Tuesday, September 30, 2008

2008 Houston Astros postmortem

With last Sunday's 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves, the Houston Astros closed the door on their 2008 campaign.

Given the fact that I was in Dubai for much of the period between April and August, I honestly did not follow the Astros as closely as I normally do. So I really don't have anything too insightful to say about the team other than the fact that, while they certainly struggled at times, they showed improvement over the previous season. They even made things interesting in what, for all accounts, was supposed to be a "rebuilding" year: left for dead after a horrendous stretch in May and June (at one point managing a 5-19 stretch that included an eight-game losing streak), the Astros were able to mount a second-half rally and kept themselves in the NL Wild-Card chase until the last week of the season. (I'm not even going to go into the controversy surrounding the decision to move the Astros' "home" games against the Cubs to Milwaukee due to Hurricane Ike and the effect that move had on the team's Wild-Card chances.)

Aside from the fact that the Astros' 86-75 record in 2008 was a thirteen-win improvement over 2007's 73-89 campaign, Houston also showed a little bit of improvement in their pitching (a 4.36 ERA in 2008, compared to 4.68 in 2007) as well as their hitting (the team batted 2.63 in 2008 compared to 2.60, and that seemingly insignificant improvement was good enough to move the Astros from twelfth in the National League in batting average in 2007 to seventh in 2008). And who would have thought, at the beginning of the season, that new closer Jose Valverde would lead the NL in saves (44) at the end of the season?

I'm merely scratching the surface here - there are folks out there that have a much more informed and detailed insight into the team than I do - but the bottom line is that the 2008 Houston Astros certainly exceeded expectations for the season. Whether it is part of a trend that bodes well for 2009 remains to be seen, but at the very least it shows that, if nothing else, the Houston Astros have a viable and competitive base to build upon for 2009.

With the season over, the Astros bid farewell to catcher Brad Ausmus, who was a fixture of the ballclub for the past seven and a half seasons.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Electrification at last!

Electricity was restored to our house shortly after noon on Saturday September 27, roughly two weeks and twelve hours after Hurricane Ike took us off-line.

Cable and internet service still has not been restored, however. I'm currently writing from my hotel in Plano, where I am spending the week on business.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I told you I wasn't sold on USC

Back in August, I wrote:
But this is also the same Southern Cal program that, over the last couple of seasons, has developed an uncanny knack for losing games it shouldn't; see Oregon State and UCLA and 2006 and Stanford (!) last season. Will Pete Carroll's team get tripped up by an inferior opponent again this year?
Now we know the answer. Although I wasn't expecting it to happen this early in the season.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The no-electricity blues

We are now on our twelfth day without electricity.

Originally, Centerpoint said that 80% of my ZIP Code would have power by Monday the 22nd. Monday has come and gone. Now they're saying Friday. Maybe.

What makes it even more frustrating is that crews were working around our neighborhood early last week when they were bringing the housing complexes adjacent to the University of Houston back online. That resulted in a few houses in my neighborhood getting power, and we thought they would bring the rest of the neighborhood online shortly afterward.

But then the line crews disappeared. They haven't been back since.

Needless to say, this really sucks.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Houston 25, Colorado State 28

Yesterday my brother and a couple of friends drove up from Denver to Fort Collins to witness another heartbreakingly-close loss for the Cougars. The Cougars had rallied back from a 17-point halftime deficit and, with eight seconds left, were in position to send the game into overtime with a field goal. However, the Coogs decided to take a shot into the endzone before sending out the field goal unit, and Case Keenum's fade route to LJ Castile in the corner of the endzone was picked off by Colorado State defender (and son of Houston Texans head coach) Klint Kubiak, ending the game.

