Monday, December 31, 2012

A new year's resolution every driver should make

I've written about this many times before, so I'm sure everybody is getting tired of me harping on it. But people who drive slow in the left lanes of freeways (especially rural freeways) are a huge pet peeve of mine. It would be great if there were actually signs like the following on America's highways:

This (obviously photoshopped) picture is several years old, but it gets the point across: the left lane is for passing only. Traffic moves safer and more efficiently when slower vehicles stay out of the left lane. If you can't figure it out, then get off the damn highway.

My hope for 2013 is for more motorists to understand and observe this simple concept, and for more state highway patrols to ticket the ones who don't.

Everybody have a safe and happy 2013!

Boise to stay in Mountain West; could Houston follow?

Last week I wondered if the Cougars would ever compete in the Big East, a conference which is rapidly disintegrating. Rutgers and Louisville are gone, as are the basketball-only schools. Cincinnati and Connecticut are standing at the door of the ACC, pleading to be allowed in. And earlier today we learned that the Boise State Broncos have decided to back out of the conference as well.

As silly as it might have seemed for Boise State to join an "eastern" conference, the fact is that they were supposed to be the new Big East's marquee football program. Not only does their defection further dilute the Big East brand, but it also paves the way for San Diego State, which had also agreed to join the conference, to back out as well.
With Boise State remaining in the Mountain West, the Aztecs' Big East contract allows them to withdraw from the Big East without paying an exit fee if there is no other Big East member located west of the Rocky Mountains.

A Mountain West conference source with knowledge of the situation said San Diego State wants back in the Mountain West, but the league is holding up the process as it decides whether there is a better fit than the Aztecs and if there is a school that can deliver more value.
Assuming that Cincinnati and UConn bolt as well, the Big East that the Cougars are set to join in a few months will be nothing more than Conference USA plus Temple and South Florida. That's hardly a step up. Which begs the question: what if Houston were to look to the west, rather than the east, for its new home?
Besides the possibility of losing San Diego State, sources told ESPN that Houston and SMU, scheduled to join the Big East next season, are among four possible teams the Mountain West may target, along with Tulsa and UTEP. The Mountain West will look to add a 12th member by 2014, sources said.
The Mountain West is clearly a stronger conference than the rapidly-collapsing Big East right now, but questions regarding travel costs and television contracts need to be answered before the Coogs decide to switch conferences. One thing's for certain, though: the jobs of UH Athletics Director Mack Rhoades and President Renu Khator just got a bit more complicated.

Yep, pretty much...

As seen on Facebook:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cheers to the Owls. Jeers to the Texans.

Yesterday the Rice Owls defeated Air Force, 33-14, in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth. The win caps an amazing turnaround for head coach David Bailiff and the Owls, who began the season with a 1-5 record but then notched victories in five of their last six games to become bowl eligible.

Things started out poorly for the Owls, as quarterback Taylor McHargue was forced to leave the game with a head injury, and Rice trailed 7-14 at the half. However, backup quarterback Driphus Jackson stepped up to complete 15 of 21 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns (Rice receiver Jordan Taylor caught both, as well as a touchdown pass from McHargue in the first quarter), while the Owl defense kept the Falcons scoreless in the second half. Air Force's vaunted rushing attack, the nation's second-best, was in fact held to only 166 yards for the entire afternoon.

The result was Rice's first winning season since 2008 (when they went 10-3 and beat Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium for their first bowl win 54 years) and their first bowl victory outside of Houston since January 1, 1954, when they beat Alabama, 28-6, in a game best known for Alabama's Tommy Lewis coming off the bench to tackle Dicky Moegle.

Congratulations are in order for the Rice Owls for their turnaround season and bowl win.

The Texans, on the other hand... Ugh. The team that was 11-1 at the beginning of the month and was barreling towards a first-round bye week and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs has since collapsed, losing three out of its last four games and making its case for a spot on my list of top ten Houston sports chokejobs. Today's woeful 28-16 loss to Indianapolis portends a quick exit from the playoffs for the Texans, who host Cincinnati in next weekend's first-round game.

As was the case against Minnesota last Sunday, nothing seemed to go right for the Texans today. The team was tentative, fragile and error-prone. Consider this: immediately after the Texans scored their first touchdown in eight quarters - a very problematic statistic in and of itself - on a Arian Foster run to cut the Indianapolis lead to one, the Colts shot back with a 101-yard kickoff return by Deji Karim. That was the back breaker from which the Texans never recovered. This team is cratering at the worst possible time; they've lost their will to win.

The Texans might actually succeed in beating Cincinnati next weekend. But, unless something miraculous occurs, that's likely as far as they're going to go. Given the way the season started, that's rather disappointing. But it's also par for the course for a Houston sports team.

Friday, December 28, 2012

I'm unemployed!

For the next four days, at least.

I'll have more details later, but needless to say, 2013 is going to start out with a very big change in my life.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Looks like I wasn't the only iOS6 holdout

A few months ago I said that I wasn't going to upgrade to iOS 6 on my iPhone 4 until the disaster that was Apple Maps was resolved. A couple of weeks ago, Google finally came to the rescue with its well-reviewed Google Maps App for iOS 6. That allowed me to finally upgrade to iOS 6. Turns out I wasn't the only one to do so, as Josh Constine reports:
Apple Maps was so bad that people refused to upgrade to iOS 6 until they could get Google Maps, says data from massive mobile ad exchange MoPub. The 12,000 apps it supports saw a 29 percent increase in unique iOS 6 users in the five days after Google Maps for iOS was released. Chitika reported just 0.2 percent growth immediately after the launch but it seems people waited for the weekend to do the long install.
I didn't get around to finally doing it until this past weekend, so I'm not included in those numbers. But it's nevertheless fascinating that I am just one of millions of people who refused to upgrade my phone's entire operating system simply because of flaws in a single mapping app. It goes to show just how basic and crucial a smartphone's navigation function is to its users.
MoPub’s CEO laid it out for me, explaining “we observed since the launch of Google Maps for iOS 6 a 30 percent increase in unique iOS 6 users, and we think it’s related to Google Maps. It verifies the hypothesis that people were actually holding back to upgrade until Google Maps was available.”

That was in fact my hypothesis last week after seeing one friend tell others that Google Maps had arrived, and then watching them all sit down and immediately upgrade to iOS 6 and download Google Maps — which itself racked up over 10 million installs in the first 48 hours after launch. Google will probably never release this data, but I bet it saw a massive drop-off in traffic to the iOS 5 Maps app it powered that people clung to instead of switching to iOS 6.
Having spent some time playing around with it, I can say that Google Maps for iOS 6 deserves the positive reviews it is getting. It is visually appealing, easy to use, contains data previous versions lacked (such as building footprints) and has many cool features (you can shake the phone to report an error to Google!). It's better than any Google Maps app I've used previously; in fact, Google has even admitted to the New York Times (which also loves the app) that the new iPhone app is superior to the Maps app for their own Android devices.

Which begs the question: why would Google create such an outstanding app for their competitor's operating system? Why not just say to iPhone owners, "hey, if you don't like Apple's flawed mapping app and want to use our app instead, you'll just have to switch to Android." Tim De Chant explains:
It’s an impressive app, but most reviews fail to ask, why didn’t Google do this in the past? Why didn’t they provide this level of data detail for the old maps app? Because they didn’t have to. Google essentially had a monopoly on mobile mapping, and they thought Apple had no choice but to use their service. Accept our terms or else.

