30 November 2009

Walk away from your mortgage? Just do it, says one professor

By Kenneth R. Harney, Special to the Times 

In Print: Saturday, November 28, 2009

WASHINGTON — Go ahead. Break the chains. Stop paying on your mortgage if you owe more than the house is worth. And most important: Don't feel guilty about it.

That's the incendiary core message of a new academic paper, "Underwater and Not Walking Away: Shame, Fear and the Social Management of the Housing Crisis," by Brent T. White, a University of Arizona law school professor.

White argues that far more of the estimated 15 million American homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages should stiff their lenders and take a hike.

Doing so, he suggests, could save some of them hundreds of thousands of dollars that they "have no reasonable prospect of recouping" in the years ahead. Plus, the penalties are nowhere near as painful or long-lasting as they might assume.

"Homeowners should be walking away in droves," White says. "But they aren't. And it's not because the financial costs of foreclosure outweigh the benefits." Sure, credit scores get whacked when you walk away, he acknowledges. But as long as you stay current with other creditors, "one can have a good credit rating again — meaning above 660 — within two years after a foreclosure."

Better yet, you can default "strategically." Buy all the major items you'll need for the next couple of years — a new car, even a new house — just before you pull the plug on your current mortgage lender.

"Most individuals should be able to plan in advance for a few years of limited credit," with minimal disruptions to their lifestyles, White says.

What kind of law school professorial advice is this? Aren't mortgages legal contracts? In an interview, White said that in so-called anti-deficiency states such as Arizona and California, mortgage lenders have limited or no legal rights to pursue defaulting homeowners' assets beyond the house itself. In other states, lenders may decide it is not worth the legal expense to pursue walkaways, or consumers may be able to find flaws in the mortgage documents, disclosures or underwriting to challenge the original contract.

The main point, he says, is that too often people's "emotions" get in the way of clear financial thinking about mortgages, turning them, as he describes, into "individuals who choose not to act in their own self-interest." Most owners are too worried about feelings of shame and embarrassment after a foreclosure, and ignore the powerful financial reasons for doing so.

Buttressing these emotions is a system that White labels "the social control of the housing crisis" — pressures and messages continually sent to consumers by the "social control agents," namely banks, government and the media. The mantra these agents — all the way to the president — pound into owners' heads, says White, is that "voluntarily defaulting on a mortgage is immoral."

Yet there is an inherent imbalance in the borrower-lender relationship that makes this morality message unfair to consumers: Banks set the rules during the housing boom, handing out home loans with no down payments, no income checks and inflated appraisals. Now that property values have dropped 20 to 50 percent in many areas, banks have been slow to modify troubled mortgages and reluctant to reduce principal debts.

Only when homeowners cut through the emotional fog and default strategically in large numbers, White argues, will this inequitable situation be seriously addressed.

How does White's 52-page manifesto go over with mortgage lenders? Predictably, not well. Officials at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — investors who fund the bulk of all new mortgages in the country — disputed White's characterization of how quickly after foreclosure a walkaway borrower can obtain a new loan. It's not three years, they said; it's a minimum of five years, absent extenuating circumstances such as medical or employment problems that caused the foreclosure.

"Borrowers who walk away from their mortgage obligations face serious consequences," including severely depressed credit scores for extended periods, said Brian Faith of Fannie Mae. In addition, he said, "there's a moral dimension to this as homeowners who simply abandon their homes contribute to the destabilization of their neighborhood and community."

Lewis Ranieri, CEO of several major mortgage-related companies and one of the pioneers of the mortgage securities industry, called White's argument "incredibly irresponsible and misinformed." Not only is the professor urging consumers to break legally binding contracts, said Ranieri, but if large numbers of them did so it would send mortgage rates soaring and "tear apart the very basis" upon which mortgage lending rests — the understanding that borrowers will honor commitments and pay back the money they owe.

Ken Harney can be reached at kenharney@earthlink.net.
This article ran in the St. Petersburg Times on Saturday, 28 November. It's a pretty controversial idea and one that doesn't sit well with me. What do you think? Are you still required to be true to your word when circumstances change? Is defaulting on a mortgage due to job loss or illness more moral than "strategically" defaulting? What would you do if this described your situation? If it does describe your situation, is a planned default something you'd consider?

29 November 2009

Dishwasher troubleshooting

The following is lifted entirely from the blog for Warner's Stellian. Warner's Stellian Appliances is a terrific, independent appliance retailer with seven Minnesota locations. Additionally, Warner's Stellian also sells over the web and delivers nationwide. Get this, if you spend more than $1999 [edited to clarify that it's not $1900 combined, that's $1900 for an appliance (which is not hard to do) --sorry for the confusion], they will ship your appliances at no charge. If you're in Minnesota and you need qualified appliance information and service, head on over to one of their locations. If you're anywhere else and looking for the same thing, spend some time on the Warner's Stellian website.

