Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ten years of Artemis and Orion (and Happy New Year!)

It's actually been a bit over ten years since I got these two ridiculous furballs (they were adopted right before Thanksgiving 2007):

Needless to say, they've grown a bit over the past decade. So have I, for that matter:

Although their "official" names are Artemis and Orion - I've always named my cats after figures from Greek mythology - they've always gone by "Little Girl" and "Black Cat," respectively.

From the three of us to all of you: Happy New Year!

UH wins and attendance, 2017

With another season in the books, here's my annual update of the wins-versus-attendance graph for UH Cougar Football:

The cougars averaged 33,250 fans per home game in 2017, which is 5,703 fans per game fewer than the 2016 season. This drop-off isn't particularly surprising: the 2016 season was by all accounts a disappointing, deflating one, and the 2017 season wasn't much to get excited about either (this is evidenced by the fact that the Coogs drew steadily smaller crowds as the 2017 season progressed).

While it's not time to panic yet - 33,250 is still a pretty good average by Houston's historical standards and larger than any crowd that could have been accommodated at old Robertson Stadium - it's clear that significant adjustments are going to need to be made to this team if they are to recapture the interest of this city's notoriously fickle, fairweather fan base and put more butts in TDECU's seats next season.

This starts with an improved, high-scoring offense that people will want to pay money to see, rather than the predictable, sputtering system that the Coogs ran this past season.

Fewer 11 am kickoff times would help, too. Those kill attendance, especially in September.

Quito: the New York City of the Andes?

Katharine Shilcutt made a trip to Quito, Ecuador and wrote about it in December's edition of Houstonia Magazine, where she compares it favorably to New York City:
You shouldn’t try to rent a car in Ecuador; you are not nimble or practiced enough for the driving conditions, the congestion, the loose interpretation of traffic signals and lane dividers. And anyway, in a metropolis like Quito where 2.7 million people make their home, it makes as much sense as renting a car in New York City—which, as it turns out, is very close to what Quito looks like by daylight. 
The next morning, we gasp as we round a corner from our apartment down a hill toward Avenida América. Beyond the seven-lane thoroughfare sprawls a dense, colorful city packed with tall buildings that would seem even taller were they not dwarfed by the Andes Mountains beyond. In the far distance, the snow-capped Pichincha—an active volcano whose last major eruption, in 1999, covered the city with a layer of ash—looms like the home of an ancient god. The largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas, Basílica del Voto Nacional, is the only structure that comes close to competing with the natural landscape, its twin spires jutting into the sky like two jagged Andean peaks. 
As we walk the avenue, we see women selling fresh red crabs from deep blue buckets, next to a Colombian bakery where old men are laughing loudly at a curbside table, while diesel buses puff along, about one for every ten taxi cabs. Stick your hand out, and you’ve got a cab in, well, a New York minute. I can’t help thinking that long, skinny, built-up and crammed-in Quito feels like what would happen if you dropped Manhattan from the sky into the middle of the mountains.
It's nice to know that the drivers are just as crazy today as they were when I spent my teenage summers there, but otherwise I get the feeling that Quito has changed quite a bit since the last time I was there. It's always been a bustling metropolis, and it's always been densely-built - a geographic necessity, given that the city is hemmed in by Mount Pichincha to the west and the Valle de Los Chillos to the east - but I certainly wouldn't have compared it to Manhattan back then. While it was a somewhat cosmopolitan city, Quito was also the capital of a desperately poor and largely agricultural nation, and it simply did not possess New York City levels of wealth, sophistication or infrastructure. Three decades later, however, things may have changed: now Quito's even building its own subway.
ON A SATURDAY MORNING, Hala and I stroll through the city to brunch. In the huge Parque La Carolina, we pass a farmers market with live music, a Zona de Crossfit that proves the fitness trend is inescapable, and a grand botanical garden. We land at a German bakery where the table next to us chats away in Japanese as we munch on “Janky” (see: Yankee) waffles and bacon and gulp down dark, delicious blackberry juice and Ecuadorian coffee.  
“I didn’t expect this city to be so international,” Hala remarks, not for the first time. (The final time will be some nights later in a sushi restaurant, where I enjoy fresh eel while she carries on in Arabic with some diplomats from Qatar and a local Instagram celebrity originally from Tunisia.)
Sushi restaurants? Yeah, when I was 14 I resented the fact that Quito didn't even have a real McDonalds. In fact, looking at Google Maps I notice that almost all the restaurants I remember - the place down the street from our apart-hotel that had the excellent llapingachos and locro de queso, the quirky "El Pub" next to the British Embassy, the cheap "Chifa" restaurants serving fried rice and "wonton soup" with chicken organs in it - have all disappeared, replaced by vegan restaurants, Brazilian rodizios, coffee shops, tandoori restaurants and, yes, American fast food outlets.

Given its size and location in the center of the city, Parque La Carolina is fairly analogous to Central Park in Manhattan. But the only thing I really remember about that park is that once my mom and brother went down there to play tennis and were accosted by a bribe-seeking police officer for not having their passports with them; it certainly didn't have a botanical garden or live music back then.

For all the things that might have changed over the years, however, Shilcutt did discover one thing about Quito that is exactly the same as when I lived there:
Back in town and heading out for dinner, we notice the clouds are tumbling quickly over the mountains, into the streets of the city. “That cloud looks like it’s walking!” Hala exclaims. I always thought T.S. Eliot’s anthropomorphized description of fog in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was a little affected. But now that I’ve seen a cloud creep along a street like an animal, I’m regretting everything I wrote in that 12th grade English lit class.
Almost every night, the mountain fog would creep into the city. Watching it roll down from the mountains and up from the valleys was a sight to behold - it really would "crawl" along Avenida 12 de Octubre, Avenida Colon and the other streets around our apart-hotel - and once it enveloped the city it would completely transform it, creating a mysterious, shrouded cityscape punctuated by faded streetlights and passing headlights. It was a landscape that was a serene as it was eerie, and it was very cool to experience.
Quito is a city that upends expectations and offers fascinating contrasts: It’s a few miles south of the equator, yes, but it’s also 9,350 feet high, so it’s cool here year-round, with crisp, thin mountain air. Centuries-old cathedrals and cozy 1950s-era cafeterías coexist alongside hip, open-air food truck parks and post-modern high-rises out of The Jetsons. All of this, in a small country with an outsized global reach, thanks to its petroleum exports and fruitful trade agreements with countries like India and China.
The "crisp, thin mountain air" was one of my favorite things about Quito, especially since it meant escape from the oppressive summertime heat of Houston, and also because it came infused with a distinct aroma of diesel exhaust, firewood smoke and food being cooked: the "Quito Smell," I used to call it. And although I can't speak to Ecuador's trade agreements with China and India - the United States was, and still is, Ecuador's top trading partner - the fact that places like China and India play a larger role in Ecuador's economy than they once did almost certainly makes Quito more of an "international" city than it was a quarter-century ago.

Thanks to dollarization, Quito is a more expensive city than it was when I first spent my summers there, when the sucre was constantly being devalued and everything was crazy cheap. I first noticed this in 2001, during my most recent visit to Ecuador, and it drove my then-girlfriend crazy that I would complain about how much more expensive things had gotten in Ecuador because everything was still very cheap when compared to the United States. This appears to still be the case, if some of the prices Shilcutt reports for taxi rides ($2-$4), simple meals ($7-$12) and Airbnb nights ($40-$90) are correct.

