Monday, April 30, 2012

Old-time NYC in photos

I'm always a sucker for old-time photography (and videography), so this gallery of early-20th century photos from New York City (courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives) was right up my alley. Enjoy.

"Predatory lending" in a target-rich environment

This Bloomberg article has been making the rounds lately, and given my history of writing about student loans, I feel as though I have to weigh in.
Susan Romano read her son Zach’s financial-aid letter from Drexel University, and her eyes jumped to the line highlighted in yellow: “$13,442 expected payment” for the first year at the $63,000-a-year school (my note: what in the hell? How does Drexel cost that much?? I digress...)
“At first, I thought it was great,” said Romano, 48, an insurance claims representative from Huntington, Pennsylvania. “The more I read it over and over, the worse it got.” 
It turned out the college’s “offered financial aid” included $42,000 in loans to be taken out by the family, including a “suggested” $36,178 in parental borrowing or private loans. 
“A loan to me is not financial aid,” Romano said. “It is money I have to pay.” 
As many high school seniors face a May 1 deadline to decide where to go to college, families are struggling to understand financial-aid letters, which can be murky and confusing. While the federal government requires banks and mortgage companies to disclose interest rates and total payments on loans, financial- aid letters for college -- which can cost as much as $240,000 for four years -- are unclear about how much families will have to pay. 
“You have to be savvy enough to know the fine print exists, and then you have to be eagled-eye enough to find it hidden in the letters and on websites,” said Debbie Greenberg, a counselor with College Bound St. Louis, which coaches low- income students about admissions and financial aid. “You also have to have access to a computer.”
Sigh... I can already see where this is headed.

At the peak of the housing bubble, all sorts of banks and other mortgage underwriters engaged in similar behavior in an attempt to generate more business. They didn't particularly care whether or not the borrowers could afford the house over the long run, the goal was to generate as much business in the near-term as possible. When the whole thing blew sky-high, none of the now-underwater borrowers wanted to take any personal blame for the mess they found themselves in. People simply wanted to cast blame toward the "predatory lenders" for the fraud--but as we all know, there are (at least) two parties to any contract.

Now, with student lending creating our economy's newest bubble (and if you think it's not a bubble--and one that's about ready to pop--please read here, here, here, here, and here), I'm already seeing the blame game developing in advance of the inevitable crash. It's not the students who are to blame for taking on debt that they "didn't realize" was debt, or that they didn't realize was non-dischargeable in bankruptcy proceedings. No, it has to be those evil schools who tricked them into doing it... right?

I'm honestly tired of this line of reasoning coming from duped borrowers. If you don't fully know what's in the contract you're signing, DON'T SIGN IT. If you're buying a house with an FHA loan that's only requiring a 3.5% down payment, it's your responsibility to understand what that means (hint: it means that if your home value decreases by just 3.5%, your entire equity stake is wiped out and your mortgage goes upside-down). If you didn't realize that, then it's nobody's problem but yours when you find out that you can't ever move because you have no money left to cover your losses.

For generations in this country now, it has been taken on faith that a college degree is "always a good investment", and that we should all pursue a college education no matter what we have to do to finance it. People therefore rarely blink when asked to sign up for student loans, just like they rarely blinked when signing on the dotted line for a mortgage--remember, buying a house was "always a good investment", too, right up until the time that it wasn't.

More of us need to do what Susan Romano did here--she stepped up and realized that something wasn't quite right, and she took personal responsibility for the contract she signed (or didn't sign). The simple fact is, predatory lenders can't exist in a world in which there's no viable prey--but if we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, then we're just about guaranteed to find ourselves hunted down by some very capable predators.

It's as true in college as it is in the animal kingdom--predators thrive where prey is most abundant. We need to stop letting ourselves become prey, not blaming the predators for being what they are. Period.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

When I turned on my TV this morning, it was tuned to a re-run of an old Entourage episode, which I decided to stick around and watch. I don't watch the show any more (I got tired of paying HBO's fees a couple years back and cancelled it), but one of the things I always loved about it was its soundtrack. In fact, I'm pretty sure that 80% of songs I downloaded for a year or two (say, 2005-2006) were songs that I'd first heard on the show.

