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January 13th, 2013:

Weekend link dump for January 13

Be on the lookout for pantsless people today.

Triskadekaphobes, unite! You have nothing to lose but your mild anxiety. The Bloggess can be your patron saint.

The top ten skywatching events to look for this year.

“There are many advantages in this world to knowing June Foray and that was one of them.”

“I really like that computer you’re wearing.” “Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on because I had nothing else clean.”

John Scalzi on how his first novel came to be published, beginning ten years ago.

“It is striking to what degree the Washington establishment has come to normalize Republican hostage-taking of the debt limit, to see it as a predictable and almost natural element of the political landscape.”

Who controls our online legacies after we die?

Along those lines, you can be Facebook dead without being actually dead.

Do you like Cool Whip? You may not after clicking that link.

Whose face should be on the trillion dollar platinum coin?

Fifteen-year-old Neil Ibata has co-authored a study on dwarf galaxies. What were you doing when you were 15?

You get what you pay for with free apps.

We’ve already done a ton of deficit reduction. It would be nice if the people who insist on nattering about the deficit would at least acknowledge that.

“Studio quality video of giant squid finally in hand”. Awesome.

To me, selling out necessarily involves prostituting one’s art and/or talent in the service of selling something other than one’s own work. Think “This Note’s For You”.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Christianity Today is required by law to provide every member of its staff access to booze and porn.”

In case you’ve ever wondered what a brontosaurus burger might be like.

It is entirely within Congress’ power to make call time a relic of the past. Not that it will ever happen.

Are the Republicans signaling a retreat on the debt ceiling? Even the Chamber of Commerce wants the GOP to release the hostage and back down.

Which Monopoly token would you vote to discard?

Tina Fey + the Muppets = awesome. Make this happen, universe!

Remember the name Mary Gonzalez, the first openly gay woman to be elected to the State Legislature.

This is not the petition response you’re looking for.

Science, schmience.

RIP, Aaron Swartz.

Three days of early voting in SD06

I’m not sure that the Chron’s classification of early voting so far in SD06 is accurate, but I’m not sure how I myself would characterize it since we have so few precedents to draw on.

Three days into early voting, the race to replace the late state Sen. Mario Gallegos continues to heat up, as does the balloting.

The first large batch of mail-in ballots was returned Friday, outpacing voters who visited the polls in person. Since early voting began, 1,561 ballots have been cast, two thirds of them in person. More votes were recorded Friday, 805, than in the two preceding days, 756.

Early voting continues through Jan. 22. Election Day is Jan. 26.

You can see the EV totals so far here. As noted, the difference was the arrival of mail ballots on Friday. 451 absentee ballots were received on Friday, which is more than the in-person total on any of the three days so far. I expect early voting to pick up as it always does, and every day of EV is from 7 to 7 except for next Sunday, which should be a boost as well, but I also expect that more than half the total ballots will be cast early. It sure would be nice to see some bigger daily numbers going forward.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones describes the relatively late date as “a strategic delay” on the part of Gov. Rick Perry and his fellow Republicans, who realize that the likely winner will be one of the Democratic candidates.

“Under the Senate’s two-thirds rule, until the new SD-6 senator arrives, the Republicans need to convince only one Democrat to vote with them to pass legislation, whereas once Alvarado or Garcia arrives in Austin, they will need two,” he said in an email.

On most legislation the difference is irrelevant, Jones said, but not on such controversial issues as the fetal pain bill, for example.

“With only 30 senators, the Republicans will need to tailor the final legislation to obtain the backing of only one of the handful of pro-life Democrats, not two of them,” he said. “The result will, quite possibly, be legislation that is closer to the Republican ideal than would have been the case if the support of both was required.”

There are three “pro-life” Dems in the Senate – Eddie Lucio, Carlos Uresti, and Judith Zaffirini – and it took all three of their votes to let the awful sonogram bill through. That was because Republican Jeff Wentworth joined the other nine Dems in opposing it, but he was ousted in favor of the wingnut Donna Campbell in last year’s GOP primary, so as noted once the new Senator is seated the GOP will only need two defections to overcome the two-thirds rule for further atrocities. Until then, one is enough.

For those of you still making up your minds about whom to support, the League of Women Voters Houston is here to help:

The League of Women Voters of Houston Education Fund is pleased to announce that the full two-hour Conversations with the Candidates telecast covering the Texas State Senate District 6 Special Election is now available for viewing on demand.

The Conversations program was originally telecast live on Thursday, January 10, 2013 on the channels of Houston MediaSource TV (Comcast Channel 17, ATT Uverse Channel 99 or livestreamed at www.hmstv.org, and will be re-telecast on:

Monday           1/21/13            3:00 pm

Tuesday          1/22/13            8:00 am

Tuesday          1/22/13            4:30 pm

Wednesday     1/23/13             2:30 pm

Thursday         1/24/13            4:30 pm

Friday             1/25/13            8:00 am

All eight declared candidates were invited to attend.  The seven who participated, in order of appearance, were:  Sylvia Garcia, Carol Alvarado, Maria Selva, Joaquin Martinez, Rudy Reyes, R. W. Bray and Dorothy Olmos.

