Friday, August 29, 2014

2014 Houston Cougar football preview

Once again, I've either been too busy or too lazy to write a detailed take on the 2014 University of Houston football season, which begins in a few hours. So I'll make this brief and refer readers to Paul Meyerberg's excellent write-up in USA Today and this preview by Yardbarker if they want more detail and analysis.

Looking Back: The Cougars managed an 8-5 record in in 2013, exceeding most preseason expectations but ending the year with four losses in their last five games, including a 41-24 drubbing by Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The Big Story for 2014: TDECU Stadium, which makes its debut tonight. After spending its entire 68-season existence playing in "other peoples' venues" - Rice Stadium, the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium, and a Robertson Stadium which, while located on campus, was originally a 1940 New Deal project for HISD - the UH football program finally has a home built purposely for it.

Reasons for Optimism: the offense returns a lot of talent in the skill positions, including quarterback John O'Korn, wide receivers Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer, and running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow. The defense returns nine starters from a squad that led the nation in turnovers last year. Much of the credit for that amazing feat goes to defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who returns for a second season.

Reasons for Pessimism: the offensive line is an area of real concern. I'm also not sold on offensive coordinator Travis Bush, who wasn't particularly impressive when he served as interim OC in 2012. On defense, the secondary is an area of concern. And I've got to wonder if 43 turnovers is a feat that can actually be replicated, or just a one-season fluke?

The Schedule: as I've already discussed, it looks pretty easy, with seven home games and no teams from so-called "Power Five" conferences.

What the Computers Think: Sagarin's preseason rankings start the Coogs at 57. His ratings imply a record of 10-2 for Houston, when opponent rankings and home field advantage are taken into account: losses to BYU and Cinci and a squeaker win over UCF at home. Massey suggests the Coogs will go 9-3, with losses to BYU, UCF and Cinci. Congrove has the same prediction.

What I Think: this team should go 9-3 or even 10-2, given the returning talent and the schedule. However, I'm worried about the offensive line and Travis Bush has yet to prove to me that he is a quality offensive coordinator. This fall's team, like last fall's, is going to rely largely on its defense, and although I have a lot of faith in David Gibbs, it is unrealistic to expect them to manufacture 43 turnovers - a stat that led to so many of those victories last season - for a second straight fall.

I'm going to lower my expectations a bit and predict an 8-4 regular season. The Coogs will lose to BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, and either Memphis or SMU. This first game against UTSA, in fact, scares me a lot.

Anyway, it's time to get dressed and head to the tailgate, as my favorite time of the year is upon us. Go Coogs!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It will be awhile before rail goes to Houston's airports, and it doesn't matter

Earlier this month, Dallas officials celebrated the opening of the long-awaited DART light rail extension to DFW airport. It is now possible to travel by train from DFW airport to downtown Dallas. (I'll admit that I'm a bit proud to see that happen, because many years ago I was part of the team that did the planning and environmental analysis for that line.) Chronicle transportation writer Dug Begley used the occasion to ask his readers when, or even if, Houston would see its light rail system connect to its airports.

Begley's post - aside from tapping into the Houston-Dallas rivalry in order to generate some cheap page views - is emblematic of a gripe I've continually heard - that the city's light rail system is useless, that Houston is not a "world-class" city - until the trains go to both of the city's airports.

Indeed, of the 30 cities in the United States that currently have urban rail systems (heavy or light), 18 have rail connections to their airports, and two more have rail connections currently under construction. This puts Houston in the minority. From an intuitive standpoint, it also makes a lot of sense: if the train went to the airport, air travelers could ride the train instead of having to drive, pay for a cab, or use that slow local bus.

But here's a dirty not-so-secret of transportation planning: in the United States, only a small minority of air travelers ever use rail to reach an airport.

The Transit Cooperative Research Program published a study about the percentage of airport passengers that use rail to get to and from airports in cities in the United States that have such connections. It found that the airport with the highest share of rail-using passengers was DC’s Reagan National Airport, at 14 percent.

That’s right: fourteen percent. This is an airport right across the Potomac from Washington, with convenient rail access via the WMATA Blue and Yellow Lines, yet 86 percent of its passengers use a means other than rail to get there. The percentages of air travelers using rail were even more abysmal at other airports: 8 percent of flyers at Atlanta Jackson-Hartsfield and Chicago Midway, 4 percent at Chicago O’Hare, less than three percent at BWI, Cleveland or Philadelphia.

