Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Houston 75, #17 Connecticut 71

And 2013 ends with a minor miracle.

To be sure: I am not a James Dickey fan and I do not like where Cougar basketball is right now. But I nevertheless have to give credit where credit is due, and hope that this is a good omen for UH athletics heading in to 2014.

The year that went by very quickly

They say that as you get older, the years go by faster. Nevertheless, I'm really surprised at how quickly 2013 seems to have passed. It really feels hard to believe that a week from Thursday will mark my one-year anniversary at my "new" job!

2013 was not a particularly eventful year for me, and perhaps that's why it seems to have flown by as quickly as it did. The new job - adjusting and settling in - was in and of itself the big story of the year. I really didn't experience any life-changing events in 2013 (although I will miss Genghis), and the fact that I had to accrue vacation time from scratch at my new job limited the amount of traveling I did. Other than day trips to place like Galveston or San Antonio, the only true "vacation" I took was in early August, when Kirby and I made our annual trip to Denver to see my brother and his girlfriend. We had a good time - we rode the Royal Gorge Railroad and visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks - but it was a relatively short trip and I could really use an extended, true vacation in 2014.

2014 may turn out to be a more eventful year for me, for a variety of reasons. We shall see. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Fourteen losses and counting

The longest losing streak in Houston pro football history stands at 18, courtesy of the 1972 and 1973 Houston Oilers.

The Houston Texans, who yesterday ended their disaster of a 2013 season with their fourteenth consecutive loss, may very well tie or even break that record next season.

Sure, they'll have a new coach. And the top pick in the draft, who may or may not also be the team's new quarterback (I still think Case Keenum is serviceable, given some off-season preparation and a better offensive line, but I admit to being biased). And, hopefully, healthy key players back like Arian Foster and Brian Cushing.

But as this fall's meltdown showed, this team has serious problems - everywhere - that do not lend themselves to quick fixes. It's going to take time for a new coach to come in, clean house, implement his philosophy and install his personnel. And the results are likely to be painful at first.

Which is is why I expect the losing streak to continue when the 2014 season kicks off.

But I'll worry about that when it comes. For now, I'm just glad the 2013 season is over.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

From a (rather reluctant) Black Cat and myself!

(And after the holidays are over, I'm going back on that diet. Ugh!)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Plant that milkweed, folks!

It's in short supply, and it's having an adverse impact on the monarch butterfly population:
Nationwide, organizations are working to increase the monarchs’ flagging numbers. At the University of Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called Monarch Joint Venture is funding research and conservation efforts. At the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch has enlisted supporters to create nearly 7,450 so-called way stations, milkweed-rich backyards and other feeding and breeding spots along migration routes on the East and West Coasts and the Midwest. 

But it remains an uphill struggle. The number of monarchs that completed the largest and most arduous migration this fall, from the northern United States and Canada to a mountainside forest in Mexico, dropped precipitously, apparently to the lowest level yet recorded. In 2010 at the University of Northern Iowa, a summertime count in some 100 acres of prairie grasses and flowers turned up 176 monarchs; this year, there were 11.

The decline has no single cause. Drought and bad weather have decimated the monarch during some recent migrations. Illegal logging of its winter home in Mexico has been a constant threat. Some studies conclude that pesticides and fungicides contribute not just to the monarchs’ woes, but to population declines among bees, other butterflies and pollinators in general.

But the greatest threat to the butterfly, most experts agree, is its dwindling habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, the vast expanse over which monarchs fly, breed new generations and die during migrations every spring and autumn. Simply put, they say, the flyway’s milkweed may no longer be abundant enough to support the clouds of monarchs of years past.
Demand for crops such as soybeans and corn is such that more and more open grassland where plants like milkweed flourish is being plowed under and put into agricultural service. These crops, which are genetically-modified to be resistant to herbicides, are then sprayed with weed-killers that prevent milkweed from growing back, even in unplanted areas such as along roads or ditches. The result is that the Midwest, which is a critical monarch hatching ground, is increasingly devoid of the only plant monarch larvae can eat.

The monarch has been under increasing pressure for awhile now - I wrote about a drop in their population back in March of 2010 - but it's gotten to the point that the monarch is now listed as a "near threatened" species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Efforts to replenish milkweed sources are underway, as the article notes, and even some major corporations are participating. But the big problem the monarchs face right now is awareness; or, more specifically, the lack of it in regards to the threat they face.
Dr. Taylor, of Monarch Watch, said he was convinced that the annual migration to Mexico can be revived; butterfly populations, he said, can fluctuate wildly from year to year as weather and habitat change. The insect’s troubles probably were as deep, or deeper, during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, he said. But so far, he said, monarch backers are mostly preaching to the choir, “and the choir’s of limited size.” 

Northern Iowa’s Dr. Jackson said it would take a much larger — and speedier — effort to undo the impact of thousands of square miles of habitat loss. 

“Monarchs are just like other iconic species,” she said. “Once people stop being accustomed to seeing them, they stop caring and they forget. Support drops like a ratchet.” 

Cool British Airways billboard

This billboard is in Piccadilly Circus in London. That's the actual flight number and origin city of the aircraft.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Houston Cougar Football Attendance

As we wait for bowl season to begin - I'm still determining the logistical feasibility of traveling to Birmingham to see the Cougars play Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass bowl on January 4th - I've updated my Houston Cougar football attendance graph.

The cougars averaged 24,256 fans per game in 2013. This is tickets sold, of course; it was pretty clear that the number of actual "butts in seats" was lower. This is a decline of 3,029 fans/game from a year ago and 7,475 fans/game from two years ago.

The decline in attendance, while disappointing, is not unexpected. The Cougars were coming off a losing 2012 season and played home games in two separate venues (Reliant Stadium and BBVA Compass Stadium) due to construction of the their new home stadium. Additionally, other than BYU there really wasn't a "marquee" team on the home schedule to attract casual fans.

I expect attendance to increase in 2014. The Cougars will be playing in their brand-new on-campus stadium, which will attract fans if for no other reason than novelty, and this years 8-4 record might being some folks back that were frustrated with 2012's disappointment.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Houston 34, SMU 0

The Cougars broke their three-game losing streak in convincing fashion at Reliant Stadium last Friday, shutting out the SMU Mustangs and avenging last year's embarrassing blowout.

The Good: for the Coogs, the story of the season is the defense. Three interceptions. Two fumbles. Five sacks. Only 83 rushing yards allowed. And Houston's first shutout of a conference opponent since 1989.

