Friday, August 30, 2013

Another UH football season is upon us

In a few hours, my beloved University of Houston Cougars will kick off against the Southern Jaguars, beginning the 2013 season. I was supposed to have written my season preview by now, but I never got around to it. Partly because I've been busy, and partly because I really don't know what to expect from the team this fall.

I'm hoping for a good year, but coming off last season's 5-7 disappointment, I can't say I'm particularly optimistic. David Piland, who had his share of struggles at quarterback last year, will start today's game. The offense's best weapon - running back Charles Sims - transferred to West Virginia over the offseason. The defense, which was 118th in the nation yards allowed last year, loses its two best players from last year ( Philip Steward and D.J. Hayden). The team is young; there are just eight seniors on the latest two-deep depth chart's 44 positions. This year's schedule is tougher - the Cougars have moved to the American Athletic Conference, a hybrid of former Big East and Conference USA schools, and (for one year, at least) are among the "haves" of the BCS world - making today's matchup the only "gimme" game of the slate. The Cougars will not have a true "home" this season; construction on the new UH football stadium is well underway, and the Coogs will be playing most of their 2013 games within the cavernous confines of Reliant Stadium.

If there's any reason for hope in 2013, it comes in the form of new coordinators: Doug Meacham on offense, who spent the last eight seasons at Oklahoma State and is familiar with the type of offense Houston runs, and David Gibbs on defense, who has both college and pro experience. Hopefully the experience these two bring to the coaches' table, as well as the fact that head coach Tony Levine himself now has a year of experience under his belt, will translate into a better-prepared team in 2013.

Aside from that, there's really not much reason to expect anything other than another mediocre season in 2013, and some of the preseason computer models bear that out. Jeff Sagarin's preseason ratings have the Coogs ranked 64th with a rating of 70.00. This would imply a predicted record of 7-5 when opponents' rankings and home field advantage are factored in. Preseason predictions generated by both Massey and Congrove, on the other hand, have the Cougars managing only 5 wins this year.

I generally agree with those predictions; I think a five,-, six- or seven-win season is most likely. If the Cougars can manage anything more than five wins, they will likely qualify for a lower-tier bowl appearance and that will give the team some needed encouragement heading into 2014. Another losing season, on the other hand, could result in the end of the Tony Levine era at Houston. I see the season breaking down like this:

Probable wins: Southern, at UTSA, Memphis, South Florida

Probable losses:  BYU, at Rutgers, at Central Florida, at Louisville, Cincinnati

Toss-ups: at Temple, Rice, SMU

The scariest game, for me at least, is against UTSA in the Alamodome. The Roadrunners, who are now members of Conference USA, will be fired up and looking to make a statement against the Cougars. The only reason I have Temple as a toss-up, rather than a probable win, is because it involves a 1,500-mile road trip on the second weekend of the season.

Here's hoping for the best this fall. I'm going to go take a shower, clean out the cooler, head to the HEB at the corner of Buffalo Speedway and Bissonnet to stock up, and then head out to Reliant to set up my tailgate. Go Coogs!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Miley? Meh.

I didn't watch the Video Music Awards on MTV last Sunday; it's just not my thing. So I wouldn't have known anything at all about Miley Cyrus and her "coming of age performance" if my Facebook feed hadn't blown up with comments about it all Sunday night and Monday morning.

So, thinking that she must have done something truly groundbreaking, I finally watched her performance on YouTube to see what all the furor was about.

And I saw her nude-hued bikini, her foam finger-dildo, her ass grinding against Robin Thicke's crotch, her off-key rendition of "Blurred Lines," her tongue dangling from her mouth... And when it was over, all I could think was, "is that all?"


It wasn't scandalous. It wasn't sexy. It was clumsy and contrived and unoriginal. You remember the quiet, introverted girl in high school who one day showed up in trashy clothes and trampy make-up in an attempt to shock people into noticing her? And everybody thought, "poor girl, she's trying too hard?" That was Miley on Sunday night.

