Monday, December 29, 2008

Highways of the future

I recently stumbled across this fanciful Disney cartoon from 1958 which describes the "highways of tomorrow" that, looking fifty years back, really tells us more about the mindset of the past than the infrastructure of the future:

The cartoon doesn't say when "tomorrow" is supposed to be, but fifty years on it's pretty clear that very little progress has been made towards the concepts depicted in the cartoon. The highways of 2008 look much like the highways of 1958, with the only changes being some improvements in design standards and construction techniques. The sweeping cantilevered bridges, self-guided vehicles and massive construction machines depicted in this cartoon are no closer to reality today than they were fifty years ago.

Interestingly, the cartoon clearly does not anticipate the one thing that, in retrospect, has been the biggest shortcoming of the highway: ever-increasing traffic congestion. The cartoon's animations generally depict highways that are practically deserted; of course, in 2008, our highways are anything but. Nor does the cartoon foresee air pollution, dependence on increasingly-scarce foreign fossil fuels, skyrocketing obesity rates or other negative automobile-related externalities as being problems in the easy-motoring future.

The cartoon also makes some predictions that, in retrospect, are spectacularly wrong. It claims, for example, that "advances in technology will give us more time for leisure in tomorrow's living." Of course, we know that the opposite has happened. It also depicts father going to work while mother and son go shopping: a family dynamic long-since disappeared in today's two-income world.

However, I can't help but enjoy the 1950s spirit of optimism conveyed by this cartoon: a belief that all things are possible through technology and that its advances can only bring us a better way of life. Today this view seems rather naive. Perhaps that's why it feels so refreshing.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Monarch

By this time if year, most of the world's monarch butterfly population has completed their migration to their overwintering sites in the mountains of central Mexico. However, places with mild winters, like Houston, serve as overwintering areas as well.

In spite of the periodic blasts of cold weather we've received over the last several weeks, we still haven't gotten a freeze severe enough to kill the milkweed plant in the front yard or the monarch caterpillars that feed upon it. Kirby and I continue to collect mature caterpillars, put them in a container to watch the pupae form and the adults emerge, and, on warm days, release the mature butterflies.

One butterfly emerged from his chrysalis today and decided to explore our Christmas tree:

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Scary moment

One of Lori's cousins and her two children were on the Continental fight that skidded off the runway at Denver International and burst into flames last night.

Fortunately, neither Jennifer nor her two kids were among those injured during the crash and subsequent evacuation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

AFL cancels 2009 season

The Arena Football League, which has operated continuously since 1987, has announced the cancellation of its 2009 season:

The AFL's owners voted against playing next year during a conference call Sunday night. It was unclear what had changed since the league issued a statement Wednesday night that said the 2009 season had not been suspended "despite rumors and reports to the contrary."

The league said in Monday's statement it was "developing a long-term plan to improve its economic model."

"Every owner in the AFL is strongly committed to the league, the game, and, most importantly, the fans," acting commissioner Ed Policy said in a statement. "Owners, however, recognize that, especially in light of the current unprecedented economic climate, the AFL, as a business enterprise, needs to be restructured if it is to continue to provide its unique brand of this affordable, fan-friendly sport."

Whether this means the end of Arena Football remains to be seen; the league is emphasizing that it is not folding, but other than the NHL (which was certainly more established when they wrote off their 2004-05 season than the AFL is today) I'm hard-pressed to think of any other sports league that has survived after canceling an entire season.

I'm sure that some football "purists" out there are gloating about the possible demise of the AFL (not that they were ever forced to watch indoor football, or anything), but the fact is this: however much of a "niche" sport that Arena Football might have been, the fact that its league is canceling an entire season cannot be good news for professional sports in general.

It's not just that another "niche" league, the WNBA, lost one of its premier franchises a couple of weeks ago; it's that, given the current economic situation, even the strongest sports leagues are feeling the pinch: the NHL is in a hiring freeze, and NASCAR, the NFL and the NBA are laying off workers as well. Depending on how bad the nation's economic situation becomes (and 2009, by all accounts, is going to be very, very bad), professional sports in general could be in for a rough ride, as fans become less-inclined to buy expensive tickets and corporate sponsorships dwindle.

I can't say I was a huge fan of Arena Football; I'd watch a few of their games every so often, but never got into it the way I'm into, say, college football. But if I were a professional sports fan, I'd take the cancellation of the AFL's 2009 season very seriously. It could very well be a harbinger of things to come.

Throwdown at the pizza parlor

Are you one of those people that goes looking for trouble? Are you the type of person that likes to start fights? Well, there appears to be a venue suited to your tastes: Chuck E. Cheese's:
It isn't clear exactly how often fights break out at Chuck E. Cheese's 538 locations. Richard Huston, executive vice president of marketing for the chain's parent company, CEC Entertainment Inc. of Irving, Texas, describes their occurrence as "atypical," saying he has heard of "four or five significant adult altercations" this year. But in some cities, law-enforcement officials say the number of disruptions at their local outlet is far higher than at nearby restaurants, and even many bars. "We've had some unfortunate and unusual altercations between adults at these locations," Mr. Huston says. "Even one is just way too many."

Fights among guests are an issue for all restaurants, but security experts say they pose a particular problem for Chuck E. Cheese's, since it is designed to be a haven for children. Law-enforcement officials say alcohol, loud noise, thick crowds and the high emotions of children's birthday parties make the restaurants more prone to disputes than other family entertainment venues.

The environment also brings out what security experts call the "mama-bear instinct." A Chuck E. Cheese's can take on some of the dynamics of the animal kingdom, where beasts rush to protect their young when they sense a threat.

This is probably the same psychological dynamic that causes parents to get into fights at their childrens' little league games or soccer matches. If somebody feels that their kid has been slighted or mistreated, their instinct is to rush to their child's aid, even if that means they have to become violent towards the parents of other children.

Of course, it might also have to do something with a portion of the clientele of this particular chain:

Police officers and company officials say alcohol isn't always a factor in altercations at Chuck E. Cheese's. Mr. Huston says the chain's "broad demographic appeal" means that it has restaurants in what he described as "tougher areas" where there is more potential for crime.
Yeah: when some of Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants, like the Milwaukee franchise mentioned in the article, has to post a sign at an entrance decreeing a dress code prohibiting "gang-style apparel," then that store probably isn't operating in a high-end neighborhood. I'm not saying that there's anything inherently wrong with Chuck E. Cheese's business model - that of an inexpensive, family-oriented food-and-entertainment chain - but the fact is that such a business model tends to attract customers who, for whatever reason, might be more prone to the antisocial behavior described in the article.

It's sad that kid-themed places like Chuck E. Cheese's have to be associated with bad behavior among grown-ups - what a great example these people are setting for their children, after all - but, sadly, such is the world we live in today. So my advice for those who take their children to parties at Chuck E. Cheese's is as follows: be prepared to have a good time amidst your child and his or her friends and their families.

But also have that right hook ready, just in case.

Hurricanes and snowfall in Houston

You have to love (or hate) what passes for "winter" in Houston. Last Wednesday, it snowed. A few days later, we had temperatures in the 70s. Yesterday morning, with early AM temperatures in the 60s and with the understanding that a cold front wouldn't arrive until the evening, I took Kirby to school wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Oops. Last night temperatures dipped into the 30s. By Thursday, we'll be back in the 70s again.

Many Houstonians perceive a relationship between a hurricane in the summer and snowfall in the winter; I, myself, have wondered if there is a connection between the two. Following last week's snowfall, KTRK Chief Meteorologist Tim Heller noted this relationship on his blog:
Yet, if you look at the weather records it seems that every time a big hurricane hits the Houston-Galveston area it snows during the month of December following the hurricane. It snowed in southeast Texas after Hurricane Carla in 1961, after Alicia in 1983 and after Jerry in 1989. Now we can add Hurricane Ike to the list as well. Furthermore, the December following Hurricane Jerry in 1989 was the coldest on record! The second coldest December on record was in 1983, following Hurricane Alicia.

Is there a connection between southeast Texas hurricanes and snowstorms? I don't know. But I do know there are larger patterns within the atmosphere that we don't completely understand. If someone had a lot of time and a lot of money, this would be an interesting weather connection to investigate.

See the graphic that accompanied his entry.

Correlation is not causation, of course, and it's worth mentioning that there are instances where December snowfalls in Houston were not associated with hurricanes; the White Christmas snowfall of 2004, for example, was not preceded by a hurricane making landfall that summer. Hurricane Rita's landfall in 2005, moreover, did not produce a snowfall that following December (even though Rita did not technically make landfall in the Houston area, it certainly affected the city). It should also be noted that 1989's Jerry, unlike Carla, Alicia or Ike, was not a major hurricane; I remember that it had such little local impact that schools weren't even closed, as they were the previous year when Gilbert threatened (Jerry was one of two weak hurricanes to make landfall in the Houston area in 1989; Chantal was the other).

