Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Putting the Wraps on a Mixed Year

2008 was, in retrospect, not all that great of a year for the Nolley household, so it comes as something of a relief to close the door on it tonight.

Last year's New Year's Eve, we celebrated a year without pet tragedy, after a very rough 2006 in which we saw the deaths of two of the "dingoes" (Beth's dachshunds, Ziggy and Agi), our cat Moon, Beth's rescue cat Belle, and several "bappies," or baby cockatiels.  Unfortunately, this year saw the loss of Geronimo, the last of the dingoes and my favorite of our dachshunds.

Too, we bade our home in Vienna, VA, behind as the owners and landlords returned from a three-year sojourn in Europe; we'd expected to buy a home in plenty of time to move, but first I encountered an awful time selling my townhome due to a bad buyer, then we discovered just how long a "short sale" can take.  And even when everything seemed lined up to reach the finish line, we had our share of last-minute hurdles.

Then we got the Christmas Eve "present" of finding that Beth would be losing her job.  (Couple this with the premature end of my primary contract at work--due to the politics of a new director at the government agency funding us--and though I still have good job security, it's a stressful time of transition!)

I think you can see why we're anxious to be putting the bookend onto this year!

But not everything has been so bad.  I did get to do a fair amount of birding and have enjoyed the wilds of nature; we did eventually purchase Chateau Papillon and are slowly unpacking and completing some of our renovations.  And, of course, we have our health, our love of each other, and our families.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

FedEx: What Part of "Delivery by 10:30am" and "Priority Overnight" Do You NOT Understand?

As in each of the past three years, a Christmas gift for several family members was my annual "bird book," a labor of love that includes the best of my bird photography from the prior year along with narratives and facts about each of the birds and locations I visited.  And, despite the significant work on the book through the early fall, getting it wrapped up and finished came down to the absolute last minute, with my order going out on December 22rd--for which I paid a premium of $50 on top of the $54 FedEx Priority Overnight Express delivery charges to make sure it would arrive by Christmas Eve.

Everything looked good for an on-time delivery; printing house got the book printed and handed off to FedEx early on the 23rd, and FedEx then claimed a "by 10:30am" delivery on the 24th.  The package only had to go from Rochester, NY, to my house outside of Washington, D.C. (something a bit under 400 miles), after all.

On the morning of the 24th, I checked the tracking for my books and saw that they were "in transit" from Memphis as of about 7:00am.  Checking FlightAware for the day's scheduled FedEx flights to the Washington area, I figured it was on the second flight out that morning and would easily be delivered by 10:30am, as promised, and even printed out a copy of the flight path as "Santa's Sleigh."

Come that afternoon, my package still had not arrived, yet still said "in transit."  I called FedEx, waited on hold for a half an hour, and found out it was actually still in Memphis, having been "left on the ramp" and having missed that flight.  Fine; there were more flights to come on Christmas Eve, and the CSR thought I should still get it.

The next two flights were slightly delayed--not due to weather between MEM and WAS, but perhaps due to weather elsewhere delaying their arrival into MEM (though FlightAware didn't seem to think that to be the case).  And yet... my package missed both those flights, too.

I called FedEx back and waited even longer on hold and was told the package had, again, and inexplicably, had been left in Memphis.  "Somehow it didn't get loaded onto the flight," I was told, but the "helpful" CSR explained that they were operating the same schedule of flights the next day and several through the night, so it should make it by the 26th.

Now, note that the guarantee was for 10:30am on the 24th.  They couldn't even tell me it would reach Washington in time to be picked up at the FedEx counters which would be open on Christmas Day.  "I'm sorry," was the only apology I could get; no explanation as to how or why the package had been left behind so many times in Memphis.  Heck, in the 16 hours it had spent there, it could have made it to Washington on a truck; in the then-more-than-24 hours since it left Rochester, I could have driven to Rochester and back twice to pick it up in person!

I'll skip over the Christmas Day fiasco, where the package wasn't loaded onto the first truck to the local counter (and couldn't be picked up at the IAD facility, because it was "farther" away from my house)... and fast forward to today, when I had my request for a shipping refund denied by FedEx "with apologies for the inconvenience" due to the fact that FedEx's shipping terms and conditions allow them the cop-out that weather anywhere in the United States can allow them to skip out on a guaranteed delivery date.

Never mind that there was, according to the FAA, no appreciable weather delay between MEM and IAD (or DCA or BWI) all day on 12/24, and that according to FlightAware only a couple of FedEx flights to IAD had any significant delays--so FedEx can't seriously claim weather delayed the package.  No, they simply are using the excuse of bad weather in the Pacific Northwest (snow in Seattle and Portland, mostly) as the reason why my package got "left off the ramp" at MEM for several consecutive flights on Christmas Eve.

Next step: disputing the shipping charges with American Express.  I doubt that will succeed; FedEx will just play the "weather" cop-out with them as well.  However, this does go down as a huge black strike against FedEx in my opinion.  Though UPS seems to have more overall delivery issues in my experience, FedEx certainly has the more spectacular ones, from this Christmas fiasco to once leaving another Priority Overnight package off the fabled ramp in Memphis for five consecutive days.  Alas, DHL has been subsumed by UPS; though I used them least often, I always got shipments from Japan, Indonesia, and Hong Kong within 48 hours--and usually for less cost than a 2-day FedEx or UPS domestic package shipment!

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Very Hokie Home Office

The renovations at Chateau Papillon still have quite a ways to go; we've yet to replace the baseboards in the basement (and, in fact, still need to put down a narrow strip of cork flooring to finish the floor), and the library has been painted but little else as yet--no floor-to-ceiling shelves, no bamboo floor, no light fixtures.  But there is one room almost completely finished: my home office.

As you can see in the photo above, there's little doubt where I went to college.  I chose to paint the office walls in Home Depot's Collegiate Collection "VT Maroon" for an authentic look (more on that in the earlier blog entry, "Mothers, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Princesses"), and Linens 'N Things' going-out-of-business sale offered up these two orange curtains.  That VT football field rug came from Kohl's, I believe, via my parents.  The VT football endtable is a gift from my aunt Marian, like the Tiffany lamp.

Of course, my two diplomas were among the first things to be hung on the wall.  I'd really like to add another or two (I do need to finish my M.A. in English; a M.S. in Computer Science or a M.F.A. in Creative Writing would be nice, too)--but I'd have to move things around a bit to make space!

This disturbing Salad Fingers wall plaque (crafted by my sister and her husband, and hanging in my office only because Beth wouldn't have it out "in public" near the front door where I'd wanted to put it) holds several pieces of Virginia Tech "flair," including bowl game ticket stubs for two Sugar Bowls (including the national championship game for '99-'00), a Gator Bowl, and various Hokie-themed bead strands collected in New Orleans.

My office is a bit of a "Where's Waldo" exercise in picking out all the Hokie-themed memorabilia.  This shot of the side wall shows a Tiffany VT lamp my aunt gave me a few years ago, along with my custom-made VT shoes (from the now-defunct Customatix), a Hokie bird beanie baby, a photo of Hokies Matt, John, and Zina from the '06 UNC game, and--if you look really closely--the "Dr. Who" Hokie scarf Beth crocheted for me several years ago (yes, it's approximately thirteen feet of orange and maroon warmth).  As the library isn't finished yet, I've got many of my birding references as well as some of my signed and vintage hardbacks and favorite paperbacks set up in the office bookshelves for now.

Aunt Marian has given me several VT football-themed plates as well; I don't yet have a place set aside to hang them, though once the library is set up, I may put them atop my office bookcases.

Of course, my office renovations aren't quite complete yet; I still have to finish nailing up the baseboards and put in a strip of shoe moulding as well.  But for now, my office is certainly one of the more-complete rooms at Chateau Papillon.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thanks, Boeing, for a Very Unmerry Christmas

We found out on Christmas Eve that Beth is losing her job.

