Bursting any day now

The writing has been on the wall for ages but the real estate bubble’s getting really bad lately. Now I know my friends in SF have been hearing about it for a decade, but let me tell you: it exists and it’s real because it’s hit my out of the way corner of Oregon.

I remember before the internet bubble burst and friends in far off places like Austin, Texas were talking about all the new construction, the big salaries, and lack of employable talent. I remember thinking if the madness that happened South of Market could migrate halfway across the country to a place like Austin, it was bound to burst. NY and SF are where the internet hype started, and I’d call LA and Seattle 2nd wave cities. Austin I’d consider a third wave beneficiary of the bubble time and if it ever burst, those in the 2nd and 3rd wave would be hit hardest. Just a few months later everyone I knew in a Texas dotcom was out of work.

So we’ve owned our first home for about 18 months now and I watched real estate up here for a while before we moved, and prices barely budged. But in just the past six months, everything is skyrocketing. We are considering moving up to a house with an extra bedroom (having a baby that gobbles up your extra room tends to make you want to upgrade) and we found out our home has gained quite a bit in value in this short time. We were thinking a price that was about 10% over what we paid in late 2003 was pushing it. Turns out the local market is bearing a 30% gain on the house in this short amount of time.

Of course, any gains we make from the bubble will be gobbled up by a follow-up purchase. When we arrived in Oregon, I distinctly remember how refreshing it was to see affordable housing that was completely unlike the Bay Area’s ridiculous prices. What is shocking to me today is that this small out-of-the-way town in pretty much the middle of nowhere has a couple new neighborhoods with large custom homes pushing the half-million dollar mark. It’s like the Bay Area all over again, but worse since it feels like we’re sort of in one of those third wave kinds of places far from the source.

When things are getting bad this far off the beaten path, I have a strong feeling the end is near. The economy is doing better than it was, but it’s not great. The interest rates are really what is making this happen and they have nowhere to go but up, causing the entire house of cards to collapse. I’m counting the days until that happens and wondering if I should take the plunge in this market. We hope the next house will be something we can grow with and hold onto for a good 10-15 years, so maybe any temporary market correction is moot.

Getting Things Organized

I have to admit I’m a bit of slob. If there’s a horizontal surface near me, chances are I’ll stack piles of crap onto it until it falls over. I’ve been meaning to get my act together for a while now and last week I finally took the initiative to overhaul my home office.

This flickr set shows the before and after shots

Some tidbits worth sharing from the experience:

– Getting all the furniture picked out at IKEA was pretty easy using their office layout tool. Just measure your room, doors, and windows, then plug the numbers into the app and start filling your virtual room with their stuff. At the end you can print out a parts list, which I took to IKEA and an employee ordered everything up in about 60 seconds. Much to IKEA’s credit, their website also list product availability (I looked up every part before I made the three hour drive to Seattle last week) and the site even tells you the dimensions of the box things come in, so you can make sure it all fits. Total cost for a new desk, rolling file cabinet storage, double file cabinets, floating wall cabinet, and narrow double wall cabinet was about $900.

Interface FLOR carpet tiles are really cool. They should have a flash/java app to let you create rugs and order on the fly, but I managed by just measuring my space and figuring out what I needed. Total cost was about $60 with shipping.

Putting in laminate flooring wasn’t too difficult mentally but a lot of work physically. I can see why most people get theirs installed by professionals. There was much sweating and swearing when I came up three boards short at the end and had to buy a whole box to finish the final pieces. It’s all worth it in the end, I love being able to roll around on a hard floor in an office chair, instead of being stuck in pitted carpet. Total cost of flooring was around $400 for the 100 sq ft room.

– I was going to display small photos by stringing metal wire between eyelets screwed into the wall (kinda like this), by using clips to hold the pics on the line. But when I was getting parts at Lowes, I noticed they sell adhesive-backed strips of magnetic tape, and small magnets to attach stuff to them. That worked great and meant no drilling holes and putting eyelets in drywall screwholes. I’m going to put several more strips along my whiteboard wall to display prints I like. The best part is the magnetic tape and small magnets were a whopping $3 total.

It was a lot of work and most of it was squeezed into two days, but it took a few more hours to finish all the details. I now have more file storage than ever and tons of space to store books, photo paper, camera parts, and all the knicknacks I’ve collected over the years.

I’m really happy with the results. I honestly haven’t had a clean office in many years and I’m looking forward to doing work everyday in it.

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A MetaFilter user passed away and my condolences go out to his family. I recall his contributions and his entry in the recent redesign contest.

An odd reminder of this will stick around for years on my computer. I now have three names in my email client that can auto-complete, but the recipients will never see them, as they’ve left this world.

Strange, Troubling Privacy

There’s a new service that will delve into the background of anyone in the US and it’s freaking reporters out, even though it hasn’t launched yet. But you know what’s even freakier? Why reporters hadn’t written about this sooner.

Last summer I was trying to figure out what strange phone area code I missed a call from and one of the Google text ads in my searches was for “USA People Search.” I tried it out on my own name and what I got back astounded me. I tried friends, spouses, ex-lovers, coworkers, and family. Everyone’s entire life story was easy to locate and I would IM friends asking “Did you go to school in Philly back in ’92?” then I would show them how I figured it out and we were collectively freaked out. I never made a post about it because I wasn’t comfortable exposing my life story online, but since it’s in the news I might as well tell you it’s not only as bad as they say it is, but potentially much worse.

The problems these sites present is many: any employer, friend, or foe can examine your life history if they simply know your name and your age. Famous and the non-famous abound on the service. For violent stalkers, this is the goldmine. For a low price you can not only track your victims, but get their phone numbers, addresses, list of all assets, and any tax problems they’ve ever had.