Well, Apple called Google’s bluff. Say what you want about the bad PR Apple suffered from their maps, but they got Google to provide the mapping data needed so iOS users don’t feel like second-class citizens. Plus, now Google has a little competition. In the long run, we’ll all benefit from that.
Exactly. Apple Maps might be a disaster now, but that means that it can only be better as Apple continues to refine it as well as the data behind it. Google needs to stay a step ahead. By releasing their best product yet in Google Maps for iOS 6, Google comes away looking like the white knight for millions of new iOS 6 users even as they retain their superiority in the mobile mapping and navigation realm.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Will the Cougars play a single down in the Big East?

These aren't good days for the Big East conference.

First, it was Notre Dame's move from the Big East to the ACC. At the time I didn't think it was a big deal, because it didn't affect football.

But then Rutgers decided to leave the Big East for the Big Ten. The ACC, which was also losing Maryland to the Big Ten, decided to backfill by poaching Louisville from the Big East.

Last weekend, the Big East's seven non-football schools (all private Catholic institutions) decided to leave the conference and form their own basketball-oriented conference, perhaps with other Catholic schools that also don't play football (Nate Silver explains why this is a good decision, and I really can't disagree).

And now there are rumors that Boise State, which had previously agreed to leave the Mountain West Conference for the Big East, is now wavering and is using its home TV rights to play one conference off against the other.

When the University of Houston agreed to join the Big East last year, it seemed like a no-brainer decision. The Big East was an automatically-qualifying BCS conference, which would finally allow the Cougars to have a place at college football's "big boy" table, the Big East's concentration of schools along the heavily-populated East Coast suggested that a lucrative television contract was possible, and the Big East's pedigree as a basketball powerhouse was appealing as well. In the ensuing year, however, those advantages have evaporated. The BCS cartel is being replaced by a playoff after the 2013 season, and the aforementioned defections critically weaken the Big East as far as football strength, basketball strength and TV market strength are concerned.

All of which leads to the obvious question: will the Big East even exist by the time the Cougars are supposed to join in the summer of 2013? And even if it does manage to preservere in 2013, what are its long-term prospects? Should the Cougars consider backing out of a conference that appears to be disintegrating right before their eyes, and if so, where else would they go, now that they've cut ties with Conference USA?

Legendary University of Houston football coach Bill Yeoman supposedly once have said, "it's never easy to be a Cougar, so get used to it." Truer words have never been spoken. Cougar faithful are just going to have to go along for the ride as the gears of conference realignment continue to turn.

I'm done Christmas shopping

Yes, it took me until the Saturday before Christmas to finish up, and yes, I spent way more than I budgeted on gifts. But the sense of relief and accomplishment that comes with knowing that "I'm done" is well worth it.

I still experience Christmas gift angst; that will probably never go away. I just try not to worry about it that much. Make a reasonable effort to give people the things that they ask for, and hold onto your receipts just in case. I've come to find that, either way, your friends and family will generally appreciate it.

After all, it's Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Frank Graham 1956 - 2012

Frank was once married to my cousin Laura. I first met him in the early 1990s, when he lived in Pasadena and worked for the Clear Lake Citizen. I always thought highly of Frank; he was friendly and intelligent and I had many pleasant conversations with him about journalism, sports, philosophy, politics and architecture. He and Laura moved to Nebraska in 1995, but I would still occasionally see him at family functions. The last time I saw him as several years ago at my uncle's funeral. He and Laura later got divorced.

Last week Frank passed away after a brief battle with cancer. His obituary ran as a full-length story in The Llano County Journal, where he was editor, and per my custom I am posting it here as well.
Frank L. Graham, 56, editor of The Llano County Journal, died Tuesday, Dec. 11 after being hospitalized at Scott & White Medical Center in Round Rock on Friday.
He had been the editor of The Journal since Dec. 12, 2011, and had over 33 years of experience in the newspaper business as a reporter, editor, publisher, sales director, marketing director and general manager.
He is survived by daughters Sarah Lee and husband Antwan of Anderson, Texas, and Kathryn Graham of Hickory, N.C.; son Frank Luther Graham Jr. and wife Glenna of Navasota, Texas; brother J. Tom Graham and wife Kathryn, of Frankston, Texas; sisters Samantha Anderson and husband David of Oglesby, Texas, and Timilu Latham and husband Angus of Apopka, Fla.; a host of nieces, nephews, and cousins; and his best friends and constant companions, Charlie, Max, and Oliver.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 29 at the 4A Ranch, 850 CR 303 in Oglesby near Waco. Friends, family and co-workers are invited. Memorials in Graham’s memory may be directed to the Christ-Yoder Animal Shelter at Lake Buchanan, P. O. Box 1041 Marble Falls, TX 78654, the Highland Lakes SPCA, P.O. Box 1275, Marble Falls, TX 78654 or any area animal rescue organization or shelter. 
Graham was born on Oct. 6, 1956 to Faye and Jeff Graham in Knox City, Texas.
"When we met, Frank told me his desire was to return to his home state and end his career in the role he enjoyed most – as the editor of a small newspaper in a town where the courthouse square was still the center of community life,” said Roy Bode, president and publisher of The Journal."Fortunately, he enjoyed his wish for a year. Sadly, the end came far sooner than anyone would have expected.

"We’ll remember his friendly manner and winning smile, the joy he took from his three dogs, the gift of professionalism and a lifetime of experience he brought to the newspaper, and his dedication to the calling of journalism,” Bode added.
He started his career in 1978 at the Del Rio News-Herald as a composing room supervisor. There he managed a crew of six for the five-day a week paper until being promoted to general manager of the Pharr Press in Pharr, Texas, where he managed the sales, editorial, composition and circulation departments until 1982.
Following that he took a job as a sales director for the daily Bay City Tribune in Bay City, Texas for two years. In 1984, he moved to the Temple Telegram, as marketing director until 1989.
Graham was appointed general manager for the Sebastopol Times and News and the Bodega Bay Citizen both in California in 1988 and stayed until 1991 when he returned to Texas and worked at the Clear Lake Citizen as the paper’s publisher.
Graham moved to Nebraska in 1995 and was a beat reporter for the six-day North Platte Telegraph. There he covered the city and county crime beat, city government, the local community college, and sports. He also managed special editions and sections for the newspaper.
In 2003, Graham and a friend started the North Platte Bulletin, where he was a co-owner and co-publisher for the next eight years.
Eight years later, he sold his half of the Bulletin to his partner and once again returned to Texas, taking a temporary reporter position at the Frankston Citizen, a paper his brother owned.
In December 2011, Graham became the editor of The Journal and worked in nearly every aspect of the business including managing operations, reporting, editing, photography, layout, and occasionally, sales.
Graham described himself on his resume as being "an energetic, creative and enthusiastic person with a desire to bring meaningful impact on the readers’ lives in the Llano area.”
He won a number of awards in his newspaper career. In 2008, the Bulletin was named the top weekly newspaper website in Nebraska after winning second place in the same category the year prior, and in 2006 the paper was awarded second and third place in News Writing and second place in spot news in the Nebraska Press Association (NPA) Better Newspaper Contest.
The Bulletin was also awarded first place for in-depth writing and news writing by the NPA Better Newspaper Contest. Graham was personally awarded first place for best columnist in the daily division at the North Platte Telegraph in 2000.

