Wednesday, June 30, 2010

So what do we cut?

To say that the federal government's spending habits are out of control would be something of an understatement. In relative terms, the national debt of the United States is expected to reach 62% of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (or GDP, a measure of the nation's overall economic output) by the end of the year. In raw numbers, the amount of money that the government owes its creditors, both foreign and domestic, is an absolutely staggering 13 trillion dollars (or, for the visually inclined, $13,000,000,000,000.00). And the number is riding higher every day. This is an unsustainable path that will inevitably and eventually lead the nation to economic ruin.

There's been a lot of partisan finger-pointing as to who is responsible for this mess, when the fact is that both political parties are to blame for the reckless spending practices that got our nation into this predicament. By extension, we, the voters, are to blame as well: we demanded more spending and lower taxes but didn't hold either ourselves or our elected officials responsible for the changes that need to be made in order to restore this nation to fiscal responsibility.

But it really no longer matters how we got into this mess. What matters now is how we get out. There are two ways to reduce the nation's overall debt: collect more revenues (i.e. raise taxes) or cut spending. Neither option is particularly palatable but, of the two, the latter is obviously the lesser of two political evils.

But what do we cut? The American people seem to have their ideas about what needs to be sliced away from the federal budget, but there is a pretty significant disconnect between the programs that most people want to cut and the amount of the budget that these particular programs account for. In other words, the programs the American people want to see cut are the programs that affect the budget deficit the least.

This is because roughly 81 percent of the federal budget goes to programs that either cannot be cut (like interest on the national debt - cut this and the US government defaults and the dollar becomes worthless) or which are very popular among Americans (Medicare, Medicaid, social security, unemployment insurance and national defense). And there are still a lot of popular programs in the remaining 19% of the budget: transportation infrastructure funding, benefits for retired veterans and federal workers, funding for education. Check out this pie chart.

The fact is, if the United States is ever to return to a path of fiscal discipline, it's going to take some hard, politically-unpopular choices. Everything from raising taxes to cutting "sacred cow" entitlement programs needs to be on the table, because that's the only way significant changes to federal spending are going to occur. There's also the issue of whether these cuts should occur now, depriving the economy of public-sector inputs even as there are signs that the nascent economic recovery is weakening.

What do you think needs to be done? The folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget have created a neat online simulation where average citizens like you and me can try to get the nation's debt down to a relatively manageable 60% of GDP. The idea of this exercise is not to eliminate the national debt completely - I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect that any sovereign government would ever be completely free of debt - but rather to get the national debt to a point that it is controllable, i.e. it is no longer growing and the interest payments on it don't account for more than a few percentage points of annual federal expenditures.

I was able to achieve the 60% mark, but it meant that I had to do things like make weapons systems cuts, reduce food stamp benefits to 2008 levels, raise the social security retirement age to 68, increase the Medicare retirement age to 67, raise Medicare premiums to 35% of costs, eliminate farm subsidies and subsidies for biofuels (I still say corn-based ethanol is a famine-inducing scam) kill NASA's Mars program, increase the gas tax (which needs to be done anyway), and curtail state and local tax deductions. I did fund a new jobs bill and increase federal funding for mass transit.

Easy enough for me. But imagine you're a minimum-wage-earning food stamp recipient, or someone in their sixties preparing for retirement, or an elderly Medicare recipient living on a fixed income, or a corn farmer in Iowa, or a defense contractor in California, or a NASA contract engineer down in Clear Lake City, or an SUV owner who commutes 80 miles round-trip everyday (okay, I really don't have a lot of sympathy for this last person, but...). Put yourself in any of those shoes, and you'd probably take issue with my proposed cuts.

Which is why it's so hard to agree upon and make the changes that need to be made in order to reign in the government's runaway spending habits. Seriously. Try it for yourself.

