Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Knew Him, A Fellow Of Infinite ... Curses?

The grave marker of William Shakespeare, after several centuries of exposure to the footsteps of clergy in his home church in Statford-Upon-Avon, is in need of repair. This would probably not be newsworthy but for the warning on the grave, purportedly penned by the Bard himself:

"Blest be the man that spares these bones/And cursed be he that moves my bones."

In this ultra-rationalistic, post-modern era, a 400 year old threat still has people jittery. Rationalizations are being made by various people who care about such things that it is only the marker that will be restored; the bones will stay where they are. "The curse is irrelevant for this work."

I'm glad they got that sorted out. I'm sure ol' Will, quite chapfallen though he may now be, is well pleased.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mars Phoenix Lander Update

There was joy in Pasadena Sunday, when the Phoenix lander obeyed the laws of physics and completed its programmed suite of gravitational, aerodynamic and rocket-driven maneuvers to come to rest on the surface of Mars, intact and ready for business.

In addition to the now-usual clear pictures of the Martian landscape, the increasingly crowded Martian orbit yielded a unique view of the lander. For the first time, one probe observed the descent of another probe, as the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter caught sight of the Phoenix suspended beneath its parachute in the last moments of the lander's decent. The MRO saw it again today sitting on the Martian surface.

Well done, rocket scientists. Now, as the lander begins to dig ditches in the Martian soil, it's the geologists' turn to deliver something new to humanity's body of knowledge.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

That's It, Then

Within two weeks of lowering the price on the house into the "you can't ignore this one" range, we have three offers. As of this afternoon, the third of those offers was for full price.

At last.

We've put out the word to the two initial offerors to see if there is going to be any competition, but all indications are that this is going to be the one.

Almost eight months to the day since we first put the house on the market, and it took the buyer less than 24 hours to see the house for the first time and make a full price offer. Where were you these past eight months?

The reality of this all will probably sink in sometime later. It's going to be very hard to think of that house as someone else's. The buyers are a young family with a nine-month-old daughter. They were able to meet Kelly last night when they viewed the house, and learned that she has lived there since she herself was only six months old. They were able to see that kids can grow up there; I hope they have as much joy and success as we have had.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Game Is Afoot

At long (loooooong) last, we are starting to receive offers on the house. Unfortunately, the offers are low, well below our latest price drop. The house is now priced very competitively, as the low end of any comparison metric. And yet buyers still try to chip away at us.

It is encouraging to receive offers, because our last price reduction was designed to do just that. What remains to be seen is whether we can get enough offers to drive the price back up a little bit. The two offers on the table have not done that; we think there may be at least one more offer out there, and possibly one or two beyond that.

Having never personally sold a house, this is all a new and unsettling experience, especially since I thought it was a Californian's birthright to turn a huge profit on any real estate sale. In truth, we will, just not as much as we think we should have.

As Churchill would understand it, we may not be at the beginning of the end, but we are surely past the end of the beginning.

Monday, May 19, 2008

In the Shadow of the Moon

In my new circumstances as a temporary bachelor, I have gained more regular access to a television. Unfortunately, the television does not have cable or satellite access. The charmingly retro rabbit ears sitting atop the set manage to pull in six television stations, two of them well. As a result, my evenings are now spent watching DVDs as I try to get my money's worth out of Netflix after months of neglect.

For those with any interest in the space program, particularly the Apollo missions, "In the Shadow of the Moon" provides a fascinating insight into the minds of the men who traveled to the moon. Armed only with contemporary NASA and news archive footage, as well as present-day interviews with several of the astronauts, the filmmakers weave a compelling story out of events that are already well documented. Not only do the astronauts narrate the film with their recollections of events that took place more than 35 years ago, which they have undoubtedly done countless times before, but they provide insight on how the experience affected them.

The archival footage is often familiar, but sometimes spectacular, and endlessly fascinating as we draw farther away from that era of bold exploration. The astronauts themselves, however, are the stars of the show. Although the astronaut corps was generally viewed as universally tough, terse and supremely competent in their unique test pilot way, it seems that time has eroded some of that veneer, allowing the innermost personalities of the men to be on display. Michael Collins, the command module pilot of Apollo 11 (i.e., the one who didn't walk on the moon), steals the show with his erudite commentary, twinkle in the eye and playful sense of humor. Among others, no less memorable is the matter-of-fact intensity of Gene Cernan who nevertheless marvels, gruffly, about his certainty about the role of a Creator in what he had seen; the smiling joy of Alan Bean whose playful jealousy that he was not the first to walk on the moon is leavened by his awe at having been chosen to go to the moon at all, which he now channels into remarkable artworks; and the down-home nature of avuncular Charlie Duke, who was the person designated to communicate with the Apollo 11 crew as well as someone who walked on the moon in a later mission. I would gladly spend a day in the company of any of these men (well, maybe not Cernan -- he kind of scares me) listening to them spin the tales of their days in the Apollo program. In the sunset of their lives, they all seem to have reached a point of deep appreciation and wonder that they were given the opportunity to participate in such a momentous effort.

