Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Interstate turns 50

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law with the hope of improving the mobility of people, goods and services (military as well as civilian) in rapidly-growing postwar America. Perhaps he could not have imagined at the time that his massive roadbuilding project would not merely make travel within the United States easier, but would instead come to re-define the United States itself. Fifty years later, with close to 47 thousand miles of Interstate highways criss-crossing the nation, the Interstate is a central, indispensible part of America's identity, economy, culture and daily experience.

In many regards, the Interstate's effect has been positive. By allowing people, goods and services to move much quicker than was ever possible on the narrow, two-lane highways and congested railways of pre-Interstate America, it has created a level of prosperity and personal freedom that in many ways has been unparalleled in the history of humanity. It revolutionized the way people live and work. The allowed people to take advantage of cheaper housing in the suburbs while still being able to travel quickly to their jobs. It allowed manufacturing and distribution companies to locate themselves anywhere; they were no longer bound by a required proximity to railheads or ports. Trucking, in fact, replaced railroads as the primary means of shipment. It brought economic opportunity and social interaction to previously remote or otherwise forgotten areas of the country. The Interstate made the family road trip a staple of the summertime and allowed access to a new range of entertainment and leisure options, from remote national parks to distant beaches to Walt Disney World. Due to their high enginerering standards, the Interstate made automobile travel safer as well.

At the same time, the Interstate has also had a lot of profoundly negative affects on the nation. Rural Interstates divided farmlands and replaced scenic vistas with unsightly agglomerations of billboards, truck stops and fast-food restaurants. Urban Interstates divided cities, destroyed older, walkable neighborhoods, led to the decline of downtowns and facilitated automobile-oriented suburban sprawl. As I explain in my report about highway aesthetics, they irrevocably redefined the American cityscape and the way it is experienced. The Interstates promulgated the dominance of the private automobile over all other forms of transportation, a dominance that elevated the automobile from a luxury to an absolute necessity and brought with it negative externalities such as poor air quality and dependence on foreign oil. Today, anybody who does not own a car is, for all practical purposes, a second-class citizen. Even the congestion problems that Interstates were supposed to solve did not disappear; in fact, as the United States added more people, houses and jobs, highway congestion actually grew worse.

I say all this not to praise or denounce the Interstate, but simply to reflect the fact that, for better or for worse, our lives today would be unimaginable without it. With a stroke of a pen exactly half a century ago today, Dwight D. Eisenhower redefined the American Experience.

EDIT: this interesting commentary from the Christian Science Monitor compares the Interstate network to another network that has transformed our lives, the Internet.

Houston bowl game survives

A couple of months ago I noted that things didn't look good for the cash-strapped Houston Bowl. However, a new management group associated with the Houston Texans has jumped in to secure approval from the NCAA for a local bowl game, thus assuring that there will be a postseason college football game in Houston this December.

Technically, the NCAA did not actually recertify the Houston Bowl, but rather gave their blessing to a new, as-yet-unnamed bowl game that will replace the insolvent Houston Bowl. The game will be played December 28th at Reliant Stadium and will include teams from any two of the Big 12, Big East, Conference USA and Mountain West conferences. The bowl as of yet does not have a title sponsor, either.

While I guess it's good that Houston keeps its place at the increasingly-crowded bowl game table, I'm still wondering how this game will be able to avoid the same problems that plagued the Houston Bowl (and the Bluebonnet Bowl many years ago): poor local support, matchups between mediocre teams that neither draw well nor attract TV viewers, and its likely perception as a lower-tier, irrelevant bowl game. We'll see if things turn out differently this time.

That's nice, Britney, but...

I know you're desperately trying to generate some positive buzz, but somehow, the thought of a pregnant, has-been redneck posing nude on the cover of Harper's Bazaar just doesn't do it for me.

