Thursday, April 11, 2024

A cloudy eclipse on the farm

Corinne and I drove up to her aunt's farm near Mexia last weekend, hoping to see the big eclipse. Her farm was the path of totality, meaning that we would get the opportunity to see the sun fully obscured by the moon for three and a half minutes.

Unfortunately, the clouds did not cooperate, and during the three-and-a-half minutes of totality we could only catch glimpses of the sun fully obscured by the moon. These two pictures, from two separate cameras, are the best I could do (and don't compare to the pictures taken by several of my Facebook friends, who had better weather and superior camera equipment): 

I also got a short video of the totality during a break in the clouds. Once again, my iPhone's camera just can't do it justice.

Even though I was only afforded brief views of the totality due to the cloud cover, I nevertheless marveled at the sight of a full solar eclipse. I've never witnessed one before and may never see one again.

Of course, as luck would have it, right after the totality ended the skies began to clear up.

Here are some other interesting pictures I took during the eclipse:

The crescent sun shines through a pinhole in the barn roof shortly before the totality.

The sky during the totality. It was actually darker than this picture suggests.

The crescent sun through the clouds, also shortly before the totality.

I took some pictures of the farm's flora and fauna as well:

Spring is wildflower season, as this field of bluebonnets growing on the side of the farm attests. 

Wildflowers such as winecups and blue-eyed grass were also plentiful, and attracted lots of butterflies.

The bull warily watches me as he protects his herd. Glad that barbed wire is there!

Houston to Guyana, nonstop

This new air connection looks interesting:

United Airlines began offering direct flights from Houston to Guyana Monday as the oil-rich South American nation becomes a key growth area for Houston’s oil industry. 

The nonstop route flies four times a week from Bush Intercontinental Airport into Georgetown, Guyana’s capital. Flights ranged roughly between $1,100 and $1,700 roundtrip as of Monday. 

Guyana has been among the world’s most prolific oil-producing regions since the resource was first discovered there in 2015 by a group led by Spring-based Exxon Mobil. The region accounts for roughly 10% of the 4 million barrels per day that Exxon produces globally. It plans to expand Guyanese production to 1 million barrels per day by the end of the decade. 

Guyana is on the northern coast of South America and is that continent's only English-seaking country. It is, unfortunately, probably best known as the location of Jonestown and its mass suicide in 1978.

The rest of the article goes into the oil discovery and ensuring frictions between rival oil companies as well as territorial threats from neighboring Venezuela and its thug dictator, Nicolás Maduro. However, it also should be mentioned that aside from oil, Guyana is also an emerging tourist destination. Much of the country is covered by undisturbed Amazonian rainforest, giving it one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. The country is also home to spectacular landmarks like Kaieteur Falls and Mount Roraima

This flight, therefore, is likely to carry an interesting combination of oil workers and eco-tourists.

Simple flying has more.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

A heartbreaking end to an amazing season

The 2023-24 season has certainly been an amazing one for the University of Houston mens basketball program. 

The Cougars posted a 32-5 overall record, were undefeated at home, spent the entire season ranked in the top 10 (including three weeks at #1), and won the Big 12 title by two games in their first year in the conference. The team won its third-straight regular-season conference championship, made its sixth straight NCAA tournament appearance*, its fifth straight trip to at least the Sweet Sixteen, and earned its second straight #1 regional seed in the tournament. 

None of this has ever been previously accomplished in the history of Cougar basketball, not even during the halcyon Phi Slama Jama era of the 1980s. 

Unfortunately, what seemed to be a promising run at the program's first national championship ended in catastrophic fashion last Friday night after senior leader Jamal Shead severely sprained his ankle during the Cougars' Sweet Sixteen matchup against Duke and had to sit out most of the game. The Cougars were already hobbled by injuries going into the Big Dance, having several athletes playing with injuries and having completely lost key bench players Terrence Arceneaux and Jojo Tugler earlier in the season. In spite of it all, the Cougars were able to will themselves past a tenacious Texas A&M team to get into the Sweet Sixteen last weekend. However, the loss of All-American Shead and his leadership was just too much for the Cougars to withstand. The Blue Devils took advantage and ended UH's season accordingly.

The injury bug seems to strike the Cougars every year, as Chron's Josh Criswell explains:

Houston played the 2022 NCAA tournament without key guards Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark, who suffered injuries earlier in the season. The Cougars still made it to the Elite Eight, in part due to Shead's emergence as a sophomore, before falling to Villanova 50-44 in a defensive battle similar to Friday night's loss. Last year, Sasser and Shead played through injuries at the Big Dance, with UH's season ending in the Sweet 16 against Miami.

