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May 12th, 2013:

Weekend link dump for May 12

On Homeland and The Americans. I don’t watch the former, so I can’t comment on it. I will say that I have been struck by a parallel between The Americans and The Sopranos in the sense that as with Tony Soprano, there are only so many ways that Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings’ story can end, and most of them are bad. The effect of their actions on their children is another similarity, and a fertile avenue to explore for the latter.

And speaking of The Americans, here’s how they made the 80s come alive on the set.

“The big news is that Medicaid virtually wiped out crippling medical expenses among the poor: The percentage of people who faced catastrophic out-of-pocket medical expenditures (that is, greater than 30 percent of annual income) declined from 5.5 percent to about 1 percent.”

Yeah, go ahead and kill cursive. Other than signing my name, I doubt I’ve written anything in cursive in 25 years or more.

RIP, Hotmail. Long live Outlook.

“Google Glass, like the Segway, is what happens when Silicon Valley spends too much time talking to itself.” Ouch.

I figure the answer to questions like this is generally “Because it feels good”. But maybe that’s just me.

As long as workers are getting screwed, unions will be needed.

As is so often the case, it’s what isn’t illegal that’s the real scandal.

The electrons on the bus are fermions, fermions, fermions…

The Heritage Foundation is full of hacks. This should not be a surprise. And that’s just the beginning of the problem.

Putting it another way, hooking up with racists is never a good idea.

If you want to understand what that Oregon study really says about Medicaid, this is a good place to start.

Are you ready for the quantum Internet? Do the words “quantum Internet” make you feel all tingly even if you’re not really sure what it means?

Yeah, fans need to chill out about these things.

RIP, Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion animation.

The Hack Gap, economics edition.

Louisiana’s school vouchers are still unconstitutional.

We should listen to what Elizabeth Smart has to say about human trafficking victims and why they sometimes don’t run.

Poor Rushie. Ain’t life a bitch?

“The private sector, we’re told, is always more efficient than the public sector. Competition, you understand. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in the healthcare industry. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions.”

“At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.”

“It is not surprising that sexual traffickers and other predatory men are able to harness this toxic purity culture for their evil ends.”

RIP, Malcolm Shabazz, grandson of Malcolm X.

Mayor Parker kicks off her campaign

It’s the time of the season for Mayor Parker, who has a serious challenger this time, but also a stronger hand to play.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

In her tenure, Parker has given teeth to the city’s historic preservation rules, broken a deadlock with Harris County to help build the Dynamo stadium, gave scandal-ridden Metro new leaders and revised key city codes governing parking and development, the latter of which had languished for six years.

She gave priority in city contracting to local firms, moved to make the troubled city crime lab independent from Houston Police Department, opened a facility to divert drunks from city jails and saw passage of a plan to erase a decades-long backlog of untested rape kits.

Parker oversaw a successful $410 million bond election last fall, and in 2010 welcomed voters’ approval of Rebuild Houston, an ambitious infrastructure renewal program.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said all signs favor Parker, whose only fear should be a low turnout that could see a small group swing the results. Jones said Parker lately has been able to focus on her own plans instead of inherited ills, such as replacing the Metro regime, scrambling to defer pension costs and dealing with legal wrangling over an inflexible red-light camera contract after voters banned the cameras in 2010.

“Bill White left her with a lot of messes to clean up. That, combined with a very tight budget as a result of the recession, led to a difficult first two years,” Jones said. “The second term has been much smoother sailing. The voter mood is going to be much more positive as people go to the polls this fall, and there’s going to be less of a tendency to want to cast a protest vote against the mayor than there was in 2011.”

Perhaps easing the incumbent’s road is the mood of the 16-member City Council, which lately has been more amenable than in recent years. A new convention center hotel, in which the city will invest $138 million, a rewrite of the city’s affirmative action policy and a law allowing motorists to be cited for failing to give cyclists and joggers a wide enough berth all passed without even a “tag,” the one-week delay typical on complex, controversial or high-profile topics.

The difference between the Mayor’s first term and the second is night and day. The first term was all about defense, which is to say all about things she had to deal with rather than things she wanted to deal with. That’s what her second term has been all about, and while she got a lot done in each term it’s much easier to build a campaign around offense. I’ve thought all along that she’d be in better shape this time around, and I still think that. A stronger opponent in 2011 and she’d have been in a runoff. She could still have a tough race this year, but at least the wind isn’t in her face.

The bit about Council is worth noting as well. Part of this is good luck on her part. Two of her biggest antagonists, Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan, are no longer on Council. The third, CO Bradford, was appointed Vice Mayor Pro Tem and has largely been a team player ever since. Her main thorn in the side is Helena Brown, and it’s hard to say that’s been a bad development for her since it’s a lot easier to look reasonable and accomplished opposite the likes of CM Brown. Basically, not only has the Mayor had the money to restore or enhance city services, the ability to move her own agenda forward, and a Council that has worked with her a lot more than it has worked against her. If she doesn’t feel better about this campaign than the last one, she ought to.

