Monthly Archives: December 2011


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6R10DB9 orbits Earth

S&T: Gregg Dinderman

Bulletin at a Glance

News Observing This Week’s Sky at a Glance Community

Pseudo-moons Orbit Earth

December 30, 2011                                                                | Temporary satellites are frequently caught from Earth’s neighborhood and may make regular passes at being moonlets. But the objects only stick around long enough to orbit a few times before the Moon kicks them back out into the cold. > read more

A Breathtaking View of Titan

December 27, 2011                                                                | Here’s a “holiday treat” featuring Saturn’s largest moon and some dramatic lighting geometry, courtesy of NASA’s Cassini orbiter and its imaging team. > read more

Sky & Telescope February 2012

December 21, 2011                                                                | Sky & Telescope‘s February 2012 issue is now available to digital subscribers. > read more


Quadrantid meteor finder chart

Sky & Telescope illustration

A Fine Year for the Icy Quads

December 28, 2011                                                                | One of the best — but briefest — annual meteor showers should be active in the hours before dawn on the morning of Wednesday, January 4th. > read more

What to See With Your New Telescope: Expert Tips from Sky & Telescope Magazine

December 30, 2011                                                                  |

Jupiter: Big, Bright, and Beautiful

September 23, 2011                                                                | The “King of Planets,” which will dominate the evening sky from late 2011 through early 2012, is a captivating sight no matter how you look at it. > read more

Tour January’s Sky by Eye and Ear!

December 30, 2011                                                                  | With every New Year, millions of us resolve to do something, anything, different or better in the coming year. So let’s resolve to get outside and enjoy the night sky more. Venus, Jupiter, and a host of winter stars await you. > read more

Meteor Showers in 2012

December 25, 2011                                                                  | Sky & Telescope predicts that 2012’s best meteor shower should be the Quadrantids in January, but this will also be a good year for the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. > read more

This Week’s Sky at a Glance

Dinnertime view

This Week’s Sky at a Glance

December 30, 2011                                                                  | Venus and Jupiter light the evenings as the new year arrives. Having already left Venus behind, the waxing Moon now passes Jupiter. > read more

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Since this is the last day of 2011, I decided to end the year on a festive note with one of my all-time favourite animated Christmas specials.

One of the most often overlooked and least known of all Christmas specials is the “Mr. Magoo Christmas Carol”. It was the first animated holiday program ever produced specifically for television, originally airing on December 18, 1962, and predates “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by three years.

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

Freely adapted by Barbara Chain, from Charles Dickens’ famous short story “A Christmas Carol“, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas story centers around the myopic character Mr. Magoo.

Read the original Dickens classic story  here.

With his bumbling and zany antics, and his nearsightedness that gets him into all kinds of trouble, the character Mr. Quincy Magoo is voiced by the late and great Jim Backus (he of Thurston Howell III “Gilligan’s Island fame), and this version of Dickens tale has Magoo returning to Broadway to star as the lead character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in the musical stage production of the story.

Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol

DVD Covers for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol

As he drives down streets, going the wrong way on a one-way street, Mr. Magoo sings “It’s Great to be Back on Broadway”, all the while narrowly being run down by fast-moving drivers who seem to expect such behaviour from Mr. Magoo.

After going to the wrong back door entrance of a building across from the theater, Mr. Magoo finally arrives in time to get the show started.

And what a show it is.

Mr. Magoo is suitably good as the grouchy, penny-pinching, miserly Scrooge who never lets a moment pass without uttering his famous statement:  “Bah, humbug!”

We all know the original story of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and his family, and especially crippled Tiny Tim (who, incidentally, was played by another cartoon character—Gerald McBoing-Boing), but, some liberties have been taken with it due to time constraints on the original televised cartoon. Though in the original Dickens story the ghosts that come after being warned of their visit by Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley, are the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the cartoon starts off with the Ghost of Christmas Present, then the Ghosts of Christmas Past, and finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Also excised are the following:  no reference is made to Scrooge’s nephew Fred or the allegorical twin children, Ignorance and Want; Scrooge’s sister Fan (mother of Scrooge’s nephew Fred), seen in the Christmas Past sequence, is omitted; and two of the post-redemption scenes of the short story are amalgamated into one scene, so that Scrooge visits the Cratchit family instead of his nephew Fred and his family, and in a self-deprecating way, raises Bob’s salary instead of waiting to do so at work the day after Christmas.

Scrooge goes back, and forward in time via the help of the three Ghosts, and looks at the losses in his life, sees how he impacts the present, and realizes the horrible fate that awaits him if he does not mend his ways.

Waking up the next morning, he is ready to bring joy and happiness to all those in his world.

Directed by Abe Levitow, the story stars the voices of Backus, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Les Tremayne, and Joan Gardner, among others. The musical score is wonderful, with the original songs written by the Broadway team of Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics). In addition to “Back on Broadway”, the songs include the catchy “Ringle, Ringle”, as Scrooge counts and hoards his money, to “The Lord’s Bright Blessing”, sung at the beginning of the production by Cratchit and his family, and again at the end by Scrooge and the Cratchit family. To add a note of fun, there is the dream sequence that features “We’re Despicable (Plunderer’s March)” as sung by the trio who rob Scrooge of his possessions before his body is cold and in the ground. “Winter was Warm”, is a poignant song sung by Belle to Ebenezer when he refuses to marry her because she is not rich enough for him.

Then there is the lovely but sad “Alone in the World” as sung by a young Ebenezer Scrooge as he sits all alone in a deserted classroom since no one wants him. While going back in time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge commiserates with his younger self by singing along on this song.

Oh, Mr. Magoo, I love you! This holiday video is a wonderful trip down memory lane. I first saw this delightful version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” when I was a little child, and for years I had been looking for it. It should have a wider broadcast so that others, both young and not-so-young, can have a chance to make its aquaintance. With lovely songs, the voice of the late and great Jim Backus, and Mr. Magoo, this sweet and endearing classic is a Christmas gift that is always a joy to see.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” from Classic Media, is a 53-minute show that was produced by the Rankin-Bass Studios, and is a must-see for the whole family, and definitely deserves a place as an annual holiday special at Christmas time.


He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

-from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”


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The dream to own your own home has been the desire of Americans for decades. But, for so many Black Americans, as in the following article, that dream has been more than deferred. It has been a nightmare that has torn apart their lives. The rise of subprime mortgages loans, predatory lending, and the decades of redlining, restrictive covenants, and destruction of a healthy and continued tax-base in Black neighborhoods can only indicate that the ownership of a home will never be a reality for so many of them.


Mortgage Industry Bankrupts Black America

George Mitchell’s wife, Lillian, took her last breath in the house she loved, on New Year’s Day 2006. “Right there in that spot,” says George, 77, nodding to the far end of his worn, floral-print couch. “I think the last words she spoke was my name.”

“Yup,” confirms his youngest daughter, Chandra Chavis. “I was trying to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at the time.” She points out the living room window to the small, sloping front yard and drive. “There was no address on the house, so I had to stop doing that to get the ambulance to come in.” But Lillian’s heart had seized, and Chandra knows there’s not much she could have done anyway. She figures if even the trauma team at Atlanta’s century-old public hospital couldn’t revive her mom, she must have been long gone. “Nobody can bring you back if the Lord calls you,” concludes an older daughter, Gwen Russell.

It was Lillian’s tenacity that led the Mitchell family to Atlanta’s Westwood neighborhood, in 1968. “She was determined,” Chandra explains, “not to have her children in an apartment–I know the story; I’ve heard it a million times–so she found somebody, a real estate agent, and they came out and they looked in this neighborhood. I don’t know what brought them to this part of town, ’cause at the time they were living in Dixon Hills”–then an up-and-coming black neighborhood–“but she decided she wanted a house, and this is where she found it.”

“All I did was sign the paper,” says George with a shrug.

