November 2010 Archives

A first, small victory over TSA

Since reading that TSA was forcing even children to submit to either porno pics or genital groping before flying, I’ve been seriously worrying about what to do when I fly with my 1-year-old and 4-year-old kids to visit the grandparents for Christmas. I’ve been really hoping the American people would fight these procedures and force a change before then. So I’m relieved to learn TSA has been forced to stop molesting young kids:

TSA has altered its policies with children, Pistole said. “We’ve heard the concerns that have been expressed, and agree that children 12 and under should not receive that type of pat down.”

The father said the officer described the procedure before conducting it. Then he patted down the boy in the open security area, using the backside of his hands to check his genital area, he said.

“I didn’t think it was going to be as horrible as he was describing,” said the boy’s father, Bill, who works as a lobbyist in Washington and did not want his full name used.

“We spend my child’s whole life telling him that only mom, dad and a doctor can touch you in your private area, and now we have to add TSA agent and that’s just wrong,” he told Reuters. “At some point the terrorists have won.”

Fortunately, I don’t have a teenager. But I feel sad for teens who will apparently have to make this choice before flying over the holidays.

Posted by James on Nov 15, 2010

A German view of America 2010

When I studied for an economics master’s degree — while playing squash, drinking warm beer and training for the Paris Marathon… it was a great year! — at the London School of Economics for a year in the early 1990s, students from around the world helped reshape my view of America. Learning how others view your country is an eye-opener. So I present Germany’s Der Spiegel’s perspective on America today:

The United States of 2010 is dysfunctional, but in new ways. The entire interplay of taxes and investments is out of joint because a 16,000-page tax code allows for far too many loopholes and because solidarity is no longer part of the way Americans think. The political system, plagued by lobbyism and stark hatred, is incapable of reaching consistent or even quick decisions.

The country is reacting strangely irrationally to the loss of its importance — it is a reaction characterized primarily by rage. Significant portions of America simply want to return to a supposedly idyllic past. They devote almost no effort to reflection, and they condemn cleverness and intellect as elitist and un-American, as if people who hunt bears could seriously be expected to lead a world power. Demagogues stir up hatred and rage on television stations like Fox News. These parts of America, majorities in many states, ignorant of globalization and the international labor market, can do nothing but shout. They hate everything that is new and foreign to them….

[Economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert] Reich [says] the wind is blowing from three directions. The rich keep getting richer, with the top 0.1 percent of income earners making more money than the 120 million people at the bottom of the income scale. The rich, says Reich, are trying to buy the elections. Meanwhile, the government is not helping the poor, and in fact is telling them: There’s no money left for you. It is human nature to want what others have, says Reich, but the real problem is that people aren’t making enough money, and that America’s wealth is concentrated within the small upper class.

All of this is making radicals more vocal. “I think what we’re seeing now in America is an outbreak of isolationism, nativism and xenophobia,” Reich says, pointing toward animosity toward immigrants, accusations against China and growing skepticism of foreign trade….

In the last decade, the population grew by 25 million, but there were no new jobs, or at least no net job creation. But a minimum of 100,000 new jobs a month was needed just to serve those who wanted to enter the job market….

Two wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, had already cost the country $1 trillion [by January 2006]. The government debt continued to grow, from 57 percent of GNP in 2000 to 83 percent when Obama took office in 2009. The current national debt of $13.8 trillion amounts to 94.3 percent of GNP, and in two years it will exceed 100 percent….

In 1978, the average income for men in the United States was $45,879. In 2007, it was $45,113, adjusted for inflation…. Total US household debt is now approaching $14 trillion, which is 20 times as much as in the 1970s….

The United States of 2010 is a country that has become paralyzed and inhibited by allowing itself to be distracted by things that are, in reality, not a threat: homosexuality, Mexicans, Democratic Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, health care reform and Obama. Large segments of the country are not even talking about the issues that are serious and complex, like debt, unemployment and serious educational deficits….

Each state elects two senators, including Wyoming, with its 540,000 inhabitants, and California, with a population of 37 million. If enough senators from states with small populations band together, they have the capacity to block everything, which is precisely what they do.

Posted by James on Nov 08, 2010

Banks shredded mortgage docs to cover up securities & tax fraud

I’ve never quoted so extensively from one article, but every American needs to read Matt Taibbi’s “Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners”:

All this phony paperwork was actually an essential part of the mortgage bubble, an integral element of what has enabled the nation’s biggest lenders to pass off all that subprime lead as AAA gold.

…[B]anks generally knew that the loans they were buying and reselling to investors were shady. A company called Clayton Holdings, which analyzed nearly 1 million loans being prepared for sale in 2006 and 2007 by 23 banks, found that nearly half of the mortgages failed to meet the underwriting standards being promised to investors….

D. Keith Johnson, the head of Clayton Holdings, was so alarmed by the findings that he went to officials at three of the main ratings agencies — Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch’s — and tried to get them to properly evaluate the loans. …But all three agencies rejected his advice, fearing they would lose business if they adopted tougher standards. In the end, the agencies gave large chunks of these mortgage-backed securities AAA ratings — which means “credit risk almost zero.”

…In their extreme haste to get thousands and thousands of mortgages they could resell to the banks, the lenders committed an astonishing variety of fraud, from falsifying income statements to making grossly inflated appraisals to misrepresenting properties to home buyers. Most crucially, they gave tons and tons of credit to people who probably didn’t deserve it, and why not? These fly-by-night mortgage companies weren’t going to hold on to these loans, not even for 10 minutes. They were issuing this credit specifically to sell the loans off to the big banks right away, in furtherance of the larger scheme to dump fraudulent AAA-rated mortgage-backed securities on investors. If you had a pulse, they had a house to sell you.

…[W]hen the banks put these pools together, they were telling their investors that they were putting their money into tidy collections of real, performing home loans. But frequently, the loans in the trust were complete shit. Or sometimes, the banks didn’t even have all the loans they said they had. But the banks sold the securities based on these pools of mortgages as AAA-rated gold anyway.

In short, all of this was a scam — and that’s why so many of these mortgages lack a true paper trail. Had these transfers been done legally, the actual mortgage note and detailed information about all of these transactions would have been passed from entity to entity each time the mortgage was sold. But in actual practice, the banks were often committing securities fraud (because many of the mortgages did not match the information in the prospectuses given to investors) and tax fraud (because the way the mortgages were collected and serviced often violated the strict procedures governing such investments). Having unloaded this diseased cargo onto their unsuspecting customers, the banks had no incentive to waste money keeping “proper” documentation of all these dubious transactions.

