Sunday, September 30, 2012

Coogs 35, Owls 14

A much-needed win.
Charles Sims ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns, and the UH defense turned in its best performance of the season in a 35-14 victory over rival Rice on Saturday at Reliant Stadium.

The Cougars (1-3) snapped their longest losing streak to begin a season in 11 years and won their Conference USA opener in their final season before moving to the Big East.

"Everyone was going into this game with the mindset that what's done is done," said UH quarterback David Piland, who threw for 361 yards and two touchdowns.
This win was important not just because it was against crosstown rival Rice, or because it was the first time the Coogs have won at Reliant Stadium (they were 0-4 at that venue prior to Saturday). This win was important because, after an 0-3 start, the struggling Cougars desperately needed something positive to happen. Yesterday, the positive finally happened. They got a win.

Yes, the team is still in disarray. Yes, I'm still suspicious of head coach Tony Levine. But with a 1-0 record in division and with two very winnable games at home (against North Texas and Alabama-Birmingham) coming up, the Cougars have the opportunity to salvage the season and - dare I day it? - even compete for the conference title.

Yesterday's win wasn't just a win. It was a huge confidence boost for a program that sorely needed something right to happen. The fact that it was against the elite private school a few miles down the road was just gravy.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Astros get a new manager

There's one week left in the season, and the Astros, at 51-105, are on track to have their losingest season in franchise history, topping last year's 106-loss debacle. Last night was the final home game of the season. It was also Minute Maid Park's final night as a National League field. 18,712 hearty souls watched the Astros manage a 2-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Pitcher Bud Norris, who was credited with the win, will go down in history as the last pitcher ever to bat at Minute Maid. Last night was also the final game for legendary broadcaster Milo Hamilton, who is hanging up his microphone after 28 years.

I was not (and still am not) a fan of the Astros moving to the American League next season. But like it or not, it's going to happen. The only thing that can be done now is to hope that the Astros are more competitive in the AL than they have been in their last several seasons in the NL.

To that end, earlier today the Astros announced the hiring of Bo Porter as their next manager. Porter is currently the third base coach for the Washington Nationals; he will stay with the Nats through their playoff run before officially taking over as Astros skipper.

Will Porter be the one to reverse the Astros' sagging fortunes? The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon goes to the history books to suggest that he probably won't:
It is a bad deal to become manager of the club that has lost more than 100 games two years in a row.

When you look at MLB history, the guys who stepped in either during the second 100-loss campaign or immediately afterward weren’t on those jobs long. It’s probably a good thing Porter already lives here, because history says his expiration date his managerial milk cartoon is sometime in 2015 … if he’s lucky.

Hey, maybe Porter can buck history. Everything I have heard makes you want to root for him, and he is a guy who knows what he is doing and works well with young players.
I am skeptical as well. Porter has no previous experience as a manager and no experience at all in the American League. For a team undergoing a comprehensive rebuilding process and switching leagues at the same time, he seems like an odd choice. However, owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow obviously see something in him, and for what it's worth he gets rave reviews from his current team (which, incidentally, has gone from 103 losses to the playoffs in the span of four seasons). Time will tell, and I wish Porter the best.

As for 2012 Astros season, the only good thing that can be said about it is that it is almost over. It sucks that the team has to end 51 years of National League play on such an ingloriously low note, but such is the nature of sports. Especially sports in Houston.

Kid-free sections of airplanes are a good idea

Having spent many a transcontinental flight in the vicinity of screaming children, I must say that I heartily approve of this:
Passengers who don't want to sit near young children will soon get that option on Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia X.

The airline, which functions of the long-haul unit of Kuala Lumpur-based AirAsia, says it will set aside the first seven rows of coach for passengers aged 12 and older. AirAsia X is euphemistically calling the area the "Quiet Zone," saying it will debut in February.

The airline says on its website that it is introducing the seating section because "we know that sometimes all you need is some peace and quiet for a more pleasant journey with us."
AirAsia X's move follows one made earlier this year by its rival, Malaysian Airlines, to prohibit children from sections of some its aircraft. AirAsia X passengers will be able to reserve seats in the Quiet Zone for a small fee.

I'd really love to see other airlines adopt policies such as this, especially for their long-haul flights. These trips are long and uncomfortable enough, especially in economy class. Having to listen to a screaming infant or toddler while you're trying to sleep, watch a movie or just relax makes the experience that much more unbearable.

Creating kid-free zones on airplanes is not unfair or discriminatory, as long as families with small children are accomodated elsewhere on the aircraft. It's just another option, like seats with extra legroom, being offered for a fee to adult passengers. I'd even be okay with lowering the restricted age from 12 to 8 or even 6, because it's not the older kids that cause disturbances as much as it is the infants and toddlers.

