Thursday, August 26, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Such a grand sentiment. Dorothy wanted to go home and all she had to do was click her heels three times. Home. Home is where the heart is. It is our sanctuary, our nest egg and for the last 10 years an ATM.

The outright exploitation for the past 10 years regarding home ownership is not an easy one to suggest. There were innocent people looking to improve their homes, send kids to college and yes maybe take a holiday or expand their income. There are those who went too far and signed loans and bought homes out of their reach. Perhaps they knew or did not understand what it meant to own a home.

When I was taught Home "Economics" believe it or not budgeting and finances were a part of the curriculum. At the time it was believed or encouraged that home expenses should exceed no more than 40% of ones gross income. Sadly the truth is in especially metropolitan areas that is more like 75%. It is in my case and true for many in popular cities.

The idea to reduce that expense came at the idea of reducing Mortgage rates to provide an incentive to buy. Banks lent at a rapid clip, builders built at a rapid clip and Real Estate Agents sold at a rapid clip. In turn Cities received immense tax incentives and boosts to the bottom line with fees, assessments and taxes all levied against the boom cycle of building.

The predatory nature of those involved cannot be denied. From Banks, Real Estate Agents, Mortgage Brokers and others associated with this practice they preyed on those frightened they may be shut out FOREVER from the housing market and convinced that the prices would never decline so even if the payments were exceeding income the house could be easily sold or again refinanced. And many people who had no knowledge of finance, economics or budgets simply believed. They believed people who they were sure would not lie and had their vested interests at heart. That was their first mistake.

Housing will NEVER return to the level of outrageous increases as they did. The industry fueled by lobbying and greed and manipulation is right now in shock. The housing starts are down and purchases with them. Of course blame is laid at the Goverment for the stopping the tax credit but really how many more houses can you sell? Foreclosures are up and jobs are going away and what jobs there are and will be in the future will be at significant less wages than before. And not that they were all that great as we have had a systemic decline in wages the last 30 years which is why people used houses as ATM's to supplement that income.

We are not going to be able to rely on that "nest egg" to sell when we retire and take that world cruise. Home ownership will now have to be considered as a reasonable investment one akin to any other. I do think the concept of the 30 year Mortgage also has to go as frankly that is too long of a debt to hold given our cycle of Economy the last 2 decades. Did we forget the dot com boom/bust only 10 years ago?

I know Americans have short term memories when it comes to money. We all have that Gold Rush mentality that any day we will strike it rich. From the 80s to the 90s and the current 10's we have had a real rush towards making it fast and furious and watching it collapse only to find something else to replace it.

I am afraid the party is over. How we live. The kinds of homes we live in. The way we live must change. I read a Dwell Magazine from 2008 yesterday. In fact I looked at lot of magazines from just two years ago and wow? From the now defunct Wallpaper to other Magazines geared towards design, they seemed to just think spending money on your home was a spigot of necessity. Keeping up with the Jones had a distinctly "green" edge but not a cheap one. Well with the rising costs of energy and the need to conserve both to save money and the environment has not but the way in which we do has.

I like the idea of home ownership but at what cost?

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Debtor's Prison

If you ever enjoyed a Charles Dickens novel you would know about how people in debt were often assigned to live in a prison for the remaining of time until their debt was paid (by benefactors) or well they died.

The way the current political climate is you would think the current deficit is actually imprisoning us to the point of no escape. Its ironic the Government eschewing debt as a means to help us ALL out of a crisis is the same Government that encouraged us to get into debt in the first place.

Yesterday Gretchen Morgenson in the New York Times wrote a column discussing the current consumer debt situation. Her findings..

Total consumer debt stood at $11.7 trillion on June 30, down just 6.5 percent from its peak in the third quarter of 2008. The number of open credit card accounts was down considerably — 23.2 percent — from the highs reached during the second quarter of 2008, while mortgage obligations have fallen 6.4 percent from the peak that was seen almost two years ago.

Many consumers, though, are still very much in a vise. Halfway through this year, 11.4 percent of outstanding consumer debt was delinquent, up slightly from 11.2 percent a year earlier. An astonishing $1.3 trillion of consumer debt is delinquent, with $986 billion seriously so — 90 days late and counting. While delinquent balances are down by about 3 percent from the same period last year, serious delinquencies are up a bit more — 3.1 percent.

Here are some other troubling statistics from the Fed: a half-million people had a foreclosure added to their credit reports between March 31 and June 30, an increase of 8.7 percent over the first quarter of the year. And the numbers of consumers with new bankruptcies appearing on their credit reports rose 34 percent during the quarter, to 621,000. That increase is significantly bigger than it has been in the last few years, according to the Fed.

Per capita debt balances are staggering, as well — and for many consumers, the assets underpinning these obligations have collapsed. Reflecting the heavy burden that mortgages represent for most consumers, these debts are highest in states where the real estate mania went craziest. In California, for example, the average per capita debt balance among consumers with a credit report is $78,000, the Fed said; in Nevada, it is $73,000. The nationwide average is $49,000.

ADDING to the weight of these debts is the fact that consumers’ income statements aren’t exactly flush right now, thanks to high unemployment and rock-bottom interest rates. The misery of a balance sheet deleveraging is being exacerbated by a dearth of income opportunities.

