Thursday, July 27, 2006

Update on my missing website

My entire website is still down. I originally planned to put everything back up yesterday or today, but now it's looking like it's not going to happen until this weekend at the earliest.

Thank you for your patience.

Texas and its screwy liquor laws

Every time a visitor from another state comes to Texas, I invariably find myself having to explain the state's liquor laws to them. This is because people who live outside of Texas ususally find them to be rather bizarre. Unlike in many other states, for example, hard liquor cannot be sold in grocery stores, but rather in special liquor stores. And those liquor stores have to close at 9 pm every day and are not permitted to be open at all on Sundays. Beer and wine can be purchased in supermarkets, but only until midnight (expect for Saturday nights, when sales are extended until 1 am). And there are many parts of the state where no alcohol sales of any kind are permitted; certain cities, counties and other political geographies have chosen to be "dry." In that regard, reading this article in yesterday's Denton Record-Chronicle, which discusses efforts in Denton and other area towns to collect enough signatures to force a vote on allowing alcohol sales, brought back some memories.

Much of Denton is already "wet," as the article notes; in 1977, Denton held a local option election to allow beer and wine sales within the city. The measure passed, but it only applied to land within the city limits at that time. Any property annexed by the city of Denton since 1977 (see the .pdf file accompanying the article) has remained dry. Given Denton's rapid growth over the past several years, this has caused some problems:

In 2001, when (recently-elected Denton Mayor Perry) McNeill first was elected to the City Council, officials from Tom Thumb considered opening a new supermarket at Teasley Lane and Ryan Road, but didn’t because beer and wine sales were prohibited there. But across the street, a convenience store was legally selling beer and wine, McNeill said.

“That doesn’t make sense to have that kind of irregularities inside your city limits,” he said. “From an economic standpoint, we ought to be consistent throughout the city.”

I remember very well that proposed Tom Thumb supermarket, because I was the planner who handled the developer's rezoning application and plat submission. A grocery store at that location made a lot of sense due to the amount of new and planned residential development occurring in that area on the south side of town. However (and, unfortunately, only after the developers successfully rezoned and platted the property), Tom Thumb withdrew from the proposal precisely because the property was located on the "dry" side of Ryan Road and they threfore would not be able to sell beer and wine there. It really was that much of a deal-killer for them; they apparently felt that they couldn't successfully compete with the Kroger further up Teasley Lane which could sell beer and wine.

In recent years, voters in several other cities on the north side of the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex have chosen to allow alcohol sales. Lewisville, for example, now allows beer and wine sales; voters approved the measure in early 2005 after several previous failed attempts. Thus, no more having to drive to Flower Mound to buy a six-pack of beer or a bottle of merlot (as I had to do when I lived there in 1999 - 2000).

While issues related to the sale of alcohol seem to be more prevalent in northern Texas than in southern Texas, bizarre liquor laws aren't exclusively confined to the northern portion of the state. Here in Houston, we have our very own "dry" enclave within the city limits: the Houston Heights. If you've ever been to this historic neighborhood, you might have noticed that there are no liquor stores and that none of the convenience stores or grocery stores sell beer or wine. This is because the Heights, as its own municipality, disallowed alcohol sales, and it was absorbed into the City of Houston in 1914 with the provision that that prohibition be maintained.

Supporters of an election to expand alcohol sales to Denton's current city limits, rather than is 1977 boundaries, have until the end of Friday to collect enough signatures to require an election. The proposed election would not only expand the limit of alcohol sales but also do away with Denton's (rather silly) requirement that people join a "private club" before being served mixed drinks in restaurants. Lewisville used to have this rule as well; as such, when I lived up there I kept the venerable Unicard (read this interesting article about it and its inventor) ready in my wallet.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

No 2016 Olympics for Houston

The United States Olympic Committee still hasn't formally decided if it wants to submit a bid city for the 2016 Summer Olympics at all, but if they do, it won't be Houston. Earlier today the USOC eliminated Houston, along with Philadelphia, as candidate cities. Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco remain in the running.

