Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two minutes of calm

This website challenges you to do nothing but "relax and listen to the waves" for two full minutes. If you touch your mouse or keyboard, you fail.

Can you go the full two minutes without doing anything? Remember: no using your mobile or doing any other activity during this time, either. It might be harder than it seems!

(Hat tip: Zoe Pollock.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Did you feel really depressed yesterday?

If you felt especially down yesterday, there might just be a reason for that. According to a British psychologist who in 2005 devised an equation comprising variables such as weather, debt, the time passed since Christmas, failed New Year's resolutions and other factors, Blue Monday, the last Monday in January, is the most depressing day of the year.

Okay, so the methodology used in deriving this date is dubious, and the purpose behind it - it was promoted by a British travel agency to encourage people to take a January vacation - is clearly suspect.

That being said, I think there is truth to the idea that the first few weeks of the new year are especially dreary and gloomy (I personally feel that January along with August are the two most depressing months of the year). Coming off the excitement and festiveness of a holiday season that begins building up well before Thanksgiving, culminates at Christmas, coasts through a week to New Year's Eve and then fades away, it's only natural that people experience an emotional letdown as they put away their Christmas decorations and return to the tedium of daily life.

(In that regard, perhaps it's unfortunate that, aside from Louisiana where it marks the beginning of Mardi Gras season, Twelfth Night/Epiphany is not celebrated in American culture outside of some churches. This event could have psychological value as a means of formally saying "goodbye" to the holiday season, but that's the topic of a whole other post.)

Add to that the prospect that a few more months of winter remain ahead (Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real phenomenon), as well as the fact that, yes, those credit card bills from Christmas shopping also come due, and it's easy to see why January could be considered an emotionally depressing month.

I've always wondered if a secondary reason why Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday was made a national holiday was to address this lingering gloominess. The obvious purpose of this holiday, of course, is to honor a great American. But perhaps an unspoken, lesser motivation behind this observance was to brighten people's spirits by giving them a three-day weekend during an otherwise dull and dispirited time of the year.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Keenum granted sixth year

Since I honestly did not expect this to happen, I am very pleasantly surprised right now:
The NCAA has granted a sixth year of eligibility to Houston quarterback Case Keenum, who missed the final nine games of the 2010 season with a torn knee ligament.

The NCAA's decision was first reported by KRIV-TV. The school announced it on Friday.

Keenum was nearing several NCAA career records when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while attempting a tackle in a 31-13 loss at UCLA on Sept. 18. That came a week after a mild concussion in a win over UTEP.

Coming off a disappointing season, this was really (outside of news regarding construction of a new stadium or realignment into a BCS automatically-qualifying conference) the best news a suffering Houston fan could want to hear. It completely changes the dynamic of the coming season; what once looked like something of a rebuilding year now looks like a it could be a great one, i.e. it now makes 2011 look like the year 2010 should have been for Cougar football. As the Chronicle's Richard Justice notes, "[Keenum's] return doesn't accomplish everything UH would like to accomplish this year, but it was a terrific start. Do you believe in omens?"

There were three main reasons why Houston's 5-7 2010 campaign ended in such a disappointing fashion. The first was the departure of offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson to Oklahoma State (he is now on his way to West Virginia). His replacements, Jason Phillips and Kliff Klingsbury, simply were not of the same caliber when it came to playcalling capabilities. The second was the lack of a significantly improved defense over the previous season (going from #111 in the nation in total defense in 2009 to #103 in total defense is definitely not significant improvement).

But the biggest reason for last fall's collapse was the loss of Case Keenum himself, because he could largely cover for both of those aforementioned shortcomings. He knew the offense well enough to essentially be his own offensive coordinator, thereby taking pressure off of Phillips and Klingsbury as they grew into their roles. He could also lead the offense to quick and frequent scores, thereby matching the opposing team score-for-score in situations where the struggling UH defense simply couldn't do their part. Case, for all practical purposes, was the team. As he went, so did the team's leader and its greatest weapon.

My hope for Keenum is three-fold: first, that his recovery continues and that he regains his old form in time for the fall season (and it goes without saying that he also avoid injury this fall.) My second hope is that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff do something - anything - over the coming months to give Keenum and his offense the defensive help that they so desperately need. 96th in the nation in scoring defense, 114th in rushing offense and 117th in third-down conversion defense just aren't going to cut it.

My third hope - and I mean this sincerely, without cynicism - is that the University of Houston Althetics Department refrain from launching a "Keenum for Heisman" campaign like they did last fall. First of all, it's futile: Heisman voters simply aren't going to give the award to a player from a non-AQ conference, especially when the media is already hyping up players from AQ conferences, like Stanford's Andrew Luck, as 2011 frontrunners. Second, such as campaign puts unnecessary pressure and distraction on Keenum. That's not fair to him or the rest of the team. Just let him go out there and perform, without the hype.