Dishwasher troubleshooting: Dishes not clean
By Julie Warner

Thanksgiving means two things: lots of food and lots of dirty dishes. And more dirt requires more soap, right?


Despite what you might think, too much soap can actually prevent your dishes from getting clean —especially on the top rack.

You should only use about half the amount of detergent recommended on the package. And if you have a water softener, you need only 1-2 teaspoons of powder — even less if you use liquid.

Too much soap can cause over-sudsing. Our customer service representative Maghan explained to me that the dishwasher tries to drain as much of the soap suds and food residue as it can. But when too much soap is used and it produces  so many suds, the dishwasher can’t drain it all in the time allowed.

So instead of draining, the soap bubbles pop inside, redepositing tiny food particles back onto the dishes, which show up most on glassware and silverware.

How do you know if you’re over-sudsing? Run a cycle without any soap. If suds are left at the bottom of the tub, you’re over-sudsing.

To remedy, we suggest a “vinegar cycle”:
  1. Empty any dishes and shut soap door, without adding any detergent
  2. Run dishwasher until it gets to the wash cycle
  3. Open the door and check if the dispenser flap has opened
  • If it hasn’t, run for another minute or so until the flap opens
  • If the flap has opened, add the 1 cup vinegar and run through the full cycle.

You might have to repeat the process two or three times to ensure you’ve eliminated the build up of soap. Maghan also suggests trying a dishwasher cleaner like Glisten or Dishwasher Magic.

And I’ve said it again but I will continue to harp on about using rinse aid. It’s not just for looks, people! Maghan reminds us dishwashers today come designed to use rinse aid to help dry, as they lack a built-in fan.

So remember: gorge on turkey, just go easy on the soap, OK?

This entry was posted originally on November 23, 2009 at 2:59 pm

You can follow Julie Warner on Twitter: @WarnersStellian.

28 November 2009

It's a holiday weekend, let's watch a National G special

I have been thinking a lot about an opportunity I have to go back to Italy in 2010. This trip will have me returning to Rome, a city that affects me on a level so deep I can barely find words to describe it. The greatest repository of the the history of western civ is at the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. If you like art and if you find yourself anywhere near Rome, you owe it to yourself to explore the Vatican Museums.

So let's let National Geographic transport us to Rome today...

27 November 2009

Thinking about Thanksgiving

Yesterday was everything I look for in a holiday dedicated to gratitude and good food. Dinner went off without a hitch and I think I turned out the best turkey I've ever roasted in my life. Few things give me the satisfaction of preparing a meal for the people I care about. That satisfaction gets the gratitude train moving in me and it's easy to reflect on just how good I have it when I'm elbow deep in a raw turkey. I have the life I imagined for myself when I was a teenager and I marvel at that all the time, on Thanksgiving particularly.

While it's true I wouldn't have chosen the path I took to get here had I known what was involved, what's important is that I made it. Back then, my big picture imaginings for what my future held were that I'd be in a position to call my own shots and that I'd be surrounded by people who love me. I have both in spades and I'm a fortunate, grateful man for it.

Yesterday we were joined at dinner by someone I'd never met. Dzenan is a neurosurgical resident at the big teaching hospital in Tampa and he's a colleague of my friend JD. Dzenan is a recent transplant here and doesn't know many people locally. JD had told me earlier that he was from Sarajevo originally and that he was a good guy.

I swear, when I hear an accent I know that there's a story lurking in there somewhere. The wars that tore apart the countries in what used to be Yugoslavia were a horror show that barely warranted a mention in the US. So whenever I meet someone from that part of the world I always find a way to steer the conversation back to the place they used to call home.

The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in March of 1992. By early April of that year, both the European Community and the United States recognized the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Within days of that recognition the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and the Army of the Serbian Republic began a military attack of Sarajevo. The Bosnians were overwhelmed and waited for a UN intervention that never came.

Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

From 1992 to 1996 the JNA and the Serbs blockaded the city of Sarajevo and unleashed upon it the most sustained and violent siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The blockade was nearly complete and it's estimated that 10,000 people were killed and 56,000 were wounded during the conflict. According to UNICEF,
Of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city: at least 40 percent had been directly shot at by snipers; 51 percent had seen someone killed; 39 percent had seen one or more family members killed; 19 percent had witnessed a massacre; 48 percent had their home occupied by someone else; 73 percent have had their home attacked or shelled; and 89 percent had lived in underground shelters. It is probable that the psychological trauma suffered during the siege will bear heavily on the lives of these children in the years to come.

