Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Houston 57, #21 South Florida 36

Another year, another defeat of a ranked South Florida team.

The Good: D'Eriq King. He passed for 419 yards and 5 touchdowns and ran for another 134 yards and two scores to account for 553 of Houston's 682 yards of total offense. There was no shortage of highlight-reel plays by King in this game, but perhaps the most amazing was this absolutely wicked tackle-shedding 36-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter. South Florida had closed to within 2 points at that point, but his touchdown (which was a gutsy call, considering it was fourth down) marked the beginning of a 29-10 run for the Coogs to put the game away.

And, although the stats might not indicate it, the the UH defense played a good game as well. This is especially important since they were playing without Ed Oliver, who was still nursing an injury caused by Navy's cheap chop-blocking tactics the prior week. In fact, 17 of USF's offensive points might have been the fault of poor officiating, rather than the UH defense.

The Bad: WR Courtney Lark came down hard in the endzone in the second half of the game and had to be carted off the field. It looked really bad; fans feared that one of Houston's best offensive weapons was gone for the season. Fortunately, his injury is not as bad as it initially appears (i.e. he did not break anything and will not require surgery). However, he is highly questionable for this weekend's game against SMU.

The Ugly: See the above comment regarding officiating; a questionable interception (the ball might have hit the ground first), a questionable reversal of a fumble, and a highly questionable call for intentional grounding in the endzone resulted in a total of 19 points for the Bulls.

What It Means: The win puts the Cougars at 7-1 on the season, undefeated in conference, and, most importantly, in the national rankings (#17 in both the AP and Coaches' Polls) for the first time since 2016.

Next up for Houston is a trip to Dallas to play the SMU Mustangs. One hopes that the Cougars can retain their focus and not repeat the embarrassing debacle of two seasons ago.

Ryan Monceaux has more.

Venice underwater

A nasty (and deadly) storm has hit northern Italy and has made things rather difficult for folks in and around Venice:
In the canal city of Venice, rising floodwaters overwhelmed many of its famed squares and walkways, with officials saying as much as 75% of the city is now submerged. 
Venice's central St Mark's Square was closed on Monday afternoon, after the water level reached "acqua alta" (high water) of 156cm (5.1ft). It is the fourth highest level ever recorded.
Flooding is not unusual in low-lying Venice, but this flood is particularly bad. To give an idea of just how badly the city has been inundated, here's a picture I took from a gondola station along the Grand Canal at the Rialto Bridge last summer...

..and here's the view from the same gondola station during the flooding:
Stefano Mazzola / Awakening / Getty
See here for this and several other pictures of the flooding. Schools and hospitals were closed, and tourists walked about the city on narrow elevated catwalks.

As bad as Venice has gotten it, at least it seems to have been spared some of the worst of the weather:
Beyond Venice in the north, it was a story of high winds, fallen trees and landslides.
In the wider Veneto region, a man was killed by a tree and a volunteer fireman died in the north-eastern border region of Alto Adige, also known as South Tyrol.
A 61-year-old man was found dead in a river near Belluno, Veneto, close to where his car had been discovered earlier. 
A woman was killed when her home was hit by a landslide and a fisherman's body was found hours after he went to check on his boat on a lake in Trento. South of the beach resort of Rimini, a kite-surfer aged 63 died when he was hurled against rocks. 
Across Italy six people died on Monday and further deaths were confirmed on Tuesday.
Yikes. Hopefully this passes soon and things get back to normal.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

UH is one step closer to a medical school

Since I've been following this item for over a decade, I need to make note of this development:
The state higher education regulatory agency gave its stamp of approval Thursday to the University of Houston's plan to create the city's first new medical school in nearly half a century.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board unanimously approved the UH proposal, which calls for a focus on training primary-care doctors to practice in underserved areas. UH plans to enroll its first class of students in fall 2020.
"We're hopeful this school will have a great impact," Renu Khator, UH's president and chancellor, said after the vote. "It's the right thing to do for Houston and Texas and a natural maturation of our existing health-care programs."
See here for some background. The University of Houston still needs to secure accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education as well as secure the support of the Texas Legislature before its medical school is a done deal, but the THECB's decision is a huge step forward in the process.