The song that ran over closing credits on today's episode happened to be a personal favorite--Nina Simone's "Sinnerman". It's an oldie but goodie, and it always makes me think of the climactic scene from The Thomas Crown Affair (the Pierce Brosnan version, a great flick). So that's your Song of the Week(end) for this last week in April. I'll present to you not just the song, but the scene from Thomas Crown, because it's awesome. Have a good weekend, people.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An update on prescription drugs

I think it's funny how I sometimes cover certain topics on the blogs in bunches, then ignore them for a while, before coming back to them again (think: China and currency manipulation). I can't fully explain why that's the case, though I'd love to spend some more time thinking about it.

At any rate, the reason I'm thinking about that dynamic today is that I recently came across this article (shared by Tim Iacono) regarding the explosion in painkiller prescriptions--specifically hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin/Percocet)--over the last decade. I was pretty sure that I'd covered this topic before, and indeed I had--three separate times. A sample take-away from what I wrote is this:
In general, I believe that we have become a nation that is incredibly good at treating symptoms, but woefully inadequate at solving underlying problems. Not feeling too happy today? Don't bother asking why, just pop some prozac. Short attention span? Here's some ritalin. Cholesterol hitting the roof? Don't pass on the steak and eggs just yet, just take some lipitor and don't look back. (Yes, I'm getting a little rant-y here, but I think it's justified). 
I've long complained that the problem with most government policy is that it is too reactionary, rather than pro-active. Affirmative action and the Patriot Act are frequent targets of my ire, for exactly that reason. We declared war on drugs without bothering to ask what made drug use so prevalent (could it be that recreational drugs and prescription drugs go hand-in-hand?). We fought a war on terror--and sacrificed personal freedoms--without wondering why we were the target of a terrorist act in the first place (it's best that I not go down that road).
To be clear, this kind of thinking isn't at all unique to government policy--the government (any government) simply reflects what the citizenry demands, and lately the citizenry has demanded that we treat symptoms, not causes. That's why I'm completely unsurprised by these graphics, although the growth rates were staggering even for me. (Side note: given the brand names in question, I'm not totally shocked that oxycodone sales increases have significantly outstripped hydrocodone sales increases over this time period--either way, both have skyrocketed).

[Yahoo! Finance]

Clip of the Week

A few decent things this week. As usual, we've got our full complement of sports highlights, including this slick play by the Blue Jays' Kelly Johnson (nice uniforms, by the way... very Dave Stieb-esque) and this absolutely absurd basketball shot from overseas. Also, Kevin Garnett is an odd dude and the Marlins are a trainwreck.

Then, for those of you who believe that Tupac is still alive, you're absolutely right--vindication is sweet. And if you're into the animal-themed clips, seals are cool and this woman spent way too much time training her cat to do stupid tricks.

But I'm going in a different direction with this week's Clip of the Week. Barry Ritholtz tipped me off to this trailer for "Jerusalem", an upcoming IMAX movie that looks absolutely fascinating. When most of us think about Israel and the Middle East, we likely think about a region that is wrought with turmoil, terrorism, and political instability. But there's a reason that people fight so fiercely over (relatively small) territories in that area of the world, and this amazing trailer shows at least some of those reasons. I thought the trailer was both fascinating and beautiful, and I look forward to seeing the whole IMAX production. Enjoy.

(Belated) Quote of the Week

Yeah, I know, I've been slipping lately. I've been busy with work (for once), and I haven't paid full attention to the blog lately. So be it, I promise I'll make it up to you (seriously, I've got a ton of backed-up material that I've been itching to write about, but haven't gotten around to yet... stick around). Your Quote of the Week this week comes from the Chicago Tribune's Rex Huppke, who penned a clever obituary for "Facts".

