Monday, March 31, 2008

Marching orders have arrived

My relationship with my company's Dubai office is of the "hurry up and wait, and then hurry up" variety:

• First, I get the e-mail. "Hey, we may need you to come out and help us on a project that's coming up. We think it will start soon. Be prepared, we'll let you know."

• Then a lot of time goes by. Days, weeks, sometimes even months. Nothing happens.

• Then, finally, I get one of two follow-up e-mails. One is the "never mind, we don't need you after all" The other e-mail is "hey, can you be here by the end of the week? Oh, and we're going to need you to be out here pretty much all the time for the next three months."

Well, I got the "other" e-mail early Monday morning. It seems that not only is the project they told me about last month a go, but so is the project that was supposed to begin last fall but was then delayed for the developer for so long that I thought it had disappeared. Well, it finally reappeared. In a big way.

Both of these projects kick off on April 6th. Less than a week from today. My physical presence has been requested on that date, if at all possible. And I'll be spending most of my time in Dubai for the next three to five months, working on both of these projects (I will be able to make short trips back home from time to time).

On one hand, I'm happy. My workload here has been slowing down to the point that I was getting concerned about what I'd be doing next, and this Dubai work means billable hours for several months to come. Staying employed is always a good thing. I also like Dubai. That place is amazing and I've been ready to go back and see how much it has changed since my last trip there over a year ago.

On the other hand, it's not without its hardships. Being away from home for weeks at a time is difficult enough for me, but it's even harder on Lori because she'll have to take care of Kirby by herself. My parents will be here for most of the time I'm gone, however, and her parents, her sister, and friends and neighbors will be around as well so she'll still have a lot of people to help her out while I'm gone. But I'm sure she's going to get tired of Kirby asking "where's daddy?" all the time, because I don't think he's old enough to really understand why I'm going to be gone for several weeks at a time.

I don't know my itinerary yet, but if they truly want me there by Sunday I'll probably need to leave Houston on Thursday or Friday of this week. Which means I'm going to be frantically running around for a the next few days. I have loose ends to tie up at work, things to take care of at home, and of course I need to pack. Guess who's not going to be getting much sleep for the next several days?

At least I won't have to miss football season this time...

Memo to Yaz

To: Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet, of the early-80s synth-pop group Yaz (Yazoo in the UK), who are reuniting for a tour this summer

From: Thomas

Re: Your lousy reunion tour schedule

When I found out that one of my favorite early 80's synth-pop bands was reuniting to go on a world tour, I was pretty excited. I thought it'd be kind of cool for me to see this band in action after being apart for so long, and it would also be neat to hear childhood favorites like "Only You" or "Situation" being performed live.

But then I looked at your tour schedule.

Currently, there are only seven US tour dates, and all but one are on the east or west coasts. Not a single visit to Houston, or for that matter Dallas, or for that matter anywhere in the southern United States.

This is an oversight in need of redress. Folks here in Houston are just as deserving of their dose of 80's electro-nostalgia as folks in Oakland or LA or Chicago or New York. And Vince Clarke, of all people, has made enough tour stops in Houston as part of Erasure to know his particular genre of music is popular enough in the nation's fourth-largest city to warrant at least one tour date at a suitable local venue.

Please see to it that this glaring omission in your upcoming concert schedule is rectified as soon as possible. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hungry caterpillars, 2008 edition

I enjoyed my experience with the black swallowtails last year, so I decided to see if I could replicate my success with monarchs this year. Last month I purchased and planted a small milkweed plant in my garden expressly for this purpose.

It looks like it worked:
(click on any picture for a larger version)
I don't know if these caterpillars are the offspring of butterflies passing through on the way back from Mexico (click here to see a cool monarch spring 2008 migration tracking map) or if they came from monarchs that overwintered here in Houston. At any rate, the guys in my hand are obviously late instar caterpillars that are probably about to pupate. Good thing, too; my little milkweed plant can't take much more abuse! Maybe I should go get another one?

I've planted more dill and some parsley in my garden as well, so hopefully I'll also get more black swallowtail caterpillars to appear sometime this spring.

From the Department of Pleasant Surprises...

So Lori and I finally decide that, since April is quickly approaching, it's probably about time for us to do our taxes.

In the process of getting the necessary documents together, I go to my student loan company's website to print out my 1098-E deductible interest letter.

That's when I discover that, as of last month's payment, my student loan has a negative balance. Woohoo!

I knew I was getting close to paying the thing off, but I didn't realize just how close I was.

Needless to say, it feels good to have that thing paid off. Now, if I can just get the student loan company to remit the amount I overpaid...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Lowering the drinking age?

I can honestly say that I wasn't aware of this movement:
Debate over lowering the drinking age is heating up in several states, fueled in part by legislators who contend that men and women who are old enough to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan are responsible enough to buy alcohol legally.

