Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Houston 44, Rice 7

The Cougars won their first game of the season, defeating crosstown rival Rice and keeping possession of the Bayou Bucket.

The Good: Clayton Tune had a solid game, throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns and, more importantly, throwing no interceptions. He was also the team's leading rusher. RB Alton McCaskill rushed for two scores and caught another. The Cougar defense made life miserable for Rice QB Luke McCaffery, limiting him to 86 yards and one TD, intercepting him thrice, and sacking him four times.

The Bad: While Tune didn't turn the ball over, he still had two turnovers. He recovered both but he still needs to focus on protecting the ball. I also really could have done without some of the stupid penalties (unsportsmanlike conduct, roughing the passer, etc.) committed by Houston. The Coogs ended the evening getting flagged seven times for 89 yards.

The Ugly: The game ended with a pick-six, as cornerback Alex Hogan intercepted a McCaffery pass and ran it back 91 yards as time expired. Given that the Cougars were already up by 33 points at the time, Hogan should have shown better sportsmanship and just taken a knee. 

What it means: Saturday's game marked the 50th anniversary of Houston's first game against Rice. The Cougars now lead the all-time series between the two schools 32-11. 

Next up for Houston is their first true home game of the year, as they host Grambling State at TDECU Stadium.

Hurricane Nicholas

Nicholas abruptly strengthened to a hurricane and made landfall Monday evening, but Corinne and I felt relatively safe. We were well-stocked with supplies. Flooding and major wind damage weren't major concern; we are on the fourth floor of a concrete midrise apartment complex in a neighborhood that drained pretty well during Harvey. 

I was, however, concerned about losing electricity. Unpleasant memories from previous weather events - the blackouts caused by last February's freeze, the two weeks I was without power following Hurricane Ike - played in my mind as I lay in bed Monday night, periodically looking at Centerpoint's outage tracker and watching the numbers of customers without electricity climb as Nicholas slowly crept closer.

Luckily, our power never went out. The storm eventually passed, we checked in with friends and family to make sure everybody else was okay, and normal life resumed.

I know not everybody was as lucky as we were. In fact, according to Eric Berger, Nicholas could have been a lot worse had its track just been a little bit different:

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains (10-20 inches, which fell offshore) directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

These storms are inherently random; their paths and effects are not always easy to predict. It's why you can't leave hurricanes to chance. Always be prepared.

Kuff's thoughts are similar to mine.

The Big XII (finally) invites Houston

The Cougars appear to be finally getting their long-desired wish of joining an elite collegiate athletics conference:
The Big 12 presidents and chancellors voted on Friday to accept BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF into the conference.

In a statement, the Big 12 said the four schools were "approved unanimously by the eight continuing members."

The move comes less than two months after Big 12 co-founders Oklahoma and Texas announced they would join the SEC by July 1, 2025, leaving the future of the remaining eight schools in the Big 12 in a precarious position. Big 12 officials moved quickly to make the league whole again, forming a subcommittee that concluded that the most successful football schools in the American Athletic Conference -- Cincinnati, Houston and UCF -- were the top choices, along with independent BYU. The Big 12 was waiting until this week when those schools formally indicated they wanted to join the conference.
After being rejected for Big 12 three times - once when the conference was originally created in the mid-90s, once in 2011, and once again in 2016 - it's nice to see the University of Houston finally being offered that coveted seat at the big boy conference table. 

The move to the Big 12 won't just benefit Houston's football program; Ryan points out that the new-look Big 12 will be one of the best basketball conferences in the nation, and that Houston's inclusion will positively affect all sports: 
Most importantly, the Big 12 means better conference rivalries that will draw better crowds, increase donations and gameday revenue, and significantly boost UH’s share of TV rights monies. The league will help UH recruiting in every sport, especially football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and softball.
There's no denying that this is very good news, even as I recognize that the Big 12 the Cougars are set to join is not the same conference it was when programs like Nebraska or Texas A&M were members, and certainly won't be the same after Texas and Oklahoma decamp to the more lucrative pastures of the SEC. The remaining Big XII schools are not adding Houston, UCF, BYU and Cincinnati to replace the prestige and viewer appeal of Texas and Oklahoma - there is no school available that can do that - but are simply trying to preserve relevance. In that regard, Houston's location in a major media market - one that the Big 12 would otherwise completely cede to the SEC - was a plus for UH's inclusion.

That being said, I'm still hesitant to pop my champagne bottles just yet. It will be a few years before Houston finally plays in the reconfigured Big 12, and a lot can happen between now and then. If I sound a bit cynical, it's because I've seen the Cougars get screwed too many times before.

Ever since the demise of the Southwest Conference and the rise of the Big 12 in the mid-90s, the University of Houston has been on the outside looking in: banished to lower-profile conferences that didn't command huge television contracts, didn't get attention from the most talented recruits, and whose members could never hope to play for national championships. During that time, the gap between these "have-nots" and the "haves" of college football - the conferences with the "name brand" schools, the generous TV contracts, and the high-profile bowl tie-ins - has only widened. The Cougars, of course, did not do themselves any favors due to lousy attendance, losing programs, weak administrations and substandard facilities. But the inherent inequity of this self-reinforcing arrangement still stung.