Granted, this report was published in 2000, but I don’t think the fundamentals have changed very much. In fact, an LA Weekly article from earlier this summer notes that a new light rail station serving LAX is expected to carry less than one percent of flyers using that airport.

There are many reasons why so few air travelers use rail to get to and from the airport. Business travelers who can expense their cab fare don't need to use it. Families who don't want to haul several pieces of luggage onto a train won't use it. Visitors unfamiliar with a city's rail network, or wary of public transportation in general, will avoid it. People going to places not served by the rail system obviously have no use for it. Locals going to the airport probably won't use it unless they live right on the rail line. In some cases, the distance between the airport terminal and the rail station discourages people from using it.

I've used rail to get to and from airports in at least two US cities (Chicago and Washington, DC), and I found these connections to be very convenient. But I was also traveling by myself, to downtown, without a lot of luggage. In other words, I was among a rather narrow subset of air travelers for whom rail was actually useful.

The fact is, of the people who use urban rail systems to access an airport, the airport employees themselves - baggage handlers, food service workers, custodial staff, TSA screeners - vastly outnumber air travelers. Certainly, the rail is useful for them. But they're also the same people who would be taking the local bus service to the airport if the rail weren't there.

With all that said, METRO's long-range plans do have the North (Red) Line eventually reaching Bush Intercontinental, and the Southeast (Purple) Line eventually connecting to Hobby. But we're not likely to see either of those connections built anytime soon, for funding and other reasons. And while these connections might be nice to have if and when they are built, they're really not going to have a outsized impact on the network's overall utility, or magically make Houston more "world class" than it already is.

Dear critics of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: you can shut up now

If you're like me, over the last couple of weeks your Facebook feed has been inundated with friends posting videos of themselves pouring buckets of ice water over their heads in order to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease. Participants dump a bucket of ice water over their heads, and then challenge their friends to within 24 hours either do the same or donate a certain amount (usually $100) to ALS research.

The viral campaign seems to be doing its job - as of yesterday, almost $80 million has been raised for ALS research and care, which is a considerable increase over the $2.5 million collected over this same time period last year.

Along with generating funds for ALS research, however, the Ice Bucket Challenge is also generating criticism. Naysayers are claiming that the hordes of people posting videos of themselves dousing themselves in cold water is merely an exercise in self-congratulatory narcissism and conceit, or that people are engaging in "slacktivism," i.e. choosing to engage in a trivial activity rather than actually donate money, or that a surge in donations to ALS research will occur at the expense of giving to other charities (see here, here and here for some of these criticisms). And that's to say nothing of people who think that drenching oneself in ice water is fundamentally silly, or who are complaining simply because they've grown tired of videos clogging up their Facebook news feed.

To which my response is: oh, shut up.

The purpose of the Ice Bucket Challenge is to raise awareness and funds for ALS, and in that regard, the Challenge is clearly working. As an added bonus, people are having a lot of fun with it. I agree with The Houston Press's Sean Pendergast, who asks, "who cares about the motivation for people doing the videos if the overall movement has been a rousing success?"
Fundraising of any type requires marketing and an awareness build. That's what the Ice Bucket Challenge is. I lost my mother to breast cancer when she was the age I am today. I think it's awesome that the NFL players wear the pink wristbands and cleats in October. I don't ask for a tabulation of which players are cutting a check to Susan B. Komen and which ones aren't.

I guess my soap box salvo here is that people suck sometimes. Truly, if you're finding a reason to negatively dissect a movement that's raised millions to battle a deadly disease, a movement with which people have simultaneously had some fun, or if you're getting your bitch on because five straight entries on your news feed were Challenge videos (that you can easily skim over), I don't know what to say to you.
I know exactly what to say: shut up.

As with any fad, in a few weeks the novelty of the Ice Bucket Challenge will fade. But by the time that happens it will have significantly raised awareness and probably over $100 million in funds to fight ALS: a horrible, progressive, terminal disease that slowly entombs people inside their own bodies and then suffocates them to death. This is, in fact, of particular interest to me, because just a few weeks ago a good friend of mine lost her mother - somebody I knew - to this nasty disease. (FYI, In lieu of dumping a bucket of ice water over my head, I made a donation to a fund set up in her name.)

