Friday, August 31, 2007

Radio weirdness

While driving around the sprawling north Dallas suburbs this week, I spent a lot of time surveying the Metroplex's radio offerings. One station I enjoyed was Dallas's "Jack FM" station at 100.3. The Jack FM format features a large and eclectic playlist (much larger than most stations) and the absence of any on-air deejays. It's a refreshing departure from the standard Clear Channel station that plays the same songs over and over. I wondered why this format didn't exist in the Houston market.

Well, this afternoon, after flying back from Dallas, I got into my car at Hobby Airport, turned on the radio, and guess what? As it turns out, 103.7 converted from a rock station to a Jack FM format earlier this morning. Pretty cool.

An another note: have you ever noticed when an obscure song that you haven't heard in a long time suddenly gets played several times within a period of a few hours?

That happened to me yesterday and today. While driving back to my hotel last night, a Dallas radio station played Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls." Cool, I thought, I hadn't heard this song in a while.

It played again a few hours later at an Addison bar I visited. "That's weird, I just heard this song," I thought.

Then I heard it again on Houston radio driving home from the airport today.

At that point, it was just getting creepy.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Late August randomness

August is mercifully coming to a close. I get to spend the final week of it up here in Dallas; nothing to do but work and wait for Friday, so that I can fly back home and decide which sports bar I'm going to go to on Saturday to watch the Coogs play Oregon. I'm not expecting the Cougars to win this one (which, in the eyes of at least a couple of hyperbole-prone posters on one particular UH sports message board, disqualifies me from being a "true fan" because I don't "believe" in my team; ah, okay, whatever...), but hope always springs eternal and I do want to see how the team, with its new quarterback, performs on the road against a BCS program. A respectable showing by the Coogs might foretell of a decent season. If the Coogs get utterly steamrolled, on the other hand, then a long fall might be in store.

Of course, as my luck would have it, right after I write an entry explaining that I plan to attend six U of H football games this season, "contingent on the fact that I don't get shipped overseas again like I did last fall," I get an e-mail from my company's office in Dubai. They want me to come out there and assist on a project involving this thing. The project schedule and staffing plan is still under development, so I don't know when I'll actually be flying back over there. But, at this point, it's likely going to put a dent in my tailgating plans for the second fall in a row. Why can't they bid for these projects in the spring instead of the autumn?

Anyway, I had a handful of random thoughts rattling around my head that I wanted to write about, so here goes:

I really don't have too much to say about the firings of Astros Manager Phil Garner and General Manager Tim Purpura earlier this week, other than to say that they were inevitable. The Astros have sunk to the bottom of the NL Central standings, the 2007 season is toast, and owner Drayton McLane has to respond to the fans' thirst for blood as well as make it appear as if he's thinking about the future of the ballclub.

Richard Justice thinks that the move is a "step in the right direction." Maybe so. But there are still some serious problems with this ballclub which cannot be rectified by simply replacing the skipper and the GM. One such problem, as ESPN's Jayson Stark explains, is that McLane is a meddlesome owner:

But when McLane marched to the podium Monday and spoke of the need for better leadership and new ideas, he forgot to mention that he'd be well-served to take his own advice.

Why? Because he has done nothing lately to disprove the notion that he is as tough to work for as any owner in baseball.

Yes, he cares. And yes, he aims high. Yep, he's always around. And yep, he has spent lots and lots of dollars in the name of winning.

But his last GM, Gerry Hunsicker, up and quit three years ago because he'd had enough of McLane's meddling in the baseball side of the operation. And so little has changed since that day that it's difficult to evaluate Purpura's reign as GM, because we'll never know how many decisions were really made by the general manager.

We do know it was the owner's doing, not the GM's, that the Astros weren't allowed to sign their top two draft picks this year -- because it was the owner who was determined to please his good friend, Bud Selig, and not pay"above slot."

So if that's the philosophy, you lose the right to point fingers at the GM when the farm system starts to thin out. Don't you?

And when McLane talks, as recently as Monday afternoon, about the "great club" he thought the Astros had put together this year, did he have any memory whatsoever of the desperate pleas from his baseball people all winter to give them a few million more bucks to fill out the rotation, the bullpen and the bench?

We applaud McLane for allowing Purpura to sign Carlos Lee to a $100 million contract. But what was the good of that -- if the owner then handed the GM only another $10 million to plug every other hole on the roster?