Nobody's going to mistake Quito for New York City anytime soon; it's probably not even the "New York City of the Andes" as long as cities like Bogotá, Colombia or Santiago, Chile rank higher in the "Global Cities" index. But Quito is nevertheless an international city - obviously much more so than it was when I lived there as a teenager - and it is poised to continue to grow as an economic and tourist destination. It is a city full of history, culture, good food and amazing sights. And it's a nonstop flight away from Houston.*

Next summer will mark the thirtieth anniversary since my first trip there, in 1988. I haven't been back since 2001. Hence, another trip to Quito is in the planning stages. It's time to go back, and see the ways in which the city I once considered my "home away from home" has changed.

*Which is another thing that's changed since I was a teenager: back in the 80s, the only way to get to Ecuador from Houston was to fly through Miami. Now, United flies non-stop, and it really wouldn't surprise me if Southwest started flying to Quito from Hobby one day in the future, too. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Cougars lose Hawaii Bowl, end season with 7-5 record

A lackluster season came to a lackluster end in Hawaii on Christmas Eve, as the Cougars fell to the Fresno State Bulldogs, 27-33.

The Cougars scored the first touchdown of the game but sputtered after that; they couldn't even score after the defense intercepted the ball deep in Fresno State territory and didn't find the endzone again until late in the fourth quarter, after the game's outcome had already been decided. Cougar special teams created a spark late in the third quarter when they blocked a Bulldog field goal and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown, but Fresno State slammed the door shut with an 44-yard touchdown return of a D'Eriq King interception late in the game.

Fresno State outgained the Cougars, 473 yards to 341; had 25 first downs to Houston's 17, and led in time of possession, 33:18 to 26:42. All in all, it was not a memorable bowl appearance for Houston.

Nor, for that matter, was it a memorable season. The Coogs ended with a just-above-mediocre 7-5 record, whose highlights include a road win over Power 5 program Arizona and an upset victory over a ranked South Florida team in Tampa. But the Coogs also lost to Tulsa (2-10) and Tulane (5-7), and blew a 17-point lead against Memphis. The Cougars started three different players at quarterback but were never able to find much offensive momentum; they ended the year with an offensive production of 28.2 points per game, which is the program's lowest since the 2005 season.

The UH defense also had its issues, especially in the secondary; the Cougars ended the season as one of the worst teams in the nation in regards to passing yards allowed. But considering that the defense generally did well enough to keep the Cougars close - UH lost four of its five games by a touchdown or less - the focus for improvement going into 2018 really needs to be on the offense. The recent departure of (frankly unimpressive) offensive coordinator Brian Johnson to Florida gives head coach Major Applewhite an opportunity to bring in somebody that fill find a way to being productivity and excitement back to the Cougar offense. That person will also have to do it without graduating key players such as wide receivers Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar or running back Dillon Birden. (The Cougars lose some talent off the defense as well, but Ed Oliver - whom the University will almost certainly promote as a Heisman candidate - returns for one more season.)

As mediocre as the 2017 was, it wasn't quite as disappointing as the 2016 campaign that started out with so much promise and ended with a thud. In fact, I predicted that 2017 would be a unexceptional year for UH. Given the new coaching staff, all the talent that was lost off the 2016 team, and the fact that the season began with the distraction of Hurricane Harvey (which even resulted in the season opener at Texas-San Antonio being canceled), 2017 wasn't so much a "rebuilding" year for the Coogs as it was a "throwaway" year.

If the program wants to remain relevant both locally and nationally, however, Major Applewhite, his staff and his players need to aspire to better performances in 2018. "Rebuilding" year or not, a 7-6 record and a scoring offense that is #65 in the nation is not going to excite the fickle, fairweather fanbase of this city, let alone put the team in position to compete for conference titles.

Oh, and hopefully the UH athletics department will work with the conference and their TV partners to ensure more 6 pm kickoffs next fall, too. 11 am kickoffs ruin tailgating, and in September and even October temperatures at those times can be brutal.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The 747 begins flying into history

The aviation geek in me is sad to see this happen:
It was a beautiful morning to fly, as Delta Air Lines 9771 broke free of cloudy and cold Detroit and ushered itself into the orangey-pink sunrise waiting just above the drudgery below. The jet, one of the last U.S.-operated passenger Boeing 747-400s, gently lifted off from Detroit Metropolitan Airport several minutes earlier at 7:47 a.m., bound for a rather unusual destination: the Boeing factory from which it was made.
The special homecoming charter flight kicked off Delta’s farewell tour for the original jumbo jet, which will go on to stop in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles this week. It comes as Delta – the last U.S. passenger airline still flying the 747 – winds down its schedule on the aircraft. Delta has only one regularly scheduled 747 flight left – a Seoul-to-Detroit flight that’s scheduled to land Tuesday. 
After that, Delta’s remaining 747s will fly a handful of NFL charters before retiring altogether by the year’s end. With that, nearly 50 years of passenger 747 service with U.S. based airlines will come to an end.
Delta's fleet of 747s originally belonged to Northwest before the two airlines merged, and in fact my very first flight on a 747, from Detroit to Osaka in 2005, was on Northwest (I've since flown on KLM 747s as well). After United retired its last 747 a month ago, Delta was the only domestic airline operating the 747. Now that is coming to an end as well.

It's sad that the fifty-year reign of the iconic and spacious "Jumbo Jet" is seeing its twilight, but it's simply a matter of economics. Two-engined jets are simply cheaper to operate than airplanes with three or four engines:
Today, the industry has moved toward twin-engine planes such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A330, with three-engine planes being relatively unpopular because of the high labor costs of working on an engine bedded into the tail fin. 
The four-engine 747 retained a clear place in the market because twin-engine planes must stay within a certain distance from an airport in case of engine failure. 
This allowed the 747 to achieve shorter journey times on the longest routes because it could use more direct flight paths. 
However, improving engine reliability means authorities have slowly increased the distance a twin-engine airliner can fly from a runway, gradually reducing the advantage of having four engines. 
And those newer, more reliable engines have also been bigger and more efficient.
The aforementioned three-engined widebody jets - the DC-10/MD-11 and the amazing and underappreciated Lockheed L-1011 - have long since disappeared from passenger service. Four-engined widebodies - the Airbus A340 and the double-decker Airbus A380 as well as the 747 - have been able to continue in service because of their range and capacity advantages over their two-engined counterparts. 

However, the gradual relaxation of ETOPS requirements, as well as the fact that two-engined jets can land at smaller airports than their four-engined counterparts are therefore more flexible to airlines wanting to provide specific non-stop long-haul routes, have cut into the usefulness of the 747 such that fewer and fewer airlines think it makes economic sense to replace the 747s reaching the end of their service lives with new ones. This is why domestic carriers like United and Delta have phased the 747 out of service; they feel it makes better business sense to replace their four-engined aircraft with advanced two-engined ones such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. 

This is not to say that the 747 is immediately disappearing from the skies; it will continue in service as charter aircraft, as cargo freighters, and in the fleets of foreign carriers. Boeing is still building 747-8 aircraft (although orders are understandably slow); newer 747s still have a good two decades of service ahead. 