In my preseason outlook, I expected the team to be 2-2 right now, with losses to OSU and one of the two MWC schools. I thought that it would take time for the team to adjust to the new staff's offensive and defensive schemes. I was also worried that the team would struggle with its weak spots at wide receivers and linebackers. As it turns out, all of those things have happened. Add in the disruption of the team's routine and concentration caused by Hurricane Ike - I remain convinced that last week's "home" game against Air Force should simply have been canceled - and there's little wonder why this team sits at 1-3 right now.The weather yesterday was perfect for football. Colorado State has an excellent tailgating culture; other than a couple of drunken bozos (every school has a few), their fans were friendly and hospitable.
Colorado State's Hughes Stadium is a comfortable venue which sits at the foot of the Front Range; at a capacity of 34,400 it's only a little larger than Robertson. The school enjoys tremendous student stupport - the entire east side grandstand is reserved for students - and the band sits at the 50 yard line.
The offense started out slow; they sputtered for almost half the game and didn’t really get things going until the last drive of the first half. Receivers are still dropping easy passes. The O-Line is still having trouble establishing itself as an effective run blocking outfit (although to their credit they did improve as the game wore on). Quarterback Case Keenum did not have his best outing; he did pass for 380 yards and three touchdowns but also threw three interceptions, including the one that ended the game.
But the bigger problem is the defense. One thing that stood out to me was the way the UH defense was so physically dominated by Colorado State. The Rams' O-Line continually blew the Coogs off the ball. Going into the season I did not anticipate the degree to which this defense lacks size and speed. Also, it's become obvious to me that, just because somebody is a senior or a four-year starter, doesn't mean that they are an outstanding player. It's clear that the Cougar defense is going to struggle all season long.
Then there's the Unholy Trinity. It's difficult for any team to win with a minus-4 turnover margin. And although the Cougar special teams otherwise played well, they made one critical mistake when they were unable to cover Colorado State's botched field goal attempt (on 4th and 16, no less) in the first half. CSU was able to convert the botched attempt into a first down, and that saved a drive that resulted in a touchdown. Those are the kinds of mistakes that teams need to be able to capitalize upon.

Given the way Coogs played in the first half, the fact that they rallied back and had a chance to win or tie the game at the end is rather remarkable and should be commended. I was also happy to see that the high altitude did not seem to take a toll on the team; in fact, they played better at the end of the game than they played at the beginning. But the Coogs simply can't dig themselves into big first-half holes and then expect to rally themselves out of those holes in the second half; they need to play with intensity from the very start.

I don't disagree with the decision to throw the ball into the endzone with eight seconds left. Why not take a shot at avoiding overtime on the road, if you can do it and if it's a safe play, i.e. either the receiver catches it, or the ball falls incomplete with a couple of seconds left for the field goal attempt? But the decision to throw the fade to LJ in the corner of the endzone was not a safe play. The Coogs had already done it twice, so CSU was ready for it. Furthermore, Case's pass to LJ was not well-thrown.

Next up for the Cougars is ECU in Greenville, which is going to be tough. Given the problems that currently plague the team - an offense that still makes a lot of mistakes, a defense that cannot stop anybody, and a team that starts out slow and allows themselves to fall behind early - it's becoming clear that this is going to be a long season for University of Houston football. Right now, my preseason prediction of a seven-win is beginning to look optimistic.

Keeping cool

It's been over a week since Hurricane Ike, and power still has not been returned to my house.

I guess this is one way to seek relief from the heat until the power comes back on...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ike picture time!

Now that I'm at my brother's place in Denver and have steady and reliable internet access, I can finally upload the pictures that I took right after the storm hit. Click on any photo for a larger image.

This was the view from our street as the outer bands of Ike began moving out and people began emerging to survey the destruction. Falling tree branches broke out the back window of the car on the right:
Lori and Kirby survey the damage:
Swollen by Ike's rainwaters, Braes Bayou rises to the top of its banks and floods North MacGregor Way:A tree limb sits upon a power line. This was one of several instances of tree-downed power lines in our neighborhood:
I think it's safe to assume that the van is a total loss:Most of the property damage to our neighborhood was caused by falling tree trunks and limbs, rather than by the winds themselves. This house lost its front porch to falling tree branches:
An entire uprooted pine tree lays upon a house, causing roof damage. If you look carefully, you can see another toppled pine tree laying upon the garage in back:
Much of the city's traffic lights were damaged by Ike's winds. On Scott Street near the UH campus, a signal gantry lays in the street:
The University of Houston itself did not sustain a great deal of storm damage, although the College of Architecture sustained damage when part of its roof peeled away and water leaked into the building. The roof membrane of the campus's rec center was also blown off by the storm:
Everybody lent a hand to the post-hurricane clean-up effort, including Kirby:

