Monday, December 31, 2012

A new year's resolution every driver should make

I've written about this many times before, so I'm sure everybody is getting tired of me harping on it. But people who drive slow in the left lanes of freeways (especially rural freeways) are a huge pet peeve of mine. It would be great if there were actually signs like the following on America's highways:

This (obviously photoshopped) picture is several years old, but it gets the point across: the left lane is for passing only. Traffic moves safer and more efficiently when slower vehicles stay out of the left lane. If you can't figure it out, then get off the damn highway.

My hope for 2013 is for more motorists to understand and observe this simple concept, and for more state highway patrols to ticket the ones who don't.

Everybody have a safe and happy 2013!

Boise to stay in Mountain West; could Houston follow?

Last week I wondered if the Cougars would ever compete in the Big East, a conference which is rapidly disintegrating. Rutgers and Louisville are gone, as are the basketball-only schools. Cincinnati and Connecticut are standing at the door of the ACC, pleading to be allowed in. And earlier today we learned that the Boise State Broncos have decided to back out of the conference as well.

As silly as it might have seemed for Boise State to join an "eastern" conference, the fact is that they were supposed to be the new Big East's marquee football program. Not only does their defection further dilute the Big East brand, but it also paves the way for San Diego State, which had also agreed to join the conference, to back out as well.
With Boise State remaining in the Mountain West, the Aztecs' Big East contract allows them to withdraw from the Big East without paying an exit fee if there is no other Big East member located west of the Rocky Mountains.

A Mountain West conference source with knowledge of the situation said San Diego State wants back in the Mountain West, but the league is holding up the process as it decides whether there is a better fit than the Aztecs and if there is a school that can deliver more value.
Assuming that Cincinnati and UConn bolt as well, the Big East that the Cougars are set to join in a few months will be nothing more than Conference USA plus Temple and South Florida. That's hardly a step up. Which begs the question: what if Houston were to look to the west, rather than the east, for its new home?
Besides the possibility of losing San Diego State, sources told ESPN that Houston and SMU, scheduled to join the Big East next season, are among four possible teams the Mountain West may target, along with Tulsa and UTEP. The Mountain West will look to add a 12th member by 2014, sources said.
The Mountain West is clearly a stronger conference than the rapidly-collapsing Big East right now, but questions regarding travel costs and television contracts need to be answered before the Coogs decide to switch conferences. One thing's for certain, though: the jobs of UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades and President Renu Khator just got a bit more complicated.

Yep, pretty much...

As seen on Facebook:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cheers to the Owls. Jeers to the Texans.

Yesterday the Rice Owls defeated Air Force, 33-14, in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. The win caps an amazing turnaround for head coach David Bailiff and the Owls, who began the season with a 1-5 record but then notched victories in five of their last six games to become bowl eligible.

Things started out poorly for the Owls, as quarterback Taylor McHargue was forced to leave the game with a head injury, and Rice trailed 7-14 at the half. However, backup quarterback Driphus Jackson stepped up to complete 15 of 21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns (Rice receiver Jordan Taylor caught both, as well as a touchdown pass from McHargue in the first quarter), while the Owl defense kept the Falcons scoreless in the second half. Air Force's vaunted rushing attack, the nation's second-best, was in fact held to only 166 yards for the entire afternoon.

The result was Rice's first winning season since 2008 (when they went 10-3 and beat Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium for their first bowl win 54 years) and their first bowl victory outside of Houston since January 1, 1954, when they beat Alabama, 28-6, in a game best known for Alabama's Tommy Lewis coming off the bench to tackle Dicky Moegle.

Congratulations are in order for the Rice Owls for their turnaround season and bowl win.

The Texans, on the other hand... Ugh. The team that was 11-1 at the beginning of the month and was barreling towards a first-round bye week and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs has since collapsed, losing three out of its last four games and making its case for a spot on my list of top ten Houston sports chokejobs. Today's woeful 28-16 loss to Indianapolis portends a quick exit from the playoffs for the Texans, who host Cincinnati in next weekend's first-round game.

