Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Is the monarch butterfly truly endangered?

It's a topic of debate

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared that one of North America’s best known butterflies, the monarch, might be in trouble. But the agency put off protecting the insect under the federal Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, researchers are continuing to debate how best to gauge the health of monarch populations.

In recent months dueling preprints and publications have intensified the debate. In one camp: researchers who have documented drastic declines in the number of monarchs in Mexico and other areas where some butterflies spend the winter. They believe the species needs immediate help, particularly by protecting and expanding the milkweed-filled meadows where its larvae feed. In another: scientists who have tallied butterfly numbers in areas they occupy during the warmer months and concluded there is less cause for alarm. As a species, monarchs “don’t really need saving,” says Andrew Davis, an ecologist at the University of Georgia, Athens.

At issue is the fact that, given the butterfly's complex life cycle and migration patterns, there's no one reliable way to measure the insect's overall population. One way to measure is by estimating the amount of Mexican forest their overwintering population occupies; by this measurement, the butterfly's population has been trending downward

But a different picture emerges from data collected north of Mexico during other parts of the year, Davis and others say. Each season, scores of scientists and thousands of volunteers tally butterflies as they fly past recording stations, and count monarch eggs and caterpillars they find on milkweed, the larvae’s only food source. When Davis and colleagues examined 20 of these data sets, covering time spans from 15 years to more than 100 years, they saw little evidence of drastic declines. Winter and spring populations had shrunk a little but summer and fall surveys showed few losses, they reported in October 2020 in a preprint posted on Preprints.org, which has not yet been peer reviewed.

Davis acknowledges his view that monarchs are not in danger of extinction is unpopular: “No one wants [it], ironically,” he says. “They want to keep saving them.”

And the preprint has drawn mixed reviews. Insect ecologist Anurag Agrawal of Cornell University calls it “important. … Some of these data have never been put together this way.” But Leslie Ries, an ecologist at Georgetown University, rejects its conclusions. “The picture painted … includes many faulty conclusions based on the studies or data sets cited,” she says.

Volunteer surveys of butterfly populations are useful but have limitations, especially as to where and when the surveys were taken. Volunteers might be focusing on places where the butterflies currently are, rather than where they used to be, and monarch generations - there are four in a year - can expand or contract independently of one another. There are other complex factors effecting monarch populations - climate, weather, and milkweed availability - that need to be considered as well. 

While the overall data seems to point to a gradual reduction in the monarch population, more research is needed before the feds will take action.

Given such uncertainties and the fact that conservation efforts are already underway, U.S. officials say the monarch is not yet a prime candidate for federal protection, especially because resources are limited and other species are in greater need of help. But they plan to decide on the monarch’s status in 2024, FWS ecologist Lori Nordstrom explained last month at a virtual press conference.

The delay worries Tyler Flockhart, an adjunct ecologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory who has been modeling monarch population dynamics. “We run the risk of studying this problem to death by not taking actions until we are completely certain.”

My advice is the same as always: plant that milkweed.

It's going to get worse before it gets better

One week ago, Donald Trump - a malignant narcissist and pathological liar who continues to falsely claim that last November's Presidential election was "stolen" from him - incited his followers in Washington, DC to march on the Capitol building, ostensively to protest Congress's counting of the states' electoral votes that would officially confirm Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. 

Obviously this mob did much more than just protest: Trump supporters and adherents of the batshit crazy "QAnon" conspiracy theory overwhelmed police, physically invaded the US Capitol, and forced Senators and Representatives to scramble for safety. It was clear that some of them didn't just want to disrupt the counting of electoral votes; they were looking for elected officials to kidnap and/or kill. Pipe bombs were placed to distract first responders. Guys in tactical gear crawled through windows and carried flex cuffs in Senate Chambers. (Thankfully, two of them have been arrested). Four protesters and a Capitol Police officer died in the melee; another Capitol Police officer apparently passed away later.

While the Capitol invasion may or may not have been an actual coup attempt, it was, at the very least, insurrection: a violent assault on our democracy. It is as chilling as it is outrageous and it is certainly this nation's darkest day since September 11, 2001.

Fortunately, the insurrection did not succeed. Police and federal agents finally got the upper hand, the building was cleared, Congress resumed counting the electoral ballots and, eventually, accepted Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. The nation's democratic process held firm, but it very easily could have been a different, catastrophic story. 

