Monday, December 31, 2007

Goodbye 2007, hello 2008

2007 has come to an end, which means it's time for a quick review of the year just passed.

I started the year with two resolutions: take the AICP exam and clean and organize the upstairs bedroom (which has been little more than a cluttered storage area ever since we moved into this house three years ago). As it turns out, I was one for two: I took the AICP exam and apparently passed (I'm still waiting for official confirmation, however), but the upstairs room is as cluttered and as chaotic as ever. So, I guess I'll just have to rollover this resolution to 2008: by the end of the upcoming year, I want to have that messy, clutter-strewn room clean and organized. It's a hurculean task, to be sure, and I've been avoiding doing it simply because I really don't even know where to start, but it's something I need to do and I know I'll be a lot happier once I do it.

My other resolution for 2008 is to fix the leaky roof over the sun porch as well as the leak over the upstairs bathroom. Fixing these leaks isn't going to be cheap, but they're simply necessary. The sun porch will never be of much use to us as long as its roof acts like a sieve during rainstorms, and I'm getting tired of positioning buckets in the upstairs bathroom to collect water everytime it rains. I resolve to have these problems fixed by December 31, 2008. Lori and I have simply invested too much time and money in this house to have it be plagued by leaky roofs!

I also want to follow through on a months-old plan of mine and find a new webhost for my website. These, aside from the usual "lose weight, exercise more, etc." resolutions that everybody (myself included) manages to make and fail to keep, are my goals for 2008. Modest? Maybe. I'm lazy and like to set the bar low.

As for 2007: neither Lori nor myself will ever be confused for particularly religious people, but looking back on 2007 it is clear that Lori's layoff from her previous job at a local traffic engineering firm was a blessing for all of us. She didn't really enjoy that job, nor most of the people she worked with. As traumatic has her layoff was to her, and as financially difficult as her four months of unemployment was to all of us, the fact that Lori finally landed a new job where she is appreciated and where she feels good about the work she produces makes it all worthwhile. Her new job keeps her busy, for sure, but she no longer comes home from work angry and frustrated. And that, by itself, is a huge improvement in our quality of life.

Lori's job change was really the biggest thing to happen to both of us over the past year. To be sure, having both my brother and my brother-in-law move away last spring was something of a life-changing event for us, especially since David and Danny were the two people I hung out with the most when they were here, but not quite on the same order of magnitude as Lori's job situation. Speaking entirely for myself, I guess my most memorable event of the past year was my service as jury foreman for a DWI case in June. I also enjoyed watching a couple of caterpillars I found in my front yard garden turn into beautiful butterflies. As routine as caterpillar-to-butterfly transitions might be, when you really pay attention to them you can't help but be humbled. Oh, and I finally broke down and got a new computer.

It was a rough year for my mom's side of the family. My cousin's death last February was a huge shock to all of us (her cause of death is believed to have been a stroke), and my uncle's passing last November was also saddening. I'll miss both Evelyn and Glen.

That. more or less, sums up 2007. What happens in 2008? We can say with relative certainty will be a presidential election and a summer Olympics, but otherwise, nobody can predict the future. All we can do is hope for the best. Which is why I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

2007 Travel Review

The past year's travels might not have taken me to faraway or exotic destinations of years past, like Dubai or Japan. But Lori and I both did get to get out of Houston on at least a few occasions over the past year, and in the process got to see a few new things and visit a few new places. Here's a rundown, complete with pictures:

In early May I flew up to Washington, DC to visit my brother-in-law Danny, who was living in Northern Virginia at the time. It was my first trip to the nation's capital, which was kind of cool in that, after thirty-something years, I finally got to see in person all the things I've seen on TV for my entire life. Like the Vietnam Memorial, for instance:
Danny made sure that I got to visit the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport during my short trip there. This annex includes military aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird and the B-29 Enola Gay, civilian aircraft such as the only surviving Boeing 307 Stratoliner, and even the Space Shuttle Enterprise. The place is a must-see for anybody interested in aviation. I thought this picture I took of a 1930s-era Grumman Goose sitting underneath the tail of a retired Air France Concorde was kind of cool:
In early June, I made the first of two trips to New Orleans. This was my second trip to the Crescent City since Katrina, and I took note of the city's excruciatingly slow process of recovery. FEMA trailers, lots full of weeds and debris, and dilapidated structures such as this one on Canal Street were still the norm for much of the city, almost two years after the hurricane:
While I was there, I did get to see some attractions that had recovered since the hurricane, such as the New Orleans Museum of Art's intriguing sculpture garden:As slow as the recovery process is, the city is clearly doing better than it was during my previous visit in June of 2006. There were more people - and importantly, more tourists - in New Orleans in June 2007 than there were just a year before. Bourbon Street continues to be a top tourist attraction, and is keeping it as sleazy as ever; we'll not talk about how drunk I managed to get on said street the night of the Sopranos finale...
In July, I flew out to Denver for a few days to visit my brother David, who had moved there just a few months before. He seemed to be doing well, with a decent job and apartment near the intersection of Broadway and I-25 just a few miles south of downtown. While we were there we took a day trip up to Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as an excursion up to Jones Pass in Arapaho National Forest. David finally got to take his Jeep Liberty off-road for the first time, and it performed admirably; it took us up to about 12,000 feet, well above the Rocky Mountain tree line:
As one who has lived almost all of his life only fifty feet above sea level, I would have found the alpine environment of the Rockies to be a unique experience in any instance. But the fact that we were met by these guys at the Continental Divide made our trip all that much more fun:
Seriously. The mountain goats were cool.

In late July, Lori's wine-selling gig had its annual meeting in California. She decided to attend, and made a trip to Sonoma County. While she was there, she did what any good wine snob would do: she toured some wineries...
Mmmm. Grapes.
Lori also got to take her very first business trip over the summer, as she attended a symposium at the J. Eric Jonsson Center of the National Academy of Sciences in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in August:
While she was there, Lori took a tour of Martha's Vineyard. Here's a picture she took of the lighthouse at Gay Head:
In mid-September, I made a second trip to New Orleans, this time to watch the Cougars play Tulane. In between trips to Central Grocery (for a muffaletta) and Mother's (for jambalaya), I took in the street scenes around Jackson Square. It bears repeating that the French Quarter was largely unaffected by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, and that, if a person with no knowledge of 2005's catastrophe were magically transported to Jackson Square, they would have no idea that two years ago the city surrounding said plaza was an apocalyptic morass of murky floodwater, rampant looting and unspeakable human suffering.
Speaking of human suffering, the Superdome will be a lasting image of Hurricane Katrina. But the facility has been restored and is once again hosting Tulane football games. Being a University of Houston fan, I am accustomed to seeing disappointingly small crowds at football games. But even I can't help but wonder how Tulane's football program will be able to survive, long-term, given the paltry fan support it currently appears to attract; hopefully that will change as the city repopulates. Of course, this crowd would probably look a lot better in any place other than the cavernous Superdome:
In October, Lori and I took a trip to what we consider a friendly and familiar destination: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. This was Lori's third, and my fourth, trip to the Pacific resort town. We found it to be just as pleasant as we remembered from previous visits.
While we were there, we subjected ourselves to a timeshare presentation in order to get a free "canopy tour" of zip-lines over the tropical forests south of Puerto Vallarta. It was really rather fun. Lori enjoyed cruising along a cable above the trees:
I enjoyed myself as well. It's good to know that, apparently, I have the "cojones" to undertake such an adventure...
2007 was a fun year for travel. Since Lori and I love to travel, we're looking forward to even more fun and excitement in 2008.

Coogs lose to TCU, end 2007 with 8-5 record

The University of Houston Cougars ended the 2007 football season on a down note last Friday evening, losing 20-13 to longtime nemesis Texas Christian University in the Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium. It was Houston's eighth bowl defeat in a row; the Coogs have not won a postseason game since the 1980 Garden State Bowl. Moreover, it was Houston's eighth loss in a row to TCU; the Coogs have not beaten the Horned Frogs since 1992, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference.