The season begins on September 3, 2011 against the same UCLA team that ended Keenum's aspirations last fall. That game cannot come soon enough.

A call for civility in politics

I hope that even those who do not like President Obama or agree with his policies would at least appreciate and take to heart these words he spoke at Wednesday night's memorial service in Tucson, Arizona:
If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives - to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud. It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here - they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.
In the days since the massacre in Tucson that claimed the life of six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl, and wounded several others, including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there's been a lot of discussion about the current nature of political discourse in the United States. And, while it now seems clear that the gunman, Jared Loughner, was simply a psychotic nutjob who was not influenced by any violent rhetoric aimed at his apparent target, Rep. Giffords, now is nevertheless as good a time as any for we as a nation to examine our words and actions as they relate to politics and to tone it down a few notches.

Sure, exaggeration, misrepresentation, name-calling and mudlsinging will always be a part of discussion about politics and policy within the United States. That's standard political rhetoric. But when our nation's political dialogue morphs into polarizing, demonizing bile laced with violent imagery and metaphor - and over the past few years it clearly has - it simply goes too far. It divides. It foments anger, hatred and fear. It makes us, in a word, uncivil.

I've said before, and I'll say again, that our nation is being pulled downward into a swamp of cynical, toxic, hyper-partisan and mean-spirited political shouting matches. It does not solve the problems this nation faces; it only makes them worse.

It needs to end. Now.

Wrapping up the college football season

Some belated thoughts on the end of the 2010 college football season:

1. As much as I hate the Bowl Championship Series, I think it got things right. At least, as far as crowning a legitimate national champion is concerned. Auburn went undefeated in the SEC, which is clearly the best conference in the nation, and defeated an excellent Oregon team in the BCS National Championship. No controversy or second-guessing here. The Tigers earned their title, and the SEC continues its dominance of the college football landscape.

That being said, I honestly don't think we've heard the last about the controversy surrounding Cam Newton. We'll just have to wait and see how that plays out, if it does at all. For now, congratulations are in order for the Auburn Tigers, the 2010 Football Bowl Subdivision national champions.

(As an aside, congrats also go to the Eastern Washington Eagles, who earned the Football Championship Subdivision title with a win over Delaware last Friday. Funny how the players in every other division or subdivision of college football can handle a playoff without a problem, yet we're told by the BCS shills that the kids at the FBS level, i.e. the best players in the sport, somehow can't.)

2. TCU is a great team and deserves its #2 postseason ranking. In a perfect world, we'd still have one football game remaining and TCU would get to prove themselves against Auburn (for the record, I think Auburn would win). But TCU has plenty to be proud of what they've accomplished. A Rose Bowl victory over Big Ten champion Wisconsin and a #2 ranking to end the season is nothing to be upset about, and, indeed, the Horned Frogs seem pretty happy right now.

Of course, I can't mention TCU's success without going back to Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee and his stupid "little sisters of the poor" comment regarding the Horned Frogs' schedule. To Gee's credit, he admitted the need to keep his mouth shut in the wake of the uproar surrounding his statement last November, and, after watching TCU beat the same Wisconsin team that handed his Ohio State Buckeyes their only loss of the season, he agreed to "eat some crow." TCU boosters, meanwhile, are having some fun of their own by putting up billboards in Columbus, where Gee's school is located, congratulating TCU's Rose Bowl victory on behalf of those same "little sisters of the poor."

3. With regard to some of the other marquee games, the best argument against the BCS continues to be the BCS itself. Granted, the Rose Bowl was a great game, and the Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Arkansas was highly entertaining as well. But the two other BCS games - the Orange Bowl matchup between Stanford and Virginia Tech and the Fiesta Bowl featuring Oklahoma and Connecticut - were snooze-inducing blowouts.

UConn was 7-4 and unranked going into the postseason; they were assured a BCS berth because they were the champions of the automatic-qualifying Big East conference. Virginia Tech was ranked #12 going into the bowls (in spite of a pretty serious blemish on their record in the form of a loss to an FCS school) and got to play in a BCS bowl because they were champions of the automatically-qualifying Atlantic Coast Conference. But both schools' lopsided defeats - UConn was trounced by Oklahoma, 20-48, and Virginia Tech was trashed by Stanford, 12-40 - suggested that they probably didn't belong in these games. Meanwhile, several one-loss teams, such as Boise State were left on the outside of the BCS party looking in.

