Saturday, August 06, 2022

UH mascot Shasta VI passes away

 Sad news from the Houston Zoo:

The University of Houston and Houston Zoo are mourning the death of Shasta VI, the school's 11-year-old cougar mascot who passed away Thursday night according to a press release issued by university officials.

Shasta's death follows months of treatment for a degenerative spinal disease, according to a remembrance posted to the Houston Zoo's site on Friday. Zoo officials said the decision was made to euthanize the beloved local fixture after additional health issues were discovered that negated Shasta's chances of living out his remaining days comfortably.

"For several months, the Zoo’s veterinary team has been treating him for a progressive spinal disease which has rapidly deteriorated over the past few days," Houston Zoo staff wrote. "Over the course of treatment, Shasta was also found to have declining kidney function, which is common in older felines. The animal care and health teams made a comprehensive assessment of his overall wellbeing and made the difficult decision to euthanize him on Thursday when it became clear that he would not recover."

The University of Houston's tradition of a live cougar mascot began with Shasta I in 1947. Shastas II through V lived on-campus in an enclosure at the edge of Lynn Eusan Park (the Chron article's statement that the cougars "lived primarily at the Houston Zoo" is false and yet another example of poor journalistic standards on their part). I visited Shastas III, IV and V many a time when I was on campus as a child. Shasta was also present at UH football games in the Astrodome.

The tradition of keeping a live Cougar on campus ended in 1989, when Shasta V was euthanized due to kidney failure and animal rights activists pressured UH administration into not procuring a replacement (although it was still a big topic when I began classes there in the fall of 1991). A partnership between the Houston Zoo and the Houston Alumni Association allowed an orphaned cub to become Shasta VI, and for the tradition of live UH mascots to resume (albeit off-campus), in 2012:

Shasta VI arrived at the Houston Zoo in 2012 at the age of five weeks after his mother was shot and killed illegally by a hunter in Washington State. Washington Fish & Wildlife agents were able to locate the orphaned cougar, who had little chance of survival in the wild following the death of his mother. Shasta VI was relocated to the Houston Zoo where he became the University of Houston's first live mascot since the 1989 and lived alongside the zoo's female cougar, Haley.

Shasta VI was the first male Shasta; his five predecessors were all female. As of right now there is no word as to whether there will be a Shasta VII.

The Daily Cougar has more. The Chronicle has a slideshow of all six Shastas.

Environmental organization declares the monarch endangered

I'm back. For a little bit longer, at least.

The plight of the monarch butterfly, whose population has been steadily dwindling, is something I've been following on this blog for awhile. Two weeks ago, an international organization designated the iconic insect as being endangered

One of the most popular and recognizable insects is at risk of extinction, according to a global organization focused on conservation and sustainability.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has added the migratory monarch butterfly to its Red List of Threatened Species as endangered, the group said in a release Thursday.

"It is difficult to watch monarch butterflies and their extraordinary migration teeter on the edge of collapse, but there are signs of hope," said Anna Walker, a species survival officer for invertebrate pollinators at the New Mexico BioPark Society who works in partnership with the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration like birds, according to the US Forest Service. Every winter, monarchs that live in the eastern part of North America migrate to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, and those in the west migrate to the coastal regions of California, according to the federal agency. Those migrations have been a spectator event in the past.

There are a couple of important things to note here: 

  • First, this designation from the IUCN does not make the monarch a legally endangered and protected species in the United States. Only the US Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to declare the monarch endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This is an action the FWS considered about a year and a half ago; they deferred for the time being. 
  • Second, this designation only applies to the subspecies which migrates annually between Mexico and the United States and Canada. The monarch butterfly species as a whole is widely distributed across the Americas and is not at risk. 

The IUCN estimates the native population of monarch butterflies has shrunk by between 22% and 72% over the past decade, and the western population has declined by 99.9% between the 1980s and 2021 -- putting it at the greatest risk of extinction.

Destruction of habitat and rising temperatures fueled by the climate crisis are increasingly threatening the species, the IUCN said.

When they are caterpillars, monarchs feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

But droughts have limited the growth of milkweed, and increased temperatures have triggered earlier migrations, the IUCN said. There has also been an increase in the use of glyphosate herbicide -- particularly on corn and soybean crops -- that has caused a severe milkweed decline in the United States.

