Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Harvey's final tally

Matt Lanza passes along these stunning statistics:
The National Hurricane Center released their post-storm report on Hurricane Harvey yesterday. These things are always interesting to read from a meteorological perspective. This one obviously has added meaning for all of us. You can read the report here. Much of what’s in the report you have already heard from us, but it is worth reading in full, as there are lots of statistics and images. Here are a few key points:
  • The highest storm total rainfall that can be confirmed is 60.58″, which occurred near Nederland, TX in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. A 60.54″ report was confirmed in Groves, TX near Port Arthur as well. Both of these totals, along with five others (most in the Friendswood area), establish a new United States record for rainfall associated with a tropical cyclone, breaking the 1950 total of 52″ in Hawaii from Hurricane Hiki.
  • The previous Lower 48 record was 48″ from Tropical Storm Amelia in Medina, TX back in 1978. Harvey broke that record in at least 18 locations.
  • Radar estimates of 65-70″ were noted, but cannot be confirmed.
  • The spatial extent of the heaviest rains from Harvey was “overwhelming” and likely has never been matched in American history.
  • Harvey was the second costliest tropical cyclone in US history behind only Hurricane Katrina.
  • At least 68 deaths from Harvey in Texas (about half of which occurred in Harris County) were the most from a Texas tropical cyclone since 1919. However, zero deaths are attributable to storm surge, which is amazing for a storm of this magnitude.
  • Highest observed wind gust was 126 kt (145 mph) near Rockport.
  • 57 confirmed tornadoes in the Southern US from Harvey.
  • Over 300,000 structures were flooded, along with over 500,000 vehicles.
  • 30,000 water rescues were conducted and 40,000 people evacuated from flooding.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Harvey was "the most significant tropical cyclone rainfall event in United States history." Matt says that the report "still gives this meteorologist chills." It as was truly an off-the-charts event, as these jaw-dropping statistics attest. It has changed our lives and our region in ways that we are only beginning to see and may not fully appreciate for years.

And yet, we're still here. We continue to recover. Our region, its people and its economy continue to function. Life goes on.


John Royal's (last) reflection on UH basketball attendance

In his final column for the Houston Press, John Royal offers a suggestion to combat poor attendance at UH basketball games:
The Houston Cougars whine about the lack of fans that come out for basketball games. The low attendance is disappointing, of course, because this current UH basketball team is perhaps the most talented team since Pat Foster was head coach. But damn it, you have to give fans a reason to come out and watch the team.
Houstonians are a fickle group (for every team but the Texans). The Cougars have to start scheduling some big names schools so that the team can draw some attention. It’s nice to win games, but when your home schedule consists of McNeese, University of Incarnate Word, New Orleans, Fairfield, and Prairie View, then nobody is going to care. Especially when this is what the UH non-conference home schedule looks like year after year after year. Ooh, is that Arkansas on the schedule? When was the last time Arkansas was relevant? Rice usually plays a tougher non-conference than the Cougars, and TSU definitely plays a more difficult schedule. So you want fans, play a schedule worthy of fans showing up.
I might quibble with him about Arkansas not being relevant; they're not the powerhouse they were under Nolan Richardson but they still made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament two out of the last three years (and Houston has a history with the Razorbacks going back to the SWC days that always draws fans). I might also point out that some of the schools on the home schedule - Incarnate Word, McNeese, Prairie View - are likely due to convenience of proximity and minimized travel costs more than anything else. But overall, Royal has a point about weak out-of-conference schedules that do not interest or motivate local fans.

Scheduling a slate of weak out-of-conference opponents might have been a necessary evil back when the UH hoops program was struggling and getting scrub schools on the schedule was the only way to guarantee wins. But now that the team has been doing better under Kelvin Sampson, it's probably time to do away with that scheduling philosophy, and start putting together out-of-conference slates that are beefier and more compelling.