The ostensible topic/target of Huppke's column was Florida Rep. Allen West, who recently made waves by claiming that at least 80 House Democrats were, in fact, Communists. Glorious. But obviously, Huppke is just picking up on a trend that's been going on for years now, which I've talked about here before a million times (come to think of it, it's basically my favorite topic). Simply put, honesty and integrity are in short supply these days in politics and journalism, and it's now reaching ridiculous levels (as Stephen Colbert so brilliantly points out in this video).

Get ready for more, because it's an election year, and campaign season is upon us. Remember, 96% of statistics are misleading and made up on the spot. Approximately.


"To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet... Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion. Services are alleged to be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners make a donation to their favorite super PAC."

                        - Rex Huppke, Chicago Tribune

I highly recommend you read the entire "obituary". It's good stuff.

[Chicago Tribune]

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The tail is still wagging the dog at UF

Well, this is a fun one. I've written a couple of times before about the role of athletics at our nation's universities, and whether the tail may be wagging the dog. On both occasions, I discussed the University of Florida, which has been one of the more aggressive institutions in terms of spending on athletics while making cuts elsewhere (like, in academics).

UF clearly believes in the "front porch" theory of running an academic institution, which I've discussed (and partially debunked) in my previous posts. But even for them, this most recent decision is a head-scratcher, and makes one wonder just what the hell the senior administration at UF is thinking.
The University of Florida announced this past week that it was dropping its computer science department, which will allow it to save about $1.4 million.  The school is eliminating all funding for teaching assistants in computer science, cutting the graduate and research programs entirely, and moving the tattered remnants into other departments. 
Let’s get this straight: in the midst of a technology revolution, with a shortage of engineers and computer scientists, UF decides to cut computer science completely?... 
Meanwhile, the athletic budget for the current year is $97.7 million, an increase of more than $2 million from last year.  The increase alone would offset the savings supposedly gained by cutting computer science.
Yeesh. Ironically, Florida Governor Rick Scott just last week approved the creation of a brand new state college, Florida Polytechnic University, specifically to address the state's significant shortage of qualified workers in the so-called "STEM" fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Perhaps UF's cutting of the computer science department was done as part of a broader re-allocation of resources within the state's education system, perhaps not. Either way, something doesn't smell quite right here--why spend millions to create an entire new college when you can just keep (or expand on) what you've already got? It makes little to no sense to slash this department entirely (especially a department that caters to a growing industry) while plowing even more money into athletics, and the indignation throughout the blogosphere is entirely warranted. What is going on here?


Friday, April 20, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

With Fenway Park staging its 100th Annniversary celebration today, I definitely considered going with something Red Sox-themed today. A little Standells, for example... or maybe "Tessie". But I feel like I've been going in that general direction a lot lately, and I just don't feel like doing it again.

So instead, I'll just post up the song that's been in my head all week long, one that my daughter's already been bobbing her head to like the good southern girl that she is. I give you "Wagon Wheel", performed by Old Crow Medicine Show. It's a good tune for the weekend, even if your weekend is expected to be as rainy as mine. Have a good one, people.

Updating "legislative Tourette's" in New York

About a month ago, I took issue with NYC's Department of Education and their recent decision to ban references to dinosaurs, birthdays, Halloween, and basically everything else in city-administered tests. At the time, I wrote:
I mean really, once you've corrected for every single thing that any student could conceivably be "sensitive" to, what is left? Anything?
I should've known better than to ask, because now I've got my answer. Once again from the great state of New York...
Students across the state are still scratching their heads over an absurd state test question about a talking pineapple. 
The puzzler on the eighth-grade reading exam stumped even educators and has critics saying the tests, which are becoming more high stakes, are flawed...
In the story, a take-off on Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare, a talking pineapple challenges a hare to a race. The other animals wager on the immobile pineapple winning — and ponder whether it’s tricking them. 
When the pineapple fails to move and the rabbit wins, the animals dine on the pineapple. 
Students were asked two perplexing questions: why did the animals eat the talking fruit, and which animal was wisest? 
Teachers, principals and parents contacted by The News said they weren’t sure what the answers were.
Wow. So if you're keeping score at home, Halloween is no good, but talking pineapples are a-okay. Sure, why not? I don't know, maybe the test administrators (Pearson) are just having a little fun with an overly bureaucratic process. Or maybe they spent a little too much time watching "Téléfrancais!" in French class back in the day.