This isn't to say that Tim Purpura made some poor moves as GM (i.e. Jason Jennings). Nor is this to say that Phil Garner was getting the most out of his team (although he wasn't really given much to work with this season). For whatever reason, they just couldn't make the Astros work this season and it was probably time for the franchise to move in a different direction. But for the team to improve, McLane is going to have to do some soul-searching of his own, lest he become the south Texas version of Jerry Jones. Stark continues:

What we do know about the Astros is this: Drayton McLane created the monster that led two very capable baseball men -- not to mention two wonderful human beings -- to the gallows Monday. So if he sincerely wants to inject more "invigoration" and better leadership into this organization he cares so much about, then firing his manager and GM isn't the only change he should be prepared to make.

This time, he should try hiring good people and actually letting them do their jobs.

Even though it's almost a decade old at this point, my research regarding the aesthetic condition of urban freeways is still getting noticed. Yesterday I received an e-mail from a person at a Tokyo university's civil engineering department (can't tell if it's a student or a professor) who is working on a history of Tokyo's urban expressway network. He sent me a link to an interesting development: a two-kilometer long elevated expressway surrounding Tokyo's upscale Ginza district which features about four hundred stores and restaurants underneath it.

He asked me if there were any instances of buildings located directly underneath elevated freeways in the United States. I'm not aware of any; the state departments of transportation that own these structures generally aren't in the real estate development business, and I've always understood that any structure built under elevated freeways would be subject to tremendous noise and vibration from passing traffic as well as impede maintenance activities. Obviously, the rules are different in Japan (the expressway in question is privately owned, and the scarcity of available land in Tokyo makes this an economically-viable project). To get an idea of what the expressway and the structures underneath it look like, go to this page and click on any of the segments along the "expressway-mall." Thanks, Dave, for translating the site for me!

A couple of months ago, my research was also referenced on a blog that explores Turcot Yards, an abandoned railyard in Montreal described as the "world's largest abandoned urban space." The vast railyard, located southwest of downtown Montreal, is dominated at its northeast end by the soaring Turcot Interchange. If you have time, check out some of the pictures there.

One of these days, if my schedule ever permits, I'd like to update my research - as I noted, it's almost ten years old - and publish it (in a real book, not just online). I'd even like to be involved in context-sensitive highway design in an official capacity - as an employee of a landscape architecture firm or department of transportation, for example. Alas, my career path has taken me in a different direction, and I'm not sure I'll ever wind up doing the urban-design-related work I dreamed of doing as a graduate student.

There’s some interesting discussion in the local blogosphere this week about a proposed amendment to the city’s minimum lot size ordinance. In a nutshell, homeowners along a given street segment can petition the city to establish a minimum lot size. The intent of the ordinance is to preserve the lot size character of existing residential neighborhoods which do not already have deed restrictions which establish such minimums. It was developed as a reaction to the proliferation of townhomes in inner-loop Houston, wherein developers purchase single-family lots in existing neighborhoods around town (notably Midtown, the Museum District, Cottage Grove, Rice Military and, more recently, the near East End), tear down the house on them, and subdivide them into smaller lots for townhomes. Longtime residents in established neighorhoods were concerned that these developments were eroding the character of their neighborhoods, but unless their neighborhoods were deed-restricted there was little they could do to challenge these developments until this ordinance was created.

However, a loophole in the ordinance made it only applicable to actual lot sizes – not the number of dwelling units on a given lot. Unable to subdivide lots affected by this ordinance into townhomes, developers were simply circumventing the intent of the ordinance by building small condominimum developments instead: the overall effect on the surrounding neighborhood was the same. A proposed change to the ordinance aims to close this loophole by limiting the number of dwelling units per lot.

Tory expresses his opinion that closing this loophole could have unintended consequences: developers, being unable to make money by building townhomes or condominums on an affected lot, might build an oversized McMansion instead. The McMansion would be just as out of character as the townhomes, and it could alter a neighborhood's economic character:

If a developer can't build three $200K+ townhomes on a lot, he'll be forced by economics to build a single $600K+ McMansion. The demographic that can afford that house are in a completely different income bracket from those who can afford the townhomes. Does that really preserve the neighborhood's true character better than the townhomes? A middle class neighborhood ends up rapidly gentrifying, when townhomes could have let it stay middle class.

He might have a point, although I still think the original intent of this ordinance necessitates that this loophole be closed. A couple of his arguments are a bit more dubious to me:

The new ordinance will only allow a single-family home on the lot (which sounds dangerously close to zoning to me). In general, the city seems intent on reigning in the amazing townhome development happening inside the loop.

