Friday, February 29, 2008

More follow-ups

Happy Leap Day! I wanted to end the month by following up on a few previous posts.

• The office relocation ordeal is over, and, with two full weeks at the new office complete, things are about what I had expected. Which is to say, no me gusta.

As it turns out, I don't even get a cubicle at this new office: a "cubicle" would imply partitions on at least three sides of my work area. Instead, I've been assigned to a "workstation" - that is, a desk that's open on both sides. I can look to my left or my right and see what the folks at the workstations next to me are doing, and they, likewise, can see what I'm doing. I get to listen to everybody else's telephone conversations. They get to listen to mine. I'm not expecting complete privacy at my work, but this arrangement is distracting. Needless to say, my iPod has become an important work accessory.

The traffic situation, likewise, is about what I expected. It's horrible. Not just during the morning or afternoon rush, either. San Felipe, the West Loop, and even the side streets are congested all day. The traffic is so bad that simply getting into and out of the parking garage is an ordeal in and of itself. I've been leaving the office at 3:30 in order to avoid the worst of the afternoon rush just to make sure I can get to Kirby's daycare to pick him up at 5.

On the bright side, the "original" inhabitants of the office have been welcoming and friendly. Lunch options also appear to be better at this location, due to the large number of eating establishments in the area. All things considered, however, from now on I'll probably be working from home a lot more often. Considering that my boss is in Dallas, most of the people I work with are in other parts of the country, and my laptop and company VPN setup allows me to do just about anything from home that I could do at the office, there just isn't a need to be there on a daily basis.

• The British citizen who was detained at Dubai's airport last September and who was later sentenced to four years in prison because 0.003 of a gram of marijuana - a speck smaller than a grain of sugar - was found on his shoe has been pardoned. Common sense finally prevails in this case. While I certainly understand with the UAE's desire to keep drugs out of their country, and while I don't have a great deal of sympathy for DJs who "forget" about that joint in their pocket when they arrive in Dubai, when it comes to enforcement there's a difference between what is sensible and prudent and what is simply draconian.

That being said, travelers to Dubai need to be aware of the UAE's strict drug laws and obey them accordingly. Excuses like "I forgot it was in my pocket" or "but it was for my personal use" don't even fly here in the States, so there's no way they'll work over there. Don't be stupid.

• Speaking of travel to Dubai, it looks like it just might finally happen for me. I was originally slated to fly out there last fall to help with a project for the massive Dubailand development, but that assignment kept getting delayed and eventually disappeared. However, over the past week I've been informed that my help will likely be needed for a new project beginning in mid-March. Nothing is completely certain yet - tasks, schedules and travel arrangements have yet to be finalized - but this looks promising. It's been over a year since my last trip to Dubai, and I'd love to see how things have progressed at the World's Biggest Construction Site since my last visit, so I'm hoping this turns out to be for real. I'll keep everyone informed.

• If I do get sent back to Dubai, I hope I'll be able to fly Emirates nonstop this time. The service that began last December has been so successful that at the beginning of this month Emirates expanded their service from flights three days a week to daily flights.

How successful has the air connection been so far? Consider this: the IAH-DXB service operated three times a week during the month of January for a total of 26 take-offs and landings, and the Boeing 777-200LR aircraft used by Emirates for the IAH-DXB service seats 266 passengers, so the total number of inbound and outbound seats on this service for the month of January was 6,916. According to January statistics posted on Houston Airport System's website, a total of 6,918 passengers were enplaned to and deplaned from Emirates flights during that month. In other words: these flights were all completely full. Little wonder, then, that Emirates went to daily service so quickly.

Based on my own personal experience flying from Houston to Dubai in the past - I noticed that a lot of people on my KLM flights from Houston to Amsterdam were also on my flights from Amsterdam to Dubai, and vice versa - I had a feeling that this service was going to be successful. Although it remains to be seen how the addition of so many new seats created by daily service will affect the equation, and although there might be a novelty associated with this new service that will wear off after time, so far it appears that I was right.

• Unfortunately, not all of the international service news out of Intercontinental has been good. China Airlines discontinued their Houston-to-Taipei service in January, and Mexican carrier Aviacsa pulled out of the Houston market as well. The China Airlines service made a stop in Seattle between Houston and Taipei, and the fact that the foreign airline couldn't carry passengers between Houston and Seattle meant that this leg of the trip was not economical for them in the face of rising fuel costs. Aviacsa claims that their decision to exit the Houston market is the result of temporary restructuring and that they plan to resume service to Mexico in March or April. Whether that actually happens, however, remains to be seen.

