Friday, February 25, 2011

From Mardi Gras to the Middle East

My company's Dubai office has requested my presence there to work on some business development items. It's been over two years since my last trip, so it will be interesting to see how things have changed since I was last there. I'm especially looking forward to seeing the completed Burj Kalifa and riding the Dubai Metro for the first time.

But before I do that, I'm heading over to New Orleans to participate in tomorrow's Krewe of Pygmalion parade. A friend of mine is a float lieutenant for that event, and several months ago he recruited myself and several other people to be bead-throwers on his float. So that's what I'm going to be doing tomorrow afternoon. Being a participant in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade is most definitely a "bucket list" item for me, and I'm obviously looking forward to it.

I'll spend Sunday hanging out in New Orleans, and then on Monday I'm going to fly from New Orleans to Bush Intercontinental and then from Bush Intercontinental to Dubai on Emirates 212. I'll be in Dubai for three weeks, if all goes according to plan.

New Orleans to Dubai in one day - this is going to be a bit of a culture shock!

It's rather serendipitous that the Dubai office has summoned me over there right now, because as of March 25th - two days after my scheduled flight back - I will no longer be able to earn OnePass miles on Emirates! (Just another reason why Continental's merger with evil United sucks.)

The next several days are going to be rather interesting ones for me, to say the least. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Kirby visits the Orange Show

The late Jeff McKissacks's fascinating architectural homage to his favorite fruit is located only about a mile and a half from my house. It truly is one of Houston's most unique attractions.

Last weekend I took Kirby there for the first time.
The Orange Show is currently undergoing renovations and was only open for self-guided tours when Kirby and I went. Which was fine, as Kirby easily guided himself though the labyrinthine folk-art monument.

We'll come back again once renovations are complete and all the exhibits have been restored.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

University of Houston announces 2011 football schedule

The University of Houston has released its 2011 football schedule, as follows:

Sep. 03: UCLA
Sep. 10: at North Texas
Sep. 17: at Louisiana Tech
Sep. 24: Georgia State
Oct. 01: at Texas - El Paso (UPDATE: now Thursday 9/29)
Oct. 08: East Carolina
Oct. 15: off
Oct. 22: Marshall
Oct. 29: Rice (UPDATE: now Thursday 10/27)
Nov. 05: at Alabama-Birmingham
Nov. 12: at Tulane (UPDATE: now Thursday 11/10)
Nov. 19: SMU
Nov. 26: at Tulsa

As of right now, these are all Saturday games. It remains to be seen if the networks make any changes to it (e.g. moving some games to weeknights) as the season gets closer. After the schedule came out, three games were moved from Saturday to Thursday and the schedule has been updated accordingly.

At first glance, I think it's a good schedule. Yes, it is a bit weak on the out-of-conference side, with UCLA being the only "marquee" matchup, but since the Cougars are coming off a 5-7 season and with a defense that is still one of the nation's worst until it proves itself otherwise, this might not be a bad thing. The conference schedule is also set up nicely, although road dates against C-USA Western Division opponents UTEP (we all know what happened last time the Cougars went to El Paso) and Tulsa are not going to be gimmes. November isn't going to be particularly easy as well, with three games on the road.

Ryan Monceaux points out things he likes in the schedule: no three-game roadtrips this season, a bye week right in the middle of the season, and a three-game homestand in October. He worries that Tulane might be a "trap" game, coming right before what will be a crucial late-season matchup against divisional rival SMU, but generally thinks that this is the schedule that the Cougars need as they try to rebound from last year's disappointment:
In total, this is a schedule where you could make a run. There are no obvious holes and there are no season-killing teams on this schedule. Coach Sumlin has to like his chances in this schedule a lot more than the first three he was dealt.

