Monday, January 29, 2007

Staying home

As it turns out, I'm not going to be making any trips back to the Middle East this spring after all. My company's Dubai office has finally worked out its staffing needs for the next few months, and they dod not include me. There is a possibility, as always, that my presence there could be required there later on this year as more projects over there get underway.

On one hand, it's probably for the best that I not travel over there right now. Being away from home for weeks at a time puts a tremendous amount of stress on Lori, and given her current situation this would probably be an especially bad time to leave her alone with Kirby. Besides, I've already "done my time" over there, so to speak, having cumulatively spent over two months in Dubai last year. Traveling overseas is a hassle.

On the other hand, I can't help but feel at least somwhat annoyed and frustrated. I was told before the holidays to expect to return to Dubai sometime soon, I mentally prepared myself (and Lori) to be away from home for awhile, and I even had ideas about bringing Lori out there for a week so she could see Dubai for herself. A few weeks ago, when I was asked to re-arrange my schedule to make room to travel over there, it looked like my departure was all but certain. To then be told "oh, never mind, we don't need you after all" is a bit of a let-down. It also elicits a bit of paranoia on my part: "why don't they need me after all? Did I not do a good job last time I was there?"

Oh, well, such is my work life. Now comes the fun part: working with my boss to re-arrange my schedule once more and find billable hours for all that time I was supposed to be overseas.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Get a blowjob, go to prison

This story about 20-year-old Georgia inmate Genarlow Wilson, whose promising future as an collegiate athlete ended after he received consensual oral sex from a schoolmate, is very long but is worth a read.

All I can say is that it is unbelieveable that bullshit like this still happens in our country in this day and age. I was especially blown away by this tidbit:
At the same time this trial was under way, a local high school teacher, a white female, was found guilty of having a sexual relationship with a student -- a true case of child molestation. The teacher received 90 days. Wilson received 3,650 days.

Ten years. For a hummer. Wow.

Certainly, he and his friends used poor judgement. Teenagers will be teenagers. But the punishment this young man is receiving is draconian. His life is being ruined, and nobody seems to care.

One wonders what his sentence might have been if he were white instead of black.

Absolutely disgusting. The people who put this young man behind bars should be ashamed of themselves.

The University of Houston wants a medical school

The University of Houston is considering partnering with The Methodist Hospital and Cornell University to start a new medical school at the Texas Medical Center.

The idea of a new medical school makes sense, as UH President Jay Gouge explains: "We would be remiss if we didn't explore the possibility... When you're sitting next to the world's largest medical center, in a state that's 41st out of 50th in physicians per capita, it would be almost unconscionable not to do due diligence."

However, I think the odds of this happening anytime soon sit somewhere between slim and none. The Chronicle article on this story explains further:
A UH medical school would face an uphill battle, and not just because there already are two medical schools in Houston — as well as schools in Galveston and College Station. In 2002, a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board report identified El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley as preferred sites for any new school.

The University of Texas-Austin also is interested in starting a medical school, and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, is pushing for a medical school affiliated with Prairie View A&M.

"It would be my preference that Prairie View gets a medical school before UH or UT," said Coleman, UH's representative.

Yeah, when a State Representative who lives three blocks from your school's main campus disses you, you know your school has an uphill battle to climb.

Besides, does anybody really think that Texas and Texas A&M, as arrogant and as selfish as those two institutions are, are ever going to be eager to allow the University of Houston to have its own medical school? Especially after the University of Houston successfully prevented Texas A&M from affiliating itself with downtown's South Texas College of Law a few years back? Keep in mind that the members of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board are appointed by the Governor, and the blow-dried twit that currently occupies said office is an Aggie.

University of Houston leaders clearly realized that the idea of a UH-affiliated medical school would generate controversy and therefore have kept quiet about the proposal up until now; the Chronicle broke the story after filing a Freedom of Information request that UH administrators initially tried to appeal. But now that the cougar's out of the bag now, so to speak, what are the next steps to be taken?
Emphasizing that UH is in the early stages of exploring a medical school, Gogue said he expects a recommendation from Provost Don Foss in the next three to six months. If the recommendation is in favor of a medical school, Gogue said the next step would be to begin discussions with UH's board of regents and contact the Coordinating Board, which approves new programs. Gogue said the earliest a proposal would go to the Legislature would be 2009.
All I can say to Dr. Gogue and the University of Houston is "good luck." They're going to need it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

New coaches at Rice and North Texas

Last week, Rice University hired David Baliff as its new head football coach. Baliff was formerly the head football coach at Texas State, where he led the Bobcats to a 21-15 record over three seasons, including the 2005 season in which the Bobcats won their first Southland Conference championship and reached the Division I-AA semifinals.

