Friday, September 29, 2006

A gripe about dining out in Dubai

As I've mentioned before, Dubai is a restaurant-goer's paradise. There's no shortage of dining options and cuisines in this city, and if you're like me and enjoy eating out, that's a good thing.

But there's one thing that really bugs me about restaurants here: the inattentive waitstaff. It seems like this is a problem at virtually every restaurant I've been to; they don't pay much attention to you once you've received your food.

This isn't to say that the waitstaff is rude; I've never been poorly treated at any restaurant here. Nor is this to say that the meal service is slow; I've never had to wait an inordinately long amount of time between placing my order and having my meal brought to me. It's just that, once you get seated, order your food and have your food brought to you, the waitstaff generally leaves you completely alone. They move on to other customers and they seem to forget that you even exist.

You want your drink refilled? Good luck flagging down a waiter. You want your empty dishes cleared? Be prepared to wait a while. You want your check at the end of the meal? You practically have to set fire to your table in order for the waiter to notice you and bring your bill to you! I personally find it rather annoying.

It might be a cultural thing; here, meals are expected to be leisurely and people are expected to linger after a nice meal, so the waitstaff doesn't expect you to be in a hurry to finish your food and leave. It also might be because tipping is neither customary nor expected here, so the waitstaff doesn't see any value in paying closer attention to you. And, to be honest, it's nice that, unlike in so many American restaurants, you don't have the waitstaff hovering over you all the time, trying to pressure you into buying dessert or hurrying you to finish your meal so they can turn over the table to another paying guest.

However, if you're like me, and expect somebody to at least check to make sure you have enough water or tea from time to time, or see no point in sitting at an empty table after your meal is done, it is a bit frustrating. Especially when, as is so often the case, the entire waitstaff at a given restaurant completely disappears into the kitchen for several minutes at a time. On one occasion, I even had to get out of my seat and walk up to the host at the front of the restaurant to ask for my check, because no waiter or waitress was anywhere to be seen and I was tired of waiting any longer.

At the very least, I've learned to be a bit more agressive in getting the waitstaffs' attention when I eat out. I've learned that passively sitting at a table waiting for somebody to come check up on me is pointless, so now I call out any waiters or waitresses if they pass near my table, even if they're taking care of somebody else and even if they're not the person actually assigned to my table. I personally don't like doing so - I feel it's a bit boorish - but oftentimes it's the only way to get another bottle of water or my check.

If you ever visit Dubai, be prepared to do the same when dining out. Don't let that stop you from trying the many restaurants, however: Dubai is a great place to eat.

Continental should never merge with another airline

Recently, there have been rumors circulating about the possibility of Houston-based Continental Airlines merging with another domestic carrier. United Airlines is oftentimes the other carrier mentioned in these speculations.

As Ben Mutzabaugh notes, aside from the general problems that airline mergers create, such as incompatable airline fleets and friction between two different management and labor cultures, any merger involving Continental will be difficult as long as Northwest Airlines retains its "golden share" in Continental. Furthermore, Continental claims that they're not really interested in merging with anyone right now. "Our preference is to remain independent," the airline says.

Aside from that, however, I really don't want to see Continental merge with any other airline. I like Continental just like it is.

Continental is one of the few so-called "legacy" carriers that still serves free meals to its economy-class passengers. Sure, it's just a sandwich, but it's more than you'll get from almost any other domestic airline these days. They haven't started charging extra for things like pillows, blankets and even exit-row seats, either, even though other carriers have begun doing so. If Continental were to merge with, say, United, would those little perks still exist? I doubt it.

Moreover, I like Continental because you can travel virtually anywhere in the US or Mexico non-stop from its hub at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. While I doubt that the IAH hub would be completely eliminated if another airline were to merge with Continental - Houston's too big and generates too much air traffic for that to happen - there is a possibility that an airline merger would cause the hub to be downsized or otherwise altered as the new, merged airline's route network is restructured.

Finally, a merger with another airline would probably mean the relocation of Continental's corporate headquarters; if United absorbed Continental, for example, they'd likely keep their corporate headquarters in Chicago. That would mean a loss of jobs as well as a local corporate presence. Speaking as a proud Houstonian, I think that would suck.

So, I'm with Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy on this one: Continental should stick to its senses, and resist being merged into another carrier. Continental is just fine as it is.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

College football: the first month

Now that the season is four weeks old, it's time to take a look at what's happened so far.