But otherwise, time marches on. The Boeing 747's importance to America's passenger aviation industry has, after many decades, come to an end.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl: North Texas 30, Troy 50

North Texas kicked off the 2017-18 college bowl season in New Orleans at high noon last Saturday. Unfortunately, things didn't go very well for them:
When Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers glanced around the Superdome, his eyes would stop on the name of Archie Manning, who has become one of his mentors, or on spots in the stands where he's sat during games he attended as a fan. 
During his next visit, he'll be able to look at spots on the field where he threw four touchdown passes, as well as the end zone where he ran for a short score, to help the Trojans beat North Texas 50-30 in the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday.
"Just being on that field today is going to be one of my great memories for a long time," Silvers said. 
Silvers, a former counselor at Manning's football camp, threw for 305 yards, completing 24 of 31 passes. The Orange Beach, Alabama, native was intercepted once on a deep throw, but that hardly mattered in a game controlled by Troy's defense, which produced five North Texas turnovers.
In addition to the five turnovers, the North Texas offense had negative net rushing yards (-8) and quarterback Mason Fine was sacked six times. Add in the four touchdown passes thrown by Silvers and the 435 total yards of offense that the UNT defense surrendered to Troy, and it was a long afternoon for the Mean Green as well as the fans who made the eight-hour journey from Denton.

It's a tough way for the Mean Green to end a strong season. They netted a 9-3 regular-season record, an appearance in the Conference USA championship game, and made their second bowl appearance in two seasons. Although they were beaten by a combined score of 47-91 in their last two games, UNT's 2017 campaign was definitely better than last year's 5-8 record or their abysmal 1-11 campaign of two years ago. The Denton Record-Chronicle's Brett Vito sees positive signs for the future of head coach Seth littrell and his team:
It's important to not let a couple of losses to end the season overshadow those accomplishments and what Littrell and his staff have done to set UNT up for the future.
UNT won the C-USA West Division title on its way to a 9-5 finish. It's just the seventh season with at least nine wins in program history.
What might be even more promising is that the Mean Green reached those goals while featuring several young players. 
Quarterback Mason Fine set UNT records for passing yards (4,052) and passing touchdowns (31) in a season as a sophomore. Wide receivers Jalen Guyton and wide receiver Rico Bussey also were key contributors in their sophomore campaigns. 
The return of that trio is just one reason UNT should feel good about its future.
The Mean Green took a step towards that future today, as their early signing day haul included three JUCO transfers that should be able to step in and play right away.

Time will tell if UNT can replicate or even improve on their success of 2017, but as of right now the program has reached a point where its goals for 2018 should include a conference championship along with a bowl victory.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Moody Blues are Hall of Fame bound

The Moody Blues are one of my dad's favorite bands, so growing up I got to listen to them a lot and developed a taste for them as well. So I was happy to learn today that this underrated British band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For the band and their fans, this honor was a long time coming:
For The Moody Blues, the honor comes after years of fans harping that the group deserved recognition. The band became eligible for the honor in 1989, and "in 2013, a Rolling Stone reader poll listed the Moody Blues as one of the top 10 bands that need to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," according to the organization.

If you want to seem them live, they'll be performing at the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land in mid-January. Rolling Stone's interview with frontman Justin Hayward about the honor is worth reading, too.

UH hires a new Athletic Director

The University of Houston has hired one of its own to run its athletics program:
Chris Pezman was introduced as the new vice president of intercollegiate athletics at the University of Houston on Tuesday, telling a crowd of supporters he's back for the long haul. 
"I don't plan on being here for one year or four years," Pezman said. "This is my life. This is home."
Pezman received a standing ovation during the news conference, which was attended by several teammates from his time as a walk-on to team captain in the early 1990s. 
Pezman becomes the 11th athletic director in school history and the first alumni to assume the school's top athletic position. He received both degrees from UH, was a three-year letterman on the football team and served as a graduate assistant and later in an administrative role. 
Pezman, 47, spent the last four years as senior associate athletic director and chief operating officer at the University of California, Berkeley.
Houston's AD position position opened up as a result of former AD Hunter Yuracheck's sudden departure to Arkansas early in December. Pezman's name was floated almost immediately; UH Board of Regents chairman Tilman Fertitta and UH President Renu Khator met with him shortly afterward and made the decision to hand the keys to the department over to him.

If the chatter on UH athletics message boards is any indication, fans are happy with this hire. Acquaintances of mine who are well-connected to UH athletics say he did well during his previous administrative stint here in Houston and also performed admirably while at Cal-Berkeley. The fact that he is originally from here, and understands the relationship between this city of fair-weather fans and its largest university, also helps. 

I'm pretty confident UH got this hire right, and I'm happy to welcome Chris Pezman back home. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Obligatory snow photos

In the wee hours of Friday morning, a rare snowfall fell across Houston. The flurries actually began Thursday night, and my girlfriend and stayed up late enough to see a few flakes fall. We went to bed thinking that very little additional snow would fall and none of it would stick. We were happy to be proven wrong the following morning.

Here are some photos that I took at my apartment complex Friday morning right before heading in to work:

(No, I can't take credit for building the snowman.)

So once again, Houston experiences a snowfall the December following a hurricane. You'd think these two weather phenomena are related or something...

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Flat-Earthers, and the fundamental problem with their conspiracy theory

Over the past few months, I've discovered that people who actually believe the earth is flat are, indeed, a thing. Take this guy, for example:
It is a stunt worthy of Evel Knievel. This week, if all goes to plan, "Mad" Mike Hughes, a Californian, will launch himself 1,800 feet (550 metres) into the sky in a homemade steam-powered rocket made of scrap metal. As well as providing entertainment, Mr Hughes wants to prove a point. On his trip over the Mojave Desert, which could propel him at speeds up to 500 miles (800km) per hour, the 61-year-old limousine-driver-turned-daredevil hopes to prove the earth is flat.
Some may be surprised to learn that people still hold such views. After all, the earth has been photographed from space. But such photos could have been faked by the evil forces who secretly control the world, right? And all those centuries of scientific evidence suggesting that the Earth id spherical could be wrong, right? In America interest in the flat-Earth movement appears to be growing. In September Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., a rapper also known as B.O.B., launched a crowd-funding campaign to send satellites into orbit to determine the Earth's shape. On November 8th, 500 "flat-Earthers" assembled in North Carolina for the first annual Flat Earth International Conference. Data from Google Trends show that in the past two years, searches for "flat earth" have more than tripled.
Aside from the distinct possibility that Mr. Hughes's stunt (which appears to be on hold, at least for now) could earn him a Darwin Award, his attempt to prove that the Earth is flat, B.O.B.'s aforementioned GoFundMe account (as well as his rap battle with Neil DeGrasse Tyson), and that Flat Earth Conference in North Carolina - in the research triangle, no less! - are all indications that this conspiracy theory, as ridiculous as it is, is gaining momentum. NBA player Kyrie Irving may or may not be a flat-Earther. People in Colorado who believe the Earth is flat are claiming to be “persecuted.” During last August's solar eclipse, the Chronicle actually bothered to find out what a local flat-Earther thought about the phenomenon.
The Earth has been known to be round since the days of the ancient Greeks (the story that Christopher Columbus sailed to America to “prove” that the world is round is bullshit). Easily-observable natural phenomena - not just sunrises and sunsets, but the movement of the stars, the change of seasons, weather phenomena, lunar and solar eclipses, etc. - are easily explained by the existence of a round earth spinning in space. Flat-Earth explanations for these phenomenon, such as they are, are invariably convoluted, hand-wavy, or simply non-existent. Furthermore, just because you can’t perceive the curvature of the earth with your eyes doesn’t mean that it isn’t curved. You’re just too small, and the earth too large, to the curvature to be perceptible.* 
So on one hand, it doesn’t matter what flat-Earthers think. The planet on which we reside is spheroid, and that fact will not change no matter how many conferences they have, how many billboards they try to erect, how many B-list rappers or sports figures they recruit to their cause, how many nutjobs fly homemade rockets over the desert, how many ridiculous Youtube videos they make, how many levels they bring on to airplanes, or how many arguments they start in the comments section.