The unique “candidate conveyor belt” format allowed each candidate the opportunity to explain his or her philosophy of governance and positions on selected issues.  Each candidate separately, in an order determined by drawing numbers, sat at a round table and participated in a friendly conversation with two League officials.

Members of the media are welcome to use Conversations material in their reports, and are encouraged to offer the public viewing opportunities via websites, social media or other vectors.  However, we ask that the program be made available in its entirety and without edits.  Our on-demand viewing page notes the order of candidate appearance for those who wish to scroll through to watch particular segments.

There have been numerous candidate forums as well, including one on Friday that was boycotted by Green Party candidate Maria Selva because it was sponsored by TransCanada, the company constructing the Keystone XL pipeline. From her press release, which you can see here:

“Tar sands refining will increase toxic air pollution along the Houston Ship Channel, negatively impacting the health of the people in District 6. The whole tar sands operation from mining to refining drastically increases carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change, and is at odds with the push for clean, safe energy that is one of the principal goals of my campaign,” Selva said.

“This controversial firm [TransCanada] that Houstonians and Texans have been fighting to keep out of the state should not have inappropriate influence over the candidates by sponsoring a debate among candidates who would make decisions affecting it,” said Selva.

“Candidates who seek to represent the citizens of Texas Senate district 6 should not be attending events sponsored by corporations that will poison the air of the people they claim to want to represent. We need to keep money out of politics, and that starts with removing money and inappropriate influence from the decision-making process of citizens.”

I realize that opinions tend to differ about this sort of tactic, but I personally think it’s more effective in general for a candidate to participate in an event where she has issues like this with a sponsor and tell everyone in attendance at her turn to speak exactly how she feels. It’s almost certainly the case that the vast majority of attendees have no idea about any of this, and as such you have the opportunity to inform them. A press release is easy to ignore, assuming you ever knew of its existence in the first place. Someone telling you something to your face isn’t. Just my opinion.

And while I’m on the subject, I really have no idea what if any role the state government has in this. I know the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is a federal matter. You know who would be in an excellent position to educate ignoramuses such as myself about what the state government can do to affect or prevent the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline? Someone who’s running for a state government office, like Maria Selva, that’s who. Yet on her campaign website, her Facebook page, and this article about a protest in which she was quoted, I have learned nothing more about the Keystone XL pipeline than the fact that Maria Selva opposes it, which I already knew. Look, there are more starting quarterbacks in the NFL than there are members of the Texas Senate. There are very few people in Texas who can affect what happens in Texas more than the 31 Senators. What exactly would Maria Selva do as one of these uniquely powerful people to put her beliefs into action? Is there some bill she would introduce, or try to block, or some existing law she would seek to repeal? Is there a hearing she could hold, or some official she would seek to influence? I can only speculate because Maria Selva has not provided that information anywhere I can find, and she declined a golden opportunity to inform an audience that would have been well served to hear it.

As you know, I interview a lot of candidates, and I generally don’t press them to be this specific about the process. Usually, just knowing what their principles are, and whether they support or oppose something that’s already out there, is sufficient. This is one of those times where it isn’t, for two reasons. One, as I just said, is because it’s not clear how the elected office in question is relevant to the candidate’s belief and the action she would like to take. If the main thing that will happen when you get elected is that you’ll go from a protester/activist to a protester/activist with an honorific, I’m not sure you’re making the best case for your candidacy or the best use of the political process. Second, if one of your complaints as a “third party” or “fringe” candidate is that you get no respect from the establishment, by which I mean the media and the various actors in the political process, and that your views never get a fair hearing, I say it’s on you to make it clear what is being missed by your exclusion. Show me how your perspective that doesn’t neatly fit into a two-party system would bring something new and needed to the table. If I were to ask Carol Alvarado or Sylvia Garcia – or RW Bray, for that matter – about Keystone, I’d expect them to say something like “That’s a federal matter”, and I’d find that to be an acceptable answer. Maria Selva had the chance to demonstrate why that isn’t an acceptable answer, but she didn’t take it. Further, from what I can tell it’s not clear that she could demonstrate that.

Putting this another way, if I still lived in SD06 I almost certainly wouldn’t vote for Maria Selva regardless, because I think Alvarado and Garcia are the two best candidates in the race. But if Maria Selva could articulate a way for a Senator to take on this issue – or any other, for that matter, especially one that isn’t being addressed by other candidates – and it made sense to me, I would at the very least press the candidates I would consider voting for to take a position on it. You want someone to listen to you, give them a reason to listen. I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.

Abbott reportedly tells the money people he’s running for Governor

One would think that if Greg Abbott were to tell anybody what his 2014 plans are, it would be the money people.

Still not Greg Abbott

A source who has spoken with Republican donors says Attorney General Greg Abbott is saying he’ll run for governor next year, challenging Rick Perry. With the 83rd Texas Legislative Session underway this week, Gov. Perry says he’s focused on state business not re-election.

