Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mapping the Collapse of Sub-Primes

This interactive map from the Financial Times shows how the collapse in sub-prime mortgage backed securities has rippled across the financial world.

It makes very good use of the interactive features of Flash. You can watch the eruptions of trouble over time, and then click on each trouble spot for a more detailed story. It's a repackaging of information that the FT has already reported, but brilliantly done. (Hat tip to FP Passport.)


Sunday, August 26, 2007

The End of McMansions?

This is a quick follow-up to some previous comments I made. I suggested that McMansions exist because they are a more efficient use of property than smaller homes. Specifically, we have to imagine what a neighborhood was like when it was built--it was on the edge of town, far from everything. The land on which each house was built was cheap, purchased from some farmer. Young families could buy a half acre but not a mansion. So they bought a half acre and a modest ranch house. In the 50 odd years since that time, the edge of Houston has morphed steadily outward. The old neighborhood is now much more centrally located, and its big lots an unimaginable luxury. For a home buyer, the only other place to get a big lot like this is way out on the edge of town, a million miles from where you work. So the old neighborhood is expensive now, and the price of a house has gone up a lot. If you're a spec builder or a developer, and you buy a house in Memorial to flip, it makes sense to go ahead and tear it down and build a McMansion in its place. The only people who can afford a house in Memorial are well-to-do--they are unlikely to want a modest starter ranch house.

But this activity has been fueled by rising house prices. And as this post by Kevin Drum indicates, economists believe that house prices (nationally) are set to decline for the first time in over 50 years. Indeed, it does look as if house prices jumped to artificially high levels starting in 1996. So if house prices decline, would it be economical for a spec builder to build a McMansion?

This question is complicated by the situation in Houston. I believe that house prices haven't increased in Houston at the same rate as in the rest of the country. And even if there is a credit crunch, Houston house buyers have another advantage--the price of oil is still sky high, which means that all those managers and executives working for oil companies and oil service companies, etc., here are still getting big raises and bonuses.

So unless the price of oil drops significantly, I suspect that at most we'll see a drop in the rate of McMansion conversion in Houston, but not an end. I suspect the number of new McMansions around the country will crash, though.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Possibly the last book of the summer

Classes start on Monday, so my pleasure reading will be severely limited henceforth. But I wanted to make a few notes regarding Blessed McGill by Edwin Shrake. Shrake is a writer who is possibly best known as the late Ann Richards' main squeeze. He’s one of those writers along with Gary Cartwright and Peter Gent who came out of the sports world, moved to Austin, started smoking dope and hanging with Jerry Jeff and Willie and Waylon, and generally had a good ole cosmic time. See Texas Literary Outlaws for details. It has been suggested that the surplus of booze, pot, cocaine and other sundry drugs consumed by these guys held them back as writers. Maybe so—we can’t be sure they would have written any better if they weren’t so fucked up.

In any case, Shrake wrote several fairly serious novels (unlike his old pal Dan Jenkins, who wrote lots of humorous novels but certainly lacked any literary ambition). I’ve read one, But Not For Love (1964), which is OK but not great. You get the idea that he read The Gay Place and felt inspired to do his own urban Texas novel.

I found a copy of his cosmic cowboy Western, Blessed McGill (1968), and decided to give him another try. This book was excellent. It rambles back and forth in time, and tells the story of Peter Hermano McGill, son of an Irish father and Spanish mother in early Texas. He lives the life of a buffalo hunter and itinerant fortune seeker, becoming friends and enemies with various Indian bands and half-breeds that inhabit Northern Mexico, Texas and New Mexico in the years after the Civil War. One of his childhood friends is a boy who is half Lipan Apache Indian and half German (there were a lot of German immigrants in Texas). He grows up to be a highly feared outlaw Indian named Octavio, and his path crosses again with McGill’s in adulthood, with disastrous results.

You sense that Shrake was again influenced by another novel, this time Little Big Man (1964) by Thomas Berger. I’ve never read it but have seen the movie. But whether Shrake was influenced or not, Blessed McGill stands on its own. What I like about it is the way Shrake builds a believable and complex world described by McGill. Supposedly he researched the hell out of this book, and it shows in the wealth of detail, but never does the detail feel false or expository. It always feels like something that McGill would notice and discuss.

Another thing I like about it is the way it is an adventure, an odyssey, that becomes literature. This strikes me as a rare combination. The obvious book that comes to mind is Moby Dick. But what Blessed McGill reminded me of more was Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimaraes Rosa. Devil to Pay in the Backlands was a vaster, richer book, but the flavor is similar.