A decade ago, it looked like the Cougars might finally join the ranks of the "haves," when the Big East, which at the time was one of six conferences that automatically qualified for the Bowl Championship Series, invited the Cougars to join. 

Shortly thereafter, however, the conference fell apart. First Notre Dame left the conference, followed by Rutgers, Louisville, and the rest of the non-football schools (which took the "Big East" moniker with them). Finally, Boise State and San Diego State, which had been invited to join the conference, backed out. When it was all over, the Cougars found themselves in a weaker, cobbled-together American Athletic Conference; the elite "BCS Six" conferences had contracted down to the "Power Five," and the Cougars once again found themselves on the outside looking in.

What makes anybody think this won't happen to Houston again? What if the ACC, Big 10 and PAC 12, in a desire to bolster their own TV contracts and continue accumulating the best recruits, reverse their current "no expansion" stances and pick off some of the Big 12's remaining high-profile programs before the Coogs even have a chance to play a down in it? What if the "Power Five" further contracts down to the "Super Four," leaving the remaining Big XII schools - Houston included - out in the cold once again?

Going further, what if this "Super Four" eventually leaves the NCAA and forms a top-level NFL feeder league that pays its recruits and dominates coverage of the sport? This eventuality is oftentimes speculated as the ultimate endgame for college football, and recent developments such as the name, image and likeness policy as well as the Supreme Court's Alston decision might be steps in that direction. If and when that day comes, schools like Houston will be damned to eternal irrelevance, and I will no longer be a college football fan at all because the sport will have been ruined.

Obviously, I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope Houston's ascension to the Power Five world goes off as planned and the program finally gets the attention and revenue it deserves. 

But until then, the champagne stays chilled.

The Cougars are set to join the Big 12 no later than July 1, 2024, but will probably join earlier if a buyout deal with the American Athletic Conference can be worked out. As for the American, they will probably look to poach teams from Conference USA or the Sun Belt, as the conference realignment dominos continue to fall.

 The Daily Cougar, Sean Pendergast and Ryan have more.

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Texas Tech 38, Houston 21

New season, same results.

The Good: The first half. The Cougars came out playing aggressively, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, attempting and recovering an onside kick, and subsequently scoring a second touchdown. Houston went for it on fourth down three separate times during their first two scoring drives, and Texas Tech's offense didn't even get the ball until the 2:13 mark of the first quarter. The Cougars recovered a Red Raider fumble at the goal line in the second quarter, and scored a third touchdown at the end of the second quarter to lead 21-7 at the half.

The Bad: The second half. The wheels simply came off for the Coogs. Texas Tech scored 31 unanswered points while the Cougars were intercepted three times (one for a pick-six), had negative rushing yards, and converted only one of seven third down attempts. The aggressiveness the Cougars exhibited in the first half was gone, replaced by complete ineptitude on offense (and some really lousy tackling on defense). At one point in the second half, the UH offense started a series with a 1st and 5, and ended it at a 4th and 8. That's... remarkable.

The Ugly: Under Dana Holgorsen, the Cougars have developed an ugly pattern wherein they seem incapable of putting together two solid halves of football. Last year they started out slow in the first half of several games and had to make furious (but futile) rallies in the second half. This time, they jumped out to an aggressive lead in the first half but cratered in the second half, which is reminiscent of some of the games the Cougars played in 2019.

For more ugliness, look at some statistics Ryan compiled. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw four interceptions last Saturday. That's the third time in his Houston career that he's thrown that many picks in one game.

What It Means: In my season preview, I explained that I was "unconvinced" about a lot of things relating to this team, from the quarterback to the offensive line to the head coach. It appears my skepticism was well-deserved. This team has not made any improvement over the offseason and we're in for another long, disappointing season led a by an apathetic head coach who is swindling this university to the tune of $4 million per year. 

Next up for the Coogs is a short trip to Rice Stadium to face their crosstown rival, the Owls. 

What's the big deal about hatch chiles?

The Chron's Abigail Rosenthal considers the much-hyped pepper:

There are a few particular agricultural seasons Texans always look forward to: pecan season, peach season, grapefruit season, and, of course, hatch chile season. 

And judging by H-E-B's display, hatch chile season is a marquee event.

Hatch chiles are specifically grown in the Hatch Valley in New Mexico—it's not really a hatch chile unless it was grown there, much like a sparkling wine isn't champagne unless it was produced in the Champagne province of France. Their season is relatively short too, only occurring in August and September each year.  

But some don't buy into the hype. One Chron editor, in particular, has said hatch chiles are basically just poblanos and not worth all the banners and specially made products. We collectively scoffed and shook our heads, tuning out this blasphemy.  

