Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Half a world a way? Not quite...

According to this interesting tool on an Indonesian tourism website, the straight-line distance between Houston, Texas and Dubai, United Arab Emirates is 8,181 miles.

So, when I told people in Houston before I left that I would be traveling halfway around the world for business, I wasn't being completely accurate.

The earth's average circumference is about 24,881.3 miles (I say "average" because the earth is not perfectly round; some measurements have a slightly different circumference than others, for example the circumference along the equator is 25,046.9 miles). That means that, to technically be on "the other side of the world" from Houston, I'd have to be half the earth's average circumference, 12,440.6 miles away. So, I'd have another 4,260 miles to go before I'd be completely halfway around the world from Houston.

But back in the late 80s, when I spent my summers in Ecuador and my friend Colin was living in Malaysia, the two of us were pretty damn close to being exactly on the other side of the world from one another. The straight line distance from Kuala Lumpur to Quito is 12,223 miles: merely 300 miles short of half the earth's circumference at the equator (which both cities are very close to).

How's that for some useless personal trivia!

Anyway, even though I don't have to truly travel halfway around the world to get back to Houston, Friday's trip is sure going to feel like it. Six hours from here to Amsterdam, another nine and a half hours from Amsterdam to Houston, and a four-hour layover in Amsterdam on top of that. I'm not looking forward to the journey, but I am looking forward to coming home.

This will probably be my last post from this trip to Dubai. I expect to in Houston Friday afternoon local time and be there for just over two weeks before coming back here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Army invited to a bowl - before the season even begins!

One last preseason college football note: what if your team was invited to a postseason bowl game before the season even began?

That's exactly what's happened to Army. The new Poinsetta Bowl, in San Diego, has invited the Black Knights to participate in their game should they end the season with at least six wins.

It won't be easy for Army. They went 4-7 last season and have road games against Texas A&M and Notre Dame, a home contest against TCU, and their annual service academy rivalry games against Air Force and Navy. Even some of the lesser names on their schedule will be tough: Arkansas State won their conference last year, Connecticut is (at least technically speaking) a BCS school and, as bad as Baylor might be, even that trip to Waco will be formidable for the Black Knights. However, they also play a few real lightweights: Kent State, VMI, Rice and Tulane. Whether they can actually fulfill their early bowl invitation is anyone's guess at this point.

I like Army. I enjoyed playing them every year when they were in Conference USA, and I even watched them play the Coogs once at Michie Stadium in West Point. That is a beautiful place to watch a football game, by the way. However odd their preseason bowl invitation might sound, I hope they can make it a reality.

2006 football outlook: the University of Houston

A month and a half ago, I reported that I was trying not to get excited about the upcoming Cougar football season. Well, those days are over. Football season is my favorite time of year and it's only a few days (and a very long, two-legged plane ride; damn you, Emirates, for not flying non-stop to Houston yet!) away, and I am officially excited. I am counting the hours until the 8 pm kickoff at Rice Stadium this Saturday.

The Owls, under the direction of new coach Todd Graham, are abandoning the wishbone of the Ken Hatfield era for a more open style of offense. But it will take some time for the Owls to make the offensive adjustment, and their defense has a lot of improvement to make as well. Nobody is expecting much from the Owls during this year of transition; they even start the season in's inital Bottom Ten poll. Given those facts, a Cougar victory over Rice seems likely; they're 12-point favorites going into Saturday's Bayou Bucket.

Of course, a victory over Rice is never a given. The new-look Owls are going to come onto their field with a great deal of enthusiasm, and Rice's long-suffering fan base, eager for a fresh start, will be energized as well. The painful shock of the season-opening loss to Rice in 2004 is still fresh in the minds of Coog fans everywhere, and a similar start to the 2006 season would be a catastrophe.

But the Rice game aside, how good will the Cougars really be this fall? There is a sense among the Cougar faithful that this is "the year" for the Coogs. In fact, none other than legendary former coach Bill Yeoman told me that 2006 was the season to look forward to when I ran into him at Love Field in Dallas a year and a half ago. He, like many UH fans, believes that there is enough talent and experience on this fall's team to make the 2006 season a really good one, one that long-suffering Cougar fans have been waiting for for far too long.

The team is loaded at the skill positions: four-year starter Kevin Kolb is at quarterback; senior Vincent Marshall, reliable Donnie Avery and Arizona transfer Brian Ealy are in at wide receiver; Jackie Battle's a pretty good running back, and senior Roshawn Pope has been moved from the defensive side of the ball in order to add some speed to the backfield. The Cougar offensive line struggled in 2004 but made great strides last season; they should be a real strength this year. The defense saw improvement after switching to the 3-4 scheme last year and will hopefully be even better under a new defensive coordinator this year. The linebacking corps is the strength of the defense and is loaded with talent from the likes of Wade Koehl, Brandon Pahulu, Trent Allen and Cody Lubojasky. Will Gulley is back in the secondary after missing last year with an injury and joins key players such as Willie Gaston and Rocky Schwartz in the backfield. Then there's the schedule: the Coogs play eight games in the city of Houston and get tough C-USA rivals such as Tulsa, UTEP and Central Florida at home.

But with the strengths also comes areas of concern. For example, depth. If Kevin Kolb goes down, the Coogs are in serious trouble. The offensive line is thin as well. Then there's offensive efficiency: while the Coogs moved the ball well between the goal lines - they were 19th nationally in terms of yards gained - they weren't as successful in putting the ball into the endzone, coming in 51st in the nation in scoring offense. The offense needs to do a better job of finishing drives this year. There are question marks on the defensive side of the ball as well. Will the Coogs be able to mount an effective pass rush this year? They must improve upon their meager 17 sacks of a year ago. Tackling must improve, too.

And what about penalties? The Coogs got flagged 93 times for 830 yards in 2005, making Houston one of the most penalty-prone teams in the nation last season. Better team discipline is a must. The Coogs need to reduce the number of turnovers as well; the Coogs lost the ball 28 times on the year, making it one of the most turnover-prone teams in all of Division I-A. Special teams are also an area of worry; Houston’s abysmal net punting average – 27.6 yards – was the second-worst in the nation and they only made 13 out of 22 field goal attepts last season.