With all that said, there may be more to this than just mere coincidence. As Heller says, there is a lot about larger weather patterns that meteorologists still don't understand. Tropical cyclones are enormous engines that transfer massive amounts of energy from the tropics to temperate latitudes, and in so doing could potentially affect the weather patterns of those regions long after the cyclones themselves dissipate. As Heller suggests, this is definitely a topic worthy of further study.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Some local sports thoughts

Not that you'd know by watching, reading or listening to the local sports media, but there really is some local sports news worth mentioning aside from high school football playoffs, the Rockets (whose loss to the Los Angeles Clippers - seriously? - earlier this evening puts them at a good-but-not-great 15-9 for the season so far), and the Texans (who are struggling to match their 8-8 campaign of a year ago):

Bowl matchups have been set, and the University of Houston Cougars, coming off their 7-5 regular season campaign, will face off against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth on New Year's Eve.

I'm normally not a big fan of same-season rematches in college football, but in this case I'll make an exception. As I've said before, last September's "home" game against Air Force, which was moved to Dallas because of Hurricane Ike and was played before a couple of thousand people in poor weather conditions, should have simply been canceled. The Cougars now get an opportunity to redeem themselves against the Falcons, this time hopefully in front of a better crowd and under more ideal playing conditions. Time to give my aunt and uncle in Plano a call and see if they have room for me in their New Year's Eve plans...

Rice, meanwhile, will stay in town and play Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl, which is their second bowl appearance in three seasons. The Rice Owls have won nine games for the first time since 1953, when they won the Southwest Conference and defeated Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, 28-6, in a game that featured this memorable, um, play.

Last week, it was announced that the Houston Comets would cease operations.

The Comets, who began life as the "sister" franchise of the Houston Rockets, won four consecutive WNBA titles from 1997 through 2000 and became the first true dynasty in womens' professional sports. However, the Comets couldn't sustain their winning momentum: they lost in the first round of the WNBA playoffs after the 2001, '02 and '03 seasons, and suffered their first losing season in franchise history in 2004. They managed to make it past the first round of the playoffs in 2005, but got swept in the conference finals that season and were one-and-done in the playoffs once again in 2006.

Crowds dwindled, and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander decided to unload the team after the 2006 season. Head Coach Van Chancellor, who had been with the team since its inception, saw the writing on the wall and resigned in January 2007, just weeks before furniture dealer Hilton Koch purchased the franchise. Koch, who aspires to be to I-45 South what Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale is to I-45 North, probably meant well, but he had no experience in owning a professional sports franchise and was unable to reverse the team's sagging fortunes. After a disappointing 2007 season - the Comets' second losing season in team history - Koch announced that the team would leave Toyota Center and play the 2008 season in Reliant Arena, adjacent to Reliant Stadium.

That was the nail in the coffin for the Comets. Reliant Arena is a dilapidated, 34-year-old facility whose main purpose is to serve as a venue for livestock judging and cutting horse competitions during the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In spite of its location next to a gleaming new NFL stadium, it is simply not a venue that is familiar to local sports fans. Kuff, rather presciently, expressed his concern about the situation after attending a Comets game last May.

(Quite frankly, Reliant Arena seems to be the place where local sports franchises go to die; the Houston Hotshots indoor soccer team was reasonably successful in the mid-1990s but folded in 2001 after moving from Compaq Center to Reliant Arena.)

Koch, realizing that his investment was a loser, sold the franchise back to the WNBA last August. The WNBA could not find another buyer for the team, and folded the franchise last week.

There is some concern that the failure of the Comets could be a "canary in the coal mine" for the WNBA in particular and womens' sports in general. I'm not prepared to go that far just yet - the Comets' demise could be due entirely to local issues such as lackluster fan support in a fairweather sports town or erratic ownership - but as the nation's economic crisis continues to worsen, it's no stretch to say that "niche" leagues like the WNBA could be in trouble.

While I'm sad to see the team go, I must admit that I could just never get into the WNBA. This isn't because I don't like womens basketball - I follow the Lady Cougars and plan to see some of their games at Hofheinz this season - but I've just never gotten interested in the professional version of the game. Apparently, too many other Houstonians felt the same way.

More bad news: the Houston Dynamo are trading my favorite player to Toronto.

To be fair, Dwayne De Rosario is a Canadian national and never made secret his desire to end his career with the Toronto franchise. But he, along with Brian Ching, were the face of the Houston Dynamo for these last three seasons and he was a big reason for the team's success, which included back-to-back MLS titles in 2006 and 2007.

Reading the reaction of local soccer fans, a lot of people seem to think that, while De Rosario's departure was inevitable and that his departure gives the Dynamo more room under MLS salary cap restrictions, what the Dynamo got from FC Toronto in return - a young defender and some money - wasn't worth the trade. A few others view the trade more ominously: that Dynamo management are upset about the lack of a stadium deal here in Houston and are jettisoning their star players as they prepare to relocate the team.

I'm not sure that I believe that De Rosario's departure has anything to do with the ongoing stadium issue, but I do believe that, the longer we go without a finalized stadium deal, the more likely it seems that the Dynamo might look for greener pastures in other cities. I'm not convinced that the Dynamo really need their own stadium here in Houston - Robertson Stadium is a perfectly fine soccer venue - but the MLS wants soccer-specific venues for their teams, and after endless months of talk no real progress seems to have been made on that front.

Anyway, now I have to get a new Dynamo t-shirt; the one I have right now has De Rosario's name on the back of it.

And finally: if the Texans do manage to defeat the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium tomorrow, I hereby promise to stop talking about how much they suck.

At least for the rest of this season.

I will say this for the Texans, however: with Vince Young riding the Titans' bench, and Reggie Bush having a lackluster, injury-plagued season in New Orleans, the team's decision to draft Mario Williams ahead of these two players keeps looking better and better.

UPDATE: I hereby make good on my promise: the Houston Texans no longer suck. On the other hand, Titan coach Jeff Fisher's bizarre playcalling on 4th-and-three (i.e. throwing a deep pass when the Titans were already within game-winning field goal range) really did suck.

Which state is more corrupt:

Illinois or Louisiana?

The stylistic differences between Illinois and Louisiana can be described as David Mamet vs. Walker Percy. The corruption culture in Illinois tends to be mingy, pedestrian, shameful. State legislators who sell their votes for $25 cash in an envelope (a scandal of the 1970s) do not tend toward braggadocio. When former House speaker Dan Rostenkowski was caught filching postage stamps from the House post office, he pleaded guilty and apologized.

Louisiana's culture of corruption, by contrast, is flamboyant and shameless. Earl Long once said that Louisiana voters "don't want good government, they want good entertainment." He spent part of his last term in a mental hospital, where his wife had him committed after he took up with the stripper Blaze Starr. When Sen. Allen Ellender died in office in 1972, Governor Edwards didn't try to auction off his seat. He appointed his wife, Elaine, possibly to get her out of town. When Edwards ran for governor again in 1983, he said of the incumbent, "If we don't get Dave Treen out of office, there won't be anything left to steal." Raised among figures like these, Louisianans tend to accept corruption as inevitable and to forgive it easily.

The article suggests that, due to the scandal surrounding Governor Rod Blagojevich, who among other things attempted to auction president-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder, Illinois might outlast Louisiana in what the author calls "the NCAA finals of American political corruption."

Let's see... Chicago versus New Orleans. The Daleys versus the Longs. Rep. Dennis "Prairie Parkway" Hastert versus Rep. William "Cold Hard Cash" Jefferson. It's a tough call, but I'm going to say that Louisiana wins, albeit in double overtime. Perhaps I'm a homer - I do live two hours away from the state, after all - but when it comes to corruption, I think Louisiana outdoes Illinois. The Pelican State still leads the nation in the number of federal corruption convictions per capita, after all, and, as the article notes, Louisiana's culture of crookedness has historically been much more, eh, artistic than that of Illinois. And corruption, like anything else, is an art form: if you're going to do, it, do it right.

Illinois does it. But Louisiana does it right!

States cracking down on slow left-lane drivers

It's about time.
In these days of longer commutes and simmering tempers, nothing seems to set off already-testy motorists like the left-lane camper -- the guy or gal who drives in the passing lane and bars faster drivers from easily passing. Web sites have cropped up to educate other drivers, or to vent. There's a (somewhat painful) YouTube song called "Keep Right."

