Thursday, September 03, 2015

2015 Houston Cougar football preview

My favorite time of year is finally upon us! The first college football games of the season are underway as I write this, and the University of Houston kicks off in less than 48 hours from now at TDECU Stadium, where they will be hosting Tennessee Tech. What do I expect from my beloved Coogs this year?

Looking Back: The Cougars notched an 8-5 record in 2014, capped by a miraculous 25-point fourth-quarter comeback against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Bowl. However, the season was an overall disappointment, capped by unforgivable upset losses to UTSA on TDECU Stadium's opening night and to Tulane on Homecoming. Those losses cost Tony Levine his job after only three seasons as head coach.

The Big Story for 2014: Levine's replacement, Tom Herman, has an extensive coaching pedigree, most recently serving as offensive coordinator for last year's national champion, Ohio State.

Reasons for Optimism:  Given Tom Herman's previous coaching experience, as well as the fact that he's assembled by what all accounts is a strong staff, one would expect a significant upgrade over the previous regime in terms of coaching and play-calling abilities. Talented players, such as bruising RB Kenneth Farrow and mobile QB Greg Ward Jr, return on offense. The defense is experienced; every player on the two-deep released earlier this week is a returning letterman, and the secondary, anchored by seniors Lee Hightower, William Jackson, Adrian McDonald, and Trevon Stewart, might actually one of the best in the nation.

Reasons for Pessimism: in spite of all the positive buzz surrounding Tom Herman, he hasn't coached a game yet. There's always a learning curve associated with becoming a head coach for the first time, and there are bound to be hiccups along the way as he settles into his new job. My biggest on-field concern is the offensive line. Only one OL on the entire two-deep weighs more than 300 pounds, and there are three freshmen (two true, one redshirt) listed; whomever starts at center will be making his very first snap at the college level this Saturday. There's not a lot of depth in the receiving corps, and the defensive line (which switches to a 3-4 alignment this fall) loses three starters from last year.

It's also worth mentioning that even though Greg Ward Jr is returning, there's no guarantee that he'll be starting at quarterback. Utah transfer Adam Schultz is also vying for the job, and we're likely to see both play on Saturday. It's too early to fret over a "quarterback controversy," but as of right now this position remains unsettled.

The Schedule: the schedule is generally favorable; the Coogs have seven home games and host two of their tougher in-conference opponents, Memphis and Cincinnati, at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars also get Vanderbilt, their lone opponent from a Power 5 conference, at home on Halloween.

What the Computers Think: Sagarin starts Houston at #60 in the nation with a starting rating of 71.11. This would imply a 9-3 record for the Coogs when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into consideration. Congrove, which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two wins 12 out of the last 21 seasons, ranks the Coogs 71st to begin the season and envisions a 7-5 record. Massey starts Houston at the 75th position and foresees an 8-4 record.

What I Think: If the Cougars end up with another eight-win season in 2015, pigskin pundits will ask why Houston bothered to change coaching staffs, and whether they actually experienced an upgrade. That being said, there are just too many uncertainties with this team - new coaching staff, undersized and inexperienced offensive line, a new scheme in the defensive front seven, weakness at the receiver positions - that make it difficult for me to predict anything more than an eight-win season, especially with Louisville and Central Florida on the road and Memphis, Cincinnati and an SEC team at home.

I am going to predict eight wins for the Cougars over the course of the regular season. That may be good enough to win the AAC west, if they can get past Memphis. But a conference title is probably too much to ask in 2015.

See ESPN, Bloguin, Athlon, SBNation, and Maddux Sports for further previews of the 2015 University of Houston football team. USA Today has an excellent overview of the entire American Athletic Conference.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Katrina, ten years later

Yesterday, August 29th, marked the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. It devastated communities along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana: 1,833 people lost their lives, over 350 thousand homes were destroyed, and an estimated $180 billion worth of property was damaged. Katrina was especially ruinous to the city of New Orleans: levee failures caused 80% of the city to be flooded for weeks, one hundred thousand housing units were damaged or destroyed, the city was almost entirely evacuated, and storm created a level of human suffering unparalleled in recent American history.

Shortly after Katrina hit, I pondered the devastated city's future (see here and here) as well as its effects on neighboring locales such as Baton Rouge and Houston. Given the level of death and destruction New Orleans experienced, as well as the geographic conditions that made it so vulnerable to not only Katrina but future storms as well, did it even make sense to rebuild the city at all?