Houston 49 Navy 36

The Cougars traveled to Annapolis and got off to another slow start; they could not stop Navy's option attack and trailed by as many as ten points in the second quarter. But Houston finally found their groove late in the first half and rattled off 35 unanswered points to take a 49-24 lead with six minutes left in the game. Navy scored two late touchdowns to make the final score look closer than the game actually was.

The Good: Houston linebacker Austin Robinson had a tremendous game, with 21 tackles (11 solo), including 4.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks; he might have even set up Nick Watkins' pick six that essentially sealed the game for the Coogs. On the offensive side of the ball, D'Eriq King was his usual self with 413 passing yards with three TDs (and no INTs), and 56 rushing yards and a TD. RB Patrick Carr ran for a score as well.

The Bad: For much of the first half, the UH defense looked like it had never seen the option before. Until their last drive of the first half, the Midshipmen were averaging 7.6 yards per play. The UH defense finally figured out how to win first down and I hate to credit that turnaround on an injury to Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, but let's face it: once he went out of the game, things got easier for the Coogs. 

The Ugly: WR Keith Corbin dropped several easy passes in the first half, and UH online forums were clamoring for him to be benched at halftime. He redeemed himself in the second half, to his credit, but the first half might have gone a lot better for the Coogs had he caught the balls that were thrown his way.

The Unacceptable: Navy attempted to injure Ed Oliver through the use of illegal chop blocks. He had to leave the game in the fourth quarter and is questionable for this weekend's game against South Florida. One hesitates to accuse service academy players of dirty play, but... Yeah, Navy played dirty. 

What It Means: The Cougars are now bowl-eligible at 6-1 and are alone atop the AAC West. 

An undefeated and ranked South Florida team comes to TDECU Stadium Saturday afternoon.

Dubrovnik is beautiful, but is tourism killing it?

I continue my series of posts from last summer's European vacation - I've even created a label for these now - with a brief recount of my brief trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Dubrovnik's medieval walled city is a relic of the past, when the city, which was the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, thrived on maritime trade (and played the Venetians and Ottomans off on each other in order to maintain its advantage). Today. however, Dubrovnik relies on tourism for its economy. Dubrovnik is a tourist favorite because of its weather, its location on the Adriatic Sea, the beauty of both its architecture as well as the surrounding countryside, and its service as a shooting location for the Game of Thrones series. 
The walls of Dubrovnik's old town, as seen from the sea.
The main street in Dubrovnik's old town.
The crush of tourists brings in money, but it also brings in problems. Only about 1,500 actual residents live within the walls of the old town today - most housing units are rented out to tourists - and locals throughout the city have learned not to venture anywhere when the "attacks" from tourists disembarking from cruise ships occur. Authorities have been trying to limit the number of tourists to the city by installing "counters" at the entrances to the old city or by staggering the arrival times of cruise ships, but one is nevertheless left to wonder if tourism is killing Dubrovnik and if the city's future is some sort of Disney-esque dystopia full of bars and souvenir shops but lacking an authentic local population and culture.
Tourists crowd a side street in old town Dubrovnik.

Outdoor cafes and vendor stalls in a plaza in old town Dubrovnik.

To be sure, we were part of the problem, because the four of us were among those throngs of cruise ship passengers visiting Dubrovnik during the peak of the peak season. Our ship had docked there along with two other large cruise ships that day, and the old town was clogged with tourists. Our tourguide dutifully mentioned some of the challenges that so much tourism had created for Dubrovnik, but had a rather fatalistic attitude about it ("but what can you do?" was his usual refrain).*  
Another view of old town Dubrovnik's main street, and the crowd of tourists that had come to see it.