UH found itself facing adversity in the health department again as March Madness approached this month, with rotation fixtures Terrence Arceneaux and Joseph Tugler sidelined with season-ending injuries. Senior forward J'Wan Roberts hurt his shin during the Big 12 tournament, while veteran backup Ramon Walker Jr. missed the last month of the season with a knee injury, though both were available for the Big Dance.

Short-handed, sure. But with a healthy Shead, who earned first-team All-American honors, Houston was still the No. 2 favorite to win the national championship entering the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Without him, it was going to be a massive uphill battle.

"It's a little frustrating not being at full-strength at this time of year, when you're supposed to be playing your best basketball—which we still were," sophomore guard Emanuel Sharp said. "It's just tough. You can't really find another Jamal, so not having him in the second half, for the last six minutes of the first half, we needed that. We needed him."

Now UH faithful, having just watched their team be robbed once again by injuries, can only wonder yet again what could have been. 

What must not be lost in the searing disappointment is the fact that the Cougars just completed one of the most memorable and defining seasons in program history, and are currently one of college basketball's elite programs. 

A decade ago, Cougar basketball was irrelevant. There was little local interest in the program and Hofheinz Pavilion was a tomb. Now the refurbished Fertitta Center is packed with UH fans and is one of the toughest venues for opposing schools to play in. In the ten years that Kelvin Sampson has been Houston's head coach, Cougar basketball has experienced a miraculous turnaround, one that once-jaded fans such as myself savor:

Chris Pezman, UH’s vice president for athletics, called the basketball program’s success a “generational” moment.

“I hope people don’t take this for granted. This is such a special time,” Pezman said. “All this generation knows is Houston making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament and being a top-10 team in the country. They only know Fertitta Center one way: an impossible place to play in for visitors and an incredible environment.”

Brad Towns will "always be thankful for everything they did for me as a fan, for this UH basketball community, and for all the lessons and joy they provided along the way." Chris Baldwin laments how things ended for Shead, who will go down as one of the greatest players in program history alongside Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The Chronicle's Matt Young says the Cougars are the best program to have never won a national title, while fellow sportswriter Jerome Solomon believes that, for Kelvin Sampson and the Cougars, an NCAA title is an eventual certainty.

I hope he's right. The program and its fans deserve it. 

Alas, Jamal Shead deserved it, too.

*Which would have been seven if not for the COVID-19 pandemic that ended the 2020 season early.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Monarch butterfly update: things are getting worse

Not good news:

The 2023-2024 census of monarch butterfly numbers found one of the smallest annual populations of the insects at the overwintering sites in Central Mexico.

The World Wildlife Fund-Mexico and its partners released the data last Wednesday, which highlighted that the presence of eastern monarch butterflies decreased from 2.2 to 0.9 hectares. According to the news release, this is the second worst year for monarch butterfly sightings with the 2013-2014 census holding the lead with 0.67 hectares. 

“Fewer monarchs hibernating in their traditional forest habitat in Mexico greatly concerns all of us. It’s critical that all communities, governments, non-governmental organizations, scientists and others continue to strengthen our conservation and protection efforts to support the monarch’s unique migration,” said Jorge Rickards, general director of World Wildlife Fund-Mexico in the news release.

This isn’t the first time the foundation found a decline in monarchs, last year’s data showed a 22% decline in the butterfly population, based on the number of acres the insects occupied in Mexico. Factors contributing to these butterflies' decline include herbicide application to U.S. breeding grounds, drought and forest degradation.

Here's the updated overwintering graph from It's pretty grim:     
Back in 2022 I noted that the overwintering monarch population seemed to he holding steady in the 2-3 hectare range for the past several years and expressed hope that it meant things had stabilized. Unfortunately after this past winter that no longer appears to be the case.

According to Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor, the migratory monarch population is took a big hit from last fall's drought that extended from Oklahoma into central Mexico. This meant fewer flowers and therefore less energy-providing nectar that fuels the insects' migration and sustains them through the winter.

While monarchs are resilient insects, they're going to need more milkweed plants to lay eggs and more nectar plants to feed them in order for their population to recover from this past winter's low. So please plant your gardens accordingly. I also wonder if this news is what finally persuades the US Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the monarch an endangered species. 

Americans don't trust self-driving cars

I've always felt that one of the biggest obstacles to the viability of autonomous vehicles would be public acceptance. To that point, this recent survey finding that 93% of Americans have concerns "about some aspect of self-driving cars" is illuminating:

Safety is the number one consumer fear when it comes to vehicles that drive themselves, with 36% of Americans indicating they do not trust the technology to keep motorists and pedestrians safe on the road.

