Tuesday, July 31, 2012

And then there were four

The cottontail convention in the back yard just keeps getting bigger and bigger:
And, now that the monsoon of a few weeks ago is over, the dirt in the back yard has dried out and the rabbits can stretch out in style:
Maybe I should start charging rent or something...

Houston, we have a new Interstate

Let the double entendres begin!
The first Houston-area piece of a trade corridor — debated for more than a decade and envisioned as one day linking Mexico to Canada — has been officially designated.
 Motorists will soon notice new road signs naming a 35-mile stretch of existing U.S. 59, from the 610 Loop to FM 787 in Cleveland, as part of the new Interstate 69.
With little fanfare, the Texas Transportation Commission recently voted to put up the new signage while keeping the U.S. 59 designation.
I was made aware of last week's TTC decision Monday afternoon, when I received a press release from TxDOT on the subject. However, this particular route designation has actually been in the works for months. The TTC had to first wait on the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Federal Highway Administration to sign off on the new designation before they could make it official.

This isn't the only section of US 59 that will receive Interstate Highway status. Perhaps within the next several months, all of US 59 through Houston to Rosenberg will be signed as Interstate 69 (although, as the article states, the existing US 59 designation will be retained). Eventually, more pieces of I-69 will appear as other sections of US 59 (and, between Victoria and Brownsville, US 77) are upgraded to interstate standards. To that end, the TTC recently authorized $150 million for several I-69 upgrade projects throughout its proposed route; another section of I-69 near Corpus Christi was officially designated last fall.

So what does this mean for Houston? In the near term, probably little more than some confusion on the part of motorists, as well as a lot of adolescent jokes about the number "69." In the longer term, however, I-69 will extend all the way from the Rio Grande through Houston and East Texas to Louisiana and Arkansas. From there, the new highway will make its way to Indiana, where I-69 already exists to the Canadian border, and another "NAFTA Superhighway" linking Mexico to Canada will come into being.

This will likely mean more big rig traffic through Houston, as truckers are given an alternative to I-35 for trans-national shipping. But it will also mean that your own drive to the beaches of South Padre or the casinos of Shreveport will be that much quicker.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The new paleontology exhibit at HMNS

Although it opened almost two months ago, Kirby and I did not finally get around to visiting the new hall of paleontology at the Museum of Natural Science until this weekend. Here are some photos.
The new hall, which is a permanent exhibit, is described as a "prehistoric safari" that begins with the early aquatic life forms of over 500 million years ago and follows all the way through early fishes, plants, amphibians, dinosaurs and early mammals to the evolution of modern man.
The exhibit starts with an impressive collection of trilobites, which appeared in the Cambrian Period about 525 million years ago and managed to hang around for the following 270 million years before finally going extinct.
The hall features a broad array of plant as well as animal fossil, including a very large and rather beautiful assortment of petrified wood.
 Flying insects, such as this dragonfly ancestor, began to appear about 315 million years ago.
The sharp teeth of Tyrannosuarus Rex, which lied between 67 and 65.5 million years ago. Like the rest of the dinosaurs, T-Rex was wiped out by an extinction event that may have been caused by an asteroid impact.
Triceratops is instantly recognizable by the horns and frill of its skull. This particular specimen apparently includes fossilized skin as well as bone.
The new hall is only a handful of weeks old at this point, and some of the exhibits are still under construction. Here, a curator reconstructs what appears to be a skeleton of an early mammal.
This frightening skeleton belongs to "Slothzilla,"an enormous ground sloth that (perhaps thankfully) no longer exists. In addition to its impressive size and powerful limbs, this beast had massive claws that could tear apart predators like saber-toothed tigers.

Anyway, the new exhibit is as expansive as it is impressive and a handful of pictures on a blog don't come close to doing it justice. So go to the museum and check it out for yourself!

My city is cooler than yours!

But don't take my word for it; see what Forbes has to say about Houston:
The Bayou City may not be the first place you associate with being hip or trendy. But Houston has something many other major cities don’t: jobs. With the local economy humming through the recession, Houston enjoyed 2.6% job growth last year and nearly 50,000 Americans flocked there in response — particularly young professionals. In fact, the median age of a Houston resident is a youthful 33.

