Sunday, November 30, 2008

Purple America

As we exit November, a final observation about this month's presidential election:
This is a map of 2008 presidential election results by county. Sure, some places are redder than others, and other places are bluer than others. But as this map shows, there are red counties in "blue" states, blue counties in "red" states and, most importantly, an awful lot of purple all over the place.

People and pundits alike talk about "Red" and "Blue" America because it's an easy-to-grasp heuristic of the nation's political geography. But it's not an entirely accurate reflection of reality.

This and other interesting maps of the 2008 election can be viewed here.

Thanksgiving reflections

Although perhaps not quite as unhappy as last year's Thanksgiving, this year's holiday was certainly bittersweet and awkward, given the fact that Lori's mom, as well as other relatives on her side of the family, are no longer with us. As such, our Thanksgiving Day gathering was purposefully subdued, consisting of only a handful of people besides Lori, her brother, Kirby and myself. We still managed to put out a pretty decent spread, however, and the Thanksgiving Day feast was followed up by my traditional pot of day-after-Thanksgiving turkey bone gumbo.

I don't want to sound too sentimental here, but these deaths have given a deeper meaning to Thanksgiving: that there truly is a reason to be thankful for your friends or family, because they can leave us at any time. If somebody would have told me two Thanksgivings ago that three people who were with us at my parent's house that day - Lori's mother, my uncle Glen and my cousin Evelyn - would not be with us two years later, that day would have certainly taken on a different meaning for me.

Life is short. We are not guaranteed time with our loved ones. Be thankful for the time you're given with them.

Update on Lori's car

Following up on this incident: as bad as the damage to Lori's car was, it was not severe enough for the car to be written off by the insurance company. Repairs to the car were completed this past week and Lori picked it up Wednesday afternoon.

Aside from the fact that they forgot to replace the trunk light and that one of the rear doors doesn't close quite as smoothly as it used to, the car otherwise looks and drives the same as it did before the accident.

This particular ordeal is not entirely over; there's still a lot of insurance-related paperwork that needs to be resolved. But at least, after almost a month, Lori is driving her own car once again.

It's also good to know that we won't have to go shopping for a new car after all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Back from Dubai again...

...for what will hopefully be the last time this year.

Friday's trip was about as easy as a 16-hour flight in economy class could be. The guy at the hotel who took over half an hour to check me out last time managed to get the job done in less than ten this time, the taxi to the airport was prompt, the line at the ticket counter at DXB's gleaming new Terminal 3 (which is now fully operational) was short, passport control and security screening was speedy and I ended up inside the concourse with plenty of time to spare until my flight finally departed. My seat was towards the back of the airplane, away from all the screaming babies, and since the airplane wasn't full this time around I managed to have a couple of seats to myself. I was about as comfortable as I could be in economy class, even though, per usual, I wasn't able to catch any sleep. I still wish Emirates would put footrests in their 777s like they have in their A340s.

We flew a much "higher" route than normal this time around, flying up past Moscow (unfortunately, there were too many clouds, so no pics of the Kremlin from 32,000 feet), across the top of Greenland, and down over Hudson Bay, Manitoba and the Plains States. Even from high altitude, and in spite of the fact that it was essentially camouflaged by snowcover, I could clearly recognize Winnipeg by the distinctive trapezoidal shape of its Perimeter Highway. I still don't understand how people manage to live in that part of the world during winter, but to each their own, I guess.

The wait at customs and immigration at IAH was short, and Lori, who took avail of Intercontinental's cell phone lot to wait for me, drove by to swoop me up once I emerged. From there, it was a speedy trip down the Hardy Toll Road back to the house, although we stopped by my parents' house to say hello and to pick up Kirby first.

Trip over and done. It's good to be home.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cougar football attendance watch

Yesterday's home game against UTEP concluded the University of Houston's 2008 home football schedule. The Cougars averaged 21,519 fans per game for their five home games this season (the game against Air Force that was moved to Dallas due to Hurricane Ike is not counted). This is an improvement of 564 fans/game over the 2007 season.

I've updated my historical wins - versus - attendance graph to reflect this average:
I will update this graph (as well as this post) at the end of the season to reflect the full number of wins for 2008. If the Cougars do manage to beat Rice next week and host the Conference USA championship, I will revise the average attendance for 2008 to reflect that game as well.