“You’ve already committed fraud once,” says April Charney, an attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. “What do you have to lose?”

…Why don’t the banks want us to see the paperwork on all these mortgages? Because the documents represent a death sentence for them. According to the rules of the mortgage trusts, a lender like Bank of America, which controls all the Countrywide loans, is required by law to buy back from investors every faulty loan the crooks at Countrywide ever issued.

Posted by James on Nov 15, 2010

Buy a boat, not oceanfront property

I’m shocked oceanfront property commands such a premium (and remains insurable) because I’ve long assumed today’s beaches will be underwater within my lifetime. And I’m totally baffled why China has invested so heavily in Shanghai, a city that sits right on the ocean. From some angles, Shanghai’s skyscrapers appear to rise out of the water.

Data increasingly suggests rising oceans will disrupt the lives of billions. Here’s the latest:

Researchers have recently been startled to see big changes unfold in both Greenland and Antarctica.

As a result of recent calculations that take the changes into account, many scientists now say that sea level is likely to rise perhaps three feet by 2100 — an increase that, should it come to pass, would pose a threat to coastal regions the world over.

And the calculations suggest that the rise could conceivably exceed six feet, which would put thousands of square miles of the American coastline under water and would probably displace tens of millions of people in Asia….

Climate scientists readily admit that the three-foot estimate could be wrong. Their understanding of the changes going on in the world’s land ice is still primitive. But, they say, it could just as easily be an underestimate as an overestimate. One of the deans of American coastal studies, Orrin H. Pilkey of Duke University, is advising coastal communities to plan for a rise of at least five feet by 2100….

Thermometers on land, in the sea and aboard satellites show warming. Heat waves, flash floods and other extreme weather events are increasing. Plants are blooming earlier, coral reefs are dying and many other changes are afoot that most climate scientists attribute to global warming….

With the waxing and waning of ice ages, driven by wobbles in the earth’s orbit, sea level has varied by hundreds of feet, with shorelines moving many miles in either direction.

Greenland’s ice could raise global seas 20+ feet, and Antarctica holds ten times as much ice. So it’s scary that one scientist says “the things I’ve seen in Greenland in the last five years are alarming. We see these ice sheets changing literally overnight.”

Given this, it’s inexcusable that ICESat is dead and most other climate-studying satellites are dying:

After a decade of budget cuts and shifting space priorities in Washington, several satellites vital to monitoring the ice sheets and other aspects of the environment are on their last legs, with no replacements at hand. A replacement for ICESat will not be launched until 2015 at the earliest.

“We are slowly going blind in space,” said Robert Bindschadler, a polar researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who spent 30 years with NASA studying ice.

Posted by James on Nov 14, 2010

Expert: "Virtually every foreclosure involves... screwed-up paperwork"

By law, if a bank screws up the paperwork on a mortgage so it can’t prove it owns that mortgage, the bank’s in trouble. In reality, however, most banks have screwed up the paperwork on most mortgages. And instead of the banks being in trouble, homeowners are. Because our courts are ignoring the law and letting the banks foreclose on whomever they claim the right to foreclose on, despite lacking proof of ownership.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi is America’s best journalist because he always runs toward the biggest smoke plume and then vividly describes the raging inferno in detail for us. In his latest, “Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners”, Taibbi uncovers astonishing facts in the “robo-signing” story:

Foreclosure lawyers… told me the state of Florida had created a special super-high-speed housing court with a specific mandate to rubber-stamp the legally dicey foreclosures by corporate mortgage pushers like Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase. This “rocket docket,” as it is called in town, is presided over by retired judges who seem to have no clue about the insanely complex financial instruments they are ruling on — securitized mortgages and labyrinthine derivative deals of a type that didn’t even exist when most of them were active members of the bench. Their stated mission isn’t to decide right and wrong, but to clear cases and blast human beings out of their homes with ultimate velocity…. One Jacksonville judge, the Honorable A.C. Soud, even told a local newspaper that his goal is to resolve 25 cases per hour. Given the way the system is rigged, that means His Honor could well be throwing one ass on the street every 2.4 minutes.

…[It’s covering up] a fraud so gigantic that it literally cannot be contemplated by our leaders, for fear of admitting that our entire financial system is corrupted to its core — with our great banks and even our government coffers backed not by real wealth but by vast landfills of deceptively generated and essentially worthless mortgage-backed assets.

You’ve heard of Too Big to Fail — the foreclosure crisis is Too Big for Fraud. Think of the Bernie Madoff scam, only replicated tens of thousands of times over, infecting every corner of the financial universe. The underlying crime is so pervasive, we simply can’t admit to it — and so we are working feverishly to rubber-stamp the problem away, in sordid little backrooms in cities like Jacksonville, behind doors that shouldn’t be, but often are, closed….

If you’re foreclosing on somebody’s house, you are required by law to have a collection of paperwork showing the journey of that mortgage note from the moment of issuance to the present. You should see the originating lender (a firm like Countrywide) selling the loan to the next entity in the chain (perhaps Goldman Sachs) to the next (maybe JP Morgan), with the actual note being transferred each time. But in fact, almost no bank currently foreclosing on homeowners has a reliable record of who owns the loan; in some cases, they have even intentionally shredded the actual mortgage notes. That’s where the robo-signers come in. To create the appearance of paperwork where none exists, the banks drag in these pimply entry-level types — an infamous example is GMAC’s notorious robo-signer Jeffrey Stephan, who appears online looking like an age-advanced photo of Beavis or Butt-Head — and get them to sign thousands of documents a month attesting to the banks' proper ownership of the mortgages.

This isn’t some rare goof-up by a low-level cubicle slave: Virtually every case of foreclosure in this country involves some form of screwed-up paperwork. “I would say it’s pretty close to 100 percent,” says Kowalski. An attorney for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid tells me that out of the hundreds of cases she has handled, fewer than five involved no phony paperwork. “The fraud is the norm,” she says.

