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!

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sudanese Basketball Dynasty Scouts Fresh Talent

Move over, Chapel Hill. Make room, Louisville. Quit hogging the spotlight, Villanova. There's another basketball powerhouse town that's big-footing the rest: Juba, Southern Sudan, otherwise known as "land of a million giants." Every March, when it comes time to predict the NCAA Championship team, it behooves a fan to place at least one loyalty bet on the hometown boys and girls. In college ball, heart can go the distance. Duany Duany knows. He helped take the University of Wisconsin to the Final Four in 2000 before playing professionally in Europe and the Philippines. But during this and every March Madness, Duany bets on Juba — never mind that the town has only one basketball court.

"When I was playing at Wisconsin, the one thing I used to say to the coaches and my teammates is, 'Yeah, I'm lucky and I'm blessed, but there are a lot more kids in Southern Sudan who [have] way more talent, but they just never had the opportunity,' " Duany says.

All In The Family

Let the record show that Juba has already gone all the way. The Duanys of Juba are the only family to have had four children playing in the NCAA at the same time: four kids, four scholarships to four top schools — Wisconsin, Bradley, Syracuse and Georgetown. Duany Duany's little brother Kueth was captain of the Syracuse team that won the championship in 2003 — their mother has the Sports Illustrated to prove it. Because of a long civil war in Sudan, the Duany kids grew up in Bloomington, Ind.

"If you grow up in the U.S., everybody knows the state of Indiana basically as the basketball state," Duany Duany says. "In every backyard, you have a basketball court. In the summertime, we'd be there from 9 a.m. until one o'clock in the morning. And we got good because we played so much." And they kept growing. Duany's little brother — the Syracuse Orangeman — is 6 feet 6 1/2 inches. Their baby brother, a former Eastern Illinois Panther, is 6 feet 7 1/2.

But while the Duany brothers are remarkable in the U.S. for their height, they seem to be just average in Juba, where the women stand above 6 feet and a 6-foot-5-inch man can have a Napoleon complex. Just ask Duany how tall he is. "Well, I played at 6 feet 5. Legitimately, I would say 6 feet 4 1/2. So I say, give it to me," he says, joking that considering the way he jumped, he played 6 feet 8 inches.

Height: You Can't Teach It

Now that the war is over, the Duany kids have come to recruit in their homeland. They are looking for young Southern Sudanese to play ball for prep school scholarships in the United States. Prep school can lead to a Division I college, which can then lead to the NBA. And who better to try than the kids from around here? At 13 or 14, a kid might already be 6 feet 7 or 8.

"That's something you can't teach," Duany says. "When I find them, I say, 'Hey do you play basketball?' And they don't even know what basketball is. I just tell them, all you have to do is catch the ball and dunk it. Get down there and get a rebound." Some of their high school recruits are already playing college bastketball, including Mac Koshwal at DePaul University. Steven Yien just graduated from the University of South Carolina, where he was a Gamecock. Tang Okol will play next year at Oklahoma State, and John Riek will play for the University of Cincinnati.

Riek is 7 feet 2 inches with a wingspan of a man 7 feet 8. Maybe, if he eats his Wheaties, he can grow up to be an NBA star like his fellow countryman Manute Bol. There has never been any player taller than Bol. But Duany says that for most recruits, college ball will have to be enough. "Enjoy your moment, right there. It's going to go by fast. And if you are lucky enough to play in the NCAA and play at a great institution and go to the tournaments and get the chance that we got and especially to get a ring. We were actually lucky and blessed to do that. "

Brotherly Rivalry

And yet, the Duanys still can't shake the vapors of competition from their blood. Duany's younger sister, Nora, was a Georgetown Hoya. She is currently Miss Southern Sudan and plans to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. And don't get Duany talking about losing to Michigan State in 2000. It's as if it happened yesterday. But he did get that ring out of it. "It says NCAA on the side. It has the year we went, 2000. On the other side, it's got Badgers, Wisconsin. It's got your name," he says.

The ring is platinum with diamonds. "My brother's is probably nicer, because he's got the championship ring. Mine is the Final Four," he says, laughing. In the Duany family, every day is March Madness.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, March 30, 2009

Levitation Toys Really Test Brain Power

Remember playing with dolls or action figures, using your imagination to create fantastic worlds in your own bedroom? New toys due out later this year also use the power of the mind -– but these playthings are actually controlled by brain waves.

With both Mattel's "Mind Flex" and Uncle Milton's "The Force Trainer," the goal is to focus your thoughts in order to levitate a ball. There are no blinking lights or 3-D graphics -– just a wireless headset, a lightweight ball and a fan. Both toys use a modified form of electroencephalography — or EEG — technology to measure electrical signals emitted by the brain, says Jim Sullivan of NeuroSky, the company that created the technology that makes the toys work.

The signals are applied to algorithms that were developed by researchers after careful study of people in various states of attention, Sullivan says. With the right focus, the signals trigger a fan. The harder the player concentrates, the stronger the fan blows — and the higher the ball elevates. Both toys will be priced somewhere in the $80 to $100 range.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Boy Scout's Good Deed, Thwarted By Racism

Historian John Hope Franklin, who died this week at 94, both chronicled and lived through racism in America. One of those firsthand experiences with racism came when he was a 12-year-old boy in Tulsa, Okla., in the 1920s. "It was my first year as a Boy Scout, and I'm very, very excited about fulfilling all of the obligations of the Boy Scouts, and I've got so much enthusiasm and so much anxiety to be the best Boy Scout I can possibly be," he told his son, John W. Franklin, last year.

