Friday, February 27, 2009

housing - further to fall

Housing is local. However, at a national level, median prices will continue to fall. By historical standards, it is still too expensive. (In that post, I'm amused by tangent some of the commenters went on about peak oil.) With mounting layoffs and unsold home inventory levels that are still above average, I don't see any way that prices move any direction but down. It's pretty easy to envision another 10-15% drop in prices and 25% in selected markets.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

whirlwind trips

I recently wrapped up a whirlwind series of days where I spent five nights in five different hotels and saw five different airports. I am counting one night in my 'base hotel' here in Szeged, but I feel I can count that since I was only back in town for about 18 hours.

On Wednesday night, after a day at work, I took the train to Budapest since I had an early morning flight to kick-off a three day trip. I missed my stop at the airport and had to double back on another train without a proper ticket. They didn't announce the airport stop, not even in Hungarian, and it was dark and lacking in proper signage. But this stop was at Terminal 1 and I thought I needed to be at Terminal 2 to catch the free shuttle to the hotel. So I jumped on a bus that had a sign on it that said it was going to Ferihegy 2. Ferihegy is the name of the airport so I thought the bus was going back to Terminal 2. I jumped on at the rear door and didn't realize at the time I was supposed to pay 400 Forints (about $2). Eh, no one said anything, but that might be why people looked at me. Then again, people look at me in Szeged. It probably has something to do with not being Hungarian. Back to the story, the bus did not go directly to Terminal 2. I am fairly confident that the bus eventually went there, but I started to worry after about six stops and it seemed like we were doing nothing but moving away from the airport and into a retail area. By sheer luck, I saw my hotel's sign in the distance and said screw it, I'm getting off at the next stop and walking. So I did.

If you're wondering about my luggage, I only took my backpack with my work materials and a change of clothes. When it comes to packing, the lesson to learn is that there is nothing that you cannot wear for two days in a row, especially if you see different people each day.

I couldn't really tell where my hotel was because it went out of view due to other buildings and the landscape. I eventually walked past a sign that said I was entering an airport business park. I was fully prepared to jump a fence if that's what it came to but I was staying at the Airport Hotel so it seemed promising. There were some cars on the street and they may have wondered what I was doing since it was almost 10 pm and really cold and why would anyone walk in an area like that at that time. I had steeled myself to walk for an hour if necessary before I would consider calling a taxi, but it only took about 20 minutes.

In the morning I took the free shuttle to the airport which was easy to find since it came every 30 minutes. It took me only 45 minutes from the time I woke up to the time I cleared the security checkpoint at the airport. If you ever need to stay near the Budapest airport, consider the Airport Hotel (that's its name) which is new, has free continental breakfast, 24 hour restaurant, and of course the free shuttle. Prices are good too. Use

I managed to hit up five airports because I did not get a direct flight (there are few to none of them for where I went) either there or back. I also went through a different connecting airport each way. But wait, that should only be four airports: Budapest, connection 1, destination, connection 2. Almost. When I arrived at my destination, I landed in one city. But I left from a different city because of where my last meeting was. My departure airport really could benefit from check-in kiosks. It was also a little strange since my return connection was through Zurich. So I left the E.U. and then jumped right back in so I had to clear customs twice. Also, when I left from my departing city, I almost had some trouble explaining what I was doing and my travel pattern. It doesn't help that they keep stamping my passport out of order and with illegible stamps. It seems sort of pointless.

When I got back to Budapest, I took that bus (and paid this time) from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 (but there were still stops in between but it made more sense with daylight), bought a train ticket, and generally had a hassle free ride back to Szeged. Where I stayed one night, cleaned up, shaved, packed different clothes and then went back to Budapest to meet a client for dinner on Sunday and then a different client for lunch on Monday. Now I'm back Szeged, but I might be hitting the road again as soon as Thursday.

Monday, February 23, 2009

more crazy eurosports

One of the net three English language channels at the hotel is a EuroSport channel that has a distinctly U.K. flavor to it, which is understandable since where else is an English language channel going to be coming from around here.

Along with the ridiculousness of bowls that I discussed before, they also have arm wrestling on this channel. Evidently, the competition is called Arm Wars and it's written in a font that is reminiscent of (but not identical to) the font used for the "Star Wars" at the beginning of each of the movies during the opening crawl. There are weight classes and even a women's division. I just saw a match between two teenage girls!