Thanks for trying, though.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The world's most (and least) expensive cities

Every year, Mercer Consulting compares the cost of items such as housing, food, transportation and the like in over 140 cities worldwide and issues a list of the most expensive (and least expensive) cities in the world. Usually, Tokyo is at the top of the list, which is no surprise to anybody who's ever been there (my credit card is still smouldering from the dinner my brother and I had at that yakitori restaurant in Tokyo's Roppongi district last fall). This year, however, Moscow rose to the top of the list.

The list is based on New York City; that city is given a cost index of 100 and every other city is ranked relative to it. This means that the list is affected by the fluctuation of local currencies relative to the dollar; the yen fell relative to the dollar over the last year, while the ruble remained stable, and the result is that Moscow nudged Tokyo out of the top spot and into third place. Seoul is the second most-expensive city in the world, Hong Kong is fourth and London is fifth. New York is in tenth place and is the most expensive city in the United States.

On the other end of the scale is the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. It ranks as the least expensive city in the world, just below other South American capitals such as Montevideo and Buenos Aires (note to self - plan trip to Argentina ASAP). I can remember the days when Quito was consistently the cheapest city on this list. That was before dollarization, however, and the days of the seventy-five cent lunches I enjoyed as a teenager living in Ecuador are long gone.

In past years, Mercer has released the entire list to the public. However, this time they've only released a .pdf file of the top fifty most expensive cities. It's worth noting that Houston doesn't make the cut. That's probably due to the low cost of housing we enjoy here relative to other parts of the county (and world, for that matter).

I expect Tory to begin crowing about this fact any minute now.

JetBlue to begin flying to Houston

I had a feeling that this was going to happen sooner or later: JetBlue has announced that it will begin flying between Houston's Hobby Airport and New York's JFK Airport in September.

JetBlue appears to be a popular airline, and it's good to see that they've finally decided to being their services to Houston. More flights between New York City and Hobby Airport are also a good thing. To be sure, there is currently non-stop service between Hobby and New York via Southwest codeshare partner ATA, which flies to and from LaGuardia twice a day. However, as Ben Mutzabaugh notes, this is the most-delayed route in the entire nation and the twice-a-day frequency might not be sufficient for many business travelers.

I'm not sure how often I'll use this service, if ever, but it's good to see that more service is coming to Hobby Airport. Southwest will begin flying non-stop from Houston to Denver in July, and it is widely expected that they will offer non-stop flights from Hobby to Washington Dulles when they begin flying there later this year. It's also possible that this new service will open the door to more non-stop destinations from HOU; JetBlue also has a hub at Boston Logan, for example, which is one of the few major airports that is still not directly accessible from Hobby.

But there's already plenty of service between New York's three airports and Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, you might note. Isn't JetBlue's service just going to further dilute the Bayou City - to - Big Apple market and force down revenues at a time when airlines are financially struggling?

I honestly don't see that happening. Bush Intercontinental and Hobby are two completely different animals that in many ways serve different markets. For starters, the two airports are on completely different sides of town. That locational difference is important: I prefer HOU for most domestic flights precisely because is much closer to my house than IAH. Furthermore, it's smaller than IAH and therefore easier to navigate from parking lot to gate. Many business travelers, in fact, prefer Hobby over Intercontinental because of its easier-to-manage size and its proximity to major employment centers such as downtown, the Texas Medical Center, or NASA. JetBlue apparently senses this, and that's probably one of the main reasons they've decided to fly to Hobby rather than Bush Intercontinental. (They'd probably also, of course, like to avoid going head-to-head with Continental on the IAH-JFK route; while HOU is dominated by Southwest, they don't fly to JFK and therefore don't compete with JetBlue in that regard.)

The bottom line: more airlines, more service and more competition can only be a good thing for Houston's air travelers. So I look forward to seeing JetBlue's funky blue tailfins in the skies over Houston this fall.