Kowalski’s current case before Judge Soud is a perfect example. The Jacksonville couple he represents are being sued for delinquent payments, but the case against them has already been dismissed once before. The first time around, the plaintiff, Bank of New York Mellon, wrote in Paragraph 8 that “plaintiff owns and holds the note” on the house belonging to the couple. But in Paragraph 3 of the same complaint, the bank reported that the note was “lost or destroyed,” while in Paragraph 4 it attests that “plaintiff cannot reasonably obtain possession of the promissory note because its whereabouts cannot be determined.”

The bank, in other words, tried to claim on paper, in court, that it both lost the note and had it, at the same time. Moreover, it claimed that it had included a copy of the note in the file, which it did — the only problem being that the note (a) was not properly endorsed, and (b) was payable not to Bank of New York but to someone else, a company called Novastar.

Now, months after its first pass at foreclosure was dismissed, the bank has refiled the case — and what do you know, it suddenly found the note. And this time, somehow, the note has the proper stamps. “There’s a stamp that did not appear on the note that was originally filed,” Kowalski tells the judge. (This business about the stamps is hilarious. “You can get them very cheap online,” says Chip Parker, an attorney who defends homeowners in Jacksonville.)

The bank’s new set of papers also traces ownership of the loan from the original lender, Novastar, to JP Morgan and then to Bank of New York. The bank, in other words, is trying to push through a completely new set of documents in its attempts to foreclose on Kowalski’s clients.

There’s only one problem: The dates of the transfers are completely fucked. According to the documents, JP Morgan transferred the mortgage to Bank of New York on December 9th, 2008. But according to the same documents, JP Morgan didn’t even receive the mortgage from Novastar until February 2nd, 2009 — two months after it had supposedly passed the note along to Bank of New York. Such rank incompetence at doctoring legal paperwork is typical of foreclosure actions, where the fraud is laid out in ink in ways that make it impossible for anyone but an overburdened, half-asleep judge to miss. “That’s my point about all of this,” Kowalski tells me later. “If you’re going to lie to me, at least lie well.”

…one might think that after a bank makes multiple attempts to push phony documents through a courtroom, a judge might be pissed off enough to simply rule against that plaintiff for good. As I witness in court all morning, the defense never gets more than one chance to screw up. But the banks get to keep filing their foreclosures over and over again, no matter how atrocious and deceitful their paperwork is.

Thus, when [Judge] Soud tells Kessler that he’s dismissing the case, he hastens to add: “Of course, I’m not going to dismiss with prejudice.” With an emphasis on the words “of course.”

Instead, Soud gives Kessler 25 days to come up with better paperwork. Kowalski fully expects the bank to come back with new documents telling a whole new story of the note’s ownership. “What they’re going to do, I would predict, is produce a note and say Bank of New York is not the original note-holder, but merely the servicer,” he says.

This is the dirty secret of the rocket docket: The whole system is set up to enable lenders to commit fraud over and over again, until they figure out a way to reduce the stink enough so some judge like Soud can sign off on the scam.

It’s another outstanding, fact-filled piece of reporting from Matt Taibbi that you should read in its entirety. Kudos to Rolling Stone for employing such a fine investigative journalist. And shame on the American justice system for placing corporate profits above the law.

Posted by James on Nov 15, 2010

Have a holly, jolly Christmas (and Thanksgiving)!

Thanksgiving and Christmas travel just got a whole lot more fun for passengers who enjoy random TSA employees feeling up their buttocks and crotches:

Agents were funneling every passenger at this particular checkpoint through a newly installed back-scatter body imaging device, which allows the agency’s security officers to, in essence, see under your clothing. The machine captures an image of your naked self, including your genitals, and sends the image to an agent in a separate room….

In part because of the back-scatter imager’s invasiveness (a TSA employee in Miami was arrested recently after he physically assaulted a colleague who had mocked his modestly sized penis, which was fully apparent in a captured back-scatter image), the TSA is allowing passengers to opt-out of the back-scatter and choose instead a pat-down….

When I [requested a pat-down], a number of TSA officers, to my surprise, began laughing. I asked why. One of them — the one who would eventually conduct my pat-down — said that the rules were changing shortly, and that I would soon understand why the back-scatter was preferable to the manual search…

“Starting tomorrow, we’re going to start searching your crotchal area” — this is the word he used, “crotchal” — and you’re not going to like it."

“What am I not going to like?” I asked.

“We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance,” he explained.

“Resistance?” I asked.

“Your testicles,” he explained….

I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out what we’re going to do.”

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.

…the next day at T.F. Green in Providence… Several TSA officers heard me choose the pat-down, and they reacted in a way meant to make the ordinary passenger feel very badly about his decision. One officer said to a colleague who was obviously going to be assigned to me, “Get new gloves, man, you’re going to need them where you’re going.”

The agent snapped on his blue gloves, and patiently explained exactly where he was going to touch me. I felt like a sophomore at Oberlin.

“I’m going to run my hands up your thighs, and then feel your buttocks, then I’m going to reach under you until I meet —”

“Resistance?” I interrupted.

Of course, serious terrorists will have a partner on the airport cleaning crew or the food supply trucks just put the plastic explosives on the plane or in the airport past the security screening. Or the terrorists will hit us somewhere else. Frisking grandma’s private parts isn’t making us any safer.

Posted by James on Nov 02, 2010

Informative NYT article on China's economy

New York Times economics writer David Leonhardt wrote this informative article on China’s economic prospects.

Posted by James on Nov 24, 2010

Italy: "We didn't get good results from body scanners during testing"

The Christian Science Monitor’s “Are TSA pat-downs and full-body scans unconstitutional?” discusses how TSA’s virtual strip searches and genital groping violate the 4th Amendment. It also questions the machines' effectiveness:

“It remains unclear whether the AIT [scanners] would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack,” says a March report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Italian security officials stopped using the scanners in September. “We didn’t get good results from body scanners during testing,” said Vito Riggio, the president of Italy’s aviation authority, describing the scans as slow and ineffective.

British scientists found that the scanners picked up shrapnel and heavy wax and metal, but missed plastic, chemicals and liquids, reported UK newspaper The Independent in January.

If the machines are violating our privacy and aren’t protecting us, what’s the point?

Posted by James on Nov 17, 2010

Laws are for little people

From Fortune’s “Want to get away with murder? Become a bank”:

If you screw up big-time when you deal with a giant bank, you’re toast. If the giant bank screws up when it deals with you, it gets a do-over.