I mostly agree with Ryan, although I think the North Texas game has "trap" written on it as well. No, the Mean Green have not been particularly good lately, but that doesn't mean they should be considered an automatic win. New head coach Dan McCarney took an Iowa State team that was absymsal thoughout the 80s and early 90s to five bowl appreances while he was there, so he knows how to turn bad programs into decent ones. More importantly, Houston's game in Denton is North Texas' first at their new stadium. The Mean Green will be amped up to play the Cougars in their brand-new home. The Cougars, meanwhile, will be coming off an emotional "revenge" game over their highest-profile opponent, UCLA, and depending on what happens in that game might have trouble "getting up" for North Texas.

That being said, if the goal for the Cougars this season is to put last season behind them and compete for a conference championship this season, this is a favorable schedule for them. I plan to be at all the home games and also make road trips to Denton and New Orleans. I can hardly wait!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Ice Day

When I woke up this morning and saw that that the "one to three inches of snow" on the ground that the television forecasters had breathlessly been predicting over the last few days hadn't materialized, I was a bit disappointed. (And I wasn't the only one; my son was pretty bummed, too.)

But I wasn't exactly surprised. I was in fact beginning to have my doubts about the possibility of snow over the course of the day Thursday as I continued to check the hour-by-hour forecasts on The Weather Channel. At first the wintry precipitation was expected to begin at 3 pm. Then it was pushed back to 5 pm. Then 9 pm. Then 11 pm. Then 1 am. You get the point.

As it turned out, we did start getting precipitation in the form of freezing rain late Thursday night. But the transition from freezing rain to sleet and then to snow that we had been told to expect never occurred. Thus, no snow with which to build snowmen or have snowball fights.

As Channel 13's Tim Heller and the Chronicle's Eric Berger explain, temperatures in the atmosphere over Houston simply did not become cold enough at all levels for any snowflakes that might have formed in the upper elevations to remain in that state before they reached the ground.

The fact is, in spite of all of the advances our civilization has made in terms of monitoring (e.g. satellites and Doppler radar), modeling, and forecasting technology, we still cannot predict with absolute certainty something as complex and variable as weather. That's why when we speak of weather we speak in probabilities - a "60 percent" chance of rain, a "partly-cloudy to mostly-cloudy" sky, high temperatures "in the mid-60s," a "cone of uncertainty" for hurricane landfalls. Perhaps we should begin referring to meteorologists as "weather-guessers," because that's essentially what they do: they make educated guesses as to future weather events based on the past history, the current information and the forecasting methods of weather that are currently available. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're not.

Thar being said, meteorologists were absolutely correct in their prediction of icy precipitation this morning. As such, the decision to close the schools, shut down government services and tell people to take the day off or work from home was a good one. Driving conditions this morning were especially treacherous, as the freezing rain caused bridges and overpasses to ice over. Houstonians (myself included) are simply not accustomed to driving in these kinds of conditions, which is why there were an estimated 800 automobile accidents in the city between late last night and late morning today.

The simple fact is that snow is exceedingly rare in Houston because of the city's geographic location. Conditions have to be absolutely right for it to happen. Therefore, I've learned not to believe weather reports predicting snow until I actually see the flakes falling.

Signing Day and recruiting rankings

Last Wednesday was National Signing Day, the day high school seniors sign national letters of intent to play scholarship football at their college of choice. It's obviously a big deal in the college football world; as any coach will tell you, recruiting is the "lifeblood" of any college football program.

The University of Houston Cougars signed a total of 22 players: twelve on defense, eight on offense and two athletes that could play on either side of the ball. Included in this group were six junior college transfers, including two defensive backs, two linebackers and one defensive lineman who should be able to provide immediate help to an anemic Cougar defense that needs all the help it can get as quickly as it can get it.

So how did the Cougars do overall? Rivals ranks Houston's incoming class sixth best in Conference USA, which is curious considering that they came in third in "average stars." Scout agrees with Rivals' assessment regarding Houston's place in C-USA and ranks Houston's class 72nd nationally. ESPN, meanwhile, ranks Houston's class among the top eight classes signed by non-BCS automatically-qualifying teams.

While some UH faithful on various message boards are wringing their hands over the Rivals and Scout assessments of the Cougars' Signing Day haul, I personally don't put too much stock in recruiting rankings (or follow the recruiting process in detail) for two reasons.

