Friday, August 28, 2009

When to Call the Cops and When Not to

No doubt readers have heard the mind-boggling, horrible story of the little girl who was kidnapped when she was 11, kept in a back-yard prison for 17 year, and bore her kidnapper two children, one when she was 14. Really the story is so strange, it's hard to wrap ones head around it. And it's so terrifying, I don't even really want to think about it. But this jumped out.
Neighbours and even some of his own family considered Garrido strange as he told them about his messages from God and kept the females at his house from contact with outsiders.

Erika Pratt, 25, who stayed next door two years ago, said she was "freaked out" by Garrido's behaviour, and when she popped her head over the fence she saw his secret compound. There were tents, sheds and pitbull terriers, she said, and water hoses leading from her house next door.

"He had little girls and women living in that backyard, and they all looked kind of the same," Pratt told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They never talked, and they kept to themselves."

Pratt said that people came and went from the property, but the core group consisted of two girls about four years old, one girl about 11, another girl about 15 and a young woman about 25. They were all blonde, she said.

Pratt said she had called Contra Costa County sheriff's deputies to investigate, but that officers "told me they couldn't go inside because they didn't have a warrant". (Mark Tran and David Batty, The Guardian, August 28, 2009).
So he had the girls living in a makeshift prison camp in his backyard. He wasn't off in the mountains or on some remote farm. He had neighbors, and Prattt, at least, knew there was something weird and maybe wrong. But the other neighbors seemed cool with the guy. For 18 years.

My gut reaction is that these neighbors were totally irresponsible. An unimaginably horrible crime was taking place right over their fences and they were willfully blind to it.

OK, let's go back one week.
[Bob Dylan] was stopped in July by police in Long Branch, New Jersey, who were responding to a call about a suspicious person roaming the neighborhood, police said.

According to Long Branch Police Department Sgt. Michael Ahart, Dylan had been peering into a window of a house that was for sale, which prompted a neighbor to call the police on July 23.
One of two responding officers, Officer Kristie Buble, 24, approached Dylan and asked him for his name.

"She recognized the name, she just really didn't believe it was Bob Dylan," Ahart told CNN. "He was soaking wet because it was raining and he was wearing a hood."

So Buble asked the musician for identification, but he had none.

Buble and her partner, Officer Derrick Meyers, 24, then asked Dylan, 68, to accompany them to where his tour buses were parked. Once they arrived, Dylan showed them identification. (Deborah Brunswick, CNN, August 14, 2009)
Now this story was played for laughs. Ha ha, young whippersnappers don't recognize aged rock legend! But when I read it, I was outraged. Why did Dylan have to show ID? When did it become a crime to walk down the street. Or look in the window of a house that was for sale? Some scaredy-cat neighbor calls the cops because they see someone they don't know walking along a public street. How many times do non-famous people get hassled by the police for the same "crime"?

But now that I look at the two stories together. At some point, you want the neighborhood busy-bodies to get involved. If more people had fingered Garrido, maybe that tragedy could have ended sooner. But at the same time, you don't want to have a police state with cops coming up as you are out for a stroll and asking for your papers, as if you were in the old Soviet Union. So the question is how to balance this, and if balance is possible.

But then I asked myself, what is different about these two cases (aside from the obvious)? Garrido was a neighbor--presumably a home-owner. The neighbors might not have known him that well, but they knew he was from their neighborhood, that he had a job and a house. Dylan was apparently seen as a stranger, someone not from the neighborhood, a possibly dangerous outsider.

So I think there might have been some primitive tribal feelings at work here. Garrido was an insider--an admittedly eccentric one, but a familiar face nonetheless. Thus we don't call the cops. We tolerate his eccentricities. Dylan was an outsider. Since neither the person who called the cops nor the cops themselves recognized him, the reaction is to protect the home turf from the outsider.

So because of the relative social positions of Garrido and Dylan within the two neighborhoods, the reactions were totally different--a tragic under-reaction for Garrido, and humorous (but unacceptable) over-reaction in the case of Dylan.


James Surls at Lawndale

Check it out at my other blog.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Never Forgetting Steven Hardin

Every now and then, I don't take the freeway home from work, but try to explore the many interesting neighborhoods between IAH (near where I work) and Memorial City (near where I live). If you go more-or-less straight south from my office, you end up on Gloger Street, and where the ends of Gloger and Mt. Houston meet, you see this sign.

gloger sign from the north

It looks the same from the back.

gloger sign from south

Then as you go down Hartley, you see the same basic sign affixed to a chain-link fence.

sign by house

This is apparently the home of William Hardin. And his son was indeed murdered by a firefighter named Barry Crawford.
In April, some of Crawford's neighbors in his Humble trailer park complained that he was hogging parking spots. He was warned that his truck would be towed, and on April 17, Steven Hardin tried to do that.
Crawford, a veteran Houston firefighter, left his house with a loaded rifle and tried to get Hardin to release his truck. He testified that he kicked Hardin in the face to try to get him to stop.