And, while the Coogs are expected to be an improved team this fall, other teams in the conference are expected to be pretty good as well. UTEP, with experienced coach Mike Price and senior QB Jordan Palmer, is going to be a huge obstacle in the Coogs' path to the western division title this fall. Last year's conference champion, Tulsa, returns sixteen starters and is looking to exact revenge for their close loss to Houston last year, just as the Cougars want revenge for their close losses to Central Florida and UTEP. Speaking of which, Central Florida returns 19 starters from their breakout, eight-win season of a year ago. Southern Miss is always a tough opponent, and, while the Coogs may have dodged a late USM rally to win last year, they have to go play the Golden Eagles in Hattiesburg, where they've never won, this year. Memphis might not have running back D'Angelo Williams anymore, but that hardly matters; they still have Joe Lee Dunn running the defense, and he's proven to be UH head coach (and offensive coordinator) Art Briles' nemesis. There's no doubt that Southern Methodist, under the direction of coach Phil Bennett, is improving. SMU, who upset the Coogs at Robertson last year, gets the Coogs in Dallas. And Tulane is looking to put their hurricane-ravaged season of a year ago behind them and make some serious strides this fall.

And that's just the conference. The out-of-conference schedule includes an improving Louisiana-Lafayette team led by senior QB Jerry Babb that is expected to win their conference this season. Grambling is a pretty strong program by I-AA standards. Oklahoma State is a BCS program that looks to rebound after last year's disappointing season. And Miami... Well, let's just hope that the Coogs make it out of the Orange Bowl without any serious injuries.

Indeed, this season is not going to be a cakewalk for the Cougars, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions on both sides of the ball. But with experience and maturation comes improvement, which makes it probable that the team won't repeat some of the costly mistakes they made a year ago. I'm also hopeful that the team's overall stamina will be improved by a new strength and conditioning coach, so that the Coogs will maintain their physical edge through four quarters. Last season, Houston surrendered third-quarter leads in their losses to Oregon, UTEP and SMU and allowed Tulsa and Southern Miss back into games that should have been over.

This is not a team that is going to compete for a national championship. Just winning their division is going to be a challenge. But the 2006 Houston Cougars are a team that has the potential to put together the most successful season on Cullen Boulevard since the Run and Shoot era.

Over on various UH athletics message boards, of course, the mood is optimistic and expectations are high. There seems to be a consensus that an eight-win season is the bar for 2006, and that anything less than that would constitute a disappointing season. Enthusiasm among UH fans is evident on the Houston Chronicle's UH athletics blog, where blogger Ronnie Turner asked his readers what they thought. Most of the responses were optimistic; a couple of people even predicted an upset win over Miami. "I'll be disappointed if their record is worse than 8-4 in the regular season," one respondent wrote. "10 wins is a given," somebody else said. Not every UH fan is quite as optimistic, it should be noted. One local blogger foresees a break-even, six-win season for Houston this fall.

But fan predictions are one thing; what do national college football resources, which have a tendency to be more objective, say about the Houston Cougars?, which uses the Congrove Computer System to predict its games, has come up with a preseason prediction of 7-5 for the Coogs. predicts a 7-5 record for the Coogs as well. Sports Illustrated, likewise, envisions a 7-win season for the Coogs. And Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings at, which put Houston 89th to start the season, imply an 8-4 record for the Coogs when the ratings of opponents and the home-field advantage are taken into account.

There are also publications that pick where the coogs will end up in the conference but don't pick a record. As far as the preseason magazines go, Houston is picked to win or tie for the Western Division by Phil Steele, Gold Sheet and ATS Consultants. The rest have the Coogs pegged at third. has the Coogs pegged at third in the west as well; so does The C-USA coaches, in their yearly poll, also think that Houston will end up third in the West, behind Tulsa and UTEP.

Of course, preseason predictions are just that - predictions. They play the games for a reason. But that won't stop me from making my own predictions for the 2006 Cougar football season. I think the Coogs' schedule, as well as their talent and experience, will result in eight regular season wins this year.

I believe they will defeat Rice, Tulane, Grambling, ULL and take two of UTEP, UCF and Tulsa at home. They'll exact revenge against SMU in Dallas, and win one of their road games against USM and Memphis. A win over Oklahoma State is also a possibility, but after the Fort Worth Bowl debacle against Kansas I'm not confident enough to predict a Cougar victory over even a struggling Big XII school. And Miami, well, I'd be happy to see the Coogs cover the spread.

If the Coogs can get past both UTEP and Tulsa, then they'll probably end up atop C-USA's western division and play in the conference's championship game in September. But even if eight wins only puts them in second or third place, that will still represent the best UH season since 1990 and almost certainly send them to a postseason bowl for the third time in four years. That's good enough for me. If the Coogs can win their first bowl game since the Carter administration, that'd be even better.

Of course, anything over eight wins would be fantastic. A seven-win would be less thrilling but still acceptable to me. A .500 season would be a bit of a disappointment. And a losing season? Well, I don't want to go there, but it would probably mean the end of the Art Briles era.

Let's hope that doesn't come to pass. The Coogs (and their fans) could really use a breakout season.

This prediction, as well as many other fun discussions regarding UH fans, can also be found in my latest edition of As The World (Wide Web) Turns - Cougar Edition, now posted at

EDIT: Chronicle columnist John Lopez thinks that the Coogs are in for a good season, too. He is among those pointing to 2006 as a pivotal year:
That's why the Cougars have reached a now-or-never kind of point in their football program's existence. If, after seasons of football lethargy at UH, this deep, talented, fast and hungry team cannot take the next step and capture some attention, then when will it happen? Ever?

Exactly. If not this year for the Coogs, then when?

Speaking of hurricanes...

Well, it looks like I won't have to worry about Ernesto disrupting my flight home (or, for that matter, the start of football season) after all.

Can't say the same thing for the people of Florida, however. They need another hurricane like Dubai needs more cars.

(Sorry for the cheesy analogy, but I couldn't help it. My taxi ride back to the hotel this afternoon took over thirty minutes, even though my office is no more than three miles from my hotel. Traffic congestion in this city is beyond horrible, and it gets worse every day.)

