Wednesday, June 12, 2019

US Women's World Cup defense begins with controversy

Yesterday the US Women's National Team began their quest to defend their 2015 FIFA Womens's World Cup title by obliterating Thailand, 13-0. Now, in addition to defending their crown, they're also having to defend their actions during that game; namely, that they humiliated a vastly inferior Thai side by running up the score against them as well as celebrating excessively and disrespectfully after each goal:
Thailand's players were in tears at the full-time whistle after suffering the heaviest defeat in World Cup history at the hands of the US. 
There were those on social media who criticized the defending champions for celebrating each goal, but Alex Morgan -- who became only the second American to score five in a World Cup match -- told reporters that "every goal counts." 
Morgan, who comforted Thailand player Miranda Nild after the match, said it was important for the team to "continue to go" and score as many as they could in case goal difference would ever prove to be a factor in the group stages. 
"We knew that every goal could matter in this group stage game and when it comes to celebrations this was a really good team performance and I think it was important for us to celebrate together," said the striker.
The Americans' performance incurred some derisive virtue signaling from their neighbors to the north:
Alex Morgan, who bagged five goals in the mauling, was seen counting her goals on her fingers as she rattled them in.
Megan Rapinoe, playing her 154th game for USWNT and scoring her 45th goal, sprinted to the sidelines and indulged in a pre-planned celebration set piece as she scored the USA's ninth against the Thai part-timers. 
Wilder celebrations followed — but so did accusations across the globe of classlessness, lack of sportsmanship and disrespect, most notably from USA's northern rivals, ex-Canadian national team stars Clare Rustad and Kaylyn Kyle. 
"This was disgraceful for the United States," Rustad said. "I would have hoped they could have won with humility and grace, but celebrating goals eight, nine, 10 like they were doing was really unnecessary." 
Kyle added: "I'm all about passion, but as a Canadian we would just never ever think of doing something like that. 
"For me it's disrespectful, it's disgraceful. Hats off to Thailand for holding their head high on their first time on a World Cup stage."
The overwrought condescension coming from Rustad and Kyle aside (hey, maybe you should place better than fourth in the Women's World Cup before criticizing, eh?), the American ladies' celebration after each goal was nevertheless a source of controversy, and even former US star Hope Solo expressed discomfort with the nature of the celebrations:
It was tough for me to watch some of the US goal celebrations – which have come under criticism – considering the scoreline. You do want the game to be celebrated and you do want to see players having fun but at the same time I thought some of the celebrations were a little overboard. A few seemed planned out and I do know some players spend a lot of time thinking about celebrations for the fans. It’s not always necessary.
To be fair to Solo, she was critiquing the celebrating but defending the score itself; "[w]hen you respect your opponent you don’t all of a sudden sit back and try not to score," she wrote. ESPN's Graham Hays, for his part, wasn't buying any of the criticism, whether related to the score or the celebrating:
But to put blame on the United States ignores two obvious points. First, the Americans didn't make the rules under which the number of goals scored is part of deciding the outcome of the tournament. Goal differential counts. The U.S. women want to win its group. Unlike just about any other sport, the Americans have a vested interest in running up the score.
And second, it isn't the United States' fault it can't clear its bench. It is allowed three subs. It used three subs.
"If this is 10-0 in a men's World Cup, are we getting the same questions?" U.S. coach Jill Ellis asked after receiving repeated queries about the score. "I think a World Cup, it is about competing, it is about peaking, it is about priming your players ready for the next game."
But beyond that, why is it the obligation of the U.S. team to act in the interest of creating a picture of a falsely level playing field? Why shouldn't FIFA or the Asian Confederation get blamed for not doing more to promote the women's game in places where it lags behind? 
Are we really going to blame players for celebrating a goal, in many cases in their first World Cup, instead of looking at the underlying reasons for the disparity in the first place?
This is a key point: at the international level, there isn't nearly as much parity for women's soccer as there is for the men's game. The Thai women have an interesting story, but the bottom line is that the nation of Thailand, like much of the world as a whole, fails to invest in, and develop, the women's game. Couple that with a Women's World Cup that only recently expanded from 16 teams to 24, thereby increasing the overall disparity of the teams participating, and results such as yesterday's shouldn't be especially surprising.

Therefore, I'm not particularly receptive to criticisms about the score itself. When you're playing in the World Cup, and you have an opportunity to score a goal... Well, you score a goal. Not only do the rules regarding goal differential essentially require it, but, in soccer, scoring opportunities are hard to come by and if you are to reach your full potential as a soccer player then you need to take advantage of those situations. Especially at the World Cup stage. Yesterday seven US players scored; for four of them, it was their first-ever goal at the World Cup. That's invaluable experience, and it creates confidence moving forward in the tournament. Furthermore, as somebody who has groused about the lack of offense in soccer in the past, I really can't get too upset about the rare instance wherein a team scores "too many" goals.

I'm a bit more sympathetic to criticisms regarding the way the women celebrated after each goal, if only because such behavior is generally frowned upon in sports as a whole. For example, in American Football there is no penalty for running up the score, but excessive celebration after a touchdown merits a 15-yard penalty (and, in the NFL, sometimes a fine). Did the USWNT need to celebrate their eleventh, twelfth or thirteenth goal against Thailand with as much enthusiasm as their first or second? Maybe not. Maybe a quick group high-five or half-raised fist pump would have been sufficient after goal eight or nine. But where do you draw that line? At what point is a team "required" to contain its excitement, especially at the World Cup stage?

Yahoo's Dan Wetzel argues that America's ladies have nothing to apologize for:
Finally, there were complaints the U.S. players shouldn’t have celebrated their goals because scoring was so easy. 
Except, scoring a goal in the World Cup is never easy.
It might not have been difficult against Thailand in the second half, but that was just a single moment of the play. Just getting here required years and even decades of sacrifice and work from each and every American player (and their families, coaches and teammates through the years).
To score in the World Cup is an accomplishment any serious player dreams about. For Pugh, Lavelle, Horan and Mewis, these were their first-ever World Cup goals. To say they shouldn’t celebrate the accomplishment or suggest it holds less value due to the opponent is to dismiss all the blood, sweat and tears it took to get here.
Yes, the game was a massacre, but that’s what happens sometimes in sports. These American women aren’t here to go easy on anyone. They aren't here to consider hurt feelings. That would be insulting to everyone involved.
They are here to win and they’ll inspire a generation of girls around the globe by playing exactly how they did on Tuesday: full-throttle, unapologetic and with both power and creativity.
They played the beautiful game, beautifully. It was something to behold, not condemn.
Next up for the US Women is Chile on Sunday.

Schadenfreude

I don't follow hockey very closely, but I do know that right now, a lot of Boston sports fans are rather unhappy.

And that makes me happy. Because Boston sports fans suck.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Twenty years in the real world

It's been exactly ten years since I wrote this post, which means that's it's been exactly twenty years since I began employment at the City of Denton and thus entered the "real world." At the time I wrote said post, I opined that things had generally gone well for me over my first decade as a productive member of society - I was married, with a kid, and a mortgage and a full-time job - I and expressed hope that "the next few decades are as interesting and fun as the last one has been."