The siege has also had a profound effect on the psyche and future of the city's population. The Bosnian Government has reported a soaring suicide rate by Sarajevans, a near doubling of abortions and a 50 percent drop in births since the siege began.
Dzenan was 19-year-old when the blockade of his home town started. He lived through the deprivation, the sniper fire, the bombs and the shelling. He was a medic in the Bosnian resistance and at 19 found himself running across a tarmac with two friends. Had they been born anywhere else in Europe they'd have been doing what 19-year-olds do anywhere. But because they were 19-year-olds in a blockaded Sarajevo, they were running across a tarmac and dodging sniper fire. Dzenan was the only one who made it to the other side of the tarmac.

This is not ancient history, but something that played out in the lives of people who can tell the story today. What I found so amazing about Dzenan's telling was that he related his experiences without a hint of self-pity or attention-seeking. He's happy to be where he is and he's fully engaged in chasing down the neurosurgical visions he has for his own life.

His story gave me plenty of things to think about. If my 19-year-old vision for my life was that some day I'd be in charge and that I'd be surrounded by people who love me, what does a 19-year-old who loses his friends to sniper fire look forward to? Compared to living through armed conflict, my trials and tribulations are trivial at best.

So thanks Mr. Sarajevo, you brought the very essence of Thanksgiving to my Thanksgiving and all you had to do was show up.

26 November 2009

An Itch to Bake from Scratch: Butternut Chai Cheesecake

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! This is David Nolan, here to express gratitude and give thanks to Paul for inspiring me this year to contribute to Kitchen and Residential Design. I haven't had the opportunity to write much, but I am a daily reader who is constantly surprised by the wit and variety of the content found here. Thanks a lot Paul - you ceaselessly provide me with entertainment and enlightenment.

The latest inspiration I received came from the post about scratch baking. In my childhood home, my mom baked many things - bread, cakes, and especially pies. She would not want me to tell the secret to her pie crusts (lard) but they were always the best. Everyone in my family still begs her to make pies when they come to visit, whether it is the holidays or not. My mom begrudgingly fulfills the requests, and everyone swoons at the end result of her hard work.

Unfortunately, the genes for baking were not inherited by me. Baking is a leap of faith that a control freak like myself just cannot bear. You mix up a bunch of ingredients into a runny gooey mess, then plop it in a pan, and pray the oven gods yield a delicious harvest. I am a cook - I taste as I go, adding layers of flavor as the food progresses, all under my constant supervision. Baking requires letting go of the control and trusting the recipe; baking also requires that you adhere to the recipe. The idea that what goes in the oven tastes and looks nothing like what comes out scares me, and the fear of following directions and letting go of control keeps me from baking.

Cheesecakes are the one thing I do bake and I bake them a couple times a year. I still cannot follow the directions though and this Thanksgiving was no exception. I set out to make a Pumpkin Cheesecake from a tried and true recipe but ended up with a Butternut Squash Chai Cheesecake. I fretted about the flavor due to the untested butternut squash and an overpowering cardamon perfume. Last night I brought the final product to a wonderful potluck dinner with some of my friends and the cheesecake was consumed with gusto and compliments.

Here is the recipe. Please let me know if you try it, and especially if you give it your own personal twist.

Butternut Chai Cheesecake
enough for a 10" spring form pan plus a little extra for a tester

1 package graham crackers (1/2 box)

15 ginger snaps

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 stick of butter

Finely crush crackers and snaps, a food processor works well. Mix in sugar and add to spring form pan. Melt butter and drizzle in pan while stirring. Press the crust into the bottom of the pan, coming up the sides about a 1/4". Refrigerate crust for 1 hour.


4 packages cream cheese, room temp

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 15oz can butternut squash puree (pumpkin works also)

4 eggs, room temp

2 T sour cream

1 T cornstarch

2 t vanilla extract

1 1/2 t cinnamon

1 t ginger (extra fine grated fresh or 1/2 t powder)

1 t allspice

1/2 t each powdered cardamon, nutmeg and cloves

1/4 t each cayenne, black pepper, salt and coriander

Mix cream cheese and sugar, then mix in butternut squash. Add 1 egg at a time, constantly mixing. Add sour cream, cornstarch, vanilla and spices one at a time. After crust has cooled, pour in cheesecake filling. Place spring form pan in a hot water bath for a creamier no-crack cheesecake. Place carefully in preheated 350 degree oven. Bake for 50 min and do not open oven.

Sour Cream Topping

Mix 16oz sour cream with 3 T brown sugar

Remove cheesecake from oven. Spread topping over cheesecake gently. Place back in oven for 10 min. Turn off oven and open the door a crack. Let the cheesecake rest in oven for 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Refrigerate overnight.

garnished with plumeria, abutilon and Eucharist lily flowers

The REAL first North American Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow US-ians. As for the rest of you, get back to work.

