2/02/2002

One month in Well, I started this thing a month ago. Didn't know how long I'd be able to keep it up, didn't know if I'd run out of things to say or would find it a chore. So far, it's been mostly fun and a lot easier than I thought to find things to say. As a bonus, I've had the pleasure of hearing from a few other bloggers, both local and elsewhere. And I must say, being cited favorably by another blog is a bigger kick than I thought it would be.

I've written a lot more about politics than sports, which surprises me somewhat. Guess there hasn't been all that much on the sports pages that was moved me to comment. I'm sure that will vary over time.

Anyway, I'm happy with what I've done so far and hope to keep it going for as long as I can.
Speaking of sports... The ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll for men's college basketball is smaller by one today. Seems Utah coach Rick Majerus had been delegating his voting duties to an assistant, and said assistant had been voting for the Temple Owls, who currently stand at 6-12. According to Majerus, the unnamed assistant was "unaware" of Temple's poor record this year.

Okay, let's take a closer look at this. First of all, the guy had Temple at #9 this week. I can understand a throwdown #25 vote, but how can you claim that a team is one of the top ten and not know what their record is? Even worse, this vote wasn't a one-time thing. Temple had been getting votes since December 23, when they were 3-7. Even more damning, they had been climbing in the polls. That means this guy had voted them higher every week, again without knowing their record.

It's easy to make fun of the "computer geeks" who rank teams by complicated formulas, but at least they always know how many games each team has won and lost, and against whom. I understand that Majerus had family problems that caused him to delegate his vote in the first place, but frankly if he didn't have the time for it - even to check what his assistant was doing in his name - he should have asked to be relieved of the duty. Since he didn't as far as I'm concerned he should never be burdened with this responsibility again.
And back to politics Score one for the Harris County Democrats, as a ruling from the 14th Court of Appeals knocks out a GOP challenger for the 270th District Court bench. I still think that technicalities should not eliminate otherwise legitimate ballot applicants, but the court's ruling that "it is not unfair to require a candidate who files for office and swears that the application is correct to bear the consequences for an error of application" is certainly reasonable.

2/01/2002

Covering Houston, take two Salon tries again to capture Houston's mood in the post-Enron collapse. While this article is a lot closer to reality than their cringe-worthy first attempt, it still felt off to me.

I don't deny that the free-market deregulation worship that Katharine Mieszkowski describes exists, and is even rather prevalent. Houston is indeed the land of no zoning and free-for-all suburban sprawl. Houston is also a very big place with a large and diverse population. As such, anyone who tries to capture its essence in a four-page article is going to make a bunch of sweeping generalizations about it that are going to be flat wrong for a lot of its residents.

I grew up in Staten Island, New York. Staten Island is a part of New York City, but its small size (compared to the other boroughs), relative isolation, and suburban feel make it a very different place. I often got annoyed when I'd hear someone say something or other was "quintessential New York" or "definitive New York" because they were seldom describing anything resembling my reality. To put it another way, New York is as much The King of Queens, Crooklyn , and Working Girl as it is Seinfeld and Sex and the City.

It's the same sort of thing in Houston. We have snooty old money (River Oaks) and snooty new money (Memorial), too cool (and expensive) for you downtown lofts, gentrifying neartown neighborhoods like the Heights and Montrose that are struggling to retain aspects of their past identities as hippie and gay areas, a large variety of ethnic and minority enclaves, the more rural areas down south and out east near the refineries, and on and on. In addition, a lot of us here now weren't here during the 80s boom and bust, myself included. I'm sure it makes for a boring story, but if author Mieszkowski had looked, she'd have found a bunch of people with no memory of or interest in the psychological baggage she talks about.

UPDATE: This time Ginger was harsher than I was. That's two Premium subscribers you've pissed off, Salon. We deserve better.
Give me options An interesting opinion piece on the nature of alternative political parties and restricted ballot access. The writer, a Libertarian, makes the case that freer access to ballots would not necessarily weaken the traditional parties:

Mark Rutherford, chairman of the Indiana Libertarian Party, offered another angle. "If the Democrats want to weaken the efforts of the Green Party in Indiana, in a perverse way, easier ballot access might do that. It will cause Greens to focus less on statewide organization, and more on candidates, which will splinter their efforts and effectiveness." He pointed out that tough ballot access rules have actually helped organize and motivate the Libertarians, who have more elected officeholders than all the other alternative parties combined.

Rutherford was quick to add a counterpoint: "The more names on the ballots, the more issues are raised; and all the candidates then become more focused to the needs and desires of the voters. This is good for the astute Democrat and Republican who picks this up, and steals the issue from the Libertarian."

