Monday, August 29, 2016

Why you shouldn't drive slowly in the left lane

People who drive slowly in the left lane - especially the left lane of rural, four-lane interstates - are a particular pet peeve of mine (see here, here, here, here and here). The left lane is for passing only, and motorists who drive in the left lane without passing anyone are creating a traffic hazard as well as being inconsiderate to their fellow drivers.

But don't take my word for it; this excellent video from Vox explains why you shouldn't drive slowly in the left lane on the highway:
As the video mentions, traffic flow is improved when the left lane is used only to pass. The video also mentions that crash rates are lower on Germany's autobahns than they are on American highways - even though many sections of the autobahn network have no maximum speed limit - because German drivers are very observant of the "left lane is for passing only" rule. As somebody who recently spent several days driving on German and Austrian autobahns, I can confirm that this is true; slower traffic ALWAYS stays to the right, and traffic flows wonderfully as a result.

The bottom line is this: the left lane is for passing only. It doesn't matter if you're driving the speed limit; if you're in the left lane and you're not passing anyone then you need to move over. If you don't understand or refuse to obey this concept, then you probably shouldn't be driving to begin with.

2016 Houston Cougar Football Preview

Another football season is upon us, and expectations are high for the University of Houston Cougars, who are ranked in the preseason polls (#15 in the AP poll; #13 in the coaches poll) for the first time since 1991.

Looking Back: The 2015 season was Houston's most successful in three-and-a-half decades, as the Cougars defeated the Florida State Seminoles in the Peach Bowl and ended the season ranked #8 in both the AP and coaches' polls. Head coach Tom Herman and his staff followed that accomplishment by signing UH's highest-rated recruiting class ever, thereby keeping the momentum going into 2016.

The Big Story for 2016: It's been a long time since the Cougars entered the season with such lofty expectations. Season ticket sales are up, the national media has taken notice, and some outlets are going so far as to suggest that Houston could actually win it all this year. While that's unlikely, the Cougars are, at the very least, The team is, at the very least, expected to win the AAC Championship and go to a New Years Six Bowl for the second year in a row. Can this team handle the pressure that comes with such elevated expectations?

A side story heading into the season regards the possibility that the Cougars could soon be invited to join the Big XII conference, thereby finally being bestowed "big boy" status as a Power Five conference school. Houston has been teased with Big XII membership before. however, so I'm not believing anything until it happens.

Reasons for Optimism: The electric Greg Ward, Jr is back at quarterback. Highly-recruited Texas transfer running back Duke Catalon is in the backfield. Five-star recruit Ed Oliver joins the defensive line. The Cougars enter the season loaded with talent in the receiving crops, the linebackers and the defensive line. But most importantly, the one person most responsible for last years success - head coach Tom Herman - returns for his second season, along with his staff.

Reasons for Pessimism: With the caveat that I am, by nature, a pessimistic person, here are three big concerns of mine going into the season:
  • The Cougars have lost a lot of talent from last year's team. Only six offensive starters and five defensive starters return from last year's 13-1 team. Among those lost are safeties Trevon Stewart and (NFL first round draft pick) William Jackson, CB William Jackson, LB Elandon Roberts, WR DeMarcus Ayers and RB Kenneth Farrow. 
  • A lot of last year's success was luck. As SB Nation's Bill Connelly explains, the Cougars were the beneficiaries of a lot of lucky breaks last season. The victory over Memphis, for example, came down to a missed field goal as time expired. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; the Coogs created chances and took advantage of the breaks they received last year. But those lucky breaks tend to revert to the mean over time, and the team cannot count on such good on-field fortune repeating itself in 2016.
  • The Sports Illustrated Jinx. Greg Ward, Jr made it on to the cover of a regional edition of Sports Illustrated's college football preview:
        Doesn't that look great? Well, yeah, but so did this, back in 1991:
        This was my freshman year of college. The Cougars were coming off a 10-1 season, were
        ranked #10 going into the season, and QB David Klingler was a top Heisman candidate. We all
        know how that season turned out.

        This is not to say that the SI cover jinx is a real thing, and there's no question that Tom Herman
        is a better coach than John Jenkins, who is largely responsible for the disaster that was the 1991
        UH season. But 1991 is nevertheless a cautionary tale: the Cougars were highly ranked, were
        garnering lots of national publicity, and were expected to have a great season. They flopped.
        Let's hope that history does not repeat.