Both the House and Senate Sergeants-at-Arms as well as the Chief of the Capitol Police resigned following the invasion due to their failures, and a full accounting needs to happen as to why the Capitol Police had such a hard time defending the building. Was security purposely hamstrung by Trump-supporting administrators? Were there sympathizers in their ranks who facilitated the invasion? 

The days since the Capitol invasion have been a whirlwind of activity that ended up with Trump being permanently banned from his beloved Twitter account and, earlier today, being the first President to be impeached twice, just days before his term as the worst President in the history of this nation mercifully comes to an end. 

But while Trump may be on his way out, his rabid and heavily-armed base of far-right extremists, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists lives on, and they're not going to simply disappear. There are reports that extremists are emboldened, that more violence is planned for this weekend or for the day of Biden's inauguration, and that the threat of violence will continue even after Biden becomes President. We may, in fact, be entering a new era of political violence featuring bloodthirsty and deranged domestic terrorists such as this guy.

Exactly a decade ago, after a shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded a US Representative, I issued a call for civility in politics. That post seems rather na├»ve now. This country is awash in misinformation and conspiracy theories, and its politics are no longer merely polarized but now completely tribalized, wherein it has become more important to hate the other side than to support your own. These trends were evident even before Donald Trump became President; he merely accelerated them.

It's going to get worse before it gets better, and I'm afraid many more people are going to lose their lives.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Tom Herman wasn't all that

Last weekend, the University of Texas fired Tom Herman after four years at the helm of the Longhorn football program, replacing him with Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It's a risky and extremely expensive move for Texas, which is on the hook for upwards of $24 million to buy out Herman and his assistants before they even pay Sarkisian and his staff a single dime. And Sarkisian, who is by all accounts a great offensive mind but who drank his way out of a head coaching job at USC several years ago, is by no means a slam dunk to return the Longhorns to greatness. 

But Herman couldn't return the Horns to greatness, either, which is why he is being let go. Texas simply discovered that Tom Herman wasn't all that.

In that regard, it's interesting to come across this video about Herman's 2016 University of Houston team, which makes the argument that the Coogs would have been the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff if they hadn't experienced some "weird" losses:

"How can you beat #3 Oklahoma led by Baker Mayfield, and #3 Louisville, led by Lamar Jackson, but not take care of business against Navy or SMU?" The narrator asks. The answer, at least partially, is Tom Herman: he could get his team up for big games but couldn't do the same for lesser opponents.

To be fair to Herman, player injuries played a role in at least a couple of his head-scratching losses while he was at Houston. And to be fair to his players, constant rumors about Herman's next coaching gig - he obviously had one foot out the door the entire time he was at UH - had to be a major distraction. By the time Texas poached him from Houston at the end of the season, his shortcomings were already evident. I wrote at the time of his departure:

For a man who preaches the importance of winning conference championships, he managed a rather sad 2-3 record in the AAC West this past season, good enough for fourth place. Herman is also a less-than-stellar 6-4 on the road. Those numbers won't cut it on the Forty Acres.

Sure enough, his numbers didn't cut it at Texas. Herman's overall record was a respectable 32-18, but it came with a few major issues. First, Herman's Longhorns lost 7 times to unranked teams when they were ranked in the AP Poll: as was the case at Houston, he simply couldn't get his players up for games against lesser opponents. More important for the Longhorn faithful, however, is that Herman's teams lost to archrival Oklahoma four out of five times while he was head coach there (one of those losses being in the 2018 Big XII Championship game, which was Herman's only conference championship appearance at Texas). While Herman's Longhorns did win all four of the bowl games they went to and ended the season ranked in the AP top 25 three out of his four years at the helm, it wasn't good enough for the Orangeblood faithful. A 1-5 record against the Sooners and zero conference championships was not what they expected when they hired him; he just didn't live up to the hype.

For Steve Sarkisian's part, if he and his staff can recruit the state's best players, and if Sarkisian himself can stay off of Sixth Street, he may have a chance at bringing Longhorn fans the glory they desire. If he can't, then it will be just another instance of Texas throwing a lot of money into something and getting very little in return.