In light of today's US holiday, I'm going to repeat an article that gets thrown around in my part of the country every year at around this time. Contrary to the popular US imagination, North America was a Spanish colony before it was an English one and the capital of that Spanish colony was right here in good old Florida. For some reason I can only attribute to a 400-year-old grudge England had against Spain, the American myth completely ignores that the Spanish were the first Europeans to set up a permanent base in what would some day become the United States. Maybe I should bid everybody a Feliz Día de Gracias instead of a happy Thanksgiving.

Juan Ponce de León y Figueroa arrived in Florida on 2 April, 1513.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was the governor of la Florida when the first Thanksgiving was held in 1565.

True or False: The Pilgrims celebrated America’s first Thanksgiving, a harvest festival in Plymouth, Massac- husetts, in 1621.

You may have answered “True,” based on what you learned in elementary school. But, according to current historical research, the answer is “False.” The REAL first thanksgiving celebration actually took place 56 years earlier, in St. Augustine, Florida (50 miles south of present-day Jacksonville).

On Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in St. Augustine with 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and 100 civilian farmers and craftsmen, some with wives and children. After claiming La Florida on behalf of his monarch Philip II, Menendez and his entourage celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for the expedition’s safe arrival and then shared a meal with the native Indians.

These stand as the first documented Thanksgiving events in a permanent settlement anywhere in North America north of Mexico, says Michael Gannon, an eminent Florida historian who holds the title of Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida.

Gannon’s research indicates that the real first Thanksgiving meal probably consisted of “cocido,” a stew of garbanzo beans, salted pork, and garlic, accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. If the native Indians contributed food to the meal, they might have brought protein sources such as deer, gopher tortoise, shark, drum, mullet, and sea catfish, and vegetables such as maize (corn), beans, squash, nuts, fruits, and miscellaneous greens.

Gannon’s findings are based on documents from the Menéndez expedition and on the research of archaeologists who have studied St. Augustine and Indian artifacts.

But despite such irrefutable evidence, Gannon says changing the American lore about this traditional holiday hasn’t been easy.

“It is very difficult to get the powered-wig states to the north of Florida to recognize St. Augustine’s priority among American cities,” he says. “Even historians and journalists, particularly those of an Anglo-American bent, seem reluctant to accord any special stature to that dark-haired community, which was set in place one year following the death of Michelangelo and the birth of William Shakespeare.”

But in recent years, Gannon has made some progress in setting the record straight. In November 2004, he wrote a letter responding to an op-ed piece by writer/historian Charles C. Mann in the New York Times.

Mann, a Massachusetts-based author of many books and magazine articles, had written: “Until the arrival of the Mayflower, continental drift had kept apart North America and Europe for hundreds of millions of years. Plymouth Colony (and its less successful predecessor in Jamestown) reunited the continents.”

In his letter to the Times, Gannon stated: “By the dates Jamestown and Plymouth were founded, St. Augustine, Florida, was up for urban renewal. It was a city with a fort, church, market, college seminary, six-bed hospital, and 120 shops and homes.”

Mann later conceded this point by writing in the February 2006 Smithsonian magazine: “In September 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés led about 800 Spaniards to colonize St. Augustine. The landing party celebrated their arrival, inviting the local Indians – an act of religious Thanksgiving in a permanent settlement that included both natives and newcomers. Sounds like Thanksgiving to me!”

Gannon, pleased by this concession, continues his efforts to get the real Thanksgiving story out, even as Americans begin this season’s preparations for a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, breads and, of course, pumpkin pie.

“Happy Thanksgiving meals to all!” he says. “And don’t forget the garbanzo beans.”

The Florida Humanities Council, a nonprofit organization, sponsors public programs exploring Florida’s history and cultural heritage

Article published on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2000

Copyright © Tampa Bay Newspapers: All rights reserved.

25 November 2009

Making your own pie crusts is as easy as, well, pie

It's Thanksgiving tomorrow and in keeping with my one man crusade against convenience foods, I am dipping into my time-tested recipe box. Actually, I don't have a recipe box. I have a file in my computer that's called "recipe box" though.

I am a pie man, through and through. Few things give me the pleasure of cranking out pies in anticipation of major holidays. Thanksgiving is my day to shine thank you very much and nothing says Thanksgiving to me like a real pie or pies as the case may be. And by real I mean made from scratch.

I am a self-taught baker. My mother was a skilled cook and my grandmother too. But kitchens were woman turf and though I watched them bake on holidays I wasn't allowed anywhere near the action. It wasn't until I got out on my own that I realized that I not only like to bake, I'm actually pretty good at it.