Rice football has its second coach in as many years due to previous coach Todd Graham's decision to climb aboard the coaching carousel that began when the NFL's Atlanta Falcons decided to hire Louisville Cardinals head coach Bobby Petrino to take over their franchise. Louisville then lured away Tulsa Golden Hurricane head coach Steve Kragthorpe to be their new top guy. That left a coaching vacancy at Tulsa. Graham, who was from the area and who had previously served as Tulsa's defensive coordinator, decided to take the job.

Never mind that Graham was only at Rice for one year. Nor mind the fact that Graham decided to change jobs just two days after agreeing to a contract extension through 2012 at Rice, or that he did it three weeks before signing day, or that Tulsa, being another private school in the same conference as Rice, can't be considered anything other than a lateral move on Graham's part. But money talks, and the reported $1.1 million/year Graham will receive from Tulsa was simply too much for him to turn down.

It's true that college football is a business, and that coaches have to do what's best for themselves. Contracts don't mean anything and loyalty to a certain institution doesn't even come into play; when another school with a larger pocketbook comes calling, coaches will do what most of us would probably do if presented with the same choice: take the money. It might make football fans angry - the furor regarding Nick Saban's decision to leave the NFL's Miami Dolphins to become the head coach at the University of Alabama is one of the more notable coaching controversies of the last few weeks - but it's just part of the sport. While it is indeed regretful that the same coaches that preach to their players about "integrity," "character," "dedication" or "commitment" simply don't practice it themselves, it's not something that's ever going to change.

That didn't make Rice fans feel any better about Graham's sudden departure. Most of the commenters on the Chronicle's Owl Sports Blog entry about his departure clearly felt used and betrayed. Chronicle columnist John Lopez had some harsh words to say about Graham, as well.

My question is, why did Tulsa allegedly offer $1.1 million / year for this guy? That's a huge contract by Conference USA standards, especially coming from a small private school like Tulsa. Given that Graham only has one year of head coaching experience, is he really worth that kind of money?

At first glance, maybe so. After Graham came to Rice, he raised some money, got new fieldturf and a new scoreboard installed at Rice Stadium, and made Rice fans excited about their moribund football program again. He was able to coach the team back from a 1-5 record, as well as the devastating death of freshman tailback Dale Lloyd, to acheive a 7-5 record (a six-game improvement on Rice's 1-10 2005 campaign). Graham led the Owls to their first bowl game in 45 years, and was named C-USA's Coach of the Year.

But dig a little deeper, and Graham's success at Rice becomes a bit less clear. Rice's bowl drought, quite frankly, should have been broken five or ten years ago; Ken Hatfield's 1996 (7-4) and 2001 (8-4) Rice teams were arguably better than Graham's 2006 squad. Those teams didn't go to bowls because the Western Athletic Conference, of which Rice was a member at the time, didn't have very many bowl tie-ins. Furthermore, there weren't a record 32 bowl games, as there are now, which ensured that every team with a winning record last season went to a bowl. Moreover - and there's no way to put this nicely - Graham and his team were utterly embarrassed by Troy in the New Orleans Bowl, 41-17. While Troy is not exactly a bad program - they were Sunbelt Conference champions, for what it's worth - they're not going to be confused with Texas or Florida State, which were the only other two schools that put such lopsided beatdowns on the Owls during the season. Rice simply had no answer for the Trojans, and Graham's helpless frustration - he always seemed to be cursing into his headset when the ESPN cameras zoomed in on him during the New Orleans Bowl - was evident.

Then there's Graham's management style, which apparently rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. After Graham came in, he essentially cleaned out the athletics department, firing a lot of longtime department staffers, assistants, and trainers (he kept the receptionist because, as the ESPN sportscasters said during the New Orleans Bowl, she reminded him of his mother). He destroyed the sense of continuity and community within Rice's athletics department, and Graham's departure created the sense, expressed by John Lopez in the above-referenced column - that he actually made things worse at Rice in the long term by his actions.

I don't know if I'd go that far in criticizing Graham, and if Rice was not where he wanted to be - and it's obvious that it wasn't - it's probably better for the program that he left sooner rather than later, even if "sooner" only meant one season. And, in the end, it's all over now. Rice has a new guy at the helm that hopes to pick up where Graham left off, and reaction to his hiring seems to be generally positive. As somebody who normally roots for Rice when they aren't playing Houston, I wish him the best of luck.

Needless to say, this fall's matchup between Rice and Tulsa is going to be interesting to watch.

Up in Denton, another coaching controversy has also been put to rest. Although there was some dissention - much of it coming from a Houston furniture magnate - over the University of North Texas's decision to fire head coach Darrell Dickey before the 2006 season had ended, there generally seems to be support for UNT's decision to hire former Southlake Carroll head coach Todd Dodge to take over the helm of the Mean Green. Southlake Carroll was a high school powerhouse under Dodge's leadership, winning four Class 5A state championships and amassing an overall record of 98-11 since Dodge's tenure there began in 2000. Dodge has some familiarity with college football as well as UNT, as he served as offensive coordinator for the Mean Green during the 1992 and 1993 seasons. North Texas obviously hopes to enjoy the success that Houston has had with Art Briles, who was a very successful coach at Stephenville High School before moving up to the college ranks.