As was the case against Minnesota last Sunday, nothing seemed to go right for the Texans today. The team was tentative, fragile and error-prone. Consider this: immediately after the Texans scored their first touchdown in eight quarters - a very problematic statistic in and of itself - on a Arian Foster run to cut the Indianapolis lead to one, the Colts shot back with a 101-yard kickoff return by Deji Karim. That was the back breaker from which the Texans never recovered. This team is cratering at the worst possible time; they've lost their will to win.

The Texans might actually succeed in beating Cincinnati next weekend. But, unless something miraculous occurs, that's likely as far as they're going to go. Given the way the season started, that's rather disappointing. But it's also par for the course for a Houston sports team.

Friday, December 28, 2012

I'm unemployed!

For the next four days, at least.

I'll have more details later, but needless to say, 2013 is going to start out with a very big change in my life.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Looks like I wasn't the only iOS6 holdout

A few months ago I said that I wasn't going to upgrade to iOS 6 on my iPhone 4 until the disaster that was Apple Maps was resolved. A couple of weeks ago, Google finally came to the rescue with its well-reviewed Google Maps App for iOS 6. That allowed me to finally upgrade to iOS 6. Turns out I wasn't the only one to do so, as Josh Constine reports:
Apple Maps was so bad that people refused to upgrade to iOS 6 until they could get Google Maps, says data from massive mobile ad exchange MoPub. The 12,000 apps it supports saw a 29 percent increase in unique iOS 6 users in the five days after Google Maps for iOS was released. Chitika reported just 0.2 percent growth immediately after the launch but it seems people waited for the weekend to do the long install.
I didn't get around to finally doing it until this past weekend, so I'm not included in those numbers. But it's nevertheless fascinating that I am just one of millions of people who refused to upgrade my phone's entire operating system simply because of flaws in a single mapping app. It goes to show just how basic and crucial a smartphone's navigation function is to its users.
MoPub’s CEO laid it out for me, explaining “we observed since the launch of Google Maps for iOS 6 a 30 percent increase in unique iOS 6 users, and we think it’s related to Google Maps. It verifies the hypothesis that people were actually holding back to upgrade until Google Maps was available.”

That was in fact my hypothesis last week after seeing one friend tell others that Google Maps had arrived, and then watching them all sit down and immediately upgrade to iOS 6 and download Google Maps — which itself racked up over 10 million installs in the first 48 hours after launch. Google will probably never release this data, but I bet it saw a massive drop-off in traffic to the iOS 5 Maps app it powered that people clung to instead of switching to iOS 6.
Having spent some time playing around with it, I can say that Google Maps for iOS 6 deserves the positive reviews it is getting. It is visually appealing, easy to use, contains data previous versions lacked (such as building footprints) and has many cool features (you can shake the phone to report an error to Google!). It's better than any Google Maps app I've used previously; in fact, Google has even admitted to the New York Times (which also loves the app) that the new iPhone app is superior to the Maps app for their own Android devices.

Which begs the question: why would Google create such an outstanding app for their competitor's operating system? Why not just say to iPhone owners, "hey, if you don't like Apple's flawed mapping app and want to use our app instead, you'll just have to switch to Android." Tim De Chant explains:
It’s an impressive app, but most reviews fail to ask, why didn’t Google do this in the past? Why didn’t they provide this level of data detail for the old maps app? Because they didn’t have to. Google essentially had a monopoly on mobile mapping, and they thought Apple had no choice but to use their service. Accept our terms or else.

Well, Apple called Google’s bluff. Say what you want about the bad PR Apple suffered from their maps, but they got Google to provide the mapping data needed so iOS users don’t feel like second-class citizens. Plus, now Google has a little competition. In the long run, we’ll all benefit from that.
Exactly. Apple Maps might be a disaster now, but that means that it can only be better as Apple continues to refine it as well as the data behind it. Google needs to stay a step ahead. By releasing their best product yet in Google Maps for iOS 6, Google comes away looking like the white knight for millions of new iOS 6 users even as they retain their superiority in the mobile mapping and navigation realm.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Will the Cougars play a single down in the Big East?

These aren't good days for the Big East conference.

First, it was Notre Dame's move from the Big East to the ACC. At the time I didn't think it was a big deal, because it didn't affect football.

