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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Topless coffee shop proposed for small Maine town

VASSALBORO, Maine – A one-time motel in a small central Maine town could soon be offering an eye-opening way to start the day — topless coffee shop waitresses. The Vassalboro Planning Board on Tuesday will consider a business permit request for a topless coffee shop on busy Route 3.

The one-story building has also been the home to several other business ventures, most recently Mac Daddy's Pub at the Fat Cat Grille, which closed three or four years ago.

Neighbors have mixed opinions. Some say Vassalboro is a rural town and that a topless coffee shop would bring the wrong crowd. But others say they'd like to see a business make a go of it there.

Donald Crabtree of Ellsworth, who has applied for the business permit, told the Kennebec Journal that he didn't want to discuss his plan until after the planning board meets.


Information from: Kennebec Journal,

Pink Iguana That Darwin Missed Holds Evolutionary Surprise

By Alexis Madrigal Email


For iguanas, it turns out that it's not easy being pink, either.

Biologists report that a rare type of pink iguana found on a single volcano in the Galapagos Islands is a genetically-distinct species from its green cousins — and that it's probably critically endangered.

"This form, which we recognize as a good species, is very important because it carries substantial evolutionary legacy," the authors of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences wrote. "Thus far the rosada form is the only evidence of deep diversification along the Galapagos land iguana lineage."

Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos islands in 1835 but didn't make it to the northernmost volcano, Volcan Wolf, which is the lone habitat for these pink lizards. Later travelers and scholars also seem to have missed or failed to report the curiously striped creature until 1986 when some Galapagos National Park rangers spotted the animals. Still, no scientists had looked into whether they represented a distinct species until now.

What they found was surprising. Instead of being some slight variation on the Galapagos iguana theme, the pink lizards represent a distinct and early branch of the genetic tree. The genomic analysis of the species suggests that they broke from other iguanas about five million years ago, much deeper in history than most other Galapagos species, like Darwin's finches. In addition to the genetic differences, the pink iguanas also perform the characteristic mating ritual "head-bob" differently.

The iguana and other animals on Volcan Wolf are threatened by an "invasion of feral goats" that are devastating the area's natural flora.

In the interest of preserving this genetic diversity, the biologists wrote that "a conservation program aimed at evaluating the risk of extinction of this newly recognized species," should be initiated. They estimate that the iguana could already by termed "critically endangered."

Citation: "An overlooked pink species of land iguana in the Galapagos" by Gabriele Gentile, Anna Fabiani, Cruz Marquez, Howard L. Snell, Heidi M. Snell, Washington Tapia, and Valerio Sbordonia in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806339106

Faster than the Speed of Light? A New Theory Says, "Yes" -A Galaxy Insight


A brilliant young physicist João Magueijo asks the heretical question: What if the speed of light—now accepted as one of the unchanging foundations of modern physics—were not constant?

Magueijo, a 40-year old native of Portugal, puts forth the heretical idea that in the very early days of the universe light traveled faster—an idea that if proven could dethrone Einstein and forever change our understanding of the universe. He is a pioneer of the varying speed of light (VSL) theory of cosmology -an alternative to the more mainstream theory of cosmic inflation- which proposes that the speed of light in the early universe was of 60 orders of magnitude faster than its present value.

Vsl Solving the most intractable problems of cosmology in one brilliant leap, Magueijo’s varying-speed-of-light theory (VSL) would have stunning implications for space travel, black holes, time dilation, and string theory—and could help uncover the grand unified theory that ultimately eluded Einstein.

Joao Magueijo's radical ideas intend to turn that Einsteinian dogma on its head. Marueijo is trying to pick apart one of Einstein’s most impenetrable tenets, the constancy of the speed of light. This idea of a constant speed (about 3×106 meters/second) -is known as the universal speed limit. Nothing can, has, or ever will travel faster than light.

Magueijo -who received his doctorate from Cambridge, has been a faculty member at Princeton and Cambridge, and is currently a professor at Imperial College, London- says: not so. His VSL theory presupposes a speed of light that can be energy or time-space dependent.

In his fist book, Faster than the Speed of Light, Magueijo leads laymen readers into the abstract realm of theoretical physics, based on several well known, as well as obscure, thinkers. The VSL model was first proposed by John Moffat, a Canadian scientist, in 1992. Magueijo carefully builds the foundations for a discussion of Big Bang cosmology, and then segues into the second half of the book, which is devoted to VSL theory.

Like most radical, potentially seminal thinkers, Magueijo shakes the foundations of the physics community, while irritating off many of his fellow scientists. VSL purposes to solve the problems at which all cosmologists are forever scratching: those inscrutable conceptual puzzles that surround the Big Bang. Currently many of these problems have no widely accepted solutions.