As I predicted a couple of months ago, Houston wouldn't make the cut mainly due to the fact that the city does not have a strong reputation in the international community. As the Chronicle reports, this is exactly what happened:
Houston's elimination hinged on the fact that, based on the USOC's survey of 58 members of the International Olympic Committee and 42 leaders of international sports federations, it lags badly behind Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco as a perceived center for international sports.

"Even though Houston is a great international city and highly respected, it's not that well known as the other cities (among international sports leaders) as the cities that are going forward," (USOC CEO Jim) Scherr said. "That's a critical factor."
USOC Vice President Bob Ctvrtlik (don't ask me how to pronounce it) suggested that Houston might build its reputation in the international community by hosting other major international sporting events.
"We were confident that Houston could host an Olympic Games," Ctvrtlik said. " ... It was mostly that their (IOC members') vision of Houston was more undefined. We're assuming that one way to improve that will be to host Olympic events and give the Olympic and the sports community a chance to see the wonderful parts of the city."
To that end, the USOC will pay another visit to Houston later this year to discuss the city's potential as a host for the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials or upcoming world championships. There's also some discussion that Houston might bid for the 2011 Pan American Games.

The city's Olympic dreams, otherwise, are dead for the foreseeable future. However, as I suggested a decade ago, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Let's check in on the 'Stros...

Things aren't looking good for the hometown team right now. The Astros have lost ten out of their last fourteen games and are six games below .500. Although Roger Clemens has been pitching well since he re-joined the team last month, he's not getting any run support. The recent acqusition of Aubrey Huff from Tampa Bay hasn't had much of an impact. While the bullpen is also a concern - closer Brad Lidge is still struggling - the biggest problem with this team is the offense, or lack thereof. The Astros have the worst batting average in the National League.

Even Chronicle columnist Richard Justice is beginning to see that the writing might be on the wall for this team. "We're close to the point where it's time to begin planning for 2007," he ominously suggests.

Time is indeed running short for the Astros to right their ship, and with each passing loss it's looking less and less likely that we'll be treated to another amazing late-season run like we saw in 2004 and 2005.

While the last two years have been fun for baseball fans here in Houston, it's hard to expect that the Astros will catch lightning in a bottle for the third season in a row and make it back into the World Series. There are just too many problem areas on this year's team.

Self-improvement introspection for the day

Early today, I did something that I regret. The details aren't important; I simply allowed my emotions to get the better of me and did something foolish.

I need to learn not to allow other people (even people I strongly dislike) or events to bring out the worst in me.

Website notice

I am in the process of making some changes to my website, so I've temporarily taken the whole thing down. I should have everything back up again within a few days.

I apologize for any inconvenience.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"This turbulence is making me queasy!"

"Quick! Pass me the barf bag... sponsored by Hertz Rent-a-Car?!?!"

Advertising agencies will not rest until they've finally found a way to sell ad space on everything. US Airways is going to start printing advertisements on its barf bags.

"Having an advertisement for a barf bag, especially if it's for something like Dramamine, now that's brilliant," says aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

Maybe. But I personally think it's kind of goofy.

Even worse: CBS is placing advertisements for its fall lineup on eggs. Yes, eggs.

I'm with John on this one: when I'm making an omelet, I really don't need to be reminded about the latest episode of CSI or Survivor (of which, I am proud to say, I have never watched a single episode). When I go to the store and pay for a dozen eggs, I shouldn't I expect them to be free of annoying advertisements on them?

What's next? Are they going to place ads on other types of produce? I can see it now: celery will have "try me with JIF peanut butter!" stamped on the stalks; limes will bear little stickers reading "try me with an ice cold Corona Light!"


45 days and counting...

As anybody who knows me can attest, my favorite time of year is college football season. And, with a month and a half left until kickoff, I feel myself eagerly awaiting the beginning of another fall of University of Houston Cougar football.

