Tuesday, February 28, 2023

A summer weekend in San Francisco

Rome wasn't the only iconic and historic city I finally visited in 2022. Last June, as part of a larger trip with my family to Lake Tahoe, Corinne and I spent a weekend in San Francisco. (It only took me eight whole months to write about it...)

I had heard horror stories (like this one) about San Francisco's current condition as a hyper-liberal, anything-goes hellscape where legions or homeless people roamed the streets in search of their next fentanyl dose, smash-and-grab burglaries were routine, and shoplifters brazenly pillaged stores with impunity.

However, the San Francisco we discovered last summer didn't seem quite that horrible. In fact, we found it to be a beautiful city that we want to visit again.

Haight Street, near Ashbury. Unfortunately, the Hippies have long since been gentrified out of this neighborhood.

San Francisco’s “homeless problem” may be overstated by the national media. With the caveat that I did not venture into the Tenderloin, I didn’t see a homeless population in SF any more severe than I might see in Downtown or Midtown Houston. I didn’t have to step over any unhoused person (or their encampments, or their puddles of piss or piles of shit) as I walked along San Francisco’s sidewalks. 

The homeless people that I did see generally kept to themselves and did not accost us for spare change or otherwise make us feel uncomfortable.

Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park, with Sharon Art Studio and Sutro Tower in the distance. 

There were, however, signs everywhere around the city warning people not to leave valuables in the their cars. And I noticed that at least one large chain clothing store on Market Street had a line of people waiting to enter; security guards were limiting the number of people who could be in the store at one time, presumably to combat shoplifting.

These were indicators that San Francisco does indeed have a property crime problem that the city is trying to battle. But, as tourists, Corinne and I never felt unsafe anywhere we went.

Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from the Visitor's Center on its south end, partially shrouded in fog.

"You just have to see it in person” is a cliché, but in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s true. I have seen pictures, videos, and movies of the bridge for my entire life, but none of them do it justice. It's hard to appreciate just how big and impressive it is until you've seen it for yourself with your own eyes.  

The bridge, which connects San Francisco with Marin County to the north, opened in 1937.

The south tower of Golden Gate Bridge, which rises to a height of 746 feet.

It is possible to bike or walk all the way across the bridge; in fact, we saw people jogging across it. Corinne and I only went as far as the south tower, but we were still treated to a magnificent view of the bay, Alcatraz, and the city. It was cold and windy on the bridge itself, but downtown San Francisco, off in the distance, was bathed in bright sunlight. The city's weather is famously interesting.

The entrance to Fisherman's Wharf. We didn't make it down to Pier 39 to see the sea lions, but we did go to Ghirardelli Square for some chocolate and a beer, so we did a few of the touristy things.

There are so many good seafood restaurants here in Houston. But, respectfully, none of them do crab cakes like they do in Fisherman’s Wharf. Those were surreally delicious. 

In fact, every meal we had in San Francisco, from lunch at a French cafe in Height/Ashbury to dinner at a Thai restaurant in The Castro, was excellent. We weren't in San Francisco long enough to even scratch the surface of all the different cuisines the city has to offer.

The Powell and Hyde Cable Car turntable near Ghirardelli Square.

We brought the Muni day pass ($5), which allows unlimited rides on buses and light rail for an entire day. This was very convenient for us as we explored the city, although we still did a lot of walking. 

The iconic cable cars are a big tourist draw, and you need a special ticket to ride them (the Muni day pass won't get you on board). We didn't feel like standing in a long line and paying $8 per person just to ride a cable car, but we did have fun watching the cars be manually turned at the end of their route.

The 1886 rigger Balclutha, with Alcatraz in the background.

As I mentioned previously, San Francisco's weather is famously interesting. During the day, the weather was generally wonderful. Once night fell, however, things got cold rather quickly. "The coldest winter  I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" may not have been said by Mark Twain, but it's an accurate quote nevertheless.

Powell Street BART Station. Along Market Street in downtown San Francisco, MUNI trains run one level below the surface while BART runs two levels below the surface. 

Muni provides transit service in San Francisco itself, while BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a metro system serving the entire Bay Area. Obviously, as a transitgeek I had to take a ride.

As much noterity as the Golden Gate Bridge gets for being an engineering marvel (and it is), the BART Transbay Tube also deserves some recognition. This tunnel, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in just a couple of years, zipped us underneath the Bay from San Francisco to Oakland and back in a matter of minutes. 

