Saturday, January 31, 2009

I've been assimilated.

Resistance is indeed futile. I'm not talking about the Borg, but something close to it: Facebook.

I tried to resist, but everybody else around me had joined - my mother, my brother, my wife, my relatives - that I simply could no longer be the odd person out. A few days ago I succumbed to the pressure and created my own profile (which of course, you can't fully access unless you have a Facebook account of your own and send me a friend request). The friend requests began rolling in - from my family, Lori's family, friends and neighbors - and I sent out a few requests of my own. I immediately connected with a handful of high school friends that I hadn't spoken to our heard from in at least fifteen years.

Of course, now that I've joined up, I have some questions. For example, do I really need to get an e-mail notification every time somebody makes a comment on my "wall" or "tags" me in photo? How often should I change my status or comment on a friend's wall so that I don't seem aloof or disinterested? What if I get a friend request from somebody I don't know or don't particularly like? What do I do if I decide I have too many friends? Or what if somebody I just made friends with decides to "un-friend" me? These last two questions appear to be a heady issue for the Facebook community, especially in the wake of the "Whopper Sacrifice" campaign:

Facebook, which now has more than 150 million members, has clearly been built on the back of the culture of oversharing. Many members broadcast the mundane details of their lives through a “status update” feature, which lets people — nay, encourages them — to describe the contents of their lunch or the virulence of their bronchitis.

Even in this environment, however, deleting friends does not generate a notification of any sort, leaving members to discover they’ve been unfriended only when they find they no longer have access to someone’s profile. It can be a jarring experience, especially considering that the person who dumped you at some point either requested you as a friend or accepted your request (on Facebook, that is how friends are made). But members understand that such selective discretion is critical to the social-networking ecosystem.
So far, all the people on my "friends" list are people that I know and indeed consider to be friends (even if I haven't spoken them in fifteen years). But I've only been part of this community for three days, and at some point I'm sure I'll have to deal with situations like the ones described above. Online relationships, like their real-world counterparts, can be tricky.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Short-sightedness in vehicle purchases?

Now that gas prices have fallen from last summer's peak of $147/barrel to their current price of around $40/barrel, you just knew that this was going to happen: those gas-guzzling SUVs that nobody wanted when gas was $4 a gallon at the pump are now a hot item again:

The turnabout "shows the fickleness of the market," says (Chrysler President Jim) Press, speaking after a J.D. Power and Associates conference here for auto dealers.

Guessing what people want has been just as hard for dealers. AutoNation, the country's largest dealer chain, struggled last summer to stock enough hot-selling fuel misers on its sales lots.

Back then, CEO Mike Jackson says, buyers were trading their Cadillac Escalade SUVs for Toyota Prius hybrids. Now Jackson says he's canceling orders for such smaller vehicles and ordering more trucks instead.

The change shows how fuel prices rule the car business. In May, 56% of the vehicles sold were cars, not trucks. By last month, the share of cars had fallen to 47%, according to Autodata.

Gas prices averaged $1.845 a gallon by Sunday, less than half their summer peak of $4.114.

The market is becoming "almost schizophrenic" for big or small car demand, says Tom Libby, analyst for Power Information Network. He cautions against writing off small vehicles.

"People are making comments like 'Prius is dead,' " he says, which isn't true.

Ford Motor is adding a slew of small cars, including several derived from vehicles made by its European unit. General Motors has major small car plans, too.

Longer term, "The price of gas is going to go up," Ford Vice President Mark Fields says. Figuring out what buyers want amid wild gas price swings "is like trying to time the stock market."

It simply amazes me that people are basing a decision as big as a vehicle purchase on something as volatile and ethereal as the price of gas. Certainly, other factors are coming into play as well - it's a buyers market for vehicles right now, after all - but it's clear that the price of gas is the major factor when it comes to the decision between a smaller-fuel efficient car and a larger, gas-hungry SUV. Do the people who are buying these large vehicles really think that last summer's gas price spike was a one-time occurrence and that fuel will remain cheap from now on? If people really think that, they're being rather naive.