In retrospect, of course, the idea that an entire city was just going to "go away" - a city that has been there for almost three centuries, that anchors a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people, and that also happens to serve as the port at the mouth of the nation's largest and most important navigable waterway - is absurd. The Big Easy was always going to be rebuilt after Katrina. And while the city has met many milestones in its post-Katrina reconstruction, its recovery has been very uneven. Its population is one example, as The Atlantic's Laura Bliss reports:
According to the Data Center, more than half of New Orleans neighborhoods have now recovered to more than 90 percent of the occupied households they had prior to Katrina. Census estimates from July 2014 put the city’s population at 384,320, about 79 percent of its 2000 population of 484,674. Compared to 2000, about 100,000 fewer African Americans and 9,000 fewer whites live in New Orleans. The city is more diverse now: Its Hispanic population has grown by a little more than 6,000. There are more Asian Americans, too. (Notably, studies have shown that the post-Katrina rate of return for Vietnamese citizens was faster than the citywide rate.)

Still, thousands have not returned to the city they used to call home. We don’t know precisely how many or all of the reasons why. We do know that African Americans of low socioeconomic status, who lived in impoverished neighborhoods hit hard by Katrina, have been among the least likely to return. For example, as of 2013, only 30 percent of residents of the low-income, predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward had returned, according to Al Jazeera.

But out of all groups, it seems to be children who were the least likely to return to New Orleans. From 2000 to 2010, the Data Center reports, the number of children under the age of 18 living in New Orleans decreased by 56,193, or 43 percent. Presumably, their parents found better conditions outside the city, or found it too hard or expensive to move back.
The Crescent City, furthermore, has an affordable housing problem even as it remains saturated with blighted properties, still suffers from a high crime rate, its transit agency still only provides a fraction of its pre-Katrina services, the city has a 27% poverty rate and a huge income gap, and it struggles to attract major corporations and high-paying jobs.

Just as the idea that New Orleans could have been completely abandoned after Katrina is utterly ridiculous, a competing theory that arose in the days following the storm - that Katrina would "wipe the slate clean" and allow New Orleans to be reborn could rise, phoenix-like, to become a place to live, work and play than it was before - has proven to be just as fanciful.

In short, while the population of New Orleans today is smaller, older and more diverse than it was before Katrina, the city itself still suffers from the same problems, many of which were exacerbated by the storm and many of which are due to social and structural issues that are exceeding difficult to solve, hurricane or no.

Obviously, ten years is an insufficient period of time to survey the aftermath of an event as big and as catastrophic as Katrina on a city as large and as complex as New Orleans; its effects will continue to be felt for decades to come. A decade after Katrina, its recovery is nowhere near complete.

Shortly after the hurricane's landfall I also pondered the notion that Baton Rouge, which had been inundated with upwards of two hundred thousand Katrina evacuees, would replace New Orleans to become become Louisiana's pre-eminent city, much the same way Houston replaced Galveston as Texas's most important city after the hurricane of 1900. That proved not to be the case; the city's temporary New Orleans contingent made the trip back to their homes as soon as they were able to do so, and Baton Rouge's 2010 population was about the same as its 2000 population.

Finally, as Katrina evacuees made their way to Houston both before and after the storm's landfall, I pondered the effect of all these new residents on my city. Perhaps no city outside of New Orleans was affected by the storm as much as Houston, both in terms of the people it absorbed as well as the panic that it created among the population a few weeks later, when Rita approached and hundreds of thousands of people participated in a disastrous evacuation of the metropolitan area. Back to Laura Bliss:
The city of Houston received more Katrina evacuees than anywhere else in the country. As many as 250,000 arrived at the peak of the storm, many landing in the city’s Astrodome. An estimated 150,000 were still living in Houston a year later. For thousands of those evacuees, living conditions in Houston were not good. According to a 2006 survey by the city of Houston, about a quarter of former New Orleans residents who were displaced to Houston (including those displaced by Rita, which hit the Gulf less than a month after Katrina) were staked out “in FEMA-funded apartments in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side.”

The influx slammed Texas government. Housing was scarce and often unaffordable for evacuees. Schools, transit systems, and Medicaid programs were overwhelmed. A 2006 report from the office of former Texas Governor Rick Perry beseeched the feds for $2 billion in extra funding to cover the costs of this new, highly vulnerable population, which included Rita’s victims. (The state, and others, did receive extra federal assistance to assist evacuees.)