Tribune Tower in Downtown Oakland.

The primary purpose of the trip to Oakland was to ride BART; we were in that city just long enough to walk down to Jack London Square and stop in for a drink at a local bar. I was on my best behavior as an Astros fan and refrained from telling A's fans how much their team sucks. 

Jack London Square in downtown Oakland.

The differences in microclimate around the Bay are really amazing. When we took the trip across the bay, it was cold and windy in San Francisco but warm and clear in Oakland. Did I mention that this place has interesting weather?

The corner of 18th Street and Castro Street, which is the center of San Francisco's famous "gayborhood." Note the maze of trolleybus catenary wires; the electric motors of Muni's trolleybus fleet handle San Francisco's steep grades better than standard diesel-powered buses. 

Corinne and I have a problem when we travel: we say to ourselves, "let's travel to place X and scratch it off our list of places to see." Then we get there and spend a few days, and realize that there is just so much more to do and see that we have no choice but to return. 

Since we’ve been together, this has been a problem: instead of getting shorter, the travel list keeps getting longer because there are simply so many places we need to return to: Germany, Mexico City, Austria, Venice, Washington DC, Greece, Rome, etc... Now we have to add San Francisco to the list as well. There are entire neighborhoods and attractions - Chinatown, the Embarcadero, the Presidio, Russian Hill, the zoo, Oracle Park, all the museums - that we didn't get a chance to see during our all-too-brief visit.

A residential street near Duboce Park.

One final note: Most of what we saw in San Francisco while we walked through it - downtown, Haight/Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, Chrissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Castro - were normal people doing normal things: hanging out in parks with their kids, fishing off Torpedo Pier, walking their dogs, biking, jogging, having conversations over drinks in outdoor cafes, etc. The city was not a dystopian hellscape.

Does San Francisco have its problems? Yes. Every major city does. However, at a time when this country is horrifically polarized, please do yourself a favor and do not buy into media-driven stereotypes about an entire city.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Boeing delivers the final 747

I've been following the gradual demise of four-engined commercial aircraft on this blog, so I knew this news was coming. Still, it's a bit sad:

More than half a century since the original jumbo jet ushered in a glamorous new jet age, helping bring affordable air travel to millions of passengers, the last-ever Boeing 747 was delivered on Tuesday, marking the start of the final chapter for the much-loved airplane.

In a ceremony that was broadcast live online, the aircraft was handed over to its new owner, US air cargo operator Atlas Air, at Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington.

In a dramatic opening of the hangar’s sliding doors, Atlas Air’s new plane was revealed behind flags bearing the liveries of every carrier that’s ever taken delivery of a 747. The company has 56 of the aircraft in its fleet.

Going back to the iconic aircraft's first delivery in early 1969, a total of 1,574 "Jumbo Jets" have come off Boeing's assembly line in Everett, Washington. The last 747 intended for passenger service was delivered to Korean Air in 2017; deliveries for freight carriers continued for a few additional years, culminating in this final delivery to Atlas Air.

While the final 747 won’t be carrying paying passengers, its delivery is another milestone for the distinctive double-decker “Queen of the Skies,” which revolutionized intercontinental travel while also appearing in James Bond films and even giving piggyback rides to the Space Shuttle.

With the last passenger 747 having entered service more than five years ago, the end of the 747’s enduring career now moves even closer, hastened by airlines switching their preferences to smaller and more economical aircraft.

Sine entering production in 1968, the 747 and its many variants (including the shorter, longer-range 747SP) managed to outlast its three- and four-engined widebody rivals, including the Lockheed L-1011 (manufactured from 1968 through 1984), the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11 (1970-2000), the Airbus A340 (1991-2012), and its only double-decker competitor, the Airbus A380 (2003-2021):
It was the introduction of the European double-decker plane in the early 2000s that prompted Boeing to announce, in 2005, one last version of the 747 design that by that time was already starting to show its age.

The B747-8I (or B747-8 Intercontinental), as this last variant of the venerable jumbo jet is called, proved to be a swan song for large four-engined airliners.

Even though the A380 is currently enjoying a revival, with airlines rushing to bring stored aircraft back to service in response to the post-Covid air traffic recovery, these giants of the skies struggle to compete with the operational flexibility and fuel economies of smaller twin-engined jets.

