Wednesday, April 30, 2008

No more peach preserves for Kirby

We received the following message from Kirby's preschool today:

Lori and Thomas-

Just FYI, Kirby will eat the orange apricot/peach jelly... but the actual pieces of fruit are getting put into other childrens' lunches - which in turn have to be thrown away. Can we possibly avoid the fruit pieces or switch jellies? Thanks!

The joys of having three-and-a-half year old kid.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

First rotation complete

I left Dubai shortly before midnight last night UAE time, and arrived in Houston shortly after 10 am today CDT. Add in the nine-hour time difference, and that's a good nineteen hours of travel, not including the two-and-a-half hours I spent at DXB checking in, passing through passport control and waiting for my flight. Fortunately the trip was relatively eventless, with the exception of the extremely heavy turbulence my flight from Atlanta encountered on approach to Houston Hobby. The strong storms that had passed through Houston earlier in the morning had stirred up the atmosphere such that the little Embraer 170 we were flying got knocked all over the place. It made for a white-knuckle experience, but the plane landed safely.

It's almost impossible for me to fall asleep on an airplane, but I actually think I managed to do so on the flight from Dubai to Atlanta, if only for a short while. We were somewhere over Turkey when I closed my eyes, and when I opened them we were over Moldova. I think I also fell asleep for a little while somewhere between Iceland and Greenland. Otherwise, I did what I normally do on long transcontinental flights: put on the headphones, lie back in the seat and "zone out" in an attempt to make the time pass quicker. However, there's only so much you can do to make a 14-hour flight "seem" shorter.

It's good to be home; Lori and Kirby missed me. My stay here in Houston will be short, however. Although it started slowly, the project I am working on in Dubai is now well underway and my return there is required as soon as possible. Therefore, I'll only be able to spend a week in Houston before heading back. My next rotation in Dubai will last an entire month before I return to Texas at the beginning of June, and the current project schedule suggests that a third rotation from mid-June until July is also likely. It's not going to be easy for either myself or Lori, but such is the nature of my job: right now, Dubai is where the work is.

As such, I'm going to try to make the most of it this week. I never thought that traveling home would feel like a "vacation," but that's exactly what it feels like. And no, I can't take any time off this week; I have a backlog of things to attend to at the local office beginning Monday morning.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Denton election crisis averted

Following up on last week's post, it appears that Denton's upcoming mayoral race will not be thrown into turmoil after all:

A district judge Monday allowed Denton Mayor Perry McNeill and two other candidates to remain on the May 10 ballot, after a lawsuit challenged their eligibility.

Visiting Judge David Evans said he would not intervene in an election that is under way. Early voting in the City Council races starts April 28, but city officials said they already sent out two absentee ballots.

The judge did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit, which alleges that McNeill, Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp and former council member Mark Burroughs would violate the city’s term limits by winning another term. City attorneys say the candidates are eligible to run because none is seeking more than three consecutive terms in the same seat.

The judge appeared to take a dim view of Denton's attorneys' interpetation of the city's term limits in a hearing last week, but realized that a ruling against the city this close to the election would create great turmoil and therefore decided not to interfere. The question regarding the meaning of Denton's term limits is still unanswered. Now, however, perhaps it is something that the citizens of Denton, rather than the courts, can resolve.

Denton's election is May 10.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Since I've been here, I've been watching a lot of cricket. The Indian Premier League is getting a lot of coverage here, and the only other sport on TV with any regularity is soccer.

I've watched so much cricket that I think I'm beginning to understand it.

Moreover, I think I'm beginning to like it.

(In fairness, I should probably point out that most of the matches I've been watching are of the "Twenty20" variety - the IPL is a Twenty20 league - and these games are much shorter than traditional, multi-day "Test" cricket matches. The shorter match length (a complete match can be played in about 2.5 - 3 hours, making it similar to other major spectator sports in that regard), along with a few other minor rules changes, makes for a more aggressive style of play than you'd generally find in Test cricket. Truth be told, I'm not sure if I'd find Test cricket to be quite as interesting as the Twenty20 matches I've been watching.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Welcome to Constructionland!

Some views from Dubai's main highway, Sheikh Zayed Road. Click on any picture for a larger version...
Is it the world's tallest building, or an enormously out-of-scale smokestack? The Burj Dubai dominates a cluster of high-rises in various stages of completion.
Towers under construction at Business Bay (or is it the Dubai International Financial Centre? I can't keep track anymore...). The bridge structure at the bottom is the trackbed for the Dubai Metro Red Line, which will open next year.
A different view of the same development. I'm not sure if Dubai can still claim to have twenty percent or so of the world's supply of high-rise construction cranes - I've been told that the number of construction cranes available worldwide has increased substantially since that estimate was made a few years ago - but it's clear that Dubai is still home to thousands of them.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Yesterday I found out that the Dubai dining deal I discovered the last time I was here no longer serves a full menu.