To make a long story short, Beth works for the Institute for Connecting Science Research to the Classroom, a group currently housed at Virginia Tech which works to connect the work of real research scientists to K-12 school science teachers.  Earlier this year, defense contractor Northrop-Grumman expressed interest in becoming the sole source of funding for the ICSRC's "One Mission" program.  Despite assuring the ICSRC that "nothing had changed" and that they still intended to fund the program as late as this fall, Northrop-Grumman decided at their December meeting not to do so "at this time."  With that sudden loss of funding, the Institute will for all intents and purposes cease to exist, costing Beth her job.

You may recall that Northrop-Grumman won a huge contract with the Air Force earlier this year to deliver the next generation of tanker aircraft... and that Boeing, their primary competitor, was furious.  Boeing played every card they could, claiming that Northrop's win would "send jobs overseas" (since they were subcontracting to Airbus-parent EADS to build the airframe itself) and would "threaten US national security" (because foreign companies were involved in the group--nothing new, mind you; I've worked with Canadian companies on defense work several times).  Boeing, too, is a union shop, and they managed to pull enough strings to get the bidding re-opened (thus costing Northrop the contract).

Worst of all: Boeing wasn't even ready with a new bid of their own!  They whined to the Pentagon and complained that they needed "more time" to put together a bid.  (And the tactic worked: the Air Force decided to delay a decision on the re-opened contract to allow Boeing more time to assemble a workable bid that wouldn't simply be rejected out of hand.)

While Northrop-Grumman didn't single-out the loss of the tanker contract as the reason they declined to find the ICSRC, it's pretty clear the loss of that much money had to have been a major role in the decision.

So now Beth is out looking for a new job, surely at a significant pay cut given the current economic situation we face.  Boeing's argument that Northrop's contract win would cost US jobs has come back to bite them, for at least three US jobs have now been lost by reversing that decision (and I am sure Northrop themselves have had to curtail hiring and potentially even lay off employees involved in the original contract effort).  Thanks again, Boeing (and Northrop-Grumman) for giving us a very un-merry Christmas this year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Celebrating the Holidays Early--Gotta Make That the Plan!

Each year, the holiday season--Christmastime, to the vast majority of Americans, myself included--seems to arrive sooner. I'm never ready. No matter how much shopping for gifts I've done ahead of time, there's still those last few to find and wrap. The menu doesn't get planned out, so hopefully the pantry's well-stocked for those forgotten-but-critical items needed after even Wal-Mart closes its doors on Christmas Eve. Decorations still need to be put up. And for someone creative like myself, the deadline for completing those hand-made gifts looms like the proverbial freight train at the end of the tunnel. Don't forget, either, the visits to friends and family spread out across several states--even though both Beth and I enjoy spending Christmas at home together.

Beth and I came up with what we thought was a pretty good idea to help address these stress-inducing holiday problems a couple of years ago: celebrate on the Winter Solstice. That leaves us Christmas itself to spread out, round-robin, amongst the family we want to visit.

Too, for the pair of us atheists, it helps divorce our own celebrations from a Christian holiday. Not that we object at all to "Merry Christmas" or decorating our "Christmas tree," mind you (we're not soliders in the religious right's preceived "War on Christmas" at all, and we both absolutely love Christmas time!)--but we would like to have people realize our celebrations aren't so much for the birth of the central figure in their mythology but rather to enjoy the spirit of giving and of family and companionship that this time of year brings.

(To go off on a brief tangent, if the average Christian were honest with himself, he'd realize that "Christmas" as practiced by 99.99% of Americans is an absolutely secular holiday with but a passing nod to the birth of Jesus--who, if he existed at all, almost certainly wasn't born anywhere near December 25th, the date chosen by the Church to try winning over converts who observed the Roman Saturnalia or various other "pagan" celebrations set around the time of the Winter Solstice. Charlie Brown's decades-old lament about the commercialization of Christmas should be truer for Christian observants today than ever!)

Anyway, though we've talked up that notion before, we've yet to actually incorporate it into our holiday planning. As was the case the past two years, a major gift to several family members is going to be my bird book, which highlights the best of my bird photography for the past year.  Let me tell you something: putting that book together is NOT easy! I thought I'd made good progress this year well ahead of schedule, as I had done a good two-thirds of the layouts by September, leaving room for the inevitable photos I'd get on several fall business trips to the west coast. Alas, despite several late nights and a day taken off work, I still got the book off to the publishers about two hours past the cutoff for Christmas delivery (though there's still the chance they'll ship today, I guess). And there are gifts I've still to make for others: artwork to be done, cards to be designed, and photos to be presented.

Perhaps if we really set the Solstice as our deadline to celebrate, we'd not be running right up to Christmas. Next year?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Trials of Glued-down Carpet

Neither Beth nor I are much fond of carpet in the home. First, we both suffer various allergies, and not only does carpet typically harbor a fauniferous zoo of dust mites and their sneeze-inducing feces (yech!), but its fibers trap various outdoor allergens tracked in by humans and animals alike (pollen), and liquids can transform the padding and backing into mold and mildew factories. Our relatively short time in a temporary apartment saw increased congestion and related allergic symptoms in both of us no matter how much vacuuming we did, due I suspect to the wall-to-wall carpet.

So in moving to Chateau Papillon, one of the first orders of business was the reworking of the floors. Though the kitchen, dining, and entry hall were done in stone tile, and the living room left in original wood, the three upstairs bedrooms had been carpeted, as had the entire basement. We opted for bamboo for the bedrooms (true tongue-and-groove planks, mind you, and not cheap laminate), planning for the light-toned wood to offset the rich color palette we'd selected and help keep the smallish rooms as "open"-feeling as possible--with the added benefit that the Premium Green Bamboo we selected was inexpensive and represented a "green" flooring option in that bamboo is a largely- and rapidly-renewable resource, unlike traditional hardwoods.

But more on the bamboo in a later post. For the basement, Beth opted for cork, another renewable resource (the bark is harvested every five years or so, with the trees themselves never cut down) and one well-suited to her living space, providing a softer, warmer floor surface than other woods or materials like tile. Cork installs like laminate flooring, "clicking" together in either a floating or glued-down installation. But first things first: the basement floors were very nice carpet, which we'd hoped to salvage and make into a few throw rugs...

I'm cutting strips of carpet to pull up in the basement--tedious work!... until we discovered the basement carpet had been glued down instead of stretched and tacked as was done in the bedrooms. While not unusual for installations over concrete or tile, the carpet glue made our renovations quite painful.  I initially tried pulling up the whole carpet, but quickly discovered how sticky the glue was and gave up on salvaging the carpet.  At that point, I had two options: cut the carpet into strips (which individually would be easier to remove), or apply some solvent to help dissolve the glue.  Given we were trying to avoid fumes--recall we chose low-VOC paints for the basement--and the furnace and water heater would have to be turned off to prevent a possible explosion from the flammable solvent vapors, you can guess which option we chose.

Chance makes his home in one of the strips of carpet we'd cut.Chance decided he'd "help" as he so often does: by climbing atop (or, as in the photo above, into!) the carpet as we were removing it.  Crazy Chance!

We had to remove the carpet in stages; between cutting the strips (itself a difficult task which wore out my hands and several utility knife blades), pulling them up, and using an industrial-strength floor scraper to help pry up the carpet and padding and remove any particularly-stubborn patches of glue, it was back-breaking work.  As a reward to ourselves (and a break from the carpet removal!), we started on the installation of the new floor before we'd even finished taking up the carpet.

Two layers of 6 mil polyethylene sheeting went down atop the old vinyl tiles to act as a vapor barrier and help keep moisture away from the new cork floors, followed by a layer of half-inch OSB sheeting to act as a subfloor (this I had to "shoot" into the old floor using .22-propelled concrete fasteners; I'm sure the neighbors wondered if World War III was breaking out with all that noise!).  After that, the cork "tiles" (approximately 3' x 1') went down, with painter's tape on the seams to help keep prior rows from moving as new ones went in.