Every August, when I walk into an HEB, I am so inundated by hatch chile products that I feel I'm in a scene from Forrest Gump: “Well, let’s see... There’s hatch chile cheese, hatch chile chicken, hatch chile sausage, hatch chile chips, hatch chile shrimp, hatch chile pasta, hatch chile salsa, hatch chile bacon, hatch chile beer...” While I do enjoy some of the hatch chile products that appear in HEB during that month, it also strikes me as a bit over the top. Are these chiles really that special?

                                                                                                                 Fresh hatch chiles at Central Market on Westheimer

The hatch chile is simply a type of New Mexico Chile, which itself is a cultivar of Capiscum annuum. This species of chile pepper includes the anaheim, cayenne, jalapeƱo, poblano, and serrano. There are multiple types of New Mexico Chile, varying in size, color and amount of Scoville Heat Units they contain. As Rosenthal notes, the "hatch chile" is specific to chiles grown in the Hatch Valley, which is located along the Rio Grande north of Las Cruces. 

Perhaps that valley possesses a "terroir" - the amount of sun it gets, the composition of the soil there - that imbues a specific flavor to the hatch chile. I'm admittedly not a chile pepper connoisseur, so I may be missing out on the subtleties and nuances of the hatch that makes it so distinctive and deserving of the marketing hype bestowed upon it by HEB and other grocers.

Rosenthal put the hatch chile to a (taste) test, creating one salsa with it and and another salsa with its cousin, the poblano pepper:

The salsas had subtle differences, but among the Chron staff tasters, they were almost indiscernible (and in need of some jalapeƱos). Our social media editor Sarah Pearce summed it up best: "If I was given the salsas separately at a taco truck, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference."

The hatch chile salsa was a bit sweeter, brighter and had a little more zing, while the poblano salsa was earthier. Both were delicious, but our two blind taste testers couldn't correctly guess which salsa was made with hatch chiles. 
Rosenthal concludes that the poblano is a perfectly acceptable, year-round substitute for the hatch. Which is good, because it - and its hype - won't be back for another year.

Friday, September 03, 2021

2021 Houston Cougar Football Preview (and a Word about Realignment)

Before I jump into my season preview, I should probably acknowledge the big news of the offseason, which is the impending relocation of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big XII conference to the SEC. This news was sudden but shouldn't have been surprising, considering the Big XII's historical instability and the University of Texas's insatiable greed. 

Texas and OU's move to the SEC, which will happen sometime before the 2025 season, is likely going to have a huge effect on all of college football. The Big Ten, PAC-12 and ACC have formed an "alliance" to counter any advantages the new, 16-team SEC might gain, while further discussions about expanding the College Football Playoff may be put on hold while things shake out. 

The Big XII, for its part, appears ready to make up for the losses of Texas and Oklahoma by inviting the University of Houston and three other schools to join their party. Assuming the Big XII can retain its status as a "Power 5" conference, this move would be of obvious benefit for the Cougar athletics program. However, I'm not going to start popping the champagne bottles yet, as I've seen the Coogs get screwed by conference realignment before. Should the Cougars actually receive that golden ticket and join the top tier of the college football world, they will be facing a new level of competition on the field and they will need to show that they deserved the promotion.

Unfortunately, Houston has not been competitive - the 2019 and 2020 seasons are the Coogs' first back-to-back losing seasons since the end of the Helton-Dimel Era of Suckitude - and head coach Dana Holgorsen goes into his third season at the helm feeling some pressure to win. The current unsettled nature of the college football landscape is only going to add to that pressure. 

With all that said, here's my take on the 2021 UH Cougar football season, which begins tomorrow evening at NRG Stadium against current Big XII member Texas Tech:

Looking back: the 2020 season was so plagued by COVID-related disruptions and cancellations - the Cougars only played seven out of their twelve scheduled regular-season games - that it's hard to take away a lot from it other than that UH was decidedly mediocre. They beat the teams they were expected to beat, but fell short of notching statement wins against BYU and Memphis and were thoroughly outclassed by UCF and Cincinnati. The Cougars ended the 2020 season with a 3-5 record.

The Big Story for 2021: Dana Holgorsen has a 7-13 record after two seasons at Houston, and clearly is not living up to the expectations that come with his $4 million/year salary. It's time for him to change the narrative; for his own sake as well as the sake of the program, he really needs to put together a winning season this fall.

Reasons for Optimism: the schedule - assuming the Cougars get to play all of it this season - is pretty easy. The opponents on this schedule combined for a record of 41-51 last season. The Coogs play seven games in the City of Houston, they get SMU and Memphis at home, and they avoid Cincinnati and Central Florida - the two teams that utterly embarrassed them last year - altogether.

Clayton Tune returns at quarterback. He has 17 starts under his belt and showed flashes of brilliance last fall. The time is now for him to step up and break the offense open. He has plenty of experience to work with, including sixth-year senior Mulbah Car at running back, junior tight end Christian Trahan, and junior wide receiver Jeremy Singleton. 

The defense showed improvement in 2020 and could be pretty stout this fall. While last year's two best players - Grant Stuard and Payton Turner - are now in the NFL, there's still a wealth of talent for new defensive coordinator Doug Belk to work with. Keep your eye on cornerbacks Marcus Jones and Damarion Williams, as well as defensive end David Anenih, linebacker Deontay Anderson, and hybrid DE/LB Derek Parish. 

