Wednesday, March 28, 2007

When brothers move away

I just received a call from my brother David informing me that he has safely made it to Denver, Colorado. Dave needs to get settled up there (i.e. find a job, get his own place, etc.), but otherwise, the Mile High City will be his new home.

Dave had been planning this move for several months. When he returned to Houston from Japan two Decembers ago, he understood that his stay here would only be temporary and that he would one day move to another part of the country. This wasn't because he dislikes Houston; he simply wanted to live elsewhere (someplace where they "actually have four real seasons," as he put it). He had considered living in places other than Denver - he even took a trip to Portland, Oregon last year to see the area for himself - but decided that, since he had lived there previously (before he spent several years teaching English in Prague and Osaka) and has several friends there, Denver was the right place for him.

David's move to Denver comes on the heels of my brother-in-law Danny's move to the Washington, DC area almost two weeks ago. After flying up there January to see the nation's capital and to visit friends of his, Danny immedidately began contemplating relocating there. He finally decided to do, and is currently living with a friend in Herndon, Virginia while he gets settled. Danny decided to move because he felt that there would be more job opportunities in his line of work in the DC area than here in Houston, and he also thought that there would be better mobility options for him there (Danny is visually impaired and cannot drive, and DC's public transportion network is much more extensive than Houston's). Like David in Denver, he has a lot of friends there.

But, more than anything else, Danny simply felt like it was time for a change. A short stint in San Antonio aside, he had lived his entire life in Houston. The time had come for him to move on, to experience a new life in another part of the country.

Things here in Houston certainly won't be the same without them; my life will be a little less lively and a little more boring. But I certainly won't begrudge either Danny or Dave for making decisions that they feel are in their best interests. And perhaps their absence is not an entirely bad thing for me. The truth is, my practice of spending a few nights every week hanging out with Danny at the Dog House Tavern - as enjoyable as it has been - probably needed to come to an end anyway. I'm getting to a point in my life where I need to live a bit healthier, a bit more temperate, and this is as good a time as any to start.

And it's not like I'll never see them again. They'll make regular trips back to Houston to see Kirby, Danny's daughter Cheyenne, my parents, Danny and Lori's parents, their friends here and me. And I now have an excellent excuse to make quick trips to Denver and Washington. I think I'll be paying a lot more attention to Southwest's Ding! fare sale alert program on my computer from now on.

Best of luck to Danny and David in their new lives.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Life imitates art, basketball edition

Chances are, you missed yesterday's NCAA Division II Championship basketball game between Winona State (Winona, Minnesota) and Barton College (Wilson, North Carolina). The game's ending was absolutely amazing:

The last few seconds of the game, in fact, are eerily reminiscent of this Nike Air Jordan commercial that's been running recently:

(The music is the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem, in case you're wondering.)

Anyway, there are few things that hurt more than losing a championship game in the final seconds. I can sympathize with Winona State; I know all too well how it feels. Ugh.

The EU's "open skies" agreement and Houston

This past week, the European Union approved an "open skies" deal that scraps most restrictions on trans-Atlantic flights. The deal, which has already been approved by the United States, is intended to enhance competition among airlines by allowing them to fly anywhere in Europe to anywhere in the United States, and vice versa. The arrangement, which goes into effect on March 30, 2008, replaces the current patchwork of agreements between individual European nations and the United States which restrict the overseas destinations of airlines on either side of the Atlantic; some of these existing arrangments date back to the end of the Second World War. The EU estimates that the deal will cause 25 million more people to fly between the United States and Europe within the first five years of the agreement's implementation, and that fliers would see almost $16 billion in savings as a result. Sounds good to me.

Hometown airline Continental is not wasting any time taking advantage of the new agreement; they've announced plans to ask for permission to begin flying between Bush Intercontinental and London Heathrow as the agreement goes into effect. (Continental already flies between Houston and London's Gatwick Airport, but there seems to be a consensus that Heathrow is London's preferred airport).

