Saturday, August 30, 2008

2008 University of Houston Cougars outlook

There are always risks and uncertainties involving a new coaching staff, especially one led by somebody with no previous head coaching experience. But I'm looking forward to the reign of new University of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. He has a stout resume, having spent the last five years working under Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops as the Sooners' offensive coordinator. Previous to that, he served at the same position at Texas A&M. The Indianapolis native, who played for Purdue as a linebacker, has also served as an assistant on coaching staffs at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota and his alma mater. Sumlin has also put together a diverse staff of experienced assistants including former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson and defensive coordinator John Skladany, who previously served as defensive coordinator at Iowa State and Center Florida. Other notable assistants include Houston’s own Jason Phillips, who coaches wide receivers; former Dallas Cowboy and two-time Super Bowl champion Jim Jeffcoat, who the defensive line; and even Sumlin’s old head coach at Purdue, Leon Burtnett, who coaches linebackers. Sumlin’s staff also includes an actual special teams coordinator, Tony Levine.

The Coogs certainly seem to have a solid coaching staff, but proof of their abilities to teach, direct and motivate their players won’t be revealed until the season begins. Both sides of the ball will have to learn and become comfortable with a new staff's scheme, and while the Texas Tech spread offense being installed by Sumlin and Holgerson is not radically different than the style of offense that Briles ran, there’s still a need for adjustment and that, along with the fact that the Cougars have to restock a lot of key positions on both side of the ball, suggests that there could be struggles for at least the first portion of the season.

Sumlin’s first big decision of the fall was made a week ago, when Case Keenum was named starting quarterback. Keenum, last year’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year, had spent the offseason battling for the starting position with Blake Joseph, whom also took snaps at QB last season. The stronger-armed Joseph apparently looked good during spring practices, but Keenum, who clearly has the better scrambling ability and pocket presence of the two quarterbacks, performed better during August drills. Although doubts about his ability to lob the deep bombs persist, Keenum has been working on his arm strength over the offseason. At the very least, Sumlin’s decision to name the starting quarterback two weeks ahead of time – as opposed to the annoying Art Briles technique of not naming a starting quarterback until the day of the first game - means that the entire team can rally around one person and Keenum can rightfully assume his role as offensive leader.

The offensive line is expected to be the strength of the offense this fall. LT Sebastian Vollmer, RG Mike Bloesch and C Carl Barnett, who had a rough start last year but improved as the season wore on, return as offensive line starters. The biggest news on the O-line, however, is the return of SirVincent Rogers, who hasn’t played since 2006. There’s no denying that SirVincent was one of the most talented linemen in the conference prior to his injury, but he was also so prone to committing devastating personal fouls that teammates gave him the nickname “Sir Penalty.” If he has matured as a player and if he can stay healthy - always a concern for players returning from major injuries - he could have an outstanding season and look good to NFL scouts in the process. The O-line needs to provide better pass protection than they did a year ago, when they gave up a cringe-inducing 34 sacks. To be fair, however, some of those sacks were caused by young quarterback uncertainty more than anything else.

The wideouts are probably the weakest position on offense. Mark Hafner, who played tight end last year but is being moved to the slot receiver position in Holgerson’s new offense, is almost certainly the best receiver on the team right now. Last year, he caught 40 passes for 428 yards. Other than Hafner, the two other most experienced returning wide receivers are LJ Castile and Chris Gilbert. However, neither of them show up as starters on the latest depth chart: Gilbert is still recovering from off-season surgery, and LJ was apparently too inconsistent in practice to nail down a starting gig. The relative inexperience of the other wide receivers that are listed as starters - redshirt freshmen Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, JUCO transfer Kierrie Johnson and sophomore Charles Rodriguez – is a big red flag in my eyes.

The backfield situation is a bit more set. Terrance Ganaway’s decision to leave the program means that Andre Kohn will assume the starting RB position by default. He didn’t see a lot of action last year, carrying only 28 times for 146 yards, but made a name for himself with his 67-yard touchdown reception in the Texas Bowl. His backups will include true freshman Bryce Beall, who apparently made such an impression in practice that he climbed to the top of the depth chart, and redshirt freshman Justin Johnson.

The defense is reverting back to a 4-3 scheme in order to take advantage of a line that is expected to be the strength of the Cougar defense this fall. All-Conference senior Philip Hunt, who notched 10.5 sacks and 18 TFLs last season, is the star of the defense. He is joined on the line by seniors Tate Stewart and Ell Ash and sophomore Isaiah Thompson. Experienced backups include seniors Cody Pree and Jake Ebner and transfer Tyrell Graham, who previously played linebacker at Arkansas. Unfortunately, another top D-line sub, Billy Hartford, suffered an ACL injury in practice and is done for the season.

The defense will likely have to rely on the line to stop the run because they feature only one returning starting linebacker, Cody Lubojasky. Lubojasky, a four-year starter, had 59 tackles last season. Junior Matt Nicholson, who played in every game last season and notched 36 tackles, will be joining him, and as will true freshman Marcus McGraw. Surely I'm not the only person uncomfortable with the concept of a true freshman starting at linebacker.

The secondary is going to be anchored by safety Kenneth Fontennette, another defensive leader and all-conference player who had 65 tackles and four interceptions last year. Safety Earnest Miller and corners Quinte Williams and Brandon Brinkley also return from last season’s squad. While the secondary did lead the conference in pass defense, they also got torched for 28 touchdown passes last season and only managed to pick off 14 interceptions, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

Special Teams were clearly an area of neglect during the Briles era, and it showed. The Cougars were 114th (out of 119 FBS teams) in net punting average, and the kicking game (or lack thereof) cost the Cougars at least one win last year (when T. J. Lawrence missed not one, but two, late field goals against East Carolina). Replacing T. J. Lawrence at place kicker is Ben Bell, who is back after sitting out all of last season. He is usually reliable from inside 40 yards. He is being pushed, however, by true freshman Jordan Mannisto, who has impressed in practice. Chase Turner returns as punter; after a slow start, he came on strong last season and averaged 42.7 yards per punt. He needs better punt return coverage; the Cougars also need to a better job with kick returns this fall.

Special teams, along with penalties and turnovers, constituted the “Unholy Trinity” of UH football under the Briles regime. The Cougars were among the top ten most-penalized programs in FBS last season, and were 99th in turnover margin. I got tired of seeing the team make the same stupid mistakes, game after game, season after season, and I am hopeful that Sumlin and his staff will finally exorcise this Unholy Trinity from the soul of the program.