I'll post full thoughts about last night's game (a game the Cougars had had no business winning, but did so anyway) later.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rotation Seven complete

It's a bit after 10:30 pm and I'm relaxing at my hotel. In a little bit, I am going to finish packing and try to get a few hours of sleep before I wake up and head to the airport, board EK 211 and fly back to Houston. I'm not looking forward to the sixteen-hour flight - I've already resigned myself to the fact that I'm going to get a middle seat and that I'm going to be surrounded by screaming infants - but I am eager to get back home.

As of right now, I do not know when I will be returning to Dubai; I'm hoping that it won't be until after the New Year, if at all. Since April, I’ve cumulatively spent 120 days either on the ground here in Dubai or in transit. I’ve certainly done my part but I’ve simply had enough for one calendar year. It's time for me to be home for the holidays.

That being said, the weather during this rotation has been amazingly pleasant. The skies have been clear and it even rained one morning earlier this week. If I do have to come back here in January (or - ugh - even before then), at least I'll have that to look forward to.

Very belated election thoughts

Now that the State of Missouri has finally been called for McCain, albeit just barely, I can officially evaluate my election-eve prediction:
Barack Obama will be elected the 44th President of the United States by winning 311 electoral votes to John McCain's 227.

In the end, I think McCain will wind up with narrow victories in several states currently rated as "toss-ups:" Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina. But it won't be enough for him to win, as Obama will win every state that Kerry won in 2004, as well as Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Obama's final margin of victory in those last two states, along with Pennsylvania, will probably end up being very narrow and will keep the race in doubt until the wee hours Wednesday morning; that will certainly make the networks happy. But the end result will be an Obama victory.

As it turns out, my prediction of an Obama victory was correct. My prediction about his margin if victory, however, was off by a rather substantial 54 electoral votes. Obama picked up every state I expected him to take, as well as three state I didn't expect him to take: Florida, Indiana and North Carolina. Obama also won a single electoral vote in Omaha, Nebraska (who truly saw that happening?) to amass a final tally of 365 electoral votes to John McCain's 173. Of course, these number are not official until the Electors meet next month, but there's no denying that this was a rather decisive victory for the Democrat.

Nor was I correct about the election being in doubt "until the wee hours;" the networks called both Pennsylvania and Ohio for Obama rather early in the evening. Once they did that, the outcome of the election was no longer in doubt and Obama was projected the winner at 10 pm CST.

In the two weeks since the election, reams have been written about the outcome of the election - why Obama won, why McCain lost, what it says about the American voter and what it means for the future of either political party (and right now, the future of the Republican Party as it currently exists doesn't look so bright). So I really don't have a lot to say about this election that hasn't already been said many times before.

I do agree with the conventional wisdom that the deck was simply stacked against McCain this year. He was running beneath the shadow of a very unpopular President of the same party and he was blindsided by an economic crisis late in the campaign that put him at a severe disadvantage.

That being said, I think the McCain campaign was poorly run. The campaign was indeed erratic, as it lurched from message to message and from theme to theme. McCain never seemed to find his "voice," so to speak. I also think that the McCain campaign made errors on the ground: why, for example, was McCain spending the final weeks of the campaign in places like Iowa, a state he had no chance whatsoever of winning given, among other things, his (correct) opposition to ethanol subsidies? I also don't think McCain did any favors for himself when he nominated Sarah Palin as his running mate. Speaking personally, the more I learned about Palin, the more repulsed I became. Looking at the decline in her approval ratings between the Republican Convention and Election Day, a lot of other voters reached the same conclusion as well.

Obama, on the other hand, ran the better campaign. Sure, the fact that it was better funded made a lot of difference. But the campaign was also steady and focused. Their decision to "expand the electoral map" by competing in states like Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina also turned out to be justified. It remains to be seen if he can run the country as well as he ran his campaign, but I am hopeful.