Credit has to be given to TCU and coach Gary Patterson: they were determined to keep the Coogs' top offensive weapon, running back Anthony Alridge, from becoming a factor in the game and they did so, limiting "Quick Six" to 29 yards on 15 carries. In fact, TCU's defense simply shut down the Cougar running game, which netted a measly 32 yards. The Horned Frog defense also did a great job placing pressure on UH quarterback Case Keenum, whom himself showed a great ability to scramble and improvise under pressure as he completed 23 of 38 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown. The Coogs had a chance to tie the game in its waning seconds, but what should have been a touchdown pass to receiver Jeron Harvey missed by mere inches and TCU defensive lineman Chase Ortiz sealed the deal two plays later flew by hitting Case Keenum as time expired, sealing the win. The 13 points Houston managed to score were its lowest of the year. While TCU's offense didn't exactly put up stellar numbers themselves, they scored just enough points to win. Horned Frog QB Andy Dalton, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 249 yards, was named the bowl's MVP.

Of course, given the hardship the Cougars faced going into this bowl, it's remarkable that the game was as competitive as it was. The decision by former head coach Art Briles to bail out on his team prior to their bowl game - and to take two of his offensive assistants to the coaching graveyard that is Baylor with him - put the program in a very difficult position going into the Texas Bowl. Interim head coach Chris Thurmond and the remaining assistants did the best they could under the circumstances, and to the team's credit they stayed focused and played a decent TCU team tough. Unfortunately, it just wasn't good enough, and the Coogs' bowl losing streak continues.

The Coogs end the 2007 season with an 8-5 record, which is one win better than I predicted in my pre-season outlook. It was a season of ups and downs, featuring exciting nail-biters such as a 56-48 victory over crosstown rival Rice and a 34-31 win over UTEP in El Paso, as well as disappointing losses such as a 35-37 home defeat to East Carolina (wherein the Coogs missed not one but two field goals at the end of the game that would have secured the victory) or a 7-56 road shellacking at the hands of Tulsa. The Coogs also came within one play of potentially defeating Alabama in Tuscaloosa, but fell short 24-30. Although the Coogs end 2007 with their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90, the team proved itself to be little better than mediocre; every team they beat ended the season with a losing record, and every team they lost to ended the season with a winning record.

Going into the season, most savvy UH fans (myself included) expressed the most concern about the quarterback position, the offensive line and the secondary. These concerns were accurate, but not to the degree feared at season's beginning. The quarterback situation proved to be unsettled for the entire season, with Case Keenum and Blake Joseph trading time behind center. The offensive line was far from stellar, allowing a cringe-inducing 34 sacks over the course of the season. To be fair, some of these sacks were caused by young quarterback uncertainty - both Keenum and Joseph showed a tendency to hold on to the ball too long - but the O-line's domination at the hands of TCU's defensive line last Friday proved just how relatively weak it was. In spite of these weaknesses, however, the Cougars still managed one of the nation's most productive offenses, amassing almost 502 yards per game and scoring 34.5 points per game.

The secondary wasn't quite as bad as feared going into the season, although the UH faithful obviously would have liked to have seen fewer touchdown passes (the Coogs allowed 28) and more interceptions (UH picked off 14). The CBs and safeties were helped by the fact that Rocky Schwartz, although technically a linebacker, spent most of his time in the backfield and led the team in tackles with 103.

Then there was the Unholy Trinity of turnovers, penalties and poor special teams play that plagued the UH football team for yet another season. The Cougars end the year as one of the nation's most penalty-prone programs, committing 101 flags over the course of the fall. They were also one of the nation's most turnover-prone teams in 2007, losing the ball a total of 30 times. And don't get me started on special teams; not only did the kicking game cost the Coogs at least one victory this season (ECU), but their net punting average of 31.2 yards and their punt return defense of 14.6 yards are both among the nation's worst. After five years under Art Briles, it became clear that these problems were simply not going to go away.

But none it matters now. The season - Houston's fourth winning season in five years - is over, Art Briles is gone, and the Cougars and their fans now look forward to new coach Kevin Sumlin (currently an assistant with the Oklahoma Sooners) and the 2008 season.

What can we expect from the Coogs in 2008? It's simply too early to tell. We know that the Coogs lose key seniors such as Anthony Alridge, Donnie Avery, Jeron Harvey and Dustin Dickinson on offense and Tate Stewart, Brandon Pahulu and Rocky Schwartz on defense. We know that the gap between the departure of Art Briles and the arrival of Kevin Sumlin (as well as the fact that Briles is busy redirecting what were his Houston recruits to Baylor) means that Houston's 2008 recruiting class is probably going to be pretty sparse in terms of talent. And we know that, when a school taps an assistant head coach with no personal track record of winning or losing to be their next head coach, there's always a risk involved. Sumlin is, to be sure, an unproven commodity.

But I'm not going to write off the 2008 season just yet. The schedule, which sees the Coogs play division rivals Tulsa and UTEP at home and whose toughest games are road dates against Oklahoma State in Stillwater and East Carolina in Greenville, is not unfavorable. There is plenty of returning talent on this team: Case Keenum, for all his faults, showed flashes of brilliance over the fall and has the potential to be a pretty good quarterback; Terrence Ganaway and Andre Kohn show promise at running back, as do Teric Williams and Chris Gilbert at wide receiver; Mark Hafner is a solid tight end that will hopefully see more utilization in Sumlin's offense; defensive end Phillip Hunt (10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss), cornerback Kenneth Fontenette (65 tackles and 4 interceptions), linebacker Cody Lubojasky and safety Ernest Miller return to a defense that, while still weak, has steadily improved over the last few seasons. Kevin Sumlin has an impressive resume, and he has worked under proven winner Bob Stoops for the last five years. There's definitely reason for optimism.

In spite of his faults as a coach (lack of attention to defense or special teams, poor team discipline, etc.) or the rather classless way in which he quit in his team prior to their bowl appearance, Art Briles deserves credit for returning a winning spirit to a University of Houston football program that for so many years had only known defeat. But the 2007 season, with its slightly-better-than-average result, indicated that he had taken the program as far as he could. Now it's time to see if Kevin Sumlin can take Cougar football to the next step: bowl victories and top 25 appearances. The UH faithful will find out, beginning on August 30, 2008.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Troy gets screwed. Or shafted. Take your pick.

The college bowl season is well underway, with a a handful of games already in the books (East Carolina's nail-biting upset of Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl being the most surprising result so far) and many more games to come over the following couple of weeks, including the traditional slate of games on New Year's Day and the BCS National Championship Game on January 7th. Once it's all over, 32 games involving 64 teams, or almost 54% percent of the 119-team Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A), will have been played.

Some college football elitists decry this proliferation of bowl games, claiming that most of these games are meaningless and that their existence has made the reward of postseason play equally meaningless. I disagree, because I like college football and more bowl games mean... more college football. Besides, it's not like anybody's being forced to watch any of these games. Don't think that Purdue and Central Michigan matchup in tonight's Motor City Bowl is worth watching? Then watch something else.

One of the best things about the large number of bowl games, however, is that fewer and fewer deserving teams miss out on postseason action. Several years ago, I began the fictional "Screw Bowl" and "Shaft Bowl" to commemorate teams, almost always belonging to one of the non-BCS "have-not" conferences, who racked up impressive records over the season but nevertheless spent the holidays at home. On four occasions (Wyoming in 1996, Miami of Ohio in 1998, Toledo in 2000, Northern Illinois), teams with ten wins were left out of the postseason bowl party. In eight other instances, nine-win teams stayed home. As the number of bowl games has increased, however, the number of teams with winning records who spend the holidays at home has decreased. Last year, for example, every team with a winning record went to a bowl game, thus no need for the Screw Bowl or the Shaft Bowl.

This year, only one school with a winning record is missing out on holiday bowl action. The Troy Trojans, of the Sun Belt Conference, ended the 2007 season with eight wins, including a road victory over BCS conference member Oklahoma State and a respectable showing against a Georgia team that is ranked #4 going into the bowl season. Their bowl hopes came down to the final week of the season, when they hosted Florida Atlantic for the right to win the Sun Belt Conference championship outright and represent the conference in the New Orleans Bowl. The Trojans fell to Howard Schnellenberger's Owls, however. Troy coach Larry Blakeney and his team spent an anxious few hours waiting for an at-large bowl bid that never materialized before accepting that, in spite of an 8-4 record, they would be spending the holidays at home.

