Monthly Archives: September 2012

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The World Atlas of Beer’: Outstanding Guide to a Universal Adult Beverage

 

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The World Atlas of Beer': Outstanding Guide to a Universal Adult Beverage

If you’re a beer devotee traveling around the world — or just from one U.S. state to another — it might be a good idea to pack in your luggage “The World Atlas of Beer: The Essential Guide to The Beers of the World” (Sterling Epicure, New York, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Inc., 256 pages, 450 photos, 28 maps, glossary, index, $30.00) by Steve Beaumont and Tim Webb.

 

As the title indicates, this coffee table book includes maps of beer producing regions. But it’s much, much more, with beautiful photographs of beer regions, beer labels and the brewing process, and detailed descriptions of the Wide World of Beer. It’s a one-volume beer encyclopedia, and a fun read. At least I thought so, but I wanted to get the opinion of a real expert on beer, a friend in another part of Texas, Joel Jacobs. Here’s what he wrote after examining his copy of the book:

“This is a beauty and I love…the design and layout. One of the best beer books I’ve seen – period. While, in some ways, Michael Jackson’s 1977 book “The New World Guide to Beer” was better, overall this one tops even Jackson who was, without a doubt, during his lifetime, the world’s guru re: beer.”

 

The Michael Jackson Joel was referring to was, of course, not the famous Indiana-born “King of Pop”: He was an Englishman who wrote authoritatively on beer and whisky. According to Wikipedia: “Michael Jackson (27 March 1942 – 30 August 2007) was an English writer and journalist. He was the author of several influential books about beer and whisky. He was a regular contributor to most British broadsheets, particularly The Independent and The Observer.”

The entry continues: “Jackson’s books have sold over three million copies worldwide and have been translated into eighteen different languages. He is credited with helping to start a renaissance of interest in beer and breweries worldwide in the 1970s, particularly in the United States. He is also widely credited with popularising the idea of beer styles. He was as equally versed in the world of malt whisky as well as beer, and his book, Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (1989) is the best-selling book on the subject in the world.”

 

“The World Atlas of Beer” is more than just an in-depth history of this delightful beverage — its origins, brewing methods and technologies, trends, and more –from ancient times until the present day. It is also a detailed overview of more than 500 of the greatest beers from around the world, with sections devoted to major beer-producing countries and regions, including information on craft brewing, emerging markets, extreme beers, future-trend forecasts, and more. There’s a helpful glossary of beer terms at the back of the book. The prose flows like a good brew and the authors don’t hold back on their opinions, making it a delightful book to read, as well as a reference book.

 

I used the guide recently to buy a six-pack of bock beer at our local H.E.B. supermarket. It’s an anecdote worth repeating, since it shows how Texans can come from many places. (I’m a native of the upper Midwest myself).

 

I was examining — with an eye to purchase — a Shiner’s bock beer, when a dapper gentlemen approached me and said: “Don’t get that, get the Oktoberfest Shiner’s,” in a distinctly British accent. He said his mother was from Newcastle — famous for Newcastle Brown Ale — but he grew up in London. He didn’t say what his occupation was, but since my current hometown is a major element in the Texas chemical coast, I’m certain he was a current or retired chemical industry worker.

 

I followed his advice, but I didn’t need any assistance when I saw and bought a six-pack of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. Having lived and worked in Wisconsin, the Leinenkugel brand was familiar to me…everybody knows what you want to quaff when you say “give me a Leinies.” Both Texas-based Shiner and Wisconsin-based Leinenkugel — once proudly independent companies — are now owned by major breweries. As Beaumont and Webb point out throughout their book, this is a major worldwide trend. Fortunately, the mega-breweries — Anheuser-Busch InBev (Budweiser), SABMiller, Carlsberg, Heineken, etc. — haven’t tinkered with the formula of once independent beers. They know what made these regional beers so famous and they’ve treaded lightly.

About the Authors

Steve Beaumont writes weekly beer reviews for maxim.com. Visit him online at worldofbeer.com. He lives in Toronto.

Tim Webb is a renowned beer writer with a particular interest in Belgian beer and has compiled eight editions of Good Beer Guide Belgium. He co-wrote 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die! and Lamieland. Tim writes for Beer Advocate Magazine and is managing editor of his own niche publishing company, which has produced beer guides to London, Brussels, Bruges, and Amsterdam. For six years he was on the board of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and formerly ran their Great British Beer Festival. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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REALTORS: Pending Home Sales Decline 2.6% in August

  • By David M. Kinchen 
REALTORS: Pending Home Sales Decline 2.6% in August

After reaching a two-year peak, pending home sales fell in August but are at elevated levels compared with a year ago, according to a report issued Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 by the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The Pending Home Sales Index — a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings — declined 2.6 percent to 99.2 in August from an upwardly revised 101.9 in July but is 10.7 percent above August 2011 when it was 89.6. The data reflect contracts but not closings.

Contract activity in July 2012 was at the highest level since April 2010 when buyers were rushing to beat the deadline for the home buyer tax credit.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said some volatility can be expected in the monthly readings. “The performance in month-to-month contract signings has been uneven with ongoing shortages of lower priced inventory in much of the country, and across most price ranges in the West, but activity has remained at notably higher levels this year,” Yun said.

“The index shows 16 consecutive months of year-over-year increases, and that has translated into a higher number of closed sales. Year-to-date existing-home sales are 9 percent above the same period last year, but sales were relatively flat from 2008 through 2011,” Yun added.

Existing-home sales this year are expected to rise 9 percent to 4.64 million, and gain another 8 percent in 2013 to nearly 5.02 million. With generally balanced inventory conditions in many areas, the median existing-home price is projected to rise about 5 percent in both 2012 and 2013.