That made the Mitchells one of the first African-American families to move into Westwood. Atlanta has long been known as the “black Mecca,” a place where African-Americans have been able to claw up the socioeconomic ladder and plunge into America’s consumer culture. Nowhere is that striving more visible than in the massive subdivisions of large, new homes that Atlanta’s black bourgeoisie have erected, reaching far into the suburbs. But the process began generations ago in a cluster of inside-the-beltway neighborhoods wedged into the city’s southwestern corner, including Westwood. Today that area is reeling, having been one of the nation’s communities hardest hit by the one-two punch of subprime lending and home foreclosures. The Mitchells have not been spared. Like hundreds of thousands of Americans, they are scrambling to keep the house Lillian found for them.

Nearly 18,000 homes faced foreclosure in the Atlanta area during the first quarter of 2008, an almost 40 percent jump from the first quarter of 2007. In Fulton County, which encompasses most of the city’s core and is heavily African-American, one in 122 homes was in foreclosure in the first week of April. A digest of Atlanta’s March 2008 “foreclosure starts” was as thick as the phone book, and the Mitchells’ 30310 ZIP code topped the list.

The area boasts an old stock of quaint, midcentury houses painted in bright yellows and crisp blues, accented with quirky touches that now feel more haunting than homey. On block after block, as many homes sit vacant or bank-owned as not. Boarded-up windows lurk behind white-columned front porches, and the yards are slowly going to weeds and trash. On one block, eleven boarded-up houses line the street, making the area look like it’s been hit by a natural disaster.

But the disaster is depressingly man-made. And this neighborhood reveals a deeply troubling dimension of it, one that will echo long past the recovery everyone hopes will soon come: for black America, the “mortgage meltdown” looks less like a market hiccup than a massive strip mining of hard-won wealth, a devastating loss that will betray the promise of class mobility for tens of thousands of black families.

As the mortgage crisis unfolded, observers of all political stripes repeated a boilerplate line: the “affordability products” that have flooded the lending market in recent years–from subprime to interest-only loans–have done more good than bad by fueling a surge in black and Latino homeownership. But while minority homeownership may have grown in the short term, the long-term outlook promises quite the opposite, as southwest Atlanta painfully illustrates.

First-time homebuyers have originated less than a tenth of all subprime loans since 1998, according to a 2007 Center for Responsible Lending analysis. As recently as 2006, just over half of all subprime loans were refinances of existing home loans. The expected foreclosure toll from these loans will outpace the ownership gains by nearly a million families, the center estimates.

That’s particularly true in established black neighborhoods like Westwood, where banks and brokers targeted vulnerable longtime homeowners and lured them into needless and rapidly recurring mortgages they clearly couldn’t afford and from which they never stood to gain. More than half of all refinance loans made to African-Americans in 2006 were subprime, according to an analysis by the advocacy group ACORN. That’s nearly twice the rate among white borrowers. Among low-income black borrowers, 62 percent of refinance loans were subprime, more than twice the rate among low-income whites.

“It actually started in communities like Atlanta,” says Nikitra Bailey, a Center for Responsible Lending researcher who has studied the Southeastern US housing crisis. “A lot of our older African-Americans were house rich but cash poor. So lenders came up with these scams to siphon the wealth away.”

It’s a loss black America can scarcely afford, because black wealth has long been enormously dependent on home equity. In 1967, the year before the Mitchells bought their house, homes accounted for 67 percent of black wealth, compared with 40 percent of white wealth. The disparity has only grown, pushed by the turn-of-the-millennium stock market boom. Without counting home equity, black net worth in 2004 was just 1 percent of that for whites, according to research by New York University economics professor Edward Wolff.

This wealth gap makes the disaster unfolding in neighborhoods like Westwood all the more catastrophic. As the Mitchells sit in George’s cluttered living room, wending their way through their past, they bump against memories of family after family who are in quandaries just like theirs–friends and neighbors struggling to hold onto homes they bought decades ago. “It’s a crying shame,” Gwen rails. “People been living around here forever! I think it’s wrong,” she complains, throwing up her hands in resignation. “But what can I say?”

The Mitchells mark time by the particulars of their history. They know, for instance, that George retired from thirty years of delivering mail to his neighbors in 1985, because that’s when Chandra came back from Germany with her newborn son. And they know they moved into this house forty years ago, because that’s when Gwen had her child. “Yup, Kipper would have been 40 this year,” Gwen says, nodding for emphasis as she mentally links the house’s life span with that of her son, who died in 2000 in a car accident. “Forty years in this house right here.”

George doesn’t remember his white neighbors giving the family any trouble when they moved in, but they didn’t roll out the welcome mat either. He still laughs at one neighbor’s reaction when he and the realtor stopped in front of the guy’s house. “The dude, he broke out the house like somebody hit him with a hot poker! He was talking about how he built this house and he did it for his family and he didn’t want nobody in it. And all I did was look at the house. But I tell you, the next time I went through there it was some black ones in it– ’cause he was gone.” Before long, so were all of the Mitchells’ white neighbors.

George and Lillian took over a previous owner’s $16,000 mortgage for their 1,600-square-foot home. With two incomes, they easily managed the monthly note. Then and now, the house offered the family security and stability.

“I was 6,” Chandra proudly declares of the age at which she began living here. “My son grew up in this house, too,” she adds. They’ve all lived here at some point over those decades. George’s four kids and six grandchildren have spread out around the South–a son in Fayetteville, Georgia; a middle daughter in Birmingham, Alabama–but this has always been what Gwen calls the “home house.”

Gwen stays here three days a week, when she’s off from her job as a live-in nurse. Chandra and her husband own a home a few neighborhoods over. But her 20-year-old son, Marcus, lives here with his aunt and grandpa. Chandra frets that “the knucklehead” won’t get his life together and go to college or take real steps toward his dream of opening an auto-body shop. But she knows he’s got a roof over his head and, in time, will sort it out. “You can always come home to Momma and Daddy when times get tough,” Gwen says affectionately.

George and Lillian were lucky to get the house, because African-Americans were largely locked out of the massive mid-twentieth-century public-private effort to expand access to credit and homeownership.

America hasn’t always been a majority “ownership society,” as George W. Bush likes to call it. The nation’s first homeownership boom came after World War II, when the government used the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage insurance to lower the cost of buying. Banks extended credit lines to middle-class borrowers in ways that encouraged long-term ownership–thirty-year mortgages covering 80 percent to 90 percent of the buyer’s costs with interest rates of about 6 percent. By 1960, the American homeownership rate had shot up from less than half before the war to nearly 65 percent, where it remained until the modern housing market took off.

Black communities were excluded from this rising tide. The FHA’s underwriting manual guaranteed insurance for segregated white neighborhoods only, until a series of court cases between 1948 and 1953 struck down the rule. Even then, the policy changed in word alone: 98 percent of the 10 million homes federal money had backed by 1965 went to whites, and banks’ redlining of black neighborhoods went on for years thereafter. As a result, the black-white disparity in homeownership hasn’t dropped below 20 percentage points since 1940; it was at 25 percentage points in 2007.

The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) aimed to end the lending bias in the housing market. The complex law boils down to a simple principle: anywhere a federally insured bank or thrift takes deposits, it must give out credit. The law also set up regular audits of the institutions’ lending practices to police compliance.

Today, when industry backers aren’t touting the good that subprime mortgages have done, they’re arguing that the CRA set the stage for the market’s current collapse by encouraging lending to “risky” borrowers. But subprime lending didn’t start with the demand that banks serve the community; it grew out of the removal of usury laws that governed how much banks could charge for their lending services. Having fought the CRA tooth and nail in the late ’70s, by 1980 the banks were pushing for regulatory changes that would allow them to profit from the requirement. Says the Center for Responsible Lending’s Nikitra Bailey, “It’s like once we got in the game, the rules changed.”

So did the loan products offered by banks. Subprime loans emerged in the 1980s and slowly multiplied, driven in part by the new deregulation and in part by an explosion of brokers and other unregulated lending entities–many of them subsidiaries of traditional, otherwise regulated banks. These products were supposed to be tools to firm up poor credit and bridge low-income borrowers to prime loans. For years, they remained a tiny, if troubling, share of overall lending, accounting for just 5 percent of all mortgage originations in 1994. The problems started when the housing market took off at the turn of the millennium, driven by historically low interest rates, skyrocketing sales prices and the resulting global rush to invest in the US mortgage market. Suddenly, subprime loans turned into trapdoors–increasingly exotic products through which lenders, desperate to feed the mortgage investment beast, lured people into needless debt. By 2004 subprime loans were 20 percent of home loans–and half of all home-purchase and refinance borrowers had one in 2006.