But we have to do something. As the CRFB states, the public debt of the United States will otherwise reach 85 percent of GDP by 2018, hit 100 by 2022, and top 200 percent in 2038 (incidentally, the year turn 65, but given this scenario do I really want to live that long?). As the CRFP argues, "no country can support debt at these levels without huge costs to its standard of living at a minimum and most likely a severe crisis."

So that's where we're at. Something's gotta give.

Tiresome and pointless hyper-partisan rhetoric aside, it will be interesting to see if the nation's elected officials - whether they be Democrat or Republican - will make the changes that are necessary to bring the nation's spending habits under control. However, it will be even more interesting to see if the American people are willing to accept those changes and make the sacrifices that would result.

Call my cynical, but I'll be pleasantly surprised if it happens.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Alex: Mother Nature's shot off the bow

It looks like the first named storm of the season, Alex, is going to end up landing in the vicinity of the Rio Grande Valley. Bad for Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, South Padre Island, etc. - may whatever damage be minimal - but good for the rest of the Gulf Coast. Especially as work continues to contain and stop the Deepwater Horizon blowout off the coast of Louisiana.

But coastal residents should make no mistake: Alex is Mother Nature's shot off the bow. Meteorologists seem to be in agreement that this is just the start of what could be a busy and nasty hurricane season.

This is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief. This is the time to prepare, because it's only June. This hurricane season's worst is yet to come.

Soccer thoughts

For the second World Cup in a row, the United States soccer team met its end at the hands of Ghana with a 2-1 loss in extra time. Last Saturday's result was a big disappointment, considering that the US was at least nominally favored to win and also given the excitement that the US team had generated during this World Cup. However, it simply goes to show that US soccer still has a ways to go before it can be considered an elite program, as the AP's Nancy Armour argues:
With a cushy road into the semifinals theirs for the taking, the Americans showed they're still, at best, a second-tier team.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley and his players can bluster all they want about the progress they've made and how they can play with anybody at the World Cup. When they had a chance to move into soccer's elite, against a Ghana team they should have handled easily, the Americans came out looking flat and uninspired.

Ghana, they seemed to say, no big deal. Well guess what? It was, and it is. You want soccer to be a major player in the U.S. sporting landscape, like the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball? Then you can't sleepwalk through your star turns.

Okay, let's be honest about this: regardless of how successful US soccer is, it will never reach the same level as the NBA, the NFL or the MLB because, as I pointed out four years ago, the lack of offense makes soccer generally unappealing to the average American's sports tastes. But, given the size, diversity and overall appetite for sports in the United States, there's no reason that soccer could not one day rival the NHL (no offense, hockey fans) as a close second to those "Big Three" sports in terms of popularity. Soccer does not have to achieve the same status as football, basketball or baseball in order to nevertheless be a successful and lucrative part of the United States' spectator sport portfolio.

But it will never happen as long as disappointments such as last Saturday's continue to occur.

American soccer diehards have nevertheless tried to spin the loss, saying that the US team still accomplished a great deal in the 2010 World Cup. Chronicle soccer blogger Jose de Jesus Ortiz praises the "valiant" US side in spite of the loss:
Years from now, we'll likely look back and say that the 2010 U.S. men's national team — with the help of ESPN's extensive and brilliant coverage — helped cement soccer into the American consciousness. Moreover, the U.S. showing at the World Cup in South Africa and the support from the American public may also prove as a boost when FIFA considers the U.S. bid to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cup.

Focus on the disappointment if you'd like, but I'd rather look at the big picture and appreciate the marvelous job the U.S. national team did in South Africa to represent their country with dignity while showcasing the American spirit.
Maybe so, bit I remain unconvinced, if only because this sounds like the same "this World Cup was a big boost for US soccer" spin we've heard every four years since the USA's return to the World Cup in Italy in 1990. If soccer is to gain a foothold in the United States, the national team simply has to win games like last Saturday's.