This is fine, but what I'd really like to see is for Continental use this opportunity to offer more non-stop service between Houston and cities in Europe. I realize that Continental prefers Newark to be their hub for European flights and Houston to be their hub for Latin American flights, but c'mon! Right now, only four European destinations are served by nonstop flights from Houston: London (Continental and British Airways), Paris (Continental and Air France), Amsterdam (Continental and KLM) and Frankfurt (Lufthansa). It only seems logical that the nation's fourth-largest city, and a city of such critical importance to the world's energy economy, should have nonstop connections to more than just four European cities.

I find it hard to believe, for example, that there isn't sufficient demand to make nonstop service between Houston and major European cities like Madrid and Rome profitable. What about Dublin? Berlin? Barcelona? Moscow?

The bid for direct flights to Heathrow is a good start. Let's hope Continental doesn't stop there and that they use this new agreement to their full advantage by persuing more European destinations from Bush Intercontinental. An expansion of European service from Houston would be an advantage to the city's economy and a boon to the city's travelers (myself included, of course).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Missing out on March Madness

The NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship (more commonly known as "March Madness" or "The Big Dance") has begun. The tournament, which over the course of three weeks whittles a field of sixty-five schools down to just one, is the biggest sporting event of the spring; it ranks among the World Series and the Super Bowl as one of the nation's premier sports events.

But I'm not playing close attention to the "Tourney" this year. Which is unusual. Normally, I'd be going onto the internet every so often to monitor the outcome of today's first-round games. Normally, I'd be sitting in front of the TV watching the games on CBS. But this year, I'm not.

It's not because I don't like college basketball. While I don't follow it nearly as closely as I do college football, I've always looked forward to March Madness due to its sheer size and excitement.

And it's not because my Cougars aren't in the tournament. The University of Houston hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1992 (indeed, the days of Phi Slamma Jamma are ancient history), but that's never affected my enjoyment of the event in the past.

The reason I'm not paying close attention to the Big Dance is simple: I didn't fill out a bracket this year.

Yes, filling out a bracket really does make that much of a difference.

There's something special about filling out a bracket - something that trancends mere prognostication. When you out that bracket, when you enter your company's office pool, when you try to pick those upsets, when you attempt to determine who will win it all, when you compare your predictions with those of your friends and co-workers, you become part of the action.

That's why you continually hit the "refresh" button on your computer's web browser, following that major upset that appears to be in the works. That's why you find yourself taking long lunch breaks to watch first-round games between schools you normally don't care about. And that's why you come home and sit on the edge of your couch all evening, anxiously hoping that the the team you picked to win it all won't get knocked out by the scrappy underdog.

It doesn't matter how big or how small that office pool is. It makes no difference how many or how few bragging rights are at stake. It's much more than that: your bracket makes the tournament and its sixty-three games personal to you. The bracket becomes your very own guidebook, your personalized roadmap, to the Big Dance. Without it, you are lost. Without it, you're just not part of the action. Without it, you just don't care.

And that's where I find myself right now. I'm not part of the action. And therefore, I don't really care.

Why did I not fill out a bracket this time around? Why did I choose not to be part of the spectacle that is March Madness this year?

In the past, I've participated in office pools at work. But my current place of employment doesn't do that. Everybody's working on different projects, everybody has different schedules, and I guess we really just don't see each other and don't know each other well enough to initiate a basketball pick 'em contest of our own (this, by the way, is probably why the annual Christmas gift exchange is actually a rather awkward affair because nobody really knows one another). For the past couple of years, I've circumvented this problem by participating in the office pool at Lori's work. But that option ended when her employment there ended a couple of months ago.

I guess I could have participated in one of the tournament-picking contests on any of the online sports forums I frequent. But I didn't. I could even have filled out a bracket just for myself, if for no other reason to see how good my prediction skills were. But I didn't. This year, I didn't even bother to sit down and take a close look at the teams and the matchups.

