Saturday, March 30, 2013

Cats on a lukewarm composite shingle roof

Apologies to Tennessee Williams, but after seeing this sight atop the house behind us earlier this week, I just couldn't resist...

Do they feel safer from dogs or children up there? Do they find the roof a comfortable place to sleep? Maybe they like the view. Maybe cats are just ridiculous animals.

The return of the day pass

Will this entice more people to ride the bus or train?
The METRO Board of Directors today took the first step to bring back the “day pass.” The Board voted to commit $175,000 to adapt METRO’s Q Card system so a $3.00 extended “day pass” feature can be accommodated later this year. The action allows METRO to modify an existing contract with ACS/Xerox so software can be adjusted to accept this fare payment option.

The action, at today’s monthly METRO Board meeting, follows requests from the riding public and is a necessary step in reintroducing the popular fare which was discontinued in 2008 when the METRO Q Card was introduced. 
My recollection is that METRO did away with the day pass in 2008 not only to simply fare structures and encourage use of the Q Card, but also because there was a sense that the paper day pass available at the time was being abused (for example, people were giving away their day passes to others with they were through using them). However, the day pass was popular amongst riders, especially “choice” riders, and its disappearance made METRO one of the few major transit agencies in the nation that did not offer such an option. So I think this is a good decision on the transit authority's part.

The new day pass option will be limited to Q Card holders, at least for now:
The day pass would allow customers with the Q-Card to ride all day for $3. The initial and second use of the card under the Day Pass would cost $1.25 each, then $0.50 for the third boarding, and free afterward through the day.
For what it's worth, $3 compares favorably with prices for day passes on other nearby major transit agencies: New Orleans RTA charges $3 for a 1-day Jazzy Pass, you’ll pay $4 to ride all day on San Antonio VIA, and in Dallas a DART day pass will set you back $5.

According to information provided to METRO's Board of Directors at yesterday’s meeting, the return of the day pass is anticipated to attract an additional 1.3 million riders per year.

UPDATE: Kuff has more.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Genghis 1997 - 2013

We knew, given his age, that it would only be a matter of time before my girlfriend's beloved companion passed away. That knowledge, however, did not make the shock and sadness any less horrible when it finally happened last Friday.

Genghis died quickly and, we hope, painlessly. Friday morning when I went to work he appeared normal and active, and Friday afternoon when Michelle came home from work his lifeless body was lying in the dining room next to his food bowl. Nothing about Genghis - his behavior, his activity, his appetite - had changed in the days leading up to his death, which makes me think that it was most likely his old heart that simply gave out. While dogs really don't have heart attacks the way we understand them - clogged arteries are a uniquely human trait - other types of heart conditions were listed as the most common cause of sudden death in canines in at least one study I came across, and Genghis had been diagnosed with a heart murmur last summer. Obviously we'll never know for sure.

Besides, Genghis was old. He was just three days shy of his 16th birthday - a remarkable age for a dog of his size and breed mix. Other than the aforementioned heart murmur, which really didn't seem to bother him, and some arthritis that Michelle sought treatment for last fall, Genghis had no major health problems in spite of his advanced age.

And that's the blessing, if there is one to be found, in his death: Genghis did not experience any prolonged suffering. Michelle did not have to make any agonizing decisions about taking him to the vet to be put down. He went quickly and quietly, on his own. Not all pets, or their owners, are that fortunate when the end comes. Like I told Michelle: Genghis lived well, and he died well.

None of this is to say that Michelle is anything other than devastated by Genghis’s passing. While her family has had several dogs, Genghis was the first pet that was truly her own; she got him when she was 23 years old and he has been a part of her life ever since. It's difficult for her to imagine life without Genghis. She will get another dog, but she says she will never be able to replace Genghis.
Even though I'm not the world's biggest dog person, Genghis truly did become my friend during the time I knew him. I'm going to miss the old guy. RIP.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I was thinking about buying SimCity 5, but...

