Thursday, December 31, 2020

My iPhone's top 20: End of 2020 edition

I got an iPod Shuffle for Christmas 15 years ago; over the years, as my music library has grown and has migrated from iPod to iPhone, I've periodically taken stock of the twenty most listened-to songs in my collection (see here for the 2010 and 2015 lists). In continuing my tradition, here are the twenty most listened-to songs on my iPhone, as of December 31, 2020 (2015 ranking in parentheses):

1. Ride a White Horse - Goldfrapp (Supernature, 2006, Mute/Universal Music) (#1)
2. That Smiling Face - Camouflage (Voice and Images, 1988, Atlantic) (#3)
3. Home - Erasure (Chorus, 1991, Sire) (#2)
4. Burst Generator - The Chemical Brothers (We Are The Night, 2007, Australwerks/EMI) (#4)
5. Sometimes [Erasure/Flood Two Ring Circus Remix] - Erasure (The Two Ring Circus, 1987, Sire) (#10)
6. Hysteria - Def Leppard (Hysteria, 1987, Mercury) (#8)
7. Looking at You - Sunscreem (Looking at You: Club Anthems, 1998, Centaur Entertainment) (#5)
8. Life Is Sweet - The Chemical Brothers (Exit Planet Dust, 1995, Australwerks) (#7)
9. Let Forever Be - The Chemical Brothers (Surrender, 1999, Australwerks) (#6)
10. Dissolve - The Chemical Brothers (Further, 2010, Australwerks) 
11. Thank U - Alanis Morissette (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, 1998, Maverick/Reprise) (#15)
12. Destroy Everything You Touch - Ladytron (Witching Hour, 2005, So Sweet) (#14)
13. A Moment's Shifting - Anything Box (Hope, 1993, Orangewerks)
14. Lightning Blue Eyes - Secret Machines (Ten Silver Drops, 2006, Reprise) (#16)
15. A Modern Midnight Conversation - The Chemical Brothers (We Are The Night, 2007, Australwerks)
16. Rolling in the Deep - Adele (21, 2011, Columbia/XL) (#11)
17. Primary - The Cure (Faith, 1981, Elektra) (#13)
18. Crushed - Front 242 (05:22:09:12 Off, 1993, Epic)
19. Smiling Monarchs - Abecedarians (1985, Factory Records)
20. Dancing On My Own - Robyn (Body Talk, Pt. 1, 2010, Konichiwa)

Once again, my musical tastes continue to be dominated by electronica, with a pair of British duos - Tom and Ed and Vince and Andy - being among my clear favorites. My top four are the same as they were four years ago, and over half of the songs on the 2020 list were on the 2015 list.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

New Mexico-in-Frisco Bowl: Houston 14, Hawai'i 28

The Cougars went to the New Mexico Bowl (which was relocated from Albuquerque to Frisco, Texas due to COVID) in spite of their losing record and in spite of the fact that many key players weren't available (due to positive COVID tests, injuries, academic ineligibility or a desire to keep themselves healthy for the NFL combine). The result was predictable.

The Good: With the Coogs' top WRs out, receivers Nathaniel Dell and Christian Trahan made the most of the spotlight by combining for 11 receptions for 200 yards and a touchdown apiece. 

The Bad: Right after the Cougars had scored fourteen unanswered points to turn a 21-0 snoozefest into a competitive 21-14 game, Hawaii kickoff returner Calvin Turner broke off a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that would seal the win for the Rainbow Warriors.

The Ugly: Clayton Tune threw three interceptions and was sacked five times. Houston's ground game was limited to 58 rushing yards. Seven Cougar possessions ended in punts. Head coach Dana Holgerson is supposedly known for his offenses, but after two years into his tenure at Houston all he has to show for it is a sputtering offense. I honestly don't have a great deal of faith in his abilities going into 2021.

What It Means: The Cougars end the 2020 season - a season that probably shouldn't have happened to begin with - with a 3-5 record. The last time the Cougars had back-to-back losing seasons was 2001 and 2002, was when another Dana was head coach.

I pity the UH ticket office employees who have to try to sell season tickets for 2021. At the rate this program is headed, we might be going back to 1990s-era levels of attendance.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Very belated thoughts about the 2020 election and its aftermath

Even though the 2020 election was over six weeks ago, there was so much happening in its aftermath - the counting of mail-in ballots, the vote recounts and certifications, the Trump campaign's numerous and fruitless legal challenges, etc., that I decided to wait until after the Electoral College met at the beginning of this week to affirm Joe Biden's victory to write about it. It didn't help that it has, quite frankly, become difficult to summon enough motivation to write about something as depressing as politics in the United States today. This country is angry at itself and dangerously divided, and the results of this election and its aftermath are unlikely to change that fact.

Although some Republicans will likely contest Biden's election when the electoral votes are formally presented Congress on January 6th, this maneuver is all but certain to fail. The end result of this election is that, as of January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be President of the United States, and his four-year reign of chaos, corruption, lies, nepotism, banana-republic authoritarianism and subservience to Vladimir Putin will be gone. If you're a Democrat (or even if, like me, you don't consider yourself a Democrat but just hate Donald Trump), that's good news. But that's also just about where the good news ends. Here are my thoughts:

Biden Won - Just Barely. Since there were no "faithless elector" shenanigans yesterday, Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump's 232: 36 more than the 270 votes he needed to become president.