It's not like I've been too overwhelmed to fill out a bracket; to be sure, I have been dealing with a few distractions over the past several days (for example, I've been busy this week trying to figure out why my computer constantly crashes and freezes; maybe it's just time for a new computer), but nothing would have kept me from taking the few minutes to print out a bracket and fill it out if I had simply decided to do so.

The fact is, for whatever reason I simply neglected to fill out a bracket this year (and no, I can't go back and fill out a bracket now, after the tournament has begun). As a result, I'm missing out on March Madness.

Hopefully I won't make the same mistake next spring.

UPDATE: I'd just like to announce that, had I actually filled out a bracket, I would have picked Virginia Commonwealth to upset Duke. I'm not lying! The Blue Devils just weren't themselves this past season and probably were not deserving of a six seed, and VCU had won 18 out of their last 21 games coming into the tournament.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is Dubai's development model sustainable?

I've asked this question and examined its effects before, but someone else has explored the possible pitfalls of Dubai's hyperbolic development pattern with more detail and eloquence than I (emphasis mine):

...[T]he Dubai urban model, in spite of its remarkable successes, is facing a number of challenges that seriously threaten its long-term sustainability. On the level of daily life, Dubai’s phenomenal growth is creating excessive traffic-congestion problems that often bring parts of the city to halt. This is in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that it is a young city that has hired the services of countless international urban planning firms. A metro rail line is being planned for Dubai, but it remains to be seen how a population so dependent on the automobile and living in a city developed for the automobile may be convinced to switch to public transportation.

Also, much of the large quantities of housing and office space being constructed in Dubai is ending up as a commodity in which speculators trade, rather than properties to be used as places of residence or business. Such an excess of real-estate supply over demand is a sure sign of a bubble in the making. Real-estate bubbles burst. Under best-case scenarios, they deflate. In the case of Dubai, the bursting or deflation of the bubble most probably will closely follow any significant drop in international oil prices.

Dubai also is greatly dependent on the availability of cheap energy, and its per capita consumption of energy is amongst the highest in the world. Cheaply available oil is used to desalinize the water that irrigates the lush tropical landscapes implanted in its desert, and that supports the water-spending habits of its leisure tourism. Cheaply available oil is used to air-condition its massive interior spaces during the gruelingly hot summer months. Cheaply available oil also is used to run motor vehicles in a city designed exclusively for automobiles (which increasingly are stuck in traffic) and not for pedestrians. As global warming is becoming a more serious and real threat to the livelihood of the planet, there is a rising awareness that such a lifestyle that is dependent on an intensive consumption of fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long run.

Not to mention the havoc that rising ocean levels possibly caused by global warming could have on this seaside city (and especially its man-made offshore islands).

Indeed, there are great risks - both economic as well as environmental - that accompany Dubai's spectacular growth and development. And, while other places in the Middle East (for example, Qatar and Abu Dhabi) have been trying to "keep up with the Joneses" (or, in this case, the Al Maktoums) by implementing grand-scaled development projects of their own, they would do well to not try to be "just like Dubai:"
There is a rising awareness in Dubai regarding the need to effectively address these challenges, and it will be interesting to see how Dubai will deal with them. They still do not undermine the fact that Dubai has been a tremendous success of the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit. The other cities of the region definitely should adopt this spirit, but, as they do so, each will have to follow its own route. Every city has its own comparative advantages that need to be identified, utilized, and developed. However, the cities of the region cannot all be like Dubai, and there is no reason why they all would want to be like Dubai.

And, of course, although the region and the world have fully welcomed the phenomenon of Dubai, it is very much doubtful that the region will be able to handle more than one Dubai. So let Dubai be Dubai, and let the others explore and be who they are.