On the other hand, though, it matters a lot. The fact that we even have to have this argument in 2017 is as disturbing as it is humorous, and says a lot about the power of anti-intellectualism, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and even the internet itself. It is in many ways an extreme example of the same forces that give us everything from Alex Jones to Pizzagate to 9/11 Trutherism to creationism to climate science denial to the anti-vaccine movement to the fact that a profoundly ignorant and pathologically-lying buffoon is currently the President of the United States. There's a notion that science itself is a conspiracy, that everything we’re being told is wrong, and it only appears to be gaining momentum. It's a "tsunami of stupid," and it's really quite depressing.
Science aside, however, there's a fundamental problem with the flat-Earth conspiracy theory. It's the same problem that plagues any large-scale conspiracy: the bigger it is, the more likely it is that somebody involved in it will either intentionally or inadvertently reveal its existence, or that something else will go wrong with it.

People talk. Whistleblowers come forward. Cover gets blown. Somebody, either in a moment of moral clarity or because they're disgruntled with the whole enterprise, comes forward and spills the beans. It happens all the time in the real world, whether it be corporate conspiracies (Enron) or criminal conspiracies (mob informants who bring down entire crime families).

In order for the Flat Earthers' theory - i.e., the idea that the Earth is actually flat but the truth is being hidden by a vast conspiracy - to be correct, it would require that untold millions of people employed in a wide range of professions have to be complicit as well as silent. This includes astronomers, physicists, meteorologists, geographers, geologists, oceanographers, aerospace engineers, historians, the military, the entire aviation, shipping and telecommunications industries, even everyone who has claimed to have flown across the southern hemisphere.** This complicity would have to extend across both the public and private sectors and to every country and advanced culture on earth regardless of political or religious ideology.

Not only would the silence and complicity of each and every one of these untold millions of people, both living and dead, be required, but so would astronomical money and resources be required to continually and flawlessly perpetuate the hoax. The odds that a whistleblower wouldn’t eventually emerge out of the millions and millions of people involved in the conspiracy, or that something wouldn’t eventually go wrong with the apparatus supporting the conspiracy, are pretty much zero.
What purpose, furthermore, would such a vast, complicated and expensive conspiracy serve? How does foisting the false idea of a round globe on the population benefit anyone in any way? There are much easier ways to get rich, maintain power, keep the masses uninformed, or inflict evil upon the world that don’t involve an elaborate conspiracy about the shape of the earth that would involve untold numbers of people and resources and require rigorous maintenance across the centuries.

I honestly don’t think that a lot of the people who call themselves “Flat-Earthers” are truly believers in a flat earth. I think some of them are bored internet trolls, others are hoaxers or satirists testing the limits of Poe’s Law, others are simply looking to make a name for themselves or to profit from Youtube video hits. But the "true" Flat-Earthers - biblical literalists (even though the Bible really doesn't say anywhere that the earth is actually flat), people who are easily suggestible, and people who are hopelessly ignorant of science - are, sadly, out there. There's really nothing that can be done for them, except to laugh at them.
If there’s a bright side to Flat Earth, it is that it is truly is the conspiracy theory to end all conspiracy theories. Unless you want to argue that the sky is really not blue or that water is really not wet, you really can’t get much crazier than arguing that our globe is actually flat.
*Although, on several occasions, as I’ve sat at the window of an airplane at cruising altitude, I’ve fixed my eyes on a point on the horizon in front of me, and have faintly but definitely perceived the earth’s curvature. This is especially easy to do if you’re flying over an ocean or area of generally flat topography and there are few or no clouds. I've also seen this for myself coming back from a recent trip to New Orleans.

**There’s a rather simple, albeit expensive, way to disprove a flat-Earther: invite them to fly with you around the south pole. There are plenty of options for doing so: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Qantas flies from Sydney, Australia to Santiago, Chile and Johannesburg, South Africa; LATAM flies from Santiago, Chile to Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. According to the dominant flat earth model (the north pole is the center of the earth and what we normally think of Antarctica or the south pole is actually its outer edge), then these flights would be impossible. You could even make a really cool vacation out of it!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Houston 24, Navy 14

The Cougars ended an up-and-down 2017 season on a high note, defeating Navy at home last Friday afternoon. The Coogs started off slow and actually trailed 7-14 at halftime, but scored 17 unanswered points in the second half.

The Good: Quarterback D'Eriq King completed 21 of 27 passes for 277 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 16 times for another 57 yards and two touchdowns. Ed Oliver went into beast mode against the Midshipmen running game, recording 2 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss as part of a 14-tackle afternoon. Cougar cornerback Alexander Myres's interception late in the game ended any hope of a Navy comeback.

The Bad: The entire first half, for Houston. The Cougar offense sputtered, kick returner John Leday fumbled a kickoff return, the Cougar defense gave up touchdowns on drives of 75 and 55 yards, and at the half the Midshipmen dominated in total yardage (212 yards to 119) and time of possession (20:29 minutes to 9:31 minutes). Fortunately, the second half was much better for Houston; however, they still ended the game with fewer first downs, more turnovers and more penalty yards than Navy.

What It Means: The Cougars end the 2017 season with a 7-4 record (which is one win ahead of my preseason prediction), which is good for second place in the AAC West Division, and now wait to find out which bowl they'll be attending. I'll have more thoughts about the 2017 campaign once that game has been played.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Rice fires David Baliff after 30-14 loss to UNT

The Mean Green came to Rice Stadium last weekend and handed the Owls their 11th loss of the season. The Owls briefly led the game on a interception return for a touchdown, but after that North Texas took over; the score was 24-14 in the Mean Green's favor at the half, and UNT added two field goals after halftime in spite of being held to just 84 yards in the second half.

After the tough season-ending loss, focus shifted to the future of the man who had led the program for the past eleven seasons, head coach David Bailiff. Sure enough, on Monday Rice's administration announced that they were parting ways with Bailiff:
Bailiff was informed of the decision during a Monday meeting with director of athletics Joe Karlgaard. 
Bailiff was 57-80 and led Owls to four bowls including three straight from 2012 through 2014. 
Bailiff was named Conference USA's coach of the year twice (2008 and 2013). His 57 wins are second in school history behind Jess Neely. 
Bailiff took Rice to heights it hadn't reached in more than half a century, leading the Owls to two of the school's three 10-win seasons—their first was in 1949. 
During Bailiff's tenure (tied for the third-longest in school history), Rice players have regularly excelled off the field; eight players have been taken in the NFL Draft; and the school opened the $31.5 million, 60,000-square-foot Brian Patterson Center for coaches' offices and a locker and weight room in 2015. 
After going 3-9 in Bailiff's first season in 2007, Rice rebounded with a 10-3 year and won the Texas Bowl in 2008. But since winning the Owls' first outright conference title in 56 years in 2013, Bailiff's teams have done progressively worse.
Coach Bailiff was by all accounts a good guy - I've met him - who brought the Owls a measure of success the program hadn't experienced in a long time. But there's also little doubt that the program was trending downward under his leadership: from a 10-4 record (and Conference USA championship) in 2013, to an 8-5 record (and most recent bowl appearance) in 2014, to a 5-7 record in 2015, to a 3-9 record last season, to this season's 1-11 campaign. Given that trend, Rice AD Joe Karlgaard's decision is understandable.