To be fair, things might have been different if SMU's experienced, dual-threat quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, had not been sidelined with a leg injury. But he was unable to play, and his backup, redshirt freshman Neal Burcham, was generally ineffective.

The Cougar offense, meanwhile, regained some semblance of a rhythm after struggling mightily over the past month. With 365 total yards, two touchdowns by air and two more by ground, they scored as many points on Friday as they did in their two previous games combined.

The Bad: although the offense did perform better against SMU than it had against the three previous opponents it faced, it still sputtered at time. Quarterback John O'Korn completed less than 60% of his passes and threw two interceptions, and the running game really didn't get established until late in the game when the outcome was no longer in doubt. The Cougars are going to need to take a close look at their offensive line over the offseason. And, while not as bad as last week, the offensive playcalling was at times truly bizarre.

What it means: The Cougars end the 2013 regular season with an 8-4 record. This three-win improvement over last season exceeded my preseason expectations; considering that they lost their four games by a total of 20 points, with a few breaks here or there it could have been even better! Considering how young this team is - only a handful of seniors are being lost - there's no reason to believe that next year could be even better, provided O'Korn and his counterpart Greg Ward continue to mature, problems with the o-line are remedied, and the defense retains its newfound aggressiveness.

There's one game left to play. By this time next week the Cougars will know which bowl they're going to.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Houston 17, Cincinnati 24

Another defensive struggle, another loss.

The Good: not much. The defense returned a fumble for a touchdown and made two interceptions. For the second game in a row, the Coogs only committed three penalties the entire game. And Cincinnati's field goal kicker kept Houston in the game by missing three attempts.

The Bad: everything else. In spite of the three turnovers, Cincinnati still racked up 401 yards through the air and 172 yards on the ground. The Cougar offense was utterly ineffective. Quarterback John O'Korn had a poor day, completing only 13 of 30 passes for 171 yards and a single touchdown. Of course, he got no help from receivers who dropped catchable passes, an offensive line that could not protect him, a non-existent running game, and predictable and oftentimes bizarre playcalling that led to multiple three-and-outs. Greg Ward also played quarterback but was just as ineffective.

The Ugly: the field at BBVA Compass Stadium. It was in horrible condition. I know the weather (cold and rainy) had an effect, but I was nevertheless shocked.

What it Means: I haven't seen this kind of offensive ineptitude since Kim Helton was coaching the Cougars. They've scored only 4 offensive touchdowns in the last three games and look completely out of rhythm. I know they've played some tough defenses over the past few weeks, but it really seems like offensive coordinator Doug Meacham and his squad have regressed.

This needs to be fixed against SMU Friday at Reliant Stadium. While the Cougars are bowl eligible, I certainly don't want the regular season to end on a four-game losing streak. Besides, we owe the Ponies for last year's debacle.

Hello winter

Apparently, parts of the Houston area are supposed to get the first freeze of the season tonight. It might not get to the 32 degree mark here in Bellaire, but it's going to be chilly tonight, nevertheless.

Yes, it's cold out there. But here's the nice thing about Houston and its mild winter: freezes such as these don't last very long. A front comes through, temperatures drop down into the lower 30s and upper 20s for a couple of days, and then things warm up, giving us pleasant weather for awhile. This does not happen in the summer: the brutal heat and humidity sets in and drones on for months with no respite. Nor does this happen during the winter in much of the United States: winter arrives, and months of bitter cold, ice and snow follow. That's just as oppressive as a Houston summer, if not worse (in terms of driving conditions, etc.).

So while the temperature outside might be colder than I like, I take heart in the fact that it's only temporary, that this weekend's weather is expected to be awesome, and that this pattern is going to stick around for a few months. Winter is one of the advantages of living in Houston.

So enjoy it, and don't complain about the cold too much. That miserable summer heat might be a distant memory right now, but it will be back before any of us are ready for it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Houston 13, Louisville 20

Another hard-fought defensive struggle against a ranked team on the road, and, unfortunately, another close loss.

The Good: the UH defense has become the story of the season. They held the Louisville Cardinals to their lowest point total of the season and kept Cardinal QB Teddy Bridgewater, whose name has appeared on some Heisman watch lists, from completing a touchdown pass for the first time in 21 games. Special teams also recovered a muffed punt by Louisville, which Houston turned into a field goal.

The Bad: unfortunately, the UH defense had little answer for Louisville running back Dominique Brown, who gained 137 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. Worse yet, the Cougar offense was utterly anemic, save the second quarter. Quarterback John O'Korn completed only 16 on 35 passes for 121 yards (he was not helped by receivers who dropped too many catchable balls), and the Cougar ground game could only manage a paltry 74 yards. The playcalling was generally poor, as well.

What it Means: not much, quite honestly. The Cougars were effectively eliminated from the conference title race after losing to Central Florida last week, so this week's loss carries little effect. However, the toughest portion of the Coogs' season is now over and they return to Houston to play their final two games of the season.

Next Saturday's game against Cincinnati has been moved from Rice Stadium to BBVA Compass Stadium.

Houston to Munich, nonstop

Getting to Bavaria just got a little easier:
United Airlines said Tuesday it will offer new daily nonstop flights between Houston and Munich and a second daily service to Tokyo next year.
The new Munich service will launch April 24 using a Boeing 767-400 with 242 seats.
United already runs year-round nonstop flights from its U.S. hubs to five cities in
Germany, including a nonstop service from Houston to Frankfurt. The new Tokyo service will start March 30 using a Boeing 777-200 with 267 seats. United's existing Tokyo service began in 1999.
My first thought: if United is once again adding service from Bush Intercontinental, does that mean that their temper tantrum is finally over?

My second thought: adding the Munich service is a no-brainer, because Munich is Lufthansa's second-busiest hub (behind Frankfurt) and Lufthansa is a United Star Alliance partner. The second daily nonstop to Tokyo is more of a surprise, but I guess it speaks to strong demand between United's hub here in Houston and All Nippon Airways' (again, a Star Alliance member) hub at Tokyo's Narita Airport.

The bottom line is that Houston is getting more international service, and that's always good thing. I'll drink to that the next time I'm at the Hofbrauhaus!

The KCS Southern Belle

I happened to be downtown Monday and noticed a unique train parked at the Amtrak Station on Washington:
This is the Kansas City Southern's special excursion train, the Southern Belle. It is powered by three EMD F9 locomotives, which were manufactured in the 1950s. The locomotives pull a series of vintage passenger cars.
I'm not really sure what the Southern Belle was doing in town; the train was unmanned and not under power when I took these pictures, and there was no signage or literature to indicate if the train was here for a special event.