Even bigwigs get frustrated. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, weary of having his limo slowed down by such left-lane pokies, ordered an aide to have the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission install signs a few years ago reading "Keep Right, Pass Left. It's the Law."

And now some states are cracking down on left-lane campers, both to keep traffic moving and to tamp down the road rage that goes from zero-to-60 faster than ever before.

That's not just a pretext. Last year, a driver was arrested on Interstate 79 outside Pittsburgh after allegedly brandishing a semiautomatic pistol at a driver who was on his tail.

Some states didn't allow left-lane lingering but didn't enforce the law. Now they are.

At the start of the summer, the Washington State Patrol began pulling people over for violating the state's left-lane law, which prohibits "impeding the flow of other traffic."

When it comes to rude and dangerous driving habits, motorists who drive slowly in the left lane rank right up there with motorists who wait until the last possible second to merge. I'm glad that some state law enforcement agencies are beginning to crack down on this behavior (although, as the article notes, laws vary from state to state); hopefully, we'll start to see the DPS here in Texas join them.

It's really a rather simple concept: slower traffic should stay to the right. It doesn't matter if you're traveling at the speed limit, or even over it. If you're in the left lane and the guy behind you wants to pass you, move over and let him pass. Aside from the fact that it allows traffic to flow better, it's just common courtesy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pollo Feliz!

I discovered this particular Mexican roasted chicken franchise when I was in Puerto Vallarta last year. And I liked it; the food was inexpensive and pretty damn tasty.

I know that the Pollo Feliz brand has been making its way northward; the first Houston restaurant appeared on the west side of town last year. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered their newest Houston location while driving down Wayside a couple of weeks ago:
This particular restaurant is only a couple of miles away from my house. Given my fondness for pollo asado, I fear I'm about to get a bit fatter.

Snow night!

As everybody who lives in Houston knows, last night we were treated to a rare snowfall. Kirby was rather impressed:
It snowed for several hours, and we probably got about an inch of snow once it was over. The entire front yard got a dusting, including the Elektra Tree:
Needless to say, Kirby and his father spent a lot of time outside, enjoying the wintry spectacle:
This is the first snowfall here since the amazing White Christmas snowfall of 2004. Apparently, this evening's flurries tie a record for earliest recorded snowfall in Houston.

Whatever accumulated in yards, on cars and on rooftops melted away pretty quickly after the snowfall ended late last evening, and warmer weather is expected to return today. But that's okay. It was fun and beautiful while it lasted.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Kirby and the Giant Christmas Tree

This thing was $20 at Ikea. I can hardly believe it, either.

Coogs end regular season with 7-5 record

Right now I'm watching the Conference USA Championship Game between Tulsa and East Carolina. And I'm annoyed.

I'm annoyed because, not only does this game have to run opposite the ACC Championship game on ABC and the Army-Navy rivalry on CBS (Army's camouflage helmets and pants look cool, by the way), but ESPN couldn't even have the decency to put it on their primary network; this game is on ESPN2 so that they can show a meaningless game between Pitt and UConn on their main channel. The chauvinism of the Bowl Championship Series strikes again!

I'm also annoyed because these two teams are playing in the C-USA Championship Game even though the University of Houston Cougars beat them both. Both teams were ranked when they played Houston, no less.

But I'm most annoyed because the Cougars have nobody but themselves to blame for not being in this game. Had the Coogs taken care of business against Rice last Saturday, in fact, at this very moment I'd be at Robertson Stadium along with thirty thousand other people watching this game. All the Cougars had to do in order to host today's Conference USA Championship was to beat Rice last Saturday.

They didn't. The last two games of Houston's regular season, in fact, were rather frustrating and the Cougars really didn't deserve to win either of them.

The only reason they notched a 42-37 victory over Texas-El Paso at Robertson Stadium two weeks ago, in fact, is because they mounted yet another one of the season's amazing come-from-behind rallies to win the game. The Cougars spent most of that game playing some of their sloppiest and most uninspired football of the season. The offense couldn't get untracked, the defense was porous and let the Miners score at will, and special teams were a disaster, missing two field goals and an extra point in the first half alone. At one point, the Coogs were nineteen points behind; I spent the first three quarters of the game sitting in the stands asking myself why I flew all the way back from Dubai to watch this crap.

It wasn't until late in the game that the Cougars finally got it together. They battled back and, with 4:54 left in the game, QB Case Keenum (who actually had a good afternoon, completing 41 of 51 for 480 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions) completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to Kierrie Johnson to make the score 36-35, Houston's first lead of the game. But this was one of those games where everything seemed to go wrong for the Coogs, and on the next play - with the Coogs up by only one, the coaching staff decided to go for the two-point conversion - Keenum, in a decision that he will readily admit is the worst of his quarterbacking career, threw the ball across his body and across the field and right into the waiting arms of UTEP defender Josh Ferguson, who took it 100 yards to score two points for the Miners and put them back up by a point.

But on the next possession the UH defense, which wasn't able to stop the Miners or mount anything resembling a pass rush all afternoon long, finally stepped up. Phillip Hunt flew in on third down and shoved UTEP QB Trent Vittatoe to the ground, forcing a three-and-out for the Miners and giving the ball back to the Coogs.

During that series my cousin-in-law, who was watching the game with me at the time, directed my attention to the UH sideline. Keenum was behind the bench, pacing back and forth. Even from a distance, his body language was clear: he knew he had just made one of the stupidest mistakes of his football life, and he wanted to redeem himself. Thanks to the defense, he got his chance. Keenum methodically marched the offense down the field and to the goal line, where he, with 41 seconds remaining, called his own name on a one-yard touchdown run. The Miners then got the ball back, but with mere seconds on the clock and no time outs, there was little they could do. Vittatoe's desperation hail mary was intercepted in the endzone as time expired.

With that improbable win - the Coogs' 19-point comeback was the greatest in school history - the table was set. Beat crosstown rival Rice, and Houston would win Conference USA West and host the championship game with a conference title and a trip to the Liberty Bowl on the line.

Unfortunately, it seems that this fact was lost on the University of Houston defense as they went into last Saturday's rivalry game at Rice Stadium. They simply got torched by the Owls, surrendering six touchdowns and almost 600 yards of total offense. The only thing they seemed to do successfully was to keep star Owl receiver Jarett Dillard in check, limiting him to four receptions for 41 yards. But that didn't matter, because Rice QB Chase Clement simply had too many other options available to him, notably receiver James Casey, who finished the afternoon with 12 receptions for 172 yards and three touchdowns. When Clement, who was 28-of-41 for 381 yards and five touchdowns, didn't feel like throwing the ball, he simply ran it, gaining another 58 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries. Houston's run defense was equally as ineffective against Owl RB C.J. Ugokwe, who carried the ball 18 times for 110 yards. The defense could not mount a pass rush, they could not tackle, they could not cover their receivers and they simply were no match for Rice's offense.

With the defense's inability to be a factor in this game, it was up to the Cougar offense to match the Owls score for score. Any while they weren't horrible by any means - they did manage to score 42 points on Rice's defense, and usually 42 points should be enough to win a game - the fact that they made a handful of mistakes - a fumble, an interception, bad plays that killed a few drives - meant that they were unable to keep up. Once the Cougars fell behind by 28 points early in the fourth quarter, it was clear that there would be no miraculous comeback this time.

Rice went on to win the Bayou Bucket, 56-42. Houston's loss, along with Tulsa's victory over Marshall that day, assured that the Golden Hurricane would host today's conference championship game against ECU.

Thus concludes Houston's regular season. They ended their season with a 7-5 record, which is precisely what I predicted they'd accomplish back in August. Their record is good enough to get them to their fourth-consecutive postseason bowl game this holiday season; the Coogs should know which game they're going to sometime later today or tomorrow. I'll post my 2008 season review after that game.

The Bayou Bucket's all-time series record is now Houston 25, Rice 10.

And... In spite of the fact that they got to host the Conference USA title game, Tulsa just lost to East Carolina, 27-24. The Pirates win their first conference title since they were members of the SouCon back in '76, and head to the Liberty Bowl. Congratulations are in order for Skip Holtz and the Pirates; my Coogs, meanwhile, can only watch and wonder what could have been.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Purple America

As we exit November, a final observation about this month's presidential election:
This is a map of 2008 presidential election results by county. Sure, some places are redder than others, and other places are bluer than others. But as this map shows, there are red counties in "blue" states, blue counties in "red" states and, most importantly, an awful lot of purple all over the place.