Alas, not long after I wrote that post, the "real world" would smack me down in a big way. Within a year of that post, I would be divorced, I would no longer be a homeowner, and I would be virtually unemployed as a lack of billable work would require me to take a temporary leave of absence from my job. Shortly thereafter, cancer would unexpectedly claim the life of one of my best friends, and I myself would end up in the hospital for the first time in my life.

It was, all in all, a humbling experience.

In an attempt to get my life back on track, I would then make a few less-than-ideal decisions - jumping into a relationship with somebody who, while being a good-hearted person in general, would turn out to be simply not the right person for me in particular, and moving in with her to a rental in an expensive neighborhood that I really couldn't afford by myself after she moved out - that set me back even further. A subsequent attempt to forge a relationship with an old high school interest was also ill-advised; a reminder that one cannot live in the past.

To my credit, I made some better-considered decisions as well; most importantly, I changed employers at the beginning of 2013. This decision has worked out well for me, personally and professionally. I also, eventually, found somebody perfectly suited for me; Corinne and I have been together for almost four years and I'm excited to give the marriage thing another try with her next year. Buying a house is also in our future, once finances permit. To that end, I've paid off the debts I've incurred while living in Bellaire, and am gradually adding back to my savings.

The "real world" creates setbacks sometimes. But I've moved on.

None of this is to say the last decade has been "bad." In fact, it's been rather amazing in many respects. I've taken some amazing trips, (and, in doing so, gotten 1/5th of the way towards reaching my life's ultimate goal), participated in New Orleans Mardi Gras parades, watched the Astros win the World Series (and, in a total fluke, got to attend the most amazing game of that series) watched the Cougars win a major bowl gamesurvived a few floods, killed my awful web 1.0 website, and watched my son grow.

I figure that I am now roughly halfway through the productive, wage-earning phase of my life. I'd love to retire sooner rather than later, of course, and I do have various IRAs and 401ks that are slowly but surely accruing value. But with a house purchase hopefully! in Corinne and my future and a son who is four years away from college, retirement is something that is not happening anytime soon.

One thing I really need to do over the next decade is look after my health a bit better. I've really put on the pounds over the past decade. Corinne's going to be pretty pissed at me if I drop dead of a heart attack right after she marries me, so I should probably take some steps to ensure that doesn't happen!

Friday, May 31, 2019

The world's least-visited countries

Most people haven't even heard of them:
Parisian bridges are weighted down with copycat "love locks," while visitors crowd cheek-to-jowl into Barcelona churches and Dubrovnik's historic center. In Italy, attempts to manage the impact of tourism range from segregating visitors to fines for flip-flops.
As a glut of anxious headlines document overtourism, it's easy to think that the planet is simply full.
 
But stray from the well-worn tourist trails, and you'll discover another travel story entirely. In much of the world, there are places that are eager to welcome tourists -- and when practiced sustainably, where tourism can even help alleviate poverty. 
The contrast between the most- and least-visited places is stark. In 2017, nearly 87 million international tourists arrived in France. That same year, a mere 2,000 international tourists visited the South Pacific country of Tuvalu, where it's easy to find a beach -- or even an entire island -- to yourself. 
Based on the most recent data (PDF) compiled by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, this list reflects many of the world's least-visited countries and overseas territories, where you'll find gorgeous natural beauty, culture and history without pushing through a thicket of selfie sticks.
I completely understand the tourist-related problems of Dubrovnik, Venice, and Santorini, where we found ourselves packed into narrow streets with other visitors. (Of course, the fact that we were tourists in these places - off of cruise ships, no less - meant that we were part of the problem.) The thing I like about the idea of visiting under-the-radar destinations is that you can actually be part of the solution, rather than the problem, by pumping money into these economies (as long as your trip is done sustainably).

What's interesting about CNN's list of the 25 least-visited countries (which actually contains only twenty sovereign nations; the other five are dependencies of other countries, even if they have some measure of autonomy) is that many of them are also among the twenty-five smallest independent countries that I want to visit before I die, including Tonga, Tuvalu, Kirabati, and São Tomé and Príncipe. That stands to reason, because the world's tiniest, most obscure countries would also see the fewest visitors. (Two of the nations on CNN's list - Lichtenstein and St. Kitts and Nevis - are ones I've already visited and checked off of my list.)

My goal remains visit these countries, although I know it won't be easy getting to many of them. There's also the paradox that countries with few tourists probably don't have a lot of tourist infrastructure. I'll need to do my research before I visit some of these places.

Belated Game of Thrones thoughts

(Spoilers follow.)

The ending of Game of Thrones was pretty much the most disappointing finale I've ever watched.  (I've been underwhelmed by series finales before, but this one was especially unsatisfying.)

Much has been written about the series' unsatisfactory ending, but this video kind of sums everything up for me:

         

Aside from the fact that the ending of the series left so many questions unanswered, many of the plot "resolutions" delivered by the finale were difficult to believe.

Let's start with Bran becoming king. Maybe that was what George R. R. Martin envisioned, and perhaps his reasoning will be better explained in the books (if and when he ever gets around to completing them), where Bran's character is apparently more central to the story than it was in the TV series. But his character's story in the TV series, where he does little more than stare at people, warg into ravens and get Hodor killed (Bran didn't even appear at all in one of the series' seasons), simply doesn't suggest that he has any business becoming king of Westeros. It's hard for longtime fans to accept.

It's also hard to accept the way that Bran got to be king, which was the result of a decision by a council of Westerosi lords and ladies that miraculously convened outside of King's Landing after Daenerys's death. This council was, in a matter of minutes, able to resolve all of the struggles, wars and intrigue that Westeros had experienced over the previous several years by simply replacing the continent's hereditary monarchy with an elective one (those never work, by the way, and will probably just make things worse in the long run). They made this decision based on nothing more than an impassioned soliloquy by Tyrion (who was supposed at the council to be judged for his crime of disobeying Dany, rather than to chart a new political course for Westeros).*

And don't even get me started on Jon, who somehow is not summarily executed by Grey Worm, the rest of the Unsullied, or the remaining Dothraki** for murdering Daenerys, but is rather sentenced to be returned to the Night's Watch (which no longer has a reason for existing) for his crime. The huge plot reveal that he was the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen served no purpose after all.

The fact is, the entire final season (not just the finale) was pretty much a disaster. It was rushed and contrived, and the character development that had made the series so great over the years was simply tossed aside.

For example, I didn't have a problem with Daenerys's descent into villainy. It follows age-old themes regarding the corruptive nature of power or the idea that well-intentioned tyranny is still tyranny. I did have a problem with how it was manifested. Whether Dany's decision to turn King's Landing into Dresden was the result of emotionally-deranged genocidal madness or a ruthless calculation to destroy the seat of Westerosi power and send a message to the other lords of the continent, the writers simply did not justice to her character's turn. Jaime's decision to return to Cersei after his one-night-stand with Brienne (a regrettably unnecessary and gratuitous hookup, by the way) was similarly hollow. 