She entered the 2011 election with an approval rating of 47 percent, the lowest of any mayor in decades, narrowly avoiding a runoff despite spending $2.3 million and facing five poorly-funded unknowns. Political observers had said Parker needed a decisive win to prevent a challenge this year, and 50.8 percent of the vote was not it.

Enter Ben Hall, a wealthy lawyer capable of financing his own campaign who served as City Attorney from 1992 to 1994. Hall says city taxes and fees are driving residents to the suburbs. He says Parker lacks vision and wastes time tinkering with smartphone apps and food trucks while Houston misses opportunities for international business growth.

“A mayor must do more than simply balance a budget,” Hall has said. “We need more than just a manager, we need a leader.”

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said there may be some truth in Hall’s statements, but he said these are not significant enough to ignite anti-incumbent passions, adding that Hall’s message has lacked the specificity voters need to choose him over Parker.

“Motivations for mayoral elections are more about tremendous things that have gone wrong as opposed to more or less a tweak to what’s going right,” Rottinghaus said. “He’s got to make a really compelling case as to why things need to be changed, and as of yet, I’m not sure we’ve seen that.”

Hall has made criticism of Parker’s vision, or lack of it, a main point of his campaign. That’s certainly a valid line of attack, but as I’ve said before, Hall’s own vision isn’t apparent. Rottinghaus makes a good point as well, in that generally speaking when trying to knock off an incumbent, you have to give people a reason to fire that incumbent before you can convince them that you’re a viable alternative. The case to fire the Mayor is harder to make when times are good and things are getting done. Plus, I think people generally like the Mayor. She has her share of opponents to be sure, but it’s not like we’re inundated with anti-Parker chatter. Her biggest challenge is going to be making sure that the people who do like her get out to vote. If I were her, I’d want turnout to exceed 2011’s anemic levels. Complacency is her enemy. Work that ground game and don’t settle for a small voter universe. In the meantime, I’ll be very interested to see what the June campaign finance reports look like, not just for how much each candidate raises but also for who is giving to whom. Parker has always had a broad fundraising base, and she starts out with a fair amount of cash. Hall can write his own check, but having his own broad base and getting support from sources that have given to Parker before would be a strong statement on his part. We’ll see how that goes.

Three four six

Meet your new area code, Houston.

Houston area code map

The Public Utility Commission (PUC) on Thursday announced the addition of area code 346 to accommodate continued growth in and around Houston.

The 346 area code will overlay existing area codes 713, 281 and 832 in Harris, Fort Bend, Waller, Austin, Montgomery, San Jacinto, Liberty, Chambers, Galveston and Brazoria counties.

A map of the affected region is at: http://www.puc.texas.gov/industry/maps/areacodes/Houston.aspx

The North American Number Planning Administrator (NANPA) assigned the 346 area code after projecting that the three existing area codes will run out of numbers by Sept. 30, 2014.

The new area code will not require any reprogramming changes to existing equipment because an area code overlay requiring 10-digit dialing for local calls already exists in the affected region.

The PUC decision allows for industry preparation and customer education from Aug. 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014. Beginning July 1, 2014, new phone numbers can be assigned with a 346 area code.

Unlike previous area code changes, this will not require anyone to change their own number, and as noted in the press release it won’t require a change to how we dial, since we already do ten digit dialing. You wouldn’t think this would be anything but a routine, boring administrative announcement, but apparently there’s something about area codes that get people all het up.

We’ve all seen the Seinfeld episode where the subject of area code discrimination came up, right? The 212 area code ran out of numbers, and 646 was utilized leading to typical Seinfeldian situations of existential dread.

It’s amazing to think that in 2013 when area codes largely have no consequence, that there would be pride in three little numbers. Now zip code pride I can sort of understand. 77002 has a certain cachet, since people immediately think you live at the top of a skyscraper chewing cigars and eating brisket. 77007 shows that you pay too much to live near Washington Avenue. 77006 means that we’re probably neighbors.

346 is an ugly number. 281 is dumpy. 713 is sort of sleek, like a sports car. Maybe it’s the 7. Sevens are sexy. I know people with a 409 area code and they seem to get along alright, besides the dumb Beach Boys references. You know that a 409 area code means that the person is probably adept at a number of farming tools and maybe raised an animal in high school.

My first beeper had a 713 area code, which in Pearland denoted a cosmopolitan air. A worldliness rarely found in such a ‘burb.

(No, it did not.)

Houston rap loves repping area codes. I can’t wait to hear the first 346 area code themed mix tape. Sadly Mike Jones’ 281-330-8004 is no longer a working number. Can you still hit up Paul Wall at the 8-3-2?

I have never heard a rap song that shouts out the dirty 409, have you?

