Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Happy Pride Day!

Monday, June 30th, 2014

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into federal law. The landmark bill outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Fifty years later — in 2014 — fair-minded individuals are still working in cities and states across the United States to extend civil protections to every American, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation:

  • In May, Houston City Council and Mayor Annise Parker adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) which bans discrimination in housing and employment among 14 characteristics – including protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • In June, federal judges struck down same-sex marriage bans in Utah, Kentucky, and Wisconsin.
  • In the decade since Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex marriages in 2004, the practice has become legal in 18 more states.

I like how President Barack Obama said it recently:

When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free.

Our Montrose neighborhood has been inclusive and gay-friendly since the 1980s, and still hosts Houston’s annual Pride festival and parade on a Saturday in mid-June. When the girls woke from good, long, 3-cycle (2:15) naps, we could already hear the music, five blocks away. Auntie Emily was in town, and we decided to wander over to Westheimer and check things out.


As we walked toward Westheimer, mingling with other festival-goers, we got lots of smiles, a couple of winks, and even a “go, girl!” It dawned on me that the four of us looked the part of a happy, non-traditional family. We could do worse!

Auntie Emily and Cate

Mama Bob and Sam

On Westheimer, we encountered couples in matching bikinis, individuals wearing fairy wings, vendors hawking loads of rainbow gear, and scantily-clad dancers.

But, it was hot and loud and both Cate and Sam looked daunted. Just as I started to propose we walk home again, we were rescued by Lyle Bento, the sous chef of the award-winning restaurant, Underbelly. He asked us if the girls needed some water, paused, and then proposed ice cream. We accepted, and he returned a few minutes later with the fanciest push pops I’ve ever encountered: vanilla and chocolate ice cream, chocolate brownie, and fresh blueberries, emerging gracefully from a sleek plastic sleeve. Thank you, Lyle!

On the way home, Cate and Sam both stopped to splash in the dolphin fountain next to Lamar Park.

Cate splashing in the dolphin’s spray

Sam splashing in the dolphin’s spray

I don’t know whether or when the Supreme Court will finally declare marriage bans unconstitutional. And I don’t know whether the Texas Legislature will act to expand marriage rights to all individuals without federal intervention. But I hope that by the time our girls and their peers are old enough to start choosing partners, that any two consenting adults will have the right to love and marry and raise children. It would be cool if Pride celebrations could morph into cultural events without the need to be a political rallying cry. In the meantime, happy Pride Day!

Houston City Hall

Little outing: voting on election day

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Sleep deprivation is a ubiquitous affliction of new parents… at least the ones of us who don’t have full-time help. The most-affordable remedy is to sleep whenever the babies sleep, and on Tuesday, that’s what I did. In fact, I kept going back to sleep until 2:00 pm!

At that point, we fed the girls, and then Bill went out to run errands, leaving me free to contemplate (what was left of) my day. It eventually dawned on me that it was November 8 and election day.

As a civic activist the last seven years, I’ve been interested in and sometimes worked to influence city elections. As a new parent, I know that school board elections need my attention, too. Proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution should almost always be opposed, though they almost always pass anyway.

This year, I had no attention to spare for electoral races, beyond putting out yard signs for my friends David and Ellen. Nonetheless, as Tuesday afternoon turned to evening, we couldn’t quite accept the prospect of not voting.

So even though we had to interrupt feeding time to do it, we bundled the girls into the car and raced the three blocks to Grace Lutheran. We arrived just as Toby, our neighbor and election volunteer, was preparing to close the doors. But we managed to squeak in and vote just before 7:00 pm.

Ellen won her race handily with an outright majority. David did well but not well enough to make it into a runoff. But we’re glad we went because we want to teach Cate and Sam that participating in our democracy is important.

Sam getting the second half of her dinner

p.s. At just four weeks old, the girls have minimal control of their extremities, so this gesture was just a coincidence. However, Bill chose to take it as editorial commentary on our interrupting Sam’s dinner.