The result? Over the past decade, the dreary corporate cityscape has been quietly transforming. Stylish housing developments have popped up downtown, restaurants have taken up residence in former factories and art galleries like the Station Museum have been inhabiting warehouses.

Combine that with a strong theater scene, world-class museums and a multicultural, zoning-free mashup of a streetscape and you have the recipe for the No. 1 spot on Forbes’ list of America’s Coolest Cities To Live.
Which brings up the obvious question: how do you quantify something as quinessentially subjective as "coolness," anyway? Forbes explains that they rated the nation's 65 largest metropolitan areas based on the following criteria: the number of cultural, entertainment, sports and recreational opportunities available; the number of (non-chain) dining establishments available; the diversity of the population; the median age (with "a large young adult population" being favored); the unemployment rate; and net migration. Thankfully, factors like climate, the murder rate, traffic congestion or the quality of local sports franchises were not considered.

Even if rankings like these should be taken with a grain of salt, this list is no more dubious than Men's Fitness declaring Houston to be the nation's "fattest city" based largely on circumstantial factors such as the number of fast food joints in the city or the average commute times of residents (as opposed to, say, a scientific sampling of locals' body-mass indices). Besides, if a news magazine like US News and World Report can publish a (highly flawed and biased) list of college rankings every year, then I guess a business magazine like Forbes can publish a list of cool city rankings. So I'll take the positive publicity for my city.

The idea that a place like Houston could actually be the nation's "coolest" city will naturally receive mocking derision from people in New York City or San Francisco (because, after all, what can be cooler than paying $1,600/month for a 350-square-foot studio apartment?) and outright hostility from folks in Austin and Dallas (which were ranked 19th and 4th, respectively). But whatever one might think of these rankings, there is a measure of truth to them: the cost of living here is low, the economy is good, the population is diverse, the winters are mild, there are a lot of activities to do and the food is great. Even if that doesn't make Houston the "coolest" place to be, the fact remains that this is a good place to live.

Here's a slideshow of the top twenty cities or, if you want to skip all the way to the top, Houston. The Houston Press and CultureMap Houston have more.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cottontail convention

Because my girlfriend's and my new house is so close to a large, clear right-of-way for a railroad and high-tension power lines, and because our new back yard is virtually devoid of trees itself, eastern cottontail rabbits are a daily visitor to our yard:
They usually appear one or two at a time to nibble on the grasses and weeds that are growing out there. Today was the first time that I saw three at the same time: 
We don't have anything planted in the back yard yet, and they don't seem to be destructive otherwise, so I'm just leaving them alone for now.

If I get a hankering for cottontail gumbo, however...

Joe Paterno's Legacy, Continued

Last January, shortly after his death, I wondered aloud what the legacy of iconic Penn State football coach Joe Paterno would turn out to be.

Well, after the events of the last few weeks - namely, the release of the Freeh Report which found that Paterno knew a lot more about and "concealed critical facts" about Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children than he had led the public to believe - I think that Houston Chronicle cartoonist Nick Anderson sums it up nicely:
Paterno, whose name was already tarnished prior to the release of the Freeh Report, has now become all but unmentionable. Penn State removed his statue from Beaver Stadium on Sunday. The NCAA, as part of a package of sanctions levied against Penn State's football program on Monday, vacated all of Paterno's victories from 1998 - the year he first heard about Sandusky's improper behavior with young boys - through last season. The elimination of 111 Penn State wins from the record books knocks Paterno down from first to twelfth on the list of winningest Division I college football coaches. Yahoo! Sports contributor Adam C. Biggers argues that this is a fate the late coach richly deserves:
A man who preached honor, respect, truth and dignity felt it was more important to retain the image of his football program rather than confront a monster who preyed on children. Paterno swept the incidents under the rug and, in essence, passed the buck to higher authorities who also did nothing. 
CNN contributor Roland Martin, who calls Paterno a "coward," agrees:
If Penn State officials or Pennsylvania politicians had any guts, they would strip the university bare of anything adorned with the name Joe Paterno. What his teams accomplished on the field is impressive, but no one can turn a blind eye to the failed leadership he exhibited off the field.
Forbes writer Monte Burke, on the other hand, thinks that vacating Paterno's victories is a meaningless gesture:
But vacating wins is just downright silly. What does it accomplish? The games are over, done, gone for good. Does vacating them wipe them from our consciousness? Will fans suddenly no longer be able to recall the 2005 11-1 team that won the Big Ten and the Orange Bowl?
Burke agrees that "Joe Paterno turned out to be a really bad person." But he also notes that "he won more games than any college coach in history. That’s a fact." And I can see his point, especially considering how the erasure of those 111 victories affects the players that earned them:
Others argue that the scars of their efforts still remain even if the win column looks different. Adam Taliaferro, a former player under Paterno, tweeted about a plate in his neck that is a lasting reminder of his spinal cord injury from playing at Penn State.

