Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's our fault you missed your flight. Now pay us $2,600.

When airlines pull crap like this, it just pisses me off:
Fumiko Seguchi did everything by the book on her recent flight to Tokyo. She confirmed her departure 24 hours in advance. She secured a seat assignment. And she arrived more than two hours before departure.

But Seguchi, who was visiting a friend in Orlando, Florida, couldn't have anticipated the long check-in lines at the airport. "There were only a few ticket agents at the counter, so the line went on forever," says Fran Mingle, Seguchi's friend.

"She waited and waited. After getting concerned about missing her flight because of the inordinate delay, she asked if she could be accommodated next but the American Airlines personnel told her 'no'."

Seguchi missed her flight and was asked to pay an extra $2,600 for a ticket the next day. American had thrown the book in her face.

How classy.

I'm sorry, but if you arrive at the airport when the airline says you're supposed to arrive (generally speaking, one hour before domestic flights and two hours before international flights, although guidelines can differ for some airports), and you're waiting patiently in line, and the only reason the line is moving so slowly is because the airline was too incompetent to properly staff the ticket counter, then IT SHOULD BE THE AIRLINE'S FAULT if you miss your flight. End of story.

To be sure, this is the way it used to be. There was once a "flat tire rule" said that passengers who were delayed because of circumstances beyond their control could be re-booked on the next flight with no additional charges. However, that and other customer-friendly policies disappeared in the post-9/11 commercial aviation world.

Getting rid of the "flat tire" rule was an incredibly profitable mistake. Not only because it's unfair, but also because it formalizes a double standard. Passengers like Seguchi are expected to give airlines a break when there's bad weather, an air traffic control problem or a mechanical delay.

But when air travelers can't make their flight for reasons completely beyond their control, airlines often insist on sticking it to them for a full walk-up fare. That's what Northwest Airlines did when Jeremy Gaisin's car ran out of gas and he missed a flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam recently.

It charged an extra $1,400, but generously agreed to waive a $250 change fee. He tried to appeal to an executive, but "the agent was saying they would not speak to me," he says.

Other common-courtesy rules that seem to have gone by the wayside in recent years include a grace period for car rentals - car rental companies shouldn't penalize you if your flight is delayed and you are therefore late in picking up your car - and mandated services and accommodations for passengers whose flights have been canceled or delayed. Yet another example of big corporations screwing their customers.
It would be even better if travel companies would revive these rules on their own, for no other reason than that it's the right thing to do. The money earned from customers who couldn't make their flight, were caught in traffic on their way back to the car rental location or had the misfortune of being on a plane with an operational delay, is insignificant compared with the revenues companies will lose when their customers decide to stop doing business with them.

And that day will come soon.

Or at least we can hope.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

If at first you don't succeed...

The founder of an ultra-low-cost airline, which lasted all of ten months before ceasing operations last year, has a new idea:
The guy who founded Skybus is at it again. Skybus founder John Weikle is now the CEO of JetAmerica, a new ultralow-cost carrier that is set announce its start-up plans today. USA TODAY reporter Dan Reed says JetAmerica plans to "start flying in July with promotional fares as low as $9 one way," a gimmick that also was employed by now-defunct Skybus.

As for JetAmerica, USA TODAY's Reed writes the airline "says it will fly Boeing 737s starting July 13 between Newark's Liberty Airport and four smaller markets that currently have only minimal, and expensive, regional airline service. Those four: Toledo, Ohio; South Bend, Ind.; Lansing, Mich.; and Melbourne-Vero Beach, Fla. The carrier also says it plans service from Melbourne-Vero Beach to Lansing and Minneapolis-St. Paul, and between Toledo and Minneapolis-St. Paul."
JetAmerica plans to begin with a schedule of 34 flights per week using a single 189-seat aircraft. Flights between city pairs will be operated on a weekly or semi-weekly, rather than daily, basis. For example, JetAmerica's service from Newark to Melbourne will consist of a single round-trip on Sundays and Tuesdays; the service between Melbourne and Lansing will consist of one round-trip every Saturday. This type of schedule is geared towards the casual or leisure traveler - it is of no use for business travel - but has been relatively successful for other carriers such as Allegiant Air. (Besides, there's probably not enough demand to make daily service between South Bend and Newark, Lansing and Melbourne, or Minneapolis and Toledo economically viable using a Boeing 737.)

JetAmerica, which will utilize the same "a la carte" pricing scheme Skybus offered - passengers will pay for everything from checked bags to pillows to in-flight snacks - technically isn't even a "real" airline. The flights will be operated under contract with Florida-based charter airline Miami Air International, which will supply the aircraft and the flight crews. As such, JetAmerica will officially be considered a charter opertation, rather than a scheduled airline. I don't think this is a big deal, however, other than that it's the easiest way to start up a new airline.

But will it work? It seems that Weikle has already tried this "Wal-Mart of the Skies" business model - the no-frills, rock-bottom approach of Europe's RyanAir (you know, that airline that recently thought about charging people to use the toilet) - with Skybus. That experiment didn't turn out so well, although Weikle himself claims he had nothing to do with its failure:

As for his ties past ties to Skybus, Weikle tries to play down that angle. An e-mail to USA TODAY that gave preview details of JetAmerica's announcement says: "Weikle will entertain one question about Skybus and this will be his answer: I was the founder of Skybus. I always intended to move forward with other projects after the first Skybus revenue flight was launched on May 22, 2007. I left the company on May 23, 2007, the day following the airline's first revenue flight. I was no longer with the airline and had nothing to do with the board of managers' decision to cease operations 11 months later in April 2008."