The Mitchells, for their part, started out OK. Guarded by Lillian’s caution, they leveraged their new house to get opportunities otherwise beyond their grasp. The Mitchells paid for the final two years of Chandra’s bachelor’s degree at Clark–one of Atlanta’s famed historically black colleges–with their first refinance, in 1981; her Clark sticker is still in the upstairs window. “I thought she needed an education,” George explains. “She wanted one. So I saw to it she had it.”

And for the next two decades, the Mitchells’ lending history remained a relatively quiet, measured affair–a few more mortgages on the home, all for less than $40,000. Then, in 2003, the deed record for their house suddenly erupts into a line of increasingly large refinance loans, falling one after another in quick succession.

It starts with a $68,000 loan in May 2003–that’s the one they made for the new siding. By that December, they’d already refinanced for $100,000. In December 2006, there’s another loan, with now-defunct NovaStar Mortgage, for just over $116,000. Two months later there’s a package of two more loans, totaling about $125,000 and owed to California-based IndyMac Bank. The IndyMac loan package is a classic subprime product–interest-only payments for five years, at a fixed rate of just over 6 percent, then adjusting upward to about 9 percent plus the principal.

“That is just not an appropriate loan product for someone who’s 76 years old and who’s on a fixed income,” says Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorney Sarah Bolling, who’s representing the Mitchells in their effort to keep their house. “The only calculation that would make this make sense is to say, ‘Well, we’ll give him a low rate and in five years he won’t be alive.’ But that’s pretty cynical.” Not that it mattered: George managed to pay the loan for only two months before falling behind. Within a year, he was in default.

It’s a familiar story in 30310. Not far away from the Mitchells, the Hoods are desperately trying to hold onto a house they bought in 1975. A retired couple living largely on Social Security, they owe $176,000 on a house that may be worth just over $100,000. A broker from Maryland had cold-called them and talked them into a series of refinances. Another senior citizen, Jennie McCaslin, bought her house in 1970. In 2005 a broker sold her a $67,000 rehab loan, then flipped her through a series of refinances that left her owing $102,000, with an adjustable interest rate that can reset as high as 17 percent. One of the loans was co-signed by a 21-year-old niece, another by a son who was in jail at the time. McCaslin is functionally illiterate.

The Mitchells, Hoods and McCaslins are the “risky” and “irresponsible” borrowers cited in press coverage and policy debates about the foreclosure crisis. For months, the Bush Administration’s mantra has been that whatever remedy Washington comes up with, it mustn’t let borrowers off the hook for making bad choices. “I believe most Americans want to protect homeowners who played by the rules. They don’t want to reward risky financial behavior,” Assistant Secretary for Housing Brian Montgomery told the House Financial Services Committee in April.

The Administration and industry lobbyists have buttressed this rhetoric with claims that large numbers of those facing foreclosure are merely “speculators.” “The strength of our economy relies on the willingness of people to take risks,” Mortgage Bankers Association chair-elect David Kittle told an April 16 House Financial Services subcommittee hearing, “but risk means one does not always win.”

It’s a stunning statement when considering just how much risky speculating lenders themselves have engaged in during the past decade. The vast majority of homes facing foreclosure are owner-occupied. Aggregate data on those homeowners is spotty at best, but consumer advocates insist they look a lot like George Mitchell–people shoved into large, needless loans so that lenders could profit from the fast-growing securities market.

Much has been written about the role of the byzantine derivatives trade in the housing market’s balloon and bust. Investment banks have been bundling pools of mortgages and selling them as securities since the mid-’80s. But when the housing market exploded in the early 2000s, those pools became immensely profitable. Banks started gobbling up mortgages from lenders, who in turn frantically cranked up their lending volume to cash in on the new demand. Brokers raked in money as banks offered incentives for them to close larger and larger loans. Investors worldwide poured cash into the profitable mortgage pools that formed.

If the securities market was the bonfire, borrowers were the kindling. Had lenders not sought out and made loans to people without regard to their ability to pay, the fire would have burned itself out long ago. Instead, when the supply of reliable borrowers was depleted, the subprime lending products that Reagan-era deregulation helped usher in kept the flames lapping. Undocumented loan applications, interest-only payment plans and teaser interest rates are all just the tools lenders used to forage for new borrowers. “The purpose of those products was to convince these people that they could get in,” says Legal Aid attorney Bill Brennan.

George Mitchell, who, his daughters believe, suffered at least two strokes between 2003 and shortly after his wife’s 2006 death, barely remembers taking out the February 2007 IndyMac loan that he’s now suffocating under. Asked to recount how and why he took out any of the refinances he’s made since his original 2003 siding loan, George furrows his brow and stares out from his thick gray beard in silence.

“Papa don’t remember,” a frustrated Gwen explains. She suspects he got calls from banks and brokers offering him new loans. “I’m almost sure,” she says, noting that the house phone rings incessantly with marketers asking for her father by first name, as if they’re old friends. “He orders things off TV. He doesn’t realize he orders it. The pimple stuff?” She shoots a disgusted look at her dad when recalling that absurd package’s arrival. “He says he didn’t order it, but it came.”

Despite their close role in George’s life, none of the Mitchell children knew about the recent loans until February 2007. That’s when George called Chandra and asked her to come by the house to witness him signing for one of the two loans in the IndyMac package. “I came over here with the intention of not signing the papers,” Chandra says, recounting the frenzied afternoon. But the IndyMac loan officer, who Chandra says was at the house for just fifteen minutes, convinced her otherwise. “She told me you could not cancel the loan.”

George explained to Chandra that he’d had trouble keeping up with that loan and with his credit cards since Lillian’s death, due to the loss of her $500 a month in Social Security. “I read through what I could understand,” Chandra says of the few minutes she was given to browse the IndyMac package. “It was really thick, and I don’t know legalese, especially when it comes to loans. The only question that I had for her was, Could he cancel it, honestly?” Having been persuaded he could not, Chandra signed as a witness and hoped for the best.

George’s signature is scrawled on the bottom of each of the loan’s densely packed pages, as well as those of his initial loan application. But when Legal Aid’s Sarah Bolling reads the application details back to him, he nearly leaps out of his recliner with shock. It lists his income as $4,725 a month. He collects $300 a month from Social Security and $1,400 a month from his Postal Service pension. Nothing in the loan file documents the inflated income claim–a practice known as “no doc” and “low doc” lending that has displaced the once-standard step of proving income to an underwriter.

The application also says George had nearly $8,000 in the bank at the time. “No way!” he gasps. “Ain’t never been that kind of money in there.” Again, nothing in the file documents the claim, and nothing about it raised flags for IndyMac’s underwriters. Nor did it matter to the underwriters that the application appraised the house at more than $135,000. “The tax assessor thinks it’s worth $73,000, and that’s on the public record,” says Bolling. “I mean, it might only be worth $70,000 at this point.”

Even without these whoppers, it should have been clear to the bank’s underwriters that George never stood to gain a thing from the loan–other than a larger, more dangerous debt burden. All but $361.74 of the $125,000 that didn’t go to pay off NovaStar went to IndyMac’s fees and closing costs. He nominally lowered his interest rate for a few years, but the loan value had ballooned so high–to more than double the original 2003 loan–that the interest rate was irrelevant. Whatever choices George made, the most dubious decision was IndyMac’s willingness to make such a plainly bad loan.

“He was in foreclosure the day he signed the papers,” says Legal Aid’s Bill Brennan. Brennan has been fighting predatory lending in Atlanta for three decades, and to his eye the current crisis has less to do with exploding interest rates than the fact that banks, eager to profit from the surging securities market, simply approved any loan that came in the door. “They ran out of legitimately eligible borrowers a long time ago,” he says.

