Almost two years ago, I became interested in the housing bubble and the bizarre mortgages being offered to support it. I’ve been convinced for almost that long that the current mortgage crisis was coming.
Since the shit did indeed start hitting the fan, I’ve asked myself numerous times: if someone like me with a minimal knowledge of economics and no real stake in investments could see this coming, why did professionals in banks, mortgage companies, and investment companies run headlong off this cliff?
The only answer I can come up with is that it’s plain ol’ greed. Either they were making so much money at the time that they deluded themselves that it would continue, or they cynically hoped to make theirs and get out before the crash. Either way, it’s not a very comforting answer. We see this cycle repeated with every new generation (or more frequently): the savings and loan crisis, junk bonds, etc.
My friend Rafe Colburn alludes to this in a new blog post:

Why were banks so eager to sign people up for such incredibly risky mortgages?
The reason is that they had already originated as many good mortgages as they could, and there was still more demand for mortgage backed securities. So mortgage brokers had to find more mortgages to sell, and the easiest way to do it was to loan money to people who really shouldn’t be buying a house, or to convince people to upgrade into larger houses that they couldn’t afford by offering them low monthly payments.
So when you search for the source of the crisis, look in the direction of the big investors who were willing to buy up any old mortgage backed security, no matter what its risk profile was. Those people put billions and billions of dollars on the line, and funded an avalanche of loans sold to the confused, the ignorant, the overly optimistic, and the dishonest.

Science and mystery

In his latest essay in The Christian Century, Gordon Atkinson explains why we need both science and mystery. As usual, Gordon expresses my sentiments more eloquently than I ever could:

Some people see the boundary between mystery and science as a battleground with barbed wire and trenches on either side. But I think that the place where our searching and empirical minds meet the mysteries of the world is the realm of worship and poetry. Before Adam and Eve, the world was chaos, like a vast unconscious mind with no boundaries and no definitions. The world itself hasn’t changed, but our human perspective is continually solving mysteries and creating new ones as fast as we can.
Our love of answers has always been nicely balanced against our penchant for awe and worship. Reality is both a thing to be conquered and also something to be worshiped. This is the human way.
I wonder when it was that science and religion stopped seeing each other as ancient twins of the human mind and started seeing each other as competitors. While I and others like me slog it out in the worshiping world of mystery, brother scientist is observing, collating and solving mysteries as fast as he can. I don’t want him to stop. I like the way he slays ancient gods. What I want is for us to embrace each other and walk though life together. He can solve old mysteries and I can celebrate the new ones.

Re-thinking the midlife crisis

In an article in the International Herald Tribune, psychology professor Richard A. Friedman questions conventional wisdom about the midlife crisis. In regard to one story that he shares, he comments:

It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to see that [this woman’s] husband wanted to turn back the clock and start over. But this hardly deserves the dignity of a label like “midlife crisis.” It sounds more like a search for novelty and thrill than for self-knowledge.
In fact, the more I learned about her husband, it became clear that he had always been a self-centered guy who fretted about his lost vigor and was acutely sensitive to disappointment. This was a garden-variety case of a middle-aged narcissist grappling with the biggest insult he had ever faced: getting older.
But you have to admit that “I’m having a midlife crisis” sounds a lot better than “I’m a narcissistic jerk having a meltdown.”

Midlife is a drag, but that’s just the way it is. People sometimes look at my with mild disbelief when I say that my wants are secondary to those of my family and that my primary role at this point in my life is to provide for them (not just financially). But Dr. Friedman also cites a survey in which only a small percentage of middle aged people reported having or having had a midlife crisis.
(via Follow Me Here)

Build-A-Bear is the antichrist

Today, a coworker who has young children was explaining to a childless coworker how Build-A-Bear works. This reminded me. I’m surprised that wacko right-wing Christians haven’t started a campaign against Build-A-Bear (I didn’t find any such thing on the Google).
In the process of making a stuffed animal at Build-A-Bear, the child does the following:

You select a heart – a Build-A-Bear Workshop trademark. Then you warm it in the palm of your hands, make a wish, and put it inside your new furry friend. This magical moment brings your furry friend to life and creates an unforgettable memory.

Sounds an awful lot like playing God to me.

Spoiled by Gmail

I use Gmail for my personal email and Outlook 2003 at work.
Once I’d been using Gmail for a while, I started displaying my work mail in Outlook by conversation, which is somewhat similar to Gmail. One difference, however, is that in Outlook sent emails are not added to the conversation, only received ones. So, at work I still find myself frequently digging through my ‘Sent Items’ folder to find emails that I contributed to an email thread.
In Gmail, I use tags for organizing my email. At work, I organize my email by putting it into folders. But in Outlook, if a new reply comes in for a conversation that I’ve moved to a folder, the reply goes to my Inbox and is not displayed with its entire conversation until I move it to the same folder. Frustrating.

The emotional center

Former NBC news reporter John Hockenberry offers a long commentary on why network news has failed the American public. It’s an interesting, though unsurprising, read. One of his main points:

Gone was the mission of using technology to veer out onto the edge of American understanding in order to introduce something fundamentally new into the national debate. The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an earthquake or someone’s lost kitty.