In re Bob McNair’s gaffe of 2017 October

It’s time for another “queue jumper”. This one can’t wait because it is all over the news; I offer up Bleacher Report’s version if you need to catch up on the story.

The crux of this was the comment from Mr. McNair: “We can’t have inmates running the prison.” Though to his credit, he did apologize for the comment earlier today on Twitter, Mr. McNair’s choice of words was reckless and he should have known that they could be interpreted as racist, given the disproportionate number of people of color currently in prison and the fact that the majority of NFL players are men of color.

I caught some of the commentary on the radio (specifically KILT-AM, SportsRadio 610 during the Triple Threat show) and one of the commentators on that show suggested there would be no controversy over this remark if Mr. McNair had instead referred “inmates running the asylum”. I disagree, even though perhaps there would be less controversy, there would probably be a fairly sizeable stink over the remark. This isn’t the 1960s anymore when asylums of the sort referred to in that idiom are even common. As someone who has battled mental illness in the past, and who has also had to help friends cope with mental illness at various times over the past couple of decades, I think that idiom no longer reflects the reality of current times and needs to be retired as being in equally poor taste.

This goes beyond Mr. McNair, though. All the current NFL owners and anyone representing an NFL team as a coach or front office employee need to realize that a lot of current fans are now closer to tuning out of the NFL before, and in fact many already have, whether it’s because of reasons related to the protests, because they feel the player safety issues will never be resolved to their satisfaction or any number of other issues. Comments such as this one definitely will not help the situation, and if too many owners or staff make these kinds of comments, the NFL’s profitability might suffer.

On our nation’s leadership and protests by professional athletes

I have a lot to weigh in on regarding the recent actions of our president and elected officials, given that I haven’t posted a lot recently. But this, as a football fan (for the moment, anyway), is something I feel needs to “jump the queue”.

This story from Huffington Post covers DJT’s unfortunate and inflammatory remarks about the NFL and its players, calling for fans to boycott NFL games over the protests taking place during the playing of the national anthem. For those that have not kept up with this, the protests follow those by Colin Kaepernick, at the time of the San Francisco 49ers, and now a free agent (i.e. not currently playing in the NFL), which I commented upon previously in this blog.

Before even getting into DJT’s remarks, I feel Colin remaining a free agent (i.e. not employed playing football) as its own problem. Some of it may be due to the injuries he was recovering from last year, but for the most part, I’m not buying any argument that it’s due to football skill or lack thereof. At least most of the reason most NFL teams won’t consider signing Colin to play is because of his protest. Colin’s original protests during the playing of the anthem were, in his own words: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” As I have said previously, it’s a noble cause to protest. That people are angry because those who take a knee during the anthem appear to be unpatriotic, without knowing the real reason, is an unfortunate side effect.

While this was sitting in the queue, something even more disturbing happened. Our vice president (and former governor of Indiana), Mike Pence, flew out to watch the San Francisco 49ers play the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium (in Indianapolis). He saw (49ers) players kneeling during the anthem. DJT told him before the game to leave if any players did this, so he left. According to the Indy Star, this costs the taxpayers somewhere around $250,000 at the minimum, possibly more. In government budgets, that’s not really a whole lot. But Mr. Pence had to expect that some 49ers players would take a knee, and I personally think he orchestrated this whole thing as a protest of his own. An editorial piece in the Indy Star which criticizes Mr. Pence’s walkout also says that he should have expected this, so I’m clearly not alone:

The vice president chose to attend Sunday’s game fully knowing what was likely to transpire. He should have stayed away or stayed in his seat for the game. Instead, he chose to run a political play that shouldn’t have been in the game plan.

(I do disagree with Tim Swarens on his stance that the players are wrong to protest. It is their right to protest both the oppression originally protested by Colin Kaepernick and DJT’s later statements where he suggests that NFL rules put in place to make the game safer for its players should be rolled back, and also suggests that protesting players should be fired with the “get that son of a bitch off the field” remark.)

