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April 27th, 2014:

Weekend link dump for April 27

The four levels of discrimination. Not quite the 16 Levels of Losing (see followup as well), but it’ll do.

“The cities with the largest share of cyclists have the fewest cycling fatalities. And the same is true of pedestrians.”

“In my research, successful professional women—lawyers, academics, executives, scientists—repeatedly said they’ve been expected to bring cupcakes for a colleague’s birthday, order sandwiches for office lunches and answer phones in the conference room, even if their job description is far up the ladder from such administrative tasks.”

“The essence of the circle of scam is that everybody gets rich at some stage of the game, with the exception of the rank-and-file conservatives who fuel it all with their votes, their eyeballs, and their money.”

Apparently, parrots name their children. As far as we know, however, no parrot child has ever been named “Khaleesi”.

“And I don’t recall reading many headlines asking, “WILL MITT’S NEARLY TWO DOZEN GRANDCHILDREN KILL HIS PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONS?” during the 2012 election cycle.”

I got all 15 questions right on this Pew quiz on religion, though I admit I guessed on the last one.

RIP, John C. Houbolt, NASA engineer who was vital to the moon landing in 1969.

“But a funny thing happened on the way to the videophone future AT&T executives and engineers imagined: It didn’t happen, at least not the way they thought it would.”

I’m sorry, but the unwritten rules of baseball are a bunch of baloney. Play to win, act like a grownup, and take what the other team gives you. That’s all you need to know.

“Be less stupid” is good advice in general.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Texas is a great state for producing solar energy, and there are many business opportunities here for solar. Texas is also a hotbed of wingnut legislation, influenced by the usual big money suspects. Which force will be more powerful in 2015?

“Having a representative of the highest judicial body in the land on a whistlestop tour telling people that revolt is the answer to constitutional provisions they don’t like isn’t just a violation of the oath of office, it undermines the judicial system as a whole. What faith is there in the rule of law if one of the nation’s top judges is telling you not to get elected and change the law, but to rise up in revolt?”

For those of you that have been missing Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski since the Winter Olympics, this is relevant to your interests.

Wind turbines really aren’t a threat to birds.

Better be prepared to install anti-virus software for that Internet-connected TV of yours.

“The federal lands grazing program is like supercharged food stamps for bovines. And it is massively subsidized.”

Stone Cold Steve Austin supports same-sex marriage. Austin 3:16, indeed.

It’s hard out here on a female Republican Congressional candidate.

Bundyfest is a thing that maybe ought to happen.

“Patterson was an expert in analyzing trace elements; Kehoe was a doctor who was in the pocket of the petroleum industry. Patterson saw rising levels of lead in the environment as a consequence of its use as a fuel additive; Kehoe was getting paid to sow doubt. Patterson focused on the effects of environmental lead on human health; Kehoe was more concerned with the profit margins of industry. The campaigns for lead additives in fuel resemble the abuses of science used to promote cigarette smoking and to fight actions to curb greenhouse gases.”

“How quickly you have forgotten Herman Cain“. And deservedly so.

“Yep, that’s about as classless as you can get, attacking the president and the senator with a picture taken when they were visiting victims of a mass shooting in the hospital.” Money cannot buy classiness, that’s for sure.

Do you need a reason to read something about Yogi Berra? Well, there you go.

Meet the finalists of the 2014 Flame Challenge, which is “Explaining color to 11-year-olds”.

“The corporate race to the bottom on wages and working conditions is coming for you, too.”

RIP, Emmett Solomon, former Texas prison chaplain and founder of the Restorative Justice Ministries Network.

“Specifically, I don’t understand why, after a decade’s worth of hand-wringing over the moral depravity of rule-breakers, people are accepting of a situation where breaking the rules is totally fine as long as no one is being obvious about it and no one is doing things to cause it to make big, controversial news.”

The world is a better place with another zonkey in it.

Ted Cruz can cross being mocked by a supermodel off his bucket list.

What LeBron says about Donald Sterling.

AG opinion sought for Perry’s use of taxpayer funds for defense

Interesting.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

These corndogs don’t come cheap ya know

A Democratic House leader has asked for a legal opinion on how and if Gov. Rick Perry can bill taxpayers for his $450-an-hour criminal lawyer defending him in a grand jury probe.

Perry is under a grand jury investigation on potential bribery and coercion charges after trying to force Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg to resign last year after she pled guilty to drunk driving.

He hired Austin criminal attorney David Botsford in a contract that runs through October.

Perry has acknowledged that he threatened to veto $7.5 million in state funding for the Public Integrity Unit, administered by Lehmberg’s office, if she did not step down. She did not resign and he vetoed the money.

If Lehmberg, a Democrat, had quit, Perry would have named her replacement. The Public Integrity Unit at the time was investigating the operation of one of Perry’s signature achievements — the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

One of CPRIT’s top officers was indicted in December for steering an $11 million award to a company without subjecting it to the standard review process.

Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, requested that Attorney General Greg Abbott study the issue to see if there are limits on a governor hiring outside counsel at taxpayers expense.

In a 4-page letter, the House Land and Resource Management Committee chairman asks if the governor has taken criminal actions beyond the scope of his official capacity, should the state be obligated to pay for his defense.

