Friday, August 31, 2012

My favorite Starbucks in the entire world...

...has to be the one located in center dome of the Persian Court of Ibn Battuta Mall. The ornate detail and the size of the dome (pictures just don't do it justice!) make this an especially evocative and pleasant place to enjoy a cup of coffee.
It is snack-dab in the middle of a rather large shopping mall, so it can get noisy at times. But the venue is so nice that I'm willing to overlook that fact. Now, if only the wifi was free...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A (very brief) 2012 University of Houston football preview

Due to my last-minute business trip to Dubai, I am not going to have the time to write a lengthy preview for the upcoming college football season. And, as far as my Coogs are concerned, that's probably a good thing because I really don't know what to expect.

Case Keenum is gone. Kevin Sumlin is gone. The 2012 University of Houston Cougars also feature a completely new receiving corps and defensive scheme. Given all that, it is only natural to expect a drop-off from last year's 13-1 season. But there's nevertheless reason for optimism. The schedule works in Houston's favor: it is relatively easy and features eight games in the city. The offense returns Charles Sims, a formidable dual-threat running back who rushed for 821 yards last season, and David Piland, whose "baptism by fire" occurred when he started eight games as a true freshman in the 2010 season, will take over at quarterback. The defense must adapt to a new 4-3 base scheme, but returns six starters from a 2011 squad which was actually rather capable, considering Houston's historic weakness on that site of the line.

For what it's worth,, whose Congrove algorithm has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins or losses eleven out of the last eighteen seasons, foresees an 11-1 regular-season campaign, while Jeff Sagarin's preseason ratings put Houston 37th and imply a 12-0 regular season when ratings against other teams are compared. I don't expect the Coogs to come away from the 2012 season with that many wins, however; they've lost just too much talent from last season and UCLA and SMU on the road and Tulsa and Louisiana Tech at home are all going to be very tough games under any circumstance. But the Coogs still have enough to work with such that a winning season is nevertheless likely and another Conference USA West division title is certainly possible.

I'm going to predict an eight-win season for 2012. It won't be good enough to get the Cougars a conference championship in their last season in Conference USA, and it won't be good enough for an end-of-season top 25 ranking. But considering that the Cougars are in something of a rebuilding mode this season, it will be good enough to keep the program moving in the right direction as they move to their new home in the Big East in 2013.

For a very good an comprehensive preview, check out Pre-Snap Read's write-up on the Coogs.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

On (almost) being carjacked

Friday afternoon, I stopped at the Shell station at the corner of Weslayan and US 59 to gas up my car. Right as I got out of the car and began to insert my credit card into the pump, a beat-up SUV with paper plates pulled up alongside me. Inside were two young men; the driver was smoking a cigarette and his passenger was looking at me with a disturbing grin on his face.

“Sir, I noticed that dent in the front of your car. I have a plunger that can pull it out in no time. I can fix that dent for you right now for just a couple of bucks!” The driver pointed to the right front of my car.

I’ve had my car for a couple of years now, and so it’s gotten a few small dings and scratches. But a dent on the front of my car big enough for a guy driving down the street to notice and want to fix? I began to walk around the back of my car and tried to peer over to the front to where the guy was pointing, but by this time alarm bells were going off in my head: there just wasn’t something right about this situation. I stopped halfway, told the guy, “no, I’m in a hurry right now, so I’ll just take care of it later” (which was true – I had to go to my office, Kirby's mother's house and my parents’ house before going to the airport and flying out here to Dubai), and walked back to the pump to continue fueling my car.

“You sure? I can fix it real quick!”

I shook my head. “Nah, no thank you.”

The driver shook his head, put his cigarette back in his mouth and peeled off, out of the station and onto the northbound frontage road of 59. After they had left and while I was waiting for the gas to finish pumping, I walked over to the right front of my car. There was no dent. That’s when I realized what had almost happened.

Those guys were trying to steal my car.

