Monday, June 29, 2009

A Review of Oil 101

I am relatively new to the energy business. One of the things I had to do as soon as I started was to take a course given by Baker-Hughes about all the stages of the oil and gas business. It wasn't a bad course, but I now think it would have been better for me just to read Oil 101 by Morgan Downey.

Downey is an energy trader, and in a sense, Oil 101 is everything that he thinks an energy trader should know about the commodity he is trading.

Downey starts with a history of oil, which shouldn't be too much of a revelation if one has read The Prize. Nonetheless, he managed to surprise me with some of his stats. For instance, he is fairly blunt in saying that for most of its history, the price of oil has been under someone's control (not under the market's control). From 1870 to 1911, Standard Oil set the world price for oil. From 1931 to 1971, it was the Texas Railroad Commission. OPEC took over in 1971, and managed to control it until the crash of 1985. At that point, even though OPEC attempts to control oil prices through production quotas, the market itself is in charge. When he talks about the future of energy, he is pretty clear-eyed about the difficulties involved in finding substitutes for fossil fuels (and oil in particular).
The scale of oil consumption today is truly massive. For instance, in order to produce sufficient nuclear energy to completely offset modern oil use, one would have to build an additional 4,000 1.5 gigawatt (GW) nuclear power stations globally. Today there are approximately 440 reactors around the world with a combined capacity of 363GW. With 4,000 new reactors using current technology, all known uranium reserves would be depleted in just over 10 years.
(Of course, the thing with reserves is that often as the price of the commodity increases, the reserves increase as well as marginal reserves become economically viable*.)

The next two chapters talk about how we describe crude oil, the different varieties of the stuff, and just what is in crude oil. Chapter 4 gets into the chemistry of oil. If this chapter doesn't help you remember your high school chemistry class, nothing will. But Morgan impresses on one the notion of what a hydrocarbon is, and that the more carbon atoms there are in a hydrocarbon, the heavier it will be. These different hydrocarbon molecules will become important in later chapters on refining and finished products.

But before we go there, there is a chapter on the oil industry. Downey talks first about upstream (AKA exploration and production or E&P) and the national oil companies (NOCs), which control most of the production in the world. If you wonder why companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger are so big and important today, it's because they hire out their technical services to the NOCs (and other oil companies); in the old days, the majors did much of that stuff internally. Obviously any discussion of the NOCs means a discussion of OPEC, which he gives in some detail--how it works, its limitations, its members' compliance with production limits, its spare capacity, etc. The non-OPEC NOCs are discussed, along with the majors, the smaller integrated oil companies, and the independents. The discussion of the midstream (tankers and pipelines) and downstream parts of the industry are relatively brief because these will be discussed in their own chapters later on. But he nonetheless manages to say some provocative things (in his pithy way). For example,
[i]n the US, there was a boom in domestic refinery construction during the 1970s, due to the US government's Crude Oil Entitlement Program, which ran from 1974 to 1981. The program encouraged the building of small inefficient refineries which quickly closed down when US domestic crude oil price controls were eliminated in 1981.

Very few refineries have been built over the past 25 years in the US due to the massive excess in global capacity added in the 1970s and it is only in the past few years that refiners have had decent profits. Due to capacity and complexity creep [discussed earlier in the chapter], US refinery throughput has not declined despite the reduction of the number of refineries.
These contentions are not likely to please any reader, liberal or conservative. Ha! Those of you who read past the spoilers warning in my review of Black Water Rising will recall that the closing of refineries in 1981 was a minor plot point in that novel.

The chapter on E&P starts with business practices of E&P companies (including NOCs), including joint ventures, production sharing agreements, etc. There is a good deal about the geology of oil (including an aside on the abiogenic theory of oil) and about exploration techniques. Drilling, casing, and completions are described. The special issues of offshore drilling and directional drilling are given sections. Since this is the business I am in, this chapter was the least interesting--but it is a nice review of what all is involved.

The next two chapters, on refining and finished products, are pretty technical (the chemistry chapter and chapter on options were also technical, but nothing is written at a level above an intelligent layman). Downey discusses how distilling, cracking, combining and the other functions of a refinery work, and why these various chemical processes are used. The next chapter goes through every product that might come out of a refinery, what they are called, what they are used for, and details about the market for each. Some of these products consist of molecules of a single chemical (methane, ethane, butane, propane), but most products are mixtures of hydrocarbons that are more-or-less the same weight. Gasoline, for example, consists of a mixture of hydrocarbon molecules ranging from three carbon atoms to 12 carbon atoms (plus hydrogen, of course). Different crudes contain a range of hydrocarbons, from the smallest to very large ones. Gasoline is a light range product--this can be seen in its light color and by the fact that it evaporates at a fairly low temperature. Jet fuel and heating oil are called "middle distillates," and generally contain larger hydrocarbon molecules than gasoline.

Because jet fuel and heating oil come out of the same part of the barrel, so to speak, they compete with each other more so than with gasoline. So since the demand for heating oil goes up as winter approaches, the price of jet fuel (which is not a seasonal product) increases at the same time. This is something that Downey points out--that all these finished products are competing against one another. Because gasoline is the most consumed part of the barrel, it forces the prices of all the other products up.

When valuing an oil company, or making strategic decisions about the future availability of oil, one needs to understand reserves. Reserves are an oil company's main asset, but unlike assets in other industries, reserves have a probabilistic value (this varies by what accounting standard is required). You have reserves that based on seismic analysis and/or test wells you feel have a 50% chance of containing X amount of recoverable oil. To make things more complicated, the reserves will rise or fall with the price of oil--because reserves only count if they are economically recoverable.

His chapters on environmental regulations and new engine technologies include contrarian views that will again rub the received "wisdom" of both liberals and conservatives wrong. The last chapters, on oil prices, futures, and options, get to Downey's primary expertise. He gives a good summary of how spot prices are arrived at, and how futures contracts work--both in the broad sense, but actually step by step how an airline would use a specific forward agreement to hedge spot jet fuel in Europe--he describes who the trader for the airline calls, who the counterparty is, and how the contract is closed out (for cash, not for actual fuel).

If any chapter is going to completely lose readers, it will be the chapter on options. He discusses the "greeks", which are derivatives of various variables in the Black-Scholes equation, and I fear that if you don't know how the B-S equation works and can't remember much calculus, you will just not understand his description of why the greeks are important to option traders.

The usefulness of this book is as a handbook that one can use for reference. However, to get the most out of it, I recommend reading it from cover to cover. You won't be able to absorb every fact, but when you need to look up something, you'll know both what to look for and where. While I emphasized some of Downey's controversial or contrarian statements, most of Oil 101 is pure, uncontroversial fact. Downey is a low-key writer whose style is typified by clarity and brevity. Likewise the graphs and tables are very minimal and easy to read. The book is very up-to-date (it includes facts up to early 2009), but you can get even more timely information from his blog, Scarce Whales.

Since I am in the natural gas business, I would have liked more discussion of that. So much about natural gas overlaps with oil, so he could have included almost everything you need to know about natural gas by simply fattening most of the existing chapters. But this is a minor quibble. Oil 101 is an excellent handbook, and should be on the desk of anyone in the oil (or gas) industry, regardless of where in the value chain you are.

