Sunday, May 14, 2017

It's that time of year again

The Rockets' season came to a rather ignominious end on Thursday night, Kirby is down to his final two weeks of sixth grade, the University of Houston's academic year ended with a speech from the Ahnold the Governator, and the cooler, drier weather we experienced this weekend is most likely "going to be our last true front of spring." All this means is that, regrettably, another miserable Houston summer is upon us.

That also means that it's time for me to do what I successfully avoided doing a year ago, and find a new place to live. I've enjoyed my five years in Bellaire, but my wallet has not, and so it's time to seek housing that's a bit more in line with my socioeconomic status. I'm not looking forward to packing and moving - I haven't even begun putting things in boxes yet and as I look around this house I'm already feeling overwhelmed at what I'm going to do with all this stuff I've managed to accumulate - but the time has come. I'll be combining households with my girlfriend at my new place, which will lesson the financial burden somewhat but which will also mean a big step towards the next phase of my life, depending on how things work out.

There are also a couple of summer trips planned: the usual June trip to New Orleans and a weeklong vacation to Cancun in July. It's been over a decade since I was last in Cancun, so I'm looking forward to heading down there again and sitting my fat ass on a beach with a beer in hand for the entire week. Maybe I'll manage to see some Mayan ruins, too.

Unlike last year, I'm not taking a formal summer hiatus from this blog, but posting activity will probably be very light for the next few months for the reasons I just mentioned.

May everybody have a great summer.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Little things that make me chuckle

The American Athletic Conference had more players drafted in this year's NFL Draft than the Big 12:
That the Big 12 struggled to produce draft picks is not surprising. The league doesn’t recruit as well as the other power conferences and hasn’t for years. It has one elite program these days, Oklahoma, with Oklahoma State a tier below that and Texas still trying to find itself. D’Onta Foreman was the only Texas player picked, which really hurts the league’s numbers. The Horns are making progress, at least. 
It’s also a small conference with just 10 teams, and the league passed on expanding last year. The Big 12 got 1.4 picks per team, compared to 1.25 for AAC teams. 
Some of the schools the Big 12 was reportedly considering most seriously — Houston, Cincinnati, and UConn — are in the league that’s now produced more 2017 picks. That isn’t a good look for the league’s administration, even if it’s just a PR hit. 
The Big 12's small membership and comparatively poor recruiting are both ingredients that make it harder to churn out professionals. The Big 12 is worse-positioned than each of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 to get players picked. 
The Big 12: college football’s fifth-best conference, but sixth in the 2017 draft.
It's just one draft but, yeah, I'm enjoying a wee bit of schadenfreude.

Congratulations and good luck, but the way, to all the Cougars headed to the NFL.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Another "carmageddon" that wasn't

Following a fire that collapsed part of the busy I-85 freeway in Atlanta, it was feared that the loss of a key traffic linkage would cause havoc in the already-congested city for months while the freeway was repaired. But that didn't happen, because people adjusted their driving habits accordingly once they were aware that the section of freeway was out of service:
So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.
I've pointed this out before, but it bears repeating: motorists are not water molecules. Shutting down a freeway is not the same as closing a valve on a pipe and causing water to back up. Motorists make choices as to where to drive or to drive at all, and if they aware of a major closure, they will choose alternate routes to get to their destination or decide not to make the trip at all.

It's also why widening or expanding highways does nothing, in the long term, to solve traffic congestion.

The not-so-friendly skies

I'm just as disgusted as everyone else about the story of the passenger who was bloodied and dragged off an overbooked United flight from Chicago to Louisville because he refused to give up his seat to make room for crewmembers that needed to be ferried to Louisville.

I understand the concept behind overbooking. And I understand that, legally, United Airlines (or in this case, their subsidiary, Republic Airlines) had every right to force the guy off their plane.

But there's the legal world, and then there's the world of common human decency. What kind of world do we live in when something this grotesque is allowed to happen?
“Once you’re offloading passengers who’ve already boarded so that you can get employees on the flight, you’d think they’d do just about anything to avoid that,” said Seth Kaplan, editor of the Airline Weekly trade publication. 
Others echoed the sentiment that United probably could’ve handled the situation better. 
“I’ve seen a lot in my 40 years covering and working for the airline industry, but this is historically bad public relations,” says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog. “The burning question is why did they wait until everyone was seated before realizing they needed to move employees?”
Yep. This should have been handled before the guy was allowed to board the plane. The euphemism the airline industry uses for cases like these, when overbooking requires a passenger to be bumped off a flight, is "involuntarily denied boarding." But the passenger wasn't denied boarding. He was allowed on the plane, presumably because he had a boarding pass with a seat number on it, and he was sitting in his seat when the flight attendants and gate agents selected him for removal.

