Archive for July, 2008

Subprime Mortgages May Have Had Nothing to Do With the Real Estate Crash. Really.

By Melissa Lafsky | July 31, 2008 5:47 pm

Since the subprime mortgage disaster hit the fan in 2007, conventional wisdom has been operating under the assumption that greedy, misleading lenders have preyed on gullible and often risky buyers to lure them into subprime mortgages that would eventually lead to massive foreclosure rates and a devastated real estate and mortgage market.

But a new study led by UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business Center for Real Estate suggests that subprime loan products themselves may not be the primary factor behind the huge rise and fall of U.S. home prices in the past decade. Instead, the researchers, headed by UCI finance professor Kerry Vandell, found that it was Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s massive pullback from the credit market in 2003—a result of accounting controversies and consequent political pressure—and their replacement by aggressive mortgage securities issuers in the private sector, that caused the damage. These two factors, mixed with a large number of eager but risky would-be homeowners, led to a skyrocketing in mortgage volume that, according to Vandell, pushed prices into “bubble” territory.

The team analyzed the markets in 20 U.S. metropolitan areas, using 1998-2008 housing and mortgage data from sources like First American LoanPerformance, the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, and the Federal Housing Finance Board. They summarize their findings as follows:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington
MORE ABOUT: housing, subprime

Controversial Video Games, Part II: Is "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" Dangerous?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 31, 2008 10:52 am

violent video gamesWe’ve covered the Torture Game, in which players can gratuitously torture a captive avatar to their hearts’ content. But the controversy over violent and potentially exploitative video games hit an entirely new level with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, a free online game that lets players recreate the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School that resulted in 15 deaths (including the suicides of the teenage shooters).

MSNBC reports that the game “presents players with a low-res gaming experience that uses material culled from [the shooters] Eric Harris’s and Dylan Klebold’s own words, media reports and police documents.” Players are placed in the roles of the shooters and allowed to relive their last two days. No surprise, it’s sparked considerable uproar since its launch, so much so that the creator, 26-year-old Danny Ledonne, made a documentary about the aftermath.

Granted, while the Columbine game may be one of the most politically and emotionally charged, plenty of other games allow players to reenact national and international tragedies, from the JFK assassination to “September 12th,” which lets players send missiles into an Afghan Village. (For a list of these and other controversial games, go here.)

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Forget Al-Qaeda; Apparently It's the Aliens We Need to Worry About

By Melissa Lafsky | July 30, 2008 2:30 pm

UFOIs the U.S. military’s overdependence on radar and indifference to UFOs a weakness that could be exploited by terrorists? That’s what the New York Times is claiming in an op-ed by Nick Pope, author of Open Skies, Closed Minds and the former head of UFO investigations for the British Ministry of Defense. Pope argues that NASA and the Air Force are ignoring potential national security threats by not investigating “UFO phenomena” such as a cigar-shaped craft that was reportedly sighted near the Channel Islands in 2007.

While he doesn’t explicitly say that these unexplained aircraft are of the invaders-from-another-planet variety, Pope claims that our skepticism towards anything “below the radar” makes us vulnerable to attack from human-made flying objects with which we’re unfamiliar (like oh, say, the secret invisible bombers that Al-Qaeda could be building in the Tora Bora caves?)

That the Times is suddenly handing the microphone to an avowed UFO believer seems a bit odd, particularly when you examine Pope’s history. Here’s a review from Booklist of Open Skies, which was a best-seller in the U.K.:

If Pope is correct, Earth is currently in the middle of an interplanetary war. He claims that while he was stationed at the “UFO Desk” of Britain’s Ministry of Defense, he studied UFO sightings as well as crop circles and cattle mutilations—all of which led him to the conclusion that the aliens are here, and they aren’t friendly. He believes it is time the British government and the world in general rally to confront the invaders. The author openly compares himself to Fox Mulder of TV’s X-Files in his struggles to bring forth the hidden evidence of the security danger to planet Earth… Although numerous incidents are cited, actual evidence is lacking, and logic is often absent from the author’s arguments.

Not exactly hard proof of anything other than the fact that Pope is good at spinning a narrative to win publicity. As fellow DISCOVER blogger Phil Plait put it:

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MORE ABOUT: aliens, government, UFO

Say What? Silly Study Says 86 Percent of Americans Will Be Obese by 2030

By Melissa Lafsky | July 29, 2008 5:37 pm

fat AmericanThe news broke today of a study that’s got the blogosphere and the media buzzing. The paper, published in the July issue of Obesity, was done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Using a mathematical model, the authors projected the future prevalence of obesity and the BMI distribution in the U.S., based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) collected from the 1970s through 2004. Their results? If current trends continue, a whopping 86 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2030.

And by 2048, they predict, every adult in America will be overweight or obese.

Ok, let’s take a step back. Obviously, these numbers aren’t the Absolute Truth—they represent linear projections based on specific data sets, and rely heavily on the continuation of certain trends that are likely to change in the future. A similar projection would be that smoking rates will hit absolute zero based on the recent and dramatic declines in smoking.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nutrition & Obesity
MORE ABOUT: nutrition, predictions

Think Your Bread Is "Made With Whole Grain"? Check Again

By Melissa Lafsky | July 29, 2008 3:30 pm

Sara LeeHere’s a heartening example of advocates calling out the food industry on its blatant label obfuscation: Baked goods giant Sara Lee has agreed (after some aggressive prompting) to change the “whole grain goodness” label on its best-selling Soft & Smooth bread to indicate the truth: that the bread’s composition of whole grains is only 30 percent, meaning 70 percent of it is made from ultra-unhealthy refined white flour.