Finally, I can't help but notice that former UH head coach Kim Helton is now the offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama-Birmigham. Helton will work under head coach Neil Callaway, who, ironically, was Helton's offensive coordinator for a few seasons in Houston. More recently, Callaway was the offensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs. UAB's search for a new head coach, which met with interference from the University of Alabama's Board of Trustees, was another coaching controversy.

I hope Blazer fans like draw plays, because they'll probably be seeing a lot of them...

Monday, January 15, 2007

The 2006 college football review

The college football season ended one week ago tonight, with Florida's suprising 41-14 trouncing of previously #1 and unbeaten Ohio State in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship Game. I'm glad I don't bet on sports, because if I had I would have lost some money. No doubt, most people who did put money on this game are poorer now, as very few people expected Florida to beat Ohio State, and even fewer expected the result to be as lopsided as it was.

It's always fun to look back at the beginning of the season to see how preseason expectations turned out. Florida, which started the year ranked #7 in the AP poll and #8 in the USA Today coaches' poll, was obviously expected to have a good year but I don't recall very many people picking them to win it all; Ohio State, USC and last year's champion, Texas, were all getting more national buzz and even conference rival Auburn was ranked ahead of the Gators to start the season. Things looked even worse for the Gators after they lost to Auburn in the middle of the season, but as teams ahead of them also suffered losses, and as the Gators climbed their way up to the top of an SEC that was clearly the best conference in the nation in 2006, they earned their right to face an Ohio State team that had sat at the top of the polls all year long.

And they proved themselves to be the best. Sure, the excuses can be made for Ohio State: they had a very long layoff between games. Ted Ginn, Jr. was injured. Anything can happen in any given game. Etc. But the fact remains, that in the biggest game of the year, the Buckeyes were simply overwhelmed by Urban Meyer's Gators. Florida's defense held Ohio State to a mere 82
yards of total offense; Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was only allowed to complete four passes the entire game; he was sacked five times, fumbled once, threw one interception and never found the endzone. And the Ohio State defense simply didn't have an answer for Chris Leak, Tim Tebow, DeShawn Wynn and the rest of the Gator offense. The Buckeyes were also exhausted on defense, since Florida had an amazing 40:48-to-19:12 advantage in time of possession.

Going into the bowl season, the big controversy was whether Michigan should have gotten a chance to face Ohio State in a rematch for the national title, rather than Florida. However, that controversy seems to have fallen by the wayside after the Wolverines were rather handily defeated by USC, 18-32, in the Rose Bowl. Had they beaten the two-loss Trojans, the Wolverines might still have an argument that they could have beaten Ohio State just as convincingly as Florida did. But that didn't happen, and the Wolverines are left looking back at that thrilling November game against Ohio State in November and wondering what could have been.

Now that the season is over, the only controversy, albeit a minor one, seems to be one regarding Boise State, which was the only team to end the season without a loss. They finished #5 in the AP poll and #6 in the USA Today poll after an amazing 43-42 victory in overtime over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Should they have been awarded the national title instead of Florida, by virtue of an undefeated season? One AP sportswriter in New Mexico thought so, but apparently nobody else - the blue-and-orange-clad fans in Idaho excepted - did.

While the argument can be made that Boise State deserved to be ranked higher than #5 - Ohio State (#2) as well as two-loss LSU (#3) and USC (#4) teams ended the season ranked higher than the Broncos in the AP poll - the argument that they should have been crowned champs instead of Florida is a bit more difficult to make. While Boise State's schedule was tougher than most people give it credit for and, trick plays or no, they did beat the Big XII champion in one of the most amazing college football games ever played, it just wouldn't be fair for them to get the nod over a Florida team that just routed an Ohio State squad that was ranked #1 for the entire season and was expected by most to win the national title. Could Boise State have beaten Florida if the two had actually played? Nobody will ever know, of course, but honestly? Probably not. As one who roots for the "little guys" and loves to see non-BCS teams crash the BCS party, however, I'm very happy with what Boise State accomplished this past season and I salute them.