The first weekend I was here there was gymnastics, but it was pair's gymnastics. It was like a cross between pair's figure skating and conventional gymnastics floor exercise. It was different. Then came the men's pair's gymnastics. Much like the mixed pairs there is a male gymnast, pretty strong, stout guy and then instead of a woman, the partner was a smaller guy, usually younger. It was straight out of Blades of Glory or maybe Blades of Glory got the idea from this sport. The bigger guy was unironically called the 'base'. They did throws and catches and it had all the trappings that would preclude it from being a sport in the U.S. any time soon.

I mentioned big hill ski jumping a couple weeks ago. There is apparently a variation of it called sky flying which seems to be big hill ski jumping on really big hills. These guys were going in excess of 200 meters with take-off speeds over 100 km/hr. Yes, I'm on the metric system now which is making some parts of work more confusing since some items are still described in inches and lbs/ft.

Snooker is evidently pretty big in the U.K. as well. I think I've figured out most of the rules and it's surprisingly interesting to watch. The maximum score of 147 is an unusually unround number which is kind of nice.

There have been some equestrian shows on as well, but those are less compelling for people not worth at least seven figures.

Team handball is like a cross between basketball, ice hockey, water polo, and dodgeball. Lacrosse is a good comparison except it's not indoors and they use those net-stick dealies. Or it's really not. Evidently, it is really big in some countries in Europe and, from what I have gathered, it's a moderately big deal in Hungary. After all, it is an Olympic sport. It's simple enough to follow (unlike, let's say rugby). You score a point when you get the ball into the net. You have to dribble if you want to take more steps than NBA basketball players are allowed to before traveling gets called. I think there are five steps in Lebron's crab dribble. But a lot of contact is allowed, you can't step across a line around the goal which keeps people from simply running into the goal with the ball, and apparently you can substitute almost anytime you feel like.

Perhaps the most ridiculous 'sport' that airs on this channel is classic WWF (now WWE) matches. These are from when I was a kid and I remember some of these guys like Bret 'The Hitman' Hart and Million Dollar Man and Andre the Giant. I remember my brother and I used to watch this at 9 or 10 pm on Friday nights on what used to be channel 44. It is so delightfully campy. I almost feel compelled to watch it to see if I can catch a glimpse of Jesse Ventura from his pre-Predator and political days.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

more doppelgangers

My doppelgangers are out in force. In the last two days, two different people have told me that I look like someone they know. The first was a woman on the plane back to Budapest. She was a nice enough lady, from Oakland in fact, going to Budapest with her grown son who lives in Maine. Anyway, we struck up a conversation and she remarked that I look like someone she knows. (For clarification, she wasn't talking to her son on the flight, because they were not seated together since the flight was full.)

Yesterday, I was at a client office in Budapest and one of the people I met asked me if we had met before. I told him probably not and explained where I had worked before. He said maybe we had met in Houston, but it was probably someone else.

Hopefully, my doppelgangers are using their powers for good. I have received many comments from people over the years that I either look like someone they know or that they think they have met me before, which usually means that they met someone who looks like me. I find it so strange because I have never met anyone who looks like me.

There are various reasons for this. First, I see my face nearly every day and like to think I have a good handle on what I look like. We are individuals and we should generally like that individuality. I do. For instance, I've been told that I look like my brother, a comment I don't really agree with. I think we look like brothers, but I don't think we look all that similar if that makes sense. Then again, much like how I see my own face every day, I saw his face every day for many years and have a pretty good handle on not only what he looks like, but also how he does and does not look like me. I'm not sure if other people are trying to find something that connects me to someone or somewhere or something that they already know. This seems to lead to grasping for finding a person from their past history who looks like me. Or maybe it's just a polite comment, but it seems like a strange way to make polite conversation.

Another reason is that I strive for a generic and somewhat timeless look. For those of you who know me, especially if you've ever seen my closet, I own a lot of dark blue shirts along with a good number of gray and black ones. I very rarely dress in a way that would draw attention to me from someone walking on the street. I've had the same haircut for some number of years and try to look more or less the same all the time. I'm not sure how old I look to other people, but I do strive for a timeless quality where I'll look essentially the same 10 years from now. There seem to be a couple competing factors when people try to guess my age. At work, most of my work peers are older than me by a couple years so they might be inclined to think I am older. Same for clients who are almost always older and generally expect me to probably be older than I am so when I meet people, they might tend to think I am closer to their age than I really am. I have not quite figured out if people think I look older or younger than I actually am. Context and setting seem to be such big parts of that.