Reasons for Pessimism: Clayton Tune's experience aside, he has not been spectacular at this position. He turned the ball over way too many times last season (10 interceptions and three fumbles), took way too many sacks, and only completed 15 touchdown passes. Of course, Tune can only be as good as the protection his offensive line gives him, and until proven otherwise the OL is this team's biggest weakness. 

The receiving corps is another area of concern. A lot of talent has been lost from last year's team, as Marquez Stevenson joined the NFL and several other players either transferred out or were declared academically ineligible. WRs coach and UH football legend Tyron Carrier was mysteriously and unceremoniously dismissed from his job last spring, suggesting that this may be a platoon in turmoil.

One of Houston's biggest problems last year were slow starts. In six of the eight games they played last season, the Cougars trailed by double digits at some point in the first half. While the Coogs oftentimes made second half rallies, these were usually too little, too late. If the Cougars are to win games his fall, they need to jump out to leads early in the game.

What the Humans Think: Athlon acknowledges that the team's depth has improved but that questions remain, especially on the offensive side of the ball. "The schedule is favorable enough with seven games in Houston that anywhere from eight to 10 wins should be the expectation," they write. College Football News anticipates a nine win season, while Dave Campbell's Texas Football pegs the Coogs as an 8-4 team. CBS Sports ranks the Coogs 72nd (out of 130 FBS teams) to start the season, and their panel of sportswriters generally has a mediocre outlook for them. For what it's worth the Coogs also garnered a handful of votes in the preseason AP top 25 poll.

What the Computers Think: 

Sagarin's initial ratings put Houston 66th with an starting rating of 70.85. That would imply a record of 10 and 2, when the ratings of opposing schools and the home field advantage are taken into account (the game against Texas Tech at NRG stadium is considered to be neutral-site). ESPN's FPI suggests that the Cougars will have an 8-4 season this fall (although the SMU and Memphis games are essentially toss-ups) Congrove predicts a 7-5 record for Houston, while Massey's algorithm foresees a 6-6 record (although five of those games are essentially tossups).

What I think: I've heard all the arguments for why this will be a good season for the Cougars: the schedule is easier, quarterback Clayton Tune has more starts under his belt, the defense has been steadily improving, a lot of talent is coming onto the team through the transfer portal, etc. But it really seems like I've heard these arguments before. Right now, I'm unconvinced.

I'm not convinced that Clayton Tune can transcend the limits of his natural skillset, nor am I convinced that the offensive line can protect him, nor am I convinced that he has a strong and talented corps of receivers to throw to. While the defense might be fun to watch this fall, defenses don't score points. I expect the Cougars to be involved in a lot of low-scoring slogs. 

Moreover, I'm not convinced that this is really what Dana Holgorsen wants to be doing. I've watched his demeanor on the sidelines, I've noticed his less-than-impressive recruiting effort, I've seen his offenses sputter even though he is supposedly an offensive genius. Sometimes I feel that he just wants to collect a few more fat paychecks at UH's expense and head off into the sunset. 

There's really no excuse for this team not to win nine or ten games with this relatively weak schedule, but I'm not convinced they will. So I'm going on record with a prediction of a 6-6 7-5* season for the Houston Cougars this fall, with a season-opening loss to Texas Tech at NRG, road losses to Tulane, Tulsa and Temple, and home losses to SMU and Memphis.

I hope that Dana Holgorsen and the Cougars convince me that I am wrong.

*After I drafted this, Tulsa lost to FCS program California-Davis at home, which would suggest that they are a weaker program than I originally anticipated.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Our region just keeps getting bigger

A few weeks ago, the US Census Bureau released a trove of data from the 2020 Census. This data will largely be used for congressional gerrymandering redistricting, but it's also an all-important first look at the 2020 Census at the county and local level.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council has processed this data for the thirteen-county region encompassing the Houston metropolitan area (a summary presentation is here). I've gleaned through some of the data to provide some top-level information. The bottom line: we're growing. Especially in the suburbs. We're also becoming more diverse.

As of 2020, the 13-county region contained 7.3 million people, which is about the same population as the nations of Paraguay or Laos. This is an addition of over 1.2 million people over the last decade, which represents an almost a 20% growth rate. Here's the breakdown by county:

County 2020 Census 2010 Census Growth and Rate
Harris   4,731,145   4,092,459 638,686  15.6%
Fort Bend     822,779     585,375 237,404  40.6%
Montgomery     620,443     455,746 164,697  36.1%
Brazoria     372,031     313,166   58,865  18.8%
Galveston     350,682     291,309   59,373  20.4%
Liberty      91,628      75,643   15,985  21.1%
Walker      76,400      67,861    8,539  12.6%
Waller      56,794      43,205   13,589  31.5%
Chambers      46,571      35,096   11,475  32.7%
Wharton      41,570      41,280      290   0.7%
Matagorda      36,255      36,702     -447  -1.2%
Austin      30,167      28,417    1,750   6.2%
Colorado      20,557      20,874     -317  -1.5%
13 County Total   7,297,022   6,087,133    1,209,889  19.9%

Harris County, where Houston is located, saw the most growth in absolute terms, adding almost 639 thousand people over the 2010s. Fort Bend County saw the largest growth in percentage terms at 40.6%, closely followed by Montgomery County with 36.1% growth. Brazoria and Galveston Counties experienced growth that was a bit more modest but still substantial, gaining almost 60 thousand residents apiece. On the other end of the spectrum, rural Matagorda and Colorado Counties lost population, while Wharton County stagnated.