But then Rutgers decided to leave the Big East for the Big Ten. The ACC, which was also losing Maryland to the Big Ten, decided to backfill by poaching Louisville from the Big East.

Last weekend, the Big East's seven non-football schools (all private Catholic institutions) decided to leave the conference and form their own basketball-oriented conference, perhaps with other Catholic schools that also don't play football (Nate Silver explains why this is a good decision, and I really can't disagree).

And now there are rumors that Boise State, which had previously agreed to leave the Mountain West Conference for the Big East, is now wavering and is using its home TV rights to play one conference off against the other.

When the University of Houston agreed to join the Big East last year, it seemed like a no-brainer decision. The Big East was an automatically-qualifying BCS conference, which would finally allow the Cougars to have a place at college football's "big boy" table, the Big East's concentration of schools along the heavily-populated East Coast suggested that a lucrative television contract was possible, and the Big East's pedigree as a basketball powerhouse was appealing as well. In the ensuing year, however, those advantages have evaporated. The BCS cartel is being replaced by a playoff after the 2013 season, and the aforementioned defections critically weaken the Big East as far as football strength, basketball strength and TV market strength are concerned.

All of which leads to the obvious question: will the Big East even exist by the time the Cougars are supposed to join in the summer of 2013? And even if it does manage to preservere in 2013, what are its long-term prospects? Should the Cougars consider backing out of a conference that appears to be disintegrating right before their eyes, and if so, where else would they go, now that they've cut ties with Conference USA?

Legendary University of Houston football coach Bill Yeoman supposedly once have said, "it's never easy to be a Cougar, so get used to it." Truer words have never been spoken. Cougar faithful are just going to have to go along for the ride as the gears of conference realignment continue to turn.

I'm done Christmas shopping

Yes, it took me until the Saturday before Christmas to finish up, and yes, I spent way more than I budgeted on gifts. But the sense of relief and accomplishment that comes with knowing that "I'm done" is well worth it.

I still experience Christmas gift angst; that will probably never go away. I just try not to worry about it that much. Make a reasonable effort to give people the things that they ask for, and hold onto your receipts just in case. I've come to find that, either way, your friends and family will generally appreciate it.

After all, it's Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Frank Graham 1956 - 2012

Frank was once married to my cousin Laura. I first met him in the early 1990s, when he lived in Pasadena and worked for the Clear Lake Citizen. I always thought highly of Frank; he was friendly and intelligent and I had many pleasant conversations with him about journalism, sports, philosophy, politics and architecture. He and Laura moved to Nebraska in 1995, but I would still occasionally see him at family functions. The last time I saw him as several years ago at my uncle's funeral. He and Laura later got divorced.

Last week Frank passed away after a brief battle with cancer. His obituary ran as a full-length story in The Llano County Journal, where he was editor, and per my custom I am posting it here as well.
Frank L. Graham, 56, editor of The Llano County Journal, died Tuesday, Dec. 11 after being hospitalized at Scott & White Medical Center in Round Rock on Friday.
He had been the editor of The Journal since Dec. 12, 2011, and had over 33 years of experience in the newspaper business as a reporter, editor, publisher, sales director, marketing director and general manager.
He is survived by daughters Sarah Lee and husband Antwan of Anderson, Texas, and Kathryn Graham of Hickory, N.C.; son Frank Luther Graham Jr. and wife Glenna of Navasota, Texas; brother J. Tom Graham and wife Kathryn, of Frankston, Texas; sisters Samantha Anderson and husband David of Oglesby, Texas, and Timilu Latham and husband Angus of Apopka, Fla.; a host of nieces, nephews, and cousins; and his best friends and constant companions, Charlie, Max, and Oliver.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 29 at the 4A Ranch, 850 CR 303 in Oglesby near Waco. Friends, family and co-workers are invited. Memorials in Graham’s memory may be directed to the Christ-Yoder Animal Shelter at Lake Buchanan, P. O. Box 1041 Marble Falls, TX 78654, the Highland Lakes SPCA, P.O. Box 1275, Marble Falls, TX 78654 or any area animal rescue organization or shelter. 
Graham was born on Oct. 6, 1956 to Faye and Jeff Graham in Knox City, Texas.
"When we met, Frank told me his desire was to return to his home state and end his career in the role he enjoyed most – as the editor of a small newspaper in a town where the courthouse square was still the center of community life,” said Roy Bode, president and publisher of The Journal."Fortunately, he enjoyed his wish for a year. Sadly, the end came far sooner than anyone would have expected.

