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October 29th, 2017:

Weekend linkdump for October 29

And the gold medal in pole dancing goes to…

Frank Oz talks Muppets and Little Shop of Horrors.

“Over the past 30 years, food companies like Nestlé, Mars, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey’s — among the world’s biggest producers of chocolate — have poured millions of dollars into scientific studies and research grants that support cocoa science.”

When people said “I read it for the articles”, this is what they were talking about.

“All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist“.

“Over the last century or so, the precise reasoning behind why America fed its students had a strong influence on how we did it. And the rationale has changed more times than you’d think.”

“We do not currently have a clear public vocabulary of civic freedom in the US or a cultural penumbra that surrounds support for the same. We didn’t need them before. Now we do.”

“A ThinkProgress investigation found that fake Twitter accounts run out of Russia had wormed their way into dozens of [media] outlets from across the American political spectrum over the past two years.”

RIP, Paul Weitz, retired NASA astronaut who commanded the first flight of the space shuttle Challenger and also piloted the Skylab in the early 1970s.

RIP, Robert Guillaume, two-time Emmy-winning actor, best known for Benson and Soap.

RIP, Fats Domino, rock and roll pioneer and legend.

An oral history of “The Contest”, the famous “master of my domain” episode of Seinfeld.

This year’s Doctor Who Christmas special will premier in the theaters, and will include the first look at Jodie Whitaker in the title role.

Weird Al Yankovic on the craft of making his polka-fied cover song medleys.

“So now, after a year of revelations on this scandal, it’s worth taking a step back to consider why and how political journalism failed so badly prior to the election.”

RIP, Catherine Nance, a Houston Moms Demand Action activist that I’m sorry I never knew.

Why was Team Trump such easy pickings for Putin?

“Astronomers may have discovered the first interstellar object, a comet or asteroid that’s broken free of another star to pay a visit to our sun.”

Michael Sorrell

Gromer Jeffers of the DMN floats a name for Governor.

Michael Sorrell

On the rugged campus of Paul Quinn College, Michael Sorrell, the school’s president, could be the last hope for Democrats to field a credible candidate to face incumbent Greg Abbott in next year’s governor’s race.

Operatives in the Texas Democratic Party have been trying to persuade Sorrell to be the party’s standard-bearer against Abbott. The talks intensified Oct. 13, the Friday before the Texas-Oklahoma football showdown, when Democrats had another meeting with Sorrell in Dallas. They are hoping that he will agree to submit his paperwork for a campaign when the filing period for the 2018 election opens next month.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Sorrell said recently, realizing that I knew about his talks with Democrats.

Sorrell, 50, is largely unknown throughout Texas and has never run for statewide office. At times, he’s been considered a potential candidate for Dallas mayor and Dallas County judge. He’s managed political campaigns and been a part of various bond efforts in the city of Dallas.

[…]

Many big-name Democrats have said “no” or given the party the “I’ll get back to you” brushoff. They include former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio (Julian’s twin), former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio , Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas and Hill+Knowlton Strategies CEO Jack Martin.

The would-be contenders don’t believe Democrats can beat Abbott next year, and the pessimism could hurt the rest of the ticket. Democrats did get some positive news on Tuesday. Andrew White, the son of the late Gov. Mark White, is exploring a run for governor. The Houston investor told Texas Monthly that he would campaign as a Democrat, but try to appeal to moderate Republican voters.

With White on a listening tour, the only Democrats who have announced bids to challenge Abbott are Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne, former congressional candidate Tom Wakely of San Antonio and former Balch Springs Mayor Cedric Davis. They are all candidates not recruited by party leaders and have little chance of beating Abbott.

Enter Sorrell, a native Chicagoan who has been a part of several successful underdog campaigns, including the 2008 election of former President Barack Obama.