This map shows the general pattern of population change in the region over the last decade. Red and orange squares gained the most residents, while blue squares experienced less growth or even population loss:

                                                                                                                                               Houston-Galveston Area Council

It should come as no surprise that the region's growth is occurring largely in the suburbs; although it's hard to see highways on the above map, fully half of the region's growth occurred in the area between Beltway 8 and the Grand Parkway. Only 4% of the growth occurred inside Loop 610.  

H-GAC also breaks the data down by cities and places. Here is a table of cities or places with a population of at least 25,000 in 2020:

Municipality or CDP   2020 Census   2010 Census   Growth and Rate   County 

 1. Houston             2,304,580     2,099,451     205,129  9.8%   Harris 
 2. Pasadena              151,950       149,043       2,907  2.0%   Harris 
 3. Pearland              125,828        91,252      34,576 37.9%   Brazoria 
 4. The Woodlands Twnshp  114,436        93,847      20,589 21.9%   Montgomery 
 5. League City           114,392        83,560      30,832 36.9%   Galveston 
 6. Sugar Land            111,026        78,817      32,209 40.9%   Fort Bend 
 7. Conroe                 89,956        56,207      33,749 60.0%   Montgomery 
 8. Atascocita CDP         88,174        65,844      22,330 33.9%   Harris 
 9. Baytown                83,701        71,802      11,899 16.6%   Harris 
10. Missouri City          74,259        67,358       6,901 10.2%   Fort Bend 
11. Spring CDP             62,559        54,298       8,261 15.2%   Harris
12. Galveston              53,695        47,743       5,952 12.5%   Galveston 
13. Texas City             51,898        45,099       6,799 15.1%   Galveston 
14. Huntsville             45,941        38,548       7,393 19.2%   Walker 
15. Channelview CDP        45,688        38,289       7,399 19.3%   Harris 
16. Friendswood            41,213        35,805       5,408 15.1%   Galveston 
17. Rosenberg              38,282        30,618       7,664 25.0%   Fort Bend 
18. Mission Bend CDP       36,914        36,501         413  1.1%   Harris/Fort Bend 
19. La Porte               35,124        33,800       1,324  3.9%   Harris 
20. Deer Park              34,495        32,010       2,485  7.8%   Harris 
21. Lake Jackson           28,177        26,849       1,328  4.9%   Brazoria 
22. Alvin                  27,098        24,236       2,862 11.8%   Brazoria

A "CDP", or "Census-Designated Place, is an unincorporated community (while The Woodlands is a semi-incorporated "Township"). Houston is still the nation's fourth-largest municipality; it did gain on Chicago over the past ten years but there's still a ways to go before Space City overtakes the Windy City. 

Once again, the gains of suburban communities are evident. In 2010, Pasadena was the only city in the region (other than Houston) to contain over one hundred thousand residents. In the ten years since, it’s been joined by Pearland, The Woodlands, League City and Sugar Land. All four of these communities are located just outside of Harris County. 

The large growth rates in Conroe and Sugar Land can be at least partially attributed to annexation, before the legislature essentially disallowed it. Sugar Land annexed New Territory over the last decade, while Conroe annexed communities in Lake Conroe and down towards The Woodlands. 

Galveston’s population, which fell below 50,000 in 2010 due to the effects of Hurricane Ike, has made something of a recovery. Atascocita and Spring are the region's largest unincorporated communities (again: suburban communities between the Beltway and the Grand Parkway).

Finally, the region is growing more diverse: 

                                                                                                                       Houston-Galveston Area Council

As was the case in 2010, no one ethnic group constitutes a majority population within the region, although between 2010 and 2020 the Hispanic population surpassed the White population as the region's largest ethnic group. The region's Asian population grew by almost two percentage points, while the region's Black population percentage remained about the same.  The percentage of residents considering themselves of Other ethnicity (including mixed races) doubled. 

Put another way, between 2010 and 2020 the region added almost 580 thousand Hispanic residents, almost 218 thousand Black residents, about 207.5 thousand Asian residents, almost 160 thousand residents of Mixed or Other ethnicities, and almost 60 thousand White residents. 

No single ethnicity accounts for more than 37.3 percent of the population today, down from 39.9% ten years ago. Fort Bend County is one of the most ethnically-diverse counties in the United States: it is 29.6% White, 24% Hispanic, 22% Asian, and 20% Black.

