Archive for December 2010

Why Jon and Kate Should Stop the Divorce Drama

Kate Gosselin recently admitted on The Today Show that two of her kids, Collin and Alexis, had anger issues, which she believes stem from her divorce from their dad, Jon. But in the next breath she said she hadn’t made up with Jon, and that “there’s no truce necessary.”
And if it’s not “necessary,” wouldn’t it be desirable? Even if a truce is the last thing that sounds appealing in the middle of a high conflict divorce, take a second to think about how you might benefit from a truce. I’m talking about being strategic, not necessarily nice. If you’re on decent terms with your co-parent, when you ask to switch weekends with the kids you’re more likely to get a “yes” and when you’re running late, you’re more likely to get the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to a scream fest.
You also have to consider the long term. For example, has Kate forgotten that she and Jon will be co-grandparents at some point? Does she (and do they) enjoy the fighting and sniping? Do they keep in chaotic contact because they can’t imagine life without all this drama?
Sounds to me like Kate and Jon haven’t read much about how conflict impacts children. Never mind that it must be exhausting for the adults to live with all that conflict, sniping at each other instead of cooperating and refusing to be flexible and then wondering why a request for a favor is turned down. And never mind new partners — who’d sign up to be part of that family?
I’m going to be a little hard on Kate in the next few paragraphs, but this advice pertains just as much to Jon and, in fact, any divorcing parent — or even intact families where there’s a lot of conflict.
Jon and Kate, here’s what the research shows:
The best predictor of how kids do post-divorce is the amount of conflict between the parents. It takes two to tango. Kate’s finger-pointing is a bigger problem than whatever Jon is up to. If he can’t be father of the year, then it’s up to her to figure out how to work with that — and vice versa. She picked him to be the dad of those 8 kids, and now she’s got to deal with her decision, and insulting Jon and refusing to resolve the ongoing conflict is no solution.
For Kate to deny her role in their poor ongoing relationship is nave and immature.
Divorce lawyers have a saying “God made ’em, God matched ’em,” or, less politely, “Every garbage can has a lid.” These two came together for a reason and for her to deny that she has any responsibility for what’s going on is preposterous.
And for her to speak publicly about her disappointment with Jon is damaging to the kids. While they’re still little, they know they’re Mommy and Daddy. By hearing that “Daddy is bad” they hear that they’re bad, too. When they’re old enough, they’ll see what Mom said about Dad and form their own opinions. Kate’s strategy of “I’m good; he’s bad” will likely backfire on her in the long run. And what is she teaching them about how adults should handle relationships? What it means to be married, and to be parents?
She could unilaterally change the dynamic between them — even without his cooperation. If she chose her battles, gave him the benefit of the doubt once in awhile, learned to communicate more honestly and attacked the problem and not Jon, she could make this situation better. She’s blind if she doesn’t see that it’s in her best interests to do so; if Jon was a more cooperative co-parent, that would take some of the responsibility off of her, which would make her life easier.
Diana Mercer is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin 2010), and Your Divorce Advisor (Simon & Schuster 2001) and a mediator at Peace Talks Mediation Services, Inc.

This Blogger’s Books from
Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life
by Diana Mercer, Katie Jane Wennechuk
Your Divorce Advisor : A Lawyer and a Psychologist GuideYou Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce
by Diana Mercer, Marsha Kline Pruett

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Santa Teresa Rio de Janeiros Art Enclave

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Leonarado da Vinci Great Renaissance Sage

Leonardo da Vinci, born in the middle of the 15th century, was the founder of modern science and an interpreter between nature and humans.
He sought to understand the nature of life two centuries before the microscope was invented. He believed the Earth was a living, self-organizing and self-regulating system.
Leonardo had exceptional powers of observation and a powerful visual memory. And his “sublime left hand” (as his friend and mathematician Luca Pacioli, called it) drew in excess of 100,000 drawings in over 13,000 pages. Some 6,000 pages were preserved as manuscripts now in libraries and private collections, others in larger forms known as codies are held by the British Royal family and Bill and Melinda Gates.
As a young man Leonardo trained as a painter, sculptor and engineer in Florence. Astonishingly, he was a self-taught scientist, inventor, designer, mathematician, linguist, systemic thinker, cartographer, geologist, ecologist, botanist, hydrologist, complexity theorist, humanitarian and physicist.
He was humble, compassionate, graceful, talented, sensitive, regal spirited, physically beautiful, eloquent, charming, practical joker and he possessed an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
Over 100 years before either Galileo or Bacon, Leonardo developed a new empirical approach to science — systemic observations of nature, logical reasoning and some mathematical formulations, all the backbones of today’s scientific methods.
Leonardo’s uncanny ability to draw complex swirls of turbulent water and swift movements of birds was so accurate that nothing could match it until the advent of photography over three hundred years later.
He believed that in order to paint nature he must first understand it. By studying patterns in nature this enable him to transcend all boundaries.
His studies of muscles and bones lead him to invent gears and levers, interrelating physiology with engineering. His observations and recordings of turbulence in water enabled him to understand the flow of air, which in turn allowed him to explore sound, theory of music and the design of musical instruments.
His experiments in mathematics on continuous quantities were as a result of his incomparable drawings in nature. His science was inexorably linked to his art and vice versa.
The lists of his inventions — some 300 — are phenomenal including: wind and humidity gauges, odometers, small submarines for marine warfare, air bags, goggles and flippers for frogmen to bore holes in the planks of enemy ships, table lamps with variable intensities, opening and closing automatic doors using counter weights, folding furniture, revolving theatrical stages, a spit with variable speeds based on the intensity of the roasting fire, a press for olive oil, sewing-, spinning-, weaving-, twisting hemp-, trimming felt-machines.
A ten-year project on a monumental bronze horse that was never cast resulted in an extraordinary treatise on horses, which is now part of a special volume of the Royal collection at Windsor castle.
As an architect he focused on design, which included villas, palaces and cathedrals, and he was often consulted as an expert on architectural problems. His architecture was interwoven with complex geometry; and central to every villa and palace that he worked on were its gardens.
In 1482 he witnessed the Bubonic Plague in Milan and quickly deduced the city’s appalling sanitation as the culprit. He submitted a proposal to rebuild the city with decent housing, shelters for animals and streets to be regularly cleaned by flushing them with water.
He designed ideal cities to contain no more than 30,000 people with two levels – upper for pedestrians, lower for vehicles with stairs interconnecting them and underground canals to carry sewage away.
In 1980 the World Health Organization modeled it Healthy Cities Program based on Leonardo’s design of a city as a living system – 500 years later.
Leonardo worked on the human eye for over 20 years and his research on optics, anatomy and neuroscience ranks amongst his finest achievements.
His drawings of trees, plants, water and rocks are breathtaking.
Leonardo’s work on human anatomy was based on hundreds of postmortems; and he brilliantly diagnosed that one older man died due to thickening of his arteries – 300 years before arteriosclerosis was discovered.
His renowned inventions of flying machines were truly amazing and all based upon thousands of hours of observing the birds on the hills outside Florence. Recently, his glider model was built and tested on the cliffs of southeastern England and its engineers noted that it super ceded the first attempts of the Wright Brothers in 1900.
A self-proclaimed vegetarian, Leonardo felt that with movement animals could experience pain. He often went into the marketplace, bought caged birds and immediately release them.
His belief that all inventions came from nature’s blueprint occurred 500 years before the applied engineering field of biomimetics was created.
His love of nature and passion for all life stands as a beacon for all that is good in humankind and I can’t help but think that even the master Renaissance designer, engineer and scientist knew so “Read me, O reader, if in my words you find delight, for rarely in the world will one such as I be born again.”
Dr Reese Halter is a Science Communicator: Voice for Ecology, conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University and public speaker. He is the author of Wild Weather — The Truth Behind Global Warming. Contact him through

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Catching My First Fish in Taupo