I know, I know, I hear it all the time; "We're too busy nowadays to bake from scratch." Well, I'll be the first one to tell you that that's a damn lie. I have a schedule that would kill a lesser man and somehow I manage to cook dinner for myself every night and turn out a hell of a spread of baked goods on holidays. Nobody's too busy, but people have different priorities. Having different priorities is fine, just own that. Telling yourself that you're too busy is what makes you neurotic.

I have a real problem with convenience foods. I don't care that they're not organic or that they're mass produced. What bothers me about them is that they're tasteless. It bothers me too that I can't tell what's in something that's prepackaged. Scratch baking keeps me in control of what I put in my mouth and it also makes me expend some effort before I get a reward. Self-discipline never sleeps kids.

So here's my recipe for pie crust, the first step toward a blue-ribbon apple pie like mine. This recipe's also perfect for the bottom crust of a tartine, but that's a topic for another day. Making pie crusts is not hard, despite what everybody says. All it requires is that you pay attention. Try this, just once, and you will never buy another convenience food for the rest of your life.

2-1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
1 cup of cold Crisco
1/2 cup of ice water

Put everything, including the bowl,  in the refrigerator for an hour before you start. Then mix the flour, salt and sugar together in the now-chilled bowl. Cut the chilled Crisco into small pieces and work it into the dry mix with a fork. When the Crisco and the dry mixture are blended, it will have the consistency of coarse meal.

Add the cold water in small drips and drabs and work the dough after every addition of water. After you have a quarter cup of the water worked in, slow down and start to test the dough after each time you add more water. Test the dough by squeezing a pinch between your fingers. If it's crumbly, then add more water. When it holds its shape and approaches the consistency of Play-Doh, stop adding water. Work the dough into a ball with your hands and wrap it in plastic wrap. Then put it back in the refrigerator. After an hour or so, cut the ball into two halves. The amount above will yield more than enough dough for a two crust pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Google Earth in 3D

I pay pretty close attention to the latest goings-on at Google. They are the most fascinating thing going in the world of readily accessible technology. I've had the good fortune to meet a few of their development people and it's not hard to see where Google gets its unassuming brilliance.

I stay pretty active in the world that revolves around SketchUp and after you've used one Google app it's not hard to see that all of their apps dovetail into one another. SketchUp bridges the gap between Google Earth and Google Maps and all three of those apps work together in ways that still amaze me.

I was reading the Google SketchUp blog yesterday and Christian Frueh and Manish Patel posted a video that shows what they've been working on over at Google Earth. Google's goal seems to be not only to map the world but to do it in 3-D.

The video shows some of the cities in California that have been rendered in 3-D on Google Earth. It's an amazing video and the technology behind those images is even more amazing.

Buildings get built in SketchUp then have facades applied to them using images that come from Google Maps' Street View. Then they get positioned and uploaded to Google Earth for the world to see. Then I think about it a little more and realize that every one of those apps and all of that imagery and all of that technology is available to anyone anywhere in the world for free. I hate to sound like I've been drinking the Kool-Aid, but thanks Google!

Google Earth
Google Maps
Google SketchUp

Questa è una prova

This is a test: 77MAUU7JD782

24 November 2009

Field notes: the complicated counters from last spring arrive

Last May, I designed an adventurous and complicated kitchen and home office. The style was a transitional contemporary with an emphasis on the contemporary. My design was a vision of seemingly unsupported cantilevers, risers and descenders; all made from a stark white Silestone.

Well, this job has been under construction for quite a while and here it is November already. The second phase of my counter installation took place yesterday and there's one phase left to go before these counters are in completely. Like I said, this is a complicated design, clearly the most difficult to install I've ever dreamed up. Difficult, though not impossible and the counter fabricators have been an integral part of this process the whole way through. None of this would have been possible with the expertise of Cutting Edge Granite in Largo, FL; and I cannot imagine any other fabricator pulling this off.

Today's phase dealt with the large horizontal pieces that will make up the kitchen counters, the window seat (for lack of a better term) and the desk. The space where these surfaces were to be installed were unreachable by the usual means of lugging around 500-lb. slabs of counter material, so Cutting Edge brought in a crane and they hoisted each piece up in through a second floor window.

Before any of this could be installed, the engineering had to be worked out and kudos to Allan Palmer for doing the math. That "window seat" consists of a run of 9-inch tall drawers that hang 12 inches above the floor. That makes for an eight foot span supporting at least 500 pounds of Silestone plus the weight of whoever decides to actually sit on the counter when it's done. As you can see in the videos below, that engineering marvel was all but being jumped on this morning with nary a shudder. Unless you count mine. I know it can support over a thousand pounds, but it's still unnerving to watch.