It's hard not to get excited about the Coogs. They're coming off of their second bowl season in three years. They return a ton of starters on offense and defense. The schedule is, to say the least, favorable, with seven games at home and eight games in Houston. Senior quarterback Kevin Kolb is being presented as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Gushing previews of the team are enough to get any Houston fan's blood flowing.

But I'm wondering: do I really want to get excited about Cougar football? One thing I’ve noticed over the past decade or so is that there is an inverse relationship to the amount of excitement I have for the coming football season and the actual results of that season. Generally speaking, if I'm overly enthusiastic about UH football during the offseason, the team does poorly. If my offseason enthusiasm is muted, the team does well.

In the summer of 1996, I wasn’t terribly enthused about UH football. The program had been in the toilet for the last five years, the 1995 team was one failed SMU onside kick and one missed Rice chip-shot field goal away from going 0-fer. The SWC had been dissolved and the Coogs were on their way to a small, second-rate conference. There was even some grumbling, from faculty members and Daily Cougar columnists alike, about dropping football. Those were times of doubt and indifference.

Of course, that fall the Coogs went 7-4, captured a share of the Conference USA title and went to the Liberty Bowl. By all accounts, it was a good season, and, needless to say, it whetted my appetite for more Cougar football. I spent all spring and summer of 1997 eagerly looking forward to the coming season and hoping that the Coogs could build on last year’s momentum, begin dominating their new conference, and eventually rebuild the program to its former greatness.

Instead, the Coogs went 3-8 in 1997.

No matter, I thought. Sometimes you have to take a step back before you take another step forward. 1998 will be better, right? I enthusiastically spent another spring and summer awaiting kickoff.

The Cougars rewarded my anticipation by going 3-8 once again.

Back-to-back three-win seasons dampered my enthusiasm for football. By now I had realized that Kim Helton was a pro position coach who simply wasn’t meant to be a college head coach; I just couldn’t get excited about him or his team anymore. Added to that was the fact that during the spring and summer of 1999 I was finishing graduate school, searching for a job and moving to the north side of the DFW Metroplex, so I really didn’t have a lot of time to think about college football.

Happily, the Coogs managed a 7-4 record that fall, and notched wins on the road against BCS schools LSU and North Carolina. The winning season didn’t result in a bowl appearance, however, nor was it enough to save Kim Helton’s job. He was replaced by Dana Dimel, who had previous experience as a college head coach at Wyoming and, at least we thought, had been successful there. Things were looking up for Cougar football, I decided.

The spring and summer of 2000 is when I really began pining for college football. For the first time, I began to closely pay attention to recruiting classes. I eagerly read the various spring practice reports, trying to discern how good the team really was. I literally counted down the days until the season started on my dry-erase board in the kitchen (“Only 146 days ‘til kickoff! Woohoo!”) and started buying the preseason magazines. September 2000 couldn’t come soon enough for me.

Alas, Dana Dimel’s first season didn’t turn out that well, as the team went 3-8.

No matter. The new coach needs time to install his gameplan and recruit his own players, right? I expected that the Coogs would be better in 2001. Another spring and summer were spent in eager anticipation, counting down the days until the start of football season on the dry erase board.

However, the 2001 season was the first winless season in UH football history. To say that I was dissatisfied with the result would be an understatement.

The spring and summer of 2002 were spent moving back to Houston, traveling through Europe, and searching for a job. That left little time to think about football, and given the crushing disappointment of the previous season I really didn’t want to. I was looking forward to the Rice game, however; I was getting tired of watching the Coogs lose to the Owls and it was time for revenge.

The Coogs did go on to beat the Owls, and the ensuing 5-7 campaign of 2002 was a considerable improvement over the previous year. But it was still a losing record (which included inexplicable meltdowns against Alabama-Birmingham and East Carolina) and it wasn’t enough for Dana Dimel to keep his job. Art Briles was hired to replace Dimel, becoming UH’s third head coach in five seasons.

In the spring and summer of 2003, my enthusiasm for UH football was at an all-time low. Houston’s new head coach is a high school coach from West Texas? Oh, boy. Our best offensive athlete, Barrick Nealy, has transferred to San Marcos? Great. I no longer counted down the days until kickoff, I walked right past the magazine aisle with all the preseason magazines at the store, and I ignored the typically gushing spring football reports on I was Missouri: "show me."

