3/23/2002

House update Well, much has happened since the last update. We have agreed to terms with the sellers of the house we want, and we have a buyer in place for our house. Both houses have been inspected and appriased, so all that's left from that perspective is the paperwork. Closing is going to be fun, because there's a bit of a daisy chain that needs to be resolved. The people who are buying our buyer's house have to close on their house, then they close on our buyer's house, then on our current house, and then finally on the house we're buying. Thankfully, our sellers are long gone and seem to be amenable to letting us take possession a few days early so we can move before all the closings occur. It's still gonna make for a couple of hellishly busy days.

In the meantime, we're about to take off to Switzerland for a week. (Yes, this trip was planned long before we knew we were going to be moving at this time.) We've been doing some packing, but are really going to have to kick it into gear when we return. Then there's a million other details, like moving phone/cable/utilities, filling out a change of address form, and so on and so on. I'm getting tired just thinking about it.

I'm thrilled about the new house, but man will I be happy when this is all in the rearview mirror.
Road versus rail, round 438 Proponents of the Katy Freeway expansion are howling in protest at a request by Metro to reserve space for a light rail line. sigh This is really painful to watch. We study rail feasibility to death but are chomping at the bit to spend zillions of dollars and more than five years to make I-10 wider than the state of Delaware.

What really galls me is that Metro's critics have a point when they say our transit department has little credibility. Metro is, sadly, not very well run and in dire need of strong leadership. People are finally coming around to the idea that we can't pave our way out of mobility problems. There's never been a better time to make the case for rail, but here we are stuck with Shirley DeLibero and Lee Brown, neither of whom are taken seriously by ruling Republicans like the county commissioners.

Having a GOP-friendly mayor like Orlando Sanchez wouldn't have helped, since he's anti-rail in the first place. What we need is someone in charge of Metro with credibility in the bidness world, someone who speaks the same language as Steve Radack and John Culberson, someone who will aggressively sell the merits of rail to homeowners and businesses. I think we have such a person: former mayor Bob Lanier. Lanier came into office by attacking then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire's plan for a monorail system, but he favored the downtown rail line and I believe is generally for sensible alternatives to more roadways. Could it hurt to ask him to step in and lend a hand before it's too late?
Bush in Peru From today's Chron:

[President] Bush touted free trade as a means of lifting the region's economies, and said: "We're going to analyze all options available to help Peru."

"Unless, of course, if free trade would damage embattled industries in swing states. I've got a reelection bid to think about, you know," he did not add.

3/22/2002

More on Brittanie Cecil, the 13-year-old girl who was killed at a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game after being hit in the forehead by an errant puck. The NHL is revisiting the issue of arena safety. The player who took the shot that resulted in Brittanie's death is trying to cope with what happened. Doug MacLean, the GM of the Blue Jackets, attended Brittanie's funeral, while the team is wearing stickers with her initials and had a moment of silence before their next game in her memory.
Yet another interesting link in the inbox today, to Texas Twisted, a site devoted to Texas roadside attractions and other weird stuff. My friend Margo, who sent the link, was pointing to a miniaturization of the Chinese Forbidden Gardens located just west of Houston in Katy, TX, and which, along with the Cadillac Ranch, owes its origin to an eccentric millionaire, something else we have a lot of in Texas.

Our tour guide also takes us to meet Big Tex, the unofficial greeter at the annual State Fair and the one attraction I'd heard of many years before I came to Texas. Big Tex is so famous the Austin Lounge Lizards wrote a song about his girlfriend.

As they say, Texas is like a whole 'nother country.
To comment or not to comment I've been toying with the idea of adding code to support comments on this page. I like getting feedback, and I strongly suspect that more people are inclined to give comments rather than send email. But then I come across comments like the ones on this post, and I'm reminded why I'm reluctant. Who needs that crap?

If you think I'm being overly sensitive and that on balance I'd find comments to be worthwhile, drop me a line. If you know of a comment system that would allow an all-powerful admin (i.e., me) to wipe out obnoxious comments and ban the IP addresses of known buttheads, so much the better. (I'd probably need my own domain for that capability, but it can't hurt to ask.) Freedom of expression does not give you the right to be a jerk on someone else's blog.

3/21/2002

The priesthood and the saving grace of women Today Ginger points out this infantile little article in the conservative Cornell Review, in which the author makes the oh-so-original point that we menfolk are just hunks of burning carnal desire who need wimmin around to keep us civilized:

Presumably, women could exercise their true power to tame men by using celibacy (and other ladylike behavior) to induce men into monogamous stable relationships and eventually into marriage.