While Troy got screwed and shafted out of the bowl picture (in this case, by the Sun Belt Conference's lack of bowl tie-ins), they were fortunately the only team to receive such a fate. Every other team with eight wins, all teams with seven wins, and even a handful of teams with six wins made it to the postseason. As such, I can't match Troy up with any other deserving programs in my fictional Screw Bowl and Shaft Bowl matchups, because there aren't any others. Which means that, for the second season in a row, there will be no Screw Bowl or Shaft Bowl.

Troy, a relative newcomer to the Bowl Championship Subdivision, has been to bowl games in the past - they clobbered Rice in last year's New Orleans Bowl - so it's not like they've been habitually excluded from postseason action. And, if nothing else, they do get to claim a share of the Sun Belt Conference title. But that's probably little consolation to the players and the fans who enjoyed a good season but missed out on the reward that is a bowl appearance. Better luck next year.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Meet Artemis and Orion

Due all the distractions and general busy-ness that I've experienced over the past few weeks, I've neglected to mention the two newest members of our family:
Meet Artemis, at the left, and her brother Orion. They've actually been with us since right after Thanksgiving; one of Lori's friend's relatives had found a litter of four kittens whose mother had died and sent out a plea for good homes. Since we were thinking about getting a new cat at some point (to replace Elektra), we obliged. Originally we were only going to take one kitten, but we ended up with two.

Artemis and Orion (as you might tell, I name all my cats after Greek mythology) seem to have adjusted well to life with us, although Athena and Hermes still aren't especially impressed with their presence. Surprisingly, Kirby hasn't shown too much interest in them, one way or another. That's probably not altogether a bad thing, though, since we debated as to whether Kirby was old enough to be around kittens.
I've had many cats over the years, but Orion is the first one of this variety. Hopefully he'll bring me good luck, rather than the other kind...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas is a week away

I guess that means I should start doing some shopping, or something.

So many things have been going on over the last few weeks that I've hardly had time to even notice that it's the holiday season, let alone buy gifts for people.

Thus, I'll get to spend the upcoming weekend fighting my way through the hordes of fellow last-minute shoppers. Oh, joy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Weak dollar impacts Dubai's construction boom

Speaking of Dubai: it was inevitable that, sooner or later, this would become an issue:
In the four years that it has taken laborers to climb more than 150 floors over Dubai's congested freeways and skyline, the U.S. dollar has fallen with equal steadiness. Its decline has helped trigger unprecedented wage strikes and a rock-throwing protest this fall by the foreign construction workers, who are paid in local currencies pegged to the dollar.

For the Arab builders and business leaders rushing to convert the temporary boon of Dubai's oil reserves into lasting prosperity, U.S. policymakers and consumers have committed one of the few unforgivable sins in this desert boom town: They've slowed the building down.
The currency of the United Arab Emirates is fixed to that of the USA's at an exchange rate of 3.67 dirhams to the dollar. Thus, as the dollar loses value, so does the dirham.

A weak dollar has some economic benefits here in the United States: American goods become cheaper on foreign markets, and the United States becomes an attractive travel destination for foreigners (for shopping as much as vacationing); in both cases, the influx of foreign spending stimulates the domestic economy. For countries such as the UAE who have pegged their currency to the dollar, however, the economic dynamics can obviously be much different. Especially since that dollar-pegged currency pays for everything the Emirates import: cars, construction materials, food, and labor:

To build and tend their kingdom, the Emirates' 800,000 citizens imported millions of foreign workers, including 700,000 construction workers. Nearly one in five people in the kingdom is a construction worker; most are from India.

(Note to the Washington Post: the UAE is not a "kingdom.")

As recently as last month, some construction workers on the Burj Dubai and other projects made the equivalent of as little as $109 a month. Back home in India, where the dollar has fallen 14 percent against the rupee in the past 18 months, remittances that workers here sent to their families steadily lost value.
The result? Labor strikes and higher wages for workers, both of which profoundly affect profit margins. The cost of doing business has increased, the building boom in Dubai (as well as those in neighboring Emirates such as Abu Dhabi or Sharjah) has experienced a slowdown, and the imported laborers have ended up being the ones hit the hardest:

The surge of oil profits and the fall of the dollar have brought record inflation to the Emirates. Workers say they pay twice as much for cooking gas, vegetables and the other bare necessities. K.V. Shamsudheen, an Indian businessman who runs a group aiding Indian laborers, said the financial crisis has caused a one-third increase in suicides among the workers since 2004.

Given the economic problems the United States is currently experiencing - the housing and credit crises created by the subprime mortgage meltdown, soaring trade deficits, and the propensity of the average American to saddle themselves with debt instead of actually saving and investing their money - it is likely that the dollar's decline will continue. Naturally, this is causing concern to nations whose currencies are pegged to the dollar. In the case of the United Arab Emirates, several remedial options are being discussed. One is the possible revaluation of the dirham relative to the dollar (for example, resetting the rate at 3 dirhams to the dollar instead of the current rate of 3 2/3). Another option is to eliminate the dirham-to-dollar peg altogether, as other Gulf nations such as Kuwait have done. So far, neither of these options have been exercised. But that could change as the dollar's decline continues to eat into Dubai's massive building boom.

(Countries such as Ecuador who have eliminated their local currencies in favor of the dollar, on the other hand, don't even have this option. They, and their economies, are simply along for the ride.)

Emirates begins flying to Houston

Last week, Emirates kicked off non-stop service between Houston and Dubai. I couldn't make it up to IAH to witness the event, but fortunately the planespotters at airliners.net were up to the task.

As I suggested last February, nonstop service between Houston and Dubai makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. I believe that Emirates will find this to be a highly successful and profitable route, and I hope I get to take advantage of it if and when I get sent back to Dubai.

Initially, the service will be provided three times a week; daily service is scheduled to begin in February of 2008.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

When cats attack

Consider yourself warned...

Big drug bust at University of Houston

Wow, that's a lot of acid:

A University of Houston freshman was planning to sell about half a million dollars worth of LSD he had in his dorm room, Houston police said.

Clarke Lane Denton, 18, was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He was in Harris County jail in lieu of $999,999 bond.

Denton, a chemical engineering major, was arrested Thursday after he sold LSD to undercover officers, who later found the drug in his dorm room, authorities said.

When officers tried to arrest him, Denton fled. A janitor found him hiding in a room in one of the campus' buildings and alerted campus police.

After the arrest, narcotics officers got Denton's consent to search his dorm room in the North Tower, where they recovered about 250,000 hits of LSD with an estimated street value of $500,000, authorities said.

His next scheduled court appearance is Monday.

Lemme get this straight: acid is selling for only two bucks a hit these days? Wow.

I guess the LSD market took a bit of a crash after the techno-rave scene of the 1990s finally petered out.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Art Briles goes to Baylor

Over the course of this fall's college football season, I had planned to write regular updates and thoughts about the University of Houston Cougars. Of course, other than an entry I wrote after the first game of the season, that simply never occurred. Now the regular season is over; the Cougars have ended their season with an 8-4 record - one win better than what I predicted last August - and are heading to their fourth bowl game in five years: the Texas Bowl, here in Houston, against an as-yet-unnamed opponent, on Friday December 28th.

However, all of that has been overshadowed by the fact that, as of yesterday, the Cougars are without a head coach. Art Briles, who has been at the helm of UH football for the past five seasons, has moved up the road to Waco, where he will become Baylor's new head football coach.

Briles's base salary at Baylor will be $1.2 million but he could earn as much as $1.8 million with incentives. Considering that to be a doubling of the $900,ooo he was paid here in Houston, you really can't begrudge the man for wanting to go where the money is. Given the money, the fact that Briles, a west Texas native, probably feels more comfortable in a place like Waco, and the fact that his relationship with UH Athletic Director Dave Maggard was widely reported as being strained, it isn't a surprise that Briles decided to make his move.