In this case, Mr. Pence actually protested the existence of the First Amendment by walking out of a game. (That, and he missed what would have been a great game for him to watch, as his Colts beat the 49ers in overtime 26-23.) If DJT is as rich as he makes himself out to be, he should be able to cover the cost of this egregiously stupid PR stunt out of his own pocket. The taxpayers should not have to pay for this waste of resources. This was really DJT’s move here, even though Mr. Pence was the one who actually flew to Indianapolis and left the game. If DJT wants players to quit taking a knee during the anthem, he should show more respect for them and take action to fix the root cause of the protests, which is the systemic oppression of people of color. Given DJT built a large part of his campaign on racism and division, I’m not exactly holding my breath.

Rather than firing NFL players for bringing to the nation’s attention something which has been long ignored, I think a far more intelligent move would be to get that son of a bitch (DJT) out of the White House. The time has come to impeach DJT (and possibly Mr. Pence as well) without any further delay.

(This was written, but not posted, before Colin Kaepernick filed his grievance accusing the NFL owners of collusion. I will cover this in a later post.)

Leaving the announcer’s booth: one analyst’s unusual but justified reason for quitting

A recent Daily Wire story details the somewhat sudden resignation of ABC/ESPN commentator Ed Cunningham. In essence, it became a question of ethics and conscience, quoting him as quoted in the article:

I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot. In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear. But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.

I can understand Ed’s decision. I have, in recent years, questioned whether or not I should remain an NFL fan in light of what we are finding out regarding the injuries to players, brain injuries in particular. It could be said that Ed making this decision a high-profile decision, and not simply retiring quietly, is a way of raising awareness about injuries in football, in particular chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). For that, he should be commended.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that the same people who will criticize the hell out of Ed’s decision to quit announcing football games in light of injury risks will also criticize NFL players for asking for what they feel are ridiculous salaries. The reality is that most NFL careers are short: the average NFL career is just under 7 years (6.86 years to be exact per this Houston Chronicle article). Contrast this with most white-collar or even blue-collar careers which usually last an entire lifetime (for the sake of argument, we’ll call it an average of 35 years) and have much lower injury risk. There is also the unknown of a future career-ending injury particularly for NFL players, and it could be said the high salaries cover that risk as well as the first few years after the end of a given player’s NFL career. Of course, some players do last well over a decade, particularly at positions like quarterback, kicker, and punter which have specific protections written into them in the game rules.

It’s easy to watch a football game and just lose oneself in the action until a player gets hurt. It’s even easier to forget the injury risks from playing football become occupational hazards for players at the professional level. I’ve written about college football in the past–and it was college football games for which Ed Cunningham was a color commentator for ABC and ESPN

College players, in general, are particularly vulnerable. Their younger age is a factor, of course, but it’s also due to the fact they make tons of money for their respective schools, none of which they can ever see a penny of outside of a scholarship thanks to the crazy rules the NCAA has come up with to classify these de facto professional players as amateur athletes. The term “student-athlete”, which the NCAA invented and still loves to use, is interpreted by many as an implication that studies come first–and that’s not at all where it comes from, as I have written about previously.

Here’s hoping Ed’s conscience is a bit clearer and that he continues to prosper in his other efforts. And, yes, there are other efforts; this is the same Ed Cunningham who was one of the co-producers of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a film about the world record high score on the arcade version of Donkey Kong. I have yet to see this film, though I was a bit more active in the video arcade gaming scene around the time of (and thus heard about) the death of Doris Self, who is featured in this film.

In re Hurricane Harvey and the future of the greater Houston area

First, the good news to my many friends and readers: I made it through Hurricane Harvey with just about everything intact. Where I am, the house took on only a small amount of water, and the most difficult part of the cleanup will probably be the wood chips and twigs deposited by the flood waters.