Petroleum is currently cheap because of the worldwide economic slowdown: the demand for oil is simply weak. The fact that demand for gasoline is typically low during the winter is also playing a role. Gas prices will certainly increase later this spring when refineries go offline to switch to summer blends and the summer driving season approaches. And worldwide demand will eventually increase as well, once the economy gets cranking again (although I personally don't foresee it doing so before 2010). There are still tens of millions of people in China and India who want to buy cars, after all. Just because they can't afford to do so right now doesn't mean that they've gone away.

In fact, once the economy gets rolling again, the pain at the pump could be even worse than what it was last summer. As fuel prices fall, oil companies reduce production investments such as the maintenance of existing oilfields or the development and exploration of new ones, simply because it's not profitable to do. That, however, means that when demand does eventually rise, there could be a "supply crunch" due to the lack of available and ready-to-go reserves. Gas prices would likely skyrocket, and that full-size truck or SUV that looks like a good deal right now will become a money-sucking albatross around the neck of its owner.

Hopefully, the people currently buying these large vehicles are doing so with the understanding that this scenario is a true possibility sometime in the future.

The latest from Dubai

I have been informed that the project I spent much of my time in Dubai working on last year has been canceled by the client. What a waste of time, money and effort that turned out to be.

To be sure, the project was a huge clusterfuck from the beginning. The client continually altered the agreed-upon schedule, and what was supposed to be a three-month assignment last spring turned into a nine-month quagmire that was finally put out if its misery this month. The client also made constant changes to the project scope and the deliverables required. I was never completely sure what was expected of our work, as our tasks changed from week to week. It didn't help that the client's project manager was a rude and unprofessional buffoon.

The project, however, was ultimately killed by what could only be described as a mind-bogglingly incompetent lack of internal coordination on the part of the client. Apparently, there were elements within the clients' organization that never wanted this project to happen. The managers that were in favor of this project decided to put it out for bid anyway in spite of this opposition. Only after my company was awarded this project and began work on it were we made aware of this internal dissention. Eventually, it became our responsibility to try to "convince" the people in opposition that this was a worthwhile project. The folks in opposition, on the other hand, simply hired a consultant of their own to argue why our project was not necessary. It was a huge mess - one in that we, as design consultant, should never have become involved - and it was finally resolved by the client's CEO, who summarily terminated our project earlier this month.

So that's that. I guess I shouldn't be too bitter - it's not our fault that our client was unorganized and incompetent, and I did get paid for my work - but it is disappointing that all that travel and all that time spent away from Lori and Kirby was essentially for naught.

There is another project in Dubai that I was supposed to be involved in this past year. It's still active, if only in fits and starts, but I'm not optimistic of its long-term viability given Dubai's current economic troubles and my participation in this project is relatively minor in any case. I do not think I will be making any more trips to Dubai just to work on this project.

My company's Dubai office is looking at a couple of projects in Abu Dhabi that might require my participation sometime this year. I'll know more about these projects in the coming weeks, but at this point I'm going to be vary wary of any more long-term assignments overseas.

I certainly don't mind making one or two trips over to the UAE during the course of 2009 - I still want to see Abu Dhabi, after all - but I am simply not going to allow myself to get into the same situation I found myself in last year. Especially given how it all turned out.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Adventures in self-amusement

About a week ago, Lori purchased a Wii at a local retailer. (Funny how these things magically reappear in stock right after Christmas...)

Last Friday, I picked up a copy of Mario Kart while shopping at Best Buy.

Needless to say, this has not been a very productive weekend.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I've been tagged.

Okay, so Austin Contrarian tagged M1EK, and M1EK tagged me, but only now, one month and one day later, have I finally come around to responding. I'm supposed to come up with seven facts about myself. So here goes:

1. I currently live in the same neighborhood where I grew up. In fact, with the exception of the two years I spent in Austin, the three years I lived in Denton County, the nine months I lived in Sagemont (a suburb southeast of Houston) and the eighteen months I lived in Midtown, I've spent my entire life in this neighborhood.

2. On a related note, I love Houston. This is a great city full of great people and great things to do and I have no desire to ever live anywhere else.

