Saturday, September 26, 2009

Just back from the US

I was in Chicago and Pittsburgh this week, and managed to eavesdrop a bit on the G-20 window-dressing and to take the pulse a bit of the east and central US.

Impressions? Pittsburgh is an old-money city which has done very well. I think the airport design is thoughtful, the freeways are well designed and maintained, and property is an incredible bargain. I checked out house prices in a very upscale enclave about 20 minutes from downtown, with a golf course and architectural controls, littered with Benzes and Escalades. What was being offered at $550k would have sold for $800k - 900k four years ago. And the bottom has not yet been reached. Local companies are still cutting staff and looking for ways to save their way to prosperity. Can't be done, although the opposite (spending your way into bankruptcy) can be easily achieved.

I also think Pittsburgh's media has lost its mind. Here's why: Greenpeace managed to fool all the police and security on Wednesday morning and string a banner on a major bridge downtown. The radio reporter who covered this was eagerly WAITING FOR GREENPEACE TO COME AND TALK TO THE MEDIA to crow about how they had pulled off this act of publicity-grabbing vandalism.

Chicago people like to say "The best thing about Chicago is you can fly direct to anywhere in the world. The worst thing is you have to do it from O'Hare Airport." And it used to be true; few airports could match O'Hare for pure congestion and crowds. But no more. There are parking spaces in the lots, seats in the airport restaurants, even room to walk from gate to gate. Traffic is probably 70% or so of its pre-crash levels, by my guess. A sign of the times. And worse is yet to come.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Check out BC Highway 99

I have found a highway that is worth driving just for the sake of driving it. Best of all, it connects spectacular scenery with more spectacular scenery without ever repeating itself, and a one-day round trip begins and ends in a great city.

Highway 99 runs north from Washington into BC near Vancouver, slices through Vancouver and then heads north towards Whistler, site of the winter Olympics in a few months. The portion of the road between West Vancouver and Whistler is called the Sea to Sky Highway, and it is true to its name. It winds along the cliffs that look west onto the Pacific Ocean, and the myriad islands and inlets are a feast for the eyes.

On Saturday morning we were treated to a collection of British cars wending their way north, including an old Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, an MG TC, a TR3, some sort of old Jag two-seater, a stunning Bentley Continental convertible, a somewhat lecherous looking Jensen Interceptor and a variety of MGBs and MGBGTs. We had the roof down in the 320ce and were pretty comfy compared to all except perhaps the couple in the Bentley.

The road turns inland and continues to climb (Sea to Sky, remember) and we stopped for a bite in Whistler, a mountain resort with big-league skiing and golf. We then left most of the crowd behind as we pressed north towards Pemberton. The mountains along the west coast scrape the moisture from the Pacific winds and the road winds past lakes and rivers and mossy mixed forests. Pemberton sits in a fairly wide valley, and then beyond Pemberton the road follows the Birkenhead river for a while and starts to climb. Expect 20 mph switchbacks and hiking trails and occasional places to pull over to park for a picnic. The last 20 miles or so have a few 13% downhill grades, several single lane bridges and to-die-for views, small and large, from exuberant little creeks to a finishing vista near Lillooet that is like driving in a piece of the Grand Canyon.

Once you reach Lillooet the countryside opens up, and it looks as if it is covered in suede; dry, open, deeply carved by the Fraser River and its tributaries. If you are pressed for time, turn south from Lillooet on Highway 12 and make your way back towards Vancouver, or take a longer way around and head up to Cache Creek first.

Either way, the return trip is completely different from the outbound route. You will be in rugged, dry upland terrain, with sage brush, gullies and spectacular views. For my wife and me, our destination this trip was in the opposite direction from Vancouver, and we pressed north and east to Highway 5 then onwards into the dusk, heading to Alberta.

The cabrio was a treat; we motored roof-down through a couple of rain showers with the front side windows up, and the wind deflector, and kept dry except for some drips from the top of the windows. This is a touring car not a sports car, and it plugged along through the canyons of Highway 99 east of Lillooet, but was happier at speed, whether the roof was down or up.

Highway 99 is worth driving just for the fun of it. Take a day, ideally in May, June or September (avoiding tourists in July/Aug and the likelihood of snow the rest of the year!), start in Vancouver and head north along the coast. Return via the Fraser Valley. We would go a day out of our way, just for the drive. There are no other roads that I would say that about.

(Note for visitors from Benzworld. We started in Edmonton, went to Calgary, Richmond BC, then home. 4 days on the road, 1650 miles/2600 km). 1992 320ce cabrio.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Internet car-selling scam

You find an ad somewhere on line for a car that is just a couple of years old, low miles, good condition, facts backed up by photos and best of all, the price is really, really low.

Why so cheap? Well, the seller is just about to leave the country, or has just left the country but the car is at a port and the seller has found out that he can't ship it after all, or the seller just started working on a cruise ship and doesn't really need a car, or the seller is in the armed forces and could get sent away at any time but can't tell you when, perhaps for reasons of national security.

To pay for this car, the seller wants everything to be above board, so the idea will be to make the deal then arrange the payments through eBay. What could be more secure?

I now know three people who have been attracted by a deal like this. It is a scam. There is no car, and the buyer loses whatever deposit the seller can talk him into sending.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Brickbreaker one more time

The old Blackberry 8800 died and I have been equipped with a new Blackberry Bold 9000.
Naturally I needed to check out whether Brickbreaker still looked and worked the same. It doesn't, so those who relied on the following links on this site to improve their games probably have something to complain about:

Brickbreaker Level 16
Brickbreaker Levels 1 - 17
Brickbreaker Levels 18 - 34
More Brickbreaker Tips
Brickbreaker Addicts

Here is what I observe to be different in this version:

1. The ball is much smaller
2. There is more space on the right side for the ball to sneak through between a silver brick and the right side wall. Aim for this and it will help you, but allow for the ball to sneak through coming back down, too.
3. There is a bit more randomness in where the ball goes when you launch it at each level

4. My tips for Level 8 do not work reliably. Actually they don't work at all.

5. Level 13 really benefits from aiming at the bottom right of the silver bricks and letting the ball slip up and through.
6. Level 26 is a killer, but if you happen to get a GUN from one of the upper level bricks, take out the two silver bricks at the left edge of the upper coursel.

I would be most grateful for your thoughts and observations about how Brickbreaker varies from one generation of Blackberry to another. Comments are always welcome!

Unhealthy US Commercial Real Estate

Wow, those green shoots are really sprouting.

The US National Association of Realtors has the following forecast:

“We now expect office vacancy rates to rise very sharply, surpassing 20 percent in 2010. Office rents will fall 7 percent in 2009 and further fall an additional 1 percent in 2010. Industrial and retail sectors will face deteriorating conditions as well. Only the multifamily sector looks to squeeze out positive rent growth, though at a slower rate of increase than in the past.”