Ike, Part Five

It's been almost six full days since the storm hit. We're still without power, and Centerpoint is now saying that our zip code won't be back online until sometime next week. Lori's dad brought us a generator, and we've been using it to run the refrigerator and some fans, but our whiny neighbor who lives behind us complains when we run it after 10 pm. There's nothing for me to do at my work right now (but at least the office has reopened) and both Lori's work and Kirby's school are closed until Monday at the earliest. So let me simply echo what John has to say about the present state of Houston, lest anybody from outside Houston think things are fine:


Not even close.

It's getting better. More gas stations and grocery stores are open. A lot of restaurants have re-opened (and the ones with free wi-fi are definitely getting our business), albeit with truncated menus, and several malls, museums and movie theaters have returned to operation as well. But Houston is still a long way from returning to normal. Much of the city is still without power, we're still under a midnight-to-six curfew to deter looters, the lack of operating traffic lights make driving though the city a cautious and slow task, and collective patience is beginning to fray as the lack of power, open businesses or working schools create a sense of boredom and "cabin fever" among the populace.

Houston will return to normal. But it's not there yet. Not by a long shot.

Luckily for me, I will be escaping Houston in a few hours on a previously-scheduled trip to visit my brother in Denver. He and I are going to go see the Cougars play Colorado State in Fort Collins this weekend. With any luck, by the time I get back to Houston on Sunday power will have been restored to my neighborhood. But I'm not going to hold my breath.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Houston 28, Air Force 31

In spite of the fact that Houston held their opponent to zero passing yards (a feat they haven't accomplished since 1955) and mounted a late three-touchdown rally, the Cougars fell to the US Air Force Academy, 28-31, in a wind-driven, sparsely-attended game that, due to Hurricane Ike, was played at SMU's Ford Field in Dallas.

As was the case against Oklahoma State the week before, the Cougars were able to move the ball with ease but were simply unable to stop the opposing team's offense. Quarterback Case Keenum accounted for almost all of Houston's 534 total yards of offense, passing for 362 yards and four touchdowns and scrambling for another 72 yards on the ground. But the Falcons' option-based ground game was simply too much for the Cougars, as they rushed for 380 yards and 31 consecutive points. The Cougars, who also shot themselves in the foot with dropped passes and costly turnovers, clearly did not have their heads in the game. It's hard to blame them when one considers that they were playing merely hours after Hurricane Ike had ravaged their homes, friends and families back in Houston.

An announced crowd of 2,546 was on hand to watch what was technically a "home" game for the Coogs. Air Force had their cheerleaders and band on hand for the game; the Cougars did not.

After three games, the problems facing the Coogs are fairly clear:
  • Run defense: the Cougars simply do not have one.
  • Receivers: still dropping easy passes.
  • Unholy Trinity: eight penalties, minus two in turnover margin, and a special teams squad that gave up 119 return yards on only three kickoff or punt returns.
With that said, it is clear that this game was being played under the spectre of a severe natural disaster that was directly affecting at least one of the schools involved. Should it have been played at all? University of Houston Athletics Director Dave Maggard sent out an e-mail this afternoon to season ticket holders explaining the reasoning as to why the game was not rescheduled or canceled:
Some have asked about playing Air Force this past Saturday in Dallas. It became apparent we needed to evacuate our team out of Houston so they would have a safe place during the hurricane. We relied upon the best weather reports available.

Coach Sumlin, the staff and players wished to play the game for a number of reasons, including possible bowl considerations at the end of the season. Unfortunately we were not able to schedule with Air Force for a date later this year. I conferred with the Conference USA office and CBS College Sports, and officials with both groups assured us that our game would continue to be televised by playing in Dallas on Saturday.

