Saturday, January 17, 2009

RIP John Mortimer
One of my favorite writers, John Mortimer, died Friday at the age of 85. He was best known for his short stories about Rumpole, a criminal defense lawyer working in the Old Bailey. As far as I know, it is the only long-running series about criminal defense, and certainly the one most sympathetic to the trade. Mortimer saw defense lawyers as essential guardians of the rights of all citizens, and as persons who operated in the face of skepticism and hostility from the police, prosecutors, judges, and much of the public. (John Grisham approaches defense lawyers similarly, but his writing has never appealed to me that much.)

It seems to me that in these days of Law & Order, we worship prosecutors too much. We've seen the tragedy of this attitude in Texas and in Houston in particular. I would like pop culture to re-elevate the defense lawyer, as it did in the days of Anatomy of a Murder and To Kill a Mockingbird. And if this could happen with the same wit that Mortimer brought to the Rumpole stories, all the better.

Mortimer did a lot more than write Rumpole stories. I specifically want to mention two excellent novels, satires of the Thatcher era, Paradise Postponed and its sequel, Titmuss Regained. Check them out if you have a chance.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tirana Does It Again

One thing that has delighted me in the past few years are photos of the painted buildings in Tirana, Albania, like this one:

These painted buildings are mostly old communist-era apartments and offices. The bizarre paint-jobs are an attempt to liven up this post-Stalinist town, and give it an identity.

Continuing in this vein is a new mixed-use development. Here's a rendering of what it will look like.

It is designed by a Dutch firm, MVRDV. I like the way it looks like the buildings have all collapsed--sort of what you think of when you think of "crumbling communist architecture." (That said, the actual communist architecture in Tirana, while pretty drab, looks fairly solid.) It also reminds me a bit of the leaning city-scape in the movie Idiocracy. But, of course, here it is perfectly intentional. Construction is sceduled to begin in 2010. But I can't wait--Tirana is high on my list of places to visit for my next vacation. Has anyone been to Tirana? Any recommendations?


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Books I Have Read in 2009 So Far
The Arrival by Shaun Tan. If Jim Woodring and Mark Tansey collaborated on a children's book about immigration, it might look something like this.
Lush Life by Richard Price. Price does a lot of reporting to get the details right. In this book, you really see how hard it is for the police to get it right--or perhaps how easy it is to get it wrong. The police investigating a murder develop a theory that is completely wrong (but that fits the flimsy evidence they have to begin with) which, once it it contradicted, makes following the right path all the harder. This sounds extremely similar to the exonerations one reads about with the Innocence Project, except in those cases, the cops never relinquish the wrong theory even after excuplatory evidence is found. The fuzzy, bureaucratic world of cop-logic is laid pretty bare in this book, and it is very unlike TV cop shows. Great dialogue, too.
Acme Novelty Library vol. 19 by Chris Ware. A different kind of Rusty Brown story, where his sexual initiation is inextricably tied to his love of science fiction. Ware's conception of science fiction is simultaneously learned and dyspeptic. Ware seems to both love and hate the old 30s, 40s, and 50s science fiction short stories. And he weaves it into this Rusty Brown's unhappy life. (This Brown seems superficially far better adjusted than the other Rusty Brown, seen in earlier volumes.)
Solanin by Inio Asano. Nice art and an easy-going story (with one kind of shocking incident in the middle). Post-collegiate types in Tokyo whose only ambition is not to become office automatons. But they aren't sure what else to do. The main character, Meiko, expresses this attitude by referring to people who work in her office as "grown-ups". The book is about finding something to drive you and inspire you. It's not a deep work of fiction, but not bad.
Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman. After an excruciating first half (high-tech American war atrocities in a future asymmetric war), it kind of wraps up too quickly and easily in the second half, where the life and death instincts of humanity essentially battle it out. Haldeman is, of course, critical of the American military-industrial complex (it's a recurring theme for him) and as he did in The Forever War, suggests that our warlike nature may only be avoided by somehow artificially evolving ourselves beyond it.
RASL vol. 1: The Drift by Jeff Smith. I had been reading this in the comics, but this large-format book is a much better way to get the story. My one regret is that too little of the story has been told in this volume. What we know--Rob has the ability to jump to alternate Earths by using a bizarre, Kirby-esque machine. He uses this ability to steal art masterpieces in one universe to sell in another. He is an unpleasant protagonist, and indeed, RASL seems to be the "anti-Bone" in some ways. It features somewhat shocking level of sex and violence. His story-telling is different, too. Smith is keeping a lot from the reader. We know Rob is a former scientist who had an affair with his colleague. He is afraid of assassins, and the one assassin he meets has a strange, almost reptilian face. Enough has been hinted at to keep me interested. I look forward to future volumes.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly. A typical Michael Connelly book--gripping and well-written, like all his mysteries. But there is a kind of sameness that his books have acquired over time. He attempts to shake things up by writing about Mickey Haller, a defense attorney. This is the second Mickey Haller book, and it really comes through that Connelly just doesn't like defense attorneys and what they do. He seems, if anything, trying to convince himself that defense lawyers are not just cynical defenders of evil scumbags. It makes the book feel a little schizophrenic. He does make a point of how police (and prosecutors) will attach themselves to one theory of a crime and have tunnel vision about any other possibility.
Terry and the Pirates vol. 5 by Milton Caniff. The second to last volume. Terry is now a pilot, first training as a cadet with Chinese pilots, then fighting with other American fighter pilots. He has some adventures in China, but to shake things up, Caniff takes him to India and then Burma. In the meantime, we see Pat Ryan working in naval intelligence on a Pacific island. Connie and Big Stoop are somehow part of Pat's crew, and Burma (the character, not the colony) shows up again, but these characters from the past are a bit awkward. They don't exactly fit into Caniff's new, accurate, patriotic militarism. Caniff really took it on himself to be a propagandist for the war effort.