The last few rows of flooring to be completed... showing the vapor barrier before subfloor installation.
We're almost done with the basement flooring; above, you can see the last bits of exposed vapor barrier along with a bit of the OSB subfloor.  We've finished now up to the last strip, a 3" or so border down the edge of the wall; once that's done and I fill in some gaps along the base of the wall with foam sealant to keep out bugs and moisture, it will be time to put in the new baseboard.

Although it was a LOT of work, I think the cork floors look great.  They're environmentally-conscious in that cork is incredibly renewable, and the brand we chose had very low VOC content (the glues used in their construction make next to no use of formaldehyde).  They're soft underfoot and warmer than I'd expect for installation over a concrete slab.  Overall, we're both quite pleased with the work so far!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Rights Day + "A Day Without Gays"

Today was Human Rights Day, and also, incidentally, "A Day Without Gays"--the latter an event staged to express support for gay rights (expressly, opposition to the travesty which was California's Proposition 8), whereby gays and those who support their basic human rights were to take the day off, and ideally devote themselves to activism.

Although I'm happily straight (and married!), I did take today off from work. I'd toyed with the idea of doing so in support of equality and rights for all people when I first heard of the event, and given the amount of work Chateau Papillon still needs, the 2008 bird photologue which is still to be completed (and needs to be at the printer's in time for Christmas gifts!), and a Friday deadline for a Bird Watcher's Digest submission, I decided that indeed, today would be a great day to stay home from work.

I'm no closer to having the bird book done and have spent a lot of the day on photo editing for my magazine submission, but I do feel good that in some small way, my day off expressed some support for the equality which every human being deserves.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mothers, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Princesses

Or, at least don't let them paint their rooms that way! When we first visited what would become Chateau Papillon, a couple of rooms stood out as testimony to the family's little girl in residence: fuchsia walls, lavender ceilings, and the whole nine yards of Disney's princess motif. Although I'm sure the decor worked quite well for the little girl, it wasn't going to stay when Beth and I began our renovations. One room would become our library, and the other my home office.

My home office to-be, 'before'

A consultation with the paint desk at Lowe's on how best to prime the walls and ceiling for repainting led to some "Maximum Color Hiding" primer plus a can of flat white ceiling paint; Home Depot provided the wall paints in a Virginia Tech maroon and a grey primer to go beneath it.

Let me tell you: priming walls is no fun at all. I put an entire gallon of that "maximum hiding" primer onto the small room's walls (my office is approximately 10' x 10') in two full coats and some additional touch-up, and you could STILL see the fuchsia shining through. Likewise, the ceiling was even less pleasant and took two coats of primer as well, leaving a hint of lavender showing, too.

Several coats of primer later...

The ceiling then took two more coats (four total!), this time of flat white ceiling paint. I think I removed all traces of purple, but it's tough to be sure. At any rate, nearly two gallons of white paint later, and the room was ready to get its new colors. Beth painted a coat of grey base to go beneath the Hokie maroon (recommended by Home Depot to help the maroon show up properly), then I followed that up with two full coats and some spot work in maroon paint.

Almost done! The second coat of VT Maroon is drying.

Though the above photo shows the maroon paint in various stages of drying--and thus appearing fairly streaky and purple to boot--the end result does look good, and once I have the baseboard in place and the furniture arranged, I'll post a photo of the finished product. After painting, I put down a layer of bamboo flooring (full tongue-and-groove boards--no laminates!) and have cut, but not fully installed, baseboard; shoe moulding is going to be one more required touch to fully conceal the floor's edges. And, of course, I hung orange curtains...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lost Chapters in the Saga of the Gas Range

In covering the saga of the gas range, I managed to leave out a few details (and have subsequently discovered a couple more verses in this long Edda as well). Actually, well before the wall had to be notched to accommodate the new range's wider-than-specified console, I had to take out an ancient through-the-wall kitchen vent (a major draft source!)

My grandmother's house had one of those vents next to its range, too, if that gives you a better idea as to the age of the fixture--and from the amount of grime on the vent fan itself, this one could have certainly been an original to the house circa 1964.

First, I had to pry off the faceplate; I then was able to unplug the fan itself and pull it from the duct. I considered routing the range hood's vent out the same hole (the hood currently vents into the kitchen--less than ideal--but direct venting the hood outside would require knocking another hole in the exterior wall), but the ductwork necessary was going to be problematic (two tight 90-degree elbows which would likely become grease and gunk traps).

So, I cut a piece of cardboard to the size of the existing duct and caulked it into place, blocking off the end of the duct from further drafts. After that, I filled the rest of the duct with fiberglass insulation, caulked around any gaps, and put a heat shield in place to cover the now-filled hole through the wall (no need to redo the drywall when it's behind a piece of metal!)

As for those new discoveries? Well, don't order a gas range online. I've read and re-read the specs as presented on the Sam's Club Web site, and nowhere does it say that the range is 31" wide at its widest point (the failing which led to my having to notch the wall); to be fair, GE's own specs don't list the 31" dimension, either, unless you dig pretty deeply. But also nowhere on the site does it say the range has a broiler drawer and not a standard waist-high broiler! In effect, there's only the lower gas burner in the oven, with none at the top, and the drawer underneath the oven holds a broiler rack. Problem is, large things (like turkeys) cannot be broiled in the drawer--only stuff like toast, steaks, and fish fillets, and broiling involves bending over to floor-level; any decent chef knows the mise en place for a good kitchen minimizes awkward movements and actions for tasks done frequently (like broiling).

I'll have to live with the limitations of a broiler drawer for now, because I'm not about to buy another new range (nor can I afford one at present). I think I could have spent $100 more and gotten a range better meeting my expectations--problem was, the Web site presented it as having a smaller oven (probably so--to account for the additional waist-high broilers). I guess when we tackle some major kitchen renovations--such as expanding the kitchen itself when we build a sunroom for the birds and extend the kitchen over it (and add a sunny little breakfast nook), we'll replace with a couple of in-wall ovens and a cooktop on an island; 'til then, we're stuck with this range.

I tried doing a lot of Web research in picking out the right model for our budget and feature requirements, but never could find the exact model numbers anywhere to make sure everything lined up (and, to be fair, GE has several dozen models nearly identical and within a few hundred of each other in price, making things even more difficult). Shame on me for not doing more research, and shame on Sam's Club for such poor description of their items on their Web site.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Saga of the New Gas Range

Cooking is one of my passions--so in house shopping, each potential home's kitchen received a bit of close scrutiny: the layout of this one was bad, that one had older appliances, this one had too little counter space, etc. The biggest lack at Chateau Papillon was its electric range; I'd gotten a bit spoiled to the cooking efficiencies of gas while at the rental home on Tapawingo Road. But Chateau Papillon, unlike several homes we looked at, already had natural gas running to the house--so converting to gas for cooking couldn't be that difficult, could it?

First things first: we got estimates and hired plumbers to come out and run a gas line to the kitchen; the existing gas line entered on the opposite end of the house, where it fed the furnace and water heater. At least the drop ceiling in half the basement made it relatively simple to route the extension line, though it still involved multiple visits from the plumber, a Washington Gas subcontractor to re-do the meter and regulators, and the Fairfax County gas inspector.

Of course, I had to run a new electric line for the gas range, too. The electric range had a 220 volt range outlet in place; the gas range needed only basic 120 volt line service. The home's breaker box was full, of course, but removing the big 50-amp, double-pole breaker for the old range gave me plenty of room to add a 15-amp circuit for the new gas appliance. (Fortunately, I've worked informally as an electrician before, spending summers in high school working for my uncle's construction business--that saved us quite an expense!)

The biggest problem, though, became the range itself. The existing electric range abutted a wall--and bubbled paint testified to the poor choice of location that had been; our home inspector recommended a heat shield for safety (and with a gas range's high heat output, a doubly-necessary precaution!) So I put on order a metal plate that would cover the wall next to the range and thought no more of it--and after some measurements, ordered the gas range itself.

I'd ordered a fairly basic GE gas range, one with a "power" burner and another "precise simmer" burner but little else fancy (we'd after all just spent several hundred thousand dollars on the home plus thousands more in our initial renovations). Its dimensional specifications matched the electric range we'd be replacing, so once the gas line was in place, we'd be set, right?


What GE didn't mention in their specs was that the range's console was actually 31 inches wide, even though the oven and range top were but the specified 30 inches. In the recommended installation with at least two inches of space on either side of the range (remember the need for a heat shield due to the wall being so close?), that extra inch wouldn't be a problem... but in our tight quarters, it became a show-stopper. The only viable solution was to cut into the wall itself!

I planned to cut out the drywall alongside the range, replacing it with the metal heat shield I'd ordered. That would buy me at least a half an inch, which would not only let me get the range into place but would also be better from a safety standpoint as well, moving the wall surface back just that little bit more from the range.

As you can see in the photo above, I first cut (using a utility knife) the outline of the new heat shield, then used a drywall saw to slice away the wall itself. I even got a hammer involved--I realized once I'd cut the outline, there was no reason to wear myself out sawing through the drywall when I could just break it up into chunks and trim away the last bit of paper backing.

That got the space opened up; I then had to add some framing to support the new heat shield. Initially, I ran full 2x4's between the existing wall studs, but then I realized I only needed to put anchor blocks at the corners (notice the one to the upper left--necessitated by the routing of the light switch wires), which I attached via drywall screws to the remaining drywall. I then ran some J-bead along the exposed edges of the drywall, applied several coats of drywall compound, and sanded them flush to the wall.

The finishing touches included another coat of grey primer and two coats of VT Maroon paint; the heat shield then screwed to the supports I'd added, followed by a trim layer of shoe moulding mitered to sit inside the opening and reinforce the J-bead edges.

The range was still a tight fit, but not because of the console any longer. My work notching the wall and putting in place the heat shielding took care of that perfectly. A second heat shield went in behind the range; I will probably frame it in shoe moulding later to make it consistent with the side wall (and yes, we do plan to replace the microwave with a black unit to match the range later as well).

What a saga! Well, what's life without a bit of spice to it?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Chateau Papillon

Monday morning's closing went off without a hitch--so we're now the proud owners of "Chateau Papillon!"  After months of waiting (between the three-and-a-half months it took from our initial offer and winning acceptance from the seller's bank for the short sale to the month of getting ready to close--not to mention our other misadventures in real estate), we're chomping at the bit, so to speak, to get our new home ready and to move in.

First things first: this is, after all, Chateau Papillon, so we've several steps to make it a friendly home and yard for Didi and Chance.  We've gotten a few bids for fence construction and are moving forward with a privacy fence (both for our sanity and that of the neighbors--we want to prevent as much barking as possible!), compliments in part of Beth's mom, P.A.T., who wanted to give us a fence as a housewarming gift.

Next, the carpet has to go; once either doggie or any of their friends mark, it would become a sponge for pee.  The basement is getting environmentally friendly, sustainable cork; the bedrooms are either getting their existing hardwood refinished or will be receiving a new coat of solid bamboo (again, a "green" floor--sense a theme?)  Beth and I will be doing all the work, so within the limits of our finances, we'll largely be going with new floors vs. refinishing (it's actually cheaper that way--refinishing can cost an average of $5/sq. ft. and is a task we'd contract out, whereas our bamboo and cork cost, respectively, $2 and $3/sq. ft., and is a task we'd tackle on our own).

And there's repainting; not necessarily a task done for the benefit of the papillons, per se, but something we want (and in the case of the pink princess rooms, need for our own sanity).  And let's not forget the many small details that need to be addressed with any new home.

I can't wait to get back from my last business trip of the year and get to work!  Beth's already hard at painting prep and painting itself for the basement, and there's so much carpentry I have to get to, too.

Chateau Papillon!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Flying High with the Magic Wall

No, I haven't taken up recreational hallucinogens--but flying home this weekend from a business trip to Monterey, California, I did a double-take while waiting to board my first flight from tiny Monterey Peninsula Airport.

"Huh, that looks like CNN's John King," I thought as a silver haired gent came around the hall from a session with the TSA.  John King, aka "Mr. Magic Wall," he of the gigantic touch-screen display used throughout the 2008 Presidential election, and former CNN White House correspondent, was who came to mind.

Sure enough, on his heels was none other than CNN political correspondent Dana Bash, their lead reporter for coverage of John McCain's campaign for the Presidency.  The two sat down to wait for the flight; after a moment, Dana put her head tiredly on John's shoulder.  (The two, I found out later, wed in May.)

I'm sure both are seasoned travelers,  but apparently not well enough to choose the best seats on the little SkyWest Embraer 120 turboprop: King and Bash had been assigned the absolute back of the plane.  (I, on the other hand, held the coveted 9C, an exit-row window seat with several feet of legroom--one of my favorite seats in the United fleet).  In LAX, we all ended up on the same flight again: United 44, the red-eye to Washington-Dulles (yay for my upgrade finally clearing!)

I figured the pair were taking a well-earned vacation after the arduous election season; after all, Monterey is quite the destination for leisure travelers.  However, I had wondered why the two looked exactly like they do on TV, down to well-coiffed hairdos, and after getting home and taking a brief nap, I found out why: John King had interviewed California "Governorator" Arnold at his home in the Monterey area, then flown back to Washington... where he went in to work after the red-eye to sit in for Wolf Blitzer's Sunday program.  I don't know how TV personalities do it; I can barely function after a red-eye, and here King was on live television, apparently none-the-worse-for-wear.

And no, I am not a member of the celebrity-worship cult; I just found it interesting to share a flight with Mr. Magic Wall.  I mean, when you have a Saturday Night Live skit making fun of your raison d'etre, you're somebody.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

More "Bank Time" Is Giving Me Ulcers

Beth and I are scheduled to close on our home purchase on November 10th.  Yet I'm still in a state of constant anxiety and stress over the whole thing.  Why now?  "Bank time" again rears its ugly head.

You see, we still have not gotten the loan commitment from our lender.  Despite assurances from everyone involved that this is a "clean" and "vanilla" loan and that it could be done in "10-14 days," we're now well over 20 days and still don't have the commitment in hand.

I've wired my closing funds to the settlement agency; Beth has gotten the rest as a cashier's check.  We've gotten insurance; we've arranged for the changeover of utilities.  Beth is even ordering some cork flooring to be delivered to the new home so that we can get the order in place in time to get several discounts before they expire.

Worse, the investor approval of the short sale expires on the 14th.   You see, in a short sale, the home sells for less than the sellers owe on their mortgage, meaning the bank (and its investors) will take a loss.  Thus they have to approve the sale, and the terms of the approval for this one are good through next Friday only.  Now, it's quite possible to get an extension; that's not impossible and comes up fairly often in short sale transactions... but given it took three months to get initial approval, I don't want to risk additional delays and potentially losing the entire transaction!

Why the delays?  Our lender claims their underwriting department is "swamped" with closings from last month (apparently themselves delayed!)  Fine--but we have to have ours in place; we can't just delay at this point.  Everyone involved claims there are no problems, but Jesus Christ!  Give me a break, people!  If there are no problems, commit the loan--the funds HAVE to be wired to settlement in time for Monday, or we can't close!