*For example, if the price of uranium goes up enough, mining the uranium mentioned in this article might become a viable option.

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Honestly, Officer, I Have No Idea How the Dead Guy Got In My Bathtub!

Why do I think this is not the whole story?
A couple discovered a man they did not know shot to death in the bathroom of their southwest Houston apartment early Sunday, authorities said.

The couple were asleep at their apartment in the 5800 block of Fondren when around 5:30 a.m., they awoke to the sound of gunfire and saw two men running out of their apartment, said Houston Police Department spokesman Jodi Silva.

While searching the apartment to make sure nothing was taken, the couple found a man they did not know dead with multiple gunshot wounds in their bathroom, Silva said.

His identity is pending notification of next of kin.

Investigators suspect a possible motive for the shooting is robbery.

This could be a good beginning for a crime novel.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

I Like Art #1: Kathy Kelley

I went gallery hopping yesterday and saw some art I liked, so I decided I'd start a new series of posts about local gallery art. Unlike Beth Secor, I have no intent to try to visit every gallery or see every show. I don't have that much time or energy. But if I see something I like, and I can get some photos, I'll post 'em.  I'm not sure what the titles of these individual pieces are. They have really long, angst-ridden titles like "the fracture between us yawns as a cavern so wide, I feel the bruise of soul" and "i obliterated that which i loved." Really kind of unexpected for the work. 

Indeed, if I had to describe this work, I would think of words like "industrial," "junk," "heavy," even "masculine." I would think of artists like Keinholz, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, Joseph Bueys. 

But I did some research on the artist. She has a blog and ... well, here is an excerpt.

Not observed, but assumed based on my life experience to also be considered is each partner’s capacity to own their own crap and actually do the work to move each individual toward the healing of life wounds. I also believe even if the marriage is dissolved, healing and the non-repetition of wounding behaviors come to those who exercise and expand these capacities. I also believe these capacities even without infidelity to be building blocks of a strong marriage because everyday there are little betrayals, perceived or actual, that need to be dealt with. I choose to exercise and expand these capacities within myself. [defining forgiveness in terms of significant reductions in ceasing to seek or demand justice or revenge, ceasing to feel ongoing anger/resentment, and increases in wishing the other person well and restoring relational trust - Handbook of the Clinical Treatment of Infidelity By Fred P. Piercy, Katherine M. Hertlein, Joseph L. Wetchler]

Yow. She reveals a lot more of herself than I ever would! Her blog contains a lot of Kelley's poetry, lots of photos of her art (including "in progress" photos, which are quite interesting), and quotes from inspirational texts. She seems to be rather spiritual (and even religious) and sensitive. How she ended up doing work like this is mysterious to me. 

Her website shows a lot more of her work. I don't love all of it, but I like most of it. 

What else is strange about this artist? She lives in my neighborhood (according to her resume online). I won't say what neighborhood specifically, but let's just say that it is a neighborhood where one would never think of an artist--particularly a post-minimalist artist--choosing to live. One never knows what goes on behind people's front doors, but if one were to judge my neighborhood by its exterior appearance, the word "art" would never come up. This just makes Kelley more intriguing. I like her art a lot. Her work is being shown at Ggallery on 11th street in the Heights. The show was supposed to end June 22, but it has apparently been held over. I don't know how long it will stay up, so see it soon!

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Houston Light Guard Armory

What's up with this building?

Houston Light Guard Armory

It's at the corner of Caroline and Truxillo, completely boarded up and surrounded by barb wire. It appears to be owned by the Houston Community College, but a little research shows that is is slated to be the new site of the Buffalo Soldiers Museum. A good recent article (with excellent pictures) about it is here (Cite). The large open interior would be ideal for a museum or even a rental hall (which the famous Armory building in NYC is used for--and has been at least since 1913).

Houston Light Guard Armory detail

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Wilshire Village Still Not Demolished

As of about 4 pm, Saturday afternoon.

Wilshire Village window frames
The window frames have mostly been removed, but the buildings still stand...

Wilshire Village grafitti
They make a good temporary canvas for the local taggers...

Wilshire Village stately Oak
I just hope the developer, who thus far has been shown to have no particular vision (or much human decency) will preserve the oaks and magnolia trees that dot this property.

The demolition permit was issued June 23, according to SwampLot. We're just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Update: A couple more of my photos of Wilshire Village have been put up at Swamplot.

Update 2: As of 5 pm, June 30, it didn't appear that demolition had begun.

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Lucky Urge

sign 6-27-09

Seen yesterday on Richmond.


Friday, June 26, 2009

New blog name

I'm going to try "Wha' Happen" out for a while. It was my brother's suggestion. What do you think? "Wha' Happen" or "Boyd's Blog"?


The Best Michael Jackson Tribute

(Hat Tip the Daily Dish)

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OMG! Important Change at the Jones School!!!!!!!!

The Houston Business Journal reports:
Rice University’s business school officially changed its name Friday to the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

Previously the school was called the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management.

Stop the presses! So why the change?

Through research, the graduate school said it found that most top MBA programs used the term “business” rather than “management,” and that people performing online searches to find the school were using the term “business.”
So they are changing the name because of peer-pressure and because people looking for business schools online tend to Google the words "business school"? That is freaking absurd. Good grief. I just gave the school $100. I think I'll ask for my money back.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Water Rising--A Review

To continue the "oil" theme of the previous three posts, I just read a hard-boiled thriller set in Houston where the main villains are a major oil company. Black Water Rising is Attica Locke's first novel. Her main character is a small-time personal injury lawyer named Jay Porter. The time is 1981.

Right off the bat, Locke makes a small geography error.
The city's planning and development department even went so far as to pave a walkway along the part of the bayou that runs through Memorial Park.
I wish! Anyway, pretty inauspicious. But Locke has a pretty good grasp on writing a thriller. I think this book has some fatal flaws, which reflect bad research on her part, but I still enjoyed reading it.

Jay Porter is the best kind of protagonist for this kind of book. Seriously flawed, with something in his past that he can't get over. If your main character is a police detective, you almost need to have something in his past that prevents him from advancing. (Because you can't keep writing new books if your guy gets promoted out of hands-on investigation.) So sometimes the thing about the protagonist is that he's an alcoholic or just such an ornery cuss that he stays stuck at detective level--you can see this in Harry Bosch in the Michael Connelly books, and in Rebus in Ian Rankin's books. Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins has a sketchy past in Texas. (In the P.D. James Dalgliesh novels, the main character not have anything holding him back. Consequently, he has been promoted so high that he can only investigate murders of M.P.s and bishops and similarly high-level victims!)

In Porter's case, he was a student radical at the University of Houston. He was accused of plotting the death of a suspected agent provocatuer in his group. He went through the trial and was acquitted, but it scarred him. So many of his fellow radicals (in Houston and around the country) were meeting accidents or getting killed, etc. He got scared. He felt he may have been fingered by his lover at the time, a white radical woman (the race thing is a big part of this book, obviously). He dropped out of the movement, kept his head low, finished his degree, got a law degree, married a preacher's daughter and basically devoted himself to providing for her--and he kept out of politics. That said, by 1981 his law practice is barely making ends meet and is a bit on the sleazy side. (Porter is a slightly downmarket version of Locke's father, Gene Locke, a former student radical who became an attorney and currently running for mayor of Houston.)