The Coogs did show me that fall, ending Briles’ inaugural season with a 7-5 record and a bowl appearance. The offense was really exciting, I thought. If there’s just a little improvement on defense, we could be really good! Maybe this Briles guy is who we need after all!

It’s amazing how one winning season can get one’s hopes way up. And so it was in 2004, as I spent the spring and summer once again eagerly awaiting the start of another football season. I really expected the Coogs to notch at least six wins in 2004 and, in the process, cobble together their first consecutive winning seasons since the run and shoot era. It didn’t hurt matters that the original date of the Bayou Bucket – September 4, 2004 – was also Lori's due date. So I was focused on the start of the season in more ways than one.

Kirby actually arrived a couple of weeks early, so I didn’t have to miss the start of football season. However, the loss to Rice at Reliant Stadium – Rice’s third victory over the Coogs in four years – made me wish I had. The season ended with another disappointing 3-8 record, the fourth in eight years. Was 2003 just a mirage? Was Briles’ offense just a gimmick that other teams had already figured out? Once again, I was left disappointed and full of doubt about UH football. Added to my discouragement was the fact that the next round of conference realignment had come and gone and, while schools like Louisville and Cincinnati had converted their success on the field (and on the basketball court) into an invitation to a BCS conference, Houston was left to languish in a weakened Conference USA. Where was this program going?

So I can’t say I was overwhelmingly enthused about the start of the 2005 season. The yearly football-related emotional roller-coaster had taken its toll and I was fatigued. I didn't know what to expect for the fall, but I was not particularly hopeful. Not even the relentless optimism over on CoogFans could raise my spirits; instead, it repulsed me.

Of course, the Coogs ended the 2005 regular season with a 6-5 record - only their fourth winning season in fifteen years - and went to their second bowl game in three years. It was, relatively speaking, a good year for the Coogs, even though they probably should have come away with more than six victories. The ass-whipping they received at the hands of Kansas in the Fort Worth Bowl wasn't exactly encouraging, either.

So, what is my mood about UH football right now?

Truth is, I honestly don't know how to feel. A lot of people are expecting big things from the Coogs this fall. Several months ago legendary former UH coach Bill Yeoman told me (when I ran into him at Love Field in Dallas) that 2006 would be "the year." Over on CoogFans, some people are saying that not even eight wins will be good enough this fall. An overwhelming sentiment among UH fans seems to be "if we can't do it this season, then when?"

I agree that, "on paper," good things should happen this fall. But that in and of itself is not enough for me to be shivering with anticipation for the coming season. Last year’s problem areas - penalties, turnovers, special teams lapses, bizarre offensive play-calling, a lack of a pass rush - had nothing to do with how good the team was "on paper." Are those areas of concern going to be fixed this fall, or will it be more of the same? Will the team be focused and ready for every game and maintain that focus to the final whistle, or will they do like last year and let the other team back into the game late (as they did against Tulsa and Southern Miss) or not show up at all (as they did against SMU)?

Don’t get me wrong: college football is my favorite sport and, if nothing else, I really enjoy the tailgating. I’ll always, to one extent or another, look forward to the start of football season. But right now, I'm trying to keep my excitement (and my expectations) under wraps.

And, given my history of expectations and excitement over the last ten years, that could be a good thing for the Coogs.

For more preseason analysis of the University of Houston Cougars, check out these articles at, and UH blogger Ronnie Turner over at the Chronicle has come up with some preseason picks as well. I'm debating as to whether to make my own set of predictions for the upcoming season; if I do they will be posted on this blog sometime in August.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A sad week for the University of Houston

Last week, the University of Houston community lost three of its most irreplacable members.

Associate athletics director Roland Sparks passed away on Saturday July 8th after a long battle with colon cancer. Sparks was an employee of the UH athletics department for eighteen years, which is something of an accomplishment given the university's constant turnover of athletics directors.

