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Archive for October 12th, 2017

Everyone Knew Houston’s Reservoirs Would Flood — Except for the People Who Bought Homes Inside Them

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Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune, and Al Shaw, ProPublica, report:

When Jeremy Boutor moved to a master-planned community in Houston’s booming energy corridor, he saw it as idyllic.

Lakes on Eldridge boasted waterfalls, jogging trails and a clubhouse. It was upscale, secure and close to the office. A bus even picked up his two young sons in front of their house and took them to a nearby international school.

“This neighborhood was a paradise,” said Boutor, who moved to Houston from Paris two years ago after his employer, a French-based energy company, asked him to relocate.

Then, Hurricane Harvey changed everything.

As the downpours began and Boutor studied maps flashing on his TV screen, he realized that his home wasn’t at risk of flooding just because of record rainfall; it was also located inside one of two massive reservoirs that had been built west of Houston decades ago to protect the city.

Boutor ended up with more than a foot of water in his house and was forced to wade out of his home in knee-deep water with his 10-year-old son clinging to his back.

He and his neighbors are now coming to terms with the fact that in big enough rainstorms, their neighborhoods are actually designed to flood. And nobody told them about it.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two reservoirs known as Addicks and Barker on what was then mostly empty prairie, their chief goal was to protect the center of the city, 20 miles downstream.

The vast basins are dry most of the time, dotted with wooded parks and sports fields, and are contained on their eastern boundaries by large, earthen dams. During rainstorms, floodwater accumulates behind those dams in areas known as “flood pools” and backs up to the west; how far it goes depends on how big the rainstorm is and where it hits.

That system worked well when the reservoirs were surrounded by prairie and rice fields. But in recent decades, development has encroached from all sides. Today, about 14,000 homes are located inside them. During Harvey, when more floodwater accumulated behind the dams than ever before, 5,138 of those homes flooded.

Some local government officials, like Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, say they’ve warned residents for years about the risks of living in or around the reservoirs during town halls and other public events.

“It is very difficult to make people believe the unbelievable,” Radack said. “No one ever believed the reservoirs would fill.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s top elected official, said residents must know they live in the reservoirs — the dams, he said, are right there.

“You’ve got a group that bought homes if not in, then on the very edge of reservoirs behind the dams, so that’s pretty obvious,” Emmett said.

But it’s clear after Harvey that it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. None of the more than half a dozen residents interviewed by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica after the floods say they knew they were living inside Addicks or Barker — many of their neighborhoods are several miles away from the dams.

Several local officials — including Houston’s “flood czar” and a neighboring county executive — said they had no idea the neighborhoods had been built inside the flood pools. Several real estate agents said they didn’t realize they were selling homes inside the pools.

“When I started to rent this house, nobody told me,” Boutor said. “Even the insurance company told me that it was not a flooding area.”

But critics say those officials and developers had to know they were putting people and property at risk.

“They had full knowledge. They knew exactly what they were doing,” said Phil Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University who studies flooding in the Houston area. “It’s a huge geopolitical mistake. How are they going to fix it?”

The question of who’s to blame has reignited long-simmering tensions between Harris County and the city of Houston.

In recent interviews, Emmett, the county judge, claimed that the city regulates development inside the reservoirs. But the city’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, called that “outrageous” and said the county plays a role, too.

Ultimately, all of them blame Congress. For more than a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified a number of major needs for Addicks and Barker — including a comprehensive study of how development affects the reservoirs — but hasn’t gotten enough funding to address all the issues.

No matter whose fault it is, Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert — who has a portion of Barker Reservoir in his jurisdiction — said “you can’t take all that developed property off that land. It’s there. Whether it should have been allowed to be built the way it did … that wasn’t on my watch.”

But now that the homes and streets are there — instead of the prairieland that used to absorb rainwater — scientists, along with Harris County and federal officials, say they are sending more runoff into the reservoirs during heavy storms. That means the reservoirs are getting fuller with each big rain event, threatening not just neighborhoods inside the reservoirs but the integrity of the earthen dams, too. The dams have been considered at risk of failure for years. . .

Continue reading.

There’s more, and some interesting maps and photos at the link.

This is a failure of government.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 5:07 pm

New foods: Pork spleen

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Spleen is extremely high in iron and in cholesterol. I found some in a market whole clientele tilts heavily Chinese and just had some. Braising is the common cooking method, but I sautéed it: some olive oil in a skillet, sautéed a chopped shallot and a minced garlic clove (and the garlic here is fantastic: red bulb and the cloves are large and very easily peeled), then added the spleen cut into reasonable-sized pieces and cooked until I thought it was done.

It is sort of liverish (in terms of nutrition), but very mild tasting. Not bad at all.

I also got some ginormous carrots apparently favored by the Chinese: two carrots = 1.5 lbs. Repeat: 2 carrots = 1.5 lbs. The Wife calls them “nuclear carrots.”

