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, Nicol├ís 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.