Outdoor cafes catering to tourists are everywhere in Dubrovnik's old town.

Another side street in old town Dubrovnik. The old town itself really is a beautiful, human-scaled place.
I really wish I had enough time to walk up and down every side street in Dubrovnik's old town. The crowds of tourists aside, old town Dubrovnik really is a delightful place, with its old buildings, narrow streets, stairways and plazas. There is a reason why tourists like to go there.

We were in Old Town Dubrovnik long enough to take in some of the main sights, sample the local food and drink (yum!) and collect a few souvenirs. I'd love to go back one day, perhaps in the spring or fall when there are not as many tourists, and spend more time exploring Dubrovnik (including the city outside of the old town).

The best thing about being in Dubrovnik is that we were there the day before the FIFA World Cup Final between Croatia and France. The excitement among the locals, from our tourguide to our waitress to all the Croatian flags fluttering throughout the old town - was palpable. (Alas, France won.)

A quiet side street in old town Dubronvik. Note the arched passageway above the stairs.

One of the gates leading in to old town Dubrovnik. This should look familiar to Game of Thrones fans!
Dubrovnik is a place I've always wanted to visit. The fact that I was there with scores of other tourists didn't really bother me, because I knew that they simply wanted to see the same thing I wanted to see. I understand that we, as tourists, create challenges for Dubrovnik's local population, and I understand that Dubrovnik faces a particular predicament in that it really doesn't have an economy other than tourism to rely upon. How do you strike a balance?

I occasionally come across online listicles (not going to link to any because they don't deserve the traffic) of "places you shouldn't visit" or "tourist destinations that are overrated" that include Dubrovnik. These "lists" are as condescending and cruel as they are vapid, and they could have a detrimental effect on Dubrovnik if enough people take them seriously.

Don't let the internet dictate to you where you should or should not visit. I would however, advise my fellow tourists to Dubrovnik to be polite, be patient, and tip well. Always act like you are a guest in somebody else's home, because you are.

* I was also part of the problem in Venice, which is also straining under the weight of tourism. Only about 50,000 residents actually live on the Venetian archipelago  - again, housing units are being rented out to tourists - and it is one of several places that are experiencing a tourism backlash. However, being too reactionary towards tourism can have adverse consequences of its own. Hence, the need for tourist-dependent locales to find a balance without killing the golden goose.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Astros' quest for a repeat title falls short

Well, it was fun while it lasted.
They won more regular-season games than any team in the franchise's 57-year existence. The accolade is admirable, but will never be accompanied by a championship.
Not since the Yankees in 2000 has a team repeated as World Series champions. The Astros extended the streak, dropping a lifeless 4-1 Game 5 decision to the Red Sox, who dogpiled and posed for photos as a dazed Minute Maid Park crowd filtered out.
The fact is, the Red Sox were the best team in Major League Baseball, with 108 regular season wins under their belt. It was understood that the Astros would have to get past them to get back to the World Series, and in order to do so, they would have to play flawless baseball.

They didn't.

Some of the same problems that had plagued the Astros all season - not providing enough run support for Verlander, and not being able to consistently win at home - came back to haunt the Astros in the ALCS. An Astros pitching staff that had performed so well throughout the season melted down against Boston. It didn't help that Jose Altuve was hobbled by a leg injury throughout the ALCS, or that he was robbed by the umpires of a two-run homer that very well could have changed the course of the series.