The rapidity with which borrowers have fallen into foreclosure is telling. Georgia law requires lenders to publish foreclosure filings once a month, so Brennan’s research team culled through Fulton County’s 1,600 listings for last November. Three-quarters of the foreclosures were for loans made since 2005, half were made in 2006 and one in ten had been made that same year. That sort of turnover used to be remarkable. “Even a few years ago, it was unusual to see a foreclosure that occurred in less than two or three years,” Georgia Tech researcher Dan Immergluck told the Georgia business newsletter Daily Report. He added that he has not seen foreclosures turn over that fast in the fifteen years he’s been following the local market.

It’s also clear that banks and brokers targeted African-American neighborhoods when mining for these loans. The Dekalb County community development office likes to show two maps to illustrate the point. One map shows Atlanta neighborhoods with the densest populations of people of color who could benefit from CRA lending. They are clumped together in a butterfly, centered on the city’s south side. A nearly identical butterfly appears on the second map, which shows neighborhoods that had a foreclosure rate over 20 percent between the first quarters of 2000 and 2005.

“It used to be that you couldn’t get credit, but now I tell people to just stay away from it,” Brennan says. “You don’t want it. It’s toxic.”

After taking the IndyMac loan, George Mitchell kept the seriousness of his financial troubles to himself until last summer, when the kids were all home for the Fourth of July. He told them then that the gas company was about to shut off his service. “We found out when everything was behind and the hounds was at the door,” Chandra says.

He’d been paying the mortgage intermittently, but by the time he told his children about the problems he was at least two months behind. He’d also fallen even further behind on his already substantial credit card debt. The gas card had racked up. The water and light bills were past due as well.

“Once I paid the mortgage, there wasn’t enough to cover–” George starts to explain, but Chandra cuts him off. “Actually, there was.” She shares her mother’s discipline, and she chides George for not adapting to the situation his IndyMac loan put him in. “Holly Golightly here wanted to go out and do other things. But you don’t have money to do extra things now.”

Chandra’s frustration is understandable, because the crisis has affected more than just George’s finances. All of the kids are chipping in to cover the sprawling costs. Gwen pays the water bill. Chandra and her husband pick up the phone bill and keep everybody fed by cooking enough for both households–that way George can focus on his mortgage payments and credit card debt. “Sometimes it’s hard,” Chandra says, “but this is family. And you have to do what you have to do for family.”

Economists say this dynamic of wealth and resources flowing backward–from kids to parents–rather than forward is typical in black families, and an important part of what separates blacks and whites who, by other measures, are nominally of the same class. Researchers are hotly debating the details of what is expected to be a historically large intergenerational transfer of wealth in America over the coming decades. But one fact is clear: blacks won’t participate in it. In 2004, one in four whites reported having received an inheritance; fewer than one in ten blacks said the same, and the amount they got was, on average, half that of whites.

The foreclosure crisis makes the picture look bleaker still. Estimates vary on the amount of wealth lost, but they are all in the hundreds of billions of dollars. A United for a Fair Economy estimate in January put the wealth loss for people of color at between $164 billion and $213 billion, roughly half the nation’s overall loss.

State Senator Vincent Fort pads around the Georgia Capitol with the wan look of a man who knows where the bodies are buried. Fort, who represents the tract of Atlanta that’s been hardest hit by foreclosures, saw the crisis coming. He wrote and managed to pass a law that would have averted the whole mess–if financial industry lobbyists hadn’t flooded Georgia and got it repealed a year later. Now he’s relegated to the role of gadfly, resubmitting the prescient bill each session and getting nowhere. Sitting in his office after the close of this winter’s session, he rocks back and laughs at it all: “It’s like getting pickpocketed at eighty miles an hour.”

Fort’s bill passed in 2001, with the strong-arm help of Democratic Governor Roy Barnes [see Bobbi Murray, “Hunting the Predators,” July 15, 2002]. The law was meant to strengthen a 1994 Congressional measure, the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act, which polices high-interest loans but has proven ineffective because its trigger is set too high. The Georgia law lowered the interest ceiling at which tougher rules kick in. And among other things, it forced lenders to demonstrate a “tangible net benefit” to the borrower for any refinancing of a home loan less than five years old.

The law was based on a 1999 North Carolina bill. Together, the two measures were the tip of what looked to be a building wave of state-level efforts to head off subprime lending–and the financial industry went all out to stop them. According to the Wall Street Journal, between 2002 and 2006 industry lobbyists poured tens of millions of dollars into state-level campaigns to prevent or undo subprime lending regulations.

Ameriquest, the now-defunct mortgage company that was one of the nation’s largest subprime lenders, led the fight in Georgia. It handed out tens of thousands in political donations, according to the Journal, and threatened to stop doing business in the state unless Senator Fort’s law was repealed. Standard & Poor chimed in, announcing that it wouldn’t offer ratings for any mortgage securities with Georgia subprime loans in them, citing liability concerns.

“What we had in 2002 and 2003 was the most powerful companies in the world focused on Georgia,” Fort says with a sigh. He relates how he was deluged from the moment he announced plans to write the bill, after hearing a presentation on subprime lending at a Department of Housing and Urban Development conference. He stood up and announced that he planned to address the problem in Georgia, and an industry lobbyist immediately approached him to offer “help.” “I guess I learned a lesson: don’t tell your enemy what you’re going to do.”

Within months of Standard & Poor’s announcement, the Georgia Legislature repealed Fort’s law and replaced it with one that removed the requirement that lenders show a tangible net benefit for refinance loans. The same process unfolded in New Jersey, where the Legislature passed a tough law in 2003. Lobbyists, led by Ameriquest, descended on the state. Standard & Poor repeated its refusal to rate securities with subprimes from New Jersey. And in 2004 the Legislature unanimously replaced the tough law with one that deleted the tangible-net-benefit rule.

“It’s useless,” Brennan says of the new Georgia law. “They would not have come back to Georgia if the 2001 bill had stayed in place. That was the purpose of the bill, to drive the predatory lenders out of the state.” Indeed, North Carolina, where the net-benefit law held up, is today one of the states least impacted by the foreclosure crisis.

As Washington gears up for its belated response, industry lobbyists are once again warning against regulating lenders’ behavior. During his April 16 House testimony, Mortgage Bankers Association’s David Kittle described at length his members’ voluntary efforts to work with borrowers to prevent foreclosure. “The key is to find solutions that help borrowers but do not violate the agreements with investors who now own the securities containing these loans,” he cautioned.

The Bush Administration has joined the industry in opposing any measure that would force lenders to restructure loans or write-down their values. Bipartisan bills in the House and the Senate would do just that by empowering bankruptcy judges to force loan modifications for borrowers facing foreclosure on mortgages larger than the market value of their homes. Neither bill has gained traction.

Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats and the Administration have agreed on using the Federal Housing Administration to spur voluntary loan restructuring. They disagree mightily on how far to go, however.

An Administration plan announced in early April would let select subprime borrowers who are behind on their payments refinance into an FHA-insured loan; for loans larger than a house is worth, lenders would have to write the principal down. The Administration predicts the plan will help 100,000 homeowners. In June the Senate reached a compromise for a competing Congressional plan–a version of which passed the House in May–that would offer the same deal but with larger write-downs and would be available to far more borrowers, an estimated 400,000. The White House threatened to veto it, citing its cost and added taxpayer liability.

The Senate deal had enough support to override a presidential veto. But more than 2 million loans were at least sixty days delinquent in April, according to data from the Hope Now program, set up by the banking industry to facilitate voluntary workouts of troubled loans. Which means Washington will ultimately have to revisit the question of how to save people’s homes, not to mention how to prevent new predation once this crisis passes.

Notably, Barack Obama has backed housing advocates’ primary demand: allow bankruptcy courts to modify loans. He’s also supporting a key part of the Senate plan, which would create a fund for local governments to buy foreclosed properties and thereby reverse the building glut of vacant, unsold housing. John McCain, meanwhile, has shifted his stance, initially echoing industry rhetoric about not aiding “irresponsible” borrowers, then unveiling a plan he said would help about 200,000 borrowers.

