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A Spotlight on The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival

My article for District Fray Magazine

For the past 10 years, the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival has celebrated Palestinian culture. It has been an umbilical cord to a motherland that increasingly lives on only in the hearts and minds of its people driven into diaspora. The festival has not only been a border-defying place to hear often-unheard voices, but it has preserved traditions imperiled by extinction. It has reaffirmed a sense of identity and community for Palestinians the world over, and offered a look behind forbidding walls.

Founded in 2011 by three women – Noura Erakat, Huda Asfour, and Nadia Daar – it has showcased both local and international artists and been hosted by Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Goethe Institute, and Studio Theatre. This year, like the diasporic culture it represents, it has gone beyond the confines of a space and into the virtual realm. Though the festival ran from October 1-10, you can still stream the films, watch the lectures, and support through volunteering and donating.

The festival has highlighted a variety of creative mediums. This past summer, the organization hosted four cooks who offered free cooking and culinary history lessons for Sufra Sundays. Two female Palestinian DJs played free sets this year, and previous years have offered Dabke dancing lessons and breakdancing.

One of the highlights of the festival was Tatreez & Tea. Wafa Ghnaim, the author of the book “Tatreez & Tea” and the creative mind behind Palestinian embroidery workshops, explains the origins.

“I started Tatreez & Tea in 2015 as an oral history documentation project,” Ghnaim says. “My mother has been teaching tatreez since she came to the United States in the 1980s and, before that, she taught at refugee camps.”

Tatreez is an Arabic word meaning embroidery. Palestinians are renowned for their cross-stitching, which shines amongst the already very rich textile traditions of the Levant.

“I learned tatreez, not embroidery,” Ghnaim adds. “To say ‘tatreez’ is a true reclamation of the practice.”

In the Palestinian tradition, tatreez is passed down from mother to daughter. This is why it is such a strong thread to family and identity.

“Initially, I never saw it as a special skill because I learned tatreez when I was a young child. It was just such a natural thing and something that was always around me. My mother had dreamt of writing a book, and I wanted to make her dream a reality.”

In 2015, Ghnaim applied to a number of grants and received every one of them.

“I was a no-name coming on the scene. My mom was really the traditional artist and cultural worker. I took this as a sign that I should really do this.”

The festival’s intersectional orientation is another way in which it differs from other festivals. Bhasma Ghalayini, the editor of “Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba,” shares the process of creating this first anthology of Palestinian science fiction.

“When I was growing up in the Gaza Strip, we had very limited access to books or films,” Ghalayini says. “You had to ask people traveling abroad to bring you back those things. I was working as a translator for Comma Press, a British publishing company, which had released “Iraq + 100,” a book that posed the question of what Iraq would look like in 2103. I wanted to do a similar project with Palestinian writers. The Nakba in 1948 displaced 700,000 Palestinians. This catastrophe that all Palestinians have a connection to seemed like an appropriate date on so many levels.”

Sci-fi is a new genre for the writers featured in the collection.

“We are not used to writing about anything in an imaginative context because it feels like it is almost too much of a luxury to write about the future,” Ghalayini adds. “But if you think about it, the current situation has all the makings of a dystopian future: siege, surveillance, lack of resources and water, pollution.”

The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival offered a diversity of perspectives, and a thoughtfully and lovingly curated glimpse of talent and creativity that bursts beyond any physical walls. Learn more about the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival and like the festival on Facebook.

Decoding Dog Behavior in D.C. Parks

My article for District Fray Magazine

Longtime D.C. resident and fourth-year PhD student in George Washington University’s Department of Anthropology, Courtney Sexton studies the coevolution of humans and dogs. She is particularly interested in nonverbal communication and behavior.

Sexton’s graduate program requires students to undertake an internship in the public understanding of science, promoting how to present scientific information to nonscientific audiences. When her internship project got funded by the D.C. chapter of the Awesome Foundation, she knew she was on to something.

“D.C.’s dogs and dog parks have been a controversial topic,” she says, “less so because of the dogs and more so because of their human guardians.”

She started thinking about the project at a time when the public discourse around dog ownership and public space was particularly contentious. And while many dog owners are aware of their responsibilities to their animal companions, they may perhaps be less aware of what their animal friends are trying to communicate to them.

