Sunday, December 30, 2018

UH wins and attendance, 2018

With another season in the books, it's time for me to update the wins-versus-attendance graph for the University of Houston football program. This graph goes back to 1965, the first year the Cougars played in the Astrodome.


The Cougars averaged 29,838 fans per home game in 2018. This is a decrease of 3,412 fans per game from the 2017 season and a decrease of 9,116 fans per game from two seasons ago. That's a drop of close to 25% over two seasons. Furthermore, these are announced attendance numbers; as anybody who's been in TDECU Stadium over the last couple of years can attest, the actual number of people in the stands has been significantly smaller.

Earlier today (and to my surprise), Major Applewhite was relieved of his duties as head coach of the University of Houston Cougars. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but this drop in attendance over his two seasons at the helm is a key reason why this decision was made.

The Acropolis

It's really a bit sad that I, an architecture major and history buff, waited until my forty-fifth year of existence on this planet before finally going to see the ancient Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Better late than never, I guess...

The port town of Piraeus, Greece, is right outside of Athens and was the penultimate of call of our Adriatic cruise. We took a shore excursion into Athens to see the Acropolis (along with a few other landmarks, such as the Panathenaic Stadium and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider guarded by the distinctively-dressed Evzones).

The Acropolis has been inhabited for millennia, but the ruins atop it generally date from Fifth-Century Athens, when the city-state dominated Classical Greece.


The Acropolis, as seen from the Panathenaic Stadium. The Acropolis is not the highest point in Athens, but at an elevation of almost 500 feet, and with a relatively flat top, it made the ideal location for the monuments that currently occupy it.

Looking up at the Temple of Athena Nike. Getting to the top of the Acropolis requires a fair amount of climbing. I'm proud to say that my parents - both in their seventies - were able to negotiate the many steps and inclines up to the top.

Throngs of tourists climb up the steps through the Propylaea at the front of the Acropolis. Our cruise was one of several that had docked in Athens that day, and it seemed like all of the shore excursions from the various ships managed to arrive at the Acropolis all at the same time.

Front view of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is the dominant structure on the Acropolis; it was a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess and namesake of Athens.  The Parthenon is considered one of - if not the - finest example of ancient Greek architecture.

Side view of the Parthenon. The temple remained more or less intact from its completion in 432 BC until September 1687, when a Venetian artillery attack ignited the Ottoman gunpowder stored inside it and caused a devastating explosion.

The Erechtheum, completed in 406 BC, features the iconic "Porch of the Maidens" on its south side. The monument is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon, who according to legend contested each other for control of the city.

In the mid-1970s the Greek government began an effort to restore the Parthenon and other monuments atop the Acropolis. To that end, all of the marble building fragments lying about the Acropolis have been catalogued and neatly stacked. Think of it as a 2,500-year-old jigsaw puzzle!

A view of Athens from atop the Acropolis. Pretty impressive.

Corinne and I take a mandatory selfie! (and yes, this picture makes my face look fat. I really need to go on a diet.)

The nice thing about shore excursions is that it allows you to get a "taste" of a given destination and decide whether you want to come back. And while this excursion allowed me to check Athens and the Acropolis off the bucket list, they are definitely going onto the "go back" list.

Corinne and I would like to spend more time atop and around the Acropolis, as well as see the recently-completed Acropolis Museum. We'd also like to see other sites in Athens, such as the Ancient Agora of Athens, the National Arechological Museum, and the Plaka neighborhood. We also want to take in a nice Athenian meal or two - our shore excursion did not include lunch.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Cougars embarrass themselves in Armed Forces Bowl, 14-70

Honestly, it would have been better if they had just declined this bowl invitation.
Army's relentless triple-option attack produced bowl records with 507 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns to send the Cougars to an embarrassing 70-14 loss in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium. 
The 56-point loss matched the worst in NCAA bowl history, breaking the previous record set by Tulsa in a 63-7 win over Bowling Green in the 2008 GMAC Bowl. 
Army also scored the most points ever against the Cougars in a bowl game, surpassing the previous mark by Hawaii in a 54-48 triple-overtime win in the 2003 Hawaii Bowl. 
Army, which completed the first 11-win season in program history, finished with 507 rushing yards against a banged-up UH defense that was without three injured players on the line and All-American defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who skipped the game to focus on the NFL Draft.
Army quarterback Kelvin Hopkins, Jr. accounted for five of Army's touchdowns, including a 77-yard run in the first quarter. The Black Knights only passed the ball four times (all of which were completions) and never punted; they scored on all of their possessions except one which ended in a turnover. When Army’s offense wasn’t running the ball down the Houston defense’s throat, they were sacking UH’s hapless backup quarterback, Clayton Tune. Tune was sacked ten times - an Army record (they’ve playing football since 1890, by the way) - and one sack resulted in a fumble that was returned by the Army defense for a touchdown. 

Yes, there have been injuries. The Cougars were playing without their entire starting defensive line or explosive quarterback D’Eriq King. And yes, this season's defense has been statistically the worst in program history. But injuries and a crappy defense cannot by themselves account for the sloppy, unmotivated performance that resulted in a service academy hanging 70 points on the Cougars as well as the Cougars producing what was by far their worst offensive output of the season. The coaches didn't have their heads in this game, either, as was evidenced by head coach Major Applewhite’s decision to punt from Army’s 30 yard line in the third quarter.

Nobody, from coaches to players, was interested in playing this game. The Cougars would have done better to have stayed home and forfeited than to have embarrassed themselves, their fans and their school with such a pathetic, gutless performance. 

Houston has now lost three bowl games in a row, by a combined score of 57-137. A 2018 season that at one time held promise - the Cougars were 7-1 and ranked in the top 25 after defeating South Florida - ended with a whimper, as the team lost four out of its last five games, culminating in the worst postseason loss in program history.

The University of Houston football program enters the offseason with a dark cloud hanging above it. Offensive coordinator Kendall Briles is leaving after only one season to take the same job at Florida State*, meaning that now Applewhite must fill both coordinator positions. If Twitter and message boards are any indications, the UH fanbase has lost faith in Applewhite, and don't see any upside to a third season with him at the helm. Next year's team is losing eight starters on defense, most notably Ed Oliver. The 2019 schedule features opponents such as Oklahoma, Washington State, North Texas, Central Florida and Cincinnati (along with Tulsa and SMU teams the Cougars consistently struggle against and a Memphis team they haven't beaten in three seasons).

In the wake of the embarrassing loss, and no doubt aware of the fact that season ticket renewals for the 2019 season will certainly plummet as fans lose interest in the program, UH president Dr. Renu Khator has said that the school will "review and evaluate" the football program. However, it is unlikely that Applewhite will be fired, because of the large buyout his contract entitles him to and also because this program has traditionally given coaches at least three years to prove themselves (even when it was pretty clear that they probably weren't going to be able to get the job done, as was the case for Dana Dimel and Tony Levine).