Does anyone else get lots of comments about looking like other people? Better yet, if you have a photo of anyone who looks like me, then please send it. Or if you know anyone who looks like me, take their photo (say it's for research) and send it to me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

on the road

I'm out of Hungary and on the road for a couple of days to meet a client. Think really big client. Hungary borders seven countries and amusingly enough, I'm not in any of them. Guess where I am.

Update: 2009-02-20 - 19:30
For the client, think big and not in any way government/state-owned. Not necessarily big for this district or region per se, but simply big in a global sense. For the location, think about where such a company would have an office in Continental Europe.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

one week in

It’s been a really interesting week. I’ve met some clients, plenty of people at the yard, some managers who came through town, and generally been very busy. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about working here is meeting people from different places. Right now, people pick me up from the hotel each morning and bring me back at the end of the day. It’s usually one of the engineers, but on Thursday it was our location manager since he was also picking up some of the regional managers who were in town to visit the yard. So in the car, there was a Venezuelan, German, South African (that Afrikaans accent is so great!), African-Frenchman and myself. Very amusing.

For the most part, the field equipment here is very different than what is used in the States. The basics are the same, but analogous pieces have different manufacturers and different road and regulatory requirements. The logistics here are also conducted very differently. Most of that is a function of different client and job-type circumstances. However, some of it is a result of some laws here about when big trucks can and cannot drive on the roads. During the weekend, there is a 24 hour period where big trucks cannot be on the roads. During the summer, that time goes to 48 hours. For any job that is expected to occur during that time, equipment must be mobilized before and demobilized after that time.

It has snowed the last couple of days. It’s quite nice to see something that wasn’t going to happen in South Texas.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

in szeged

I've been here a couple of days now. It's fine so far. I had dinner with my predecessor on Friday night and we talked a little shop and a little about the city. He'll be here about another week before taking vacation and then going to his next assignment in Aberdeen. I'll be inheriting his company car and cell phone. (For no, I have a temporary phone for work, but since it's pre-paid they told me to try to not make any calls with it.) I might take his apartment too if it's suitable. He says it has two bedrooms. I'm not sure I want to encourage guests to stay. Of course, if there was no furniture like, let's say a bed, then no one will stay.

I spent about half the day at the yard yesterday. Mostly going over district issues with my future manager, though it's not clear if I will report directly to him since my predecessor does not report to him though I sensed a bit of friction in that relationship.

There are two-and-a-half-and-a-half English language channels on the television in the hotel. I put it like that since there is a BBC news channel and a EuroSport (it's like ESPN2) channel that are both in English all the time. There are some strange sports that make the cut. There's something that they appear to call 'bowls' which is like indoor lawn bowling where one of the competitors I saw uses something like a cane for balance to roll his balls. They also have something called Nordic combined which is a combination of big hill ski jumping and cross-country skiing. The higher your jump score, the further the head start you get in the cross-country portion. Apparently big hill ski jumping is not based on distance alone. There are also style points for take-off technique, in flight stability and symmetry, and landing form. One of the half channels is the Cartoon Network in English during the day and then very strangely dubbed movies in the evening. For the audio, they've lowered the original sound so you can still here snippets of English and then used the same guy to do all the voices in German. It's as ridiculous as it sounds. The other half-channel is MTV out of Germany. It pains me to know that we're exporting such cultural gems as Flavor of Love and Rock of Love with subtitles. (At least they aren't dubbed but if they were, the comedic value would be through the roof.) If you aren't already aware of what those shows are, I recommend that you stay blissfully ignorant. Other channels are mostly in German since it's the more common second language here.

This is a nice hotel. I can purchase access to the Wi-Fi network here, which I have, but I'll mostly try to use the internet at work in the future. The hotel is right along the river in Szeged and I've spent some of today walking around the neighborhood, realizing that most places close on Sundays. There is no iron in my room which is a standard item in American hotels. As such, I've also spent some of the day steaming my clothes in the bathroom which is moderately successful.

Friday, February 06, 2009

travel thoughts so far

I'm writing this from the Frankfurt airport, though I'm posting it later as I cannot join the Wi-Fi network without a T-Mobile account.

Counting yesterday, I have met three different women who are the wives of Hal Co employees in my various travels in the last several years. By 'met', I mean the kind of casual conversation you strike up with your fellow travelers that is about nothing in particular. The woman from yesterday was struggling with a rather large amount of luggage which I though was three checked bags and a sizable carry-on and I joked to her that she was also traveling light like myself. (Point of reference, the totality of everything I brought with me fit in my backpack, three checked bags, and one box that I have mailed to myself. I really hope I got the address on the package correct.) It turned out that one of her bags was a carry-on and her ginormous purse was her 'personal item' which is a practice I generally frown upon. But since the flight was only about three-quarters full, I'll forgive her. She was apparently going to Cairo for a month.