The PHSI in the Northeast rose 0.9 percent to 78.2 in August and is 19.9 percent above August 2011. In the Midwest the index declined 2.6 percent to 95.0 in August but is also 19.9 percent higher than a year ago. Pending home sales in the South slipped 1.1 percent to an index of 110.4 in August but are 13.2 percent above August 2011. With broad inventory shortages in the West, the index fell 7.2 percent in August to 102.5 and is 4.2 percent below a year ago.

Housing starts are forecast to stay on an uptrend and reach 1.12 million next year, but will remain well below long-term underlying demand with builders facing obstacles in obtaining construction loans.

Growth in the Gross Domestic Product should be 2.5 percent in 2013.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Books to Die For’: Authors from 20 Countries Choose Their Favorite Mystery Books, Authors

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 

My plea for today is “Tear Down That Wall, Mr. Publisher.” I’m talking about the almost universal practice of ghettoizing mystery/detective novels, putting them in a category away from so-called “literary” fiction, for some obscure reason calling to my mind Malvina Reynolds’s immortal song “Little Boxes” about post WW II suburbanization.

Until that day comes we’ll have to rely on tomes like “Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels” (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, 560 pages, $29.99) a wonderful anthology that quickly demonstrates how artificial the distinction between “genre” and “literary” really is. The essays in the book are arranged chronologically, with early writers like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe and Metta Fuller Victor appearing early in the book.

Metta who??? Karin Slaughter writes that American Metta Fuller Victor (1831-1885) was not only a pioneer crime writer, she also created the dime novel category that was the predecessor to the mass market paperbacks that were so important to writers like Mickey Spillane. In 1867 Victor also published “The Dead Letter” which has the honor of being the first full-length detective novel in the U.S. penned by a man or a woman. A true pioneer, virtually unknown today!

John Connolly

John Connolly

If you’ve seen the two movie versions of “Cape Fear” — the 1962 one directed by J. Lee Thompson, and the 1991 Martin Scorsese version — you’ll be particularly drawn to the contribution of Jeffrey Deaver on “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald that was turned into the two movies. MacDonald (1916-1986) is probably more famous for his Travis McGee novels, featuring the eccentric in the extreme Florida detective who lived in a boat called The Busted Flush. Deaver shows how different the novel was from both of the “Cape Fear” movies — and why it deserves to be read today.

In their foreword, the editors write:
“Why does the mystery novel enjoy such enduring appeal? There is no simple answer. It has a distinctive capacity for subtle social commentary, a concern with the disparity between law and justice, and a passion for order, however compromised. Even in the vision of the darkest of mystery writers, it provides us with a glimpse of the world as it might be, a world in which good men and women do not stand idly by and allow the worst aspects of human nature to triumph without opposition. It can touch upon all these facets while still entertaining the reader.”

Declan Burke

Declan Burke

The editors — mystery writers themselves — have commissioned essays from 119 writers from 20 countries to write why they like a particular book and how it influenced their own work. Among the essays:

Michael Connelly on “The Little Sister” by Raymond Chandler

John Connolly on “The Black Echo” by Michael Connelly

Kathy Reichs on “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris

Mark Billingham on “The Maltese Falcon”by Dashiell Hammett

Kathryn Fox on “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell

Dennis Lehane on “The Last Good Kiss” by James Crumley

Chris Mooney on “Mystic River” by Dennis Lehane

You get the picture: more often than not contemporary writers like Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane not only contribute essays but are themselves the subject of appreciative essays.

When I mentioned the book to Shelly Reuben, a good friend and the Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based author of outstanding fiction that I’ve read, loved and reviewed — books like “Tabula Rasa,” “Spent Matches”, “Origin & Cause”, “Weeping,” “Julian Solo” and “The Skirt Man” — fiction that I refuse to ghettoize — she supplied me with this anecdote:

“I remember that when Tabula Rasa got published, we had expected Barnes & Noble to buy a gazillion copies. But their only response was…”What is this? It’s not a mystery,” and they bought almost none.

“Before my agent sold it to Harcourt, I also remember one publisher rejecting Tabula Rasa because it was a mystery, and they had wanted a literary book. The next day, another publisher rejected it because it wasn’t a mystery, and was too literary.

“If I let this stuff tear me apart, I’d be a mess. So…I just count my lucky stars for reviewers (and friends!) like you, and then I start to write the next book.”

* * *

The beauty of “To Die For” is that it works for newcomers to mystery fiction and those like me who’ve been around long enough to remember when Mickey Spillane’s novels came out in 25 or 35 cent paperbacks. Yes, I’m that old! In his essay on Mickey Spillane’s 1947 “I, The Jury” Max Allen Collins writes how important mass market paperbacks were to Spillane and other writers like James M. Cain (“The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and — my suggestion — Erskine Caldwell, himself the subject of an essay by Allan Guthrie on his 1929 novel “The Bastard.” Growing up and scanning the books at our small town Rexall drugstore, I was more interested in the flashy, sexy for the time, cover art of Caldwell’s “God’s Little Acre,” to be perfectly honest! Blame it on raging hormones.

The publicity material accompanying my review copy calls “To Die For” “the most ambitious anthology of its kind yet attempted.” I can’t argue with that. In fact, this is the only anthology of its kind I’ve come across, with essays revealing as much about the appreciators as the appreciated. Writers of color like Walter Mosley and Donald Goines, and woman writers as diverse as Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Millar, Kathy Reichs and Anne Perry — among many others — get their proper attention and respect in this book.

About that great divide of “literary” vs. “genre” I noticed that editor John Connolly addresses it in his essay on “The Chill” by Ross Macdonald. Connolly writes: “….James Lee Burke, who remains, I believe, the greatest living prose writer in the genre. The other, now deceased, is Ross Macdonald….Burke taught me that the language of mystery fiction can aspire to the language of the finest literature, that there really should be no distinction between the two. A genre novel is not a poor relative of literature because it is a genre piece: it is poor only if the writing is poor and its reach is so modest as to count as the barest flexing of a muscle. There is only good writing and bad writing.”