Anybody who knows me knows that SimCity is my favorite computer game of all time. I still remember playing the original SimCity on my Macintosh 512k back in 1989 and thinking how awesome it was, and I'm sure the game had at least something to do with my decision to become a city and transportation planner. So needless to say, I was initially excited about last week's release of the games latest and greatest iteration, SimCity 5. Even though the OS X version of the game won't be ready until later this year, I was so excited about it that I was planning to buy the PC version and play it on my girlfriend's computer.

Until I read this:
[...] EA, a technology company with a market capitalization of over $5 billion, could not muster the online servers necessary to handle an influx of players looking to build their cities. This was entirely a problem of EA’s own making, as SimCity was not designed with an offline mode. Even if you don’t want to team up with others and join your cities together, you can’t just build your personal metropolitan layouts in peace: Every player must be constantly connected online, as a draconian step to crack down on piracy of this PC-only game.

Hey, launch hiccups happen, right? Everybody all tries to connect at once, servers get throttled, and you figure out a way to make it work. Trouble is, as of this writing EA hasn’t figured out a thing. SimCity is still totally busted. It’s difficult to log in: Nearly all of the servers are full, and when a player does find one that’s available, attempting to log in usually throws back an error. And you can’t try again until a 20-minute counter finishes ticking down.

Ah, but if the servers are full, that means at least some people are playing the game, right? Yes, but not really. Players are finding that the servers, choking to death on the player load, aren’t saving their game progress. After spending hours playing through the game, many players are confronted with an error screen, forcing them to choose to either roll back their city to a previous save point or trash the whole thing.

In other words, SimCity is currently in the midst of a disaster that makes zombie attacks and nuclear meltdowns seem tame. Electronic Arts’ attempts to fix the problem have not only been unsuccessful, they’ve been making the SimCity blackout even worse, at least from a public relations standpoint: EA said Thursday that it would actually begin removing features from the game in an attempt to get it to run. At first it was non-core features like achievements and high score leaderboards. By the end of the day EA had ripped out the “Cheetah” gameplay mode, which speeds up the passage of time so you can develop your city more quickly.
Okay, forcing people to be constantly connected to a server in order to play a single-player game is stupid enough. But not providing enough servers to meet demand, and then cutting features from the game in order to get it to work correctly... Words fail to describe this level of incompetence and outright contempt for paying customers. Little wonder that Consumerist voted Electronic Arts the Worst Company in America last year.

Chris Kluwe, who reviews games when he's not kicking punts for the Minnesota Vikings, is livid:
But that’s not all! I’m not the only one pissed off about EA’s stupidity - countless review and news sites are also weighing in, and the reports aren’t good. In fact, Amazon has stopped selling digital copies of the game because so many people are complaining about how horrid the connection issues are. So it’s not just the people following me on Twitter that are hearing about how craptastic this is, it’s people all over the gaming community (if you were curious, EA, that’s your customer base). Even more fun, EA has decided that it won’t honor refunds for digital sales if you bought it through their Origin service, so a lot of people who are understandably upset about their $60+ purchase have no means of recourse.

This is terrible.

Why is this terrible? Not just because of EA’s total [redacted] when it comes to refunds, not just because of the destruction of Maxis’ image as a developer, but because this was completely avoidable and SimCity 5 is actually a really fun game (when it works). If I was able to play SimCity 5 offline, I would be wholeheartedly recommending it to everyone, even those who aren’t normally into the genre. For the PC Gamer region, I created a lovely little town called Herpes (the servers rejected Poopytown), and it quickly turned into a bustling metropolis of 160,000 people happily going about their daily business, and I HAD FUN.

For the six hours I got to play.

However, after countless failed login attempts, and a queue that constantly refreshed itself but never actually let me in the game (protip: If you have a queue, make sure it actually queues to something), and rubber band lag that almost gave me motion sickness at times, I had to bid a sad farewell to the lovely people of Herpes because I just couldn’t take the frustration anymore. This was no longer a game. It was an aggravation. And I don’t play aggravations.
Neither do I, which is why I'm thankful that reviewers such as Kluwe have saved me from such aggravation. As disappointed as I am to learn about SimCity 5's flaws, I can only imagine how much more upset I would have been had I actually purchased the game and encountered these problems while trying to play.

