Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An industry dedicated to screwing its customers

I recently screwed up and paid a credit card bill late. I forgot to make the payment until after the 5 pm EDT cut-off, and got hit with a $39 late fee.

The funny thing is this: I actually made this payment two days before the actual due date. But it was still considered late.

Why? The due date fell on a Sunday. However, payments made after 5 pm on Friday are not processed until the following Monday: the date after the "due date" printed on my bill.

Pretty slick, huh? By allowing due dates to fall on days when payments are not processed, the bank is effectively shortening the billing cycle, thereby making it more likely that payments will be late and, in turn, generating more revenue from late fees.

I sent a message to my bank's customer service department, asking them just how it was possible for payments to be "due" on days, such as Sundays, where actual payment is impossible. The response I received, of course, was laughably worthless: it was a patronizing form letter which did not address my question at all. Such is big bank customer service these days.

This trick is just one of the many mechanisms used by credit card companies which are designed to wring as much money as they can out of their customers. "Pay to pay" fees are charges that banks assess when one pays a bill by phone. Double-cycle billing is a process by which banks use 60-day account histories, rather than the standard 30-day billing cycle, to determine interest charges. Universal default is a mechanism that allows bank A to raise your interest rate simply because you were once late paying bank B. Interest rates can be raised at any time and for any reason, and can be applied retroactively to debt that was incurred before the rate was increased. Then there are the ever-increasing fees - annual fees, late fees, over-the-limit fees - that banks levy on their customers. A local construction worker recently got hit with not one, but two of these fees when he missed a payment deadline by half an hour:

Steve Gutierrez of Houston says he was recently hit by a $29 late payment after he paid online 31 minutes after a 3 p.m. deadline. Because his late payment also caused his account to exceed his credit limit, he was socked with a $29 over-the-limit fee. His 31-minutes-late payment cost him nearly $60.

"I've made mistakes, and I've overlooked the fee," Gutierrez says. "But with the over-the-limit fee, it's getting steep." As a customer since 2001, he expected his bank to waive at least one of the two fees. But it said no. He canceled the card.

One could argue that he could have avoided these fees had he paid his bill on time. One could also argue that Mr. Gutierrez shouldn't have allowed himself to run his credit card to the limit in the first place. These are certainly valid criticisms. I would even argue that he's lucky he was only hit with a $29 late fee; as I mentioned, my late-payment fee was $39. But are the size of these fees really justified? What's to stop credit banks from eventually imposing $50 or even $100 late fees, anyway? And couldn't his bank's customer service department, if for no other reason than to act in good faith towards a six-year customer, at least cut him some sort of a break?

To be sure, the customer is not without blame. Too many people simply don't understand credit; they obtain a credit card, go on massive spending binges, and end up hopelessly in debt. We as a society use credit to consume beyond our means; we willingly put ourselves at the mercy of these banks. If people would use credit more wisely, such as by eschewing purchases they can't afford, paying off balances in full every month or at least keeping their revolving debt to a minimum, they wouldn't be as susceptible to these charges.

But those who argue that people who allow themselves to get into credit card debt are getting what they deserve are missing the point: some of the practices employed by credit card companies are nothing short of predatory. They are designed to deceive and to fleece even the most responsible of credit card holders. Even if you pay off your balance every month, after all, the banks will try to get money from you by increasing annual fees or by shortening the billing cycle.

Credit cards are no longer a convenience; in our increasingly-cashless society, they are all but a necessity. For many people, credit cards are the only way to build a credit history that will one day allow them to buy a house or a car or even get a job (since employers use the credit reports of perspective employees as part of their hiring process). A person without credit is a second-class citizen in today's society. The banks know that we really don't have much of a choice: we have to carry plastic, and we therefore have to play by their rules, no matter how unfair or how usurious they might be.

Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have introduced a bill that would regulate or even prohibit some of the tricks that credit banks use to extract more money from debtors, including universal default or retroactive interest. Of course, I don't have high hopes that this legislation will go anywhere: the banking industry will throw millions of dollars at their lobbyists, and the campaign funds of sympathetic politicians, in order to defeat this bill.

