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."