I couldn’t phrase it better myself after decades of omnivorously devouring all types of writing and, for the last few decades reviewing books of all kinds.

John Banville — who has written both “literary” novels that have earned him the famed Man Booker Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize — and using the pen name Benjamin Black, six crime novels — discusses the literary vs. genre issue in his essay on Georges Simenon, the Belgian creator of Inspector Maigret and probably the most prolific writer in history. Banville writes that Simenon made a distinction between his genre fiction — books that Graham Greene called “entertainments” — and “what he called his romans dur, literally “hard novels” like ‘Act of Passion” (the novel that Banville examines).

On a personal level, I practice what I preach, not categorizing a novel as “literary” or “genre.” I’m with the above comment by John Connolly: “There is only good writing and bad writing.” Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn-Chee Navajo police books and George V. Higgins’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” — to name just two of my favorite authors that are included in this anthology — are as good as good writing can get.

So get your hands on this book and devour it. It’s a valuable resource and at the same time a great browsing book.

About the editors

John Connolly is the author of Every Dead Thing, Dark Hollow, The Killing Kind, The White Road, Bad Men, Nocturnes, and The Black Angel. He is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and lives in Dublin, Ireland.

Declan Burke was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1969. He is the author of Eightball Boogie (2003) and The Big O (2007). He is also the editor of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century. He lives in Wicklow with his wife Aileen and baby daughter Lily, and hosts a website dedicated to Irish crime fiction called Crime Always Pays.

U.S.: Pace of New Home Sales Holds Steady in August

  • By David M. Kinchen
U.S.: Pace of New Home Sales Holds Steady in August

Following a substantial gain in July, the pace of new home sales held virtually unchanged at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 373,000 units in August, according to a report released Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 by HUD and the U.S. Census Bureau.

“New-home sales in August effectively tied the pace they set in the previous month, when they were the strongest we’ve seen in more than two years — so this is really a continuation of the good news we’ve been getting on the housing front,” said Barry Rutenberg, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a home builder from Gainesville, Fla. “Looking at the big picture, sales have been trending gradually upward since the middle of last year as favorable interest rates and prices have driven more consumers to get back in the market for a newly built home.”

“This latest report indicates that new-home sales continue to run at a steady pace that’s well ahead of what we were seeing this time last year, and at this rate, the third quarter of 2012 is going to be well ahead of the second quarter,” noted NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “That said, the razor-thin inventory of new homes for sale is very concerning because it indicates that builders aren’t able to access the credit they need to build new homes as demand for them improves.”

Crowe also observed that the share of new homes sold in the higher price ranges ($400,000 and above) rose significantly in August. “This reflects the fact that people who are able to buy homes right now are those in higher-income ranges who have cash and equity on hand, while first-time buyers are having a tougher time getting qualified for a mortgage,” he said.

Regionally, new-home sales gained in all but one area of the country this August, with the Northeast, Midwest and West posting increases of 20 percent, 1.8 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. The South was the only region to post a decline, of 4.9 percent.

Meanwhile, the inventory of new homes for sale held at an historic low of just 141,000 units in August, which is a 4.5-month supply at the current sales pace.

The news on new home sales comes a few days after a report from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) revealed that existing-home sales continued to improve in August and the national median price rose on a year-over-year basis for the sixth straight month. 

The NAR report shows that total existing-home sales 7.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.82 million in August from 4.47 million in July, and are 9.3 percent higher than the 4.41 million-unit level in August 2011.

The national median existing-home price for all housing types was $187,400 in August, up 9.5 percent from a year ago. The last time there were six back-to-back monthly price increases from a year earlier was from December 2005 to May 2006. The August increase was the strongest since January 2006 when the median price rose 10.2 percent from a year earlier.

Also, record low mortgage interest rates are fueling the housing recovery: According to Freddie Mac, the national average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage rose to 3.60 percent in August from a record low 3.55 percent in July; the rate was 4.27 percent in August 2011.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Rendition’: Working for U.S. Intelligence As a Contract Employee Makes Alex Klear Pine for the Good Old Days of the Cold War

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

 

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Rendition': Working for U.S. Intelligence As a Contract Employee Makes Alex Klear Pine for the Good Old Days of the Cold War

Rendition: The practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners. — Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition 

 

 

When it comes to the shadowy practice of “rendition” the U.S. government must think U.S. taxpayers are a bunch of idiots. As Albert Ashforth so eloquently demonstrates in his fast-paced novel “The Rendition” (Oceanview Publishing, Longboat Key, FL, 341 pages, $25.95, available at amazon.comand other online sites) the practice of using deniable individuals — former SEALS or Green Berets, for example — fools absolutely no one, while endangering the lives of contract employees like Alex Klear.

 

“The Rendition” has a plot loaded with twists and turns reminiscent of Graham Greene, John le Carre´, Len Deighton, Frederick Forsyth or even Ian Fleming.

Described by his friends and foes alike as the loosest of all loose cannons, Alex Klear is in Kosovo in 2007 when he’s captured by Ramush Nadaj, the man the intelligence agency that hired him and his team is seeking to capture and send to Jordan or another country that doesn’t observe the rules of interrogation.

 

The action in “The Rendition” takes place in 2007 and early 2008. Before Kosovo declares its independence from Serbia later in 2008, a brutal secret war to win predominantly Muslim Kosovo’s freedom from Eastern Orthodox Christian Serbia is in full swing. Klear, presumably because of his language abilities (almost nonexistent for the Balkans, excellent for Germany, where he had been previously posted) and contacts with local assets (also slim to none) when the hastily planned rendition goes terribly bad. Alex is rescued just before he’s about to be carved up by a sadistic Albanian.

