Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Freefall and denial in the Irish Housing Market

The Irish housing market (and the ongoing attendant commentary) is pretty interesting.

I purchased a house with my better half (deciding that we couldn't wait forever) early in 2006. As luck would have it, that turned out to be very shortly before the peak of a historically insane price bubble, which is now in the process of bursting in an extended and messy fashion. They say the secret of comedy is in the timing.

Since 2006 or 2007, there's been an ongoing fall in the value of houses here, but recently there's been intermittent talk of green shoots of recovery, a bottoming out, a slowing down in the rate of descent (you always know you're in trouble when things getting worse at a slower rate is presented as an improvement), the start of a recovery etc etc.

For some reason connected no doubt to my interest in economic trends, statistics, truth, and a desire to view life-changing financial crisis through the prism of small, cute coloured Excel graphs, I started tracking the asking prices in our immediate neighbourhood in September 2006, about 6 months after we purchased.

Since then, every month (or thereabouts), I tap in the asking price for every house in about a half-mile radius that is on the market. While this doesn't give an accurate picture of prices achieved, it's a good guide to the trend. You can also make a reasonable assumption that when prices are falling, the achieved prices are below the asking price, and the opposite when prices are rising - in other words, the achieved price most likely drags the asking price around kicking and screaming behind it.

So based on the figures I have for my own area of Dublin (old settled low-density ex-council estate close to the town centre, for those seeking Irish context), from Sept 2006 to October 2009, here is what has happened.

Asking prices stalled in summer-autumn 2006, and remained static until Feb 07, when I recorded the first fall in my area. (My guess: achieved sale prices stalled somewhere around summer 06, and started to fall back prior to that Christmas.)

Between Feb 07 and May 08 asking prices fell slowly and steadily, shedding around 8.6% from the peak during this 15-month period (averaging a 0.7% drop per month).

Something went seriously to hell in spring 08, because around May prices started falling off a cliff. In the 17 months from May 08 to Oct 09, asking prices dropped 31% from the May 08 figure (averaging a 2.5% loss every month).

So where are we now?

Well my figures from the official asking prices (which come from a variety of estate agents) say this: we are currently in a situation as of Oct 09 where asking prices are 39% off their late 06 peak. So the next time you hear a news item telling you that house prices might fall by up to 40%, it's worth remembering that in reality, they already have. Not only that, there's nothing in the figures I've collected in my area to even hint that there's a floor in sight - the asking prices this month have fallen as much as any other month in the last 12.

Apart from the rash of unemployment in Ireland, a major reason for the continued express-elevator treatment house prices are undergoing, is the fact that the banks have abused their position as lenders, speculated wildly in markets and products in which they had no understanding of the risks, and now we the public are supposed to be paying through our taxes to keep them afloat.

As a result of the fact that the banks and financial houses are sitting on a carelessly stacked wobbling deck of completely opaque financial products, nobody knows where all the debt is. It's sort of like playing pass the parcel where everyone has a parcel, and a few of the parcels have booby-trapped bombs inside - except nobody playing the game thought to check before starting. The music has stopped, everyone has been left holding a package, and nobody wants to open theirs. Everyone wants to pass their package on, but nobody wants to take anybody else's. Endless stalemate - and the dissipation of trust that results means that the banks are not lending anything, to anybody.

In short, the banks totally irresponsible game of pass-the-parcel in the hope of astronomical profits has led them into a cul-de-sac where they are terrified to loan to anyone - they may need all the cash they can possibly lay their hands on when they are finally forced to take their grubby little grabbing hands and open their little parcels.

Without banks prepared to loan, there can be no mortgage approvals. Without mortgage approvals, the only way is down.

Minus 39 percent, and falling...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Carl Craig - At Les

There have been many good electronic records, but I'm not sure that anyone has ever written one greater than Carl Craig's Detroitian masterpiece "At Les".

I've lost count of how many times I've listened to this tune, and it still never fails to blow me away. A grumbling breathy 5th counterpointing the sighing chords, the most subtle of lower notes here and there, a tough pinned down synth eventually riveting the beats in to place to prepare for the shuffling quasi-acoustic breakbeats, electronic china cymbals heralding the arrival of a buried kick drum - and that haunting wind motif falling, falling, falling...

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Timewriter - Flicking Pages

Something about the Friday tune is becoming a bit too structured for me - the output here is supposed to be slow and random, and having a weekly predictable post on the same day every week seems to fly in the face of both slowness and randomness in the output stakes.