The JetBlue press release can be read here.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

New Orleans, ten months later

Two weeks ago, Lori, Kirby and I went to New Orleans. My parents were going to check on their timeshare, and we decided to stay with them for a few days to get out of town and to see for ourselves what the city was like post-Katrina.

If somebody with no knowledge of last summer's catastrophe were magically transported to the historical heart of the city, Jackson Square, they would have no idea that just ten months ago the city was an apocalyptic morass of murky floodwater, rampant looting and unspeakable human suffering. They'd see the well-manicured grass and shrubs of the Square and the gleaming white towers of St. Louis Cathedral. They'd see the crowds at Cafe du Monde. They'd wander through the French Quarter and see the bars, the art galleries, the tourists milling about. They'd see that Bourbon Street is as raucous as ever. They'd walk back down Canal Street and see the streetcars trundling up and down the neutral ground, the families waiting to get into the Aquarium of the Americas, the high rollers strolling into Harrah's Casino.

They might not immediately notice that all the downtown hotels, while open, are short-staffed. They might not readily see that a lot of the restaurants are operating on shorter hours, and they might not instantly pay attention to all the "HELP WANTED" signs posted in the front of every store, every restaurant, every bar. They might ignore the bawdy "FEMA SUCKS" or "I VISITED NEW ORLEANS DURING KATRINA AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT (AND A HIGH-DEFINITION TV AND TEN ROLEX WATCHES AND A CADILLAC ESCALADE AND...)" t-shirts hanging in the fronts of all the stores. They might not notice the boarded-up facades of businesses that were looted or buildings that were burned in the lawlessness following the storm.

Indeed, things within the French Quarter and the Central Business District - two of the very few parts of town that did not flood following Katrina - are almost back to normal. But you don't have to travel too far in any direction from the central city before a different picture of New Orleans begins to emerge.

The city is busily trying to repair itself. The Port of New Orleans - the city's raison d'ĂȘtre, because a port at the mouth of the Mississippi River is critical for the economic well-being of the United States - is almost completely operational. The tourists are returning. The two biggest emblems of the misery that the people of New Orleans suffered after the hurricane - the Superdome and the Morial Convention Center - are being renovated; when I was there workers were repairing the tattered roof of the Superdome and a huge banner on the side of the stadium announced the return of New Orleans Saints football in the fall. Bulldozers and cranes are everywhere, clearly indicating that a massive reconstruction effort is underway. But the city as a whole is still woefully crippled. The city's current population is by most estimates no more than half of what it was before Katrina struck. Educational facilities are sparse, and medical care within New Orleans itself is almost non-existent as most of the city's hospitals, heavily damaged by Katrina, remain closed.

A tour of the streets of neighborhoods like Lakeview or Gentilly reveals a desolate landscape of house after house, street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood of gutted homes, FEMA trailers, debris piles, magnificent oaks and magnolias killed from all the saltwater, "we shoot looters on sight" signs, flooded cars and the like. Many houses still bear the spray-painted "X" of rescue personnel or the dark mark of the floodwater line. The block after block after block of uninterrupted destruction is hard to believe even when seen in person. A lot of people are rebuilding, but many other homes have literally been abandoned, as if their owners took the insurance settlement (provided they had insurance) and just walked away. It was a very eye-opening experience; I didn't tour the Lower Ninth Ward, but from what I've heard the level of destruction there is even worse.

The city's culture has changed, too. Turn on the local news and the top story invariably has something to do with FEMA, canal reconstruction, or some other relief effort. One local station has a regular weekly feature entitled "Fridays with FEMA" in which a Federal Emergency Management Agency representive takes phone calls and answers questions about tailers, payments, or other forms of aid. And the mere mention of a hurricane causes the city to collectively panic. Tropical Storm Alberto was at the top of all the local newscasts the entire time we were there, even though there was no expectation that it would get near the Louisiana coast. Repairs to the levees and the canals are not complete; the city really is at nature's mercy right now and the devastation that occurred last year could easily be repeated this year.