Making transcontinental flights with small children is hard, and as a parent I give those families my sympathy. But the passengers that are forced to fly with them and be disturbed by them also deserve some sympathy. This is why creating child-free quiet zones on all long-haul flights is a good idea.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The middle of the world isn't where I thought it was

The Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, is probably Ecuador's most-visited tourist attraction. The monument and museum, located a few miles north of Quito, marks the location of the equator. That is, if the equator were several hundred feet south of where it actually is:
The yellow line and sign at the Mitad del Mundo in Ecuador.
Those who visit the Middle of the World, a government-owned park that pays tribute to the Equator, are not drawn by the trinket shops or cafes offering roasted guinea pig. They want to stand on a yellow line painted on the ground here that is said to be precisely at Earth’s midpoint — 0 degrees latitude, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.

Except that it is not.

The Equator is hundreds of feet to the north.

For tourists reveling in the notion of being, for once, at the very center of things, the truth can be a bit of a letdown.
First, let me say that I ate roasted guinea pig, or cuy, at a restaurant near this monument in 1990. I wasn't too impressed. There wasn't a lot of edible meat on the little guy, and it was kind of greasy.

Now that that's out of the way: I had heard rumors that the Mitad del Mundo wasn't in the right place since I first started spending my summers in Ecuador in the late 1980s. I had always thought these rumors were hoaxes concocted by hucksters trying to drum up business for their own "this is where the equator really is" tourist traps. I thought that the Ecuadorian government wouldn't risk their credibility by getting something as critical as the exact location of the equator wrong. After all, they had to have used the best geography and surveying techniques available in order to accurately determine where to place the monument. Right?

Well, maybe not:
Just how the Middle of the World wound up being not quite at the middle of the world is unclear.
Luis Pulgar, an administrator at the park, which is just outside Quito, the capital, said that the nearby land where the Equator runs is traversed by a ravine and that the ground there was not suitable to hold a monument, so the builders chose a different location. The current monument, built in 1979, is almost 100 feet high, topped by a globe five feet across. Raquel Aldaz, the park’s museums chief, said the site first contained a smaller monument, erected in 1936. The builders, she said, believed they were placing the monument in the correct spot, except that measuring techniques at the time were not as accurate as they are today, so they were off by a few hundred feet.
Ramiro Pontón, the head administrator of the park, which is owned by the government of Pichincha Province, said that different GPS technology can result in conflicting measurements, but that according to one of the most commonly used GPS devices, the monument is about 800 feet, or more than two football fields, south of the Equator. 
Indeed, if you find the Mitad del Mundo in Google Earth and place the cursor right over the top of the monument, you'll see that, according to the datum Google Earth uses, the monument is 7.78", or just under 800 feet, south of 0° 0' 0" degrees latitude:
The end result is that the monument marking the equator is, for whatever reason, not where it's supposed to be. And to think about all those times as a teenager that I stood astride that yellow line running through the middle of the monument, believing I had one foot in the southern hemisphere and the other foot in the northern... Alas. 

So now that, thanks to the modern miracle of GPS technology, we know that the Mitad del Mundo is not in the right spot, are there any plans to correct the problem?
That's the monument in the center... and me in the lower right.
Back at the Middle of the World, the local government has plans to set things right in a big way. It has asked the New York architect Rafael Viñoly to come up with a plan for a new monument that would stand exactly astride the Equator. 

Mr. Viñoly’s proposal, unveiled in February, calls for a tapered tower of latticed metal that, at nearly 5,000 feet, would be the tallest man-made structure in the world. The cost, according to a display here, is estimated at $250 million, a vast sum for a poor country like Ecuador. There are no plans to begin the work yet. 
Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen.  But perhaps a more modestly scaled and priced monument, one that hopefully updates and expands the interesting ethnographic museum inside the existing structure, could be built at the correct spot. It could even feature a permanently-installed GPS receiver showing that its location is accurate and house an exhibit explaining how new technology has allowed us to more accurately map and understand our world.

You can be sure I'd come back to visit. I might even give the cuy another try.

"Quiet Zones" aren't always quiet

As reported by Michelle Leigh Smith in this week's issue of Southwest News (zoom into "Westbury's New Quiet Zone Isn't So Quiet;" the story continues on the last page:
The quiet zone along the Union Pacific railroad tracks in Westbury is not so quiet.

Train horns blast throughout the day, warning workers to move back from the tracks along old US Highway 90, near the ranch style homes and bungalows of old Westbury. The newly designated Quiet Zone that the City of Houston's Katherine Parker, Senior Project Manager in Traffic Operations, Public Works led through a multi-year process now faces a hitch or two as Union Pacific double tracks its line and construction crews work with safety issues and a busy train schedule.