Finally, as I read it, I kept thinking what a great movie it would make. It would be a real Western epic.

I’m sure Blessed McGill is out of print, but it should be easy enough to find if you are interested. I recommend it.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Houston Streets 7

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Today’s bike ride took me to Hedwig Village—I rode most of the streets, excepting a few in the far eastern part of the Village. Hedwig Village is located just south of I-10—unlike Bunker Hill, Piney Point and Hunter’s Creek, no part of it touches Memorial Drive or Buffalo Bayou. The children in the Villages (and beyond them) attend Memorial High School, which is on Echo Lane in Hedwig Village. That’s where I went to school, and consequently I’m quite familiar with Hedwig Village. Like all the Villages, it is quite well-to-do. But unlike Piney Point and Bunker Hill, it does contain some apartment complexes. Not every resident is a home-owner. Unlike some of the other Villages, Hedwig Village has offices, stores, a public park, a public library—in other words, Hedwig Village is a little bit more like a real town than the other Villages, which mainly feel like excuses not to be governed by the City of Houston more than anything else.

My ride started outside Hedwig Village. I rode past Memorial City, which has been there for decades. When I was a 12-year-old boy, me and my pals used to hang out there a lot to play video games and check out girls. It seems teenage boys still check out teenage girls there, but Memorial City is a little different now. It’s much bigger than it was, the customer demographic is much more Mexican-American, and shockingly there are no bookstores—no B. Dalton, no Waldenbooks, both of which used to have stores there. Amazing, huh? There are still plenty of these two booksellers (98 B. Daltons and 550 Waldens—although Borders announced they are closing 250 of them) in the nation, but they’ve left Memorial City, for some reason.

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There’s a little neighborhood south of Memorial City but not quite in either Hedwig or Bunker Hill Village. The houses here were fairly modest, but as this is increasingly valuable prime Memorial area land, those old tiny houses are being torn down and replaced by McMansions. The two houses here are both on Holly Ridge, right next to each other. I’m guessing the larger of the two has at least four times the square footage of the other.

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Church architecture is one of the few arenas where architects in Houston have a chance to be creative. This is St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church and school on Bunker Hill. Even as a kid, I thought it looked like an Empire starship from Star Wars.


I love big old majestic oaks, like this one at the corner of Constance and Lou-Al. (Note, Historic Houston Streets suggests that Lou-Al is named after two early Hedwig Village residents, Louise and Alfred Reidel.)


Hedwig Village isn’t very distinguished architecturally (to my eye). But I did like the entry-way on this house on Duart.


It’s an old story, but as land becomes more valuable, people try to use the land they have in for more things with greater economic value. That’s why there are McMansions—McMansions are an economically more efficient way to use a parcel of land than a modest ranch house. That’s why Montrose is gradually filling up with tall thin townhouses, why Midtown is full of mid-rises instead of single family houses, and why there are no more factories in Manhattan when there used to be hundreds. It may also be why this monstrosity on Cawdor Way was built. Amazingly enough, it appears there is more floor space on the third floor of this house than the first—it actually get bigger the higher up you go.


I don’t know what this is. It doesn’t look quite big enough to be a house. It’s set in a huge yard with just a bare dirt driveway that doesn't seem to lead anywhere. According to Zillow.com, it is a property that only is accessible from Frandora, but it doesn't appear that anyone lives there.


This is the new front of Memorial High School. (It actually says Memorial High School, but the metallic façade was reflecting so brightly that the word Memorial was washed out.) The new additions to the school are impressive, but don’t match the rest of the school at all. Instead of using tan bricks, the additions are dark grey, red and metallic. Maybe this is an attempt at school colors—I don’t know.


This seems simultaneously exceptional and typical—Memorial celebrating both academic and athletic achievement. But when I was in high school, we had a sports nut principal, and despite our academic glory, there was still a lot more love for the football team than us National Merit Semifinalists, even though the football team sucked.

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Hedwig Park is, as far as I can determine, the only public park in the Villages of any size. (I can’t see any parks in my Key Map, but it also doesn’t indicate Hedwig Park, so there you go. It also lists a street called Silicon Ally in Hedwig Village that is, as far as I can determine, nonexistent. This may be intentional. According to Historic Houston Streets, the publishers of Key Maps deliberately put in fake street names to catch plagiarists. This might also explain little errors like making one of the Arrowwood cul-de-sacs face south instead of north.)