This is not to say that we didn't have a good time in New Orleans. The beignets at Cafe du Monde, the muffulletas at Central Grocery, the jambalaya at Mothers, the alcoholic concoctions on Bourbon Street are all as good as ever. We were glad to see that the Aquarium of the Americas was in operation again, and Kirby loved the sea otters. We perused handicrafts at the French Market, drank beer at the Crescent City Brewhouse, and enjoyed riding the streetcar up to the cemetaries and back on Canal Street (a service which is currently being operated by the venerable green St. Charles streetcars because the red Canal streetcars all got flooded and the entire St. Charles line is out of service even though their cars escaped unharmed).

But the reality remains: New Orleans post-Katrina is in many ways a completely different city than New Orleans pre-Katrina. The city is struggling to rebuild itself, but the road to recovery is long and there's still quite a way to go before any recovery can be considered "complete." Only time will tell if New Orleans will ever be quite the same as it was before September 2005. But this much is clear: Katrina, and its aftermath, will forevermore be a central part of this city's already-long history.

This article from the Heritage Trolley website is worth a read. It focuses on the situation regarding New Orleans' streetcar network but nevertheless contains many overall observations of New Orleans that are very similar to my own.

Diet Coke and Mentos

You may have seen, and even tried, the "Diet Coke and Mentos" experiment. If you've never heard of it, it's basically a foamy geyser that is created by dropping a handful of Mentos candies into a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke.

Most people who try this experiment are content to use one bottle of Diet Coke and one roll of Mentos. But these two guys decided to go a little further, and the result is pretty cool:

(This is a Quicktime movie that might take a few minutes to load, depending on your connection speed. If you can't get it to work, try going here.)

You can find more videos like this at

Friday, June 23, 2006

A bad day for sports

Thursday was a crappy day for sports, nationally as well as locally.

First, the United States lost to Ghana, 2-1, in the final first-round game of the 2006 World Cup, and are eliminated from the knockout stage.

I don't really have anything to say about this that hasn't already been said elsewhere: it's disappointing, especially coming on the heels of such a successful run in 2002, but the writing was on the wall over a week ago when the US gave up a goal to the Czechs five minutes into the first game of the opening round. This team just wasn't well-enough prepared - physically or mentally - to compete in a group that included Ghana, Italy and the Czech Republic. Somebody's going to take the blame for this performance, and it will most likely be Bruce Arena.

Next, the Rice Owls' bid to earn their second national championship in college baseball came to an end, as they were eliminated by Oregon State in the College World Series. The Beavers will go on to play North Carolina for the championship.

Finally, the return of Roger Clemens to Major League Baseball was dampened by the Astros' 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins. The return of The Rocket might have been the big attraction of the night, but the real story was Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano, who shut the Astros down. I was hoping that the Astros were climbing out of their May slump just in time for Clemens' return. After winning eight out of nine games, however, the 'Stros have dropped four out of their last six.
All in all, a pretty lousy day. In fact, if you consider Carolina's victory in the NHL Finals (I wanted Edmonton to win) and Miami's victory in the NBA Finals (I wanted Dallas to win), this week hasn't really been good to me at all.

And college football season is still over two months away. Ugh.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Flood of 2006

The early part of this week has been a wet one in Houston. It rained heavily all weekend, and on Monday the city received its worst drenching since Tropical Storm Allison, as some parts of the city recieved well over ten inches of rain and flooding occurred in several areas around town. Although it wasn't quite as intense as Allison - some areas experienced over two feet of rainfall during that event - many houses nevertheless flooded and there was significant street flooding which snarled traffic all day and claimed a number of cars as well (especially since so many idiots in this city think their cars can drive through eighteen inches of water without a problem). The floodwater has since receded - unlike New Orleans, Houston does sit above sea level, if just barely, and stormwaters eventually drain out into Galveston Bay - and over the course of Tuesday the skies cleared up.

