Friday, November 6, 2009

Connecting the dots; counting the beans

One of the ugly things that precipitated the current financial mess involved large financial institutions holding assets that turned out to be a lot less valuable than they wanted them to be when they had to state what stuff they held was worth against what they were obliged to pay out. Specifically big finance found itself holding a lot of paper last year that should by rights be worth billions, but turned out to be illiquid in the skeptical market that followed the credit meltdown. So a bank with a buttload of collateralized mortgage obligations in its portfolio that they valued at a buttload of bucks had to let the world know every once and a while that their buttloads were basically half assed. Or worse. This made them less able to borrow money themselves and so they began to contract. Stating the market value of their holdings was integral to the current meltdown because a lot of their holdings were considerably less valuable than they'd thought. But the rules said they had to tell the truth.

I've blogged about this before -- over a year ago, in fact -- but some bad ideas just won't go away. Now the money boys want to put the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the folks charged with setting standards for honesty in accounting, under an oversight committee that will have leeway in calling for honesty in assessing the value of "distressed" holding during times of extraordinary financial conditions. There's to be normal honesty and another -- abnormal -- sort of honesty, when conditions mandate.

Last night at a gallery in Dallas, I spoke with a woman who, informed that the painting we were admiring was on sale for $95,000, asked why it cost so much. My answer was that was what the market would bear. It is worth what can reasonably be expected, given prior sales and the condition of the market so far as the artist and his dealer can assess it. Under those conditions, the painting was offered at that price.

Will it sell? Hell, I don't know. I own a six-year-old car. It is available for a price. If I set the price too high, it won't sell. Price it low enough, however, and I make a sale. Will that painting sell? It will if $95K is the right price.

The same is true for a CMO. Its value is what you can sell it for. A financial institution with illiquid assets on its books can not arbitrarily assess the value of its holdings apart from what they will sell for. What does it cost to buy it? Well, that's what it is worth. This is what is called mark-to-market accounting.

And yet it would appear there are arguments for another valuation system -- one based on the wishful thinking of bankers, not their much loved market. There is a move underfoot to move FASB into another realm, a realm devoted to loosening standards of valuation when "systemic risk" is abroad in the land and children are routinely devoured by wild things. The story is discussed here.

Meanwhile, check this:

(Image from Ritholtz)

The people of our nation are not working. This is because of a financial crisis. The crisis was caused by inadequately comprehending the values of assorted financial instruments and consequent recklessness in trading them.

Two thirds of all the economic activity in America is consumer spending. Jobless folks are way less likely to spend than their employed counterparts. And even employed folks who fear unemployment are less likely to buy stuff.

Loosen accounting rules? Sure. That's a great idea.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dallas gallery hopping

I prowled the scene this afternoon. Here's what I saw and thought.

At Barry Whistler Gallery, Lawrence Lee is still up and shining with some of the most elegant lines I've gazed upon since I first got acquainted with Fragonard's tree drawings back in the days of Bush I. Lee mines old racist depictions of African Americans and his supple imagination to produce some truly witty narrative-based graphite and ink and tea and who knows what drawings of crazy-assed tall tales that probably make sense only to him. So why tell the stories? Because they look great. And there's always that astonishing line of his.

The image above is from Lee's show at the now-defunct Clementine Gallery in Chelsea a couple of years ago. He's getting better.

Road Agent may or may not be defunct also. It still has the "Installation in Progress" sign on the door from last month. As I understand it, gallery owner Christina Rees has accepted a position as director at TCU's off-campus exhibition space over in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth 1, Dallas 0.

Dunn and Brown is offering Dale Chihuly glass stuff to discerning folks in the Metroplex. Why? I don't know. Maybe the bills are coming due. Still they had a kickass small group show in their "project" space with works by Trenton Hancock (whom I love and not just because he once speculated that everybody's soul looks like a pre-teen Caucasian girl), Jeff Elrod, Erick Swinson, Vernon Fisher, etc.

Swinson's savagely trompe l'oeil sculptures of a pre-hominid creature and a stag shaking off the bleeding"velvet" from its new antlers take the Halloween prize for amazingness and craft.

Down in the Design district, Conduit offered Michael Tole and Joe Mancuso. Too many flowers on one picture plane (yes, that's the point) and painstaking renderings of Chinese decor. Cool, but why? I can't say. Somebody tell me.

I tried to see the new stuff by Dornith Doherty at Holly Johnson, but the place was temporarily shut when I dropped by. Should have called first, I guess.

Over at Marty Walker, I caught a sneak peek of William Lamson's new work, and it was a pleasure. Building on his videos from last year, he set up several ad hoc machines designed to use wind and waves to make drawings during his recent tour of South America. The Chilean coast wave works were delicate and appropriately atmospheric. Others were bolder and more aggressively "expressionistic." Whatever that might mean when a kite is doing the expressing.


Above: William Lamson, Kite Drawing Jan. 31, 2009. 740-915 PM. Colonia Valdense, Uruguay.

The Goss Michael Foundation offered a small Mark Quinn survey. He's the dude who cast his own head in his own blood. If he makes it, he means it. Got it?

Quinn's Mother and Child (Alison and Parys), 2008, a marble sculpture of a nude woman and her baby, was an extraordinary thing to behold. Handsome and at peace with her body, Alison was born without arms and with improperly formed legs. Gallery literature quotes him as saying "She's very beautiful, she just looks different."


He's right.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A food show

My piece is up and running at Project Gallery in Wichita, and I'm quite satisfied with it. Here's a quick, down-and-dirty edit of some installation shots.

video

The opening was Friday night. Saturday, the gallery organized a potluck dinner. Everybody brought something to share. My wife and I brought some homemade, locally sourced food: home cured bacon, home cured pastrami, a salad of purple hull peas we grew in the community garden, some home canned okra pickles, and some home canned pickled watermelon rind.

I fried the bacon for about the first half hour of the event, feeling a little bit like Rirkrit Tiravanija, but sillier and more bacon-y.

It was a lovely weekend.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cow Hill tonight

(Image from Keri Oldham's Web site)

I'm just back in from the front porch, the coyotes are howling out on the prairie and the street out front is damp. It shines under the lamps.