On Tuesday, July 11th, after suffering a massive heart attack, UH sports photographer Pete Medrano died. With his Kangol cap and his camera in hand, Pete was an unmistakable presence on the sidelines of Cougar football games, basketball games and other athletics events. He was also a fixture at pre-game tailgates, laughing it up with fellow Cougar fans before kickoff.

That same day, reknowned political science professor Ross Lence lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Lence, who had been a member of the UH faculty since 1971, was one of the University's best-known professors and was so popular with students that in 2002 many of them joined together to create an endowed chair in his honor. One local blogger's particularly eloquent description of Dr. Lence explores his love of teaching and his fondness towards his students.

I can't say I knew any of these people well. I never met Mr. Sparks, I met Pete maybe once or twice, and my only interaction with Professor Lence was when he was a guest speaker in one of my architectural history classes (although my father, having served on many academic committees with Dr. Lence, knew him well and is especially saddened by his passing). But the fact that I did not know any of these people closely does not make me any less sad.

There are those who would like to perpetuate the myth that the University of Houston is some sort of soulless, second-rate commuter school, devoid of character and lacking any sense of community. People like Roland Sparks, Pete Medrano and Dr. Ross Lence are proof that that is not the case; that there are indeed people who care about the University and give themselves to it, its students, its athletes and its community. These three members of the UH family will be missed.

Belated soccer thoughts

I apologize for the lack of posts; the past week has been a rather busy one for me.

Anyway, I've been watching a lot of soccer this year. This is at least partially due to the just-finished 2006 FIFA World Cup as well as the relocation of a Major League Soccer team to a stadium within walking distance of my house. Even back in January, well before the start of the MLS season or the World Cup, I found myself in a restaurant in Dubai, surrounded by rabid Egyptian soccer fans, watching an African Cup game between Egypt and Morocco. Needless to say, I've probably watched more soccer so far this year than I've watched in the last ten years combined.

Soccer can be exciting to watch. It can also be extremely frustrating. In fact, I think I find it to be frustrating more often than it is exciting. And the reason is simple: there's not enough scoring in soccer. This, in my opinion, is the biggest reason why soccer has not caught on in the United States even though it is the most popular sport in the world. Its emphasis on defense is unappealing to American tastes.

Case in point: last week's World Cup Final between France and Italy. The game ended with a 1-1 tie after 90 minutes of regulation. It then went into two fifteen-minute extra time periods with no change in the score. After 120 mintes, and with both teams thoroughly exhausted, the game was finally decided on a penalty shootout with Italy prevailing, 5-3.

That's right. The biggest game in the world. Over a billion people watching on television. And after two hours of conventional soccer that resulted in a 1-1 draw, it all got decided by the specialized mechanism of a penalty shootout: essentially, a contest to see which team's goalie could better stop a succession of opposing players from scoring from point-blank range.

It really seems like a contrived, unnatural and, frankly, disappointing way to end a game, and it really seems to be something unique to soccer. Off the top of my head I can think of no other team sport whose championship is decided in a similar fashion. In basketball, baseball and American football, the two teams keep playing under conventional rules until there's a winner. And it's not just American sports, either; I am not aware of any special overtime rules in rugby, Australian rules football, cricket or any other major team sport wherein ties can be broken by a mechanism which substantially differs from the normal rules of the game. The closest examples would probably be overtime in NHL hockey, which employs a shootout during regular season games (but not, notably, during the playoffs), and American college football, whereby a team lines up at the opponent's 25 yard line and tries to score (rather than marching the length of the field in order to score). But even then, the rules of the game and the number of players are the same as in regulation; the only difference is the team's starting position.