Beginning with a sad note: Rice defensive back Dale Lloyd collapsed and died during a workout in Houston yesterday afternoon. Lloyd, who saw playing time against Houston at the season's beginning, was 19 years old. The cause of death remains a mystery and autopsy results are pending.

Under new coach Todd Graham, the Owls were looking at 2006 as a season of rebirth. And, for a short while, as they jumped out to a 16-point lead against the Cougars in the season's first game, the future indeed looked promising for the Owls. But the Coogs fought back to scratch out a 31-30 win over the crosstown rivals. That demoralizing loss, as well as a killer out-of-conference schedule that included games against UCLA, Texas and Florida State, has resulted in an 0-4 start for the Owls. But the death of a fellow player is exponentially bigger blow for this team than anything that could have happened on the field.

My heart goes out to Lloyd's family as well as the Rice Owls football team.

So how have things changed since I wrote my preseason analysis one month ago? One thing hasn't changed: in terms of national championship contenders, Ohio State appears to be in the driver's seat right now. They remain the top team in both the AP and USA Today polls and their victory over Texas in Austin a few weeks ago proved that they are the real deal. They can reasonably be expected to run the table through their weaker-than-usual Big Ten slate on their way to their big November showdown with Michigan (#6 in both polls), although Stewart Mandell suggests that Iowa (#13 in both polls) might pose a challenge to both teams.

Auburn has moved into second place in the AP poll and is third in the USA Today coaches' poll; their hard-fought 7-3 win over LSU a couple of weeks ago suggests that they are the team to beat in the SEC but they still have showdowns against Florida and Georgia looming on the horizon. USC is third in the AP poll and second in the coaches' poll and is most certainly in the hunt following a quality victory over Nebraska a couple of weeks ago. The Trojans' big test probably won't come until November, when they face Oregon (#14 AP, #12 USA Today), California (#20 in both polls) and Notre Dame (#12 AP, #14 USA Today) on consecutive weekends.

West Virginia is fourth in both polls, but their weak schedule continues to work against them in the minds of the voters and their less-than-impressive 27-10 win over a bad East Carolina squad doesn't help. That November 2 showdown against Louisville (#8 in both polls) gets bigger every week. Florida is fifth in both polls and is very much a contender after squeaking out a one-point victory over a resurgent Tennessee program a couple of weeks ago. They have a tough stretch of Alabama, LSU, that road trip to Auburn and the Jacksonville showdown against Georgia ahead of them, however.

Aside from Michigan, Oregon and Louisville, Georgia (#10 AP, #9 USA Today) and Virginia Tech (#11 AP, #10 USA Today) are also all undefeated and still in contention right now as well.

By virtue of their losses, preseason contenders Texas and LSU have probably already lost their chance to play for the national championship even though both remain top ten teams in both polls. The same can probably be said for Notre Dame following their crushing loss to Michigan two weeks ago, although they managed to save their season, if not their championship hopes, with an impressive 19-point comeback against Michigan State last Saturday. Oklahoma (16 in both polls) is still reeling from controversial loss to Oregon but gets a week off prior to their annual Cotton Bowl showdown against Texas that will decide the top team in the Big 12.

As I noted in my previous post, another preseason contender, Miami, is not even in either poll anymore. In terms of teams expected to be in the hunt for the national championship when the season began, that's probably the biggest surprise of the year so far.

TCU, sitting at #17 in the AP poll and #15 in the USA Today poll, is the highest-ranked non-BCS team and is looking to crash the January BCS party. Right now, I wouldn't bet against them.

So, a month into the season, is the picture any clearer as to whom will be playing for the national championship in Arizona in January? Absolutely not! There's still a lot of football left to be played. I wouldn't have it any other way.

My other team, North Texas, isn't doing very well right now. As meaningful as their 24-6 victory over SMU - a fellow Metroplex institution that has historically held UNT in low regard - earlier this month might have been, they're still 1-3; taking away the SMU game, their anemic offense is only managing 7.7 points a game. The good news for the Mean Green is that now they begin their Sun Belt conference schedule, where they've historically had success. The bad news is that UNT is no longer the dominant team in that weak conference that they once were.

And finally, how about Rutgers? The Knights are 4-0 and are ranked in both polls. It's a bit of a shock (although I'm even more shocked by the fact that my Cougars are also receiving votes in both polls), but coach Greg Schiano and his players are finally experiencing success after decades of hardship. Good for them.

