Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Stop Flipping That Flipping House

A recent ad in the Austin American-Statesman trumpeted that 88,000 Austin adults owned homes for investment purposes, and as the housing market begins to cool nationwide, a recent article in the same paper stated that sales of single-family homes in Austin for the month of August were up 6% from the same month last year and the median sales price was up 8% to a record $182,500. Homes are on the market an average of 60 days, down from 67 days last year. For the first 8 months of 2006, the number of homes sold in Austin are up 12% over last year's figures.

While Austin is still well below the national median sales price of $231,100, the sale of homes nationwide has dropped 5% while Austin's housing market continues to climb. The same article states that Austin home sales in the $900k to $1 million range were up an astonishing 70% and the sale of homes priced in excess of $1 million saw a jaw-dropping 60% increase.

The article also alludes to the influx of buyers from pricey markets out-of-state. The people driving around town with California tags still on their cars sure do have a guilty look on their faces, but who can blame them? Young families have been scattered to the four winds in search of more affordable housing, unfortunately, affordable for a Californian is quite pricey for the rest of us.

It doesn't take a genius to know that real estate has been a solid, stable and lucrative investment over the past few years as the stock market has fluctuated enough to make even the most patient investor woozy, but the dark side of this shiny coin comes from a story I caught the tail end of on ABC news.

The source of the story was data released by a realtytrac.com. Here's an excerpt from their press release:
RealtyTrac, the leading online marketplace for foreclosure properties, today released its August 2006 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report, which shows 115,292 properties nationwide entered some stage of foreclosure during the month, a 24 percent increase from the previous month and an increase of nearly 53 percent from August 2005. The report also shows a national foreclosure rate of one new foreclosure filing for every 1,003 U.S. households, the second highest monthly foreclosure rate reported year to date.
For the rest of the data, you can check out the entire press release here.

So, I know that there are a lot of factors at work here, but this is just the set-up for my rant:

Greed has blinded us to risk. Banks have loaned money to people they shouldn't have. Ordinary people have leveraged all their assets to buy and flip houses just to have a taste of "the good life," thereby creating a bloated and unrealistic picture of the value of the American home, you know, the place where people actually live, raise families and create memories.

The people who didn't jump on the real estate bandwagon live miles and miles outside of town in cookie-cutter developments where their good incomes are no match for the rate of appreciation closer to town. Forced to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic feeding into the places where they work from hither and yon, the unfortunates know that the price paid for a decently-sized house with a little bit of lawn is dear indeed and far greater than the sale price. Their communities have all begun to look alike. There's a Starbucks here and a McDonalds there. There's a Home Depot there and a Wal Mart here. These folks are the poster childs for the squeezing of the middle class. They've been squeezed right out of town.

As for those foreclusure rates, are they a harbinger of a return to normalcy, or are we too far gone? Don't get me wrong. America was built on brave, innovative and/or desperate people taking risks, but too many people taking the same risks reminds me of Deadwood. While some strike it rich, others go back to picking apples in Washington State... or even worse, end up cooling in the creek.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

I mean, Seriously!

What on Earth???!?!!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The ACL Fest Test

Eight stages, 130 bands over three days, and 65,000 people a day has an overwhelming ring to it. We opted for single day tickets this year just to get our feet wet. With Mark, Cindy and Jason coming in from Nashville for a long weekend, we figured all three days was a big time commitment, and there was a lot we wanted to see and do while our friends were here in Central Texas.
Maybe I'll have more on that later, but for now here are my personal highlights from our first ACL Fest last weekend.

1. The Shade. September in Austin is hot AND muggy. Fortunately, it's breezy too, and on Saturday we had some big fluffy clouds to block out that big ball of fire in the sky from time to time. We set up headquarters under a big tree by the Washington Mutual stage and were reluctant to leave it.

2. The Long Winters. This is the set I was most excited about, so I scrambled up close to the stage to snap this pic of Winters' frontman John Roderick performing my favorite tune of theirs (Cinnamon) on the patriotic guitar he said that he purchased for the festival.

This stage was the only one that was situated under a large tent, so it was a fairly popular way station for people traversing the festival grounds in between some of the bigger acts.