The passenger, a doctor (whose background is utterly irrelevant to the incident at hand) who claimed he had patients to see in Louisville the following day, refused to get off the plane after he was (apparently randomly) selected for removal, which is when things escalated. Vox's Alex Abad-Santos wonders about the thought process behind the brutal forced removal: what United staff member(s) actually thought this was a good idea?
But the complaint here is that it seems like there are missing steps between asking a man to leave an overbooked flight because he’s been bumped and, if he refuses, knocking that man to the ground and dragging him off the plane, busting his lip in the process.

If every airline deals with denied involuntary boardings — some 8,955 occurred between October and December 2016, according to the DOT report — why did this one result in someone literally being dragged into the aisle? Is that a reflection of United’s policy? And is United’s valuing its policy over its customers indicative of a bigger problem in the industry?

It’s hard to imagine another industry getting away with rescinding services that have already been paid for.

“How many businesses do you know of that can sell you a good or service, accept payment, and then withdraw that good or service unilaterally for their own purposes — much less by force?” Michael Hiltzik wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Imagine if a restaurant charged you for a meal and then made you leave before it was served. Imagine if you paid for a haircut but your barber stopped partway through and made you live with it until he could reschedule your appointment.
Put another way, people are outraged at the way United treated this person, because they are frustrated by the way the domestic airline industry treats their customers as a whole. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson notes, this is a symptom of a larger problem in the airline industry:
But although this incident was unusual in many respects, it was also representative of an airline industry that has considerable power over consumers—even if the use of force is more subtle than a group of security professionals wrestling a passenger to the floor. 
For example, many people have pointed out that United might have avoided the entire fiasco by simply offering the passengers more money to leave the plane. By law, compensation for passengers is capped at $1,350, which means that United technically could have raised its offer by more than 50 percent before removing people against their will. But it’s absurd that airlines’ capacity to compensate passengers is bounded by the law in the first place. Indeed, there’s a good case to remove the cap entirely. If airlines are legally permitted to overbook—that is, to sell consumers a service that they will not fulfill—they ought to pay market price to compensate people for the unfulfilled promise. 
Domestic airlines are now enjoying record profits, having flown more passengers each year since 2010. This is in part because the airline industry is sheltered from both antitrust regulation and litigation. Four carriers—United, Delta, American, and Southwest—earn more than $20 billion in profits annually and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights. Along with cable companies, airlines are the top-of-mind paragon for industries that seem to get worse for consumers as they become more heavily concentrated. Indeed, when fuel prices fell last year, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker (who edited this story and who has a relative who works at United) has written, airlines spent the savings on stock buybacks rather than pass them to consumers.

Meanwhile, if customers are shocked by the fine print of United’s contract of carriage, what recourse do they have against the company? Very little. In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal. 
In this way, the United video serves as a stark metaphor, one where the quiet brutalization of consumers is rendered in shocking, literal form. The first thought that I had watching the outrageous footage of a passenger being dragged through an aisle like a bag of trash was that this should never happen. But fundamentally, this is an old story: Companies in concentrated industries, like the airlines, have legal cover to break the most basic promise to consumers without legally breaking their contracts. The video is a scandal. But so is the law.
A depressing situation, indeed, and one that makes me never want to fly United again (even though I probably will, by virtue of the fact that Houston is one of their fortress hubs and I also still have a significant amount of frequent flyer miles with them that I need to use). But there are some silver linings to this otherwise gruesome incident:

United's stock is taking a beating. The company's tone-deaf CEO was forced to issue a second, more contrite apology today because the statement he issued about the incident yesterday went over like a lead balloon. The Chicago police officer involved in the brutal removal has reportedly been suspended. Late night hosts and other airlines are taking their shots at United. Today the internet was flooded with hilarious and savage memes at the airline's expense. And, most importantly, the outrage being generated by this incident indicates that, even in our hyper-corpratized world, there are still things that companies cannot do to their customers without sparking furious outrage and backlash.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crawfish season

Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax explores Houston's love affair with the succulent crustacean; notably, the fact that the love affair is relatively recent:
It wasn’t always this way in Houston. As recently as the 1980s, crawfish were still seen as impossibly exotic. “You want me to suck the what?” was often heard.  
Jim Gossen remembers those days, and as chairman of Louisiana Sysco Seafood, he’s been an integral part in bringing about the cultural shift. Despite selling the company to Sysco a few years ago, the Lafayette native still runs the company he founded in 1972. Gossen moved to Houston in 1975, because, as he says, that was “where the market was.” Houston didn’t know it then, but Gossen, through his involvement in pioneering Cajun-style restaurants such as Don’s, Willie G’s, and the Magnolia Bar & Grill and events like the Spring Crawfish Festival, has changed the way Houstonians (and by extension, all Texans) eat forever. 
Gossen now believes that more crawfish are consumed in Greater Houston than in the entire state of Louisiana, and for that, he is the one man most responsible. Yes, he had his contemporaries out there in the 1970s spreading the Mudbug Gospel: Ray Hay’s (today’s Ragin’ Cajun) and the tragically closed NASA-area Cajun stronghold Pe-Te’s among them, both of which catered to homesick Cajuns in Houston for oil patch jobs.  
The first wave of zydeco’s popularity also brought crawfish into Houston’s culinary scene. Ken Watkins recalls eating crawfish at African-American Catholic parish hall gigs by zydeco titan Clifton Chenier in the 1970s, where “everybody was having a party.” (As many a zydeco performer has said from the bandstand over the years, Louisiana is the place where “even the crawfish have soul.”) 
Even given all that, when Gossen helped open Don’s, he could hardly give the critters away. 
“When I opened up Don’s in 1976 I couldn’t sell three sacks a week,” he says from his car, en route to another dining adventure in the bayous of Louisiana, where he still owns two homes. “What I would do is boil them, and whatever I had left over on Sunday, I would put on a plate as a garnish, just so people could see what they looked like.” 
Crustacean parsley? Huh. 
Needless to say, Houston's come a long way from those days, thanks at least partly to Gossen's efforts. The popularity of crawfish grew throughout the 80s and 90s; more recently, the post-Katrina influx of Louisianans to Houston has swelled the ranks of the city's mudbug aficionados. The inception of commercial farming of crawfish by rice growers in Louisiana and eastern Texas, who realized they could raise them in their flooded fields, also helped by improving the crustacean's quality and availability. 

As the popularity of boiled crawfish grew, distinctive cooking styles developed:
Houston crawfish are prepared in variations on three main styles: purist Cajun (spices in the boil), Texan (spices on the shells), and Vietnamese. Some of Gossen’s earliest customers at the Magnolia were large parties of Vietnamese immigrants.  Since then, Vietnamese Houstonians have made Houston into a year-round crawfish city, thanks to their importation of Asian crustaceans that never go out of season. They also have their own way of preparing them: adding ginger and lemongrass to the traditional seasonings, fruits and spices of mustard seed, lemon, garlic, onion, and bay leaves. Viet-Houston crawfish also come with spicy butter-garlic sauces. With its roots in both regional bayous and distant (though equally sultry) Vietnam, some Bayou City foodies have declared this dish Houston’s signature fare. 
You also have Vietnamese American cooks who make them Cajun-style. One such is Khon Lu, owner of Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art in Midtown Houston, Lu hosts crawfish boils at his establishment when the mood strikes him. “I make mine Cajun style, with fresh and dry ingredients,” Lu said. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to crawfish. The only thing that should be on your fingers are the cayenne peppers and spices. The boil should be clean and devoid of oils and butter. The Vietnam style is basically stir fried in butter after they’re dunked.”
I usually go to Khon's at least a couple of times every season for his crawfish; they are so good that even my New Orleanian girlfriend looks forward to his boils. Here's what a plate of his crawfish looked like last Sunday:


To be sure, not everybody in Houston is a fan of crawfish. A fairly common remark is that peeling and eating them "takes too much work" relative to the amount of meat you get from them. They can get messy, and some people can't handle the spiciness with which they are traditionally cooked. 

True, there is work involved in getting to the meat in the tail (and, if they are large enough, the claws); crawfish is an activity as much as it is a food. But - aside from the fact that if the meat is good, then the work is worth it! - that very activity is why a typical crawfish boil is just as much of a social event as it is dinner. People gather over large communal plates or newspaper spreads of freshly-boiled crawfish to talk and laugh as they peel tails, crack claws, sip beer and consume entire rolls of paper towels in a futile effort to keep their hands clean. This social feature might be just as responsible for crawfish's popularity as the tender and flavorful meat itself.

Houstonia dedicated much of March's issue to crawfish, including their list of the best places to get traditional Cajun and Vietnamese crawfish in Houston, the best local beers to pair with crawfish, and some suggestions for your next boil.