The female student radical is now mayor of Houston. Cynthia Maddox is kind of a substitute for Kathryn Whitmire. Like Whitmire, Maddox went to school at U.H. (although Maddox transfers to Georgetown sometime around Porter's trial). Maddox comes into city government after serving on Lloyd Bentson's staff. Maddox is sort of a villain here, and it was possibly her that set up Porter. I wonder what Whitmire (who was never a radical and stayed at the University of Houston to get a bachelors and then a masters in accounting) would think of this?

Other quasi-fictional characters include the Cole brothers. They run Cole Oil, which is sort of an independent producer that somehow became a major. Think of them as a combination of the Cullen family and Texaco.

The main problem with this book has to do with oil. From this point on, it's all spoilers (or SPOILERS, if you prefer), so feel free to stop reading. Basically, Cole Oil is the villain. A murder at the beginning of the novel, that Porter and his wife sort of witness, is related to certain actions that Cole oil is taking to manipulate oil prices. Their manipulation consists of holding oil off the market by pumping into a salt mine. (It is also mentioned that Cole Oil shut down two refineries in order to create a shortage of refined products.) The people who live above the mine are all bought out except for one recalcitrant nut, who noticing oil leaking onto his property, decides this is part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and he tries to protest this fact to the government. Of course, people think he is just a nut, but his main problem is that he is protesting the wrong people.

When some of Cole Oil's people threaten to blab, Cole gets them killed. It is one such attempted murder that gets Porter involved.

The problem with this plot is that in 1981, the oil companies--as big and powerful as they are--don't and can't control the price of oil. The majors were able to control the price of oil and keep that price very stable through 1973. Their tool was the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC), which was a government agency that had the ability to set production levels in East Texas. The East Texas fields were so large that they could use its production level to set world prices. If demand increased, they turned on the spigot. If supply increased from elsewhere, they choked off the supply from East Texas. They were trying to avoid the chaos that followed the early days after Spindletop when overproduction brought the price of oil down to about nothing, while destroying reservoirs by drilling too many wells too close together.

The TRC seemed like a hell of a good idea to some Saudis and Venezuelans, so they founded OPEC. But OPEC was not able to act like the TRC until 1973. By that time, the U.S. had pretty much no spare capacity left, so the majors couldn't control the price of oil anymore. OPEC nations nationalized their resources. The Arab nations in particular used oil as a political weapon, but in general, with their ability to ramp up or scale down production at will, the OPEC nations were controlling the world price of oil in 1981.

In the 70s, there was plenty of resentment in the U.S. against the "seven sisters," as the majors were known. After all, they were riding high while the rest of the country suffered. But they were just lucky--they benefited from OPEC's stranglehold, even as the OPEC nations nationalized more and more of the world's reserves and industry.

In the novel, the suggestion is that there is huge overproduction, so Cole is deliberately hoarding oil to keep prices high. Something like that was indeed happening, but it wasn't Cole hoarding oil--it was OPEC deliberately not producing it. Additionally, even if Cole could affect the price of oil, why would it bother to produce it (which is expensive) and then reinject it into the ground? The much cheaper way to hoard oil is to simply not produce your reserves. Keep your reserves in the ground. But this is irrelevant--no major had enough reserves under their control to seriously affect the price of oil in 1981. And by 1985, as conservation efforts in the U.S. and Europe reduced demand while exploration brought new, non-OPEC oil on line, OPEC lost control of the price of oil. That was the year of the big oil crash.

I realize this is a really technical explanation for why Cole couldn't be committing the crime that is at the center of Black Water Rising. But it's public knowledge, and Attica Locke should have researched the world oil market better if she was going to write a novel that hinged on it.

The thing is, an oil company is a perfectly acceptable villain. You could have your fictional company commit any number of white-collar crimes that would be completely plausible, and which could then lead in true thriller fashion to more violent crimes. 1985 would be the perfect year for this, when the price of oil collapsed and oil companies were getting desperate. But Locke wanted something big--and ended up with something unbelievable.

(By the way, closing two refineries to manipulate the prices of refined products like gasoline wouldn't have worked in 1981. In the 1970s, the oil companies, flush with cash, massively overbuilt refining capacity in the U.S.)

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Oil Music

I don't know really what to say about this.

Åge Sten Nilsen is the singer and he apparently is a somewhat popular rocker in Norway. Statoil is, of course, the state oil company of Norway. (Hat tip to Foreign Policy.)

So are there other rock songs with oil as their subject? I only know one.

"North Sea Oil" is a very clever song by Jethro Tull with lyrics that sort of encapsulate the hopes and fears of the U.K. following the discovery of oil in the North Sea. Of course, any true Tull fan can tell you that they are lip-synching here! Kind of bogus if you ask me.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

America is Gassy

Natural gas, that is. Methane. CH4.
Thanks to new drilling technologies that are unlocking substantial amounts of natural gas from shale rocks, the nation’s estimated gas reserves have surged by 35 percent, according to a study due for release on Thursday.

The report by the Potential Gas Committee, the authority on gas supplies, shows the United States holds far larger reserves than previously thought. The jump is the largest increase in the 44-year history of reports from the committee.

The finding raises the possibility that natural gas could emerge as a critical transition fuel that could help to battle global warming. For a given amount of heat energy, burning gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming, as burning coal. (New York Times, June 17, 2009)
The Potential Gas Committee is a academic/industry group based out of the Colorado School of Mines. (Full disclosure, my employer, Southwestern Energy, is one of the sponsors of the Potential Gas Committee.) The article continues:
Estimated natural gas reserves rose to 2,074 trillion cubic feet in 2008, from 1,532 trillion cubic feet in 2006, when the last report was issued. This includes the proven reserves compiled by the Energy Department of 237 trillion cubic feet, as well as the sum of the nation’s probable, possible and speculative reserves.
The R-Squared energy blog asks the question--what if we replaced the gasoline used in this country with natural gas?
The U.S. currently consumes 390 million gallons of gasoline per day. (Source: EIA). A gallon of gasoline contains about 115,000 BTUs. (Source: EPA). The energy content of this much gasoline is equivalent to 45 trillion BTUs per day. The energy content of natural gas is about 1,000 BTUs per standard cubic foot (scf). Therefore, to replace all gasoline consumption would require 45 billion scf per day, or 16.4 trillion scf per year. Current U.S. natural gas consumption is 23 trillion scf per year (Source: EIA). Therefore, replacing all gasoline consumption with natural gas would require a total usage of 39.4 trillion scf per year, an increase in natural gas consumption of 71% over present usage.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the 2,074 trillion standard cubic feet cited in the study is accurate, that the "probable, possible and speculative reserves" eventually equate to actual reserves, and that the gas is economically recoverable, that is enough gas for 53 years of combined current natural gas consumption and gasoline consumption. If you assume that only the proven plus probable reserves are eventually recovered, the amount drops to about 1/3rd of the 2,074 trillion scf estimate, still enough to satisfy current natural gas consumption and replace all gasoline consumption for almost 20 years.
Pretty exciting, eh? Some of his commenters have expressed doubts about natural gas replacing gasoline--does it run an engine as well? Is Btu content a good measure for comparison? I am not enough of an engineer to answer that question. However, one of the primary problems with gasoline is that is can ignite at high temperatures even if there is no spark present. So in an internal combustion engine, gasoline might ignite before the cylinder is fully compressed and the spark-plug sparks. This is called autoignition or "knocking," and it reduces the efficiency of an engine and can damge it in the long run. The higher the octane-rating, the less knocking you get. A big part of the cost of gasoline is in the anti-knock additives that are mixed in. (See Oil 101 for a detailed explanation.)

Would auto-ignition be a problem with CNG engines? I don't think so--the autoignition temperature for gasoline is about 200 degrees Celsius while it is 540 degrees Celsius for natural gas. Or, to put it another way, gasoline has an octane rating (even with additives) of about 87 to 90, while natural gas has 120 octane (NGV Community).

But what about CO2? If we replace one hydrocarbon fuel for another, we don't do anything for the problem of greenhouse gasses, right? Natural gas produces about 117 lbs of CO2 per MMBtu. A gallon of gas produces about 20 lbs of CO2 (this seems crazy since a gallon of gas weighs just over 6 lbs, but remember that when gasoline burns, it uses oxygen from the air--which accounts for most of the additional weight of the CO2). In other words, producing 100,000 Btus from gasoline will produce 17.4 lbs of CO2 while producing the same Btus from natural gas will only produce 11.7 lbs of CO2. (Not to mention that burning gasoline produces other pollutants, like ground-level ozone.)

So from a purely green sense, natural gas would be a better fuel than gasoline.

R-Squared calculates the costs as well.
Natural gas is presently trading at about $4 per million (MM) BTU (although December 2009 is trading at almost $6). Oil is presently trading at $71/bbl, which equates to $12.24/MMBTU. Gasoline is presently trading at over $17/MMBTU. Thus, natural gas is a bargain relative to oil or gasoline. Incidentally, I just checked on seasoned wood and wood pellets, and they range from $8-$12/MMBTUs. So it is cheaper to heat your house with gas than with wood. I am not sure I would have guessed that.

While natural gas is a bargain relative to gasoline, converting a gasoline-powered vehicle to natural gas isn't cheap. According to this source, it can cost $12,500 to $22,500 to convert a gasoline-powered car to natural gas. Honda makes a compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle, but according to this review in Car and Driver the premium over the gasoline version is $8780. A person would need to drive an awful lot to justify that premium. However, that's what fleets do. They drive a lot. The large price differential explains why fleets would be interested in running their vehicles on natural gas.
Also, one reason oil and gasoline are so expensive is that we need the latter to run our cars and the former to make the latter. The demand is very high. If we converted our cars to CNG, we'd have the same issue with natural gas. Natural gas would be more expensive and petroleum less (because we would be using it mainly for jet fuel, heating oil, resid oil, etc.).

But the main benefit of switching might be in terms of trade balance. In 2008, our trade deficit was over $128 billion dollars. Furthermore, we've only been positive one year (1991) since 1960. (Source BEA.) But we imported roughly $68 billion dollars worth of crude oil last year. (Source EIA.) So half our deficit could be wiped out--and the money that we shovel overseas to the various thugs, tyrants, and kleptocrats (not to mention the huge military expense of guaranteeing that supply)--could be kept here. And some of it put in the pockets of landowners who are lucky enough to live above gas shales, U.S. gas-field workers, U.S. gas producer employees (like me!), and U.S. gas company shareholders.

That sounds like a good deal, doesn't it?

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Art + Art


Nice, huh. A beautiful Pogo daily from 1951 by Walt Kelly. Despite all that fine brushwork, Kelly worked pretty small--that original is only 17.5" x 6" with the strip itself 16.5" x 4.75".

But check this out:


If you look closely, you can see Kelly's underdrawing. He uses blue pencil which would disappear in the photographic process for making the strip print-ready. His blue pencil drawing is very tight, except (curiously) on the lettering and (less curiously) on Porky Pine. But what is amazing is not his pencils but his inks. Not a single correction on the page. What an amazingly skilled brush-handler he was! It's freaky that a guy who was such a brilliant writer and satirist should also be such a skilled artist--but that combination describes many (but not all) of the greatest cartoonists, of whom Kelly is one of the very top ever.


This photograph is "Untitled from Rabbits in the Land of Squirrels" by Elaine Bradford. If you are from Houston, you might have seen her recent show at the Art League called the Museum of Unnatural History. This show was half Museum of Jurassic Technology and half knitting. I understand a fake museum--museums are so central to art in our day that basic postmodern theory practically demands that artists create pastiches and parodies of museums. You see it in David Wilson's and Hans Haacke's work, among others. It's a form of conceptual art, but it involves a lot of precise craft.

Likewise knitting. Knitting is kind of a new thing in art. I don't know what it means. Maybe Bradford can enlighten us a little with some words from her own website.
Through crocheting sweaters for inanimate objects, she references connotations associated with the handmade, and personal ideas of comfort and warmth. These ideas about the process of crocheting are juxtaposed with the absurdity of its application. She has covered a variety of items in handmade sweaters, including trees, vacuum cleaners, and groceries. Her most recent work involves crocheting sweaters for taxidermied animals.
So OK. I thought it may refer to early feminist artwork that often used traditionally female artforms (like sewing) and wrenched it into the man's man's man's world of contemporary fine art.

This was one of the pieces for sale for either $50 or $100 at the Apama Mackey Gallery. This was a one-day show called the "The AMG Visual Stimulus Package" that was co-sponsored by Houston video site, Keep Houston Rich.

Anyway, I bought these two pieces of art, adding them to my "collection," such as it is.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Voting Fraud in Harris County?

This is a pretty powerful piece of YouTubery. Question: who created it?

Hat tip Kuff. This is related to the issues swirling around unelected county tax assessor Leo Vasquez and his employee in that office, Ed Johnson, who also is a campaign consultant for Republican candidates through a firm called Campaign Data Systems (CDS) -- co-owned by Bohac. No one has demonstrated that Johnson has done anything wrong, but the stink of conflict of interest is overpowering. If you want to rig a vote, this is how you do it--by running the vote. That's why the famous vote-stealers in history have been urban and county machines that were already in power and that controlled the ballot boxes. This is why ACORN is such a weak candidate for serious voter fraud--they don't have the power to commit effective fraud.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Visiting Every Art Gallery in Houston

Not me. Beth Secor. She is an artist, a curator, a writer and a blogger over at Glasstire, and she sets out to visit and report on every art gallery in town.
There are at least 100 galleries, if not more in Houston, and I would fathom a guess that few among you, my dear readers, have even visited 25 of those, if that many. And why is that? Why don’t we go to more galleries? Is it because they are too far away and gas is too expensive? I know why you don’t go. It’s because those other galleries don’t show Core Fellows, and you are really worried about appearing uncool. That’s the real reason. Admit it.

Well, I already know I’m not cool and because of this I have the freedom to visit every friggin’ gallery in the whole damn town. I am going to start out in the Heights and then spiral out to other parts of the city. I don’t want anyone to have any false expectations - these aren’t going to be full on reviews and I am not going to give you the entire history of the space, I might even get the name and address wrong, and if a place is too far away, I’ll just make up shit about it. And no, I don’t have air conditioning in my car and yes, I have bursitis in my right elbow and am typing everything out with my left hand.
Her first visit is to a gallery in the Heights that really gets the business. My recommendation to the galleries--let Beth Secor take pictures. Because even if she offers up a negative review (as she does here, oh, boy, does she!), at least the photos will let the gallery speak for itself, and frankly, you are trying to sell art and not letting someone photograph it for a review is pretty piss-poor marketing. Plus, if you don't let her take pictures, you might get the "honor" of having her recreate the artwork for you.
The very worst pieces in the show [...] were both made by a person whose name I will not reveal, in order to spare them the public humiliation. These works were constructed of orange peels, which in one case had been tacked to the wall behind the gallery desk [...].

Since I can’t show you the original because of the no photo rule, and in order to help you understand my extreme annoyance, I recreated and photographed one of these “whatevers” at home. Granted the gallery attendant did not look like Humpty Dumpty, and the “artist” did a better job of peeling her oranges in long coiling strands, but you get the general idea. Except I kind of like my photograph, so maybe you won’t get what I’m saying after all.
Gallery owners--this is what you might get if you don't allow a reviewer (particularly Beth Secor) to take photos:
Artwork cruelly recreated for the purpose of mockery by Beth Secor.


Rice--Baylor Merger Update

Just like the merger of Lex Luthor and Braniac, the Rice-Baylor merger is experiencing its own set of difficulties.
Rice University President David Leebron announced last November that a proposed merger with Baylor College of Medicine would be resolved one way or another by May, but a spokeswoman suggested this week that the two institutions still aren’t close to an agreement.
The acknowledgement followed an internal Baylor update that it has reduced its $85 million deficit by $30 million and Rice faculty agitating for more input into what they note is the most important decision in the institution’s history.
That latter bit seems like it should make the merger easier. Although if Baylor improves its situation financially, while it makes Baylor more attractive to Rice, it may also make Baylor more reluctant to enter a deal (certainly they would be in the position to demand more concessions.)
Baylor’s shaky finances and uncertainty about its hospital, however, are considered stumbling blocks to a deal. Baylor hopes to trim an additional $35 million by next June, taking its deficit down to $20 million, interim President William Butler recently told faculty. Baylor also is trying to figure out a home for its doctors who practiced at The Methodist Hospital or St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital before Baylor split from both.
“In visiting with Rice, there are two areas of concern,” Baylor Trustee Bob McNair said at a faculty meeting in February, an executive summary from which recently began circulating outside the institution. “One area has been that operating losses have been growing. The other was: What are we going to do with the hospital project?”
Baylor’s hospital project, a 250-bed facility near the veterans hospital, was much touted after the splits with Methodist and St. Luke’s but more recently became saddled with debt. In March, Baylor announced it would suspend construction of the hospital, a move Butler said would buy time to acquire more capital before continuing. Some sources said the delay would also allow the school to sell the building.
To me, it seems like having a hospital is necessary, and since there is one halfway built, it should be finished--assuming money can be found. Of course, Methodist and St. Luke's, having been burned by Baylor, might be more willing to negotiate with Rice.
At Rice, concern that the case hasn’t yet been made for a merger prompted faculty to meet in April. More than 200 professors turned out for the single-issue gathering, a rare event at the usually placid university. The meeting was closed, but Rice’s Faculty Senate posted minutes from the meeting on its Web site.
“The famous astronomer Carl Sagan once said, ‘Big claims require big proofs,’ ” computational engineering professor Moshe Vardi wrote in a letter also posted on the Web site. “The claim that the potential benefits of merging Rice with Baylor outweigh the risks is a ‘big claim’; it requires a ‘big proof.’ ”
Vardi wrote that he is skeptical about the merger and has encountered that sentiment among colleagues.
Professors who attended the meeting, however, said faculty opinions are all over the map, often coinciding with whether that professor’s discipline would stand to benefit from Rice having a medical school.
Faculty overwhelmingly adopted a resolution creating a faculty merger committee larger than the one appointed by Leebron and chaired by a professor instead of the president. Leebron accepted the resolution.
The committee is expected to bring to another meeting of the faculty in early fall a report on the potential benefits, costs and risks of the proposed merger and actions that could be taken to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks.
This, I think, is the important part of this story. Seen from the outside, it seems like there is resistence to Lebron's eternally expansive approach to Rice.
Under Leebron’s leadership, the Rice campus is undergoing some $850 million in construction projects to add two new residential colleges to house a 30 percent growth in the undergraduate student body, a 10-story research center to deepen Rice’s collaboration with the Texas Medical Center and new campus amenities including a library-based pavilion and sports arena.
Perhaps they see Lebron as a reckless empire builder. Without knowing everything of the pitfalls of the merger, however, I support it. It would help Rice compete against the Ivies. Rice adding Baylor would balance William Pierce. The danger of increasing the size of the student body, as Lebron is doing, is that it might require Rice to become less selective. But adding an already very selective institution doesn't hurt Rice's reputation for selectivity. (For the same reason, I would oppose Rice buying the South Texas College of Law, which is more a meat-and-potatoes law school. South Texas College of Law is considered a 4th tier school and is unranked by U.S. News, while Baylor is ranked the 17th best research medical school by U.S. News and 17th best for primary care as well.)

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rice Village Has Had a Whorehouse In It
Does this look like a whorehouse to you?

This one comes from the Village News (June 9, 2009) via the ever-vigilant Swamplot.
It seems a nondescript commercial building at the corner of Sunset and Morningside was, until recently, a whorehouse! "Johns" may be sad to see the Southampton brothel close, but the neighborhood is glad to see the nuisance gone.

The location of the Asian Massage Villa, 2401 Sunset [...] appeared vacant after a notice of eviction was served by the property owner.

Asian Massage Villa Was at 2401 Sunset, but its little door was around the side and towards the back on Morningside. There was no sign, just a lighted doorway and some stickers indicating donations to emergency responders.

In the past year there have been at least three arrests for prostitution listed in the HPD calls for service, and several other vice investigations at the address.

Last August, Village News reported on Asian Massage Villa having an arrest for prostitution, but in order to clase a shop you have to show a pattern.
Isn't this weird? With drug forfeiture laws, you don't even have to be proven guilty before the cops can seize your property. But with brothels, the police must show that there is actual repeated crimes there, not one-off episodes. And quite rightly so. It should be difficult for the cops to seize your property.
After HPD gathered evidence of a pattern of prostitution, city attorneys talked to the owner of the property about evicting the offending Asian Massage Villa, informing the owner that a lawsuit could be filed on the grounds of statutory nuisance. The property owner cooperated and issued a three day eviction notice.
Now isn't this interesting--instead of doing what they did with The Penthouse Club and All Stars Men's Club, where the now enforcible sexually oriented business (SOB) licensing law was invoked, the city just leaned on the owner. Why?

My theory is this. Once the city has established a pattern (with repeated busts for prostitution), in order to close a SOB, they have to file a lawsuit against it. The penalty is not only does the business close, but the location can't be used for anything for a year--regardless of who the owner is! (The SOB also has to pay the legal fees for the city.) But this is a long, expensive process for the city, with no guarantee of victory. So it made sense to probably threaten the owner of the property at 2701 Sunset with a SOB licensing lawsuit. The city attorneys probably said, "Look, we know you aren't running this whorehouse. You just made a bad decision about who to rent to. But if you don't evict those people, we will sue them--and when we win, you will not be able to rent that place for a year. So play along, pally."

