Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!

Wishing everybody a safe and enjoyable New Year's Eve and a happy and prosperous 2015!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Goodbye Tony Levine, Hello Tom Herman

So why did the University of Houston fire head coach Tony Levine, who had an overall winning record, was coming off a consecutive winning seasons (the Cougar’s first since ‘08-‘09) and was set to take his team to a bowl game? The Houston Press’s John Royal explains:
Tony Levine was fired because his team lost 27-7 to UTSA in the very first game played in Houston's brand-new TDECU Stadium -- a game in which the Cougars were double-digit favorites. He was fired because his team lost to a then two-win Tulane team 31-24, a game that was UH's homecoming game and a game in which UH was, once again, a double-digit favorite.

Levine was fired because the team trailed SMU at the half (SMU won just one game this season) and because it barely defeated Tulsa, another game against a bad opponent in which the Cougars were heavy favorites. He was fired because his record as head coach was a mediocre 21-17 and the team appeared to be trending downwards.

The Cougars fired Levine because he insisted on making Travis Bush his offensive coordinator this season despite Bush having failed miserably at this job during the 2012 season. He was fired because QB John O'Korn, who was the AAC's offensive rookie of the year in 2013, turned into the second coming of Matt Schaub this season. Levine was fired by UH because the Cougars let SMU score 72 points in 2012 and because the team lost 30-13 to Texas State in the very first game played by that school on the FBS level.
You can add last January’s BBVA Compass Bowl blowout – the Cougars didn’t even show up to play until the second half – to Levine’s failures as head coach at Houston. The fact is, Levine simply wasn’t ready to be a head coach, and although I’m sure he is a good guy who tried his best, his mediocre record, his continually unprepared and uninspired teams, and his recurring losses to vastly inferior programs spoke for themselves. UH AD Mack Rhoades did the right thing by cutting Levine loose before the program slipped further. 

Rhoades and the Cougars announced Levine’s replacement last week: current Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who will officially take over once the Buckeyes either win or are eliminated from the College Football Playoff. Herman, who was officially introduced as the Coogs' next head coach at a press conference last Friday, recently won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant college football coach and seems to be regarded as an up-and-comer by pigskin pundits nationwide. Back to the Houston Press, whose Sean Pendergast lists three reasons why this is a good hire for the Coogs:
1. Herman has deep ties to the state of Texas, having started his coaching career as a graduate assistant on Mack Brown's staff at Texas in the late 90's before moving on to Sam Houston State as wide receivers coach from 2001 through 2004. From there, he was the architect of prolific offenses at Texas State (conference scoring leaders in 2005 and 2006) and Rice (broke 40 school records in two seasons, 2007 and 2008), before heading north to Iowa State (2009-2011) and Ohio State (2012-2014). Herman's experience in Texas, along with his offensive style, should pay immediate dividends on the recruiting trial.

2. As outlined in the previous paragraph, Herman's calling card everywhere he has coordinated has been wildly prolific offenses. For a Houston fan base that was reenergized in the early 2000's by Art Briles' offenses and then from 2008 through 2011 with Kevin Sumlin's system, the Levine Era was comparatively one big sad face emoji offensively, plagued by a revolving door at offensive coordinator (as mentioned, four in three years). For a school that just invested nine figures in a new venue, a more watchable brand of offensive football is practically a necessity for survival attendance-wise. Herman's offensive pelts on the wall are impressive, capped off by a 59-0 win in the Big Ten title game with Ohio State's third string quarterback Cardale Jones starting.

3. A more watchable, winning product coached by one of the hottest head coaching prospects in the country should be much more marketable to the Big 12 if indeed the conference chooses to expand to twelve teams any time soon. The conference that Houston resides in now (the American Athletic Conference) is in perpetual danger of disintegrating and will always be a target to be raided by the big boys. Houston's primary goal, above anything else, needs to be ensuring that it's a target of a raid not a victim of the fallout. Ultimately, a U of H move to the Big 12 may just not be in the cards, but hiring Herman is undoubtedly a plus in this effort. 
I am also skeptical of a Big 12 invite, but the fact is that the University of Houston did not invest in a new stadium just to lose to teams like UTSA, be an also-ran in the relatively weak American Athletic Conference, and watch crowds for its home games steadily dwindle as the city’s notoriously fair-weather, front-runner fanbase lost interest in the program. If Houston Cougar football truly is to become nationally relevant again, it simply can't remain mired in mediocrity that was the Levine regime.

Obviously Herman has yet to coach a game for the Cougars, and there’s always a risk associated with hiring somebody without a head coaching track record, but for what it’s worth I like this hire. Herman has a strong coaching pedigree and I think his Texas connections as well as his offensive philosophy will serve him well at Houston.

If Herman is successful at Houston, it is probable that he will move on to another job at a higher profile school in a three or four years. That’s fine with me, because it will have meant that he left the program in better shape than he found it; my only request for Coach Herman is that he not screw the Cougars the way Kevin Sumlin did when he left for Texas A&M (who cost the Coogs a Sugar Bowl appearance by spending too much time negotiating with the Aggies and too little time preparing for the Conference USA Championship Game).

Herman will become the highest-paid football coach in UH history with a $6.75 million, five-year contract. Apparently he was given a decent amount of money for assistant hires as well, and those will prove key to his success here. Herman has indicated that he would like to retain defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who will serve as the Cougars’ interim head coach for their bowl game against Pitt on January 2, as DC in his new staff. Former Longhorn QB Major Applewhite is apparently being considered to serve as Herman’s OC. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Houston adds two new airlines in two weeks

Last week, the Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) announced that they would begin daily nonstop service between Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport and Tokyo's Narita International Airport, starting next June. This service, when implemented, would be in addition to United's existing daily nonstop between Houston and the Japanese capital.* As United and ANA are both Star Alliance members, these services appear to be designed to complement each other and feed into each other's networks.

