October 2005

the Corpse Bride

Saw the Corpse Bride yesterday. I can’t remember the last time I saw two claymation movies in a row, and both this and the Wallace and Gromit movie had Helena Bonham Carter as voice talent. Weird.

I have to say, it’s pretty amazing what they can do with a few lumps of clay. These characters were more emotionally stirring than many of their flesh-and-blood counterparts, and managed the neat trick of making the dead seem charming (and much more lively and colorful than the washed-out living Victorians), something that would be impossible with live-action. The quality of the animation was also astonishing, and apparently achieved through unprecedented meticulousness. It occurred to me partway through that the whole thing could have been done as computer animation, and indeed, it wouldn’t be a bad use for CGI, which has gotten good enough to have entered the “uncanny valley” when rendering humans, but should be more than up to task rendering caricatured claymation characters. Still, I can imagine some subtleties would be lost along the way, and for all I know, it wouldn’t save any time.

Almost all Tim Burton movies have a fairy-tale quality to them. This is no exception, but what is different is that it is apparently based on an existing folk tale

the Corpse Bride Read More »


I knew a woman once with the nickname “Sproidy”–she was given this monicker because the letters on the dial of the phone could be used to spell that. I occasionally find myself using this trick in reverse when I need to invent a numeric passcode or the like–I pick a convenient word, and work out the numbers on a phone dial that correspond to it.

There ought to be a name for words and numbers created using this trick, of using numbers to generate words, or vice-versa. Since these are generally used as an aide-memoire, I kind of like “mnumerimonic.” Another possibility might be “numerinym,” though that would only make sense for to words generated from numbers.

Mnumerimonic Read More »

The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report started off with a bang last night–Gwen and I were laughing so hard our sides hurt. You don’t get that very often with TV. Most of the talking-head news shows are bad enough that they should defy parody. Colbert manages anyhow.

Colbert’s guest for the opening episode was Stone Phillips. This was especially apt: Some years ago, the Daily Show aired a special episode–that is, old clip retreads–all introduced by Colbert. He did the whole thing in an unmistakeable and dead-on Stone Phillips impersonation. Phillips, who I’ve always considered an empty shirt who only gets work because of his reassuring voice, was a good sport, and comported himself admirably throughout the gravitas face-off.

The Colbert Report Read More »


Saw Serenity with Gwen yesterday. I’m a fan of the original TV series “Firefly” (though I only became one after it was cancelled), so it’s impossible for me to know how the movie plays to a newcomer audience. It’s also impossible for me to discuss the movie without spoilers, so this will continue after the jump

Serenity Read More »

Mi casa es su casa

Gwen and I bought a house yesterday. The circumstances surrounding the sale are a little unusual, but not in a bad way.

We had been looking for a long time–before my old house was even on the market, in fact. And the longer we looked, the more discouraged we got. There was this duplex that intrigued us, but left us with some reservations–it had been languishing on the market for over a year and was withdrawn from the market three days before we decided to make an offer on it. Long story. No point in kicking ourselves over that lost opportunity.

For quite some time, everything we looked at was too expensive, too awful, too remote, or some combination of the three. One day a friend of ours, Mychal, mentioned that the folks across the street from her were thinking of selling their house. She gave us their number and we all-but coerced them into letting us go for a walk-through. They didn’t have a realtor at that point (in fact, we found out after the closing, they weren’t entirely sure about selling at that point). We mentioned this new development to our realtor, who actually told us that we should get the sellers to handle the transaction as a FSBO (for sale by owner, pronounced “fizzbo”), and that she would step aside. And that’s how we did it.

When I bought my previous house with Jenny, we walked in the door and pretty much knew instantly “this is it.” That’s not a responsible approach to home-buying, but we got lucky in that instance. This time around, I think Gwen and I were both a little too savvy to fall in love with the place immediately, but we knew this could be it.

We were also looking at the house not just for what it is, but for what it could be. My last house we never even repainted rooms (with one exception) until we decided to fix it up to sell. This time, we’re going to have a fair amount of work done before we even move in. Not that there’s anything actually wrong with it, but it is a small place, and the disposition of space isn’t optimized for Gwen and me. So we’ll be moving some rooms around. I’ll probably start a renovation blog to document that process.