And why do soccer games, such as the 2006 World Cup final, get decided by the mechanism that is the penalty shootout? I think it's pretty obvious: the defensive nature of the game makes goals hard to come by, and this causes games to end in low-scoring ties (0-0, 1-1, etc.) with regularity. Sometimes, the tie will be broken after one or two extra time periods. But, sometimes, even those overtime periods won't do the job; hence, the penalty shootout. In the 2006 World Cup, four out of the sixteen games in the knockout rounds had to be decided by penalty kicks: Switzerland and Ukraine in the Second Round (which ended in a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes of play), Germany and Argentina in the Quarterfinals (ended in a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes of play), England and Portugal in the Quarterfinals (ended in a 0-0 draw after 20 minutes of play), and of course the championship game. In fact, more matches in the knockout stages of the 2006 World Cup were resolved in penalty kicks than were resolved in extra time.

As I noted, soccer is by its very nature a defensive sport. Goals are intended to be a rare occurrence. But why should scoring be so rare that 0-0 or 1-1 draws - draws that ultimately get decided on penalty shootouts - are normal and acceptable, even in the sport's biggest game? Does the fact that fully one-quarter of the elimination games in the World Cup ended in awkward penalty kicks speak well for the sport, or does it indicate that there is a disappointing flaw in the game?

It's not just penalty kicks: it's a lack of offense in general. Consider that the 2006 World Cup averaged just under 2.3 goals per game - the lowest average since of any World Cup since 1990. Consider that out of 64 World Cup games, at least one team failed to score in 40 of them: 63% of the games ended in shutouts.

As I've said before, the dearth of offense can make soccer a maddening sport. Back in January at that cafe in Dubai, even though I had no rooting interest in the game, I nevertheless began to become just as exasperated as the Egyptians surrounding me as Egypt and Morrocco played to a 0-0 draw. The Quarterfinal match between England and Ecuador was just as frustrating; while David Beckham's free kick that perfectly bended its way into the corner of the Ecuadorian net was a thing of beauty - a shot that anybody who appreciates athleticism, even if they don't necessarily like soccer, can admire - it meant that the game was over even though a significant time was remaining on the clock; the defensive nature of the sport meant that Ecuador would never equalize and the game would end in a 1-0 decision. As I sat in Robertson Stadium the evening of the Fourth of July and watched a match between the Dynamo and the Columbus Crew, I actually felt badly for both teams, who ran up and down the field for ninety-plus minutes with nothing to show for it except a 1-1 draw. And, of course, I was disappointed that the World Cup itself had to be awarded on the basis of a goofy penalty shootout, because neither team was able to score more than one goal apiece in regulation or extra time.

Little wonder then, that soccer has never caught on in America. As this article at and an accompanying poll suggest, while soccer lags well behind baseball, basketball and football for a variety of reasons, the key reason is because there's not enough offense to make it interesting to the average American. This isn't to say that Americans don't like defense; we find the occassional pitchers' duel in baseball or defensive struggle in football to be entertaining.

But 1-0 baseball scores and football games where neither team manages more than a field goal or two are the exception, rather than the rule. Furthermore, both baseball and football have enough offensive components to make exciting comebacks or multiple lead changes commonplace; that's just not the case with soccer. If your favorite baseball team is down 2-0 in the sixth inning, there's still a chance they can mount a rally and win the game. If your favorite soccer team is losing 1-0 a few minutes into the second period, the odds of your team winning are slim due to the overwhelmingly defensive nature of the game.

Could soccer be modified to allow more scoring and make the games more exciting (and, as a result, less frustrating)? Perhaps soccer should do away with the offsides rule, which prevents the ball from being passed to any offensive player who gets "behind" the final defender, that is, between the last defender and the goal. If we had that rule in basketball, the fast break would be illegal. If we had that rule in American football, any pass to an open receiver who managed to get behind his defender would result in a penalty. Could you imagine how dull those two sports would be with those restrictions in place?

Of course, it could be argued that, if it weren't for the offsides rule, soccer teams would simply send a forward down to "camp out" in front of the opposing team's goal for the entire game, waiting for a pass that they could feed into the net. Maybe so. But is that such a horrible thing? If such a rule change results in outcomes of 6-4, rather than 2-1, is that really detrimental to the sport? After all, the more opportunities there are to score, the less likely it is that the game will end in a 1-1 tie after 90 minutes of regulation. At that, in turn, will result in fewer awkward penalty shootouts.