I would like to report that my house made it through the deluge unscathed. Unfortunately, I cannot.

No, the house did not flood. Braes Bayou stayed within its banks, and there was no street flooding in my neighborhood. However, the ceiling of my upstairs bathroom was nevertheless the victim of Monday's downpour.

That's because the vent from our heater protrudes through our roof at a point right above the upstairs bathroom. And it leaks. I've known about the leak for several months now, but until now it has been a very minor leak and I was never concerned about it enough to actually climb up to the roof and fix it.

However, Monday's rainfall was by far the strongest since we moved into this house. It rained non-stop from about four in the morning until about nine or ten o'clock - a good five or six hours of hard, driving rain. And that minor roof leak quickly turned into a leak strong enough to completely waterlog the drywall ceiling of the bathroom right below it. Water began bubbling and seeping through the ceiling Monday morning. That evening, realizing it was ruined and could collapse at any moment, I pulled the rotten and soaked drywall down, leaving a huge hole in the bathroom ceiling.

Fortunately, it's just a single 4' x 8' board of drywall; floating and taping a new sheet of Sheetrock shouldn't be too much of a problem. But before I do that, I need to climb up on top of the house with some roofing tar and see if I can remedy the leak itself.

Oh, well. This is what my lazy ass gets for not doing something about the leak sooner.

Not everybody in this house thought that the heavy rainfall of the past few days was a bad thing. Kirby was completely fascinated by last weekend's showers:

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dear Dallas:

In case you were wondering, this is what it feels like when your sports teams choke in the playoffs.



Dear Democrats:

If you guys are stupid enough to nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton to be your presidential candidate in 2008, you will deserve every bit of the ass-kicking your candidate will invariably receive that November. It doesn't matter who she runs against, be it John McCain, Bill Frist, Rudy Guilani, Condi Rice, Jeb Bush, or anyone else. She will lose because too many people in this country already strongly dislike her.

I am not by any means a Republican; in fact, I consider myself to be slightly left of center politically. But I cannot imagine any scenario in which Hillary has a chance of winning in 2008. She's simply too divisive.

So please: do the right thing and nominate someone else.

EDIT: It looks like a few of you are listening to me. Good.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A compromise to the Wright Amendment

Having lived in the Metroplex for a few years, and now having a job that ususally requires me to fly into Dallas once or twice a month, on average, I've been following the whole Wright Amendment controversy with a bit of interest. I've always thought of the ongoing debate over flight restrictions out of Dallas's Love Field, which has raged for over a quarter of a century, as a snapshot of a larger struggle within the US airline industry as a whole: the battle between the enormous legacy carrier and the upstart low cost carrier.

In the case of the Wright Amendment, it appears that the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, as well as American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, have reached a compromise that would gradually phase out the current restrictions on flights out of Love Field, which would benefit its primary tenant, Southwest Airlines. The compromise, however, would also cap the number of gates at the airport, ensuring that it remains the area's secondary aviation facility to Dallas - Fort Worth International Airport, where American has a major hub. "It's a deal few thought would ever come to pass, a reflection of nearly 30 years of public and bruising battle between Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Dallas' Southwest Airlines," the Dallas Morning News writes.

As is usually the case with a compromise, neither side is completely happy. American Airlines would prefer that the restrictions on flights out of Love Field be in place permanently, while Southwest doesn't want to wait another eight years to begin flying directly from Love to states outside the Wright Amendment limit (Southwest does, however, get to implement through-ticketing from Love to states outside the limit). But it looks like the major parties involved are at least satisfied, if not happy. Congressional approval of the compromise is still required, but hopefully this marks the beginning of the end of the Wright Amendment, which in my opinion has been nothing more than a rather transparent attempt to protect DFW Airport - and, by extension, American Airlines - by giving them a monopoly on long-range air travel to and from the Metroplex.