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 4:55 pm

Posted in Daily life, Food

You can catch more flies with vinegar than with honey.

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I’ve always heard it the other way around, but when we got some flies in the apartment, I googled “fly traps,” and I learned that apple cider vinegar is an excellent attractant because flies are attracted to spoiled/fermented fruit. So I put some in the bottom of a jar and used a funnel to close the jar. The idea is that the flies will go down through the funnel, seeking the delectable-smelling fruit, and then be unable to escape. And indeed this morning I had two small fruit flies floating in the vinegar and another just starting to explore the funnel.


Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Daily life

Trump threatens not to do his job — when is enough, enough?

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Jennifer Rubin points out the spinelessness of most GOP (and Democratic) members of Congress:

Our constitutional system designates the president as the person to execute the laws. Congress passes them, the president signs them, and then he is obligated to enforce them. His oath is clear on this point: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” What if he won’t or cannot execute his duties and/or cannot preserve, protect and defend the Constitution? The Constitution says the remedy is impeachment.

Within the past 24 hours we’ve seen the president threaten to ignore or violate the First Amendment and threaten a group of Americans with denial of service to which they are legally entitled.

On Wednesday, President Trump said he found it “disgusting” that the press can write what it wants and suggested that NBC’s “license” be revoked for “fake news.” (After nine months, he still has no idea how the government works and what various agencies, commissions and departments do.) In response, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) tweeted a statement reading: “Mr. President: Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting of the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?” I asked Sasse by tweet and through his office if Sasse thinks Trump has renounced his oath, and if so whether he would favor impeachment. Neither Sasse nor his office would reply.

This is unacceptable. Sasse also took an oath to defend the Constitution. While it is the House’s job to initiate impeachment, as an elected leader Sasse can certainly raise the question of fitness and recommend the House proceed. Why tweet and then clam up — the political equivalent of knocking on the door and running away? Trump is a travesty, but it is the Senate and House Republicans who apparently believe, according to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), that the president is not fit to govern. To do and say nothing is reckless and not in keeping with their own oaths of office.

It is the Senate and House Republicans who have heard and seen Trump denigrate the First Amendment, deny the Russian threat to our electoral system, fire an FBI director who did not bend to his will, attempt to badger the attorney general into resigning, etc. The question is not whether Trump thinks he has recanted his oath; it is whether Sasse and his colleagues do. It is time Republicans started doing their job rather than shuffling their feet when Corker talks or tweeting questions. 

Each day Trump provides more examples of his inability or unwillingness to carry out the laws. The Post reports:

President Trump served notice Thursday that he may pull back federal relief workers from Puerto Rico, effectively threatening to abandon the U.S. territory amid a staggering humanitarian crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Declaring the U.S. territory’s electrical grid and infrastructure to have been a “disaster before hurricanes,” Trump wrote Thursday that it will be up to Congress how much federal money to appropriate to the island for its recovery efforts and that relief workers will not stay “forever.”

This is horrifying on a moral level, but it is also evidence that Trump’s temperament and emotional instability undermine his ability to do his job — in this case, direct the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies and personnel to get Puerto Rico up and running. He cannot refuse to provide services because the news coverage has been critical or because the mayor of San Juan has been mean to him. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 1:29 pm

The Math Behind Gerrymandering and Wasted Votes

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Patrick Honner has a good explanation in Quanta:

Imagine fighting a war on 10 battlefields. You and your opponent each have 200 soldiers, and your aim is to win as many battles as possible. How would you deploy your troops? If you spread them out evenly, sending 20 to each battlefield, your opponent could concentrate their own troops and easily win a majority of the fights. You could try to overwhelm several locations yourself, but there’s no guarantee you’ll win, and you’ll leave the remaining battlefields poorly defended. Devising a winning strategy isn’t easy, but as long as neither side knows the other’s plan in advance, it’s a fair fight.

Now imagine your opponent has the power to deploy your troops as well as their own. Even if you get more troops, you can’t win.

In the war of politics, this power to deploy forces comes from gerrymandering, the age-old practice of manipulating voting districts for partisan gain. By determining who votes where, politicians can tilt the odds in their favor and defeat their opponents before the battle even begins.

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled extreme partisan gerrymanders unconstitutional. But without a reliable test for identifying unfair district maps, the court has yet to throw any out. Now, as the nation’s highest court hears arguments for and against a legal challenge to Wisconsin’s state assembly district map, mathematicians are on the front lines in the fight for electoral fairness.

Simple math can help scheming politicians draw up districts that give their party outsize influence, but mathematics can also help identify and remedy these situations. This past summer the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group, led by the mathematician Moon Duchin, convened at Tufts University, in part to discuss new mathematical tools for analyzing and addressing gerrymandering. The “efficiency gap” is a simple idea at the heart of some of the tools being considered by the Supreme Court. Let’s explore this concept and some of its ramifications.