For more information about these 2020 Census numbers (including additional data and interactive maps) check out H-GAC's 2020 Census Redistricting Data Tool. A hat tip to H-GAC's Pramod Sambidi and his Socioeconomic Modeling group for processing this data so quickly.

(Obligatory "in the interests of full disclosure, I am an H-GAC employee" disclaimer here.)

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Amsterdam's reprieve from overtourism

 Frida Ghitis reflects upon an Amsterdam transformed by the pandemic:

There's an unfamiliar seriousness in the air. The city that routinely drew millions of visitors, some looking for high art, many simply wanting to smoke pot, has grown a bit quieter. The people, it appears to me, have become friendlier. The city seems more grounded -- and lovelier than ever.

My last pre-pandemic visit was in 2019. Amsterdamers were exasperated, then, drowning in a flood of tourists. That year, an unbelievable 21 million people visited what is a relatively small city of less than 900,000 people.

Some tourists have returned, but the raucous crowds that made it impossible to hold your path for more than a few seconds on a sliver of sidewalk are nowhere in sight. The sidewalk cafes are still full when it's not raining. They have more tables outside. The city is still lively. But you hear almost only Dutch, another noticeable change.

The narrow, cobble-stoned streets are still buzzing with bicycles, but the riders are almost all Dutch. Gone are the swarms of tourists in yellow or red-painted rental bikes, pedaling uneasily and stopping suddenly, disruptively, for snapshot of one of the distinctive 17th century Dutch houses lining the old canals.

One of the (few) positives of the COVID-19 pandemic is that "overtouristed" destinations such as Venice, Dubrovnik, Barcelona and Amsterdam were given a respite from the hordes of visitors and the negative effects they bring: the crowds, the garbage, the kitschy souvenir shops, the vacation rentals pushing out longtime residents. This pause in tourist activity has given these cities time to consider what they want their tourist economy to look like going forward:
While much of the travel industry has spent the last year focused on how to recover from the pandemic as quickly as possible, some of the world’s most tourism-dependent economies are reveling in the emptiness and pushing back on attempts to return to the status quo.

In response, many destinations are using the respite to advance tourism management rather than tourism marketing plans, with an emphasis on more local input and control.

The challenges are steep. And the efforts, in many cases, precede Covid-19. 

But the global travel shutdown over the past year provided a silver lining of sorts for the overtourism problems that were hitting crisis levels in popular hot spots just before the pandemic was declared in March.

“The opportunity right now is that it’s like we’ve had an escape valve,” said Jonathon Day, an associate professor in Purdue’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “We were above or right at capacity in some of our destinations. … Now, we’ve got a moment to say, is the system working?”

If the movements are successful, experts say, they will reshape the tourism experience by focusing on attracting higher-quality tourism that is more interested in and sensitive to local culture and sustainability while bolstering local businesses and enhancing the visitor experience.
Undesirable tourist activity has been a long-running issue for Amsterdam; I blogged about a planned crackdown on marijuana- and prostitution-related tourism over a decade ago. Ghitis notes that the residents of the city are focused on combatting many of the same tourist-related negatives today:
This was a good destination for my first international trip in nearly 18 months. Pre-pandemic Amsterdam might have been a shock to the system. I'm not the only one who likes it like this. The residents of the city have been complaining for years that their quality of life was declining because of overtourism. Authorities are trying to see what they can salvage from one of the few good outcomes of the crisis. They want to restrict arrivals, keep tourists away from cannabis "coffee shops," and prevent them from overrunning the Wallen, the centuries' old neighborhood that is also home to Amsterdam's famed red light district.

Eventually, the pandemic will end and tourists will return. This new, more serious Amsterdam will become another one of the memories of this strange time. For now, walking along the iconic canals, recognizing the quiet, and seeing how much has changed, how even the people seem a little different, is part of what traveling is all about, a heightened sense of awareness, the unmistakable feeling of being alive, and the knowledge that the world is calling out with more places to visit. I can hardly wait! (And I have already made reservations.)

I'd like to make a (responsibly-planned) return trip to Amsterdam sometime in the future as well. But for now, I'm glad that residents are getting a chance to enjoy some relative peace in their own city.

Thoughts on the Tokyo Olympics

They were delayed a year, they were played in the sweltering heat, there were no fans in the stands, they were the most expensive on record, and its organizing body is still hopelessly corrupt. The 2021 2020 Summer Olympics, which ended a week ago, probably shouldn't have happened at all. But happen they did, and I have a handful of thoughts: 

We're (Just Barely) Number One: The United States "won" the 2020 Olympics, by earning the most gold medals (39) as well as the most medials overall (113). The United States has won the most number of gold medals in six out of the last seven Olympic Games, and the most medals overall for the seventh summer Games in a row. 

However, Team USA only barely edged out China for the most golds; the Chinese team, which had been leading in the gold count until the final weekend of the games, came in second with 38 golds (and 88 medals overall). Rounding out the top five in the gold medal count were host nation Japan, Great Britain, and the Russian Olympic Committee (which I'll say more about in a moment).