Source: Wikipedia. The actual outcome was close to my pre-election prediction (I expected Biden to win Maine's 2nd District but for Trump to hold on to Georgia).

Biden also won the popular vote in convincing fashion, accumulating 81.28 million votes (or 51.3% of total votes cast) to Trump's 74.22 million votes (46.9%). That's a difference of over 7 million votes, or 4.5%: the second-largest popular vote margin of victory in the last six presidential elections. 

However, Biden's victory in several of the states he won - states he needed in order to achieve his Electoral College win - was razor thin. He won Arizona by a total of 10,457 votes (0.3% of total votes cast in that state), Georgia by 11,779 votes (.25%), and Wisconsin by 20,682 votes (0.6%). These 43 thousand votes in these three states is the difference between a solid Electoral College win for Joe Biden and a 269-269 Electoral College tie (with the election being decided in the House, with each state's U.S. House delegation getting one vote to decide the presidency; since Republicans will control the majority of House delegations in the new Congress, Trump would have won re-election under that scenario). Flip another state where Biden's win was narrow (he won all of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada by less than three percent), and he loses the electoral vote outright.

To put it in perspective, 43 thousand is less than 0.03% of the 158.38 million votes cast in the 2020 election (the highest voter turnout, by percentage, for a presidential election since 1900). It's just a bit more than half of the 77.7 thousand votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that gave Donald Trump the presidency four years ago despite losing the popular vote. It's a hair's breadth margin of victory, and it should deeply worry Democrats going forward. 

This is because Republicans maintain an edge in the Electoral College such that Democrats need to win the popular vote in presidential elections by several points in order to have a good shot a winning the actual presidency. Democratic voters are disproportionately concentrated along the West Coast and the Northeast, and are not as numerous in the "swing states" where elections are actually decided.

This is why, even though the Republican candidate for president has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections, he has managed to win the electoral vote twice since 2000, and just barely lost the electoral vote this time around. If demographic trends continue we may be reaching a situation where it's basically impossible for the Republican candidate to win the popular vote, but pretty difficult for the Democratic one to win the Electoral College. This would be fatal to American democracy, which was already seriously tested in the aftermath of this election (which I'll discuss more in a moment).

USA Today has some interesting maps of the 2020 election, including the latest version of the "Purple America Map" (although it's probably becoming less purple over time), as well as good maps indicating each party's margin of victory in each county as well as as how the vote shifted since 2016. Perhaps the best visualization of the 2020 election is by XKCD's Randall Munroe, who shows how Biden and Trump voters are actually distributed:

Source: XKCD. Munroe points out that there are more Trump voters in deep-blue California than red Texas, and more Biden voters in Texas than New York.

Aside from the Presidency, there's not much for Democrats to be happy about. The Democratic Party had high hopes of retaking the Senate, padding their advantage in the House, and winning enough downballot races to take control of some state legislatures. None of that happened.

The Democrats did close their deficit in the Senate by one seat last month, and there's still a chance that they could take control of the Senate outright if both their candidates win the two Senate runoff races in Georgia on January 5th. That would give them 50 seats, and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will be able to break ties. But I wouldn't bet on it: Biden's narrow win there aside, this is still Georgia we're talking about. The simple fact is that Democratic Senate candidates, in spite of being well-funded, underperformed last month: they failed to flip what was seen as a winnable seat in North Carolina or give the boot to "perpetually-concerned" Maine Senator Susan Collins. 

After convincingly winning control of the House in the 2018 midterms, Democrats took a huge step backward last month, suffering a net loss of 12 seats (including one candidate who apparently lost by a total of six (!) votes).  While they still remain in control of that side of Congress, the Democrats' reduced majority makes it easier for individual lawmakers to throw sand in the legislative gears, and it also puts the Democrats at grave risk for losing the House entirely in the 2022 midterms. 

This is partly because the party in the White House generally does not do well in midterm elections, and partly because the Democrats also failed to flip any state legislatures they targeted last month. The GOP still controls 61 of the nation's 99 state legislative chambers (along with 27 of the nation's 50 governorships). That means Democrats will have little to no control over decennial redistricting in several critical states, and are therefore likely to lose House seats though reapportionment and Republican gerrymandering. (Here's Texas as an example.

Even as New York Magazine's Ed Kilgore argues that Democrats didn't do as badly in last month's election as one might think, he nevertheless concedes that "Democrats will pay a large cost for failing to win big across the board, particularly when redistricting arrives next year and Republican control of all those state legislative chambers that was at risk this year gives the GOP an advantage in drawing new districts for the next decade."

Election results aside, there may be more trouble ahead for the Democratic Party in the form a of a struggle between its moderate members and its more progressive wing. If they can keep the center and the left from tearing themselves apart, there's a path forward for Democrats (perhaps it includes consolidating its suburban gains, starting to acknowledge rural needs, and dumping the left-wing "wokeness" nonsense that repels moderate voters), but the party still has some soul-searching to do (as does the GOP, post-Trump) in spite of Biden's win.

