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December 30, 2009

Morality on five axis, Jonathan Haidt

harm reduction, reciprocity and fairness, purity, respect for authority, and in-group loyalty

Jonathan Haidt talking about his work as a moral psychologist. His big insight is that people experience moral intuitions along five axes: harm reduction, reciprocity and fairness, purity, respect for authority, and in-group loyalty. Of those five axes, highly educated upper-middle-class Westerners, and in that group liberals more than conservatives, tend to define only the first two axes, harm reduction and fairness, as really about morality, and think of the other three as being matters of personal preference or emotional reaction rather than right and wrong; in contrast, most people outside that fairly small class feel that all five axes are of comparable moral importance. In political matters, he argues that liberals are disadvantaged by speaking this impoverished language of morality: most people feel that in-group loyalty, purity, and respect for authority are matters of fundamental importance, and liberals don't give those concerns the weight they deserve - to create a more appealing message, liberals would need to talk more about those issues.

December 28, 2009

Predatory loans: uncollectable fo B of A / Countrywide ?

"This is a first step in a decision by a federal judge that says even after the servicers' safe harbor was enacted and even after all the wrangling in Congress, we are still going to allow people to enforce their contract rights when it is appropriate," said Owen L. Cyrulnik, counsel at Grais & Ellsworth in New York, which is representing investors in the suit against Countrywide.

The lawsuit was filed in December after Bank of America struck a predatory lending settlement with attorneys general in 11 states. In that deal, the bank agreed to modify thousands of mortgages written by Countrywide, providing $8.4 billion in loan aid to an estimated 400,000 Countrywide borrowers.

Under the terms of the settlement, Countrywide said it would cut principal balances on some loans and reduce interest rates on others. Rates could decline to 2.5 percent
depending upon a borrower's ability to pay, and remain at that level for five years.

Countrywide Loses Ruling in Loan Suit
Published: August 20, 2009
The ruling was a win for holders of mortgage-backed securities who sued Countrywide after it agreed to modify thousands of loan

December 26, 2009

How to argue 6: not 'connecting the dots', by Hoekstra

Language skill of the day: Accuse your opponent of not 'connecting the dots':

Speculation about terrorist plots based on limited information is a fool's game. We know very little about Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempts on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 yesterday, though there are some pretty obvious questions about how he got materials on board, how dangerous they were, and what his associations may be.

Responsible federal officials will wait to get a more detailed picture before popping off in the media, making reckless accusations. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, inexplicably the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has not yet been briefed on yesterday's incident, but that hasn't stopped him from trying to exploit the Abdulmutallab matter to score some cheap partisan points.

"It's not surprising," U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Holland Republican, said of the alleged terrorist attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight in Detroit. ... "People have got to start connecting the dots here and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration," Hoekstra said.

#6 in the language series, How to argue (when facts and logic are against you)

So noted by opponents of Hoekstra.

December 22, 2009

Light rail of Tempe, Arizona

The silver and teal trains that light up the bridge over Town Lake, swish through downtown, sound their bells near campus and travel along Apache Boulevard have become part of Tempe's identity.

Metro light rail has changed the landscape of the city since service began last Dec. 27. As the transit system marks its first year of operations Sunday, Tempe is celebrating the successes.


People driving from the West and East Valley to get to the nearest light-rail station made the Phoenix and Mesa end-of-the line stops the most popular of the 28 stations. But Tempe's station near University Drive and Rural Road is on track to be the third most frequented stop. Students and faculty using that station and others hubs near Arizona State University account for a bulk of light-rail riders.

An ASU study released earlier this year also showed Tempe's land value near rail stations had increased at a greater rate compared to Phoenix and Mesa.

Valley light rail system observes first anniversary
20 commentsby Dianna M. Náñez - Dec. 24, 2009 08:00 AM
The Arizona Republic, via Duncan 'Supertains' Atrios.