Needless to say, I'm going to hold off purchasing SimCity 5 for the time being. I do want to play the game eventually, but Electronic Arts needs to do right by its customers by either fixing the game's problems or (better yet) releasing a version of the game that doesn't require a constant connection to a server before they will get any money from me.

A couple of thoughts about springing forward

First: it's "Daylight Saving Time," not "Daylight Savings Time." Singular, not plural. I'd make fun of people for saying it wrong but I used to be one of them.

Second: Yes, the time change is annoying and disruptive. Which brings up the same debate we have every time we change the clocks: should we keep Daylight Saving Time, or should we do away with it?

Speaking personally, I like having the extended daylight in the summer evenings; given Houston's climate it's just about the only time during the summer when it's comfortable enough to do anything outside. Which is why, if we had to do away with the time change, I'd prefer staying on DST all year round.

Of course, the argument against doing that is that kids would have to walk to school, and people would have to drive to work, in complete darkness during the winter months. I'm not sure how that's worse than driving home from work in the dark, which I am forced to do during the winter months, but in any case we've already tried year-round DST - in 1974 as a response to the energy crisis caused by the Arab Oil Embargo - and abandoned it after only one year.

With all that said, I don't think Daylight Saving Time is going away anytime soon. There are just too many business interests - retail, leisure and tourism among them - that benefit from people staying out later during the summer months and will lobby to keep it that way.

Which is why, for all the grousing and complaining we do about having to change the clocks twice a year, we're probably going to keep on doing it.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

University of Houston 2013 football schedule released

We don't even know the name of the conference they'll be playing in, but as of today we do know who and when the Cougars will be playing this fall. Notice that I didn't say "where" - with the exception of the Southern and Rice games, which will be played at Reliant, it has not been confirmed where the Coogs will play their home games this fall.

Kickoff times have yet to be announced. Also keep in mind that these dates are subject to change as TV networks dictate.
Fri Aug 30:  Southern, Reliant Stadium
Sat Sep 07:  at Temple, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia PA
Sat Sep 14:  off
Sat Sep 21:  Rice, Reliant Stadium
Sat Sep 28:  at Texas - San Antonio, Alamodome, San Antonio TX
Sat Oct 05:  off
Sat Oct 12:  Memphis, venue TBD
Sat Oct 19:  BYU, venue TBD
Sat Oct 26:  at Rutgers, High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway NJ
Thu Oct 31:  South Florida, venue TBD
Sat Nov 09:  at Central Florida, Bright House Networks Stadium, Orlando FL
Sat Nov 16:  at Louisville, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Louisville KY
Sat Nov 23:  Cincinnati, venue TBD
Fri Nov 29:  SMU, venue TBD
It's really a rather unique schedule, but I can't say it's particularly favorable due to the travel involved and the caliber of teams the Cougars face. This is especially true since the Coogs managed a disappointing 5-7 record against one of the easiest schedules in program history last fall. Hopefully offseason changes, such as the hiring of new offense and defensive coordinators, as well as an infusion of talent from a decent recruiting class that included some junior college transfers that can play right away, will help. But some of these games - Rutgers, Louisville and Central Florida on the road, BYU at home - are going to be real tough. I even have some trepidation about that game against UTSA in San Antonio; the Roadrunners are going to be amped up for that one.

On the bright side, in addition to seven games somewhere in Houston, there are some fun roadies: San Antonio, Philly, the NY/NJ area and Orlando. I'll definitely make the San Antonio trip and will try to make the Rutgers trip.

The Thursday Halloween night game against USF and the Friday-after-Thanksgiving game against SMU will both be broadcast by ESPN, which is cool as long as the fans show up so we don't have to deal with the embarrassment of small crowds on national television.

