Tuesday, May 08, 2018

A glaring omission

I usually don't pay much attention to clickbait listicles - much less share them - but this list of "The 25 Hardest Teams to Root For" made me chuckle. While I don't disagree with any of the NHL, NBA, MLB or NFL teams on it, it's clearly missing one hard-to-cheer-for professional football franchise.

This list appears to be based on championships (or lack thereof), playoff appearances, overall winning record, and whether the team has relocated. Given their history of futility, the Houston Texans certainly belong on it. They have no conference (much less league) championships, have only made the playoffs four times, and have an all-time regular season record of .429.

My only guess is that they were left off this list because they are relatively new (they're only playing their 17th season this fall), as well as the fact that last fall's disappointing season was due more to a freak rash of injuries (Deshaun Watson, Whitney Mercilus, J.J. Watt, etc.) than anything else.

Another team the probably belongs on this list is the Tennessee Titans. They've won no NFL titles, they check the "relocation" box, and when they were the Houston Oilers they were the very definition of futile.

Another summer is upon us

As both of my regular readers might have guessed, we've entered the annual "blog doldrums" here at Mean Green Cougar Red, which means posting activity is going to be light as we make our way into another miserable summer.

Which begs the question: when does summer really begin in Houston, anyway? Eric Berger ponders that question and comes up with the answer: yesterday.
What constitutes summer in Houston? There is no single definition. The summer equinox runs from June 21 to Sept. 23. Meteorological summer encompasses the months of June, July, and August. Neither of these time frames really capture summer in Houston, however, as it gets hot long before June 21, and stays hot well into September.
Speaking for me personally, summer comes when daytime temperatures are in the 90s, and overnight lows correspondingly warm and muggy. I’m afraid we might just be there, folks. We’ll have several days this week in which high temperatures might hit 90 degrees, beginning as early as today. And from a historical perspective, Houston is right on schedule—the average date of the first 90-degree day at Bush Intercontinental Airport is May 7.
This isn't to say that we won't get any more cold not-as-hot fronts (that will at least reduce humidity, if not overall temperatures) going forward, but it does mean that what has been a remarkably wonderful spring is coming to an end and we need to get ready for our annual dose of miserable heat. We can only hope that another hurricane won't also be on this summer's agenda.

As for my agenda this summer: another trip to Europe! We enjoyed the place we stayed (Schladming, Austria) two years ago so much that my girlfriend and I are going back, this time with my parents. Trips to places we didn't get to see last time - Ljubljana, Slovenia and Graz, Austria being at the top of the list - are also planned. But before we go back to the Austrian Alps, we are taking an Adriatic cruise out of Venice to Croatia and Greece. The Royal Caribbean itinerary stops at places - the Acropolis in Athens, Knossos Palace in Crete - I've spent my entire life wanting to see, and my parents want to see these sights as well, while they're still mobile.

I realize that I never wrote up any blog entries or posted any pictures of the trip two years ago. Hopefully I'll actually do better.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The end of passenger 747 service to Houston

The venerable "jumbo jet" is becoming a much rarer sight at Bush Intercontinental:
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is swapping the iconic Boeing 747 for the newer, more efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner on its Houston-Amsterdam route. 
With the departure of that final 747 Combi, which carries people and cargo, Houston will no longer have a passenger airline regularly flying the 747. 
KLM is just one of many airlines phasing out the double-decker plane. The 747 introduced travelers to wide-body airplanes and helped make flying affordable, but it has lost ground to more fuel-efficient aircraft that can travel farther distances.
Last Friday's flight from Houston to Amsterdam was KLM's last using the 747.

