Monday, March 31, 2008

Beard Injustice

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You might recall I linked to a photo of this man a few weeks ago, mainly impressed by his incredible beard. His actual story is an outrage, though. Since he was just featured on 60 Minutes, I felt I owed it to him and to my readers to mention his tale. His name is Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish origins, who was studying Islam in Pakistan when he was caught up in a sweep of "suspicious foreigners" and handed over to the Americans. He was flown to Afghanistan and says he was tortured there by American soldiers. (The Pentagon denies this, but won't comment on his case.) He was then taken to Guantanamo and essentially interrogated for five years. In the meantime, no evidence was ever found that he was involved in anything, and plenty of exculpatory evidence was also found. The German government (after their own police investigation of the man) asked that he be released, but it wasn't until after the election of Angela Merkel and a personal request by her that the U.S. gave him up--but not before trying to force him into signing a confession before he left. (He refused.)

And the beard? He didn't shave the entire time he was in Guantanamo.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Houston Streets 15--Frostwood & Memorial Forest

The area I rode in yesterday consists of the subdivisions just east and west of Gessner between Memorial and I-10.

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The residential streets branch off of two north-south streets, Plantation and Frostwood. My understanding is that this area was developed by a man named Frost, but I can't find details. The houses here were built mostly between 1959 and 1965. The lots tend to be small compared to those in the Villages (just east of these subdivisions). In fact, if you go immediately south or west, the lots and the houses tend to be larger. This is where Memorial starts to become the more familiar kind of Houston suburb--similar houses on same-sized lots, with developers reusing floor-plans and exterior designs.

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These two houses (on Beauregard and Pine Rock respectively) are basically mirror images of one another. The Pine Rock house seems to have a slightly shallower roof, and the original white bricks have been painted. (The design seems to have been a semi-Japanese pastiche--by far the most exotic of the standard plans the developers used). The further west you go, the more pronounced this approach to development is. Swamplot had a great post about four identical houses in Bear Creek Meadows, all foreclosed or close to it, for sale. Those houses were only four years old. When houses are over 40 years old, time can start granting them some individuality. People plant their yards differently (and oaks planted 40 years ago are quite majestic now), they paint their houses different colors, they change their walkways or exteriors or roofs, etc. But the variation is very small. I had a Steve Reich album on my IPod as I rode (Sextet, Piano Phase, and Eight Lines played by the London Steve Reich Ensemble--I recommend it highly), and it occurred to me that a neighborhood like this is like a Steve Reich piece, where there is a comfortable, rhythmic sameness with tiny changes as you go along. The tiny changes wouldn't have even caught my eye while riding through the much more heterogeneous Memorial Villages, but here they stand out.

(One reason why houses seem so similar in these middle class subdivisions is that developers designed them that way, but another reason is that the residents here place a high value on conformity. The problem is that individuality and eccentricity are seen as potentially destructive--economically (home values may fall) and even socially. And even if the residents could accept outward signs of eccentricity, it's hard for most people to distinguish between eccentricity and socially pathological behavior. The average homeowner, looking at his neighbor's front yard, may be unable to distinguish between a rusted car on blocks and a John Chamberlain sculpture--so it is easier to simply disapprove of both. Which is too bad for me because I, of course, favor outward expressions of individuality when I'm riding my bike around.)

So anyway, that leads me to what you'll see below--small deviations from the norm. Like this house on Woodthorpe with it's groovy 70s concrete privacy screen.

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Or this extravagant front yard on Perthshire at Frostwood (obviously appreciated by the neighbors!).

Garage apartments are very unusual in this neighborhood. This one on Kimberley caught my eye because it has what I take to be a clerestory. I'd love to see what it looks like on the inside.

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This house at Barryknoll and Frostwood has a dramatic marble front, totally unlike anything else in the neighborhood. My guess is that it was added to the original house.

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Sometimes a good paint job is enough to distinguish a house, as with this colonial on Boheme.