To make matters much worse, longtime Houston residents were wary of Katrina evacuees, who were overwhelmingly poor and black. Residents complained of a crime wave connected to their new neighbors, which was later debunked. But the negative tone lingered. In 2010, an annual citywide survey revealed that 58 percent of Houstonians felt that the overall impact of the evacuees on the city had been “a bad thing.”
The "myth" of a crime wave in Houston caused by Katrina evacuees is explored in this article from Rice University's Urban Edge blog. It does note that violent crimes such as homicides and robberies increased following Katrina, but that other types of violent and property crime did not increase. "If a bunch of violent New Orleans residents were taking over the streets of Houston, it would be unlikely they’d commit homicide but not other crimes," the article notes. Nevertheless, the perception that Katrina evacuees created a spike in the local crime rate remains.

Ten years later, a large number of Katrina evacuees have remained in Houston:
As New Orleans marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina this week, many who called the city home in August 2005 will be absent. Tens of thousands swapped one of the nation’s most distinctive and historic cities for the car-centric urban sprawl and homogenous modern suburbs of a metro area of six million people that is today about five times larger than greater New Orleans.
Estimates vary, but of the 250,000-odd evacuees who arrived in Houston after the storm, up to 100,000 likely stayed permanently.

“We call Houston ‘New Orleans West’,” said Mtangulizi Sanyika, an academic who left New Orleans after his house flooded and ended up staying in Texas when his wife found a job at a hospital. Sanyika is chairman of the New Orleans Association of Houston, which is planning a series of commemorative events.

[...]

Carl Lindahl, a University of Houston professor, said that two sections of the displaced population in particular tended not to return: parents of young children, who felt Houston was safer and had better schools, and the elderly, who believed New Orleans lacked social services.
Which goes back to some of the basic issues New Orleans faces, issues that were part of the city before Katrina and which need to be addressed if the city is to fully recover. In the meantime, countless individuals still continue to live as citizens of two different cities at the same time:
Spread out across Houston’s vastness, the exiles remained linked by their common culture, said one of the evacuees, Dallas McNamara, a photographer. “Things like music allowed people to get together,” she said. Bands formed. Branches of New Orleans-based churches set up in Houston. Restaurants opened.

“I think people are kind of surprised by how much they like Houston. They have a nicer home, they like the schools. They’re blown away by the amount of driving that they do but they tend to become pleasantly surprised,” McNamara said. Still, she added, “I do miss the politeness that was just ingrained … and there are more rules here. You can’t walk out of the bar with your cocktail or beer.”
For Sanyika, “The most negative aspect of Houston for most New Orleanians is the transportation. The other is the food. It’s a very different kind of taste,” he said. “A Texas gumbo doesn’t taste quite the same.”

He misses the organic way that “New Orleans culture bubbles from the bottom up, from the streets, the neighbourhoods, the working class people especially”, but said he is happy in Houston. “You never lose your cultural heritage and roots, you simply learn to integrate them in whatever environment you find yourself in,” he said. 

The 73-year-old still visits New Orleans regularly. “When I leave there is always a sadness,” he said. “New Orleans is in your soul, your heart, your roots, it anchors who you are and you take it with you wherever you go.”
Given their geographic and economic similarities, Houston and New Orleans always have been and always will be closely linked to one another. Katrina only made those bonds stronger.

I've followed the story of New Orleans' recovery on this blog; see posts I wrote ten months, one year, three years and five years after Katrina.  

The New York Times has a lengthy but excellent multimedia presentation regarding the ten year anniversary of the storm: "Ten years later, it is not exactly right to say that New Orleans is back. The city did not return, not as it was," it notes.

Slate takes issue with a handful of Katrina myths, including the idea that "everything is better now." The Chronicle has its own slideshow of debunked myths. The Data Center has an entire page full of facts and graphs regarding the state of New Orleans, ten years after, and the series of articles at Vox and The Atlantic are worth perusing as well.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thomas Colbert, 1954-2015

I never had Tom Colbert as a studio instructor at the University of Houston College of Architecture, but I knew him well. He was on several of my design juries while I was a student, provided me with some ideas when I was working on my Master's thesis at UT, and eventually became a neighbor of mine when he moved into a house a couple of doors down from me and my ex-wife in the University Oaks neighborhood adjacent to campus.

Hardly an afternoon went by when he wasn't in his front yard playing fetch with his chocolate lab. He had purchased a vacant lot down the street and I was always interested in what kind of house he would eventually build there. Unfortunately, he never got around doing so:
Tom Colbert, a University of Houston professor who fought to protect Texas' coastline, died Friday after a battle with stomach cancer. He was 61.

Colbert grew up in New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina affected him powerfully. As I wrote in 2013, "He knew what that drowned city had been, knew how much was lost when its levees broke. After Katrina, Colbert's elderly father took refuge in a facility that ran out of drinking water. Nurses resorted to using saline IV bags to keep survivors hydrated."

