Friday, September 25, 2020

The death of summer 2020

 Eric Berger eulogizes it

The summer of 2020, which featured the 5th warmest July and 8th warmest August on record, threw two tropical cyclones at Houston, and offered unsparing humidity, died on Monday. It was 123 days old. Summer finally lost its fight with fall’s first truly strong front, which blew into Houston on the morning of September 28th. Services have been canceled due to a lack of mourners.

The worst thing about living in Houston is the summer, with the miserable heat and oppressive humidity and mosquitoes and potential for tropical weather, so I'm always happy to see it coming to an end.

Speaking of tropical weather, the death of summer comes only a few days after the (apparent) end of hurricane season in Houston. Once again, Eric explains

Houston has had an astonishing month when it comes to tropical cyclones. Four weeks ago we were closely watching Hurricane Laura move along the southern coast of Cuba, toward the Gulf of Mexico. And of course, over the last few days, we dealt with heavy rains from Tropical Storm Beta. So amidst a record-setting tropics season, with more than two months to go until its official end on Nov. 30, could Texas really be done with hurricanes this year?

The answer, we think, is yes.

Eric explains that the odds of a hurricane striking the Texas coast fall dramatically after late September, especially when cold fronts begin pushing through.

Really, the only reason we’re not 100 percent confident that Texas will not see another hurricane this year is because it is 2020. Anything goes this year.

Anything, including zombie hurricanes:

Paulette regained strength and became a tropical storm once more on Monday, according to the National Hurricane Center. Paulette reappeared Monday about 300 miles off the coast of the Azores islands.

These "zombie" storms, like Tropical Storm Paulette, are rare but they have happened before, said CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller.

"Conditions can become hostile for a tropical storm to maintain its intensity, but if it doesn't dissipate completely, it can revive days later when conditions become more favorable," Miller said.

And with the apocalypse that 2020 has been, this year is prime for these spooky storms.

"2020 is a good candidate to experience a zombie storm because water temperatures are above average over a bulk of the Atlantic Ocean, and obviously we are seeing a record number of storms -- which ups the chances one could regenerate," Miller said.

Fortunately, Zombie Paulette dissipated a few days after it arose from the dead, and as of this evening the tropics are clear.

Houston expected to experience sunny, dry and temperate weather for the next several days. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

2020 Houston Cougar Football: Revised Schedule and Season Preview

I hesitate to spend too much time writing this, because I'm still skeptical that there's going to be a whole lot of college football this fall in the midst of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. To be sure, the 2020 season is now well underway (Louisiana-Lafayette's upset of #23 Iowa State being my favorite highlight so far), but as players test positive, outbreaks occur on college campuses, and more and more games get canceled, I am still expecting the entire season to grind to a halt at some point.

In fact, with so many schools and conferences not currently playing, with so many individual players opting the season out, and with redshirt and eligibility rules suspended, the 2020 college football season is going to have a humongous asterisk next to it regardless of what happens. Nobody will consider this year's CFP champion or Heisman Trophy winner to be truly "legitimate." While I love college football, I can't help but wonder why programs are even bothering to play.

All that being said: the UH Athletics Department is among those who are bothering to play football this fall; hence, this preview.

The Current Schedule: Throw the old schedule away, as there have been changes. Last week's opener against Rice was officially postponed, but I don't expect it to be rescheduled. The trip to Washington State, likewise, was canceled due to the Pac-12's decision not to play this fall. Houston's game against BYU on Friday October 16 has been moved from Provo to Houston. And yesterday we discovered that the Cougars would be traveling to Baylor, rather than Memphis, for their season opener next weekend. 
So this is the schedule as it looks today; The AP rankings are current as of this morning:

     Sat Sep 18      at Baylor
     Sat Sep 26      North Texas
     Sat Oct 3        (off)
     Thu Oct 8       Tulane
     Fri Oct 16       #21 BYU
     Sat Oct 24      at Navy
     Sat Oct 31      #14 Central Florida
     Sat Nov 7       at #13 Cincinnati
     Sat Nov 14     South Florida
     Sat Nov 21     at SMU
     Sat Nov 28     Tulsa
     Pending:         at #16 Memphis

Looking Back: There was optimism that the Cougars, led by new head coach Dana Holgorsen and dynamic quarterback D'Eriq King, were going to have a successful, division-winning season. However, after enduring a brutal start to the season that included demoralizing losses to Washington State and Tulane, a host of players (including King) decided to redshirt. The Cougars ended the season with a 4-8 record - their worst campaign since 2004 - and King elected to transfer to Miami.