First of all, given the process and the application of the existing ordinance and its proposed changes, the one-unit-per-lot restriction sounds less like "zoning" (which Houston does not have) and more like a "mini-deed-restriction" to me. For example, the minimum lot-size process is homeowner-initiated, whereas zoning changes are generally city- or developer-initiated. Furthermore, the minimum lot size process is only applicable to blockfaces or street segments where land use and density characteristics have already been established (60% of all lots in the area must contain one- or two-family dwellings); the "zoning," so to speak, is already in place.

As for the perception that the city "seems intent" on curtailing inside-the-loop townhome/condominium development, I find myself in agreement with Kuff's thoughts on the matter:

Given how cumbersome the lot size petition process is, there's really only a small number of neighborhoods that will be affected by the closing of the condo loophole. I seriously doubt that will put much of a crimp in the condo developers' plans, as there will still be plenty of places to put them, most of which will be more appropriate for them anyway.

Developers apparently haven't had any qualms about placing townhomes and/or condominiums on vacant lots in Midtown or in brownfield sites on the east end of downtown, after all, and those types of properties are not in short supply inside the Loop.

My brother-in-law Danny's east coast adventures continue. As you may recall, last March he moved to the Washington, DC area in search of a new job opportunities as well as an overall change of scenery. Unfortunately, the job search didn't work out very well, and the friend he was staying with in northern Virginia was preparing to relocate out of the DC area. So now Danny's moving on. A longtime friend of his has completed military assignments in Iraq and Korea and is now being stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. So Danny's going to make the short trip up I-95 to stay with him. Maybe he'll find opportunities up there that he couldn't find in DC. Or maybe he'll just continue to sit on his ass and drink beer all day. Either way, good luck to him.

The controversial University Line light rail project is back in the news. Last month METRO released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for this project; earlier this week a public hearing about the proposed development was held. Christof does a great job parsing through the DEIS here and here.

My thoughts about this project have not changed within the last year. The tedious “we voted for rail on Westpark, not on Richmond” debate aside, I still think that an alignment that utilizes Richmond from Main Street to Greenway Plaza makes the most sense in terms of cost and ridership. And I still think that that is precisely the reason why it's not going to be built anytime soon.

It's simple: the ridiculous alignment that runs along the north side of the US 59 trench to Westpark is not going to rate well with the Federal Transit Administration when the time comes to approve New Starts applications, which means it won't get federally funded. Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (who represents this area in Congress) has already made it clear that he will block any attempt to build rail down Richmond, and that's only if a current lawsuit filed against METRO by property owners along Richmond fails. Either way, this train doesn't get built. The discussion is interesting and the analysis is engaging, but I think it's all moot.

This isn't to say I don't have any other opinions about the alignment: I think that there needs to be a station somewhere between the Hillcroft Transit Center and Loop 610 to serve the heavily-populated and heavily transit-dependent Gulfton area. I think that, east of Main Street, a Wheeler-to-Ennis-to-Elgin alignment that terminates at the Eastwood Transit Center makes the most sense. I'm skeptical as to how the intersection of the Red Line and the University Lane at Wheeler Station is going to work, especially since there are no switches that would allow a one-seat ride from downtown out to Hillcroft Transit Center. I notice that all of the proposed options will mean the destruction of the Proletariat bar and Chapultepec restaurant on the south side of Richmond east of Montrose, and I hope METRO helps these neighborhood institutions relocate to suitable venues in the same general area. I think that ballasted track is preferable to concrete-embedded track, even in streets, because it is cheaper to construct and easier to maintain.

But these items are contingent on the thing getting built. And I won't believe it until I see it.

Finally, I note with sadness today's Chronicle article about the passing of Jaunita McGinty. I knew Jaunita through her husband, Jack McGinty, who owned an architectural consulting firm I worked for between my undergraduate and graduate stints (I later found out that she and Jack were related to a classmate of mine at HSPVA as well). I was, however, never aware of her role as an activist for racial harmony or her leadership on the Houston Council of Human Relations:

In 1968, McGinty persuaded Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier, to speak at the council's annual dinner.

"It wasn't easy getting in touch with him," said her husband, Houston architect John M. "Jack" McGinty. "Somehow, she was able to do it. Juanita was a big baseball fan and Robinson was a hero to her. She spent a long time convincing his assistants that coming here was worth his time."

Freck Fleming, who then was a council board member, said the dinner at the old Shamrock Hilton Hotel was a "culminating event" in the council's efforts.

"Ever since I've known her, she has been interested in civil rights and harmonious race relations," Jack McGinty said, adding that he and his wife were active in the Democratic Party.