Today, it was announced that Taiwanese carrier EVA Air will begin service between IAH and Taipei's Taoyuan International airport. This service, also set to begin in June, would initially operate three times a week and expand to four flights a week in July. EVA Air is also a member of Star Alliance.

This will add Taiwan to Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and Singapore (via Moscow) on the list of East Asian/Pacific Rim cities accessible from Houston by either a nonstop or direct flight. As I've said before and will say again, this can only be a good thing for Houston and its economy. What city will be next? Bangkok? Kuala Lumpur?

Meanwhile at the city's other airport, Southwest has announced that it has filed applications to fly to Cancun, Los Cabos, Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Belize City, Belize from Hobby Airport beginning next year. As the article notes, the services to Mexico are subject to a complicated agreement between the United States and Mexico regarding the number of carriers that can fly between US and Mexican city pairs.

Southwest already plans to fly between Hobby and Aruba once every Saturday starting in March, which would be the first international service from that airport since Intercontinental opened in 1969. The service can begin before Hobby's international terminal is finished because Aruba's Queen Beatrix airport has US Customs preclearance facilities.

(*Last year United announced that they were implementing a second daily nonstop between Houston and Tokyo, but I can only find one flight per day in their online booking interface.)

2014 Houston Cougar football attendance

While we wait for the University of Houston to officially announce their new head coach - as of this evening, it appears that Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman is set to get the job - it's time for my annual update to the Houston Cougar football wins-versus-attendance graph:

The Coogs averaged 28,314 fans per game over seven home games, which is a 4,058 fans/game increase over the 2013 season. That actually sounds decent, given Houston's historical attendance woes. The attendance gets a boost from the 40,775 fans that showed up for the UTSA game; a large number of them did not return after witnessing that embarrassing debacle, and if you take that game out of the mix then Houston's home average falls to 26,237.

It's also worth mentioning that this average is based on tickets sold, not actual butts in the seats. This was increasingly obvious as the season wore on; the announced crowd of 23,572 for the Tulsa game was probably thrice the number of people actually in TDECU Stadium for that game. While the team's mediocre performance through the course of the season probably caused some people to stop going to the games, it's also very likely that a lot of people were so excited by the prospect of a new stadium that they brought extra seats (for example, as part of their season ticket package) that ended up going unused most of the time.

Had Tony Levine remained head coach, the Cougars would probably be looking at a steep decline in season ticket renewals in 2015 which would in turn negatively effect attendance in the coming season. That is no doubt one of the major reasons for his departure (along with the fact that, well, you can't lose to double-digit underdogs like UTSA and Tulane at home and expect to continue to have a job), but it remains to be seen if the new coach will reignite enough enthusiasm among the fanbase to keep season ticket numbers stable.

(Graph updated 1/8/15 to include Houston's bowl game win over Pittsburgh.)

Monday, December 08, 2014

Alabama-Birmingham drops football

Last week was a sad one for Blazer players, coaches, fans and alumni:
UAB is shutting down its football program.
The university announced the decision Tuesday, minutes after president Ray Watts met with Blazers players and coaches, while several hundred UAB students and fans gathered outside for the third straight day in efforts to support the program. UAB made the decision after a campus-wide study conducted by a consulting firm over the past year.

"The fiscal realities we face -- both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint -- are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the athletic department and UAB," Watts said in a statement released by the university. "As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the athletic department, football is simply not sustainable."

UAB said in a release that it subsidizes $20 million of the athletic department's operating budget of some $30 million annually, and said both those numbers rank fifth in Conference USA. The university said the difference over the next five years would be an extra $49 million with football, including a projected $22 million needed for football facilities and upgrades.
UAB's problems, however, weren't just financial. They were also political:
Part of the problem, according to UAB football supporters and former players, is that the university doesn’t have its own board of trustees and is controlled by the University of Alabama System board, which oversees campuses in Birmingham, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. 
Thirteen of the 15 trustees received undergraduate or law degrees from the University of Alabama, including Paul W. Bryant Jr., the son of legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. 
Only three board members have academic ties to UAB. One of them, Barbara Humphrey, is the wife of former Crimson Tide star running back Bobby Humphrey. 
“Some of the folks on that board would rather destroy UAB than beat Auburn,” said Alabama state Rep. Jack Williams, an outspoken supporter of UAB football. 
UAB football supporters have long argued the board of trustees has sought to hamper the program’s success. In 2006, UAB had reached an agreement with Jimbo Fisher to become its new football coach. But the board of trustees nixed the deal, and Fisher, who was then LSU’s offensive coordinator, went to Florida State the next season. He succeeded Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden in 2010 and guided FSU to a BCS national championship last season. 
In 2011, UAB announced plans to build a 30,000 on-campus stadium, which would have allowed them to leave the cavernous-yet-crumbling Legion Field. However, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees shot that plan down as well. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Board did not want UAB football to succeed; as's Jon Solomon reported last month, apparently there was personal animus involved:
Simmering under the surface of this debate is the role of powerful trustees with Crimson Tide ties, including Paul Bryant Jr., the son of the legendary Alabama football coach. To UAB supporters, there is no doubt Bryant Jr. plans to finally kill UAB football before he leaves the board this year after a decades-old feud tied to Gene Bartow, the late founder of UAB athletics.

Bartow accused Bear Bryant of cheating in a letter to the NCAA in 1991.