As of December 2022, there are only 44 passenger versions of the 747 still in service, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. That total is down from more than 130 in service as passenger jets at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic crippled demand for air travel, especially on international routes on which the 747 and other widebody jets were primarily used. Most of those passenger versions of the jets were grounded during the early months of the pandemic and never returned to service.

Lufthansa remains the largest operator of the passenger version of the B747-8, with 19 in its current fleet and potential commitments to keep the jumbo flying passengers for years, possibly decades, to come.
Indeed, even though the newest 747s, including this final freighter, will likely be flying for decades, the 747 is already obsolete. Two-engined aircraft might not be as iconic or as interesting as the Jumbo Jet, but they are significantly more fuel efficient, and the evolution of ETOPS regulations means that twin-engined aircraft can fly on just about any long-haul route in the world. While some 747s, A340s and A380s are currently being reactivated to handle post-COVID premium-seat demand, routes once flown by these four-engined aircraft will be increasingly turned over to twin-engined widebodies such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.

I flew on a 787 to Europe and back last November. It was perfectly fine. But it just wasn't as "cool" as flying a 747.

 NPR and CBS News and The Points Guy have more on the 747's final delivery. Simple Flying considers how the 747 changed aviation forever and lists the commercial routes still using the aircraft (including Houston-Frankfurt on Lufthansa later this year). Boeing workers reflect on the 747 to The Seattle Times.

2023 Houston Cougar football schedule released

Last week, the Cougars' schedule for 2023 - their inaugural season in the Big 12 - was released:

Sat Sep 02     UT-San Antonio
Sat Sep 09     at Rice
Sat Sep 16     TCU
Sat Sep 23     Sam Houston State
Sat Sep 30     at Texas Tech
Sat Oct 07     (off)
Thu Oct 12    West Virginia
Sat Oct 21     Texas
Sat Oct 28     at Kansas State
Sat Nov 04    at Baylor
Sat Nov 11    Cincinnati
Sat Nov 18    Oklahoma State
Sat Nov 25    at Central Florida

On one hand, this is a schedule that will definitely sell some tickets. That October 21st date against the Texas Longhorns will doubtlessly be the biggest game in TDECU Stadium history, but games against CFP runner-up TCU and Oklahoma State will also be big draws. ESPN chose Dana Hologrsen's showdown against his former employer, West Virginia, for an interesting Thursday night game. Even the out-of-conference games, against a UTSA team that took the Cougars to the wire last year and a Sam Houston State program transitioning to FBS, should be well-attended. UH faithful who always wanted a schedule full of regional rivals and marquee programs got their wish in spades this year.

On the other hand, this schedule is such a big upgrade from UH's previous slates that I honestly don't see more than four wins this fall. Every opponent on this schedule, in fact, has the ability to beat a Houston team that underachieved last fall, will be starting a new quarterback this fall, and is still coached by the underwhelming Dana Holgorsen. The second half of the schedule - starting with the Longhorns at home and followed by back-to-back roadies against KSU and Baylor - is going to be especially brutal.

That said, there are some aspects of this schedule that will benefit the Cougars. Namely, the relative lack of travel. Houston plays eight games in the City of Houston and only leaves the State of Texas twice, for trips to Kansas and Florida. There are two pairs of back-to-back home games. The Thursday night game against the Mountaineers gives the Cougars an extra couple of days to prepare for Texas. The Coogs miss having to play a Kansas team that embarrassed them last year and don't have to face Oklahoma or BYU.

The bottom line: it's fantastic that, after wandering in the wilderness that is the Group of Five for the last 27 seasons, the University of Houston's football program once again has a seat at the table with the big boys. For Cougar fans such as myself, this has been a long time coming and I am certainly going to enjoy it, win or lose.

But with joining the big boys comes growing pains. The Cougars better be prepared to experience some this fall.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Houston's bad driving habits

Jay Jordan wants Houston drivers to stop sucking:

Everyone in Houston is guilty of a little bad driving now and then. Especially now that we’re out of practice, it’s easy to slip up once in a while and perform a traffic faux pas. But these bad driving habits show up day after day, week after week. They’re Houston’s unwritten surly rules of the road, and they need to come to an end. Please, make it stop.

Local driving practices that draw Jordan's ire are: crossing multiple lanes to exit a freeway, chasing down other drivers in fits of rage, not merging when one is supposed to, and driving slowly on the freeways:

The slow poke 

What’s just as bad as speeding 90 mph on the freeway? Driving under the speed limit.

