Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lie-flat seats? In economy class?

From the Department of Good Ideas:
Seats that let passengers lie down are coming to the economy cabin.

Air New Zealand says it will introduce this year coach seats that recline into an almost-flat bed for customers willing to pay extra.

The carrier will install the seats in the first 11 rows of the economy cabin for three Boeing 777 planes scheduled to start delivery in November. They'll fly on the airline's longest routes, such as Los Angeles-Auckland, New Zealand.

Each of the seats is equipped with a footrest that can be lifted for a reclining position. Legroom also increases by an inch, to 33 inches.

As somebody who has endured more than his share of discomfort sitting in economy class seats on lengthy trans-continental flights, I cannot begin to express what a good idea this is. Airlines have historically ignored the comfort of economy class passengers while focusing on amenities for higher-paying first and business class customers, and while that's certainly fine from a business point of view, it's nice to see at least one airline make an attempt to provide a bit more comfort for the masses consigned to steerage. (Some of us who fly internationally for business, after all, don't get a choice as to where we sit due to company policies dictating the purchase of economy seating.)

There are some drawbacks to this innovation. The length of these lie-flat beds is limited to three seats across, so taller people might still feel cramped. And, unless you luck out end end up being the only person on your three-seat row (or end up with only one other person in your row who doesn't mind sleeping next to you), they probably won't be of any use to you. To that end, Air New Zealand is considering allowing couples traveling together to buy the third seat in the three-seat row for half price. Given that fact as well as the fact that Air New Zealand is already charging a $70 premium for these lie-flat seats, the final price of the could become considerable. But on particularly long flights it might just be worth it, especially if it still ends up being cheaper than a seat in first or business class.

Hopefully this concept will prove to be successful for Air New Zealand, and other long-haul international carriers (*cough* Emirates *cough*) will follow suit.

Our trip to East Carolina

Here's one more belated travel recap: our trip to Greenville, North Carolina early last December to watch the University of Houston Cougars face off against the East Carolina Pirates in the 2009 Conference USA Championship Game.

This trip was made possible thanks to some remarkably cheap airfares on Continental Airlines as well as some good hotel and car rental deals through Orbitz. Originally, it was just going to be myself and Kirby making the trip, but my parents, my brother-in-law Danny and my brother David were so enticed by the available travel deals that they decided to come along and support the Coogs as well.

The trip didn't start out so great due to the freak snowfall that occurred on December 4th. My parents took an earlier flight and were able to get out of Houston before the snow began to fall, but by the time Danny, Kirby and I reached Bush Intercontinental Airport early Friday afternoon the wintry weather had moved in and aircraft de-icing procedures had been put into place, causing considerable delay. (Because wintry weather conditions are so rare in Houston, Continental only had three de-icing trucks at its disposal.) We spent over an hour waiting at the gate, and then another hour in the de-icing queue on the tarmac, before our plane was hosed down with hot water and propylene glycol and allowed to take off. We then endured a bumpy ride but eventually made it to Raleigh-Durham. David arrived from Denver later that evening.

The following morning, the six of us got together for breakfast and then made the two-hour drive from Raleigh-Durham to Greenville, where the University of East Carolina University (sorry, Pirate fans...) is located. Before the game we spent some time at the Houston Alumni Organization's hospitality tent:
Among those in attendance for this game were University of Houston Chancellor and President Dr. Renu Khator:

Like everyone else who was delayed by Friday's snowfall, the Spirit of Houston didn't make it to North Carolina until the wee hours of Saturday morning and really didn't get much in the way of sleep before gametime. When they appeared at the hospitality tent before kickoff, Band Director David Bertman explained that they were operating on "pure adrenaline." Nevertheless, they were still enthusiastic and loud. Perhaps too loud for Kirby, as a matter of fact:
The "Purple Pirates," as Kirby calls them, are along with the Rice Owls his favorite Conference USA team besides the Cougars. Something about five-year-old kids and pirates, I guess. Here Kirby poses in front of the Pirate statue outside of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium:

Dowdy-Ficklen turned out to be a nice place to watch a football game; even from the corner of the stadium we had a good view of the action. And, although clearly outnumbered in what was basically a road game, a sizable contingent of Cougar faithful had made the trip to Greenville to cheer for the Coogs:
Every school has its good and bad fans, and East Carolina is no exception. I was surprised by how polarized the two sets of fans were, however. The "good" fans were exceptionally polite and hospitable and did their part to make us feel welcome. The "bad" fans were exceedingly classless, rude and belligerent. In fairness to East Carolina University, the majority of the "bad" fans clearly had no formal connection to the school but were simply folks from the eastern Carolina backwoods who had come out to support their regional team.