So that's the team. What about the schedule? At first glance, it looks favorable, with seven games in the City of Houston and no opponents on any preseason top 25 polls. But that shouldn't be misconstrued to mean that the Coogs have an easy road ahead of them. Although there are no clearly “unwinnable” games on Houston’s slate, the matchup against Oklahoma State in Stillwater is going to be very tough. UH defense has historically had a tough time containing mobile quarterbacks like the Cowboys’ Zac Robinson, and since this game is so early in the season it’s likely that the Cougar offense still won’t be firing on all cylinders. With the exception of Southern, the other non-conference games aren’t gimmes, either. Colorado State has a new coach looking to turn things around from last season’s disappointment, and the Rams get the Coogs at altitude in Fort Collins after a bye week. Air Force ended last season with a 9-4 record and, even though they have relatively few starters returning, cannot be taken lightly.

The conference schedule isn't any easier. East Carolina returns 20 starters from a team that went 8-5 last season and is widely expected to have the best defense in the conference. The Coogs have to play them on the road. Marshall has brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball and looks to improve from last year’s 3-9 campaign. The Coogs will have to contend with 2006 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Albert McClellan, who returns to the Thundering Herd lineup after missing all of last year with an injury, as well as deal with the rowdy crowd at Edwards stadium in Huntington. UAB offensive coordinator (and former UH head coach) Kim Helton and UAB head coach (and former UH offensive coordinator) Neil Calloway are looking for ways to improve on UAB’s 2-10 record of a year ago and avenge the 45-10 spanking they suffered at the hands of the Cougars last season. Remember the problems that the Cougars have against mobile quarterbacks? Joe Webb is one.

The divisional slate is not a cakewalk, either. At the top of the list is Tulsa, which wiped the Skelly Stadium turf with the Cougars, 56-7, in route to a division championship last fall. The Golden Hurricane led the nation in offensive yards per game last season and, even though they lose quarterback Paul Smith, are certain to put another dominant offense on the field this fall. Beating them will not be easy, not even at Robertson. June Jones took a winless Hawaii team and turned them into a 9-win program in one season. There’s no reason why he can’t pull off a similar turnaround at SMU, which was 1-11 last season. The Cougars have to play the Ponies on the road, as well. With UTEP the Cougars will have to contend with an explosive offense led by QB Trever Vitteroe, who threw for over three thousand yards last season. Head coach Mike Price has brought in an entirely new defensive coaching staff to fix what was one of the nation’s worst defenses last season. Rice will likely see improvement over their 3-9 record of a year ago under David Bailiff, and any Houston fan who thinks the Owls are an automatic win obviously hasn’t paid attention to the last three Bayou Bucket games. The UH defense had a huge problem containing Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard last year, so what makes anybody think that this year is going to be different? As for Tulane, well, uh, there are some games the Cougars have no business losing at all. But, as anybody who suffered through the UL-Lafayette game a couple of years ago knows, sometimes the Coogs lose games they shouldn't.

The structure of the schedule is not completely favorable, either. After playing Southern the Cougars have to go on the road for five of their next seven contests. However, they do get some much-needed rest in late October and early November, playing only one game in twenty days (a Tuesday night matchup at Marshall) and all of November’s games – including that crucial showdown against Tulsa – take place in Houston.

So, what can the Cougars and their fans expect from the season ahead? Preseason predictions are about as valuable as the paper they're printed on - they play the games for a reason, after all - but it's neverthless interesting to see what the pigskin pundits say about the state of the UH program.

The website, which uses the Congrove Computer system that has accurately predicted the Cougars’ final regular season record within two games eight out of the last 14 seasons, foresees the Cougars notching a 9-3 record this fall, with losses to Oklahoma State, East Carolina and Tulsa, whom they predict will be the C-USA champion. Likewise, foresees the Cougars ending the season at 9-3, 6-2 in conference. “If everything goes well,” they report, “an upset on the road at Oklahoma State is not out of the question, and the Cougars get division favorite Tulsa in the middle of a three-game homestand in November. 7-1 and a division title are as good as it will get.” However, “if Houston's offense is not back to good this season and the defense begins to struggle, road games at Marshall, Colorado State, and Rice are all very possible losses. That would drop the cougars to 6-6 and 4-4, and probably home for the holidays.” They report. SCS thinks the Houston-Tulsa game as the one which will decide the Western crown this season.

Other sites aren't quite as optimistic about the Coogs; only foresees a 6-6 campaign in 2008, with losses to Oklahoma State, Air Force, Colorado State, East Carolina, Marshall and Tulsa. This prediction is shared by, which also foresees a 6-win season. Sports Illustrated ranks Houston #71 out of 119 schools going into the fall; in their C-USA preview, Sports Illustrated says that the Coogs will do no better than third in C-USA West, with a 7-5 record overall and a 4-4 record in conference. SI writer Stewart Mandell, however, still thinks that the Cougars will contend for a bowl berth.

Jeff Sagarin's preseason ratings at place the Coogs 77th in the nation, with a rating of 67.97. When the ratings of opposing teams as well as the home field advantage are taken into account, his ratings imply a 7-5 season for the Cougars. Last year Sagarin started Houston at #77 and finished at #84; his 2007 preseason rankings implied an 8-4 regular season for the Coogs, which is exactly what happened. Rivals starts Houston as the 59-ranked in the nation and predicts the Cougars to finish second in C-USA west behind Tulsa. CBS Sportsline foresees the Cougars finishing second in the division, behind Tulsa, as well. The Coogs were also picked to finish second in the west division in the preseason coaches' poll. The college football bloggers at the New York Times rank the Cougars #64 and foresee a 8-4 record (6-2 in conference, finishing behind Tulsa in the Western division). The preseason magazines generally agree; most of them predict that the Coogs will wind up behind Tulsa in the Western Division, although Blue Ribbon thinks that Houston will emerge as division champs while Phil Steele doesn’t think that Houston will do better than fourth place in the division.

Over at the Chronicle, UH beat writer Michael Murphy foresees a 9-3 record for Houston. SarCoog2010, who has done an outstanding job previewing all of Houston’s opponents on his Chronicle blog, predicts a 9-3 season for the Good Guys as well.

So that's what others think about the Coogs this fall. What do I think?

