The House adjourned for the holidays Thursday night after passing a two-year budget agreement. But despite pressure from President Obama and congressional Democrats, the deal did not include an extension of the long-term unemployment benefit program that aids 1.3 million Americans.
Police say the gunman was a student who killed himself at Arapahoe High School near Littleton, Colo., the site of the 1999 Columbine massacre.
This final note today, in which James Bond is revealed to be not much more than a lush.
A group of doctors over in the UK sat down and read all 14 Bond novels, noting each and every martini...
Shaken, not stirred.
Over the course of the 88 days depicted in the books, Agent 007 had the equivalent of 5 vodka martinis a day...
Which, the doctors say...would've left him impotent and near death.
Cornyn's voting record ranks him as the second most conservative Republican in the Senate. But some on the right feel he was insufficiently supportive of Sen. Ted Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare, and now he faces a primary challenge from Steve Stockman, a Houston-area House member.
In a basement lounge at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, a few dozen students line up for fried chicken and an array of international sauces, from Indian curry to British pineapple chutney.
This is the Blanding III holiday party. About half the students in the dorm are the first in their families to go to college. They’ve chosen to live together, study together and tonight make gingerbread houses together in a friendly competition.
Cody Russell and Alejandra Sanchez lean over a ping-pong table, attempting to hang tiny frosting icicles on their gingerbread roof.
Cody is from Taylor County, Ky., in the rural heart of the state. He was raised by a single mom. She worked at the Fruit of the Loom factory -- before it closed. Then she worked at an auto plant making side mirrors. He says watching her sometimes work two jobs and struggle to pay the bills, he was determined to go to college.
But when he got here, "it was a complete culture shock," he says.
With its vast campus and almost 30,000 students, most freshmen would find UK daunting. The whole point of this dorm is to help them adjust. Students got to move in a few days early, so they bonded before classes even started. Older students who were also the first in their families to go to college serve as mentors.
"It makes this big university for a lot of us that came from small towns a little bit smaller, and a little bit more like home," Cody says.
The so-called First Generation Living Learning Community was created to address a crisis in Kentucky. The state has a smaller share of college graduates in the workforce than almost any other state.
At UK, only about 22 percent of first-generation students finish in four years. Just 46 percent graduate in six years.
"So we're not serving our mission to educate the commonwealth, if we're sending half of those students home with a broken dream," says Matthew Deffendall, director of First Generation Initiatives at the university.
Deffendall helped launch the program two years ago to keep more of those students coming back.
"As we know from student development theory, if they make a connection to campus, they'll want to stay," he says. "So we thought, why not create a community of other students who were going through the same thing?"
Students don't just live together. They have events and workshops focused on life skills, and special staff advisers. And they take classes together, like UK 101 -- a class on how to navigate college life.
The night after the holiday party, many of the students were in a communications class together presenting digital projects. Faculty lecturer Jami Warren says students in the program seem to catch on more quickly than her other students.
"I think a great deal of that probably comes from the fact that they’re not only taking this course together, but they’re also living together," she says. "So they do homework together, they have study sessions together."
In the first years of the program, 92 percent of students have come back for their second year, compared to just over 72 percent of all first-generation students on campus. Their grades are higher, too, says Deffendall.
"So they’re performing stronger, they’re being retained at a higher rate, and they’re forming connections," he says.
And they’re not just changing their own futures -- but that of their families.
Josh Johnson came from Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky, where college wasn’t in the cards for most of his fellow students.
"Most of them go straight in the workforce, or go into coal, because that’s the main industry where I’m from," he says. "I wanted to have a better life for myself and my children."
His example has rubbed off on his younger brother; Josh is helping him apply for college now.
But as programs like Kentucky's have cropped up on other campuses, some worry about isolating first-generation students. One benefit of college is mixing with more advantaged students, says Richard Kahlenberg with the Century Foundation, and those connections pay off in career opportunities later in life.
"To the extent that colleges are encouraging low-income and first-generation students to socialize separately and apart from others, I think that’s not doing those students any good," he says.
Those in Kentucky's program say they meet lots of other students. For one thing, after the first year most of them will live off campus or in other housing. Samantha La Mar from Erlanger, Ky., says having that home base has actually helped her branch out.
"Since I got here and was able to kind of open up and meet new people and I started to feel comfortable, I was like, ‘Hey, I met all these people that are like me, so maybe I can say "hi" to the girl sitting next to me in my English class, or maybe I can join a group,’" she says.
Or even lead one. She wants to be resident advisor in the dorm next year, to help other students make the transition.
Many people have regained equity in their homes lately, thanks to rising housing prices. But for others, the housing crisis isn’t over. Almost 15% of mortgaged homes are still underwater, to the tune of more than $400 billion, according to CoreLogic’s second quarter figures.
