Sunday, June 13, 2021

Is United bringing back supersonic flight?

Maybe, but I won't believe it until it happens:

United Airlines has announced it will purchase up to 50 Boom Overture supersonic jets for commercial use by 2029, heralding the return of supersonic passenger flights nearly 20 years after the Concorde was decommissioned.

Supersonic planes halve the time it takes to fly from New York to London, from seven hours down to 3.5 hours, but such airliners were abandoned following Concorde's final flight in 2003. Concorde had become financially unworkable after a high-profile crash in 2000, combined with excessive ticket prices, high fuel consumption, and increasingly high maintenance costs.

If Boom's supersonic aircraft (pictured above) is to succeed, it will depend on overcoming these issues that derailed Concorde. So can it be done?

While it is intriguing to see a major airline like United give support to the idea of supersonic flight through this purchase order,   right now it amounts to little more than a publicity stunt. A lot has to happen between now and 2029 for these airplanes to begin carrying passengers. While Boom has built a prototype aircraft and expects to begin testing it this year, there's a lot of work yet to be done if this effort is to succeed where the Concorde failed.

The Concorde's demise was the result of a variety of factors; among them, the the noise it created (e.g. screaming afterburners and sonic booms), the vast amounts of fuel it burned, and (most importantly) its cost. While technology has advanced since the Concorde's time such that these factors might be mitigated, supersonic flight is still unlikely to be cheap:

Boom will be optimistic that it can overcome fuel efficiency challenges by the time its aircraft begins carrying fare-paying passengers in 2029. Those fares look set to be high, with Boom anticipating a £3,500 ($4,930) price tag per seat. In 1996, British Airways charged around £5,350 -- £8,800 in today's prices -- for round-trip tickets from New York to London.

This means that, like Concorde before it, the Boom Overture looks aimed at the luxury market -- beyond the reach of even business class passengers. It is likely to be frequented only by those who currently travel via private jet, who may be enticed by Boom's claims to be a sustainable aircraft manufacturer.

Therein lies the biggest obstacle for supersonic flight: the market for this type of service is extremely limited. Generally speaking, people don’t really want to pay that much just to save some time on their flight. This is especially true nowadays, considering all the amenities a private jet or luxury class seat currently provides - lie-flat seats, in-flight wifi - that make the "time" factor less onerous than it was in the Concorde's day. 

In order for this service to be successful, Boom and United are not just going to have to overcome the technical challenges that doomed the original Concorde; they're also going to have to make the case to an extremely small and wealthy set of people that the time savings provided by these airplanes is worth it.

Ben at OMMAT is also intrigued, but also skeptical.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The USFL plans to return in 2022

We've reached peak '80s nostalgia, folks:
The USFL is relaunching in 2022, four decades after the spring football league's short-lived run that featured such stars as Reggie White, Herschel Walker, Steve Young and Jim Kelly, as well as future President Donald Trump as an owner.

The new USFL announced Thursday that it will play next spring with a minimum of eight teams and will "deliver high-quality, innovative professional football to fans."

Although the teams, cities, head coaches and schedule won't be announced until later, the league said it retains the rights to "key original team names." The USFL also is using the same red, white and blue stars-and-stripes logo it did from 1983 to 1985.
Before you go rummaging through your attic for that four-decade old Houston Gamblers or Chicago Blitz t-shirt, however, be aware that this may be little more than an attempt to re-brand The Spring League, a developmental league that doesn't even pay its players. In other words, don't expect to see it go head-to-head with the NFL for top football talent, like the original USFL did. 
"I'm extremely passionate about football and the opportunity to work with Fox Sports, and to bring back the USFL in 2022 was an endeavor worth pursuing," said Brian Woods, co-founder of the new USFL and founder and CEO of The Spring League. "We look forward to providing players a new opportunity to compete in a professional football league and giving fans everywhere the best football viewing product possible during what is typically a period devoid of professional football."
But wait... Isn't another star-crossed spring football league supposed to be returning in the spring of 2022 as well?
The USFL's return could result in two pro leagues playing football in the spring. The XFL has been targeting a 2022 resumption of play after owners Dany Garcia, Dwayne Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners purchased the league out of bankruptcy in 2020. Planning for the XFL's 2022 season has been on pause since March, when it entered into negotiations regarding a collaboration with the Canadian Football League.
Spring football has a poor track record as it is, so the chances of two leagues being able to thrive simultaneously are nil. However, the longer we go without hearing anything from the XFL regarding a 2022 season, the less likely it is to happen. The Spring League, on the other hand, is already established and is currently playing its 2021 season (although you probably didn't even know it existed). It's easier to rebrand an existing league than it is to start a new one. 