Could Einstein be wrong and Magueijo right? Is he a gadfly or a true, seminal genius? Time will tell.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

Apple unveils all-new 17-inch MacBook Pro

Apple just confirmed the totally expected yet eagerly anticipated unibody 17-inch MacBook Pro. They're calling it the world's thinnest and lightest 17-inch laptop. It features a 1900 x 1200 LED backlit display, with a 700:1 contrast ratio, wider color gamut and a glorious $50 matte option. Most of the specs are otherwise quite similar to the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but unfortunately Apple went with a MBA-style non-removable battery, claiming that the lack of removable mechanism allowed for more battery -- they're speccing it at 8 hours of lithium polymer juice on integrated graphics, 7 hours on discrete, and it's rated at 1000 recharges. There will also be an exchange program, like with the iPod. The base model hits at $2799, spec breakdown and more shots after the break.

Gallery: MacBook Pro 17

MacBook Pro 17MacBook Pro 17MacBook Pro 17MacBook Pro 17MacBook Pro 17

1920 x 1200 LED-backlit display2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo / 6MB L2 cache4GB 1066MHz DDR3 memoryNvidia GeForce 9400MNvidia GeForce 9600M GT / 512MB320GB hard driveSlot-loading SuperDrive

The Growth of Walmart Across America [VidMap] — "I mapped the spread of Walmart using Modest Maps. It starts slow and then spreads like wildfire in the southeast and makes its way towards the west coast. "

This is real cool....

click here to see this MAP

SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone announced

Posted by Jessica Dolcourt

Six months after announcing its intention to bring SlingPlayer to the iPhone 3G, Sling Media has another announcement to make--just not the one you're wishing for.

SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone isn't ready yet, Sling said on Tuesday, but it is on its way.

Like SlingPlayer Mobile for Windows Mobile, Palm, Symbian, UIQ, and BlackBerry (beta) platforms, this iPhone version will let you access one or more Slingboxes from your mobile device, and watch your TV stations on-the-go. It will also be compatible with the iPod Touch.

You'll also be able to manage your DVR from the iPhone, and can synchronously add and remove favorite channels directly from the phone's interface--a first for the SlingPlayer Mobile line.

In our demo, the client streamed live, high-quality video of stations like MTV and TBS on both Wi-Fi and the iPhone's 3G network. Swiping the screen horizontally advances you through favorite stations, and flicking up and down rotates through all your home channels.

SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone

Sling Media says it will submit the file to the iTunes AppStore by the end of the first fiscal quarter. While Sling Media shared no firm price tag, it could mirror the $29.99 lifetime fee of SlingPlayer Mobile on other platforms.

Before getting too excited, just remember that Apple has been known to kill promising apps, ostensibly for the crime of a large data transfers. SlingPlayer Mobile for iPhone could suffer the same fate. Assuming it doesn't, the client still faces competition from Orb, whose full version, OrbLive, delivers live TV and media stored on your PC for $10.

12 Health Fads That Never Made It

When it comes to our health, we're often ready to try almost any new potion that even a complete stranger suggests. Often many of these quick-fixes turn out to be baseless, and the so-called cures have only a placebo effect.

Here are 12 health fads that ‘fad-ed’ away with time. Some did not do what they claimed to do. Others were in fact bad for your health!

1. Bee Venom


Bee venom therapists apply bee venom to specific points on the surface of the body. The natural sting of the bee was believed to cure a wide variety of diseases including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, tendonitis, fibromyalgia, and even breast cancer.

There are several testimonials from people who claim to have been benefited from bee stings. A woman claims her rheumatoid arthritis was reversed after she got 80 stings every other day. The practice is particulalry strong in China where about 3,000 private clinics provided treatments to more than 230 million people in 2005.

  • FACT: If you’ve ever been stung by a bee, you already have first-hand experience of how painful it can be. While the potential benefits of the therapy are still uncertain, the dangers are clear. Many people have allergic reactions. A person with a severe reaction to bee venom may get hives on skin, and swelling of the lips, eyes, throat and tongue. There may be vomiting, slurring of speech, mental confusion and even breathing difficulties. “It’s alternative medicine and has no basis in western medical science... I would doubt its efficacy,” Professor Christopher Lam, a chemical pathologist at the Chinese University in Hong Kong said.

2. Blood-group diets

Celebrities like Liz Hurley made the Blood Type diet one of the most talked about health fads. The diet meant people with blood type B should avoid corn, wheat, lentils, tomatoes, chicken, peanuts and sesame seeds, and they should eat goat, mutton, venison, eggs, green vegetables, and low fat dairy.

