Monday, October 24, 2011

Moonwalking With Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein is a very thought provoking book. It's the story of the author Joshua Foer, a journalist, and his journey from reporting on the US National Championship to winning the event the following year. The book chronicles how he set out to find an answer to the question, "How can I improve my memory?"

Personally, I was intrigued by the book and found the style of writing much to my liking. There is a lot of research and information that is presented and explained via story. It reminds me a lot about how JD Roth from GetRichSlowly was able to successfully blog about potentially dry topics in personal finance: he tells a story.

This book is not a book on technique and specific practice regimens, but a treatise on how our memories work, how memory usage has changed throughout time, and the exploration of how practice can indeed improve memory skills. Some of the skills employed in memorizing decks of playing cards, scores of random numbers, or other random trivia, in less than a minute involve the image association and storing those images in a 'memory palace'. While impressive, I wondered whether practicing this skill was ultimately useful. Surprisingly, even the author, shortly after winning the US National Championship, placing 13th overall in the World Championships, Joshua Foer conceded that in today's world of externalized memory storage, it's just easier to store that phone number in your cell phone than your brain.

US Hardcover, pg75
What follows are just my notes that I took while reading that I wanted to save for myself.
Without time, there would be no need for a memory. But without a memory, would there be such a thing as time? The more we provide our lives with chronological landmarks, the longer our lives will seem. Our perception of time is subjective. Sometimes time flies, other times the opposite is true. "Our lives are structured by our memories of events. Event X happened just before the big Paris vacation. I was doing Y in the first summer after I learned to drive." The denser the web of accumulated life experiences, the denser the experience of time. "Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it." "Life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we get older. Youth have a continuous stream of new experiences, but each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out...

US Hardcover, pg 138
Technological gadgets have made it unnecessary to remember phone numbers, friends birthdays, and even directions. They've changed the world, but they've also changed how we think and how we use our brains. Writing, for Socrates, was nothing more than a cue for memory.

And yet, for me, I've always held to the idea that I read in one of Tom Clancy's novels - if you didn't write it down, it never happened. For me, writing is the only reliable anchor that I can attach to my memories so they don't get lost in all that grey matter.

US Hardcover, pg 145
The history of books and the invention of alphabetical indexes, page numbers, and table of contents as a means to navigating the immense information stored therein. "As books became easier and easier to consult, the imperative to hold their contents in memory became less and less relevant, and the very notion of what it meant to be erudite began to evolve from possessing information internally to knowing where to find information in the labyrinthine world of external memory."

US Hardcover, pg169
Joshua Foer also became a subject of research to a Florida professor, Anders Ericsson. When Joshua hit a plateau on his speed times for memorizing a deck of cards, Ericsson helped him learn about skill acquisition. Phase one is the "cognitive stage", you're intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second "associative stage," you're concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the "autonomous stage," when you figure that you've gotten as good as you need.." You're OK with your current skill and stop improving and were once thought the upper bounds of ability. The only way to break free is to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson, who has studied the best in several fields, has labeled "deliberate practice." "They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the "cognitive phase." "When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important that the amount of time you spend." "Indeed, the single best predictor of an individual's chess skill is not the amount of chess he's played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he's spent sitting alone working through old games." "You have to analyze what you're doing."

US Hardcover, pg 202
In these pages, Tony Buzan's Mind Map was explained, and it reminded me of when I was writing my research paper in my college English class. My professor explained to me that after reading my paper she felt like the opening scene in the Simpson's show when the cash register trys to scan Maggie at the checkout with the groceries, but the computer is confused and doesn't know what to do. Her advice to me was that I needed to go home and read each paragraph and color code it to it's theme and then cut up my paper and rearrange it so that it flowed better and made better sense. I took her advice - and it worked! This was essentially the groundwork of a mind map. "It's kind of an outline exploded radially across the page in a rainbow of colors, a web of associations..." Tony Buzan also said, "The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity
is, in a sense, future memory."

US Hardcover, pg 266
He had improved his ability to remember digits, playing cards, and yet could still forget where he parked his car. His memory was the same. He had new skills, but ultimately he "validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it's the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice." "Remembering can only happen if you decide to take notice." "Our memories make us who we are. They are the seat of our values and source of our character... That's what Ed had been trying to impart to me from the beginning: that memory training is not just for the sake of performing party tricks; it's about nurturing something profoundly and essentially human."

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bankruptcy on the Rise

The Great Recession’s Impact on Bankruptcy Filings was originally written by Marilyn Bischoff and published in Idaho's Two Cents Newsletter.

The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that the US officially entered into the recession in December 2007, with the recession ending in June 2009. However, those in the insolvency professions would argue that we are still in a recession. How has the recession affected bankruptcy filings for various demographic groups?