Certainly, there are a lot of common-sense things that we as credit card holders can do in order to keep our vulnerability to a minimum. Live within your means: if you really want that 52" plasma HDTV, save up for it. Don't be suckered in by offers of cards with low introductory rates that magically balloon into 21% APR after only a few months. If possible, use your credit cards only for emergency purchases. If you must use plastic, use debit instead of credit. Pay off all of your credit card balances: financial advisers generally say that one will see more financial return in paying off credit cards - and avoiding interest rates - then one will see by investing in stocks or bonds or CDs. Check your credit history on a regular basis, not only to ensure that you are not a victim of identity theft but also to make sure that there are not errors from reporting creditors.

I'm trying to follow these steps, myself. It's not always easy - paying off my residual debt will be a long process - but I hope that, by using credit in a wiser manner, I can lessen my exposure to the cynical and predatory practices of credit card companies. I am convinced that credit card banks are indeed an industry whose main focus is to squeeze as much money as they can from their customer base. Because, after all, they can.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Houston icon passes away

When it was announced a few weeks ago that Marvin Zindler had pancreatic cancer which had metastasized to his liver, I knew that the end was near for him. I just didn't think it would happen this quickly. As everybody who lives in Houston now knows, Zindler shoved off this mortal coil yesterday evening. He was 85.

Marvin Zindler has been a local television fixture longer than I have been alive; he began his career at local ABC affiliate KTRK 13 in 1973, at the age of 51, following a stint with the Harris County Sheriff's Department. Previous to that Zindler had worked in local radio, television and print media; he served in World War II as a member of the United States Marine Corps.

Whether it be his role in shuttering the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange - later immortalized in the stage musical and movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas - or the thousands of people (mostly children) who received free medical care donated by doctors known as "Marvin's Angels," or his weekly "Rat and Roach" restaurant health inspection reports for which his phrase "SLIIIIIME in the ICE MACHINE!" was known, or his work with local charities, or his innumerable instances of helping "the little guy" negotiate bureaucratic red tape or comsumer fraud through his Action 13 reports, or his signature sign-off of "Maaaarvin Zindler, Eye-Witness News!", Zindler was a local legend.

It's not just local TV news that won't be the same without Marvin Zindler. The entire City of Houston is less for his loss. Marvin Zindler was a true Houston icon, and he can never be replaced.

Kuff, whose first encounter with Marvin Zindler in 1987 left him wondering if the guy was for real, writes about his passing here. Mike McGuff, who had the pleasure of working with Marvin Zindler, shares his thoughts as well:
Experiencing that office was nothing you'll ever see in television anywhere else or ever again. When we went out to do stories, people ran up to meet Marvin and ask for his autograph. For those of you who don't know, that type of thing usually does not happen in local TV. Especially not at that level. That's why Marvin carried around cards he could autograph for people. Here I was an 18 year old kid riding around with a legend and instead of ignoring me, he actually talked to me. He was legitimately curious about my life and asked all kinds of questions. I really was stunned. I felt like Wayne and Garth with a rock star...I truly wasn't worthy.

Rest in peace, Marvin. You will be missed.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

It's just me and the boy...

For the next few days, at least. Yesterday Lori left to attend the annual convention for her wine-tasting gig. She'll be hanging out in Sonoma, touring wineries, rubbing shoulders with fellow consultants and enjoying the cool northern California climate until Wednesday. It's a mini-vacation for her, one that she's been looking forward to for awhile.

My parents also left town yesterday, finally embarking on their long summer trip out west. They had been planning this trip for months but, as I noted in a previous post, it was delayed for several weeks by dad's back surgery and subsequent recuperation. Fortunately, the surgery seems to have alleviated dad's sciatica and, after six weeks of recovery, he got the go-ahead from his doctors to resume normal activities. My parents re-worked their itinerary - the only date that was unchangeable was August 10th, the day they had to be in Seattle to catch their Alaskan cruise - and began preparing and packing for their long-delayed departure.

And then a second setback occurred.