So why didn't they just threaten Anargyros G. Mylonas, the owner (according to HCAD) of the Penthouse Club and All Star's Men's Club? Because the really want to punish him and more important, prevent him from opening another strip club somewhere else in Houston. The way this law is set up, by removing the possibility of commercial use for the property for a year, the owner is likely to be driven into bankruptcy (or at least have his capital tied up for a year). That way, you don't have the SOB popping up somewhere else under a new name.

So with the Asian Massage Villa, the city seems to have taken the easy, quick route to closing the business (with the risk that it will reopen somewhere else relatively quickly), whereas with the Penthouse Club and All Star's Men's Club, they took the difficult, lengthy lawsuit route, which probably puts Mylonas out of business (this business, at least) for good. I am only guessing about the city's strategy, but I suspect they figured using the maximum approach with two highly visible SOBs was more cost-efficient than using the same approach for the discreet neighborhood whorehouse.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rice University's Most Embarrassing Alumni

When I went to Rice, I was proud (and still am) that Larry McMurtry had gotten a masters degree there. But he was about the only famous guy I knew who had graduated from Rice. Now we have had a couple of Nobel prize winners and some politicians who are well-known in Houston and Texas and a few major captains of industry (see here), but compared to our Ivy League brethren, the number of nationally and internationally notable people who have graduated from Rice is tiny, and many of them are embarrassing.

Like Alberto Gonzalez. At first I was proud when he was selected to by attorney general--sure he plays for the other team, but the accomplishment is what counted. To bad he turned out to be morally bankrupt and incompetent!

Less well known but also loathesome is Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the RIAA, who is best known for suing teenagers and little old ladies whose computers have been used to download music illegally. This strategy really won sympathy for the beleaguered record industry!

But today I encountered the most shameful Rice alumnus of all (so far!). I was reading blog posts about James von Brunn, the neo-Nazi terrorist who murdered a guard at the Holocaust Museum, and came across one that pointed out how so many extremists and domestic terrorists were products of elite schools! (Uh oh...) And who should I find? William Pierce.

Who, you ask?
William Luther Pierce, an ascetic physics professor who built an organization of young supporters for George Wallace for president into the nation's largest neo-Nazi group, and whose novel ''The Turner Diaries'' was credited by Timothy J. McVeigh with inspiring the Oklahoma City bombing, died yesterday. He was 69. (New York Times, 2002)
Oh, that William Pierce.
Mr. Pitcavage said Dr. Pierce was a successful businessman, creating a racist-book-publishing venture, National Vanguard Books, and running Resistance Records, the largest publisher of hate records in the world.

''The Turner Diaries'' started as a serial in Dr. Pierce's newspaper, Attack, as what Mr. Strom called ''an adventure story he thought would cause people to want to read the next issue.''

It was self-published in 1978, under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald, then later reprinted by Lyle Stuart's Barricade Books.

Mr. McVeigh cited the novel as the inspiration for his bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995 in Oklahoma City. When interviewed by mainstream news organizations, Dr. Pierce was noncommittal about the influence that the book might have had on Mr. McVeigh, as well as whether his book had influenced the assassination of Alan Berg, a the host of a radio talk show in Denver, or a Brink's armored-car robbery in California, both crimes carried out by white supremacists.

William fucking Pierce.

Dr. Pierce was born in Atlanta in 1933, grew up in the South and attended a military academy in Texas. He was a graduate of Rice University and had master's and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Colorado.
Jesus. Rice needs some nationally known alumni who aren't embarrassing.

Available at a gun show near you!


Monday, June 08, 2009

Protecting Your Right Not To Be Offended

The American Library Association reports on a new front in the fight for freedom--the right to burn library books that offend you.
Milwaukee-area citizen Robert C. Braun of the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) distributed at the meeting copies of a claim for damages he and three other plaintiffs filed April 28 with the city; the complainants seek the right to publicly burn or destroy by another means the library’s copy of Baby Be-Bop. The claim also demands $120,000 in compensatory damages ($30,000 per plaintiff) for being exposed to the book in a library display, and the resignation of West Bend Mayor Kristine Deiss for “allow[ing] this book to be viewed by the public.”

Describing the YA novel by celebrated author Francesca Lia Block as “explicitly vulgar, racial, and anti-Christian,” the complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”

The complaint points out that library Director Michael Tyree has “publicly stated that it is not up to the library to tell the community what is appropriate.” Citing “Wisconsin’s sexual morality law,” the plaintiffs also request West Bend City Attorney Mary Schanning to impanel a grand jury to examine whether the book should be declared obscene and making it available a hate crime.

I applaud Citizen Braun for expanding the meaning of liberty to include book-burning!

(Actually, the "Christian Civil Liberties Union" is the least of the trouble the West Bend Community Memorial Library is facing as the religious nut contingent works hard to destroy the freedom to read. Read the whole post. In the meantime, may I suggest the CCLU get Kanye West as their national spokesman?)


Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Bungle Family

A few months back I bought some Bungle Family strips from eBay. Since then, I've been trying without luck to identify them.


This one appears to be from the 1930s. Initially I thought I'd check microfilm of New York newspapers. I started off at the Rice University library and the Houston Public Library. No luck there--both had paltry collections of newspapers on microfilm. I looked in the Houston papers (which they had fairly complete collections of), but none of them seemed to carry The Bungle Family from the relevant period.


This one (and all the subsequent ones) is from the 40s. Now what is interesting here is that in the 1940s strips I have, the originals are extremely large. There is no fine linework on them (as there is on the strip from the 30s)--all the halftones are some kind of letratone-style screen as opposed to hand-drawn hatching.


My theory (based on nothing, really) is that the creator of The Bungle Family, Harry Tuthill was getting older and his eyesight was getting bad. Tuthill was born in 1886 and had been drawing the strip since 1918. He may have used an assistant for the halftones. In any case, he seems to have drastically changed his approach to drawing the strip for some reason. And the strip ended in 1945.


So yesterday I went to the University of Houston library because they have a complete run of the Dallas Morning News on microfilm. I had been told that The Bungle Family ran in the Dallas Morning News, but it wasn't in any of the papers I looked up. Perhaps The Dallas Morning News dropped it before the late 1930s. And like Rice and the Houston Public Library, UH did not have any long runs of other cities' newspapers (except, annoyingly, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal--two newspapers without comics!).


So I throw it out to you, my readers. What I really want to do is find out what precise years these strips ran (Tuthill puts the day and month, but frustratingly leaves off the year), what papers carried The Bungle Family in the 1940s, and what these storylines were about. Any help would be appreciated!