I have been watching the non-stop news coverage off and on, flipping between KPRC (channel 2), KTRK (channel 13), and KRIV (channel 26). (For some reason I have yet to figure out, I’m only intermittently able to pick up KHOU (channel 11) now. The last time I tried I could not get a usable picture, and I have a good antenna now (as opposed to the questionable antenna I was making do with for a while). The most recent weather reports I’m seeing suggest we might get a few more showers, but it’s an amount of rain measured in fractions of an inch versus measured in feet.

The National Weather Service tweeted this:

which is basically throwing their hands up in the air and saying “we’ve never seen this before.” In fact, the NWS had to adjust the coloring of their online rainfall maps, changing the previous dark purple that used to indicate merely “over 15 inches” now indicates “15 to 20 inches” with two new lighter shades of purple for “20 to 30 inches” and “over 30 inches”. The NWS spokesperson was quoted as saying this amount of rainfall was “literally and figuratively off the map”.

Per the Wikipedia article, the official totals at Bush Intercontinental Airport (which, by the way, is closed as I write this, but may be reopened by the time I actually post it) were 14.4 inches and 16.08 inches for August 26 and 27 respectively. That’s a combined two-day total of 30.48 inches. The average annual rainfall–and I emphasize that word for a reason–is 49.77 inches. That’s around 7 to 7½ months’ worth of rain in two days, with maybe another one or two inches of rain to come.

(Incidentally, this WGN story refers to the apparent official record for a one-day rainfall total of some 43 inches, caused by Tropical Storm Claudette in Alvin, Texas, back in 1979. From the same story, the worldwide one-day record is a staggering 73.62 inches, or just over 6 feet, which hit Reunion Island east of Madagascar in 1952.)

For obvious reasons, this weather event caught attention at the national and international level. Slate recently published a story about the preparedness of the Houston area for Harvey and future storms, and Quartz published a story which basically condemns the urban sprawl style of development that the Houston area is now known for. It is these stories that I want to focus on in this post, as I would like to see Hurricane Harvey be the last storm to affect our area in such a catastrophic fashion.

The most important takeaways from the Slate article are the reasons Houston was not evacuated. When people evacuated from Hurricane Rita in 2005, the death toll from the evacuation (over 100!) was worse than the death toll from the actual storm itself. (I stayed put for Rita, which made landfall near Orange, Texas, putting Houston on the “clean” side of the storm. There was no major damage in the part of west Houston I was staying in at the time; the most visible effects were a lot of traffic lights and signs being blown out of position, and some minor debris being blown onto the roads.) Given that that storm came on the heels of Hurricane Katrina earlier that year, people were a bit more on edge. However, New Orleans is a much smaller city than Houston, and Mayor Sylvester Turner is spot on in saying “you can’t put… 2.4 million people on the road [evacuating Houston]”.

This brings up the first point I’d like to make. Since the disaster that was the evacuation from Rita, improvements were made by the local authorities, with freeways such as I-45 having semi-permanent contraflow or “evaculane” capabilities at certain points. These haven’t been tested yet. If Mayor Turner is right, though, and our highways lack the capacity to evacuate the entire city in a reasonable amount of time, this is a problem that needs to be fixed. We need to look at the possibility that Houston has simply grown to be too big, at least in population.

If only population was the only issue. The Quartz article features a dramatic before-and-after sliding picture showing the difference in natural wetlands versus developed land between 1986 and 2017. The science doesn’t lie: keeping wetlands in their natural state is one of the best ways of mitigating flood damage. Houston’s lack of zoning laws, the willingness of developers to pave over wetlands, and the lack of a legal way for the government to stop them and the ever-increasing urban sprawl, have resulted in what we have today in 2017.

Back in the 1950s when my grandparents moved to this area, I-610 (“the Loop”) was essentially the city limits, with the house they bought being maybe a mile or so north of that highway. Then, Beltway 8 was built, first as a normal surface road, then a controlled-access toll road. Now, most recently, Texas 99 or the Grand Parkway was built, which actually goes into neighboring counties.