I haven’t seen that episode of “Seinfeld”, actually, but as someone who grew up in New York I do remember when Brooklyn and Staten Island were spun off from the 212 area code into the 718 area code. I don’t remember having any existential angst about it, but I was in high school. I probably had other things to be angsty about. In any event, I just wonder what we’ll do when we run out of area codes.

Everybody sues the EPA

The state of Texas and our pollution-loving Attorney General do it because they think the EPA does too much to protect us from harm. Some other groups do it because they think the EPA isn’t doing enough.

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

Houston Ship Channel, 1973

In the suit filed on Thursday, Air Alliance Houston and three other groups accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of using outdated and inaccurate formulas to estimate levels of air pollution.

The groups say studies show that actual smog-forming emissions can be 132 times greater than EPA estimates, which are based on data provided by the industry. The agency, as a result, does not possess reliable data to protect public health, according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The EPA has a history of dragging its feet on this issue,” said Jennifer Duggan, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, a legal group representing Air Alliance Houston and the other organizations in the case. “It has been aware of these inaccuracies for some time.”

[…]

The lawsuit comes five years after the city of Houston raised similar issues with the federal agency, which uses the emissions data to develop pollution controls, establish limits and guide enforcement.

In response, the agency acknowledged flaws in its formulas and promised to make changes.

See here for the background; this was a part of then-Mayor Bill White’s plan to reduce benzene emissions in Houston. You can see a copy of the lawsuit and the notice of intent to file suit that was sent by the plaintiffs to the EPA in 2012 here. I think we can safely assume that Greg Abbott will not be filing an amicus brief for the plaintiffs on this one.

Looking forward on Memorial Park

Meet Shellye Arnold, the new Executive Director of the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Shellye Arnold

There is no doubt that it is a pivotal moment for the 89-year old-park. Decimated by the drought of 2011, Memorial Park lost thousands of trees. The conservancy – whose stated mission is to “restore, preserve and enhance Memorial Park for the enjoyment of all Houstonians, today and tomorrow” – has a lot of work to do.

Arnold brings an exceptional skill set to the task. Her expertise in strategic planning, team building and leadership was honed over a 20-year career at Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer Corporation and the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

Previous to accepting the position with the conservancy, Arnold volunteered her time as both a writer and a speaker for the Parks by You Parks Bond Initiative, which passed in November 2012, providing $166 million in parks funding.

Jim Porter, board chair of the Memorial Park Conservancy and a certified Texas naturalist, feels confident that they have the right person for the job.

“Shellye has a history of getting things done and delivering results,” he said.

[…]

She notes that it was human intervention that uniformly forested Memorial Park with pine trees so heavily to begin with and that even before the drought, many of the park’s trees were already approaching their life expectancy.

About 15,000 new trees have been planted thus far. But there is also a need to restore and enhance the natural balance of the park on a larger scale. As Arnold notes, “you can’t water a forest.”

The diversity of Memorial Park with its three distinct eco-systems – East Texas Piney Woods, Post Oak Savanna and Coastal Prairie – will help sustain it. Clearing out non-invasive plants, which compete for water and sunlight, and planting native grasses are some of the items which could help with the restoration.

[…]

Arnold is supportive of the TIRZ proposal, in part because Mayor Parker is clear that Memorial Park will not be commercialized. It will remain a park, which is in line with the Hogg family stipulations when they made the land available to the city of Houston.

She sees potential down the road for linking the park to Uptown for cyclists. There has also been feedback about connecting Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou, thereby giving people more access to the 150 mile trail system that is being completed through the Parks Bond Initiative.

Making those connections would be awesome, and very useful. Wouldn’t it be nice to have ways to get to Memorial Park that don’t involve driving? Throw in the Uptown BRT line and hopefully someday the University Line, and you’ve greatly expanded the bike-to-the-park range. That’s down the line, to be sure, but this is a long-term project. KUHF has more on what is being considered for the park.

Shellye Arnold is executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, a group that works with the Houston Parks Department to fundraise for the park. Driving west on Woodway, she pulls over to a spot where the park meets Buffalo Bayou and points out an area where TIRZ 16 money is already allocated for an erosion project.

“We’re looking at a big pipe that carries water down into the bayou. And what happens with the water is that it causes erosion, it causes the land around it to erode into the bayou itself. And over time, it eats and eats away at the bayou, so what we’re looking at is probably hundreds of feet of erosion from the banks of the bayou that has been caused over years of time.”

As for what else the money might do, nobody knows for sure because the master plan hasn’t been developed yet. As Arnold points out, there’s only a plan to make a plan.

“There are things that people have expressed that they’d like to do. There are many people that would like to put a prairie on the utility easement area. That’s a great example. Those are things that could be considered in the context of a master planning process, which will take, you know, will take some time.”

Council will vote on the TIRZ next week, on Wednesday. We don’t need to have a master plan by then, but some kind of vision or outline would be nice.