You miss a payment on your credit card or send it in a few days late, you get whacked. Forget to make a loan payment, your credit rating gets vaporized. But if a bank doesn’t do its job properly — for example, if you can’t get a knowledgeable and competent human on the phone to deal with a loan modification or a paperwork screwup because the bank is holding down back-office costs to save money — it ends up being your problem, not the bank’s.

It’s utterly shocking, even to a congenital skeptic like me, to see that giant institutions such as Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), GMAC, and J.P. Morgan (JPM, Fortune 500) were allegedly using misleading affidavits to oust people from their homes. Employees of these institutions — the “robo-signers” — repeatedly misled courts by saying they had examined documents they hadn’t examined and had reviewed documents they hadn’t reviewed.

If you or I as individuals did that, we’d be kicked to the curb by the legal system in about two seconds. If we said that we hadn’t wanted to spend the money to do things right — the real reason that robo-signers exist — it would take only one second for the system to whack us.

But how will the system deal with the big outfits that are found to have filed false information in court? They’ll be attacked, sued, and investigated, and you can bet that at some point their chief executives will be hauled in front of Congress for public show trials by posturing politicians. But in the end, I’m sure, these institutions and their CEOs will get what amounts to a slap on the wrist.

Posted by James on Nov 13, 2010

Millions of "Joe the Plumber"s

A friend and neighbor has been unemployed from his blue-collar factory floor managerial position over a year. Since his factory was closed, the federal government has been paying him an income AND paying for two years of expensive training in a totally new field of his choosing. His family is also receiving free food every week. Bet you can’t guess his biggest political issue… taxes!

Millions of Americans are dumb as rocks regarding basic economic realities. They’re scared to death of the “death tax,” even though there’s virtually no chance their “estate” will pay a penny in estate tax because the first $3,500,000 was exempt in 2009 (before the estate tax insanely expired in 2010).

These sad fools keep voting Republican because Republicans pretend to represent them and pretend to be fighting to keep their taxes down. Instead, Republicans in D.C. fight to keep corporate taxes low and the wealthiest Americans' taxes low. Democrats have fought to lower taxes on the lower and middle classes. (About half of Americans pay no federal income tax.) Poor Republican voters fail to realize Republicans routinely exploit their ignorance for their votes. As Warren Buffett famously wrote, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Rich corporations, hedge fund managers and the like fund right-wing foundations and disinformation campaigns that induce tens of millions to vote against their self interest. Millions in political contributions reap billions in lower taxes.

The reality could not be more stark in the current political debate, in which the Republicans are fighting for massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires even while claiming they’re fighting to balance the budget:

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.

C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

That’s the backdrop for one of the first big postelection fights in Washington — how far to extend the Bush tax cuts to the most affluent 2 percent of Americans. Both parties agree on extending tax cuts on the first $250,000 of incomes, even for billionaires. Republicans would also cut taxes above that.

The richest 0.1 percent of taxpayers would get a tax cut of $61,000 from President Obama. They would get $370,000 from Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. And that provides only a modest economic stimulus, because the rich are less likely to spend their tax savings.

At a time of 9.6 percent unemployment, wouldn’t it make more sense to finance a jobs program? For example, the money could be used to avoid laying off teachers and undermining American schools.

The economic interests of at least 90% of Americans are aligned with traditional Democratic Party values (even if many Democratic Party leaders — including our current “Democratic” president — routinely sell those traditional values out). That so many vote Republican attests to how horrid our educational system has become. Millions of Americans cannot correctly identify which of two parties better represents their interests.

Posted by James on Nov 08, 2010

NFL punishes Spygate II with light tap on Broncos' wrist

The Patriots' three Super Bowl victories and Bill Belichick’s career are forever tarnished by “Spygate.” Some NFL fans and players even claim the Patriots stole those Super Bowls and never could have won them fairly.

Nevermind that the 2007 season in which Spygate was exposed — in the first half of the first quarter of the first game of the season — the Patriots broke the all-time NFL scoring record, won their first 18 games and nearly completed a perfect season before a string of miraculous plays by the Giants — including a helmet making an impossible catch after Eli Manning escaped a defensive lineman’s grasp — robbed “us” of our perfect season.

Nevermind also that the Patriots have been an elite NFL team year in and year out for a full decade, including four post-Spygate seasons.

Nevermind also that “Spygate” was really just “Videogate” because spying on other teams' signals is completely legal under NFL rules and a universal practice. The only thing illegal is using a videocamera to record those signals. Using a lip reader? Legal. Binoculars and written notes? Legal. I even believe Belichick’s self-serving interpretation of the rule violated the spirit — but not the letter — of the rule.

The Patriots deserved punishment, but I’ve long believed the Patriots received a much harsher punishment than any other team would have for the same offense. After the Broncos were caught cheating on the salary cap to win back-to-back Super Bowls, they lost only a 3rd-round draft pick. After Videogate, many former NFL coaches admitted to having done the same exact spying. They all seemed to say this was one of those rules that existed on paper but had never been enforced. Quite a few experts doubted how helpful recording signals in one game and utilizing that information only in a later game (as the Patriots claimed they did) could be, esp. since teams can and should change their signals from game to game. Regardless, red with envy at the Patriots, many were/are eager to rationalize away all the Patriots' success as due to cheating.

My belief the Patriots were excessively punished is bolstered by the NFL’s response to another team doing the exact same thing:

A $50,000 fine is almost laughable for a serious offense. The Broncos make $50,000 in seven minutes selling John Elway jerseys. McDaniels can earn that cash back with a few appearances alongside G. Gordon Liddy at a local Radio Shack.

The Patriots and Bill Belichick paid harshly — $750,000 in fines and the loss of a first-round pick — for videotaping the Jets' signals in Week 1 of 2007. That’s where the precedent was set. How is a second offense of illegal taping worth a far less severe punishment?

“It was not heavily fined enough,” [former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill] Cowher said. “Draft picks should have been taken away.”

Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president, said the difference between the Patriots' and Broncos' spying cases was the extensiveness of New England’s….

That sounds reasonable, but this is still a second instance. The punishment ceiling was raised by the Patriots.