Perhaps it was inevitable that the series would degrade the further it got from George R. R. Martin's source material (a viral Twitter thread from a professor of philosophy at UConn explains this situation). And it was certainly a bad decision to shorten the last two seasons, as it gave the creators less "real estate" to work with. In the rush to bring everything to a close with as much spectacle as possible, the series forgot what it was all about.

The bottom line is that Game of Throne's creators, David Benihoff and Dan Weiss, spent the first six seasons painting a masterpiece of lavish character development, intriguing plot twists, and compelling storytelling. Then they spent the seventh season vandalizing it with spray paint, and spent the eight season shitting all over it. It's a very disappointing ending that will forever tarnish the legacy of what was once the best show on television.

* Also, when Sansa made the declaration that The North would opt out of the Bran-led kingdom, Yara Greyjoy should have done the same for the Iron Islands and Nameless Dornish Guy should have done the same for Dorne. Those three kingdoms were always culturally and structurally different from the core of Westeros (i.e. Westerlands, Crownlands, Stormlands, Riverlands, Vale and Reach) and seeing all three of them fall out would have reinforced the idea of a new political era for Westeros. This was a huge miss on the part of the writers.

** We were led to believe that almost all of the Dothraki died in the Battle of Winterfell, but apparently there were plenty of them left to overrun Kings Landing. This was one of the many continuity failures of the final season of the series.

Goodbye to middle school

Hard to believe that Thursday was Kirby's last day of eighth grade. His mom and I attended his promotion ceremony at Lanier Middle School and took some pictures afterward:



He'll be heading on to high school this fall. The "Beast" is growing up!

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Governor signs UH medical school into existence

Obligatory update to a story I've been following for a while:
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill creating a medical school at the University of Houston amid concerns about a physician shortage in the state. 
Under the legislation signed into law Wednesday, the University of Houston's College of Medicine will be the 13th medical school in Texas. It will be based in the UH System's flagship campus in Houston. Nearly half of the Texas medical schools are in the Houston area. 
On Thursday, Abbott described UH as on the way to being "one of the world's preeminent universities." He said he plans to do a ceremonial signing of the bill in Houston. 
“The University of Houston continues to cement itself as a top tier University, and I was proud to sign HB 826 into law establishing the University Of Houston College Of Medicine," Abbott said in a statement. "As Governor, I have pledged to elevate Texas’ institutions of higher education and this bill furthers that goal."
My understanding is that the only hurdle remaining for UH Med is approval from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. If that happens, the college would enroll its first students in the fall of 2020. Stay tuned.

CHVRCHES at White Oak Music Hall

A couple of Fridays ago, Corinne and I went to the lawn at the White Oak Music Hall to see CHVRCHES. It was a good concert at a nice venue that I'll need to visit more often.

Not too much to report form the concert itself. The synth-pop trio from Glasgow played most of their better-known songs; keyboardist Martin Doherty even took over from foul-mouthed frontwoman Lauren Mayberry to sing a couple of tunes. The back-and-forth chatter between band members between songs was just as entertaining as the songs themselves.


The set was rather short, at 15 songs total, and left out a couple of my favorites, including "Gun" and "Lies." My biggest complaint wasn't that, but rather the Gen Z douchebags standing in front of us who were more interested in talking over the songs than watching the show. Such is the nature of outdoor festival-type concerts such as these.

Otherwise no complaints. the late-spring evening was perfect for an outdoor concert. The lawn at WOMC is a small and comfortable space to watch the show. The lines for drinks were short, and a couple of food trucks handled eating options (although they probably could have used one or two more). I have no complaints about acoustics or sightlines.

We didn't try to drive and park, but rather took the METRORail Red Line up from Midtown, got off at Quitman Station, and made the short walk to the venue. I would recommend this option for getting there, if you are able to do so.

The Houston Press review, including the setlist, is here.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Houston's climate and transit use: it's not an excuse

Local public transportation advocate and former METRO Board member Christof Spieler recently spoke to the Kinder Institute at Rice regarding "myths, misconceptions and facts" about transit in Houston. Here's one topic that resonated with me:
Myth: “Nobody walks in Houston or the climate in Houston is too bad for anyone to be able to walk.” 
"Those two [weather conditions and walking] are obviously not the case," Spieler said. "I think people overestimate the importance of climate in these cases. There are cities that have very tough winters and they do transit very well. If you want to compare a summer in Houston vs. a winter in Minneapolis, I don’t think Houston summer heat is a much worse climate than a Minneapolis winter." 
Minneapolis, which has an annual snowfall of 55 inches and winter temperatures in the teens, is one of the few American cities that have experienced increases in public transportation ridership. A part of that increase is credited toward thousands of parking spots being lost in downtown Minneapolis in recent years. 
Further, Houston has also seen gains in public transportation ridership in recent years, thanks in part to a 2015 bus route redesign and the introduction of additional light rail.
Obvious fact: this city's climate can be brutal for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users during the daytime hours in the summer months (which, in Houston, last from mid-May to late October). Houston's not unique in that regard; there are conditions that are challenging to pedestrian, bicycle and transit activity in every climate, as Christof's examples from Minneapolis imply. 

That's no excuse. 

Too many people (including local bloggers who are smart enough to know better, which is why I no longer read or link to them) still use the "but it's soooooo hot" pretext as to why Houston shouldn't spend its time or money improving its transit services, or improving access to transit (or active transportation in general) through better sidewalks or high-quality bicycle facilities. It's a bullshit, purposefully-defeatist argument that puts too much emphasis on temporary personal comfort and ignores the fact that for the vast majority of the time Houston has a perfectly comfortable climate.

But taking this a step further: this argument is, perversely, a reason for better transit service (as well as better access to transit through better bike/ped connections). Walking to and waiting for a bus in the August afternoon might be a brutal experience for most Houstonians today. But imagine that, even during that August afternoon, you can walk no more than a quarter-mile (i.e. a five-minute walk) to a transit stop, and along that walk there are easy-to-provide amenities such as shade trees along sidewalks and non-reflective pavement that make things just a little bit less brutal. Then, once you get to the bus stop or train station (which provides a shade canopy from the sun as well as a bench to sit), your wait is no less than ten or fifteen minutes (i.e. the generally-recognized minimum headway for "frequent" service) until the next transit service arrives. You get into the air-conditioned vehicle, and off you go. 

All of a sudden, that trip gets a lot less "brutal," doesn't it? And this is during the heat of the day; it doesn't address the average morning or evening during Houston's long summer, which is perfectly walkable if not humid.

Christof is correct: people overestimate the importance of climate, and underestimate the ways in which we can combat that climate by providing comfortable (and ADA-accessible!) access to transit, as well as the frequency and coverage of that transit service itself. Let's quit making excuses and give this city the pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure that it deserves.