But from where I stand, this seems like a pretty foolish way of spending taxpayer dollars, especially when you consider that Pearson was awarded with a $32 million state contract to revamp these very tests. What are we trying to teach our kids? And what skills, exactly, are we trying to ensure that they've gained in the classroom? Does banning references to dinosaurs while asking bizarre and abstract questions about talking pineapples better prepare our children for life in the global economy in the 21st century? What are we doing here?

[NY Daily News]

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Clip of the Week

Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot to choose from this week. It happens sometimes, right? But there were still a few interesting things to watch, so let's do this.

In the world of sports, we had this impressive dunk by Russell Westbrook, as well as this ridiculous throw from Rick Ankiel (which wasn't even the most impressive YouTube effort of Ankiel's career--this was).

We also love animal-related posts here in Clip of the Week, so this guy who almost ran into a bear while texting was a serious contender for this week's top honor.

But the most amusing video I saw this week (in an admittedly weak field) involved this "Safe Sound" device on a Domino's Pizza electric scooter from the Netherlands, which uses a recorded human-generated engine noise to warn passengers that the otherwise-silent vehicle is in its midst. While I can see this getting extremely annoying, it's nevertheless a creative and humorous solution to a growing problem, and maybe it can help prevent issues like, oh I don't know, these accidents from happening.

Picture of the Day

Every once in a while I get the urge to share a photo that catches my eye. Today, this picture did just that, and I thought it was worth sharing. I've always thought the Bay Bridge deserved more love than it got--always living in the shadow of the Golden Gate--and hopefully this cool lightning strike picture helps it get some of the love it deserves.

(via Flickr)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Goldman, "asymmetric service", Apple, and (the lack of) jail time

It's been a little while since I ranted about the rampant and blatant illegality that is allowed to persist on Wall Street ever since the bailout (because, remember, Wall Street is our Main Street), but I simply can't let the events of the last week go by without mention. I'll present to you three separate news items, all of which... ahem... may or may not be related.

First up, directly from our friends at the SEC (dated April 12th, emphasis mine):
The Securities and Exchange Commission today charged that Goldman, Sachs & Co. lacked adequate policies and procedures to address the risk that during weekly “huddles,” the firm’s analysts could share material, nonpublic information about upcoming research changes. Huddles were a practice where Goldman’s stock research analysts met to provide their best trading ideas to firm traders and later passed them on to a select group of top clients. 
Goldman agreed to settle the charges and will pay a $22 million penalty. Goldman also agreed to be censured, to be subject to a cease-and-desist order, and to review and revise its written policies and procedures to correct the deficiencies identified by the SEC. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) also announced today a settlement with Goldman for supervisory and other failures related to the huddles. 
“Higher-risk trading and business strategies require higher-order controls,” said Robert S. Khuzami, Director of the Commission’s Division of Enforcement. “Despite being on notice from the SEC about the importance of such controls, Goldman failed to implement policies and procedures that adequately controlled the risk that research analysts could preview upcoming ratings changes with select traders and clients.” 
The SEC in an administrative proceeding found that from 2006 to 2011, Goldman held weekly huddles sometimes attended by sales personnel in which analysts discussed their top short-term trading ideas and traders discussed their views on the markets. In 2007, Goldman began a program known as the Asymmetric Service Initiative (ASI) in which analysts shared information and trading ideas from the huddles with select clients. 
According to the SEC’s order, the programs created a serious risk that Goldman’s analysts could share material, nonpublic information about upcoming changes to their published research with ASI clients and the firm’s traders. The SEC found these risks were increased by the fact that many of the clients and traders engaged in frequent, high-volume trading.
Okay, so for those of you keeping score at home, Goldman admitted to engaging in a blatant insider trading scheme (with a very catchy name, the Asymmetric Service Initiative) for several years before and after the bailout, and paid a paltry $22 million fine as a result. Similar behavior by you or me would land us in jail for several years, but that's beside the point.

