Saturday, June 30, 2007

NFL Europa bids auf wiedersehen

Yesterday, the owners of the National Football League decided to shut down its sixteen-year-old European developmental league, NFL Europa.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it was strictly business, insisting that after “significant investment” it was time to close NFL Europa and concentrate internationally on regular-season games outside the United States.
This is unfortunate, but I had a feeling that it was going to happen sooner or later; whatever benefits NFL Europa may have created in exposing foreign audiences to American football or providing valuable opportunities for young players to develop (Super Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner and Jack Delhomme being among those who got their start in that league), it was simply too much of a money drain for the NFL to stomach. As the article states, the league was losing about $30 million a season.

As a football junkie, I followed this league from its inception in the spring of 1991, when what was then known as the World League of American Football began operations with ten teams in five countries (I still remember those florescent lime green uniforms the Orlando Thunder wore!). The league was suspended after two seasons and returned as a six-team, all-European lineup in 1995. In 1997, the league was renamed NFL Europe. It was again renamed NFL Europa prior to the most recent season.

A couple of the franchises, such as the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Rhein Fire, were rather successful at developing strong local fan bases. Franchises outside of Germany were not as stable, however. The London Monarchs and the Barcelona Dragons were two of the league's most successful franchises, initially, but diminishing fan support caused those teams to eventually be relocated to Berlin and Cologne, respectively. At its end, five of the league's six teams were German.

Lori and I attended World Bowl X during our European trip in June 2002. It was an experience we'll never forget, as we found ourselves among 53 thousand screaming, singing German football (not soccer!) fans. I can honestly say that I've not encountered an atmosphere quite like that at any football game I've been to here in the United States - not even at football-rabid venues like Texas, Texas A&M or Oklahoma.

The NFL plans to continue generating international exposure for itself by playing regular-season games outside of the United States. This fall, for example, the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants will play each other in London, and it's highly likely that game will be played in Germany starting in 2008. For the tens of thousands of German football fans that the NFL cultivated over the past sixteen years, however, watching Dallas play Oakland is probably not going to feel quite the same as watching Rhein play Frankfurt.

The WLAF/NFL Europe/NFL Europa played a total of fifteen seasons, which actually makes it one of the longer-lived professional football leagues. A list of its champions can be found here.

Hungry caterpillar update

One of the caterpillars emerged from its chrysalis today:

Meet the adult Papilio polyxenes, or Black Swallowtail butterfly. Because of the larger blue spots and smaller yellow spots, this one appears to be female.

Unfortunately, none of us observed it emerging from its chrysalis. I just walked into the dining room this afternoon and was startled by the big, black butterfly that was hanging out in there! These things are large, as far as butterflies go; its wingspan was probably about 3 1/2 inches across.

This insect seemed pretty docile and didn't seem to mind being handled. Lori and I marveled at it for awhile and then showed it to Kirby once he awoke from his nap. We then took it outside so it could go on its merry way:

You'd think that, at my age, I wouldn't be amazed by natural phenomena such as caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis anymore. But Lori and I both found ourselves fascinated by this particular event. Perhaps its because both the larvae as well as the adults of this particular species are so attractive. Perhaps it's because, as parents, we tend to look at the world through Kirby's eyes now. Or perhaps it's because, given our busy lives, we tend to forget that there is a natural world around us until we are directly confronted by it in a manner such as this.

There's still one chrysalis left; Lori and I will keep a close eye on it in hopes that we can actually watch the butterfly emerge. And Lori and I will definitely be planting more dill in our front yard garden so that we can attract more of these beautiful Black Swallowtails in the future.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Congratulations Biggio

Let me join the chorus of local bloggers celebrating Craig Biggio's 3,000th career hit tonight. He only needed three hits going into tonight's game to reach the milestone, but he decided to do even better: Bidge went 5-for-6, including a hit in the bottom of the 11th inning that helped set up Carlos Lee's spectacular game-winning grand-slam.

