Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Changing the political environment

A few articles this morning caught my attention. The ever-interesting opinion page of the New York Times had a thoughful article by David Brooks (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/opinion/10brooks.html?ref=opinion) and a more polemical piece by Bob Herbert (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/opinion/10herbert.html?ref=opinion). The economic crisis does seem to be causing some people at least to start questioning very fundamental principles. According to Herbert, US per capita GDP rose by 66% btween Reagan's first inauguration in 1980 and 2005. During the same period, average income for more Americans decreased. So under a series of conservative governments (I include the Clinton/Gingrich years in this group) there was an enormous shift of wealth to the richest slice of society. Not surprisingly perhaps the Republican Party seems unwilling or unable to offer any constructive options today (see Jack Cafferty (http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/03/10/cafferty.republicans/index.html?eref=rss_topstories) because they may have yet to make the internal leap that the system they sponsored for the past 30 years is fundementally broken.

Whatever the path out our current situation is, it is not a return to 'trickle down' fiscal policy and the Republicans seem to have no alternative as yet. This is not good news for anyone , conservative or progressive. Without a viable and dynamic opposition, the unreconstructed wing of the Democratic Party (Nancy Pelosi step forward) will see no urgency to get behind the Obama message of change.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Web Development Part 2

In Part 1 I closed with the rather obvious observation that the market for property-related web sites had drastically shrunk in the last 18 months. Shrunk, but not completely disappeared, because the motivations that drove the boom in overseas property purchase haven't gone away, just the degree to which we can afford to indulge them.

People still want to find a warmer/ cheaper/ more vibrant/ more diverse environment for retirement, for extended holidays, for a place for their home-based business. As we sink ever deeper into this economic morass the 'cheaper' motivation will of course be uppermost, and so I believe that more and more people from the UK and the US will look overseas for retirement options that offer a lower cost of living. With retirement funds depleted and lower returns available on those funds, the choice will be to work on indefinitely (if indeed that choice is even available), or find somewhere that allows your money to keep you in an acceptable lifestyle.

So I believe that Places Compared has a future in serving that need. We'll see! Meanwhile the concept behind Places Compared has evolved into something larger, which I will write about later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fighting the spam war

Random posting prompted by my (belated) discovery that hitting SHIFT-DELETE in Outlook permanently deletes an email - i.e. it doesn't sent it to the Deleted Items folder which you then have to permanently delete.

This is particularly handy for those of us who use SpamBayes to trap the flood of spam emails that come into our mailbox every day. SpamBayes puts Spam and Suspected Spam into a dedicated folder, but unlike Outlook's native Junk folder, you can't empty the Spam folder directly; you have to deleted items inside it, then later empty your Deleted Items folder. But with SHIFT-DELETE you can just highlight everything in the Spam folder and permanently delete everything in one step.

SpamBayes is a very clever piece of freeware that you train to recognize garbage, so it quickly becomes very effective at detecting spam.

I know, I know, it is sad that finding this stuff can make me happy.

And sorry, Marianne, although it will work for Macs and Gmail, there is no Mac installer, so you have to be a real geek to get SpamBayes installed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Web Development - Part 1

I said that I would try to record some thoughts on the evolution and development of www.placescompared.com. In 2007 our daughter Marianne, then a senior at Boston University, spent a working summer vacation and the fall academic semester in London. Between visiting Marianne and an effort (ultimately unsuccessful) to buy a London-based software company, I traveled to London probably 3 or 4 times that year. One of the changes that struck me was how much media exposure was given to buying properties overseas. The quality newspapers, TV and radio all had regular and well supported (in terms of advertising) coverage of the trials, tribulations and pleasures of owning second or retirement homes abroad. And in this context, abroad was an expanding concept. In addition to perennial favorites - France, Spain, Florida - people were looking at Croatia, Romania, southern Italy.

Several of our UK friends had already taken the plunge, having bought properties in France, Italy, Australia, Madeira ... it seemed that everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.

For several years my wife Sheila and I had been thinking loosely about what we might do in the coming retirement years, with France and Italy favorite destinations - at least in the 'what if?' stakes.

My own researches led me to the view that while there was a huge amount of useful material available online, it was hit and miss in terms of coverage; widely dispersed and often, reasonably enough, in the local language which generally stretched my limited linguistic skills to breaking point. By late summer 2007 I had started to sketch out in my mind a web site that would pull together information from people who had already taken the plunge and who would be wiling to share their experience with those of us still at the planning stage.

There is a huge difference between product development while working in a software company and product development when you are running another business, trying to buy a business 3,000 miles away and fitting in time to conceive, design and develop a moderately complex web site. It took me until March of 2008 to get matters to the point where I could usefully turn over my high level specification to a company of professional developers here in Maryland to produce a detailed functional spec which could be used to get some quotes for writing the code.

In June, thanks to an introduction by a friend in the UK I made contact with a UK/Indian offshore development company, Damco Solutions, and within a few weeks the project was underway.