Katrina plus one year

As everybody who doesn't live under a rock knows by now, today is the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. News stories and TV specials will run all day long recounting the horror of that day one year ago: when 80 percent of New Orleans flooded, coastal communities of Louisiana and Mississippi were devastated, and 1,700 people lost their lives. For hundreds of thousands of other people who were displaced by the storm, their lives have changed forever.

Even though it's been an entire year, it's obviously much too soon to evaluate the full effect of Katrina. It will be many more years before a clear picture of the hurricane's true consequences are understood. The Gulf Coast is still in flux; the rebuilding effort, long and painful as it might be, continues.

As I noted when I visited New Orleans two months ago, the pace of recovery in that city is slow. Large parts of the city are still abandoned; the city's population today is only half of what it was a year ago. Only half of New Orleans schools have reopened, and only three of the city's ten hospitals are operational. As I noticed when I was in New Orleans, the city's culture now revolves around Katrina and its amftermath. Any conversation you have with a local resident will eventually turn to a discussion of where that person evacuated to and what condition their home is currently in. The local newscasts are dominated by stories about rebuilding efforts, FEMA reimbursements, canal reconstruction or other storm-related matters. It's clear that, regardless of how successful the rebuilding effort might be, the city will never be quite the same. The French Quarter, the food, the jazz, the Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras might always be there, but the city as a whole will be different. The only question is how different "New New Orleans" will be from the city that existed pre-Katrina.

While so much attention has been paid to New Orleans, it's worth remembering that several other cities were changed by Katrina as well. For example, Louisiana's capital of Baton Rouge became the largest city in the state following the storm, and there's been widespread speculation that this change is permanent. Some analysts say the Katrina will have the same affect on Baton Rouge as the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (which is still the nation's deadliest natural disaster) had on Houston. Before the storm, Galveston was the state's largest city. After the storm, Houston took that title and continued to grow such that it is now the fourth-largest city in the nation.

And then there's Houston itself. The city was a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Katrina refugees, and upwards of 150,000 displaced New Orleanians remain in the city one year later, putting stress on the local school and hospital systems and placing upward pressure on the crime and unemployment rates. As this Christian Science Monitor article about Katrina's effects on Houston notes, the economic burden of accomodating these refugees - many of whom still have no homes or jobs to return to a year later - is significant, and getting assistance from the federal government has not been an easy task:
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas said one of the most difficult challenges she's faced has been convincing her congressional colleagues and the Bush administration that a hurricane that didn't actually hit Texas has had profound financial implications for the state.

Katrina had a variety of psychological effects on the local population as well. Houstonians opened their arms and their wallets when the first busloads of refugees - many having lost everything except the clothes on their backs - began arriving a year ago. So many Houstonians volunteered to help at the Astrodome or the George R. Brown Convention Center that people were turned away. There was an overwhelming sense of civic pride; people were proud of their generousity. However, the destruction wrought by Katrina also gave Houstonians a newfound sense of vulnerability; people realized that what happened in New Orleans could also happen in Houston and that realization became apparent less than a month later when Rita threatened and the local population, in a panic, took to the evacuation routes leading out of the city. The usual four-hour drive to Dallas became a 30-hour ordeal; the 2.5-hour trip to Austin became a day-long nightmare in the sweltering September heat. In the months following the Rita exodus, local leaders and citizens alike realized that their own evacuation plans needed to be rethought.

Indeed, the entire Gulf Coast - not just Louisiana or Mississippi - has been affected physically, economically and emotionally by the storm that landed one year ago today. As we remember the catastrophe and take inventory of all that has changed since then, we much understand that the process of rebuilding, recovering, and re-adapting has only just begun.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Oh, great.

Say hello to Ernesto.

Look where Ernesto might be headed. Notice where he might be towards the end of next week, when I'm supposed to fly back into Houston.

And just in time for the start of football season, too. It figures...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dubai Picture Time!

I guess it's time to share a few of the pictures I've taken so far.

Here's a view looking south towards Dubai Creek from my hotel. Traffic is uncharacteristically light on Al Garhoud Road (Emirates Highway 11) headed towards the bridge. In the distance you can see construction well underway on a pair of large towers at Festival City as well as a much-needed third bridge over Dubai Creek.

I took this shot of the Burj Dubai as we drove by. It still has a way to go before it becomes the tallest building in the world, but it's come along way from how it looked in January. Unfortunately, August isn't the best time to take pictures due to all the sand and haze in the air.

Meanwhile, at the Dubai Marina, dozens of office and condominium highrises are being erected. You can see why I call this place the "City of Cranes." They're everywhere.

Another view of a cluster of high-rises under construction at Dubai Marina. Timeshare, anyone?

I'll try to upload more throughout the fall. Unfortunately, no amount of photographs can do this city justice. You just have to be here to really understand the full scale of what is going on.

Blood on the highway

We are approaching the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. 3,000 people lost their lives on that horrible day. Could you imagine what it would be like if the United States suffered a September 11th - like event every 25 days or so?

In terms of the number of lives lost, that is exactly what is happening on our nation's highways every year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 43,443 people were killed on the nation's highways in 2005. This is up 1.4 percent from the 42.8 thousand people killed in traffic wrecks in 2004, and is the highest annual highway death toll since 1990. An increase in pedestrian and motorcycle fatalities is blamed for the increase; here's a chart that breaks down the fatalities by mode.

In fairness, it needs to be pointed out that, in spite of this death toll, our highways are about as safe as they have ever been. The average fatality rate per miles traveled is slightly lower today that it was a decade ago (1.48 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled today as opposed to 1.73 deaths per 100 million VMT in 1995) and is much lower than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when the average fatality rate sat somewhere between 5 and 6 deaths per 100 million VMT.

Nevertheless, 43 thousand people needlessly died on our nation's roads and highways last year. That is a ponderous toll, and one that doesn't get a lot of attention:
Safety groups said more attention should be placed on traffic issues, arguing that a single airplane crash could lead to public outcries while more than 40,000 deaths on the roads fail to generate much response.
That's true, which is why I likened last year's highway death toll to the equivalent of a 9/11 event every 25 days: it puts this unspoken carnage in a different perspective. Perhaps, if people were made more aware of the sheer volume of death occuring on our nation's roads every year, they might be a little more careful in their own driving habits.