Technology malfunctions come in a close second, with just over a quarter of consumers indicating they are most worried that autopilot technology will malfunction on the roads.

Reliability, cost, hacking, vehicle lifespan and privacy are also among the worries Americans share, although these issues are not nearly as pressing as fears about how autonomous vehicles will impact road safety.

These safety concerns reflect reality. Although autonomous vehicles are purported to be safer than human-driven vehicles (they don't get drunk, drowsy or distracted, after all), on a per-miles-driven basis they are actually more prone to accidents:

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that self-driving vehicles are more than twice as likely as traditional vehicles to become involved in auto accidents. According to NHTSA data:

There are 9.1 crashes in driverless vehicles per million vehicle miles driven

There are 4.2 crashes in conventional vehicles per million miles driven

High accident rates have rightly contributed to consumer concerns—and recent recalls of Tesla vehicles have only served to heighten fears.

Tesla—often considered a leader in autonomous driving with nearly two million cars across the U.S.—recently recalled nearly all of its autonomous vehicles.

Tesla’s recall comes after an NHTSA probe revealed nearly 1,000 accidents occurred when autopilot was engaged. It has prompted significant consumer concerns, with 62% of survey respondents indicating they are not confident in Tesla’s technology following the recalls.

It's worth pointing out that the Tesla "autopilot" feature that was the subject of the recall is not intended to be fully self-driving and requires the driver to be attentive and ready to take control of the vehicle at all times. But a lot of Tesla owners were obviously not using it correctly, and a safety advocacy group recently spent money on Super Bowl ads denouncing Tesla and calling for a boycott.

Problems with autonomous vehicles being able to operate safely and effectively are partly why Cruise pulled their self-driving cars off Texas streets last fall, after they caused traffic jams in Austin's West Campus and Houston's Montrose neighborhoods. The antipathy towards the disruption they sometimes cause is probably why a self-driving car in San Francisco was recently set ablaze as well.

Other findings of the survey, which was conducted on 2,000 Americans in January 2024, include:

  • More than half (51%) of consumers are somewhat or very unlikely to own or use a self-driving vehicle in the next five years
  • 61% of Americans wouldn’t trust a self-driving car with their loved ones or children
  • Only 29% of consumers would be willing to pay a premium for a self-driving vehicle

In fact, according to the survey, only 30% of Americans actually are excited about self-driving vehicles in the future. The publishers of the survey conclude that "A widespread shift in public perception will be important if these vehicles are to become a dominant force in the U.S. auto market in the near future."

That's the way I see it, too. A decade ago, proponents of autonomous vehicles told us that the technology would be ubiquitous by now. Today, however, a future of self-driving cars looks further away than ever.

Sunday, February 04, 2024

College football's viewership imbalance

This graphic has been making the rounds on X (I will never stop calling it Twitter) over the past couple of weeks, and it is equal parts fascinating and concerning:

Over the past eight college football seasons, fully half of the sport's television viewership has been generated by just 18 teams. And all of those teams, with the exception of Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida State, either are, or as of this fall will be, members of the SEC or Big 10.

There's probably a feedback loop here. Networks figure that college football fans want to see these teams, so they are on TV more often, which means that more people end up watching them, even if only casually. These ratings also include College Football Playoff games as well as regular season and other bowl games, which gives an additional ratings boost to multi-year CFP participants like Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State. But the resulting concentration of viewership is still stark.

The next five most-watched schools on this graphic were Texas A&M, Michigan State, Iowa, Oklahoma State, and TCU. In other words, you have to go outside the top 20 before you find any Big 12 schools. It's also interesting that historic powerhouses like Nebraska and Miami are absent, but both schools are a long way away from their dominance in the '80s and '90s (the Cornhuskers currently being on a streak of seven losing seasons in a row). 

I also, sadly, suspect that Houston sits among that bottom 10% on the right side of the graph.

The fact that so much college football viewership (and therefore, television revenue) is concentrated in so few schools, and that those schools mostly belong to two conferences, means that college football finds itself in an extremely unbalanced situation between the "Power Two" (the SEC and the Big 10) and everyone else (the ACC, the Big 12 and the Group of Five conferences). This has significant implications for the sport's future.

In that regard, last Friday's news that the SEC and Big 10 are "creating a joint advisory group of university presidents, chancellors and athletics directors to address the turmoil enveloping the (college football) industry" is raising some eyebrows among college football fans. Could the SEC and Big 10 be preparing to break away and create their own college football league, apart from the NCAA? It would completely change the sport as we know it, and not (in my opinion) for the better.

