Sunday, January 31, 2010

Note on Dead Again
Dead Again by Masha Gessen. 
I got this book as part of a relatively new interest in the Russian intelligentsia. I had always been a little interested in non-conformist art and read the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago (as well as several other Solzhenitzsyn books) in high school. But it was picking up The Whisperers and Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes that really got me interested. The tragic history of the great artists and poets who were suppressed by Stalin is perversely attractive. I will readily admit that an interest in oppressed artists is fundamentally adolescent. And indeed, for me it is also interesting to learn about the accommodations that artists made. You can see the same journey in Orlando Figes--Natasha's Dance, when it deals with the artists under communism, deals only with the tragic, oppressed artists. But in The Whisperers, Figes deals at length with the complicated case of Konstantin Simonov, an insider, an official artist, but a liberal who tried to push things in a freer direction.

Zhivago's Children was just as fascinating. The Thaw and subsequent "re-freezing" that lead to the human rights movement in Russia is a fascinating period. As large and dense as Zhivago's Children is, it seems like the surface is only scratched there. But what happened during Perestroika and after the fall of the Soviet Union to all these artists, poets, scientists, activists, etc? Masha Gessen's Dead Again provides a sketch.

Her book was published in 1997, so there hadn't been much time for the post Soviet Union intelligentsia to shake out. She is a breezy writer who comes out of a journalistic background, so she doesn't really feel the need to develop a thesis like Vladislav Zubok, an academic historian, did in Zhivago's Children. Indeed, both Figes and Zubok are historians, writing about the past. Geesen is a journalist writing about contemporary events. The difference in style and substance is captured by the difference between those two professions.

The main thing Geesen writes about is how the intelligentsia, who were a united front during the late Soviet period, collapsed into squabbling factions--which they had been prior to communism. You had one one hand the Western liberalizers, the Sakharovs and Bonners, and on the other hand, the nationalist/orthodox thinkers like Solzhenitsyn and Igor Shafarevich. This difference existed in Czarist times--the Slavophiles versus the Westernizers. This time around, the ultranationists anti-semitic right had a certain advantage--namely, the last time the Westernizers won a decisive victory, they brought with them the Western philosophies of socialism and dialectical materialism. Westernizing had been a tragedy for Russia. On the other hand, capitalism and democracy obviously worked out petty well in the West, so why not try it in Russia?

Gessen deals also with the dissident intelligentsia who were suddenly thrust into politics--and almost as quickly spit out. She addresses nascent Russian feminist thought. She deals with the younger generation of Russian intellectuals, making a labored analogy with the characters in the Douglas Copeland book, Generation X. And she talks about the old human rights campaigners going into Chechnya--a war that had just ended (but would soon restart).

Since then, it seems (to a casual outside observer) that things have gotten worse for the intelligentsia. One thinks of the brutal murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova (and of many others) and the impunity with which these crimes are committed. At the same time, one thinks of young geniuses who put their brains to work engaging in criminal computer hacking schemes.

But I know that when I read these accounts, I am getting a narrow and highly biased account of the intelligentsia. I'd be interested in a more complete picture.

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Note on Duchess of Palms
Duchess of Palms by Nadine Eckhardt
Nadine Eckhardt was at the center of Texas literary history and Texas (and U.S.) political history. Her life really encompasses the changes in American society from the 50s through the 70s. She married Billy Lee Brammer, the author of The Gay Place (a great novel about Austin and Lyndon Johnson), in the early 50s and was part of the liberal Austin political scene of the 50s that informs so much of The Gay Place. She worked in Johnson's office with Brammer for several years when Johnson was Senate leader. After divorcing the chronically irresponsible Brammer, she met and married a state legislator, Bob Eckhardt, who later became a Congressman from Houston in 1966 (he served until he was defeated in 1980). Eckhardt was author of the Open Beaches act (one of the most liberal pieces of legislation in Texas ever--it essentially made a huge chunk of valuable Texas land public property forever--although there have been recent attempts to undermine it) and was a sponsor of the War Powers Act in Congress. Nadine Eckhardt wasn't a retiring wife--she was actively involved in her husbands' careers. She was also witness to some important events.