Early last week, my dad decided to drive down to the coast to get a day or two of fishing in before the big trip began. He was driving his Mountaineer and towing his camper as he crossed the State Highway 332 bridge between Freeport and Surfside when he abruptly came upon pickup truck whose driver apparently realized that he was going the wrong way and decided to make a u-turn at the base of the bridge. There was no way for my dad to stop in time or otherwise avoid a collision. The impact occurred, and this was the result:

As bad as this looks, my father walked away from the crash with nothing more than a couple of minor bruises. All the safety equipment built into the vehicle - the seat belts, the airbags, the front-end crumple zones - worked as designed; my dad marveled at the fact that the airbags didn't even do so much as knock his glasses off. Neither my dad nor his doctors feel as if the accident caused any aggravation to his back, either. The driver of the other vehicle, which also sustained considerable damage, was uninjured as well.

Other motorists witnessed the accident and stayed at the scene until police arrived. It was quickly determined that the other driver, having blocked the entire highway while attempting an illegal u-turn, was at fault. The other driver's employer (he was driving a company vehicle) had valid liability insurance.

But the Mountaineer was obviously totalled. And without an SUV, there was no way to tow my parents' camper. The entire trip would be in jeopardy unless the vehicle was quickly replaced.

Fortunately, my father did not receive a great deal of hassle from the other driver's insurance company, who quickly accepted that their party was at fault and wrote off the Mountaineer at a price that was well above Blue Book value. The next obstacle was to find a suitable replacement vehicle; once again, it was fortunate that my father had a long-running relationship with a salesperson at a local Mercury dealer which resulted in the procurement of a new Mountaineer without any of the annoying, high-pressure sales claptrap that usually accompanies new vehicle purchases. The Mountaineer was replaced, the trip was salvaged, and right now my mom and my dad are making their way towards Seattle. They'll spend a couple of days in Denver visiting my brother and a couple of days at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks on the way.

After their cruise, they will spend several weeks traveling from one RV park to another along the Pacific Coast; eventually they'll make their way down to San Diego and from there begin their journey home. They don't expect to return to Houston until early October.

Good for them. It's their retirement, and they should enjoy it. And I hope that all goes well during their travels; they've suffered enough crises already.

Anyway, the fact that both Lori and my parents are gone means that I am solely responsible for Kirby's care over the next few days. And that's fine, other than the fact that an adult can only tolerate so many viewings of Finding Nemo and Cars before insanity ensues...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Dodgeball time in Denton

There's a good write-up about new University of North Texas head football coach Todd Dodge on usatoday.com right now. It includes this frightening tidbit about his past, which I did not know before I read the article:
In the spring of 1987 the former standout University of Texas quarterback was working for an electric company in Austin while he finished coursework at the university. During routine service, he touched an industrial meter that blew up, propelling Dodge a dozen feet away.

When he regained consciousness, Dodge, who'd been a record-setting passer at Jefferson High in Port Arthur, Texas, and who wanted to coach, worried about his future because he was supposed to start an assistant coaching job that fall.

"The skin was dripping off my hands," he said, tracing the faded scars as he sat in his UNT office on a recent morning. "I thought to myself, 'I'm not on fire, but I'm smoldering.' That ordeal made me a tougher man."

Doctors told Dodge, who also suffered burns on his face and neck, that he might lose his fingers. But he defied their prediction. He wore special gloves as his skin healed, gave self-pity the cold shoulder, showed up for work in the fall season and eventually became a coach who electrified the atmosphere for players, fans and communities. His (high school football powerhouse Southlake) Carroll teams won four Class 5A state titles.

The adversity that Todd Dodge will face in rebuilding a struggling program in major college football's worst conference might not be as severe as the adversity he faced following his accident. But it's no stretch to say that Dodge still has his work cut out for him. Few national observers expect great thinks from North Texas this fall; the football prediction website collegefootballpoll.com, whose Congrove Computer Rankings system has accurately predicted the Mean Green's final record six out of the last twelve seasons (and come within a single game on three other occasions), foresees an abysmal 2-10 fall campaign for UNT. The preseason magazines aren't showing much love for North Texas, either: Athlon and Lindy expect the Eagles to finish seventh in the eight-team Sun Belt, and Phil Steele and Street & Smith foresee UNT finishing at the very bottom. Even his fellow Sun Belt coaches aren't expecting much; at the annual Sun Belt media gathering, North Texas was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams. Brutal out-of-conference games at Oklahoma and Arkansas are not exactly going to be helpful, either.