The establishment is still there, and they still serve drinks and snacks, but it appears their business model has become that of a shisha bar instead of an actual restaurant. Which means the excellent Persian kebab-and-rice dishes I used to enjoy there are no more.

Too bad.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Election trouble brewing in Denton?

This is interesting:
A district judge expressed doubt Monday over Denton Mayor Perry McNeill’s and Mayor Pro Tem Pete Kamp’s eligibility to run in the May 10 election.

Visiting Judge David Evans said he had a “hard time” accepting Denton city attorneys’ argument that City Council members could bypass term limits by running for different seats, as McNeill and Kamp are attempting.
The City of Denton was scheduled to hold municipal elections on May 10. Retired UNT engineering professor Perry McNeill, who became mayor two years ago, is up for re-election, and three council positions - one district and two at-large - are up for grabs as well. However, the entire election could be thrown into disarray if a group of local plantiffs - including two political challengers who probably have little chance of being elected otherwise - get their way.

The suit claims that the city charter prevents McNeill, (former councilmember Mark) Burroughs and at-large District 5 candidate Kamp from running because each already was elected to at least three council terms. The five plaintiffs include mayoral challenger Justin Bell and Kamp’s rival for District 5, Mike Sutton.

The charter prevents members from being elected to more than three consecutive two-year terms. But city attorneys say members can serve more than six years by running for a different council seat, including mayor, or sitting out at least one term and running again for the same seat.

McNeill, Burroughs and Kamp say they are eligible based on that interpretation of the charter, which city attorneys have supported for years.

This is how I always understood how Denton's term limits worked: candidates could not run for the same office more than three consecutive times, but could stand for re-election if they sat out for one term or ran for a different office. This is what all three of the named candidates have done: Mark Burroughs sat out for a few years after completing his three alloted terms in 2004, Perry McNeill ran for mayor in 2006 after serving as a councilmember for two-and-a-half terms, and Pete Kamp is moving from a district council seat to an at-large council seat.

I used to be a supporter of term limits, but after seeing how they've worked in Houston, where they were implemented seventeen years ago, I no longer think they are a good idea. This legal fight over their implementation in Denton, which is costing taxpayer dollars to resolve and which could throw a city's democratic process into turmoil, obviously doesn't cause me to view term limits any more favorably.

Evans has set a follow-up hearing for Monday morning. If he rules for the plantiffs, the City of Denton will obviously appeal, but the damage to the May 10th election may already be done. Ballots have already been printed, absentee voting begins April 28th, and, if the ruling stands, at least one at-large council seat will end up as an uncontested election.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dubai skyline at night

The towers along Sheikh Zayed Road rise up from behind the villas of the Mankhool Community in this picture I took while walking home from work Thursday night (I'll explain why I was walking in another post). The picture's a little bit crooked because the surface I found to place my camera for this long exposure (notice the headlight streaks on the road) wasn't perfectly flat, but I thought it was a cool shot nevertheless.

The tall, thin thing sticking up between the two triangle-capped Emirates Towers is, of course, the Burj Dubai.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dear Memphis Tigers:

As a University of Houston fan, I feel your pain. Indeed, it was in the National Championship Game exactly 25 years ago that my beloved Cougars choked away a title in the waning seconds. Seeing you guys choke away your shot at the championship yesterday brought back some pretty unpleasant memories for me.

And what a splendid choke job you guys managed! As somebody who has seen his teams pull off some monumental chokes (not just the Coogs in 1983 but also the Houston Oilers against Buffalo in 1993), I have to give you credit. Up by nine points with two minutes left, you fail to make clutch free-throws down the stretch, you allow Kansas to get off a game-tying three-pointer with 2.1 second left (for the record, most teams would have fouled in that situation) and you let Kansas score the first six points in overtime to put the whole thing away. Wow!

As’s Mike Celizic says, the pain you guys are feeling right now is never going to go away. “What happened to the Memphis Tigers on Monday night isn’t that kind of loss,” he writes. “Theirs is the kind that lands on your skin like a branding iron, burns a white-hot path into your tissues, drills into your bones and takes up an aching residence there forever.”

I wanted the Tigers to win, since our schools have some much in common. Houston and Memphis are both members of the same conference, they are both urban commuter schools, and they both have to suffer constant denigration from arrogant flagship state universities whose initials are U.T. and whose colors are orange (of varying shades) and white.