Friday, December 07, 2012

RIP Oscar Neimeyer

The last of the great modernist architects has passed away.
Oscar Niemeyer, the celebrated Brazilian architect whose flowing designs infused Modernism with a new sensuality and captured the imaginations of generations of architects around the world, died on Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 104.

The medical staff at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio, where he was being treated, said on national television that he died of a respiratory infection.

Mr. Niemeyer was among the last of a long line of Modernist true believers who stretch from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe to the architects who defined the postwar architecture of the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. He is best known for designing the government buildings of Brasília, a sprawling new capital carved out of the Brazilian savanna that became an emblem both of Latin America’s leap into modernity and, later, of the limits of Modernism’s utopian aspirations.
Niemeyer was not a particularly popular architect at the University of Houston College of Architecture when I studied there in the early 1990s. An intense backlash against modernism was underway at the time, and many of my classmates found his work, especially the buildings he designed in Brasília, as dated and inhumane. I personally liked his designs - I found the idea for the City of Brasília, which was laid out by fellow modernist Brazilian Lucio Costa, to be fascinating - but I was definitely in the minority. Brasília was seen by many of my classmates and professors as a silly, soulless dystopia: a city designed for the automobile, not for pedestrians, in a country where so much of the population was unable to afford cars. Niemeyer's politics - he was an unrepentant communist - also made him unpopular among my peers.

In the two decades since, however, there has been a re-examination of Niemeyer's work, so much so that people even felt the need to "save him from himself" when, in his advanced age, he envisioned a monument that would radically alter the vistas of Brasília he had so carefully laid out decades before. Part of this change in thought had to do with a new appreciation for modernism in general, but I think people also began to appreciate Niemeyer's designs for the  unique sculptures that they were.
In celebrating both the formal elements and social aims of architecture, his work became a symbolic reminder that the body and the mind, the sensual and the rational, are not necessarily in opposition. Yet he also saw sensuality and the brightness of dreams against a darker backdrop. “Humanity needs dreams to be able to survive the miseries of daily existence,” he once said, “even if only for an instant.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dino-hotel coming to Colorado

Next time you're in the Denver area and want to get a paleontology lesson along with a good night's sleep, you'll be in luck:
The Best Western Denver Southwest will become a dinosaur haven over the next few months, as owner Greg Tally transforms the typical hotel into a natural history-themed destination featuring fossil displays and life-size dinosaur statues. Construction crews broke ground on the renovations today (Dec. 4).
Greg is a high school classmate of mine; Kirby and I visited him, his wife Meredith and his two kids while we were in Colorado this summer. They were busily and excitedly planning the remodeling of the hotel at the time. Renovations are expected to be complete in April.

But why dinosaurs?
The ultimate goal, Tally said, is to draw attention to Denver's paleontological history, including Dinosaur Ridge, a site 10 minutes from the hotel where the footprints of long-necked sauropod dinosaurs are preserved. 

"I could not think of a more unique differentiator than the history of Dinosaur Ridge," Tally told LiveScience from Missouri last week, where he was headed to pick up lifelike prehistoric statues for the hotel. "It's just your average road trip with a stegosaurus and a cave bear," Tally said.

Mere minutes from the Denver area's most-visited attraction, the Red Rocks Amphitheater, Dinosaur Ridge and surrounding fossil beds were the site of some of the earliest fossil discoveries in the United States. Known as the "Bone Wars" and characterized by a bitter rivalry between paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, this period in the late 1800s was characterized by distinctly unscientific behavior, including theft and bribery.
A unique idea, and one that will hopefully pay off for the Tallys. The Best Western Denver Southwest is located near the intersection of US 285 and Wadsworth Blvd (CO 121) in Lakewood.

(And yes, this entry is a shameless plug....)

Valet parking: increasingly compulsory and increasingly annoying

The Chronicle's Loren Steffy, writes about the new valet parking service at Hobby airport and laments ongoing "valet creep" in Houston:
Now, I’m not a fan of valets, but I don’t begrudge the service to people who like it. What I resent is when the valets then claim the closest spaces in what seems like an attempt to force more people to use their service.
I'm not a big fan of valets, either. I generally don't like to pay for the privilege of entrusting my motor vehicle to a complete stranger. However, a service that was once the exclusive purview of high-end restaurants and hotels is now ubiquitous and, increasingly, unavoidable. I can understand valet service in situations where available parking is quite limited and/or distant from the establishment, but more often than not it's simply gratuitous.

Restaurants, even ones with plenty of parking, seem to be the worst offenders. By reserving the parking spots closest to the entrance for valet parking they are essentially saying to their customers, "sure, if you don't want to use (and pay for) our valet service, be our guest: the self-parking is all the way around in back and a good five-minute walk to our main entrance." And that's when they actually provide self-parking; many restaurants reserve so much of their lots to valets that self-parking is essentially impossible. Places that do this generally don't see a lot of return business from me, but I guess they think that the benefits of forcing patrons to valet outweigh the costs.

Valet service in strip center parking lots is especially annoying. I don't know how many times I've pulled into the lot in a Midtown strip center, only to discover that there's no place to park because the valet service for the glitzy, trendy bar next to the restaurant or store I want to patronize has taken up so much of the strip center's parking spaces. In addition to being highly frustrating, it's also costing the adjacent establishment business. Which might be precisely what the valet companies want, in order to get them to use their services too.

Restaurants and bars aren't the only offenders; a few weeks ago I went to a doctor's appointment in the Texas Medical Center. The bottom two floors of the garage I parked in were reserved for valets, which meant I had to park on an upper floor and take a longer walk to my doctor's office. Gee, thanks!
Valets, of course, are handy in situations where parking is limited, the weather is bad, or time is short. But too often, it’s more exploitation than service. It’s a parking fee disguised as convenience. And the creeping occurrences of overwrought valetism seem to be growing.
The way to combat valet creep is to not use valet services when a choice is available, and to stop patronizing establishments for which valet parking is compulsory. But somehow, I don't expect this trend to reverse itself anytime soon.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2012 Houston Cougar football attendance

The Coogs averaged 27,286 fans per game for seven home games this season, a drop-off of 4,445 fans/game from last season. This should come as no surprise, given the team's disappointing 2012 season. Here's the updated graph:
Attendance at UH football games is announced on the basis of tickets sold or distributed, not actual butts in seats. That was apparent, especially towards the end of the season, when the number of people in the stadium was clearly less than the attendance announced in the boxscore. Again, that's not surprising, given the team's performance; many people lost interest in the team and decided that they had better things to do on their Saturdays. That's just the way it works in a fair-weather, front-runner sports town like Houston.

With that fact in mind, I'm really concerned about attendance for the 2013 season. A lot of Cougar fans were no doubt turned off by the team's performance this past season and will not renew season tickets or make plans to attend any games in 2013 unless the team shows marked improvement. Season ticket sales will likely drop even further if the Cougars play their home games next year at Reliant Stadium, because the sheer size of the facility will mean that anybody who wants to see a particular game can walk up and get a ticket on gameday: there will be no incentive for fans to ensure that they have seats by buying season ticket packages.