In any case, I thought it was pretty cool. But then again, I'm a hopeless traingeek...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Houston 14, Central Florida 19

The Cougars were seven yards away from a tremendous upset last Saturday night in Orlando. Unfortunately, they couldn't pull it off.

The Good: the Cougar defense held the #19-ranked Golden Knights to their lowest point total of the season, in part by forcing three UCF turnovers and not allowing a touchdown pass. Special teams blocked a field goal attempt, giving the offense great field position for their touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Finally, while I'm not a big fan of moral victories, the fact that the Cougars were a deflected pass in the endzone from upsetting a ranked team on the road is rather remarkable, especially considering my expectations for this program heading into the season.

The Bad: Central Florida, likewise, held the Cougars to their lowest point total of the season, in part by playing stifling pass defense. Quarterback John O'Korn completed only about half of his pass attempts, was sacked three times, was intercepted once, and was forced to scramble on several occasions (although O'Korn did end up with 56 rushing yards and a touchdown for his efforts on the ground). Then there were the penalties: eight for 72 yards, including a targeting penalty that caused a UH defender to be ejected from the game. Most importantly, the Cougars had an excellent chance to win this one, with first and goal and only a minute or so remaining. They blew it.

What it Means: This loss essentially takes Houston out of the hunt for an American Athletic Conference title and BCS bowl appearance, and another tough road game against Louisville looms this weekend.

Clear skies ahead for American - US Airways merger

So much for the protracted legal battle I was anticipating.
American Airlines and US Airways reached a deal with the government that lets the two form the world's biggest airline and opens up more room at key U.S. airports for low-cost carriers.

The settlement announced Tuesday — if approved by a federal judge — would end a fight with the U.S. Justice Department and head off a courtroom showdown later this month.
The concessions that the government extracted from the two airlines appear to be rather modest - they gave up a few gates at a few larger airports, and agreed to continue service some smaller ones, among other things - but generally speaking, American and US Airways came away unscathed.
J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker said, "Why mince words? A win for the airlines" is how he viewed the settlement.

The two airlines and some industry experts said the Justice Department had a weak case, especially after allowing four big airline mergers in the past eight years with few conditions. American and US Airways, however, were not willing to bet the fate of their multi-billion-dollar merger on the decision of a single judge.
My thoughts on this merger are the same now as they were back in August - basically, I think the flying public is going to be the real loser in all this -  but this merger is simply the logical conclusion of a consolidation trend that has gripped the domestic airline industry over the past several years.

This settlement will be approved by a federal judge in the coming weeks, and the two airlines will begin the merger process before the year is over.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Slow drivers in the left lane, beware!

I wholeheartedly support this effort:
Local law enforcement agencies on Wednesday plan to crack down on drivers who meander along in the left lane, officials said.
Unless you're passing another vehicle or turning left, driving in the left lane of multi-lane roadways is against Texas law.

The statute is relatively unknown and is rarely enforced, so Wednesday's special enforcement effort is designed to help spread the word, officials said.

Violators not only block the smooth flow of traffic but also create a dangerous situation as traffic builds around them.

"That's the lane ambulances use, and when you put a slower car into it, that can lead to crashes," said Sgt. Gordon Schneider with the Department of Public Safety.
I’ve written about this many times before, but I’ll say it again: as a driver, nothing irritates me more than people who drive slow in the left lane. (People who wait until the last moment to merge are a close second.) As the article states, these drivers impede the flow of traffic and create hazardous driving conditions. This is especially true on rural interstates, which are only two lanes in either direction and where a slow driver in the left lane can cause miles-long backups that are frustrating to everyone.

The left lane is for passing only. Period. Full stop. The only time a slow vehicle should be in the left lane is if they are overtaking an even slower vehicle in the right lane (this happens frequently with big rigs on rural interstates).  And the posted speed limit is irrelevant. If you’re doing 75 in the left lane and the guy behind you wants to do 100, move over and let him risk getting a ticket.

I’m glad DPS is finally working to get the message out.


The voters have spoken:
A $217 million bond measure to fund a massive Astrodome renovation failed by several percentage points, a decision expected to doom it to the wrecking ball.
Proposition 2 would have allowed Harris County to issue up to $217 million in bonds to turn the beloved but bedraggled stadium into a massive event and exhibition center. In complete but unofficial results, opponents gained 53 percent of the vote.

County commissioners have said they would recommend the wrecking ball if the bond failed.
"We're going to have to do something quick," County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. "We can't allow the once-proud dome to sit like a rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot."
“Do something quick” translates to  “solicit bids from demolition companies immediately.” Emmett and the rest of the commissioners court want to wash their hands clean of this iconic yet obsolete building as soon as possible.

My thoughts on why the Dome bond measure failed are pretty much in line with Kuff’s:
My theory on the Astrodome was that in the end, this effort came too late. I think too many people had become cynical about the whole thing, and perhaps the somewhat staid New Dome proposal, chosen over a number of imaginative but fanciful alternatives, turned people off. I’m just guessing here. The pro-Dome campaign wasn’t particularly high-visibility, either, and that probably didn’t help. Like it or not, the people have spoken.
I completely agree about the proposal for its renovation: it was bland and had a very speculative “let’s renovate it and see if they come” quality to it. There was no clear answer as to what kind of revenue the refurbished arena would generate, and nobody could clearly demonstrate a need for more convention space in the City of Houston. In fact, the only committed user for the renovated dome was the Offshore Technology Conference; the Texans weren’t interested in using it - they want more parking - and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo’s support for it was tepid and conditional.

And yes, the campaign for the bond was anemic. It’s almost as if the whole thing was designed to fail. 

The bottom line is that there are a significant number of people in Harris County who were not interested in preserving the world’s first air-conditioned, domed stadium and/or were adverse to the property tax hike that would have been required to fund its renovation.

For the record, I still think UH architecture student Ryan Slattery’s proposal for the Astrodome – strip it down to its steel frame and create a massive outdoor pavilion – was the most elegant and inspired option for the building’s future. That being said, the building's fate was decided on Tuesday.

It’s time to say goodbye, and move on.

RIP Astrodome 1965-2014.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Houston 35, South Florida 23

I'll take an ugly win over a pretty loss anytime, but this game really should not have been this close.