Your blood type was defined by your ancestors - so for example - type A blood groups are descended from farmers, so they should avoid meat and dairy and stick to being vegetarians. If you are type B, your ancestors were nomads, so meals should be of red meat and fish. Type O, you are descended from hunter-gatherers, so eat lots of animal protein with few carbohydrates and don't forget to exercise energetically. If you have AB blood group you will suffer most of the benefits and intolerances of both blood groups.

But does sticking to a diet specific to your blood type actually work?

  • FACT: Experts say there is no science to back this. Cutting down on any particular group of food could result in an unbalanced diet with a low intake of certain important nutrients. Anything that promotes the restriction or avoidance of whole food groups should ring alarm bells.

3. Tapeworm Diet

Tapeworm diet pills were marketed in the early part of the 20th century. The practice involved swallowing beef tapeworm eggs and then taking a medicine to kill the tapeworm after reaching your target weight. Image

The tapeworm secretes proteins in the intestinal tract that make digestion of food much less efficient. A less efficient digestive system means that you can consume more calories since your 'guest' is also using them.

  • FACT: The practice was both ineffective and unhealthy. Imagine encouraging a parasite in your body to suck all the nutritional value from your food! In addition eating habits weren't changed so it's likely that you would regain the weight after the worms were gone. Voluntarily ingesting a tapeworm to lose weight is legally a difficult thing to pull off, not to mention dangerous. The FDA has intervened and banned these unsubstantiated and dangerous products.

4. Placenta Drinks

A number of health and beauty products marketed by Japanese firms claimed to contain pig placenta or ‘afterbirth’ as the active ingredient.

Image The placenta products came as beverages, capsules, organic skin cream, wearable facial mask, and…er…placenta drinks and jellies!

The products claimed to ‘give tired lacklustre skin a nonsurgical face lift.’ Its proponents swear by its regenerative, anti-aging properties. They also claim it is a great weight loss booster and a natural cure to post-delivery depression.

So, are you ready for a pig placenta face mask for pink, kissable cheeks? Or a placenta cocktail for a great figure!

FACT: Is placenta truly an anti-ager? Not according to the FDA.

5. Ear Candling or Ear Coning

A long hollow tapering cone of muslin coated with wax is inserted into the ear and lit to create a vacuum.

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Its advocates claimed it treated hearing problems, headaches, migraine, sinusitis, rhinitis, and hay fever. Apparently the candle acts on the 'energetic level' and can also detoxify you and treat all sorts of ailments unconnected with your ear.

  • FACT: There have been reports of external burns, ear canal obstruction with candle wax and of perforated ear drums. No ear wax is removed by the procedure. A study published in the journal Laryngoscope found no proof that ear candles produce a vacuum or result in the removal of earwax.

  • Michael Godin, an ear, nose and throat doctor at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary adamantly opposes ear candling. “It’s a gimmick,” he says. “It’s a therapeutic procedure that is done with no scientific or clinical basis—there’s no basic way to check to see if the treatment even does what it claims.”

6. Oxygenated water

‘Oxygenated water’ claimed to detoxify blood, enhance sports performance, and improve heart and muscle functions. Obviously, it became a craze among sportspersons.

  • FACT: But a study reported in JAMA (2003; 290:2408-2409) showed that a single breath of air contained more oxygen than a bottle of oxygenated water. Just taking a deep breath was found to be better.

7. Mesotherapy

During the 1950s, women took multiple injections of several substances such as pharmaceutical and homeopathic products, vitamins, plant extracts etc. just under the skin to treat cellulite and as a pain relief therapy.

Mesotherapy Gun

Although mesothrapy is still practiced today there is no conclusive research to prove that these chemical compounds work to target fat.

  • FACT: No one knows exactly what was put into the syringe. Phoshatidylcholine, a drug often used for this purpose, can cause serious reactions and has been banned in a number of South American countries. Studies showed mesotherapy caused skin lesions and irritation and could result in prolonged skin infections.

8. Breatherianism

Its believers claimed food and water are not necessary and humans can survive only on prana (the vital life force) and sunlight. The Breatherian Institute of America also promoted this age-old practice performed by eastern ascetics.

  • FACT: Common sense and basic science both refute this one.

9. Detox Foot Baths

Simply putting your feet into a bath of salt water and activating a mouse sized device was believed to clean the body internally! Image

  • FACT: What actually happened was the iron electrodes in the bath rapidly corroded due to electrolysation of the water. Rust accumulated turning the water yellow and then brown. The scum that you might see at the top was made of insoluble iron precipitates - and not the toxins from your body.

  • You would see the same "toxic" substances discoloring the water, without you actually having to put your feet into it!