What, Colbert asked himself, would happen to Houston, his adopted city since 1985, if a similar storm hit? The scientific projections, he found, are terrifying: If a worst-case storm hit Houston, the economic damage and loss of life wouldn't just be as bad as Katrina. It would be much, much worse. If a hurricane storm surge rushed up the Houston Ship Channel, knocking over and busting open the enormous chemical tanks there, toxic goo would slosh all over the city, going wherever floodwater carried it. The result could easily be the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has ever seen.
Colbert, working with Rice University's SSPEED Center (it stands for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters), championed flood-protection infrastructure that wouldn't just fend off disaster. Done right, he argued, floodgates, levees and buffer zones could actually improve everyday quality of life — or even be tourist attractions. Levees, he noted, can be attractive public spaces, like the levee/park behind New Orleans' Cafe du Monde.
I had no idea that he was battling cancer, so coming across this article was a shock for me. He seemed to be doing well the last time I saw him, which was at a Houston Tomorrow event at H-GAC not too terribly long ago.

As we come upon the tenth anniversary of Katrina, we can only hope that Colbert's vision - storm infrastructure that enriches as well as protects - is realized before it's too late.

Colbert's full obituary is here. Like Bill Stern, Colbert was an immensely-talented UH College of Architecture instructor that cancer took from us too soon. He will be missed.

Dallas's freeway park is paying dividends

Klyde Warren Park is a $110 million deck park built over the trench of the Woodall Rodgers freeway on the north side of downtown Dallas. It opened three years ago and has become a popular local attraction. It is also generating economic benefits:
The biggest surprise, though, has been the velocity and magnitude of the park’s impact on commercial real estate. Since late 2012, triple-net lease rates at Trammell Crow Center in the Arts District have climbed from $19 per square foot to $25 per square foot—a 32 percent jump. Rents at 2100 Ross have gone from $13 to $19—a 46 percent increase. On the north side of the park, lease rates at 2000 McKinney have climbed 56 percent, from $25 to $37 per square foot. And rents at 2100 McKinney have appreciated an incredible 64 percent, from $22 to $36 per square foot.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact this 5-acre park would have,” says Phil Puckett, executive vice president of CBRE, who pulled the lease-rate data together. “Having worked in the downtown and Uptown markets for 25 years, I have never seen anything like it. Klyde Warren Park has become the epicenter.”

Its impact is especially impressive when the size of the park is considered. At 5.4 acres, Klyde Warren pales in comparison to Chicago’s Millennium Park (24.5 acres) or New York City’s massive Central Park (843 acres). “Dallas didn’t realize how much it needed this park,” says Randy Cooper, vice chairman of DTZ. “It replaced concrete with green space, created a better pedestrian environment, and achieved its goal of creating a bridge between Uptown and downtown. People making investments want to be as close to the park as possible.”
Building a park over a freeway trench is not cheap, but the benefits of replacing a noisy concrete canyon with an attractive green space are obvious. Not only do these types of parks bridge neighborhoods and improve an area's quality of life, but as Klyde Warren Park shows, they also provide tangible economic advantages.

Just something to keep in mind as we here in Houston consider the costs and benefits potential reconstruction - and capping - of I-45 in and around downtown.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Retroblogging

This blog didn't really begin in earnest until the late spring of 2006. However, I had been blogging for at least two years earlier, on my old, out-of-date website that I finally put out if its misery a couple of weeks ago.

There were some things I wrote on my first "blog" that I wanted to keep. For example, posts regarding Kirby's birth, posts about Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the exploits of the Cougars and the Astros, my trip to Japan, my very first trip to Dubai.

So I went through all of them, decided which ones I wanted to keep, and moved them to this blog. I backdated them to the date I originally published them on my old website. I generally cut and pasted them as they were originally written, only lightly editing them. I didn't even strip out the hyperlinks in many of them, even though a lot of them are now unfortunately dead.

I note at the bottom of each post the date they were "retroblogged" (today, August 23, 2015) and in many cases add a sentence or two to update what I wrote.

Thus, every entry now on this blog from 2004, all but one entry from 2005, and one entry from 2006 are pa  There are 40 of them in total. They all that now appears on this blog is an import from my old website. They all carry the "retroblog" tag.

Some what I think are the more noteworthy of these "retroblogs" are as follows:

July 18, 2004: Local homeowners complain about development in spite of Houston's lack of zoning

August 21, 2004: Kirby's birth

October 12, 2004: Astros get past the Atlanta Braves to win their first-ever postseason series

November 16, 2004: 2004 Presidential Election thoughts (aka, they both sucked)

November 22. 2004: The Coogs conclude a disappointing season

December 27, 2004: Houston experiences a White Christmas

March 15, 2005: Disco lives! at the University of North Texas library

April 25, 2005: Political instability continues in Ecuador as another president is forced out of office

September 8, 2005: Pondering the future of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

September 25, 2005: The disaster that was the Hurricane Rita evacuation

October 12, 2005: The "Kat-Rita Bowl:" Houston 35, Tulane 14 in Lafayette

October 20, 2005: The Astros are going to the World Series (and I'm going to Japan!)

December 7, 2005: College football teams that got Screwed and Shafted by bowl selection committees

December 10, 2005: Pictures and a review of my trip to Japan in October 2005

February 19, 2006: Pictures and a review of my trip to Dubai in January 2006

It was truly interesting to go back and read all of those old blog entries - many of which I hadn't looked at in years - to see how things were and what my life was like a decade ago.

There is still some material I saved from my old website that I might put on this blog in the future, but I probably won't be backdating them as I did with the above posts.

Happy 11th, Kirby

It was eleven years ago that Kirby came into our lives. Has it really been that long?!

His mother, my parents and myself treated him to dinner at Spanish Village (one of our favorite Mexican Restaurants) for his birthday.
No, smartasses, those aren't his margaritas!
Monday he begins fifth grade. Which means it's time to start looking at middle schools. And time to start preparing ourselves for the wonderful teenage years...

Monday, August 10, 2015

I really need to get out of the country more often

After I wrote about my goal of visiting the world's 25 smallest countries, I decided to make a tally of all the countries I've visited and when I visited them. For somebody who likes to travel, this list is remarkably sparse:

Antigua and Barbuda: 
2015
Austria: 
2002
Barbados:  
2015
Belize:  
2006
Canada:
1974, 1980, 1982
Czech Republic:
2002
Ecuador: 
1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 2001
Germany: 
2002
Ireland:
1985
Japan: 
2005
Mexico: 
1979, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007

The Kingdom of the Netherlands:
The Netherlands
2002, 2006
Aruba
2014
 St. Maarten:  
2015
St. Kitts and Nevis:  
2015
St. Lucia:  
2015
United Arab Emirates: 
2006, 2008, 2012


The United Kingdom:
England:
1985
Scotland:
1985
 Wales:
1985


Airport stopovers (where I do not leave the terminal) do not count. Border crossings, airport stopovers where I do leave the terminal, and cruise ports of call do count, and are italicized. I broke out the United Kingdom and The Kingdom of the Netherlands into their constituent countries but I don't count them separately as they are not fully sovereign.

That's 16 out of 206 sovereign (or de-facto sovereign) nations, or 7.7% percent. That's pretty pathetic.

I need to redouble my efforts to see more of the world. Where shall I travel next?

(Flag source: World Flag Database)

Sunday, August 09, 2015

On (finally) killing my website

Earlier today, I did something that I had been meaning to do for years: kill my website.
I took the whole thing down. It no longer exists. See?
indotav.com: 2000 - 2015. May it rest in peace.
The screenshot above shows that indotav.com (I no longer own the rights to the url) was “last modified on September 4, 2007.” I kept the site, which I originally created in 2000, updated on a semi-regular basis until that point, when I ran into an issue regarding the pictures and content on Lori's "side" of the website. That problem never got resolved, and I lost interest in keeping the site updated.

Which means I let the site languish for almost eight years. I always meant to do something about it, such as completely revamp it or move it to a new webhost - hence the notice at the top of the page - but I never took any action. I just didn’t have the time, the motivation or (quite frankly) the skill to do so.

Furthermore, I was unsure about what to do with some of the material on that site. If I revamped it or took it down, then what, for example, should happen to my “old” blog entries, my entire thesis on The Aesthetic Condition of the Urban Freeway, my travelogues from Japan, Ecuador and Dubai, my advice for suburban homebuyers suffering from the “drawbridge mentality” that rings just as true today as it did fifteen years ago when I originally wrote it, or my explanation as to why rabbits make lousy pets (which still generates e-mail from bunny friend and foe alike, a decade after I originally uploaded it)?

Of course, the amount of dated or obsolete material on that website far outweighed the material I wanted to keep. The decade-old article on Ecuador’s experiment with dollarization, for example. Pictures from Houston and North Texas football games in the early 00s. Links to my old Daily Cougar columns that are no longer active. There were light rail and streetcar maps I originally drew in the 2002-04 as a favor to Robert Schwandl, whose urbanrail.net site once only contained heavy rail networks. Once Robert started carrying those systems on his page, however, there was no longer any reason for me to update them (my name is still on the Houston map on his site).

