Thursday, December 29, 2016

Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl: North Texas 31, Army 38

Since the NCAA started allowing teams with 5-7 records (and high APR scores) to participate in bowl games last season, every team with a losing record had, remarkably, won their bowl game.

Of course, it had to be North Texas to come along last Tuesday and break that streak. 

The 2016 Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl was actually entertaining. The Mean Green rallied from a ten-point deficit to send the game into overtime, but - alas! - couldn't answer the Black Knights' touchdown on their first overtime possession.

North Texas beat Army in the regular season, 35-18, but then went on to lose four out of their next five games and the Mean Green were clearly struggling as they entered this bowl game. UNT ends the season with a 5-8 record, which doesn't sound great but nevertheless represents as many wins as they've accumulated in the last two seasons combined. Here's to hoping that North Texas can continue improving next season.

Army, on the other hand, ends their season on a high note, winning their first bowl game since 2010 only a few weeks after breaking their 14-year drought over arch-rival Navy.

Incidentally, this isn't the first time a 5-7 UNT team has gone bowling. In 2001, they went to the New Orleans Bowl with that record because they won the Sunbelt Conference in spite of their overall losing record. They were then dispatched by Colorado State, 20-45.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

UH football: coaching change, Las Vegas bowl, and season wrapup

When Tom Herman was hired, I wrote the following:
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).
Unfortunately, Tom Herman did indeed screw the Cougars, not because he left for his dream job at Texas after only two years - he clearly had his foot out the door the entire time he was here - but because he abruptly departed immediately following his team's final game of the season and took most of his coaching staff with him in the process, leaving UH to prepare for its bowl game with a skeleton staff and a bumnch of players who felt betrayed and demoralized.

Tom Herman (or "Vermin," as he's now known on UH message boards) will be well-compensated in Austin, to the tune of $28.75 million over five years, plus incentives. I hope he's worth it. Herman has only been a head coach for two years, and while some of his wins have been impressive (Florida State, Oklahoma, Louisville), he's also had some disappointing losses (UConn, SMU). For a man who preaches the importance of winning conference championships, he managed a rather sad 2-3 record in the AAC West this past season, good enough for fourth place. Herman is also a less-than-stellar 6-4 on the road. Those numbers won't cut it on the Forty Acres.

In the wake of Herman's departure, the University of Houston conducted a coaching search that reportedly included high-profile names such as former LSU head coach Les Miles, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and West Virginia head caoch Dana Holgerson, but ultimately settled on promoting from within and elevated offensive coordinator Major Applewhite to the head coach position.

Applewhite took the helm of the program just in time to lead the Cougars to their bowl appearance in Las Vegas against Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State. Even given its status as a lower-tier bowl game, the Las Vegas Bowl would have been a nice win for the Coogs, as it would have assured the Cougars of back-to-back double-digit-win seasons, probably would have earned them a place in the final top 25, and at the very least would have ended a dsappointing season on a high note.

Alas, that didn't happen. The Cougars jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 10-6 at halftime, but completely collapsed in the second half. Greg Ward Jr ended his college career in sour fashion, throwing four interceptions, and the offense could only manage a pathetic 25 rushing yards forthe entire game. The Aztecs scored the game's final 34 points, and SDSU RB Donnel Pumphery broke the NCAA career rushing record against the UH defense. In retrospect, it was probably too much to expect that the Cougars, with its players demoralized and its staff hollowed out, would win this game. But that doesn't make the blowout loss much easier to stomach.

So a season that began with so much promise ends with a whimper: the Cougars failed to win their conference or go to a New Year's Six Bowl, their head coach abruptly abandoned them after only two years (and an entire season of distracting, media-fueled speculation), and, after being ranked as high as #6 during the season, the team won't even crack the season-ending top 25. The Big XII's decision not to expand - the UH program had hoped to be invited into the ranks of the Power Five - only added insult to injury.

Normally, a nine-win season which includes victories over to-ranked Oklahoma and Louisville, and the program's highest average attendance since 1978 would be cause for celebration. But the 2016 UH Cougar football season leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Nothing to do but move forward now. Although I admit to being underwhelmed by the Applewhite hire - the last time the Coogs promoted from within it turned out to be a disaster - I've liked the guy ever since he was quarterback at Texas (he played when I was attending graduate school there) and so I'm giving him the benefit of a doubt. That being said, there are a lot of things he needs to do - quickly - in order to keep the 2017 season from being a true disaster. The first order of business is assembling a staff. Then he has to figure out how to fill the holes going into the 2017 season; the team is losing a lot of talent - Ward, cornerback Brandon Wilson, linebackers Steven Taylor and Tyus Bowser, defensive end Cameron Malveaux, just to name a few - and he also needs to find a way to fix the offensive line, which was the team's most glaring weak spot in 2016. The Chronicle's Joseph Duarte has a list of these and other tasks for Applewhite to attend to.

The 2017 season features games against former SWC foes Rice and Texas Tech and easy, fun road trips to San Antonio and Tulane. The Coogs also get the three teams they lost to this season - SMU, Navy and Memphis - at home next fall. There's certainly reason for optimism heading forward.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Romantic, rapey or just rubbish?

Emily Crockett ponders the 1944 Christmastime standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside:"
When you first hear it, the song seems like a cute, flirty call-and-response duet between a man and his lady friend who are debating whether she should stay the night. On the one hand, what would her parents or the neighbors think? On the other hand, it’s just so cold outside. The ending is ambiguous, but it’s implied that she decides to stay after all, keeping them both warm on a cold winter’s night. 
But when you listen closer, the song’s lyrics also seem, well ... a little rapey. The guy ignores his date’s protests and badgers her to stay, which feels a lot like sexual coercion. At one point the woman asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” — which is pretty alarming to a modern audience that understands how roofies work. The original score even lists the man’s part as “Wolf” and the woman’s part as “Mouse,” making the predator/prey dynamic creepily explicit. 
The song’s legions of defenders argue that those concerns are overblown. They note “What’s in this drink?” was a common joke in the 1930s and ’40s made by people who wanted to make an excuse for something that they knew very well they shouldn’t be doing. And in that more prudish time period, women were expected to turn down sex (at first, anyway) even if they wanted it. 
The vastly different ways people hear the same short song have set off an annual internet battle over its feminist merits. For every think piece calling it a “date-rape anthem,” there’s a corresponding “Oh, come on” take about how oversensitive “social justice warriors” are killing romance and seduction and taking the song’s lyrics out of context. 
Which reading is right? Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” too problematic to enjoy with a clear conscience anymore, or is our perception of it the real problem?
Crockett goes on to break down the song's lyrics, providing both a "rapey" and "romantic" interpretation of each verse, and then goes into a lengthy discussion about the song, its historical context, its modern interpretation, sexual assault, feminism and affirmative consent. The "romantic versus rapey" debate regarding "Baby, It's cold Outside" is not new, and is culturally important.

However, this debate overlooks the most important and fundamental issue regarding this song, which is that IT ABSOLUTELY SUCKS.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the Yuletide equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard. Its call-and-response lyrical structure is obnoxious and annoying, and the lyrics themselves are as vapid as they are creepy. The song is melodically repetitive, monotonous and uninteresting; it lacks the most basic elements of songcraft, such as a bridge or a chorus. What's more, it's not even a song about Christmas; there's no mention of anything holiday-related in the lyrics. "It's cold outside" in January, February and even March, too, depending on where you live, so why is this piece of acoustic crap assumed to be a holiday song?

Look, a lot of Christmas songs are utter garbage. Humanity died a little when "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" were recorded, and don't even get me started on the mind-bending stupidity that is "Christmas Shoes." But "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is the absolute worst. It is unlistenable, a crime against music. I don't know it really is a song about date rape, but I do know that I feel like my ears are being raped every time it is played.

So, please: stop playing this song. Better yet, delete or destroy every copy and every version of this song, and for the love of baby Jesus stop recording new versions of it every year.

The best way to resolve the "rapey versus romantic" debate regarding "Baby, It's cold Outside" - and, in the process, to improve Christmas music as a whole - is to simply erase this horrible excuse for a song out of existence entirely.