Books Read over the Past Few Months The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes. When I picked up this doorstopper, I feared it would be an academic litany of sheer misery, important to read perhaps, but difficult. And yet I couldn't put it down for a week--it was so compelling. My feelings towards Stalin have always been ordinary--shock and condemnation. But reading this book actually made me hate him. It made his crimes so personal. Figes gives us a history of Stalinism told by its victims and its low-level collaborators (who were occasionally one and the same). We start with the first wave of arrests of class enemies under Lenin, but then the horror of the first five year plan, in which farms were collectivized and the "kulaks" were sent to the newly established gulag in huge numbers. Figes argues convincing that the famine that followed, which killed something like 6 million, was not intentional but the result of a serious miscalculation. He also argues that the gulags and slave labor projects were economic in nature. Indeed, the kulaks, who were portrayed as class enemies, "rich peasants," were simply numbers--each area had to arrest a certain quota of kulaks. In some villages, the kulaks to be arrested were chosen by lot. But in general, the kulaks were the hardest-working, most ambitious farmers--whose removal doomed the process of collectivization to failure. Their stories are the heart of the book, because the stain of "kulak" affected generations of Russians. The kulaks served their 7 year terms only to be rearrested in the Great Purge of 1937-39.
Figes shows how each purge, far from being arbitrary, had a certain perverse logic. The kulaks were arrested to become the slaves needed to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union (specifically to mine the metals and fell the timber needed from remote Arctic locations, where free labor would not go). The Great Purge came from Stalin's fear of German and Japanese fascism--he feared simultaneous invasion (and even fought the Japanese briefly in Mongolia). He felt that former Kulaks and national minorities like Poles, Finns, Volga Germans, and others, might side with the invaders. His purges of the "old bolsheviks" was purely to sweep away rivals and put his own men in. Only the purge of "rootless cosmopolitans" (Jews) and doctors made no sense--by that time, it was clear that Stalin was losing his mind, but that his minions still feared him too much to resist.
This book is told in a series of personal stories. Threading through the book are the complex stories of the Golovina family, "kulaks" who were not able to really shake the weight of Stalinism until the mid-1990s, and Konstantin Simonov, a great Soviet journalist, novelist and poet, who was implicated in the Stalinist ruling structure, but whose position was deeply ambiguous and changed over time. Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff. Canadian Liberal Party leader, regretful Iraq War supporter, and wishy-washy torture semi-apologist Michael Ignatieff is also a pretty good writer. His biography of Isaiah Berlin is readable and interesting. Berlin certainly seems to be a godfather for liberal interventionists like Ignatieff, even though Berlin was pretty ambiguous about Vietnam. Berlin was an interesting thinker, and his realization that Enlightment ideas of liberty had to be mixed with Romantic ideas about freedom in in order to get a really workable framework for a free society is quite interesting and something I want to follow up on. But his main battle--fighting Marxism--seems absurd today. I guess that's because he so decisively won. Ignatieff manages to make me want to read some of Berlin's work, but even more so, made me all the more interested in reading about Anna Akhmatova, whom Berlin sought out and had a moving encounter with just after World War II. (As you will see below, I did follow up on Akhmatova.) Berlin's influence on the liberal interventionists needs to be examined though. How do we progress from the humane Berlin to the war-mongering Ignatieff (and others)? To the Hermitage by Malcom Bradbury. Malcolm Bradbury is one of those English novelists who came to prominence in the early 60s, seems to have been involved in the academic scene, and became intrigued with post-structuralism, but in a very down-to-earth common-sense self-deprecating English way. This novel is really two novels in one. The contemporary novel has an English novelist/academic roped into something called The Diderot Project, which is primarily about a trip to Russia with other academics (and an opera singer and a few other misfits) to study the great Enlightenment philosophe. This part is very David Lodge-like, amusing but with an emotional core. The protagonist's meeting with Galina, the librarian from the Hermitage responsible for the papers of Voltaire and Diderot, is lengthy and memorable--the heart of this part of the novel. She is mistrustful at first and continually feels him out. But then they connect--this old librarian who was a misfit in Soviet times and a relic today, and this slightly younger English novelist. I wonder if Bradbury was deliberately trying to echo the famous meeting between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akmatova. The "other" novel is an account of Diderot's trip to Russia to serve in Catherine the Great's court. Bradbury imitates several of Diderot's own works in this part, and has Diderot going around and poking his nose into the operation of the Russian Empire (making everyone think he's a spy in the process), and meeting with Catherine, gently encouraging her to reform her kingdom. He fails, but later in Paris, he gives the papers to Thomas Jefferson as a potential model for the new American Republic. It's an interesting conceit. Both novels are good, but I don't know why Bradbury put them in one book really. The Best of LCD: The Art and Writings of WFMU. A pretty amazing collection of work from radio station WFMU, the college radio station that was so powerful, it survived when the college it was associated with, Upsala College, actually closed down! They published a magazine called LCD (it seems to have evolved into a blog, I believe) that was amazingly entertaining. The articles, on famous DJs of history, French covers of American pop hits, Rodd Keith, Jack Ruby, Doc Pomus, and many others are pretty excellent. But for alternative comics fans, the treat is that the thing is packed with strips and illustrations by the cream of 80s and 90s alternative comix. And unless you picked up every copy of LCD (a magazine that I only saw sporadically), you have probably not seen all of these pieces. For example, there is a strip by great 80s alternative cartoonist Michael Dougan (whatever happened to him?) about encountering Dizzy Gillespie at a Gap store, and doing a simultaneous headstand with the bebop legend. Can this have really happened? It seems too odd just to have been made up! Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes. Very informative and even moving. The first few chapters describe the various cultural streams that flow into Russian art--Europe and Saint Petersburg, Moscow and the old Russian soul, the peasants, the church and religious life, the east and the Turkic/Mongol heritage--in separate chapters. As such, these parts of the book are rather jumpy--you can be reading about Mussorgsky's last opera at one point and then read about his origins as a compser in a later chapter. Still it was interesting for me, someone who knows next to nothing about Russian history, to read about the Decembrists, the effect of the Napolean's invasion, the liberation of the serfs, the seeming alternation between good tsar and bad tsar, and the effects of all of these on Russian culture. Figes makes many provocative statements--for instance, he suggests that the alienation and almost total separation of the Euro-phile Saint Petersburg nobility and the new rich Moscow bourgeoisie, composed often of former serfs or the sons of serfs, made it impossible for a really vigorous bourgeoisie/ruling class to evolve, making it relatively easy for the Communists to take over.
The final two chapters on the Soviet Union and emigre culture are the most moving. Of course, it is hard not to be moved by the plight of artists under Stalin. Even though Lenin had no feeling for modern art, it flourished while he was alive, and amazing things were done. Perhaps because of this, the emigre artists were rather reactionary (aesthetically speaking) with a few exceptions--Stravinsky and Prokoviev and Nabokov, for example. But while Stravinsky and Prokoviev spoke a universal language, Nabokov was fundamentally forced to write in English to find a readership.
The stories of Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Shostakovich, Eisenstein, etc., are fairly well-known and well-related here, along with many other artists, writers, and composers who wrestled with Soviet restrictions. But Figes barely mentions more officially approved artists. For instance, Figes discusses how soldiers in World War II memorized poems by Akhmatova and Pasternak, but he doesn't mention one of the most popular poets of the war, Konstantin Simonov, whose poem "Wait For Me" was memorized by many many soldiers, and whose war correspondence and novels are highly regarded. Simonov, however, was an official writer who (at least initially) worshiped Stalin. It's hard for us to imagine anything good coming from a writer who willingly wears that straight-jacket, and that perhaps is why those sorts of writers and artists got so little mention. Figes seems to have thought better of it, devoting a substantial part of his next book, The Whisperers, to Simonov. Spy: The Funny Years by Kurt Anderson, Graydon Carter, and George Kalogerakis. The design was kind of odd--a disappointment after the innovative design of the actual magazine. It literally reproduces bits from the magazine (seriously, they look as if they were shot from the pages of the magazine). These are interspersed with a history of the magazine. It certainly says something about the 80s--a fabulous horrible decade. Spy's great innovation was to make humor factual. Instead of the parodies and satires of Mad and National Lampoon (as excellent as they often were), Spy was full of actual funny reportage. The sections on fact-checking and liability are pretty astonishing. They invented a style of humor that is now ubiquitous on the web. Websites like Gawker and Wonkette are simply electronic Spy. If you like this type of ridiculing of the rich, powerful, and famous, then you should definitely check out this book. (Of course, the biggest irony is that Graydon Carter, one of the two editors, went from slashing these people to ass-kissing as editor of Vanity Fair). Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova by Elaine Feinstein. A very interesting biography of the poet considered one of the best in Russia during the 20th century. Her career started prior to the revolution, and it didn't take long for her work to fall out of official favor. Her life is full of ups and (mostly) downs, although she avoids death during the Great Purge, the invasion of Russia, etc... She had many lovers, and as with Goethe, it probably helps to know which lover or ex to whom she is referring in her poems. Feinstein gives us a look at much of the literary scene in 20s and 30s Russia, where the top authors were all acquainted (lovers, enemies, rivals, friends, etc.) The Great Purge more or less ended that, but when writers and artists were evacuated to Tashkent during the war (for some reason, Stalin didn't want them killed by the Nazis--even writers he hated like Akhmatova), there was a brief recreation of the literary scene, incongruously in a distant windswept desert town. Then another spasm of terror from Stalin, then he died. Akhmatova's life in the late 50s and 60s, as her health declined, nonetheless improved. Her work began to be published again, she was allowed to travel abroad, she was given a modest dacha, younger poets flocked to her side, including Joseph Brodsky.
This book is relatively short and even handed. The author makes few judgments not backed up by mutli-sourced witnesses. So she will report many of the reported romances, but often warn the reader that the source may not be reliable. She is a humble biographer.
Akhmatova had a relationship with Modigliani around 1910. It's worth it to go to google images and type in the words "Akhmatova" "Modogliani" "nude" to see his astonishingly beautiful drawings of her, like this one:
Nude (Anna Akhmatova) by Amadeo Modigliani, 1911 Moonfall by Jack McDevitt. This is his worst, most shameless book. A good science fiction writer, this book seems like something written for Hollywood, in the Armageddon-Deep Impact mode, with shades of Independence Day mixed in. The whole thing is just a string of stupid cliches. The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God by Peter F. Hamilton. Pretty good. Space opera in the sense that there are all kinds of swashbuckling space-farers, and among the many political systems present are monarchies. But it is much more modern than that, and there has been an attempt (always important I think) to imagine the economics of the future. Obviously one has to imagine non-scientific things like faster-than-light travel. But the one science error that really irked me was the disappearance of a planet (in the distant past). My knowledge of celestial mechanics barely exists, but my understanding is that planets of certain masses have to occupy certain orbits or the system as a whole will become unstable. Even asteroid belts play a part--they exist in places where the tidal forces of nearby planets (like Jupiter) prevent planet formation, but their mass is still needed in that orbit for the system as a whole to remain stable. Or so I understand. So a planet that just disappears seems to violate this basic rule. Sorry, that bugged me. This book was too long as well--at times, I just wanted Hamilton to get on with it. All this said, it was pretty entertaining, which ultimately is what I require from this kind of book.

