January 20, 2011

Chk Plz: Restaurants Try Texting To Speed Service by Jessica Alpert

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January 17, 2011
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A TextMyFood servers’ instruction screen shows pending requests sent via text message from customers.
Courtesy of TextMyFood

A TextMyFood servers’ instruction screen shows pending requests sent via text message from customers.
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January 17, 2011 from WBUR

The menu at Charlie’s Kitchen, a dive bar in Cambridge, Mass., might not stand out for its cutting-edge cuisine. But the eatery is at the forefront when it comes to how customers can communicate with the wait staff.

A sticker on the wall of a corner booth says it all: “Can’t find your server, just text!”

Charlie’s is one of the first restaurants in the country to try TextMyFood, a new service that allows customers to communicate with their server via text messaging.

Five minutes after typing, “I’m at table 3. I want a tossed salad with ranch dressing,” a meal arrives at the table.

Check, Please

“There are pros and cons,” says Kristina Henry, a server at Charlie’s. “It’s great for a night like Friday night when we’re really busy. It’s packed and you’re running around [and] people text like, ‘Can I have my check please?'”

Even though TextMyFood may make her job easier, Henry says she finds the service impersonal.

“As a server, I would rather want to go to the guest and talk to them face to face and ask them what they would like instead of getting it through a computer,” she says.

Still, the technology doesn’t replace the server.

“It’s not eliminating human contact,” says Bob Nilsson, the president of TextMyFood. “There’s always a server at the other end. You just want to have that contact sooner. If you can’t see them and can’t make that contact, rather than waving your arms or getting up, just use the natural communication and let them know what you need.”

Nilsson says the goal of the service is to increase the amount of money customers will spend. For example, guests are more likely to order another round of drinks if they text the request in the moment. If they can’t find the server, they often pass.

But not everyone at Charlie’s Kitchen finds it useful to be able to text requests to their server.

“I guess it seems kind of pointless because I can tell my waitress to her face what I want to drink,” says customer Zach Brickett.

Prank Texts

Another customer, John McSweeney, wonders if people will abuse the system.

“It sort of occurred to me to maybe — just as soon as we ordered our beers — to take out my phone and be like, ‘Beers/stat/now,'” he says.

Prank texting is indeed a problem.

“I’ve gotten, ‘Glasses are sexy.’ I’ve gotten, ‘Two of us need something and three of us need your number,'” says Joshua DeCosta, another server at Charlie’s Kitchen.

In response, some establishments — where there’s a lot of heavy drinking — turn off the service after a certain hour. But other managers say they appreciate the ability to monitor guests.

If too many inappropriate texts come in from one person, it’s time to cut them off.

Time To Tip

It’s not uncommon for restaurant or bar patrons to have to wait to pay even though they have their check in front of them and their credit card out. That’s because servers aren’t always in sight.

Now, instead of waving, a text will do.

A few seconds after typing, “T3. My credit card is waiting,” into my phone, the server comes over to take my payment and smiles.

We’ve barely exchanged a word. I find texting extremely alluring. I message, she arrives.

Still, when it came to the tip, I left it the old-fashioned way — on the table


January 19, 2011

5 Myths About the Chinese Communist Party

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January 18, 2011

Swiss whistleblower Rudolf Elmer plans to hand over offshore banking secrets of the rich and famous to WikiLeaks

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He will disclose the details of ‘massive potential tax evasion’ before he flies home to stand trial over his actions
Rudolf Elmer in Mauritius
Rudolf Elmer in Mauritius: “Well-known pillars of society will hold investment portfolios and may include houses, trading companies, artwork, yachts, jewellery, horses, and so on.” Photograph: Rene Soobaroyen for the Guardian
Ed Vulliamy