Posted by James on Nov 29, 2010

Obama: "I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors"

America apparently replaced our incurious president with a know-it-all president. From this New Yorker article exactly two years ago:

Patrick Gaspard, the [Obama] campaign’s political director, said that when, in early 2007, he interviewed for a job with Obama and Plouffe, Obama said that he liked being surrounded by people who expressed strong opinions, but he also said, “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

Wow! What kind of person believes they know more about EVERYTHING than everyone else? And what kind of politician would actually SAY that?

I found this quotation while reading The Weekly Standard’s “American Narcissus: The Vanity of Barack Obama”, a depressingly believable portrait of a president too supremely confident in (and focused on) himself to ask the right questions, seek out the right advisors, and fight for the powerless who are counting on him to fight for them.

Posted by James on Nov 17, 2010

One honest man on Fox

From The Huffington Post:

Fox Business host Andrew Napolitano revealed on Tuesday that he does not believe the government’s account of the 9/11 attacks…

“It’s hard for me to believe that it [World Trade Center 7, a nearly 50-story building that was hit by nothing on 9/11] came down by itself…I am gratified to see that people across the board are interested. I think twenty years from now, people will look at 9-11 the way we look at the assassination of JFK today. It couldn’t possibly have been done the way the government told us.”

If it takes Americans twenty more years — it’s already been nine — to realize the glaringly obvious fact that “our” government orchestrated a cover-up of 9/11, then the real terrorists will have won. Of course, I think they’ve already gotten what they wanted.

Posted by James on Nov 25, 2010

Only 50 mil. uninsured Americans! Thanks, health insurance reform!

U.S. News reports:

Nearly 50 million Americans have gone without health insurance for at least part of the past year — up from 46 million people in 2008, federal health officials reported Tuesday.

Those people included not only those Americans living in poverty, but an increasing number of middle-income people, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention….

“The first myth is that it’s only the poor who are uninsured. In fact, half of the uninsured are over the poverty level,” [CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden] said.

“The second myth is that it’s only healthy people who are uninsured and that young healthy people make a choice not to have health insurance. In fact, more than two out of five individuals who are uninsured at some point during the past year had one or more chronic diseases,” he said.

During the past 10 years, the number of U.S. adults without insurance for at least part of the year has risen an average of 1.1 million people a year, and about half are middle-income adults, according to the report.

Of course, the real beneficiaries of Obama’s health insurance reform are the bloodsucking middlemen who contribute nothing, raise costs through infuriating paperwork — my wife and I could lecture you for hours about our fights with insurance companies — and administrative costs (all aimed at not paying for treatments to raise insurers' profits), and sucking profits out of the system that would otherwise stay in patients' pockets or reimburse hospitals and doctors. As Congressman Dennis Kucinich explained:

It’s not the best we can do. It mandates people purchase private insurance. It is a $70 billion giveaway to private insurance companies and locks in this system that’s the problem, not the solution.

And so, I made every effort, right from the beginning, as you know, as a single-payer advocate. We couldn’t really make this bill single payer; that was taken off the table. But we did something else: We were able to get a bill in the committee passed that would protect the right of states to be able to have—to pursue a not-for-profit healthcare plan at a state level to shield it from legal attack. And that was taken out of the legislation after it had passed. It was taken out by the administration, which has whittled down the public option to the point of not having it truly compete with insurance companies.

So what you have here is people continuing to be at the mercy of the insurance companies, except in this case the government is going to subsidize the policies. People are still going to have premiums, co-pays and deductibles to deal with. And, you know, there’s really a great deal of question here as to what in the world we’re doing in creating a healthcare system that’s really based on the premises of private insurance….

We’re told that the only choice we have is to buy private insurance, and with the robust public option being gone, it makes sure that there’s little competition with the insurance companies. This bill doesn’t effectively moderate what they can charge for premiums or co-pays or deductibles. It just says people have to have insurance. Well, insurance doesn’t necessarily equate to care.

Posted by James on Nov 10, 2010

Pilot has flown $100 mil. plane 25 years, but TSA needs to search his groin

This quote in The St. Petersburg Times makes clear how thoroughly incompetent and untrustworthy the TSA is:

Commercial pilots like Fred Kopec of St. Petersburg couldn’t be convinced they should go through a body search no matter how hard the TSA sold it.

He’s been fingerprinted and run through criminal background checks. If a 25-year Delta Air Lines veteran like himself isn’t trustworthy, Kopec says, then who is?

“My God,” he says. “Delta entrusts me with a $100-million airplane to fly more than 200 people 5,000 miles across the Atlantic. It doesn’t make sense.”

Experts say a committed terrorist won’t be deterred by genital groping but will just smuggle a bomb where drug mules smuggle cocaine.

I sure hope they’re wrong because it’s pretty obvious what TSA’s knee-jerk response to an ass bomber will be. “YOU get a free rectal exam! YOU get a free rectal exam!”

Posted by James on Nov 17, 2010

President claims unreviewable power to assassinate any American he chooses

File this under “I-can’t-f'ing-believe-I’m-reading-this”:

The Obama administration today argued before a federal court that it should have unreviewable authority to kill Americans the executive branch has unilaterally determined to pose a threat. Government lawyers made that claim in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) charging that the administration’s asserted targeted killing authority violates the Constitution and international law….

“Not only does the administration claim to have sweeping power to target and kill U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, but it makes the extraordinary claim that the court has no role in reviewing that power or the legal standards that apply,” said CCR Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei…

“If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state,” said Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU…

The government filed a brief in the case in September, claiming that the executive’s targeted killing authority is a “political question” that should not be subject to judicial review. The government also asserted the “state secrets” privilege, contending that the case should be dismissed to avoid the disclosure of sensitive information.

I couldn’t imagine things getting worse under Obama than under GWB, but in some ways they have. Not even GWB claimed unquestioned unilateral power to assassinate Americans.

Posted by James on Nov 09, 2010

Red light drivers

I today encountered my 10,000,000th bad driver! OK, I haven’t really been keeping track, but it sure feels that way.

There are three kinds of red light drivers:

  • The always-drive-however-fast-I-want driver
  • The drive-ridiculously-slowly-until-the-light-turns-yellow-and-then-push-the-accelerator-to-the-floor driver, and
  • The keep-driving-absurdly-slowly-even-after-the-light-turns-red-but-coast-through-the-intersection-anyhow driver

Driving behind the first kind of red light driver is never annoying because they never slow you down, but you suspect they’ll wind up killing someone some day. Maybe they’ll kill you some day as you cross the street with the “walk” signal because they’re turning right on red without even slowing down. (This happens so often at certain intersections near our home that I’m fearful to cross those intersections, even with the light. These drivers behave as if “right on red” is written in the Constitution, rather than something you’re allowed to do IF you’ve stopped first and it’s completely safe.)