Now struggling homeowners who seek relief could face an unexpected tax bill.
Real estate broker Fernando Herboso thinks it’s unfair that a law called the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act expires this month. He remembers how hard it was for underwater borrowers before the law passed. As the market declined, they started calling him, saying:
“Fernando, I’m having problems paying. I don’t know what to do.”
Soon, he was helping his clients with short sales in Maryland, Washington DC, and Virginia.
Let’s say a client owed $300,000 on her home, but could only sell it for $200,000.
Herboso would explain that in a short sale, “The bank then gives you an imaginary check for the other $100,000.”
In other words, the lender forgives that mortgage debt. But there’s a catch.
“Then the IRS sees that as an income,” Herboso would explain. “Someone just gave you a check for $100,000. And you have to pay taxes for it.”
In normal times, mortgage debt that’s forgiven through short sale, mortgage restructuring, or even foreclosure can be considered taxable income. But in late 2007, Congress recognized that people on the brink of losing their homes couldn’t pay a hefty tax. So it passed the temporary law exempting from taxation a lot of canceled mortgage debt on primary homes.
“Early on, when this was passed, you could argue it simply wasn’t a matter for individual households, it was a macroeconomic matter,” says Mark Calabria, who was senior staff at the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs when the act first passed.
“We’re at the point now where it’s not really a macroeconomic matter,” he says.
Calabria is now at the Cato Institute. He says that since the worst of the housing crisis is over, he’d lean towards letting let the law expire. He says we shouldn’t create the wrong incentives.
“If you’re underwriting somebody’s losses on the housing market, then you’re much more encouraging people to take risk in the housing market,” he says.
But David Stevens, president and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, says parts of the country are still struggling.
“And the problem with this is this will now create, potentially, an impediment for a borrower who could be offered a debt forgiveness program,” he says.
They’d get debt relief on one hand, and a tax bill in the other.
Recent settlements with banks like JP Morgan Chase make more funds available to forgive mortgage debt. The question for Congress is whether taxing that help will force people to forgo it.
For those of you interested in the nuts and bolts of mortgage debt forgiveness, here’s more information:
- The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 has been extended twice already.
- If the measure expires on December 31, Congress could extend it retroactively.
- The IRS on mortgage debt forgiveness, including caps and exemptions for insolvency.
A blockbuster video game director is working on a game where you don't shoot back. It puts the player inside the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and it's a financial and personal risk to the game makers.
Who wouldn't want something better than mammograms for breast cancer screening? But machines that extract breast fluid to look for abnormal cells aren't it, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Still, some doctors have been offering the test to patients.
Samantha West works for Premier Health Plans Inc., selling health insurance over the phone. Her voice is friendly, just like your typical telemarketer looking to get you a quote for a decent health insurance policy.
The other thing: she might be a robot.
TIME Magazine reporter Denver Nicks writes that he started getting suspicious when she couldn't answer some relatively simple questions.
"It sounds like a real woman, but she repeats herself over and over again," Nicks says. "Michael [his bureau chief] starts asking her questions like, 'What is the vegetable in tomato soup?' to which she doesn't know the answer."
When asked, point-blank, if she was a robot, "West" vehemently denies, saying that she's a real person and complains of a bad connection.
Nicks says they did manage to get a hold of a live body eventually, but they denied any use of robots and promptly hung up. But we may never know the true motive behind the strategy, as Premier Health Plans Inc. -- and Samantha West's phone line -- disappeared the day after Nicks's story was published.
Yesterday Twitter announced a change to its blocking policy. Under the old system, when you blocked someone, you vanished from their feed and they vanished from yours. But under the new policy, someone who had been blocked would still see the tweets of the person who blocked them -- the blocker could still be followed. The changes upset a whole lot of users, who made their opinions known all over social media. The backlash was big enough to cause Twitter to reverse its decision and go back to the old policy.
Never before have people been able to give feedback to a business so quickly and in such volume. Sometimes that feedback is positive. But when it's negative, it puts companies on the spot in a very public way. "Maybe that feedback signals to the company, we've got to explain this better and educate our customers and make them understand why this is for the best," says Dr. Andrew Stephen, a professor at the Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.
In Twitter's case, it chose not to explain why it thought the new blocking policy was good for users. It just reversed the policy. Another example of this sort of reversal is when GAP unveiled its new logo. People hated it. They said so on the internet and poof! Gone was the new logo. Companies are now under pressure to respond to feedback as it comes in.
"I don't' know if that's always positive," says Stephen Walls, a senior lecturer at The McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas.
Fear over social media backlash can mean companies lose their ability to explain themselves. And it makes it difficult to do things like experiment with a new policy. "Certainly for companies it does create this amplification system, for better or for worse," says Walls.