But they didn't. They came out flat, let the quicker and sharper Ghanians take control of the game, fell behind early, and couldn't take advantage of the scoring oportunities they were given. As a result, whatever momentum US soccer created in its home country by virtue of last Wednesday's thrilling injury-time goal against Algeria and their subsequent advancement to the "round of sixteen" has evaporated.

I'll freely admit that soccer is not my favorite sport. But I still watch, because I appreciate the physical ability, the supreme foot-to-eye coordination and the stamina of its athletes, and I can respect the importance the game places on patience and strategy. There are some aspects of "the beautiful game" I can do without - the flopping, diving and injury-faking is a big turn-off, the officiating is in desperate need of reform (Kuff agrees), and, although it will never happen, I still think that the offsides rule needs to be eliminated - but it would not bother me in the least to see soccer become a successful sport in the United States. It's an entertaining, if not exasperating sport, and as dejected as I was after Saturday afternoon's loss, I still took Kirby to the Dynamo game against Colorado at Robertson Stadium that evening and had a great time.

The fact remains: if the USSF, American soccer aficionados, and even FIFA, as I'm sure they've seen the ratings that ABC/ESPN's outstanding coverage of the World Cup have generated in the United States, want the game to generate a larger following within this country, then it's time for the US national team to take the next step on the sport's biggest stage. They didn't do that this time around. Which means a lot of second-guessing about "what could have been" and waiting for the next World Cup in 2014.

Monday, June 21, 2010

California considers digital, ad-bearing license plates

Even though I don't live in California, I'm not sure how I feel about this:
The California Legislature is considering a bill that would allow the state to begin researching the use of electronic license plates for vehicles. The move is intended as a moneymaker for a state facing a $19 billion deficit.

The device would mimic a standard license plate when the vehicle is in motion but would switch to digital ads or other messages when it is stopped for more than four seconds, whether in traffic or at a red light. The license plate number would remain visible at all times in some section of the screen.

In emergencies, the plates could be used to broadcast Amber Alerts or traffic information.

On one hand, this is a fascinating concept. It's certainly an inventive way to generate revenue. On its face, it seems perfectly logical. And it's rather amazing that technology has advanced to the point that electronic plates such as these can be mass-manufactured cheaply enough to make this idea feasible (last I checked, California had well over thirty million vehicles registered in that state).

On the other hand, this concept brings up a lot of questions.

Will paid advertising be limited to businesses, or will political, religious or other advocacy groups be allowed to buy advertising as well? What if the owner of the car objects to the message that his or her own vehicle is advertising - i.e. a business they don't like or an organization or politician they don't support - via these plates? Does the vehicle owner have any say as to the content of these messages, or, since the plate itself is technically the property of the state, is it just a trade-off the vehicle owner has to accept for registering his car in the state of California?

What if these electronic plates malfunction and start flashing ads while the vehicle is in motion, thereby creating a distraction to other drivers? What if the electronic plate stops functioning entirely and the vehicle's license number becomes invisible (i.e. to law enforcement, electronic toll collection cameras, etc.)?

Will every motorist be required to have one of these plates, or will there be an option for them to "out out" and choose standard metal plates instead? If so, how many vehicle owners can opt out before this idea becomes financially unworkable? What if Californians opposed to these plates start registering their car out-of-state (illegal though that might be) and deprive the state of much-needed revenue?

The article says that the plates will be activated if the vehicle is stopped for more than four seconds. As any driver knows, standstills for that duration are commonplace during rush hour or at bottlenecks caused by construction, accidents and the like. I can just imagine a bunch of electronic plates flashing on and off multiple times as congested traffic continually stops and starts, creating an ever-blinking distraction for drivers at the time they need to be the most vigilant.

How will these plates be powered? Will they have their own power source, or will they be hooked to the vehicles' battery or alternator? If so, does that mean that motorists will be providing a subsidy, albeit minor, to the state and the plate advertisers every time they fill up their tank, as the gas they buy will end up powering the plates?

And finally, is it just me, or is there something vaguely creepy about this idea?