The Good: QB John O'Korn had another strong outing, completing 22 of 27 passes for 263 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, one of which as a beautiful 48-yard strike to Deontay Greenberry. On the ground, Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow combined for 105 yards and a touchdown apiece on 16 carries. The Cougar defense recorded three sacks (knew of which led to a turnover), one interception and held South Florida's rushing attack to only 53 yards. An alert UH special teams unit recovered a surprise USF onside kick attempt in the 3rd quarter.

Oh, and the black uniforms the Coogs wore for Halloween night. Those were pretty cool.

The Bad: South Florida quarterback Mike White, a freshman making his very first start, torched the Houston defense to the tune of 311 yards and two touchdowns. Ryan Jackson fumbled the ball into the end zone for a USF touchback, a poorly-fielded punt was also fumbled and recovered by the Bulls, and Kenneth Farrow committed a rather stupid personal foul penalty that killed a Houston drive. The Cougars struggled against the 2-5 Bulls the entire game and didn't put it away until late in the fourth quarter.

The Ugly: Although it ended up helping the Cougars, South Florida's team was woefully lacking in discipline. The Bulls committed an astounding 19 penalties for 170 yards, including a rather generous offensive pass interference call on what would have been USF's go-ahead touchdown.

What it Means: This game, on a short week of rest, in front of a small crowd on Halloween night, and with a huge showdown against Central Florida looming, really had "trap" written all over it. The Cougars were able to survive and have secured themselves a winning season. But they will need to play better when they face the conference's best team in Orlando next Saturday, lest they be blown out.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Houston 49, Rutgers 14

Had you told me right before this game began that the Cougars, having to go to New Jersey to face a decent Rutgers team one week after a bitter one-point loss to BYU, were going to administer a merciless beatdown to the Scarlet Knights, I would have called you a liar. Or at least asked you to share whatever it was that you were smoking.

The Good: Quarterback John O'Korn completed 24 of 30 passes for 364 yards and 5 touchdowns, one of which was this amazing catch by Deontay Greenbury:

Greenberry also had an 83-yard catch and run for a touchdown. He finished the day with eight receptions for 168 yards and three TDs. Daniel Spencer snagged another six passes for 117 yards, and Aaron Johnson and Demarcus Ayers both had touchdown receptions as well.

Not to be outdone, the UH ground game was strong as well, picking up 234 rushing yards. The oher half of Houston's true freshman QB duo, Greg Ward, scambled for 89 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, and RB Kenneth Farrow, who had sat out the last few games with an injury, returned to rush for 77 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.

As good as the offense was, they got a lot of help from the defense, which forced six (!) Rutgers turnovers and kept the Scarlet Knights scoreless in the second half of the game. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova had a bad day against the UH secondary, throwing three interceptions, and was benched in the second half.

The Bad: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Cougars; they were flagged 11 times for 91 yards. This is something the coaching staff is working on and to the Cougars' credit very few of those penalties were committed after halftime. The Cougar run defense had little answer for Rutgers RB Justin Goodwin, who carried 31 times for 162 yards and accounted for both Scarlet Knight touchdowns, but as the game progressed and Rutgers fell further behind he became less and less of a factor. Finally, O'Korn was sacked four times, while the Coogs could manage no sacks of their own.

With all that said, there was very little "bad" about this game, which really was Houston's strongest performance of the year.

What it Means: With six wins, Houston is now assured a non-losing season and is bowl eligible. The Coogs have a short week before hosting South Florida at Reliant Stadium on Halloween night. The Bulls are not a good team, but the Coogs can't look past them.

Sharpstown is not Bellaire

I have two things to say about the story "Suspect in Bellaire murder surrenders in California" that was posted on the Chronicle's website yesterday afternoon:
Murder charges have been filed against a Houston man accused in a fatal shooting at a nightclub earlier this month, according to Houston police. The suspect is currently in custody at the San Diego County Jail in Vista, Calif., awaiting extradition to Houston.

Alain Paredes-Ruiz, 30, is charged in the Oct. 15 fatal shooting of Wilfredo Salinas Reyes, 34, at the Casa Blanca Club, located at 8282 Bellaire Boulevard. Reyes died at the scene.
First, I'm sorry that somebody lost their life and I'm glad the suspect has been apprehended.

Second, the title of this article is highly misleading. This was not a "Bellaire murder" in that it did not occur "in Bellaire." Bellaire is an incorporated municipality of 16,885 souls and my current place of residence. 8282 Bellaire Boulevard, where this murder occurred, is over three miles to the west of the western boundary of Bellaire and is is located within Sharpstown, a community which is entirely within the City of Houston.

An accurate headline for this story would have begun "Suspect in Sharpstown murder" or even "Suspect in Bellaire Boulevard murder."

Unfortunately, the Chronicle editors who titled this story are not alone in mistakenly referring to anything and everything along Bellaire Boulevard - stores, restaurants, etc. - as being "in Bellaire" even though they are miles to the west of the actual City of Bellaire and are actually within distinct communities of their own: Gulfton, Sharpstown, Chinatown, et cetera.

To make this easier for Chronicle editors and others to understand, I've created this handy map:
Get it right, folks. Geographic accuracy matters!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Houston 46, BYU 47

The Battle of the Cougars was as exciting as the score indicated, but it ended in a disappointing one-point loss for the guys in red.

The Good: Demarcus Ayers ran a kickoff return 99 yards for a touchdown. The defense intercepted BYU quarterback Taysom Hill 3 times, including one pick returned for a touchdown. The defense also sacked him a whopping eight times, including once in the endzone for a safety. Greg Ward found Xavier Maxwell for a beautiful 69-yard touchdown pass, and Daniel Spencer caught a highlight reel, 41-yard touchdown pass from John O'Korn.

The Bad: O'Korn, who took most of the snaps behind center, did not have his best afternoon; he was 29 for 45 with 363 yards and three touchdowns, but also threw three interceptions: once on the very first play from scrimmage, and once at the very end, to seal the win for BYU. The UH running game was non-existent: the O-line continues to struggle mightily blocking for the run and the Coogs could only manage 46 total rushing yards the entire afternoon. As well as the defense did in some aspects of the game, they were still torched for 417 passing yards - BYU's receivers on the corners were wide-open all afternoon long - and gave up 264 yards on the ground. Houston had first and goal at the six yard line but came away without any points; I'm still concerned about playcalling at the endzone. Also, the Cougars (the Houston ones) committed 10 penalties for 88 yards (the BYU Cougars, meanwhile, committed 14 penalties for 125 yards; this was not a clean football game by any stretch of the imagination).