This is how Decoding Dog Talk was born. Before the start of the pandemic, Courtney planned to host a series of Tail Talk tables at dog parks and recreation areas across the city where residents could get free information, diagrams and mini demos to help them learn basic principles of dog behavior.

“Most humans are not in tune to the subtleties of dogs’ language,” she explains. “Hint: Not all tail wags are created equally. Being armed with even a basic understanding of dog behavior could reduce stress on the animals and increase their quality of life – [which is] always a challenge for city pets – and help to avoid complications and confrontations with neighbors and other members of the community.”

After the fur-ruffling that New York Times article “The Dog Park is Bad, Actually” caused, this sounds like a much-needed thing to yap about. Dog parks are great places for play, but they certainly have downsides as well.

“The reason why I would like to be there for those Tail Talks is it’s hard to give general advice. The context is critical to understanding the body language of the dogs. Not all tail wags are happy. Also, the owners tend to space out while their dogs are constantly looking to them for guidance on how to handle social situations.”

Sexton says the way humans often view social and antisocial behaviors in dogs is quite wrong.

“I hope to impart on folks the importance of the contextual clues in body language and the trigger warnings that hint their dog is about to get into a fight,” she adds.

The fights between dogs can sometimes lead to their learning inappropriate behaviors like bullying – and then repeating those behaviors outside the park. Knowing how to recognize signs of aggression and learning how to control the dogs in that case is especially important. Simple obedience commands are critical in a dog park environment. While Decoding Dog Talk is on hold, learning about dog communication is definitely barking up the right tree. And as Covid restrictions lessen, Sexton plans to starting hosting safe, socially distant Tail Talk Tables.

“I was actually able to host one socially distanced Tail Talk Table at the Virginia Ave Dog Park a couple of weeks ago, and it went great.”

Learn more about Sexton’s project here and listen to her speak on the topic here

Book Review: The Pleasure Plan by Laura Zam

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

This honest account of a quest for pain-free intimacy pulls no punches.

With its pink-purse cover and self-help-conjuring title, Laura Zam’s The Pleasure Plan has the auspices of yet another treatise on the elusive art of sexual-spark kindling. And while there can never be enough books written on the topic, this one has a slightly different audience in mind — namely, those of us too “broken” for a conventional sex book and for whom there is nothing normal or conventional about intercourse.

Not to mention that this book is more a quest to avoid pain than to find pleasure in the face of dyspareunia, vaginismus, or sexual aversion disorder. As the author puts it, “I have every hooha hangup in the DSM.” Though the condition affects between 10 and 20 percent of women, the author herself didn’t know it had a name — or names — until she was in her 40s.

Lest you’re inclined to think that incredibly painful intercourse is no big deal, people with disorders like vaginismus often cannot even wear tampons. Psychologically, they experience during sex something akin to PTSD. Intercourse is “like being a virgin every single time. Madonna, this is not sexy,” the author explains. And since sex is the lingua franca of our society, you can surmise what a death knell this can be for relationships.

The book — which grew, in part, out of the author’s “Modern Love” essay in the New York Times — starts on a happy note: Zam has met and married her husband, Kurt, but hasn’t told him about her “hooha hangups.”

Insert screeching-halt noise here.

You might be wondering how someone could not know his partner isn’t only not having a particularly good time in bed but is enduring lightning-bolt levels of pain. You might also wonder why the author hasn’t revealed this fact to the love of her life.

This dynamic is less a commentary on Zam’s particular relationship than an indictment of the social norms that drive women to literally grin and bare it. These norms also discourage women from admitting to anything other than a perfect sex life. As Zam puts it, “Privacy has stolen my life force.”

But tell her partner she does, and she goes a step further, undertaking the Sisyphean task of trying to remedy her problem. Like a lot of us “broken” ones, however, as a survivor of childhood trauma, she first must untangle how much of the issue is psychological, how much is physical, and how much is both — a case of “my mind is telling me yes, but my body is screaming a hell no.”

Zam begins a tortuous tour of 15 specialists, exploring EFT (emotional freedom techniques), hypnosis, tantra, trauma therapy, group couples’ workshops, pelvic-floor physical therapy, vaginal weights, and dilators. Unfortunately, vaginismus is poorly understood and difficult to treat, and the situation isn’t helped by various medical professionals’ dismissive stances.