Fun fact: the Chronicle claims that, if Houston were its own country, it would have finished 20th in the medal count.

Welcome to the Club: Athletes from Bermuda, the Philippines and Qatar won their countries' first-ever gold medals, while Burkina Faso, San Marino and Turkmenistan won their first medals ever. San Marino is, in fact, the first European microstate ever to win a medal at the summer Games (Liechtenstein has won medals at the Winter Olympics). 

Given its small size, San Marino also ended the Olympics with the most medals per-capita: one for every 11 thousand inhabitants (the United States, by comparison, won one medal per 2.9 million people). 

On the other end of the medals-per-capita list is India. Even though Indian athletes had their most successful appearance in the Olympics ever, the seven medals they won represented a ratio of one medal per 197 million people.

Cheaters do win, if you're Russia: After Russia's blatant state-sponsored doping scandal, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency decided to "ban" Russia from the Olympics. Russian athletes could still compete, however, as long as they called themselves the "Russian Olympic Committee," competed under a special flag, and played something other than the Russian national anthem at medal ceremonies:

At the medal ceremony here, the Russian national anthem was replaced by “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer. The flag raised was not the Russian flag, but one featuring waves of an Olympic torch … but using the Russian colors of blue, red and white.

No Russian flags are allowed at any venue (or the Opening or Closing Ceremony), but they can be hung about the Olympic Village. So there’s that. Not that it matters. The Russians designed their uniforms to mimic the beloved Trikolor.

“If the flag is not allowed, we ourselves will be the flag,” Rugby captain Alena Tiron told the Russian state news agency RIA Novostu.

In Russia, the Olympics gold medal you.

“We know which country we stand for,” Tiron said.

Everyone does. A country that is adept at embedding spies in the highest level of governments around the globe doesn’t even have to try to be sneaky over here.

These so-called "neutral athletes" - over 330 of them, in all - finished with 20 gold medals (and 71 overall). What a joke. 

The head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, had some choice words to say about this charade:

"Unfortunately, we’ve seen this horror film already – where the Russian state-sponsored doping programme walks free and Russia wins while the IOC and WADA leaders attempt to pull the wool over the world’s eyes by claiming Russia is ‘banned.’," said Tygart.

"All can now see this ‘ban’ once again for the farce that it is.

"It is barely a ‘rebrand’ and will do nothing to stop the corruption in Russia and likely will embolden others willing to win by any means.

"It’s a doomed system that allows, as it has here, one nation to make a mockery of the Games by their thirst for medals over values."

Russia is also "banned" from the 2022 Winter Olympics, but Russian athletes will be there, too. Vladimir Putin has to be laughing his ass off.

I would have punched that horse, too: the modern pentathlon is one of the weirdest sports of the Olympics. Okay, so maybe not as weird as artistic swimming or race walking, but a competition consisting of five very disparate disciplines - fencing, swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross-country running - is, well, pretty wacky. According to Wikipedia, this sport is "patterned on events representing the skills needed by cavalry behind enemy lines." Okay, but it's still somewhat ridiculous, especially since cavalry isn't really a thing in warfare anymore.

Anyway, there was controversy during the women's modern pentathlon when a frustrated German coach appeared to strike an uncooperative horse during the show jumping portion of the competition:

The International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), the sport's governing body, announced Saturday it was giving a black card to Kim Raisner, dismissing her from the remainder of the Games, after reviewing video footage from a Friday event.

The footage "showed Ms Raisner appearing to strike the horse Saint Boy, ridden by Annika Schleu (GER), with her fist," the group said in a statement. That violated UIPM competition rules, they said.

The light punch came after Schleu, who was heading into the show jumping round with a commanding lead, was trying to get Saint Boy to respond to her commands. But the horse was obstinate.

Schleu, who was visibly in tears because she couldn't get her horse to cooperate, scored zero points in the show jumping segment and fell to 31st place by competition's end. 

This brings up another weird aspect of the modern pentathlon: unlike other equestrian events at the Olympics, the horses do not "belong" to the riders. Rather, horses are randomly assigned to competitors twenty minutes before the show jumping competition, giving athletes a very short time to "bond" with the animals. This would appear to create an element of luck that is completely outside the competitor's control: if somebody ends up with a wayward horse that refuses to jump, then their dreams of winning a medal are sunk through no fault of their own. This apparently happened to several competitors - not just Schleu - during the women's modern pentathlon.

The agency that oversees this weird-ass sport is reviewing the event and considering changes for 2024. Perhaps they should consider doing away with horses entirely, and replace show jumping with a skill relevant to a 21st century soldier, like rock climbing or mountain biking.

(Full disclosure: I'm not the world's biggest fan of horses. They've always creeped me out, for some reason.)

