Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

July 13th, 2014:

Weekend link dump for July 13

Same-sex marriage may soon be the law of the land, but you can still be fired for being gay, and you can still be discriminated against in a lot of other ways, too.

Ted Cruz lies every time he opens his mouth. This is not a surprise.

Want more Frozen? It’s on your teevee this fall.

In other news, Bigfoot still doesn’t exist.

“In the future, regulators may be less willing to seek compromise lest their efforts be similarly used against them — and it is bad news for all of us if health policy can be made only through polarization and rancor rather than compromise.”

“I can think of another reason a craft store might oppose birth control: Non-procreative sex is the enemy of crafting. Who would latch hook if they could be having sex?”

“149 rare Bob Dylan demos found in boxes marked ‘Old Records'”.

“It seems almost pointless to mention this but there is simply no state Democratic party in any of the 50 states that is so clearly, obviously demented. This is the Republican Party. Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru are not. In fact, I think all those bold conservative thinkers of whom the New York Times thinks so much should bring their Big Ideas down to the next Texas state Republican convention and see how far they get. John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell, and especially obvious anagram Reince Priebus, who nominally presides over Bedlam, need to be asked every day which parts of the Texas Republican platform they support and which parts they don’t.” This is true of Greg Abbott too, of course.

The love letters of President Warren Harding, who was Anthony Weiner before Twitter and cellphones, will soon be on display.

RIP, Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet official and president of the republic of Georgia.

“People profess doubt about climate science not because of any rational evidence about the fallibility of science, but because it’s in their interests to do so.”

How Seinfeld changed television, for better and worse.

“There is nothing inherently inconsistent between religion and living our lives freely as LGBT people. We do not need to settle for a law that has a loophole this large, that will embolden our opposition and that has the potential to curb our progress on other federal, state, and local laws protecting LGBT people and their families.”

Quantifying the most shocking result in World Cup history.

Is mass deportation worth $200 billion plus to you?

The main differences in the Colorado and Washington pot markets.

You only think you wiped all your data off your Android phone.

“Geraghty supported the idea that we should devote $2 trillion and thousands of lives to invading and occupying Iraq to bring them freedom. But that was different, of course: We got to kill people. Also we didn’t have to hang around with them. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free are the worst!”

“We have gone from learning that the law has failed to cover anybody to learning it would cover a couple million to learning it would cover a few million to learning that it has probably insured fewer than 20 million people halfway through year one. The message of every individual dispatch is a confident prediction of the hated enemy’s demise, yet the terms described in each, taken together, tell the story of retreat.”

What does it mean to be an “employer”?

Happy tenth anniversary to the Comics Curmudgeon!

“Disgraceful. No wonder dinosaurs became extinct. Sickos like this kill every last one of them as soon as they are discovered. He should be in prison.”

“If the fertilized egg in the female American citizen is of more value to you than the Guatemalan child who has just crossed the border illegally…”

RIP, Eileen Ford, founder of Ford Models.

One hundred years of babe Ruth.

Could Astrodome Park actually work?

Lisa Gray asks a good question about the proposal to turn the Astrodome into green space.

Could that really be a park like Discovery Green? It’s easy to imagine that green space being useful, say, for a Super Bowl party, tailgating during home games, or as an extension of the Rodeo. But outside of those occasional events, what would lure people to an out-of-the-way, surrounded-by-asphalt park? What would it take to convince them to go there seven days a week, even in July?

I asked Barry Mandel, president and park director of Discovery Green.

“What’s their goal?” Mandel said. “Is it to have a space that’s active only during events? Or do they want to draw people in, to have it be active seven days a week? Do they want it to be a catalyst for development?”

If everyday activity is a goal, Mandel says, it has to be baked into the plans from the very beginning. Discovery Green started its planning with the goal of having people come to the park — in what was then considered a very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown — every day of the year. “That was a bold idea,” says Mandel. “Planning started by getting community input. Project for Public Spaces went out to the community and asked two questions: What would it take to bring you here? And what are your concerns?”