Needless to say, the University of Houston faithful are pretty angry right now. A quick perusal of UH message boards, or even the comments of Michael Murphy's blog, will show that fans feel angry, shocked, and betrayed by Art Briles. Some are upset that he'd leave Houston for Baylor, a Big 12 bottomfeeder whose inclusion in that conference at the expense of Houston over a decade ago is still a source of resentment. Others are angry at the timing of his decision, leaving his players to fend for themselves with a bowl game one month away. Others are mad at what they perceive as his dishonesty: he claimed he was "still proud to be a Houston Cougar" and that no contract details were discussed upon returning from his interview with the Baylor AD Tuesday night, only to be flashing the Bear Claw at a press conference in Waco less than twenty-four hours later.

I, however, can't say I'm too broken up about Briles's decision. I never expected Art Briles to be at the University of Houston forever, although I figured that when he left UH it would be for Texas Tech, his alma mater and the place where he previously coached as an assistant. To be sure, his decision to take the Baylor gig - a job with a recent history of being a coaching graveyard - was a bit surprising to me. I also could have done without the timing of his decision, but I realize that is the nature of the college football coaching business. But I'm not very upset about the loss of Art Briles, because, quite frankly, I think the time was right for both him and the University of Houston to move on. He had taken the UH football program as far as he could take it. It's now time for somebody to come in and take the program to the next level.

Art Briles is a good guy and a decent coach who certainly deserves credit for turning the football program around. Before he got to Houston the Cougars had enjoyed only two winning seasons out of the previous twelve; since Art has been at the helm the Cougars have had four winning seasons out of five. After five years in Houston, however, the limitations of his abilities had become apparent. Consider:

Briles compiled a 34-38 record over his five seasons at Houston, which is a decent average and is certainly better than what the Coogs were accomplishing before he arrived. But, of those 34 wins, only six came against teams that finished the season with winning records. Other than perhaps the victory over Oklahoma State last season, the Cougars did not notch any significant upsets or score any "signature" wins. Under Briles, the Cougars never managed any bowl victories, he never managed any top 25 appearances, and he led the team to only one conference championship in an extremely weak Conference USA.

Of course, it's unfair to expect for Briles to take a team that was once the dregs of the college football world - Houston had an 0-fer season as recently as 2001 - and turn it into a perennial top-25 program in only five short seasons. But there were times, under his leadership, where the Coogs underperformed against lesser opponents as well, losing games they had no business losing: Rice (3-8) in 2004, SMU (5-6) in 2005, Louisiana-Lafayette (5-7) last year (all three games were played in Houston, by the way). The Cougars frequently allowed games to be closer than they should have been (this season's 56-48 nail-biter against Rice being one such example). Sometimes the team suffered humiliating blowout losses to schools that were not exactly powerhouses: the 13-42 drubbing at the hands of 7-4 Kansas in the 2005 Fort Worth Bowl, for example, or the 7-56 pounding against Tulsa earlier this season with the division championship on the line.

Aside from the wins and losses, Briles's teams were frequently sloppy on the field. Throughout the five years of Art's tenure, the Cougars were plagued with the "unholy trinity" of turnovers, penalties and lousy special teams play. These frustrating problems never really seemed to improve over time, and ultimately cost the Cougars games (such as the home loss to East Carolina earlier this season, wherein the Cougars had two chances to win with field goals in the final minutes of the game but missed them both). Sloppiness was oftentimes evident in other areas as well: tackling, clock management, center-to-quarterback exchanges. All of Art's Houston teams had a rough, unrefined, work-in-progress feel to them: they had just enough physical talent to beat almost anybody, but made just enough mental mistakes to lose to almost anybody.

This is not to suggest that Art Briles is a horrible coach. He is not, and he deserves appreciation for coming out ahead in the win-loss column and giving Houston fans something to cheer about again. Because of Art Briles, University of Houston football is at least something approaching relevant once again. But it's time for the Coogs to take the next step, and that next step probably wasn't going to happen with Art Briles at the helm.

Is Art Briles is really worth up to $1.8 million per year? That's Baylor's problem now. The Bears, of course, have not had a winning season since 1995; being the Big 12's lone private school, they are a small fish in a big pond and their abysmal 11-85 in-conference record since they joined the Big 12 in 1996 proves as much.

Based on what he accomplished here in Houston, Art Briles clearly thinks he can do what all of Chuck Reedy, Dave Roberts, Kevin Steele and Guy Morriss thought they could do: turn around Baylor's moribund football program. But it's not going to be easy, especially since there's a huge difference in the level of competition he will be facing. His divisional foes will be Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M instead of Rice, SMU and Tulane. Briles has his work cut out for him, and if the problems that plagued his teams here - the penalties, the turnovers, the poor tackling, the lousy special teams play, the overall sloppiness - rear their ugly heads on his Baylor teams, his stay in Waco could be short. As Richard Justice notes, Briles's ability to win at Baylor "may hinge on his ability to understand that discipline and toughness aren't his strong points. He must hire a staff that will make players accountable." If he can't do that, then he has essentially committed career suicide.

As for the University of Houston: Dave Maggard's task right now is to find the right person to take Cougar football to the next level: bowl wins, upset victories, top 25 appearances. It's not an easy task by any means, but the Houston program has moved up in stature such that many qualified applicants are showing interest. If nothing else, we have Art Briles to think for that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

An unhappy Thanksgiving, and other thoughts

I'm back.

Needless to say the last few weeks have been extremely eventful, and in many ways difficult, for myself and my family. Most notably, as I reported in the previous post, my Uncle Glen is no longer with us.

The original reason for his admission to the Temple VA Hospital, on October 31st, was because he was suffering from edema associated with congestive heart failure. His condition was apparently exacerbated by an adverse reaction he had to a heart stimulant he was given, and he went into renal failure. He was moved to the ICU early the following week. His condition improved to the point that he was moved out of the ICU on Wednesday the 14th, but the improvement didn't last long; on Thursday the 15th the family was informed that Glen's kidneys weren't getting any better, that he had developed pulmonary edema, and that his condition was terminal. He died on Tuesday the 20th. In the end his heart was so weak, his overall health so poor, that his body was filling up with fluids so quickly and that there was nothing that could have been done for him.

The whole experience has been an exhausting roller-coaster of emotion from my family, from initial despair about his condition, to hopeful optimism when it appeared he would recover, to shock and horror when it was realized that he would not survive, to a sad sense of relief when his suffering finally ended. My mother spent the last several weeks in Temple at Glen's bedside along with many other family members and told me that she never wanted to go through such an ordeal again.

On the morning of Thursday, November 22nd, Lori, Kirby and I drove up to Temple for a rather somber Thanksgiving meal. Quite a few people were there, of course, and it was good to see some folks, such as my cousins Laura and Ellie, that I hadn't seen in a long time. We enjoyed ourselves the best we could; Glen, after all, was the type of person who would have told us not to let the fact that he's dead ruin our holiday.

Glen would not have wanted a formal funeral held for him, but on Friday the 23rd we did hold a small and informal memorial service at the Temple VA chapel where we shared memories and tried to console each other as best we could. A larger memorial service and wake will probably be held for him at a later date. As a US Navy veteran, his ashes will receive a formal burial at sea.

So now a difficult period of adjustment begins, especially for his daughters but in reality for all of us. Glen was the closest person in age to my mother; my father had been looking forward to more fishing trips with him. My aunt Dorothy, his eldest sister, will now be completely by herself in Temple; given her advanced age, and the fact that Glen is no longer around to check up on her on a regular basis, her days of living independently are probably numbered.

***

One bright spot of the past couple of weeks was my successful completion of the AICP exam. I was worried going into the test that I wouldn't do well - the test covered a broad expanse of topics, many of which I had not reviewed since graduate school - and I simply didn't spend as much time studying as I would have liked. Thankfully, the test itself, taken at a testing center on the west side of town, did not turn out to be quite as difficult as I had feared. This is not to say that the test was easy - it was not - but it seemed to be well-designed, focusing on generally-relevant topics and avoiding most of the arcane jargon prevalent in some sectors of the planning profession.

After completing the test I was "unofficially" informed that I had passed by a comfortable margin; it will be a couple of months before I am officially informed of my accomplishment and become a certified planner. Nevertheless, it feels good to finally accomplish this. Becoming certified had been a professional goal of mine for many years, something I really should have completed several years ago but never did because I was either too busy or too lazy or whatever. But now I've done it, and I feel good.

