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April 25th, 2021:

Weekend link dump for April 25

The story of William Clarence Matthews, a Black baseball player (and many other things) who almost integrated the sport in 1905.

“Having police interrogate you while showing you pictures of the weapons and bombs made *literally feet from where you sleep at night* and telling you how badly this guy wanted to kill you over and over again… I can not explain how this felt.”

Three words: Purple Urkel Cannabis. You’re welcome.

“A New York Times report suggests OAN knew its election claims were false when it made them”.

Bitche, please.

“Billions of cicadas will emerge in the eastern United States this spring, presenting a once-in-a-17-year opportunity for scientists to understand how they shape populations of birds and other species.”

RIP, Helen McCrory, actor known for Peaky Blinders and as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies.

RIP, Walter Mondale, Vice President under President Carter, Senator from Minnesota, diplomat, statesman, mensch.

How network TV navigated the COVID shutdown.

“Our politics can never truly move forward on anything until there is a final and complete reckoning of the only organized mob coup d’etat in the country’s history. The longer that reckoning is delayed, the harder it’s going to be for the country and its politicians to recover public confidence in the government’s institutions, without which self-government itself is a limping, spavined farce. If the Democratic congressional majorities have to go it alone, then they should. If Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice needs to be the venue for that reckoning, then so be it. It’s too important to be hostage to a party that has lost its mind, and that’s funding its operation on the public’s mania.”

“Social Media Influencers Are Spreading Wild Rumors About COVID-19 Vaccines and Periods”.

“Rather than attempting to obtain the consent of the governed, the Republican Party has turned to a model that relies not on persuasion of voters, but on slicing and dicing the electorate—and erecting more and more severe and onerous barriers to broad participation in elections—to help ensure that they remain in power, regardless of whether they have majority support.”

“It’s not just you: Commercials, particularly those that air on streaming services, are too loud. The FCC is now asking the public to weigh in on whether or not it should update its rules that are supposed to prevent commercials from being louder than the programming they accompany.” YES. YES, THEY SHOULD. Sorry, didn’t mean to shout.

RIP, Jim Steinman, iconic rock composer responsible for “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and a whole host of rafter-shaking big-vocal 70s anthems. As I said on Facebook, I hope that in the end, the last thing he saw was his heart, still beating, breaking out of his body and flying away, like…well, you know.

BTW, if you liked Steinman at all, you really owe it to yourself to listen to the Hit Parade episode about him.

“For most of the House’s history, however, states did not lose representation after the national head count’s results were released. Generally speaking, as the country’s census numbers grew, so did the size of the House since it was first established at 65 seats by the Constitution before the first U.S. count in 1790.”

“In other words, Bitcoin has few of the attributes of money but all the attributes of a collectible. And because it’s the original cryptocurrency it’s more sought after than, say, Ethereum, the way a 1952 Mickey Mantle is worth more than a 1951 Willie Mays. And both are more valuable than a Tom Egan rookie card, sort of the Dogecoin of baseball cards.”

“That’s right, Dominion Voting Systems, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Denver, Colorado, is functionally the same as the United States government for all eternity as a result of having sold its machines to various jurisdictions for election administration.”

RIP, Tempest Storm, burlesque dancer and star of Russ Meyer films.

America will finally get the LeVar Burton Jeopardy! guest hosting gig it has been waiting for.

RIP, Thelma Harper, Tennessee’s longest-serving female state senator and the first Black woman to be elected to the chamber.

RIP, Lance Mannion, blogger and culture writer.

RIP, Chandler Davidson, founder of the Rice University sociology department and a leading expert on voting rights.

Hope everyone had a happy Sarah Cooper Day.

April 2021 campaign finance reports: CD06 special election

As noted in Friday’s post, here’s a look at the campaign finance reports for the candidates that have raised at least a few bucks in the CD06 special election.