Unfortunately, she is not a good writer. This memoir is useful for filling in bits of history, but whenever you want Eckhardt to dive in and give you details, she moves onto the next thing. For example, for readers of The Gay Place, what would be interesting would be a non-fiction description of the scene in Austin among young liberal political types in the 50s. What was a typical evening like? Who was sleeping with whom? What happened when Representatives from bumfuck Texas came to Austin for the legislative term--and went wild? At first, I thought Eckhardt wasn't describing this scene because it was, perhaps, embarrassing. But she readily admits to affairs, flings, one-night stands, and various infidelities. She clearly isn't embarrassed by them. So why not describe the milieu? It was an interesting time, sort of a pre-history of the counter culture, a precursor to what Austin would later become. But you get the barest outline of it here.

Another thing she does as a writer is to suck the suspense out of a story. When she meets Bob Eckhardt, she talks about being so in love that she became blind to some of the faults he had--faults that would later lead her to divorce him. Urgh. I understand she didn't write a novel here, but by telling the reader that she would be divorcing Eckhardt several years later just as she is describing falling in love with him, she sucks the interest out of the arc of their relationship.

So a frustrating read. Still, you get an excellent feel for Lyndon Johnson and life in his office. You get a good picture of life in Washington, D.C., during 1968 when cities burned after the assassination of Martin Luther King and when antiwar activists were mainstreaming the counterculture. (Eckhardt starts smoking pot and sleeping with a Georgetown student around then.) Her encounters with black radical Ray Robinson in Resurrection City are recounted in some detail and are really interesting.

Duchess of Palms is a very short book, and a quick read. My main disappointment is a nagging feeling of what it could have been, which is probably unfair. Nadine Eckhardt is not a novelist or even a professional writer--she is someone who has lived an unusually eventful and interesting life, and provided us with a sketch of that life.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

Another Robert Boyd Who Is Not Me

“I have friends from out of town who come to visit and they say, ‘Sparkling City by the Sea? More like graffiti city by the sea,’” said Robert Boyd, a local Vietnam veteran.
Boyd, wearing a T-shirt that read “Graffiti Hurts,” said he paints over the graffiti at Carroll High School, near his home, because it lowers property values in the neighborhood, he said.
“Like most people I can’t stand the sight of it and something needs to be done,” Boyd said. (Steven Alford, Corpus Cristi Caller-Times, 1/29/2010)

For the record, I am opposed to damaging other people's private property. That said, there is so much visual ugliness in the world, it's hard for me to see how graffiti makes it worse, and when done by a skillful street artist, graffiti can actually improve a building. Just sayin.'

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Haynesville Movie Trailer from Gregory Kallenberg on Vimeo.

I may have mentioned it a few times here, but my employer is a natural gas E&P company. We primarily produce gas from shale formations. This type of gas production is a relatively recent development in the history of oil and gas exploration. It has been made possible by the combination and gradual improvement of two technologies--directional drilling (the ability to curve the path of the drill bit) and hydraulic fracturing. This is needed because unlike other kind of rock where gas (and oil) are found, like sandstone, shale is basically impermeable. So we drill horizontally through a shale formation, then pump down water at super-high pressures to open tiny fractures in the shale, releasing the trapped gas.

It turns out that there are big, gas-bearing shale formations all over the USA (and probably all over the world). They are being produced right now in North Texas, north Louisana, northern Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. In the next year or so, we might see production come on line in New York State and even Poland.

Now think about this. All the big oil and gas finds for the past few decades have been found either in distant foreign countries or in remote areas like the North Slope of Alaska or in the Gulf of Mexico. The old Jed Clampett story of farmers sitting atop a sea of oil or gas has mostly passed into folklore--part of the great American myth.

Until now.

That's what Haynesville is about--in part. The Haynesville Shale is a large gas-bearing shale formation laying under northern Louisiana extending a bit into east Texas and southern Arkansas. It lies under lots of rural towns and farms and the small city of Shreveport. The filmmakers follow three people, each affected by the "gold rush" for acreage. The movie follows three people whose lives are changed by the coming of big gas companies writing big checks for lease agreements. I don't want to spoil it, but there is a degree of overnight wealth displayed in the movie, and it deals with what happens to people who get it. You definitely get a glimpse into small-town and rural Louisiana life--the pine forests and wetlands, the rundown semi-suburban houses on huge lots. I grew up playing in places like this, and the lives of these people rang pretty true to me.

