Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Graz, Austria

We're approaching the summer of 2019, but I'm still not done with my series of posts about our trip to Europe during the summer of 2018. Which is fine, considering that time and budget constraints mean that no vacation this coming summer will be anywhere as amazing as last summer's.

Austria's capital of Vienna was just a little too far out of range for a day trip from our timeshare in Schladming. Austria's second-largest city, however, was not. So one morning we all loaded into the rental car and drove to Graz.

In addition to being Austria's second-largest city, Graz is also the capital of the Styria state. And while it might not be as well-known as places like Vienna or Salzburg, there's still plenty worth visiting there, including some rather quirky features.

Like many European cities, Graz developed around a large hill, atop of which was a fortress. However, the fortress is no longer there; some guy from France had it demolished in 1809. A few things remain, including a clock tower. The Urhturm took its present shape sometime in the 1500s and is an icon of Graz:

From the top of the Schlossberg there is an excellent view of the city (as well as a really cool Biergarten). The Uhrturm is to the left. and that weird black thing to the right is the Kunsthaus Graz, a modern art museum built in 2003:

Here's my father standing in front of the Kunsthaus, which is also known as the "Friendly Alien:"

Near the Kunsthaus is another piece of modern architecture floating in the Mur River. The Murinsel also dates to 2003 (the year Graz served as the European Capital of Culture) and contains an outdoor amphitheater as well as an indoor cafe:

Here's what the Murinsel looks like on the inside. The cafe contains a bar as well as a stage:

Graz Cathedral was built between 1438 and 1462 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III:

The interior of the cathedral is built in a gothic architectural style and is ornately beautiful:

Across the street from the cathedral is an old municipal building notable for its double spiral staircase with two separate flights that diverge and then converge back upon one another at each floor. Corinne and I climbed it and decided that it was interesting, but probably caused a lot of people bumping into each other as they went up and down it back in the day:

The Grazer Landhaus was built in 1527 by Italian Renaissance architect Domenico dell'Allio and features a delightful arcaded courtyard. The Styrian state parliament still meets in this complex; the Styrian Armory is located here as well:

Adjacent to the Landhaus is the Rathaus, or city hall, of Graz. It was completed in 1893 and faces the Hauptplatz, which is the city's main square:

Herrengasse (literally, "Street of the Lords") is Graz's historic main street. It passes by the Hauptplatz, Rathaus and Landhaus, and is lined by stores. Several streetcar lines run along it. (Interesting fact: "next station" announcements on Graz's streetcars are in German and American English, rather than the British accent you would normally expect to hear in Europe. Maybe it's Graz's way of throwing shade at Britain because of Brexit?) One point of interest along Herrengasse is the Painted House, seen to the left:

Heading back to the train station on the edge of the town center, there is a monument erected to commmorate the hundredth anniversary of Esperanto in 1987. It reads "the hope for world communication in piece and freedom." (Next to the monument is cafe Das Esperanto; sadly, the menu is not actually printed in Esperanto, which I found to be a huge disappointment):

All in all, an interesting trip to an interesting city. We spent a full day there and still didn't see anything close to everything Graz has to offer. Because it is off the beaten path, so to speak, there were not crushing numbers of tourists in Graz. We found this a welcome respite from Venice, Dubrovnik, Athens and even Salzburg.

Graz has an airport served by short-haul flights, a major train station and is accessible via autobahns A-2 and A-9 (if you're only visiting by car for the day, park close to the train station; it's not the cheapest parking in town but there's plenty of it and it's very convenient). While you're there, take advantage of their excellent public transportation network to get around. A 24-hour pass is €5.30 while a three-day ticket is €12.40. Graz is also bicycle-friendly. Knowledge of basic German helps, of course, but we found that a decent number of people that we came across in Graz spoke English.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The unsung success story of rail transport in the United States

A common lament among Americans who have traveled to places like Europe or Japan is that the United States does not have a rail system on par with what exists in those parts of the world. But they're missing part of the story. The United States actually has one of the best rail systems in the world... for moving freight.
Often there is the perception that the U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to rail, but in many cases that is not true. The country has, arguably, the best freight rail system in the world, which is owned, operated, and financed by private companies. Passenger service in specific corridors is comparable with the European counterparts: for example, in the Northeast. On long-distance routes and in less densely populated areas, however, there are often empty seats on Amtrak trains.
The primary difference between Europe and North America could be summarized like this: In America there is a freight rail system with some passenger, while in Europe there is a passenger rail system with some freight—the emphasis is different.
A further difference is that the rail network is private in the U.S. and operated to yield a profit, while in most other countries the rail infrastructure is owned by the government (similar to the freeway system in the U.S.) and heavily subsidized.
A given rail network can either move passengers well or move freight well, but it doesn't do a good job moving both well. This is why Amtrak's cross-country lines are so slow and erratic: they are running on systems designed to move freight, not people.
Running passenger and freight trains on the same lines is possible but poses many challenges, as the characteristics of the two train types are very different; freight trains tend to be long, heavy, and comparatively slow, while passenger trains are short, fast, and comparatively light. If there are not too many trains on a line, this mixed traffic can be managed, but if there are a lot of trains, then separate infrastructure is the way forward.