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There are very few modern houses in this neighborhood, all west of Gessner for some reason. This dark brown model is on Perthshire.

This one is on Boheme, right next door to the colonial house.

Of course, if you want variation, one way to achieve it is to build a brand new house. Needless to say, this neighborhood hasn't escaped McMansion supersizing. This behemoth is on Overcup.

This one is under construction on Taylorcrest.

Not all houses built after 1965 are hideous monstrosities, though.

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This Georgian-style house on Perthshire was built in 1992. Like most of the houses in the neighborhood, it has a red brick exterior, and it is not grotesquely out-of-scale with its neighbors. But it has an elegance generally lacking in the earlier houses in the neighborhood, and it has aged beautifully.

Of course, this ride wasn't entirely residential. Where Gessner meets I-10 is a confluence of commerce and medicine--Memorial City Mall on the east, and Memorial Hermann Memorial City hospital on the west. The two are even in the process of meeting--a skybridge across Gessner is being constructed to connect the two.

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OK, you may say, boy that skybridge looks expensive. Can't people just walk to Memorial City from the hospital. Even counting the trek across the parking lot, the two structures are less than a block apart. And crossing Gessner is not difficult. In the .38 miles along Gessner from Barryknoll to I-10, there are four stoplights with crosswalks (making it a real pain to drive down Gessner, I can tell you). On the other hand, maybe it's not such a good idea for sick people to walk that far on 100+ degree days.

This appears to be where the skybridge will connect with the mall. I like the hanging tarp facade with its feeble trompe l'oeil effect.

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The main construction here is a 30-story skyscraper, where the Memorial Hermann system will be moving its head offices.

Of course, everyone wants to know about the freaky truncated cone on top. The first question is, what is it for? (I have heard it suggested that helicopters could land there, but seriously...) The more important question is, who is it that, as this building was being designed, thought this thing would look good? Swamplot has some additional info (you can rent offices in the cone!).

The side of the building that faces the freeway looks pretty grand, however.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Martin Wolf on Alan Greenspan

One of my favorite blogs is Martin Wolf's on the Financial Times. Wolf is the author of Why Globalization Works. What makes his blog so interesting is that he doesn't merely write about economic issues, he also induces other prominent economists to respond. It's the dialog (and disagreement) that makes it interesting. Occasionally he has another economist a blog post (or an editorial in the print edition of the FT), and he and his fellow economists respond. That's what happened on March 16, when Alan Greenspan wrote about the mortgage crisis.

The current financial crisis in the US is likely to be judged in retrospect as the most wrenching since the end of the second world war. It will end eventually when home prices stabilise and with them the value of equity in homes supporting troubled mortgage securities.

Home price stabilisation will restore much-needed clarity to the marketplace because losses will be realised rather than prospective. The major source of contagion will be removed. Financial institutions will then recapitalise or go out of business. Trust in the solvency of remaining counterparties will be gradually restored and issuance of loans and securities will slowly return to normal. Although inventories of vacant single-family homes – those belonging to builders and investors – have recently peaked, until liquidation of these inventories proceeds in earnest, the level at which home prices will stabilise remains problematic.

Good start I guess. He acknowledges the problem and doesn't merely lay the blame on subprime mortgages, as many commentators continue to do by referring to it as a "subprime crisis." Then he moves into risk.

The crisis will leave many casualties. Particularly hard hit will be much of today’s financial risk-valuation system, significant parts of which failed under stress. Those of us who look to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder equity have to be in a state of shocked disbelief. But I hope that one of the casualties will not be reliance on counterparty surveillance, and more generally financial self-regulation, as the fundamental balance mechanism for global finance.

After all, counterparty surveillance and financial self-regulation worked just super this time.

Credit market systems and their degree of leverage and liquidity are rooted in trust in the solvency of counterparties. That trust was badly shaken on August 9 2007 when BNP Paribas revealed large unanticipated losses on US subprime securities. Risk management systems – and the models at their core – were supposed to guard against outsized losses. How did we go so wrong?