My hope is that the team will be able to get back on track and achieve a winning record next season; that plus excitement surrounding the opening of the new stadium in 2014 will hopefully bring the crowds back in a couple of years and the program's attendance will resume its upwards trajectory.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

In Dubai, no mall is big enough

Has Dubai learned its lesson from its economic meltdown? When they announce stuff like this, I can't help but wonder:
After years of downsized ambitions because of a debt crisis, Dubai has unveiled plans for a new tourism-retail hub that will include a shopping complex that would outclass the Dubai Mall, billed as the world's biggest.

State news agency WAM says the planned development on the city's desert outskirts will include luxury hotels and a major theme park, a goal derailed by Dubai's fiscal meltdown in 2009.
No timetable was announced Sunday for the Mohammed Bin Rashid City.
Of all the things Dubai needs right now, I honestly don't think "another giant mall" is one of them. Between Deira City Centre, the Burjuman, Ibn Battuta Mall, Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall, Dubai has the "massive mall" thing pretty well covered. But apparently Sheikh Mohammed doesn't think so:
A massive new development unveiled yesterday by the Ruler of Dubai is to include the world's biggest shopping mall and more than 100 hotels.

Mohammed Bin Rashid City, which is also to encompass sprawling parkland, was announced yesterday by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and comes amid a resurgence in the emirate's economy.

"The current facilities available in Dubai need to be scaled up in line with the future ambitions for the city," Sheikh Mohammed said.

The development - a joint venture between Emaar Properties and Dubai Holding - is to be located between Sheikh Zayed Road, Emirates Road and Al Khail Road.

MBR City represents a revival of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens project, first announced in 2008. The 2008 masterplan had suggested the Gardens project would cover 74 square kilometres, and cost $60bn (Dh220bn). It is not yet clear how closely the new plan is based on that.
 Plan for Mohammed bin Rashid City. (source: The National)
"Between Sheikh Zayed Road, Emirates Road and Al Khail Road" isn't the most helpful description of this proposed development's location because these three roads generally run parallel to each other. But upon closer inspection of the pictures accompanying The National article, it looks like MBR City will occupy the currently-empty space bounded by Al Barsha, Al Quoz, Nad Al Sheba and what currently exists of Dubailand. Reading between the lines, in fact, makes me think that this project is intended to replace that stagnated development:
The Mall of the World is to be partly developed by Universal Studios. Under the 2008 plan, a Universal Studios theme park was to be situated in the proposed Dubailand theme park, but that project has been on hold. It is not yet clear whether the original plan will now be incorporated within the mall.

The original plan for Dubailand included a golf course called The Tiger Woods, in partnership with the famous golfer.

Although that has stalled, yesterday's statement said MBR City would include "a number of golf courses under well-known international names".
While I'm glad that Dubai's economy is finally on the mend, this development, with the world's biggest mall, 100 hotels and multiple golf courses, seems eerily reminiscent of the speculative and superlative ("World's biggest this!" "World's tallest that!") development frenzy that got Dubai into so much trouble in 2008. Dubai's rulers and developers would do well to avoid repeating that frenzy, because as Alexander McNabb explained a couple of weeks ago, it was in fact a nightmare. He notes:
Through the recession, Dubai has slowly but surely been investing in the infrastructure it was ramping up to try and meet the demands of the boom. It's in better shape now than ever it was to encompass expansion and growth with confidence and a new maturity.

The million dollar question is whether we, collectively, have learned our lesson. Whether we can build for the future without being pitched back into the nightmare of the boom.
In the case of MBR City, it's actually a sixty billion dollar question. Stay tuned.

Coogs end disappointing season with 5-7 record

The disaster that was the 2012 University of Houston football season ended on a high note last Saturday, as the Cougars defeated the Tulane Green Wave, 40-17.

Senior quarterback Crawford Jones, making his second start in a row, completed 25 of 46 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns (but also three interceptions) and freshman running back Ryan Jackson carried the ball 16 times for 129 yards and two touchdowns. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, forced six Tulane turnovers and held the Green Wave running game to 43 yards for the entire game. The game was also the final game ever to be played at Robertson Stadium; I'll have more on this in a future entry.

 The win over Tulane was merely for pride; the Coogs guaranteed themselves a losing season (and eliminated themselves from bowl contention) when they lost to Marshall the previous weekend. Houston started out slow, falling behind 17-0 early in the game and trailing 38-17 late in the third quarter, but then mounted a furious rally to tie the game 41-41 late in the fourth. Although the Cougars might have even won the game had they called better plays and exercised better clock management on their final possession, the Thundering Herd kicked the game-winning field goal in the closing seconds of the game to clinch the 44-41 victory.

So now the season is over, and the post-football blues have set in.

No bowl game. I get to sit on my couch this holiday season and watch a bunch of other teams play in bowls while my team stays home.

No "feel-good" story about battling back from a disastrous start to a season. I was feeling good about the direction of this team after the Coogs put together three-game winning streak. They went on to lose four out of their last six.

And, no momentum heading into next season as the Cougars change conferences.

So what happened? Why did a team I predicted to notch at least eight wins in 2012 turn out to be "the most disappointing team in college football?" There's no question that a lot of talent was lost from last season, including Case Keenum, four starting wide receivers, two running backs and a handful of strong defensive players, not to mention Kevin Sumlin and most of his coaching staff. However, you're simply not going to convince me that the 2012 University of Houston football team was so bereft of talent that they could manage only five wins against such an easy schedule. Much of the blame has to fall of first-year coach Tony Levine and his staff. Last week, the Chronicle's Joseph Duarte took stock of the current situation:
A year ago, the Cougars were on the verge of putting the final touches on an unbeaten regular season and one win from joining the list of BCS busters.
Now, the Cougars need a win Saturday just to avoid matching their most losses since going 3-8 in 2004.
After an 0-3 start, which included a season-opening home loss to Football Bowl Subdivision newcomer Texas State, the Cougars climbed to .500 but never any better. UH didn't hold a lead until the fourth game of the season. A fitting bookend, they haven't led in any of the last three games.
The offseason switch to a four-man defensive front has come into question. Under first-year coordinator Jamie Bryant, the Cougars rank 102nd or worse in four major statistical categories.
Levine will conduct an offseason evaluation of the program starting next week.
There could be changes made to his staff. The David Piland era at quarterback appears to be over, with the Cougars expected to open up the competition in the spring and into preseason camp with the possible addition of a junior college quarterback and recruit John O'Korn from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"It starts with me," said Levine, who is on the hot seat with four years remaining on his contract but expected to return.
"I know where our program is headed, and I have a very, very, very clear understanding of what we have to do moving forward in a short amount of time to get where we are going to be," Levine said.
I can only hope that this isn't bluster coming from Levine and that really does understand what is needed in order for this team to improve; the team's performance over the course of the season as well as his bumbled hire of an offensive coordinator that he fired one game into the season don't give me a lot of faith in his abilities at the moment. But the program is stuck with Levine for the time being; there's no money with which to buy out his contract, and firing a head coach after one season would certainly generate bad publicity. The assistant coaches, however, are fair game and I hope to see a lot of changes over the offseason. Defensive coordinator Bryant, for starters, needs to be shown the door.