Houston 34, Oklahoma State 25

The Cougars finally did something they haven't done since they joined Conference USA in 1996: beat a team from the Big XII. By defeating Oklahoma State in front of impressive crowd (by UH standards) of 28,260 at Robertson Stadium last Saturday, the University of Houston made a statement against a conference that until now had proven to be their nemesis.

Now, this isn't the first time that the Coogs have beaten a school from a BCS conference since the Southwest Conference broke up; they've actually done it a handful of times (including a victory over LSU in Baton Rouge in 1999 that cost coach Gerry DiNardo his job). But, given the overwhelming perception among the UH faithful that the Big XII left UH in the lurch ten years ago when what was then the Big 8 invited Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor to join their conference and caused the SWC to dissolve, this win meant a lot for the program.

I wished I could have been there in person, but I was at least able to get the audio feed here in Dubai and listen to the game. It was an exciting matchup between two undefeated teams, and Oklahoma State quarterback Bobby Reid was the real deal as he picked apart Houston's defense for 281 passing yards, 85 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But Houston's Kevin Kolb was even better, passing for 313 yards and four touchdowns. Houston's offense found success in keeping the ball away from the Cowboys, possessing the ball for 36:07 against Oklahoma State's 23:53. The Cougar defense, in spite of giving up a lot of yards to the Cowboys, also came up with a couple of huge stops late in the game when the Cowboys were close to the goal line to preserve the win.

For once, Houston was also the beneficiary of typcially incompetent C-USA officiating, rather than the victim. An apparent UH fumble late in the first half was overturned on replay, and the Cougars used the good fortune to score right before the half. The C-USA replay official who overturned the fumble call was later suspended, but even Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy agrees that the bad call was not the reason the Cougars won the game: "we couldn't stop them and we turned the ball over late. That's why we lost the game."

Not all the news was good for the Coogs, however. Houston's best offensive lineman, SirVincent Rogers, went down with torn knee ligaments early in the game and will miss the remainder of the season. Depth on the offensive line is now a key concern for the Coogs.

Next up for the Coogs is a trip to the Orange Bowl to face the Miami Hurricanes. Miami is struggling right now; their preseason dreams of contending for the national championship have evaporated following losses to Florida State and Louisville and they're not even ranked at this point. Nevertheless, they're still loaded with talent and will pose a formidable challenge for the Coogs.

I won't be too disappointed if the Cougars lose this one, however. Their win over Oklahoma State is good enough to put the rest of the college football world on notice that this team has improved and should be taken seriously.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Meet Sadie

Okay, so now that I’ve been moved to a hotel with internet access (and “hot” water that’s actually hot, and a real restaurant, and a bathroom that doesn’t stink, and…well, you get the idea) hopefully I’ll be able to write entries on a more frequent basis.

The short trip back to Houston was a whirlwind of activity for me and I simply didn’t have time to write about everything I wanted to. For example, I never got to announce the newest member of our family, Sadie.

The name wasn’t my idea (it reminds me of Jodie Foster's character in The Accused). For that matter, neither was the decision to get a dog in the first place; as everyone knows, I'm really not a dog person. Lori's father and brother found the animal several weeks ago and managed to talk Lori into taking her, so Sadie is really Lori's dog.

Anyway, Sadie is believed to be about six months old; as you can see, she has doberman or rottweiler markings but we really don't know what mix of breeds she represents. She's very affectionate but also very hyperactive, which isn't suprising considering that she's still a puppy. And, so far, she and Kirby seem to get along:

(The cats don't really care for her, but that's to be expected.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

JetBlue, Emirates and my return to Dubai

The good news is that I arrived safely in Dubai Monday evening. The bad news is that the place at which I am currently staying (I refuse to call it a "hotel") does not have internet access of any kind, which means that my ability to keep this blog up to date will be restricted. I really am not impressed with the place at which I am currently staying and have asked to be moved to a real hotel. Until that happens, however, my only source of internet access will be here at the office, where I obviously can't devote a lot of time to writing entries.

Anyway, my experiment in flying from Hobby to JFK on JetBlue and from JFK to DXB on Emirates seemed to work fairly well. The only real drawback is the long layover at JFK; I arrived at Terminal 6 at about 4:30 but the Emirates counter at Terminal 4 didn't open until 7, so I spent a lot of time sitting with my bags and being bored until the counter opened.