The Schedule: Although the Coogs only leave the State of Texas three times this fall, the overall schedule is going to be tough. #3 Oklahoma at NRG Stadium, #17 Louisville at home and Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis on the road are obviously the toughest obstacles. Just because the latter two AAC West opponents are missing their biggest playmakers from last year (QBs Keenan Reynolds and Paxton Lynch, respectively) doesn't mean they aren't capable of exacting revenge on the Cougars and denying them a second straight division title. SMU, Tulsa and Central Florida re likely to be improved programs this fall as well.

What the Computers Think: Sagarin starts the Cougars off in the #34 position with a rating of 79.20. That implies a 11-1 record for the Coogs when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into consideration, although the Louisville game is essentially a toss-up. The Congrove system used by collegefootballpoll.com also predicts an 11-1 campaign. Other algorithms are not as friendly to the Cougars; Massey gives the Cougars a 75% or better chance of winning in seven of their twelve regular season games, while ESPN's initial Football Power Index ranks Houston #46 to start the season and gives them a 75% or better chance of winning in only six of their games.

What I Think: This is really a hard season for me to predict. One one hand, the Cougars are talented, well-coached and coming off one of the program's best seasons of all time. On the other hand, they face a tough schedule featuring strong Power Five opponents (Oklahoma, Louisville) and revenge-minded conference rivals (Cincinnati, Navy, Memphis), they've lost a lot of key players from last year's team, and they are saddled with tremendous pressure. The pressure doesn't just come from the sports media and their elevated expectations for Houston; it also comes from the need for the Cougars to prove that last season wasn't a fluke, that the program has, at long last, become a national power that deserves a spot in a Power Five conference like the Big XII.

My heart wants to believe the Coogs can meet expectations by going to a second-straight New Years Six Bowl and maybe, just maybe, make the four-team playoff. But my head says that the team simply has too many obstacles to allow that to happen. I predict a 9-3 season, with losses against Oklahoma, at Cincinnati, and against one of Louisville, Memphis or Navy.

I realize that a 9-3 season probably won't be good enough for a second-straight conference championship and definitely won't be good enough for a second-straight New Years Six Bowl; in fact, it will be widely regarded as a disappointment. But that's what I believe is most likely to happen, so that's my prediction.

Must-read articles about the Cougars, the struggle to join the Big XII, coach Herman and the season ahead from Dennis Dodd of CBS, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated and Adam Kramer of Bleacher Report. Houstonia's take is excellent as well. SB Nation, fansided.com, USA Today, si.com, and collegefootballnews.com all have more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Olympic wrapup

So the United States "won" the 2016 Summer Olympics, coming back home from Rio with the most overall medals (121) as well as the most gold medals (46). China, which won 70 medals (26 gold), and Great Britain, which garnered 67 medals (27 gold), competed for second place, but neither country came close to Team USA's totals. This is the sixth summer Olympics in a row that the United States has come away with the most number of total medals; America has also won the greatest number of golf medals in five out of the last six summer Olympiads. Fuck yeah!

Over 64% of Team USA's medals came from just three sports categories: swimming (33 medals), track and field (32 medals), and gymnastics (12), but the United States also dominated in sports such as basketball, winning gold in both the mens and womens tournaments.

(This brings up something that's always bothered me about the Olympics: why are medals for team sports such as basketball and soccer, which play multiple games in tournaments over the course of the Olympics, worth the same as one-off individual events such as the mens 100-meter breaststroke or the womens javelin throw? This is not a knock against the athletes that compete and win in these individual events; it just seems that, given the number of games played and the number of athletes involved, team medals should be counted as a separate category. But that's an argument for another day...)

Although Team USA won the most number of medals, it did not win the highest number of medals per capita. After the 2014 Winter Olympics I calculated these rankings myself, but now there's a handy website that calculates these things for you.

It turns out that Grenada is the most efficient country in terms of medals won per capita; the silver medal won sprinter Kirani James gives the Caribbean island a ratio of 106,825 inhabitants to medals won. The Bahamas comes in second with one medal per 194,009 residents, while Jamaica comes in third with one medal per 247,812 inhabitants. At one medal per 2,656,353 inhabitants, the United States falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. At the bottom of the list is India, with a ratio of one medal for every 655,525,263 residents. (If it makes India feel any better, its rival Pakistan was the largest country to win no medals at all.)

One country manages to finish in the top ten in medals per capita in both the Winter and Summer Olympics: Slovenia won one medal per 257,192 residents in the 2014 Winter Games, which was good for second place, and one medal per 515,942 in the 2016 Summer Games, which placed the (amazingly beautiful) Alpine country seventh.

Azerbaijan had the most efficient team in terms of medals won per competing athlete: their 56-person team won 18 total medals, for a ratio of 0.32 medals per athlete. Ethiopia came in second at 0.24 medals per athlete, while the United States came in third at 0.22 medals per athlete. The least efficient team in terms of medals won was Portugal, which only managed one medal among its team of 94 athletes. That's still better than Chile, which was the largest team (42 athletes) to win no medals at all.

If weights are assigned to medals - i.e. a gold is worth more than a silver, which is in turn worth more than a bronze - Tajikistan comes out on top in terms of medals per team, and the USA is second. Efficiency... Fuck yeah!

It stands to reason that richer countries perform better in the Olympics than poorer countries because they have more resources to devote to athlete training and sports development, and the final medal tally from Rio largely bears that out: highly-developed nations such as the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Italy and Australia are all in the top ten. That makes the accomplishments of countries with smaller, less-developed economies, such as Grenada, Jamaica, Kenya, Fiji and Burundi, all the more remarkable. The United States actually falls closer to the bottom in terms of medals per GDP, but that's simply because our GDP is, by far, the world's largest. Once again: Fuck yeah!

It also makes me wonder why OECD countries such as Portugal, Finland and Austria performed so poorly in Rio. Austria is a Winter Olympics powerhouse, so you'd think some of that athleticism and infrastructure would rub off onto the summer sports. Yet the landlocked nation won only a single bronze medal - in sailing!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why passenger trains suck in America

It's a question I often come across in my line of work: why does America's passenger rail system suck so much? Other countries have sleek, comfortable high-speed trains that get people from one city to another quickly ad reliably. The USA, on the other hand, has Amtrak: the money-hemorrhaging government enterprise that is infrequent, slow and unreliable.

The general suckiness of inter-city passenger rail in the United States is the result of many factors, including geography, urban density, the primacy of freight movement, and political inertia. But don't take my word for it: spend a few minutes watching this excellent, if not somewhat wonky, video on the subject.

(h/t: Atlantic Citylab)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

China's transit elevated bus

I thought it was an interesting, if not rather fanciful, concept when it was first proposed many years ago. Now, it seems that fantasy has become reality: a couple of weeks ago, China unveiled a prototype of the road-straddling bus.
The electricity-powered vehicle straddles the highway over two lanes and allows cars to pass underneath. The testing of its brake and power systems took place on Tuesday in Qinhuangdao, a port city in northeast China.

The TEB concept is designed to help China alleviate some of its massive traffic problems. By combining two methods of transportation, the hybrid light-rail train and bus would transport large numbers of people inside its carriages while letting cars pass underneath.

The developers believe this method would be more efficient, in terms of speed and overall cost, than building a subway system. Because the TEB is powered by electricity, the transportation system could also help the country cut down on air pollution.

At about 72-feet long, 26-feet wide, and 16-feet high, a single cabin can transport up to 300 people, according to China's official news agency Xinhua.
A large transit vehicle that can operate along existing rights of way and which allows cars to pass underneath it unimpeded? Sounds exactly like something we here in Houston could use along our congested freeways (or even arterials like Westheimer or Richmond), right? Problem is, it's unlikely that this technology is coming to America for a variety of reasons, as listed by both Human Transit's Jarrett Walker and Wired's Aarian Marshall. Among them:
To run a straddling bus in a real-life city, you must prevent dumb drivers from doing dumb things. Although this thing is nearly 16 feet tall, it has a ground clearance of just 7 feet. (Don’t wander onto the wrong Qinhuangdao street, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) It’s entirely possible an SUV could get stuck underneath, and trucks? Don’t even think about it. The standard clearance for an American tractor-trailer is 13.5 feet. Keeping tall vehicles out of the way requires filtering them. Maybe those yellow clearance bars you see in parking garages? Because—roll tape—signs aren’t good enough.
And even with that modest seven-foot clearance, this vehicle is still sixteen feet tall, which is higher than most bridges. Furthermore, how does this vehicle interact with traffic control devices such as signs and traffic signals? A vehicle of this size will require large elevated passenger stations, which aren't cheap, and it would only be able to operate along streets that are perfectly straight or have very wide curves that the straddling bus could negotiate.

Then there's the issue of how other drivers will interact with this thing:
Engineers have to find a nifty way for cars to enter and exit the straddling bus lanes. Yes, you should be totally aware of your surroundings when changing lanes. But that’s not how it works in the real world. People sideswipe things all the time, and run over curbs. The TEB-1 also needs a foolproof way of signaling to cars that it is bearing down on them. “It’s like going under an underpass, except it’s a moving underpass,” says [civil engineering professor David] Clarke. And is there anything worse than being stuck under a moving underpass as your exit flies by?
Not to mention that driving under what amounts to a moving underpass is likely to be a disorienting experience for motorists.

The bottom line, as both Marshall and Walker point out, is that you could get same amount of passenger mobility from a bus rapid transit system, for a lot less cost. Walker, however, concedes that this technology might actually prove itself viable in China:
Having said that, if anyone can pull this off at scale, it’s probably China, which seems to tick all the boxes I’ve identified.  They have the sufficiently centralized decision making, low enough construction costs, ability to do things at scale, and relative indifference to Western aesthetics that this thing requires.  They are also building entirely new districts, which offer the best possibility for actually organizing a place around the correct elevated ground plane. So yes, it may happen, and it may do some good.  Which doesn’t mean it’s not, deep down, ridiculous.
Maybe the Chinese have come up with workable engineering solutions to all the aforementioned concerns, and the TEB will prove to be a technology that is both revolutionary and exportable. After all, the fact that a prototype of this vehicle now actually exists means that this scheme has progressed further than I would have expected, and one never knows what the future holds.

As of right now, however, I'm included to agree with Jarrett Walker: this thing is pretty ridiculous.

Vox's David Roberts has more.

NBC's sucky Olympics coverage, again

Complaining about NBC's bad Olympics coverage is a time-honored tradition of mine. Believe it or not, however, this time around I'm actually going to cut NBC a tiny bit of slack and say that, on a completely subjective level, their primetime coverage of the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janiero has seemed to suck less than their past efforts.

I attribute this to the simple reason that Rio de Janiero is only an hour ahead of New York, and so NBC has been broadcasting lot of events live (at least to those of us in the Eastern and Central time zones) during primetime. Live television coverage, by its nature, leaves little room for intrusive editing or long, tedious "human interest" features. Furthermore, the events that NBC has been broadcasting live - chiefly, swimming and track - are events where multiple athletes from multiple countries compete simultaneously, which lessens NBC's ability to relentlessly focus on American athletes to the exclusion of anyone else. What I've seen of NBC's daytime coverage as well as coverage on affiliate networks like MSNBC or NBCSN hasn't seemed horrible, either.

That being said, the primetime coverage still sucks. NBC is filling the gaps around the live events with their usual heavily-edited-and-abridged coverage of competitions that happened earlier in the day, such as gymnastics and diving, and there's still plenty of time outside of the live events for long and tedious human interest features or completely unnecessary interviews with Winter Olympics athletes. There's still the insufferable Bob Costas, the endless and repetitive streams of commercials, and the sickening layer of sap that is required of any NBC Olympic production. "Must See TV' it ain't.

More and more people seem to be coming to a similar realization: viewership is down as more people turn to live streaming options, the coverage itself is being called "the worst ever," and network executives are on the defensive. That, however, does not mean that NBC is going to change its formula for broadcasting the Olympics anytime soon: it's still attracting more viewers than anything else on television during the August doldrums, and as long as NBC sees a return on its $1.3 billion investment, it has no incentive to change the way it presents the games.

But why does NBC insist on presenting the Olympics in such an awful manner in the first place? Vox's Todd VanDer Werff explains, using the network's treatment of standout gymnast Simone Biles as an example:
Shortly before the games launched on August 5, John Miller, the NBC Olympics chief marketing officer, offered an explanation for why so many Olympic events — and particularly the opening ceremony — are aired on a tape delay, even for those who live on the East Coast, only an hour off the time in Rio (to say nothing of the West Coast, which gets everything on a tape delay).
Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the following comment:
The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans. More women watch the games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one.
It’s an idea NBC has offered before, including in press conferences I’ve attended over the years. It’s also one that is baldly sexist on its face, but one the network claims it can back up with market research. And while ratings for the 2016 games in Rio have sagged compared with those for the 2012 games in London, they’re still performing well. Clearly, most people are content enough to watch the product NBC offers.

But Miller’s statement about the type of viewers who watch the Olympics and what those viewers are most interested in gets at the heart of why NBC’s coverage is so lousy and why [NBC gymnastics commentator Al] Trautwig’s tweet was so defensive about Biles’s parents not being her parents.

The network had so much riding on the idea of Biles’s upbringing — and the idea that she had to overcome the unfitness of her biological parents on her way to gold medal glory — that Trautwig was unable to leave the narrative behind. By my hypothesis, it was an insensitive comment, yes, but one spawned from a relentless focus on telling the same story over and over again.

The problem with NBC’s Olympics narratives is that they seem perpetually stuck in the 1980s; that’s when the network first broadcast the games, with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

And since the last Olympics broadcast on any non-NBC network were the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan (which aired on CBS), and NBC has the rights to both the Summer and Winter Olympics locked up through 2032 — including streaming rights — those narratives are likely to remain in use for a long, long time.

Without any competition, the network continues to fall back on the same tired storylines about men who are gritty competitors and women who manage to fill some traditionally feminine role in addition to being athletes (when it’s not suggesting their husbands are responsible for their success, that is).

NBC continues to value American success stories over almost anything else (to the degree that not a second of the men’s gymnastics team finals aired in primetime, since the US didn’t medal). 
Frequently, the only non-Americans we see compete in events like gymnastics are those who have direct bearing on NBC’s US-centric narrative.

And the network continues, above all else, to suggest that the Olympic stories that matter most are the ones that offer up a wholesome, usually white face of Middle America — even when reality gets in the way.
When you think about it, NBC's production philosophy - the games as story, rather than sport, the idea that the narrative behind the athletes (i.e. their "struggle") is more important than their actual physical abilities - is actually pretty insulting to its viewers as well as the Olympic athletes themselves. Little wonder more and more viewers are turning off the pre-packaged mush on TV and watching the livestreams on their laptop and iPads:
The irony of all of this is that NBC has a product that actually presents the Olympics in fairly straightforward fashion, as a sporting event where various countries’ hopes and dreams rest on their competitors, if only for the length of one race. Its Olympics streaming platform is a beautiful piece of software, allowing viewers the chance to just watch the events as they unfold, rather than edited to pieces and regurgitated for the primetime audience.

But the way NBC covers the Olympics on TV isn’t just unfair to sports fans, or to people who live on the West Coast, or to people who have social media and are spoiled on the results of events long before they’re broadcast. It isn’t just racist and sexist and wedded to certain socially conservative expectations of what makes a family.

No, it’s all of those things — and it’s awful, awful television.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Dietsch and Awful Announcing's Ken Fang evaluate the good and the bad of NBC's overall coverage so far; NBC's streaming platform, at least, is getting high marks. USA Today's Hemal Jhaveri lists four ways NBC can improve its Olympics coverage, which will never happen. When it comes to the Olympics, NBC is committed to suck.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Topo Chico

The New York Times has finally discovered what Texans have known for years: Topo Chico is the best sparkling water in the world.
This super bubbly agua mineral, in retro green-tinted glass bottles, has developed a fervent following here in Texas. Devotees stock entire refrigerators with the stuff and tattoo themselves with the brand’s logo, an Aztec princess who legend has it was healed by drinking the water, which emanates from an inactive volcano in Monterrey.

Bottles of Topo Chico are tabletop everywhere in Texas this time of year, including tatty taquerias in the Rio Grande Valley and reservations-only restaurants in Houston.

The water is often the finishing fizz in cocktails at the hippest bars in Austin and the sidecar to espresso drinks at indie coffee shops in Dallas. Don’t even ask for San Pellegrino or Perrier; they’re likely not served.

At supermarkets and bodegas, it’s hard to find a shopping cart that doesn’t contain a 12-pack of Topo Chico. According to the market research firm IRI, Topo Chico has captured 62 percent of imported sparkling water sales at grocery stores in Texas, and 74 percent at convenience stores.

Sales in the United States were around $58 million for the year ending in June, up 83 percent from 2012, no doubt helped by health-conscious consumers who are avoiding sugary and artificially sweetened carbonated soft drinks.

Social media posts indicate that Topo Chico is difficult to find outside Texas. Its American distributor, Interex, in Fort Worth, said it is available, albeit to a lesser extent, in 29 other states.
Okay, so I could probably do with the overwrought "Topo Chico is a hipster drink!" vibe of this article. I've never seen anybody with a Topo Chico tattoo, and, no, shopping carts lacking a 12-pack of Topo Chico are not "rare," at least where I shop. And for the record, the only type of Topo Chico that comes in "retro green-tinted glass bottles" is the lime-flavored variety; the original stuff comes in clear bottles. This journalistic overreach aside, I'm not surprised that Topo Chico claims the majority of imported sparkling water sales in Texas (take that, Gerolsteiner!): its popularity is unquestionable. But what exactly is Topo Chico?
To be sure, travelers and even locals in Mexico are warned against drinking the water, but Topo Chico has been bottled and consumed there since 1895.

Before that, travelers from the United States flocked to Monterrey to drink and bathe in what newspapers of the era called “thermal springs” at the base of Cerro del Topo Chico (“little mole hill”). The water was said to have great medicinal value in the treatment of tuberculosis, liver disorders and rheumatism.

Nowadays the water continues to be bottled at the source after a purification process that the bottler, Compañía Embotelladora Topo Chico, said does not alter the water’s natural mineral composition, which includes sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium and manganese.

Carbonation is added, but just enough to restore any fizziness lost during purification, in keeping with  F.D.A. rules for products sold as sparkling water.

The bottler makes no health claims other than that the water “quenches thirst” and “aids in digestive processes.” But some Texans insist it’s the best hangover cure.
I don't know if Topo Chico makes my hangovers any better, but its fizziness certainly feels great on a parched morning-after throat.
Beyond any curative powers, many fans of Topo Chico will tell you that it just tastes good. Justin Yu, the chef and owner of Oxheart in Houston, said it’s better than the sparkling water he grew accustomed to drinking while doing internships in Europe.

“There’s nothing better than a cold Topo Chico after a long, hard service,” said Mr. Yu, who was named 2016 Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. “I think it has a cleaner taste, it’s definitely the fizziest and I really enjoy the slight salinity.”

The cookbook author and “Top Chef” judge Gail Simmons got hooked on Topo Chico while filming in Austin five years ago. “I would get in deep discussions with friends there about why it’s such an obsession — was it the size of the bubbles, the salinity, the slight citrusy note?” she said. “I consumed it as much as possible when I was in Texas, and then I came home to New York and was a little distraught because I couldn’t get it anymore.”
I think I began drinking Topo Chico 15 or so years ago, when I was looking for a mineral water that would approximate the taste and effervescence of Ecuador's Güitig (which I drank out of necessity when I lived there; Ecuadorian tap water wasn't allowed anywhere near my mouth). The breakfast taco place near my work was one of the few places in Denton that carried Topo Chico, and I became a fan. Obviously over time a lot of other people here in Texas have, as well; Topo Chico used to be carried almost exclusively by Mexican restaurants and grocery stores in Hispanic neighborhoods, but it is now sold by the pallet at Costco.

But what's the big deal about Topo Chico? you might ask. Aren't all fizzy waters the same? In a word, no. There are perceptible differences between brands - the taste created by the mineral content, the amount of carbonation in the water - and I believe Topo Chico simply tastes (and feels) the best. Los Angeles Magazine agrees; last May they sampled eleven brands of sparkling water and decided that Topo Chico came out on top:
This is officially the fizz water that all other fizz waters should aspire to. Topo Chico won big for what was aptly described by Audie as a “slicing bubble” (we really ran out of adjectives to describe bubbles) and scored a full 11 points over Gerolsteiner. The cute, retro glass bottle packaging also won our hearts. Well done, Topo Chico—you might be the new Mexican Coke.
Now that the New York Times has discovered what the "cool Texans" are drinking, will Topo Chico become so popular that demand overwhelms the amount of water that the plant in Monterrey is able to produce, and the drink becomes increasingly expensive and hard to find? That's certainly a possibility, and the Chronicle's Craig Hlavaty fears the Topo Chico shortages to come. Fortunately, Topo Chico's distribution range in the States is limited - at least for now - and it appears that the nation has already adopted La Croix as the popular, in-demand sparkling water. I'm not worried that there's going to be a run on bottles of Topo Chico anytime soon.