Forbes writer Tom Watson lists five reasons why the Ice Bucket Challenge has been so successful. Another Forbes writer, Matthew Herper, rebuts some of the Challenge's criticisms. Here's a perspective from a family who is currently battling ALS. Finally, this video has been making the rounds.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Humanity's stupidest war, continued

For Stephen Walt, the real problem with World War I is why it started, but why it lasted for as long as it did.

He lists several reasons: the static, defensive nature of the war that prevented either side from delivering a decisive, victorious blow to the other; the powerful political position of the military within the combatant countries' governments; the fact that the participants were industrial powers with large populations that could sustain their war efforts; the fact that both sides succumbed to the 'sunk costs' fallacy ("the more each side lost, the more it had to promise to deliver once victory was achieved"); and the ever-increasing territorial ambitions of the various combatants.

Walt also points to the role of propaganda and censorship in sustaining the war in spite of its unspeakable carnage:
A negotiated settlement was never seriously attempted, in part because censorship and wartime propaganda convinced citizens on both sides that victory was just around the corner. Tight military censorship ensured that populations back home got an overly upbeat picture of how the fighting was going, with reports from the front tending to omit bad news, portray defeats as victories, and offer upbeat assessments of future progress. As Prime Minister Lloyd George told a friend in 1916, "If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know."  

Furthermore, wartime propaganda portrayed the enemy as brutal monsters guilty of vast atrocities, and these malign images of the enemy hardened as the number of dead and wounded increased. How could politicians seriously entertain negotiating peace with the vicious opponents who were busily killing off the nation's youth?  Meanwhile, governments boosted public support by portraying the war as a noble crusade; in England, for instance, thousands of copies of poems like John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" were distributed to encourage the population not to "break faith with us who die."  In this atmosphere, anyone who seriously proposed negotiating an end to the fighting -- as Lord Lansdowne in England or historian Hans Delbrück in Germany did -- was quickly denounced as a traitor who was undermining morale at home.              
Walt argues that the lessons of World War I resonate today, especially as it relates to censorship, propaganda and the demonization of the enemy:
[T]he long and bitter experience of World War I reminds that truth is the "first casualty" in war, and gleaning accurate information about how a war is going is extremely difficult. Soldiers have a natural tendency to tell superiors what the latter want to hear, commanders will spin upbeat stories to maintain popular support so that they have time to deliver a victory, and the media are easily co-opted by their own feelings of patriotism and by sophisticated media management strategies (such as "embedding").   

This problem continues to bedevil us today: just look at all the upbeat reports of progress that we heard about Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002, and look at where both countries are now. Or ask yourself whether the "war on terror" is going well or not, and whether the vast sums spent on "dirty wars" in Yemen, Somalia, South Asia, or the Middle East been worth it. Today, as in World War I, the people paying for these wars, and providing the sons and daughters to fight them, are kept mostly in the dark about whether we are winning or losing. 

Third, the tendency to demonize and dehumanize the enemy remains a central feature of modern warfare, just as it was during the Great War. Today, Hamas offers up anti-Semitic and conspiratorial depictions of its Israeli oppressors, while Israelis increasingly embrace racist depictions of Palestinians. Sunni and Shia continue to kill each other over a doctrinal dispute dating back to the seventh century. Muslims and Hindus attack each other in India and elsewhere. If you believe you might have to kill a large number of foreigners, it helps to convince yourself that they aren't fully human. But World War I warns that treating enemies as if they are subhuman beasts only makes the conflict last longer, because politicians cannot compromise with a hated foe and many will think it is foolhardy even to try. And the longer a war lasts, the less likely it is that any of the warring parties will end up better off.

The slumberful world of ASMR videos

New York Times blogger Stephanie Fairyington describes her experiences with autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), and its ever-growing presence on YouTube:
A few months ago, I was on a Manhattan-bound D train heading to work when a man with a chunky, noisy newspaper got on and sat next to me. As I watched him softly turn the pages of his paper, a chill spread like carbonated bubbles through the back of my head, instantly relaxing me and bringing me to the verge of sweet slumber.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt this sensation at the sound of rustling paper — I’ve experienced it as far back as I can remember. But it suddenly occurred to me that, as a lifelong insomniac, I might be able to put it to use by reproducing the experience digitally whenever sleep refused to come.
Under the sheets of my bed that night, I plugged in some earphones, opened the YouTube app on my phone and searched for “Sound of pages.” What I discovered stunned me.