During this set we learned that the Winters were playing a set at the newly opened Mohawk on Red River later that night. In hindsight, I wish we had gone, but we're old and opted for a trip to Whataburger en route to the house.

3. Sunset. When the sun started to go down behind the clouds for good, there was renewed life among the festival attendees. The wind kicked up, and we finally left our shade tree to set up camp near the stage where The Raconteurs were performing.

Directly behind us, Iron and Wine's set quickly followed at the Heineken stage, and for a guy with a reputation for putting crowds to sleep he put on a pretty exciting show, unlike Aimee Mann who seemed to suck the life out of that corner of the park with her droning performance earlier.

4. The End of the Day. We temporarily lost Mark and Cindy in the teeming mass of people that had flooded the western end of the grounds for Willie Nelson's first ACL Fest appearance ever. From our extreme angle to the right of the stage, we got to see the massive Texas state flag rise from the stage to reveal Willie and his trademark red bandana. About thirty minutes into Willie's set and sometime after getting to hear "Crazy" (for once, not the Gnarls Barkley song), Mark and Cindy emerged from the crowd, and we began our one-mile trek back to the car.

For more on the festival, check out the Official 2006 ACL Recaps

Friday, September 08, 2006

An Idiots Guide to Idiocracy

Yep, that's us at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on South Lamar last Friday. The picture was taken and included in a review of the film we were about to watch by Austin resident, Jette Kernion.

It's a tiny tragedy that you haven't heard of this movie, and it's not because it's that good. It's because there is so much that gets released that's one hundred times worse. You see, Mike Judge, the mind behind the cult hit Office Space, the long-running television show King of the Hill, and a couple of kids named Beavis and Butt-head, has a new movie out. It's called Idiocracy, and it premiered last weekend in a piddling 7 cities: Austin, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, and Toronto (that's right, New York, you'll have to wait for the DVD). Twentieth Century Fox has no plans to release the film any wider. In addition, the decision was made not to market the movie. There were no trailers or television spots, and there certainly weren't any advance press screenings. In other words, Friday night was probably the closest I've been to a World Premiere, albeit one without a shred of fanfare.

Much of Idiocracy was filmed here in Austin with several locals in the cast and crew. Mike Judge lives here as well. The theater was pretty full so it crossed my mind that this might be an impromptu cast party for a film that had completed principal photography over two years ago, but they probably didn't get the news that the film was opening that day either.

As for the movie itself, here's a synopsis:
Writer-director Mike Judge's ("Office Space") unique brand of humor examines an average guy who volunteers to be the subject of a hibernation experiment that goes awry. He wakes up 500 years in the future, discovering that he's the smartest guy on the planet.
Funny premise, right? Well, I can tell you that the first twenty minutes of this film is a riot. The remaining 75 minutes is as much funny as it is wildly uneven. It sustains clever idea after clever idea while trafficking in the lowest of lowbrow humor, but in the dumbed-down society of the future, we're not all that surprised to see that Starbucks has started selling sexual favors in lieu of grande mocha frappucinos and that everone wears Crocs. If the movie has an overriding fault, it's that it's overstuffed with similar ideas, a few of which miss the mark or get too much attention. In this movie's case, the devil really is in the details.

While you don't go see a movie of this type for character development and an intriguing plot, the whole thing hangs on the hope that the premise and its accompanying sight gags don't wear out their welcome before the credits roll. Luckily, the movie makes it across the finish line just in time by leaving out the protracted parts that malign most modern comedies, namely, the long denouement where the film's protagonist mends his errant and anti-social ways just in time to be the hero, virtually pulling the rug out from under everything that made his antics funny in the first place. This time we know the guy's gonna be the hero. He's the smartest person in the room (nevermind the planet), but he's also the straight man. The hilarity is running rampant around him, and this is truly a hilarious film.

It's too bad that most of you won't see it.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"But I went out and achieved anyway!"

My friend the Mouse Asthmatologist brings up a very interesting point in his latest blog posting. One that I will need to dig into and report back on later. But for now, I have something that's fairly loosely related. Something, that once I do the aforementioned digging and do the aforementioned reporting, should, in a circuitous fashion, make sense.
At any rate, for now...

