Aug 24, 2008

TV Dinners

I watch bad movies on tv. Don't ask me why. They are like donuts. To be fair, they are not exactly bad, not Star Wars prequel bad anyway, more like exceedingly mediocre. Take for example I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. It is supposed to be a light comedy with a heart and a lesson about tolerance. Instead it's a fluff, fluff, fluff with a bunch of cliches and a whole lot of who-gives-a-frak. Leave it to Hollywood to make a story of a supposedly contraversial subject matter (depends on who you talk to) dull. If it was a French film the two guys would probably realize that they were really gay all this time. That would certainly give the plot a more interesting trajectory. Alternately Pedro Almodovar could have done some interesting things with it.

Or there is No Reservations - a romantic dud. Despite of two good looking leads, a talented and not overly cute child actor, there is not a single spark in sight. There is zero chemistry between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, but you can't really blame them, the script doesn't give them much to build on. Then there is the "serious" angle of the dead sister and her orphaned daughter. Heavy stuff, right? No. The film is carefully skipping on the surface appearance of emotions, as to slyly let us know that there is serious stuff going on here, but careful not to actually burden us with it. I find that insulting. If you don't want to deal with realistic portrayal of grief, just find a less dramatic way to temporary dispose of the sister. Send her to jail, Paris, or a biosphere, wherever. It's just a plot device, improvise.

My biggest beef however was with the portrayal of the kitchen. There is this supposedly very busy New York Restaurant and its kitchen has the atmosphere of a day spa. An assisted living facility during the afternoon nap time is more frantic then this kitchen in the middle of a dinner rush. I wonder what Anthony Bourdain would have to say about that. This anemic, phony kitchen is the perfect symbol of this dumb movie, made by people who have no idea of what they are talking about, and lack the imagination to fake it.

Aug 23, 2008

"Sun Vally"

I turned down on Pendleton Street only because of the canary yellow auto body shop on the corner. Being Saturday it was busy, cars parked all around, so I just jutted down the address and drove on. The street dead-ended with a beat up blue fence advertising Valley Mustang Auto Parts. I almost missed this rusty gate and and the drunken king, off to the side, but the breeze was banging the metal parts together, as if to get my attention. I can't make up my mind which cropping I prefer.

Some other photos from earlier this summer:

Side of a recycling place a couple of blocks from Tujunga. I have photographed this spot multiple time with varying success.

Back of a muffler place on Magnolia. I shot this in May. The place have been in the neighborhood as far as I can remember and probable longer.
On the door a "Notice of Belief of Abandonment" was taped, something about the rent not being paid for 14 months. The place is empty now, signs gone, all painted over in real estate neutral.

There are million different churches in The Valley.

I prefer shooting in evening or when the sky is overcast, storm is gathering. Those are rare times, but the colors are so much deeper. Shooting under the blinding Southern California sun is tricky.

Aug 22, 2008

The Spice Must Flow

I was just about to call it a night, but then flipping channels I landed on Dune. The original one of course, with Kyle MacLachlan, those strangely operatic sets and costumes, and of course gloriously undressed Sting. The movie is so completely over the top in every aspect, costumes, set, acting, plot, to the most minute detail that it ascends to a whole another sphere. I have loved and been mesmerized by this sublimely baroque space nonsense since I first laid eyes on its first perplexing frame.

But then, as I was watching, I realized how this move could be taken as an allegory for the Middle East. The powers to be wrestle for the control of a far away desert planet (country) for a single reason: it's the source of a very valuable resource, the spice (oil). This resource moves the universe (world) and it must flow. The desert dwelling natives resent the foreign occupiers (liberators) and want to dispel them. The native freedom fighters (insurgents) attack the invaders and commit acts of heroism (terrorism). It is a pretty good match, except for the Hollywood ending: Lawrence (Paul) of Arrakis wins the war and makes it rain.

Aug 19, 2008

Aug 16, 2008

Filipino Rice Squares

This recipe is from James McNair's Rice Cookbook. I made one adjustment: the recipe called for using two kinds of rice, but in my experience they did not cook at the same rate so, I switched to using sticky rice only.

  • 3 cups white glutinous rice, aka sticky rice
  • hot water
  • 6 cups coconut milk (4 cans, rounded up)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup ground unsalted roasted peanuts
  • 3 eggs lightly beaten

Wash and drain the rice. Add enough hot water to cover, let stand for 10 minutes. Drain.