For example, a hypnotist asked Zam pointedly, “You do want to stay married, right?” before doling out the several-hundred-dollar advice to “Just do it.” A sex therapist refuses to see Zam before sending her to a physical therapist first because “she doesn’t deal with vaginal pain.”

(Please, dear reader, don’t start in about how patient Kurt must be for going through this with her. Enough about others. Let’s talk about us, not the long-suffering partners we have a really hard time finding in the first place.)

While Zam’s book is filled with levity — which I interpret as “laughing to keep from crying” — there’s nothing funny about being in so much pain that every attempt at intimacy feels like something to be endured. “Do I love Kurt in these moments? I don’t know. I am too far away to notice,” writes the author. “I strap down my animal sadness so I don’t saturate the bed with the wrong kind of moisture.”

Zam interweaves into The Pleasure Plan stories of her family and growing up as a commentary on trauma and resilience. It makes for engrossing reading and, likely, some vigorous nodding in agreement from people who identify as female and who, like the author, laugh to keep from crying.

Although the clinical term of “vaginismus brought on by fear of penetration” is one way to describe the Hydra she is fighting, “I don’t want anything inside me” captures it more aptly. In its face, Zam perseveres long after most would have given up. At times, the methods of the “healers” she consults are downright hilarious, such as the cringe-worthy approach of “repeating vapid, lascivious language while in a pseudotrance.” (No, it doesn’t work.)

The response to Zam’s book has been overwhelmingly positive, and she has been praised for her bravery in writing it. Of course, a subset of critics harps on Kurt’s patience and understanding. But forget him for a moment. This is about her pain, remember?

The Pleasure Plan isn’t a quest for pleasure. It is an attempt to contend with physical and social pain — the pain of being rejected as a weirdo too broken to repair. Sex is enormously important in our society. If one can’t function sexually, is one doomed to a lifetime of loneliness?

The book is full of questions and exercises to help readers develop their own plan and asks, “Where are you stuck in your sexual healing?” Alas, this presupposes that we all want to become unstuck, when many of us have simply dropped out of the, er, marketplace altogether. Maybe in her next book, Zam could address some alternate forms of relationships where intimacy is not expressed through intercourse alone, open relationships, or even asexuality.

Despite this small cavil, The Pleasure Plan is a must-read not just for people affected by dyspareunia, but for anyone interested in learning more about a complicated condition foreign to most. The book will move you and keep you reading no matter your gender or “hooha hangups” — or lack thereof.

A Solid Foundation: Why has the housing market weathered the economic downturn so well?

My article for the Kogod School of Business

A wave of pandemic-induced uncertainty has thrown a pall over America’s economic performance, yet one sector remains a defiant shade of rose against a generally dark background. Why are home sales rebounding so quickly, with some locations reporting a return to the days of bidding wars? Is this a meaningful and lasting trend or simply a function of limited data from which to draw conclusions? “I think everyone in the industry is asking themselves what the new normal will be after such a cataclysmic event,” says Professor Steven Teitelbaum, who teaches Kogod’s Real Estate Development class and works in transit-oriented development and smart growth.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March, home sales fell by 8.5 percent as potential buyers lost their jobs, contended with economic uncertainty, or simply avoided moving due to health concerns. Existing home sales in April fell by almost 18 percent, but prices rose 7.4 percent compared to a year ago.

What could explain why basic supply-and-demand principles don’t seem to apply here? A huge drop in demand should put downward pressure on prices as the market sways in the buyers’ favor. But in this case, while demand dropped, so did supply. Sellers withdrew from the market for the same reasons that buyers did. New home listings fell dramatically after the stay-at-home orders, with estimates ranging from 29 percent to higher than 50 percent.

The drops in supply and demand were generally proportional to each other, but the lower number of transactions made it more difficult to analyze how prices moved in aggregate. “Data is so scarce that one blip sends things teetering toward one end or the other. It is hard to come by meaningful averages,” explains Teitelbaum.

Limited housing supply is likely to be a more prominent issue in certain areas. The pandemic has also affected new build construction. Professor Kim Luchtenberg, professor of finance and real estate, says, “The DC area will remain relatively sheltered from a real estate sector downturn because housing is in such limited supply. This will keep prices high, so buyers will not see much change.”

The number of homes listed for sale in the DC metro area dropped more than 37 percent compared to April 2019, resulting in the lowest inventory in the past 10 years.