 

Albert Ashforth

Albert Ashforth

 

It’s no coincidence that Buck Romero is the rescuer: Buck and Alex are known in the intelligence community as the “Gold Dust Twins.” Originally a racist soap powder advertising campaign (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold_Dust_Twins) the phrase has evolved in popular culture to denote two people working closely together — a good description of the Buck-Alex partnership, where the two agents watch each other’s backs.

 

Recovering from the horrors of his Kosovo captivity, Alex decides it’s time to retire. Months later, he’s running an ice delivery business in a resort town in upstate New York, when Jerry Shenlee, his former handler, approaches him to work on an operation in Germany, a country Alex knows well. Alex is surprised to see Shenlee accompanied by Col. Sylvia Frost, who had debriefed him after he was rescued in Kosovo and was recovering in a military hospital.

 

Col. Frost, known to most of her associates as the B.O.W. (“bitch on wheels”), is drop dead gorgeous and has a connection to the Kosovo operation, but it’s a spoiler and I won’t give it away. She and Shenlee want Alex to spirit a Special Forces officer named Doug Brinkman out of a Munich prison. Brinkman’s accused of murdering German journalist Ursula Vogt, another beautiful woman with whom he’d had a relationship in Afghanistan where he’d been previously stationed.

 

The women never stop! And never stop trying! Alex goes to Munich where he has a history with retired cop Max Peters and his former girlfriend Irmie Nessler, a member of the city’s homicide squad, and needless to say, a very attractive woman whom he still loves. The action heats up, with Albanian drug and sex slave gangs, a corrupt publisher with an agenda of his own, and a police force determined to close all cases, regardless of the guilt or innocence of those involved. Alex Klear realizes that he is at the center of a murky conspiracy aimed at making the United States an international pariah.

 

Albert Ashforth has crafted an excellent — and educational — spy thriller. I think we’ll see more of Alex Klear in future novels — and, who knows? — maybe a feature film.

About the Author

Albert Ashforth served in the U.S. Army overseas upon graduating from high school. When he returned, he earned his B.A. from Brooklyn College. He worked for two New York City newspapers before returning to Europe to write a book. He worked as a military contractor in Bosnia, Kosovo, Germany and Afghanistan. He also worked at the German military academy (the equivalent of West Point) training NATO officers. As a member of the University of Maryland’s Overseas Program, he served as an instructor at 10th Group Special Forces headquarters in Bad Tolz, Germany. He is the author of three books. His articles and stories have appeared in The New York Times MagazineAmerican ScholarFour Seasons and other publications. He is now a faculty member of the State University of New York and lives in New York City. His website: http://albertashforth.net

ETHICS: Cheating at Harvard: I’m Shocked, Shocked to Find Cheating at America’s Most Prestigious College

  • By David M. Kinchen 
ETHICS: Cheating at Harvard: I'm Shocked, Shocked to Find Cheating at America's Most Prestigious College

Three-toed sloth

“….birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”
 — Cole Porter, “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)”

The story surprised many people, but I’m not really shocked about students cheating on a “take-home” test at Harvard.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/education/students-of-harvard-cheating-scandal-say-group-work-was-accepted.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha23_20120901

And here’s the latest from another prestigious newspaper, the Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/yes-they-cheat-at-harvard-too/2012/09/01/1d411ba8-f3de-11e1-adc6-87dfa8eff430_blog.html

In a situation that reminded me of a scene out of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” Harvard revealed that nearly half of the undergraduates in the spring class, Introduction to Congress” were under investigation for suspected cheating, for working together or for plagiarizing on a take-home final exam. Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education, called the episode “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.”

The story continues: “In years past, the course, Introduction to Congress, had a reputation as one of the easiest at Harvard College. Some of the 279 students who took it in the spring semester said that the teacher, Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.”

In a Cambridge minute the class morphed from easy — we had a name for classes like that when I went to college, but it’s not suitable for family consumption — to “just being plain old confusing” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken”, according to student evaluations. (That’s something we didn’t have when I attended college from 1957 to 1961).

The New York Times story said: “The university would not name the class, but it was identified by students facing cheating allegations. They were granted anonymity because they said they feared that open criticism could influence the outcome of their disciplinary cases.

“’They’re threatening people’s futures,’ said a student who graduated in May. ‘Having my degree revoked now would mean I lose my job.’” Another student described the course as just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”

The story continued:”The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.”

“He said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’ ” one accused student said.

But evaluations posted online by students after finals — before the cheating charges were made — in Harvard’s Q Guide were filled with seething assessments, and made clear that the class was no longer easy. Many students, who posted anonymously, described Dr. Platt as a great lecturer, but the guide included far more comments like “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”

student evaluation of prof:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/09/01/education/harvard-documents-class-reviews.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha23_20120901

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/education/students-of-harvard-cheating-scandal-say-group-work-was-accepted.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha23_20120901

I have a strict view of cheating, similar to my position on plagiarism: Don’t do it, it’s ethically wrong, even if everybody else is doing it. I also have a jaundiced view of “take-home” tests, believing that they make it easy to cheat. An open book test in a classroom setting is OK by me, but allowing a test to be taken without supervision is wrong in my old-fashioned opinion.

I asked a good friend, who has a B.A., a law degree and a master’s in religion, to offer his views of the ethics of this situation — the ethics of both the teacher and his students. Here’s what he said:

The Harvard Cheating scandal grabs our attention mostly for the sheer size of the alleged offense: perhaps half of an entire class of Harvard undergrads may have cheated. This should tell us something about the relativistic ethics that has become so fashionable in our society. If we start to lose our sense of ANY moral absolutes, our old human nature comes up with a variety of justifications for ethically-compromised behavior.

Some are on display among the accused at Harvard, as we see in these two stories provided: From the NYT article, regarding one controversial class that had a reputation as a “cake” class but which had turned more demanding:

“I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,”

While those of us from another generation may be tempted to ask these Harvard students if they’d like a little cheese with their whine, let’s try to be fair: we’ve all been there. Sometimes college professors are indeed like mushroom farmers: they keep you in the dark and feed you _____.