The Big Story for 2020: Playing through a pandemic. It's going to be a whole different football game in 2020, with players quarantined, stadium crowds limited, and schedules changing on a constant basis. I'm still blown away that the Cougars were able to replace next week's Memphis game with Baylor - a team the Cougars haven't played since the end of the Southwest Conference - on six days' notice!

Reasons for Optimism: Something like 35 players redshirted last season. Some of them (like King) left for other schools, but most return. A handful of transfers should be available to play this fall as well. One would therefore expect a team that is deeper and more experienced than last years, and that alone should result in more wins.  

The schedule is also easier than last year's - there's no stretch of four games in 19 days to start the season this time! - and the most recent changes have worked in UH 's favor. With the Washington State game being canceled and the BYU being moved, The Cougars will only travel outside of Texas twice (three times if the Memphis game is rescheduled) this fall. 

Quarterback Clayton Tune found himself in a tough spot last year, having to take over duties for King five games into the season, and ended the fall with 1,533 yards, 11 TDs and 9 interceptions. With experience, he should be better this season. He also has experienced running backs - Mulbah Carr and Kyle Porter - to hand the ball off to, as well as his prime receiving target from last year, Marquez Stevenson, who is probably the team's best offensive playmaker.

Senior linebacker Grant Stuard, who led the team with 97 tackles last season, heads a defense that is returning a large number of players who - hopefully- learned through adversity last season. Cornerback Damarion Williams was a bright spot in the secondary last year; hopefully he gets some help back there this fall.

Reasons for Pessimism: Just because a team has a bunch of players returning doesn't mean that the team is going to be better, especially if those players contributed to truly atrocious performances on the defense or offensive line last season. Last year's defense allowed 468 yards and 34 points per game, while Ryan Monceaux wonders about an O-line that allowed 95 tackles for loss and 35 sacks last season. While Clayton Tune needs to show improvement, he also needs better protection.

The Cougars had a habit of starting games strong but wilting in the second half last season. That's something that needs to be corrected this fall.

And about that schedule: while it's easier than the one the Coogs played in 2019, it's still tough. Three of Houston's currently-scheduled opponents are ranked, and Baylor is sitting right outside the top 25. The Cougars have to play every team that beat them at home last season on the road this season. 

What the Humans Think: CBS Sports ranks the Cougars 35th (out of 76* FBS teams currently planning to play this fall), and their sportswriters expect the Coogs to finish anywhere between third and eighth in what is now (thanks to UConn's departure) an 11-team AAC. Athlon had the Coogs ranked 70th (out of the full 130 teams) to start the season (they've since re-ranked them to be #45 out of 76*), and sees them as the sixth-best team in the AAC. The conference itself seems to think the same way; its preseason poll placed the Coogs seventh. Pete Fiutak at college Football News foresees a six-win regular season for Houston.

What the Computers Think: As of today, ESPN's FPI gives the Cougars a 50% or greater chance of winning seven out of their currently-scheduled ten games. Massey, on the other hand, currently only gives the Coogs a 50% or greater chance of winning four games. Congrove had the Cougars pegged at #50 (out of 77* teams) to start the season and expected the team to finish the season with a 4-6 record. As of this morning Sagarin puts the Cougars at #66 (out of all 257 Division I football programs); their rating of 69.57 implies a 5-5 record when the ratings of opponents and the home field advantage are taken into account (and a 5-6 record if the Memphis game is rescheduled). 