"One of the admonitions that we had was that we had to do a good deed every day," he said. So, while standing at a street corner in downtown Tulsa, Franklin was eyeing an opportunity to help while waiting for the light to turn, he recalled. "And I saw this woman as she was stepping off the curb — and she had a cane — and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, she can't see,' " Franklin said. "And so I walked up to her and I said 'Could I help you cross?' She said, 'Oh, yes, I'm so glad.' And she grabbed on my arm as though I was the last person on earth."

"We got about halfway across the street — and she's so happy and laughing and talking — she said, 'Are you white or black?' And I told her I was colored, and she said, 'Get your filthy hands off of me,' and I got my hands off of her," Franklin said. Franklin said that he had reflected on that moment: "That this woman, who could not see and who was in desperate need of help, was not as interested in help as she was in being certain that a young black man didn't touch her. And that if she couldn't see, she certainly couldn't know whether my hands were clean or dirty. And I knew then that we were in deep trouble to overcome that kind of racial hostility."

- excerpt from NPR

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Does Getting Angry Make You Angrier?

Anger seems to be the emotion of the moment. The president says he's angry. Members of Congress say they're angry. The public, we're told, is angry. But should angry people act out how they feel? The popular idea is that venting your anger helps get rid of it. There's even a woman in San Diego who makes money helping people do that. But now, psychologists are saying that venting does more harm than good.

The Woman Who Throws Plates For A Living

The story of Sarah Lavely's business began shortly after her husband of 12 years left her cold, alone in a house in New Hampshire. After her husband's departure, Lavely took up an unusual hobby. Every morning, she would go out her front door and smash his belongings in her long, asphalt driveway. "It was fabulous," says Lavely. "I was picking stuff up and holding it up over my head and smashing it straight down on my driveway … really good."

Lavely enjoyed the cathartic anger, though some psychologists are now saying that this isn't the most effective approach. Lavely decided to move back to California and stay temporarily with her mother. But a couple of days after the move, she woke up one morning yearning again for destruction. Realizing she no longer had a forum for her impulses, she had a Field of Dreams moment: She decided that she would build a small store — a refuge for frustrated people old and young who wanted an outlet for their aggression. Today, about 200 customers a week carry their anger to Sarah's Smash Shack in downtown San Diego. For around $25 a head, Lavely provides dishware, protective gear and the felt-tipped pens that people use to write on the plates they then violently fling at the walls.

A Change in Our Thinking About Cathartic Anger

The idea that it's important and healthy to vent your anger in some way has been around for a long time. Aristotle believed it; Freud also was a fan. But in the United States the idea only really exploded in the late 1960s and '70s. There was primal scream therapy and a whole bunch of other individual therapies premised on the idea that it was good to let it all hang out. Even businesses instituted T-groups — groups where people were encouraged to speak absolutely honestly with each other about their feelings. But now the pendulum has swung. Psychology professor Jeffrey Lohr of the University of Arkansas says that decades of research on cathartic anger — the theory that actively expressing your anger can reduce or relieve the feeling — has produced a clear conclusion.

"Punching pillows and breaking dishes doesn't reduce subsequent anger expression," he says. "That, the research shows clearly." In fact, the research very clearly shows the opposite is true: The more you get angry, the angrier you get. And, so, researchers across the nation are now on a campaign to recast our view of anger expression. Sadly, even screaming is now out of vogue because arousal just increases your arousal. So no more screaming at your family. (Hear that, Mom?)

Moving In the Other Direction

Of course, getting people to behave this way will probably be an uphill battle. Lohr and his ragtag crew of academic aggression researchers are even having problems convincing everyday mental health practitioners to consistently adopt their recommendations. Many therapists seem to be attached to the idea that you really should convincingly air your feelings. Now, to be clear, Lohr isn't pro-repression. Repression, he says, can also be bad for you. The key is to speak out your anger without getting emotional about it. Basically, we're not supposed to yell at anyone anymore. In fact, Lohr claims the immediate sense of release we get after screaming or breaking plates is an illusion.

"You have the sense of immediate improvement, but it's only a sense," Lohr says. "The real question is: Would you feel any less uncomfortable if you didn't vent?" For her part, Sarah Lavely of the Smash Shack isn't buying it. "I've never seen someone come in angry, go in the room, smash stuff and come out angrier," she says. "I think that cathartic anger, at least what I'm seeing at the Smash Shack, is absolutely a positive thing." Lavely says her business has been growing over the past year and, despite the economy, is growing still.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thousands Of GM Workers Get Company Cars, Gas

General Motors continues to slash costs. But even as the company asks for more taxpayer loans, there's one perk GM refuses to give up: a company car and company-paid gas for about 8,000 white-collar employees. A former GM economist estimates that last year alone, the automaker spent nearly $12 million on fuel for its staff. By all accounts, GM's car program is a great deal. Rob Kleinbaum participated in it when he was a global strategist at GM in the early 1990s. He said his nicest company car back then was a Chevy Suburban with 10-way adjustable, heated leather seats.