So I'm left with a difficult time understanding what, exactly, all the controversy is about: why I should be outraged, or why ought I "pray for Miley," as one of my horrified Facebook friends exhorted all of us to do. The VMAs generally have a history of raunchy, exhibitionist performances, dating all the way back to Madonna and her wedding gown in 1984. The "chaste Disney child star gets on stage and expresses her post-adolescent sexuality" thing was already done by Britney Spears, thirteen years ago. There's nothing new or unique here; the only thing Miley's performance will be known for, years from now, is how awkward and shopworn it was. Her antics really don't deserve the attention they've received.

That being said, I now realize that I just wrote an entire blog post about Miley Cyrus. So maybe she, along with her agents and her publicists, knew exactly what she was doing on Sunday night.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The American - US Airways merger encounters turbulence

The planned merger between American Airlines and US Airways (I wrote about it a few months ago) seemed to be just another routine step in the consolidation of the nation's commercial aviation industry. But then, a couple of weeks ago, the Justice Department stepped in:
Until this week, when the Justice Department filed suit to block the proposed merger of the airlines’ parent companies, it had been notably lax on airline mergers. What the antitrust division deemed acceptable — even beneficial — for Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines (in 2008), and Continental and United Airlines (2010), and Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways (2011) now “threatens substantial harm to consumers,” the complaint says.
It does seem curious why the Justice Department, which has given its blessing to previous mergers that have substantially reduced the number of large domestic carriers, might draw the line with this one. Apparently, they think that American - US Airways is just one too many consolidations for the nation's travelers to bear:
Mr. Baer of the Justice Department told me this week: “We consider every merger one at a time. Here, we had a proposed merger that would reduce the legacy carriers from four to three. That’s not the same as six to five, or five to four. That logic would get you from two to one pretty quickly.” 

And while he said he couldn’t comment on the earlier airline mergers, since he has been the antitrust chief for just seven months, “if you look at the net effects, what we’ve seen is a reduction in capacity and higher prices, and not the benefits that were promised.”

Whatever the recent precedents, the proposed American-US Airways merger violates the Justice Department’s merger guidelines, which the Obama administration finally seems to be taking seriously. The merger would substantially reduce competition because “there are too many routes that would create a monopoly or oligopoly,” Professor Hovenkamp said.

According to the Justice Department, the American-US Airways merger would substantially reduce competition in over 1,000 city pairs served by the two airlines. Among the more egregious examples it cited are Charlotte, N.C.-Dallas; Charlotte-Durango, Colo.; Dallas-Philadelphia; and Kahului, Hawaii-Tampa, Fla. It said the merger would create four out-and-out monopolies, albeit on secondary routes, including three that serve St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. And it said the merger would reduce competition on more than 1,000 routes. 

It’s pretty clear what happens when concentration increases substantially on a route between two cities. After Continental and United merged, the combined airline accounted for 79 percent of the service between O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. During a three-month period after the merger, fares on that route were 57 percent higher than they were three years earlier, according to the aviation industry Web site United’s fares overall increased 16 percent in the same period.
The Continental-United merger's affect on fares between IAH and ORD became apparent to me when I was pondering a trip to Chicago last October. 
“Over and over, the airlines have merged, concentration has increased, and prices have gone up,” said Christopher L. Sager, an antitrust professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, who warned about the effects of the American-US Air merger in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in March “This is what economic theory would predict and it is, in fact, exactly what the carriers have done. They have no incentive to use higher profit margins to lower prices for consumers.” 
I think a substantial number of flyers would argue that customer service has suffered, as well. After all, why make the extra effort to be nice to your customers if you know they don't have a choice?
Far from benefiting consumers, the department now states flatly, “increasing consolidation among large airlines has hurt passengers” because of higher fares, new fees and add-on costs, reduced service and fewer amenities. The complaint notes disapprovingly that the merged United and Continental “reduced capacity at nearly all its major hubs” and “at many other airports where the two airlines previously competed.” 
But wait, I thought the reason United had to reduce capacity at its Bush Intercontinental hub was due to the horribly detrimental effect that Southwest's plan to fly internationally out of Hobby would create! United wouldn't have lied to us about its real reason for reducing capacity at IAH, would they?

