as a weekly practice I listen to npr and do a little sketch on one of the stories. take a look, you can click on the illustration to make it bigger!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Prefab Home Designer Bucks A Downward Trend

It's not often that the terms "prefabricated home" and "modern architecture" are heard together. But a young architect in Missouri has spent a decade figuring out how to bring low prices to the realm of high design. And Rocio Romero's homes — with their corrugated metal walls, huge windows and strong horizontal lines — are selling despite a dismal housing market.

One of her sleek designs about an hour's drive from St. Louis sits in sharp contrast to the neighboring hog barn. Step inside, though, and the grassy rural landscape rolls into a bright, uncluttered interior. All the open space makes the home feel much larger than its 1,200 square feet.

The two-bedroom, two-bath model, called the LV, is the standard house by Romero's company. But what's not immediately obvious is that much of the house was flat-packed, like so much IKEA furniture, and trucked here. Romero says that building her way puts the architect in full control.

"Fabricating my components enables me to ensure that every customer is going to get the home the way that I had envisioned it," she said. In home design, "modern" usually means expensive. But Romero says constructing the wall panels and other big pieces offsite saves money without sacrificing quality. Her LV house costs about the same or even less per square foot than a normal stick-built home.

New York Times design columnist Allison Arieff says it's still plenty stylish. "It's really simple. It's really clean," Arieff noted. "And so I think what Rocio's done is create a design that's sophisticated, but it's certainly not overdone." Architects such as Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright saw the benefits of prefab decades ago, but their ideas never caught on. After World War II, a company called Lustron even tried manufacturing steel houses for returning GIs — by repurposing idled war factories.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Little Luxuries Faring Well In Flagging Economy

businesses are doing poorly in the down economy.There are bargain-type businesses, such as thrift shops, that naturally thrive in tough economic times. There are others, however, in the business of luxury goods and services that are also doing well, surprising even themselves.

The 1-On-1 Self-Indulgence Spa, in Concord, Mass., a lush and exotic retreat, offers everything from couples massage to a chocolate body wrap or an afternoon of pampering in the "hands and feet sanctuary." Owner Cindy McCullough is the first to concede that she expected to be selling fewer such indulgences in a down economy. "I told my staff, 'Brace yourselves,' " she says. "It may be slow. We may be dead. We may not have anybody."
But instead, McCullough says sales are up some 10 percent over her previous record high, and she has had to hire more massage therapists.

"It's shocking," she says. "You know, you check the books twice, and when you look at the numbers, I go to my business partner and we're just ecstatic." McCullough says she keeps hearing the same story: People are cutting out their big expenses like vacation and travel — and spending more on smaller indulgences.

That's exactly what 50-year-old Donna Tito, from Charlestown, Mass., is doing. She says she's been working extra nursing shifts since her husband, an investment real estate broker, saw his income cut in half. So when it came time for vacation, she says, "I tried to get my husband to go away, but he said 'no way.' So, I said, well, I'll just stay home and get a massage and maybe some facials, and try to take care of myself and treat myself a little."

Just across the street, there's a similar story at a studio called Yoga And Nia For Life. In a jam-packed dance class, two dozen women stretch and breathe to relaxing music. In the back is 48-year-old Lisa Daigle, a small-business owner from Harvard, Mass., who decided this year to cut the expense of her usual exotic travels, and to instead stay home and indulge in more of what she calls "self-care." "I've been on safari to Kenya, and I've seen Mount Kilimanjaro," Daigle says. "I've seen the sunset at 11 o'clock at night in Copenhagen, I've seen whales come up in the middle of the ocean when I'm sailing, and I'm not saying I would not go on these vacations again — don't get me wrong — but I don't feel regrets or denial [by staying home], because I can go to two classes a day, and then go out to the coffee shop and get a new pair of shoes and a massage, and it's probably a quarter of what I would spend if I went away.

"And when I go back to work, I don't have to worry if revenues are down or if some extra expense came in," she says. "I'm totally relaxed, because I'm going to a dance class that's designed to really nurture your mind and your body and your spirit, and I think there's a very transformative effect." That's exactly the kind of "comfort consumption" that experts say always spikes during stressful times like a recession. Add in the substitution effect — that people are traveling less, eating out at restaurants less and staying home more, and it's no wonder business is booming as well at liquor stores.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama Sworn In As Nation's 44th President

President Barack Obama waves alongside his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, as former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, leave the U.S. Capitol by helicopter after Obama was sworn in as the 44th president.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, January 12, 2009

At Obama's Request, Bush Seeks Bailout Money

The White House says President Bush, at President-elect Barack Obama's request, has asked Congress to release the remaining $350 billion intended to help the nation deal with its financial crisis. White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush acted Monday after the request was made. She said the Bush White House will continue working with Obama's transition team and with Congress on how best to proceed with the release of the money. The idea is to make the money available to the new administration shortly after Obama takes office Jan. 20. The unpopular bailout has featured unconditional infusions of money into financial institutions that have done little to account for it.

"I have talked to the president-elect about this subject and I told him if he felt he needed the $350 billion that I would ask for it," Bush said at a news conference earlier Monday. "He hasn't asked me to make the request yet and I don't intend to make the request unless he specifically asks for it." Shortly after the news conference, the White House announced Obama had made the request. The request would give Obama the opportunity not only to get access to the money but also to change its goals and conditions. The Bush administration's handling of the first $350 billion has come under widespread criticism in Congress and from watchdog organizations.