They knew my Nissan Altima had a keyless ignition system. As long as I was standing anywhere near the car with the fob in my pocket, it would be easy to start. All they had to do was to get me away from the driver’s side of the car long enough to get in, hit the start button, and drive away. Hence, the driver's attempt to lure me out from the relatively safe area between the pump and left side of the car and to the right side of the car, where the “dent” was. Once I had walked over there, his accomplice was going to jump out, run over to the driver’s side, start my car's engine and drive it away.

But without the key fob, wouldn’t he have been unable to restart the car later? Yes, but that’s okay; he was only planning to drive it once, to the chop shop.

But why a Nissan Altima, as opposed to a fancier or more expensive car? Altimas are targeted for the same reason Toyotas and Hondas are targeted: they’re popular cars and so there’s always a need for parts. My car would have been suffered the same fate as thousands of others: it would have been stripped, and the parts would have been re-sold on the black market.

What really would have sucked for me, had the abortive car thieves been successful, is that my work laptop and my suitcase were both in the car at the time. I would not have been able to make my trip to Dubai, I would be effectively idle at work while I waited the several days for my company’s IT department to replace my computer, and I would have lost a lot personal belongings including my camera, my clothes, my toiletries and my writing journal.

I did not have time to contact the police or file a report at the time – like I said, I had a flight to catch – but I may report the attempted car theft after I get back to Houston. I’m not sure it would do any good, however; I could only provide a generic description of the suspects or their vehicle and I didn’t get a look at their license plate (which was paper and probably fake anyway). They’ll keep doing what they’re doing until they get caught and sent to prison; I can only hope that nobody gets hurt or killed in the meantime.

The point to be taken away from this near-miss is this: thieves are always on the lookout for unsuspecting people, even at a busy gas station during daylight hours. Never let your guard down; if a situation seems to be suspicious, trust your instinct. I’m glad I trusted my gut and decided not to walk away from the driver’s side of my car. Had I actually done so, I probably would be having a very bad week right now.

Back in the UAE

It had been four years since I was last in Dubai, and given my current work assignments I hadn’t really been expecting to come back here anytime soon. So imagine my surprise when last week, while I was vacationing in Colorado, I got an email asking me if I could make a quick trip out here to help put together a proposal. (Here, folks, is another reason why you should not check your work e-mail while you are on vacation…)

So my son and I returned from Colorado last Thursday, and Friday afternoon I began the journey out here. Due to the last-minute nature of this trip, my preferred method of getting from Houston to Dubai – non-stop via Emirates – was not available. I had to fly United to Frankfurt and Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Dubai.

Of all the ways to get from Houston to Dubai, I’ve decided that connecting through Europe is the least desirable option. It just makes the trip seem that much longer and more difficult. This is especially true in the case of Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub; the airport is massive, confusing and not at all user-friendly (at least when compared to other European hubs such as Amsterdam Schiphol, which is also large but is much easier to navigate). The in-flight service on Lufthansa itself was good, however.

I want to see in detail how the city has changed since my last visit here three years and nine months ago, but since I’m only here for the work week I don’t know how much sightseeing (or restaurant-visiting) I’ll be able to do this time around. However, even from the little I’ve seen so far, it’s clear to me that the financial crisis of a few years ago has had a major impact on this city.

For one thing, there seems to be a lot less active construction. Yes, cranes still dot the skyline and there is still some roadbuilding activity, but the pace has slowed considerably and a lot of projects that were underway when I was last here still have not been completed. For example, the two towers in Healthcare City near my office that are still unfinished; one of my co-workers here says that work only recently restarted after being on hiatus for awhile.

I’ve also noticed that traffic does not seem to be as bad as it was four years ago. Maybe that’s because a lot of projects that were underway at that time have now been completed and therefore the transportation network has more capacity – the Dubai Metro, for example, is operational and I will definitely ride it while I am here – but maybe that’s also because there simply aren’t as many cars on the road as there used to be. There simply aren’t as many drivers.

There seem to be a lot of vacant storefronts. My office here has downsized greatly – we used to occupy four floors of our building, but now we only occupy two, and of all the people I worked with when I was here in 2008 only a handful still remain.