For them, the emotions and the sacrifices that they left on the field have been tainted. Former Penn State player Derek Moye says the vacating of victories ordered by the NCAA can't erase his memories of what he has been a part of. Former Penn State player A. Q. Shipley tweeted a picture of rings he won at Penn State. And former defensive end Devon Still tweeted a picture of a ring that was given out to players when Paterno passed the 400-win mark. No NCAA ruling will take that moment for him, he said.

Almost all of the former players note that their frustrations pale in comparison to those of the victims. But still, this sanction in particular stings deep for them. They believe they are paying the price for actions they did not commit.
But that's the way the NCAA works: they sanction entire institutions for the actions of a few individuals. These former players, through no fault of their own, end up paying for the sins of their coach and administration. And make no mistake about it: the elimination of these victories from the record book is all about Joe Paterno's sin.

The current and future Penn State program must pay as well. In addition to striking 111 of Paterno's victories from the record books, the association also levied a $60 million fine on the program, slapped the Nittany Lions with a four-year ban on post-season play (meaning that they will not even be eligible to compete for the Big Ten championship), reduced the number of scholarships the program can give out for the next four years (instead of signing 25 incoming student-athletes per year, they can only sign 15), and allowed current players to transfer to other programs without having to sit out for one year, as is normally the case. While the NCAA did not give Penn State the "death penalty" (something it has only done once, to SMU), and while the NCAA did not impose a television ban on Penn State (a once-common and truly debilitating sanction that seems to have been abandoned due to the complex nature of contracts between conference and networks), these sanctions are nevertheless crippling. For the next few years the program will struggle to attract recruits and will field a squad that, in terms of the number of players on scholarship, will be only slightly larger than that of an FCS school. Nittany Lion players and fans can expect a lot of losses over the coming seasons; it could be a decade, if not longer, before the program recovers.

Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel isn't particularly impressed with the NCAA's actions: "Justice has been served, assuming your idea of justice for rape victims is to deprive a school of its next four Outback Bowl invitations." Yahoo! Sportswriter Dan Wetzel, suggesting that the sanctions imposed are actually worse than the "death penalty," returns to Joe Paterno's legacy:
Penn State is now a pile of rubble, facing an uncertain future. That reality is part of the legacy of Paterno, who built the program to stratospheric heights only to leave it an unmitigated disaster. 
It's ironic, then, that the actions Paterno took (or, more accurately, didn't take) in order to build and protect his legacy ended up being the very things that destroyed it. Last January, I wrote of Paterno that "to belittle or to overlook all that he accomplished during his career simply because of the way it ended would be grossly unfair." Now that we know more, I've come to realize that it is, indeed, perfectly appropriate and fair to think of Joe Paterno as a man who enabled a child molester and failed to protect young boys first, and a college football coach second.

And that, for better or for worse, is likely how Paterno will be always remembered.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

RIP, Houston's only decent radio station

In the corporate-playlist wasteland that is Houston radio, 103.7 was the one bright spot. That is, until yesterday:
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, 103.7 KHJK left the Houston airwaves, leaving "Houston's Adult Alternative" without a substitute. Christian alternative format Air 1 Radio has taken its place.