Texas is still a red state. Here in Texas, Democratic hopes that higher turnout would generate a "blue wave" in Texas were also dashed. Trump carried the state by 5.6%, Senator John Cornyn easily won re-election, Democrats were unable to flip any Congressional seats, and their dream of picking up the nine seats they needed to take control of the state House also evaporated. Democrats did increase their margins in the suburbs, and the state does seem to be gradually trending blue (along with North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona). But it's not there yet, and Trump's strength among Latino* voters in the Rio Grande Valley - a trend that was seen nationwide - should be setting off alarm bells among Democratic operatives. The only thing state Democrats can do is take a look at their failures in this election and prepare for 2022.

That being said, there weren't many surprises here in Harris County, which remains blue. Biden carried the county by thirteen points, and Democrats swept the countywide races, flipped perennially-competitive State House District 134, and fended off the GOP's well-funded attempt to retake the 7th Congressional District.

Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election are shameful and are eroding faith in American democracy. Being the malignant narcissist that he is, Donald Trump was never going to accept defeat. After all, there's nothing more he hates than being called a "loser," so he and his campaign continue to claim, with little to no evidence, that Biden's victory was the result of widespread voter fraud (because the Democrats were somehow able to fraudulently manufacture votes for Biden but not for downballot House, Senate and state races, right?). At this point, his claims are as stale as they are baseless and impotent. But for several weeks immediately following the election, he and his supporters undertook a remarkable effort aiming at subverting democracy in order to keep him in power.

Almost as soon as the polls closed, Trump's campaign and his supporters sprang into action, claiming that the election was "stolen" and filing lawsuits aimed at overturning its results. This effort, headed by New York Mayor - turned - circus clown Rudy Giuliani and an error-prone conspiracy theoristmet almost no success in the courts because there simply was no evidence that widespread voter fraud occurred; even Trump's own Attorney General couldn't find evidence of widespread voter fraud (and was forced to step down as a result). Recounts in places like Georgia and Wisconsin did not substantially alter Biden's margin of victory in those states, and Trump's attempts to bully election officials into not certifying results or pressure Republican-led state legislatures to bypass the will of the voters by appointing Trump-friendly slates of Electors were rejected as well. As it became clear that the results of the election would not be overturned, Trump began lashing out at his own party: a Republican Secretary of State in Georgia was thrown under the bus by Trump for simply doing his job, and he and his staff received death threats. This tiresome shitshow - even the National Review called it a "disgraceful endgame" - culminated in a ridiculous and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt by Texas Attorney General (and indicted felon) Ken Paxton to sue a handful of swing states in the Supreme Court in order overturn the election.

Maybe it was truly a coup attempt. Maybe it was all just an attempt to grift. Either way, American democracy "has been given a scare:"

As the sense of imminent threat begins to fade, the convoluted inner workings of the electoral system are coming under scrutiny to determine whether it was as robust as its advocates had hoped – or whether the nation simply got lucky this time.

“I had long been in the camp of people who believed that the guardrails of democracy were working,” Katrina Mulligan, a former senior official in the justice department’s national security division. “But my view has actually shifted in the last few weeks as I watched some of this stuff play out. Now I actually think that we are depending far too much on fragile parts of our democracy, and expecting individuals, rather than institutions, to do the work the institution should be doing.” 

What's worse is that this attack on the democratic process - the attempt to subvert, if not outright overturn, the results of this election, or at the very least illegitimize a Biden presidency (85 percent of all Trump voters believe Biden did not legitimately win the election, according to one poll) - was tacitly encouraged, if not fully supported, by one of this country's two major political parties. George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum once wrote that "if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy." Sadly, he appears to have been correct.

Trump's bid to overturn the election failed (even though he is apparently still plotting) because he, and everybody he surrounds himself with, is incompetent. But he is nevertheless providing a blueprint for the next authoritarian who comes along, who may be smarter, more subtle, and ultimately more successful than Trump. As The New Republic's Jason Linkins and Matt Ford explained a few weeks ago

What if Biden’s Electoral College lead were much slimmer and hinged on a more Trump-friendly state like Florida or Texas? What if Democrats hadn’t taken back the House in 2018, and Republicans instead had firm majorities in both chambers when the Electoral College votes were counted? What if the Republican candidate wasn’t Trump, whose authoritarian tendencies and reckless mendacity are already priced in, but a less polarizing figure who could make a more subtle and competent play for power? Thanks to Trump and his cronies, it’s no longer completely unthinkable for a president or candidate to demand that state legislatures try to overturn their own election results. He won’t succeed this time, but a future presidential candidate could make a similar attempt on far more favorable terrain.

This country remains dangerously divided. This country is polarized and tribalized. People realize this fact and are not optimistic that it can be resolved anytime soon. A recent Monmouth poll indicated that over three-quarters of Americans see the country as "deeply divided on its most foundational issues" and that 60% of the county expects that divide to either get worse or stay the same over the coming year. Given how close this election was, and given the attacks on the democratic process that have occurred in its wake, that's a recipe for potential disaster in the coming years.

