Reality TV isn't often described as a force for good in the world, unless you're one of those people who think the world needs more tedious television.
But a group of parents and students at Westside High School had high hopes that reality TV would be their ticket to the big time, or at least Japan.
Thanks to some publicity in People magazine, the school's Inertia dance team attracted the attention of television producer Dennis Gelbaum. He proposed doing a show on the team, a show that would have funded trips to Japan for a competition and to New York and L.A. for meetings with choreographers like Twyla Tharp. (We're not sure if Tharp herself was quite aware of this plan.)
"Westside High, the dramatic reality show, would have helped elevate, in a positive way, the profile of Westside High, the teachers, the students, HISD, etc.," Gelbaum wrote in an e-mail to parents.
Sounds great. And if you can't trust a TV producer, who can you trust?
Unfortunately, the district doesn't see it that way. "The educators here are concerned about the extreme disruption to the academic work at Westside that would be caused by a reality show shooting inside classrooms for months," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says.
Gelbaum related a slightly different reason to parents. One of the "main reasons for 'killing' the project as they were told to me was that the state of HISD was very fragile at the moment and this was not a good time to approve this type of (potentially negative and disruptive) venture," he wrote.
Parents are still fighting to keep the project alive, but are glum. "If there's no TV show, there's no Japan trip," says parent Dawn Marks.
Shoot. And now we're guessing that whole Student Wife Swap show is dead, too.
Was it Microsoft run amok, or was the Houston Chronicle getting all subliminal with its hatred of George Bush's foreign policy?
We don't know. All we know is that the lead editorial October 12, on the recent Afghanistan elections, contained this sentence: "Exit polling and international observers predicted that Interim President Hamid Crazy would win election with more than 51 percent of the vote."
Well, sure he's a winner -- he's got a great '80s-nostalgia theme song, from the Fine Young Cannibals: "He's Ha-mid Crazy -- whoop, whoop "
Critics have called Mayor Bill White's unusual plan to let developers hire their own building inspectors a sop to influential home builders, but those carpers have missed the point.
White's plan is opening new vistas for the city, allowing it to get into untapped markets that have been ignored until now. Like money laundering.
It turns out that it is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- utterly illegal for a builder to hire his own personal inspector. The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners mentioned this fact when Fort Worth tried a scheme similar to White's in 1998; then-attorney general John Cornyn agreed with the board. The law clearly stated that inspectors had to be employees of a political subdivision and not an independent contractor.
Home builders, ever eager to participate in the political process, got that law amended the next time the legislature met, so now they're allowed to contract out their inspecting work. "As long as the city pays the inspector directly, it's okay," says Robert Maxwell of the plumbing board.
So that means Houston, like Fort Worth, will get into the money-laundering game. Home builders will not pay inspectors directly, because Lord knows that might lead to some conflicts of interest, or attempts to force inspectors to ignore some delicate corner-cutting. And that would be wrong.
Instead, the home builder will write a check to the city, and the city will then write a check to the inspector. Therefore all possible problems are solved. Apparently.
Don't think for a second, though, that the city is not going to be oh-so-tough with these guys. White's plan calls for city employees to double-check up to 10 percent of inspections. Private inspectors who get caught missing more than a dozen "non-life-threatening" building violations will lose their certificates. Allowing more than two life-threatening errors results in the same penalty. Assuming, of course, they get caught.
So the first two deaths are on the house! (So to speak.) Home builders and developers everywhere are trembling, but we can't tell if it's from fear or just a severe case of derisive laughter.
Our roster of Houston's Unfortunately Named Companies has grown by one: BJ Services. A company that, according to its Web site, offers "pressure pumping" and "stimulation" and "coiled tubing services." Not to mention "downhole tool services."
Alas, we could not resist making the call:
Receptionist: BJ Services.
Hair Balls: I'm calling about a BJ.
Receptionist: You're calling in reference to what?
HB: I was just on your Web site and noticed you offer pressure pumping and stimulation. What's the price for that?
Receptionist: One moment for sales.
Sales: Good morning, BJ Services.
HB: I'm calling about a BJ. I notice you guys have pressure pumping and stimulation. What's the price on that?
Sales: You need quotation on pumping?
HB: Yeah I'm a little confused, actually.
Sales: You sound confused.
HB: I'm just trying to figure out -- what kind of pressure pumping and stimulation do you offer with the BJs?
Sales: We offer about all the kind there is when it comes to well servicing.
HB: What about the coiled tubing? That sounds kind of painful.
Sales: Who is this?
Unfortunately, an unbecoming case of giggles overtook our correspondent at this point. We'll have to train him better if he ever hopes to make it to the "Is your refrigerator running?" survey team.
In case you've ever wondered "Who the hell would protest against the Swiss?" you have your answer, and it was right here in Houston.
Outraged chocolate lovers? People who just hate neutrality?
No, it was a bunch of journalists.
On October 13, a dozen members of the Houston Independent Media Center duct-taped their mouths and marched on the Swiss consulate, or at least on the lobby of the downtown skyscraper that contains the Swiss consulate, such as it is.
They were protesting the fact that the Swiss government had asked the FBI to seize a server belonging to its parent organization, Indymedia. There's a gag order on just what triggered the incident, although Indymedia sites in Switzerland reportedly posted pictures of undercover Swiss cops.
The protest was limited to signs such as "Swiss is no gouda," which we're sure changed a lot of minds. The demonstrators also got to meet with a member of the consulate.
The protest originally was planned to include a ceremonial dumping of computers on the street -- to show that their news network is now useless -- but, good lefties that they are, the HIMC members have decided to donate the used PCs to charity.
So far, no official boycott of Swiss Army knives has been declared. But if this thing escalates
Houstonian Josh Bullard was in high dudgeon recently. He traveled to City Hall, signed up to speak and heatedly told councilmembers of a heinous evil being perpetrated in Space City.
The evil? Bullard had actually seen a city employee smoking. In a city car. Using a lighter from that very same municipal vehicle.
He wanted action, immediately. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, council's leading antismoking advocate, was ready to answer the call.
"I'm looking at this as a workplace hazard," she said.
City lawyers were ordered to investigate, and said the mayor could indeed ban smoking in city cars by executive order. No word yet on whether he'll do so.
Until that momentous day, city workers who share those cars might have to smell someone else's stale cigarette smoke. And average joes like Bullard -- and you -- will have to suffer the indignity and hardship of watching city employees light up in city vehicles. Not to mention all the secondhand smoke inhaled as they drive by, assuming they're stuck in traffic for a long time. And you're standing right by one of their open windows.
Citizen Watch, Part Two
Melinda Holmes has a daughter with an immune deficiency, so she's constantly vigilant about diseases like West Nile Virus.
She didn't have to look too hard for ominous signs at her home near Tomball, though. A dead bird infected with the disease fell right onto her head. Literally.
"Out my back door there are a lot of trees, so I don't know if it was sitting on a branch dying and fell, or what," she says. The "or what" apparently covers other contingencies such as kamikaze attacks. Or just plain suicide. Or a bird too lazy to bother flapping its wings even as it plummets to the ground. (Presumably there'd be headphones and a Phish CD involved in that last scenario.)
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Knowing that a dead blue jay isn't a good sign, Holmes reported it to authorities, who confirmed the presence of the virus. A second dead bird, also infected, showed up on her property two weeks later, although this time without a dramatic death dive.
So now Holmes, who is too financially strapped to do much else, is spending her time worrying about her sick daughter and trying desperately to keep mosquitoes away.
"I have citronella candles on my front porch," she says.
So far, at least, she's not wearing a hard hat while she walks the dog.