A lot of the opposition to the Grand Parkway was that it is a “road to nowhere”. Well, so was Beltway 8 when it was first built. So was I-610 when it was first built. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: developers won’t build where there are no roads, so when roads are first being built they appear to be useless “roads to nowhere”. Yet, the Grand Parkway can be seen as a symptom of the disease that is urban sprawl.

Yet more frightening is this quote from the Quartz article:

Obama had greatly expanded the number of wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act. This federal law requires developers who destroy wetlands to mitigate the ecological effects, for instance by creating new wetlands elsewhere. In February, the Trump administration said it would repeal (paywall) Obama’s decision, meaning a lot more wetlands would lose that protection. (The repeal process is still unfolding.)

Not that Houston has ever been a stickler for federal rules. To get a permit under the Clean Water Act, developers who build in protected wetland areas must submit paperwork showing they’ve completed mitigation measures. In 2015, Texas A&M and non-profit research group HARC analyzed a sample of permits issued from 1990 to 2012 in the greater Houston area. They found that in fewer than half of the cases had the developers submitted complete paperwork, and in two thirds of the cases, there was no documentation that any type of mitigation had happened. Another study (pdf) by the same two groups looked at a dozen projects that had obtained permits, and found that only two of them had successfully offset wetland destruction, seven were partially successful, and three were complete failures.

Given his track record, it’s not the least bit surprising that DJT plans to repeal this law passed by his predecessor. However, a lot of the blame has to be placed on the governments granting permits in the Houston area without proper regard to the Clean Water Act. It is inexcusable that fewer than half of the projects had the required documentation, and it is definitely inexcusable that those responsible for granting the permits overlooked this. Continuing on:

And that’s only projects subject to federal regulations. The researchers found that the vast majority of wetland-disrupting activities aren’t subject to those rules. “The inevitable resultant freshwater wetland loss is therefore often uncounted and unmitigated,” they wrote (pdf).

In other words, there are some cases where developers can build on or otherwise disrupt wetlands and there is no oversight from the government.

The Slate article touches on this too:

One underlying cause of Houston’s suffering is that developers and town officials in Harris County, which contains Houston, have for years advocated the development of the wetlands and prairies around the city—land that had long served to absorb the rainwater that now overwhelms the region’s sewers and streams every year. The flood-absorbent grasslands of the Katy Prairie have been cut by three-quarters over the past few decades as Houston sprawled west. The state played along, funding expansion of I-10, “the Katy Freeway,” and another road, the Grand Parkway, which further opened that land up for development. To make matters worse, money-hungry officials also encouraged development in low-lying, flood-prone areas without regard to future risk. There have been more than 7,000 units built in the hundred-year floodplain since 2010, according to a ProPublica/Texas Tribune analysis. Efforts to reform the city’s building codes have been met with strong resistance in an area where homebuilding has been a major economic engine.

Or, put another way: to hell with the future potential for flooding, the homebuilders and developers need to make money. Profits come before people. The home builders build a house, and once it’s sold, they don’t care if it floods, they’ve been paid and that’s now the new homeowner’s problem (and possibly the bank’s problem). It should be obvious that this is unsustainable. It’s going to take a radical shift in how we view our city, but it is obvious we can fix this into a more sustainable model.

The first step is that a significant portion of the paved-over wetlands and prairie need to be returned to their natural state. I’m not sure exactly how much, but I would say at least a third of what has been developed since 1986 at a bare minimum, but more likely at least half. The only way I see to do this is for the government to buy back houses and buildings built in these areas, using eminent domain if necessary. The people and businesses displaced will need to relocate into other areas, possibly further out from the center of Houston to preserve the wetlands and prairie. The properties that keep getting flooded the worst would be the highest priority. A lot of the problem, by the way, is not in the city of Houston proper, but out in the suburbs surrounding Houston. If we can fix this through zoning (real zoning, not just deed restrictions), then we would need a zoning authority that covered at minimum the counties of Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Waller, Liberty, Brazoria, and at least the mainland portion of Galveston County. I’m not sure what to do about cities with existing zoning regulations (I know of Tiki Island and Jersey Village, there may be others). If zoning is not the answer, we need some way to stop developers and say “no, you can’t build here, it will make flooding worse”. Yes, it’s going to be expensive to turn a lot of the built-up areas back to wetlands, prairie, and other natural states, but we would spend even more money cleaning up flood after flood after flood. A lot of the land should have stayed in its natural state (wetlands or prairie) to begin with.