I’ve only been fishing once in my life. It was while I was exploring the southern islands of Thailand. My friends and I had rented a boat to explore the nearby national park and its islands. For lunch, our Thai captain went out to catch fish. He asked if some of us wanted to come and I volunteered.
Fishing in Thailand is done the old fashioned way — a hook attached to line thrown in the water. Our lunch bit while I was holding the line. It was awesome.
While I was backpacking through New Zealand, I was convinced to go trout fishing in Taupo. I had a completely different experience. Instead of line fishing in an open long boat, we went fishing with a modern sonar equipped boat, a surly but hilarious captain, and high tech rods.
Launching out into the lake after a good lunch, we went searching for trout. Our hunt didn’t go to well though. In fact, it didn’t go at all. After our captain used some high tech equipment and weights to drop the lines 120 feet below the surface, we cruised around waiting our first bit, each of us picking a line to use. Then we waited longer. And longer. Eventually, getting bored and grabbing a few beers, we went to the top deck and took in the view.
And what a view it was. I loved traveling Taupo. It is my favorite place in New Zealand. The area is absolutely stunning. The town is on the country’s largest lake and from it you can see Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings and Mount Tongariro. You can hike both in one of the greatest one day hikes in the entire world. I loved Taupo and loved even more sitting out on the lake cruising around, taking in the sun, watching the other boats, and marveling at the mountains in the distance.
We had rented the boat for two hours and the more time passed, the less it seemed like we would catch anything. Our captain was getting more aggravated, cursing, and swearing about how he hated going back empty. But soon we had a pull on one of the lines. Then another. Two fish in a shot period of time.
And one of those fish was my fishing pole. It was time to catch the second fish in my life! Except, I had no idea what to do.
“How do I reel it in?” I asked.
“No silly questions!” The captain yelled. “You reel it in by turning the wheel!” He said pointing angrily at the rod. He clearly didn’t know how to deal with newbies. Or maybe he was just surly all the time.
But soon I began reeling in my fish. It didn’t put up much of a fight and pretty soon I had it. My friend also reeled in his fish and soon we had a might feast. Driving back into port, our captain was all smiles and happy we had caught something, even if they weren’t the biggest trout out there. It was an exciting day on the lake, the sun was shining, and the air was crisp. Despite the surliness of our captain, he was hilarious and made good conversation.
Taupo, New Zealand was an amazing place. I highly recommend it if you visit New Zealand. Even if fishing isn’t your thing, you can do a lot of hiking, trekking, and relaxing in Taupo. There is even a hot springs.

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How Internet Startups Are Like Your High School Band

Why does every person I meet today either work for an internet startup or own one? Everyone seems to want to be in this space one way or another. And ironically, not many are actually making any money off of it. Most don’t even have the semblance of a business model in place. What is it then about the internet startup industry that makes it so charming?
These are some questions I began asking myself about a year and a half ago as I began to increasingly immerse myself in Toronto’s online community.
And then it hit me.
About a year ago, I was at a local event for tech-entrepreneurs in Toronto. I walked in as one of the young CEOs was finishing a talk about his company, his progress to date and his struggle for funding. As he, Mr. Startup CEO, walked down the stage, he was swarmed by the crowd. People wanted to chat with him about his company’s work to date, hear his stories of struggle, laugh at the jokes he made (even if they weren’t funny!), and buy him the customary shots of tequila.
He was the rock star that night.
Once upon a time, you had to be a musician, playing for a rock band, struggling, rejecting a ‘regular’ job, indulging in alcoholism and marijuana abuse to be cool — you know, to be a rockstar. Today, all you need is an internet-startup!
Think about the rock band that you were once a part of. You knew the likelihood of you actually making a career or a livelihood out of it was bleak, but that never deterred you from rehearsing, gigging and dreaming! Of course, you did it because it was fun, but more importantly, you did it because of the way you’d be perceived in society – by your peers and even the opposite sex (or the same sex depending on your tastes). You did it because of culture.
You did it cause it was cool.
Internet-startups today embody the narrative of the counter-culture. There is a sense of heroism associated with the person who decides to reject a corporate career to work insane hours, typically in a basement, wearing torn blue jeans and sipping red bull. Of course, I’m painting a stereotypical picture here, but you get the point. Interestingly enough, such a narrative seems to exist only in the confines of the internet (and now computer mediated technologies in general) startup world. And a large part of it has to do with the heroic celebration of the ‘cyberpunk’ (a.k.a the hacker) over the last decade. From the hackers and coders who saved the world from Y2K to Shawn Fanning, who revolutionized music distribution, the last decade has witnessed a strong internet counter-culture develop and take centre stage. It is this very counter-culture that has created Julian Assange – arguably the most celebrated cyberpunk in today’s context.
So what’s next?
The paradox of the counter-culture applies here as well — as a culture gains popularity and enters the mainstream, it no longer carries with it the same meanings and identities. So as Internet and computer-mediated technologies continue to enter the mainstream, I keep wondering what will happen to the narrative of the internet-startup rockstar? Will a new counter-culture emerge, or have many begun to emerge already? More importantly, what will this cultural phenomenon do to entrepreneurship in Canada? Canadians have long been accused of being risk averse. Is all this about to change?

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Americas Tienanmen and Blogger of the Year 2010

First, previous Blogger of the Years.
In 2001, I chose a BOTY by nominating several people and letting the readers vote. That year, the choice was Joel Spolsky, who went on to do many great things, such as the Joel on Software books and the Stack Overflow website.
Then in 2007, I named NakedJen as the BOTY. To Jen, being a blogger means being vulnerable, exposing who you are, and standing by yourself. A blogger is a sole practitioner, who sticks his or her neck out, but does it with conviction and belief. That’s what choosing NJ said about blogging, to me.
In 2008, my choice was Jay Rosen. Part of being a blogger is being a teacher and a thinker. Jay’s mind is so flexible, he can put himself into impossible situations, the kinds of situations we find ourselves in, and figure out quickly where the chips must fall.
In 2009, with so much else going on, a move to NY, the passing of my father, it must have slipped my mind that I had a light to shine. But in 2010, the tradition resumes.
This year it could have been Doc Searls for his pioneering work in the economics of the Internet. Or Paul Krugman, for blogging so well inside the beast. There are dozens of bloggers I admire and would happily sing the praises of.
But not this year — because this year — we’re on the verge of big change. It’s as if the Internet has turned into a giant Tienanmen Square, we’re having a Summer of Love, but on the side the tanks are assembling. We know the story isn’t over. Not by a lot.
As I explained in this morning’s podcast, the world of news might have been split in two this year. On one side are the people and organizations who want to use the information in the WikiLeaks cables. And on the other side, those who don’t. So far, the US government is on the Don’t side. CNN, for some mysterious reason, is there too. Some of the things Bill Keller at the NY Times has said indicate that he is on that side, while his organization is solidly on the other. The Guardian is kicking butt on the Do side. As is Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, and dozens of other news organizations digging in and reporting WikiLeaks-related stories every day of the week.
Fox News is starting to love WikiLeaks. And Iran is blocking it. Remind me, why is the US against it?
There really isn’t much gray there, not much ambivalence. Either you’re for em or you’re agin em.
Funny thing, as time goes by, I bet the number of people on the Don’t side will shrink, until there comes a time when we won’t remember when the public didn’t know what the government was up to. Governments will preempt the leakers by leaking on themselves. People will wonder why WikiLeaks was seen as so threatening. Parents will explain to children that change is always scary to adults.
But in the meantime, we still have a lot of processing to do.
We have a fantastic communication system in the Internet — will we use it?
Julian Assange is a very powerful and famous man, and he put himself in that position by doing something incredbily brave. It’s hard to imagine someone risking so much, for a cause, but there he is. But as strange as it seems, he’s from our world, and his values and ours are the same. There’s not very much light between what I believe and what I understand that he believes.
NakedJen is an evangelist for radical transparency. Jay Rosen says the news process is turning upside-down. And Julian Assange put both ideas together. He says let’s know all there is to know. Let’s tell the people who take us to war and destroy countries and kill hundreds of thousands, for profit — no more secrets. We’re not just going to suspect you’re doing it, we’re going to know. And maybe, if they know we’ll know, they won’t do it.
So while the people on the Don’t side try to discredit the man, and what he’s done, the story is still getting out. There are new revelations every day. As Arianna says, all it takes is one story to electrify everything. I think in our guts we know, if the process is allowed to go forward, we can never go back.
WikiLeaks is America’s Tienanmen. Julian Assange is the tank guy. We all hold our breath to see if we go all the way.
This post originally appeared at Scripting News.

