Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Amazing Dubai panorama

A photographer used special equipment to take a 2.5-gigapizel, 360-degree panoramic photograph from the spire of the Burj Khalifa:
The image is composed from over 70 individual photos. Dubai based photographer Gerald Donovan created the shot using a mechanised panoramic tripod head to take a series of 48 panoramic images, each shot at a resolution of 80 megapixels. These were then stitched together with manually shot images to 'fill-in' gaps caused by equipment installed at the top of the tower such as the lightning conductor and aircraft beacons. The result is an image that can be zoomed, tilted and rotated, giving viewers a sense of how it must feel to sit atop the world's highest building.  
Everything from Ajman and Sharjah at the north end to the Dubai Marina (and beyond that, in the haze, the cranes and waters of Jebel Ali) at the south end is visible. I spent way too much time panning and zooming, and was able to pick out several landmarks, including my former employer's office building (which actually made me a little sad). The amount of stuff still under construction in and around the Emirate is also mind-boggling.

It really is quite amazing and is worth a look, even if you never plan to visit Dubai. See for yourself here.

Friday, January 18, 2013

My new job

I few weeks ago I mentioned that I was changing jobs. I've now spent a few weeks at my new place of employment, trying to get up to speed and do what they've hired me to do. So far it's been pretty good.

Since I'm sure everyone is asking: why, after eight years, did I leave my cushy, well-paying job at an internationally-recognized, employee-owned transportation planning, engineering and construction firm and return to public sector life at the regional council of governments?

The money was better, right?

Not really. I’m actually taking a small pay cut.

But you’re getting more flexibility in your hours, yes?

Actually, just the opposite. My schedule is a bit more rigid at this new job; unlike at my old job I'm actually expected to be somewhere every day at 8 am.

Better benefits? More vacation time?

Benefits are about the same, but I’m actually losing vacation time. I had been at my last job so long that I got three weeks’ paid vacation. At my new job, I’m starting over with two weeks.

But you'll still get to travel for business every so often, right?

Nope. There's no travel outside the Houston area at this new job. No more trips to Dubai. No more trips where I get to fly on a plane and eat at a restaurant and stay at a hotel and put it all on an expense report, period. To be honest, that’s a blessing as much as it is a curse.

So, then, why *did* you decide to change jobs?

Sometimes I ask myself that very question...

No, seriously: I changed jobs because the time had simply come to move on, to try something new, to gain some new skills and experiences. At my previous job, I was pretty much confined to doing one set of tasks; namely, transit planning. The company's corporate structure was such that I was probably not ever going to be involved in highway, bridge and tunnel, freight rail, airport, or maritime planning projects. At my new job, I'll eventually get to work on some of those other types of projects.

Working for the regional planning organization also gives me an opportunity to do things that improve mobility and overall quality-of-life for my hometown. As interesting as it was to work in places like Dallas or Dubai, none of that work was going to benefit me, or my family, or my neighbors, or anybody else here in Houston. Now, I'll be doing work that benefits my heimat.

This is not to say I disliked my previous job. Quite the opposite, in fact; I met a lot of great people, worked on a lot of interesting projects and probably could have stayed there indefinitely, provided the billable hours remained in good supply (sometimes they aren't, which is a disadvantage of life in the private sector). I was simply ready to do something different.

As I said: so far things have been good at my new job. But I've barely scratched the surface of everything they expect me to do there, and I'll have a better idea of just what exactly I've gotten myself into a few months from now.

One cool thing about my new job: due to the agency’s holiday schedule as well as the way my 9/80 work schedule is set up, I get to look forward to no fewer than five four-day weekends this year: Good Friday/Easter, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Forty by forty

So, I recently stepped on the scale for the first time since before the holidays.

I knew it was going to be bad. My clothes were becoming tighter. The belly I saw in the mirror was becoming more distended. I was feeling more bloated and lethargic.

But stepping on that scale put it all into perspective: I managed to add on well more than "just a few pounds" over Thanksgiving and Christmas. For somebody who is overweight as it is, that's not a good thing.