And, after tonight, both schools have something else in common. They're both chokers. Houston in 1983. Memphis 25 year later. When the game was all but over, when the national title was within our grasp, both schools pissed it away.

At least you can take solace in the fact that your choke job does not have a nice little video clip that goes with it (the Kansas three-pointer doesn’t count because it only put the game into overtime) that CBS, ESPN and all the other networks will play every time they talk about “stunning upsets” or “great moments in sports.” Houston fans, on the other hand, are destined to be tortured for the rest of eternity by that clip of North Carolina State inbounding the ball, Lorenzo Charles jumping over a clueless Hakeem Olajuwon for the game-winning dunk, Jimmy Valvano running out on the court like a crazed lunatic… Man, it makes me sick just thinking about it.

Even without a visual, though, you guys will be just as sick 25 years from now.

Trust me.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Back in Dubai

When I last left Dubai in mid-October of 2006, I honestly didn't think that it would be another year and a half before I'd find myself back here again. But that's the way things worked out, as the assignment I was supposed to have in the spring of last year disappeared and the job I was scheduled to work on last fall was delayed until now.

But finally I'm back, 17.5 months later, and although I've been here for less than 24 hours I'm slowly discovering that things really haven't changed too much. Some of the projects that were under construction the last time I was here have been completed, but the city's skyline is still dominated by cranes and ubiquitous road construction projects still make travel by car an adventure. The traffic situation here, needless to say, gives a whole new meaning to the term "gridlock;" my company's office here is understandably swamped with road and transit projects.

Unfortunately, the nonstop Emirates flight from Houston was unavailable by the time travel arrangements were made for me late last week, but the alternative itinerary I ended up with - Delta, through Atlanta - didn't turn out to be too bad. I flew to Atlanta from Hobby Airport, which is actually more convenient from where I live, the layover at Hartsfield Airport was short (and would have been shorter if it weren't for a weather delay), and the flight from Atlanta to Dubai was, well, about the best I could hope for given that it was a 14-hour flight, in coach, and in the middle seat. The the fact that Delta is a SkyTeam member, which allowed me to earn miles on my Continental OnePass account, didn't hurt either. I would still like fly Emirates for future travels - their seats are more comfortable (footrests really make a difference) and nothing beats a nonstop flight - but I think Delta did a good job.

(If you've ever wondered what flight crews do after working a fourteen-hour trans-continental flight, I discovered the answer last night as I waited at baggage claim and watched my flight's crew - pilots, flight attendants and all - attack the booze selection at Dubai Duty Free's arrivals store: they par-tay!)

The hotel I'm staying in this time around is decent - not the best I've stayed in during my travels here but certainly not the worst - and is not too far from my office. So far, the only problem I've had with it is the dense lady at the hotel's check-in booth at the airport: while they had my name in the reservations computer, whomever entered my information put me under the wrong company and so the lady at the airport initially wouldn't check me in and dispatch a courtesy shuttle because she wasn't convinced I was the right person. Fortunately, I had a printed copy of my hotel reservation with me that I showed her. This only confused her further, of course, so she faxed it to the hotel and called to ask what she should do. After about five minutes of conversation, and clearly petrified that she'd make an unforgivable error if she checked in the wrong person, she finally agreed to send me to the hotel and let me check in there. Fortunately, the receptionist at the hotel didn't have the same qualms about my identity that the lady at the airport did.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to get out, see some sights, and post some pictures in the next few days. I'm still a bit jetlagged right now, however, so it's probably going to be an early night for me tonight.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Monarch Chrysalis

The pupal stage of the monarch butterfly has often been likened to a fine piece of jewelry, because of its jade color and smooth, gold flecked- exterior:
(click for a larger picture)

This particular butterfly will probably emerge early next week. I won't be here to see it, but hopefully Lori and Kirby will be able to witness it.

Requeim for four airlines

It's been a tough week for the airline industry, as rising fuel prices, a sluggish economy and competition from other carriers forced no fewer than four domestic carriers to cease operations. Although none of these airlines could be considered "major" domestic carriers, the fact that four of them closed their doors in the span of a single week might very well be a harbinger of distress for the nation's airline industry as a whole.