Democrats also did well in Congressional races, extending their majority in the House of Representatives and picking up several Senate seats as well. Now that the Alaska Senate race has been called and Mark Begich has ousted 85-year-old GOP Stalwart Ted Stevens (in the process, sparing Senate Republicans a grueling task of having to expel the convicted felon from their caucus), Democrats and allied Independents now enjoy a 58-40 advantage over Republicans in the Senate, with two races in Minnesota and Georgia still unsettled. There's still a possibility, however slim, that Democrats could reach the 60-seat filibuster-proof threshold: that would be, in my opinion, a bigger disaster to the national Republican party than losing the White House.

Indeed, Election Night was tough for Republicans on the national level. Things were better for them here in Texas, however. Senator John Cornyn easily fended off Democratic challenger Rick Noriega to keep his seat, Republicans still have control of all statewide offices, and the GOP even picked up a House seat when Pete Olson wrested control of the 22nd District, which was once held by Tom DeLay, from Democrat Nick Lampson. That outcome wasn't really a surprise. Nor was it a suprise that all the other local US Representatives held on to their seats even though some of them faced well-funded challengers. The districts are simply drawn so as not to be competitive.

Counting appears to be complete for the numerous local races that were on the ballot. Harris County Democrats, as expected, ended the Republican stranglehold on countywide offices that has been in effect since 1994, winning the County Sheriff's seat and taking a majority of civil and criminal court races. I've never been a big fan of choosing judicial candidates by party; I wasn't a fan of it when experienced Democratic judges got swept out in the early 1990s and I'm not a fan of it today. Local Republicans managed to hold on to a handful of important county positions, including, fortunately, County Judge Ed Emmett, and, unfortunately, County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt. But it is clear that Harris County itself is trending Democratic. This is evidenced by the fact that the county voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1964.

If I were a Republican, either at the local or the national level, I'd be concerned right now.

All in all, it's been a long and interesting election season. I, for one, am glad that it is finally over.

Finally, would somebody please do us all a favor and inform Joe the Plumber that his fifteen minutes are up?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Death cab

This was the scene right on front of our office building sometime last week. I hope nobody was seriously injured.
Needless to say, my own experiences with da ngerous Dubai taxicabs makes me thankful that I don't depend on them to get around anymore.

Houston 70, #25 Tulsa 30

It seems like every twenty years, the University of Houston Cougars deliver a beatdown of epic proportions to the Tulsa University Golden Hurricane. In 1968, there was the infamous 100-6 game. Twenty years later, the Run-and-Shoot-era Coogs clobbered Tulsa by a score of 82-28. And now, another twenty years on, the Coogs once again lay the smackdown on 25th-ranked Tulsa, 70-30.

The Coogs, avenging last year's 7-56 loss, handed Golden Hurricane head coach Todd Graham his biggest loss since leaving a Rice program with which he had just signed a contract extension and going to Tulsa two years ago. The win marked the program's second upset over a ranked opponent in one season, something that hasn't happened since 1984, and the Coogs reached the 70-point mark for the first time since their 73-3 shellacking of Louisiana Tech in 1991.

The Cougar offense was unstoppable, amassing 641 yards against a clueless Tulsa defense. Quarterback Case Keenum had a banner game. He was 24 of 37 for 402 yards passing and a career-high six touchdown passes. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown as well, took no sacks and threw no picks. (For his efforts, Lou Holtz awarded him a helmet sticker on ESPN's College Football Final.) Of the nine receivers that got their hands on the ball, Mark Hafner and Tryone Carrier led with two touchdown catches a piece and 8 and 6 receptions, respectively. Carrier added a 93-yard kickoff return late in the first half to his exploits as well.

But the reason the game turned out to be as lopsided as it was is because of the Cougar defense, which held a Tulsa offense that had been averaging 52 points a a game this season to only four touchdowns on the night. They thwarted two Tulsa fourth-down attempts, sacked quarterback David Johnson twice, and recovered five turnovers. Cornerback Loyce Means had a career night, intercepting three Tulsa passes and returning one of the 69 yards for a touchdown.

Indeed, the only thing that sucked about this game was that I wasn't there to see it in person.

Unlike the 1968 and 1988 games, I don't think anybody can fairly accuse the Coogs of running up the score in this one. Their last touchdown came early in the 4th quarter; after that the second string came in to play and the Coogs ran out the clock. Besides, it's not Houston's fault that Tulsa played like absolute crap Saturday night by turning the ball over seven times (twice on fumbles, thrice through the air and twice on downs) and not fielding anything that resembled a defense.