[...]

But women have historically been the civilizing forces for men. That is biological. Moreover, several verses in the Scriptures refer to the important role that women have in the moral uplift of men.

As Matt Welch likes to say, "Whatever, freak."

Meanwhile, via Jeff Jarvis, I see that Andrew Sullivan has written the following about the growing pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church:

The Catholic Church in America will not endure as we know it unless the current hierarchy is rooted out and unless the issue of a celibate all-male priesthood is addressed head-on without euphemism or denial. Others may differ, but it seems to me that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is the root of the problem. None of this hideous abuse of children would have occurred in the same way if women were fully a part of the institution. Not only would they have blown the whistle on some of this evil, their very presence would have helped prevent it from happening.

And finally, we have Maureen Dowd on the same subject:

Societies built on special privileges -- the all-male Saudi rulers, Catholic priesthood and Taliban, and the boys' club running Enron -- become far too invested in preserving those privileges. They will never do the kind of soul-baring and housecleaning that might raise questions about the kind of secret society that creates that kind of privilege.

Is it just me, or are these three sides of the same coin? I mean, to my male ears, all three seem to be making the claim that women are somehow inherently "good" and "moral", while men are "bad" and in need of a positive influence. Left to their own devices, men are pigs/child molesters/privilege-preserving oppressors. What they need is a few good women to set a proper example for them.

I'm not here to defend "the patriarchy", whatever that means. I'm totally in favor of giving women equal access to power, which is to say equal opportunity to abuse it. We're all human, folks. If men have caused the most spectacular screwups in history, it's because we've always been in the position to do so, not because we're inherently any less good or moral than women. Can we please just get over it and move on?
Jesus saves! But Gretzky gets the rebound! He shoots! He scores! Just when you think you've run out of things to make fun of, someone sends you links like this one. I really wish they'd shown the Martial Arts Jesus and the Ballet Jesus.

The plastic Jesus figurine, of course, has a long and storied tradition among the faithful. My brush with religious statuary came from my grandmother, who had a little ceramic Virgin Mary statue in her beloved old 1969 Nova. This was not just any ceramic Virgin Mary statue, mind you. It had a magnetic base, which kept it firmly in place on her metallic dashboard, and more to the point it had, in the folds of her robe, a tiny car. This Virgin Mary statue was made specifically to be put in one's automobile.

I inherited this car after my grandmother's death in 1986 and drove it down to San Antonio. Both car and statue were an instant hit with my friends, who christened it Our Lady of Automatic Transmission. In 1990, while I was back in New York for Christmas, someone broke into the car. They tried to force the ignition but failed. They broke open the glove compartment, which had a lock on it, but since I was never able to get the key to work on it all they found was some old insurance policies and a windshield ice-scraper. Having struck out on finding anything of value, they wreaked their revenge by stealing the Our Lady of Automatic Transmission statue. I still get depressed when I think about it.

Later that year my roommate went on a trip to Europe, and while there he visited Fatima, where an apparition of the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared in 1917. He visited the gift shop at Fatima and bought a small plastic Virgin Mary statue for me as a replacement. It wasn't quite the same, as this Virgin Mary did not have a magnetic base or a tiny car in the folds of her robe. On the plus side, however, the statue does glow in the dark. I still have it today.

I don't care if it's dark and scary, long as I have my Virgin Mary...
Oprah talks to the Central Park Jogger Remember her? In 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker in New York went jogging in Central Park, where a group of "wilding" teenage boys beat and raped her and left her for death. Today she's recovered from her injuries, married, and remarkably bears no resentment towards her attackers, all of whom have served out their sentences. You have to get past the Oprah factor here, but I assure you it's worth your time to read.
I have always thought that long-distance runners are a bit nuts. Now I have absolute proof. Two words: Antarctica Marathon.

3/20/2002

New blogs added to the links list. I suppose one of these days I ought to organize them in some fashion.
Most cities have soul... Maxim magazine, which for some strange reason doesn't have its April issue online yet even though the print version is out, named Dallas the "greatest city on Earth". All I can say is that they've obviously never listened to the Austin Lounge Lizards' song about Dallas.

OK, OK, Dallas isn't so bad. Maxim needs to hire some fact checkers, though. They claim Dallas is the "least densely populated metropolitan area in the world". Maybe that's true if you include all its far-flung hinterlands, but according to the US Census, it's not even the least densely populated metro area in Texas. In 2000, Dallas County had a population density of 2521 per square mile, more than double that of San Antonio's Bexar County at 1117 and also more than Houston's Harris County at 1966. So take Maxim's advice about Dallas with the same grain of salt you'd take their advice on how to convince your wife she'd enjoy accompanying you to a strip club.