10. Colonics

In the early 90s, John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of the Kellogg cereal company, popularized colonic irrigation to flush out to toxins from the body.

  • FACT: Remember, it can be rather uncomfortable. There have also been reports of serious infections, heart failure, electrolyte imbalance and even bowel perforation. The frequent use of colonics could lead to dependence. You may be unable to go to the bathroom without assistance or have withdrawal symptoms.

  • Colonic cleansing should be done only when medically indicated, such as before radiological endoscopy.

11. Iridology


Iridology is an alternative medicine technique whose proponents believe that patterns, colors, and other characteristics of the iris can be examined to determine information about a patient's systemic health. Iridologists use charts to distinguish between healthy systems and organs in the body and those which are overactive, inflamed, or distressed.

  • FACT: Scientific studies over the past decades reported in JAMA 1979;242(13), Arch Ophthalmol 2000;118:120-121, Journal of Alternative and Complimetary Medicine 2005, 11(3): 515-519 have proven even leading iridologists wrong. A wrong diagnosis can lead to wrong treatment.

12. Spanish Fly

This is a beetle from South Europe. The dried remains of the beetles were at one time believed to be one of the most potent aphrodisiacs. When Spanish fly powder is ingested, the body excretes 'cantharidin' in the urine. This causes intense irritation and burning in the urogenital tract, which then leads to itching and swelling of the genitals. This swelling and burning was once assumed to be sexual arousal and led to the belief that Spanish fly had aphrodisiac qualities


  • FACT: It proved to be one of the most dangerous. The FDA says, ‘Spanish fly is a poison that burns the mouth and throat and can lead to genitourinary infections, scarring of the urethra, and even death’.

10 Free Music Based Games for the iPhone & iPod Touch

earbudMusic-based games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have become wildly popular, so it only makes sense that similar games are being created for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Both devices have a plethora of gaming apps, but only a handful of those are free and based around music. Here are 10 - perfect for long hours stuck in airports, commuter trains, and so on.

What are some of your favorite music-based games for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and which do you wish existed?

Aero Drum Free

aero drum free

While it may not be as exciting as beating the skins of an actual drum kit, Aero Drum Free will still help you work out some of your frustrations by beating out a sick rhythm. Just follow the dots to play snare, cymbal and bass drum and try to beat the scores.

As with all of the “X Game Free” versions, this is a trial version, and there are more features in the paid app. (App Store Rating: 2 stars)

Aero Guitar Free

aero guitar free

At some point or another, everyone has “played” air guitar, but with the help of Aero Guitar Free, now you can actually feel like you are accomplishing something! This free version of the app will allow you to sample the game before you buy the full one, and will teach you the basic of up strokes, down strokes and basic tapping.

Another rhythm action game, but at least it makes you feel like you are doing more than just tapping. (App Store Rating: 2 stars)

Aero Synth Free

aero synth free

Ever wish you had the mad skills of a club DJ? Well, more than likely you never will, but Aero Synth Free will at least help you live out that fantasy a bit more. Tap along as the electronic music plays and keep the beat going, but if you miss one of the bubbles in the four streams, the music goes back to its original intro until you are on track again.

The side scrolling nature of this game is a bit prohibitive as your hand can hide the lower streams. (App Store Rating: 2.5 stars)



There is nothing quite like the sound of bells playing along with a Christmas carol, and with Chrimbell you can reproduce that sound to go along with some old time hits. Choose from Christmas carols like “Away In A Manger” or “Jingle Bells” and then choose your bell and get to playing.

It appears it does need the built-in speaker of the iPhone or iPod Touch version 2 to work as I couldn’t get any sound on my iPod Touch 1. (App Store Rating: 2.5 stars)

Mardo’s Music Trivia - Lite Version

ultimate music trivia

Who doesn’t love to test their knowledge of trivial facts? With Mardo’s Ultimate Music Trivia you can see how well you do across a whole range of musical genres from punk to country.

The lite version is very lite, but it will give you a feeling for how the full version plays and if it will even interest you. (App Store Rating: 2 stars)

rePete Lite

repete lite

Harking back to the days of the Simon electronic game, rePete Lite allows you to choose a playing grid of 4, 6 or 9 light boxes and then uses lights and sound to show you the pattern you need to remember.

As with most memory games out there, watch out for the addictive factor. (App Store Rating: 2.5 stars)

synthPond Lite

synthpond lite

A fairly complex app, synthPond Lite allows you to place different types of nodes around the screen to create synthetic music. You can change their pitch, speed and a whole lot more.