Brian Harrison (R)
Jake Ellzey (R)
Dan Rodimer (R)
Shawn Lassiter (D)
Jana Sanchez (D)
Susan Wright (R)
Lydia Bean (D)
Michael Egan (R)
Michael Wood (R)


Party Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
GOP   Harrison        647,334    264,566  285,000    382,768
GOP   Ellzey          503,523    103,246   43,175    400,276
GOP   Rodimer         337,100    173,523        0    163,577
Dem   Lassiter        322,254    201,066        0    121,188
Dem   Sanchez         299,007    202,813        0     96,193
GOP   Wright          286,331    158,120   65,486    128,210
Dem   Bean            223,056    114,814        0    108,242
GOP   Egan            116,074     38,507        0     77,586
GOP   Wood             98,626     23,645        0     74,981

I arbitrarily cut it off here, as everyone else raised less than $50K, including Sery Kim, whose bid for attention did not lead to an influx of cash. This link should show you the FEC summary page for all the CD06 candidates, or you can visit the Daily Kos Q1 Congressional fundraising roundup to see how candidates that didn’t make this cut fared.

Loan amounts are rolled into the Raised figure, so Brian Harrison’s haul is in actuality a bit more than half of what is shown in that column. Still counts for the main purpose, which is getting your name out there before the voters, and his $350K-plus raised from people other than himself is still one of the top two. I’m a little surprised that Susan Wright didn’t do better, given her status as the widow of Ron Wright and the large amount of establishment support she has, but then Ron Wright was never a huge moneybags either. She has the most name ID, and that’s what this game is all about.

As for the Dems, the game theorist in me wishes there was clear separation between them, with one candidate well ahead of the others. That’s the best path to putting someone in the runoff, whereas the concern here is that they will split the Dem vote evenly enough to lock them all out. That said, there are more Republicans with enough support to slice that piece of the pie multiple ways, and that means that an all-Dem runoff is not out of the question if things shake out in the most favorable way possible. It’s unlikely, to be sure – an all-R runoff is the better bet than an all-D overtime – but the chances are not zero. I don’t have a preference among Shawn Lassiter, Jana Sanchez, and Lydia Bean – any of them would be light years better than any Republican, and a win by any of them would be pretty seismic – but if you anointed me the official Head Honcho of the Smoke-Filled Room, I’d have had them draw cards to decide which one of them got to be The One True Candidate, to maximize the chances that she would make it to the second round. But here we are, and all three of them have a shot. Hope for the best.

You will eventually need a COVID booster shot

Just get used to the idea.

More than 28 percent of Texans 16 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, having received either one shot of the Johnson & Johnson or two of Moderna or Pfizer. But as scientists continue to study the virus and emerging variants, they’re concluding that even the fully vaccinated may need booster shots to stay protected.

“It might be necessary because of waning immunity,” said Dr. Wesley Long, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist Hospital. “It might be necessary if we have a variant strain of COVID that maybe the original vaccines doesn’t protect against as well.”

So far, it’s looking probable people will require a booster shot around the holiday season. But there are still many unknowns.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe for a year now, clinical trials for the vaccine haven’t been around as long. The most recent data from vaccine manufacturers show that the shots offer at least six months of protection, but researchers won’t know until the end of the year whether immunity lasts a full 12 months.

[…]

To test whether patients have lost protection, public health agencies and vaccine manufacturers will likely keep a close eye on the rate of hospitalizations and deaths. If people lose immunity, it’ll likely taper off gradually rather than come to an abrupt end.

“One of two things can happen: We may lose protection against all COVID-19 symptoms, the mild and the severe, which would be a problem, right?” said Dr. Hana El Sahly, an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Or it might be that we only lose protection against the mild symptoms, but retain protection against the severe symptoms.”

Researchers are still studying how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is similar to other respiratory illnesses. While the disease has drawn some comparisons to influenza strains, the vaccines may work differently than flu shots, which require new vaccines every year to fend off emerging strains.

Even if the COVID-19 vaccine goes the way of the flu shot, experts say it’s not a bad sign.

“People shouldn’t be surprised, and it doesn’t mean that the original vaccines are a failure at all,” Long said. The vaccine will still keep people from dying and help them avoid the hospital.

Yeah, I’ve seen news stories about the likelihood of needing annual COVID shots, like one needs annual flu shots, for some time now. One reason for this is that there are new variants emerging with regularity.