It can mean free word of mouth advertising or a sudden crisis. This is the delicate balance that companies like Twitter have to maneuver, as they deal with issues of user security and privacy which added Wells, "is especially difficult since we're changing how we feel about that probably on a daily basis."
Unfortunately, even in the year 2013, there are still places in America where it’s newsworthy when someone hires a black woman. One of those places is Saturday Night Live. And it turns out, there are economic reasons for why the iconic sketch show has been so white and so male for so long, as conversations with a variety of black comics reveal.
The show has long faced criticism for its failings on diversity. It recently turned its problem into a joke, in an episode where guest host Kerry Washington had to play every black female role. An announcer apologized, promising producers will hire a black female cast member “unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”
Now the show says it’ll add at least one black female cast member next year. Producers have been holding special auditions to find her. Over the years, executives have said they want to cast talented black females, but can’t find them.
“When they say there aren’t any women that they’ve seen, what’s really being said is we haven’t seen people that impressed us where we have normally been looking,” says comedian Chloe Hilliard.
The main places SNL producers look are the best-known improv comedy groups: UCB Theatre, Second City and The Groundlings. Many of SNL’s biggest stars got their starts on these stages. The groups on those stages can be as white or whiter than SNL casts are. The interplay of race and class helps explain why.
“With a lot of these places that have become sort of these comedy factories, it’s a pay to play scenario,” says comedian Cyrus McQueen.
Before young comics can perform at these influential stages, they typically have to pay for improv classes there. Even when they earn substantial stage time, performances rarely pay. That makes for a tilted playing field advantaging those who have sufficient funds (or sufficiently supportive parents) to pay for classes, perform for free and still be able to pay their bills. Many funny people of color get left out.
“As a young black person, when I first got out of college, I had to go get a job, a real job that would support me,” says comic Jina Johnson.
In the end, it seems the comedy scene doesn’t just favor white people. It favors rich white people, and will continue to, until producers in power look a little harder.
Mark Garrison: SNL turned its lack of black women into a joke, in a recent episode where guest host Kerry Washington had to play every black female role.
Clip: We agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future. Unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.
Producers say they wanna cast talented black females, but can’t find them. Comedian Chloe Hilliard says that’s not quite right.
Chloe Hilliard: When they say there aren’t any women that they’ve seen, what’s really being said is we haven’t seen people that impressed us where we have normally been looking.
The main places they look are the best-known improv comedy groups: UCB Theatre, Second City and the Groundlings. They’re as white or whiter than SNL. Part of the reason the stages SNL scouts aren’t diverse is economic.
Cyrus McQueen: With a lot of these places that have become sort of these comedy factories, it’s a pay to play scenario.
Comedian Cyrus McQueen points out that young comics have to pay for improv classes before they can get stage time. And even then, stage time usually doesn’t pay. That makes for a tilted playing field. Comic Jina Johnson says many funny people of color can’t afford to buy classes and then work for free.
Jina Johnson: As a young black person, when I first got out of college, I had to go get a job, a real job that would support me.
It seems the comedy scene doesn’t just favor white people. It favors rich white people, at least until powerful producers look a little harder. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.
The Obama administration reiterated its long-held position that Robert Levinson was not "a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran" in 2007. The assertion comes a day after The Associated Press reported that Levinson was on a rogue mission for the CIA.
Beyoncé’s eponymous album dropped at midnight, and one of the things that is remarkable about it is she didn’t give us a heads up. All of a sudden, it appeared in the iTunes Store. There was no multimillion dollar ad campaign. Top 40 stations didn’t get the chance to play a few singles to death before we could buy the album. And the thing is, none of that matters. Beyoncé is on top of the charts again.
“We wake up on Friday the Thirteenth, and we get a present,” says Stephanie Kellar, who teaches in the business and management program at the Berklee College of Music. “How fabulous is that?”
In this day and age, a surprise like this one is rare. Mikael Wood, who covers music for the Los Angeles Times, calls Queen B “a master of the nondisclosure agreement.”
“The one person you don’t want to cross is Beyoncé.”
You got that?
Wood says this album stands out when you compare it to releases by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.
“These albums are the end point of a humungous multipronged campaign, with concerts and TV appearances., etc, etc.,” he explains.
Not so for “Beyoncé.” Wood says that, as great as this is for B, it is as great for iTunes – it is the only place to buy the album right now, and you can’t buy the songs a la carte.
So, is this upending anything? Should we expect a surprise album from another artist? John Rose, with the Boston Consulting Group, is skeptical. He used to be the head of strategy at EMI.
“To make something like that work, you have to have the kind of overarching followership and engagement that Beyoncé and only a handful of artists have,” he says.
Beyoncé announced this album on Instagram, where she has more than eight million followers. Beyoncé follows no one.