The nice thing about JFK is that you don't have to leave the airport to get the full New York City experience. You get to pay $10 for a gin and tonic, just as you would at any trendy Manhattan bar. You get to deal with pushy crowds at the security checkpoint, just as if you were among a crowd waiting for a train at Grand Central Station during rish hour. And the bored, irritable TSA agents with their Brookyln accents yelling at passengers to "hurry da hell up" or "take your fuckin' laptop out of da bag, already" was a nice touch as well.

Although I shouldn't pass judgement on any airline after only flying them once, it seems that the only thing that makes JetBlue unique is the in-flight DirecTV system. Well, okay, that and the blue potato chips. When the DirecTV's working, it makes for a nice flying experience. When it's not working, however - and on my particular flight, it mostly was not - JetBlue becomes, well, just another airline.

My flight was packed, however, which reinforces my contention that there is a huge market for direct service between Houston Hobby and New York. I think JetBlue is going to do well in Houston.

Emirates, on the other hand, lives up to its reputation as an outstanding airline. The seats are comfortable - they even have footrests! - and the in-flight entertainment is by far the best I have ever experienced, with literally hundreds of TV shows, movies and entire CDs available for watching or listening on demand. I also liked the plane camera feature that allows you to see what is directly in front of or directly below the aircraft; I've wondered why more airlines don't put cameras on the outsides of their planes so passengers - especially those not sitting near windows - can see what's outside. Okay, so the food wasn't all that wonderful, but there's only so much you can expect in economy class. It was, all in all, a good experience and the 12-hour flight went quickly.

This isn't to say I got any sleep during this trip - I'm ever going to fall asleep in an economy-class seat on any airline - but I did arrive in Dubai feeling a lot better than I've felt after my previous KLM flights via Amsterdam. The trip back, of course, might be a different story.

Bottom line: I think this journey is a little better than flying KLM out of Intercontinental, but until Emirates begins flying non-stop to Houston the trip will never exactly be easy.

Hopefully my lodging situation will be improved in the near future and I'll be able to provide more frequent updates.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Happy birthday to me...

It's September 17th, which means I'm now officially 33 years old. And I get to celebrate the occasion by sitting in an airplane all day as I make that 8,181-mile trek back to Dubai.

I enjoyed my two-and-a-half weeks in Houston. It was great to be able to see the Coogs jump out to their first 3-0 start since 1990. It was wonderful do be able to attend my father's retirement luncheon at the University of Houston. And it was nice to eat dinner with my aunt and uncle up in Dallas earlier this week. But most of all, it was good to be able to spend a couple of weeks with Lori and Kirby. They miss me when I'm gone, and I miss them. Unfortunately, my short trip home is over, and I must return to the scorching sands and soaring cranes of the rapidly-growing city on the Arabian Penninsula.

This trip is going to be a little different than my last trip; instead of flying KLM through Amsterdam, I'm going to fly through JFK using two airlines I've heard a lot of good things about but have never flown until now: JetBlue and Emirates. I'll provide my own evaluation of both carriers once I arrive in Dubai.

This time, my stay in Dubai will be about 25 days long. I will return to Houston on October 12th.

Houston 42, Grambling 22

The game wasn't as close as the score suggests; Grambling scored the first touchdown of the game but the Cougars scored the next 42 points; the Tigers then scored 15 points against Houston's second-string defense after the game had been decided. UH quarterback Kevin Kolb had a good night, going 27-for-31 with 297 yards and 2 touchdowns. Running back Jackie Battle, who sat out last week's game with a hip injury, had three touchdowns of his own.

The 27,302 in attendance this evening represented the largest crowd for a University of Houston game at Robertson Stadium since 2001's infamous "bleacher game" against Texas. The crowd, obviously, was there to see the halftime show featuring Grambling State's famous marching band, and they weren't disappointed. Not only because of the Mighty Tiger Marching Band's typical high-stepping, gyrating performance which brought the crowd to their feet, but also because of the Spirit of Houston's own halftime show, which started out as a military-style march to John Philip Souza music but quickly morphed into their own tribute to Grambling's band: a freestyle breakdown to "Ridin' Dirty" by local rapper Chamillionaire that had everybody screaming with laughter. Finally, the Grambling band joined the UH band out on the field, the combined bands belted out Aretha Franklin's "Respect," and then this happened:

All in all, a fun night. The only drawbacks, I guess, were some sloppy tackling on the part of the UH defense, and the fact that both of the Coogs' starting safeties, Will Gulley and Rocky Schwartz, had to leave the game with injuries. Hopefully they'll both be okay.