When journey times are less than four hours, people usually prefer to travel by train instead of alternative options, such as air or road. For many corridors in the U.S. it would be necessary to upgrade existing lines or to build new infrastructure to achieve competitive journey times.
This is why suggestions that involve increased passenger service on existing Class I freight railroad networks (i.e. those operated by Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, CSX and KCS), such as increasing frequency of Amtrak services or implementing new commuter rail service, are typically non-starters. They are in the business of moving freight, not people, and their networks and capacities are designed to move the former at the expense of the latter.

As the article notes, rail is an extremely efficient mode of transportation, for people as well as freight; a freight railroad can, on average, move a ton of freight for the equivalent of almost 480 miles per gallon of fuel, which is a level of efficiency that semi trucks can't touch. The US rail system excels at moving freight and should be recognized as such.

Passenger rail could be similarly effective and efficient, especially in the too-far-to-drive, too-short-to-fly "sweet spot." But it will require completely new -and costly - infrastructure to do so. Kinda like what some folks are trying to do here in Texas.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

AAF folds before season even ends

I had no delusions of the league surviving long-term, but I truly didn't expect for it to end this soon:
The Alliance of American Football League is suspending football operations as of 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to a person familiar with majority investor Tom Dundon’s plans. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the development. 
Pro Football Talk and The Action Network were the first to report the news. 
The AAF was entering Week 9 of the 10-week regular season. 
"I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football," AAF co-founder Bill Polian said in a statement Tuesday, according to ESPN. "When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all. 
"The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity."
Too bad. I was enjoying following the former UH players who were playing for the San Antonio Commanders, and Corinne and I even talked about making a trip over to the Alamodome to watch a game.

So what happened for the league to get shuttered before it could play a full season? The Sporting News places the blame for the league's demise squarely at Dundon's feet:
It is worth noting that the apparent collapse of the AAF is not related to TV ratings. Action Network's Darren Rovell reported the league’s TV ratings were "respectable" through its inaugural season despite a significant drop-off after its opening weekend. Instead, the collapse appears to be tied directly to Dundon. 
The owner of the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, Dundon committed $250 million to the AAF in February, an investment that reportedly kept the league afloat. He became the controlling owner of the league at that point, something Ebersol and Polian might now regret. 
Days before the AAF suspended football operations, Dundon told USA Today he needed cooperation from the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) in order to feed current NFL players into the league and, therefore, maintain the AAF's viability — in Dundon's mind, at least. 
"If the players' union is not going to give us young players, we can't be a development league," Dundon said.
The NFLPA, citing its collective bargaining agreement with the NFL and the overall safety of its players as reasons, declined to enter into such an arrangement, so Dundon pulled the plug.
Rovell reported Dundon had been funding the AAF on “a week-to-week basis," and that as of Tuesday, he had invested $70 million of the $250 million he committed to the league. 
Which begs yet another question, and one to which even those in the AAF reportedly can't fathom an answer: Why would Dundon waste $70 million and pull the plug on the league over a silly stare-down with the NFLPA? 
According to Pro Football Talk, which cited a source, "Dundon signed on to kick the tires. Once he realized how expensive it was to own and operate a sports league, he initially tried to cut costs. But that resulted in a cutting of functionality. He then pinned the league’s future to a deal with the NFL for permission to borrow its bottom-of-roster players."
Previously, Albert Breer of The MMQB had offered a possible explanation for Dundon's actions: "Perception inside the AAF is that Dundon bought a majority stake in the league simply for the gambling app being developed."
As its primary owner and investor, Dundon is within his rights to pull the plug on the league. However, killing the league before its even had a chance to crown a champion, and leaving in the lurch all the players, coaches, trainers, front office staff and everyone else who committed themselves to the new league, is truly a dick move on his part.

Assuming that no deep-pocketed benefactor swoops in to salvage the league's inaugural season (spoiler alert: they won't), the AAF joins a long list of failed start-up football leagues. However, spring football aficionados should not despair; the second iteration of the XFL is still, as of the time of this writing, expected to kick off in the spring of 2020; it will now be able to do so without competition*. Perhaps the XFL could learn from the AAF's experience if it wants to survive, even if history says it won't.

ESPN's story is hereCBS Sports has more on what went wrong and what happens next. Deadspin tells the stories of players who have been left "high and dry" by the league's sudden collapse. Sports Illustrated takes stock of some AAF players that could get another shot at the NFL. SB Nation surveys the league's rise and fall - "Nobody is better off for the AAF dying, and it’s all a shame" - and offers more lessons for the XFL.

*XFL owner Vince McMahon's was reportedly approached with an offer to buy the AAF, which he declined. That being said, the XFL's buying some of the AAF's better assets - The San Antonio Commanders led the league in attendance (27,721 fans/game) when the league folded, and Steve Spurrier's Orlando Apollos were clearly its strongest on-field organization - and unveiling a ten, rather than eight, team XFL next spring wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.