***

Another piece of bad news arrived in the mail over the weekend in the form of Kirby's official evaluation from the University of Houston's Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic. Kirby's preschool teacher had expressed concerns about Kirby's language development, and that, along with concerns that both Lori and I were beginning to have about Kirby's ability to communicate, prompted Lori to take him to the Clinic earlier in the month for testing. The results of the test, according to the Clinic, are that Kirby had a "moderate to severe receptive and expressive language delay." The report we received declared that Kirby's auditory comprehensive skills score (i.e. his ability to listen) was "greater than three standard deviations below the mean" for three-year-old children. In other words, the Clinic believes that thirty-nine-month-old Kirby has the listening comprehension skills of a twenty-month old. His expressive communication skills were, likewise, below what would be expected of a child his age, although the lag wasn't as great.

A delay in Kirby's communication skills really is no surprise to us; he didn't start speaking until well after most children are expected to do so and, while he is talkative, he doesn't seem to entirely grasp the concept of back-and-forth conversation, and he can't do things that children his age normally do, for example, indicate his age by holding up three fingers.

The Clinic did not attempt to classify Kirby's language deficiency as part of a larger disorder, such as autism, but they did suggest that there might be a behavioral aspect to his communication lag (for example, his inattentiveness). They did suggest a "treatment plan" which included three hours of therapy (two hours with a group and one hour with an individual) every week. How we'd pay for them, of course, is a different matter, since such therapy is not covered by either my nor Lori's insurance.

As I stated; the fact that Kirby has been diagnosed with a communication delay is not surprising to us. The degree of the delay, however, comes as a bit of a shock. I think our next step is to have his overall behavior evaluated to see how much of a role that plays in his condition. After that is done, we will evaluate our options for him.

***

Indeed, it's been an exhausting couple of weeks (and after all that, I'm supposed to get myself into the holiday spirit?!). Hopefully now that things have settled down a bit I'll be able to provide entries and updates on a slightly more regular basis. It looks like the trip to Dubai won't happen until after the new year, if at all, which right now is a good thing.

Glen Johnston 1939 - 2007

Sadly, my uncle Glen passed away on Tuesday, November 20, 2007, from complications related to congestive heart failure. He was about a month short of his 68th birthday.

Glen had not been in good health for some time; he was a lifelong smoker with a history of heart problems. Nevertheless, his death came as a shock to all of us.

Glen's obituary, which was written by his daughter Laura, ran in last Thursday's Temple Daily Telegram, but for some reason is not archived on their obituaries page. In the interests of posterity, I am reprinting it here in its entirety.

Of course, what is unsaid about Glen's life is just as important as what is said in the obit. Glen suffered a severe mental breakdown in the early 1980s, one which essentially erased his memory and caused him to suddenly leave his home and family in Oregon. Glen's whereabouts were unknown to everyone for several months, and we all feared the worst until he finally surfaced in Alabama. Glen's mental state improved with therapy, and he embarked on the herculean - and ultimately successful - task of rebuilding his life from complete scratch while in his 40s. Although we think that PTSD related to his service in Vietnam was a factor, we will never know with certainty what stresses and traumas caused Glen to suffer such a profound psychological calamity. He was an enigmatic person, even to those closest to him, and there are many things about his life that we will never know.

In spite of his life's difficulties, however, Glen Johnston was probably one of the nicest people I will ever know. He was gentle and friendly, had a dry sense of humor and was never judgmental.

To say that this has been a difficult time for my mother's side of the family (they've already suffered one loss this year) would be an understatement. Glen will be missed by all of us.

Glen Edwin Johnston, 67, of Morgan's Point Resort died November 20, 2007, at the Temple VA Medical Center.

He was born December 14, 1939 in Seminole, Oklahoma, to Henry William and Ruth Ella Mitchem Johnston. He attended school in Bowlegs, Oklahoma, and graduated from Seminole High School in 1957. He received a bachelor's degree in music education from Central State College in Edmond, Oklahoma, in 1962, then became the high-school band director in Rush Springs, Oklahoma.

He was commissioned as a U.S. Naval officer November 22, 1963. He served on a minesweeper and a destroyer during the Vietnam War and received the Vietnam Honor Medal with combat action ribbon, among others. He was discharged in 1973 as a lieutenant.

He and his family moved to Bellfountain, Oregon, and took up farming. Glen earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural education in 1975 from Oregon State University. He worked as a realtor in Corvallis, Oregon.

He began work as an equipment salesman for Mohawk Equipment in Temple in 1985. He migrated to MTC when that company bought Mohawk, and stayed there until his retirement in 2005.

He married Katherine Jane Wilkins December 27, 1961, in Edmond. They later divorced. He married Barbara Lyman in 1980 in Corvallis. They later divorced.

Glen was both smarter and kinder than he let on. He enjoyed ships, fishing, crossword puzzles interesting machinery and unusual automobiles.

Survivors include daughters Laura (Frank Graham) of North Platte, Nebraska, and Elinor of Los Angeles, and their mother Jane; sisters Dorothy of Temple and Rosemary (Horace) Gray of Houston; brothers Jim (Carolyn) of Beaverton, Oregon; and Joe of Dodge City, Kansas; many nieces, nephews and friends including Jim Lane and Cheri Coninx; and his beloved poodle Charley.

He was preceded in death by his father in 1957 and his mother in 2000.

The body was cremated. His ashes will be buried at sea. A private memorial will be at a later date.

Arrangements are with Temple Funeral Home.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Unsettled times

Earlier this evening, while preparing dinner, I took a casual glance at the big calendar we have in our kitchen. I'll admit that I was shocked when, upon looking at the calendar for a couple of seconds, I realized that Thanksgiving was exactly two weeks away! Yeah, I knew it was coming, but this quickly? I guess that's what I get for not keeping close track of time, but there are a lot of distractions in my life right now.

Most importantly: last week my uncle Glen was admitted to a Temple hospital with severe heart and kidney problems. His condition is still serious and his prognosis is uncertain at this point. My mother has been up there all week, keeping my aunt Dorothy (elder sister to both Glen and my mom) company, and my two cousins - Glen's daughters - have even flown in from Los Angeles and Nebraska to be by his bedside. There's nothing anybody can do at this point but wait and see how Glen responds to the treatment he is receiving.

In other words, it doesn't matter how close Thanksgiving is. Depending on how Glen does, we might not be having much of a Thanksgiving at all.

While that, by far, is the most distressing event occurring my my life right now, it's not the only source of unsettlement. At work, the story is that we're about to be moved into a new office space out on the West Loop. It's not too far from our current Greenway Plaza location and it will only add a few minutes to my commute, but the cleaning and packing is going to be a chore and, even worse, the rumor is that we'll be trading the actual offices we have right now for cubicles. Ugh.

Speaking of work, there's still no news about my impending trip to Dubai. When the original schedule for the project was created at the end of August, the plan was for me to leave on October 29th. Of course, I'm still in Houston, so that obviously hasn't happened; sometime in September I received word that the project had been delayed and that I wouldn't be needed until after Thanksgiving. Since then, there's been no word whatsoever. The closer I get to Thanksgiving without receiving any updates, the more likely it becomes that I won't be needed there until later in December, or sometime in January, or at all. Needless to say, it's hard to make any plans given this kind of uncertainty, and it is as annoying for Lori as it is for me.

There's also my AICP Certification Exam, which I take late next week. I've been preparing for it - or trying to, at least - but the more I study the more concerned I become about whether I'll actually be able to pass it. And I really need to pass this test. No pressure there, or anything...

Oh yeah, and then there's the cough and runny nose that has kept Kirby home from preschool most of this week. He was nice enough to pass his illness on to me and Lori, as well. Great.

Unsettled. That's where things are right now. That's also why blogging has been - and is going to continue to be - sporadic. I'll keep everybody updated about my uncle's condition.

Puerto Vallarta dining guide

One last post about our trip to Puerto Vallarta a couple of weeks ago: I wanted to mention some of the eating establishments we visited while we were there.