However, Dodge's arrival in Denton is already paying dividends, His decision to leave Southlake Carroll, where his phenomenal success included a 79-1 record over the last five seasons, to take the reigns at North Texas created a great deal of buzz in a Metroplex that generally pays little attention to its local college football teams. Dodge's plans to reinvigorate a North Texas football program that once won four straight Sun Belt Conference titles but has since fallen on hard times by abandoning previous coach Darrell Dickey's ground-based offense for a more open "spread" offense have also created excitement. The reaction from the North Texas faithful is overwhelming. Football season ticket sales have increased a whopping 40.5%; contributions to the Mean Green Club, a fundraising and booster organization, rose by over 24 percent. And other famous Texas coaches have also voiced their support:
"If you were gauging deals in Texas, North Texas made the best deal," says former (University of Texas) Longhorns coach Fred Akers, who coached Dodge at Texas. "I think Todd Dodge, with his charisma, is going to be exactly what they need."
There's no question that Todd Dodge knows football. He played at both the high school and college levels before becoming a legend at Southlake Carroll. But transitions from the high school level to the college level are not always easy. Art Briles, a former head coach at Class 3A powerhouse Stephenville, seems to be doing well here at the University of Houston. But the transition doesn't always work out well; the article recounts the story of Gerry Faust, a celebrated high school coach whose transition to the helm at Notre Dame ended ingloriously five years later with a 30-26-1 record. It remains to be seen just how successful Dodge will be at this level. And, given the current state of disarray at North Texas, it's probably too much to expect a momentous turnaround to occur in 2007.

But Dodge's hiring has already given North Texas one thing it desperately needs: hope. It's clear that the fans are buying into the Dodgeball era at North Texas. The players are, as well.
"He wants the best out of all of us," (running back Jamario) Thomas says. "I just can't wait to see what happens."
This, incidentally, is not Todd Dodge's first stint at the University of North Texas. He was UNT's passing game coordinator in 1992 and 1993.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It's now official

The concrete skeleton of the Burj Dubai has just surpassed Taipei 101 to become the tallest building in the world - and it's still nowhere close to completion. At 1,680 feet, the building is more than a quarter-mile high.
"Burj Dubai is now taller than Taipei 101 in Taiwan, which at 508 meters has held the tallest-building-in-the-world title since it opened in 2004," Emaar Properties, which is developing the Dubai tower, said in a statement. The Burj Dubai will be 141 stories tall.

The developer wants the tower, set to be completed next year, to be the world's tallest building according to all four criteria listed by the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which measures buildings to the structural top, the highest occupied floor, the top of the roof and the tip of the spire or flagpole.

This site, which keeps track of the Burj's construction progress, notes that the building's expected completion date has actually been pushed back to June 30, 2009. The pictures on that site show that there's still a lot of work left to do: the building's cladding has only begun to be applied, and interior build-out cannot occur until that is completed. But as long as the structure itself has reached the height milestone, I guess that's reason enough for the developer to celebrate.


I still think they make lousy pets, but the bunny I'm taking care of for the weekend is actually rather well-behaved. That is to say, she hasn't gnawed through any baseboards or power cords (at least, not yet), she hasn't used the restroom outside of her cage, and she actually comes up to Lori and me looking to for a hand to pet her.

Frieda lives at Kirby's daycare, but routine maintenance over the weekend meant that Frieda needed a place to stay for a few days.

It's kind of fun to take care of a rabbit again, but don't expect me to change my opinion about them anytime soon...

Friday, July 13, 2007

So much for religious tolerance...

Yesterday, for the first time, the daily prayer that opens Senate proceedings was recited by a Hindu chaplain.

One would think the recital of a Hindu prayer on the Senate floor would be a wonderful statement about the diversity and tolerance that make the United States great, especially considering that over 750,000 thousand Americans are practicing Hindus. Unfortunately, some people in the Senate gallery didn't see it that way:
Capitol police said two women and one man were arrested and charged with causing a disruption in the public gallery of the Senate. The three started shouting when guest Chaplain Rajan Zed, a Hindu from Nevada, began his prayer.