A decrease in overall home sales has a number of effects. Home sales generate much spin-off economic activity. Local governments rely on revenue from deed transfer taxes to fund public services. Occupations like real estate agents, home inspectors, and other agents lose streams of income, as do support services like moving companies, furniture and appliance stores, landscapers, and maintenance technicians.

From a social perspective, people often buy homes when relocating for work, having children, getting married, or downsizing for retirement. An economic downtown that makes homeownership inaccessible may delay many of these milestones. For example, the Great Recession caused delayed household formation among young adults.

A much more grave concern is what will happen to the homeowners affected by the general economic downturn. “Foreclosures and mortgage defaults are sure to happen once the protection period ends,” says Luchtenberg. No one is sure how this will affect the real estate industry or the economy as a whole.

With so much turmoil in the stock markets and retail and hospitality real estate markets, plus general economic uncertainty, are investors attracted to the seemingly untouchable residential real estate sector? Luchtenberg and Teitelbaum concur that this trend is afoot, but in an unusual permutation—investment in single-family home rentals. This was the case immediately following the 2008 collapse, and currently, these kinds of rentals are one of the fastest-growing investment vehicles both for large corporations and individual investors. “The second-best option to owning a home is renting a single-family unit. Investors see that,” says Teitelbaum. Luchtenberg is currently writing a research paper on this phenomenon as well.

While understanding the “new normal” seems like an impossible proposition, in the DC area, at least, the old normal of a robust residential real estate market remains.

Verge: Stories by Lidia Yuknavich Book Review

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books:

A breathtaking series of insights into people who are “becoming.”

Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut short-story collection, Verge: Stories, is an incandescent testimonial about lives spent on the margins, on the cusp, on the edge, on the periphery, on the frontier, on the birthing place…of something.

Or everything. Or nothing at all.

Yuknavitch’s writing is visceral and unsettling, the metaphors eloquent and moving. “Who amongst us can see a self,” she asks, and responds with singular characters sketched in stark detail, their burdens strange yet familiar. Her descriptions are terse, as though built on picked-clean skeletons, but the flesh emerges from the pages, raw and refusing to be contained.

“The Pull” is set on a capsizing raft of refugees in the Aegean Sea — the people “a wave of other leavers.” Those left behind “never swim another lap toward their futures.” Two children who had been on the swim team back home (and, as the author so pointedly writes, are from a reality that has neither a future nor a past) tie the raft to their feet and swim toward shore: “This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.”

This is exactly the kind of parsimony that marks Yuknavitch’s writing — the pathos is in the pith-os, I would like to think.

“The Organ Runner,” a story about an 8-year-old who literally runs organs between seemingly disparate yet intimately sewn-together bodies in dark streets, is equally relentless in its quiet condemnation of us:

“Whatever money — that thing more valuable than a body, or a people, or a nation — had changed hands was worth more than the life of one homeless creature in this newsless, powerless, invisible country.”

The author is neither political nor polemic, but her witness-bearing will disquiet readers. The simile “he held one arm against his body like a broken wing” is a trenchant commentary on dehumanizing others in a literal and figurative sense. And again, the author makes clear the damning, if not always apparent, connections tying the globalized world together: “Kiril would die but not by her hand. Or he would die by all of our hands.”

“Second Language” takes this tacit condemnation to a crescendo; the story will hold you hostage long after you finish it. The protagonist is a nameless, sex-trafficked child locked in a house near a freeway (anything but free to her) and “delivered like a card-board box from a UPS truck, sifted through by rummaging hands like recycling,” along with other “girl popsicles.”

To the outside world, she is a ghost, barely even noticed by the “disaffected latte pity” gaze. Her “bodyworth” is the only thing concrete about her — that, and a story in a foreign language. A fairytale, told in a grim and otherworldly tongue, which lulls the popsicle girls to sleep: “Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”

Speaking of language, the author is a masterful writer of towering genius. Her comparisons are so intricate, yet heavy, they often require a reread. A drug addiction is “four long years of youth sliding cold silver glint into waiting blue.” “He builds the fire like a new faith for all the white (snow) against them.” “She aches to summer over into a different life.” “The streets are clean and cured and uncultured — no, that’s not what I meant. Uncluttered, I meant.”