The Observer, Sun 16 Jan 2011 00.06 GMT
The offshore bank account details of 2,000 “high net worth individuals” and corporations – detailing massive potential tax evasion – will be handed over to the WikiLeaks organisation in London tomorrow by the most important and boldest whistleblower in Swiss banking history, Rudolf Elmer, two days before he goes on trial in his native Switzerland.
British and American individuals and companies are among the offshore clients whose details will be contained on CDs presented to WikiLeaks at the Frontline Club in London. Those involved include, Elmer tells the Observer, “approximately 40 politicians”.
Elmer, who after his press conference will return to Switzerland from exile in Mauritius to face trial, is a former chief operating officer in the Cayman Islands and employee of the powerful Julius Baer bank, which accuses him of stealing the information.
He is also – at a time when the activities of banks are a matter of public concern – one of a small band of employees and executives seeking to blow the whistle on what they see as unprofessional, immoral and even potentially criminal activity by powerful international financial institutions.
Along with the City of London and Wall Street, Switzerland is a fortress of banking and financial services, but famously secretive and expert in the concealment of wealth from all over the world for tax evasion and other extra-legal purposes.
Elmer says he is releasing the information “in order to educate society”. The list includes “high net worth individuals”, multinational conglomerates and financial institutions – hedge funds”. They are said to be “using secrecy as a screen to hide behind in order to avoid paying tax”. They come from the US, Britain, Germany, Austria and Asia – “from all over”.
Clients include “business people, politicians, people who have made their living in the arts and multinational conglomerates – from both sides of the Atlantic”. Elmer says: “Well-known pillars of society will hold investment portfolios and may include houses, trading companies, artwork, yachts, jewellery, horses, and so on.”
“What I am objecting to is not one particular bank, but a system of structures,” he told the Observer. “I have worked for major banks other than Julius Baer, and the one thing on which I am absolutely clear is that the banks know, and the big boys know, that money is being secreted away for tax-evasion purposes, and other things such as money-laundering – although these cases involve tax evasion.”
Elmer was held in custody for 30 days in 2005, and is charged with breaking Swiss bank secrecy laws, forging documents and sending threatening messages to two officials at Julius Baer.
Elmer says: “I agree with privacy in banking for the person in the street, and legitimate activity, but in these instances privacy is being abused so that big people can get big banking organisations to service them. The normal, hard-working taxpayer is being abused also.
“Once you become part of senior management,” he says, “and gain international experience, as I did, then you are part of the inner circle – and things become much clearer. You are part of the plot. You know what the real products and service are, and why they are so expensive. It should be no surprise that the main product is secrecy … Crimes are committed and lies spread in order to protect this secrecy.”
The names on the CDs will not be made public, just as a much shorter list of 15 clients that Elmer handed to WikiLeaks in 2008 has remained hitherto undisclosed by the organisation headed by Julian Assange, currently on bail over alleged sex offences in Sweden, and under investigation in the US for the dissemination of thousands of state department documents.
Elmer has been hounded by the Swiss authorities and media since electing to become a whistleblower, and his health and career have suffered.
“My understanding is that my client’s attempts to get the banks to act over various complaints he made came to nothing internally,” says Elmer’s lawyer, Jack Blum, one of America’s leading experts in tracking offshore money. “Neither would the Swiss courts act on his complaints. That’s why he went to WikiLeaks.”
That first crop of documents was scrutinised by the Guardian newspaper in 2009, which found “details of numerous trusts in which wealthy people have placed capital. This allows them lawfully to avoid paying tax on profits, because legally it belongs to the trust … The trust itself pays no tax, as a Cayman resident”, although “the trustees can distribute money to the trust’s beneficiaries”.
Now, Blum says, “Elmer is being tried for violating Swiss banking secrecy law even though the data is from the Cayman Islands. This is bold extraterritorial nonsense. Swiss secrecy law should apply to Swiss banks in Switzerland, not a Swiss subsidiary in the Cayman Islands.”
Julius Baer has denied all wrongdoing, and rejects Elmer’s allegations. It has said that Elmer “altered” documents in order to “create a distorted fact pattern”.
The bank issued a statement on Friday saying: “The aim of [Elmer’s] activities was, and is, to discredit Julius Baer as well as clients in the eyes of the public. With this goal in mind, Mr Elmer spread baseless accusations and passed on unlawfully acquired, respectively retained, documents to the media, and later also to WikiLeaks. To back up his campaign, he also used falsified documents.”
The bank also accuses Elmer of threatening colleagues

January 14, 2011

Trung Quốc không chọn lãnh đạo ‘theo miền’ Trung Quốc ngày càng trẻ hóa nhân sự cấp lãnh đạo Đảng và Nhà nước.