With that said, and whether they're formally associated with the university or not, East Carolina enjoys great fan support. The Pirates lead Conference USA in average attendance and fans showed up in force to support their team:
The winner of this game would go on to win the Conference USA title and play the Arkansas Razorbacks in the Liberty Bowl. The game turned out to be an exciting one, with 970 yards in combined offense and multiple lead changes. Here, Case Keenum finds an open James Cleveland for a short gain. Cleveland was one of the few UH players that the Pirates really didn't have an answer for; he ended the day with 19 receptions for 241 yards and 3 touchdowns:

Keenum completed 56 of 75 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions and was sacked twice. The Cougars were forced to throw the ball because the Pirates shut down Houston's running game, allowing a paltry 30 yards on 19 carries. In addition to the lack of anything resembling a balanced offence, the Cougars also made other costly errors: they fumbled the ball once for a total of four turnovers (as opposed to ECU's single turnover) and kicker Matt Hogan missed three extra point attempts. The Cougar defense continued to struggle as well, allowing East Carolina to amass 262 yards through the air - the defense could not sack ECU QB Patrick Pinkey or pick off any of his passes - and another 151 on the ground.

In spite of their miscues, the Cougars did have a chance to win or tie late in the game. They got the ball back with 1:47 left to play and methodically drove down the field to the point that the East Carolina faithful in the section next to ours were clearly becoming anxious. Unfortunately, a Case Keenum pass to LJ Castile in the corner of the endzone (which in restrospect should probably not have been thrown, as there was still plenty of time left on the clock) was tipped by one East Carolina defender and landed in the arms of another defender, ending the Cougars' scoring threat and securing the conference title for the Pirates. Final score: UH 32, ECU 38. East Carolina fans rejoiced and UH fans dejectedly filed out of the stadium. Fortunately, the mean-spirited taunting we received from the "bad" fans was more than counterblanced by the classy ECU fans who congratulated us on a good game and wished us well in our bowl as we rode the bus back to our parking area.

(Funny story: shortly before halftime, after I had taken him to the restroom, Kirby and I watched the Cougars score one of their touchdowns from an area on the ground next to the endzone. When Hogan missed the extra point attempt, an East Carolina fan standing next to us gleefully yelled "Hay mi-yussed it! Hay mi-yussed it!" in an accent that I found rather amusing. I couldn't help but think about this fan a few weeks later, when ECU kicker Ben Hartman "mi-yussed" four field goals - any of the final three of which would have won the game for the Pirates - in ECU's 17-20 loss to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl.)

Needless to say, we were disappointed that, after such an amazing season, the Cougars had fallen short in their quest to capture the conference title. So the six of us did what any visitor to eastern North Carolina would do in order to soothe their sorrows: we drove back to downtown Raleigh and enjoyed some fabulous barbecue at The Pit. I can now say that I am definitely a fan of pulled pork barbecue marinated in vinegar sauce. It was delicious! Later that evening, dad, David, Danny and I made our way to downtown Durham to listen to some decent live music and watch Texas play Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship game.

The following day, we all met for lunch at a restaurant near our respective hotels. Afterwards, we made our separate ways home - Kirby and me on an earlier flight to Houston, mom, dad and Danny on a later flight, and David to Denver. Thus ended our weekend trip to North Carolina.

In spite of the loss, as well as the delay in getting there, I think we all had a good time. It's always fun to support your team wherever they play, to experience the atmosphere at another team's stadium, to visit another part of the country, and to sample the local cuisine. I'm already thinking about roadtrips for the upcoming season; the Cougars' trip to Los Angeles to play UCLA looks intriguing...

UPDATE: A big welcome to the folks from Boneyard Banter who have discovered this post. I think Ruffin McNeill was a solid hire for ECU head coach and I hope to see the Pirates do well again this fall. Except if they meet the Coogs in the C-USA Championship again, of course!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Belated BCS thoughts

I don't have too much to say about the college football season that ended over two weeks ago, other than, in terms of crowning a champion, I think that the BCS actually got it right this year. For a change.

The outcome of the championship game aside - although we'll never know for sure, I think the Longhorns probably would have won had QB Colt McCoy not been knocked out of the game - Alabama and Texas were clearly the two best teams in college football this past season, considering their undefeated records against the competition they played. Congratulations are in order for the Alabama Crimson Tide.