Legislation introduced in Kentucky, Wisconsin and South Carolina would lower the drinking age for military personnel only. A planned ballot initiative in Missouri would apply to everyone 18 and older. An initiative in the works in South Dakota would allow all 19- and 20-year-olds to buy low-alcohol beer.

Vermont's legislature is considering a task force to study the issue. A Minnesota bill would allow anyone 18 and older to buy alcohol in bars or restaurants, but not in liquor stores until they're 21.

There's a public interest in reopening this debate … and the idea is picking up steam" says John McCardell, a former president of Vermont's Middlebury College who founded Choose Responsibility. The non-profit group supports allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drink legally after they complete an alcohol education program.
I can certainly understand the rationale behind this effort: if you're considered to be old enough to fight for your country, shouldn't you be old enough to enjoy a cold beer as well? But it seems like this idea has been tried before, without success.

In 1971 this nation decided that, if 18-year-olds were considered to be mature enough to fight and die for their country, they should also be considered mature enough to participate in the electoral process. After the 26th Amendment was ratified, some states followed by lowering the minimum age for exercising other adult rights to 18 years of age, including alcohol consumption. But this created problems, not the least of which was the ability of 18-to-20-year-olds who lived in a state where the minimum drinking age was 21 (for example, New Jersey) to drive to a state where the minimum drinking age was 18 (for example, New York) to purchase alcohol or, worse yet, consume alcohol and then drive drunk back home.

In response to this problem, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which withheld 10% of federal highway funds from states that did not raise their minimum drinking age to 21. In some cases it took a while - I remember very clearly that as late as 1994 the legal drinking age in Lafayette, Louisiana was 18 - but eventually every state in the union complied with this law.

The rationale behind mandating a minimum legal drinking age of 21 was twofold. First, there was the obvious theory that 21-year-olds, being three years more mature than 18-year-olds, would be more responsible in their consumption of intoxicating beverages. Second, raising the drinking age was (theoretically, at least) supposed to reduce access to alcohol among those younger than 18. High school seniors who turned 18 before they graduated, for example, were legally able to purchase alcohol, creating the distinct possibility that they would in turn bring it to parties and illicitly distribute it to schoolmates who were younger than 18. By raising the minimum drinking age to 21, it supposedly became harder for the 13-to-17-year-old crowd to gain access to alcohol.

Of course, whether it actually worked with respect to this goal is debatable; even today, rare is the high school student who cannot, in some form or another, illicitly access alcohol. And I don't think anybody is naive enough to believe that any young person who wants an alcoholic beverage is going to patiently wait until their 21st birthday, triumphantly walk into a bar and order their very first Budweiser. Underage drinking is widespread in spite of its illegality, and that's not ever likely to change.

But it seems like lowering the minimum drinking age would reopen the problems I've mentioned above. It also might increase the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes that the raising of the drinking age has reduced these fatalities involving 18-to-20-year-old drivers by 13%.

There are also the considerable political obstacles that states would face in any attempt to lower the drinking age. States who lower their minimum drinking age would run afoul of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and forfeit 10% of their allocated federal highway dollars. In an era when transportation funding is scarce, that's a significant chunk of change. Organizations, most notably Mothers Against Drunk Driving, would also fight any attempt by any state to lower the drinking age. Whatever MADD's original purpose was, it has morphed into an organization that is clearly neo-prohibitionist and it will vigorously oppose any effort to expand alcohol availability. It is well-funded and it wields tremendous lobbying power. Finally, right now there simply isn't enough popular support for lowering the drinking age; in 2007, Gallup found that a considerable majority - 77% - of Americans oppose lowering the drinking age to 18.

I respect the "if you can legally take a shot on the battlefield, you should legally be able to take a shot of whiskey" argument. And perhaps efforts to lower the drinking age exclusively for military personnel - for example, by limiting the practice to bars on-base where the alcohol consumption of all troops can be monitored - has merit. But I'm not certain that efforts to lower the drinking age for the population as a whole are warranted, and they face stiff opposition in any case.

Yummy strawberries!

Today Kirby paid a visit to the strawberry fields at Froberg Vegetable and Fruit Farm in Alvin:
They always taste better when you pick them yourself!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Shockwave Traffic Jams

If you've driven along the freeways of a large metropolitan area for any length of time, you've probably encountered them: traffic jams that seem to appear out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. These rogue slowdowns are especially frustrating to drivers, since the only thing more annoying than a traffic jam is a traffic jam that seems to occur for no reason, i.e. it's not rush hour and there's no accident in sight.

Thanks to some research being done in Japan, however, we now know what causes these traffic jams. We also know what to call them:

The mathematical theory behind these so-called "shockwave" jams was developed more than 15 years ago using models that show jams appear from nowhere on roads carrying their maximum capacity of free-flowing traffic – typically triggered by a single driver slowing down.