"I have two small kids, age 3 and 8 months, and the train whistle wakes them up during their naptime and at night," says Westbury mom Jaimee Mathis. "It's frustrating - the horn blasts vary but it seems lately, it's been more frequent. This morning, there were several at 5:30 a.m. I've heard it four times since then and it's not yet 10 a.m. We are really close, at Chimney Rock and Airport, we are right there. It's supposed to be a quiet zone."
Union Pacific is double-tracking about eleven miles of their railroad running parallel to US 90A (part of what is officially known as the Glidden Subdivision) between southwest Houston and Sugar Land. This is one of the busiest stretches of railway in the Union Pacific network, since it is part of the "Sunset Line" which connects the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles on the West Coast to the ports of Houston and New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. In addition to Union Pacific trains, this section of railroad carries BNSF, Kansas City Southern, Ferromex and Amtrak traffic. UP says that the $46 million project "will help get trains through the area" and likens double-tracking to "adding a lane to a highway - it helps everyone get to their destination faster."

Indeed, nobody is arguing that this isn't a worthwhile project. What the neighbors are concerned about is the Quiet Zone. Don't locomotive operators have to respect it regardless of the presence of construction workers in the area? Not necessarily:
"Quiet Zones aren't bullet proof," says Jack Hanagriff, HPD's law enforcement liaison with the Federal Railroad Administration. "Quiet Zones only restrict routine horn use at designated public crossings. They do not stop horn use for safety. If there are people on the ground, a hazard on the track, a car crossing or anytime they pass another train, they will use the horn."

"We're just going to have to be patient while the maintenance takes place," Hanagriff says. "Typically the first 30 days are crazy, but you have to think about it, they are heavily regulated to use the horn and they are hammered on to use it - it's their main safety mechanism. It will settle down once the construction goes away."
In other words, there's not much residents can do other than complain to Union Pacific in hopes that they address the situation and, otherwise, endure the noise until the double-tracking project is complete. As somebody who lives behind the UP Terminal Subdivision, which feeds into the Glidden and isn't always "quiet" despite being a designated Quiet Zone, I can certainly sympathize. But on the other hand, I recognize that Union Pacific is not going to create a safety hazard or otherwise run afoul of FRA regulations by not using horns to warn construction crews of oncoming trains.

Hopefully the double-tracking work will proceed quickly and peace will soon return to the residents of Westbury.

And now for a quick history lesson: the section of railroad in question is one of the oldest in Texas. It was originally laid by the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway in the early 1850s. It then became part of part of Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad, and was later absorbed into the Southern Pacific system. Union Pacific assumed ownership of the line when they acquired SP in 1996.

Monday, September 24, 2012

No wonder Houston is America's "Fattest" city

Seriously, take a look at some of these ridiculous "eating challenges" offered around town. For example:
The challenge: You must finish two ½-pound beef patties, Ripps chili and fried onion rings sandwiched between two grilled-cheese sandwiches with a massive side of fries in less than 30 minutes. No napkins.
The cost:
The reward:
Your name on the restaurant’s wall
Why anybody would want to put their stomachs, and by extension their entire bodies, through this kind of calorie-induced stress just so they can get their name written on a restaurant's wall is beyond me. Maybe some people are proud of the fact they are unhealthy gluttons and want the entire world to know. Maybe others are just up to any sort of a challenge, be it an eating contest or otherwise.

To each their own, I guess, but, as somebody who could afford to get healthier and lose a few pounds, none of these "challenges" interest me. In fact, a few of them really gross me out.

Other rewards for other challenges include t-shirts, discounts on future restaurant visits, or free dessert. Bon appétit!

Facebook and the election

I guess I am fortunate in that my friends on Facebook, regardless of their political persuasion and in spite of the heated nature of the upcoming presidential election, generally refrain from posting political stuff. If they do, it's likely to be them "liking" an update or photo from a candidate's or organization's page, and politically-themed status updates, especially angry or vitriolic ones, are very rare. I've come across very few political arguments, I've so far successfully avoided in participating in any of them, and I haven't had to unfriend anybody due to incessant or overly offensive political material (I do have a couple of people on "ignore," but then again so does everybody). Hopefully that will remain the case even though the election is still six weeks away.