I don't just need to shed the pounds I gained during the holidays; I need to drop some fat I've been meaning to drop for several years but have never been able to do so. The body-mass index tables say that I need to lose about sixty (!) pounds in order to return to the "normal weight" category. However, the BMI is not a perfect measurement for determining one's ideal weight, as it does not take into account factors such as one's frame or muscle-to-fat ratio. I think if I actually lost sixty pounds, I would look slightly gaunt.

Forty pounds, on the other hand, would put me at a weight I haven't seen since grad school. And I looked pretty good in grad school.

So I am going to embark on a new challenge, one which will be not be easy but which will be necessary to my overall health and self-esteem.

I am going to attempt to lose forty pounds between today, January 17th, and my 40th birthday eight months from now, on September 17th.

That's right: forty by forty.

It sounds very ambitious, but it works out to an average of five pounds per month. That is reasonable and attainable; I've managed to shed weight at that rate before. What I've learned, and what everybody else who has struggled with their weight knows, is that the hard part is not losing weight. It's keeping it off. But I'll worry about that after I reach my goal weight.

I will keep this blog updated as to my success, or lack thereof, in this endeavor. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The 2012 Texans just weren't that good

Seriously. They weren't.

Forget about the 12-4 record.  Nine of those wins were against teams with losing seasons.

Forget about winning the AFC South for the second year in a row. The division was weak, the late surge from the Indianapolis Colts notwithstanding.

Truly good NFL teams do not get taken to overtime by opponents as awful as the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions.

Truly good NFL teams do not have offenses that only manage to score three touchdowns in sixteen quarters, as the Texans did over the four games preceding last weekend's loss.

Truly good NFL teams do not fail to clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage when they are given two consecutive opportunities to do so.

The difference between the Texans and a truly good NFL team could be seen last Sunday afternoon, as the New England Patriots thrashed the "Bulls on Parade" in a 41-28 romp. This came only a few weeks after the Texans' first trip to New England ended in a 42-14 beatdown. Even though both franchises had identical 12-4 regular season records, the Texans proved that they did not belong on the same field as the Patriots.

It's what happens when truly good meets not that good.

It might have been a disappointing end to a season that for a time seemed to hold such promise. But nobody should be particularly surprised. The 2012 Texans were simply not a Superbowl contender.

Because just weren't that good.

Should liquor stores be open on Sunday?

Several years ago I noted that Texas has some rather strange liquor laws. Now, a local legislator would like to do away with one of them:
Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson filed a bill last week that proposed liquor stores be allowed to operate seven days a week.

Under the current law, liquor stores may operate from Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The stores must close on Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. If Christmas or New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, the stores must close the following Monday, according to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
Religious arguments aside, I've yet to hear a valid reason why liquor stores should not be open on Sundays.

I get that there is a segment of the state population that opposes alcohol consumption and wants to discourage people from drinking, if only for one day out of the week. But beer and wine are already available on Sundays from noon to midnight at grocery and convenience stores. The hard stuff is already available on Sundays, by the glass, at bars until 2 am. Keeping liquor stores closed on Sundays isn’t keeping anybody from drinking; it’s just keeping liquor store owners and employees from partaking in the money that Sunday drinkers are spending.

Additionally, the forced closure of liquor store on Sundays is costing the state a small amount of sales tax revenue: $7.5 million over every two years, according to the article.

Liquor stores aren't the only businesses targeted by these types of laws:
Another state law permits car dealerships to open on Saturday or Sunday, but not both.
Targeting liquor sales is one thing, but cars and trucks? Somebody's going to have to explain to me the rationale behind that law, because I've never understood it.

In any case, both these laws need to be repealed. It shouldn't be the state government's job to tell legitimate businesses what days they can and cannot be open.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Flights to Beijing and geographic illiteracy

Houston is apparently on the verge of nonstop flights to mainland China:
Parker said the city hopes to make a formal announcement in the "next couple weeks" and identified China as the likely destination country, while downplaying the news: "This is not a secret. I have been working on a direct flight to China almost since the day I took office," she said.

Parker was questioned by reporters after councilman Andrew Burks mentioned a nonstop flight from Houston to Beijing on Wednesday. Burks was unavailable for comment, but one of his staff members told the Chronicle later that Burks had confirmed nonstop flights between Houston and Beijing four times a week would begin in July on Air China, the country's flag carrier, headquartered in Beijing. 
That's a good thing for the city's international prestige and economy, not to mention its large Chinese population. Unless, of course, you dislike or distrust the People's Republic of China (which, judging from the comments on this article, a lot of people do), in which case you probably don't think this is a good thing.