After that first vehicle brakes, the driver behind must also slow, and a shockwave jam of bunching cars appears, travelling backwards through the traffic.

The theory has frequently been modelled in computer simulations, and seems to fit with observations of real traffic, but has never been recreated experimentally until now.

Here's a video of the shockwave traffic jam being recreated:

The culprit of these rogue traffic jams is simple human behavior. Consider that the freeway full of cars is also full of drivers with different levels of comfort and different skill levels. In situations where traffic is heavy but otherwise free-flowing (a traffic engineer would call it Level of Service C), all it takes is a single driver who is not comfortable about something like his or her speed or the distance between him or her and the vehicle in front to slow down for a moment, which causes a chain reaction: the person behind hits the brakes, causing the person behind that person to slow down as well, et cetera. People in adjacent lanes begin slowing down as well, and before long the entire traffic flow is interrupted.

Now that we know what causes shockwave traffic jams and have successfully recreated them, can we do anything about them? A possible solution would be simply to slow down the overall flow of traffic during conditions favorable to the creation of these traffic jams. As speeds are reduced, the level of comfort of individual drivers is increased such that drivers won't feel the need to slam on the brakes and cause backups. As the linked article notes, this technique is being tested on the M25 motorway that circles London.

21 wins in a row...and I was there!

Yesterday evening I finally got to attend my first Houston Rockets game at Toyota Center. In the process, I got to witness a little bit of basketball history being made. The Rockets defeated the Charlotte Bobcats, 89-80, to win their 21st game in a row. With that win, the Rockets now own the second-longest winning streak in NBA history.

Lori's friend's husband had won four free tickets to last night's game, and they graciously invited Lori and me to attend. I had been inside the Toyota Center for other events, but this was the first time I had attended a Rockets game there. Our seats were upper-level nosebleeds behind the basket - the vertical depth of the arena is a lot larger than what one would anticipate by looking at the building from the outside - so we certainly didn't have the best view in the house, but we could still follow the action easily enough.

A continual lament of local sports fans is the fact that wealthy corporations have apparently brought up all the prime seats in the arena but do not use them. I got to see for myself that this is indeed true. While the entire upper level and the lower-level seating behind the baskets was packed, a lot of the lower-level sideline seats - the best seats in the house - sat empty the entire game. I know that the owners of these seats are free to use, or not use, them as they wish, but given the importance of last night's game it did seem like a waste.

The game itself wasn't exactly pretty. The Rockets were having trouble finding the basket in the first half, and that along with some uninspired defense allowed the Bobcats to creep out to what at one point was a 18-29 lead. The crowd fell silent through much of the first half and I couldn't help but think that it would just be my luck that my very first Rockets game to attend in person would end in a streak-breaking loss. However, the team began to get things together in the second half, making better shots, playing better defense and regaining the lead by going on a 26-11 run to start the third quarter. The Bobcats cut Houston's lead to 2 at the end of the third quarter, but the Rockets started the fourth quarter with a 19-9 run and, from there, coasted to victory in front of a delirious crowd. Tracy McGrady ended the game with 30 points, and Dikembe Mutombo had four blocked shots, two of which took the life out of the Bobcats towards the end of the game.

Will the Rockets be able to continue their winning ways and make it 22 in a row? Tomorrow's showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers - the team with which the Rockets are currently tied for first place in the Western Conference and, incidentally, the team with the NBA's longest winning streak at 33 games - is going to be very tough, and the schedule doesn't get any easier after that. And even if the Rockets can somehow keep this streak going, it will mean absolutely nothing if they once again fail to make it past the first round of the playoffs. The team has been playing well without the loss of Yao Ming so far, but sooner or later his presence is going to be missed.

Nevertheless, yesterday's outing was a lot of fun. Getting to finally see the Rockets play in person - for free, no less! - was great in and of itself. Being able to witness them make a little bit of history in the process made it all that much better.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Local sports musings

Lots of interesting things happening on the local sports front:

• As somebody who still fondly remembers the fifteen-game winning streak that the Rockets managed at the start of the 1993-94 season - a season that, incidentally, ended with a championship - the team's current eighteen-game winning streak is a real treat. Especially since it's so unexpected.

The 2007-08 season did not start out well for the Rockets. They were adjusting to new head coach Rick Adelman. They were sloppy and inconsistent. They were blowing leads late in games. As of January 2nd, they were a very mediocre 13-15. They playoffs were a distant dream.

Since January 4th, however, the Rockets are an astounding 27-3. They finally "got it together" as a team, and the sloppy, inconsistent play of the first two months of the season is a thing of the past. Right now, they are dominating; Saturday night's 106-96 win over the New Orleans Hornets was their ninth in a row by double digits. The playoffs are no longer just a dream for the Rockets; they're currently the third seed in the Western Conference. It is especially important to note that they're continuing this winning streak without star center Yao Ming, who suffered a stress fracture six games ago and is out for the rest of the season. A lot of credit has to go to Adelman; he kept the team focused and unified even as it struggled to adjust to his style of play.

