Wednesday, March 31, 2021

And then there were six...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, here we are

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

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

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

Jeff Balke and Brad Towns share their thoughts.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Is rush hour over?

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

I. Can. See. The. Bottom.

Here's a comic by The Oatmeal...

                                                                                                                       The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman)




















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



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

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

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Getting in the vaccine line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Houston Cougar football schedule released

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

It started out nicely enough...

When the winter blast made its way into Houston two Sundays ago, it started out nicely enough. Work for both Corinne and myself had been canceled for the following Monday, so we could stay up as late as we wanted. We stood out on our balcony, sipped drinks, and watched as the sleet began falling that evening. We were hoping that actual snowflakes would begin appearing at some point. 

There was one brief power outage in the wee hours of Monday morning, but it didn't last too long and I thought it was simply a routine rolling blackout that we had been warned to expect. 

At about 4:30 am, I put on my coat and went down to the front of our apartment complex for a ground-level view of the winter weather. The gentle fall of freezing precipitation (still mostly sleet, but some small snowflakes mixed in) was beginning to accumulate on the lawns and sidewalks, and the icy mixture on the ground made an enjoyable soft crunching sound as I walked on it. The fountain in front of the complex was beginning to develop a layer of ice. It was cold and quiet and I was the only one around. 

It was delightful.


About an hour later, the power went off again. It wouldn't come back on again for 24 hours. It was hard for me to fall asleep, as I am so accustomed to a fan (or some sort of other white noise) running while I sleep that the total silence actually kept me awake. But at some point I dozed off for a few hours.

I awoke as the wintry precipitation began to move out of Houston, and found our interior courtyard in a blanket of snow and ice. It was pretty and tranquil.

Corinne and I later took a walk around our neighborhood to see everything covered in winter.  People made snowmen and had snowball fights. We had to walk carefully on the sidewalks as the ice was very slippery.

The lack of electricity, however, was an inconvenience, especially as the outage dragged on. We were limited in what we could eat due to the fact that we couldn't cook anything. We were limited in the amount of information we could get about the storm because the lack of operating cell towers made upload speeds to our phones (whose battery reserves steadily continued to dwindle) slow. We wanted to drive somewhere that was open to maybe get a warm meal and recharge our phones, but we didn't want to risk driving on icy roads (and few places were open anyway). So we sat in the dark and ate sandwiches and played Uno by lantern light.

Monday evening we began to worry the food would spoil if it stayed in the refrigerator, so we began moving perishables out to the balcony so they would stay cold.

Our apartment, being a unit facing the interior courtyard on the fourth floor of a concrete structure, generally traps heat fairly well; we rarely, if ever, have to run the heater. However, after a day without power even it was beginning to get cold.

The power did flicker on again shortly after midnight on Tuesday. After a few minutes, however, it went out again. It returned again around 5 am, and stayed on for most of the day. This was a relief, as it allowed us to recharge our devices, watch the news and cook ourselves dinner. I got another text from work saying that things would be closed again on Tuesday; the power outages had shut down our network so nobody could remotely log in. 

Tuesday evening the electricity went out once again, which meant another evening of sitting in the cold and dark. Happy Fat Tuesday!

Wednesday, the electricity was intermittently on and off all day long. Work was canceled for a third straight day. We also had to deal with another problem: low water pressure (because the city's pumps had no electricity), and a "boil water" notice for the little water we could get (because the city was concerned about bacteria in the water supply owing to the low pressure).

My parents came over Wednesday afternoon and stayed the night with us. They had gone without power for almost two days straight, had nearly frozen to death while trying to sleep the night before, and had no water pressure at all. Even if our electricity continued to cut in and out, they'd still be warmer here than there.

Our complex's management told us to go down to the fountains and fill buckets of water if we needed to flush toilets. So Wednesday evening I made several trips between our unit and the fountain in the courtyard, hauling buckets of water up flights of stairs because I didn't want to risk using the elevator in case the power went out. I was given a taste of what it was like to be a medieval villager getting water from the town well. I was also reminded that I am horribly out of shape.

Our last power outage was Wednesday evening, and it was brief. The following morning, I discovered that my work's network was restored so I was able to log on, check my emails and complete some tasks. (Unfortunately, a lot of my coworkers were still unable to work because they didn't have reliable electricity, were dealing with burst water pipes, or had some other weather-related emergency to attend to.)

Later that morning, the water pressure returned. Then, a neighbor of my parents informed them that their power had returned, so they could go back home.

However, just as we thought things were returning to normal, Corinne got a call from her mother. She had been staying at a friend's house, and had come back home to discover that a pipe had burst in one of her bedroom closets and had completely flooded her house. Corinne's mom is currently staying in a hotel; her house is going to need extensive remediation and some of her personal belongings may be lost forever. 

Yes, this arctic blast was a freak, rare weather event. But this was also an embarrassing and unacceptable systemwide failure of the state's power grid (and no, wind turbines do not deserve all the blame, no matter what the idiots running this state might think). It caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people, and was close to being much, much worse than it was.

The State of Texas must do better. These arctic weather events might be rare, but they do happen. There's no excuse for not having our electrical grid prepared for when they do come.

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. 

That being said, head-scratching losses are till losses, and 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 1-4 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!