As usual, the production values are supurb. The introductions are appropriate and feature excellent photographs.

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More on The Ringside

Over at HAIF, there has been a great discussion of the Ringside Club. Apparently this club existed in the 40s and 50s over on the East Side near the docks and a Ford plant. The comedian above is Bozo St. Clair, who entertained between bouts. There were regular boxing matches, as well as matches between scantily clad gals. One poster, FilioScotia, says that the girls were not nude or topless--it was not permitted at the time. Still, sounds like a show worth seeing--sex, violence, and humor in one big, smoky, boozy package.

Another poster tossed up this image:

This is apparently from Striking Images by Monte Beauchamp.

(Hat tip to Robert Kennedy fron Neon Poisoning.)


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Naked Girls of Houston Through the Ages

Just a few days after I posted this post about the apparent end of strip joints in Houston, Neon Poisoning posted this amazing image.

Cool! This is a matchbook cover uploaded by terr-bo. I have no idea what the vintage is, but obviously it's old. If Houston is successful in shutting down all the strip clubs, it will be the end of a long tradition in this town, evidently.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Moody's downgrades E&P Independents
A probably very reputable business in no way related to the ratings agency. Photo by Lost Tulsa.

So reports Platt's. Very distressing.
Moody's has downgraded the independent exploration and production industry to "negative" because of the "precipitous" decline in oil and natural gas prices expected to lead to low cash margins and "fundamental credit deterioration," the ratings agency said Monday.

There is a "significant risk" that E&Ps have entered a "prolonged period of abnormally low cash margins and returns due to persistent demand-driven price declines outpacing cost reductions and supply response," Moody's said in a statement.

Moody's vice president and senior analyst Peter Speer said "many E&Ps had fully ramped up capital spending and were increasing leverage just as the market a result, some companies are ill-prepared for a downturn."

Moody's "long-term" fundamental ratings for independents are driven by their "scale, cost competitiveness, capital productivity and leverage profiles -- not by commodity prices," Speer said. But the "extreme reversal" in prices over the past six months followed an enormous ramp up" in capital spending could not be "throttled back" as fast as prices fell, Moody's said.
At significant risk for bank borrowing cuts are "speculative grade" E&Ps, Moody's said.
OK, I can understand this. Given what's happened to oil and gas prices, what choice did they have. It's distressing to me that Moody's did this, but then again, I work for an independent E&P. That said, why should anyone take Moody's ratings seriously, after what they've done?
Another apparently fine establishment not involved in any ratings scandals. Photo copyright Planet 99.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