Seriously. It sucks.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

UH wins and attendance, 2016

The Cougars are getting ready to face San Diego State in the Las Vegas Bowl next weekend, and are searching for their next head coach (who hopefully will not be this guy). In the meantime, here's my annual update of the Houston wins-versus-attendance graph for UH Cougar Football:

The Coogs averaged 38,953 fans at TDECU Stadium this past season*, which is a 5,666 fan increase over last year and 9,724 fan increase over last two years.

This was also Houston's highest average attendance since 1978 (39,253) and fifth highest in program history (behind 1966, 1967, 1977 and 1978).

I'm not sure that the Cougars will be able to improve on these numbers in 2017, especially since the 2016 season didn't end with the Cotton Bowl appearance that the UH faithful hoped for.

On the other hand, there was a time in this program's history when, if you told me that the Coogs would one day average almost 39k fans per game, I would have laughed in your face.

I will update the "wins" bar on this graph if the Cougars win their bowl game.

* The game against Oklahoma at NRG Stadium is officially considered a neutral site game. Add that game in, and the Coogs averaged 43.5k fans per game in Houston this season.

Checking in on China's road-straddling bus

After making its much-anticipated debut last August, it looks like the innovative transit solution is now, quite literally, collecting dust:
Well, what once looked like a treatment for China’s serious cases of pollution and traffic “is currently causing them,” as Shanghaiist puts it. A local reporter checked up on the 72-foot-long behemoth earlier this month and found it to be right where engineers left it back in August: on the 300-meter test track of a Hebei city road, blocking lanes and gathering a thick layer of dust in an open shed.
And it looks like it won’t be moving any time soon. Shanghaiist reports that the lease for the track was supposed to expire in August, but has since been renewed for another year. Song Youzhou, the designer, insisted his staff still tests the line every week and that his company—which earlier had been accused of operating a Ponzi scheme—is searching for new investors. (He blames the accumulated dust on China’s smog.) But workers still guarding the bus (or more accurately, the train) told local news that they haven’t heard a peep from the company.
I'm not going to lie: I'm a little bit sad about this, because - in spite if its obvious ridiculousness and impracticality in most urban areas - this project intrigued me and I wanted to see if it could actually succeed.

This is not to entirely abandon hope for the road-straddling behemoth; its current problems seem to be more financial than technical and it might yet survive. However, as a transportation planner, I think that transit's future isn't in inventing fancy gadgets that will completely replace the bus, but is rather in making improvements to the bus itself.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Flights from Houston to Havana

They become a reality, starting this Saturday.
United Airlines this week will begin nonstop Saturday flights between Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport and Havana, according to the airline. 
United will operate a Boeing 737 for the Houston flight, as well as daily nonstop service between Newark Liberty International Airport and Havana's José Martí International Airport. Newark flights began Tuesday.
This had been in the works for most of the year. The question is whether this service will actually last

#20 Houston 44, Memphis 48

It's tough for the kids to win - especially on the road - when rumors are swirling about their head coach's imminent departure to another school. Such was the case at Memphis last Friday.

The Good: Down seventeen points at the half, the Cougars mounted a 27-point second half rally and actually led the game with a minute and a half remaining. Greg Ward Jr finished the day with 47 completions on 67 attempts for 487 yards and four touchdowns. He and running back Duke Catalon also combined for 125 rushing yards and a touchdown.

The Bad: The rally simply wasn't good enough, as Memphis scored with 19 seconds remaining to win the game. The same UH defense that shut down Louisville the previous week was utterly embarrassed by the Tigers' offense, surrendering six touchdowns and 555 total yards of offense, while creating no turnovers.

The Ugly: Houston turned the ball over twice and committed 10 penalties for 94 yards. And, as expected, Tom Herman left the Cougars to become the head coach of the Texas Longhorns the following day. I'll have more to say about that later.

What It Means: The loss keeps the Cougars from reaching double-digit wins for the second year in a row, ensures a losing record in the AAC West division, and most likely knocks them out of the top 25. In terms of which bowl game the Cougars go to, however, it probably doesn't change anything.

I'd also like to point out that my preseason prediction of a 9-3 season for the Coogs was spot on. I just didn't expect that one of their wins would be against Oklahoma and one of their losses would be against lowly SMU.

Next up for the Cougars is their bowl game, which will be announced this weekend. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will assume interim head coaching duties for this one while the school, yet again, searches for a new head coach.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Remembering the November 21, 1992 tornado outbreak

Today Space City Weather produced their first installment of Space City Rewind, which looks back at historical weather events in the Houston region. Today's topic was the frightening onslaught of tornadoes across Houston and surrounding counties that occurred exactly 24 yeas ago. Significant damage occurred, but amazingly there were no fatalities.

I remember that day pretty well, because mom and I went to the Sam's Club on Loop 610 south to do some pre-Thanksgiving stocking up and were blissfully unaware of the tornadoes that were streaking across the city as we shopped. We would later learn that one of the most destructive tornadoes missed my cousins, who were living in the Sterling Green subdivision in Channelview at the time, by only a few hundred feet. They were lucky, to say the least; the damage - houses without roofs, etc. - would be visible from their back yard.

The entire article, which (rather wonkily) discusses the atmospheric conditions that caused the tornadoes, the usefulness of then-brand-new Doppler radar in tracking tornadoes, the damage the tornadoes wrought and the aftermath of the disaster, is lengthy but well worth the read. Especially this bottom line:
The takeaway message here is simple: While an outbreak of this magnitude represents an outlier for Southeast Texas, the fact is that it can happen here. Know how to respond to a tornado. Have a plan ready if a tornado is about to bear down on your home. You should also have a method to receive weather warnings at night or when you may be distracted.
All in all, some excellent reporting. You can support them by buying a Space City Weather T-shirt, if you're so inclined!

John Jenkins: ahead of his time?

No coach in the history of the University of Houston football program has been more controversial than John Jenkins, who was the brains behind the Cougars' Run-and-Shoot spectacle of the late '80s and early '90s:
Back then, with coach John Jenkins in charge, Houston was college football's most intriguing and polarizing team. Most coaches believed that defense and running the ball won games; Jenkins laughed at that notion. Instead, his Cougars ran a no-huddle offense and lined up with four receivers on most plays, compiling eye-popping passing statistics and forcing defenses to cover the entire field. 
As precursors to the passing masterminds and spread formations that have transformed contemporary college football, Jenkins and his Houston teams are forgotten disruptors—a coach and a system that were way, way ahead of their time. 
"I think the game's more fun for players now than it was 20 or 30 years ago," says Hal Mumme, a longtime college coach and offensive guru who learned from Jenkins. "And John Jenkins was a big part of changing those attitudes." 
Jenkins only spent six years at Houston: three as offensive coordinator, and three as head coach. He resigned under pressure, and hasn't coached in college again. But he had a lasting impact on the sport. 
Consider: Houston's 1989 offense, which was led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Andre Ware, still holds the NCAA record for passing yards and total yards per game and is second in points per game. One year later, [David] Klingler set several NCAA marks that remain today, including passing yards per game and touchdowns per game. Ware and Klingler, both of whom ran option offenses in high school, became first round NFL draft picks in large part due to their success in Jenkins's offense. 
"It's taken college football 20-some odd years to catch up to what we were doing back then," Klingler says. "And in some ways, they still haven't. That just tells you how much of an offensive genius John Jenkins was."
John Jenkins made a lot of enemies while he was at the University of Houston, especially because of his penchant for running up the score on hapless opponents such as Eastern Washington or an SMU team coming back from the Death Penalty. He focused on offense and neglected defense, with predictable results. He left the UH program under a cloud of scandal* in 1993, after back-to-back losing seasons; his tenure marked the beginning of the nadir of the UH football program. His antics effectively got him blackballed from ever coaching again at the college level; he now is a scout for the Canadian Football League. The Run-and-Shoot offense itself, after having a few years of glory in the NFL in the early 1990s, has now been superseded by newer offensive philosophies.