Although it's been a decade since I've seen either Jaunita or her husband, I'm nevertheless sorry to hear that she lost her fight with cancer at the age of 73. My thoughts are with Jack and the rest of the McGinty family.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Goodbye to the terrible twos

Last Tuesday was Kirby's third birthday. We held a small party for him last weekend. Unlike last year, I was actually able to be there.

The "littlin" just isn't that little anymore. Happy birthday, Kirby!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 football outlook: The University of Houston

With apologizes to Andrew Williams, "The Most Wonderful Time of The Year" is not Christmas, but rather the start of college football season. And it's finally upon us! In less than a week, The University of Houston Cougars will make a trip up to Eugene, Oregon to face the University of Oregon Ducks.

The Cougars, under fifth-year head coach Art Briles, would like to repeat the success of a season ago, when they won ten games for the first time since 1990, captured the Conference USA championship for the first time since 1996, and played an exciting game against Steve Spurrier's South Carolina Gamecocks in the Liberty Bowl. It would have been nice to have won that one - a victory would have broken a bowl losing streak dating all the way back to 1980 and probably would have given Houston their first season-ending top-25 ranking since 1990 - but considering where the UH program has been for so long the 2006 season can only be considered a huge step forward.

Repeating the feat in 2007 won't be as easy, however. Several seniors who made last year's success possible - notably, quarterback Kevin Kolb - are gone and replacing them is going to be tough. They're not getting any breaks to start the season, either; the Ducks are a good team and they're going to be tough to beat in the loud and inhospitable confines of Autzen Stadium. Houston is a 14.5-point underdog in this one.

This isn't to say that the Coogs are devoid of talent. To the contrary, they still have formidable weapons on offense, including running back Anthony "Quick Six" Alridge, reliable receivers like Donnie Avery and Jeron Harvey, and possible NFL picks on the offensive line in the form of Dustin Dickinson and Jeff Akeroyd. On defense, Houston returns talented players such as all-conference player Ell Ash on a defensive line that could be C-USA's best, solid linebackers such as Brandon Pahulu and Cody Lubojasky, and another all-conference selection, Kenneth Fontenette, in the secondary. As a whole, the team appears to exhibit a level of strength and athleticism that they've lacked in the past. Briles's recruiting, especially as far as the lines are concerned, seems to be paying off.

Nevertheless, question marks remain. And the biggest one is the quarterback position. Kolb left some pretty big shoes to fill, and it's up to sophomore Blake Joseph and redshirt freshman Case Keenum to step into them.
Joseph has a strong arm but oftentimes puts too much zip on his shorter passes. Keenum has appeared to move the offense rather well in scrimmages but lack's Joseph's throwing strength, and neither quarterback has appeared to be especially mobile during scrimmage. These are the only two quarterbacks on scholarship; senior Al Peña, a transfer from Oklahoma State, abruptly left the team a few days ago, after it became clear that he was struggling to learn the Briles offense, to assist his father with coaching duties at Hidalgo High School in the Valley.

As much talent as the offensive line contains, there's a hole at center left by the departure of Sterling Doty. Bad snaps have apparently been a concern during practices; I witnessed a couple myself at a scrimmage I observed a couple of weeks ago. Depth is an issue as well: SirVincent Rogers is out for the season with an injury, Byron Alfred left the team after last season to pursue a law degree, a scary incident regarding Jerrod Butler forced him to give up football (the UH football training staff deserves a big hand for saving this young man's life!) and the well-being of Sebastian Vollmer (it seems like any discussion on the UH message boards regarding this guy includes the phrase "if he stays healthy") remains a question.

The once-woeful Cougar defense has shown improvement over the last couple of years, and 2007 could be the best defense the program has had in a long time. But there are still question marks on this side of the ball as well. As big as the linebackers are, they are not particularly speedy. The Coogs had trouble generating a pass rush last season, and a lack of improvement this year will be a glaring shortfall. This is because there's a lot of youth in a secondary that is going to miss last year's playmakers, Willie Gaston and Will Gulley. Fontenette's a gamer, but won't be able to carry the load by himself. And what of the "Unholy Trinity" of penalties, turnovers and poor special teams play that plagued the Coogs last year (and the year before that, and the year before that...)?

Then there's the schedule, which isn't quite as advantageous as the 2006 slate that saw the Cougars play eight of their twelve games within the city of Houston. This year, the Coogs face tough out-of-conference road trips to Alabama-Tuscaloosa as well as Oregon, back-to-back road trips on two separate occasions, and they won't even get to play their first home game until September 22nd, when they host a formidable Colorado State squad. The Coogs also host programs on the rise in East Carolina and SMU, and road trips to Tulsa, Texas-El Paso and Alabama-Birmingham (the University of Houston has never won a game in the state of Alabama, and UAB offensive coordinator and former UH head coach Kim Helton certainly has this game circled on his calendar) will be tough. Even the annual showdown against crosstown rival Rice isn't a gimme, as UH fans are painfully aware.

