Saturday, February 28, 2009

Missing information

This otherwise unremarkable article on a Topeka TV station's website about new additions to the coaching staff at Kansas State University caught my attention because of the following:
In 1997, (new KSU running backs coach Dana) Dimel became the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I when he was named head coach at the University of Wyoming at the age of 35.

Dimel spent three years at Wyoming, guiding the Cowboys to an impressive 23-12 overall record, and left Laramie as one of only 10 head coaches at the time to win no fewer than seven games in every year as a head coach.

Considered one of the nation's most successful young head coaches at the time, Dimel led the Cowboys to eight-win seasons in both 1998 and 1999 before being named head coach at the University of Houston, where he guided the Cougars' football program from 2000-2002.
Yeah, they kind of left out the part where "one of the nation's most successful young head coaches" posted an 8-26 record at Houston, including the first 0-win season in program history, before being sacked with two years left on his contract.

To be fair: I liked Dana Dimel as a person. And, to his credit, he did try to repair the local recruiting pipelines that were left to rust by previous coach Kim Helton. But Dimel just didn't have what it took to be a successful head coach at UH. I wish him luck, but I'm happy that the University of Houston program has moved on.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A request for female Facebook users

So I've been assimilated for three weeks now, and so far, I've really come up with only one gripe about Facebook:

Ladies, if you get married and take your husband's name, please keep your maiden name in your profile (as in [first name] [maiden name] [married name]), so I can identify you from childhood or high school or whenever it was that I knew you.

Most of the time I can figure it out, but the other day I got a friend request from somebody whom apparently was a high school classmate of mine but whose name I didn't recognize because she was using her married name in her profile. I had to go dig up and dust off the old high school yearbook in order to positively identify this person.

I'm sure I'm not the only one of Facebook's 175+ million users who occasionally gets confused by unfamiliar last names, either. Help us out be retaining the name by you used to be known in your profile.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Well that sucks...

The recession continues to deepen, and claim more victims. Two Fridays ago, my brother became one of them. His account is here.

This is going to get worse - a lot worse - before it gets better.

Bus rapid transit

This past week has seen some interesting local inter-blog transit discussion between Andrew, Kuff and Cory. One of the topics that was brought up for discussion was bus rapid transit (BRT).

In my current life in the transportation planning and engineering profession, I've done a lot of bus operations and facilities planning. I've worked on rail and roadway projects as well, but the majority of my time over the past several years has been spent on bus projects, from local bus networks to downtown bus circulators to express bus applications. I've done a fair amount of work with bus rapid transit as well. As such, I thought I'd add my two cents to the discussion.

At the risk of raising the hackles of M1EK or Jeff, let me state that there is nothing inherently wrong with BRT. It is an often-misunderstood mode of public transportation, yet, when it is done correctly, it is a tool that can attract riders and improve urban mobility.

However, there are two very important caveats that need to be kept in mind when it comes to BRT:
  1. The definition of "true" BRT is important. A lot of bus services that claim to be BRT really aren't. In a nutshell: if it doesn't have its own right-of-way, it's not really BRT.

  2. BRT is not a fully-equivalent alternative to light rail transit (LRT). BRT promoters who try to pass BRT off as "rubber-tired light rail" are, at the very least, exaggerating.
On the first point: theoretically, bus rapid transit contains many of the same features and amenities as one would find on a rail line. This includes: all-day service, frequent (10 minutes or less) headways, a route layout that mimics that of a rail line, with named stations spaced at quarter-mile intervals or further, actual station platforms which contain amenities such as benches, canopies, map kiosks, off-vehicle fare collection machines (to speed passenger loading) or real-time passenger information ("next bus" signage), larger vehicles (usually 45' or 60' articulated buses), signal priority systems that give the vehicle the right-of-way at intersections, specific branding (transit agencies such as those in Boston and Los Angeles use line names like the "Silver Line" and the "Orange Line," respectively, to describe their BRT services), and, most importantly, exclusive right-of-way in the form of a dedicated bus lane separated from other types of traffic. This last characteristic is crucial: if a BRT system does not have its own lane(s) and has to operate in mixed traffic, then it's not going to be "rapid," no matter how many other features it might have, and therefore is not BRT.

There are several "better bus" or "quality bus" services in operation around the United States, such as the Metro Rapid service in Los Angeles, "Rapid" services in Oakland and Phoenix, and even the Quickline service here in Houston (that METRO still has yet to implement). These services have many characteristics of BRT: fewer stops, "station-like" amenities at stops, signal pre-emption systems, specifically-branded service with specially-marked vehicles, and even facilities such as "queue-jumper" lanes at intersections. "Better bus" is a step above standard local bus service and definitely has its place in an urban transit network.