What I Think: On one hand, I would expect that Dana Holgorsen's Adventures in Redshirting from last fall would pay dividends in the form of a team that is deeper, more experienced and better-conditioned this fall. That would suggest improvement in 2020. On the other hand, we're still talking about a team that has a record of 5-12 over its last 17 games, has one of the worst defenses in the nation over the last two years (#119 in 2018 and #113 in 2019), and is led by a quarterback who had almost as many interceptions as touchdowns last year. "Improvement" might be a relative term.

I foresee a regular season record of 5-5 this fall (5-6 if the Memphis game is rescheduled). While I think the Cougars will be a better team overall, I still don't think they're where they need to be in order to beat anybody other than North Texas, Tulane, South Florida, Tulsa and Navy. 

This projection, of course, assumes that the Cougars play enough games to even make it to five wins before Coronavirus forces the plug to be pulled on the 2020 college football season. Right now, I will treat every game the Cougars actually play this fall as an unexpected and enjoyable gift, win or lose.

*Air Force is scheduled to play only two games this fall, so some sites include the Falcons in their rankings while others don't.

Henry Robert Hermis, Jr 1953 - 2020

The news of Henry's death came as a shock to me when I heard about it a week ago. Henry gave me my first job out of college, at his architectural consulting firm. Although I worked there full-time for less than a year before I moved on to graduate school, Henry still gave me part-time work during the summers and holidays while I was in grad school, and I continued to keep up with him and some of the other co-workers I met there long afterward. 

I would also occasionally bump into Henry at UH football games; in addition to being a fellow UH College of Architecture alum, he was also a fellow Cougar fan. 

I'm glad I got to know Henry. He will be missed.

On Wednesday, September 2, 2020 Henry Robert Hermis, Jr. passed away at the age of 67.  Henry was born to Henry (Sr.) and Rita (Barta) Hermis in Hallettsville, Texas on June 6, 1953.  He was raised in Houston, Texas at his family home on Reinerman Street, with frequent visits back to the family farms in Ammannsville and Schulenburg, Texas with his mom, dad, brother, sister, aunts and uncles, and many cousins.  Henry cherished his Czech Heritage.

Henry graduated from the University of Houston in 1976 with a degree in architecture.  While attending university he met his future wife Barbie and they were married on May 17, 1975.  Together they raised two wonderful sons, Kevin and Brian.

Henry is preceded in death by his father Henry Hermis, Sr. and mother Rita Barta Hermis.  He is survived by his wife Barbara Kahanek Hermis and son Kevin Hermis and wife Megan Womack Hermis and granddaughters Olivia, Eliza, and Emilia and son Brian McCann-Hermis and wife Ashley McCann-Hermis and granddaughter Hana.  Henry was a loving and dedicated husband, father, and grandfather that cared about his family and friends tremendously and everybody will miss him dearly.

A private Catholic mass will be held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Plantersville, Texas, which will also be his final resting place.

Henry was a kind and generous man that showed compassion for all those around him and we believe he would appreciate donations to the Salvation Army, or The Czech Center Museum of Houston, or a charity of one's choice.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Will Ecuatoriana arise from the dead?