So how well can the Cougars be expected to do this fall? It's always fun to take a look at the national pigskin pundits to see how outsiders view the UH program. This year, preseason perceptions of the program look pretty positive. The website, which uses the Congrove Computer system that has accurately predicted the Coog's final regular season record within two games eight out of the last 13 seasons, foresees the Cougars winning an eye-opening eleven games this fall. "Southern Miss and Houston are each expected to dominate their respective divisions and meet in Houston for the conference title for the second year in-a-row," they write. They foresee the Cougars ending the regular season with a #16 ranking. As much as I'd love for them to be right, I'm a bit skeptical., on the other hand, foresees a 7-5 campaign for Houston. Without Kolb, Jackie Battle and Vincent Marshall on offense, "the Cougar caravan could face a temporary detour in 2007." Predicting a second-place finish behind Tulsa in CUSA's Western Division, they write:
The season will be a success if ... Houston wins the West again. It won’t be easy with the Tulsa game on the road and so much uncertainty at some key spots, but after winning the title, not getting back to the championship game will be a major letdown. Winning the division would prove the program wasn’t all Kevin Kolb, while an also-ran season, or worse yet, a non-bowl year, would be a disastrous step back. splits the difference, expecting the Cougars to notch a 9-3 record this season. They report that, if Blake Joseph (or Case Keenum, for that matter) is able to provide strong leadership and makes effective use of the considerable talent remaining on offense, and if the defensive line and linebackers ("the best front in the league," they say) are able to overpower their opponents, Houston can repeat as CUSA West champions and go back to a bowl for the third straight year. But if things don't go so well?
This team has too much talent to drop to far in the league standings, but a drop into 3rd place in the West would make for major disappointment. The defensive secondary lack of experience is exposed early in non-conference games with Oregon, Colorado State, and Alabama, providing CUSA opposition with an area to focus on when attacking the Houston defense.
Sports Illustrated predicts that the Coogs will go 8-4 this fall and finish second in CUSA West behind Tulsa. Their Team Preview for UH notes that the defense "made strides last season but was outrageously vulnerable on third downs (47 percent efficiency by opponents, 110th in the nation). After shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5, the defense should be better — it has to be since it will carry the load while the offense jells." On offense, the Coogs "have more than enough talent to compete for a berth in the conference championship game" in spite of losing Kolb. "You can pencil in a bowl game," the SI writeup continues, "but the difference between a seven-win team and a nine- or 10-win season will depend on the defense."

Jeff Sagarin's preseason ratings place the Coogs 77th in the nation, with a rating of 67.96. When the ratings of opposing teams as well as the home field advantage are taken into account, his ratings imply an 8-4 season for the Cougars. Last year
Sagarin started Houston at #89 and finished at #54. His 2006 preseason rankings implied an 8-4 regular season for the Coogs as well, so he wasn't far off in that regard. Hopefully his system will provide a similar level of accuracy for Houston this season. The preseason CBS Sports 120 poll places the Cougars 62nd; their rankings would imply that the Cougars will enjoy an 9-2 record over their Division I-A (er, Bowl Subdivision) opponents.

The preseason magazines are generally showing a lot of love for the Cougars; Lindy's, The Sporting News, Phil Steele and Street & Smith all foresee Houston successfully defending their Western Division crown; Athlon expects the Coogs to finish behind Tulsa. The Associated Press expects the Cougars to finish atop the Western Division, as do USA Today and's sportswriters. Seven of ESPN's twelve "experts" expect the Cougars to reclaim the Western Division title; only two, however, foresee the Cougars repeating as conference champions.

Indeed, the national sports media took notice of Houston's success last season, and expect the Coogs to do well again in 2007. But what do I think?

A year ago, I predicted that the Cougars would win eight regular season games. I wasn't too far off the mark; the Coogs won nine games en route to their conference championship. I'd love to see the Coogs notch eight wins during the regular season again this year; anything above eight wins would be outstanding. But I just can't get past the quarterback situation; until proven otherwise, I think this is the biggest weakness facing the team right now. The offensive line is a concern of mine as well; the center is still an unsettled question, as is depth. On defense, I have concerns about the secondary; if the front is as good as advertised they will hopefully do a better job putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, but I have to see it to believe it. And then there's the Unholy Trinity: walk-on punter Chase Turner seems to be the real deal, so hopefully special teams will show improvement this fall, but the number of turnovers and penalties needs to be reduced. Finally, the Coogs have an annoying habit of dropping at least one game every season that they're not supposed to lose (see Rice, 2004; SMU, 2005, Louisiana-Lafayette, last year).