I know that there are legions of people out there who, for whatever reason, hate Houston. They think that this city is a miserable hellhole and they don't understand why anybody would willingly live here. In my experience, most people who dislike Houston have a) never even visited this city, b) never ventured inside the loop (although, in their defense, they are bound to have a bad experience if their sole experience of Houston is Greenspoint or Westchase or whatever suburban schlock exists along the Sam Houston Parkway), or c) hate any city other than their own. These people can bite me.

3. On the subject of cities: As much as I enjoy the urban form and experience, there are several major cities within the United States that I have yet to visit. For example, I have never set foot within Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Portland or Seattle. And I've been to all of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, DC exactly once apiece in my entire life. I really need to get out more.

4. When I was nine years old, I (rather stupidly) jumped off a ledge on my bike, did a faceplant on the concrete and broke four of my front teeth. 26 years and thousands of dollars worth of root canals, caps, posts-and-cores, and, finally, extractions later, all I have to show for it is a resin partial where my teeth used to be. Maybe one of these days I'll be able to afford implants.

The lesson I've learned that I want to pass on is this: if you've broken (not chipped, but broken) your teeth, don't believe any dentist who claims that they can "save" them. Over the long term, they can't. If' they're broken, go ahead and get them extracted. Use the money you would have spent trying to "save" them on implants instead.

5. I like to cook. In fact, I prepare most of the meals in this household.

6. I love being a father, because it gives me an excuse to buy all the cool toy sets that didn't exist when I was a child (like GeoTrax or Rokenbok). I can buy these things with the rationalization that Kirby will be able to play with them, too. Maybe. If I let him.

7. I spent four years in high school studying theatre and five-and-a-half years in college (undergrad) studying architecture. My current career has absolutely nothing to do with either of these disciplines.

I'm supposed to tag seven other people with this meme. The problem is that, since M1EK is one of like 4 semi-regular readers of this blog, and he already tagged Steve, another semi-regular reader of this blog, I really don't have seven other people I can tag. So I'll make do with five people who might check on this blog often enough to notice that they've been tagged: my brother Dave, Todd at, John, Andrew over at the neoHouston blog (a new favorite read of mine), and Seabee over in Dubai.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kirby's old school is new again

Last week, winter holidays ended and Kirby returned to school: his "old" school at the Human Development Laboratory at the University of Houston. Kirby's short stint in pre-K at Woodrow Wilson Elementary simply didn't work out the way we had intended, and right before the holidays we dis-enrolled him from that school.

When we succeeded in getting Kirby into what we understood to be a good inside-the-loop public school last summer, Lori and I felt happy and relieved, because we felt we had resolved what is always a heady issue for inner-city parents. Unfortunately, over the course of the ensuing months it became clear that Wilson simply wasn't the place for him.

For one thing, not every child is a good candidate for a Montessori-type classroom environment. Kirby simply needs more structure than that style of preschool education provides. Moreover, the school was, for whatever reason, never able to effectively provide Kirby with the special education services (Kirby needs help with his communication skills) that were promised for him when he was enrolled. Finally, it was clear to us that Kirby, for whatever reason, simply didn't like his new school. On several occasions, he would throw temper tantrums when Lori and I took him to class in the morning, and in the evenings he would oftentimes be clingy or irritable.

The learning environment at the Lab School is more structured and the class sizes are smaller there, which means Kirby will get more of the attention he needs. After a week and a half, it is clear that Kirby is a lot happier at his "old school" than he was at Wilson. On a more practical note, the fact that the school is open until 6 pm is a huge help to us as well; Wilson's regular 3:30 dismissals weren't too onerous, but the early dismissal at 1 pm every Wednesday was a bit of a hassle.

The point of this post is not to blame or criticize. The fact is that things simply don't always go according to plan, especially as far as young children are concerned. We're just happy that we were able identify what appeared to be a problem for Kirby and resolve it, even if it does mean that the "where will Kirby attend elementary school" question is still unresolved.

Fortunately, we'll have some time to think about it. Kirby's still a year and a half away from first grade.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Utah Utes should be National Champions

Screw the Bowl Championship Series. Utah should be Number One.