Of course, I don't expect the offsides rule (or any other major rule that contributes to the defensive nature of the game) to be eliminated or otherwise changed anytime soon. Soccer purists might in fact argue that soccer is "the beautiful game" precisely because scoring is so rare, because it places a premium on patient strategy and endurance. And FIFA's not going to change the rules of soccer just to make it more palatable to sports fans in the United States; some soccer fans, in fact, would argue that the sport's relative unpopularity in the world's only superpower is part of the game's essential character. The best hope, then, is that future coaches and players will envision more aggressive strategies that bring a greater level of offense to the game. But I don't see that happening anytime soon. Chances are, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will result in just as little offense, just as many low-scoring ties, just as many penalty shootouts, and just as many televisions sets in the United States tuned to something other than soccer.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Political turmoil in Mexico

The apparent loser of last week's hotly-contested presidential election in Mexico, Manuel Lopez Obrador, is going to court to present what he says is evidence of voter fraud and other ballot irregularities which he believes cost him the election. According to official returns, Lopez Obrador's opponent, Felipe Calderon, won the election by 244,000 votes out of 41 million cast: a margin of victory of just 0.6%. Lopez Obrador disputes this outcome and hopes to force Mexico's election authorities to conduct a manual recount of the July 2 ballot.

(Hmmm.... A disputed presidential election? Courts? Manual recounts? Gee, sounds a lot like something that happened here in the United States not too long ago...)

Given the razor-thin margin of defeat and the fact that Mexico doesn't exactly have a squeaky-clean electoral history, you can't blame Lopez Obrador, who represents the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), for contesting his loss to Calderon, who represents the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) of current president Vicente Fox. Although international observers have called the election fair, any alleged irregularities in the vote should be examined. In fact, Mexico's electoral system is designed so that Calderon can’t even be declared president-elect until allegations of fraud or other irregularities are evaluated, and that process can last until September.

However, if the investigations and manual recounts that Lopez Obrador desires indicate that Calderon's victory was indeed legitimate, will he accept the results and concede defeat? So far, things don't look promising.

Supporters of Lopez Obrador organized a protest rally Saturday in Mexico City which attracted upwards of 100,000 people. He has called for more protests starting Wednesday and another rally in Mexico City next weekend. He's also accused Mexico's independent Federal Electoral Institute of conspiring with outgoing president Fox and the PAN to rig the elections. One Mexican political analyst says that Lopez Obrador will never concede defeat. "Once the election results are certified, he will open a permanent campaign of criticizing the government."

If Calderon's victory is upheld and Lopez Obrador and his supporters decide to continue to protest instead of accepting defeat with grace, it will be an unfortunate blow to a young democracy; even more so if those protests become violent or disruptive.

Incidences of so-called "direct democracy" have become increasingly common in Latin America, wherein people take to the streets to demand that a given government resign. Don't like the president? There's no reason to wait until his term of office is up or even accept his election as legitimate! Just try to force him out of office with massive, disruptive protests! Ecuador (where no president has been allowed to finish a four-year term of office since Sixto Duran Ballen's presidency ended in 1996) and Bolivia provide good recent examples of this phenomenon. The problem is, these events are really not an affirmation of democracy but are rather nothing more than "mobocracy" events that undermine the democratic process and foment political instability. It is readily conceivable that such an event could take place in Mexico in the near future, should Lopez Obrador and his supporters refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Calderon government. And that would be especially sad, given the historical and political context of Mexico.

For almost all of its history, Mexico has never been a legitimate, stable, fundamental democracy. From the time of the county's independence from Spain in 1821 until the French intervention in Mexico of the 1860s, Mexico's presidency was amazingly unstable, with revolts and coups occuring with regularity; rarely did any one president remain in office for more than a couple of years at a time and oftentimes presidencies only lasted a few months. In many cases, a person would claim the president's office on multiple occasions; Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna - who is remembered on this side of the Rio Grande for his victory at The Alamo as well as his defeat at San Jacinto - was Mexico's president no less than seven times during this period.