Two other teams that have a legitimate beef with the BCS process are Wisconsin and Auburn. The BCS rule that stated that no more than two teams from any conference could participate in any of the five BCS bowl games meant that they had to settle for Capital One and Cotton Bowl appearances, respectively, instead of the more lucrative BCS games, even though they were both ranked higher in the final BCS standings than either Notre Dame (who were dominated by LSU, 14-41, in the Sugar Bowl) or Wake Forest (who lost, 13-24, to Louisville in the Orange Bowl). Considering the way Ohio State was drubbed, in fact, there's an argument that the Wisconsin Badgers, who defeated a solid Arkansas team 17-14 in the Capital One Bowl and whose only loss was an early-season defeat to Michigan (they did not face Ohio State in Big Ten play this year), end the season as the best one-loss team in the nation behind Florida. Would things have different for the Badgers had they not scheduled a ridiculous out-of-conference slate of Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State and Buffalo?

To be fair to Wake Forest, they did earn their way into the BCS mix by winning the ACC. They, along with Rutgers, were one of the feel-good, rags-to-riches stories of the 2006 college football season. But they represent an ACC that is suprisingly weak right now: Florida State, which was for years the conference's flagship, is clearly a program in decline, Miami's tumultous 7-6 season was a disappointment by any measure, and other decent ACC programs - Virginia Tech, Clemson or Georgia Tech, for example, - just can't quite yet make that next step.

Notre Dame, meawhile, holds the dubious record of the nation's longest bowl losing streak of nine straight games, going back to 1995. I can't help but wonder if Notre Dame is having a problem living up to their vaunted mystique and allure in the BCS era. I think pollsters habitually overrate them (they were ranked #2 in the AP poll and #3 in the USA Today poll to start the season) just because "they're Notre Dame," and their reputation and fan base get them invited to high-profile bowl games that they probably don't deserve to be in (last year's Fiesta Bowl and this year's Sugar Bowl being but two examples).

Louisville, which was the only other one-loss team besides Florida to win its BCS bowl, might have a gripe with the process as well, although it's hard to argue that they played a tougher schedule than Florida and therefore should have faced Ohio State instead. They end the season in the #6 spot in the AP poll. Rounding out the top ten are #7 Wisconsin, #8Michigan, #9 Auburn and #10 West Virginia. The USA Today poll has the same top ten teams except that Wisconsin is ranked higher than Boise State and Louisville.

It was a fun and exciting college football season; I enjoyed it, even if I had to spend part of it watching from a distance in Dubai. I especially enjoyed watching my Cougars win ten games, clinch the C-USA championship and go to the Liberty Bowl for the first time in ten years, even if the results of that game weren't exactly to my liking (Houston did, incidentially, pick up a handful of votes in the USA Today poll, but got no love from the sportswriters; had they beaten South Carolina I'd like to think that they would actually have been ranked, but alas).

So now comes the dreaded, seven-and-a-half-month-long offeseason. Sure, there will be some football-related activities, such as signing day next month and spring practices later on. But it just won't take the place of the actual games, the tailgates, and even the in-season controversies. If there's one thing I hate about college football, it's that the season is just too damn short.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Memo to Combat Candace

To: Candace, the night manager at the Kroger at 4000 Polk and Cullen in Houston, Texas (known by UH students and alumni as "Combat Kroger" due to its less-than-prime location in Houston's near East End)

From: Thomas

Re: Your lazy ass

Late this evening, I went to my neighborhood Kroger (not really in my neighborhood but the closest place to buy groceries from my house) to pick up a few items.

I noticed that only one register was open. And I noticed that at least ten people (myself included) were waiting patiently in line at this one register. And I noticed that the young man at the one open register appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by his customer load, as if he hadn't been working at your store for very long.

And I noticed you, sitting in a seat behind the customer service counter, talking on the phone, barely visible to your customers, oblivious to the situation regarding the number of customers being made to wait at the front of the store.

I'm just curious, but why didn't you hang up the phone, get out of the chair, come up to a register, log in and help your one poor employee with the number of customers waiting to make their purchases? (I know that, despite being a manager, you can still work a cash register. I've seen you do it before.) Isn't that what you, as a manager, are supposed to do? Isn't that considered good customer service? Does Kroger not offer classes or videos to management-level persons such as yourself that explain this concept?

When you finally did hang up the phone and get out of your chair and come to the registers, it was not to help check people out, but rather to begin emptying coins out of the automatic change dispensers next to each register. Is that something you had to do right then, or is that not something you could have done after helping your one poor employee with his customer load? Is that, perhaps, even something that you could have done after the store closed and all of the customers are gone? Or were you just in a hurry to go home?

It just seems like the backlog of customers being forced to wait at a single register is not something that would ever be allowed to happen, regardless of how late it was at night, at some of the more "upscale" inner-loop Kroger stores, such as the one on West Gray, or the big one at Buffalo Speedway and Westpark, or the "Disco Kroger" on Montrose. But I guess it's okay for it to happen at Combat Kroger; it's not like the largely low-income and largely minority customer base of that store really has a choice as to where they shop, right?

Maybe you just don't give a fuck. And I can't say I blame you. I mean, you appear to be close to me in age, give or take a few years. At this stage in my life, if my career were that of a night manager at a middle-of-the-ghetto grocery store, I probably wouldn't give a fuck, either.