They shouted "No Lord but Jesus Christ" and "There's only one true God," and used the term "abomination."

While it would be correct to characterize these three hecklers as fringe lunatics, the sad fact is that they are merely representatives of the tens of millions of Christian fundamentalists throughout this country whose understanding of "freedom of religion" means their freedom to prevent everyone else from practicing any religion other than their own. Yesterday's outburst was not an isolated incident, but rather just another instance in an ongoing campaign by these zealots to intimidate, bully and harrass anyone whose beliefs they deem to be unacceptable.

It's really rather disgusting. And disturbing. Especially when you consider that these theofascists (let's call them what they are, shall we?) are well-organized, and well-funded, and constitute a major base of support to one of this nation's two major political parties.

Land of the free, indeed.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Astros at midseason

The second half of the 2007 baseball season begins today, and it's no stretch to say that the Astros are struggling. They are 39-50 and in fifth place in the NL Central. So far, it hasn't been a fun season for Astros fans.

There have been some bright spots, to be sure. Craig Biggio's entry into the 3,000-hit club is one. The exploits of Hunter Pence, who has a great shot at being named NL Rookie of the Year, are another. Carlos Lee has proven to be a solid addition to the team.

But the overall situation looks bleak. This team - currently sitting 11 games below .500 - has some serious shortcomings both at the plate (Morgan Ensberg, where are you?) and on the mound (the bullpen is unreliable, to put it mildly). At 10 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, the Astros are all but out of the division championship race. And ten teams are ahead of them in the Wild Card chase.

Sure, we've seen the Astros come back from adversity before. They came back from a .500 record at the 2004 All-Star break to win 46 of their last 72 games, capture the NL Wild Card, and make it to the National League Championship Series after defeating the Atlanta Braves in their first-ever playoff series victory. 2005 was an even better story; the Astros rebounded from a poor start - they were 15-30 at one point - to win 89 games, capture the NL Central Championship, defeat Atlanta and St. Louis in the playoffs and go to their first-ever World Series. Even last year, the Astros were able to salvage a mediocre season with a stunning late-season surge that saw them win 10 out of their last 12 games and come within 1/2 game of the division-leading (and eventual World Champion) St. Louis Cardinals.

Given their history, it's certainly reasonable to expect the Astros to pull off another second-half surge this time around. And, indeed, their ability to win seven out of their last eleven games has given fans a glimmer of hope.

But I just don't think they're going to pull it off this time around. Call me a pessimist, but there are just too many problems with this team. They are neither hitting nor pitching particularly well; their team batting average and their team ERA (.260 and 4.59, respectively) put them squarely in the bottom half of the NL for both categories. Chronicle sports columnist Richard Justice, who notes that the team has a 101-121 record since their World Series appearance, seems to see it the same way I do:
To win 85 games, they'd have to go 46-27 the rest of the way. They'd have to pass 10 teams to get the NL wild-card berth or erase a 10 1/2 -game deficit to win the NL Central. Translation: It won't be happening this year.
Which begs the question that Justice asks: would replacing General Manager Tim Purpura and/or Team Manager Phil Garner make a significant positive difference? It's hard to tell, but if the losses, and attendant frustration among the fan base, mount, owner Drayton McLane might have to pull one or both of those triggers just to make a symbolic statement. But the team's current configuration is a completely different matter: it, as it currently exists, is not one that is a championship contender, and near-term prospects for its improvement look weak. The farm system isn't producing quality prospects right now, and the trading deadline is quickly approaching. More likely, there are no quick fixes for this roster; the team is stagnant, and that a few seasons of painful rebuilding might be necessary before the Astros become a contender again.

I'd love to be wrong about that, of course. I'd love to see the Astros step up and kick some ass over the second half of the season like they've done before. But, for whatever reason, this season just seems different.