I've generally been agnostic on this issue, as I find that alternative parties tend to be fringe and single-issue types who are boring at best, but I think he's on to something. It's certainly the case that reasonable ballot access laws are in line with the spirit of our democracy. Call me a convert on this issue.
Score one against term limits The state of Idaho has repealed its term limits law, becoming the first state to do so. I'm genuinely shocked that the mostly Republican state legislature did so over the veto of the Republican governor. Term limits were a rallying cry for the GOP in 1994, so to say the least the party has made quite a turnaround. Of course, the issue does lose some luster when it's your guys who are in office, but still.

We all know the arguments against term limits. Here's one that hadn't really occurred to me before:

Party leaders say [...] term limits take away critical experience from government, especially in rural areas where many small towns have struggled to fill local offices.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad they did it. I hope this encourages local leaders to push for a repeal of Houston's moronic term limits law.

1/31/2002

Don't throw me in the briar patch! Glenn Reynolds says:

15 KIDS AND ADULTS WERE INJURED, SOME CRITICALLY, AT A SCHOOL in Los Angeles, as a car veered into a crowd. It was a Mercedes. Will we hear calls for "car control," and explanations that "no one needs" a car with "that much power"?

I have to say, it baffles me when gun-freedom advocates invoke cars as a metaphor for guns. Consider that in order to drive, one must have passed a driver's-education class, be licensed by the state, and carry liability insurance for any damage you may cause while operating your vehicle. In addition, your car must be registered by the state and must pass an annual inspection to ensure that it is in safe driving condition. You must prove that you are licensed and insured in order to buy a car. Finally, the state can revoke your license to drive if you demonstrate that you are sufficiently irresponsible or dangerous when behind the wheel.

So, you know, if you really want guns and gun ownership to be treated in the same fashion as cars and car ownership, I can't say that the gun-control lobby will be unhappy with you.

Oh, and one last thing: You do need specialized education and a special license to operate nonstandard vehicles like motorcycles and large trucks. And I daresay that Mercedes drivers tend to pay more for liability insurance than, say, Geo drivers.
Bike lane battle One of the things Houston has been doing in an effort to comply with the Federal Clean Air Act has been to install bike lanes on various city streets. This has had the unfortunate effect of increasing traffic congestion on some of these streets.

I certainly favor all reasonable ideas to make Houston more accessible to non-drivers. Encouraging bike riding, even in our frequently sweltering climate, is a good idea and worth the trouble. However, I have a lot of sympathy for the people who do drive on this stretch of West Alabama. Any time you reduce a street from two lanes each way to one lane each way, you're going to cause bottlenecks. Houston's notoriously out-of-sync traffic lights, with their annoyingly long red cycles, make this problem even worse. Throw in a bus route and it's a recipe for disaster.

Part of the problem is that the city, which is a bit more than halfway through completion of its planned master bikeway program, has done a poor job of publicizing these alternatives. Thus, drivers who sit steaming through three or four red lights at a given intersection wonder why they suffer but see so few bicycles actually use those lanes. I've certainly cursed the bike lanes a few times myself, and I seldom drive this part of West Alabama, partly because of the squeeze on auto lanes.

I'd like to see this succeed, if only for the selfish reason that more bikes means less traffic to bother me while I drive. There are of course many more pieces to this puzzle - rail, sidewalks, city centers - but each piece is important and deserves to be treated properly.

1/30/2002

Another local connection Got a note from another local blogger today. Take a moment and check out The People's Republic of Seabrook. Thanks to him, I found this amusing piece about the Mormon Church's attempts to upgrade its image as the world comes to their Mecca for the Olympics. I'm a better man for having read it, for now I know of The Utah Bikini Team. This being Utah, one of their more recent engagements was at the 2002 Utah Bridal Expo. And to think that some people think Texas is a strange place.
I don't know what Linda Lay hoped to accomplish with her bid for sympathy on the Today Show recently, but judging by these letters to the editor, she failed pretty miserably.
Big time for a small school Nice article today in USA Today about the men's basketball program at Gonzaga. As a Rice fan, I have a lot of respect for the success that they've acheived. It's also good to know that they haven't lost sight of who they are and what they stand for. Here's to another visit to the Sweet Sixteen, guys.

1/29/2002

Crime and punishment Oliver Willis has his say about what jail should be about. In a word, says Willis, it's about punishment. I think this position, while emotionally satisfying, is wrong on several levels.

First, I'll stipulate that certain crimes and certain criminals deserve harsh punishment and nothing more. It is for this reason that I do not oppose the death penalty. I have problems with how cavalierly we issue it, with the restrictions on appeals, and with the overly skewed number of non-whites on death row, but at the end of the day I believe that death is sometimes the only appropriate response.

Similarly, I have no qualms with long sentences for violent crimes. Nor do I quibble with making violent and hardened criminals serve the full extent of their sentences, or with throwing away the key on habitual reoffenders. Parole is a privilege, and it belongs to those who earn it.