Rick Perry and the American Family Association

Monday, July 11th, 2011

If you have access to HBO, you may have heard satirist Bill Maher lambaste would-be Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry during his weekly New Rules segment. Perry has recently been advocating prayer as an effective tactic to address public policy challenges:

Yes, our state executive has rented the 70,000 seat Reliant stadium to co-host a day of prayer and fasting on August 6, 2011. To co-host, he chose the Mississippi-based so-called American Family Association, which advocates against gay rights. As the Houston Chronicle reports, Perry’s day of prayer is drawing protests from religious and cultural groups alike.

I was mortified when I read about this in the paper, as I often am when I read about our governor. But beyond wondering whether St. Stephen’s would participate in the counter event, I did nothing. I lack the energy to take on any new causes, and I quickly blew it off. But now in the last week, in a weird confluence of events, I’ve somehow ended up on the American Family Association’s action alert email list:

  • The first email said, “Tell Congress to say “No!” to increasing the debt ceiling,” and rants about how we should just cut spending.
  • The second email accused Department of Veterans Affairs officials at the Houston National Cemetery of committing “outrageous actions of religious hostility and censorship” by monitoring funerals to ensure that religious individuals do not inflict their religious messages on other families who are burying their loved ones.

Based on Bill’s explanation in his essay on why the debt ceiling matters, I’m not excited by the first alert. Given that I’m a not-super-religious individual and wouldn’t want anyone inflicting their religion on me in a time of grief, I’m not very sympathetic to the second alert, either. And I won’t support any organization that’s opposed to equal rights for all individuals, including gays. Frankly, I’m bewildered how I ended up on their email list. But though I’m vaguely curious what they’ll rant about next, it’s time to unsubscribe.

Update: I wondered whether St. Stephen’s would react to Governor Perry’s exclusionary prayer event, and I’ve just learned that we are! An interfaith coalition from several institutions is pulling together “The Challenge” as an inclusive counter event on August 6, and its organizers are meeting weekly at St. Stephen’s. Gosh, I respect my church!

Bill on why the debt ceiling matters…

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Reposted from Facebook

I suspect most of the people to whom I am linked on Facebook will understand, at least broadly, the idea that the Federal Government not raising the debt ceiling is a bad idea. However, beyond the idea of “we need to keep the government open” or “we need to pay people’s social security,” many may not really understand why. Let me attempt to help out in a reasonably non-technical way.

A trip down history lane

The US Constitution, for all of its longevity and power, has a few very specific provisions in it, and one of those is the idea that spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives. The founding fathers did this because they wanted to ensure that the officials most responsible for authorizing the expenditure of the nation’s treasure were the ones who were most accountable to the people whose efforts and labors paid for it. Thus, if the House of Representatives started spending money in ways that were disliked by their constituents, they would hear it most quickly and most readily at the ballot box.This idea, of being directly accountable to the people, is a good one in theory. In theory, the House would be good stewards of the purse strings, constantly working to spend responsibly and raising sufficient taxes to pay for it all. Unfortunately, the ink was not even dry on the parchment before the nation’s first great debt crisis was upon us. As most of us remember from way back in the days of yore (aka High School Civics class), our current government is actually our nation’s second. The first government, the one that carried us through the War of Independence, did not really work all that well. There was a lot of squabbling over how the war should be conducted, how monies should be spent, and which businesses in which states should get which procurement contracts. In short, it looked a lot like the modern Congress, just with wigs.

Like our modern congress, the Continental Congress ran up a big foreign debt that was used for such trivial expenses as paying troops, buying guns and ensuring that farmers received compensation for putting food in the bellies of the people fighting the Redcoats — nothing serious like ethanol subsidies, bridges to nowhere and federal buildings named after themselves. While the Continental Army was successful (with a generous dollop of help from the French), the war was expensive and the United States were deep in debt to foreign countries. Unlike today, the United States economy was not “too big to fail”, so while many people were of a mind to tell the current bond holders to “stuff it”, the Constitution specifically acknowledged the prior debt (Article Six). What was a newly minted legislature to do?Up until the Civil War and the introduction of the income tax, the Federal Government operated in an environment where it was basically always short on cash. Given its limited ability to tax and the ascendancy of “States Rights”, few people really wanted to lend a lot of money to the government, so the Federal Government was a much smaller portion of our total economy than it is today. It still did some important things, but the specter of debt and borrowing was always front-and-center in the political landscape (not like today where the “Ways and Means” committee — aka Taxes — is separate and distinct from the “Appropriations” committee — aka spending). This state of affairs lasted basically up until the butcher’s bill came due for the major issue not dealt with by the Constitution: slavery. With the Civil War, the Federal Government needed money. It needed a lot of it, and it needed it fast. Welcome to the income tax. Oh, and before you get all nostalgic for the other side, they did something much more harmful to their economy since they didn’t like taxes: they printed money. A lot of it. So much, in fact, that a Confederate Dollar in November of 1864 in Houston was worth 1/50th of what it was in September of 1861. In fact, inflation had gotten so far out of hand that the Confederacy had to basically wipe away one third of its money by the middle of 1864 and issue new bills. Setting aside the moral environment in the south, think about how disruptive it would have been to your family and livelihood if the value of your money had suddenly been reduced by a third. But let’s not dwell on a possible future.