I think it's a good thing. This bit of geographic illiteracy by the Chronicle, however, is not a good thing:
Houston has one other nonstop flight to Asia: United Airlines' daily morning nonstop from Bush Intercontinental Airport to the Tokyo area's Narita airport.

A nonstop to Beijing would be Houston's first to the Asian mainland.
Well, other than those nonstop flights to Doha and Dubai offered by Qatar Airways and Emirates, respectively. Both cities are located on the Arabian Peninsula, which, last time I checked, is indeed part of the continent of Asia.

Alabama wins it all, again

The 2012 college football season came to an end Monday night with Alabama's dominating 42-14 win over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game. The Crimson Tide, who have won three out of the last four national championships, have clearly attained dynasty status.

So, did the BCS get it right this year? Is Alabama really the best team in the nation? I think so, although I really would have liked to have seen them face somebody other than Notre Dame in the title game. It was clear that the Fightin’ Irish simply did not match up well with the Crimson Tide; they were completely outclassed in every aspect of the game. I think Alabama versus Oregon would have been more interesting to watch. Even a rematch between Alabama and Texas A&M, the only team to have beaten the Crimson Tide this season, would have been more compelling. This is not to say that either of those teams would have beaten Alabama for the title; this is simply to say that I think either of those teams would have made for a better game than the snoozefest we were subjected to Monday night.

So then, the question has to be asked: how did Notre Dame make it to the title game in the first place? Why did they manage to actually be ranked ahead of Alabama in the BCS standings going into the title game? Why not Oregon instead?

Part of the reason is that Notre Dame did have a legitimately good season. They were the only team in the nation to end the regular season undefeated (other than Ohio State, which was on probation). Along the way, they picked up some quality wins: Michigan and Stanford at home; Oklahoma on the road. While several of their "big-name" opponents ended up having rather mediocre seasons (Michigan State, Miami, Southern Cal), and while they did struggle to beat a middling Pittsburgh team in triple overtime, the fact remains that they won every game they played. Oregon, in addition to having a weaker overall schedule (Tennessee Tech? Seriously?), had that bitter three-point loss to Stanford that ultimately kept them out of title game contention.

But I also think that Notre Dame tends to get the benefit of a doubt from pollsters because, well, they’re Notre Dame: a tradition-rich school that is the epitome of college football. From their exclusive contract with NBC, to their nationwide fanbase, to boosters like former coach Lou Holtz (literally) slobbering about them on ESPN, Notre Dame gets a lot of exposure and goodwill at the national level. For that reason, I'm not sure that Oregon would have gotten the nod ahead of Norte Dame even if the Ducks had managed to fend off Stanford.

It should be noted that Notre Dame's notoriety is as much of a curse as it is a blessing. The fact that the Fightin’ Irish are now 2-11 in bowl games going back to the 1994 season suggests that they tend to be overrated going into the post-season, and put into games where they don’t match up well with the opposing team. That was definitely the case Monday night.

Anyway, the disappointing title game is just another reason why the playoff cannot get here soon enough.

The other highly-anticipated BCS game besides the national championship was the Orange Bowl between Florida State and BCS-buster Northern Illinois. It also turned out to be a snoozefest - the Seminoles won handily, 31-10 - which made the argument that the Huskies weren't worthy of a BCS berth. It doesn't matter, though; they, like Notre Dame, got in under the rules that the BCS set up, and even if they didn’t win the Huskies are going back to DeKalb with a fat paycheck.

As much as I hate to say it, the Texas A&M Aggies are the real deal. Not only were the only team in the nation to defeat the eventual national champions, but Heisman laureate Johnny Manziel is absolutely amazing. He performance in the Cotton Bowl against a decent Oklahoma team was nothing short of mesmerizing. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Aggies compete for the national title in 2013.

Finally, I'd like to give big props to Utah State, Vanderbilt and San Jose State. All three of these long-struggling programs ended the season with bowl victories and top 25 rankings in both polls.

So begins the offseason.