I hate real estate.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The New Jim Crow, Or a Sad Night for Equality

Despite the elation of bringing change to the White House (and keeping Caribou Barbie as far away from it as possible), there was a big vote last night that fell solidly on the sordid side of history: it appears Proposition 8, aka "Proposition Hate," has passed in California.

Several states had ballot initiatives which addressed the rights of those of us who differ from the majority only in their sexual orientation, from three decisions on the legality of same-sex marriage to another which banned adoption by gay couples, but ostensibly California's Proposition 8 was the most important such measure to see the ballot, ever--for not only is California the largest state and thus carries a heavy impact upon the rest of the nation, but also its courts had thrown out a prior ban--making Proposition 8 a measure not only denying a right, but one which would explicitly take away an existing right.

That these issues were even on the ballot at all is a sad enough commentary on the United States electorate and the backwards views and bigotry apparently so prevalent in our country.

I'm a happily-married, heterosexual male, and I just don't get it why anyone feels their own marriage is somehow threatened by allowing a basic right to all.  Or why allowing gays to marry somehow threatens children.

I also don't understand how people can be quite so bigoted--particularly so many people who collectively have historically themselves been the victims of discrimination and persecution.  The Mormon church, for example, has certainly been one of the more persecuted religious groups in the history of the United States--and has even faced its own share of non-traditional marriage issues--yet they pumped tens of millions of dollars into California from out of state to ensure the passage of Proposition Hate.  African Americans by and large voted heavily in favor of 8 as well--reminding me of the gay black character in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, who lamented being "a minority of a minority."

One thing is for sure: we're seeing the creation of a new Jim Crow, and it's not a pretty sight.

Now, for the fallout.  I am neither a lawyer nor do I play one on television (and I most certainly did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night), but I wonder if the passage of 8 can see legal challenge in courts in California?  Ballot initiatives do not give anyone the right to violate the Constitution, so perhaps "equal protection" arguments can successfully be made, either at the state or Federal level (though with the latter, said challenges need to wait to for some of the damage done by George Bush's conservative appointees to be remedied--I would hate to see a Supreme Court of Scalia, Alito, Roberts, and Thomas taking up such a crucial issue).

And will existing same-sex marriages be rendered void, ruining the lives of many happy couples?  Surely that will be a sordid spectacle both in the legal courts and that of the public spectacle.  Is it time to push our Congresspeople to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act at the federal level?

I just don't know.  But I nonetheless find this a very sad day to be an American, making the triumph of the election of Obama bittersweet.  I don't even have a dog in this race, so to speak, with my happy, "traditional" marriage.  Yet I find I must shed a tear for this step backwards for equality and the civil rights of all Americans, and the dark blot on the pages of history Proposition 8 and its sister measures across the country represent.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Change Has Come

I'm proud to be a Virginian right now.  Sitting in California, I saw my home state called for Obama--an inevitable result as I'd watched the county-by-county returns and had seen how many votes were outstanding in Fairfax and Arlington Counties (heavily Obama areas)--and then had but minutes to go before the west coast polls closed with their certain results.  At 220 electoral votes with the Virginia call, California alone was going to be enough to put President-elect Obama over the edge, and so it did.

Watching the Election Results Roll In

So here I sit in scenic Monterey, California, where I'm currently on a business trip.  Having voted absentee in-person a couple of weeks ago, I proudly wore my "I Voted!" sticker and picked up my free Starbucks coffee (buying a slice of tasty pumpkin loaf and tipping the barristas well for the freebie).  Now I'm ensconced in my hotel room glued to CNN and the election results--with my Web browser pointed to CNN, the Washington Post, NPR, and my favorite online discussion forum, Flyertalk.

Now, I've been fairly confident for some weeks--since Republican candidate John McCain repeated his "The fundamentals of the economy are strong!" gaffe on the eve of the worst economic crisis the United States has seen in nearly a century--that the Democrats would carry the day.  But it's still an anxious evening of fascinating, edge-of-the-seat politics, and each called state brings a sigh of relief as the big must-haves roll in for Obama (Pennsylvania being denied the McCain camp earlier this evening the biggest so far--even though NPR had already called the race there earlier, I pumped my fist when CNN confirmed the call).

I do wish I could be at home with Beth and the Papillons to watch the results, but being in the Pacific time zone, I at least get to stay up "late" and catch all the returns without having to sit up until well after midnight.

That "Independents for Obama" bumper-sticker on my car is going to feel good in a few hours, I suspect.  (I'm a Libertarian by philosophy, and have voted for both major parties regularly--but I certainly do have my favorite in this race, and it's not Bob Barr.)

More to come!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Laptop Lemon and the Hardware Handyman

My current laptop has been something of a lemon at best--if not an outright cursed piece of hardware at worst.  Less than a month after I'd gotten it, it fell out of my laptop bag from a height of only a foot or so, but nonetheless cracked its case such that the stylus pen would no longer stay put (and I subsequently lost two $20 styluses). 

Now, I feel pretty comfortable doing repairs and work on laptops myself, including taking things well apart beyond pulling a drive or replacing the keyboard.  A prior laptop's power connector broke apart, and I replaced it with a metal-reinforced connector (out-of-warranty at the time); another had a fan failure which I later remedied.  But for the cosmetic case damage above, unfortunately, Gateway won't sell end-users the "plastics kit"--replacement plastic case parts--unlike some other manufacturers, so I've just had to live with that physical damage (Gateway wanted $300 to fix it, something I declined.)

But what else leads me to call my laptop a lemon?  At less than two years old, the keyboard began to fail, with several keys no longer responding to anything short of a right hook.  Fortunately, I'd bought the extended warranty, and Gateway shipped me a new keyboard free-of-charge.  Just after the warranty ran out, the internal network card began to fail; it dropped connections regularly (but unpredictably) and also saw weird signal degradation problems where an 11 megabit connection would slowly but unavoidably dwindle away to 1 megabit.  Fortunately, I found a replacement card--an upgrade to 54 megabits, no less--on eBay and swapped it out without much further issue.

Last year, the hard drive died; fortunately, though the death came all at once, it affected only the write heads--so I was able to plug the drive into a USB enclosure, set it to read-only access, and pull off all essential data.  I took that opportunity to upgrade the drive as well to something larger and faster.  At the same time, I maxed out the RAM by replacing one of the 512 MB DIMMs with a 1 GB module, having already done the same to the other DIMM when I replaced the keyboard.

The hinge on the laptop screen has been one of its worst-designed features; within a year, cracks began forming around the hinge's connection to the LCD panel, eventually widening to full-fledged breaks in the plastic.  This put stress on the wires and circuit boards within the screen and hinge, such that moving the screen would cause the tablet buttons to randomly fire (changing the screen orientation, etc.); fine, I disabled the button functionality.

For the past year or so, either the LCD screen backlight or the inverter powering it has been going kaplooey; at first, the screen showed an awful pink cast along the bottom, and more recently, the screen began to flicker.  A couple of days ago, the inverter began overheating to the point that the laptop screen's corners turned black (LCDs respond to heat--running the screen at a lower brightness or directly cooling it allowed the screen to recover).

This morning, the worst happened: the backlight failed altogether, and I haven't been able to resurrect it.  I'm hoping it's the inverter, but I'm following a couple of full screen modules on eBay at the moment, too, just in case the backlight itself has failed.  Worst thing is that I'm on the road for business travel and don't have access to any tools to take the screen apart... but at least I've got my work laptop, and being in Silicon Valley, I am hopeful I can find at least a replacement inverter, if not a whole screen unit, along with the tools I need to fix it (and which hopefully the TSA won't try to confiscate--they're allowed in carry-ons, but since when has the TSA followed their own rules?)

Sigh.  What a pain in the butt.  I'd buy a new laptop if (1) I weren't hoarding cash for our impending home purchase; and (2) installing and setting everything up again wasn't such a huge pain.  I may be a hardware handyman, but sometimes this job gets old.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Chateau Papillon, Here We Come!

Anyone who's kept up with this blog will know it's been a long, stressful summer as my wife and I have worked to buy the perfect home.  For the past three months--all visits to view "backup" homes aside--we've been waiting out a short sale.  That is, the sellers want (or in this case, need) to sell their home, but it's worth (significantly) less than the outstanding mortgage balance(s), and the bank must approve the "short" payoff of the loan as part of the sale.  That payoff is the only short thing about a short sale: our offer was in front of the bank for over three months.

Finally, this past week, we started to get good signs the sale might actually happen.  Technically, the listing agent had promised we'd have everything in writing over a week ago, and even took the sellers out looking for a rental home, but it wasn't until today that we got the official, ratified contract and short payoff approval from the bank.

(Long story there: Beth and I had done some courthouse sleuthing on the loan and property and found the originator had filed for Chapter 11 a couple of years back, but SEC filings for the mortgage lender showed the servicer... and though the listing agent would never share that with us, our sleuthing was indeed correct!)

So... we're moving forward to buying our first home together, which we've dubbed, appropriately, "Chateau Papillon."  Between our "deux Papillons adorable," Didi and Chance, I'm sure you can see the inspiration for the name.  Wish us luck as we go forward now; the only remaining snag could be if our loan appraisal comes in under the sales price (a real risk, given the falling market values in our area); if that's the case, we'll have to negotiate with the seller's bank for the lower purchase price--which might entail cutting the agents' commissions, something we don't want to see happen.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Careful with that Box, Pandora...

So America's favorite lipsticked pit bull (or is that pig?) has now decided to "take off the gloves" and start mud-slinging in earnest in her party's failing bid for the White House: Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin is questioning Barack Obama's judgment and playing the fear card by accusing Democratic candidate Obama of past associations--"palling around with," to use the Governor's folksy vernacular--with 1960s radical William Ayers.

This is clearly a desperate bid by the Republicans to divert attention from the massive economic problems the United States currently faces, which between the traditional "hands-off" regulatory stance of the Republican party--a contributory factor to the crisis--and the immense unpopularity of the administration whose actions (and inactions) also directly led to the economic meltdown, is a must for the party's presidential hopes.  It's a bid to cast the Senator from Illinois as lacking judgment.  And it's a bit of fearmongering, bringing up "terrorism" in a disingenuous fashion which tries to capitalize upon Senator Obama's middle name (Hussein) and persistent but factually-challenged rumors that the candidate is a Muslim; in other words, Sarah Palin wants you the voter to believe Barack Obama is in fact an Islamic terrorist in disguise.

Here's the problem, though: Obama's association with Ayers had already come up and faced scrutiny during the primaries with little effect; Ayers is certainly not a terrorist today, and due in part to the COINTELPRO scandal--where the FBI illegally spied on US citizens--he was never convicted of any terrorist activities, either.  Nor is his relationship with Senator Obama particularly close.  Apparently Governor Palin slept through her history classes, or at least the Democratic primary.

And the real kicker: should the Obama campaign want to sling some mud of their own and call up skeletons of questionable associations from Senator McCain's political closet, there's one Charles Keating, McCain's political mentor from his early days in the House and Senate.  Yes, the same Charles Keating whose criminal actions in the Savings & Loan collapse of the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a Congressional inquiry--an inquiry John McCain found himself smack in the middle of.  Though McCain escaped with only the official criticism of his judgement, his role in the Keating Five still stands as a blemism on his political record.

Even worse, the Keating Five scandal involved an economic crisis with eerily-similar parallels to the current subprime mortgage meltdown and subsequent fallout.  A crisis which found John McCain right at ground zero.

Should the Obama campaign wish to respond to Governor Palin and the McCain camp's criticism of his past associations (ironic, given Palin's own remonstrations to Senator Joe Biden during their Vice Presidential debate not to "look backwards") by brining up the Keating Five, John McCain will have not only whiffed on changing the subject away from the economy, but he will have brought the spotlight keenly into focus on his own role in a very similar economic collapse.  Not to mention things like former McCain chief economic advisor Phil Gramm, who called Americans "whiners" in a "mental recession," and whose deregulation--championed by McCain, no less--directly contributed to our present global economic mess.  (And need we be reminded of McCain's repeated "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" or his primary claim that he didn't know much about the economy?)

Yep, that's great judgment there, Senator McCain and Governor Palin.  My, what a Pandora's box Palin is opening in what may go down as one of the worst blunders in election history!

Change is coming.  It's just not the "change" McCain and Palin have strangely adopted as their own campaign slogan of late.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Short Sale Black Box

A black box is a system for which you can see the inputs and the outputs, but cannot make out any of the inner workings; you can't tell what's going on inside the box, or how the things going in are turned into the things coming out.

Dealing with a short sale is like that systematic black box; we've got the inputs (our offer) and the outputs (eventual acceptance / rejection of said offer), but no way to tell what's going on inside. And that's incredibly frustrating.

Worse, because the inner workings are hidden, it's impossible to even tell what the effect changes in the inputs might have. Property values are falling--does that mean the bank will be more likely to accept our offer, knowing our FHA financing is only good if the property appraises for what we offered? Should we exercise our short sale contingency and issue 72 hour notice of withdrawl--will that have any effect?  What about factors well beyond our control, like the $700b Bush bailout package--will the asset managers who have to sign off on the deal wait and see what they can get from Uncle's teats, or will they move quickly to unload this property and deal with the devil they know?

It's impossible to know, and the opacity is only heightened by having to deal with a listing agent instead of directly with the bank.  We have to send our questions to our agent, who in turn calls up the listing agent, who has to poke and prod at his own black box of the bank's loss mitigation contact, and in turn funnel the answers back to us.  Each step obscures the process even more, cutting the signal to noise ratio exponentially and making it even more difficult to construct a picture of what's going on.  We have to rely on what the listing agent tells us, an added layer of abstraction from the already-opaque bank black box.

As I discussed in comments on a prior post, to any reasonable evaluation, our offer is quite sound and should be something the bank would be thrilled to accept (in so much as they'd be thrilled at taking any loss).  But despite my knowledge of the whole short sale process--something I've researched to the ends of the earth--it's impossible to tell where in the black box things actually are.  We at least found out several weeks ago that the mortgage insurer was reviewing the deal--something we'd not even thought part of the original equation--and now, the insurer seems to be in agreement... but we're still waiting.

We've asked whether the sellers are still current on their mortgage, something the listing agent has repeatedly refused to disclose (perhaps rightfully--though at some point, a default on their part will be a matter of public record).  Even if he were willing to speak on that point, though, it's really just another input to the black box, one for which we have no real notion as to the impact on the output.  On one hand, if the sellers are current, the bank will clearly be loathe to make a quick decision--so long as the cash is flowing in, they have less incentive to deal, after all.  But on the other hand, being current could be good in that their mortgage may be classed as less distressed than so many others, and thus less likely to be quickly sold (via bundled securities) to Uncle Sam, something that would likely be an effective death sentence for our chances of buying the home.

So it's back to the waiting game, and bank time.  The listing agent is touching base frequently with the bank; the bailout bill is now law, though its impacts and mechanisms are far from clear; and our agent will of course haggle the listing agent even as we continue to look at alternate properties as backup.  In the meantime, I'll try some more to stare into that black box and make out something of the shadowy gears that are turning (or not) toward some sort of output.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Screwed By the Bush Bailout?

Anyone who's read this blog will know my wife Beth and I have been trying to buy a home since May. First, I had to sell my townhome, and my buyer defaulted then finally closed nearly two full months past the contracted closing date--costing us at least two homes--one of which we'd had an offer accepted on, and another we couldn't even make an offer on due to the townhome delay. Next, we found the perfect house, but like so many on the market, it was unfortunately a short sale--and the only "short" thing is the mortgage payoff for the seller's bank; time-wise, short sales can drag on for months on end.