Sure, there was that BCS National Championship game played in Miami last night. And yes, Florida defeated Oklahoma, 24-14, to give coach Urban Meyer and the Gators their second BCS title in three years. Good for them; they were a good team.

But as far as I'm concerned, Utah, not Florida, deserves to be crowned the best college football team of the 2008 season.

The reason is not because I think Utah is a better team athletically than Florida; if the Utes and the Gators played each other tomorrow, the Gators would probably win. (Of course, that's not going to happen, so we'll never know for sure.) The reason I think Utah deserves to be national champion is simply because they did everything they were supposed to do in order to be national champions. Namely, they went through the entire season undefeated, something that no other Football Bowl Subdivision in the nation - Florida included - was able to do. Moreover, they topped off their perfect season with a convincing 31-17 beatdown of #4-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The fact that Utah is not the 2008 National College Football Champion today, in fact, simply shows how pernicious, inequitable and defective the BCS system really is.

One of the most persistent arguments I hear BCS apologists give in opposition to a playoff is that the current arrangement gives a unique importance to college football's regular season that does not exist in any other sport: that the regular season, in effect, acts as a "playoff" of its own, where every week teams knock each other out of national title contention. If that is the case, then Utah is the only school to get through this "regular season playoff" undefeated. Oklahoma lost to Texas, and Florida lost to Mississippi State. Texas and USC, who have also made arguments in favor of them being #1, lost to Texas Tech and Oregon State, respectively. Shouldn't making it through the entire season without a single loss - and being the only team out of a field of 120 to do so - count for something?

Of course, when one brings up the fact that Utah went through the regular season undefeated, the typical response is something along the lines of "yeah, but they played a relatively weak schedule." Yes, Utah plays in the non-BCS Mountain West Conference while Florida plays in the powerful SEC and you certainly won't get any argument from me that the SEC is, from top to bottom, a better conference than the MWC. But that doesn't mean that the MWC doesn't have any good teams of its own; TCU and BYU both ended the season ranked in the top 25 and Air Force and Colorado State had winning, bowl-bound seasons as well. Utah can't do anything about the performance of other schools in their own conference; it's not the Utes' fault that San Diego State and Wyoming suck any more than it is the Gators' fault that Tennessee and Arkansas both had disappointing, losing seasons. They can only beat their opponents, and they did. All of them.

This brings me to another common refrain heard from BCS apologists, which is that, in order to be in consideration for a national title, non-BCS schools need to "compensate" for a weak conference schedule by playing out-of-conference games against tough BCS opponents. Well, Utah took that advice to heart and signed a deal with one of the premier programs in all of college football: Michigan. And then Utah went up to Ann Arbor on the first weekend of the season and beat them. Why is it Utah's fault that the Wolverines somehow managed to have their worst season in the history of their storied program? These out-of-conference contracts, after all, are signed years in advance and the Utes should be commended for accepting the challenge. For good measure, the Utes also scheduled - and defeated - an Oregon State team from the Pac-10 that upset the top-ranked USC Trojans the previous week. Okay, so the Utes also scheduled games against Weber State (who actually had a good season, advancing to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs) and Utah State (whom they play every year anyway). Fine. Florida scheduled the Citadel.

And last but not least, the Sugar Bowl. Alabama, who spent several weeks of the past season ranked as the top team in the nation, was heavily favored in this game. But the Utes thoroughly defeated them, jumping out to a 21-0 lead and holding on for the 31-17 victory. That's a 14-point margin; for comparison's sake, Florida beat the Tide by 11 in the SEC Championship Game last December.

And please, don't give me the "but Alabama wasn't playing at full strength" excuse. Yeah, they were playing with a few injuries and a makeshift offensive line that was missing suspended LT Andre Smith. But Alabama is so loaded with talent that it really shouldn't have mattered. Moreover, I'm not convinced that Alabama would have won even if they were at full strength, especially given the way the Utes were playing in that game. In any case, the "team X would have won if player Y was playing" argument is speculative, unprovable and irrelevant (not that it will ever stop those annoying Chicago fans from continuing to claim that the Houston Rockets would not had won NBA Championships in 1994 and 1995 had Michael Jordan not "retired," but that's a different story).