UPDATE: Larry and Alice tell me that Maxim printed 13 versions of this issue, with 13 different "best" cities. Geez, guys, did you really think that Houstonians wanted to read about how great Dallas is? Get a clue.

More on religion Gary Farber, who's been quite prolific of late, adds on to Peter Beinart's piece about freedom of religion, Bush and Ashcroft style. They both attack the underlying theme that one must be religious in order to be moral, and the unstated idea that only certain religions seem to meet the standards of acceptability:

Conservatives seemed genuinely puzzled by the outcry over Ashcroft's words. "I think General Ashcroft was quite inclusive," said Ken Connor, president of the Family Research Council. "He made reference to Christians, Jews, and Muslims all recognizing the Creator as the origin of freedom."

I don't know about you, but this quote reminds me of that exchange in The Blues Brothers where the lady at the kicker bar tells Jake and Elwood "We have both kinds of music, country *and* western."

Anyway, Farber's had a lot of good stuff lately, like this post about why we should always be suspicious of government officials who want to display religious symbols like the Ten Commandments in public places. I've often thought that the best way to combat people who want to pray at graduations and football games and whatnot is to volunteer for it, then lead everyone in a pagan prayer. Maybe that will drive home the point that there is no such thing as a prayer which is acceptable and inoffensive to everyone.

Just so we're all clear here, I'm perfectly happy for you to practice your religion. I only ask that you leave me out of it. I don't think that's so much to ask.
Speaking their language Via Tom Tomorrow comes this story of how U2 lead singer Bono persuaded Republican leaders to give extra aid to poor countries. It's a fantastic story of pragmatism and speaking the right language. I'd like to discuss a couple of points. First, how Bono got involved:

Is it possible to appear in public with the likes of [Senator Jesse] Helms and [President] Bush and preserve that precious commodity - street-cred? If it's not, says Bono, it's a price worth paying. "Edge was pleading with me not to hang out with the conservatives. He said, 'You're not going to have a picture with George Bush?' I said I'd have lunch with Satan if there was so much at stake. I have friends who won't speak to me because of Helms. But its very important not to play politics with this. Millions of lives are being lost for the stupidest of reasons: money. And not even very much money. So let's not play, Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Let's rely on the moral force of our arguments."

Amazing what you can do when your aim is to get something done, even if it's not perfect in every way. There's quite a few bitter remarks I could make here about Nader voters and their passion for the perfect at the cost of the good, but once I get started on that rant it's hard to stop. This in and of itself would be enough to win my deepest respect for Bono's accomplishment, but this next excerpt puts him truly in another class:

Meanwhile, the US wing of Jubilee 2000 hit on the idea of persuading the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Baptist, to write a letter to Baptist churches across southern US states explaining the Biblical principles behind debt cancellation. Suddenly, Bono found he had access to a swathe of strongly Christian Republicans compelled by his Biblical theme - what Bono calls "the melody line" of his pitch. "We knew we had to get both sides," he explains. "So we got Billy Graham and the Pope and I went to people like Jesse Helms, who had been very tough on the the concept of foreign assistance and very bleak on Aids. He's a religious man so I told him that 2103 verses of scripture pertain to the poor and Jesus speaks of judgment only once - and it's not about being gay or sexual morality, but about poverty. I quoted that verse of Matthew chapter 25: 'I was naked and you clothed me.' He was really moved. He was in tears. Later he publicly acknowledged that he was ashamed..."

That's just impressive. How do you think it would have gone over if Bono had tried to lay liberal guilt on Jesse Helms? I think using the Bible to advance arguments against religious conservatives is a viable strategy that no one ever thinks about. I wonder what Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and other multimillionaire preachers think about these verses from Matthew, for example:

16 And behold, one came and said unto Him, "Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?"
17 And He said unto him, "Why callest thou Me good? There is none good but One, that is, God. But if thou wilt enter into Life, keep the commandments."
18 He said unto Him, "Which?" Jesus said, "`Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness;
19 honor thy father and thy mother; and, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'"
20 The young man said unto Him, "All these things have I kept from my youth up. What lack I yet?"
21 Jesus said unto him, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven; and come and follow Me."
22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 Then said Jesus unto His disciples, "Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
24 And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God."

I suppose they'd respond with verse 26, which is basically "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Still, I'd love to ask the question. There's plenty more like this if you've got the time and a sufficiently devious mind.
Sports tragedy A 13-year-old girl who attended a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game died two days after being struck in the head by a puck. According to the pathologist's report, Brittanie Cecil died from a rare blood clot in an artery, the result of her head snapping back when she was hit. This was the first reported death of a spectator at an NHL game, though a few have been killed in a similar fashion at minor league games.