But I'm wondering: can you at least try to give a fuck? It is your job, after all, even if it sucks. I don't like waiting in line for a long time at a grocery store. Neither, presumably, do the people who were waiting in line with me. It'd be really cool if, in the future, you could help us out by coming to a register and assisting customers with their grocery purchases when your only other employee at the front of the store is overwhelmed.

I'm not angry with you, and I don't hate you. In the many months that you've been working at Combat Kroger, I've found you to be friendly (if not a bit detached) and even somewhat attractive. I don't really want to get you fired, which is why I'm posting this memo here rather than complaining to one of the other managers at your Kroger or sending an e-mail to Kroger's corporate customer service folks.

There are other things I'd like to discuss with you in future memos (for example, your store's penchant for running out of my favorite beer), but I think this is enough discussion for now. Thank you for giving this some thought.

Random January thoughts

I've always found January to be a rather boring and dreary month. Perhaps it's a natural reaction to the passing of the festive holiday season, but January is my least favorite month of the year behind August.

Anyway, I'm sorry about the lack of recent posting activity. I'll try to put up some new material (inlcuding my recap of the college football season) over the weekend. In the meantime, here are some random thoughts and observations that have been rattling around in my head over the past few days:

David Beckham is coming to the Los Angeles Galaxy. The English soccer superstar's contract is reported to be five years and $250 million, inclusive of commerical endorsements. Beckham, who is one of the world's most recognizable athletes, hasn't had a great career at Real Madrid and his best days are clearly behind him. But his marquee value is unquestionable, and at age of 31 he definitely has a few productive years left in him.

While it's great to see one of soccer's greatest names come over to play on this side of the Atlantic, isn't signing international superstars to huge contracts the exact thing the MLS said it wouldn't do when it was formed over a decade ago? Hasn't professional soccer in the United States traveled down this road before, when the NASL of the 1970s signed Pele and other aging soccer standouts to outrageous contracts that the relatively small US soccer fan base simply couldn't support? How did that turn out? (hint: the NASL folded in 1984)

For all his popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, Beckham has his work cut out for him over here:

After all, Beckham's cult of personality has few believers in America. The superstar, whose best playing days are likely behind him, has helped sell millions of European tabloids but has been able to walk American streets in relative anonymity.

"I realize I'm not as recognized in the U.S. as I am around Europe, around other parts of the world," he said. "Hopefully playing for the Galaxy will change that."

His mandate calls for raising the profile of an average team in a soccer league that has little respect overseas and less recognition than the University of Southern California football team.

Good luck with that. While Beckham's appearance in Los Angeles will certainly pique interest, sell seats and create some buzz for the MLS, the Galaxy and its owner, Anschultz Entertainment Group (who also owns the Houston Dynamo), it's going to be much harder for Beckham to substantially raise the popularity of soccer within the United States or the reputation of the MLS outside of the United States.

The British media is already ridiculing Beckham's move. The BBC says, "it seems he has effectively admitted his serious career is finished and so has opted for a last slice of the showbiz lifestyle in the United States." And the title of a Guardian entry on the subject says it all: "Like an old dog looking for a quiet place to die."

The Los Angeles Galaxy are scheduled to open their season in April here in Houston, at Robertson Stadium against the Dynamo. However, local sports fans who want to see Beckham bend it at this game might be disappointed; it's likely that he will not begin playing for the Galaxy until August, when his contract at Real Madrid expires.

New espisodes of Jack's Big Music Show are finally airing on Noggin. Yippie! There was only so much more of Sheldon the Grumpy Squirrel, Jack's fear of Dixieland-playing bugs, Cathy Richardson singing to Mary's Daddy-O flower, or Laurie Berkner's "I Know a Chicken" video that I could take. It will be good to finally have some new material to listen to as Kirby gets his daily Jack fix.

It's amazing how having a child opens you up a whole new realm of entertainment and culture. A few years ago, before Kirby was born, I couldn't have told you who The Backyardigans were or what Stephanie's hair color was. These days, with your toddler happily sitting in front of the television, your exposure to these programs is unavoidable. Hence, our intimate familiarity with Jack, Mary, Mel and all the other characters and performers on Kirby's favorite show. As Kuff notes over on his blog, that might not be such a bad thing.