Over half of all automobile passengers who died last year were not wearing a seat belt. So buckle up and drive safely.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Happy Birthday, Kirby!

It’s hard to believe, but our son turns two years old today.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for his big day today, or for the small party he’ll have with Lori, my parents, Lori’s family and his great-grandparents this weekend. I hope he’ll forgive me one of these days.

I’d send him a card and a present, but shipping parcels from here to the United States is expensive and I don’t know if a card would get there before I did. I guess I’ll just bring them back home with me so he and I can have a belated birthday party once I return.

Lori took this picture of Kirby enjoying a birthday cupcake last week. I’ll put more pictures of him on his page once I get back to Houston a little more than a week from now.

2006 football outlook: the University of North Texas

Speaking of North Texas, I really guess I should acknowledge the other half of the title of this blog and make some predictions about the Mean Green’s upcoming season.

Last year was a rough year for the Darrell Dickey’s squad, whose streak of four consecutive conference championships (and New Orleans Bowl appearances) ended with a disappointing 2-9 record.

So how will they do this year? Some preseason prognisticators don’t have much faith in a North Texas rebound this season.’s preseason outlook places UNT 109th (out of 119 teams) and foresees a 4-8 campaign for the Green. also expects a rough year for North Texas, with a 2-10 record. Not exactly good news for the Denton faithful, since the Congrove Computer System uses has predicted UNT’s record either perfectly or within a single game for eight out of the last eleven seasons. Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, predicts a 3-9 campaign for the Mean Green. Not all the preseason prognostications are as bleak, however. The folks at foresee North Texas regaining its place atop the Sun Belt this fall (scroll down to the bottom).

To be sure, the Mean Green aren't devoid of talent. For example, Jamario Thomas, who led the nation in rushing in 2004, will figure prominently in the offense as long as he avoids the hamstring problems that hobbled him last year, and Johhny Quinn is as good a receiver as any in the Sun Belt. The big question is quarterback; the departure of Scott Hall left little experience at the quarterback position, and that was one of the reasons for UNT’s troubles last season. Neither of the two main contenders (sophomores Daniel Meager and Matt Phillips) have been particularly impressive. As for the North Texas defense, well… Let’s just say that the good news is that it can’t be any worse than it was last season. Better defense against the run is crucial if the Mean Green hope to compete for their fifth conference championship in six years.

Then there’s the schedule. North Texas will do well to escape their paycheck loss to Texas in Austin without any major injuries, but they also have back-to-back September roadies against two of last year’s conference champions: C-USA champ Tulsa and MAC champ Akron. The conference schedule isn’t exactly favorable, either; the Mean Green have to play the top three Sun Belt teams from last year – Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, and preseason favorite Louisiana-Lafayette – on the road.

Given those facts, I think 2006 is probably going to be another rebuilding year for North Texas. They could surprise – I’d love it if they did – but I honestly think the Mean Green will be able to claim success if they can merely squeak out a break-even, six-win season.

This will, unfortunately, be the third year in a row that I won’t be able to make any trips up to Denton to see the Mean Green play in person.

College football 2006: the top and the bottom

Being here in Dubai has not caused me to forget that my favorite time of year – college football season – is now less than two weeks away. Here’s my take on the coming football season, looking at both the top and the bottom of Division I-A.

Both the AP sportswriters’ and the USA Today coaches’ preseason polls are out. Ohio State, coming off last year’s 10-2 season, is the preseason favorite in both polls. Coach Jim Tressel has a lot of talent to work with this fall, including quarterback Troy Smith and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. They’ve lost a lot of starters on defense, however, and that early-season game against Texas at Austin as well as an always-tough Big Ten slate could give them problems. Truth be told, however, I really don’t know that much about the 2006 Buckeye squad. Maybe somebody who knows a little more about OSU than I so (ahem, Steve?) could provide a better evaluation of this team than I can.

Last year’s champion, Texas, is second in the USA Today poll and third in the AP poll. I think this accurately reflects the fact that the Longhorns are going to have another good season but probably won’t repeat as national champs without Vince Young at the helm. No offense to his talented but inexperienced successors, freshmen Jevan Sneed and Colt McCoy, but Vince Young is the reason the ‘Horns won it all last year.

Notre Dame is second in the AP poll and tied for third with USC in the coaches’ poll. Maybe I’m not looking at this objectively because I really dislike the Irish, but are they really going to be that good this year? At least one sportswriter doesn’t think so. We all know that USC, which comes in at #6 on the AP poll, doesn’t rebuild; they simply reload. Whether they can make a run for their fourth championship game in as many years without Matt Leinhart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White remains to be seen; thinks they can.

Oklahoma is picked fifth by the coaches and tenth by the sportswriters. This doubtlessly reflects the fact that quarterback Rhett Bomar (as well as offensive lineman J. D. Quinn) was kicked off the team after the USA Today poll came out but before the AP poll appeared last week. The Sooners still have Heisman contender Adrian Peterson in their backfield, however, which is why they’re still expected to have a good year. If OU can put the Rhett Bomar distraction behind him, and if his replacement can perform, the Sooners might still have a good year.

Auburn comes in fourth in the AP poll and sixth in the USA Today poll. The Tigers look good on paper, but will they be able to live up to expectations, or will they fall from their lofty preseason perch like they did a few years ago? They’ll have tough competition in the always-brutal SEC from teams like Florida (#7 AP, #8 USA Today) and LSU (#8 AP, #9 USA Today). Auburn gets both of these teams, as well as Georgia, at home, which is a plus for them, but their creampuff out-of-conference schedule – Washington State, Tulane, Buffalo and Arkansas State – might be a minus in the minds of the pollsters.

Rarely is an 11-2 season considered a disappointment, but for LSU, whose 2005 season was marred by disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina as well as an inexplicable home loss to Tennessee, not even their destruction of Miami in the Peach Bowl was particularly satisfying. The Bayou Bengals are loaded at skill positions and are as much of a championship contender as anyone, but playing Auburn, Florida and Tennessee on the road is going to be a challenge. Meanwhile, Gator coach Urban Meyer discovered over the course of last year’s 9-3 season that coaches at Florida don’t get a honeymoon period; they’re expected to come in and win immediately. The pressure’s going to be on him as well as star quarterback Chris Leak this season.

