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.