And remember that interesting all-business-class service concept between Houston and Aberdeen, Scotland that City Star Airlines was supposed to begin this year? Not gonna happen. After announcing a delay in the proposed Houston service last December, City Star ceased all operations at the end of January following an incident at Aberdeen's airport last November.

Not all the news at Intercontinental is bad, however. Singapore Airlines plans to begin service between Houston and Singapore with a stop in Moscow in March, and Qatar Airlines anticipates the inauguration of nonstop service between Houston and Doha later this year.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

2008 UH football schedule released

This schedule first appeared on Coogfans earlier today. Michael Murphy confirmed it this evening. Home games are in bold:

Sat Aug 30: Southern
Sat Sep 06: @ Oklahoma State
Sat Sep 13: Air Force
Sat Sep 20: @ Colorado State
Sat Sep 27: @ East Carolina
Sat Oct 04: open
Sat Oct 11: UAB
Sat Oct 18: @ SMU
Tue Oct 28: @ Marshall
Sat Nov 08: Tulane
Sat Nov 15: Tulsa
Sat Nov 22: UTEP
Sat Nov 29: @ Rice

Not a bad schedule, all things considered. The Coogs start out the season and the Kevin Sumlin era against Southern, a winnable game which should be well-attended on account of interest in the new coaching staff and the attraction of Southern's band. September is going to be tough, however, with three road games including a trip to Stillwater to play Big XII school Oklahoma State. The Cowboys will be looking for revenge for their loss to Houston two seasons ago. Colorado State, likewise, will be looking to avenge last season's loss to Houston. Given that my brother lives in Denver, I think I'm going to try to travel to this game. Air Force is Houston's "marquee" out-of-conference home game this year, and service academies usually generate local fan interest. The Coogs, who lost to East Carolina last season, have to play them in Greenville this time, and that won't be easy considering that it's the second of back-to-back road games.

After a well-timed bye week, the Coogs host UAB and then go on another back-to-back road trip. The game against SMU and new coach June Jones in Dallas will likely be a shootout, and a Tuesday night game against Marshall will give the Coogs some exposure on ESPN.

November, however, shapes up nicely. The Cougars do not have to leave the City of Houston and get two of their toughest divisional opponents, Tulsa and UTEP, at home along with Tulane. The Bayou Bucket at Rice Stadium is the last game of the season. I'd prefer to see this game be played at the season's beginning - historically, when the Bayou Bucket is played over the Thanksgiving holiday attendance has been poor - but that fact is apparently lost on Conference USA's schedulers.

All in all, I think this is a decent schedule; from both a competitive and an attendance-generating standpoint, I think it's better than last season's and, truth be told, there aren't any games on this slate that are truly unwinnable. It's way too early, of course, to know how well the Cougars are going to adjust to their new coaching staff and fill holes left be the departures of Anthony Alridge, Donnie Avery, Brandon Pahulu, Rocky Schwartz and the like, but looking at this schedule and considering the talent the team has returning I think another winning season in 2008 is a reasonable expectation.

We'll find out, beginning a little over six months from now.

Hilarious

I can relate...
From xkcd. Hat tip: Ezra Klein.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The silliest of holidays

Anybody who knows me knows that I am not particularly fond of Valentine's Day: I believe it is an annoying, ridiculous and contrived Hallmark Holiday. Its origins are dubious: alleged connections to the Roman festival of Lupercalia or to any number of early Christian martyrs named Valentine are tenuous at best. Its realization is insidious: it compulses those in amorous relationships to "prove" their commitment; it excludes and denigrates those who are not. And its justification is unconvincing: do we really need to set aside a specific holiday to celebrate love or romance, especially one which trivializes and commercializes these concepts to such an extreme? As Nancy Gibbs wrote in last week's issue of Time:

For many of us, though, Valentine's Day only pretends to celebrate what we like about love while actually undermining it. True romance comes unscheduled, unruly, "a madness most discreet," quoth Romeo. Overtime, as it ripens into devotion, still it improvises, a favor rendered, a sudden kiss, a private joke, flowers for no reason. Its expression is the very opposite of the fretful, "pre-order now, or be left with drugstore chocolates" connivances that the day promotes. For those who feel well loved, every day, of course, is Valentine's. For the rest, no card can console.