For what it's worth, the amount forest area occupied by the migratory monarch during its winter hibernation in Mexico - a proxy for its overall population - has been holding relatively steady in the 2-3 hectare range in five of the past six winters. Hopefully this suggests that the population decline that the IUCN cited in its decision to add the insect to its Red List has at least stabilized.

In any case, the IUCN's designation should be a wake-up call: the monarch migration is truly an amazing natural wonder; we would fail both the butterflies and ourselves if we allowed it to end under our watch.

If you want to help, consider creating a monarch waystation that provides both milkweed host plants for caterpillars as well as nectar plants for adults.

Monarch Watch and National Geographic have more.

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Vladimir Putin is Adolf Hitler with nukes

I was working on a post about the 2022 Winter Olympics, complete with my latest diatribe on NBC's lousy coverage (which nobody seems to have watched anyway). I was also going to write a post about how College Football Playoff expansion is not happening anytime soon, and why that is not good for the sport. There are also other topics that I might normally be writing about right now, such as the postponement of the start of baseball season, or an interesting new airline service coming to Houston.

But after the events of the last week, I've lost interest in starting and/or completing those posts. They seem rather trivial. 

Make no mistake: with his messianic ambition for a new Russian empire and his paranoid disdain of the west, Vladimir Putin has brought the world closer to annihilation than it's been in decades.

A week ago, the Russian dictator invaded Ukraine with the goal of overthrowing that country's democratically-elected government and reclaiming it as a Soviet-era satellite state, if not annexing it entirely. His invasion of Ukraine was reckless and poorly-planned. The Ukrainians are fighting back. But sooner or later, Russia's strength in numbers is likely to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders. Devastating urban warfare is already underway, as is a refugee crisis

Putin will not stop with Ukraine. In his quest to re-create the Russian empire, he will try to slice off some or all of Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, the former Soviet republics in central Asia. And at some point he will likely go after the Baltics: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. All formerly part of the Soviet Union, and all current NATO members that the United States has an obligation to protect militarily. 

He may wait to bring the fight to NATO until after the 2024 presidential election (which he will try to influence in order to get his most valuable American asset, Donald Trump, elected to second term). But he is almost certainly going to do it, because of the Russian irredentist philosophy that drives him. He's willing to bet that we won't have the courage to come to Europe's defense because we don't want to start a nuclear conflict. In fact, he's already threatening Finland and Sweden against joining NATO.

Comparisons between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler are apt. While Putin might not have the same lust for genocide that Hitler possessed - he hasn't singled out an entire people for extermination - he does have the same megalomanic territorial ambitions, and the same indifference to the amount of life lost to achieve it. He also has something that Hitler did not have: nuclear weapons. Do not think for a moment that he won't use them.

And that's the problem: if he threatens to "push the button" anytime the west tries to oppose his neo-imperialist ambitions, where does he stop? Where do we stop him? Do we risk a nuclear exchange in order to do so?

I grew up towards the end of the Cold War, where the threat of nuclear annihilation was distant but real. We might have thought that the threat of nuclear armageddon ended with the Soviet Union. Turns out, it was only taking a break.

This is likely going to be last post here at MGCR for awhile, if not forever. This is normally the time of year when I reduce activity on this blog anyway, but I'm seriously thinking about bringing this blog to a more-or-less permanent close. Posting about trivial shit that hardly anybody reads isn't a good use of my time, and given the events of the past week, I'm not sure how much time I have left as it is.

By the way, fuck Putin for destroying one of my favorite aircraft.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Name that Kroger! Redux

A few weeks ago, John Nova Lomax produced his "definitive list" of the local Kroger grocery stores that have nicknames. This practice is something I've tried to document a couple of times as well.

Of course, the most famous of Houston's nicknamed Krogers - Montrose's Disco Kroger - is no more, and Lomax is probably right with his prediction that H-E-B "will run Kroger out of Houston inside of ten years:"

I’ve never had as bad an experience with Kroger but I have a years-long beef with them over their sheer incompetence. I just don’t understand how such a behemoth of a grocery chain can allow its clock to be cleaned so easily and thoroughly by a regional rival, even one as sharp and savvy as HEB is. Why doesn’t Kroger poach some of HEB’s talent? Why don’t they stock their shelves with things Texans like? Why don’t they make the slightest effort to adapt aside from bells and whistles and inflating floor space? The stubborn incompetence offends me , as does their belief that all Americans eat alike.

Anyway….at one point, they had enough of a hold on the Houstonian psyche to spawn folk nicknames.