The Dutch Have Daddy Days Why Not Us

The New York Times ran a fascinating piece this week about professional part-time work in the Netherlands. It seems the Dutch have had more success than most of us in finding ways to balance work and family life. Most interesting to me is that their workplace flexibility movement isn’t just focused on women:
A daddy day! What a concept, right? Actually, what I find most striking is that this sounds so foreign to us. The idea that a man could work 30 hours a week, be a successful doctor, lawyer, or business leader and still take one day off to hang out with his kids simply isn’t in our frame of reference. But why not? As the Dutch have found, offering employees flexible work schedules makes them more productive, not less.
Many Dutch companies — and it should be said, a growing number of American companies, too — already know that workplace flexibility is one of the best ways to attract and retain top talent. Flexible jobs keep employees happy, stem turnover, and stop parents from dropping out of the workplace altogether.
This is not to say that part-time work is the only way. For some people a “daddy day” would make a big difference; for others it simple wouldn’t work. But there are a thousand different routes to flexibility, whether it’s telecommuting, taking time off and then re-entering the workforce, or just allowing people to set their own schedules. It’s important to note that this isn’t about working less — it’s about letting every person find a method that makes their work fit with their life. In fact, flexible work hours don’t always mean working less.
At Dutch Microsoft headquarters in Schiphol, Ineke Hoekman, head of human resources and mother of two, used to work part time. But in 2008, when the company moved into a space without designated work stations and employees were told to work “anywhere, any time,” she gradually went back to full time. Her team lives with Friday conference calls from her son’s soccer practice. Aspects of this “new world of work” concept have been exported to other Microsoft offices, including Norway, France and Australia — though not yet to U.S. headquarters.
So why not? Just about every person I know is sick and tired of not being able to balance the needs of work and family. So if there are workplace innovations that can give us more time with our families and make our businesses more productive, why aren’t we all doing it?
Of course, many of us already are doing it. Over the past decade, the phrase “workplace flexibility” had entered the American lexicon, and thousands of businesses have embraced flexible workplace practices. But when we hear “workplace flexibility,” too many of us still think only about moms. In fact, workplace flexibility is something that can help all of us — moms, dads, people caring for aging parents — anyone. As President Obama said at the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility:
Workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses. It affects the strength of our economy — whether we’ll create the workplaces and jobs of the future we need to compete in today’s global economy.
I say it’s about time every American employee has a chance to find their own flexibility, whatever that may be.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to sign off — today’s a self-imposed daddy day.

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A Simple Approach to Preventing the Next Housing Crisis Why We Need One What One Would Look Like and Why DoddFrank Isnt It

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was, ostensibly, a response to the crisis in the U.S. housing market and the inter-related crisis in the market for mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”). One of the goals of the legislation, presumably, was to prevent another crisis in housing and mortgage finance. And, certainly after what we have seen in recent years, no one could question the importance of that goal. The housing crisis has deprived thousands upon thousands of Americans of not just wealth but of their homes; it has helped drive municipalities to the brink of fiscal collapse; and it has impeded the recovery of the U.S jobs market. The MBS crisis took down major financial institutions in the U.S., and almost caused a complete collapse of the financial sector. We cannot afford a repeat experience.
But Dodd-Frank, even if it is implemented in the far-reaching way that some hope and think it can be, will not address a problem at the heart of the housing and MBS crisis: excessive complexity. The years running up to the implosion of the housing and MBS markets were marked by ever-increasing complexity. This complexity caused confusion and poor judgment on the part of unsophisticated home buyers and owners and supposedly sophisticated securities investors. This complexity also allowed some people and institutions to make an astonishing amount of money originating mortgages that never should have been originated and selling MBS that never should have been sold, at least at the prices they were sold. Dodd-Frank does not do the structural work of simplification we need to prevent this all from happening again once the memories of the current crises fade.
Instead of Dodd-Frank, we need clear statutory reform that limits residential mortgages to a few sensible products, all girded by strict underwriting standards, and that correspondingly produces a well-ordered, transparent market in bonds or securities based on these mortgages. Other countries, most notably Denmark, have maintained a simplified, and hence much more stable, regime of residential lending and finance with reasonable costs of capital for borrowers. Moreover, it would probably be a good thing if reforms brought about lower rates of household investments in home ownership in the United States would be desirable: from a basic economics perspective, American households have long been overinvested in where they live. The approach I advocate — the simplicity approach, if you will — is admittedly politically infeasible at present, but if what is politically feasible is only Dodd-Frank, then perhaps our attention needs to most immediately focus on changing our politics and hence expanding the domain of the politically feasible.
The Move to Complexity and Its Consequences
At one point in time, residential lending in the United States was fairly simple, involving few parties per transaction and few instruments. Thirty year fixed rate, fully amortized mortgages were overwhelmingly the mortgage of choice; a significant down payment deposit was required; second and third mortgages were relatively uncommon, at least as part of the initial purchase transaction. In the last twenty years or so, we saw the utilization of a dizzying array of nontraditional alternatives in which rates were not fixed or only fixed for a time, principal was only partially amortized or not amortized at all, and by means of second mortgages or simply through lax underwriting standards, purchases often means little or no upfront, unborrowed cash deposit. At the same time, the number of parties involved in a single loan proliferated. Whereas once mortgages were solicited, originated and held by lenders, now those functions are typically performed by different parties. Mortgage brokers often originate mortgages, and usually sell them as fast as possible to lenders, who in turn quite often sell them again and again. Lenders very often retain servicing on loans they long ago sold. As the big servicers such as Bank of America have recently been forced to admit, the fabric of transactions surrounding a given ordinary residential mortgage can now be so complex that it is no mean feat to determine at a given point in time who exactly “owns” the mortgage.
There has been a corresponding move to complexity in the MBS arena. Mortgages have been securitized for quite a long time in the United States, but until recently, almost all of the securitized mortgages were fixed rate mortgages that were originated using relatively strict FHA or Freddie Mac underwriting requirements and that enjoyed an implicit repayment guarantee of the United States. In the years immediately leading up to the implosion of the housing and mortgage finance market, we witnessed an array of new private label MBS that were much more complex than traditional MBS. The new kinds of MBS had so many tranches and permutations that you needed flow charts and advanced engineering degrees just to map them out. FHA and Freddie Mac sought to compete with private label MBS by loosening their underwriting standards and by producing more and more varied MBS products. The greater complexity in the market for mortgage instruments and in the MBS market were intertwined and reinforcing: The greater and more complex array of MBS fed demand for more borrowers, which was achieved in part by means of new, more complex loan arrangements that targeted households that could not have afforded traditional mortgages.
That the housing and MBS crises were preceded by a move from simplicity to great complexity does not, by itself, mean that the complexity per se was a cause of the two crises. But complexity can operate to lead to sub-optimal decisions, as the behavioral psychology literature illustrates. Faced with a confusing array of choices, people tend to fall back on heuristic biases that do not necessarily result in the decisions that maximize their welfare. In particular, the complexity of mortgage arrangements and instruments likely made it easier for potential home owners and refinancing home owners to fall prey to “the optimism bias.” With this bias, it was too easy for many borrowers to believe that housing prices always rise (and certainly never fall) and hence that a no-money down, variable-interest rate mortgage is not just immediately tempting but also prudent. So, too, the dizzying array of MBS choices made it easier for investors to heavily invest funds that were supposed to be reserved for prudent investments, without tackling straight on the possibility that the always-rising-prices scenario might be nothing more than an historical anomaly.
Swindlers flourished in the complexity and the confusion of the housing and MBS markets. The complexity of consumer choice made it easier for unscrupulous mortgage originators to target and sell vulnerable homeowners and home buyers products that they did not understand, could not afford, did not need, or were more expensive than available alternatives. The complexity of the MBS markets and its instruments allowed the originators, poolers, and sellers of MBS to take advantage of their superior information by overcharging and overselling their customers. Complexity made it easier for the MBS poolers and marketers to shop offerings among credit agencies for the best ratings. Complexity helped the credit agencies to meet the implicit demands of the MBS poolers and marketers — and hence boost their profits — because it allowed them to tell themselves the story that the offerings, which after all were too complex for them to really understand, somehow might deserve the AAA or AA ratings.
Complexity also has made it harder for the government and private actors to respond sensibly to the housing and MBS crises. One plausible solution to the housing crisis would be the re-working of mortgages to reduce principal and make the mortgages more in keeping of actual market values. There are many reasons we have observed almost no loan modifications with principal reductions, but one contributing factor is the division of individual mortgages into many distinct and often adverse investment interests and the consequent difficulty of gaining approval from mortgage “owners” to significant modifications. The division of the ownership of mortgages from their servicing also has impeded loan modifications.
Finally, complexity helped vested economic interests — including those making money off the poor choices home buyers and owners and securities investors make in an environment of complexity — avoid effective regulatory oversight. In the lead up to the implosion of the housing and MBS markets, federal regulators were largely passive, but when they did try to act, they received an enormous push-back from the financial industry and they quickly retreated. The financial industry’s enormous clout with both political parties and in Congress and the White House would make it difficult for even the most courageous, well-intentioned regulators try to get anything done that that industry does not favor. But complexity makes it harder for such regulators to try to get anything done, because regulators quite plausibly can be (and are) assaulted with the claim that they do not fully understand the complexities of the relevant markets and hence are not equipped to impose new rules and regulations. Indeed, in the wake of the MBS crisis, regulators had to turn for advice and counsel to the same entities that had helped create and benefited from the bubble in MBS instruments for explanations of those instruments and guidance as to what they really might be worth.
The Simplicity Approach (or Why Not Follow Demark?)
In a simplified mortgage and MBS market, there would be only one or two kinds of residential mortgages available, with the 30-year fixed-rate as the predominant instrument; putting twenty percent down or paying mortgage insurance requirements would be a strict requirement and not easily evaded using second mortgages; and rates among mortgages offered to borrowers thus would not be very varied. The similarity in instruments and the uniformity of the underwriting standards would not support a wide range of rates. Because only traditional, reasonable risk mortgages would be made, there would be no possibility of MBS based on nontraditional mortgages. MBS pools would be based on quite transparent instruments, and investors in MBS thus could make reasoned and reasonable investment choices. In such an environment, the bubbles we experienced and subsequent implosions would be less likely.
Moreover, there are models — and not just historical ones — for such a simplified regime of mortgage finance. In Denmark, the form of residential mortgages is tightly regulated — so much so that there is really only a single mortgage rate good for virtually all new mortgages on any given day. Mortgages are financed with bonds, such that banks are able to off-load interest rate risk while retaining creditworthiness risk. The Danish system, which no less prominent an investor than George Soros has suggested as a model for the United States, was adopted in the wake of late nineteenth century housing bubbles and has proved highly effective in preventing bubbles. At the same time, the cost of capital for mortgages in Denmark compares favorably with the rest of Europe and the United States. If a simplified regime can satisfy the needs of home buyers and owners in Denmark while achieving admirable stability, why, at least in theory, can the United States not do the same?
Dodd-Frank does not even come close to offering greater simplicity. It is a massive piece of legislation. The bill does not bar nontraditional mortgage instruments; it does not even require that potential home buyers be given a lucid explanation of how a plain vanilla mortgage would compare to less traditional, higher risk alternatives. Perhaps implementing regulations could require mortgage brokers to at least offer traditional mortgages to customers who can afford them, but even that modest reform seems unlikely given the clout of the financial industry. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that courts will uphold regulations that in effect re-insert into Dodd-Frank provisions Congress quite plainly removed from it as part of the process that allowed for its ultimate passage and enactment into law. Congressional intent that Dodd-Frank be limp and lax and not terribly protective of consumers is in no way admirable, but is quite plain for all to see.
Dodd-Frank also does not restrict what kinds of mortgages can be securitized or how they can be securitized. It is true that Dodd-Frank may make certain mortgages riskier than before for investors by giving borrowers who feel they were sold an unsuitable mortgage some recourse against foreclosure. But if recent history teaches us anything, it is that investors in MBS sometimes can be sold on securities based on mortgages that are in fact quite risky — indeed, that in a search for a higher rate of return, they may gravitate to such investments whether they understand what they are doing or not. We can be assured the financial industry will seek to tap the ever-present yearning for higher return.
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The Media Has Failed Us