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Nhân kỳ Đại hội XI của đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, một trong những câu hỏi được đặt ra là quá trình lựa chọn các nhân vật cao cấp trong Bộ
Chính trị Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam được có chịu ảnh hưởng gì từ cách làm của Trung Quốc hay không.
BBC Tiếng Việt phỏng vấn biên tập viên Trần Thời Vinh (Chen Shirong) của BBC Tiếng Trung để có cái nhìn so sánh giữa cách họp đại hội và quyết định
nhân sự cao cấp của hai đảng cộng sản châu Á này.
Trước hết, BBC Tiếng Việt hỏi ông Trần Thời Vinh về những vị trí chủ chốt trong hàng ngũ lãnh đạo Trung Quốc như vị trí Tổng bí thư, Thủ tướng thường
được quyết định bao lâu trước khi có Đại Hội Đảng Cộng sản Trung Quốc, mà lần tới dự kiến vào năm 2012.
Biên tập viên Trần Thời Vinh: Trước hết, tôi xin nói một chút về trật tự quyền lực của Bộ chính trị Trung Quốc. Trật tự này quy định ai giữ những vị trí
chủ chốt từ số 1 tới số 9 trong hàng ngũ lãnh đạo. Thông thường, những vị trí này được quyết định rất gần với thời điểm tổ chức Đại hội Đảng, thường là
vào mùa hè, trước khi khai mạc đại hội vào tháng 10.
Theo thông lệ, chứ dĩ nhiên là không theo luật rồi, các vị trí Chủ tịch nước và Thủ tướng sẽ giữ hai nhiệm kỳ, mỗi nhiệm kỳ 5 năm. Thế nên, ta có thể suy
ra, hai vị trí hiện thời đã tại chức được 8 năm, năm nay nữa là 9 năm. Điều đó có nghĩa là trong lần đại hội Đảng tới, vào năm 2012, sẽ có 2 nhân sự mới
vào thay cho 2 vị trí này. Từ nay tới tháng Ba năm 2012 là lúc nội bộ đảng Trung Quốc sàng lọc những vị trí đương quyền để quyết định danh sách hàng
ngũ lãnh đạo mới.
Nói tóm lại, những vị trí chủ chốt như Chủ tịch nước và Thủ tướng coi như đã được quyết định rồi, chẳng có gì ngạc nhiên cả. Nếu có ngạc nhiên thì chỉ xảy
ra ở những vị trí thứ yếu hơn trong trật tự hàng ngũ lãnh đạo, ví dụ như ai sẽ là Chủ tịch quốc hội, vân vân.
Trên cơ sở nào những vị trí mới này sẽ được họ chọn? Tuổi tác, học vị, hay tiêu chí nào khác?
Nói chung, Đảng Cộng sản Trung Quốc đã và đang cố gắng trẻ hóa đội ngũ lãnh đạo của mình. Hồi xưa, ông Mao
Trạch Đông qua đời trong lúc còn đương vị. Bắt đầu từ ông Đặng Tiểu Bình, ông này quyết định trao quyền lực cho
thế hệ trẻ hơn, cho ông Giang Trạch Dân. Ông Giang Trạch Dân giữ vị trí Chủ tịch Quân ủy Trung ương vài năm,
trước khi chuyển giao quyền lực của mình cho ông Hồ Cẩm Đào. Do đó, độ tuổi của hàng ngũ lãnh đạo đang ngày
càng được trẻ dần.
Tuy nhiên, có một chi tiết thú vị về sự dao động của nguyên tắc hạn chế
tuổi tác này. Chẳng hạn, nếu một nhân vật chủ chốt số 1 nào đó mới cầm
quyền được 5 năm, và theo lệ thì ông ấy có quyền giữ 2 nhiệm kỳ. Và thế
là, Bộ Chính trị sẽ nâng độ tuổi tuyển chọn lên. Ví dụ ông Tập Cận Bình,
hiện giờ mới 57 tuổi, và sắp 58 tuổi, mới được bầu làm Phó Chủ tịch Quân
Ủy Trung ương và được cơ cấu để thay Chủ tịch Hồ Cẩm Đào vào Đại hội tới
thì trong 10 năm nữa, sau khi kết thúc 2 nhiệm kỳ, ông ấy sẽ 68 tuổi. Vậy
thì lúc đó, Bộ Chính trị sẽ hạn chế tuổi tác ở số 67 hoặc 68 và lấy đó làm mốc không được đề bạt chức vụ lãnh đạo
Ở Trung Quốc có cái gọi là chia ghế chóp bu theo vùng miền như ở Việt Nam hay không thưa ông?
Tôi không nghĩ ở Trung Quốc có khuynh hướng phân chia quyền lực theo vùng miền rõ như ở Việt Nam như vậy. Nhưng tại Trung Quốc, ở cấp lãnh đạo cơ
sở, nhân sự được xoay chuyển rất thường xuyên. Ví dụ như ông Hồ Cẩm Đào, Chủ tịch nước và Tổng Bí thư, hồi ở cấp Bộ Trưởng ông ấy đã làm việc ở Tây
Nam Trung quốc, ở cả ở Tây Tạng nữa. Nguyên tắc lựa chọn ở đây là những người có nhiều kinh nghiệm cấp cơ sở, các tỉnh thành địa phương.
Đoàn Đảng và ‘con quan’
Như vậy có nghĩa là, kinh nghiệm điều hành khi còn ở cấp địa phương sẽ là một tiêu chí để được tuyển chọn, đúng không thưa ông?
Đó là một trong các tiêu chí được xem xét. Tuy nhiên, trong cách vận hành chính trị Trung Quốc hiện nay, còn một nguyên tắc cân bằng quyền lực nữa,
cân bằng lợi ích giữa các bên. Có hai bên chính ở Trung Quốc. Một bên là các nhân vật trưởng thành từ phong trào thanh niên đoàn thể. Một bên là các
“công tử, công nương”, nghĩa là con ông cháu cha của các nhân vật cách mạng lão thành của Trung Quốc. Danh sách ứng viên của các bên sẽ được vấn ý
bên trong nội bộ Đảng, để chọn ra người được sự đồng thuận cao nhất. Suy cho cùng, cũng có một chút dân chủ trong quá trình lựa chọn đó.
Cập nhật: 15:23 GMT – thứ năm, 13 tháng 1, 2011
Trung Quốc ‘lên lịch’ về chuyển giao
các thế hệ lãnh đạo khá rõ
Mức độ quan tâm của dân thường đối với việc ai, hoặc những ai là lãnh đạo đất nước thế nào thưa ông?
Người dân Trung Quốc thường tin rằng chính sách của lãnh đạo cấp cao là nhằm ích nước lợi nhà. Họ đổ lỗi cho
những người thừa hành tuyến dưới thực hiện sai những chính sách “đúng đắn” ấy. Có lẽ do thói quen ăn sâu từ
ngàn đời, người dân thường vẫn thường có đầu óc quen nghĩ về mối quan hệ giữa thần dân và hoàng đế. Đối với
họ, bổn phận của dân đen là tin tưởng và nể phục “Đấng minh quân”.

In Haiti, Corporations Profit While People Suffer 12Share By Jordan Flaherty

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One year after an earthquake devastated Haiti, much of the promised relief and reconstruction aid has not reached those most in need. In fact, the nation’s tragedy has served as an opportunity to further enrich corporate interests.