Speaking of Southwest, it appears that the once-vaunted "Southwest Effect" no longer has the same cachet it once possessed:
Southwest, known for its discount pricing and regarded as a savior two years ago, no longer seems as significant a competitive threat to higher pricing. “Competition from Southwest, JetBlue or other airlines would not be sufficient,” the complaint asserts, suggesting that the antitrust division no longer views Southwest as a feisty upstart.

“When Southwest entered a market, it was able to constrain price increases, even in concentrated markets,” Professor Sager said. “The Justice Department took this seriously. But now empirical evidence is suggesting that Southwest has become such a large entity that it’s no longer a reliable constraint.”
The bottom line is this: if this merger were to happen, the four biggest U.S. airlines — the combined American/US Airways, United, Delta and Southwest — would control more than 80 percent of the U.S. commercial air travel market (add in JetBlue and Alaska and you'll get to about 90 percent). These four largest carriers, furthermore, were reduced from nine carriers less than a decade ago (as the figure to the right indicates) It's the very definition of oligopoly, and it's just too much consolidation for the Obama Administration to feel comfortable with. It's also a signal that the benefits to air travelers that began in 1978 when the industry was deregulated have largely run their course. Even when dignity-robbing, bare-bones cattle carriers like Spirit or Allegiant are taken into consideration, there is simply no longer enough competition in the industry to continue to exert a downward pressure on airfares. (A useful compilation of commercial aviation statistics, including average domestic airfare over time, is here.)

Don't expect this fight to end anytime soon, however. American and US Airways are determined to become a single carrier, and battle lines are being drawn. This could play out in the courts for months, if not years. Matthew Yglesias, meanwhile, thinks that competition for domestic air travels could be revived by allowing foreign carriers to fly domestic routes: an interesting idea, but not within the realm of political feasibility.

Houston, high-rises and NIMBYs

A 17-story office highrise is being planned for a piece of land on the edge of River Oaks, and residents of the wealthy neighborhood are not happy:
Many worry about traffic issues, especially with River Oaks Elementary located a few blocks down the street, and think a high-rise building will make traffic worse.

“The streets around here are tolerable as-is,” Ed Heller said.

Heller opposes the development and has formed the Stop San Felipe Skyscraper group to organize opposition and provide information for residents.
Residents of an affluent, inside-the-loop neighborhood upset about a high-rise being constructed in their midst and creating an organization to oppose it? Where have I heard that story before? Oh, yeah.
Heller said most residents are “not opposed to progress… or to development in Houston,” but rather the location of this particular project.
This, by the way, is the textbook definition of NIMBY: "you can build it anywhere in the city, just as long as it's Not In My Back Yard." In a non-zoned, developer-friendly city like Houston, however, the cries of the NIMBYs don't carry as much weight as they might in other cities.
Ryan Bernard, who lives near the site of the proposed office building, said the group is hoping to postpone the project long enough for the city and developer to see how unacceptable the project is to nearby residents.
Yeah. The folks opposed to the Ashby High Rise on Bissonnet tried that, too. How'd that work out for them? Once again: oh, yeah.
More than 100 people attended a July 22 meeting hosted by Houston city council member Oliver Pennington, who said he received several calls from residents about the project.

“Some see a 17-story building as not compatible” to the neighborhood, Pennington said. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t like the idea of having a high-rise there, but there’s no (legal) basis for complaining.”