The sportswriters assign a preseason ranking of #5 to West Virginia; the Mountaineers come in #8 in the coaches’ poll. I was impressed with their upset of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last year, and I have my eye on them this year. One big strike against them is their ridiculously weak schedule, however.

Rounding out the top twelve in the two polls are California (#9 AP, #12 USA Today), Florida State (#10 USA Today, #11 AP) and Miami, Florida (#11 USA Today, #12 AP). I really don’t know a lot about these teams other than the fact that the Hurricanes are going to have one of the nation’s best defenses this fall and are going to absolutely destroy my Cougars in October. The Seminoles will always be formidable, but I think the golden years of the Bobby Bowden era are behind them. Maybe somebody with more knowledge of the Golden Bear program (again, Steve?) can assess Cal’s upcoming season.

So which school is going to win it all? I have no idea; unlike last year, when it was clear to just about everybody going into the season that USC and Texas would meet in the Rose Bowl, this season is wide-open. I’ll go out on a limb and pick West Virginia. I think Rich Rodriguez is a solid coach, and if they can take care of business on the road against Louisville and Pittburgh I think that will put a lot of criticism about their schedule to rest.

So those are the top teams in the nation going into the season. On the other end of the scale is the lowly Sun Belt Conference, which columnist Pat Forde calls “the cold, hard basement of Division I-A.” While technically in the same division as schools like Ohio Sate, Notre Dame, USC and Texas, in reality the eight teams of the Sun Belt are a different world away from these schools in terms of budgets, fan support and talent. Last year the league went 1-for-27 in its slate of out-of-conference games against I-A opponents.

However, Forde gives the six-year-old league a measure of commendation in its effort to claw its way out from the bottom of the college football barrel. The Sun Belt has managed to improve itself by becoming more geographically compact, putting more games on TV, improving facilities and attendance, playing more games at home and slowly weaning itself off the practice of scheduling “body-bag games:” road games against big-time programs that come with a guaranteed payout along with a guaranteed loss. This practice hasn’t disappeared entirely, however; my two favorite teams in the Sun Belt, Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas, have scheduled road contests against programs like LSU, Texas and Texas A&M this fall.

As a University of Houston fan, I feel the Sun Belt’s pain in terms of fan support, facilities, budget and losses against big-time competition. Conference USA, as a whole, really isn’t too much better off than the Sun Belt (although it helps that C-USA has multiple bowl tie-ins whereas the Sun Belt only has one). The fight for respectability in the college football landscape is tough, but, as the saying goes, when you’re at the bottom there’s no place to go except up. That’s why I’m hoping that the schools of the Sun Belt, Conference USA and the rest of the “non-BCS” conferences manage a few break-out wins this fall.

A Dubai dining deal

One thing I have been doing a lot of while I’m here is eating. Not that my fat ass really needs to eat, mind you, but, given the cosmopolitan, tourist-oriented nature of this city, there’s no shortage of dining options and it’s hard to resist the urge to enjoy a nice meal in the evening. Restaurants are everywhere and just about every cuisine is available: Middle Eastern, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Filipino, French, Italian, American… If you have a taste for a certain type of food, you’ll find it in Dubai.

I’ve discovered one restaurant that is quickly becoming a favorite. It’s nearby, the food is good, the service is great, and it’s cheap.

Close to my hotel and right behind the bustling Diera City Centre Mall is the peculiarly-named “Dubai Shopping Center.” It’s a smallish mall that doesn’t appear to be in the best financial state right now; a lot of the lease space is empty and the occupied lease spaces are dominated by computer stores and real estate offices. But while exploring the otherwise nondescript mall, I came upon Zarrin, an excellent Persian restaurant on the third floor.

The portions are generous; both times I’ve been there I’ve ordered kebab dinners which come with a huge slab of meat and vegetables along with a plate of basmati rice so big there's no way I could finish it all. Dinners come with bread, a complementary kiwi fruit drink and a free salad bar which featured not only salads and dressings but hummous and tabbouli as well. Complementary fresh fruits are available for desert.

The first time I was there I ordered the mixed grill and a bottle of mineral water. I was stuffed, and the total bill came to 33 dirhams, or less than $10. I left a small tip – 5 dirhams or so – although tipping isn’t normally expected in this part of the world. The second time I was there I had the chicken grill and decided to have some tea after dinner. This time the bill was 43 dirhams, or just under $12 before I left another small tip. And, although I don’t think it’s normally free, this time around they even set me up with a complementary hookah pipe so I could smoke some shisha (flavored tobacco) while I drank my after-dinner tea! (I really shouldn’t smoke, of course, but I thought I’d at least give it a try, especially since it seems to be so popular here.) The service is outstanding, even by Dubai standards, and there is live music as well.

Zarrin seems to be popular with the locals, and for good reason. I think it’s one of Dubai’s best-kept dining secrets, and I’ll definitely be eating there again.

My first week in Dubai

So, I’ve been here just over a week. What fun and exciting things have I seen and done so far?

Well, truthfully, not much. This is a business trip, after all; it’s not a vacation. I’m here to work, and so far that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. I expect to be working six days a week while I’m here, and even on my day off (which is Friday in the Islamic world) I’ll at least spend part of my time checking my work e-mail and doing other work-related tasks (today, however, is a holiday, which is why I’m writing from my hotel right now).

So I haven’t made it to the beach or to any of the upscale Jumeira Beach clubs yet. I haven’t so far found time to ski at the indoor ski slope at the Mall of the Emirates, nor have I made my way over to any of the traditional souks in the old part of the city. No road trips to Abu Dhabi or Umm Al Quwain yet, either; all of the sightseeing I’ve done so far has been field visits to a few of the Dubai Metro station sites we’re working on.

These are all things that I’d like to see and do at some point, of course, and since I’ll be spending most of the fall here hopefully I’ll have time do so, especially as the weather gets cooler and things at work become settled. I’m actually planning to bring Lori out here for a week or so in November so she can see Dubai for herself, and if that happens I’ll probably be doing a lot of these things with her. There’s a good sightseeing tour that the two of us might enjoy, for example, and she’d probably also like to go on a Dubai Creek dinner cruise one evening.

