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February 1st, 2014:

Saturday video break: Everyone’s a Captain Kirk

How is it that I’d never actually seen the video for “99 Red Balloons” before?

One of life’s little mysteries, I suppose. And may I just say…leather pants. God, I miss the 80s sometimes.

I also got to wondering if there were any decent cover versions of this. Here’s Goldfinger:

That’s pretty good. Here’s another, by Bella Ferraro, of the Australian version of “The X-Factor”:

Eh. She has a good set of pipes, but they chopped the hell out of the song. I’m not the only one who hates it when radio stations do that, am I?

Harris County threatens to sue Harris County Appraisal District

That headline may sound dry, but this is a big deal.


Worried about the erosion of the tax base, county officials said Wednesday that they may consider suing the Harris County Appraisal District over concerns it is undervaluing certain business properties at the expense of homeowners.

Officials said HCAD’s Appraisal Review Board in recent years has agreed to set values for commercial and industrial properties that are far below what those properties later sell for, suggesting the independently governed agency did not adequately fight property owners who challenged their appraisals in court.

Commissioners Court on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of agreeing to hire independent appraisers to double-check HCAD’s valuations of business properties. Court members said they would take the appraisal district to court, if necessary, but suggested their action was meant more as a warning to the agency or the Texas Legislature.

“They haven’t been pushing to get these appraisals done the way they should have on some of these major buildings,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who placed the item to hire independent appraisers on Wednesday’s agenda. “I think they need to be shook up and understand that they have a very important job to do and not bow down to pressure from people that, you know, hire big guns to get their taxes lowered on buildings, some of which are clearly more valuable than their appraisals.”


Commissioners Court wants independent appraisers to closely monitor the appraisal process this year, and for the county attorney to be prepared to challenge the results, if the court deems it necessary. Any challenge must be filed within 15 days of HCAD submitting preliminary property values to the Appraisal Review Board, which typically occurs in mid-May.

The Houston Press had a cover story last year about large commercial properties getting lowball appraisals that were costing the county millions in revenue, and before that former Chron business columnist Loren Steffy covered the topic with the specific example of the Williams Tower, which anyone over 35 still thinks of as a the Transco Tower. The issue has been known for a long time, but this is the first time that the county has taken direct action about it. It’s interesting that it comes at a time when real estate is hot and revenues are rising – we sure could have used some of that lost revenue a few years ago when the bottom fell out of the market and everyone that depended on property tax revenues had to cut the hell out of their budgets – but the concern for the longer term is valid and pressing. The response from HCAD is less than convincing to me.

HCAD Chief Appraiser Sands Stiefer defended the settlement process, and predicted the county’s venture would not result in a lawsuit. He said HCAD has implemented changes since he started last June to ensure “that nobody gets away with something unfair” during litigation.

For example, if a proposed settlement exceeds a certain percentage in value, Stiefer said it must be “discussed with me before it is finalized.” Appraisers also must submit formal reports on the settlements before a final agreement is made, he said.

“It’s absolutely untrue that we are giving away the store in that settlement process,” he said, noting that Houston’s hot real estate market means that market values often change rapidly, especially for certain commercial properties.

Sales prices also do not have to be disclosed, which Stiefer described as a “roadblock.”

I agree that sales price disclosure is an issue, but if this is the process to ensure accurate appraisals, it seems lacking to me. Not to be insulting, but what assurance do we have that the head guy isn’t in the same tank as everyone else? Given the track record to date, having a fresh set of eyes on the process sounds like a good idea to me.

Appraisal district critics such as George Scott, who worked for HCAD as a spokesman until 2012, applauded the county’s action Wednesday, saying it would enable it to make a strong case to the Legislature in 2015 for changes to improve the appraisal process for business properties and potentially encourage HCAD to better defend market values.

“It is a powerful, powerful step to tell the Harris County Appraisal District that everything that transpires is now going to be high, high, high on the radar,” Scott said.