The Coogs are now 3-0 and host Oklahoma State next Saturday. It's too bad I won't be there to see this critical game.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Houston 45, Tulane 7, Fans 16,506

Last Saturday’s trip to Robertson Stadium to see the Cougars play their first actual home game of the year was a pleasant experience. Of course, there were some gray clouds in the sky that afternoon - it wouldn’t be a UH home game if it weren’t threatening to rain - but the rain itself never materialized. The weather stayed pleasant, if not humid, and the tailgating was excellent. Most importantly, the Coogs did what they needed to do coming off last week’s nail-biter to Rice: they absolutely dominated the Green Wave, 45-7.

Kevin Kolb was 24-41 on the afternoon with three touchdowns and a single interception. His 350 passing yards allowed him to move in front of David Klingler to become Houston’s all-time passing leader, and his numbers would have even been better had his receivers not dropped a few passes that they should have caught. The Coogs’ rushing game was dominant as well, amassing 244 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in spite of the fact that Jackie Battle sat out the game with a hip injury. The defense was just as impressive, holding the Green Wave to 224 total yards and eight first downs the entire game.

Most importantly, the Coogs are now 2-0 for the first time since 1990. Yes, they’ve been that bad for that long.

Really, the only disappointing thing about the game was the attendance: only 16,506 came out to see the game. Of course, lousy attendance is nothing new for University of Houston football. However, the poor turnout prompted the Chronicle's UH beat reporter, Michael Murphy, to ask his blog readers to discuss the causes of and solutions for UH's perennial attendance woes; in his post, he even linked to my UH attendance page. (I had been wondering where all those extra hits from last night and today had been coming from. Thanks, Murph!)

Read the entire string of responses on Murphy's blog, if you have time; it goes to show that the causes of UH's inability to put fans in the stands are many (although a winning program, or lack thereof, is by far the biggest factor), and short-term solutions to the problem are few.

But the UH football team itself cannot force people to come see them play; they can only control what happens on the field. Next up are the Tigers of Grambling State. Take care of them, and there will probably be a pretty good crowd on hand to see the 3-0 Coogs host Oklahoma State.

It's too bad I won't be in that crowd; the return trip to Dubai awaits.

The overnight business trip that really sucked

I was supposed to fly to Dallas Monday afternoon for a short overnight trip. I planned to attend a public meeting in Denton County Monday evening, stay in north Dallas overnight, stop by my company's offices in Addison for a couple of hours on Tuesday morning, and then fly back home. Simple enough, right?

Not really. As it turned out, just about everything that could go wrong on that trip did. And it had nothing to do with the fact that I was flying on September 11th; in fact, there was something satisfyingly defiant about participating in commercial aviation on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. On this particular trip, the weather, not terrorism, was the enemy.

My flight was supposed to leave Hobby Airport at 2:30 in the afternoon; under normal circumstances that would have gotten me into Dallas at 3:30, well in time for my 6 pm meeting. But it was pouring rain when I got to the airport, a "ground stop" was in effect preventing crews from servicing any of the planes on the ground due to lightning, and we weren't even allowed to board the aircraft until after three. We were then stuck at the gate for the next thirty minutes because Dallas was having its own weather problems and we had not been given clearance to depart the terminal. Once we were finally pushed back from the gate, we simply taxied out to the end of the runway where we waited another half-hour before the flight was finally cleared for take-off. And the flight itself, which usually lasts 35 to 40 minutes, was much longer this time because the airplane was forced to vector around thunderstorms all the way from Houston to Dallas. Once we finally landed at Love Field, it was already after 5 pm.

By now, the chances of me arriving to the meeting on time were slim. But I still might have had a chance had my luggage arrived with my flight. No such luck, however; I waited and waited and waited at the baggage carousel, along with a bunch of other people who were on my flight. Some people got their bags. A lot of us did not.

It turns out that, the disrpution caused by the rain and the subsequent "ground stop" at the Hobby Airport tarmac meant that not everybody's bags were loaded onto the plane. They'd be here on a later flight, the Southwest baggage agent told us. Some passengers were irate; I was just annoyed. Not so much because my bag wasn't there - I knew it would be delivered to me later on that evening - but because I had to stand in a long, slow line at the baggage office with everyone else to fill out a lost baggage claim. By the time I had completed that task, it was already after 6.