Up next, from last night, per Reuters (again, emphasis mine):
U.S. stocks scored their biggest gains in a month on Tuesday after Coca-Cola led a round of strong earnings and as concerns about Europe's debt crisis eased as Spanish bond yields fell. 
Apple Inc shares ended a five-day losing streak with a rally of 5.1 percent, helping the Nasdaq Composite close above 3,000. The stock closed at $609.70 and booked its best day in almost three months after it dropped 8.8 percent in the previous five sessions.
Wow, that's a pretty strong rally after a pretty ugly sell-off. I wonder who was buying... NEXT! From this morning...
In a research note this morning Goldman Sachs is not only sticking with its its “conviction” buy rating on Apple, but it also boosted its 12-month price target on the stock to $750 from $700. 
“Despite recent volatility, we continue to believe Apple’s shares are very attractive at current levels,” said Bill Shope, an analyst at Goldman. “It remains our top pick, and we’d be buyers ahead of March-quarter results.”
Oh, really? You "would be" buyers? Ahead of "March-quarter results"? YOU ALREADY WERE the f*%$^&cking buyers, ahead of your own freaking upgrade, you scumbags (ahem, allegedly).

This is truly epic. The week after Goldman admits to the SEC that it's been kinda, sorta, possibly, illegally leaking info regarding its rating calls to its own traders and top clients for years, it goes ahead and (ahem, allegedly) does the exact same thing with Apple, the largest market-cap company in the world (and therefore also one of the most watched and most heavily traded). That's... bold.

Not surprisingly, Apple stock opened up higher this morning, then began to sell off after the initial pop. What do I think happened? Privileged clients got the leaked info, bought ahead of the news (along with Goldman's traders), then sold some or all of their shares back out today to the suckers on the street who waited for the news to become public. It's a cute trick, and it's also viciously illegal (it's basically a variation on the old "pump and dump", but nobody was ever bold enough to try to pull it off on a huge company on this kind of scale... until Goldman). But no worries, just pay a small token fine and all is well. Move along, folks.

"Asymmetric service", indeed. I'll tell you what, I'm going to start a bank robbery scheme, but I'm going to refer to it as my "Selective Wealth Redistribution Program"... think I'll be able to get away with that one by just agreeing to pay back a small portion of what I stole? Yeah... I didn't think so.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Quote of the Week

I never intended for Quote of the Week to become the Crimson Cavalier's version of Sports Illustrated's "This Week's Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us", but increasingly it seems like that's what it's becoming. So be it. I don't make the news, I just re-package it and add snarky commentary.

This week, we've once again got co-champions, since it seems like everyone in the world these days is in a race to say (or do) the dumbest possible thing. My money is still on Jose Canseco in this race, but the field is strong. First up, the European Central Bank, as reported by Mish Shedlock (pardon the weird grammar, blame Google Translate for the clumsy translation).

This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK #1

"The personal representative of the [European] central bank is now demanding that the employees pensions would be protected against inflation. It requires that an insurance against their own failure."
                       - Frankfurter Allgemeine, via Mish Shedlock

This is truly special. The ECB, like the Fed, is supposedly charged with upholding the stability of the region's primary currency (the Euro). They know, however, that their policies (like the recent LTRO) are incredibly destabilizing in the long-run, and they therefore want to ensure that they are protected from the damage caused by their own policies. This is akin to a doctor demanding that his salary increase every time he is sued for malpractice--it would be laughable in that case, and it should be laughable here as well.

You know what else is laughable? California politics. I give you Jerry Brown:

This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK #2

"Brown also defended calling his proposal a 'millionaires tax' on his initiative campaign website, even though the income threshold would be $250,000.