Indeed. Dubai is a fascinating city of shimmering skyscrapers, vast construction sites and opulent shopping malls (and unfortunately, I still don't know when or if I'll make my next trip there), but it is also a mind-bogglingly massive, multibillion-dollar experiment in citybuilding, and nobody can predict with certainty the outcome of this experiment. Twenty years from now, Dubai could be the world's premier city: wealthy, powerful, dynamic and amazing. It could also be an economically-shattered wasteland of abandoned skycrapers and half-completed construction projects. While other cities (not just in the Middle East but in the rest of the world as a whole) should pay close attention to, and learn from, Dubai, they should not try to engage in Dubai's experiment for themselves. The costs of doing so are enormous, and the potential risks are even greater.

Cool skyscaper poster

I came across this on HAIF and thought it was pretty cool: a 40" x 20" poster of 33 of the world's most notable skycrapers (you can see a larger view here). Maybe I'll buy a copy. (Or maybe I should wait a few years, after these buildings are finished and the poster is updated...)

It features 33 of the world's tallest and most famous skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the Petronas Towers, Taipei 101 (currently the world's tallest), and even the Burj al Arab (on the very left). Houston is represented by two buildings on this poster: the red gothic Bank of America Center and the turquoise Wells Fargo Plaza. (And I can't help but point out that Dallas doesn't have any of its skyscrapers represented on this poster. Ha, ha!)

Anyway, there's a lot of fun skyscraper-related images and data on on SkyscraperPage, including a diagrams of the tallest existing buildings in the world, the tallest buildings in Houston, the tallest buildings in Dubai, even a diagram of the world's tallest churches. Check it out when you have a few extra minutes.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Attack of the crane flies!

The crane flies are here. And, like a bad horror movie, the delicate, gangly flies are everywhere. In spite of our best efforts, they manage to get into the house by the dozens. They congregate around light fixtures, bounce along the ceilings and oftentimes land in inappropriate places. This evening one even landed in Lori's glass of wine, and she took no pleasure in gagging and pulling fly legs off of her tongue after she inadvertently took a sip.

Crane flies have many other names; some people refer to them as "mosquito hawks" even though they (unfortunately) don't eat mosquitoes. My dad calls them "dingle flies" owing to their fragile and gawky nature. They're harmless, and they're little more than an annoyance.

They're only significant in that their arrival, much like the passing-through of the robins, is a sure sign that spring in Houston has begun. Ususally, they emerge a few weeks earlier than they have this year; some late-season cold weather earlier in February might have delayed their arrival somewhat. By the same vein, our semi-annual visit from the robins has lasted a lot longer than normal as well. Usually, they stay for a few days and then disappear. This time, they've hung around for a few weeks, as if they were waiting for the weather to the north to improve. I haven't seen any robins in a couple of days, however, so I assume they've finally decided to continue their migration. They'll be back for a few days in the fall as they fly to warmer climates to the south. The presence of the crane flies, likewise, is only temporary; a weeks from now, they'll all have mated and died off, and we won't see them again for another year.

Indeed, springtime in Houston has begun. The weather, in fact, has been rather nice over the past couple of weeks, and we'll likely enjoy the mild temperatures of the Houston spring for a couple more months before the oppressive heat of the summer finally sets in.

2007 UH football schedule released

With kickoff is exactly six months from today, the University of Houston has released its fall 2007 football schedule:

Sat Sep 01: @ Oregon
Sat Sep 08: open
Sat Sep 15: @ Tulane
Sat Sep 22: Colorado State
Sat Sep 29: East Carolina
Sat Oct 06: @ Alabama
Sat Oct 13: Rice
Sat Oct 20: @ Alabama - Birmingham
Sat Oct 27: @ Texas - El Paso
Sun Nov 04: Southern Methodist
Sat Nov 10: @ Tulsa
Sat Nov 17: Marshall
Sat Nov 24: Texas Southern

This is not a very favorable schedule. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it generally sucks. First of all, the Cougars, in spite of coming off a ten-win, conference-championship season, are losing a lot of senior talent that made last season's success possible and are likely looking at a period of rebuilding in 2007. Given that stiuation, tough road trips to both Oregon and Alabama are not exactly the types of games the Cougars need to face this fall as they try to fill so many holes on both sides of the ball. The conference roadies to Tulsa and UTEP won't be picnics either.