The question now is who Rice will find to replace Bailiff. Rice is a hard place to win, due to a variety of factors including high academic standards and low fan support. It takes a special kind of coach to keep that program competitive, and even then coaching might not, by itself, be enough. As the Rice athletics program searches for their next coach, John Royal ponders the future of the program overall:
Is there a corner that the team can turn? Is there anything that can be done that will revitalize not only the dwindling Rice fanbase, but will somehow make the program relevant throughout Houston so that people will actually come out to Rice Stadium? 
These are all questions for another day. But they all need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
While Rice licks the wounds of a rough season and looks for a new coach, they might find inpiration from the team that beat them last weekend. Three seasons ago, the Mean Green had also limped their way to a 1-11 record. But Seth Littrell took over as coach following the 2015 season, and has now led North Texas to a 9-3 regular season record and a trip to the Conference USA Championship Game.

Hey, Case Keenum haters:

Turns out we were right and y'all were wrong: he really is a good quarterback.

Obviously the right environment helps; he's certainly found one with the Minnesota Vikings, which is more than could be said when he was playing with the perennially-woeful Texans. Many of the same local media types who were lambasting him during his time with the Texans are now in fact praising him, as they've come to discover what those of us who watched him at the University of Houston knew all along:
Of course, any objective observer could have seen this coming from Keenum. When Keenum completes eight of his first nine passes against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, he’s just showing what he always displayed at the University of Houston. He completed 69.4 percent of his passes as a Cougar. He’s always been an ultra accurate quarterback. 
When Keenum slips out of a defensive end’s grasp, steps up into the pocket and delivers a bullet pass to Adam Thielen for a first down, he’s just doing what he’s always done. The same thing he did at UH while shattering the NCAA’s all-time passing records. The same thing he did in putting up 31 points against Bill Belichick’s defense for an absolutely dreadful Texans team in his first extended stint as an NFL starter back in 2013.
This is a guy who’s always made big plays throughout the entirety of his quarterbacking life. 
The difference is Keenum finally has a good NFL team around him. He has weapons to utilize. And competent coaching. The same things he always had at UH.
“It’s the Case Keenum show,” Aikman beams at one point during the Thanksgiving broadcast.
Whenever anyone’s given Keenum a legitimate chance to take the stage, it always has been. Many of us saw this coming. True University of Houston fans certainly aren’t surprised by anything Keenum is doing in the NFL. The anti-Keenum rhetoric in the Houston media never reflected the true feelings in the city.
Much of the local sports media, of course, is so deep in the tank for UT, A&M and the "Power 5" conferences that they are incapable of giving the University of Houston, or any of its alumni, the credit they deserve. That's probably never going to change, unfortunately. All Case Keenum can continue to do is prove his haters wrong.

To which I say: keep up the good work, Case!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

UH takes first step towards a medical school

Something the University of Houston has been wanting for over a decade is now one step closer to reality:
University of Houston System regents on Thursday unanimously voted to create a medical school, a long-time dream aimed at increasing the supply of primary-care doctors for Texas' most underserved areas. 
Under a proposal that must be approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and a national accrediting body, UH would begin enrolling its first class of medical students in fall 2020, and reach a full complement of 480 by 2027. It would ask the Texas Legislature for $40 million over 10 years to cover some of its expenses.
"There is a tremendous need in the community here in Houston, in inner cities and in rural areas," said UH President and Chancellor Renu Khator, who called the vote "a historic day" for UH. "Our model will help us do that while preparing primary care physicians who are trained to practice in community-based clinics."
Texas ranks 47th out of 50 states in the ratio of primary care doctors per person and the shortage is expected to get worse. Despite recent pushes to increase the pipeline of doctors in Texas' rural and urban areas, a significant number of counties and communities, many in the Houston area, continue to be classified as medically underserved.
I can only assume that the UH System regents sense that past political opposition to UH gaining a medical school has diminished, since I doubt they'd vote to approve its creation (and risk the embarrassment that would result if the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board rejected it) otherwise. At least one former skeptic - State Representative Garnet Coleman - seems to be on board, and the proposed medical school also has the (rather critical) support of the Texas Medical Center.
At Thursday's meeting, seven months after state lawmakers asked UH to evaluate the need for a medical school, regents approved four actions: establishing a college of medicine; applying to the state's higher education coordinating board for approval; initiating the accreditation process; and finalizing a partnership for new residency programs where newly minted doctors will train in primary care and other "needed" specialties, such as psychiatry and general surgery. 
The university has a letter of intent with Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) Gulf Coast Division to create eight new residency programs and more than 100 first-year slots by 2020. 
Board Chairman Tilman Fertitta said the board would "fight on" in pursuit of the college and pledged to work with state lawmakers to "make this happen." Stephen Spann, the medical school's planning dean, said conversations with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and legislators have been "very positive." 
Approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is necessary for new degree programs, not individual colleges. Raymund Paredes, the agency's leader, was at Thursday's regent committee meeting where the proposal was presented but left before the vote. A spokeswoman later said Paredes would not speculate on how the agency would receive the plan.
The price tag for the new school is expected to exceed $272 million over 13 years. In addition to the state funding, UH's plan also calls for $40 million in philanthropic gifts over 10 years, tuition revenue to cover $51 million and other revenue to cover remaining costs.
The timeline, as it currently stands, is for the University of Houston to submit an application to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in February of 2018 for a Doctor of Medicine degree program, and, if approval is granted, to submit an application to the Liaison Committee on Medical Education for accreditation the following August.

Should all this fall into place, it would obviously be a huge step forward for UH. Stay tuned.

The Texas Tribune has more.

Houston 17, Tulane 20

The Cougars went to New Orleans and got thoroughly outplayed and outcoached by the Green Wave.

The Good: Tulane has a pretty campus (this was my first time there) and Yulman Stadium is a nice, intimate venue for the Green Wave. It's a much better place to watch a game than the sterile and cavernous Superdome, and the St. Charles streetcar makes getting to and from campus easy.

The Bad: The Cougar offense. In spite of out-gaining Tulane in total yardage, they simply couldn't put points on the board. They managed only three points in three trips inside the red zone. The offensive playcalling was either predictably boring or incomprehensibly stupid (a 1-yard pass on 3rd and 10? Seriously?). The offense turned the ball over twice (including D'Eriq King's ill-advised pass into double coverage in the endzone that killed a promising drive), and failed on two critical fourth down attempts (one of which probably should have been a field goal attempt instead, and the other of which would turn out to be the game-losing play). It did not help that RB Duke Catalon was injured and had to leave the game early.

The Ugly: The Cougar defense. It was dreadful, allowing Tulane to gain 417 total yards of offense (including 251 yards through the air, which is significant because Tulane is not a pass-happy offense), convert 8 out of 15 third down attempts (the Cougars simply couldn't get the Green Wave off the field; Tulane's last two scoring drives of the first half were of 94 and 77 yards, respectively), and eat up clock in the process (the Green Wave dominated time of possession, 36:24 to 23:36). In the fourth quarter, the Cougars finally scored a touchdown to go ahead 17-13. The defense allowed the Green Wave to retake the lead for good only 33 seconds later, when they were utterly embarrassed by a 64-yard touchdown pass from Tulane QB Johnathan Banks to WR Terren Encalade (who utterly owned the UH secondary and finished the day with 8 receptions for 168 yards).

What It Means: In the overall scheme of things, not much - the Cougars already have the six wins they need to be bowl eligible, and were not in contention for the AAC West division title even before Memphis clinched it Saturday.