"Gene Bartow, out of his mouth, told me on many, many occasions that the aim of the board of trustees was to kill UAB football in the last 8-10 years," said Jimmy Filler, UAB's biggest booster and the creator of the UAB Football Foundation. "They're going to get the recommendation from [UAB President Ray Watts], and they'll accept what he brings to them."
The Board's meddling aside, UAB football faced a genuine financial crisis, the same one that many other smaller schools with lesser-known programs are facing as well:
In many ways, UAB football symbolizes the have-nots in college football -- schools with limited resources for such an expensive sport. It's a divide that's only going to widen due to NCAA autonomy and pending court cases. Athletes are going to receive more benefits from universities, such as cost of attendance, and consideration of those extra expenses is a large part of UAB's strategic study.

Like many lower-resourced Division I schools, UAB has drained money on football. From 2006 to 2013, UAB athletics received $85.4 million in direct institutional support and $28.4 million from student fees. Subsidies accounted for 64 percent of UAB's athletic revenue in fiscal year 2013, though the university's support declined by $1.4 million that year in a rare instance when subsidies decreased.
Although UAB won six games and qualified for a bowl for only the second time in their program's history, they were not invited to any bowl games, so their victory over Southern Miss at the end of November will be the last game in the program's history.

UAB began playing football in 1991 and moved up to FBS (Division I-A) in 1996. The Blazer program went 119-152-2 over its 24 seasons of existence, including an all-time record of 4-5 against Houston. (Their very first win as a member of Conference USA was against Houston; that game ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back as far as Kim Helton's disastrous tenure at UH was concerned, and it's worth mentioning that the same consultant who recommended to the UAB administration that they shut down their program, Bill Carr, hired Kim Helton when he was Houston's AD. So Carr clearly has experience in killing, or almost killing, football programs...)

Alabama-Birmingham is the first FBS school to drop football since Pacific University ended their program in 1995. Fivethirtyeight's take on the Blazers' demise is here.

Houston 31, Cincinnati 38

It could have been a blowout: the Cougars were trailing by 18 points late in the third quarter, and things looked bleak. But the Cougars cut the Bearcats' lead to a touchdown in the 4th quarter and in the game's final minute marched down to the Cincinnati 11-yard-line, hoping to tie things up. Unfortunately, the Cougars threw three incomplete passes into the endzone, and the Bearcats hung on to win the game and a share of the AAC title.

The Good: Running back Kenneth Farrow was in beast mode once again, as he carried the ball 19 times for 138 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Greg Ward added another 84 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries of his own. Ward also completed 27 of 45 pass attempts for 360 yards and two touchdowns through the air; his 89-yard strike to a wide-open Markeith Ambles was Houston's longest touchdown pass since the Run and Shoot era. With 594 total yards gained, the UH offense was definitely not the problem in this game.

The Bad: In what has been a trend over the last few games of the season, the Cougar defense struggled. The losses of cornerback Lee Hightower and linebacker Derrick Mathews have certainly hurt, but have opposing offenses also gotten wise to defensive coordinator David Gibbs' schemes?  The run defense yielded 160 yards and three touchdowns to Cinci RBs Mike Boone and Rodriguez Moore, and the pass defense allowed Cinci's two quarterbacks (Gunner Kiel played the first half; Munchie LeGaux the second) to pass for 348 yards and two touchdowns. The secondary also dropped what would have been an easy pick-six that could have completely changed the nature of the game. In fact, the defense's streak of consecutive games with a turnover came to an end after 34 games.

What It Means: The Cougars end the regular season with a 7-5 record, which is enough to get them into the Armed Forces bowl against Pittsburgh in Fort Worth on January 2nd. However, this season can only be described as a disappointment, and for the reason head coach Tony Levine will not be joining them. I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming post. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Gettin’ crazy with Google Street View

I don’t remember exactly why I was looking at this particular location in Google Street View, but I and found this very, um, interesting scene (apparently taken in August 2014) in front of the Bank of America at the corner of OST and La Salette in Southeast Houston:

I’m not sure what is happening here. Is the pedestrian extending the middle finger to the driver of the silver Nissan a panhandler, angry that he or she won’t give him any change? Did the driver and the pedestrian get into an altercation somewhere, such as inside the bank or in front of the Taco Bell next door? Is this some sort of domestic disturbance? Or was this tableau staged for the passing Google Street View cam?

Interestingly, this little bit of weirdness can be viewed in Google Maps, but not in Google Earth; in that app, Street View reverts back to imagery taken in 2013 when it gets to this particular intersection. Somebody else must have noticed this scene and complained about it.

I'm not complaining; I just want an explanation...

Houston 35, Southern Methodist 9

It’s a pattern that has repeated itself all season: the Cougars start out slowly against an inferior opponent and fall behind. Sometimes they lose (UTSA, Tulane). But sometimes the opponent is just so bad that the Coogs can’t help but win. Such was the case last Friday in Dallas: after an early score, the Cougars fell behind the winless SMU Mustangs and trailed at halftime, 7-9. But the Cougars held the Ponies scoreless in the second half, while the offense scored 28 straight points, and Houston notched its seventh win of the season.

The Good: Kenneth Farrow had another monster game, carrying the ball 18 times for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns. Quarterback Greg Ward rushed another 14 times for 93 yards and three touchdowns. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, held SMU to a single touchdown, ten first downs and 223 total yards for the entire game.

The Bad: Houston’s sluggish first-half start included a missed field goal, two failed fourth down conversion attempts, an interception, two sacks and a safety. It really was some truly awful football. Fortunately, they got it together in the second half.

The Ugly: See above.

What it Means: The Coogs secure a winning season with the win. The regular season ends with a trip to Cincinnati to face the Bearcats next Saturday.

When the "creative class" gets displaced

If you live in Houston, then by now you might be aware of local writer Anis Shivani ominously-titled jeremiad, How Oligarchs Destroyed a Major American City.