And in the meantime the same deficit hawks are screaming to make permanent the Bush tax cuts of 2008 that benefit only 1% of the population. Irony is that the rich do get richer as while they too rely heavily on credit they also are able to negotiate and offset much of the interest they pay.

From Paul Krugman's column today...

The Tax Policy Center comments, making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as opposed to following the Obama proposal, would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. For the sake of comparison, it took months of hard negotiations to get Congressional approval for a mere $26 billion in desperately needed aid to state and local governments.

And where would this $680 billion go? Nearly all of it would go to the richest 1 percent of Americans, people with incomes of more than $500,000 a year. But that’s the least of it: the policy center’s estimates say that the majority of the tax cuts would go to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent. Take a group of 1,000 randomly selected Americans, and pick the one with the highest income; he’s going to get the majority of that group’s tax break. And the average tax break for those lucky few — the poorest members of the group have annual incomes of more than $2 million, and the average member makes more than $7 million a year — would be $3 million over the course of the next decade.

Its quite "rich" to note that following the 9/11 attacks the advice given to the American people by the President was to "go shopping." Our obsession, our need for goods, for stuff, for particularly cheap stuff fueled not only the current credit crisis but the growth of China and our unbalanced trade deficit and further loss of manufacturing here in the United States.

And we did much of this by financing homes and through the use of Second Mortgages. Another misconception that if we didn't buy homes and do so soon we would lose the great rates, the price and well even housing itself if we did not buy now. It was like a K-Mart blue light special with six figures.

Housing debt fueled much of the economy while further the debt to income ratio of only one party.. the homeowner. Irony being that the more debt to the home the less one owns of it. But the belief that the party would never end and the idea that well you could re-finance or even sell again at great profit was a myth that was perpetuated by all the players - the Banks, the Real Estate Agents, Mortgage Brokers and the Government. No one said no and when everyone says the same message why not believe.

This morning the final nail in the coffin comes with this article in the New York Times declaring the end to the well that was the endless worth of the American Home.

I simply reprint here to remind everyone that this was the greatest fraud and deception ever perpetuated on the American people. 30 year mortgages, 15 year Home Equity loans and Free Credit Cards led people to believe the well would never be empty. It is now. It wasn't real. You can have a winning streak in Vegas but the one rule there is the house wins. In this case your house lost. You lost by not reading the tiny print, by not understanding basic history and economics when it comes to real estate and investments. Instead we trusted the dealer and they were dealing bad cards. So yes we are as culpable but its hard when you keep hitting 21 and the deck seems in your favor.

Housing Fades as a Means to Build Wealth, Analysts Say

Published: August 22, 2010

Housing will eventually recover from its great swoon. But many real estate experts now believe that home ownership will never again yield rewards like those enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when houses not only provided shelter but also a plump nest egg.

The wealth generated by housing in those decades, particularly on the coasts, did more than assure the owners a comfortable retirement. It powered the economy, paying for the education of children and grandchildren, keeping the cruise ships and golf courses full and the restaurants humming.

More than likely, that era is gone for good.

“There is no iron law that real estate must appreciate,” said Stan Humphries, chief economist for the real estate site Zillow. “All those theories advanced during the boom about why housing is special — that more people are choosing to spend more on housing, that more people are moving to the coasts, that we were running out of usable land — didn’t hold up.”

Instead, Mr. Humphries and other economists say, housing values will only keep up with inflation. A home will return the money an owner puts in each month, but will not multiply the investment.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, estimates that it will take 20 years to recoup the $6 trillion of housing wealth that has been lost since 2005. After adjusting for inflation, values will never catch up.

“People shouldn’t look at a home as a way to make money because it won’t,” Mr. Baker said.
If the long term is grim, the short term is grimmer. Housing experts are bracing themselves for Tuesday, when the sales figures for July will be released. The data is expected to show a drop of as much as 20 percent from last year.

The supply of homes sitting on the market might rise to as much as 12 months, about twice the level of a healthy market. That would push down prices as all those sellers compete to secure a buyer, adding to a slide that has already chopped off as much as 30 percent in home values.

Set against this dismal present and a bleak future, buying a home is a willful act of optimism. That explains why Adam and Allison Lyons are waiting to close on a $417,500 house in Deerfield, Ill.

“We’re trying not to think too far ahead,” said Ms. Lyons, 35, an information technology manager.

The couple’s first venture into real estate came in 2003 when they bought a condo in a 17-unit building under construction in Chicago. By the time they moved in two years later, it was already worth $50,000 more than they had paid. “We were thinking, great!” said Mr. Lyons, 34.

That quick appreciation started them on the same track as their parents, who watched the value of their houses ascend for decades. The real estate crash interrupted that pleasant dream. The couple cannot sell their condo. Unwillingly, they are becoming landlords.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to see the prosperity our parents did, but I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom either,” said Mr. Lyons, a manager at I.B.M. “At some point, you just have to say what the heck and go for it.”

Other buyers have grand and even grander expectations.

In an annual survey conducted by the economists Robert J. Shiller and Karl E. Case, hundreds of new owners in four communities — Alameda County near San Francisco, Boston, Orange County south of Los Angeles, and Milwaukee — once again said they believed prices would rise about 10 percent a year for the next decade.