While I'm glad the election is over and I wish President-Elect Biden well, I have never been more worried about the United States of America than I am right now.

Which may be why it's not a bad thing that the "real" winner of the 2020 election was marijuana.

*Speaking of "wokeness," I refuse to use the construct "Latinx" to refer to the Latino population because they themselves have not embraced it. I can only wonder if the presumptuous insistence of the left that the Latino population use this term may have been one of the reasons why Trump did so much better among their voters.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Houston 27, Memphis 30

The Cougars, plating their first game in almost a month, fell behind early but mounted a 21-point rally in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 28 seconds remaining. Then they allowed Memphis to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired.

The Good: Down 6-27 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Cougars rattled off 21 unanswered points to tie the game. Quarterback Clayton Tune threw touchdown passes to Marquez Stevenson and Bryson Smith and ran for another score, while the UH defense held the Tigers to 13 yards on three possessions during the same time period. 

The Bad: The Cougars wouldn't have had to make such a ferocious rally had they played better football in the first half. Houston had to settle for field goals on their first two trips into the red zone, and were held to three-and-outs on two other possessions. Clayton Tune threw an interception and was sacked and fumbled for a Memphis touchdown on consecutive possessions. That, combined with Memphis quarterback Brady White's ability to pick apart the Houston defense (he had 245 passing yards on the afternoon), meant that the Tigers were able to score 24 unanswered points on the Cougars.

The Ugly: The Cougar defense during Memphis's final drive was an embarrassment. Brady White was able to make easy completions for 12 and 22 yards, and was aided by by a pass interference penalty committed by Cougar safety Thabo Mwaniki, to get the Tigers into easy field goal range in the game's final half-minute. Mwaniki's penalty was one of seven for 75 yards on the Cougars; the Tigers didn't have any.

What It Means: The Cougars end their COVID-truncated regular season with a 3-4 record. Memphis has now beaten Houston five years straight. 

Next up for the Cougars is a Christmas Eve trip to the Metroplex to play Hawaii in the New Mexico Bowl, which is being played in Frisco, Texas due to skyrocketing COVID levels in Albuquerque. 

Yeah, it doesn't make any sense to me, either. But very little has made sense this season. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

No more Fucking in Austria

No, that doesn't mean that people in Vienna or Innsbruck can't have sex anymore. It means that a small village in the corner of Austria is changing its, eh, peculiar name:

Residents of an Austrian village will ring in the new year under a new name – Fugging – after ridicule and repeated theft of their signposts became too much to bear.

They finally grew weary of Fucking, its current name, which some experts say dates back to the 11th century.

Minutes from a municipal council meeting published on Thursday showed that the village of about 100 people will be named Fugging from 1 January 2021.

Located 260km (161 miles) west of Vienna, Fucking has in recent years become a popular stop-off point for tourists, particularly from English-speaking countries, who snap pictures of themselves by the signposts at the entrance and exit to the village and post them on social media.

Dozens of signposts have been stolen, forcing the local authorities to put up the sign at a 2m height and embed it in theft-resistant concrete when putting up replacements.

Finally, the villagers, known as Fuckingers, “had enough of visitors and their bad jokes”, wrote Austrian daily Die Prese.

Legend has it that the village, pronounced "foo-king," was founded in the sixth century by a Bavarian nobleman named Focko.

The village isn't too far north of Salzburg, and Corinne and I had always joked about visiting this village during one of our trips there just to say that we had "been to Fucking, Austria." But that's exactly the problem: too many English speakers were inundating the tiny village, taking pictures, stealing signs, and giggling about the town's name, even though it doesn't mean in German what it means in English.

Villagers had simply gotten tired of Fucking.

Monday, December 07, 2020

The end of the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico

The iconic radio telescope is no more:

On Monday night, the enormous instrument platform that hung over the Arecibo radio telescope's big dish collapsed due to the failure of the remaining cables supporting it. The risk of this sort of failure was the key motivation behind the National Science Foundation's recent decision to shut down the observatory, as the potential for collapse made any attempt to repair the battered scope too dangerous for the people who would do the repairs.

The Arecibo Radio Observatory was built in the jungles of Puerto Rico in 1963. It consisted of an aluminum dish 1,000 feet in diameter that reflected incoming radio signals to receivers hanging from a massive, 900-ton instrument package that was suspended almost 500 feet above it. The steel cable suspension system was supported by three reinforced concrete towers. When these cables failed and snapped, the instrument platform crashed into the dish below it, destroying the apparatus. The concrete support towers themselves were damaged, as well.

The NSF has released rather dramatic stationary and drone camera footage of last week's collapse:

Fortunately, nobody was injured by the collapse.

Just two weeks earlier, the NSF determined that the aging telescope was too dangerous to repair and would be decommissioned:

Since its commissioning in the 1960s, the observatory has played a role in many discoveries, primarily in the field of pulsars, a class of radio-emitting neutron stars. It has also been involved with SETI searches, and it transmitted an image to a star cluster under the assumption that any intelligent life there might be partaking in its own SETI program. But over the last 15 years or so the NSF, Arecibo's primary means of support, has cut its funding for the observatory, which has struggled to maintain full operations over this period.