With this huge win, the Cougars have now clinched the six wins they need for bowl eligibility. But they're not done yet; the "four game season" against division rivals is only half over; if they can knock off UTEP at home next weekend and a tough Owl team at Rice Stadium two weeks from now, they win the C-USA Western Division and head to the conference championship game with a trip to the Liberty Bowl on the line. That's the team's stated goal, and this win puts it well within reach.

In spite of the epic beat-downs that the Cougars have delivered to the Golden Hurricane over the years, the all-time record between the schools is almost tied: Houston has won 18 times, Tulsa 16.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Houston 42, Tulane 14

It's too bad I couldn't be in Houston to see this one. The Coogs finally put together a complete, four-quarter game and steamrolled the Tulane Green Wave at Robertson Stadium Saturday night. It was Houston's sixth consecutive victory over Tulane.

The Cougars played sloppy football: they turned the ball over three times, they missed a field goal, they muffed (but fortunately recovered) a punt reception, they gave up two sacks and they committed a horrendous 143 yards in penalties (although, according to Chronicle reporter Michael Murphy, the officiating for this game was miserable; they threw flags when they shouldn't have, didn't throw flags when they should have, and couldn't even manage the game clock correctly).

But that sloppiness was offset by a UH offense that simply could not be stopped by Tulane. The Cougars threw for 394 yards and rushed for another 299 (so much for those early-season predictions of a one-dimensional offense under Kevin Sumlin) to total almost 700 total yards of offense. Quarterback Case Keenum accounted for all but ten of those passing yards, distributing the ball to nine different receivers and completing four touchdown passes. The rushing attack was led by Bryce Beall, who gained 176 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries; that's in addition to the 49 yards and one touchdown he notched as a receiver. Beall's offensive production against Tulane set a new record for a UH freshman; he has become one of the great stories of the season.

Tulane managed over 400 yards in total offense of their own, but they simply couldn't find the endzone. The UH defense held the Green Wave to 5-of-17 on third down conversions and 0-for-3 on fourth down conversions. It didn't help that Tulane missed three field goal attempts; the way the Cougars were scoring, however, those extra nine points wouldn't have mattered.

The Coogs are now 5-4 on the season and, with all of their last three games in Houston, still control their own destiny in the Conference USA western division. Next week's showdown against division-leading, 25-ranked Tulsa looms large. The Cougars, who were pummeled 56-7 by the Golden Hurricane last season, will likely need to play their best football of the year: while they were able to overcome their penalties and turnovers to beat Tulane; they simply won't be able to make the same mistakes against a tough Tulsa team and be able to win.

Unfortunately, I'm going to have to miss that one as well. I will, however, make it back to Houston to see the last two games of the season against UTEP and Rice.

Paris from 37,000 feet

I thought that if I got to the airport early enough I could something other than a middle seat this time. No such luck.

I was also hoping that I might be able to avoid the "flying nursery" section of the aircraft this time as well. Again, no such luck. The number of families with small children that fly Emirates between Houston and Dubai is such that there is no part of the airplane where one can be free of screaming infants or whiny toddlers.

Making good on a promise I made to myself the last time I flew past the city, I did manage to take some pictures of Paris. They're a bit hazy, but you can clearly see landmarks such as La Defense and the Bois de Boulougne on the left edge of the first picture, and the Arc de Triomphe and, below it, the Eiffel Tower in the second picture.
The arrivals hall at DXB's new Terminal 3 is very impressive. The elevators used to move passengers from the concourse to the arrivals hall are the biggest I've ever seen, and I was amazed at just how quicky I was able to clear passport control, collect my bags and get a taxi to my hotel.
Thus begins Rotation Seven.

Friday, November 07, 2008

That was a short week...

Looks like I was a bit conservative with my prediction of Obama's margin of victory in the electoral college. I haven't yet had time to write my post-election wrap-up; in fact, I really haven't had time to do a lot of things I've wanted to do this week. maybe I'll get a chance to do that once I get back to Dubai.