The Senate’s homebuying fund is key because, as the slow machinery of Washington grinds along, neighborhoods like Westwood are falling further and further into decay. The ugly reality is that banks can foreclose on properties, but they can’t resell them. With thousands of already overvalued homes up for sale, the market is flooded, further driving down property values. Banks, however, are hostage to the securities on which they gambled and cannot price the foreclosed homes at their actual value.

So the houses sit there, many with overgrown lawns, busted windows and piling trash. Squatters and drug dealers break in; scavengers mine them for copper and other valuable metals. Municipal tax bases drop, even as the vacant properties spawn crime and fires, which demand greater public service costs. “It’s a major drain on the community and its resources,” says Senator Fort.

The Atlanta Legal Aid Society is trying to slow the decay one house at a time. For senior borrowers like George Mitchell, Brennan’s team is betting on a strategy using a reverse mortgage. Under these complex deals, a lender gives an older borrower a loan for an agreed-upon percentage of the house’s appraised value–usually about 60 percent. The borrower never has to pay that loan, but it accrues interest until the borrower dies. At that point, whoever inherits the estate has twelve months to either pay the principal plus interest or turn the house over to the lender.

Legal Aid secures a reverse mortgage, then offers the money from it to the foreclosing bank as a settlement–along with a threatening letter outlining the ways they believe the borrower was preyed upon. The message is clear: take this much and call it even or deal with a messy lawsuit. It’s no universal solution, but as of January Brennan and Bolling had used it to save a couple dozen homes.

The Mitchells are hoping to join the list, but it’ll mean a seemingly endless struggle to stay ahead of foreclosure. The eldest daughter, Patricia Taylor, is approaching retirement, when she had planned to move back to Atlanta from Birmingham and take over the Westwood home. The family figures if it can get George a reverse mortgage and make a deal with IndyMac, Patricia can in turn get her own reverse mortgage to pay off George’s. That’ll be a victory, of course, but one born from a sobering reality: forty years after George and Lillian Mitchell achieved the hallmark of American socioeconomic stability, their children embark upon a decades-long hustle to rescue what should have been capital-building equity from the grasp of paralyzing debt.

Kai Wright
June 26, 2008            |         This article appeared in the July 14, 2008 edition of The Nation.

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When it comes to schools and their suspension policies, race still matters.

In a Washington Post article, Black students in the Washington, DC area are five times more likely to be suspended than Whites or Latino students for various minor infractions.

This phenomenon does not occur only in Washington, DC. From as far away to  Southern Maryland to the subdivisions of Fairfax, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, this is a national problem which has had, and will continue to have devastating consequences not only for Black students and their communities, but for all Americans.


In Washington area, African American students suspended and expelled two to five times as often as whites

By  Donna St. George, Published: December 28In

Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem.An analysis by The Washington Post shows the phenomenon both in the suburbs and in the city, from the far reaches of Southern Maryland to the subdivisions of Fairfax, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Last year, for example, one in seven black students in St. Mary’s County were suspended from school, compared with one in 20 white students. In Alexandria, black students were nearly six times as likely to be suspended as their white peers.

( Column | Black boys: We see them differently )

In Fairfax, where the suicide in January of a white high school football player who had been suspended brought an outcry for change, African American students were four times as likely that year to be suspended as white students, and Hispanic students were twice as likely.

The problems extend beyond the Washington area to school districts across the country and are among a host of concerns about school discipline that sparked a joint effort by the U.S. Justice and Education departments in July to look into reforms.

Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in suspensions. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.

In the Washington region, many school leaders said they are increasingly focused on the problem and grappling with ways to close the gap.

In Montgomery, Deputy Superintendent Frieda K. Lacey said the district has trained principals and administrators in new approaches, which include involving a team of administrators in suspension decisions.

Still, she said, much remains to be done. Nearly 6 percent of black students were suspended or expelled from school last year, compared with 1.2 percent of white students. The gap remains even as suspensions are down since 2006 across all racial groups.

She pointed to one unsettling statistic: 71 percent of suspensions for insubordination, a relatively rare offense in the county, were handed out to black students. African Americans make up 21 percent of students in Montgomery’s schools. The goal is to dig deeper into the data, offer more professional development and share best practices, she said. “We don’t try to minimize the data,” Lacey said. “We just try to talk about it the way it exists.”

The Post’s analysis found that in the Washington suburbs alone, more than 35,000 students were suspended or expelled from school at some point last school year — more than half of them black students.

In interviews, many school officials noted successes in reducing overall suspensions during the past several years and cited cultural-sensitivity training and positive-behavior initiatives that are more proactive about discipline.

But along with the issue of disparities in many school systems is increasing concern about the subjective nature of many offenses.

In Maryland and Virginia, as in many other places, one of the most common causes of student suspensions are what many call “soft” — or discretionary — infractions: disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language.

” Are suspensions effective or should schools seek alternatives? “

Fairfax Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko said the county recently began probing disparities to determine which schools and offenses produce the greatest gaps. Some offenses, he said, allow educators significant latitude in how they respond.

Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-tolerance culture. As suspensions ticked up, racial disparities widened between blacks and whites — and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics and whites.

The most recent national figures, from 2006, show that 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared with 15 percent of their black classmates, 7 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of Asians.

“We associate getting kicked out of school with something really really bad, but there has been a sea change in recent years in what kids get suspended for and how often we use suspension,” said researcher Daniel J. Losen, who recently authored a report on suspension and disparities for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

In Prince George’s, where a majority of students are black, Karyn Lynch, chief of student services, says that for two years, the district has been working to reduce suspensions overall: scrutinizing data, using suspension alternatives and, recently, expanding a positive-behavior initiative to all middle schools.

Lynch says she thinks that disparities will fall away as the system continues to make progress on suspensions. As for why the race gap exists, “I think some of it is cultural sensitivity, believe it or not,” she said.

For parents and students, the disparities are troubling.

Lea Collins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s, said her eldest son was first suspended a decade ago for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray. Last month, her youngest son, now 18, was suspended for five days after a tussle that she said he did not start.

“I really do think it’s harder for black kids,” she said. “If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement.”

In Fairfax — with a suspension rate among whites of 1.5 percent and a suspension rate among blacks of 7 percent last year — “you have a lot of minority families that don’t trust the system, and this is one of the reasons why,” said Ralph Cooper, past chairman of the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, which makes recommendations to the county’s School Board.

The stakes are high for those who get booted out of school.

Out-of-school suspensions mean lost classroom time and, for some, disconnection from school. A recent landmark studyof nearly a million Texas children showed that suspension increased the likelihood of repeating a grade that year and landing in the juvenile-justice system the next year. It also was linked to dropping out.

In that research, African American students were more likely to be suspended for discretionary offenses and less likely than whites to be suspended for severe violations, such as selling drugs or bringing a gun to school.

“If they are not involved with the more-serious offenses as often as whites are, what’s going on with those discretionary offenses?” said study co-author Michael Thompson, of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Experts say disparities arise from an array of issues.

They may be driven by unconscious bias or unequal access to teachers who do better engaging students in learning and managing behavior problems when they occur. The leaders of a school system — or of an individual school — strongly influence how often suspensions are meted out.

Mike Durso, a principal for 32 years in Montgomery, Arlington and the District who is now on Montgomery’s Board of Education, said every school has some teachers who make more discipline referrals than others. “I really think it goes back to the training and expertise of teachers and the approach of the school administration,” he said.

Disparities are common in both suburban and urban districts, although urban schools tend to use suspension more, experts say.

“I think people assume it has to be this way,” said Angela Ciolfi of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which in November published a study probing Virginia’s suspensions. But, she contends, “when schools pay attention to who gets in trouble and why, they find they are able to reduce misbehavior overall and also address the discipline gap.”

An increasing number of studies have looked into whether poverty, family background or other characteristics explain racial disparities, said researcher Russell Skiba of Indiana University.

“It is not just a matter of kids coming from poverty,” Skiba said. “Poor kids do get suspended more. But that does not explain why poor black kids get suspended more than poor white kids and why affluent black kids get suspended more than affluent white kids.”