True to his reticent nature, Neil Armstrong did not sit for interview for this film. Armstrong is famously private, and advised the filmmakers (as they revealed in the director's commentary) that he did not want to place himself above the history of the missions themselves by talking about himself, as has been the inevitable since the day he became the first man to set foot on the moon. The ironic result is that although the other astronauts interviewed for the film show their age (for which the film is all the richer), Neil Armstrong remains forever young and confident, perhaps unintentionally burnishing his already towering legend.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is great fun for space buffs. I think it will have to be required viewing for my children as well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Cash, Only Credit

The recent confirmation that AT&T will not accept cash for the purchase of an iPhone in limiting purchases to one per customer has loosed a bee in the gadget-buying public's bonnet. Some speculate that AT&T wants to prevent untrackable purchases by employees and others who may try to resell the phones. and Apple Others take the darker view that AT&T and Apple want to track purchases in order to curtail "unlocking" of the phones (i.e., enabling them to work with systems other than AT&T). People who manifest a visceral dislike of Apple as potent as the slavish devotion exhibited by fanboys find in this development yet another example of Apple arrogance and artificial control of the market.

On a more basic level, some people are brought up short by the notion that a business can refuse to accept cash in payment for an item. Isn't cash our legal tender, valid for all debts? Yes, says the U.S. Treasury, but that is not the end of the story:

There is, however, no Federal statute mandating that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as for payment for goods and/or services. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise.

It may be unsettling and a little distasteful, but refusing to accept cash is not illegal. Foolish, perhaps, but not illegal.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Smart Is As Smart Does

The three largest US airlines, United, American and Delta, announced today that they will raise ticket prices by $20, in the form of a fuel surcharge. The airlines claim to be feeling the pinch of increased fuel costs, and are passing that cost directly to their consumers.

Notably absent from that list is Southwest Airlines. Ticket prices for Southwest flights have risen somewhat over the course of the last eight months (who would know better than I?), but Southwest has not forced its passengers to accept a sudden fuel charge. Why might that be?

As it turns out, those crazy discount airliners might just know what they're doing. Southwest has long had a practice of aggressively buying options on fuel far into the future. With the recent dramatic rise in fuel costs, maintaining a hedge on fuel has suddenly become a noticeable asset. Increased fuel costs will eventually catch up with Southwest as well, but its smarter strategies have kept it out of the trouble that always seems to find its rivals.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that United, American and Delta have also each been through bankruptcy a time or two.

Long Term Gain

The current reversal in residential real estate values has been a source of consternation generally and very practical difficulty personally. However, as this article from the San Francisco Chronicle correctly points out, real estate, if it is to be considered a growth investment at all, must be evaluated on a long-term basis. By that measure, most people who have been fortunate enough to have owned property for more than just the last two years have done pretty well.

According to the article, houses in the county in which we will soon live have dropped about a third of their value over the last year. However, over the last four years, the same market has only lost approximately 4% of its value, and is up almost 67% over the last eight years. Similarly, although the losses in real estate value in the Los Angeles area have been substantial, the values have only retreated to their 2004 levels. Thus, real estate purchased prior to that time has most likely yielded a gain for its owners.

Unfortunately for many people, much of the long-term gain was soaked up by second mortgages, lines of credit or refinancing. People in that position are now feeling just as much pain as someone who purchased property within the last five years. I know too many people who bought cars with money they gleefully "took out" of their houses. Thankfully, although we did borrow money against the increased value of the house a few years ago to pay for our landscaping renovations, the value of the house at that time still exceeded our total amount of indebtedness by a substantial amount, and the property appreciated more from there.

Although it has been a bit painful to wait (and wait and wait) for a buyer to come along who is brave enough to buy property in a falling market, we take comfort in knowing, as we always have, that we will realize a gain from the sale even after the price reductions that will be necessary to get the house to sell. We also know that we are very blessed to be in this position, something we never forget and a fact that makes it easier for us to remain calm and patient.

Sort of calm and sort of patient, anyway.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Edging Closer to Daily Nonstops to Mars

Another Mars probe is scheduled to touch down on the Red Planet this month. The Phoenix Mars Lander will descend to Mars' northern ice cap, where it will probe the ice for evidence of conditions that may have supported life. Unlike the recent Pathfinder and Spirit/Opportunity rovers, which were encased in large airbags and touched down by bouncing, the Phoenix Mars Lander will employ the more conventional (but riskier) retro-rocket landing technique. Tune in to NASA TV on May 25 to see geeky people staring at computer screens and, if all goes well, screaming, crying and hugging awkwardly.

Speaking of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, both continue to explore Mars, having been there since January 2004. They ran through their 90-day warranty period long ago. Opportunity has been on Mars for 1523 days so far, having traveled more than 7.25 miles. A small motor in the shoulder of its robotic arm has begun to stall on a regular basis, which may limit the science that can be performed by the rover by limiting side-to-side motion of the arm, but the rover otherwise remains functional.

Spirit has been on the planet's surface for 1543 days, in which time it has traveled over 4.7 miles. Spirit has generally been the more troubled of the two rovers, but continues to function, providing images and geological analysis of its surroundings.

Both rovers have proven to be remarkably capable and durable, yielding a wealth of information about Mars. The rocket and geological scientist geeks have done themselves proud.