I like Major Applewhite and I want him to succeed. But, at this point, I'm feeling no optimism about the 2019 season. Last weekend's embarrassing bowl blowout was a real gut punch, and I'm sure I'm not the only UH football fan who feels this way. 

*For what it's worth, I think Briles is somewhat overrated. Yes, the offense was better than last year, but a lot of that had to do with the athleticism of D'Eriq King. Besides, if Briles gets credit for the offense when it was good, then he also must take the blame for its piss-poor performances against SMU and Army.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

New Mexico Bowl: North Texas 13, Utah State 52

Probably not the way the Mean Green wanted to end the season:
Utah State walked into the New Mexico Bowl with one of its best records in school history but uncertainty. Its head coach, Matt Wells, left to take the Texas Tech job. Interim coach Frank Maile had to prepare the Aggies with an army of graduate assistants and an announcement a new coach was coming next month.
North Texas, meanwhile, was coming into Albuquerque with experienced coach Seth Littrell and highly touted quarterback Mason Fine.
The Aggies pushed those distractions aside Saturday.
Jordan Love threw for 359 yards and four touchdowns and Jalen Greene had six catches for 151 yards and a score to help Utah State rout North Texas 52-13.
It didn’t help that Mason Fine was injured in the first quarter, but his absence had nothing to do with the fact that UNT’s defense was torched for 556 total yards and gave up passing scores of 72 and 67 yards. Utah State's defense also preyed on UNT's passing game, picking the Mean Green off four times.

It was a tough way to end a 2018 season that saw the Mean Green notch nine wins for the second season in a row, including a win at Arkansas (that featured this hilarious trick play). North Texas has now lost three bowl games in a row, and the Denton Record-Chronicle's Brett Vito wonders if the window for that elusive bowl victory is closing for the Mean Green:
UNT has raised the bar in three seasons under Littrell.
He’s raised it to the point that there is an uneasy feeling among the Mean Green faithful after the Aggies blasted UNT 52-13 at Dreamstyle Stadium.
College football — and college athletics in general — is all about capitalizing on the rare windows of opportunity to vault a program forward.
UNT is in one of those windows now, thanks to the pairing of Littrell and quarterback Mason Fine.
Fine is one of the best quarterbacks in program history. Littrell is well on his way to carving out a significant legacy with the Mean Green.
UNT has capitalized to a certain extent. The Mean Green have played in bowl games in each of the past three seasons and won the Conference USA West Division last year. That’s a significant step forward.
It just isn’t enough to satisfy Littrell, Fine or anyone else. A bowl win has been UNT’s goal from Day 1 of the Littrell era.
The chase will now extend into the fourth season of Littrell’s tenure that will also be Fine’s final year at UNT.
The Mean Green are 0-for-4 in championship games when you count those three bowl games and last season’s Conference USA title game loss to Florida Atlantic.
The state of the UNT football program is much better today than it was just a few years ago, but the big prizes - a Conference USA championship, a bowl victory, perhaps even a season-ending top 25 ranking - have yet to be realized. With a quarterback entering his final season and a head coach that continues to attract attention from other programs, 2019 could very well be a "now-or-never" type of season in Denton.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Christmastime at the Roosevelt Hotel

Corinne and I went to her hometown of New Orleans last weekend, and she took me to see one oft he Crescent City's holiday must-sees: the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel.
The lobby of the 124-year-old hotel spans a block, the length of which is positively bursting with Christmas. It's been lined with 78 birch trees that glitter with lights from bow-bedecked planters, and 46 Christmas trees dusted with fake snow and shimmering with red and gold ornaments. 
There are also 387 bows and 1,610 feet of lighted garland — and that's not including the other decorations throughout the hotel, which flank the reception hall doors and are scattered throughout the incredibly festive gift shop. 
All that decor is added to an already opulent setting, with a line of chandeliers down the lobby.  
Though the hotel opened as The Hotel Grunewald in 1893, it wasn't until the '30s that the tradition arose of decking out the lobby — the same decade that Governor Huey Long would regularly stop by to stay at his own suite there. Since then, it has become a local favorite, with thousands of New Orleans residents and visitors filing in to enjoy the stunning seasonal show. 
Every day throughout the month of December, crowds shuffle in and out throughout the day, dressing up in their Christmas card best to snap family photos and pictures with friends. If they stop in at noon, they can catch local school choirs signing carols.
Although the hotel itself dates back to 1893; the current building was built in 1923. It was severely damaged after Hurricane Katrina and was extensively renovated a couple of years later. It is now a Waldorf-Astoria property.

A view of the lobby from one of its entrances. The corridor was packed with hotel guests as well as sightseers.  

If you look carefully, you can even see Santa Claus enjoying the spectacle.

Another view of the lobby, which is pretty impressive even without the holiday decorations. The tile floor is pretty cool. And look at those chandeliers! 

Corinne and I decided that the festive scenery would make a nice backdrop for a picture.


Of course, you really can't fully enjoy the spectacle without a Sazerac from its namesake bar in the hotel.  

While perhaps not quite as spectacular, Canal Street just outside the hotel was decked out in holiday lights, wreaths and ribbons, too.

Fun!

The XFL comes to Houston

More specifically, the newest incarnation of Vince McMahon's spring football league is coming to the University of Houston:
TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston will be the home field for Houston’s team in the XFL, the spring football league owned by WWE chairman Vince McMahon that will begin play in 2020, the league announced Wednesday. 
Joining Houston among the eight XFL charter cities are teams in Dallas-Fort Worth, playing at Arlington’s Globe Life Stadium, plus Los Angeles (StubHub Center), New York-New Jersey (MetLife Stadium), St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center), Seattle (CenturyLink Field), Tampa (Raymond James Stadium) and Washington, D.C. (Audi Field). 
Houston will be in the XFL's Western Division with Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Seattle. New York, Tampa, St. Louis and Washington will comprise the Eastern Division. Teams will play a 10-game regular season, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.
Last January I noted that the wrestling mogul wanted to resurrect his football league, whose 2001 effort folded after a single season due to poor TV ratings; I also expressed skepticism that this attempt at a springtime football league would be any more successful than his previous effort, or the USFL, or the World League/NFL Europe. However, I'm willing to give him a benefit of the doubt, especially because one of his teams will be playing at, and paying rent to, the University of Houston. I might even attend some games.