The confrontation escalated when Crawford pointed the weapon at Hardin. Witnesses said Hardin grabbed a nearby shovel, and Crawford shot him in the chest.
Crawford claimed self-defense. But the jury said it was murder, and prosecutor Kelly Siegler asked for a minimum 25-year sentence.
"Do you really think probation is punishment?" she asked the jury during the punishment phase of the trial. "Probation for a murderer like this is a joke."
But that's what the jury gave Crawford. (Stephanie A. Sin, Houston Chronicle, October 10, 1998) 
Ten years probation. The judge was Ted Poe (now a Republican Congressman), and he added additional conditions to the probation (which had been decided by the jury). Poe required Crawford to put flowers on Hardin's grave every year, and every year Crawford had to spend two days parading with a sign saying that he had murdered a fellow citizen. And most important, he had to pay $412 a month in restitution to Hardin's widow and children.
But in the case of the court-ordered restitution and child support, family members say more than $12,000 is owed to them that has not been paid. This family plans to go to court to try to get the matter settled. (13 Eyewitness News, Cynthia Cisneros, June 16, 2009)
Hardin's sister remembers her brother on a website dedicated to his memory.
I miss my brother very much!  He was my best friend and would call me several times a day just to chat.Oh, how I wish that when the phone rings, it could be Steven on the other end of the line. Just saying, Hey, T, what are you doing? Oh, what I would give to hear his voice just one more time!  To see his smile one last time! Just to hug him and say I LOVE YOU - ONE LAST TIME!
The idea of my car getting towed fills me with anger. I remember a comic by Scott Gilbert where he fantasized about burning his car rather than letting a tow-truck take it. I could relate. But we're civilized people. We don't kill someone because we're mad at him, mad at what he's doing. Crawford stepped outside the bounds of civilization and should have paid a heavier price.

Funny what you stumble across when you drive around Houston.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Foreign Oil Companies Investing in American Gas

It looks like the U.S.A. is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Or is it? Maybe the reason America seems to have so much more gas than anyone else is that we have developed our shale fields. Reserves only exist when you explore for them, and the more you explore, the potentially larger reserves can be. For example, Antarctica may have huge reserves or oil and gas, but there has been very little exploration so who knows for sure?

But I know exploration is happening in Europe. And European companies are teaming up with American independent gas producers.
A growing number of foreign energy companies eager to tap into America’s vast natural gas reserves is looking to invest in independent companies, while estimates of US supplies continue to increase.

BP and BG Group of the UK; StatoilHydro, the Norwegian energy company; and Eni, the Italian oil company, have all bought into the US gas industry in the past year to gain access to the US industry while tapping into the independent groups’ experience and technical expertise. (Sheila McNulty,, August 23, 2009) 

This is interesting, but I wonder if they are just buying joint-interest in some wells (and thus providing the financing the American companies can use, but leaving it up to the American companies to do all the work). Or are they in the field gaining experience? Will American companies do exploration in Europe?

One of the reasons this is interesting (and even urgent) is Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas. We have seen the problems with this. Furthermore, if it turns out that there is gas-bearing shale under Poland or Hungary or France, the pipeline infrastructure to get the gas to market already exists. (This is less the case in, say, Africa. And given the cost of producing shale gas, the lack of a well-developed infrastructure makes the hurdle rate that much higher.)

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Wilshire Village Scraped

Wilshire Village is officially no more.


Swamplot has really been the critical source of information about this crime against history and interesting architecture.


I am interested in what happens next. Certainly something new will be built there, but in today's economic environment, getting loans for development is hard. So it may sit for a while. But I will be watching and taking photos whenever I notice a change in status.

scraped 1

Here's what I hope. I hope that the new development there, whatever it is, is a reasonably high density development, like the one it replaces. I hope that the new development preserves the beautiful trees on the site.

trees 1

I hope the new development is people-oriented and community-oriented. I hope that it engages the street and is pedestrian-friendly. I hope that it is architecturally interesting. I hope it has no fake stucco, no faux-Tuscan features. I hope it has no turrets or oversized, penis-shaped entryways. I hope it doesn't have big garages that face the streets.

scraped 2

And I hope it is a well-built place. I hope it is built with care and built to last. I don't really have a lot of hope, though. The owner, Matt Dilick, hasn't demonstrated much in the way of vision or stewardship. After all, it appears possible that he used a dirty trick to evict the last of the residents--after years of neglecting Wilshire Village and letting it decay, when he needed to evict the last residents, the fire department condemns it as unfit for habitation. So who called the Fire Department right at that moment?

trees 2

One of Dilick's other project was Bayou on the Bend (a completely nonsensical place name). You can read some things tenants say about it here.


Given this, I hope Dilick flips the property. In any case, I'll be there with my camera.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

The Great God Pan is Dead

But as William Burroughs noted, he seems to be lurking behind much of the creative energy of the world, so maybe his is not so dead after all.

In honor of that creative energy, I initiate my art blog. This is a spin-off from my "anything goes" blog, Wha'Happen. I have copied all my art postings from the old blog to the new blog, and will continue cross-posting for a while. But eventually, Wha'Happen will be devoted to oil, finance, cycling, books, and whatever else tickles my fancy, while The Great God Pan Is Dead will handle all the art, with only occasional cross-postings.

The Great God Pan is Dead is growing out of my effort to educate myself about the Houston art scene. So if you are a Houston artist or gallerist, keep me in the loop.