That being said, the solution is not as easy as the Athletics Director simply picking up the phone and getting Duke, Kansas and Villanova to come to town. The big-time schools have scheduling priorities of their own; many have no interest whatsoever in coming to Houston, and those that are interested likely want hefty guaranteed payouts and return games. Scrub programs will never disappear from the schedule entirely; all programs need easy, confidence-building wins, and as I mentioned before proximity and travel costs also play a factor. Finally, it's not good practice for any program to rely on the names and reputations of their opponents to draw fans. A good basketball program needs to draw fans the old-fashioned way, which is by being a good, relevant program that people want to see.

And therein lies the problem: attendance (or lack thereof) at UH basketball games has been a longstanding problem, and a stronger out-of-conference schedule will, by itself, not fix it. The Cougars need to become relevant in the college basketball world again. This is a program that hasn't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 1984, when they were still Phi Slama Jama. Hell, the team has only even been to the Big Dance once in the last quarter century! The reason the Cougar basketball team struggles with putting fans in seats is because the program has been a non-factor on the national stage for decades. In a fickle, fair-weather, front-runner sports town like Houston, that's a killer.

So yes, upgrade the out-of-conference schedule. And yes, improve the facilities. Both of those things will give attendance a boost. But the biggest way to boost attendance is to win; specifically, win games in the NCAA Tournament. There's a decent chance the Coogs will go dancing in March. But there's a lot of basketball yet to play, and the Cougars need to find a way to get past the opening round (for the first time in over three decades) if they're going to capture the attention of local fans.

Finally, John Royal does not mention in his column why he's leaving the Press, but I can't help if his departure is yet another nail in the now-online-only alt-weekly's coffin.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Infrastructural Citizenship

Kyle Shelton at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University recently published Power Moves: Transportation, Politics and Development in Houston. Here's an excerpt of an excerpt:
The infrastructural debates of previous eras, and the physical legacies they left behind, shaped subsequent choices across the city, which in turn birthed the current built environment of the Houston metropolitan area. The passionate participation of a cross-section of Houstonians in these three transportation debates also reflected a larger political sea change that occurred in Houston’s politics and urban development between 1950 and today. When Houstonians fought for or against highways, considered the merits of mass transit, or advocated for other infrastructural outcomes, they not only altered the urban landscape but also seized a larger role in metropolitan growth decisions. By transforming elements of the built environment from inert materials into arenas in which they could claim and assert political power, residents crafted a set of rhetorical and political actions that constituted what I term infrastructural citizenship. In this case, citizenship is not defined by nationality or legal standing, but instead by the quotidian acts residents used to construct themselves as political participants. Most expressions of infrastructural citizenship in Houston emerged in the form of transportation activism. During efforts to protect or shape their communities, Houstonians staged protests, wrote letters, and attended countless public meetings. They organized historical preservation campaigns, lobbied city officials, and paid for independent planning efforts. They argued that their homes and local streets should be held in the same esteem as regional highways and downtown redevelopments. With each action, residents used the particular infrastructural debates around transportation decisions to assert their rights as citizens. The tactics pursued by residents reflected an inability to shift the early stages of decision-making and instead were moves that attempted to impact final results. Residents worked to delay projects, draw attention to concerns, and protest decisions of which they did not approve. Even if those efforts failed to achieve their desired outcomes, as many did, the simple act of projecting their hopes onto the structures allowed citizens to reshape their meaning. 
Houstonians engaged in transportation battles were far from alone in their use of infrastructural citizenship. Since World War II, citizens across America, not connected by any specific racial, economic, or political categorization, have embraced elements of the actions and ideas that constitute infrastructural citizenship in hopes of garnering control over their cities, streets, and homes. The examples from Houston highlighted in this book resonate with countless others from around the nation. Houstonians turned to fights about transportation infrastructure to cope with the immense physical, economic, and political tumult occurring in both urban and suburban America after World War II. Residents in other cities and regions fought over changes in development practices, the location of hazardous wastes, and even the impacts of energy infrastructure. The transportation fights in Houston quickly expanded to inform other metropolitan debates. Houstonians cared deeply about how mobility systems would serve them and connect the city, but they also channeled frustrations about a wide variety of issues into campaigns around transportation infrastructure. Beyond pushing for specific modes or routes, Houstonians used infrastructural conflicts to advocate for the protection of their communities, as an entry point into broader political debates, and as a way to forward their own visions for the city. Through these actions, citizens challenged the status quo of urban development and reconfigured the balance of metropolitan political power by inserting themselves into its fabric.
As a native Houstonian and transportation planner, I obviously need to get my hands on this book. It's available here.