First, getting these kids signed (verbal commitments before Signing Day mean absolutely nothing, as the Cougars learned this year when several early commits later "defected" to other programs) is just the first step. These players then need to become academically qualified, they need to enroll in school, they need to remain in school and, most importantly, they need to perform on the field. There's always some attrition involved; some kids don't make the grades to get into school, other kids leave the program for whatever reason, and some just don't pan out athletically. Accurate assessments of an incoming class can only be made several years afterward, when it can be determined how many of these signees actually made major contributions with the team.

Second, the methods used to rank incoming classes and individual players are opaque and biased. Houston Coach Kevin Smlin put it best when referring to one signee, Lamar High School quarterback Bram Kohlhausen:
“Bram is a guy we targeted early,” Sumlin said. “At the time, he was the No. 16-rated quarterback in the country. It’s amazing. When he committed to us, he became No. 30. At the place I used to work at (Oklahoma), they used to go from 30 to 16.”
This is because the "recruiting gurus" who automatically assign ratings to athletes do so based not so much on their talent as much as where they sign. If a kid commits to and signs with lowly Houston, for example, rather than a big-time program from a BCS automatically-qualifying conference, then he's deemed to be a lesser player.

The so-called "recruiting experts" who run sites like Rivals and Scout are in it for the money. They know that they can sell more magazines and "insider" internet subscriptions if they say favorable things about, and assign more "stars" to, recruits committing to big-time schools with large fanbases. This comes at the expense of players who commit to lower-profile schools with smaller fanbases that aren't as likely to buy as many subscriptions. Additionally, some of these "experts" also have loyalties, for example to their own alma mater and/or their alma mater's conference, that cloud their objectivity.

There's also the fact that, even if these "recruting gurus" endeavor to see as many players at high school games during the fall as they can, even if they spend all their waking hours watching game films, and even if they collect reports from a network of "scouts" following high school football around the county, there's simply no way they can make an accurate assessment of the talent and abilities of each of the thousands of high school football players around the country that appear to have collegiate potential. So they're left to make assumptions of a kid's athletic worth by considering secondary factors such as what colleges a player had offers from - the more scholarship offers from "big-time" BCS-AQ schools, the better that player is perceived to be.

Compare this process to the one the NFL undertakes for players with professional potential to prior to the league's draft. At pre-draft combines coaches and scouts from various teams get to measure these young men from head to toe and put them through a variety of physical and mental tests. And even these highly-paid, highly-skilled NFL experts can't get it right all the time. Highly-touted first-round draft picks wash out of the NFL. Undrafted free agents go to the Pro Bowl.

With that in mind, are we really supposed to believe that a bunch of college recruiting "experts," who have much less direct contact which a much larger pool of players, are supposed to provide authoritarian analysis about, and an objective ranking of, kids coming out of high school?


This isn't to say that recruiting isn't important: bringing in good talent is crucial to a football program's success. But the recruiting rating and rankings process is cynical and inaccurate and is not worth the attention it receives. Here's a "Case" in point: the recruiting "experts" said this guy was a lowly two-star player coming out of high school.

Dustin provides his assessment of Houston's incoming recruiting class. Travis Stewart of also writes a thorough analysis of the Cougar's Signing Day haul, reminding his readers to "consume recruiting info with caution."

Speaking of recruiting: by now a lot of people are familiar with the story of C. J. Johnson, a top Mississippi high school football player, who quit Facebook after receiving a lot of hateful messages* on the social networking site after changing his commitment from Mississippi State to Ole Miss.

Adult college football fans who "friend" high school players on Facebook are really creepy and are also probably violating NCAA rules regarding contacting recruits. But these teenagers should also know better. Adjust your privacy settings, don't accept friend requests from strangers and don't use your Facebook page for glory-seeking purposes, lest you get the same nasty results C. J. Johnson got.

(* Best part of the article: "I realize all the good Facebook has done for the world. Thanks to you, I know exactly which of the girls who ignored me in high school grew up to marry dumpy losers." So very true...)