Right now, I think the Cougars can win anywhere from three to eight games with this schedule. A lot, of course, is going to depend on what happens on the practice field, the weight room and the film room over the next six months. I'll be back with a more detailed preview in August.

Rich people problems

A wealthy Saudi prince is angry because he doesn't think Forbes ranked him high enough in their annual list of world's richest people:
(Prince) Alwaleed (Bin Talal), Alwaleed, angry that Forbes values him at a paltry $20 billion, has formally severed all connections to Forbes' annual list of "World's Billionaires," now in its 27th year.
 Alwaweed, a Saudi billionaire and chairman of investment services company Kingdom Holding, didn't even crack the top 20 on Forbes' list. He's listed as the 26th richest person, sandwiched between David Thomson, chairman of Canadian media company Thomson Reuters (TRI), and activist investor Carl Icahn of New York.

Alwaleed, whose investments include Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), News Corp. (NWSA, Fortune 500) and Twitter, said he prefers Bloomberg Billionaires, a list started last year, which values him at $28 billion and ranks him as the world's 16th richest person.
Kingdom Holdings issued a press release slamming the Forbes list as "false and inaccurate" for refusing to include the stock valuation of the multi-faceted Riyadh-based conglomerate, which is publicly traded on Saudi Arabia's stock exchange, the Tadawul. KHC, as the company is known, accused Forbes of being "biased against the Middle East" for refusing to take the Tadawul more seriously. 
Um... seriously?

Forget the world's richest 1%; Alaweed is a member of the world's richest 0.000001%. His net worth - even if it is a mere $20 billion - is greater than the GDP of entire nations (quite a few of them, in fact, if these lists at Wikipedia are to be believed). His investments make more money in a single day than a vast swath of the world's population will make in a lifetime.

And he's complaining about his place on a list.

Forbes writer Kerry A. Dolan has defended their ranking of Alaweed, detailing their skepticism of the valuation of Kingdom Holdings stock and describing Alaweed as a man pathologically obsessed with his ranking among the world's richest people:
The prince first came on FORBES’ wealth-hunting radar in 1988, a year after our first Billionaires issue came out. The source: the prince himself, who contacted a FORBES reporter to let him know just how successful his Kingdom Establishment for Trading & Contracting company was–and to make clear that he belonged on the new list.

That outreach proved to be the first in what is now a quarter-century of intermittent lobbying, cajoling and threatening when it comes to his net worth listing. Of the 1,426 billionaires on our list, not one–not even the vainglorious Donald Trump–goes to greater measure to try to affect his or her ranking. In 2006 when FORBES estimated that the prince was actually worth $7 billion less than he said he was, he called me at home the day after the list was released, sounding nearly in tears. “What do you want?” he pleaded, offering up his private banker in Switzerland. “Tell me what you need.”
Yeah, when you're being unflatteringly compared to Donald Trump, that's not a good thing.

Alaweed is no stranger to controversy. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his $10 million relief donation to New York City was rejected by mayor Rudy Giuliani because he suggested in a statement that United States policies towards the Palestinians were partly to blame for the attack.  In 2010, some Fox News personalities suggested that he might be funding Islamic extremists, apparently unaware of the fact that Alaweed is a part owner of their network. He has also been accused of drugging and raping a model in his yacht off the Spanish coast.

But this tiff with Forbes is less controversy and more buffoonery, albeit on a megalomaniac scale.

Monday, March 04, 2013

William Stern 1947 - 2013

In addition to being an outstanding local architect, Bill Stern was one of my favorite teachers at the University of Houston College of Architecture. He even wrote letters of recommendation for me when I was applying to graduate school. So I was rather saddened to learn about his passing late last week:
William F. Stern, FAIA, an architect who spent much of his life thinking about places, died Friday, in precisely the place that he wanted: in the house that he designed for himself; surrounded by a carefully curated collection of art and friends; and in Houston, the city that exhilarated and exasperated him. He was 66.

On Thursday, the American Institute of Architects-Houston voted unanimously to give Stern its Lifetime Achievement award.