It also asks if the governor can be forced to accept a state lawyer on staff at the Attorney General’s Office as opposed to paying for outside counsel.

The Lone Star Project has a copy of the letter, with more here. My original assumption was that this was similar to Perry paying for his travel security with public funds, but perhaps I thought too soon. I’ll be very interested to see how Abbott opines on this. The Trib and BOR have more.

Meanwhile, more details about Perry’s efforts to oust Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg keep dribbling out.

Officials and sources said Perry, through intermediaries, offered several options to Lehmberg to entice her resignation, culminating in promises to restore funding to the unit, another position in the District Attorney’s office, and the selection of her top lieutenant to serve as the new district attorney.

The offer was “clear,” said a public official who was involved the talks, but who asked not to be identified.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daughtery, a Republican, said he reached out to Perry’s office following the veto to see if there was some way to restore state funding for the anti-corruption Public Integrity Unit. He said that negotiations eventually included allowing Democrats, who dominate Travis County politics, to pick Lehmberg’s replacement.

“There was this massive amount of fear that if Rosemary steps down, it’s the governor who gets to appoint someone,” Daughtery said. A Lehmberg aide was floated as a potential replacement to make it palatable to Democrats.

Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe confirmed that Perry’s office had said that Lehmberg would be replaced with another Democrat currently working in the district attorney’s office.

“Then the offer was made, I was told, that the governor would appoint a Democrat, and preferably one already working in the DA’s office,” he said.

Biscoe added that he never directly communicated with Perry or his staff during the talks.

In late July, the offer was sweetened again, the two sources said, when the Governor’s office communicated that Lehmberg would be allowed to remain at the district attorney’s office in another capacity if she resigned her elected position.

I’m amazed by all this, and I must say a little puzzled. The presumed reasons why Perry would want to force Lehmberg out the door are to derail the CPRIT investigation, and generally cripple the Public Integrity Unit. Both of which could be accomplished by installing a Republican as DA, which Perry would have gotten to do if Lehmberg had stepped down. I get that Perry might need and be willing to sweeten the pot to achieve his (again, presumed) goals, but if all this is true you have to wonder what he thought he was accomplishing. I just don’t understand the motivation. If it was just about believing that Lehmberg was unfit to serve, then why would Perry offer to let her stay at another job in the office? Makes no sense to me. Jason Stanford has more.

More demolitions coming

Good.

DemolitionMap

Houston next week will launch an effort to scoop up dangerous properties left to rot in so many aging neighborhoods, raze them and resell the land.

Officials say the program, approved unanimously Wednesday by the City Council, could more than double the number of buildings demolished each year, help the city recover more of the money it spends fighting blight and get the lots back on the tax rolls more quickly.

“Many of these properties have sat vacant and tax-delinquent for many years, some of them for 20 years,” said Katye Tipton, director of the city’s Department of Neighborhoods. “They’ve got a really rotten building on them, nobody is interested in buying this thing; I wouldn’t. So, the city goes in, we clean up the property. Within 60 to 90 days we’ll take it back to sale. Now, it’s a much more appealing property.”

[…]

Of Houston’s 4,317 blighted houses, strip centers and apartment complexes, most of which are clustered in poor and minority neighborhoods like Settegast, the city is on track to raze only 153 this fiscal year.

Hurdles have included a lack of resources, state laws that limit the city’s ability to interfere with private properties, and often muddled ownership that makes it hard to hold someone responsible for a property’s poor state.

The program approved Wednesday would apply only to the roughly 40 percent of dangerous buildings that are tax delinquent.

Those that do not sell at auction for at least the delinquent taxes, penalties and interest, can be acquired by the city and cleaned up for resale. The city would be responsible for maintenance, but would be first in line to recover its cleanup costs before other local governments get the taxes owed them.

Typically, Houston gets back less than 1 percent of its cleanup costs when it condemns and demolishes a property without taking ownership, because the city is last in line to recoup its costs under state law. When it has taken lots into inventory in the past, however, the city has recovered about 40 percent of its costs.

“Really, anything over the 1 percent is gravy right now,” said Kelly Dowe, the city’s chief business officer, adding the dollars recovered will be set aside for more demolition work. “The real benefit to the city is to get them back on the tax rolls and get them redeveloped.”

I grabbed a screenshot of the Google map from the story and embedded it above. Not surprisingly, nearly all of the properties in question are east of the I-45/US59 dividing line inside the Loop. Tearing them down will be a boon for their neighborhoods, since properties like that tend to attract crime and stand in the way of other development. Given the proximity of many of these properties to downtown, and the high demand for such real estate, I’d like to see the city require that at least some of these places get developed as moderately priced housing. It’s the cost of the land itself that tends to dictate what gets built and how much it costs, so since these are going to sport low prices for whoever buys them, then what gets built on them should ideally reflect that. I don’t know what the best way to do that is, but it would be nice if what ultimately gets built doesn’t price the existing residents out of their homes.

Falkenberg on Abbott’s education plan

Lisa Falkenberg has a balanced take on Greg Abbott’s education plan.