Another service using 747 equipment out of IAH is calling it quits at the end of the week, as well: the petroleum-industry-focused "Houston Express," a scheduled charter service linking Houston to Luanda, Angola, is also ending operations this Friday. The service, operated by Atlas Air on behalf of SonAir, gave Bush Intercontinental the distinction of being the only airport in the United States to offer service to six continents:
On Friday, North American oil company Chevron confirmed that the final Houston Express flight will depart Houston on March 28, about 17 years after the first flight took off. The company cited “financial and commercial difficulties” as reasons for ending the flight. Without this direct connection from Houston, workers will have to go through much longer routings to get to Angola.
Technically, the Houston Express will also be the last regularly scheduled passenger flight operating with a U.S. registered passenger Boeing 747. It is unknown what will happen to the two 747s used for the flight, but they will most likely be returned to their leaser. While there will be no direct connections between Houston and Africa for some time, IAH may regain its title if Angola’s national carrier TAAG Angola Airlines decides to reconnect the cities using one of its 777s in the future.
Cargo and charter services will continue to operate 747 equipment into Bush Intercontinental, and Lufthansa might occasionally use a 747 on its service to and from Frankfurt when an Airbus 380 isn't available. But this is otherwise it as far as regular, scheduled passenger flights out of IAH using the 747. It's just another example of the gradual disappearance of the 747 from American skies.

If you still want to see four-engined widebodies serving Houston, however, you're not out of luck: in addition to the aforementioned Lufthansa A380 that flies the IAH-FRA route, Emirates is returning the A380 to its IAH-DXB service in June.

It bears repeating that the main reason the 747 is disappearing from the skies is because newer two-engined aircraft such as the Boeing Dreamliner are doing things it could never do; for example, the first-ever nonstop flight between Australia and London.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

On autonomous vehicles

Last Sunday, a self-driving car being tested by Uber in Tempe, Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian. In the wake of the fatality - the first-ever fatality involving a autonomous vehicle - Uber (as well as Waymo, Toyota, and other companies) has suspended all road testing of their self-driving vehicles while they investigate the particulars of this incident (including why the self-driving car did not detect - nor its human backup driver see - the pedestrian).

In the long run, this incident won't prevent the eventuality of fully-autonomous vehicles on our streets and highways. However, it is a reminder that these vehicles have a long road ahead, literally and figuratively, before they become a part of our everyday lives. Furthermore, it reinforces the point that, for all their touted benefits, self-driving cars are unlikely to be a perfect solution to all of our traffic-related ills.

SAE International defines six levels of automation for vehicles. Level 0 is no automation; a human driver controls all aspects of steering, accelerating, and braking. Level 1 automation provides "driver assistance" technologies such as adaptive cruise control or parallel parking assist, while more sophisticated driver assistance systems currently available on some vehicles, such as Audi's Traffic Jam Assist or Cadillac's Super Cruise, fall under Level 2.

Level 5 is full automation, wherein a self-driving car controls all aspects of driving, on any road and in any condition, with no human involvement outside of entering a destination (there would be no need for a steering wheel or brake pedal in Level 5 cars). Level 5 automation is the ultimate goal of autonomous vehicle development; Uber, Waymo and other automobile companies are currently testing cars, such as the one involved in last weekend's fatality, with Level 5 autonomy in mind. Level 5 autonomy is also what most people have in mind when they think of "self-driving cars."