Financial media is not helping us become better informed or better investors. These outlets devote too much of their airtime to forwarding partisan propaganda rather than informing or entertaining us. The numbers suggest media is actually misinforming us and turning us into bad investors.
The findings of a recent study, Misinformation and the 2010 Election from the University of Maryland’s World Public Opinion, show that 9 in 10 voters in the 2010 election believe they encountered information that was misleading or false, with 56% saying this occurred frequently. The study also concludes that those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe misinformation.
The bad news for Fox News viewers is that merely watching the channel appears to be toxic. Most voters believed a few whoppers during the 2010 election cycle. But daily watchers of FOX News believed more misinformation than everyone else.
Numbers Don’t Lie
The majority of retail (casual) investors use mutual funds and ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) to invest in the markets. Fund flows (deposits vs. withdrawals) are generally regarded as contrary indicators. This is a component of a broader series of indicators classified as investor sentiment that provide some insight into future directions of the market. The basic principle being that when many investors are bullish the market is more likely to go down and conversely a higher level of bearishness or negative sentiment indicates the market is likely to make a move higher. TrimTabs Investment Research reports on these fund flows and in a recent report stated:
The report then issues this conclusion:
These concepts are not really as complicated as they seem. It’s Economics 101. When demand outstrips supply, prices go up and when supply is larger than demand, prices go down. When funds are flowing into stocks, markets rise; but at some point most people are invested and there isn’t enough uninvested capital left to drive prices higher.
Whatever the internal dynamics, the retail investors are generally the last to join in a rally and their main vehicle of investment are mutual funds and ETFs so large inflows into those instruments suggests that the market is near the top. That’s how many retail investors get the timing wrong and end up losing money. Nobody likes being wrong or losing money, it makes us feel pretty lousy and reluctant to invest, starting the whole cycle all over again. This is borne out in the current rally where the retail investor is reticent to return to the markets after being burned so badly in the housing/banking crisis of 2008 – maybe one time too many in the last decade. As a result they’ll probably join in just as the rally is about to top out. As Adam Shell recently wrote in USA Today:
Yet, increasingly, investors on Main Street are not playing the stock market game with confidence like they used to, mainly because the game of making money has gotten tougher and more volatile since the financial crisis. Retail investors are buying fewer stocks. They are paring back on stocks and stock funds they already own. Instead, they’re moving into safer investments, like cash and bonds.
“Investors are on strike,” says Axel Merk, president and chief investment officer at Merk Mutual Funds.
Investors Should Turn Off Their TVs, Not Stop Investing
With the proliferation of financial media and its informed commentary I would hope investor habits would be improving. But the numbers tell us they aren’t. The media is in fact complicit in perpetuating the retail investor’s position as contrary indicator, often referring to those contrary data points in assessing the market’s direction.
In Rick Santelli’s famous rant on CNBC he called overburdened home owners struggling with their mortgages “losers” while using his podium to forward his political agendas. He is now credited with being the “lightening rod” of creation for the Tea Party movement. Perhaps he should have used his obviously influential media position to warn people of the perils of the housing bubble, helping them avoid complicated mortgage products that are hard to manage financially in the downturn that many market observers were predicting. Although I don’t blame investors for turning away from the markets after such treatment, it is the wrong decision.
Markets have historically been a better investment than many other asset classes with the S&P 500 returning roughly a 7% annual rate of return. Stocks should, at the very least, be a strong component of a diversified portfolio. Instead of shying away from being burned again, investors should examine unsuccessful behavior, eliminate negative influences and improve decision making.
Investment Principles for Profitable Investing
Tune out the noise. Lengthen your investment time horizon. Never feel like you are missing out on a rally. Don’t panic in a selloff. History is your friend. Buy low and sell high so you can turn off your TV set to pursue activities you enjoy.
I hope technology positively affects your life in 2011 and all your investments are winners.
Follow Steven Bulwa on Twitter at @BulwaTech.

