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August 16th, 2020:

Weekend link dump for August 16

“Wearing face masks that adequately cover the mouth and nose causes the error rate of some of the most widely used facial recognition algorithms to spike to between 5 percent and 50 percent, a study by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has found. Black masks were more likely to cause errors than blue masks, and the more of the nose covered by the mask, the harder the algorithms found it to identify the face.”

We are certain crime is rising when it isn’t; convinced our risk of victimization is higher than it actually is. And in a summer when the president is sending federal agents to crack down on crime in major cities and local politicians are arguing over the risks of defunding the police, that disconnect matters. In an age of anxiety, crime may be one of our most misleading fears.”

“Set aside questions about the extent to which being of good character means one is uncorruptable. If pressure from Donald Trump — and presumably some pro-Trump conservatives in Congress and the media — was enough to get Blackburn to repeatedly display bad character, doesn’t that indicate a problem with the Republican Party, not just with a few people in it?”

“Distant cosmic objects such as planets, galaxies, and nebulae are sometimes referred to by the scientific community with unofficial nicknames. As the scientific community works to identify and address systemic discrimination and inequality in all aspects of the field, it has become clear that certain cosmic nicknames are not only insensitive, but can be actively harmful. NASA is examining its use of unofficial terminology for cosmic objects as part of its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“The world didn’t need men with guns standing a watch on the walls, ready to do furious violence against modern day Mongol raiders or BDSM-clad warboys, it needed toilet paper, sewing kits, and sourdough starter. Nobody was being asked to die (or better yet, kill) for their cause. They were being asked to wash their hands. To stay indoors. To wear masks. To sacrifice convenience and comfort for six weeks, maybe a few months, in order to break the back of the pandemic, to flatten the curve and save the world. For men who would bravely declare how they would do anything or endure any hardship for their family or prove their masculine bonafides, this should be no challenge whatsoever. They were being called not to die, but to stay at home and watch Netflix. And that’s where the people who invested the most in toxic ideas of manhood lost their goddamn monkey minds.”

“The Surprising Importance of Skunks in the History of Chicago”.

Did you see that video of the woman having her bridal photos taken in Beirut at the time of the explosion? The woman in question is a doctor from Michigan, and she raced off to help those who needed it following the blast.

“Enter the neck gaiter. This wide tube of fabric is worn around the neck (instead of the ears) and easily pulled up and down, to cover and uncover the mouth and nose as desired. But are they as effective as masks? Here’s everything you need to know about neck gaiters, according to experts, and where to buy the best ones right now.”

A few words about Dr. Seuss, on the 60th anniversary of Green Eggs and Ham.

“Disney has no Fox left to give as it renames TV studio to 20th Television”.

Wireless phone chargers are quite inefficient, and that has implications for the power generation industry.

RIP, Trini Lopez, actor and singer.

RIP, Sumner Redstone, former media executive.

“Airbnb will offer a one-of-a-kind vacation spot with its latest rental listing: the world’s last Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon.” Will it be stocked with videos? That’s what I want to know.

RIP, Bill Yeoman, longtime football coach at the University of Houston, member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

A new ice cream truck jingle, to replace the one you remember from your childhood, which unfortunately has seriously racist roots. This effort was spurred by the Good Humor company, and funnily enough, the Good Humor truck that came to my block when I was a kid didn’t play that jingle. It just had some bells that the truck driver rang by pulling a cord. It was a different ice cream truck, the Mister Softee truck, that played this jingle.

RIP, Samuel Karff, longtime rabbi and ivil rights leader in Houston.

“This absurd formulation has created a massive incentive for American Presidential candidates to cheat and cheat big – for the candidate who doesn’t cheat, loses; or if you cheat just a little bit you lose and can be indicted. The candidate who cheats in a big way and wins escapes prosecution. We are in such a horrific situation right now with President Trump. Trump is struggling to win a traditional free and fair election and has begun cheating/law breaking/ignoring the Constitution at a level never seen before in an American election.”