"It's a really highly valued perk," Kleinbaum says of the program. "It's feels kind of fun. You get to drive a new car every three months. You never have to pay for it. Gasoline is always free." The program is not quite as good today; managers now get a new car every six months. Kleinbaum says it's one thing for a company to offer such a generous perk when it's making tons of money, but GM lost more than $30 billion last year. The company has already received more than $13 billion in taxpayer loans to avoid bankruptcy and is asking for up to $16 billion more.

Kleinbaum says continuing to provide cars and gas sends the wrong message. "This is much like when the CEOs flew their airplanes to Washington, begging for money," he says. "It's not as insulting as that." But Kleinbaum says the public will wonder: "Why are these guys getting free cars and free gas when the American taxpayer is paying for it?" Kleinbaum says GM should kill the program — not because of the expense, but because it reinforces a corporate insularity for which GM has been criticized in the past. Kleinbaum says the perk prevents GM employees from fully understanding what customers want and what they go through. Kleinbaum says when gas hit $4 a gallon last summer, GM employees who enjoyed company-paid gas missed the pain consumers felt in their wallets.

"I would be totally in favor of eliminating this benefit," Kleinbaum says. "More because it would drive everybody in the company to be much closer to the marketplace and so they kind of feel the same things their customers feel."

A GM spokesman defended the program, which has been around for at least 50 years. He said the perk is part of white-collar employees' overall compensation, which GM says is competitive with Toyota's and Honda's. And the benefit is not entirely free. For instance, managers pay a $250 administrative fee each month to participate. GM says other companies have car programs, too. But both Ford and Chrysler say they don't provide gas for such a huge swath of employees. For instance, Mark Truby, head of Ford's corporate communications, said he pays for gas out of his pocket and is not reimbursed.

GM insists its employees appreciate the impact of high fuel prices, but one current GM staffer interviewed for this story said the perk does blind some people. He recalled that when gas spiked last summer, a colleague complained. It wasn't because of the cost. It was because he had to swipe his credit card twice to fill up the tank of his big SUV. Inside GM, the perk is formally called the Product Evaluation Program. The company says it's an important tool to improve vehicle quality. Employees must make routine reports to an internal Web site and immediately identify problems. But one former GM economist questioned the program's value.

Walter McManus worked at General Motors during most of the 1990s and now runs the auto analysis division at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "I'm not aware — when I was in market research or in product planning — of anyone at GM ever using the information for any sort of analysis or any product development decisions," McManus said. "No one that I knew took it seriously." GM disputes that; a spokesman said employees provide frequent, critical feedback for engineers. General Motors won't say what it spends on the program or even how much it spends just on gas. But using GM numbers and recent federal data, McManus and I tried to come up with a number. The annual cost for gas last year — as best we could figure — was nearly $12 million.

GM has talked about ending the program, but a spokesman said employees have built their lives around it. It allows many to live far from their offices and commute at little expense. The spokesman said killing the program now would be "extremely" disruptive.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Mexican Drug Cartels Recruiting Young Men, Boys

The epicenter of violence in Mexico remains Ciudad Juarez, where nearly 2,000 people have been murdered in a mafia war in the past 14 months — many of them just boys. There are so many murders that the new morgue is planning to double its size, and so many threats that the mayor recently moved his family across the river to El Paso.

Some 80 percent of the victims are younger than 25. Social workers say the violence is fueled by a disturbing trend: The cartels have begun seeking younger and younger recruits. Soto, Daniel, Hector and Gerardo are just the kind of young men the cartels are looking for. They're residents — or, inmates — at the School of Social Betterment for Minors on the outskirts of Juarez. This is where the city sends its bad boys — the young killers, robbers, thugs and drug dealers. "Sicaritos are children who are assassins, 13 or 14 years old," says Soto. "[The cartels] give them a weapon to use. It's easier for a boy. If he's older, he thinks too much — he may think about the consequences. But when you're young, you think you can take on the world."

Soto, 18, sits at a picnic table at the school. Like the others, he wears a hoodie and sneakers, and grins self-consciously. All four teenagers insist they never joined the cartels. Nonetheless, they all seem to have a thorough knowledge of their workings. Like every other young person in this story, they won't give their last names. "To be an assassin, you can't think," says Daniel, 16. "You just do it, grab a pistol and go kill somebody, or whatever. It doesn't matter if you die or not." Soto adds, "If you don't have a mother or a father, no one to believe in you, then it's easy to fall into this, to be a delinquent."

Recruiting Juveniles

Mexican drug cartels recruit children under 18 for the same reasons that armed forces conscript boy soldiers in Sierra Leone and Somalia — their immaturity produces fearlessness. And for a young boy at the margin of society, cartel membership brings instant respect. "You go with the guys who have the most power, money, connections and influence," Soto says.

Gerardo, 15 and pimply, chimes in, "When you run with those people, nobody says anything, especially not the police, because they're working for your patron, too." Teresa Almada is the longtime director of the youth development center in Juarez called CASA. "There are thousands of candidates in this city for recruitment, because of their level of social exclusion," she says. "They're young and poor and disposable."

The growing number of lawless youth in Juarez is intimately connected to the proliferation of narcotics. Juarez has now replaced Tijuana as Mexico's most drug-addicted city. A crackdown by U.S. and Mexican authorities has choked traditional smuggling routes. Consequently, the cartels have flooded the local market with marijuana, cocaine and heroin. More young people are selling, and using, than ever before.