In other words, Weikle is claiming that his business model itself was sound. The reason Skybus reportedly racked up a net loss of $56 million on $80 million of revenue over three quarters of earnings was due to poor execution and high fuel costs. Which makes me wonder: once JetAmerica starts flying, is Weikle going to stay on as CEO or will have leave the company in order "to move forward with other projects?" And although fuel prices are reasonable right now, what happens when the economy eventually recovers and jet fuel returns to or exceeds its sky-high prices of a year ago, as it inevitably will? Methinks the "ultra-low-fare" carriers are going to be the first ones to go.

But hey, if you can get taxpayers to help foot your bill, then why not give it a shot:
JetAmerica is getting considerable public help in its start-up. The Associated Press notes "the Lansing, South Bend, Melbourne and Toledo airports are subsidizing JetAmerica with $1.4 million in grants in its first year, along with about $867,000 in waived airport fees and $1.1 million in marketing and advertising assistance. South Bend, Toledo and Melbourne received their grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Development Program, which has awarded $104 million to 223 recipients since 2002 in an effort to restore lost service and bring air fares down." Newark and Minneapolis are not offering any assistance, according to AP.
Heh. And to think that there are those who continue to argue that the commercial aviation industry "pays for itself."

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if JetAmerica succeeds where Skybus failed. The only real difference between the two airlines relates to route structure and schedule, but that just might be enough. However, given the way high fuel costs wreak havoc with the airline industry, I do think that the long-term prospects for an airline that offers $9 promotional fares are not exactly good. We'll see.

As with the case of Skybus, I don't ever see myself flying JetAmerica. If I want to fly a low-fare airline, I'll make the eight-mile trip from my house to Hobby Airport and hop aboard one of these guys.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kirby's first fish... and my first YouTube

Last Saturday, Kirby and I drove down to San Luis Pass, located between Galveston and Freeport, to take a ride on my parents' boat and do some fishing. While we weren't out on the water very long on account of the weather, we were out long enough for this to happen:

In the interests of full disclosure, I was the one that reeled the little whiting in. But it was on Kirby's rod and reel, and he was the one that dropped the bait into the water, so as far as I'm concerned it is indeed his fish.

Now that I've figured out how to upload video to YouTube - it's actually rather easy - expect this blog to contain more such videos in the future.

Update on the industry dedicated to screwing its customers

A couple of years ago, I wrote about an industry that was dedicated to screwing its customers: the credit card industry. I'm pleased to note that, thanks to a law signed by President Obama last Friday, there won't be quite as much screwing taking place in the future. The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act of 2009, which takes effect in nine months, restricts or eliminates some of the sleazy, deceptive or downright predatory practices of credit card issuers.

I never thought that legislation regarding a cardholder's "bill of rights" would ever see the light of day, thanks to opposition from the powerful banking lobby. What a difference a new administration, a financial crisis and hundreds of billions of dollars in government bailout money to the financial sector makes!

The new law does not cap fees or interest rates, but it does eliminate some of the tricks that the card-issuing banks have used in the past to wring as much money as possible out of even the most responsible cardholders: retroactive rate increases, double-cycle billing, "pay to pay" fees, universal default and my biggest peeve of all, "due dates" on days (such as Saturdays and Sundays) when actual payment is not possible.

Credit card statements will now be mailed out a minimum of 21 days before the due date, instead of the current minimum of 14. This will give people more time to pay their bills, thereby reducing the possibility of incurring late fees. Cardholders will now have to give permission for banks to honor transactions that exceed the cardholder's credit limit; this will reduce the incidence of over-the-limit fees. Credit card companies will now be required to apply excess payments to the highest interest balance first, rather than their current practice of applying such payments to the balance with the lowest interest rate. Arbitrary and unannounced interest rate increases will also be prohibited; banks will now have to give 45 days' notice before raising interest rates and, with a few exceptions, can't do it at all during the first year an account is opened. Low-APR "teaser rates" designed to entice people into opening new accounts must also last at least six months. There are also new restrictions regarding the issuance of credit cards to people under the age of 21. This is intended to protect financially-inexperienced college students, who have historically been easy prey for credit card companies.

This legislation will mean less revenue for banks that issue credit cards, of course, so they'll have to compensate. They'll bump up interest rates across the board, shrink or eliminate grace periods, increase fees for processes like balance transfers and cash advances, and implement annual fees on cards that currently have none. Indeed, the "free ride" for the people who pay off their credit card every month - the industry calls these people "deadbeats" because, outside of point-of-sale transaction fees, they don't make any money off of them - is over. I can live with these changes, however, because they're at least straightfoward: the "gotcha"-type practices to be prohibited by the new law were anything but.