But it's not true BRT, because these services do not operate within their own right-of-way. They operate on regular urban arterials, in mixed traffic, and since they usually operate in the right lane they are subject to speed disruptions as they encounter vehicles making right turns at intersections or driveways, illegally-parked vehicles (especially delivery trucks), and slower local buses which make more frequent stops. Some jurisdictions might limit the right lane to buses during certain hours, such as the AM and PM commute periods, which improves the buses' performance but still doesn't equate to true BRT.

I really don't consider point-to-point express bus services, such as the park-and-ride bus routes that use the HOV lanes here in Houston, to be "true" BRT, either. Even they do operate within a reserved right-of-way (albeit with carpools and vanpools), they are special peak-period commuter services, rather than all-day buses serving a corridor with multiple stops.

On the second point: BRT partisans have been pushing the "it's rail on rubber tires!" slogan ever since the Federal Transit Administration, which under the Bush Administration sought to encourage BRT as a lower-cost alternative to rail, officially described BRT as a "rapid mode of transportation that can provide the quality of rail transit and the flexibility of bus." This description is not entirely true, because it overlooks a lot of advantages that LRT has over BRT in terms of capacity (buses carry fewer passengers than light rail vehicles, and cannot be strung together in multiple-vehicle consists), operation (electric traction and steel-on-steel guidance provides quicker acceleration, a smoother ride and less lateral deviation than buses), aesthetics (rail is quieter, does not emit pollutants within the corridor and, deservedly or not, has a much better public image than bus), durability (the lifespan of a bus is 12-15 years, tops, while the lifespan of a rail vehicle is measured in decades; the same is true for concrete pavement versus steel rail) and economic development (due to its permanence of infrastructure, rail has a stronger positive impact on urban development).

That being said, BRT has advantages of its own: it is cheaper, quicker and less disruptive to implement than LRT, and it is more flexible than rail because it is not limited to the extent of the track network (this, in turn, reduces the need for passengers to transfer). In urban corridors that have enough transit demand to warrant improved transit service (relative to standard local bus) but do not generate, nor are expected to generate in the future, enough transit trips to justify the higher cost of LRT, BRT is probably the way to go. But it's not an "all-purpose" replacement for rail transit, no matter what its more passionate promoters might say. They are two different technologies that have two different applications.

Dr. Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation planning at the University of Pennyslvania, has literally written the (text)book on urban transit planning in the United States. With respect to comparisons between BRT and LRT, he writes:
In conclusion, BRT and LRT are quite different modes and each one has a significant domain in urban transportation. Any publications that attempt to provide that one of these modes is always superior to the other, or that one of them has no place in urban transportation (such papers against rail transit are frequently produced and widely distributed in the United States), are products of special interest groups and have no professional validity. (Urban Transit: Operations, Planning and Economics; p. 591)
My opinion is the same as Dr. Vuchic's - the "rail versus bus" debate, incidentally, is tedious and pointless - and I think that BRT would become a lot more widely accepted by the American public if it were understood for what it really is, rather than promoted as something it isn't (rail) or confused for something that isn't it ("better bus" services).

Andrew has some ideas as to where BRT routes could go, and how they could complement the LRT network, if they were to be deployed here in Houston.

Valentine's Day is stupid

Another Valentine's Day is upon is. Yippee. As I wrote a year ago, I fundamentally dislike this phoney "holiday." CNN's Roland Martin hates it, too:

For several years I have ripped into Valentine's Day. Not because I'm against love and relationships, but mainly because the holiday is such a farce.

First of all, Valentine's Day is not built around a religious event like Christmas or Easter; nor does it have any special meaning to the nation such as Memorial Day or Veterans Day.

It is nothing more than a commercial holiday created by rabid retailers who needed a major shopping day between Christmas and Easter in order to give people a reason to spend money.

Now folks, I love my wife. She is truly an awesome woman who is smart, talented, fine, and, did I say fine? But do I really need a special day to show my affection for her?

I've long maintained that if I sent my flowers at other times during the year, why do I have to fall victim to peer pressure and send her some roses that have quadrupled in price leading up to February 14?

Why should I be inundated with mailings, e-mails and commercials to show her that I love her by buying jewelry or clothing? If we went shopping in June or September or last month, can I get some kind of waiver or "Get out of Valentine's Day" card?

Exactly. What's wrong with celebrating your relationship or expressing your affection on any of the other 364 days of the year, anyway? And why should we be compulsed into "proving" our feelings for somebody else by participating in this silly, contrived, corporatized event? In doing so, don't we cheapen, or at least commoditize, our relationships?

