Saturday, December 30, 2023

An airplane-free 2023

2023 is coming to an end, and it's been a bit of an anomalous year for me in that I went the entire year without stepping foot on an airplane. This is the first time since 1992 - over 30 years ago! - that I did not fly for any purpose.

Sure, it's a bit weird for an aviation geek like me to go an entire calendar year without flying, but that's just how things worked out: the only big, long-distance trip I took this past year was a road trip with my family, and I had no other events, be they personal or work-related, that required me to fly. So I didn't.

And I didn't really miss it, either. Between long security and check-in lines, flight delays, fees for checked baggage and other services that airlines used to provide for free, rude employees both in the terminal and in the skies, small and uncomfortable seats on the plane itself, and unruly, disruptive passengers, commercial air travel has become a real pain in the ass. Unless you have the financial means and/or frequent flier miles to fly business or first class, and can avail yourself to perks like TSA PreCheck, priority boarding, and airline lounges, there's really nothing glamorous or enjoyable about traveling by air.  

This isn't to say I'll never fly again, of course; commercial aviation, for all its headaches, is a necessary form of travel (and in many cases, the only practical one). So I'm sure I'll be flying again at some point. Like I said, 2023 was something of an anomaly; it was just nice to go an entire year without standing in line at the check-in counter, or taking off my shoes to pass through security, or sitting in a cramped seat with no elbow room, or being jostled by turbulence, or fighting through the hordes of people at baggage claim to retrieve my luggage.

Regardless of whether you plan to fly in the coming year or not, I wish anybody who may be reading this a safe, happy and prosperous 2024!

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Ralph Anthony "Tony" Trainello 1950-2023

"Uncle Tony" was Corinne's uncle; I first met him not too long after I began dating her. I only had the pleasure of knowing Tony for a few years, but I will always remember him for his hospitality and generosity. Whenever we went up to "the farm" - Uncle Tony and Aunt Lori's ranch halfway between Teague and Mexia - he would always be waiting for me with a warm hug and a cold beer. 

The last time I saw him was in late July, when Corinne, Kirby and I stopped by there after visiting my aunt in Temple. He was happy and healthy and was proud to show off his new "toy" - a griddle that he used to cook hamburgers for all of us for lunch. I had no way of knowing at the time that, only a matter of weeks later, he would be gone.

Tony's sudden passing cast a pall over the entire autumn; his loss has been especially hard on Corinne. Tony was like a father figure to her, especially after her own father passed away. In fact, Corinne's original plan for our wedding (before the pandemic forced us to change everything) was for Tony to walk her down the aisle.

Tony did not want a formal funeral ceremony and no obituary ran in any newspaper. However, at a remembrance for him on the farm a couple of months ago, a pamphlet containing a testimonial of his life was distributed to attendees. I am reproducing it here, with very minor edits for clarity, and with Aunt Lori's permission:

Ralph Anthony Trainello (Tony or Apaw to us) was born on July 4, 1950 in High Point, North Carolina. Tony never knew his father as his parents divorced shortly after he was born. Tony and his mother, Betty, moved to Dallas where they lived with his beloved grandmother, Elizabeth, in the early '50s. Soon his mom met and married Kenneth Bracey and they became a family. Tony's brother, David, was born a few years later. Tony Graduated from H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas in 1968. He then moved to Houston where he pursued a degree in Construction Technology while holding full-time jobs in engineering firms and moonlighting at night by drafting for mechanical, electrical and plumbing companies. It was his afterhours drafting job that paid for the 68.5 (and eventually 92.5) acre ranch be bought in 1979 in Freestone County, Texas, naming it Patton Creek Ranch. He became interested in this area while visiting with his best friend, Tony Miller, who owned property in Freestone County. They both dreamed of one day retiring to their ranches and spending time sitting together on their porches. Sadly, both were taken too soon, and they were never able to fulfill their dream together. 

In 1980, Tony married Becky and from that union two beautiful daughters were born, Jennifer and Megan, of whom he couldn't be prouder. 

In the late '80s, Tony was contacted by Maryann Schroder, from New York state, who turned out to be his half-sister, the daughter of his father. Her difficult and vigilant searching resulted in the beginning of a new and loving sibling relationship.

Tony and David built the ranch house during those first few years after he bought the property with the help of the children's uncles and grandfather. It was to be a "deer camp." But it became much more than that. 