But it wasn't money that eventually doomed Arecibo; instead, it was the instrument platform. In August of this year, one of the auxiliary cables that help support the platform snapped, creating a gash in the radio-reflective dish below. While plans were being made to replace that cable and repair the dish—replacement cables were already on order—one of the 7.5cm main cables on the same tower snapped on November 6.

An engineering analysis subsequently determined that this cable failure happened despite the fact that the strain on it was only about 60 percent of what should be its minimum breaking strength. This raised serious questions about the stability of the remaining cables, and thus the ability of the structure to support its instrument platform. The analysis concluded that it was unsafe to find out; the platform could collapse without warning, and any snapped cables would present a danger to any workers on the towers, as the large cables would move at very high speeds following a break. Of the three additional engineering firms consulted by NSF and the University of Central Florida, two agreed with this assessment.

"Until these assessments came in, our question was not if the observatory should be repaired but how," said the NSF's Ralph Gaume. "But in the end, a preponderance of data showed that we simply could not do this safely. And that is a line we cannot cross."

I'm thankful that I got to visit the Arecibo telescope during a trip to the Eastern Caribbean five years ago. It was definitely an impressive sight:

Kirby's grown a bit since this picture was taken.

The Arecibo facility will remain open, as a 12-meter radio dish, a lidar for atmospheric observations and the visitor's center were all undamaged by the collapse. But the prospects for a replacing the massive telescope itself are unclear:  

With repair no longer an option, the debate now turns to whether the radio telescope should be rebuilt. At the briefing, NSF’s Gaume said it was too soon to evaluate if the telescope will be rebuilt.

“With regards to replacement, NSF has a very well-defined process for funding and constructing large-scale infrastructure, including telescopes,” he said. “It’s a multi-year process that involves congressional appropriations and the assessment and needs of the scientific community. So, it’s very early for us to comment on the replacement.”

Thursday, December 03, 2020

More cancelations for UH football

For the third weekend in a row, the Cougars will not be playing football. Their game against SMU, which was rescheduled from two weeks ago, has been canceled once again:

Houston's upcoming game with SMU has been postponed for a second time because of COVID-19 issues, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.

The game, which was originally to be played on Nov. 21, was postponed to Dec. 5 when COVID-19 issues within Houston's program caused the game to be delayed. This time, it's COVID-19 issues within SMU's program that are preventing the game from being played.

SMU didn't have any positive tests on the team, but contact tracing knocked out entire position groups with more than 20 players sidelined, a source said.

It's unclear at this point whether the game can be made up.

Houston has a game scheduled with Memphis on Dec. 12 (which was originally postponed from Sept. 18) and is tentatively set to play Tulsa on Dec. 19, only if Tulsa is not a participant in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Should Tulsa play in the league title game, it would be possible for Houston and SMU to meet on Dec. 19.

Few teams have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic as much as the Cougars. The University of Houston didn't play a down of football in September because of COVID-related cancelations, and, as the Chronicle's Joseph Duarte demonstrates, this is their eighth game this season that has been impacted by the pandemic:


TULANE - W 49-31
BYU - L 43-26
Navy - W 27-21
UCF - L 44-21
Cincy - L 38-10
USF - W 56-21
Tulsa - CANCELED *
Dec. 12: Memphis TBA

— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) December 2, 2020

Sure, there's still Memphis and maybe Tulsa left to play. But at this point, the question has to be asked: why bother even trying to play any more games at all?

The Coogs have been able to play six times this fall. They've beaten the teams they were supposed to beat, dominating South Florida and securing revenge on Tulane and Navy for last year's losses. But they fell short of what could have been a signature win against BYU and were thoroughly outclassed by Central Florida and Cincinnati. There's ample evidence to indicate that the 2020 University of Houston Cougars are just as mediocre as their 3-3 record indicates. They're not going to compete for a conference title or snag a top 25 ranking this year, and playing another game or two won't change that fact. 

Perhaps the Cougars should treat the 2020 season for what it essentially is - a set of glorified scrimmages - and pack it up for the year. They definitely have things to work on between now and next September, but hopefully they'll be able to make necessary adjustments, bring in some good transfers and recruits (it doesn't hurt that no player is losing any eligibility this season), and start over for a 2021 season that hopefully will not be decimated by a pandemic the way the 2020 season was. 

I've been able to attend all the home games this season, and I've enjoyed myself in spite of the reduced capacities and lack of tailgating. But I'm already done with this season and am looking ahead to 2021. Maybe the Coogs should, as well.

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

It's time for the Texans to trade J.J. Watt

I've said this on multiple occasions now (most recently, just a couple of weeks ago): the Texans need to trade J.J. Watt to a team where he a chance to win the Super Bowl ring he so richly deserves in the relatively short time he has left as an NFL athlete. His amazing talent is wasted with the Texans, who are currently 1-6 and have no prospects of improvement in the near-to-mid future.