And with all that said, his offense was something to behold. And it has certainly affected the way football is played, almost 30 years later:
While Jenkins is happy with his current role with the Argonauts, he still thinks about returning to college coaching. How, he wonders, would his offense look now? "If anybody would ever hire him today, it would be the same discussions," Klingler says. "They'd be scoring 95 points against people and everybody would be offended about how he was running up the score. It would be right back to the same thing because he's just that good." 
That said, what if? could be the wrong question. Maybe Jenkins doesn't have to wonder; maybe he just has to look around. Ware, who is now an ESPN college football analyst, said coaches often ask him about his Houston days. When he called the Missouri-Kentucky game on Oct. 29, he noticed Missouri ran some of the same formations and routes that the Cougars did in the late 1980s and 1990s. 
"It's still very prevalent out there, some of the stuff that we did," Ware says. "It's grown. It started as a plant and sprung its own limbs, and now you see what it is today. I think we were the foundation of what you see a lot, not only in college but in some NFL stadiums on Sundays."
(*One oft-repeated story is that he spliced footage of porn into game films to keep the kids' attention.)

Sugar Land gets bigger

A full 33% bigger, in fact:
Sugar Land City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve, on final reading, the annexation of the Greatwood and New Territory areas. 
The areas comprise 3,850 acres of land, and consist of nine municipal utility districts, which will be absorbed into the city.
The annexation takes effect on December 12, and will increase Sugar Land's population from 87,367 to more than 117,000 residents.

This will make Sugar Land the third-largest municipality in the region, behind Houston and Pasadena and ahead of Pearland and League City.

Where would The Woodlands rank among the top five? We'll never know until they actually incorporate...

Houston 36, #3 Louisville 10

Which Houston team was going to show up to play Louisville? The team that upset Oklahoma to start the season, or the team that lost to SMU and struggled to get past the likes of Tulsa, Central Florida and Tulane? It turns out that the former team showed up last Thursday, rather than the latter, and notched a stunning upset before a record TDECU Stadium crowd of 42,822.

The Good: Special teams had a big role in this win. They set the tone of the game by recovering a Louisville fumble on the opening kickoff; the UH offense would convert it into a touchdown on the very next play. Then, in the second quarter, punter Dane Roy passed on a fake punt on fourth down - his only pass attempt this season - to a wide open Byron Simpson for a first down. The Cougars would later score on that possession.

The Better: QB Greg Ward Jr didn't seem to be suffering any affects from a shoulder injury he sustained against Tulane the previous Saturday, as he completed 25 of 44 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (the Coogs had no turnovers of any kind). RB Duke Catalon had a busy night, rushing for one touchdown and catching for two more, including a 50-yard halfback pass from Linell Bonner that completely befuddled the Cardinal defense. The Coogs did not have a big night rushing the ball, garnering only 64 total yards on the ground, but the offense wasn't the story of this game.

The Best: This win belongs to the Houston defense. Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson was sacked a jaw-dropping eleven times (one of those sacks being a safety late in the game) by a relentless Houston pass rush. True freshman lineman Ed Oliver was in beast mode, with six tackles and two sacks, before leaving the game with an injury in the second half. The UH defense also forced two fumbles. The Louisville offensive line could neither proptect Jackson nor go more than a few plays without a false start penalty, as the crowd noise clearly got to them. Louisville ended the game with 15 penalties including six false start flags.

What It Means: You could argue that Louisville was simply not prepared for this game, and you'd probably be right because they looked lost. However, that's not an excuse - especially since they were fighting for a College Football Playoff spot and have arguably the best offensive player in the nation on their roster - and it should not take anything away from Houston's lights-out performance. This season was a bit of a disappointment for the Coogs, but destroying Louisville before a packed, loud stadium in front of a national ESPN audience was a measure of redemption.

With the win, the Cougars reappear in the Top 25. They travel to Memphis for their final regular-season game on Black Friday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Houston 30, Tulane 18

The Cougars jumped out to a 28-10 lead at halftime and held on for the homecoming win.

The Good: The Cougars scored a touchdown on a muffed Tulane punt reception early in the first half, and the QB Greg Ward Jr accounted for Houston's other three scores (two TD passes and one rush). LB Tyus Bowser played his first game since being sidelined by an injury last September, and ended the game with 11 tackles and 3 sacks. The defense scored a safety late in the game to seal the win. Punter Dane Roy had a busy evening, punting 11 times; he averaged 44.2 yards per punt.

The Bad: The reason Dane Roy punted so much is because the Cougar offense was completely ineffective, especially in the second half after Greg Ward Jr was playing with an injured shoulder. Tulane actually ended the game with more total yards (341) than the Cougars (287). The Coogs committed 7 penalties for 55 yards and turned the ball over twice.

The Ugly: The Houston offensive line is about as sturdy as your average brand of tissue paper. They cannot block for the run - the Cougars amassed a paltry 66 yards rushing for the entire game - and they gave up four sacks.

What it means: I was really hoping to see the the Cougars play better than this, especially after their halftime revival against UCF and the benefit of an off week to heal. They simply cannot expect to play like this against #3 Louisville on Thursday and be anything close to competitive.

That being said, a win is a win and the Coogs are now 8-2. They have now won at least eight games per season for the past four seasons.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump upsets Clinton

I'm not going to spend too much time discussing the election. The outcome was unexpected, to say the least - the pollsters and prognosticators are going to have to do a lot of soul-searching after completely blowing this one - but I'm mainly glad we don't have to go through the sheer ugliness of another presidential election for awhile.

The prediction model used by Nate Silver at gave Trump the highest chance of winning the election. Other pundits and pollsters criticized him for it, but in the end his model turned out to be the most correct. He notes that this election would have been completely different had the result been only two percentage points in the other direction:
What would have happened if just 1 out of every 100 voters shifted from Trump to Clinton? That would have produced a net shift of 2 percentage points in Clinton’s direction. And instead of the map you see above, we’d have wound up with this result in the Electoral College instead[…] 
Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida flip back to Clinton, giving her a total of 307 electoral votes. And she’d have won the popular vote by 3 to 4 percentage points, right where the final national polls had the race and in line with Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. If this had happened, the interpretation of the outcome would have been very different[...]
The cold, hard truth is this: Hillary Clinton failed to swing those two percentage points her way - she failed to win the presidency - because she was a poor candidate. She was uninspiring, secretive, severely compromised, and the epitome of a political insider when it was clear that voters wanted something else. As I noted in regards to John Kerry twelve years ago, it's just not enough to be the "not Trump" candidate; you have to make people want to vote "for" you as well. She just didn't possess that appeal.

Her campaign, furthermore, erred by taking her "firewall" states for granted, and as a result she lost Wisconsin, which last voted Republican in 1984, and Michigan and Pennsylvania, which last voted Republican in 1988, by slim margins. In that light, Clinton becomes the least successful Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis. Yes, it looks like she will win the popular vote. But that's not how we elect presidents in the United States.

Anyway, it's over now. And as much as I want to hope for the best, I believe that Donald Trump is hopelessly unqualified, racist, greedy, authoritarian and mean-spirited, and that his presidency is going to have catastrophic and potentially irreparable consequences for this nation.

John Judis has what I believe is one of the better takes on why Clinton lost, why Trump won, and what the future might hold.

God bless America.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Congratulations to the Cubs

During my lifetime, I've gotten to witness:
  • The Boston Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918 (86 years), and
  • The Chicago Cubs win their first World Series since 1908 (108 years).
With that said, for some reason I am skeptical that I will live long enough to ever see the Houston Astros win a World Series.

Houston 31, Central Florida 24

It was a tale of two halves.

The Bad, Ugly First Half: Greg Ward Jr had three interceptions, fumbled once, was sacked twice in a row on one possession, and generally looked lost. The Cougar running game was completely stuffed, gaining a total of six rushing yards in the half. The Cougars also committed multiple penalties that either ended Houston drives or extended UCF drives, including a personal foul penalty on a missed UCF field goal that resulted in a first down and, a few plays later, a touchdown (the officiating of this game was rather poor and one-sided, by the way). The Golden Knights led at halftime, 21-3, and it really looked like the Cougars had once again decided to quit.