While most lite versions of games really scale back on their features, this one seems to be complete in all the right places. (App Store Rating: 2.5 stars)

Tap Tap Revenge

tap tap revenge

Have a desire to tap your iPhone or iPod Touch screen to a rhythm? Then Tap Tap Revenge is your answer. With a name obviously inspired by Japan’s mega-popular Dance Dance Revolution, the actual game play takes its cues from the addictive Guitar Hero.

While the music is generic in this version, that is what allows them to keep it being released for free. I personally find the game a bit frustrating, but then I have huge fingers and am not exactly known for my ability to keep a beat. (App Store Rating: 3 stars)

ThumbStruck Free

thumbstruck free

Compared to other rhythm-based games, ThumbStruck Live has you hitting the musical elemental balls on three bars instead of the usual one. Your thumbs will be dancing all over the board to keep up with this one.

This game definitely steps up the rhythm-based genre by requiring you to be a lot more agile and coordinated to hit all three sections of the board. (App Store Rating: 2.5 stars)

Xmas In Space: Play-a-Long Christmas Carols

xmas in space

Who knew they had Christmas on other planets? Well, according to Xmas In Space:Play-a-Long Christmas Carols, they do, and they have sent you a music app that allows you to play along with bells or harps to some of your favorite Christmas carols.

Though the game has no way to measure how well you did, the song mixes are cute, and the fire crackling sound is oddly comforting. (App Store Rating: 2.5 stars)

Bailout Tab Close to $8 Trillion

Many details of Obama's rescue plan remain uncertain. But it's likely to cost at least $700 billion -- and that would push Uncle Sam's bailouts near $8 trillion.

Sitting down? It's time to tally up the federal government's bailout tab.

There was $29 billion for Bear Stearns, $345 billion for Citigroup. The Federal Reserve put up $600 billion to guarantee money market deposits and has aggressively driven down interest rates to essentially zero.

The list goes on and on. All told, Congress, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and other agencies have taken dozens of steps to prop up the economy.

More from Special Report: Transition to Power

Your Money: Obama on 20 key issues

Obama: $300 billion in tax cuts

Total price tag so far: $7.2 trillion in investment and loans. That puts a lot of taxpayer money at risk. Now comes President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, some details of which were made public on Monday. The tally is getting awfully close to $8 trillion.

Obama's plan would combine tax cuts with infrastructure job creation efforts. Economists say it could serve as an integral piece to the government's remaining economic recovery puzzle.

"This plan will be the first direct tool to make additions to disposable income," said Lyle Gramley, an economist with Stanford Group and former Fed governor. "None of the other efforts have done that directly."

Gramley said that a stimulus program from the government is a necessary complement to the Fed's traditional rate-cutting tool. Together with existing actions, stimulus can provide a wider reach to the government's economic intervention.

"Monetary stimulus alone is not enough - it must be combined with fiscal stimulus if you want more bang for your buck," he noted.

But the new program, which Obama aides have said could total $775 billion, will also weigh heavily on the ballooning federal deficit. The current fiscal year is barely a few months old and already the government is running a deficit exceeding $400 billion -- nearly the same amount as all of last year. Many economists believe it will top $1 trillion, not even counting stimulus.

Some say that the benefits of massive spending outweigh the cost of inaction.

"While it seems like quite a lot, we don't really need to focus on the cost due to the depth of the recession," said Mark Vitner, economist with Wachovia.

Others, while saying that government action is needed, question the vast sums that are being allocated and proposed.

"The government says it can spend the money better than you can, but that hasn't been the case in the past," said Bill Beach, director of the center for data analysis at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation. "That will really show up when they have to raise taxes in the future to make up for the increasing deficit."

Step 1: Trying to stave off the recession

So where does Obama's plan fit in with Uncle Sam's unprecedented onslaught of efforts to stabilize the economy?

The story begins more than a year ago with the Federal Reserve.

In September 2007, with the housing market in its early decline and credit markets showing signs of trouble, the Fed began to lower its key fund rates from 5.25% in an attempt to boost economic activity and ward off a recession.

The economy nevertheless entered a recession in December 2007. Though the Fed rate is now at a targeted level of close to 0%, economists have noticed little change by way of increased availability of credit, lower private interest rates or a booming stock market.

"None of those things have happened," said Gramley. "Fed policy has not had any kind of impact like it normally has, even as the Fed lowered the funds rate a long way."

Concerned about the threat of a recession, lawmakers passed $168 billion in tax breaks to consumers and businesses in February of last year. The aim: boosting spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the nation's gross domestic product.

The rebates had a short-lived impact, helping to boost GDP 2.8% in the second quarter of 2008, compared to a measly 0.9% in the first quarter. But last summer's rapidly rising fuel prices undid the spending trend, sending GDP down 0.5% in the third quarter.