As a UH fan and alum, I must say I am getting a bit of schadenfreude out of the fact that, as of this moment, all of Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin and Tom Herman are unemployed.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

My iPhone's top 20: End of 2020 edition

I got an iPod Shuffle for Christmas 15 years ago; over the years, as my music library has grown and has migrated from iPod to iPhone, I've periodically taken stock of the twenty most listened-to songs in my collection (see here for the 2010 and 2015 lists). In continuing my tradition, here are the twenty most listened-to songs on my iPhone, as of December 31, 2020 (2015 ranking in parentheses):

1. Ride a White Horse - Goldfrapp (Supernature, 2006, Mute/Universal Music) (#1)
2. That Smiling Face - Camouflage (Voice and Images, 1988, Atlantic) (#3)
3. Home - Erasure (Chorus, 1991, Sire) (#2)
4. Burst Generator - The Chemical Brothers (We Are The Night, 2007, Australwerks/EMI) (#4)
5. Sometimes [Erasure/Flood Two Ring Circus Remix] - Erasure (The Two Ring Circus, 1987, Sire) (#10)
6. Hysteria - Def Leppard (Hysteria, 1987, Mercury) (#8)
7. Looking at You - Sunscreem (Looking at You: Club Anthems, 1998, Centaur Entertainment) (#5)
8. Life Is Sweet - The Chemical Brothers (Exit Planet Dust, 1995, Australwerks) (#7)
9. Let Forever Be - The Chemical Brothers (Surrender, 1999, Australwerks) (#6)
10. Dissolve - The Chemical Brothers (Further, 2010, Australwerks) 
11. Thank U - Alanis Morissette (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, 1998, Maverick/Reprise) (#15)
12. Destroy Everything You Touch - Ladytron (Witching Hour, 2005, So Sweet) (#14)
13. A Moment's Shifting - Anything Box (Hope, 1993, Orangewerks)
14. Lightning Blue Eyes - Secret Machines (Ten Silver Drops, 2006, Reprise) (#16)
15. A Modern Midnight Conversation - The Chemical Brothers (We Are The Night, 2007, Australwerks)
16. Rolling in the Deep - Adele (21, 2011, Columbia/XL) (#11)
17. Primary - The Cure (Faith, 1981, Elektra) (#13)
18. Crushed - Front 242 (05:22:09:12 Off, 1993, Epic)
19. Smiling Monarchs - Abecedarians (1985, Factory Records)
20. Dancing On My Own - Robyn (Body Talk, Pt. 1, 2010, Konichiwa)

Once again, my musical tastes continue to be dominated by electronica, with a pair of British duos - Tom and Ed and Vince and Andy - being among my clear favorites. My top four are the same as they were four years ago, and over half of the songs on the 2020 list were on the 2015 list.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

New Mexico-in-Frisco Bowl: Houston 14, Hawai'i 28

The Cougars went to the New Mexico Bowl (which was relocated from Albuquerque to Frisco, Texas due to COVID) in spite of their losing record and in spite of the fact that many key players weren't available (due to positive COVID tests, injuries, academic ineligibility or a desire to keep themselves healthy for the NFL combine). The result was predictable.

The Good: With the Coogs' top WRs out, receivers Nathaniel Dell and Christian Trahan made the most of the spotlight by combining for 11 receptions for 200 yards and a touchdown apiece. 

The Bad: Right after the Cougars had scored fourteen unanswered points to turn a 21-0 snoozefest into a competitive 21-14 game, Hawaii kickoff returner Calvin Turner broke off a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that would seal the win for the Rainbow Warriors.

The Ugly: Clayton Tune threw three interceptions and was sacked five times. Houston's ground game was limited to 58 rushing yards. Seven Cougar possessions ended in punts. Head coach Dana Holgerson is supposedly known for his offenses, but after two years into his tenure at Houston all he has to show for it is a sputtering offense. I honestly don't have a great deal of faith in his abilities going into 2021.

What It Means: The Cougars end the 2020 season - a season that probably shouldn't have happened to begin with - with a 3-5 record. The last time the Cougars had back-to-back losing seasons was 2001 and 2002, was when another Dana was head coach.

