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January 20th, 2013:

Weekend link dump for January 20

Hail to the Chief, it’s the Chief that we are hailing…

Woo hoo! Flying cars! About damn time.

Google wind. That’s a noun, not a verb.

How to not be a menace during cold and flu season.

These eight words come in handy in many other contexts as well.

The semi-open gay lives of some professional athletes.

The public health benefits of bikini waxing. Yes, I said “public”.

A more honest description of each Best Picture nominee.

The so-called “performance enhancing drug” problem is a lot older than you might think.

I agree that the Washington NFL franchise needs to change its name, but “Hail to the best Skins” just doesn’t scan.

How to disable Java in your browser. Might want to bookmark that for future reference, assuming anyone still uses bookmarks.

There’s no crying in space. Sort of.

Jodie Foster did not impress Andrew Sullivan.

Voter flatulence is the real problem.

“So the two years Obama and Boehner have spent trying to deflect, delay, and placate the mania of the tea party seem to have finally come to an end point.” God help us all.

It sure didn’t take Steve Stockman very long to remind everyone why we were so glad to be rid of him in 1996.

“So here is my recommendation for who President Obama should invite to give the benediction at his inauguration ceremony: No one.”

How do people who don’t have widespread networks of friends and fans put pressure on recalcitrant entities to fix their errors?

Earth’s long lost twin has been found.

Wayne Dobson doesn’t have your cellphone.

The march towards equality continues apace.

If you’re going to sneak vegetables into your kids’ food, be prepared for the guilt.

There’s a reason why the phrase “Very Serious People” is a putdown.

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

I think Dan Rather Scared My Mom would make an excellent band name.

Dana Milbank says what I’ve been saying for awhile about Steve Stockman.

RIP, Conrad Bain, a/k/a Mr. Drummond from “Diff’rent Strokes”.

The greatest screenplay never made.

Pity the poor six-figure earners. Won’t someone please think of them?

Defining impeachment down.

The Manti Te’o thing…man, I don’t even know what to say. Actually, I do know one thing to say, and that’s that if you’re going to read about that, you should read about Lizzy Seeberg as well.

A worthy honor for Victoria Soto.

RIP, Pauline Phillips, a/k/a Dear Abby.

“Remember Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope”? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding.”

Poor David Brooks. So much cognitive dissonance, so little time.

Where are the 27th Amendment absolutists when you really need them?

RIP, Earl Weaver, one of the best – and most colorful – to ever manage a game of baseball.

And RIP, Stan The Man Musial. Been a rough month for the Hall of Fame, hasn’t it?

Some things you can vaccinate against

Saying dumb things isn’t one of them.

CM Jack Christie

As the council considered a proposal Wednesday to accept $3.1 million in federal funding for childhood immunizations, Councilman Jack Christie voiced his opposition to the measure, apparently conflating it with flu vaccinations.

“I’m going to vote against this,” Christie said before the 15-1 vote. “You don’t die from the flu.”

Christie backed down somewhat from his comment on Friday. What he meant to say, he said, was that “People should not die from the flu.”

“First of all, that’s $3 million that the federal government doesn’t really have,” Christie said of the funding proposal. “It’s borrowed money we eventually have to pay back. But more important is the media’s embellishment of the extreme fear of encouraging flu vaccinations.

“Every year there’s going to be a flu,” he said, “and vaccines create synthetic immunity, which does not trump natural immunity to disease.”

Christie, who said he has never taken a flu shot, suggested the medical community should focus more attention on prescription drug abuse that claims thousands of lives annually in the U.S.

Dr. Joshua Septimus, associate professor of internal medicine at Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, called Christie’s comments irresponsible.

“That is totally wrong,” he said. “The flu kills anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands in the U.S. alone. There is very good evidence that the flu shot reduces deaths from the flu. That flu vaccine is a very low risk and with very high potential benefits.”

So much here to deal with. First, the idea that not accepting this funding is fiscally responsible is ludicrous. This money has already been appropriated. Not accepting it doesn’t mean it magically gets transmuted from a liability to an asset on the federal budget balance sheet. It means it gets to be granted to some other city. There are sometimes good reasons to turn down federal funding, but this is money for childhood immunizations. Spending money to keep kids healthy is about the best spending we can do. It’s an investment with a big payoff, both in terms of spending less later on sick kids, and the greater lifetime earnings potential of kids who grew up healthy and in some cases who got to grow up at all.