In the Washington region, Anne Arundel County’s racial disparities led the county’s branch of the NAACP to lodge a complaint with federal officials in 2004. Over the years, school leaders made progress on academic disparities, but with discipline, “we haven’t seen any change or any progress,” said Jacqueline Boone Allsup of the NAACP, which filed another complaint this year.

Next month, the district will begin a formal audit to understand more about how and why suspensions occur and to identify patterns. One focus, said Carlesa Finney, the school district’s director of equity assurance and human relations, is “soft” offenses with more subjective criteria.

“One child from one group may get referred for something that another child from another group doing the very same thing doesn’t get referred for,” Finney said, adding that the school system will move aggressively to tackle the problem.

Database editor Dan Keating and staff writer David S. Fallis contributed to this report.

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Next year, during the month of February, 2012, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will be one of the few museums in the United States permitted to display the original documents of the Emancipation Proclamation. The exhibit, entitled Discovering the Civil War, was created by the National Archives and Records Administration and the Foundation for the National Archives. Admission to this exhibit also includes a special presentation of artifacts from the Nau Civil War Collection and pieces from the USS Westfield, on loan from the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command. The present on-going Civil War exhibit at the HMNS will continue until April 29, 2012.

The original Emancipation Proclamation will go on display at the HMNS from February 16 through 21. Visitors to this most wonderful exhibition will be able to see this magnificent document at the Museum.

The Proclamation text consists of five pages, originally tied together with red ribbons which were attached to the signature page by a wafered impression of the Great Seal of the United States. Though some parts have worn off, most of the ribbon remains, as well as parts of the seal.

This profound document, in the care of the National Archives of the United States (National Archives and Record Administration), was signed by President Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation, declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Iconic black and white photograph of Lincoln showing his head and shoulders.
Abraham Lincoln at age 54, 1863
16th President of the United States
In office March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865

The news of the signing was spread by newspapers, and the new technological communication format of the time—the telegraph.

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln by Francis Bicknell Carpenter.

Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by this federal department forever. The Emancipation Proclamation is one such document.

Reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Zoom)

The Proclamation was limited in the powers it conveyed, applying only to the states that had seceded from the Union and allowing slavery to continue in the loyal border states. The Proclamation also exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control.

Areas covered by the Emancipation Proclamation are in red. Slave holding areas not covered are in blue.

Another fact—the freedom the Proclamation promised depended upon Union military victory. The proclamation also announced the acceptance of Black men into the Union Army and Navy. When the Civil War ended, almost 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors had served the Union in uniform.

In 2011, years after the end of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation symbolizes freedom and the end of slavery in the United States.


A circa 1870 photograph of two children who were likely recently emancipated.

Henry Louis Stephens, untitled watercolor (c. 1863) of a man reading a newspaper with headline “Presidential Proclamation / Slavery”.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is proud to display this important document during Black History Month.


February 16-20:  9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

February 21:        9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended.

In addition to the ongoing Civil War exhibit and the up-coming Emancipation Proclamation exhibit, there will also be behind-the-scene tours, distinguished lecture series and a day excursion to the Levi Jordan Plantation Archaeology site. The 2,222-acre plantation, which operated in the 1850s in Texas, produced sugar cane and cotton from the hands of enslaved Black women, men and children, with more than 100 enslaved laborers. Today scholars refer to the site as an “African-American Pompeii” with over 600,000 artifacts excavated telling the story of life leading up to the Civil War and through the Reconstruction era, when a vibrant and self-reliant community of Black Americans occupied the plantation after Emancipation.

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IN REMEMBRANCE: 12-25-2011


Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

Cesária Évora, shown in 2008, appeared barefoot in solidarity with poor women.


Published: December 18, 2011

Cesária Évora, who brought the music of the tiny Cape Verde islands off Senegal to a worldwide audience, died on Saturday in Mindelo, on São Vicente, her native island in Cape Verde. She was 70.

Her death was announced by her managers. She had a stroke in 2008 and a heart attack in 2010. After another stroke this year, she announced her retirement.

Ms. Évora’s music was in a style called morna, which is sung in taverns on the Cape Verde islands: slow, pensive ballads with an underlying lilt, suffused with sodade, the Cape Verdean creole term for a nostalgic longing that pervades music across Portugal (where the word is saudade) and its former empire.

Ms. Évora sang about love, sorrow and history, including slavery, in a husky, dignified, unhurried contralto that brought warmth and gravity to songs by Cape Verde’s leading poets. She also sang in her country’s more upbeat styles, coladeira and funaná, but her serenely sorrowful mornas were her legacy.

She always performed barefoot, a gesture of solidarity with poor women. A concert review in The New York Times described her as “a Yoda of melancholy” onstage.

Ms. Évora was born in 1941, grew up in a poor family and was reared in an orphanage after her father died when she was 7. She began performing as a teenager at sailors’ taverns and on the ships that stopped at the harbor in Mindelo. Her local reputation spread; she performed on Cape Verdean radio, and two of her broadcast concerts were released as albums in Europe in the 1960s. Ms. Évora abandoned music in the 1970s, unable to make a living. But in 1985 she re-emerged on an anthology of Cape Verdean singers recorded in Lisbon.

In 1988 a Cape Verdean producer based in France, José da Silva, brought Ms. Évora to Paris to make an album. Her studio debut was “La Diva aux Pieds Nus” (“The Barefoot Diva”), which fused morna and coladeira with Caribbean, Brazilian and European pop. Ms. Évora drew a following among Cape Verdean expatriates in Europe, but it was not until she returned to unembellished morna with her third album, “Mar Azúl” (“Blue Ocean”) — a 1991 collection recorded with acoustic instruments — that her music began to reach a broader audience.

French listeners and radio stations embraced her music’s kinship to cabaret chansons. She performed at theaters and festivals to growing audiences. Reports of her fondness for cigarettes and Cognac burnished her reputation; a few years later, she would give up drinking but not smoking.

Her 1992 album, “Miss Perfumado,” sold an impressive 300,000 copies in France alone. Concerts at large theaters in Lisbon and Paris were sold out, and her touring circuit expanded across Europe and into the Americas.

Her 1995 album, “Cesária,” was released internationally and brought Ms. Évora her first Grammy nomination. Her album “Cabo Verde” won four Kora awards, a pan-African prize, and was also nominated for a Grammy, as was “Miss Perfumado,” belatedly released in the United States in 1998. In 2003 Ms. Évora’s “Voz d’Amor” won the Grammy Award for best contemporary world music album.

Ms. Évora toured the world through the 1990s and 2000s, expanding her repertory with Cuban and Brazilian songs on “Café Atlántico” in 1999, and collaborating with Bonnie Raitt, Caetano Veloso and the Cuban musicians Chucho Valdés and the Orquesta Aragón on her 2001 album “São Vicente di Longe.” Her final studio album, “Nha Sentimento” in 2009, introduced tinges of Arabic pop to her music from the Egyptian composer and arranger Fathy Salama.

With Ms. Évora’s prominence, a younger generation of Cape Verdean musicians embraced morna and performed it internationally. Ms. Évora was a direct mentor to Fantcha, who toured the United States with her in the late 1980s, and an indelible influence on Lura, Mayra Andrade and Sara Tavares.

When Ms. Évora announced her retirement this year, she told the French newspaper Le Monde: “I have no strength, no energy. I’m sorry, but now I must rest.”

She is survived by her children, Eduardo and Fernanda, and two grandchildren. The government in Cape Verde declared two days of national mourning in her honor.


It is with great sorrow to learn of the passing of Ms. Cesaria Evora. She was a giant among singers from Cape Verde.

For more on Cape Verde and its celebrated singers, click here. For more on the music and dance genre known as morna, click  here.

Ms. Evora was unknown to many in her native Cape Verde, until at the age of 45 she released her her first album in 1988, La Diva Aux Pieds Nus, introducing the world to the beautiful music and dance of Cape Verde.

Diva Aux Pieds Nus by Cesaria Evora (Audio CD – Oct 5, 2004)

She was a unique and talented lady.

May she rest in peace.