The Good, Beautiful Second Half: As the second half started, it looked like more was in store for the Coogs as Greg Ward Jr fumbled once again, this time in Houston's own 13 yard line, and the crowd (what was left of it after halftime, at least) began clamoring for backup QB Kyle Postma. The Cougar defense, however, stepped up and sacked Knight QB Mackenzie Milton to limit the damage to a field goal. The Cougars finally found the endzone on the ensuing possession, thanks in part to a 46 yard scramble by walk-on RB Dillon Birden. UCF fumbled the ball on their next possession - their first of four turnovers in the second half - and the Cougars proceeded to score again. Houston would score 28 unanswered points in the second half. The Knights, meanwhile, were held to 29 total yards in the second half, while the Houston ground game finally got it going with 152 rushing yards. For all of his struggles, Greg Ward Jr finished with 240 passing yards, one passing touchdown, and two rushing touchdowns.

What It Means: It was very heartening to see the Cougars rally in the second half when they just as easily could have quit; time will tell if the halftime of this game marked a turning point on the season. With the win, the Cougars now have seven wins and are guaranteed their fourth winning season in a row.

The banged-up Cougars get a much-needed bye week before hosting Tulane on November 12.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The economic impact of driverless trucks

For all the hype about the driverless cars - how they'll change the way we travel, revolutionize how our cities are designed, render public transportation completely obsolete* - I think that driverless trucks will have a greater overall economic impact. While driverless cars continue to be tested, driverless trucks are already moving freight:
Self-driving trucks are here. Otto, a self-driving truck startup that Uber acquired this summer, shipped a truckload of Anheuser-Busch beer across Colorado. According to Otto’s blog post on the trip, “our professional driver was out of the driver’s seat for the entire 120-mile journey down I-25, monitoring the self-driving system from the sleeper berth in the back.”

But this doesn’t mean the nation’s truck drivers need to start working on their résumés. Technology like this may eventually displace human truck drivers, but the tech is several years away from causing mass unemployment.

The key reason is that Otto’s self-driving technology is initially limited to highways. When the truck reaches ordinary city streets, it hands control over to a human driver to handle tricky traffic situations. This means that even after a truck is outfitted with Otto’s self-driving technology, it will still need a human driver in the truck.
As the article explains, this is probably good for truck drivers in the short term - by allowing the truck to drive itself on the highway, truckers can rest, thereby spending more time on the road without running afoul of federal regulations limiting the number of hours truckers can be behind the wheel.

At some point, however, driverless trucks will be able to navigate through city streets as well, thereby making the truck driver redundant. And this is where the effects on the economy will be seen. On one hand, driverless trucks will make goods much cheaper as they dramatically reduce the costs of transportation. On the other hand, they will put millions of truck drivers out of work, further eroding the nation's blue collar job base and creating significant socioeconomic disruption to an entire segment of the labor force. What good are cheaper products if you're unemployed and can't buy them?

(* For the record, I do not think that driverless cars will completely eliminate the need for public transportation. They might replace low-ridership buses serving rural and suburban areas, but along at least some high-volume urban corridors there will still be the need for vehicles that carry larger numbers of people than regular cars. There is simply a geometric limit to the number of cars a city street can accommodate.)

#11 Houston 16, SMU 38

There have been some truly unexpected, disappointing and inexcusable losses in recent UH football history (see here, here, here and here), but the expectation was that such losses were a thing of a past as long as Tom Herman was head coach.

Alas, that's not the case.

I'm not going into my normal "good, bad and ugly" format for posts about UH games. Everything about last Saturday's game was ugly, from the two turnovers to Greg Ward Jr's seven sacks to the two missed field goals to the pathetic 62 yards rushing managed by the Cougar offense to the 406 total yards surrendered by the UH defense. There's no sugar-coating this: the #11-ranked team in the nation got manhandled by a team that was 2-4 coming into this game. As a result, the Cougars have fallen out of the top 25, found their way on to ESPN's ignominious Bottom Ten list, and any hope they had of defending their conference title has evaporated.

This is a team in crisis. They are unfocused and demoralized.

They are battered physically: they've played eight weeks without a bye, including two Thursday night games. Injuries are piling up, and this team doesn't have a lot of depth.

They are reeling psychologically: the incessant barrage of "Tom Herman is leaving Houston and going to [insert name of high-profile school here]" from local and national media alike has to be getting to the players, as well as the disappointment of not landing spot in the Big 12.

They are not being helped by some of the decisions their coaches are making. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite's insistence that the Coogs try to run the ball up the middle - even though UH's inexperienced, makeshift offensive line simply cannot block for those kinds of plays - borders on incompetence. The Cougars managed only 1.8 yards per rush against SMU, and they came away with no points from the SMU 4 yard line after running it up the middle thrice and then missing a field goal. 

Finally, and as much as it pains me to say it, they were probably overrated coming into the season. This team is clearly deficient on the offensive line and in the secondary. The receivers are slow. The kicking game is a disaster. They were amped up to pull off the win over Oklahoma, which was aided by the flukiest play in all of college sports. But it's been all downhill from there.

(Stupid Sports Illustrated jinx...)

Tom Herman has never faced this kind of adversity before, and how he deals with this current situation will say a lot about his coaching abilities (as well as his supposed desirability to blue-blood programs). Can he right the ship?

This team can't play for a conference championship or New Year's Six bowl anymore; they are headed to a third-tier bowl game in Fort Worth, Birmingham or the Bahamas. But they can play for pride, they can knock off a second top-five team when Louisville comes to town next month (unlikely as it seems right now), and they can end the season with 10 wins and a spot in the final top 25. That wasn't the goal when the season began, but it is something.

If Tom Herman and his staff can't right the ship - if the team continues to lose and staggers its way to a 7-5 regular season - then not only will this go down as one of the most disappointing seasons in UH football history, but Tom Herman's abilities as a head coach will be exposed.

Which will it be? We'll find out, starting with Central Florida on Saturday.

The British are coming to New Orleans

Unlike a previous visit to the Crescent City, this might be more beneficial to all parties involved:
British Airways will launch nonstop flights between London and New Orleans next spring, marking the city's first direct connection with Europe since 1982. Local officials joined tourism and business leaders Thursday morning (Oct. 20) at Louis Armstrong International Airport to disclose the long-coveted connection, which they call a "game-changer" for the region.

The airline will provide year-round service to London's Heathrow Airport starting March 27. The 10-hour flights will depart London on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 3:40 p.m. local time and arrive at 7:40 p.m. New Orleans time. Returning flights will leave New Orleans at 9:10 p.m. and arrive in London the next day at noon.

Passengers will travel on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which holds 214 passengers: 154 in economy class, 25 in premium economy and 35 in business.
This will not be the only nonstop flight to Europe from New Orleans; German carrier Condor will begin seasonal flights from Louis Armstrong International to Frankfurt next May.
The new international flights come as New Orleans seeks to push its total annual visitor count over the pre-Hurricane Katrina peak of 10.1 million. Tourism officials consider international visitors, who generally book longer stays and spend more, a key demographic in fueling local tourism growth. The United Kingdom is the second-largest market for foreign visitors to New Orleans, behind Canada, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're beginning to make strides to where the airlines can see we can fill the back of the plane without an issue," said Stephen Perry, chief executive officer of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Since first approaching British Airways, New Orleans-area tourism and business leaders looked outside the immediate region to strengthen their case for London-to-New Orleans flights, Perry said. Their "catchment basin" approach reached from Lake Charles to Destin, Fla., encompassing more than 5 million people, not only to find more potential passengers but also create more destinations for foreign visitors.
Can that "catchment basin" generate enough business and leisure travel to sustain nonstop flights to London (and, for that matter, Frankfurt)? Stay tuned; the region is far enough away from other major international hubs in the southeast - Dallas/Fort Worth, Bush Intercontinental, Atlanta and Miami - and New Orleans itself is such a major tourist draw, that it just might work. Besides, if Austin can have nonstop flights to London, why can't New Orleans?

British Airways was the last European carrier to service New Orleans, when its flights from Mexico City to London stopped there to refuel. That service ended in 1982. More importantly, this service marks a huge milestone in the region's ongoing recovery from Katrina.

One has to wonder: given New Orleans' French heritage, will nonstop flights to Paris one day become a reality, too?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

No Big 12 membership for UH

Consider me unsurprised.
The University of Houston's campaign to join the Big 12 Conference was crushed Monday by the league's presidents, who ruled out expansion without discussing the merits of any individual applicants, including the confident, fast-rising Cougars.

Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, and University of Oklahoma President David Boren, president of the league's board of directors, said league CEOs decided unanimously against expansion and agreed to remove the topic as an active agenda item.

They said individual candidates, including UH and Rice University among 11 finalists, were never discussed during meetings Sunday night and a six-hour session Monday.

"We all came to a unanimous decision that this was not the right time (for expansion)," Boren said. "All the information generated was not wasted effort. They (candidate schools) presented themselves in a very fine light, and we appreciate them."

Those compliments, however, came as cold comfort to schools such as UH that have invested tens of millions of dollars in facility upgrades and coaching salaries in the hopes of joining one of the "Power Five" conferences that hold the financial upper hand in the billion-dollar college sports industry.
The Big 12 never had any intention of expanding; this was all a charade meant to put pressure on television partners ESPN and Fox Sports for more money. It was a farce; as CBS's Dennis Dodd explains, a hurtful waste of time:
The real hurt has to be felt at Houston, Cincinnati and BYU. All three invested millions in presenting themselves as Power Five schools. In many ways, they are. For now and for a long time, they now remain relegated to conference football's discount store -- the Group of Five.

Their access to the College Football Playoff remains akin to getting the last crumb of an Oreo. Whatever emotions they're having right now -- jilted, misled, left at the altar -- are all valid. 

Yes, what a waste of time. Those 11 finalists schlepped their way to Dallas last month for their presentations. The entire process cost each school about $10,000 to $15,000. 

That's not a budget breaker by any means. But it was like Charlie Brown staring down that football. You just know, no matter what, Lucy is going to pull it out from under you.

"Gathering of information is never a waste of time," Boren said. 

Tell that to the folks you put through this. 
The Charlie Brown analogy is apt; the Big 12 has done this to Houston before. In that regard, nothing has changed for UH; they're still in the AAC and (as of now, at least) one of the stronger programs in the Group of Five. But Group of Five membership is not nearly as lucrative as Power Five membership, which is what the Coogs were banking on.

University administrators remain confident...
The Big 12's decision in no way changes the mission of the University of Houston that began long before there was talk of conference expansion," said Renu Khator, the university's chancellor who helped lead UH's campaign for Big 12 membership.

"We are confident that in this competitive collegiate athletics landscape an established program with a history of winning championships and a demonstrated commitment to talent and facilities in the nation's fourth largest city will find its rightful place. Our destiny belongs to us."
...but the fact remains that the level of investment that the school has put into its athletics program to make itself attractive to Power Five conferences might not be sustainable:
In an email from Khator to a UH professor two years ago, she acknowledged the challenge of spending on sports. If UH does not get into a major conference soon, "it will be difficult for us to sustain it," she said.

That's one of the reasons that UH officials worked aggressively behind the scenes for at least a year to get this major athletic conference opportunity, according to emails, travel records and other documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle through an open-records request.

The Big 12's decision not to expand now means that professors will discuss the future of the subsidy and how it affects teaching and learning at UH, faculty senate president Jonathan Snow said.

Professors are aware of the money, recruiting buzz and boost to campus culture brought by a successful, nationally recognized athletics program, he said, but many feel that the university has been "left at the altar" when the big push didn't pay off.
It's hard to say where the University of Houston goes from here; it could be years before the subject of conference realignment comes up again. Although the football program currently has momentum - season ticket sales are up and television ratings are decent - it remains to be seen if that momentum can be sustained, or if other sports (namely, men's basketball) can begin to attain a level of success, that will make the overall program attractive to other Power Five conferences when the time does come for realignment. Success in college sports requires money, and UH just doesn't have a lot of it.

Which is why they were trying to get into the Big 12 to begin with it, even if their expansion process was an embarrassing sham.

HSPVA has a new name

My old high school is getting a new home in downtown Houston. It's also getting a new name:
After days of tension and hours of passionate debate, the Houston school board voted 7-2 Thursday to accept a $7.5 million gift for the city's renowned arts high school and to rename the campus after the donors.

The vote marked the first time the Houston Independent School District sold naming rights for a campus - a rarity in the public elementary and secondary school arena.

The Houston-based Kinder Foundation, run by local billionaire couple Rich and Nancy Kinder, offered the donation in exchange for calling the campus the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The money will go toward rebuilding the school downtown - funding theater lighting and seats, a sound system, a specialized dance floor and more.
If my Facebook feed is any indication, a lot of my high school classmates are livid about this decision. They believe that the prestigious fine arts school has been "sold out" by HISD, that the Kinders have never previously been involved with the school and therefore are not "HSPVA family" and are thus unworthy, that the $7.5 million the Kinders are donating in order to get the school renamed after them is a pittance (about 8% of the school's $90.2 million price tag), that the KinderMorgan pipeline company from which the family gets its wealth is evil and corrupt, that it's not fair for a school like HSPVA to receive such a donation when so many other HISD schools are struggling with inadequate resources, that students, parents and alumni had no input in this decision, etc.

This anger is understandable, especially when viewed as a dynamic between the (generally liberal) alumni of an arts school versus the (generally conservative) business elite. And, to be sure, my schoolmates aren't united in this reaction; some are welcoming the gift as necessary to provide future students with a state-of-the art campus, while others are noting that Houston's arts community can't pick and choose where its support comes from. As one of my classmates wrote, "If we forced every donor to the arts to pass a purity test, we would never see another dime."

I am among those HSPVA alums who just can't get too worked up over this. This isn't to say I'm thrilled at the fact that my high school now has a family's name on it, but I recognize that donations such as these were necessary if the downtown facility was to be completed, and I also know that all of the fine arts facilities downtown have a philanthropist's name attached to them.

Furthermore, it really doesn't affect me personally. I'm not going to stop calling it "HSPVA," or start saying "Kinder" when people ask me where I went to high school. I doubt many fellow alumni will do that, either. 

Besides, I've seen this before. When I was an architecture student at the University of Houston, local developer Gerald Hines made a large donation to the College of Architecture and they renamed the school after him. Many of my classmates and studiomates were outraged: they also perceived the transaction as a "sellout," and they didn't like the fact that the school was being named after a developer rather than an actual architect. (Never mind the fact that developers are the ones who pay architect's bills...) However, all I could think was, "cool, money for more scholarships and better professors."

Finally, a word about HISD board member Jolanda Jones, who was one of two trustees to vote against the name change and who earlier this year spearheaded an effort to spend $1.2 million of the cash-strapped school district's money to rename several schools that previously bore names of figures associated with the Confederacy:
"I find it offensive that people say if you don't vote for this, that you don't care about the kids. Actually I care about all the kids in HISD," Jones said.
Translation: I'd rather keep the entire district impoverished than accept a donation that's just going to benefit those artsy kids at our district's flagship high school. Never mind the fact that, unlike my renaming scheme, this one is actually being paid for by a private entity, rather than by taxpayers.
"It seems like HISD is like a pimp, and the schools are what they sell," Jones added. "That was the nicest way I could think to say it."
"Pimp?" You stay ghetto, Jolanda. I've never been impressed with you. 

Kuff, Guidry News and the Houston Press have more.

#13 Houston 38, Tulsa 31

It wasn't pretty, but thanks to a couple of key defensive plays late in the game, it was a win.

The Good: Tulsa had mounted a fourth quarter rally, coming back from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game. They had the ball, and the UH defense reeling, when Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans had the ball stripped from his hands by UH safety Garrett Davis. Linebacker Emeke Egbule grabbed the lose ball and ran 24 yards into the endzone for a scoop-and-score to put the Coogs ahead with 1:21 remaining. Undeterred, the Golden Hurricane got the ball back and marched right down the field. With two seconds left and from Houston’s two yard line, Tulsa devised a scoring play using their bruising defensive end, Jesse Brubaker. However, Brubaker ran his route just short of the goal line and was immediately met by safeties Khalil Williams and Austin Robinson, who stopped Brubaker just outside of the endzone. Replay confirmed that neither Brubaker nor the ball broke the plane of the goal line. Game over.