It's too early to predict what the Cougars are going to look like in 2013. Right now nobody even knows for sure where the Cougars are going to be playing their home games next year and, with conference realignment once again afoot it's anyone's guess as to what teams the Cougars will be playing in their new conference next fall. The only thing for certain is that the program needs to make some serious upgrades over the offseason - in the staff room as well as the locker room - lest this past season's buzzkill be repeated.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The afternoon before Thanksgiving

It's the afternoon before Thanksgiving, and I have miraculously navigated my way through a stressful and chaotic madhouse.

The crush of people made me uncomfortable and claustrophobic. The long, slow-moving lines were exasperating. Everybody was in a hurry. Everybody was impatient. Nerves were frayed, and patience was wearing thin amongst everyone.

It took everything I had to keep myself calm and polite. I managed to make my way through without completely losing it. I can now enjoy my holiday.

I'm not talking about the airport, by the way. I'm talking about my neighborhood grocery store.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Maryland, Rutgers and another realignment frenzy

A couple of months ago I opined that "we might finally be entering a period of stability in the conference realignment shuffle." Turns out I was wrong:
Just 24 hours after The University of Maryland left the ACC for the Big Ten, Rutgers, the only major college football program in the New York metro area, announced that it will leave the Big East to join the Big Ten.
The move is based on two important factors in college sports: finances and prestige. 
The Big Ten Conference is comprised mostly of large, public research universities located primarily in the Midwest. Despite its name, the conference until this week included 12 teams: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Northwestern, the only private school among the group. 
The additions of Maryland and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, bring the total to 14.
Although the Big Ten has traditionally been a midwestern conference, the additions of the University of Maryland and Rutgers theoretically give the conference access to lucrative television markets in the District of Columbia, Baltimore, New Jersey and the New York City area. In an era when collegiate conference alignments are being dictated by football rather than basketball and by television sets rather than by geography or tradition, this is a good thing for the Big Ten.

The problem is that the Big Ten's moves are certain to set off another wave of conference realignment, as both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East, which are currently home to Maryland and Rutgers, respectively, seek to replace the schools that they've lost. In the case of the Big East, this likely means the loss of Connecticut to the ACC. How the Big East, whose 2013 membership is already set to include far-flung schools such as Boise State and San Diego State, will react to this development remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen if the additions of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten will be beneficial to all three parties. Forbes columnist Patrick Rishe sees the deal as "win-win-win," while ESPN's Adam Rittenberg describes the move as a gamble the Big Ten had to make. Dan Wetzel is more skeptical, asking "why in the world would the Big Ten, which is already struggling on a national level in its historic flagship sport of football, take on two programs known for decades of struggles?" Jonathan Chait is even more pessimistic:
The core of the financial logic of expanding the Big Ten, and other league expansions, as Derek Thompson has explained, is cable television. The Big Ten has its own network and can charge cable operators to carry it. The more people who live in the Big Ten’s footprint, the more households will be paying their cable operators an extra dollar a month or so to carry the Big Ten network. Hence the logic of adding Rutgers and Maryland. While the athletic traditions of both schools are, respectively, mediocre and terrible, they geographically encompass large, populous regions whose cable television subscribers will, for the most part involuntarily, be paying the Big Ten conference a chunk of their cable television bills.
In other words, as a profit-making mechanism, this is essentially a scam. It relies on an opaque pricing mechanism (bundled cable television) forcing people to pay for a product they don’t want. Right now, it’s a highly lucrative scam. But bundled cable television pricing is not going to last forever, and possibly not very long at all. There is already a revolution in video content under way that is going to render the cable television bundle model obsolete. When that revolution has finished, the Big Ten will realize it pulled apart its entire identity to grab a profit stream that has disappeared.
ESPN's Darren Rovell, meanwhile, casts doubt on the idea that Rutgers can deliver the New York City television market. It's well-known that NYC is not a college sports town, but apparently the Big Ten and its broadcast partners think that there are just enough Scarlet Knights fans in and around the five boroughs to make the addition of Rutgers worthwhile. Only time and TV ratings will tell.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Coogs wear cool uniforms but lose to Tulsa, 41-7

Last weekend's homecoming game against Tulsa turned out to be a massacre. The Cougars managed a late score to avoid being shut out at home for the first time since 1994. The only aspect of the game worth discussing is the interesting uniforms the Cougars wore.
Quarterback David Piland (8) consults with his offense as the game begins. In addition to the gray-and-red uniforms, the Cougars also wore special helmets with the "cougar head" logo on one side and a number 2 in honor of the injured D.J. Hayden on the other.
Piland hands off to running back Kenneth Farrow. Neither player had a great day; Piland completed 15 of 32 passes for 148 yards and two interceptions, while Farrow was only able to manage 54 yards on 15 carries. Neither player had a touchdown. Houston's offense managed a paltry 262 yards for the entire game and turned the ball over four times; second-string quarterback Crawford Jones threw a sixteen-yard pass to receiver Ryan Jackson midway through the fourth quarter for the Cougars' only touchdown.
The Tulsa Golden Hurricane offense lines up against the Cougar defense, which was generally ineffective. Tulsa managed 505 yards of total offense - 350 of those yards on the ground - as they cruised to an easy win over the hapless Coogs.

All in all, a rather forgettable game. In order to avoid a losing season, the Cougars will need to win their final two games: on the road against Marshall this weekend and at home against Tulane the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Five belated election thoughts

It took me a week, but I've finally been able to gather my thoughts about the 2012 presidential election.

1. I'm glad it's over. Every election cycle seems to become nastier and more obnoxious than the previous one, so it's no surprise that the 2012 election, featuring a sharply-polarized electorate, a hyper-partisan punditocracy, and a never-before-seen barrage of campaign ad spending by the campaigns and the third-party "Super PACs," was particularly ugly and tiresome.  And I don't even live in a swing state. Spending a week in Colorado over the summer, and watching the relentless stream of political advertisements on local television stations, made me realize just how miserable and unendurable the election had to be for people who actually lived in swing states.

2. In retrospect, the biggest surprise is how quickly the election was called and how decisive Obama's victory turned out to be. In the weeks leading up to the election, we heard a lot from political prognosticators about how close it was going to be, how we might not know the winner until all the provisional and absentee ballots were counted in Ohio weeks after election day, or how a split between the popular voter and the electoral vote was very possible. It turned out that the opposite occurred; the election was called relatively early in the evening after it was clear that Obama was going to win Ohio, and Obama went on to win all of the swing states with the exception of North Carolina to give him 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206. Not exactly a squeaker of an election.

3. Maybe it's time for both parties to stop nominating Massachusetts politicians for President. Michael Dukakis. John Kerry. Mitt Romney. 'Nuff said.

Seriously, though: it's interesting to see how closely the 2012 election resembled the 2004 election. Both elections featured a controversial and highly-polarizing incumbent with mediocre approval ratings facing off against a wealthy yet aloof and milquetoast Massachusetts politician with a history of flip-flopping on major issues. Both incumbents had baggage - Bush with the unpopular Gulf War, Obama with the economy and Obamacare - and probably could have been defeated by stronger, more inspiring opponents. But just as it wasn't good enough for Kerry to be the "Not Bush," it wasn't good enough for Romney to be the "Not Obama;" you have to give the electorate a reason to vote "for" you as well. Neither Kerry nor Romney met that threshold for enough swing-state voters.