People and pundits alike talk about "Red" and "Blue" America because it's an easy-to-grasp heuristic of the nation's political geography. But it's not an entirely accurate reflection of reality.

This and other interesting maps of the 2008 election can be viewed here.

Thanksgiving reflections

Although perhaps not quite as unhappy as last year's Thanksgiving, this year's holiday was certainly bittersweet and awkward, given the fact that Lori's mom, as well as other relatives on her side of the family, are no longer with us. As such, our Thanksgiving Day gathering was purposefully subdued, consisting of only a handful of people besides Lori, her brother, Kirby and myself. We still managed to put out a pretty decent spread, however, and the Thanksgiving Day feast was followed up by my traditional pot of day-after-Thanksgiving turkey bone gumbo.

I don't want to sound too sentimental here, but these deaths have given a deeper meaning to Thanksgiving: that there truly is a reason to be thankful for your friends or family, because they can leave us at any time. If somebody would have told me two Thanksgivings ago that three people who were with us at my parent's house that day - Lori's mother, my uncle Glen and my cousin Evelyn - would not be with us two years later, that day would have certainly taken on a different meaning for me.

Life is short. We are not guaranteed time with our loved ones. Be thankful for the time you're given with them.

Update on Lori's car

Following up on this incident: as bad as the damage to Lori's car was, it was not severe enough for the car to be written off by the insurance company. Repairs to the car were completed this past week and Lori picked it up Wednesday afternoon.

Aside from the fact that they forgot to replace the trunk light and that one of the rear doors doesn't close quite as smoothly as it used to, the car otherwise looks and drives the same as it did before the accident.

This particular ordeal is not entirely over; there's still a lot of insurance-related paperwork that needs to be resolved. But at least, after almost a month, Lori is driving her own car once again.

It's also good to know that we won't have to go shopping for a new car after all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Back from Dubai again...

...for what will hopefully be the last time this year.

Friday's trip was about as easy as a 16-hour flight in economy class could be. The guy at the hotel who took over half an hour to check me out last time managed to get the job done in less than ten this time, the taxi to the airport was prompt, the line at the ticket counter at DXB's gleaming new Terminal 3 (which is now fully operational) was short, passport control and security screening was speedy and I ended up inside the concourse with plenty of time to spare until my flight finally departed. My seat was towards the back of the airplane, away from all the screaming babies, and since the airplane wasn't full this time around I managed to have a couple of seats to myself. I was about as comfortable as I could be in economy class, even though, per usual, I wasn't able to catch any sleep. I still wish Emirates would put footrests in their 777s like they have in their A340s.

We flew a much "higher" route than normal this time around, flying up past Moscow (unfortunately, there were too many clouds, so no pics of the Kremlin from 32,000 feet), across the top of Greenland, and down over Hudson Bay, Manitoba and the Plains States. Even from high altitude, and in spite of the fact that it was essentially camouflaged by snowcover, I could clearly recognize Winnipeg by the distinctive trapezoidal shape of its Perimeter Highway. I still don't understand how people manage to live in that part of the world during winter, but to each their own, I guess.

The wait at customs and immigration at IAH was short, and Lori, who took avail of Intercontinental's cell phone lot to wait for me, drove by to swoop me up once I emerged. From there, it was a speedy trip down the Hardy Toll Road back to the house, although we stopped by my parents' house to say hello and to pick up Kirby first.

Trip over and done. It's good to be home.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cougar football attendance watch

Yesterday's home game against UTEP concluded the University of Houston's 2008 home football schedule. The Cougars averaged 21,519 fans per game for their five home games this season (the game against Air Force that was moved to Dallas due to Hurricane Ike is not counted). This is an improvement of 564 fans/game over the 2007 season.

I've updated my historical wins - versus - attendance graph to reflect this average:
I will update this graph (as well as this post) at the end of the season to reflect the full number of wins for 2008. If the Cougars do manage to beat Rice next week and host the Conference USA championship, I will revise the average attendance for 2008 to reflect that game as well.

I'll post full thoughts about last night's game (a game the Cougars had had no business winning, but did so anyway) later.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rotation Seven complete

It's a bit after 10:30 pm and I'm relaxing at my hotel. In a little bit, I am going to finish packing and try to get a few hours of sleep before I wake up and head to the airport, board EK 211 and fly back to Houston. I'm not looking forward to the sixteen-hour flight - I've already resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to get a middle seat and that I'm going to be surrounded by screaming infants - but I am eager to get back home.

As of right now, I do not know when I will be returning to Dubai; I'm hoping that it won't be until after the New Year, if at all. Since April, I’ve cumulatively spent 120 days either on the ground here in Dubai or in transit. I’ve certainly done my part but I’ve simply had enough for one calendar year. It's time for me to be home for the holidays.

That being said, the weather during this rotation has been amazingly pleasant. The skies have been clear and it even rained one morning earlier this week. If I do have to come back here in January (or - ugh - even before then), at least I'll have that to look forward to.

Very belated election thoughts

Now that the State of Missouri has finally been called for McCain, albeit just barely, I can officially evaluate my election-eve prediction:
Barack Obama will be elected the 44th President of the United States by winning 311 electoral votes to John McCain's 227.

In the end, I think McCain will wind up with narrow victories in several states currently rated as "toss-ups:" Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina. But it won't be enough for him to win, as Obama will win every state that Kerry won in 2004, as well as Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Obama's final margin of victory in those last two states, along with Pennsylvania, will probably end up being very narrow and will keep the race in doubt until the wee hours Wednesday morning; that will certainly make the networks happy. But the end result will be an Obama victory.

As it turns out, my prediction of an Obama victory was correct. My prediction about his margin if victory, however, was off by a rather substantial 54 electoral votes. Obama picked up every state I expected him to take, as well as three state I didn't expect him to take: Florida, Indiana and North Carolina. Obama also won a single electoral vote in Omaha, Nebraska (who truly saw that happening?) to amass a final tally of 365 electoral votes to John McCain's 173. Of course, these number are not official until the Electors meet next month, but there's no denying that this was a rather decisive victory for the Democrat.

Nor was I correct about the election being in doubt "until the wee hours;" the networks called both Pennsylvania and Ohio for Obama rather early in the evening. Once they did that, the outcome of the election was no longer in doubt and Obama was projected the winner at 10 pm CST.

In the two weeks since the election, reams have been written about the outcome of the election - why Obama won, why McCain lost, what it says about the American voter and what it means for the future of either political party (and right now, the future of the Republican Party as it currently exists doesn't look so bright). So I really don't have a lot to say about this election that hasn't already been said many times before.

I do agree with the conventional wisdom that the deck was simply stacked against McCain this year. He was running beneath the shadow of a very unpopular President of the same party and he was blindsided by an economic crisis late in the campaign that put him at a severe disadvantage.

That being said, I think the McCain campaign was poorly run. The campaign was indeed erratic, as it lurched from message to message and from theme to theme. McCain never seemed to find his "voice," so to speak. I also think that the McCain campaign made errors on the ground: why, for example, was McCain spending the final weeks of the campaign in places like Iowa, a state he had no chance whatsoever of winning given, among other things, his (correct) opposition to ethanol subsidies? I also don't think McCain did any favors for himself when he nominated Sarah Palin as his running mate. Speaking personally, the more I learned about Palin, the more repulsed I became. Looking at the decline in her approval ratings between the Republican Convention and Election Day, a lot of other voters reached the same conclusion as well.

Obama, on the other hand, ran the better campaign. Sure, the fact that it was better funded made a lot of difference. But the campaign was also steady and focused. Their decision to "expand the electoral map" by competing in states like Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina also turned out to be justified. It remains to be seen if he can run the country as well as he ran his campaign, but I am hopeful.

Democrats also did well in Congressional races, extending their majority in the House of Representatives and picking up several Senate seats as well. Now that the Alaska Senate race has been called and Mark Begich has ousted 85-year-old GOP Stalwart Ted Stevens (in the process, sparing Senate Republicans a grueling task of having to expel the convicted felon from their caucus), Democrats and allied Independents now enjoy a 58-40 advantage over Republicans in the Senate, with two races in Minnesota and Georgia still unsettled. There's still a possibility, however slim, that Democrats could reach the 60-seat filibuster-proof threshold: that would be, in my opinion, a bigger disaster to the national Republican party than losing the White House.

Indeed, Election Night was tough for Republicans on the national level. Things were better for them here in Texas, however. Senator John Cornyn easily fended off Democratic challenger Rick Noriega to keep his seat, Republicans still have control of all statewide offices, and the GOP even picked up a House seat when Pete Olson wrested control of the 22nd District, which was once held by Tom DeLay, from Democrat Nick Lampson. That outcome wasn't really a surprise. Nor was it a suprise that all the other local US Representatives held on to their seats even though some of them faced well-funded challengers. The districts are simply drawn so as not to be competitive.