Obama had signaled that he was eager to use the money to help reduce the number of mortgage foreclosures and that he wanted to place greater restrictions on institutions that receive the funds. The move comes as Democrats in the House of Representatives are preparing to act on legislation that had some of the same intentions.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, January 2, 2009

Coping With An Autistic Brother: A Teenager's Take

Each year, approximately one child in every 150 is diagnosed with autism. Eleven-year-old Andrew Skillings is one of those children. He has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism.

For Andrew's older sister Marissa, her brother's diagnosis has affected every aspect of her life from the time he was born. She was almost 5 and shared a room with Andrew. Marissa says she remembers those first few weeks he was home. "I decided he needed to go back where he came from, because as a baby he never, ever stopped screaming," she says. Then the Skillings found out Andrew had a mental disability. Recently, Marissa described what it's like to live with a little brother who has frequent meltdowns — and who she tries to protect.

"I'd kill for him. But I could kill him, too. He talks. Nonstop. Talking and talking," Marissa says. "He'll tell anybody information about an animal, whether they want to hear it or not. People can tell Andrew has a disability because of his hand gestures and the way he moves when he gets nervous. "He moves his hands back and forth; and he'll walk with his hands down by his sides just shaking his hands; and he likes to crack his knuckles when he's nervous, and he'll keep doing the movement even if they don't crack." As Marissa says, their sibling relationship is different from "two normal siblings" because of his autism.

"Because socially he needs help, so I have to protect him and be there for him more than a normal big sister would," she says. "He freaks out, like if I won't get out of the bathroom and I tell him to shut up, he'll grab a kitchen knife and come over to the door and open the door and chase me around the house with a knife. I know he'd never touch me with it, but when he's running with a knife pointed towards me and I'm running, if he tripped, then something bad could happen." Marissa says she stays out with her friends until her curfew so she can avoid dealing with her brother's disability.

"I started staying away from home around 5 or 6," she says. "I'd stay outside or at a friend's as late as I could until my mom called me home. I can sit down and talk with my parents, but a lot of times, it's like Andrew's always trying to explain something about a cheetah or a jaguar or something in the jungle that has no importance on anyone's life. But if I interrupt him, he gets mad and then it turns into a tantrum and my mom gets mad, and I'm just like, 'I don't even want to talk to you guys anymore.' "

Marissa says she has seen kids tease Andrew, and it's not unusual at his age. One day, she says, a boy was throwing rocks at Andrew. Andrew tried to shield himself with cardboard, but a rock flew over the cardboard and hit him in the head. Andrew ran into the house crying, and when Marissa found out what happened, she chased the boy down the street and cornered him. "I smacked him across the face and he was cornered, and my face I'm sure was beet-red, and I was like, 'Just do it again and I'll punch you right in your mouth,' " Marissa says. "I was mad because no one can beat up my brother except me."

"Sometimes, if I get really frustrated, I just wish I could change everything: Sell him to the zoo and buy new parents," Marissa says. "But then the times when I'm actually appreciating things and I'm not in the moment when I'm steaming mad, I do appreciate what I have." "I don't think I'd change anything, 'cause this is my life and this is what I'm used to. Andrew wouldn't be like the Andrew I know and love if he was different, because autism is his whole personality."

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Despite Low Oil Prices, Airlines Foresee Tough Year

Airlines suffering under the burden of high oil prices earlier this year have been given a reprieve. Last summer, oil was selling for about $140 a barrel. Since then, the price has dropped below $40 a barrel. But just as the airline industry starts posting some profits, a poor economy is threatening to hurt business.

"We thought, up until about two weeks ago, it was going to be a pretty good year," says airline industry analyst Mike Boyd. "But now, demand is dropping like a piano off the 20th floor." Boyd predicts airlines will have 15 percent fewer passengers in 2009. Add to that the fact that many airlines aren't getting the full benefit of lower fuel prices.

Betting the wrong way on fuel-hedging contracts cost Frontier $2.4 million in November, but that was minor compared to some of the big airlines. Southwest, United and Delta are among those that had to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for collateral to guarantee their hedges. Even with those costs, however, the lower fuel prices have been great news for airlines. Frontier, for example, posted a $2.9 million net profit in November. That's not bad for a company that was forced into bankruptcy last spring. Most predict the small airline will emerge fairly strong from bankruptcy sometime in 2009, with its new fees for checked baggage fully intact.

Across the industry, airlines said they needed checked-baggage fees to offset high fuel costs. If airlines were hoping customers wouldn't notice that the underlying reason for those fees has gone away, they have. "I don't think it's fair the airlines should be continuing on with the extra charges that they've been imposing on people," said Lupe Felix of Colorado Springs, Colo. Given the industry's history of offering meals and extra services even to those holding the cheapest tickets, Alan Robins of Philadelphia says being nickel-and-dimed is tough to get used to.

"For example, we flew U.S. Air, and they charge a dollar for a cup of coffee," Robins said. "Now a dollar for a cup of coffee is reasonable, but the concept of being charged is not." Flyers shouldn't expect any relief from extra fees anytime soon. Airlines are focused on survival and preparing for a lean 2009. They are hoarding cash while they still can, hoping that will get them through until the economy improves.

-excerpt from NPR