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December 6th, 2020:

Weekend link dump for December 6

“In its 244-year history, the United States has never prosecuted a president (that is, outside the specialized judicial theater of impeachment). Not that some didn’t deserve it. The reticence is understandable. Locking up a former commander in chief would be politically divisive and potentially set a dangerous precedent. Would holding him accountable restore faith in the justice system or further erode it? But for Trump, whose antics and incompetence contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands, who attacked the very foundation of the democratic institutions that made the United States a beacon, and who pushed the nation to the threshold of autocracy, the American people might be willing, even eager, to take the risk.”

Everything you wanted to know about the Word of the Year for 2020.

“Bail reform in the county that includes Chicago had no impact on new criminal activity or violent criminal activity of defendants who were released before trial, according to a new study.”

“President Donald Trump’s demonization of mail-in voting may have cost him votes in the recent election. Now, his demonization of Georgia’s entire electoral system is hurting his party’s chances at keeping the Senate.”

Fire all the Trump minions ASAP. We can’t move forward as long as there are people in positions of power holding us back.

The story of the 1917 Halifax explosion, and the reason why the people of Nova Scotia send a Christmas tree to Boston every year.

“It’s an embarrassment that in 2020 that the country that played such an integral role in building and then commercializing the Internet has fallen so woefully behind other nations in developing suitable policy and regulatory measures to address the resulting risks. And it’s not just embarrassing, it’s actively harmful—to consumers whose personal data is being stolen or exposed on a regular basis and to companies that lack clear guidance on how they should be protecting their customers’ data.”

“Across America, this type of honest confusion abounds. While a misinformation-gorged segment of the population rejects the expert consensus on virus safety outright, so many other people, like Josh, are trying to do everything right, but run afoul of science without realizing it. Often, safety protocols, of all things, are what’s misleading them. In the country’s new devastating wave of infections, a perilous gap exists between the realities of transmission and the rules implemented to prevent it.”

“Yes, that’s right: for just $20, you, too, can have a Richard Simmons Chia Pet growing your own home.”

“Earth is 2,000 light years closer to the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole than previously thought”.

“Nowhere are these regulatory disparities more counterproductive and jarring than in the border areas between restrictive and permissive states; for example, between Washington and Idaho, Minnesota and South Dakota, and Illinois and Iowa. In each pairing, one state has imposed tough and sometimes unpopular restrictions on behavior, only to be confounded by a neighbor’s leniency. Like factories whose emissions boost asthma rates for miles around, a state’s lax public health policies can wreak damage beyond its borders.”

“European Space Agency is sending a giant claw into orbit to clean up space junk”. All hail the Space Claw.

“Let’s just spell this out: Republicans have no credibility, moral authority, or any other legitimate justification to object to anyone nominated to Biden’s proposed Cabinet. None. Nada. Zilch. And anyone who they fail to confirm—for any reason short of wanton lewdness or an undisclosed, serious criminal offense—should be afforded “acting” status by President-elect Biden.”

RIP, Maria Jimenez, longtime Houston civil rights activist.

How to stay warm when it’s cold outside. My preference is to stay inside, but that’s not always practical. Gotta walk the dog, after all.

RIP, Rafer Johnson, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, who later worked on the Robert Kennedy campaign and helped subdue and capture Sirhan Sirhan.

“Singapore is the first country in the world to approve lab-grown chicken products“.

Where’s the outrage?

Maybe now wasn’t the best time for a swingers convention. And honestly, how could anyone not have known that?

RIP, David Lander, actor best known as Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley.

Can we please not screw the schools right now?

Really, we don’t have to do this.

Across the Houston region and Texas, school districts that lost enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic are facing a drop in state funds starting in January if the Texas Education Agency or state lawmakers do not act.

Since the virus began sweeping across the state and nation last March, forcing schools to close, the TEA has given districts several grace periods in which it provided them the same funding they would have received in normal times. To date, that has provided a lifeline to districts that otherwise would have seen their state revenues plunge due to lower-than-expected student enrollments.

The current grace period, which the TEA calls a “hold harmless guarantee,” ends Dec. 31.

The Texas Legislature in 2019 allocated enough money to fund schools at their current levels until the end of the school year, but the TEA has remained mum on whether it will extend the hold harmless guarantee until then. Without another extension for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, some local district finance officials worry they will be faced with two bad options: dip into and potentially deplete their reserve funds to keep their districts operating through spring, or lay off teachers and staff to make ends meet.

For Houston-area districts, which began the school year missing more than 20,000 students, the financial ramifications could run into the tens of millions of dollars. For example, Alief ISD could lose nearly $40 million after enrollment fell 3,500 short of initial estimates.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, which has 2,364 fewer students now than at the end of last year, estimates it could lose $29 million. Aldine ISD could “easily” miss out on $20 million after its enrollment fell 4,000 students shy of projections, and Pasadena ISD would face a shortfall of nearly $14 million due to a 2,261-student enrollment drop.

Houston ISD did not respond to a request for comment, but the district began the year with 13,000 fewer students than expected.

There is no one answer for why students have dropped off schools’ radars. Some may have moved with family in search of work. Parents of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students may wait to enroll them until school operations are more normal. Others may have been kept at home by parents waiting for COVID infection levels to improve before sending their kids back to school.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told the Chronicle’s editorial board in November the agency “already provided unprecedented flexibility to offer remote learning, and with it, full funding.”