Even though there are still a lot of details left to be worked out, at least the new USFL knows what doesn't work:
The USFL was launched in 1983 but crumbled after three seasons because of out-of-control spending and an ill-conceived push led by Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, to compete directly against the NFL with a fall season.
Yep... Donald Trump was just as clueless at owning a football team as he was at owning airlines, owning casinos, owning universities, or being President. 

Fox Sports, which currently broadcasts The Spring League and which has a minority equity stake in the USFL reboot, will be the league's official broadcast partner.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Former banker is Ecuador's next president

This was a bit of a surprise:

A conservative businessman has unexpectedly won Ecuador’s presidential election as voters rejected the leftist movement started by the former president Rafael Correa more than a decade ago.

Preliminary results showed that Guillermo Lasso took 52% of the vote in the runoff following a campaign that pitted free-market economics against the social welfare plans of Andrés Arauz, an economist.

“We will work together from now on for true change,” Lasso wrote on Twitter. “Today we woke up in peace and with the certainty that better days are coming for everyone.”

This outcome is surprising because Lasso barely even made it into the second round of voting. He carried only two of Ecuador's 24 provinces in the first round of voting and edged out third-place finisher Yaku Peréz of the left-indigenous Pachakitik party by only 0.36%. Lasso surged in the second round of voting, held two Sundays ago, to win 18 provinces and the presidency.

Ecuador's incumbent President, Lenin Moreno, did not seek re-election.

Lasso's election represents a significant shift from the leftist administrations that have governed the small yet beautiful Andean nation over the past fourteen years, and may have been a function of voters' dissatisfaction over the excesses of those administrations as well as the way the country has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Foreign Policy's Will Freeman explains

More than just a competition between two candidates, the polarizing election became a referendum on Ecuador’s recent past. Arauz ran as the handpicked successor of the populist former leader (Rafael) Correa and promised to return Ecuador to the era of Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution”: a period from 2007 to 2017 marked by high growth and the emergence of a new middle class, but also by repression and censorship of Correa’s civil society critics.

The vote shows that nearly four years after Correa left office, distrust of his brand of authoritarian populism still runs deep among a broad cross-section of the population. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic twice pushed Ecuador’s health system to the brink of collapse and plunged 3.2 million additional Ecuadorians into poverty, a plurality of voters preferred an untested alternative over a return to the past.

However, Lasso faces a formidable task in negotiating Ecuador's political divisions and governing effectively: 

Disillusion with democratic institutions is running high, and Lasso will take office as an isolated president with a weak mandate, given the balance of parties in the recently elected legislature. The top three left-wing parties and coalitions hold almost 70 percent of the seats. That means he will face a much bigger challenge in governing than in winning a plurality of votes: He will need to convince his opponents that even when they lose, it’s still worth playing by democratic rules of the game.

This is important to note, because the "democratic rules of the game" have not been historically well-followed in Ecuador.  Since the 1940s, the country has enjoyed only three relatively short periods of democratic stability, where presidents were allowed to serve out their terms (unless they died in mysterious plane crashes) and the transfer of power between elected governments was peaceful: 1948 to 1961, 1979 to 1997, and 2007 to the present (the country's most recent presidential ouster occurring in 2005). 