The Bad: These game-saving plays aside, the defense struggled against Tulsa, allowing the golden Hurricane to gain 459 total yards - the most the Cougars have given up in a single game all year. The Cougar defense also struggled to get off the field; they allowed Tulsa to convert 14 of 20 third downs. This defensive performance, as well as an offense that sputtered at times and fumbled twice, is what allowed Tulsa to come back from a ten-point deficit to tie the game at halftime and a fourteen-point deficit to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

The Ugly: Special teams continues to struggle. Kicker Ty Cummings was flagged for a kickoff that went out of bounds, and Punter Dane Roy shanked two punts out of bounds - one for 30 yards and another for only 10 yards. Playcalling was dreadful at times; UH offensive coordinator Major Applewhite continues to insist on calling runs up the middle even though it’s obvious that Houston’s o-line cannot run block in that situation. Finally, the Cougars were flagged for 10 penalties for 104 yards.

What It Means: This was not the Coogs’ best game of the season by any means, and as of right now they do not look like the team that beat Oklahoma to begin the season. Injuries have taken a toll, for sure, and the Coogs might have been still trying to shake off the hangover from the previous week’s loss against Navy, but right now one really gets the sense that this team is taking a step backwards.

Regardless, a win is a win, and he Coogs, who moved up to #11 in this week’s AP Poll, are now officially bowl eligible.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Dallas to face the SMU Mustangs.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

This election

On one hand, I'm not looking forward to four more weeks of this putrid shitshow. I wish this election were over today.

On the other hand, it's kind of interesting to watch one of this nation's two major political parties tear itself apart. (Nominations have consequences!)

It's a great time to be a political scientist, I guess. For the rest of us, this just sucks.

#6 Houston 40, Navy 46

The sixth-ranked Cougars had no answer for Navy’s triple-option and Greg Ward Jr. committed three turnovers in a 46-40 loss to the Midshipmen at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. 
The Midshipmen rolled to 306 rushing yards against the nation’s top-ranked run defense that played without another key player for the second week in a row due to disciplinary measures. 
Linebacker Steven Taylor was suspended for the game for what the school said was a violation of team policy. 
Tied 20-20 at halftime, Navy broke the game open by scoring touchdowns off turnovers on the Cougars’ first two possessions of the second half. 
Ward was sacked and fumbled on the Cougars’ first possession after halftime. Navy quarterback Will Worth faked the toss and hit a wide-open Darryl Bonner for a 17-yard touchdown. 
On the Cougars’ next series, Josiah Powell intercepted Ward for the second time in the game and went 34 yards for the touchdown and 34-20 lead.
The Bad: Greg Ward Jr did not have a good day with his three turnovers - he was also sacked twice - but he nevertheless managed to pass for 359 yards and two touchdowns and rush for another 94 yards and a touchdown. The problem was that most of those rushing yards were broken play scrambles; the Cougar run offense struggled without starting running back Duke Catalon, who was out with an injury, and only managed 125 yards on the afternoon. That being said, a bright spot was walk-on Dillon Birden, who rushed for 51 yards and a touchdown and also caught a touchdown pass.

The Ugly: As bad as the offense looked, they still scored 40 points, which would normally be enough to win a football game. The real problem was the defense, which simply could not stop the Midshipmen. The Cougar rushing defense had been one of the best in the nation coming into Saturday's game, but against Navy they were utterly helpless. They were especially bad containing the outside runs and pitches, and their tackling was atrocious. The defense allowed Navy to dominate the game clock and could not come up with any turnovers of their own. It's hard to win when you're -3 in turnovers, especially on the road.

Navy QB Will Worth, for his part, racked up 115 rushing yards on 32 carries; he only completed three of five passes, but two of those were for touchdowns.

The Cougars clearly missed several players on defense, including cornerback Brandon Wilson, who has been injured since the Cincinnati game, as well as three starting linebackers: Tyus Bowser was out with a skull fracture suffered as a result of a fight with Matthew Adams, who was also held out of the game as a disciplinary measure; as for Steven Taylor, well, I hope whatever he did to get suspended from this game was worth it.

The Uglier: As if it couldn't get any worse, Houston's special teams were putrid. They gave up a 85-yard kickoff return that led to Navy's first touchdown, missed an extra point and muffed a punt for a safety late in the fourth quarter, which sealed the loss.

The Ugliest: This team was clearly not prepared to play on Saturday; they were making poor decisions, forgetting fundamentals (especially tackling), and simply looked a step slow. That's on the coaching staff. Tom Herman, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and the rest of the staff had almost a week and a half to prepare for this game. They did a poor job.

Given Saturday's lack of focus, and the disciplinary problems that have suddenly become an issue, one had to wonder if the insufferable "where is Tom Herman going next season" media circus is finally getting to the players, and if he is losing the team.

What It Means: The Cougars fell to #12 in the Coaches poll and #13 in the AP poll as a result of this loss, and whatever slim shot they had to make the College fotball Playoff has now evaporated. But even worse is that, by virtue of this loss, the Cougars could still win out and not play for the American Conference Championship and go to a New Year's Six Bowl. Since this was a in-division loss, the Cougars now need Navy to lose twice in conference in order to be guaranteed the AAC West title.

In other words, Houston could end the regular season with a 11-1 record, ranked in the top ten, and end up playing Middle Tennessee in the Boca Raton Bowl on a Tuesday night.

Next up for the Cougars is a game against Tulsa this Saturday evening at TDECU Stadium. Nothing this team can do now except brush themselves off, get back up and get back to winning.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Thanks a lot, Google.

Sometime last week, Google made an update to their Blogger software that caused the links lists (aka, my "blogroll") on this site to disappear.

There was some discussion on Google tech forums that Google would restore this particular functionality, but that has not happened. I guess this means that at some point I am going to have to recreate a blogroll from scratch.

Yes, I know that Blogger is free, yadda yadda yadda... But this is a bit of a pain in the ass.

EDIT 10/10: The blogrolls have reappeared. Never mind.

Thanks for fixing this, Google.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

#6 Houston 42, Connecticut 14

The Cougars avenged their only loss of the 2015 season before an impressive Thursday night crowd of 40,873 at TDECU Stadium by dismantling the Connecticut Huskies, 42-14.

The Good: Greg Ward Jr completed 32 of 38 passes for a career-high 389 passing yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for an additional 65 yards and two touchdowns. One of Ward Jr's touchdown passes was a highlight-reel one-handed catch in the corner of the endzone by Linell Bonner. The Cougar defense held UConn to 62 rushing yards and has given up only 56 points through five games (the fewest points given up by the program since 1989).

The Bad: The Huskies racked up 273 passing yards and burned the Cougar secondary for a 62-yard touchdown pass late in the first half; had UConn's quarterback been a bit more accurate there might have been more scores of that type.

The Ugly: UConn linebacker Junior Joseph showed himself to be a punk-ass loser by being flagged for a personal foul penalty by getting into Greg Ward Jr's face AFTER he had thrown a touchdown pass. (!) Two UH linebackers missed this game after getting into what seems to be a nasty fight at a team event earlier this week.

What it means: revenge factor aside, the Cougars remain undefeated with this conference win. The fact that the Coogs sold over 40 thousand tickets for this Thursday night game indicates that the city has gotten on board the Cougar bandwagon.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Annapolis, Maryland to take on Navy. It won't be a walkover but Navy is not the same team they were last year.

Harris County approves plan to save the Astrodome

Although I would love to see it preserved, I have generally been skeptical about efforts to save and repurpose the Astrodome (see here, here and here) and honestly expected it to have been reduced to rubble by now. So while I'm glad to see at least some movement on the Astrodome's future, I can't really say I'm too optimistic about Harris County Commissioners Court's latest plan for the venerable stadium:
Harris County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday morning to move forward with a major renovation project that could keep the Astrodome from being demolished for years to come.
The $10.5 million approved Tuesday is the first piece of a $105 million project that would raise the floor of the Astrodome two levels and put 1,400 parking spaces underneath. County officials believe that would make the Dome suitable for festivals or conferences and usher in potential commercial uses in the more than 550,000 square feet that surrounds the core.
Tuesday's vote signals a reversal of fate for the stadium which many thought would be demolished after Harris County voters in 2013 rejected a $217 million bond proposal that would have paid for massive renovations to the Astrodome.
Funds for the Dome's renovation will come from the County's general fund (about $30 million, which is the same amount it is estimated to cost to demolish it), hotel taxes and revenue expected to be generated from the new covered parking spaces.