So I'm going to go on record as predicting seven wins for the Cougars in 2007: they will likely lose to Oregon and Alabama and likely defeat Tulane, Rice and next-door neighbor Texas Southern. I see them winning two of their remaining home slate of Colorado State, East Carolina, SMU and Marshall, but dropping two of their remaining road slate of UAB, UTEP and Tulsa. A 7-5 record would probably not be what the UH faithful have in mind, especially coming off last season's success, and it probably wouldn't be good enough for a second-consecutive Western Division crown. But it would be a winning record, and it would probably be good enough for a third-straight bowl appearance. Truth be told, that might not be a bad thing as the Coogs enter the post-Kolb era, and it might set things up for an even better 2008.

I plan to make at least six UH games this season. I have to miss the Rice game for a wedding (I still can't believe that Lori's cousin, who is probably a bigger Cougar fan than I am, agreed with his fiancé to hold his ceremony on that date!), but I will travel to see the Coogs play Tulane in New Orleans. Of course, this is all contingent on the fact that I don't get shipped overseas again like I did last fall...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Be careful what you wear...

The 2007 college football season finally begins one week from tonight.

With college football season comes the renewal of great, time-honored rivalries: Auburn versus Alabama. Kansas versus Missouri. USC versus Notre Dame. Harvard versus Yale. Army versus Navy. Emotions run high for these times of games, and some fans, unfortunately, take their disdain towards the rival school a little too far.

Even when it's not football season:
An Oklahoma City man has been charged with aggravated assault and battery, accused of causing extensive damage to another man's scrotum just because he wore a University of Texas shirt into a local bar.

Allen Michael Becket
, 53, has not been arrested on the felony charge, which was filed Monday in Oklahoma County District Court. It carries up to five years in prison if he is convicted.

Beckett is accused of having launched a verbal attack on Brian Thomas when the other man walked into Henry Hudson's Pub at 3509 NW 58 on June 17, according to court documents.

Um, ouch? This part of the story was enough to make me want to curl up into a fetal position on the floor:

Thomas hit the other man several times before several bar patrons intervened, but Thomas said Beckett didn't let go until Thomas heard his scrotum tear and blood ran down his leg.

That's not a sound I ever want to hear in my lifetime.
Thomas, who grew up a Texas fan, said it took more than 60 stitches to close his wound.
Again: ouch.

Of course, anybody who wears a Longhorn shirt into a bar in Oklahoma is probably going to get some grief, much the same way anybody who wears a Yankees shirt to a bar in Boston or an Ohio State shirt to a bar in Ann Arbor is probably going to get some grief. But your family jewels?


Friday, August 17, 2007

Time for a new webhost

Those of you who have gone over to my website recently might have noticed that some parts of my site are inaccessible. For example, if you go to see pictures of Kirby, you'll notice that none of them will load. Same for my pictures of my trips to Japan or Dubai. And if you try to read Lori's page, you're probably going to come across this: "The Web page or file that you requested is temporarily unavailable. It has been so popular this month that it exceeded its free monthly traffic allotment. Access to this Web site will be restored on the first of next month."

A bit of background: after I finished graduate school in early 2000, Lori and I opened an e-mail account with Mindspring (which was shortly thereafter brought out by EarthLink). With each e-mail address came ten megabytes of web storage. My web site consists of both my and Lori's web space allotments; a total of 20 MB of space (the domain I own,, simply redirects to EarthLink's server). Lori's portion of the site is where I've stored a lot of pictures, including ones of Kirby or recent travels.

And it seemed to work fine, at least until earlier this year when I noticed that Lori's portion of the website was no longer accessible. The message claims that bandwidth has been exceeded for the month, which initially surprised me since I couldn't imagine that anything on Lori's portion of the site would be so popular as to exceed its monthly bandwidth allocation. However, as the months passed - and access to her portion of the site was in fact not restored even though the message indicated otherwise - it was clear that there was a fundamental problem with EarthLink's web hosting system.

So I contacted EarthLink's web tech support folks (who have been outsourced to India and are only reachable through online chat sessions rather than by telephone). The first conversation I had with them back at the beginning of May was rather unhelpful:

Indian Tech Support Guy: Thank you for contacting EarthLink LiveChat, how may I help you today?

