Monday, November 24, 2014

R.I.P. Ray Farabee: Student spook, state senator, UT's lawyer, good guy

R.I.P., Ray Farabee.

I first met the man in 1989, soon after he'd left the Texas state senate to become general counsel at the University of Texas System. At the time I was co-editor with Tom Philpott Jr., who now writes about food politics and economics for Mother Jones, of an alternative student publication called "Polemicist" that nearly exclusively published investigative reporting and criticism about UT Austin. At the end of the savings-and-loan meltdown and the beginning of Austin's tech boom, that was a wide-open, wild and woolly beat by any standard. (Hardly anyone ever even pretends to cover the university as the major regional political and economic institution it really is, a situation that's equally true today as in the late '80s.)

At the time, Tom and I were reporting on a story that led us to run a background check on Mr. Farabee. We were able to concretely deduce from public records that, while he was President of the National Student Association in the 1960s, Farabee was recruited as an asset by the CIA, as were numerous other student and labor leaders of the era. The idea behind the Cold-War era program was to finance and support anti-communist liberals within student and labor organizations prone to radicalization, if not to alter their positions then at least to monitor their activities.

Today, concealing such youthful connections seems quaint after David Dewhurst was elected to multiple terms as Lieutenant Governor with his main qualifications being a) he was rich, b) he was a competitive calf roper, and c) he'd worked in his twenties as a CIA case officer during an era in which they helped overthrow the government in Bolivia. But this was during the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, years before 9/11, when student groups were actively protesting CIA recruitment and the terms of debate surrounding spooks in public life arguably was less forgiving than now.

Anyway, we went to confront Farabee who, upon seeing the evidence admitted to being recruited by the CIA. However, he said he'd never undertaken the biggest assignment they laid out for him - infiltrating left-wing student groups in Europe - mainly because his father passed away right before he was to have departed.

Farabee politely asked us not to publish the fact of his youthful CIA involvement because, he said, he'd taken an oath (though the whole episode already at that time was a quarter-century old - basically ancient history). That would not have been enough to dissuade us, but he also made a valid argument that the revelation was merely salacious and had nothing to do with the story we were researching, about which his office had turned over hundreds of records and cooperated in full. And finally, perhaps predictably, he offered us another story instead, or at least a lead about the story we were working on, though for the life of me I can't now remember what it was. Much more memorable than those details were my conversations with Tom afterward about whether Farabee's dalliance with the CIA was newsworthy or merely inflammatory.

We decided, rightly or wrongly, that it wasn't news, or at least particularly important news, and for my part I've never mentioned the subject in writing until now. While I covered the university, Farabee treated us fairly, never screwed us over, and always returned phone calls, which from my perspective was about all one could ask. I liked him; in all my dealings with Ray Farabee (the last of which was perhaps 20 years ago), I found him to be an honorable man. I'm sorry to learn of his passing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Texas Combat Sports: A whole lotta fightin' going on

I must admit I had not realized the volume of boxing and combat sport events in Texas. Here's a list of events coming up over the next 2-3 months from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation website:

Event Schedule

All events are subject to change or cancellation.
  • 11/06/14 Dallas Petroleum Club, Dallas
  • 11/08/14 Top Rank, Pharr
  • 11/15/14 Top Rank, San Antonio
  • 11/15/14 Blue Chip Promotions, Humble
  • 11/21/14 Savarese Promotions, Houston
  • 11/21/14 Tejanito Promotions, El Paso
  • 11/22/14 Undercard Promotions, Dallas
  • 12/01/14 Leija/Battah Promotions, San Antonio
  • 12/05/14 Blue Chip Promotions, Houston
  • 12/06/14 Xtreme Combat Productions, Robstown
  • 12/06/14 Golden Boy Promotions & Leija Battah Promotions, Laredo
  • 01/17/15 League of Extraordinary Fighters Boxing Promotions, Beaumont
  • 01/23/15 Saverese Promotions, Houston
  • 01/26/15 Leija Battah Promotions, San Antonio
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
  • 11/07/14 STFC, McAllen
  • 11/14/14 Legacy Promotions, Houston
  • 11/22/14 UFC, Austin
  • 12/12/14 Legacy Promotions, Houston
  • 01/10/15 Fury Fighting Championship, San Antonio
  • 01/10/15 Xtreme MMA, Corpus Christi (pro and amateur)
  • 01/17/15 J and C Promotions, Brownsville
  • 01/17/15 Back Alley, Arlington
  • 01/30/15 Premiere Fight, Midland
  • 02/13/15 Fury Fighting Championship, Humble
Combination Events (Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts)
  • 01/16/15 Triple A Promotions, Laredo
  • 01/17/15 Saverese Promotions, Houston
Amateur Mixed Martial Arts
  • 11/15/14 Garcia Promotions, Dallas
  • 11/20/14 USACA, Dallas
  • 11/21/14 Icon Production Group (IASA), Victoria
  • 11/21/14 Superior Combative Championships (SCC), Galveston
  • 12/05/14 Savarese Amateur Association (SAA), Houston (Muay Thai)
  • 12/06/14 CHASM Elite, Belton
  • 12/06/14 Premiere Combat Group (PCG), San Antonio
  • 01/10/15 Xtreme MMA, Corpus Christi (pro and amateur)
  • 01/16/15 Legacy Promotions, Houston
That's a lot of fights. And when you read the Sports pages or watch sports programming on local TV news (or for that matter, ESPN), there is almost zero fight coverage. The papers are doing a crappy job of covering what's clearly an emerging sport here in Texas and the fight promoters are doing a lousy job with publicity. I'm an actual fight fan - a casual one, but still ... you shouldn't have to hunt this list down on some obscure state licensing agency website. If the industry promoted itself properly they'd be telling folks like me about these events ahead of time.