I pity the UH ticket office employees who have to try to sell season tickets for 2021. At the rate this program is headed, we might be going back to 1990s-era levels of attendance.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Very belated thoughts about the 2020 election and its aftermath


Even though the 2020 election was over six weeks ago, there was so much happening in its aftermath - the counting of mail-in ballots, the vote recounts and certifications, the Trump campaign's numerous and fruitless legal challenges, etc., that I decided to wait until after the Electoral College met at the beginning of this week to affirm Joe Biden's victory to write about it. It didn't help that it has, quite frankly, become difficult to summon enough motivation to write about something as depressing as politics in the United States today. This country is angry at itself and dangerously divided, and the results of this election and its aftermath are unlikely to change that fact.

Although some Republicans will likely contest Biden's election when the electoral votes are formally presented Congress on January 6th, this maneuver is all but certain to fail. The end result of this election is that, as of January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be President of the United States, and his four-year reign of chaos, corruption, lies, nepotism, banana-republic authoritarianism and subservience to Vladimir Putin will be gone. If you're a Democrat (or even if, like me, you don't consider yourself a Democrat but just hate Donald Trump), that's good news. But that's also just about where the good news ends. Here are my thoughts:

Biden Won - Just Barely. Since there were no "faithless elector" shenanigans yesterday, Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump's 232: 36 more than the 270 votes he needed to become president.

Source: Wikipedia. The actual outcome was close to my pre-election prediction (I expected Biden to win Maine's 2nd District but for Trump to hold on to Georgia).

Biden also won the popular vote in convincing fashion, accumulating 81.28 million votes (or 51.3% of total votes cast) to Trump's 74.22 million votes (46.9%). That's a difference of over 7 million votes, or 4.5%: the second-largest popular vote margin of victory in the last six presidential elections. 

However, Biden's victory in several of the states he won - states he needed in order to achieve his Electoral College win - was razor thin. He won Arizona by a total of 10,457 votes (0.3% of total votes cast in that state), Georgia by 11,779 votes (.25%), and Wisconsin by 20,682 votes (0.6%). These 43 thousand votes in these three states is the difference between a solid Electoral College win for Joe Biden and a 269-269 Electoral College tie (with the election being decided in the House, with each state's U.S. House delegation getting one vote to decide the presidency; since Republicans will control the majority of House delegations in the new Congress, Trump would have won re-election under that scenario). Flip another state where Biden's win was narrow (he won all of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada by less than three percent), and he loses the electoral vote outright.

To put it in perspective, 43 thousand is less than 0.03% of the 158.38 million votes cast in the 2020 election (the highest voter turnout, by percentage, for a presidential election since 1900). It's just a bit more than half of the 77.7 thousand votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that gave Donald Trump the presidency four years ago despite losing the popular vote. It's a hair's breadth margin of victory, and it should deeply worry Democrats going forward. 

This is because Republicans maintain an edge in the Electoral College such that Democrats need to win the popular vote in presidential elections by several points in order to have a good shot a winning the actual presidency. Democratic voters are disproportionately concentrated along the West Coast and the Northeast, and are not as numerous in the "swing states" where elections are actually decided.

This is why, even though the Republican candidate for president has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections, he has managed to win the electoral vote twice since 2000, and just barely lost the electoral vote this time around. If demographic trends continue we may be reaching a situation where it's basically impossible for the Republican candidate to win the popular vote, but pretty difficult for the Democratic one to win the Electoral College. This would be fatal to American democracy, which was already seriously tested in the aftermath of this  election (which I'll discuss more in a moment).

USA Today has some interesting maps of the 2020 election, including the latest version of the "Purple America Map" (although it's probably becoming less purple over time), as well as good maps indicating each party's margin of victory in each county as well as as ho the vote shifted since 2016. Perhaps the best visualization of the 2020 election is by XKCD's Randall Munroe, who shows how Biden and Trump voters are actually distributed:

Source: XKCD. Munroe points out that there are more Trump voters in deep-blue California than red Texas, and more Biden voters in Texas than New York.










Aside from the Presidency, there's not much for Democrats to be happy about. The Democratic Party had high hopes of retaking the Senate, padding their advantage in the House, and winning enough downballot races to take control of some state legislatures. None of that happened.