Tony's career of 46 years in the engineering and construction business was rewarding and fruitful. His most challenging and satisfying years were those spent at Pollock Electric and Trio Electric. The Pollock family allowed him to manage large projects (the buildings which he never failed to point out as he drove through Houston) and provide for his family and the company. He prided himself on treating the company checkbook like his own and was often found scouring the company warehouse/surplus for parts he needed for a job rather than buying new. He mentored many young men during his career, but sadly, he always said that he didn't think, in the scope of life, his work mattered. It mattered, it mattered...

In 1995, Tony met Lori and the love story blossomed into marriage in 1998. They raised the two girls into beautiful, educated and successful women with families of their own. Tony wasn't a "sleep in the bed dog person," but Lori came up with one, so he became a dog person... Gretel, then Brooke and now Maddie... He loved them all, his faithful companions...

Tony loved fishing with his brother David and grandson, Brody. Kid fish tournaments at Fairfield Lake State Park were a favorite of both Brody and his granddaughter Bryleigh. He was a patient teacher to his grandchildren and, well, to all of us... He would tell Brody that all the things he was teaching him, together they would have to teach Mason, his third grandchild, once he was old enough. He loved the time with his grandchildren and, no doubt, they went home with stories... So many stories. Camping became a passion after retirement and he loved exploring Texas State Parks. In May, a trip to the Devis Mountains to celebrate 25 years of marriage, with a day trip to Big Bend National Park, was a special blessing and a long-time dream realized.

Many, many weekends at the ranch that became his final early home brought joy to so many friends and family celebrations... Everyone was welcome there and he was in his glory hosting. But equally as joyous was the time spent there in quiet, peaceful reflection. As much as he loved camping, coming home to the ranch never got old... It was his absolute happy place, closest to heaven as could be. He loved the Lord and no doubt he is with Jesus.

Tony's Graduation to Glory was on September 3, 2023. He considered family Lori Trainello, his wife of 25 years, daughter Jennifer Fulcher and husband Joel, daughter Megan Morfin and husband Mike, and grandchildren Jae, Hanna, Keila, Bryleigh, Brody and Mason. Also his brother, David, and sister in law, Debbie, nieces Emmy (Dave) and Natalie (Barry) and nephew Nathan and their families, sister Maryann and husband Roger and their family, sister in law Cheryl and niece, Corinne (Thomas) and nephew Aug (Val) and their families along with so many great nieces and nephews. And so many friends and neighbors he considered family. 

Tony always said the three tall oaks at the south end of the yard reminded him of the three crosses on Calvary. He would often do his morning devotional looking out on those trees. Tony's wish was to be cremated. As a place of remembrance, a marker will be placed near the grove of his oaks. Bryliegh and Brody, with the help of their parents. lovingly built the beautiful white cross where the marker will go eventually; probably something very simple, like the cross, as he was a very simple, humble man. We believe he would like that. 

"Well done, good and faithful servant!"

From Matthew 25:21


Hyperloop shuts down

It was a dumb idea, championed by a guy who thinks he's a lot smarter than he really is:

HYPERLOOP ONE, A futuristic transportation startup highly touted by Elon Musk, is shuttering its airless tubes.

The company is laying off employees, selling remaining assets (which include a test track and machinery), and closing its offices, Bloomberg reports. After hiring more than 200 people in 2022, remaining workers — who are tasked with supervising the asset sale — were told their employment ends Dec. 31. All of Hyperlooop One’s intellectual property will be handed over to majority stakeholder, Dubai-based DP World.

The billionaire estimated in a 2013 proposal that a pod would be able to whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 35 minutes and “feel a lot like being on an airplane.” After its founding in 2014, the buzzy startup raised around $450 million in venture capital funds and other investments, and even constructed a test track near Las Vegas to develop its technology.

For a moment, things looked promising for the company that vowed to end traffic once and for all. Originally founded as Hyperloop Technologies, the business changed its name to Hyperloop One in 2016, and then rebranded to Virgin Hyperloop One after Richard Branson invested in the company and joined its board of directors. After an exodus of top execs, Virgin dropped its name from Hyperloop One after opting to focus on cargo rather than passengers.