Counting appears to be complete for the numerous local races that were on the ballot. Harris County Democrats, as expected, ended the Republican stranglehold on countywide offices that has been in effect since 1994, winning the County Sheriff's seat and taking a majority of civil and criminal court races. I've never been a big fan of choosing judicial candidates by party; I wasn't a fan of it when experienced Democratic judges got swept out in the early 1990s and I'm not a fan of it today. Local Republicans managed to hold on to a handful of important county positions, including, fortunately, County Judge Ed Emmett, and, unfortunately, County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. But it is clear that Harris County itself is trending Democratic. This is evidenced by the fact that the county voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964.

If I were a Republican, either at the local or the national level, I'd be concerned right now.

All in all, it's been a long and interesting election season. I, for one, am glad that it is finally over.

Finally, would somebody please do us all a favor and inform Joe the Plumber that his fifteen minutes are up?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Death cab

This was the scene right on front of our office building sometime last week. I hope nobody was seriously injured.
Needless to say, my own experiences with da ngerous Dubai taxicabs makes me thankful that I don't depend on them to get around anymore.

Houston 70, #25 Tulsa 30

It seems like every twenty years, the University of Houston Cougars deliver a beatdown of epic proportions to the Tulsa University Golden Hurricane. In 1968, there was the infamous 100-6 game. Twenty years later, the Run-and-Shoot-era Coogs clobbered Tulsa by a score of 82-28. And now, another twenty years on, the Coogs once again lay the smackdown on 25th-ranked Tulsa, 70-30.

The Coogs, avenging last year's 7-56 loss, handed Golden Hurricane head coach Todd Graham his biggest loss since leaving a Rice program with which he had just signed a contract extension and going to Tulsa two years ago. The win marked the program's second upset over a ranked opponent in one season, something that hasn't happened since 1984, and the Coogs reached the 70-point mark for the first time since their 73-3 shellacking of Louisiana Tech in 1991.

The Cougar offense was unstoppable, amassing 641 yards against a clueless Tulsa defense. Quarterback Case Keenum had a banner game. He was 24 of 37 for 402 yards passing and a career-high six touchdown passes. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown as well, took no sacks and threw no picks. (For his efforts, Lou Holtz awarded him a helmet sticker on ESPN's College Football Final.) Of the nine receivers that got their hands on the ball, Mark Hafner and Tryone Carrier led with two touchdown catches a piece and 8 and 6 receptions, respectively. Carrier added a 93-yard kickoff return late in the first half to his exploits as well.

But the reason the game turned out to be as lopsided as it was is because of the Cougar defense, which held a Tulsa offense that had been averaging 52 points a a game this season to only four touchdowns on the night. They thwarted two Tulsa fourth-down attempts, sacked quarterback David Johnson twice, and recovered five turnovers. Cornerback Loyce Means had a career night, intercepting three Tulsa passes and returning one of the 69 yards for a touchdown.

Indeed, the only thing that sucked about this game was that I wasn't there to see it in person.

Unlike the 1968 and 1988 games, I don't think anybody can fairly accuse the Coogs of running up the score in this one. Their last touchdown came early in the 4th quarter; after that the second string came in to play and the Coogs ran out the clock. Besides, it's not Houston's fault that Tulsa played like absolute crap Saturday night by turning the ball over seven times (twice on fumbles, thrice through the air and twice on downs) and not fielding anything that resembled a defense.

With this huge win, the Cougars have now clinched the six wins they need for bowl eligibility. But they're not done yet; the "four game season" against division rivals is only half over; if they can knock off UTEP at home next weekend and a tough Owl team at Rice Stadium two weeks from now, they win the C-USA Western Division and head to the conference championship game with a trip to the Liberty Bowl on the line. That's the team's stated goal, and this win puts it well within reach.

In spite of the epic beat-downs that the Cougars have delivered to the Golden Hurricane over the years, the all-time record between the schools is almost tied: Houston has won 18 times, Tulsa 16.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Houston 42, Tulane 14

It's too bad I couldn't be in Houston to see this one. The Coogs finally put together a complete, four-quarter game and steamrolled the Tulane Green Wave at Robertson Stadium Saturday night. It was Houston's sixth consecutive victory over Tulane.

The Cougars played sloppy football: they turned the ball over three times, they missed a field goal, they muffed (but fortunately recovered) a punt reception, they gave up two sacks and they committed a horrendous 143 yards in penalties (although, according to Chronicle reporter Michael Murphy, the officiating for this game was miserable; they threw flags when they shouldn't have, didn't throw flags when they should have, and couldn't even manage the game clock correctly).

But that sloppiness was offset by a UH offense that simply could not be stopped by Tulane. The Cougars threw for 394 yards and rushed for another 299 (so much for those early-season predictions of a one-dimensional offense under Kevin Sumlin) to total almost 700 total yards of offense. Quarterback Case Keenum accounted for all but ten of those passing yards, distributing the ball to nine different receivers and completing four touchdown passes. The rushing attack was led by Bryce Beall, who gained 176 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries; that's in addition to the 49 yards and one touchdown he notched as a receiver. Beall's offensive production against Tulane set a new record for a UH freshman; he has become one of the great stories of the season.

Tulane managed over 400 yards in total offense of their own, but they simply couldn't find the endzone. The UH defense held the Green Wave to 5-of-17 on third down conversions and 0-for-3 on fourth down conversions. It didn't help that Tulane missed three field goal attempts; the way the Cougars were scoring, however, those extra nine points wouldn't have mattered.

The Coogs are now 5-4 on the season and, with all of their last three games in Houston, still control their own destiny in the Conference USA western division. Next week's showdown against division-leading, 25-ranked Tulsa looms large. The Cougars, who were pummeled 56-7 by the Golden Hurricane last season, will likely need to play their best football of the year: while they were able to overcome their penalties and turnovers to beat Tulane; they simply won't be able to make the same mistakes against a tough Tulsa team and be able to win.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to miss that one as well. I will, however, make it back to Houston to see the last two games of the season against UTEP and Rice.

Paris from 37,000 feet

I thought that if I got to the airport early enough I could something other than a middle seat this time. No such luck.

I was also hoping that I might be able to avoid the "flying nursery" section of the aircraft this time as well. Again, no such luck. The number of families with small children that fly Emirates between Houston and Dubai is such that there is no part of the airplane where one can be free of screaming infants or whiny toddlers.

Making good on a promise I made to myself the last time I flew past the city, I did manage to take some pictures of Paris. They're a bit hazy, but you can clearly see landmarks such as La Defense and the Bois de Boulougne on the left edge of the first picture, and the Arc de Triomphe and, below it, the Eiffel Tower in the second picture.
The arrivals hall at DXB's new Terminal 3 is very impressive. The elevators used to move passengers from the concourse to the arrivals hall are the biggest I've ever seen, and I was amazed at just how quicky I was able to clear passport control, collect my bags and get a taxi to my hotel.
Thus begins Rotation Seven.

Friday, November 07, 2008

That was a short week...

Looks like I was a bit conservative with my prediction of Obama's margin of victory in the electoral college. I haven't yet had time to write my post-election wrap-up; in fact, I really haven't had time to do a lot of things I've wanted to do this week. maybe I'll get a chance to do that once I get back to Dubai.

Not that I really want to go back to Dubai, mind you. There comes a point at which the constant trips back and forth become tiresome and I've long since passed that point. When I agreed to assist with some projects over there back in April, I suspected that I might have to be out there through the summer but I did not think that I'd still have to be making these trips in the fall. My family misses me, and I miss the cooler weather and the football games. But such is the nature of my job: Dubai is where the work is right now.

Fortunately, this trip will be the shortest of the year; I'll be back in two weeks.

Anyway, off to the airport. With any luck, I'll get an aisle or window seat, and I won't be stuck in the "flying nursery" section of the aircraft this time...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Calling the election

As my regular readers (all three of them) have probably noticed, I have steadfastly refrained from posting about the presidential election this year. It has at times been difficult for me to restrain myself. I will have something to say about the election results (local as well as national) later this week.

However, the campaign is finally coming to a close, and I thought I'd test my prowess as a political pundit by predicting tomorrow's results. So here goes:

Barack Obama will be elected the 44th President of the United States by winning 311 electoral votes to John McCain's 227.