That being said, this loss, which is almost as bad as the flop against Tulsa, suggests that this team has some real problems that can't be rectified simply by putting in D'Eriq King at quarterback. John Royal notes:
The Cougars are still searching for an identity. The swagger from the Tom Herman years is missing. Putting in King and letting him try to recreate Greg Ward Jr.’s magic as the quarterback has brought some spark to the team, but there’s still too much inconsistency. The injury to running back Duke Catalon early in the first quarter appeared to strip the team of some effectiveness in the running game.
From my perspective, it's looking more and more like the Major Applewhite hire was a mistake.

The Cougars end their regular season with a home game against Navy on the day after Thanksgiving in front of what will likely be the smallest crowd in TDECU Stadium history.

Is Houston getting an NHL team? (And what should it be called?)

Houston has been without any sort of pro hockey team for over five years. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta might be looking to change that:
Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said Thursday he is "in the very early stage of evaluating" the opportunity to bring an NHL team to Houston.
That came on the heels of a report that Fertitta recently met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. 
The Athletic, citing multiple sources, reported Wednesday that Fertitta and Bettman met at league headquarters in New York. Bettman declined comment to the website about the meeting, adding "we're not relocating any clubs right now." 
Regarding a possible team in Houston, Bettman said, "If Houston were to express an interest in having an NHL franchise, under the right circumstances, it's something we might want to consider."
I'm not a huge hockey fan, but I do think Houston - as of right now, the largest city in the nation without an NHL franchise - should have, and can support, a team. Now that the biggest impediment to Houston having a hockey team - former Rockets owner Les Alexander - is out of the picture, it appears like Fertitta and the NHL are moving in that direction, although it will probably take some time to work everything out.

As for what the potential team should be named, well, that's easy: if the Aeros name is still available (it's unclear who currently owns the rights to it), then there's no reason not to use the name most closely associated with hockey in Houston. (And no, Chronicle, people have never confused the "Aeros" with the "Astros" in the past.)

ESPN's Greg Wyshynski thinks that Houston easily passes the "Bettman Test" for an NHL franchise, while John Royal thinks an NHL team in Houston is inevitable. Kuff also weighs in.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Game 5 of the 2017 World Series (and how I managed to be there)

It's been a week and a day since the Astros finally won the World Series. As amazing as that feat was, there's one aspect to it (that I finally got around to writing about) that makes this particularly amazing for me: the fact that my girlfriend and I were able to attend Game 5 - yes, that Game 5 - of the World Series.

For free.

Because we won tickets to the game.

Here's the story.

We knew that, with the Astros playing the weekend's games at home, the entire City of Houston would be crazy; my girlfriend Corinne and I wanted to be part of the madness, rather than watch the games by ourselves in our apartment, so we decided to go out.

Friday night we watched Game Three at my usual watering hole in Midtown. We were wondering where to watch the game on Saturday night, when a post appeared on our Facebook feed announcing that King's Bierhaus in the Heights was having a watch party and holding a drawing for two outfield bullpen tickets to Sunday night's game (it even made the local news). Decision made!

We didn't go because we thought we had any chance of actually winning World Series tickets, obviously. We went simply because we like the food, beer selection and atmosphere at King's Bierhaus, which opened earlier this year as the junior restaurant to King's Biergarten in Pearland and which serves a variety of Bavarian and Austrian specialties. It's quickly become a favorite place of ours to eat, but until now we had never thought of the Bierhaus as a sports-watching spot as well, and it sounded like fun.

Bier and baseball!
So Saturday evening we went King's, which was predictably filled with hopeful Astros fans. (Being the Saturday before Halloween, it was also costume night for the staff.) We ordered our food (as well as a Munich-sized stein of Hofbräu Dunkel), found a place in the corner of the outdoor seating area where we had a good view of the televisions carrying the game, and ate our preztels, sausages, cabbage and wings. Our waiter brought us cards for us to fill out for the drawing, which we did. We watched the game, cheered along with the rest of the crowd, and generally enjoyed the evening.

Unfortunately, Game 4 did not end the way we would have liked, thanks to a late-game meltdown by the Astros bullpen. Houston fans were hoping that the Astros could sweep the Dodgers in Houston so as to avoid having to travel back to Los Angeles, but that wasn't meant to be. The Dodgers were simply too good of a team.

After the game was over, it was time for the drawing. Everybody in the restaurant crowded close to entrance, where the restaurant manager was to draw a card out of the bin and announce the winner of the tickets. Corinne remained at the table while I went inside to try to see what was going on and hear the manager call the winner's name, but it was pretty noisy and I simply didn't get close enough to hear what was going on. I didn't see or hear anybody screaming with joy because their name was called, but since I just knew it wasn't me or Corinne - we never win stuff like that - I turned around and began to walk back to our table in the corner of the outdoor seating area. I needed to finish my drink - maybe I could get the waiter to change the channel on one of the televisions to a college football game, if any were still on - and we needed to pay our tab and think about where to watch Sunday night's game.

That's when I noticed Corinne walking towards the front of the restaurant, accompanied by our waiter and a manager, with a rather shocked look on her face.

What happened? Was something wrong with her food?

As they drew closer, I heard the manager ask Corinne if she had her identification on her. Corinne responded that it was still in her purse at the table. Automatically figuring that it would not be a good idea to leave her purse unattended at the table, I walked back to the corner table and grabbed it to bring it to her. That's when I began to realize what was actually happening.

No way.

It turned out that her card was the one the manager had pulled out of the bin. He had called her name, but when nobody inside the restaurant responded - I obviously couldn't hear to respond on her behalf - he and our waiter (who had us write his name on our entry cards) came to the outdoor seating area to call for her. Corinne answered, the manager and waiter came over to the table to tell her that she was the lucky winner, and she, in a moment of complete astonishment, left her purse at the table as she got up to claim her prize.

Seriously. No way!

I made my way through the crowds to the front of the restaurant with Corinne's purse, and discovered her and the manager standing together while another employee took pictures and videos of them. Corinne would later tell me that she was certain she didn't look too enthused in the video simply because she was too stunned to process what had just happened.

Corinne showed the manager her identification so he could verify that she was indeed the person whose name was on the winning card. He got her contact information and told us that the owner would give us a call to discuss how to deliver our tickets to us.


We paid our bill and profusely thanked our waiter. I sent out a couple of stunned text messages to my friends: you're not going to believe this, but... We walked out of the restaurant, still in disbelief, past  all the Astros faithful at the inside tables who neither got to see their team win nor got to win tickets to the next game, and it was then that a weird feeling - one I've never had before because I've never won anything before - hit me: winner's guilt.

These folks were wearing their Astros hats and their Astros shirts and their Astros scarves and their Astros boots and were waving their Astros pennants. They were cheering loudly throughout the entire game. They were probably regular attendees at regular season games, while our attendance at Astros games is, eh, much more sporadic (our limited sports budget is largely devoted to UH Cougar football and Dynamo soccer). Yet none of these bigtime Astros fans ended up with the tickets they came to King's Bierhaus in hopes of winning, while the actual winners turned out to be that middle-aged couple in the corner of the outside seating area who weren't even wearing any Astros gear...

ASTROS GEAR! I still had an old hat bearing the 2000-2012 logo and color scheme, but all my other Astros clothing had long since been retired and never replaced. I couldn't go to an Astros game - a World Series game - without an Astros shirt!