With that said, it's just too bad that the three other undefeated teams going into the BCS bowls - Boise State, Cincinnati and TCU - weren't permitted to have their own shot at the title.

True, for the first time in the history of the BCS, two teams from conferences that do not automatically qualify for BCS berths - the so-called "non-AQs" - made it in to the BCS bowl party. Both of these teams, TCU and Boise State, were matched up together in the Fiesta Bowl. While it may certainly be the case that the Fiesta Bowl desired this matchup of two undefeated teams, or that a Boise-TCU matchup in Glendale made the most geographic sense of all the possible permutations, BCS critics can fairly argue that this matchup was the result of the "big boys" of the BCS not wanting these schools to play them and potentially show them up.

The BCS is a cartel. Its six automatically-qualifying conferences, aided and abetted by the BCS bowls themselves as well as the sports media and the voters that make of two-thirds of the BCS rankings system, have created a system of collusion and exclusion that benefits the 66 "AQ" teams at the expense of the other 54 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. This collusion extends beyond the BCS bowls themselves. For proof, look no further than Boise State. The Broncos were criticized for their weak schedule this past season, but that's at least partly due to the fact teams from big-time conferences won't schedule them because they fear losing to them.

Furthermore, due to their perceived superiority, the six AQ conferences receive the lion's share of media attention. This results in less national stature, less viewership and less fan support for the non-AQ schools, which in turn puts them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to money for facilities and coaching salaries and makes them less attractive to top recruits. It's a self-reinforcing system that continually increases the disparity between the "haves" of the AQ conferences and the "have-nots" of the non-AQ conferences.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of the BCS setup, however, is what it says to the players, coaches and fans of Boise State and TCU: as was the case with undefeated Utah the year before, they can do everything right and win all of their games but still not be considered for a shot at the BCS title. They simply aren't allowed the opportunity to compete.

(For that matter, the same could be said for Cincinnati; although they are a member of the automatically-qualifying Big East, they're still an urban school only a few years removed from membership in non-AQ Conference USA and are therefore not considered by the big boys to be part of their club. I realize, however, that their 24-51 drubbing at the hands of Florida in the Sugar Bowl did not help their case.)

Indeed, even though the BCS resulted in a legitimate national champion this year, and even though this season the non-AQs got more access to the big money of the BCS than they ever have before, the bottom line is that the BCS system remains inherently flawed and unfair. It is a system in need of reform.

UPDATE: The US Justice Department is considering an investigation of the BCS to see if it violates antitrust laws. Keep your fingers crossed...

Our trip to Orlando

Okay, so it's only taken me two whole months from the time we took this trip to the time I finally got around to writing about it, but anyway...

Last November, Lori, Kirby, my mother, my father and myself all went to Orlando (my parents were there for the entire week; Kirby, Lori and I were just there for a few days). We had planned the trip several months in advance in order to catch a University of Houston football road game as well as take Kirby on his very first trip to The Evil Empire Disney World.

The first day we were there we went to the Magic Kingdom. Here, Lori and Kirby pose in front of the Dumbo Flying Elephant ride, which turned out to be one of Kirby's favorites:

The nice thing about visiting Disney World during the "offseason" is that the park is less crowded and lines for rides are much shorter. I was able to ride exponentially more rides during this trip than I was able to ride during my last visit there several summers ago. To be sure, there were still lines, and Disney's FASTPASS System came in handy on more than one occasion. We rode almost all of the famous rides, including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, Goofy's Barnstormer roller coaster and, yes, It's a Small World. The only drawback was that my favorite Magic Kingdom attraction, Space Mountain, was closed for renovation. And, even though Lori and Kirby enjoyed it, I could have done without riding the Mad Tea Party ride. It made me a bit dizzy!

As night fell, the Cinderella Castle was let up to a stunning wintry effect:

Even though Thanksgiving was still two weeks away at that point, Disney had already bedecked the entire park with Christmas ornamentation, including these along Main Street USA:
The following day we went to Epcot. As was the case the day before, the relative lack of crowds meant that we could ride most of the rides, including my personal favorite, the GM Test Track. Here, Kirby stands in front of the iconic Spaceship Earth Pavilion.
We also spent a lot of time at the The Seas with Nemo and Friends Pavilion, which, in addition to a ride that Kirby wanted to ride multiple times, also included a large aquarium and a children's show that Kirby enjoyed. Here, the two of us "pose" with one of the sharks from the movie:

On Saturday, my parents, Kirby and I traveled to The University of Central Florida to see the Cougars take on the Golden Knights. UCF is as big in acreage as it is in enrollment (with 53.5 thousand students, it is now the third-largest university in the nation). It took us a full half-hour to walk from our parking garage to the campus stadium. That gave us an opportunity to experience the school's rather lively tailgating scene.