The second step is that we must more closely follow the settlement patterns of other cities of comparable and larger size: namely higher-density development with an emphasis on pedestrian- and transit-friendly attributes. I would eventually like to see I-10, I-69, I-45, and US 290 rebuilt as narrower freeways with the excess land used for commuter rail. As for the Grand Parkway, parts of it have been built, so I’m torn between saying we may as well finish it, and the rest of it shouldn’t be built; if it is completed, particular attention needs to be paid to the environmental impacts of doing so. If this sounds crazy or like a pipe dream to you, take a look at pictures of Houston and how ridiculously big the Katy Freeway (I-10 west of downtown) and Southwest Freeway (I-69/US 59 southwest of downtown) are. Then look at the largest freeways in cities around the world. No other city in the world makes their freeways with this many lanes for miles and miles. Look at New York City with its subways and Chicago with its “el” trains. (I realize we can’t do subways in Houston, but we definitely can do better with public transit. To its credit, the reimagined bus route network from Metro is a huge improvement, but there still exists plenty of room for improvement.) Worse, we are now calling on Metro to spend money out of its budget for fixing roads, which is completely ass-backwards. Metro’s money should go for public transit and HOV lane operation. We should not be dipping into that to fix roads for cars at the expense of public transit.

The third step is that every developer needs to ask the questions “what happens when it floods?” and “if we build this, will it flood elsewhere?” Notice I don’t word that first one as “what happens if it floods?” because we know it’s going to flood at some point. For a long time, those in charge of building new homes and buildings have worried more about getting paid than flooding. I understand the need to stay in business, but past a certain point, building on previous wetlands and building too close to a reservoir (I forget where I read this, but it was described as effectively the same as “building homes in a lake”) is going to backfire and get somebody all wet.

Another thing is we have to lose this attitude that we can just build more roads to fix our traffic problems. More concrete is not the answer. I know everyone appreciates the convenience of not having to ride the bus back out to the park & ride lot to get the car at the end of the day, but for the same reason we can’t put a million cars on the road to evacuate from a hurricane, we can’t realistically expect that everyone can drive their car to work, especially when home is 25 or more miles from work.

Finally, the flood plains need to be redrawn based on the events of the past few years. Climate change has happened, and we no longer can count on the 50-year flood plain to be an area that’s going to flood once every 50 years. Speaking of which, the terminology is misleading. People point out that “50-year flood” really means it has a 2% chance of occurring in a given year. Maybe when meteorology first began being able to measure flood plains, the 50-year figure was truly accurate. They are calling Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey a 500-year, 800-year, or 1000-year flood depending on who you talk to. Unfortunately, Tropical Storm Allison only hit in 2001, 16 years ago. Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, then we had the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods in the past couple of years. Obviously, we don’t have data going back that far, but based on my observation, Harvey is maybe a 50-year storm based on the climate we have today. I would be more willing to label it a 25-year storm depending on what happens in the next few years in this area. This is climate change, and this is real. Those who are denying climate change are liars, and the effects of this storm are the proof.

I realize nobody can realistically plan for 30+ inches of rain over two days. There’s no way that is going to happen without some flooding happening somewhere. However, we can plan to reduce the impact of such an event. Urban sprawl and the uncoordinated, idiotic, and scatterbrained pattern of development in the Houston area have gone beyond a mere environmental issue to a public safety issue. We can’t just sit there and let this happen again next time a hurricane or tropical storm hits us.