With minor swings in sentiment, the latest results reflect what new buyers always seem to feel. At the boom’s peak in 2005, they said prices would go up. When the market was sliding in 2008, they still said prices would go up.

“People think it’s a law of nature,” said Mr. Shiller, who teaches at Yale.

For the first half of the 20th century, he said, expectations followed the opposite path. Houses were seen the way cars are now: as a consumer durable that the buyer eventually used up.

The notion of housing as an investment first began to blossom after World War II, when the nesting urges of returning soldiers created a construction boom. Demand was stoked as their bumper crop of children grew up and bought places of their own. The inflation of the 1970s, which increased the value of hard assets, and liberal tax policies both helped make housing a good bet. So did the long decline in mortgage rates from the early 1980s.

Despite all these tailwinds, prices rose modestly for much of the period. Real home prices increased 1.1 percent a year after inflation, according to Mr. Shiller’s research.

By the late 1990s, however, the rate was 4 percent a year. Happy homeowners were taking about $100 billion a year out of their houses, which paid for a lot of good times.

“The experience we had from the late 1970s to the late 1990s was an aberration,” said Barry Ritholtz of the equity research firm Fusion IQ. “People shouldn’t be holding their breath waiting for it to happen again.”

Not everyone views the notion of real appreciation in real estate as a lost cause.

Bob Walters, chief economist of the online mortgage firm Quicken, acknowledges that the recent collapse will create a “mind scar” just as the Great Depression did. But he argues that housing remains unique.

“You have to live somewhere,” he said. “In three or four years, people will resume a normal course, and home values will continue to increase.”

All homes are different, and some neighborhoods and regions will rebound more quickly. On the other hand, areas where there was intense overbuilding, like Arizona, will be extremely slow to show any sign of renewal.

“It’s entirely likely that markets like Arizona will not recover even in the 15- to 20-year time frame,” said Mr. Humphries of Zillow. “The demand doesn’t exist.”

Owners in those foreclosure-plagued areas consider themselves lucky if they are still solvent. But that does not prevent the occasional regret that a life-changing sum of money was so briefly within their grasp.

Robert Austin, a Phoenix lawyer, paid $200,000 for his home in 2000. Five years later, his neighbors listed a similar home for $500,000.

Freedom beckoned. “I thought, when my daughter gets out of school, I can sell the house and buy a boat and sail around the world,” said Mr. Austin, 56.

His home is now worth about what he paid for it. As for that cruise, “it may be a while,” Mr. Austin said. Showing the hopefulness that is apparently innate to homeowners, he added: “But I won’t rule it out forever.”

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The "Green" War

Well I have heard of the Green Zone, now called I believe the International Zone but the U.S. Military concerned with going green and global warming? What? **spittake** For me War is just not a sustainable issue. The whole killing people and shit. But I do think that we need to rethink what a very modern military is if we must have one.

I found this article on the American Prospect and was well surprised to read the answers. This might be a new kind of defense, the offensive strategy to just kill us with air. If we can't breathe we sure can't live.

The Brass Goes Green

TAP talks about the military's concerns with global warming, and its interest in clean energy.

Jeff Spross | August 20, 2010 | web only

The Brass Goes Green

With a major climate and energy bill on the legislative back burner for the foreseeable future, the need for new ways to move clean energy forward has only become greater. One potential ally in this is the military. Responsible for 1 percent of total U.S. consumption, the military is the largest energy consumer in the nation, giving it the potential to be a major driver of innovation.

TAP sat down with Sherri Goodman, a vice president at the Center for Naval Analyses and a former deputy undersecretary of defense in environmental security, to discuss the military's concern with climate change, its interests in clean-energy technology, and what it's doing to encourage a renewable-energy future.

What are the military's broad strategic concerns with regard to climate change?

[The Department of Defense's] Quadrennial Defense Review, which is a strategy document for the next four years, describes climate change as "an accelerated instability" and also observes that our energy posture makes us vulnerable. So those twin challenges are very much on the minds of defense planners.

What effects is the military worried about?

Increasing water scarcity, rising temperatures, increased extreme weather events, more natural disasters, particularly in low-lying areas in Africa and Asia, [and] reduced agricultural production, putting stress on areas where people already don't have enough food and water. So increased humanitarian-relief and natural-disaster situations [are] very real effects of climate change exacerbating areas that are already politically unstable.

A second, very real dimension is the military's dependence on fossil fuels -- on having to bring water and fuel to the front. That's putting the lives of our soldiers at risk every day. And for that reason, the commandant of the Marine Corps, among others, has been tasked with reducing fuel and water to expeditionary forward operating bases. Which makes our troops more sustainable and able to operate more efficiently.

I saw a study by the Marines that found only 10 percent of their fuel consumption in Iraq was for armed vehicles. The rest was for logistics. So it sounds like there's a good deal of low-hanging fruit?

Absolutely. The U.S. has exported $300 billion approximately, in 2008 and 2009, for fossil fuel to other countries. And every $10 increase in the price of oil costs the Department of Defense $1.3 billion -- money that was diverted from funds that could increase our combat effectiveness. Seventy percent of the tonnage that the military brings to the front is fuel and water. So there's substantial savings to be had in lives and money by making these smart changes.