But don't take my word for it. Here's the Chronicle's Matt Young, drawing a potential parallel between Watt and another Houston fan favorite whose time in this city had come to an end:

The Oilers once were in a similar situation and Bud Adams, who will receive no praises here, signed off on an unpopular deal that had to be done. The Oilers were off to an 0-6 start in 1984 and knew former coach Bum Phillips would jump at the chance to add Earl Campbell to his Saints offense. On Trade Deadline day, the Saints gave the Oilers a first-round pick for the 29-year-old Campbell.

To this day, Campbell is probably THE most popular football player Houston has ever known, but the deal made too much sense. Campbell would go on to rush for just 833 yards in 18 games with the Saints before retiring after the 1985 season. The Oilers used that Saints’ draft pick to select Richard Johnson, who would go on to play eight seasons for some of the most successful teams in franchise history.

Looking back 36 years later, we all remember Earl Campbell as an Oiler. And, if the Texans do the right thing and ship him off in the next week, everyone in the city will always remember J.J. Watt as a Texan.

Although Watt likely would never publicly admit it, giving him the Earl Campbell treatment would be doing him a huge favor. Give something to the man who has given so much to this city both on and off the field. Let him celebrate somewhere he can win and give him a chance to win a Super Bowl ring that will look nice when he slips on that gold jacket in Canton and thanks the city of Houston for a tremendous 10 seasons.

J.J. will always be not just one of the greatest athletes, but one of the best persons overall, to ever have played for a Houston sports team. Trading him will do nothing to diminish that fact. The Texans need to do right by him and let him move on to a franchise that gives him the chance to end his career on a high note.

The NFL trade deadline is November 3. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Houston 37, Navy 21

The Coogs made the trip to Annapolis, Maryland and came back home with a win.

The Good: Clayton Tune completed 24 of 34 passes for 316 yards, three scores and no interceptions. Marquez Stevenson scored on passes of 51 and 24 yards, while Kyle Porter had a beautiful 33-yard pass-and-scramble and ran in another score. The UH defense notched its first interception of the year. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon was three for three in field goal attempts (including one from 53 yards), which kept the Coogs in the game early and earned him AAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

The Bad: For the third game in a row, the Cougars started off slow; while Navy scored touchdowns, the Cougars could only score field goals and at one point were trailing 9-13. They also fumbled for the first time this season and were only 6 of 13 on third down attempts. The UH run game was anemic, gaining only 86 yards on the ground. If the Cougars can't get more out of their ground game, they're going to be in a lot of trouble against some of their upcoming opponents.

The Ugly: Penalties continue to be a problem for the Coogs. They were flagged 9 times for 77 yards.

Navy kicker Bijan Nichols had a really bad day; he missed two field goals and had an extra point attempt blocked. 

What it Means: The Cougars notch their first road win, exact revenge on a team they lost to last season, and remain undefeated in conference. 

That conference unbeaten streak will be severely tested when Central Florida comes to TDECU Stadium on Saturday for a Halloween day game. 

Coronavirus cases rise in Houston once again as COVID fatigue sets in

 Not good, but not completely surprising, either:

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, which declined significantly in late summer, are creeping up again, a concern given the spike predicted when the weather turns colder and people gather indoors for the holidays.

The increases aren’t near the level being seen in many parts of the state, nation and globe, but the number of new cases and hospitalizations and the positive test rate and disease spread the last three weeks represent a turn for the worse after a period that gave many hope the worst might be over.

“The trends are going in the wrong direction,” said William McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center. “You hate to see the sacrifices we made and the successes we achieved lost because people let their guard down.”

Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist, said, “We’ve definitely turned the wrong corner. The numbers aren’t growing in an out-of-control fashion, but there’s no doubt we’re in a significant growth trend that we need to stop before the holiday season.”

Though experts acknowledged it’s difficult to pinpoint the causes of the uptick, many used the same phrase to describe one big culprit: COVID fatigue. Seven months of staying indoors, unable to resume everyday lives, has left a weary public, many increasingly willing to risk get-togethers, they say. In a daily medical center Zoom call, most of the leaders report they routinely see gatherings of people not wearing masks, said McKeon.

COVID fatigue is absolutely a real thing. Humans, after all, are social animals, and we're all weary of month after month of social distancing measures and other restrictions that are intended to stop the spread of the Coronavirus but are having overwhelmingly negative effects on our lives and livelihoods. We want this to be over. We want to move on.

To be sure, my wife and I are among those who are experiencing COVID fatigue, and it's resulted in our having engaged in behaviors that could be considered risky: having our wedding and going on a honeymoon, attending football games, even dining out at local restaurants on occasion. While we try to be careful - we wear our masks, we maintain social distance, and we obsessively slather on the hand sanitizer  - we know we're still not being nearly as safe as we would be if we remained inside our apartment. And that's the thing: we don't want to be locked in our apartment all the time. We want to live a somewhat-normal life. 

The problem is, the Coronavirus doesn't care what any of us want. All it cares about is finding hosts to infect so that it can replicate. And when COVID fatigue sets in and people begin taking more risks or otherwise become lax in taking precautions, opportunities for the virus to spread increase. 