I don't know if these or other issues pertaining to these plates have been considered yet - the article doesn't go into such specifics - or if those details will be worked out as the concept is further developed. Given the radical nature of this concept, California - and any other state that pursues this idea - is going to have to be able to answer a lot of questions before they get motorists to sign on.

This will be a fun story to follow.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Realignment, winners and losers, and the University of Houston

If you're a college sports fan, you were doubtlessly intrigued by the events of the past couple of weeks. Just one week ago, with Nebraska's departure to the Big Ten and Colorado's departure to the Pac-10 official, the Big 12 conference appeared to be dead. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State were by all accounts on their way to the Pac-10, Texas A&M was headed out the door to the Southeast Conference, and the remaining five schools of the Big 12 were staring at an uncertain future. A cataclysmic shift in the college athletics landscape seemed a certainty.

One week later, however, the fate of the Big 12 - minus Colorado and Nebraska - seems secure. How was the Big 12, which was by all accounts defunct, resurrected and the college sports world saved from realignment turmoil? The same way most problems are solved, of course: more money.

Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe got ESPN and ABC to agree to honor their existing financial commitment to the Big 12 in spite of the losses of Colorado and Nebraska as well as the fact that (by virtue of having less than 12 teams) the conference would no longer host a championship game. Meanwhile, Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri reportedly agreed to give their share of whatever penalty money Colorado and Nebraska must pay to Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, thereby keeping those three schools happy and in the fold. Those three schools were also promised a larger share of television revenue relative to the other seven schools.

An excellent chronology of the events leading to the seeming demise and the sudden resurrection of the Big 12 is provided by Chip Brown at, who kept close tabs on all the commotion over the past few weeks. ESPN's Andy Katz recounts the role of influential administrators, business leaders and network executives in keeping the Big 12 together. University of Kansas Athletics Director Lew Perkins explains the mechanisms behind the bid to keep the league together here, and an interesting story about how the networks worked to save the Big 12 (and how the Houston Astros and Houston Rockets may have played a role) is here.

In other conference realignment news, Boise State made the move from the WAC to the Mountain West Conference. This would have all but assured that conference of Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying (BCS-AQ) status. That is, until the Pac-1o decided to round itself out to 12 teams by poaching Utah from the Mountain West.

By virtue of having ten teams, the new "Big 12 Lite" can now play a round-robin schedule and can no longer host a conference championship game. While it's no secret that Texas Head Coach Mack Brown and Oklahoma Head Coach Bob Stoops were no fans of the conference championship game, it remains to be seen if the absence of such a game will in the long run put the league at a disadvantage. One of the reasons why the Big Ten decided to expand to twelve teams is because of the advantages a conference championship game would give their top teams going into the BCS bowls. That conference's season currently ends the week before Thanksgiving, which meant that their top teams stay idle while the top teams from other conferences get to play in a conference championship game, giving those schools an advantage in the ability to improve their BCS rankings.

This created a new round of speculation: would the Big Twelve decide to add two schools to get back to the twelve teams needed for a conference championship? If so, could those two teams possibly be former Southwest Conference schools TCU and Houston?

It doesn't look like that is going to happen. Beebe has gone on record as saying that the reformulated Big 12 has no plans to add any schools at this time and in any case will not add any more schools from its existing geographic footprint, i.e. Texas. And, while Beebe is not the final arbiter of that decision - the presidents of the member schools will make that call - it doesn't appear as if the "Big 12 Lite" has any reason to expand at this time. For one thing, the financial incentives that kept the conference together were based in part on splitting the television revenue pie ten ways instead of twelve, meaning more money for the existing schools. Adding back two more schools would compromise that arrangement. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Big 12 schools, especially Texas and Texas A&M, would want to give TCU and Houston an advantage in recruiting the talent-rich Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth regions by elevating those schools to Big Twelve stature. In specific regards to Houston, both Texas and Texas A&M can already claim the Houston TV market, so the addition of the University of Houston is probably only marginal as far as extra viewer penetration is concerned. Also, Texas Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds still reportedly harbors a grudge against Houston regarding the embarrassing 2001 "Bleachergate" fiasco at Robertson Stadium. If the Big 12 does choose to replace Nebraska and Colorado, multiple reports have suggested BYU and Air Force as possible replacements.