The Democrats did close their deficit in the Senate by one seat last month, and there's still a chance that they could take control of the Senate outright if both their candidates win the two Senate runoff races in Georgia on January 5th. That would give them 50 seats, and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will be able to break ties. But I wouldn't bet on it: Biden's narrow win there aside, this is still Georgia we're talking about. The simple fact is that Democratic Senate candidates, in spite of being well-funded, underperformed last month: they failed to flip what was seen as a winnable seat in North Carolina or give the boot to "perpetually-concerned" Maine Senator Susan Collins. 

After convincingly winning control of the House in the 2018 midterms, Democrats took a huge step backward last month, suffering a net loss of 12 seats (including one candidate who apparently lost by a total of six (!) votes).  While they still remain in control of that side of Congress, the Democrats' reduced majority makes it easier for individual lawmakers to throw sand in the legislative gears, and it also puts the Democrats at grave risk for losing the House entirely in the 2022 midterms. 

This is partly because the party in the White House generally does not do well in midterm elections, and partly because the Democrats also failed to flip any state legislatures they targeted last month. The GOP still controls 61 of the nation's 99 state legislative chambers (along with 27 of the nation's 50 governorships). That means Democrats will have little to no control over decennial redistricting in several critical states, and are therefore likely to lose House seats though reapportionment and Republican gerrymandering. (Here's Texas as an example.

Even as New York Magazine's Ed Kilgore argues that Democrats didn't do as badly in last month's election as one might think, he nevertheless concedes that "Democrats will pay a large cost for failing to win big across the board, particularly when redistricting arrives next year and Republican control of all those state legislative chambers that was at risk this year gives the GOP an advantage in drawing new districts for the next decade."

Election results aside, there may be more trouble ahead for the Democratic Party in the form a of a struggle between its moderate members and its more progressive wing. If they can keep the center and the left from tearing themselves apart, there's a path forward for Democrats (perhaps it includes consolidating its suburban gains, starting to acknowledge rural needs, and dumping the left-wing "wokeness" nonsense that repels moderate voters), but the party still has some soul-searching to do (as does the GOP, post-Trump) in spite of Biden's win.

Texas is still a red state. Here in Texas, Democratic hopes that higher turnout would generate a "blue wave" in Texas were also dashed. Trump carried the state by 5.6%, Senator John Cornyn easily won re-election, Democrats were unable to flip any Congressional seats, and their dream of picking up the nine seats they needed to take control of the state House also evaporated. Democrats did increase their margins in the suburbs, and the state does seem to be gradually trending blue (along with North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona). But it's not there yet, and Trump's strength among Latino* voters in the Rio Grande Valley - a trend that was seen nationwide - should be setting off alarm bells among Democratic operatives. The only thing state Democrats can do is take a look at their failures in this election and prepare for 2022.

That being said, there weren't many surprises here in Harris County, which remains blue. Biden carried the county by thirteen points, and Democrats swept the countywide races, flipped perennially-competitive State House District 134, and fended off the GOP's well-funded attempt to retake the 7th Congressional District.

Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election are shameful and are eroding faith in American democracy. Being the malignant narcissist that he is, Donald Trump was never going to accept defeat. After all, there's nothing more he hates than being called a "loser," so he and his campaign continue to claim, with little to no evidence, that Biden's victory was the result of widespread voter fraud (because the Democrats were somehow able to fraudulently manufacture votes for Biden but not for downballot House, Senate and state races, right?). At this point, his claims are as stale as they are baseless and impotent. But for several weeks immediately following the election, he and his supporters undertook a remarkable effort aiming at subverting democracy in order to keep him in power.

Almost as soon as the polls closed, Trump's campaign and his supporters sprang into action, claiming that the election was "stolen" and filing lawsuits aimed at overturning its results. This effort, headed by New York Mayor - turned - circus clown Rudy Giuliani and an error-prone conspiracy theoristmet almost no success in the courts because there simply was no evidence that widespread voter fraud occurred; even Trump's own Attorney General couldn't find evidence of widespread voter fraud (and was forced to step down as a result). Recounts in places like Georgia and Wisconsin did not substantially alter Biden's margin of victory in those states, and Trump's attempts to bully election officials into not certifying results or pressure Republican-led state legislatures to bypass the will of the voters by appointing Trump-friendly slates of Electors were rejected as well. As it became clear that the results of the election would not be overturned, Trump began lashing out at his own party: a Republican Secretary of State in Georgia was thrown under the bus by Trump for simply doing his job, and he and his staff received death threats. This tiresome shitshow - even the National Review called it a "disgraceful endgame" - culminated in a ridiculous and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt by Texas Attorney General (and indicted felon) Ken Paxton to sue a handful of swing states in the Supreme Court in order overturn the election.