Not that I really want to go back to Dubai, mind you. There comes a point at which the constant trips back and forth become tiresome and I've long since passed that point. When I agreed to assist with some projects over there back in April, I suspected that I might have to be out there through the summer but I did not think that I'd still have to be making these trips in the fall. My family misses me, and I miss the cooler weather and the football games. But such is the nature of my job: Dubai is where the work is right now.

Fortunately, this trip will be the shortest of the year; I'll be back in two weeks.

Anyway, off to the airport. With any luck, I'll get an aisle or window seat, and I won't be stuck in the "flying nursery" section of the aircraft this time...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Calling the election

As my regular readers (all three of them) have probably noticed, I have steadfastly refrained from posting about the presidential election this year. It has at times been difficult for me to restrain myself. I will have something to say about the election results (local as well as national) later this week.

However, the campaign is finally coming to a close, and I thought I'd test my prowess as a political pundit by predicting tomorrow's results. So here goes:

Barack Obama will be elected the 44th President of the United States by winning 311 electoral votes to John McCain's 227.

In the end, I think McCain will wind up with narrow victories in several states currently rated as "toss-ups:" Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Carolina. But it won't be enough for him to win, as Obama will win every state that Kerry won in 2004, as well as Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Obama's final margin of victory in those last two states, along with Pennsylvania, will probably end up being very narrow and will keep the race in doubt until the wee hours Wednesday morning; that will certainly make the networks happy. But the end result will be an Obama victory.

Anything could happen tomorrow, of course. McCain could pull this thing out (and if he does, I certainly won't be the only person proven wrong), for example, by pulling off a surprise in Pennsylvania. But right now I think the odds of that happening are rather low.

At least we can all take heart in the fact that, come tomorrow night, this interminable campaign will, finally and mercifully, be over.

College football 2008: the home stretch

As we enter the final few weeks of the college football season, it's interesting to see how much different the national championship picture is today than it was at the season's beginning.

The preseason consensus (AP plus USA Today) top five - Georgia, USC, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Florida - have all suffered at least one loss. Two of them have already lost twice and are out of the championship hunt altogether: preseason number one Georgia, who lost to Alabama earlier in the season and suffered a thrashing at the hands of Florida in Jacksonville last Saturday, and my preseason pick to go all the way, Ohio State, who got crushed by USC early in the season and who lost to Penn State at home last weekend. In fact, of the preseason consensus top five, the only team that currently finds itself in the current BCS top five is Florida, at #5. College football's current elite are Alabama, Texas Tech, Penn State and Texas, in that order. While all of these schools were ranked at the season's beginning, how many people would have predicted in August that this would be the BCS lineup at the beginning of November?

The Red Raiders find themselves near the top of the college football world due to their thrilling 39-33 victory over #1-ranked Texas in Lubbock last Saturday. I don't consider their defeat of the Longhorns to be a major upset - Texas Tech is a legitimately good program and Jones Stadium is a tough place for opponents to play - but the fact that the Red Raiders, who have never finished the season in the top ten, are now the second-best team in the country is certainly something of a surprise.

It will be interesting to see if the Red Raiders can hold on to their lofty position and reach the Big 12 title game: their next two opponents are Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, both of which are ranked in the top ten. Alabama and Penn State, on the other hand, both appear to have easier schedules from here on out: the Crimson Tide look to have a clear shot at the SEC title game if they can get past #15 LSU this weekend, and the Nittany Lions' only remaining opponent with a winning record is #18 Michigan State. One-loss Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and USC squads aren't completely out of the picture yet, either, but they need one or more of the top three to lose.

On the other end of the college football spectrum is North Texas. The Mean Green avoided an O-fer season by defeating Western Kentucky, 51-40, at home last Saturday. A 97-yard interception return by UNT's Tobe Nwigwe as time expired sealed the win, which is a step in the right direction for the foundering program.

Things just keep getting worse in Ann Arbor. Last year, Michigan began the season with that infamous home loss to Appalachian State. Earlier this season, the Wolverines lost to a team from the MAC for the very first time. And, after losing to Purdue last Saturday, Michigan will miss its first bowl game since the 1974 season and will suffer its first losing season since 1967.

Finally, an era is coming to an end in Knoxville. Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer is being forced out after seventeen years at the head of the Volunteer helm.