Finally, kicker Richie Leone missed two field goals, and Markeith Ambles dropped a perfectly-thrown pass on a two-point conversion. Make any one of those scores and Houston wins this game. 

What it means: If you just looked at the stats, you would have thought that BYU won this game in a rout. Indeed, after O'Korn was intercepted on the first play from scrimmage and the Mormons ran out to a quick 10-0 lead, it was looking that way. But the Coogs battled back and played competitively. I'm not really a fan of moral victories, especially since UH blew their opportunities by making so many mistakes, but they played tough. This is a young team, and they will learn from this experience.

The Cougars are now 5-1, but are still undefeated in American Athletic Conference play. Next up for the Cougars is a road trip to New Brunswick, New Jersey to play Rutgers.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

All taggers are morons, but some taggers are more moronic than others

Houston's Near Northside has long had a graffiti problem, and the construction of the METRORail extension, which is set to become operational in a few weeks, has given local "artists" more space to "express their creativity."

It's difficult to catch these taggers in the act of vandalizing property, because they generally do their business at night. That is, except when they vandalize a light rail station and stare directly at the station's security camera while they do so.

                                                                                                         Photo: Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County
Video captured by METRO security cameras at around 3am on Oct. 13 at its Northline Transit Center/HCC rail platform at 7704 Fulton helped METRO police nab 18-year-old Salvador Sanchez.

METRO's North (Red) Line extension is still under construction, but cameras have been installed at its station platforms. 

Sanchez was arrested Tuesday and charged with criminal mischief.

The Northline Transit Center/HCC rail station, which incorporates artwork featuring community heroes, was damaged extensively, but the graffiti has since been removed.
I hope the courts give this punk more than just a slap on the wrist. I have little patience for vandalism of public or private property, so It'd be nice if a judge made an example out of this moron.

I also hope that any of his fellow taggers who might decide to deface a train station are just as stupid as he is and make themselves just as easy for law enforcement to identify.

Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

Esperanto was invented by Ludwig Zamenhof, a Polish eye doctor, in 1887. His hometown of Bialystock was separated into communities that each spoke their own language - Yiddish, Polish and Russian - and Zamenhof felt that the mistrust between these communities was caused by their inability to communicate with one another. He was furthermore disturbed by the complexity in having to learn additional languages, such as French, English and German, in order to conduct commerce or scholarship with the world beyond Bialystock.

Zamenhof felt that conflicts, misunderstandings and complexities caused by so many competing languages could be resolved if everybody learned to speak a common "auxiliary" language (Esperanto was never intended to replace existing languages, but simply be a second language that everybody could speak in addition to their native tongue). He felt that such a language would need to be easy to learn and politically neutral. Zamenhof called his language "Lingvo Internacia" and published it under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto," or "Doctor Hopeful." The name stuck.

So, 125 years later, whatever became of Esperanto?
Outsiders tend to scoff at Esperanto as an idealistic waste of time. Esperantists harrumph back: with somewhere between a few hundred thousand and possibly 2m learners, Esperanto is far and away world’s most successful invented language. If that sounds like “Finland’s biggest klezmer band”, it shouldn’t. Esperanto has outgrown quite a few rivals. Dreamers have been inventing languages for centuries, from Lojban (designed around predicate logic) to Ladaan (designed to espouse feminism). But languages like Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, Navi’i and their kin, created for popular entertainment, are the only invented languages that can muster nearly the enthusiasm Esperanto does.

Esperanto remains atop the heap. The Esperanto Wikipedia has nearly 186,000 articles, more than Hindi or Hebrew, and some 87,000 users, far and away the most among invented languages. Esperanto-speakers gather offline in frequent conventions too, discussing the language’s prospects, making friends and falling in love. An Esperantists’ apartment-share service, Pasporta Servo, boasts over a thousand homes in 90 countries where Esperantists can stay with each other for free. The community’s cheery energy is depicted by Arika Okrent in her book “In the Land of Invented Languages". Esperantists’ pride is not totally without foundation.

One element behind Esperanto’s success is obviously its simplicity. Zamenhof designed it to spread. Roots come from the main European languages. Grammar is utterly regular. (Nouns end in –o, adjectives in –a, adverbs in –e. Plurals get a –j, and so on.) And Esperantists are keen to teach: sign up at Lernu and you will find not only free, decent-quality lessons but free tutoring from experienced speakers. There are few actual “native” speakers, perhaps around a thousand. Many have heard Esperanto since birth by idealistic parents, but Ms Okrent describes just one, Kim Henriksen, who speaks Esperanto as his dominant language.
This article was actually sent to me a few weeks ago by a friend of mine who remembered that I was rather geeked up about Esperanto back in high school. Being young and idealistic, I thought it was a great idea. I completed a free ten-lesson postal course on the language (I think I still have the certificate around here somewhere), became a member of the Esperanto League for North America, and even attended meet-ups with fellow Houston-area Esperantists. My enthusiasm for the language didn't wane until I was well into college and needed to devote time to other matters. Even today, a quarter-century after I was first exposed to it, I still think the idea behind Esperanto is worthwhile.

Unfortunately, it's doubtful that Esperanto will ever become the world's standard, common language. In spite of the fact that it is easy to learn and is heavily promoted by a considerable number of dedicated Esperantists across the globe, the number of people who speak it has not appeared to have appreciably grown over time. It certainly hasn't reached the critical mass necessary for its widespread adoption as a common language for business, science or diplomacy. That's only part of the problem:
But beyond sheer numbers, people learn a language in order to enjoy a living and real human culture. This holds Esperanto back. Google “famous Esperanto speakers” and you will find Wikipedia’s list. Many names are not exactly famous. But one jumps out: J.R.R. Tolkien. The novelist (and language inventor) apparently briefly dabbled in Esperanto. But he later wrote to a reader that
Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, &c &c are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.                         [From letter 180.]
For “legends”, we might read more broadly “culture”. People may learn English or German or Chinese to get a job. But they also learn languages to experience travel, food, film, music and literature. Look at the cover of a language textbook and you’ll find an attractive person strolling down a stereotypically picturesque street from the country in question, or maybe a famous landmark. “That,” thinks the learner, “is what I want.”  