I love college football, but between this imbalance, the out-of-control transfer portal, and a completely-unregulated NIL system, the sport is simply not sustainable in its current form, and I worry for its future.

Stupid mistakes and shitty utility companies

Right before Thanksgiving, I made a stupid mistake. I was paying bills online through my bank's website, and for some reason I accidentally clicked the wrong button and sent a payment to the wrong company. I don't know why I made such a careless error; perhaps I was in a hurry or distracted (I really don't remember). But the end result is that a $2,700 payment intended for my Chase credit card went to Centerpoint Energy instead.

I didn't notice my stupid mistake until I checked my balance a couple of days later, but I wasn't too concerned. The Centerpoint account I accidentally made the payment to had been closed since I moved out of the house in Bellaire back in the summer of 2017, so I figured that the payment would be kicked back by Centerpoint's computers in a few days. In the meantime, I made a second, correct payment to Chase (I was lucky enough to have the extra money to do so), and waited. 

Days passed. Nothing happened. So I decided to call Centerpoint.

After spending some time navigating through their automated customer service system, and then spending some more time on hold, I was finally connected to a real, live customer service representative named "Claire." I explained to her my predicament; she quickly located my otherwise-closed account and opened a case for me that would be referred to Centerpoint's accounting department. She told me that a refund check would be issued to the address on file for my account (in this case, my parents' house) and it would take seven to ten days. 

Seven to ten days came and went. No check appeared at my parents' house. So I called Centerpoint again.

This time (after I once again navigated through their automated customer service system and spent a few more minutes on hold) I was connected to "Fran." She told me that the case the previous representative made for me was incorrect, and that she would file a correct one. She explained that the erroneous payment would go directly back to my bank and that it would take five to seven business days to process.

Seven business days came and went. No refund appeared in my bank account. So I called Centerpoint for the third time.

This time the service representative I spoke to, "Tiffany," said that the refund request had been ordered by the accounting department, but that it would actually take ten to fifteen days to process (and perhaps even longer, since by now we were approaching Christmas). She suggested I call my bank to see how long it takes them to process refund payments once they're received. (I did, and the bank representative I spoke to said such payments are usually processed within two to four days of initial receipt.)

Christmas came and went. No refund appeared in my bank account. I was becoming frustrated. Would I ever see my money again?

So I called Centerpoint for the fourth time. This time, the service representative I spoke to, Angela, confirmed that the refund had been ordered by the accounting department, but that it actually takes up to thirty business days for it to process, and because of upcoming holidays - New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Jr., Day - it could take even longer. She said that the case was still "open" in their system, meaning that it was still being processed.

The New Year and MLK Day came and went. Still, no refund appeared in my bank account. So I tried to call Centerpoint again. However, due to the freezing weather that was affecting Houston at the time, people were obviously having trouble with their gas and customer hold times were an hour or more. I decided to wait one more week and call again.

When I called Centerpoint for the fifth time, I got Angela again. She told me that the payment had been processed and I needed to call something called "CheckFree" to see where my payment was. She gave me a phone number for the company, but could not give me any sort of tracking or other identification number for the payment. At this point I had completely run out of patience; as politely as I could, I told Angela that this situation was not acceptable. If I did not get my accidental payment refunded soon, I was going to file a complaint with the city, or the Public Utilities Commission, or even speak to an attorney.

As I suspected, the number she gave me to CheckFree (which is apparently an ACH payment processor owned by the financial services company FiServ) was useless. So I began contemplating my next step. Should I start with an email to the City of Houston's public utilities complaint department? Should I copy my district councilmember? Are there attorneys out there that have dealt with these kinds of issues that won't charge me several hundred dollars just to talk to them?

And then, lo and behold, two days after I called Centerpoint for the fifth time (and over 60 days after I originally made the erroneous payment), guess what finally appeared in my bank account? The refund came with an email from my bank stating that the payment had been "refused by the payee," as if it were an automatic action on the part of Centerpoint and not the result of my calling them five separate times over the course of two months.

Apparently, a lot of people have had similar issues with Centerpoint not returning inadvertent payments in a timely manner (see here and here, for example). And if I were an unaccountable utility monopoly like Centerpoint, I'd probably dither in returning accidental payments too. Perhaps the corporation figures that, if they continually give people the runaround by telling them a different story every time they call customer service and slow-walking refund payments in their accounting department, some people will just give up and allow Centerpoint to keep their money.

But I wasn't going to be one of those people. $2,700 is a lot of money, and Centerpoint was not entitled to it. I'm thankful that my financial situation is such that I could go a couple of months without that kind of money in my account. But what about people who made similar mistakes who were not as financially well-off as me? 