The changeover as a result of Cumulus Media's prepackaged bankruptcy buyout that included KHJK and sports-talk station KFNC (97.5 FM, "The Ticket"). KFNC was bought by GOW Communications and KHJK was bought by Educational Media Foundation, which owns nationwide Contemporary Christian network KLOVE and its Christian alternative-music cousin Air 1.
Good news if you're a fan of Christian contemporary music, I guess. But bad news for me (and, judging by the comments on this 29-95 post about the changeover, a lot of other people as well). I enjoyed 103.7's "adult alternative" format, which had a catalog reaching back to the early 80s and which featured artists that no other local radio station would touch, like Florence and the Machine, Death Cab for Cutie, The Airborne Toxic Event, The Black Keys, Snow Patrol, Wilco, and Grace Potter and the Noctournals, just to name a few.

I understand that 103.7's demise was a simple business decision: the station had a new owner due to the previous owner's bankruptcy and the station's weak signal (there were times when it was hard to pick up inside the loop) limited its appeal to advertisers. But it sucks, nevertheless.

Well, at least I can listen to my iPhone in the car and my satellite radio at home. Mike McGuff has more.

Turning Kirby into a traingeek

Yesterday, Kirby and I waited alongside the Union Pacific Terminal Subdivision which runs between Bellaire and West U. for the Amtrak Sunset Limited to pass by. I did this partly to show Kirby (who, like any seven-year-old, is really in to trains) what an actual passenger train looks like, and partly to see how videos taken on my iPhone would appear on YouTube:

I used the "train status" feature on Amtrak's website to determine when the train was expected at the station in downtown Houston, and we went out to the tracks about a half-hour beforehand. The "dining car" I pointed out to Kirby was actually the train's observation car; there were quite a few people sitting in there but the windows were so dark that they didn't show up on the video (which actually turned out nicely, if I do say so myself).

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Frontier switches airports. Again.

Less than two years after moving from from Bush Intercontinental to Hobby, Frontier Airlines today made the move back to the big airport:
On Wednesday, if you're driving to Hobby, rushing to make your Frontier Airlines flight, you are in a world of hurt.
That's because you'll be headed to the wrong airport. Effective July 11 and moving forward (at least until it changes its mind again) Frontier and its planes will be going in and out of gates at George Bush Intercontinental, ditching the Hobby Airport to the south.
Frontier says going back to Bush makes it the only low-cost airplane flying out of there and comes complete with a lot of better networking.
That's probably true, but it's probably only part of the story. It's very likely that Frontier, which only flies to Denver from Houston, discovered that competing head-to-head with fellow low-cost carrier Southwest on that particular route was a lot harder than it seemed: Southwest aggressively matched Frontier's fares, and Frontier couldn't make much headway into Southwest's fiercely-loyal customer base. Although it has to compete with United on a hub-to-hub route at IAH, Frontier is simply choosing the lesser of two evils, as The Cranky Flier explains:
Intercontinental, on the other hand, looks like a low cost carrier’s paradise. It’s not insanely expensive to operate there, but more importantly, as Frontier notes in the second sentence of its press release, “Frontier will be the only domestic low-cost carrier at Bush Intercontinental.” It had to say “domestic” because VivaAerobus flies to Monterrey, Mexico. For the many people who think of Intercontinental first, those who maybe live on the north side or simply think northward, Frontier now has some real opportunity to go in and make some waves without Southwest creating problems.
Especially given United's rapidly-declining reputation among Houston's flying public.

Frontier, of course, won't be the only low-cost carrier at Bush Intercontinental for long. Spirit Airlines (an airline that I will never fly) will begin serving the airport in September.

A rigged election, or a sore loser?

Once again, the outcome of a presidential election in Mexico has generated controversy:
More than a week after Mexico's presidential election, the candidate who authorities describe as the runner-up said a partial recount was not enough to erase his doubts about the vote.
"We cannot accept these results," Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters Monday, vowing to file a formal complaint before a tribunal on Thursday, the legal deadline for challenging the election results.
Lopez Obrador asserted that presumptive president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto and his party bought millions of votes in the election -- an accusation party officials have denied.
Given the history of Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held its iron grip on power in Mexico for 71 years due to methods such as rampant voter fraud, one really can't argue with Lopez Obrador's concerns. While it would be nice to believe that the country's political process has moved past such chicanery in the dozen years that the PRI was turned out of power, the fact is that old habits tend to die hard in the realm of Latin American politics.