'Anybody who makes $250,000 becomes a millionaire very quickly if you save it. You just need four years,' Brown said. 'It is a millionaires tax. It taxes millionaires, right? And it’s for schools. And it protects public safety.'"
                  - Don Thompson, Associated Press (via Falkenblog)

Wow, buddy. Now, I'm not going to sit here and ask you all to feel pity for anyone who earns $250k a year, but the sheer innumeracy of Brown's argument is simply maddening. First of all, we're talking about $250k in pre-tax income here, not post-tax, so you're already taking Brown's "four years" and bumping it up to at least 7 or 8. Second of all... WHO THE HELL SAVES 100% OF THEIR INCOME???

Let's see, the U.S. personal savings rate is sitting at 3.7% right now, and Bernanke and friends are doing their best to drive that down even lower. If we assume that the hypothetical $250k wage-earner is taxed at a combined 40% between Fed and state, that leaves him with $150k in take-home money. Even if we assume that the savings rate among the richest Americans is higher than that for the average American (a fair assumption), and we place this hypothetical $250k wage-earner's savings rate at an ambitious 15%, that leaves him with an annual savings of $22,500. That's a nice chunk of change, but we've just taken our "four years" and bumped it up to "44 years". Sorta a big difference, don't you think?

But... of course... if our friend just invests his money on the CalPERS plan, he can assume a robust 7.5% annual return on his money, which means... oh, screw it all, whatever, we're all millionaires now. Thanks, Jerry.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Clip of the Week

I inadvertently put a premature end to the pre-weekend "flurry of posts", so we'll pick up where we left off on this lovely Marathon Monday. First up, it's (last week's) Clip of the Week.

There was a lot of material from the Masters last weekend--this hole-in-one and this hole-in-one were cool, I guess... but they weren't even the best shots hit that day, since this double eagle was cooler, but even that guy couldn't win the tournament because this guy hit this shot which apparently did something like this. Good talk.

If you're into movies or Hitchcock or Jimmy Stewart, or movies by Hitchcock starring Jimmy Stewart, then you'll probably get a kick out of this cool time-lapse video compilation of scenes from "Rear Window". I thought it was an incredibly impressive piece of work, and it almost won this week's top honor.

So did this inspirational ad/video for Nike's "Make It Count" campaign and this cool look at how a plane gets built (and painted, which apparently takes even longer than the construction).

But there was only one video this week that really stuck with me, and it was this video of an old man in a nursing home who is basically brought back to life simply by listening to some music from his era. It's an amazing statement about the power of music, and it was wild to watch (even if it's a bit longer than the usual Clip of the Week fare).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dedication (Pic of the Year)

Courtesy of Deadspin, this might be my favorite picture of the year so far.

In other news, Instagram has no revenues but sold for a billion dollars. I am in the wrong business.

Quote of the Week

Oh, hi there. Haven't seen you guys in a while. My apologies for my unplanned one-week hiatus. I'll just blame things on tax season (doing business taxes sucks) and then we'll get back to business as usual. Sound good? Alright, cool.

I've actually had a good amount of material to post up here, but I just haven't gotten around to writing about it all. The good news is, that probably means a few good posts up here in the next couple of weeks. It also means I'm about to send you folks into the weekend with a flurry of posts, just the way you like it.

First up is your Quote of the Week. Originally, I'd planned to pass along President Obama's "warning" to the Supreme Court, in which he once again showed his utter disregard for the Constitution and its ingenious system of checks and balances. (Incidentally, I highly suggest that you read the linked article from Mish Shedlock--it includes a great overview of Obamacare that I think should be required reading). But I didn't feel like ending my one-week hiatus on a bitter note, with rants about Presidential duties and political this-and-that. It's all just so... tiresome.

So while I may get back to that topic at some point in the future, for today I'm sticking to happier things. Things like this ridiculous free-kick goal from Cristiano Ronaldo against Atletico Madrid, and Ray Hudson's absolutely amazing call of it. After referring to the goal (he calls it a "wunderstrike") as "a wet dream of orgasmic proportions", he follows up with one of my favorite lines in sports announcing history, one that might as well have been ripped out of a Kanye West song. Al Michaels, eat your heart out.