Me: Hi. I've been with Earthlink (Mindspring) for many years now. I have a question about the free webspace that comes with my and my wife's account.

ITSG: Please let me know your question. I will provide you the required information.

Me: My web site is at It seems to be working fine. But some of the pictures and pages link back to my wife's web site at Lately, I've been getting the following error message: "The Web page or file that you requested is temporarily unavailable. It has been so popular this month that it exceeded its free monthly traffic allotment. Access to this Web site will be restored on the first of next month." I find it hard to believe that so many people are going to my wife's site that it's using up all of the allotted bandwidth. Also, since it's a new month, shouldn't the site be available again?

ITSG: Yes, the site will be again on the first of next month if it is closed due to bandwidth.

Me: But it *is* a new month! It's May 2nd! I want to know why the bandwidth has been used up already. Are people hotlinking images off my wife's website and stealing my wife's bandwidth?

ITSG: I have gone through your wife's web site. As per the EarthLink norms it should be up be now. It is taking little more time this time. I request you to wait for another 24 hours. I am sure it will the site will be up by then.

Me: Okay, and if it isn't? Do I come back here for another chat?

ITSG: I am sure it should fix the issue by next 24 hours.

Me: Okay. I'm wondering if there's anything I can do to keep this from happening again.

ITSG: The only to save band width is to restrict your site by giving to the less number of people. You can do this by password protecting the site.

Me: I'd hate to have to password protect it. I just can't imagine that so many people are going to look at the pictures on my wife's site.

ITSG: If you wish you can host web site with us where you can get more band width.

(Of course. Even though we're tech support, we'll gladly try to sell you one of our services!)

Me: Eh, I'll wait 24 hours, as you suggest, and see what happens.

ITSG: I am sure by that issue will be fixed. Your site should be up by next 24 hours. Have a wonderful day.

Me: Okay, Thanks.

Of course, nothing happened. May came and went. As did June. My wife's portion of the website never became available; it just redirected to the same "bandwidth exceeded" message. So, in July, I had another chat with EarthLink's web tech support staff. This second conversation was just as unhelpful as the first:

Indian Tech Support Guy: Thank you for contacting EarthLink LiveChat, how may I help you today?

Me: I'm having a problem with my website. Are you the person I can speak with about this?

ITSG: Sure, you can. Please let me know the complete website address with which you are facing the issue.

Me: Okay. My website is My wife's website is Her website has been offline for several months now.

ITSG: To best assist you, you need to speak with a Web Hosting Technical Support Representative. Please standby while I transfer you. Please wait while I transfer the chat to the best suited site operator.

(Oh? I thought you just said that you could help me with this problem. Anyway...)

Another Indian Tech Support Guy: Hello, I see you've already been chatting. Please give me a moment so I can read the previous chat and pick up where you left off.

Me: Hi there.

AITSG: Does the mailbox ldstevens got inactive at any point of time?

Me: Not that I am aware of. She still receives e-mail at that account. I'm concerned about her website. has been offline for several months. Something about the bandwidth being exceeded. I find this hard to believe, but I understand that at the beginning of the month there is a reset and so the site should be up again.

AITSG: Yes, you are correct. We are aware of the issue and working on it, it had been a problem from some time now.

Me: Okay. Every time I try to access my wife's site I get a "Sorry... Page Temporarily Unavailable" message. When will this problem be resolved?

AITSG: I am sorry, we do not have any expected time frame regarding the issue. I am very sorry for the inconvenience.

Me: Hmmm. There's no way for you to reset it? I have pictures of trips and pictures of my son on that site that people would like to see, but for several months now they've been unable to do so.

AITSG: No, I need to escalate the issue to our engineers and get this updated.

Me: This hasn't been a problem with my website, It is still active. But I have a lot of links from my website to hers that haven't worked lately. I'm so frustrated that I am thinking about leaving Earthlink and using another webhost.

AITSG: Yes, we are experiencing the issues with some of them only. I am sorry for the inconvenience, we will do our best to get the site back as soon as possible. We do not want to loose any of long standing customers. I will escalate the issue with high priority and get the issue resolved as soon as possible.

Me: I'd appreciate it.

July came and went. And now we're in the second half of August. There still hasn't been a resolution to the issue. Lori's ten megabytes of web space are still offline. I'm getting the distinct impression that the folks at EarthLink either don't know how to repair the problem or just don't care. I've been more than patient with them and I've gotten nowhere.

So, it's time to move on. My website needs a new home. The question is, who should I use? If anybody out there has any suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Local TV rejoices as hurricane season heats up

Sorry for the lack of posts. I've been occupied with other things. Anyway...