There are a few places we enjoyed during previous trips to PV (The River Cafe, Isla Cuale; Vista Grill, Pulpito 377; Rio Grande, Av. Mexico 1775; La Bodeguita del Medio, Paseo Diaz Ordaz 858) that we simply didn't get to eat at this time around. With the caveat that I haven't eaten at any of them recently, I'd still recommend these places if for no other reason than I haven't heard any recent reports that any of these establishments have "gone downhill." We did eat at the following places during our most recent vacation, and here's our assessment:

The Blue Shrimp (Morelos 779): As the same suggests, shrimp is this place's specialty. They offer shrimp by the kilo, half-kilo or quarter-kilo, cooked any number of ways, including tequila shrimp, coconut shrimp or garlic shrimp (check out their menu). Appetizers include shrimp ceviche, guacamole prepared at your table, or the delicious calamari that Lori and I ordered. Their salad bar is unique as well. It's a bit on the expensive side, as far as Puerto Vallarta dining options go, but the delicious food and the attentive service make it worth it. (Tip: instead of ordering their bottled water, which is fancy and expensive European spring water, order a beer or one of their margaritas instead - it's cheaper!) Recommended.

Memo's Pancake House (Basilio Badillo 289): During our one-week stay in PV, Lori and I ate here three times. That should provide an idea as to how much we enjoyed this place. Pancakes - served several different ways - are their specialty, but their omelets, french toast, fresh fruit plates, coffees and huevos rancheros are all pretty good too. Besides, there's nothing like ordering a bloody mary along with your morning omelet and reminding yourself that you're on vacation! Highly recommended.

Pipi's (Guadalupe Sanchez 807 at Pipila): This place is very popular (especially with tourists), so make reservations or be prepared to wait for a table during busy periods. The food is good, the atmosphere is festive, the prices are reasonable and they take special pride in their margaritas (they have a big sign over the bar which reads: "don't drink the water, drink margaritas instead") Fajitas are their specialty, which is interesting considering that fajitas are really an invention of "Tex-Mex" cuisine and are not a type of food native to Jalisco state. As a native Houstonian who has grown up eating some of the world's best beef and chicken fajita plates (think Spanish Village, Doneraki, Lupe Tortilla's or Ninfa's), I found the ones at Pipi's to be rather good. Recommended.

Viejo Vallarta (Morelos 484): located above the Malecon opposite Puerto Vallarta's famous "seahorse" sculpture, this restaurant is as notable for its people-watching as it is for its delicious and reasonably-priced food. The view from their third-story open-air balcony is excellent and the service was good. I especially liked their ceviche. Recommended.

El Andariego (Av. Mexico 1358): This restaurant is located on the north side of the old city. It is moderately, but not outrageously, pricey, and the food, service and atmosphere are first-rate. The free internet access they offer to customers is a nice touch as well. Expect to be offered a sample of their in-house tequila while you are dining. Lori liked the chicken enchiladas; her only gripe was the dessert menu, which she found to be a bit sparse. Otherwise, we enjoyed eating here. Recommended.

Cilantro's (Abasolo 169): This upscale restaurant's specialty is its cilantro margarita. As strange - or even disgusting - as it might sound, I actually found this concoction to have a unique, refreshing and enjoyable taste. Unfortunately, the cilantro margarita turned out to be the best thing about this restaurant. I just can't say that the food (which tasted good, but the portions were ridiculously small) or the glacially-slow service justified the cost. What really put me off was the treatment I received because I paid by credit card: they crossed out the tip line on my receipt and asked me to leave a cash tip. I found this presumptuous, especially since I didn't have a lot of cash on me to begin with. Needless to say, the waiter didn't get a big tip from me. Which is probably appropriate, given the slow service. Cilantro margarita aside, I cannot recommend this place.

Pollo Feliz (Av. Mexico at Honduras): "Asado" is the past participle of the verb "asar," which means "to roast." Rotisserie-roasted chicken is as popular in Latin America as fried chicken is in the United States, and Pollo Feliz is one of many Mexican chains that serve this dish. Needless to say, this isn't an upscale restaurant; it's a featureless fast food joint in the old town opposite the Pemex station. But that's okay; sometimes the most unassuming pollo asado joints have the best food at the best price (a Houston case in point: the "Que Pollaso" kitchen-bus on the side of Telephone Road near Griggs, which offers an entire roasted chicken, with rice, beans, tortillas and sauces, for twelve bucks). Pollo Feliz's roasted chicken is a great value, as are the sides they offer with it. I suggest that visitors to Puerto Vallarta who are looking for a quick and inexpensive bite to eat check this place out before they wander into the McDonald's or Carl's Jr down the street.

Salsa Mexicana (Av. Mexico at Honduras, cater-corner from Pollo Feliz): there's nothing particularly special about this restaurant, but its proximity to our timeshare as well as its moderate prices made it a place that we ate at often. I thought the margaritas were fine, but Lori didn't like the greasy tortilla chips. There's no need to go out of your way to eat here, but if you're strolling down Av. Mexico and come across this place, it's probably worth stopping for a drink or a snack.

There you have it: the official Mean Green Cougar Red Puerto Vallarta Dining Guide! This list is, of course, not even close to exhaustive. There were several places recommended to us that we simply didn't get to visit during our week-long stay there. Online dining guides, such as vallartaonline.com or vallartarestaurants.com, can be helpful to visitors as well.

One last thing: if you do plan a trip ot PV, please us a favor and refrain from patronizing anything with the name "Carlos O'Brians" or "SeƱor Frogs" on it. Help us fight the Cancunization of Puerto Vallarta!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween

I would have been happy with a single pumpkin. But Lori decided to take this year's Halloween decoration one step further:


Ugh. I really need to do something about that mildew on the vinyl siding above the porch.

We also made a monkey out of Kirby this year:


Of course, very few monkeys actually wear Chuck Taylors, but hey...

Anyway, I've always enjoyed the delightful absurdity of Halloween. It's the one night of the year when it is perfectly acceptable for complete and total strangers dressed in costumes to show up on your doorstep and demand that you distribute to them fattening and unhealthy snack foods.

Good stuff. Happy Halloween!

Puerto Vallarta and the timeshare industry

As I noted previously, Lori and I had a great time in Puerto Vallarta last week. We consider PV to be our favorite vacation destination (this was my fourth trip there) for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that PV was an actual city before it became a tourist destination; it is not a place manufactured expressly for tourism like Cancun and so it has a lot of historical charm. For all of its historical authenticity, however, it is clear that Vallarta's economic engine is powered by tourism. Hotels, resorts and condominums line the length of Banderas Bay and new developments are being built all the time. A substantial number of these developments, old and new, are timeshares.

Let me start by making it clear that I am NOT an opponent of timeshares. While the industry doesn't have a great reputation and there are plenty of people who are opposed to the timeshare concept because they think they are scams or bad investments or whatever, we (meaning my parents - who collect timeshares like some people collect stamps - Lori and myself) have used and enjoyed them for years. In fact, the place we stayed while were were in Vallarta was one of my favorite timeshares of all, a small complex in the old town directly facing the beach.

There are a few caveats about timeshares, of course. Most importantly, they should not be considered "investments" like other types of real estate. A timeshare, like a car, is a facility that you use, not a commodity that you save; they lose value, the same way an automobile does, and the chances of anybody recouping their initial purchase price through resale are somewhere between slim and none. For this reason, the best timeshare deals can be found in the secondary (resale) market, and people wishing to purchase a timeshare might consider looking there before sitting through a new timeshare presentation. People looking to sell their property on the secondary market, likewise, need to beware of sleazy resellers: if somebody claims that they can get you more money for your timeshare than what you paid for it, and wants a several-hundred-dollar fee up front to "list" your timeshare, run away. The ability to exchange your timeshare week for another timeshare week somewhere else (through exchange companies like RCI or Interval International, for example) is certainly useful, but getting a location you want during the week you want is never a guarantee and exchange companies do charge fees for their services. Finally, it should always be remembered that, in addition to the initial purchase price, timeshares also require the payment of periodic maintenance fees. These fees are perpetual, and can be substantial.