So it was a productive day and everything went as planned. I cannot thank Cutting Edge enough for their skill and professionalism through this entire process. I have to thank my client too. Without whose check book none of this could happen. Just wait until you see the entertainment center I have cooked up.

The long piece that will end up as the window seat gets hoisted up to the window.

It's then caught by able hands and eased into the room.

Once it's in the window, a whole lot of yelling ensues. I think the yelling is an integral part of the process. You'd yell too if you were suddenly handed something that weighed 500 pounds and cost $5000.

And so after the dust settles down a little bit, my idea starts to take its final form. I swear, I have the best job in the world.

23 November 2009

My secret love of laminate

Well, it's not really a secret. Done well, laminates are an important and too-easily-overlooked option when it comes to covering surfaces. At least they're easily overlooked in homes. Every time you walk into a Starbuck's, or a Panera, or a Gap or any other store or chain restaurant you can think of, you're surrounded by them.

Laminate was invented by two engineers at the Westinghouse Corporation in 1912. Back then, the mineral mica was used as an electric insulator. Daniel O'Connor and Herbert Faber set out to invent a substitute material for mica. They figured out a way to impregnate layers of kraft paper with melamine resins and then cure it under heat and pressure. Since they'd invented a replacement for mica, they called their invention Formica. O'Connor and Herbert left Westinghouse and formed the Formica Company in 1913. Their product found widespread use as a counter surface and they pretty much owned the surfaces world until DuPont rolled Corian in 1967.

I can't remember the last time I put a laminate counter in someone's home, but it's not anything I'd reject out of hand. Laminate has a place in both homes and in commercial spaces, but that place is best served when laminates are allowed to be laminates. The secret to their versatility is on how they're made. Laminates are still made from layers of kraft paper, but the top layer can be any image someone can imagine. If someone can reproduce a pattern, it can end up as a sheet of laminate.

I've used it for wall cladding, for ceiling tiles, as cabinet inserts, you name it. But the kinds of laminate patterns that interest me aren't hanging on a chip rack at Lowe's. My interest in laminate surfaces is around three years old. Three years ago, a rep walked into my office with a sample book from Arpa, an Italian laminate manufacturer.

In that sample book were some of the wildest patterns I'd ever seen. I swear, I went out and found reasons to use some of their stuff. Here's some of what I saw in that pattern book. Careful though, you'll never be the same after you see these.


Cream Charisma





Black and White






22 November 2009

I've fallen in love. With a movie theater.

So I went to  he movies last night. There's nothing unusual about that, but where I went to the movies was incredibly and wonderfully unusual. My friend Mike and I went to Tampa's brand new CineBistro theater.

CineBistro got its start over the summer in Miami. The new one in the Hyde Park neighborhood in Tampa is the second CineBistro in this market and the third in the chain. CineBistro is a venture of Cobb Theaters and there are plans underway to open additional locations in Daytona Beach, Atlanta, Savannah, suburban DC and Vail, Colorado.

CineBistro is a movie theater unlike any I've ever been in. For starters, they are a full-service and full-menu restaurant and you have to buy your tickets in advance. Your movie ticket is also your dinner reservation. The shows start later than usual, and the idea is that you should arrive a half an hour before showtime. Once you're shown to your seat, a waiter comes along and reviews the chef's specials, answers questions and takes a drink order. They have a full bar and an extensive wine list. A separate bar runner brings your drinks while the server takes your order.

As my server explained to me last night, they do not serve courses. The goal is to get all of your food in front of you before the movie starts. The menu was adventurous and very regional. By that I mean it was very Florida-specific. Churrasco, plantain fries and yellow rice are very common foods here but I wonder how they'll play in DC or Atlanta. Hmm. Anyhow, my dinner was fantastic. Any place that puts whole anchovies on a Caesar salad is A-OK in my book.

I mentioned that their goal is to have your dinner served before the movie starts and that goes for paying the bill too. The servers have handheld registers and they place your order from where they're standing. The servers have a small printer hanging from their aprons, so they swipe your credit card and print the receipt as they're standing in front of you and I thought that was pretty cool.

The theaters only accommodate around 50 people and there's an over-21 age restriction in place at all times. The seats are very wide and have two arm rests per seat. Now more arm rest wrestling. Hurray! No screaming kids. Hurray!

The public areas of the theater are beautifully done. I noticed that the chairs in  the bar were all Philippe Starck and all of the lighting was by Tech. Somebody spent a lot of money...

Anyhow, it's a fantastic idea and I can't believe no one's thought of it before. A movie theater for grown ups. What a concept. Thanks CineBistro!