Yuknavitch is also eloquent in her depiction of women. The female protagonists are on the run, gnashing and trashing and aching to tell their stories in their own language. She compares a “street walker” to Mary: “When I see an image of Christ, I picture Mary so drawn and gaunt and tired and angry and spent to the point of emaciation that she can barely wear her own face.” But she is no saint, just an “ordinary woman eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” Another character is “on the edge like Ophelia, rewriting her ending.”

Verge is enthralling and should garner Yuknavitch much-deserved acclaim. It is the author’s answer to the question, “Does it hurt more to keep the secrets or to tell them?” While her characters may be on the edge of the storyline, in the dark corners of the nightly news, residing in a forgotten, misshapen geography, speaking in tongues, the book reminds you that you know these people; that you are bound to these people; that you are these people.

The Hidden Cost of the Hustle–Faculty and Director of the Kogod Tax Policy Center Caroline Bruckner hones in on the tax consequences of gig work.

By Toni Tileva | 
In September 2019, California became the first state in the country to pass a labor law aimed primarily at Uber and Lyft drivers that extends wage and benefit protections to about a million gig workers. California Governor Gavin Newsom wrote an op-ed arguing that when workers are classified as independent contractors rather than as employees, they lose basic benefits such as minimum wage, paid sick days, and health insurance. And their employers do not contribute to safety net programs like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, leaving, as Gov. Newsom pointedly stated, “taxpayers holding the bag.”Going a step further to address Social Security shortfalls, on December 19, 2019, Congresswoman Deb Haaland (NM-01), vice chair of the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, introduced a groundbreaking bill called the Gig Is Up Act that would require companies that gross at least $100 million and employ at least 10,000 independent contractors to pay the full cost of both the employer contribution and the worker contribution to Social Security and Medicare.“My research shows that gig workers can be in a very precarious economic situation, with most of them working gigs as a supplemental source of income,” Bruckner says. “For many, their low incomes keep them from having other investment vehicles, and they rely solely on Social Security for their retirement. Not getting their just dessert, so to speak, is an unforeseen and not often discussed consequence of contractor and gig economy work.”

The gig economy is notoriously hard to quantify, with estimates stating non-traditional work arrangements account for anywhere between 0.1% of full-time employment to 34%. According to the Freelancing in America survey, there are a reported 57 million American freelancers (counting on-demand and independent contractors) contributing in excess of $1 trillion dollars to the economy each year. Yet, their hustle can perhaps best be characterized as a struggle rather than a success, with little worker rights protection, unpredictable compensation, and intermittent work. The “on demand” nature of the work makes it just that—reliant on the customers’ and employers’ demands rather than the workers’.

In her recent book Hustle and Gig, sociologist Alexandrea Ravenelle argues that “for all its app-enabled modernity, the gig economy resembles the early industrial age…the sharing economy is truly a movement forward to the past.” While much research has been conducted on the size and growth trajectory of the freelancer industry, little scholarship examines the often unintended tax consequences affecting the workers and the economy writ large.

“Self-employed workers already have tax compliance and reporting issues, but the existing reporting rules further precipitate their failure to contribute to Social Security and Medicare through payment of the self-employment tax (SE tax),” explains Bruckner.

The tricky part is that companies that use contract workers aren’t required to send out a 1099-MISC unless they have paid that person $600 or more in a given tax year. On-demand workers who are paid by platforms usually get a 1099-K form, which companies use when a contractor has performed at least 200 transactions over the course of the year and has received at least $20,000 in payments. But, often, gig workers don’t receive any tax forms at all, leaving them on the hook to figure out how much they’ve earned over the past year and accurately report it to the IRS.

“Workers who don’t get tax forms from their employers need to figure out their earnings on their own. It is not as though they are intending to break tax laws, but many of them are simply not aware of what the self-employment tax covers and are short changing their Social Security earnings upon retirement in this way.”

Independent contractors and gig economy workers also do not make tax payments through withholding by their employers during the year and have to figure out estimated quarterly tax payments on their own. Not making those quarterly payments can translate to penalties and increases their audit exposure. “This isn’t just about gig workers underreporting their income tax, although this is a way to quantify the tax gap for the IRS and get their attention on the issue,” says Bruckner. “The consequences of the shortfall are twofold: it affects the funding and solvency of Social Security and translates to lower Social Security benefits for these workers upon retirement.”