It all started last Monday, when Hawaii-based carrier Aloha abruptly shut down, ten days after filing for bankruptcy. Aloha, which began operations as Trans Pacific Airlines in June of 1946, was for most of its existence exclusively an inter-island carrier. Services from Hawaii to the mainland did not begin until 2000. Aloha, which throughout its existence had competed with older Hawaii-based carrier Hawaiian Air, was forced to declare bankruptcy for the first time in 2004. The airline emerged from bankruptcy in 2006, only to be faced by new competition from go!, a subsidiary of Arizona-based regional carrier Mesa Airlines which began inter-island operations that same year. When it filed for bankruptcy, in fact, Aloha decried what it felt were "predatory" practices by go! along with rising fuel costs.

Aloha will, rightly or wrongly, always be remembered for an April 1988 incident wherein a portion of the aluminum skin of one of its 737s tore away in mid-flight, killing one person and injuring 65. Miraculously, the plane landed safety in spite of the fact that a large chunk of its fuselage was missing.

The following day, all-charter carrier Champion Airlines decided to throw in the towel, citing high gas prices, an obsolete fleet and an inability to attract new investors as reasons for their closure. The airline, whose origins can be traced back to 1987 as luxury carrier MGM Grand Air, chartered flights for, among other entities, Minnesota-based MLT Vacations and the National Basketball Association. Both MLT and the NBA decided to phase out their contracts with Champion, and the airline, left with a fleet consisting of 16 Boeing 727s deemed to be "uneconomical and elderly planes that have three engines and require three pilots in the cockpit," decided to call it quits effective May 31st.

It's hard to believe that the venerable and ubiquitous 727, which was for decades the workhorse of the skies, is now considered an obsolete aircraft.

An even bigger bombshell exploded on Thursday, when Indianapolis-based ATA Airlines filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. The airline was established in 1973 as American Trans Air and was originally exclusively a charter operation. The airline began scheduled services in the mid-1980s, and expanded rapidly to briefly become one of the nation's ten largest carriers in the early 2000s. This expansion could not be sustained, however, and in 2004 ATA entered bankruptcy protection. The airline vastly reduced its route network, began a codeshare agreement with Southwest Airlines, and emerged from bankruptcy in 2006. ATA's codeshare agreements with Southwest allowed them to focus on serving Hawaiian and Mexican destinations from the mainland, effectively allowing them to be come an international and overseas extension of Southwest's service network. However, charters, especially for military purposes, continued to be a key component of ATA's business model. The reason for ATA's abrupt shutdown, in fact, is attributed to the airline's loss of a military airlift contract headed by FedEx.

ATA briefly operated nonstop service from Hobby Airport here in Houston to LaGuardia Airport in New York. Their service was designed to feed into Southwest's services from Hobby as part of the two airlines' codeshare arrangement, and to give local travelers to New York the option of flying through an airport other than Bush Intercontinental. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but once JetBlue decided to offer service between Hobby and JFK, ATA was forced to pull out of the Houston market.

Until its shutdown, ATA transported more US military personnel than any other airline. ATA was also the last American carrier to fly one of the most photogenic airplanes of all time, the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. Like the 727, however, the TriStar has sadly become obsolete.

Finally, earlier this evening it was announced that Columbus-based ultra-low-fare carrier Skybus has decided to call it quits. Skybus was operational for less than one year; like other airlines, Skybus blamed rising gas prices and a slowing economy as reasons for their shutdown.

As I stated last year, I was never a fan of the Skybus concept. I thought its bare-bones, no-frills business model represented a cynical "race to the bottom" for the nation's commercial aviation industry and I can't help but think that this "Wal-Mart of the Skies" business model contributed to the airline's demise. Although I feel sorry for those associated with this airline who have lost their jobs, I do feel vindicated regarding my initial misgivings about this airline and its "Greyhound of the Skies" business concept.

So, what do the closures of these airlines mean for the United States' passenger aviation industry? It's hard to say just yet. Clearly, the biggest losers of the past week are Hawaiian travelers: the closure of Aloha and ATA, both of which provided a significant amount of travel between Hawaii and California, means less capacity and higher prices on travel between the islands and the mainland as well as between the islands themselves. However, none of the four airlines that ceased operations this week were anything close to being considered "major" carriers, and aside from Hawaii-related travel their disappearances will not create much of a shockwave throughout the domestic aviation industry as a whole. On the other hand, the collapse of these four airlines - within a single week, no less - might constitute a "canary in the coal mine" warning to the rest of the nation's airlines as the economy slows and fuel costs soar. The little airlines might just be the first to go; the larger airlines could be next.

(Some of the information in this post was taken from Airlines Worldwide by B I Hengi. This book is updated every few years and, if you are a commercial aviation geek like me, is a very handy resource to own. And if you want to keep up with the latest bloodletting in the commercial aviation industry, there is no better source than Ben Mutzabaugh's Today in the Sky blog at