The most credible explanation of why risk management based on state-of-the-art statistical models can perform so poorly is that the underlying data used to estimate a model’s structure are drawn generally from both periods of euphoria and periods of fear, that is, from regimes with importantly different dynamics.


Negative correlations among asset classes, so evident during an expansion, can collapse as all asset prices fall together, undermining the strategy of improving risk/reward trade-offs through diversification.

If we could adequately model each phase of the cycle separately and divine the signals that tell us when the shift in regimes is about to occur, risk management systems would be improved significantly. One difficult problem is that much of the dubious financial-market behaviour that chronically emerges during the expansion phase is the result not of ignorance of badly underpriced risk, but of the concern that unless firms participate in a current euphoria, they will irretrievably lose market share.

OK, so first he says our risk management models are wrong and need to be improved, but then he turns around and says that firms are acting badly and taking too much risk not because of bad models, but because they will be punished by investors if they don't grow as fast as their competitors, creating a kind of feedback loop of ever increasing risk-taking. Which is it, Alan? Make up your mind!

But these models do not fully capture what I believe has been, to date, only a peripheral addendum to business-cycle and financial modelling – the innate human responses that result in swings between euphoria and fear that repeat themselves generation after generation with little evidence of a learning curve. Asset-price bubbles build and burst today as they have since the early 18th century, when modern competitive markets evolved. To be sure, we tend to label such behavioural responses as non-rational. But forecasters’ concerns should be not whether human response is rational or irrational, only that it is observable and systematic.

So here he seems to be saying that models need to take into account investors' and firms' self-reinforcing irrationality--a statement that is as banal and self-evident as it is unhelpful. And he concludes this editorial with a ringing endorsement for reform, as long as it is totally meaningless and doesn't actually place financial institutions under any additional regulation.

Now what was great about this editorial was not the editorial--which was weak tea--but the responses from many other economists. Anger and stunned disbelief. Obviously you'd expect that from liberal economists like Brad DeLong (whose response, ironically, was rather more polite and prescriptive than Greenspan deserved), but from most of them, you got outrage that Greenspan failed to acknowledge the Fed's own enabling role in this crisis--or, indeed, his own boosterism of the housing bubble when housing prices were still going up.

Even Martin Wolf himself, who I take to be a more right-leaning economist, is pretty stunned by Greenspan's avoidance of his own culpability. Wolf also berates Greenspan for overlooking "overwhelming evidence of malfeasance and gross incompetence in the chain of agents, from mortgage origination to the ultimate holders, including rating agencies, banks, investment banks, and so forth. This is not just about poor risk management. It is far worse than that. This was a huge failure of regulation." It's really worth your time to read Wolf's entire response ("I would like to add nine points...") Wolf is very civilized, but I can visualize him shaking Greenspan by the lapels and screaming at him--"And, fifth, Alan, fifth, the case for treating huge asset price surges as prima facie indicators of excessively loose monetary policy is also overwhelming!!!!"


Suzanne Anker

Suzanne Anker's art is based on psychology and biology. In this wall drawing, she takes a familiar Rorschach test image and gives it a spooky feeling of volume and aliveness.

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The Sum of All Fears, 2002 (?)

She has also turned Rorschach blot images into mysterious sculptural objects which combine a kind of sun-bleached classicism with Antonio Gaudi-like organic shapes. They could almost be the carefully preserved bones of species of animals related to those painted by Jim Woodring.

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Bear, 2005

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Gossipers, 2005

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Crab, 2005

I think the combination of strangeness and delicacy draws me to these pieces just as it does with so much of Jim Woodring's art. These sculptures are small (apparently they come in two sizes, 14" x 14" or 5.5" x 5.5"). Imagine having one hanging on your wall, across from your bed--it would encourage interesting dreams.

I was alerted to Suzanne Anker's work by We Make Money Not Art, which discovered her work as part of an exhibit called Brainwave at Exit Art in New York City.

(According to Artnet, these sculptures are available from the Deborah Colton Gallery right here in Houston. I mention in case someone wants to get me one as a graduation present. Just sayin...)


Tuesday, March 25, 2008


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This image is from The New Republic. They hired Photoshop artist Nancy Burson to to blend together Hillary and Barack for their latest cover. It's a pretty amazing job, although the hybrid looks younger than either of the two originals. The lank blond locks are especially hilarious. Overall, "Hillarack" looks like a member of Haircut 100 circa 1983.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Houston Mod blog

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Remember I posted about the HoustonMod website? The Chronicle is now hosting a HoustonMod blog by Houston Mod member Jason Smith. Check it out.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Leverage = Risk . . . in Comics Format

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This is from today's Washington Post (sorry it's hard to read--but you can click through to see the very legible WaPo version). Hat-tip to Calculated Risk.


Marcel Dzama

I have never really warmed up to Marcel Dzama's drawings, but these three dimensi0onal installations from his latest gallery show are really cool.

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The show is at Gallery David Zwimmer in NYC. Hat-tip to We Make Money Not Art.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Houston Streets 14--west end of Spring Valley

Yesterday I finally finished exploring every street in Spring Valley, which incidentally completes all of the Memorial Villages. From now on, I'll be in the gritty confines of Houston (except for when I bike through Bellaire, West U, and Southside Place--or the gritty confines of Pasadena, Galena Park, Deer Park and Baytown).

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Notice the jagged aqua lines along the bottom of this map. As mentioned in an earlier Spring Valley expedition, a lot of Spring Valley disappeared when TXDoT widened the freeway. This was especially bad here, where in addition to ripping out lots of houses and all of Old Katy Road, the destruction left a bunch of "dead" spaces--spaces that can't easily be turned into useful (read tax-paying) properties. For example, this muddy little cut-through between Campbell and Anne:

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Lovely, isn't it? What can this land be used for? I suppose Spring Valley could build a narrow two-lane street, but would it serve a useful purpose? Can anything be built here? Notice the concrete noise wall. These walls loom over many neighborhoods. On the map, you can see the charmingly named circular street Lariat--a lariat no longer. It dead-ends into a noise wall. The residents at the end of Bade have this cheery sight to greet them after a hard day's work:

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At the very least, Spring Valley should permit (and even encourage) painting these walls a different color than gulag grey. Perhaps murals could be created--give graffiti artists official license to beautify the walls. I'd support that, of course. The residents of Spring Valley--maybe not. But they can't be pleased with the oppressive structures they must live with.

One of the most prominent buildings in Spring Valley is the old Spring Branch High School.

This was the eponymous Spring Branch ISD high school until 1985, when it and Westchester High School were both closed due to declining student enrollment in the district. (Rumors are afoot that they will reopen Westchester.) My sister was at Memorial High School then and recalls that the Spring Branch High Schoolers who transfered over were rather dispirited, and that the Mem High administration did nothing to make their transition easier. That said, I believe that the former Bears brought over one of their oldest traditions--painting bear paws on the school driveway. They changed it to horseshoes for the the Memorial Mustangs, but in a way, a little Bear spirit lived on. (This bear paw is in the parking lot for Grob Stadium.)

Now the building is used for the Cornerstone Academy, the "School of Choice" and for community education. The School of Choice appears to be something like some of the specialized high schools in HISD, and they have kept the Bears as their team name. The Cornerstone Academy with which it shares the campus is a charter middle school.

Behind the school is what I think was the main stadium for Spring Branch ISD before Tully Stadium was built out on Dairy Ashford. This is Reggie Grob Stadium--I have memories of playing here (and getting our asses kicked--go Eagles!) in junior high.

Right next to the old high school is a new early education facility--The Bear Boulevard School. The architecture is modern and playful.

Spring Branch ISD must have wanted to get their money's worth from the architect, because three other pre-schools are built with the exact same design, the Lion Lane School, the Tiger Trail School, and the Wildcat Way School. The schools are visually pleasing, so I can't complain too much if they used the design more than once.

