Band. What an interesting and unorthodox life he led.

“I want to stress this again: In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t. You cannot. There are not any. You cannot take yourself to one, take your friend to one, take your daughter to one. There are not any.”

“For the first time, a constituency group to whom the GOP normally pays close attention—religious institutions—is asking for a legislative fix of the Affordable Care Act to make it work as intended.”

But until it actually does provably cost them electoral support, I don’t see the GOP budging.

“Let that sink in. When your religious beliefs and actions cause you to lose the moral high ground to Howard Stern, then something has gone horribly wrong with your religion.”

The Heartland Institute gets pwned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

“The problem isn’t so much that we haven’t set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from the government; it’s that we haven’t set up a legal architecture to preserve our online privacy from anyone at all.”

Nate Silver versus Politico. Not a fair fight, if you ask me.

Remember when we thought that Bobby Jindal was the smart Republican? Good times.

Among other things, immigration reform would be very good for the economy. No surprise if you’ve been paying attention.

RIP, telegrams. It was a pretty good 150 or so years for the service.

Perlstein versus Greenwald and his fans. It’s not the first time that people who are otherwise sympathetic to Glenn Greenwald have had problems constructively engaging with him.

Oh, Serena. I hope you were badly misquoted here. Because you really should know better.

RIP, James Gandolfini, dead of a hart attack at the much too young age of 51.

RIP, Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics, who brought us Love and Rockets and Usagi Yojimbo, among others.

Maybe Ted Cruz is right about the link between immigration and criminal behavior.

By all means, raise the cigarette tax.

What’s at stake with the farm bill.

What’s the matter with Kansas now? Too many low-wage jobs, for one thing.

I’m from New Yew Tree Village. How about you?

What Ed Kilgore says about Paula Deen.

No override of Public Integrity Unit funding veto

Alas.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

A legislative move to restore state funding for the ethics-enforcing Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office died Friday afternoon.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said no vote is expected on House Concurrent Resolution 6 — the attempt by state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to override Gov. Rick Perry’s veto of more than $7 million in state funding to the unit over two years.

[…]

Turner insisted that he had the votes for the committee to approve the resolution, but he said members were eager to leave Austin on Friday and did not want to stick around and vote.

He told reporters he won’t ask for a vote before the special legislative session ends Tuesday.

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t really think this was possible – Rep. Turner may have had the tacit support of Appropriations Chair Jim Pitts and Speaker Straus, but getting to a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override seems like a pretty big stretch. The legality of this unprecedented move – normally, veto overrides happen in the same session as the vetoes themselves – was not established, either. It would have been a fascinating exercise in government theory to pursue it, but it’s hardly a surprise that it went nowhere. Attention now turns back to Travis County Commissioners Court, which will likely consider the matter of filling in the funding gap in the next couple of weeks, and to the TPJ complaint against Rick Perry for the veto threat, for which I have not seen any updates as yet.

More on the HCDE pre-k proposal

Some more details on that pre-k proposal being pitched to the HCDE. It raises more questions than it answers.

pre-k

Members applauded the effort by the recently formed Harris County School Readiness Corp., a non-profit group whose membership includes business, philanthropic and community leaders, including former Houston first lady Andrea White. At the end of the meeting, they voted 6-1 to allow Superintendent John Sawyer, who was absent Tuesday, to further study the plan and bring back a recommendation for how to proceed.

The tone of the discussion, however, took a drastic turn during a question-and-answer session after a member of the corporation, former Houston city attorney Jonathan Day, presented the plan to the board with Carol Shattuck, president and CEO of partner group Collaborative for Children.

New trustee Howard Jefferson, who had just been sworn in, asked Day to describe the proposed terms of any agreement between the department and the corporation, and what responsibilities the department may have.

Explaining “work will be done by non-profit service providers,” Day told him “the control of the program in terms of allocation to various providers would be in the hands of the non-profit,” not the agency.

