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August 3rd, 2013:

Saturday video break: Piece Of My Heart

Song #8 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Piece Of My Heart”, originally by Erma Franklin and covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Here’s the original:

The late Erma Franklin is Aretha Franklin’s big sister. I had no idea. Nor had I ever heard this version before, and I must say of all the originals for which I’ve said that, this one is the best. If the cover had been the original and this had been the cover, I’d be raving about how cool it is. I may have to buy a copy of Erma Franklin’s version now. Here’s Janis and co:

Sometimes with this list, it was that the song was wrong for the original artist but a perfect fit for the covering artist. Sometimes it was just that the covering artist was better. And sometimes, like here, the covering artist took a good song that was well suited for its talented originator, and still took it to another level. What can you say? Oh, Janis. If only you’d taken better care of yourself.

Debating about debates

There will be some number of debates between Mayor Parker and Ben Hall between now and Election Day. How many debates, and how many participants there will be in those debates, is itself a matter of debate.

Mayor Annise Parker

In this corner…

In a letter to [Mayor Annise] Parker this week, [Ben] Hall sought three debates after Labor Day on Sept. 2 but before the start of early voting, and another three leading up to Election Day on Nov. 5.

“Too much is at stake for us not to share our plans for Houston with her citizens,” Hall wrote.

Parker campaign spokeswoman Sue Davis said the two-term incumbent has agreed to one debate, to include all mayoral candidates and to be scheduled after the Aug. 26 candidate filing deadline.

“All year long, Mayor Parker speaks daily about city issues to civic clubs, neighborhood groups and other organizations, holds tele-town halls and online chats and is available to the media,” Davis said.

…And in this corner

Hall campaign spokesman Mark Sanders cast Parker’s response as a win for the challenger.

“We are making progress,” Sander said. “A month ago she told Ben Hall there would be no debates. Today she said there would be one. We still look forward to six televised debates that will allow all the citizens of Houston to make informed decisions.”

Davis said Sanders was “misconstruing” Parker’s comment to Hall at a Juneteenth parade, where Davis said the mayor told Hall she would not debate “just him,” intending to include other entrants. The other three candidates in the race spent less than $25,000 as of June 30.

[…]

Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore said a key factor will be how many debates local civic institutions and media outlets want to host. The final debate count is likely to fall between one and six, he said.

“If Rice University says they want to put on a debate or the Greater Houston Partnership says they want to put on a debate and they’ve got local media participation, well, it’s difficult for Parker to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t want to do it,’ ” Blakemore said.

I think Blakemore gets this right. Sure, Parker and Hall could go the full Garland/Rooney route and put together their own traveling roadshow of Mayoral debates, but that’s usually not how these things work. Some number of organizations will want to sponsor debates. However many of them there are, it would look bad for either candidate to decline to participate. I suspect the final number will be two or three, but that’s just a guess. I do agree that one isn’t enough, and six is too many. There’s only so much material that can be reasonably covered in these debates, and after a certain point the questions start to get repeated or they become silly in an attempt to avoid repetition. On the other end, I agree with Texpatriate and Texas Leftist that the other activities Mayor Parker cites aren’t adequate substitutes for engaging her opposition, and that a lot of us thought it was bush league the way Rick Perry ducked debating Bill White at all in 2010. While it’s generally true that candidates that are leading have no great incentive to share the spotlight with those who hope to catch them, being the incumbent should mean being above that kind of game-playing. And personally, I don’t think she has anything to worry about. She has a strong record to defend, and Hall has yet to articulate any clear reason to vote her out, let alone what he himself would do as Mayor. Debating about debates eventually becomes its own issue. If I’m Mayor Parker, I’d rather talk about more interesting and substantive things than that. Texas Leftist also makes a point about it being better for any future political ambitions the Mayor may have to meet Hall head on, and I agree with that, too.

The side issue of who gets to participate in these debates will be fun to watch. Normally, frontrunners aren’t terribly excited about having a large number of debate participants since that just means more people taking potshots at them. Here, though, Mayor Parker appears to be more willing to allow the fringe characters into the as-yet-unplanned debates than Hall is. I’m generally ambivalent on this point. On the one hand, in a democracy all voices deserve to be heard. On the other hand, it’s hard to see what any of the bit players will bring to the table, since none of them has done anything to indicate they are seriously engaging in the issues that would be debated. A Mayoral debate is likely to be a 60 to 90 minute affair. How much of that time do you want to be spent on people that don’t have anything constructive to say, and how much of it do you want spent on Annise Parker and Ben Hall? Now, any organization that wants to host a debate will have its own preferences on this and that’s fine, but if Hall and Parker have different visions then it becomes another obstacle to getting anything done. If it were up to me, I’d let one or maybe two debates be all comers, but I’d insist on their being at least one of just Parker and Hall. I guarantee, we’ll get more out of that one than the others. Campos has more on that.

On a side note, I’m amused that the headline of the story was about Hall’s campaign “gathering steam” when the story was one part about the great debate debate and one part about the two new Republican campaign operatives he has coming in to replace two other Republican campaign operatives. Generally speaking, campaigns that have wholesale personnel changes midway through are not described as “gathering steam”. I will note that the new Hall team did something that the old one never did, which was send out email to the local bloggers with a copy of Hall’s letter to the Mayor containing his debate proposal; here’s a copy of it. I’m not egotistical enough to think that a handful of us Internet bloviators matter that much in the grand scheme of things, but I will point out that between us, we’ve written more about Hall and this race than the Chron has. If nothing else, you’d think a campaign might want to exert a little effort to ensure that their perspective is taken into account when we do our thing. My feelings about this campaign and the candidates aside, I’m glad to see that Team Hall has finally gotten around to doing that. Greg has more.