I get that it’s completely legal to drive slower than the speed limit. That’s great and all, but is it right? No. The freeway is meant to facilitate high volumes of traffic efficiently, and puttering along at 45 mph isn’t helping anyone, even you.

Car isn’t fast enough? Don’t feel safe at highway speeds? Towing something? That’s great. Take the feeder roads and spare the rest of us.

This is especially true for people who drive slow in the left lane and is a supreme peeve of mine. If you're driving under the speed limit, or otherwise significantly below the flow of traffic, on a freeway, you are creating a safety hazard that is just as dangerous as somebody who is driving at excessive speed.

Houston motorists have other bad driving habits that Jordan could have mentioned as well, for example people who don't let you into their lane when you want to move over (it's like they see your turn signal and take it as a challenge), people who are too busy texting on their phones at traffic signals to notice that the light has turned green, or assholes who litter. When it comes to driving in this city, there's no shortage of bad behavior.

So why do Houston drivers tend to engage in such dangerous and sociopathic practices? I think a lot has to do with selfishness. People think that their trip is the most important one being undertaken on the city's roads; screw anybody who gets in their way! I'm not sure what can be done about it, either, short of massive law enforcement crackdowns that aren't going to happen because local police have more important things to do than pull over every slow driver or lane cutter.

Which means that we're just going to have to continue to put up with these shitty driving habits on our city's streets and highways. 

Be courteous and drive safely. Please.

The Pantheon

Of all the sights in Rome I wanted to see during our trip to Italy last November, the Pantheon was at the top of the list. It is perhaps the best-preserved structure of ancient Rome, having been in more-or-less continuous use (as a temple or a church) since it was built around 125 AD. It has been significantly studied and has had a significant influence on western architecture.

The Pantheon's dome remains an engineering marvel, remaining the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome almost two thousand years after it was built. The dome's thickness tapers as it rises, and lighter materials (e.g. pumice) are used in the concrete towards the dome's top. Recent research suggests Romans may have also used a special ingredient in their concrete that allows it to withstand the test of time:

[Researchers] found that white chunks in the concrete, referred to as lime clasts, gave the concrete the ability to heal cracks that formed over time. The white chunks previously had been overlooked as evidence of sloppy mixing or poor-quality raw material.

"For me, it was really difficult to believe that ancient Roman (engineers) would not do a good job because they really made careful effort when choosing and processing materials," said study author Admir Masic, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Scholars wrote down precise recipes and imposed them on construction sites (across the Roman Empire)," Masic added.

At the dome's center is the oculus, an opening that lets natural light into the interior space. It also lets in rain, which is why the center of the building's floor was roped off the drizzly afternoon we were able to enter so people wouldn't slip on the slick terrazzo.

In addition to serving as a temple and a church (masses are still held there), the Pantheon is also a mausoleum: two of Italy's kings are entombed there.

Since it is an operating church, the Pantheon is free to enter. However, in order to manage crowds on weekends reservations are required to enter. We made our visit on a dreary Tuesday, and I finally got to take a selfie underneath the ancient dome I had first learned about as an architecture student over thirty years ago.

The Pantheon was only one of many significant landmarks we saw during our three days in Rome last November, yet we felt like we barely scratched the surface of the city. You could spend an entire month in Rome and not see everything!

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Spanish Village says adiós

This makes me sad:

Alas, another Houston restaurant staple is shuttering—Spanish Village. The Tex-Mex restaurant has been a part of the city's dining scene since it opened 70 years ago in 1953, but the last customer will be served on March 31.

Current owner Steve Rogers promised in a statement that Spanish Village will be honored in an upcoming project that is yet to be announced.

First slated for closure in 2021, Rogers kept Spanish Village open while he worked through redevelopment plans for the property and an adjacent tract of land. Although details on those plans haven’t been made public yet, “the restaurant’s legacy will live on in an upcoming project to be announced at a later date,” according to a release about the closure.

I've been eating at Spanish Village for as long as I can remember; my parents started dining there before I was even born, so the venerable restaurant with the concrete tables and year-round Christmas lights has been a fixture in my life. I've met friends there and taken dates there. There's even a picture of me and an infant Kirby on the restaurant's famed "polaroid wall."