However, who said that was a justification for cheating? Students who cheat under such circumstances lose all of their right to complain if they decide to opt for even worse conduct than the professor’s “absurd exams.”

Cheating in academic circles, including plagiarism, has a long tradition of being seen by higher ed types as worthy of academic capital punishment: expulsion or at least failing the class. But why?

I am no educational historian, but this severe attitude towards cheating would seem to be part and parcel of the very heart of what an academic degree is intended to confer to one who earns it: credentials.

Put aside for a moment that other reason we hope our young people go to school, namely to become well-rounded individuals, evolving into mature, wise adults who contribute well to society. The main reason most people put themselves through undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees is to obtain a needed credential for the work they wish to pursue.

If a student is found to have obtained a degree with the help of cheating, that whole powerful edifice that is higher education can start to collapse as credentials are seen as phoney and worse, deceitful.

Who wants to hire a lawyer whose score on a test is not a real reflection of his knowledge? Worse, who wants to hire a physician who faked his way through his licensing exams? How about an airline pilot who cheated through his professional examination somehow? Do you want to fly with him? Not me–and not you, either, I bet.

It’s bad enough to discover that an individual doesn’t have the knowledge you thought they had. How about when you find out that they were willing to cheat on one matter–doesn’t their character now suggest a willingness to cheat when it comes to your matter?

“From little acorns grow large oaks.” We become what we do, good or bad.

However, while the college students at Harvard and elsewhere want to be treated as the adults they are becoming, the truth is that they are still greenhorns at ethics–and, being human, they can easily get a lazy moral spine without proper expectations from authority figures like college professors.

In one Harvard class we know about, the professor essentially told students not to take themselves or the class (or him!) seriously when he announced that everyone got A’s the previous year. Moreover the professor in that class told them that attending lectures wasn’t mandatory nor were discussion sessions laid out in the course description.

What a terribly low standard, no doubt yet another progresive, Ivy League invention. Such a policy does no favors to the intellectual or moral development of the students in the professor’s care. Yes, the students should still have obeyed the written instruction for a take home exam that expressly stated that no talking among students was allowed. They may pay a steep price for being moral slugabeds if they are caught up in this dragnet at Harvard.

But if you’ve already run through every other barricade of expectations in this class from the onset, aren’t you rather asking for lax moral behavior later on? Who takes seriously a professor’s edict on a take home exam if the professor has been this laid back throughout the entire semester?

Sloth remains one of the seven deadly sins from the earliest times of the Christian faith and is derided in all major religions and philsophies. In both the professor who doesn’t want to bother keeping tabs on a student’s development through a healthy discipline…and the student who is willing to cheat their way through an exam, we see how the old Three-Toed Sloth lumbers up behind us and slowly, painfully chews up our character.

OP-ED: Should Single-parent Families Be Abolished?

  • By Phlip A. Yaffe 

The question posed in the title of this essay “should single-parent families be abolished” is not facetious. It is a direct outcome of the current heated debate about homosexual marriage, and by extension homosexual adoptions.

The Background

 

The idea of homosexual marriage has been a hot topic for some time and will now doubt continue to be a hot topic for some time to come. The discussion becomes particularly heated around the idea of homosexuals (married or not) adopting children. The objections to homosexual adoptions tend fall into two categories: religious and sociological.

 

If homosexuality is a religious abomination (in some countries it is a capital crime), then adoption by homosexuals must also be an abomination. End of story. No room for discussion. The sociological objections generally focus on the potential harm such an arrangement might inflict on the child. Here, there is plenty of room for discussion.

 

It is difficult to ignore most people’s natural instinct to protect children above all other considerations because they are unable to protect themselves. From this point of view, the two most prevalent objections to homosexual adoption seem to be:

 

> Homosexuality is generally reproved by society, so the child is likely to be to ostracized and humiliated.

 

> For healthy psychological development, a child needs the influence of two parents, male and female.

 

It is a sad commentary on society that a child should be subjected to mistreatment by his peers and others because of who his parents are. After all, if homosexual adoption is offensive, the child is not complicit in the act. If anything, he is the victim. To ostracize and mistreat him is analogous to ostracizing and mistreating a child born out of wedlock, as if he had any choice as to who his parents would be. Not too long ago, this was a very common attitude and has not entirely disappeared. The term “bastard” still rings out as the ultimate insult.

 

Subjecting the child of a homosexual adoption to the same opprobrium would be a throwback to the Dark Ages, which may not be as far behind us as we would like to believe. Living in such an invidious environment would not be easy, either for the child or the adoptive parents. But it could be overcome.

 

The Extension

 

The most often adduced argument against homosexual adoption is the claim that for healthy development, a child must have the influence of both a male and female parent. Without it, he will almost certainly suffer serious psychological harm.

 

This assertion has implications not only for the largely-still-theoretical idea of homosexual adoption, but also for the all-too-real situation of children growing up with only a single parent.

 

The number of children living in single-parent families due to death, separation, divorce, and other causes is enormous and growing. The 1960 United States Census reported that 9% of children were dependent on a single parent; in the 2010 census, this had increased to 27%. More specifically, in 2006 12.9 million American families were single parent, 80% of which were headed by a female. Similar statistics would characterize most other industrialized countries.

 

If lack of both a male and female parent is a valid argument against homosexual adoption, and let’s assume that it is, then shouldn’t we be equally concerned about the psychological welfare of children who are deprived of male-female nurturing for other reasons? According to the census figures cited above, in the U.S. this is the case of at least 12.9 million children, and probably considerably more. What should we do about them?

 

Following the logic against homosexual adoption, it would seem that when a family loses one of its parents, the child or children should be removed from the family and put up for adoption into another family with two parents, male and female. Leaving the child or children in a family with only single parent apparently runs the risk of severe psychological damage.

 

I am not offering this idea as a firm proposal, because I haven’t really given it much thought. In fact, it popped into my head only recently while discussing the pros and cons of homosexual adoption with a friend. She was dead set against homosexual adoption, mainly because of the risk of psychological damage to the children. When I suggested that the same principle might apply to single-parent families, her reaction was swift and intense.

 

“You can’t do that! You can’t take a child away from their natural parent! What a horrible idea!” she exclaimed.

 

“But didn’t you say that a child must have both a male and female parent; otherwise, he risks severe psychological damage? Wouldn’t that be the case in a family where one of the parents disappears?” I replied.

 

She would have none of it. “What a horrible, horrible idea! Think of the pain you would cause the parent! How could you possibly imagine such a thing!”

 

“I can indeed see the pain that it could cause the remaining parent. But shouldn’t the child be the first concern?”

 

Once again she would have none of it. Her anger grew. I could see that there was no possibility of a discussion, so once she calmed down a bit, I gently changed the subject. This was a shame, because it is an issue that should be addressed.

 

It does not necessarily follow that if the risk to a child’s psychological well-being is best avoided by banning homosexual adoption, it would also be best avoided by removing him from a single-parent family. Perhaps the inestimable bond with a single natural parent (together with appropriate social services) would be superior to adoption into a two-parent family — or perhaps it wouldn’t. When I did an internet search to find some research on the subject, it failed. If such research does exist, it seems to be scant and obscure. If it does not exist, then it should be urgently undertaken.

 

If lack of a male and female influence for the child is a valid argument against homosexual adoption, then surely it must be a consideration for a child with only a single parent. Removing the child and putting him up for adoption into a two-parent family, i.e. abolishing the single-parent family, is unquestionably a radical idea. However, if leaving a child in a single-parent family can be shown to cause severe psychological damage, as posited for homosexual adoption, then shouldn’t we be considering laws and systems to prevent it?

 

The emotional reaction of “No, no, a thousand times no!” just won’t do. The lives and futures of millions of children are much too important not to stare the question directly in the face and take appropriate action.

* * *

 

About the author

 

Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA)  with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.

 

OP-ED: ‘Decline, Fall’ of Grammar, Punctuation Put in Perspective

  • By David M. Kinchen 

A friend and former L.A. Times colleague sent me an article in the Harvard Business Review by a businessman named Kyle Wiens who wrote that he won’t hire anyone — regardless of qualifications — if they don’t pass a grammar test (link:http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html).

It says a lot about what I — an English major — consider to be a decline and fall in the quality of education — reflected in a widely publicized decline in high school reading scores — that it has come to this, that what I call “bonehead English” has to be taught to people who presumably had learned the subject in high school, or even college.

 

Wiens, CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a software company, says:

 

“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.

“Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss’s more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar ‘stickler.’ And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a ‘zero tolerance approach’ to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.

“Now, Truss and I disagree on what it means to have ‘zero tolerance.’ She thinks that people who mix up their itses ‘deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,’ while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job — even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.

“Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too’, their applications go into the bin.

“Of course, we write for a living. iFixit.com is the world’s largest online repair manual, and Dozuki helps companies write their own technical documentation, like paperless work instructions andstep-by-step user manuals. So, it makes sense that we’ve made a preemptive strike against groan-worthy grammar errors.

“But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

 

* * *

The reference to Lynn Truss’s delightful book, reminded me that Huntington News Network contributor Philip Yaffe has also written about the supposed decline in proper punctation — and writing in general — so I sent him the Wiens article. He responded by sending me his essay on punctuation, a riff on the bestseller from Truss, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” that Wiens referenced. Here it is:

 

The Purpose of Punctuation

 

by Philip Yaffe

 

In 2003 Lynne Truss’s book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” caused a firestorm of interest in stopping the purported precipitous slide in standards of punctuation. There was one thing very right about the book, and two things very wrong.

 

What was right about it was that it became an international bestseller, making Ms. Truss quite a wealthy woman. What was wrong about it were its two principal theses:

 

There has been a precipitous slide in standards of punctuation.

 

* Teaching of the rules of punctuation needs to be strengthened and reinforced.

 

Throughout history, the older generation has always lamented the decline in the standards of something or other, be it literacy, respect, decorum, initiative, music, etc., because “it wasn’t like that in my day.”

 

English punctuation may have changed, but change does not ipso facto equate with decline. By such an argument, American punctuation would have to be considered a debasement of British punctuation, from which it derives. Or at least it could be considered a debasement from the point of view of Britons, but certainly not the point of view of Americans.

 

The fact is, there are no true standards of punctuation in English (or in many other healthy, evolving languages), nor should there be. Punctuation is a tool. Its value resides in how well it is used to achieve its end, which is better communication.

 

I would argue that proper punctuation has two essential objectives:

 

* Help the reader better understand what the writer is trying to say.

 

Help the writer emphasize key ideas and passages.

 

If these objectives are achieved, then punctuation serves its purpose, even if two people, or two countries, do it differently.

 

It would be too long and tedious to discuss all aspects of punctuation here, so let me enlarge on this argument with respect to the simple comma, whose “decline” seems to have so exercised Ms. Truss.

 

By simplest definition, the comma allows the reader to take a momentary pause in order to absorb and assimilate what he has just read, or to prepare him for what he is about to read. In general, however, a sentence without commas aimed at this objective would be just as understandable as a sentence with commas. The question is, would it be as effective?

 

Let’s look at an example, in fact the one on which Ms. Truss based the title of her book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”:

 

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other customers.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China that eats shoots and leaves.”

 

This, of course, is a pun, a play on words, as are many language-based jokes. However, in reality, if you heard a zoologist say that a panda is a large, bear-like animal that eats shoots and leaves, it is highly unlikely that you would make such a bizarre interpretation. Why? Because to a large extent, meaning depends on context. The same word or sentence in one situation may have an entirely different meaning in another situation, depending on what precedes it.