It is true that credit card use is voluntary; nobody is compelled to go on buying binges, saddle themselves with a mountain of credit card debt, and put themselves at the mercy of credit card companies. Indeed, consumers need to learn to live within their means. But consumers also deserve protection from practices that are underhanded, unfair and abusive. Credit card companies, after all, already make plenty of money from interest and interchange fees; while the generation of some additional profit in the form of consumer fees and penalties is certainly reasonable, there's simply no justification whatsoever for cheap, greedy, cynical, customer-screwing tricks like sudden or retroactive rate increases, double-cycle billing, absurd payment deadlines or fees for payment by telephone. If you're going to make money, at least do it in a fair and honest manner.

It's good to see that 361 Representatives, 90 Senators and the President of the United States felt the same way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

An observation upon final approach to Hobby Airport

Eight months after Hurricane Ike, and there are still an awful lot of Houston roofs that have blue tarps on them.

What's the delay? Lengthy resolution times for insurance reimbursements? Not enough roofing contractors? Property owners who are either too busy or too lazy to repair their roofs?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rockets season comes to a noble end

It was a lot of fun while it lasted, but with this afternoon's 70-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in game seven of the second round of the NBA playoffs, the Rockets' season has come to a close.

But I'm not too upset. In fact, I'm rather proud for them.

This is because I really thought that the Rockets would do well if they managed to avoid a sweep against the highly-talented, top-seeded Lakers, who won all four games between the two teams during the regular season. And that was with Yao Ming in the lineup. The fact that the Rockets managed to take this series to seven games, the last four of them without Yao, is truly remarkable. Whereas it can be argued that the previous few years' worth of Rockets teams underachieved during the playoffs by losing in the first round, it simply cannot be argued that this team overachieved.

It wasn't too long ago that the Rockets were an afterthought in the local sports scene. Those days are over. The local excitement that this team managed to generate over the last few weeks was reminicient of the Clutch City days of the mid-90s. The future looks bright, too; the team has a lot of young talent that simply needs more experience, and if (and this is a very big if) key players like Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady can stay healthy, the coming season could very well be a very good one for them.

So, while I would have loved to see an upset against the Lakers this afternoon, I'm not particularly upset that it didn't occur. They had a good season (53-29 in the regular season), they went a lot further than most people expected them to go in the postseason, and they have nothing to be ashamed of.

Random recognitions

I need to catch a plane in a few minutes (gotta love those business trips that begin on Sunday afternoons!), but I had a few random acknolwedgements that I wanted to throw out:
  • For anybody who might have been wondering how he's doing, my brother Dave is gainfully employed once again. His stint among the unemployed was thankfully short, and (much to my mother's disappointment) he did not need to entertain thoughts about giving up on the Denver employment scene and returning to Houston. He's actually been at his new job at a medical software company in Denver for over a month now; apparently, long enough for him to ponder the symbolism of the Caduceus and the Rod of Ascleipias as they relate to the modern medical industry.
  • Congrats are in order for M1EK and his wife Jeanne on the birth of their child, Sophia Frances. It appears that Sophia will have to spend some time at the hospital before she gets to go home, so here's hoping that all goes well for everyone involved and that M1EK will soon be able to resume bashing Cap Metro on his blog.
  • Last week, Andrew at neoHOUSTON wrote an article about something in Rice professor Stephen Klineberg's latest Houston Area Survey that bothered him: the suggestion that "living in the suburbs" was evidence of socio-economic advancement:
    I’m fuming mad about this, and I’m sick of this kind of stuff. My wife and I often receive pressure from the older generation of our families on this issue. Whether it’s subtle hints or plain statements, the question they ask is the same: When are you going to grow up and live in the suburbs like a responsible adult?
  • My answer? Never. I refuse to deal with the traffic, the bland environment, and the auto-dependency. When I buy a house it will be in the Heights, or Neartown, not Katy. If I have to save up longer, or buy something smaller to make that happen, so be it.
    This bias against cities is a holdover from another era, and it no longer reflects the reality of life. For the average Joe to express this is frustrating, but for a supposedly open-minded, scholarly academic - it’s embarrassing.
    While I've obviously never received any pressure from my family to live in the suburbs - my parents live two blocks away from me in the same house where I grew up, after all - there is most definitely a lingering attitude among an awful lot of people that the suburbs are the "proper" place for the middle class to raise their families, and that affluent families in the inner city are somehow eccentric, anomalous or foolhardy. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a weird look when I tell people that my wife and child live in a neighborhood adjacent to the University of Houston. "But... isn't that right in the middle of a bad area?" ("Bad area," of course, being code for "place where poor minorities live.") "But... what do you do about schools?" (To be sure, that is an issue.) "But... what about the crime?" (What crime?) The very concept that a white, middle class family could live in the inner city is simply foreign to so many people, young as well as old, who have grown up in the suburbs and who have been conditioned to believe that the inner city is a uniformly poor, dangerous and undesirable place to live. It's a bigoted and uninformed attitude, to be sure, but it exists. As if on cue, a commenter from The Woodlands came along Andrew's blog to prove the point.

    Klineberg, to his credit, acknowledged Andrew's critique and provided a cogent response.
  • Say it ain't so! My friend Stephen is getting rid of his Mustang. I guess after 10 years and 147,000 miles, it was just time for it to go, but I still remember when he got that thing and how proud of it he was. Time flies, I guess.