The recent financial crisis in the United States and the subsequent bailout plan proposed by the Bush administration--where the US Treasury Department would buy up troubled, often "toxic," mortgage-based assets from banks and investors to help ease the logjam in the credit markets--was something I initially viewed as disastrous for our chances of buying the home we wanted. Banks were rubbing their palms together in anticipation of Uncle Sam buying up their distressed assets and securities at far above market prices (which had fallen so severely to as nearly be inestimable), meaning, I suspected, the banks would suspend their short sale deals in the hopes of getting more from the taxpayer's teat than from any other buyers.

However, as the public and then Congress balked at simply plunking down a trillion taxpayer dollars on a blank check, I personally thought the banks would rush to make the deals they could and deal with losses they could put to paper, and not the vague possibilities of a better (or now likely worse) deal from the government.

Indeed, the listing agent felt so confident in making the deal work for our home purchase that he guaranteed our agent a steak dinner should he fail to deliver by this past Wednesday. (Note that was not exactly his first promise; neither I nor Beth felt particularly confident in the agent's bravado, as he'd previously promised a deal "by the end of the week" and then at the end of that very week complained our agent was harassing him.)

Of course, Wednesday came and went with no deal, and when our agent got hold of the listing agent on Thursday, the listing agent expressed the belief that now the bank was hesitant to sign on anything while uncertain about the bailout plan.

That brings us full-circle; two weeks ago when the Bush administration first came forward with their plan, I despaired that the Treasury Department had sunk our chances of buying, yet over the next weeks grew more confident the terms would be so poor for the financial institutions that we'd end up with a deal soon. Now, the listing agent himself has stated those same fears.

At this point, even if a deal passes today in the US House of Representatives, the impact will be unclear, and if the bank is truly waiting on the bailout, it could be several weeks before the terms of the bailout are known. And if (this is a big "if") the government purchases the security backed by our seller's mortgage, it's a whole new ballgame; no one knows how long it will take the government to establish any notions of how to handle the sales of individual homes, if at all.

So... we may be screwed, on a very personal level, by George W. Bush and his administration, the last in a long line of disastrous mismanagements by our "first MBA President."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blame Creationism! (Or: How a Nutjob at a Debate Made Me Into an Atheist)

People often talk about experiences that strengthened their faith, or which brought them to discover religion or otherwise have an epiphanous revelation about God. Recently, Greta Christinia asked in her blog a similar question for non-believers: what caused us to move away from theism? (Thank you to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech for pointing me to Ms. Christiania's blog!)

Like most Americans, I grew up in a Christian household, and like most children, I never questioned the things I was taught in church--much like I'd never questioned the existence of Santa Claus, either. Adults tell you something is true, and you tend to believe it, particularly when everyone tells you the same story. All those authority figures can't be wrong, can they?

To make a long story short, by the time I'd reached my own adult years, I'd already begun to question the tenets of a belief system I'd been told was true all my life. What about other religions? Who decides which is "right," and why? What about people who never are exposed to the "right" religion--are they damned for their innocently-ignorant beliefs?

But what really pushed me off the edge of the cliff of theism and into that wild, scary realm of disbelief was my own strong foundation in science and reason. The whole flood mythology of the Bible's Old Testament simply cannot be reconciled with any notion of science, history, or reason; likewise, the biblical creation account contradicts science when taken as anything but allegory. Oh, I'd gone through the phase of creating my own epicycles, rationalizing six-day special creation and biblical chronology of a "young earth" which somehow meshed with the billions-of-years of age the Earth and broader universe clearly possessed, but dismissed those rationalizations before my teenage years had even passed.

To answer Ms. Christiana's question, I can even identify the exact moment I took that big, bold step over the theism cliff: February 24, 2002 (ironically, a Sunday), at the "Evolution vs. Creationism Debate" hosted by the Campus Bible Fellowship and Freethinkers at Virginia Tech. By then, I'd become an agnostic, but the exposure to the sheer intellectual dishonesty and self-deceit of the creationist speaker--and, in turn, the broader creationist movement--make up the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

The creationist speaker, Dr. Randy Guliuzza from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), based his entire side of the debate around erecting a strawman of "evolution" which he then attacked, coupled with the false dichotomy of saying, "If you are wrong, then I am right." He didn't produce a single piece of evidence for his position (creationism), and when I called him on that during the question & answer phase, asking him point-blank to produce some evidence to support his argument, he simply responded that all he had to do was debunk evolution to prove creation (if you don't see the false dichotomy of that notion, I'm not sure I can help you).

Though Dr. Guliuzza couldn't replicate "Dr. Dino" Kent Hovind's infamous 300 creationist lies, his arguments did suffer from nearly 50 major problems in such a short debate, which I took down during the debate. He only had a couple of hours, so I guess he does deserve some credit for making that many mistakes, deceptions, misrepresentations, and outright lies during the debate (the numbers below come from the order he presented them in, as I listed them during the debate).

Some of his real laughers included defending creationism's validity by presenting public opinion polls (#1); claiming scientists have no "data" or "details" to support evolution (#2) because articles published in Discover and Popular Science lack them, as do books in the popular press (#3); that scientists condenscendingly think "you" are stupid (#5); appeals to authority ("Some scientists believe in creationism, so it must be true!" and "I have an M.D., so what I say about biology is true!") (#13 & #15); that evolution isn't "useful" (#12); and so on.

His strawman of evolution--a common tactic of creationists--included such ridiculous notions that evolution is "too broad" (#6) whilst simultaneously demanding it explain cosmogenesis (#23) and other aspects of physics, not biology, as well as areas of biology not remotely related to evolution, like abiogenesis (#22); and the insulting notion that "scientists say humans come from worms," (#27) and that "scientists have to use computer animations showing one animal turning into another" (#4 & #26). This is the same tactic Dr. Dino (who currently resides in federal prison, I might add...) uses in his "$200,000 challenge" whereby he claims he'll give anyone who can "prove" evolution a big sum of cash--yet they have to "prove" something not even remotely identifiable as evolutionary theory. Of course the audience (and even scientists) would agree his strawman "evolution" is no good... the problem is, it simply isn't evolution.

The whole notion of debates as "proof" of one's theory also irks me; creationists are good at winning debates with laypeople audiences, who quite honestly aren't capable of making a proper evaluation of the science behind evolution, and who may be easily swayed by the strawmen and ad hominem attacks of creationist arguments. "Show us the data!" the creationists cry; despite the fact mountains of such data exist in the academic literature or even a decent biology textbook, they claim victory when the scientist at the debate doesn't display table after table of mind-numbing data, even when refusing to produce any evidence in support of creationism itself (remember that false dichotomy I mentioned?)

Dr. Guliuzza went on to make several demonstrably false scientific statements as well; ever wonder why creationists spend so much time picking at evolution instead of layout out evidence for their own theory? It's because they can't do science, and what science they try to do is quite poor. For example, he claimed an evolutionary change resulting in a loss of functionality or information contradicts evolutionary theory (#28)--another straw in that big man-shaped bale of hay. He made the oft-repeated claim that "all mutations are bad" (#40); that bacterial antibiotic resistance doesn't exist (#35), that HIV has not and is not changing as a virus (#41), and several other real whoppers which simply are wrong in all factual regards.

Finally, creationists often accuse evolutionary theory of failings which in any sense actually apply more to creationism than evolution, and if to be taken as points against a theory, must condemn their own position! If evolution is "too broad" to be an acceptable theory (#6, an accusation demonstrably incorrect to begin with), what of the notion that "Goddidit" to explain everything, from cosmogenesis to abiogenesis to evolution and beyond? If evolution has "no predictive value" (#14, and again, demonstrably incorrect), what of the Bible and creationism?