The details of a recent lawsuit, as reported by Business Week, highlights the ways in which contractors — including some of the same players who profited from Hurricane Katrina-related reconstruction — have continued to use their political connections to gain profits from others’ suffering, receiving contacts worth tens of millions of dollars while the Haitian people receive pennies at best. It also demonstrates ways in which charity and development efforts have mirrored and contributed to corporate abuses.

Lewis Lucke, a 27-year veteran of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was named US special coordinator for relief and reconstruction after the earthquake. He worked this job for a few months, then immediately moved to the private sector, where he could sell his contacts and connections to the highest bidder. He quickly got a $30,000-a-month (plus bonuses) contract with the Haiti Recovery Group (HRG).

HRG had been founded by AshBritt, Inc., a Florida-based contractor who had received acres of bad press for their post-Katrina contracting. AshBritt’s partner in HRG is Gilbert Bigio, a wealthy Haitian businessman with close ties to the Israeli military. Bigio made a fortune during the corrupt Duvalier regime and was a supporter of the right-wing coup against Haitian president Aristide.

Although Lucke received $60,000 for two months’ work, he is suing because he says he is owed an additional $500,000 for the more than 20-million dollars in contracts he helped HRG obtain during that time.

As CorpWatch has reported, AshBritt “has enjoyed meteoric growth since it won its first big debris removal subcontract from none other than Halliburton, to help clean up after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.” In 1999, the company also faced allegations of double billing for $765,000 from the Broward County, Florida school board for clean-up done in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.

AshBritt CEO Randal Perkins is a major donor to Republican causes and hired Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s firm, as well as former US Army Corp of Engineers official Mike Parker, as lobbyists. As a reward for his political connections, AshBritt won 900 million dollars in Post-Katrina contracts, helping them to become the poster child for political corruption in the world of disaster profiteering, even triggering a congressional investigation focusing on their buying of influence. MSNBC reported in early 2006 that criticism of AshBritt “can be heard in virtually every coastal community between Alabama and Texas.”

The contracts given to Bush cronies like AshBritt resulted in local and minority-owned companies losing out on reconstruction work. As Multinational Monitor noted shortly after Katrina, “by turning the contracting process over to prime contractors like AshBritt, the Corps and FEMA have effectively privatized the enforcement of Federal Acquisition Regulations and disaster relief laws such as the Stafford Act, which require contracting officials to prioritize local businesses and give 5 percent of contracts to minority-owned businesses. As a result . . . early reports suggest that over 90 percent of the $2 billion in initial contracts was awarded to companies based outside of the three primary affected states, and that minority businesses received just 1.5 percent of the first $1.6 billion.”

Alex Dupuy, writing in the Washington Post, reported a similar pattern in Haiti, noting that “of the more than 1,500 US contracts doled out worth $267 million, only 20, worth $4.3 million, have gone to Haitian firms. The rest have gone to US firms, which almost exclusively use US suppliers. Although these foreign contractors employ Haitians, mostly on a cash-for-work basis, the bulk of the money and profits are reinvested in the United States.” The same article notes that “less than 10 percent of the $9 billion pledged by foreign donors has been delivered, and not all of that money has been spent. Other than rebuilding the international airport and clearing the principal urban arteries of rubble, no major infrastructure rebuilding — roads, ports, housing, communications — has begun.”

The disaster profiteering exemplified by AshBritt is not just the result of quick decision-making in the midst of a crisis. These contracts are awarded as part of a corporate agenda that sees disaster as an opportunity, a tool for furthering policies that would not be possible in other times. Naomi Klein exposed evidence that, within 24 hours of the earthquake, the influential right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation was already laying plans to use the disaster as an attempt at further privatization of the country’s economy.

Relief and recovery efforts, led by the US military, have also brought a further militarization of relief and criminalization of survivors. Haiti and Katrina also served as staging grounds for increased involvement of mercenaries in reconstruction efforts. As one Blackwater mercenary told Jeremy Scahill when he visited New Orleans in the days after Katrina, “This is a trend. You’re going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations.”

And it’s not just corporations who have been guilty of profiting from Haitian suffering. A recent report from the Disaster Accountability Project (DAP) describes a “significant lack of transparency in the disaster-relief/aid community,” and finds that many relief organizations have left donations for Haiti in their bank accounts, earning interest rather than helping the people of Haiti. DAP director Ben Smilowitz notes that “the fact that nearly half of the donated dollars still sit in the bank accounts of relief and aid groups does not match the urgency of their own fundraising and marketing efforts and donors’ intentions, nor does it covey the urgency of the situation on the ground.”

Haitian poet and human rights lawyer Ezili Dantò has written,

Haiti’s poverty began with a US/Euro trade embargo after its independence, continued with the Independence Debt to France and ecclesiastical and financial colonialism. Moreover, in more recent times, the uses of US foreign aid, as administered through USAID in Haiti, basically serves to fuel conflicts and covertly promote US corporate interests to the detriment of democracy and Haitian health, liberty, sovereignty, social justice and political freedoms. USAID projects have been at the frontlines of orchestrating undemocratic behavior, bringing underdevelopment, coup d’etat, impunity of the Haitian Oligarchy, indefinite incarceration of dissenters, and destroying Haiti’s food sovereignty essentially promoting famine.

