Sunday, April 06, 2014

Can Kelvin Sampson resurrect UH's basketball program?

Last Thursday, the University of Houston introduced Kelvin Sampson as the new head coach of the Cougar mens basketball program. Sampson, who was previously an assistant head coach for the Houston Rockets, has extensive college experience, having served as head coach at Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. He takes the reins from James Dickey, who retired for personal reasons after four seasons and a lackluster 64-63 record.

Sampson's a known commodity in college coaching circles, having been successful at every school he's been, but he also carries some baggage, as John Royal explains:
Sampson's well-regarded as a coach -- he's the actual Xs-and-Os guy on the Rockets staff. He was known as a good recruiter in college, and he won at a school, Washington State, where nobody but him has been able to win. But the hiring's not without controversy. The NCAA hit him with a five-year show cause letter in 2008, meaning that any school hiring him essentially had to go to the NCAA and get permission. And the reason he was hit with the sanction, and the reason that Oklahoma and Indiana were put on probation, was because of improper cell phone and text message contacts with recruits, an issue that the NCAA now allows. 

But the folks doing the hiring at UH aren't too concerned about the shadier aspects of Sampson's past as a head coach. 

They're looking at the positives, such as producing 18 consecutive winning seasons. At the 13 NCAA tournament appearances. At his having won conference titles, of having reached two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight, and one Final Four appearance while at Oklahoma. Those are all things the Cougars haven't really done much of in year's past, and his hiring makes the school nationally relevant and part of the national conversation for the first time in years.
In the grand scheme of things, improperly contacting recruits via cell and text messages doesn't seem like a big deal, especially since it's something that the NCAA now allows. But rules are rules: those were the rules that we in place at the time, and Sampson chose to violate them when he was at Oklahoma as well as Indiana. Sampson has paid his dues - a five-year show-cause order is the harshest penalty the NCAA can levy against an individual - and has hopefully learned to play by the rules from now on. Nevertheless, the Houston program can expect increased scrutiny in the coming years.
But if the school's happy with Sampson and not concerned about the increased attention that's bound to come from the NCAA, then that should be all that matters. It has been frustrating watching the program flounder since the departure of Pat Foster in 1993 (Foster who took over from Guy V. Lewis took the team to three NIT and three NCAA tourneys in his seven years at UH, the last time the school's truly been nationally relevant). Sampson will recruit, he will coach, and the team will win, and if school officials feel that any possible NCAA issues are worth that, then that's their call.
This is the real issue: the program is moribund, invisible locally, irrelevant nationally, and the fans are staying away in droves. Something drastic needs to be done to bring this once-proud program back to life - it's ironic, in that regard, that Sampson's hiring comes thirty years to the day after Houston's loss to Georgetown in the 1984 NCAA Championship Game - and the University of Houston needs to take a chance with a known winner, even if there's an element of risk involved. Obviously, I'm among those earnestly hoping that this works out.

Sampson has signed a five-year deal worth at least $4.5 million, not including performance incentives.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The monarch butterfly is facing a crisis

Last week, Eric Berger posted a sobering visualization of the dwindling monarch butterfly population:
One of the best ways that conservationists have to measure the overall health of the Monarch butterfly population is by the size of the area they occupy in tight clusters during the winter in Mexico. In the 1990s this area averaged about 15 acres. In the 2000s it was about 9 acres.

This winter the Monarchs occupied less than 1.7 acres in Mexico.

It's also worth mentioning that we've reached the end of March and the migration is underway, but I have yet to see a single monarch here in Houston. Things are not looking good for the beautiful and iconic insect right now.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: plant that milkweed! The survival of this species depends on it. I went to Houston Garden Center a couple of weeks ago and got a couple of large plants, which are now in my front yard. I might get another couple of plants this weekend.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

2014 UH football schedule released

The Cougars' 2014 slate was finally released earlier this week. It is, quite frankly, the lamest, weakest and most embarrassing schedule the Cougars have played since I've been following the program:

     Sat Aug 30 Texas - San Antonio
     Sat Sep 06 Grambling State
     Thu Sep 11 at BYU (ESPN)
     Sat Sep 27 Tennessee Tech
     Thu Oct 2 UCF (ESPN)
     Sat Oct 11 at Memphis
     Sat Oct 18 Temple
     Sat Nov 1 at USF
     Sat Nov 8 Tulane
     Sat Nov 22 Tulsa
     Fri Nov 28 at SMU
     Sat Dec 6 at Cincinnati

So let's count the reasons why this schedule sucks:

1. No games against any schools from the so-called "Power 5" conferences (for the second season in a row).
2. Two games against FCS (Division I-AA) schools. Only one of them can count toward bowl eligibility.
3. No "marquee" opponents at home. Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida is the biggest "name" the Cougars host, and that's on a Thursday night.
4. Back-to-back games on the road to end the season.
5. The only road game I was interested in attending - against BYU - is on a Thursday night. That makes travel next to impossible for me.
6. The disjointed, momentum-killing schedule: three off weeks, two Thursday games, and one Friday game with the possibility of another:
UH opens its season and new stadium against UTSA on Aug. 30, although there is a possibility the game could move up one day for TV.
Seriously? Our first game in our brand new stadium on a Friday night? That's going to suck for people who have to work or are traveling in for the game. It's going to suck for tailgating, too. In fact, if last year is any indication, all of these home games are probably going to suck for tailgating because they will be 11 AM kickoffs for ESPNNews.

So why is this schedule so bad?
Mack Rhoades, UH's vice president for intercollegiate athletics, said the Cougars prefer to have only one FCS opponent on the schedule but "were put in a tough situation" when a Football Bowl Subdivision non-conference opponent decided not to play "10 months before the start of the season." UH did not name the team, but sources indicated it was Rice.

Rhoades said UH reached out to every FBS school that had an opening or the ability to play 13 games next season - even offering to play on the road - but was unable to receive a commitment.
I don't know how much of this is true and how much of this is cover-your-ass spin by Rhoades; there are rumors on UH athletics message boards that Rhoades never had a signed contract with Rice and that this dispute has something to do with the sudden decision to move the Cincinnati game from Rice Stadium to BBVA Compass Stadium last November. And, no offense to the Owls, but even with Rice in place of Tennessee Tech this schedule wouldn't have looked much better; again, why no "Power 5" opponents?

At any rate, it's clear that Rhoades and the UH Athletics Department expects the novelty of the new stadium to sell tickets this fall, because this schedule alone certainly is not going to get the casual fan interested.

If there's anything good about the schedule, it's that it's so weak that the Cougars should be able to win nine or ten games this fall. Aside from that, I am pretty disappointed.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Random post-Olympic thoughts

For all the hand-wringing about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia - fears of terrorism and rampant homophobia, horror stories about stray dogs being murdered en masse or hotel rooms without doorknobs or potable water - the games themselves were pretty uneventful.  Even the doping and judging scandals required of every Olympic Games were relatively muted. I even went the entire two weeks without bothering to write about NBC's lousy Olympics coverage, which is a first for me. 

A few thoughts about the final medal count:

Norway's winter athletics prowess is amazing. This is a nation of just over five million people. More people live in the Houston metropolitan area than live in that entire country. Yet Norway came in third in the overall medal count with 26 medals, including 11 golds. I did the math and determined that that is one medal per approximately 198 thousand Norwegians. The United States, by comparison, won one medal per 11.3 million Americans, while Russia won one medal per every 4.3 million Russians, Canada won one medal for every 1.4 million Canadians, and China won one medal per every 150 million Chinese. I know Norwegians love their winter sports, but that is a remarkable statistic.

Other nations with low medal-to-population ratios include Slovenia (one medal per every  257 thousand people), Austria (one medal per every 479 thousand people) and Latvia (one medal per every 500 thousand people).

The Netherlands, on the other hand, had the most efficient participating athletes. The Dutch team consisted of 41 athletes and won 24 medals. That's 1.7 athletes per medal; Norway, by comparison, had 5.2 athletes per medal, while Russia had 7.0 athletes per medal and the United States had 8.2 athletes per medal.

Speaking of The Netherlands, has any country dominated a Winter Olympics sport as thoroughly as they dominated speedskating? Conversely, has any team in the history of the Winter Olympics ever won so many medals in spite of being so one-dimensional? Of their 24 medals, which was good enough for fifth place in the overall medal count, 23 of them were won in speedskating (they won 64% of the medals awarded in that sport; the United States, on the other hand, won 0%) Their one other medal? Short track skating.

The United States, for its part, did okay, ending up with 28 medals in spite of generally disappointing results in ice skating and speed skating. This was good for second place in the overall medal count, including nine golds. Twelve of those medals were in freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, however, which leads one to wonder how well Team USA would have done if these "extreme" sports had not been recently added to the Olympics.

