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August 10th, 2014:

Weekend link dump for August 10

Now Republicans would like for you to believe that “reproductive health” and “women’s health” are two different things.

Don’t trust USB devices. Like, at all.

This guy hates being stuck in traffic more than you do.

“The [Harry] Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry.”

“In summary, it’s common for traffic light controllers to speak to each other over a 5.8GHz wireless channel (much like WiFi, but a dedicated frequency) with no cryptography, default usernames and passwords, and well-known and exploitable bugs. Oh boy. And what can we do with that?”

“Apparently, if Obama is using his executive authority to advance a policy House Republicans support, it’s a meritorious exercise of presidential authority; if he uses that same authority to aid a policy they oppose, it’s time to write up articles of impeachment.”

From the “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” department. And by “those”, I mean “us”.

How does an all female Ghostbusters reboot sound to you?

“The share of poor people living in distressed neighborhoods (those with 40 percent poverty or more) grew by nearly 78 percent during the 2000s, writes Brookings fellow Elizabeth Kneebone. And that growth came overwhelmingly in the suburbs.”

You do know that the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance includes protections for pregnant women, right? This is why such protections are needed.

“Yes, you heard that right. Red states Texas and Arizona now have an employee owned and operated *gasp* “socialist” company which can provide groceries at the same or cheaper prices than Wal-Mart.”

RIP, James Brady, former White House press secretary and leading figure of the gun control movement.

More like this, please.

The case for a soda tax.

JK Rowling is a mensch.

Why American doctors might have been the the first to receive experimental anti-Ebola drugs.

From the “If you want to talk the talk, you better walk the walk” department.

Congrats to Becky Hammon, who I’m sure will be a great hire for the Spurs.

All about those stolen email addresses and what those Russian hackers might do with them.

“The Yankees are the Road Runner, who isn’t going to fall into the canyon because he doesn’t look down.”

This is probably not the best way to “prove” that you’re not a racist.

“There’s nothing immoral about taking care of your health. There’s nothing immoral about making the decision to not become a parent before you want to become one. There’s more than one way to understand religion and spirituality and God. I do have belief in God. That’s why I do this work. My belief in God tells me that the most important thing you can do for another human being is help them in their time of need.”

“An aside: the correct thing to do when three murder-eyed, placid-lipped, notoriously temperamental immortals show up on your doorstep in the nude and ask you to rank them in order of beauty is to BEG OFF.”

The subscription model works.

Remembering Mickey Leland, 25 years later.

Happy 70th birthday, Smokey Bear. And yeah, I thought his name was Smokey the Bear, too.

To my fellow WordPress users – check your plugins and make sure they’re up to date.

RIP, Jonathan Vela, a/k/a Aquaman-San Antonio.

“Ebola is exotic, frightening and headline-worthy when the virus surfaces in humans, but it’s not even a blip on the list of the world’s most important killers. If you want to worry about a cause of death, look to car accidents, influenza or even lightning strikes — all are bigger worldwide killers than Ebola.”

LVdP calls out Patrick on debates

You tell him, Leticia.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte

Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Letitica Van de Putte said Thursday that her Republican opponent, Sen. Dan Patrick, has yet to respond to her proposal for a series of debates ahead of the Nov. 4 election.

Van de Putte and Patrick spoke separately at the Texas Association of Broadcasters annual convention in a rare opportunity to see the two candidates address the same audience back to back.

A state senator from San Antonio, Van de Putte used the opportunity before cameras and microphones to reiterate her call for a robust schedule of debates.

She has challenged Patrick, a tea party favorite from Houston, to five debates, part of an aggressive plan to pit the candidates head-to-head in the state’s four largest markets and in the Rio Grande Valley. Neither Patrick nor his team have responded since she laid out the debate proposal more than a week ago, Van de Putte said.

“This is a race where there’s a big difference in candidates … and the people of the state need to hear the candidates,” she said. “He knows my phone number. I’m waiting.”

For a guy that normally loooooooooves the spotlight, Danno sure has been quiet about this.

Patrick, with less than 90 days before voters pick a new lieutenant governor, is showing no public signs of how he plans to respond to Van de Putte’s debate proposal.

The campaign has said it is “working to establish a debate schedule that is respectful to and complementary of the debates agreed to by the gubernatorial candidates.”