(Lasso) will find scarce legislative support in Ecuador’s newly elected National Assembly, where his Creating Opportunities party and its ally, the Social Christian Party, control just a fifth of the seats. Even among parties on the left, there is much division. The largest legislative bloc is formed by Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, which remains loyal to Correa’s vision of active state intervention in the economy and staunchly opposed to Lasso’s slate of market reforms. The next two biggest left-wing parties in the legislature—the Pachakutik party, which is committed to environmentalism and Indigenous people’s rights, and the Democratic Left—are in talks to form a united front. The coalition plans to oppose privatization of state enterprises, reform of the Central Bank, and new extractive projects that could cause environmental harm. Pachakutik and the Democratic Left remain bitter toward Correa, who put hundreds of Indigenous leaders and environmentalists on trial during his time in office.

Freeman suggests that Lasso's best course of action may be to work with this center-left front in forming policy, thereby keeping his opposition fractured and Correa's loyalists in the National Assembly at bay.  

However, if Lasso attempts to go it alone or proves unwilling to make substantial policy concessions, he could quickly make friends out of enemies, and all three left-wing parties could find common ground in opposing him in the National Assembly or, more ominously, in the streets. In this worst-case scenario, Ecuador could come full circle to the presidential ousters and economic chaos that plagued the 1990s—an outcome all sides have a stake in avoiding.

The presidential inauguration will be held in Quito on May 24th.

Larry Dee Stevens, 1950-2021

My ex-father-in-law (and my son's grandfather) suddenly passed away at the beginning of the month:

Larry Dee Stevens passed away on Friday, April 2nd, 2021 at the age of 70.  Larry was born on September 8th, 1950 in New Braunfels, TX.  Larry served in the United States Army and fought bravely in the Vietnam War.  He received two Purple Heart medals during his service.  Once he returned home to Texas he began his family with his wife Synthia.  They were married on April 11th, 1970.  Together they brought 4 beautiful children into this world; Lori, Danny, Lorena and Jacob.   

Larry was a pillar of his community for much of his life.  He always tried to help those around him and worked hard until the day he died.  He never met a stranger and worked hard to ensure everyone was happy.  He wore his heart on his sleeve and always made sure those that he loved knew it.  Larry was an avid fisher and hunter and loved to tell a good story.  His pride and joy were his children and grandchildren and he loved to see them grow and accomplish new things.   

Larry is survived by his children, Lori Stevens, Danny Stevens, Lorena deAlejandro & husband Bill deAlejandro, Jacob Stevens & wife Casey Stevens, grandchildren Aiden Stevens, Kirby Gray, Leia deAlejandro, Willow deAlejandro, Griffin deAlejandro, great grandson Gideon deLuna.  He is also survived by his siblings Paul Stevens, Lorena Lightfoot, Linda McNeel, his twin brother Gary Stevens and many nieces, nephews and friends.  He was preceded in death by his parents J.Y. and Bernice Stevens and wife Synthia Stevens.

Larry's funeral service was held one week ago, on Tuesday April 13, in Houston. He was buried on Houston National Cemetery alongside his wife

Although I'm no longer part of his family and I hadn't seen him in years, I will still miss him. 

A small measure of justice

In announcing today's news that Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin had been found guilty of murdering George Floyd, Political Wire's Teagan Goddard made this comment

Remember that George Floyd’s killing was documented on video for more than nine minutes and yet we were still worried that Derek Chauvin might get off.

Which is as sad as it is true: we've seen this movie before.

Today, the ending was different, and a small measure of justice occurred. 

But we still have a long way to go

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

And then there were six...

Final Four appearances for the University of Houston mens basketball team, that is: 1967, 1968, 1982, 1983, 1984, and now 2021:

Kelvin Sampson stood atop a ladder and yanked loose the remnants of the net from the rim. He turned toward the red-clad Houston fans and started pumping his right fist, the net clutched in that hand the entire time.

Years of building a once-proud program back to prominence, of putting together a formula that was about way more than flashy offense — it all led to this breakthrough moment for Sampson and the Cougars.