Gotta love the weather in Houston. Right after I post that July is technically a hotter month than August, we see our hottest days of the year. I think August of 2007 will actually end up being hotter than July of 2007, since rains kept temperatures relatively low during July. Those rains, of course, have since disappeared.

But the heat is old news. Apparently, somebody reminded Mother Nature that it was hurricane season, and the tropics are the big story right now. Tropical Storm Erin will pay a visit to the lower Texas coast sometime this morning. Tropical Storm Dean is out in the Atlantic, gaining strength as it churns towards the Lesser Antilles. It will probably become a hurricane and enter the Caribbean by the end of the week. Where it goes from there is still anyone's guess, of course, but it definitely poses a threat to Houston and requires careful tracking.

Judging by the evening newscasts, the local television stations couldn't be happier. It doesn't matter if it's a Cat 5 bearing down on Galveston or a tropical storm making landfall south of Corpus Christi: these guys live for tropical weather! Viewers are treated to fancy "TROUBLE IN THE TROPICS" graphics and "team coverage" of reporters stationed all along the coast from South Padre Island to Galveston and cliché footage of surfers taking advantage of the storm-generated waves or hardware store shoppers stocking up on plywood, batteries and bottled water. Meteorologists suddenly start using phrases like "upper-level wind shear" and "tropical cyclone heat potential" when explaining hurricane activity. The average local TV viewer might not really understand what the hell Tim, Frank, Dr. Neil or Dr. Jim is talking about, but it sure does sound important! And the anchors continually say things like "let's hope it doesn't hit here" or "keep your fingers crossed that it veers away" when, let's face it, they probably don't really mean it.

The closer a storm gets, after all, the more time people spend in front of the the television to get updates. I'd love to see a plot of a hurricane's proximity to the Houston area with a plot of local TV news Neilsen ratings during the same time period. I wouldn't be surprised if they look somewhat similar. The minute that storm turns away, however, is the minute people local viewers start breathing a sigh of relief and flipping over to Sportscenter.

Not to be overly cynical about the local television news media. These guys have homes and families here too, after all, and they probably would rather that a hurricane not come through and wreak havoc. Besides, if a big storm comes too close people will start evacuating the city and viewership will actually decline.

But you're just not going to convince me that the local TV affiliates don't love hurricanes on at least some level. It's rather clear, given the way they cover them, that they do. And that's not necessarily a bad thing; aside from the bump in viewers that they provide, hurricanes also create a sense of thrill and purpose that many station employees, being humans, secretly enjoy. There has to be that rush of adrenaline as a tropical system approaches and the news director starts dispatching reporters and cameras to different locales and the weather team starts spending more time on the phone with the National Hurricane Center and the folks in the graphics department start working on flashy intro screens and the invitations for interviews go out to the Red Cross or the county's Emergency Management District.

I've been watching the local TV news my entire life, and it's obvious to me that nothing - not a multi-alarm high-rise fire, nor a major municipal scandal, nor election night, nor even the Astros winning the pennant - is treated quite the same as an approaching hurricane. That's why they'll do a good job tracking Erin and Dean, and that's why we'll keep watching.

Another guy who will do a good job watching the tropics is the Chronicle's Eric Berger. I'll be spending a lot of time reading his blog from now until hurricane season winds down.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Have I mentioned that I hate August?

Oh, that's right. I have. And unlike last year, there's probably not going to be a surprise trip to the Middle East to divert my attention away from the wretchedness that is August, either.

August is regarded my most locals as the hottest and most oppressive month of the Houston summer. Technically, however, July is marginally warmer, with an average high temperature of 94 degrees. August's average high is 93 degrees; the average lows for the two months are the same.

I think most locals (myself included) perceive August to be the hottest month of the year simply because they don't notice it as much in July. People know it's hot outside, to be sure, but other midsummer activities - Independence Day, for example, or the height of the summer travel season - takes everybody's minds off the heat. August, however, offers fewer distractions from the climate; the month has no holidays of its own, and the summer travel season is coming to a close as children prepare to return to school. There's not as much to take people's minds off the blistering temperatures and choking humidity outside, and people therefore notice the heat more readily.

Also, at the beginning of July it has only been really hot for a few weeks or so; people haven't "had enough" of the summer heat yet. By the time August rolls around, however, people have indeed grown weary of the heat and are looking forward for the summer to end. This, in turn, might make the outside temperatures seem hotter than they really are.

Indeed, August might not truly be the hottest month of the year, but people perceive it as being most onerous month of the Houston summer. That's what counts.

And that's why I hate August.