Putting aside for a moment any legal, regulatory or public acceptance obstacles to driverless vehicles, the technology itself is still years away from something that can safely operate on any road, in any condition, with no human assistance whatsoever. Testing is currently occurring in designated areas within a handful of cities - such as Tempe - with backup drivers on hand. But this technology is still in its infancy; a tremendous amount of further testing, coding, mapping and validating is required before driverless cars can be deployed nationwide and worldwide. Last weekend's fatality will only slow that process while the cause of the collision is investigated and solutions developed, e.g. improved sensors or rewritten software. It also calls into question the wisdom of using public streets to "beta test" driverless technologies:
To [Arizona State Professor David] King, whose research focuses on the urban impacts of new transportation technologies, the location of the crash—and how it happened—raises red flags about Uber’s approach to road safety. Since Uber arrived in Tempe in March 2017, he’s often seen Uber vehicles testing in that exact spot, charting details of the roadways to perfect the company’s internal maps. This seemed like familiar territory for them. Based on what is known about Uber’s technology, King said, a pedestrian or other foreign object should have been readily detected by the AV. 
“If there is any real-world scenario where it would be seemingly safe to operate in an automated mode, this should have been it,” he said. “Something went seriously wrong.”
Precisely what went wrong may be unlocked by federal and local investigations now underway. Already, though, law enforcement interpreting video footage from the Uber vehicle’s external cameras seem to have placed the blame squarely on the victim: On a multi-lane corridor with scant crosswalks, Herzberg was crossing outside of a crosswalk. 
“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Sylvia Moir, the chief of Tempe Police Department, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Viewing the videos, “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” she said. 
That video footage has not been made public yet, however, and other observers say it’s too soon to draw conclusions about a situation with no precedent. The fundamental safety promise of autonomous vehicles, after all, is their ability to automatically detect and brake for people, objects, and other vehicles using laser-based LIDAR systems: In darkness and light, they’re supposed to be programmed to drive far more safely than humans. King believes that releasing those videos, as well as the onboard vehicle data, would be a step towards transparency by Uber and law enforcement—as well as a signal to the public that safety is a priority, whether the blame rests on Uber’s software, its employee, or its victim. (Note: since this article has been published, some video has been made available.)
To be fair, in order to ensure they can operate on public streets, it seems necessary to test these vehicles on those same public streets. But it's also fair to note that Uber, which is hemorrhaging money and therefore eager to eliminate human labor costs by getting driverless cars on the road as soon as possible, might not be prioritizing safety in their testing regime.

Sunday's incident aside, it's worth reminding ourselves that a key promise of self-driving cars is that they figure to be much safer than their human-driven counterparts: they won't get drunk, drowsy or distracted, they'll obey traffic regulations, they'll even be able to communicate with each other to avoid collisions. But the technology is not completely safe yet, as last weekend's death sadly showed, and it will only be as safe as we want it to be:
I’m enthusiastic about the potential for autonomous vehicles. Their great promise is that they could be safer than fallible human drivers, who kill 37,000 Americans a year. And I do believe AVs will be safer. They will not drive drunk or distracted, and they will not get overwhelmed by more information to process.
How much safer they are, though, will depend on the humans who design them and make the rules. Their driving style, whether aggressive or timid, is something that will be baked into their programming, based on real-world traffic environments and how traffic laws are enforced. The question is the same as always: Are we programming for a world that’s built for humans, or a world that’s built for cars?
The killing of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday by a self-driving Uber is showing how autonomous vehicle safety might slide from promise to nightmare.
We gain nothing if we merely replace pedestrian (and cyclist) deaths caused by human-driven cars with deaths caused by computer-driven cars. Furthermore, in order for autonomous vehicles to truly achieve their promise, our roads need to be ready for them:
The rise in cyclists and pedestrians in and along our roads has also led to a rise in pedestrian deaths. While total traffic-related fatalities fell 18 percent from 2006 to 2015, pedestrian fatalities rose by 12 percent during that same period. Thanks to air bags and safe car designs, drivers and passengers are better protected in the case of a collision, but pedestrians involved in accidents don’t reap that benefit. And now that they’re sharing our roads in greater numbers, they’re more often involved. Many American roadways are ill-equipped to handle the influx of walkers and bikers trying to share our towns.

If we don’t have roads that prevent human drivers from killing cyclists, how can we hope autonomous vehicles will do a better job? Some propose that a bicycle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-everything sensor network could fix this issue. Everyone and everything, outfitted with sensors, would be detectable (and thus avoidable) by driverless vehicles. But the logistics of distributing and enforcing such a network are staggering. Unfortunately, so are the alternatives—like the idea that we need to rethink the way humans and vehicles interact on our roadways. But that may be necessary before autonomous vehicles can take to the road en masse.

Without a human behind the wheel, we may need to rethink the logistics of our cities, streets, and highways. In a world where driverless cars communicate with one another, there’s no need for streetlights or stop signs—vehicles can maneuver seamlessly around one another in algorithm-fueled choreography. And while we impatiently wait at stops and crosswalks for pedestrians, in an autonomous world, passengers’ attention will be on their mobile devices, their work, or their conversations with other passengers. Such irritating delays for a driver may not be so irritating when the driver becomes the passenger. We could, for example, transform some streets into self-driving minihighways and dedicate others purely to foot and bicycle traffic. With humans out of the equation, the entire design of our transportation grid could be reimagined.

