Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A new look (and name) for the Dynamo

I'm not impressed:

The Houston Dynamo announced a “new club direction” on Tuesday.

The team made the announcement via its website that the new name of the club is “Houston Dynamo FC.” “FC” stands for football club, and is used by several American soccer teams. The women’s team will still be known as the Houston Dash.

The rebranding includes new crests for both teams, which were created with help from a Houston-based, minority-owned company 9th Wonder.

“Both crests share a unique hexagonal shape, which will also carry over to the Dynamo Academy and youth affiliate clubs, as well as Houston Sports Park,” the team announced.

The Hexagon, which has six sides, represents Houston’s historic six wards.

“Hexagons reflect strength, stability and unity," the club’s statement reads. “They are their strongest when arranged together, each one making its neighbors stronger and more stable. The six-sided design also gives a nod to the Club’s inaugural year in 2006 and the six wards that made up the original layout of the city. The Club called the Third Ward home for its first six seasons prior to moving to BBVA Stadium, nestled between the Second and Third Ward in East Downtown (EaDo), in 2012.”


Adding the "FC" to the team's name is a hackneyed and cliché attempt at making the team sound more "Euro," and the new logo itself is a poor design. It is difficult to read from a distance. The orange interlocking letters are derivative of the San Francisco Giants. The symbolism behind the logo, e.g. "the six sides of the hexagon signify the original six wards of Houston" comes off as cheesy and contrived.*

But the biggest problem I have with the rebranding is this: the Dynamo claim that this represents a "new club direction," but the organization appears to be doing nothing to improve the product on the pitch, which has quite frankly been lousy as of late.

Comments on the team's social media pages regarding the new name and design are generally negative for this same reason: "Quit smoke and mirrors rebranding and built a real team, not a bargain basement collection of journeymen," "It's like rebranding spam as a gourmet meal," "Lipstick on a pig, unless our slumlord owners open their wallets and spend money on real talent," "Our front office is repainting our front porch all while our backyard is on fire. Super." You get the point. 

The facts are these: the Dynamo have missed the MLS Cup Playoffs six out of the last seven seasons. They finished dead last in their division this just-completed season. They have one of the lowest player salary budgets in the MLS. Dynamo fans, having little to cheer about, are staying home: 2020's COVID-affected season aside, their attendance has been trending downward, from 20.6 thousand fans per game in 2015 to 15.7 thousand fans per game in 2019.

I'd be willing to accept this rebrand if it came with a commitment from the team's owners and front office to improve the actual product, by opening up the checkbook and signing better players. So far I've seen no indication that that's going to happen; as of right now this just feels like a cynical attempt to get the fans to buy new merchandise. I'd love to be proven wrong.

I'm not a rabid soccer fan, but I do go to a few Dynamo games every year (or at least I did, before COVID) and I generally have a good time, win or lose. But I also remember how good the Dynamo were their first few years in Houston, when they won back-to-back titles, placed first or second in their conference five out of six years, and Brian Ching came as close to a household name as a soccer player could in Houston. Those days are long gone, and rebranding alone is going to bring them back.

The "Club," if you must, needs to make a commitment to itself and its fans to start winning again.

*It's not even historically accurate. Houston originally only had four wards. Fifth Ward was added in 1866 and Sixth Ward was dded a decade after that. Wards were abolished as political subdivisions in 1915.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Houston 56, South Florida 21

Houston notched its third win of the season with a dominating performance over the hapless Bulls of South Florida. 

The Good: How about Marcus Jones returning a punt return 72 yards for a touchdown? 

Or DL David Anenih, who obliterated USF quarterback Katravis Marsh, forcing Marsh to cough up the ball right into the hands of fellow DL Derek Parish for a 85-yard scoop and score?

Or UH quarterback Clayton Tune, who was 14 of 25 for 165 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air (he had one interception; more on that below), and was also the Coogs' leading rusher, with 10 carries for 120 yards and two scores, including this 13-yard leap into the end zone?