The state just elevated a long-time staffer to become its new "Combative Sports Program Manager," fwiw, though I know nothing about the fellow to suppose that's a good or a bad thing. Texas' boxing regulation has been a running national joke for several years so part of me questions the decision to hire from within. Still, I hope he succeeds and does a good job. With our proximity to Mexico and the state's tough-guy culture, combat sports could and should flourish in Texas if the government and promoters can get out of the way of the growing number of fighters and fans.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

More math tricks

Here are several items/links I wanted to remember as I try to teach kids in the Blanton Elementary math pentathlon team a few tricks to make (dreaded) multiplication less scary.
The above are taken from a cool blog series on 25 (or 26?) different ways to multiply.

Next up on an 8 year old's soldering kit tour: Snap-o-Lantern (Updated)

The young'un received a "Snap-O-Lantern" kit from her Spark Club mentors at The Thinkery too late for us to put together at home by Halloween. But I think it'll make a great Thanksgiving centerpiece (one that can sit around most of the day and get swept aside when the turkey, etc., is ready). From the "Evil Mad Scientist" site that produced the kit: "Normally, it just sits there, in disguise as a boring old pumpkin."

"But, every twenty seconds he comes to life. His LED eyes turn on, his jaw slowly opens, and then SNAPS shut– and he goes back into stealth mode."

With a (much) bigger servo and a bit of creative pumpkin engineering you can take the concept to extremes. I'm wondering if there's some way to trigger the thing with a sensor of some sort, especially if after the holiday is over and the squash has gone bad we wanted to do something like this with it. I rather like the idea of a book that peeks up  at you with glowing eyes, but I'd like it better if it reacted to, say, someone sitting down in a designated chair, reacting to either a motion or a pressure sensor. (Ditto for the pumpkin gimmick, for that matter.)

The project is definitely within Ty's soldering/technical skills, but the use of an actual squash means we must do it relatively soon before Thanksgiving - perhaps the weekend before, at the earliest - to keep it from becoming fly infested. Using the same apparatus for the peek-a-boo book has more long-term potential, but making it sensor driven would boost the fun. Will report back if I figure out how.

UPDATE (12/16): I hope it's true we learn more from our failures than our successes because this was our first failure together, and more mine than hers. This was her most complicated soldering project to date. Because we'd gotten this from her children's museum class, I only had one and didn't put one together myself before she tried to do it. I wish I had. Every moment of indecisiveness before figuring out where to put a piece made her more frustrated (and at eight her reading comprehension wasn't quite up to the instructions, which we were reading off a lap top at the dining room table/work station, so much of it was inevitably on me). Finally, jerking away to conceal what she was doing in some ill-conceived expression of a privacy demand, Ty splattered solder just about everywhere including across more than a dozen connections on the circuit board and in and around all the chip connections. I attributed this behavior to my own unpreparedness and lack of pedagogical skills, regrettably; I understand why she was frustrated. The front end of a learning curve isn't always fun. And if my own skills were better, I'd be a better teacher. Regardless, no amount of solder sucking and wicking was able to salvage it, though I did save the motor and large orange leds for another day.

Contemplating my abysmal pedagogical failure, I came to this head slapping realization: We only took to soldering this kit because it was handed to her at her Spark Club class at the Thinkery, Austin's big children museum. But if I'd given it two thoughts, this project would be easy to put together with little or no soldering by using an Arduino, a breadboard and jumper wires. I'm going to try it first without her over the Christmas holiday. Perhaps I can get her interested in a less fussy project involving less soldering, against which she's started to push back once we reached these slightly more complicated projects.