Streetsblog has an interesting entry about Dubai's transportation network. The blog notes that the rapidly-growing Emirate's transportation infrastructure is almost completely dependent on the automobile:
Dubai's transportation system depends almost entirely on the ever-widening Sheikh Zayed Road. The city lacks the smaller, more distributed and diverse destinations of a more organically developed city. With limited destinations scattered up and down this road there is little possibility for walking or bicycling (neighboring Qatar is building a network of mist-cooled bike lanes). Mass transit is planned and the current burst of development is creating density but nothing is being designed to be transit- or pedestrian-compatible.
This is, more or less, the truth. It's also why I'm part of a team hurriedly working to implement station context plans for Dubai Metro stations in order to make them more transit and pedestrian friendly. Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority has been working with developers to encourage transit, bicycle and pedestrian connections within new development as well, but it remains to be seen how sucessful that endeavor will be and it doesn't speak at all to the considerable amount of auto-dependent development within Dubai that has been already been completed. The article correctly notes that "rapid changes are setting a course that will force Dubai to confront many difficult transportation and development policy decisions in the coming years," especially as it continues to grapple with is phenomenal rate of growth and development.

Staffing plans for the next phase of the station context planning project I've been working on have yet to be finalized, but it's very possible that I could find myself in Dubai - again - before the end of the month and for as many as six or seven weeks this spring. I'll, obviously, keep everyone updated as to what happens.

Cities are reaping rewards from decking below-grade freeways with parks, according to this article in Governing magazine. The article says that there are something like 20 parks above freeways in the United States, and specifically mentions projects such as Freeway Park in Seattle, Hance Park in Phoenix and Lake Place in Duluth, Minnesota, as well as future projects such as the possible decking of a portion of the Woodall Rodgers Expressway on the north side of downtown Dallas.

I found this article to be rather interesting, since I actually wrote about the decking of underground freeways with parks as a means of better integrating them into the urban environment, and specifically explored the Duluth project, as part of my report about urban freeway aesthetics that I generated several years ago when I was in graduate school.

While the cost of decking below-grade freeways and placing parkland atop them is high, the article suggests that economic benefits in terms of increased property values and new development also appear to be substantial. There is, also, the aesthetic benefit of replacing a loud, smoggy concrete canyon full of cars with public open space.

And finally, I note with sadness the passing of a former Denton City Councilmember. Carl Young, Sr. was a lifelong Denton resident and a Vietnam veteran who served on city council from 1995 to 2001. He died earlier this week at the age of 59.

Young was a member of City Council during most of my tenure in Denton's planning department. He was generally a supporter of unfettered local development and was a proponent of affordable housing in Denton, even if thet meant supporting developments that other Denton politicians found unpalatable. In one instance, Young was so angered by his fellow councilmembers' rejection of a zoning change for a proposed manufactured home park on the north side of town that he, later in the council session, blocked an otherwise uncontroversial voluntary annexation petition. He told the rest of City Council that he didn't want Denton to incorporate any more property into the city if those property owners and developers were going to be treated as poorly as the applicant of the manufactured home park that was just rejected. That meant headaches for me, as I was the case manager for the annexation petition and had to completely restructure the case (the property was later annexed into the city).

Indeed, Young's tenure at City Hall was not without turmoil and controversy, especially as it related to his fellow councilmembers:

Young served on the council during a divisive era in city government. As the only black member of the council, Young in 1999 publicly accused the other council members of being racists, a comment for which he later apologized.

Former council member Mike Cochran, who often sparred with Young, said in a written statement Wednesday that the two were friends despite their disagreements.

“On council he was one who was always looking out for the ‘little guy’ because he never forgot what it was like to have been a little guy,” Cochran said. “His was a classic American story of a man from humble beginnings who worked hard and became a successful community leader and a tireless advocate for Southeast Denton.”

Cochran sat next to Young on council; neither he nor the Denton Record-Chronicle mention the "village idiot" debacle, which is the time Cochran got so annoyed at Young that he said something to the effect that "Carl, you prove that even the village idiot can be elected to city council" during a council meeting.

The outburst actually got some traction in the Dallas-Fort Worth press, signs immediately went up throughout Denton neighborhoods stating "I SUPPORT THE VILLAGE IDIOT," and Cochran later apologized to Young.

There were, to be fair, also times when Mike Cochran showed support to his neighbor and opponent on council. In one instance, Cochran visibly - and wisely - calmed Young after he became agitated by a hateful and racist local crackpot who showed up at a council meeting and verbally assaulted Young during the citizen comment period.

Term limits ended Young's political career after his third term, representing a largely-minority district in southeast Denton, expired in May of 2001. He remained involved in the Southeast Denton community after his stint on council ended, and was a supporter of current Denton Councilmember Charlye Higgens, who occupies the City Council seat that was once his. Funeral services for Young will be held next week, and he will be buried at Dallas / Fort Worth National Cemetary.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Liberty Bowl report

Lori, my brother and I departed Houston at about 5:15 am on the morning of Thursday December 28th. The nine-hour drive was uneventful; we arrived in Memphis about 3:15 that afternoon and checked in to our room at the Marriott downtown. After spending some time in the hotel working our way through my brother's bottle of Crown, we walked out to the trolley stop and made our way to Beale Street for the evening's festivities.