Then there's the schedule's weakeness from an attendance perspective. The first home game isn't until late September, after the overall buzz from the start of football season has worn off, and it's not likely that home opponents like East Carolina and Marshall are going to draw flocks of curious Houston sports fans, either.

This year's closest thing to a "marquee" home opponent is... Colorado State. Since Art Briles has been coach, the University of Houston has been able to play host to a team from a BCS conference (Mississippi State in 2003, Miami in 2004, Oregon in 2005 and Oklahoma State in 2006). All of these games have been well-attended with the exception of the Oregon game (which was impacted by the influx of Katrina refugees into the Reliant Stadium / Astrodome complex the same night this game was played). The CSU Rams, on the other hand, are a team from the non-BCS Mountain West Conference that aren't likely to travel well and aren't likely to pique the interest of the Houston sports fan.

The Cougars also get screwed by not being able to host the Bayou Bucket game against Rice at the beginning of the season, when excitement from both schools' fans is high and attendance is generally decent. This year, the crosstown rivalry is occurring on October 13th. Sandwiched around this date are two trips to the state of Alabama, where the Cougars have never won single game.

Then there's a peculiar Sunday game against SMU, which is apparently is being scheduled for the benefit of ESPN. I'm assuming this game will be played Sunday evening, and as much as I like the national television exposure for the Cougars I just can't foresee a very big crowd attending this event. A Sunday evening kickoff will probably make it difficult for both out-of-town alumni as well as SMU fans from Dallas to attend, and the result could be rows and rows of empty Robertson Stadium seats broadcast on television for all the world to see. Ugh.

The team’s only open week occurs during the second week of the season, and while I guess that's better than no bye week at all (as was the case last season), it probably would have been more beneficial to the team to have a week off to refresh and recover at midseason.

The Coogs end the season with a home game against TSU. This continues a trend whereby UH hosts a Southwestern Athletic Conference school (we had Grambling at Robertson last year and Southern is apparently on the schedule for 2008), and will be the first time the two schools have met on the football field in spite of the fact that the two campuses are literally blocks away from one another. While it's an intriguing matchup and TSU's "Ocean of Soul" marching band will be fun to watch, the Saturday after Thanksgiving has traditionally been a loser for UH football from an attendance perspective because so many people are out of town. Hopefully the novelty of a UH/TSU matchup make up for that.

Certainly, the Cougars have created a bit of buzz for themselves through last season's success, but I unfortunately don't foresee Houston notching the same number of wins this fall. I'd love to be wrong about that, and I still think the Cougars can manage a winning season in 2007 if the right players fall into place and if the team can avoid a slew of key injuries. However, if the Cougars struggle through what looks to be a rebuilding season, the fickle, fair-weather Houston sports fan will quickly lose interest and crowds will dwindle as the season progresses.

This all adds up to a schedule that, from my perspective, is both difficult and has the propensity to be a loser at the gate. To make it clear, I'm not blaming anybody - Athletics Director Dave Maggard or otherwise - for this lousy schedule; it's simply the result of circumstances such as the need to play a return game in Oregon, or the need to work around other schools' schedules, or the simple fact that Conference USA is a crappy athletics conference full of schools nobody in Houston cares about. There's really not a solution to this schedule other than to win games and hope that things work out in the Cougars' favor when future schedules are created. Besides, as favorable as last season's schedule was, I guess this year's schedule is just a way of things evening out.

Nevertheless, I fear that the Cougars will struggle both on the field, and especially at the attendance box, this fall. Last season, the Cougars were able to average home attendance of over 20,000 fans per game. Not great by a long shot, but not horrible by UH standards, either. In 2007, they might have trouble breaking the 15,000 mark.