Last night we attended an opening for Peter Barrickman and Keri Oldham at Centraltrak in Dallas. Keri used to be a gallery manager at the now defunct And/Or Gallery. I reviewed a show they had last spring. Keri's watercolors are endearingly creepy, a blend of fashion illustration and automatic drawing where somatotype and psyche meet on an uncomfortable picture plane.

Barrickman's work is all over the map, but the fractured and squashed pictorial space of a landscape and idiosyncratic expression would seem to be his interest. Not surprisingly, collage enters into the mix often. Collage can do that to space.

At present, I'm imagining a review of Amy Blakemore's show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The magazine's deadline is Tuesday, and it's not yet written. Tonight I'm thinking of remembering the times I was disabused of comforting, but false, notions of how the world is. Amy's pictures are like that. Hard as stone and sweetly, achingly melancholy. Here's a beautiful picture. You loved him. He's dead. But still you love him. Let this picture's beauty comfort your loss. It's not love, but beauty is at least something.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Houston trip -- two kinds of strangeness


My wife and drove to Houston last weekend to see the Amy Blakemore show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and to spend a little time away from this tiny town.

Blakemore's photos are powerful evocations of disillusionment and fading memories. Some of them are evocative of the emotional content in James Joyce's short story "Araby" in their sense of melancholy epiphany: "I thought it would be better, more than this..." Other times, her blurred and granular exposures suggest tilt shift digital photo processing. Always they are strange and haunting.


(Images via Inman Gallery)

Before we left for home this morning, we visited a Salvation Army thrift store on Washington Ave. in Houston because of an article I'd read in the NY Times about some works said to be by Salvador Dali that are up for sale there. Opinions vary concerning their authenticity, naturally, but I've seen them in situ. The drawing, sculpture, and prints are indeed on display in a glass case in the thrift store.



I took some pictures of the display, and my wife got a real bargain on a light sweater and some tops.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy


Here's a bit from an admittedly liberal blog. When he attended the funeral of murdered Israeli PM Rabin, Ted Kennedy quietly placed earth from the graves of his brothers on the grave of the slain peacemaker. His brothers were known to us all as political figures which we associated with certain ideals, but he knew them as his brothers. Blood kin. The dirt was not just dirt. It meant something, if only privately

Ted Kennedy's sins and transgressions were very public. His position of privilege got him out of some really bad situations that none of us could have hoped to escape, and these situations were largely of his own making. These facts offend the small d democrats of America. We hate class privilege. It isn't right. Well it isn't.

And yet he did accomplish some really good things in his many years in the senate. At least I think much of what he did was good. He was a major influence on the laws of our country, shaping them in ways that served to uplift and make better the lives of people who were decidedly not privileged. Here's some of what he did: Title IX (gender equality in college athletics), the ADA, race-blind immigration legislation, bilingual education, Meals on Wheels, the National Commission on the Protection of Human Subjects (in med/sci experiments), stopping military aid to the fascist Pinochet regime in Chile, education for children with disabilities, expanding the civil rights act to protect persons with disabilities, the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act, the Refugee Act of 1980 (asylum for persecuted persons), Employment Opportunities for Disabled Americans Act, the National Military Child Act, Civil Rights Act of 1991, Americorps, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, voted no on war with Iraq (one of 23 senators who did so).

Most of what he accomplished, he accomplished after that evil night at Chappaquiddick when Mary Jo Kopechne died. It is as though he had begun as the callow, drunken libertine his enemies call him -- a selfish irresponsible glutton who was rich enough and Kennedy enough to buy his way out of anything with money and social connections. But then something else emerged, something with a will and a capacity to make our nation better. In working to make America better, I think, he may have also worked to make himself better.

I am fully aware that some amongst us do not share my belief that he made our country better, and that is what it is. We will certainly disagree about many other things. It was always so. But the Americorps program has had a very real and beneficial effect on some of the little towns that dot this run-down portion of NE Texas. I've seen it. And allowing people from India and China and Jordan and Mexico to immigrate legally to the US the same as people from Western Europe has truly benefited this nation. Look what's happened to our national cuisine alone. I mean jeez!

Ted Kennedy did that for us. And he came to embody a certain attitude -- love it or hate it or whatever -- which may have died with him. He stood for something. He meant something.

Add to that the fact that he was a Kennedy. He was the son of Joe Kennedy, ambassador and alleged bootlegger millionaire. He was brother to Joe, Jr who died on an Air Corps mission in WWII, and brother to Jack who skippered PT 109 and survived to become a senator and later President of a Camelot White House before his murder. He was brother to Robert, murdered on the night of his triumphal victory in the 1968 California primary -- that terrible year of political murders. He was their blood kin, of their generation. My parents' generation.

And it passed with him.

I recall the November day in 1963 when John Kennedy as killed. We lived in a Dallas suburb at the time. I remember my mother sobbing on her bed. I remember not knowing what to do because I was still just a boy. And now the question arises. Why did she cry? She didn't know him. He was unrelated to her. He was a stranger. He was a glamorous, powerful man with a glamorous wife who lived a life so disconnected from the suburban reality of my mother's existence that they may as well have been separated by an ocean. But she sobbed that November afternoon for what had happened to him. And for what had happened to us. He meant something to us.

I once wrote a review of a show of Warhol's Jackie paintings which was presented in the building Lee Harvey Oswald used for his sniper's perch that awful day. My editor cut a line I'd written about our all being widowed after the killing of our President. But it was the memory of my mother sobbing that led me to write it. How can you explain that to an editor?

When Jackie died years later my mother bought a ticket to Europe. She had to get away even though she was retired and not flush with disposable cash. "That woman was too young to die" she explained. Jackie meant something. True or false, she meant something.

Ted wasn't John. Everybody knows that. He wasn't Bobby either. But he was ours. He was a Kennedy. And he was the last of them.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hardiness zones and climate change


The USDA is reportedly redrawing its plant hardiness zone map this year. Last time the map was updated was in 1990, although the National Arboretum Web site does indicate that their map was revised in 2001. The map above is part of an update I found on the National Arbor Day Foundation site. Areas in pink represent territory which had shifted one zone warmer between 1990 and 2006.