(Oh and by the way: as bad as Houston's climate can be, I'll take "hot and sweaty" over "trip over snowbanks and slip and fall on ice patches" anytime.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Graz, Austria

We're approaching the summer of 2019, but I'm still not done with my series of posts about our trip to Europe during the summer of 2018. Which is fine, considering that time and budget constraints mean that no vacation this coming summer will be anywhere as amazing as last summer's.

Austria's capital of Vienna was just a little too far out of range for a day trip from our timeshare in Schladming. Austria's second-largest city, however, was not. So one morning we all loaded into the rental car and drove to Graz.

In addition to being Austria's second-largest city, Graz is also the capital of the Styria state. And while it might not be as well-known as places like Vienna or Salzburg, there's still plenty worth visiting there, including some rather quirky features.

Like many European cities, Graz developed around a large hill, atop of which was a fortress. However, the fortress is no longer there; some guy from France had it demolished in 1809. A few things remain, including a clock tower. The Urhturm took its present shape sometime in the 1500s and is an icon of Graz:


From the top of the Schlossberg there is an excellent view of the city (as well as a really cool Biergarten). The Uhrturm is to the left. and that weird black thing to the right is the Kunsthaus Graz, a modern art museum built in 2003:


Here's my father standing in front of the Kunsthaus, which is also known as the "Friendly Alien:"




Near the Kunsthaus is another piece of modern architecture floating in the Mur River. The Murinsel also dates to 2003 (the year Graz served as the European Capital of Culture) and contains an outdoor amphitheater as well as an indoor cafe:


Here's what the Murinsel looks like on the inside. The cafe contains a bar as well as a stage:




Graz Cathedral was built between 1438 and 1462 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III:


The interior of the cathedral is built in a gothic architectural style and is ornately beautiful:

Across the street from the cathedral is an old municipal building notable for its double spiral staircase with two separate flights that diverge and then converge back upon one another at each floor. Corinne and I climbed it and decided that it was interesting, but probably caused a lot of people bumping into each other as they went up and down it back in the day:


The Grazer Landhaus was built in 1527 by Italian Renaissance architect Domenico dell'Allio and features a delightful arcaded courtyard. The Styrian state parliament still meets in this complex; the Styrian Armory is located here as well:

Adjacent to the Landhaus is the Rathaus, or city hall, of Graz. It was completed in 1893 and faces the Hauptplatz, which is the city's main square:

Herrengasse (literally, "Street of the Lords") is Graz's historic main street. It passes by the Hauptplatz, Rathaus and Landhaus, and is lined by stores. Several streetcar lines run along it. (Interesting fact: "next station" announcements on Graz's streetcars are in German and American English, rather than the British accent you would normally expect to hear in Europe. Maybe it's Graz's way of throwing shade at Britain because of Brexit?) One point of interest along Herrengasse is the Painted House, seen to the left:



Heading back to the train station on the edge of the town center, there is a monument erected to commmorate the hundredth anniversary of Esperanto in 1987. It reads "the hope for world communication in piece and freedom." (Next to the monument is cafe Das Esperanto; sadly, the menu is not actually printed in Esperanto, which I found to be a huge disappointment):

All in all, an interesting trip to an interesting city. We spent a full day there and still didn't see anything close to everything Graz has to offer. Because it is off the beaten path, so to speak, there were not crushing numbers of tourists in Graz. We found this a welcome respite from Venice, Dubrovnik, Athens and even Salzburg.

Graz has an airport served by short-haul flights, a major train station and is accessible via autobahns A-2 and A-9 (if you're only visiting by car for the day, park close to the train station; it's not the cheapest parking in town but there's plenty of it and it's very convenient). While you're there, take advantage of their excellent public transportation network to get around. A 24-hour pass is €5.30 while a three-day ticket is €12.40. Graz is also bicycle-friendly. Knowledge of basic German helps, of course, but we found that a decent number of people that we came across in Graz spoke English.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The unsung success story of rail transport in the United States

A common lament among Americans who have traveled to places like Europe or Japan is that the United States does not have a rail system on par with what exists in those parts of the world. But they're missing part of the story. The United States actually has one of the best rail systems in the world... for moving freight.
Often there is the perception that the U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to rail, but in many cases that is not true. The country has, arguably, the best freight rail system in the world, which is owned, operated, and financed by private companies. Passenger service in specific corridors is comparable with the European counterparts: for example, in the Northeast. On long-distance routes and in less densely populated areas, however, there are often empty seats on Amtrak trains.
The primary difference between Europe and North America could be summarized like this: In America there is a freight rail system with some passenger, while in Europe there is a passenger rail system with some freight—the emphasis is different.
A further difference is that the rail network is private in the U.S. and operated to yield a profit, while in most other countries the rail infrastructure is owned by the government (similar to the freeway system in the U.S.) and heavily subsidized.
A given rail network can either move passengers well or move freight well, but it doesn't do a good job moving both well. This is why Amtrak's cross-country lines are so slow and erratic: they are running on systems designed to move freight, not people.
Running passenger and freight trains on the same lines is possible but poses many challenges, as the characteristics of the two train types are very different; freight trains tend to be long, heavy, and comparatively slow, while passenger trains are short, fast, and comparatively light. If there are not too many trains on a line, this mixed traffic can be managed, but if there are a lot of trains, then separate infrastructure is the way forward.

When journey times are less than four hours, people usually prefer to travel by train instead of alternative options, such as air or road. For many corridors in the U.S. it would be necessary to upgrade existing lines or to build new infrastructure to achieve competitive journey times.
This is why suggestions that involve increased passenger service on existing Class I freight railroad networks (i.e. those operated by Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, CSX and KCS), such as increasing frequency of Amtrak services or implementing new commuter rail service, are typically non-starters. They are in the business of moving freight, not people, and their networks and capacities are designed to move the former at the expense of the latter.

As the article notes, rail is an extremely efficient mode of transportation, for people as well as freight; a freight railroad can, on average, move a ton of freight for the equivalent of almost 480 miles per gallon of fuel, which is a level of efficiency that semi trucks can't touch. The US rail system excels at moving freight and should be recognized as such.

Passenger rail could be similarly effective and efficient, especially in the too-far-to-drive, too-short-to-fly "sweet spot." But it will require completely new -and costly - infrastructure to do so. Kinda like what some folks are trying to do here in Texas.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

AAF folds before season even ends

I had no delusions of the league surviving long-term, but I truly didn't expect for it to end this soon:
The Alliance of American Football League is suspending football operations as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to a person familiar with majority investor Tom Dundon’s plans. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the development. 
Pro Football Talk and The Action Network were the first to report the news. 
The AAF was entering Week 9 of the 10-week regular season. 
"I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football," AAF co-founder Bill Polian said in a statement Tuesday, according to ESPN. "When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. 
"The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity."
Too bad. I was enjoying following the former UH players who were playing for the San Antonio Commanders, and Corinne and I even talked about making a trip over to the Alamodome to watch a game.