I'm also willing to give McMahon the benefit of a doubt because his new league - which will be overseen by former Houston Oilers quarterback and West Virginia Athletics Director Oliver Luck - will be completely different than the gimmicky, hyper-masculine 2001 version:
The original XFL positioned itself as an alternative to the staid NFL, with nicknames (remember He Hate Me?) on the backs of jerseys and a no-fair catch rule on punts. But in this more safety-aware era of football, Luck indicated the league is looking into modifying the action on punts, kickoffs and extra points, although he didn’t go into any specifics on what those plans might be.
Luck also said the league wants to tweak some rules and use a shorter play clock in the hopes of having games that clock in under three hours.
“Improving player safety is a top priority of ours,” Luck said. “We are establishing an extensive health and wellness program based on input from an accomplished medical professional board with folks who are experts in the areas of neuroscience, orthopedics and mental health.”
Luck also made it apparent that the new XFL wants to “complement” the NFL as opposed to competing with it.
“Our research indicated that fans want more football,” he said, “and we intend to provide it to them,” adding that the startup league has had “productive meetings and conversations” with the NFL. 
The new league, he said, will be “family friendly.”
“We want the XFL to be affordable for families,” said Luck, adding the league intends to set ticket prices that are “significantly lower than other major sports.” 
Another difference: unlike the 2001 XFL, which focused heavily on markets that did not have NFL franchises - Birmingham, Las Vegas, Memphis, Orlando; even Los Angeles had no NFL team at the time - the new XFL will locate all its teams in cities that already have (or recently have had, in the case of St. Louis) an NFL presence. This indicates that the XFL wants to rely on established football markets for its fanbase, rather than the mix of smaller, supposedly "football-starved" markets and wrestling fans that the 2001 league was apparently intended to appeal to.

Franchise nicknames and logos will be unveiled at a later date. I don't suppose anybody's thought about seeing who owns the rights to the name and logo of Houston's old USFL team, but, since springtime football is coming back to Houston, why not bring back the Gamblers?!

The University of Houston's announcement is here. Kuff has some thoughts of his own. We'll see where this goes and how long it lasts.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Is Uber in trouble?

Uber has become ubiquitous, as people have come to rely on the app-based transportation networking company to provide a ride to the airport, or from the bar, or as an easy and convenient form of mobility in general. But it is also hemorrhaging money: it posted a $1 billion loss last quarter, after losing $4.5 billion in all of 2017. Uber presents itself as a "techy" business concept, but is its fundamental practice sustainable over the long haul?
Uber has never presented a case as to why it will ever be profitable, let alone earn an adequate return on capital. Investors are pinning their hopes on a successful IPO, which means finding greater fools in sufficient numbers.
Uber is a taxi company with an app attached. It bears almost no resemblance to internet superstars it claims to emulate. The app is not technically daunting and and does not create a competitive barrier, as witnessed by the fact that many other players have copied it. Apps have been introduced for airlines, pizza delivery, and hundreds of other consumer services but have never generated market-share gains, much less tens of billions in corporate value. They do not create network effects. Unlike Facebook or eBay, having more Uber users does not improve the service.

Nor, after a certain point, does adding more drivers. Uber does regularly claim that its app creates economies of scale for drivers — but for that to be the case, adding more drivers would have to benefit drivers. It doesn’t. More drivers means more competition for available jobs, which means less utilization per driver. There is a trade-off between capacity and utilization in a transportation system, which you do not see in digital networks. The classic use of “network effects” referred to the design of an integrated transport network — an airline hub and spoke network which create utility for passengers (or packages) by having more opportunities to connect to more destinations versus linear point-to-point routes. Uber is obviously not a fixed network with integrated routes — taxi passengers do not connect between different vehicles.

Nor does being bigger make Uber a better business. As Hubert Horan explained in his series on Naked Capitalism, Uber has no competitive advantage compared to traditional taxi operators. Unlike digital businesses, the cab industry does not have significant scale economies; that’s why there have never been city-level cab monopolies, consolidation plays, or even significant regional operators. Size does not improve the economics of delivery of the taxi service, 85 percent of which are driver, vehicle, and fuel costs; the remaining 15 percent is typically overheads and profit. And Uber’s own results are proof. Uber has kept bulking up, yet it has failed to show the rapid margin improvements you’d see if costs fell as operations grew.
The article, which is worth reading in its entirety, explains that Uber has undercut traditional taxi companies not because it is a better product, but because the $20 billion in investor funding that it has raised over time has allowed it to subsidize its customer base, giving it a competitive advantage over taxi companies that must recover all their costs. Compared to taxi companies, however, Uber is actually at a disadvantage in the long term: it has higher overhead costs, and it cannot manage schedules or capacity to optimize efficiency. The considerable data Uber collects about the rides it provides, moreover, does not appear to have made much difference in terms of its profitability.

Uber’s struggle to turn a profit has also had a negative impact on its drivers:
While Uber has reduced its negative gross margin over time, those improvements have come mainly from squeezing driver compensation, so that they now net less per hour on average than taxi operators. Through 2015, 80 percent of fares went to drivers. In its early years, Uber gave drivers high payouts to attract good drivers and also offered drivers incentives to buy cars. Uber cut that to as low as 68 percent, then partially reversed it as driver turnover became acute to its current, roughly 70 percent level. In 2017, Uber’s margin as reported using GAAP was a negative 57 percent. It would have stayed at the negative triple-digit level absent the driver pay-throttling.
The pay cuts have led to more driver turnover, which leads to higher managerial costs. And it is degrading service quality.
But what if Uber were to get rid of their drivers entirely? Autonomous vehicles would surely allow the company to begin turning a profit, right?
But what about driverless cars? Let’s put aside that some enthusiasts like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak now believe that fully autonomous cars are “not going to happen.” Fully autonomous cars would mean Uber would have to own the cars. The capital costs would be staggering and would burst the illusion that Uber is a technology company rather that a taxi company that buys and operates someone else’s robot cars.
The article doesn’t mention that there’s evidence that TNCs such as Uber may contribute to congestion and may negatively impact public transportation. Granted, those are probably not things investors care about when they put money into Uber: they're simply looking for a return on that investment. Unfortunately, Uber has failed miserably in that regard:
Uber has succeeded in getting the business press to treat its popularity as the same as commercial success. A few tech reporters, like Eric Newcomer of Bloomberg, have politely pointed out that Uber’s results fall well short of other tech illuminati prior to going public. The pitch that dominance would produce profits is demonstrably false and Uber seems unable to come up with a new story. There’s every reason to think that investors, not local cab companies, will wind up being Uber’s biggest roadkill.
I wonder how many of Uber's users and drivers even understand how unsustainable Uber's business model is. I'd hate for all of them to have to find out the hard way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Houston 31, Memphis 52

To pretty much nobody's surprise, the injury-hobbled Cougars ended the 2018 regular season with a loss at Memphis last Friday.