Finally, I'd be perfectly happy if we got serious about white collar criminals. You know, the kind who merely wipe out people's life savings instead of bashing them over the head. If someday Jeff Skilling does a ten-spot in Huntsville, you won't see me crying for him.

The problem is that there are plenty of people in jail who don't fit any of the descriptions above. Most people who enter jail are going to get out before they're eligible for Social Security. It seems to me that it's in society's best interests to do something to convince these people that they're better off joining the ranks of the productive citizens rather than go back to the old habits that got them sent up the river in the first place. Lots of prisoners are illiterate. Libraries and literacy programs help some of them overcome that, which in turn makes them more likely to find a job when they get out. Isn't this a win-win situation?

Well, maybe we should just lock 'em all up and throw away the key. One strike and you're out. I hope you're prepared to pay for that. States are already running out of money for prisons. Would you like to drain resources from education, road-building or law enforcement to keep the prison building industry humming? Don't forget that most people start their criminal careers when they're young. Locking them up for good means not only are we removing a potential contributor to the economy just as he's entering his wage-earning years, it means we have to pay for that person's upkeep for decades. That just doesn't sound like good economic policy to me.

If it costs so much to feed and shelter them, why not just kill them all? Well, that's what they used to do in Afghanistan. Do we really wanna go there?

I believe that criminal justice has three goals: Deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. Jail should be bad enough that people don't want to risk going there, but not so bad that it regularly spits out worse people than it takes in. In an ideal world, the justice system would take those who are merely young and foolish and show them the error of their ways, thus not only setting them back on the right path but providing a good example for those around them. (Yeah, I know, but I'm idealizing here. Work with me.) Rehabilitation and deterrence work hand in hand. By deterring crime and reforming criminals, we can spend less on jails and more on things that actually enhance our lives. And let's not overlook the idea that some crimes really don't deserve prison sentences. Think "mandatory sentencing for drug offenses" here. If we stop locking up pot smokers for thirty years, there will be plenty of room in prison for those who really need it.

The funny thing is that throwing more people in jail for longer periods does not necessarily correlate with a drop in crime. I cite the Justice Policy Institute report on the 1990's, which says

The connection between incarceration and crime rates appears as elusive at the end of the 90s as it has been in previous decades. There is little correlation between states with skyrocketing incarceration rates and the recent crime declines witnessed across the country. The "New York Miracle" - the sharp drops in homicides and violent crime rates experienced by America's largest city between 1992 and 1997 - have occurred at the same time that New York State had the second slowest growing prison system in the country, and at a time when the city's jail system downsized.

New York's modest prison growth provides a solid contrast to the explosive use of incarceration in other states. During the same 1992-97 period, California's prison population grew by 30%, or about 270 inmates per week, compared to New York State's more modest 30 inmates a week. Between 1992 and 1997, New York State's violent crime rate fell by 38.6%, and its murder rate by 54.5%. By contrast, California's violent crime rate fell by a more modest 23%, and its murder rate fell by 28%. Put another way, New York experienced a percentage drop in homicides which was half again as great as the percentage drop in California's homicide rate, despite the fact that California added 9 times as many inmates per week to its prisons as New York.

All I'm saying is that we should use some common sense in dealing with crime and punishment. Not all crimes are equal, nor are all criminals. To quote this Nevada Journal article:

It was an appeals court judge in New York who pointed out in a magazine article that a penniless mother who steals powdered milk for her baby and a thug who steals powdered milk to cut heroin have committed the same crime. Does anyone really want to see them given identical, "mandatory" prison sentences?

Let's lock up the right folks for the right reasons. That's the best approach.
Left Turn According to this annual survey, incoming college freshmen are more liberal than any time since 1975. As a college student from the Reagan years, in which the joke on campus was that our boomer-era profs were more liberal than the students, I am generally heartened by this. Of course, if this really means that more students are on the anti-globalization, blame-the-US-for-everything fringe, then it's not so good. The numbers mentioned in this article are too vague to draw any firm conclusions. Besides, nowadays "liberal" and "conservative" are too broad. I'm a liberal who's for free trade, against hate crime and hate speech laws, and in favor of the death penalty with certain reservations. Does this make me a moderate, a traitor to the cause, or just confused? I don't know, but I bet I wouldn't be considered "liberal" by this survey.
If I could read your mind... There's a woman right here in the Houston area who claims to be a "pet psychic". You can see her do her thing tonight on Animal Planet. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't need to pay some poofter $300 an hour to tell me what my dog is thinking. I know exactly what he's thinking at all times: "Feed me! Pet me! Worship me! Take me for walkies! Let me on the couch! Did I mention feed me?"