But then I heard the latest mix from Mick Chillage, and this track stood out so heavily that I couldn't let it go. The Timewriter, who I'd never heard of before - seems to have a fairly impressive career in spitting out tracks and releases, and after hearing this track on Mr Chillage's mix, it shouldn't come as any suprise to find Mr Writer with top friends on Myspace including David Alvarado. It's that sort of sensuous super-deep powerful sound.

Anyway here's the track. A little introduction, and then the most mindblowingly powerful deep block chords, ultimately backed up with some vocal wisdom being intoned. I'm not that mad a fan of the listen-to-me vocal stuff, although I do make exceptions - and this is one of them. I can't help but think that Kevin Saunderson discovered something special when he stuck those solid drone basses over thudding house beats - particularly thudding, mid-tempo, strident house beats. (Strident house is in fact a term I've coined in my own head, in a vain attempt to capture some of what it is that makes Orde Meikle's DJing so special).

In any case, this is the destructive groove of E-Dancer Saunderson combined with the oceans-deep atmospherics of Alvarado at his best. Deep, powerful, emotional late-night material.

5am moment anyone?

As we begin to grow older - life is not the same...

Friday, October 09, 2009

Maurizio - M4 (M)

Friday, and another epic slab from the Basic Channel vaults. This time, it's the ultra minimal M4, part of a chain of M-numbered releases on the suitably titled BC-offshoot label, 'M'.

It's another one that I couldn't really get my head around at first, but the more you listen, the more amazing this record becomes. The two wobbling and chugging main synth sounds come and go in washes of delay and filtering, twisting in and out of each other in an endless dance that initially seems like a one bar loop, but slowly reveals itself to be a constantly contorting reimaging of itself.

A crisp offbeat hihat and a backbeat clap provide the upper drumbeats. The clap in itself you could be studying all day - it has a perplexing ambience going on - not only does it sound like it's a little way back from you, but it's got this strange feeling that it's round a corner or something, although it's actually panned dead centre. It's almost like there's an obstruction directly in front of you, and the clap is coming from just behind that. How did he manage that?

As for the kick drum, it effortlessly outclasses any rivals. An unremarkable thud (or so it seems) is articulated by a deep tuned bass note, and the combination of the two together makes the entire beat push and pull and give and take.

The end result, is an incredibly powerful, hypnotic work in minimalism. And if you think it's good over headphones, you need to try it over a big club system.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

All under control?

One thing I've been trying to work out for a good long time, is how to track all the little tasks I have at work. User Interface is a huge issue for me (maybe I should have made that my line of work), so bear with me.

I find computers painfully slow to use - there's generally just too much clutter between you and what you're trying to do, and (for me) anything that slows down the process just makes it frustrating, which generally ends up in poorer results. So one thing I've been looking for is a kind of task-organiser.

The problem is, I want to have my cake and eat it - effectively, I want several things. I want to be able to have a sort of top-level overview of the tasks I have on, where everything is very clean and very simple. And I want to be able to change and reorder the tasks at will, without 'editing' the tasks in a computer, changing a value field, or anything. Effectively, I want to be able to physically change the order they appear in, just by dragging and dropping.

If that was all it was, and I was less worried about interface, then my ideal thing to use would be the old-school air traffic control strips system - an actual physical 'to do' list. These strips seem to me like the ultimate quick and dirty, always-visible, immediately-resortable list system, and whatever bright ideas I have, I keep coming back to thinking about some physical variant on this system.

However, it would be great if I could somehow harness the power of the computer (seeing as I have to use the infernal things all day anyway), and make it a bit more powerful and flexible. In other words, could I have a top-level list in a flight-strip format, that was draggable and droppable in any order I wanted, but also let me 'explode' a task, to show a much more complex table of tasks beneath?

One program that I am perpetually in love with, is Filemaker Pro. Not being technically a database programmer, this is probably the greatest software aid to everything that I do at work. I keep customer lists on it, personal contact lists, a stock database system for spare parts (that shows stuff like monthly run rates, estimated time in weeks to part number depletion at current rates of consumption), all sorts of stuff. FMP is really databases for dummies, and anyone with the slightest computer competence can learn the basics on it really fast. Plus, it's extremely visual, and extraordinarily fast to use, two of my big bugbears. The problem with it is, despite the fact it's visual, I can't just drag and drop records around the screen willy-nilly (as you could with physical flight progress strips). I still need to predetermine the layout, and then stick with that when I'm using it. I can change the layout whenever I want, but I don't want to have to redesign the layout, just to drag some tasks around the screen - so it's missing that final top-level near-freeform physical interaction that I'm looking for - in the version that I currently have, at least.