There's not much else for the Astros and their fans to be happy about right now - the team's .418 winning percentage is currently tied for third-worst in Major League Baseball - which makes tonight's game all the more enjoyable. This is a well-deserved accomplishment for one of the greatest people to ever wear an Astros uniform.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Jury duty

Earlier this week, I was called for jury duty and ended up being selected to serve on a jury for a DWI case. As it was a misdemeanor, the jury I served on was comprised of six persons (as opposed to the twelve-member juries required for felony cases).

This was the second time I have been called for jury duty in Harris County. The process is fairly straightforward: you go to the jury assembly room downtown, and after some administrative procedures you are selected to be included in a jury pool. From there, you are led to a courtroom and the jury selection process, known as voir dire, begins. There is a lot of sitting and waiting involved because criminal court dockets are full and a lot of activity occurring in the courtroom is completely unrelated to the trial at hand. Harris County's suggestion that you bring along reading material or something else to keep you occupied while you wait is good advice. Even after the jury selection process was over and the six of us were empaneled, other business taking place within the courtroom meant that the trial itself didn't begin until late in the afternoon.

The defendant was a young lady who was pulled over after a police officer observed her break a couple of traffic laws. He pulled her over, determined that she had been drinking, administered a field sobriety test, and decided to take her downtown. There, they performed a breath test on her and gave her another field sobriety test in a special room with markings on the floor and a video camera that records the test. The arresting officer, the station supervisor, and HPD's breath test expert all testified on behalf of the prosecution (the defense called no witnesses of their own). This last witness is a young lady with extensive training and knowledge of the testing equipment being used as well as the manner in which alcohol is processed in the body. Her job is essentially to calibrate the equipment and to testify as to its accuracy in court.

The defense attorney's strategy seemed to be the "spaghetti defense," i.e. throw everything you can at the wall and see if anything sticks. I guess it made sense, seeing that he was facing an uphill battle, but overall his performance was wearisome and weak.

The trial only lasted an hour and a half the first day, and was subject to constant interruptions the next day; we (the jurors) spent most of the time locked in the jury deliberation room, chatting about baseball and summer travel plans and what books we had read. Finally, however, the trial itself ended and we returned to the deliberation room one last time to decide the case. Nobody really wanted to be jury foreman; I finally agreed to do so. We discussed the case.

I was not prepared to convict the defendant based on the field sobriety tests alone. The officer's testimony of the defendant's performance on the scene was not fully convincing (there was no camera in his cruiser to record the tests) and the defendant seemed to perform well during the second videotaped test at the station. The fact that the defendant's breath alcohol sample was well above the 0.08 limit, however, was a fact that none of us could get around.

I'm sure that there are plausible arguments against the validity of breath tests. I don't know how much stock I would put into them, but I was at least hoping to hear something substantive in that regard from the defense attorney. That simply didn't happen; his cross-examination of the breath-test expert was as feeble as it was tedious and he did nothing to give me or any of the other jurors a reasonable doubt as to the validity of HPD's breath-testing equipment or the results it produced.

So we all agreed that the defendant was guilty of driving while intoxicated. We went back into the courtroom and rendered our verdict.

After the verdict was read, the judge told us what her sentence would likely be. As a first offender, she would be sentenced to probation, a fine, community service and alcohol counseling. The judge noted that this punishment was essentially the same as what she would have received had she agreed to a deal with the prosecutors prior to the trial. In that regard, I really can't fault her for exercising her right to a trial by jury because she really didn't have anything to lose and everything to gain.

Hopefully, the defendant will learn from this experience and will be more judicious the next time she goes out to a bar. Fortunately, nobody was hurt or killed due to this person's actions and, most likely, the only long-term consequence she will face as a result of this trial is an extremely high auto insurance rate. As somebody who frequents a couple of bars in Midtown myself, this experience has given me a new perspective as to my decisions and their possible consequences, as well.