Carlos is a freckle-faced heroin addict — 18 years old, though he looks much older. He hangs out with other junkies near the market in central Juarez. With a slurred voice and glassy eyes, Carlos says he came to Juarez last year from Guadalajara with the intention of sneaking into the United States and looking for work, but he couldn't get past the Border Patrol. So he stayed in Juarez where he lives in a grim, abandoned building reeking of human waste. He squeegees car windows and steals to get the money to buy the fixes he needs to shoot up every six hours.

See 'Potential' In Young Gang Members

The city's noble-sounding colonias, named for Mexican presidents — Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Plutarco Elias Calles, Adolfo Lopez Mateos — are the incubators of gangs whose members have become what Almada calls "cannon fodder" for cartel franchises like La Linea, Los Aztecas, and Los Mexicles. This prosperous industrial city was supposed to be the economic model of a stable middle class. Migrants from throughout Mexico flocked here to work in the foreign-owned assembly plants. But the city can't accommodate its 1.3 million residents. There aren't nearly enough public schools, parks or youth programs. Children of the barrio are raised by siblings or in the streets, and they're ill-suited to repetitive work in the factories, or classroom study.

In Juarez, 1 out of 3 kids doesn't go to middle school, and attendance in high school is half the national average. Into the void have stepped the cartels. "Organized crime figured out the potential of young gang members and started recruiting," says Tony, a 26-year-old former gang member. "They realized that these boys could easily be channeled to do bad things, like homicides and assaults. The government's lack of commitment to young people in Juarez is to blame. These boys wouldn't end up like this if the system provided healthy activities for them."

Tony works with a youth group called Alta Tropa, or the High Crew, that uses creativity such as graffiti art, break dancing and hip-hop as an alternative to gangbanging. Ciudad Juarez finds itself in a perfect storm for the conversion of young men into criminal psychopaths: poverty, insufficient schools, broken homes, a pervasive culture of violence, and the seductive, omnipresent pull of the narco-mafias. On this night, a dozen motley members of Alta Tropa have gathered in a ramshackle house as a full moon rises over the desert metropolis. A big boy named Javier in baggy shorts and a backward baseball cap raps, while his homies smile approvingly. Others are silk-screening their designs on T-shirts.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tweeting Food Truck Draws L.A.'s Hungry Crowds

Forget Spago Beverly Hills. The hottest place to eat in Los Angeles right now serves food out of a truck and owes a large part of its success to Twitter. Kogi, which offers a unique combination of Mexican and Korean food, is a modern variation of the taco trucks that have long been popular on the streets of L.A.

"I tracked down Kogi Friday night," reads a posting on Yelp, the local-business review site. "Life as I know it has ceased to exist. I want Korean BBQ tacos, I want them now and I want them every day for the rest of my life."

Standing In Line For Hours

On a recent evening, hundreds of people stood in line in L.A.'s Little Tokyo neighborhood to try the much-heralded tacos. Chuck Chun, who drove in from Orange County, waited an hour and a half to place his order for $26 worth of food. Chun found the truck with the help of a tool that has become the necessity of any serious foodie these days — a Twitter account.

"You've got to go on Twitter to get the most up-to-date news on what kind of specials they have that day or where they are," Chun explains. "They actually got here late — that's what they announced on their Twitter."

It's so 2009: Customers instantly know where the truck is, even if actually getting the food takes hours. Mario Duarte also located the truck using Twitter. "It really was delicious," Duarte says after scarfing down a spicy chicken taco while sitting on the ground. "It had the Korean sweetness from the kimchi mixed with the heat of Mexican food and the fire of a taco like you only get off a taco truck," he adds.

Sidewalk Interaction

There's a sight here you don't always see in car-centric L.A.: People hanging out on the sidewalk while eating, socializing and listening to music. It took the virtual world of Twitter to bring about all this face-to-face interaction. And that's exactly the point, according to Kogi's head chef, Roy Choi. "You have all these neighborhoods now where people come out when they usually just got in their car and went to a mini-mall," Choi says. "Now they're coming out to their streets, talking to their neighbors."

From Four Stars To A Truck

Choi has spent most of his career in four-star restaurants. His Kogi biography points out that he finished in the top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America. Now Choi is crammed into the tiny kitchen in Culver City, Calif., where he and other chefs prepare the food that goes out on two trucks. Kogi, which means meat in Korean, also recently added a bricks-and-mortar location. The most popular item on the menu is the short rib taco stuffed with marinated beef and topped off with lettuce, cabbage chili salsa and cilantro relish. "Our vinaigrette has 14 ingredients, our marinade has 20 ingredients, our meats are all natural meats," Choi says. "And we sell it for $2." With lines so long, it seems like Kogi could easily double prices and still attract plenty of customers. However, Choi says he wants nothing more than to cover expenses and make a very small profit.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama Makes Overtures To Iran In Video Message

President Obama, hoping for a "new beginning" in relations with Iran, has made a direct videotaped appeal to the country's people and leaders to put years of enmity behind. The president's appeal, subtitled in Farsi, is timed to coincide with the Iranian New Year.

"We have serious differences that have grown over time," Obama said in the video. "My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community." "This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect," he said.