Here are a few stores from Lomax's list, with my comments:

Cougar Kroger - West Gray, and not because of proximity to UH. With the aging of its clientele, this Kroger’s name has followed along, going from variations on “Hot Babe Kroger” to “MILF Kroger” to its current status. Less sexist or horny observers call it Deco Kroger for its black-tiled facade. I am hereby predicting this is the next Kroger to go bye-bye.

I personally favor "Deco Kroger" for this store, although "Hot Mom Kroger," "Posh Kroger" and "River Oaks Kroger" are other names I've heard used to describe it. About a dozen years ago they tried to name themselves as "Hollywood Kroger," apparently not understanding that Krogers don't get to choose their own names. It's an organic process!

Combat Kroger - Cullen & Polk. Gentrifying but still scruffy environs give it the name. This is a minimal effort Kroger that does little to cater to its Hispanic and/or hipster customers.

I used to regularly shop at Combat Kroger when I lived near the University of Houston; now I can't tell you the last time I've been in there. I always remember it as being poorly stocked and poorly managed, although they did try to spruce it up a few years back.

Geriatric Kroger - 20th & Yale. Could also be Rendezvous Kroger. Nobody you or your downlow honey knows is ever in here (unless it’s Tim Freeman) even though it’s right there in the Heights proper. It was dry until a couple of years ago but it now sports a paltry beer and wine section. *themoreyouknow*

I've never heard this one referred to as anything other than "Zombie Kroger." That being said, I don't think I've ever shopped at this particular store. 

Try Hard Kroger - Buffalo Speedway. This is the one Kroger where they make an effort and almost rivals an HEB. The name fits the ‘hood — West U is an American Mecca of Try Hardism — as well as the ethos of the store. It’s like Kroger and West U have a mutual admiration society — Kroger really wants to impress West U, and the hell with the rest of us. Not even River Oaks gets such a spectacular Kroger.

Gonna disagree with Lomax on this one. This is the Kroger I shop at (when I'm not shopping at the H-E-B on the other side of Buffalo Speedway), and they do not "try hard." The store might have have a nice deli and an impressive beer and wine selection, but it is almost always understaffed (especially at the checkouts; in fact, at certain times of the day or night you're almost required to use the self checkout kiosks), and its produce section always seems poorly-stocked. I can't count the number of times I've gone there to find them out of basic vegetables like green onions, celery or broccoli. 

Anyway, I've always called this one "Buffalo Kroger." Other names I've heard for this particular store are "West U Kroger, " and "Spanish Kroger," referencing the architecture of the shopping center in which it is located.

Quiet Storm Kroger - Old Spanish Trail. East side of the Med Center on OST at Cambridge…Though it had a very mellow, distinct ‘80s feel, it was built in 1994, and now I see it was demolished in 2017. (EDIT: I have since read it was built in the ‘80s and passed through phases as a Safeway and an Apple Tree before Kroger got the property in ‘94.)

I called this one "Medical Kroger" when it was still open. It was clearly on its way out the last time I shopped there, which I think was 2015. 

Further to the west, where Kirby crosses OST and South Main, is "Stadium Kroger" or "Tailgate Kroger" due to its proximity to NRG Stadium. Lomax doesn't have a name for this one, and I used to call it "Does-Anybody-Really-Shop-Here Kroger" because it always seemed deserted.

Yet it remains in business. 

For now.

2022 Houston Cougar football schedule released

The 2022 schedule - likely Houston's last as a member of the American Athletic Conference - came out surprisingly early this year. Here's what it looks like:

Sat Sep 03     at UT-San Antonio
Sat Sep 10     at Texas Tech
Sat Sep 17     Kansas
Sat Sep 24     Rice
Sep 29 or 30  Tulane
Fri Oct 07      at Memphis
Sat Oct 15     (off)
Sat Oct 22     at Navy
Sat Oct 29     USF
Sat Nov 05    at SMU
Sat Nov 12    Temple
Sat Nov 19    at East Carolina
Nov 25 or 26 Tulsa

It's definitely tougher than last year's schedule. The Cougars start the season with back-to-back road trips against the defending Conference USA champion UTSA Roadrunners and a Texas Tech team that gave them their only regular-season loss last year. They then return to Houston to play their home opener against Kansas before taking on Rice.