Otherwise, my options for fun and excitement are, for the time being, limited. Today, for example, I’m doing laundry, and this afternoon I’ll probably go pick up a few groceries.

There's no reason why I can't have little bit of fun today, though. I might go for a swim in the hotel’s nice rooftop pool this evening.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador

The popular tourist town of Baños is one of my favorite places to visit in Ecuador. Baños is famous for its waterfalls and mineral baths and marks the beginning of an amazingly picturesque drive along the Pastaza River to the Amazonian rainforest.

Unfortunately, the town might be in trouble. It is located on the northeasteastern slopes of Tungurahua, an active volcano located in south-central Ecuador. Tungurahua (Quichua for "throat of fire" and pronounced "toon goo raw wah") has been active since 1999, but an eruption late last week was one of its most destructive yet, killing at least three people, spewing millions of tons of volcanic ash into the sky, and wiping out crops, livestocks and several small villages on the volcano's western slopes with devastating pyroclastic flows. Geologists are warning that more eruptions are likely.

Ecuador is both blessed and cursed by its volcanoes. On one hand, the fertile volcanic soil of the Andes has nourished and sustained the local population since the time of the Incas. Volcanoes such as Tungurahua, Cotopaxi and Cayambe are spectacularly beautiful and figure prominently in the culture and folklore of the region. On the other hand, when these same volcanoes erupt, the results are usually devastating. This is especially significant in an impoverished nation such as Ecuador, where resources to help those affected by eruptions is limited and disruptions caused by volcanic activity can be particularly crippling to the fragile economy. Landslides and mudflows caused by this particular eruption damaged roads around the volcano and caused the Agoyan hydroelectric project on the Pastaza River outside of Baños to shut down, leaving much of the area without electricity. Hundreds of square miles of cropland have been covered in ash.

This time around, Tunugahua's fury was directed at its western slopes; towns and villages on its east side, including Baños, were spared from devastation. But more activity is probable, and Baños might not be as lucky next time.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Houston's panhandling problem

Is Houston finally going to begin cracking down on its rampant panhandling problem? I'll believe it when I see it, but news like this gives me hope: a TV and radio campaign featuring the mayor urging people to help the homeless by giving to local charities instead of giving panhandlers spare change.

Of course, things won't drastically change until the police finally begin enforcing Houston's civility ordinances, but anything that attempts to combat the free reign panhandlers have in Houston is a step in the right direction.

I am really tired of being confronted by panhandlers on a constant basis: at gas stations, in grocery store parking lots, on METRORail platforms, at intersections, in front of bars and restaurants, even in the downtown tunnel system! Some of these people are clearly homeless. Some likely are not. Some of them are polite. Others are belligerent. It doesn't matter. When they come up to me and ask me for money, I find it incredibly rude, annoying and sometimes even threatening.

It is certainly appropriate to have compassion for the less fortunate. This is especially true for homeless people, since so many of them suffer from debilitating mental problems or drug and alcohol addictions. But one’s compassion for the less fortunate should not get in the way of the fact that panhandling is a public nuisance. It is disruptive and it makes people uncomfortable. It also can be dangerous, especially for the roadside panhandlers who dart into busy intersections to collect money from passing cars. And, most importantly, it doesn't really help anybody. Giving money to panhandlers only encourages the practice and, in turn, makes the problem worse.

So please: stop giving panhandlers your spare quarters or dollar bills. Give your money to a local charity instead: the Star of Hope, the Houston Food Bank, etc. By supporting organizations that are set up to help the city's less fortunate, you'll be doing more good than you'll ever accomplish by handing your money over to strangers on the street.

What urban rail systems have you used?

Via The Third Rail: how many metro systems have you ridden in your lifetime? Go to this site and make a list. Here's mine:

From the top: Berlin U-bahn, Berlin S-bahn, Dallas, Guadalajara, Hanover, Kobe, Kyoto, London, New York City, Osaka, Prague, Dusseldorf Rhein/Ruhr, Tokyo TOEI, Tokyo Metropolitan, Vienna and Denver. I guess it's a start.

The list isn't exhaustive; they don't have a logo for Cologne or, for that matter, Houston. But new logos are being added all the time; the Denver RTD logo is at the end because it's a relatively new addition.

In a few years, they'll be able to add the logo for this system to their list!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

City of Cranes

Dubai's historic importance as a center for gold trade - a legacy that endures to this day in the city's shimmering Gold Souk - is the reason why the city has adopted its "City of Gold" moniker. But this Emirate's official nickname really should be "City of Cranes.” Nothing represents this city better than a construction crane, for this is, quite literally, a city under construction.

Depending on who you ask, somewhere between 15 percent and 25 percent of the world’s supply of tower construction cranes are currently located within this Delaware-sized city-state. If that seems hard to believe, it's because the amount of construction here is hard to believe - even when witnessed first-hand. The unreal construction frenzy currently underway in Dubai is unlike anything occurring anywhere else in the world. In fact, I'd go so far to say that this collective development effort, in terms of the sheer volume of structures being built at one time, is an event unmatched in human history. It's truly mind-boggling.

Construction sites are everywhere, and just about anything and everything is being built: office towers, condominium high-rises, apartment blocks, hotels, houses, hospitals, roads, bridges, airport terminals, schools, shopping malls, industrial parks, even a Metro (which is, of course, the reason why I’m here). They're even building man-made islands off the coast. Go to any vantage point in the city and you'll see clusters of construction cranes as far as the eye can see in every direction. The Dubai construction frenzy, furthermore, isn't physically limited to Dubai: it's occuring in aircraft plants in Seattle and Toulouse as well because Dubai's airline, Emirates, has over 100 passenger jets currently on order with both Boeing and Airbus.

As one of my co-workers joked, “this place is going to look really nice whenever they finish it.” But when will Dubai be "finished?" With new developments being announced on a daily basis, this construction frenzy appears to have no end in sight. Investors and developers from all around the world are jumping on the Dubai construction bandwagon, trying to get a piece of the action.

