Monday, June 30, 2008

For those who think Houston is hot:

When I checked the local forecast on this afternoon, I was greeted by this:
I can't wait to see what it's going to be like in August...

Sixty days out

So much has been going on in my life over the past few months that I really haven't given much thought to the upcoming college football season. (That might be a good thing as far as my Coogs are concerned, because the more I think about UH football the more excited I get, and historically the more excited I get, the worse the team actually does.) Today I looked at the calendar and pleasantly realized that only sixty days currently separate me from August 30th, when the Coogs host Southern University at Robertson Stadium and another season of football (and tailgating) begins.

I still am unsure what to expect from the Cougars and new head coach Kevin Sumlin this fall. I'll give that more thought when I write my annual Cougar football preview up sometime in August. It's always interesting to see what other observers have to say about the 2008 Houston Cougars, however, which is why I enjoyed reading this entry in the New York Times College Sports Blog. The blog ranks the Cougars #64 in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision this fall, and provides this prediction:

With experience on both sides of the line, a talented quarterback and a senior-laden secondary, the talent seems to be there to even make a run for the Conference USA title. However, this raises the question (an issue that must keep fans awake at night): how much of a drop-off – if any – can Houston expect with a new coach? While Sumlin has shown he can recruit, can he keep the offense rolling? The Countdown has a hard time believing that, despite getting a terrific young mind in Holgorsen, the Cougars can be as successful on the offensive side of the ball in Sumlin’s first season as they were under Briles. For that reason, I have Houston finishing second behind Tulsa in the West for the second straight year, though it will have no difficulty reaching bowl eligibility for the fourth straight year: 8-4, 6-2 in Conference USA, with one of those losses coming at home to Tulsa in mid-November.

I think that's a fair assessment. Aside from the fact that hiring a coach with no previous head coaching experience always poses something of a risk (although, given Sumlin's background, I do believe the risk associated with his hire is minimal), the fact is that the Cougar offense is going to have to learn and become comfortable with a new coaching staff's scheme, and do it without last year's offensive stars like Anthony Alridge and Donnie Avery. That means, plain and simple, that the offense is going to struggle for at least the first few weeks of the season, if not the entire year. If the Coogs can overcome that obstacle and put enough points to repeat least year's 8-4 record, then I certainly won't be complaining.

Moreover, my biggest hope for Sumlin and his staff isn't their offensive production. Rather, I want to see them do something to rectify the "Unholy Trinity" of turnovers, penalties and lousy special teams play that plagued the Coogs under the Art Briles regime. If Sumlin and his staff can work on these fundamentals and exorcise this demon of sloppiness from the team, then maybe offensive production won't be as big of a concern. A few more yards on a kick return here and a few less turnovers there, not to mention more successful field goal attempts and fewer drive-killing penalties, can add up to points, and wins, on their own.

Despite the uncertainty of hiring a new coach, bringing in a new staff, and installing a new offensive scheme, I'm looking forward to the start of the season. College football is my favorite sport and besides, I've watched enough cricket, soccer and rugby over here to last me awhile.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A great way to start the day

The taxi driver who was taking me to work this morning nearly got me killed. He was too busy eating his apple, listening to the radio, talking on his cell phone or whatever else he was doing to pay attention to the traffic around him, and just narrowly missed causing a massive accident at the always-congested intersection of Sheikh Rashid and Oud Metha Roads.

Friends, family and acquaintances of mine worry about me being over here because they perceive the Middle East as a dangerous part of the world or because they see a potential for terrorist activity in the UAE (although a recent terror alert issued by British authorities might have been based on a barroom hoax).

But the truth is this: the biggest hazard to my well-being - or for that matter, anybody's well-being - in Dubai is not violence or terrorism, but traffic. Between poor driving habits, myriad driver distractions and ever-present congestion, Dubai's roadways are by far this city's most dangerous aspect.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin

I just discovered that George Carlin has passed away at a Los Angeles hospital.