The Bad: The Coogs built a 42-0 lead midway through the third quarter and then got sloppy, allowing South Florida to score three consecutive touchdowns. The third touchdown was the worst, as Clayton Tune was intercepted for a 38-yard pick six on a horrible play call on 3rd and 1. The Coogs had just picked up 9 yards on two plays by running the ball. Why are you passing on 3rd and 1? 

The Ugly: Seriously, it was a boneheaded, unnecessary play call on 3rd and 1 that Holgorsen and his OC need to answer for.  

Also, still too many penalties. The Cougars were flagged 8 times for 75 yards. 

What It Means: Let's be honest: South Florida is awful, and this win doesn't mean anything other than the fact that the Coogs can beat awful teams. But still, there's something to be said for breaking a two-game losing streak in dominating fashion and hopefully instilling the team with some confidence as they head towards the end of the season.

Up next for the Coogs is an unexpected bye week, due to positive COVID tests. Their game against SMU may be made up on December 12.

A time-lapse journey through the canals of The Netherlands

A Dutch time-lapse photography company put this video on YouTube a few weeks ago, and it's the coolest thing I've seen all year. It's a birds-eye time-lapse video of a tugboat towing a barge with industrial equipment (perhaps for a refinery or something) along a series of canals from Rotterdam to Amsterdam. 

One of the structures being towed was 30 meters (almost 100 feet) high, so they placed a Canon 4k camera at the top of it. It took one picture every three seconds to produce the 11-minute timelapse you see here. Apparently, this journey took place in 2013, but the video was not able to be released until now. 

There's a map in the corner of the video that follows the path the tugboat and barge are taking through The Netherlands, but the day-long trip roughly goes like this: 

The barge starts in the early morning by crossing underneath Rotterdam's historic De Hef bridge (you can see the twin red towers of the Willemsbrug to the right) and then is towed down the Nieuwe Maas, past the A19 Motorway (0:30), and then up the Hollandse IJssel. It diverts to the Voorhaven at the outskirts of Gouda (2:00), enters the Julianasluis lock (2:10), and then travels up the Gouwe until it takes a left at the Oude Rijn (4:10). 

The barge then passes through the town of Alphen ann den Rijn and then takes a right into the Heimanswetering (4:40). It enters Braassememeer lake (5:10), reaches the Oude Weterring (5:25), and makes a right into the Ringvaart Haarlemmermeer (5:35). It passes by some of KLM's service hangars at Schiphol Airport (7:00) and enters Nieuwe Meer lake (7:45). It then spends some time parked in front of the A4 Motorway on the edge of Amsterdam (7:50 - 8:30) as night falls and the tugboat crew changes. 

After passing through the Nieuwe Meerslius lock (8:35), it enters the narrow Schinkel canal and passes through a shimmering Amsterdam at night, making its way along the Kostverlorenvaart until it reaches the Kattensloot (9:45). It appears to get caught at a bridge (10:05), but eventally makes it to the Westerkanaal (10:25) and enters The IJ - Amsterdam's waterfront - where the barge ends its journey. 

By my count, the barge passes through five vertical lift bridges, three swing bridges, one retractible bridge and 31 separate bascule bridges (I could be off by one or two). It also passes by at least three old Dutch windmills and countless new ones. 

I'm especially fascinated by the diversity of activity (industries, businesses and homes) along the canals, as well as the amount of boat traffic - both business and pleasure - that the canals carry.

If you're interested in seeing a more car-friendly version of a trip between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, YouTube's got you covered as well. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The end of Disco Kroger

This is surprising. And a bit sad: 
Another Houston grocery store is closing its doors. 

Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. will shut down its location in the 3300 block of Montrose Boulevard in mid-January, the company said. 

The location had been losing money for some time, according to a statement from the company. 

"We never want to close any of our stores," Kroger officials said in a statement. "However, to keep prices low for our customers across the city we cannot continue to operate a store that has lost money for a sustained period of time." 