While I appreciate what seems to be a rather straightforward effort to preserve the Dome, I’m skeptical that Commissioners Court’s plan will work as planned for two reasons:

First of all, NRG Stadium is already surrounded by a sea of parking, and I’ve never heard of parking supply to be a major issue during Texans games (especially since so many fans come and go by METRORail). Additional parking needs during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo seem to be adequately handled by park and ride buses as well as the empty field on the other side of 610 where Astroworld used to be. Is there really going to be strong demand for these additional spaces (which would likely cost a premium on top of the base parking fee for NRG Stadium, and which, by virtue of being in a garage, probably couldn’t be used for tailgating)? I doubt it.

Secondly, if the solution to preserving the Astrodome - turning the area below grade into parking, and using the proceeds from that parking to help turn the rest of the space into an exhibition and events venue - is so simple, then why wasn’t it done long ago? Why did elected officials debate the Astrodome’s future for so many years, entertain (oftentimes fanciful) proposals for its development, and hold a (failed) referendum when they could have just done this from the beginning? It sounds like Commissioners Court couldn't bring themselves to demolish the structure and decided to resolve the issue with a plan of last resort, regardless of how financially successful that plan might actually turn out to be.

With that said, I hope I’m wrong about this and that this proposal does work as planned. The “Eighth Wonder of the World” is as iconic a piece of architecture as there is in Houston and I believe that, from a standpoint of culture and history, it is in the city’s best interest that the Astrodome be preserved and reused.

From a standpoint of the best interests of the taxpayer, however, this plan might be a loser.

The Chronicle has more details about the plan here. More discussion at Swamplot, Culturemap and Off The Kuff.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

#6 Houston 64, Texas State 3

A crowd of 33,133 - the largest in Texas State Bobcat program history - was on hand to witness a beatdown.

The Good: True freshman receiver D'Eric King caught a touchdown pass, threw a touchdown pass and returned a kickoff for touchdown - the first player in program history to achieve such a program trifecta. The 61-point margin of victory was Houston's largest since the Run-and-Shoot days (they beat Louisiana Tech, 73-3, in 1991). The defense held the Bobcats to a paltry 142 yards total offense and just 33 rushing yards. The Cougars did not have any turnovers and, more remarkably, did not commit a single penalty in the entire game. 

The Bad: Kicker Ty Cummings missed two extra points. Backup running back Mulbah Car suffered an injury (that looked a lot worse than it actually turned out to be) and will be out for a few weeks. 

The Ugly: Texas State (the school, not the team) was clearly unprepared for the crowds that attended this game. Parking was a nightmare; we ended up in a remote lot on I-35 that did not allow tailgating (boo!) and we ended up making the mile-long walk to the stadium when it became apparent that the shuttle bus service was not working as planned (double boo!). Concession lines in the stadium were long and slow; we missed two UH touchdowns while standing in line for a beer.

That said, the fact that they sell beer at Bobcat Stadium is a plus, and the stadium itself is cozy and has good sight lines. They need to adjust the lighting, however; the playing field seemed kind of dim and the ribbon boards along the stadium walls should never be brighter than the lights themselves.

On the way back to the car after the game, we stopped at In-N-Out Burger (which is expanding into Texas but has not made their way into Houston yet). The burgers and fries were actually pretty good, but I can't say that they're better than Whataburger.

What it Means: Not all that much, truthfully. The Coogs did what they were expected to do against an inferior opponent (although it's still interesting to think that this same Texas State program handed the Cougars one of their most catastrophic losses just a few years ago - how times have changed!).

The Coogs' two-game road trip is over, and tomorrow night they host Connecticut in a nationally-televised ESPN game. UConn was the only team to beat Houston last year, so it's time for some revenge.

The end of summer

Could it be that we've finally reached that glorious time of year, when the droning heat and humidity of summer finally releases its grasp on Houston and lets more comfortable temperatures settle in? Eric Berger thinks so:
The front that arrived Tuesday morning has finally begun dragging drier air into Houston. Temperatures at Bush Intercontinental Airport fell below 70 degrees this morning for the first time since June 5. It’s not exactly cold, but it is cooler, and drier. And there’s more seasonably pleasant, almost fall-like weather to come.

It’s a rather simple forecast for Houston. Drier air will continue to move into the region today, and a reinforcing cool front should arrive on Thursday. Add it all up and we’ll have highs through the weekend in the 80s, with daytime temperatures in the low 80s possible on Friday and Saturday. Overnight lows should be in the 60s except for along the coast (around 70 degrees), and upper 50s for far inland areas, such as College Station. Friday and Saturday should be the coolest mornings.
It was a relief to be able to walk outside this morning and experience warm and dry, rather than hot and humid. This evening it feels even nicer outside, and the skies are clear. Highs in the 80s aren't what normally comes to mind when one thinks of "fall," but it's a welcome respite.

Furthermore, we can take heart in the fact that we once again survived the hell that is the Houston summer. That's always an accomplishment to be proud of.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

North Dakota State's win over Iowa isn't a huge upset

My post listing the top ten upsets in college football history* is now almost a decade old, and I'll probably be updating it at some point in the future. After last Saturday, the question could be asked: where would North Dakota State's 23-21 win at #13 Iowa be included on any new list of all-time college football upsets? After all, an FCS school beat a ranked FBS school - from the Big Ten, no less! - on the road, which is pretty remarkable; it's not that much different than Appalachian State's stunning 2007 win over #5 Michigan that tops my current list.

The answer: it won't. It wasn't a huge upset, and is certainly not among the greatest upsets in college football history. Anybody with any knowledge of North Dakota State's program could have reasonably expected this outcome to occur.

The NDSU Bison are an FCS powerhouse. The program has won five (!) FCS championships in a row. From the beginning of the 2011 season going into Saturday's game, the Bison were 73-5. During that time they've defeated FBS schools Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado State and Minnesota.

As I wrote in my 2007 post, what I consider to be the "biggest upsets" in college football are those
...which occur when one program is so thoroughly outclassed and so overwhelmingly outmatched by another in terms of stature, resources, and/or athletic potential that it shouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hades of winning, yet actually pulls it off.
This simply does not apply to North Dakota State. They might nominally be an FCS program, but they are so talented and well-coached that they could beat just about any FBS program; "outclassed" and "outmatched" they most certainly are not. As USA Today's Dan Wolken notes, NDSU's defeat of Iowa doesn't seem like an upset because "it’s just what North Dakota State does."

On a related note, FCS upsets of ranked FBS teams, while still a rarity, are no longer unheard of. Since Appalachian State's upset of Michigan in 2007, we've seen James Madison knock off #13 Virginia Tech 21-16 in 2010 and Eastern Washington beat #25 Oregon State 49-45 in 2013. (And don't even get me started on FCS victories over unranked FBS teams, which happen pretty frequently: there were three of them - all against teams from so-called "Power Five" conferences - on the first Saturday of this season alone.)

FCS victories over FBS programs are noteworthy, due to the advantages the FBS schools typically have over FCS schools in terms of fan support, facilities and scholarships. But they do happen, because Any Given Saturday. Moreover, North Dakota State is not a typical FCS program. They are as dominant a program as there is in any level of college football right now, and their victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes, while admirable, is simply not extraordinary.

See here and here for my previous thoughts on the subject of FCS teams defeating FBS schools.

(*Since I wrote my post in 2007, other top ten college football upset lists have been created. Check out these slideshows from and

The summer 2015 Eastern Caribbean Adventure

A little over a year ago, my parents, Kirby and myself took a trip to Puerto Rico and a handful of island nations in the Eastern Caribbean. After I returned, I began writing the following entry, but never completed it, and essentially forgot all about it. A few weeks ago, when I started thinking about writing about my summer 2016 trip to Europe, I realized that I never posted anything about my previous summer's adventure.

I thought about finishing this entry and postdating it to last summer as a retroblog. I also thought about just hitting the "delete" button and forgetting all about it. In the end, I decided to just finish it and post it today, because even though the trip is over a year old at this point, it was still a lot of fun and is definitely worth sharing. Besides, here's nothing here that's particularly dated: the things we visited and the sights we saw are all still there.