The appeal was not broadcast on Iran's main 2 p.m. state television news, although it was reported by Iranian news agencies including the official agency IRNA.Aliakbar Javanfekr, an aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, issued a cautious response to the White House appeal, saying Tehran welcomed America's interest in settling differences but needed to see more actions to go with the positive words.

"The Iranian nation has shown that it can forget hasty behavior but we are awaiting practical steps by the United States," Javanfekr said. "The Obama administration so far has just talked," he added, calling for Obama to make "fundamental changes in his policy towards Iran." The United States has no diplomatic relations with Tehran, but Obama has expressed a readiness to have face-to-face diplomatic contacts with Tehran -- a major policy shift toward a country former president George W. Bush branded as part of an "axis of evil."

Obama said the United States wanted Iran to take its "rightful place in the community of nations", but also said Tehran must do its part to achieve reconciliation. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he hoped Iran would pay close attention to Obama's appeal. "I hope that that will open a new chapter in relations with Iran," he told reporters before going into an EU summit.

-excerpt from npr

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Eco-Conscious 'No-'Poo' Movement

Given our cultural propensity to lather up frequently, it may be shocking that in some eco-conscious circles of society, some people are giving up shampoo. "There's a lot of people doing this no-shampoo movement," says 20-something blogger Jeanne Haegele. She writes a blog called LifeLessPlastic.

In an attempt to buy fewer items with plastic packaging, Haegele recently went three months without using any shampoo. Instead, she washed her hair with baking soda twice a week and conditioned it with a vinegar rinse. She says her hair didn't smell, and her friends were very supportive. "Maybe they were secretly wondering why I smelled like a jar of pickles," she says jokingly.

She ended the no-'poo experiment after developing a bad case of dandruff, but Haegele says she might try it again. She recalls the biggest surprise was that her hair didn't get very greasy. For now, she's using shampoo bars a few times a week.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AIG Chief Faces Grilling On Capitol Hill Over Bonuses

The head of American International Group acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. taxpayers' patience was "wearing thin" but that his hands were tied by competitive realities, as he faces angry lawmakers over why at least $165 million in retention bonuses were given out even as the company received billions in government bailout funds. AIG Chairman and CEO Edward Liddy said in prepared testimony that "mistakes were made at AIG on a scale few could have ever imagined possible."

Seeking To Recover Bonus Money

Senate Democrats wrote a letter to Liddy on Tuesday demanding that he rescind the bonuses.

In the House, two bills were introduced specifically targeting the AIG bonuses. The bills would slap hefty excise taxes on the payments in an effort to recover at least some of the money. Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, said he hopes a Depression-era law that allowed $85 billion in Federal Reserve money to go to AIG could be rewritten by Congress to allow legislative oversight. "The federal government is a major owner of this company. We're the owners, not just the regulators," Frank (D-MA) said Wednesday on CBS's The Early Show.

According to documents provided by AIG to the Treasury Department, the awards ranged from $1,000 to nearly $6.5 million. Seven employees were to receive more than $3 million. Liddy, who was tapped last year by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to head the ailing company, will not receive a bonus. In a letter to Geithner over the weekend, the CEO said the deals for the payments were cut early last year, well before he took over AIG.

Geithner told congressional leaders in a letter Tuesday that AIG would be required "to pay the Treasury from the operations of the company the amount of the retention awards just paid." "In addition, we will deduct from the $30 billion in assistance an amount equal to the amount of those payments," he wrote. In his prepared testimony, Liddy called AIG "too complex, too unwieldy and too opaque … to be well managed."

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Feds Seek Assets Held By Madoff's Wife

Bernard Madoff's wife could theoretically claim more than $100 million in assets — and should forfeit it all, according to federal prosecutors.The move by prosecutors seeks the court's help in recovering all of the Madoff properties, especially those kept in Ruth Madoff's name.

Madoff, 70, traded his $7 million Manhattan penthouse for a federal lockup on March 12, immediately after he described how he created a two-decade Ponzi scheme that paid off early investors with proceeds from new investors. Investors have reacted angrily to previous defense claims that Ruth Madoff is entitled to keep $69 million in assets that are in her name. Authorities say Madoff notified his 4,800 investors in November that they had nearly $65 billion in assets when there actually was about $1 billion left. He faces up to 150 years in prison when he is sentenced in June.

The assets that the government hopes to seize include four properties, $10 million in home furnishings and a $7 million yacht in France. The court document did not mention $2.6 million in jewelry, but the government did say it would seek forfeiture of "all insured and readily salable personal property" in any of the Madoff properties. Prosecutors also are seeking the forfeiture of a $39,000 Steinway piano and a $65,000 silverware set kept in the Manhattan penthouse. Peter Chavkin, a lawyer for Ruth Madoff, declined to comment.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sacramento Tent City Reflects Economy's Troubles

Job losses, home foreclosures and a deepening recession are sending scores of newly homeless people into a makeshift camp along the banks of the American River in Sacramento, Calif. The tent city, spread over an area the size of several football fields, has local officials scrambling over how to handle the area's homeless crisis. More than a year ago, a handful of homeless people staked out the site on the northern edge of downtown Sacramento. Now there are more than 100 tents and anywhere between 300 to 400 people living without running water or sanitation. Their only protection from the elements is nylon tents and plastic tarps.

A single mid-day meal is available at a nearby faith-based charity called Loaves and Fishes. That's where social worker Jim Peth says he's seeing a lot of the newly homeless. "That's been very recent," Peth says. "And you can tell because they're much better dressed. They're disoriented; they don't know where to go. So they're easy to spot." Take, for example, 53-year-old Dave Cutch. His clothes suggest a suburban hiker, except that he stands in a muddy patch outside a tent that he's called home for the past two months. A year ago, he was a welder in Colorado.

"So the company I'm working for, I get laid off," Cutch says. "I qualified for unemployment — 24 weeks. My car's paid off, my truck's paid off, my bike's paid off, everything except for my house payment, right? But I feel like I'm still going to pull out of it." Months went by without work. Cutch lost his house, his car was stolen, his savings ran out. This past August, he took up a friend's invitation to come to California, but that didn't work out, either. "Trying to get back on my feet, you know," Cutch says. "Daily, I still go out looking for a job. But the thing I'm running into is when I put the application in they ask me, 'Where do you live at?' And I go, 'Actually, I don't have a place to live. I'm homeless.' That's it. They don't hire me."

Tent cities have sprung up in other locations, including Portland and Phoenix. But the one in Sacramento is drawing national attention, much to the chagrin of city leaders. Mayor Kevin Johnson says he can foresee making the tent city permanent, but not on its current site. "We need tough love, meaning we have to be compassionate to this population," Johnson says. "I am very committed to it; I feel we have a moral obligation." At the same time, though, Johnson says the city must eventually adopt a "zero tolerance" approach to the river-side campsite. "It can't happen tomorrow, though," he says.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sweet Memories Of A Snack Food Financial Scheme

Today, Josh Bearman has gone straight. He's a successful writer in Los Angeles. But he was briefly a criminal mastermind — in 1980 — when he transferred to a new school in Minneapolis and joined the third grade. It was a fancy school where all the kids had fancy snacks like chewy granola bars and Rice Krispies treats. Bearman himself grew up in a spartan home with no sugar.

To make matters worse, kids wouldn't just eat their lunches — they'd flaunt them. Every day, a brisk trade in lunch snacks would take place. Kids would pile all their best items onto one main table and start bartering. "People would say, 'Oh, well listen, I've just had my fill of Rice Krispies treats for two weeks in a row, straight. Why don't I have some of your Fruit Roll-Ups?' And so they would trade it all around," Bearman recalls. "And it actually is a pretty efficient system. Everyone got what they wanted. It kind of all worked out for them. It didn't work out for me at all because I was totally outside of this economy. Because my peanut butter and jelly sandwich had no currency value in this market whatsoever."

Cake Futures

And so, Bearman came up with a plan. A scheme. A lie. He told his classmates that every year, on the last day of class, his mother would bake a cake. A huge cake. The most delicious cake you've ever tasted. "So what I said was, 'Listen, that's going to be a great day. But in the meantime, I can offer you this special opportunity. And what we can do is, if you give me those Cheetos now, today, you can lay a claim — you know, on a share of this future cake. You can have a deposit, and have a piece of this cake when it comes.' So, basically, I developed this sort of derivative lunchroom market for delicious cake futures."

This idea took hold and spread, totally disrupting the old lunchroom economy. Bearman's classmates would line up in front of him at a new table: One Fruit Roll-Up bought a share worth one slice of cake; one chewy granola bar was worth two slices. To keep up appearances, Bearman would dutifully record the transactions in his Trapper Keeper. He'd even customize them. If a fellow classmate had a snack Bearman really wanted, something with giant-sized marshmallows for example, he'd say they could specially request what kind of cake they wanted — red velvet, chocolate or angel food.

"Even, at a certain point, I believed in the cake, even though I'd made it up. Because I just imagined the hero's welcome I was going to receive when they wheeled this Technicolor, baked colossus into the schoolyard, and how incredible it was going to be," Bearman says. "So there was this mutually reinforcing psychology: We all just bought into the idea of this cake." Well, not all. One kid named Spencer, who had been the king of the old lunchroom economy because of all the delicious treats he regularly pulled out of his lunch box, was suspicious of Bearman and the ever-expanding ledger in his Trapper Keeper. Suspicious, and good at math. "Mr. Fundamentals, Spencer, is over there saying, 'Hey, the numbers don't add up,' " Bearman recalls.

Lessons From The Old Lunchroom Economy

And here, Bearman's third-grade financial confidence game took on the exact contours of many of our current financial scandals. There's the group, taken in by the promise of a glorious future, and then there's the skeptic, saying this all doesn't add up. These two viewpoints tussle for a while, but eventually, the truth wins out. The dynamics are as true today as they were at a third-grade lunch table in 1980.

"Listen, I was giving the people what they wanted," Bearman says. "They wanted — they liked the idea of this cake. And also, they figured they were too far in. They were into this cake for 40 bags of Cheetos and 20 Nutter Butters. And so they couldn't walk away from all their investment!" Eventually, the regulator, the school administration, who had previously turned a blind eye on the whole fraudulent enterprise, got involved — long after, it must be said, anything could be done to help the victims.

Bearman was punished but, as he says, those Cheetos and Nutter Butters, they were never coming back.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bored? Try Doodling To Keep The Brain On Task

Four years ago at Davos, the famous world economic forum, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared on a panel with Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and the rock star Bono. After the panel, a journalist wandering the stage came across some papers scattered near Blair's seat. The papers were covered in doodles: circles and triangles, boxes and arrows. "Your standard meeting doodles," says David Greenberg, professor of journalism at Rutgers University.

