Monday, December 31, 2007

Goodbye 2007, hello 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2007 Travel Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Troy gets screwed. Or shafted. Take your pick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 24, 2007

Meet Artemis and Orion

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas is a week away

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2007

Weak dollar impacts Dubai's construction boom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emirates begins flying to Houston

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

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

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

Saturday, December 08, 2007

When cats attack

Consider yourself warned...

Big drug bust at University of Houston

Wow, that's a lot of acid:

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

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

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

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

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

His next scheduled court appearance is Monday.

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

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