Friday, October 31, 2014

A Devil in the house

This commercial is apparently a few years old, but I had never seen it before it made the rounds on Facebook this week, so...

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

North Texas 21, Rice 41

With the Cougars taking the week off, and the Mean Green making a trip into town, I decided to go to Rice Stadium to watch them take on the Owls. However, Rice scored a touchdown on the very first play from scrimmage - an 88-yard pass from Driphus Jackson to Jordan Taylor - and that set the tone of the game.

The Good: The Mean Green managed to keep the game close - at least for a half - by managing some big plays of their own. Darvin Kidsy ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown, and North Texas also scored on a 51-yard touchdown pass. The Mean Green actually led this game at halftime, 21-14.

The Bad: The Mean Green fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, which led to a Rice field goal, and it was all downhill from there. On the very next possession, the Owls picked off UNT quarterback Andrew McNulty for a sixty-yard interception return. The Owls scored 27 unanswered points in the second half, while the Mean Green offense sputtered. North Texas would manage only 23 rushing yards for the entire game.

What it Means: I was hoping that the Mean Green would be able to build on last season's bowl win and have a successful 2014. But they are now 2-6, meaning that they need to win out - not likely - in order to avoid their ninth losing season out of the last ten. The Owls, on the other hand, have won four games in a row.

Monarchs again

I've previously written (see here and here) about the loss of monarch butterfly habitat and the resultant effect on the insect's population, before, but as the monarchs make their way back to Mexico for winter hibernation, it's worth nothing that concerns about the species' well-being remain:
For years, the worry about monarch butterflies has focused on the loss of habitat in their winter home in Mexico.

But as the butterflies make their way south through Texas this month, there's even more concern about where they spend their summers.

The loss of habitat in the Upper Midwest's Corn Belt has many worried about the monarch's ability to keep making the 2,000-mile trek to Mexico each year. Every year, the monarchs overwinter in Mexico, then fly to the southern United States, where they mate and produce a new generation of butterflies before dying off.

Even with favorable weather conditions this year, the monarch population, which ebbs and flows, isn't looking good, said Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.

"It's an uptick, but it's not a massive uptick," Taylor told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "What I've been predicting is a doubling of the population, but that's still a small population and one of the smallest on record."

Last year, an all-time low of 0.67 hectares, or about 33 million monarchs, were documented in the mountains west of Mexico City. The average population of monarchs in the last 20 years is about 6.39 hectares.

In the northern U.S. and southern Canada, the habitat loss is taking its toll.

"What we really have to deal with is the habitat issue," Taylor said. "We're losing over a million acres a year. If that trend doesn't stop, the population will continue to decline."

Overall, Taylor estimates, about 165 million acres of summer breeding grounds — nearly the size of Texas — have been lost.

"Given that loss of habitat, it's not at all surprising that the population has gone down," Taylor said. "If we want the numbers to come back up, we have to address the habitat loss issue."
Individuals can do their part by planting milkweed - the only plant that monarch larvae eat - in their gardens, but saving the monarch is also going to require assistance from agricultural interests (whose use of pesticides and herbicides is taking a toll on both the insect as well as its host plant) as well as state departments of transportation, who maintain landscaping along highways including the I-35 corridor that monarchs generally follow:
All of the monarch population east of the Rockies funnels through Texas on its way to Mexico.

Taylor said there needs to be a corridor along I-35 to keep the monarchs migrating from the Upper Midwest and southern Canada.

"Monarchs are basically on that I-35 corridor in both the spring and fall," Taylor said. "How do we treat roadsides to make them a more friendly place?"
Milkweed is a key feature of my little gardens, and over the past month or so the plants have been doing their intended job as monarch breeding grounds. Whenever possible, I collect the fifth instar caterpillars and put them in a tupperware container so that they can safely pupate away from the elements, predators, lawnmowers, etc. Once they emerge and their wings have dried, I release them. So far I've released four monarchs, including this beautiful lady:

I'm uncertain if any of these butterflies will make their way down to Mexico or if they will overwinter here, and in any case they're not going to make much of a difference in the species' overall population numbers. Still, I find raising these creatures to be enjoyable, and I like to think I'm doing my part, however small, to keep the monarch viable.

I'll plant more milkweed early next spring, in time for the migration back north. I urge anybody reading this to do the same.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Houston 31, Temple 10

The Cougars managed back-to-back victories for the first time this season, getting past the Temple Owls in an oftentimes-sloppy game last Friday night at TDECU Stadium.