Closing the final gap in the Interstate Highway System

The Interstate Highway System was begun in 1956 after being authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its original network was intended to be about 41 thousand miles in total length but currently is closer to 48 thousand miles. The system will will likely never be 100% complete, as new segments and additions are being added to it all the time. But interestingly, there's one piece of the original 1956 network that still isn't complete, and it involves the busiest highway in the system:
Interstate 95, the country’s most used highway, will finally run as one continuous road between Miami and Maine by the late summer. The interstate’s infamous “gap” on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey border will be closed, turning I-95 into an unbroken river of concrete more than 1,900 miles long. In so doing, it will also mark a larger milestone, say transportation officials—the completion of the original United States interstate system.
Construction to fix the I-95 gap began more than eight years ago in Pennsylvania, but it has now reached its final stage. This week, the New Jersey Department of Transportation began switching out road signs in preparation for the change.
But I-95’s completion isn’t a standalone feat. Local transportation planners claim it will herald a larger accomplishment.
“The original Interstate Highway Act had a network of highways across the nation that were associated it. Through some federal bills since then, that list was amended a little bit and made a little bit larger—but our understanding is that this is the final piece of that original interstate system,” says Jay Roth, a consultant at Jacobs Engineering Group who has worked to close the gap in I-95 for more than two decades.
The "gap" in Interstate 95 is not obvious; it's actually a bit obscure and confusing:
If you are driving northbound on I-95, just outside of Princeton, a road sign will warn you that I-95 North—the road you are on—is ending. But the physical road itself doesn’t end—instead, the highway veers south, now under the name Interstate 295. If you don’t get off at an exit, you will find yourself suddenly driving south, and have to do a complicated series of maneuvers to get back on a northbound road.
On the other side of this gap, Interstate 95 continues northward, starting from eight miles away.
It all sounds confusing, and it is—I didn’t fully understand what was happening until I reported this story, and I grew up 10 minutes from this stretch of interstate.
But while the current situation may be perplexing, the root cause of the problem is easy to explain: There was supposed to be a chunk of highway in this part of New Jersey, and no one ever built it.
The missing piece of highway - the so-called "Somerset Highway" - was never built due to community opposition, rising gas prices and other factors. In lieu of the missing piece of highway, the fix for this piece of I-95 will be pretty simple: new direct connector ramps between I-95 and I-276 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike), and some re-designations of existing highways. 

While this closes the gap in I-95, not everyone thinks it's the ideal solution:
“They’ve needed an interchange between 95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It’s good that they’ve done this,” said Kornhauser, the Princeton professor, of the project.
But he still lamented that the old Somerset Highway would still never get built.
Separating I-95 from the New Jersey Turnpike would have helped alleviate one of the Mid-Atlantic’s biggest design flaws, he said. The original plan to bridge the gap by hooking the Somerset Highway into Interstate 287, which forms a beltway around greater New York, would have allowed most interstate drivers to circumvent the city’s downtown.
Instead, I-95 now feeds into the George Washington Bridge, dumping drivers who would otherwise bypass the region into uptown Manhattan and the Cross Bronx Expressway.
“This is boring. This is really doing nothing,” he said of the plan. “This is really doing nothing to try to alleviate the pressure on the northern part of the New Jersey Turnpike and the George Washington Bridge.”
After looking at a map of the highway network in New Jersey and New York City, I can see that what Professor Kornhauser says makes sense. But it's clear that the Somerset Highway is never going to get off the drawing board it has spent the last six decades languishing on, so this is the next-best solution.

As the article notes, this project should be complete - and the gap in I-95 closed - late this summer. 