The Value of You

I think everyone, both men and women, struggle with understanding and appreciating the value of themselves when it comes to their careers or their relationships. However, I feel women struggle with this at a much deeper level.
I remember at the beginning of 2010, The Economist had on the cover a picture of Rosie the Riveter. It was symbolizing the fact that, for the first time ever, women had surpassed the 50% threshold becoming the majority of the workforce in the US. Was that something to celebrate? Absolutely. However, it really is only significant with regards to numbers and percentages, but not for equality in terms of salary or numerous other issues such as maternity leave, women in top leadership positions, and the like. I feel what we need to work on, not just on a societal level, but on an individual level as well, is understanding, acknowledging, appreciating, and educating women about the value of themselves in every society and community worldwide.
In September of this year, there was a talk given by Nicholas D. Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New Times, at Harvard Medical School, which was written about in the Harvard Gazette. Coincidentally, the talk was about ‘The Value of Women’ and Kristof said that “If slavery and totalitarianism were the great moral issues of the 19th and 20th centuries, then the worldwide oppression of women and girls will be the defining issue of the 21st.” I think all of us would have to agree. He continues by saying “Ending that oppression is an issue not only of justice but also of economic progress. Educating girls and empowering women to enter the labor market or run businesses — even on a small scale — makes a huge difference in a community’s economy. Empowered women may help lower poverty rates and diminish support for terrorism.” I think this statement is key, because the impact that women can have in our society is so important to understand and to foster.
Kristof and his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, wrote a book titled “”Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” The book was published in September 2009, however the first piece written for the book came in 1990. Kristof wrote about a girl in rural China that was going to drop out of school, because her parents could not afford the mere $13 to keep her in school. One thing led to another and the readers of Kristof’s column decided to donate money to help keep this girl in school. Ironically, the bank where the donations were being held made a mistake and added a couple of zeros to the $100 donation. With a little coaxing, the bank agreed to pay $10,000 and the money funded a scholarship program for the girls in this remote Chinese village. After a few years, Kristof returned to this village and found that the money had made a huge difference for educating girls.
Kristof shared many other stories about girls and women he had met on his travels that have been significantly transformed by educational, health, or financial help. Another story was about an Indian woman who was beaten daily by her husband, but still managed to get an extremely small loan of only $65 that helped her start her own embroidery business. She eventually was able to start hiring people in her village, including her own husband, who in turn stopped beating her. “Men eventually realize that opportunities for women open doors for everyone. But women need education and income opportunities,” Kristoff said.
Read the rest of this post at

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The Year in Movies Spreading the Love Throughout 2010

Don’t let the lackluster ho-hum holiday season cinema schlockfest fool you. 2010 was a stellar year for films. In a break from tradition, quality films did not only turn up during the Oscar-friendly month of December. On the flip side, many entertaining films and inspiring performances were seen in the first half of the year and fall — so much so I think that’s the reason December has been so blah humbug. Had films like The Town, Toy Story 3, or even Easy A opened in multiplexes in the height of the holiday season rather than The Tourist, Little Fockers, or Yogi Bear, it would’ve felt like a sweeter end to the 2010 film year. But, I’d prefer it this way. As an avid moviegoer, I’d much rather check out great flicks throughout the year rather than cramming as many as I could in a December to remember. Realizing you need another “best of” column from a blogger like you need another Focker sequel, I’ve kept my column short and to the point. Weigh in on yours!
My Ten Best
1.Black Swan: No film had a more lasting impression for me than Darren Aronofsky’s suspenseful, deeply disturbing cinematic ballet. Natalie Portman delivers the performance of the year, while the supporting cast – notably Vincent Cassell, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey deliver career best turns. Clint Mansell’s score haunts.
2.The Social Network: Finally, a film that lives up to its buzz. Best writing of the year with a star-making turn by Jesse “Don’t Call Me Michael Cera” Eisenberg.
3.The Town: I really hope Jeremy Renner isn’t the lone Oscar nominee for this film. Ben Affleck is a proven director and storyteller who delivered a fine performance here. Easily the best crime film since Heat.
4.Toy Story 3: The best of the series, and that’s saying something. If Pixar delivered a new Toy Story film every three years, I’d be slaphappy.
5.Inception: Sure, it’s got a lot of WTF moments, but Chris Nolan proves he’s the most interesting and talented filmmaker working today. Love the ending — don’t care what anyone says.
6.The Ghost Writer: Roman Polanski’s grossly underrated film features the finest performance of Pierce Brosnan’s career and killer suspense.
7.The King’s Speech: Colin Firth is sensation, but Geoffrey Rush walks away with this delightful and inspiring British import.
8.Despicable Me: If not for Toy Story 3, I’d likely tell you this film is the best animated flick since the first Toy Story. Steve Carell guides this heartfelt and hilarious film with an offbeat Austrian accent.
9.127 Hours: James Franco’s star-making turn is what’s getting all the press (and rightfully so) but the film really works thanks to Danny Boyle’s skillful direction.
10. Machete: Yeah, I’m going with an offbeat pick here. Full disclosure — I haven’t seen Blue Valentine yet so until I do this over-to-top romp featuring Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal and Robert De Niro gets the honor. Coolest cast in a film since Pulp Fiction.
The Rest In Brief…
Five Movies That Not Many Liked But I Did
Alice in Wonderland
Knight and Day
The Switch
Five Worst of the Year
Grown Ups
Valentine’s Day
Hot Tub Time Machine
The A-Team
You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger
My 25 Best Performances of 2010
1. Natalie Portman – Black Swan
2. Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network
3. Christian Bale – The Fighter
4. Geoffrey Rush – The King’s Speech
5. Matt Damon – Hereafter
6. Andrew Garfield – The Social Network
7. James Franco – 127 Hours
8. Mila Kunis – Black Swan
9. Natalie Portman – Black Swan
10. Leonardo DiCaprio – Shutter Island
11. Pierce Brosnan – The Ghost Writer
12. Ann Guilbert – Please Give
13. Colin Firth – The King’s Speech
14. Helena Bonham Carter – Alice in Wonderland
15. Ben Affleck – The Town
16. Emma Stone – Easy A
17. Jeremy Renner – The Town
18. Nicole Kidman – Rabbit Hole
19. Annette Benning – The Kids Are All Right
20. John C. Reilly – Cyrus
21. Mark Ruffalo – The Kids Are All Right
22.Barbara Hershey – Black Swan
23. Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone
24. Amy Adams – The Fighter*
25. Dolph Lundgren – The Expendables*
* Reserved for Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine

This Blogger’s Books from
Sweet ‘Stache: 50 Badass Mustaches and the Faces Who Sport Them
by Jon Chattman, Rich Tarantino

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Advice from my father on my wedding day

(This is cross-listed with the Reality-based community, where most of my material appears these days.).
This New Year’s provides an obvious occasion to look over the last turbulent decade, which featured a tragic presidency, terrorist attacks, two wars, shameful betrayal of American constitutional values in Guantanamo and other places, Barack Obama’s election, historic health reform, rather rapid deflation in the bubble of American world supremacy, and tangible but too-slow progress in the global fight against AIDS and other public health threats. Thus concludes my summary of the past decade in public policy.
I could write more predictable blather. Instead I thought I would note a more personal milestone. This marks the 20th anniversary of my engagement. Before my wedding day, my dad sent me a letter with some fatherly marital advice. With permission, I’m sharing this with you, editing a few things for reasons of family privacy.
In part, I’m sharing it because some newlyweds might want the advice. My real reason is simply to celebrate a bond that extends almost five decades now. I don’t agree with everything my dad wrote, but it’s pretty cool. I believe it has served me well in an action-packed twenty years that has featured more than the usual portion of both joys and sorrows.
At 81, my dad emails me questions requiring answers of the form sin-squared(theta/2). Some readers may conclude that the wrong engineer Pollack got into blogging. That’s ok. As Mayor Richard M. Daley has noted, the son will always say that the father was best. So thanks Dad for these beautiful years. And thank you, Veronica, for sharing this wonderful journey.