Step 2: Stopping the bleeding

The credit crisis that began in mid-September unwound any hopes of staving off a recession. The government's focus instead became a massive effort to keep systemically significant institutions from collapsing.

After Bear Stearns' $29 billion bailout in March, and the $200 billion government takeover of mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in early September, the Treasury and Fed shifted bailout efforts into top gear after Sep. 15. They bailed out AIG for $152.5 billion, Citigroup for $325 billion and the automakers for $23.4 billion in just the past few months.

Treasury also took hold of the $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, dedicating $250 billion to capital investments in banks.

In a status report delivered last week, Treasury said its efforts have prevented widespread failure of financial institutions, but they conceded that the credit crisis won't ease until the economy recovers.

"The financial system is fundamentally more stable than it was when Congress passed the legislation," said the report. "As long as confidence remains low, banks will remain cautious about extending credit, and consumers and businesses will remain cautious about taking on new loans."

Step 3: Recovery efforts

To help the economy heal, the government has committed record sums since September 2008 in an attempt to restore the flow of credit, boost the job and housing markets and - with Obama's plan - get consumers spending again.

In the past three months, the Federal Reserve launched a $600 billion money market guarantee program, a $1.4 trillion program to boost the commercial paper market - a key source of short term business financing, a $200 billion consumer loan-backed securities purchasing program, a $500 billion mortgage-backed securities purchasing program and a $100 billion program to buy up Fannie and Freddie debt.

As a result, the Fed's balance sheet - the total worth of the assets the Fed obtained as a result of its lending - currently totals $2.3 trillion, up from $933 billion on the week before Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Obama's estimated $775 billion plan could serve as the next step in the recovery efforts. While most of the Fed's programs have been aimed at boosting lending, Obama's economic stimulus plan is aimed primarily at job creation and consumer spending.

Ben Stein's Lessons from the Financial Crisis

Ben Stein How Not to Ruin Your Life

Ben Stein, How Not to Ruin Your Life

Posted on Monday, January 5, 2009, 12:00AM

Because the past 15 months have been by far the most upsetting time period of many investors' lives -- including mine -- I am continuing to examine the lessons learned from this crisis.

First, we have learned that even the most rigorous back testing of portfolios did not work during this period. The reason was simple -- no back test allowed for as much stress as markets were under from late 2007 to fall 2008. There simply was no postwar historic precedent for markets to be as volatile on the downside as they were in 2007-08. Thus, back testing (very similar to stress testing) that called for maximum falls of, say, 33 percent simply did not work when markets fell as far and fast as they did in 2007-08.

To be sure, there have been other times when the markets fell as far -- the early and mid-1970s are an example. But the daily volatility and unprecedented decline after the failure of the Treasury to rescue Lehman Brothers were simply not on most radar screens.

We Weren't Prepared

That meant investors were not prepared, in terms of volatility, for what happened.
Nor were we prepared in terms of modern investment theory for a time when almost all categories of investment collapsed simultaneously: US large cap, US small cap, US value, US growth, foreign developed, foreign emerging, foreign growth, foreign value -- all collapsed. At the same time, corporate and municipal bonds fell sharply, as did nearly every commodity.

Real estate, both commercial and residential, also fell dramatically. No amount of diversification worked to preserve capital, other than having short- and medium-term Treasuries and insured cash.

This was not supposed to happen.

The back testing and portfolio propositions did not foresee a massive loss of confidence thanks to catastrophically wrong government moves. Thank you, Henry Paulson, for teaching us humility. Those disastrous moves told us we need to rethink our whole investment approach. It is indeed possible for us to have an investment world that mimics that of The Great Depression, even though most of us had thought that impossible.

There is still a lot of ignorance in the ruling class.

The Dangers of Useless Hedging

We also were caught off guard (or at least I was) by the amount of volume on the sell side that the hedge funds and investment banks could put into the market as they had to meet requests for redemptions and sell to meet demands of lenders. The amount of capital that these entities had to put into cash was truly prodigious and meant swings to the downside that could not have been imagined 10 or 20 years ago, once portfolio insurance largely disappeared.

Portfolio insurance is a scheme to hedge gains in portfolios by selling stock index futures short or buying put options. Once employed on a large scale, it led to a nuclear chain reaction of sales of cash versus options that dragged the market down roughly 25 percent in one day on October 19, 1987. Only extremely agile action by Alan Greenspan and the New York Fed to manipulate the options market kept the crash from becoming doomsday for capitalism. We should have learned from this about the dangers of unrestrained and totally useless "hedging" -- as in hedge funds -- but we did not.

So, again, we got hysterical moves to the downside from actions that were supposed to protect investors from just such moves.