So let's recap:

The Utah Utes won all their games - the only FBS team in the entire nation to do so. They beat four teams - Alabama, TCU, Oregon State and BYU - that ended the season ranked in the top 25. They bolstered their schedule by playing teams from the Pac-10 and Big Ten. They won their bowl game in convincing fashion. In short, they did all they were asked to do.

Although the USA Today Coaches Poll is bound to declare the winner of the BCS game their National Champion, the sportswriters of the AP Poll had the opportunity to give the Utes their share of glory by awarding them their top spot. Unfortunately, only 16 of the AP's 65 voters (the Chronicle's Joseph Duarte among them) had enough manhood to do so. As's John Tamanaha writes:
Following the 2003 season, the AP voters had the guts to look past the BCS version of a pseudo national championship game between LSU and Oklahoma, and awarded their trophy to one-loss USC.

This time around, it's too bad that so many of them got caught up in the story that the BCS was selling.

At the end of the day, all of this national championship business is mythical. Why not share the wealth and possibly take another step toward a more equitable solution?
Exactly. The fact that Utah, in spite of its accomplishments, did not even get to play for the national championship, let alone win it, under the BCS system simply shows how utterly cynical, unfair and flawed the BCS system is. Little wonder, then, that State of Utah's Attorney General is looking into antitrust action against it.

Therefore, I reject the BCS as well as its determination of which team deserves to be crowned the best in the land. Mean Green Cougar Red hereby declares coach Kyle Wittingham and Utah Utes to be college football's 2008 National Champions. Congratulations!

To be fair, Utah wasn't even on my radar screen when I wrote my season preview back in August. I was also wrong, at least as far as the BCS game goes, when I said that the Gators didn't have a "championship caliber defense." Finally, I erred at season's beginning when I picked Ohio State to win it all. Truth is, I'm not even sure the Buckeyes deserved their Fiesta Bowl berth (where they were edged by Texas, 24-21). On the other hand, it turns out I was right to be skeptical about Georgia's chances at a national title, I did predict that USC would stub their toe somewhere along the course of the season, and I did foresee that the winner of a Big XII Championship Game against Oklahoma and Missouri would go on to play in the BCS title game. So maybe my powers of pigskin prognostication aren't too bad after all...

Finally, let me say that I will be very happy after the upcoming season ends and FOX's rights to televise the BCS bowls expires. FOX's coverage of the bowls has simply sucked. Last night's commentators, in particular, were among the worst I've had endured all year. The play-by-play guy's overbearing adoration of Florida QB Tim Tebow as as annoying as it was embarrassing; by the end of the game I wanted him to quit talking about him and just walk out on to the field to actually give Tebow a blowjob.

There should be a rule: if you don't broadcast regular season college football games, you shouldn't be allowed to bid for the rights to postseason broadcasts.

Anyway, on to the offseason.

Coogs win Armed Forces Bowl, end season with 8-5 record

I can't believe it's taken me over a week to get around to writing about the outcome of last week's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, which I attended. The Coogs ended their 2008 campaign on a high note with a 34-28 victory over Air Force, gaining revenge on the Falcons for their hurricane-affected loss last September and snapping a bowl losing streak that reached back to the Carter administration.

Indeed, it had been 28 years since the last time Houston had last won a bowl, when they defeated Navy in the 1980 Garden State Bowl. Since that time the Coogs had gone 0-8 in postseason appearances and, with Notre Dame's victory over Hawaii on Christmas Eve, were in sole possession of the longest bowl losing streak in FBS, a distinction the long-suffering UH program simply did not need. Needless to say, breaking that streak was a huge monkey off of the program's back.

The game started out well, with Air Force fumbling the opening kick-off. The Coogs recovered and scored a touchdown only a minute and a half into the game. But then Air Force got the ball back and used their option offense to march down the field and score a touchdown of their own only two minutes later. At that point, it looked as if the Cougar defense was in for another long and helpless afternoon. But they began to make adjustments on subsequent Falcon possessions, even forcing another fumble later in the quarter, and the Cougar offense kept putting points on the board. The score was Houston 17, Air Force 7 at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter was a bit frustrating to watch, as the UH offense began to sputter. Quarterback Case Keenum, who did not have his best game of the season in the bowl, made some poor decisions and bad throws that led to some three-and-outs, and it didn't help when Tyron Carrier fumbled away kickoff return of his own late in the quarter. Air Force crawled their way back and the score was tied at 17 apiece going into the half.