The trip consisted of a week on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas (which sails to the Leeward Islands out of San Juan), followed by a week at a timeshare in the Isla Verde area of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We got there via United's nonstop service from IAH to San Juan.

The Adventure of the Seas is part of Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class of vessels, and was the largest cruise ship in the world when it* was launched in 2001. Even though I know there are now bigger and better cruise ships out there, I was still pretty impressed by it (this was only the second time in my life that I had ever been on a cruise, and the previous cruise had been aboard a ship that was much older and smaller).

The Royal Promenade down the center of the ship contains stores, bars and restaurants. The food and service aboard the ship were top-notch, and drinks, while pricey, were not outrageously expensive. On-board wifi, on the other hand, was ridiculously costly. We took advantage of free wifi at restaurants and bars in our ports of call.

The four of us opted for "official" royal Caribbean Shore excursions at each port. Some travelers prefer not to use in-house shore excursions because of cost or inflexibility, but we had no complaints with any of ours.

Our first port of call was Philipsburg, on the Dutch-administered south side of the island of Saint Martin (the north side of the island is administered by France). One of St. Maarten's better known attractions is Maho Beach, located directly at the end of the runway for Princess Juliana Airport. Our tour boat anchored right off the beach, so we could snorkel, drink and relax when we weren't watching the planes pass next to us. The Delta flight in the picture above was coming in from JFK.

Here's a video I took of a KLM 747 from Amsterdam on final approach. Pretty impressive. If you go to St. Maarten, I highly recommend our operator, Airport Adventure SXM. They were very friendly and helpful.

As I noted in my original list of countries I've visited, I've now been to three out of the four "constituent countries" of the Netherlands. (You're next, Curaçao!)

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the French side of the island. Maybe next time...

Our second port of call was St. Kitts and Nevis, which is the smallest independent nation in North America. Here, we rode the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which is a tourist train operating on a rail line that used to be used for transporting sugar cane.

The scenery from the train is very picturesque, and it didn't hurt that they provided us with plenty of rum punch and traditional snacks during our journey. This is the only active railway in the West Indies.

This is the remnant of an old sugar cane refinery on St. Kitts. The cone-shaped building on the left was a windmill and the smokestack is on the right. The island of St. Kitts is dotted with these ruins. However, sugar production is no longer a profitable industry for St. Kitts, and the economy is being diversified into other sectors such as tourism.

Of all the islands we visited during our cruise, St. Kitts appeared to be the least developed. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; there's something to be said for a country that doesn't have a single traffic light!

Our third stop was Antigua, the larger of the two islands that comprise the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. We took a bus tour of the island and stopped at many scenic overlooks, including this vista of English Harbour from Shirley Heights.

My father surveys some of the buildings at Nelson's Dockyard, which was named after Lord Horatio Nelson (the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar). This was a key Caribbean base for the British Royal Navy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It keeps its British charm to this day, right down to the red phone booth in the background.

Our fourth port of call was the beautiful and lush volcanic island of St. Lucia. This is a view of Marigot Bay, which is just south of the island's capital city of Castries. The island was the object of back-and-forth fighting between France and Great Britain for centuries, which is why most of the island's place names are French even though the island's official language is English.

This is a picture of St. Lucia's iconic Pitons - Gros Piton in the back and Petit Piton in the front - with the town of Soufrière in the foreground. Traveling from the capital of Castries to Soufrière required a lengthy bus ride over winding mountain roads, but the scenery was worth the trip. In Soufrière, we also toured a delightful botanical garden as well as the Caribbean's only drive-in volcanic crater.

Our fifth and final stop was Barbados. Unlike the other islands of volcanic origin we visited, Barbados is a coral island. Therefore, its terrain is gentle and rolling, rather than mountainous, and is heavily cultivated. Barbados also appeared to be the most economically-developed of all the islands we visited.

One of our stops during our bus tour of Barbados was Orchid World, with its impressive gardens full of - you guessed it - orchids. We also made a stop at the Sunbury Plantation House, where we dined on Bajan snacks and drinks.

Barbados is famous for its rum, and Chesterfield Browne is one of the "faces" of Mount Gay Rum. Here he poses for my camera at the distillery's visitor center in the capital city of Bridgetown while he prepares a rum tasting for my group. I did the rum tasting tour with a few Royal Caribbean employees who were on shore leave, which was kind of fun.

One thing that was really cool about the cruise was that, with the exception of St. Maarten, every island we visited was its own independent nation. While there are a lot of similarities between St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbados - language, currency, a fanatical devotion to cricket, even the Queen as the nominal head of state - each has its own unique culture and characteristics, and it's fun to say that we truly visited a different country every day of our cruise.

After we returned to San Juan, we disembarked from the ship and made our way to a timeshare along the Isla Verde beach near San Juan. We only spent one day at the beach, however; there were just so many other things to see and do in Puerto Rico!

El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US Forest Service system, and is an easy drive from San Juan. This view of the forest was taken from atop the Yokahu Tower within the forest.

The forest has a nice visitors center and many hiking trails, where the lush beauty of El Yunque can be observed up close.

This is the red-painted San Juan Gate, which leads into the walled Spanish colonial city of Old San Juan.

Kirby sits atop a wall overlooking the courtyard of San Felipe del Morro fortress on the northwestern tip of Old San Juan. The Spanish used this fortification to defend San Juan from British and Dutch attacks until 1898, when it was taken over by the US military. During World War II it was used to keep watch for German U-Boats. Today, the fortress is operated by the National Park Service.

A rusty old cannon peers through an embrasure cut into San Felipe del Morro's walls. Behind the parapet is the top of one of the distinctive guard towers, or garitas, that dot the walls of Old San Juan and its fortifications.

A couple of hours to the east of San Juan is the Camuy River Cave Park. The caves were formed by the underground Camuy River. Due to low light levels, the above picture simply does not to justice to the massive Cueva Clara chamber, with its stalactites, stalagmites and other cave features.

Not far from the Camuy Caves is the massive Arecibo Observatory. Although popularly associated with searches for extraterrestrial life (through projects such as the Arecibo Message and its appearance in TV shows such as The X Files and movies such as Contact), much of the research conducted by this radio telescope centers on radio astronomy and atmospheric research. 

Puerto Rico Highway 22 is technically part of the Interstate Highway System, although it is not signed as such. It's designed to interstate standards, with the exception that the highway signs are in Spanish rather than English and are marked in kilometers rather than miles. The speed limits, however, are all marked in miles, which might be confusing. The big yellow vehicle to the left is a "zipper"machine that moves the movable barrier between the inside lanes of the highway during rush hour, so that the peak direction gets an extra lane.

We actually sent a couple of days exploring Old San Juan. The colonial city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, is very picturesque, with colorful colonial buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Bars, restaurants, art galleries, boutique hotels and jewelry stores are among the businesses found within Old San Juan.

  I took this video from atop Fort San Cristobal, another former Spanish fortification and current Nation Park property on the northeast of Old San Juan.You can see San Felipe del Morro in the distance, as well as Old San Juan, the Puerto Rico Capitol Building, and some of the high rises of modern San Juan.

Puerto Rico was facing a host of crushing economic problems when we visited, and those problems have only gotten worse in the year since we took our trip. The island is straining under a massive $72 billion debt load, the island's economy is shrinking, and it it is hemorrhaging population as Puerto Ricans make their way to the US mainland in search of better jobs and quality of life. The summer we visited the island was also being ravaged by a drought; several restaurants that we visited gave us bottled water to drink because water rationing meant that they had no water service that particular day. (The drought situation seems to be better now.) Furthermore, tourism is the lifeblood of the Puerto Rican economy, and there seemed to be a lot of concern about improved relations with Cuba and the possibility that tourists will begin visiting that island instead of Puerto Rico because it is cheaper. All in all, it's a very sad fate to what is otherwise a very beautiful island.

With all that said, it was a great trip and one that I had been meaning to take for a long time. The week at sea + week at a timeshare combination worked out very well for us (especially since my parents collect timeshares like some people collect stamps and can easily exchange them for places like where we stayed in Isla Verde) and we'll probably do it again on future adventures.

*I do not subscribe to the ridiculous and archaic practice of using feminine pronouns like "she" or "her" when referring to maritime vessels. Cruise ships are inanimate objects that do not possess gender.