The Good: The "Third Ward Defense" continues to be a turnover-creating machine. They savaged Owl quarterback P.J. Walker for three interceptions, one of which was run back for a touchdown by Trevon Stewart, and denied the Owls another touchdown by forcing a goal-line fumble. On the other side of the ball, Greg Ward, Jr. seems to be settling into his new job as quarterback. Ward was remarkably efficient, completing 29 of 33 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. He, along with running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow, also managed a healthy 171 yards and one TD on the ground.

The Bad: The Houston defense gave up a couple of big plays to Temple wide receiver Jahad Thomas, who had gains of 74 and 72 yards on a pair of well-executed screen plays. Neither play resulted in a touchdown - the Houston defense held Temple to a field goal the first time and forced the aforementioned goal-line fumble the second time - but I can't help but wonder if the absences of cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews, both of whom sustained season-ending injuries last week, played a part in those big plays. Kicker Kyle Bullard continued to struggle, as one of his field goal attempts hit the uprights. And that offensive line... Ugh!

The Ugly: The game was marred by penalties: Temple was flagged 11 times for 93 yards and the Cougars were penalized 10 times for 102 yards. Several Houston penalties resulted in stalled offensive drives, including two holding penalties that negated what would have been excellent Kenneth Farrow runs. Honestly, the Cougars should have scored more than 31 points in this game, and probably could have if they had not kept shooting themselves in the foot with penalties on offense.

What it Means: Houston is now above .500 for the first time this season and is 2-1 in conference. They are technically still in the hunt for the AAC title, but they'll need some help to get there.

The Cougars get a week off before traveling to Tampa to take on the South Florida Bulls.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Houston 28, Memphis 24

After falling behind by two touchdowns early in the game, the Cougars rallied back in the second half to manage a rarity under the Tony Levine regime: a road win over a favored team.

The Good: Houston's defense forced five turnovers, including two critical ones late in the game which kept Memphis from potentially taking the lead. Greg Ward, making his first start at quarterback, passed for 188 yards and a touchdown and rush for 95 yards and a touchdown, including a 64-yard scramble in the second quarter to get the Coogs on the board.

The Bad: As Matt Jackson notes, much of Houston's offensive gains were the result of Greg Ward's ability to improvise when plays break down. He is getting no protection from the Coogs' paper-thin offensive line. Special teams are abysmal; they fumbled a kickoff that led to an easy Memphis score, and Kyle Bullard missed his only field goal attempt of the night.

The Ugly: Two of Houston's better defensive players: cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews, were injured during the game and will miss the remainder of the season. That's a huge hit to a defense that has been the team's lone strength this season.

What it Means: This was a big win for the Coogs, who reach the halfway point of the 2014 season with a 3-3 record.

Next up for the Coogs are the Temple Owls, who come to town for a Friday night ESPN game at TDECU Stadium.

Erasure at Bayou Music Center

I rarely go to concerts, but given that Erasure is one of my favorite bands - yes, I admit it - and given that I hadn't seen them in concert since the mid-'90s, my attendance at their concert at the Bayou Music Center last Saturday evening was pretty much mandatory. (I actually attended two concerts last weekend: the ex-wife [!] dragged me to the Toyota Center to see Katy Perry [!!] on Friday night.)

The veteran British synthpop duo was playing two nights in Houston as a part of a tour supporting their latest album, The Violet Flame, and they did play a handful of songs from that album. Their set, however, was dominated by hits from their mid-'80s-to-early-'90s heyday. Which is perfectly fine: that's what the crowd, which skewed fortysomething, came to came to dance and sing along to, and they did not leave disappointed.

In contrast to the elaborate productions that past Erasure tours were known for, this show was rather stripped-down: no sets, no props, no fancy costumes or dancers; just Vince Clarke at his laptop and keyboard (he played an acoustic guitar for a few songs), Andy Bell at the microphone, and a couple of backup singers. And again, that was perfectly fine.

As somebody who occasionally gets grief for liking Erasure - people tell me that synthpop "sucks," that Vince Clarke's compositions are formulaic bubblegum, that Erasure is a "gay" band (whatever that means) - I found it extremely enjoyable to be able to sit in a venue with thousands of like-minded fans singing along to "Star" or "A Little Respect." Maybe it's nostalgia, but they have created some truly classic songs.