4. Republicans shouldn't become too despondent, nor Democrats too cocky. Yes, this is a tough time for the Republican Party, as they search for answers and confront the meaning of their stinging loss. They are facing demographic and structural challenges which will doom the party to political minority status, at least in the near-term, if they are not addressed soon. They would do well to break out of their alternate reality cocoon, push back against the rabid Tea Party wing that is pulling them ever further to the right and away from the political mainstream, and focus on attracting more young, female and minority voters to their party (it's going to be hard for any Republican presidential candidate to win when they only attract 27% of the Latino vote). How they go about doing that is their business; whether or not they will do it is another story.

However, as exasperated and depressed as Republicans and conservatives might be, and as triumphant and ebullient as Democrats and liberals might be, both sides must keep in mind that in politics, nothing lasts forever. Remember how angry and despondent Democrats were after George Bush was re-elected in 2004? (They even came up with this map to express how they felt about the results of the election.) And remember how Republicans used the election to claim that they had indeed achieved the "permanent Republican majority" envisioned by political operative Karl Rove? Two years later, the Democrats reclaimed control of both houses of Congress, and four years later Obama was on his way to the White House. And let's not forget that, just two years ago, Republicans rode an electoral wave that put the House of Representatives firmly back in their hands, where it remains today. The pendulum swings back and forth. Both the winners and the losers of last Tuesday's election should keep that in mind.

5. We are still a purple nation. I said this four years ago, but it's worth repeating: while political pundits like to talk about "red" and "blue" America, it's not an entirely accurate reflection of this country's political reality. America is not "red" or "blue" so much as it is varying shades of purple.
County-level results of the 2012 Presidential Election. For more maps like this one, see this link.
Anyway, it's all over now. Hopefully both parties can quit focusing on politics for at least a short period of time and start focusing on the problems that this country faces. Wishful thinking, I know...

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Cougar football player narrowly avoids death

As important as college football is to so many millions of people around the country (myself included), and as worked-up as we as fans tend to get over it, we always need to remember that it still just a game, played by young men for the purpose of entertaining us and making us feel better about our school. Horrific incidents such as this one put really things in perspective:
Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden suffered an injury that "has never been seen or reported in association with a football injury" and has a 95 percent fatality rate, team physician Dr. Walter Lowe said Thursday.

In a statement released by UH, Lowe confirmed that Hayden required immediate surgery Tuesday night for a tear of the inferior vena cava, the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body back to the heart.

Lowe described the injury as "very serious and life threatening."
The injury occurred during practice last Tuesday. Hayden, who has been one of the standout players on Houston's otherwise-struggling defense, suffered the injury after colliding with another player. He is now awake and in stable but critical condition at Memorial Hermann Hospital.
"This injury has never been seen or reported in association with a football injury and is more associated with high-speed motor vehicle," Lowe said.

Lowe credited the quick action of the UH training staff, EMS paramedics and the trauma staff at Memorial Hermann Hospital, including operating surgeon Dr. John Holcomb.
Considering that D.J. survived an injury that kills 19 out of every 20 people who suffer it, I'd say that he is very fortunate indeed. As physically violent as football might be, nobody should lose their life while playing it.

Hayden, who had six tackles in last weekend's 48-28 loss at East Carolina (a game I don't really feel like writing about, especially in light of this near-tragedy) is obviously done for the year. I wish him a speedy recovery, and hope that this truly was a freak accident that never again occurs in football.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The left lane is for passing only, damnit!

As somebody who has complained about left-lane slowpokes in the past, I add my full-throated approval to this TxDOT initiative:
The Texas Department of Transportation is installing additional “Left Lane for Passing Only” signs on all highways with a speed limit of 75 mph or higher. State law requires TxDOT to post these signs on highways where slower traffic is asked to stay in another lane.

“We want to make sure that travelers on our highways have a safe, efficient and enjoyable trip,” said Carol Rawson, TxDOT’s Traffic Operations Division Director. “Reminding the public that slower moving vehicles should use right lanes and that passing vehicles use left lanes will help
improve safety on our highways.”
Slow drivers on the left lane of rural interstates are a paramount source of annoyance to me, along with drivers who don't merge when they're supposed to and drivers who litter. Anybody who engages in any of these activities should have their drivers license immediately suspended, as far as I'm concerned, because they've proven themselves to be too stupid, too arrogant and too selfish to be allowed to operate a motor vehicle in mixed traffic.

It's pretty simple: if you're in the left lane, and somebody behind you wants to pass you, MOVE OVER. It doesn't matter how fast you're going, or how fast they want to go. If they want to speed, MOVE OVER and let them risk getting a ticket. The left lane should be reserved for passing traffic only, and slower traffic should keep to the right. It's amazing how many motorists fail to understand this rather basic, common-sense concept.
TxDOT expects installation of approximately 3,400 new “Left Lane for Passing Only” signs to be completed by summer of 2013. The signs are enforceable and violators can be stopped and ticketed by law enforcement.
Here's to hoping that, along with more signs, comes more legal enforcement of the "left lane for passing, slower traffic keep right" rule. In my experience driving along Texas interstates, it seems to me that the DPS is more than willing to bust people for speeding, but generally ignores people who drive slowly in the left lane. For everybody's safety and mental well-being, let's hope this changes. TICKET LEFT LANE SLOWPOKES!

UP 844 pulls into town

Kirby and I saw it in action in Denver earlier this year, but last weekend I got to see it up close and personal: Union Pacific 844, the "Living Legend" and the only steam locomotive never to have been retired by a major US railroad.
Union Pacific brought it down to Houston for the weekend as part of events marking their 150th anniversary.  The event was held at the Amtrak station near downtown. You can't appreciate just how massive UP 844 is unless you actually see it for yourself.
As big and fat as I am, I am dwarfed by the massive driving wheels of UP 844. There's just something impressive about the size and complexity of steam locomotives that diesels, for all their power, simplicity and efficiency, cannot replicate. This is not to say that I favor steam locomotives over diesel locomotives; railroads made the transition from the former to the latter for obvious economic reasons.
This is what the cab of Union Pacific 844 looks like. All those knobs and valves! Today's locomotive engineers, with their fully-computerized cabs, have it easy. Even though UP 844 is a steam locomotive, it does not burn coal, but rather #5 fuel oil, which is normally used for maritime purposes.
Even Abraham Lincoln made an appearance at the festivities. His presence is historically accurate; 150 years ago Lincoln signed into law the Pacific Railroad Acts that would incorporate Union Pacific into existence.
Anyway, I was impressed. Kudos to Union Pacific for keeping UP 844 up and running to remind us of what used to be.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Houston tops UTEP, 45-35

The University of Houston Cougars notched their fourth win of the season yesterday afternoon by beating the University of Texas at El Paso 45-35 at Robertson Stadium. The score should not have been as close as it was; the Cougars had built up  a 45-7 lead early in the third quarter but then coasted to victory, allowing the Miners to score the game's final 28 points.
"While I would prefer to start fast, if given the choice, we have to play 60 minutes and put people away when we can," UH coach Tony Levine said. "We have to get much better at finishing games."
Ya think, coach? To be fair, this was the first time all season the Cougars had led a game by such a margin, and keeping teams focused when they're leading by 38 points is not always an easy task. But this game turned out to be a lot closer than it needed to be precisely because the Coogs took their collective foot off the pedal and allowed the Miners back into the game. Luckily for the Coogs, the clock was their best friend in the second half.