NBC's coverage still sucked: I've written about this so many times since 1996 that I really don't have anything new to say about it. So I'll hand off to The Guardian, which describes the coverage of the Tokyo Olympics as "televisual vomit:"

Viewers have been able to see everything at any given moment (provided you have the Peacock streaming service) while understanding fundamentally nothing about what’s going on. NBC has never met a night of swimming finals that didn’t need to be spliced up with bizarre human interest segments on Caeleb Dressel’s first ride through the Florida wetlands on an airboat, or a routine on the double bars that couldn’t be improved by a quick jump to an ad break and some random highlights of Denmark and Indonesia in the badminton. We all want to know who the athletes are, of course, if only at a superficial level; and since the whole Olympics is so overwhelming, with so much going on at once, some measure of discombobulation from the host broadcaster is always understandable. But when we switch on the Olympics, I think it’s fair to say that most of us want to witness elite athletes perform spectacular feats with their bodies, not hear a series of driving stories about how they handle their daily commute.

NBC’s programming choices have been consistently bizarre, even more so when you consider that whole chunks of the schedule in Tokyo – for swimming above all, but also in the athletics – were specifically rejigged to cater to the American TV audience, and at several points it’s been unclear to all but the most obsessive Olympics watchers whether what’s on TV at night in the US is live or a replay. On Sunday morning, the women’s triple-jump world record had just been broken, a thrilling men’s high jump had ended in shared gold and the starting gun for the men’s 100m – the biggest race at the Olympics – had just been fired. NBC was showing a replay of the equestrian eventing final. The point, of course, is to funnel viewers to watch the repeat in primetime. Which may have worked at Tokyo 1964 when you could avoid the result for 12 hours. But which viewer with even a passing interest in sport for Tokyo 2020 won’t already have seen the result on the internet or used a VPN to watch it on the BBC or CBC?

Time, The Los Angeles Times and TechDirt are similarly critical of the coverage, while Vulture suggests that the oftentimes-confusing array of coverage - NBC presented coverage of the Games across its broadcast network, multiple cable channels, and its Peacock streaming platform - was simply a case of viewers getting what they've always wanted:

Some of the complaining about figuring out “how” to watch the Olympics on the NBC platforms is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.” After all, for years the rap on NBC’s coverage was that the network offered almost nothing but prepackaged, and often pretaped, extended highlights shows. Audiences would have to wait until prime time to see events which finished up hours earlier; sports fans who wanted deep coverage of less high-profile events were often out of luck. The fact that NBC now pretty much lets anyone with a cable login watch every event live, in real time, is a massive improvement over the status quo of a decade or two ago. And it’s certainly a lot better than it was back in the 20th century, when NBC — and previous Olympics hosts CBS and ABC — treated the Olympics as a prime-time soap opera, serving up only the story lines it felt would appeal to a broad audience (thank you, Roone Arledge). NBC still does this with its main coverage, of course, but audiences now have more choice than ever before.

The Tokyo Games ended up having the lowest viewership of any Olympics NBC has broadcast since they first picked up the Games in 1988. NBC, of course, had a litany of excuses ready to explain away their poor ratings - Coronavirus, the time difference, difficulties encountered by the athletes they overhyped the most (Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka) - and tried to put a positive spin on its viewership:

NBC says its coverage of the Games boosted everything from podcasts to broadcast programs such as the Today show and NBC Nightly News. 

But the days when the Olympics were appointment television for most TV viewers seem to be ending. The pressing question for NBC — which has spent billions for rights to air the Games until at least 2032 — is how to handle a media world where the hours of coverage are increasing while audience numbers are heading in the opposite direction.

I dunno, maybe try to make your coverage (and the ability of viewers to navigate it) suck less? Maybe present the Olympics as an actual sporting event, rather than a primetime reality TV show? Maybe fire Mark Lazarus, who is apparently the guy most responsible for this claptrap? I'm not holding my breath.

All Jazeera reviews the highs and lows of the just-completed Games, while the Daily Beast explores some of Tokyo's weirder moments and ESPN waxes sentimental on what the games are all about. And if the Tokyo Games left you yearning for more, don't fret: the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are only six months away!

The great secret of Denver International Airport

I discovered it after a short trip to visit my brother last weekend, and it has nothing to do with spooky murals, underground bunkers, the New World Order, or any of the other myriad conspiracy theories associated with the airport.

Instead, it has to do with the quickest way to get through the airport's notoriously-long security lines.

If you're familiar with Denver International Airport, you'll know that in the terminal itself there are two TSA security checkpoints: north and south. The south checkpoint is usually the busier of the two, since it's on the side of the terminal facing the RTD's commuter rail station, but during peak periods both are inundated by passengers and wait times can be lengthy.

However, there is also a third, lesser-known security checkpoint at the bridge linking the terminal to Concourse A. It's located on the north side of the terminal in the level above the north and south checkpoints, and it's not well-signed. This is perhaps purposeful, because the checkpoint is comparatively small and probably can't handle a large group of passengers.

But this is also why it's so easy to get through: relatively few people know about it, so there's very little wait. This comes in handy if you're late for your flight or (like me) you just don't like standing in long TSA lines. 

After you pass through the checkpoint and walk across the bridge, you can either take one of two passageways to Concourse A, or take the elevator down to the inter-terminal train to get to Concourses B and C.

You're welcome!

Cool fact: Corinne's father was the airport's original architect.