In addition to the Haynesville folks, the movie talks to geologists and energy experts, including environmentalists and heavy-duty advocates of alternative energies. These guys, far from being against this gas boom, felt it was the best chance to transition into a clean energy future. They all admitted that America's energy needs could not be met by alternative energies. There are still obvious technical hurdles, not the least of which is the unreliability of alternate energy sources (the sun doesn't shine all day, and the wind sometimes doesn't blow). They spoke of the need to develop energy storage technology, as well as of the need to ramp alternate energy technologies up. But they were looking at a long time horizon.

In the meantime, they wanted gas as our main electrical generation fuel. They saw it as cleaner than coal (which it is, of course) and as producing more energy per ton of carbon dioxide produced. And a few mentioned American energy security, which domestic sources of natural gas help to provide.

The brilliant part was that the filmmakers quoted people from the alternative energy and environmental communities--but no one from energy companies. I happen to agree with the experts in Haynesville, but if you hear it from me (or T. Boone Pickens or some guy from the A.P.I.), it sounds totally self-interested. But the experts in Haynesville had no vested interest in gas, which makes them more credible.

The ironic part about the huge gas leases mentioned in the movie (up to $25,000 an acre plus royalties) is that they were the product of a boom mentality. It's felt that gas companies overpaid. Although the Haynesville Shale wells produce amazing quantities of gas, their decline rate is unusually steep. But these leases were made before the decline curve was known and while gas prices were skyrocketing. So if you were a Louisianan who was able to sign one of these monster leases, you were lucky!

I am really glad that this documentary was made. It's nice to see a feature film about one's own profession.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

One View on Why the Rice-BCM Merger Failed

Last Thursday, I was at the Jones School to watch the new documentary Haynesville (which was excellent and about which I may blog later). While there, I got into a conversation with one of my old professors. I'll call him Professor X to preserve his anonymity (he does not, as far as I know, have psychic powers, and he is definitely neither bald nor confined to a wheelchair).

We got to talking about the failed BCM-Rice merger. He was really, really bummed about it. He didn't claim to be an insider to the negotiations, but he knew some insidery stuff. Specifically, he blamed Baylor University for the breakdown of negotiations (which jibes to a certain extent with what has been reported elsewhere). I asked him about BCM's debt load and risk. Professor X said that on the BCM side, there were philanthropists lined up to make them whole if the merger happened. I argued that that money, given now, is money that wouldn't be given later (say in the form of estate giving). His argued that this money was money that was going to BCM, not Rice, and that if they didn't give it now, they would possibly never give it at all because BCM might cease to exist. In either case, Rice was never going to see that particular pool of philanthropic money. (Not that Rice doesn't have its own supply, obviously.)

Furthermore, Professor X talked about good things that would have happened had the merger succeeded. BCM foolishly burned many bridges in the past few years. In retrospect, it's insane what they did. But the merger with Rice would have been a new day. Institutions who were alienated from BCM were willing to come back on board if Rice was running the show. Specifically, Professor X suggested that Methodist might renew their partnership with BCM. (It was BCM's split from Methodist Hospital that triggered BCM's current downward spiral.) One worry about the merger was that Rice would be joining with an unloved institution that had no teaching hospital. Professor X basically said that being part of Rice would erase the old acrimony.

So what happened? All along, Baylor University had veto power. According to Professor X, they were informed at every step what the merger would mean. This was a process that was started over a year ago, recall. Then at the last second, Baylor U. stood up and started making noises, adding conditions. This was after a year of careful negotiations between Rice and BCM, lining up unprecedented financial help, mending fences with previously alienated partners, etc.

Evidently, the Baylor U. conditions and interference became too much. Professor X dropped a bombshell. It was Leebron himself that ended the negotiations. I can only imagine that he concluded that Baylor U. was trying to sabotage the merger, and that there was no way it could progress. His frustration must have been immense.

Why did Baylor U. do it? Perhaps they believe that they can essentially take all the work Rice did and proceed. After all, Rice apparently has lined up hundreds of millions of dollars to rescue BCM. The reason those people are giving this money is because they believe that it would be a tragedy for Houston to lose BCM. So Baylor may be thinking, even if we elbow Rice out of the picture, the motivation of the philanthropists remains the same--rescue BCM.