I originally saw the article last week, when a friend of mine posted it on Facebook. Shivani rails against the what he sees as the unyielding march of corporate-driven inner-west-Houston gentrification, which is changing the character of the city and is forcing him to leave his pleasant apartment on tree-lined Steel Street, near the corner of Kirby and West Alabama and only a few blocks away from the mansions of River Oaks. "Houston has transmogrified into a city ruled by a brutal strain of neoliberalism," Shivani laments. "It took only a few short years for developers to displace the original population of the central neighborhoods, while converting the core city into an exclusive playland for the rich."

The first time I read the article, I was sympathetic to his plight, not only because I also rent in a nice part of town (and therefore live with the fear that the landlord will sell this property out from underneath me at any moment), but also because some of the recent development occurring on the west side of downtown truly is ugly schlock that drives up rents for everybody, makes traffic worse, and will likely sit vacant and deteriorating after the next oil bust occurs. I also felt, however, that Shivani's understanding of the economic forces behind his predicament was rather naive. Houston, after all, is a developer-friendly city. It's been that way since the Allen Brothers founded it, and it's the reason why it has such laughably weak historic preservation codes and why it's the largest city in the nation without zoning.

But after giving the article a second, closer look, I realized something: Shivani's not naive. He's whiny, entitled, illogical and generally clueless. As the Houston Press's Angelica Leicht explains in a must-read critique:
Shivani starts right off by saying that the desirability of Steel Street has made him and his neighbors victims of the leveraging of urban space. 

"My neighbors and I are currently being affected by what I consider the most monstrous example of gentrification in Houston," he says. "My neighbors on Steel Street -- at the Kirby and Alabama intersection, arguably the single most desirable location in Houston -- and I have become victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space by those who falsely assert that the market alone decide outcomes." (Emphasis added.)

But while this argument may work for Shivani, it's hard for us to equate "victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space" with folks affluent enough to live on the corner of West Alabama and Kirby. 

What Shivani also fails to note is that the area of Upper Kirby has not been any sort of "urban space" since the 1980s, when the average person could afford to live there. Still, Shivani insists that gentrification is taking over the area, and he cites the rising rents -- which, remarkably enough, he compares to those in New York City -- and corporate indifference as having stamped out the area's intimacy.

He even goes so far as to note the changing face of Montrose in the early 2000s as a prime example of a neighborhood surviving a residential change without being gentrified.

"Artists, writers and eccentrics from around the country descended in droves in the 2000s to take advantage of Houston's livability. They flocked to the legendary 'gayborhood' of Montrose and brought other neighborhoods around downtown to life," Shivani says. "I called Houston in those halcyon years 'Austin-plus' because it had a lot of the capital's aesthetic attractions in addition to remarkable diversity and friendliness."

There's a problem with Shivani's Montrose logic, though. While the author may believe that the influx of creatives into Montrose was a positive change, free from the displacement of residents, he's merely reframing the gentrification that took place in the city's now formerly gay area during that time.
The same people Shivani claims were just taking advantage of the area's livability were responsible for the gentrification of that area, a process after which many of the residents in the once-affordable neighborhood had been forced out. What happened in Montrose was the same type of injustice the writer is complaining about, yet he appears oblivious to that.
Shivani then detours into a tinfoil-hat non-sequitur about Memorial Park: he decries the fact that so many of the trees there were "supposedly killed" by the drought, but suggests that the trees were actually destroyed as an "excuse to 'redevelop'." He calls the recently-unveiled Memorial Park master plan a "boondoggle" that is intended to "take down pristine ecological systems and rebuild them for commercial ends," even though the entire purpose of the master plan is to restore a portion of the park to its original, coastal-prairie-like condition so that it can better sustain the ravages of future droughts.

Things get even more bizarre from there, as Shivani singles out the closure of a mediocre Tex-Mex restaurant as proof of the corporate oligarchy's destruction of his neighborhood and its character. Back to Angelica Leicht:
But as misguided as Shivani's arguments are up to this point, they get downright weird when he uses Taco Milagro, which used to sit at the corner of Westheimer and Kirby, as an example of the hazards of gentrification. 

"Taco Milagro, at the intersection of Kirby and Westheimer, used to be a lively public-private space. The food was very healthy and people from all over the city danced the night away and congregated on the large patio. But at the gateway to River Oaks, with condominiums going up all around, this open space was unacceptable, so Taco Milagro suddenly shut down," he says.

The closing of an upscale taco place, which once sat in an upscale strip center with an upscale cigar bar, is not what gentrification looks like, but again, Shivani seems oblivious to that. 

The entire premise of that argument -- the downfall of a Thursday night hot spot with overpriced margaritas, which was never a bastion of inner-city living -- is so entirely privileged that it's laughable, and furthermore, it just doesn't work.
The further you get into the article, in fact, the more you realize that Shivani probably doesn't understand what true gentrification really is.
Shivani never once sells us on the supposed gentrification of Upper Kirby in his article, even with all those words. What he does sell us on, though, is how privileged he is. It's a point that is driven home when Shivani inexplicably tries to differentiate himself from poor welfare recipients.

"We're not homeless, we're not welfare recipients, we're the backbone of Houston, tens of thousands of hardworking residents who put the city in the position of promoting itself as a cultural destination in the first place," he says. "We ride bikes or walk; we loyally support local establishments; we love our neighborhoods and treasure them, yet we are the ones whose lives are destroyed."