Crawfish season traditionally lasts into the summer, but March and April are generally the best months for quality. So get 'em while there's still time. Bon app├ętit!

Wichita State to join the AAC?

This had been rumored for several weeks, and it now looks like it's going to happen:
The American Athletic Conference is engaged in talks to add Wichita State, according to multiple sources. The conversations have advanced to where a timeline for potential membership has emerged, including the possibility of Wichita State playing in the AAC as soon as next season. 
There’s strong mutual interest between both sides, and sources said that a final decision could be made within the next month or in as few as the next two weeks. Any decision would need to be approved by the American Athletic Conference’s presidents, but the mutual interest is strong enough where neither side sees any looming issues.  
The biggest lingering detail remains when Wichita State would leave the Missouri Valley Conference to begin play in the AAC. Sources said there’s a strong chance that the Shockers could play in the AAC in the 2017-18 season, as both sides would prefer Wichita State avoiding playing a lame duck year in the Missouri Valley Conference. 
Valley officials are prepared for the move, as one told Sports Illustrated on Thursday night: “We understand that this is in the works and that it’s a strong possibility.”
The MVC is certainly not keen to lose their best basketball program (the Shockers would have gone to or even past the Sweet Sixteen this year if the hadn't been mis-seeded and forced to play Kentucky so early in the tournament), but this is a great pickup for the American.

Not only does Wichita State have a good basketball program, but the AAC could use a 12th school for basketball (Navy is a football-only member). Adding Wichita State will allow the conference to split into two logical geographic divisions (west and east) for basketball. Wichita State also has a good baseball program. Wichita State is an urban public school, like many current AAC members (Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati, Temple, etc.), and is close enough to at least one current AAC school (Tulsa) so as not to be a geographic outlier. (Wichita State dropped football in 1986; there's been some talk about resurrecting the program but that doesn't seem imminent.)

As the article notes, the Shockers' move from the MVC (where they've played since 1945) is not yet official; however, mutual interest is strong and WSU is a good fit, so I expect that this will happen soon.

Wichita State and Houston have history; Houston was a member of the MVC in the 1950s. The Cougars are 9-16 all-time against the Shockers in mens basketball.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, but it wasn't the "first day of spring"

I've said this before, but it's worth repeating. The equinoxes and solstices that supposedly mark "the first day" of a given season are astronomical events which have little to do with meteorological conditions on the ground. Real meteorologists agree with me:
Meteorologists group seasons into months: March 1-May 31 for spring, June 1-August 31 for summer, September 1-November 30 for fall, and December 1-February 28 for winter. These groups make it simpler for meteorologists to describe the seasons. Not only are they easier to remember, they also correlate with temperatures for the seasons. The coldest months of the year in the northern hemisphere are typically December, January and February. The warmest months, on the other hand, are June, July and August. The graph below shows a comparison of the seasons, along with average temperatures during each season.
                                                                       source: NWS Kansas City
Spring in Houston started weeks ago - other than that one deep freeze in January, we really didn't even have a winter - and I can assure you that Houston's hellish summer will begin well before the summer solstice occurs in late June.

So please, folks, quit saying that the equinoxes or solstices mark "the first day" of a given season. Because  - unless you're an astronomer - they don't.

Swamplot finally discovered Denton's "Little Houston" neighborhood

Took 'em long enough.
THE FASTEST way to Westheimer Rd., if you happen to be wandering north looking for it in the 76210 ZIP code, is a left off of Heights Blvd. and an immediate right off Gessner Dr. Lauren Meyers captured some scenes this weekend around the Summit Oaks subdivision on the south side of Denton, TX, which has a whole section of streets sharing names with major Houston roadway (with a few bizarro-world tweaks here and there, like Chimney Rock Dr. and an only-1-L Hilcroft Ave.)
The Summit Oaks (as opposed, perhaps, to the Compaq Center Oaks or Lakewood Church Oaks?) subdivision off of FM 2181/Teasley Road in south Denton (outlined in red in the Google Earth screenshot below) was platted in the late 1990s. All of its streets have Houston street names, even if some of them were misspelled. Needless to say, as a native Houstonian I thought it was rather humorous.

The Swamplot article intimates that the street names may have been inspired by the presence of a Houston Street in Denton State School, immediately to the subdivision's east. If I recall correctly however, the reason for the street names as much simpler: the developer was based in Houston and needed some street names that weren't already taken by other subdivisions in the rapidly-growing city. 

