Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ed Kienholz

Did you know that before I studied finance and risk management, before I edited, marketed, and published comics, before all that, that I was an art history major?

One of my favorite artists is Ed Kienholz (1927-1994). He came to campus once for a a pair of shows at the Rice Museum and at the CAM in 1985. So I got to met him, and he and his wife/collaborator Nancy Reddin were really open and friendly to us students. He was having a good experience in Houston. CAM in particular was a very flexible space for him to build his huge tableaus. He complained bitterly about a museum in Seattle that failed to accommodate him adequately. (I later got to be friends with Larry Reid, then the director of that "museum," who had bad memories of Kienholz and his difficult demands.)

Kieholz's work is seering, brutal, unbelievably powerful. I don't know why, but today he and his work popped into my mind.

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Back Seat Dodge '38, mixed media, 1964.

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The State Hospital, mixed media, 1966

From a review of a Kienholz show in The Guardian, 2005:
When Ed Keinholz died, he was buried in his 1940 Packard, a deck of cards and a dollar in his pocket, a bottle of 1930 Italian red wine beside him, the cremated remains of his dog (who died a few days before him) on the back seat. His burial arrangements sound like one of his own works. It also gives something of the measure of the man, a farmer's boy of Swiss ancestry from Washington State, self-taught, immensely self-reliant, an individualist westerner who dodged the draft for the Korean war and made a living as an odd-job man in the 1950s (he had a truck advertising his services with the words "Kienholz - Expert" on the side). He decorated bars in Las Vegas, worked in a Spokane speakeasy, and opened a shortlived but successful LA gallery with the curator Walter Hopps in the late 1950s, a place that, by all accounts, had much in common with today's "alternative spaces". Kienholz was a hard-nosed guy who loved to hunt (he once took the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely on a duck shoot), loved cars, dogs and horses and the outdoors, and eyed New York with suspicion, always going his own way.Kienholz made installations before there really was such a thing, and conceptual works before the term became a movement. In the 1960s, he swapped watercolour "Barter" works, whose washy grounds bore only the rubberstamped name of the thing he wanted, for the goods themselves: a set of screwdrivers, a fur coat, a portable saw, a car.

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The Birthday, mixed media, 1964


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mod Playgrounds

One thing I am paying attention to while riding around Houston are parks and playgrounds--how many there are, how well they are designed, how useful and accessible they are, and who uses them. (For example, James Bute Park seems mainly to be used by bums--which might be the best possible use for that particular park.) I'm interested in the aesthetics of Houston, so I'm especially interested in public spaces that are artistically engaging.
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Pink Ghost in Paris by Périphériques.

This kind of thing is what I'd like to see! Especially in those various bits of oddly shaped, non-functional pieces of public property. Steve Raddick. commissioner of Harris County precinct 3, has active in making these odd pieces of land into little playgrounds and vest-pocket parks--which is a great first step. But what would be cool would be for him and other county commissioners and city officials to access the artistic and architectural minds in Houston to push the playground, the vest-pocket park beyond.

What is the practical purpose of having something Pink Ghost or City Lounge? Well, on the face of it, there is no particular practical purpose. But if a park or playground is unique and beautiful, it can become a locus of pride in a neighborhood. People in that neighborhood will know that this is something that sets them apart from all other neighborhoods in Houston. Since Houston lacks lots of distinguishing physical features, it's going to be man-made things that help define a neighborhood.

But really, we should think about playgrounds and small parks this way because it's cool to make cool things.
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City Lounge in St. Gallen, Switzerland by artist Pipilotti Rist and the Carlos Martinez architectural firm.

Oh course, I have only just started my systematic exploration of Houston, street by street. So we may already have public spaces every bit as cool as these, waiting for me to discover them. I hope so.

These photos came from art blog We Make Money Not Art in a review of Ground-Up City: Play as a Design Tool.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

I Am an Arch-Criminal


Section 45-302

No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk in the City of Houston within a business district or where prohibited by sign. A business district is defined as "the territory contiguous to and including a roadway when, within 600 feet along such roadway, there are buildings in use for business or industrial purpose which occupy 300 feet collectively on both sides of the roadway". Also, bicyclists are required to yield to pedestrians and give an audible signal to pedestrians when riding on approved sidewalks. (In general, bicyclists are permitted to ride on sidewalks unless prohibited by local ordinances, although experienced cyclists usually agree that it is much safer to ride on the street and follow the laws as they apply to any other vehicle.)

Section 45-311

This ordinance requires all bicycles to be registered. Owners of non registered bicycles can be ticketed and fined $5. Bicycles can be registered for a fee of $1.00 at many Houston fire stations.

Article 6701.d. Section 182

Requires that a bicycle ride with the flow of traffic. Riding with the traffic makes the cyclist more visible and predictable, especially at intersections.
Someone posted these at HAIF. Wow. Who knew? I break these laws every single time I ride my bike, as do most other bikers.


Friday, February 15, 2008


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These beards, by the way, come from the World Beard Championship in Brighton. The photos are by Daniel Berehulak of Getty Images, and you can see more of them here.

(Your humble blogger is clean-shaven, by the way.)

More Beard Madness

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Passport, the blog of Foreign Policy, is a serious and thoughtful blog dealing with issues of critical importance to the world. And beards. Like this one. And this one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

To Plan or Not Plan?

Houston Strategies has always been anti-planning and anti-zoning. So I was surprised to read this in a post about the Ashby high-rise and high-rise development in general:
Most people seem to agree high-rise towers don't belong on small streets in single-family neighborhoods. In Houston, we have an arterial grid (roughly) that tends to have commercial on the arterials with residential behind, in the interiors of the arterial blocks. It seems reasonable to restrict anything over 5 stories high (a typical apartment complex) to fronting major arterials.

I think "major arterials" could be defined as 4-lanes if two-way, or 2-lanes if one-way (as some feeders are), as well as any road with high-capacity fixed-guideway transit (LRT or BRT). That would eliminate the Ashby high-rise, since Bissonnet is only 2-3 lanes in that area (with a middle turn lane). But it does seem to retroactively allow almost every other high-rise in the city I can think of, as well as allow plenty of density where people seem to want it, like Downtown and Midtown.

Of course, there will be cases where a high-rise may make sense off of one of these arterials (like next to a large park, or inside an office park development), and in those cases developers should be able to apply to the planning commission for a variance just as they do for all sorts of developments today.
This kind of rule is similar, as far as I know, to what most cities have. But I believe it's the kind of thing that Randall O'Toole and CATO would generally oppose. Or am I mistaken?

I'm not trying to brand Houston Strategies as inconsistent or "hypocritical." I've never viewed Tory Gattis as dogmatic on these issues. The simple rule he proposes here seems pretty commonsensical on the face of it, yet it does end up giving the city a great deal of power of what property owners can and can't do with their property.

Some of these issues will be debated in public at the George R. Brown Convention center on February 26. The Gulf Coast Institute is sponsoring this debate, which will feature Gulf Coast Institute David Crossley and Virginia Tech professor of planning and urban affairs Arthur Nelson on the planning side, and Former Mayor and Houstonians for Responsible Growth head Bob Lanier and Demographia's Wendell Cox on the anti-planning side. It's free, but requires an RSVP.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Big New Oil Find in Indonesia?

Platt's is reporting the discovery of a huge possible find in Indonesia.
Indonesia's BPPT, a state agency which assesses technology and its applications, and its German counterpart Bundesanstalt fuer Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe have found what they believe are huge potential hydrocarbon resources offshore Aceh province, a BPPT official said late Monday.

Badan Pengkajian dan Penerapan Teknologi and Germany's BGR believe there may be between 107.5 billion and 320.79 billion barrels of oil equivalent of oil and gas around Simeulue island, D.Jenie, BPPT's chairman, said.
If this is true, it would catapult Indonesia into the top rank of oil producers worldwide. If these reserves were proven, they would end up ranked above Kuwait in the world for proven reserves (and possibly above Saudi Arabia). Of course, at this point, they are not even "possible reserves."

This was discovered completely by accident.
The hydrocarbon resources were found during a recent 2-D survey to look at the underwater geological changes due to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

"Our main goal was to examine the change in the geological structure of the sea after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami," the head of the research team, Yusuf Surachman, said. "We plan to send another research vessel to get three-dimensional data," he added.
This assertion caused my brother, who works in the seismic industry, to call bullshit. He says that there is no way you could even begin to estimate reserves based on a 2-D survey. So this whole story sounds like pure hype to be taken with a boulder of salt--but worth monitoring, nonetheless.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Howard the Duck Orphaned

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The creator of Howard the Duck, Steve Gerber, died two days ago of causes related to pulmonary fibrosis. Obituaries can be found here, here, and here (and probably many other places on the web). A really good personal reflection on Gerber's importance is here. Heidi McDonald's experience is almost exactly the same as mine.
I had only been reading Marvel comics for a few months when I found something called Howard the Duck. It was already up to issue 9, but back in those days every issue was a jumping on point.
Coincidentally, Howard the Duck #4 was the second comic I ever bought--purchased at the U-Tote-M that I passed by every day on my way to junior high. Many readers only know Howard the Duck from the pretty bad movie version. And I don't want to make outsized claims for the comic, but it was much better than the movie, and to my 12-year-old mind, it was unusually daring and clever and satirical. The shadowy art by Gene Colan was so unlike the sunlit work one typically encountered in other comics and it contributed to the basic sense of differentness about Howard.

I followed Steve Gerber's comics for a few years (he temporarily stopped writing comics about the same time I temporarily stopped reading them), and I loved his work on Man-Thing, The Defenders and the KISS comic book. Gerber not only was aware of the absurdity of these characters, he reveled in it and used that absurdity to tell really great, funny, entertaining stories--stories that were much better than they had to be.

Gerber was one of the first artists I followed as an artist (along with some rock and rollers). In other words, I sought out anything he was involved with. I loved his work, and I'm saddened that he has died.


What is a Painting Worth

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One hears about daring art thefts, mainly in Europe, with alarming frequently. Unlike Hollywood heist movies, they tend to be low-tech affairs. For example, there were two multi-million dollar art thefts in Switzerland in the past week.
Three men wearing ski masks walked into a private museum here in daylight, grabbed four 19th-century masterpieces, tossed them into a van and sped off, pulling off one of the largest and most audacious art robberies of all time. It was the second multimillion-dollar art heist in Switzerland in less than a week.

What's amazing is how easy the most recent of these thefts was.

According to the local police and officials at the Bührle Collection, one of the top private museums for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Europe, three men wearing ski masks entered the museum barely a half hour before the 5 p.m. closing time on Sunday.

One of the thieves pulled a handgun and ordered terrified staff members and visitors to lie down on the floor, as the other two men pulled the paintings off the wall. The police said paintings appeared to be sticking out of the back of the white van the men used to make their getaway.

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The paintings they took, a Cézanne, a Degas, a van Gogh and a Monet, were collectively worth an estimated $163 million. The thieves were not connoisseurs, though. These were not the most valuable paintings--just the easiest to grab (they all hung next to each other in a single room). The big question is, what did the thieves hope to gain?

[The paintings] stolen in Zurich are considered major works and so widely known as to be “unsalable,” said Richard Kendall, a prominent scholar of late-19th-century French art and a curator at large at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

For the police and the public, the looming questions were not only who committed the crimes but, given the near impossibility of selling the paintings, why.

A common myth, popularized in the movies, of a theft to order carried out at the behest of a private collector, “is really to be considered a fiction,” said Karl-Heinz Kind, team leader of the works of art unit at Interpol.

The fact that there are no buyers lined up helps account for the recovery of famous works, he said, like the Munch paintings [stolen in Norway several years ago], which were recovered in 2006. “The thieves have difficulty finding someone to take them,” he said. “They are obliged to multiply their contacts and proposals. That increases the chances for police.”

Now this made me think about valuations for art. Assets are valued not just on what someone is willing to pay for something, but also on how many people are willing to pay and how frequently and easily they would do so. In other words, liquidity is important. When they price artworks, they base it on auction prices of similar artworks. (Which adds an extra layer of complexity--when you price a share of stock or an oil future, you have a bunch of identical assets to compare it with that are constantly being traded. But each painting is unique.) But there are few legitimate channels to buy art. When I say "legitimate," I don't mean "regulated." The art market is pretty unregulated--some countries have national heritage laws, that makes it impossible or difficult to export certain artworks; there are applicable tax laws, of course; as well as laws regarding the receiving of stolen property. But legitimate in this case means that you know the artwork's provenance. You know it wasn't stolen or looted. And if the seller can't provide provenance, you will have a hard time getting an auction house to carry it (especially for expensive works) and buyers will demand a deep discount, because they will be at risk of buying stolen goods.

So when they estimate the value at $163 million, there are two things to consider. Because of the relative lack of liquidity in the art market, the prices are likely to be lower than the best auction price at any given moment, and are also likely to be volatile. Calculating an estimated price would somehow have to take into account this volatility. The second point is that the value of the art to the thieves will inherently be much lower than $163 million because they are cut off from selling through legitimate channels to legitimate customers. The customers for stolen artwork have the power to set much lower prices.

My final question is, were these artworks insured? Can you even really insure paintings worth $163 million? I wonder especially because the security was so lax.

The museum’s director, Lukas Gloor, said the museum generally did not check visitors’ bags and had no metal detectors, which he said the entry hall of the building was too narrow to accommodate.

Given this, I wouldn't insure these artworks. Would you?

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Comics Out in the World

I always thought that it would be cool to have comics out in public places where people could experience them serendipitously. My "big idea" was to put strips up in buses (lots of buses have space for horizontal interior ads which would be ideal for comic strips). Ivan Brunetti (one of the finest cartoonists we have) and the city of Las Vegas has a different idea of how to make comics public--a story told in street banners.


These banners will be in place over a street in Vegas for a full year. I don't know how big they will be, so I wonder if you can "read" them while driving, or if it will take walking the whole length to get the story. (Do people walk in Vegas?)

This is a bizarre, totally cool idea. Houston should steal it!


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Houston Streets 13--Just North of Downtown

I finally got tired of the Villages. Don't worry, I will finish up Spring Valley, this week or next (depending on the weather). But to give my mind a break, I decided today to take the number 70 bus all the way downtown and explore a little bit north of Buffalo Bayou.

I got off the bus a little south of where I wanted to be and headed north along Main. That's where I saw this building:
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Woah. Pretty bizarre to see this right in downtown. My experience is that non-Christian, non-Jewish religions usually have their temples, mosques, and institutional structures out in the suburbs. I've always assumed the reasons for that are that most of their worshipers are out in the burbs, and it's cheaper to build there as well. But here on a piece of very valuable downtown real estate is the Islamic Da'Wah Center. This is the brainchild of Hakeem Olajuwon, former Rockets star. It hasn't been without controversy, either, when it was discovered that some of the charities to whom they gave money were funneling the money to terrorists. If you are thinking that this building doesn't look particularly Islamic, it's because it was originally the Houston National Bank (built 1928).

As you continue north on Main (alongside the light rail), you come up on the University of Houston-Downtown.

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This sign was on the UH Downtown building at Franklin and Main. If you look closely at the sign (which I realize is a bit difficult), you can see that UH Downtown has two buildings (they are the ones with the purple roofs). But a third building, right across Main and White Oak Bayou, looks like it could be part of UH, but isn't. (It has pink walls and a bright blue top in this map.)

Main makes a high arch over Buffalo Bayou, and this entrance to U.H. Downtown is kind of weird because it's halfway up the side of the building.

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The main building (which, iceberg-like, you can only see the top portion of here) is quite handsome, although I can see how some people might think it has an institutional appearance. But I like the pattern of horizontal and vertical stripes.

When you reach the north side of the Bayou, you find that you can pull a sharp U-turn to your right and drive down under the bridge and indeed under the university. There you can enter the building at ground level, and it provides you a shortcut along a street called Girard to Travis (where you can enter the I-10). For some reason, Girard is not shown on my Key Map, but it is on Google Maps.

This is where White Oak Bayou and Buffalo Bayou meet, and there are parks on all banks. On the north-east bank is a park that as far as I can tell has no official name (it shows up neither on the City of Houston nor the Harris County park lists).

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. You can see a small portion of the park on the right hand of this photo of White Oak Bayou where it meets Buffalo Bayou. It curves around the mysterious building mentioned earlier. The park has a short little hike and bike path, that ends at these dramatic stairs, leading up to the building.

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You ascend the stairs and then see this.

This lovely entrance looks perfect for a university building, right? But no--it's the Harris County Detention Facility.

And those lovely little windows? They're completely black. So if you feel like you are stuck in an institutional behemoth when you take classes at UH Downtown, glance across the bayou and remind yourself what truly scary bureaucratic building looks like. Actually, that's not fair. Except for the disturbing blacked-out windows, this building is quite lovely. It was a cold storage facility built in the 1920s, but was gutted and had two floors added in 1991. It's part of a complex of three Harris County jail buildings on Baker and San Jacinto.

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This completely enclosed pedestrian bridge leads from the jail at 1200 Baker across the Bayou to the Inmate Processing Center. That must be one grim walk to take. I wonder if prisoners are even aware that they are walking across the Bayou when they are processed. Update: A reader at HAIF called this our own Bridge of Sighs.

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This parking lot serves the jail (I think lots of people who are visiting prisoners park here). I can't tell if that curved building is part of the jail complex (looking at the satellite photo on Google Maps doesn't help). But as you can see, it doesn't look very "high security."

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If you enter the jail facility from that parking lot, they lay down some rules for you. Ladies, don't wear short skirts unless you want to officially be bird-dogged by the Duty Officer.

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I was taking this photo and a cop walked up to me.

"Why are you taking a picture of that bicycle?" he asked.
"Because it looks cool," I responded weakly.
(And doesn't it, though? That beautiful Cannondale body, painted white with the big "SHERIFF" on the side--I wish my bike looked that cool.)
"Do you have permission from the County to photograph that?"
"No." Obviously.
"You need permission from the County to take photographs of County property." (I'm sure this can't be completely true--if it were, people would need to get permission to take snapshots at County parks.) "This is like a military installation. You can't just take pictures without permission."

Fair enough. I promised I wouldn't take any more (I already had plenty), and I think it was pretty obvious to him that I was not a person of evil intent. (Mildly malicious, at worst.) And as usual, I crumbled instantly before the face of authority, which seems to collectively disapprove of my hobby.

But there was one jail-related thing I could photograph that the cops couldn't do anything about.
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This welcoming sign is up on Wood Street. Now I'm not sure which I would prefer--the Las Vegas brand bail bond, or the Godfather brand bail bond. The first suggests I'm a flashy playa, but the second hints at understated power and influence.

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Heading east on Sterrett, you get into the artsy part of the neighborhood, where people live in scary old buildings intentionally. These are actual lofts--not the fake kind that developers build in Midtown. In other words, these had some kind of industrial life before artists and galleries and such moved in and converted them. I love how this building at the corner of Sterrett and William had a cement casing that has gradually fallen off. It gives it a very appealing aged look. Hey developers! Try to duplicate that look the next time you build a fake loft--it might be a selling point!

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Up on Nance is one of the funkiest old live music venues in Houston, The Last Concert Cafe. Unfortunately, it was not open when I rode by, which was too bad. I really could have used a drink after getting dressed down by the cop. It's so close to the jail, I wonder if the sheriffs ever come over for lunch? Or is it a little too "hippie" for them?

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This statue was in a parking lot at Nance and Richey. If I had to describe it, I'd say it's a welded-steel samurai wearing a tutu about to attack the viewer.

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This guy is in front of Mother Dog Studios on Walnut. This sculpture has seen better days. In fact, if you had been around in October, 1988, at the Contemporary Arts Museum, you would have seen it outside as part of that institution's first (and only, as far as I know) Texas Triennial. It is made of black rubber stretched over foam rubber, molded around a human shaped (minus the head) armature of some kind. When it was new, it looked like an inhumanly-muscled figure, like one of those freakish body-builder types, but more so. Now he's seriously gone to seed--the materials used weren't made to last, especially not exposed to the weather. (Too bad the artist didn't cast it in something more durable, like bronze or fiberglass.) I don't remember the artist's name or the title of the piece--anyone remember that CAM show?