The Marshall Plan

From the Civil War to the end of World War 2, the United States experienced both a significant growth in the total size of its economy and also in the sophistication of its economy. We were blessed with a few unique attributes (large land mass, abundant natural resources, rapidly growing population) right as the industrial revolution got into full-swing. By the time of World War I, the US was the world’s largest economy. By the end of World War 2, the US was the only remaining undamaged economy among the then-developed nations. Into this vacuum stepped the Marshall Plan. With the Marshall Plan, the US re-built western Europe with the idea that getting their economies back on-track would keep them out of the hands of the Communists. This in turn created a huge demand for American products while also cementing the Dollar as the global currency of foreign trade and finance.

This last bit cannot be understated. Global finance is anchored to the US Dollar. The foundation of modern finance is the “risk free rate”, the market rate that provides the “cost” of money being transferred from people who have excess capital (aka money) to those who need additional capital (you know, money). Just like an airline, there are additional surcharges and fees that get layered on top of this for things like needing the capital over a longer time frame (so-called “duration”), or with a less-than-perfect borrower (“risk premium”), or to lend when the supply of money is increasing (“inflation premium”). In fact, modern finance is largely the systematic effort to identify, quantify and exploit sources of risk over and above the risk free rate.For its primary goal, most scholars agree that the Marshall Plan was a huge success. The US had economic dominance over the global economy for about 20 years from 1945 to about 1965. However, as the Vietnam War escalated, the US economy was somewhat diverted to the “guns” side of the “guns vs. butter” tradeoff, while the economies of Japan and Western Europe started to really get back on track.

Blowing sunshine in America

With Vietnam, the Great Society and a couple of oil shocks, a persistent but minor fiscal deficit began its metamorphosis into a significant structural problem. By the time the last of the celebratory champagne was drunk from Ronald Reagan’s trouncing of Walter Mondale, the deficit — the amount of money by which tax revenues lag expenditures — was running over $300 billion per year. And this was from a Republican President who, in 1980, railed against a Democratic one for running $60 billion a year in deficits.While the Laffer Curve has some very important insights into economic behavior, it ultimately represents a testable hypothesis, not an ironclad law. What’s more, it’s alleged test of lowering taxes rates in order to raise total tax revenue (something like a price elasticity for taxes) was conducted during a period of extreme Keynesian stimulus (e.g., the massive military buildup during Reagan). A couple of trillion dollars later, Reagan was effectively able to bankrupt the Soviet Union and its support network for its satellite countries, but before we could say, “peace dividend”, we were in the first of three successive wars in the Middle East.Of course, those of a Progressive leaning will want to offer up that during the Clinton presidency, the Federal Government ran a surplus. I suspect, in fact, that current politicians are looking at the Clinton-Gingrich showdown over the federal budget as a blueprint for the current debt ceiling fiasco. Unfortunately, actual data does not support the proposition of surpluses. Yes, Clinton did a LOT better than his immediate predecessors, but if you look at total borrowing, the national debt still increased each year under Clinton. Why the discrepancy?Much like when Regan’s economic team added the armed forces to the ranks of the employed, Clinton’s economic team included social security taxes as current taxes without recognizing any sort of long-term liability to offset the revenues. This would be the same as an insurance company taking in policy premiums for life insurance, but not booking any sort of expense against those revenues for the policies on which they expected to pay out. It may be great press, but it’s bad accounting.