The Hyperloop - a vacuum-sealed tube through which magnetically-propelled pods are theoretically able to travel at high speeds due to low air resistance - is little more than a gadgetbahn: an unproven technology in search of a need. Riding on the Hyperloop would not "feel a lot like being on an airplane:" the passenger pods would be a lot smaller than an airplane and have no windows (because they would be traveling inside an either elevated or subterranean sealed steel tube), and passengers would be subject to intense G-forces and vibration as the pods accelerated. Any sort of damage to the hundreds-of-miles-long steel tubes - a crack or a small hole - would allow air into the vacuum and render the technology useless. Equipment malfunctions or power outages would leave passengers trapped in their sealed pods until they were somehow rescued. A Hyperloop journey would be claustrophobia-inducing and perhaps even terrifying.

The Hyperloop is not financially or politically feasible and it offers no advantage over existing and proven forms of transportation technology, such as commercial aviation or high-speed rail systems in use in Europe or Asia. (Perhaps, in fact, Hyperloop was little more than a ploy to stop construction of California's [admittedly controversial] high speed rail project.) A decade after Elon Musk first trumpeted its prospective benefits, it remains little more than a (vacuum-sealed) pipe dream. 

It's time to consign this dumb idea to the trashbin of history. And it's also time for credulous media and "tech-savvy" influencers to stop hyping impractical, pie-in-the-sky ideas like Hyperloop just because they're championed by a blowhard asshole like Elon Musk.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Top Ten Worst Christmas Songs

Christmas is just a few days away, which means that by now Christmas music is pretty much the ambient musical norm wherever you go: on the radio, in the store, at the restaurant, Christmas tunes are ubiquitous. While most of these holiday-oriented songs are perfectly fine, some are truly awful. 

When it comes to lists of horrible Christmas songs, there is no shortage of opinions as to which songs are the worst. I, of course, have my own list of hated holiday tunes, which may or may not look different than other people's lists. For example, there are a lot of Christmas songs that other people can't stand but I tolerate: I can't get too worked up about either Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," or Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas I you," even though a lot of people utterly detest both songs. And there are probably some songs I hate that other people absolutely adore. 

The following is my countdown of the worst ten Christmas songs that need to be canceled immediately. Note that I make no distinction between "novelty" Christmas songs and "serious" ones, because they all seem to get played this time of year regardless. (Besides, aren't all Christmas songs essentially "novelty" songs?)

10. Do They Know It's Christmas? (Band Aid)

A "feed the world" song performed by some of the biggest names in British pop music might have made sense in 1984, when countries like Ethiopia were being wracked by starvation and death caused by famine (and exacerbated by the brutal incompetence of the Soviet-aligned Derg regime in Addis Ababa). But this condescending, neo-colonialist dreck has not aged well and should be retired from the annual holiday rotation. Bono's sneering "well tonight thank God it's them instead of you" stanza is probably the most cringy Christmas lyric ever recored.
9. I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas (Gayla Peevey)

This marching band-like tune from the early 50s, sung by a girl with an irritating nasally voice who thinks she's entitled to a wild animal for Christmas, was just a bad idea all around. No, you don't want a hippopotamus for Christmas: the animal is one of the most dangerous to humans, and it also does this:

A lot of people still think this song is "cute." But when I hear this girl prattle on about how she only likes "hippopotamuseses," I get the urge to smack someone.  

8. The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late) (Alvin and the Chipmunks) 

The vocal tracks were sped up to create the high-pitched "chipmunk" voices in the song, which might have been cutting-edge technology when the song was recorded in 1958 but has not aged well. Put it this way: if I had to choose between listening to the grating, shrill, barely-intelligible vocals in this song or listening to fingernails on a blackboard, I'd probably opt for the latter. The song also features "bandleader" Ross Bagdasarian screaming at Alvin twice during the course of the two minute, twenty-second song, which is jarring as well.

It's hard to believe that this song went to #1 on the Billboard chart and won three Grammys in 1958. It's even harder to believe that this all-around unpleasant song is still played during the holidays today.

7. Jingle Bell Rock (originally by Bobby Helms)

I might be the only person the world who hates this song. But I hate it for the same reason that a lot of people hate Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" - it's a crass, obnoxious earworm. What the hell is a "jingle hop" or a "jingle horse" or a "jingle bell square?" How many times can you use the word "jingle" in a single song, anyway?