When it was first slated for closure in July of 2021, my parents and I made sure to eat there for what we thought was the last time. That evening we learned from the then-owners that Rogers's offer had been made on the restaurant and it would not be closing after all. We were relieved at the news, but I was suspicious that the developer might only have been keeping the restaurant operational while he made plans to redevelop the site. Turns out my suspicions were correct.

Top be fair, the existing building that houses the restaurant - essentially a converted residence from the 1920s - is dilapidated, while ongoing redevelopment in its neighborhood at the edge of Third Ward and the Museum District is putting upward pressure on land prices. It makes financial sense for Rogers, who owns the restaurant property as well as an adjacent piece of land, to redevelop. Rogers, for what its worth, indicates that his new development will pay homage to Spanish Village.

Which is great, but it won't be a substitute for the sizzling fajitas and knock-you-on-your-ass margaritas that have sustained me for so many years. Needless to say, I have a few final trips to Spanish Village to make before it closes for good at the end of March.

Culturemap and Eater Houston have more.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

UH wins and attendance, 2022

The 2022 college football season ended on a rather anticlimactic note last week, as Georgia completely embarrassed TCU to win its second-consecutive national title. Now that the season is over, its time to update my wins-versus-attendance graph:

The Cougars averaged 24,793 fans per game during the 2022 season, which is a slight decrease - 280 fans/game - from their 2021 average. I had originally expected the program's 10-win season in 2021 to result in an attendance bump for 2022, and indeed, over 30 thousand tickets were sold for Houston's home opener against Kansas. However, the Cougars performed very poorly in that game - it was their second loss in a row  - and interest in the program dwindled. By the time the Coogs hosted Tulsa to close the regular season, an attendance of only 21,785 was announced, with the actual number of people in the seats being much, much smaller. 

Ticket sales are likely to increase this fall because the Cougars are joining the Big 12 and local fans and ticket brokers alike will likely be interested to see Houston host schools such as Texas Tech, the aforementioned TCU, and (if rumors are correct) the Texas Longhorns. Non-conference opponents Texas-San Antonio and Sam Houston State will also bring a good continent of fans. 

Whether the Cougars can win any of those games, however, is a different story. Given last season's disappointment and head coach Dana Holgorsen's apparent refusal to make any adjustments to his coaching staff over the offseason, I'm not optimistic.

The 2023 schedule should be released by the end of the month.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Another word about Houston Cougar basketball

It's been almost three years since I last said a word about Cougar basketball, and with the team currently ranked #1 in the nation (for the first time since the Phi Slama Jamma era of the early '80s) I thought it would be a good opportunity to note their success on this otherwise football-centric blog.

I rarely make it out to basketball games, but a friend of mine was unable to attend last week's game against South Florida so he transferred his tickets to me. Corinne and I got to see the nation's top-ranked team in action: 

The Cougars host South Florida at the Fertitta Center on January 11, 2023. 

The Cougars, playing without one of their key players, had to face a very focused South Florida team as well as poor officiating and for awhile appeared to be in danger of losing for only the second time this season. But between the Cougar defense stepping up to stifle the Bulls in the second half as well as Marcus Sasser scoring a career-high 31 points, Houston was able to tough it out and avoid the upset. Which is what good teams do, even when they're not having a good night.

Although the Coogs are currently #1 in the AP poll (as well as the coaches poll, as well as Sagarin, as well as Pomeroy, as well as NET, and are predicted to be #1 seeds in both Fox Sports's and Joe Lunardi's March Madness brackets), if you go on message boards or social media you'll find no shortage of haters who think that the Cougars do not deserve to be ranked #1 and that Kansas or Purdue or Alabama (the only the to have beaten UH so far this year) should be the top-ranked team instead. 

And maybe they're right. This team is not perfect. They sometimes have the tendency to go on long scoring droughts, and they need to improve their free-throw percentage. 

With that said, it really doesn't matter who is ranked #1 right now anyway. All that matters is who's number one at the end of the NCAA Tournament. 

Could it be the Coogs? There's a lot of basketball left to be played, but consider for a moment that the 2023 Final Four will be here in Houston at NRG Stadium, and that it will be UH alum Jim Nantz's last gig announcing for CBS before he retires. Wouldn't it be the perfect opportunity for the Cougars to finally win the national championship that has eluded this program for so long?

It may be too much of a fairy tale to come true. But the 2022-2023 Houston Cougars are well equipped to get there. And I'm enjoying every minute of it.