Sorrell is not afraid of Abbott, and because he doesn’t have a political office to forfeit, he has nothing to lose but valuable time away from Paul Quinn College and his family. Education would surely be part of his platform, as Democrats want to pound Abbott and Republicans for not putting enough resources into improving public schools. Known as an innovative leader, Sorrell has improved the facilities, fundraising and curriculum at the historically black private college. Paul Quinn is accredited, and he famously turned the football field into an urban farm. Sorrell would be acceptable to the base of the Democratic Party, though it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to fire up the electorate.

My reaction right now is that I feel the same way about Sorrell as I do about Andrew White, and for that matter Jeffrey Payne and anyone else: I’d like to hear more about who they are, what they stand for, and what they would like to do as Governor. And, you know, that they actually want to run and are committed to winning, however unlikely that is. Payne has crossed that bridge; we’ll see about Sorrell and White and the others. At first glance Sorrell looks mighty impressive, so I hope he is giving this serious consideration. HBCU Digest has more.

JJ Watt announces his plan for Harvey relief funds

This had been much anticipated.

Hurricane Harvey victims, nonprofits and Texans fans alike have been on the edge of their seats to hear what J.J. Watt planned to do with the $37 million he raised for storm relief. As of Thursday, he has a plan.

In a Twitter video posted Thursday afternoon, Watt explained that he will direct the money to focus on four areas: rebuilding homes, restoring child-care centers, distributing food and providing medical and mental health services.

He said he will partner with four charities: SBP: Disaster Resilience & Recovery, which will help with rebuilding homes; Save The Children, which  will help to reestablish child care centers; Feeding America, which will handle food distribution; and Americares, which will help provide medical services.

“While I understand the total recovery from Hurricane Harvey could require upwards of $200 billion, and this $37 million will not be able to help every single person as I so badly wish it could, I have made it my mission to ensure this money makes as large of an impact as possible,” Watt said in a press release that was sent out at the same time as the Twitter video.

[…]

Watt’s foundation has been tight-lipped about the plan for the funds until today, releasing few details and declining media requests until preparations were finalized. More information about the timeline of distributing the funds or opportunities for individuals to apply to receive help were not provided by Watt or his foundation.

According to the press release, the four charities will receive $30.15 million, and the last $7 million will be set aside and be distributed in 2018 for longer-term efforts yet to be announced.

Watt’s fundraising efforts ended in mid-September and in the press release he encouraged people to “continue to find organizations to donate to.”

Local news reports emerged earlier this month of storm victims being able to apply to receive cash from JJ Watt’s foundation. But Amy Palcic, a spokesperson for the Texans who said she’s worked closely with Watt on this effort, said via email that these were incorrect: “there isn’t a mechanism for people to apply for funds and no money has been distributed to date.”

Now that the recipient charities have been announced, it is up to those charities to determine if there will be a way for people to apply for the money being distributed, she added.

The Twitter video is here. Watt had had a much more modest goal for his fundraising, but his star power helped bring a whole lot more to the effort than he had envisioned. That has put a lot of responsibility on him, and he is taking it seriously. I wish him continued success in his efforts.

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

Poker clubs

I wish them luck.

Michael Eakman, a poker aficionado from a very young age, has hosted poker tournaments from around the country, but Texas gambling laws have long shut him out of his own state and his hometown of Houston.

This year, however, he opened the city’s first restricted membership-based poker club, joining several Texas entrepreneurs who believe they have found a way to circumvent those regulations and host everything from friendly poker games to competitive tournaments.

Unlike traditional gambling houses, Mint Poker in southeast Houston does not take a share of any gambled money, referred to as raking the pot. Instead, the club and similar ones across the state charge membership fees for players wanting to play in the club, a business approach that pushes the boundaries of legal gambling.

But so far, Eakman and other entrepreneurs in Austin and north Dallas haven’t drawn any unwanted attention from the Legislature or state regulatory agencies. Their efforts are gaining enough traction that they’re looking to expand. They have formed an association to represent their interest and are hoping to establish more clubs across Texas.