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Energy Efficiency Paid Lunch or False Shortcut

Energy efficiency appears to offer a perfect solution for our energy problems. Efficiency improvements not only reduce the energy consumption of appliances, cars and industrial processes, but typically pay for themselves. They are “not a free lunch, but a lunch you’re paid to eat,” Ernst Ulrich von Weizscker, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins argued in their influential book, Factor Four. Their twin benefits make efficiency improvements politically more palatable than measures such as carbon taxes.
A recent story in The New Yorker magazine has cast doubts about the effectiveness of energy efficiency. “The problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption,” argues David Owen in his article, “The Efficiency Dilemma.” His story has triggered a heated debate in the blogosphere. The issue at stake is as complicated as it is important. Here is an overview.
David Owen illustrates his critique with the example of refrigeration. A study by the World Economic Forum found that the average refrigerator sold in the US today uses three quarters less energy than in 1975, even though it is 20% larger. This looks like the perfect win-win situation for the environment and consumers. Yet, says Owen, “the issue may be less straightforward than it seems.” The cheaper use has allowed refrigerators to proliferate in ever new areas (such as hotel rooms). And it has helped boost the wasteful frozen food sector, which may cancel out the gains achieved through efficiency improvements. Such indirect impacts are called the “rebound effect” or, after a British economist from the mid-19th century, the Jevons paradox.
Charles Komanoff, an energy economist from New York, followed Owen with his own critique in the online journal Grist. He pointed out that in spite of important breakthroughs in energy efficiency, overall energy consumption in the US in 2008 was 38% higher and electricity consumption twice as high as in 1975. He concludes that “efficiency advocates have been winning the micro battles but losing the macro war. Through engineering brilliance and concerted political and regulatory advocacy, we have increased energy efficiency in the small while the society around us has grown monstrously energy-inefficient and cancelled out those gains. Two steps forward, two steps back.”
Not so, argue energy experts such as Amory Lovins, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Energy demand has soared not because efficiency improvements have caused prices to drop, but because overall income has increased. Yet even with higher incomes and lower prices, demand for frozen food, car miles and other energy uses will eventually be saturated and taper off.
Responding to Komanoff’s growth figures, Amory Lovins points out that while energy consumption grew by 38% 1975-2008, the US economy grew by 171% during the same period. If it had not been for efficiency gains, energy consumption would thus have grown 4.5 times faster than it actually did. In nine of the past 34 years, says Lovins, efficiency gains outpaced economic growth “without our even paying attention.” This shows that if efficiency improvements were pursued more seriously, they could reduce overall energy demand.
But could they do so on their own? In a rejoinder, Komanoff argued that energy consumption fell during the years when prices jumped. “Contrary to your assertion,” he reminded his friend Lovins, “we were paying attention: prices compelled us to.” This suggests that the best way to reduce energy consumption – “the antidote to the Jevons paradox” in Komanoff’s words – is to make energy more expensive, for example through a carbon tax. Energy efficiency, maintains F. James Handley, “seems to have offered a ‘false short cut’ around the hard path of pricing carbon.”
At the end of the day, it is impossible to quantify to what extent gains in energy efficiency are lost to the rebound effect. But money saved through efficiency gains will almost always be spent on something else, with associated environmental impacts. In contrast, argues Blake Alcott, an environmental economist and old friend from my activist days in Zrich, emission caps, carbon taxes, consumption quotas and similar measures will translate into a direct reduction in energy consumption.
Does this make energy efficiency a useless or even counter-productive tool? I don’t think so. The environmental impacts of efficiency improvements may indeed be limited, but their welfare benefits are important. They allow us to consume more for the same amount of environmental impact. My personal welfare is not improved by frozen food and additional car miles. But the situation in poor countries is different. Efficiency improvements allow poor societies to increase their use of much-needed goods and services without a commensurate increase in environmental impacts.
Energy efficiency should not be seen as an easy way around hard measures to reduce energy consumption. But energy efficiency measures and energy taxes are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, efficiency improvements can make the required hard measures politically more feasible. We need to protect fragile ecosystems from oil exploration, coal mining and dam building. We need to drastically reduce our energy consumption through emission caps and carbon taxes. The vast potential of energy efficiency means that we can do so without sacrificing jobs, quality of life, and development for the poor.

Armed robbers hold hostages in Texas bank heist

Armed robbers hold hostages in Texas bank heist

One of two armed robbers holding hostages in a botched robbery at a Chase bank in a suburb of Houston, Texas is in police custody.
Local police are negotiating for the release of two remaining hostages. Five hostages were released earlier.
Police Lt Onesmio Lopez says the released hostages are mostly unharmed. The robbers had struck and injured the bank manager after he had refused to open the vault.
FBI agents are assisting local police.
Nearby streets in the suburb of Pearland have been sealed and the Houston Chronicle estimates that more than 50 police officer are on the scene.
The armed robbers had entered the Chase bank at around 1130 on Friday morning.


3 Ways College Students Can Achieve Financial Success in 2011

With 2011 only hours away and since most college students are off on winter break, now is a great time to focus on your finances for the New Year. Follow these three simple steps to ensure that your finances are safe for 2011:
1. Credit Cards: If you have credit card debt, determine exactly how much debt you’re in. Gather all of your credit cards and write down the amount you owe and the card’s interest rate. Next, call the credit card companies and ask them to lower the interest rate — speak to a supervisor if necessary. This phone call will usually result in your rate being lowered by 3-5%.
Next, try to pay more than the minimum payment on each card, even if it’s $10-$15 more — this will get you out of debt sooner.
If you don’t have a credit card, consider opening up a secured credit card, where you make a security deposit on the card, typically around $500. There are some fees involved, but after a few years of using the secured credit card responsibly, the credit card issuer will likely extend you a more traditional line of credit. Most secured credit cards report to the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This will ensure that you’re actually building credit history.
Remember, use the secured credit card for small purchases and pay the balance off in full and on time.
To ensure that you never forget to pay your credit card bill, ask the credit card company to automatically withdraw the money from your bank account each month. And always remember to review your credit card statement to ensure that there are no errors or suspicious activities.
Also, don’t open up more than one credit card. According to Sallie Mae, 50% of college students have over 4 credit cards! Opening up several credit cards within a short period of time hurts your credit score. The more credit cards you have, the more tempting it is to rack up thousands of dollars in debt.
2. Retirement: Even though you’re 35-40 years away from retirement, the earlier you start saving and investing for retirement, the more money you’ll end up with. Open a Roth IRA from a discount brokerage firm. In a Roth IRA, you deposit money that you’ve already paid taxes on! And since tax rates will most likely increase in the future, because of the high deficits and national debt, it’s better to pay the taxes now, rather than when you retire.
3. Expenses: Last semester, chances are you spent hundreds of dollars on restaurants, bars, coffee and shopping. Make it your New Year’s resolution to stop spending money on frivolous and useless items. Instead, use this money to pay off your credit card or student loan debt, or simply save the money! To help track your expenses, use this free Expense Calculator.
Managing your personal finances while in college is a daunting task. However, if you implement the suggestions above now, you will be in excellent financial shape by the time you graduate from college and enter the real world.
Scott Gamm is the founder of the personal finance website and a finance major at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, MSNBC, Fox Business Network, Fox News, ABC News and CBS.
For more info on managing credit cards in college, check out my appearance on ABC News from yesterday.

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Happy Messy New Year

Have you ever had a moment so pure that you never wanted it to end? I had one the other day. And it’s stuck in my head, like that catchy pop tune I keep hearing on the radio that I hated but now I secretly love.
I was running errands with my kids last weekend. It started with a rare trip to the bookstore to actually buy a book. We’re 99% library people but a percentage of the sales from books purchased that weekend were going to benefit the kids’ school.
Then we headed off to the grocery store to pick up some ingredients to make cookies with later that afternoon. We were almost home when I realized we had forgotten to pick up pasteurized eggs to use when making cookies later that afternoon so they could eat the dough and I wouldn’t have to worry about salmonella poisoning.
So we stopped one more time at another grocery store near our house. I left the two kids in the car for the few minutes it took for me to run in to the store. (Don’t worry they’re old enough, at almost 14 years old and 11.) And I was in and out of the store quickly because they didn’t have the pasteurized eggs. But as I approached the car, I saw something that made me stop.
It was as if time had stood still all around me except for inside of the car. They didn’t see me but I could see them. My son sitting in the front seat, mouth moving, as always, and laughing. My daughter reaching over the seat to touch her brother, not to hit him but for emphasis, and laughing as well. Animated conversation. I don’t know how long I stood there. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes but it felt like forever. And I didn’t want to move. I just wanted to savor the moment.
But my son saw me. Smiled and waved and the moment was over.
We went home and made the cookies. They ate the dough even though it wasn’t pasteurized and no one got sick. The cookies were great. And life went on.
But I still keep going back to that moment. I’m a sucker these days for sentimentality and there was something just so perfect about those few minutes. At this age, my kids are changing so fast and sometimes I just want time to stop or at least slow down.
This year, my son has grown taller than me. There’s no turning back on that one. And while I always knew that he would be, the reality of it is still kind of shocking. He’s going to high school next year. High school. I’m not that old and neither is he. Well, I guess he is. He’s showing signs of maturity. Finally. Shaking people’s hands when he meets them and looking them in the eye. Starting to understand how life works.
And my daughter is half way through her first year of middle school. Her transition has been smooth as silk. Feet as big as mine though I still have her on the height thing. And probably will for a while longer. But her physical change has started. Long legs, a few curves and a body that’s getting some hormonal ups and downs. But she told me the other day that I was her role model and she wasn’t joking. Though she is still one of the funniest people I know.
But other than going by too fast, 2010 was a great year for me. And for my family. Many adventures, lots of love and happiness. There were some tears, some hand wringing over whether or not I’m being the best I can be: parent, wife, friend and writer. But that’s just life.
So on this last day of 2010, as I get ready to clean my house for tonight just to have it get messy again, I realize that’s what life is like. All clean and straightened up until the first person tracks in dirt or spills chocolate milk on the kitchen floor. Or you get divorced and remarried. Or my husband cooks an absolutely fabulous New Year’s Eve feast and uses every pot, pan and dish in the cupboards.
But then you just clean it up again. Because a house that’s always clean is one that isn’t lived in. At least lived in the right way. Life is messy and there’s no way to avoid the mess so you might as well enjoy making it.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll probably wake up with a little headache, come downstairs and clean again. And the annual cycle will start over. I hope it’s a messy year. For all of us.
Happy New Year!