Online banking may have made obsolete the hassle of writing out paper checks and mailing them, but it also makes it easier to make a dumb mistake like I did. This was the first time I've ever made such an error. After this experience, I am determined that it will be the last. 

Houston to host seven 2026 World Cup matches

The 2026 FIFA World Cup match schedule is set, and Houston is hosting seven games at NRG Stadium: five group stage matches, and two knockout round games.

It was already known that Houston was going to be a host city for the 2026 World Cup. Now we know the number of games and their dates. Houston is one of sixteen cities in the United States, Mexico and Canada to host the quadrennial tournament, which will be expanding from 32 to 48 teams. 

Next to the Olympics, this is the biggest sports event that Houston can possibly host. It's even bigger than the Super Bowl, when you account for the international audience. Needless to say, local leaders are excited:

Houston Mayor John Whitmire released a statement after Sunday's announcement, "I am thrilled to hear that FIFA has unveiled the game schedule for the 2026 World Cup, including the soccer matches that will be played in the City of Houston. Hosting such a prestigious event will provide an incredible opportunity for our city to showcase its culture, hospitality and infrastructure on a global stage. We are committed to working closely with FIFA to ensure that all preparations are in place to welcome the world and provide an unforgettable experience for players, fans and visitors."

Not to mention the boost it will bring to the local economy.

The opening game of the World Cup will be held at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on June 11, 2026, and the final will be played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on July 19, 2026. The entire schedule can be viewed here; if you're interested in tickets, you can register for updates here.

Thursday, February 01, 2024

2024 Houston Cougar football schedule released

Earlier this week, the Big 12 announced the fall 2024 football schedules for all the teams in the conference, including Houston (we already knew who all of Houston's opponents were going to be, but until this announcement did not know the dates):

    Sat Aug 31     UNLV
    Sat Sep 07      at Oklahoma
    Sat Sep 14      Rice
    Sat Sep 21      at Cincinnati
    Sat Sep 28      Iowa State
    Sat Oct 05      at TCU
    Sat Oct 12      (off)
    Sat Oct 19      at Kansas
    Sat Oct 26      Utah
    Sat Nov 02     Kansas State
    Sat Nov 09     (off)
    Sat Nov 16     at Arizona
    Sat Nov 23     Baylor
    Sat Nov 30     at BYU

The game at TCU may occur on Friday October 4th instead of the 5th, while the game at Arizona may occur on Thursday November 14th or Friday November 15th instead of the 16th. The game at Kansas will be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, because Memorial Stadium in Lawrence is undergoing renovations.

There are some advantages to this schedule. There are two bye weeks, one of which comes at the season's midway point and another before its final quarter. These will both provide the team some much-needed recovery time as they navigate a tough Big 12 slate. The Cougars only have one instance of back-to-back games on the road, and those two games are separated by a bye week. The Cougars also have back-to-back home games against Utah and Kansas State, which will likely be two of their toughest opponents.

All that said, there's no sugarcoating: this is a brutal schedule for the Cougars. Eight of their 12 opponents played in bowl games last year, and four of them ended the season ranked. The Cougars played six of these teams last year and only beat one of them (Baylor). Given all the work that new head coach Willie Fritz has to do rebuild this team, anything more than three or four wins from this schedule will be a significant overachievement.

I'm eyeing the Arizona game as a possible roadie. Mid-November should be a delightful time of year in Tucson, and I have family there that I can visit as well.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Texans don't suck anymore

Last Saturday the Houston Texans were thoroughly defeated by the Baltimore Ravens, 10-31, in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. The Texans didn''t even score an offensive touchdown.

And I am not upset about it. Not in the least.

If you had told me last August that the Texans - with an 11-38-1 record over the previous three seasons, a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback - would win ten games, the AFC South and make it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs, I would have told you to lay off the drugs. To say that the Texans exceeded expectations in 2023 would be a bit of an understatement. 

Head coach DeMeco Ryans deserves to be named NFL Coach of the Year, and quarterback C.J. Stroud NFL Rookie of the Year, for what they have accomplished this past season. 

There's still a ways to go before the Texans can be considered an elite franchise. They still have some holes to fill and some big decisions to make as the draft and free agency negotiations approach. The NFL, furthermore, did not do the Texans any favors by giving them a brutal 2024 schedule. But the 2023 season laid the groundwork for a successful run: at the very least, the Texans have finally climbed out of the hole that former head coach Bill O'Brien left them in through his mismanagement.

And that is worth celebrating.

Sean Pendergast has more.