I was not the case manager for this particular development, although I do recall an attempt to convince the Summit Oaks developer and the developer of the subdivision directly to the north to create a roadway or pedestrian connection between Weslayan and Hollow Ridge, so that people (especially children) could get between the two neighborhoods without having to go all the way out on Teasley. They declined to make the connection because it wasn't required at the time; Denton's development code would later be updated to require such connectivity. 

                                                                                                                                                          Google Earth


Fifteen years after I left the City of Denton, I'm still chuckling at the above screenshot. Not because of the names of the streets in Summit Oaks, but rather because of the property below it, at the southwest corner of Teasley and Ryan Road, circled in light blue.

Not long after I was hired at the City of Denton, I was assigned a case regarding a piece of property at the corner of Teasley and Lillian Miller, just to the north of the area shown on the above map. A developer wanted to put a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market grocery store on that property. The councilmember for that part of Denton at the time (who was the socialite housewife of a local physican) was outraged. She did not want a Wal-Mart anything in the upscale neighborhoods she represented, so she rallied up her (equally elitist) constituents in opposition. People showed up to public meetings and P&Z meetings en masse, their NIMBY-fueled anger directed at staffers such as myself (even though we had no control over the brand of the store to be located there) just as much as at the developer. Faced with such tremendous opposition, the developer backed down and the property eventually became a CVS pharmacy.

A short time later, another developer approached the city about placing a Tom Thumb (the Dallas-Fort Worth equivalent of Randalls) on the piece of property circled in the map above. The same councilmember who was livid about the Wal-Mart proposal was ecstatic about this one, and helped to push the rezoning and platting of the property through the city's review and approval process (I was, once again, case manager) in hopes of bringing the high-end grocer to her area. It was only after the zoning and platting was completed that the developer discovered that, thanks to the city's byzantine liquor laws, beer and wine would not be permitted to be sold on that site. Tom Thumb backed out. (See my post about this from many years ago for more explanation.)

The land sat vacant, the councilmember got voted off council, I left the City of Denton, and a few years later local voters regularized Denton's liquor laws. The grocery store originally planned for the property was finally developed, as the photo above indicates.

But it isn't a Tom Thumb. It's...

Yeah, you guessed it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Eshima Ohashi Bridge

Although it’s a clickbait staple, i.e. “THE TERRIFYING JAPANESE BRIDGE YOU DON’T WANT TO CROSS!” - the Eshima Ohashi Bridge in Japan is not quite as terrifying as it looks. Most of the “terrifying” pictures of the bridge are taken from a distance using telephoto lenses that, due to perspective compression, tend to eggagerate its height and slope. The bridge's actual grades are 6.1% on one side and 5.1% on the other - you'll encounter steeper grades on mountain highways.

That being said, you're never going to get me to ride a bicycle up and down the damn thing, especially since there is not a protected bike lane on the bridge and so heavy trucks pass within a few feet of you. 

Society's bigotry against night owls

I wrote about this a couple of years ago, but here's another excellent article on what it's like to live with Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder and, in the process, endure society's bias against night owls:
Both environmental and genetic factors have been linked to these offset circadian rhythms, so people with delayed sleep can’t fully control when their bodies get tired, or when they’re ready to get up.  
This doesn’t stop articles, schedules, or well-intentioned friends from insisting we’d be better off if we just made ourselves go to bed “at a normal time.” 
Night owls remain a misunderstood, maligned minority. We defy the conventional wisdom, missing out on the proverbial worm and whatever instincts make early risers “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Researchers estimate that about one in 10 adolescents go through a period of delayed sleep, but just a fraction of 1 percent still have the condition into adulthood. 
Because so many teens and college kids naturally stay up late and sleep in longer, people associate that pattern with immaturity and childishness. Staying up until the wee hours is something you’re expected to grow out of; adulting means you embrace your 6 am wakeup with joy. (For bonus grown-up points, you complain that you can’t make it to midnight, even on New Year’s Eve.) 
Those of us still hours from our alarms when others have completed their morning routines know we’re getting the figurative side-eye for staying in bed. I sense a bit of rise-and-shine smugness from the friend who posts a list of the things she got done before 9 am or even the countless articles on how to become a morning person. We’re all expected to conform to the early bird schedule; Real Simple and Women’s Health aren’t doling out tips on how to stay up later.
Society's bias towards early risers - and the pressure it puts on night owls to conform to a "normal" schedule even though they might not be biologically predispositioned to do so - is, quite frankly, a form of bigotry. I'd like to believe that we night owls are finally beginning to find our voices - after all, science seems to have our backs - but the false perception that late risers are lazier or less effective than early birds will require continual challenge.
For all the knocks against night owls, we remain regarded as more creative, impulsive, and strategic thinkers. There’s something to the caricature of the artist, inventor, or writer staying up chasing their ideas. Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated documentary director, said working late is part of his process: “I’m a night owl, and luckily my profession supports that. The best ideas come to me in the dead of night. My friends know I’m up, so they can call at three in the morning. Just don’t call me at, like, 8.” 
I get it. I feel most clear-headed, productive, and energized in the evenings, free to work as long as I’d like. If you’ve ever gone to work in an empty office — on a weekend or holiday or a day when everybody else was on vacation — that’s what working after midnight feels like. There are no meetings, no places to be, no disruptions. It’s eerily quiet, just you and your thoughts. 
The more we give night people the freedom to lean into their after-dark rhythms, I believe the more we’ll continue to see the benefits of flexible schedules, as employee satisfaction and efficiency thrive.
I don't know if I have DSPD, but I have always been a night owl. Right now it's well after 11 pm, and after I finish this blog entry I have a few other tasks to do before I finally crawl into bed. This is how it is for me virtually every night: I feel especially energetic and productive during these late hours. I'm not the least bit sleepy, and if I tried to go to bed right now I'd simply toss and turn and stare at the ceiling for a couple of hours. This is who I am, this is how I live, and at 43 years of age I'm not going to change.