Navy, SMU and East Carolina all gave the Cougars tough games at home last season; this fall, the Cougars have to play all three on the road, along with perennial nemesis Memphis. 

There are no "gimme" games against the likes of Grambling or UConn on this year's schedule (having been replaced by UTSA and Kansas, respectively). Every game is going to be tough; every game is a potential L.

All that said, there are a few things about this schedule that work in UH's favor. The Cougars get all of their out-of-conference games out of the way early and get three consecutive home games in late September. Houston's off week comes at the midpoint of the season and, conveniently, in the middle of their second set of back-to-back road trips. The Cougars leave the state of Texas only three times this fall (although that trip to Lubbock is going to be about as long as the trip to Memphis). Perhaps most importantly, the Cougars avoid Central Florida and Cincinnati for the second straight season. 

The Cougars' strong performance last fall will hopefully drive an increase in season ticket sales this fall, because the home schedule certainly won't. Kansas is a Big 12 school and Rice is the crosstown rival, but otherwise there's nothing on this schedule that's going to interest the casual Houston fan. This is why getting an invitation to join the Big 12 was so important to the future of the UH football program.

The home games against Tulane and Tulsa will either be Thursday or Friday night games; ESPN will determine that later. I can also only hope that ESPN does not schedule the Kansas or Rice games for daytime kickoffs; I'm honestly done going to games where I have to sit in that kind of heat.

Ryan shares his thoughts on the 2022 schedule.

Monday, January 31, 2022

The wildlife in Houston's bayous

What lurks in the waters of Houston's bayous? Watch this excellent video and find out:

Although the title says "downtown," most of this this video was shot along Brays Bayou near MacGregor Park and the University of Houston; you can clearly see the Bayou Oaks student housing complex, Moody Towers, and the Health and Biomedical Sciences buildings in the background. Some of this video was taken from along Brays Bayou underneath SH 288 as well.

The giant alligator gar was pulled out from a spot on south side of bayou, opposite the intersection of North MacGregor and Rockwood. I used to catch catfish from that general spot when I was a kid growing up in University Oaks. 

I always knew there were gar in that water as well, but (thankfully) I never managed to catch one!

Very cool.

Why transit agencies still need system maps

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker speaks to the importance of transit system maps:

As transit information tools have gotten better, some transit agencies have stopped offering a system map to the public.  Often, a website offers me trip planning software and route by route timetables, but not a map.  If it’s there, it’s often difficult to find.

I'm noticing this trend within the transit industry as well, and I am not a fan. There's just no substitute for a good system map that people can use to quickly understand and navigate a given agency's public transportation network.

Case in point: last month, as I planned our trip to Birmingham for the bowl game, I was looking for a good way to get from our hotel (near Five Points South) to Protective Stadium. A taxi or an Uber were always options, but I wanted to see if a bus was a viable choice because 1) it's cheaper and 2) I'm a public transportation geek. So I went to the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority's website to do some research. They did have an online trip planner, but in order to use it I had to type in both my hotel's and the stadium's addresses, which I didn't feel like looking up. So I moved on to their bus routes page to look for a map instead. There they had bus routes and schedules individually listed, but no overall system map. Which meant that I would have had to click through all of the routes until I found one that provided the service I needed, if it existed at all.

Walker continues: 

We think system maps are essential.  They’re not just for everyday navigation.  They’re for exploration and understanding.  Some people prefer narrative directions, but many people are spatial navigators, and they need maps.  They’ll understand details only if they can see the big picture.

Another way to think about system maps is that they show you where they could go, and how.  They give you a sense of possibility.  (It’s the informational dimension of access to opportunity.)  Maps also show visually how different services work together.  Finally, good system maps help people make better decisions about where to locate, or even where to build things.

To their credit, the BJCTA has published GTFS data for their bus network that applications like their own trip planner or Google Maps use to suggest directions. I ended up finding our hotel on Google Maps, and used that to determine that there was indeed a route that ran between our hotel and the stadium. I then went back to the BJCTA website to get its route and schedule information. It was convoluted, but it worked; we used the Magic City Connector bus to get to and from the bowl game without a problem. 

That said: while trip planning apps and GTFS feeds are definitely helpful in navigating a bus system, those should not serve as replacements for a well-designed transit map showing routes, stops, and major landmarks. Such a map would have allowed me to identify the bus route I wanted to use almost instantly, without having to click through individual route schedules or use a clunky trip planning app, or cross-reference using Google Maps. 