"We’ll remember his friendly manner and winning smile, the joy he took from his three dogs, the gift of professionalism and a lifetime of experience he brought to the newspaper, and his dedication to the calling of journalism,” Bode added.
He started his career in 1978 at the Del Rio News-Herald as a composing room supervisor. There he managed a crew of six for the five-day a week paper until being promoted to general manager of the Pharr Press in Pharr, Texas, where he managed the sales, editorial, composition and circulation departments until 1982.
Following that he took a job as a sales director for the daily Bay City Tribune in Bay City, Texas for two years. In 1984, he moved to the Temple Telegram, as marketing director until 1989.
Graham was appointed general manager for the Sebastopol Times and News and the Bodega Bay Citizen both in California in 1988 and stayed until 1991 when he returned to Texas and worked at the Clear Lake Citizen as the paper’s publisher.
Graham moved to Nebraska in 1995 and was a beat reporter for the six-day North Platte Telegraph. There he covered the city and county crime beat, city government, the local community college, and sports. He also managed special editions and sections for the newspaper.
In 2003, Graham and a friend started the North Platte Bulletin, where he was a co-owner and co-publisher for the next eight years.
Eight years later, he sold his half of the Bulletin to his partner and once again returned to Texas, taking a temporary reporter position at the Frankston Citizen, a paper his brother owned.
In December 2011, Graham became the editor of The Journal and worked in nearly every aspect of the business including managing operations, reporting, editing, photography, layout, and occasionally, sales.
Graham described himself on his resume as being "an energetic, creative and enthusiastic person with a desire to bring meaningful impact on the readers’ lives in the Llano area.”
He won a number of awards in his newspaper career. In 2008, the Bulletin was named the top weekly newspaper website in Nebraska after winning second place in the same category the year prior, and in 2006 the paper was awarded second and third place in News Writing and second place in spot news in the Nebraska Press Association (NPA) Better Newspaper Contest.
The Bulletin was also awarded first place for in-depth writing and news writing by the NPA Better Newspaper Contest. Graham was personally awarded first place for best columnist in the daily division at the North Platte Telegraph in 2000.

Friday, December 07, 2012

RIP Oscar Neimeyer

The last of the great modernist architects has passed away.
Oscar Niemeyer, the celebrated Brazilian architect whose flowing designs infused Modernism with a new sensuality and captured the imaginations of generations of architects around the world, died on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 104.

The medical staff at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio, where he was being treated, said on national television that he died of a respiratory infection.

Mr. Niemeyer was among the last of a long line of Modernist true believers who stretch from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to the architects who defined the postwar architecture of the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. He is best known for designing the government buildings of Brasília, a sprawling new capital carved out of the Brazilian savanna that became an emblem both of Latin America’s leap into modernity and, later, of the limits of Modernism’s utopian aspirations.
Niemeyer was not a particularly popular architect at the University of Houston College of Architecture when I studied there in the early 1990s. An intense backlash against modernism was underway at the time, and many of my classmates found his work, especially the buildings he designed in Brasília, as dated and inhumane. I personally liked his designs - I found the idea for the City of Brasília, which was laid out by fellow modernist Brazilian Lucio Costa, to be fascinating - but I was definitely in the minority. Brasília was seen by many of my classmates and professors as a silly, soulless dystopia: a city designed for the automobile, not for pedestrians, in a country where so much of the population was unable to afford cars. Niemeyer's politics - he was an unrepentant communist - also made him unpopular among my peers.