With all that said, timeshares can be an economical way to vacation - if they are used and understood properly. Unfortunately, the way timeshares are marketed and sold leaves something to be desired. As our experience with Puerto Vallarta's timeshare industry suggests, there's a reason why the timeshare industry has cultivated a less-than-stellar reputation: the developer's need to lure people to their resorts and make a sale comes well ahead of the consumer's need to make an educated purchase.

The first problem is the presence of the ubiquitous "wranglers" who try to get you to go to the timeshare presentations. These guys, of course, are not actual timeshare salespeople; they don't care if you buy or not. They're merely the folks who try to get you to attend the sales pitch by offering you free trips, dinners, goods or even cash - anything to collect the commission that the timeshares pay them for sending tourists their way. They've been a PV fixture for as long as I've been traveling there, of course, and they're by no means confined to Vallarta. But they are now more numerous, more aggressive and more annoying than ever. It is currently impossible to walk down a Puerto Vallarta sidewalk for any appreciable length without being pestered by somebody standing at a storefront or sitting behind an open-air desk trying to get you to go to a timeshare presentation. They try to be friendly, asking you where you're from, welcoming you to Mexico, extending their hand to shake yours, telling you a joke, or asking if you'd like to go on a wonderful boat excursion for free - anything to get you to stop, listen and sign up. It was really rather bothersome and it detracted from our enjoyment of the town; at one point I was looking through the t-shirts at a market stall sincerely wishing that somebody printed one that said "NO QUIERO TIMESHARE!" on it.

They're getting craftier in their lures, as well. In Puerto Vallarta today, there are numerous "tequila shops" where unsuspecting tourists can walk in and sample fine - and pricey - 100% blue agave tequilas. But they're not there to sell you any of these high-end tequilas. They're there to give you a couple of bottles - free! - if you attend a timeshare presentation!

To be sure, the loot one can receive simply by agreeing to attend a timeshare presentation is not inconsequential. Many savvy tourists like to "play the game" by signing up for a presentation with no intention of buying a timeshare simply to get the goodies being offered for attending. The first day we were in Puerto Vallarta, Lori decided to "play the game" in order to snag a couple of free excursions: a zip-line "canopy tour" through the jungle south of town and a boat trip to the Las Caletas beach on the south side of the bay. These tours, together, would have cost us around $300 had we paid for them ourselves. But if the both us sat through a ninety-minute timeshare presentation, they were free. It sounded like a plan.

So, Lori and I were driven up to a sprawling development in the Nuevo Vallarta zone of Nayarit (Puerto Vallarta itself is in Jalisco state, but much of the new development is taking place north of the town in Nayarit state) where a sales representative sat down with us to fill out a questionaire. He then took us to lunch and then on a tour around the complex. It was indeed an impressive development, with well-furnished units, a wonderful view of the bay and numerous amenities that all of us - Kirby especially - could enjoy. A nice part of the arrangement was that, as owners, we would be able to use not only that particular resort, but the multiple other resorts that the development company owned throughout Mexico and Latin America (including one in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which Lori and I want to visit in the near future).

With the tour over, the sales rep asked if we liked what we saw. Even though we still had no intention on making a purchase, we were curious to see what their pricing was like so we humored them by telling him that we did. That led to the actual sales pitch, which closely followed this procedure. We sat at a table, the sales representative who gave us the tour was joined by a sales manager, we were presented with a bunch of slick brochures about the development company and its resorts, and we were finally given some offers, starting with the most expensive package and working down to smaller packages based on the type and size of unit, the number of weeks available for use, and other factors.

Even if I had been interested in buying a timeshare, there were many facts about the sale that I found to be turn-offs. The first was the terms of the sale: a 35% down payment, with the rest of the purchase price financed at a ridiculous 14%. (Not enough money in your bank account for the down payment? No problem! Just apply for this credit card and use it to finance the down payment as well!) There was also a whole list of benefits and incentives - a "First Visitor Incentive" program- that we would get along with the property if we purchased that day. If we declined to purchase that day, however, those benefits would be lost to us forever. Remember those other properties, such as the one in Buenos Aires, that the salesperson said we would have access to if we purchased? Turns out that arrangement was part of the First Visitor Incentive as well. That revelation raised the red "bait and switch" flag in my mind.

In arguing for the long-term value of a timeshare, the sales rep and the sales manager kept referring to the $2,500 that they thought Lori and I annually spent on vacations - a wildly-speculative number based on some estimates we made about our vacationing habits when we were filling out the earlier questionnaire. I felt that this tactic was a bit presumptious. The sales manager's penchant for speaking quickly, writing down confusing bunches of numbers on his legal pad, and mentioning various discounts, promotions and rebates we could use to lower our purchase price raised yet another red flag in my mind. I was not entirely clear where he was getting some of his numbers from, and a few of his suggested ways to lower the purchase price of a given package were a bit too "creative" for my tastes. It seemed more like an Enron accounting scheme and less like a sales pitch for a vacation property.

After Lori and I finally made it clear to them that we were not going to purchase - we explained that our financial situation would not allow it - we were subjected to the inevitable guilt trip. They made sure to mention the fact that they had spent hundreds of dollars on incentives aimed at getting us to attend their presentation, as if that weren't part of their cost of doing business (this, incidentally, is one of the reasons timeshares lose their value so quickly: the considerable costs of marketing the timeshare inflate the initial purchase price) or that we somehow owed them something. They also seemed to imply that, in sitting through their presentation but opting not to buy, we had wasted their precious time.

But even after the sales rep and the sales manager finally let us go, we still were not finished with our ordeal. The next step was to send us to another room to meet a developer's representative, who tried to sell us another vacation package associated with the resort! By now Lori and I were becoming annoyed. We declined, and they eventually relented and sent us to the travel desk to pick up our vouchers for the canopy tour, the beach excursion, and a cash reimbursement for the taxi ride back to town. (In examining the travel vouchers, we also realized that the tour operators provide significant discounts to the timeshare developers, i.e. maybe they're not really spending as much money on you as they claim they are.)

By the time we finally left the resort, we had been there for a solid four hours: considerably longer than the "90 minutes" we were promised when we agreed to attend the presentation. And, while we definitely saved money on our excursions (both the canopy tour and the Las Caletas excursion were very enjoyable), I still can't help but wonder: was it really worth spending four hours of our vacation week sitting through a tedious, high-pressure timeshare presentation?

All in all, it was an interesting experience, and it gave Lori and me an idea of what to watch out for if we do decide to actually buy a timeshare of our own in the future (and, to be honest, we really don't need our own as long we can keep using my parents' weeks for free). But after sitting through the presentation, I can fully understand why a lot of people have a negative impression of the timeshare industry. It's not just because of the hordes of wranglers throughout Puerto Vallarta (and, for that matter, every other Mexican resort) that degrade the quality of one's vacation by incessantly pestering people to attend a presentation. And it's not just because of the factors and tactics, as I've described above, used during the sales pitches themselves. A lot of it has to do with the overall sales philosophy of the timeshare developers: make that sale now.

Much like auto dealerships that subject you to a high-pressure sales pitch for fear that you'll never return if you're allowed to walk off the lot, timeshare developers feel that the only way to make a sale is to pressure you into making a purchase on the spot. They don't want you to think about it for a few days. They don't want you to go home and do your research about the proper use of a timeshare or search the web to see what kind of deal you could get on the secondary market. They don't even want you to know that Mexican law mandates a five-day rescission period wherein you can cancel your purchase. They want to lure tourists off the street (unprepared though they might be), bring them into the development, impress them with an array of sales tactics, and have them walk away with a unit-week that same day. Thus, the free stuff they use to entice you into the presentation, the slick brochures, the tag-team pressure from the sales rep and the sales manager, the "First Visit Incentives" they dangle in front of you, the guilt trip you get if you don't decide to purchase. These developers expect that vacationers will purchase a piece of real property, commit to its long-term use, and shell out an amount of money equal to the price of a decent automobile completely on the basis of impulse. Obviously, a lot of people do it. And just as obviously, a lot of people later come to regret the decision they made.

I understand that it's all about making money. And I still think that timeshares are a good value if they are used properly. But is what Lori and I experienced really the best marketing model that the timeshare industry can come up with?