That's really awful. My prayers and condolences go to Brittanie's family and friends.

3/19/2002

Show tunes Greg Hlatky discusses Andrew Lloyd Webber and his place in the pantheon of theatrical composers. For my money, I thought the music of Phantom of the Opera was overrated. Yes, All I Ask of You is a great song, but Lloyd Webber uses its theme, along with maybe two others, to death in PotO. It just gets boring after while.

Frankly, my favorite Lloyd Webber show is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It's lively, it's bouncy, it contains a wide variety of musical styles and themes, and it hasn't a pretentious note in its score. Not that it's impossible to screw it up - Tiffany and I had the extreme misfortune of seeing a local production of Joseph that starred some generic Osmond offspring a couple of years ago. The people who put this show on ruined it in every way imaginable, mostly by taking each song and doubling it in length. It was one climax and reprise after another until you wanted to wrest the baton from the conductor's hand and cut the band off yourself.

The nadir was the song about Pharaoh's Dream, which is done in an Elvis Presley style (he's the King, after all). The song, which describes the dreams that Joseph interprets to mean seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, is early in the second act. It was also the first one they'd done that was true to Lloyd Webber's original arrangement. Just as Tiffany and I turned to each other to marvel that they'd finally gotten one right, Joseph says "I don't understand", which prompts Pharoah to sing the whole damned song over again from the beginning. It's not easy to insult the audience of a pop musical comedy, but they did so in spades. We should have gotten up and left right then, but the seats were way up front and we didn't want to make a scene. And as it turned out, the rest of the audience wasn't insulted anyway - they gave this godforsaken production a standing ovation at the end. Yes, I'm still steamed about the whole thing.

Anyway. Joseph is my fave, even despite this experience. The rest of Lloyd Webber's portfolio I can take or leave.
Holidays for men I got this link from a mailing list I'm on. Somehow, I don't think Hallmark will do any marketing around it.
Highway to hell The proposed widening of the Katy Freeway takes another step forward. It's very much an afterthought, but at least there's still talk about rail as part of this boondoggle.

Hey, Tom DeLay: We're gonna spend zillions of dollars on this. It's gonna disrupt everyone's lives, will imperil businesses along the way, and there's not a clear consensus about how it should be implemented. Why isn't this project being put to a vote?
Death of a local legend Longtime Bellaire High School baseball coach Ray Knoblauch died in his sleep yesterday. Knoblauch, father of current major league player Chuck Knoblauch, was 71 and had been battling Alzheimer's.

The article lists his accomplishments (four time state champion) and his innovations (using video tape in the 1960s), and also gives a clear idea of the positive influence that a coach can have on his players. I think a key lesson for anyone in a position of authority is that if you want to be respected, you won't always be liked. How often is "he wanted to be everyone's friend" given as a defense of someone's failings? Sure, you can go overboard the other way (*cough* *cough* *Bobby Knight* *cough* *cough*), but it's definitely the way to go.

I think this is my biggest fear of fatherhood. I don't like being disliked. It's gonna be hard to be the bad cop. Tiffany knows this - I had a hard enough time disciplining the dog. But I have to admit, we're all better off now that Harry knows what his limits are. And by now I've seen enough children of friends, family, and acquaintances to have gotten a healthy dislike of uncontrolled behavior and ineffective parenting, not to mention the fact that Tiffany will kick my ass if need be. So I believe I'll be ready when the time comes. I'd better be, that's for sure.
Enron: The saga continues Newly released information says that questions surrounding Enron's off-books partnerships started surfacing in 1999. This story refers to some "prominent Houstonians" who were allowed to invest in some sweetheart deals. I can't wait to hear more about that.

3/18/2002

Can we please add AT&T to the Axis of Evil for subjecting us to those godawful 1-800-CALL ATT ads with Carrot Top? I swear, I lose brain cells whenever I'm in range of his voice. I would not rule out tactical nukes as a response to this.