After the trial, the prosecutor and the defense attorney had the opportunity to meet with the jury, on a voluntary basis, to find out why we reached the verdict that we did. The prosecutor took advantage of this opportunity; we gave her suggestions as to her courtroom demeanor and the evidence she produced. The defense attorney chose not to meet with us, which is unfortunate because there was a lot I wanted to say to him. We were then sent home; our duties as jurors had come to an end.

All in all, it was an interesting experience.

As it turns out, I was not the only local blogger that served on a jury this week. John recounts his experiences as a juror for a drug possession case here and here. My misgivings about the number of people who begged out of jury service during voir dire are not as pronounced as his, although that might be because my prospective jury pool for this case was much smaller than his (20 people as opposed to 60) and so there simply weren't as many opportunities for people to weasel out of service.

There were, to be fair, a couple of people who had legitimate reasons as to why they couldn't serve on the jury. One man explained that he would have been able to serve on a jury that day, but a two-day trial would be problematic because the other supervisor at the shop where he works would be gone the following day and, if he had to serve, it would have left his shop's employees without any supervision. Another person, by the questions he asked and answered, clearly seemed to be confused about the purpose and process of jury service. But there were also two or three other people who simply claimed that they didn't think that they, for whatever reason, could be impartial jurors. Perhaps they were being honest; perhaps they were lying just to get excused.

The system only works when citizens do their duties. Sometimes these duties involve a hardship or inconvenience. The alternatives to said hardship or convenience, however, are unacceptably worse. This is something everybody should consider before they try to shirk off their next jury summons.

The very hungry caterpillars

Earlier this week I found these guys munching on Lori's dill plant in the front yard garden:

With the help of the internet, I was able to identify these guys. Lori and I also thought it would be a good idea for Kirby, who is a fan of this children's book, to bring them to his preschool for his show-and-tell:

Kirby brought the little guys safely back home and Lori put them back on the dill plant. They soon afterward made their way over to the adjacent crepe myrtle, attached themselves to the plant's stems and molted into pupae. Fearing their vulnerability to hungry birds or other predators, I decided to bring them inside for protection:

Now we wait for a couple of weeks and see what happens.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Kenny Phipps is celebrating tonight

One of my classmates at the University of Houston College of Architecture was a guy from San Antonio by the name of Kenny Phipps*. He was a huge San Antonio Spurs fan, and he never let anyone forget it. He had Spurs posters and other memorabilia around his drafting table, and during the evenings he could oftentimes be found at his desk, working or studying while listening to Spurs broadcasts on the radio (given San Antonio's proximity to Houston, AM radio broadcasts of Spurs games were not at all difficult for him to pick up at night).

It wasn't exactly easy for him to be a Spurs fan surrounded by Rockets fans, especially during the mid-1990s when the Rockets and Spurs were actually both very good teams (the Rockets, of course, winning back-to-back titles during this time) and had a healthy rivalry going. But Kenny never backed down; he gave as good as he got from his Rocket-fan studiomates and the basketball-related banter that resulted was oftentimes a light-hearted distraction from the monotony of model-building and drawing.

Whenever the Spurs won, Kenny would march through studio shouting, in a slightly-shrill tone, something along the lines of "Spurs, baby, Spurs! Oh, yeah, baby! Spurs!" Over time, the phrase "Spurs, baby, Spurs!" became an identifying catchphrase for him. To this day, when I think of Kenny I think of him gleefully uttering those words.

After graduation, as happens so often, I lost touch with Kenny. Last I heard, he had moved back to San Antonio and started a family. But that information is several years old.

However, as the San Antonio Spurs - having swept a thoroughly outclassed Cleveland Cavaliers team - celebrate their fourth NBA title in eight years this evening, I know that my old friend Kenny Phipps is, somewhere, right now, jubilantly screaming something incoherent about "Spurs, baby, Spurs, oh yeah, SPURS, BAYBEE!!!" Remembering Kenny the way I do, that thought brings a smile to my face.