There were nearly 2.6 million videos depicting a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R., designed to evoke a tingling sensation that travels over the scalp or other parts of the body in response to auditory, olfactory or visual forms of stimulation.
Although I haven't experienced it since I was a teenager - I must have somehow outgrown it - I am familiar with the sensation of ASMR. I remember it not so much for the initial "tingles" but rather the calm, pleasurable "trance" triggered by observing certain otherwise-mundane activities: mom diligently preparing dinner, my friends quietly talking to themselves while constructing something with Lego bricks or Tinkertoy, the schoolmate next to me cutting construction paper during art class, the Bob Ross painting show on PBS. I didn't have a name for the sensation and I never really spoke about it, because I wasn't sure that other people experienced it as well. I occasionally watch some of the videos Fairyington describes, because even if they no longer produce this enjoyable trance-like sensation for me, I still find them relaxing and of use as sleep aids.
The sound of rustling pages, it turns out, is just one of many A.S.M.R. triggers. The most popular stimuli include whisperingtapping or scratching; performing repetitive, mundane tasks like folding towels or sorting baseball cards; and role-playing, where the videographer, usually a breathy woman, softly talks into the camera and pretends to give a haircut, for example, or an eye examination. The videos span 30 minutes on average, but some last more than an hour.

For those not wired for A.S.M.R. — and even for those who, like me, apparently are — the videos and the cast of characters who produce them — sometimes called “ASMRtists” or “tingle-smiths” — can seem weird, creepy or just plain boring. (Try pitching the pleasures of watching a nerdy German guy slowly and silently assemble a computer for 30 minutes.)
This is because different triggers work on different people. What produces effects for one person might be fingernails-on-blackboard annoying for someone else.

Jordan Pearson delves delves further into the subculture of people who create and watch ASMR roleplay videos:
ASMR as an internet phenomenon took off in 2010, when a Reddit thread asking if anyone else had ever experienced it went viral, and thousands of people realized they weren’t the only ones who'd noticed the pleasant and foreign feeling.

An internet subculture of roleplay videos meant to evoke the sensation has since taken off. Tingle-seekers—lots of them—watch videos delivering agreed-upon triggers like soft whispers in order to feel what devotees vaguely describe as "brain orgasms" or pleasant tingles, though there really isn’t any word in the English language to accurately describe the strange sensation.

Many people have started making these videos themselves—gaining hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers along the way—and often with a twist: elaborate roleplaying with a weirdly maternal bent.
“The most popular roleplay requests are the ones that involve a lot of what I call ‘personal attention.’ An example of that would be, if you go to the eye doctor, for instance, they’re going to be very close to you,” Ally Maque, an ASMR YouTube personality with over one hundred thousand subscribers told me.

These "personal attention" roleplay videos are generally created to be intimate and realistic as possible; oftentimes, binaural recording is used to enhance the experience for the viewer. Which begs the question: is there something creepy or fetishistic about watching these kinds of videos? Why are they so popular? And what exactly is ASMR, anyway?
Although not much research has been conducted on the topic, both [researcher Nitin] Ahuja and Maque told me that their favourite speculative explanation is evolutionary. A commonly floated theory, they said, is that the connection between feelings of pleasure and intimate care stems from the practice of apes picking bugs out of each other’s fur. It’s pure conjecture, like much of the discourse surrounding ASMR, but it’s a possible explanation that seems to have gained traction among those invested in the culture.

Whether or not ASMR is a physiological phenomenon or provable by science at all is somewhat irrelevant; the sheer number of video views and word-of-mouth testaments to their effectiveness speaks volumes without scientific validation. “A lot of its validity comes from the fact that a lot of people’s narratives coincide with each other,” Ahuja told me.
Indeed, ASMR is difficult to describe and even more difficult to research. But it's a real phenomenon, as my own childhood experiences with the sensation as well as the popularity of ASMR videos - roleplay and otherwise - can attest.

If you're unfamiliar with ASMR and want to see if any of these videos work for you, the best place to start is the Reddit ASMR page, where links to ASMR videos are constantly posted. ASMR Hub and Soothetube are also good places to look.

Of course, as with any internet phenomenon, ASMR videos are ripe for parody. I find this one particularly funny, if not a bit gory at the end: