Sunday, December 30, 2007

People Who Died

This time of year newspapers publish lists of notable deaths. It might be morbid, but I do like to reflect on the lives of people I admired. So this is my own brief list of people who died in 2007 and what they meant to me. Let's raise a glass to them, shall we?

Molly Ivins
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(cover of The Texas Observer memorial issue)

I loved her books and her attitude. There aren't many notable liberal Texas writers--and unlike Jim Hightower, Ivins always seemed very authentic and personal. She grew up in Houston, and worked in Dallas and Austin. Her editorship of The Texas Observer really energized that little magazine, which usually seems--at best--to putter along. She was at her best, in my opinion, when writing about Texas politics, especially about the permanently corrupt and risible state legislature (or, as she called it, "the Lege"). She worked hard to remind people that their state reps and senators were a bunch of fools, boobs, thieves, and fanatics. In this regard, her best successor that I've found is the owner of Pink Dome. She's not quite Molly yet, but I hope she gets there. Because we really need Molly Ivins.

Sol Lewitt
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(Barolo Chapel, somewhere in Italy, year unknown)

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Wall Drawing #1113 On a wall, a triangle within a rectangle, each with broken bands of color, 2003 (hirshhorn, washington)

Sol LeWitt was one of the big conceptual artists. There's virtually nothing as boring as conceptual art, but LeWitt's work always looked great. Often his "work" was in the form of instructions on what to paint on a wall, or what to build out of wood. That sounds like a recipe for artistic chaos, but as the pieces above show, the results were often--usually even--beautiful. I love his work.

Elizabeth Murray

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Elizabeth Murray The Sun and the Moon 2005
oil on canvas on wood,

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Dis Pair, 1989-90 — The Museum of Modern Art © 2007 Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth Murray was one of the artists who became hot in the '80s as a "neo-expressionist," a phrase that obviously didn't work for her. I always thought she was quite young, so I was surprised to learn that she was 66 when she died this year. Her work is often cited for its cartoony feel, and indeed, to me her work is like Phillip Guston without the angst, or Jim Nutt without the anxiety about women. Her bright colors are quite beautiful, and I always loved her shaped canvases.

Madeleine L'Engle
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She wrote A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. Her books were a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, and I think they helped me love the genre as a child. They were scary but mind-expanding. I treasure these books; they are among my favorite books from childhood.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Real Estate Finance & Investments: a Self-Publishing Story

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Self-publishing. Usually a bad idea, although there are some notable successes. (Rich Dad Poor Dad started out that way.) The main problems with self-publishing are these:

1) Undiversified income stream. Publishing is a hard enough business to survive in, but at least professional publishers don't put all their eggs in one basket. If one book fails, perhaps another one will succeed. Self-publishers don't get that luxury.

2) Lack of publishing expertise. If you don't know how to typeset a book or design a book, you have two choices: figure it out as best you can, or pay someone else. Either choice is a fraught one for a self-publisher. The first choice often leaves a self-publisher with an ugly, unprofessional-looking book; the latter choice brings with it the likelihood that the publisher will be overcharged by service providers. This goes double for pricing printing. A publisher can really lose his or her shirt at the printer's--it is, after all, likely to be the single largest expense. Oh, and does a self publisher know what an ISBN is, or how to get one?

3) Lack of channels. Book distributors often handle self-publishers, but it is usually a long hard trip before a self-publisher realizes there is such a thing as a book distributor, much less how to contact them and choose between them. Without a book distributor, getting your book in front of potential readers will be especially tricky, if not downright impossible.

All this is a prelude to a surprising discovery I made. One of my textbooks this semester, Real Estate Finance & Investments by Peter Linneman, was self-published! This strikes me as an amazingly weird thing--I have never heard of a self-published textbook.

Most textbooks are published by large corporations like McGraw Hill, Pearson, and Cengage (formerly Thomson Learning). (These companies also have valuable business information businesses as well--or had. Thomson sold off Thomson Learning, which has recently bought Houghton-Mifflin.) I kind of recoil at the way textbooks are handled--they are so expensive, and new editions obliterate the secondary markets. Then again, certain people sometimes buy supercheap Indian editions of textbooks for less than a tenth of what the US publisher charges. I've heard. In any case, I also admire these companies for leveraging knowledge and information. While they have been around for a long time, and seem to be in kind of a horse-and-buggy industry, they also seem very much pushing into the future with a specific kind of product--continuously updated knowledge, often delivered electronically.

But one thing about university textbooks is that they are boring. Lord, are they dull. Personality-free. Occasionally a glimmer of wry-ness, quickly tamped down. Another thing--they are expensive. Slick paper, duotone or color, often with CD-ROMS.

Linneman's book is relatively modest. It is a hardcover, but beyond that, he makes no concessions to fashion. Likewise, you can tell no editor smoothed out his writing, which is very personal and opinionated (without sacrificing the step-by-step explanatory function of a textbook).

I wonder why he self-published? Did McGraw-Hill or Pearson read his manuscript and say--this cannot stand! We will have no human beings writing our textbooks! Good day to you, sir! How did he decide to self-publish? He is a professor at Wharton, so he was unlikely to make the simple business errors that most self-publishers initially make. At the very least, he must have known that there was a lot he didn't know about publishing when he started. How did he set up relations with wholesalers? With his printer?

He must have been reasonably successful--this is the 2nd edition. And in a way, he is like a miniature McGraw-Hill--he is a provider of business information, through his professorship and through his newsletter.

If you want to read a pretty accessible but non-trivial book about real estate finance, I think you can't go wrong with this one.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Swinging Houston circa 1983

This video, lifted from my new favorite blog, Swamplot, really brings me back. This commercial is great, but I'd love to see the one where Michael Pollack is walking a cheetah (?) on a leash.