How do the military's attempts to take on energy efficiency and clean energy intersect with the civilian sector's attempts to do so?

Recently, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that enables them to better cooperate on energy innovation and energy technology.

A significant element of the MOU is that, often when DOD collaborates with other agencies, it's doing so only to meet military requirements. Now, in this case, the military's requirements and the nation's energy needs are very much aligned, but there is also a provision in this MOU that says the two agencies will collaborate to address national-security needs "that transcend military requirements." In other words, a recognition that we as a nation have energy-security needs, some of which are specific to how the military uses energy, but some of which are much broader, which go to our nation's over-dependence on fossil fuels.

So there's an institutional concern that our use of fossil fuel, and our dependence on it, makes us less safe and makes the military's job harder?


There was a recommendation that the Department of Defense get all its bases and facilities to the point where they're net-zero energy consumers by 2030. Are there any recommendations like this the Department of Defense has already taken up?

The services have some individually aggressive goals. The secretary of the Navy in particular has some very aggressive goals to increase renewable-energy use in the Navy by a certain percent by 2015 or 2016. And as you mentioned there are already a number of military installations that have goals of becoming net-zero: Fort Carson, Twentynine Palms, I believe.

This is often how things happen. You start with a pilot [program], get some data and some evidence. How well is that working? How do you need to fine-tune the policy and implementation of it? And then you expand it more broadly within DOD.

The other dimension of this is using military installations as test beds to demonstrate innovative energy technologies both to meet military needs and then also as a place to allow renewables to be placed around the nation. Right now there's the big solar installation at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, there's solar and wind being installed at other military installations around the country. And that energy is being used both for the base and to serve the local community.

There's a post that was created in the 2009 Defense Authorization bill -- director of operational energy plans and programs -- which, as I understand it, is meant to be a kind of hub for all the various parts of the military that are trying to meet clean-energy goals -- to communicate with each other and organize coherently.

That person, whose name is Sharon Burke, has just been confirmed for the job. I think there's a lot of hope and expectation that she can advance DOD's overall goals through operational energy, which is what's used by the troops.

She'll be very focused on liquid-fuel use and other energy needs for weapons systems, so initiatives like the fully burdened cost of fuel. DOD has realized that it hasn't always budgeted for the total cost of fuel; in other words, what you pay at the pump isn't really what it costs to deliver fuel to the front. But if you fully burden it -- and realize that instead of $4 a gallon it costs you $40 a gallon to actually get that gallon of fuel into Iraq or Afghanistan -- that changes how you think about the economics of fuel in DOD.

Traditionally, energy wasn't included in the costing of a weapons system. Which is why you have a very long logistics tail that's dragging down the fighting tooth of the military.

Carpenter Heal Thyself

I am not an overtly religious person but it was said Jesus was a Carpenter. And given his propensity for socializing with the downtrodden that would not be all that unusual.

I am not a Carpenter. In fact many tools scare me. But I like Construction, go figure. I like watching things get broken down and rebuilt. From when I was a little girl working with my father's Contractor I loved watching him create, repair and install things from studs to final finishes. There is an appreciation for watching people work with their hands - in many professions - that I admire. But my skill is in visualizing and imagining and organizing that vision into reality. I should of been an Architect but as I said in earlier blogs they are Diva's of the trades and mostly male dominated profession difficult to really get into. And frankly I did not think it was necessary when I could rough sketch or even explain what needed to get done; now even more so with CAD which pretty much eliminates the need for an Architect on the projects I am accustomed to working on.

And yes no one is more familiar with the reputations and issues surrounding those in the trades. I have been first hand exposed and frustrated by those with whom I work but then I also have worked in Business and Education and let me assure you they are no different in fact they may be worse. But I always believed that if you are good at your part of the job you find those who are good at theirs and together it works.

Most Construction professionals are very non-corporate and it shows in their management of their business, their ability to work with others both vendors and clients and their issues in scheduling, managing and the details. Some do better than others some fail. Again that is not any more or less in many industries.. look at Restaurants for example. Chefs can be great cooks but that is about it. They aren't all Gordon Ramsay's and maybe that is a good thing.

And this morning I found an essay in the NY Times by a Carpenter and his work but more importantly about the people with whom he worked. He has to like them. I have a strong sense of that as well although frankly its your skill I like first and sometimes I overlook the rest but often I find if you LIKE someone that is what matters in establishing a strong working relationship.

We don't rely on instinct or relatability instead we rely on "tests" - IQ, Myers Briggs whatever as if that ability to take that test tells me anything about your skills or if I will even like you. Hey we are working together this is not

But Human Resources had to come up with a reason for their existence other than managing paper (as they certainly don't manage people and anyone who has dealt with an HR person of late knows they are actually hideous at that) so they devised ways to screen and screen out people. Wasting both time and money I often think many excellent people never see the opportunities because of some extraneous reason that is used in determining "fit."

Seriously in this economy and this time just the matter is the person willing, able and do you LIKE them should be enough. For me and for this man it is...and well "WWJD?"