We'll see if it works. But in the meantime, I would like to say this to the leadership at Baylor University: thanks a lot, assholes. That was real "Christian" of you.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Truth Comes Out

The absence of bike lanes leaves a small margin of space between motorists and cyclists. That small margin of space leaves little to no margin for error.

In 2008, Robert Boyd pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter for killing bicyclists Lyle Rosser and Raymond Moore as they pedaled up the Yucca Grade.

Town leaders admit the current state of cyclist safety is dismal. (Courtney Vaughn, Hi-Desert Star, January 13, 2010)
I admit it! All my pro-biking posts have been a lie!

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Letter from Leebron

I got this in my inbox overnight:

Dear Robert,

        Below is a joint statement by Bill Butler, the interim president of Baylor College of Medicine, and me regarding the proposed Rice-BCM merger.  Although discussions have ended, we look forward to continued and expanded collaborations with our colleagues at BCM.

       I especially want to thank the many alumni who provided thoughtful feedback and support throughout this process.  It is clear that you share a dedication to the institution and care deeply about Rice's success, and I appreciate your continued involvement in the life of the university.

Very truly yours,

David W. Leebron

January 12, 2010     

        We are writing to inform you that Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University have ended our discussions about a possible merger of our two institutions.  At the same time, both institutions have agreed to develop further our existing academic and research relationship, which has grown significantly over the years.

        Since we signed a memorandum of understanding in March of 2009, we have been in extensive discussions in an attempt to meet several conditions that both institutions considered to be essential for a successful merger.  We joined in a thorough and deliberate process that explored the many benefits and challenges a merger would entail.  With the MOU due to expire this month, the leadership of both institutions decided it is in the best interests of both BCM and Rice University to strengthen the existing relationship without a formal merger.

        The months of discussion have provided a great deal of information that we will use to build on existing joint programs, such as in neuroscience and global health initiatives, and to create new ones that will best serve both institutions.  A report prepared by a joint committee of faculty members from each institution identified many possibilities for collaboration that will be considered in the coming months.

        We want to thank our administrative and faculty teams for their hard and creative work over the past year.  Our respect for each other increased daily as we grew to know each other and each other’s work better.  We learned that we share similar missions and a commitment to the highest standards of education, research and community service.  So, while we are bringing the merger discussions to a close, we are opening a new chapter of collaboration that will advance the field of biomedicine and improve human health.


David W. Leebron
Rice University
William T. Butler, M.D.
Interim President
Baylor College of Medicine

Since we're on a first name basis now, I want to say, thanks David for informing me of this and thanks for making what I feel was the right decision.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rice-Baylor Merger Talks Collapse

This is huge.

Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University have ended 15 months of negotiations aimed at merging the two elite Houston schools.
In a joint statement sent to faculty staffs and students today, Rice President David Leebron and Baylor President Dr. William Butler gave no reason for the collapse of the talks. Just four months ago, they hinted a deal might be in place by the end of this month. (Todd Ackerman, The Houston Chronicle)

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Robert Boyd, Viking Killer

Dudes, you don't wanna mess with me.

The Boyds had been one of the big families of Kilmarnock for centuries - they can be traced on the Ayrshire coast as far back as the late 1200s, with a Robert Boyd fighting the Vikings in the Battle of Largs, whose son then fought alongside Robert the Bruce - and who was rewarded by Bruce by a huge grant of land in Ayrshire. (The History of Portavogie, Mark Thompson)

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Note on Cop in the Hood
Cop in the Hood by Peter Moskos

The simple way to describe Cop in the Hood is to say that it is the academic version of The Wire. Moskos, a sociologist PhD candidate, went to work as a Baltimore policeman (POE-lees, as they say in Baltimore) for two years as a research project. The congruences between The Wire and this book are pretty profound. And like the TV series, Moskos has two purposes--to describe life as a cop, and to prescribe certain practices associated with policing.

His big problem is with drugs and the fact that they are illegal. I won't reiterate his arguments for legalizing it--they are pretty familiar to anyone who has heard the various public health, harm reduction, and cost-benefit arguments for legalization. Moskos does a good job of summarizing them and relating them to the lives of working police.

His other argument is about police being proactive versus reactive. 911 is one of the big villains here. As Moskos describes it, it is nearly impossible to successfully stop a crime called in to 911. It's not like a medical emergency or a fire--by the time the paramedics or firemen get there, there's a very good chance that the fire or medical emergency is still in progress and can be stopped. For a cop, even if the response time were instantaneous, the crime is over or (in the case of drug dealing) easy to stop doing by the time the police arrive.