And then there were pictures of my wedding to Lori, which remained on that site over five years after our divorce was finalized.

In the end, I decided that the whole thing should come down. I let my registration to indotav.com lapse, found the old password to the Earthlink ftp site which held the pages, and finally pulled everything down this weekend with the exception of a terse "home page" redirecting people to this blog. In the end, I thought it would be best to let indotav.com die completely, and let my presence on the Interwebs be limited to this blog (even though this site, too, might someday come to a hiatus) and my Facebook page.

As far as the material I wanted to keep: some of it will be ported over here, as “retro” blog entries. My pictures of my trip to Japan as well as my first trip to Dubai, for example, as well as things I wrote during hurricanes Katrina and Rita (has it really been ten years?!), will soon go up here, backdated to when I originally wrote them. I’m debating about whether I want to do this with some other material – do I really want more hate mail about how rabbits make bad pets? – but that will be a decision for me to make as I port material to Blogspot over the coming months.

What to do about my thesis on urban highway aesthetics is a bit more troublesome. I could also port that to this blog, perhaps with each chapter being its own entry, but given that the document was originally written in 1999, it really needs to be updated, and the pictures are not of high quality as well. I think I am going to hold off on that for now; maybe I need to update it and republish it through professional channels.

So the website that I originally created back in 2000, using my very limited HTML skills, and which continually grew over the following half-dozen years, is no more. And I’m a little sad about it.

But I’m sadder that I didn’t kill it a long time ago.

My top ten Chemical Brothers songs

A few weeks ago, electronic "big beat" duo The Chemical Brothers released their newest album. The duo, composed of Englishmen Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, has spent the last two decades layering breakbeats, samples, and synths into bombastic tunes that run the gamut from 80s old-school hip-hop to 60s acid rock. They are among my favorite bands.

Their latest album, Born in the Echoes, is meeting with fair-to-positive reviews. I myself think it's kind of hit-or-miss, although the sinewy distortion of "Reflexion" is classic Chemical Brothers and "Wide Open," a hypnotic, soulful collaboration with Beck, needs to be released as a single.

The Chemical Brothers marked their newest album's debut on their Facebook page by asking their fans what their top ten songs were. The post was prompted by a Stereogum article listing what that magazine felt were the duo's top ten tracks. It's not the only top ten list of Chemical Brothers tracks out there, either; EDM website The Untz has a top ten list, and watchmojo.com created a top ten video as well.

So, in the spirit of "if they can do it, why can't I?," and in honor of the Chemical Brothers' most recent release (as well as next week's 20th anniversary of the release of their first album, Exit Planet Dust), I decided to create a top ten list of my own. I therefore present the official Mean Green Cougar Red list of the top ten Chemical Brothers songs:

10. "Surface to Air" (Push the Button)
The final track off of 2005's Grammy-winning Push the Button is probably best known for the track "Galvanize," a 2000s nightclub standard featuring a memorable Middle Eastern string loop and lyrics by Q-Tip (which would probably compete with "Setting Sun" for #11 on this list). That being said, my favorite track on the album is the last one: an insistent, ambient jam that provides an excellent soundtrack for working out, driving across the country at night, or filming a Red Bull promotional video. It's mind-clearing mood enhancement in sonic form.



9. "Come With Us" (Come with Us)
Their fourth album, released in 2002, included the frenetic tribal beat of "It Began in Africa," the head-bobbing "Galaxy Bounce," and the shimmering, Bowie-influenced "Star Guitar." Those are all great songs, but my favorite is the opening and title track, which escalates, pulsates, swirls, and, as Allmusic notes, "detonates like a bomb blast." It sets the tone for what I believe is one of their stronger and more cohesive albums. I especially enjoy the bassy breakdown at the 3:30 mark.



8. "The Private Psychedelic Reel" (Dig Your Own Hole)
As the aforementioned Stereogum article explains:
Named for a legendary rumored recording the Beatles supposedly made for themselves to drop acid to, “The Private Psychedelic Reel” takes some recognizable elements of vintage psychedelia — a droning, chiming sitar chief amongst them — fuses it with a characteristically oversized drum loop, drops it in the middle of a Blade Runner flying car rush hour, and then gets Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue to lace it with a clarinet freakout, of all things.
Indeed, one of their most unique and innovative songs.