The Houston Alumni Association's Thursday night party at Pat O'Briens was rather disappointing. It was a very crowded affair and it took forever just to get inside the building. The lines for food were long and they, unbelievably, ran out of food before everybody got a chance to eat anything. And the two drink coupons everyone received were only good for domestic beer or for lousy wine (so bad that Lori couldn't even finish her glass!); we couldn't even use them to enjoy the hurricanes that make Pat O'Briens famous. We don't blame HAO for our disappointment - it's not their fault that Pat O'Briens sucks - but we clearly did not get our money's worth on the deal.

After a couple of hours at Pat O'Briens, we left and went to another Beale Street bar to drink beer, visit with fans of both teams, and watch Cal beat up on the Aggies. We later went to Pig on Beale to get a real meal of pork barbecue, since the meager amount of food we received at Pat O'Briens did nothing to satiate our hunger.

The following morning, we woke up, shook off our hangovers, and boarded buses to the Fairgrounds. The pre-game festivities at the Mid-South Coliseum were just as good as we remembered it from ten years ago: plenty of great food, an open bar and lots of people. Even the cheesy entertainment provided by a horde of prepubsecent singers and dancers was tolerable, although at one point I did get an urge to walk up to the stage and smack that irritating nine-year-old Elvis impersonator across the face.

We spent a couple of hours in the Coliseum, eating, drinking, and listening to the Spirit of Houston outplay South Carolina's band during the battle of the bands. I can honestly say that it wasn't much of contest: the UH band was louder, tighter and had a better repertoire than their musical counterparts from Columbia. It's been reported on a UH fan message board that South Carolina's band broke one of their drums in their effort to keep up with the intensity of the UH band: a hilarous story, if true.

After spending time enjoying ourselves at the pre-game party, we stumbled our way across the parking lot and took our seats among the UH faithful in the Liberty Bowl. I would estimate that somewhere around 8,000 UH fans - possibly more - were in the stadium and that Carolina fans probably enjoyed a 3:1 advantage in numbers. That's to be expected, considering that The Gamecocks draw and average of 80k fans/game while Houston did well to draw 20k this past season. All that aside, it was a very good turnout for the Cougar faithful. For all the hand-wringing and whining that has occurred regarding the number of tickets sold (first for the CUSA Championship game and then for the Liberty Bowl), Cougar fans clearly stepped up when it counted and represented themselves and this team well.

Going into the game, I felt that the Cougars would need to play a mistake-free game in order to win. That didn't happen. The two first-half turnovers were not insurmountable - the Cougars still led at halftime - but the botched snap in the third quarter that Kevin Kolb was forced to kick out of bounds was a game-breaker. It killed a good drive and a great scoring opportunity for the Coogs. South Carolina's defense took over, allowing Houston only eight points in the entire second half, and their offense gradually wore down the Cougar defense before blowing the game open in the fourth quarter.

Still, the Coogs had a chance to send the game into overtime after the defense came up with a crucial fourth-down stop late in the fourth quarter and put the offense back on the field with good field position. But the Gamecock defense stepped up, sacking Kolb for a huge loss and eventually forcing the Coogs to turn the ball over on downs. The 48th Liberty Bowl, exciting as it was, ended in disappointment for the Good Guys, as they fell short 44-36.

I'm not big on moral victories. Yes, it's true that the Cougars gained a lot of respect from the Gamecock faithful with their performance. It's also true that the Coogs managed to score more points on South Carolina than any other school (e.g. Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and Auburn) has managed to do this season. On the other hand, it's equally true that South Carolina's 44 points were the most the Coogs have given up this season as well. And, in the end, the Cougars lost a game that they could have won, had just a few plays turned out differently. And that's a real bummer. Regardless of the opponent or the circumstances, it's never fun to lose a bowl game.

After all, the Coogs and their fans could have used a victory in the 2006 Liberty Bowl for a variety of reasons. A win would have broken UH's 26-year-long bowl victory drought. A win would have almost certainly catapulted UH to its first final 25 ranking since 1990. A win would have proven that the Cougars could beat a bowl team from the SEC and it would have forced a lot of people around the nation to eat large helpings of crow. But, most importantly, a victory in the Liberty Bowl would have constituted a fitting and happy ending to the on-campus careers of the team's seniors, especially Kevin Kolb.

Alas, happy endings only occur in fairy tales. And, as good as this season was for the Coogs - ten wins and a conference championship is nothing to be ashamed about - it wasn't exactly a fairy tale year for the Coogs. A fairy tale year probably would have included a Cougar victory over a struggling Miami team, rather than the heart-breaking 13-14 loss that actually occurred, and it most certainly would not have included the home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette. The 2006 season was a great step forward for Houston, but there is still a lot of unfinished business to attend to.