Maybe it was truly a coup attempt. Maybe it was all just an attempt to grift. Either way, American democracy "has been given a scare:"

As the sense of imminent threat begins to fade, the convoluted inner workings of the electoral system are coming under scrutiny to determine whether it was as robust as its advocates had hoped – or whether the nation simply got lucky this time.

“I had long been in the camp of people who believed that the guardrails of democracy were working,” Katrina Mulligan, a former senior official in the justice department’s national security division. “But my view has actually shifted in the last few weeks as I watched some of this stuff play out. Now I actually think that we are depending far too much on fragile parts of our democracy, and expecting individuals, rather than institutions, to do the work the institution should be doing.” 

What's worse is that this attack on the democratic process - the attempt to subvert, if not outright overturn, the results of this election, or at the very least illegitimize a Biden presidency (85 percent of all Trump voters believe Biden did not legitimately win the election, according to one poll) - was tacitly encouraged, if not fully supported, by one of this country's two major political parties. George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum once wrote that "if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy." Sadly, he appears to have been correct.

Trump's bid to overturn the election failed (even though he is apparently still plotting) because he, and everybody he surrounds himself with, is incompetent. But he is nevertheless providing a blueprint for the next authoritarian who comes along, who may be smarter, more subtle, and ultimately more successful than Trump. As The New Republic's Jason Linkins and Matt Ford explained a few weeks ago

What if Biden’s Electoral College lead were much slimmer and hinged on a more Trump-friendly state like Florida or Texas? What if Democrats hadn’t taken back the House in 2018, and Republicans instead had firm majorities in both chambers when the Electoral College votes were counted? What if the Republican candidate wasn’t Trump, whose authoritarian tendencies and reckless mendacity are already priced in, but a less polarizing figure who could make a more subtle and competent play for power? Thanks to Trump and his cronies, it’s no longer completely unthinkable for a president or candidate to demand that state legislatures try to overturn their own election results. He won’t succeed this time, but a future presidential candidate could make a similar attempt on far more favorable terrain.

This country remains dangerously divided. This country is polarized and tribalized. People realize this fact and are not optimistic that it can be resolved anytime soon. A recent Monmouth poll indicated that over three-quarters of Americans see the country as "deeply divided on its most foundational issues" and that 60% of the county expects that divide to either get worse or stay the same over the coming year. Given how close this election was, and given the attacks on the democratic process that have occurred in its wake, that's a recipe for potential disaster in the coming years.

While I'm glad the election is over and I wish President-Elect Biden well, I have never been more worried about the United States of America than I am right now.

Which may be why it's not a bad thing that the "real" winner of the 2020 election was marijuana.

*Speaking of "wokeness," I refuse to use the construct "Latinx" to refer to the Latino population because they themselves have not embraced it. I can only wonder if the presumptuous insistence of the left that the Latino population use this term may have been one of the reasons why Trump did so much better among their voters.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Houston 27, Memphis 30

The Cougars, plating their first game in almost a month, fell behind early but mounted a 21-point rally in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 28 seconds remaining. Then they allowed Memphis to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.

The Good: Down 6-27 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Cougars rattled off 21 unanswered points to tie the game. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw touchdown passes to Marquez Stevenson and Bryson Smith and ran for another score, while the UH defense held the Tigers to 13 yards on three possessions during the same time period. 

The Bad: The Cougars wouldn't have had to make such a ferocious rally had they played better football in the first half. Houston had to settle for field goals on their first two trips into the red zone, and were held to three-and-outs on two other possessions. Clayton Tune threw an interception and was sacked and fumbled for a Memphis touchdown on consecutive possessions. That, combined with Memphis quarterback Brady White's ability to pick apart the Houston defense (he had 245 passing yards on the afternoon), meant that the Tigers were able to score 24 unanswered points on the Cougars.