Well, as much as I'd like to buy into the idea of a nine-win season, I just don't see it happening. I'm not sold on the wide receivers or the linebackers, I think that it's going to take some time for the team to adjust to the new coaching staff and their techniques, and, until proven otherwise, the "Unholy Trinity" remains a big problem. Some of the games that look like easy wins today - Colorado State, in the thin air; SMU, with June Jones at the helm - might turn out to be big roadbumps. So I'm going to keep my expectations conservative and predict a seven-win season for the Cougars in 2008. The Cougars will defeat Southern, UAB, Tulsa and UTEP and will get past Rice in another trilling Bayou Bucket showdown. Rhey will win one of their two games against Mountain West opponents Colorado State and Air Force and will also split their October road trip between SMU and Marshall. I do not expect the Cougars to defeat Oklahoma State and East Carolina on the road Tulsa will get past them at Robertson.

Last year I predicted a 7-5 season for the Coogs. They bested my prediction by one game en route to a respectable 8-5 campaign and a bowl game. I hope the same thing happens this year. If the Coogs do go bowling this year, I'd also like to see them do something they haven't done in the postseason since 1980 - win.

A shorter version of this preview appears at Thanks to Todd for kindly inviting me to do a guest blog for him!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rotation 5 complete

I am at DXB, waiting for Delta 7 to board. From there, it's fifteen glorious hours to Atlanta. I'll spend a few hours there before continuing to Hobby; I should be back in Houston about 22 hours from now. I'm not looking forward to the long-ass trip and the accompanying jetlag, but I am looking forward to getting back home.

As this point, it looks like at least one more trip over here is in my future, but right now it's uncertain as to when that will be. It won't be before the end of September, however; I have a few other things on my agenda and besides, it's time to spend a few weeks at home with the family.

I am aware of Gustav, but it's not going to affect my trip home and it's still too early to start getting too worried. It won't mess up Saturday night's football game, and right now that's all that matters to me.

Speaking of which, I'm still working on the UH football preview; I hope to have it up before kickoff Saturday evening.

Anyway, time my catch my flight...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More on the drinking age debate

A few months ago, I took note of a movement aimed at lowering the drinking age. At the time I didn't think the idea would go anywhere. Thanks to the continuing efforts of a former Vermont college president, however, the idea seems to have received a boost:
The college presidents said they wanted a national debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. They got it.

For years, former Middlebury College President John McCardell has been criticizing the law, saying it only encourages binge drinking and pushes alcohol into the shadows.

But then McCardell quietly enlisted about 100 college presidents in a campaign calling for the drinking age to be reconsidered. After The Associated Press reported on the effort this week, the issue erupted into the biggest discussion on the subject in years — in blogs, over e-mail, in newspaper editorials and around office water coolers.

Since the controversy erupted, two university presidents who signed on to the campaign got cold feet and withdrew their support, but another 20 added their names to the list. If nothing else, the idea is receiving exposure.

My thoughts on this today are the same as they were last March: I think there is merit to the idea of lowering the drinking age, but I also think it would likely create a host of new problems and, in any case, opposition from organizations such as MADD would probably prevent it from occuring, anyway.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that a group of university presidents are standing up and saying: "hey, what we're doing right now obviously isn't working, and we need to have a rational discussion about it." There's no question that underage drinking is widespread and that alcohol is generally available to anybody who wants it, regardless of age. There's no denying the fact that a drinking culture exists among the nation's youth, whether it be on college campuses or spring break beaches, that facilitates binge drinking. And there is something rather perverse about the concept that you only have to be 18 to legally vote or fight (and possibly die) for your country, but 21 to drink a beer. What's the harm in discussing alternatives to the existing drinking age, such as provisionally allowing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to consume alcohol in controlled settings on college campuses or military bases?

The problem is, can this country really have a rational discussion about young people and alcohol? Or will MADD, prohibitionist religious groups and risk-averse politicians simply try to shut down any debate by portraying anybody who is in favor of relaxing the drinking age as encouraging underage alcohol abuse, drunk driving and juvenile deliquency? Given the nation's lack of ability to seriously debate the failure that is the "War on Drugs," I can't say I'm optimistic.

I still don't think this movement is going to go anywhere in the long run, but I'll continue to follow it to see what happens.

First day of school

Kirby pauses on the steps before beginning his first day of pre-K at his new school. I hope he enjoys it and will one day forgive daddy for not being there for the big event...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Burj Dubai

I took these pictures yesterday while visiting the new, and as of yet relatively empty, Souk Al Bahar. Pictures just can't do this thing justice.

2008 North Texas preview

Todd Dodge had an outstanding career as a high school coach at Metroplex powerhouse Southlake Carroll, but his first year at the helm of the North Texas was anything but. The Mean Green could only manage two wins last season, and many of the ten losses - 10-79 to Oklahoma, 7-66 against Arkansas, 7-45 against Troy - were downright ugly. Dodge and his staff have a lot of work to do in order to return North Texas to its place as the Sun Belt's dominant team, and it may take another year before this team can truly become competitive again. But there is hope: there is legitimate talent on this team, and the defense can only improve.

If there was a success story for UNT last season, it was on the offensive side of the ball. The offense did an excellent job adjusting from the rather conservative playcalling of former coach Darrell Dickey to a more wide-open style favored by Dodge. Quarterback Giovanni Vizza had an excellent freshman outing, throwing for 2,388 yards and 17 touchdowns, and wide receiver Casey Fitzgerald caught 111 passes for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns. There were rumblings of a quarterback controversy over the offseason when Todd Dodge's highly-recruited son, Riley, arrived on campus. For now, Vizza has been named the starting quarterback and indications are that Riley Dodge will redshirt. But don't be surprised if things change during the course of the season.

Other returning talent on offense includes wide receivers Sam Dibrell and Brock Strickler, and RB Micah Mosley, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season. The offensive line returns four starters, but their health is a concern and they need to do a better job protecting the quarterback than they did last season, when they gave up 39 sacks.

The offense, as productive as it was last season, has other areas where they need to improve as well. Better efficiency is a must; while the Mean Green could move the ball between the 20s, getting in the endzone was a different story and the Mean Green were only 77th in the nation in scoring offense, managing 24.8 points per game. One of the reasons the offense wasn't as productive as it could have been last fall is because they gave up 28 interceptions, the most in the nation. You can't turn the ball over like that and expect to win games, especially when your defense is as awful as UNT's was last season.