Quarterback David Piland appeared to be no worse for wear from the brutal hit he received at SMU, as he completed 16 of 30 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Charles Sims amassed 119 yards and three touchdowns on twelve carries before sitting out much of the second half. The Cougars did fumble the ball twice (one of them coming on yet another special teams miscue), but they also forced six UTEP turnovers, including an interception that cornerback D.J. Hayden returned 97 yards for a touchdown.

With the win, the Cougars even their record at 4-4. Unfortunately, now their toughest portion of the schedule begins with two games on the road (at East Carolina this Saturday, and at Marshall in three weeks) and a visit from league-leading Tulsa at home two weeks from now.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fall finally arrives

Perfect weather for football and Halloween.
It took awhile, but the first major cold front of the season finally got here:
The Houston area's summer finally ends Friday.

After running temperatures as much as 10 degrees above normal the last two weeks, Houston finally will see the onset of more seasonal fall weather after a strong front moves through.

The city hasn't had an overnight low temperature in the 40s since March 9. Thursday will be warm, but after the season's strongest front blows into the region Friday, most of the area should see temperatures in the mid-40s on Sunday and Monday mornings.
Sure enough, today I stepped outside to cool, cloudy, windy and wonderful surroundings. Before I went out this evening, I even had to dig around in the closet for a sweater that I hadn't worn since February. It looks like these cool temperatures are going to stick around for a little while, as well; the forecast doesn't even call for highs to get back into the 80s until Wednesday of next week.

Relief from the heat at last, and perfect weather for tomorrow's tailgate and football game! Now, if only the hapless Cougars could pull off a win...

You can haul ass, just beware of the hogs

The fastest highway in America opened for business earlier this week. Those willing to pay for the privilege can now travel at speeds up to 85 miles per hour on a portion of Texas 130, a toll bypass around Austin and surrounding communities along Interstate 35. There is a catch, however: you need to watch out for feral hogs when you drive:
But the fact that hogs played a part in at least two wrecks was no surprise to many who live in the Caldwell County area, where at least two of the collisions occurred. This is hog country.

"That is a known pig route," said Caldwell County Precinct 1 Constable Victor "Smitty" Terrell, who heard one of the hog-versus-vehicle crashes on his police radio Wednesday night.

Like Texas 130 has the highest speed limit, Texas claims the largest feral hog population in the U.S. - 2.6 million - and is so problematic that the state runs a contest called the "Hog Out Challenge," in which counties compete to take the most swine by killing, trapping, snaring or capturing them "for purposes of immediate slaughter."

Whether road kill counts is unclear.

Lockhart Police Departmen Capt. John Roescher spotted at least three dead hogs on the side of Texas 130 at U.S. 183 on Thursday morning.

The sight didn't alarm him "because we're so used to seeing that around here," Roescher said.
Feral swine aside, I remember that the Texas 130 bypass was a hot topic of discussion fifteen years ago, when it was still in the planning stages and I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Austinites hoped that the bypass would alleviate the hopeless congestion along I-35 through the city, and some people I spoke to even argued that the bypass should be free and I-35 should be tolled in order to discourage through traffic as much as possible. That wasn't going to happen for a variety of reasons, of course, and it remains to be seen if the completion of the Texas 130 bypass and its 85 mph speed limit will have any measurable affect on traffic on I-35 between San Antonio and Georgetown. Trucks, for example, account for a large portion of through traffic on this stretch of I-35, but don't appear to be too keen on using the new bypass:
Truckers will pay more than $24, but the American Trucking Association has called the road unsafe for truck traffic. Last month, the Arlington, Va.-based organization urged the Texas Transportation Commission to reverse its decision to allow an 85 mph speed limit and cautioned other states not to follow the example.

Truck driver Mike Wilsontold KVUE-TV of Austin his truck won't even go 85. "It's governed out at 75," he said. Another trucker, James Regenauer, told the station, "Anytime you got two different speeds set for two different vehicles on the same road — you know what I mean? It's going to cause a problem."
For now, this 41-mile stretch of Texas 130 is the only place in the country where vehicles can legally travel at 85 miles per hour. There was talk in the last legislative session of raising speed limits on certain west Texas highways to 85 mph as well, but so far there's been no further movement on that front.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A rather easy travel decision

I am thinking about attending a one-day planning seminar in Chicago in mid-November. I did some research and discovered the following:

• I can fly Southwest non-stop from Houston Hobby to Chicago Midway for $372 round-trip, or...

• I can fly United non-stop from Houston Bush Intercontinental to Chicago O'Hare for $1,042 round-trip.

(American Airlines also flies between Bush Intercontinental and O'Hare. Their price was the same as United's. American, United and Southwest are the only three airlines which fly between the nation's third- and fourth-largest cities without requiring connections.)

Given that Hobby is the closer airport to where I live, Southwest (unlike United) doesn't charge a checked bag fee, drinks are $2 cheaper on Southwest, and it doesn't matter which Chicago airport I use because it's easy to get to downtown (where the seminar is) from either airport using the 'L', this is obviously a no-brainer.

Why is United charging almost three times as much as Southwest for a flight between, airports aside, the same city pair? Obviously, they think they can get away with it. Maybe they think their customer base is loyal enough, or prefers Intercontinental/O'Hare over Hobby/Midway enough, or disdains flying on Southwest enough, that they'll pay the extra cost.

Or, maybe it's just another reason why, as far as I'm concerned, Southwest is an exponentially better airline than United.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A girl and her dog

Genghis is my girlfriend Michelle's doberman-chow mix. Genghis was born in the spring of 1997, which would put him somewhere over 100 years old if the chart on the left (taken from here, which notes that a dog's "age" isn't linear to time and depends on size) is to be believed.

Since I've been in a relationship with Michelle, Genghis has become as much a part of my life as he is with hers. He seems to like me (especially when I'm in the kitchen, because he knows he'll get some scraps from cooking) and I enjoy having him around as well. Which is saying something, considering that I'm not by nature a "dog person."

Despite his age, Genghis has always appeared to be in good health. That's why we began to get concerned recently about some changes in his behavior. He was getting up, walking around and sitting back down more slowly and stiffly. He sometimes began to whine at night, as if he were in pain, and last week even yelped when he sat down. He began defecating in the house, which was unusual for him (and according to some sources, a sign that "the end is near"). Michelle was obviously concerned, and took Genghis to the vet last week.

It turns out that Genghis is fine; the vet, in fact, thought he was rather healthy for his age and expected him to live for another year, at least. Genghis, like a lot of old-timers (dog and human alike) has arthritis, and the muscles in his hind legs have begun to atrophy. That makes getting up, walking around and sitting back down more difficult and painful for him than it has been in the past. It also may have been a reason for his inside pooping, because it might have been too uncomfortable for him to stand outside long enough to do his business. The vet prescribed a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory for the arthritis and suggested that Genghis spend more time outside in order to ensure that he eliminates properly. So far, so good; Genghis seems to be walking with a bit more ease and I haven't stepped in any more of his messes.