College Station is best known as the home of Texas A&M University, but as of this month, researchers have confirmed it’s now the birthplace of a new COVID-19 strain.

Only one student has tested positive for BV-1, named for the Brazos Valley. They were diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 5 and experienced mild respiratory symptoms. A second test on March 25 turned up positive results, worrying researchers the variant would cause a longer infection in young adults.

“We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern,” Ben Neuman, a Texas A&M virologist, said in a statement. “This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies.”

Viruses mutate, it’s what they do. So far, the known variants have all still been controlled by the existing vaccines, but eventually one or more of them will be more resistant. As long as there continues to be a significant population of people who wish to be a reservoir for the virus (read: anti-vaxxers), the virus will have plenty of opportunity to do its thing. As for the rest of us, vaccinations are all around us.

Walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinics are now all the rage in Houston, as larger allocations and dwindling demand change the scarcity-fueled dynamic of the past several months.

“Now, there is more supply than there is demand,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a Monday afternoon news conference at NRG Park. “That means we have more vaccines than we have people willing to get them.”

As of Monday, 44 percent of Texans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, vaccine administration is beginning to plateau at 250,000 doses per day, while vaccine manufacturers produce more doses a week, with 14.5 million shipped nationwide every week as of mid-April.

Harris County’s vaccine site, NRG Park, has abandoned the waitlist system that frustrated residents who found it difficult to schedule a time slot in advance. While the site, run jointly by the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still recommends scheduling an appointment ahead of time to guarantee a dose, anyone age 16 or older can arrive on foot or by car during operating hours for a shot.

In addition, St. Luke’s Health is operating a walk-in clinic at Texas Southern University this week. Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers walk-up vaccines for veterans, caregivers and spouses.

Get your shot if you haven’t already. Make sure everyone you know gets theirs. And then be ready to do it again, sometime in 2022. This is the world we live in now.

What’s up with that Tesla autopilot crash?

I assume you’ve heard about this.

Woodlands Fire department, Montgomery County Hospital District and Cypress Creek EMS were dispatched around 9 p.m. Saturday to a fire in the woods in the Carlton Woods Subdivision on Hammock Dunes Place.

Several neighbors had called reporting a fire in the woods, and that a car had crashed and exploded, Palmer Buck, the Woodlands Fire Department chief said.

When the responding units arrived at the scene firefighters discovered the bodies of two males in the 2019 Tesla Model S, according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter. One male was in the front passenger seat and the other in the rear passenger seat.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told the Associated Press on Monday that investigators are “100% sure” that no one was driving the car.

Federal investigators are on the scene to find out what happened. The claim that no one was driving the car at the time is of course of interest, for all the obvious reasons. Elon Musk has publicly disputed this assertion, claiming that it’s not possible because the Tesla’s autopilot function will shut down if no one is in the driver’s seat. It turns out that’s not exactly true.

Consumer Reports engineers easily tricked our Tesla Model Y this week so that it could drive on Autopilot, the automaker’s driver assistance feature, without anyone in the driver’s seat—a scenario that would present extreme danger if it were repeated on public roads. Over several trips across our half-mile closed test track, our Model Y automatically steered along painted lane lines, but the system did not send out a warning or indicate in any way that the driver’s seat was empty.

“In our evaluation, the system not only failed to make sure the driver was paying attention, but it also couldn’t tell if there was a driver there at all,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, who conducted the experiment. “Tesla is falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road.”

Our demonstration comes as federal and local investigators continue to probe the cause of a fatal crash Saturday in Texas in which an apparently driverless 2019 Tesla Model S struck a tree, killing the vehicle’s two occupants. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, who was on scene at the crash, told CR that he’s almost certain that no one was in the driver’s seat when the vehicle crashed. (The Model S in the crash and our Model Y are different models, but they both have Autopilot.)

We tried to reach Tesla to ask about the Texas crash but did not hear back. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Monday evening that data logs recovered from the crashed Model S “so far show Autopilot was not enabled,” and he suggested that it would not be possible to activate Autopilot on the road where the crash took place because of the lack of painted lane lines. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, which occurred on a winding road in Spring, Texas, outside of Houston.