"Everyone had assumed that Bill Stern would be named sometime in the future," said executive director Rusty Bienvenue. "But we assumed that it would be many, many years in the future."
Until January, when Stern was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he was a force to be reckoned with in Houston's architecture and art worlds: a member of the Menil Collection's board of trustees; a "Master Mod" in Houston Mod; frequently vocal about the preservation of endangered historic buildings; a frequent advisor to the AIA-Houston; and previously involved with the Contemporary Arts Museum and the Rice Design Alliance.

In his architectural work, says architectural historian Stephen Fox, Stern "was known for rigor, clarity, consistency and economy." He was also known for doing battle in the name of aesthetic principles.
"A willingness to hold fast-that was a hallmark of both Bill's architecture and his civic work," said longtime friend Elizabeth Glassman, president and CEO of the Terra Foundation for American Art.
"He was so wonderful to argue with," said Bruce Webb, a friend and professor in the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, where Stern taught architectural history.
The above quotes almost make it sound like Stern was a combative ideologue, but that's not the kind of person he was. He did have strong opinions when it came to design and he wasn't afraid to share them, but he was also personable and pleasant. He was an excellent instructor - although I only took one course from him I think it was the most informative class I took as an architecture student - and he enjoyed being with his students such that at the end of the year he invited all of us to his house for dinner and drinks:
Completed in 1992, Bill Stern's own house, at 1202 Milford, marked a break from his past. The design was clearly contemporary. Stern designed the museum-like house around his art collection, including a Sol LeWitt piece painted directly on the front wall of the three-story living room. "That house," says David Bucek, Stern's partner in the firm, "is Bill."
The house, as well as the artwork within it, is very cool. I hope that it will be preserved.

I think the last time I saw Stern was one a flight to Europe eleven years ago. The ex and I were on our way to Germany and the Czech Republic to visit family. He was on his way to Istanbul to see the architecture. I always assumed I'd run into him again someday. Alas...
William Frederick Stern was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on January 15, 1947 and passed away in Houston, Texas, on March 1, 2013, after a brief illness.

Bill received a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, from Harvard College, and a Master of Architecture from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

After beginning his career in the New York office of Edward L. Barnes, Bill moved to Houston in 1976 and founded William F. Stern & Associates, Architects in 1979. In 1999 he and long-time associate, David Bucek formed Stern and Bucek Architects. Bill served on the Board of Trustees of The Menil Collection in Houston and the Collections Committee at the Harvard Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A dedicated teacher, advocate and leader, Bill was adjunct associate professor at the University of Houston for nearly three decades. He has served on the board of the Rice Design Alliance and was a founding editor of its publication, Cite, for which he received the Texas Society of Architects' John G. Flowers Award for Excellence in Architectural Journalism. In addition to many contributions to Cite, Texas Architect and other publications, he was an editor of Ephemeral City: Cite Looks at Houston, published by The University of Texas Press in 2003.

William Stern is survived by his mother, Mrs. Joseph S. Stern Jr.; his brother Peter J. Stern, M.D., both of Cincinnati; his sister Peggy S. Graeter of Potomac, MD.; six nieces and nephews, and one great niece.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the William F. Stern Fund, The Menil Collection, 1515 Branard, Houston. Texas 77019. Memorial plans are pending.

Will the Persian Gulf become the world's air travel hub?

Welcome to the new "global travel crossroads" of the Persian Gulf:
It's 1 a.m. and the sprawling airport in this desert city is bustling. Enough languages fill the air to make a United Nations translator's head spin.

Thousands of fliers arrive every hour from China, Australia, India and nearly everywhere else on the planet. Few venture outside the terminal, which spans the length of 24 football fields. They come instead to catch connecting flights to somewhere else.

If it weren't for three ambitious and rapidly expanding government-owned airlines — Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — they might have never come to the Middle East.
For generations, international fliers have stopped over in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Now, they increasingly switch planes in Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, making this region the new crossroads of global travel. The switch is driven by both the airports and airlines, all backed by governments that see aviation as the way to make their countries bigger players in the global economy.