Besides... Even if Topo Chico does become the national rage, I'm not going to become the sparkling water version of the guy who liked a particular band until they became popular and stop drinking it. It's just too good of a drink to pass up.

Post #1,000

Yep, that's right: this is my thousandth* post on Mean Green Cougar Red. Which really isn't too impressive, considering that I've been blogging since 2004.

Anyway, the hottest** and worst month of the year is upon us, the Olympics are underway, football season is just a few weeks away, and it's time for me to start blogging again. I'm not going to lie and say I didn't enjoy not having to worry about generating new material for this site for a few months, and I do think the day will come when I decide to stop blogging altogether. But that day is not today.

As it turns out, I will remain a resident of Bellaire, Texas for at least one more year. My landlord and I worked out a deal so I can reside at this house through next summer, which is great because moving is a tremendous pain in the ass that should be postponed for as long as possible. The summer's big event turned out to be a ten-day Alpine Adventure to Austria and Germany, with brief stops in Italy, Slovenia, Liechtenstein (that's 5 out of 25!) and Switzerland. Kirby and my girlfriend went with me. Rather than quenching the travel bug, however, we simply found more places that we want to spend more time visiting and exploring; I'm already contemplating our next trip (which will definitely be longer than ten days...).

Kirby, meanwhile, is just a couple of weeks from beginning middle school. We know it's going to be very challenging for him, but we've already met with his new teachers and administrators and we've come up with a plan that will hopefully work for him. Fingers crossed...

In the coming days I'll try to post some pictures and a write-up of the Alpine Adventure. I also plan to write my season preview for the Houston Cougars before the season kicks off. Needless to say, expectations are high for the Coogs going into the 2016 season, and there's even rumors of a potential spot for the school in an expanded Big 12 (although I'll believe it when I see it). It's also about time for me to write my quadrennial post about NBC's miserable Olympics coverage.

I might even be able to generate an entry or two about November's election, if I can do so without vomiting as I type. I will say this for now: Donald Trump is a vile, miserable, disgusting piece of shit who must not be allowed to become President of the United States. And I say that as somebody who is most certainly not a Hillary Clinton fan.

Otherwise, it's good to be behind the keyboard again.

* This count includes the "retroblogs" that I moved over from my previous website.

** About a decade ago, I came across some data that suggested that July was actually a hotter month than August. This is apparently untrue; according to Eric Berger, August is indeed the hottest month of the year in Houston.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Underacheiving local sports teams

After making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Rockets were poised to make a run for the NBA Championship in 2016. Instead, the season has been a complete disaster: their head coach was dismissed just a few weeks into the season, which just ended with a blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors in game five of the first round of the playoffs. The Rockets never came together as a team this year and really didn't deserve to go to the playoffs at all. The way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if they don't even manage a winning record in the 2016-17 season.

The Houston Astros also took a big step forward in 2015 (their chokejob to the eventual World Series champs aside) and were expected to be a strong contender in 2016. Instead, the team has fallen apart. Their 7-16 record is tied for the worst in the American League, and after only a month into the season they are already five games back of the decidedly-mediocre Texas Rangers in the AL West. While there's still plenty of time for the Astros to turn things around, right now they look completely lost.

That's two Houston sports teams that have failed, or are currently failing, to meet expectations coming off of strong performances the previous seasons. I have two thoughts about this:
  • Being a Houston sports fan continues to suck. There is not another city in this country whose sports teams collectively let their fans down with the frequency and manner that Houston teams do.

  • They say bad news comes in threes, and there's another local sports team that did well last year and has high expectations for this season.
To be sure, the Cougars are losing a lot of talent from last season's top-ten, Peach-Bowl-winning season. William Jackson III, for example, was taken in the first round of  the NFL Draft Thursday night. Houston has a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, and so another 13-1 (or even 14-0!) season might not be in the cards. But can they avoid following the lead of the Rockets and the Astros, and at least stay competitive?

126 days 'til kickoff, by the way...

I now return this blog to its previously-scheduled break.

John Zemanek 1921-2016

I'm not sure I ever encountered an instructor - at any level of my education - quite like John Zemanek. I interacted with him frequently while a student at the University of Houston College of Architecture, be it through the courses I took from him, the numerous critiques and juries of mine that he attended, the Friday afternoons I spent chatting with him in his office, or the visits to his fascinating Montrose home my friends and I made. And even after all that, I don't think I ever quite understood him. To say that he was merely "eccentric" or "enigmatic" would be an understatement.