In the end, I think McCain will wind up with narrow victories in several states currently rated as "toss-ups:" Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina. But it won't be enough for him to win, as Obama will win every state that Kerry won in 2004, as well as Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Obama's final margin of victory in those last two states, along with Pennsylvania, will probably end up being very narrow and will keep the race in doubt until the wee hours Wednesday morning; that will certainly make the networks happy. But the end result will be an Obama victory.

Anything could happen tomorrow, of course. McCain could pull this thing out (and if he does, I certainly won't be the only person proven wrong), for example, by pulling off a surprise in Pennsylvania. But right now I think the odds of that happening are rather low.

At least we can all take heart in the fact that, come tomorrow night, this interminable campaign will, finally and mercifully, be over.

College football 2008: the home stretch

As we enter the final few weeks of the college football season, it's interesting to see how much different the national championship picture is today than it was at the season's beginning.

The preseason consensus (AP plus USA Today) top five - Georgia, USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Florida - have all suffered at least one loss. Two of them have already lost twice and are out of the championship hunt altogether: preseason number one Georgia, who lost to Alabama earlier in the season and suffered a thrashing at the hands of Florida in Jacksonville last Saturday, and my preseason pick to go all the way, Ohio State, who got crushed by USC early in the season and who lost to Penn State at home last weekend. In fact, of the preseason consensus top five, the only team that currently finds itself in the current BCS top five is Florida, at #5. College football's current elite are Alabama, Texas Tech, Penn State and Texas, in that order. While all of these schools were ranked at the season's beginning, how many people would have predicted in August that this would be the BCS lineup at the beginning of November?

The Red Raiders find themselves near the top of the college football world due to their thrilling 39-33 victory over #1-ranked Texas in Lubbock last Saturday. I don't consider their defeat of the Longhorns to be a major upset - Texas Tech is a legitimately good program and Jones Stadium is a tough place for opponents to play - but the fact that the Red Raiders, who have never finished the season in the top ten, are now the second-best team in the country is certainly something of a surprise.

It will be interesting to see if the Red Raiders can hold on to their lofty position and reach the Big 12 title game: their next two opponents are Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, both of which are ranked in the top ten. Alabama and Penn State, on the other hand, both appear to have easier schedules from here on out: the Crimson Tide look to have a clear shot at the SEC title game if they can get past #15 LSU this weekend, and the Nittany Lions' only remaining opponent with a winning record is #18 Michigan State. One-loss Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and USC squads aren't completely out of the picture yet, either, but they need one or more of the top three to lose.

On the other end of the college football spectrum is North Texas. The Mean Green avoided an O-fer season by defeating Western Kentucky, 51-40, at home last Saturday. A 97-yard interception return by UNT's Tobe Nwigwe as time expired sealed the win, which is a step in the right direction for the foundering program.

Things just keep getting worse in Ann Arbor. Last year, Michigan began the season with that infamous home loss to Appalachian State. Earlier this season, the Wolverines lost to a team from the MAC for the very first time. And, after losing to Purdue last Saturday, Michigan will miss its first bowl game since the 1974 season and will suffer its first losing season since 1967.

Finally, an era is coming to an end in Knoxville. Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer is being forced out after seventeen years at the head of the Volunteer helm.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Home for Halloween

Three years ago, I celebrated Halloween by making a long journey home from Osaka, where I had spent ten days visiting my brother and touring Japan. Today, I got to celebrate Halloween by making another long journey home from Asia.

Not that there was much to celebrate about today's trip, however, other than the fact that it succeeded in getting me safely back home. Today's voyage was nothing short of excruciating, even with the fact that I got to fly nonstop.

It started in the wee hours of the morning when I woke up, gathered my luggage, exited my room and went downstairs to check out. I thought it would be a quick affair: I'd settle my account, summon a taxi and be at the airport in short order. I was wrong.

Now, I don't know if the desk clerk at the hotel that morning was new on the job, was having a bad day, or was just woefully incompetent. But it simply should not have taken thirty-five minutes to check out of the hotel. That's how long I had to wait, however, as the beleaguered clerk fumbled through files of paper, printed out statements that were incorrect, and then called his manager to ask why he couldn't get the computer to work properly. Needless to say, I grew rather annoyed. The guy who was checking out at the same time was also becoming angry. Even the taxi driver who had been called to pick me up and take me to the airport was getting impatient. I was just about to say "forget it" and walk out of the hotel, when the clerk finally managed to hand me my statement and sheepishly wished me a good day.

Terminal 3 at DXB just opened and Emirates is still in the process of transferring all of its operations there from Terminal 2. The facility is very impressive - the cavernous check-in, passport control and security screening areas are all located underneath the taxiway and apron between Airport Road and the concourse, and the concourse structure itself is larger than the one at the adjacent Terminal 2.

However, since Emirates is still in the process of moving all of its flights to the terminal, it is still neither completely functional nor fully staffed. The electronic signboards directing passengers to the proper check-in counters were not working and I was unclear as to where I was supposed to check in until I finally found a sign directing passengers for US flights to a bank of counters near passport control. And once I arrived at those bank of counters, I had to stand in a long, slow line: only six or seven ticket agents appeared to be on hand for all three of Emirates' morning departures to the United States (New York, Houston and now Los Angeles), and stragglers for the New York and Los Angeles flights (which left before the Houston flight) were allowed to cut to the front of the line, making those of us who actually had shown up on time for our flight rather annoyed.

Anyway, by the time I finally got up to the counter and checked in - between the delay at the hotel and the delay in the line, I estimate that I was about 80 minutes later checking in than I had anticipated - the only seats still available on my flight were - you guessed it - middle seats.

So that's where I sat. For sixteen hours. Why can't I work for a company that is willing to pay for its employees to fly long-haul flights in business class?

Once again, I had the misfortune of sitting amidst a flying nursery. There were no fewer than six small children within the vicinity of my seat, including one right in front of me, and all of them cried - at times rather loudly, and oftentimes at length - at one point or another during the flight's duration. I also got to sit directly in front of an elderly man with a horrible-sounding, gurgling, hacking cough. He clearly looked ill and his wife had to help him walk to and from the restroom; I assumed he was suffering from a terminal illness and I felt sorry for him, even though I wish I didn't have to sit in front of him and listen to his disgusting cough.

I passed the time listening to music, watching television shows and movies (I finally got to watch Wall-E; I thought it was kind of weird) and chatting with the woman sitting in the seat next to me. She was a German national, currently living in Dubai with her husband and family, who was on her way to Ecuador to visit her parents. She, like me, spent part of her youth in Quito and we spent time reminiscing about the "good ol' days" of the 1980s, when everything was dirt cheap and the city was relatively safe. In spite of the fact that those days are long gone - Quito is now pricey and crime-ridden - the fact that she was going to Ecuador made me sort of jealous: it is still a country that's close to my heart (I will still have to cumulatively spend several more months in Dubai before the UAE surpasses Ecuador as the county I spent the most time in outside of the United States) and it's been over eight years since my last trip there.

Eventually and mercifully, the plane landed at IAH. There was still more waiting (waiting to get off the plane, waiting to clear immigration, waiting at the luggage carousel for my bags to appear; at least the wait at the customs check was short) before I finally reached the arrivals lounge and was reunited with Lori and Kirby. Kirby was already dressed in his dinosaur costume, ready for the evening's festivities.

We returned to the house, I unpacked, some friends of ours came over with their children, we took pictures of everybody in their costumes, and then Lori, Kirby and the guests departed to collect goodies while I stayed at the house, passing out candy and talking to the neighbors. We didn't have an especially heavy volume of trick-or-treaters this year. We're stuck with lots of leftover candy.

Anyway, the last of the trick-or-treaters has knocked at our door, our friends have gone home, and I am completely exhausted. Good night, and Happy Halloween.

I will be home for one week. Then it's back to Dubai for Rotation Seven.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Houston 23, Marshall 37

In spite of the national television exposure of an ESPN Tuesday night game, the Cougars played perhaps their worst game of the season and lost to the Marshall Thundering Herd, 23-37, in Huntington, West Virginia.

It was the same old story for the Coogs. They started out slow and dug themselves into another hole, trailing 3-16 at halftime. This time, however, there would be no heroic comeback. The Coogs committed a fatal error early in the third quarter, when they drove the length of the field but botched a handoff on the Marshall goal line. The Herd recovered and scored a few plays later, creating a devastating 14-point swing. The Coogs were down 30-3 until they finally found the endzone late in the the quarter. By then, however, the game was effectively over.

UH quarterback Case Keenum found no protection behind an injury-hobbled offensive line that has officially become a liability for the team; he was sacked four times. He also threw two interceptions. The defense was no better, allowing Marshall to accumulate almost 250 yards on the ground in addition to its four touchdowns.