The bottom line: Valentine's Day is a stupid holiday that serves no purpose other than to make some after-Christmas money for florists, greeting card companies, confectioners, jewelers, restaurateurs and the like. One does not become more romantic or affectionate simply by particpating in it. Likewise, one does not become any less so for ignoring it. Which is why I wish more people would just ignore it. Valentine's Day sucks!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Call it Houston City University

Kuff is among those following ongoing saga of the University of Houston - Downtown and its proposed name change. The Board of Regents of the University of Houston System has decided that the school on One Main Street will indeed be changing names; they just can't come to an agreement on what the new name should be.

The decision to do away with the name " University of Houston - Downtown" apparently has to do with perceptions that people were confusing UH-D with the University of Houston itself, even though the two are completely separate schools. This does makes some sense; I'm not aware of any other university system in the nation that has two freestanding schools so close to one another (UH and UH-D are less than five miles apart). However, there's a lot more to the debate, and if you're so inclined, there are a couple of eye-glossing multi-page threads regarding the subject over on HAIF.

What interests me about the whole debacle is that nobody can seem to decide on a new name for the campus. An early suggestion was "Houston Metropolitan University," a name which seemed to convey well UH-D's function as a centrally-located, open-enrollment university serving the Houston metropolitan region. However, this name was rejected by the Board of Regents, apparently because of concerns that the name sounded like a diploma mill or that it could be confused with the local transit authority, i.e.:
"What school do you go to?"

"I go to Houston Metro."

"Really? Are you learning how to drive a bus?"
Anyway, the rejection of that name meant that a second round of deliberations related to the school's nomenclature was in order, and last Friday the Board of Regents met to consider a new name: The University of South Texas. However, this name was also rejected, reportedly because it made no reference to the city of Houston or because of fears that it cause confusion with nearby Texas Southern University or downtown's South Texas College of Law. (Besides, when most people think of "south" Texas, they think of Corpus Christi or Laredo, not Houston.) Anyway, it's back to the drawing board.

Personally, I didn't think "Houston Metropolitan University" was a bad name. And if the word "Metropolitan" causes confusion, why not just use the word "City" instead? However, the name "Houston City University" is apparently off the table, as well. I feel that this is a mistake - the name describes the university's purpose well - and that the Board of Regents would do well to reconsider this name.

In the meantime, opponents of any name change - there are clearly a lot of them - can take heart in the fact that the longer this renaming process is drawn out, the more likely that the school will continue to be known as UH-D for at least the next couple of years. As Kuff points out, the likelihood that a new name will be chosen in time for a bill to be written, sponsored and passed by the State Legislature - as a state university, they're the ones that have final say in this matter - decreases by the day.

Saving a legend... from himself?

Some controvery is being generated in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia about the design and location of a proposed plaza. Critics are concerned that architect Oscar Niemeyer's design will negatively affect the skyline and sightlines of Brasilia's famous and sweeping Monumental Axis. There's just one catch: the architect that originally designed that Monumental Axis is also Oscar Niemeyer:

The 101-year-old architect envisions building a "Plaza of Sovereignty," including a low-lying, curved building and a soaring 1,000 foot (300 meter) obelisk, in the heart of Brazil's capital, according to plans unveiled by city officials in early January.

But detractors quickly slammed the proposal in Internet blogs and local media, saying it would interfere with sight lines of surrounding buildings designed by Niemeyer 50 years ago that now constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cultural officials warned the project might circumvent Brazilian historical patrimony law which says the site, currently known as the Esplanade of the Ministers, must remain open ground.

Sylvia Ficher of University of Brasilia's architecture school said the monument resembles a unicorn and would interfere with the view of the National Congress, another Niemeyer creation.

"What we normally see is an architect interfering in the work of another architect. In Niemeyer's case, however, he is interfering negatively in his own work," she said in comments posted Friday on the university Web site. "It will be Oscar Niemeyer fighting with Oscar Niemeyer."

Whatever you think of Niemeyer, his architecture (some people find his modernist designs to be repugnant) or his his political views (he is an unrepentant communist), the fact is that, as the last surviving member of the group of great 20th-century modernist architects whose names include Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Walter Gropius and Philip Johnson, he really is a living piece of history. Furthermore, the fact that he is still practicing his craft at his advanced age - drawing, designing and sculpting - is both remarkable and admirable. Niemeyer and his work truly are deserving of our respect and admiration.