As I've asked on my Dubai page: is this incredible amount construction really warranted? Can all these new hotels, apartments, offices, condos, golf courses and shopping centers really be absorbed? Or is this fury of creation nothing more than a speculative bubble that is one day going to burst, leaving in its wake an economically-shattered city of half-built towers and abandoned developments? If Dubai builds it, will they really come?

Nobody can predict the future, of course, but right now, they're definitely coming. The same co-worker estimated that, since he was last in Dubai in November, this city has probably added somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 residents. Soaring demand is placing considerable upwards pressure on housing prices. Cars choke this city's hopelessly overtaxed transportation network and new roadway construction cannot keep up with demand (and the first line of the Dubai Metro won't be open until 2009). Shopping malls are packed with people; finding hotel rooms is oftentimes difficult. People clearly want to be in Dubai, and as long as that demand is there the profilgate construction will contonue.

The only limit to this frenzy, it seems, are the number of construction cranes available.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Made it...

I'm now at my hotel in Dubai, where it is about 12:30 in the morning local time. The trip was long and exhausting, but it wasn't horrible by any means. The added security measures in the United States meant that lines at the ticket counters were longer (because everybody was checking items they used to be able to carry on such as make-up and toothpaste) but the security screening lines were shorter (because there were fewer carry-on items to be scanned).

My flight from Houston to Amsterdam was on time and relatively free of turbulence. It’s gotten to the point that, even though I can’t sleep on these trans-Atlantic flights, I can at least put on my headphones and “zone out” such that I lose track of time and the trip seems shorter than it actually is.

Because I had a good six hours to kill between flights in Amsterdam, I decided to do a little bit of sightseeing. I left the terminal, purchased a train ticket at the NS counter at the front of the airport, and traveled to Haarlem, where I walked around, took pictures and sat at a café on the edge of Haarlem's market plaza, sipping a soft drink and taking in the delightful Dutch street activity and architecture. I really like the Netherlands. It’s a lovely country in its scale and composition and the people are friendly.

After a couple of hours in Haarlem, I made my way back to Schiphol Airport, grabbed a bite to eat, and waited for my flight to Dubai to depart. Since the last time I flew here, KLM was upgraded their equipment on the AMS-DXB route and now uses modern and spacious (relatively speaking, of course; they still try to cram as many seats as they can into the aircraft) Boeing 777s. The nice thing about the 777 is that every seat has its own TV monitor and you can watch what you want when you want. Once again, the flight was on time and the trip was smooth. Once again, I had no luck getting any sleep but was successful in "zoning out" such that the time passed quickly.

No hassles once I landed in Dubai; I went through passport control, collected my bags, strolled through customs and found a driver from my hotel waiting for me. This hotel is right down the street from the airport terminal and is rather nice with the exception that this internet connection I'm using isn't free; needless to say, I'll probably not be using it too often. My room has a view that overlooks the interchange of Airport Road and Al Garhoud Road; I also have a perfect view of DXB's runway so I can watch planes take off and land. I don't think this is serendipitious; I think the office manager here in Dubai remembered that I am a commercial aviation geek and specifically requested this room for me!

Anyway, it's time to get some sleep. I do need to make it into the office at a reasonable time tomorrow morning (although I doubt they expect to see me at 8 am sharp, given my late arrival), it's going to be a busy day.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Back to the Emirates

Yep, it's official. Tomorrow afternoon I am once again making the journey halfway around the world to my company's offices in Dubai. That rapidly-growing city is in the process of constructing an urban rail network, and I've been called over to assist in station planning efforts. This will require me to be in Dubai for most of the next three months, although I have planned short trips back to Houston in early September and mid-October to take care of work and family obligations here.

This has all developed with such suddenness that my head is still spinning. It wasn't until Tuesday morning that I discovered they wanted me there this weekend, and I've spent the last couple of days rearranging my schedule (I don't have to attend those meetings in Dallas next week, obviously) and tying up loose ends at work so as to make this trip possible. There was also the minor issue that I didn't even have a valid passport in my possession on Tuesday; I had gone to renew it a few weeks ago but had to call the State Department to get the process expedited and the document overnighted once I learned the details of this trip. And I still need to pack!

I have mixed feelings about the trip. On the one hand, Dubai is an amazing city; I enjoyed being there in January and I'm sure I'll have a good time on this trip as well. While I'm there, I'm going to be gaining valuable experience on a project that interests me, and it will all end up looking good on my resume.

On the other hand, I will be away from Lori and Kirby for all but three or four of the next fourteen weeks. That's going to create hardship for Lori, who will have to take care of the house and the kid by herself (although she will get help from my family as well as her family). Being away from family and from home is probably going to make me a little anxious myself. (And this is just for a few months with periodic trips back home; I can only imagine the hardship that soliders shipped off to Iraq for a year or longer and their families are facing.)

The ongoing fighting involving Israel and Hizbollah as increased anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, which could make me a target for verbal abuse or, at the very least, nasty stares. And today's news about a foiled terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic flights isn't exactly comforting for me, one day before I fly through KLM's hub at Amsterdam.

But the worst thing about this trip is this: I'm going to miss almost all of football season! In a year that has the Houston Cougars playing seven home games (and eight games in the city of Houston), I'm only going to be able to be able to watch two or thee of them and that's only if I can arrange my short trips back to Houston to coincide with the games. That sucks! I spend the entire year waiting for college football season, and work-related obligations are going to cause me to miss it! I probably won't be able to watch any games from over there on TV due to the time difference and the fact that the ESPN and Fox Sports channels in Dubai are more likely to show cricket matches than they are American college football games anyway!

Of course, I didn't have to agree to this trip. I could have said "no, thanks" to the request without adversely affecting my job security. So why did I agree to go out there, and choose to put my work ahead of my family and my passion for college football? Quite honestly, I've asked myself the same thing once or twice over the last couple of days. But it comes down to this: by biting the bullet right now, I'm setting myself up for a better future. The fact that the folks in Dubai think highly enough of my abilities to specifically ask for me; the fact that I agreed to this assignment on a couple of days' notice; the fact that I completely re-arranged my schedule to make it happen are all things that my supervisors are going to remember when it comes time for raises and promotions, and that will benefit not only myself but Lori and Kirby as well.