    I myself have been considering how much longer I want to keep my 1997 Nissan Sentra. It doesn't even have 120 thousand miles on it yet (see, there are advantages to living in the inner city), and it still runs just fine, so I'm not sure I need to replace it just yet.
  • In the local blogosphere, as in life, it's always good to put a face with a name. I'm glad that I finally got to meet Charles Kuffner in person last Friday. It turns out that he and his wife are friends with our neighbors, as their daughters attend the same preschool; a preschool that Kirby could end up attending as well, now that his current school is closing.
And with that, I'm off.

Friday, May 15, 2009

UH plans to close Human Development Lab School

As somebody who is not only a parent of a child who attends the UH HDL, but also as somebody who attended the lab school myself when I was in preschool, I am extremely disappointed and more than a little angry about this decision:

More than 40 years after it opened as one of the city’s pioneering preschool programs, the Human Development Laboratory School is closing.

The University of Houston, which ran the lab school for toddlers and preschoolers as part of its College of Education, said it will close July 31.

The lab school does double duty, providing care based on the principles of developmental psychology and serving as a laboratory for students and faculty members studying early-childhood education.

It also is one of relatively few programs in Houston accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Parents of HDL students had feared that the College of Education was preparing to make this announcement. Rumors had been circulating for months, and by the time May rolled around there was concrete evidence - the fact that contracts had not been approved for HDLS staff for the upcoming academic year, or the fact that College of Education Dean Robert Wimpelberg had repeatedly refused requests to meet with the HDLS Parent Advisory Board to discuss the school's current and future status - that a closure was in the works. The PAB circulated an e-mail at the beginning of May warning about the possibility of closure; it even ended up being printed in the Daily Cougar. Of course, everybody's fears were realized when Wimpelberg announced to parents via e-mail on Wednesday afternoon that the school would cease operations on July 31st.

Wimpelberg - finally - met with parents Thursday night in a meeting that was reportedly (I did not attend but Lori did) ugly and unproductive. Wimpelberg indicated that the decision to close the lab school was his and was based on factors such as the school's financial situation (it is losing money) as well as the school's inability to attain some vaguely-defined "best-practice and research" standards set by the College of Education. This brings up a few questions:
  1. The HDLS is a program of a tax-exempt, state-supported institution, yet it charges tuition fees that are higher than many high-quality private preschools (at least, according to some research Lori undertook). Yet the HDLS is losing money - $100,000 a year, according to UH Provost John Antel in the Chronicle article, although the PAB claims to have documentation indicating that the actual losses are much smaller. Why? Are staff salaries too high? Is enrollment too low? Is it expected to be funded completely by childrens' tuition, or do College of Education students who use its facilities to complete their early childhood degree and certificate programs fund it as well (either through their class tuition or through student fees)?

  2. On that note, the PAB claims that they as well as HDLS staff had offered to help the school's financial situation by assisting with marketing efforts in an attempt to increase enrollment and by undertaking an alumni and parent giving campaign. Reportedly, these efforts were rejected by Dean Wimpelberg. Is this true? If so, why?

  3. According to the Chronicle article, Antel claimed that the HDLS "wasn’t a good fit with the research and training interests of faculty and graduate students at the College of Education." This statement is probably related to Wimpelberg's reference to "best-practice and research aspects not being met" in both his e-mail to parents as well as at last night's meeting, but the point is the same: the College of Education is claiming that its on-campus facility that has a 40-year history of success all of a sudden no longer works for the college's early childhood education degree and certificate programs.

    Um, Seriously? If that's really true, then why? Is it due to structural flaws within the school itself, or are Wimpelberg's "best practice and research" criteria simply too ambitious for, or too incompatible with, the current HDLS program?
In short, what's the real story here? I'm sure there's some history between the administration of the UH College of Education (which assumed control of the HDLS from the UH College of Technology in 2002) and the staff of the HDLS itself that is in play here, but I'm not privy to the details and, to be honest, it really doesn't matter. All that does matter is that, come August 1st, Kirby will no longer be able to attend the school that he enjoys so much.

And that brings up one last issue: the July 31st closure date. This is hugely inconvenient for us, because it really does not give us enough time to find another place for Kirby. Waiting lists for quality pre-school programs are months long, the admission deadlines for kindergarten programs at good area magnet schools have long since passed, and very few preschools of any type have programs that begin on August 1st anyway (most follow standard academic cycles and begin at the end of August). Some HDLS students will probably end up in the University of Houston's Child Care Center, which is run completely separately from the HDLS, but that is open only to children of current UH faculty, staff and students; even though we are alumni, Lori and I cannot send Kirby there. So now Lori and I have to spend the next two months trying to resolve this issue.

HDL parents are not giving up the fight to save the lab school. They've started a website - - and they plan to engage not only to Dean Wimpelberg and Provost Antel but also University of Houston President Renu Khator, the University of Houston Board of Regents and local elected officials. I can't say I'm optimistic that this will have any effect, but I am supportive of any efforts to save what by all accounts is a cherished Houston institution.

And finally, the biggest question of all: how does one explain all this to a four-year-old child?

The Houston Press's take is here.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


I've been writing an article about Dubai - its boom, its bust, and my experiences there - for a publication a friend of mine is editing (sorry it's taken so long to get it to you, Stephen). As I did some online research for the article, I was struck by the number of increasingly unfavorable news stories that have been written about Dubai in the western press over the past several months.