So we drove down TC Jester and made a stop at the Heights Wal-Mart (I'm not a big Wal-Mart shopper, but it will do in a pinch) to pick up some clothing. The stocker who walked by us while we were looking at t-shirts and polos said that we had to be die-hard Astros fans because we were buying clothing even though they had just lost. We chuckled; if he only knew the real reason why we were scrambling to buy clothes late on a Saturday night.

The shock had still not worn off by the time we got home. We won World Series tickets? Out of all the people at an event that made the local news, Corinne's card was the one that got pulled? How does that happen? We never win stuff like this! I put my head on the pillow. Maybe this is all a dream. 

But it wasn't a dream. The owner, Philipp, called Corinne on Sunday morning to ask how we enjoyed the previous evening, to see how excited we were, and to discuss how to get the tickets to her. Shortly later, they appeared in her email and I printed them out. These were real MLB World Series tickets. This was actually happening.

Rather than trying to fight traffic and shell out money for jacked-up parking fees around Minute Maid Park, Corinne and I decided instead to take METRORail from my parents' house near the University of Houston. We needed to visit my dad anyway, as his birthday was that day and because he had just recently gotten home from the hospital, where he had been in for surgery (had he been in a bit better physical shape, he might actually have gone to the game in place of one of us). We drove over to my parents' house, and after visiting and watching the Texans play the Seahawks for a bit, bid my mom and dad farewell - they instructed us to scream loudly for them - and walked a few blocks to the train station at the edge of the UH campus. I purchased a couple of day passes on my METRO Q-ticketing app - I'm not a freeloader! - and before long, Corinne and I were on a Purple Line train full of other Astros fans headed to the stadium area.

The crowds were large, but moved fairly quickly. Our tickets were scanned, and we spent some time enjoying the pregame festivities along Crawford Street before finally going inside Minute Maid Park for the start of the game.

Astros faithful wait to get into the stadium. Astros management did an excellent job moving the crowds fairly quickly.

Paul Wall entertains the crowd outside the stadium before the game. 
We eventually went inside the stadium, and found our seats, in right field behind the bullpen, right where King's advertised they'd be.

It was real. We were here. At a World Series Game.

If you had told me where I'd be twenty-four hours before this picture was taken...
That alone would have been memorable, a bucket list item, a story to tell grandkids I'll probably never have. But there was still a game to be played. Little did we know we were about to witness first-hand one of the most amazing games in the 114-year history of the World Series.

The weekend had already been an improbable one in terms of local sports. My heretofore struggling Houston Cougars had upset the #17-ranked South Florida Bulls in Tampa on the previous day, thanks to a third-string quarterback and an unreal conversion on 4th and 24. The Houston Texans, meanwhile, came very close to upsetting the Seahawks (and probably would have, had they had anything resembling a pass defense) in a crazy, back-and-forth game in Seattle. So I guess it should have been expected that the Astros were due for a barn-burner of a game as well (never mind that they already had one of them earlier this series).

It didn't start out awesome, of course. Astros ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel gave up three runs in the first inning; by the time the middle of the fourth inning arrived, the Astros were down 4-0 and Keuchel had been pulled from the mound. The Astros were in a big hole, and the Dodgers' star pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, was keeping the Astros bats silent. The crowd was beginning to get nervous. Nobody wanted this team to go back to Los Angeles facing elimination.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Astros finally broke through. Carlos Correa batted in the Astros' first run on a double. Yuli Gurriel was next up to bat, and he sent Kershaw's very next pitch into the Crawford Boxes. Given where we were sitting, we couldn't actually see the trajectory of the ball after Gurriel launched it until it actually landed. We didn't need to; the reaction of the Dodger outfielders - instead of running back towards the wall, they simply stood and watched in disgust - told us everything we needed to know. Three-run homer. Tie Game. Minute Maid erupted in celebration.

The celebration didn't last, however. Astros reliever Collin McHugh took over on the mound in the next inning but struggled, allowing Dodger batters to reach base. Then Cody Bellinger smacked a three-run homer of his own, and LA went back ahead by three runs. I got frustrated and decided to walk around the (very crowded) stadium to see what other concessions were available and to see the field from other vantage points:

The view from behind the Crawford Boxes. A standing-room-only crowd of 43,300 was on hand for this game. 
I got back to my seat just in time to see LA's lead disappear. In the bottom of the 5th, Kershaw got two Astros hitters out but then walked two batters in a row and was replaced by reliever Kenta Maeda. José Altuve fought Maeda to a full count and then did this:

And our section did this:

(That's 3 [three!] three-run homers in an inning and a half of a World Series game, if you're counting.)

The top of every inning was agony, as Astros pitchers struggled to get strikes and outs. The Dodgers weren't able to score any runs in the sixth, but they did score a run in the 7th after George Springer misplayed a Cody Bellinger hit in the outfield and allowed Enrique Hernandez to reach home. However, Springer atoned for his mistake in the bottom of the seventh, hitting a solo home run onto the railroad tracks to tie the game up once again. Alex Bregman then got on base, and then José Altuve hit a double to get Bregman home, and then Carlos Correa did this:

Right after this, a streaker ran out onto the field and got arrested; it would have been kind of funny had it been an actual ecstatic, drunken fan, but as it turns out it was just some dickhead who goes around the country doing stunts like this to generate YouTube views. (He gets no links from me.)

The Dodgers scored a run in the top of the eighth to cut the Astros lead back to two runs, 11-9. But the Astros got that run back in the bottom of the eighth with a Brian McCann homer to right field; the ball landed a few sections over from us. The Astros were up by three with only three outs remaining, and the crowd was beginning to feel pretty good about the 'Stros getting out of there with a win and going back to Los Angeles needing only one more win to clinch their first-ever World Series.

It's the bottom of the eighth and fans in my section were ready to go home with a win. The Dodgers had other plans. 
Alas, the Dodgers were not going to go quietly. In the top of the ninth, they roughed up Astros reliever Chris Devenski; this time it was Yasiel Puig's turn to slam a two-run homer into the Crawford Boxes to cut the Astros lead to one. There was still a chance that the Astros would win; Chris Taylor came to the plate with two outs and was down to his last strike when he smacked in a run to tie the game, 12-12. Los Angeles was unable to score any additional runs to take the lead, however, and with the heart of the Astros' order coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, the fans were still hopeful that the team could win without having to go to extra innings.

However, the Dodgers also had a formidable weapon in the form of closing pitcher Kenley Jansen. He got Altuve and Correa out on a total of four pitches. He then surrendered a double to Yuli Gurriel, which brought the crowd to life - as loud as it was in our section, I can't imagine what the noise must have been like on the field - but then got Josh Reddick to fly out to end the inning.

Fans were clearly deflated. Corinne and I slumped back into our seats and prepared for extra innings. I looked at the clock on my phone. It was after midnight. How much longer would this thrilling yet agonizing game go on? The way these two teams were playing, we could be here all night. And how do we get home if the trains stop running?

Astros reliever Joe Musgrove made it through the top of the tenth without surrendering any more runs to the Dodgers. I went to the gift shop in the concourse behind my seat to get my father a birthday present - an Astros cap with a World Series logo - and returned in time for the bottom of the inning to start. I couldn't say that I was particularly optimistic that the Astros would be able to score any runs off a closer as good as Jansen, however.

Sure enough, Jansen got the first two Astros batters out. But then he threw a bad pitch that hit Brian McCann, sending him to first base. He subsequently walked George Springer. McCann moved to second, where Astros manager C.J. Hinch replaced him with speedy baserunner Derek Fisher.