So what happened for the league to get shuttered before it could play a full season? The Sporting News places the blame for the league's demise squarely at Dundon's feet:
It is worth noting that the apparent collapse of the AAF is not related to TV ratings. Action Network's Darren Rovell reported the league’s TV ratings were "respectable" through its inaugural season despite a significant drop-off after its opening weekend. Instead, the collapse appears to be tied directly to Dundon. 
The owner of the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, Dundon committed $250 million to the AAF in February, an investment that reportedly kept the league afloat. He became the controlling owner of the league at that point, something Ebersol and Polian might now regret. 
Days before the AAF suspended football operations, Dundon told USA Today he needed cooperation from the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) in order to feed current NFL players into the league and, therefore, maintain the AAF's viability — in Dundon's mind, at least. 
"If the players' union is not going to give us young players, we can't be a development league," Dundon said.
The NFLPA, citing its collective bargaining agreement with the NFL and the overall safety of its players as reasons, declined to enter into such an arrangement, so Dundon pulled the plug.
Rovell reported Dundon had been funding the AAF on “a week-to-week basis," and that as of Tuesday, he had invested $70 million of the $250 million he committed to the league. 
Which begs yet another question, and one to which even those in the AAF reportedly can't fathom an answer: Why would Dundon waste $70 million and pull the plug on the league over a silly stare-down with the NFLPA? 
According to Pro Football Talk, which cited a source, "Dundon signed on to kick the tires. Once he realized how expensive it was to own and operate a sports league, he initially tried to cut costs. But that resulted in a cutting of functionality. He then pinned the league’s future to a deal with the NFL for permission to borrow its bottom-of-roster players."
Previously, Albert Breer of The MMQB had offered a possible explanation for Dundon's actions: "Perception inside the AAF is that Dundon bought a majority stake in the league simply for the gambling app being developed."
As its primary owner and investor, Dundon is within his rights to pull the plug on the league. However, killing the league before its even had a chance to crown a champion, and leaving in the lurch all the players, coaches, trainers, front office staff and everyone else who committed themselves to the new league, is truly a dick move on his part.

Assuming that no deep-pocketed benefactor swoops in to salvage the league's inaugural season (spoiler alert: they won't), the AAF joins a long list of failed start-up football leagues. However, spring football aficionados should not despair; the second iteration of the XFL is still, as of the time of this writing, expected to kick off in the spring of 2020; it will now be able to do so without competition*. Perhaps the XFL could learn from the AAF's experience if it wants to survive, even if history says it won't.

ESPN's story is hereCBS Sports has more on what went wrong and what happens next. Deadspin tells the stories of players who have been left "high and dry" by the league's sudden collapse. Sports Illustrated takes stock of some AAF players that could get another shot at the NFL. SB Nation surveys the league's rise and fall - "Nobody is better off for the AAF dying, and it’s all a shame" - and offers more lessons for the XFL.

*XFL owner Vince McMahon's was reportedly approached with an offer to buy the AAF, which he declined. That being said, the XFL's buying some of the AAF's better assets - The San Antonio Commanders led the league in attendance (27,721 fans/game) when the league folded, and Steve Spurrier's Orlando Apollos were clearly its strongest on-field organization - and unveiling a ten, rather than eight, team XFL next spring wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.

Good monarch news

As somebody who has dedicated considerable space in this blog sounding the alarm on behalf of the State Insect of Texas (see here, here, here and here), I'm pleased to report that the monarch butterfly population appears to be on the rebound:
After an upward trend in monarch butterfly populations, Texas experts are expecting a massive surge in the flying insects through Texas this season. 
This year is different, according to Craig Wilson, director of the USDA Future Scientists Program and Texas A&M research associate. This year, there has been a 144 percent increase in breeding population among monarchs compared to previous years. 
That means there are nearly 300 million butterflies in northern Mexico that make will make the annual journey north during this summer, according to Texas A&M Today. For several years, the number of butterflies breeding had been on the decline, Wilson said. 
"Figures show the highest number of hectares covered since at least 2006," Wilson said, adding that monarchs' numbers are measured in hectares. "That's a really positive sign, especially since their numbers have been down in recent years."
The yearly overwintering area graph produced by Monarch Watch shows this dramatic improvement:
Before butterfly lovers celebrate too much, it should be recognized that one good year does not guarantee that monarch populations will remain stable long-term, and that our fluttery orange and black friend still faces threats:
While the population that winters in Mexico saw an increase last year, another population that migrates to California almost vanished. 
One good year for the Midwestern migratory monarchs also doesn't mean the factors that contributed to their decline — like habitat destruction — have improved. 
"We have to face the facts that climate is changing," says Taylor. "This whole migration is in jeopardy given the loss of milkweed and the fact that climate is changing in an unfavorable way to sustain this population."
I've said it before and I'll say it again: plant that milkweed, folks. (And be sure to use native varieties, as non-native varieties could become harmful to the monarch butterfly population.)

A great UH basketball season comes to an end

The Cougars made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 35 years but, alas, could advance no further:
One of the best seasons in University of Houston history came down to the wire Friday night. 
After rallying from a 13-point deficit, the Cougars held the lead in the final minute only to have one of the best seasons in program history come to an end with a 62-58 loss to second-seeded Kentucky in a Midwest Region semifinal before an announced crowd of 17,385 at Sprint Center. 
Kentucky (30-6) will play fifth-seeded Auburn – a 97-80 winner over top-seeded North Carolina – on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
In spite of the loss, it was still an excellent season for the Coogs. They had one of the best seasons in program history, notching a 33-4 record and winning winning the American Athletic Conference regular season title. The Cougars also enjoyed multiple sellouts at their impressively-renovated arena. They made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama era of the early 1980s. In the Big Dance, they met the expectations of their seeding by making it to the Sweet Sixteen and came ever so close to advancing even further. People, both locally and nationally, actually care about UH basketball again. It's a far cry from just a few years ago, when the program wallowed in mediocrity, obscurity and apathy.