CR wanted to see whether we could prompt our own Tesla to drive down the road without anyone in the driver’s seat. So Fisher and Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s program manager for vehicle interface testing, took our 2020 Tesla Model Y out on our test track. Funkhouser sat in the rear seat, and Fisher sat in the driver seat on top of a buckled seat belt. (Autopilot will disengage if the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled while the vehicle is in motion.)

Fisher engaged Autopilot while the car was in motion on the track, then set the speed dial (on the right spoke of the steering wheel) to 0, which brought the car to a complete stop. Fisher next placed a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel, to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand, and slid over into the front passenger seat without opening any of the vehicle’s doors, because that would disengage Autopilot. Using the same steering wheel dial, which controls multiple functions in addition to Autopilot’s speed, Fisher reached over and was able to accelerate the vehicle from a full stop. He stopped the vehicle by dialing the speed back down to zero.

“The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver’s seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel, never noting there was no weight on the seat,” Fisher says. “It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient.”

There’s video at the link, and I also recommend listening to Friday’s What Next TBD podcast, which discusses this crash, Tesla’s spotty record with its autopilot feature, AI and the driverless car question, and more. Tesla is not currently cooperating with NTSB on this, which has drawn some ire from Rep. Kevin Brady, who represents The Woodlands. I probably won’t follow this obsessively, but as driverless cars are an interest of mine I will keep an eye on it.

The plight of the city-owned gas utilities

It’s rough.

In the wake of last month’s winter disaster, which nearly crashed the state’s power grid and killed more than 100 people, state lawmakers convened hearings to probe how a weeklong winter storm had crippled the state. They have proposed laws to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

Meanwhile, staggeringly high bills for the storm are coming due.

Most Texas residents receive their natural gas from large private utilities such as CenterPoint Energy, Atmos Energy and Texas Gas Service, which collectively incurred billions of dollars in extra costs buying natural gas at the height of the crisis. In public filings and statements, they said they would pay their suppliers with cash reserves and by borrowing money.

Yet about 80 Texas communities operate their own natural gas utilities, many artifacts from an earlier time that municipalities have held on to in an effort to keep rates low. Most are small cities that don’t have the same resources or bargaining power to cover the massive bills they owe to companies that delivered the gas. They have fewer customers among whom they can spread unexpected costs.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to investigate the storm’s sky-high gas prices. Unlike the state’s electricity market, where the Electric Reliability Council of Texas pays an independent market monitor to ensure companies follow the rules, the gas industry has no equivalent watchdog position.

Deals between municipalities and gas delivery companies are considered arrangements outside most regulation, said Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, whose district includes several city gas utilities facing astronomical February bills. “These are signed contracts between a city and a gas supplier without state oversight,” she said, “which is why Texans must take a hard look at the issue of potential market manipulation and regulatory failures that have created this ridiculous ripoff.”

Officials in hard-hit cities have pledged not to pass on the bloated costs to customers all at once, saying they will break up any money owed into small increases billed to residents over as long as a decade or more. For now, however, the giant bills municipal utilities owe to distributors loom.

In Bellville, whose municipal gas utility serves a population of 4,097, February’s gas bill came to about $2 million — “a sixth of our entire annual budget,” said Mayor James Harrison. He said finding the money to pay for what was essentially one week’s worth of gas could set back the city’s development for years.

“We have plans to retop streets, take out a bond to build a new police station,” he said. “We’re not trying to get out of the bill. We’re just looking for answers right now, and we don’t have any.”

“We don’t have that kind of money,” added Bay City Mayor Robert Nelson. “Our customers don’t have it. How can we pay it?”

It’s not clear to me that this isn’t just how the market is set up to work, but there could be something there to investigate. I think Sen. Kolkhorst has identified the problem, so it’s mostly a matter of what if anything the Legislature wants to do about it. My guess is that this isn’t a high enough priority for them, but it is in their power. I wish the people of Bellville and Bay City and wherever else good luck in sorting this out.