I'm making a stencil to plaster the map on a gallery wall to accompany my Twittervore video.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Twittervore

video

This is the first minute or so of the Twitter-based video I'm working on. As noted earlier, the pictures were harvested from PingWire which presents images hosted by three sites serving tweeters. I pulled a couple thousand pictures of cooking, eating, and sometimes growing food from the constant image stream over the course of a few weeks in July.

The soundtrack was generated by an iPhone app called Bloom, which was designed by ambient sound guru Brian Eno and programmer and musician Peter Chilvers. The app costs four bucks, but that's considerably less than I'd have to pay Eno for his services.

I jacked the iPhone into a laptop running Audacity and recorded about 22 minutes of digitally generated ambient drones, gongs and chimes, which I next imported into video editing software along with the pictures. Aside from editing out some noise and reorienting a few sideways pictures, the pictures and sound are as they were when I got them. The video presents what the Internet and my iPhone churned out while I was paying attention.

I'm starting to really get off on the whole mashup of found image/found sound and future-cheesy technology. Maybe I should run it on a stack of Commodore monitors.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Archiving stuff

I've spent some time this afternoon puttering about in Google Docs to see if it can be a useful cloud computing tool. So far, I've uploaded over a dozen art reviews with the intent of sharing them with associates and interested parties. Google made this link to one of them.

Here's another one. And a third.

I'm a lousy archivist of my own work, so I'm hoping this tool proves worthwhile. Now if I could only find the rest of my reviews.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Looming destruction

My friend Josie directed me to this video:


She saw a longer version of it last month at the Hirshorn, where the scale of the projection and the audio of the ship crushing through the ice added much to the experience. Even at this diminished scale, the imagery is powerful.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kentridge in Fort Worth

My wife and I paid a visit to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth today. We drove to Cow Town to see the William Kentridge show, and holy mother of charcoal, the man is much better than I thought he was. I already knew he was remarkable, but the FW show is a revelation. Here's a version of a film that's in the show:



The title is Journey to the Moon. It may be in the exhibit, but my recollection is that this is not the same film. A room with multiple projected videos offers a variety of related pieces, many of which are titled Fragments for Georges Méliès. Méliès was the film pioneer who created Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902 -- a landmark in early cinematography and filmic story telling. Coming a century later than Méliès, Kentridge's videos locate the 21st century artist in the history of movie making and conflate drawing, performing and filming. Not to mention conflating artist with model, director with performer, and process with content.

I took some notes today, but I need another shot at it all before I can review it. Two and a half hours in the museum wasn't enough. That's one of the troubles with video. Duration is like that -- it just takes time to haul it all in. We'll hit it again tomorrow after we check out of the motel.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

More raw footage

video

PingWire is a live feed of all images posted to one of three sites that host pictures for Twitter users. This means that anything of interest to tweeters for any reason (love, hate, desire, fear, you name it) appears on the site once it has gone through the uploading and publishing process. PingWire offers a glimpse into the collective mind of a significant subset of the Internet -- a visual guide to the unconscious. Like the Internet is dreaming.

Porn is there, of course. So are injuries, tourist destinations, and boyfriends. Last week there were scores of pictures sighted down the picture takers' supine legs at assorted beaches.

It turns out that a sizeable portion of the pictures tweeters share with the world involve food -- eating, cooking, and sometimes growing food. Some photos document a pretty child eating an ice cream cone. Some show empty plates. Others offer scrumptious desserts or elaborate platters of sushi.

Their motives vary widely. Some images appear because a besotted mother wants to show us her son's reaction to (e.g.) a crate of strawberries. Some are offered by disgusted patrons repulsed by the fare at a sub-standard diner. Some are snarky. Some celebrate pleasures.

Many are badly composed and unfocused. Others are professionally exposed ads for restaurants.

Last week I saved as many food and eating pictures as I could during a few hours spread out over four days. I harvested about 1300 pictures during that time. Today, I imported them into a video that turned out to be a little longer than 11 minutes at 1/2 second per image. There is no sound so far, and I'm probably going to rework it considerably, but even the raw footage is interesting to me.

At least it is tonight.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Cronkite


He's dead.

"If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
-- LBJ

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Raw video

video

I'm starting to think about food distribution for a show I'm going to participate in this fall. This video clip was shot a couple of days ago in the parking lot of a local supermarket. Sketchy quality video on an iPhone and didactic right now, I guess. But still...

video

The clip above is one of two I shot on the Fourth -- iPhone video again. It's less didactic than the first one, but food-related nonetheless. Barbecue might the be only valid reason to dump carbon into the atmosphere.

This post might mean my blog is becoming a sketchbook, but I can't yet tell.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fog and death

Robert McNamara is dead. I hated him once. While he was Secretary of Defense, 16,000 American servicemen and women died in a terrible, purposeless war. Another 42,000 Americans would die before it was all over. Somebody knows how many Vietnamese people died in that war, but I don't.

John Kennedy called him the smartest man he ever met. A master of systems analysis, McNamara crunched numbers both from the Pentagon's organization and from the bloody data he got from Southeast Asia to figure the smartest solutions to problems posed by both. I'm reminded of the finance systems modelers whose far-too-smart "products" precipitated the current recession. Apparently he came to agree with this assessment:
“War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend,” Mr. McNamara concluded. “Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”
If you haven't seen the documentary The Fog of War, see it soon. Here's an excerpt:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

From oxymoron to hypermoron


I'm not sure what to do with a twitter account. Yesterday I tweeted: "Harvesting arugula seeds. Gonna make everyone I know an elitist when I hand them out."

That small joke came to mind this afternoon when I read Randy Kennedy's piece on Dan Graham in the NY Times because it offered this nugget:

The photographer and art historian Jeff Wall has written that while many other conceptual artists “abjured, apparently for good, any involvement with the world” outside of their methodologies, Mr. Graham’s aim has always been “to remain involved with the wider world as a subject and occasion for art, but to structure that involvement in the rigorously self-reflexive terms” opened up by conceptualism.

Stating it more simply, Philippe Vergne, the director of the Dia Art Foundation, calls Mr. Graham’s work “elitism for everyone.”
(Image: Two Adjacent Pavilions, 1978-1981 via Artland)

Corporate profits and truth telling


Boing Boing contributor Cory Doctorow posted yesterday that the ways US companies choose to express their earnings has hidden an alarming decline in real profitability over the past 43 years. The source is the Deloitte Center for the Edge (via Jon Taplin's blog). A telling chart from the Deloitte report is reproduced above.

The Deloitte report is long on technical details about trends in worker productivity, mergers and acquisitions, rates of corporate taxation, and other macro trends in the US economy, but Taplin's point is about the differences between profitability considered as a return on assets (ROA) and profitability expressed as a return on equity (ROE). Quoting Investopedia, Taplin describes ROE as the classic Wall Street measure of profitability. Basically, it's the ratio of net income to shareholders equity:
Let's calculate ROE for the automotive giant General Motors for 2003. To get the necessary data, go to the GM's Investor Information website and look for the 2003 Annual Report. You'll see on GM's 2003 Income Statement that its net income totaled $3.822 billion. On GM's 2003 Balance Sheet, you'll find total stockholder equity for 2003 was $25.268bn and in 2002 it was $6.814bn.

To calculate ROE, average shareholders' equity for 2003 and 2002 ($25.268bn + $6.814bn / 2 = $16.041 bn), and divide net income for 2003 ($3.822bn) by that average. You will arrive at a return on equity of 0.23, or 23%. This tells us that in 2003 GM generated a 23% profit on every dollar invested by shareholders.

Many professional investors look for a ROE of at least 15%. So, by that standard alone, GM managements' ability to squeeze profits from shareholders' money appears rather impressive.
ROA, on the other hand is the ratio of net profits to all the assets the company owns -- factories, machinery, office furniture, money in the bank, etc.

Now, let's turn to return on assets, which, offering a different take on management's effectiveness, reveals how much profit a company earns for every dollar of its assets. Assets include things like cash in the bank, accounts receivable, property, equipment, inventory and furniture. ROA is calculated like this:
Return on Assets = (Annual Net Income/Total Assets)
Let's look at GM again. You already know that it earned $3.822bn in 2003, and you can find total assets on the balance sheet. In 2003, GM's total assets amounted to $448.507bn. GM's net income divided by total assets gives a return on assets of 0.0085, or 0.85%. This tells us that in 2003 GM earned less than 1% profit on the resources it owned.

This is an extremely low number. In other words, GM's ROA tells a very different story about the company's performance than its ROE. Few professional money managers will consider stocks with an ROA of less than 5%.
(Block quotes from Investopedia.)

The difference is debt. In GM's case, large debt obligations reduced the equity value of the company and so made the profit numbers look quite good when expressed as a percentage of equity.

The chart above is an examination of all US companies' profitability expressed as a percentage of assets over the past 43 years, and it's a horrible picture indeed. Talk about a crisis in capitalism.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

We all know he's ridiculous


But just how ridiculous is he? Consider this a challenge. I know you all can do better than I did.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Swap meet


Swap meet today. I was selling cabbage and onions with two friends.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tehran art, Tehran courage


At least one pro-democracy activist in Tehran is putting up some very witty pictures around the city during the current civil unrest (to put a polite face on thuggish government agents beating students in the streets). The one above with the curious face card beastie obscuring Ahmadinejad's face on a political poster is typical. More pictures here. (via Andrew Sullivan)

Some of the protesters are very brave, particularly the Twitter posters who worked the past few days under the collective name of persiankiwi. I've been following them off and on for two days as they tell of danger and violence. A few of their tweets from today:
Militia still attacking people in sidestreets but main roads are peaceful marchers.

reliable soure from Ahvaz. Situation there is bad - violent clashes in streets.

confirmed - there is shooting in Azadi sq. protesters wounded and shot, no numbers yet, still hearing gunfire.

people are running in streets outside. There is panic in streets.people going ino houses to hide.

Baseej shooting in Azadi sq - army standing by and watching for now.

streets very dangerous now. groups of militia on motorbikes searching for protesters.

3 ppl from our group still not returned from march. no mobile contact. last phone contact 2 hours ago.

confirmed - khamenaie website hacked - the dictator of iran.

we honour and thank the people of Iran and especially the hackers. Baseej have guns we have brains.

tonight Kamenei will fight hard - he knows he is close to finish.

cnfirmed - karbaschi and karoubi heading to Tajreesh sq tonight at 11pm - now after 10pm

Tajreesh is close to Jamaran where Khamenei live. maybe marching to his house. unconfirmed

we are going offline to get a phone free for calling out. we are also moving location - too long here - is dangerous.

were attacked in streets by mob on motorbikes with batons - firing guns into air - streetfires all over town - roads closed;

3 of our group missing from afternoon - we have no news from them;

confirmed - homeowners in Rasht are giving refuge to people running from Baseej attacks.

Gohardasht in Karaj - confirmed - people in street batles with militia -

most activity is in north - Gheytarieh, Pasdaran, Gholhak and Niavaran still busy and noisy -

more than 100 students missing from Tehran Uni dorms - reports of several dead from last night

thanks to all people following us and trusting us. we are trying to give you correct info -

it is very hard here - we are under big pressure and risk - we are being tracked on twitter -

we are all tired - no sleep for 3 days - one of us is injured from baton - waiting for doctor

we only want freedom - we are peaceful - we have no life no future in IRI without freedom -

one of us is injured and we have doctor - we cannot go to hospital now as plainclothes are at all hospitals

we are routed thru mirror proxies - but service is unreliable - keeps cuting out - have to switch off lights now

our street is quiet now - we cannot move tonight but must move asap when dawn starts

All normal proxys out - all normal ISP's out in Tehran

reliable source - many arrested taken to Evin in past 24hrs - evin under heavy protectionwe must log off - will update asap - sources pls keep info coming - we thank u and will not print your id's - u know who u are
The dumb picture I had up in my profile changed to a green rectangle tonight. That's the color of the opposition, the color of that swatch covering Ahmadinejad in the pictur at the top.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Greening Dallas?

Dallas used to look like the future. Parts of it did, anyway. Logan's Run (released in 1976) was filmed there (also in Fort Worth, Houston, a sewage treatment plant in El Segundo, CA, and other locations). The 1980 PBS TV movie based on Ursula K. Leguin's excellent novel The Lathe of Heaven was shot largely in Dallas, as well. Something about Dallas' sun-baked, concrete public spaces and impersonal, corporatist architecture appealed to filmmakers of the time when it came to imagining, say, the 23rd century. This likely says a lot more about the filmmakers and their audiences than it says about the 23rd century.

It certainly says a lot about Dallas, where the future used to go to get strange.

Another future Dallas was revealed near the end of last month when the winners of the Re:Vision Dallas architecture/urban design competition were announced. The contest invited architects and collaborators in the fields of urban farming, sustainable land use, etc. to create a city block that:
encourage[s] and value[s] relationships, while fostering respect for nature and our neighbors, privacy and resources, economy and consumption.
One of the three winning designs came from the San Francisco-based firm of David Baker and Partners. It looks like this:

The image is via the architect's Web site, where several others are available, as are some words which expand on the images:
Rather than simply placing a single building in the middle of a neglected space, the design team's conceptual reach extends beyond the property line into the larger city. The team proposes creating intersecting greenways pieced together from open space and disused lots to set up a framework for future development and to connect existing but disparate public amenities, such as the Farmer's Market and the Trinity River.
At the center of the greenways’ "X", Lone Star Square will function as the public heart of the new food/agriculture district, with orchards, garden plots, and historical elements from the city's past. Running through the system of greenways are a series of water features that filter harvested rainwater and convey it in a stream to the agricultural fields to be used for irrigation.
It's good that people in Dallas and elsewhere are looking into future green buildings and alternatives to the dystopic present in which a paucity of shops and amenities, multiple days of unsafe air quality, and oppressive summer heat make the urban experience just plain bad. Like the impossibly strange Dragonfly Building proposed for New York, the project arises from a good heart and good intentions, even if it is a latter day Hanging Gardens of Babylon. And I'm most hopeful for the idea of harvesting rainwater, even though we're now at the beginning of the dry season in this part of Texas, and some parts of the state to our south are well into a drought. But somehow the whole bigass shebang strikes me as just so very Dallas in its scale and structure and attitude. Consultants and experts and government workers decide solutions to problems that earlier consultants and experts and government workers inadvertently created via their solutions to earlier problems.

Meanwhile, up in Milwaukee, a guy named Will Allen -- who last winter was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant -- has worked patiently and persistently to create an urban farm in a blighted neighborhood. He's featured in the trailer below.



(The trailer is from the film Fresh, the Movie, which I have not seen) What I find admirable and encouraging about his project is that it is not the work of designers, but of a man and his compadres who want to make a place to live and live well. There is a connectedness both to a community and to an idea of living with the means of feeding ourselves that really good designers sometimes miss and Dallas implementers of designs have consistently missed.

I mean he's the author of the sentence "And believe in what the worms will do for you."

Monday, June 8, 2009

A couple of thefts

The plants out at our community garden are starting to produce. Last night, I considered the three almost-ripe tomatoes in my patch and decided to let them ripen one more night before I picked them.

This morning they were gone. Somebody stole them from my garden, which is a crime in the State of Texas, punishable by a fine up to $250. Or so I'm told. You don't steal a man's tomatoes. It's just not right.

Tonight, I saw this piece in the New York Times about the new film Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner. I've not seen it, but reportedly it's an extended discussion of the factory-farm, processed-food institutions we Americans have come to accept as normal even though they represent a curious capital/government "partnership" that is anything but.



It's a hugely complex issue, to be sure, and a movie trailer can only deliver sound bites at best. But the folks behind Food, Inc. do seem to have touched a nerve with some of their targets. Monsanto, for example, has added this to its Web site. The page represents an extended counter-ad to address the issues the film raises from the Big Ag point of view. Included is a nifty Flash quiz about Monsanto's practices and policies. I aced it. (Hint: all you have to do is choose the answer that makes the company look the best.)

Not having seen the film, I can't judge the merits of either side of the case. And yet this settled me back some: item number four on the Monsanto rebuttal quiz reads:
Every year Monsanto sues or threatens to sue hundreds of farmers for saving their own seed.
The statement is false, according to Monsanto. Monsanto is loath to sue anybody! When you select an answer, the company's Flash quiz offers up a small bit of elaboration:
Monsanto pursues legal action against farmers who improperly save and resell or replant our patented seed only when other efforts to resolve the issue prove unsuccessful. The first time growers purchase Monsanto seed, they sign a stewardship agreement and contract not to save and resell or replant seeds produced from the crops they grow from Monsanto seed.
On the face of it, at issue is their right to protect their intellectual property. Developing cultivars, either through hybridization or genetic engineering, is expensive, and they want to assert their rights as owners of those products. I mean if the guys buying their seeds don't like the set up, they can buy somewhere else, somebody else's seeds. They're selling seeds like Microsoft sells software, in a sense. Replanting seeds from last year's crop is theft of intellectual property, according to this line of reasoning. And that's stealing something worth far more than the three tomatoes I lost last night.

It's the word "stewardship" in their argument that rattled me. Stewardship of the land is part of the mission statement of our community garden. Stewardship connotes caring, working to make things right so you don't undermine what makes food production possible. Alongside "stewardship," words like "sustainable" and "renewable" show up in our stated intentions. I know farmers around here who are devoted stewards of the land in this sense of the word.

Monsanto uses the word in another sense. "Stewardship" in what I quoted above is a hypertext link that leads to this page:

Monsanto is committed to enhancing grower productivity and profitability as well as supporting product stewardship by bringing new seed technologies to market - patented technologies that provide licensed growers the use of new seed for one single commercial crop. This commitment requires shared responsibility between Monsanto and our licensed growers.

Features & Benefits

To take advantage of the benefits of biotech seed and preserve the technology for long-term use, growers must adopt a sound stewardship plan. Such a plan includes:

  • signing a Monsanto Technology Agreement

  • complying with all agronomic and marketing guidelines

  • agreeing to plant traited seed for only a single commercial crop

If you have questions about seed stewardship or become aware of growers using biotech traits in an unauthorized manner, please call [phone number redacted]. Letters to report similar unauthorized action may be sent to:

Monsanto Trait Stewardship
[address redacted]
By introducing the capitalist concept of "product stewardship" and the corporatist concept of "trait stewardship" into the discourse of food policy, Monsanto has attempted another sort of theft, an egregious theft from our language. Our garden's humble admission that we must work within what is possible in our relation to the land, to make it fruitful while admitting that we must conform to the ways of plants and rainfall and soil and blight and bugs, is miles and miles from the protection of a product. Big Ag's request that farmers inform on one another only ices the cake.

Last night somebody stole some tomatoes from me. A bigger theft is underway.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Found at the market


As Laurie Anderson once sang: "All of nature talks to me. If I could just figure out what it was trying to tell me."

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Seduced

Nobody is like Isabella Rossellini.



Nobody.

The "Green Porno" series of short films is extraordinary, as are the sets and costumes designed by Andy Byers.

More here.

Living in a red state can have its rewards



"He cooks that crystal meth because the shine don't sell.
You know, he likes the money, and he don't mind the smell."

Anybody who can say the song he's performing goes out to the First United Crystal Methodists of Durant Oklahoma is okay in my book. Especially when he follows that with a line about a hard-on like a bois d'arc fence post.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I said it before, and I'll say it again

David Brooks is stupid. Slope headed, knuckle dragging, pissant waltzing stupid. His -- cough -- opinion piece in the NY Times today exhibits the kind of corporatist elitism and disdain for the values of ordinary Americans that only a guy who lunches with Wall Street honchos would champion. Exhibit A:
Recently we were uplifted when the president informed Chrysler’s secured creditors that they had agreed to donate their ownership stake in the company to the United Auto Workers.
Did this in fact happen? Well, no, not exactly. Setting aside the elision of secured credit and any putative ownership stake (the guys who got short shrift owned Chrysler debt, not equity -- bonds, not shares), there's the issue of what the UAW gave up: 50% of its retirees' health care fund in exchange for their equity stake in the company. Nobody gave them dick. They bought what they own. With their money.

Meanwhile, guys at hedge funds like Schultze Asset Management and Stairway Capital Management, who wouldn't agree to terms reducing their take in the Chrysler meltdown, put their interests ahead of what is best for the company and for the country. One line of reasoning was that the company was worth more as scrap than they'd get from the settlement they were offered. So let tens of thousands of Americans lose their jobs and hold a Chrysler garage sale. After it's all about maximizing investor returns, right?

Bloomberg reported on May 6:
The Chrysler Non-TARP Lenders are as follows, according to the filing: Schultze Master Fund Ltd. of Purchase, New York; Arrow Distressed Securities Fund at the same Purchase address; Schultze Apex Master Fund, at the same address; Uniondale, New York-based Stairway Capital Management II L.P; Group G Partners LP, based in New York; GGCP Sequoia L.P., at the same New York address; Oppenheimer Senior Floating Rate Fund, in New York; Oppenheimer Master Loan Fund LLC, at the same New York address; and Foxhill Opportunity Master Fund LP, based in Princeton, New Jersey.
Note that one of their number identifies itself as a "distressed securities fund." They specialize in risky debt. If they bought Chrysler bonds at face value, they plain aren't doing their job. Folks like that buy stuff at a discount. If any other members of that august group paid more than 50 cents on the dollar for the debt they held, I'd be mighty surprised. And yet they refused to settle for less. (The Feds offered 28 cents on the dollar for securities trading between 27 and 28 cents on the buck at the time of the offer, according to Bloomberg, that hotbed of Socialist, Stalinist, Batshit-Maoist ideology)

But I digress. The topic is how abysmally dumb David Brooks is. Consider this from his -- erm -- column today:
These events have heralded a new era of partnership between the White House and private companies, one that calls to mind the wonderful partnership Germany formed with France and the Low Countries at the start of World War II.
And this:
During the press conference with health care executives, I don’t even think Obama meant to give away $2 trillion of their money. He was going to give away just $750 billion, but he got carried away by the Era of Responsibility. “The stakeholders behind me have promised to cut costs by nearly 2 percent a year,” the president riffed. (The executives’ lips were like dead worms stretched across mirthless smiles. Their cheeks were like hardened clumps of concrete.) “They have agreed to support the administration’s reform package.” (Coronaries, epileptic seizures all around.) “They have agreed to donate their kidneys in my office right after this ceremony.” (The executives were now flopping about the stage, like a 3-D version of the Heimlich poster.)
Har har! German aggression! Donate their kidneys! What a wag!

You know what else is like hardened lumps of concrete? Both hemispheres of David Brooks' brain. In 2004, US spending on health care totaled over 15% of GDP. Think it's gone down since then? Big Pharma is doing just fine, even without two percent of its take. This is from Paul Krugman's blog last year:
Everybody knows that the US spends much more on health care than anyone else, without getting better results. Everyone also knows that health spending has outpaced GDP growth everywhere, thanks to medical progress. What I didn’t realize was just how clearly the evidence shows that the rising trend is steepest in the US. We have the biggest increase as well as the highest level.
He was responding to data that showed health care spending's share of GDP jumping from 7% in 1970 to 15.3% in 2004. During the same period, costs in Canada rose from 7% to almost 10%. Last year, the GDP of the US was about $14 trillion; 15.3% of that comes in at $1.989 trillion. Now Big Pharma isn't the whole pie, but when it comes to health care bucks, they certainly get their share. And that share is growing like a tumor.

And yet (back to my David Brooks is stupid theme) the Times's minister of dumbassery speaks of "enhanced negotiating techniques," disembowelment, shackles, Nazism, North Korea's totalitarian state, and Cossacks. The metaphors of violence multiply and surround his (as it were) argument. Eventually they become his entire case.

Brooks can use metaphors of violent coercion. That is what he has to say on the subject of economic policy.



Hey Ho Let's go! Shoot 'em in the back now.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nevermind the ceiling, watch out for the bottom


Paul Krugman:
I think there are two big structural changes that we'd want to see. One is we need to reduce the role of the financial sector in the economy. We went from an economy in which about 4 percent of GDP came from the financial sector to an economy in which 8 percent of GDP come from the financial sector, and in which at its peak 41 percent of profits were being earned by the financial sector. And there is no reason to believe that anything productive happened as a result of all of that. These extremely highly compensated bankers were essentially just finding new ways to offload risks on to other people.

As I've written, we need a boring banking sector again. All of this high finance has turned out to be just destructive, and that's partly a matter of regulation. But in the political economy there was also a vicious circle. Because as the financial sector got increasingly bloated its political clout also grew. So, in fact, deregulation bred bloated finance, which bred more deregulation, which bred this monster that ate the world economy.

The other thing not to miss is the importance of a strong social safety net. By most accounts, most projections say that the European Union is going to have a somewhat deeper recession this year than the United States. So in terms of macromanagement, they're actually doing a poor job, and there are various reasons for that: the European Central Bank is too conservative, Europeans have been too slow to do fiscal stimulus. But the human suffering is going to be much greater on this side of the Atlantic because Europeans don't lose their health care when they lose their jobs. They don't find themselves with essentially no support once their trivial unemployment check has fallen off. We have nothing underneath. When Americans lose their jobs, they fall into the abyss. That does not happen in other advanced countries, it does not happen, I want to say, in civilized countries.

And there are people who say we should not be worrying about things like universal health care in the crisis, we need to solve the crisis. But this is exactly the time when the importance of having a decent social safety net is driven home to everybody, which makes it a very good time to actually move ahead on these other things.

A financial sector that generates 41% of all the nation's GDP, but fails to do anything productive is not a working system of finance. It is a fraud.

More here. (Via Ritholtz)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Spring storms and me




About three weeks ago, we had one of those Toto-I-don't-think-we're-in Kansas-anymore spring storms that occur in this climate from time to time. My wife, our two dogs, a radio, a lamp, and I spent a good deal of the evening sitting in the hallway while the storm raged outside. We heard unusual noises. The dogs made unusual noises, as well. The power failed. Howls and moans occurred. Some of the howls came from the dogs. Some came from the storm. Some came from assorted transformers and power lines.

It was scary.

But the storm passed. And the house held together. In fact, we went to a dinner party at a friend's place later that night. We had great fun eating by candle light, even after the power came back on.

My studio was another matter. It's a building next door to my house. The power of the storm was great enough that the roofing was lifted up and the wind forced rain water through the decking, saturating the ceiling. Waterlogged, it collapsed under its own weight.

No paintings were damaged, though a few minor studies now look rather more aleatory than they did before the event. The situation may be a lesson in using weather maps as sources of imagery (as I have done in recent years). Be careful what you deal with, boy; it may be stonger than you'd anticipated.

The insurance guys say they'll cover almost all of the cost, and I plan to angle for a little more than they have so far offered.

Meanwhile, I won't be working in that room for a while.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Loaves and Fishes

Let me begin by confessing that I don't know for certain how to say what I want to say right now. Still, I'll try.

We have set up a fledgling community garden here in my little town, and that has led to numerous personal interactions and nascent friendships which I'd never suspected would happen.

More than plants can grow in a garden.

I've made friends with numerous stalwarts in the local Methodist Church, for example -- men and women whose worldview is hardly congruent with my own. I've worked with a man named Bob who is a master plumber and with Jim who is a master welder (and county commissioner) and with Lamont who is a master gardener. So many skills, so many people.

Today, I met (or rather re-met) Tim, a massage therapist and psychologist, who determined that he and his wife Frances needed to participate in the project. After some confusion about which plots were still open (our record keeping needs some fine tuning), we got him situated. The other re-acquaintance today was with Ron, the pastor at the local Church of the Nazarene, who wanted a project for his youth group to work on tomorrow during their weekend famine study. Ron and his church volunteered last month for our Big Event work day when they toted bales and slogged through dirt and mulch till our garden was almost ready for planting.

Yesterday, he emailed to ask if there were chores in the garden for his church's youth group to do during their weekend fast in observance of world hunger.

Wow.

Here's what I learned from Ron: the kids in his church will not eat for 30 hours this weekend. They will work to provide food for others during that time. They will earn money from pledges for each hour they fast. The money will be sent to feed the hungry in Rwanda. He told me that his instructions to them were to learn from their hunger, to understand the relationship between the pangs and their spirits, their souls. His asceticism was heart-felt and heartening, not mean-spirited in the least, but generous and loving.

Understand your luck. Understand the suffering of others. Understand how your spirit is part of this world.

It was an interesting -- even enlightening -- discussion. I mentioned the daily fasting of the faithful during Ramadan, the significance of eating to Christian communion, the ritual of the Seder meal for Jews at Passover. All this (and more) leads me to conceive of food not as mere fuel for our bodies, but as highly charged, symbolic stuff for our souls.

We were on the same page.

We found ourselves -- for the moment, at least -- in absolute agreement. A pastor in the Church of the Nazarene and a secular intellectual nodded and said yes to one another out in a garden with nascent tomatoes and sprouting beans and squash blossoms and okra seedlings and piles of mulch. We didn't and don't agree about theology, ontology, cosmogony, cosmology, ontogeny, ontology, phylogeny, or most other -ogonies, ogenies, and -ologies out there. But when it comes to food, we have common ground. More than that, we want to see another path for understanding our connection to the earth, one in which distinctions between our souls and our bodies amount to so much confused thinking.

Much of that path is bound up in eating.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Where did those pig lips get off to?


There they are! I need them for Congressman Pete (I used to be district manager for marketing at Southwestern Bell so I'm an expert on economic realities) Sessions from Dallas. The Dallas Morning News reports Pistol Pete flapping his yap today:

Sessions told The New York Times that the administration intends to “diminish employment and diminish stock prices” as part of a “divide and conquer” strategy.

And he asserted that the Obama agenda is “intended to inflict damage and hardship on the free enterprise system, if not to kill it.”