What would that picture be for an Esperanto textbook? The community is proud of its respect for existing cultures. Esperanto is to be the world's first choice for a second language in order to protect diversity, not to replace it. So to be motivated to learn Esperanto, you have to be motivated not by a living and breathing culture, but by an ideal of international harmony. That ideal has to compete with French food, Italian fashion, Brazilian music, Spanish nightlife, American rock'n’roll, Japanese film, and so on.
Aside from that, the world already appears to have settled on an auxiliary language: English. Esperantists despise the concept that English is becoming the world's common tongue, and for good reason: English is the antithesis of Esperanto. Esperanto's orthography and grammar are simple and regular, while elements of English - spelling and pronunciation, homonyms and homophones, a bunch of irregular verbs - are maddeningly complex. Esperanto is intended to be a politically-neutral language, whereas English carries connotations of British and American hegemony and imperialism.

Nevertheless, English is doing what Esperanto was supposed to do. Case in point:

A bit over a decade ago, when I was in Prague, I came across a monument erected by Czech Esperantists, written in Esperanto, and commemorating some Esperanto-related event. I thought it was rather interesting; I think I might even have taken a picture of it. And even though it had, at that point, been years since I had studied the language, I could still read and understand most of what was written: a testament, I believe, to Esperanto's logic and simplicity.

Later, the irony dawned on me: why was I in Prague to begin with? I was there visiting my brother, who was living there at the time. And what was my brother doing in Prague?

He was there teaching English to eager-to-learn Czechs.

Houston 25, Memphis 15

Last Saturday's game at BBVA Compass Stadium wasn't pretty by any means, with turnovers, penalties, misfiring offenses and a disappointing lack of fans, but it was a nevertheless a win. As a result, the Cougars are now 5-0.

The Good: The Cougar defense has been the story of the season, and they were the reason the Coogs won on Saturday. They forced four Memphis turnovers (Houston now leads the nation in turnover margin!) and kept the Tiger offense from finding the endzone. And quarterback John O'Korn's skillful improvising during a busted play on a two-point conversion - he flipped the football to running back Kenneth Farrow right as a Memphis defender was bringing him down - made the ESPN Sportscenter top ten.

But that's about it. Unless you count the pre-game at Lucky's Pub. Big thanks to them for opening early and serving those tasty breakfast tacos!

The Bad: Pretty much everything on offense, which managed less than 250 total yards the entire game. I was especially disappointed in the performance of the UH offensive line. They were responsible for numerous drive-killing holding penalties (all in all, the Coogs committed 12 penalties for 86 yards) and could not effectively block for the ground game, which resulted in only 38 yards of rushing offense (although to be fair, Farrow is just coming back from an injury and is not 100% yet).

The Ugly is summarized by this picture:

Not only can our cheerleaders apparently not spell, but yes, the stadium really was that empty.

The announced attendance for this game was 20,103, but that was still a) less than BBVA Compass's capacity of 22,000, and b) not even close to being an accurate reflection of the number of people that actually showed up. I'd be suprised if more than 10,000 people were actually there.

I know that 11 AM kickoffs are historically poor start times for UH football games, I know the BBVA Compass is an unfamiliar locale for most UH fans, I know that Memphis is not an awe-inspiring opponent, and I know that the weather - hot and sticky, with scattered thunderstorms marauding across the region - was less than ideal. 

Regardless, if the University of Houston, with 40 thousand students currently enrolled and somewhere around 200 thousand alumni in the region, can't even fill a 22,000-seat stadium, then the program will forever remain an irrelevant, second-tier have-not in the world of college football.

What it means: At five wins, the Cougars have now matched last season's win total. Wins are going to be harder to come by from here on out, starting with the formidable Brigham Young Cougars at Reliant this Saturday. If UH plays anywhere near as poorly in this game as they did last weekend, they will be utterly obliterated by the Mormons.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The worst season in Astros history comes to a merciful end

The local baseball club's first season in the American League was also its worst season in franchise history, as the Astros ended the 2013 season with an abysmal 51-111 record that was capped off with a fifteen-game losing streak.

This club is supposed to be rebuilding, but in fact they're only getting worse: they've gone from 106 losses in 2011 to 107 losses in 2012 to 111 losses in 2013. These have been the three worst seasons in a 51-year franchise history that includes a lot of lousy losing seasons. The Astros haven't had a winning record since 2008, and that 2005 World Series appearance now seems like ancient history.

With the mounting losses comes rejection from Houston's fair-weather fanbase. The Astros drew 20,394 fans per game to Minute Maid Park: the second-lowest attendance average since the Astros started playing there and 13th out of 15 American League teams. People aren't watching the Astros on TV, either; just a week ago they managed a 0.0 Nielsen rating for a broadcast, which basically means that nobody in Houston bothered to tune in to the game.

Sure, there are plenty of excuses for this season's failures: the team is the youngest in Major League Baseball, its payroll is the lowest, the franchise is adjusting to a new league, this is Bo Porter's first season as a manager, et cetera. But local sports fans don't care about any of that. They just want to see a winner.

Or at the least, some improvement. And right now, we're not even getting that.

Houston 59, UTSA 28

The Coogs improved to 4-0 on the season last Saturday with a win over the Texas - San Antonio Roadrunners in the Alamodome. The game was actually closer than the score suggests. Both teams were tied 21-21 at halftime and Houston was clinging to a three-point lead late in the third quarter when the Roadrunners attempted a field goal that was blocked and returned 78 yards by Brandon Wilson for a Cougar touchdown. That changed the game's momentum, and the Roadrunners self-destructed in the fourth quarter, turning the ball over five times and allowing the Coogs to score 28 unanswered points.

The Good: In addition to the blocked field goal returned for a TD, the Cougar defense forced five turnovers - four interceptions, one of which was returned 96 yards for a touchdown, and a fumble - in a fourth quarter that saw the wheels come completely off what up until that point was a competent UTSA offense. The Cougar offense, for its part, did not cough up the ball at all, and true freshman quarterback John O'Korn had a good afternoon, going 24-of-36 for 312 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Deontay Greenberry caught nine passes for 149 yards and a score.

The Bad: Up until his meltdown in the fourth quarter, UTSA quarterback Eric Soza was slicing up the Cougar secondary, finishing the day with 29 completions on 40 attempts for 316 yards and two touchdowns. The UH receiving corps inexcusably dropped two sure touchdown passes when the game was still close. And ten Cougar penalties for 73 yards is entirely too many.