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The Most Overrated Artists of the Decade

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In Memoriam: Remembering Iconic Arts Figures Who Passed In 2010 (PHOTOS)
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A cross between Elton John and Myra Hindley, Damien Hirst epitomized the decade that fetishized money as an indicator of artistic quality. Like an intern at Prada, Hirst spots what rich people consider to be a good trophy to award themselves for having money. His September, 2008 auction allegedly raised $200 million . . . and yet with the disappearance of Lehman Brothers the very same day, you have to wonder how many of those sales were really ever completed. Suffice to say, his sculptural output, clinical meditations on mortality at their most generous, never even rise to the sophistication of a Bernie Taupin chorus.
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Pakistan in 2010 Blood Flood and Drones

It’s that time of the year again, when a revisiting of past events and happenings unveils a compact picture of a person, place, or a country. The year 2010 will be remembered as one of the deadliest in the Pakistani history. Impoverished and terror-stricken Pakistanis found no respite and nary a sigh of relief as they braved one disaster after another. The unprecedented Monsoon floods grabbed international headlines given their enormity but thousands of Pakistanis lost their lives, limbs, and livelihoods in totally unrelated happenings. It was suicide bombings, drone attacks, epidemics, and poverty that dealt a severe blow to Pakistan this year.
Suicide bombings rang in the year when 115 people lost their lives to seven suicide bombings in January. July was the deadliest with 165 deaths; 151 people have died in suicide attacks this month. This brings the number of total casualties to 1,275.
Predator drone attacks more than doubled this year with a total of 116 attacks. According to research by the New America Foundation, the lower estimate of deaths was 558 as of Dec. 17. There has been three more attacks ever since with dozens of more deaths. The same report puts the total number of civilian deaths in these attacks to be as high as 10%. Brookings Institution, however, estimated that up to 90% deaths were of civilians. There is a tacit approval of drone attacks by the Pakistani government and military if one believes the leaked cables. Common Pakistanis, however, have grown wary of this strategy especially when they hear reports of women and children being killed.
The worst tragedy in 2010 was the massive flooding that inundated nearly one-fifth of the country and displaced millions of people. Nearly 2,000 people lost their lives while the material damage ran into billions of dollars. Flood waters have since receded and people have returned to their homes but they are facing a new disaster. With everything washed away and with little financial support, millions are contemplating on whether to remain in villages and face hunger or migrate to the cities where chances of sustenance are greater. There has already been a massive growth in slums in cities like Karachi that is posing greater challenges for the resources-strapped civic authorities.
Mass migrations to cities and stagnating flood waters proved breeding grounds for the spread of diseases. Pakistan faced one of the worst epidemic of dengue fever in late October and November when thousands fell victim to Aedes aegypti. Death toll remained in the low 30s but infestation spread to all parts of Pakistan, triggering fears that the epidemic might be worse next year.
Pakistan reported the highest number of polio infections in a decade with 126 new cases; 64 of these were from the lawless tribal areas where accessibility remains a major hurdle.
With inflation at 15% and unemployment rate in the vicinity, there was not a chance for common Pakistanis to gain financial stability. Nearly one-fourth of the population lives below poverty line while just as many sustain a little above. Massive wealth disparities and perennial corruption have further aggravated the situation.
Power cuts grew worse in 2010 and the onset of winters was heralded by significant reduction in natural gas supplies. Entire industrial units have been shut down due to lack of power and gas and thousands of workers have been laid off. Pakistani economic managers are hoping to secure a $11.3 billion SBA with the IMF though they are clueless on whether they will be able to meet the demands of imposing new taxes.
Pakistan remained a democratic country in 2010 though the powerful military still rules supreme albeit in a clandestine demeanor. The present regime remains deeply unpopular with allegations of corruption but opposition parties have stayed away from launching any offensives. There has been increased political activity of late but it does not appear to threaten the present setup, at least for the time being.
Pakistani women cricket team won gold at the Asian Games and there was significant celebration over this rare feat. Their male counterparts, however, failed to bring any laurels but were embroiled in one controversy after another. Charges of match fixing loomed large over the national cricket team and three apex players might face bans from the ICC. The cricket team is currently in New Zealand where they have lost two consecutive 20/20 matches to their hosts.
Fourteen Pakistani journalists lost their lives in the line of duty in 2010, which, tied with Mexico, is the highest number in the world. There are dozens of TV channels working in Pakistan with a significant number of them dealing exclusively with news. Except for reporting on matters related to the powerful military establishment, Pakistani media is largely considered to be free. The quality of programming, however, leaves much to be desired. Prime time news shows, whether of liberal or conservative channels, look more like a circus and a football game than hard-hitting journalism.
Pakistanis have few new year hopes and many do not expect their fortunes to rise in 2011. All they want is peace and a little financial stability. Here’s hoping that they will see some light at the end of the tunnel.

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Obamas 2010 Moment

When President Obama sacked Gen. Stanley McChrystal and then appointed Gen. David Petraeus he was forced to do something he’s not done before. Stand on a line and make a critical decision that would have lasting consequences for thousands of U.S. soldiers and Afghans. It was brilliant, as I wrote at the time. In a year that brought little inspiration from Democrats, there was no more important moment for the president and he executed it flawlessly. However, it was hardly the end of this saga.
President Obama on June 23rd:
The day before Obama made his decision, everyone was debating what he might do, with friends and I going at it, including individuals I talked to at the State Dept. Quite a few were not convinced Obama could actually sack McChrystal. I knew he had no choice if he wanted to keep his presidency intact, but that doesn’t mean I thought he’d do it. Not only did President Obama make the move, but choosing Petraeus turned his decision into perfectly crafted leadership.
For me, the entire event revealed something complex and catastrophic, which forced me to reevaluate reality. McChrystal’s implosion in Rolling Stone signaled that things were much, much worse in Afghanistan than the administration was letting on or dare I say even knew or would admit. This was the moment my unwavering support for Obama’s Afghanistan policy ended, because McChrystal’s raw candor and his admissions were so brutal, it blew out all previous reporting. For a warrior of his stature to unmask the chaos so totally through his own naked stressful confession meant that the unraveling was now uncontrollable for outside forces. COIN had crapped out and not only would our strategy have to be altered, no matter what was being said in public, but even at that we had lost whatever control to influence events enough to connect a country that had never known this type of life.
Recent reports have confirmed just this fact. From the Wall Street Journal:
So, even as brilliant as the replacement of McChrystal with Petraeus was, the unfortunate reality is that President Obama didn’t get the message from McChrystal’s career ending confession.
And as we end 2010 there isn’t any politician of either party who has the prowess to lead the U.S. do what’s required and make the tough decision that’s needed, which is to disengage from Afghanistan starting immediately, which would still mean we wouldn’t be out of there for another 16 months or so.
The U.S. is carrying out military operations we cannot afford, that are not helping our nation or making us safer, while keeping us in a hamster wheel of never ending futility on battlefields we are not welcomed and no longer belong.
That we have no one to lead us out of this mess is the most depressingly alarming reality our country faces as the New Year dawns.
Taylor Marsh is a political analyst and veteran national political writer out of Washington, D.C.
Editorial cartoon by Paul Szep used with permission.