"This has got more curves to it than Jessica Rabbit on steroids."
                            - Ray Hudson, GOL TV commentator

Yes it does, Ray. Yes it does.

(h/t Deadspin)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Clip of the Week

Easy decision this week for Clip of the Week.

While we had some worthy competitors with this guy's dunk contest performance, Martin Kaymer's awesome trick-shot hole-in-one at Augusta, this guy doing the worm, and this preview of my daughter's future athletic life, we had a hands-down winner this week.

In honor of the Masters this weekend (which I've always considered to be the unofficial start to the golf season), I'm going to share with you the secret to golfing success: playing with the right balls. With help from actor John O'Hurley (who will always be J. Peterman to me), I introduce to you the latest golf ball craze... Rangé balls. Enjoy.

Side note, for those of you who aren't offended by filthy language and have an affinity for well-executed sophomoric humor (like I do), I'd also recommend this red-band trailer for "Ted". I've rarely laughed so hard in my life, and I'm absolutely going to see this movie this summer. Enjoy your weekend, folks.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The explosion in obesity

This chart comes courtesy of Tim Iacono, and it absolutely blew me away. I knew that obesity rates had been soaring, but I didn't appreciate how much and how quickly.

Every state in the country has seen an increase in obesity over the last 20 years, and many of these increases have been dramatic--consider that in 1994, not a single state had an obesity rate greater than 20%, but by 2008, only one state (Colorado) has a rate below that same 20% threshold. Tennessee and Oklahoma somehow pulled off the incredible feat of going from sub-15% to over-30% during this time period. Yikes.

Ultimately, this map raises as many questions for me (Why did it soar so quickly? Is it a result of a broad-based change in our food supply? Or is it due to a change in behavior in response to economic factors, like consistently "accommodative" monetary policy?) as it does concerns (How the hell are we going to afford to pay for all the health problems that this obesity creates? Am I totally certain that I'm doing everything in my power to avoid becoming part of that statistical trend?). I think this dynamic therefore has incredibly wide-ranging implications for our nation, encompassing issues both political and societal, and both in terms of public health and economic sustainability.

Along with the fate of Social Security and other public and private pension plans, I think that this dynamic will turn out to be one of the most important ones to keep track of over the next 20 to 25 years. How we as a society decide to deal with our ever-growing group of elderly citizens, as well as our overweight (or otherwise unhealthy) citizens will in large part determine the fate of our nation as a whole. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Quote of the Week

For this week's Quote of the Week, I initially wanted to go with this relatively benign quote about India, which taught me that I'd probably go crazy within about 2 hours of setting foot in Mumbai--it seems that Indian drivers so zealously use their car horns that German carmaker Audi has to make special horns for the cars they sell in that country. Given how insanely angry I used to get at the unnecessary horn usage in Manhattan (mostly by cabbies, many of whom are incidentally from that same corner of the world), I'd probably go completely postal in Mumbai. I... hate... excessive honking.

But that's maybe a little too personal of a quote--perhaps you readers don't harbor the same vitriolic disdain for horn-honking that I do. So I decided to go in a different direction, and give the honor to an extra-special quote about the culture in Spain, a country that seems poised to join the ranks of Greece and Italy in "oh crap, we're screwed" territory. From the Daily Mail...


"Spain's high-class escorts are refusing to have sex with the nation's bankers - until they open up credit lines to cash-strapped families and firms. Madrid's top-end prostitutes say their indefinite strike will continue until bank employees 'fulfill their responsibility to society' and start offering bigger loans for struggling Spaniards, it has been claimed. Sneaky bankers were trying to circumvent the protest by claiming to be architects or engineers, the sex-workers said."
                      - Lee Moran, Daily Mail

Yeah... sounds like things are really going great over there, huh? And clearly, more debt is always the solution to a crisis that was caused by too much debt. Right.