I saw an ad for this bizarre show last night while watching Blue Planet: Seas of Life, all four hours of which will be rerun on Friday night. Make time to watch it, it's excellent and fascinating. And let your pets sit on the couch with you while you watch. I have a feeling they'd like that.

1/28/2002

Who not to read Duncan Fitzgerald confesses that he doesn't read Tom Clancy any more. Says he

I got about 2/3 of the way through The Sum of All Fears. It was at that point I realized Clancy was just another poser in the mold of Zane Grey and Danielle Steele. A sell-out. A fake, a fraud, a user of template-based-MadLib-fill-in-the-blanks-book-writing.

Well, I haven't read Clancy in years either. I loved The Hunt for Red October - but don't get my Russian-born friend Galina started on how unrealistic it was from her perspective - and I made it through Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. The realization I came to at that point was that Clancy was basically writing technical manuals, with a lot of fawning for Reaganesque politics. He can't write characters to save his life. Forget about writing female characters - you could come away from reading the Clancy portfolio and honestly believe he's never met a real woman in his life. I mean, in Patriot Games, Jack Ryan's buddy Robbie at one point refers to their wives as "the womenfolk". The man is clearly not from this planet.

I haven't read John Grisham in years, either. Once you come to the realization that all Darby Shaw had to do was tell someone else about the "Pelican Brief", it becomes hard to take his plots seriously. Then there's Patricia Cornwell, whose first couple of books were outstanding. Unfortunately, her plots got more contrived and her characters got less interesting. I vowed to quit after reading Cause of Death, easily my all-time candidate for Book By A Big-Name Author In Greatest Need Of An Editor, but I came across a used copy of the first book in her other series, Hornet's Nest, and gave it a try. Wrong!

I think all three of these authors started out doing good books (Clancy's Red October, Grisham's The Firm, Cornwell's Postmortem, which is still the gold standard for medical examiner thrillers). I don't know if they simply ran out of original ideas, or if their success meant that no one was able to tell them that they had turned into hacks. Take my advice, people - go read Michael Connelly, Jill McGown, Robert Crais, Jan Burke, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Rick Riordan, John Sandford, Aaron Elkins, Kathy Reichs, or Elizabeth George. You can thank me later.
Big Ol' Can Of Worms Dept. A New Jersey man is charged as an accomplice in a DUI fatality even though he wasn't in the car. Kenneth Powell was called to pick up his friend Michael Prangle, who'd been busted after blowing a 0.21 on the breathalyzer, from jail. Powell took Prangle back to his car, where Prangle proceeded to crash headon into a car driven by Navy Ensign John Elliott, killing Elliott and himself, and injuring Elliott's girlfriend.

Powell maintains that he wasn't fully informed of Prangle's condition. The state police says that Powell was fully informed, was told that Prangle shouldn't drive, and that Prangle was visibly intoxicated besides.

Complicating matters is that state law at the time of this incident was unclear. A new law was passed last year in response to this that would allow police to impound drunk drivers' cars for 12 hours, and also spells out what to tell someone who comes to bail out a drunk driver, including what penalties they may face if they let the driver get back behind a wheel too soon.

I'm inclined to think that Kenneth Powell bears some responsibility for John Elliott's death (and Michael Prangles', for that matter). I don't know that his level of culpability rises to manslaughter charges, though. It's the same problem I have with laws that make party hosts and bartenders partially responsible for DUI accidents - ultimately, the fault lies with the person who gets behind the wheel. Some people don't look as drunk as they are, some people will sneak off when you're busy elsewhere - it's a lot to ask to make a third party their keeper.

It will be interesting to see what a jury (and most likely an appeals court) makes of this.
Are you sick of the whole Enron thing yet? Vice President Dick Cheney is refusing to turn over documents connected to President Bush's energy plan. The GAO may file a lawsuit against the White House to force them to give it up.

I don't know what Cheney is hiding, but I doubt that it's as bad as the negative press they're gonna get for all this stonewalling. The latest polls say that 67 percent of Americans think the President is lying in part or in whole over Enron. I know you guys read the polls, Dick. What were you thinking?

In other news, Ken Lay's wife Linda says they're trying to avoid personal bankruptcy. That sound you hear is my heart breaking for them. Here's some free advice, Linda: Get a job. And don't put all of your 401(k) in company stock.

1/27/2002

What he said This op-ed piece by Bart Busker in today's Chron says exactly what I think about the Katy Freeway expansion. Busker highlights an issue that I didn't, which is that the I-10 expansion is several times as expensive as the current light rail project. The light rail project had to fend off lawsuits, ballot challenges, City Council shenanigans, and Tom De Lay, while all of the so-called champions of fiscal responsibility make no mention of the billion dollars that will be spent here. Nice to have friends in high places, isn't it?