The Coogs started the third quarter with a touchdown. Air Force responded with a long, clock-chewing drive of their own but could only come away with a field goal. Early in the fourth quarter it appeared that the Coogs added another six points to their total with another Bryce Beall rush into the endzone, but the referees reviewed the play and somehow decided that, not only did Beall not score the touchdown, he fumbled the ball into the endzone for an Air Force touchback. I've since watched replays and simply don't understand how the refs came up with that call, but every time a play gets reviewed, the Cougars always seem to get screwed.

The defense stepped up following the phantom turnover and stopped Air Force, giving the Coogs good field position. This time Case Keenum hit Andre Kohn with a 13-yard touchdown pass that the refs could not overturn, and, with 10:28 left in the game, things were looking good for Houston with a 31-20 advantage. The Falcons were frustrated with another good stand by the Cougar defense, and when the Coogs got the ball back halfway through the fourth quarter it seemed that one more score would put the game away.

In true UH fashion, however, the Coogs decided to make things interesting. Case Keenum threw a pass to TE Mark Hafner, but the ball was deflected off of Hafner's shoulder pads and landed into the arms of Air Force defender Aaron Kirchoff. The interception led to a quick Air Force touchdown and two-point conversion to bring them within three points with 6:06 remaining. Houston's subsequent drive didn't really take a lot of time off the clock - there was no reason for Case Keenum to take snaps with 20 seconds remaining on the play clock - and only resulted in a field goal. It would be up to the defense to keep Air Force from reaching the endzone - and probable victory - in the final 3:24 of the game.

With little time remaining on the clock, only one remaining timeout, and a lot of field to cover, Air Force was forced into a passing situation. This can pose problem for a run-oriented offense like Air Force's, however - the Falcons only completed 8 of 18 passes that afternoon - and that, along with a Houston pass defense that stepped up to do its job - meant that the Falcon's final possession didn't even result in a first down. The Coogs got the ball back and ran out the clock to end the game and secure the victory.

So how would I characterize the 2008 University of Houston football campaign? I would call it a success.

No, an 8-win season is nothing particularly exceptional. No, the Cougars did not end the season with a top-25 ranking. No, the Cougars did not win the conference or even their division (the Rice game still sticks in my craw). But, when one considers the things that the Coogs did accomplish:
I think it's safe to say that the Coogs had a pretty good season - especially when one considers that this was done under the leadership of a rookie head coach and that the team had to cope with the disruption caused by Hurricane Ike. While there were certainly disappointments - the Colorado State, Marshall and (especially) Rice games quickly come to mind - I think the good clearly outweighs the bad. At the very least, unlike many previous years I'm not going into the offseason with a bad taste in my mouth about Cougar football.

The program definitely created for some momentum this past season. Will they be able to keep it going in 2009? Other bloggers are already thinking about the coming season. It's a bit early for me to start giving too much thought to something that's still eight months away; I want to see what the incoming recruiting class looks like and how the schedule shapes up first. I do know, however, that while the team returns a ton of skill on the offensive side of the ball, the squad is also losing (by my count) 17 seniors to graduation, including a significant portion of the offensive line and seven starters on defense. We'll just have to wait and see how the coaching staff addresses these losses. At the very least, I hope 2009 sees more consistency on defense, fewer turnovers on offense and no more slow starts that require miraculous, nail-biting second-half comebacks.

But that's all to worry about later in 2009. Right now, I'm going to sit back and enjoy the Coogs' accomplishments of 2008.

Check out Todd's account of the game here and a rundown of his gameday experience here. Good work, Todd!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

2009 might be a pretty rough year as far as the economy is concerned, but speaking for Lori and myself, I certainly hope it is better than 2008.

My New Year's Resolution for 2009 is to be at least 30 pounds lighter on December 31, 2009 than I am today.