And just how awful was UNT's defense last year? Put it this way: the 2007 Mean Green had the worst defense in the worst conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The squad was 114th (out of 119 teams) in total defense and 119th (as in dead last) in scoring defense. They gave up a whopping 45.1 points per game, including 79 points to Oklahoma, 66 to Arkansas, 74 to Navy, 48 to Middle Tennessee, 45 to Troy, 45 to SMU... Eh, you get the idea.

Improving the defense was clearly an offseason concern and Todd Dodge took some positive steps in that regard. He brought back Gary DeLoach, who had spent the last five seasons at UCLA, for a second stint as UNT's defensive coordinator. DeLoach's first term at the defensive helm from, 2000 to 2002, was successful. The 2002 UNT defense, in fact, was third in the nation in scoring defense, ninth in total defense, and guaranteed UNT's first bowl victory in 56 years by intercepting Cincinnati five times in the New Orleans Bowl. In addition to a new defensive coach, North Texas also brought in a handful of JUCOs that should be ready to play immediately and hopefully make a difference.

The defense, for all its faults, is not completely bereft of talent. Linebacker Craig Robertson had 48 tackles and five interceptions last year and figures to be the squad's leader this fall. Another person to watch is Tobe Nwigwe, who started at linebacker two years ago but had some off-the-field issues that kept him sidelined most of last year. He needs to stay out of trouble this fall because his team is going to need his help.

The defensive line, which managed only 14 sacks last season, is going to be the biggest question mark heading into the fall; it doesn't help that DE Eddrick Gilmore, who had a promising season a year ago, left the team for personal reasons. While the secondary certainly didn't get much help in the way of a pash rush, but they didn't do themselves any favors by allowing 256.8 passing yards per game, either. The secondary will get immediate help in the form of JUCO transfers Kylee Hill and Adryan Adams, but two others, Navy transfer Glenn Garden and JUCO transfer Justin Edwards, unfortunately did not pan out.

The star of UNT's special teams squad has to be Truman Spencer, who punted a 41.6 yard average last season. JUCO transfer Jeremy Knott is expected to be an upgrade at place kicker. The Mean Green need to work on special teams coverage and returns this fall. Last season, North Texas ranked 75th in the nation in both punt return average and net punting average - not horrible, but not great - but were one of the worst teams in the nation in kickoff return average, at only 18.4 yards.

Media expectations for North Texas are low. Rivals has UNT ranked #115 out of 120 teams, College Football News puts UNT #113 out of 119 and foresees just a three-win season, while Sports Illustrated has the Mean Green ranked #112 out of 119 and expects them to end the season with a 3-9 overall record (2-5 and fifth place in the Sun Belt Conference). The big concern is that, even if the Mean Green do make improvements over the previous season, it's going to be covered up by a murderous schedule that includes only five home games and road contests against the likes of Kansas State and LSU.

There is hope for North Texas this season. The offense is going to be prolific. The defense is now being run by a proven coordinator and - let's face it - has nowhere to go but up from last season. Finally, Todd Dodge has a full season of experience as a FBS head coach under his belt now. But it's just going to take time for him to rebuild a program that barely had a pulse the last few seasons of dickey I think there will be some improvement over last fall's 2-10 record, and I think the team will clearly be better on defense this fall. But I also think it's too much to expect the Mean Green to have a winning record in 2008. If UNT fans can be patient for one more season, however, I think they'll be rewarded in 2009.

Desert Safari!

The "Desert Safari" is a de rigeur tourist activity in Dubai, but I had never been on one until yesterday. A driver in a Toyota Land Cruiser picked myself and a couple of other people up at my hotel and drove us out towards Hatta, where we joined about twenty or thirty other Land Cruisers, formed a caravan and made our way across the dunes:The meandering ride through the dunes took us up along the ridges and down into the troughs. It was winding, bumpy and disorienting. One of the people in our vehicle got carsick. I'm glad I was sitting up front; had I been in the back I probably would have gotten nauseous as well.

Driving in caravan through the shifting, undulating dunes requires skill; in Dubai, professional desert safari drivers have to be licensed by the Roads and Transport Authority. Before entering the dunes, drivers have to let air out of their tires in order to increase their surface area so that the vehicles don't get stuck in the sand. Driving a 4x4 through the soft sand is also puts a lot of strain on the engine and transmission and that, combined with the 100+ degree afternoon heat, causes them to overheat quickly. After about 15 or 20 minutes of driving the caravan has to stop and let their engines cool down:
There is something both humbling and serene about the vast emptiness of the desert:
Our destination was a camp in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Once we arrived at the camp we were treated to a dinner of traditional Arabic foods: shawarma, kibbeh, hummous, tabbouli, barbecued lamb and chicken. Other Arabic-themed activities, such as camel rides and henna tattoos, were available as well. A belly dancer provided after-dinner entertainment:
When it was all over, we got back into our Land Cruisers, made our way out of the sand, stopped to re-inflate our tires, and drove back into Dubai. All in all, a fun afternoon outing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

2008 college football outlook

Exactly two years ago today, I sat in a Dubai hotel room and wrote about the upcoming college football season. Amazing how history repeats...

Anyway, with college football one week away - the first games will be played on the evening of Thursday the 28th - I guess it's time for me to get to work. I'll provide my preseason takes on the University of Houston Cougars and the University of North Texas Mean Green in the coming days. For now, here are my thoughts on the top teams going into the season.

Both the preseason Associated Press sportswriters' Top 25 Poll and the USA Today Coaches' Top 25 Poll are now out, with Georgia earning the top spot in both. MSNBC's John Tamanaha takes issue with the fact that the two polls are so similar, with only minor differences between the teams and their placements. "I can see that type of consensus starting to form in October," he writes, "but prior to the season starting and with no tangible evidence to use it is absolutely ludicrous."

Uh, John? You do realize that, following your logic, the entire idea of preseason polls is ludicrous because no games have yet been played and there's no "tangible evidence" by which to rank any of these teams, right? Unlike Tamanaha, I don't think consensus is a bad thing, even the preseason.