“By now, it’s no secret that Trump and his allies are trying to sabotage the Postal Service. The question is what Democrats will do in response.”

“According to Major League Baseball’s current records and classifications, the players whom this year’s major leaguers will be honoring on Sunday were not major leaguers themselves. Because of the prejudiced decision of a committee that met more than 50 years ago, the Negro Leagues are still excluded from the official list of major leagues, much as Black players before 1947—and, in many cases, long after—were excluded from the American and National Leagues. Like those players, the Negro Leagues have been denied an opportunity to prove that they were as deserving of major league status as their white contemporaries. But for the first time, MLB is considering righting that wrong.”

More on mail ballots

Here’s a second story from the Trib on the attempted destruction of the Postal Service in the name of vote suppression by Donald Trump.

“I think the goal of Donald Trump’s comments are to destabilize faith in voting systems and we’ll be telling them the truth that voting by mail is safe and secure,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood. “We’ll counteract fear with facts.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said eligible voters in the state’s most populous county who are worried about delays in the mail will be able to drop off their mail-in ballots at any of the county’s 11 offices “beginning whenever they receive their ballots and continuing through Election Day, November 3, at 7:00 PM.”

“Preserving every eligible citizen’s right to vote is a pillar of our democracy,” he said in a statement. “My office is doing everything in our power to withstand the challenges of the ongoing global pandemic and uphold this essential right for eligible voters. But it is shameful that partisan politics has led to the destruction of the United States Postal Office – an institution we need dearly right now.”

Hollins stressed that “despite this latest form of voter suppression, voting by mail remains the safest method for Texans to vote this November.”

Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party, said it is working to send out 1.7 million vote-by-mail applications to eligible Texans — the largest number in the party’s history. The party has already sent out 900,000 and is sending out the other 815,000 this week, he said.

“We believe strongly that Texans should be able to vote safely and securely during the time of the pandemic,” Rahman said. “Vote by mail is good for democracy, good for our state and good for our country.”

Regarding the president’s recent comments, Rahman said the party will continue to utilize its voter protection team, in addition to a website designed to help register all voters in the state.

“I think that Texans will crawl over broken glass to vote Donald Trump out of office and be vigilant to make sure their vote is counted,” he said.

[…]

The changes at the Postal Service have raised concerns that the process will be slowed down. In the name of cutting costs, the agency has reportedly reduced overtime for workers, banned extra trips used to make sure mail is delivered on-time and is decommissioning 10% of its mail sorting machines. According to The Washington Post, sorting capacity in Houston alone has dropped by 470,000 pieces of mail per hour. Those changes will have an effect on businesses that depend on the mail and people who use it to receive their paychecks or prescriptions, among many other things. But they also have the potential to make it harder for people to get their ballots in before the deadline.

Voter mobilization groups say they will encourage voters to send their ballots in as early as possible to avoid any risk of the delays affecting their vote.

“Our goal as a state should be to have the greatest possible number of Texans vote and for them all to be equally heard at the ballot box,” Drew Galloway, the executive director of MOVE Texas, which works to engage young voters, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “This means expanding on popular and secure reforms like mail-in ballots.”

Galloway also said the group’s organizers “received countless calls” before the primary runoff elections in July with questions about late absentee ballots — many of which, he said, were not received or arrived too late.

“This is unacceptable,” he said.

Republicans in Texas have largely remained quiet on the issue.

See here for the background. Of course Republican leaders have been silent on this, they are all far too cowardly to ever say a word in opposition to their Dear Leader. Democrats have been much more vocal, and while this story has totally blown up and caused some of the worst excesses to halt, there really needs to be a bigger, broader, and louder response from Democrats, especially Congressional Democrats. I mean, they do have some power here, and they need to exercise it.

Now is a good time to call your member of Congress, especially your Democratic member of Congress, and ask them to demand hearings ASAP, with subpoenas and the threat of being hauled in front of Congress by Capitol police if those subpoenas are not obeyed. No more playing nice here, this is as serious as it gets.