 

For example, if you heard someone say, “I like dogs,” your first thought would probably be that dogs are his or her favorite domestic animal. On the other hand, if it were preceded by the question, “What is your favorite food?” the same statement would have an entirely different meaning. Because of context, it is highly unlikely (if not virtually impossible) that anyone would confuse the two meanings.

 

Let’s return to the idea of the comma being a pause and see how it could be used to enhance understanding by either avoiding confusion or creating emphasis. You have already seen several examples of it in this article.

 

Consider the paragraph:

English punctuation may have changed, but change does not ipso facto equate with decline. By such an argument, American punctuation would have to be considered a debasement of British punctuation, from which it derives.

 

In both sentences, the commas could quite easily have been left out in order to read:

English punctuation may have changed but change does not ipso facto equate with decline. By such an argument American punctuation would have to be considered a debasement of British punctuation from which it derives.

 

The two paragraphs have exactly the same meaning, which no one would misinterpret. However I think you will agree that they don’t have quite the same emphasis.

Let’s try another experiment.

 

Poor

When I was a very young child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said an insurance salesman which of course surprised them because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.

 

Better

When I was a very young child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an insurance salesman, which of course surprised them because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.

 

Best

When I was a very young child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an insurance salesman. This of course surprised them, because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.

 

Let me be perfectly clear. I am in no way advocating that punctuation should not be taught as part of any literate person’s basic education. What I am advocating is that punctuation not be taught as “rules” cast in stone. Because in most cases they aren’t rules at all, but rather conventions, i.e. general but arbitrarily agreed ways of doing things.

 

If they were truly rules, then Ms. Truss, who is British, would have had no need to create a separate American edition of her blockbuster book. The original version would have sufficed for any and all English speakers, anywhere in the world.

 

I personally lament the declining use of commas. I tend to use more commas than many younger writers. I also recognize that I probably overuse commas, but this is how I was taught. I have made a conscientious effort to reduce the number of commas in my texts. Not to follow the fashion. In certain instances I was taught to use commas obligatorily, even if they serve no purpose. However if they serve no purpose, then why use them?

I am now perfectly at ease about not using “obligatory” commas when there is no obvious need for them. However I judiciously include them whenever I feel a pause or a bit of emphasis would be useful.

 

In other words, I am inconsistent. I sometimes use a comma after “thus,” “therefore,” etc., and other times I don’t; however I consistently make this a conscious decision. I no longer automatically put in commas because this is how I was taught, anymore than I automatically leave them out in order to follow the trend.

 

In short, I use commas (and all other forms of punctuation) to build the best possible text I can. One whose basic meaning is impeccably clear, together with any pauses and emphases necessary to help the reader better understand and assimilate everything the text is truly trying to say.

 

Isn’t this what effective writing is all about?

Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.

 

He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun’: Glock, Stock, and Millions of Smoking Guns; The Right Handgun at the Right Time

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Glock: The Rise of America's Gun': Glock, Stock, and Millions of Smoking Guns; The Right Handgun at the Right Time

Quoting Winston Groom’s immortal, eponymous Forrest Gump character, when it comes to the Glock autoloader pistol: “Ugly is as ugly does.”

 

Paul M. Barrett in “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun” (Crown Publishers, hardcover edition published earlier this year; 304 pages, notes, index, $26.00, to be published in January 2013 in a quality paperback edition) says that when itinerant U.S. firearms salesman Karl Walter first saw a Glock in 1984, his reaction was, “Jeez, that’s ugly.” The gun wasn’t even a blip on the U.S. firearms market, but in the wake of a horrendous shoot-out in Miami, the advantages of the large capacity pistol soon became apparent. The bad guys were using high capacity rifles — like the Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle employed in the April 11, 1986 Miami shoot-out — and the cops were firing six-shot .38 caliber revolvers that were slow to reload.

Introduced in 1982, the standard semi-automatic Glock (Model 17) could fire as many as 17 rounds from its magazine without reloading (one equipped with an extended thirty-three cartridge magazine was used in Tucson to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others). It was built with only 36 parts that were interchangeable with those of other models. You could drop it underwater, toss it from a helicopter, or leave it out in the snow, and it would still fire. It was reliable, accurate, lightweight, and cheaper to produce than Smith and Wesson’s revolver. Made in part of hardened plastic, it was even rumored (incorrectly) to be invisible to airport security screening. (Full disclosure: I own two Glocks, a Model 17 and a Model 26 “Baby” Glock, the compact version that Barrett discusses in Chapter 13 “Pocket Rockets”).

Gaston Glock was a small-time manufacturer with a business that produced shower curtain rods and products for the Austrian army — including an entrenching tool that my gun dealer tried to sell me other day — and knives. He had absolutely no experience making guns, which turned out to be an advantage. Fashioning a dummy from two pieces of wood to get the angle of the grip to the gun right, he told his designers to keep it simple, and make it rugged and reliable — goals they accomplished. Competing against established gun makers like Beretta and Steyr and Belgium’s FN, his Glock 17 passed the army’s tests with the proverbial flying colors and was adopted as the standard 9 mm sidearm, replacing the outdated Walther P38. 

 

Paul M. Barrett

Paul M. Barrett

 

A great start, but that was only the beginning, writes Barrett in prose that novelist Elmore “Dutch” Leonard (“Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight”, “Be Cool,” “Jackie Brown”) would be proud of.

 

As a matter of fact, characters in “Glock” are straight out of a Dutch Leonard caper novel. Gaston Glock, born in 1929, , who liked to be surrounded by beautiful women whom he liked to hug and touch (he divorced his wife of many years and married a woman more than 40 years his junior); a marketing team that treated visiting gun dealers and distributors to nights out at Atlanta’s Gold Club upscale strip joint; a Luxembourg deal maker who was convicted in a plot to kill Gaston Glock and take over his company; an equally out-of-control lawyer in Glock’s American headquarters in Smyrna, GA who skimmed money from the immensely profitable firm; a beautiful stripper named Sharon Dillon who was the hit of gun conventions, and many, many more.