Scott’s blog is here, and while he covers a variety of topics these days, HCAD is still his main hobbyhorse. See here and here for a couple of examples. I don’t think anyone believes this matter will actually wind up in court. Radack et al are seeking leverage to get HCAD to change how it does things. I think they’ll win in the end, but it may get messy along the way. I suspect other large urban counties will be keeping a close eye on this as well, and of course other entities within Harris County – Houston and all the other cities, HISD and all the other school districts, HCC and Lone Star College, etc – are affected by this and may want a piece of the legal action if it comes to that. I’m sure we’ll be hearing quite a bit more about this in the next few months.

Chron overview of DA primary

I can’t stress enough how much this race matters.

Kim Ogg

Kim Ogg

Running for the Democratic nomination for Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg has spent the past four months shaking hands, staking out her positions on criminal justice issues and raising about $100,000.

Her opponent, perennial candidate Lloyd Oliver, has been watching television.

“It’s my race to lose,” Oliver said after reporting that he has neither raised nor spent a dime on his campaign. “My strategy is to watch a lot of TV, I think. That’s all I’ve been doing.”

That may be all he needs to do in a down-ballot race in a primary that is not expected to see high voter turnout.

In 2012, Oliver befuddled the political establishment when he bested much better-funded Democratic primary opponent Zack Fertitta. In that race, Oliver spent only $300, for laminated flyers.

“Ogg’s got to figure out a way to get a reasonable share of the African-American vote, which Mr. Fertitta did not get in 2012,” said Richard Murray, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “We may have only 60,000-70,000 come out for the (Democratic) primary and with two million registered voters, it’s a real crapshoot.”

This year, Oliver said, he does not plan to campaign until the general election. Name recognition, he said, will determine who wins the primary.

And Oliver appears to have plenty of that. Since 1994, Oliver has run for judge five times, and district attorney once. Having his name in front of voters every few years – which Oliver uses as advertising for his legal practice – paid off in his race against Fertitta. He expects it will again.

“There’s really nothing you can do,” he said. “Whatever is going to happen, is going to happen in the primary.”

Nonetheless, Ogg, 54, is taking him seriously.

“I’ve believed Lloyd every time before when he’s said he runs as a publicity stunt,” she said. “I’m not about to take one thing for granted, even Lloyd’s ability to get votes despite when he does nothing.”

Taking a cue from his missteps in 2012, Oliver said he purposefully is doing little in order to minimize criticism.

It’s my hope that this time when people see Lloyd Oliver’s name on the ballot, they’ll remember all that well-deserved negativity from 2012. When people remember the reason why they recognize your name and realize that it’s not for good reasons, then name recognition isn’t much of an asset. Ideally, Ogg will spend some of that money she’s raised helping people remember why they remember Lloyd Oliver’s name. The thought of nominating Oliver again is just too gruesome to contemplate. If you’re voting in the Democratic primary in Harris County, please make sure you vote for Kim Ogg, and make sure your friends know that they need to vote for her as well. We can’t afford to screw this up again.

So you want to see Bigfoot?

He’s coming to your town, Houston and San Antonio. Or at least, whatever the huckster Rick Dyer is trying to pass off as a Bigfoot carcass is coming to your town.

Steve Austin knows the truth

Dyer, 36, says he killed an 8-foot-tall Bigfoot in San Antonio in 2012 with a 30-06 rifle after he lured “the beast” near his tent with a set of Wal-Mart ribs he rubbed with a secret ingredient.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true,” said Dyer, who is coming back to the Alamo City and Houston in February to showcase his catch.

He tows the corpse behind a 40-foot coach in a trailer across the country to show folks just how real Bigfoot is.

“A lot of times they don’t believe it,” he said. “You can show someone something that is real, but they won’t, or can’t, believe it because they think it doesn’t exist.”

