Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Housing Market in DC

So everyone in the news has been talking about how the latest numbers indicate that new home sales in the country have been on the decline and this is an indicator that the economic recovery of our nation is stalling. I don't know where many of these people come up with their ideas but one thing I can say for certain is that they likely drive around their areas wearing blinders because if they could only open their eyes and see, they'd immediately understand the reason why new home sales are declining and I am pretty certain it's something much simpler than what the media is making it out to be. Drive practically anywhere west on the Dulles Toll Road and you'll end up running into numerous signs that advertise new developments and neighborhoods that have model homes now open. If one ventures into that area they will find endless streets of new homes (townhomes, condos, etc.) vying for space in a fast disappearing landscape.

Why the reason for all the building? Likely because of the false buyers market that was created a few years ago when our government leaders urged everyone to invest in real estate because that was a sure sign of prosperity. Never mind that unlike in years past, homeowners actually had to cough up a lot of money for a downpayment and had to have firmly established credit to get a mortgage to help pay for a home, a few years ago you pretty much needed a face and you could get a mortgage. If you had a job (even if it only paid $10,000 a year) it seemed you could easily get approved to get a loan to buy a home worth millions rather than what you actually could afford. The end result was that people were buying homes left and right and figured that they could make money flipping properties even though they didn't really understand what flipping properties meant.

What this meant to developers and builders was that there was a clear demand for housing so they just went on a building spree and now it's almost as if the market continues to thrive because I've spoken with individuals who work for the counties in Northern Virginia where building was most rampant and they have indicated that building permits are continuously sought because builders still want to build more homes for a market that is saturated to the breaking point. While I understand the desire to continue building is likely helping keep a lot of people employed, don't these people (any of them) realize that they are not helping the market but rather hurting it? If I lived in the Ashburn area and decided to sell my two year old home, I would likely get little to nothing for it (relatively speaking) because there was brand new construction for a comparable price just a few feet away.

People aren't going to buy houses for some time to come and it doesn't have anything to do with the fact that the new homeowner tax credit is no longer in effect. It has to do with the fact that there are too many homes and not enough buyers. And it's likely that this fact will continue until such a point that the counties and developers realize that there isn't much point in continuing to create new housing if no one is going to buy it. I personally don't think the market will improve much until the building stabilizes (and eventually stops) and prices come down to more realistic levels. I mean while houses beyond Ashburn are certainly nice, I don't think I'd like to spend that much and drive fifty miles one way just to get to work. I don't think a lot of other people would either which is why houses out there aren't selling thus leading 'experts' to believe that the economic recovery is beginning to collapse.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

To Build or Not to Build

It seems like everybody and their brother is looking to get in on the discussion on the proposed mosque in New York. I'm sure if you're reading this far you are most likely familiar with the issue but in case you're not from the States or not very familiar with what's going on, the gist of it is that there has been major issue with the fact that a mosque has been seeking permission to build a community center approximately two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. Now while I understand the emotion and the anger that many people feel towards allowing such a structure to be built so close to the site of the deadliest attack on United States soil in the history of the country, I think the debate is being elevated to greater proportions by people who want to do nothing more than fan the flames.

It's hard to watch the news these days and not see some side of the debate being discussed and rather than listening to only the words of those who agree with my viewpoint, I feel it important to also hear (and attempt to understand) the opposing viewpoints on the issue as well. As I mentioned, I understand the anger that many have over the fact that a mosque is being built in such close proximity to Ground Zero but I am at a loss to understand why there is so much ire. I agree that much of it has to do with the fact that the religion of those who perpetrated the attacks is Muslim and that the majority of those we are in conflict with around the world at this time happens to be Muslim but then is it right to punish the majority for the failings of the minority?

And not only that, but to hear many opponents talk, it seems that the mosque/community center that is to be built will be (in the eyes of most opponents) a site from which evil Muslims will plot the next attack on our country. Now I honestly cannot fathom just how rationale minded individuals can possibly believe that. Do people have that little faith in our intelligence and security services to believe that such an attack could again be planned and executed so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York? Do people have so little faith that security services (not to mention the public in general) won't be keeping eyes on that building and would let police know if someone even litters (let alone attempts violence) there? To hear the experts at Fox News speak makes it seem like Bin Laden will have a seat of honor within site of the new World Trade Center plaza. I honestly can't buy that.

But what about those who argue that it just isn't sensitive of Muslims to want to build a mosque so close to where other followers of their religion attacked our country. They say that two blocks is too close. What about the prayer area within the Pentagon where Islamic prayer services are held every day since 2002? It seems that that location is located within a few hundred feet of where the plane slammed into the building. As far as I know there have been no protests which surprises me since I would have thought opponents (who seem to oppose for the sake of opposing at times) would have latched on to the fact that Islam is the religion of those attacking our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan but seeing as how that is not the case, the fact that a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero is insensitive strikes me as smacking of hypocrisy.