Nothing against DFW; when Lori and I lived in Denton, we actually found DFW to be more convenient than Love when we flew. These days, however, when I travel to Dallas I fly in and out of Love Field exclusively. So does this compromise affect me personally? Maybe. The new through-ticketing provisions might result in more people flying between Love Field and Houston's Hobby Airport as people from states outside the Wright Amendment limit start flying through Houston to get to and from Dallas. In that case, it could make the already-crowded flights even worse (bad for me) or cause Southwest to add more flights between the two airports to handle the higher traffic volumes (good for me). It will be interesting to see what happens.

I thought that name sounded familiar

Justin Furstenfeld, the lead singer for the group Blue October, was a freshman at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts the same year I was a senior there (1990-91). Like me, he was a theatre major.

By the way, Hate Me is one of the best singles of 2006 so far.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Salve, O Patria

Congratulations are in order for Ecuador, who punched their ticket to the second round of the 2006 World Cup after slaughtering Costa Rica, 3-0, earlier today.

Not too many people gave Ecuador, playing in its second World Cup, much of a chance of getting out of the first round; one prognosticator compared Ecuador to one of those first-round-and-out teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. The team was criticized because of their relative lack of success outside of their home stadium in Quito, where opposing teams had to contend with the high altitude, and the team's overall lack of players with European experience. However, after convicing shutout wins over Poland and Costa Rica, Ecuador is turning a few heads and is proving that it belongs on the world stage.

I can imagine the celebrations that are occurring in the streets of Quito, Guayaquil, Cuenca and Manta tonight. This is about as big as it gets for the tiny, improverished Andean nation. I kind of wish I was down there right now...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

My weird sister-in-law

Don't ask me why she did this to herself, but more pictures are available at her page...

Friday, June 09, 2006

Busy week

I apologize for the lack of posts this week. A lot has been going on: Kirby began day care on Monday, I was in Dallas Wednesday and Thursday, and later this afternoon the three of us are going to New Orleans a long weekend. I'm interested in seeing how things are going, nine months after Katrina, and we think Kirby will get a kick out of the Aquarium of the Americas, which recently re-opened.

I'll have an assessment of the city, and perhaps some pictures, when I return next week.

My latest creation

The latest issue of As The World (Wide Web) Turns - Cougar Edition is now up at It's long, and it might not make a lot of sense to anyone who isn't a regular reader of the various University of Houston fan forums. But I enjoy writing it, and apparently a lot of Coog fans enjoy reading it, so I thought I'd mention it here as well.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Can Roger Clemens save the Astros?

Remember last April, when we were all expressing concern about closer Brad Lidge even as the Astros sat atop the NL Central? Well, those days are over. The Astros are now sitting at .500, a good 7.5 games behind division-leading St. Louis. They have lost eighteen out of their last twenty-six games. May, indeed, has not been a kind month for the local team.

Now, legendary pitcher Roger Clemens has agreed to postpone his retirement - again - to play with the Astros for the remainder of the 2006 season. Will his presence help lift the Astros out of their current rut and get them back to the postseason for the third year in a row?

While Clemens will no doubt be a huge boost to the team's struggling starting pitching, there's still the problem of an inconsistent bullpen. Lidge is still having problems and some relievers are downright unreliable. And it's not likely that Clemens will do much to help the Astros' anemic offense; the club's .256 batting average is 12th in the 16-team National League.

So I'm inclined to agree with Chronicle columnist Richard Justice: while Clemens will do his part and be a lift for the team, he by himself is not going to pull the 'Stros out of their current tailspin. His teammates need to step it up as well.

There's no reason to believe that the Astros can't do it; they came back from situations worse than this, after all, in 2004 and 2005 to reach the postseason. And while past performance is not an indicator of future results, this team was 19-9 just a month ago.

And that was without Roger.


This week, the Denton County Transit Authority began express bus service from Denton and Lewisville to downtown Dallas.

It's good to see something I helped create come to fruition.