Sunday, April 30, 2006

US gas prices since 1945

This CNN graphic tracks American gasoline prices, adjusted for inflation, since the end of World War II. As you may expect, gas is as expensive today as it's ever been. And, if the Energy Secretary is to be believed, motorists aren't going to see any relief for several years.

This is when I am thankful that a) I don't live or work in the distant suburbs, and b) I don't own an SUV.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Analyzing your daily commute

Via Planetizen: I found this sort of interesting: a guy who lives and works on the northwest side of Houston performed a statistical analysis of his daily commute to work to see what variables affect his daily commute and how, if at all, he can minimize the time he spends in his car on his way to and from work everyday.

He discovers that two of the most relevant variables in his daily travel time are the day of the week - Friday's commutes are the quickest - and the area school district's calendar. Both of these observations make perfect sense; the popular 9/80 work week results in fewer people traveling to work on Fridays, and when school is in session there is more traffic due to the presence of faculty, staff, buses and carpool moms all commuting to and from school. He also discerns that the time in which he commutes is a factor; if he delays his trip to and from work by just 30 minutes, he could save up to 30 hours a year sitting in traffic.

I thought it was an interesting read. Most of us don't put this much thought and analysis into our daily commutes.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Astros: panic time yet?

The Houston Astros are sitting atop the NL Central with a 13-6 record, which is tied for the best record in the majors. However, after last night's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Maid Park, there seems to be a hint of panic in the air.

For those of you who missed it: with a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth inning, the 'Stros ace reliever, Brad Lidge, took the mound to try to earn the save. Instead, he loaded up the bases and then offered up a gopher ball to Nomar Garciaparra, who (grand) slammed it to left center field. The Dodgers ended up winning, 6-2. It was Lidge's first blown save of the season.

A disappointing way to lose, perhaps, every closer blows a save now and then, and Lidge still has seven saves under his belt - the most of any reliever in the majors - this season. So it's not really cause for concern, right?

Or is it?

As John Lopez writes in today's Chronicle, Brad Lidge is simply not the same intimidating pitcher he was just a year or so ago. His pitches don't have the same location, batters are getting to him with increasing frequency, and his ERA at this point in the season is 6.75, considerably worse than what it was at the end of last season (2.29) or in 2004 (1.90).

So what's going on? A popular hypothesis is that Lidge is still feeling the psychological reverberations of last October, when he gave up that mammoth three-run blast to Albert Pujols in game five of the NLCS, when the Astros were one out away from the World Series. Even though the Astros went on to beat the Cardinals in game six and advance to the World Series, having something like that happen to any closer in that situation has to be demoralizing. "The Pujols question will continue to hover over Lidge, at least in the near term. Amateur psychologists will wonder to what degree that seemingly devastating blown save affected Lidge," Lopez writes.

I don't really consider myself a psychologist, amateur or otherwise (although I do have a psych minor). In my years of watching sports, however, it's become obvious to me that two positions on which psychology has a huge effect are the place kicker in football and the closing pitcher in baseball. Perhaps it's due to the highly specialized nature of these jobs, and the fact that, so often, the outcome of the game is riding on the kicker's or the closer's shoulders. Get that last strike out, and you're the game-saving hero. Miss that last-second field goal attempt, and you're the game-blowing goat. In pressure-filled situations like this, maintaining a tough mental edge can't exactly be an easy thing to do. Why else would opposing coaches play psychological games like "icing" a field goal kicker by calling a time out right before the kick?

Is the mental aspect of his job getting to Lidge, as it has to other closers (the meltdown by once-dominant closer Mark Wohlers quickly comes to mind)? Lopez isn't the only Chronicle sportswriter who is expressing concern; Richard Justice is all over Lidge's problems (and how, perhaps, to fix them) in his blog.

I certainly don't know what the deal with Lidge is or how to fix it. Nor do I really know if there is cause for alarm yet. But I do know that Brad Lidge is key to the Astros' success. He was a big reason the Astros did as well as they did last year, and he's just as crucial a piece this year. The 'Stros just aren't going to get it done without him.