21 November 2009

Reader question: Should I get granite tile counters?

Help! Is granite tile really less expensive than slab granite? I really want to redo my countertops with granite but cannot afford it. Is this a good option?

To answer your first question; yes, granite tile costs less than slab granite. So far as the second question goes, the answer is as resounding a no as I can muster.

Granite tile looks like crap on a counter and there's nothing you can do to make it look good. Worse, there's nothing you can do to perform well. Granite tile counters may look like a good option because they're relatively cheap. But believe me, it's a short term gain.

I don't like to think in terms of resale value and I realize I'm alone in that. So with that said, think about this. Installing them will add nothing to the value of your home and may even detract from it.

Functionally, they stink too. It is impossible to fully seal grout. It will always discolor and it will always harbor the residue of whatever's been prepared on it. Remember too that where there's food residue, there's also bacteria and mold. Ugh. Bacteria and molds are fascinating when they're in a petri dish or on a microscope slide, but I don't want them colonizing my kitchen counters.

Seriously, when an alternative is drastically cheaper than what you really want, think twice before you act. Just as with everything else in life and not just kitchen counters, unusually low prices are a warning sign. Or they should be at any rate. If somebody offered you a new 700-series BMW for $10,000 what would you think?

Not everybody wants to spend a couple thousand dollars on new counters and that's OK. There is nothing wrong with having other priorities for your money. So rather than wasting it on granite tile counters, why not look to laminates?

Laminates are the whipping boy of the counter world and it's unfair. They get maligned by purveyors of such things as solid surface, but I'd put laminate counters in my house before I thought of anything else were I in your position. Laminates are workhorses and they're available in more colors and patterns than you can imagine. When you approach something like laminate, let it look like laminate and don't go for patterns that imitate other materials. Just as granite tile looks cheesy when it's made into a counter, so too do laminates that pretend to be granite. Here are a handful of laminate patterns from Formica, probably the best-known laminate manufacturer out there.

Chin up man, and remember it's not that you can't afford granite. Rather, it's that you'd rather spend your money another way. Semantics? Sure it is, but you create your life every time you open your mouth.

20 November 2009

Falling over myself at Fallingwater

The talented and gracious Pam Rodriguez from Pam Designs posted this video on her Facebook page yesterday and I think I've watched it five times since it first appeared there.

Fallingwater from Cristóbal Vila on Vimeo.

Pam's a kitchen and bath designer who can crank out a photo realistic architectural rendering like nobody I've ever seen, so when she's impressed with someone else's work I pay attention. This depiction of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater is one of the best virtual walk throughs I've ever seen.

This Fallingwater animation is the handiwork of Cristóbal Vila. Geneva-born Vila is an artist based in Zaragosa in the Aragon region of Spain. Vila's Etérea Studios has an amazing website with a number of examples of his work as an animator. Check it out and thanks again Pam!

Outdoor kitchens by Danver

I have been researching sources for cabinetry and range hoods for an outdoor kitchen I'm working on and recently, I came across an innovative outdoor grill hood from Danver.

The outdoor kitchen in question is going to sit under an overhanging roof and not venting it is definitely not an option. One problem though. Outdoor grills are 30 inches deep and most range hoods are 24 inches deep. The add in the annoying fact that most decent range hoods aren't rated for outdoor use.

Well, my new pals at Danver have come to the rescue with an industry-first 32-inch deep outdoor range hood. That may seem inconsequential, but believe me there is nothing worse than grill smoke backing into your house.

So my hood problem gets me part of the way there. Appliances are easy but where it gets difficult again is finding decent cabinetry I can use outside. I won't do something half way. If I can't be proud of a finished project, I'll resign it before it starts. That's part of the reason I've done so few outdoor kitchens. For a while, there were outdoor cabinets being made with marine-grade plywood. But marine-grade plywood is still not element-proof. It may work in some parts of the country, but in my part of the country marine-grade plywood starts to fall apart after a couple of years.

Well, Danver has a solution for that dilemma too. They make some of the most beautiful, element-proof, stainless steel cabinetry I've ever seen. They have a variety of not just door styles, but finishes too. Wow. I'm glad I found these guys.

19 November 2009

An $80 kitchen makeover from our pals at Apartment Therapy

I know, I know, I need to stay away from that website. I log into Apartment Therapy every couple of months, and I swear I have an open mind heading in. I land on their page and I have a genuine curiosity about what the under 30 set is thinking.

Well, after the first handful of posts, it starts to get to me. The pose. The dread Apartment Therapy editorial pose. "We take our shoes off when we come home." "We think that kittens and puppies are cute." "We need to get organized but we're too busy!" And so it goes, ad nauseum. The pictures are pretty, kind of like an online HGTV. But unlike HGTV, I can't hit the mute button.