“I’ll make my decision about what I’m going to do at the appropriate time, which will be June, July of this year,” he said.

But until then, he can’t raise any money.

State law doesn’t allow Perry to accept campaign cash from Dec. 8 until after the regular session, June 17. The blackout covers Abbott, too.

However, a Republican source who knows of fundraising activity at this level told News 8 that, ahead of that December deadline, Abbott told big donors eager to back him in a run for governor that he would.

When asked for a reaction Thursday by KVUE-TV in Austin, Perry recalled the last prominent Republican to challenge him in a primary.

“Sen. Hutchison also announced that she was going to run for governor back in 2009 so everybody gets the freedom to do that,” Perry said of the just retired senator he easily beat in 2010. “I’m real focused, which I hope the General is, too, on this legislative session.”

I like the way When In Session characterized Perry’s response:

I can’t quite see Perry and Abbott as Wesley and Inigo, however.

So does this mean anything? Burka thinks Abbott is running and that Perry will not run. PDiddie and BOR take it seriously as well. Me, I’m still waiting to hear the words from the horse’s mouth. I did want to get another opinion on this, so I asked three Magic Eight Balls. In response to my question “Will Greg Abbott run for Texas governor?”, I got one “Without a doubt”, one “Most likely”, and one “Ask again later”. I don’t think it gets any more definitive than that.

We’re still looking at a drought here

I know we just got a lot of rain this week, but that doesn’t mean that drought conditions are over.

The latest seasonal drought outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that for much of Texas and the rest of the Southwest, the drought is likely to “persist or intensify” over the next three months. Currently, 97 percent of the state is in drought conditions, with Texas’ water supply reservoirs only 65 percent full overall. And a late December briefing by NOAA on the climate notes that drought continues in over 61 percent of the country.

“During the upcoming three months, a much drier pattern is expected across the southwestern quadrant of the nation, limiting the prospects for further drought improvements during the wet season in California and Nevada,” NOAA says in its drought outlook.

State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon adds on.

2012 was a drought year. Following the driest 12 consecutive months on record and second driest calendar year on record, 2012 was running 0.14″ above normal through September. This wasn’t enough to end the drought statewide, but many parts of Texas, especially in its eastern half, drought became a distant memory and a distant problem. Elsewhere, reservoir levels continued to drop, but rain in most of the major metropolitan areas of the state made things seem much better.

Then, starting in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and eventually spreading to much of the rest of the state, the rainfall stopped. The final three months of 2012 were the third-driest October-December on record for Texas. Drought spread, and Galveston even had to impose water restrictions, although restrictions on outdoor watering aren’t much of a problem this time of year.

With the year ending up with below-normal precipitation, the combined two-year period 2011-2012 was the fourth-driest on record, beaten only by 1916-1917, 1955-1956, and 1909-1910.

Click over to see the pictures. We headed into January last year expecting a dry winter and were very pleasantly surprised to get an unusually large amount of rain over the next few months, enough to erase the drought in many places. We got lucky, in other words. We need to be lucky again, but more than that we need to be better prepared for when we’re not so lucky. Oh, and 2012 was really warm, too. It’d be nice to be better prepared for that, too.

Saving the T Rex skeleton

How cool is this?

Little did Houston attorney Robert Painter know that his decade-old friendship with the president of Mongolia would lead to unraveling an archaeological mystery worthy of Indiana Jones.

In a story that reads like a Hollywood script, Painter played a leading role – including flying to Dallas and New York over a single weekend ­­- to thwart the sale of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton to a private buyer.

Although the rare skeleton was initially sold in May at an auction in New York, the transaction hinged upon resolution of litigation and ultimately was canceled after the U.S. government in June seized the bones.

After further investigation, Florida resident Eric Prokopi, the consignor who had placed the skeleton for auction, pleaded guilty Dec. 27 in federal court in New York to two counts of smuggling and one count of conspiracy.

[…]

The remarkably intact set of bones looks like a smaller version of its Tyrannosaurus rex cousin, measuring about 30 feet long and 10 feet high, Painter said.

It was set to be auctioned May 20 in New York through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

Two evenings earlier, Painter received an urgent email from an adviser to Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. Could anything, she asked, be done legally to stop an auction in less than 48 hours in New York.

Painter flew into action. He got involved in the case through his 10-year friendship with Elbegdorj, whom he met at a conference in New Orleans, while Elbegdorj was studying at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The two quickly hit it off and began collaborating on projects.

“We would have never thought of dinosaurs,” Painter said, although in the past year he has learned that many of the world’s dinosaur fossils are found in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

“So what did you do this week?”

“Oh, not much, really. I teamed up with the President of Mongolia to save a T-Rex skeleton from being illegally auctioned. How about you?”

“Well, I was going to say I wrote a memo about the need to clean out the office coffee pot when it’s empty, but I think I’ll just sit here quietly instead.”