Since before the earthquake, Haiti has been a victim of many of those who have claimed they are there to help. Until we address this fundamental issue of corporate profiteering masquerading as aid and development, the nation will remain mired in poverty. And future disasters, wherever they occur, will lead to similar injustices

Can Europe Be Saved?

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January 10, 2011

To fix our banks we must go back to the 70s By Amar Bhidé Published: January 9 2011 21:53 | Last updated: January 9 2011 21:53

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 5:36 pm

Brazil’s moves last week to stem the rise of its currency reflect the growing anxiety in many emerging economies about inflows of hot money. Fickle deposits in banks – ancient enablers of calamitous booms and busts in credit – deserve even wider attention. It is time to prohibit all banks – and depository institutions like money market funds – from paying more than the risk-free government bill rate. In short, we need to cap rates on all short-term deposits.

This might seem an unthinkable throwback. In the US interest rate ceilings were supposedly consigned to history along with the regulation of trucks and airlines – swept away by innovative money market funds and the deregulatory tide of the late 1970s and 1980s. Banks were forced, says the folklore, to pay market rates to long-exploited depositors, instead of giving away free toasters to attract custom.
Lord Lawson baffled by bank auditors – Jan-04
Clegg warns banks over bonuses – Dec-16
Banks urged to use profits as a buffer – Dec-17
What the Bank says – Dec-17
Financial services’ tax bill tumbles – Dec-16
In depth: UK banks – Nov-09

In fact deregulating rates on deposits was more like eliminating the inspection of truck brakes than freeing truck tariffs. Bankers had long feared that competing for deposits by paying high interest rates triggered races to the bottom in lending, while yield-chasing depositors were seen as a dangerous source of funds. Banks in good condition, the head of the Philadelphia National Bank said in 1884, did not pay interest to depositors.

Bidding for the deposits of banks with surplus funds was particularly problematic. The rules allowed anyone to start a bank in the US, but made it impossible to open many deposit taking branches. Urban banks, particularly those with Wall Street connections, competed with each other for the surplus funds of country banks. There was a nasty downside: unexpected withdrawals by country banks triggered panics. Yet exhortations by regulators and bankers’ associations to limit interest on interbank deposits were futile.

The 1933 Glass-Steagall act finally banned all payments on demand deposits by most American banks to “forestall ruinous competition”. In conjunction with tough controls on banks’ assets, rate limits worked wonders. Despite reputations for indolence, banks raised their lending by over 9 per cent a year in the 1950s and 1960s. The largest number of banks that failed in any year was just seven.

The Federal Reserve’s inability to control inflation in the 1970s, however, ultimately made deposit rate rules untenable. Banks only able to offer non-interest paying deposits, whose real value declined by the day, lost customers to money market funds that contained riskless but interest bearing T-bills. Later banks joined with their money market competitors to create a vast uninsured and unregulated funding system that fuelled an explosion of dodgy lending and made banks vulnerable to the sort of panicky withdrawals that the 1933 rules ought to have ended.

The story of US deposit regulation offers important lessons for bank regulators: pay attention to short-term liabilities – just focusing on bank assets to control contagious imprudence is unwise. Moreover controls (and explicit guarantees) have to be comprehensive and uniform: they cannot exclude the deposits of sophisticated investors or exempt intermediaries such as money market funds. Allowing large depositors to earn higher rates (under the fiction that they face more risk) is particularly dangerous when the mad music to which bankers dance heats up.

Sceptics may point to the problem Spanish banks faced last year when interbank lending markets seized up: If they had not been able to raise rates, banks might have had to take more emergency funding from the state. In fact, it was hot short-term deposits that put the banks on the brink in the first place. Comprehensive rate caps (and deposit insurance) would have made it difficult for banks to expand recklessly their lending – and protected them from a run by depositors.

Limiting rates paid to depositors also does not necessarily bestow windfall profits to banks. Rate caps have their most bite during boom times when they curb the volume of loans. Provided regulators do not allow banks to crank up their credit risks, profit margins on loans are restrained along with their volumes. Note that the deregulation that was supposed to put competitive pressure on bank profits in fact showered unimaginable wealth on bankers.

The writer is a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and author of ‘A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy’

Facing Scrutiny, Banks Slow Pace of Foreclosures By DAVID STREITFELD Published: January 8, 2011

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PHOENIX — An array of federal and state investigations into the way banks foreclose on delinquent homeowners has contributed to a sharp slowdown in foreclosures across the country, especially in hard-hit cities like this one.
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Jonathan Arebalo auctions foreclosed homes outside a courthouse in Phoenix.
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Over the last several months, some banks have been reluctant to seize homes from distressed borrowers, economists and government officials say, as they face scrutiny from regulators and the prospect of sanctions when investigations wrap up in the coming weeks and months.

The Obama administration, in its most recent housing report, said foreclosure activity fell 21 percent in November from October, the biggest monthly decline in five years. Here in Phoenix, foreclosures fell by more than a third in the same period, reflected in the severe drop in foreclosed homes being auctioned on the courthouse plaza.

“There’s no product, just nothing to buy,” complained Sean Waak, an agent for investors, during a recent auction.