It's not a total loss though, I got a blog topic out of it. Thanks Apartment Therapy!

So one of their intrepid correspondents found herself in a cheesy apartment with a builder-grade kitchen.

It sure is ugly. So what's an intrepid Apartment Therapy correspondent to do? Why, embark on an $80 makeover of course.

So from what I can see, she removed the cabinet doors, contact papered the cabinet backs and then raided a garage sale to find enough clutter to jam into her newly-opened up kitchen cabinets.

It's still an ugly kitchen, just a different kind of ugly. Meh.

So if you're a renter and you're faced with a similar dilemma, there is a better way to goose your ugly kitchen than this.

Invest in good roller and a really good set of paintbrushes. Then just kiss your security deposit goodbye. Although, if you're clever you'll paint it back to landlord white before you move and no one will be the wiser. So I say  paint, humble paint, is your best bet when it comes to banishing the bad juju out of an uninspired rental. After you're done painting, try purging your counters of clutter. Then keep the magnets and paperwork off the front of your fridge. Clean up after yourself and don't let dishes pile up in the sink. Hang good art. And remember always that cabinets have doors on them for a reason, leave them there.

18 November 2009

Be my guest

One of my beautiful nieces and her handsome husband had a baby two weeks ago and in a few weeks I'm off to DC to see the three of them and the rest of my family. I am looking for some guest bloggers to fill in for me while I'm gone. I will be away for five days, from 10th of December through the 14th and I'd like at least one post a day to appear while I'm gone.

I plan to work this the way I always do. I'm going to set up my guest bloggers as contributors and just let them do their thing. I don't want to see in advance what ends up being posted and there are no real restrictions on content other than the usual "be decent."

So if you're interested in borrowing my podium for a day or for all five days let me know. I can't promise you fame or riches, but your name will show up in Google searches and these days, that's all that matters anyhow.

Cave Canum

At the entrance to Pompeii's House of the Tragic Poet, you will find this.

It's the original Cave Canum, and translated from Latin that means Beware of the Dog.

Here's a cleaner shot of it.

There are a number of these mosaic entryways scattered around Pompeii and most of them just show a chained dog.

They're yet one more thing that really humanizes the experience of walking around Pompeii. As an archeological site, Pompeii is enormous. Once you're on the grounds you cannot see out of it. It seems to extend in all directions for as far as you can see.

That's Vesuvius looming over the back of the Forum here.

Pompeii's definitely a ruin. Most of it has been exposed to the elements for the last 200 or so years and those years have not been kind. At the same time though, Pompeii's unique beauty comes in a large part from that state of decay. The place is a paradox. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that it was once a thriving outpost of Rome at its height. Every once in a while though, you'll turn a corner and get poked in the eye with the humanity of the people who once called Pompeii home.

The Cave Canum is one of those humanizing touches.

Two million people a year file past the Flintstones-themed campground (I'm not kidding) to get that glimpse into those ancient lives. And each of those two million people leaves a mark. Very little of Pompeii is off limits or behind velvet ropes. A visit there has you walking across real Roman floors and running your hands over real Roman architecture. It's easy to get carried away and despite the crowds, it's not difficult to get off the beaten path and have some quiet time in the ruins.

Yesterday, my great friend Nancie Mills-Pipgras (who along with Bill Buckingham, edit one of the world's premier art annuals, Mosaic Art Now) posted a notice on her Facebook page and it reminded me of another one of Pompeii's quirks.

Pompeii has a large number of stray dogs walking around the place. It's somehow fitting that they're there. Pompeii is in Naples after all. Now I don't mean that as a slam. To say Naples has a culture unto itself is an understatement of biblical proportions. Naples is a place of mind-boggling chaos played out against a back drop of nearly indescribable beauty. It's a place where 700,000 people live cheek by jowl in the shadow of a volcano that could blow at any moment. It's a place where stray dogs roam at will across what's arguably the world's most important archeological site.

I took this photo as I was walking out of the Suburban baths. This dog was sacked out in the middle of the floor and you had to step around him to get past.

A year-and-a-half ago, the Italian government declared a state of emergency for Pompeii and decided to spend some money cleaning up the place. A part of that is a new program to adopt out the stray dogs of Pompeii. Three of Italy's animal charities, the Anti-Vivisection League, the National Animal Protection Authority and the National Dog Protection League have been spaying, neutering, vaccinating and preparing the stray dogs of Pompeii for eventual adoption.

There's now a website, i Cani di Pompei that's dedicating to showcasing these dogs and searching for homes for them. The search is being extended worldwide, so if you've ever wanted to own a dog that can parla l'italiano, now's your chance.