There are so many different story strands here that it can get a bit confusing. But only a bit--Hamilton keeps them pretty separate. Like much modern science fiction, Hamilton acknowledges economics in a relatively realistic, non-idealistic way. In the first volume, we saw how a company would value a colonized planet. Hamilton's implication was that there would be a positive NPV only if you projected the cash-flows out two centuries or so. In volume 2, the economic question is, how do you create a medium of exchange (a currency) between ordinary people and people who can create most things (but not food or high tech electronics) by magic? These are minor aspects of the series, but economic questions underlie the trilogy as a whole.

This enormous trilogy's conclusion is completely appropriate and satisfactory. This is one of those giant books where the sum is precisely equal to the parts. It is far too pulp to exceed the sum of its parts, but it's enjoyable enough. Again, economics underlies the conclusion--an explanation of the economy of Earth, and a big change that will suddenly change the economics of the 800-planet Confederation, leaving it much richer on the whole (along with the usual questions about what to do with those riches). Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957 - 1968 by Lars Nittve. A little too broad to be entirely useful as a portrait of the L.A. art scene of the early to mid 60s, it still is very interesting and features some of my favorite artists--Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin. In a way, this approach has advantages over shows that show the works of a school or style of art. In L.A., especially at that time, artists knew what other artists were doing--even if they fundamentally opposed it. So you get the grunge of Kienholz opposed to the angelic light of Irwin--it is powerful and interesting to know that these guys were colleagues who knew each other. The catalog is very well-produced, the essays have a minimum of artspeak, and the artwork is very well reproduced. Years of Friendship, 1944-1956: The Correspondence of Lyonel Feininger and Mark Tobey. It's quite interesting to learn that these two great, somewhat overlooked artists became good friends. Feininger definitely was one of those present are the dawn of modernism in Paris in the first decade fo the last century, and Tobey is generally lumped in with the abstract expressionists, who emerged in the 1940s. But they met in New York through a gallery where both exhibited and discovered they liked each other's work--and each other--very much. Tobey moved back to Seattle (he had a long relationship with the Cornish school there), and carried on a correspondence with Feininger and his wife, Julia, that lasted until Feininger died in 1956.
The problem with this book is the correspondence is not that fascinating. Feininger is a bit more playful than the serious Tobey, although some of the seems to rub off on Tobey eventually, especially as he attempts to practice his terrible French on Feininger in their letters. Tobey is a bit better at describing art and what he likes about a piece. Feininger is likely to agree with Tobey, although has less harsh opinions on artists he doesn't like than Tobey, who seems genuinely pained by bad work. You get a hint of Tobey's unbecoming jealously whenever a contemporary achieves success--he is vicious to fellow Seattle artist Morris Graves (whose work Feininger seems to like a lot) and to Jackson Pollock.
One thing that might have brought Tobey and Feininger together is that they were both so old compared to their artistic contemporaries. Tobey was born in 1890 (compare to Pollock in 1912, Philip Guston in 1913, Robert Motherwell in 1915, Franz Kline in 1910, Willem De Kooning in 1904). Feininger was born in 1871 (Picasso in 1881, Georges Braque in 1882, Andre Derain in 1880, Juan Gris in 1887, Fernand Leger in 1881--only Matisse was born at about the same time as Feininger). Tobey seemed so old that once he was mistaken for Feininger's father when they hanging out in Stockbridge, MA, where the Feiningers had a summer house (Feininger was a friend of Norman Rockwell, weirdly enough). That became a running joke with them.
While not much was revealed in their letters, they do add another layer to our knowledge of these two great artists.

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