My shock and grief over his death is suitably expressed through his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television:"


George Carlin was one of my favorite stand-up comics. When I was a kid I used to sneak to the downstairs television after my parents were asleep just so I could watch his profanity-laced HBO specials. I appreciated his observations about the absurdities, oddities and hipocrisies of everyday life. But I found him especially poignant and compelling when he talked about language and the way people used - or misused - it:

Mr. Carlin was a surprisingly effective physical comedian, prowling the stage with a microphone and delivering his punch lines with body English and facial acrobatics. But the heart of his humor was verbal. One of his favorite bits was an extended riff, a mock tirade, against what he called “soft language — the language that takes the life out of life.” Soft language was the substitution, say, of “bathroom tissue” for “toilet paper”; it was calling the dump the landfill and saying you were experiencing a “negative cash-flow situation” when what you really meant was that you were broke.

Mr. Carlin had dozens of examples, and he could cite them for minutes on end, alternately rueful and disbelieving. But what came through, even as he shook his head and used one or more of the seven forbidden words to say how stupid we were, was his love of language itself and how various and evocative it was. Even the expletives — or perhaps especially the expletives.

His contention that Vietnam veterans would have received better care if the condition known as "post-traumatic stress disorder" was still called "shell shock," as it was during the era of the First World War, has always been a favorite of mine.

I didn't find Carlin's more recent material to be quite as funny as his stuff from the 70s and 80s. It was darker, angrier, more contemptuous. But it was still relevant. Carlin never became irrelelvant. That is something he will always be remembered for.

For some reason, I've always had an affinity for foul-mouthed shock-comics Sam Kinison, who died in 1991, is still one of my favorites.

Carlin apparently died of heart failure. He was 71.

UPDATE: Carlin's New York Times obit is here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Denton replaces its mayor

What has turned out to be a surprisingly long, controversial and expensive mayoral election has finally come to an end:

Voters ousted Denton Mayor Perry McNeill on Saturday, handing the city’s top elected position to rival Mark Burroughs.

Burroughs won decisively with 62 percent of the vote, capping an unusually costly and bitter race between two former City Council colleagues.

“I’m just so pleased and so proud,” Burroughs said. “I hope that I live up to the trust that’s been placed in me today. I’ll try very hard to do so.”

McNeill, 72, a retired professor and engineer, is the first Denton mayor to lose a re-election bid in nearly two decades.

“The people have spoken,” he said. “I guess I’m going to have a little more free time.”

A runoff election was required because no candidate won a majority of votes in last month's first round. The fact that Burroughs came very close to winning that four-candidate election, however, seemed to suggest that McNeill's stint as mayor was in jeaopardy.

Interestingly, turnout for this runoff was over 500 votes higher than for the first round; a total of 3,866 voters, or seven percent of Denton's typically apathetic base of registered voters, cast ballots in the runoff.

The election itself was one of the nastier ones in Denton's recent political history. McNeill and Burroughs were both targets of an unsuccessful attempt to remove their names from the ballot on the basis that their candidacies violated the city's term limits. The election itself was rife with other charges and conflicts:

Burroughs also faced questions over potential conflicts of interest. His law firm, Sawko & Burroughs, collects delinquent taxes for many local governments, including the city of Denton.

Burroughs has repeatedly said the contracts aren’t a conflict because his firm’s payments come from fees levied on taxpayers’ past-due amounts, not from government coffers.

Local activist Bob Clifton distributed several mailers criticizing Burroughs’ government contracts and level of spending on the race. Together, Burroughs and McNeill spent nearly $84,000 on their campaigns, with Burroughs’ spending accounting for more than 60 percent of the total.

Last month, Burroughs sued in an attempt to stop Clifton’s mailers, arguing that Clifton was violating state law by not disclosing who was funding them.

Clifton denied wrongdoing but faces a possible contempt-of-court ruling after he failed to meet a court-ordered deadline Tuesday to turn over his financial records.