Early birds are free to rise at 5:30 am; they are even allowed to feel superior for doing so. But they're not allowed to think of us night owls as a lazy degenerates simply because we don't conform to their schedules.

17 Reasons Why You Should Not Attend the University of Houston

I'm usually not a fan of clickbait listicles such as these, but this one made me smile.

Especially #9. Go Coogs!

(One quibble about #14, though: I'm not sure I'd call the squirrels on the University of Houston campus "friendly." "Aggressive," "fearless," and "demanding" are better terms...)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Drone taxis

Coming this summer to... where else?
There’s been lots of talk in recent years about self-driving cars. Now, it appears as if self-flying passenger drones are next -- and they could flying in one major city as soon as this July. 
That’s according to a plan revealed Monday in Dubai, where the head of the Dubai Roads and Transportation Authority said it wants to develop passenger-carrying drones as a way to move people around the United Arab Emirates’ biggest city. Officials said flights could begin in July, though few other details were offered.
The Associated Press reports the drone type being pursued for Dubai’s passenger service is the Chinese-made EHang 184, “an egg-shaped craft with four legs sticking out, each with two small propellers.”
The drone, which can travel about 30 miles on a single battery charge, would be completely automated. Passengers would select a destination on a touch screen in front of the seat; the drone’s flight would be monitored remotely from a control room staffed with Dubai RTA personnel and the passenger would have no control over the drone.

That sounds a bit scary, but according to the co-founder of EHang the drone will have software that calculates the most optimal route for the passenger and avoids collisions with other drones. It will also have back-up systems to take over in the case of any primary system failures. Truth be told, these drone taxis might end up being safer than Dubai’s regular taxis!

One problem with the drones (aside from the cost of the fare, which is likely to be substantial) is that they can only carry a person weighing up to 220 pounds. Which means that my fat ass is going to have to lose some weight before I can get in one.

My (landlord's) pretty azeleas

I can't take credit for them because they were here when I moved in, and they might not be as pretty as the ones in my parents neighborhood, but the azaleas in front of my house are putting on a decent enough show:

Usually they don't bloom until March or even April, but thanks to the warm excuse for a winter we've just had, they've decided to make an early appearance.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

2017 UH Cougar football schedule released

The 2017 University of Houston Cougar football schedule has been released:

     Sat Sep 02     at Texas-San Antonio (San Antonio)
     Sat Sep 10     at Arizona (Tucson)
     Sat Sep 16     Rice
     Sat Sep 23     Texas Tech
     Sat Sep 30     at Temple (Philadelphia)
     Sat Oct 07     SMU
     Sat Oct 14     at Tulsa (Tulsa)
     Thu Oct 19    Memphis
     Sat Oct 28     East Carolina
     Sat Nov 04    at South Florida (Tampa)
     Sat Nov 11    (off)
     Sat Nov 18    at Tulane (New Orleans)
     Fri Nov 24     Navy

There's a rumor that the Labor Day weekend game against UTSA at the Alamodome could be moved from Saturday to Sunday or even Monday if the networks so decide; if that happens I'll update this post accordingly.