I fully supported Coach Sumlin's wish to play the game if at all possible and discussed the matter with President Khator. She agreed with the decision to play the game in Dallas given the information that CBS College Sports would televise the game and we would have a safe place to play at SMU. As the forecast changed and indicated the possibility of severe weather in Dallas Saturday afternoon, officials with CBS College Sports decided not to televise the game for the safety of their production crew.

We moved the game to 10 a.m. to avoid possible severe afternoon weather conditions. The game was played with light rain off and on and was not an issue during the game. The weather did worsen later in the day with wind and rain. Air Force played a very good game and our Coogs made a run toward the end, but came up just short with the final score being 31-28.

Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but once CBS College Sports decided not to televise the game and deteriorating weather conditions forced kickoff to be moved up to 10 am, I think the decision should have been made to simply cancel the game.

I know that the coaches and student-athletes wanted to play this game - the admirable quality of a true competitor is to believe that you can play under any conditions and win - but I'm just not sure it was fair to expect the players to play to their abilities given the extreme circumstances they were in. Aside from that, there are practical repercussions: not only did the UH Athletics Department take a huge financial hit by playing this game - ticketholders for the game here in Houston will have to be refunded or compensated by other means - but under NCAA rules the announced attendance of 2,546 will probably have to be averaged into the Coogs' home attendance number for 2008.

I'm not normally one to make excuses for the Cougars; I'm not going to claim that the result of this game would have been different under ideal conditions (although I suspect it would have been), and Houston's rushing defense is simply inexcusable in any case. But given the circumstances, this game simply should not have been played at all. I know this is going to sound heretical, but some things are, believe it or not, more important than college football.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I survived Ike

Just a quick post to let everyone know that we survived the storm: no injuries, and no structural damage to house or cars. No electricity, either, and it will probably remain that way for a few days. My neighborhood got hit pretty good, and tree limbs and downed power lines are everywhere.

We are doing well with supplies: plenty of food and water, and a FEMA distribution point for ice is very close to our house. Mother nature obviously feels guilty about the damage wrought by Ike, because the weather we're getting today is amazingly mild and comfortable. We'll be okay.

I will provide a full report of the storm and upload pictures when I am able to do so.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ike, Part Four

Now shortly after 9 pm. The wind is really beginning to pick up and I have a feeling I'm not going to have power for too much longer. Still no rain.

Right now, I'm still a good 5-6 hours from seeing the strongest effects of this storm.

UPDATE: Now 9:45 pm. The digital cable just cut out, but I still have internet. We're beginning to get some rain.

Ike, Part Three

It's about 6 pm, and we've started to get some strong gusts in our neighborhood. Very little in the way of rain so far, but it will come soon enough.

The track really hasn't changed much since last night. Right now, it's pretty clear that this thing is going to go right over my house:

It's been 25 years since Alicia and in that time we've dodged a lot of bullets (although Allison certaintly did its share of damage even though it was "only" a tropical storm). We're simply due for a big one.

This looks like it is it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ike, Part Two

Ike did manage to put a huge crimp in my tailgating plans for Saturday, by forcing the Houston - Air Force game to be moved to SMU's Ford Field in Dallas.

Apparently, the remaining schedules for both Houston and the US Air Force Academy preculded the game from being rescheduled: it was either play on Saturday or not play at all. That really sucks for the team, because the Cougars will be playing a "home" game in Dallas in front of 2,500 people, tops, and they'll likely be playing in poor weather since Ike is scheduled to blow through Dallas Saturday afternoon after passing through here in the morning. It sucks for the fans, too, because they miss out on a home game. Such is the nature of sports along the Gulf of Mexico.

Anyway, as of late Friday night the storm was headed directly towards Galveston; it is expected to make landfall as a strong cat 2 or weak cat 3 around midnight tomorrow, but we are being told to expect hurricane-force winds in Houston well before then. We're stocked up and hunkered down, and we're going to ride it out here.