(Cross-posted at The Great God Pan Is Dead)

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Design a New Cover for Lolita

Here's an interesting contest for all you literate artists and designers out there. The blog Venus febriculosa is having a contest to design a new cover for Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. There is even a cash prize! As far as I can tell, this blogger is just doing this out of a sense of disappointment with the covers this novel has gotten from publishers in the past. In particular, he writes,
I am disappointed, as interesting as the various depictions of Lolita are, by how very few correspond thematically to the novel. Nabokov’s work is masterful in its clarity and overflows with powerful and finely-wrought imagery and yet so few of the covers attempt to capture any of this richness, and many of them are merely absurd, or banal or a laughable combination of both.
I love this. A blogger hosting a very specific art contest, with a significant prize, just for the hell of it--damn, that appeals to me a lot!,%20Milano.jpg

This Italian edition comes from the site Covering Lolita. I suspect that if one wishes to win this competition, one should avoid imitating any of the 154 covers displayed there.

(Hat tip The Millions)

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Frenetic Fringe Fotos

I was contacted by choreographer Toni Leago Valle, who had three dances at last weekend's Fringe Festival. She knew one of the photographers present (Ted Viens), and has given me permission to post some of his photos from her dance pieces.

Silent Victim
Catalina Molnari in "Silent Victim"

I Take My Clothes Off
Mechelle Flemming in "Interview for a Date/I Take My Dress Off"

I Am Mother
Toni Leago Valle in "I Am Mother"

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pieced Together and the Tradition of Graffiti

I went to the opening of "Pieced Together" at the Aerosol Warfare Gallery, an exhibit of graffiti art by a variety of Texas artists. This show has been traveling around the country, and Aerosol Warfare is the final stop. Aerosol Warfare is a local gallery devoted to graffiti art and related items.

Aerosol Warfare exterior
exterior of Aerosol Warfare

Aerosol Warfare interior
interior of Aerosol Warfare

The pieces on display are small, essentially acrylic versions of the type of large-scale wall pieces that typify the artform.

Icons - Reks and Worms
"Icons" by Reks and Worms

Dmise - Extended release
"Extended Release" by Dmise

The opening was not just a passive viewing experience for gallery goers. They had a wall of tiny canvases where you could make your own micro-graffiti piece for $5; it was very popular with the kids (and their parents). They set up a computer-controlled projection system that allowed people to create large scale graffiti pieces projected onto the wall of a building across the street. And they had car-hoods on easels with local artists creating pieces on them.

Car Hood 4

car hood 3

car hood 2

Give Up car hood

Even notorious local poster artist Give Up did one. I asked if Give Up was present, but the publicity-shy artist apparently stayed away, lest someone snap his photo. (Someone even asked me if I was Give Up.)

There was an amazing display in the store.

Bode Display

Commemorative Puma sneakers in honor of the late, great Vaughn Bode. This shows that the proprietors of Aerosol Warfare have an awareness of history.

Graffiti art is essentially ephemeral. Illegally put up on walls and concrete barriers, they get rapidly painted over by property owners, city workers, highway departments, transit agencies, etc. This situation would seem inimical to the formation of a tradition. And yet, in pre-literate societies, traditions like this of impermanent artforms (performed music, spoken poetry) have lasted for centuries.

Sloke - Michelle
"Michelle" by Sloke

So who was Vaughn Bode and what does he have to do with graffiti? Was he a graffiti artist? Nope. He was a cartoonist whose style informed a lot of the early New York City graffiti artists.

Early writers not only imitated Bode's art style. They included many of his figures in their pieces--Cheech Wizard, the lizards, the "Bode broads", etc.

What were some other non-graffiti sources? I think the psychedelic rock posters of the 60s had their effect. I also think these artists were looking at the artists from Heavy Metal magazine (which started publication in the U.S. in 1977). Specifically artists like Caza and Druillet.

Supher - Supher
"Supher" by Supher

But these artists who were covering subway cars in NYC in the 1970s have no relationship to an artist like "News" from the Rio Grande Valley--except that a tradition has been established and spread across the U.S. and indeed all over the world.

News - Daily News
"Daily News" by News

This artform has been given a certain degree of respect from the fine arts world, analogous with its grudging embrace of comics art by the art world. Art critics respect its folkish traditions and seeming authenticity. But graffiti art has some problems as far as being a part of the art world. It's not a perfect fit. There is a basic truth about graffiti--it is a fundamentally adolescent artform. This is not to say its practitioners are teenagers (although many are), but graffiti, like so many adolescent activities, involves the thrill of petty crime. The colors and cartoonish origins also feel adolescent.

I am not trying to insult the art of graffiti. But I do wonder what it would mean to be an old graffiti artist. Maybe it would look something like this piece.

Spain - Paper in the Wind
"Paper in the Wind" by Spain

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dream Girl

I just finished reading The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. It's beautiful, and I recommend it highly. But I don't want to talk about Harvey Kurtzman, but rather this photograph.

Adele Kurtzman

That is Adele Kurtzman, Harvey's wife, from 1948.

I am in love.

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Frenetic Fringe Festival -- Weekend 2 Bullets

Last week I complained about the Fringe Festival not being quite "fringe" enough. This week was an improvement on that score, and over-all a more interesting and pleasurable evening. You can still see it tonight (Saturday, August 15) or tomorrow. Again to be brief, I'm going to use bullets.

There's a Tsunami at Your Door
  • A short play by Mary Ellen Whitworth.
  • A woman about to commit suicide is interrupted by a desperate cable salesman.
  • Similar to "Velocity" from last week it its use of a tragedy that happened in the past as the cause of what's happening now.
  • But it is a straight-forward narrative, not fractured like "Velocity."
  • The acting was slightly raw.
  • The play had funny moments despite its grim subject.
Dancing Diana
  • This struck me as fairly innovative.
  • Instead of a musical score, there were three short, personal stories by Diana Weeks.
  • They were recorded by her and played over loudspeakers.
  • She sat stage (she's an older woman, perhaps in her 60s or 70s) while the dancers danced.
  • The dancers "interpreted" her story through dance.
  • The connection was tenuous, but--
  • Both aspects--the story and the dance--were enjoyable.
  • It was like, say, riding your bike while listening to your Ipod. You get simultaneous pleasure from both activities.
Spelling Bee Sluts
  • A short play by Paul Locklear.
  • Slight, farcical story about a hillbilly who comes to L.A. to make it big on the spelling bee circuit.
  • He ends up working as a male prostitute.
  • A pretty minor piece of work, I'd have to say.
G.I. Joe PSAs
  • These were cartoon public service announcements from the 1980s, featuring the G.I. Joe characters telling kids about safety.
  • Eric Fensler has recorded new dialogue for them.
  • This had the potential to be funny but predictable.
  • But Fensler's dialogue (often sounds or made-up foreign languages) was absurd and bizarre.
  • It wass still really funny--but not in an easy or obvious way.
Thurmond, W. Va.
  • A documentary by Laura Harrison about a soon-to-be ghost town.
  • 18 people still live there.
  • The National Park Service has bought out most of the folks in town. The intent is to turn this coal mining town into a park along the lines of Mystic Seaport.
  • It felt like a typical documentary, one that had neither the power of the old-school documentaries of, say, the Maysles brothers.
  • Nor did it use the innovations of Errol Morris or Michael Moore.
  • Not that it was bad, just not all that exciting...
Three dance pieces choreographed by Toni Leago Valle
  • These were the best things I saw all night, indeed the best out of both nights.
  • Three solo dances, three solo dancers. They were highly controlled athletes, but each with a kind of way about her that marked them as artists.
"Silent Victim"
  • Catalina Molnari is stranded on unsteady looking rectangular boxes. She barely moves as she grips them and attempts to balance.
"Interview for a Date/I Take My Clothes Off"
  • Mechelle Fleming is the dancer in this strangely sexual piece.
  • In the first part, there is a film of a girl (Valle) being questioned, job-interview style, about why she would be a good girlfriend for the unseen male interviewer.
  • The interview itself is forced and calculating, dealing with the value she brings to him as a girlfriend. She is desperate.
  • When the interview seems to go wrong, she remembers something.
  • She tells him, "Oh, I forgot! I'm good at sex!"
  • The whole time, Fleming is sitting on a chair, facing away from the audience.
  • She twitches and makes small moves, as if she is constrained and ready to move.
  • The movie ends and she starts dancing.
  • Her dance struck me as almost tortured. I can hardly describe it in a way that makes sense.
  • She seem struck by things outside herself, while engaging with a negotiation with herself.
  • She seemed buffeted, struck by forces.
  • (But, it should be said, it was clear she was fully in control as a dancer.)
  • Finally, she took off her dress.
  • And it ended with her standing there in her underwear.
  • It it appropriate to mention that she is an astonishingly beautiful woman?
  • I regret not having photos of the Fringe Festival, especially for the three dances that Valle choreographed.
"I Am Mother"
  • The dancer was Valle.
  • Her skin was covered with white, pasty makeup except for her eyes, which were kind of a red racoon mask.
  • The dance was done seated, under a soft, dim red spotlight.
  • Weirdly enough, I was reminded of the installation by Carlos Runcie-Tanaka called "Tiempo Detenido/No Olvidar." The atmosphere was similar.
  • Her movements were constrained by her seated posture.
  • But the effect was nonetheless electrifying.
I haven't seen enough dance to have a vocabulary to describe what I was seeing. But Toni Leago Valle's three dance pieces were undeniably moving; thrilling even.

General vibe.
  • I sat under a fan, so the lack of AC wasn't too horrible.
  • They have us fill out an audience poll that includes demographic info.
  • Apparently collecting this info will help them get grants.
  • With which they can, say, buy central air-conditioning.
  • The seats at Frenetic are only slightly more comfortable than airline seats.
  • It seems like a lot of folks are there just to see their friends or family's performance.
  • Consequently, a lot of people leave at the intermission.
  • Maybe it's not so bad on Saturday and Sunday.
  • But one would certainly wish for more support from people who have no personal connection with the performers.
  • (Of course, I could be wrong about the audience...)
  • I wish I could photograph some of the performances and put them up here.
  • That said, there were two photographers with serious-looking photo set-ups in the audience.
  • So perhaps if you search the web, you can find some images.
I thought the show was well-worth the modest ticket price, so catch it tonight or tomorrow if you can.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

More Photos of the Reckless Robber

Hero to cyclists (i.e., CRIMINALS) everywhere!

Oh, and awesome fanny-pack, fella!

(Swiped from B.S. Houston Art Blog.)

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Bad Bicyclist

Recently I have been blogged about crimes against bicyclists (here, here, and here). But maybe I was too hasty! Maybe bicyclists deserve what they get and more because of their own criminal nature. Indeed, if you read the reader comments of the stories linked to above, you will find numerous examples of bicyclist lawlessness being used to excuse crimes against bicyclists.