The Ugly: The Cougar defense during Memphis's final drive was an embarrassment. Brady White was able to make easy completions for 12 and 22 yards, and was aided by by a pass interference penalty committed by Cougar safety Thabo Mwaniki, to get the Tigers into easy field goal range in the game's final half-minute. Mwaniki's penalty was one of seven for 75 yards on the Cougars; the Tigers didn't have any.

What It Means: The Cougars end their COVID-truncated regular season with a 3-4 record. Memphis has now beaten Houston five years straight. 

Next up for the Cougars is a Christmas Eve trip to the Metroplex to play Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl, which is being played in Frisco, Texas due to skyrocketing COVID levels in Albuquerque. 

Yeah, it doesn't make any sense to me, either. But very little has made sense this season. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

No more Fucking in Austria

No, that doesn't mean that people in Vienna or Innsbruck can't have sex anymore. It means that a small village in the corner of Austria is changing its, eh, peculiar name:

Residents of an Austrian village will ring in the new year under a new name – Fugging – after ridicule and repeated theft of their signposts became too much to bear.

They finally grew weary of Fucking, its current name, which some experts say dates back to the 11th century.

Minutes from a municipal council meeting published on Thursday showed that the village of about 100 people will be named Fugging from 1 January 2021.

Located 260km (161 miles) west of Vienna, Fucking has in recent years become a popular stop-off point for tourists, particularly from English-speaking countries, who snap pictures of themselves by the signposts at the entrance and exit to the village and post them on social media.

Dozens of signposts have been stolen, forcing the local authorities to put up the sign at a 2m height and embed it in theft-resistant concrete when putting up replacements.

Finally, the villagers, known as Fuckingers, “had enough of visitors and their bad jokes”, wrote Austrian daily Die Prese.

Legend has it that the village, pronounced "foo-king," was founded in the sixth century by a Bavarian nobleman named Focko.

The village isn't too far north of Salzburg, and Corinne and I had always joked about visiting this village during one of our trips there just to say that we had "been to Fucking, Austria." But that's exactly the problem: too many English speakers were inundating the tiny village, taking pictures, stealing signs, and giggling about the town's name, even though it doesn't mean in German what it means in English.

Villagers had simply gotten tired of Fucking.

Monday, December 07, 2020

The end of the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico

The iconic radio telescope is no more:

On Monday night, the enormous instrument platform that hung over the Arecibo radio telescope's big dish collapsed due to the failure of the remaining cables supporting it. The risk of this sort of failure was the key motivation behind the National Science Foundation's recent decision to shut down the observatory, as the potential for collapse made any attempt to repair the battered scope too dangerous for the people who would do the repairs.

The Arecibo Radio Observatory was built in the jungles of Puerto Rico in 1963. It consisted of an aluminum dish 1,000 feet in diameter that reflected incoming radio signals to receivers hanging from a massive, 900-ton instrument package that was suspended almost 500 feet above it. The steel cable suspension system was supported by three reinforced concrete towers. When these cables failed and snapped, the instrument platform crashed into the dish below it, destroying the apparatus. The concrete support towers themselves were damaged, as well.

The NSF has released rather dramatic stationary and drone camera footage of last week's collapse:

Fortunately, nobody was injured by the collapse.

Just two weeks earlier, the NSF determined that the aging telescope was too dangerous to repair and would be decommissioned:

Since its commissioning in the 1960s, the observatory has played a role in many discoveries, primarily in the field of pulsars, a class of radio-emitting neutron stars. It has also been involved with SETI searches, and it transmitted an image to a star cluster under the assumption that any intelligent life there might be partaking in its own SETI program. But over the last 15 years or so the NSF, Arecibo's primary means of support, has cut its funding for the observatory, which has struggled to maintain full operations over this period.

But it wasn't money that eventually doomed Arecibo; instead, it was the instrument platform. In August of this year, one of the auxiliary cables that help support the platform snapped, creating a gash in the radio-reflective dish below. While plans were being made to replace that cable and repair the dish—replacement cables were already on order—one of the 7.5cm main cables on the same tower snapped on November 6.