Hitting the gas

With the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and related financial shenanigans, coincidental with the felling of the World Trade Center towers, and the subsequent wars in the Middle East, the US economy was effectively rescued from what should have been a massive recession and war-time footing by the Bush administration’s request to “go shopping”. With nominal deficits running $500 billion per year, a Republican administration again effectively pulled a page out of the Keynesian playbook, using large deficits to fund increases in government spending.

While Conservatives are quick to talk about the jobs created during Bush’s early years that coincided with decreases in marginal tax rates, they oddly seem to ignore that they did this without coming anywhere close to balancing the budget. It’s as if they think that saying “tax cuts creates jobs” enough times will make it true. Yes, there are ways to make tax cuts improve job growth, but blanket tax cuts aren’t it. You also need to cut spending by a like amount to make the Laffer Curve argument stick. That hasn’t been done — ever.

Instead, we have done the economic equivalent of “hitting the gas”. When the economy stopped responding to the existing stimulus (deficit), we just borrowed and spent even more. While this is good for near-term economic growth, it does so at the expense of long-term prospects (in economic terms, you are pulling demand forward). What’s even more interesting is that with the increased debt load, you add more risk into the economy since a greater proportion of income goes into debt service (i.e., interest payments). Where this truly goes astray is that with the greater risk, comes a greater requirement to ensure the economy continues growing. To continue growing the economy requires greater stimulus, and greater stimulus requires greater borrowing. In effect, what we have created, we, the voters, is a treadmill which is ever-increasing. Stopping will be painful, but the current “Great Recession” shows us just a taste of what life could be like once the treadmill breaks. We must responsibly slow things down…

Full faith and credit

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. The lack of basic economic literacy evidenced in the mass media appalls me. In the broader population, it is worse. I’ve spent a large number of paragraphs talking about the history of our debt, with only some tangential asides about why increasing the debt limit matters. Fundamentally, the issue with the United States government not being able to roll-over its debt and to increase its borrowings to meet its Congressionally-authorized (mandated) spending levels is two-fold:

First, is the damage it would do to global finance. As mentioned before, all of global finance rests on the idea of a risk-free rate of return. For good or ill, what bankers the world over have used for decades as a proxy for the risk-free rate are US Treasury Bills and Bonds. For these to come into question means a) finding an alternate risk-free asset, and b) re-pricing EVERY security based upon the new risk-free rate. This would be hugely tumultuous with credit markets seizing up while people tried to figure out which currency, asset or commodity might represent the best proxy for a riskless asset (Gold? The Euro? Oil? All seem to have upsides and downsides…).

Second, not raising the debt ceiling is the economic equivalent of “going cold turkey”. It is one way to break an addiction, but depending upon the drug and the depth of the addiction, the consequences of this can be worse, physiologically, than the addiction itself. Given the decades upon decades of deficit stimulus under which the US economy has been addicted, to remove such stimulus suddenly would not just invite recession, it would guarantee a significant depression. Imagine, people who had business built serving the federal government seeing their accounts receivable extended and order books slashed, people who rely on social security seeing their benefits cut, people whose businesses rely on either of those two markets see a softening of their business, etc. The primary effects would be bad enough, but macroeconomics is filled with the concept of a “multiplier” – the effects on secondary and tertiary markets away from the primary one. In other words, the ripple effects, as they are often called, would be more like tsunamis.

Not good.

Any one of these two primary effects would be disastrous enough. If one combines them, and multiplies them, then the result would be catastrophic. It would take us decades, as a global economy, to sort out the pieces. There would be winners, but there would be a lot of losers. Yes, we need to overhaul our spending priorities and taxation policy (less of the one, more of the other — pain for everyone), but we don’t need to do it in a way that threatens our economy so quickly after facing the brink of disaster. Please urge your congressman to do the right thing or do what the Founding Fathers intended and find another Congressman who will.

Should we set aside habitat for sea polar bears?