Structurally, this is a decent schedule. It features two "Power 5" schools, crosstown rival Rice, only two non-Saturday games (it looks like a game on Black Friday is becoming a tradition) and has the three teams the Cougars lost to last season - SMU, Memphis and Navy - at home. My only gripes are the fact that the Coogs start the season with back-to-back road games, and don't get a bye week until very late in the season. This is also the first time in a few seasons that the Cougars don't have seven home games.

Given last season's relative disappointment as well as the fact that the Cougars have a completely new coaching staff and are losing a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, this schedule might present some difficulty on the field. Arizona and Texas Tech are not elite Power Five teams but will nevertheless be challenges. UTSA beat the Coogs the last time the two teams played. Conference road games against Temple, Tulsa and South Florida will be tough, and even schools like Rice and Tulane are going to give the Cougars their best shot.

Win or lose, I'm going to make the best of it. Roadies to UTSA in San Antonio and Tulane in New Orleans are already on my calendar. I'd also like to make the trip to Tucson to see the Arizona game - my cousin and his family live there so I'd have a place to stay - if I can get the finances to work.

The soft tyranny of Donald Trump

Andrew Sullivan, who's back to (semi-) blogging after a two-year hiatus, ponders it:
With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you. 
One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency.
I understand what Sullivan is sensing, because I'm beginning to see it in my own life. I check the news websites several times a day just to read his latest tweet or to see what his administration's latest ridiculous pronouncement or action is. I see that the majority of the posts of my Facebook feed are political in nature. I watch every new episode of Saturday Night Live just to see Alec Baldwin's latest takedown of him (Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer has me in tears, by the way). And all anybody wants to talk about at the bar or at the Super Bowl party is Donald Fucking Trump.

It's relentless. It's discomforting. And it's only been three weeks.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Crushed, I am...

Well, I guess this means that the Dallas Cowboys won't be coming to town for Super Bowl LI after all. And I was so looking forward to our city being graced by the presence of their obnoxious, insufferable fanbase! I guess now I won't get to listen to them explain to us how much Houston (both the team and the city) sucks, or how "Dem Boyz" are still "America's Team" even though they haven't won a Super Bowl in 21 years. And I guess those hordes of bandwagon, t-shirt Cowboy fans (who would have come down for the day so as not to pay for a hotel) aren't going to materialize to loiter around Discovery Green or along Washington Avenue after all. Alas!

It'd be a real shame if Pittsburgh beat the Patriots next weekend, so that the (almost equally insufferable) New England wouldn't be able to make it to town, either.

As for the Texans: given that this franchise is institutionally mediocre, I guess a 10-8 overall record and AFC South title is about the best they could have hoped for. One can only wonder what this team would be like if it had an actual quarterback and some semblance of innovation on offense.

But at least the Texans won a playoff game. Which is more than than can be said for the Cowboys.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

More idiots with guns

Texas State Representative Armando Martinez (D-Welasco) was hit in the head by a stray bullet shortly after midnight on New Year's Day. Fortunately his injuries are not serious, and he is looking into ways to restrict or ban celebratory gunfire as the new legislative session approaches.
Martinez isn't yet sure what the legislation would look like. He spent the time immediately after being shot in the head at Valley Baptist Medical Center. He's since been released. 
But, Martinez told The Texas Tribune that any legislation would definitely involve celebratory gunfire and that he would talk with sheriffs and prosecutors about ideas on how to handle the problem. 
Some states, including Texas, have penalties for injuring someone with joy shots in the air. It's a misdemeanor carrying a $4,000 fine and a year in jail if caught and convicted. Killing someone opens up a shooter to more serious charges.
I empathize with Rep. Martinez, if only because I could have suffered a similar injury about a decade ago: some moron nearby fired a gun into the air, and the bullet landed near to where I was standing at the time.

However, I'm not sure what his proposed ban on celebratory gunfire would accomplish. As the article notes, there are already laws on the books for people who recklessly fire live ammunition into the air.

It also brings up a question that I (who admittedly is not in law enforcement) wonder about: even if you do recover a bullet from a weapon fired in celebration and are able to perform ballistics tests on it, how are you able to actually match it to a weapon in order to secure a conviction? Especially at midnight of the New Year, when legions of idiots are firing their guns into the air? (Seriously: much of Houston turns into Stalingrad at the stroke of midnight every January 1st.) How does law enforcement determine who shot the offending bullet, at least with enough precision for a judge to issue a search warrant so that police can recover, test and match a suspected firearm?