Up to now, I have pooh-poohed their concerns. After all, the fact that cyclists sometimes don't stop at stop signs hardly seems to justify killing them. But check this out (reported by the Chron's master of weird crimes, Dale Lezon):
A man who is suspected in more than a dozen armed bank robberies in the Houston area struck again this week, riding a bicycle to get away and brandishing a pistol as he demanded money from tellers at a bank in Kingwood.

The man, who has been dubbed the "Reckless Robber" because of the way he waves his gun wildly, most recently hit the Wells Fargo branch at 1910 West Lake Houston Parkway about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, federal officials said.

He is suspected in 13 other bank heists dating back to Oct. 8 according to the FBI.

I think this proves the criminality of bicyclists, which in turn certainly justifies running them down with cars or shooting them. I condemn the "reckless robber," but at the same time, I want to commend him.

The Reckless Robber

He wore a white T-shirt with dark colored sleeves, dark shorts, a dark-colored bicycle helmet, bicycle gloves, and dark sunglasses.
Bike safety is an important lesson to impart to our children, and it is encouraging to see that even violent criminals are doing their part to get the message across. Reckless Robber, on behalf of the children of America, I thank you.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Art of the Offshore Oil Platform

For some reason, the offshore oil rig has never (to my knowledge) been a popular subject for painters. Obviously, their remoteness is a reason--hard to paint what you can't see. And they have bad associations with many people, particularly sensitive artistic types. Plus, I think folks generally (and wrongly in my opinion) think of them as ugly.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this spooky image:
"Longfall," mixed media, Brook Salzwedel

This was reproduced on the L.A. Times art blog, Culture Monster. I went to artist Brook Salzwedel's site and found this image:
"Unphased," graphite, tape and resin, Brook Salzwedel, 2006

Like it. Perfect art for oilmen!

(Hat tip Art Market Monitor.)

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Rice is #1!

In "quality of life" as ranked by the Princeton Review.
The Houston school ranks No. 1 nationally in the newly released edition of ‘The Best 371 Colleges.” (Houston Business Journal)

The rankings for quality of life are based on students’ assessment of food on and off-campus [...]

(The "serveries" are a great improvement over the barely edible food when I was an undergrad, to be sure.)

[...] dorm comfort [...]
(What the fuck? The "new" dorms must be a huge improvement over the old once for this to be true.)
[...] campus beauty, ease of getting around campus, relationship with the local community [...]
(What relationship?)
[...] campus safety, the surrounding area, interaction between students, friendliness and happiness of the student body and smoothness with which the school is administered.
(Oh, they're smooth all right!)

Actually, I have no clue what campus life is like now, so I shouldn't be so snarky (except that I am required to do so by the terms of my Blogger license). Certainly if they had asked students who lived in the old Weiss College where I lived, they wouldn't have gotten such a positive response. But the old Weiss College was torn down in 1872 so who cares?

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Frenetic Fringe Festival Week 1 bullets

Friday night I attended day one of the Frenetic Fringe Festival at the Frenetic Theater out on Navigation. This was the first night of a month-long series that combines theater, dance, and film/video pieces. My expectations were for some really avant garde stuff. But what counts as avant garde today, after a 20th century full of it? I imagined the theater would be Samuel Beckett or Charles Ludlam-type things, or maybe pieces related to modern performance art, or Antonin Artaud-Alfred Jarry-like provocations. For the film, I imagined Bruce Conner-like assemblages, Stan Brackhage-ish abstraction, or even Andy Warhol-esque minimalism. And I know nothing about dance, so I didn't have much in the way of expectations there--or so I thought.

The Festival was not as radical (so far) as what I expected. The pieces were all pretty approachable. I was hoping to be challenged a bit more.