The Good: The Cougars actually played inspired football through much of the game. They led 21-17 at halftime and were tied with the Tigers, 31-31, at the end of the third quarter. Freshman quarterback Clayton Tune, filling in for an injured D'Eriq King, threw for three touchdowns, while defensive back Gleson Sprewell intercepted a Memphis pass and returned it for a touchdown. Ed Oliver played in the first half, his first action since the Navy game.

The Bad: Ed Oliver did not play in the second half, as apparently his knee was still an issue for him. The Cougars finally collapsed in the fourth quarter, giving up 21 unanswered points to Memphis. The Tigers' interception of Clayton Tune's pass in the endzone in the fourth quarter quashed any remaining hope for Houston. Tune himself didn't have a great day, completing only 18 of 43 pass attempts and being sacked five times.

The Ugly: 401 yards. That's how many rushing yards Memphis gained against a completely ineffective Houston offense. Six of Memphis's seven touchdowns were rushing touchdowns.

Memphis has now beaten Houston three years in a row.

What It Means: The Cougars end the regular season with a rather mediocre 8-4 record and second in the American Athletic Conference West Division. Being right never felt so lousy.

Of the Coogs' 8 wins, only one came against a team with a winning record: USF, who finished 7-5 (those five losses coming in their last five games). Tulane finished with a 6-6 record, so the Cougars can at least claim that they beat two teams that didn’t have losing records.

Of the Coogs' 4 losses, 2 were against teams with losing records: Texas Tech (5-7) and SMU (5-7).

That's pretty much the definition of mediocrity. 

Over the weekend, defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio was fired. This was a move that simply had to be made:
UH's had one of the worst defensive showings in school history, ending the regular season No. 97 in rushing defense (197.1 yards), No. 106 in scoring defense (34.4 points), No. 124 in total defense (488.5) and No. 129 – last in Football Bowl Subdivision – against the pass (291.4). 
In four losses, UH allowed an average 54.8 points. In one particularly embarrassing game, the Cougars allowed 63 points and 704 yards to Texas Tech.
Certainly, the rash of injuries suffered by the defense didn’t help. But even when the defense was healthy, it wasn't that great: the beatdown they received at the hands of Texas Tech was mostly before the injury bug hit, and even back at the very beginning of the season they gave up 27 points to a horrible Rice program which averaged only 19.9 points per game this year.

Ryan Monceaux shares his thoughts on the season-ending loss; both he and Brad Towns take stock of D'Onofrio's utter failure here. In retrospect, the Miami fans who flooded the UH massage boards to warn us that his hire was a mistake were right: D'Onofrio was simply not a competent defensive coordinator and honestly never should have been hired to begin with.

The Cougars will now search for a new defneisve coordinator while they wait to find out their bowl date and opponent. 

Santorini

Continuing my semi-regular series of posts about last summer's European vacation...

Although Santorini was never on my "Bucket List" the way the Acropolis in Athens or the Minoan Palace in Greece were, it was on the cruise itnerary and I'm glad I finally got to see it for myself.

Santorini is essentially part of the caldera of a a volcano whose eruption about 3,600 years ago - scientists can't agree on an exact date - was one of the biggest geological events in the past 5,000 years. Today, it is one of the most scenic spots in the Mediterranean, due to its cliffside villages featuring whitewashed buildings and blue-domed of Greek Orthodox Churches. Santorini is beautiful and, like many other places in Mediterranean Europe, overrun by tourists.



Throngs of tourists explore the narrow streets of Oia. Oia is located on the northern end of Santorini.


Another view of Oia. The whitewashed homes and hotels seem to tumble down the cliffs towards Santorini's caldera.



Exploring a side passageway in Oia. Santorini's natural beauty, picturesque villages and dry, sunny climate make it a major tourist destination.


Located to the south and east of Oia is Fira, Santorini's main town and administrative center. Like Oia, its Cycladic architecture consists of the iconic whitewashed buildings and dwellings that tumble down towards the caldera.

A close-up of the cliffside of Fira, with buildings connected by a maze of pathways and stairways. These buildings actually provide more space than what's visible here, thanks to rooms and other spaces that are dug into the cliffs behind them.


Mom, dad, Corinne and I enjoy a snack with a view in Fira. Our ship, Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, is visible in the caldera behind us.

While we were in Santorini, we also got to try the wine that is native to the island. When our visit was complete, we rode a cable car down the island's steep, volcanic cliffs - a spectacular experience in itself - from Fira to the small harbor at the edge of the caldera and tendered back to our ship.

All in all, a pleasant visit to a truly beautiful and historic bit of Greece.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Brief, belated election thoughts

The much-anticipated midterm elections were two weeks ago tonight; I haven't had the time to write about them until now (which is okay, considering how many close races there were that took a couple of weeks to call). I have a few thoughts:
  • The most surprising thing about this election was how unsurprising it turned out to be. The Democrats were overwhelmingly favored to retake control of the House of Representatives, while the Republicans were heavy favorites to retain control of the Senate. There might have a few individual races that raised eyebrows, but the overall results were accurately predicted by pollsters and pundits alike many months ago.
  • Even though they managed to retain control of the Senate (and, indeed, pad their margin by a couple of seats), this was not a good election for the Republican Party and Donald Trump. They lost the House of Representatives, which will be under Democratic control for the first time in eight years and which will spend the next two years aggressively investigating the myriad transgressions of the Trump administration. Taking back the House was the Democrats’ primary goal of the 2018 midterms, and they did it with several seats to spare (they needed to flip 23 seats for a majority; now that most of the votes have been counted, it looks like they picked up 39). Many of these flipped seats were suburban districts that were formerly reliably Republican, but which have been trending Democratic as the Republican Party, under Trump, hemorrhages college-educated white voters and is increasingly reliant on blue-collar, rural whites for its base of support. Given the nation’s evolving demographic profile, that’s probably not a recipe for long-term success.
  • Furthermore, although the Republicans picked up (barring a miracle in the upcoming Mississippi Senate run-off) two Senate seats, they really could have done even better, considering the mix of states that were in play. They weren’t able to flip seats in deep-red states such as Montana and West Virginia, nor were they able to claim Senate races in the Midwestern states that were the key to Trump’s victory in 2016: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Arizona, furthermore, elected a Democratic Senator for the first time since 1976. Even here in Texas, Beto O'Rourke lost to Ted Cruz by a mere 2.6 percentage points (Cruz won his 2012 Senate race by about 16 points).
  • Republicans also lost 7 governorships and control of six state legislative chambers, a byproduct of flipping about 350 state legislative races nationwide. Three (very red) states also voted to expand Medicaid, which is a cornerstone of Obamacare (which itself is safe from repeal for at least the next two years, by virtue of the Democrats controlling the House). To reiterate: this was not a good election for the Republican Party. 
  • Does Beto O'Rourke's close performance mean that Texas is now a purple state? I don't know if I agree with that - Republicans still won all the statewide races and maintain solid control of the legislature - but he had some coattails: two US House states, a dozen state house seats, two state senate seats and innumerable county positions flipped from red to blue. O'Rourke shifted the map in Texas; time will tell if this is a one-off blip or a sign of things to come (if it's the latter, the Republicans are in big trouble).
  • One of the House seats that flipped was my own - the 7th Congressional District - where John Culberson was booted from office by Lizzie Parnell Fletcher. I was not a fan of Culberson; aside from showing little leadership when it came to the city’s flooding uses, he was a staunch opponent of mass transit along Richmond Avenue and used federal lawmaking processes to circumvent what should have been a local process in deciding where high-capacity transit lines should go. That may change now that Fletcher will represent the district, but a lot will depend on voter approval of the long-range transit plan METRO is currently preparing. 
  • Texas might not be a swing state yet, but Harris County has become a Democratic stronghold. Democratic candidates swept all of the county races two weeks ago. One casualty of this wipeout was Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who lost his seat to a 27-year-old law school student and community activist with no political experience. I hope Lena Hidalgo is a quick learner, as it is inevitable that this county will experience another major flooding event on her watch. (One also wonders why the Harris County Democratic establishment did not anticipate the possibility of a wave election last spring and run a more qualified candidate in the primary, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) 
  • Donald Trump is still an authoritarian, a narcissist, a pathological liar, and an all-around piece of shit. Don't expect the results of this election to cause him to "change" in fact, expect him to become more aggressive and erratic now that he knows he's in trouble.
  • Midterm election results are not predictive of subsequent presidential election results - Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all suffered significant losses midway through their first terms but were easily re-elected two years later. That being said, these results do indicate that Trump's base alone cannot carry him to re-election.
I'll end that note. I really don't want to think about 2020 just yet.