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Then just up the street on Hardy, I stumbled across this.

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Yep, it's an art car, and the owner claims it is completely street legal, and what's more--you can have one made for yourself!

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The artist "repurposed" one of those realtor info boxes into an info box for his custom art car biz. Pretty smart, eh? The artist is Visker, the name of the truck is "Stumper."

OK, you get the idea that this is an artsy neighborhood (and there's more art coming). And look, sculpture is just laying around! There are artist studios and galleries out the wazoo here. Kick-ass artists begging you to hire them! So, all you folks on Timberwilde and Kuhlman, with your huge, sculpture-deficient front yards, come downtown with your wallets--there are some quite artistic welders and fabricators who could help you out.

A little south from there, you get to one of Houston's treasures, the McKee Street Bridge.

OK, that photo is kind of lame. Let's try another.
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A little better, but frankly, it is hard to capture the coolness of this bridge with a photograph. Amazingly, the curvy bits actually have some engineering purpose (that I don't understand, of course). But the story of the rehabilitation of the bridge (including its pastel paint job) is fascinating. It comes down to one fanatically dedicated artist (and folk musician), Kirk Farris. The Chronicle did a great story on him in December. The bridge is not his only concern--he's interested in revitalizing the entire Bayou area downtown. But what I can't quite figure out is if he is part of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (which has some pretty drastic plans for this area of town) or opposed to them, or what. But he sure has made the McKee Street Bridge an even greater thing of beauty than it already was.

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Just south of the McKee Street bridge is this lovely little park inhabited solely by bums. This is James Bute Park, one of Kirk Farris's projects. (James Bute was a friend of Farris' who owned a paint factory and supplied Farris with the colors he needed for the bridge. Bute was shot and killed by a robber at a car wash; the park is part of the land that Farris had worked to rehabilitate.)

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One of Houston's all-time great art spaces is DiverseWorks at the corner of Naylor and Providence. They were formerly located a few blocks south on the other side of the Bayou, and I was kind of disappointed when they moved into this semi-anonymous industrial space. But this neighborhood is the right place for them. Their current show is a bunch of very interesting pieces of animation--which is typical of them. They don't just show artwork in the traditional sense of a painting or drawing (although they do plenty of that). DiverseWorks is all about various kinds of art--music, performance, dance, theater, visual art--and art that doesn't comfortably fit into a clearly delineated category. I'm looking forward to Sō Percussion playing Steve Reich there on March 10.

One good thing about this warehouse-like space DiverseWorks occupies is that they can display large poster-like artworks on the outer walls, like this:

But go a little north, you run into run-down industrial/residential areas, like this cactus patch in front of a decrepit (but functioning) workshop on Hardy at Lyons.

Or this trash-strewn lot on Trentham.
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And just a block away, on Freeman, you have this row house.

But wait--what's that tall thing behind the row house? Can it be...?
Yes, a couple of brand new, hideously ugly, huge townhouses. The forces of gentrification are everywhere. I have mixed feelings about this. It's hard not to prefer gentrification to trash-strewn industrial wastelands, and while row-houses are an important part of Houston history, they do represent the impoverished existence of their residents. You might think they are quaint, but you wouldn't want to live in one. That said, can't the pioneering developer who built these things show a little more class? A soupçon of taste? I mean, geez, that thing is hideous.

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This is White Oak Bayou under I-10. UH Downtown is just to the left of this photo. The Buffalo Bayou hike/bike paths now reach as far as UH Downtown, but as you can see, there's nothing on White Oak Bayou here. That bridge is a disused railroad bridge, ends blocked to prevent pedestrians from crossing. Wouldn't it be nice if there was a bike path across this bridge, and a path along White Oak Bayou that connected downtown to the park along the Bayou at TC Jester? Someday...

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The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Mattress Mac's house went on the market in May of 2007 for $1.75 million, but you can have it today for $885K!

Hat-tip to the ever-vigilant Swamplot.