As it stands, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly intersections are an afterthought—and everyone on the road treats them as such, resulting in avoidable accidents and needless deaths. We need to begin to plan for a world in which our transportation priorities have shifted and safety and efficiency are the primary motivators. Autonomous vehicles can’t be seriously implemented until bike lanes and pedestrian routes in our cities are rethought, but like self-driving-car development itself, it’s going to take time.
The effect that automated vehicles will have on the overall transportation network, furthermore, is still unclear and likely will not be fully understood until well after they are implemented en masse. On one hand, driverless cars could reduce congestion by operating more efficiently and avoiding accidents caused by human error. On the other hand, they could make congestion worse. Fleets of self-driving cars deployed by Uber or Lyft could clog city streets as they circulate, awaiting their next fare. Retail companies could send out hundreds of automated vehicles to serve as “mobile showrooms” that constantly travel around city streets waiting to be dispatched to potential customers. Personal automated vehicles could continually loop around city blocks while they wait for their owners to get coffee or pick up dry-cleaning. Commutes could grow longer as people replace the stress of driving to work with the pleasure of napping to work.

Autonomous vehicle technology, furthermore, will not alter basic roadway geometry; while it might use that roadway more efficiently than human-driven cars, there will still be limits as to the number of cars that can fit on any given lane-mile of roadway. Streets and highways that are clogged today with human-driven vehicles are just as likely to be clogged with computer-driven vehicles tomorrow; driverless cars will not "solve" traffic congestion as long as the same trips are being made. (This is why I am highly skeptical of the argument that autonomous vehicles will make public transit obsolete because everybody rides a bus today will simply summon an on-demand driverless car to take them to their destination in the future. Along densely-traveled corridors or within dense activity centers, there will always be space constraints that will make mass transit, at least during certain times of the day, more efficient in its ability to move people than individual automobiles, whether they be driverless or not.)

The fact is, for all their promise, autonomous vehicles still present a lot of unanswered questions. How do you keep autonomous vehicle systems - be it the computer in the car itself or the communications network that ties all the cars together - from being hacked? What happens if the self-driving software crashes or the communications network goes down while the vehicle is speeding down the road? What do you do about the millions of people - truck drivers, bus drivers, taxi drivers, chauffeurs - who will become unemployed as their jobs are eventually replaced by automated vehicles? How will land uses change in the era of autonomous vehicles? Will we even need parking lots and garages anymore? What other unanticipated consequences of driverless technology might we be missing?

Citing the many problems that autonomous vehicles still face, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute urges tempered expectations, patience and planning:
I am not suggesting that autonomous vehicles are impossible or worthless, or that planners should ignore their impacts, but there are good reasons to be cautious and skeptical, and to implement public policies that maximize their benefits and minimize their costs.
If my analysis is correct, autonomous vehicles may become commercially available in the 2020s, but will initially be costly and constrained, adding a few thousand dollars in annualized costs, and able to self-drive only on designated highways in good weather, and so will mainly be purchased by affluent, longer-distance motorists. Like most automated systems, autonomous vehicles will often be frustrating. Like automated vehicle navigation systems, they will sometimes choose sub-optimal routes. Like computers, they will sometimes stop unexpectedly, requiring a reboot or expert intervention. Like automated telephone systems and bank machines, they will often be confusing and require extra time and effort to use.
It will probably be the 2030s or 2040s before autonomous vehicles are sufficiently affordable and reliable that most new vehicle buyers will purchase vehicles with self-driving ability, and the 2050s before most vehicle travel is autonomous. This technology will probably contribute to numerous crashes, resulting in modest net safety benefits. For safety sake, they will often travel slower than human-driven cars, leading to traffic delays. Self-driving taxies may become affordable and common in urban centers, but in suburban and rural areas most households will continue to own personal rather than shared vehicles. Autonomous vehicles will not displace the need for walking, cycling, and public transit; on the contrary, efficiency and equity require public policies, such as efficient road pricing and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, to favor sharing and prevent autonomous driving from increasing total vehicle travel, traffic congestion, and energy consumption.
My main conclusion: autonomous vehicles will not reduce the importance of good planning.
Fortunately, we have plenty of time to plan and prepare for driverless technology. Fully-autonomous vehicles are not imminent, as even some of its most enthusiastic proponents realize. Even after these vehicles become sufficiently functional and can be proven to safely to operate in any environment, it will take time for them to work their way into the nation's fleet mix and replace human-driven cars to the point that they become ubiquitous. Perhaps they will revolutionize our lives. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we'll discover that self-driving cars weren't such a big deal after all.