This is just another example of the cynical and unjust arrangement of the BCS cartel that deems some schools to be more deserving of their highly-lucrative bowls than others based simply on their conference affiliation. Yet the BCS shills want us to continue to believe that this system is supposedly superior to a playoff, even as bowl ratings decline, fewer fans purchase tickets and bowl executives command outrageous salaries while cash-strapped schools struggle to sell their required ticket allotments (at face value, even though fans can get much cheaper tickets through sources like stubhub).

The system got the Auburn-Oregon matchup right. But it's still broken.

4. Non-AQs represent! The only way the non-AQ "have-nots" can continue to prove that the BCS system is a farce is to continue to do well in the postseason, and in that regard they did pretty well. In addition to going 4-2 in bowl games against teams from automatically-qualifying conferences, for the second year in a row the non-automatically-qualifying conferences have put five teams in the final AP poll (including two from Conference USA, a first for the conference). It's interesting to note that the automatically-qualifying Big East does not have any teams ranked in either the final AP or Coaches' poll. Which goes back to my previous point.

5. Did bowl season really need to be this long? It used to be that college football season would end on New Year's Day with an orgy of bowl games, a champion would be crowned (and/or controversy would ensue), and that would be that. That's not the way it works anymore, as the bowl season continues to get strung out longer and longer into January. This year, the season didn't end until the title game was played on January 10th.

Now, I can't say I'm particularly outraged that college football season is a few days longer than it used to be. But is it occurring to the detriment of the on-field performance of the players? Both Oregon and Auburn had to wait well over a month between their final regular-season games and the BCS National Championship Game, and it was pretty evident that both teams were trying to shake off the rust, particularly on offense, over much of the title game's first half.

6. I suck at prognostication. At the beginning of the season I had Alabama beating Nebraska in the national title game. I specifically stated that Oregon would not get a shot at the title. Auburn wasn't even on my radar screen. Oops.

But if I suck at preseason predictions, so does everyone else. In my preseason post I created a table of the consensus top 15 teams based on eight different preseason ranking systems. Alabama was first and Ohio State was second. Oregon was number nine. Auburn was nowhere to be found. Apparently, nobody else was really taking the Tigers seriously, either.

7. On to the offseason. Bummer. Sure, there will be plenty of activity over the offseason. Signing day is less than a month away, and spring practices will whet the appetites of the die-hard fans. Conference realignment is an issue that may reappear as well. But the games themselves are seven-and-a-half long months away. Alas...

ESPN's Ivan Maisel chronicles Auburn's long-awaited moment of glory, while his colleague Ted Miller examines what went wrong for the Ducks. Recaps of the other 34 bowl games are here. provides a season-ending ranking for all 120 teams, while Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel lists the ten biggest stories of the football season that just passed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Testing my new toy

In the five years that I've owned it, my Olympus C-770 has served me well. However, a chipped lens as well as the fact that I felt it was just time for an upgrade meant that I was in the market for a newer digital camera. I was originally thinking about going all-out and getting a high-end DSLR. However, its cost (as well as the fact that, two years of photography class in middle school aside, I do not consider myself that serious of a photographer) deterred me from doing so.

So, with some much-appreciated assistance from my parents and my brother, I purchased a Christmas present for myself: a Nikon Coolpix P100. The review for this camera was mostly favorable but noted that it didn't provide the best picture quality, especially in regards to sharpness and noise at full resolution. That's okay for me, because I rarely take pictures for use at their full resolution anyway; I generally use my pictures for prints and for posting on the web (i.e. on this blog or Facebook), which requires that the photographs be scaled down from their full resolution and which therefore makes such issues with picture quality less apparent.

A couple of weekends ago I walked around the neighborhood with my new camera to see what it could do. Click any of the pictures for a larger view.
This tree was in the process of changing color, and the camera captures its colors well. Needless to say, the clear sky and bright sun made for excellent photography conditions as I walked around the block.
True accuracy of color is not going to be perfect for any digital camera outside of the best and most expensive DSLRs, but I think this camera did pretty well in capturing the hues of this rose bloom. (Roses in the dead of winter - another reason why I love Houston!)
The Coolpix P100 does a reasonable job at macro photography. I was about an inch away from this lantana bloom when I took this picture, and all but the closest florets remain in focus.
As I walked around I noticed a vapor trail high above me and decided to see if the 26x zoom would be good enough for me to identify the type of aircraft responsible. This appeared to be a Boeing 767. Sure enough, according to FlightAware, this is Air Canada flight 1858, a 767 passing over Houston at 37,000 feet on its way from Vancouver to Cancun.
The 26x zoom also works well on subjects that are a bit closer, like these two doves in a tree. The automatic focus does its job even in full zoom conditions; some of the branches are out of focus, but the birds themselves are perfectly clear.

All in all, I am happy with my purchase and I plan to get a lot of use out of it over the next several years. Maybe by then I'll have the urge as well as the financial wherewithal to get an actual DSLR.