He went onto explain, admitting his bluntness, that the group wanted to avoid having the education department board handle the program because of its reputation as a stepping stone for higher political office. He also alluded to recent criticism the agency has faced for hiring lobbyists, including former county commissioner Jerry Eversole, who resigned in October 2011 after being accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for contracts.

“I think this kind of a structure will really work well,” Day said. “I’ll be very blunt with you, we are aware of the criticism about the structure of this board… But we thought that a nonprofit is a way to provide stability and to provide the assurance of the public that this is going to be mired down in partisan controversy.”

[…]

Board President Angie Chesnut and Board Vice President Debra Kerner, alluding to an earlier discussion, then asked Day, whether the the trustees would be able to appoint a member to the corporation’s board.

“Is that something we were still considering?” Kerner asked.

“That’s a matter we need to discuss,” Day replied. “It’s something that we are open to, but to be very blunt… we would like to avoid to the maximum extent possible the problems and perceptions of the partisanship and disagreements, we do not want to import that into our board.”

Chesnut then told Day: “I have to be honest with you, also. I will not support this process without having participation on your board.”

A clarification: In my previous post, I said that the HCDE approved the plan. As you can see from the first paragraph quoted above, all they approved was for Superintendent Sawyer to study the plan. I just misread the story on which I based that statement. My apologies for the confusion.

From this post, and from Big Jolly’s account of the HCDE meeting, it sounds like this idea isn’t fully formed yet. It would certainly help if the Harris County School Readiness Corporation would get their website and Facebook pages up so we can examine their plan in more detail, and give them feedback directly. I do think the HCDE Board needs to appoint at least one member to the School Readiness Corp’s board – at least two would be better. But really, just getting all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed would go a long way. I think this is fated to wind up in court one way or another, so while Judge Emmett is soliciting opinions from the County Attorney and the Attorney General about the legalities of all this, it would be wise for the HCSRC to get and publish its own opinion. Who knows, maybe there’s a less dicey way to make this happen. But let’s get some more information, no matter what else. Stace has more.

Back to court for the school finance lawsuit

Like deja vu all over again.

State district court Judge John Dietz likened the state’s school finance case to the soap opera As The World Turns when he opened Wednesday’s hearing on whether to reconsider evidence in the trial that concluded in February.

He drew the comparison not because of the trial’s drama but because of its longevity.

“There were 13,858 episodes of As The World Turns and we are getting pretty close,” Dietz said.

After hearing brief arguments from the state and the six parties in the case, the judge announced that a new six-week trial would begin on Jan. 6 in the lawsuit that arose last summer after lawmakers cut roughly $5.4 billion from state public education funding in 2011 while the state simultaneously implemented a rigorous new testing and accountability system.

“The passage of the wealth of bills during this 83rd Legislature has created a situation where in the interests of justice we need to assay and concentrate as to whether that legislation changed the circumstances [we examined] during the 45-day trial,” Dietz said.

The two largest groups of school districts represented in the case, along with the state, were in favor of reopening evidence in the case to update the record after a legislative session in which the Legislature restored about $3.4 billion to public education funding. Changes to high school testing and graduation requirements, as well as a bill expanding the state’s charter school system, also passed.

“It’s not in anyone’s interest to allow it to go to [Texas] Supreme Court. It’d be highly likely we’d be back in this court in six months,” said attorney Mark Trachtenberg, who represents some of the districts in the case. He argued that the high court would remand the decision if it did not consider the impact of the 2013 Legislature.

[…]

All of the parties will be back in court on July 17 to determine what procedures will govern the new trial.

See here for the last update. It makes sense to hash everything out again, since there were some significant changes made by the Legislature. I don’t know that what they did actually fixes the problems that Judge Dietz outlined, but to be sure the facts are different now, and there’s not much point in having the Supreme Court rule on a decision that is no longer current. So have at it one more time, y’all.

Drinking water from the Gulf

Well, there is a lot of water there.