That's why the holiday lends itself so nicely to ridicule. Valentine's Day has inspired its own insurgency, "Singles Awareness Day," in which the unattached celebrate their solitude with a saucy "Happy SAD day." Any holiday that triggers guerrilla opposition should give us pause. "Finding the right Valentine's Day gift is probably the most difficult shopping experience in any man's life," warns AskMen.com which notes that unlike Christmas or birthday presents, these gifts reflect not only taste and affection "but your degree of commitment as well." Experts argue over subtexts: Is giving lingerie a turn-on or just tacky? Restaurants sweeten the menu and hike the prices; Christian websites offer valentine messages from God. You can buy a heart-shaped potato on eBay. It comes in a red box.

Anybody who has been anywhere near the Internet for the last couple of weeks has probably come upon an article (or, more likely, several) written by some "romance expert" that discusses the dos-and-don'ts of Valentine's Day gift-giving: expensive jewelry and fancy clothing is good, household appliances and cute teddy bears are bad, etc. It seems that cards, candy and flowers just aren't good enough anymore. Which makes we wonder: since when did it become necessary for you to give a big gift to your loved one on Valentine's Day? Wasn't Christmas just seven weeks ago?

The problem with Valentine's Day is that, as absurd a holiday as it is, it's also almost entirely impossible to avoid. If you are in a relationship, the chances are high that your partner takes the holiday seriously, even if you don't. If you are a parent, you are all but required to help your child prepare Valentine's Day cards the night before to pass out in class the next day. If you work in an office of any size, it's virtually inevitable that you'll get a visit from the cloyingly-cheery co-worker in the bright red sweater who passes out candies and wishes - nay, demands - that you have a Happy Valentine's Day. You have to credit the florists, confectioners and greeting card companies who manufactured this holiday for making it obligatory, such that anybody who doesn't celebrate it is seen as a dour killjoy.

Thus, I've learned to tolerate the inanity of Valentine's Day even though I fundamentally detest it. For Kirby, it means allowing him to enjoy preparing cards for his classmates or permitting him to eat some of the candy he brings home without hectoring him as to how dumb the holiday really is. For Lori, it means some fresh strawberries, a bowl of melted chocolate to dip them in, and a bottle of our favorite Brachetto d'Acqui. It's a compromise acceptable to her because it commemorates a holiday that she gives at least some meaning to and acceptable to me because of its simplicity: no fancy gift, no expensive dinner, just some quiet time with each other. Perhaps, in a perverse sort of way, my ability to put my feelings aside for a moment and to acknowledge the silliest of all holidays for my family's sake validates the supposed meaning of the holiday itself.

But I still don't like it.

New human announcement

Lori and I would like to congratulate our friends Carl and Marie Flores on the birth of their son, Aedan Mahon Flores. Aedan was born this morning at the Womans Hospital of Texas. He and his relieved parents are resting comfortably.

It remains to be seen whose lives will be more affected by this new arrival: Carl and Marie themselves, or their three dogs, whom up to this point were the children of the family.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Tomcat 500

On Wednesday, the Houston Humane Society neutered 488 cats, just a dozen tomcats short of their goal for the day.

Orion was one of the lucky (or, depending on your point of view, unlucky) participants.

Congratulations to the HHS. It never hurts to throw a few dollars their way, if and when you have a chance to do so.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Curtains for the Red Light District?

It looks like Amsterdam is about to pull the plug on its famous (or, perhaps more accurately, infamous) Red Light District:
Arguing that too many brothels and sex bars are linked to criminality, the authorities plan to all but erase the Red Light District. If the plan goes through, the peep shows, sex shops and prostitute windows that line the small alleys and canals will have to go, giving way to galleries, boutiques and upscale restaurants and bars. Goodbye to the big neon signs advertising every possible form of sexual indulgence.

Amsterdam without the Red Light District? Wouldn't that be like Paris without the Eiffel Tower? Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, and his aldermen have demonstrated little nostalgia for the district, which has been the world's most famous home of sexual permissiveness since the 15th century. They first unveiled the plan to close it in December; last month they revoked the licenses of two widely known sex venues, the Casa Rosso and the Banana Bar. The next step is to buy out the real estate owners. Last fall the city struck a deal with a powerful brothel owner, Charles Geerts (known as "Fat Charlie"), to buy 20 buildings.

This reminds me of some of the conversations I had with people here in Houston a couple of years ago when I mentioned to them that I was traveling through Amsterdam on my way to Dubai: "You have a long layover in Amsterdam? Cool! Are you going to go to a coffeeshop and smoke some pot? Are you going to go to the Red Light District and find a whore?"