The Healing Power of Construction Work
Published: August 21, 2010

THE call came at 9:30 at night from the police detective, asking me about one of my carpenters. The detective was doing a follow-up investigation on a domestic disturbance and wanted to ask a few questions. Fine, no problem, I said — thinking of the big job we were in the middle of and how much I was depending on that carpenter.

I had never known much about my helper’s personal life, although we considered ourselves friends. I knew that there were problems in the background, but they never came to work with him. He’d take a day off now and then for vague personal reasons, but that was all I ever heard of it, and I didn’t pry. He was quiet and hard-working. He mangled his grammar and had dropped out of high school, but he was a natural at remodeling.

He had an instinctive understanding of building and materials that can’t be taught, and I could count on him to figure out tough problems without whining or major screw-ups. He paid attention to the whole job, not just his part of it, and if I made a mistake, he’d usually catch it. He had that sweet, steady rhythm to his work that good carpenters seem born with. You can see it in the way the hands move.

I tend to hire people I like personally — no indicator of talent, but I have to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m drawn to people who have a little bit of darkness in them — people who have peeked over the edge, maybe even gone over it, at some point in their lives.

People with this kind of background are not uncommon in remodeling, probably because it’s one of the dwindling number of mentally challenging careers that require almost nothing in the way of qualifications except a strong back, common sense and a willingness to work hard.

For people who’ve been unable to fit into standardized corporate slots, or haven’t passed the tests or graduated at the top of their class, construction can offer a rare second or third chance.

Sitting in my van the next morning, I tried to imagine what, if anything, I might say to my helper, assuming he showed up. Among the crowd of carpenters who’ve passed through my life have been a paroled murderer, a convicted felon and several others who were familiar with jail. The murderer was one of the best people I ever worked with.

A few had gotten D.W.I.’s or had gone through drug rehab. One man — a charming, gap-toothed roofer with a weakness for bar fights — had worn a clunky ankle monitor to work for two months. I heard stories of spectacular, alcohol-fueled fights ending with clothes thrown out windows, calls to the police and court dates; often there were new phone numbers for a week or two. On some Mondays, I could almost hear the sighs of relief to be back at work, away from personal lives gone haywire.

My own history has also been somewhat irregular, and at times I’ve been a cause of concern for loved ones. I know what failure and shame are. To corporate H.R. departments, my résumé is full of red flags: false starts in unrelated fields, all quickly abandoned; unexplainable gaps (what happened to 1997 and 2002?); and jobs like that of New York cab driver that could have been adventurous and intriguing except that they lasted way too long.

I went into construction in part because I wasn’t much good at anything else I’d tried. I started at the bottom, doing dirty, menial jobs and not always doing them right.

At first, it was hard to shake feelings of humiliation, hard not to compare my status with that of the professionals and executives I worked for. But then I began to notice how much I could express just by cutting and pounding wood. A few years later, with a respectable body of work under my belt, I finally understood that the ability to imagine and then build where nothing had existed before was an ability worth valuing.

MY helper’s difficulties were eventually resolved. When he came in — on time — we had one of those awkward talks where two large guys open up to each other for a few moments. His live-in girlfriend had impulsively gone off her antidepressants, and trouble had quickly followed. After a mandatory, 72-hour, no-contact period, everything settled down. I gave him a few days off to work it out, then presented him with some difficult framing problems as a distraction.

Unfortunately, the underlying problems in the relationship were too big, and they broke up soon after. But our job, a complicated master bedroom suite in the attic of a rambling old Victorian, turned out well, with all the technical and aesthetic loose ends resolved and woven together into a completed, satisfying ending.

Hard physical labor with a clear-cut point to it can be a lifesaver.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Value of Things

I just had an "Estate Sale" which meant divesting of most of my things from Antiques to belongings of all kinds. Over the years I had been fortunate in my previous life to acquire a beautiful collection of furnishings and items from my travels. As someone who had remodeled and styled her own homes for resale my distinct looks had become a part of the process. I tried to always bring a unique look to each house re-using some items but adding others to make each home distinctly its own.

Because I have always valued items that were vintage and pre-owned perhaps that was my first foray into the world of green. So when I put them up for sale I knew that the Economy was something working against me but I also knew the kind of clients and people who recognized value would see the items for their worth and their outstanding prices. Sadly I was wrong. It appears those with money have every intention of retaining it and those without well simply cannot afford to regardless of either need or price.

But in that vein I was quite surprised to find how little people really knew and recognized what things of value were. This last decade created consumers but ones who sought immediate cheap gratification. There was little regard to quality or workmanship only to price. The easiest and lowest common denominator. Of course it also appealed to the ease of purchase. People were signing Mortgages and buying homes with little understanding, comprehension or well analysis of what they were signing up for. They were sure the house would rise in value and in turn they would never have to worry about repaying the debt or that the debt would in turn decline over time with ultimate rises in pay, etc. Of course we know NOW that well pay has not been increasing and well the inflated and excessive values placed on homes were fraudulent and exaggerated. The true sources and reasons for these values have, in my estimation, yet to be fully investigated and explored but its clear that the result is what we have.