7. Hey Boy Hey Girl (Surrender)
1999's Surrender was a bit more house-oriented than the previous two Chemical Brothers releases.  That's evident in this playful song, which features a driving disco beat, rave-y acid synths, and a sample from 1984 hip-hip standard "The Roof Is On Fire" by Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three. That's Ed and Tom getting out of the taxi at the end of this skeleton-centric video:



6. Escape Velocity (Further)
2010's Further achieves liftoff with its second track, which perhaps gets its name from a phrase in a Guardian review of their music from a few years before. To Stereogum, once more:
“Escape Velocity” pulls off more breathtaking force in twelve minutes than most on-wax dance acts are usually capable of outside the mass-moving expanse of a festival crowd. And it does so with a drive that fuses rise-and-fall dynamics with a sound lab’s worth of dance music history, decades of accumulated influence worked into contemporary motion.


5. "Where Do I Begin" (Dig Your Own Hole)
With a looped guitar sample and a morning-after lament by Beth Orton that layers upon itself, this song slowly and hypnotically builds, not finally releasing its tension into a cymbal-heavy breakbeat until over three minutes in. At the 4:45 mark, the song transforms once again, this time into what could best be described as an accelerating motorbike. It's kind of weird, but it's an appropriate conclusion to a song that is, for all intents and purposes, the soundtrack to a head-splitting Sunday morning hangover.



4. "Burst Generator" (We Are The Night)
In spite of winning Rowlands and Simons their second Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album, 2007's We Are The Night garnered mixed reviews from critics. While the album is somewhat scattershot - seriously, WTF was the deal with "The Salmon Dance?" - it nevertheless contains some solid tracks. "Burst Generator," as its name implies, features a series of build-and-release sonic bursts above a pulsing bassline and amidst a reverberating wall of sound. It was never released as a single nor is there an official video for it; there is this fan video which, albeit interesting, is clearly based off the official video for Star Guitar.



3. "Let Forever Be" (Surrender)
Rowlands and Simons have been heavily influenced by The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," and it is evident in this track. Noel Gallagher (of Oasis fame) provides psychedelic-textured lyrics over a furious drum loop and gurgling bass. This trippy Michel Gondry-directed video is one of the Chemical Brothers' most well-known videos.



2. "Life Is Sweet" (Exit Planet Dust)
This paean to a happy-go-lucky life features a throbbing, grinding bassline over an intense breakbeat  and breathy vocals provided by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, all punctuated with a sampled shout of triumph. Allmusic describes the track as "somewhere between straight-ahead techno and alternative dance with just a bit of funk thrown in for good measure," and it sounds as fresh and ebullient today as it did when it was released twenty years ago. The song in the video omits the last couple of minutes of the album track, which transforms into something more spacey and ambient. 



1. Dissolve (Further)
At the same time psychedelic and symphonic, this track (never released as a single) is an homage to classic rock. The intro recalls The Who's "Baba O'Riley," the acid synth riff that dominates the song is a nod to the Beatles' "It's All too Much," the soaring counter-melodies are reminiscent of "Here Comes the Sun," and even the drums sound like something out of a sixties acid rock track. It all - shall I say "dissolves?" - into an oboe-paced interlude featuring trippy lyrics supplied by the Brothers themselves before dropping into a grande finale whose sonic intensity would blow your average hippie's LSD-fried mind. To shed any additional doubts of this tunes' 1960s provenance, take a look at the official video, which features British actress Romola Garai running the gauntlet of freaks and creeps and until she finds her man.

This is, without question, my favorite Chemical Brothers tune.



Tracks 11-20: "Galvanize" (Push the Button), "Setting Sun" (Dig Your Own Hole), "Out of Control" (Surrender), "Leave Home" (Exit Planet Dust), "It Began in Africa" (Come With Us), "Wide Open" (Born in the Echoes), "Block Rockin' Beats" (Dig Your Own Hole), "A Modern Midnight Conversation" (We Are The Night), "Star Guitar" (Come With Us), and "The Sunshine Underground" (Surrender).

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The world's smallest countries, and my life's goal

I've always been fascinated by microstates and city-states - sovereign nations that in some cases are only a few square miles in size.

I find them interesting for a variety of reasons. These little nations - many of which are smaller than inside-the-loop Houston, some which which contain only a few thousand residents - somehow manage to exist among the likes of China, India, the United States, Brazil, Russia.

Their histories, in many cases, are fascinating. A lot of European miscrostates, for example, are vestiges of feudalism. The co-princes of Andorra are the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell: an arrangement dating back to 1278. Liechtenstein is considered to be the only surviving remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. The Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia, on the other hand, are groups of Pacific islands the United States acquired after World War II which, although now independent, still rely on the United States to provide basic services such as postal delivery.