I had heard stories that recently-completed Bright House Network Stadium was a low-bid, aluminum "erector set" with inadequate amenities and seating areas that bounced. Upon visiting the stadium for myself, however, I discovered those stories to be completely untrue. The structure was sturdy, the sight lines were good, and the restrooms and concession areas were spacious and modern. Pretty good, considering its $55 million price tag. If the University of Houston plans to build a new stadium, they could do worse than to follow Central Florida's example:

To be honest, I had my doubts going into this game. The Cougars, ranked #13 at the time in the USA Today poll, were playing the second of back-to-back road games and were coming off an emotional and miraculous last-second win at Tulsa the week before, so I was worried that they'd be mentally and physically fatigued. My fears, unfortunately, proved to be true. After some initial success - the Coogs were up 17-3 midway through the second quarter - the team began to sputter. The Cougar offense got bogged down, thanks to a less-than-stellar outing by QB Case Keenum, three turnovers, some boneheaded penalties and some suspect playcalling. This put the game's burden on the backs of the beleaguered Cougar defense, who simply had no answer for UCF QB Brett Hodges or UCF RB Brynn Harvey. The Golden Knights took control of the game midway through the second quarter and went on a 24-3 run before Keenum and the offense could finally attempt a late comeback:
The Coogs scored the game's final 15 points, but the rally was too little, too late. Final score: UCF 37, UH 32. This was the Coogs' second loss of the season. It's hard to win when your offense can't protect the ball or control the clock. At least Kirby seemed to have had a good time, in spite of the outcome:
Big props to the UCF staffer who gave the four of us a ride in his golf cart across campus back to the garage after the game. I know he did it because he felt sorry for us but we appreciated the classy gesture nonetheless.

Lori and Kirby flew back to Houston Saturday afternoon. I stayed for one more night, and that evening mom, dad and I went to see the Blue Man Group perform at Universal Studios Orlando. We had an outstanding experience; if you ever get a chance to see this ensemble perform at any of their locations, I recommend you do so. I took this picture of Universal Studios from my plane's window as I departed Orlando the following day:

All in all, and in spite of the outcome of the football game, we had a good time. Kirby is already looking forward to his next trip to Orlando.

Congratulations Saints... And their fans!

Aside from what it means psychologically for the people of New Orleans who are continuing to struggle to rebuild their city, it's great to see long-suffering Saints fans finally watch their team go to the Superbowl.

The Saints were established in 1967, but for the first twenty seasons of their history, the "Aints" were absolutely dreadful. The team did not achieve their first winning season or its first playoff appearance until the 1987 season. They didn't manage a playoff victory until 2000, and were forced to play the entire 2005 season away from New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina.

And now, 43 seasons later, they're finally going to the Superbowl. Good for them and for their loyal fans.

And to think: if the Saints can finally pull it off, then maybe there's hope for the Texans after all.

Cool Dubai timelapses

Regardless of the problems that Dubai might be having right now, it really is a visually stunning city.

Room with a view: Dubai timelapse tests from Atlantis hotel from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The known universe

Some of you might have seen this video by now, but it kinda puts things in perspective:

The world's tallest building

Although it technically became the world's tallest building over two years ago, the Tower Formerly Known as Burj Dubai is now officially open:

In a glitzy firework-lit ceremony, the city-state's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum unveiled a plaque commemorating the event and also announced that the $1.5 billion structure has a new name: the Burj Khalifa.

Named after Khalifa Bin Zayed, the president of the United Arab Emirates -- and ruler of Abu Dhabi, which recently bailed out debt-ridden Dubai to the tune of $10 billion -- the tower was officially recorded as 828 meters tall, adding 10 meters on to previous height claims.

Six years in the making, and now 319 meters higher than previous skyscraping record-holder Taipei 101, Dubai's newest edifice commands dizzying views of the ambitious building program that has transformed the emirate.

While Seabee combats some misconceptions about the sudden name change - for example, Abu Dhabi does not "own" the tower - I still think that the fact that Dubai's signature piece of architecture now bears the name of the ruler of the adjacent emirate speaks volumes about the current political and financial relationship between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Anyway, at 2,717 feet, or over one-half mile, in height, it is the tallest structure ever built by humankind. Pretty impressive. And I got to witness its construction!