In saying this, Shivani seems blissfully unaware that such examples -- bike lanes, a vibrant local business scene -- are luxuries that many longtime residents of gentrified areas only get to enjoy right before they're priced out of their homes.
Which begs the question: how long was the Steel Street apartment complex Shivani's "home," anyway? His bio says that he has lived in Houston for two decades. Has he lived in that complex the entire time? If so, he's been paying rent (and assuming the risks that come with renting, such as being forced to relocate on short notice) the entire time. Sure, buying property is expensive, and people don't always have the financial wherewithal to do it (I'm trying to get to that place right now). But think how much equity he'd have in an actual house by now, if he had brought something like a Montrose bungalow 15 or 20 years ago, when prices were still affordable and before the corporate oligarchs began their onslaught into "the single most desirable location in Houston." The same goes for some of Shivani's displaced neighbors: a guy with a law degree from UT who has lived there for 40 years, and another man who has lived there for 30.

Ironically, when Shivani speaks of some of his displaced neighbors, he unwittingly describes what gentrification truly is:
Mark (a University of Houston graduate student in literature) and his yoga-teaching wife Lisa also grew a vegetable garden; they have since reluctantly departed to east Houston, the reservoir du jour for the displaced.
In other words, educated, upwardly-mobile members of the "creative class" who have moved to the east side of downtown, where homes are still affordable, and are in turn probably displacing some truly low-income family. This is what is known as real gentrification.

Towards the end of his rant, Shivani suggests some "basic initiatives in the spirit of developing a more progressive urban policy" that Houston should consider. Among them:
An arbitration committee should provide a mechanism for future disputes between neighborhoods and developers, to reduce the power of developers working through the planning commission. The planning commission's arbitrary powers should be severely curtailed.
The planning commission's powers are not "arbitrary." They are carefully delineated by city ordinance and state law. Shivani is utterly ignorant of what powers municipal planning commissions in this state have and do not have, as specified by Texas Local Government Code. And then this:
Rents should be regulated in central districts to retain the kind of people who create urban vitality. A plan should be set in place to make aesthetically appealing housing available at modest cost in historic neighborhoods, in order to counter renewed segregation.
Yes. Rent control to "create urban vitality."Because Shivani is a "creative" who "keeps things real," and therefore the rest of us need to subsidize his rent so he can continue to live in the nicest part of Houston. If Shivani thinks that initiatives such as these would ever fly in a place like Houston, he is simply divorced from reality.

Of course, the purpose of his polemic is not to open up a dialogue about how to reform urban redevelopment efforts in Houston; it's simply an article designed to elicit sympathy and outrage from coastal elites who are just as privileged as Shivani and whose opinion of Houston as a soulless redneck hellhole in the middle of flyover country (even though they've never actually set foot in this city) needs to be reinforced. This is why his screed was published by left-leaning outlets like Alternet and Salon.

Those of us who actually live here, however, know better. Leicht, one last time:
The injustice of the redevelopment of Steel Street -- if "injustice" is what you really want to call it -- is hardly interchangeable with actual gentrification. In cases of true gentrification, the displaced aren't allotted options, and they are certainly not allowed a forum like Alternet to air their grievances. 

Just ask some of the original residents of the East End or Oak Forest, where gentrification is actually happening. You might not find too many of them commenting on Shivani's article or blogging in solidarity, though. Perhaps they're too busy working and trying to find a rent that's feasible for their low-income, welfare-recipient asses to care.
There's also a good discussion about this article on Swamplot, although Shivani himself seems to think that those who comment there are merely "boosters locked into the developers' myopic viewpoint." Which makes me wonder if maybe he's just trolling everyone.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Houston 38, Tulsa 28

It was a lot closer than it needed to be, but the Cougars managed to edge out a win over the 2-9 Tulsa Golden Hurricane to become bowl-eligible for the second consecutive season.

The Good: Running back Kenneth Farrow dominated Tulsa’s hapless defense, carrying the ball 21 times for 116 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Wide receiver Steven Dunbar, a true freshman, had a breakout game with seven receptions for 150 yards. The defense continued its turnover-forcing ways by intercepting Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans three times, all in the fourth quarter, to seal the win.

The Bad: The Cougars jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but then let their foot off the gas and allowed Tulsa to tie things up in the second half. The Golden Hurricane matched the Coogs score-for-score throughout most of the second half and the Cougars couldn’t put the game away until late in the 4th quarter. The Defense struggled for the second game in a row, giving up 25 first downs and 416 total yards to Tulsa.

The Ugly: The athletics department might have distributed 23,572 tickets to this game, as the box score attendance indicates, but hardly anybody used them. Kickoff time was moved up to 11 am to avoid potentially severe weather, and the skies were gray and threatening throughout. That, along with the letdown against Tulane two weeks before, caused a lot of people to stay home and TDECU Stadium was mostly empty for this game.

What it means: The win assures that Houston can do no worse than .500 on the season. Next up is a Black Friday showdown against the SMU Mustangs in Dallas.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Houston 24, Tulane 31

In what has become a pattern under the Tony Levine regime, the Cougars were upset in front of a large (by UH standards, at least) home crowd by an inferior opponent. This time, it was the Tulane Green Wave (2-6 going into Saturday's game) that came to TDECU Stadium and ruined Houston's homecoming. The Cougars, to their credit, did have a chance to send the game into overtime after a late score and recovered onside kick. But Greg Ward threw an interception - his third of the day - as time expired to seal the embarrassing loss.

The Good: The Cougar defense did manage to extend its streak of creating a turnover to 32 straight games. Safety Adrian McDonald recovered a Tulane fumble in the endzone for a Cougar touchdown late in the first half. On the Green Wave's very next possession, he picked off Tulane QB Tanner Lee to set up a Houston field goal. The Cougars went into the locker room at halftime up 17-14, but that was the only time they led the game.