Then Alex Bregman got up to the plate. And then this happened:

And in my section, this happened:

It's hard to describe the mix of ecstasy, exhaustion, relief, delirium and joy we all felt at that moment. Being at a World Series game because we won tickets was awesome enough. But being an in-person witness to the Astros winning one of the most amazing games in World Series history? A week and a half later, I still can't find the right words to describe the experience.

We eventually made our way out of Minute Maid Park, high-fiving people all the way. We walked through the jubilant crowds to the light rail station and got on a train back to campus (props to METRO for keeping the trains running after the game, even though it would normally have been after the end of service). Everybody on the train seemed to be feeling the same mix of "OMG I can't believe the Astros just won!" and "OMG what kind of baseball game did I just witness!" We got off the train in front of Moody Towers and made our way back to my parents' house; the couple walking behind us - I'm not sure if they lived in the neighborhood or had just parked there - began to talk about flying out to Los Angeles to see next Tuesday and Wednesday's games. Mom and dad were still awake when we got to their house, even though it was well after their normal bedtimes. But who could sleep after a game like that!?

We spent time excitedly yet hoarsely recounting the game - or trying to, at least - with my parents, who saw the whole thing on TV. Dad got his Birthday World Series Astros cap. Corinne and I finally made it back to our apartment around 2 in the morning. I was a little bit late to work the following day, with an explanation that must have sounded to my boss like the worker's equivalent of "the dog ate my homework." I didn't care; I was still hoarse and my ears were still ringing from the game the night before.

The Astros would, of course, eventually win their very first World Series in franchise history, getting past the formidable Dodgers in seven games. That alone is a wonderful feeling for a lifelong fan such as myself. But actually getting to be at one of the games, and getting to witness a wild, back-and-forth slugfest, all because my girlfriend improbably won tickets at a local German restaurant?

It's nothing short of magical.

Finally, a shameless plug for the reason we were able to attend the game: King's Bierhaus is located at 2044 East T. C. Jester, just south of Loop 610. Here is their menu. (For all you south-siders, the original King's Biergarten, at 1329 East Broadway near Pearland's border with Friendswood, has a somewhat more extensive menu.) A special thanks to Hans and Philipp Sitter, as well as the wonderful staffs at both their Heights and Pearland restaurants, for making this amazing memory possible.

They also do drawings for trips to Munich during Oktoberfest.

Hmm... Maybe lightning will strike twice.

The Heights is no longer dry

Over the course of two election cycles, a century-old local example of the state's screwy liquor laws has finally gone by the wayside:
With 2 successful ballot initiatives in successive years, the rules that for more than 100 years restricted alcohol sales within the portion of the Houston Heights that was once a separate city have now been whittled down to a single prohibition: Grocery and convenience stores in the area are still not allowed to sell liquor.
I don't think grocery and convenience stores anywhere in the State of Texas are allowed to sell liquor, actually, so there's nothing special about that. The Heights is now just as wet as the rest of Houston.
In yesterday’s election, 1,479 Heights residents voted in favor of allowing the sales of mixed drinks in the district — in effect ending the quirky gotta-join-a-club loophole run through by alcohol-serving restaurants. 960 voted against.
I've yet to order a mixed drink in a Heights bar, but having dealt with the "private club" regulations when I lived in north Texas - they were absolutely ridiculous and didn't stop anybody from getting drunk - I know bar owners and patrons are glad to see them go.

The alcohol prohibition in the Heights dated back to 1912 and remained in place after the town was merged into the City of Houston two years later. Houstonia has more.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Houston Press ends print publication

The latest victim of print media's slow-but-steady death spiral is the local alt-weekly:
Print is dead. Long live digital. Long live the Houston Press. In dot com form.
As of today and going forward, there will be no more print copies of the Houston Press. We’ll be online-only at, a business decision brought about by declining advertising revenues seen throughout the print newspaper industry and more specifically for us, the mini recession caused by the downturn in the oil and gas industry that did nothing good for the Houston economy.
And then, of course, there was Hurricane Harvey. That was the topper. The massive flooding destruction it caused appeared to directly target restaurants and the arts community – some of our biggest advertisers – who faced with declining revenues of their own found they had other, more pressing expenses to consider.
In addition to scrapping its paper publication, the Press also laid off its entire editorial staff, with the exception of Editor-in-Chief Margaret Downing (who wrote the article linked and excerpted above.)

As a long-time reader of the Press, this really isn't a surprise to me. The print edition of the Houston Press had steadily been becoming thinner over the years: fewer stories, fewer restaurant, theater and art reviews, and (most importantly) fewer revenue-producing advertisements. It had been awhile since I had even picked up a paper edition of the Press.

It remains to be seen if the Press can continue as an online-only operation for the long haul, given the current state of the digital advertising market. It's hard for publications to sustain themselves on digital advertising alone, especially since so much of it is consumed by just two companies. I'll be rooting for the continued survival of the online-only Press, because locally-focused journalism is both critical and severely threatened. But, sadly, I can't say I'm optimistic.

The publisher's official explanation for the move is here. Kuff and Jeff Balke have some thoughts of their own.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Houston 52, East Carolina 27

The Cougars gain bowl eligibility with a win over the Purple Pirates of East Carolina yesterday.

The Good: It was D'Eriq King's first ever start at quarterback, and he proved that he deserved the start by completing 15 of 21 passes for 330 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a touchdown. The Cougar ground game added another 142 yards; RBs Duke Catalon and Mulbah Car both had rushing touchdowns. East Carolina turned the ball over three times (one of which resulted in a pick six for the Coogs) and missed a field goal. The Cougar defense held the Pirates to only 36 rushing yards.

The Bad: As bad as ECU's secondary was, UH's pass defense wasn't much better. The Pirates scorched the Cougar defense for 468 passing yards and three touchdowns, and outscored the Coogs 17-7 at one point during the second and third quarters. Although the Cougars were able to end the game against a lesser opponent, their playcalling left a lot of people scratching their heads at times. I'm not impressed with either of HC Major Applewhite's coordinators at this point; some changes probably need to be made after the season is over.

The Ugly: Gonna go with John Royal, whose dispatch from TDECU for the Houston Press may have been his last:
TDECU Stadium was far from packed, and it is evident that the enthusiasm the Tom Herman-era Cougars generated among UH fans and Houstonians has dissipated. By the end of the game, the stands across from the press box, from the lower level up to the upper deck were nearly empty. The weather was hot and humid, and the team has not been very exciting, so that may have worked against attendance, but a bowl-bound UH football team should still be able to generate some level of excitement. 
The conditions in the stands were hot, humid and brutal, and the announced attendance of 29,810 was probably twice the amount of actual people in the stands for this game. A lot of people who had tickets for this game simply stayed home.

I know that the league and the networks dictate kickoff times. And, arguments about global warming aside, Saturday's brutal weather was unseasonable and unexpected. But an 11 am kickoff kept a lot of fans at home, devastated UH's normally-robust tailgating culture, and doubtlessly ruined the homecoming festivities a lot of colleges and alumni groups wanted to have. UH administration needs to use whatever power they have to push back against 11 am kickoff times in the future. They might work for the Big 10 or ACC, but they just don't work for Houston.

What It Means: The Cougars secure a winning season (they play only 11 games due to the fact that the UTSA game was canceled) and bowl eligibility with the win.

They get next Saturday off before they make a road trip to play Tulane. Because I can rarely turn down a opportunity to travel to New Orleans, I'll be there.