The wicked drought gripping Texas has made one thing clear to Bill West: There is not enough water to meet new urban demands and competing environmental needs.

So in his search for new sources of water, the general manager the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is looking in another direction. West plans to tap the Gulf of Mexico.

The river authority has launched a two-year, $2-million study into the economic viability of building a seawater desalination plant by the Texas coast, a technology being used in Australia, Singapore and the Middle East that has been slow to take hold in North America.

[…]

The cost of desalting seawater is usually many times more than that of conventional water sources, such as rivers and reservoirs.

The Texas Water Development Board has estimated that water from a desalting plant will cost about $2,000 an acre-foot, roughly enough water to satisfy two or three families a year. The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which supplies water for a fast-growing corridor between Austin and San Antonio, now sells water from the Canyon Lake reservoir for $125 an acre-foot.

Energy is the primary driver, accounting for as much as 70 percent of the operating costs of a seawater desalting plant, said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report.

“In a number of places, desalination always has been too expensive,” he said. “But now the cost of developing conventional supplies is rising, making the cost of desalination more viable.”

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority would build the desalting facility with a power plant near Victoria, about 130 miles southwest of Houston. The power plant likely would be fueled by cheap and plentiful natural gas from the nearby Eagle Ford play, though the feasibility study also will look at renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

“The energy part of the equation has changed over the years,” said Les Shephard, director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which will help the river authority on the project. “Now is a good time to look at natural gas.”

See here for previous blogging about desalinization. Most of what has been talked about so far has involved brackish water, of which there is plenty in Texas. It’s cheaper to process, since it’s not nearly as salty as seawater. I get the impression that things must be getting desperate if using water from the Gulf is looking like a viable option.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s idea “seems awfully Herculean for what we need,” said Amy Hardberger, a water policy and law professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It does not get to the heart of the matter.”

Hardberger said the river authority should look more closely at using water more efficiently before building a big desalting plant that could cost more than $1 billion. She is among those who are skeptical of the state’s projected needs, saying the estimate overstates demand by assuming each Texan will use the same amount per day in the future.

Others are bullish on a brackish desalination. The groundwater is much less salty than seawater, so purifying it is much less expensive. The San Antonio Water System, for one, is building a $145 million desalting plant above the Wilcox Aquifer, about 30 miles south of the city.

There are 46 brackish desalination plants across Texas, with nearly 40 more facilities included in the state’s long-range water plan. The state holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater, which is 150 times the amount of water Texans use each year, according to the state water board.

But West said the Gulf is more attractive than a salty aquifer because he can avoid the often nasty permitting fights with the special districts that oversee groundwater. What’s more, the river authority’s project is an important piece in an “all-of-the-above” water portfolio, especially with climate models showing Texas getting less rainfall as global temperatures keep rising.

See here for more on what San Antonio has done, and here for all my previous blogging on desalinization. I’m curious about putting a desalting plant in Victoria – wouldn’t you also need to build a big pipeline to get the water there in the first place as well? Most of the previous stuff I’ve seen on desalinization had to do with brackish water, which is found all over Texas, but in browsing my archives I didn’t see any indication of how much it cost to desalinate brackish water, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I do agree with Prof. Hardberger that conservation has to be the first priority, as that is always the cheapest option, but in the long term I suspect desalinization will be a part of the equation. I don’t know how much of that will be Gulf water, though.

One thing I’ve yet to see mentioned in any story about desalinization is what to do with all the excess salt – technically, the brine water that is left over, which can be 15 to 25 percent of the intake, from what I can tell. If you take salty water and extract all the fresh water you can, you’re going to have to do something with the extra super salty residual water, right? Fortunately, the Sierra Club of Texas has done the heavy lifting on that, and you can read all about it here. If we’re going to go down this road – and I believe we are – we need to make sure we have sufficient environmental controls in place so that we don’t create bigger problems than the ones we’re trying to solve.