Second, the bit about the medical community needing to focus more on prescription drug abuse is a complete non sequitur. Last I checked, the medical community was big enough to handle more than one thing at a time. It’s also unlikely to change its priorities based on one screwball City Council voting down a grant for childhood immunizations. If you want to send a message to the American Medical Association, writing a letter to them is probably the better approach.

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, but even Helena Brown voted to accept these funds. Let me say that again: Even Helena Brown voted to accept these funds. When you’re off on an island that even Helena Brown isn’t inhabiting, you need to check your coordinates, know what I mean?

Who gets the water?

This will be worth watching.

A simple idea has guided appropriations of Texas water for decades: First come, first served.

Now, with drought conditions returning to almost the entire state, the principle is being put to the test by a fight over water in the Brazos River.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is withholding water from some, but not all, rights holders to meet the needs of the Dow Chemical Co., which operates a massive manufacturing complex where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Farmers have sued to get their water back, saying the state agency overstepped its authority by exempting cities and power producers with rights younger than theirs from the suspension order. The agency based the decision upon “public health, safety and welfare concerns.”

No one disputes the chemical maker’s rights, which date to the 1920s. The legal question is whether TCEQ may consider factors beyond seniority when deciding who gets water first in times of shortage.

“This really will be a precedent-setting case if the courts uphold TCEQ’s position,” said Ronald Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. “It is about whether we still believe in the priority system. It is elegantly simple, but its limitation is that we don’t consider the highest economic use of water.”

[…]

In the lawsuit, the Texas Farm Bureau and two growers argue that TCEQ does not have the authority to divert from the priority system during drought.

The order leaves more than 700 farmers without surface water for irrigation, while dozens of others with junior rights, including the cities of Houston and Waco and NRG Energy, will not be restricted in their use.

“It turns the priority system on its head,” said Regan Beck, assistant general counsel for public policy at the Farm Bureau.

Mark McPherson, a Dallas-based lawyer who specializes in water rights but is not involved in the lawsuit, agreed.

“When the historic state priority system is changed so materially, it makes those who planned based on the priority system look foolish, and it makes those who benefit from the change look lucky,” McPherson said. “I don’t think that’s a proper use of agency power.”

The solution, he said, is for those who need more water to pay for it. State law allows TCEQ to transfer water rights to meet urgent public health and safety needs, but doing so requires compensation, which was not offered in this case.

“The correct answer is perhaps harsh, but nonetheless necessary: Go acquire more water rights, at the market cost, and pass those costs on to the users,” McPherson said. “And if this were allowed to happen, we’d quickly feel, and finally understand, that water supply is a critical factor in economic competition.”

I’m not a lawyer and I know precious little about water rights, but what McPherson says makes sense to me. I can’t wait to see what the court says. I imagine the Lege will be interested in this decision as well, as it may force them to rewrite some existing laws, and it may give them some extra incentive to tackle that long-term water issue.

Meanwhile, in other water dispute news, the state of Texas has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande.

In its complaint, Texas says that New Mexico has dodged a 1938 agreement to deliver Texas’ share of Rio Grande river. Instead, New Mexico is illegally allowing diversions of both surface and underground water hydrologically connected to the Rio Grande downstream of Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico, according to the filing.

The complaint, filed after New Mexico took its own legal actions and after years of negotiations, asks the Supreme Court to command New Mexico to deliver water apportioned to Texas.

The Rio Grande is the primary, and at some places the only, source of water for much of the agricultural land within Texas. Water from the river constitutes, on average, half the annual water supply for El Paso, according to the filing.

“So long as New Mexico refuses to acknowledge its Rio Grande Compact obligations to Texas, no amount of negotiation or mediation can address Texas’ claims,” the filing said. “And so long as the matter continues unresolved by this Court, New Mexico can simply continue to divert, pump and use water in excess of its Rio Grande Compact apportionment, to the continued detriment of Texas.”

Conservation in El Paso has been emphasized for decades, said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. “The community has rallied behind conservation as important,” he said. “But we have rights to access to water: Water in the desert is crucial.”

New Mexico Attorney General Gary King fired back Thursday in a statement that Texas’ court filing was “tantamount to extortion.”