The next couple of months will tell the tale.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The All American Football League

If you, like me, are a football junkie who is broken up about the recent demise of NFL Europa, there's good news. A new spring football league is gearing up to begin operation in 2008. But does it have a chance to succeed where other leagues have failed?
They come. They go. The World Football League, the USFL, the XFL. Some entrepreneur has a vision — there's room in a football-obsessed nation for another professional league — that invariably drowns in red ink and dissolves.

Organizers of the new All American Football League acknowledge the trail of failures. But theirs, they say, is a different approach: pro ball with a college sensibility.

We've seen this before, and we have every reason to be skeptical. Since the AFL/NFL merger of 1970, several "alternatives" to the National Football League have come and gone: the WFL of the 1970s, the USFL of the 1980s, the CFL's US expansion experiment of the 1990s, the XFL of 2001 and, most recently, the WLAF/NFL Europe (which was, in fact, funded by the NFL). Why should the fate of the All American Football League be any different?

For one thing, the AAFL has a completely different business philosophy than any of these previous leagues: they seek to cultivate the collegiate, rather than the professional, football fanbase for their support. The league plans to place teams within existing college football hotbeds, utilizing players from nearby colleges (all of whom must have a college degree) and playing football using collegiate, rather than pro, rules:

The AAFL hopes to tap into college loyalties and rivalries. A Florida team will play some games at The Swamp in Gainesville, others at the Citrus Bowl, Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium or Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. In Alabama, the league has lined up Birmingham's Legion Field. Other teams tentatively are set to play at Tennessee, North Carolina State and Purdue, and Katz says contracts are "ready to sign" for venues in Mississippi and Little Rock.

Texas and Michigan are other targets for the league. The AAFL plans to announce its inaugural roster of teams sometime later this summer.

It's an interesting idea: rather than being a "pro" league, the AAFL desires to be a "post-collegiate" league. Perhaps its just a difference in semantics that the average football fan, rather he favor the pros or the colleges, won't appreciate. And perhaps, regardless of its intent, spring football just isn't meant to exist no matter how it is packaged. As ESPN columnist Chuck Klosterman explains:
There are some historical lessons that almost always prove true: Don't wage a ground war on two fronts. Don't impulsively buy a speedboat or a racehorse. Don't ask a woman who loves Tori Amos to tell you about her dreams. And do not stage professional football in spring. It does not matter that football is more popular in America than pancakes or puppies. There is some psychological (and I suspect meteorological) barrier that makes people uncomfortable with springtime pigskin. We unconsciously associate the advent of football with the dawn of autumn and the coming onset of winter; for whatever the reason, football games in the month of May always feel gratuitous and inauthentic. As such, history tells us that the AAFL is doomed. It might not matter what the league does or how it operates.
But even Klosterman is willing to give the AAFL the benefit of a doubt, due to its unique "post-collegiate" philosophy:

Yet this league intrigues me.

It intrigues me for many reasons, but principally for its unspoken, overriding philosophy: The AAFL is trying to be a professional version of college football. It's kind of like when Ford and Chevy decided to build cars that were almost like Hondas -- the AAFL is hoping to repackage previously existing elements into something that's simultaneously new and familiar, targeted solely at fans who aren't particularly interested in anything else.

Can this philosophy separate the AAFL from every other non-NFL football league that has gone before it? Klosterman compares the AAFL to the failures that have come before it:
The World Football League (1974-75) failed because it ran out of money (the league supposedly paid its MVPs in cash because nobody believed a WFL check would clear). The USFL (1983-85) failed because of franchise instability, one crushing court decision and -- somewhat paradoxically -- too much money distributed unequally (by late '84, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump basically controlled everything). The XFL failed because football was not its priority (the entire endeavor seemed depressing and sarcastic). However, the unifying element in all those failures was a desire to compete against the NFL, an aspiration that's fundamentally impossible... But the AAFL has no intention of competing with anyone, and that might be its saving grace. Instead, it's trying to appeal to the kind of (typically Southern) dude who dreams of a universe where college football never ends.
That kind of appeal appears to be exactly where the AAFL plans to hang its hat: it wants to become an "extension" of college football, and it does not want to compete with the NFL. And that, quite honestly, actually makes sense in theory. But will it work in reality? History is not on the AAFL's side in any case, but the only way to know for sure, of course, is to play the games and see what happens.