Undaunted, local politicians have gotten into the process on Houston's behalf. A group of 26 state representatives and senators, led by Houston Representative (and my neighbor) Garnet Coleman, have signed a letter arguing for the inclusion of Houston and TCU in the Big 12. While I absolutely appreciate the advocacy of local politicians on my alma mater's behalf - it's too bad that the University of Houston didn't have such support in 1994, when the Southwest Conference imploded and political maneuvering got Texas Tech and Baylor into the Big 12 while the Cougars were forced into the non-BCS-AQ Conference USA - it's highly unlikely that this gambit will meet a successful outcome.

I'm actually of two minds about this. On one hand, I consider the BCS system in its current form to be unfair and exclusionary and would certainly like to see Houston enjoy the additional attendance, prestige and revenue that membership in a BCS-AQ conference would entail. On the other hand, there are drawbacks to an unearned inclusion in the Big 12 based on political wrangling rather than program performance. For one thing, other schools and their fans would be resentful of Houston; they'd never consider the Coogs an "equal," the atmosphere at away games would be brutal and possibly even violent, negative recruiters would go into overdrive and the Houston program would be under intense scrutiny for even the most minor of infractions. More importantly, the history of Baylor, which hasn't had a winning season in football since joining the Big 12, serves as a cautionary tale for schools who make it into top-level conferences due to political maneuvering yet don't necessarily have the resources to be able to compete at that level.

And therein lies Houston's problem: resources. the UH athletics program will not be attractive to any BCS conference as long as it lacks top-quality facilities, strong attendance, solid television ratings and strong revenue.

In terms of facilities, the University of Houston has plans in place. Late last year the school began a facilities study, and, although the study was not completely finalized at the time, a couple of weeks ago the school's administration unveiled the preliminary results of that study, understandably in order to better position itself in the face of impending realignment. The plan calls for a total of $160 in facilities improvements: $120 million to replace aging, New Deal-era Robertson Stadium with a completely new stadium that would initially seat 40 thousand fans...
...and another $40 million to upgrade decrepit Hofheinz Pavilion into a state-of-the-art basketball arena.

The big question, of course, is where the $160 million needed to actualize these improvements will come from. A herculean fund-raising effort, including sizable donations from businesses and alumni as well as corporate naming rights, will need to be undertaken.

And that's only part of the problem. There's also the attendance issue, which has historically been the achilles' heel of University of Houston athletics. In 2009, the Cougar football program averaged 25,242 fans per game. Even though that was Houston's best average attendance since the 1991 season, it still ranked only 80th in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision and, for comparison's sake, well over 10,000 fans per game less than Baylor, the Big 12's lowest-performing team at the gate.

I've written previously about Houston's attendance problems and their possible causes. It is exasperating and depressing that a school located in a metropolitan area of almost six million people, with about 217 thousand living UH alumni living in said region, cannot produce an average attendance of more the 25 thousand fans at Houston football games. The Chronicle's Steve Campbell compares Houston's attendance to other "BCS-busters" such as TCU and Boise State and laments:
For too long, the UH program has ridden on the backs of the dedicated and devoted few. The UH alums living in this area outnumber the entire population of Boise. Those UH alums could change the course of Cougars history, if they care to do so. There is so much strength in those numbers, so much potential, if only UH can harness and galvanize it.
Exactly. But complaining about attendance won't solve the problem, and UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades, to his credit, has implemented a season ticket drive aimed at increasing UH's season ticket base from 6,300 (which is pathetic) to at least 10,000 (which still isn't great, but would be a significant improvement). 200 volunteers have signed up to spearhead the drive, and according to posts on UH message boards the number of season tickets sold for the coming season currently stands at around 7,500 with over two months left to go.