Without zoning or deed restrictions, there’s not much residents can do to combat unwanted development in their neighborhoods.
This is the reason why the San Felipe high rise is going to be built. There's nothing the residents of the neighborhood can do to legally stop it. But it's also another reason why I think the issue of zoning is going to be revisited by the citizens of Houston sometime in the future. A few years ago, when I wrote about why Houston has done well to avoid standard use-based zoning, I predicted this:
What I am convinced of is this: as Houston's urban core continues to densify, conflicts like the one surrounding the Ashby High Rise that are still relatively rare today are without a doubt going to become more and more common in the future. My fear is that some point, more and more citizens are going to become affected by these controversies and are going to become disillusioned with the City's current approach to land development regulations such that they are going to demand a mechanism to deal with these disputes, including traditional use-based zoning (and in that regard it's worth noting that Houston's last attempt at zoning in 1993 barely failed in a referendum).
Now, as the city experiences as surge of inside-the-loop development, we are indeed seeing more and more of these conflicts between developers and residents: not just Ashby High Rise or the San Felipe tower, but also developments near the Heights or in the Museum District. I still think it's only a matter of time before frustrated residents of these affluent neighborhoods, realizing just how little power they have over development that occurs in and around their homes, begin demanding that the city implement some form of zoning code. If and when that happens, I can only hope that the city's citizens, developers, administrators and elected officials agree on something that isn't the antiquated, bureaucratic mess that traditional use-based zoning entails.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Houston is a very segregated city

Two quick thoughts about this interactive Racial Dot Map of the 2010 Census that was created by the University of Virginia:

1. It's pretty damn impressive. There are over 308 million dots on this map, representing each person who answered the 2010 Census. Emily Badger of The Atlantic Cities calls this map "strangely beautiful" and notes that it is "staggering both visually and statistically." She's right. The one-dot-per-person map shows settlement patterns, density and race distribution in stunning clarity:
2. Houston is not quite the "melting pot" we like to think ourselves to be. Sure, Houston is ethnically diverse, with no one race comprising a majority of the city's population, and considerable diversity in communities outside of the city's limits. But zoom in, and you'll see a great deal of segregation within the metropolitan area: whites are blue, African-Americans are green, Hispanics are orange and Asians are red. At this scale, the city seems broken up into a "pinwheel" of sectors, each with its own dominant ethnicity. There are some areas of town that are fairly well-integrated, for example the wedge on the west side of town between the Westpark Tollway and US 59, but by and large the Houston region is comprised of a series of racially-segregated neighborhoods.

To be sure, most of urban America is like this; as Badger notes, "many of those metro areas look purple from a distance until [...] you zoom in closer and colors break apart. The city is diverse from a distance, but quite segregated at the neighborhood and even block level."

In other words, even in supposedly "post-racial" 2010, we generally tended to live in places were people who look like us live.

Anyway, click on the link at the top of this post and play with the map yourself. It's quite fascinating.

I'm back. But for how long?

The first games of the 2013 college football season start one week from tonight. Hence, it's time for my summertime blogging hiatus to come to an end.

With that said: I have to admit that I enjoyed not having to worry about coming up with material for this blog over the past couple of months, and I think it's likely that I will be significantly, and permanently, reducing my posting activity here at Mean Green Cougar Red in the not-too-distant future.

There are two reasons for this.

First, not a lot of people read this blog. As my traffic statistics show, I have only a handful of regular readers, and this includes Facebook friends who visit when I share links to my posts. Very few of my posts generate more than a couple of dozen hits, and the overwhelming majority of visitors to this blog come from Google searches. Occasionally I'll get a flurry of hits, for example when I write about a timely topic on which a lot of people are doing Google searches, or when somebody like Kuff graciously links to one of my posts. Most of the time, however, the amount of traffic this blog receives is barely a trickle. Why should I expend time and energy writing things that are hardly going to be read?

Second, blogging is no longer as enjoyable to me as it used to be. When I first started MGCR, I was very excited about having my own little corner of the interwebs where I could write about anything I wanted. Over time, however, that enthusiasm has waned. Some topics that used to interest me have now come to bore me, and I seem to be less inspired to come up with new material. I feel as if this blog has steadily become more of a chore and less of a hobby for me. Why should I expend time and energy doing something that I don't enjoy?

This isn't to say that I don't ever find blogging to be rewarding, cathartic or therapeutic. I oftentimes do, and for that reason, I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I stop blogging entirely and shut this site down. It's just that my posts will probably become fewer and further between; I'm not going to worry about the number of posts I can generate in a given year, like I've done in the past, or the number of hits I get. I'm going to write because I enjoy it, not because I feel obligated to keep this blog "current." The quantity of my posts will go down, but perhaps the quality of them will increase.

I'll make an announcement when this blog enters that phase. But it probably won't occur until football season ends.