The tragedy of this is now we have little to value. We don't understand how to assess and appreciate value. Who do you trust and how do you know? It is not easy. Even getting appraisals for my pieces proved a challenge and some went without and others the value is not recognized in a world that has no recognition for age, quality and longevity. There is an almost inherent suspicion when someone is selling anything of any value - high or low. So instead we go to Target, Ikea, Wal-Mart. Its junk, its cheap but we believe its "value" because there is a brand or identity there. Regardless of its reputation we will buy cheap because it is cheap and more importantly easy.

So how do you know value? Well it takes time and research and those things we seem to be short of. When the Appraiser saw my Miele Washer/Dryer he tried to convince me to donate them to the local salvage yard. It was only after I said they are 7 years old, 3 of which in storage and they have a 30 year life that there is no way I will give them away I even asked why? Then later I found out he had previously worked there. Of course and if I donated them he would easily have access to outstanding equipment at next to nothing prices. His conflict of interest in that exchange not disclosed but his seeming lack of knowledge was my tip that he was not totally honest. Do I think him a bad person.. no but I get it.. everyone wants a deal. But haven't we learned that dishonesty in doing so is not the way to find one?

So finding value comes from taking time as I did the last month. Looking at other Estate Sales, looking at Antiques, finding the time to find items like mine and taking chances of putting them for sale on multiple sites from E-bay to Craigslist to see what it brought. Most people just want to buy what they need, they have a price in mind and they don't know why one thing is priced one way over another. If you are not willing to find out why you will continue to find yourself on the losing end from unscrupulous Agents who want to sell you a house or car or to someone there who simply sees an opportunity in which to take advantage.

You have to LEARN and to KNOW what the value of something is before you buy and invest and then only you will know what is the true value as its yours and yours alone in which to assign its value.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Traveling Green

In light of the last post I thought I would talk about traveling and finding great hotels that promote a greener philosophy.

I try to stay at Eco friendly hotels. They don't have to be obviously green but I like the hotels that do advocate or attempt Energy Efficiency and Conservation practices - such as the option of leaving linens on the bed and having lighting controls. But there are others that make a intention of providing a high impact on their attempt to be fully green.

The Orchard Hotel in San Francisco is one such establishment and a friend stayed at a very green hotel in North Carolina recently. They are more luxurious and higher end but my personal favorite was the Good Hotel in San Francisco owned by Joie deVivre chain. Sadly they sold this gem but I loved it as it was very green in that in converted a former no-tell motel in a very urban area (the Tenderloin) but was very affordable and charming. I don't know if the new owners will maintain that simple ambiance and affordable pricing but I can hope.

And today the NY Times addressed that despite the Economy there are some movements by Hoteliers to go green. Some of it is simply energy conservation and finding economic rewards and other is to distinguish themselves in a depressed marketplace. Whatever the reason the Hotels are seeing that is a winner from many standpoints. And with that I think we will see more of this in the future and in turn the standard.

For Hotels, Eco-Friendly Ideas Await a Friendlier Economy

Published: August 16, 2010

Hotels eager to satisfy the growing desire of business travelers for eco-friendly lodging are finding that their environmental ambitions have run headlong into the harsh realities of the recession.

Flowers and shrubbery in the drive outside the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway, are sustained with recycled water.

When the economy was thriving, developers were promoting environmental flourishes like roof gardens, floors of reclaimed wood, and solar panels. When the Orchard Garden Hotel opened in San Francisco in 2006, it featured furniture made from sustainably grown wood.

But now, with reduced operating budgets, hotel owners are putting off the kind of sweeping projects that were common during the bull market and instead focusing on smaller environmental initiatives that don’t cost as much and may even save money at the same time.

“Big-ticket items that have long-term return on investment have definitely been put on the back burner,” said Steve Faulstick, general manager of the Doubletree Hotel in Portland, Ore., and a board member of the Green Meeting Industry Council. “We’d love to be completely green and sustainable, but we’re not going to do that at the expense of laying people off.”

The lodging industry is still working its way through a prolonged slump. Hotel occupancy rates have recovered a bit from the trough of 2009, especially at business hotels in big cities. But they remain depressed over all, and average occupancy for all domestic hotels in the second quarter was 60.7 percent, compared with the 69.3 percent the industry enjoyed in the third quarter of 2000, according to STR Global. This makes it extraordinarily difficult for hotels to pay for big-ticket green renovations, especially with a tight credit market.

“The traditional sources of that financing, which are local and regional banks, are stressed by their commercial real estate exposure,” said David Loeb, senior research analyst at the investment firm Robert W. Baird & Company.

This curb on green projects comes even as a growing number of corporations are reviewing a hotel’s green credentials when they solicit bids for contracts. In a business climate where trips and meetings are subject to greater scrutiny, companies are “really trying to look like good corporate citizens,” said Nancy J. Wilson, principal of MeetGreen, a company that plans events along eco-friendly guidelines.

The technology company Cisco asks hotels about several areas of environmental awareness, like recycling protocol, the use of eco-friendly housecleaning products and water conservation. Those with programs addressing at least five categories are identified on the company’s in-house travel booking tool with a green leaf symbol, said Pam Honeycutt, Cisco’s travel manager for the Americas and Europe.