New Mexico farmers already can draw less water from the Elephant Butte reservoir following an agreement several years ago between the two states. King said the Texas complaint, if successful, would “deplete the water in southern New Mexico in a manner that would destroy the long-term viability of water resources.”

The Trib also covered this and another dispute between Tarrant County and Oklahoma that SCOTUS has agreed to adjudicate. I figure we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming years.

Green batteries

This is very cool.

Robert Conrad approves

In one more step of a global effort to develop greener battery technology, researchers at Rice University say they have found a way to replace a costly metallic component in lithium-ion batteries with material from a common plant.

While many of today’s lithium-ion batteries incorporate cobalt, which has to be mined and then altered at high temperature for use in batteries, Rice researchers say they can accomplish the same function using a dye extracted from a plant.

Reaching into an oxygen-free box to combine and assemble materials, researchers have shown that in altered form the plant-based substance can be incorporated into a lithium-ion battery that is almost as effective as today’s versions, said Leela Mohana Reddy, the lead researcher in the effort.

The chemically altered dye can hold and move the energy-carrying lithium ion in the same way as lithium compounds involving cobalt or other substances. The material was derived from a small flowering plant called a madder, native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. Scientists are testing other dyes that could prove even more effective, Reddy said. His group’s findings appeared last month in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports.

Although the science behind the green battery component is in its early stages, if developed further it could lead to a change in one of three main battery parts: the cathode. Simply changing that component would increase the sustainability of battery production, Reddy said.

“You don’t have to do any mining,” he said. “You just plant and then you can turn it into a dye and then into a battery material with simple chemistry at room temperature.”

Batteries, especially rechargeable batteries, will be increasingly important as we move – however slowly – towards less dependence on oil. We also know that less dependence on metals that need to be recycled is a good thing as well. It’s great to see some of the leading research on this new technology be done at Rice. If we’re really lucky, some hot new startup will emerge from this research. And if nothing else, this story gave me the opportunity to post this little blast from the past:

Go ahead, I dare you.

The Eagle Ford Shale UFO

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a UFO!

Strange things are afoot in the South Texas oil patch and in the sky above. In a region that’s seen its tax rolls and traffic problems swell from the scores of new residents, could extraterrestrials be the next wave?

Roughnecks working at a fracturing well in the Eagle Ford Shale drilling region say they saw unidentified lights in the night sky on consecutive days in October and captured blurry video of at least one of them.

Three months earlier, a security camera captured a blurry, black-and-white image of what appears to be a flying saucer hovering ominously at another well site.

So far, no little green men have applied for a truck-driving job, but in a region desperate for more workers, they may not get turned down if they did.

Space alien visitation, or at least claims of it, adds a new dimension to the social upheaval that’s engulfed La Salle County.

I’m not sure why this is just being reported now, but I suppose it’s as good a hook for a story about the boom times now going on in South Texas as anything else. It also might be a reason for the Obama administration to rethink its position on blowing up planets.

The cellphone video, taken by worker Xavier Garza, shows a reddish-orange orb in the northern sky. Roughnecks can be heard off-camera cursing — as they are wont to do — in amazement.

Witnesses say the camera didn’t pick up a dozen more lights that appeared and reappeared several times, typically hovering in formation. It happened two nights in a row.

And last week, a photo surfaced on the website of the Mutual UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) Network, a volunteer group that investigates UFO claims, purportedly taken at a well site in the same stretch of the Eagle Ford.

Allegedly taken from a security camera, it appears to show a large saucer-like object, with an array of four lights, hovering over the caliche pad of a La Salle County well site. Other odd orbs can be seen in the background.

That photo, with a July 5 time stamp, already has passed two authenticity tests, says Charles Stansburge, a veteran MUFON investigator.

“If it’s a prank,” Stansburge said, “someone spent a lot of money to stage it. It’s not a doctored photo. It’s a 60-foot-diameter saucer that’s hovering.”

The video in question is supposedly on YouTube, but I couldn’t find it. Clearly, the conspiracy is far more extensive than even I could have imagined. I also couldn’t find the photo on MUFON, but that may just be the result of crappy site design. I’m sure the photo that accompanied this story, embedded above, is the same thing. I like a good UFO story as much as the next person, but why all the fuss about Eagle Ford when there’s been a UFO elsewhere in Texas for years?

I don’t think there’s any immigration reform proposal comprehensive enough to cope with that.