Worst of all was the season-ending injury to WR Patrick Edwards, who suffered a compound fracture after he slammed into a band cart that was stupidly placed right behind the endzone. Apparently, the gruesome sight of his leg bending backwards was caught by the ESPN cameras for the entire world to see. I'm glad I missed that. Somebody at Marshall - wehther it be the band, the athletic department or both - will have to be held accountable for the dangerous placement of the cart. But that horrible accident does not excuse the Coogs' miserable performance in this game.

The pattern of slow starts has become the story of the season for the Cougars. It is simply not arguable that first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff are not doing a good job preparing this team for games. It's way too early to come to the conclusion that Sumlin simply does not have what it takes to be a head coach or to begin calling for his head, but this is clearly a fault that he needs to resolve - and quickly - if he is going to have a future at his current position.

There has also been some griping on various UH athletics message boards that Sumlin "quit" towards the end of the game by running the ball, not going for it on 4th-and-three, or using any of his timeouts. I didn't see the game I can't pass judgment for myself; maybe he just wanted to get his team off the field and back home as quickly as possible. The way his team played last night, I wouldn't blame him.

The Cougars, who are now 4-4 on the season, play Tulane one week from Saturday.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fifteen UNT football players fail drug tests

The North Texas football program's 0-8 start is already the worst in program history. They certainly didn't need more bad news:
Fifteen University of North Texas football players failed a drug test conducted this fall at the request of head coach Todd Dodge, according to documents obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle through the Freedom of Information Act.

Drug tests were conducted on a pool of 86 football players selected by the coaching staff. UNT tested members of the team who were contributing on a regular basis. Fifteen of those tests, or 17 percent, were positive.

The university did not release the names of the players or what drugs they tested positive for.

Whatever they are, they obviously aren't performance-enhancing drugs...

Happy Diwali!

I admit it: had I not been here today, I probably wouldn't have known about this holiday.

But, given the local demographic mix, it's obviously a big deal here. People have decorated their apartment balconies with blinking lights of all colors, sizes and types. Today at work we were treated to a never-ending parade of cakes and other pastries. And this evening, families dressed in colorful clothes gathered along the sidewalk to light sparklers and firecrackers (I guess Dubai does not have any prohibition against fireworks; if it does, it certainly wasn't being enforced this evening).

It was a unique and enjoyable experience.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lori's car accident

Yesterday afternoon, Lori was involved in a traffic accident in Conroe. She had slowed down to let an ambulance pass, and was rear-ended by the inattentive driver behind her.

Lori's a little sore, but she'll be okay. The back of her car, on the other hand, appears to be pretty badly mangled. Depending on what the insurance company decides, it could be a write-off.

One of Lori's job duties is serving as a regional coordinator for a statewide teen driver safety program. She was returning from a program meeting in San Antonio and was going up to Conroe to get Kirby from her aunt and father's place.

The driver that slammed into her? You guessed it: a teenager.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Houston 44, SMU 38

An ugly win is always better than a beautiful loss, so I can't really be too upset about the final outcome of this one: the Cougars, trailing by eight points late in the game, managed to score two touchdowns in the game's final 2:34 to fend off the SMU Mustangs in Dallas, 44-38, and extend their winning streak to three victories.

I am upset, on the other hand, with the reasons why the Cougars were trailing late in the game to begin with. First, the Coogs once again started slow out of the gate: they didn't score any points in the first quarter and, although the offense began to sputter to life in the second and third quarters, still found themselves in a twelve-point hole going into the fourth quarter. Second, although the offense finally got things going, the defense was asleep for almost the entire game. They got absolutely torched by the Pony passing offense, allowing 365 yards through the air and four touchdown passes, including one for 70 yards. Ouch. Third, the Unholy Trinity of penalties (eight for 89 yards; lucky for them that SMU committed eleven penalties of their own), turnovers and poor special teams play (the Coogs fumbled a punt in the first quarter which was recovered by SMU; it led to a Pony touchdown) made its presence known; Coach Sumlin and his staff have yet to exorcise this three-headed demon from the team.

In spite of all that, however, the Coogs found a way to do something they haven't done in awhile: snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (usually, it's been the other way around). Running back Bryce Beall, who really has been one of the season's pleasant surprises, scored on a nine-yard touchdown run to cut the Mustang advantage to 2. Then the Cougar defense that had been all but absent for the entire game finally stepped up, holding SMU to a three-and-out on the following possession. The Coogs got the ball back and the offense, led by Case Keenum (who was 28-of-36 for the day, with 404 passing yards, two touchdowns passing and one touchdown rushing), went to work, executing a flawless two-minute drill and connecting with receiver Tyron Carrier on a 26-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left. The Cougars subsequently intercepted a hail-mary pass by SMU quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, securing the come-from behind win.

I'll take it, but I hope Sumlin and his staff do a better job preparing the team for their showdown against Marshall in West Virginia next Tuesday. SMU is not a good team, in spite of the presence of new head coach June Jones, and this game really shouldn't have been as close as it was.

More bad news for the Coogs: offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers and defensive lineman Ell Ash are both done for the season with injuries. As both are seniors, these injuries sadly mark the end of their careers as Cougars.

Does Wall Street's bust threaten Dubai's boom?

Given the current worldwide financial situation, this has been a hot local conversation topic:

Dubai and its real estate market are vulnerable to an international economic downturn, especially compared with many of its Gulf neighbors. As the region's premier business, transportation and tourism hub, it is by definition more entwined with the global economy. And in tight times, Dubai lacks the windfall oil profits that have enabled sister emirate Abu Dhabi, for example, to amass a financial cushion in sovereign wealth funds totaling hundreds of billions of dollars.

But Dubai's biggest risk is its daring reliance on debt to drive its breathtaking building boom. Last week, Moody's estimated that in 2006, the most recent year for figures, Dubai's government and public-sector company debt was at least $47 billion, a staggering 103% of GDP. The investment-rating agency said it expected Dubai's debt to continue outpacing GDP for another five years, exposing Dubai to pronounced financing and geopolitical risks.

It's no secret that Dubai's mind-boggling frenzy of development is highly leveraged; a particularly severe credit crunch could conceivably shut everything down. Moreover, a global economic slowdown not only means less of the international investment on which Dubai depends; it also means lower oil prices, which dampens the regional economy that Dubai serves as a key trade, travel and finance hub. All this makes the Emirate especially vulnernable to a worldwide economic downturn.

Given these facts, people here have reason to be concerned. But will the current economic environment result in a financial catastrophe for Dubai? Will money, jobs and, ultimately, the imported labor force flee, reducing the city to an apocalyptic landscape of empty streets, abandoned shopping malls, half-completed skyscrapers? That's unlikely:

All is not doom and gloom, however. The UAE government has funneled $33 billion into the country's banking system to calm the nerves of depositors and investors, promising coverage to foreign as well as local institutions. If the credit crunch shakes out speculators, known as "flippers," from Dubai's real estate market, that could help stabilize wildly inflationary conditions. "I am not necessarily thinking we are in a crash scenario," EFG-Hermes managing director Hashem Montasser tells TIME. "There is still genuine demand. Economies here are still growing. Overall, the economic situation is still very sound. We will see a deceleration of prices, and it's probably a good thing, as long as it's done in an orderly way and doesn't turn into a panic. The market has gone to where it is too quickly."
There might actually be a silver lining to all this. If the aforementioned "flippers" that are currently bidding local housing prices up to insane levels are forced out of the local market, housing prices will decrease and the result will be relief to the hundreds of thousands of people who are currently struggling to afford to live here. Furthermore, a slowdown in the city's wild and bewildering orgy of development - described as "madness on a megalomanic scale flying in the face of any single principle of responsible farsighted urban planning" by one local blogger and decried as an "ecological distaster" by a Pritzker-winning architect - might not be such a bad thing. A couple of years ago, I wrote about what I perceived as "construction fatigue" among people living here. Two years later, it's apparent that this fatigue has worsened. Maybe if the pace of new construction slowed, allowing existing projects and needed infrastructure (from the Dubai Metro to wastewater handling facilities) to be completed, the city could "catch its breath" as it absorbs and assimilates all this new development into its physical and social fabric.