So, I was recently doing a little backgrounding into the history of the PCR for a lab presentation and was a little shocked and very amused at what I found. For those of you in science, this is a probably an integral part of your daily lives. For those of you not in science--as creatures of our modern day society--you will no doubt be able to find a link to it as well. In a nutshell, it's a process by which small amounts of DNA can be repeated and amplified into millions, even billions of copies. It is, for all practical purposes, what has changed the face of pretty much any science in the last 20 years. From Forensics and Genetic Fingerprinting (ever seen an episode of CSI?), to parental testing, Archeology, Paleontology, to any and all medical/biological research. And THIS GUY is apparently the brains behind it. That's all well and good, but the part that got me was his admission (and now I'm paraphrasing here) that if it hadn't been for the LSD...
Heh-heh. I'll repeat that.

If it hadn't been for the LSD, Kary Mullis may never have conceived of the PCR. Yeah. Wha?
As I poked around a little more I found this article which actually lists several famous "Stoned Scientists," from Stephen Jay Gould and famous naturopath Andrew Weil to Sigmund Freud and, of course, Timothy Leary and the awards they went on to achieve. Mr. Mullis went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993.
He's also written an autobiography that will most likely end up on my Amazon.com Wish List.

So, no, it's not like brilliant minds and their ground-breaking triumphs in association with drug use is a new phenomena. And I'm in no way condoning the use of illegal substances. I'm just, quite honestly, flabbergasted. And fascinated.
But that shouldn't and doesn't surprise me. I hadn't really given it much thought. (See last posting's small hometown and college references. A little green and naive, perhaps?)
I'm just amazed at what leaps and bounds (not to mention how much easier my life is--or IS it?-- because of the technology) can be made at the hands of the human mind and the alteration thereof.
I realize that's a pretty dodgy statement. But it's certainly something to think about. And who knows? Who will be the next Giant in Science and what will he or she discover and will or won't drugs be involved?

Because you know what that means.....

Monday, September 04, 2006

Another version of the Chicken and Egg Debate.

Ok, ok, ok. I know you've been wondering, because I have too. It's been a little over 3 months since Jon and I moved to Austin and I began working at the University of Texas. And now that school has started back and the sidewalks are literally CLOGGED with wide-eyed undergrads and already-jaded graduate students, faculty and the ever-present-sometimes-maladjusted staff, my hopes and dreams of going just one day without seeing SOMEONE wearing burnt orange have been dashed to pieces.
And then there's THIS. For a non-native Texan it's a bit confusing on the onset (Heavy Metal and all things Ozzy, Satanism, right?) Yes, true. BUT it's also the "Hook 'Em Horns" UT pep rally unifier. It's also School Spirit! And in a state where you've got nothing unless you've got your state pride, it only stands to reason that there would also be overwhelming amounts of school spirit.
Apparently a hand gesture brought about by the imagination of a cheerleader by the name of Harley Clark in 1955--which actually predates heavy metal music, but unfortunately not Satanism.
And NOT to be confused with the Corna or the American Sign Language symbol for "I Love You."
You'd be AMAZED. It's everywhere.

Fans do it.

Students do it.

Kids do it.

Random people do it.

Famous people do it.
(Yep, that's McConaughey--it was cold out that day--he had to keep his shirt on--drats.)

Leann Rimes does it.
(A native Mississippian and current resident of Nashville, TN, but Whatev.)

Even George Foreman does it.

Only trouble is: it's apparently a little offensive in other cultures and can be mistaken for a symbol of infidelity.
Which is what makes these next pics so darn amusing.

But I digress...

Don't get me wrong. It's great to have school spirit. But at one of the nation's largest universities it's a tad overwhelming and well, shocking. Rather, over-the-top and annoying. Especially since it's so fun to actually do--so natural to the fingers. Especially for one who never really had any school spirit. C'mon--Band Geek from a small hometown where my every Friday night for 4 years was dictated by the high school football team and we had to sit on the track next to the field so it wasn't like we ever got to really watch the games--it just resulted in a lot of missed X-Files episodes.
And the college I went to didn't even have a football team...so...what'd you expect??
At any rate, Hook 'Em Horns!