One thing is absolutely certain, however: driverless cars need to be able to realize their promise in regards to safety, whether it be the safety of the passengers in them or the pedestrians and cyclists around them. If it turns out we can't make them safe, then there's no point in having them. Last Sunday's death unfortunately shows that there's a lot of work remaining to be done.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Cougars miss Sweet Sixteen in heartbreaking fashion

The Cougars made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, won a game in the Big Dance for the first time since 1984, stood toe-to-toe with the higher-seeded Michigan Wolverines in their second-round game, and were five seconds from making their way to the Sweet Sixteen when this happened:

Slate's Nick Greene provides the details:
It took a desperation heave from a freshman, but the Michigan Wolverines have secured a ticket to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. They did so at the expense of the Houston Cougars, whose missed free throws down the stretch proved costly. Michigan ran a play to perfection after a pair of Cougar misses from the stripe, getting the ball into Jordan Poole’s hands with just enough time left for the freshman to launch the game-winning 3-pointer in the Wolverines’ 64-63 win.
The moral of the story: HIT. YOUR. DAMN. FREE. THROWS. Had the Cougars been able to hit their free throws late in the game, Michigan's three-pointer would have been meaningless.

As Jeff Balke notes, this loss brings back painful memories of the Cougars' ignominious last-second loss to North Carolina State in the 1983 National Championship, which was made possible by the fact that the Cougars couldn't sink their free throws to put the game on ice. However, as stinging as this loss is, it's not nearly as devastating: The Cougars were playing a higher-ranked and higher-rated team, and they weren't playing for a national title.

In fact, considering that the program has been struggling for so long and wasn't really expected to be more than mediocre this season, the fact that they got as far as they did is rather remarkable. Balke believes the future of the program is bright:
As upsetting as the loss was for the Cougars, UH has a lot to celebrate this season. For the first time in what seems like forever, they became a ranked program. They won a game in the tournament for the first time in over 30 years and it appears Sampson has the program moving in the right direction. 
The best way to deal with the sting of a loss like this one is to move on and get better. Recruiting season is right around the corner that this team has nowhere to go but up. For now, they'll have to spend their summers thinking about what might have been.
I agree; there's nothing the Coogs can do except shake this off and try again next year. The program is moving in the right direction, and next season they'll begin play in their new home. In spite of the tough loss, I'm optimistic about the basketball program's future. They just need to continue practicing those free throws.

Besides, it could be worse. At least the Cougars aren't Virginia. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Yet Another Olympic Wrapup

Another Olympiad is in the books, so it's time for (yet another) wrapup.

The 2018 Winter Olympics may have been held in PyeongChang, South Korea, but they absolutely belonged to Norway. The Scandinavian country of 5 million people utterly dominated the games with 39 total medals (including 14 golds). Germany came in second with 31 medals (14 golds), while Canada came in third with 29 medals (11 golds). The United States ended up with 4th place with 23 medals, including 9 golds.

This is the lowest medal haul for Team USA since 1998, and is reflective of what for at least the first half of the games was a poor performance by the Americans. Team USA did manage a late rally to at least make a respectable showing; that rally included, notably, USA's first-ever medal in womens cross county skiing, the womens hockey team besting Canada for the gold medal for the first time since 1998, and the US Curling Team's improbable comeback to win the county's first gold medal in the sport. And before we spend too much time criticizing Team USA for underachieving, it's worth remembering that, before the advent of the so-called "extreme sports," the United States pretty much sucked at the Winter Olympics. At the Winter Olympics in Calgary 30 years ago, for example, the United States won a grand total of 6 (!) medals.