UPDATE: now it's two blown save opportunities in two nights for Brad Lidge. Ouch.

Friday, April 21, 2006

I'm, like, all over the internet and stuff...

I've finally penned the latest episode of my semi-regular series about the University of Houston Cougars and their Faithful Supporters with Internet Connections. Check out episode five of As The World (Wide Web) Turns - Cougar Edition over on CoogFun. Previous issues are there as well, but you have to scroll back several pages to find them.

And, check out the maps of the Dubai and Kyoto rail networks that I've recently drawn for

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The college rankings game

I've always been critical of US News and World Report's annual college and graduate school rankings; in fact, I denounced them in a Daily Cougar column almost a decade ago. And I'm not the only one who feels like these rankings are controversial, flawed, biased and, ultimately, useless.

These rankings are generated not by any peer-reviewed academic or education journal but rather by a mass-circulation newsweekly (whose circulation lags well behind that of Time or Newsweek). Aside from the fact that the entire idea of ranking elite (and expensive) private universities like Harvard or Yale with urban public schools like the University of Houston is absurd, because the two schools serve completely different types of students, they are based on an arbitrary (and constantly-changing) methodology that relies heavily on a completely subjective reputation score.

Speaking of the University of Houston, US News's most recent law school rankings have generated controversy there; Law School dean Nancy Rapoport has tendered her resignation, apparently at least in part to student and faculty concern over the school's ongoing decline in the US News rankings. But, as Chronicle columnist Rick Casey explains, not everybody agrees with those rankings. University of Texas law professor Brian Leiter, who does his own law school rankings, believes the annual US News rankings are a are a "fraud upon the public." Leiter says that the University of Houston's law program is the second best in the state (behind his own school, of course!), not the fourth-best program in the state as the US News rankings claim.

The problem, Casey notes, is that 15 percent of the US News rankings are based on reputation scores given by hundreds of lawyers and judges nationwide. The University of Houston does not do well in these polls, which Leiter thinks are biased towards the east and west coasts. "I think many lawyers may simply not know the school, but have an image of Houston that does not project an excellent law school," Casey suggests.

So there you have it: a mass-market newsweekly, generating bogus college rankings, based largely on a subjective reputation score from a bunch of unaccountable non-academics. Surely, there are better and more honest ways to sell magazines, right?

The Houston Bowl gets flushed?

The six-year-old Houston Bowl's odds of survival are very slim. Unless a title sponsor rides in at the last minute to save the day, which isn't likely, the cash-strapped college football game will go the way of the Bluebonnet Bowl before it and shut down.

On one hand, it's unfortunate. Reliant Stadium is a great venue for a post-season bowl and Houston should be large enough to support one. I went to a couple of games and had a good time.

On the other hand, the game was another lower-tier bowl in an environment already cluttered with postseason bowl games. It didn't help that the bowl was usually played in the afternoon during the work week, which made it difficult for people to show up and, with the exception of a couple of games that attracted crowds of over 50 thousand, attendance was poor. The bowl was close to the bottom of the pecking order as far as its conference tie-ins were concerned; in fact, for the three years the game was affiliated with the Southeastern Conference, the bowl had to look elsewhere for teams to invite because the SEC never had enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its Houston Bowl slot.

In fact, the bowl's low tie-in position with the Big 12 Conference is probably what doomed it. A person who is close to the Houston Bowl situation reports the following on this CoogFans thread:

Here are the facts,

The Bowl went into negotiations to move up in the Big 12 picture. They put a proposal that would have had them jump the Alamo Bowl. Big 12 #4 was the goal.

The Bowl folks were led to believe that they would have a very good shot at moving up. Then, from nowhere, the Big 12 jumped in and took the Sun Bowl and Gator Bowl combo and told the Houston Bowl could have Ft Worth's slot. Ft Worth would get the Champps spot.

At that point, the sponsor wasn't much interested waiting 3 years to try again. The bowl folks have been trying to find a major title sponsor with little success.