A new dormitory is also opening on campus this fall. This should help with student turnout because residential students are generally more likely to support their school's teams than commuter students, which have traditionally made up the overwhelming majority of Houston's student population. Indeed, student attendance at UH football games has grown considerably over the past several seasons, and the University's ongoing residential housing construction campaign clearly has something to do with that. People who attend athletics events as students, furthermore, are obviously more likely to attend them as alumni than students who don't, which is a positive harbinger for the future.

As far as television is concerned, the Houston area certainly has a lot of TV sets but that's not what matters. Market penetration - the number of televisions tuned to UH sporting events - is what matters. Accurate data in that regard are hard to come by; I've seen numbers suggesting that ratings for Houston's game against Texas Tech last year were pretty good, but I haven't come across information for other televised games, especially against Conference USA opponents. I have a feeling, however, that the number of people watching the Coogs on TV will increase as the number of people buying tickets to see them in person increases, as overall interest in the program among locals grows.

Which brings us to revenue. This table shows that Houston's football program earned a paltry $4 million in 2008 - the lowest in Texas and one of the lowest in the Football Bowl Subdivision. However, given the differences in accounting methods employed by various schools, I'm not sure this is an apples-to-apples comparison. Houston's total athletics department revenue of just under $30 million puts them somewhat higher on the 120-school list but is still in the bottom half and considerably less than BCS-AQ aspirants such as BYU and TCU. If Houston wants to be one of the big boys in college sports, they need to be able to earn what the big boys earn. Increased attendance and television penetration are both key to that goal.

I realize that there's a lot of chicken-and-egg to this situation. Houston doesn't look attractive to BCS-AQ conferences because it doesn't draw well or take in a lot money, but part of the reason it doesn't draw well or take in a lot of money is because it is excluded from the lucrative payouts of the BCS system and plays most of its games against non-marquee schools like Alabama-Birmingham, UTEP or Marshall. This speaks to the unfairness of the BCS system. Unless and until that system is changed, however, it is the reality under which collegiate athletics operates.

The football team, of course, also needs to do its part - no more inexplicable letdowns against inferior teams or frustrating collapses in bowl games. A 2010 season that ends in a conference championship, a season-ending top 25 ranking and - dare I say it? - an at-large BCS bowl appearance would help bolster Houston's argument for BCS-AQ inclusion tremendously.

If there's one silver lining about the generally modest result of this latest round of realignment for the University of Houston, it's that it gives the program more time to do the things that need to be done in order to make itself more attractive to top-tier conferences. Had a massive realignment taken place, and had the Coogs been left out because no BCS-AQ conference wanted them, it would have had a devastating impact on the program. In that regard, the Cougars are neither winners or losers in this latest reshuffling. That cannot be said for other schools and conferences, however; some clearly came out ahead and others behind.

Obviously Texas came out the big winner: they get more television revenue, the ability to launch their own network (although one wonders what its programming will consist of), and, with Nebraska and that pesky title game out of the picture, an easier path to the BCS National Title should they go through the regular season undefeated. Oklahoma wins for the same reasons. Nebraska, for its part, also wins, landing itself in a conference more to its academic and geographic tastes. The Big Ten, reciprocally, gets another storied program to add its portfolio and a conference championship game that addresses its problems regarding late-season relevance.

Texas A&M wins, because their flirtation with the SEC forced Texas to rethink the entire Pac-10 deal and decide to keep the Big 12 together. They end up with the same payout that Texas and Oklahoma receive. Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State win, because the penalty revenue they'll forfeit from the departing schools is a small price to pay for the fact that they're still in a BCS conference. And, although the Pac-10 might be disappointed that their dreams of a sixteen-team mega-conference including powerhouses like Texas and Oklahoma didn't come to fruition,'s Stewart Mandel argues that they came out ahead because their additions give the conference a legitimate football program in Utah, additional TV sets in Denver, and a revenue-generating conference championship game.