The Netherlands came in sixth with 20 total medals, because speedskating. Rounding out the top ten were Sweden, South Korea, Switzerland, France and Austria.

Honorable mentions go to a handful of countries that don't usually figure in winter sports: Both Spain and New Zealand won two medals in PyeongChang, the first time either country has medaled since 1992. Hungary won their first medal since 1980 and their first gold medal ever in the Winter Olympics. Belgium won its first medal in twenty years, and little Liechtenstein won its first medal in 30 years.

Tina Weirather's bronze medal in the Womens Super-G, in fact, was enough to give Liechtenstein the highest number of medals per capita, according to this handy website, with one medal per (the beautiful - and expensive - Alpine principality's total population of) 37,531 inhabitants. Norway came in second, winning one medal per every 133,228 inhabitants, while Switzerland came in third, with one medal per every 552,465 inhabitants. The United States came in 24rd, winning one medal per every 13,974,731 inhabitants. Those rankings don't change significantly if you re-rank the medals by weight. Lichtenstein also tops the rankings of medals per GDP, simply because the microstate is ridiculously rich; Norway comes in second on that list as well, while Belarus comes in third and the United States comes in 25th.

Ecuador entered the Winter Olympics for the first time, with a single athlete: cross-country skier Klaus Jungbluth came in 112th (out of 116th) in the Mens 15-Kilometer Freestyle, beating out the famous Shirtless Tongan by two spots. Despite finishing poorly, Ecuador can now claim as many medals in the Winter Olympics as Chile or Argentina (both of who have at least some winter sports infrastructure): zero.

Finally, a follow up from my previous post, wherein I actually gave some praise to NBC's Olympics coverage. Apparently, I'm not the only person who thinks they did better job this time around. It's enough to make Vox's Todd VanDerWerff at least somewhat optimistic about 2020:
None of this suggests that NBC is off the hook forever. The 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo will have many of the same benefits of the 2018 Games, especially when it comes to an advantageous time differential with the US. But the Summer Olympics, where the US is generally more likely to sit atop or near the top of the medal count, often lead NBC to chase its own worst impulses of relentlessly pushing predetermined narratives. (It also won’t help that the Summer Games often schedule major events — especially in track and field — for the cooler evening hours, which will be the early morning in most of the US.) 
But I’m choosing to let the 2018 Olympics give me hope that NBC is finally addressing some of its most persistent criticisms. The network still has a long way to go, and it has to stop assuming that the best way to tell human stories at the games is via packaged profiles straight out of Dateline, rather than letting those human stories unfold in the midst of the competition itself. But maybe the network is moving in the right direction at long last. We’ll find out in two and a half years.
On to Tokyo...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Another winter's end

A few days ago, Eric Berger declared that Houston "in the midst of transitioning from winter to spring:"
A lot of people have asked whether we are done with freezes. (My wife, a gardener, especially wants to know). We think so. Typically, the last freeze for central and southern parts of Houston (think Harris County and areas closer to the coast) occurs in mid-February, and for northern areas (think Montgomery, Waller, Liberty) it is late February or early March. This year it seems highly unlikely that the region will see a freeze for the next two weeks, which gets us to March. There are always outliers—for example, Hobby Airport recorded a freeze on April 13, 1940—but the odds at this point favor no more freezes for the winter of 2017-2018.
Between Berger's pronouncement, the fact that the crane flies are beginning to appear, the fact that rodeo season begins with Cookoff next weekend (oh, how I wish I could get my hands on some tent passes!), and the fact that local establishments are already advertising their crawfish boils, I think it's safe to say that, yes, winter is over.

If you hate cold weather, this is music to your ears. It was an eventful winter, with a snowfall in December and an ice storm a few weeks ago that kept a lot of us home from work for a couple of days. I know a lot of people are tired of the cold (although, as Berger notes, the end of winter doesn't mean that there won't be a few more chilly days in our future) and are ready for a couple of months of optimal outdoor weather before the summer heat sets in.