A lot of these small countries face significant hardships. I've already written about the heart-rending tragedy of Nauru, for example. Nauru's low-lying island brethren - Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Maldives - face grave threats from rising sea levels.

These are the 25 smallest countries in the world, by total area. The overwhelming majority of them are island nations:
  1. Vatican City (0.17 sq mi) - Europe (completely surrounded by Rome, Italy)
  2. Monaco (0.78 sq mi) - Europe (located along French Mediterranean coast)
  3. Nauru (8.1 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (single island)
  4. Tuvalu (10.0 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  5. San Marino (23.6 sq mi) - Europe (completely surrounded by Italy)
  6. Liechtenstein (61.8 sq mi) -  Europe (located between Switzerland and Austria in the Alps)
  7. Marshall Islands (69.9 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  8. St. Kitts and Nevis (100.8 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (two islands) VISITED 6/2015
  9. Maldives (115.1 sq mi) - Indian Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  10. Malta (122.0 sq mi) - Mediterranean (archipelago located due south of Sicily, Italy)
  11. Grenada (132.8 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (archipelago)
  12. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (150.2 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (multiple islands)
  13. Barbados (169.5 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (single island) VISITED 6/2015
  14. Antigua and Barbuda (169.9 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (two islands) VISITED 6/2015
  15. Seychelles (174.5 sq mi) - Indian Ocean (archipelago off the east coast of Africa)
  16. Palau (177.2 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands and atolls)
  17. Andorra (180.7 sq mi) - Europe (located between France and Spain in the Pyrenees)
  18. St. Lucia (237.8 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (single island) VISITED 6/2015
  19. Federated States of Micronesia (271.0 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands and atolls)
  20. Singapore (276.4 sq mi) - Asia (archipelago located at southern tip of Malay Peninsula)
  21. Tonga (288.4 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands and atolls)
  22. Dominica (290.0 sq mi) - Eastern Caribbean (archipelago)
  23. Bahrain (295.4 sq mi) - Asia (archipelago off the northern coast of the Arabian Peninsula)
  24. Kiribati (313.1 sq mi) - Pacific Ocean (multiple islands/atolls)
  25. São Tomé and Príncipe (372.2 sq mi) - Africa (archipelago off the western coast of Africa)
The "top 25" is a good cutoff, because the next smallest country - Comoros - is almost twice as large as São Tomé's 372 square miles. For purposes of comparison, Harris County is 1,777 square miles in area. Inside-the-loop Houston, i.e. the area of the city encompassed by 610, accounts for approximately 96 square miles of land area.

The world's smallest countries also tend to be the world's least populous (for good reason; there's only so much land available for people to live upon). Of the 25 smallest countries by area listed above, only four - Bahrain, Singapore, Malta and the Maldives - are not also among the 25 smallest countries by population. Malta and the Maldives, in fact, fall right outside the smallest 25; Singapore, on the other hand, has a population of almost 5.5 million people, making it more populous than Norway, Ireland or New Zealand.

Anyway, my focus is on the smallest countries by area, not population, and I want to visit all 25 of the countries listed above before I die.

Yes, it's a rather esoteric goal. But it's really no different than those who endeavor to visit all 30 Major League baseball parks or all the National Parks of the United States within their lifetimes. And no, it's not my life's only goal; it's just something I'd like to accomplish.

Some of these tiny nations will be relatively easy for me to visit. Vatican City, home of St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, is a mandatory part of any tour of Rome. Monaco should be easy to visit if I ever tour the French Riviera. Andorra is a bus ride from Barcelona. Other places will be a bit more difficult to visit. Trips to The Maldives, Seychelles and Bahrain would probably require me to transfer through Dubai. In order to get to The Federated States of Micronesia, Palau or the Marshall Islands, I'd need to use United's "Island Hopper" service that operates between Guam and Honolulu. Getting to São Tomé and Príncipe,would require first flying to Portugal, Ghana or Angola. And in order to get to Nauru, I'd need to first fly to Fiji (which, believe or not, is not even in the smallest 40 countries) or Australia, and then take a plane to the imperiled phosphate island. Visiting some of these countries also requires applying for visas, and a couple of them might not be particularly safe to visit right now.

My quest to visit these countries began in earnest last month, when I visited St. Kitts (the smallest sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere), Antigua and Barbuda, St. Lucia, and Barbados during a cruise of the eastern Caribbean. I was only at each of these places for a few hours apiece, while my ship was in port, but I went on tours of each of these countries, stood on their soil, took in their sights, met their people and ate their food, so I can say I've been there.

That's 4 out of 25 microstates, or 16%. It's a start. Can I get to the other 21 before I shove off this mortal coil? I'm going to try.