Indeed, it's really difficult for a sponsor - or fans, for that matter - to get excited about an afternoon midweek bowl game which would likely feature a couple of mediocre teams. As long as the Big 12 tie-in is somebody with a lot of local support like Texas A&M or Texas Tech, that might not be a problem. But considering that the bowl's other tie-in is now with the Big East or Conference USA, could you imagine some of the other possible matchups?

6-6 Missouri against 7-5 Syracuse
7-5 Colorado against 6-6 Alabama-Birmingham
6-6 Kansas against 8-4 Rutgers
7-5 Iowa State against 7-5 Marshall

You get the point: these are games few Houstonians, if any, would want to take an afternoon off of work to go see. Nor are they games that will generate big ratings for ESPN.

The NCAA will be recertifying bowl games for the 2006 postseason next week. Right now, things aren't looking good for the Houston Bowl.

The Rockets' season comes to a merciful end

Last night, the Houston Rockets ended their miserable season with an 87-89 loss to the San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center. The injury-plagued Rockets finish the season with a 34-48 record - a big step backwards from their 51-win campaign of a year ago. Their home record of 15-26 is tied for worst in the NBA.

So what to the Rockets do now? Well, they'll obviously see what kind of talent they can get out of the NBA draft and hope that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady get healthy over the offseason. But, as Chronicle columnist John Lopez notes, there are also some problems in the front office that the Rockets would do well to address. "A lack of vision has turned the organization into a wannabe and a distant — and fading — third option in the local sports market," he writes.

Indeed, the Rockets have become something of an afterthought on the local sports scene. Of course, it's hard for an injury-riddled team to generate much buzz as they limp through a disappointing season. And it doesn't help the Rockets have to compete for attention with other local teams, notably the Astros, that are doing so well at the moment. Nevertheless, a lot of people just don't seem to care about the Rockets that much anymore, and that includes myself. In fact, I can't say I've even watched any of their games on TV this past season for more than a few minutes at a time (and there's no way I could ever afford to see them in person even if I wanted to).

But why the apathy towards the Rockets? It's not just because they're losing, although that's undoubtedly part of the story. Even last season, when Yao and T-Mac were healthy and the Rockets were on their way to their second consecutive post-season appearance, they didn't seem to be generating a great deal of enthusiasm.

Perhaps it's hard for people to pay attention to a team that really hasn't done much since their title runs in 1994 and 1995. A few days ago, I came across my old Sports Illustrated magazine which commemorated the Rockets' second-straight NBA Championship in 1995. I flipped through the pages, looking at the pictures of Hakeem and Clyde and Rudy T and remembering just how much fun that was - eleven years ago. The Rockets were the talk of the town back then, but as their fortunes on the court declined their local cache evaporated as well. Gimmcky and desperate moves aimed at securing a third NBA title, such as adding aging stars like Scotty Pippen and loudmouth Charles Barkley, did little to reverse the downslide. The face of the franchise - Hakeem Olajuwon - was finally traded. By the beginning of the new milennium the Rockets were an NBA afterthought and failed to make the playoffs for four straight years between 2000 and 2003. Sure, the Rockets reappeared in the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, but both times they lost in the first round and that's just not going to do a lot for local fans who remember the glorious runs of the mid-90s.

Then there's the front office. Leslie Alexander is a carpetbagger from New York who is not popular locally. The front office staff has made a slew of dubious personnel decisions: bad trades, poor draft picks, large contracts for marginal players. Jeff Van Gundy was a poor hire as head coach. He is a constant complainer who does not instill confidence in his players or the fan base. And, as Lopez notes in his column, there's no sense of direction coming from management.

Hopefully the Rockets will fix some problems and get healthy over the offseason and be a markedly improved team with the 2006-2007 campaign begins in the fall. But it's going to take a lot more than that for the Rockets to become relevant again.

Okay, time to get this things started

It's been a while since I've done anything with this site, but that is going to change in the coming weeks as I finally begin to shift all my rantings, writings and updates off my current "blog" and onto this site. In the meantime, I will be posting the same comments on both sites.

Over the coming weeks, I'll also be tweaking this page's layout, adding links, and the like. Check back often as the new and improved Mean Green Cougar Red takes shape.