At the CEC meeting yesterday, County Clerk Chris Hollins spoke after the other business was done, and he talked about what his office is doing to ensure people can vote despite all of this garbage. I’ve already noted that people can drop off completed mail ballots at any of the 11 County Clerk offices. Hollins reported there will be 120 (!) early voting locations, which should make the in-person experience as safe as possible. (Yes, they need election workers. The gig pays $17 an hour. Go apply if you can.) There were other questions asked of Hollins, including one I posted about early voting locations as mail ballot dropoffs. He didn’t get to the questions, but promised there would be an easily visible FAQ section on the Harris Votes webpage shortly, which would include responses to the questions we asked, so check there in a few days. Trump’s destruction is obscene and anti-American, but it’s also an obstacle that can be overcome. We’re going to be able to handle it here in Harris County, and other urban counties appear to be in decent shape as well. If you’re not sure about your county, pester your officials as needed to get them on the ball. Like I said, this is as serious as it gets.

And the nominees are…

Teneshia Hudspeth

Yesterday was the Harris County Democratic Party CEC meeting, at which the nominees for the two positions that needed them were filled. The easy one was the second one, where Teneshia Hudspeth was unanimously selected. The way this process works is that any potential candidates have to be nominated by one of the precinct chairs. (You could nominate yourself, if you are a precinct chair yourself – Nat West did this in 2016 for the Commissioners Court Precinct 1 nomination – but that did not apply here.) Gayle Mitchell had previously announced her intent to seek this nomination, but as far as I could tell, she was not on the Zoom call, and no one spoke to nominate her. I was one of three people to speak in favor of Hudspeth’s nomination – as I said on the call, I’ve known Teneshia Hudspeth for years via correspondence with the County Clerk’s office, and I have a high degree of confidence in her abilities. She now gets to beat Stan Stanart in November, and who doesn’t look forward to voting against Stan Stanart again? She will have a unique set of challenges, which look to include oversight of the new Elections Administrator’s office. We talked about that and more in this interview I did with her. Congratulations to Teneshia Hudspeth, I look forward to voting for you again in November.

David Brown

The other position to fill was the nominee for HCDE Position 7, At Large. Andrea Duhon won the primary for that spot in March, but she had been appointed to fill the Position 4, Precinct 3 position in January following the resignation of Josh Flynn, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination in HD138. Three candidates were nominated for this position: David Brown, Obes Nwabara, and Jose Rivera, as was expected. Brown led the voting with 38%, followed by Nwabara with 35% and Rivera with 27%. The rules say that a majority is needed, so we went to a runoff, and there Brown prevailed with a 53-47 vote. The closeness of the vote was appropriate for a tough choice, as all three candidates were excellent and well-qualified. Brown, whose Q&A with me is here, now has the important job of knocking the ridiculous and execrable Don Sumners off the Board. Erica Davis is the nominee for Position 5, At Large, which is an open seat after fellow unqualified yahoo/all-around embarrassment Michael Wolfe decided to tun again for Justice of the Peace. Dems already have a majority on the HCDE Board now thanks to the appointment of Duhon, but this is a chance to take full control, and just make two huge upgrades in quality. Congratulations to David Brown, and I look forward to voting for you in November as well.

Introducing the George Floyd Act

Coming this spring to the Legislature.

Black lawmakers at the Texas Legislature unveiled on Thursday the George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform proposal that would ban chokeholds across the state and require law enforcement officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job.

The legislation, spearheaded by members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, is named after Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes until and after he lost consciousness.

His death in May set off protests across the country and renewed debate over police brutality and racial inequity. And at the Legislature, which is set to meet again in January 2021 for a regular session, Floyd’s death has sparked new calls for policing and criminal justice reforms — including proposals that have failed at the Texas Capitol in recent years, often after opposition from police unions.