To be sure, things are pretty rough over there right now. The place was extremely over-leveraged, which made it especially vulnerable to the global financial crisis. The Emirate's debt is equal more than 100% of its GDP, roughly half of its planned or under-construction projects - representing over half a trillion dollars worth of value - have either been canceled or indefinitely shelved, and it has looked to its oil-rich neighbor, Abu Dhabi, for economic assistance. The nosedive being suffered by Dubai's wildly-inflated real estate sector - real estate prices have fallen 41% in the first thee months of 2009 alone - is leaving a trail of financial ruin in its wake. Companies are laying people off en masse, and the city-state's expatriate workforce is returning home; I've seen estimates that anywhere from 8 to 15 percent of Dubai's overall population could depart over the course of 2009.

To be sure, all of this is newsworthy. But it really seems that, as this economic crisis has unfolded, coverage of Dubai in the Anglo-American press has become increasingly unfavorable.

At first, it wasn't so bad. In early October of last year, Observer columnist Carole Cadwalladr became curious about the saga of the British "Beach Sex Couple" that scandalized Dubai last summer and wrote an article investigating "the dark side" of Dubai. The article focused on some unpleasant beneath-the-surface truths about Dubai - its lack of transparency, accountability or due process, for example, or the cultural tensions between the minority natives and the majority expats - but it didn't seem to be particularly negative.

Once the financial crisis hit, newsweeklies such as Time, Newsweek and The Economist and mainstream media outlets such as CBS News took notice of the bursting bubble and its potential impacts on what had been until that point the world's fastest-growing city. Again, there was nothing particularly malicious in these reports.

But as things got worse, the press piled on.

The Times led the way, first with the story of raw sewage washing up on Dubai's popular Jumeirah Beach: truck drivers carrying tankers of wastewater from developments not yet connected to the city's sanitary sewer system to the city's lone overburdened sewage treatment plant were tired of waiting in line for hours, if not days, to offload their "cargo," and had begun pouring untreated sewage into the city's storm drainage system which emptied into the Gulf. A disgusting problem, for sure, but not exactly a new one: stories about the practice had been in local newspapers several months before The Times picked it up. The Times also ran a short, poorly-written "analysis" claiming that the city's future was "no more solid than the shifting sands of the surrounding desert." And a third Times article about the exodus of expatriates from Dubai told stories about the number of abandoned cars left at Dubai's airport and used the word "flee" to describe the situation. In spite of the best efforts of Dubai bloggers to push back, this "flee" meme was picked up by other western newspapers. "Laid-off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down," read a headline in the New York Times. "Expatriates flee as work dries up and visas are rescinded," The Guardian reported. "Dubai sets its own rules as foreigners flee hard times," trumpeted a New Zealand Herald headline for a March AP article about the city-state's troubles.

Then the columnists and bloggers came along got their licks in. In a Guardian column, Australian academic and author Germaine Greer declared Dubai to be "a city with neither charm nor character" - a judgment that she was apparently able to make after experiencing the city from a four-hour ride on the upper deck of the Dubai Big Bus Tour. Australian architecture columnist Elizabeth Farrelly went even further, admitting that, even though she had never actually been there she had always "wanted to write on Dubai as a ruin" and described the place as "the folly of our time, the ultimate money-bubble mirage." Several weeks later, another Guardian Columnist, Simon Jenkins, described Dubai as as "the last word in iconic overkill, a festival of egotism with humanity denied" and opined that the city's destiny was that of an impoverished, crumbling wasteland where "gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards." And a website by the name of "Smashing Telly" carried a clip of a Deutsche Welle broadcast about Dubai's real estate bust and declared Dubai to be "the world’s worst business idea" and "a place for the shallow and fickle."

Dubai's defenders responded in the pages of the Guardian as well as the Financial Times. But the negative hits just kept on coming. In March, the AP ran an article about behavior guidelines the government was considering implementing in the wake of the Beach Sex scandal. The article listed in gleeful detail the behaviors that could result in fines or jail time, including dancing, holding hands, hugging, cursing or wearing miniskirts in public, and suggested that "the restrictions could deal another blow to Dubai's carefully manicured image as an easygoing oasis." In early April, the BBC investigative program Panorama ran a program entitled "Slumdogs and Millionaires" which highlighted the substandard working conditions for Dubai's laborers, while another Guardian article focused on the plight of these laborers once they are laid off and forced to return home to India. A more recent Christian Science Monitor story said of migrant laborers who get laid off and are forced to return home: "Dubai disappointed them all." Toronto Star architecture columnist Christopher Hume, meanwhile, labeled Dubai as a "ruin-in-waiting" and mused, "if this really is a city and not some sheikh's mad idea of what a metropolis should be, it's a city despite itself."

But last month came the crowning achievement of journalistic Dubai-bashing: a particularly blistering screed about Dubai penned by Johann Hari of The Independent. "This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery," Hari sneered, as he told lurid stories about, among other things, a destitute Canadian expat living in a Range Rover, a Bangladeshi construction worker who works 14 hours a day for $135 a month and lives in a squalid labor camp "riven with the smell of sewage and sweat," an Ethiopian domestic servant who escaped to a hostel after being beaten by the family for which she worked, and an American hotel worker who was threatened with expulsion because she complained about Jumeirah Beach's aforementioned raw sewage problem. Hari depicts Dubai as a city that, due to the economic crisis, is full of empty malls and empty hotels, a place that "feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres" and which, due to its reliance on gas-guzzling cars and expensive-to-produce desalinized water, has an average per-resident carbon footprint "more than double that of an American."