That, of course, is not the case for everyone:
In a Pew Research Center survey, 18 percent of adults said they had blocked, unfriended or hidden updates from a friend because of a political post. Thirty-seven percent of people who post political content said they'd gotten some strong negative reactions. And that was in January and February, well before the election season heated up.
Political fighting over social media reached fever pitch during the parties' national conventions in August and early September, and the rancor is likely to pick up again Oct. 3 with the first presidential debate. The presidential election is just six weeks away, but for some, it can't come soon enough.
Linda Cowles likes to post informative articles about the issues, and she likes to read the articles her friends post. But she's had just about enough of people calling each other "zombies" and "terrorist-loving commies.
Cowles, 62, a recently retired nonprofit executive director, calls herself an independent. And she has been horrified by the "vicious" tone of friends' partisan posts. She questioned a friend's remarks about Obama voters the other day, and a few seconds later she was bombarded with nasty retorts from people she didn't even know.
"Some of the responses were just downright belittling: 'How can you be so stupid to think any other way?' " said Cowles, who lives in Pearland. 
Given the extreme level of political polarization among the American public, it's inevitable that social media will become a battleground, as people with opposing views clash. It's one thing if this clash results in productive discussion about the issues, e.g. "I think candidate X has a better tax policy than candidate Y because he is proposing tax credits that encourage small businesses to hire more people while eliminating loopholes that only benefit large multinational corporations." Unfortunately, more often than not these discussions turn into hatred, venom-spewing and name-calling, e.g. "You are a clueless, ignorant, un-American lemming for supporting this candidate and I hope you and your children die in a car crash before election day." This is especially true in the online world, where people tend to say things to other people via computer that they would never say face-to-face. That's even the case for non-anonymous forums such as Facebook.
All this opinion-sharing should be a good thing, says Homero Gil de Zúñiga, director of the Community, Journalism and Communication Research collective at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the way new technologies - including Facebook - affect civic engagement and the political process.

"We have evidence that social media, when used in a particular way, actually enhance political participation and civic engagement," he said.

The Pew survey in early 2012 revealed that 36 percent of users believed social media are "very important" or "somewhat important" to them for keeping up with political news. And it's good for democracy, Gil de Zúñiga said, when our online friends are of all persuasions.

"We're finding that because your network is larger online, you are going to be exposed to heterogeneous networks," he said, "people who are different from you, have different thinking and different views."

And that's great, he said. Except when all that difference of opinion dissolves into name-calling and tacky jokes.

"When things get out of hand is when people polarize," Gil de Zúñiga said. "They get reinforced in their ideas, and that doesn't help democracy. The liberals become more liberal and the conservatives become more conservative; they don't listen to each other."
This is more or less how I feel. People usually don't enter into political arguments with an interest in learning about the other side's point of view or coming to a consensus; rather, they think "I'm right and the other person is wrong and I am going to explain to them why this is so." Once they discover that the person they're arguing with is just as intractable in their opinion as they are, name-calling ("you're an idiot!" "no, you are!") ensues, and the end result is that a person's dislike of the other side is reinforced. This is why I avoid getting into political arguments on Facebook: it's pointless.

But, as I've said, it also helps to have a group of Facebook friends that have generally avoided political discussion. Maybe that has something to do with the way I select my friends on Facebook. Maybe I've just been lucky so far and that's going to change over the next week or so as the presidential debates get underway.

In any case, this election cannot end soon enough.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Houston Cougars are the most disappointing team in college football

According to Pre-Snap Read:
Through three weeks, there has be no more disappointing team in college football. No team has suffered a more inexplicable loss, with all due to respect to Pittsburgh, Arkansas and Wyoming, among others. Of the 27 teams that notched double-digit wins last fall, how many seem assured of not reaching that mark in 2012? I’ll say three: Arkansas State, Arkansas… and Houston.

So what has gone wrong? What the heck is going on here? How have the Cougars gone from 13 wins, a program record, to the bottom of the F.B.S. barrel? What can the Cougars do to dig themselves out of this hole? Is the year unsalvageable? One question at a time, please.

Here’s what’s gone wrong: everything. The offense has been the ultimate paper tiger; while U.H. ranks 39th nationally in total offense, this group has been anything but competent through three weeks. The Cougars gained 326 yards in the 30-13 loss to Texas State. They gained another 388 yards in Saturday’s loss to Bruins.

Don’t even get me started on this defense, which can’t get stops on third down, can’t stop the run, can’t stop the pass, can’t get consistent pressure on the quarterback and can’t keep teams out of the end zone. This defense is horrific – though not as bad as this offense.
Coming off of last Saturday's 6-37 loss to UCLA - a game I fortunately didn't have to watch - the Cougars enter a much-needed weekend of rest. But it's going to take a lot more than some rest for this disorganized and ineffective team to get themselves to the point where they can win some games.