Handling the transaction without an agent was not that difficult. It did require a fair amount of attentiveness at times, making sure that the title company, insurer, lender, and we were all on the same page. And it required some delicacy with the sellers, since they’re nice folks (in fact, we established that we’ve been present at the same party at least once, and have several friends in common), and we didn’t want to alienate them, but we also wanted to look out for our own interests. If realtors had been involved, everything would have been completely arm’s-length and faintly antagonistic. In our case, they wanted to sell and we wanted to buy; they were happy that the house was going to be in good hands, and we were happy to be doing business with them. The whole process felt more cooperative. The tensest moment came when we were shooting the breeze about neighborhood restaurants, and mentioned both Vivo and El Chile. Either Gwen or I added “not that there’s any comparison,” and one of the sellers asked “which one do you like better?” A moment of ominous silence passed, as if this were a test to determine our fitness to buy their home, the reliability of our judgment, and our compatibility with the neighborhood zeitgeist. “El Chile,” we answered. A barely-perceptible wave of relief–we gave the right answer. Some people get hung up about doing business only with others of the same political leanings, but this was important.

Although apparently many closings are handled with the seller and buyer not even being at the same place at the same time, we did this at the subject property–an agent from the title company drove over and we took care of everything at the dining-room table. Afterwords, we drank excellent mojitos and shot the breeze.

Another one of the unusual aspects of this deal is that we have a lease-back agreement with the sellers–they’re moving out of the country in about a month, so rather than trying to find temporary lodgings, they’re renting their own house back from us for the time being (actually, we reduced the sale price by an agreed amount).

So the whole deal has an air of unreality about it. Between the lease-back and the renovation, we probably will not be actually occupying the house until some time in January. And yet it is ours.

Mi casa es su casa Read More »

Kabbalah is the new Scientology

Davey was having a party to break the fast last night, so Gwen and I went. Not that either of us fasted, but if someone wants to have a party, we won’t get fussy about the reasons. I had some of Davey’s fancy homemade gefilte fish (three layers!), the first I’ve had in a long time and very tasty.

Some of us were chatting and we somehow got onto the subject of pop-Kabbalah (which should be distinguished from old-shul Kabbalah), and I asserted that pop-Kabbalah is the new Scientology: a pseudo-religion scam designed to suck money out of people, especially famous ones. Gwen argued that pop-Kabbalah wasn’t as bad because it was at least rooted in a legitimate religious tradition. “Oh yeah?” I countered, “then what about Jews for Jesus? That’s rooted in two legitimate religious traditions!”

I made that assertion mostly based on my gut feelings, knowing almost nothing about pop-Kabbalah. Having read the wikipedia entry on it, though, I feel all the more convinced of my point.

Kabbalah is the new Scientology Read More »

No place like home

Gwen and I did the AIA Austin Homes tour over the weekend. It was a mixed bag.

There were eleven homes on the tour, of which we saw eight, I think. Of these, there were two houses that we could imagine, at some point, aspiring to live in. The rest were straight out of lifestyles of the rich and famous; I’m pretty sure one of them had been featured in Met Home.

Gwen and I are closing on a new house soon. It’s not a big place–in fact, at 1100 sqft, it’s about as small as we could comfortably go. Before we even move in, we’re going to have a contractor move some walls around to optimize the use of space. We’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty, measuring how many linear feet of bookshelf space we need and figuring out how to allocate it. Things like that. We’ve got some money to spend, but not a fortune. In short, we’re dealing with a lot of constraints, and trying to be creative and efficient within those constraints. We were hoping to get some good ideas for our own project.

Most of the houses we looked at on the tour were not designed around constraints. We looked at two that happened to be next door to each other (at 2406 Woodmont and 1710 Forest Trail) where the client’s brief to the architect seemed to be “make it as big as possible, and spend as much money as possible doing it.” There’s no question that the workmanship was excellent, and the houses lacked nothing. But they simply to piled on one feature after another, as if the architect never had to make any hard decisions about how to fit something in. The Woodmont house was nice but uninspiring, and seemed more designed to look good in a catalog than to be lived in. A professional decorator had done the kids’ rooms, which showed no sign of their occupants’ personalities. The Forest Trail house we positively disliked–all dark wood and raw stone, as if to resemble a castle with central air and heat.