Passengers are won over by their fancy new planes and top-notch service. But the real key to the airlines' incredible growth is geography. Their hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are an eight-hour flight away from two-thirds of the world's population, including a growing middle class in India, China and Southeast Asia that is eager to travel.
I might add two more airlines to this list: flydubai, the low-cost carrier that operates out of Dubai's Terminal 2, and Air Arabia, another low-cost carrier which operates from the airport in neighboring Sharjah. While both of these airlines are regional in nature (flydubai's fleet is comprised entirely of Boeing 737 aircraft while Air Arabia uses only Airbus A320s, so neither airline offers long-haul flights), they are just two more examples of the tremendous aviation hub this corner of the Middle East has become. 

Like the article explains, it's all about geography. Not only is two-thirds of humanity within an eight-hour flight of these airports, but the region's warm, arid climate means that weather-related delays are exceedingly rare. These airlines have other advantages as well, and that doesn't always sit well with the international carriers with whom they are competing:
European airlines have suggested that the Gulf carriers benefit from access to discounted oil, a favorable tax climate and non-union labor, particularly low-wage immigrant workers from India and Pakistan.

But the biggest perk comes from Middle East governments who are investing heavily in attractive, efficient airports.

The Qatari government is building a $15.5 billion airport in Doha, designed to handle 24 million people each year, nearly six times the capacity of the existing facility. In Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the government is building a sprawling terminal twice the size of The Mall of America.

And construction was just completed in Dubai of a concourse designed exclusively for Emirates' fleet of Airbus A380s. The new building has entire floors dedicated to first and business class customers who board directly from lounges, never interacting with coach passengers.
There are also grumblings that these carriers might be directly subsidized by the oil-rich governments that own them. These airlines deny those charges, not that there's anything their American, European or East Asian competitors could do about it even if they were.

Regardless, these airlines are poised to upset the "old order" the international aviation realm. European carriers stand to lose the most as Emirates, Qatar and Etihad expand their services, but American carriers are nervous as well.
"I think they are a clear threat, much more so to our European and Asian colleagues, but nonetheless a threat to U.S. airlines as well," Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc., said at an investor conference last March. "They have a very good product. And they have the total and absolute support of their governments."
Meanwhile, Smisek's own product - United Airlines - is anything but "very good." So he has reason to be concerned.

However, as many advantages that these airlines might have, it's still a bit too early to say that the future of international air travel belongs to Qatar and the UAE. For one thing, their geographical advantage still doesn't allow them to compete significantly in the lucrative trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific markets; while I guess it is theoretically possible for a traveler from Chicago to Paris or from San Francisco to Toyko to change planes in Dubai, I'm guessing not many people are going to do that. Geography, furthermore, is as much a liability as it is in asset: the Middle East is volatile. A significant event in the region - war, terrorism or unrest - could seriously impact all of these airlines. There's also the fact that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are expanding rapidly, putting in large jet orders and adding destinations at a dizzying pace. What happens if they grow too quickly and are forced to retrench? We've seen that happen all too often in the airline industry.

But what intrigues me the most about these airlines is how tightly they are clustered together. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are less than 100 miles apart, and Doha is closer to Abu Dhabi than Houston is to Dallas. Even Air Arabia's hub at Sharjah's airport is only about ten miles away from flydubai's hub at Dubai International. Will there be enough demand to comfortably support all of these closely-bunched airlines? What if Bahrain or Oman want to get in on the action and start expanding their own carriers? Will market conditions eventually force one or more of them out of business, leaving opulent airport terminals deserted and gleaming A380s and Dreamliners grounded, or will the sheikhs to whom these carriers ultimately belong pour money into money-losing carriers, to proud to let them fail?

For now, though, these Middle Eastern airports and airlines continue to grow and become more vital to the global aviation industry. Which is why, even though I've changed jobs and no longer travel to Dubai for business, I have a feeling that I'll be passing through there again one day.