I'm looking back at my hastily-written season preview of a few weeks ago and realizing that I drank the kool-aid. While I did acknowledge that the team would be taking a step back from their thirteen wins of a year ago, I nevertheless predicted an eight-win season this fall. Barring some sort of miracle, that's not going to happen. In retrospect, I simply didn't appreciate just how much of a rebuilding year 2012 was going to be. The Cougars had sustained not just the loss of record-setting quarterback Case Keenum, or head coach Kevin Sumlin and much of his staff, but as well a host of other playmakers on both sides of the ball: wide receivers Patrick Edwards, Tyron Carrier and Justin Johnson, running backs Michael Hayes and Bryce Beall, linebackers Sammy Brown and Marcus McGraw, and defensive lineman David Hunter, just to name a few. The result is a team that lacks experience and leadership.

Then there's new head coach Tony Levine. This is his first head coaching gig, and perhaps he needs time to grow into that role. Perhaps he and his staff need time to develop and implement their philosophy for the program. But perhaps the problem with Levine is more profound:
On the other hand, you have to at least posit a different scenario: Levine is in over his head. He wouldn’t be the first unqualified, feel-good hire to come up short in the top spot – heck, Jon Embree, another favorite son handed the keys, has been an utter disaster over at Colorado.

Didn’t Levine hit the ground running during bowl play, when he led U.H. to a one-sided win over Penn State? Yes, but he did so with Case Keenum, a wonderful receiver corps and then-offensive coordinator Jason Phillips, though Kliff Kingsbury had left to join Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M. Is it possible – or even probable – that Keenum and company had more to do with the Cougars’ bowl win than Levine?

Levine’s mishandling of his key hire, offensive coordinator, set a new bar for first-time-coach buffoonery. Say what you will about Mike Nesbitt, that he was not ready for the step up in competition, that he was inflexible, that his offense did mesh with Houston’s returning talent. It all comes down to this: Levine made the hire. If Nesbitt wasn’t ready, shouldn’t Levine have known this during the interview process?
The decision of Levine and his defensive coordinator, Jamie Bryant, to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme in spite of the fact that they clearly do not have the players to run that scheme, is also a point of concern. Does this coaching staff simply not know what they are doing?

The next three games, all in Houston and all against opponents that, well, aren't exactly going to be mistaken for college football's elite, are going to be critical for Levine, his staff and his players. Next weekend the Coogs face crosstown rival Rice at Reliant Stadium. The Owls already have a road win over a Big XII team under their belt, and they always give the Cougars all they can handle. Nevertheless, Houston has a considerable talent advantage and this game is very winnable if the Coogs can get their act together. The Cougars should be favored to win the following two games at Robertson against North Texas and Alabama-Birmingham at Robertson Stadium.

If the Cougars can go 3-0 during this stretch, then that would indicate that they have righted the ship and are on track to have a successful season in spite of their disastrous start. A 2-1 record would not be quite as ideal but would nevertheless suggest a salvagable season. A 1-2 record, however, would probably portend a losing season; 0-3, a winless season and the need to begin looking for a new head coach.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Apple flubs its Maps app

I am in no hurry to rush out and get the iPhone 5: I got a iPhone 4S at the end of last year, I am very satisfied with it and I see absolutely no reason to purchase a new device at this time. I was, however, considering upgrading the operating system on my phone to the recently-released iOS 6, until I heard about this debacle:
This picture has been making the rounds on Facebook.
Call it karma, call it a comeuppance, call it what you will: The Apple Mapocalypse has come. After kicking Google Maps off its new mobile operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS 6, Apple is receiving massive backlash from users around the globe, who report that Apple’s replacement maps, “Apple Maps,” are riddled with strange glitches, inaccurate direction and location data, and fall short of Google Maps.

 Apple launched iOS 6, an upgrade for all iPad generations from the iPad 2 onward and all iPhone models from the 3GS and newer, on Wednesday to mostly rave reviews. Users can download it wirelessly from their iDevices by simply navigating to the “Settings: General: Software Update” menus.

But within hours, complaints about the new Apple Maps came pouring in online. So far, they appear to mostly be affecting users outside of the U.S., but complaints from U.S. users are picking up.
From a business standpoint, it made sense that Apple didn't want to depend on its competitor (Google is the developer of the Android operating system, and devices that run Android are the iPhone's main competition in the smartphone market) for mapping services on its devices. But the fact remains that Goggle's mapping services (e.g. Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Transit, Google Streetview) are the best services of their kind. Apple attempted to create from scratch a mapping service that was comparable, and in some ways even superior, to Google's products. So far, it appears they've failed rather miserably:
Screenshots posted online appear to show a museum located underneath a river, while the map service seems to deny the existence of the English town Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born. Other users say a search for London directed them to London, Ontario, in Canada, instead of the British capital.

Many customers say they are upset that Apple has removed mentions of public transportation routes or stations from its new map service, a popular feature on the Google system which allowed users to see bus and train schedules at individual stations.