The pace of foreclosures could be curtailed further by courts. In a closely watched case, the highest court in Massachusetts invalidated two foreclosures in that state on Friday. The court ruled that two banks, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo, failed to prove they owned the mortgages when they foreclosed on the homes.

If the slowdown continued through this month and into the spring, it could be a boost for the economy. Reducing foreclosures in a meaningful way would act to stabilize the housing market, real estate experts say, letting the administration patch up one of the economy’s most persistently troubled sectors. Fewer foreclosures means that buyers pay more for the ones that do come to market, which strengthens overall home prices and builds consumer confidence in housing.

“Anything that buys time, that reduces the supply of houses coming onto the market, is helpful,” said Karl Guntermann, a professor of real estate finance at Arizona State University.

It is not that borrowers have stopped defaulting on their mortgages. They are missing payments as frequently as ever, data shows. But the lenders are not beginning formal foreclosure proceedings or, when they are, do not complete them with an auction sale. And in the most favorable outcome for distressed borrowers, some lenders are modifying loans so foreclosure becomes unnecessary.

The drop in foreclosures began in late September when some lenders were revealed to have been using so-called robo-signers to process thousands of foreclosures without verifying the accuracy of the data. As the investigations into the problems proceeded, the uncertainty caused many lenders to become more cautious.

Their foreclosure procedures, the banks have repeatedly said, are sound. But preliminary results of several of the investigations have indicated substantial problems. Coordinating many of the inquiries is the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, established by President Obama.

“The administration is committed to taking appropriate action on these issues where wrongdoing has occurred,” said Melanie Roussell, an administration spokeswoman.

The diminished supply of foreclosed homes has already had an effect on prices at the auctions on the courthouse plaza here, bidders said.

Houses change hands on the plaza with a minimum of ceremony. Three sets of trustees hired by the banks sit a few feet apart, their backs to a statue of a naked family looking for all the world as if its members had just been cast out of their home. The trustees call off properties in a monotone to bidders clustered around them. Winners must immediately hand over a $10,000 deposit in the form of a cashier’s check.

On a recent afternoon, one bidder, Pam Mullavey of Infoclosure, found herself in a bidding war with Chris Romuzga of Posted Properties for a 2001 house that had fetched $644,000 at the very peak of the boom.

This time around, the bank set the floor at $271,000. Ms. Mullavey and Mr. Romuzga rapidly pushed up the price in varying increments of $100 and $500. Mr. Romuzga’s client had planned to pull out at $307,000 but asked him to keep bidding as Ms. Mullavey sailed on. Her winning bid was $310,100, well above what a similar house might have fetched just a few months ago.

“Sometimes I wonder why people are bidding so much,” Ms. Mullavey said.

For Mr. Romuzga, it was the fourth time that afternoon he had been outbid. Only once had he secured a property.

The investors’ frustration could be a good thing for Phoenix homeowners, who have seen values fall 54.5 percent since 2006. In the last few months, home prices have started to drop again. A decline in foreclosures, economists say, could break the fall.

Cameron Findlay, chief economist with the mortgage company LendingTree, said that the shifting behavior of lenders had helped change perceptions about the foreclosed.

“Initially, society’s view was to run them out of the house,” he said.

That resulted in vacant and dilapidated homes, which blighted neighborhoods and drove potential buyers away.

“People should be hopeful the modification programs work — for their own benefit,” said Mr. Findlay.

More than four million households are in serious default and vulnerable to losing their homes. Lenders maintain that cases of borrowers improperly foreclosed are extremely rare.

Shooting Fallout: Political Rhetoric Takes The Heat by Corey Dade A makeshift memorial outside Giffords office Enlarge Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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A makeshift memorial outside of the District Office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) on Sunday. The sign sends this message: “violence solves nothing; love is greater than hate.”
A makeshift memorial outside Giffords office
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A makeshift memorial outside of the District Office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) on Sunday. The sign sends this message: “violence solves nothing; love is greater than hate.”
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January 9, 2011

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) has raised concerns about the effect of inflammatory language that has become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.

Saturday’s shooting spree, which killed U.S. District Judge John M. Roll and five others, followed years of hot political debate in Arizona. Both Roll and Giffords had been the subjects of threats in recent years.

Arizona has become one of the most reliably conservative states, particularly in the debates over immigration and health care — two issues that put Giffords, a moderate Democrat, and Roll at odds with many Arizonans.

Members of Congress and other elected officials say violent threats occasionally come with the job, but many politicians and others assert that the shootings reflect a national political culture that has become too heated and rife with instigation to violence.

“Hopefully this gives the nation pause, and we can temper down the vitriol toward politicians,” Rep. John Larson (D-CT) told reporters outside his home Saturday night. In a news conference Sunday, Larson said Democratic and Republican lawmakers this week will discuss taking new safety precautions, such as requesting a local police presence when they make official appearances in their districts.

In the Senate last year, the number of significant threats directed at members increased to 49 from 29 in 2009, according to the chamber’s sergeant-at-arms.

An April 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found “a perfect storm of conditions” contributing to Americans’ distrust of government, including “a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials.”

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says inflammatory political rhetoric has risen as a result of the immigration debate. And more recently, he says, the weak economy and the election of President Obama have led to a 50 percent increase in the number of so-called hate groups.