What does all of this tell us? That, while the market can be our friend, it can also be a beast. The market can get things wildly wrong, as the extremely clever Jim Grant told us recently in his book, "Mr. Market Gets It Wrong." (Note: Jim is a hard money man, and I am not.)

Fighting the Last War

But what it mostly tells us is that we have to do even more hedging than we thought we did -- and in very basic ways. We investors, as the saying goes, are always fighting the last war. So now that we have learned to protect ourselves from volatility, we may not need to for a while.

Still, I have learned a bit of a lesson. I was wrong to have as little as I did in cash and Treasuries. I was wrong to be as sanguine as I was about my stocks and real estate in terms of their volatility. It was, in fact, possible for almost everything to collapse at once -- and it did. "The market trades to cause maximum pain" is a fine adage for investors then, now, and in the future.

Toward the end of his life, Ben Graham, Warren Buffett's brilliant teacher on value investing, told his friends that he had decided the stock market was simply too dangerous for him; he would keep all of his money in Treasuries. He was much smarter than I am; I am still foolish enough to think I should have a good chunk in stocks, especially at the current marked-down prices. Mr. Graham, by the way, died in the mid 1970s -- a terrible time to own either bonds or stocks.

The Plan Going Forward

But, although I will keep money in stocks, I will keep more than I did in insured cash and Treasuries. I will follow the advice of author and speaker Raymond J. Lucia, a dear friend and authority on financial planning, to keep many years worth of spending needs in cash or near cash. I will, in a word, hedge myself more in US government bonds and cash than I previously did.

I shake when I think of this because I feel sure inflation will eventually come back in a big way. But I am hedged on that -- I hope -- by my real estate, which I did not -- cannot -- sell.

In any event, I will take some comfort in knowing that even Warren Buffett's stock fell by about 45 percent in the 2007-2008 debacle; if the father of value investing could feel he had made mistakes, and if the gurus of value investing got clobbered, then I will not torture myself too much about the horrible year and a quarter just passed.

After all, my wife has not lost value. My dogs have not lost value. My son has gained greatly in value by getting engaged to a fabulous young woman. My friends have not lost value (but, sadly, there are fewer and fewer of them). The sunshine outside my house in Rancho Mirage, Calif., has not lost value, and every year I have left has greater value because of scarcity.

In my remaining years as an investor, I will just do the best I can -- and then go eat sushi. I recommend that you do the same.

The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters

The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters

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These old Disney movies are a little bit like your aging Uncle Frank. Honestly, he means well when he points out that Will Smith is "well-spoken." It's just that he, like the assemblage of clips below, dates from a time when people were unfairly characterized by their ethnic background (the acceptable methods are, of course, religion, geography, sexual preference and income).

The Merchant from Aladdin

The opening musical sequence from the hugely popular 1992 animated film had to be edited due to protest from Arab-American groups for saying about the Middle East what most of us were merely thinking.

Lesson Learned: 
The Middle East is a barren wasteland where the justice system runs on a clear and simple limb-removal policy.

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
"Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face" is the offending line, which was changed on the DVD to the much less provocative "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense." Whatever. Our question: In a city full of Arabic men and women, where the hell does a midwestern-accented, white piece of cornbread like Aladdin come from? Here he is next to the more, um, ethnic looking villain, Jafar.

Sebastian from The Little Mermaid

In this 1989 film, a Jamaican-sounding crab teaches Ariel that life is better "Under the Sea," because underwater you don't have to get a job.

Lesson Learned: 

Up on the shore they work all day 
Out in the sun they slave away 
While we devotin' 
Full time to floatin' 
Under the sea!

Are we reading too much into it? Do you see anything wrong with how they've drawn "the duke of soul" at 1:57?

Still too subtle? How about at 2:01 when the "blackfish" appears?

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
As far as Disney movies go, you've got two choices: unforgivably offensive and just slightly racially insensitive. Sebastian definitely falls into the latter category. So while making Sebastian a charming, party-loving stereotype is a baby step forward for Disney, it's still a stumble backwards for civil rights.

The Crows from Dumbo

In this 1941 classic, Dumbo the flying elephant runs into a band of jive-talking black crows who sing, "I'd be done see'n about everything/when I see an elephant fly!"

Lesson Learned: 
Come on, blackbirds acting in a manner stereotypically assigned to African-Americans isn't that offensive. At least they didn't just get some white guy to do his best "black voice." Oh, really? They did? And, they called the lead character "Jim Crow?" Um, hey, look over there! It's a convincing, logical end to this argument!

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
So many too choose from. The crows are very specifically depicted as poor and uneducated. They're constantly smoking; they wear pimptastic hats; and they're experts on all things "fly," so it's really a team effort contributing to the general minstrel-show feel to the whole number. You could pretty much pause this video at any second and use it as evidence in your hate-crime lawsuit against Disney.