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

While I have a strong personal desire never to encounter a bear up close and personal, I do think bears are awesome creatures that should continue to exist. Live and let live. I even like sea polar bears despite their tendency to eat penguins.

sea polar bear family
A family of sea polar bears, photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife

But the ability of sea polar bears to survive in the wild is in jeopardy because the arctic ice where they live is melting away. Regardless of whether you believe the seas are warming because of human-caused climate change, sun-caused radiation, cow-caused methane, or any other reason, the ocean is inarguably warming, and that’s leaving fewer places for sea polar bears to live. (Ocean warming is also jeopardizing fish stocks, coral, other ocean life forms, and tending to strengthen hurricanes that devastate coastal human habitats, but that rant will have to wait for a different blog entry.)

Sea polar bears (Ursus maritimus) were added to the threatened and endangered species list last year; two of the 19 remaining populations have just 2,000 to 3,000 bears left. Worldwide, there are less than 25,000 polar bears remaining.

However, under the Bush Administration, the Secretary of Interior failed to designate critical territory for the bears as required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. According to this New York Times article, the US Fish & Wildlife Service is now proposing to set aside critical habitat for sea polar bears in Alaska and adjacent US territorial waters/ice.

polar bear territory
Polar bear range map courtesy of the New York Times

Designating this habitat as critical will mean that Fish & Wildlife must be consulted to make sure future federal agency activities do not destroy or adversely modify areas essential to polar bears. It will affect any action authorized, funded, or carried out by a federal agency that occurs anywhere in the 200,000 square mile area. Private land owners and private actions will not be affected.

Nonetheless, the state government of Alaska and several businesses are opposing this proposal because they argue that it will limit oil and gas operations and hurt Alaska’s economy. Personally, I’m not moved. I’m more concerned about protecting the bears.

submit commentsThe US Fish & Wildlife service is accepting public comments regarding the proposal through midnight on Monday, Dec 28, 2009. If you would like the government to protect habitat for polar bears, one option is to go sign the Sierra Club petition.

But I encourage you to visit the official US Fish & Wildlife docket in the portal, where you can submit your comments directly (docket FWS-R7-ES-2009-0042).

You can also mail comments on paper to:

Public Comments Processing Attn: FWS-R7-ES-2009-0042
Division of Policy and Directives Management
US Fish and Wildlife Service
ARLINGTON VA 22203-1610

Bike Around the Bay: Bolivar Needs a New Fairy

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Godmother, that is. At the beginning of Bike Around the Bay, one of the announcers mentioned that we would be riding through some places that were still struggling to recover from Ike. That would be Bolivar, especially the part northeast of Rollover Pass (a cut through the peninsula linking the bay to the gulf).

This area was hit most directly by the force of Hurricane Ike. There are lots of places where you can tell there was something there, and there are lots of places where things are being rebuilt, and lots of  places that seem to be caught in some sort of purgatory in between — neither being demolished nor fixed. Very little of the peninsula is anywhere close to “normal”. I think Crystal Beach (?) comes closest, though place names were a little shaky given the signage that was still being installed in a few places and my inability to take notes. However, a year gone by, and clearly that is an area that is still trying to figure out what it is going to do next.

The local billboard advertising industry seems to be entirely driven by people wanting to help other people out with various storm-related claims: insurance, government, building issues, etc. There were two open gas stations that I can recall, though three or four were in various states of disrepair/destruction. I don’t recall seeing a real grocery store, though there was a brand new school.

This last was what causes me to highlight this aspect of the ride. Given that insurance rates are going through the proverbial roof and lenders are going to be very unwilling to lend into areas with a “challenged” valuation environment for the foreseeable future, I am not sure that the best course of action for Bolivar isn’t to spend some of the funds earmarked for recovery on turning significant portions of the peninsula into State or National Park/Seashore. Getting people out of harm’s way in a vaguely permanent fashion seems to me to be the best course of action for the area. The problem is that some politicians are intent to let people rebuild as if nothing had happened. While no doubt well-intentioned, I’m not sure that this is the type of fairy godmother the area needs.

Time will ultimately tell whether the economy and larger market forces cause the area’s depopulation to become more permanent, but I sure hope that when I ride through the area next year it is either much improved (more populous) or the signs of rebuilding have given way to something that indicates that it is being given back to nature. Somehow, though, I doubt that either will really be happening.