Hari's article elicited a strong response from Dubai bloggers. Seabee argued that the article's "objective was simply to find the worst possible angle and seek out the worst possible examples," while samuraisam noted that the article's title - "The Dark Side of Dubai" - was anything but original. Another blogger wrote an open letter to Johann Hari in response, and Chris Saul typed a hilarious parody of the article.

But Hari's article as well as those that preceded it - and this was by no means an exhaustive list - demonstrate a clear pattern of Dubai-bashing on the part of the international media; indeed, it seems to have become an art form. Why is this? Although Dubai's economic downturn is a newsworthy story, is it really that different than all the other places on this planet that are currently feeling the pinch of tight credit, declining trade and higher unemployment? Why have so many articles been written about Dubai's problems, in particular? And why are some of them so mean-spirited?

There are a number of possible reasons: some writers have clearly never liked the place to begin with, deeming it inauthentic, audacious, grotesque or unsustainable, while others might simply have an underlying antipathy for the region, its native inhabitants and/or their dominant religion. But I think the main reason for the recent spate of articles negatively portraying Dubai is as obvious as it is simple: the story of Dubai's boom and bust - its rise and fall - is a journalistic gold mine. It's a story that people have loved since classical Greece, wherein somebody grows rich or powerful, develops an overweening sense of pride and arrogance that causes him or her to become reckless or foolish, and thus takes actions that cause him or her to crash back down to earth, defeated, humiliated and subject to unending ridicule. In Dubai's case, the "somebody" is an entire city, one that aspired to grandeur by building ski slopes in the desert or artificial islands shaped like palm trees, but grew too quickly and became too obsessed with superlatives - the tallest building, the largest shopping mall, the most luxurious hotel - and is now suffering a devastating downfall as the credit on which its aspirations were built has shriveled up. The media isn't kicking Dubai while it's down due solely to a sense of schadenfreude on their own part; they're doing because they know it's a story other people want to read about and snicker at, too.

And let's be clear: some of the hits Dubai is currently taking are warranted. There was most certainly a great deal of hubris driving Dubai's conspicuous, ostentatious and frenzied development. Some of the projects being planned - from hotels with refrigerated beaches to buildings that rotate to a theme park city with more hotel rooms than Las Vegas and Orlando combined - were so over-the-top as to be ridiculous. Speculators drove up the price of real property in Dubai such that many people who worked there couldn't afford to live there and had to endue long commutes in from places like Sharjah or Ajman instead. The city's infrastructure could not keep up with its growth, leading to problems such as suffocating traffic congestion and, yes, sewage on beaches.

It's not like it was difficult to see this crash coming, either. Dubai's construction mania - one whose intensity simply had to be witnessed to be believed - gave me a sense of unease when I first went there over three years ago, and a couple of years ago I wondered if its hyper-intensive development model was sustainable. It wasn't.

The frenetic pace of Dubai's construction boom required an ever-growing pool of cheap labor, and this in turn created problems such as those relating to the treatment of laborers. The stories about the squalid living and unbearable working conditions of these laborers are not new, nor are they isolated incidents but part of an established pattern. If negative press bring these problems to light and puts pressure on authorities to address the situation, then it serves a useful purpose.

Dubai, in fact, has a host of problems that need to be addressed, many of them unrelated to the building boom. Todd Litman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, wrote a Planetizen op-ed last December about some of these ecological, structural and organizational issues. I generally agree with him, if only because I've had some similar work-related experiences as him.

But there comes a point at which the negativity stops being legitimate and starts becoming gratuitous. This is especially true when writers embellish their articles or get their facts wrong. For example: Greer, in her zeal to portray Dubai as a completely phony city, claimed in her article that "the only dhows on Dubai Creek these days take tourists on one-hour pleasure cruises" - a statement that is completely false (although it could become true at some point; The Guardian, to its credit, later redacted this statement from Greer's article).

Hari's article, likewise, is full of unnecessary embellishments. He starts his article by claiming that portraits of Sheikh Mohammed are displayed on "every other building," a claim that isn't even remotely true; some buildings do bear his portrait, but they are few and far between. He says that people in Dubai "only walk anywhere if you are suicidal," even though most of Mankhool, Karama, Oud Metha, and the souk areas in Bur Dubai and Deira are perfectly walkable. I know this because I've walked them. He also claims that "all over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars," even though he provided no evidence that this was really true, other than the conversation he had with that one Canadian women.

Hari's "slavery" rhetoric is overwrought as well. The UAE did not send slave ships to Kerala and Bangladesh to corral a bunch of people and bring them back in chains to Dubai. These laborers chose to come work there. While a lot of them may have been lured by deceitful and unscrupulous recruiters, and while many of them find themselves in deplorable living, working and payment conditions, it's not quite the same as slavery.