Nearing Velocity
  • A short play by Liz Gilbert.
  • In fragments, we see all the people who were involved in a car accident at Richmond and Montrose.
  • One driver Mallory is now paralyzed, a man, Boyd [sic], in the other car paralyzed with guilt.
  • It was a strong opener, with good actors and a play that unfolded in an interesting way.
  • I now realize that they bookended the opening night of festival with their two best pieces (of the night).
  • It might be my old age, but I sometimes had to strain to hear what the cast members were saying.
Beyond the Sphere
  • Three women dancing.
  • Supposedly about life after death. Music combined with a tape of someone relating a after death experience.
  • I have a preconceived notion that all dancers are perfect physical specimens, strong but elegant and beautiful women.
  • (See Olga Khokhlova and Lydia Lopokova of the Ballets Russes, for example.)
  • But one of these women was a bit on the chunky side.
  • People in glass houses should not throw stones, yet this slightly disturbed me!
  • The piece was long (it seemed) and by the end, I was in a pleasantly hypnotic state.
  • Despite having not understood it at all.
Nevel Is the Devil
  • This short film was mildly amusing, but not particularly "fringe."
  • Office Space was a better movie on a similar theme.
Bruna Bunny and Baby Girl
  • The second play of the evening had a tepidly surreal premise.
  • A former circus performer's 12-year-old daughter has hair on her chest.
  • The girl, Baby Girl, was actually played by a little girl, who did a hell of a job.
  • But the play's point was lost on me--it seemed silly without being all that entertaining.
Access Pending
  • This dance piece seemed a little more what I would expect from a dance piece than "Beyond the Sphere."
  • At least, so it seemed to my dance-virgin eyes.
  • I was impressed but the dancer's skills, but not particularly engaged by them.
  • But again, maybe that's just me.
  • I don't know what to look for really.
Kuliman mixes YouTube--ThruYou
  • This was a rather astonishing piece of appropriation.
  • Kuliman took bits and pieces of solo music uploaded to YouTube.
  • (Often these were music lessons, sometimes they were musicians showing off some of their skills.)
  • Out of all these disparate bits of music, he created coherent, multi-instrumental songs.
  • The lyrics were often based on spoken-word YouTube videos auto-tuned.
  • I recall Thomas McEvilley discussing Hellenistic poetry that consisted of appropriating different poets lines into a single poem.
  • McEvilley was making the point that post-modernism's practices of appropriation was an ancient practice.
  • But this piece reminded me very specifically of those ancient Greek poems.
  • The skill shown in finding and mixing these fragments is astonishing.
  • But the results, while perfectly good, are not great.
  • This is a complaint that can be made about much OuLiPo-style art.
  • i.e., art that puts a really complex, limiting constraint on the artist with the intent of fostering new, creative ways of making art.
  • It's amazing, for example, that A Void was written at all.
  • The fact that it is also a great novel is a fucking miracle.
  • Kuliman's mixtures are totally listenable--but won't stick in my mind.
So the Fringe Festival's first night was a mixed bag. I would have been surprised if it hadn't been. I will be there for the subsequent shows. My hope is that someone in Houston will amaze me.

(There is an art show along-side the Fringe Festival. The artworks are for sale. Stephanie Toppin, for some insane reason, is selling her drawings for $25 apiece. I personally think this is a bargain. I encourage anyone who liked her work at Diverse Works and Box 13 to pick up a drawing or four, before Toppin comes to her senses.) (Toppin, not "Tobbin"--corrected now.)

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Upside to Obesity
George Vera--Man With the Hidden Gun

Two weeks ago, I went on weight watchers. Being overweight is unhealthy, unsexy, and forces a fellow to shop at big-and-tall stores with terrible yet overpriced clothes. So wish me luck.

That said, being fat can have its advantages.
An obese Harris County jail inmate turned over a pistol that had been hidden in the folds of his skin after he went through at least five searches upon his arrest and was booked into two different local lockups, authorities said. George Vera, 25, is charged with possession of a firearm in a correctional facility. [...] The Houston Police Department, which operates the city jail, and the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which operates the county jail, are investigating. [...]

A spokesman for the Houston Police Department, Kese Smith, said that procedures call for a suspect to be searched upon arrest, twice at the city jail and once more upon his transfer. He said there's no special provision regarding obese people, but officers are trained to thoroughly search suspects.

Vera, who is 5-foot-10 and weighs more 500 pounds, was arrested by Houston police and booked into the city jail Sunday on suspicion of bootlegging compact disc recordings, said Donna Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

By Monday, Vera was transferred to the county jail, where he was searched at least once. While he was in the shower that day, he told a guard that he had weapon on him.

Garza said officers found a 9-millimeter handgun beneath folds of his skin. The gun was not loaded and it was unclear whether bullets were found. (Dale Lezon, The Houston Chronicle)

This story begs all kinds of questions--some I don't even want to ask. But here's one--don't the prisoners go through metal detectors? And if so, isn't there something inadequate about a metal detector that can't detect a gun hidden under a guy's, um, folds? Just wondering.

(Dale Lezon gets the most awesome stories at The Chronicle. I hope he's saving them up so he can write the truly demented crime novel that Houston deserves.)

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Frenetic Fringe Festival Starts Tomorrow

I plan to be there for it and possibly to blog it, in my ongoing project of educating myself about the Houston art scene. The Frenetic Fringe Festival runs every weekend for the rest of August. If you miss the program tomorrow, you can see the same program Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to the the theater, dance and film presentations, there will be an art exhibit. Among the artists is Stephanie Tobbin, who I have blogged about here and here. Here's one of the drawings she will be showing.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Hot Houston Days

Ah, the halcyon days of summer...
Houston police have arrested and charged a man in the ax-slaying of his roommate.
Robert Fulton Burns, 42, is charged with murdering a man identified by relatives as Lewis Mack Holiday, 41, at his home in the 5800 block of Hirondel in southeast Houston on Sunday night. (Dale Lezon, The Houston Chronicle)
...When we sit in the sultry shade sipping tall cool drinks...
A man was killed by another man wielding a machete or a large knife Tuesday night just north of downtown.
The slaying happened about 9 p.m. in the 2800 block of Lorraine at Jensen. (Dale Lezon, The Houston Chronicle)
...Reading Dale Lezon's pithy accounts of life in our fair city.

Robert Fulton Burns, man about town

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Art and the Death of a Cat

This is maybe the weirdest and yet most moving blog post I have read in a long time. Houston artblogger B.S. Houston writes about the death of his cat, Pumpkin.

Read it.

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Don't Throw Bottles at Bicyclists in Colorado

To follow up on an earlier post, Colorado has passed a law making it a crime for motorists to throw stuff at bicyclists. Wait, surely that was already a crime, right? No apparently it was only a crime if the motorist connected. As long as he missed, it was perfectly legal.