The Bad: Where shall I begin? The Cougar defense, which had been the team's bright spot, gave up 361 yards and 22 first downs to the Green Wave, who converted 10 out of 16 third downs. Lee gashed the Cougar secondary for 237 yards and three touchdown passes. The Cougar running game that looked so good against South Florida last week looked horrible against Tulane; RBs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson managed only 40 yards between them. Greg Ward rushed for 59 yards, but most of those were on scrambles after his protection broke down. He completed 31 of 49 passes but looked indecisive at times; in addition to his three interceptions, he was also sacked three times.

The Ugly: Again, where shall I begin? Deontay Greenberry fumbled on the Cougars' very first play from scrimmage, which more or less set the tone of the game. Kyle Bullard missed two field goals. While the Coogs "only" committed six penalties for 51 yards, they were penalties of the type that sustained Tulane drives and killed Houston ones. And the team simply did not look focused or prepared for this game. This was truly a team loss.

What it Means: The Coogs still only need one win to become bowl-eligible, but this loss - their first to Tulane since Dana Dimel was head coach - probably prevents them from winning a share of the conference title. Moreover, it's just another black eye that is going to cost the program credibility and fan support it simply can't afford to lose.

As for me, I've seen enough: Tony Levine isn't going to get the job done here, and needs to be relieved of his duties as head coach. 

But it comes with a free printer!

I recently found this advertisement in the business section of the July 8, 1993 Houston Post that had been used by my parents to wrap and store something:
That's right, folks: back in the summer of 1993, you could go to Bizmart (soon to become OfficeMax!) and get a state-of-the-art Compaq 486 with a VGA monitor and a 240 MB hard drive for the equivalent of $4,080 2014 dollars.

For purposes of comparison, the 128 GB iPhone 6 with an A8 Processor is 21 times faster, has over 530 times as much storage, and costs about one-tenth as much.

But it doesn't come with a free Epson dot matrix printer.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Houston 27, South Florida 3

The Cougars went to Tampa last Saturday and came away with their third win in a row over struggling South Florida Bull squad.

The Good: The Cougar ground game was the story of the day, gaining 217 yards and three touchdowns on 47 rushing attempts. Kenneth Farrow had 112 yards and one TD on 22 carries; he also caught a Greg Ward pass for another touchdown. Ryan Jackson contributed 62 yards and 2 more scores on 14 carries. The UH defense, meanwhile, kept South Florida out of the endzone.

The Bad: The Houston offense started out slow; their single touchdown in the first half was assisted by a huge USF penalty on fourth down. Kyle Bullard missed an extra point. Otherwise, there wasn't much to complain about this time around. The Cougars even managed to get flagged for only one penalty the entire game.

What it means: The Cougars are now in a five-way tie for the American Athletic Conference lead with East Carolina, UCF, Cincinnati and Memphis. Next up is Tulane at TDECU Stadium.

Two quick election observations

1. Not to belabor the same thought that is being made all over the rest of the internet today, but I think we can forget about Texas being a "purple" or "battleground" state anytime soon.

Yes, this was an election that the Republicans were going to dominate, both nationwide and at the state level. But when the Democratic candidates for statewide office can't even break forty percent against sleazeballs like Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick - or moreover, when statewide Democratic candidates actually lose vote share compared to four years ago - then all the bluster about demographic trends or better voter identification and turnout methods or Battleground Texas or whatever just looks silly.

I'm sure we'll continue to hear about "Texas turning blue" in 2016, and 2018, and 2020. I'm equally sure that state Democrats are not going to have any luck getting their candidates elected to any statewide office in any of those years. If ever. 

2. The state might well be solidly conservative, but my former home of Denton is clearly becoming more liberal. First, there's this:
Denton became the first Texas city to ban hydraulic fracturing Tuesday after a citizen-driven proposition cruised to a landslide victory at the polls.

Final returns showed the fracking ban passing by a whopping 59-41 percent margin all night long. While dozens of cities in New York and elsewhere have banned fracking, Texas is oil and gas country. So Denton’s proposition over the rights of a Texas city to police what happens within its borders pushed it into the national spotlight.

Ed Soph, treasurer of Pass the Ban, said the turnout sent a message.

“The responsible citizens of Denton have spoken — loudly and clearly,” Soph said.
When I worked for the City of Denton, and the Barnett Shale play exploded, everybody was rushing to get special gas well plats approved so that they could drill in and around the city. It was simply the "Texas" thing to do and was largely without controversy. I do remember Mr. Soph being one of the few people who spoke against drilling, and I also remember that he was regarded by local business leaders and elected officials as a tree-hugging jazz professor from UNT whose opinion didn't matter. Looks like times have changed.

The fracking ban will be challenged in court, but yesterday's election result is nevertheless noteworthy, especially considering how opponents of the ban outspent proponents by a massive margin but still lost by a margin of almost 20 percentage points.

Then there's this:
Liquor sales are now legal in Denton, after thousands of voters chose to make all alcoholic beverages legal to sell.
The vote means that Denton bars and restaurants no longer have to get special permits as private clubs to sell hard alcohol, and that businesses can start selling bottles of hard liquor starting Jan. 1.
I've written about the "wet-dry line" in the City of Denton before: basically, beer and wine sales at grocery stores and restaurants were limited to the city's 1977 boundaries, and any land annexed into the city after 1977 was dry. I spent many a meeting trying to explain to prospective convenience store owners why they could not sell beer in wine at their prospective location, even though the convenience store on the other side of the street was already selling alcohol. It was confusing, to say the least, but I was told that it would never change: the the city's churches would fight any attempt to move the wet-dry line, and the city's conservative voters would fall in line behind them. The same went for liquor stores ever being allowed inside Denton city limits.