Vince McMahon wants to resurrect the XFL

If at first you don't succeed, try again:
WWE founder and chairman Vince McMahon announced Thursday he is giving a professional football league another go. 
It will be called the XFL, the same name of the league McMahon and NBC tried for one season in 2001, but it won't rely on flashy cheerleaders and antics as its predecessor did, he said. 
McMahon said he is the sole funding source for the league, which is slated to begin in January 2020.  
Its first season will have eight teams around the country playing a 10-week schedule. The initial outlay of money is expected to be around $100 million, the same amount of WWE stock McMahon sold last month and funneled into Alpha Entertainment, the company he founded for the project. 
"I wanted to do this since the day we stopped the other one," McMahon told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "A chance to do it with no partners, strictly funded by me, which would allow me to look in the mirror and say, 'You were the one who screwed this up,' or 'You made this thing a success.'" 
McMahon told reporters on Thursday afternoon that he has had no initial talks with media entities.
While this announcement raises a few eyebrows, especially considering how much of a flop the original incarnation of the XFL proved to be, a big takeaway I got from ESPN's 30 for 30 on the XFL that McMahon wasn't finished with the idea of operating a football league.

That being said, and while I commend him for trying a different tactic with the second version of his football league: if the XFL of 2001 was such a flop even with all the gimmicks - the flashy cheerleaders, Jesse Ventura, He Hate Me, etc. - what makes him think that a "toned-down" version will somehow be more successful?

What makes McMahon, furthermore, think that springtime football will ever be successful at all? It didn't work for him in 2001, it didn't work for the World League or NFL Europe, and it didn't work for the USFL back in the 80s (although the USFL's failure was partly due to the incompetence of the embarrassing buffoon currently occupying the Oval Office). Americans just don't seem to have an appetite for springtime football.
One of the reasons McMahon thinks he will be able to succeed 19 years after the league first failed is because, he said, television ratings no longer dictate success. 
"To me the landscape has changed in so many different ways," McMahon said. "Just look at technology and companies like Facebook and Amazon bidding for sports rights. Even if ratings go down, there's no denying that live sports rights continue to be valuable and continue to deliver."
One of the ways McMahon envisions enticing major media partners is to offer them something the NFL hasn't: more creative feeds of the same game. 
"I don't think people want to see the same thing when they're streaming as they see on television," McMahon said. "That's boring. I think fans want it shot in a totally different way, and I think there's an immersive opportunity that's more interactive to the game."
Meh... I'm still skeptical. But hey, it's his money, and it's his dream.

Teams will be announced in 2019, with kickoff in 2020. We'll see where it goes.