The latter two kinds of red light drivers are infuriating. Constantly tapping my brakes to keep from hitting them on downhills as they putter along, I calm myself by saying, “They’re just being extra cautious. Safety is the most important thing.” And it is. But some of these slow-pokes then accelerate through a red light, breaking the law, endangering themselves and others, and leaving a string of angry drivers piled up behind them.

No one should be driving through red lights. We should be stringing up automated cameras everywhere and severely fining everyone who enters an intersection after the light has turned red (and throwing frequent offenders in jail).

But these drivers who drive ridiculously slowly only to accelerate through red lights must be insane. Are you in a rush or are you out for a relaxing Sunday drive? Please make up your minds!

Posted by James on Nov 17, 2010

Republicans holding middle class hostage for budget-busting tax cuts for richest 2%

I’m so tired of cheering Krugman’s critiques of President Obama and praying — usually in vain — the president heeds them. But here we go again:

At the beginning of his administration, what Mr. Obama needed to do, above all, was fight for an economic plan commensurate with the scale of the crisis. Instead, he negotiated with himself before he ever got around to negotiating with Congress, proposing a plan that was clearly, grossly inadequate — then allowed that plan to be scaled back even further without protest. And the failure to act forcefully on the economy, more than anything else, accounts for the midterm “shellacking.”

…At the predictably unproductive G-20 summit meeting in South Korea, the president faced demands from China and Germany that the Federal Reserve stop its policy of “quantitative easing” — which is, given Republican obstructionism, one of the few tools available to promote U.S. economic recovery. What Mr. Obama should have said is that nations running huge trade surpluses — and in China’s case, doing so thanks to currency manipulation on a scale unprecedented in world history — have no business telling the United States that it can’t act to help its own economy.

But what he actually said was “From everything I can see, this decision was not one designed to have an impact on the currency, on the dollar.” Fighting words!

And then there’s the tax-cut issue. Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans for trying to hold the middle class hostage to secure tax cuts for the wealthy. He could be pointing out that making the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy permanent is a huge budget issue — over the next 75 years it would cost as much as the entire Social Security shortfall. Instead, however, he is once again negotiating with himself, long before he actually gets to the table with the G.O.P.

Posted by James on Nov 16, 2010

Republicans scream about "election fraud," but they're always the guilty party

This is absolutely disgusting!

The New Hampshire Democratic Party has lost phone service — on some or all lines — at local campaign offices at 11 locations around the state.

Michael Brunelle, the party’s executive director, said two phone and Internet providers haven’t pinpointed the problem….

In 2002, a scheme to disrupt Democrats' get-out-the-vote efforts by jamming telephones with hang-up calls resulted in criminal convictions for former state GOP executive director Charles McGee and former political consultant Allen Raymond.

Eleven locations, two phone companies and two Internet providers is no coincidence.

Posted by James on Nov 02, 2010

Scary food facts

From Smart Money magazine:

  • “An hour after munching on some light potato chips – made with fat substitute olestra — Debra Jaliman, 55, a Manhattan dermatologist, found herself so sick with abdominal cramps that she had to cancel her slate of patients. Reactions like these are why the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization, says no one should eat olestra, and why Canada and the United Kingdom banned it. But it’s legal here… Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or rBGH (commonly sold under the name Posilac), a synthetic hormone injected into cows to stimulate milk production, pops up in many dairy-based snacks like ice cream. Not in the European Union or Canada, where it has been banned amid health concerns for both cows and humans.”
  • “We added pulverized insects to your snack. …[C]arcasses of ground-up, boiled beetles… are often used in snack foods to create those lovely shades of red, purple and pink in everything from fruit juice to ice cream to candy. ‘It’s a common colorant,’ Baldwin says. No, you won’t find the word ‘beetle’ anywhere on food labels; instead, you’ll likely see the less cringe-worthy ‘carmine,’ ‘carminic acid’ or ‘cochineal extract.’”
  • “There are pig bones in your pudding [and jello]”
  • “‘Natural’ is naturally meaningless”
  • “The U.S. food and beverage industry spends $10 to $12 billion each year — or more than $1 million per hour — marketing to children”
  • “Each year, more than 300,000 Americans are hospitalized and 5,000 die from contaminated foods and beverages, according to the Department of Health and Human Services…. And these are just the cases that we know about. Of the 51,229 food processing and manufacturing facilities regulated by the FDA, 56% have not been inspected at all in the past five years.”
  • “When we say ‘enriched,’ we mean processed.”

Posted by James on Nov 19, 2010

Sharing circles help kids become friendlier and engage with curriculum

I love this simple idea. It teaches compassion, public speaking, and listening. It can also build self-esteem, a sense of community in the classroom, and more meaningful engagement with the curriculum:

It’s story time at Amelia Earhart Continuation School, a place where high school students who have ditched class, flunked out or otherwise fallen behind in their academic credits come to catch up.

…[S]tudents in Nancy Stringer’s English class sit in a circle. As they pass around a “talking piece” — a black rubber rat named Scar — they share stories of elementary and middle school.

I stabbed a kid. I broke my hand. I got my first kiss. I got straight A’s. I was scared of ghosts because a janitor committed suicide.

It may seem simple, but the North Hollywood students say that sharing stories in this way — a practice known as “council” — has made a huge difference in their lives. Through stories, they say, they have come to know and trust one another, building strong bonds that have helped them stay in school.

“Here, everyone cares about each other,” said Jessica Beristain, a 17-year-old sophomore who added that she used to ditch her classes constantly to escape “screaming teachers” and hostile students at her previous school. “Now school is fun.”

…Joe Provisor, who helped launch the program in the district in 2006, said research shows that strong school relationships are critical for a student’s success. But those bonds are harder to forge in today’s educational climate, he said, where academic pressures have crowded out time for social and emotional development.

“This is bringing humanity back to the schools,” said Provisor…

Stringer has used council for literature, asking students to say which character they most identified with in the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Another teacher, Ron Narita, has used it for his Earth science class — asking everyone to tell a story about an earthquake, volcano or other geologic event.