“We acknowledge that the road to justice in Texas — particularly for Black and brown people in Texas — has been fraught with dead ends, dead ends of white supremacy, racial hatred and bigotry,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the caucus, said as he kicked off a virtual press conference, which included Floyd’s youngest brother, Rodney Floyd. “These dead ends have to go — and particularly the dead ends that relate specifically to law enforcement.”

The bill would also address qualified immunity, which shields government officials from litigation, by allowing civil lawsuits at the state level “for deprivation of rights under color of law,” according to a caucus summary of the legislation. Another provision would end arrests for fine-only offenses like theft under $100, a version of which died dramatically in 2019 after union opposition.

“Those police officers who do wrong by unlawfully harming our families or our constituents, who violate the constitutional rights of others, will be held accountable and legally liable for their actions,” said state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston.

It’s unclear if the outcry sparked by Floyd’s death will provide enough momentum in 2021 to push past resistance from law enforcement and unions. It’s also unknown whether the legislation will win Gov. Greg Abbott’s support, which would be crucial in turning it into law.

Abbott has previously said he is committed to working with Floyd’s family on legislation, and has even floated the possibility of a George Floyd Act at the Legislature. While he has not offered specifics on what proposals he would support, Abbott has emphasized a proposal that has also been pushed by police union officials: strengthening law enforcement training before officers are allowed to go on patrol.

It’s still too early to pre-file bills, since after all we don’t know for sure who will be serving in the next session, but it’s never too early to announce them. The Chron adds some details.

Groups including the Texas NAACP, Mothers Against Police Brutality, ACLU of Texas, Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, Black Lives Matter Houston and Texas Organizing Project have already thrown their support behind the bill.

Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly condemned Floyd’s death and promised to work with state legislators to pass reforms, though he did not discuss specifics. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who plan to carry the legislation, said Thursday they had not yet spoken with Abbott about it.

“It would be a great signal if he made this an emergency item and that we pass this in the first 90 days of the Legislature,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “Hopefully he will partner with us on this legislation.”

The 19-member caucus that introduced the bill Thursday includes a single Republican, Rep. James White of Hillister.

While some local police and sheriff’s departments have implemented some tenets of the bill, such as requirements for officers to attempt de-escalation before using force, none of them are required for all 2,000 police agencies in Texas.

Further, the bill would require officers to demonstrate that they use lethal force only when in “imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death” or when “no other lesser level of force could have worked” and their actions present no risk to bystanders, according to a draft of the law that the caucus released Thursday. The use of force must stop as soon as the threat diminishes.

The bill states that “all force must be proportionate to the circumstance and the seriousness of the offense … and must be accompanied by (an) attempt to de-escalate.”

[…]

Charley Wilkison, the executive director of CLEAT, one of the largest law enforcement union in the state, said his organization is open to many of the concepts in the proposed bill, including banning chokeholds and ending arrests for fine-only offenses.

Other areas may require a more nuanced conversation, such as qualified immunity, as Wilkison said he believes it allows enough latitude — “It’s ‘qualified’; it’s not blanket” — under current law for citizens to sue officers for misconduct. Wilkison said he agrees with setting a statewide use-of-force policy, as long as officers retain discretion.

“If we’re allowed to be in the chain of communication, we’ll share and do our due diligence to take honest action in the Legislature,” Wilkison said.

As both stories note, some of what is in this proposed bill had been in the Sandra Bland Act originally. I don’t know that Abbott will care enough to make this bill an emergency item, but I do expect that he’ll support some form of this, and I do expect that something will pass. It’s mostly a question of how much of the bill as filed makes it to the finish line, and whether anything that is less desirable makes it in along the way. The potential for messiness, heated debate, and at least one idiot member of the Freedom Caucus saying something deeply stupid and offensive is quite high. But in the end I do expect something to pass, and we’ll feel good about what we do get. The question is how good, and how much more there will be to do in a future session. Reform Austin has more.