My next posting will cover the actual development process itself - another learning experience!

Now it won't have escaped your attention that in the year or so from initial concept to first code writing, the economic environment in general, and the property market in particular had ... well you know. However I reasoned (or rationalized!) that economic cycles are just that, cycles and one day or another matters will improve and the forces that drove demand for overseas property will re-emerge and I would have just the resource that would be called for.

What those forces are exactly will be the subject of a future blog as will my idea on how to motivate contributors who might be a little more economically aware today than say two years ago.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Expatriate Gene?

There are many reasons why people end up moving away from the country where they were born and raised. Job requirements and family issues are probably the two imperatives that cause more-or-less involuntary or at least reluctant moves abroad.

Others are simply alienated from the place our parents happened to live when we came along. Our home country may be too restrictive, too traditional, too placid for our taste and so the grass may really be greener on the other side of the border.

But for some, and I include myself in this group, we simply have an itch, an urge to move. In part it is our agreement with St. Augustine, "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page", and with Robert Louis Stevenson, "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." But of course these guys had something in mind closer to a young person’s gap year extended trip around the hostels of Europe. But the urge is also about something much deeper.

I felt quite at home in Glasgow where I was born and raised. I had enjoyed school, I had my family, close friends; but on many nights as I waited on the platform for the train home I would see the overnight train leave for London and part of me invariably wanted to be on it, and not for a weekend trip. The impetus finally came from a combination of a pact with my two closest friends that we would all three head south and the mutual recognition that it was time I moved out of the family home and go somewhere where my late night comings and goings wouldn’t keep disrupting the peace and quiet of the house.

Somehow I think I knew I would never return to live permanently in Scotland. It didn’t seem immediately obvious that this would be the case. Indeed a fourth friend soon came down to live with us in London, but it was just as obvious that this was one Scot transplant who would soon head home. And so it proved. Over the years this pattern repeated itself. People would arrive in London, either in search of a fresh opportunity or a work transfer; and somehow it was always pretty obvious who would stay and who would be on the train north at the earliest moment. And many who did stay eventually set out for another adventure even further afield. I have two friends executing plans to retire overseas – one in Italy and one in Australia. Both raised their families in London after themselves having been raised in Lancashire and Scotland respectively.

So at the risk of stating the obvious, some of us are just born to wander. It isn’t really a dislike or dissatisfaction with where we happen to be today, just a need to head off over the next hill. I still think Hampstead in London was the best place I ever lived, and that was almost 20 years ago, but circumstance and opportunity took us away and now circumstance and life changes are prompting us to think ‘where next?’ And really, thinking ‘where next?’ is what led to placescompared.com.

Pandora recommendation

I find myself listening more and more to Pandora when I'm online and it is s GREAT product! So much so that if they don't get compatible with Blackberry soon enough, I may have to consider a Windows Mobile compatible mobile phone next time around. If you haven't tried it, I recommend that you do. Tell it one of your favourite singers, bands or albums and it will create your very own internet radio station just for you. It is incredibly effective at figuring out your likes and dislikes. And did I mention that it is free?

At the moment I'm listening to one of my stations based on Sarah McLachlin and it has served up Dido, Coldplay, the Pretenders, Snow Patrol, The Cranberries, Norah Jones and Sixpence None The Richer. Pretty cool I think. And free!


Where was I?

I know, I know, 15 months between entries isn't the idea. I have an excuse. Around the time I started this project I also really began to seriously attend to another idea that I had been kicking around for a few months.

Do you remember the world in 2007? George W was President, Tony Blair was still Prime Minister and your house was still worth real money. Everyone we knew in the UK seemed to have either just bought a house in France, a flat in Spain or a barn in Tuscany. We joined thousands, millions of people who browsed estate agent sites looking for that perfect foreign dream. We started giving serious thought to picking out a place to retire to. And in fact in 2008 we took our vacation in Malta and Italy and viewed some properties.

In the course of all of this I realized that although there is a ton of information out there, most of it is either in another language or is directed at tourists. It is incredibly easy to use tripadvisor.com to get the skinny on hotels, restaurants, museum opening hours and so on. But what about English-speaking doctors, school standards, planning laws?

And so the thought was planted to build a website to cater to the needs of anyone from the UK or the US who is thinking about buying a second or retirement home overseas or contemplating a relocation while still working.

Well the world we live in today is very different economically, politically and in every other way from teh world of 2007, but www.placescompared.com is approaching launch. It has been an incredibly busy 15 months and the next 15 look to be just as busy. I've neglected the garden, the cat and the blog. I'll try to do better - at least with the cat and the blog (the garden may be beyond redemption).

But the experience has at least persuaded me to focus this blog a bit more, so I plan to write about the expatriate life, its challenges and rewards and a bit about the trials and tribulations of building a web site when you have very, very limited computing skills.

Welcome back.