Finally, there’s the “pace” of Dubai, which from a completely subjective point of view seems to have slowed. There are still people here and they are still busy, but they don’t seem to be as frenetic. The city seems quieter (less traffic and construction noise, perhaps?). Workers and pedestrians that used to scurry now stroll. There used to be a palpable, if difficult-to-describe, “buzz” to Dubai. It just doesn’t seem to be there anymore.

Again, I’ve only been here for a couple of days and I’ve only seen a small portion of the city. Maybe my perceptions will change as I see more of Dubai. It also should be noted that it’s August and Ramadan only ended a week ago, so a lot of people are probably still on vacation. But on the other hand, after being hit so hard by the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, and after being made a poster child of that crisis by the world’s media, it’s to be expected that things in this city are going to be different than what I was used to.

And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. I few years ago I wrote that Dubai could use the slowdown to "catch its collective breath and find relief from the 'construction fatigue' caused by manic development." From my perspective, that seems to have happened.

And yes, it’s good to be back. Even if it's just for a week.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Birthday Boy

Hard to believe it, but as of today the "Littlin" is eight years old...

Monday, August 13, 2012

An early look at the new UH football stadium

The 2012 University of Houston football season is almost here. Fall practices began last week and the first game is less than three weeks away. (The team also unveiled new helmets, which the Houston Press does not like.) Needless to say, I am excited. I'll begin work on my season preview shortly and expect to have it posted a few days before kickoff.

However, the most noteworthy football-related news coming from the UH campus this week has nothing to do with the season that is about to begin but will have everything to do with UH football from 2014 onward. This Wednesday the University of Houston System Board of Regents will meet, and one of their agenda items is to approve the negotiation and execution of a contract "up to $85 million for the design and construction of Phase One of the New Football Stadium at the University of Houston." The BOR agenda is here; scroll down to page 154 to see the actual agenda item, which reads in part:
Phase One will include approximately 500,000 GSF including approximately 30,000 seats, press box facilities, locker rooms, meeting rooms, concessions, central commissary, restrooms, ticket facilities, scoreboard, lighting package, shell space for future build-out of premium seating facilities (i.e. suites, club and loge boxes) and an approximately 25,000 GSF academic services building to support the marching band program.
 A couple of things of note:
  • The stadium that is to be completed in 2014 is supposed to cost $105 million and seat 40,000, so I'm assuming that a $20 million "Phase Two" covering the build-out of the premium seating facilities (totaling 10,000 seats?) will be approved at a subsequent BOR meeting. I'm guessing that the construction of the entire stadium has to be separated into two separate contracts for financial or administrative reasons. 

  • New stadium will have east-west orientation
  • Unlike most outdoor football stadiums whose fields are oriented north-south, this new football stadium's field will be oriented east-west. At least, that's according to the site plan that is included in the BOR agenda materials (I've reproduced it on the right, adding labels for buildings and streets as well as showing the alignment of the Southeast Line light rail, in green). While east-west fields are not unheard of - Boone Pickens Stadium at Oklahoma State and Sanford Stadium at Georgia are well-known examples - the glare of the afternoon sun and its effect on the players may become an issue. That's probably why there's no gap in the southwest corner of the upper tier of seating; the gaps in the northeast and southeast corners provide ventilation, and the big gap in the northwest corner will provide a view of downtown, but the continuous seating along the southeast corner will serve to block out the setting sun. No word yet on why an east-west configuration was chosen.
Of course, the stadium design has only been underway for a few months at this point and so everything, including the site plan, is preliminary. We'll know more in the coming months as new renderings and more details are released. According to the BOR agenda item, construction is still on schedule to begin following completion of the upcoming season in December, with the new stadium being ready in July of 2014.