Alas, before I knew it, the concert was over. And that's my one gripe: their set was barely 90 minutes long. I wish they could have gone another thirty minutes or so. It's not like they were running out of great songs to include in the setlist; they only played one song apiece from Wonderland and I Say I Say I Say, and nothing at all from Cowboy (one of their better albums IMHO) or the Crackers International EP.

The length of the show aside, I had a great time. These guys always put on a good performance; age has not diminished Andy's vocal chops or his ability to work the crowd in the least. Hopefully Vince and Andy will make their way back to Houston soon, with a slightly longer setlist.

Chris Gray's Houston Press review of the concert is here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Houston 12, Central Florida 17

Last Thursday's game was the first time the Cougars were held without an offensive touchdown since a 50-3 loss to Michigan in 2003. Houston had a late chance to win the game; however, while reaching out for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown with about half a minute left, Greg Ward fumbled the ball through the endzone, securing the victory for Central Florida.

The Good: Kyle Bullard accounted for all of Houston's points by hitting field goals of 39, 42, 51 and 49 yards; he had no misses. The Cougar defense held Central Florida to 10 first downs and 228 yards for the game; the two touchdowns they gave up were the result of being put in bad field position by the offense.

The Bad: Where to begin? John O'Korn's performance at quarterback - he completed only 12 of 28 passes for 98 yards, was intercepted twice, and was flagged for a personal foul penalty on the second play of the game - was so abysmal that he was benched in the second half in favor of Greg Ward (who isn't even the second-string QB on the depth chart). The receivers dropped way too many catchable passes; Deontay Greenberry had a particularly bad night in that regard. Central Florida dominated the Cougars at the line of scrimmage, and the Cougars were flagged 11 times for 99 penalty yards.

The Ugly:  Sometimes I wonder if offensive coordinator Travis Bush is actually calling plays, or if he just has a trained monkey pull plays out of a hat for him. For example, early in the game the Cougars found themselves with first and goal at UCF's two yard line. However, a truly ridiculous set of play calls, along with poor offensive execution, meant that the Cougars came away with no points. That set the tone for the evening, at least until Greg Ward came in and gave the offense a much-needed spark by playing what amounted to sandlot football.

What it Means: At this point, it's clear that Travis Bush, and very probably head coach Tony Levine, are in over their heads. Unless they can turn things around - quickly - one or both of them will likely be unemployed by seasons' end.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Memphis. I can't say I'm optimistic about that one.

Are lanes on urban streets too wide?

The typical width of a lane on a highway or freeway is twelve feet. That might be fine for higher speed traffic in rural areas, but Jeff Speck argues that it's too wide for streets in urban areas, and that urban traffic lanes should be no more than ten feet in width. Speck points the finger at traffic engineers, who have designed urban streets using geometries meant for highways because they think it is safer for motorists:
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.

They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in compete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who's texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.

The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you're good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.

Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?

All of these factors matter, and others, too. The simplest one to discuss, and probably the most impactful, is lane width. When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don't fit.
Speck goes on to lay out the case for narrower traffic lanes on city streets. He points out that the AASHTO "Green Book," which guides the geometric design of streets and roadways, says that 10-foot lanes are acceptable in urban areas, and cites studies showing that narrower lanes are no more dangerous, and in some cases safer, than standard 12-foot lanes in terms of accident rates. He argues that wider lanes cause motorists to drive faster, which results in accidents that cause more injuries and deaths than accidents that occur at lower speeds. Speck maintains that narrower lanes do not impede traffic flow in urban areas and that re-striping urban streets from 12-foot lanes to 10-foot lanes will make them safer for pedestrians as well as create enough extra space for buffered bike lanes.

Speck's arguments are ones I have heard before and generally agree with. In my experience, however, the most ardent proponents of wider lanes are not traffic engineers, but fire departments, who insist that their apparatus can only be safely handled by 12-foot lanes (and indeed, the comments to Speck's article make note of this). There's also the issue of semi trucks and buses being able to safely turn from narrower lanes. And, to be honest, I sometimes feel more comfortable by the extra space that those 12-foot lanes provide between myself and the moron in the Tahoe or F-250 next to me who is talking on his cell phone and not paying attention to the guy in the lane next to him. 

Which brings up a point: at the end of the day drivers are responsible for their own behavior, including the ability to safely navigate down streets, regardless of lane width.