And, with the Georgia Bulldogs, the consensus is pretty clear. Georgia is picked to be the preseason #1 not only by both polls, but also by NBC, ESPN and Sports Illustrated. I think this is a fair ranking, because I believe the Bulldogs were playing the nation's best football at the end of last season. It makes sense for them to pick up where they left off; they return 17 starters from last year's 11-2, Sugar Bowl Champion team that ended the season ranked #2. But their problem is going to be the schedule. The Bulldogs have early-season road trips to South Carolina and Arizona State and then, beginning in late November, a murderous four-game road trip to LSU, Kentucky, Jacksonville to play Florida, and Auburn. Home games against the likes of Tennessee and Alabama aren't going to be cakewalks, either. And don't look overlook that end-of-season rivalry game against Georgia Tech. If the Bulldogs can make it through that lineup unscathed, they deserve to be champions.

The Southern Cal Trojans come in second in the coaches' poll and 3rd in the AP poll. There is no question that USC, in spite of losing ten players to the NFL draft, is loaded with talent, and the Trojans should have no problem dominating the Pac-10 and returning to another BCS bowl. But this is also the same Southern Cal program that, over the last couple of seasons, has developed an uncanny knack for losing games it shouldn't; see Oregon State and UCLA and 2006 and Stanford (!) last season. Will Pete Carroll's team get tripped up by an inferior opponent again this year? One thing is for certain: the nation will get a better view of the national title picture early on, when the Trojans host Ohio State on September 13th.

Speaking of Ohio State, they enter the season 3rd in the writers' poll and 2nd in the USA Today poll; CFN thinks they're #1. The Buckeyes have gone all the way to the national championship game two years in a row, only to come up empty. This brings up the obvious cliche: will the third time be a charm? The Buckeyes return almost all of last year's starters, so there's no question that the talent is there. One potential obstacle for the Buckeyes is their schedule: while they do get Penn State and archrival Michigan at home, road trips to Wisconsin and Illinois - not to mention that early-season showdown against Southern Cal - are going to be obstacles. Then there's the fact that, by virtue of the Big Ten schedule ending the week before Thanksgiving, the Buckeyes have to endure a rust-inducing six-week-layoff between the regular season and a BCS bowl. I honestly think that this lengthy idle period was one of the factors in their championship-game losses two years in a row.

Oklahoma shows up at the number four position in both polls. The Sooners appear to have a team that is talented enough to contend for a national title - for example, QB Sam Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency last year as a freshman (!) - but they need to prove that they can close the deal. Right now, Oklahoma is on a four-game BCS bowl losing streak, including last year's 28-48 spanking at the hands of West Virginia and that wild Boise State upset of two years ago. Even Oklahoma's shot at the Big XII South title isn't guaranteed: there's that October showdown against Texas in Dallas, and they better not overlook that November game against Texas Tech.

Rounding out the top five in both polls is Florida. Tim Tebow would probably like to put a second Heisman in his trophy case, and under his command the Gator offense will certainly be one of the nation's most productive. The defense needs to improve if Florida is going to contend for the title, and the rash of preseason injuries they've suffered - seriously, five torn ACLs? - is not exactly a good portent for the season. The Gators get LSU and South Carolina at home, which is good, but have to travel to play Tennessee. Florida will be looking for revenge when it meets Georgia in Jacksonville, but another Gator rival, Florida State, will be looking for some revenge of its own.

Missouri is ranked 6th in the AP poll and 7th in the USA Today poll. No doubt the Tigers, who went 12-2 last season but were passed over for a BCS bowl by the Kansas team they defeated, are looking for redemption. Missouri returns a lot of talent, including Heisman finalist QB Chase Daniel, and is favored to repeat as Big XII North champions. Last year's national champion, LSU, comes in 7th AP and 6th USA Today. The Tigers return a lot of starters from last year's team but the prospects of the Bayou Bengals repeating as champions were dampened when star QB Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team earlier this year. LSU's conference schedule - roadies to Auburn, Florida, South Carolina and Arkansas - is brutal. West Virginia shows up at #8 in both polls. The Mountaineers are adjusting to new coach Bill Stewart but still have Pat White behind center and are still favored to win another Big East title.

The Clemson Tigers rank #9 in both polls. Are they underrated at that position? NBC, which has them #3 in their own rankings, thinks so. Auburn gets the #10 spot per the sportswriters, while Texas is number 10 according to the coaches. With new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a schedule that has LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia at home, the Tigers have a real shot at capturing the SEC West. They need to find a quarterback first, however. The Longhorns are going to miss Jamaal Charles at running back but should still be formidable. The schedule is tough, however; in addition to the game in Dallas against Oklahoma, the 'Horns have to play Texas Tech (preseason rankings of #12 AP and #14 USA Today) in Lubbock and their inter-divisional slate includes Missouri. Wisconsin takes the #12 spot on the USA Today poll. They managed a 9-4 record last season in spite of a slew of key injuries and hope for an even better outing this fall with healthy players. The Badgers get all of Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois at home, which is a plus.

Those are what are expected to be the top teams going into the season. Who do I think is going to end up winning it all? It's hard to say: I'm concerned about Georgia's schedule, I'm not sold on USC, Ohio State and Oklahoma have postseason demons they need to exorcise and Florida does not have a championship-caliber defense. I wouldn't be surprised if this season ends up being a repeat of the last, wherein nobody makes it to the title game without at least one loss. It's entirely possible, furthermore, that none of these top five will end up with the national championship: Florida started their championship season in 2006 ranked #7 and #8 in the two preseason polls. In that regard, there's something oddly alluring about this year's Missouri program that has me thinking that they might be able to pull it off.

But I'm going to go on record: Ohio State will do what they haven't been able to do the last couple of seasons win it all in January 2009. They'll lose an early-season thriller to USC in Los Angeles but will regroup and run the table, while the Trojans will find a way to lose a later-season game to Cal or somebody and be penalized accordingly by the BCS pollsters and computers. Georgia will trip up somewhere along the way - their schedule's just too tough - and just miss a shot at the national title. Ohio State will end up playing either Oklahoma or Missouri in the BCS National Championship game, where they will win it all.

Remember that you heard it here first. Also remember that I'm usually wrong when it comes to preseason prognostications such as these. Truth is, I really don't care who wins. I just want the season to begin.

The survival of the commercial airline industry

Oil prices are beginning to moderate, which is bringing some financial relief to a domestic airline industry that has been ravaged over the past several months by high fuel prices. Many airlines had taken to implementing new fees, cutting routes, and reducing the size of their workforces in an attempt to offset the higher fuel costs, while other airlines have ceased operations altogether. But it appears that, for right now, the worst might be over:
Oil prices, which triggered the crisis in the first place, have fallen even faster over the last five weeks than they rose during the first half of this year. Since peaking above $147 a barrel on July 11, oil has fallen to $115. That's the fastest, most dramatic decline in history.