I am cautiously optimistic that we'll be okay, although I fully expect to lose power as Ike passes over Houston.

I will try to provide updates as I am able. Everybody stay safe!

European car or European vacation? Why not both?

The Chronicle's David Ellison discovers an obscure program whereby American purchasers of European luxury cars can go "directly to the source" to get their cars - and enjoy a vacation at the same time:

Through a well-established but little-known program casually known in the industry as overseas delivery, buyers of a BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche, Volvo or Saab can pick up their new car at the plant where it was made, drop it off at a port city for shipping - and enjoy some serious road trip R&R along the way.

Autobahn, anyone?

These car-buying packages include temporary European registration and insurance setups, and in some cases free or discounted airfare and other accomodations. Essentially, after taking delivery of the car, purchasers take it on an extended test-drive through Europe.

Needless to say, European car dealerships here on this side of the Atlantic would prefer that people not know about this program:
There are other benefits: Anders said at Volvo, there's no haggling - the cost of overseas delivery (which in almost all cases includes all shipping costs and arrangements) is fixed. And because you're buying directly from the factory, you can custom-order the car from the ground up.
A co-worker of mine (who works in my company's Denver office) and her husband actually did this a few months ago: they flew to Germany, picked up the BMW they had custom-ordered, and spent three weeks driving around Europe in their new car before dropping the car off at a port and flying back home. Their new Beemer was delivered to them a few weeks later. They even got to take their German lisence plates home with them. She confirmed that these cars are built as typical exports for the US market and meet American safety and emissions standards.

I don't know if there will ever be a time where I am in the market for a high-end European luxury car But I still remember the great fun Lori and I had back in 2002 when the Hertz office in Munich managed to not have in stock the Ford Focus I had reserved and gave us a Mercedes instead. It was just a C-Class, but it still allowed us to use the left lane of the Autobahn to our full enjoyment. And if I ever decide to buy a high-end Mercedes or BMW, I will most certainly take the overseas delivery program into consideration.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Prepare to feel old...

According to Billboard, the number one song in the nation twenty years ago today was Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses.

It topped the charts for two weeks in September 1988, until it was knocked out of first place by Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy.

Monday, September 08, 2008


I always take hurricane projections that are five or six days out with a huge grain of salt, but this could put a big crimp in my tailgating plans for Saturday:It's way too early to start evacuating - right now it looks like it's headed towards southern Texas, although we still don't know with any certainty where this thing is going or how strong it will be - but it's never too early to start making contingency plans, as Eric Berger explained earlier this afternoon:

I would anticipate the city of Houston wouldn't call for an evacuation until at least late Wednesday or Thursday, so now is definitely not the time to leave. But it is time to ask whether you would go if a major hurricane threatened the Greater Houston area.

So, should you go?

The answer lies in where you live, and the extent to which you are comfortable with the structure of your home. Following so closely after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita prompted a lot of people to evacuate who normally might not

Well, yeah, especially since people were sent into a panicked frenzy by an irresponsible and hysterical local news media. I'd like to think that, if Ike does threaten, the local media will be a bit more moderate in their coverage. Seeing the ridiculous lengths to which they went to cover Edouard a few weeks ago, however, I'm not optimistic.

Hopefully, local citizens will consult this map when considering whether to evacuate. As Eric explains:

If you live outside a surge zone officials do not recommend evacuation unless you live in a mobile home, or until you've waited for coastal residents to evacuate.

Only you know your home. Inland sustained winds are unlikely to be much above 100 mph in most storms, and most homes should withstand this. Problems can arise if tall trees fall on homes (especially pines), from projectiles picked up by wind, and possibly from tornadoes. But I think the advice from public officials is sound.