The Merchant Bankers

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. This book is an interesting artifact. The library at the Jones School was giving away a bunch of old books, and this is one that I picked up from them. Published in 1966, it gives chatty histories of a variety of merchant banks, mostly in London, but a few in Europe and Lehman Brothers in the U.S. A merchant bank is basically what we'd call an investment bank today, but then it was more distinct. Recall that in the U.S., banking functions were separated by the Glass-Steagall act during the Depression. This law was not fully repealed until 1999. (Which was followed almost instantly by a series of some of the biggest financial shenanigans on Wall Street in decades, but I'm sure that was just a coincidence.) So a merchant bank in London was basically an investment bank that also took deposits and lent money, but not on a retail level.

The best part of the book are the histories--most of these banks are ancient, and their forefathers were involved deeply in what we now think of as the history of the world. I was shocked to learn, for example, that individual U.S. states used to regularly take loans from Barings. Can states even take loans from banks now?

The state of the "current day" (i.e., 1966) banks was quite dull, however. There was no drama, and the heads of the banks were uniformly described in business boilerplate hagiography. These bankers were all intelligent and mindful of tradition; none of them suffered "yes men" (yeah, right you are, boss); they may be deeply involved in money, but they had their humanistic side--dabbling in [philosophy/literature/music] on the side; they were all patriots and philanthropists, blah blah blah. Much more interesting was swashbuckling stories of gold smuggled from France over the Pyrenees by James Rothschild to pay Wellington's army.

One thing interesting about the 1968-era banks is how much finance has changed. Only one bank, Lehman Brothers, mentions computers--specifically that they plan to computerize "next year." There is mention of foreign exchange futures (considered exotic and requiring imported Swiss traders to execute, since no Englishman can understand them). Eurodollars are likewise exotic. There are no interest rate futures (the trade in them was not invented until the late 70s), and exchange traded options only came into being in 1973.

Also interesting is to realize what has happened since 1968. Hambros, a bank I had never heard of, had problems in the 70s and 80s and was finally bought by Société Générale in 1998. S.G. Warburg was bought by Swiss Bank Corporation in 1995. And Barings' 200+ year history came to crashing halt in 1995 with the massive fraud Nick Leeson, and the utter lack of management controls at Barings that permitted him to do what he did.

One last note about The Merchant Bankers--I love the cover. I like the minimal, modern design combined with the aggressively old-fashioned banker. A great contrast. (If you are interested in book cover design, check out the Book Design Review.)

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Billion Here, a Billion There

TxDOT accidentally counted $1 billion in revenue twice. Oopsie!

Should we trust these bozos to perform an accurate DCF analysis for any toll road project? Nooooo!

Update: Kuff has more.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Musical Weekend

I had an unusually musical weekend, starting Thursday night (my weird schedule has my "weekend" starting Thursday). On that night, I saw a performance by the Shepherd School new music group, 20/21. Then Saturday night, I saw my nephew's band, Drop Off, at Fitzgerald's. And throughout the weekend, I've been reading (and have just completed) New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's history of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise.

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20/21 played a program dedicated to the memory of Gyorgy Ligeti. It had three Ligeti pieces, a piece by Alfred Schnittke, a composer from the Soviet Union who I suspect had a hard time getting his music accepted by the musical establishment, and a piece by a PhD composition student at the Shepherd School, Karl Blench.

The Blench piece, an untitled piece for a small orchestra, had two parts. The first part sounded to my ears like a lot of postwar experimental music. The orchestra included a trombone player, who in the first part had only a few muted notes to play. As the first part continued, he started to methodically disassemble his instrument.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. He took out the mute first and laid it on the ground, took off the mouthpiece, then removed the main slide. He took the mouthpiece and put it into the part that had the tuning slide and bell (the middle section in the photo above). Then he lifted this truncated trombone up and, cradling it like a french horn, put the mouthpiece to his mouth. The first section ended, there was a pause, and he sounded out a short phrase that sounded like a call to the hunt. The orchestra responded with music that sounded like a manic hunt occurring, with a galloping horse rhythm. Occasionally the trombonist, Robert Trussell, would play his hunting call again. Then he did something really weird. I hadn't noticed it, but he had two mouthpieces. He put the second one in the main slide, and at one point, he made some weird noises with that!