Cesaria Evora




Published: December 23, 2011

James Ramseur, one of four teenagers who was shot by Bernhard H. Goetz, the so-called subway vigilante, in one of the most highly charged and widely publicized criminal cases of the 1980s, died Thursday in the Bronx. He was 45.

NYS Department of Corrections

James Ramseur

Mr. Ramseur’s body was found in a Boston Road motel room, the police said, without giving a cause. His death was being investigated as a drug overdose and a possible suicide, The New York Post reported.

It occurred on the 27th anniversary of the day he was shot by Mr. Goetz on a Lexington Avenue train near Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan.

The shooting engendered a furious public discourse over rampant crime in the subway, gun control, a citizen’s right to defend himself and race. Mr. Goetz, a 37-year-old electrical engineer at the time, is white. The four young men he shot were black.

Mr. Ramseur, then 18, and three friends admitted to approaching Mr. Goetz and asking him for the time and for a cigarette; one of them then asked for $5. Mr. Goetz, who had been mugged twice before, told the police that he thought he was going to be robbed. He shot five times with an unregistered handgun, hitting each of the young men.

One bullet severed the spine of Darrel Cabey, who was paralyzed and suffered brain damage. The others — Troy Canty, Barry Allen and Mr. Ramseur, who was hit in the chest — recovered from their wounds.

In 1987, Mr. Goetz was acquitted of attempted murder charges but found guilty of illegal weapons possession. He served eight and a half months in jail.

Mr. Ramseur testified at the trial, but his angry outbursts provoked the judge to disallow his testimony and order him removed from the courtroom. He was twice cited for contempt.

Mr. Ramseur was already incarcerated at the time of the trial, having been convicted of raping, sodomizing and robbing a young pregnant woman in 1986. He was conditionally released in 2002, but he returned to prison for a parole violation in 2005. He finished his sentence in July 2010.

Mr. Ramseur was born on Aug. 15, 1966, and was living in the South Bronx when he was shot. According to New York State Department of Corrections records, his parents, James and Bessie, moved to New York City from North Carolina, but it was unclear where young James or his four brothers and sisters were born.

The New York Police Department said that at least one sister, Brenda Ramseur, survives him. Information about other survivors was not available.





Published: December 19, 2011

Dan Frazer, a character actor whose Hell’s Kitchen upbringing prepared him for a long run of roles as a blue-collar type or a cop, most notably as the beleaguered supervising officer Capt. Frank McNeil on “Kojak,” died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 90.


Dan Frazer

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Susanna Frazer.

Mr. Frazer was steadily employed on television from the 1950s into the ’90s, in both dramas and sitcoms, including “The Phil Silvers Show,” “Car 54, Where Are You?,” “Route 66,” “The Untouchables,” “The F.B.I.,” “Barney Miller” and “Law & Order.”

He had roles in a half-dozen films, including “Lilies of the Field,” the 1963 drama for which Sidney Poitier won an Academy Award. Mr. Frazer played an itinerant priest alongside Mr. Poitier’s construction worker, who happens upon a farm run by nuns.

Mr. Frazer was also in two of Woody Allen’s early comedies. In “Take the Money and Run” (1969), he played Mr. Allen’s thieving character’s psychiatrist. In “Bananas” (1971), he was a priest again, peddling New Testament cigarettes in a send-up of a TV commercial. “New Testament cigarettes — I smoke ’em,” Mr. Frazer’s priest says, exhaling smoke and sticking a thumb skyward. “He smokes ’em.”

“Kojak,” starring Telly Savalas in the title role as Lt. Theo Kojak and broadcast from 1973 to 1978, gave Mr. Frazer his most enduring role. Mr. Frazer’s Capt. Frank McNeil often wore the fretful look of a strait-laced boss who may not always know what the unorthodox Kojak is up to but who gives him his head, knowing that Kojak, like him, is an honest cop.

Daniel Thomas Frazer was born in the West Side neighborhood in Manhattan that used to be called Hell’s Kitchen on Nov. 20, 1921, the youngest of 10 children of Daniel and Catherine Frazer. His father was a bricklayer and ironworker who helped build the Empire State Building.

Mr. Frazer traced his interest in acting to theater productions in which he performed at a community center run by a Roman Catholic church in his neighborhood, a rough place known for bars and daily shape-ups down at the docks, where longshoremen got their jobs. During World War II, he served in an Army company entertaining troops.

He and his wife, the former Lillian Lee, met in the neighborhood theater. They married in 1943. She died in 1999. In addition to his daughter, Mr. Frazer is survived by his sisters, Teresa Frost and Catherine Whalen, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Frazer lived in the Los Angeles area during the 1960s and ’70s, but after “Kojak” he returned to New York and re-established his family in his old neighborhood, which had become known as Clinton. He had a regular role in the soap opera “As the World Turns,” had recurring roles in all three “Law & Order” series and performed in dinner theater companies.

In the old neighborhood, where he was a regular at local restaurants, shops, churches and community centers, he was known in later years as the Mayor of 43rd Street.





Published: December 20, 2011

Ralph MacDonald, a Grammy Award-winning percussionist and composer whose understated Afro-Caribbean rhythms were known as “the ghost” behind the hit records of a multitude of 1970s and ’80s pop stars and who was a co-writer on the hit songs “Where Is the Love?” and “Just the Two of Us,” died on Sunday in Stamford, Conn. He was 67.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Ralph MacDonald at home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1977.

The cause was lung cancer, his family said.

Mr. MacDonald’s touch on the conga drums and dozens of other percussion instruments was ubiquitous for many years in pop music. It supplied the intimate undertow of Bette Midler’s “Do You Want to Dance?” (1972), the drive behind David Bowie’s “Young Americans” (1975) and the Caribbean lilt in Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” (1977).

With a reputation in the industry as “the ghost behind the million-selling albums,” as The New York Times recounted in 1977, he made similarly defining contributions to records by Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Phoebe Snow, Rod Stewart, George Benson, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Luther Vandross and Amy Winehouse. “My approach is to work with melody by simply enhancing it,” he told The Times. Mr. Simon, with whom he made six albums, “sings such pretty songs,” he said, that “it’s a challenge to enhance that without overdoing it.”

Mr. MacDonald began learning his craft at an early age. His father and five uncles, immigrants from Trinidad, all played professionally in calypso bands. It was one of his uncles, Urias Fritz, who taught him to play with his fingers, not his whole hand, and showed him where to hit the drum. “He didn’t just hit the top of the drum,” Mr. MacDonald said in an interview. “He’d hit it all over, for all types of sounds.”

Mr. MacDonald was 17 when Harry Belafonte hired him for his touring orchestra. He worked with Mr. Belafonte for 10 years, and at some point informed him that despite his many gold records and despite being celebrated as the King of Calypso, Mr. Belafonte really didn’t know what calypso was.

Mr. Belafonte apparently took the criticism with magnanimity. According to Mr. MacDonald’s Web site, Mr. Belafonte invited the young man to write him a song. Mr. MacDonald wrote many, most of which ended up on Mr. Belafonte’s 1966 album “Calypso Carnival.”

After leaving Mr. Belafonte in the early ’70s, Mr. MacDonald and two partners, William Salter and William Eaton, began composing full time. One of their first songs, “Where Is the Love?,” was recorded in 1972 by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway and went on to sell several million copies and win two Grammy Awards. He and his partners wrote many more successful songs, including “Just the Two of Us,” a huge hit for Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr. in 1981.

Ralph Anthony MacDonald was born in Harlem on March 15, 1944, the eighth of Patrick and Evelyn MacDonald’s eight children. His father was a calypso star known professionally as Macbeth the Great. In interviews, Mr. MacDonald said he had grown up almost literally with a set of drums in his hands and had been extremely lucky in his teachers: his father, his uncle and Mr. Belafonte.

He is survived by his wife, Grace; their children Nefra-Ann and Atiba; two children, Anthony and Jovonni, from a previous marriage; a sister, Sylvia Pristell; and three grandchildren.

Mr. MacDonald’s versatility made him a sought-after session player on records by jazz and jazz-soul fusion artists like Bobbi Humphrey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Herbie Mann, David Sanborn, Ron Carter, Tom Scott, Maynard Ferguson and Mr. Washington, for whom he and his partners wrote the 1975 hit “Mr. Magic.”