And though most carriers still can't turn a profit at existing jet fuel prices, they're getting close to the break-even point.

Another $10 to $15 drop in the price per barrel, which some oil experts now say is possible, will have most of them back in the black. Analysts at both Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase even are suggesting that the haggard industry could be profitable in 2009.

Eh, let's not get too confident about 2009 just yet. While the current downturn in oil prices might be welcome relief, it could very well be nothing more than a temporary respite brought on by seasonal changes (such as reduced oil demand due to the end of the summer driving period) or recent fluctuations in the value of the dollar. The overall conditions that lend themselves to high oil prices - tight supplies, surging demand in China and India, instability in producer states like Iraq and Nigeria - remain.

Which brings up a question: if oil prices climb upward once again, which airlines are likely to survive, at least in the near term? A article analyzes the financials of the ten largest domestic carriers and classifies them into three categories: strongest, likely to survive, and struggling.

The "strongest" airline is Southwest. No surprise there; Southwest has posted a quarterly profit every cycle since 1991. No other airline can come close to making that claim.

American, Alaska, Continental, Delta and Northwest fall into the "likely to survive" category. The article says that the strengths of Houston-based Continental are its strong cash position for its size and good hubs in Houston and Newark, but that its weaknesses are its lack of equity in its own aircraft and its lack of a strong presence in major foreign destinations. All things considered, the hometown airline seems pretty healthy. Northwest and Delta, for their parts, plan to strengthen their position by merging into a single airline.

Then there are the four airlines in the "struggling" category: AirTran, JetBlue (which was the rising star of the domestic airline industry until the Valentine's Day Massacre eighteen months ago), United and US Airways. Denver-based Frontier, which is currently operating under bankruptcy protection, would likely fall into this category as well. If the current respite in high oil prices doesn't last, any or all of these airlines could collapse.

Of these four, I think United is probably the most likely to go under another wave of sustained high gas prices occur. The Chicago-based airline's 14.1% ratio of cash to revenue is the lowest of the ten carriers surveyed, and friction between labor and management (especially embattled CEO Glenn Tilton) could grind the airline to a halt if its financial situation deteriorates. The fact that they've decided to begin charging for meals on international flights reeks of desperation, and this story (via m1ek, who describes United as "an airline that needs to die, as soon as possible") certainly doesn't make me want to fly them anytime soon. Needless to say, I'm glad that Continental decided against merging with this struggling airline.

There comes a point, however, when oil prices become so high that no airline's business model is sustainable:
Despite recent fluctuations, a growing number of economists are bracing for oil to hit or surpass $200 per barrel in a few years, and most industry analysts agree with Douglas Runte, of RBS Greenwich Capital, who told The Wall Street Journal in June, "Many airline business models cease to work at $135-a-barrel oil prices." After all, most airlines barely figured out how to be profitable in a world of low fuel costs. Jeff Rubin, chief economist of Canadian investment bank CIBC World Markets, has predicted that gasoline will hit $7 per gallon by 2010, forcing some 10 million cars in the United States off the road. If that happens, he told me, "You're going to see an even bigger exit in the airline industry."

The long-term effects of sustained high oil prices would have a horrendous effect on commercial aviation, both at home and abroad. Air travel would revert to a means of transportation exclusively for the wealthy. Tens of millions of others who can afford to travel by air today would no longer be able to do so. The commercial airline industry would shrink dramatically and become a fraction of its current size as all but perhaps a couple of airlines cease operations. Millions of people working in civil aviation and affiliated industries worldwide would lose their jobs. The global tourism industry would also suffer as families are no longer able to fly to Cancun or Disney World for vacation. Services that we take for granted today, such as relatively inexpensive overnight shipping by air, would disappear. The overall effect on the worldwide economy would be enormous and devastating. What's more, while places like Europe and Japan have high-speed, electrified rail networks that could take the place of air travel for at least some percentage of trips, the United States, outside of the Acela Corridor, does not.

What's alarming is that, should $200/barrel oil become a long-term reality, there really isn't much that can be done to prevent this from occurring:
Is there a way to avoid this fate? I reached Richard Gilbert, one of the analysts warning of a potentially drastic decline in U.S. air travel over the next two decades, as he was returning from a meeting in Toronto with the U.S. Transportation Research Board, a government research body. I asked him what sort of response he gets when he discusses his book with industry insiders. "You see three arguments," Gilbert told me. "One is that ingenuity, American or otherwise, will overcome the problem in terms of oil prices. The second is that we'll wrestle it to the ground with technology. And the third type of response--and this one doesn't have a specific argument--is that this just can't happen."

It's always dangerous to bet against human ingenuity. But, while most of the technology needed to replace gas-guzzling cars with, say, plug-in hybrids either exists or sits just over the horizon, decarbonizing air travel is a much harder prospect, not least because of the massive amounts of energy needed to lift a large passenger plane in the air. The industry has already boosted the fuel efficiency of jets 70 percent in the last four decades, and is now left sanding down the rough spots--tinkering with ultralight materials, flying more slowly, or even charging passengers for extra bags. Propeller planes use less fuel than jets but are only really viable for some short-haul flights. Engine manufacturers say that more advanced technologies like fuel cells and carbon capture are still technically infeasible, while "blended wing" designs--planes shaped like stealth bombers to reduce drag--have barely left the drawing board. Improvements in air-traffic control will reduce both the length of flights and fuel-wasting delays, but may not be enough to surmount $200-per-barrel oil.

Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson has held out high hopes for jet biofuels, though spikes in food prices and massive deforestation have dimmed ethanol's star. Someday we may get solar-powered jets or hydrogen fuel cells, but, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its landmark 1999 aviation study, "There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades." The military may be one exception: The Pentagon, worried about peak oil scenarios, has pushed to fuel its Air Force with liquefied coal, which may keep fighter jets aloft, but would have horrifying climate consequences if used on a broad scale.

For now, however, recent adjustments made by the airlines, as well as the downward turn in oil prices, have created a rosier outlook for a commercial airline industry that until just a few weeks ago was facing gloomy prospects. Returning to the original article:

JPMorgan analysts Jamie Baker and Mark Streeter told investors in an Aug. 12 report that the "industry today is a significantly different one than that which gave us pause last March."