The biggest winner, in my opinion, is Utah. If there's any program that deserves to be included in a BCS-AQ conference, its the team that I still think ought to be 2008's national champion. Utah is a flagship state university with a strong, well-supported program, and it's good to see them finally get a seat at the BCS table. It's just one school, but it's nevertheless a small step towards more equality in an unfair system.

The Losers? Missouri has to be at the top of the list. Just a couple of weeks ago they were prepared to play a role in the Big 12's demise by moving on to the Big Ten. Unfortunately, unlike Nebraska, they had no invitation in hand. Now they find themselves among the "leftover five," ceding their share of Nebraska and Colorado's penalty money to the big three of Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma and getting a smaller share of TV revenue than those schools in return. This has to be a slap in the face to the folks in Columbia, who discovered they weren't really that relevant after all.

Colorado also comes out a loser, for while the Pac-10 might be a better fit for them, they jumped the gun and it's gonna cost them. They have a $15 million penalty due to the Big 12 for leaving that they can't afford (especially considering they couldn't buy out their underperfoming head coach's contract at the end of last season), and the extra revenue they thought they'd receive by being in a 16-team conference including Texas and Oklahoma isn't going to materialize.

The Mountain West Conference also loses. Just a week after adding Boise State in order to bolster their argument for inclusion at the BCS-AQ table, they lost their flagship program when Utah fled to the Pac-10. Now, in regards to the BCS, they're probably in a weaker position than they were before. The Western Athletic Conference, for its part, also loses - Boise State was their best program.

ESPN's Pat Forde argues, in his list of winners and losers, that college basketball also came out a loser. "The sport has never been more brutally disrespected as it was during this realignment phase," he writes. "Not a single decision was made with hoops in mind, showing just how much it is dwarfed by King Football." True indeed, considering that Kansas was very close to being a school without a conference in spite of their powerhouse hoops program. The reality is that football rules the roost in the business that is college sports.

Finally, Stewart Mandel opines that fans were also losers in this latest realignment. Money is king, and the desires of the fans are secondary:
Yet many of us can't shake our uneasy feelings over the way this all went down. As the drama of the past few weeks played out, fans had a front-row seat to the power-grabs, pandering and other behind-the-scenes machinations that quietly keep the spokes of the sport spinning -- almost all of which are tied to the almighty television dollar. We've walked through the kitchen of our favorite restaurant, and while the food may be just as good moving forward, we'll never be able to look at it the same way.
So that's that. Unless something unexpected happens within the next couple of weeks - i.e. the Big East decides to make a move - it appears that we're done with conference realignment for now.

That's not to say that no moves will occur in the future. The conventional wisdom remains that the top tier of college football will one day consist of 64 teams in four sixteen-team superconferences. I'm not completely convinced that this is going to happen due to the political and legal acrimony it would create - with the addition of Utah there will now be 67 teams that can automatically qualify for the BCS, meaning that three current schools would have to be left out of the arrangement even as schools such as BYU or Boise State or TCU or even Houston are looking to get in - and in any case, this four-superconference scenario simply cannot occur as long as Notre Dame steadfastly chooses to remain independent. Nevertheless, influential figures such as Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott still believe that the concept is a "very compelling vision" that "will crop up again," while Nate Silver at argues that conference equilibrium can only happen if this arrangement occurs (and no, there's nothing particularly unwieldy about sixteen-team conferences, as long as they learn from the mistakes of the WAC experiment of the late '90s).

But that's not happening just yet. Which is good, because it gives schools like the University of Houston more time to get their ducks in a row. But the program needs help from Cougar students, alumni and fans as well as the people and businesses of the Houston area at large. It's now or never. Time to step up!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Like the new layout?