Shortly after Mexican nationalists under the leadership of Benito Juarez expelled the French occupiers and executed their puppet, Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian, Mexico fell under the virtual dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz which lasted thirty years. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 was a reaction to the Diaz presidency. From the anarchy of the Mexican Revolution rose the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which ruled Mexico as a one-party state for 71 years. During this period, presidental elections in Mexico were nominally multi-party but in reality were little more than meaningless rituals designed to create the appearance of democracy; the PRI, in actuality, held on to power through a vast political machine that perpetuated fraud, voter intimidation and violence.

The PRI's hold on power ended in 2000, when the PAN's Vicente Fox was victorious in an election that truly marked the beginning of actual democracy in Mexico. The fact that the PRI's candidate in the 2006 election finished well behind both Lopez Obrador and Calderon is a testament to this sea change in Mexico's political reality. Now, Mexico has the opportunity to peacefully hand off power from one legitimately-elected president to another. In so doing, it, as the second-largest nation in Latin America (behind Brazil), has the opportunity to provide an example to other Latin American nations who continually struggle with the concept of a stable democratic process.

But will Mexico take up its mantle as a role model of Latin American democracy, or will it fall into the same pattern of electoral disputes and street protests that have become commonplace in many other Latin American countries? While the results of last week's election will need to undergo further scrutiny, that question could well be one that Manuel Lopez Obrador and his supporters ultimately answer.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The two-day work week

Monday and Tuesday were company holidays. Tomorrow is my usual Friday off, since our company's 9/80 work schedule gives me a Friday off every other week.

Thus, my work week consisted of yesterday and today. Pretty slick...

Ken Lay shoves off this mortal coil

Enron founder Ken Lay, who six weeks ago was found guilty of a variety of federal charges relating to that company's demise, including conspiracy and fraud, has died of a massive heart attack. Lay was 64.

I don't have much to say about Lay's passing that hasn't already been said elsewhere. And I know that various "alternate" theories regarding Lay's death - that it was a suicide or a homicide or that it was faked - are floating about as well. I'm really not into conspiracy theories, though; heart disease is the leading cause of death in the Western world, claiming 600 thousand Americans every year, and if the autopsy says that Lay died because his coronary artery was clogged worse than the West Loop at 5:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, I'm inclined to accept that explanation.

Although it did make me think: if I knew that I were likely looking at spending the rest of my life behind bars, I'd probably want to shorten that "rest of my life" by eating a plateful of bacon, eggs and pancakes with generous servings of butter and syrup every morning and a couple of large steaks with mashed potatoes and gravy every evening. I'd wash it all down with a gallon or two of ice cream, avoid salads, fresh fruits and vegetables at all costs, and probably start smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes every day just for good measure. After all, the quicker I can harden and clog up those arteries, the shorter my stay behind bars will obviously be.

Now, I'm not saying that Lay purposefully "ate himself to death" or that his heart attack was anything other than the unintentional culmination of a lifetime of poor Western dietary habits and the stress of creating, leading and, finally, running into the ground a major corporation. But if it were true, could you blame him? I certainly couldn't.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

My Fourth of July: beer, barbecue and soccer

For the Independence Day holiday, I drank a lot of beer, grilled steaks and watched soccer.

First, it was the World Cup semifinal featuring Italy and Germany. Italy won 2-0 in extra time. Later, my brother and I walked over to Robertson Stadium to watch the Houston Dynamo fight the Columbus Crew to a 1 - 1 draw.

During the day, I also watched the Space Shuttle liftoff as well as the annual hot dog eating contest from Coney Island (they really televise these things!).

Later that evening, my brother-in-law and I ended the holiday by going to Buffalo Wild Wings and filling up on wings, potato wedges and more beer.

Some would probably say that I am a subversive un-American pinko commie bastard since I spent the 230th anniversary of this country's creation by watching not one but two soccer games. But I had a good time, even if I do continue to find soccer an exceedingly frustrating sport.