Besides, I like Dubai. In fact, I think I'm going to try to fly Lori out there sometime in November, so she can see the city for herself as well.

Anyway, I'll try to maintain this blog while I'm away, mixing my thoughts on the coming football season with regular reports about my life and other goings-on in The City of Gold. I expect to be back in Houston in time for the first football game of the year (Houston vs Rice at Rice Stadium on September 2nd), but my travel schedule could change.

¡Felíz Diez de Agosto!

Today, August 10th, is Ecuador's independence day.

To be technical about this holiday, Ecuador did not officially gain its independence from Spain (or Gran Colombia, for that matter) on August 10th. On that date in 1809, a group of nobles in Quito, a colonial city that served as the seat of an administrative district (audiencia real) essentially encompassing what is now Ecuador, apparently became agitated by Napoleonic intervention in Spain and declared the city to be independent of that nation.

Quito's "independence" was short-lived, however. The following summer, Spanish forces from Lima in what is now Peru entered Quito and killed the leaders of the rebellion. It would be another dozen years before Quito would finally be free of Spanish rule; On May 24, 1822, Spanish forces were defeated in the decisive Battle of Pichincha, which occurred on the volcanic slopes overlooking the city, and Spanish loyalists were subsequently expelled from Quito.

For the next eight years, Quito and surrounding districts were part of the Republic of Gran Columbia. Ecuador did not formally come into existence as its own independent nation until May 13, 1830.

Ecuadorians nevertheless consider August 10th to be significant because it marks their country's inital declaration of independence (primer grito de independencia), much like the Fourth of July here in the United States marks this country's declaration of independence. For that reason, Diez de Agosto is Ecuador's most important national holiday.

Don't ever say you don't learn something when you read Mean Green Cougar Red!

Website finally back up

It took me much longer than I had anticipated, and there are still several changes and updates I want to make that I haven't yet done, but the entire content of my website is back online. There isn't any one "big" change to my website, but rather lots of smaller ones. I've added content to some pages, reformatted others, and also retired a handful of pages which had become dated. More modifications, additions and deletions are in the works, but it could be some time before those occur given the radical change in my schedule for the next three months.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

You want me where? When?

My company's Dubai office would like for me to come out there for a project meeting.

This Saturday. At 1:30 pm local time.

And I need to be back in Dallas by 9:30 am CDT next Tuesday.

This ought to be interesting...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Richmond rail squabble

Anybody who lives in Houston is by now pretty familiar with the "rail on Richmond" debate (if not, there's an extremely lengthy discussion about it over on the Houston Architectural Information Forum). In a nutshell, METRO would like to construct an east-west light rail line (called the "University Corridor") to complement its existing north-south rail line along Main Street (known as the "Red Line"). METRO is currently studying where exactly this east-west line should go: should it be built down Richmond Avenue, should it be put within an old railroad right-of-way adjacent to Westpark Road, or should it be built using a combination of the two?

From a ridership standpoint, Richmond makes much more sense than Westpark (as local engineer and transit advocate Christof Speiler explains). However, there is intense opposition to such an alignment from homeowners and business owners along Richmond who, naturally, fear the property losses and overall disruption that the construction and operation of a light rail line down Richmond might entail. There's also the little fact that METRO's 2003 referendum specifically named this extension as the "Westpark" corridor (and Christof takes issue with this point as well, although in doing so he seems to frame an absurdist discussion as to whether "Westpark" really meant "Westpark" [yet, to be fair, the Westpark right-of-way essentially ends at Shepherd, well before it reaches the existing Main Street line]).

But the "Richmond-versus-Westpark" discussion might be academic at this point. US Represenative John Culberson, a Republican representing the Texas 7th Congessional District who also sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, may have essentially settled the issue today when he announced his opposition to any rail alignment along Richmond Avenue. The section of rail in question sits in his district, and, given his influence in Washington, without his support for the project it likely won't get built.

No surprise here. Culberson is an opponent of urban rail. He co-chaired the coalition that opposed the 2003 METRO Solutions referendum. He knows that the Federal Transit Administration is not likely to provide matching funds for a Westpark alignment because it won't generate enough ridership to make it competitive with competing transit projects. And without federal matching funds, the project simply won't get built. Thus, by limiting the alignment to Westpark - even though Westpark doesn't exist east of Shepherd - Culberson might keep the project from being built at all. Back to Christof, who calls Culberson's manuever a political stunt.

This fight might not be over. METRO says that it has no plans to take a possible Richmond alignment off the table in spite of Culberson's stance, and there remains the possibility that some sort of compromise will be worked out in the coming weeks. But, by virtue of the fact that he controls the federal purse strings, Culberson's the one who has the most control over the issue.

Given that fact, I'm not going to bet that we'll be seeing any light rail on the west side of town anytime soon.

I hate August

Today marks the beginning of August.

I hate August.

During August, the oppressive Houston summer is at its worst. The heat and humidity combine to create a climate that is truly unbearable. August is also when hurricane activity begins to pick up; in fact, some of the nation's most devastating hurricanes appear in August, including Andrew in 1992 and Katrina last year. There's something brewing out in the Atlantic right now, as a matter of fact.

August is also boring. There are no major holidays during this month; no events that make the month otherwise special or noteworthy. Just about every other month has a holiday or other event associated with it: February has Valentine's Day, July has Independence Day, October has Halloween. April is associated with the beginning of spring; September is associated with the beginning of fall. August is associated with, well, nothing. To me, the only thing noteworthy about August is my son's birthday. Kirby will be two years old on the 21st. Otherwise, the month of August represents little more to me than thirty-one days of hot, boring, droning summer.

And of course, the wait for my favorite sport, college football, is especially agonizing during August, precisely because it's so close to the start of the season. Although I'm trying not to get too excited about the upcoming Cougar football campaign, I'm nevertheless ready for it to start simply because it's just four weeks away.

Yep. I hate August.

I've hated August ever since I was a kid, because its arrival meant that summer vacation was quickly coming to an end. Of course, when I was a kid we didn't have to go back to school until the last week of August. These days, kids have to head back to class in mid-August. So kids today might hate August even more than I do.

Which would say something, considering how much I hate August. Ugh.