We looked at another place (1400 Hardouin Ave) that was a remodel of a really excellent early-modernist structure, where the architect had knocked some walls down, redone the kitchen, that sort of thing–the same kinds of things that Gwen and I are contemplating, only on a grander scale. We chatted with the homeowner and architect for a few minutes about the house, and the architect mentioned not being able to do certain things because of the budget. After we walked out, Gwen and I looked at each other and both started saying “what budget?”. The remodel budget for this place was clearly a lot more than our entire house + remodel budget.

We really did like one of these fantasy houses–the one I think was in Met Home (2806 Robbs Run). It was about three times larger than anything we could imagine wanting, but there were some good and interesting ideas. The shape of the place was like two tall, narrow barns running parallel with a glass box in between. The glass box was the staircase; at one end there was a massive screened-in porch with a fireplace (which, I must say, seems like the only logical place for a fireplace in a town like Austin). Everything about this place was obviously thought through and built to withstand a nuclear attack–the open-tread stairs felt like poured concrete. And–bonus–they showed excellent taste by displaying a painting by our friend Stella Alessi by the front door.

One wacky fantasy house (101 Vale) we looked at was designed by its occupant, a man appropriately named Duke. This was an enormous, rambling house detailed all over the interior with rough-hewn cedar (bark still on), which served for door frames, table legs, countertops, etc. There was a lot about this house that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but it definitely did have personality. It also had a secret passageway, which I commend.

There was a pair of townhouses (4905 Woodrow) by our not-so-favorite design-build shop, metrohouse. These are the guys who don’t believe in closets, and sadly, these were the only houses that were really built on something approximating a middle-class budget. These guys had constraints. Unfortunately, they don’t do a very good job working within them. They put in one or two marquee features on each house, and cheap out on everything else. The nicer of the two houses had an ipe (say ee-pay) deck and a beautiful tiled soaking pool, a screened-in porch that opened to the interior through a glass garage door. But all the windows were of the same grade you’d find in a shitty apartment building. Floors were painted concrete or plywood, walls were cinderblock or corrugated sheetmetal. No thanks. Their floor plans are confusing, if not downright hostile. One of the two houses had an industrial staircase athwart the front entry, positioned such that a tall person will nearly bean himself upon walking in. That same house had countertops made of galvanized sheetmetal that had been nipped, folded, and riveted down at all the corners, resulting in sharp edges guaranteed to draw blood whenever you accidentally walk into one; one of these is in the bathroom, and just slightly overhangs the doorway, practically inviting you to do so.

The houses we liked best were both remodels/additions. These were both outside our budget, but were what marketers call “aspirational”–that is, the sort of thing we could reasonably aspire to someday.

One (1113 Mission Ridge) was apparently designed by its occupant, and had a beautiful, low-key atmosphere. There was a huge glassed-in entry area that looked straight through to a small pool in back, but conducts to the common room to the right, which has an office off to one corner, and a hallway to (apparently) the original part of the house, which now has the bedrooms for the parents upstairs and the kids downstairs. There was nothing precious about this place, nothing staged, but it had all kinds of details that showed thought–the parent’s bedroom created a symmetric layout with a semi-open closet under the eaves on one side, and a semi-open bathroom on the opposite side; the bathroom itself was symmetric, with a sunken tub in the middle, shower to the left, and commode to the right (each in enclosures). That kind of logical thinking carried through the house, with details you might not even notice, intelligent connections between spaces, and so on.

The other of the two add-ons (1315 Cullen) preserved more of the function of the original structure (a bungalow from the 40s or 50s) as the main part of the house, with a small addition on the back, a deck, and a new guest cottage. Walking in from the back yard, we entered what might be called a mud room if it weren’t so pleasant, which led through a galley kitchen that had been jazzed up with weirdly angled counters that somehow worked well, and then onto the living room. This connected to a private suite of rooms (bathroom, office, and craft room–?) that had no doors except a big sliding door isolating the suite. The interior had probably been gutted down to the sticks, and the quality of the finish-out was beautiful. The interior was pretty conventional, but the exterior had some interesting materials choices, including a fence and a gate made out of hardipanels, giant exposed OSB beams in the construction of an awning over the yard, etc.

The homes tour cost $50, or you could do it a la carte for $5/house. Gwen and I were comped tickets because her office designed the brochures. It wasn’t worth anything near the asking price, but we’re glad we saw it. It was useful for us to see how certain kinds of lighting or furniture work in actual homes, and we saw lots of stuff we wished we could do, but not a lot in terms of design that we could emulate.

No place like home Read More »