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Personal BankruptcyBankruptcy petitioners are not required to disclose age, ethnicity, educational attainment, marital status, or current employment status. The Institute for Financial literacy, which provides bankruptcy prefiling counseling and post-filing debtor education, does collect demographic information from individuals participating in their program. The Institute provides services in-person, by telephone, and online. At the beginning of either service, participants are asked to voluntarily complete a demographic survey. In 2009 more than 52,000 clients volunteered to answer survey questions. The findings challenge some common assumptions about bankruptcy filers. 

Almost 56 percent of bankruptcy debtors are between he ages of 35-54. An emerging tend is that the 55-64 and 65+ age cohorts appear to be experiencing an increased deterioration in the financial conditions and are filing bankruptcy at greater rates than in 2008. Ages 18-24, 2% filing bankruptcy; 25-34, 17%; 35-44, 29%; 45-54, 27%; 55-64, 17%; 65+ 8%.

Educational Background
Bankruptcy rates of individuals with higher education continue to experience lower levels of bankruptcy, but during this recession their rates have increased. This change may suggest that this is a “white collar” recession, perhaps reflecting our economy changing from a manufacturing to a service/ technology base. Educational level: High school/GED degree or less, 42%; Some college or Associate degree, 38%; Bachelor’s degree, 14%; Graduate degree, 6%.

Personal Income
As expected, lower income household are more likely to file for bankruptcy. Those earnings $30,000 or less made up 59% of filers; $30,000- 40,000, 15%; $40,000-$50,000, 10%; $50,000-$60,000, 7%; $60,000+, 9%.

Causes of Financial Distress
The Institute asked clients to pick from a list of common causes of financial distress to self-describe reasons for their current situation. Clients were encouraged to choose more than one cause; therefore, the percentages equal more than 100%. Reduction of income was cited by almost 2/3 of respondents (65%). That, combined with overextended credit (74%), and unexpected expenses (55%), drove most filers over the bankruptcy precipice. Other responses reflect causes commonly cited in other studies: job loss (42%); illness/injury (31%); and changes in household composition: divorce (15%), birth/adoption (10%), death of family member (8%). Interestingly, retirement was cited by 8% of responders.

Source: Linfield, L., December/January 2011. Class of 2009: The Great Recession’s Impact on the American Debtor. American Bankruptcy Institute Journal. Retrieved 12/14/10 Template.cfm?Section=Home&CONTENTID= 62554&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm.

Russ Berrie Ceramic Piggy Bank, BluePatrick's note: I think the biggest thing to learn from this article is not who is going bankrupt, but possibly a key to preventing yourself from going bankrupt. Identify the most danger prone areas and then work to keep yourself out of those areas. Higher education and its corollary, personal income, is a major factor in preventing bankruptcy. However, the causes of bankruptcy demonstrate the wisdom in having a fully funded emergency fund to tide things over when life happens.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Free Credit Score - How to Get One

How to Check your Credit Score, a guest post by Luke Erickson editor of Idaho's Two Cent Tips.

Like a mighty king,this three digit number can seemingly grant our ultimate desires or dash them to tiny bits on little more than a whim or a missed payment. This number determines whether or not you can get a loan, including a credit card, a car loan, or a mortgage, and will also determine the rates that you will pay on these loans. Itis also reclusive and mysterious, rarely being seen by the common consumer. Instead it prefers to meet privately with lenders in back offices where your fate is unemotionally determined. Some zealous subjects have been known to pay tribute, by borrowing unnecessarily with the sole purpose of pleasing this number. In fact, this notorious number is not content to simply rule over its own kingdom, but also tries to extend its influence into other areas, such as insurance, rent, and even employment.

Your Credit Score, Your Money & What's at Stake (Updated Edition): How to Improve the 3-Digit Number that Shapes Your Financial FutureBefore I attempt to demystify this number, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. A credit score and a credit report are entirely different creatures. A credit report lists a detailed  financial history of every single credit account that you’ve established or messed up in the last 10 years or so. Most people have 3 similar but different reports, all of which can be viewed FOR FREE by visiting annualcreditreport. com. A credit score, on the other hand, is a proprietary number that can usually only be accessed by paying a fee. 

Now here is where it gets confusing. You actually have more than one credit score. The main score that lenders, insurers and employers will consider is the Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) score. But there are some alternatives to FICO scores, including Vantage scores which are done by each of the three major credit bureaus, and some financial institutions may even give you a credit score along with your monthly bank statements. Keep in mind that all of these scores are calculated differently, often times on different scales, and may or may not be an indicator of what a potential lender might see. I have seen cases where a credit score can vary by over 100 points for the same person.