To see how scary it was, I tried it out myself, buying the $40 background plan for one George Walker Bush, a 58 year old from Washington DC and Austin Texas, including a criminal report on every George Bush in the state of Texas found in arrest records. I could see his entire home ownership life history, though the criminal background checks were off and none of his DUIs showed up.

I see these services as a problem, not by profiting from the sale of public data, but that this data gets out in the first place. I’ve had problems in my past with people harrassing me, and for the last 5 years have paid PacBell, SBC, and Verizon several dollars a month to keep my home address, name, and phone number out of phone directories. I read privacy policies when I sign up for services and I drop notes to companies when I disagree with their terms.

I value my privacy, pay for it, and spend some effort maintaining it. When I found out that my most recent address shows up in several of these services, I contacted each and requested that I be removed, to no avail. I believe the only thing tracing me to my two previous addresses are my having signed up with local utilities. At one address, my name wasn’t on the water, electricity, or cable bills, but one of the others must have allowed them to trace the location back to me. I find these services disturbing and wish politicians would draft consumer protection legislation to keep this sort of basic, yet sensitive data from ever getting out. I don’t mind if the police or gov’t need to do background checks, but I’m not comfortable knowing that anyone that’s ever had a beef with me can find me and contact me.

My childhood, seen by Google Maps


(My childhood, seen by Google Maps, originally uploaded by mathowie)

Something I never anticipated in a million years was finding out that my good friend Kathryn Yu recognized names and places in this shot, then over IM we realized we attended the exact same elementary school (she, 8 years after me, and it’s just off to the right edge of the screenshot). Turns out that she grew up less than a mile away from my house, and though I’ve known Kathryn for 3 years, it never came up until today. Unbelievable.

iTalk


(iTalk, originally uploaded by mathowie)

I’ve had my new iTalk unpacked for about five minutes and I’m amazed by how simple it was to use (just click into place, and push to record). Playback is easy and you can even use it as a small, tinny speaker.

It’s crazy to think you can store something like 20 hours of your own recordings with this and my mind races when thinking of how I would have used this technology when I was in college (napster could have been loaded with lectures, not music). I’m also thinking it could serve as a pretty cool way to record Kay and I talking about the upcoming baby for later (much later) playback.

Imagine how freaky it would be to hear a recording of your parents from 20 years ago, debating what to name you, talking how much you kick everyday, and how much they’re looking forward to meeting you.

update: this is exactly what I’m talking about. A great use of available technology.

Signs you need to cut back on the online shopping

The UPS man just drove up, but gave me the courtesy honk before coming to a rest in front of my house. The “hi! I’m here!” honk! When I was a kid the only person in the neighborhood that got that honk from the UPS truck ran a mail order business from their home. I haven’t bought anything off ebay in weeks, but he has been here twice this week. Time to back away from the computer…

Don’t be like your uncle Matt

The universe never fails to amaze me. Today I became an uncle for the second time, and my Brother-in-law and his wife purposely avoided finding out the sex of their child until birth. Apparently they wanted to go old school on that and be surprised.

A few weeks ago, we were talking to them and the subject of previous wagers on life events came up. I proposed a bet on the sex of their new child.

Now, my brother-in-law has degrees from MIT and law school, but he’s a man’s man. He loves beer, steak, and sports. I knew he’d be a fit father whether his first born was male or female, but I’m sure it’d be easier for him to have a boy. He was talking about how great it’d be to have a boy for the past 9 months, and they had the boy’s name all set (they were still undecided on the girl’s name).

In my 30 years, I’ve learned two things about life: it is never easy, and life is one big comedy.

Whenever you think you’re on easy street, the universe always seems to throw you a curveball. I knew a boy would be the easy way out, and that in life’s divine comedy, he was getting a girl. I put my money on girl.

Today, at 6:38PM, I won 50 bucks.

Growing old online

The other day I made a comment on someone’s blog and I noticed I was the only one that put my online pseudonym into the name field. Everyone else posted as “Jane Doe”, “Bill Simpson”, etc.. Thirty real people and then there’s me with my cute name. How quaint.

This is one of those moments when you notice you’re becoming a dinosaur.*

I would venture to guess it happened sometime in the past year or so, due to two factors. One factor is when movable type-based weblogs began proliferating with comments enabled. It clearly says “name” next to the name field, and not “username” as most previous applications did. The second thing is the explosion of Google and most everyone’s acceptance that anything they say anywhere will eventually be mapped back to their name. With Google, it doesn’t matter who you say you are, if people know the real you, your psuedonym will point to your real identity.

In some sense, people have given up on anonymity online**. If everyone has a long history in Google, it’s not that bad for any single person to have their life indexed. Essentially, if there are bad things to come from having your life online, we’re all equally fucked. I used to read papers written by online and community experts, who used to put a lot of stock into crafting separate online identities and for one reason or another, people just don’t seem to care anymore. Blogs started in the past year almost always give a full name to the author’s posts, they tell you where they live and where they work. Their comments area is populated with people openly posting their first name and last names as attribution. Many of the user accounts registered in the past year at MetaFilter (when user signups were on) are in the format Firstname Lastname.

I’ll probably drop the “mathowie” moniker from future movable type blog comments, as every day passes and I make a comment somewhere amid a crowd of real people, using a clever username feels more and more like an anachronism.

* Back in the olden days, my first email account was on a aging relic of a DEC, sporting VAX as the operating system. Your email username couldn’t include spaces and the max length on the field was eight characters, so few accounts were based on real names. I guess I brought that mentality to MetaFilter when I built it, seeing how Slashdot relied on usernames separate from real names.


** When I say “online” I’m only referring to blogs, not IM, IRC chat, gaming communities, or even community sites. Just blogs and other spaces within the reach of the mighty Google.