Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Peter Jennings Interviews Bill Gates

Talks about technology, personal issues, the Gates Foundation, etc.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Housing Prices

Article from Washington Monthly by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. Seems well thought out and reasoned.

Some points:
  • Current economy recovery is being driven by consumer spending - not by increases in wages, productivity, or production.
  • Consumer spending is being driven by the housing market. As home prices rise into the stratosphere and mortgage rates fall, home owners are refinancing their homes and taken additional equity out of their homes. Rather than just reduce their monthly payments and save the difference, homeowners are buying cars, expensive toys (computers and ipods), and vacations.
  • Most of the overvalued prices are in the major metro areas where the laws of supply and demand are supporting the high home prices.
  • Greenspan (and the Fed) enabled this housing boom by keeping interest rates low. Part of the motivation is that it is that the additional money taken out of homes is propping up the economy (and in fact enabling the recovery). At the same time, nearly everyone has already refinanced their home and this method of sustaining the economy is going to be short-lived.
  • Shockingly Greenspan recommended that people refinance to ARM mortgages. It seems ridiculous to tell anyone to do that with fixed rates so low right now. Wallace-Wells suggests that Greenspan is trying to keep the refinancing party going a bit longer.
  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have made banks unwilling to properly assess the value of homes and the creditworthiness of loan applicants. Since the government will buy the debt off of them, it's in their best interest to get as many loans as possible. Additonally, little regulation of the two mortgage backers has allowed them to take on more risk and more assets than they were originally designed for.
  • Quoting from the article: "That job fell to Greenspan: Finally, on Feb. 24, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, he came clean about the risks of the housing market, in a speech reminiscent of his 1996 warning about "irrational exuberance" in the stock market. In his familiar, glum posture, his bald head slouching low over the table, he warned that the GSEs weren't just unstable, but also posed a "systemic risk" to the economy of the United States. He suggested debt caps, to reduce Fannie and Freddie's role in the market, and urged stricter regulation. "

The article is from April 2004.

Today, the housing index (HGX) jumped 18 points (3.9%) to 497.15:^HGX&t=2y&l=on&z=m&q=c&c=


Time to short? Scary times ahead...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

A Revolution of Thought

A Revolution of Thought

This guys seems interesting. Haven't had a chance to read his posts yet, so I'm just linking to it so I can find it easily later.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Style - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

At the suggestion of one of my high school English teachers, I'm reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. It's not quite what I was expecting, but it's been a good read so far. I expect to have a longer post about it once I've had a chance to finish it and digest it a bit. But for now, this is a passage that I found very interesting. It's from Chapter 25 (pg. 299 of the hardback First Perennial Classics 2000 edition):

The result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of "style" to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it's not just depressingly dull, it's also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in sytlized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in awhile. It's the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don't know where to start because no one has ever told them there's such a thing as Quality in this world and it's real, not style. Quality isn't something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.

I'm not quite sure why this passage resonates within me; particularly, since I'm quite a fan of modern stylized American technology. I guess one curious part of Pirsig's Quality is that I'm not sure exactly how it can be that people can disagree on what is beautiful and what is ugly if his definition of Quality is true. At any rate, hopefully it will all make more sense after I've had a chance to digest it some more.

Growing up in the '90s

This is a great Time Magazine article about "twixters" called Grow Up? Not So Fast by Lev Grossman. I think it fairly accurately reflects me and many of my peers. Unfortunately, the full text of the article is no longer available to non-subscribers.

Here is a brief summary of some of the ideas which are in the full article but no longer available online (please forgive me if I recall these ideas incorrectly):

"Twixters" aren't lazy. They're actually the opposite of lazy. They care too much about what they do and feel an overwhelming desire and responsibility to do something that they believe is significant and rewarding. Hence, the constant job and relationship hopping.

The value of a college degree has rapidly diminished over the past couple of decades. What used to be a guarantee of a good career and lifestyle has become a requirement for even low-paying jobs. Graduate degrees are almost mandatory which has led "twixters" back to school and prevented them from developing the mentality of adults.

There's a great line that says that the mentality of "twixters" is well summarized by Britney Spears: I'm not a girl, not yet a woman.

"Twixters" have many more relationships because they feel compelled to marry for Love (capital L). Previous generations thought of marriage more practically. (Note: my own ideas may follow and may be commingled with the authors.) Society, and probably the media by means of recent technological developments such as the internet, cell phones, and television, has created the dream of falling in love and has made divorce ok. Thus, "twixters" are much happier to bounce around in relationships until they find The Right One.

Friends are the new family. "Twixters" are able to start families later because they find the support they need from their friends. "Twixters" generally have more close friends than their parents (particularly because they're able to communicate with friends so efficiently. Friends the television show represents this generation in every way. From the delay in getting married in their 30's to the bouncing around of relationships and careers. Personally, I think the television show defined and created "twixters" as much as it mimiced them.

"Twixters" are close to their parents. About 50% talk to their parents everyday.

White House cuts funds for Hubble

The Gates Foundation (perhaps in cooperation with other nonprofits like the Google Foundation) should fund the repairs for the Hubble.

Surely they could raise enough funds to save it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Condi Rice as Secretary of State

Well it looks like it's going to happen...

After re-electing a President who has been absolutely destructive to international relationships, we've now appointed a war monger as the top American diplomat. Only 2 of 18 Senators appeared to think that it wasn't a good idea:

Last depressing and partisan post of the day. Promise.