Where can I get my score? 
As described previously, you can get your credit score from about a billion different websites, most offering it for free if you but merely sign up for a free trial of some unnecessary monthly service. As you can imagine it is all but impossible to break free from such an agreement. If you want just any old score, with any old agreement, then any old website will do. But if you want your FICO score, without strings attached, there is only one place I would recommend:, but, surprise (to be read with sarcasm) it’s not quite that simple! Do not click the massive red button that says FREE FICO SCORE. As I will describe below, it’s not really free, again another solicitation for some unnecessary service. Find and select the “FICO Standard,” button for a one-time credit check for $19.95. Not cheap, but completely accurate. In addition to your score, FICO standard will give you a FICO score simulation tool which can tell you how your personal score might change given future changes to your accounts. At FICOCreditScoreEstimator/ there is also a free FICO score estimation tool which gives you an estimated score that I found it to be fairly accurate.

Credit Repair Kit For DummiesAside from your FICO score, I would also recommend the “get credit score” button at the top right of your free credit report from This gives you a Vantage score for $7.95, which is becoming more accepted by lenders, and can be an indication of your true FICO score. 

Will checking my score affect my credit? 
According to the folks at, “Statistically, people with six inquiries or more on their credit reports can be up to eight times more likely to declare bankruptcy than people with no inquiries on their reports.” Therefore, the answer is yes, checking your score will reduce your score by about 5 points, each time. Not a big deal if checking only once or twice a year. Also, don’t forget that many lenders will actually show you your score when applying for a loan.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Mission for NASA

When We Left Earth - The NASA Missions [Blu-ray]"The aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute . . .to the expansion of human Knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space. The Administration shall provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Underwater Mortgages

This is a guest post by Luke Erickson the editor from Idaho's Two Cent Tips.

Underwater Home: What Should You Do if You Owe More on Your Home than It's Worth?Recent estimates indicate that about one in every four Idaho homes is currently underwater. Well, it has been snowing a lot lately . . . You don’t have to boo me for that one, I’ll do it myself. The term underwater really  refers to the instance when the amount you still owe on your mortgage is more than the current market value of your home. How can I joke about this topic—especially with such a lame joke? Well the lame part just comes naturally, but I can joke a little about this very serious topic, because for most people with underwater
homes, there is still hope.
Following is an article that illustrates the possible options you might choose from if you find your house underwater.
Stay put
Don’t panic if you hear that you’re “underwater.” All that means is that you would lose money if you sold RIGHT NOW. But unless you absolutely must move right now, you may be able to recoup some or all of that lost equity. Additionally, consider renting your place out. Even if you have to rent your house out at a small loss each month, you may still be better off than any other alternative. Some lenders will work with you to renegotiate the rates and terms of your mortgage, whether you’re in a financial pinch or not. This sort of informal “in-house refinancing,” is fairly new, but some lenders (the smart ones, in my opinion) are working with their borrowers to avoid foreclosure and loss of current customers. 
How to Sell a House When It's Worth Less Than the Mortgage: Options for "Underwater" Homeowners and InvestorsNegotiate an exit plan
But, if you simply can’t stay put -- Your family no longer fits within the confines of your once spacious two bedroom house, you land a much better job in another part of the country, or your adjustable rate has become unaffordable, the next option is to attempt to negotiate an exit plan.
A short sale is an agreement between you and the bank that you will make every effort to sell your house for as high a price as possible – no big deal, this is something you would do anyway – and in return the lender will accept the sale price as partial payment of your debt and forgive any debt for which you fall short. Hence the term, “short-sale.”
A deed-in lieu is also an agreement with your lender, in which you simply hand them a deed to your residence
with the understanding that you owe them nothing, or at least a reduced amount on the remaining balance, once the lender sells that house. These are forms of proactive foreclosures, if you will. Remember, any such agreement must be in writing to be valid.
As far as your credit is concerned, a short sale, deed-inlieu, or foreclosure will all have similar effects on your
credit score, reducing it by as much as 300 points, de-pending on how your lender reports it to the credit bureaus.
Lender won’t negotiate?
If your lender won’t negotiate, and you must leave your house, there are basically two options. Bankruptcy is a step to either liquidate your assets in return for forgiveness on your loans, as in a chapter 7, or is a legal
restructuring of your debts so that you can afford the payments, as in a chapter 13. Neither option is pretty, and will destroy your credit for up to 10 years.
Bankruptcy makes the most sense when you have additional unaffordable debt besides the mortgage. Or, just walk away - though this option has received lots of media coverage, and sounds pretty simple, it can be  anything but. Walking away essentially means mailing the mortgage company your keys, and leaving your  residence never to return. You may never hear from your lender again. But, on the other hand, in some states,  your lender can still legally come after you for the difference you still may owe after they sell the house. This option will have the same effect on your credit score as a foreclosure.
Which of all these options is the right one? That’s sort of like asking whether it’s best to be punched in the gut or the face. Either way it’s going to hurt. But, I’ve always believed that those who try to do the right thing, whatever that may mean in this situations, will eventually be rewarded for it.


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