Ecuador rated top retirement destination

I wonder if it will still be this way 25 or 30 years from now, when I retire?
With its low cost of living, balmy climate and cheap property prices, Ecuador has been ranked the top foreign retirement destination for North Americans for the fifth consecutive year.

The South American nation bordered by Colombia and Peru scored the highest marks in InternationalLiving.com's annual ranking of the best places to retire.

With monthly estimated living expenses ranging from $900 to $1,400, Ecuador surpassed Panama, Malaysia, Mexico and Costa Rica, which rounded out the top five countries.

"I think the combination of a welcoming culture, the great weather, the affordability and its proximity to the United States all go together to make it a good package," Dan Prescher, the special projects editor for the website, said on Thursday.
Having fallen in love with Ecuador when I lived there in the summers as a teenager, I certainly wouldn't mind living there when I retire. I could see myself living in a modest yet comfortable home on the outskirts of Otavalo, hopefully with a view of Mount Imbabura and Lago San Pablo. I would hang out with members of my favorite indigenous group, maybe be a part-time tourguide or English teacher to keep myself occupied, and, when the urge arose, make a trip to Quito's new airport to go see the world.
A large part of Ecuador's appeal is how inexpensive it is for retirees. A beer costs just 85 cents. A doctor's visit is $25, roughly the same price as a one-hour massage.

"Seniors resident in Ecuador qualify for half-price entertainment and local transport, discounted airfares and refunds of sales tax," Prescher added.
Add to the fact that the US Dollar is Ecuador's currency - no hassling with exchange rates or watching your retirement accounts hyperinflate into oblivion - and Ecuador indeed seems like an ideal retirement spot. 

Crime is a severe problem in Ecuador. Crimes against U.S. citizens in the past year have ranged from petty theft to violent offenses, including armed robbery, home invasion, sexual assault, and several instances of murder and attempted murder. Very low rates of apprehension and conviction of criminals – due to limited police and judicial resources – contribute to Ecuador’s high crime rate.   
The problem Ecuador continues to have with a runaway crime rate is one of the reasons why I have not visited the country I used to consider my "home away from home" for over a decade. As much as I want to see the problem get better, everything I have read or heard about Ecuador over the last several years suggests that the problem is only getting worse, and is not confined to big cities like Quito or Guayaquil. It is an unfortunate fact that the elderly are almost-universally targeted for crime. If I were a retiree thinking about Ecuador, I'd give its crime problem a long, hard look before making the move.

Corruption, political instability and anti-Americanism are also risks to living in Ecuador, but those are perennial problems which are no better or worse today than they were ten or twenty years ago. Ecuador's current president, Rafael Correa, is a leftist who has had several run-ins with the United States in the past, but he has also lived in the United States (he holds MS and PhD degrees from the University of Illinois) and has never exhibited a tendency to harass American tourists or retirees simply due to their nationality. And although my experience is rather dated at this point, I've generally found the Ecuadorean people themselves to be appreciative of, and friendly to, Americans.

All of which is to say: if you're an American citizen thinking about retiring in Ecuador, don't just look at the cost of living. Do your due diligence. Where in Ecuador are you going to live? What is the crime rate like there? Have you met any of the locals who live there? Have you met, and do you trust, the police (whether they be municipal, provincial or Policia Nacional) who patrol the area where you want to live? Have you spoken to personnel at the US Embassy in Quito (or the US Consulate in Guayaquil) to get their thoughts? How good is your Spanish? How far away is where you want to live from adequate medical care? Is there good public transportation or taxi service where you want to live? (You don't want to drive in Ecuador. Trust me on this one.) Will you be able to prepare yourself for the natural disasters that occasionally ravage Ecuador, be they earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, El NiƱo floods or mudslides?

I don't want to dissuade anybody from retiring in Ecuador. It is an amazing and beautiful nation. The cost of living is indeed cheap, and the people are wonderful. Hopefully, Ecuador will still be that way many years from now, when I retire. But there are risks to retiring in any foreign country, and Ecuador's crime rate is a real concern.

It is my hope that the Ecuadorian government will, at some point, take a stronger effort in combating crime, so that American tourists and retirees alike will feel more comfortable visiting, living in, and contributing to the economy of Ecuador.