This is a 1950s-era "rock and roll is here, and it's really cool and hip, so let's make a Christmas song about it!" tune that should have been left in the fifties.

I'm sorry, but a song about a kid who witnesses his mom low-level cheating on his dad with Jolly Ol' Saint Nick isn't exactly one that brings me Christmas joy. In fact, it's sort of creepy. And, yes, I know the song's "inside joke" is that Santa is actually the kid's dad. But that only makes it even creepier because now it sounds like the kid is witnessing his parents' cosplay sex fetish.  
But what's creepiest about this song is that Michael Jackson sang it, and then later would go on to (allegedly) sexually assault young boys. 

(A side note: if Santa were real, can you imagine all the sex he would get? Bored and frazzled housewives all over the world would be throwing themselves at him to simultaneously thank him for bringing presents to their bratty kids and live out some weird daddy sex fantasy. Santa would be so busy banging moms that he wouldn't have time to deliver presents.) 

5. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (originally by Brenda Lee)

If "Jingle Bell Rock" is a dated, 1950's "rock and roll is new and cool" earworm, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"is exponentially worse. The rockabilly guitar, the bleating saxophone, the nonsensical lyrics (seriously, what does "dancing merrily / in the new old-fashioned way" actually mean, anyway?) all combine to create a catchy-yet-repetitive tune that gets stuck in your head and won't leave you in peace. It's a song that can drive one to insanity, which is why I hate it.

Part of the problem with this song - both the Lee original and its multitude of covers - is that it's ridiculously overplayed. So much so that as of last week it became the #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, 65 years after it was originally recorded. This is why America can't have nice things.

4. Merry Christmas With Love (Clay Aiken)

A friend of mine believes that this overproduced, maudlin piece of mush is "not only the worst Christmas song, it's probably one of the worst songs ever recorded." Having only been casually exposed to it before writing this blog entry, I decided to give it a close listen. 

I couldn't even make it to the end.

To be fair to Aiken, his was not the song's original recording. But he chose to breathe new life into this auditory atrocity by covering it, so he deserves blame.

3. Santa Baby (originally by Eartha Kitt)

Speaking of sex and Santa... Here's a song about a woman with a ridiculously long wish list of lavish and expensive things she wants for Christmas, with a suggestive vibe that implies the singer is willing to trade sexual favors with Santa for said gifts. "Hurry down the chimney for me," indeed.

This sex-and-greed song has been covered countless times since the Eartha Kitt original, but it doesn't matter if it's Madonna's extra-raunchy version, or Michael BublĂ©'s bizarre "bro" version: it's a fundamentally awful song. No wonder a couple of years ago a survey determined that it was America's most disliked Christmas song.

2. The Christmas Shoes (New Song)

A lot of people place this truly disturbing tune at the very top of their worst Christmas songs list, and for good reason: it is a horrible song that should never have been written or recorded. I personally give thanks to the fact that I don't hear this one very often, because I think most decent people are horrified by it and don't want to listen to it. Needless to say, if you think a song about a kid trying to buy shoes for his cancer-stricken, dying mother is somehow a "good" Christmas song, you really need to re-think what Christmas is all about.

But don't take it from me; here's Patton Oswald to explain just how depraved and ridiculous this musical monstrosity actually is:

1. Baby, It's Cold Outside (Frank Loesser; originally performed in the film Neptune's Daughter

I've already written about how much I hate this song, and not just because of the coercive, date-rapey creepiness implied by its annoying, call-and-response lyrics: 
The song is melodically repetitive, monotonous and uninteresting; it lacks the most basic elements of songcraft, such as a bridge or a chorus. What's more, it's not even a song about Christmas; there's no mention of anything holiday-related in the lyrics. "It's cold outside" in January, February and even March, too, depending on where you live, so why is this piece of acoustic crap assumed to be a holiday song?
So while various artists can attempt to rehab this song's problematic image by changing the lyrics - see Me and Him reversing its gender roles, or John Legend and Kelly Clarkson creating a "consent" version - it's still just an all around shitty tune.

Please, quit playing this tiresome and repugnant not-a-Christmas song. It sucks.

In fact, please make the holiday season better for everyone by no longer playing any of the songs on this list.