So I went on a search about a month ago, to see if anyone else has solved this problem. I found a few things.

Firstly, I found RIPT. This is basically a digital scrapbook, and it really does answer the very top-level of my problem - being able to engage in freeform dragging around of notes, and organising things in that way. Unfortunately, it's not cut out for the other end of my organisational problems - that is, expanding much beyond a 'heading' on the scrap of paper, and there's no way to link records, because all you're collecting is scraps of text or pictures. So good on the top-level UI, but no guts underneath it all - effectively, RIPT is the 'missing piece' for me in Filemaker, but there's no way to marry them together.

So... next - a little app called Goal Enforcer. I wasn't so keen on the name - it sounds a little bit domineering for my liking, but I tried it anyway. Goal Enforcer is more of a "linked bubbles" type of task manager, and while it is visual (you put your tasks in bubbles), it's a bit to rigid for my liking. Plus, you have to have links between bubbles (what if I just want to have a free floating bubble I drag around some place?), and even worse - it's very much deadline-oriented. I don't need my deadlines enforced, I just need to be able to see what is going on thanks.

So, on to the last of my current search - the Brain. (You wouldn't be the first to suggest that this is the software I've always needed). The Brain is more of a kind of loose relationship-based idea management software, where you generate bubbles of sorts (like goal-enforcer), that are then linked to other bubbles. The nice thing about the Brain is that the links can be in multiple directions, there's no obligation to have deadlines (woohoo!), and even nicer, there's a kind of visual 'radar' function which allows you to see only on the next couple of levels up and down from where you are. This means as you click on bubbles to take you further into a task as it's broken up, the stuff back up at the top level disappears from the screen. So you only see the stuff around the level you are on - either top level tasks when you're up at the top, or stuff 'inside' a task when you delve in. It's a neat way of doing it, and it looks very much like it is based on the old Visual Thesaurus, which had an even nicer UI.

Overall, the Brain is the best top-level "task manager" program I've come by so far. However it's got drawbacks too. For one thing, despite the really friendly UI, you lose all that power that you get from a database engine like Filemaker when you want to really get inside a task. Secondly, you can't have free-floating ideas, like the air traffic control strips. What if I just want to rip out a bubble and put it to the side for a day - in sight, but not in a list? What if I want a bubble that's not linked to anything, but just hanging around?

In other words, I've yet to find the solution for organising that I need. But someone out there, surely, has done something which marries powerful organised database functions to a chaotic, freeform drag-and-drop UI. That's possible. Isn't it?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Lisbon 2

Ok I'm stumped.

For those that don't know, today is the second referendum on the proposal that Ireland sign up to the Lisbon Treaty, which is a European wide treaty. It's worth mentioning at this point that it's an absolute and utter disgrace that a second referendum be held on the same treaty, with the same question to the population only 1 year after the Irish were asked the first time. There was a valid referendum, to which a valid answer was given on a high turnout - to be ignoring that outcome and asking the Irish people to vote again is only a tiny step above outright fixing of the first vote on the scale of democratic abuses.

Deep breath, calm down. Ok.

Those that are for the treaty say it will safeguard jobs and workers rights, stop human trafficking in the EU, rescue Ireland from recession, and generally hold off the threat of Europe hating us at any point soon. Those against it say it will increase military spending, break trade barriers, lower worker rights and protections, and generally mean the end of all good life as we know it.

I find it hard to trust either side to be honest (although I'd without a doubt come down on the 'No' side if I had the choice to make).

The greatest conundrum I have with Lisbon is this: Michael O'Leary (head of Ryanair), has reportedly spent half a million Euros supporting the "Yes" side. Now, Michael O'Leary wouldn't spend one of George Galloway's thin dimes on a life jacket if one of his planes was going down in the Irish Sea and he thought he had a chance of swimming to shore for free. What does this mean? It means that when O'Leary is prepared to blow half a million Euros on what is seemingly a political event, something very very big is up.

I can't figure it out - what is there hidden in this treaty, that makes O'Leary so desperate to see it go through?