If some Ecuadorean investors have their way, Latin America's most colorful airline will fly again:
The name sounds familiar, but it has nothing to do with one of South America’s best-known carriers, Ecuatoriana de Aviácion, Ecuador’s largest aviation company until it stopped flying in 2006.
An initiative of the country’s entrepreneurs, Ecuatoriana Airlines was registered with the National Civil Aviation Council (CNAC) of the South American country in late August and intends to launch services from the Mariscal Sucre International Airport, in Quito.
According to the application sent to CNAC, the new airline plans to serve the cities of Coca, Cuenca, Esmeraldas, Guayaquil, Loja, Macas, Manta, Quito, Santa Rosa and Tulcán. The fleet of the new Ecuatoriana is not defined, but the company is evaluating the ATR 42-500 and Dash 8-Q200 turboprops and the Airbus A319 and A220 jets and its competitor, the Boeing 737 in the 300, 400 or 500 variants.
Ecuatoriana’s share capital, however, is only $ 16,000, 99% of which belongs to a foreign investor, the Ecuadorian press revealed – the company’s partners are Eduardo Delgado and Ann Martillo.
A few thoughts here: 
  • The airline's proposed destination list indicates that the new Ecuatoriana will be entirely domestic and, interestingly, will not fly any routes to the Galápagos Islands, even though they are popular with tourists and are financially lucrative. 
  • $16,000 in share capital isn't going to buy a lot of airplanes, but that may be a typo. This article (in Spanish) claims that the airline has lined up $15.84 billion in foreign capital and $160 million in domestic capital. 
This filing comes amidst an unsettled civil aviation situation in Ecuador:
The Ecuador market is up for grabs. In May, the Ecuador government put TAME Ecuador, the former State carrier, in liquidation. Two of the other airlines that operate in the country, LATAM and Avianca, started reorganization processes under Chapter 11 in the US. Therefore, there could be a void left by these carriers, and a new airline could develop it in the post-COVID world.
State-run TAME had been struggling for awhile; the Coronavirus pandemic was the 58-year old airline's death knell. This left Ecuador without a true a flag carrier, as Avianca Ecuador and LATAM Ecuador are both subsidiaries of parent airlines based in Colombia and Chile, respectively, and face uncertainty of their own. So it certainly makes sense to set up a new airline - if only on paper for now - to fill the gap left by TAME and to take potentially take advantage of problems at Avianca and LATAM.

Obviously, the new Ecuatoriana won't begin flying anytime soon; even if it were possible to do so, it would be foolish to start operating a new airline in the middle of the pandemic. And, it goes without saying that in order for the new Ecuatoriana to be successful, it will need to be run much better than its infamously unreliable state-owned predecessor.

But if Ecuatoriana 2.0 does ever (literally) get off the ground, they could do worse than to bring back the old color scheme.

Monday, September 07, 2020

The End of the New Orleans Insectarium

This makes me sad:

The brutal chill that the coronavirus put on New Orleans tourism has claimed one of the city's top attractions for children.

The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, closed since March due to city-mandated shutdowns and a sharp drop in visitors, won't be reopening its current location at the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street, officials from the Audubon Nature Institute said.

Audubon Chief Executive Ron Forman said the closure was necessary as part of a broader cost-saving initiative aimed at keeping the non-profit financially sound.

The current plan is to eventually relocate many of the insectarium's exhibits, including the Japanese-style indoor butterfly garden, into a renovated space in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas at the foot of Canal Street — a move Forman expects will save roughly $1 million a year in lease payments.

The Insectarium was located in the impressive 1881 U.S. Customs House at the corner of Canal and North Peters. Its opening was a positive indicator of New Orleans' on-going post-Katrina recovery. But New Orleans, along with the rest of the world, now finds itself in the midst of another catastrophe

The insectarium now appears to be among the casualties of the economic downturn after more than a decade in operation. The 23,000-square-foot interactive exhibit opened in 2008 at a cost $25 million and quickly made it onto the top-ten lists of family-friendly tourist attractions in a city more often known as an adult playground.

It took up half the ground floor of the 19th Century landmark Custom House building, and was touted as the largest freestanding museum in North America devoted to insects.

With thousands of beetles, butterflies, cockroaches and other crawling, flying creatures, it was a kid-friendly detour with petting stations, termite hills and insect shows. And its butterfly garden allowed visitors to walk through a room brimming with hundreds of monarchs, common sergeants, tailed jays and other fluttering lepidoptera.

I first visited in 2009 and re-visited many times, owing to to the museum's uniqueness as well as its closeness to our timeshare. One of the museum's highlights was the "Bug Appétit" kitchen, featuring insect-based foods such as mealworm salsa and cinnamon-flavored crickets. The Japanese-themed butterfly garden was also enjoyable.

Normally, while walking along Canal or North Peters Street, you'd be able to peer into the windows of the Insectarium and see the butterflies in the garden resting on the Insectarium's windows. But the last time I walked past the Insectarium, a couple of nights before my wedding, I looked into those saw windows and saw no butterflies fluttering about. I felt sad.

The Audubon Nature Institute plans to move some of the Insectarium's exhibits, including the butterfly garden, into the Aquarium space it already owns. But the enjoyable uniqueness of the Insectarium itself is, alas, likely gone forever.