This plaque gives a little history of Hedwig Village. It reads “Hedwig Village, Hedwig Road and Hedwig Park all derive their name from Mrs. Hedwig Schroeder, whose family came here from Germany in 1906 and settled in the area. They gave the right of way for Hedwig Road in 1920, and when Hedwig Village was incorporated in 1954, Mrs. Schroeder’s name was also used for the city. Her name was selected in 1972 for Hedwig Park.”

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In 1986, they put a time capsule in Hedwig Park, not to be opened until 2036 (Texas’s bicentennial year). Not much to say about this except to note with amusement that the co-chairman of this project was named Mopsy, a name I didn’t think existed outside of the Preppy Handbook.


Right next to Hedwig Park is the Spring Branch Memorial library, part of the Harris County library system (as opposed to the City of Houston library system). This arrangement of benches behind the library seems set up for small open-air performances. I wonder if they have musical events there.


This tree seems to have tipped over from someone’s back yard right in the center of the turnaround at the end of Heather. It must be really frustrating for people who live on Heather. Amazingly, the tree still seems to be alive. If I remember, I’ll return sometime in the next few weeks and see if it has been removed.


This sign on Shadow Way communicates its message very effectively, don’t you think?


My problem with McMansions is not that they exist. Wealthy people are always going to live in big houses, and if we as a society want to discourage this (perhaps to reduce the amount of energy generated to heat and cool them, thus reducing greenhouse gasses), we have ways of doing so legally. Still, as land values increase in an area, a McMansion is an economically more efficient use (if not efficient in terms of energy consumption) of the same parcel of land than a small house. My problem is that so many McMansions are freaking ugly. They’re monuments to the fragile egos of their owners. They show off their McGrandiosity in a way that says “I am the home of an insecure asshole.” (I get the same vibe when I see people driving Hummers.) The ostentatious entryway of this McMansion on Jan Kelly shouts out that message loud and clear.


I somehow managed to miss this when I rode up Blalock a few weeks back, but there is a cool little pedestrian cut-through connecting Dunsinane with Blalock. The Villages might not be very good about parks, but they do provide a few strategic pedestrian/bike cut-throughs to give joggers, dog-walkers, and bikers some nice alternatives to walking along busy streets like Blalock and Piney Point.

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This modernist house on Merridel isn’t that interesting, but I have never seen a lawn in Houston terraced quite like that (terracing is a landscaping concept almost completely without utility in Houston, one of the world's flattest cities).


I showed a Strake Jesuit lawn sign a few weeks ago. Here are two for Memorial High School in front of a house on Whiporwill. I like that they eschew fancy graphics for a bold silhouette. Take that, Strake!

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Summer Reading

Some of the books I’ve read this summer:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowlings. Not much to say about this book that hasn’t been said. It has most of the flaws that critics have mentioned. But I did find it compelling and moving. It is very much unlike the previous six volumes—this is the first volume where Harry (and Ron and Hermione) don’t actually attend school. They should be doing their last year at Hogwarts, but because Voldemort and his Death Eaters have successfully effected a coup, they are now fugitives. The book consists of them trying to find and destroy horcruxes (parts of Voldemort’s soul), while trying to avoid capture. One interesting way to view it is from the point of view of an ordinary wizard who hates what is happening but is powerless. He or she would hear rumors and underground broadcasts about Potter, and his various daring (if inexplicable) guerilla actions. In one adventure, Harry, Ron and Hermione sneak into the Ministry of Magic in disguise to steal a horcrux. In the process, however, they free a bunch of “mudbloods” who are being processed and tried (the Ministry of Magic combines Nazism—racial blame-throwing—and Soviet Communism—show trials). The news of this daring raid must have filtered out and cheered people, although it is not until after the war that Harry would get credit for it.

Spent by Joe Matt—This is the grimmest volume of Joe Matt’s various autobiographical comics, dealing with his porn addiction. He seems unbelievably self-aware. This seems crazy because you would think that someone so self-aware would deal with his problems. But I think that is the point of these books, and Spent in particular. Addiction and other obsessive behavior are mysteries not because their victims have self-justifying fantasies about their behavior, but rather they know their behavior is a problem but are powerless to change it. Spent ends with no resolution, no therapy that turns Joe Matt into a “normal” guy.

The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell—Two science fiction novels dealing with first contact. The main idea here is that in the near future, we discover radio broadcasts from Alpha Centauri. The Jesuits jump on it and send a mission to meet these people before the U.N. or any other country can get a mission together. Interestingly, we are the technologically superior species, but the difference is relatively slight. You can imagine what happens—our presence disrupts the society we find there in utterly perplexing and unpredictable ways. In some ways, the changes are positive (an oppressed caste turns on its masters) but in some ways very negative (the masters are virtually extinguished). It is a little similar to The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but Russell is a better writer about the subtleties of human nature. That said, her attempts and dialects and accents are cringeworthy.