On closing Main Street to cars downtown

Houston Tomorrow runs a post by Kyle Nielsen that he originally published in May advocating for more of Main Street downtown to be like Main Street Square, that is, closed to automotive traffic.

What if we were to close Main Street to motor vehicle traffic and make it an exclusively pedestrian and bicycle corridor?

It seems to me that it would enhance cyclist and pedestrian safety, encourage the type of walkable retail and bars/restaurants that Downtown needs, decrease motorist frustration at being stuck behind a bicycle, and enhance motorist and transit safety by eliminating the motorist [illegal] left turns that still hit the Metro rail cars sporadically.

Already, driving Downtown on Main Street is not ideal for a motorist. The ban on left turns and the pedestrian zone that cuts off Main Street at Main Street Square make it not very useful to a motorist for traveling through Downtown. If you add in now being stuck behind cyclists as well, it just seems to make more sense to re-route that traffic to Fannin or Travis, where there are plenty of lanes for cars to travel.

With all of the new businesses coming in on the North side of Downtown (Goro & Gun, Pastry War, Batanga, Bad News Bar, OKRA, Clutch City Squire, El Gran Malo, etc.), having an even safer pedestrian environment for customers to move about promotes greater economic activity. This also ties in nicely with the city’s new BCycle rental bike program. Tourists or Houstonians visiting Downtown and renting a BCycle could be directed to our fantastic Main Street bike lane to check out the rest of Downtown or as a way to get to points in Midtown.

Swamplot, Hair Balls, and PDiddie, who heartily approves, are on this as well. I too think this is a good idea; note that it is only traffic on Main that would be closed, not the east-west traffic that crosses Main. I’m old enough to remember, and to have worked downtown, before the rail line was built. Main was two lanes each way, and left turns were forbidden downtown. You didn’t get stuck behind a bike if you drove on it for some strange reason, but you did get stuck behind buses. There are plenty of good alternatives for north-south driving downtown, and in my experience now hardly anyone drives on Main anyway, since why would they? I’d limit the closure to between Pierce and Franklin – the train stays on Main through Midtown, but the driving options dwindle as you head south, and there is more vehicular traffic on that part of Main – but otherwise, the argument in favor of a fully pedestrian-and-bike corridor through downtown seems clear. I don’t know what the city has to do to make this happen, but I’d like to see them study it.

The hogs keep winning

Same old story.

More than two decades into Texas’ ever escalating war against feral hogs, the wild swine continue gaining ground while Texas and the state’s native wildlife, plants and ecosystems lose it.

Despite taking millions of casualties – an estimated 750,000-plus feral hogs have been killed each of the past few years in Texas – the non-native pigs have continued their economically and environmentally destructive march across the state, with an estimated 2.6 million of them spread across at least 240 of Texas’ 254 counties.

“It’s just getting worse and worse; no matter what we’ve tried, the hogs just overwhelm us,” said Stuart Marcus, manger of the 25,000-acre Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. “They certainly are having a negative impact on native wildlife and habitat – directly and indirectly.”

Texas holds, by some estimates, as many as 10 times the number of feral hogs it did barely three decades ago.

[…]

A research project by Rice and Texas A&M universities conducted in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas used fenced and unfenced plots of land to gauge impacts of feral hogs. The plots used by hogs saw plant diversity reduced, fewer forbs, fewer large-seed (mast producing) trees, loss of leaf-litter ground cover resulting in a reduction in the abundance of invertebrates and small vertebrates, and changes in soil chemistry that changed plant communities.

The research also indicated plots disturbed by feral hogs grew twice as many Chinese tallow trees as the hog-free areas. Tallow trees are one of the most problematic non-native, invasive plants threatening Texas, as the tallows grow in dense monocultures, shade out native trees and grasses, are of almost no value to wildlife, and are almost impossible to control.

Stuart Marcus witnesses this on the Trinity River refuge.

“I call feral hogs ‘walking tallow trees,’ ” he said. “They are just as bad as tallow trees, and wherever they root up the ground, tallow trees seem to sprout by the hundreds.”

Feral hogs’ rooting behavior causes severe damage to environmentally sensitive and hugely important areas along waterways, particularly in central, south and western Texas where such waterways are limited.

“They definitely impact plant communities and really do serious damage to riparian areas, especially the western half of the state,” Frels said.

[…]

For the past three years, research at the Kerr wildlife area has focused on sodium nitrite, a toxicant that has been used to great effect against feral hogs in Australia.

Sodium nitrite kills by disrupting blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain. Pigs are highly susceptible to sodium nitrite because, unlike humans and other mammals, they lack the ability to produce an enzyme that reverses the effects. A feral hog ingesting a lethal dose of sodium nitrite quickly becomes lethargic, then unconscious. Death occurs within 90 minutes.

Research indicates the poisoned pigs pose little or no threat to scavengers or predators.

Developing bait/sodium nitrite mixtures that feral hogs will eat and that deliver a lethal dose of the substance and a “delivery system” – a feeder – that feral hogs can access but can’t be used by deer, raccoons and other non-target wildlife are the focus of research at the Kerr.

“It’s showing some promise,” Frels said of sodium nitrite’s potential as another tool to use against feral hogs. “But there’s still a long way to go before it could become an option.”

If it does, it could help turn the tide in the battle against feral hogs. In Australia, use of sodium nitrite has reduced feral hog populations in large areas by as much as 89 percent.

That would be a game-changer, and we could sure use it. I just hope the hogs don’t develop an immunity to it, at least not for a long time. Good luck getting it developed.