“However, we know that certain districts face challenges because of significant enrollment declines, and we are working to ensure that our schools and teachers receive the additional financial support we need,” Morath said.

The lack of a concrete assurance that districts statewide will continue to receive funding at current levels has many on edge, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“Everybody right now is holding their breath, hoping the state will come through with hold harmless,” Brown said. “But they’re also starting to look at what will happen if that doesn’t come through — are they going to have to do layoffs, and if so, how extensively?”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Cypress, said while enrollments remain lower-than-predicted across the state, the situation is improving as the school year plays out and kids come back. He also said he expects more students to return as COVID-19 vaccines begin to be distributed.

Returning funding to the state’s attendance-based formula creates an incentive for districts to keep looking for students who have not shown up.

“You have to balance all these needs, because we have to keep the public school system making sure they make every effort to find students,” he said. “Otherwise children are left behind.”

I mean, look. Schools and school districts and teachers – and parents and students – are contending with a lot this year. They’re doing the best they can under extreme circumstances. While the state of Texas is also under financial constraints, this is exactly the sort of situation for which the Rainy Day Fund – also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund – was created, to smooth out unexpected downturns in revenue and tide things over till they rebound. And for the millionth time, I will note that our state Republican leadership could be loudly demanding that our two Republican Senators support a COVID relief package that gives financial support to state and local governments, including school boards, that are suffering through the effects of the pandemic. There are many things we could do that do not involve putting all the burden on the school districts. We just have to choose to do them.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

The bar conundrum

Ugh.

Halloween this year in downtown Austin was a raucous affair. Nightclubs advertised dancing and drink specials. Thousands of people crowded 6th Street, partying shoulder to shoulder, some with masks and some without.

All of this happened as bars in Austin were still under a shutdown order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Those bars and nightclubs are some of the more than 2,500 so far that have been permitted to reopen by the state on the promise that in the middle of a pandemic, they’d convert themselves into restaurants.

Shuttering Texas’ nearly 8,000 bars has been one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s most drastic safety restrictions. He most recently allowed bars to open in parts of the state where coronavirus hospitalizations are relatively low, with permission from the local officials.

But in areas where bar bans are still being enforced, many of those businesses are still operating like, well, bars. Just weeks after Halloween, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, frustrated health experts and local officials say the loophole is defeating the purpose of the bar ban and could be one reason the state is battling its largest outbreak in months.

“The restrictions were put in place for a reason,” said Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas Public Health. “And if you get around it, if you’re trying to cheat, then you’re sort of eliminating the reduced transmission that you’re trying to achieve.”

Public health officials and experts have said since this spring that bars pose unique dangers for spreading COVID-19. The Texas Medical Association notes it is one of the worst ways to spread the virus.

“Packed bars, where people are talking very close to each other and they’re shouting, or they’re yelling and people are touching a lot — that’s super high risk,” said Aliza Norwood, a medical expert at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

If the current trend continues — over 8,300 Texans were hospitalized with confirmed coronavirus infections Monday, up by nearly 900 from last week — “there may be a time in which it is appropriate to shut down bars and restaurants completely,” Norwood said.

Austin health officials agree.

“We are at a precarious spot right now where cases are rising across the country,  cases are rising across Texas,” said Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, before adding, “We really have to find a way to stabilize things to avoid that surge.”

But Abbott, who has concentrated power within himself to take action on COVID-19, said he has no plans to do so. He did not respond to requests for comment.

I’ve been an advocate for taking steps to help bars survive, with the rule interpretation that lets them be classified as restaurants a key component of that. I’ve done this because I want to see these businesses survive and their employees keep their jobs, and I believed it could be done in a reasonably safe fashion, with an emphasis on outdoor and to-go service. That obviously hasn’t worked out so well. The best answer would have been to pay the bars to shut down long enough to get the virus under control. It’s still not too late to do that, but that’s going to require Mitch McConnell’s Senate to take action, and I think we both know that’s not going to happen. One can only wonder what some advocacy from Republicans like Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz and John Cornyn might have accomplished, but that would have required them to take this seriously in the first place. In the meantime, just because these places are open doesn’t mean you have to go to them, or that you have to be inside of them if you still want to support them in some way. Keep yourself safe, at least.

Is this what all the hyperloop hype was about?

I’m underwhelmed.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop has completed the world’s first passenger ride on a high-speed levitating pod system, a key safety test for technology it hopes will transform human and cargo transportation.

The Virgin Hyperloop executives, Josh Giegel, its chief technology officer, and Sara Luchian, the director of passenger experience, reached speeds of up to 107mph (172 km/h) at the company’s DevLoop test site in Las Vegas, Nevada, the company said on Sunday.

“I had the true pleasure of seeing history made before my very eyes,” said Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, the chairman of Virgin Hyperloop and the group chairman and chief executive of DP World.

The Los Angeles-based Hyperloop envisions a future where floating pods packed with passengers and cargo hurtle through vacuum tubes at 600mph (966 km/h) or faster.

[…]

The company is working towards safety certification by 2025 and commercial operations by 2030, it has said.

See here for a beginning-of-the-year update, and here for some video. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re at a point where something can be physically tested, but moving two people at 107 MPH isn’t exactly groundbreaking – hell, that happens every day on parts of the interstate highway system. I want to believe in hyperloops despite the many reasons for skepticism, but I’m going to need more than this. I’ll leave it to you to read this evisceration of the Virgin One test, but in the meantime I suspect that the folks behind Texas Central are not quaking in their boots just yet.