Around the corner from the High School is the Texas Rock Gym, a building with an aversion to right angles.

And just a couple of doors up from it is Burden's. I love this sign because I generally approve of any sign that visually represents what the business is offering. Particularly, as in this case, where the representation is completely realistic, but hugely out of scale.

Traveling south on Campbell, we come across an extremely unlikely business for this part of town.

This is the kind of enterprise you expect to find inside the Loop. I am curious about the art that is produced here--is it interesting? I would suggest that the owner of the building would have better luck attracting artists if he or she put a nice interesting sculpture out in front of the building--that would send the right signal to potential tenants. If you are a westside artist lacking studio space, they do have vacancies.

Further south on Campbell, we have Spring Valley's city hall, a tasteful postmodern structure.

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But no one notices the city hall first, because right next to it is this:

The city hall building is dwarfed by this very white water (?) tank. They were smart to paint a big Spring Valley logo on it.

I mentioned an ancient house on Bingle--here is another unexpected survivor over on Adkins. This tiny house (924 sq. ft.) was built in 1945 on a huge lot (45,608 sq. ft.). The lot is so big that the owners built a second house on the same lot in 1975. But both houses are owned by one person and the whole property is considered to be a single property by Harris County. This is one of those anachronisms that somehow has avoided being subdivided and turned into a more standard suburban neighborhood.

Further up Adkins (and just outside of Spring Valley) is this stockaded house.

The wall consists of cedar stakes held up by wire. All the lots in Campbell Place (between Adkins and Campbell east and west, and Westview and Elizabeth north and south) are huge--and this stockade-like wall extends a hundred or so feet down Adkins.

As you can guess from the map, the lots in Campbell Place are enormous. Older houses tend to be fairly modest, but whenever someone builds a new one, they tend to be quite large--which is appropriate given the size of the lots. This modern house is the only corrugated-exterior house I've seen outside the Loop (although I'm sure there must be more). This look is inexplicably popular for townhouses inside the Loop, and I have to say that it seems to work pretty well with townhouses. But this house looks perhaps more industrial than I would like, perhaps due to its rather severe shape.

My Key Map is not only out of date regarding the freeway expansion, but it also wrongly implies that you can drive across Briar Branch Creek on Tamy. Apparently you cannot anymore (although the bridge is accessible by pedestrians and cyclists). But the change must be fairly recent, because the village seems particularly worried that you might try--hence the abundant warning signage.

Briar Branch Creek at this point upstream is brutally channelized, as you can see from this view facing east from the Fries bridge.

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If you go north a couple of blocks from the Tamy bridge to Elezabeth, you'll see this elegant bit of recycling.

It's sometimes the small things like this that make a difference. Take this house on Croes, where the (deliberately?) weathered wood gives it a pleasant rustic look.

One final modern house to end my trek through the six Villages. Generally speaking, this house looks like a lot of other modern houses in this area (not to mention the Bear Boulevard School) with its flatiron-like angled roof elements. But the small bit of curved roof over the entryway really caught my eye. I don't think I've seen anything like it. It is small and only calls attention to itself by virtue of its anomalousness.

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Perhaps this is a good way to characterize the Memorial Villages. They will tolerate eccentricity, but only a very small amount of it.

These are wealthy folks, and I bet many of them consider themselves to be individualists. Let your freak flags fly! You live in the Villages--you've made it. So do something wild and unique with your house and yard that proclaims your uniqueness.

Update: A reader sent me a correction--the creek I had referred to as Hunters Creek is really Briar Branch Creek (corrected above). Let me also toss out a request: is there a good map online that shows creek names in Houston? I haven't found one, and I am constantly getting these names wrong.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

I love these sculptures

They're by Jennifer Maestre. Hat-tip to a best truth.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Movies with Humanity

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Thought of the day: Be Kind Rewind is to movies what Tampopo was to food.

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