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Do Index Funds Contribute to the Mispricing of Securities?

In my post on The Myth of the Rational Market, I mention one of the principle authors of the efficient market hypothesis, Eugene Fama. If people are interested in his research (conducted with his colleague Kenneth French), they have a blog which is not frequently updated and has the unique (and appealing) form of a Q&A. The have a straightforward way of answering the questions, with Fama usually being very blunt and French occasionally filling in the details. I mention it because today they have an interesting question with a slightly misleading answer.
Index funds buy stocks "blind" without regard to company fundamentals. Do their activities contribute to mispricing of securities?

: Index funds typically buy cap-weighted portfolios so they do not contribute to mispricing.

KRF: We analyze a general version of this question in "Disagreement, Tastes, and Asset Pricing" (Journal of Financial Economics, 2007). Suppose index fund investors hold a passive market portfolio. Then from a pricing perspective they are sitting on the sideline. They are not overweighting or underweighting any securities, so they do not affect (relative) prices. As a result, it is hard to argue that they contribute to mispricing.
You can see the problem here. Fama and French are operating in a totally theoretical world where index fund investors invest in the "market index." The market index is a market-cap-weighted fund of all tradable securities (or at least all tradable equities). But no fund like that exists. Instead, you have funds for the S&P 500, the DJI, the Wilshire 5000, the FTSE 100, the Russell 2000, etc. So index fund holders are deciding (passively) to own one group of stocks instead of all other stocks based on an somewhat arbitrary reason (the market cap, the location of the exchange, etc.). This seems likely to cause some mispricing--at least in the real world.


Monday, August 03, 2009

Quote of the Day

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
--Upton Sinclair

I was trying to think of this quote when I was writing my review of The Myth of the Rational Market. It's one of my favorites.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Father of Killer of Cyclists Opposed Cycle Safety Bill
memorial to a cyclist killed by a hit-and-run driver in Contra Costa County, CA

Remember when I wrote of the fear I have of drivers who seem to hate bicyclists? Who seem to resent that we share the road with them? Here is a sterling example of this freakishly common sort of sociopath.
The father of a driver accused of killing two bicyclists last summer recently urged Gov. Rick Perry to veto a bill that generally would have required motorists to give vulnerable road users more space when passing them.

Cyclists believe it was in poor taste for Kenneth Bain to take a position. So do family members of Meredith Hatch, who was killed instantly when Bain's son hit her and another biker after a late-night party, according to police reports.

Perry vetoed SB 488, the so-called “safe passing” bill, six weeks ago. The bill would have required motorists to give cyclists and other vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, runners, motorcyclists, construction and maintenance workers at least 3 feet clearance when they pass, or at least 6 feet for commercial vehicles. [Gary Scharrer, The Houston Chronicle, hat tip Scott Gilbert.]

Bike hatred appears to be genetic. Bonus!

In an e-mail message to the governor, Bain, a certified public accountant and former Duncanville City Council member, urged Perry to veto the bill. Bain's position: “Roads are for vehicles, not slow bikes.”

“You will have radical bikers taking license numbers of cars and reporting them because they thought they passed too close,” he wrote in the e-mail that was recently released as part of a public information request. “Let the bill die.”

And let cyclist die. Or just kill them, like junior did.

I don't know who is sicker--the cyclist-murdering son, the cyclist-hating dad, or Rick Perry.

(Read the article's comments for more cyclist hatred.)

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The Myth of the Rational Market
Justin Fox is an economics reporter for Time magazine, and he is the main contributor to The Curious Capitalist blog, which is one I read a lot. So I was excited when he announced that he was coming out with a book called The Myth of the Rational Market, which, I gathered, was an attack on the efficient market hypothesis. I just finished it, and I have to say it wasn't what I expected. Instead of marshaling the evidence for and against the theory, what Fox has written is a history of how the EMH arose in the 50s and 60s, how it caught on first in academia then on Wall Street, the over-reach of the hypothesis, and how researchers and practitioners started finding flaws in the theory in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

I specialized in finance when I got my MBA. I finished it in 2008. My finance professors were EMH partisans--or at least they presented themselves that way in class. In any case, our core learning was around basic EMH ideas--Modigliani-Miller, portfolio theory, Black-Scholes, CAPM, beta, etc. In my real estate finance class, we learned practical rules of thumb rather than theory, in my risk class, we were taught that risk controls had limits, and in Futures & Options 2, we learned about implied volatility and volatility smiles. But those were the only cracks in my EMH education. One professor (I won't say who) specifically defended EMH by contrasting it to chartism or technical analysis.

The arguments in favor of EMH versus chartism are profound and irrefutable, but chartism is, of course, a straw man. It's like arguing that Newtonian mechanics is the last word in physics by comparing it to Aristotelian and Ptolemian physics.

In any case, even though I was pretty dazzled by the logical arguments of the various parts of EMH, I had one nagging doubt. The idea that the best portfolio was a combination of debt and a market-weighted portfolio of the entire market made logical sense. But then, I thought, why would anyone trade stocks? Why wouldn't everyone just invest in index funds? And if everyone did invest in index funds, how would prices be determined? Where would the market be made?