Which will be great. Then, come August, we'll all be ready for the chilly weather to come back again.

My bi-annual post about NBC's Olympics coverage

Regular readers of this blog (both of them!) know that I am generally not a fan of NBC's Olympics coverage. But, one week into the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, I can actually list two things to like about NBC's coverage this time around.

First, I'm generally liking the live primetime coverage. Given the time difference, NBC is broadcasting events in primetime in the US that are happening late the following morning in South Korea, and while this has been a challenge for athletes, as they've had to adjust to competing in the mornings rather than afternoons or evenings, it's also created some compelling viewing. Live television, by its nature, cannot be heavily edited or interspersed with the stupid human interest features that NBC loves to force upon its viewers. It's also not quite as US-centric as edited, tape delayed events tend to be, either. To be sure, there have still been some of those elements during the primetime broadcast, NBC still can't help but focus on the "narrative" aspect of the athletes, and don't even get me started on all the commercials. However, where NBC appears to have made live events - figure skating, alpine skiing, snowboarding - the focus of their primetime coverage, it's actually been halfway decent. (I can't speak to the quality of the parallel live coverage on NBC Sports Network, since I no longer have cable, but I haven't read any major complaints so far.)

Second, I'm liking the fact that Bob Costas has relinquished his duties as host, handing them off to Mike Tirico. Tirico might be a bit bland, but at least he's not insufferable the way Costas was. I'm not having to mute the TV every time Tirico comes on, as I was prone to doing every time Costas and his hectoring smugness graced my TV screen. He truly was one of the worst things about NBC's Olympics coverage, and I don't miss him.

This isn't to say that everything has been great for NBC; they've made a few gaffes, and their ratings continue to decline (it should be noted that the US Winter Olympic team itself is performing relatively poorly, which may be part of the problem). Furthermore, I admit that my expectations for NBC's Olympics coverage are so low that even minor adjustments to their coverage count as improvement.

However, NBC's done at least a couple of things right this time around, and for that they deserve a (small) tip of the hat.

Astrodome, again

Last week, Harris County Commissioner's Court voted to spend $105 million to renovate the venerable and vacant Astrodome. This vote, which was actually the second step of an action that the Commissioners took two years ago, seeks to transform the derelict structure into parking and event space.

As readers of this blog know, I've been following the saga of the Astrodome for several years, and although I have a soft spot in my heart for the Eighth Wonder of the World, I'm also highly skeptical that it can be renovated and put to use in an economically viable fashion. This may be a $105 million money sink for county taxpayers. Furthermore, the optics of this spend are especially bad in light of the damage this county suffered from Harvey, as the Press's Cory Garcia notes:
Houston needs flood reform. Just the idea of another Harvey-level storm crashing into the city is enough to make the skin crawl. And yet every time the idea of flood reform comes up it seems like it’s followed by the question of “where will the money come from?” Now sure, $100+ million is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to make sure the city doesn’t drown again, but at the very least it can be acknowledged that any excitement about what’s going on with the Dome — especially after voters decided against saving it back in 2013 — is tone deaf.
I get it: Houston is a city that is often seen as one that doesn’t respect or take care of its history. The Astrodome has sentimental value for many sports, sports entertainment and music fans. The building is the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” or at least the coolest contender on the list; no offense to the Palm Islands intended. It makes sense that some people think preserving it for future generations makes sense.
And yes, in the future your kids and your kids’ kids might park their car under it on the way to go see Brad Paisley play his 60th RodeoHouston show and think to themselves, “wow, I bet a ton of people got concussions here!”
That may be harsh, but I’m just not sure that turning the Astrodome into the “8th Wonder of the Convention Hall Circuit” is something worth celebrating while people are still rebuilding their lives and hearing that only so much can be done to prevent it from happening again. I’m sure we’ll host some grand conventions and meetings in the future, but the optics of it all still suck.
The Chronicle's Lisa Falkenburg, on the other hand, thinks that the county's investment in the structure is wise:
To some, investing in the dome seems a nostalgic indulgence in the face of urgent needs. Harvey victims are hoping for a tax break on properties that lost value. Those who use the criminal courts are calling for swift action on the flooded courthouse - either massive repairs or relocating the ill-planned complex once and for all. 
All of the above should be priorities for County Judge Ed Emmett and the four commissioners. 
But here's the thing: leaders have to balance today's needs with tomorrow's. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it's been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble - from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region's vulnerability during storms and rain events. 
It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike. 
So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston's future needs. 
And critics of the decision either don't understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.
Falkenberg then launches into a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments made by opponents of the renovation project, including the claim that Harris County voters decided to demolish the Dome in a 2013 bond referendum (she's technically right; the vote was to issue bonds to refurbish the Astrodome and said nothing about tearing it down; however, it was clearly intimated by elected officials that, if the vote were to fail, the structure would be demolished). And, while Falkenburg concedes that the optics of this vote weren't particularly good, she correctly notes that this action is the second step on a path that the Commissioner's Court had begun back in 2016, and would have been taken regardless of Harvey. 