The Chronicle lists these problems, and others, as among five reasons why the Astros lost the ALCS; one reason is simply that it's hard to win in baseball:
There’s a reason nobody has repeated since the 1998-2000 Yankees. So much must go your way during a 162-game regular season and then a postseason that’s often a crapshoot. The Astros were able to find the magic last year, whether it was Alex Bregman’s Game 4 homer at Fenway Park in the ALDS, Jose Altuve’s dash around the bases to win Game 2 of the ALCS, Marwin Gonzalez’s series-changing homer off Kenley Jansen while one out away from a 2-0 deficit in the World Series or all the twists and turns in that epic Game 5 against the Dodgers. Or Charlie Morton picking up two Game 7 victories that Astros fans never will forget. 
Instead, this year saw a hotly debated fan-interference call that wiped out a two-run homer in arguably the series’ swing game and Andrew Benintendi rob Bregman of a walkoff hit in Game 4 that would’ve tied the ALCS. For whatever reason, the magic was gone during the final four games of this series against Boston.
There's nothing for the Astros to do now except get themselves up off the plate, dust themselves off, and try again in 2019.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Houston 42, East Carolina 20

This game was not as close as the score (or even the stats) indicate; the Coogs led 42-6 until there were about 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, when the Pirates cored a couple of window-dressing touchodwns against UH's second stringers.

The Good: The UH defense had an excellent outing, forcing four turnovers and holding the Pirates to six points (and two! rushing yards) until late in the game. The defense recorded 12 tackles for loss, the most in a single game since 2005. Ed Oliver finally got through the double- and triple-teams that have been drawn up against him all season to notch his first two sacks of the season, the first of which resulted in a turnover and UH touchdown. Meanwhile, UH quarterback D'Eriq King threw for 209 yards and two touchdowns and had no interceptions. He rushed for a score as well.

The Bad: The Cougars played sloppy football at times, with poor tackling, dropped passes, three sacks surrendered, and way too many penalties (12 for 115 yards). One penalty negated what would have been a fourth interception for the Coogs. Another penalty killed a UH drive in the 3rd quarter. 

The Ugly: While this isn't an excuse for all the Cougars' penalties - even Major Applewhite is concerned about them - the officiating for this game was nevertheless very poor. A targeting penalty that resulted in the ejection of UH safety Gleson Sprewell in the second half was truly ticky-tack. And this bizarre booth reversal of a spot (that benefitted ECU) was simply incompetent.

What It Means: Halfway through the season, the Cougars are 5-1 overall, 2-0 in conference and the only undefeated team in the American's western division. 

Next up for the Cougars is a visit to Annapolis, Maryland to face Navy. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

A good 20 hours for Houston sports fans

Over the course of about 20 hours between this past Sunday night and this past Monday afternoon, the Texans eked out their second overtime win in a row against the Dallas Cowboys, and the Astros swept the Cleveland Indians to advance to the American League Championship Series. That was, needless to say, a very happy 20 hours for Houston sports fans.

Anybody who knows me knows how much I hate the Dallas Cowboys. The Texans aren't a particularly good team - in fact, they're quite awful this season - but as long as they beat the Cowboys, and shut up their obnoxious "DEM BOYZ! AMERICA'S TEAM! HOUSTON SUCKS! WOOOO!" fanbase, it's all good. The Texans might not win another game this year, but they beat the evil Cowboys so 2018 is already a success in my book.

The Astros have a tough ALCS series ahead of them against the Boston Red Sox, who defeated the Yankees (speaking of teams I hate) earlier this evening to advance. The Red Sox had the best regular season record in baseball this season, and it's going to take the Astros everything they have to get past them and win back-to-back pennants. But they took care of business against Cleveland in convincing fashion to get back to the ALCS, and that's worth celebrating.

It's tough being a Houston sports fan, which makes it all the better when we experience these bursts of success.

(As an added bonus, on Monday night Corinne's team - the New Orleans Saints - beat the Redskins as Saints QB Drew Brees became the NFL's all-time passing leader. So it's been pretty happy in our apartment.)

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs was built between 1600 and 1603 and crosses a side canal between the Doge's Palace and the prison in Venice. Its name reportedly comes from the fact that convicts would sigh as they caught their last glimpse of Venice before being confined to their cells.

I learned about it as an architecture student - it was an example of the Baroque architectural style as well as the ornateness for which the Venetians were known - and so I always wanted to see it for myself. This past July, I finally got to do so.