What it means: you get the feeling that had a few things gone differently - if, for example, that field goal had not been blocked and returned for a touchdown, or if the Roadrunners had connected on a trick play a couple of plays earlier (Sosa, who handed off the ball and then ran out to receive, was wide open and would have scored a touchdown had the pass been just a bit longer) - the outcome of this game could have completely different. As it was, however, the young Roadrunners panicked late in the game, and allowed the Coogs to run away with a victory on the road.

The Cougars now get another week off, and then host Memphis at BBVA Compass Stadium on October 12.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Houston 31, Rice 26

The Cougars retained possession of the Bayou Bucket last Saturday, defeating crosstown rival Rice in a nail-biting 31-26 victory. The Cougars comfortably led 31-10 early in the fourth quarter, but the Owls then made things interesting. They scored a touchdown, blocked a UH field goal attempt and returned it for a score, and then recovered a Sportscenter-worthy onside kick with about a minute remaining. The Cougar defense then had to step up to preserve the victory, which they did when Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue's fourth-down pass sailed incomplete. 

The Good: Greg Ward, a true freshman quarterback from Tyler, made his debut in this game, periodically spelling starting (and fellow true freshman) QB John O'Korn, rushing nine times for 80 yards, and passing three times for 48 yards. O'Korn, for his part, completed 15 of 33 passes for 281 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Receiver Deontay Greenberry had a good afternoon, catching six passes for 146 yards and a touchdown.

The Bad: Rice started out strong and led 13-7 at the end of the first quarter. But the Coogs made adjustments that shut the Owls down until late in the fourth quarter, when two special teams mistakes - an allowed block on a field goal attempt (that was returned for a touchdown) and then a failed recovery of the ensuing onside kick - put the game's outcome in doubt. The Cougars (players as well as coaches) need to learn how to put games away such that late rallies like this do not occur in the future.

The Ugly: Some members of my tailgating group purchased a brand-new pop-up tent from Academy, complete with the new UH "Cougar" logo on the canvas. When we returned to our tailgating area at Reliant Park after the game, we discovered that the tent's canvas had been taken. Maybe some thug walked off the street to take it, perhaps a disgruntled Rice fan took it, or maybe a UH fraternity took it as a prank. Regardless, theft is theft, and whomever took the canvas is truly a douche.

What it means: The Cougars are now 3-0, and retain possession of the Bayou Bucket for the third straight season. With the near-term future of the Bayou Bucket rivalry in doubt - the Coogs and the Owls will probably meet again at some point, but it night take awhile - this was an important "bragging rights" game against a decent opponent (Rice defeated Big XII member Kansas a week ago). Up next for the Coogs is a road trip to the Alamodome to face a highly-motivated UT-San Antonio squad.

About that "forty by forty" thing...

So, remember my declaration from last January that I would lose 40 pounds by my 40th birthday?


I do actually weigh a little bit less today than I did last January. But forty pounds less? Not even close.

It might have been an ambitious goal, but I'm not going to make any excuses. I simply do not possess the motivation or self-control necessary to lose the fat I need to lose in order to become a healthier person.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The World in Flags, Updated

Following up on this post of a few years ago: here's a new and improved map (now featuring more coats of arms, and South Sudan!) of the nations of the world by their flags:

Tremendous credit goes to whomever created this visual masterpiece.

Houston 22, Temple 13

The Cougars won their first-ever AAC conference game, defeating the Owls in Philadelphia.

The Good: When was the last time you could say that the Coogs won because of their defense? That's exactly what happened, however; as the Cougar offense struggled to find the endzone, the defense held Temple to only 13 points, all scored in the first half, and to 300 total yards. The defense also had two interceptions, most importantly Adrian McDonald's pick with 1:18 left that helped to seal the win for the Coogs. True freshman quarterback John O'Korn continued to impress, completing 23 of 31 passes for 233 yards after coming in for the ineffective David Piland. And Richie Leone's foot kept the Cougars in the game: he made five out of six field goal attempts, and his booming punts kept the Temple offense pinned on their end of the field for much of the game.

The Bad: Three words: red zone offense. The Cougars got past the Temple 20 yard line eight times over the course of the game, but could come away with only five field goals until Ryan Jackson finally scored on a ten yard run with 1:06 left to put the game out of reach. Everything seemed to go wrong in the red zone for the Cougars, including poor blocking by the o-line and questionable play calling by the sideline. The Cougars also fumbled twice, gave up two sacks, and committed 8 penalties for 77 yards. Running back Kenneth Farrow, a critical component of the UH offense, had to leave the game early with an ankle injury.

What It Means: It was a frustrating and aggravating game to watch, given the Coogs' red zone struggles, but the play of the defense was very encouraging and the result of the game is an important in-conference win and the first true road win of head coach Tony Levine's career. The Cougars now get a week off before facing crosstown rivals Rice at Reliant Stadium.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

A flurry of FCS upsets to begin the 2013 season

This blog's visitor stats tell me that over the last few days there has been renewed interest in my 2007 post about the biggest upsets in college football history (which is, incidentally, the most viewed post on Mean Green Cougar Red). I can't help but wonder if this new traffic is being driven by the record number of FCS-over-FBS upsets that occurred over the weekend:
In all, eight FBS teams lost to FCS opponents: Georgia State (Samford), Iowa State (Northern Iowa), Kansas State (North Dakota State), No. 25 Oregon State (Eastern Washington), San Diego State (Eastern Illinois), South Alabama (Southern Utah), UConn (Towson), and USF (McNeese State). That's a new record for a single weekend.

So the visitors not only collected a handsome check just for showing up, they also delighted in the ritual humiliation of their hosts in front of disgusted fans. This included two-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State's takedown of Kansas State on Friday, when the defending Big 12 co-champions unveiled their newly renovated stadium.

But the biggest upset of the weekend belonged to Eastern Washington. Though the Eagles were no slouch - having won the FCS title in 2010, they became just the fourth lower-division team to beat a ranked FBS (or I-A) opponent since Division I split up in 1978. While EWU's 49-46 win over No. 25 Oregon State isn't quite on the scale of Appalachian State's epic shocker over No. 5 Michigan at the Big House in 2007, it did help to illuminate the FCS conundrum facing big-time football programs.
Stewart Mandel explains why these types of results are notable:
FCS teams face no shortage of disadvantages against their FBS foes, most notably fewer scholarship players (63 as opposed to 85), smaller coaching staffs and far fewer financial resources. (Eastern Washington, for example, took an eight-hour bus ride home after its victory in Corvallis.) And that's before taking into account that most of the players in FCS weren't considered good enough to play at FBS schools. [North Dakota State QB Brock] Jensen, a small-town Wisconsin standout, never got an offer from the Badgers. The only offers received by the 6-foot Adams came from two Big Sky schools.
But on any given Saturday ... 
"If you put it all together, it's not some impossible task," said [Eastern Washington head coach Beau] Baldwin. "It's kind of like those teams that play in the NCAA [basketball] tournament. They might not ever be ranked in the Top 25 with those other teams, but on that given Saturday, that No. 14 seed can beat that No. 3 seed."
FCS-over-FBS upsets are becoming more and more common; a few years ago I marveled over six upsets in the first few weeks of the season; this past weekend alone there were eight.