December 19, 2009

Weather out of bounds vs forecast

16 < 24


December 15, 2009

Disparate treatment

Curiously does not mention which medicines are so prevelant.

New federally financed drug research reveals a stark disparity: children covered by Medicaid are given powerful antipsychotic medicines at a rate four times higher than children whose parents have private insurance. And the Medicaid children are more likely to receive the drugs for less severe conditions than their middle-class counterparts, the data shows.

Children and Antipsychotic Drugs Those findings, by a team from Rutgers and Columbia, are almost certain to add fuel to a long-running debate. Do too many children from poor families receive powerful psychiatric drugs not because they actually need them -- but because it is deemed the most efficient and cost-effective way to control health problems that may be handled much differently for middle-class children?

Part of the reason is insurance reimbursements, as Medicaid often pays much less for counseling and therapy than private insurers do. Part of it may have to do with the challenges that families in poverty may have in consistently attending counseling or therapy sessions, even when such help is available.

Health Affairs


Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics
Published: December 12, 2009
Some children from poor families may be receiving powerful drugs because it is deemed a cheaper way to treat a problem

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Dr. Derek H. Suite, a psychiatrist in the Bronx, says he sees many children on antipsychotic drugs who do not need them.

December 14, 2009

Pocket parks

Pocket parks -- also known as miniparks and vest-pocket parks -- are small patches of landscaped nature generally built on vacant building lots or scraps of city land that fall between the cracks of real estate interests.

Jacob Riis, the urban reformer, is credited with inventing the pocket-park concept in 1897, when he served as the secretary of a city committee on small parks. The committee issued a statement declaring that "any unused corner, triangle or vacant lot kept off the market by litigation or otherwise may serve this purpose well." Though turn-of-the-last-century New York was filled with spaces that fit the bill, Riis's idea went largely unrealized until after World War II, when bombed-out building sites in European cities provided opportunities to create small parks at less cost than reconstruction would have entailed.

Mr. Hoving may have seen parallels between New York's crumbling urban landscape and Europe's war-ravaged capitals when he started his micro-park effort in 1966. That year, he identified 378 vacant lots and 346 abandoned buildings in Bedford-Stuyvesant alone.

"Utopia would mean a park -- some large, some small -- every four or five blocks," he declared. These micro-oases could spring up in the middle of dense, socially fractious neighborhoods where, he believed, they had the potential to "create wider ripples of reform." One thousand new pocket parks would mean adding only 140 acres to the city's park acreage. Two hundred could be acquired and developed for less than 10 percent of his department's annual budget.

The first of Mr. Hoving's attempts at creating a compact sanctuary was Paley Park, which opened on 3 East 53rd Street in the spring of 1967. It was named for William Paley, the former chairman of CBS, who financed and oversaw the park's design on the site of the old Stork Club. (Tom Hoving also had a flair for stirring up support from big business for his projects.)

With its ivy-covered walls and 20-foot-high waterfall, Paley Park proved an enormous hit from the moment it opened. The Times labeled it "a corner of quiet delights." Early visitors waxed enthusiastic about the relief it provided from the din of the streets, and the "acoustic perfume" of the park's waterfall.

THOMAS HOVING, who died last week at 78, is best remembered for his 10 years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but in his 14-month tenure as New York City parks commissioner, a position he assumed in 1965, his legacy was no less significant.

Op-Ed Contributor
City of Earthy Delights
Published: December 13, 2009
In the era of micro-budgets, Thomas Hoving's dream of creating 1,000 mini-parks should be revisited.

December 13, 2009

How to argue: deny anticipation or expectation

Might people start bracing or fleeing from dreaded future changes ? No according to washingtonmonthly / Steve Benen.

But Boehner nevertheless hasn't lost his unmitigated gall confidence, and has an op-ed in the Washington Post today about how right he is about the economy.

I was actually curious to see what he'd come up with. After all, just over the last two weeks, Boehner has blamed job losses on policies that don't exist yet, and rejected the idea of a jobs bill as "repulsive." Boehner hosted an "economic roundtable" last week with a bunch of former Bush aides, so maybe he's come up with something specific to offer by now.

While the Republican from Ohio says the decrease in the unemployment rate is encouraging, he says "anyone who views today's report as cause for celebration is out of touch with the American people, especially when Washington Democrats' policies -- whether it's a government takeover of health care, a national energy tax, or 'card check' -- are already costing jobs and will pile even more debt on our kids and grandkids."

How to argue, the series, in Language.

December 12, 2009

American Consumers Owe, Borrow Less

Figures released this week by the Federal Reserve showed that Americans owed $10.8 trillion on home mortgages at the end of the third quarter, down 2.2 percent from a year earlier and the lowest level since mid-2007.

Similarly, the Fed said that outstanding credit card bills in October totaled $888 billion, down 8.5 percent from a year earlier. That number was the lowest since March 2007.

Those trends do not, however, necessarily indicate that Americans have paid down their debts and are starting to lead the more frugal lives that some financial planners have been recommending for years. There has undoubtedly been some of that, but the declines also indicate that banks have been forced to write off a lot of bad debts and have grown more stingy in granting credit.

As can be seen from the accompanying charts, banks' credit card write-offs have soared, to an annual rate of 10.2 percent in the third quarter of this year.

And the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that at the end of the third quarter, 4.5 percent of all mortgages were in foreclosure -- one in 22 mortgages. It said another 6.1 percent -- one in 16 -- were at least two months overdue. Those figures are for all mortgages, not just subprime ones.

Banks, as a group, reported $3.4 trillion in unused credit card lines at the end of September, according to a compilation by Foresight Analytics of bank reports to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. That was down 28 percent from the peak of $4.7 billion reached in mid-2008.

The banks reported that outstanding home equity loans were down only 1 percent from the peak, to $667 billion. But unused home equity lines of credit came to $539 billion, the lowest since 2005 and down 25 percent from the peak reached at the end of 2007.

Off the Charts
Americans Owe Less. That's Not All Good.
Published: December 12, 2009
Some Americans have paid down their credit cards and mortgages, but much of the shrinkage in outstanding debt is a result of bank write-offs.

December 11, 2009

Wayfinding by chirping sparrows in Penn Station

Q. Every time I wait in the Long Island Rail Road section of NYC Pennsylvania Station, I hear chirping, tweeting birds. The sound is louder near overhead speakers, so I'm assuming it's a recording. Is it supposed to make passengers calmer, like Muzak?

A. You are hearing a "talking kiosk," designed to help visually impaired passengers and others navigate the confusion of the station. The kiosk is in the Long Island Rail Road's main concourse, between the entrances to Tracks 14 and 15.

"To help visually impaired customers locate the kiosk, it emits the song of the lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus), a bird species native to the American West, that is found by audiologists to have a unique set of phonetic properties considered effective for directional way-finding," said Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for the railroad.

The current model was installed in December 2008, replacing an older one that also chirped. This one features a touch-activated tactile map of the station, visual displays for the partially sighted, and a voice designed for phonetic clarity, Ms. McGowan said in an e-mail message. As a customer touches different parts of the map, the kiosk describes the location and gives directions. It also offers general information about Penn Station and the Long Island Rail Road.

December 8, 2009

Progressive polemics take on the 'he'-cession

hecession: recession where male incident unemployment overhsaddows female unemployment.

Progressive take and spin on the econonomic scene:

As women's job losses mount, some women--especially unmarried women--are facing an increasingly grim job market. Unmarried women have much higher unemployment than married women. In October, 10.3 percent of unmarried women age 20 and over (3.3 million) and 5.7 percent of married women (2.1 million) were unemployed (see figure below; all data by marital status is not seasonally adjusted). Although unmarried women represent less than half (46.5 percent) of all women workers, they account for 6 in 10 (60.8 percent) of women workers who are unemployed. The situation is worse for unmarried women who head families, most of whom are single mothers, who now have an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent, 2.4 percentage points above the national average.

Question not asked: are married women more likely to drift into and out of the laborforce, given job prospects or lack thereof ?

Not asked until much later:

The challenges finding a job are evident in the sharp increases in workers who report that they are unemployed and would like a job, but have given up searching because they have become "discouraged." Over the past year, the number of unmarried women workers who are discouraged has nearly doubled--up 85 percent to 179,000--while the number of married women workers who report being discouraged has risen by 174 percent, up to 118,000.

Center for American Progress / Liz Weiss
2009 November

December 7, 2009

Modern Love 3:

But by now I noticed a pattern: improving my marriage in one area often caused problems in another. More intimacy meant less autonomy. More passion meant less stability.

-- Elizabeth Weil

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Married (Happily) With Issues
Published: December 6, 2009
Can you really improve your marriage? Is it risky to try? One wife takes her husband through the world of marriage therapies.

December 6, 2009

Private schools, private loans, not all exclusive and elusive

The for-profit higher education sector is no stranger to scandal. In the 1980s and early '90s, it came to light that hundreds of fly-by-night schools had been set up solely to reap profits from the federal student loan programs, in part by preying on poor people and minorities. The most unscrupulous of them enrolled people straight off the welfare lines, and got them to sign up for the maximum amount of federal student loans available--sometimes without their knowledge or consent.

The rampant abuses caught the attention of the news media, sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill, and led to a year-long, high-profile Senate investigation led by Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat. The standing-room-only hearings had all the trappings of scandal, with trade school officials pleading the Fifth and a school owner, who had been convicted of defrauding the government, brought to the witness table in handcuffs and leg irons.

Key lawmakers considered kicking all trade schools out of the federal student aid programs--a virtual death sentence given the institutions' heavy reliance on these funds. But Congress ultimately stepped back from the brink and instead strengthened the Department of Education's authority to weed out problem institutions. Under the new rules, for-profit colleges had to get at least 15 percent of their tuition money from sources other than federal loans and financial aid. Also, if more than a quarter of a school's students consistently defaulted on their loans within two years of graduating or dropping out, the school could be barred from participating in federal financial aid programs. The idea was to get rid of those schools that were set up solely to feed on federal funds and didn't provide the meaningful training students needed to get jobs and pay off their debt. As a result, during the 1990s more than 1,500 proprietary schools were either kicked out of the government's financial aid programs altogether or withdrew voluntarily. In an effort to rein in abusive recruiting tactics, in 1992 Congress also barred schools from compensating recruiters based on the number of students they brought in.

These changes shook up the industry. The old generation of trade schools gradually died off and were replaced by a new breed of for-profit colleges--mostly huge, publicly traded corporations. The largest, the Apollo Group, owns the University of Phoenix, which serves more than 400,000 students at some ninety campuses and 150 learning centers worldwide. Others include the Career Education Corporation, which serves 90,000 students at seventy-five campuses around the world, and Corinthian Colleges, which serves 69,000 students at more than 100 colleges in the United States and Canada.

Not only did these companies promise that their schools would be more responsive to the needs of students and employers than the previous generation, they also said they would be more accountable to the public because, as publicly traded companies, they were heavily regulated. "We've seen a fire across the prairie, and that fire has had a purifying effect," Omer Waddles, then the president of the Career College Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1997. "As our sector has weathered the storms of recent years, a stronger group of schools is emerging to carry, at a high level of credibility, the mantle of training and career development."

In reality, the new breed of schools had quite a bit in common with their predecessors; in some cases, they even operated out of the same buildings and employed the same personnel. What's more, rather than making them more accountable, the fact that they were publicly traded created a powerful incentive for them to game the system. After all, to keep their stock prices up and investors happy, the schools had to show that they were constantly expanding, which meant there was intense pressure to get students in the door and signed up for classes and financial aid.