Ireland's Minister for Justice expressed concern that the new Apple maps identify a working farm in a residential area of suburban Dublin as an airport, a potential hazard for pilots.
The Apple's maps have already inspired a Tumblr feed, the ironically named "The Amazing iOS 6 Maps," filled with examples of mangled mapping. And some Twitter users pointed out the irony in that the new map system was unable to pinpoint an Apple store in Sydney, Australia, which it placed on the wrong side of the road.
If you have a few minutes, take a look at some of those screenshots on the Tumblr site, which range from humorous to horrifying. Seeing some of those screenshots, and reading about some of the failures of Apple Maps in general, makes me wonder what kind of QA/QC process - if any - Apple performed on this application before releasing it to the general public.

Part of the problem might be the fact that the data used for Apple Maps comes from a wide variety of sources, including TomTom, OpenStreetMap and the U.S. Census TIGER database, and that integrating and presenting data from so many different sources is inherently challenging. Ultimately, however, the buck stops with Apple: it's their product.

Apple, for their part, is asking for users' patience while bugs are worked out. There are rumors, meanwhile, that Google itself might come to the rescue of irate iOS 6 users by releasing a stand-alone Google Maps app for that operating system. However, such an app would be subject to Apple's approval, and as the Chronicle's Dwight Silverman explains, that would put Apple in a conundrum:
Apple’s in a tough position here. If it doesn’t approve the Google Maps app, it runs the risk of looking like a bully. Sure, it could deny the app based on developer rules forbidding software that duplicates basic iOS functions, but there are a slew of other map apps out there already.

If Apple does approve the Google Maps app, and the app runs circles around Apple’s own – as it’s likely to do, given the quality of the Android version – then Apple comes off looking lame against its fiercest competitor.
This is yet another cautionary tale as to why it makes sense not to rush out and buy a new device the day it is released, but rather to wait a few weeks while previously-unforeseen bugs are worked out: all those people who waited in line all night just to be the first one on the block to have the iPhone 5 are now stuck with a lousy mapping program.

Until this problem is resolved one way or another, I will not be upgrading my iPhone's system to iOS 6.

Time's Matt Peckham lists five alternatives to Apple Maps for iOS 6 users. If you do decide to get an iPhone 5, here are eleven good suggestions on what to do with your old iPhone.

UPDATE: Don't expect a quick fix to the Apple Maps problem, for a variety of reasons. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Does Notre Dame's departure doom the Big East?

Yesterday, Notre Dame announced that it was leaving the Big East, its long-time home for all sports except football and hockey, and was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame will continue playing football as an independent, but as part of this move play five football games against ACC opponents each season. It is unclear when this move will occur; the earliest Notre Dame could leave the Big East without paying a penalty is 2015 but I'm sure arrangements will be made allowing them to leave earlier.

The University of Houston is scheduled to move to the Big East following the 2012-13 season, and the reaction to this news on various UH athletics message boards was one of panic: with the loss of Notre Dame, the Big East would become less prestigious and wouldn't be able to attract a high-quality television contract. The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon, similarly, sounded the alarm: noting the Big East's recent losses of Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse to other conferences, he opined that "the conference took another significant hit that makes it less attractive to television networks, which, as we all know, is the only reason college sports exist" and speculated that Connecticut and Rutgers might be the next Big East schools to head to the exits.

But is the loss of Notre Dame really such as disaster for Big East, as well as for Houston's aspirations of joining a more prestigious and lucrative conference? Dan Wetzel doesn't think so:
This was a good day for the Big East. 

Seriously, it was. No, losing Notre Dame in basketball and other sports isn't a plus. And yes, it will likely lower the amount of money the Big East can demand in its current television negotiations, but only a little. TV money is about football first and Notre Dame wasn't in the football league. As for basketball, the Irish program is fine, but hardly a big national draw that drove up hoops revenue.
I tend to agree. Football is the reason why Houston is joining the Big East. Yes, the fact that it's a good basketball conference doesn't hurt, but football is what's driving the bus in college sports right now and Notre Dame was never, ever going to join the Big East for football. Thus, this announcement is going to have no affect on the Big East's prestige and marketability as a football league.

 Yes, the conference's television contract for basketball might take a hit, if for no other reason than Notre Dame has a brand that extends across all sports, but I don't think its affect is going to be that great.