Focusing on the two most notable upsets of the weekend, North Dakota State's 24-21 win over Kansas State, or Eastern Washington's 49-46 upending of 25th-ranked Oregon State: Do either of these games qualify for inclusion in my list of the top ten all-time greatest college football upsets, should I ever get around to updating it?

The outcome of the KSU-NDSU game could be reasonably expected by savvy football watchers (and indeed, Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel made this game his Week One Upset Special). The Wildcats might have won 11 games and a share of the Big XII title last year in route to a Fiesta Bowl appearance, but they were replacing QB Collin Klein on offense and their entire defense. I think KSU was generally expected to experience a drop-off in 2013, as suggested by the AP sportswriters who had KSU ranked #11 at the end of last season but completely out of the preseason top 25 to start this one.

The North Dakota State Bison, on the other hand, are the most dominant team at the FCS level. They are the reigning back-to-back FCS champions, with a 37-7 record over the last three seasons. They know how to win, and they were motivated to pick off a Big XII team that had a lot of rebuilding to do and might not have been taking their opponent as seriously as they should have. This game, in other words, was a recipe for an upset, and nobody should be particularly stunned by its outcome.

EWU-OSU is a bit more of a shocker, if only because the 25th-ranked Beavers were expected to continue the momentum they experienced over the course of  2012 (a 9-4 record and #20 ranking) and perhaps even contend for the Pac-12 title this fall. To be sure, the Beavers looked good on the offense; quarterback Sean Mannion completed 37-of-43 passes for 422 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, while running back Storm Woods ran for 68 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.

Normally, 46 points should be enough to win a football game. But - and as a University of Houston Cougar fan I know this painfully well - it doesn't matter how many points your offense scores if your defense cannot stop the other team from matching you point-for-point. And that's exactly what happened to Oregon State, which lost a lot of key players from last year's defense and was accordingly victimized by Eagle quarterback Vernon Adams (422 and 4 TDs through the air; 107 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground). Expect Oregon State to struggle on defense this season.

Eastern Washington, meanwhile, is a strong FCS team, like North Dakota State. They made it all the way to the FCS semifinals last season and won the whole thing in 2010. They deserved to be taken seriously.

So, as of right now, I would say that neither of these games qualify for inclusion in the list of top ten greatest upsets in college football history. I reserve the right to change my opinion based on how well these teams do over the course of the season, and at the very least perhaps they deserve honorable mentions, but to ten? Eh, come back to me when a truly abysmal FCS team beats a ranked FBS team.

Which brings up a final point. With FCS-over-FBS upsets becoming more common, are these types of matchups going to become a thing of the past as big time college programs avoid the risk of being humiliated? The Big Ten, for its part, is not going to permit any of their schools to schedule FCS teams after 2015. Mandel expects these types of games to continue to be played:
While the push toward stronger schedules is certainly a positive thing for the sport, the fact remains that power-conference teams need a certain number of home games, and they're not going to be able to schedule all of them against opponents from comparable conferences. Football could certainly benefit from more, not less, Cinderella stories. However, Eastern Washington (which got a $450,000 paycheck for Saturday's game) and North Dakota State ($350,000) probably aren't helping their cause. Most ADs want to be sure their "guarantee" games are in fact guaranteed wins.
To that end, and thankfully for my Cougars, there are still a lot of teams from the second division of the college football world that still fit the bill quite nicely.

They don't stay puppies very long

Attila is now about seven months old and close to being fully grown. And I probably should have shaved before this picture was taken.

Austin to London, nonstop

Does this mean we're going to see more British acts at SXSW next year?
British Airways has announced new, nonstop service between London and Austin beginning March 3, 2014. The flight will connect Heathrow and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and marks the first regular transatlantic air service for the city of Austin.

“As the Mayor of Austin and a former pilot, I could not be more excited about this announcement by British Airways, one of the world's foremost carriers,” said Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “Connecting two of the world's great cities, London and Austin, through this first time, non-stop service between ABIA and Heathrow Airport is sure to take our city to a new level for both business and vacation travelers."
This service truly is a big get for Austin and ABIA, especially considering that when it opened in 1999, when I still lived in Austin, Bergstrom was an "international airport" in name only. They've since added scheduled flights to Cancun and Cabo, but direct flights to London is something entirely different for Austin and its economy.

Austin is now the 11th-largest municipality in the nation, larger than the cities of San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Denver or Washington DC (although those metropolitan areas, including suburbs, might still be bigger). As it has grown, the city has become a player on the international business stage; nonstop flights to Heathrow are a direct indicator of that.

On the flip side, nonstop flights to London might also mean that the city has truly become mainstream: goodbye, weirdness?

Monday, September 02, 2013

Houston 62, Southern 13

The Cougars started the season off on the right foot Friday evening with a convincing win over the Southern Jaguars at Reliant Stadium.

The Good: True freshman John O'Korn had a solid debut, completing 11 of 15 passes for 107 yards and three touchdowns. He and David Piland, who started the game and completed 15 of 23 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown, will probably be rotating behind center for the next few games. Running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow were workhorses, combining for 217 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. The Coogs finished with 627 yards total offense. The team also recovered four Southern turnovers without suffering any turnovers of their own.

The Bad: The defensive secondary got torched by Southern QB Joseph Dray, who completed 27 of 36 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. The Coogs committed 14 penalties for 126 yards. I know it's the first game of the season, but that's a ridiculous statistic. Also, an offensive lineman was lost for the season with an injury. The team really doesn't need the injury bug to bite them again this fall.

What it Means: A win is a win, but it's really hard to get a read on how the Coogs will fare this season based on an easy win over a mediocre FCS opponent (although a lot of schools had problems with FCS opponents over the weekend, which I'll write more about later). We'll know more about the Cougars after next Saturday's trip to Temple.

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 PlaneStats.com. 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.