Since this is the final football season for the existing Robertson Stadium, the Chronicle's Joseph Duarte is asking for everybody's top memories of the stadium. I'll have my own thoughts on that subject later this year.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Lawyers won't let us have a better bikeway network

Houston wants to grow, and connect the gaps in, its network of hike and bike paths. But a sensible and cost-effective way of doing so is currently unavailable:
The city of Houston's proposed November ballot measure to spend $100 million of taxpayer money on bike paths does not tap into a single free mile of utility-owned right of way.
Houston Parks Board executive director Roksan Okan-Vick said CenterPoint Energy agreed to give her group free access to land along its power lines, but only on the condition that it be protected from liability if a hiker or biker got injured while passing through. Houston and CenterPoint pushed for legislation in Austin last year that would have given utility companies immunity from lawsuits by recreational users of their property.
CenterPoint ROW adjacent to the UP Terminal Subdivision
"That would save us millions of dollars if we could get the land, and we have CenterPoint saying, 'We'll give you the land if you can protect us,' " said state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, who has carried bills in the last three legislative sessions that would have given utilities that protection.

Parks advocates, CenterPoint, the city of Houston, tort reform and running groups all advocated for similar legislation carried by state Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, but Okan-Vick and lawmakers say the legislation died because of opposition from the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.

The defeat in Austin means the trails plan will not use what Okan-Vick estimates is 100 free miles of right of way. "It's crazy not to do that," she said.
It's not really crazy; it's just trial lawyers being their typical greedy, ambulance-chasing selves. It doesn't matter that using these rights-of-way for hike and bike trails would save taxpayer money and improve Houston's quality of life. It doesn't even matter that CenterPoint is on board with their utility ROWs being used in this manner. The only thing that matters to the trial lawyer lobby is their ability to sue a multi-billion-dollar company like CenterPoint if a jogger trips and falls while running along a trail in the company's right-of-way.

Of special note is this especially idiotic attempt at justification from the trial lawyer lobby's spokesman:
Rick Plezia, TTLA's vice president of communications, said that if the Davis bill had passed, "CenterPoint could lay wires on the ground, eat popcorn and watch people get electrocuted."
What a load of horsecrap. Aside from the fact that there are state and federal standards and regulations that prohibit transmission lines from being laid on the ground (the National Electric Code and the Texas Health and Safety Code both quickly come to mind), CenterPoint is not going to put their high-tension power lines along the ground where they're most vulnerable to damage, vandalism, corrosion or theft. Please.

Yeah, I think The Simpsons got it right many years ago with this clip:

I'm sure there's a relatively easy solution to this. Obviously, CenterPoint should not be given blanket immunity: if they do something in their right-of-way that is clearly negligent - for example a poorly-maintained power line falls on a biker and electrocutes them - then they should be held liable. But just as obviously, CenterPoint should not be held liable if a jogger trips and falls due to their own clumsiness, or if some dumbass decides to get drunk and ride their bike and crashes into a power pole.

Perhaps somebody should look at the agreement the City of Bellaire has with CenterPoint so that the parking lot for Mulberry Park can be in the utility right-of-way adjacent to the UP Terminal Subdivision (near where I took this video). Ditto for the parking lot at St. Mark Coptic Church a bit further down. The article, meanwhile, suggests a possible solution that would have the entity building the trails provide some sort of liability insurance.

Whether any of these solutions will be acceptable to a trial lawyer lobby that puts lawsuit payouts ahead of the public good, however, is a completely different story.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Interstate 69 traffic could choke Houston

Last week, I noticed that recently-begun reclassification of US Highway 59 as Interstate 69 will likely bring an increase of traffic - especially truck traffic - through the Houston area. Now, the Chronicle provides some actual numbers:
Click to expand. Source: Houston Chronicle
Houston's segment, which already experiences traffic pileups and is not scheduled for any expansion under the plan, would be hit with the largest increase in traffic volume on Texas' interstate route.

"But that traffic is coming to us no matter what we do. We are going to see a huge increase in freight — more than 300 percent in a little over a decade," said a committee member, Ashby Johnson, the Houston-Galveston Area Council's deputy transportation director. "Some of it is coming from NAFTA and some of it's from the widening of the Panama Canal."