Dyer killed the mysterious creature in a wooded area near Texas 151 and Loop 1604, he said Sept. 6, 2012.

After getting “leads” from homeless locals, Dyer set up a tent in the woods and booby trapped trees around his tent with ribs he purchased from Wal-Mart, who in fact does have the best ribs for Bigfoot-huntin’, as well as the best return policy.

“I woke up to the sound of bones crushing,” Dyer said. “I knew it was a Bigfoot eating the ribs I hung, so I grabbed my cell phone and filmed it.”

Snopes helpfully reminds us that Dyer made a similar claim in 2008, and his “Bigfoot” turned out to be a rubber ape costume. But don’t worry, even though he won’t give any tissue samples for testing Dyer assures us that some university he can’t name because of “nondisclosure” is doing some testing for him, so we can totally trust him this time.

OK, we all know this guy is a carny barker, and he’s doing this to scam a few bucks off of the gullible. I’m sure he’ll succeed at that. What’s more, I’m feeling strongly tempted to see his “carcass” for myself, so I can get a good laugh out of it. I’ll probably hate myself afterward, but I’m still feeling the pull. Someone please talk me out of this.

To their credit, Texas wildlife officials have the right idea here.

“We don’t acknowledge that one exists, but if you wanted to shoot and kill a Bigfoot in the state of Texas you would just need a hunting license,” Major Larry Young, game warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife, joked Tuesday.

Young said that although it’s legal, he doesn’t exactly think it is moral.

“It’s kind of like shooting a person,” he said.

“We can’t prohibit anyone from hunting fictional characters, including Sasquatch, Chupacabra and other urban myths,” said Steve Lightfoot with Texas Parks and Wildlife.

And just in case this story isn’t weird enough for you:

The folks at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals don’t think that Bigfoot is real, but do feel strongly about those that would shoot something exotic for sport.

“The bottom line is, when someone sees a rare, exotic animal their first instinct shouldn’t be to shoot and kill it,” said PETA spokesperson Lindsay Rajt. “Just because you see something pretty, that doesn’t mean it should be mounted on your wall.”

If anything the hunting and killing of a fictional animal teaches a lesson about hunting culture in general. According to Rajt, the popularity of hunting for sport is in decline, and has been since the late 1970s.

“Wildlife watching is gaining popularity over hunting,” she said.

“As an organization we do oppose hunting of any kind. It’s cruel and unnecessary and can damage populations and ecosystems,” Rajt said.

Yeah, we wouldn’t want to have to put Bigfoot on the endangered species list, right? I got nothing.

Lance Berkman

Former Astro and Rice Owl Lance Berkman hung up his spikes this week.

Lance Berkman
(credit: Photo Mojo on Flickr)

Lance Berkman, who starred at Rice before becoming one of the most clutch hitters in Astros history, is retiring after a 15-year career in the major leagues.

“He’s going to go down as one of the great players in Astros history,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman during the team’s playoff runs in 2004 and 2005. “A local Texas kid, goes to Rice, makes good, comes to the big leagues. He’s been a fabulous player in the big leagues, and he’s done it all with a touch of class.”

It was at Rice where Berkman’s smooth swing first got noticed. He hit 41 homers in 63 games as a junior and was drafted in the first round (No. 16 overall) by the Astros in 1997. Just two seasons later, Berkman was in the majors to stay.

From 2000-09, Berkman hit .300 for the Astros, averaging 31 homers and 103 RBIs.

“There aren’t many better in this generation,” baseball historian/statistician Bill James said at the time.

Among switch hitters, Berkman ranks among the best of all time. His career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .943 is second only to Mickey Mantle’s .977 among switch hitters, and he ranks third among switch hitters in on-base percentage (.406, behind Mantle and Roy Cullenbine) and fourth in home runs (366, behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones).