Car Shopping, Near and Pharr, pt. 1

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

As Bob mentions, below, about two weeks ago, we actually took the Jimmy over to Mark at Downtown Auto to see what was making a “gurgling” noise in the engine compartment. The answer turned out to be a small crack in the radiator that was leaking coolant as the temperatures got hotter.

cracked radiator

The cost of the fix, like so many before it? $500. New alternator? $500. New water pump? $500. Brakes? $500. New tires? $500. Engine? $2,000. Whoops. That last one was my bust.

$650 vs. $4500? Seems like a no-brainer.

About this time, we actually started paying attention to the newly-launched “Car Allowance Rebate System”, aka “CARS”, aka “Cash for Clunkers”. The idea behind this program was straightforward: car dealerships are sitting on five months of unsold inventory, many of the cars that people own get pretty poor gas mileage, so give people a fairly stiff incentive to trade in old cars for new, higher-mileage ones. You reduce emissions and energy consumption while helping to resolve the glut of inventory on dealers’ lots and provide a minor fillip to the auto industry that has received so much cash from the federal government. It’s actually a fairly good idea in concept. In practice, a lot was left to be desired, but that had more to do with the levels at which the incentives were set ($3500 and $4500) and its ensuing popularity, more than anything else.

Here are the qualifications for a “clunker”:

  • Had to have a combined EPA mileage rating of 18 mpg or less when new,
  • The vehicle must have clear title and have been insured in the buyer’s name for a year, and
  • You must drive the vehicle onto the dealer’s lot.

Seems pretty simple, so far, right? The entertainment comes when you try to find a qualifying new vehicle:

  • For a “category 1 truck” (like the Jimmy), the new car had to have a minimum EPA combined mileage rating of 2 miles per gallon more than the retiring vehicle,
  • In order to receive the full $4500, the trade-in vehicle has to beat the retiring vehicle by 5 mpg or more, and
  • You can’t move up a size class.

So, in other words, if we wanted to maximize the value of the Jimmy as a trade-in, we basically needed to find a fuel efficient small SUV, typically a 4 cylinder, or go with a car. One of the odd disincentives of the program, though, was that a car had to beat the trade-in by 10 mpg to qualify for the full amount. So, one was actually penalized a touch going with a more fuel efficient choice, but in a different category. Definitely not a perfect plan, but the spirit of the endeavor definitely influenced our thinking. The contenders:

  • Toyota RAV4 – I wanted the V6, which got only 1 mpg worse than the 4 cylinder. Consumer Reports #2 compact SUV.
  • Subaru Forester – Subaru spent enough money sponsoring the Tour de France on TV that I felt like we owed Subaru a look. It didn’t hurt that this was Consumer Reports’ #1 rated small SUV, Motortrend’s “SUV of the Year” for 2009 and a recommended small SUV from Car and Driver.
  • Subaru Outback – New for 2010 (read: no incentives), and the next size up from the Forester.
  • Honda CR-V – A perpetual contender against the RAV4. Honda’s reputation for quality seems to be slipping on some models, though this one generally gets high marks.
  • Nissan Rogue – A model I hadn’t known much about, but highly rated by both Consumer Reports and Car and Driver.
  • Volkswagen Tiguan – New for 2009, this is VW’s late-to-the-game small SUV built on the Golf/Jetta platform, all with 2.0 liter turbocharged 4 cylinder engines. Due to corporate relationships, we get VW cars at dealer invoice (or better). Uknown reliability, though.
  • Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen – A wagon version of the Jetta, much as it sounds. Cheaper than the Tiguan, above. Our nearest VW dealer is less than 4 miles away.

Because of the time of year that it is, August, many dealers would have been trying to clear out their 2009 inventory using discounted pricing and significant incentives from the manufacturers. Volkswagen, in fact, had not only a $1500 customer incentive on the Tiguan that was publicized, but also a $1500 dealer incentive that wasn’t. Subaru just put a straight $3,000 bounty on its top-of-the line 2009 Outback (there was one left in the State — in Georgetown!). So, combine model year-end silliness with an inventory glut with an overly aggressive subsidy scheme, and what do you get? Utter chaos, or Bill and Bob go car shopping, 2009 edition!