Besides increased trade, the Houston region must grapple with rapid population growth. The area is expected to reach 8.8 million by 2035 - a 51 percent increase.
That same year, traffic is expected to leap 60 percent to 350,000 vehicles daily, including 24,000 trucks, in the stretch of 59 that wraps around downtown Houston.
That stretch, of course, includes the trench between Shepherd and Spur 527, which is easily the city's worst bottleneck (especially in the northbound/westbound direction) in spite of the fact that it was completely rebuilt just a few years ago. And then just east of that there's the trench separating Midtown from Third Ward, which also tends to back up as traffic getting on or off 45 and 288 intermingles with through traffic on 59. I can't imagine how either of these stretches of soon-to-be Interstate 69 will be able to cope with the increased traffic volumes being projected.
Nonetheless, the report does not call for expansion of that stretch of roadway. It does recommend exploring traffic relief options such as a bypass around the city for those traveling long distances.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a grass-roots committee member, said developing a plan to deal with the traffic is critical.

"Everyone agreed a bypass needs to be done," he said. "It's something that's been talked about for years, but it all costs money."

He would like to see a bypass on the county's east side that connects to the new interstate south of Wharton and reconnects north of Cleveland. Others, like Sierra Club transportation expert Dick Kallerman, would like to see tracks added to rail lines along this route so it could handle more freight.
At first I thought Judge Emmett might be referring to the southern and eastern segments of the Grand Parkway, but that highway is not proposed to reach either Wharton or Cleveland so he's probably talking about something completely new. I'm not sure exactly what route Emmett's new bypass would follow (or if it would even be necessary given that the Grand Parkway is already in the works). Kallerman's idea to double-track rail lines running through Houston is also worth exploring, but that's probably not going to help unless the yards, switches and interlockings in and around the city are upgraded as well. Then there's the obvious question of where the money will come from to do these things, which aren't included in I-69's estimated $16.5 billion price tag. 
"The Legislature has got to start adequately funding transportation. Within a couple of years, we'll only be able to maintain existing roads," Emmett said. "Then if goods can't be moved around adequately, that economic miracle we've seen in Texas will come to a grinding halt."
I'm not getting my hopes up. Raising the state gas tax, replacing it with a miles-traveled tax, or putting tolls on roads that were once free are not options that are within the realm of political possibility. Lawmakers are going to have to come up with something completely different in order to fund I-69 and other state highways, and I don't know if they are up to the task. It may fall upon local and regional leaders like Emmett to take the lead in finding funding solutions.

Interstate 69 will likely come into being in slow, piecemeal fashion, over the course of many years and as state and federal highway revenue streams permit. The new highway's effects on local traffic, likewise, will also be gradual but will nevertheless be real. The remedies required to handle and mitigate these projected traffic increases will need to be creative. Finding ways to pay for them will require even more creativity.

The 2012 Astros season in one play

After tonight's loss to Washington, the Astros are 36-75, by far the worst team in Major League Baseball. They have won exactly two of their last 21 games.

But don't take my word for it. Watch this play from Monday night's game against the Nats and see for yourself just how absolutely horrible this team is:
Yes, you saw that right. The Astros allowed the Nationals to bunt in a run. From first base. The mind boggles.

This play is the 2012 Houston Astros in a nutshell: little talent, no chemistry, and absolutely no hope.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Why NBC's Olympics coverage will always suck

We're halfway through London 2012, and the games seem to be following the standard script of any other Olympics in recent memory: a scandal involving one of the sports, allegations of doping, Michael Phelps racking up gold medals, and, of course, widespread complaining about NBC's Olympics coverage. Complainers even have their own Twitter hashtag to vent their frustrations with NBC.

Although it seems to be drawing the largest share of criticism about about their coverage of the games, I'm not too upset with the fact that NBC shows the major events in prime time via tape delay. The fact that London is anywhere between five and eight hours ahead of the United States makes tape delay a necessity. The fact that NBC wants to reserve the most attractive events for prime time, when the most people watch TV and when the network makes its money, is simple business sense; even when the Olympics were being held in Salt Lake City or Vancouver and there was no significant time difference to consider, NBC tape-delayed the biggest events in order to show them in prime-time.