Houston 48, Tulane 17

The Cougars closed out their 2018 home slate with a convincing Thursday night win over the Tulane Green Wave. However, the win was overshadowed by one player's bruised ego and another player's devastating injury.

The Good: The Green Wave had no answer for the Coogs' ground game, which gained 298 yards and three touchdowns. Patrick Carr accounted for 139 of those yards and two scores. Freshman quarterback Clayton Tune took over the offense in the second half and threw two touchdowns. The UH defense forced four Tulane turnovers and only gave up two touchdowns.

The Bad: D'Eriq King suddenly hobbled off the field late in the first half with a freak, non-contact knee injury. It turns out that he tore his meniscus. The Cougars' most explosive playmaker had surgery earlier this week and is out for the rest of the season.

The Ugly: Ed Oliver has not played in a game since being injured against Navy; he may have decided that risking further injury - and a lucrative NFL career - is not worth continuing to play for a mediocre team. He's still a presence on the sidelines, however, and last Thursday decided to stay warm by putting on a jacket intended for use only by people actually playing in the game. Coach Major Applewhite walked over to enforce team rules and take the jacket off of Oliver, and Oliver started screaming at him. The confrontation got national press, and - now that he has revealed himself to NFL scouts to be a disrespectful prima donna - his draft stock is plummeting.

What It Means: The Cougars can clinch the American West division and go to the Conference Championship Game with a win at Memphis on Black Friday. Without D'Eriq King, however, it's hard to see any of that happening (even if Ed Oliver does decide to play).

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Houston 49, Temple 59

So, another embarrassing shitshow unworthy of an extensive writeup. Suffice to say, pretty much everything went wrong for the Coogs last Saturday, including:
  • A blocked punt early in the game that led to a quick Temple touchdown
  • Temple converting a fake punt on fourth down, which eventually led to a touchdown
  • A stupid personal foul penalty by the defense on fourth down that gave Temple new life and led to a touchdown (this same player, defensive lineman Payton Turner, would be ejected after second stupid personal foul penalty in the second half) 
  • 12 penalties overall on Houston, many of which were drive-killers
  • 210 yards and six touchdowns surrendered to Temple RB Ryquell Armstead by an inept, ineffective UH defense (the Owls gained 537 total yards on the evening)
  • 4 three-and-outs by the UH offense 
  • Three turnovers (two sack fumbles and an interception) by Houston QB D'Eriq King
There were some bright spots for the Coogs - special teams forced a fumble and recovered an onside kick, D'Eriq King passed for 322 yards and 5 touchdowns and ran for another 125 yards and a TD - but the end result as Houston's second loss in a row.

The Cougars were suffering from injuries, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, but there's really no excuse for the lack of preparation, the lack of adjustments on defense, the poor tackling, the penalties. That's on the coaches. Defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio is clearly incompetent - he was a disaster at Miami and never should have been hired by UH to begin with - and should be fired when the season is over. Major Applewhite's job is probably safe for now, but results like last Saturday's do not reflect well on him or his abilities.

Next up for Houston is a Thursday night game against Tulane. This is probably the Coogs' last realistic chance at a win this season.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Name that Kroger, again

The Chronicle, ever in need of clickbait, recently put up a slideshow revisiting a topic both the Houston Press and myself had considered several years ago:
Believe it or not Houston-area Kroger locations have special nicknames.
This phenomenon has been covered in the past but this week's talk about Houston-area grocery store history brought it back out.
Most every Kroger in the area has an additional moniker, a playful name developed by shoppers that describes its place in the local fabric and its basic clientele. There is a Hot Mom and Hot Dad Kroger, known by younger shoppers for its handsome customers.
Disco Kroger, in Montrose, is named as such for its soundtrack and attitude near some of the area's most popular clubs and bars. Just two miles north sits another Kroger, dubbed "Bro-ger" by some for its male post-collegiate shoppers. It can also be referred to as Party Kroger for the run on party supplies most every weekend.
The list includes other obvious ones, such as Combat Kroger on Polk, Zombie Kroger in the Heights, and Hot Mom/Hollywood Kroger on West Gray. But a few of the names in this slideshow are rather dubious, in that they were probably just made up in the newsroom.

For example, I have heard of the Kroger I normally shop at (at least, whenever the parking lot at the HEB across the street is too crowded) at the corner of Buffalo Speedway and Westpark referred to as "Buffalo Kroger," "West University Kroger," and "Spanish Kroger" (referring to the faux-colonial architecture of the shopping center in which it resides). But before I read this article I never heard anybody refer to it as "Blue Hair Battle Zone Kroger."

Which is funny, but perhaps a bit too much to get off the tongue when the point of these local Kroger nicknames is to be pithy.

#17 Houston 31, SMU 45

I'm not going to spend a lot of time writing about this pathetic performance. It seems that the Cougars are due for at least one of these head-scratching let-down games against inferior opponents (colloquially known among the UH faithful as "Coog Its") at least once every season, and it's nothing short of maddening.

The Good: Cougar defensive back Gleson Sprewell returned a fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter to cut SMU's lead to 3. That should have been the spark that got the Coogs back into the game, Alas, it wasn't.