Wetzel goes on to note that the ACC has ruled out adding any more members, meaning that UConn and Rutgers aren't going anywhere, and also notes that the ACC's new $50 million exit fee means that their members aren't going to be jumping conferences anytime soon, either. This, along with the Big XII's apparent satisfaction with being a ten-team league (which allows for a round-robin schedule and avoids a perilous conference championship game), suggests that we might finally be entering a period of stability in the conference realignment shuffle. And that's good for the Big East:
Conference realignment could be entering a quiet period. If so the Big East is in good shape. No, it's not what it once was, but it maintains a strong basketball presence on the East Coast. The additions of Temple and Memphis actually bolster that sport. The Big East tournament is still a big deal, and there are still very strong hoops brands, including UConn, Georgetown, Villanova and so on.
Indeed, even ESPN, which has an exclusive negotiating window with the Big East through the end of October, suggests that the conference can still land a lucrative TV contract without Notre Dame (of course, there's speculation on UH message boards that Notre Dame's move to the ACC was facilitated by ESPN as part of a long-running conspiracy by the network to undermine, or at the very least strong-arm, the Big East; I have no idea how true this might be).

The bottom line is this: Notre Dame's departure does not substantially hurt the Big East. If anything, it eliminates the distraction of a school that reaped the benefits of membership in the Big East for basketball and non-revenue sports while simultaneously depriving that conference of its greatest asset: Fightin' Irish football. That, in turn, makes the revamped conference that much more cohesive as it continues to navigate through the ever-changing world of collegiate athletics.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A scene from Blade Runner?

Nope, it's just Dubai. I took this picture from the front of a Red Line train as it departed Al Jafiliya Station on the afternoon of Thursday August 30th. That's the base of the Etisalat Tower to the left; the Dubai World Trade Centre is directly ahead and a portion of one of the Emirates Towers can be seen directly behind it. Directly to the left of the DTWC is the spire of the Burj Khalifa.
I was generally impressed with the Dubai Metro; it was easy to understand and use (we transportation planners call it "legibility"). For all the wondering about whether anybody would actually use it, the trains were rather packed whenever I rode it. However, the trains themselves operated at somewhat slower speeds than what I would normally expect from a fully-grade-separated metro. Also, the in-vehicle air conditioning system simply couldn't keep up with Dubai's summertime heat.

All in all, though, the Dubai Metro appears to have accomplished its intended goal: it's made getting around Dubai without a car easier and more convenient. 

LA Tech beats Houston in 49-56 shootout

Perhaps Mike Nesbitt's "decision to resign" as offensive coordinator was the cure for what ailed the University of Houston Cougar football offense. The squad was markedly improved when they faced Louisiana Tech last Saturday, rolling up 693 yards total offense and scoring six touchdowns on the Bulldog defense.

Quarterback David Piland showed great improvement over his poor performance against Texas State. He completed 53 of 77 passes for 580 yards and four touchdowns. He had no interceptions, was only sacked twice and, just for good measure, also scrambled for 33 yards on a broken play.

Meanwhile Charles Sims, who went woefully underused last weekend, carried the ball 21 times for 65 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught the ball 11 times for another 53 yards. Jackson Ryan added 27 yards on 7 carries and Kenneth Farrow had 20 yards on 4 carries, as the Cougars ran the ball much more effectively than they did during last weekend's embarrassing loss to Texas State. 

The offense was by no means superb. Piland's numbers would have been even better had it not been for the several catchable passes that the young receiving corps dropped. A Charles Sims fumble led to a LA Tech touchdown. And don't even get me started on all the momentum-killing penalties.

But the offense was most certainly not the problem last Saturday. The Cougars could have actually won this game, had they fielded anything resembling a defense. But therein lies the problem: the UH defense, as it currently exists, cannot tackle, cannot stop the run, cannot put anything resembling pressure on the quarterback and cannot force turnovers. They are, to put it mildly, helpless.

Louisiana Tech gained 245 yards (133 of them by running back Tevin King) and 5 touchdowns on the ground. They gained another 353 yards and three touchdowns through the air. They did not give up a single sack, fumble or interception to Houston's defense, and neither myself (nor anyone sitting around me) observed any changes or adjustments to Houston's defensive philosophy; the Bulldogs ran the same plays the entire game with impunity. Most disconcerting, however, was the lack of tackling ability on the part of the UH defenders. It's as if a skill that they were surely taught in high school has been completely forgotten.

Given that the team's offensive woes during last week's abomination cost the offensive coordinator his job, you can forgive the Cougar faithful for hoping that last Saturday's pathetic defensive performance would result in the "resignation" of defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, but according to head coach Tony Levine adjustments will be made on the defensive side of the ball.

Penalties are another problem the Cougar need to address. Last Saturday, they were flagged 14 times for 129 yards. Granted, some of the calls were ridiculous; the WAC crew that officiated the game was marginally competent at best. The fact that the Cougars were able to address their problems on offense so quickly offers hope that they'll be able to remedy problems on defense and team discipline in a timely manner as well. But the team has a tough couple of games coming up.