On the other hand, what happened to Germany's Olympic team? Since reunifying in 1990, Germany has competed in seven winter Olympics and until now has proven itself to be a wintertime powerhouse: in the six previous Olympics, Germany averaged 29 medals per games and never ended up lower than third in the overall medal standings. In Sochi, the Germans ended up with a total of 19 medals and only 6th in the standings.

Am I the only person who finds it surprising that neither Chile nor Argentina has ever won a single medal in the Winter Olympics? Both nations have multiple high-quality winter sports facilities in the Andes, which attract winter athletes from the rest of the world who want to train and practice during the northern hemisphere summer/southern hemisphere winter. Neither country has been able to convert this resource into Olympic performance, however. Australia, on the other hand, came away with three medals from these games, in spite of the fact that there are no winter sports facilities of any type in that country; it rarely snows Down Under.

The biggest non-sports story of the games was probably the incident where the protest band Pussy Riot was attacked by Cossacks with horsewhips while trying to film a music video. Only in Russia.

Finally: is it just me, or has the novelty of the Jamaican boblsed team worn off?

For more thoughts on the final count, see USA Today's For The Win blog.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It's all about the spacing

Are you still one of those people who puts two spaces between sentences when you type? Well, stop doing it. Because it's wrong.
Every modern typographer agrees on the one-space rule. It's one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork and fashion designers know to put men's shirt buttons on the right and women's on the left
Every major style guide—including the Modern Language Association Style Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style—prescribes a single space after a period. (The Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, used widely in the social sciences, allows for two spaces in draft manuscripts but recommends one space in published work.)

Most ordinary people would know the one-space rule, too, if it weren't for a quirk of history. In the middle of the last century, a now-outmoded technology—the manual typewriter—invaded the American workplace. To accommodate that machine's shortcomings, everyone began to type wrong. And even though we no longer use typewriters, we all still type like we do. (Also see the persistence of the dreaded Caps Lock key.)

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M).

Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s.

First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.
The fact that Courier is monospaced makes it useful for creating tables, which is why folks like Kuff use it in their blogs, but I think that Courier is an otherwise aesthetically unappealing font. When I read or type something, I want it to look nice. And putting two spaces after a period just.  Looks.  Really.  Ugly.
But I actually think aesthetics are the best argument in favor of one space over two. One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing (it also requires less work, which isn't nothing). A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.

Is this arbitrary? Sure it is. But so are a lot of our conventions for writing. It's arbitrary that we write shop instead of shoppe, or phone instead of fone, or that we use ! to emphasize a sentence rather than %. We adopted these standards because practitioners of publishing—writers, editors, typographers, and others—settled on them after decades of experience. Among their rules was that we should use one space after a period instead of two—so that's how we should do it.
Perhaps because I never took a formal typewriting class in school, I never learned that there was such as thing as a "two-space rule." All of my word-processed assignments in high school, undergrad and grad school were written with a single space between periods, and none of my teachers or professors ever told me otherwise. It wasn't until I got my first job after grad school, and the director of the department I worked in groused to me about not putting two spaces between sentences in my reports, that I even discovered that it was an issue. Needless to say, I was surprised and loathe to change the way I typed just to appease a boss demanding a convention I had never previously heard of that turned out to be wrong anyway.

The truth is, it's not a big deal to me if somebody likes to put two spaces after a period. Maybe that's how they were taught, or maybe for some bizarre reason they think it looks better. That's fine; just don't expect me to do it. According to every major style manual, as well as my own aesthetic sensibilities, typing a single space after a period is correct.

That guy's not my boss anymore, of course. Nor, from what I hear, anybody else's boss anymore, either. And I haven't had this issue with any employer or client I've worked for since.

Athena 1997 - 2014

Late last week, my ex-wife Lori made the tough decision to put Athena down. She and I got her, along with her sister Elektra, when we lived in Austin sixteen-and-a-half years ago. Elektra was run over by a car several years ago, but Athena toughed it out to the very end. While it as an agonizing decision for Lori to make, it was simply Athena's time. The old girl had become weak, emaciated, incontinent and uncomfortable.

See how old that laptop is? Athena was even older!
Athena was not the world's friendliest cat. She tolerated humans - most of them, at least - but did not tolerate other cats very well. She hissed and growled at other cats, and sometimes other people, so often that my nickname for her was "Hiss Kitten." My father was especially amused by her irritability. One time, while witnessing Athena in a rather agitated state, he laughed and demanded to know "what in the Hell is wrong with that thing?!" As fearsome as Athena tried to be with all her hisses and growls, however, she was never very good at backing up her words with actions. Whenever Elektra or another cat would attack her, she would quickly run away.