Start by imagining a state with 200 voters, of whom 100 are loyal to party A and 100 to party B. Let’s suppose the state needs to elect four representatives and so must create four districts of equal electoral size.

Imagine that you have the power to assign voters to any district you wish. If you favor party A, you might distribute the 100 A voters and 100 B voters into the four districts like this: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Election, Law, Math, Politics

Chief Justice John Roberts is now feuding with the entire field of sociology

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Ignorant people should not be elevated to the Supreme Court, much less be made Chief Justice. Case in point: John Roberts.

Dylan Matthews reports in Vox:

The Supreme Court is currently considering a landmark case challenging partisan gerrymandering, specifically Wisconsin Republicans’ efforts to draw state assembly districts so as to firmly entrench their majority. At the heart of the case is a concept called the “efficiency gap,” a simple number that political scientist Eric McGhee and law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos have devised to measure how much a given district map favors one party over the other. If the number gets too high, it’s an indication that one party has rigged the game to ensure they keep getting reelected.

Sound simple enough? Well, not to Chief Justice John Roberts, who dismissed the concept as “sociological gobbledygook” in oral arguments for the case. In that one phrase, he seemed to dismiss the very idea of using social science to try to figure out the effects of redistricting efforts. “Does this state assembly map make it nearly impossible for the opposition to retake control” is an empirical question, which needs to be answered with empirical methods. The best methods we have at the date are those of political science, sociology, and economics. Indeed, as Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan observed during arguments, the people drawing these maps are relying heavily on social scientists to more effectively rig them.

Roberts wasn’t just rebuked by his colleagues, however. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, professor of sociology at Duke and the president of the American Sociological Association, who sent an open letter to Justice Roberts excoriating him for his dismissal of sociology and social science more generally: . . .

Continue reading.

See the exhibits at the link. Later in the article:

. . . “In an era when facts are often dismissed as ‘fake news,’ we are particularly concerned about a person of your stature suggesting to the public that scientific measurement is not valid or reliable and that expertise should not be trusted,” Bonilla-Silva wrote. “What you call ‘gobbledygook’ is rigorous and empirical.”

He then ran through a list of important contributions of sociology to public policy, beginning with “Clear evidence that separate is not equal”; sociological and psychological evidencehelped form the basis of the Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 10:20 am

Posted in GOP, Law, Science

Trump businesses reportedly benefit from deregulatory actions

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In The Hill Lydia Wheeler points out how the Trump administration is corrupt—that is, how it uses public office for private gain:

President Trump could stand to personally profit from the regulations he’s rolling back, according to a new report Wednesday.

Among those actions is the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to repeal the Waters of the U.S. rule, which gives the agency the authority to prevent pollution in fresh water wetlands and streams.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Rick Claypool, a research director in the president’s office of the nonprofit Public Citizens, detailed six deregulatory actions Trump could financially benefit from given his refusal to fully divest from his business empire.

“In several instances, Trump’s financial interests are directly at odds with protecting the public it is his administration’s duty to serve,” Cicilline and Claypool wrote in the report.

Cicilline and Claypool charge that Trump’s multitude of property development projects, which include 12 Trump-branded golf courses in the U.S., would have likely experienced an increase in compliance costs associated with acquiring permits and limiting their use of pesticides.

The Department of Homeland Security’s decision to raise the cap on the number of foreign nationals employed in the U.S. through the H-2B Visa program from 66,000 to 81,000 is another government action the report authors say could financially benefit the president.

Cicilline and Claypool cited a Vox report detailing a request from Trump’s properties three days after asking the Labor Department to approve 76 new H-2B guest workers.

The report says Trump hotels and restaurants have already benefited from a lower court’s decision to block a Labor Department rule expanding overtime pay to people who earn up to $47,476.

“The result is the disturbing potential for Americans to be harmed by policies that are implemented partly because they offer short-term financial benefits to the president’s businesses,” according to the report.

Public Citizen has sued Trump over his two-for-one executive order, directing federal agencies to find two rules to repeal for every new rule proposed. . .

Continue reading.

Also note this Newsweek article by Chris Riotta:

Jared Kushner “enriched himself” by not revealing his ownership of a real estate tech business that raised millions of dollars while he served in the government, said a member of the House Judiciary Committee, calling it part of a pattern of unethical behavior that he believes should cause the White House Senior Adviser to be stripped of his security clearance.

Congressman Ted Lieu told Newsweek that Kushner’s failure to list a company called Cadre on his initial financial disclosure forms—an oversight that could mean millions for the president’s son-in-law—is an ethical lapse that should have severe ramifications.

“It appears [Kushner] ended up being the beneficiary of that omission,” said Lieu, a California Democrat. “He enriched himself by failing to disclose the asset.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 9:46 am

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