(*I'm using Kenny's real name in this entry because I don't think he'd object to anything I've written here about him. Besides, maybe one day he'll come across this post while egosurfing and get back in touch with me...)

Alternate "Sopranos" ending

Okay, I'll admit it. I liked the way it ended. But for those of you who, four days later, are still griping about the manner in which The Sopranos ended, here is an alternate ending with a bit more "closure" that you might appreciate:

Video via Max Silvestri.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A frustrating experience

My father went in for spine surgery today. It was a routine and relatively noninvasive procedure (keeping in mind that "noninvasive" and "spine surgery" probably don't belong in the same sentence) to correct a herniated disk that had been compressing his spinal cord and apparently causing him severe and debilitating sciatica pain. The procedure reportedly went well and if all goes according to plan he should be released from the hospital in the morning.

The fact that my dad had to have surgery is, by itself, not frustrating. He's getting old, and these things happen. What he finds frustrating, rather, is the fact that this procedure really should have been completed several months ago.

My father had been suffering from sciatica since early this spring. In an attempt to seek relief, he went through a veritable merry-go-round of doctors, orthopedic surgeons, neurologists and other specialists, and took battery after battery of tests, MRIs, myelograms and other diagnostic procedures. At first, his doctors told him to take up a vigorous exercise regimen, in hopes that physical activity would resolve the problem. When that approach didn't work, they told him to do the exact opposite: get plenty of rest and avoid as much physical exertion as possible. They simply hoped that the problem would resolve itself (to be fair, herniated disks often do repair themselves over time; my father's condition, however, was clearly not getting better). The painkillers they prescribed him were woefully inadequate, as well; the pain in his legs and hips was oftentimes searingly intense and conventional painkillers simply didn't work.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that he was finally sent to a spinal specialist who looked at all the available data and, unlike all the other professionals my father had been referred to, realized that the only reliable fix for this problem would be surgery. An appointment was set and, as of this evening, the procedure is complete.

I'm not really clear as to why none of my father's other doctors wanted to take the surgical route, or why it took so long for my father to be referred to a specialist who finally did decide to go ahead with the surgery. Perhaps the medical profession, as a whole, is so afraid of lawsuits that they avoid surgery for these types of ailments at all costs, hoping instead that the problem will eventually resolve itself without the need for medically-invasive procedures. Perhaps the insurance companies, looking to keep ever-spiralling medical costs under control, ask doctors to refrain from recommending surgical procedures if they can help it. And perhaps my dad's doctors were so worried abut my dad developing an addiction to powerful painkillers that they refused to provide him with medicine that would offer him real relief from his pain. While I can't completely fault the medical profession for wanting to err on the side of caution, my father's experience nevertheless seems to paint an impression of a health care community that is directed not by the doctors themselves, but rather by their legal counsel or their accountants. Is the fear of lawsuits - be it from botched surgeries or from patients addicted to painkillers - or the need to keep costs down really so pervasive that it creates an attitude of inaction so entrenched that the patients themselves are forced to needlessly suffer without resolution for months until decisive action - one of my father's doctors admitted that surgery was a "last resort" - is finally taken?

Not only, after all, did their reluctance to pursue the surgical option until now cause my dad to experience so much pain for so long, but it's also affected my parents' summer travel plans. They had to cut short their annual trip to New Orleans (I accompanied them and will write about it in a later post) this past week, and, depending on how long it takes my dad to recuperate, the big several-weeks-long trip they were planning to make to the west coast later this summer could be in jeopardy as well. It just doesn't seem right; my father, naturally, feels like the medical community has let him down.

Of course, this entire rant could be for naught: there's no guarantee that the surgery was a success. My father will know in the coming days whether the pain persists. If the procedure is successful, then at least my dad will have received the care he needed later rather than never and will be able to eventually resume normal activities. If this procedure doesn't alleviate the pain, however, or if complications arise, then it's back on the medical merry-go-round again for more agony and frustration.