Her tail is being pulled, and she is not amused.
One thing Athena was very good at, especially when she was younger, was hunting. She kept our apartments in Austin and Midtown free of moths - the phrase "get that moth!" would send her in a frenzy as she scoured the apartment for any moth she could dispatch - and when we lived in Denton she even killed a couple of rats in our back yard. Her hunting activities tapered off over the years, but even as recently as a few years ago the word "moth" would still cause her to perk up.

Perhaps Athena's most striking feature was her coat. Athena was a calico-tabby mix with all sorts of interesting patterns and colors running along the top half of her body from her head to her tail. I used to joke that I wanted to take Athena to a taxidermist when she died so I could continue to enjoy looking at her coat. That's not going to happen, of course; although we had discussed burying her under a tree, like we did with Elektra, Athena will be cremated and her ashes might wind up in a garden sometime in the future.

Athena stayed with Lori after the divorce, but I'd still see her regularly when I took Kirby to her house or otherwise came to visit. She'd chirp her hellos to me and find a spot on my lap to rest and purr very time I came to visit. She stayed pretty healthy through the years, too; it wasn't until the last few months that her condition really began to deteriorate.

According to this chart, Athena lived to be 82 cat years old. She was a beautiful cat, and she will be missed.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Houston to Seoul, nonstop

Add another airline and another major city to Bush Intercontinental Airport's growing list of international services:
Korean Air announced Wednesday it is launching a nonstop service between Houston and Seoul.

The four-day-a-week flight will launch in May between Bush Intercontinental and Incheon International Airports. The flights will depart every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. This is the second destination for the airline in Texas.

"We're very bullish on the Americas," says John Jackson, the airline's vice president of marketing for North and South America, in a statement. "Houston is the fifth largest metro area in the U.S. with a very strong travel market to Asia. We've decided to earn our fair share of the market with a highly competitive product and service that's hard to beat."
The service to Seoul comes as United is adding a second daily nonstop to Tokyo and Air China is expanding its Houston-Beijing service to daily frequencies. There's clearly huge demand for air connections between Houston and East Asia.

This news also comes as the Houston Airport System announces that records were broken in 2013:
According to a 2013 year-end traffic report released today by the Houston Airport System, passenger traffic has risen to record-setting levels in two key areas: overall passenger traffic reached an all-time high at William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) and international traffic at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) reached levels never before seen in its 45-year history.  The combined passenger totals from both airport facilities is up 1.2 percent over 2012 — from 50.3 million passengers to 50.9 million passengers in 2013.
According to the release, IAH handled 8.9 million international passengers in 2013, an increase of 2.5 percent over 2012. Houston is becoming an increasingly important international destination, which is why Korean Airlines is coming to town. That's a good thing for the city, its economy and its people.

Friday, January 24, 2014

No, we can't drive in this crap

Once every few winters, it happens. A winter storm brings freezing rain, sleet and even a few flurries into the Houston metropolitan area, and everybody panics. The local TV news stations go into the OMG EXTREME WEATHER !!11! frenzy they usually reserve for hurricanes. Schools close. Kids rejoice. Flights get canceled. Business gets disrupted. People up north find out about it and laugh their asses off at us.

But there's a reason why this city shuts down at the slightest bit of ice: as the carnage wrought by this morning's ice storm once again illustrates, we don't know how to drive in this shit.

Driving in icy conditions is simply not a skill that the typical Houston motorist (transplants from up north aside) possesses. We just don't see these kinds of weather conditions often enough to know how to deal with driving in them.

Many of us readily admit that we do not know how to drive in these conditions. We simply stay off the roads. A substantial percentage of locals, however, either cannot admit that they don't know how to drive in icy weather or simply do not realize that driving in such conditions requires special skills that are not required for normal driving. These are the folks that get on the roads and get into wrecks, get stranded on ice-covered overpasses, or otherwise validate the decisions of those of us who choose not to drive in these conditions.

Sure, sometimes people down here can get a bit too ridiculous about it. Yesterday afternoon, everybody was in such a hurry to get home before the ice hit that my trip from The Woodlands (where I was attending meetings) to my home in Bellaire took two whole hours. This in spite of the fact that the freezing precipitation wasn't expected until much later in the evening. And the local news hype, complete with "team coverage" of reporters standing at busy intersections around town or B-roll of TxDOT trucks spraying salt on bridges and people wrapping their plants with blankets, doesn't make matters any better. 