BusinessWeek reports that the company acquiesced to the change after threat of a lawsuit came from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit watchdog group that specializes in nutrition and food safety. But what about the FDA? Shouldn’t it be regulating misleading labeling of so-called “healthy” products?

It’s no secret that the food industry is notorious for slapping “healthy-sounding” labels on food that barely scrape by the minimum requirements, but so far the agency has done little to stamp out the practice. In 2006, it released a statement acknowledging that unqualified “whole grain” labels could be confusing to consumers and stating the following:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nutrition & Obesity
MORE ABOUT: FDA, food

Climate Change Not Just on the Minds of the Wealthy

By Melissa Lafsky | July 28, 2008 4:03 pm

hummerConcern for global warming is often portrayed as a “rich” problem, accompanied by images of moguls throwing pricey fund raisers and Hollywood stars trading in their Hummers to ease their eco-conscience while the poor worry about corn prices and drought. It’s true that richer countries have plenty of cause to be penitent: The average American’s annual carbon footprint — 20.4 tons — is about 2,000 times that of a citizen of Chad. But a new study in The Sociological Quarterly found that citizens of poorer nations are in fact just as concerned about the environment as their wealthier counterparts.

The study, authored by Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Richard York of the University of Oregon, consisted of a comparison of four large cross-national surveys that were conducted in nations ranging from very poor to very wealthy. The surveys included a representative sample of citizens from each nation.

The authors found that citizens of poorer nations were equally if not more worried about the environment than people in wealthier countries, and were highly supportive of efforts to solve environmental problems.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change
MORE ABOUT: drought, poverty, wealth

Is a Mathematical Formula Spelling Stock Market Doom?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 24, 2008 5:19 pm

DOW industrial averageThe Wall Streeters are buzzing about a possible mathematical sign of economic apocalypse. Called the Hindenburg Omen, it’s a formula that measures the probability of a stock market crash (defined as a 15 percent or greater decline). Hindenburg Omens have reportedly predicted every crash since 1985—though of course, the old correlation v. causation problem means that a Hindenburg Omen occurring doesn’t necessarily mean a crash is on the way.

The five criteria for a full-fledged omen—called a “confirmed” Hindenburg Omen—are as follows:

[T]he daily number of NYSE New 52 Week Highs and the Daily number of New 52 Week Lows must both be so high as to have the lesser of the two be greater than 2.2 percent of total NYSE issues traded that day…The traditional definition had two more filters: That the NYSE 10 Week Moving Average is also Rising, which we consider met if it is higher than the level 10 weeks earlier (condition # 2), and that the McClellan Oscillator is negative on that same day (condition # 3)…

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Historians Foretell Our Demise as a Scientific Superpower

By Melissa Lafsky | July 24, 2008 1:22 pm

Given the grim economic climate and even grimmer forecasts for the future, it’s not hard to predict that the U.S. will lose its status as the world’s preeminent superpower. But will we fall behind in science as well? J. Rogers Hollingsworth, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thinks so. He and a group of historians and sociologists think that the country’s diminishing lead over other nations in science investment and research output mirrors the downfall of preceding science juggernauts like France, Germany and Britain. History, they say, is primed to repeat itself.

In an essay in this week’s issue of Nature, (subscription required) Hollingsworth and his co-authors argue that recent huge investments by the EU, China, Japan, Russia and India have leveled the international playing field in the sciences, leaving the U.S. teetering on the brink of losing the status it’s held since the second World War. China in particular has moved from 15th in the world rankings in science and engineering production to second place, just in the last twelve years.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

How Much Will Global Warming Cost Your State?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 23, 2008 4:02 pm

global warmingNot that we needed more incentive to stop global warming, but it looks like it’s on its way towards putting a big dent in our economy. A new set of reports from the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Environmental Research has found that climate change will mean heavy monetary costs for individual states, often in the billions of dollars. Even more good news: In some regions, these costs have already begun to accrue. The studies are being released today at the legislative summit of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) in New Orleans.

Here are a few of the highlights:

— Colorado: More than $1 billion in losses due to impacts on tourism, forestry, water resources and human health from a predicted drier, warmer climate.

— Illinois: Billions of dollars in losses from impact on shipping, trade and water resources. Warmer temperatures and lower water levels predicted for much of the state.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change

Does Watching TV News Make You Racist?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 22, 2008 5:39 pm

TV newscasterResearch has shown that TV news disproportionately portrays African American as the perpetrators of crimes, typically against white victims. But while watching the news is often held to be a positive means of staying informed, it may be outweighing its benefits by promoting racial stereotypes.

Two new studies by University of Illinois communications professor Travis Dixon found that the more people watched either local or network news, the more likely they were to believe negative stereotypes about African Americans.

In both studies, Dixon used data taken from the results of a telephone survey of 506 adults in Los Angeles County conducted from November 2002 through January 2003. After controlling for other factors that could influence beliefs such as gender, age, race, education level, political ideology, income, and newspaper exposure, he found that even among people who consider themselves largely prejudice-free, those who watched more local or network news were prone to seeing blacks as more intimidating, violent, or poor than those who skipped the news.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: The 2008 Election
MORE ABOUT: media
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