The point being: even if Rep. Martinez's proposed legislation against celebratory gunfire did cover something that's not already on the books in the State of Texas, it seems that prosecuting and convicting somebody for celebratory New Year's gunfire would be a difficult task. You'd practically have to catch them in the act of shooting.

With all that said, firing live ammunition into the air is stupid. It is reckless and lethal, and nobody who truly considers themselves a "responsible" gun owner would do such a thing.

So just stop doing it, people.

Was 2016 really the "year of death?"

2016 might seem like it was the "year of death," considering all the celebrities and other famous people who shoved off this mortal coil this past year.

Musicians such as David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Merle Haggard, and Glen Frey. Actors such as Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke, Carrie Fisher (and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, just one day later). Sports greats such as Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe and Arnold Palmer. Authors such as Umberto Eco, Elie Wiesel, Harper Lee and Richard Adams; playwrights such as Edward Albee; world leaders such as Shimon Peres, Fidel Castro, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand; news media icons such as Morley Safer and Gwen Ifill; even astronauts such as Edgar Mitchell and John Glenn. 

Even Abe Vigoa and Zsa Zsa Gabor passed away this year, and I thought those two were immortal. Here's a rather lengthy list of celebrities that died in 2016.

This, of course, is in addition to all the non-famous people who have passed away this year. Two friends of mine lost their husbands this year (both of them were in their 40s... yikes!). Lots of lives have been lost to the carnage in places like Mosul, Aleppo and Yemen, or to terrorist attacks in places like Istanbul, Orlando, Nice, Baghdad and Berlin. 

For all the “damn you 2016!” and “2016 strikes again!” posts that have popped up on my Facebook feed every time a celebrity has died this year, I  think most people understand that 2016 did not “cause” any of these deaths. A year is an abstract concept, a measure of time. You could point out that a year is not completely abstract, because it does measure the actual physical phenomenon of one earth orbit around the sun, but its limits (i.e. January 1st to December 31st) are arbitrary constructs, and in any case a "year" is intangible and inanimate. Years do not kill people. 

So why does it seem like 2016 was "The Year of the Reaper?" There are a number of possible reasons for such a perception - and even that can be disputed - but I think it comes down to a socio-cultural quirk. "Celebrity culture," as we know it today, really didn't take off until the 1960s, as color televisions began appearing in every household and as baby boomers began to consume entertainment. That trend accelerated through the 70s and 80s, fueled by an expansion of entertainment outlets (for example, the ascendancy of FM radio and cable television; would Prince, David Bowie and George Michael have been as famous today had MTV not existed?). As these celebrities age, not only are Baby Boomers, but as well Generation X (and even Millennials), losing entertainers they grew up with. This mourning is amplified by social media - namely, Facebook and Twitter - in a viral manner that was not even comprehensible until a few years ago. For that reason, 2017 might not be any better

As Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch notes:
Almost everyone on the list of notable 2016 deaths affected the fundamental way we view what it means to be human, of what is possible in life. And it's important to note that these extraordinary people were the product of an extraordinary time in world history. The half-century that followed World War II -- particularly here in America, the nation of birth for most of the people on this list -- was a time when both affluence, especially for the middle class, and leisure time exploded. Those things offered humans an unparalleled new opportunity to innovate and create -- and the more they did, the more they also questioned the traditional boundaries of race, or gender, or human sexuality that had restrained their forerunners. 
Think back 100 years ago to 1916, and it is all but impossible to imagine a Prince or a Muhammad Ali or a George Michael as we came to know them in the latter 20th Century and beyond. It's also impossible to imagine how much spiritually poorer our lives would have been. We have been so blessed to be alive in an era of so many creative people -- and yet there is still one barrier of human experience that even John Glenn could not blast through. 
Everybody dies. And while it seemed like there were too many high-profile deaths this year, the reality is that these microbursts of sadness were the inevitable consequence of living in a time with so many remarkable people have been alive, inspiring joy and wonder. The truly important "news" about Fisher and Ali and Prince is not the moment that we heard that they died, but the years that we saw how they lived.
That's as good a way of looking at is as any. And while we mourn those we've lost over the last year, we will always be able to enjoy and appreciate what they've created for us. David Bowie and Prince are gone, but their music will always be with us. Gene Wilder has passed but Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will be watched by generations yet to come. Edward Albee might be no more, but Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolff? will be eternal.

If 2016 really was the "year of death," then it only serves to remind us that we're all going to die, and that we should therefore savor every moment of our short and ephemeral lives.

Happy 2017, everyone.