Progress has been tragically slow for the students of North Forest. And their saga makes great fodder for those beating the drum to create something called an “achievement school district” in Texas. It would have the power to take over low-performing schools with the intent of turning them around, or turn them over to a charter operator.

Julie Linn, executive director of the well-financed Texans for Education Reform, was quoted in The Dallas Morning News telling lawmakers that an entire generation of students had been lost at the North Forest district during the chronic underachievement. True.

“If an achievement school district had existed,” Linn told lawmakers, “it would not have allowed 20 years of failure at North Forest ISD.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. Many of the failures were the result of the state’s own missteps. Conservators hired unqualified principals and poor-performing superintendents who squandered funds and donations. A parade of monitors and boards of managers had little effect.

But when I called North Forest’s new principal, Pamela Farinas, she supported the concept of achievement districts.

“I think it would have made a big difference,” Farinas said, explaining that every time the state took over North Forest it was the whole state, a “massive entity with a whole bunch of compliance paperwork.”

A small, specialized district knowledgeable about struggling schools would have more power and agility, she said. But she made clear she’s “150 percent” against turning to charters, which are often unwilling or unable to serve the neediest students.

“They’re exiting kids as quickly as they accept them and everybody seems to be brushing that under the carpet,” said Farinas, who worked briefly at a charter school.

[…]

On its face, the idea of a takeover district is attractive, especially with education horrors like the former North Forest still fresh on our minds.

We have to do something. But we can’t just do anything. I think I’m inclined to agree with David Anthony, the former Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent who now leads an influential education advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas.

He says the group has traveled the country looking at turnaround strategies. Anthony is not yet sold on the idea of achievement districts. The data just isn’t there.

Even in Tennessee, where homegrown superstar YES Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic went in 2011 to lead the effort to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent, students the first year made modest gains in science and math but fell behind in reading.

The answer, Anthony says, “has to be a long-term, sustainable transformation. It can’t just be the new fad du jour.”

Anthony’s chief concern about Abbott’s proposal is the same as mine: “Why are we investing in a strategy we’re not quite sure about yet?”

See here for more. I consider myself neither an advocate nor opponent of charter schools. The good ones are very good, but there are a lot of not so good ones, and overall the numbers suggest that charters as a whole don’t do any better than traditional public schools. It’s also never been clear to me that the charter model, which depends in large part on a high degree of commitment from students, parents, and (generally less-paid) teachers is scalable to the magnitude needed for this kind of problem. How will charter schools do when they have no choice at all about who they get to educate? That’s a pretty big question.

There’s another reason to be wary of this, and that reason is money. Part of that is about school funding, which is still well below 2009 levels thanks to the massive and as it turns out needless budget cuts of 2011. If we really want to try something that’s never been done before in our schools, why don’t we try funding them at truly adequate and equitable levels first? As Attorney General, Greg Abbott is in a unique position to do something about that by settling the ongoing school finance litigation. His continued refusal to do that, and his constant avoidance of any talk about school finance is quite revealing. But beyond that, there’s also the presence of yet another well-financed interest group on the scene that’s pushing for this change, Texans for Education Reform. Like black holes do with space-time, groups like that warp the discussion and suck in all the light in their vicinity. Who will benefit from Abbott’s plan? It’s a sure bet that the funders behind Texans for Education Reform are at the top of that list. That’s as good a reason as any to be deeply skeptical of this.

EquuSearch sues over drones

This ought to be interesting.

Texas EquuSearch filed suit Monday against the federal government to overturn the grounding of its fleet of aerial drones used to search for missing people.

Tim Miller, founder and director of EquuSearch, said the Feb. 21 Federal Aviation Administration order prohibiting the operation of four drones has meant the nonprofit organization has not used them in three active searches for missing people in Katy, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

Miller said the 4-foot-long drones have led to the discovery of 11 missing individuals and allow searchers to view large stretches of wooded areas, fenced property and bodies of water.

“I was hoping we’d get a response from them that was more positive and we didn’t have to go to this extreme,” Miller said of the FAA. “It’s time-consuming for us, and God only knows what the outcome is going to be.”

Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney representing Texas EquuSearch, said the lawsuit seeks to confirm the rights of nonprofits to use civilian drone technology for the nation’s benefit.

“There is no legal basis for the FAA to order Texas EquuSearch to halt its humanitarian activities,” Schulman said in a statement. “It is also incomprehensible, as a matter of policy and common sense, that the FAA would deem ‘illegal’ the use of a technology that can reunite missing people with their families, after decades of allowing the same technology to be used in the same way for recreational purposes.”

Here’s a bit of background on this. I couldn’t find a story from February 21 or a copy of the order on the FAA webpage, so this will have to do. The Texas Legislature passed a bill last year that largely forbade private organizations from using drones but left them available for law enforcement agencies; I presume Texas EquuSearch falls under that, or perhaps they built in another exemption for them. In any event, I see no good reason why Texas Equusearch should not be able to use drones for their tasks. Sure, the FAA should regulate their usage so that there’s no interference with other flying objects, but a ban makes no sense to me. I hope they can work this out, and if not I hope Texas EquuSearch prevails in court. Grits has more.