So this journalist brought his prize to a graphologist who, after careful study, drew some pretty disturbing conclusions. According to experts quoted in the Independent and The Times, the prime minister was clearly "struggling to maintain control in a confusing world" and "is not rooted." Worse, Blair was apparently, "not a natural leader, but more of a spiritual person, like a vicar." Two other major British newspapers, which had also somehow gotten access to the doodles, came to similar conclusions. A couple days later, No. 10 Downing Street finally weighed in. It had done a full and thorough investigation and had an important announcement to make: The doodles were not made by Blair; they were made by Bill Gates. Gates had left them in the next seat over.

Oodles Of Doodles

Gates is a doodler, and he's not alone. Lyndon Johnson doodled. Ralph Waldo Emerson doodled. Ronald Reagan drew pictures of cowboys, horses and hearts crossed with arrows. Most of us doodle at one point or another. But why? To understand where the compulsion to doodle comes from, the first thing you need to do is look more closely at what happens to the brain when it becomes bored. According to Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth, though many people assume that the brain is inactive when they're bored, the reverse is actually true.

"If you look at people's brain function when they're bored, we find that they are using a lot of energy — their brains are very active," Andrade says. The reason, she explains, is that the brain is designed to constantly process information. But when the brain finds an environment barren of stimulating information, it's a problem. "You wouldn't want the brain to just switch off, because a bear might walk up behind you and attack you; you need to be on the lookout for something happening," Andrade says. So when the brain lacks sufficient stimulation, it essentially goes on the prowl and scavenges for something to think about. Typically what happens in this situation is that the brain ends up manufacturing its own material. In other words, the brain turns to daydreams, fantasies of Oscar acceptance speeches and million-dollar lottery wins. But those daydreams take up an enormous amount of energy.

Ergo The Doodle

This brings us back to doodling. The function of doodling, according to Andrade, who recently published a study on doodling in Applied Cognitive Psychology, is to provide just enough cognitive stimulation during an otherwise boring task to prevent the mind from taking the more radical step of totally opting out of the situation and running off into a fantasy world.

Andrade tested her theory by playing a lengthy and boring tape of a telephone message to a collection of people, only half of whom had been given a doodling task. After the tape ended she quizzed them on what they had retained and found that the doodlers remembered much more than the nondoodlers. "They remembered about 29 percent more information from the tape than the people who were just listening to the tape," Andrade says.

In other words, doodling doesn't detract from concentration; it can help by diminishing the need to resort to daydreams. It's a very good strategy for the next time you find yourself stuck on a slow-moving panel with an aging rock star and verbose former president.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fresh Out Of College, But Can't Land Work

Morgan Oliver played by what she thought was the rules. The 23-year-old got good grades and earned her college degree. It hasn't yet paid off. Although she graduated last May with an expensive degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Oliver can't find work. She had a 3.82 GPA; a degree in art, entertainment and media management; and high, high hopes for what was next in life.

"I was excited about the job search," Oliver says. "I thought I wouldn't have a problem getting a job, so it was going to be fun to be able to find jobs and apply for them. I thought I might even have the choice to pick — I might have more than one offer." But after months of searching, her confidence is shaky. She's not getting interviews. These days, she rarely has the chance to impress anyone other than her boyfriend. They live together in an apartment on the North Side of Chicago.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Boston's real-life 'Cheers' bartender is laid off

Eddie Doyle was the guy who really did know everybody's name.
But after tending bar for 35 years at the Boston tavern that inspired the television show "Cheers," Doyle has been laid off. The bar's owner says the economy is to blame. Doyle was a fixture at the pub known as the Bull & Finch long before his TV counterpart, Sam Malone, entered the mainstream.

After the NBC show hit the airwaves in 1982, he started serving 5,000 people a day. Doyle used the bar's fame to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. Friend Tommy Leonard tells the Boston Herald Doyle is "the most giving person" he's met. The 66-year-old Doyle tells The Boston Globe he's not bitter and may write a book about his experiences.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, March 9, 2009

Digital TV Goes Dark For Some Rural Viewers

All 90 folding chairs were filled for the town meeting last week in the cramped auditorium at the elementary school in Bergton, Va. It was standing-room only on the fringes and out into the hallway. Close to one-third of the local population was there. The subject wasn't taxes, health care or education. This was a town meeting about television and what happened Feb. 17, when the sole television source of local news, weather and emergency information switched off its analog signal.

"My mother and father-in-law … lost the signal. It went totally out," reported Robert Hannam, a retired utility worker. "We bought a new TV. We bought a converter box — no signal. And everybody else in the community around here has had the same difficulty." Public service announcements warned people in Bergton and nearby communities in rural Virginia and West Virginia ahead of time about buying converters to prepare for the digital TV conversion. But they failed to mention a key fact: Viewers of the local TV station weren't getting their TV signal directly from the station's transmitter.

Instead, that signal first traveled to a translator antenna — a device that boosts television signals from TV station transmitters to distant areas beyond their reach. The translator needs a digital converter box, just like a TV set. But translators were not part of the digital TV mandate. The result for some rural viewers: no TV signal.