At any rate, a complete collapse of Dubai's economy is probably unlikely. For all its vulnerabilities, it also possesses some advantages:
An underlying reason for the relative lack of panic so far is that Dubai real estate remains a financial haven for wealthy individuals from riskier nearby countries like Iran and Pakistan. What's more, Dubai's real estate sector is dominated by a handful of major companies — collectively dubbed "Dubai Inc." — that are directly or indirectly owned and controlled by the government. This means, analysts say, that Dubai authorities could effectively stave off a bubble burst by keeping finished projects off-line until market conditions improved. In the event of a systemic threat, Dubai can probably rely on super-rich Abu Dhabi for a bailout. "We consider it highly likely that the authorities will step in at some level to support entities that are strategically important for the economy," Moody's analyst Tristan Cooper tells TIME.
In other words, Dubai's boom might slow down, but - barring some regional catastrophe such as a war - this place isn't likely to go bust just yet.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Rotation Six and e-mail problems

Sorry about the paucity of posts; it's been a busy week. I even had to come into work today (Friday), which is normally the weekend in this part of the world.

Anyway, this time I lucked out and was able to get the Emirates nonstop from Houston. Even though I had to sit in the middle seat, and even though the plane was a veritable flying nursery full of crying young children, EK 212 is still, by far, the best way to travel to Dubai.

I also lucked out and managed to find another place to stay that is within walking distance of the office. It's not as fancy as the hotel I stayed in last August, but if it allows me to avoid having to depend on taxis to get to and from work, then it's all good.

It's still hot and hazy over here. Things haven't cooled off very much in spite of the fact that it's mid-October. Of course, things never really get "cool" here...

One thing I've noticed since I've arrived is that I am having trouble accessing my personal e-mail account. I don't know if the fault lies with Etisalat's stupid proxy servers, Earthlink's mail servers or somewhere in between, but most of the time I try to access my mail via the web I get a TCP error. On the few occassions that I am able to get to my mail, I am only able to do so for a few minutes at a time before another connection error occurs and I get timed out.

I don't know how long this problem will persist, but it may mean that I won't be able to respond to e-mails sent to my mindspring address in a timely fashion while I'm over here. So if you have my work e-mail, it might be best that you use that address in order to stay in touch with me. (You can also leave messages for me in the comments of this entry, if you don't mind other people reading them!)

I'll be here through the end of the month. The way my current projects are going, another trip in November is likely as well. Ugh.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

One month after Ike

It's been a full month since Ike paid Houston a visit, and it's safe to say that things have returned to normal. So normal, in fact, that my rotations to Dubai can finally resume. I'll be heading to the airport in a few hours.

The days and weeks following Ike were slow and disrupted, as if somebody had pressed life's "pause" button. Lori's work was closed for an entire week. My office, while open, was practically deserted and I can't say I was very productive. Kirby's school was shuttered for a week and a half. Without electricity, cable or internet (the last of which I found to be most onerous), there really wasn't much to see or do. We couldn't wash dishes, run the garbage disposal, do laundry or run the vacuum cleaner, so the house became an absolute mess. The mild weather after the hurricane, the availability of ice at a nearby FEMA pod, and the generator that Lori's dad delivered to us all helped, but there really wasn't much for us to do other than keep the generator's gas tank full, cook dinner on the propane grill, frequent bars and restaurants that had air-conditioning and free wi-fi, and otherwise wait for life to resume.

The recovery process felt frustratingly slow. But gradually, things improved. Groceries stores restocked and reopened. Gas lines disappeared as more stations came back online. Schools reopened and the city's nightime curfew was lifted. And then, two weeks and twelve hours after it was cut, power was restored to our house. Cable and internet service - our true link to the outside world - resumed a few days later.

Now the traffic signals are working again, the piles of broken tree limbs are being cleared from the roadside and, other than the occasional boarded-up window or mangled billboard, evidence of Ike's visit is slowly disappearing. And while it will be a long time before normalcy returns to places like Kemah or Galveston or Surfside - it might never return to Bolivar Peninsula - it's safe to say that, one month later, Houston's recovery is substantially complete.

Could the recovery have been smoother? Of course. There were plenty of "lessons learned" from this storm that will be carried forward to the next one (and there will be a next one, someday), and now that we know what to expect during and after a hurricane, our preparations and anticipations will be adjusted accordingly. Ike wasn't fun, but we got through it.

And life goes on.

Houston 45, Alabama-Birmingham 20

It was a tale of two halves at Robertson Stadium last Thursday.

The Coogs started out slow and played like absolute crap through the first half. Neither quarterback Case Keenum, nor his receivers, had a good showing: too many poorly-thrown balls, and too many dropped passes. The Cougar offense sputtered and was essentially unable to mount any effective drives during the first half, allowing UAB's offense to control the clock for most of the time. Houston's beleaguered defense vainly struggled to contain mobile Blazer quarterback Joe Webb, who ran for 86 yards on 16 carries, scored one rushing touchdown, and thre for another. The Coogs found themselves in a 3-20 hole at halftime. (Sounds familiar, eh?)

But then things changed. Whether it was a good halftime pep-talk by the coaching staff, a few critical halftime adjustments, a sense of awakening by the team, or (most likely) a combination of the three, the Cougars simply dominated during the second half of the game. The UH offense that sputtered during the first half was unstoppable during the second half, and the defense found a way to shut Joe Webb and the rest of the Blazer offense down. The Cougars scored 42 unanswered points, including an interception returned for a touchdown, and kept UAB from scoring any points of their own during the last thirty minutes of the game.

Case Keenum ended the evening with decent statistics: 24-for-36 with 360 yards, two touchdown passes, one touchdown run and no interceptions. The Cougars also gained a healthy 132 yards on the ground. Moreover, the "Unholy Trinity" of turnovers, penalties and special teams miscues turned out not to be a factor. The Coogs only committed three penalties, fumbled the ball just once and, while special teams did muff a couple of punts in the first half, they also recovered a botched UAB punt attempt in the second half which led to an easy score.

Right now, the Coogs' biggest problem is not the Unholy Trinity, but rather their propensity for starting games slow, putting themselves into a big hole, and trying to rally their way out in the second half. It worked last night. But it didn't work against Air Force or Colorado State. And it's not going to work against explosive C-USA West foes like Tulsa or Rice. A successful season is still in store for the Cougars, but only if they come out of the locker room ready to go and play a full four quarters of football.

There are two personalities to this team: one that plays poor football, and another that plays flawlessly. Thursday night both sides were on display. Here's to hoping that, as the Coogs enter the second half of their season, we see less of the former and more of the latter.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Finding ways to lose

My father, who has spent many years watching crappy Houston sports teams, has a saying: losing teams find ways to lose. Yesterday's game between the Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts was simply proof: the Texans, up by seventeen points with just over four minutes to go, found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Much of the blame has to be placed on backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who started in place of an ill Matt Schaub. Rosenfels was responsible for the two fumbles that led to easy Indianapolis scores as well as the interception that sealed the game. The collapse ruined what had been, for the first 55 minutes, the best game of the season for the Texans.

But it's not all Rosenfels' fault. The Texans are simply a losing team. Without a doubt, the losing-est sports franchise in the city's history (and that's saying something!) Yesterday, they found yet another way to lose.

What an embarrassment.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Houston 41, (23) East Carolina 24

I certainly didn't see this coming.

The Cougars snapped their three-game losing streak in grand fashion last Saturday, upending the #23-ranked East Carolina Pirates, 41-23, before 43,641 stunned fans in Greenville, North Carolina. In doing so, the Cougars notched their first win over a ranked opponent since their defeat of Southern Mississippi in 1996 and their first defeat of a ranked opponent on the road since they upset #3-ranked Texas in 1984.

Quarterback Case Keenum struggled early on, fumbling the ball twice and throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown. He also got sacked three times. But once he got himself together he was unstoppable. He ended the day completing 36 of 44 passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns. Furthermore, the Coogs managed to rack up 222 rushing yards on 40 carries. Freshman RB Bryce Beall came into his own, carrying 22 times for 132 yards, and Case Keenum scrambled for 23 more. East Carolina was most flummoxed, however, by direct snaps to backup quarterback Blake Joseph, who carried five times for 31 yards.

But the story of the day was the defense. They held the Pirates to 275 yards and a 1-of-13 effort on third downs. They also recovered an East Carolina fumble and intercepted the ball twice.

That's not to say that the Cougars' performance last Saturday was flawless. The team committed four turnovers, and special teams struggled through three failed field goal attempts. Given all the mistakes the Cougars made early on, the fact that they handily defeated ECU is even more impressive.

No doubt about it: this was a huge win for the University of Houston, and was exactly what the team and its fans needed after the struggles of the last few weeks. With a much-needed bye week this weekend and a winnable home game - their first in over a month - against Alabama-Birmingham one week from tonight, the prospects for the season just got a lot brighter.