It's not just because jet fuel prices have fallen by more than $1 a gallon from their early summer peak, though that change by itself will save the industry more than $13 billion annually. The carriers' recent capacity cuts, decisions to ground old, fuel-inefficient planes and to boost revenue via higher fares, and the imposition of new and larger fees are likely to be long-lasting changes, Baker and Streeter wrote.

That means that instead of focusing on "the potential magnitude of the fuel-induced cash burn, capital and liquidity options, and who might disappear, and when," as Baker and Streeter did during the first half of this year, they now are "assessing who might first return to annual profitability, and when."
I'm certainly not looking forward to a world without the convenience of inexpensive air travel, so I'm rooting for the airlines to return to profitability (and for some of them to get their act together as well). But the commercial aviation industry is at the mercy of the very resource that fuels it; they have no alternative. Future surges in oil prices are likely, if not inevitable, and there will very probably come a point, someday, where the survival of the commercial aviation industry as it currently exists becomes uncertain. No amount of service cuts, layoffs, or fees on pillows, blankets and baggage will make a difference.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

But what's going to happen to Sammy LaCorte?

The decision by the Finger family to rebrand their local furniture business means that yet another hometown brand is disappearing. Fingers Furniture Co., a Houston presence for 81 years, is assuming the identity of Wisconsin-based Ashley Furniture. The Houston Press, which is obviously going to miss those Fingers commercials on the ten o'clock news, is not impressed:
"Ashley"? Sounds pretty damn sissified to us. Give us a tough-talking, digit-pointing, oddly enthusiastic, strange-haired guy telling us something is "at your fingers," not "at your Ashley."
I can't say I'm too thrilled about the decision, either, just as I wasn't too enthused when the Foleys name was replaced by Macys. Every time a local brand is replaced with a national one, a piece of the city's history disappears with it. But business is business.

Fingers currently operates four local stores, including their massive, 250,000-square-foot showroom at the corner of Gulf Freeway and Cullen, across the Freeway from the University of Houston. That building sits on the site of Buff Stadium. The Buffs, a minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, were the city's baseball team until the city was awarded a Major League franchise - then known as the Houston Colt .45s and now known as the Astros - in the early 1960s. There is a small sports museum inside that furniture store, located where home plate of Buffs Stadium used to be. Hopefully, the museum - very few people know it even exists - will be spared by any renovations that happen as the building is transformed from a Fingers to an Ashley HomeStore.

I drive past this store frequently because Combat Kroger is located in the same area, just a few blocks further down Cullen from the freeway. In the parking lot in front of the Fingers store is a huge four-sided sign with a marquee on each side. The marquees facing Cullen and the Gulf Freeway are generally regularly updated to announce sales, new furniture shipments, and the like. The marquee facing the store itself, however, has said the same thing for years: CONGRATULATIONS SAMMY LACORTE, SALESPERSON OF THE MONTH.

Sammy LaCorte must be a really good salesperson if they never have to change that marquee! (For the record, at least one internet reviewer likes him.) Hopefully Sammy, and the rest of the employees at the Gulf Freeway Fingers, will not be adversely affected by the rebranding.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wrong Birmingham!

Seriously, how could a mistake like this not get noticed ahead of time?

Britain's second-largest city, Birmingham, has a new skyline — only it belongs to its Alabama namesake.

Birmingham City Council distributed 720,000 leaflets that praised residents for exceeding recycling targets, carrying a message that read: "Thank You Birmingham." The message appeared stamped across a photograph of the city's skyline. But the photo was not of Birmingham, England, but of Birmingham, Alabama.

A little QA/QC is a good thing, folks.

Anyway, I always knew that Birmingham, Alabama was named after Birmingham, England. But I never really gave much thought to other ways in which the two cities are similar:

While the cities have wildly different skylines, there are many similarities between the two - not least a proud industrial heritage.

Birmingham, Alabama - known as the Magic City because of its rapid 20th century growth - was founded on its steel industry. It took its name from the British manufacturing city known for making Jaguar cars and Cadburys chocolate. Both now have growing financial services sectors.

Both cities also share a history of racial tension. In Alabama, Birmingham was a center of 1960s civil rights protests by black Americans. In Britain, Birmingham has struggled with divisions between black and South Asian communities, which led to violent riots in the 1980s and in 2005.

The British city — whose sister city is Chicago — has a population of 1 million. The Alabama city's population is roughly 230,000.

Interesting. But it still doesn't excuse the mistake.

UPDATE: John's take is here. Thanks for the backlink, John!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Widespread dust

A couple of days ago a dust cloud descended upon Dubai. Of course, this is not exactly an uncommon weather phenomenon here. Visibility was reduced, but not overwhelmingly so. The dark sky and blowing wind reminded me of what it sometimes feels like in Houston when a thunderstorm is approaching. At least the dust kept the temperatures down; the day's high topped out at only 99 F!

Watching the Olympics

At my hotel I can follow the Olympics in any of three languages:

a. Arabic,
b. German, or
c. Italian.

This isn't so bad, however, because I don't have to sit through NBC's inane, annoying and commercial-laden coverage of the Games.

It's worth mentioning that even the Arab announcers on Abu Dhabi Sport are absolutely fawning over Michael Phelps.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Rotation five

Dubai again. At the rate my passport filling up with UAE entry and exit stamps, I'll need a new one before too long.

The trip out here was not quite as much of a hassle as the last one; I didn't really get any sleep this time, but Delta's in-flight entertainment system managed to not crap out until the flight was almost over so I got to watch a movie and listen to some music to pass the time. I was also treated to an awesome view of Paris as our flight path took us just south of the city. Even though I've never been to Paris, I was able to recognize some of the landmarks rather easily, even from 37,000 feet up: "Oh, look, those towers down there must be La Defense... If I follow that axis, I should see the Arc De Triomphe - there it is, right there - and the Champs Elysees... And if I look across the Seine from that point, I should find the Eiffel Tower... There it is!" Baron Haussmann would be proud. I really wish I had my camera with me so I could have taken some pictures.

Within the span of three months Delta has raised their drink prices from $5 to $7. At this rate, they'll be charging $10 for a beer before the year is out.