McNeill also faced controversies, including over whether his mailers exaggerated his accomplishments and included names of people who weren’t supporting his candidacy.

The mayor also drew fire for an automated phone survey that critics called a thinly veiled attack on Burroughs. The survey, which did not identify its source, asked respondents whether having a “part-time mayor” or one who collected overdue taxes from “struggling” families and businesses would bother them.

McNeill, who campaigned as a “full-time mayor,” admitted funding the survey but said he was simply trying to measure public opinion.

I never would have guessed that an election between Perry McNeill and Mark Burroughs would turn out to be such a nasty and expensive affair. Both McNeill and Burroughs were on the "pro-business" side of the "neighborhoods versus businesses" divide that has historically characterized local politics, and when I worked for the City of Denton I thought both of them to be generally pleasant and level-headed. There might be a political backstory here to which I am not privy, but the ease with which Burroughs unseated an incumbent mayor suggest there was a lot of dissatisfaction with McNeill's administration. Elections under these circumstances can get ugly. McNeill probably realized early on that there was a tide of dissent against him and felt it necessary to create as many doubts about Burroughs as he could in order to retain his seat in the mayor's office. Ultimately, it did not work.

Burroughs will be sworn in as mayor at tonight's city council meeting.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Third rotation underway

As difficult as the last few weeks in Houston have been, I would have liked to have stayed there a little bit longer. Lori and her family are still coping with the loss of her mother, and I know my presence helps them. However, the time had simply come for me to get to return to my work responsibilities on this side of the planet.

The nonstop on Emirates was booked, but my second choice - Delta through Atlanta - was available. For some reason, the travel agent couldn't get me a ticket out of Hobby this time around, so I had to fly out of IAH.

Interestingly, it turns out that Delta's Flight 8 to Dubai technically begins at Bush Intercontinental; the destination sign at the gate in Terminal A says "Dubai" along with "Atlanta." Of course, this is one of those "same flight in name only" arrangements: once I got to Hartsfield I had to transfer to a different plane with a different crew at a different terminal. In fact, a drawback to this arrangement was that I couldn't select seats for the trip out to Dubai on Delta's website because it couldn't process seat requests for flights that have different segments on different aircraft.

It sure would have been nice to have been able to select my seats for this flight. Although I did not end up with a middle seat this time, I did end up spending the entire flight from Atlanta to Dubai sitting directly in front of a woman with two young children, one of which was a fussy infant who screamed at regular intervals. What's worse, while this poor woman was stuck in coach with her two children, her husband was traveling in business class. He managed to come back and check on his family exactly once during the fourteen hour flight, and never bothered to help his wife by taking the infant with him even for a little while so she could sleep. What a douchebag!

Anyway, the folks at the office here are certainly happy to see me; they're facing the usual conundrum of too much work and not enough people to do it and, even though they were able to get along without me, my physical presence here is greatly appreciated. Perhaps one day soon that appreciation will manifest itself in a raise or a promition...

This is the third of what will likely turn out to be five rotations to Dubai this spring and summer. I'll be here this time through July 3rd.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Monarchs in love

I was going to title this post "Butterfly Porn" but decided against it.
Anyway, I thought this picture was cool: these monarchs are mating on a milkweed plant that very well could end up being the home of the caterpillars they're creating. Click the picture for a larger version.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Continental tightens its belt

High oil prices and a sluggish economy continue to take their toll on the commercial aviation industry, and the hometown airline is not immune: Continental is shaving 3,000 employees from its workforce and cutting 6.4 percent of its total capacity (measured in available seat miles) across the board, and completely eliminating service to fifteen cities worldwide. Continental's Air Micronesia subsidiary, based in Guam, will feel the biggest cut with a 21.5% capacity decrease. The airline's belt-tightening will be felt here in Houston, too, as it reduces capacity to its Houston hub by almost 8 percent. Several destinations will be dropped as well:
Continental also says in a press release that it "will be reducing frequencies in certain markets and will also discontinue service" on a number of routes from its hubs. Below are the routes being dropped by Continental.