Walter, lawyer Richard Feldman and his pal fellow lawyer Paul Jannuzzo (the out-of-control guy) and publicist Sherry Collins were among the key people who contributed to Glock’s success in the U.S., by far the biggest gun market in the world. It took a lot of convincing to get conservative police forces to abandon their trusty if small capacity .38 caliber wheel guns, but people like Collins, who worked for Smith & Wesson before joining Glock, did the deed. Today more than two-thirds of police forces have standardized on various models of Glocks. Even in New York City, which fought the legalization of Glocks in the Big Apple, Glocks are one of the guns authorized for use by the NYPD.

 

On of my favorite anecdotes in the book involves Steve Melvin, the CEO of Smith & Wesson, who in 1991 gathered his executives in a conference room. He had brought a Glock 17 with him to the meeting and as Barrett recounts: “he [Melvin] took out the (unloaded) pistol and slammed it on the conference table. ‘If you can’t come up with a better handgun than the Glock, then copy the motherfucker!

 

Copy it they did — getting sued by Glock in the process — with a lame excuse for a gun called the Sigma, a poorly executed polymer and steel Glock ripoff that my gun dealer won’t take in trade on another new or used gun; it’s that poorly designed and built. The venerable firearms company later came out with a much better M&P model. Other manufacturers followed suit, but if you want a Glock — as so many people do — you’re best off buying the real thing — a Glock! I briefly owned an S&W 9mm Sigma and it was a miserable shooter.

 

Barrett includes an epilogue in his book that tells where the characters are now. Glock Inc.’s senior executive, Paul Jannuzzo is in prison, facing a trial; Luxembourger Charles Ewert, who was convicted of hiring the hitman who slammed Gaston Glock with a rubber hammer in July 1999, is in prison in Luxembourg. Sharon Dillon, the blonde stripper who was the face — and the body — of Glock? She “exchanged her fame for anonymity; she could not be reached.” Sherry Collins, who came from S&W to being a winner at Glock. Fired!

Based on fifteen years of research, Barrett’s book chronicles the weapon that has become known as American’s gun. Today the Glock pistol has been embraced by two-thirds of all U.S. police departments, glamorized in countless Hollywood movies, and featured as a ubiquitous presence on prime-time TV. It has been rhapsodized by hip-hop artists, and coveted by cops and crooks alike. And, as I can personally attest, it’s a great shooter.

About the Author

Paul M. Barrett is an assistant managing editor of Bloomberg Businessweek. He is the author of “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion” and “The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America”. Barrett lives and works in New York City. For more information, go to www.GlockTheBook.com.

S&P/CASE-SHILLER: Home Prices Increase 1.5% in July 2012; U.S. Home Prices Back to Summer 2003 Levels

  • By David M. Kinchen 
S&P/CASE-SHILLER: Home Prices Increase 1.5% in July 2012; U.S. Home Prices Back to Summer 2003 Levels

Data through July 2012, released Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, showed average home prices increased by 1.5% for the 10-City Composite and by 1.6% for the 20-City Composite in July versus June 2012. For the third consecutive month, all 20 cities and both Composites recorded positive monthly changes. It would have been a fourth had prices not fallen by 0.6% in Detroit back in April.

As of July 2012, average home prices across the United States are back to their summer 2003 levels for the 20-City Composite and to autumn 2003 levels for the 10-City Composite. Measured from their June/July 2006 peaks, the decline for both Composites is approximately 30% through July 2012. For both Composites, their July 2012 levels are approximately 7.5-8.0% above their recent early 2012 lows.

“Home prices increased again in July,” said David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices, the leading measure of U.S. home prices. “All 20 cities and both Composites were up on the month for the third time in a row. Even better, 16 of the 20 cities and both Composites rose over the last year. Atlanta remains the weakest city but managed to cut the annual loss to just under 10%.”
“Digging into the numbers, 15 cities and both Composites had stronger annual returns in July’s report,” Blitzer added. “New York was the only city with a worse 12-month decline in July than June. Dallas and Washington D.C. saw no change in their annual rates. Cleveland and Detroit saw annual rates decelerate in July versus June, although they remain positive for both cities.”

“The news on home prices in this report confirm recent good news about housing,” Blitzer noted. “Single family housing starts are well ahead of last year’s pace, existing home sales are up, the inventory of homes for sale is down and foreclosure activity is slowing. All in all, we are more optimistic about housing. Upbeat trends continue. For the third time in a row, all 20 cities and both Composites had monthly gains. Stronger housing numbers are a positive factor for other measures including consumer confidence.”

Among the cities, Miami and Phoenix are both well off their bottoms with positive monthly gains since the end of 2011. Many of the markets we follow have seen some decent recovery from their respective lows – San Francisco up 20.4%, Detroit up 19.7%, Phoenix up 17.0% and Minneapolis up 16.5%, to name the top few. These were some of the markets that were hit the hardest when the housing bubble burst in 2006. The 10-City has increased 7.4% and the 20-City 7.8% since their recent lows. The positive news in both the monthly and annual rates of change in home prices over the past few months signals a possible recovery in the housing market.

The 10- and 20-City Composites posted annual returns of +0.6% and +1.2% in July 2012, up from their unchanged and +0.6% annual rates posted for June 2012. Fifteen of the 20 MSAs and both Composites posted better annual returns in July as compared to June 2012. Dallas and Washington D.C. saw no change in their annual rates; and Cleveland, Detroit and New York saw their rates worsen in July, with respective returns of +0.4%, +6.2% and -2.6%. After nine consecutive months of double digit annual declines, Atlanta finally improved to a -9.9% annual rate in July 2012, but still the worst among the 20 cities followed by S&P Dow Jones Indices.