Once we got back from the presentation, the wrangler that sent us to that resort approached us, asked us if we liked the resort and thanked us for helping him earn a commission. Then he asked if we wanted to go to another timeshare presentation at a different resort later that week.

We said no.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Following up on old news

Lori and I have returned home after an enjoyable, if not short, week in PV; I have a post or two about that trip that I'll write shortly. First, there are a couple of follow-ups to previous posts of mine that I wanted to note:

Last January, I wrote about the unbelievable story of Genarlow Wilson, a young man from Georgia who was sentenced to ten years in prison because he, when he was seventeen years old, received consensual oral sex from a fifteen-year-old schoolmate. I am pleased to discover that, as the result of a ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court, his draconian punishment has been lifted and he has been freed.

In a 4-3 decision, Georgia' high court decided that Wilson's prison sentence - he was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation, and the ten-year sentence was mandatory - constituted cruel and unusual punishment:

"Although society has a significant interest in protecting children from premature sexual activity, we must acknowledge that Wilson's crime does not rise to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children," the court's majority found.

"For the law to punish Wilson as it would an adult, with the extraordinarily harsh punishment of 10 years in prison without the possibility of probation or parole, appears to be grossly disproportionate to his crime," the majority opinion concluded.

With that ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court - or at least a majority of it - finally injected some sanity into what has been a truly insane debacle. Wilson was offered a plea-bargain that would have kept him out of prison, but he turned it down because he would have had to register as a sex offender and wouldn't have been able to live at home with his nine-year-old sister anymore. The jurors who convicted Wilson were outraged by Wilson's sentence because they were not told until after they rendered their verdict that the ten-year sentence was mandatory. The Georgia State Legislature changed the law under which Wilson was convicted, but did not make it retroactive to apply to his conviction. A Georgia county judge later voided Wilson's conviction, but Georgia's Attorney General appealed the ruling. The case gained international attention and generated considerable outrage.

Now it's over. Genarlow Wilson can move on with his life. He has plans to enter college and study sociology. Perhaps he can pick back up on his plans to play college football as well. "I plan on succeeding in life," he says. Good for him.

As a teenager, Genarlow Wilson exercised poor judgement. (What teenager doesn't?!) And, while Wilson should have been held responsible for his actions, the idea that a kid can be labeled a sex offender, be thrown in prison for ten years, and have his life ruined simply because he was a horny teenager in a room full of other horny teenagers doing what horny teenagers typically do is, in a word, cruel. I'm glad Georgia's high court was able to recognize this and, finally, bring an end to this absurdity.

Back in July, I wrote about the All American Football League, a new professional football league that plans to begin play in the spring of 2008 and hopes to appeal to collegiate, rather than pro, fanbases.

The league has announced a six-team lineup for its inaugural season; each team carries the name of a state, and no team nicknames have as of yet been revealed. Alabama will play in Birmingham's Legion Field, Arkansas will play at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Florida will play most of their games at "The Swamp" in Gainesville, Michigan will play at Ford Field in Detroit, Tennessee will play at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville and the Texas team will play right here in Houston at Rice Stadium.

Given the desire of this league to tap into rabid college football fanbases, I was surprised that a Texas team would be located here in Houston instead of in Austin (presumably, this team will wear the same burnt orange color that the Longhorns wear) or even College Station. Houston itself is not exactly a college football hotbed, as attendances for Rice and University of Houston games can attest, but the league appears to be banking on the idea that they can attract the tens of thousands of football-crazy Longhorn alumni who live here in Houston.

I'll probably attend at least a few of these games next spring, not just because I am a college football junkie but also because I am intrigued by the fact that the team will be coached and managed by infamous former University of Houston head coach John Jenkins. Jenkins, who proved his worth as an offensive genius at UH but, unfortunately, not as a defensive mind or a keen recruiter, left the Cougar program under a cloud of controversy in 1993 (allegations against him included charges that he spliced game films with pornography to keep his kids' attention) and wandered through the football world, coaching in both the Arena and Canadian leagues. Most recently, Jenkins served as the head coach of the CFL's short-lived Ottawa Renegades franchise. Now he finds himself back in Houston, bringing his wild offense to a new league that hopes to succeed where other spring football leagues - the USFL, the XFL and the NFL's own World League among them - have failed. Only time will tell if things will be different for the AAFL.

Team Texas expects to begin its season on April 12th. The preliminary schedule can be found here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Greetings from Puerto Vallarta

I´m currently writing from the Casa de la Playa´s single internet-connected computer, trying to get used to this Spanish-layout keyboard. Lori and I safely made our way here Saturday evening, and are enjoying ourselves. It´s going to be weird for both of us to be away from Kirby for an entire week, but we know he´s in good hands with my parents.

Yesterday was rather cloudy and rainy, but today the skies have cleared and the sun is back. We haven´t done much so far except relax, walk around town, eat at a couple of restaurants and attend a timeshare presentation (no, we didn´t buy; more on that when I get back). Tomorrow we´re going on a "canopy tour" where we get to ride on ropes suspended from trees, and Thursday we´re going on a cruise. Otherwise, it´s just eat, drink and relax, the way a vacation should be.

Puerto Vallarta is our favorite Mexican vacation spot. It's got a lot of activities to offer, a lot of historical charm, and a killer view of the sunset.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Light blogging

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. Between work, the start of football season, my parents' return from their two-month-long western journey, my brother-in-law Danny coming to visit for a couple of weeks, and other events, I just haven't had much time to write anything lately. That's probably going to continue to be the case for the rest of the month, as Lori and I are going on vacation the week after next.

The good news is that the impending business trip to Dubai doesn't look like it's going to happen until after Thanksgiving. That takes some stress off of Lori somewhat. It also means that I won't have to miss any football games (except for this weekend's game, which I'm going to have to skip because Lori and Danny's cousin just had to get married on a Saturday during football season...) this time around.

Speaking of football, I do plan to write a halfway-through-the-season analysis sometime next week. But other than that, don't expect a lot of new blog entries from me until November.

Is summer finally over?

The last couple of days have been absolutely beautiful, with clear skies, low humidity, and highs in the mid-80s. Last night it actually felt cool outside.

Fall in Houston usually doesn't begin until mid-October, so it seems to be arriving right on schedule this year. And I couldn't be happier.

Monday, October 01, 2007

What now for the Astros?

The local baseball team's otherwise-forgettable 2007 season ended on a memorable note yesterday, as 43,832 people - the largest crowd in the history of Minute Maid Park - witnessed the Astros defeat the Atlanta Braves 3-0. They were there, of course, to see Craig Biggio play the last game of his 20-year career. Biggio, who notched his 3,060th hit in yesterday's game, has now officially retired.

He, along with Jeff Bagwell, were the face of the Houston Astros for so long that it is going to be hard to think of the Astros without them. But their era is over, and now it's time for owner Drayton McLane, new manager Ed Wade and new general manager Cecil Cooper - the "interim" was removed from his job title a few days ago - to plan for the next era. Coming off a 73-89 season - only their second losing season since 1991 - there's clearly a lot of planning that needs to be done.

For starters, the team has to hit better. The team's .260 season batting average was 12th in the 16-team National League (although it is a tiny improvement over 2006, when their .255 season BA put them at the very bottom of the league). They also need to pitch better; their team ERA of 4.68 was, likewise, 12th in the league. Fixing the team's broken farm system is also a priority. To that end, a flurry of coaching changes were made on Sunday, including the reassignment of director of player personnel and scouting Paul Ricciarini.

In spite of the disappointing season, the Astros did do well in one rather important category: attendance. An average of 37,289 people attended each Astros home game this season, putting the Astros 7th in the NL in attendance and bucking a trend whereby Houston's fickle, fair-weather fanbase usually deserts teams with losing records. Of course, Craig Biggio was the big attraction; people wanted to come out to see the legend play his last season. Next year, Drayton McLane is not going to have this box office advantage.

His team is actually going to have to start winning again.

Biggio finishes his career 20th in major league history in hits (3,060), 12th in runs (1,844) and fifth in doubles (668). Here are some more of his career numbers, if you're interested in that sort of thing. His retirement, unfortunately, also brings to a close a rather unique local blog.