The Bad: Everything else. The Cougars started out slow and quickly fell into a 17-point hole. Unlike their previous slow starts (i.e. against Rice, Tulsa, and Navy), they simply weren't able to rally back to win. The defense made SMU quarterback Ben Hicks look like a Heisman contender, allowing him to complete 28 of 43 pass attempts for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns. They also allowed the Mustangs to pound out another 196 yards on the ground; it didn't help that Ed Oliver was still out with a knee injury. The offense, meanwhile, was completely befuddled by something called a Tampa 2 defense; the Coogs stubbornly tried to run the ball - D'Eriq King only completed 11 of 22 pass attempts for 175 yards - to little avail; the Cougars were held to their lowest offensive point total of the season.

The Ugly: Everything about this game was ugly, and everybody, from Coach Applewhite to the rest of his staff on down to the players, should be embarrassed and ashamed of themselves.

What It Means: the Cougars can kiss their top-25 ranking, and any pretense of contending for a New Years Six Bowl, goodbye. They still lead the American West, but are no longer in control of their own destiny.

Houston hosts the Temple Owls at TDECU on Saturday evening.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Houston 57, #21 South Florida 36

Another year, another defeat of a ranked South Florida team.

The Good: D'Eriq King. He passed for 419 yards and 5 touchdowns and ran for another 134 yards and two scores to account for 553 of Houston's 682 yards of total offense. There was no shortage of highlight-reel plays by King in this game, but perhaps the most amazing was this absolutely wicked tackle-shedding 36-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter. South Florida had closed to within 2 points at that point, but his touchdown (which was a gutsy call, considering it was fourth down) marked the beginning of a 29-10 run for the Coogs to put the game away.

And, although the stats might not indicate it, the the UH defense played a good game as well. This is especially important since they were playing without Ed Oliver, who was still nursing an injury caused by Navy's cheap chop-blocking tactics the prior week. In fact, 17 of USF's offensive points might have been the fault of poor officiating, rather than the UH defense.

The Bad: WR Courtney Lark came down hard in the endzone in the second half of the game and had to be carted off the field. It looked really bad; fans geared that one of Houston's best offensive weapons was gone for the season. Fortunately, his injury is not as abad as it initially appears (i.e. he did not break anything anf will not require surgery). However, he is highly questionable for this weekend's game against SMU.

The Ugly: See the above comment regarding officiating; a questionable interception (the ball might have hit the ground first), a questionable reversal of a fumble, and a highly questionable call for intentional grounding in the endzone that resulted in a total of 19 points for the Bulls.

What It Means: The win puts the Cougars at 7-1 on the season, undefeated in conference, and, most importantly, in the national rankings (#17 in both the AP and Coaches' Polls) for the first time since 2016.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Dallas to play the SMU Mustangs. One hopes that the Cougars can retain their focus and not repeat the embarrassing debacle of two seasons ago.

Ryan Monceaux has more.

Venice underwater

A nasty (and deadly) storm has hit northern Italy and has made things rather difficult for folks in and around Venice:
In the canal city of Venice, rising floodwaters overwhelmed many of its famed squares and walkways, with officials saying as much as 75% of the city is now submerged. 
Venice's central St Mark's Square was closed on Monday afternoon, after the water level reached "acqua alta" (high water) of 156cm (5.1ft). It is the fourth highest level ever recorded.
Flooding is not unusual in low-lying Venice, but this flood is particularly bad. To give an idea of just how badly the city has been inundated, here's a picture I took from a gondola station along the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge last summer...


..and here's the view from the same gondola station during the flooding:
Stefano Mazzola / Awakening / Getty
See here for this and several other pictures of the flooding. Schools and hospitals were closed, and tourists walked about the city on narrow elevated catwalks.

As bad as Venice has gotten it, at least it seems to have been spared some of the worst of the weather:
Beyond Venice in the north, it was a story of high winds, fallen trees and landslides.
In the wider Veneto region, a man was killed by a tree and a volunteer fireman died in the north-eastern border region of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol.
 
A 61-year-old man was found dead in a river near Belluno, Veneto, close to where his car had been discovered earlier. 
A woman was killed when her home was hit by a landslide and a fisherman's body was found hours after he went to check on his boat on a lake in Trento. South of the beach resort of Rimini, a kite-surfer aged 63 died when he was hurled against rocks. 
Across Italy six people died on Monday and further deaths were confirmed on Tuesday.
Yikes. Hopefully this passes soon and things get back to normal.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

UH is one step closer to a medical school

Since I've been following this item for over a decade, I need to make note of this development:
The state higher education regulatory agency gave its stamp of approval Thursday to the University of Houston's plan to create the city's first new medical school in nearly half a century.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board unanimously approved the UH proposal, which calls for a focus on training primary-care doctors to practice in underserved areas. UH plans to enroll its first class of students in fall 2020.
"We're hopeful this school will have a great impact," Renu Khator, UH's president and chancellor, said after the vote. "It's the right thing to do for Houston and Texas and a natural maturation of our existing health-care programs."
See here for some background. The University of Houston still needs to secure accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education as well as secure the support of the Texas Legislature before its medical school is a done deal, but the THECB's decision is a huge step forward in the process.

Houston 49 Navy 36

The Cougars traveled to Annapolis and got off to another slow start; they could not stop Navy's option attack and trailed by as many as ten points in the second quarter. But Houston finally found their groove late in the first half and rattled off 35 unanswered points to take a 49-24 lead with six minutes left in the game. Navy scored two late touchdowns to make the final score look closer than the game actually was.

The Good: Houston linebacker Austin Robinson had a tremendous game, with 21 tackles (11 solo), including 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks; he might have even set up Nick Watkins' pick six that essentially sealed the game for the Coogs. On the offensive side of the ball, D'Eriq King was his usual self with 413 passing yards with three TDs (and no INTs), and 56 rushing yards and a TD. RB Patrick Carr ran for a score as well.

The Bad: For much of the first half, the UH defense looked like it had never seen the option before. Until their last drive of the first half, the Midshipmen were averaging 7.6 yards per play. The UH defense finally figured out how to win first down and I hate to credit that turnaround on an injury to Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, but let's face it: once he went out of the game, things got easier for the Coogs. 

The Ugly: WR Keith Corbin dropped several easy passes in the first half, and UH online forums were clamoring for him to be benched at halftime. He redeemed himself in the second half, to his credit, but the first half might have gone a lot better for the Coogs had he caught the balls that were thrown his way.

The Unacceptable: Navy attempted to injure Ed Oliver through the use of illegal chop blocks. He had to leave the game in the fourth quarter and is questionable for this weekend's game against South Florida. One hesitates to accuse service academy players of dirty play, but... Yeah, Navy played dirty. 