Blogger has added a new template design feature, and I thought I'd play around with it. I might be tweaking the appearance and format of this blog over the next several days until I come up with something I really like.

If there's anything that bothers you about this new layout (i.e. colors are garish, fonts are hard to read, etc.) then please let me know. All comments and suggestions are welcome!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kirby goes to the Big Easy

Last week Kirby, my parents and I made our usual early-summer trip to New Orleans.

Kirby got to do all sorts of fun things, like stand in Jackson Square...
...make sure that no tarballs from the Deepwater Horizon blowout were floating in the Mississippi River...
...and chow down on beignets at Cafe du Monde.
Like the year before, we went to visit the Audubon Insectarium, which has become Kirby's favorite New Orleans attraction. On the way out of the museum, he found a cute, cuddly toy that he wanted:
That's right. A "cute and cuddly" scorpion.

Five-year-olds. Gotta love 'em!

When my favorite places go out of business

Failures and closures are a part of business life, but I nevertheless hate it when restaurants I like suddenly go out of business.

Case in point: the other day I had a hankering for Mexican-style pollo asado. So I drove over to Wayside and Polk, only to only to find that the relatively-new Pollo Feliz had gone out of business. The posters on the windows were raggedly, sun-bleached Halloween advertisements, so I guess the franchise have called it quits somewhere around late October or early November of last year.

I'm not sure why Pollo Feliz couldn't make a go of it at that location, but for whatever reason business didn't seem to be good; whenever I went there I found the restaurant to be practically empty. (In that regard, since I hadn't been there myself since last fall, maybe I was part of the problem?) Anyway, I'm a bit disappointed - their food was good - but not too surprised that Pollo Feliz is no longer with us. I'll just have to go elsewhere for my pollo asado fix.

I was, on the other hand, utterly surprised and horribly saddened a couple of months ago, when I drove to my favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop in "old" Chinatown (behind the George R. Brown Convention Center) - a place that I had enjoyed and faithfully patronized for at least fifteen years - and discovered that they were gone. As in, completely disappeared. No kitchen, no counter, no tables, no chairs. Even the big menu on the wall had been painted over. Banh Mi Hoang Son had vanished without a trace. My reaction, naturally:

The same Hoang Son that I had faithfully eaten at since I was an undergraduate at the University of Houston. The same Hoang Son that won a Houston Press "Best of Houston" award for "Best Cheap Sandwich" in 2007. Those awesome sandwiches, those fresh spring rolls, that wonderful char-broiled pork with vermicelli and fresh vegetables... All gone.

The folks in the adjacent Kim Hung grocery store couldn't really tell me what happened. Apparently, the owners just "upped and left" one day. It had to have been sudden and without notice because I had eaten there just a few weeks before. I can only hope that a financial catastrophe hasn't befallen the nice family that ran the sandwich shop, and I regret that I could not at the very least say goodbye to them and thank them for all those years of wonderful food.

Sure, there are other places to get cheap Vietnamese food around town. But it won't taste the same. There's something about the way they prepared the sandwiches and the vermicelli dishes at Hoang Son that gave them a unique flavor. I'm really going to miss it.

I know that change is a part of life and that I can't expect anything, even restaurants, to be around forever. Especially in this economy. But when your favorite places disappear, it's more than a mere inconvenience. It's a small part of your life, your routine, your experience of the city, that is lost. And it's saddening.

Tangentially, I note one that one Houston institution that a couple of years ago was supposed to go out of business (or at least change its name) has re-emerged. That's great, but I eat way more often than I buy furniture.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Traffic lights

The traffic signal engineer is a misunderstood, if not reviled, public servant. From

(Hat tip: Human Transit, who writes, "I've certainly met both of these characters many times. Come to think of it, I've been both of these characters." As have I.)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The redfish were biting last weekend...

...down at San Luis Pass, between Surfside and Galveston:Yummy! This was only one of several reds that we caught last weekend, and by far not the largest. We usually don't do this well, but sometimes you just get lucky.