I took the courtesy bus to the rental car place, only to find out that my flight had been delayed for so long that they had given my car to someone else and they needed to find a new vehicle for me. They ended up giving me a white 2006 Ford Mustang. Sweet! This was the only good thing that happened to me that day.

Of course, the bad weather had not completely cleared out of the Metroplex; I ran into a nasty storm as I drove up I-35E. I got to the public meeting just as it was ending. Damnit.

After stopping by my aunt and uncle's house in Plano for dinner, I went to the hotel and checked in. I expected my luggage to be waiting at the front desk for me; after all, the Southwest baggage agent said that it should arrive there later that evening. Of course, it had not. So I went to my room and called Southwest's baggage hotline. "Oh yes, the bag was picked up earlier this evening and will get there no later than 1:30 am," they told me.

At about 12:40, the phone rang. The front desk was calling to let me know that my baggage had arrived. I walked back to the lobby, only to discover that the bag sitting at the reception desk wasn't mine. It turns out that it didn't even belong to anyone staying at the hotel! They had delivered the wrong bag. My suitcase was, well, somewhere in Dallas, and I was simply too exhausted to wait for it any further. I went back to the room and went to sleep.

The following morning, the phone rang. "We're sorry about the mix-up, we have your luggage and we're bringing it to you right now." However, 8 am came and went, as did 9 am, as did 10 am. I really needed to get to my office. I'd just have to wear yesterday's clothes and hope that nobody got to close to me to notice how bad I probably smelled.

My bag finally arrived at the hotel at about 11:30 am: an hour and a half after I had already checked out. Luckily, my company's office is near the hotel so I went to get it during lunch. It was good to finally be reunited with my bag, even if I really didn't need the clothes or the toiletries anymore since I was about to fly home. The flight back to Houston, for the record, was fine and my bag actually made the trip with me.

I'm not really mad at Southwest Airlines for Monday's misadventure; they can't control the weather, after all. They could have hadled the luggage situation better, although I realize that they contract people to deliver lost bags for them and it's not the airline's fault that they delivered the wrong bag to the hotel. Besides, if this is the first time I've ever been separated from my luggage after all the times I've flown, then I'm probably doing pretty well.

It was all a huge annoyance, however, and one that made me wonder if overnight business trips are even worth it anymore. It used to be that I could pack a small bag of clothes and toiletries for an overnight trip and take it on board the aircraft with me. The recent prohibition against liquids and gels in carry-on luggage now makes that impossible, unless I want to leave items like toothpaste and shaving cream at home and just buy new toiletries when I get to my destination. Even though it doesn't make a lot of sense to buy a whole tube of toothpaste that I'm only going to use for one night, it makes even less sense to check a small bag for an overnight trip.

Especially if crap like what happened to me on Monday is going to happen.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The trip home, the Cougars and other thoughts

Sorry for the delay in posting, but between the flight back and the long holiday weekend I just haven't had a lot of time for blogging lately. I'm afraid blogging will be light this week as well.

The voyage back from Dubai was long and boring but otherwise free of hassle. Remembering the long lines at the ticket counter and the security checkpoint that I endured the last time I flew out of Dubai, I made sure to get to the airport early this time. It must have been a wise decision, because neither the lines at the counter nor the security checkpoint were long and I ended up with plenty of time to kill before my 12:30 am departure to Amsterdam. The plane was delayed in its departure, but I didn't mind because it just meant there'd be less time for me to wait at the Amsterdam airport.

The time at the Amsterdam airport actually passed quickly - I befriended a soldier on leave from the Middle East who was also flying to Houston and the two of us killed time discussing college football and drinking draft Heinekens (nothing like a beer or two at 8:30 am!) at a bar across from the gate. We finally boarded the 747 to Houston, and after another long and boring flight arrived safely at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport and made our way through the nice new customs and immigration facilities at Terminal E. Lori and Kirby were in the arrivals area, waiting for me. A nice, long nap was waiting for me once we got back to the house.

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that at least a third of the people who were on the flight from Dubai to Amsterdam were also on the flight from Amsterdam to Houston. Most of these people were related in one way or another to the effort in Iraq.