Going into the second weekend of the tournament, there were rumblings that the guy responsible for the resurgence of UH basketball - head coach Kelvin Sampson - may be lured away to another school, such as Arkansas. Fortunately, the (admittedly legitimate) jitters of the UH faithful were eased today as he signed a six year, $18-million contract extension which will hopefully keep him in Houston for the rest of his career; it also designates his son, Kellen, as "head coach in waiting." Jeff Balke explains why this is good for the program:
All indications are that Sampson is beloved by his players and a fine recruiter of talent. With a new building and a new contract, never mind the high profile stage of March Madness, there is reason for hope for UH fans. Given his age (63), he won't catch Lewis, but he's already the second best coach in UH history. Get a title for the Coogs and he'll have done something no one, not even Lewis and Phi Slama Jama, could muster. For now, it looks like he'll have a few more years to make it happen.
Ryan Monceaux agrees, and provides some insight into the work that Sampson has had to accomplish to bring the program back to national - let alone local - relevance:
When he was hired, Sampson knew the UH program was struggling but even he now acknowledges that it had fallen further than he had imagined. The players were soft and weren’t interested in the intense, no-nonsense new coach. Only 5 players stayed from Dickey’s last team but that wasn’t his main problem. 
“This was the hardest resuscitation (of my career) because of the facilities and the apathy,” Sampson said. 
Looking back, the situation was much worse than it seemed at the time: a few hundred fans would show up 16-18 times a year in one of the worst arenas in the country. Because of the program’s decades-long erosion, it was difficult for hardcore fans to realize how abnormal the situation had become. 
In Sampson’s first year, the announced average attendance (2,635) was the lowest in school history. Those were the tickets accounted for – including students – which is a wildly inflated number. Most nights, you could count the total attendance during a 30-second timeout.
To be sure, long-overdue physical investments in the program - the new basketball practice facility and the complete renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion into the Fertitta Center - helped tremendously. But facilities can only go so far; a program also needs a guy who can recruit talent and coach it to success. Kelvin Sampson is that guy, and the University of Houston is doing the right thing by making sure he continues to lead the program for years to come.
In 5 years with Sampson at the helm, the results speak for themselves. A program once left for dead boasts an incredible practice facility, a sparkling new arena, an AAC regular season title, and 3 NCAA Tournament wins in the last two seasons. It also has its savior for 6 more years. 
Cougar basketball is back.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Swamplot calls it quits

Well, this certainly sucks:
AS OF TODAY this site’s daily publishing schedule is coming to a halt. Swamplot has been covering Houston’s real estate landscape for 12 years. That’s longer than the runs of most successful teevee sitcoms, all but one U.S. presidency, and a lot of great Houston restaurants. It’s been long enough to cover 3 hurricanes, several boom-and-bust cycles, a half-dozen or so 100-year floods, and the rise and fall of Tuscanization. More than a few high-school freshmen when Swamplot started in 2007 are now armed with PhDs and ready to launch their careers. It’s time for us to move on as well.
I am especially saddened by this news. Given my profession as well as my overall interests, Swamplot has been a mandatory daily read of mine for many years now.

Swamplot was more than just a local real estate website. To be sure, it covered construction and demolition, purchasing and leasing transactions, office relocations, the latest plans from developers, and everything else a straight real estate tracking blog would be expected to cover. But the site went well beyond that, also covering topics such as local politics, transportation, flood control, urban design, the arts, architectural trends, restaurant and bar openings and closings, national trends, and so much more.

Swamplot, furthermore, was more than just a blog: it was an online community. Unlike most websites these days, its comments section actually had a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio, featuring a lot of informed local and professional input and a relatively low amount of uninformed and disruptive trolling. The "Comment of the Day" was even a regular feature on the blog, wherein a particularly salient comment on a previous post was featured as its own post in order to generate further discussion. The exchange of information and ideas the website fomented was refreshing and critical, especially given the rapidly-evolving context of the ever-growing Houston region.

While other local architecture and urbanism forums, such as HAIFOffcite, or The Kinder Institute, might be able to pick up the slack somewhat, Swamplot was truly one-of-a-kind. There is nothing that is going to replace it.

I understand that blogs come and go; that's just the way things are in the internet universe. But the entire Houston region is going to be poorer for the closure of Swamplot.

Culturemap has more.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Houston Cougar Football: the coaching change and the 2019 schedule

Earlier this month the 2019 University of Houston Cougar football schedule was announced. I haven't gotten around to writing about it - or for that matter the coaching change that occurred over the new year - until now because I've been kinda busy, and quite frankly the minds of UH faithful are elsewhere right now anyway.

So without further delay:

     Sat Aug 31     at Oklahoma
     Sat Sep 07     Prairie View A&M
     Fri Sep 13     Washington State (NRG Stadium)
     Thu Sep 19     at Tulane
     Sat Sep 28     at North Texas
     Sat Oct 05     (off)
     Sat Oct 12     Cincinnati
     Sat Oct 19     at Connecticut
     Thu Oct 24     SMU
     Sat Nov 02     at Central Florida
     Sat Nov 09     (off)
     Sat Nov 16     Memphis
     Sat Nov 23     at Tulsa
     Sat Nov 30     Navy

I can't say it's great. 2019 is going to be a tough slate, with a trip to Oklahoma headlining the out-of-conference schedule and defending AAC champion Central Florida rotating back onto the conference schedule. North Texas on the road and Cincinnati at home won't be easy, either. The relocation of the Washington State game to NRG Stadium for the Advocare Texas Kickoff (on a Friday night, no less!) means that the Coogs will play only five true home games this fall; there are no back-to-back home stands. There are also two Thursday night games (although only one of them is at home). Ryan appears to be as unenthused about the schedule as I am.

On the other hand, the Cougars get two well-placed bye weeks this season, they get perennial AAC West nemeses Memphis and SMU at home, and they only have one instance of back-to-back road games. I'm plan to make that two-game roadie with them, as I travel to Tulane for the Thursday night game (and make it a four-day weekend in New Orleans!), and then go up to my former home/employer of Denton to watch them play the Mean Green the following weekend.

Now, on to the new coach who will lead the Coogs through that schedule this fall: Dana Holgerson, who previously served as offensive coordinator here at Houston before going to West Virginia and who is also apparently famous for his second half adjustments.

Before I do so, however, I just want to say one final time that I liked Major Applewhite and I truly wanted him to succeed here. I also understand that there are legitimate criticisms* to be made regarding his dismissal: that he didn't deserve to be fired after a winning season, that the late season collapse was due to factors largely out of his control (i.e. injuries), that he should have been given a third year (as coaches customarily are given) to prove himself. I certainly did not celebrate news of his firing.

And honestly, Applewhite's job was probably safe at the end of the regular season. He set about correcting his season's biggest problem by firing his incompetent defensive coordinator, and worked on putting together a serviceable recruiting class. There was nothing to indicate that he wasn't going to be head coach in 2019, even if he'd be going into the season on the hot seat.

The bowl game, however, changed everything. The Coogs' pathetic and embarrassing performance against Army could not have been excused by injuries alone. The Cougars were utterly unprepared and uninspired; they allowed themselves to be humiliated by a service academy running the triple option. That epic loss, along with the subsequent departure of offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to Florida State**, forced the hand of the UH Athletics Director Chris Pezman and the rest of the administration. Applewhite might have been trying his best, but his best just wouldn't do. His mediocre record spoke for itself, and if he remained at the helm of the program TDECU Stadium was going to be empty in 2019. UH football needed to move in a new direction.***