I even got to walk across it, which is possible if you take a tour of the Doge's Palace (and, if you're in Venice for any time at all, you should).

It's not particularly spectacular. It's only about 35 feet in length, which really doesn't compare to Venice's famous Grand Canal bridges, such as the Rialto Bridge or Calatrava's Ponte della Costituzione. But the Bridge of Sighs is nevertheless pretty, with its while limestone and Renaissance decoration.

There's also just something satisfying about finally being able to see in person something that you learned about many years ago. Even if the item in question isn't all that spectacular - quite frankly, the rooms and the artworks within the Doge's Palace are much more breathtaking than the Bridge of Sighs - it's still nice to be able to lay your own eyes upon something like the Bridge of Sighs and evaluate and experience it for yourself, rather than let a picture (or an architecture professor) do it for you.

Which is why everybody needs to travel more!

A view of the bridge from inside one of the rooms in the Doge's Palace
A view of Venice from one of the Bridge's windows
A closer view from one of the Bridge's windows

Houston 41, Tulsa 26

The Cougars started out slow against a Tulsa team that came ready to play and quickly fell behind, 10-0, in the first quarter. The Coogs struggled back to take the lead at halftime, only to see Tulsa score 13 unanswered points in the second half. Houston managed a fourth-quarter rally to win the game; however, it was a very ugly win, so let's start there.

The Ugly: The Cougars looked lethargic and played error-ridden football for much of the game. They turned the ball over three times, dropped numerous catchable passes (as well what would have been sure interceptions), committed 8 penalties and missed several tackle. The defense could not get off the field, as the Cougars allowed the Golden Hurricane to convert on 8 of 23 third downs and 2 of 4 fourth downs. The defense also surrendered a whopping 312 rushing yards (and 426 total yards) to Tulsa. The UH offense, meanwhile, sputtered for much of the game; of their first ten drives, seven ended either in punts or turnovers (interceptions, fumbles, or turnovers on downs). Quite simply, the Cougars were outplayed for much of this game.

The Bad: The third quarter was a microcosm of the Cougars’ night. They held the ball for only 2:58 (Tulsa had the ball for 12:02), ran only 5 plays (Tulsa ran 28), had 7 yards of offense (Tulsa had 174), and scored no points (Tulsa scored 10). Another Tulsa touchdown would have surely sealed the game for them.

The Good: The Coogs finally came to life in the fourth quarter. D'Eriq King had a 61-yard touchdown run on a well-executed play to bring the Coogs back within two. Tulsa was forced to punt on the ensuing position, and the Cougars scored a field goal on their next position to retake the lead. Then, Tulsa melted down; their next two possessions ended in turnovers on their side of the field and led to easy UH touchdowns. These quick 24 points put Tulsa away for good; Ryan Monceaux describes the sequence of events and notes that at least some of Houston's late-game heroics were due to Tulsa's errors:
Why did Tulsa go from the ground and pound offense that dominated the 3Q into a drop back team with a first-time starter in the 4th? That’s just poor play-calling and abandoning your game plan. But credit the Cougar defense for taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them: two false starts, a dinged-up running back, a forced fumble, and an INT. And the UH offense scored 24 points on just 20 plays. The three touchdown drives in the quarter totaled just 67 seconds. For 15 minutes, we finally saw what this team is capable of doing.
What It Means: I've always said that an ugly win is better than a pretty loss, and the only thing that matters is that the Cougars are 4-1 overall, are 1-0 in their division, and got revenge for their most humiliating loss last season. But that can't keep playing down to the level of their opponent and expect to escape with wins.

The Cougars now go on a two-game road trip to face East Carolina (on October 13) and Navy (on October 20). Both teams are mediocre, with 2-3 records, and the Cougars should be favorites to win both. However, as we've seen from this team so far this season, nothing is a given.

ESPN's recap of the game is here.