With so much at stake, these schools quickly found ways to skirt the new rules. To get around the caps on student loan default rates, for instance, many of them began hiring agencies to help former students get forbearances or offering lines of credit so alums could make their student-loan payments--but only during the initial two-year window, when defaults were counted against the school by the Department of Education. After that, students were left to wrestle with the debt on their own. As for the rule requiring schools to get at least 15 percent of tuition from nongovernment sources, it had some unintended consequences. Rather than, say, enrolling people who could afford to pay some tuition out of pocket, many schools started pushing students to take out private student loans.

Previously, this kind of loan had gone exclusively to graduate and professional students pursuing careers in high-paying fields like law and medicine. The financially needy students who attend for-profit institutions couldn't qualify for them because of their less-than-stellar credit records, their lousy graduation rates, and their spotty record of finding work in their field. But this began to change around 2000. At the time, college tuition was skyrocketing--a trend that has only accelerated--and federal grants and loans weren't keeping pace. To fill the gap, financial aid officers started cutting deals with lenders to bring in private loan money. In the case of proprietary colleges, most of the large publicly traded chains forged arrangements with Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student loan company. (Once a quasi-government agency like Fannie Mae, it became entirely private in 2004.) In exchange for pots of private student loan funds that they could dole out at will--meaning without regard for students' ability to repay the debt--the schools gave Sallie Mae the right to be the exclusive provider of federal student loans on their campuses. Lenders vie fiercely for this privilege because federal loans are guaranteed by the government, meaning the Treasury pays back nearly all the money if the borrower defaults. Thus lenders get to pocket generous fees and interest and bear almost no risk.


Significantly, many proprietary schools are pushing institutional loans even when they know students won't be able to pay them off; Career Education and Corinthian Colleges only expect to recover roughly half of the money they distribute through their institutional lending programs, according to communications with shareholders. Why would they lend knowing they won't get the money back? Because any loss is more than offset by federal loans and financial aid dollars, which, despite the surge in private educational lending, still fund the bulk of tuition at proprietary schools. Say a student gets a $60,000 federal financial aid package and supplements it with a $20,000 institutional loan. The school comes out $40,000 ahead even if the borrower ultimately defaults. Plus, getting students in the door pumps up enrollment numbers, which makes for happy shareholders.

-- Washington Monthly / Stephen Burd.
November/December 2009 print edition

December 5, 2009

Police Tapped Sprint Customer GPS Data 8 Million Times In A Year

Under a new system set up by Sprint, law enforcement agencies have gotten GPS data from the company about its wireless customers 8 million times in about a year, raising a host of questions about consumer privacy, transparency, and oversight of how police obtain location data.

What this means -- and what many wireless customers no doubt do not realize -- is that with a few keystrokes, police can determine in real time the location of a cell phone user through automated systems set up by the phone companies.

And while a Sprint spokesman told us customers can shield themselves from surveillance by simply switching off the GPS function of their phones, one expert told TPM that the company and other carriers almost certainly have the power to remotely switch the function back on.

To be clear, you can think of there being two types of GPS (global positioning system). One is the handy software on your mobile device that tells you where you are and helps give driving directions. But there's also GPS capability in all cell phones sold today, required by a federal regulation so if you dial 911 from an unknown location, authorities can find you.

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Sprint says the 8 million requests represent "thousands" of individual customers -- it won't say how many exactly -- and that the company follows the law. It's not clear, however, if warrants are always needed, or whether they have been obtained by police for all the cases.

We know the 8 million number thanks to an Indiana University graduate student named Christopher Soghoian, who has made headlines before for investigations of privacy and tech issues.

At a recent professional security conference attended -- and taped -- by Soghoian, Sprint Manager of Electronic Surveillance Paul Taylor revealed the 8 million figure. "[T]he tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement," he said:

WiReD and TMP.