I'll admit that I essentially stopped paying attention to the Rockets last December, when it was looking like they were on their way to yet another forgettable season. Well, they've got my attention again.

• The All American Football League is in trouble, and it hasn't even yet played a single down of football. Last Thursday, it was reported that the college-themed spring league was facing financial difficulties and would postpone its 2008 season unless it was able to secure a TV deal or other sources of funding.

I was actually warned about this by somebody close to Team Texas over a week ago; apparently, the nascent league's line of credit was tied to the federally-guaranteed student loan securities market (not surprising, considering that AAFL CEO Marcus Katz co-founded a company that provides student loans). The current subprime mortgage crisis has begun to spread into other sectors of the credit market, including student loans, and the result is a lack of financial liquidity for the league. The AAFL has already held a player draft, and training camps were supposed to open this Wednesday. The season was scheduled to begin on April 12th. Now, however, all of that is in doubt.

Katz was upbeat about the AAFL's situation in an interview with the local FOX affiliate Thursday evening, claiming that the league has indeed secured a TV deal, was working to bring new potential investors on board, and that there were no plans to postpone the league's debut to 2009. The start of the training camps, however, will be delayed while the league attempts to sort its financial situation out.

I'll hold out some that Katz is telling the truth and that the AAFL will indeed begin playing football next month. As a football junkie, I was looking forward to watching some spring pigskin. As of right now, however, things don't look good for Team Texas and the other five AAFL franchises.

• AAFL or no, and against my better judgment, I'm already beginning to look forward to the start of college football season this fall. Spring practice for the Houston Cougars began Saturday, and a good write-up of new head coach Kevin Sumlin appeared on last week. Throw in a favorable schedule, and what about the 2008 season is there not to get excited about?

Well, actually, a lot. As good as Kevin Sumlin's resume looks, he's still unproven as a head coach. The Cougars have to find ways to fill holes left by talented departing seniors such as Anthony Alridge, Donnie Avery, Brandon Pahulu and Rocky Schwartz. The quarterback, the offensive line, the secondary and special teams remain ares of concern until proven otherwise. And kickoff is still an enthusiasm-deadening 173 days away. In other words, it's way too early to get excited.

That being said, I'll be following spring practice reports to see who's stepping up, who's standing out, and what we might overall expect to see this fall.

• Houston Baptist University has filed a lawsuit against the NCAA:
HBU rejoined the NCAA in March of 2007, after 17 years in the NAIA, expecting to have to wait three years to regain full membership. The NCAA informed the school a month later they would actually have to wait seven years.

The lawsuit, filed in Harris County District Court, accuses the NCAA of violating its own Constitution by forcing HBU to wait an additional four years before becoming a full-fledged member.

HBU is seeking a temporary and permanent injunction "barring NCAA from enforcing a seven year provisional period and requiring it to follow its own constitution by applying a three-year period."

After becoming a provisional member last year, the NCAA notified HBU in April of 2007 that the (NCAA) constitution had been "editorially revised" by "staff" from three to seven years only weeks before HBU's application.

The lawsuit points out that "such an amendment would have to be voted on by the full membership and passed by a two-thirds vote."
Apparently, the NCAA is claiming that the change in regulations governing the provisional period for new members is not a "substantive change" requiring a vote by the full membership. It's no secret that the NCAA has been attempting to stem the onslaught of schools from lower divisions, as well former NAIA schools such as HBU, who are trying to join Division I. This "editorial revision" is most certainly a means to that end.

I think this is another example of the imperious hypocrisy that the National Collegiate Athletics Association is known for. Member schools are required to follow NCAA rules and regulations to the letter, lest they get hit with probation, yet the NCAA itself can get around following its own procedures by claiming that changes to its regulations are merely "editorial revisions" that do not require a formal vote.

I'm sorry, but there's no way in my mind that tacking four years on to the provisional period for new members is merely an "editorial revision, " especially when one considers the effects that this change will have on HBU. Under the understanding that they would become full members of the NCAA in three years, the southwest Houston school began augmenting its athletics program in order to meet NCAA requirements for full membership. The Huskies added sports, built facilities and tripled overall athletic expenses. Having to wait another four years before reaping the full benefits of those investments is going to place a huge financial hardship on the school, to say nothing of its ability to recruit student-athletes over the next several years. How are high school prospects going to react, after all, when they're told that HBU won't become a full member of the NCAA until after their eligibility is complete?

I have no connection to HBU and I don't really follow their sports programs. But I'll be rooting for the Huskies in this fight against the NCAA.