-excerpt from NPR

Friday, March 6, 2009

Activists Out As Calif. Court Weighs Gay Marriage

California's ban on gay marriage is in the hands of the state's Supreme Court. In San Francisco Thursday, Proposition 8 was sliced and diced by an array of attorneys who called the measure illegal. But there were also plenty of defenders who said Prop 8 represents the will of the people. The case attracted a crowd of thousands outside the courthouse.

-excerpt from NPR

Thursday, March 5, 2009

What's Behind The Snore? Sagging, Floppy Tissue

If you're kept awake at night by someone who snores, you're not alone. And, snoring becomes more common as we age — by age 60, more than half of adults snore. The log-sawing vibrations are often the result of air trying to move through narrowed or floppy, soft passages in the mouth, throat and nose. Other times, the air is obstructed by anatomical abnormalities, such as over-sized tonsils or uvula — that boxing-bag like thing that hangs in the back of the throat.

"I hear these stories every day," says Sonya Malekzadeh, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. Lots of patients come into her office at the urging of their partners. They report being "kicked out" of their bedrooms for their loud snoring. Many men don't even realize they're doing it, Malekzadeh says. And, yes, men are twice as likely as women to snore. "The reason men are affected more than women is likely due to fat distribution. When men gain weight, it is usually in the neck, upper torso and abdomen," she says. "On the other hand, women usually gain weight in the hips and thighs."

Ever wondered if Richard Knox and Joe Palca snore? Or what their snores would sound like? Fat in the neck area can constrict airway passages and lead to increased snoring. And, as we age, the soft tissue inside the mouth and palate can sag, just as wrinkles develop with aging skin.

-excerpt from NPR

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sudan's Bashir Faces Arrest On Darfur Charges

The International Criminal Court on Wednesday issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The conflict in that region between mostly Arab militias that are supported by the government against mostly non-Arab black rebels has stretched for six years, killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

Bashir could be the first sitting president to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, known as the ICC. However, Bashir is a long way from a possible trial. And he has said that he will never allow himself to be tried. The ICC issued charges against the Sudanese president for alleged offenses committed in Darfur since 2002. Court prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo alleges that Bashir was the mastermind behind events that led to the destruction of so many lives in the region. But the panel said there was insufficient evidence to support charges of genocide.

Bashir denies the charges.

Ocampo's application for an arrest warrant says the president holds absolute power in Sudan, and Bashir therefore shoulders the responsibility for all atrocities engineered by the government and/or by armed groups in league with the government. An international chorus of human rights groups and Western powers maintains that the atrocities committed in Darfur have been many. Millions of people who have been forcibly pushed from their homes are now living in camps, at the mercy of international donors. And, what's more, the camps are not safe. Ocampo alleges that the Sudanese government has sponsored repeated attacks — rapes, murder, torture — on non-Arab camp dwellers.

At the same time, an alarming number of non-Arab rebel groups in Darfur — a region the size of Texas — have taken up banditry against all civilians there, including human rights workers. Bashir's supporters in Sudan have warned that an arrest warrant could lead to further violence in the region, prompting the U.S. and other governments to issue warnings against civilian travel to Sudan. And the head of intelligence has said the government would "sever the limbs" of any Sudanese who support ICC plans to indict Bashir. Bashir himself reiterated Tuesday that the court has no authority over him or Sudan, adding that the court could take its decision, dissolve it in water and drink it — or eat it, depending on the translation from Arabic.

-excerpt from NPR

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Calif. Prepares For More Drought Restrictions

California has declared a statewide water emergency in the face of a punishing three-year drought. It could result in some drastic conservation measures and water rationing over the coming months, stretching from California's farm belt to major coastal cities like Los Angeles.

-excerpt from NPR

Monday, March 2, 2009

Northeast Pounded By Late-Winter Storm

A massive late winter snow storm roared out of the Southeast and into the Northeast overnight, idling hundreds of flights and promising to make Monday's commute treacherous as motorists contend with what could end up with more than a foot of snow in spots. Winter storm warnings were issued from North Carolina to New Hampshire, with most areas expected to see 8 to 12 inches of snow and higher amounts possible in northern areas.

"It's the first of March, which, as you know, is the month that we say comes in like a lion and out like a lamb," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday. "It's pretty clear that the lions are getting ready to roar." The blizzard-like snow — together with sleet, freezing rain and wind gusts of up to 30 mph — contributed to four deaths on roads in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and on New York's Long Island.

More than 100 flights were scrubbed Sunday at Boston's Logan International Airport. Hundreds more flights were canceled at the New York region's three major airports, said Jennifer Friedberg, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. About 300 flights scheduled to fly in or out of Newark Liberty International Airport had already been canceled by late Sunday night. In New Hampshire, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport listed about a dozen canceled arrivals Monday morning and close to 20 canceled departures.

More than 9 inches of snow was on the ground in New Jersey's Atlantic and Cumberland counties by 5:30 a.m. Monday, while South Carolina was dealing with 8 inches. Forecasters warned that the snow may temporarily stop for a few hours before starting up again by midmorning. Philadelphia declared a Code Blue weather emergency, which gives officials the power to go out onto the streets and bring in homeless people to shelters because the weather conditions pose a threat of serious harm or death.

New York City had 1,300 sanitation workers spreading salt and plowing streets Sunday night, and more than 2,500 were to be on duty on Monday, Bloomberg said. More than 100,000 tons of salt will be on hand.

-excerpt from NPR