My gripe is with the lousy quality of that prime-time coverage.

To be sure, NBC's Olympics coverage has always left much to be desired. I wrote about its shortcomings back in 1996. The network's formula for its prime time Olympic broadcasts - heavily-abridged coverage of actual events, ridiculous overexposure of certain athletes, patronizing and/or insulting announcers, little to no mention of sports that do not feature or favor Americans, a barrage of melodramatic athlete profiles, and silly, off-topic "human interest" stories (including tonight's excruciatingly inane feature on Scottish bagpipers), all punctuated by a tiresome stream of commercials and hosted by the ever-annoying Bob Costas - seems to have changed little in the intervening sixteen years.

As such, the numerous infractions committed by NBC one week into its coverage of the games - from clumsily editing the opening ceremonies (which could only be seen in the United States via tape delay) to coverage that ignores compelling stories about non-American athletes, to abysmal gymnastics coverage, to inappropriately-timed commercials, to commercial interruptions mid-event (and failure to return to the event at the point where it was left off, even though it's already on tape delay) - are simply par for the course.

NBC, which has the sole rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States (and will continue to have those rights for the foreseeable future), has made it clear that they don't care what critics think about the way they present their coverage: “it’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want,” says NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus. As long as the games are getting good ratings (funny how that happens when your network has a monopoly on Olympics coverage), they'll continue to present it as an overwrought, over-edited, jingoistic quasi-reality-show tailored for people who aren't big sports fans. After all, sports aficionados will follow the Olympics regardless; NBC is trying capture the viewership of everyone else: they know that the only time a significant portion of the American population will care anything at all about beach volleyball, synchronized swimming, diving, hurdling, rowing, discus throwing, or water polo is during the Summer Olympics.

There is, to be fair, live daytime programming of some events on NBC's broadcast and cable channels (which, by virtue of being live, is less likely to be over-edited or laden with "human interest" stories), and NBC is also providing live internet streaming video of all of the events (with the notable exception of the opening and closing ceremonies) to anybody who already has a cable subscription. But for those of us who work during the day, those viewing options aren't always available: if we want to watch, we're stuck with the prime-time gruel NBC feeds us.

And yes, that also means we know the results of Olympic events well before the prime time broadcast begins. For all the complaining about "spoilers," the time difference between when the events happen and when they're shown on TV makes them inevitable. This is especially true in the era of smartphones, Twitter and Facebook, where it truly requires effort to avoid spoilers (and NBC itself hasn't helped in this regard, either, revealing the results of much-anticipated events by way of either the nightly newscast preceding primetime Olympic coverage or promos during the programming).

The harsh truth is that those of us who hate NBC's presentation of the games have little recourse. There are, as I noted, live internet feeds available for those able to see them, and for the truly tech-savvy there are ways around NBC's monopoly entirely. But for those of us who can't stay home during the day to watch live coverage of that weightlifting competition or who can't access live streaming video of those taekwando matches from work, it's either NBC in primetime or nothing at all.

Which is why I get the results of events via internet and smartphone by day, and watch NBC's coverage on my DVR at night. That way, I can fast forward through all the commercials, human interest stories, sports I don't care about and irritating interludes from Bob Costas. It's not perfect, but it makes it at least somewhat bearable.

As I wrote during the 2010 Winter Olympics, "NBC will stick to their craptastic formula for as long as the ratings say it works. Which is why I guarantee you that NBC's coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics from London will suck just as much as their current and previous efforts." Since I was have been proven right, I can now go on record as guaranteeing that coverage of the 2014 winter games in Sochi, the 2016 summer games in Rio, and, well, any future Olympics broadcast by NBC, will also suck.

(UPDATE: But don't take my word for it. Listen to Dick Ebersol, the person largely responsible for the way NBC has, is, and will continue to present the Olympics: basically, it's a television event, not a sporting event.)