What It Means: The Cougars are now bowl-eligible at 6-1 and are alone atop the AAC West. 

An undefeated and ranked South Florida team comes to TDECU Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Dubrovnik is beautiful, but is tourism killing it?

I continue my series of posts from last summer's European vacation - I've even created a label for these now - with a brief recount of my brief trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik's medieval walled city is a relic of the past, when the city, which was the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, thrived on maritime trade (and played the Venetians and Ottomans off on each other in order to maintain its advantage). Today. however, Dubrovnik relies on tourism for its economy. Dubrovnik is a tourist favorite because of its weather, its location on the Adriatic Sea, the beauty of both its architecture as well as the surrounding countryside, and its service as a shooting location for the Game of Thrones series. 
The walls of Dubrovnik's old town, as seen from the sea.
The main street in Dubrovnik's old town.
The crush of tourists brings in money, but it also brings in problems. Only about 1,500 actual residents live within the walls of the old town today - most housing units are rented out to tourists - and locals throughout the city have learned not to venture anywhere when the "attacks" from tourists disembarking from cruise ships occur. Authorities have been trying to limit the number of tourists to the city by installing "counters" at the entrances to the old city or by staggering the arrival times of cruise ships, but one is nevertheless left to wonder if tourism is killing Dubrovnik and if the city's future is some sort of Disney-esque dystopia full of bars and souvenir shops but lacking an authentic local population and culture.
Tourists crowd a side street in old town Dubrovnik.

Outdoor cafes and vendor stalls in a plaza in old town Dubrovnik.

To be sure, we were part of the problem, because the four of us were among those throngs of cruise ship passengers visiting Dubrovnik during the peak of the peak season. Our ship had docked there along with two other large cruise ships that day, and the old town was clogged with tourists. Our tourguide dutifully mentioned some of the challenges that so much tourism had created for Dubrovnik, but had a rather fatalistic attitude about it ("but what can you do?" was his usual refrain).*  
Another view of old town Dubrovnik's main street, and the crowd of tourists that had come to see it.

Outdoor cafes catering to tourists are everywhere in Dubrovnik's old town.

Another side street in old town Dubrovnik. The old town itself really is a beautiful, human-scaled place.
I really wish I had enough time to walk up and down every side street in Dubrovnik's old town. The crowds of tourists aside, old town Dubrovnik really is a delightful place, with its old buildings, narrow streets, stairways and plazas. There is a reason why tourists like to go there.

We were in Old Town Dubrovnik long enough to take in some of the main sights, sample the local food and drink (yum!) and collect a few souvenirs. I'd love to go back one day, perhaps in the spring or fall when there are not as many tourists, and spend more time exploring Dubrovnik (including the city outside of the old town).

The best thing about being in Dubrovnik is that we were there the day before the FIFA World Cup Final between Croatia and France. The excitement among the locals, from our tourguide to our waitress to all the Croatian flags fluttering throughout the old town - was palpable. (Alas, France won.)

A quiet side street in old town Dubronvik. Note the arched passageway above the stairs.

One of the gates leading in to old town Dubrovnik. This should look familiar to Game of Thrones fans!
Dubrovnik is a place I've always wanted to visit. The fact that I was there with scores of other tourists didn't really bother me, because I knew that they simply wanted to see the same thing I wanted to see. I understand that we, as tourists, create challenges for Dubrovnik's local population, and I understand that Dubrovnik faces a particular predicament in that it really doesn't have an economy other than tourism to rely upon. How do you strike a balance?

I occasionally come across online listicles (not going to link to any because they don't deserve the traffic) of "places you shouldn't visit" or "tourist destinations that are overrated" that include Dubrovnik. These "lists" are as condescending and cruel as they are vapid, and they could have a detrimental effect on Dubrovnik if enough people take them seriously.

Don't let the internet dictate to you where you should or should not visit. I would however, advise my fellow tourists to Dubrovnik to be polite, be patient, and tip well. Always act like you are a guest in somebody else's home, because you are.

* I was also part of the problem in Venice, which is also straining under the weight of tourism. Only about 50,000 residents actually live on the Venetian archipelago  - again, housing units are being rented out to tourists - and it is one of several places that are experiencing a tourism backlash. However, being too reactionary towards tourism can have adverse consequences of its own. Hence, the need for tourist-dependent locales to find a balance without killing the golden goose.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Astros' quest for a repeat title falls short

Well, it was fun while it lasted.
They won more regular-season games than any team in the franchise's 57-year existence. The accolade is admirable, but will never be accompanied by a championship.
Not since the Yankees in 2000 has a team repeated as World Series champions. The Astros extended the streak, dropping a lifeless 4-1 Game 5 decision to the Red Sox, who dogpiled and posed for photos as a dazed Minute Maid Park crowd filtered out.
The fact is, the Red Sox were the best team in Major League Baseball, with 108 regular season wins under their belt. It was understood that the Astros would have to get past them to get back to the World Series, and in order to do so, they would have to play flawless baseball.

They didn't.

Some of the same problems that had plagued the Astros all season - not providing enough run support for Verlander, and not being able to consistently win at home - came back to haunt the Astros in the ALCS. An Astros pitching staff that had performed so well throughout the season melted down against Boston. It didn't help that Jose Altuve was hobbled by a leg injury throughout the ALCS, or that he was robbed by the umpires of a two-run homer that very well could have changed the course of the series.

The Chronicle lists these problems, and others, as among five reasons why the Astros lost the ALCS; one reason is simply that it's hard to win in baseball:
There’s a reason nobody has repeated since the 1998-2000 Yankees. So much must go your way during a 162-game regular season and then a postseason that’s often a crapshoot. The Astros were able to find the magic last year, whether it was Alex Bregman’s Game 4 homer at Fenway Park in the ALDS, Jose Altuve’s dash around the bases to win Game 2 of the ALCS, Marwin Gonzalez’s series-changing homer off Kenley Jansen while one out away from a 2-0 deficit in the World Series or all the twists and turns in that epic Game 5 against the Dodgers. Or Charlie Morton picking up two Game 7 victories that Astros fans never will forget. 
Instead, this year saw a hotly debated fan-interference call that wiped out a two-run homer in arguably the series’ swing game and Andrew Benintendi rob Bregman of a walkoff hit in Game 4 that would’ve tied the ALCS. For whatever reason, the magic was gone during the final four games of this series against Boston.
There's nothing for the Astros to do now except get themselves up off the plate, dust themselves off, and try again in 2019.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Houston 42, East Carolina 20

This game was not as close as the score (or even the stats) indicate; the Coogs led 42-6 until there were about 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, when the Pirates cored a couple of window-dressing touchodwns against UH's second stringers.