Yes, Houston is going back to the Final Four for the first time since the famed “Phi Slama Jama” era after Monday night's 67-61 win against Oregon State.

It wasn't easy. The team needed an almost-miraculous comeback against Rutgers just to make it to the Sweet Sixteen, fought past a formidable Syracuse squad, and had to fend off a furious second-half rally from Oregon State to secure their spot in the Final Four. Even then, some in the sports media are discounting the Cougars because of their "historically easy" path to the Final Four, due to the number of upsets in this year's tournament (as if the Coogs have any control over which teams they face in their bracket).

The Cougars, rightfully, are not apologizing for how they got to their first Final Four in 37 years; all that matters is that they're one of the last four teams standing. A lot of UH faithful, myself included, had all but given up any hope of this ever happening again because for so many of those 37 years the once-storied UH basketball program was mired in mediocrity, if not outright irrelevance. Losing seasons piled up during the Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude, and fans stayed away even during the slightly-less-awful Penders-Dickey Era of Mediocrity. The Coogs made the NCAA tournament just once between 1992 and 2018. Fans referred to Hofheinz Pavilion as "The Tomb."

When the University of Houston hired Kelvin Sampson - a move that was controversial at the time due to Sampson being sanctioned by the NCAA - I wondered if he could resurrect the UH basketball program. The answer is a resounding yes. As Richard Justice explains, Sampson saw the potential of this program: 

If some saw the University of Houston as a lost cause, Sampson believed it was a perfect next stop. “I wanted to invest in a program where I could fix something,” he said.  “I needed to rebuild a program. I needed to go somewhere where they needed me.”

Sampson remembers interviewing for the position, and former UH athletics director Mack Rhoades bluntly laying out the sorry state of affairs. UH had been trying for years, without success, to raise money. Without a significant investment in new facilities, there was no clear path to success. “I said, ‘That’s all? We can get that. That can be built. Those things are attainable,’” Sampson said. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mack never told me no after I shared the vision with him.”

While Sampson worked on the product, the University worked on upgrades to the former Hofheinz Pavilion and a new practice facility to the tune of $80 million. The team started winning again. Fans started coming back (or at least they did, pre-COVID). The Coogs won their first NCAA tournament game in 34 years in 2018. In 2019, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen

And now, here we are

As a long-suffering UH alum, I couldn't be happier for the program, the players and the coaches. 

The Cougars face former Southwest Confrence foe Baylor on Saturday for the opportunity to play in the national championship game. Baylor is certainly one of the best teams in the country, so I don't know if the Cougars can go any further than they already have.

But that's okay. As far as I'm concerned, they've already won. They've returned UH basketball to its former glory.

Jeff Balke and Brad Towns share their thoughts.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Is rush hour over?

This NBC News segment from last week is notable for two reasons: first, it features Craig Raborn, the Houston-Galveston Area Council's* new Director of Transportation. Craig takes over as the Director of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization from Alan Clark, who retired last fall after serving as Director for 37 years.

Second, this segment alludes to one "great unknown" of life after the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus has had an obvious effect on traffic, especially during rush hour commutes; but as it ends, and as people resume "normal" activities, will "rush hour" return? Or will people continue to work remotely, rendering rush hour as we know it obsolete?

  

If the pandemic has proven anything, it is that mass telework is possible, and businesses may choose to continue doing it even after the pandemic is over. That would suggest that there may be less rush hour traffic in the future.

On the other hand: after 13 months of working remotely, people might also be ready to get back into the office, to meet with their co-workers face-to-face, to not endure endless awkward Zoom and Teams meetings. If that's the case, then rush hour in late 2021 could be just as bad as it was in 2019. In fact, it could even be worse, if people decide that - even after the pandemic is over - they're not comfortable using carpools, vanpools, public transportation (or any other conveyance where they're in close proximity to other people) to get to work.

Nobody knows for sure what commuting patterns will look like once the pandemic ends. Hopefully we'll know the answer sooner rather than later. 