The Glory and the Dream by William Manchester. A two volume history of the U.S. from 1932 to 1974. Manchester confesses to being a “generational chauvinist”; the generation in question being the World War II generation. These volumes are very readable, and while some of the information has been contradicted or made more complete by subsequent findings, overall it is very useful. What seems weird to me, as a man a generation or two younger than Manchester, is his emphasis. He gives a lot of ink to sixties radical personages like Angela Davis, and the events surrounding their lives. I think a man writing in the mid-70s of his generation must have seen these people as really important, in the same way, say, that Barry Goldwater or Adlai Stevenson were important. But it’s hard to see that today—the 60s radicals were interesting, and in some parts of the world (France and Germany, for instance) important figures then and in the future. But unlike the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, 60s radical didn’t actually succeed in changing our society in any major way (except the feminist movement), nor did they gain temporal power. In this case, he overestimates the 60s and the baby boomers (some of their representatives of them). But he misunderstands the cultural changes wrought by this generation—the importance of music to them (he can’t quite see the importance of Elvis, for whom he has an irrational loathing, and of rock in general), the way they greatly relaxed generations of rigid taboos, whether consequential (the role of women and non-white persons in society) or trivial (the idea that men don’t have to wear a tie). These are minor and slightly unfair criticisms of a highly engrossing book. Reading about the Roosevelt administration here is especially interesting—probably the best part of the book. His attempt to write an encyclopedic book about everything that happened in America is an overreach, but an honorable one.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read this when I was in junior high and have never reread it since, even though I have reread The Lord of the Rings and even The Simarillion several times. It’s interesting to realize how much stuff he already knew about the mythos he was creating when he wrote The Hobbit—the hidden city of Gondolin and its fall were already known, as were the wars between the dwarves and orcs in Moria. But orcs were not called orcs, but goblins. And he seem to suggest that the ring is important, but never hints that he knows how important it will be. In The Hobbit, he more strongly emphasizes the differences between elves that once lived in the West (or are descendant from them, like Elrond) and the more rustic elves that never left Middle Earth. It was interesting and fun to reread The Hobbit after 35 years.

Freedom at Midnight by Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins. This is a great one-volume history of the final months of the Raj and the independence of India and Pakistan. The villain is Mohammed Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. He felt any India in which Muslims were a minority would lead to oppression of Muslims, despite the good will of Gandhi and Nehru. And he may have been right, But this meant a partition, and in Punjab, the violence visited on the Sihks and Hindus of Pakistan fleeing East and the Muslims fleeing West was beyond comprehension. Gandhi almost single-handedly prevented similar communal violence in Calcutta.

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne. This history of the Algerian War for independence has lessons for the U.S. today that we are studiously ignoring. The short-term efficacy of torture as an intelligence tool, combined with the long term disaster of it is a lesson our morally bankrupt leaders have understood precisely half of.

Chances Are by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. This is a popular science book about probability and statistics, and of those I’ve read (a few, because the subject interests me a lot), this is the best. It gives just enough history of the subject, explains the centrality of the subject in all modern sciences, and most important, explains various laws of probability very well, including the extremely counterintuitive (for me) Bayes' theorem and the intriguing Parrondo’s Paradox.

Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. This is another one I read a long time ago—in 1985 I believe, the first summer I went to sea on a seismic boat. I brought books with me that were either nautical or “exotic” to my then 22 year old mind. I brought Mutiny, Moby Dick, a Borges story collection, and Guerillas by V.S. Naipaul. The latter two were “exotic” in my mind by virtue of being writers from little known (by me) third world countries. Anyway, Naipaul and Borges subsequently became two of my favorite writers. But I loved Mutiny and Moby Dick as well.

Like rereading The Hobbit, rereading Mutiny is a very interesting experience. It can’t be read quite the same way after having read all the Patrick O’Brian novels. My knowledge of life aboard a English naval vessel in the age of sail is infinitely richer. While Nordhoff and Hall don’t approach O’Brian as stylists, and are limited creatively with what they can do with the characters (since all the characters except for the narrator were real people who did actual things during and after the voyage of the Bounty, which as far as I can tell Nordhoff and Hall try to be very accurate about), the book benefits from their painstaking accuracy and unwillingness to shy from the unpleasantness associated with sea life. And it’s a ripping yarn.