However, this is also the second time in a row that Lopez Obrador has come in second place in Mexico's presidential election. And it's the second time in a row that he's claimed that the election was rigged and that he was the rightful winner.
Lopez Obrador has criticized the election and refused to concede repeatedly over the past week, echoing comments he made in 2006 when election authorities said the leftist candidate narrowly lost the presidential vote to Felipe Calderon.
After that election, the former Mexico City mayor claimed election fraud and never conceded, referring to himself as "the legitimate president of Mexico." Lopez Obrador's supporters protested nationwide. In Mexico City, they organized sit-ins and blockades.
If any of this sounds familiar to long-time readers of my blog, it's because I wrote about this six years ago. Lopez Obrador, it would appear, is not a man who accepts defeat gracefully.
Officials have called this year's election the most transparent in Mexico's history. It was the first election in which scanned copies of district-by-district election returns were posted on the Internet.
But accusations have arisen of electoral manipulation by the PRI.

Opponents of the PRI said they have video and photo evidence of the party buying votes through thousands of cards that could be redeemed for products at a chain of supermarkets.
The PRI's spokesperson, naturally, has decried these claims as "a farce" and says the videos and photographs purporting to show vote-buying have been staged or faked by political opponents.

So was the election really rigged, is Lopez Obrador just a sore loser, or is it a little bit of both? And is this controversy a distraction that Mexico, as it grapples with bloody and debilitating drug-related violence, really needs right now?

Even after the partial recount, the election results remain unofficial. Mexico's electoral tribunal has until early September to investigate Lopez Obrador's complaints and officially ratify the outcome.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

And the temper tantrum continues

United is suspending its non-stop flights between Houston and Paris. L'horreur!
United Airlines is cutting nonstop service from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Paris and several other cities, as it begins to make good on its threat to cut service after the city approved Southwest Airlines' proposal to open Hobby Airport for international commercial flights.
Beginning in September when the Chicago-based carrier moves to its fall schedule, it will suspend the daily non-stop flight from Houston to Paris that Continental Airlines began offering in 1992. United became the world's largest airline when it merged with Houston-based Continental in 2010.
Earlier this year, United fought Southwest's Hobby proposal, arguing it would reduce connecting traffic at Bush Intercontinental and thus harm the big airport's growth as a hub.
Besides Paris, United will cut other destinations it now serves from IAH, its largest hub: Waco; Greensboro and Asheville, N.C.; Toluca, Mazatlán and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico; and Aruba. Service to those locations is a mixture of United and United Express regional service.
No more flights to scenic Waco or - wait for a moment while I try to find it on a map - Greensboro, North Carolina? Oh, United, you cruel bastards!

But seriously: United obviously plans to milk the "we have to cut service because City Council let Southwest fly internationally" excuse for as much as it is worth, even though the the money-losing airline is probably just cutting routes that have been unprofitable for awhile. As the Centre for Aviation notes:
United’s latest round of domestic cuts from Houston are unsurprising given those small markets do not bring a lot of connecting traffic to IAH. It is not clear whether those services were on the chopping block before the City of Houston ruled against United’s wishes in keeping international flights limited to IAH, but it is difficult to draw a connection in Southwest’s planned international service from Hobby, scheduled to begin three years from now, affecting the viability of markets that have likely been marginal performers in United’s network for quite some time.
As for the service to Paris, the United spokesperson in the Chronicle article says that the route hadn't been profitable for over two years. Which is probably true, considering that was about the time when what was then Continental Airlines left the SkyTeam alliance, which included Air France, to join United's Star Alliance. That meant no more code-shares on Air France flights connecting out of Paris, thus reducing the route's desirability for travelers out of Houston.

Air France will continue to fly nonstop service between Bush Intercontinental and Charles De Gaulle.
Jack Stelzer, a Houston-based independent airline consultant, said he believes United officials are "cutting off their nose to spite their face" by choosing to blame otherwise normal seasonal changes to their flight schedule on the Hobby project.

"Next spring, it'll be back," Stelzer said of the Paris route.
As will the Mazatlán and Aruba routes, perhaps. If not, maybe Southwest could consider flying to those destinations out of Hobby.

United has threatened to cut ten percent of their capacity at Bush, so their temper tantrum still may not be over. Their petulant behavior, however, might be one of the reasons they are the fifth-most-hated company in the United States. Seth at boardingarea.com has more.