Much of Saturday was spent on the computer sorting through the 1,000-plus e-mails I had accumulated during my absence or in front of the TV watching football games. Later in the afternoon, Lori, Kirby and I met my parents and my brother at the Rice Stadium parking lot for some pregame tailgating before heading into the stadium for the 8 pm kickoff.

As for the game itself: like I keep saying, a win over Rice is never a given. Luckily, the Coogs were able to squeak by with a one-point victory, but they had to climb out of a 16-point hole in order to do so. Certainly, making such a comeback is a which is a huge confidence builder for the team, but the question remains: why did the Coogs, after putting fourteen quick points on the board, allow the Owls to run off four unanswered touchdowns and get into a 16-point hole to begin with? To the credit of Briles and his coaching staff, they did make defensive adjustments that shut the Owl offense down in the second half. And there were no turnovers on the part of the Coogs. But there were still way too many penalties, and special teams, well, let's not go there.

A lot of credit has to be given to the Rice Owls and their new coach, Todd Graham. They came out ready to play and they used the "surprise" factor of a brand-new offense, of which the Houston coaches had no game film to study, to their advantage. I wish them luck for the remainder of the season, especially as they make their way through their ridiculous non-conference schedule of UCLA, Texas and Florida State. As for the Coogs, hopefully this too-close-for-comfort game was just the result of opening-day jitters and next week's game against Tulane will be a better indicator of how good this team really is. There are definitely some concerns that the UH coaching staff needs to address quickly, but the main thing is that the Coogs are 1-0.

On Sunday, Lori, Kirby and I ran some errands, went up to her parents' house to visit, and went to the palatial and bustling Kim Son on Bellaire for a retirement dinner being held for my dad by several other professors in his department. As of last Friday, the Old Man officially became Professor Emeritus, although there's still one more retirement party being held for him later this week.

The Labor Day holiday was spent around the house, being lazy and unproductive. Today it was back to work. I'll be in Houston all this week, Dallas for most of next week, and will return to Dubai on Sunday the 17th.

And finally, a few quick thoughts:

  • Okay, so I'm just as saddened by the death of Steve Irwin as everybody else, but let's face it: is this really a surprise? We all knew it was going to happen, sooner or later; you can only mess with deadly animals for so long before one of them finally gets you. The only surprise, I guess, is that the Crocodile Hunter met his end from the barb of a stingray rather than from the fangs of a snake or the jaws of an alligator.

  • The Houston Chronicle now has two University of Houston sports blogs. UH beat writer Michael Murphy began blogging about the Coogs last week and joins UH journalism student Ronnie Turner on the website. They've also just added a blog for Rice sports as well. Between these three blogs you'll find plenty of discussion about last weekend's nailbiter at Rice Stadium.

  • Speaking of football, the Texas Longhorns have moved into second place on the AP poll after their 56-7 drubbing of North Texas in Austin last weekend. This sets up a 1-versus-2 showdown in Austin this weekend as Ohio State comes to town. There's not a great deal of movement between the preseason AP poll and this week's poll; no schools were added or dropped and rarely did any school move more than a few sports. However, Miami of Florida and California both dropped several spots after their season-opening losses to Florida State and Tennessee, respectively. The Vols made the biggest jump of the weekend, and Oklahoma was demoted following their less-than-impressive victory against UAB.

  • A potentially huge discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico could boost US petroleum reserves by a whopping 50%. It still remains to be seen exactly how much oil exists in this deep-water field, and it will be many years and billions of dollars in drilling rig and pipeline investments before any of this oil makes its way into our tanks. The discovery could, however, suggest that the looming "oil crunch" of high prices and scarce supplies being predicted by "peak oil" theorists might not be at hand just yet. As an oil analyst remarks, "it should remind everyone that before they buy into the reckoning of $100 a barrel oil that all those estimates don't take into account tremendous amount of money can be spent on exploration when prices are at these levels."

  • Whew! A succession crisis in Japan has been averted. Princess Kiko gave birth to a baby boy earlier today, apparently putting to rest the debate about what happens if the imperial family does not have a male heir to inherit the throne once Emperor Akihito, Crown Prince Naruhito, and his brother, Prince Akishino all pass away. However, while this regal crisis might have been resolved with this baby's birth, Japan still has a baby crisis of its own: the country's low birthrate is causing the island nation's overall population to decrease, and that trend could have disasterous societal and economic consequences in the future.