American Democracy

For those of us still clinging to the hope that America is the land of equal opportunity - one person one vote and all, $250K will buy you lunch with the President during inauguration week. Not to worry; if you can't afford it I'm sure that the representatives from ExxonMobil, Ford, Goldman Sachs Group, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and the Altria Group Inc. (the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris) have your best interests in mind and will put in a good word for you.

This article from Reuters UK refers to the site which lists all donors to the inauguration festivities. Donations aren't legal limited, but the Presidential Inauguration Committee only accepts donations up to $250K.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Politics - Prison abuse by American military personnel

I don't want this post to seem like justification for any individual soldier or for that matter, any particular guard in any prison. But rather, I wonder why we've understood the causes of these types of behaviors for so long (presumably as early as the '70s) and yet we still fail to do anything about them.

I was reminded by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point about an old psychology experiment done in the 1970s at Stanford by Philip Zimbardo. Zimbardo converted a lab at the University into a prison and selected 21 students of 75 applicants who were deemed the most normal and healthy on psychological tests. He randomly selected half of them to be prisoners and half of them to be guards. As Gladwell explains, the purpose of the experiment was to figure out why prisons are such bad places. He found that the guards, some who had previously claimed to be pacifists, quickly became strict disciplinarians. Among the things that they did to the "prisoners" were: waking them up in the middle of the night, forcing them to do arbitrary tasks (pushups, lining up against the wall), forcing them to say that they loved each other, and marching them down the halls in handcuffs with paper bags over their heads.

Remember these were normal - in fact the most normal - chosen from a fairly random sample of college students and the abuses began within the first few days of the experiment which was intended to last 2 weeks but was pre-maturely terminated due to the quick acceleration of the cruelty of the guards and rapid destruction of the "prisoners'" mental health.

This particular experiment seems to have been conducted again. Far more publicly; and sadly on a more horrific level. The fact is that we have sent normal children into situations that they shouldn't be in. We've sent them there without training, without guidance, without hope. If anything, we've primed them to be even abusive by telling them that they're guarding the worst of the worst terrorists and criminals and they are, by virtue of their nationality, "the good guys". The simple fact is that we've not only mistaken some of the prisoners, but we've also made many of them (more on that in a separate post I hope). We are ultimately responsible for the fact that we've permanently scarred the lives of not only the people of Iraq but also our own citizens.

I hate that Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general in command of prisons in Iraq at the time, and Private Lynndie England have become the scapegoats of this crime. I have to admit that when I first heard the news and their names, I quickly assumed that it was some weakness in their character and some fault limited to a small group of people, with whom I couldn't possibly have anything in common. While I in no way believe that their actions are excusable, it was not just their failure. Punishing them or anyone directly linked to the abuse is of little use. I doubt that either of them look back on their actions with pride and probably both already suffer psychologically from the stresses of being in the situation and not understanding why they did the things that they did.

When I studied the Fundamental Attribution Error in my social psych class in college. I thought it was ridiculous. The theory says that people tend to interpret other's behavior by overestimating the contribution of the actor's character and underestimating the importance of the situation. But Gladwell reminds me that we seem to be alot more in tune with personal conditions than contextual ones. And now, I wonder, if the perfect example isn't staring us in the face.

So the real question is what do we do? While I realize that people are going to think that I'm crazy, I'm going to throw this out there anyways. Sure I think that prison shouldn't be like spending time at a health club. But, just maybe instead of forcing people to think that they're bad and that's why they're in prison. We should focus on rehabilitation. We should MAKE them productive members of society. They should be made to work. We should force prisoners to work to improve both themselves and society. I think that many criminals are hardened by the current system and led to more dangerous and violent crime because these (potentially normal people) are forced to define themselves by crime. I think of having prisoners in Iraq working on reconstructing roads and bridges instead of wasting away in prison cells and developing a deep hatred for all that is American.

For those who think that creating a prison system built on rehabilitation instead of incarceration would be too costly, I'd argue that the reduction in crime and the conversion of criminals into productive members of society would, in the long run, be a better investment. Perhaps, I'll try to come up with some more concrete support for that.

And of course, an obvious necessity is the actual training of soldiers. We've sent teenagers to a hostile environment and expected them to know what to do. I don't want to get into all of the issues with Bush's war. Perhaps when I'm feeling stronger on another day.

As an aside, Gladwell's book is tremendously insightful. He discusses issues and psychology experiments which I've known about for awhile but presents them in a cohesive and thought-provoking manner. The primary thesis of his book is that small things can have substantial affects on individuals and on society as a whole, and that understanding the power of certain human tendencies is critical. The particular chapter that this experiment was mentioned in was about the power of context and how people respond more to their environment than they'd like to believe. The example he gives is about crime in NYC in the 80's. The police were so concerned about the violent crime that they didn't have time to deal with the minor infractions like graffitti and kids jumping turnstiles. However, they found that when addressed the minor infractions, they created an atmosphere that told everyone that crime (any crime) wasn't tolerated (the theory of the Broken Window).

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Hello, This is the first post

Hello World,

I'm what you might call slow. It takes me awhile to adopt things so here I am on the cusp of 2005 creating my very first post on my very first blog.

Great things often come from humble beginnings, but sadly, humble beginnings don't always lead to great things. I plan to write about whatever pops into my head, and in the humble hopes of creating something worth reading, I encourage anyone and everyone to contribute their comments. I have a few posts planned which I expect to be controversial. Don't worry, I'm thick-skinned; whatever your thoughts are, I'd like to hear them.

For a better tomorrow,