But more than just being a grocery store, the location also was affectionately known by some as "Disco Kroger." 

Why the name? According to the Houston Press writer Jeff Balke, the nickname stems from "the diverse and often bizarre late-night crowds you can find there most nights of the week, but especially on the weekend." 

"I often wondered why they just didn't get it over with, hang a disco ball in the middle store and pump in some dance tunes after 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights," mused Balke in his 2010 article.
"Disco Kroger" is probably the most iconic example of the colloquial tradition of assigning nicknames to local Kroger stores; it's the store with the sometimes-quirky clientele serving Houston's (now-rapidly-gentrifying) "Gayborhood." It's strange to imagine a Montrose without it.

Culturemap's Steven Devadanam explains the hard business calculus behind its demise:
The closing is not a complete surprise to industry watchers. Kroger has faced increased competition in the neighborhood from both H-E-B's Montrose Market and a Whole Foods Market that opened last year on the border of Montrose and Midtown. The brand’s relatively small footprint and lack of amenities — witness the coffee robot at Whole Foods — didn't measure up to its more modern competitors.
Perhaps the closure of Disco Kroger, along with last summer's shuttering of the Midtown Fiesta, are examples of "H-E-Bification:" the San Antonio-based grocer has spent the last several years aggressively expanding their Houston business with new-build stores featuring larger footprints and Texas-centric food selections in order to lure grocery shoppers from older establishments. Houstonia's Craig Hlavaty has tried to resist being H-E-Bified: 
While everyone else seemingly has already defected to H-E-B, I have stuck by that grimy grocery store. Why? I have never quite been able to get on the H-E-B bandwagon because I am naturally a contrarian and a creature of nostalgic habit. 

Plus, I have also gotten a weird pickup vibe from the West Alabama H-E-B, the Bumble to Disco Kroger’s trashy Tinder. I swear a subset of the H-E-B clientele only ​​goes after yoga class. I have heard more awkward pickup lines along those aisles than I can remember. Ms. Lululemon and Mr. Under Armour, pushed together by fate on the coffee aisle. Did you know that they actually make keto-friendly coffee now?  
Unfortunately for Hlavaty and other Disco Kroger loyalists, resistance has become futile. However, not all the blame should be placed on H-E-B; niche stores like Trader Joe's on West Alabama and the aforementioned new Whole Foods on Elgin have probably also played a role in Disco Kroger's demise. 

(Could Combat Kroger be next?)

The store's current employees will not be laid off, but will be reassigned positions at other local stores when Disco Kroger closes. The store's pharmacy records will be transferred to the "Posh Kroger" on West Gray a couple of miles up the road, which made its own (unsuccessful) attempt to rename itself about a decade ago.

Jeff Balke eulogizes the 42-year-old establishment, which (to add insult to injury) was also was the scene of a fire a couple of nights ago. On a tangental note, I'm upset about the closure of my favorite Montrose hot dog stand

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Houston 10, #6 Cincinnati 38

I'm not going to spend a lot of time writing about this one. The Bearcats are a top ten team, and they were going to win because the Cougars simply aren't in a position to upset anybody right now. 

In fact, UH looks like garbage. They are sloppy, slow, and uninspired. The offense is sluggish and predictable. Clayton Tune (20 of 34 for 189 yards, no touchdowns and an interception) does not appear to have made any progress as a quarterback this season. The ground game was held to less than 100 yards. The Coogs punted on six of their nine possessions. There's simply no rhythm or momentum on offense. 

The Cougars didn't look better on the defensive side of the ball. They gave up 510 yards of total offense and had no answer for Cinci quarterback Derrick Ridder. They continue to be out of position and miss tackles. It doesn't help that UH's best defensive weapon, Payton Turner, is injured.

Quite frankly, this program seems to be regressing as the season progresses.