From Houston Intercontinental: Cali; Chattanooga; Guayaquil; Hartford, Conn.; Monclova; Montgomery; Oakland; Palm Springs; Reno; Sarasota; Tallahassee and Washington Dulles.

I've actually flown on two of these routes (Houston to Reno and Houston to Guayaquil) in the past. I'm kind of surprised that these routes didn't survive the axe; Reno/Tahoe is a busy leisure destination, and Houston has considerable economic ties to the Ecuadorean port city of Guayaquil (indeed, the two are Sister Cities).

The cuts, which were announced last week, will take effect on September 3rd. Unfortunately, I doubt that this will be the last round of cuts that take place. The commercial aviation industry (which, contrary to popular belief, is a net money loser) is on very shaky ground right now, and as long as oil prices stay high and the economy struggles, there really is no light at the end of the tunn-, er, runway.

Time for another butterfly post

A Chronicle blogger is enjoying his own experience with a bunch of very hungry caterpillars.

Which makes me wonder: why hasn't the black swallowtail fairy paid a visit to my garden yet?

I've had a lot of fun this spring with the monarchs - as I write this I notice that an adult monarch is perched atop my remarkably resilient milkweed plant - but the black swallowtail is still my favorite butterfly and I was hoping to raise a couple more of them this year.

I've planted dill and parsley in my garden expressly for the purpose of attracting papilio polyxenes. And, indeed, I've seen some black swallowtails hovering around my garden.

But, as of yet, no hungry caterpillars. Bummer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Remembering Astroworld

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the opening of Astroworld. Chronicle blogger Rick Campbell marked the occasion; Bayou City History has some pictures of how the park looked way back then as well.

The theme park located across Loop 610 from the Astrodome was originally owned by Judge Roy Hofheinz and his family; in the mid 1970s, it was sold to Six Flags. The park operated for 38 seasons. In the fall of 2005, Six Flags made the decision to close the park and sell the property; Astroworld closed its doors forever on October 30, 2005.

Having grown up in Houston, I remember Astroworld all too well; it many respects, it was an integral part of my life.

My very first trip to Astroworld was probably sometime in the mid-to-late 70s, when I was a small child. I have only very distant and vague memories of that particular visit, but what I do remember is that, when I was young, trips to Astroworld were a very rare occurrence. They only occurred once every couple of years or so and for that reason were a pretty big deal. To the eyes of a young child, Astroworld, with all its rides and attractions, was a place of magic and excitement.

When I was about ten or eleven, my parents became aware of the value of a season pass to Astroworld, which essentially allowed me to go to Astroworld whenever I wanted. This was pretty cool, at least at first. I'd spend many a summer day there with my friends, Rebecca and Marc and Jeremy, or with my brother and his friends, or with whomever happened to be in town at the time. The season pass could also be used for admission to the Waterworld water park next door, which was a huge plus in the hot Houston summer.

But with repeated visits, the novelty of Astroworld began to wear off. What had seemed so enchanting and amazing just a few years before was now routine and expected. Over time, I began to tire of the
long lines, brutal heat and overpriced food. I continued to hold season passes throughout my middle school and high school summers, but as my interest in other summertime activities grew (as well as the fact that, as a teenager, I spent my summers in Ecuador), the frequency of my visits to Astroworld waned. I think the last time I went to Astroworld as a season pass holder was with my friend Bill and his family right before my senior year of high school began in August of 1990.

It was a couple of years later, in 1992, when I developed a new relationship with Astroworld: I became an employee of the park. I needed a menial, no-experience-or-thinking-required summertime job, and the theme park readily hired high-school and college-age kids. That summer I worked as a costume character, which meant I was paid minimum wage to walk around in the Houston heat and humidity in a furry rabbit suit and continually be assaulted by obnoxious punk teenagers. S
omewhere in the Bush family photo album, in fact, is a picture, taken during the 1992 Republican National Convention, of Bugs Bunny posing with a bunch of George and Barbara Bush's grandchildren and well as a few secret service agents. The guy in the Bugs Bunny costume would be me.