Well, the wet-dry line was finally erased by a local election in 2006, which was amazing enough. Yesterday's vote, which allows liquor stores inside the city as well as does away with the city's silly "private club" permits for mixed drinks at restaurants and bars, is nothing short of miraculous.

Again, it appears that times have changed.

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.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Houston 47, Nevada - Las Vegas 14

The Cougars took care of business at TDECU stadium last Saturday night, and ended their non-conference schedule with a 2-2 record.

The Good:  The Cougar offense finally got the ground game going, racking up 399 total rushing yards. RB Ryan Jackson had 147 yards on 13 carries, RB Kenneth Farrow had 113 yards and 14 carries, and four of Houston's six touchdowns came on runs. The UH defense, meanwhile, held the Rebels to 16 first downs the entire game and intercepted UNLV three times.

The Bad: QB John O'Korn threw two interceptions, and receivers are still dropping catchable balls. Kicker Kyle Bullard missed an extra point. And why are the Cougars fair-catching punts inside their own ten yard line?

The Ugly: Too many penalties detracted from the overall quality of the game. Houston was flagged nine times for 110 yards and UNLV had 11 flags for 105 yards. Also, although it worked to Houston's advantage, the humidity's effect on the UNLV players was brutal. The Rebel players simply couldn't adjust from the dry desert air of Las Vegas to the steamy conditions of a Houston September night, and were dropping like flies from cramps in the second half.

What it Means: Houston finally gets its first win of the season over an FBS opponent, although nobody is going to mistake UNLV for a good team. A better, and more important, test for the Cougars comes a week from Thursday, when they host the Central Florida Golden Knights.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Houston 25, BYU 33

The 25th-ranked Blue Cougars got the better of the Red Cougars in Provo, Utah last Thursday evening.

The Good: What started out looking like a blowout - BYU led Houston 23-0 at one point in the second quarter - actually turned into a competitive game when the Coogs scored fifteen unanswered points, including a 45-yard hail mary strike from John O'Korn to Daniel Spencer at the end of the first half. This scoring opportunity was created after the Houston recovered a BYU fumble. O'Korn, for his part, actually had a decent night, completing 30 of 57 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns. The UH defense, meanwhile, was able to regroup after falling behind early and hold a potent BYU offense to 10 points in the second half. Although QB Taysom Hill had a relatively good night against Houston, he was also sacked four times and intercepted twice. Houston did not turn the ball over the entire night.

The Bad: The Houston rushing attack continues to be non-existent against FBS competition, managing only 10 rushing yards the entire night. The lack of a running game, along with O'Korn's 27 incomplete passes, made for a horribly inefficient UH offense: they managed only 18 first downs the entire night, while BYU managed 32. The Cougar defense, meanwhile, was torched for 323 BYU rushing yards: Taysom Hill ran for 160 yards, while Jamaal Williams ran for 139.

The Ugly: The safety Houston gave up early in the game was both poorly-called and poorly-executed. Kicker Kyle Bullard had a rough night, missing two extra points and a field goal attempt. And the UH offensive line continues to be an absolute disaster.

What it Means: This one could have been a lot worse; honestly, one gets the sense that BYU became unfocused and let their foot off the gas when they jumped out to such a large early lead. That being said, the Coogs played respectably in a game nobody expected them to win.

Next up for Houston is UNLV at TDECU Stadium on Saturday.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

In other local sports news...

Congratulations to the Astros, who will manage not to lose 100 games for the first time since the 2010 season. The Astros' success this year, if you can call it that, was not enough to save the job of manager Bo Porter. Apparently it wasn't the Astros' win-loss record so much as it was tension between him and general manager Jeff Luhnow that cost him his job after less than two seasons. I was skeptical of the Porter hire at the time - I felt the Astros were in such dire condition that they needed a manager with more experience - but I wish him the best nevertheless. The Astros' next manager will hopefully be somebody with experience as well as the ability to see eye-to-eye with team management.

The Texans, meanwhile, proved me wrong by opening their 2014 season with a 16-7 victory over the  Redskins last Sunday, to notch their first regular-season victory in 51 weeks. The Redskins are awful, mind you, so I'm not prepared to declare the team's troubles over, but hopefully they'll do better than 2-14 this fall. The talent is definitely there on defense - it's not hyperbole to call J.J. Wat the best defensive player in the entire NFL - but the squad needs to stay healthy. In that regard, the injury to first-round draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, which was apparently caused by a seam in the grass at NRG Stadium, is not an encouraging way to start the season. Fortunately, he will only miss a handful of weeks and is not out for the season.

The Texans only managed 10 points on offense (the other touchdown was the result of superb special teams play on a blocked punt), which is not going to win many games. I'm still not sold on new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he's only the second-most important player in this offense. Please, Arian Foster, stay healthy.

Oh, and the Dynamo won last weekend as well. That's their third win in four games, but they still have more work to do if they want to make it to the MLS playoffs. 

All in all it was - relatively speaking - a good weekend for Houston sports.

(And yes, this will probably be the last time I mention the Astros or the Dynamo on this blog for awhile.)

Houston 47, Grambling 0

After an embarrassing loss to open their new stadium last week, the Cougars got back to their winning ways with an easy win over Grambling State last Saturday.

The Good: the Houston offense took advantage of a porous Tiger defense to get back on track, amassing a total of 477 yards, including 275 on the ground. Greg Ward saw some action at quarterback as well, reprising last season's role as a second threat behind center. He ended the night with one rushing touchdown and one passing touchdown. The defense, meanwhile, forced six turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown late in the game.