At this point, I'm tired of all the political bickering and I'm tired of seeing the grimy, derelict Astrodome sit next to NRG Stadium; I just want the saga of the historic stadium to come to a final resolution. This vote hopefully accomplishes that. I can only hope that things turn out as planned, and that the repurposed Astrodome does indeed generate a return on investment for the County. It's worth noting that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo does seem much more sanguine about this project than they have towards previous renovation proposals; hopefully that's a good sign. 

The funding sources for the $105 million construction budget are general revenues (i.e. property taxes), hotel occupancy taxes, and parking revenue. Construction is expected to begin later this year and take about 17 months to complete. 

2018 Houston Cougar football schedule released

The 2018 University of Houston Cougar football schedule came out a few days ago:

     Sat Sep 01     at Rice
     Sat Sep 08     Arizona
     Sat Sep 15     at Texas Tech (Lubbock)
     Sat Sep 22     Texas Southern
     Sat Sep 29     (off)
     Thu Oct 04     Tulsa
     Sat Oct 13     at East Carolina (Greenville)
     Sat Oct 20     at Navy (Annapolis)
     Sat Oct 27     South Florida
     Sat Nov 03    at SMU (Dallas)
     Sat Nov 10    Temple
     Thu Nov 15    Tulane
     Fri Nov 23     at Memphis

There are things to like about this schedule, and there are things not to like. I like the fact that the Cougars get their week off in late September, between non-conference and conference play. I like the fact that this schedule has the Cougars leaving the state of Texas only three times during the entire season. I like that this schedule has only one instance of back-to-back games on the road.

What's not to like? Two Thursday night home games, for starters. These games are attendance-killers, especially given that they are against teams that don't command much interest in Houston: Tulsa and Tulane. Don't even get me started about the effect these games will have on tailgating. The Coogs will have a short week to prepare for an improved Tulane team that beat them last season, which is also not optimal.

This schedule is going to make it very tough for the Cougars to contend for the AAC West title. In addition to getting Tulane on a short week of rest, the Cougars have to face division foes Navy, SMU and Memphis on the road. And sandwiched between those road trips to Navy and SMU? A revenge-minded South Florida team that won 10 games last season.

Other tidbits: former UH head coach Kevin Sumlin returns to town with his new team, the Arizona Wildcats, on September 8th. He is unlikely to receive a particularly warm welcome from the UH faithful. The Cougars host Texas Southern as reciprocation for allowing UH's basketball program to use TSU's HP&E arena as a temporary home this season. The Cougars play three former SWC conference mates (Rice, SMU and Texas Tech) for the second year in a row.

Other than the Rice game (which really doesn't count as a "roadie" anyway), I probably won't be making any trips to away games this season. There just aren't any easy trips on this schedule, and although I definitely want to visit Annapolis someday, this year won't be the year to do it.

I'll have my customary season preview and prediction up in August, but as of right now I'm looking at this schedule and not feeling particularly optimistic. A lot of the teams the Cougars are playing this fall are improving, while the Coogs themselves took a step backwards last season.

Ryan Monceaux's thoughts on the schedule are worth a read.