These nagging questions, plus questions about risk and about the instability of volatility (we learned about GARCH in my risk class) encouraged me to look beyond EMH, which almost invariably leads one to behavioral finance. Essentially, Fox's book is about how theorists and researchers made that particular journey. What he doesn't do is try very hard to explain what the theories were. If you haven't studied finance, I wonder what you will make of this book. For example, in discussing Modigliani-Miller, he tells us that they theorized that capital structure doesn't matter for a corporation. But he doesn't explain what capital structure is (how much of the company is funded with equity, and how much with debt), or that they were talking about capital structure in a kind of idealized world in which income taxes and bankruptcy didn't exist. He certainly doesn't burden his readers with any math, and typically gives only the most basic description of each theory or advance. Partly this is because he has a lot of material to cover, and to do so, he made a decision to concentrate on the people, not the theories. If he explained each theory, even in a non-mathematical way, the book would have been three times as long. Fox is great at portraying the arrogance of the EMH theorists. He digs up some choice quotes.
One must realize that these analysts are extremely well endowed [sic]. Moreover, the operate in the securities markets every day and have wide-ranging contacts and associations in both the business and the financial communities. Thus, the fact that they are apparently unable to forecast returns accurately enough to recover their research and transactions costs is a striking piece of evidence in favor of the strong form of the [efficient market] hypothesis.
This was said by Michael Jensen, who invented "alpha." (Perhaps this was the source of the phrase "big swinging dick"!)

But he is also good at how EMH was slowly built up, and how logical it seemed, especially in contrast to what had happened in the past.

But researchers started finding exceptions to the rule. After Robert Shiller discovered that stocks were way more volatile than dividends, he was willing to declare that EMH had made a huge logical error.
The leap from observing that it is hard to predict stock price movements to concluding that those prices must therefore be right was, he declared at a conference in 1984, "one of the most remarkable errors in the history of economic thought."
Even the intellectual author of the EMH, Eugene Fama (father of cartoonist/political blogger Gene Fama) came to realize that CAPM wasn't enough, and worked hard to come up with an alternate theory (CAPM was a linear regression with one beta--specifically Beta, the measure of the volatility of a stock with respect to the market as a whole; his new model added additional betas, or factors as he called them).

One of the problems researchers started noticing is that many of the ideas built out of EMH only work if a small number of investors were doing them. This was the thing that worried me back in my first finance class. What happens if you have a bunch of S&P 500 index funds? It means that when a stock enters the S&P 500, it gets a huge boost in stock price. How is that kind of thing consistent with EMH? This kind of thing gets to the core of criticism of EMH--how can prices be rational if everyone jumps on the same bandwagon? How can prices be "right" in a bubble? Why don't bargain-seeking arbitrageurs prevent bubbles?
It was precisely when the market was at its craziest, [Andrei] Shleifer and [Robert] Vishny argued, that those who try to end the craziness by placing bets against it would have the hardest time keeping their customers or borrowing money. "When arbitrage requires capital, arbitrageurs can become the most constrained when they have the best opportunities, i.e., when the mispricing they have bet against gets worst," they wrote. "Moreover, the fear of this scenario would make them more cautious when they put on their initial trades, and hence less effective in bringing market efficiency."
This kind of thing--even though it was empirically observable--was starting to sound suspiciously like psychology rather than the actions of rationally self-interested markets!

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is about the rise of EMH, and it's the best part. The slow build-up of the theory is a clear story--perhaps because handsight makes it easier to form the story. But also, the EMH is a fairly unified idea, which makes the progress in building it more unified.

The second half, covering more recent events, is more scattered. Not enough time has passed for a narrative of "anti-EMH" to really gel. Also, there is not an alternate theory to EMH, just a bunch of critiques. Behavioral finance is a collection of theories and experiments and observations that don't exactly gel the way EMH did. Nonetheless, it seems that no serious financial economist can believe that EMH accurately describes the market. Nonetheless, we still have pundits and politicians who believe markets are, essentially, perfect--despite the evidence in front of their eyes. Fox references Thomas Kuhn, and what we are seeing here is a paradigm shift. There are a lot of people who won't let go of the old belief because 1) it worked pretty well, and 2) their salary depends on them believing it. It will take time.

This book is well-worth a read, but only in conjunction with learning more detail about EMH and behavorial finance, either in classes or through some of the other excellent books available about modern financial theories.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

NPR Utters the Word Torture

I forgot to blog about this when I heard it, but as I was driving to work Thursday morning, I was flabbergasted to hear NPR Morning Edition refer to the treatment of a Guantanamo Bay detainee as torture.
A federal judge hears arguments later today on whether a young Guantanamo Bay detainee will go home to Afghanistan or face prosecution in the united states. The detainee was accused of injuring Americans by throwing a grenade in Afganistan seven years ago. NPR's Ari Schapiro reports:

There have been many twists and turns in the story of Mohammad Jawad. He may have been as young as 12 when Americans picked him up in 2002. He confessed under torture, and a court later threw out those statements. [...] (Transcribed from the NPR website.)
Previously, NPR had been reluctant to call things like hanging guys from the ceiling by the wrists for days at a time, waterboarding, etc., torture. Once while I was listening to NPR, the reporter went through so many infelicitous and deceptive verbal gymnastics to avoid saying the word "torture" in reference to actual torture that I wrote them an angry letter--something I very rarely do. Their politically-cowardly reticence has been a big issue. See here, here, here, and here.

So I am pleasantly surprised to hear them, in this case, bluntly call a spade a spade.