The Bad: starting quarterback John O'Korn is still having accuracy issues. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 200 yards for only one touchdown on Saturday, and some of his passes weren't even close. Also, too many Houston drives stalled out and ended with field goals. he Cougar offense did not find the endzone at all in the second half. Quite honestly, the Cougars should have beaten this hapless squad by more than 47 points.

The Ugly: aside from their six turnovers, Grambling was flagged 15 times for 147 yards. They are not a good team. For the Cougars, the true ugliness will come on Thursday, when the Cougars travel to Provo, Utah after a short week of rest to play the same BYU Cougars that just obliterated the Longhorns in Austin.

What it Means: it's a win, and wins are good. But aside from that, this game doesn't mean much. Grambling State is one of the worst teams in all of Division 1, having won only two games in the last two seasons. The Cougars need to show that they can beat somebody other than the dregs of FCS before I'll start feeling better about their chances for success in 2014.

Southwest Airlines has a new look

It's very, um, blue.
Southwest Airlines on Monday unveiled a new logo amid a brand overhaul that includes a new look for its aircraft. The new "Heart" paint scheme will be the carrier's first new livery since it introduced its current "Canyon Blue" look in 2001.
                                                                                                                                                            photo: Southwest Airlines
                                                                                                                                                        photo: Southwest Airlines
 The Chronicle's Erin Mulvaney explains ($) that the airline's new look is intended to signal a new era for Southwest as it finishes its absorption of onetime low-cost rival Airtran and begins international service of its own:
The Texas-based carrier on Monday unveiled a new heart-themed logo that will be branded on everything from the underside of its aircraft to its in-flight magazines. Showing off the design change with a pair of freshly repainted 737 jetliners at Dallas' Love Field, Southwest's home hub, executives said the changes represent not a rebranding but a restatement of the airline's customer-friendly nature even as it embarks on a new era that includes international flights.

"It's not a new Southwest, it's an evolved Southwest," the president and CEO, Gary Kelly, said during an event at company headquarters here.

The new aircraft design is dominated by a deeper blue and includes a striped red, yellow and blue tail. The name is emblazoned on the side in a bold sans serif typeface, and the heart-shaped logo of blue, yellow and red is displayed near the door and on the belly.

Southwest, traditionally a low-cost, short-haul carrier, will introduce international flights to the Caribbean and Mexico and celebrate the end of restrictions for longer nonstop flights out of its Dallas hub in the next several weeks.

In Houston, it is funding an international hub at Hobby Airport that will allow it to offer flights to Latin America by 2016.
                                                                                                                                                        photo: Southwest Airlines
Personally, I'm not sure I like the new look. The fuselage looks bland and boring without the red underbelly, and removing the airline's name from its tailfin - were it has been since the airline's inception - seems almost blasphemous. Then there's the heart logo: yes, I get that a heart has always been part of the airline's iconography, but putting it on the airplane's belly just seems cheesy. Perhaps the new look will grow on me over time.

What's more interesting is what the look might represent for Southwest as it completes its evolution from a short-haul, regional carrier to the nation's fourth-largest carrier offering international service. Already, there is evidence that one of the things that made Southwest unique  - the so-called "Southwest Effect" - no longer exists. Does this new look signal that Southwest is about to become "just another carrier" that assigns seats and charges for bags? I shudder at the thought.

Southwest officials say that it could take as long as seven years for the entire fleet to be repainted. Along with the new paint scheme will come new branding at airports, new uniforms for flight staff, and a new marketing campaign. The new logo and look has already made it to the airline's website.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Houston 7, Texas - San Antonio 27

The University of Houston opened a brand new, 40,000-seat football stadium last Friday night. It's too bad the football team itself forgot to show up for the occasion.

The Good: this cool Gigapixel photo of TDECU Stadium taken right before the second quarter. If you look closely, you can see Kirby, my parents and myself sitting in section 309.

The Bad: I knew the offensive line was going to be a weak spot going into the season. But I really didn't think they would be as utterly dominated as they were against the Roadrunners. I knew that Travis Bush was probably not the greatest offensive coordinator in the world. But the sputtering, misfiring, predictable offense looked like it lacked coaching entirely.

Quarterback John O'Korn had a horrible night. The paper-thin o-line gave him no protection (he was sacked four times), he had frequent miscommunications with his receivers, he was picked off by UTSA four times (he also fumbled once), and when he did get the ball to his receivers they oftentimes dropped catchable passes. The ground game was non-existent; the Coogs had -27 yards rushing on the night.

The Cougar defense tried its best to keep the team in the game, but they simply couldn't overcome being put in bad situations by the inept offense. Up 14-0 at the half, the Roadrunners started the third-quarter with a clock-chewing, 60-yard, 13-play drive that ended with a touchdown. With that, the stunned crowd of 40,755 who had expected to see the Cougars open their new home with a solid win instead began heading for the exits.

Cougar special teams fumbled a punt in the first half which led to UTSA's first score.

The Ugly: the fact that the football team was so soundly defeated in the inaugural game in its new stadium is humiliating. Why was this team so thoroughly unprepared to play on Friday night? And why was this the second time in three years that the Cougars have come out so uninspired and overwhelmed in their season opener? This pathetic display falls on head coach Tony Levine, who may have taken a big step towards the unemployment line on Friday night.

What It Means: My preseason prediction of 8-4 looks pretty optimistic right now. If the Cougars continue to play as poorly as they did last Friday, especially on offense, this team will be lucky to manage three or four wins all season. This loss is also going to take a financial toll to the program, as a lot of casual fans and alums who showed up to see the Cougars play in their new stadium last Friday probably won't be back.

The loss did, however, inspire this hilarious Downfall parody, which made me feel better. For a few minutes, at least.

Next up for the Coogs is Grambling State. The Coogs can at least manage a win against one of the worst teams in FCS, right?

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.