Creationists claim scientists "force" data into "unnatural" configurations to support evolution (again, provably wrong, and #10 on Dr. Guliuzza's list of lies)--what, then, of all the epicycles invented by creationists to try to fit observable science to a "theory" broadly and wholly contradicted and disproven by said science? I suggest the interested reader check out the topics of "flood geology," "hydrological sorting," and the "vapor canopy," and get back to me on who exactly is forcing data into unnatural configurations--and afterwards, take a look at the ridiculous notions of variable speed-of-light ("tired" light is responsible for redshift, so says that "theory"), incredibly variable rates of radioactive decay only stable in the past few years (to explain away radioisotope dating, among other things), and mutation and speciation rates far in excess of anything evolution demands to account for all the biological diversity we see today having arisen a few thousand years ago from Noah and his rinky-dink Ark.

Looking back on my notes from that 2002 debate, I found this gem:

Finally, as I have indicated before and likely will again, isn’t it hypocritical for creationists to accuse someone else of using “just-so” stories (like, maybe, “God did it!”) to explain their position? Forgive me if I am wrong, but my exposure to creationism has left me with the feeling that the whole platform is based on one great big just-so story called the Bible.

Using that as segue back to my original topic of how that particular debate drove me away from theism one and for all, that day's events are what really opened my eyes to the particular sort of dishonesty (intentional or through ignorance; it doesn't matter) and refusal to partake in any meaningful discussion or rational argumentation about either science or religion that makes up not just creationism (and its "lipstick on a pig / monkey in a tuxedo" cousin, (un)intelligent design), but on a broader level religion as a whole. Religious beliefs are just that: beliefs. They cannot be supported factually, yet many of the claims of religion run counter to observable, factual science. When you scrape away all the fluff, all that's left is a warm fuzzy notion of "god," and to me, that's simply not enough to justify a belief in the face of all other rationality.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Trip to Lincoln for Some Football

For those of you who haven't visited my sadly out-of-date home page, let me fill you in on a small fact: I am a huge college football fan. My wife's reaction when I turned on the first game of the season a few weeks back was telling: "Great, football season already?" She knew I'd be glued to the drama of game after game for the next several months.

This past weekend, I traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to watch my Virginia Tech Hokies take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. This was a game I'd looked forward to ever since it made the schedule, a quality out of conference contest at one of the toughest venues in college football. Even busy with our house hunt and trying to save money left and right, I knew this was a game I had to attend; how often do you get to see your team play Nebraska in Lincoln if you're not from the Big 12?

True, Nebraska may lack the luster of its championship years of the past, but we're still taking about a team that rarely loses at home to out-of-conference foes--prior to playing Tech, Nebraska had only lost at home at night four times ever, to the likes of USC and top-10 Washington and Texas teams. Championship contenders or not, Nebraska plays hard at home, and few (myself included) expected a Tech win--I was simply hoping for a good game.

Let me stop for a moment and point out that the Nebraska fans are by far and away the classiest group of people I've ever encountered. Perhaps my trips to Morgantown, WV, home of the flaming couch-burners, and the countless beers and f-bombs tossed my way by their fans (as well as moonings and curse-laden tirades by their fans on the road in Blacksburg!) has colored my expectations for football fans. But nonetheless, all day long we had Nebraska fans thanking us for coming to the game, mentioning how impressed they were by the number of Tech fans who'd made the trip, wishing us well and expressing the hopes for a good game, etc. During the contest, we didn't have drunk Nebraska students screaming obscenities at us or the refs. And afterwards, we were congratulated by many an unhappy fan in red and black. Heck, when I arrived at my hotel after the game, a Nebraska fan asked me what I thought of their hospitality, asked if I'd been mistreated at all, etc., to which I was honestly able to say: "No, you guys are the best fans I've ever met, and I really hope we can return the favor when you come to see us next year in the 'burg."

I won't go into detail about the game, but needless to say, it was exciting and fun to watch, particularly since Tech came out on the winning end when the final whistle sounded. I may have been bleary-eyed when headed to the airport the next morning in Omaha (where I received an op-up to first class due to the plane being so full--didn't even have to spend an upgrade certificate!), but in the end, it was a great trip and well worth the time.

If you're a fan of college football and have a chance to travel to Lincoln, I really encourage you to avail yourself of the opportunity. You won't regret it, regardless of the outcome of the game.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sigh--Delays, Delays, Delays; Or, Working In "Bank-Time"

I haven't posted an update on the house hunt in several days--largely because there hasn't been anything to update.

A couple of weeks back, we found out that the bank has mostly agreed to our offer, but were negotiating with the mortgage insurance company. Now, I'd thought given what we knew about this home and its mortgage situation (having done courthouse research on that very topic) that there likely wasn't mortgage insurance involved; the owners were sub-prime borrowers, after all, and refinanced their 80-20 mortgages (both of them ARMs) into a single adjustable-rate mortgage a couple of years ago. Apparently, they financed at 100% (or more), and even though the bank in question (California's failed OwnIt Mortgage) wasn't known for asking for mortgage insurance because it so quickly sold every loan it originated, the owners ended up with PMI.

That throws a bit of a monkey-wrench into a short sale. Why? Well, if the bank were to foreclose, they'd collect on the mortgage insurance policy, which typically insures up to 17% of the loan's original principal. That could mean that the bank might get a better deal by foreclosing than they'd get with a short sale.

Depending on the policy, the mortgage insurer may have to cover a portion of the bank's loss even in the case of a short sale, not just for a foreclosure (this is a pretty common situation from what I understand). Thus, the mortgage insurer has to okay the terms of the short sale, too. And that's where we stand at present.

Now, to me the negotiations should be simple. The bank says to the mortgage insurer, "Look, we're going to either do this short sale or foreclose. You're paying one way or the other." I would assume the only point of negotiation from the insurer should be how much they're willing to pay; in other words, "Hey, bank, you're taking a smaller loss with this sale; how about we pay a proportionally smaller claim, too?" (Aside from this, the insurer can go after the owners and ask them to sign a promissory note for the insurer's loss in paying the bank's claim, or otherwise hold the owner financially responsible in some way--though a good bankruptcy attorney will deal with that unsecured promissory note in short order...)

So I don't get why we're still waiting, two weeks and counting, from when we learned the insurer was involved in negotiations. The math is simple; by my calculations, the bank is approximately $30,000 better-off taking our short sale offer than foreclosing--a figure which grows every day, mind you, as the uncertainties of the housing market drag down the value further; Zillow estimates for the value of the home have already fallen $4,000 in the time we've been waiting on a decision.

Worse for the bank is the fact that the sale has to satisfy the FHA; the FHA isn't going to approve our loan if they're paying more than the property is worth. And every day the bank delays lowers the chances the FHA will be able to approve the upper end of our offer. With falling prices, the bank not only increases the loss they'll face at foreclosure but increases the chance our offer will no longer be available to them.

But we're in "bank-time" now, a strange quick of quantum mechanics and special relativity which twists what should be a decision of hours and minutes into weeks and days. I dealt with "bank-time" in the sale of my townhome, where Wachovia spent days on end on an "emergency rush" loan twiddling their thumbs and not getting the appraisal scheduled, so I'm no stranger to the concept, unfortunately.

I'm not going to even go into what the troubles at insurer AIG along with the uncertain prospects of the Bush and Paulson bank welfare act ($700b - $1t of taxpayer money on a blank check--pay no attention to that man behind the curtain; look at the monkey!) might mean in terms of delaying our home purchase. I can only hope the bank (and its insurer) haven't said, "Hmm, let's suspend short sale approvals for the time being to see what we might get from Uncle's teat." They'd be fools to take the certain numbers of our offer and trade them for the uncertainties of some government bailout.

Of course, there's also the risk now that the joys of the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) world and their mortgage-backed securities will result in the sale, as part of a large group, of the loan to another bank altogether, meaning we'd get to start over.