The composer, Karl Blench, is also a trombone player, and I can imagine that many trombone players probably take their instruments apart and try out all these other ways of making music with it. Blench just decided to put these trombonist games into his piece. I wonder how this was notated in the score.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. But the star pieces of the night were the three Ligeti pieces. Even if you don't know much about post-war experimental classical music, you may be familiar with Ligeti's music, which was used extensively in 2001: A Space Odyssey--the spacey music that always preceded contact with the monoliths.

"Passacaglia Ungherese" was a delightful piece for harpsichord, and it was followed by the "Sonata for Solo Viola," played respectively by Kimi Kawashima and Adam Mathes. I'm no musician, but both these pieces appeared rather difficult to play, and you could see the concentration on the faces of the players. This level of difficulty and concentration is magnified in the closer of the evening, his Cello Concerto. This is a concerto in two movements, and the first movement is similar to the pieces from 2001 in that they feature long long long notes, with instruments entering and leaving so that the effect is to hear a buzzing contrast of timbres. Of course, the cello is always one of these notes. The second part was much more energetic, and the rhythm built up in speed as the piece progressed. The cellist (whose name was unaccountably left off the program!) didn't just bow notes in the usual way; at times she drew the bow so lightly over the strings so that they made a weird, high-pitched sound, and at other times she banged her fingers rapidly on the strings to make another indescribable noise. By the end of the piece, her fingers were moving so quickly that they could barely be followed. The piece ended with her evident relief. It was heartwarming to see her fellow musicians surround her after the piece was done, congratulating her. She was still breathing hard and beaming with pleasure.

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The pleasure musicians have in playing affects the quality of the performance. Obviously. That was evident last night at Fitzgerald's, where Drop Off played. They are a rock band with drums, two guitars, and bass, with vocals being handled by the rhythm guitarist. My nephew Ford is the drummer, the lead guitarist is Austin, the bass player is Lance, and the last guy is (I think) Adam. These kids are all sophomores in high school. This was, amazingly, their first show in front of a live audience. How many bands have their first live show ever at Fitz's?! Apparently there is a production company that will put on these shows with a whole lot new bands in order to see if any of them have potential. How they hooked up with Drop Off, I don't know.

The first two songs were their best--heavy blues rock numbers, obviously influenced by the White Stripes and maybe also by 70s blues rockers like Mountain and Foghat. Then they did a series of more hardcore songs, sometimes switching between slow and fast portions. They encouraged the audience to mosh, which the teenagers watching them did enthusiastically. The audience mainly consisted of their friends from high school and scattered parents. Their friends loved them, and Drop Off could hardly disguise their pleasure playing and making a huge noise. The band was raw--they hard a hard time playing in time together at moments--but it hardly mattered. They were great.

Then this morning, I finished Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise. This is his idiosyncratic history of 20th century classical music. He demands a little musical knowledge of his readers--more than I really have. But mostly, he tells the story of the music through its historical, cultural, and biographical contexts. He pays careful attention to the steady decline in popularity of new music--he contrasts the intense public interest in Vienna about new pieces by Mahler and Strauss, and how artists started thinking that reaching a big audience was somehow wrong. Early modern composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg could create scandals with their performances, but no one much cared about the compositions of Boulez and Xenakis, except initiates. But he shows how some of the music keeps insinuating itself into the culture as a whole. It might be unexpectedly popular pieces by Benjamin Britten or Arvo Part, or the way minimalism infected pop music via The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and (weirdly enough) The Who, or even the use of Ligeti's spooky, beautiful music in 2001.

By the end of the book, Ross swings between optimism and despair. He writes:

From a distance, it might appear that classical music itself is veering toward oblivion. [...] To the cynical onlooker, orchestras and opera houses are stuck in a museum culture, playing to a dwindling cohort of aging subscribers and would-be elitists who take satisfaction from technically expert if soulless renditions of Hitler's favorite works.
Dis! But Ross ends with a paean to Nixon in China, the opera by John Adams. It's a good way to end--this is one of my favorite pieces of music. Witty, thought-provoking, alarming, and even occasionally tender and sentimental, all with a pulsing, propulsive minimalist base. A perfect end to the book and this musucal weekend.

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