Evaluating a hotel’s operational impact on the environment is difficult given the lack of an industry standard, she said. “There’s not one definition of what a green hotel would be,” she said. “They all get there by doing multiple things.”

To address this demand without going into the red, hotels are looking at what Mr. Faulstick calls “low-hanging fruit.” Lacking the capital to sink into big expensive, retrofits, hotels are turning to small-scale conservation programs that will satisfy corporate buyers. As a bonus, many of these programs also reduce their energy and water bills.

This includes practices such as training staff to switch off lights and televisions, encouraging guests to embrace less-frequent sheet and towel changes and installing lower-cost fixtures like water-conserving showerheads and compact fluorescent light bulbs. “Low-flow faucets and toilets can bring an immediate savings of 10 to 20 percent,” Mr. Faulstick said.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts is among those exploring ways to save both money and resources. At its Element brand hotel in Lexington, Mass., energy- and water-efficient products like compact fluorescent light bulbs, Energy Star-rated appliances and low-flow plumbing fixtures in guest rooms save the company about $52,000 annually, according to Brian McGuinness, a senior vice president at Starwood.

Since energy use is the second-largest expense a hotel incurs after salary and benefit costs, practices that reduce this are widely embraced. David Jerome, a corporate responsibility executive with the InterContinental Hotels Group, says the economic downturn accelerated the company’s green plans. One program intended only as a pilot is being expanded to the InterContinental’s entire portfolio because of the potential cost savings.

Hotels have had to strike a balance, though. They need to simultaneously keep their green initiatives unobtrusive so that guests don’t feel inconvenienced, but make them visible enough to satisfy environmentally-conscious travelers.

Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, said research shows that even guests who say they are environmentally aware won’t pay more or accept inconvenience. If bottles of shampoo, conditioner or other items are replaced with wall dispensers, guests complain, he said.

Mr. Jerome said the InterContinental is trying to focus on environmental steps that guests either won’t notice or won’t mind. “We don’t want the guest to feel like it’s all up to them,” he said. “We have to balance the guest experience versus the environmental benefits.”

Marriott International is using unobtrusive green elements in a pair of new properties near Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. The properties, the SpringHill Suites Atlanta Airport Gateway and the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway, incorporate low-flow plumbing, water-conserving landscaping and energy-efficient lighting, with an emphasis on natural light.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The War Against Brains

Of late or forever I have genuinely worried about the lack of intelligence displayed and encouraged in America. I said that Obama frightened people not because he was black (although that is for some the only reason) but that is exceedingly intelligent and articulate. After years of folksy homonyms and the country faux-iness of Bill Clinton I wondered if we are really ever going to appreciate the intelligent talents of someone who well was NOT one of us?

The answer is no. We are steadfastly and adamantly confused about what it means to be intelligent and it intimidates and frustrates many many people. I spoke with a European woman who has lived here most of her life. A talented intellect she speaks multiple languages and raised her daughter to embrace intelligence and scholastic pursuits at great cost.

I showed her an article I read in this mornings New York Times about the current state of our college bound students. This on the heel of another article stating the lack of enrollment by American students in pursuit of higher learning. And as Education becomes further financially out of reach the idea of the great step up via Education for many looking to rise up will become a complete anomaly. It will not happen. The state of public Education is disgraceful with charlatans and schemers racing for the current slew of public funding towards Education will only further contribute to its ultimate decline. So many fads and ideas on how to save our youth. Well it comes from the head and that is the family. And with many families struggling to survive their anger and resentment permeates all values and especially toward Education. That is not something school and teachers can overcome. They don't have the distractions, benefits or perks that make it work. And all the hysteria and attention toward Unions and Teacher tenure will not excuse the lack of families true investment in their child's intelligence and education.

I am shocked at the seeming narcissism I encounter when meeting people. Their simple lack of basic facts and arrogance is shocking. Of course the Internets are full of tweets, comments, Facebook comments and the like filled with defensive posturing and lack of cohesive thought that its clear the resentment towards those they see as "threatening" obviously consumes most of their thoughts and it comes out in the vitriol they write.

And tonight on Rachel Maddow she did the segment from which I got the title. The absolute eschewing by public figures to reconcile facts and figures that are in evidence to support their skewed belief systems. And anyone who asks questions are of course threatening and manipulative. It just doesn't fall to those in politics. Think about the Executive CEO's in the Financial Industries and their ilk when they had to hear about their crash course in financial insolvency. Denial is the one great equalizer.

I reprint the articles from the paper about Education. Ask yourself what have you read today?


Schools Are Given a Grade on How Graduates Do


Hunching over her notebook at Borough of Manhattan Community College, Sharasha Croslen struggled to figure out what to do with the algebra problem in front of her: x2 + 2x – 8 = 0.

It was a question every ninth grader is expected to be able to answer. (For those who have erased the ninth grade from memory, the answer is at the end of the article.) But even though Ms. Croslen managed to complete three years of math and graduate from high school, she did not know how to solve for x.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said during a break from her remedial math course, where she has spent the last several weeks reviewing arithmetic and algebra. “I know this is stuff I should know, but either I didn’t learn it or I forgot it all already.”

In most school systems, what happens to students like Ms. Croslen after they obtain their diplomas is of little concern. But the New York City Department of Education acknowledges that despite rising graduation rates, many graduates lack basic skills, and it is trying to do something about it.