This already happened earlier this summer, when people emerged from lockdown eager to resume their normal activities and flocked to parties, beaches and bars. This resulted in a surge of COVID cases here in Houston that overwhelmed hospitals. After local elected officials and health experts pleaded with the public to take the threat seriously and implemented new restrictions, the number of cases began to decrease. Now, cases are beginning to increase once again, as this graph from indicates:

Harris County COVID-19 case trend as of 10/27/2020. Sources:

To be sure, the increase in cases isn't as bad here in Houston as they are in other parts of the state, nation, or world, but the worst nevertheless may be yet to come: 
The increase comes as experts predict a major U.S. surge expected to begin around Thanksgiving, a spike one expert recently said will produce “the darkest weeks of the entire pandemic.” Houston infectious disease specialist Peter Hotez said “that train is already rolling in the upper Midwest and should arrive in the Northeast in a few weeks.”

Hotez said Houston’s numbers will go up — “I’m pretty confident of that” — but added that North Texas likely will be hit much harder.

The surge is expected because winter will drive people indoors, particularly for the holidays, and because coronaviruses — including this one, according to a recent journal article — survive best in the cold weather.
(Halloween, in fact, is going to be a massive superspreader event: it's on a Saturday, under a full moon, kids will trick-or-treat no matter what authorities decree, and people who choose to go out will get an extra hour to party due to the end of Daylight Saving Time.) 
“We’ve worked hard to bring our numbers down, but we haven’t been able to crush the virus,” said Dr. Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health. “When you see numbers creeping up like they are now is when people need to be most vigilant, practice social distance, wear face masks, wash their hands. Now is not the time to let our guard down.”
We're not done with this, nor will we be until a vaccine becomes widely available (and that's many months away). I know it sucks, but be patient and stay safe.

The Texas Medical Center's daily COVID-19 updates are easy to understand and are a useful way to track the local progress of the pandemic.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Houston 26, #14 BYU 43

The Houston Cougars fought back from a 11-point deficit early in the game, and more or less dominated the BYU Cougars during the second and third quarters as they jumped out to to a 14-26 lead. But Houston faded down the stretch, allowing BYU to score the game's final four touchdowns and make the score look more lospsided than the game actually was.

The Good: Quarterback Clayton Tune completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also avoided what looked to be a certain sack on second-and-goal to scrambled for a score to give Houston its largest lead. Running back Kyle Porter racked up 94 rushing yards of his own. For the second week in a row, the UH run defense held their opponent to less than 100 yards on the ground. 

The Bad: UH's passing defense was embarrassed by BYU QB Zach Wilson and his receivers to the tune of 400 yards and four touchdowns. The UH defense also did not force any turnovers for the second game in a row. Houston's offense in the fourth quarter was abysmal, gaining only 8 yards and one first down.  

The Ugly: Cougar special teams were a disaster. After scoring to cut UH's lead to five points, BYU recovered an onside kick that the Coogs simply weren't prepared for. That seemed to be the turning point in the game. The Cougars also fair-caught a BYU punt at their own two-yard line (!), shanked a punt of their own, and were flagged for interfering with a catch on another punt.

It was also a sloppy, undisciplined game: both teams combined for 19 penalties.

Friday night's game was a "COVID sellout" of ten thousand fans, but it was clear that a lot of those fans were cheering for the blue Cougars rather than the red ones. I know BYU enjoys an enthusiastic fanbase wherever they go due to the LDS cult church, and obviously most UH fans are staying home because of the pandemic. But it was nevertheless a bit disappointing to be surrounded by screaming BYU fans in your own stadium.  

What it Means: This is the game the Coogs could have won, had they just kept their focus and not committed stupid errors (especially on special teams). But they didn't, and suffer their first loss of 2020. 

BYU will likely be the Coogs' only out-of-conference opponent this year, since there are no available weekends to reschedule any of the games that were canceled in September. 

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Annapolis to play the Navy Midshipmen.

Southwest returning to IAH

Southwest plans to expand its presence in Chicago and Houston by flying out of both airports in both cities, starting in 2021:
Chicago O'Hare International Airport 
Work is underway to add new service from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD), alongside existing service from the carrier's longtime Chicago home, Midway International Airport (MDW). Midway remains one of the busiest airports in Southwest's network. Since first arriving in Chicago in 1985, Southwest has grown into one of the city's largest employers with more than 4,800 Chicago-based Employees.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport 
As Southwest approaches a commemoration of 50 years of flying, the carrier intends to return to Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), complementing its substantial operation at Houston Hobby (HOU). Intercontinental served as one of three airports where Southwest operated on its first day in operation, June 18, 1971. The carrier moved to Hobby Airport shortly thereafter though it operated service from both airports between 1980 and 2005. Southwest remains a key employer in the City of Houston, providing nearly 4,000 jobs.
Ben at One Mile at a Time is fascinated by Southwest's decision and wonders about the airline's rationale for this announcement:
  • Are IAH and ORD significantly more convenient for large and lucrative customer bases?
  • Or is there more to this? Is Southwest losing out on significant business because people are only searching to ORD and IAH rather than doing wider searches?
If I had to guess, I'd say it's more the former than the latter (in IAH's case; I can't speak for O'Hare). It's worth noting that Southwest's only destination out of Bush Intercontinental when it previously served that airport was Dallas Love Field. Even so, I recall some grumbling from frequent flyers at the time the service was discontinued because of IAH's convenience to Kingwood, The Woodlands and other communities on the north side of town; these communities have only grown (and added major employment centers, such as the ExxonMobil complex or the Generation Park development) since then. Southwest definitely sees an opportunity that they think makes it worthwhile to go head-to-head with United at IAH. 