Next up for the Cougars are the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Given that this game is on the road and against a team that just upset ranked Nebraska, I'm just hoping that the Coogs keep it respectable and don't suffer any major injuries (like what happened the last time they played in Pasadena). Then it's back to Houston to face Rice (which is coming off a road win over Kansas) at Reliant Stadium (where the Cougars have never won a game). At this point, I'm expecting an 0-4 start to what is quickly turning out to be a disastrous 2012 season.

More traingeekery: Union Pacific 844

Kirby and I just happened to be in Denver a few weeks ago when UP 844 - the only steam locomotive never to be retired by a major North American railroad - passed through town on its way from Omaha to Cheyenne. We positioned ourselves at a crossing and caught it in action:

I was filming with the iPhone in one hand and and trying to take pictures with my Nikon in the other, hence the poor panning and crookedness at the end, but I think the video nevertheless gets the point across: seeing the "Living Legend" in action is a sight to behold.

Shortly afterward, we caught up with UP 844 once again at a railyard northeast of downtown Denver, where it was stopped for the night, to take some more pictures:
Truly a magnificent beast. (I'm talking about the beast in the background, of course!)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Meltdown on Cullen Boulevard

In my many years of watching University of Houston football, I've experienced a lot of gut-punching, disappointing losses. I sat through all those woeful, perennially-losing teams coached by Kim Helton and Dana Dimel. And that sucked. But in all my years as a UH football fan, I honestly don't think I've experienced anything quite as outrageous, as miserable, or as pathetic as last Saturday evening's embarrassing, demoralizing and abomidable upset 13-30 loss to FBS newcomer Texas State.

The offense was a sick joke. Quarterback David Piland was dreadful; he completed a paltry 17 passes out of 44 attempts (seriously!) for 211 total yards, one touchdown and one interception. For somebody who started eight games once Case Keenum was injured in 2010, last night he looked like he had never seen the playing field before.

But why was Piland attempting 44 passes in the first place? Houston's primary offensive weapon, Charles Sims - arguably the best running back in Conference USA, who can catch as well as run and should be Houston's primary offensive weapon - only had 13 rushes for 77 yards and a single catch. Why was he not used more? Why was he not used on the opening drive of the 2012 season, where the Cougars attempted three passes - all of them incomplete - and Sims didn't see the ball? What kind of incompetent playcalling is that?

It was a horrible evening for the Cougars, offensively. They could only convert one third-down conversion on 13 attempts, and held possession of the ball for a paltry 16 minutes and 51 seconds (as opposed to Texas State's time of possession of 43 minutes and nine seconds.

The defense, meanwhile, was gashed for 248 rushing yards. Bobcat running back Marcus Curry rushed for a career-high 131 yards and two touchdowns, one of which came off a 73-yard run from scrimmage. To the defense's credit, they held Texas State to only three points after halftime; how much of that was halftime adjustment and how much of that was Texas State switching to a conservative, clock-chewing style of offense I don't know. Regardless, the defense's performance in the first half was awful and inexcusable.

Was this loss to Texas State - their first win as an FBS program - the worst loss in UH football history? Probably not; from a purely monetary perspective, last year's loss to Southern Miss that kept the Coogs out of the Sugar Bowl was a lot more damaging. The Cougars had no expectations at the national level coming into this game, and for what it's worth Texas State is at least nominally an FBS program (unlike FCS Youngstown State, who upset Pittsburgh yesterday). But this loss is nevertheless catastrophic. If the Coogs can't beat Texas State, who on their 2012 schedule can they beat?

Saturday's dreadful performance on offense clearly didn't sit well with head coach Tony Levine, who on Monday announced the "resignation" of his offensive coordinator, Mike Nesbitt.  Travis Bush, who was offensive coordinator at Texas-San Antonio, will take over as OC. Whether it will have any affect on last Saturday's offensive output remains to be seen. But when you fire a coordinator after only one week into the season, you know your program has some serious problems.

And that's where UH football is right now. The program is in serious trouble.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Airbus A380

I flew it (on Lufthansa) for the first time on my way back from Dubai (via Frankfurt) yesterday.

Other than the fact that it is a large, double-decker aircraft, there really isn't anything special about it.

Especially if you're in economy class. You're packed in like sardines, regardless of how "big" the aircraft actually is.

And, although I know it's not Lufthansa's fault, the angry toddler two rows in front of me that screamed throughout the *entire* ten-hour flight did not make the experience any more enjoyable for me (or, for that matter, anyone sitting near me).

To sum up: it doesn't matter how big or how new or how nice the aircraft is. Economy class is going to suck regardless. If you (or your employer) can't pay the big bucks to fly overseas in business class or first class, you're going to have a lousy flight.