No question Berkman was a great hitter. But is he a Hall of Fame player? There’s certainly local sentiment for that. My gut intuition was that his career was a little short and left his overall numbers, especially the kind of counting stats that tend to most impress Hall of Fame voters, a bit below the standard. Cliff Corcoran took a deeper look and agreed with that.

Berkman ranks second in baseball history among switch hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances in OPS+, behind only Mickey Mantle, and fourth among switch-hitters in home runs (behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones, though Carlos Beltran will likely pass him this year). However, he doesn’t fare quite as well in the other cumulative stats (which covers everything from hits to wins above replacement), and that reveals the soft underbelly of his Hall of Fame case. For the bulk of his career, Berkman was a tremendously productive hitter, but not only did he play just 15 seasons, he only played in 140 or more games in eight of them.


Berkman’s retirement doesn’t come as a great surprise, particularly given how close he was to hanging it up a year ago. It does leave us with the question of whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS stats say no. Berkman’s 51.8/.38.9/45.3 career/peak/JAWS scores all fall short of the standard at first base and left and rightfield, his three primary positions (he also played 166 games in center early in his career, which yielded this gem on Tal’s Hill).

It may be surprising that Berkman doesn’t at least meet the standard on peak score, but the combination of the offense-heavy era in which he played, the Astros’ move to the hitter-friendly Enron-cum-Minute Maid Park in 2000, and some brutal fielding scores undercut those impressive statistics above. That, in combination with his short career, make the Hall seem like a longshot for Berkman, though he may get some extra points from the voters for his postseason performance, being a switch-hitter, and for his personality and honesty with the press.

In terms of a comparable candidate, one player that jumps to mind is Edgar Martinez. The legendary Mariners DH was also an undeniably great hitter who also had a memorable postseason moment, made essentially no contribution on defense by virtue of having been a designated hitter for the bulk of his career and had a similarly short career (just 12 qualifying seasons). Martinez hit .312/.418/.515 (147 OPS+) in his career to Berkman’s .293/.406/.537 (144 OPS+). Berkman hit more home runs (366 to doubles-hitter Martinez’s 309), but Martinez, perhaps crucially, surpassed 2,000 hits while Berkman did not (2,247 to 1,905). Martinez also played in more games (2,055 to 1,879) made more plate appearances (8,674 to 7,814), and had superior WAR (68.3 to 51.8) and JAWS scores (55.9 to 45.3). Martinez can also stake claim to being the greatest ever at his position, even if that position was designated hitter. Despite all of that, after five years on the ballot, he has yet to surpass 36.5 percent of the vote.

Edgar Martinez is a good comp, but I think it’s fair to say that Jeff Bagwell belongs in the Hall of Fame before Berkman gets there. He’s got a case, and I’ll be interested to see who argues for him in five years’ time, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate or insulting to say that the Big Puma was a great player and a fearsome hitter who falls a bit short of Cooperstown.

One thing for which there should be no argument at all is for Berkman to retire as an Astro. The team needs to make this happen.

The Astros should sign Berkman, give him his No. 17 to wear one last time for a farewell news conference, and let him retire as one of them, at home in Houston, where he belongs.

Berkman was a clutch hitter who gave the Astros many happy endings. Now they can give him one.

“He’s really an Astro,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman in Houston for parts of four seasons, including the teams that reached the playoffs in 2004 and the World Series in ’05. “He knows it. We all know it.”

That is the mother of all no-brainers. The Yankees did this last year for Hideki Matsui, who was a popular and well-regarded player that made key contributions to the 2009 World Series win and the 2003 LCS win over the Red Sox, but is hardly a franchise cornerstone. Whatever you think about the Yankees, they do this sort of thing right. If the Stros want to ensure at least one sellout crowd this year, they need to start planning for Lance Berkman Day at Minute Maid. (They should be planning JR Richard Day, too, but that’s another story.) It’s great that the team wants to bring Nolan Ryan on board, but one way or the other they need to give Lance Berkman a proper sendoff. Make this happen, y’all.