We should know more about routes and schedules in the coming months; if I had to guess, Love Field will probably not be the only airport Southwest flies to when it re-establishes its presence at Bush Intercontinental.

Astros fall to Tampa Bay in (mostly meaningless) ALCS

The Astros made it to the American League Championship Series for the fourth year in a row, but could not punch their ticket to another World Series:

The Rays bullpen got a big strikeout of Alex Bregman to strand the potential tying run on base in the eighth inning as Tampa Bay held on to beat the Astros 4-2 in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday at San Diego’s Petco Park.

The Rays advance to their second World Series in franchise history, while the Astros will spend the offseason thinking how close they were to becoming just the second Major League Baseball team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The 2004 Red Sox, who won the World Series, are the only team to do it.

I can't say I'm too crushed about this. The COVID-shortened 2020 MLB season, with its lack of fans and its gimmicky expanded playoff (that allowed the Astros to participate even with a losing record), is going to have such a huge asterisk next to it that few baseball fans are going to recognize its champion as truly legitimate.

That being said, the team's performance gave Astros faithful much to be happy and hopeful about, especially coming off the devastating fallout of the sign-stealing scandal that cost the squad its manager and GM (who still maintains his innocence) and made them the pariahs of the baseball world. The Astros were plagued by injuries to key players throughout the 60-game regular season - starting pitcher Justin Verlander, closing pitcher Roberto Osuna, and AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez were among the casualties - and limped into the playoffs with a losing record. 

From there, however, the Astros reverted to their dominant form, knocking off the second- and third-seeded teams in the AL to get to the ALCS, and pushed the top-seeded Rays to a game 7 after falling behind 0-3 (which happened for only the second time in history). You could all but hear the millions of Astros-haters around the country grind their teeth in fury as they watched them almost pull it off.

This was a rare instance of a Houston sports team overachieving, and it bodes well for a 2021 season which will hopefully be more normal for players and fans alike. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Football at last: Houston 49, Tulane 31

As it turns out, that revised UH football schedule was obsolete from just about the moment I posted it. The game against Baylor that was arranged in record time was canceled just as suddenly, and the following week's game against North Texas was called off as well (although we'll always have a video of the Spirit of Houston and the Green Brigade virtually coming together to perform Deep in the Heart of Texas to make us feel better). The bottom line is that - through no fault of their own - five games that the Cougars expected to play at one point or another during the month of September were canceled (or in Memphis's case, rescheduled to December). ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr recounts the entire frustrating timeline.

Last Thursday, five weeks after their season was supposed to begin, the Cougars finally got to play some football

And, at the beginning of the game, the Cougars certainly looked like a team that hadn't played in five weeks. The Cougars, hosting a Tulane program that already had three games under its belt, fell behind 7-24 early in the second quarter. Two Tulane touchdowns were the direct result of turnovers by UH quarterback Clayton Tune: one was an interception returned for a touchdown, and the other was a sack-and-fumble returned for a touchdown. The Cougars, in fact, would end the evening with five turnovers (although one was a meaningless interception at the end of the first half). 

However, as the game progressed the Cougars began to shake off their rust, and scored three unanswered touchdowns to take a 28-24 lead midway through the third quarter. The Green Wave scored on their next possession to retake the lead. Then wide receiver and kick returner Marquez Stevenson did this:

Stevenson's 97-yard kickoff return broke Tulane; they were unable to score any more points, while the Coogs added two more touchdowns to turn what started out as a rusty, mistake-filled game into a much-needed blowout victory. 

Tune ended the evening 20-of-33 passing for 319 yards and two touchdowns; he also had one rushing score but was sacked four times. Stevenson led receivers with five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown; he was also named the conference's Offensive Player of the Week. The Cougar ground game amassed 157 total yards, with Mulbah Car accounting for two of the Coogs' four rushing TDs. The UH offense ended the evening with 476 yards in spite of their five turnovers.

The UH defense, meanwhile, held Tulane to 211 total yards of offense; they sacked Green Wave quarterback Michael Prattt six times and had 12 tackles for loss. However, the defense was unable to force any turnovers of their own.

Corinne and I were the only members of our regular group to attend the game. Organized tailgating was prohibited, COVID-related restrictions limited the crowd to one-fourth of TDECU Stadium's actual capacity of 40,000 (although it was clear that much fewer than ten thousand fans were there for the Thursday night game), and fans in attendance were also encouraged to wear masks when not eating or drinking. That didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves, although Corinne just had to wear her Tulane shirt to the game...

So yeah: the game atmosphere was weird. The game's start was ugly. But the main thing is that the Cougars started their belated season with a win. As somebody who only a few months ago wasn't expecting to see any football at all this fall, I left the stadium pleased.

Next up for the Coogs is a Friday night game against Brigham Young.