In re Charlottesville, and related events of the past few days

Hopefully this didn’t take too long; as I’m putting the finishing touches on this post, the Charlottesville protests are about a week ago. For reasons that should be obvious, this post is one of my more difficult posts to write. It’s about many “hot” topics. I am using the Wikipedia article on the events as my main source for an account of the event. As with all things on Wikipedia, it may have been changed by the time you read this.

We have reached a point in our history where the symbols of the Confederacy are starting to be seen for what they are: symbols of hate, symbols of racism, and perhaps more importantly, symbols of defeat and failure. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the town of Charlottesville voted to take town a statue of the Confederate war figure Robert E. Lee.

I have no issues with peaceful, nonviolent protests. However, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, even if it started as a nonviolent protest, was not going to remain such owing to several factors. One, racism and anti-Semitism is a hot-button issue. Waving of Confederate flags and chants such as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” definitely approaches the line of so-called “fighting words” (as defined by Justice Frank Murphy, “those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”). Some have argued that the Confederate and Nazi flags and symbols stand for, respectively, the enslavement and extermination of large masses of people, and based on that alone would run afoul of the “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment.

The counterprotesters chanted slogans such as “Kill all Nazis” and “punch a Nazi in the mouth.” There is no question these phrases definitely cross the line of “fighting words.” In addition, both the protesters and counter-protesters were carrying firearms, including semi-automatic weapons. It is difficult to say with certainty that the armed protesters and counter-protesters intended this to be a non-violent protest.

Given this, on one hand it’s a good thing that there was no shootout. On the other hand, there were deaths related to the aborted rally: two were from a Virginia State Police helicopter crash, and one was of course Heather Heyer from an auto-pedestrian crash that also non-fatally injured 19 other counter-protesters. Heather’s death in particular was tragic, senseless, and completely unnecessary. This does not imply the deaths of Troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M. M. Bates were not tragic–they were, though we do not have the full accident reports from the NTSB yet to better understand how their deaths happened.

As a rule, I condemn violence in protests of this sort. This is definitely not a case where I feel I can make an exception; we are intelligent creatures, not jungle animals, and protests like this are more the sort of thing that jungle animals do.

I can’t keep talking about this without talking about the campaign that elected our current president, who I will only refer to by his initials, DJT. DJT built his campaign on divisiveness and hate, and was elected by a popular minority of the people due to the way the Electoral College is set up. Those of us who voted otherwise watched in horror as the ballots were totalled up. It’s a bit off-topic, so I’m not going to devote pages to this, but to say the least I think DJT winning is the strongest indictment of the Electoral College system to date.

At least the other presidents to win elections despite not winning a popular majority were at least somewhat qualified. Wikipedia’s list of presidents of the US by experience shows DJT as the fifth president to have never held office before being elected president, after Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Taylor won a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote in his first election; Grant, Hoover, and Eisenhower all won the popular vote in their respective first elections. That leaves DJT alone as a president elected with a minority of the popular vote and without holding office before.

While the disaster in Charlottesville was not directly the result of DJT winning the election, I find it difficult to believe it would have happened with anyone else as president, whether that was Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or Daffy Duck. (Yes, I think a cartoon character would be more fit for the office than DJT, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant I’ll have to post later.) It even took a while for DJT to find the right words after Charlottesville; at first he condemned both sides, those protesting against the monuments being taken down who wanted them to remain up, and those counter-protesting against those who wanted the monuments to remain up.

Again, George Santayana’s quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” comes into play. At first glance, DJT clearly doesn’t remember World War II and what happened to Nazi Germany as led by Adolf Hitler. Alternatively, he does remember and just flat out doesn’t care. That in many ways is far worse if it’s true. Either way it’s inexcusable for the leader of a world superpower to fail to immediately and decisively condemn racist, discriminatory, and violent conduct.

DJT needs to accept that part of the blame for the events in Charlottesville falls directly on him and his campaign. At numerous times during the campaign, DJT was compared to none other than Adolf Hitler. I was derided for sharing the comparisons among my Facebook friends, but unfortunately the accuracy of those comparisons is now starting to show. I will more directly address this in a later post.