Well, no: those are not things I would have any interest in doing (aside from the fact that coming into contact with illegal drugs before traveling to Dubai is a very, very bad idea). But it did reinforce a perception that Amsterdam has developed an international reputation as some sort of wild, drug-and-sex-crazed hippie utopia. And that reputation is undeserved.

Amsterdam is a truly delightful city, with its charming architecture and picturesque canals, its bicycles and its trams, its quiet cafes and multi-ethnic dining options, its museums and its squares. The coffeeshops and the brothels might be part of its charm, and they certainly say something about the legendary tolerant and liberal attitude of the Dutch.

But when the pot and the prostitutes themselves begin to define the city - and, for that matter, the Netherlands as a whole - in the eyes of the rest of the world, something unfortunate happens. A caricature of the Netherlands emerges, one which reduces the country to little more than an anything-goes emporium of drugs and sex. The country that literally reclaimed itself from the sea, the country that gave us Van Gogh and Rembrandt, the country that originally settled what is now New York City, the country that gave us one of the most heart-rending narratives of Nazi brutality is all but forgotten as Amsterdam and the rest of the Netherlands become regarded by outsiders as little more than a destination for sex and drugs.

Little wonder, then, that Dutch authorities have started to crack down:

But here those anxieties are exacerbated by alarm over the international crime organizations that have infiltrated the country's prostitution and drug trades, the increasing prevalence of trafficking in women and children across its borders, and dismay over the Netherlands' image as an international tourist destination for drugs and sexual debauchery.

"There is an uneasiness about globalization that the Dutch don't have control over their own country anymore," said James C. Kennedy, professor of contemporary history at the Free University of Amsterdam. "There is a more conservative mood in the country that is interested in setting limits and making sure things don't get out of hand."

[...]

(Amsterdam city councilmember Frank) de Wolf said he is fed up with the planeloads of British thrill-seekers who take cheap flights to Amsterdam each Friday evening for weekend binges of sex, drugs and alcohol in his city's red-light district, where scantily clad prostitutes stand behind plate-glass windows beckoning to potential customers.

"Amsterdam has a reputation that you can do everything here," de Wolf said. "That's not the way I want people to look at Amsterdam."

Those same concerns have prompted some cities to bar tourists from their marijuana and hashish shops. Some localities now require patrons of the shops to show Dutch identity cards to gain entry, and a new nationwide law forbids the sale of alcohol in shops that sell pot and hash. Some lawmakers have proposed requiring the shops to warn their customers about the dangers of cannabis, mimicking the warning labels on tobacco and alcohol products.

Ivo Opstelten, the mayor of Rotterdam, the second-largest Dutch city, announced this month that he will close all marijuana shops within 250 yards of a school -- nearly half of the city's 62 shops.

This crackdown, it would appear, is now extending to Amsterdam's Red Light District. Speaking personally, I would hate to see the Red Light District disappear completely; for all its sleaze, I do believe it is one of the things that makes Amsterdam unique, if only marginally. But for Dutch authorities who are intent on reclaiming their country's image, it might be a small price to pay.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Four years for 0.003 of a gram

It's hyper-fanatical nonsense like this that is going to keep Dubai from becoming the global trade and tourism capital it wants to be, regardless of how many skycrapers or golf courses or palm-shaped islands it builds.

Keeping drugs out of the UAE is one thing; throwing people in prison for four years because they had a few poppy seeds on their person or a minuscule speck of cannabis on their shoe is something completely different. It makes the UAE look less like a relatively enlightened, western-oriented nation and more like a draconian state like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban. It especially looks bad when celebrities caught at DXB with illicit drugs get nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a flight back home. Surely the Emirates can enforce their drug laws without this level of irrational harshness.

Hat tip: samaraisam at the UAE Community Blog. Andrew Sullivan noticed it, too.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Too far to drive, too close to fly

That's the conundrum I face when I have to attend meetings with our client in San Antonio.

A general rule of thumb regarding short business trips (in this part of the country, at least; along the East Coast, the rules are probably different) is this: there's a 200-mile cut-off between driving and flying. Any trip shorter than 200 miles - from Houston to Austin, for example, or Lake Charles - you drive, because it's easier, quicker and cheaper than flying; anything longer than 200 miles - for example, Houston to Dallas, or New Orleans - you fly, because it's easier, quicker and cheaper than driving.