Those planners returned with an almost comically long list of features to be packed into the small space: A lake, multiple stages, a dog run, a micro-library, a playground, a quiet garden, permanent public art, green space suitable for Frisbees or ball-throwing, and not one but two restaurants. Only then, knowing what needed to be included, did anyone draw plans.

The park’s baked-in permanent features draw an important steady stream of park visitors: Even when nothing special is going on, people believe the park is an interesting place to be.

In addition, of course, Discovery Green deploys intense “programming” — a dizzying array of events, all through the week, intended to draw people from all walks of life. Concerts. Movie nights. Yoga. Zumba. Dog shows. Temporary public-art exhibits. Kayak classes. Flea markets. Circus performers.

Those events cost money. “Since the park started, we’ve probably spent $5 million on programming,” says Mandel.

Putting this another way, Discovery Green was founded with a lot of foundation money behind it. How much money did it take to make Discovery Green happen? A lot.

The total cost to acquire the land that became Discovery Green was approximately $57 million, and the total cost to build, landscape, and complete the project was approximately $125 million.

The Astrodome Park plan carries a $66 million price tag; the Rodeo and the Texans say they’ll contribute some amount to that, but they don’t say how much. If they’re serious about this, and the invocation of Discovery Green is more than just grabbing for the easy analogy of “urban public parks created from previously unused space”, then I say show me the money. In particular, show me the private and non-profit partners in this venture and their plans for what to do with the place after it opens. I’ll still be skeptical – Discovery Green may have once been in a “very inconvenient, little-used part of downtown” – but it was still close to a lot of people in a way that Astrodome Park isn’t. What’s the plan to bring people there, and what’s the funding source to pay for it? That’s what we need to know.

Close enough for Greg Abbott

What more do you need to know?

Attorney General Greg Abbott first stirred things up by saying the state would not release information about the locations and amounts of hazardous chemicals held by private companies, reversing nearly three decades of public disclosure.

The Republican front-runner for governor then suggested Texans could “drive around” to find companies and ask them for the information, prompting his Democratic opponent, Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, to launch a seven-city “Texans Deserve to Know” tour lambasting Abbott.

Still battling criticism over his office’s ruling restricting the state release of information about hazardous chemical stockpiles – a position that Abbott said simply applies state homeland security law – the attorney general this week told Texans they can go to the state Department of Insurance website for “general” information about the storage of the volatile chemical ammonium nitrate.

That “general information,” it turns out, consists of little more than a yes or no answer to whether ammonium nitrate may be present in a ZIP code.

“It’s useless,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, of watchdog group Public Citizen. “ZIP codes are by their nature relatively large geographic areas. The presence of ammonium nitrate on one side of the ZIP code or another doesn’t give you the information about how close it is so you can make a decision on whether you want to buy a house in the neighborhood, nor does it give you enough information to determine the relative risk based on the quantity of ammonium nitrate.”

The site has a disclaimer saying it is “for informational purposes and is not prepared for or suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying purposes. It does not represent an on-the-ground survey and represents only the approximate relative location of property boundaries. … No warranty is made by TDI regarding specific accuracy or completeness. It is the user’s responsibility to verify all data represented in the maps.”

“I would think that it would be more informative to simply post a map of Texas with all of the storage sites identified by location,” said Wendy Wagner, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The embedded image is included to give you an idea of what a ZIP code can look like in Texas. Doesn’t really tell you much, does it? But hey, at least it’s an answer.

Abbott’s justification for giving these increasingly convoluted non-answers is that he’s just interpreting state law. If we accept for the sake of argument that this is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then this must be a bad law. You’d think that the natural thing for a politician to do is say that maybe the law ought to be changed so that The People can have a better idea if they might be living next to a potential explosion. Greg Abbott hasn’t done that. I don’t think Greg Abbott is capable of doing that, because I don’t think Greg Abbott thinks this is a problem. Oh, he recognizes that there is a problem, because people keep asking him about this, but he thinks the problem is that people just won’t accept that they don’t need to know this information, that the corporate interest trumps theirs. So he’s going to keep saying the say thing, in however many different ways, and hope that the questions eventually stop. So I don’t think this is going away any time soon.