That new direction occurred thanks to Tilman Fertitta. His money, his personal relationship with Holgerson, and his desire to make the Cougars nationally competitive again, as ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr explains:
The Houston Rockets owner has a lot of titles: CEO of Landry's Inc., a Texas-based restaurant and entertainment company; owner of Golden Nugget Casinos; star of "Billion Dollar Buyer," a CNBC reality TV show, among them. But for UH, it's his role as the school's board of regents chairman and benefactor that is most impactful. And his role in landing Holgorsen was invaluable.
"I've probably known Dana for 10 years," Fertitta said. "I've had cocktails with him many times."
He, too, knew Holgorsen had a desire to return south ("Always, in conversations, he would tell me he missed Houston," Fertitta said). When Herman left in 2016, UH considered Holgorsen, but Fertitta had intermediaries reach out.
This time around, he made a personal call to Holgorsen, and it made a difference.
"They've got a relationship, and that helps, because what it does, at this point, it eliminates the bulls---," Pezman said. "'This is real, this is happening and I'm helping make it happen.'"
When [new Texas State head coach Jake] Spavital told Pezman what he knew about Holgorsen's situation at West Virginia, Pezman relayed that information to Fertitta. Sources told ESPN that Holgorsen had come to a stalemate in negotiations with the school over a contract extension. The point of contention was Holgorsen's desire for additional guaranteed years on his contract and a larger buyout. West Virginia, having just given him a five-year extension following 2016, wasn't willing to meet all of Holgorsen's demands. 
Fertitta, who's worth $4.6 billion, according to Forbes (which also calls him "the world's richest restaurateur"), aimed to find out what it would take, financially, to lure Holgorsen. 
After the Cougars were embarrassed on national television by Army and the school's power brokers reflected on the state of the program, they decided the sizable investment it would take to make a change and land a sitting Big 12 coach was worth the risk.
The result was a five-year, $20 million deal, making him the highest-paid coach in the Group of 5.
Holgorsen's average salary puts him in the top 25 nationally among head coaches. His salary pool for assistant coaches ($4.5 million) is by far the highest in the Group of 5, higher than numerous Power 5 programs, and more than double what Applewhite's staff made ($2.14 million, according to USA Today). The school gave him the extra years he desired and a favorable buyout if he's fired without cause. But the buyout if he chooses to leave is also high in the first three years. 
"We are stuck with him for a few years and he's stuck with us for a few years," Fertitta said. "Hopefully he's here for the next 20 years and we build a statue of him."
Holgerson's decision to leave West Virginia for Houston raised several eyebrows, but it actually made sense for a lot of reasons. Aside from the aforementioned salary negotiations, Holgerson faced challenges at West Virginia, a school that is not located in prime football recruiting country and is a geographic outlier in its own conference - that he won't face in Houston. Back to Sam Khan, Jr:
Even though he moved on to Oklahoma State for a year and then to West Virginia, Houston held a special place in his heart. 
"When I left here 10 years ago, I left here with a frown," Holgorsen said. "Because one, I was going to Oklahoma, but two, I love this city and this university so much. Obviously, things worked out OK, but I always came back. I came back two, three, four, five times a year and enjoyed what this wonderful city has to offer." 
He stayed in touch with numerous friends in the city even though he was 1,300 miles away. He even did a weekly radio show appearance every fall, despite the fact that West Virginia football isn't a hot topic in southeast Texas.
"I thought all the time that he was gone that he always wanted to be back here," said John Granato, a local sports radio host and longtime friend of Holgorsen's. "Ever since I've known him, every chance he could, he's come back to Houston." 
Houston offers something that Morgantown -- or most college towns, where the school is the highest-profile part of the place -- doesn't: a chance to blend in. Holgorsen won't be the most recognizable face in town when he's out socially; James Harden and J.J. Watt have higher Q ratings among the local sports figures. There are more than 6 million people in the city's metro area.
(Seriously, just take a few minutes to read the entire ESPN story.)

Reaction to Holgerson's hire has generally been positive. Ryan is excited about the "competence and gravitas" that Holgerson brings to UH, Sportsmap's Fred Faour says there "are no negatives" to this hire, Paper City's Chris Baldwin praises Fertitta's boldness, and Sports Illustrated's Joan Neisen thinks that Holgerson "might be the missing piece" to a potential run at the College Football Playoff for the Coogs. Even Bleacher Report is putting the Coogs into their preseason top 25 on account of Holgerson's hire.

I'm not willing to go that far yet. Not even the best coaches in the world are going to fill the major gaps in talent and depth that the Coogs exhibited last season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. D'Eriq King's knee is a concern, and as of right now the Coogs lack a capable backup quarterback. Ed Oliver is just one of many talented players who will not be returning this fall. And the schedule is, as I said at the beginning of this post, not great.

I'm not expecting Holgerson to work a miracle this fall, but I do expect to see the team improve as the season progresses, I expect to see an exciting offense, and I expect to see the Coogs, at the very least, beat the teams they're supposed to beat. That means no more losses to Tulsa, Tulane or SMU teams with losing records. And no more historic beatdowns at the hands of a service academy running the triple option.

Football season is still (as of this weekend, exactly) half a year away, and I'll work on my customary season preview as kickoff approaches. Now, back to UH basketball...

* The key word here being legitimate. When Applewhite's firing was announced, a hack sportswriter by the name of Pete Thamel (formerly with Sports Illustrated, now with Yahoo! Sports - heckuva career trajectory there, Pete!) wrote a venomous screed denouncing the entire UH administration for firing him. I'm not going to link to his moronic, libelous drivel; however, if you must, you can click through to it as you read Ryan's or John Granato's responses to it.

** Right after he had just signed a contract extension with Houston, proving that Kendal is an unethical piece of trash, just like his father. It will be fun watching him fail at Florida State.

***Applewhite is moving on to Alabama to be an analyst for Nick Saban's program. He'll be fine; he just wasn't ready to be a head coach.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A word about UH basketball

I rarely write about UH basketball, but I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that they are kicking ass right now. They currently have a 25-1 record, they are ranked in the AP top ten for the first time since the 1984 Phi Slama Jama team, and they are a consensus three seed, and could even get up to a two seed, when the NCAA tournament starts in a few weeks. I've even attended a few games at the magnificently-renovated Fertitta Center this season:


As somebody who has whose childhood memories of the glory of days of UH basketball slowly recede further into memory, this is all a bit surreal. I am enjoying every moment of it. 

And yet... I don't want to enjoy it too much. The Cougars still have several tough games to play, including their conference tournament, and nothing is guaranteed for them in terms of seeding. Furthermore, I don't want the Cougars to be the victims of any spectacular upset that the Big Dance is known for: this team should make it to the Sweet Sixteen and could make it to the Elite Eight or (dare I say it?) even the Final Four, but I don't want to jinx them or get my hopes up too much.

What I will say, however, is that after over three decades, UH basketball is exciting to watch again, and moroever is once again relevant at the national level. A lot of credit goes to coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff for making this happen; he has all the gratitude from a long-suffering UH basketball fanbase.

Airbus axes the A380

Last week, Airbus announced the end of the line for its iconic double-deckered jumbo jet:
European plane manufacturer Airbus said Thursday it will stop making its superjumbo A380 in 2021 for lack of customers, abandoning the world’s biggest passenger jet and one of the aviation industry’s most ambitious and most troubled endeavors. 
Barely a decade after the 500-plus-seat plane started carrying passengers, Airbus said in a statement that key client Emirates is cutting back its orders for the plane, and as a result, “we have no substantial A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production.” 
The decision could hurt up to 3,500 jobs and already cost the plane maker 463 million euros (about $523 million) in losses in 2018, Airbus said. 
This isn't much of surprise, considering that the A380 program had been on the chopping block a year ago before being thrown a lifeline by Emirates. I was skeptical at the time that the A380 would ultimately survive, and I was right.