For its time, though, the portrayal of the crows was almost progressive. The crows band together and help Dumbo learn to fly, so they're counted among the heroes of the film. Remember, this was just a couple of years after somebody introduced a bill to outlaw lynching and congress voted it down. So, you know, you take what you can get.

King Louie from The Jungle Book

Having outgrown the crude portrayal of African-Americans as black crows, in 1967Disney decides to portray them as monkeys instead.

Lesson Learned: 
All animals in the jungle speak in proper British accents. Except, of course, for the jive-talking, gibberish-spouting monkeys. Did we mention they desperately want to become "real people?"

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
Fine, so an ape singing, "I wanna be like you" might be a little subtle, in a "we own multiple copies of Catcher in the Rye" conspiracy theory kind of way. Still, considering the author of the The Jungle Book also thought up "the white man's burden", we don't think it's too much of a stretch.

The Siamese Twin Gang from Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers

Overt racism against African-Americans was obviously intolerable by the time thisChip n' Dale series began in 1989. Overt racism against Asians, luckily, was still on the table.

Lesson Learned: 
Even as criminals, Asian-Americans immigrants, represented here by a gang of cats, have become integral parts of American culture. Kidding! They own a laundromat, run an illegal, basement gambling operation and speak in horribly mangled "Engrish." It's like a designer of World War II propaganda posters accidentally quantum leaped into the body of a late '80s cartoon writer.

The video becomes cringe-worthy about six minutes in:

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
The Siamese Cats sell their karate expert Juice Lee, a Japanese fighting fish, for a suitcase full of dead fish. If you can't find something offensive in that sentence, congratulations. You're a cyborg.

Sunflower the Centaur from Fantasia

Of all the items on this list, this is the one Disney has tried the hardest to make us forget.

Lesson Learned: 
Even in Fantasia's beautiful, magical landscape, African centaurs are hoof-polishing handmaidens for prettier, Aryan centaurs. Also, 1940 was a great year to be a centaur fetishist and/or Don Imus.

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
It was insulting enough for Disney to include the smiling servant stereotype to begin with, but, to make matters worse, they started categorically denying Sunflower's existence with the Fantasia re-release in 1960. How does that possibly make things better? "No, you misunderstand. In our perfect, Fantasia world, Africans aren't servants. They don't fucking exist."

The Indians from Peter Pan

In this charming musical number, the "Red Man" explains his people's history and culture.

Lesson Learned: 
Why do Native Americans ask you "how?" According to the song, it's because the Native American always thirsts for knowledge. OK, that's not so bad, we guess. What gives the Native Americans their distinctive coloring? The song says a long time ago, a Native American blushed red when he kissed a girl, and, as science dictates, it's been part of their race's genetic make up since. You see, there had to be some kind of event to change their skin from the normal, human color of "white."

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
It's a tie between Tiger Lilly's traditional Native American hussy dance, and the number of times Native American's misogynistic tendencies are played for laughs (hint: It's more than three!)

Uncle Remus from Song of the South

The tales of Br'er Rabbit are relayed by kindly old Uncle Remus, a black man happily working on a plantation in the post-Civil War South. Disney has never released this one on home video, for some reason.

Lesson Learned: 
The late 1800s were a great time to be African-American and possibly on acid.

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
Less eerie than any imaginary singing birds is what's not in the film. It's as if someone made a children's musical about Jews in post-World War II Germany that had a number titled "Hey! Nothing Bad Has Happened to Us, Ever." Also failing to reach the screen: When the movie had its world premiere in 1946 in Atlanta, James Baskett, the actor who played Remus, was not allowed to attend. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!

Thursday from Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday(Book)

In this forgotten Mickey Mouse book from 1948, Mickey gets a crate full of West African bananas, and finds an African inside instead! Ha!" The savage soon is confused by Mickey's human lifestyle and commits acts of random violence.

Lesson Learned: 
"What's the deal with Africans? If they're not trying to eat it or throw a spear at it, they're worshiping it as a some sort of tribal deity, am I right?"

Best (Worst?) Moment: 
Where to begin? The book compiles almost every offensive preconception of Africa lurking in the American subconscious.

Some choice quotes:

"Well, well." Mickey laughed ... "So I'm supposed to be your governess and nursemaid, and you can't even talk!"

"Let me see. A genuine African native," Mickey murmured. "Perhaps I should start showing him off."

Perhaps the most depressing part is that this was somebody's idea of tolerance, back in the ideallic '40s:

"Poor little guy! He just makes mistakes. He doesn't know any better. I'll just have to be patient and teach him the right way to do things," said Mickey.