On the plus side, you've gotta give the hookers points for creativity. Ultimately their ultimatum likely won't matter, because they probably need the money more than the bankers need dirty extra-marital sex, but maybe I'm wrong. Either way, these are some seriously interesting times that we live in...

[Daily Mail]

R.I.P. Micah True

I was saddened to read this weekend of the passing of running legend Micah True, a somewhat reclusive man who was nevertheless made famous by Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, which I wrote about here way back in the day.
Up mountainsides, through deserts and the wildest of rugged terrain, there was little that could break the serenity or solitude of Micah True as he ran. Only, perhaps, the pounding beat of his heart or the rhythm of his feet as they hit the trail, mile after mile after mile. 
For True, running -- the pure act of traveling relentlessly long distances -- was a passion that needed no justification. To those who knew him well, it also brought forth an intense playfulness in the 58-year-old ultra-marathon runner. 
"When he was out on the trail running, it was like someone just rang the school bell and said, 'Recess.' It was utter playfulness," recalled Chris McDougall, a friend of True's and author of the nonfiction best-seller "Born to Run." 
True's body was discovered Saturday evening in a remote part of southern New Mexico's Gila Wilderness. The search began for him days earlier after he failed to return Tuesday from a 12-mile run... 
Barry Anderson, a manager at Runner's Den in Phoenix, said the sport would greatly miss True. 
"He was both an international running celebrity, and the first person to smile and shake your hand when you crossed the finish line behind him," Anderson wrote in a posting on Runner's Den Facebook page. "The fact that so many people from all over the country dropped everything and immediately went to his aid is testimony to the way he lived his life and the way he himself treated his friends." 
Many on Sunday described True in the most reverential and laudatory of terms, with "legendary" and "inspirational" chief among them... 
True was the race director of The Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a 50-plus mile extreme race that took place in Urique, Mexico. This year's race marked a record turnout with hundreds of runners, most of them local Tarahumara, or Raramuri, Indians who are known for their extreme running. The prize money and corn vouchers awarded to finishers were all aimed at helping the Tarahumara. 
True was featured in articles in running magazines and was a central character -- known by his nickname, "Caballo Blanco" -- in McDougall's "Born to Run."... 
Without True, McDougall said he's not sure whether the Copper Canyon race will be able to continue. The Tarahumara are extraordinarily reclusive and True was able to build a relationship with them based on trust and confidence, he said. 
"He is the only person, I think, in our lifetime who has done a great job of very respectfully bringing awareness of that tradition to the rest of the world and creating a race that is a celebration of who they are."... 
Mark Cosmas, owner of iRun in Phoenix, said True was all about living life and helping other people enjoy running. 
"He might not have been the fastest or the most talented, but the joy and the passion that he brought to the ultra-running community was just infectious," Cosmas said. 
Some found solace in the fact that True died doing what he loved most -- what he did most every day of his life. 
To grasp the importance of running to True and a glimpse of that playfulness all his friends talked about, look no further than the short greeting on his voice mail: "Chances are I'm either running up a mountain, or I'm drinking a cerveza ..."
I'm usually not so good with the eulogies (those who know me best probably know me as an emotionless clod), but for True I'll give it my best shot, even though I never met the man. If you haven't yet read McDougall's book--and if you have even a passing interest in running--I highly suggest you take this as an opportunity to do so. Everyone who met El Caballo speaks about him in the same glowing terms as those quoted in the above excerpt, and I can't help but be similarly impressed from a distance.

True was clearly a unique and "colorful" character (much as I dislike that term) who lived life by his own rules, in his own way. In our increasingly homogenized society, I think that's something that's as admirable as it is rare.

I always aspire to have a little bit more Micah True in me, if only so that I can better enjoy each day in front of me without worrying about what tomorrow brings. Running, for me, is one of the few things that helps give me that perspective, and I'm glad that I've discovered it as an outlet (even if took me nearly 30 years to do so).

I'll be taking this opportunity to re-read McDougall's book, which I find to be both fascinating and oddly inspirational. I hope you'll feel the same way about the book and about Micah True. R.I.P.