Given that Birmingham's bus network isn't particularly large, it shouldn't be difficult to design a good system map and place a link to it on the BJCTA web page. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would find it beneficial. Walker concludes:

But if a system map doesn’t exist, people can’t understand all that your transit system can do.


Examples of good (and bad) transit system maps can be found on

Friday, January 21, 2022

Frontier resumes services from Hobby Airport

Frontier Airlines just can't seem to make up its mind when it comes to serving Houston. They began operations to Bush Intercontinental sometime in the aughts, but in 2010 shifted operations to Hobby. Then, less than two years later, they moved their operations back to IAH. Fast forward a decade, and now the Denver-based "ultra low cost carrier" has apparently decided that two airports are better than one:

Houstonians in search of a low-cost option to jet away for vacation or a long weekend now have a new option. Low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines has just announced three nonstop routes from William P. Hobby Airport to Cancun, Las Vegas, and Orlando, Florida with fares starting at $39.

This is new service from Hobby — Frontier currently offers flights from George Bush Intercontinental Airport — and thus gives Houstonians more warm-weather destination choices.

Dubbed “Low Fares Done Right,” the promotion offers:

  • Cancun (CUN); three times weekly; service starts May 26: fares start at $79
  • Las Vegas (LAS); four times weekly; service starts May 27: fares start at $59
  • Orlando (MCO); four times weekly; service starts at May 27; fares start at $39 

This particular fare promotion ends January 24th, but given that they are directly competing with Southwest on all three of these leisure destination routes, one can probably expect Frontier's standard fares to be competitive as well. It's interesting to note that, as of right now, Frontier is not going head-to-head with Southwest on the Hobby-Denver route, as they did between 2010 and 2012. They will continue their service to Denver and a handful of other airports out of IAH:

Currently, Frontier offers regular flights to Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Philadelphia from Bush.

“We’re excited to expand in Houston and add William P. Hobby Airport to our route map with three nonstop routes beginning this May,” said Josh Flyr, vice president of network and operational design, in a statement. “We look forward to launching service at HOU and bringing increased air service competition to the market.”

Game on. The Points Guy and Simple Flying have more.

UH wins and attendance, 2021

Time to update the graph:

The Cougars averaged 25,073 fans per game over their five home games during the 2021 season, which is just under 500 fans/game fewer than their 2019 average.* 

While this is still an attendance decline, it is not nearly as precipitous as the declines in attendance that the program experienced from the 2016 season through 2019 season. Furthermore, coming off a ranked, bowl-winning season, I would expect attendance to increase in 2022.

(Had the Texas Tech game at NRG Stadium counted as a home game, the Coogs' average attendance would have been 28, 141. This is why I am not a huge fan of UH Athletics agreeing to move their marquee home games to NRG Stadium, even though I'm sure it comes with a nice check.)

* Right now, I'm showing attendance for the COVID-affected 2020 season, along with the attendant decrease in stadium capacity that was in effect that season. I may revisit how to show the 2020 season - or even omit it entirely - in future graphs.

RIP Ron Franklin

Another local broadcasting legend has passed away:

Ron Franklin, who spent nearly 20 years as a prominent voice on the Houston sports scene before rising to national prominence with ESPN, died Tuesday at the age of 79.

Franklin worked 24 years at ESPN, primarily as a play-by-play announcer for college football and college basketball. He was the voice of ESPN’s prime-time college football game from 1987 to 2005 before moving over to ESPN on ABC to call primarily Big 12 games.

Before ESPN, Franklin was the sports director at KHOU Channel 11 from 1971 to 1980 before moving over to KPRC Channel 2 where he stayed until joining ESPN in 1987.

Franklin was, along with anchor Ron Stone and meteorologist Doug Johnson, part of the KPRC news team I grew up watching on a nightly basis in the 1980s. His decision to join ESPN in 1987 may have come as a surprise, as that network was still relatively young and did not dominate the sports landscape the way it does today, but it clearly worked out well for him. That is, until his career at ESPN ended in controversy:
Franklin's run at ESPN came to an end during the 2010 college football bowl season when Franklin allegedly called sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards “sweet baby” during a production meeting, then called her an expletive after she objected. Franklin was fired by ESPN after the incident.
In addition to his local news duties, Franklin also spent much time as the play-by-play commentator for the Houston Oilers and for University of Texas athletics. Tributes from his former KPRC co-workers can be read here