In their recent “Failure to Contribute” research project, funded by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Professor Bruckner and economist Thomas L. Hungerford estimate that, in 2014, independent contractors didn’t pay $3.9 billion in Social Security contributions that they should have, and on-demand workers didn’t pay $2 billion.

Bruckner has actively raised this issue with the IRS and given testimony on Capitol Hill. The Failure to Contribute report suggests Congress could take steps to modernize information reporting, update quarterly estimated payment requirements, and require better taxpayer education. Ultimately, these strategies should focus on the independent contractor economy generally and the on-demand/gig workforce in particular. “We need strategies to encourage people to buy into the system,” says Bruckner. “This is why tax policy needs to be accessible.”

With a $50,000 grant from the Wharton School of Business and Pension Research Council, Bruckner plans to continue her research with a study examining how women are using the gig economy to make up for retirement shortfalls. “This next phase of research will be ground-breaking in that it focuses on women specifically, who tend to live longer and have higher healthcare costs,” explains Bruckner. “Because women have been subject to the pay gap or had to take time out of the paid work force,  considering their retirement needs and how gig economy work is a strategy for shoring up retirement savings shortfalls is the logical extension of my existing work looking at the gig economy and its implications for Social Security.”

Citizen K Movie Review

My review for On Tap magazine

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence.

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.

Homewreckers Book Review

My review of Aaron Glantz’ book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream

Washington Independent Review of Books

December 5, 2019
This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”

What Are the Odds? A computational neuroscientist and Kogod adjunct scores a career as a data scientist with the NBA.

So much of our everyday life involves making predictions—from picking the best route for our morning commute to bringing an umbrella to choosing a partner. “We predict all the time, so the process is natural,” says Grant Fiddyment, adjunct professor of predictive analytics at Kogod and data scientist for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same way we interact with technology and the world. For instance, how can I phrase my web search so that the site will match what I’m looking for? How can I pronounce a word so that a virtual assistant will understand what I’m saying? Without knowing the technical details, we implicitly learn how these technologies work.”

What is predictive analytics, and how does it offer us a glimpse into the future?

At its most fundamental level, the discipline calculates the likelihood of future events by simply (although many would cry foul at this characterization) counting the possible outcomes. Its foundations were laid in a 1654 letter exchange between French mathematicians Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal discussing how the winnings of a coin-flipping gambling game should be split. And while we all know that the house always wins in Vegas, few would know to credit Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers from 1713 as the reason why.

Despite predictive analytics’ old roots, it is responsible for many facets of modern-day life we give little thought to—things like credit card fraud detection, virtual chess partners, and, of most interest to Fiddyment, creating professional sports super teams.

Grant Fiddyment's headshot.

As a data scientist on the research and development team for the 76ers, Fiddyment helps frame and analyze the predictive questions that arise in sports—for example, how will signing a new player impact a team’s title odds, or how well will a tall lineup play against a smaller, quicker one?

Predictive analytics has long been used in sports, going back to the analog days of yore. Baseball has historically led the movement. One of the most famous success stories is told in the movie Moneyball, which follows 2002 Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he uses predictive analytics to hire under-valued players and send his team on a crowd-wowing 20-game winning streak. But the methods developed in Oakland have application across all sports.

“Most teams were asking, ‘How often does a batter get a hit when they go to bat?’ Instead, the A’s asked, ‘How many bases does a player get when they go to bat?’ Looking at total bases turns out to be more predictive of how many runs a team will score,” explains Fiddyment. “Similarly, in the NBA, teams used to ask how often a player will make a shot. But this overlooks the fact that all shots are not equal. So now teams are asking, ‘How many points will a player get when they take a shot?’”

In the past decade the number of three-point shots in the NBA has increased. Is the rise just due to random luck or is it part of a well-crafted strategy? Fiddyment and other fellow data scientists employed full-time by sports teams work to answer new questions like these. He credits the invention of video tracking as the proverbial game changer. “Chip or camera-based systems will follow players as they actively play a sport, and the data we get is much more nuanced than a single-number summary,” says Fiddyment. “For example, we can answer how many pick-and-rolls the team ran last game or how open were the shots they generated. We can analyze the individual and team as a whole.”

At the moment, this kind of data collection is limited to professional teams, making it difficult to spot up-and-coming superstars. “College and international teams typically don’t have the same camera systems, so projecting which players will become successful remains a very challenging problem,” Fiddyment says.