In the meantime, of course, this is a hanging curveball for the Davis campaign.

After several reporters tested the theory and were shown the door at various chemical facilities, Abbott acknowledged that citizens did not have easy access to the information and has since proposed a new law that would require fire departments to make the data available during normal business hours.

Although his campaign had earlier suggested that local fire departments already could give out that information, Abbott told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday that they were not allowed to disseminate the information.

“Right now they can’t,” he said. “That’s why my proposal is to make this information more conveniently accessible, is to allow people to seek and obtain the information from the fire marshals who already have this information.”

Abbott was asked what might prevent a terrorist from gaining access to the information through the fire marshals or the departments they work for. He said it would be up to those local officials to determine whether the people asking for it were up to no good.

“If this information can be obtained from a fire marshal, it can be done in a way where they’re going to know who it is seeking the information and they can make assessments about whether or not the people acquiring the information can pose any type of terroristic threat.”

Davis told reporters Saturday that Abbott’s proposal was “absurd.”

“He’s trying to have it both ways,” she said. “He’s trying to say that this information should not be disclosed to the public because of terrorist fears, and then on the other hand he wants to tell the public, ‘Look, here’s how you can find the information.’ It makes no sense.”

Abbott had previously claimed that making this information available to the public meant that terrorists could get it, too. Thus his plan to delegate the task of telling terrorists from ordinary folks to firefighters. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to take on that responsibility. Did I mention that there’s a much easier answer to this problem that would be obvious to a lot of people that aren’t Greg Abbott?

CFPB makes its presence felt in Texas

Good for them.

Texas-based payday lender ACE Cash Express has agreed to pay $10 million to settle allegations by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that it used harassment and other illegal tactics to push borrowers into a cycle of debt.

Under the agreement, the company, one of the nation’s largest payday lenders, will pay $5 million in refunds to consumers and will also pay a $5 million fine, the bureau said Thursday.

“ACE used false threats, intimidation and harassing calls to bully payday borrowers into a cycle of debt,” bureau Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “This culture of coercion drained millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back.”

Supporters of payday lending say it offers a needed service to consumers who have few options for short-term loans. Critics say the companies prey on struggling people by charging high fees and trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt.

Nice. The CFPB has been making noise about payday lenders for awhile, with some new regulations still to come. Hey, if you’re not lucky enough to live in a city that has passed a payday lending ordinance, the CFPB is what you’ve got. More like this, please.

Meet your first parklet

It’s in the Heights, because of course it is.

A parking space converted into Houston’s first parklet brought a mini-media frenzy — and fun street party — to 19th Street in the Heights, where New Living artisans, city officials and community supporters gathered to officially dedicate the green space outside New Living Bedroom Thursday morning.

“This is a way to connect people — to the streets, to the sidewalk, to the shops,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “The parklet provides a little respite in our busy, bustling city.

“I’m amazed to see so many media here for what once was a parking space,” she added with a laugh.

The 125-square-foot parklet, a raised platform with benches and shade canopy surrounded by planter beds filled with drought-resistant yuccas, was built by Made at New Living artisans led by industrial manager Jose Martinez using reclaimed materials from right here in the city — including 300-year-old wood salvaged from the old Mercantile building. Artisan Heath Brodie constructed the benches, while Jenny Janis handled the landscape design. The Ground Up provided the soil for the bed. More sponsors and partners include Sherwood Design Engineers and Bobby Goldsmith.

“It’s one single parking space that I was happy to give up,” Jeff Kaplan, founder of New Living, said. “I believe 19th Street is to become a major urban street in the city, and the parklet will provide a common space to gather, to rest, even a place where musicians can perform.”

See here for the background. I still don’t know what to make of these things, but next time I’m on 19th Street I’ll check it out. Swamplot and Prime Property have more.