An underlying theme in many of these negative articles is that Dubai is somehow a "mirage" based on (supposedly unproductive) industries such as finance, real estate and tourism; that since it has no oil, its economy is somehow illegitimate. The truth is, Dubai was a trading hub before it ever even thought about being a glimmering banking and tourism center. Its trading pedigree can be seen in the Dhow wharfages along Dubai Creek and the massive container terminals at Jebel Ali. More recently, it has become an air hub as well. Dubai boasts of a considerable manufacturing base, whether it be the massive aluminum smelter facilities at Dubal or the numerous factories and warehouses in Al Quoz. It is also trying to diversify into industries such as education, media, communications and health care, which is why developments such as Knowledge Village, Media City, Internet City and Healthcare City exist, respectively. Those who try to portray Dubai as an ephemeral "business venture" based entirely on banks, hotels and speculative development are simply not telling the whole story.

As for Dubai's other cultural, governmental and institutional challenges, it needs to be kept in mind that this is still a developing society. The UAE did not exist as a nation until 1971, and even Hari was able to recognize that the native Emiratis "fast-forwarded from the 18th century to the 21st in a single generation." With that pace of change, there are bound to be some problems, as collective experience is limited and as conflicts between old and new emerge. The society and its institutions are undergoing the same maturation process that every modern civilization must go through, and while the results so far haven't been perfect, it's a long way away from the camels and tents of just 40 or 50 years ago. Dubai's critics would do well to take this into account.

It also must be recognized that the native population - they account for less than 20% of the UAE's population (how would anybody else in the world like to be a minority in their own country?) - has to balance their own traditional values with those of the liberalized western expats and tourists on one side and those of the majority South Asian population on the other. The results, again, aren't perfect, yet somehow they've managed to keep things relatively prosperous, orderly and tolerant, even though they are located in one of the more volatile parts of the world and they are sandwiched between two societies that are far more conservative than they are: Shi'a Iran and Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. Dubai's bashers again, ought to take this into consideration.

Furthermore, there are some fundamental truths about Dubai that no amount of negative reporting is ever going to change. The Emiratis will always receive preferential treatment relative to the expats - it's their country, after all. While more predictability, transparency and accountability in government would be helpful, the fact is that the UAE is an absolute monarchy, which means that the rule of law is essentially whatever the Shiekhs decide it to be. And, while expats and visitors might grouse about annoyances such as internet censorship or the fact that couples aren't allowed to hold hands in public, the fact is that the country is officially Muslim and inherently conservative, which mean that standards of conduct or dress which might be acceptable in other parts of the world are not acceptable there. If anybody - journalist or otherwise - finds these fundamental truths to be intolerable, they shouldn't go to Dubai. They shouldn't even visit.

Finally, it needs to be noted that there is a silver lining to the Dubai's current economic downturn. The lull in the building boom will allow sorely-needed infrastructure to catch up with the city's development, and the population will get to catch its collective breath and find relief from the "construction fatigue" caused by manic development. This also creates an opportunity for Dubai to think about how it really wants to grow, and to consider the ecological ramifications of that growth. Meanwhile, as property prices fall Dubai will become more affordable for the folks who live there; indeed, a "migration" to previously unaffordable developments already appears to be taking hold. All of this will, in turn, improve the city's quality of life and, hopefully, set it on a path for a more sustainable future. Perhaps Dubai's critics don't want to acknowledge this - they want the city to fail - but the Emirate will likely emerge from this crisis, in some ways, better than it was before.

Having said all that, I don't expect the barrage of negative and at times even contemptuous press about Dubai to subside anytime soon. As long as its decline continues, it will remain a story that journalists want to cover and that people want to read. One would at least hope that future articles exhibit a better understanding of facts and contexts than some which have already been written.

As for me: it's been a little over five months since I returned from my last trip to Dubai, and there hasn't been any talk of me returning: there's just not any work for me over there right now. I don't know when, or even if, I'll be making my next trip.

UPDATE: I guess I've hit the big time; this post has been referenced on the UAE Community Blog.

On protecting our kids from the evils of prom and rock n' roll

Although I think it is ridiculous, I really can't say I'm particularly outraged by this story about a fundamentalist Christian high school in Ohio that is threatening to suspend and bar from graduation one of its seniors if he attends another school's prom with his girlfriend. This boy and his parents knew what they were getting in to when they decided that he should attend a school that "forbids dancing, rock music, hand-holding and kissing." Here's the part that got my attention:
The handbook for the 84-student Christian school says rock music "is part of the counterculture which seeks to implant seeds of rebellion in young people's hearts and minds."
Damn that demon rock music!

It's sad yet unsurprising that, in 2009, some Christianists continue to fight cultural battles that were largely settled by, say, 1959.

It's May, and it's getting hot (updated)

Daytime highs hit the 90 degree mark yesterday and the day before, and is expected to do so today as well. KTRK's Tim Heller seems to think that this is something of a late-spring heat wave, as our normal high is "only" supposed to be 84 degrees right now:

Although our normal high temperature is 84° right now, it's not unusual for us to hit 90° this early in the season. We actually had our first 90° day of the season back on April 22. The first 90° day of the season usually arrives around May 3. The average date of the last 90° day of the season is October 8.

Typically these early season heat waves only last a week or two. Then it will cool off for a couple of weeks before the summer heat returns...and stays.

I hope so. I really am not ready for summer to start just yet. I'm holding out hope for one more cool front, one more blast of milder temperatures and lower humidity, before the oppressive summer heat sets in.