This is Dana Holgorsen's 17th game as head coach. He has only won six of those 17 so far, and has yet to beat a team with a winning record. 

He's also being paid $4 million a year.

Next up for Houston is a home game against South Florida.

More adventures in vexillology: Mississippi's new flag

I'll have more thoughts about the 2020 election in a few days, but right now, I wanted to spend a few minutes writing about Mississippi's new state flag:

Mississippi's new state flag will feature the magnolia flower after the state in a historic move this summer parted with its decades-old banner that included a Confederate battle emblem.

Voters on Tuesday approved the "In God We Trust" magnolia design as the new state flag, CNN projected.

The state Legislature will now have to enact into law the new design as Mississippi's official state flag during its next regular session in 2021.

The flag features a white magnolia blossom on a dark blue backdrop, with red bands and gold stripes -- fitting for the Southern state whose nickname is the Magnolia State, whose state flower is the magnolia and whose state tree is the magnolia tree. The flower is surrounded by 20 stars, signifying Mississippi's status at the 20th state in the union, and a gold five-point star to reflect Mississippi's indigenous Native American tribes.

Mississippi was the last state in the country whose flag, which was adopted in 1894, included the Confederate emblem.

After the state legislature voted last summer to retire the 1894 flag, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History held an open competition where people could submit flag designs of their own. Over 3,000 submissions were received, and several hundred were chosen in the initial round of public vetting (an awesome mosquito-themed flag didn't make the initial cut, unfortunately). Over the following weeks these designs were eventually whittled down to five, and then two, finalists. 

The design ultimately chosen for voters to approve was the "Magnolia Flag," created by Hunter Jones, Sue Anna Joe and Kara Giles:

  • Sue Anna Joe wrote, “The magnolia is the central element as it is our state flower and tree. Because its fossils date back 100 million years, it symbolizes longevity and perseverance.”
  • Hunter Jones wrote, “The original inspiration for my flag design came from the old Mississippi license plate. I recreated the Magnolia flower from the license plate flower in a way that I thought kept the same flower but made it more applicable across mediums with bolder lines.”

                                                                                                         Image: Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Okay, but it is it a good flag? 

Let me start that anything is better than the flag Mississippi used from 1894 until earlier this year, which prominently featured the blue-on-red Confederate emblem (that is sometimes and somehow, confused for the Norwegian flag). As recently as 2001, Mississippi voters chose to retain that controversial flag in a referendum; it was only this past summer, when protests against racial injustice sparked by the murder of George Floyd gripped the nation, that enough momentum developed to definitively replace the state's flag.

That said, my first impression is that the new flag is kind of busy. Stripes, flowers, stars, mottos... This flag has a lot going on with it. 

Ted Kaye, of the North American Vexillological Association, lays out five principles for good flag design

  1. Keep it simple, so simple a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism.
  3. Use two to three basic colors.
  4. No lettering or seals of any kind.
  5. Be distinctive or be related.

Now, many people might disagree with these rules, and there are wonderful exceptions to them in any case. But the basic concept behind the five principles is that a flag should be simple and recognizable.  

As far as this flag's adherence to these principles, it's a mixed bag. Most children couldn't not draw this flag from memory; the magnolia blossom is complicated, as is the arrangement of twenty stars around it and the golden "Choctaw Star" at the top. 

The symbols in the flag - the magnolia blossom, the Choctaw Star, the twenty stars representing Mississippi's status as the 20th state in the union - are definitely meaningful, but it's worth asking if there are too many of them. The flag would not be any less representative of Mississippi if it did away with the stars and the motto and only had the magnolia blossom on it.

The flag consists of four colors: red, dark blue, white and gold, which at least one more color than the third principle suggests. However, I don't necessarily have a problem with this, especially since the gold functions more as an accent, rather than primary, color. For what it's worth, I'm a bit skeptical of this principle myself; I think limiting a flag design to only two or three colors constrains creativity, and some of my favorite flags have more than three colors on them. 