Good monarch news

As somebody who has dedicated considerable space in this blog sounding the alarm on behalf of the State Insect of Texas (see here, here, here and here), I'm pleased to report that the monarch butterfly population appears to be on the rebound:
After an upward trend in monarch butterfly populations, Texas experts are expecting a massive surge in the flying insects through Texas this season. 
This year is different, according to Craig Wilson, director of the USDA Future Scientists Program and Texas A&M research associate. This year, there has been a 144 percent increase in breeding population among monarchs compared to previous years. 
That means there are nearly 300 million butterflies in northern Mexico that make will make the annual journey north during this summer, according to Texas A&M Today. For several years, the number of butterflies breeding had been on the decline, Wilson said. 
"Figures show the highest number of hectares covered since at least 2006," Wilson said, adding that monarchs' numbers are measured in hectares. "That's a really positive sign, especially since their numbers have been down in recent years."
The yearly overwintering area graph produced by Monarch Watch shows this dramatic improvement:
Before butterfly lovers celebrate too much, it should be recognized that one good year does not guarantee that monarch populations will remain stable long-term, and that our fluttery orange and black friend still faces threats:
While the population that winters in Mexico saw an increase last year, another population that migrates to California almost vanished. 
One good year for the Midwestern migratory monarchs also doesn't mean the factors that contributed to their decline — like habitat destruction — have improved. 
"We have to face the facts that climate is changing," says Taylor. "This whole migration is in jeopardy given the loss of milkweed and the fact that climate is changing in an unfavorable way to sustain this population."
I've said it before and I'll say it again: plant that milkweed, folks. (And be sure to use native varieties, as non-native varieties could become harmful to the monarch butterfly population.)

A great UH basketball season comes to an end

The Cougars made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 35 years but, alas, could advance no further:
One of the best seasons in University of Houston history came down to the wire Friday night. 
After rallying from a 13-point deficit, the Cougars held the lead in the final minute only to have one of the best seasons in program history come to an end with a 62-58 loss to second-seeded Kentucky in a Midwest Region semifinal before an announced crowd of 17,385 at Sprint Center. 
Kentucky (30-6) will play fifth-seeded Auburn – a 97-80 winner over top-seeded North Carolina – on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
In spite of the loss, it was still an excellent season for the Coogs. They had one of the best seasons in program history, notching a 33-4 record and winning winning the American Athletic Conference regular season title. The Cougars also enjoyed multiple sellouts at their impressively-renovated arena. They made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since the Phi Slama Jama era of the early 1980s. In the Big Dance, they met the expectations of their seeding by making it to the Sweet Sixteen and came ever so close to advancing even further. People, both locally and nationally, actually care about UH basketball again. It's a far cry from just a few years ago, when the program wallowed in mediocrity, obscurity and apathy.

Going into the second weekend of the tournament, there were rumblings that the guy responsible for the resurgence of UH basketball - head coach Kelvin Sampson - may be lured away to another school, such as Arkansas. Fortunately, the (admittedly legitimate) jitters of the UH faithful were eased today as he signed a six year, $18-million contract extension which will hopefully keep him in Houston for the rest of his career; it also designates his son, Kellen, as "head coach in waiting." Jeff Balke explains why this is good for the program:
All indications are that Sampson is beloved by his players and a fine recruiter of talent. With a new building and a new contract, never mind the high profile stage of March Madness, there is reason for hope for UH fans. Given his age (63), he won't catch Lewis, but he's already the second best coach in UH history. Get a title for the Coogs and he'll have done something no one, not even Lewis and Phi Slama Jama, could muster. For now, it looks like he'll have a few more years to make it happen.
Ryan Monceaux agrees, and provides some insight into the work that Sampson has had to accomplish to bring the program back to national - let alone local - relevance:
When he was hired, Sampson knew the UH program was struggling but even he now acknowledges that it had fallen further than he had imagined. The players were soft and weren’t interested in the intense, no-nonsense new coach. Only 5 players stayed from Dickey’s last team but that wasn’t his main problem. 
“This was the hardest resuscitation (of my career) because of the facilities and the apathy,” Sampson said. 
Looking back, the situation was much worse than it seemed at the time: a few hundred fans would show up 16-18 times a year in one of the worst arenas in the country. Because of the program’s decades-long erosion, it was difficult for hardcore fans to realize how abnormal the situation had become. 
In Sampson’s first year, the announced average attendance (2,635) was the lowest in school history. Those were the tickets accounted for – including students – which is a wildly inflated number. Most nights, you could count the total attendance during a 30-second timeout.
To be sure, long-overdue physical investments in the program - the new basketball practice facility and the complete renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion into the Fertitta Center - helped tremendously. But facilities can only go so far; a program also needs a guy who can recruit talent and coach it to success. Kelvin Sampson is that guy, and the University of Houston is doing the right thing by making sure he continues to lead the program for years to come.
In 5 years with Sampson at the helm, the results speak for themselves. A program once left for dead boasts an incredible practice facility, a sparkling new arena, an AAC regular season title, and 3 NCAA Tournament wins in the last two seasons. It also has its savior for 6 more years. 
Cougar basketball is back.