In the two decades since, however, there has been a re-examination of Niemeyer's work, so much so that people even felt the need to "save him from himself" when, in his advanced age, he envisioned a monument that would radically alter the vistas of Brasília he had so carefully laid out decades before. Part of this change in thought had to do with a new appreciation for modernism in general, but I think people also began to appreciate Niemeyer's designs for the  unique sculptures that they were.
In celebrating both the formal elements and social aims of architecture, his work became a symbolic reminder that the body and the mind, the sensual and the rational, are not necessarily in opposition. Yet he also saw sensuality and the brightness of dreams against a darker backdrop. “Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence,” he once said, “even if only for an instant.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dino-hotel coming to Colorado

Next time you're in the Denver area and want to get a paleontology lesson along with a good night's sleep, you'll be in luck:
The Best Western Denver Southwest will become a dinosaur haven over the next few months, as owner Greg Tally transforms the typical hotel into a natural history-themed destination featuring fossil displays and life-size dinosaur statues. Construction crews broke ground on the renovations today (Dec. 4).
Greg is a high school classmate of mine; Kirby and I visited him, his wife Meredith and his two kids while we were in Colorado this summer. They were busily and excitedly planning the remodeling of the hotel at the time. Renovations are expected to be complete in April.

But why dinosaurs?
The ultimate goal, Tally said, is to draw attention to Denver's paleontological history, including Dinosaur Ridge, a site 10 minutes from the hotel where the footprints of long-necked sauropod dinosaurs are preserved. 

"I could not think of a more unique differentiator than the history of Dinosaur Ridge," Tally told LiveScience from Missouri last week, where he was headed to pick up lifelike prehistoric statues for the hotel. "It's just your average road trip with a stegosaurus and a cave bear," Tally said.

Mere minutes from the Denver area's most-visited attraction, the Red Rocks Amphitheater, Dinosaur Ridge and surrounding fossil beds were the site of some of the earliest fossil discoveries in the United States. Known as the "Bone Wars" and characterized by a bitter rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, this period in the late 1800s was characterized by distinctly unscientific behavior, including theft and bribery.
A unique idea, and one that will hopefully pay off for the Tallys. The Best Western Denver Southwest is located near the intersection of US 285 and Wadsworth Blvd (CO 121) in Lakewood.

(And yes, this entry is a shameless plug....)

Valet parking: increasingly compulsory and increasingly annoying

The Chronicle's Loren Steffy, writes about the new valet parking service at Hobby airport and laments ongoing "valet creep" in Houston:
Now, I’m not a fan of valets, but I don’t begrudge the service to people who like it. What I resent is when the valets then claim the closest spaces in what seems like an attempt to force more people to use their service.
I'm not a big fan of valets, either. I generally don't like to pay for the privilege of entrusting my motor vehicle to a complete stranger. However, a service that was once the exclusive purview of high-end restaurants and hotels is now ubiquitous and, increasingly, unavoidable. I can understand valet service in situations where available parking is quite limited and/or distant from the establishment, but more often than not it's simply gratuitous.

Restaurants, even ones with plenty of parking, seem to be the worst offenders. By reserving the parking spots closest to the entrance for valet parking they are essentially saying to their customers, "sure, if you don't want to use (and pay for) our valet service, be our guest: the self-parking is all the way around in back and a good five-minute walk to our main entrance." And that's when they actually provide self-parking; many restaurants reserve so much of their lots to valets that self-parking is essentially impossible. Places that do this generally don't see a lot of return business from me, but I guess they think that the benefits of forcing patrons to valet outweigh the costs.

Valet service in strip center parking lots is especially annoying. I don't know how many times I've pulled into the lot in a Midtown strip center, only to discover that there's no place to park because the valet service for the glitzy, trendy bar next to the restaurant or store I want to patronize has taken up so much of the strip center's parking spaces. In addition to being highly frustrating, it's also costing the adjacent establishment business. Which might be precisely what the valet companies want, in order to get them to use their services too.

Restaurants and bars aren't the only offenders; a few weeks ago I went to a doctor's appointment in the Texas Medical Center. The bottom two floors of the garage I parked in were reserved for valets, which meant I had to park on an upper floor and take a longer walk to my doctor's office. Gee, thanks!
Valets, of course, are handy in situations where parking is limited, the weather is bad, or time is short. But too often, it’s more exploitation than service. It’s a parking fee disguised as convenience. And the creeping occurrences of overwrought valetism seem to be growing.
The way to combat valet creep is to not use valet services when a choice is available, and to stop patronizing establishments for which valet parking is compulsory. But somehow, I don't expect this trend to reverse itself anytime soon.