But, it's May. This is, alas, when summer in Houston begins.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Congress investigates the BCS

Although I'm really not sure that Congress needs to be spending its time worrying about college football when this nation has so many more pressing issues, last Friday's hearing at the House Energy and Commerce Committee commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee about the Bowl Championmship Series was rather interesting. Texas Congressman Joe Barton, who has introduced legislation that would prevent the NCAA from calling a game a "national championship" unless it is the outcome of a playoff, compared the current system to communism and said it was broken. "You can't fix it," he said. "It will not be fixable. Sooner or later, you're going to have to try a new model."

The ACC Commissioner and BCS coordinator John Swofford found himself on the hot seat at the hearing, having to defend the current system by which a college football champion is crowned. His reasoning as to why the BCS was better than a playoff was quite revealing:
John Swofford, the coordinator of the BCS, rejected the idea of switching to a playoff, telling a House panel that it would threaten the existence of celebrated bowl games. Sponsorships and TV revenue that now go to bowl games would instead be spent on playoff games, “meaning that it will be very difficult for any bowl, including the current BCS bowls, which are among the oldest and most established in the game’s history, to survive,” Swofford said.
In other words: whatever might be best for sport of college football itself is secondary to the well-being of its postseason bowl games, especially the four that comprise the BCS. That's a tail-wagging-the-dog argument if there ever was one. Forget that a playoff is really the only way to decide a national champion based on on-field performance; if we have a playoff, then - gasp! - the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl might not survive! Never mind the fact that every playoff proposal I've ever seen incorporates, at the very least, the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Fiesta Bowls, or that the lesser bowls could survive in spite of a playoff format in the same way that the NIT basketball tournament survives in spite of the Big Dance.

Seriously. There are certainly valid arguments against a playoff, but the "it will kill off the existing bowls" argument ain't one of them. In fact, it's downright asinine.

Swofford was a bit more honest when he defended the inherent unfairness between the BCS and non-BCS conferences:
“How is this fair?” asked the subcommittee chairman, Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who has co-sponsored Barton’s bill. “How can we justify this system ... are the big guys getting together and shutting out the little guys?”

“I think it is fair, because it represents the marketplace,” Swofford responded.

Swofford was no doubt referring to the fact that schools in BCS conferences generally enjoy more fan support and better TV ratings than schools in non-BCS conferences. This is partly due to the fact that the BCS conferences are (with the exception of the Big East) comprised mainly of well-established flagship state universities with large alumni bases and statewide fan appeal, whereas non-BCS conferences are largely comprised of regional and urban schools with smaller fanbases. But its also partly due to the perception that the BCS creates among fans; the media largely focuses on the six BCS conferences, because those are the only schools that have a real shot at a championship under the BCS system, while the non-BCS schools - the "mid-majors," to use an ESPN euphenism - get less coverage and less exposure, which results in diminished fan support. And let's not even talk about the ever-growing financial disparity between the schools that get to partake in the BCS windfall and those that don't.

Indeed, if the BCS "represents the marketplace" - and it's worth mentioning that several surveys have shown that college football fans, i.e. the "marketplace," favor a playoff system over the BCS - it does so at least partially due to the fact that the BCS system has distorted that very marketplace. This is an important, yet oftentimes overlooked, aspect of the system's inherent unfairness: it is self-reinforcing.

While I doubt that anything will come out of Friday's hearing - the powers behind the BCS will fight any attempts to move towards a playoff, even if those attempts are driven by Congress - anything that sheds more unfavorable light on this cynical and anticompetitive system is a good thing. And this tidbit of information made me smile:

A shiny red Houston Cougars helmet sat on the table in front of Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, as U.S. lawmakers prepared to kick off the government's involvement in determining a national champion in college football.

Way to go, Representative Green! If only more UH alumni were as proud of their school as you.

Fleetwood Mac at the Toyota Center

I don't go to live shows very often, so rest assured that concert reviews will be few and far between on this blog.

That being said, last night's show was pretty impressive, especially for a band whose members' ages range from 59 to 63. Yes, they can still rock.

The line-up was 4/5ths of what most people would consider "classic" Fleetwood Mac: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Stevie Nicks. Christine McVie's absence meant that some of my favorites - "You Make Loving Fun," "Everywhere" - didn't make the set list, but they played most of my favorites: "Dreams," "The Chain," "Gypsy," "Go Your Own Way," "Tusk," "Rhiannon," for example, as well as a rather mesmerizing solo acoustic performance by Buckingham of "Big Love." Nicks also dipped into her solo repertoire with "Stand Back."

Buckingham was clearly the most dynamic member of the group, singing and performing in every song. I can only hope to have anywhere near that much energy when I'm that age. Nicks, for her part, looked great for her age (she can afford the plastic surgery, of course) but wasn't quite as energetic as Buckingham, and didn't even try to hit the high notes in a couple of her songs. That being said, the band's overall abilities have not diminished; they sounded very good.

Lori and I, believe it or not, were not the youngest people in the audience. In fact, while the audience was clearly Boomer-centric, there were a lot of teenagers and twentysomethings there, a testament to the cross-generational appeal of this band's music.

This was my first concert at the Toyota Center, but for all the grousing I've heard about the arena's acoustics - some folks never got the memo that the place was designed as a sports venue, not a concert hall - I thought it sounded fine. On a couple of occasions an echo became noticeable, but that was the extent of it.

All in all, a good performance by a good band.