Since Rita, I've given this some thought. According to this map, I live close to, but outside of, Surge Zone C. I also live outside of a 100-year floodplain; my house did not flood during Alison. Also, since my house was built in 1946, it has successfully survived the winds of past major storms such as Carla and Alicia. Falling branches are a concern (although I'm glad we cut down that old oak in the front yard a few years ago) as is the likely lack of electricity (I did not lose power during Rita, but other streets in my neighborhood did), but I am confident that this house will survive a direct hit from anything up to a cat 3. The winds from a cat 4 or 5, on the other hand, would concern me to the point that I would consider evacuating to either my aunt's place in Temple or my aunt and uncle's house in Plano. But if I do decide to evacuate, I will do so because I feel that it is unsafe to stay, not because some "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!1!" local meteorologist tells me to.

My decision to stay put during Rita turned out to the the right one for me. But I'll take these storms on a case-by-case basis. And I'll be paying close attention to Ike over the next few days.

Houston 37, Oklahoma State 56

Two games into the season, and a clearer picture of the team emerges. The Cougars are now 1-1, easily beating a team they were supposed to beat (Southern) and losing to a team they were not expected to defeat (Oklahoma State). What troubles me about the Oklahoma State game is not the loss itself. The Cowboys are an improving Big XII program, the Cougars had to face them on the road, and their coach is a MAN!! What bothers me is the UH defense (or lack thereof), which allowed a staggering 701 total yards of offense: 320 yards passing and another 381 yards rushing. That's simply unacceptable.

To be fair: according to somebody who was at the game whose football observations I respect, the Cougars actually played decently on defense (they held OSU to 14 points in the first half and actually led at halftime) until three of Houston's best defensive players - lineman Ell Ash, linebacker Cody Lubojasky and safety Kenneth Fontennette - had to leave the game due to injuries. That essentially gutted the center of Houston's defense, and the Cowboys took advantage by scoring 28 points in the 3rd quarter.

The Unholy Trinity has not been fully exorcised, either: the Coogs only committed five penalties and actually came out ahead in the turnover battle, but special teams were a disaster. Bad snaps cost Houston an extra point and a field goal and Oklahoma State was allowed to run a punt back for a touchdown.

On the bright side, the Cougar offense is better than I expected it to be by this time of the season. The inexperienced receiving corps is still dropping easy passes, but 483 total yards of offense and 37 points is nothing to get angry about. Case Keenum had a great evening, passing for 387 yards, rushing for another 81, completing four touchdown passes and throwing no interceptions. The ground game still needs work, however; the backs combined for just a paltry 15 yards rushing.

So what's it all mean? The fact is: the UH defense just isn't that good. It will likely improve over the course of the season as the younger players get experience, and OSU is probably going to be the most physical team it faces all year, but at the end of the day it's just not very good. There's no depth, either. Ash and Fontennette will likely return for the next game, but Lubojasky appears to be done for the season, and that's a devastating blow to an already-weak linebacking corps.

I’m sticking to my prediction of a seven-win season. While I have no doubt that this team will get better as the season progresses, there are just too many weak spots - especially on defense - for me to expect them to win nine games or contend for the C-USA title this year.

The Coogs' next scheduled opponent is Air Force, which visits Robertson this Saturday afternoon. However, this game might be affected by approaching hurricane Ike. More on Ike in the next post.

Yes, I'm still here...

I would like to assuage the fears of my regular readers (all three of them) by assuring that nothing happened to me on the way back from Dubai (the trip was fine; Delta's in-flight entertainment system even worked throughout the entire duration this time). I've just been so busy since I got back to Houston that I haven't had any time to put up any new posts. There was the start of football season, Kirby's 4th birthday party (his birthday was actually the 21st of August but we held his party on the 31st so I could be here for it), residual work from Dubai I needed to complete, and a host of other welcome-back-to-down tasks (like unpacking, restocking the kitchen; and cleaning out an inbox full of 750 e-mails) that have kept me busy over the past week-and-a-half.

But it's good to be back home. It's been a long summer, and there are a lot of things I've missed, like Lori, Kirby, my own bed, real Tex-Mex food, internet that isn't censored, etc. At this point it looks like I'll be here for a while, too: rotation Six likely will not happen until the middle-to-end of October.