But 911 means that police will constantly be reacting instead of preventing. And this leads to Moskos's other big complaint--police in cars. Putting police in radio cars was a big technological advance in the late 40s and 1950s, but it has ended the regular contact between ordinary citizens and the police. Furthermore, as citizens are encouraged to call 911, people are discouraged from dealing with neighborhood problems on their own. Moskos shows the relative efficacy of foot patrols, but also says that police hate foot patrols. They hate pounding the pavement in all kinds of bad weather, not to mention the very real danger of being physically exposed. Foot patrols are considered punishment.

Moskos's solution is simple and a bit crass. Pay officers more for doing foot patrols. As Moskos puts it, it's expensive to send out a patrol car every day--the money saved on gasoline could go straight into a cop's pay--that would get a few out of their cars.

But one thing about foot patrols is that they may be practical in Baltimore or New York, but what about Houston (or Phoenix or L.A.)? The people who planned and built the roads and subdivisions of Houston built them for cars--the city is very low density (except in certain neighborhoods) and thus difficult to cover on foot. This can be mitigated by bike patrols, but not totally.

But that is a minor quibble. This is a very good book, and Moskos also writes a very good blog here.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

A Note on Wrestling With Moses 
Wrestling With Moses by Anthony Flint

In the 50s, Jane Jacobs led a fight to prevent 5th Ave. from being allowed to run through Washington Square Park (and thereby bisecting it and greatly reducing its size). This was Jacob's neighborhood, and she thought such a move would ruin the park (which it obviously would). Her main adversary was the man who had managed to become the planner of New York City in all but name, Robert Moses. Moses was used to getting what he wanted--he was a master bureaucrat, and it helped that for the most part, his projects were very popular. But this one ran into stiff and determined resistance, and he unexpectedly lost the battle.

View Larger Map

Now if you read The Power Broker by Robert Caro, you might be wondering about this. (And if you haven't read The Power Broker, stop right here and go read it!) This battle isn't mentioned at all in this biography of Robert Moses. And you may be recalling that The Power Broker is something like 10,000 pages long. give or take, and seems to cover every second of Moses' life! So what the--?

Apparently Caro did write a hundred pages or so about the battle of Washington Square, but The Power Broker was deemed too long by his publisher, so he cut it out.

Wrestling Moses is a completely readable book about Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and the soul of New York (and all cities). And if, like me, you've read The Power Broker (a truly great biography) and read The Death and Life of Great Cities (Jane Jacobs' seminal book on the economics and functioning of cities), Wrestling Moses is really perfect in connecting the two and completing a picture that was implied by the two. Moses and Jacobs represented two opposing philosophies, and it is useful to discover that they actually did battle over the practical application of those philosophies. At the time of the battle, Moses was already used to getting his way--he had been exercising his vision of the city for decades. Jacobs hadn't yet fully formed her ideas, although she was on her way through her journalistic work, particularly her work on urban renewal, the heavy-handed reformist/developer-friendly philosophy that gripped American cities in the 50s and 60s.

Wrestling Moses fills in a lot of biographical details for Jacobs and allows us to see how her thoughts developed, and how her battles with Moses (over Washington Square Park and over the never-built freeway through lower Manhattan) influenced her thought. Flint mostly just sketches in Moses--perhaps he thinks that interested readers should just read The Power Broker to get the full picture there.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in urbanism.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

This Will Be Our Year

The warmth of your love
is like the warmth of the sun
and this will be our year
took a long time to come

don't let go of my hand
now darkness has gone
and this will be our year
took a long time to come

and I won't forget
the way you held me up when I was down
and I won't forget the way you said,
"Darling I love you"
You gave me faith to go on

Now we're there and we've only just begun
This will be our year
took a long time to come

The warmth of your smile
smile for me, little one
and this will be our year
took a long time to come

You don't have to worry
all your worried days are gone
this will be our year
took a long time to come

and I won't forget
the way you held me up when I was down
and I won't forget the way you said,
"Darling I love you"
You gave me faith to go on

Now we're there and we've only just begun
and this will be our year
took a long time to come

Yeah we only just begun
yeah this will be our year
took a long time to come