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Celebrating Kwanzaa Celebrating Community

The New Year is marked with many kinds of celebrations, but for Black families and communities who celebrate Kwanzaa from December 26-January 1, every New Year’s Day marks a renewed dedication to community. Kwanzaa is a unique celebration because it is not a religious or a national holiday but a cultural one, and it doesn’t celebrate a person or an event but a set of ideas. As Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa’s founder, explains, “There is no way to understand and appreciate the meaning and message of Kwanzaa without understanding and appreciating its profound and pervasive concern with values. In fact, Kwanzaa’s reason for existence, its length of seven days, its core focus and its foundation are all rooted in its concern with values.” And the values Kwanzaa celebrates and asks people to live up to aren’t about individual private behavior, but the values a community needs to be strong and thrive.
The Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, are the framework of a Kwanzaa celebration. In fact, Dr. Karenga explains, they are the key building blocks of community in general. Each day during Kwanzaa focuses on one of these principles and reminds celebrants to recommit to that value: “Umoja (unity), to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race. Kujichagulia (self-determination), to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. Ujima (collective work and responsibility), to build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together. Ujamaa (cooperative economics), to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together. Nia (purpose), to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. Kuumba (creativity), to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. And imani (faith), to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Not everyone celebrates Kwanzaa, but these values contain some universal principles for building strong communities. The Kwanzaa celebration ends on January 1 with the Day of Meditation. Many people already spend New Year’s Day making resolutions for improving themselves during the next year. But imagine if this year we all resolved to improve our communities instead. Imagine if every child in this nation were being raised in a community resolved to seeing any member’s problems as everyone’s problems and solving them together, or to making sure that all community members lived together harmoniously and supported each other in their common goals, or that every community decision would leave the community healthier and more beautiful tomorrow than it is today. What kinds of places would these communities be for our children—and, by extension, for all of us?
During a traditional Kwanzaa celebration muhindi, ears of corn, are also laid on a mkeke, a straw mat. The mat symbolizes African peoples’ history and traditions, and the corn symbolizes children and the future. Families place one ear of corn on the mkeke for each child in the household, but they’re instructed to put at least two ears down even if they don’t have children, because in African tradition every adult is considered a parent to every child in the community. Many people talk about this belief, but imagine if every one of us were really putting it into action—and then imagine if our local, national, and global communities all committed to making it our most important community value.
During that final Day of Meditation in Kwanzaa, people are supposed to ask themselves three questions: “Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? And am I all I ought to be?” Everyone answers these questions as an individual, but their answers should reflect how well they are playing their part in making their community function as a whole. A person’s success is deeply connected to how much value they are giving to others. At a time when our children desperately need adults to reweave the fabric of community for them, many of us need to ask ourselves the same questions. Think about how you might answer these questions—and how your own community might answer them, or how our nation would.
Are we all that we ought to be?

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The Truth About the Death Tax

Someone once said, “Nothing’s Certain But Death and Taxes”
In a political environment where lying has become the norm rather than the exception there is one axiom that is self-evident — death. Though taxes seem to be inevitable the depth and effect remain uncertain.
This was never more graphically displayed than in the recent fight over the sunsetting Bush Tax Cuts. Republicans and Democrats fought over taxing the rich or taxing the poor.
But, returning to the inevitability of death and taxes — behold the lie when the two are coalesced by a disingenuous political party and Frank Luntz.
The term ‘Death Tax’ is one of the most egregious prevarication’s perpetrated on an uninformed American public over the last few decades.
Despite being UnAmerican, it is fraudulent to rename the “Estate Tax,” yet the Republicans continue to use the deceitful misnomer to the detriment of a struggling nation.
Republicans were able to negotiate a compromise of the estate tax in the new tax bill; a move that will lower Federal tax revenues by billions of dollars, thereby, adding to the burgeoning deficit.
The “real” truth about taxation of estates is that it affects very few Americans. Less than two percent of Americans leave a large enough estate for their heirs to be taxed.
If the Bush Tax cuts had expired the estate tax would have returned to pre-tax cut levels — a one million dollar deduction (two million for couples) and the rest would be taxed at 55%. This level would have a larger impact on estates and would add approximately 2% more to the number of families affected. The compromise changes in the tax bill took the deduction to five million dollars (ten million for couples) and a tax rate of 35% on additional assets or money that exceed the exemption.
A more responsible compromise for the country and the wealthy would have been to return to the 2009 deduction of $3.5 million ($7 million for couples) and raise the tax to only 35% instead of returning to 55%.
The rate of zero percent in 2010 will, by year’s end, cost the Federal Government over $20 billion in revenue and prompted tasteless jokes about dying this year.
Ninety-eight and a half percent of American’s heirs will never pay an estate tax. A mere one and a half percent will actually accumulate enough wealth to pass along to their children subject to taxation.
What is surprising in the debate is the number of people who don’t understand that the estate tax does not affect them, yet still argue for its elimination.
Republicans, even those with average incomes, decry the fabled ‘death tax.’
Additionally, wealthy Americans have many ways to minimize this tax. An open debate should be held regarding who actually pays estate tax and how much they pay. In 2009 only 47,000 of the 3,685,000 that passed away bequeathed estates that exceeded $7 million.
The children of the other 98.672% received the entire assets of the estate. They did not pay a single penny in taxes to the government.
Every American can gift up to $13,000 per year to each child — tax free — every year. They can also start a 529 Plan (Qualified Tuition Program) for their children and grandchildren’s college education. And the wealthier can set up trusts to further reduce the tax burden on their heirs. There are additional benefits, too complicated to explain in this article
The wealthiest Americans are also able to set up charitable foundations to help others and shelter part of their wealth. This is almost always a good thing for the general welfare.
The discussion should center on the Paris Hiltons, Kardashians, and others who do nothing or achieve little yet will benefit greatly from the recent compromise.
Though the return to pre-2001 levels of one million and 55% were unreasonable, so to is the five million and 35% compromise.
While Republicans scream about reducing the deficit the pernicious destruction caused by their compromise goes unquestioned and unreported by a deficient media.
Republicans must be confronted with their lies and their hypocrisy exposed.
The general public needs to understand what elimination of the ‘death tax’ will cost their children and grandchildren. The lost revenue will cost future generations billions of dollars adding to an already intolerable debt.
We can debate the merits of wealthy American’s contributions to society, but the Republican win on the estate tax is a blow to the deficit and another nail in our economic coffin.
What is not debatable is the destructive and unsustainable tax reduction path we’re on.
Something must change if this nation is to survive.

This Blogger’s Books from
Final Audit (A Mystery)
by Jim Worth

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Top 5 to Watch in 2011 Infrastructure Leaders

1. Bellwether Members of Congress –
Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Dave Camp (R-MI)
Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)
John Kerry (D-MA)
John Mica (R-FL)
2. Bellwether Governors –
Jerry Brown (D-CA)
Andrew Cuomo (D-NY)
Nathan Deal (R-GA)
John Hickenlooper (D-CO)
Rick Perry (R-TX)
Rick Scott (R-FL)
3. Bellwether Mayors and Mayoral Candidate –
Michael Bloomberg (I-NYC)
Rahm Emanuel (D-Chicago-Candidate)
Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles)
4. Bellwether Federal Institutions
National Infrastructure Bank (proposed)
Department of Commerce
Department of Energy
Department of Homeland Security
Department of Transportation
Department of the Treasury
Environmental Protection Agency
5. Bellwether Leaders: Sung and Unsung
President Barack Obama
Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA)
Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)
Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA)

This Blogger’s Books from
Obama’s Bank: Financing a Durable New Deal
by Michael Likosky
Law Infrastructure and Human Rights
by Michael B. Likosky

Mario Lemieux leads Pittsburgh Penguins alumni against Washington Capitals in Winter Classic alumni game ESPN

Mario Lemieux leads Pittsburgh Penguins alumni against Washington Capitals in Winter Classic alumni game  ESPN


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