Precisely how a nefarious divide-and-conquer strategy will arise from staggering unemployment numbers and slumping equity values I don't know. Just why an administration with Obama's very high approval ratings would want to divide and conquer anybody I don't know either. Nor can I know the congressman's ability to divine the President's intentions to undermine capitalism, given all the gigabucks he and his have poured into our ailing financial institutions in an effort to save capitalism.

Moreover, blaming current employment numbers and stock prices on an administration which has been in power for less than four months is patently bad faith partisan posturing in a recession that's a year older than that. Below is a screen grab of a chart for the S&P 500 during the previous administration.


Note the precipitous decline at the end of 2008. That stomach-churning drop at the right begins in September, when Bushman Hank Paulson let Lehman fail. And it is most important to remember that in the several years before that fall as much as 40% of all profits reported by US corporations came from financial institutions, companies whose earnings statements we now know involved magical thinking about the valuations of the derivatives like CDOs, CMOs, and CDSs they had on their books. This made their stock valuations a fraud and unreasonably inflated the whole index. That boom in '06 and '07 was made of air. Talk about inflicting damage on the free enterprise system.

So I just visited Pistol Pete's Web site and left him a message about his utter ignorance. I doubt he'll read it, but I had to say something.

The pig lips I reserved for my blog.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Another one shuts down

The latest e-missive from young Dallas artist/gallerist Paul Slocum reports that his And/Or Gallery is closing when the next show (his 23rd in a little over three years) closes. The reason given is that he's going off to New York to pursue other plans. Slocum writes: "most of the artists that I personally work with are in New York, and I've decided that I need to be in closer contact to reach my full potential."

Slocum's Web site features some serious seizure-inducing wall paper, but more than that he's very carefully documented his art and culture activities over the past few years on it. He took a painting class from me back when I taught at UT-Dallas and successfully managed to vault far beyond it after graduating (computer science, summa cum laude). No wonder his Web site offers links to (among other things) numerous Atari hacks, a project to convert 1985 Epson dot matrix printers into musical instruments, and other nerdly items like a stop motion animation made of thousands of screen captures of found homepages.

Over the years, And/Or has featured works by Tom Moody, Cory Archangel, and many other edgy, intelligent artists. The last And/Or show will feature works by Austin artist Chad Hopper.

Image via the artist's Web site, which is worth checking out, especially for the Roz Chast-meets-Kurt Schwitters pictures.

Monday, May 4, 2009

It may not be everywhere


The inverted Ford logo would seem to signify almost as much as the cracked windshield.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Zombie banks



Via commenter "Bob" at the Baseline Scenario blog.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Richard Patterson review


My review of Richard Patterson's current survey at Dallas's Goss-Michael Foundation is online at Glasstire.

Patterson is a YBA who has relocated to Dallas where he's having a fine time romping around in ultra-American culture and making paintings and sculptures which display equal parts wit and craft.

(image via James Cohan Gallery)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Competing narratives about the recession

A guest post on the Baseline Scenario blog by "StatsGuy" offers a reasoned, thoughtful and well researched take (or rather several takes) on what led to the financial collapse. The essay looks at the concept of "too big to fail" in the financial world as it relates to systemic risk, the decline of the US middle class, and irrational exuberance as causes (either necessary or sufficient) for the Big Bust. Discussing the causes of the debacle is important to deciding what to do about it, of course. And the gist here is that getting all TR on the oligarchs of Wall Street -- worthy as the cause may be -- probably should be a lower priority at present. Along the way, the essay links to numerous informative publications, including this exhaustive timeline of political decisions that led up to our current mess.

Unlike most blogs, the readers' comments at Baseline Scenario are often as good as the articles themselves. I recommend reading the whole shebang.

On a related note, William Black's 2005 book The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One probably should be on my reading list.

Perhaps unrelated:



Some will rob you with a six gun and some with a fountain pen...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A second look at the garden

Part I


Back at the beginning of April we had a major work party at the community garden because we were able to plug into a local civic work day called "The Big Event." We had kids from the junior master gardener program out there with us.

We had guys from fraternities helping out.

We had geezers with whiskers.

We had generous people from the town and from local churches.

An Ag Science professor showed up and broke in his brand new tractor with us.

Working together, we got a lot done. That morning we moved 130 cubic yards of donated mulch (a cubic yard is 27 cubic feet -- you do the math) and mostly filled 36 raised beds with amended soil.

Part II

Then there was the saga of the bees. My wife and I have lived with a hive of bees for about two years. They've colonized the north wall of our house. I've sporadically tried to get them removed, but the sort of expertise one needs to open a house's wall and capture a hive living inside is rare. I think I have finally found somebody to take care of the hive for me, but he's working long shifts at present and can't do the job for another week or more. I can't bring myself to kill them in this time of Colony Collapse Disorder. Whatever is happening to bees in this country, the bees in my house are definitely healthy.

So healthy that a couple of weeks ago our hive produced two small swarms. Here's a picture of one of them:

The county extension service put me in touch with a beekeeper by the name of Don who brought a hive box for one swarm and a "catch box" for the other. He left the hive with me and took the other swarm in payment. So a day or so later, I lost my bee hauling virginity when I loaded the hive onto the bed of a borrowed pickup and schlepped them out to the garden site. I waited till they'd gone to bed for the evening and stuffed a dish towel into the entrance, but it was nervous making all the same.

The next day, I hauled them again because we determined they were too close to the garden plots. Now they're about 200 feet away, which seems about the right distance. And they've settled into their new digs quite well.

I took that photo this afternoon, as well as the one below.

That's one of our bees foraging about 200 yards from the hive.

Part III


So the garden is beginning to take off. Green stuff is poking out of the soil here and there. A few things are even blooming. The bees are pollinating. I've met and worked with scores of people I wouldn't have otherwise--church folks, politicians, educators, master gardeners, anti-poverty volunteers, plumbers, farmers, and the local feed store proprietors. I've learned a lot about irrigation, mulch, soil amendments, compost, charitable donations, local government, legal matters, insurance, human relations, and bees.

Would Joseph Beuys have called what I've done art? And if he did, would he be right to do so?