“It helps them respond to curriculum in a more open way,” Narita said…

Zianne Hinojas, 6, said she has learned to be respectful and “don’t disturb others when they’re talking.” She said she would like to bring the practice home to her three brothers, who grab her toys.

Back at Amelia Earhart, once-perennial ditcher Jamie Cruz, 17, said that she has befriended classmates she never would have acknowledged before. The friendships have drawn her back to school. And that, in turn, has helped her discover a passion for writing.

“We share a bond now, and that’s made school a place I want to be,” she said.

Posted by James on Nov 29, 2010

Stealing hundreds of millions of credit cards ridiculously easy

This is an interesting profile of a cybercriminal who, after being caught by police, worked for the Secret Service only to betray them by carrying out an astonishing cybercrime spree while in their employ.

Well, it’s astonishing in the sense of how much credit card information and money he stole. What’s really shocking is how easy it sounds, thanks to totally incompetent corporations:

Over the course of several years, during much of which he worked for the government, Gonzalez and his crew of hackers and other affiliates gained access to roughly 180 million payment-card accounts from the customer databases of some of the most well known corporations in America: OfficeMax, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Dave & Buster’s restaurants, the T. J. Maxx and Marshalls clothing chains. They hacked into Target, Barnes & Noble, JCPenney, Sports Authority, Boston Market and 7-Eleven’s bank-machine network….

Just as data security had been an afterthought for many businesses in their rush to get online in the 1990s, creating opportunities for the likes of Shadowcrew, many firms had taken no precautions as they eagerly adopted WiFi in the early 2000s. Gonzalez was especially intrigued by the possibilities of a technique known as “war driving”: hackers would sit in cars or vans in the parking lots of big-box stores with laptops and high-power radio antennae and burrow through companies’ vulnerable WiFi networks. Adepts could get into a billion-dollar multinational’s servers in minutes….

His [colleague’s] experiments at BJ’s Wholesale Club and DSW met with success. He stole about 400,000 card accounts from the former, a million from the latter….

they hacked into [Marshalls/TJX,] OfficeMax, Barnes & Noble, Target, Sports Authority and Boston Market, and probably many other companies that never detected a breach or notified the authorities. Scott bought a six-foot-tall radio antenna, and he and James rented hotel rooms near stores for the tougher jobs. In many cases, the data were simply there for the taking, unencrypted, unprotected….

He is not a gifted programmer — according to [co-conspirators] Watt and Toey, in fact, he can barely write simple code…

Gonzalez urged Watt and Toey to experiment with SQL [Injection]. …Forever 21 didn’t stand a chance. “I went to their Web site, and I looked at their shopping-cart software, and within five minutes, I found a problem,” he said, with his customary concision. “Within 10 minutes we were on their computers and were able to execute commands freely. From there we leveraged access until we were the domain administrators.”

So this Miami Dade College drop-out who could barely write a simple computer program stole hundreds of millions of credit cards from dozens of major U.S. corporations, all of which were monumentally incompetent at data protection.

Posted by James on Nov 15, 2010

Still more reasons for outrage toward banks

When I began this blog in early 2009, I argued repeatedly that the government should not reward major banks with bailouts for causing a massive artificial housing bubble that inevitably crashed. I argued that government should instead take over the failed banks — i.e., place them in receivership as required by law (because banks with negative net worths are liable to make massive heads-we-win-tails-taxpayers-lose gambles with their government guarantees) — until the government could assess the banks' assets and liabilities, culpability, and tangled web of obligations to one another.

Instead, the Fed and the Bush and Obama administrations shoveled trillions in cash at major banks in all kinds of ways hidden from public view, including, basically, free money and the purchase of toxic bank debt at absurdly high prices, enabling banks to “earn” — at least on paper — their way out of their negative net worths.

But we keep learning that the banking mess is even worse than anyone imagined back in early 2009. Banks failed to keep millions of official mortgage documents required by courts in most states before banks can press claims on defaulting debtors. In many cases, those documents have been lost; in many cases, those documents were willfully shredded to save a few bucks on storage costs. Banks have since resorted to falsifying and lying about those documents to trick judges into enabling them to foreclose on homes they had no legal right to foreclose on. And other mortgages, which were supposedly packaged into “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs), were never properly transferred. On a massive scale, banks failed to carry out the most basic of operations: holding onto sheaths of paper worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each.

Beyond stupidity, there’s also all kinds of criminal culpability. To mention just one, a strong case has been put forward that Countrywide (now owned by Bank of America) engaged in a massive fraud, systematically inducing millions to buy homes they could not afford by lying about their income, assets and debts. Why lend money to people Countrywide knew couldn’t pay it back (unless house prices continued rising forever)? To inflate their short-term “profits,” even at the potential cost of destroying their firm’s long-term viability.

Worst of all, the Federal Reserve and our government has systematically enabled banks to get away with basically whatever illegalities they desire. Insolvent banks are pretending they’re solvent in part by not marking down the value of their toxic debt to reflect market reality. This should be and, until recently, was illegal. But government now lets banks fake their financial health through such lies.

I could go on and on. Instead, I recommend you read this impressive series of articles:

Posted by James on Nov 08, 2010

TSA: Making air travel safer by patting pilots' genitals

I’ve already raged twice about new TSA screening machines (that take pornographic images under your clothes) and TSA’s new enhanced interrogation “pat-down” procedure that involves touching genitals and fondling breasts.

I had assumed kids were exempt but learned tonight that even kids must submit to either porno pictures or a groping. I don’t know how this doesn’t violate child pornography law or the U.S. Constitution as an unreasonable search.

I also discovered something even more insane: pilots — who can crash a plane with their bare hands — must also submit to either porno pics or a genital-touching grope session:

Dave Bates heads the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots and claims to be the largest independent pilots' group in the world. Bates recently told his members that they should refuse the new scans, together know as “Advanced Imaging Technology” (AIT). And he thinks the new pat-downs are a disgusting breach of a pilot’s “privacy and dignity.”

…Bates wants his pilots to get access to airport Security Identification Display Areas (SIDA) without going through the screening that applies to passengers. The thinking appears to be that it makes no sense to screen pilots every time they enter an airport, since they’re going to be flying the actual plane. If they want to hijack it or fly it into a building, the question of whether or not they’re carrying 10 ounces of fluid and pocketknife would seem to be an irrelevant one.