Tuesday, December 05, 2023

UH football: Attendance for 2023 and a New Head Coach for 2024

The Cougars averaged 36,020 fans per game this season, which is 11,227 fans/game higher than last season and the program's highest average attendance since the 2016 season. It is the second-highest year-over-year increase in average attendance since my attendance tracker begins in 1965 (Houston's first year in the Astrodome) and is a direct result of excitement surrounding Houston joining the Big XII*. The season's marquee home matchup against the Texas Longhorns produced the second-highest attendance in TDECU Stadium history. 

However, a percipitous decline in attendance is likely in 2024. The initial novelty of joining the Big XII is wearing off and the Cougars only won four games in 2023, both of which will damper excitement for 2024. Furthermore, 2024's home slate consisting of UNLV, Rice, Utah, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State provides for some interesting matchups but has no marquee opponent along the lines of Texas. 

Had Dana Hologrsen been retained, attendance in 2024 would certainly be even worse; the clear differential between butts in seats and announced attendance as the season wore on, as well as the number of fans on UH message boards who indicated that they would not renew season tickets were Dana to be retained, showed that the UH fanbase's faith in the Red Bull-swilling, excuse-making swindler who has only made one second half adjustment in his entire career had come to an end.

The UH administration - specifically, Board of Regents Chairman Tilman Fertitta, President Renu Khator, and Athletics Director Chris Pezman - did the right thing by giving Holgorsen the boot, in spite of his ridiculously high buyout. Keeping him around for even one more season would only have worsened a football program that was already heading downward under his leadership.

This past Sunday, the Cougars officially announced their next head football coach: Willie Fritz, who had spent the last eight seasons as head coach of the Tulane Green Wave. He was formally introduced at a press conference on Monday (that my son, for some weird reason, attended): 

From left to right: Tilman Fertitta, Dr. Renu Khator, Willie Fritz, his wife Susan, Chris Pezman. photo: Kirby Gray

Fritz brings a great deal of experience with him to Houston, having coached at just about every level of college football. He coached at Blinn College in Brenham and won two consecutive junior college national championships there. He then spent many years at Division II Central Missouri, were he compiled a 97-47 record. He coached at Sam Houston State and took the Bearkats to two consecutive FCS Championship games. He coached for two years at Georgia Southern, leading that program's transition from FCS to FBS. Last year he led Tulane to a win over USC in the Cotton Bowl; the Green Wave ended the 2022 season ranked #9. All in all, Fritz has 31 seasons of head coaching experience under his belt and an all-time record of 247-121.

Now, at 63 years old, he steps up to the final level at Houston: the Power 5.

Fritz, for his part, seems to be excited to take on the challenge: "It's a dream for me to be here at the University of Houston." He has his work cut out for him, however: he has to assemble a staff, he has to salvage Houston's woeful 2024 recruiting class, and he has to impose a new culture and identity upon the program and its players. This is a lot to do a relatively short amount of time and I'm not going to expect a miracle turnaround in 2024. But if I see good, fundamental football (tackling, discipline, clock management), the ability to make adjustments, and improvement over the course of the season from the Coogs next fall, I will be happy.

Brad Towns approves of the hire, describing Fritz as "a leader, a winner, and a program builder and has achieved at every coaching stop," while Tilman Fertitta proclaims that the Coogs "got the person we wanted." Ryan is excited about Fritz's coaching philosophy:

Recruit, Retain, Develop – the three words Willie used to describe his philosophy. How can you not be excited about that? Recruiting became an afterthought this fall. Dana has basically given up on it by October. Retain is the name of the game right now in CFB – retaining your own players. Willie was proud of the number of guys they’d been able to retain because of the culture they had built.

And develop….hoo boy. This is the area that UH has needed the most and where we’ve seen the least. If you develop okay or good players into contributors, starters, and stars, you’re doing something. Willie’s done that at every stop.

All in all, it's hard not to be optimistic right now. But I have to remind myself that I was also optimistic five years ago when Houston plucked Holgorsen away from West Virginia. Let's hope things turn out differently this time; the Houston football program cannot afford another bad coaching hire.

The Cougars' next game - and Willie Fritz's debut - will be against the UNLV Rebels on Saturday, August 31, 2024 at TDECU Stadium.

*The highest year-over-year increase in attendance occurred in 1976, when Houston joined the Southwest Conference.