Despite rapid advancements in technology, however, not all data is created equal—or, perhaps, equally useful. The limitations of data translate to limitations in predictive accuracy (as meteorologists can confirm). “We need to be aware of computers’ strengths and weaknesses,” Fiddyment advises. “Computers can process vast amounts of data much more quickly than humans ever could. But they are restricted to the data they have and operate very literally, so we should never expect them to behave exactly like a human, even if they can match our performance at a given task.”

From the glitz of Vegas to the life-saving powers of storm forecasts to the way opinion polls affect voters, predictive analytics is ever-present in our lives. Advances in machine learning and big data models are improving our ability to look into the future, but they are also raising some thorny issues, one of the most notable being the boundaries of data privacy. For now, however, Fiddyment has scored a slam dunk for the NBA.

From Veteran to Venture: Kogod alum-turned-professor helps veteran entrepreneurs launch their businesses

My story for Kogod School of Business

Each year, roughly 200,000 US service members transition from the military to the private sector. Although veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to be self-employed, their rate of business ownership has dropped precipitously from the entrepreneurial high of their predecessors in the last century.

Half of World War II veterans went on to own or operate a business—a similar rate to the 40% of Korean War vets who did the same almost a decade later. Of the more than 3.6 million people who have served in the military since September 11, 2001, only 4.5% have started a business. What has led to such an enormous gap in veteran entrepreneurship?

In short, more challenges—and fewer resources to overcome them.

Although 25% of veterans say they want to start their own businesses, they face more obstacles securing the capital needed to get their ideas off the ground than in the past. Unlike the GI Bill of 1944, the updated 2008 version does not include access to low-interest loans to start a business. The financing needs of veteran and non-veteran businesses are similar, research shows, but even though would-be veteran business owners submitted more loan applications and reached out to a wider variety of lenders, they typically obtained less financing and got lower approval rates.

Because of frequent travel and work abroad, some veterans are also struggling with building a credit history and amassing collateral. And while previous military drafts drew from all segments of society, this century’s all-volunteer armed forces are more likely to come from military families, making them increasingly isolated from the non-military community and the networks that facilitate business success.

Seda Goff—a Kogod adjunct professor and MBA alumna—is helping veteran entrepreneurs overcome these challenges in her role as the director of veteran entrepreneurship at the PenFed Foundation. Through the foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP), veterans can get the seed capital and mentorship they need to build and grow their ventures.

“Veterans have given a lot to serve and protect us, and the skill sets that they gained in the process lend themselves perfectly to entrepreneurship,” Goff says. “This new generation of entrepreneurs feel that same desire to serve and to make a difference and be bigger than themselves.”

After graduating from Kogod, Goff worked for the US Department of Veterans Affairs before moving to PenFed, where she was able to build the nonprofit investment program from the ground up. Her passion for helping veterans stems from growing up in close contact with service members.

“My father was in the Turkish Navy. He worked for the navy for almost 30 years after we came to the US,” Goff recalls. “I loved being around service members and their families. Everybody is very mission- and service-oriented.”

Since launching in March 2018, the Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program has invested in and offered resources to veteran entrepreneurs. And because veterans are 30% more likely to hire other veterans, the program’s benefits extend to the entire veteran community.

VEIP is funded by outside donors, with PenFed Credit Union matching up to $1 million in contributions. Returns on all investments go back into the program to support future veteran-owned ventures. “The success of veteran entrepreneurs allows the program to exist,” Goff explains. “The dividends go right back into investing in more entrepreneurs. The multiplier effect translates to growth for businesses that are ready to launch, established businesses that want to grow, and those that are still in the exploratory stages.”

In the future, the PenFed Foundation aims to develop new resources for veteran entrepreneurs in all stages of the business cycle, with a focus on women veteran entrepreneurs—who have grown from owning 2.5% of veteran-owned businesses in 2008 to 4.4% in 2012.

Goff, who works with the American University Entrepreneurship Incubator, hopes to one day launch an incubator for veteran entrepreneurs at Kogod, too.

“I feel like the majority of entrepreneurs are just problem solvers. And if you point them in a direction, they’re going to solve problems,” Goff says. “In my work, I have seen how a military career is not something that you need to transition away from to be successful. Serving already has given vets the tools for success.”