More on the twilight of four-engined passenger jets

Following up on something I wrote about last month: Delta, the last domestic passenger operator of the Boeing 747, has retired their fleet of the iconic jumbo jet and parked them at the Pinal Airpark. But, as the New York Times notes in an interesting pictorial, "Farewell Doesn't Mean the End:"
The desert climate makes county-owned Pinal Airpark, between Phoenix and Tucson, an ideal place to store airplanes long term, and about 120 aircraft are here right now, scattered across the desert floor. The dry air prevents major corrosion, so their parts can be used to help keep other planes flying. Airplanes can even be kept in flying condition, ready to go back into service on short notice.
Pinal Airpark - and the multitude of planes stored there in various stages of (dis)assembly  - is clearly visible from Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. The aviationgeek in me really wants to visit one day.
But going to the desert doesn’t always mean an airplane will be broken apart and turned to scrap. 
“I would say close to half of the aircraft or more will get reintroduced into service at some point in time,” said David Querio, the president of Marana Aerospace Solutions and Ascent Aviation Services. 
His company, which also sometimes dismantles aircraft, is performing heavy maintenance on about 25 airplanes, and is storing more than 100 others at Pinal Airpark, including the 747 fleet that Delta just retired. Although the airline has not announced specific plans for those aircraft, Mr. Querio has seen similar planes become workhorses in other parts of the world. 
For air carriers in Africa, Asia and South America, buying a used aircraft is “a lot more affordable than buying new aircraft,” he said. Even though they are less fuel efficient than modern planes, their higher operating cost is offset by the low purchase price, making secondhand jumbo jets an ideal choice for airlines looking to expand.
Pinal Airpark is sometimes called a graveyard or boneyard for planes.  Jim Petty, the airpark’s manager, bristles at that description. 
“It’s really not what we are,” he said. “It’s a maintenance and storage facility.” 
He’s trying to change that perception with informal tours and a visitor-friendly attitude. He wants to spread the word that planes here, in one way or another, almost always have more to come.
There's plenty more to come from the 747; it's still in widespread use (as a visit to Flightaware's live airborne aircraft tally will attest) and it's not going to disappear from the skies anytime soon. Nor is its major four-engined competitor, the double decker Airbus A380, although it is facing an uncertain future of its own:
Airbus, the European aerospace group that makes the A380 superjumbo, said on Monday that it would have to end production of the plane if its only major customer, Emirates, did not order more. 
The admission by John Leahy, the company’s chief operating officer, was the latest indication that Airbus miscalculated more than two decades ago when it bet that clogged runways would create demand for larger planes that could deliver more people with fewer landing slots. Instead, airlines bypassed the major hubs and ordered midsize planes that could fly directly between regional airports. 
“The A380 was better suited to 1995, before air routes fragmented,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group Corp., a consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. 
Airbus said Monday that it has not given up on the plane, but acknowledged that it is endangered. 
“If we can’t work out a deal with Emirates, I think there is no choice but to shut down the program,” Mr. Leahy said during a webcast with journalists.
Emirates did indeed throw a lifeline to to the A380, ordering at least 16 additional aircraft and keeping the program afloat for now, but I think even Airbus execs will admit that it's not a good position to depend on a single customer to keep a single product viable. With that said, they remain optimistic about the aircraft's future:
Mr. Leahy, the Airbus chief operating officer, said on Monday that the A380’s best days were ahead. Passenger traffic is doubling every 15 years, he said, meaning that the original rationale for the model still holds. 
Airbus, as a result, is still betting that airlines flying between large, highly congested hubs in London or New Delhi will have no choice but to buy larger planes if they want to continue to grow. 
“If people want to fly, they need to fly in bigger aircraft,” Mr. Leahy said. “This is an airplane whose time will come.”
I'm a bit skeptical that the A380's time is "yet to come;" while there might be a handful of routes that will remain busy enough to require only the largest aircraft servicing them, the fact remains that newer two-engined aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350, offer so much more in fuel economy and flexibility over their four-engined counterparts that products such as the A380 (or, for that matter, the 747, whose -8 model is technically still in production by Boeing) are likely going to struggle to remain economically viable.

But who knows what passenger air travel will be like ten or fifteen years from now? Maybe these large, four-engined aircraft will indeed get a second wind. Time will tell, I guess.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Game of the Century, 50 years later