It's way too early to begin prognosticating about 2007; the Coogs lose a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and question marks abound going into the 2007 season. Will the Cougars be able to fill the holes on offense left by Kevin Kolb, Jackie Battle and Vincent Marshall? What about the personnel losses on defense? Will the coaching staff be able to cultivate something resembling a pass rush? Better tackling would help, too. The schedule will be a bit tougher, as well, with out-of-conference trips to Oregon and Alabama and crucial divisional matchups against Tulsa and UTEP on the road.

Given just how spectacularly bad Conference USA is right now, I don't think it is outside the realm of possibility that the Coogs could repeat as champions if a few holes are filled and a few adjustments are made. It's more likely, however, that 2007 will represent a step back and a period of rebuilding for the Houston program. But what if the Cougars were able to put together a decent season in spite of the talent being lost - say, seven wins and a postseason appearance in New Orleans or Mobile, perhaps? Would anybody consider that outcome unsuccessful?

I've seen some sentiment from some UH fans that it's more important for the program to go play the "big boys" from the Big XII or the SEC in the Fort Worth or Liberty Bowl, even if those games result in losses, than it is to play "nobody" teams from the MAC or Sunbelt even if they result in victories. I just can't agree with this logic: a bowl win - against any opponent in any bowl - will do more for the health of the program than yet another bowl loss. The folks on Sportscenter following the game, after all, were only too happy to report that the Cougars have lost seven straight bowls going back to 1980; it matters not to them, or to anybody outside the program, that many of these losses came against teams from "strong" conferences. At this point, the program - its ability to grow the fan base, its recruiting capabilities, and its national reputation - will be better served by the Coogs' breaking their bowl victory drought, even if it does come against "nobodies" like Middle Tennessee or Western Michigan.

Anyway, back to Memphis:

The South Carolina fans we met were, with only a few exceptions, classy and friendly both before the game as well as after. Many of them clearly took this game for granted the night before. And as many of them were clearly impressed and relieved the night after. The Gamecocks are good team with a lot of talent and a legend at the helm in the form of Steve Spurrier.

Saturday night after the game we walked up Main Street to Westy's and had an excellent meal. We then took the trolley back to Beale Street and treated ourselves to knock-you-on-your-ass strong daiquiris and good blues music at Wet Willie's. We departed Memphis at about 11:30 am Saturday. The weather was rainy and awful all the way past Little Rock. Once we got to Texarkana it was smooth sailing. The return trip was just as uneventful as the trip out, and we arrived home shortly after 9 pm.

We had a good time in Memphis, even if the outcome of the game wasn't to our liking. Hopefully we will be able to return soon. And hopefully the Cougars will win, for a change.

The Cougars' next game will be Saturday, September 1, 2007 against the Oregon Ducks in Eugene, Oregon.

Starting the year off wrong

A belated Happy New Year to everyone! Unfortunately, it hasn't been very happy for us so far: Lori went in to work Tuesday morning, only to find out that she had been laid off from her job, a job that she had held for slightly over three years.

Lori was told that she was being let go because the company was not turning a profit. For a firm that takes its workers and their families on ski trips, hosts lavish Christmas dinners and apparently just gave some of its senior engineers five-figure holiday bonuses, this explanation sounds a bit suspect. More likely, Lori was let go because the company was beginning to focus itself away from the type of work that Lori was doing, and Lori, not being an engineer herself, was no longer of utility to the firm. Lori is not aware of any other employees being laid off besides herself.

We understand that business is business, but the timing of the layoff - right after the holidays and, rather coincidentally, right before Lori was apparently supposed to get a promotion and a raise - as well as the nonchalant, almost-chipper manner in which she was informed of her dismissal - leaves a rather bad taste in Lori's mouth. I'm not particularly impressed, myself; there are a lot of people I've gotten to know over the past three years for whom I've suddenly lost a great deal of respect.

If there is a silver lining to this, it's the fact that Lori did not particularly enjoy that job. Traffic impact analyses and signal timing warrants were not the types of things she thought that she would be doing with an MBA in marketing; an interesting set of circumstances led her to that job, but it was not a place she really wanted to be. She found the work boring and stressful and had been looking for other opportunities more suited to her skills and desires even before she was let go; now she can devote all of her time to finding said opportunities. There was, as well, a "cliquish" nature to the staff that annoyed Lori and there are a few people she will not particularly miss.

And, to be honest, Lori could probably use a little bit of time off right now.

Her layoff came with a meager severance package (two weeks' salary and company-paid health insurance though the end of the month), and she will be able to file for unemployment benefits. However, the unemployment benefits she will receive are just a fraction of what she was making, and her income represented almost half of the household intake. It's too early to panic about our financial situation, but needless to say it would be good if Lori found new employment sooner rather than later.

I'll keep everyone informed; please think good thoughts for Lori in the meantime.