“In our conversations with the city attorney here in our jurisdiction, we made everyone aware of what we were doing before we even signed the lease,” Eakman said. “I certainly don’t want to challenge anyone to bring a court case, but I think at the end of the day we’re handling this by being proactive instead of reactive is the way to do this. … There are no regulations and guidelines other than the narrow scope of a very vague law.” Bingo, horse and dog racetracks, Native American casinos and even the state-run Texas Lottery all provide outlets for Texans trying to test their luck.

[…]

At least three other membership-based poker clubs have opened in addition to the Houston business: Texas Card House with two locations in Austin, and Poker Rooms of Texas in north Dallas. They recently joined forces as the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs, and have begun working with longtime utilities lobbyist Tim VonKennel to represent them within the Texas Legislature, Eakman said.

VonKennel is the father of Texas Card House owner Sam VonKennel, and said he helped organize the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs to increase legislators’ awareness of membership-based poker clubs in Texas.

“The Legislature hasn’t really seen it yet because it hasn’t really existed,” VonKennel said. “As they pop up, I want to make sure the Lege is aware of them. What I would really like to do is get these guys to become licensed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and that way they’re absolutely certain they’re on the right side of the law.”

Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, said he was involved with the creation of membership-based poker in Texas, encouraging Eakman to devise a business model that could clear the hurdles of Texas gambling laws when they met at a poker tournament.

“I think it’s a little hypocritical that we can have a state lottery or horse racing in texas but we can’t let people play poker,” Menendez said.

Basically, as far as I can tell, these things are legal until proven otherwise, which is to say until some law enforcement agency makes an arrest, or until Ken Paxton issues an opinion. The story above appeared a few weeks ago and fell into my drafted-but-never-got-around-to-publishing pile, then I saw this AP story and dug it back up. As noted, while the state has not given an opinion on this sort of thing, local law enforcement has, at least in some places.

On Sept. 7, Dallas police executed a search warrant at CJ’s Card Club on Walnut Hill Lane. Police filed a report alleging the keeping of a gambling place. The case remains under investigation. A department spokeswoman declined to release any further information.

The club has since closed, its website and Facebook page have been shut down, and its operators could not be reached.

Around that same time, Poker Rooms of Texas closed after Plano police questioned the legality of that operation. The club opened late last year in a strip center storefront on Parker Road off Independence Parkway. It reportedly attracted scores of players each night.

Its website states that it “is working with local authorities to resolve operational issues.” Its owners did not return messages.

The website for Lucky’s Card Room in Fort Worth says the club is temporarily closed while it works on a new location. And the site for TopSet Poker Club in Plano stated that its grand opening, formerly set for September, has been delayed while it considers options in light of problems identified at similar businesses.

Big Texas Poker Club opened in late August in a commercial building off Jupiter Road in Plano. Owners Fred and Heather Zimmerman said they did their homework to ensure that they would be legal. Three weeks later, they shut down to avoid arrest.

“This is a legitimate business, and it’s better than illegal poker rooms,” Fred Zimmerman said.

The couple said they were transparent about their club as they sought a city permit to open. Only after they started gaining members did they receive “threatening letters” from police stating that their business model violated the state’s gambling law.

Plano City Attorney Paige Mims said certificates of occupancy are about the fitness of a building and have nothing to do with the activity inside. As for whether a private card room can operate, she said the city does not give legal advice.

Police spokesman David Tilley declined to go into details about his department’s conversations with the poker rooms. “Gambling is illegal in the state of Texas,” he said.

In other words, if you have a favorite spot to play Texas Hold’Em, don’t get too attached to it. I should note that there was an effort in the 2009 legislative session to carve out a legal exception for poker, but it didn’t make it. If there’s been a similar effort since then, I’m not aware of it; that one had a social media/PR push behind it and there’s been no such thing in subsequent sessions. The legislator who filed the pro-poker bill back then was then-Rep., now-Sen. Jose Menendez, who as you can see still supports the idea. Like I said, I wish these guys luck. I’m not a poker player myself, but I see no reason not to let ’em play.