Lufthansa has an 8 kg carry-on limit. My backpack probably weighs closer to 15 kg so I'm really glad they didn't ask about it. I had to leave the airline counter and pay for my extra bag on the other side of the terminal since I was checking an extra bag. The attendant told me I didn't have to wait in line when I came back, but I did wait for her to finish with the people she was currently helping. She made them weigh all of their carry-on bags after she had already taken their checked bags so they couldn't redistribute the weight into their bags. It almost seemed deliberately spiteful.

IAH airport in Houston has a possessed toilet in terminal 4.

Lufthansa has a strange boarding process. Apparently, the order is first class, business class, special club members, people who need assistance, and then everyone else at the same time. Update, they did the same thing with economy class in Frankfurt for the flight to Budapest. Apparently, this is easier than boarding the rear of the plane first. Or not.

Is airline food specifically designed to not produce smelly gas in people?

A couple passengers stood up too early when we landed in Frankfurt. They got up while we were still taxiing opened the overhead bin and took their bags out. The co-pilot came on the intercom and told everyone to sit down and followed that by saying "In the history of aviation, never once has a passenger arrived at the terminal before the plane."

Frankfurt airport feels very strange. The ceiling are too low, lights hang too low, and there are marquees barely above head height.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

leaving on a jet plane

I don't know when I'll be back again. The Peter, Paul, and Mary version.

I like that song. It's what's going through my head right now. They just started boarding priority passengers (first class already boarded, these are the special needs folks). Oh, if it wasn't apparent, this and previous two entries were written at the airport. Go wireless internet. And thanks BA for your unsecured WiFi in your lounge area. Your walls may keep my out, but wireless knows no bounds.

I have a layover in Frankfurt, then on to Budapest. Then a 2 hours car ride to Szeged, which is where I will be working or some such thing. I'll hit this up again once I figure out some basic phone and internet issues.

thoughts from my drive

I sold my car yesterday. For the time being, that's only relevant in explaining why I was driving a Chevrolet Cobalt from Victoria to Houston. I can get into the sale of my vehicle some other time.

The car was red. Base model Cobalt's should not be allowed to come in the color red. It's arguably a borderline color even for the SS model. But it'd be way cooler if the Cobalt was actually cobalt blue with possibly a metallic shimmer.

Anyway, the information display features an instanteneous fuel economy reading amongst the usual suspects like trip mileage and overall fuel economy plus some gewgaw that shows remaining oil life and tire pressure. As the first 90 miles of the drive form Victoria to Houston are rather boring (while the final 50 are potentially very exicitng depending on the traffic) I amused myself with seeing what kind of mileage I would get at different speeds. At 75 mph, the tach was around 2600 and the instataneous fuel economy showed about 30-31 mpg with some dips down to 29. At 65 mph, the teach was around 2250 and the instantaneous fuel economy showed 36-37 mpg with some dips down to 35. Up and down overapasses, both speeds saw dramatic decreases in fuel economy on the way up and correspondingly higher numbers on the way down.

I have believed for some time that the best fuel economy can be achieved with a steady foot and close attention to the wavy hills and overpasses. Cruise control is good, but it's not great, especially in an underpowered vehicle with a suspect transmission. The Cobalt also produced a lot of wind noise. I got better fuel economy numbers in the Fusion by easing up slightly going up small hills and overpasses and then reclaiming the lost speed on the down slope. Cruise control locks you in to a certain speed, but steady RPMs rock the fuel economy ride.

I also saw a Motel 8 sign that had fallen over. It was one of those 50 ft poles with the big lit sign on top. The pole looked like it had snapped about 20 ft above the ground. Craziness.

strange phone transfer

I was on the phone with Waste Management (trash hauler) yesterday trying to schedule a time for them to come and get their dumpsters. The person I was speaking with was going to transfer me to another department that could more appropriately handle my request. Apparently, that department is the Houston Marriott Westchase. I stayed there my first week with the company during my week of orientation in Houston. It's a nice hotel and used to be an Adam's Mark hotel and those are really nice. But as good a hotel as it is, they weren't able to help me with the dumpsters.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

time to go

This morning, I just found out my itinerary for my transfer. I leave on Thursday. Wait, wait, ... wait ... go!

As I was expecting slightly more lead time, I will be doing a lot of packing during the next 36 hours, both for myself and at work. And trying to wrap up about seven distinct issues tomorrow. With that said, I will be around. And running. A lot.