The good news is that the office here has accomodated my request to stay in a hotel within walking distance, which means that I don't have to wait in the hot sun for taxis anymore. Of course, the only reason they were able to accomodate me at this particular hotel is because the hotel is offering an August special (August is a particularly slow month for tourism in Dubai) which brings the price to within our budget; it's unlikely that this special will still be available if I come back in September or October. But I'll take it for right now.

One of the project managers here is going on vacation at the end of the week and wants to tie up as many loose ends as possible before she departs, so I imagine things are going to get busier as the week progresses. And I still need to have serious negotiations with those in charge as to what it will take for me to make any more trips out here this year. But otherwise, things at work seem to be going smoothly, at least so far. I even had a productive meeting with a client yesterday, for a change!

Katherine Jane Johnston 1940 - 2008

I can't say that I knew my Aunt Jane especially well; she divorced my uncle when I was still young and lived in Oregon for most of my life. Last Thanksgiving was the first time I had seen her in years.

Jane, who had relatively recently moved back to her childhood home in northern Oklahoma, had been in an Oklahoma City hospital - ironically, the same hospital where she studied to become a nurse - to repair an aeortic aneurysm. My parents had gone up there to visit her just a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, something went horribly wrong during one of the surgeries to repair the aneurysm.

This is probably not the entire obituary, but the Blackwell Journal-Tribune requires a paid subscription to access their archives so this is all I was able to get. I'll revise this entry if I get a full obituary.

Katherine Jane Johnston, 68, of Blackwell, formerly of Corvallis, Ore., died Aug. 7, 2008, from surgical complications at St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City.

She was born Feb. 17, 1940, in Blackwell to Hal and Rena Sommers Wilkins. She graduated from Blackwell High School in 1958 and graduated from St. Anthony Hospital as a registered nurse in 1961.

Her body was cremated. An informal memorial will be 1 p.m. Aug. 10 in the fellowship hall of the First United Methodist Church at Sixth and Coolidge in Blackwell.

Right now my thoughts are with my cousins Laura and Ellie. With the span of less than one year, they have lost both their father and their mother.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

There goes Edouard

Tropical storm Edouard made a slight detour Monday night, making landfall north of Galveston early Tuesday morning and sparing Houston a direct hit. Not that it would have mattered; the storm simply wasn't that strong and, other than some localized flooding, did not cause any major damage as it passed to the north and east of Houston and into the center of the state to dissipate.

Truth be told, Edouard was an enjoyable storm. The cooler-than normal temperatures, the rain and the blowing wind made it feel less like an early-August tropical storm and more like a late-September cold front. Lori got a day off from work, and our yard got a few inches of badly-needed rain. (Besides, having literally gone months without seeing rain, it was actually something of a novelty for me!)

I briefly entertained myself Tuesday morning by flipping back and forth between channels, watching the local news coverage of Edouard. The local stations tried valiantly to justify the hype that they were devoting to the storm, with anchors and meteorologists desperately continuing to insist that conditions "could yet become dangerous" and field reporters pointing to windblown road signs, puddles of rain in parking lots, and even (in Channel Two's case) bark blown off of trees as evidence of Edouard's fury. It would have been funny if it weren't so pathetic. As the Houston Press's Richard Connelly notes:
Everyone complains about TV coverage of potential hurricanes, of course. But if the hype keeps going -- turning a tropical storm/possible cat 1 hurricane into Katrina Redux -- than at some point people are going to stop paying attention. They'll simply remember TV reporters out there talking about swaying trees as if it was evidence of a real storm.

And then you might see a real disaster.


Local media histrionics aside, Edouard was a reminder for that we need to be prepared, because the busiest part of hurricane season has only just begun. For now, however, it's back to the droning heat of August in Houston.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Here comes Edouard

A tropical system formed rather suddenly off the coast of Louisiana over the weekend and is now headed this way. Edouard will probably be a strong tropical storm or even a weak hurricane when it makes landfall sometime tomorrow. As of late this evening its projected track takes it right over Houston:
There is, however, a possibility that its track could be shifting to the east. We won't know for sure until it makes landfall sometime in the early afternoon tomorrow.

Of course, the approaching storm has predictably sent the local news media into their usual frenzy, and the evening TV news broadcasts have all contained the obligatory footage of people stocking up on bottled water at the grocery store and boarding up windows on beachfront homes. But even the local media know that there's only so much hype they can render to what just isn't likely to be a particularly devastating storm. The winds and storm surge generated by Edouard are not expected to be severe, and as of this evening no mandatory evacuations have been ordered, even in beachfront communities.

This isn't to say I am taking the storm lightly. While I do not expect damaging winds to reach my house, I am concerned about flooding - we all know what tropical storms can do to Houston - and there's always the chance that wind gust could be strong enough to knock down power lines, leaving us without electricity for a few days. That's a real concern, given that Houston in August is unbearable without air conditioning.

But I'm not especially worried. We're stocked up with water and batteries, we're not in a floodplain and we're not required to be anywhere tomorrow: Kirby's daycare is closed, as is Lori's office, and I work from home a lot of the time anyway. So we're just going to spend the day here at the house and hope that the power doesn't go out.

Everybody stay safe and dry. I'll post an update as I am able to do so.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Putting my foot down

Another exciting edition of my least favorite month is upon us. As was the case two years ago, I'll be spending most of it over in Dubai, where it is even hotter than it is here in Houston.

But it's good to be back home again, for at least a few days. As I mentioned in a previous post, the constant travel is beginning to take its toll - not just on myself but on my family as well - and I'll be glad when it's finally over. So you can imagine the wave of disgust that crept over my body when I received a work e-mail a couple of days ago that started like this:
Hey Thomas, when's the earliest you think you could return to Dubai in September?
I think this is the point where I need to politely put my foot down. I know Dubai is where the work is right now, I know my project managers can't be faulted for the fact that our clients are completely unorganized, and I know I agreed to help out. But this is beginning to get ridiculous. Originally, I was looking at a project assignment schedule of April through June. Then July and August were added. Now they want to tack on September and October. It's like I'm being taken for granted, and it's really not fair to me or my family.

So I've made a decision: if they really need me, I'm willing to compromise. Shorter trips with more time between them - instead of spending three weeks in Dubai and one week in Houston, it should be the other way around - and a hotel within walking distance of the office so I don't have to screw with the taxis anymore. I've already put in my time and I think these are reasonable requests. If they can't accommodate me, they need to find somebody else.