Aside from history, the AAFL has other substantial obstacles in its path. For example, is there really enough funding behind it? These kinds of endeavors invariably require a lot of financial backing and a lot of patience from those funding it. Its lack of a television contract is another huge obstacle. Perhaps that issue will be resolved between now and the time the league begins operations next spring; if not, its survival without television exposure, and the income stream it produces, will only be that much more dubious.

In spite of the odds against it, I, as a football junkie, hope that the AAFL succeeds. There are a lot of people in this nation that enjoy football regardless of the season, and there is a lot of good football talent out there that, for whatever reason, doesn't make it onto an NFL roster. The AAFL has a business plan that makes it unlike any other non-NFL professional league that has come before it, and maybe, just maybe, that's enough to make it work.

We'll find out next spring.

Cats are Democrats, Dogs are Republicans

It's a few years old, but I hadn't seen it before. It made me laugh. Check it out:


Friday, July 06, 2007

One more Black Swallowtail update

I promise, this will be the last post about the hungry caterpillars. At least until I find more of them hanging out in the garden...

The second butterfly came out of its chrysalis earlier this week. This time, I was actually in the dining room when it emerged. But I still didn't actually witness it. There's obviously no prolonged struggle involved in getting out of the chrysalis; they just pop right out of the shell. Here's a picture of the newly-emerged butterfly drying his wings:

These guys only need about an hour and a half or so to fully dry and harden their wings. Naturally, they're not very active during this time. But once they're ready to go, they start to become very active and restless. This guy wasn't quite as docile as the one that emerged before.

Here's the butterfly crawling up my shirt. My pinky finger might provide a reference as to its size; it was actually a little bit smaller than the butterfly that emerged first. Note that this butterfly has more yellow and less blue than the previous one. This would indicate that this guy is male, whereas the previous butterfly was female.

We released this one a few hours after it emerged, and it immediately flew away. Thus ends our encounter with this very attractive insect. As I've said before, I'd like to see them again sometime.

I'm not the only person whose garden has recently been visited by this animal.

Independence Day, without the fireworks

My family has a long-standing Fourth of July tradition wherein we fire up the grill, ice down the coolers and invite a bunch of people over for what I like to call the "all-day beer and barbecue." This year was no different; in fact, we must have hosted at least forty of our friends, family and neighbors at my parents' house last Wednesday. It was very successful, as usual. Everybody had a good time eating, drinking and talking. I actually saw several people I hadn't seen in a long time.

But there's one Fourth of July staple that we didn't participate in this year: going to see the fireworks.

Don't get me wrong: I love fireworks displays as much as the next guy. And the local Freedom over Texas display, which bills itself as the largest land-based pyrotechnics display in the nation, is actually rather excellent. I used to go see it on a regular basis; in 2003, in fact, we took our out-of-town friends and relatives to see it after our rehearsal dinner (yep, Lori and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary this past Thursday!).

But, for the second year in a row, I opted out. It was partly because I was tired; I spent much of the day helping my parents with their party even though I really didn't get much sleep the night before. But I also decided not to make the short trip downtown to see the rockets' red (and blue and green) glare because I just didn't want to deal with the hassle.

Hundreds of thousands of other people, understandably, want to see the spectacle as well. And that leads to headaches getting into and out of downtown: traffic is gridlocked, parking is difficult to find, the crowds are enormous and finding a good vantage point is difficult.

The last few years I've gone downtown to see the display, I've always for some reason ended up on the north side of downtown, with a view of the show that is at least partially obstructed by the big and brightly-lit Aquarium restaurant on downtown's west side (Why can't Tillman Fertitta can't turn off those garish blue lights for just half an hour so people can see the display better?). This year, likely, probably wouldn't have been any different, and I just didn't want to deal with the crush of people or the traffic jams. So I stayed home.

I'm sure I'll go to see the display again one of these years; before too long, after all, Kirby will get to the age where he demands that I take him to see fireworks. And perhaps getting into downtown from my neighborhood will be at least somewhat easier if and when this transit facility is ever built. Until that time comes, though, I've discovered that I can have a great time celebrating my country's independence, even if I don't see any fireworks.