But what do you do when your business destination is exactly 200 miles away? To be technical, Google Earth says that the straight-line distance between the City Hall Reflecting Pool in Houston and the Plaza de Armas in front of San Antonio's City Hall is 189.3 miles, but along Interstate 10 it's close to 200 miles even between the two downtowns. In other words: it's too far to drive, but too close to fly.

It takes me three hours, give or take a few minutes, to drive from my house (near downtown Houston) to our client's office (near downtown San Antonio). And it's not a difficult drive; it's a straight shot along Interstate 10 and, unless I hit rush-hour traffic in west Houston or east San Antonio, I probably won't encounter any traffic congestion. But it still means sitting in me car for three whole hours at a time. And it's a rather boring drive, too; there really isn't much between Katy and Seguin.

However, flying's no quicker; it takes just as long as it does to drive - about three hours - once the travel time to the airport, the time spent at the airport (if I arrive at the recommended one hour before flight time), the actual flight (50 minutes, gate-to-gate, under ideal weather conditions) and the travel time from the airport to the client's office is added up.

The cost is a wash as well: driving the entire way, at 400 miles round trip, I'm reimbursed at the current rate of $0.505/mile, which adds up to about $200 if I drive the entire distance. A ticket on Southwest Airlines (provided I'm not flying at the last minute) costs about $185. Add in a $15 cab ride from the airport to my client's office (our local subconsultant who attends all the meetings will drive me back to the airport for free), and the total cost to fly is about $200 as well.

Flying and driving, of course, are the only two real options available. Intercity bus, such as Greyhound, isn't suitable for business travel due to an infrequent schedule and - let's face it - the demographic of its clientele. Passenger rail service between Houston and San Antonio is an absolute joke, with only three departures a week in either direction - all of which are late at night - and an utterly glacial travel time of four hours between the two cities (if the train doesn't get held up by Union Pacific freight operations).

It's been suggested that high-speed rail could one day offer a solution to this dilemma, by providing a service along these short-haul routes that is faster, more comfortable and more convenient than either driving or flying. I am not, however, under any illusions that high-speed rail is going to become a reality in Texas anytime soon: it's insanely expensive to build and Southwest Airlines would spend millions of dollars to lobby against it, as they did with a high-speed rail proposal floated in the early '90s. I'd like to think that at least some money could be invested in the nation's decrepit passenger rail network to provide short-distance train travel at speeds that at least are competitive with driving, but I don't really foresee that happening, either, even if the nation's freight railroads were amenable to increased passenger service along their lines (right now, they are not).

For the time being, I've decided to make day trips to San Antonio by way of airplane. As much of a hassle as air travel is these days - I don't have to take my shoes off for anybody when I drive - it still beats sitting in a car for six round-trip hours, navigating around lumbering convoys of eighteen-wheelers or being aggravated by people who don't understand the concept of "slower traffic keep right." When I fly I can relax, and maybe get a little bit of work done, at the gate or on the plane. And I also get the frequent flyer credits. Of the two choices, it's the one that's better, even if only slightly.

The Patriots failure

I'll admit it. I was rooting for the New England Patriots to win, if only because I wanted to witness a perfect season (and, in the process, tell the '72 Dolphins that they can finally STFU now).

Alas, it wasn't to be. And the New England Patriots, instead of being remembered as the greatest team in the history of the NFL with an unblemished 19-0 record, are now more likely to be remembered as the biggest failures in NFL history.

Not the worst NFL team of all time, mind you; the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have that title locked up. But the worst failures of all time in that, after dominating the league, winning eighteen games in a row - a feat unparalleled in NFL history - and creating an aura of absolute invincibility as they marched into a Super Bowl that they were heavily favoried - indeed, all but ordained - to win...

They failed.

Credit the New York Giants. They did their homework and they came to play. The domination of the Patriots' front four by the Giants' defensive line was almost pornographic in its explicitness. Eli Manning stepped out from his older brother's shadow to make the plays that win championships, including his evading a sure sack and making the miracle completion to David Tyree that saved the Giants' last possession and ultimately led to their go-ahead score. The Giants, a pedestrian 10-6 entering the playoffs as a wildcard, came into yesterday's championship game prepared to change the course of sports history. And they did. In the words of msnbc.com commentator Mike Celizic, who incidentally thinks that yesterday's game was the greatest Super Bowl in history, the New York Giants turned back the Patriots "at the very gates of immortality."

And that, unfortunately, is what the 2007 New England Patriots, with their 18-1 season, will always be remembered for.