Groping passengers isn’t making us any safer. That TSA believes groping pilots makes us safer proves they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They’re just training us to be sheep while politicians are siphoning off billions in our taxes to pay their friends who build the pornographic imagery machines.

America has a zillion real problems. Instead of addressing them, we’re throwing away billions to humiliate Americans and piss on our Constitutional rights. Have we gone insane?

Posted by James on Nov 09, 2010

TSA = Terrorizing Sensible Americans

The first of over 3,200 comments — in just two days — on this blog post about a principled refusal to submit to government porno pics or genital groping to board an airplane says, “Rosa Parks would be proud.” I can only add, “Amen!”

I repeated that I felt what they were doing was a sexual assault, and that if they were anyone but the government, the act would be illegal. I believe that I was then informed that if I did not submit to the inspection, I would not be getting on my flight. I again stated that I thought the search was illegal. I told her that I would be willing to submit to a walk through the metal detector as over 80% of the rest of the people were doing, but I would not be groped.

Since 9/11, the American people have been subjected to many terrible government violations of our Constitutionally guaranteed liberties in the name of national security. (Of course, our suffering pales beside that of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been killed and the millions who have lost loved ones.) I’m very hopeful the American people won’t tolerate this latest unconstitutional violation. And I thank those, like this blogger, who sacrifice their travel and withstand government threats to refuse to comply with this illegal choice between a virtual strip search and genital groping.

Posted by James on Nov 15, 2010

Two wonderful articles on the human brain

Posted by James on Nov 21, 2010

Unregistered voter's shirt: "Beware of liberals posing as Americans"

My mom’s a big believer in little “d” democracy, so she has volunteered to work at the polls for a number of recent elections.

She just sent me this text message:

A guy came to my precinct to vote, wearing a tee shirt that says, “Beware of liberals posing as Americans.” Of course he is not registered to vote, so can’t vote on machine and has to do provisional paper ballot that probably won’t count at all. So who’s the real American?

I’m guessing liberals-aren’t-American guy missed Jon Stewart’s rally.

Posted by James on Nov 02, 2010

Why I miss Silicon Valley

I’ve twice followed my wife’s career east, first from Silicon Valley to Chicago and then from Chicago to Stamford, CT. After nearly a decade away from the Valley, we both still miss it, but for different reasons. My wife’s biggest (and frequent) lament is Silicon Valley’s miraculous climate-free weather. No matter the month, it always seems to be in the 60s or 70s. (I just looked it up, and it’s true.) Also, it never rains… except for that 45-day stretch in January-February 1998 that I’ll never forget because it never stopped raining. (I just looked that up too: 37 inches of rain in January and February and “119 [consecutive] days when measurable rainfall was recorded”!)

While I too appreciate the absence of snow (especially when I’m shoveling it), I adore spring and fall (which sadly seem to have shrunk to just a few weeks in recent years), so I’m not dying to return for the weather.

Strangely, I was reminded of my love of Silicon Valley while reading the recently deceased Tony Judt’s article on his love of New York, which captures the essence of my love for Silicon Valley:

Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.

Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton pâtissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite éclair at a time.

All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city.

A timeless joke in the Valley — actually, it merely feels timeless; the Valley was orchards till a few decades ago — is that “IC” stands not for “integrated circuit” but “Indian and Chinese.” There’s a ton of Indian and Chinese culture in the Valley. And so much more. Whenever I wandered off Stanford’s campus for a day, I would hear Spanish and four or five other languages I could only guess at. “What is that? Urdu?” We had friends from all over the world. I’ll never forget the moment I realized during a party my grad school housemates — from Turkey and Switzerland — and I threw that I was the only American at our party.

Fairfield County is generally a wonderful place to raise kids, but I sure miss the Valley’s cultural riches. We’ve exhausted ourselves trying — in vain — to find a bilingual immersion school for our kids. Despite widespread appreciation of the value of learning Mandarin and Spanish, bilingual immersion schools basically don’t exist in Fairfield County (except in districts with very low test scores and very large concentrations of ESL learners). Conversely, type “san francisco bilingual schools” into Google, and you’ll quickly find bilingual French-English, Russian-English, Spanish-English, Chinese-English, German-English, and Japanese-English schools. And bilingual — even tri-lingual — schools are the norm in Europe and, increasingly, Asia.

I feel sorry for Americans who seldom meet, and feel threatened by, foreigners. Foreigners (most especially my wife, of course) have enriched my life beyond imagination.

Posted by James on Nov 12, 2010

Wise words from retiring high school principal

I enjoyed this interview with retiring New Canaan High School principal Tony Pavia:

We have a substantial group of parents who do not want their kids to experience any hardship, whether it’s in the form of a grade, a disciplinary consequence, or in the form of disappointment. They’re well intentioned, but sometimes, in trying to do all that for their child, they’re removing the very things that would be formative experiences, and the very things that would make that child more resilient, tougher and more able to deal with adversity.

I really think we are in danger of heading toward a place where kids have no adversity, and I worry that we’ve come to a point where [administrators are] going be spending more time with parents than with their kids…. [W]hen you look at some other generations, the very things that were difficult and unfair and tough and made them sad are the things that made them successful later.

The old paradigm was that society, parents and the school, in general, stressed an endgame that was about the student being a well-rounded person and citizen of society. Unfortunately, now the paradigm has changed. The endgame is very simply college and, in my opinion, it has created a terrible system which really expects every single kid to be exactly the same, to learn the same way, and to be at the identical developmental stage as everyone else.

There are countless stories of successful people — CEOs, presidents of the United States, world leaders — who were not successful teenagers. It’s getting to point now that if you’re an unsuccessful teenager it’s unacceptable, and that’s not based in any history, science, or anything else. Teenage years are, by nature, a time to make mistakes and not be perfect…. We want every kid to be doing nine clubs, eight sports, fourteen community service activities and getting A’s. I don’t know of any other institution that expects everybody to be exactly the same.

…[P]arents can revolt and make the point with their children that the endgame is life, not getting into college….

We’re educators first and foremost. We can’t be saying, “Do your homework because you’re not going to get into a good college.” We can’t buy into that. We have to have conversations about why learning is important and that sometimes your grade isn’t exactly the same as learning.

The politics of education makes that difficult now because it’s reduced the conversation to standardized test scores.

Posted by James on Nov 24, 2010