“Earlier in the decade, it was paramilitary groups and nativists who were reacting to illegal immigration,” Potok said. “But then you have the first black president and the economy, which just exacerbates the feeling among some whites that they are losing opportunities, or losing their country.

“Now you’re seeing a cross-fertilization between those groups from the early 2000s and the people who are upset over Obama and the economy.”

Some lawmakers remain circumspect about drawing such conclusions. Giffords’ colleague from Arizona, Republican Rep. Trent Franks, declined to say Sunday whether he believes the shootings were motivated in any part by heightened vitriol in public discourse.

The central element here is this unhinged lunatic that had no respect for innocent human life [who] was willing to make some grand statement. I don’t even know if he understands what statement he was trying to make.

– Arizona Rep. Trent Franks

“The central element here is this unhinged lunatic that had no respect for innocent human life [who] was willing to make some grand statement. I don’t even know if he understands what statement he was trying to make,” Franks said on CNN’s State of the Union. “There is really the central problem — a lack for respect for human life.”

Political Fallout In Congress

Lawmakers in both parties over the weekend avoided speculating about any political fallout from the shooting.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) decided to suspend legislative activity scheduled for this week, a move that at least temporarily prevents another potential escalation in the debate over the health care law. That issue has led to previous threats against Giffords and stirred much of the vitriol characterizing politics over the past two years.

Repealing the health care law is one of the Republicans’ top priorities in the new session. The measure is all but assured of passage in the Republican House and rejection by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

In a news conference Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said the incident should remind his colleagues that their job “comes with a risk.” However, he said, “No act … must be allowed to stop us from our duty.”

Security personnel aren’t assigned to House members, and many lawmakers say they likely won’t scale back their public appearances. Often, though, large events in House members’ districts do include a local police presence.

Protecting lawmakers has become more difficult in the past decade, said William Pickle, a former Senate sergeant-at-arms. Appearing Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, he said the availability of information on the Internet can guide would-be plotters — even as demands for lawmakers to make public appearances have increased.

“The very nature of being a public official is one where you have to press the flesh. You want as much exposure as you can possibly have. That’s not going to end,” Pickle said. “We are going to fall back into being complacent again. I hate to say that, but we will. We do not have the resources to protect 535 congressmen and senators.”

Pickle, also a retired Secret Service agent who once oversaw the protection of Vice President Al Gore, added that the threats are “impossible to stop. Until candidates stop campaigning, these things tragically are going to continue happening.”

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain people’s mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

– Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Feeling The Heat In Arizona

Some Arizona politicians from both parties say the incident demonstrates the need to defuse their state’s highly charged discourse.

The health care overhaul has been a flashpoint for Giffords’ constituents. In August 2009, when opponents of the health care bill held demonstrations across the nation, a protester at one of Giffords’ events was removed by police when a pistol he had holstered under his armpit dropped to the floor.

Last March, after the bill passed — with Giffords’ support — the windows of her Tucson office were broken or shot out by vandals. Similar acts of vandalism against other members of Congress were also reported, including a controversial allegation that a Tea Party demonstrator spat on an African-American congressman while other demonstrators shouted racial epithets. Tea Party leaders have challenged those claims.

But in Arizona, the most divisive issue has been immigration. Arizona is home to many of the staunchest opponents of citizenship for illegal immigrants. It also has the nation’s toughest law aimed at identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat and friend of Giffords, lambasted his home state on Saturday as “the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

“When you look at unbalanced people,” Dupnik said, referring to accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner, “how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain people’s mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

Last year, Dupnik vowed that his deputies wouldn’t enforce the state’s new immigration law, calling it “racist” and “unnecessary.”

Also last year, Dupnik accused Tea Party activists of bigotry and stifling rational debate on immigration — adding that, “We didn’t have a Tea Party until we had a black president.”

Arizona Tea Party leaders vehemently denied Dupnik’s accusations and noted that they didn’t take a public position on the immigration law. On Saturday, local Tea Party leaders released statements expressing condolences to the shooting victims’ families. They also sought to distance their groups from any suggestion that Loughner was a Tea Party activist or that his attack was politically motivated.

Giffords narrowly won a third term in November against Jesse Kelly, a Republican backed by the Tea Party. Last June, Kelly held an event promoted with the message: “Get on Target for Victory in November … Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office … Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

“They’re jumping to this conclusion that it has to do with [Giffords’] hotly contested Congressional race,” Allyson Miller, a founder of Pima County Tea Party Patriots, told the website TalkingPointsMemo. “Well, apparently, from what I’ve seen so far … it’s looking like that’s not the case.”

Miller and other Tea Party leaders said they won’t change their aggressive tactics in the wake of the shootings.

The Cross Hairs Controversy

During the midterm elections, Giffords and other Democratic House candidates were featured on the website of Sarah Palin’s political action committee with cross hairs over their districts. Giffords, disturbed at the reference, said at the time, “When people do that, they have got to realize there’s consequences to that.”

In a Sunday interview with talk radio host Tammy Bruce, Rebecca Mansour, who works for Palin’s PAC, said the images of cross hairs weren’t intended to evoke violence: “We never, ever, ever intended it to be gun sights,” she said.