An engineering analysis subsequently determined that this cable failure happened despite the fact that the strain on it was only about 60 percent of what should be its minimum breaking strength. This raised serious questions about the stability of the remaining cables, and thus the ability of the structure to support its instrument platform. The analysis concluded that it was unsafe to find out; the platform could collapse without warning, and any snapped cables would present a danger to any workers on the towers, as the large cables would move at very high speeds following a break. Of the three additional engineering firms consulted by NSF and the University of Central Florida, two agreed with this assessment.

"Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired but how," said the NSF's Ralph Gaume. "But in the end, a preponderance of data showed that we simply could not do this safely. And that is a line we cannot cross."

I'm thankful that I got to visit the Arecibo telescope during a trip to the Eastern Caribbean five years ago. It was definitely an impressive sight:




Kirby's grown a bit since this picture was taken.































The Arecibo facility will remain open, as a 12-meter radio dish, a lidar for atmospheric observations and the visitor's center were all undamaged by the collapse. But the prospects for a replacing the massive telescope itself are unclear:  

With repair no longer an option, the debate now turns to whether the radio telescope should be rebuilt. At the briefing, NSF’s Gaume said it was too soon to evaluate if the telescope will be rebuilt.

“With regards to replacement, NSF has a very well-defined process for funding and constructing large-scale infrastructure, including telescopes,” he said. “It’s a multi-year process that involves congressional appropriations and the assessment and needs of the scientific community. So, it’s very early for us to comment on the replacement.”

Thursday, December 03, 2020

More cancelations for UH football

For the third weekend in a row, the Cougars will not be playing football. Their game against SMU, which was rescheduled from two weeks ago, has been canceled once again:

Houston's upcoming game with SMU has been postponed for a second time because of COVID-19 issues, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.

The game, which was originally to be played on Nov. 21, was postponed to Dec. 5 when COVID-19 issues within Houston's program caused the game to be delayed. This time, it's COVID-19 issues within SMU's program that are preventing the game from being played.

SMU didn't have any positive tests on the team, but contact tracing knocked out entire position groups with more than 20 players sidelined, a source said.

It's unclear at this point whether the game can be made up.

Houston has a game scheduled with Memphis on Dec. 12 (which was originally postponed from Sept. 18) and is tentatively set to play Tulsa on Dec. 19, only if Tulsa is not a participant in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Should Tulsa play in the league title game, it would be possible for Houston and SMU to meet on Dec. 19.

Few teams have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic as much as the Cougars. The University of Houston didn't play a down of football in September because of COVID-related cancelations, and, as the Chronicle's Joseph Duarte demonstrates, this is their eighth game this season that has been impacted by the pandemic:

HOUSTON 2020 SCHEDULE

Rice - CANCELED
WAZZU - CANCELED
Baylor - CANCELED
UNT - CANCELED
Memphis - RESCHEDULED
TULANE - W 49-31
BYU - L 43-26
Navy - W 27-21
UCF - L 44-21
Cincy - L 38-10
USF - W 56-21
SMU - RESCHEDULED
Tulsa - CANCELED *
SMU - CANCELED
Dec. 12: Memphis TBA

— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) December 2, 2020

Sure, there's still Memphis and maybe Tulsa left to play. But at this point, the question has to be asked: why bother even trying to play any more games at all?

The Coogs have been able to play six times this fall. They've beaten the teams they were supposed to beat, dominating South Florida and securing revenge on Tulane and Navy for last year's losses. But they fell short of what could have been a signature win against BYU and were thoroughly outclassed by Central Florida and Cincinnati. There's ample evidence to indicate that the 2020 University of Houston Cougars are just as mediocre as their 3-3 record indicates. They're not going to compete for a conference title or snag a top 25 ranking this year, and playing another game or two won't change that fact. 

Perhaps the Cougars should treat the 2020 season for what it essentially is - a set of glorified scrimmages - and pack it up for the year. They definitely have things to work on between now and next September, but hopefully they'll be able to make necessary adjustments, bring in some good transfers and recruits (it doesn't hurt that no player is losing any eligibility this season), and start over for a 2021 season that hopefully will not be decimated by a pandemic the way the 2020 season was. 

I've been able to attend all the home games this season, and I've enjoyed myself in spite of the reduced capacities and lack of tailgating. But I'm already done with this season and am looking ahead to 2021. Maybe the Coogs should, as well.