Not quite serving on a Harris County jury

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

I was called for jury duty today and spent the day downtown. I have a few observations:

1. District clerk Loren Jackson is a charismatic and clever politician. He showed up to personally greet and thank the assembled potential jurors for our service. Further, he says he makes a point to come every morning and afternoon to do so, which puts his name and face in the minds of 1,000+ Harris Count voters daily. If he keeps that practice up it will assuredly serve him well when he’s up for reelection.

2. Jackson also announced that the County will enable wireless internet access in the jury assembly room in the next few weeks. That will make it easier to do real work while you wait, and he encouraged us to bring our laptops when we come back next time.

3. It bugs me that the judge and others who clearly know the proper French pronunciation of “voir dire” — vwar deer — go along with the Texan bastardization to vor dyer.

4. The cell phone of the potential juror whose phone rang in the courtroom after we had been admonished at least five times to set our phones to vibrate, played the Texas A&M war hymn. The judge, a Texas Longhorn alum, was remarkably tolerant of said Aggie.

5. These items are essential for jury service:

  • Earplugs to tune out 600+ others in the jury assembly room
  • Reading material or other diversions for the long waiting periods
  • Paper and pen(cil) to take notes during juror instruction
  • Jacket or other layer because the new courthouses are extremely well air conditioned (for all the folks running around in suits)
  • Water and snacks for 5-6 hours (because they seem determined to push through voir dire, jury selection, and dismissal of excess jury candidates before breaking for lunch)

6. The contract dispute in question was kind of hard to get excited about. I’m glad that they got 12 jurors before they got to me, and I’m glad they let the rest of us go by 1:30 pm!

Effort vs. Ability

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

The original thought behind a “web log” was to highlight interesting things on the web that you found and to bring it to the attention of the people who read your blog. Sort of like your own personal Yahoo! One of my clipping services brought me a story from The New Yorker that I feel compelled to share.

The article is about a girls’ basketball team in California that went to the national championship tournament basically by playing a full-time press. Anyone who knows anything about basketball knows that a press defense is HARD. It is a tremendous amount of work physically to pull off, and if you let-up, then a skilled team will demolish you easily. You get tired quickly. They score points. You go home. They laugh at your silly attempt to beat them. When it works, though, it works very well.

“My girls were all blond-haired white girls,” Ranadivé said. “My daughter is the closest we have to a black girl, because she’s half-Indian. One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose. They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up something like twenty to zero. We wouldn’t even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get.” Ranadivé shook his head: never, ever raise your voice. “Finally, the ref physically threw him out of the building. I was afraid. I think he couldn’t stand it because here were all these blond-haired girls who were clearly inferior players, and we were killing them.”

There are a few references to Thomas Edward Lawrence, friend of the show, in the article, as well as references to some studies that look interesting but beg scrutiny for selection and measurement biases. The main idea, though, is one familiar to anyone who took one of Cliff Morgan’s classes at Rice. The simple idea is that effort (or “will” as Cliff used to talk about it) trumps raw ability and resources, and that if you really, really want to win, and are willing to work unconventionally to achieve it, then you end up winning an extraordinary percentage of the time. Conversely, if you are a member of the elite and can get your opponents to play you by conventional rules, then the expected outcome happens a significant portion of the time. Something to think about when looking overseas and contemplating such minor things as China’s role in funding the US stimulus package.

Anyway, give it a read.

Honey, we’re out of Senate seats!

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Wow. Just wow. Rod Blagojevich, the soon-to-be former governor of the State of Illinois, has been arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. Given the reported conversations from the wiretaps, apparently putting Rod’s wife on a board of directors for $150k/year was also part of the deal. Of course, recognizing you have a valuable property on your hands is, of course, the first step in actually converting that into cash:

On Nov. 5, federal agents recorded Mr. Blagojevich speaking to an unnamed adviser about the open Senate seat: “I’ve got this thing, it’s [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I’m not just giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I’m not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me there.”
“They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [Expletive] them,” the governor said, according to the affidavit.

Personally, I think the article in the WSJ took a bit of a reprehensible turn with the final closing dig at Louisiana, though:

At the news conference in Chicago announcing the charges, FBI Special Agent Robert Grant noted that “if [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it is one hell of a competitor.”

Louisiana, it is your move…