The flag's biggest problem relates to principle four: the "In God We Trust" motto below the magnolia blossom. “Writing doesn’t belong on flags. Flags are graphic symbols, not verbal symbols," Kaye explained to Fast Company. This makes sense; if flags are to be understood from a distance (especially while in motion from the breeze), adding text to a flag defeats its core purpose. 

However, the inclusion of "In God We Trust" was a requirement of the legislation authorizing the new flag design process. Perhaps it was an enticement to religious conservatives who were skeptical about changing the state's flag in the first place. In any case, there was no getting around it. I don't really like it - I'm opposed to flags being used to further religious beliefs in general - but sometimes compromises such as these are required. I also recognize that it could be worse: more than half of the flags of the individual states include the state's name (or its initials) on them, something that definitely defeats the purpose of having a state flag.

Where the flag wins, I think, is in regards to the fifth principle: it is definitely distinctive, yet it also relates to other flags. It is one of only two state flags to feature vertical stripes (Iowa is the other), and the only other major national or subnational flags in the world I could find with a red-blue-red vertical pattern are the flags of Mongolia and the Russian oblast of Kostroma. When one considers that more than half of the flags of the individual states are nothing more than a variation of the state's seal on a blue or other color background, Mississippi's new flag definitely stands out.

At the same time, the circle of stars on this flag can also be found on other state flags such as Georgia, Indiana and Missouri; it even recalls the design of the stars in the Betsy Ross flag. It's also worth mentioning that the "In God We Trust" motto also appears on the flags of its southern neighbors, Georgia and Florida. It is clearly a flag of a US state; Even if you were a foreigner, you could probably look at this flag and assume as such.

The bottom line is that a lot of thought and care went into the design of this flag. It might be a bit over-designed, but I think it serves its purpose and, as it seeps into the public consciousness, will easily be recognizable as "Mississippi."

For what it's worth, I preferred it to the other finalist, the "Great River" flag, which featured a red-and-white shield that reminded me of Union Pacific Railroad's logo. My favorite of the five finalists prominently incorporated the outline of the state's eastern border, which is defined by the Mississippi River. However, it was also a complicated design, and if you weren't into geography, you might not understand it at all. 

The Chronicle's ShaCamree Gowdy celebrates her home state's new flag. Quartz digs deeper into the story behind the new flag's design.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Houston 21, Central Florida 44

The Cougars celebrated Halloween with their most ghoulish and ghastly performance of the season. 

The Good: In the first quarter, DE Payton Turner sacked UCF QB Dillon Gabriel and forced him to fumble. LB Grant Stuard scooped up the ball and ran 34 yards to the end zone for a defensive score that put the Coogs up, 7-3.

That was the highlight of the game. It was all downhill from there. 

The Bad, Ugly, Pathetic, Etc.: The UH defense had no answer for Central Florida's hurry-up offense and was torched to the tune of 681 total yards of offense: 328 through the air and 353 on the ground. The UH offense, meanwhile, sputtered throughout the game. Of Houston's 13 possessions, six ended in punts, two ended in interceptions, and one ended in a missed field goal. QB Clayton Tune had one of the poorer games of his career, continually over-throwing receivers and making poor decisions that resulted in two interceptions. He ended the afternoon 21 of 41 for 263 yards and a TD. The fact that the UH offense did so poorly against a mediocre UCF defense with four starters out is very concerning. 

There's not much else to say about this game. The Cougars were out-hustled, out-matched and out-coached by the Golden Knights all afternoon. This simply wasn't an enjoyable game to watch.

What It Means: The Cougars suffer their first conference loss, and - if the UH athletics message boards are any indication - the UH faithful are beginning to turn on Dan Holgorsen, who so far is not earning the big bucks Tillman Fertitta the University of Houston is paying him.

Next up for Houston is a road trip to play #6 Cincinnati, where they will probably get slaughtered. But at least we get to watch it on ABC!

Ryan Monceaux has more.