The images were removed from the website this weekend.

On Sunday, President Obama ordered flags at federal buildings to be flown at half-staff. He postponed his trip to a General Electric facility in New York scheduled for Tuesday.

He also called on the country to join him Monday at 11 a.m. ET in observing a moment of silence for the shooting victims.

“It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart,” the president said in a statement.

January 7, 2011

The 25 Weirdest Interview Questions of 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 4:50 pm

That might sound like a ridiculous question, but to a job candidate—at least one reportedly applying for a job at Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS – News) — it might actually be an important one.

Glassdoor, a job-posting and community site for job-seekers, has compiled a list of the oddest interview questions of 2010, and that zinger—reportedly from Goldman—wins the number one slot. “Interviews can be an extremely nerve wracking experience, and by shedding light on the process we hope to give job seekers a leg up in their next interview,” says Robert Hohman, co-founder and CEO of Glassdoor.

Glassdoor combed through 80,000 interview questions shared by job candidates on its site to find the wackiest queries. Glassdoor is not able to independently verify that these questions were actually asked, or who asked them.

[See the Most Common Job Interview Mistakes]

BNET contacted all of the companies who made top 25, and among those who responded, none were able to confirm the origin of the questions. But none of them denied that the questions had been used, either (though some said these questions were not part of a standard set used by all interviewers), and some even offered a possible explanation as to what kind of answer the interviewer was after.

Think you’re prepared for your next interview? Well, if you can answer these, you probably are:

1. If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?

2. How many ridges are there around a quarter? (Reportedly from Deloitte)

3. What is the philosophy of martial arts? (A spokesperson for Aflac (NYSE: AFL – News), where this question was used, says she hopes the candidate quoted Kwai Chang Caine from the 1970s TV show Kung Fu: “I seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions.”)

4. Explain to me what has happened in this country during the last 10 years (Reportedly from Boston Consulting)

5. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 how weird you are (Reportedly from Capital One (NYSE: COF – News))

6. How many basketballs can you fit in this room? (Reportedly from Google (NasdaqGS: GOOG – News))

7. Out of 25 horses, pick the fastest 3 horses. In each race, only 5 horses can run at the same time. What is the minimum number of races required? (Reportedly from Bloomberg LP)

8. If you could be any superhero, who would it be? (Reportedly from AT&T (NYSE: T – News))

9. You have a birthday cake and have exactly three slices to cut it into eight equal pieces. How do you do it? (Reportedly from Blackrock Portfolio Management (NYSE: BLK – News))

10. Given the numbers 1 to 1000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given the hint “higher” or “lower” for each guess you make? (Reportedly from Facebook)

11. If you had 5,623 participants in a tournament, how many games would need to be played to determine the winner? (Reportedly from Amazon (NasdaqGS: AMZN – News))

12. An apple costs 20 cents, an orange costs 40 cents, and a grapefruit costs 60 cents. How much is a pear? (Reportedly from Epic Systems)

13. There are three boxes. One contains only apples, one contains only oranges, and one contains both apples and oranges. The boxes have been incorrectly labeled such that no label identifies the actual contents of its box. Opening just one box, and without looking in the box, you take out one piece of fruit. By looking at the fruit, how can you immediately label all of the boxes correctly? (Reportedly from Apple (NasdaqGS: AAPL – News))

14. How many traffic lights are in Manhattan? (Reportedly from Argus Information and Advisory Services)

15. You are in a dark room with no light. You have 19 grey socks and 25 black socks. What are the chances you will get a matching pair? (Reportedly from Convergex)

16. What do wood and alcohol have in common? (Reportedly from Guardsmark)

17. How do you weigh an elephant without using a weigh machine? (Reportedly from IBM (NYSE: IBM – News))

18. You have 8 pennies. Seven weigh the same, but one weighs less. You also have a judges scale. Find the penny that weighs less in three steps. (Reportedly from Intel (NasdaqGS: INTC – News))

19. Why do you think only a small portion of the population makes over $150,000? (Reportedly from New York Life)

20. You are in charge of 20 people. Organize them to figure out how many bicycles were sold in your area last year. (Reportedly from Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB – News))

21. How many bottles of beer are [consumed] in the city [in a] week? (Reportedly from Nielsen)

22. What’s the square root of 2000? (Reportedly from UBS (NYSE: UBS – News))

23. A train leaves San Antonio for Houston at 60 mph. Another train leaves Houson for San Antonio at 80 mph. Houston and San Antonio are 300 miles apart. If a bird leaves San Antonio at 100 mph, and turns around and flies back once it reaches the Houston train, and continues to fly between the two, how far will it have flown when they collide? (Reportedly from USAA)

24. How are M&Ms made? (Reportedly from USBank)

25. What would you do if you just inherited a pizzeria from your uncle? (This question comes from Volkswagen (Stuttgart: VOW.SG – News). A spokeswoman for the company tells BNET while the question is certainly not standard, the company’s business analysts often have to take over and manage projects started by other people, so this question may have been a manager’s attempt to see how a job candidate would run a project they ‘inherited.’)

Surprisingly, it really is possible to hit these questions out of the park. In our next post, we’ll show you how. In the meantime, what was the weirdest interview question you were asked, and how did you answer it?

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