In the meantime, please get your vaccine once it becomes available to you.

*full disclosure: I am an employee of H-GAC and Craig is my boss's boss's boss.

I. Can. See. The. Bottom.

Here's a comic by The Oatmeal...

                                                                                                                       The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman)




















... And here's Black Cat earlier today, proving that life really does imitate art.



Plenty of cat food still in the bowl. Even lots of food strewn all over the floor (because he's a messy eater). 

But he wants more food. Because he can see the bottom.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Getting in the vaccine line

It's March, meaning that we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Coronavirus pandemic and related social distancing measures that have completely upended our daily lives. Fortunately, with the vaccine rollout now well underway, there is hopefully a light at the end of the tunnel.

My parents got their second shot of the Moderna vaccine last weekend (they were supposed to get it two and a half weeks ago, but there was a delay due to the freeze). That they are now both fully immunized comes as a great relief to me, as COVID could very well be fatal to them were they to catch it (and I'm thankful that they've managed to avoid it for an entire year). 

Corinne's mother, likewise, is due for her second shot in a couple of weeks.

Earlier this evening, working on a tip from one of her co-workers, Corinne found and made vaccine appointments for both her and myself. The appointments are for two weeks from now, and they're down in Brazoria County, but we don't care. We've found our shots! 

(This, incidentally, is the only time being obese will ever be a health benefit for me.)

And not a moment too soon. Thanks to Governor Abbott's stupid and reckless decision today to reopen the state "100 percent" and stop mandating mask use, Texas is likely to see a significant spike in COVID cases - and deaths - in the coming weeks. 

But hey, anything to get people to stop being angry at you about the state's power grid completely collapsing a couple of weeks ago, right, Guv?

2021 Houston Cougar football schedule released

Assuming that the pandemic is over by the time the next football season starts and the Cougars are actually able to play a full season's worth of games, this is what it will look like:

Sat Sep 04     Texas Tech (at NRG Stadium)
Sat Sep 11     at Rice
Sat Sep 18     Grambling State
Sat Sep 25     Navy
Fri Oct  01     at Tulsa
Thu Oct 07    at Tulane
Sat Oct 16     (off)
Sat Oct 23     East Carolina
Sat Oct 30     SMU
Sat Nov 06    at South Florida
Sat Nov 13    at Temple
Fri Nov 19     Memphis
Sat Nov 28    at UConn

There are a few things about this schedule that work in UH's favor. The Coogs don't leave the City of Houston for the entire month of September. They get SMU and Memphis at home. They avoid Central Florida and Cincinnati altogether. The only non-Saturday home game is a Friday-before-Thanksgiving matchup against Memphis. Houston gets their bye week right in the middle of the season, where it's likely to do them the most good. 

There are some drawbacks as well. There are two sets of back-to-back road games, and the Cougars only play one game at home in all of November. The end-of-season trip to play no-longer-a-conference-mate Connecticut was something of an act of desperation; there was apparently no other FBS school available to fill out the schedule. 

Most significantly, this schedule is not going to sell a lot of season tickets. The closest thing the Cougars have to a "marquee" home matchup, against former SWC foe Texas Tech, has been moved to NRG Stadium. The team's true "home" slate is not going to excite the average sports fan, although Grambling State's band will be fun to watch.

With that said, this is a schedule that the Cougars should be able to do well against. It's definitely easier than the slate they faced in 2020 (even though they only played a portion of it): only three opponents on this schedule had winning records last season, and the Coogs get two of them at home. Having all four September games in the city is an advantage to a team that needs a fast start to the season. 

The Cougars need to start winning gain. This schedule gives them the chance to do that. If the 2021 squad cannot notch a winning record against such a relatively weak lineup, then it will almost certainly be time to declare the Dana Holgorsen experiment a failure.

Joe Broback predicts anywhere between 6 and 9 wins for the Coogs with this schedule. Ryan Monceaux shares his thoughts as well. 

I'm just hoping that this fall we'll be able to tailgate again.