If you say that two blocks is too close then how far is far enough? Would it be safe to say that most people who oppose the site on principle would argue that not a single mosque should be built in New York ever again? Perhaps or perhaps not but it wouldn't surprise me if that didn't become the arguement of many. Opponents say that the timing isn't right or that it's too soon. To be perfectly honest, if you haven't been to Ground Zero in recent days I think you'd be hard pressed to term it hallowed if you didn't know any better. What with all the hot dog vendors, the fast food places and other tourist trappings in and around the area. If we truly believe the area to be hallowed ground or an area to be considered sacred, then it should be treated like the majority of Civil War battlefields in our nation, or the site of many historic battles or tragedies around the world. You'd be hard pressed to term it 'touristy'. I personally believe that there is more of a prejudicial reason so many oppose the project and that people just aren't willing to admit it.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Genius of George Lucas

There are very few billion dollar ideas in the world that continue to generate money even after turning thirty. I don't think the track record of sliced bread is going to be broken but one of those ideas that certainly seems to be maintaining its stride is the brainchild of George Lucas; and that brainchild is the "Star Wars" franchise. Given that most people my age grew up with copies of the original films on VHS tapes, it's no wonder that the films (the originals mind you) have had such an impact on so many lives; and it's no wonder therefore that it continues to have an impact. Well, maybe not as much as it once did, but for some of us out there it definitely still draws us in to explore the universe that has grown well beyond the original three films. But what in that makes George Lucas the genius? Simply the fact that he retained the rights to the characters and universe thus ensuring that no matter what is created with even a passing reference to "Star Wars" he will continue to rake in the money.

Don't believe me? Well how about the latest phone fad to hit the wireless market here in the United States; the Droid available exclusively from Verizon Wireless. In it's initial releases, the phones didn't really have anything to do with "Star Wars" other than the fact that the phone's operating system was referred to as 'droid' which is "Star Wars"-speak for robot (short for android). Yet even that was enough to ensure that Lucas made some money on it. If you see the ads, at the very end there would be barely visible text which indicated that 'droid' was a trademark of Lucasfilm (George Lucas's production company) and thus, simply because they used the term, makers of these phones would have to pay Lucas and his company a ton of money.

As if that wasn't enough though, Verizon recently announced that a forthcoming updated version of the droid phone will not only feature a faster system, but will include exclusive "Star Wars" content and will be in the shape of that most famous of "Star Wars" droid characters, R2-D2. Now if that's not a surefire way to increase sales of the already popular phone then I don't know what is. There are those who scoff at these moves by Lucas; they claim that he's simply selling out his original idea for the sake of making money but I would simply push back that this is the only way in which he'd be able to continuously feed the desire that my generation (and now the next generation) have for all things "Star Wars".

When I attended the "Star Wars in Concert" concert recently, I was genuinely surprised at the sheer number of children who were in attendance. Not that I should have been surprised given that the newer films and television shows are definitely aimed towards a younger audience (which I find ironic considering they are supposed to deal with a darker time in the "Star Wars" timeline). There are cartoons and books and games all aimed at a younger audience while for us older fans, there are items like wireless cell phones. So say what you will about Lucas and his desire to make more money, it only works because many of us continue to be suckers for the universe he created. And by this time, even if we've moved past being fans of the universe (or ignore it because we feel that it's aimed too squarely at a younger audience) it's a machine that will still grow for years to come given that the next generation has and will continue to embrace it. And Lucas will continue to see visions of dancing dollar bills.


Thursday, August 05, 2010

Same Story, Different Day

I enjoyed the movie "Groundhog Day" with Bill Murray which sees the hero stuck in an endless loop of the same day for much of the movie. It was enjoyable as a movie but as reality, I doubt that it would be as much fun. Yet it seems like we're stuck in that type of continuum and proof of that comes in the form of two announcements that I feel like I had heard about just about a year ago with an air of finality that time. Unfortunately it seems that that was not the case because here we are a year later listening to the same stuff over again. I guess there is truth to the adage of some of the ruts in life being nothing more than the same shit just on a different day.

Take for example the heart-breaking news that Bristol Palin (daughter of Sarah Palin and poster child for abstinence before marriage) and her erstwhile beau, Levi Johnston (Playgirl model and self-professed 'actor') were calling off their second engagement. It seems that Bristol came to the realization that Levi was using her for the noteriety in order to further his career. Just three weeks into their second engagement, Bristol realized that when he said he was going to Los Angeles to film a hunting show, Levi was actually filming a music video in which he apparently mocks the Palin family. Now perhaps this is just my twisted logic, but is it any surprise considering how slanderous he was in his interviews around the time of his nude photo shoot? Should Bristol or anyone related to the family be that stunned at the news? I think not.