But now, in his advanced age, Niemeyer seems intent on tinkering with the concepts and designs that made him admirable in the first place, in ways that many feel detract from his original work. Has the once-great architect now become a crotchety old man who cannot recognize that his abilities have diminished to the point that he is now damaging himself and his work? "The greatest threat to Mr. Niemeyer’s remarkable legacy may not be the developer’s bulldozer or insensitive city planners, but Mr. Niemeyer himself," lamented New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff in December of 2007:
It is not simply that his latest buildings have a careless, tossed-off quality. It’s that some of his most revered buildings — from the Brasília Cathedral to the grand Monumental Axis of the city itself — have been marred by the architect’s own hand. And this poses an uncomfortable dilemma: At what point do we — that is, the public that idolizes him, his government and private clients — have an obligation to intervene? Or is posing the question an act of spectacularly bad taste?
This dilemma is indeed uncomfortable because it touches upon some very sensitive subjects, such as whether and to what degree a person's creative genious deteriorates with age, or the extent to which a person's designs are truly "theirs:" after all, if Niemeyer himself designed a building - or, better yet, a city - 50 years ago, why can't he make changes to it later? Furthermore, why should academics such as the University of Brasilia's Ficher or critics such as the NYT's Ourousoff presume to know what is better for Niemeyer's designs or his legacy than Niemeyer himself?

As much as I respect Niemeyer and his current ambitions, I (perhaps unfortunately) tend to side with those who think that Niemeyer's legacy does indeed need to be saved from himself. The fact is, when artists attempt to alter or update previous works generally considered to be masterpieces, the results are rarely good (see George Lucas and Star Wars, for example). When such alterations are conducted on a scale such as Brasilia's carefully-planned Monumental Axis, the results could be catastrophic. With the caveat that I have yet to experience Brasilia's viewscapes in person, I simply can't see how the placement of a 1,000-foot obelisk within the grassy esplanades of the Monumental Axis would do anything other than completely destroy its original form and intent. As Ourousoff concludes:

Brasília’s Monumental Axis is not simply a relic from a discounted age or an emblem of a failed utopia. It is as crucial to the values of its time as the pyramids were to theirs. To mar that vision is a cultural tragedy, even if the creator’s hand is responsible.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Cash4Gold a scam? No way!

Speaking of the Snuggie, the only late-night commercial that seems to run more frequently than the one for the Snuggie is the one for Cash4Gold. In fact, Cash4Gold completely outdid the Snuggie when it ran its own Superbowl ad last weekend. The ad, featuring Ed McMahon and MC Hammer - celebrities whose money woes are well-known - was clearly aimed at folks who are facing money woes of their own in this ever-deteriorating economy. Have some gold jewelry that you don't wear or need anymore? Mail it off, and get the cash that you do need! It's quick and it's easy! Sounds great, right?

Well, no. The very first time I saw that commercial many months ago I thought to myself, "this looks like a scam." Turns out, I was right:

The folks at Cockeyed.com put Cash4Gold to the test, rounding up a bunch of old rings, necklaces, and earrings, and taking them to a regular pawn shop to be
appraised. The offer: $198 for the lot. They then sent the items to Cash4Gold and waited for a check in the mail. It arrived within a few days as promised... in the amount of 60 bucks. (You don't have to accept the check; the deal isn't done until you cash it.)


That price alone is practically criminal, but that's where the truly slimy part of the operation begins. First, if you call Cash4Gold and ask for your stuff back, you abruptly get a better offer: In the case of the above experiment, the offer was a whopping $178. That's a better deal, but still not market rate, though the caller was told that Cash4Gold could "manipulate the numbers on their end" to make it appear that more product was sent than was in reality. Bizarre, but it's really the only way Cash4Gold can cover its behind to convince you the original offer wasn't a wholesale ripoff.
Here's what I really love about the whole operation: when Cash4Gold got wind of cockeyed.com's expose, they tried to bribe them into modifying or deleting it!

Anyway, it's readily appearent that Cash4Gold is a sleazy operation, and I'm not defending them at all. But I do have a few observations:

1. If you send valuable items like gold jewelry through regular mail, you're an idiot. Sorry.

2. If you let the buyer appraise your valuables, the initial offer you're going to get is invariably going to be lowball. It's an underhanded practice, to be sure, but it's also a fact that the buyer wants to buy your goods for as low as possible and turn it around and sell it to someone else for as much as possible. The lower a price they can sucker you into accepting, the more money they make. Don't accept the first offer. Better yet, get your valuables independently appraised before you sell them.

3. What's wrong with actually going to a jeweler in order to appraise or sell your valuables in the first place? Have we, as a society, become so adverse to human interaction that we would rather ship our gold off to some anonymous company than to actually conduct business the old-fashioned way, face-to-face?

It's true that things are difficult for a lot of people right now and I truly believe that things are going to become much worse before they become better. But if your situation is so desperate that you need to sell your gold heirlooms in order to keep the lights on or the pantry stocked, the least you can do is get as much value as you can for them. Do business with a reputable local jeweler, and don't get scammed by a company that runs cheesy advertisements on late-night TV.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009