John Zemanek was a brilliant man; he was a scholar of philosophy, art, anthropology and history as much as he was an instructor of architecture. That was, in my opinion, both a gift and curse to his teaching abilities.

The actual lecture courses I took from him were a disappointment. They were always variations on the same theme: the Western World is in decline; consumer culture, the privatization (and militarization) of public space, and the rise of the "entertainment-industrial complex" are making us a bunch of joyless pawns of the rich; knowledge is being superseded by mere information; culture is being superseded by mere civilization. Maybe he had a point - see, for example, Donald Trump - but his lectures oftentimes felt like apocalyptic indoctrination sessions with only tenuous links to the actual practice of architecture. I didn't do well in his classes.

He was much more engaging when he was outside the classroom setting and not following a scripted lesson plan. I think I learned more about architecture and urbanism from him just by chatting with him in his office or walking to and from the Satellite for lunch with him than I did by sitting in his lectures. He was especially interested in youth culture (and counterculture) and on a couple of occasions even accompanied my friends and me to a couple of rave parties to observe Houston's nascent techno scene. Zemanek is also probably one of the major reasons why I decided to go to graduate school for a degree in city planning.

I think a friend of mine said it best: "on the one hand a condescending prick of an architect, on the other a teacher pushing his students to be better."

Although I knew that he served in the Second World War, I had no idea that Zemanek was a bombardier on a B-24 and that his plane was shot down on the last day of the European war. He never talked (to me, at least) about his experiences in WW II, although they clearly had a great influence on his life and teachings.

As is my custom, I'm reposting his Chronicle obituary here. The UH College of Architecture has a more detailed remembrance as well.
Johnny "John" Eugene Zemanek, FAIA, architect, planner and professor, 94, died Monday, April 18. The youngest of twelve children of Bohemian political refugees Jan (John) and Frantiska (Frances) Machacek Zemánek of Moravia, John was born in Guy, Texas near the Brazos River. He attended Big Creek, Guy, and Damon rural schools, before attending Texas A & M University and graduating with a degree in architecture, a member of the Corps of Cadets. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserves and entered active duty in January 1943. A second lieutenant, he served as a bombardier on B-24 Liberators, flying allied missions from Foggia, in southern Italy. On the last day of the European war, his plane was shot down and made an emergency landing at an unmarked airfield behind enemy lines. All crewmembers were recovered.

After the war, he went on to The University of Texas in Austin for Bachelor of Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees, then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to earn a Master of City Planning degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, led by Walter Gropius. John returned to Houston to practice with Kenneth Franzheim, then relocated to Tokyo to work for Czech American modernist architect Antonin Raymond; there he planned 17 airbases in the Far East. He practiced also for the U. S. Department of State in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) planning village housing and institutes.

Returning to Houston, he worked with many of Houston's eminent firms, including Wilson, Morris, and Crain, where he contributed to the development of the Harris County Domed Stadium, now known as the Astrodome.

Invited to teach at the University of Houston College of Architecture first as a visitor, then full time in 1964, he earned tenure in 1969. He maintained a solo practice, and his independent architecture reflected the profound influence of his Texas rural heritage and landscape as well as his respect for and deep knowledge of the diverse Asian cultures that engaged him so fully throughout his life. His work has been published in local, national and international journals and television media, and has won design awards at the local, state, and national level. In 1978 he earned the national AIA Honor Award, for his Three H Services Center, a social services complex for the Bordersville community, which had been established by former slaves. He is remembered especially for a series of three Montrose houses, each designed as his personal residence, dating from 1969, 2000 and 2011. He would later refer to these as Gaia 1, 2, and 3. While each is an unassuming essay on modest materials carefully combined for great spatial effect, a comparison reveals the evolution of his thinking from ephemeral delicacy toward distinct rootedness.

Over his 48 years of teaching at the University of Houston he never failed to challenge students to think critically and to engage them in an "architecture that begins with our social structure."
His latest creative efforts include his memoir Being••Becoming (2016) published just before his death, and a design consultation for Morningstar Coffee, opening in Houston next month.
John was preceded in death by his parents, 5 brothers and 6 sisters. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mary Sue Zemanek, as well as numerous nieces and nephews and extended family and by a multitude of friends.

Details of a memorial will be forthcoming. Donations may be made in his honor to the UH Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.