Ben Mutzabaugh explains that the A380 program failed because "it never found a profitable niche:"
While the A380 can carry more passengers than any other commercial passenger plane, the four-engine aircraft also is more expensive to operate compared to modern two-engine jets. For example, Boeing's two-engine 777 models are cheaper to operate and can seat nearly 400 passengers.  
The A380 also required some airports to modify taxiways and airport terminals to be able to accommodate the giant jet. 
Even Boeing's iconic humped 747, its closest in capacity to the A380, has seen sales decline as passenger airlines increasingly prefer two-engine models that are less costly to operate. 
"The very clear trend in the market is to operate long-haul aircraft with two engines [such as] Boeing's 787 and 777, and Airbus's A330 and A350," Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of Flight Global, says to the BBC.
The A380 began flying for airlines just in 2007, when Singapore Airlines put the jet into passenger service.
Dubai-based carrier Emirates was an enthusiastic supporter of the jet, ordering nearly half of all the roughly 270 A380s Airbus is expected to have made before the line ends.
Beyond Emirates, however, the A380 never found the broad customer base Airbus envisioned.
No U.S. carriers ever gave serious consideration to ordering the jet. About a dozen other global airlines bought the jet, including Air France, British Airways, Korean Air, Lufthansa and Qantas, among others. But, aside from Emirates, the A380 was just a niche player in the fleets of most airlines to fly it.
The end of the A380 serves as a bookend to my series regarding the twilight of four-engined passenger jets. As majestic and exciting as these aircraft might be, there's simply no market for them anymore. Two-engined widebodies simply offer more flexibility and efficiency.

If you haven't yet flown on an A380, however, don't despair: the ones now flying and still on order will likely continue to fly well into the 2020s and perhaps even beyond.

Update: Josh Barro provides an excellent explainer about the economics behind the demise of the A380 program.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Former Cougars represent as the Alliance of American Football kicks off

The state's newest professional football team started their existence with a win on Saturday, thanks in part to some famous former Cougars:
The San Antonio Commanders defeated the San Diego Fleet, 15-6, on Saturday at the Alamodome to win the franchise's first game in the Alliance of American Football. 
And although the game was played about 200 miles away, the win had plenty of Houston flavor. 
Former University of Houston players Kenneth Farrow and Greg Ward Jr. made big impacts in the inaugural win. 
Farrow, a former UH running back, scored the first touchdown in Commanders history. His 3-yard rush in the first quarter gave San Antonio a 12-6 lead and was the only touchdown of the game. 
Ward, a renowned quarterback during his days with the Cougars, made his presence felt at wide receiver. He finished the game with five catches for 65 yards.
In addition to Farrow and Ward, former UH WR Demarcus Ayers and DL Joey Mbu also play for the Commanders.

The Alliance of American Football is an eight-team league trying to make a go of spring football where other leagues (the USFL, the XFL, and even the NFL-backed WLAF/NFL Europe) failed. The league is arranged such that teams are assigned players from nearby colleges, which is why San Antonio has so many former UH players on their teams. It also features some tweaks to the rules of the game, to wit:
No extra points.Teams have to go for two. There are no kickoffs, either, and teams will instead get possession on their own 25-yard line. Kickers are barely involved. Speaking of which...
Onside kicks are replaced by one fourth-and-12 play on the team’s own 28-yard line.This is a terrific idea that I endorse wholeheartedly. 

Overtime is kind of similar to the college system.Except each team gets the ball on the 10-yard line, and they aren’t allowed to kick field goals.
 
The play clock is 35 seconds instead of 40 seconds.There will also be no TV timeouts. The aim is to keep games under two-and-a-half hours. 
There will be a “sky judge.” (This is not a euphemism for God.)The officiating crew includes a ninth referee who sits in the booth and constantly reviews game action. The sky judge has the power to make calls or overturn penalties in case the on-field officials miss them. This is perhaps the AAF’s most intriguing wrinkle. Assuming it works as intended, it seems like it could be a common-sense solution to some of the NFL’s most glaring officiating issues. New Orleans would have certainly appreciated the presence of a sky judge during the NFC Championship game.
The AAF also argues that it has tapped into a broad array of football talent and experience that will allow it to succeed where previous spring football leagues have failed.
The cast of decorated and respected industry veterans involved in this venture is robust, beginning with AAF co-founder and CEO Charlie Ebersol (whose father, Dick, is a former chairman of NBC Sports) and co-founder Bill Polian, a six-time NFL Executive of the Year. 
Pittsburgh Steelers legends Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu are heads of football development and player relations, respectively. Mike Singletary (Memphis), Steve Spurrier (Orlando) and Mike Martz (San Diego) are among the league’s head coaches. Three-time Super Bowl champion Daryl "Moose" Johnston is general manager of the San Antonio Commanders. 
And the first season will begin with plenty of name recognition filling out each teams’ roster (including former Heisman winner Trent Richardson, ex-Titans starter Zach Mettenberger, and Aaron Murray, who threw more touchdown passes at Georgia than anyone in SEC history). 
Mike Perreira and Dean Blandino are listed as officiating consultants. Shaquille O'Neal, former Minnesota Vikings pro bowler Jared Allen and The Chernin Group (which owns Barstool Sports) are among the known investors.  
The AAF has also gone out of its way to identify one critical difference between itself and other leagues like it that have failed to last very long: It's not interested in competing with the NFL.  
"Our whole goal is just to be complementary (to the NFL)," Ward told CBS Sports last year.
The league has television contracts with CBS, CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network and TNT. In fact, last Saturday night's games on CBS actually got better ratings than an NBA game on ABC. That could be a good omen for the upstart league, although it's also worth remembering that the original XFL had good ratings in its debut weekend as well, and we know how that turned out. I'm also noticing that the AAF is placing a lot of focus on smaller, "second-tier" football markets such as San Antonio, Memphis, Birmingham, Orlando, and Salt Lake City, which seemed to be a losing strategy for the USFL, the WLAF, and the XFL.

And speaking of the XFL: if the AAF does make it through its first season and returns in 2020, it will be competing head-to-head with the second iteration of the XFL (which is expected to place a team here in Houston). This is where things will get very interesting, because it's difficult to assume that there will be enough quality players (or eyeballs) to sustain two spring football leagues. How long will this situation last before one or both leagues fail (or perhaps merge)? And if one or both leagues do succeed, what might it mean for the NFL and for college football?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I will continue to follow the San Antonio Commanders this spring, because I enjoy football and because I want to see folks like Ken Farrow and Greg Ward Jr. do well and perhaps find their way back into the NFL. I'm also looking forward to Houston's XFL 2.0 team next season, and will probably attend some games.

I'm skeptical that either league will succeed long-term. But I hope to be proven wrong.