Do not shake the cans of coconut milk. Spoon off 2 cups worth thick cream from top and set aside. If using fresh coconut milk it has to be chilled first till thick cream rises to top.

In large pot combine rice, 4 cups of coconut milk, granulated sugar, salt. Bring to boil over medium heat, then reduce heat to low, cover tightly and simmer till rice is tender, but not mushy, ca 30 minutes.

While rice is cooking, in a saucepan combine the reserved thick coconut cream, brown sugar, ground peanuts and vanilla. Cook over medium heat till sugar dissolves and mixture thickens, ca 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. Slowly mix several tablespoon of the hot syrup into the beaten eggs, then gradually and constantly whisking mix the egg mixture into the syrup. This has to be done carefully, if the egg is too cold or added too fast you'll get peanut eggdrop soup.

Preheat oven to 425º F.

Butter a 9x13 inch baking pan. When rice is done transfer it into the pan. With your fingers press down the top, making it flat and even. Pour the coconut/peanut syrup on top. Put in oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool to room temperature.

*Alton Brown would recommend using actual grinders for grinding peanut, since most food processors will turn it into peanut butter. However my small Black & Decker "Super Chopper" does excellent job pulverizing nuts without mushiness.

Aug 9, 2008

A Beautiful California Home

A Rant About Real Estate

Few people would argue that real estate prices have gone out of whack the past few years, especially here in Southern California. Yet, few seem to realize how much those prices have to correct before getting back to realistic levels.

People's beliefs regarding the housing market seem to be based more on urban myths than facts. Just a year ago an otherwise reasonable person told me that housing prices never go down. It is not true historically, regionally, but was especially oblivious to reality at that time. The current myth that everyone seems to believe is "This is the time to buy. Buy now or miss the window." I don't believe that to be true. The real estate bubble left a psychological mark on people, making them think that completely outrageous prices are normal. Even now after the bubble have burst they can't quite grasp the real scale of things.

People seem to believe that we have almost hit the bottom and that prices are going to be merrily bouncing back up soon. I seriously doubt that. The subprime mess is not even over yet, and the Alt-A crisis is just starting up. Unlike subprime, these loans were given to people with good credit rating. Also these loans were by average larger amounts than the subprime ones. The borrowers of these were set to pay interest only for a set period (5-7 years) after which they have to start paying back the principal too, making their monthly payment jump up significantly. Seventy percent of these type of loans were given in California and Florida during the bubble. Their current state of payment delinquencies and defaults reflect perfectly how the subprime crisis started. There are also the Pay Option ARMs where the buyer could decide how much to actually pay at any month, possibly less than even the interest with the interest getting added to the principal. Many of these people after several years ended up owning more than the purchase price, ending up with negative equity. By all signs it looks like that the second, larger wave of foreclosure tsunami is about to hit our shores.

But lets put away the business talk and just look at the numbers, the basics: the SoCal median income is around $60k, the median house price is over $300k (over $400k in Los Angeles). No amount of urban myth can bridge this gaping chasm. Some people are expecting a mass of buyers rushing in for the now "affordable" prices. Let's be frank, the prices are not there yet, and the number of potential buyers is limited. Sure, lot of people want to buy, but most of those who were likely to make rush decisions, get over their heads have already done it the last five or so years. Those who are left are most likely to sit on their hands, window shop, and simply just wait it out. Not to mention that the tightening lending regulations now don't allow them to borrow more than they can afford.

Another urban myth is that everyone wants to live here and it makes the most outlandish housing prices acceptable. There is a tiny truth to it, you can expect to pay a higher percentage of your income on your mortgage payment here than less desirable places, but you can stretch that only so far, before it snaps like tired old rubber band. It's simple physics. The irresponsible lending practices of yesteryears have masked this simple rule for a while, and even though the market snapped, a lot of people rather put their heads in the sand than accept it.

There are forecasts out there predicting that the downward spiral will last for several more years and that the housing prices will slump to 2003 levels or even lower before starting slowly climb back up. Fortunately this is not like UFOs or the Bermuda Triangle, so in the next few years we'll see who was right and who was wrong.

Bubble/Bust Psychology

Relevant Links:
New York Times
Mr. Mortgage
Federal Reserve Bank of New York
CNN Money
LA Home Search
ABC News
Business Week
Dr. Housing Bubble
More CNN Money

Aug 2, 2008

Fruits and Flowers

I picked up a few postcards in an antique bookstore in Budapest when I was visiting a few years ago. They are from 1904.