I suppose in a world that includes 7th Heaven and The Glutton Bowl, I shouldn't be too surprised to discover that there are actual Carrot Top fans out there. Personally, I'd admit to being a fan of Le Petomane before I'd cop to a fondness for Carrot Top.
Real truth in advertising Today I was forwarded an email exhorting me to increase my business income blah blah blah. Like most such junk mail that I see, it was done as HTML, with inline JPEG images. This one was supposed to show some sort of cheesy money image, according to the HTML source. However, someone - presumably someone who didn't care to receive this message in the first place - decided a different image was more suitable and changed the referenced JPG file. Now when you open the mail, the image you see is this.
RIP, Astrohall The Astrohall Exhibition Building has hosted its last event and is scheduled to meet the wrecking ball on May 1. A new exhibition hall has been built on the complex that includes Reliant Park. The old site is being cleared for that staple of Houstonian existence, more parking.
Analyzing the primary turnout The Democratic race for governor brought out Hispanics in record numbers, but Anglos mostly stayed home, according to this report.

The ethnic portrait of the Democratic primary is dramatically evident when this year's voting is compared with 1994, the last nonpresidential election year with a healthy Democratic turnout. The 1998 primary turnout was too low in all segments to be used as a point of comparison.

About 1,036,000 people voted in the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial primary when incumbent Richards faced only token opposition.

In this year's race between Sanchez, former Attorney General Dan Morales and two little-known opponents, about 1,028,000 people voted.

Basically, voting was up in heavily Hispanic counties, and down in heavily Anglo counties such as in East Texas. Moreover, black turnout was high in the Dallas area in support of Senate candidate Ron Kirk. This is why, as Ginger notes, Ron Kirk is likely to be the candidate for Senate with the best chance of beating John Cornyn. Take Sanchez and Kirk, and add in Anglo Lt. Governor candidate John Sharp, and the Dems can make a pretty good case that their slate is representative of Texas, especially when compared to the all-white Republican ticket. I've expressed my admiration for Victor Morales, and I think he'd run a good campaign and be a good Senator, but the pragmatist in me is starting to lean towards Kirk. The runoff is April 9, so stay tuned.
The Chron gets prickly I don't usually bother with the Houston Chronicle's Sounding Board editorials, which are written by various members of their editorial board. Most of the time what they have to say is mealy-mouthed platitudes. Today, however, board member James Gibbons lays into a bunch of people, including Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, the Yates jurors, and so-called victims' rights group Justice for All for their inability to tell right from wrong in the Yates case. Go check it out, for who knows when you'll see such an excellent rant on the Chron's pages again.
Blaming Rusty Andrea Yates' relatives place some blame on Rusty Yates for what happened. Rusty is firing back:

Asked about criticism of his role, Russell Yates told NBC's Today show today that some people "don't understand the biochemical nature of Andrea's illness ... so they'll say there must have been something else going on in that household, or there must have been this or that and it's all false."

Umm, how about the fact that after the fourth child was born, the Yateses were warned that having another child could trigger another psychotic episode in Andrea, like the one she'd just had that caused her to try to kill herself with a kitchen knife? This didn't stop them from taking Andrea off Haldol so she could get pregnant again. Whose decision was that, Rusty? In whose best interest was it? You're right when you say that Andrea's condition was a biochemical one. The problem is that from where we all sit, you didn't do everything in your power to help her overcome it. You better believe people are going to criticize you for that, and you deserve every single word of it.

(Thanks to Ginger for the link to the timeline of the Yates case.)

3/17/2002

I'm Googled, therefore I am Ginger shows no sympathy to Matthew and Mac for not being high up in the results list when Googling on their names. You think you've got it bad? I've not only got to compete against a bunch of famous Charleses (such as Dickens, Darwin, Babbage, Schulz, and Lindbergh, to name a few), I've got to compete against places named Charles as well. Even worse, there's a boatload of other bloggers named Charles out there, namely Dodgson, Murtaugh, Austin, and the winner, found on Page 7 of the Google search, Charles Johnson.

On the other hand, I am the top Kuff in Google. So it's not all bad.
Tournament wrapup Well, the Spring 2002 NABCs are history. I took the week off from work and spent most of it playing in various events. Sadly, of the three nationally-rated open events I played in (the Mixed Pairs, the Open Pairs, and the Open Teams), I didn't make it past the qualifying round once, though I came close twice. There were a number of reasons for this, but the glaring one is simply that I'm not as good a player as I wish I were. It's easy to be successful against a certain level of competition, where you can make mistakes and not pay a high price for them. At this level, every lapse cost me. A round of tournament bridge lasts for about 3.5 hours, in which you play between 25 and 30 hands. You have to concentrate and pay attention to every card on all of those hands. It's hard to do.

But I had a lot of fun. I got to see some old friends and got to compete against some great players. I'm already thinking about attending the Summer NABC in Washington, DC (only for a weekend, though). We'll see.

Back to work and reality tomorrow, though only briefly for the former as we have a trip to Switzerland planned for Easter. Woo hoo!