The Beginning of the End for Strip Clubs in Houston

Kuff has the story here: The Penthouse Club has officially been closed down by the City of Houston. The club had been closed under a temporary injunction, but the Chronicle reports that it is now permanently closed.
The city of Houston claimed a significant victory Wednesday in its effort to stamp out strip clubs and pornographic boutiques that have set up shop too close to neighborhoods.
A state district judge ruled in favor of the city's attempt to permanently shut down The Penthouse Club, 2618 Winrock, and ordered an owner of the establishment to pay $42,000 in legal fees. [...]
The case was a major test of a new front in Houston's long-running battle to enforce its "sexually-oriented business" ordinance, which has withstood multiple challenges that finally held up under the scrutiny of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The law, which requires such companies to operate at least 1,500 feet from schools, day care centers, parks and churches, has been flouted by strip clubs and porn shops since City Council adopted it in 1997.
But with The Penthouse Club, the city tried a new tack: suing to shutter the business under the city's nuisance laws. Now, the city intends to file a massive lawsuit this month using similar measures to close 30 to 40 of the businesses at once.
Police and city officials believe as many as 120 sexually-oriented businesses in Houston may be operating against the law, although about a dozen have obtained a legal permit.
The punishment meted out is especially harsh. Kuff quoted the Chronicle as saying "The location will be shut down as any kind of business for the next year, and as real estate, the location can never again be used as a sexually oriented business, no matter who the owner is, the ruling states." This line was removed from the Chronicle article when it was updated, though. Kuff points out that having a deserted building might be just as much a "nuisance" as a strip joint.
Now that particular location is kind of a mini-sin-central. Right across the street is All Stars, another strip joint, and in the strip center behind All Stars are two obvious whorehouse/massage parlor-type businesses. But with the city's success with the Penthouse Club, I think the strip joints and massage parlors along Westheimer and Richmond are probably doomed.

So what happens next? Houston has long been a sleazy city, but that could actually change. We're the city that actually spawned a publicly-traded adult entertainment corporation, Rick's Cabaret International (RICK on the NASDAQ). Rick's stock dropped sharply on Monday and Tuesday. The ruling was on Wednesday, but perhaps the sellers of the stock were expecting the worst. (It has recovered somewhat today, Friday.) Now Rick's has clubs in many locations (in eight states), and furthermore, of its five clubs in Houston, only two, the two Onyx-branded clubs, appear to be within the city limits! (The Onyx clubs are aimed at black men.) Indeed, the other three clubs are in unincorporated parts of Harris County. This wasn't always the case--Rick's flagship location was in the Galleria (maybe even where Onyx is currently located, although I don't know this for sure).
The fight between Houston and the strip joints has been going on for years. It has mainly been fought in court, but the clubs eventually lost. Now Rick's is a bit different from the other clubs. It operates nationally, in states where the laws are vastly different. And one thing Rick's knew is that no matter how permanent the status quo seems, it can be changed quickly. New York is the big example of this. You can still go to a strip joint in New York, and there is obviously plenty of prostitution there, as there is in every city, but compared to the way it was before Giuliani's clean-up, one can hardly be believed how different it is. The peep shows that surrounded the Port Authority are completely gone, and Times Square is an orgy of consumerism, not porn and hookers as in the old days.
So given this, and given the apparent seriousness of Bill White's administration to stamp out strip joints, I think Rick's hedged their bets and started moving the majority of its Houston operations outside the city limits. I would not be surprised if they owned or had options on other non-Houston but Houston-adjacent locations. Dudes will have to get used to driving to the edge of town for their bachelor parties.
Of course, the risk is that Harris County, on seeing the success Houston has had, will enact similar laws. Especially if it sees a sudden increase in sexually-oriented businesses in its unincorporated areas. But dudes will always be horny, and there will always be businesses there to cater to them, whether they are legal and above ground, or underground illegal businesses.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Year in Blogging

I have a neat little thing called Google Analytics that keeps track of what's happening on my blog. In 2008, 6,943 people visited my site, viewing 14,846 pages. The average time on the site per visitor was one minute, 54 seconds. (Obviously these are chickenfeed compared to even moderately popular sites.)

The top refering sites (excluding generic referers like were:

HAIF (Houston Architecture Info Forum)--a great community of people interested in the architecture (past, present, and future) of Houston.

Houston's Clear Thinkers-- a very popular blog that just sent oodles of folks over after mentioning my blog once. This blog is perhaps best known for being a die-hard defender of Enron, accusing the feds of prosecutorial misconduct.

Swamplot--My favorite Houston blog, it covers real estate in this city (broadly defined) with plenty of snark.

Glasstire {Texas Visual Art Online} -- All the traffic from Glasstire was in response to this post, where I summarized the Hunting Prize controversy, in which work by Joan Fabian was disqualified supposedly for being sculptural but apparently for its political content. It turned out that another artist had the same thing happen to him. He wrote about it in the comments, the Glasstire people linked, and my little part for citizen's art journalism was done! (Glasstire is a pretty good site with little blogs covering various local scenes.)

Mike McGuff -- Houston media insider and prolific blogger linked to a couple of my posts this year, generating a decent amount of traffic.

Off the Kuff -- This great Houston politics site (written by fellow Rice grad, Charles Kuffner) linked to me a while back, and also my comments on Kuff's site sent over some visitors.

The Comics Reporter -- Tom Spurgeon occasionally links to my posts from his excellent blog. The most recent one was "Best Comics" post.

My most popular post was the Ed Kienholz post, weirdly enough. Apparently it pops up a lot when you are looking for Ed Kienholz images.