The game that changed college basketball was played 50 years ago today in the Astrodome:
He was playing with a scratched cornea, but what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar saw in the Houston Astrodome is still clear in his mind 50 years later. 
The court was a speck in the vast stadium. When he looked across from the sideline, UCLA’s All-American center saw the stands, where a record-setting 52,693 packed the first domed sports stadium in the world to catch a glimpse of the two best teams in college basketball. When he looked across the baseline, it was “nothingness” behind the court. 
Also, wherever he looked, he saw Elvin Hayes. 
The two All-Americans battled in a made-for-TV spectacle that changed college basketball on Jan. 20, 1968. It was the No. 1 Bruins against the No. 2 Cougars, a rematch of the undefeated teams that met in the 1967 NCAA semifinal that UCLA won by 15 points. It was in the Astrodome, a marvel in modern architecture at the time, in front of the largest crowd to watch a live basketball game in the world to that point. It was the first college basketball game televised nationally live in prime time. 
It was dubbed the “Game of the Century.” 
And with a dramatic 71-69 Houston victory that snapped UCLA’s 47-game winning streak, it lived up to the hype. 
“It was unusual; it was brand new, and that showed there was an interest in college basketball nationally,” said Ron Rapoport, a sports writer who collaborated with broadcasting pioneer Eddie Einhorn on the book “How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America.” 
“It all took off from there.”
On the game’s 50th anniversary, its legacy remains ubiquitous, manifested in every new basketball training facility and nationally televised marquee matchup.
It seems hard to believe today, but back in 1968, college basketball was not the sport it is now. It might have been regionally popular, but it generally had a low profile on the national level. It was not considered a "revenue sport" for all but a handful of schools, the NCAA tournament was not the nationally-televised cash cow it is today, and nobody had ever heard of "filling out brackets" for "March Madness." The "Game of the Century" changed all that by demonstrating that college basketball could indeed capture the nation's attention. 
TV networks flocked to college basketball just as quickly in the aftermath of the wildly successful game. 
NBC picked up the NCAA Tournament in 1969 after the event had only been broadcast regionally in the prior years. With the TV networks on board, college basketball suddenly became a revenue sport. 
“College basketball really fed off of television and television really fed off of college basketball,” UCLA economics professor Lee Ohanian said. “It was really a perfect synergy.” 
For the Game of the Century, Einhorn flew across the country pitching the game to individual stations, 120 total. The networks were furious when the stations cancelled their regular-scheduled programming.
Then in 2016, CBS and Turner Sports paid $8.8 billion for rights to broadcast the NCAA Tournament through 2032. Every game is televised live. There are multiple vantage points available online. The field has expanded from 23 teams in 1968 to 68.
That the University of Houston was part of an event that transformed the sport is a major, yet often overlooked, piece of the school's basketball pedigree: it's just as important (and amazing) as Phi Slama Jamma, Guy Lewis, and the program's 5 Final Four appearances. 

It seems fitting, then, that earlier today, on the game's 50th anniversary - "Game of the Century" legends such as Elvin Hayes were honored at halftime - the Coogs notched their biggest win at least two decades by upsetting #7-ranked Wichita State, 73-59.

The Chronicle has some photos from the legendary game. The Texas Sports Hall of Fame has a commemorative exhibit on their website as well.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

RIP Ray Thomas

Very sorry to learn about this.
Ray Thomas, flautist, vocalist and founding member of the Moody Blues, died Thursday at the age of 76.
Thomas' label Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records confirmed the multi-instrumentalist's death on Facebook, adding that Thomas died suddenly at his home in Surrey, England. No cause of death was announced.
"We are deeply shocked by his passing and will miss his warmth, humour and kindness," the label wrote. "It was a privilege to have known and worked with him and our thoughts are with his family and his wife Lee at this sad time."
Thomas passed away a bit over a week ago, but I didn't learn about it until now. It was only a month ago that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that the Moody Blues were (finally) being inducted.
As flautist, multi-instrumentalist and singer in the Moody Blues, Thomas appeared on all of the prog rock band's albums – including their classic LPs like Days of Future PassedIn Search of the Lost Chord, A Question of Balance and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – until his retirement in 2002. 
Thomas also wrote and sang Moody Blues tracks like "Twilight Time," "Legend of a Mind," "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume," "Dear Diary" and "And the Tide Rushes In." In addition to his time with the Moody Blues, Thomas also released a pair of solo albums, 1975's From Mighty Oaks and 1976's Hopes, Wishes and Dreams, while the group went on hiatus in the mid-Seventies. 
Thomas retired from the Moody Blues in 2002 after suffering from a series of health issues. In 2013, Thomas revealed that he was suffering from "in-operable" prostate cancer. "The cancer is being held in remission but I'll be receiving this treatment for the rest of my life," Thomas wrote on his website. 
In December, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced that the Moody Blues' classic lineup – Thomas, Hayward, Edge, Lodge and Pinder – would be inducted as part of the Class of 2018; Laine was subsequently added to the band's Rock Hall roster days later.
It's ironic that one of the Thomas's aforementioned songs - "Legend of a Mind" - was (according to this Wikipedia article) recorded exactly 50 years ago today. The song, a six-and-a-half minute long song about LSD guru Timothy Leary on which Thomas sings and plays the flute - was never released as a single but remains one of their most iconic works. They even made a video for it. (Give it a watch... You can't really get much more 1968 than that!)

Rest in peace, Mr. Thomas.