This year, for the first time, it has sent detailed reports to all of its high schools, telling them just how many of their students who arrived at the city’s public colleges needed remedial courses, as well as how many stayed enrolled after their first semester. The reports go beyond the basic measure of a school’s success — the percentage of students who earn a diploma — to let educators know whether they have been preparing those students for college or simply churning them out.

The city’s analysis, which it intends to reproduce every year, comes as policy makers nationwide have been calling for higher standards for schools. Most states have committed to adopting a “common core” of what each student should learn in each grade, and in New York, state education officials recalibrated their scoring of standardized tests this year, saying that the bar for passing had fallen too low.

Illinois began tracking how its high school graduates fared in college several years ago, after dismaying reports about freshmen floundering at state schools. Officials in Denver and Philadelphia are now following suit.

New York, like other cities, has made a considerable effort to improve its high school graduation rate — now 59 percent, up from 47 percent in 2005 — and push more of its students to enroll in college. But many of those students are stumbling in basic math and writing: 46 percent of New York City public school graduates who enrolled in one of the City University of New York two-year or four-year colleges in 2007 needed at least one remedial course, and 40 percent of them dropped out within two years.

At a third of the city’s 250 high schools, at least 70 percent of the graduates who went on to CUNY needed remedial help.

“You’re always very excited with the kids who are crying on graduation day, assuming they are going on to bigger and better things,” said Josh Thomases, who oversees academic programs for the city’s education department. “But heretofore that assumption has been largely untested.”

The city chose to study the class that entered CUNY in 2007 so it would have at least two years of college data. At the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, for example, more than 90 percent of the 80 students who entered as freshmen in 2003 graduated in 2007, with the vast majority enrolling in college. But of the 26 students who enrolled in CUNY colleges, more than half needed to take a remedial math course.

“We have students who come with a real need and have to catch up,” said Ben Shuldiner, the principal. “Our job was to do our very best with them. We’re very proud of that, but clearly they still need more.”

Mr. Shuldiner said that in the last four years, the school had enrolled more students in advanced placement courses and had begun offering advanced algebra classes in ninth grade.

For Bronx Leadership Academy High School, where Ms. Croslen received her diploma, nearly 60 percent of the class of 2007 had to enroll in a remedial class. Kenneth Gaskins Jr., the principal, said that was hardly surprising, given that so many students arrived at his high school far below grade level.

“We’re expected to get them caught up in four years, which we try very hard to do and often succeed,” he said, adding that teachers often spend hours helping students with strategies to pass the Regents exams required for graduation.

While schools and principals are not being judged on their remediation rates, Mr. Gaskins noted that the city still rates them on their graduation numbers, which can be a factor in principals’ pay and, in the worst cases, whether a school is shut down.

“For the school’s own survival you are going to help kids get over that hurdle,” he said. “But they may not have a solid enough base to really show they’ve mastered the subject.”

Instructors at the community colleges say they have seen the effects of poor preparation for years. Elizabeth Clark, who teaches remedial writing at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, says her students do not have a sense of what a college-level essay should look like. Many follow a simple five-paragraph, elementary school formula: introduction, three points and summary.

“They don’t know how long it should be; they don’t know how to develop an argument,” Ms. Clark said. “They have very little ability to get past rhetoric and critically analyze what is motivating the writer, and you have to push them past simple binaries.”

There are also more basic problems, Ms. Clark said, such as students not knowing that each sentence must begin with a capital letter or using “u” instead of “you.”

John Garvey, who recently retired as the liaison between CUNY and the public schools, said the experience of remedial classes — known as developmental courses in academic parlance — could be discouraging, making students more likely to drop out.

“This is a student who thinks he or she has been doing pretty well, but their first experience is being told you are not good enough,” he said. “All of their confidence and determination is being undermined.”

The city is actually making progress. Even as the number of graduates enrolling in CUNY has increased, the percentage of students taking remedial classes has gone down.

About 58 percent of the city’s college-bound graduates in 2007 went to CUNY schools; 15 percent went to State University of New York colleges, with the remainder attending private colleges or public colleges out of state.

Mr. Thomases said the city was trying to develop a way to get data from other colleges.

Susan L. Forman said that many of the issues have remained the same for the four decades she has taught remedial math at Bronx Community College, including students easily confused by fractions and negative numbers and becoming paralyzed when they are told they cannot use calculators.

What has changed, she said, is that students are often overly confident.

“Their naïveté is just extraordinary,” she said. “They have a tremendous underestimation of what they do not understand.”

Monday, August 2, 2010


I am in the process of an Estate Sale. Its time for me to downsize and well I can't move so I thought I would just redecorate with a budget.

I painted a focal wall in my office a bright orange, changed paintings and art around the house and office and bought a new area rug to complement my very inexpensive changes.

I can recommend Area Rugs as an affordable way to find a simple rug that can make a significant aesthetic improvement without breaking the budget. They have thousands of choices and my personal favorite FREE SHIPPING.

I find you can make very dramatic changes by just rearranging, buying vintage furniture at places like Estate Sales and adding a few small improvements. Its the best way to go green and still by stylish.