On Thursday, Patrick’s team used that more-than-week-old statement to shield itself from media inquiries about Van de Putte’s comments to reporters and in front of the broadcast industry trade group.

Minutes after his speech wrapped up, Patrick and his team zoomed out of the hotel lobby without answering media questions (both speeches were about a half-hour behind schedule).

Patrick did stick around just long enough to declare he has a “Huckabee event to attend” and that “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature.” Then he vanished.

Patrick figures, not without reason, that he has little to gain by actually engaging with Van de Putte, or doing much campaigning at all, really. He’s got the wind at his back and it’s his plan to let it blow him across the finish line. But as Stace reminds us, Lite Guv is a position with real power. The voters deserve a chance to hear what the candidates have to say for themselves. What are you afraid of, Danny?

On beautifying the city for the Super Bowl

Chris Andrews has some thoughts about what Houston should and shouldn’t do in preparation for Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Things More Important Than Beautification Projects to a Super Bowl Visitor

As a sports fan, and through my own experience, I would have to guess that a visitor’s experience in a host city will be impacted mostly by:

1. Transit to and from the game
Transit is where cities as a whole may be the most vulnerable during a Super Bowl, but it will probably be the thing that people will care about the least in terms of their lasting experience as a Super Bowl visitor. Hosting major events can help raise interest in local or regional transit systems, but it can also expose deficiencies in transit planning, as evidenced in New York’s latest Super Bowl hosting. Even the “Mass Transit Super Bowl” could not live up to its name. No matter who you’re cheering for or whether you’re a VIP or tailgate fan, everyone will depend on some form of transit to get to the game. Everyone will get to the game somehow. (Hopefully the NFL will not impose the ridiculous restrictions on travel as they did with New York in 2014). Houston will be tested in 2017, but the yearly testing of the transit system with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo had provided the city a regular opportunity to plan for the influx of transit riders.

(As a note for Houston: If plans to demolish the Astrodome and expand the NRG Park complex take shape before the Super Bowl, transit riders may find themselves walking around a complex of semi-truck loading docks and exhibition halls. The plans of the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo depict “Phase 2” of their NRG Park expansion and Astrodome demolition as having additional exhibition halls and a new parking garage, which stand between NRG Stadium, the NRG Astrodome and the METRO light rail. Surely the Texas, the Rodeo and Gensler, the architecture, planning and design firm responsible for creating this plan, can do better to serve their visitors. I give them the benefit of the doubt for allowing transit riders to navigate through the exhibition halls, but this is not depicted or considered on their renderings.)

2. Stadium and official event venues
In order to even be considered to host the Super Bowl, your city needs to have an updated stadium. Official event venues typically have sponsors who are keenly aware of their image. It can be expected that at a minimum your host stadium will be appealing and will contain updated amenities.

3. Private event venues
Private party events surrounding the Super Bowl can create just as much of a buzz as the game itself. Sometimes tickets to these events can cost as much as game tickets. With the exclusivity of these VIP events, there can be no doubt that visitors will not be let down by their design or conditions.

4. The teams involved
If you’re a die-hard fan of either team that is playing in the Super Bowl, I would venture to guess that nothing short of seeing your team on that field will matter much. Sure, newly landscaped medians or pocket parks may be nice to look at as you walk inside the stadium, but unless you are an urbanist, these improvements will likely be lost on you as you enter the stadium and see your team on the field.

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. Andrews noted a Chron story from a few days back about the creation of a “Stadium Park Redevelopment Authority” to bankroll some improvement projects via private donations; it was tagged when it first came up on Council’s agenda, though I presume it passed but was swallowed up in the Uber/Lyft news this week. He thinks overall we’re taking the right approach, and certainly after the recent Brazil World Cup and Russia Winter Olympics debacles, I think we can all be happy we’re not committing to a bunch of new construction that won’t have any obvious use after the event is over. As far as transit is concerned, having the Southeast and Harrisburg lines in place (even if the latter may not be fully complete as well as Metro bus reimagining in place should be helpful. If we get some roadwork done and some sidewalks improved by then as well, so much the better. Via Lisa Gray.

More on the Postal Service as financial service provider

I still think it’s a good idea, and so do a lot of other people.