Being a glutton for punishment, I returned to Astroworld in 1994. This time I worked in the merchandise department, selling overpriced souvenirs, but at least I got to stay inside air-conditioned stores. But when that summer ended, I had had enough. It was time to set my employment sights a little higher.

The fact was that, while Astroworld might have been a fun place for people to visit, it was a horrible place to work. Employees were paid poorly and treated even worse. The park's corporate overlords (Six Flags was a division of Time Warner at this time) considered the park's young, seasonal labor base as cheap and expendable; morale was low and employee turnover was high as uptight supervisors treated their underlings harshly and suspiciously and even the most minor offenses resulted in termination.
Cost containment seemed to be the park's only concern; employee hours were closely monitored, benefits were nonexistent, and sectors were oftentimes understaffed to cut labor costs. In spite of this toxic labor culture, employees were required to be constantly cheerful and helpful to guests - a "beatings will continue until morale improves" situation if there ever was one.

By the time my second summer of employment at Astroworld ended in August of 1994, I had completely had it with the park. The excitement and joy that the park had represented to my childhood had completely evaporated and had been replaced with a sense of disgust. From the day I stopped working there until the day the park closed, I visited only once more, and then only at Lori's insistence.

When Six Flags finally decided to close Astroworld in 2005, it came as no surprise.
It was pretty apparent even a decade earlier when I worked there that the park was struggling. It was common knowledge to the employees even then that the park's admission fees barely covered its operating costs: food, games and merchandise concessions were the actual profit generators. Maintenance was deferred in order to reduce operating costs, resulting in the park's increasingly-shabby appearance. The park, rightly or wrongly, began to develop a reputation as a teenage gang-banger hangout. Astroworld was landlocked into its 109-acre footprint and was unable to build enough in the way of new attractions to keep people coming, and new Six Flags facilities in places like San Antonio, Mexico City and New Orleans (pre-Katrina) cut into Astroworld's geographic visitor base. Attendance at the park declined as the value of the land on which it sat increased, and Six Flags, which was reeling under a mountain of debt, eventually saw the writing on the wall.

Today, the area where all those rides, restaurants and attractions once stood is barren; if you didn't know the history of that site, you'd never have any idea that there was once a bustling theme park there.

Almost three years after it closed, there's still a part of me that misses Astroworld. I'll never be able to ride childhood favorites such as the Texas Cyclone or the X-LR8 again and I'll never be able to take Kirby there.

But there's also a part of me that says "good rittance." The reason is simple: as I grew older, so did Astroworld.

Friday, June 06, 2008


I'm here for less than 48 hours, and most of my time is being spent either in workshops or asleep here at my hotel. The only local attraction I've been able to see is Navy Pier, which is within easy walking distance (those short lake cruises that depart from the pier are actually rather enjoyable). So I really can't pass much judgement on Chicago.

But: the people seem to be friendly, the street life here in downtown is good, the mass transit system is excellent (if not worn), the food is decent and the beer isn't too expensive.

I'll definitely have to come back when I have time actually do some sightseeing. But my initial impression of the Windy City is good and, at the very least, I can scratch another name off my "important cities I've never visited" list. Which still has a lot of names on it, though: Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego... Damn, I'm lame.

Anyway, these workshops wrap up tomorrow afternoon, and then it's off to New Orleans for a few days of eating and drinking in the French Quarter.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Off to the airport...

This afternoon I'm flying to Chicago to attend a workshop. This will be my very first trip to Chicago.

Saturday evening I'm flying to New Orleans. I'll be spending a few days there vacationing with my family.

Wednesday morning I return to Houston.

The following Friday, I head back to Dubai.

This ought to be fun...