The Good: The UH defense had an excellent outing, forcing four turnovers and holding the Pirates to six points (and two! rushing yards) until late in the game. The defense recorded 12 tackles for loss, the most in a single game since 2005. Ed Oliver finally got through the double- and triple-teams that have been drawn up against him all season to notch his first two sacks of the season, the first of which resulted in a turnover and UH touchdown. Meanwhile, UH quarterback D'Eriq King threw for 209 yards and two touchdowns and had no interceptions. He rushed for a score as well.

The Bad: The Cougars played sloppy football at times, with poor tackling, dropped passes, three sacks surrendered, and way too many penalties (12 for 115 yards). One penalty negated what would have been a fourth interception for the Coogs. Another penalty killed a UH drive in the 3rd quarter. 

The Ugly: While this isn't an excuse for all the Cougars' penalties - even Major Applewhite is concerned about them - the officiating for this game was nevertheless very poor. A targeting penalty that resulted in the ejection of UH safety Gleson Sprewell in the second half was truly ticky-tack. And this bizarre booth reversal of a spot (that benefitted ECU) was simply incompetent.

What It Means: Halfway through the season, the Cougars are 5-1 overall, 2-0 in conference and the only undefeated team in the American's western division. 

Next up for the Cougars is a visit to Annapolis, Maryland to face Navy. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

A good 20 hours for Houston sports fans

Over the course of about 20 hours between this past Sunday night and this past Monday afternoon, the Texans eked out their second overtime win in a row against the Dallas Cowboys, and the Astros swept the Cleveland Indians to advance to the American League Championship Series. That was, needless to say, a very happy 20 hours for Houston sports fans.

Anybody who knows me knows how much I hate the Dallas Cowboys. The Texans aren't a particularly good team - in fact, they're quite awful this season - but as long as they beat the Cowboys, and shut up their obnoxious "DEM BOYZ! AMERICA'S TEAM! HOUSTON SUCKS! WOOOO!" fanbase, it's all good. The Texans might not win another game this year, but they beat the evil Cowboys so 2018 is already a success in my book.

The Astros have a tough ALCS series ahead of them against the Boston Red Sox, who defeated the Yankees (speaking of teams I hate) earlier this evening to advance. The Red Sox had the best regular season record in baseball this season, and it's going to take the Astros everything they have to get past them and win back-to-back pennants. But they took care of business against Cleveland in convincing fashion to get back to the ALCS, and that's worth celebrating.

It's tough being a Houston sports fan, which makes it all the better when we experience these bursts of success.

(As an added bonus, on Monday night Corinne's team - the New Orleans Saints - beat the Redskins as Saints QB Drew Brees became the NFL's all-time passing leader. So it's been pretty happy in our apartment.)

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs was built between 1600 and 1603 and crosses a side canal between the Doge's Palace and the prison in Venice. Its name reportedly comes from the fact that convicts would sigh as they caught their last glimpse of Venice before being confined to their cells.


I learned about it as an architecture student - it was an example of the Baroque architectural style as well as the ornateness for which the Venetians were known - and so I always wanted to see it for myself. This past July, I finally got to do so.

I even got to walk across it, which is possible if you take a tour of the Doge's Palace (and, if you're in Venice for any time at all, you should).

It's not particularly spectacular. It's only about 35 feet in length, which really doesn't compare to Venice's famous Grand Canal bridges, such as the Rialto Bridge or Calatrava's Ponte della Costituzione. But the Bridge of Sighs is nevertheless pretty, with its while limestone and Renaissance decoration.

There's also just something satisfying about finally being able to see in person something that you learned about many years ago. Even if the item in question isn't all that spectacular - quite frankly, the rooms and the artworks within the Doge's Palace are much more breathtaking than the Bridge of Sighs - it's still nice to be able to lay your own eyes upon something like the Bridge of Sighs and evaluate and experience it for yourself, rather than let a picture (or an architecture professor) do it for you.

Which is why everybody needs to travel more!

A view of the bridge from inside one of the rooms in the Doge's Palace
A view of Venice from one of the Bridge's windows
A closer view from one of the Bridge's windows

Houston 41, Tulsa 26

The Cougars started out slow against a Tulsa team that came ready to play and quickly fell behind, 10-0, in the first quarter. The Coogs struggled back to take the lead at halftime, only to see Tulsa score 13 unanswered points in the second half. Houston managed a fourth-quarter rally to win the game; however, it was a very ugly win, so let's start there.

The Ugly: The Cougars looked lethargic and played error-ridden football for much of the game. They turned the ball over three times, dropped numerous catchable passes (as well what would have been sure interceptions), committed 8 penalties and missed several tackle. The defense could not get off the field, as the Cougars allowed the Golden Hurricane to convert on 8 of 23 third downs and 2 of 4 fourth downs. The defense also surrendered a whopping 312 rushing yards (and 426 total yards) to Tulsa. The UH offense, meanwhile, sputtered for much of the game; of their first ten drives, seven ended either in punts or turnovers (interceptions, fumbles, or turnovers on downs). Quite simply, the Cougars were outplayed for much of this game.

The Bad: The third quarter was a microcosm of the Cougars’ night. They held the ball for only 2:58 (Tulsa had the ball for 12:02), ran only 5 plays (Tulsa ran 28), had 7 yards of offense (Tulsa had 174), and scored no points (Tulsa scored 10). Another Tulsa touchdown would have surely sealed the game for them.

The Good: The Coogs finally came to life in the fourth quarter. D'Eriq King had a 61-yard touchdown run on a well-executed play to bring the Coogs back within two. Tulsa was forced to punt on the ensuing position, and the Cougars scored a field goal on their next position to retake the lead. Then, Tulsa melted down; their next two possessions ended in turnovers on their side of the field and led to easy UH touchdowns. These quick 24 points put Tulsa away for good; Ryan Monceaux describes the sequence of events and notes that at least some of Houston's late-game heroics were due to Tulsa's errors:
Why did Tulsa go from the ground and pound offense that dominated the 3Q into a drop back team with a first-time starter in the 4th? That’s just poor play-calling and abandoning your game plan. But credit the Cougar defense for taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them: two false starts, a dinged-up running back, a forced fumble, and an INT. And the UH offense scored 24 points on just 20 plays. The three touchdown drives in the quarter totaled just 67 seconds. For 15 minutes, we finally saw what this team is capable of doing.
What It Means: I've always said that an ugly win is better than a pretty loss, and the only thing that matters is that the Cougars are 4-1 overall, are 1-0 in their division, and got revenge for their most humiliating loss last season. But that can't keep playing down to the level of their opponent and expect to escape with wins.

The Cougars now go on a two-game road trip to face East Carolina (on October 13) and Navy (on October 20). Both teams are mediocre, with 2-3 records, and the Cougars should be favorites to win both. However, as we've seen from this team so far this season, nothing is a given.

ESPN's recap of the game is here.