A year (or more) ago the pair were in the news for having broken up and having started exchanging insults via magazine interviews. We have yet to reach that stage but I guess those days aren't too far into the future. Sarah Palin (our country's answer to William Shakespeare) has meanwhile stepped forward to 'refudiate' the claims being made by Levi and has been speaking out in support of her daughter's decision. I suppose it speaks volumes about the family values that she and her clan have when they can stand in the public's eye and claim to uphold the very best virtues of this country by having children out of wedlock and breaking off two engagements. I'm just hoping that this non-story doesn't pop up in the headlines again next year.

But as for the other heart-breaking story that came out yesterday, apparently Brett Farve has been circulating rumors that he is going to retire from football; yes... again. It seems that off-season surgery has left his ankle in much worse shape than he had hoped so he began texting his teammates informing them of the fact that he would likely step down from football. Now I'm a fan of Brett Farve and I admire his accomplishments but he's really becoming like the boy who cried wolf but in this case it's retirement. He's done it not once but twice already and I won't believe that his career is over until the days leading up to the 2011 football season. If he hasn't stayed in retirement by then then I'll look forward to hearing him contemplate retiring again next year.

Both of these stories made me realize something. While I do enjoy a bit of repetition in life, there are somethings that really don't need to be repeated. Getting stuck in traffic is definitely one of them but stories like these come a close second. While I appreciate having a window into the lives of Bristol and Levi and Brett, I don't need to be bombarded with it the way the media likes to do. There are times when "too little" of something isn't a bad thing and this would definitely be one of those times.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Winds of Change

It often surprises me how quickly the winds of change blow in our political arena. I was reading in the news that the latest polls show that popular opinion is turning against the War in Afghanistan and that more Americans believe that it was a mistake to have gone to war in that country in 2001. What is most galling to me is that the majority of people who are likely against the war now are the same ones who were shouting slogans of support for Bush when he proposed invading the country a scant two months after the attacks of 9/11. At that time support for capturing (or killing) Osama bin Laden were at an all time high and it seemed to be the right thing to do. But after bin Laden managed to escape from Tora Bora due to delays in the chain of command figuring out what they wanted to do, enthusiasm for the war stymied and eventually turned to Iraq.

So here we are a decade later (and two years past the campaigns for President in 2008) and while the withdrawal from Iraq is underway, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is leaving a bitter taste in a lot of mouths; especially of those who were shouting from the rooftops (and tea kettles) in 2008 that "cutting and running" was an unfathomable option to even contemplate. So what's changed? I personally don't see much to have changed on the surface from 2001 to now. That's not to imply that our soldiers who have fought (and died) in Afghanistan have done so in vain but it seems that the general objectives that have been in the public's eyes have remained just that... general. While the pie in the sky hope is to eventually have a stable form of government in power in Afghanistan, I think one of the key difficulties will be the fact that while democracy in Afghanistan is a noble goal, it may not be achievable given the attitudes of those living in the country outside of Kabul.

So until those elements that continue to fight Allied forces are defeated, actually achieving something resembling victory will be difficult to come by and in keeping with their unwritten but strictly adhered to party platform, opponents of the President seem to continuously project a story that anything the President has done has been in error. Surprising considering the decision to escalate the war was something many critics supported before Obama became President. Now I don't know about the rest of you but I feel a bit insulted by that. I mean to me that is insinuating that what we as individuals think doesn't matter but what the party we support says is what we should believe. I mean forget that the whole reason that the War in Afghanistan was started was to attack those who supported the attack on our country on 9/11. Suddenly it's gone from that to being a war that only Obama wants. I'm sorry but I'm not so short minded as to forget that this was a war started during the Bush Administration.

But be that as it may. Maybe it's just a sign of the times. September 11th will have occurred a decade ago next year. That's a long time for most people. For most of us it will be the defining moment in our lives and in the history of the country but for others it seems to be nothing more than a footnote; a platform on which to stand when it is politically beneficial. I'm not saying that people should blindly support Obama's decisions as they often blindly supported Bush over the course of eight years, but at least let's not let the fact that things aren't as wonderful as we'd like them to be be the reason we don't support a course of action. If we felt strong enough to declare that entering into war in Afghanistan was the right thing to do nine years ago then nothing should have changed because the problems that were in existence then are still in existence. And if we feel that now it isn't worth the time, effort and most especially, if it isn't worth the lives being lost, then we need to roll the blame to all those who are responsible and not the most convenient target.