But that's just the way it is down here, where icy weather is a rarity and where knowledge of how to drive in it is simply not a skill that is required 99.9% of the time. If we wanted to drive in this crap, we'd be living in Wyoming or Minnesota.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

High speed rail between Houston and Dallas: what you need to know

Last Monday, former Harris County Judge and current President of Texas Central Railway Robert Eckels came to the Houston-Galveston Area Council to make a lunchtime presentation (video here) of his company's plans for a bullet train that, as early as 2021, would make the trip from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes or less. Here are some of the highlights from his presentation:
  • This train is intended to be privately-financed and operated. Texas Central will work with government agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, and is in fact working with them on environmental studies right now, but the train itself will not be operated nor subsidized by the government.
  • This train's speed could top out at 205 miles per hour on the Houston-Dallas run, due to relatively flat topography and overwhelmingly rural development between the two cities. 
  • The train's city-to-city travel time of 90 minutes is competitive with flying, when time getting through security and boarding the aircraft is taken into account.
  • Seven different alignments are under consideration, but all try to use existing rights-of-way (along I-45 or existing Union Pacific or BNSF trackage) to keep land acquisition costs as low as possible. 
  • The train will be fully-grade separated, as all bullet trains are in Japan. 
  • Train departures will be as frequent as every half-hour, which matches frequencies currently offered by Southwest Airlines between Hobby Airport and Love Field. 
  • Ticket prices are expected to be slightly less than the current commercial airfare between Houston and Dallas, but a fare structure is nowhere near finalized.
  • Station locations in Houston and Dallas are still under study but downtown termini appear to be preferred; getting into downtown Dallas from the south is going to be easier than getting into downtown Houston from the north due to the way the two cities have developed. 
  • As of right now, there are no plans for any intermediate stops between Houston and Dallas. This is probably not something that folks from Bryan/College Station or The Woodlands want to hear, and there may be opportunities to provide those stations in the future, but initially this is envisioned to be a non-stop service. 
  • Likewise, these trains will not stop at any airports, because it is not economic to do so at this time. Right-of-way for a future extension from Dallas to DFW airport and Fort Worth will be preserved, however.
  • The vociferous opposition from Southwest Airlines that killed a similar plan for high speed rail in Texas in the 1990s has not materialized. This is because Southwest's business model has changed significantly in the last 20 years. This is due to factors such as the expiration of Wright Amendment restrictions on service to and from Love Field in Dallas, the fact that Southwest is now a truly "national" airline, and increases in jet fuel costs that make the short-haul flights that Southwest used to rely on, such as Hobby-to-Love, less profitable. 
  • The price tag for the train's construction is a nice, round $10 billion.
Eckels noted that the challenges to building this bullet train are financial, rather than environmental or technical in nature, but that private funding sources are being sought and that if things "pencil in," then this project will become a reality. He says he's "cautiously optimistic;" I'm somewhat less optimistic, if for no other reason than rounding up $10 billion in private capital is a significant hurdle to clear. I'm also worried that actually getting the trains into the centers of both Houston and Dallas will be a lot harder than Texas Central anticipates.

On the other hand, it's clear that Texas Central is not some wild-eyed, pie-in-the-sky operation. Eckels leads an experienced and politically-savvy team, their backing from Central Japan Railway is real, and their plans are being taken very seriously by federal, state and local authorities. It's all about being able to ensure that their investors make a profit, and to that end Texas Central is not looking just at fares but also development opportunities around stations for maximum value capture.

I've ridden the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, and I would take that over a cramped seat on a 737 or a boring car ride on I-45 any day. So while I have my doubts, I'm nevertheless rooting for Eckels and Texas Central to succeed.

Finding one's self... On Google Earth

Google Earth recently updated its imagery for the Houston area. I zoomed into my house to discover that it shows exactly what I was doing in the early afternoon of Halloween 2013.

At the time this picture was taken, I had just gotten off from work (I took a half-day) and was getting ready for the tailgate for that evening's football game against South Florida at Reliant Stadium. The white top of my ice chest is clearly visible in the open trunk of my car, as am I, walking to the right side of my car carrying a grocery bag in my hand (which you can see if you zoom into my shadow) which I was about to put into the car. If I recall correctly, the bag contained tortilla chips as well as candy - it was, after all, Halloween.

I don't mind that Google Earth's aerial photography found me. It's not like I am readily identifiable in this picture taken from miles above, and since was in the front of my house in plain view of the street I had no expectation of privacy to begin with. It's just a little piece of my mundane existence which has been captured and will forever reside in Google's servers.

And I actually think it's kind of cool.