He and his partners also wrote “Calypso Breakdown” for the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever,” which earned Mr. MacDonald two Grammys of his own in 1978 as a performer and a producer.

In the interview with The Times, Mr. MacDonald said he never regretted being a relative unknown, despite his renown among his peers. “I don’t want to be a superstar,” he said. “Above all, I’m a musician first.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 22, 2011

Because of an editing error, an obituary on Wednesday about the percussionist and songwriter Ralph MacDonald referred incorrectly to two of his survivors. Atiba is his son and Jovonni is his daughter — not the reverse. The obituary also misstated part of the title of a song performed and co-written by Mr. MacDonald that was on the soundtrack of the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” It is “Calypso Breakdown,” not “Calypso Fever.”




Korean Central News Agency, via European Pressphoto Agency

Kim Jong-il, the son of North Korea’s founder, visiting a farm in 2003. An unknowable figure, even his exact birth date was unclear. More Photos »


Published: December 18, 2011

Called the “Dear Leader” by his people, Kim Jong-il presided with an iron hand over a country he kept on the edge of starvation and collapse, fostering perhaps the last personality cult in the Communist world even as he banished citizens deemed disloyal to gulags or sent assassins after defectors.


He came to power after the death in 1994 of his father, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder. His inheritance was an impoverished country with an uncertain place in a post-cold-war era. He played his one card, his nuclear weapons program, brilliantly, first defying efforts by the administration of George W. Bush to push his country over the brink, then exploiting America’s distraction with the war in Iraq to harvest enough nuclear fuel from his main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to produce the fuel for six to eight weapons.

Throughout, he remained an unknowable figure. Everything about him was guesswork, from the exact date and place of his birth to the mythologized events of his rise in a country formed by the hasty division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II.

North Koreans heard about him only as their “peerless leader” and “the great successor to the revolutionary cause.” His portrait hangs beside that of his father, Kim Il-sung, in every North Korean household and building. Towers, banners and even rock faces across the country bear slogans praising him.

Mr. Kim was a source of fascination inside the Central Intelligence Agency, which interviewed his mistresses, tried to track his whereabouts and psychoanalyzed his motives. And he was an object of parody in American culture.

Short and round, he wore elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses and a bouffant hairdo — a Hollywood stereotype of the wacky post-cold-war dictator. Mr. Kim himself was fascinated by film. He orchestrated the kidnapping of an actress and a director, both of them South Koreans, in an effort to build a domestic movie industry. He was said to keep a personal library of 20,000 foreign films, including the complete James Bond series, his favorite. But he rarely saw the outside world, save from the windows of his luxury train, which occasionally took him to China.

He was derided and denounced. President George W. Bush called him a “pygmy” and included his country in the “axis of evil.” Children’s books in South Korea depicted him as a red devil with horns and fangs. Yet those who met him were surprised by his serious demeanor and his knowledge of events beyond the hermit kingdom he controlled.

“He was a very outspoken person,” said Roh Moo-hyun, who as South Korea’s president met Mr. Kim in Pyongyang in 2007. “He was the most flexible man in North Korea.”

Wendy Sherman, now the No. 3 official in the State Department, who served as counselor to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and accompanied her to North Korea, said in 2008: “He was smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident, sort of the master-director of all he surveyed.”

Ms. Albright met Mr. Kim in October 2000 in what turned out to be a futile effort to strike a deal with North Korea over limiting its missile program before President Bill Clinton left office.

“There was no denying the dictatorial state that he ruled,” Ms. Sherman said. “There was no denying the freedoms that didn’t exist. But at the time, there were a lot of questions in the U.S. about whether he was really in control, and we left with no doubt that he was.”

When Ms. Albright and Ms. Sherman sat down to talk through a 14-point list of concerns about North Korea’s missile program, “he didn’t know the answers to every question, but he knew a lot more than most leaders would — and he was a conceptual thinker,” Ms. Sherman added.

A Deal With Washington

President Bush said during his first term in office that he would never tolerate a nuclear North Korea, but as his presidency wound down, many of his aides believed he did exactly that.

It was not until the spring of 2007 that Mr. Bush was told by the Israelis that North Korea was helping Syria build a nuclear reactor; before the Syrians or the North Koreans were confronted with that evidence, Israel sent bombers on a secret mission to destroy the Syrian plant. The North Koreans have never explained their role.

By the time Mr. Bush left office, the administration had moved from four years of confrontation with the North to three years of halting negotiations. Led by Christopher R. Hill, a veteran American diplomat, the negotiations resulted in a deal that hawks hated: the United States agreed to supply North Korea with large amounts of fuel oil in return for the dismantlement of the aging Yongbyon plant, described by inspectors as a radioactive accident waiting to happen.

Choe Sang-hun contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 20, 2011

An obituary in some editions on Monday about the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il reversed, in some copies, the second and third columns of type. The correct version can be found at The obituary also referred incompletely to comments by Hwang Jang-yop, a former aide to the Kim regime, who was quoted describing Mr. Kim’s rise to power. The comment was from a 2006 memoir of Mr. Kim; it was not a current observation. (Mr. Hwang died in 2010.)


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Amazing planets of KIC 05807616

S. Charpinet / Univ. of Toulouse

Bulletin at a Glance

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Kepler Finds “Deep-Fried” Planets

December 23, 2011                                                                | The incredibly successful Kepler spacecraft is discovering alien solar systems at a dizzying pace. But it’s also found a system where two planets have apparently survived a journey inside their host star, during its swollen red-giant phase. > read more

Kepler Team Confirms Two Hot Earths

December 20, 2011                                                                | Of the Kepler mission’s 207 Earth-size candidate planets, two have just been officially confirmed as real. > read more

Young Stars Aren’t So Young

December 19, 2011                                                                | Astronomers age-dating the nearest large association of young stars have found that one subgroup may be twice as old as previously thought. > read more

NASA Taps a Rocket Scientist

December 20, 2011                                                                | With probes on the way to the Moon, Mars, and Pluto — and a multibillion-dollar space telescope gobbling up shrinking funds — astronomer and former astronaut John Grunsfeld agrees to take the helm of the space agency’s science division. > read more

Sky & Telescope February 2012

December 21, 2011                                                                | Sky & Telescope‘s February 2012 issue is now available to digital subscribers. > read more


Comet Lovejoy from the ISS

NASA / D. Burbank

Comet Lovejoy Keeps on Giving

December 22, 2011                                                                | Its place in astronomical folklore already secure, having skirted very near the Sun and survived last week. But resilient Comet Lovejoy (C/2011 W3) is still strutting its stuff — with twin tails nearly 20° long — in predawn skies for observers in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s even drawing a crowd aboard the International Space Station! > read more

Jupiter: Big, Bright, and Beautiful

September 23, 2011                                                                | The “King of Planets,” which will dominate the evening sky from late 2011 through early 2012, is a captivating sight no matter how you look at it. > read more

Tour December’s Sky by Eye and Ear!

November 26, 2011                                                                  | Venus lurks low in the western twilight after sunset. But after it gets good and dark, swing around to the east to see dazzling Jupiter, the King of Planets, amid a tower of brilliant early-winter stars that extends from the horizon to overhead. > read more

Comet Garradd in Transition

December 2, 2011                                                                | A decently bright visitor from the solar system’s fringe has lingered in the evening sky for months. As it nears perihelion, Comet Garradd (C/2009 P1) will soon be seen better in northern morning skies before dawn. > read more

Uranus and Neptune in 2011

May 31, 2011                                                                  | Uranus and Neptune are easy to find with the aid of the charts in this article. > read more

This Week’s Sky at a Glance

Evening twilight

This Week’s Sky at a Glance

December 23, 2011                                                                  | Venus and the crescent Moon highlight Christmas Week twilights. And after ringing in the New Year, step outside for Sirius at the meridian. > read more


Telescope in a store

S&T: Craig Michael Utter

Choosing Your First Telescope

December 14, 2007                                                                  | Every year millions of people buy a telescope, but few know what to look for when making their purchase. > read more

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