That being said, the fact remains that Genghis has well-surpassed the lifespan that would generally be expected for a dog of his size and breed mix. Michelle understands this and is thankful for every additional day she gets to spend with the dog she calls "her everything." We know that the day will come when Genghis is no longer around. Even though Michelle says she is prepared for it, she knows that it will nevertheless be a very difficult time for her. It will be difficult for me as well. Which is why we're enjoying his company while we still can.

Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman recently posted up a new comic entitled My dog: the paradox. In it, he observes:
Dogs are an unfortunate creature to own because unlike children who turn into adults in their teen years, when a dog gets into his teens he dies of old age.

So you spend a decade and a half building an affinity for this weird little creature only to have its life extinguished.

Maybe that's why we love them because their lives aren't lengthy, logical or deliberate but an explosive paradox composed of fur, teeth and enthusiasm.

And you'll never meet a person who is so genuinely happy to be with you.

Should scientists be jailed for making bad predictions?

Six scientists and a government official in Italy have been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for "failing to accurately communicate the risk" of an earthquake in L'Aquila that killed over 300 people in 2009.

This is a ridiculous and fundamentally ignorant misunderstanding of science on the part of the Italian court (and it wouldn't be the first time Italian courts have gotten science wrong). When earthquakes will or will not occur cannot be predicted with any kind of accuracy.
"To predict a large quake on the basis of a relatively commonplace sequence of small earthquakes and to advise the local population to flee" would constitute "both bad science and bad public policy," said David Oglesby, an associate professor in the Earth sciences faculty of the University of California, Riverside.

"If scientists can be held personally and legally responsible for situations where predictions don't pan out, then it will be very hard to find scientists to stick their necks out in the future," Oglesby said in a statement.
Indeed, jailing seismologists for failing to predict an earthquake is like jailing meteorologists for failing to predict when and where a tornado is going to hit, to which the Chronicle's Eric Berger asks:
What’s next, throwing hurricane scientists into the pokey for bad track forecasts? Putting Tim Heller in the slammer for having incorrect temperatures in the five-day forecast?
To be sure, I occasionally refer to meteorologists as "weather-guessers," but that's essentially what they do: weather is about probabilities and can rarely be predicted with absolute certainty. And, while I remain disdainful of the way the local news media handled the approach of Hurricane Rita in 2005 (causing widespread panic and a grueling, chaotic evacuation in which a great deal of needless suffering and death occurred), I really can't fault the local meteorologists themselves: they saw a massive storm coming, they were concerned about it, and they warned us accordingly. It would be utterly stupid to prosecute them simply because the storm didn't hit where they thought it was going to hit three days out. That's just not how meteorology works.

That's not how seismology works, either. Too bad a court in Italy doesn't understand that, nor the dangerous precedent their verdict represents.
"I can understand the grief of people who lost loved ones and the frustration that people feel when terrible events happen, especially ones outside their control," Oglesby said. "Convicting honest scientists of manslaughter does nothing to help this situation and may well put a chill on exactly the kind of science that could save lives in the future."

So far, at least two leading Italian scientists have resigned their posts with the government's disaster preparedness agency in protest of this conviction, which is under appeal.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Coogs embarrass themselves in 72-42 loss to SMU

The Cougars had been showing improvement during their three-game winning streak leading up to last Thursday night's game against SMU in Dallas. However, once the Cougars got there, the wheels fell off:
The Cougars committed nine turnovers and Piland left in the first half with a concussion as SMU delivered a thorough 72-42 whipping at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
SMU returned three interceptions for touchdowns, a fumble on a kickoff for another and Garrett Gilbert threw a career-high four touchdowns as the Cougars allowed the most points in their 66-year history.

The Mustangs scored 44 points off turnovers.
Yeah, it's a bit difficult to win when you make mistakes like that.

This game, in fact, was easily the worst of the season, even taking the disaster against Texas State into account. Everything that could go wrong for the Cougars did. Aside from the nine turnovers (six interceptions and three special teams fumbles) and quarterback David Piland's concussion (which allowed backups Bram Kohlhausen and Crawford Jones to see meaningful minutes for the first time this season), the Cougars committed 9 penalties for 73 yards. And while the defense was constantly being put in a tough position on account of the multiple offensive and special teams turnovers, they also yielded scoring drives of 75, 92, 75 and 75 yards.

So much for that improvement the team had been showing over the course of the last three games. The special teams miscues are especially troubling, considering that Tony Levine was special teams coordinator prior to being promoted to head coach. But there's plenty of blame to go around; this loss was truly a team effort.
If there were positives, Charles Sims accounted for four touchdowns, Daniel Spencer and Deontay Greenberry had a few nice catches, and Crawford Jones threw for 252 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. Forty-two points and 560 yards are good enough to win on most nights.
There was nothing normal about Thursday.
"We've got to get things corrected," Levine said. "Some of it is technique, some of it is coaching and some of it is personnel. We'll figure it out when we get back to practice."
If I'd have to choose, I'd say the problem lies mostly with the coaching. This team was simply unprepared to play.

Next up for the 3-4 Coogs is Texas-El Paso at home. No word yet on Piland's availability for that game.

Infection time again

Last night, I began to feel a pain in my lower left abdomen. I was hoping it was simply gas pain, but when it didn't go away after a few hours, and knowing what happened the last time I felt this pain but didn't immediately address it, I drove myself over to a nearby emergency clinic.

The CT scan confirmed what I had suspected: another diverticulitis attack. Fortunately, I had caught it early enough: the pain had not yet become unbearable and the CT scan showed no abscesses or ruptures. No hospital stay for me this time; after keeping me there for a couple of hours to administer antibiotics intravenously, they gave me some prescriptions and eating instructions and sent me on my way. I will call my gastroenterologist next week to discuss next steps. I'm sure he'll want to do a colonoscopy after the swelling goes down, but what about long-term management of this problem?

I knew that, having already had one diverticulitis attack, another one was likely sooner or later. I was hoping that they'd be five- to ten-year occurrences, but right now they're on track to be occur at two-year intervals, give or take. I had been trying to prevent them by taking lots of fiber (in the form of whole grains, leafy vegetables and fiber supplements) and avoiding constipation; obviously that strategy didn't work out for me this time around (and, for what it's worth, a study was published early this year that suggests that high-fiber diets worsen, not lessen, the condition that underlies diverticulitis, although not the infectious attacks themselves).

I get to take medication and eat a soft, mostly-liquid diet for the next week or so, but I'm nevertheless glad I recognized the problem and decided not to "wait for the pain to go away" but rather addressed it early. But I'm now worried that I'm either going to have to live with an annoying and chronically-reappearing disease for the rest of my life, or go under the knife to get part of my large intestine removed. Neither option appeals to me.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Maybe we were on to something...

When I was younger, my friends and I conjured up an entire earth-like planet, full of countries we controlled which were oftentimes at war with one another. I, for example, was the dictator of the Tigre Empire (as in T. Gray... get it?). It was involved in a long-running border war with the Colon Empire, whose emperor was my friend Colin. I still have the folder full of yellowed, quarter-century-old papers with all the names, capitals, flags, and maps of the planet's countries around here somewhere.

The planet's location? Alpha Centauri.