The Postal Banking Consumer Survey [PDF] asked more than 1,600 consumers, many of whom do not have access to traditional banking services, whether or not USPS should enter the banking arena.

Most consumers, about 63%, reported that the addition of services, such as bill paying, check cashing, and small-dollar loans, would not matter to them.

However, a majority, about 58%, of consumers support the argument that providing financial services at USPS branches would expand access to safe financial products for low- and middle-income Americans while providing a new sources of revenue for the Postal Service.

Nearly 64% of consumers who identify as using alternative financial services believe the expansion of safe financial services would be beneficial to both consumers and the postal service.

Conversely, only 32% of those surveyed said they believe that providing financial services at Postal Service branches would divert resources from mail delivery and give the government-run Postal Service an unfair advantage over privately-run companies that already offer financial services.

“There is a market here but it’s limited,” Alex Horowitz, research officer for Pew Charitable Trusts, says. “When we look at people who already are using alternative services it changes. There is quite a bit of interest for lower-cost services among those who already use alternative services.”

[…]

Consumers who currently use alternative financial services were more likely to use lower-cost services though their local post office branch.

Nearly 46% would use check-cashing, 27% would purchase prepaid cards, 46% would use bill-pay services and 41% would consider payday loans through the postal service.

See here for the background. We all know that payday lenders are a big issue for a lot of people, but so are things like check cashing services, mostly because of the large fees they charge. The point of this idea is that the Postal Service could be a lower cost provider of conveniences like check cashing and bill paying. Another advantage of using the USPS for this is that there are post offices everywhere.

The USPS Office of Inspector General first made the case for expanding into financial services this January, calling itself “well positioned” to meet the needs of underserved Americans. It didn’t take long for the idea to garner attention from high-profile legislators like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass), who joined other lawmakers and experts at a Pew conference Wednesday to debate the merits and pitfalls.

There’s consensus on the easy part: the problem. Most people agree that an astounding number of Americans live outside the mainstream financial system and this often has a negative impact on their financial lives and futures. In total, they comprise a quarter of US households and spend tens of billions on fees and interest each year. To put this in perspective, Warren likes to point out that these Americans spend as much money on financial services as they do on food, which is to say they spend $2,412 a year per household, or roughly 10% of their income.

Clearly the big question that remains is whether the post office is the right vehicle for delivering change.

Postal services in dozens of other countries, including Japan, Switzerland and the UK, already do it. Many make big money from it. The USPS itself offered a savings program for over fifty years, but discontinued it in 1967.

One thing the post office has going for it is an extensive brick-and-mortar network, with over 30,000 locations in nearly every zip code. While there are three times as many bank branches, they don’t cover as many zip codes. In Montana, as in many rural places, “you can find yourself more than 75 miles from the nearest bank branch,” but close to two or three post offices, says Pew’s Clint Key. There’s a term for this: bank desert. Indeed, Pew found that 10% of census tracts (neighborhoods, essentially) don’t have a bank branch within five miles, but most do have a post office close by.

The problem is getting worse, not better, for America’s underserved families. Since 2008, 93% of bank branch closings have been in zip codes with below-national median household income levels. Meanwhile, banks have been opening branches in areas with median incomes above $100,000.

The post office also touts its trusted brand, saying consumers who walk in to any location would know they were getting safe, simple financial products. A Pew finding shows that 71% of people view the US Postal Service favorably, compared to 9% for payday lenders, 21% for check cashiers and 56% for banks.

“This is an opportunity for the post office to use its space and its employees more efficiently to bring needed services to more Americans,” said Warren.

If the post office were to get into banking, it wouldn’t just be out of the goodness of its heart. It estimates a revenue of $8.9 billion each year. If true, this is a big deal for an agency in crisis. The post office loses money every year. Thanks to the internet, mail volume has plunged 22% over the last five years. Meanwhile, the USPS is struggling with a Congressional edict that it pre-fund employee benefits.

“This is an existential crisis,” said James Gattuso, senior research fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation.”The postal service needs a new line of business.”

Sure seems like a good fit all around. Getting into the short-term loans business is another matter, as it’s inherently risky and would require Congressional approval, which these days is nigh impossible to achieve. Still, this has the potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people. It’s worth serious consideration.