Rachel Monroe

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Facebook’s IPO: A Good Investment? U of MD Prof Says, Maybe

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This story was originally published on Feb. 1, 2012, but given today’s Facebook IPO, we thought we’d re-run it. – The Eds.

Rumor has it that Facebook is set to file an IPO in the near future. No doubt, this will be a big deal. Not only is Facebook omnipresent in our social lives, its also helping shape our economy. A few months ago, a study showed that Facebook apps have created 182,000 jobs worth more than $12 billion. So is investing in Facebook a good idea?

Well, maybe, according to Gerard Hoberg, associate professor of finance at the University of Maryland. In the pro-column:  Facebook is already huge, and it seems like it’s here to stay. And word on the street that Morgan Stanley is underwriting the IPO. “History shows that IPOs underwritten by strong names… tend to be successful investments,” Hoberg points out. But the big question is growth. Is it possible for Facebook to get bigger than it already is? “How much upside is left?” Hoberg wonders. “Although the first day return for Facebook will likely be substantial, its long-term outlook may be average for the industry.”

So invest or not, as you see fit… but prepared for a whole lot more Facebook in your future.

This Week in Research: Fear of Falling; Building Better Banks

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People have been saying some awfully mean things about banks recently. Poor banks! They can’t help being ruthless and volatile… right? Johns Hopkins economist Caroline Fohlin doesn’t think banks should be let off the hook so easily. In her new book, Mobilizing Money:  How the World’s Richest Nations Financed Industrial Growth, she argues that it’s not the structure of banks but their behavior (and how that behavior is regulated) that has an affect on our economy, for better or worse. In other words, Fohlin’s intensive examination of the history of modern corporate finance systems reveals that there’s no “one size fits all” model that guarantees growth and stability. Instead, many different financial systems have successfully supported economic development. And so maybe instead of thinking about massive reforms to our financial systems, we should concentrate more on policy matters. “In the heat of the moment, you don’t want to react to short-term phenomena,” Fohlin says. “We need to look back over decades, and even centuries, and take into account the long-term trends in financial development over time. Do we need to completely rip up our current financial system? Probably not, when you look at the big picture.”

The body does all sorts of odd things as it ages. Its hair changes color. It stops being able to hear so well. Suddenly, simply walking down the stairs becomes more difficult. But rather than being completely separate phenomena, it turns out that some of these bodily betrayals might be related, according to recent Johns Hopkins research. After surveying thousands of middle-aged patients (age 40 to 69), researches found that people with mild hearing loss (25 decibels) were three times as likely to have a history of falling, compared to those without hearing loss; every 10 decibels above that increased the chance of falling by 1.4. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why. It could be that hearing loss makes it harder to pay attention to the outside environment, or that the brain suffers from “cognitive load” — that is, it’s too overwhelmed with input. “Gait and balance are things most people take for granted, but they are actually very cognitively demanding,” said study head Frank Lin. “If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”

Baltimore’s Own Rubik’s Cube Champion

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A Rubik’s Cube is a seemingly simple object until you start considering the math involved. That there are 43 quintillion possible opening configurations, for one. There are 239,500,800 possible edge arrangements. And if you’re Dan Cohen, you can solve the cube in ten seconds. It takes him a little longer — just over a minute and a half — to complete the puzzle with his feet.

Yes, Dan Cohen is a Rubik’s Cube champion. He’s also 22, and a candidate for a master’s in audio sciences at the Peabody Conservatory. The cube obsession began in high school, and has led him to dozens of competitions everywhere from Germany to Thailand. He placed second in last year’s U.S. Nationals, and 36th in the World Championship.

Even more impressively, Cohen is the best in the nation at the absurdly complex 4×4 and 5×5 cubes, which are a true math geek’s dream — these competitions are less about finger speed and more about understanding the algorithms. The 5×5 cube has 283 duodecillion permutations. Cohen has solved it in under a minute.

Watch a video of Cohen speed cubing here.

James Franco Talks Smart in Baltimore This Friday

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James Franco is an actor with a lot of college degrees (BA, UCLA; MFA, NYU; MFA, Columbia; PhD in progress, Yale). John Irwin is the consummate Johns Hopkins academic (tweed jacket, thick glasses, ridiculous stores of knowledge). And this Friday afternoon, the two of them will have a nice little chat about poet Hart Crane at Johns Hopkins, thus fulfilling one of the fondest dreams I never knew I had until right now.

Among his other hobbies, Franco sometimes makes films. He’s stopping by Hopkins to tout The Broken Tower, which he directed, produced, edited, and starred in. The film is about Crane, the ambitious modernist poet who drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico at age 32. Franco reportedly teaches an NYU class on translating poetry into film. Irwin has been working on a book about Crane for more than 40 years. Both of these guys are intense, and one of them is extremely handsome. This is going to be the best panel discussion you’ve ever seen.

The Broken Tower screens at 2 PM in Shriver Hall, and the panel discussion follows. Come prepared with your best esoteric question about translating Crane’s poetics into filmic language.

Treasure Trove of Baltimore’s African-American History Now Online

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It took three years and nearly half a million dollars, but the ambitious archival project to document Baltimore’s historic and groundbreaking Afro-American newspaper is now online. The project, funded by the Mellon Foundation and conducted via Johns Hopkins, was no little effort. Over its 120 years covering local, state, and national news, the Afro-American compiled more than a million photographs, and over a hundred thousand boxes and files filled with clippings, images, and correspondence.

To sort it all out, the project enlisted the help of students, researchers, and interns from Johns Hopkins, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland. They got to dig through the paper’s numerous primary source documents, some of them dating from the Afro‘s 1892 founding. (The paper is the oldest family-owned African American newspaper in the country.)

The project was a good example of Johns Hopkins putting its best foot forward — the university used its size and clout to spearhead a project that mattered to its neighborhood (the Afro is currently housed in Charles Village), its city, and the wider world. Plus, in collaborating with numerous other institutions, it proved that it can be a team player.

The work isn’t yet done; the next step will involve creating online exhibits on some of the archive’s most compelling material. But there’s plenty to check out now; visit the newly-launched website here.

Johns Hopkins Students Leading Social Change in Baltimore

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Navigating Baltimore City’s thorny special education bureaucracy. A micro-farming project that breaks up “food deserts” by harnessing the skills of refugees and immigrants who were involved in agriculture in their home projects. A science league that teaches creative thinking and science/math skills in a fun (and competitive) after-school program. Each of these projects was dreamed up and designed by a Johns Hopkins undergraduate for a three-week mini class that taught students how to draw up a business plan — and how to think thoughtfully about how they might make Baltimore a better place.

But the plans aren’t just academic theory. The class, called Leading Social Change and taught during Hopkins’ January intersession term, culminated with the brand-new Social Entrepreneurial Business Plan Competition. And the three students who won (with the projects mentioned above) each got $5,000 in seed money to make their idea a reality.

This is, it seems to me, an unabashedly good idea. Students gain real-world skills in budgeting, writing grant proposals, and coming up with innovative — and achievable ideas. And then they put those skills to use in their own communities. The class was made possible by a $75,000 gift from alumnus Christopher Drennen, who has himself learned, it seems, how to spur social change in innovative ways.

Read more about the projects and the class that inspired them here.

Baltimore’s Optimism Problem

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“America’s cities are the economic engines of the country and a driving source of optimism,” proclaims the Future Metropolis Index, a recent study that looked at American cities’ potential for future growth thanks to smart urban planning and sustainable development. But, of course, not all cities are created equally when it comes to optimism.

The study’s researchers looked at five characteristics — innovation, sustainability, vibrancy/creativity, efficiency, and livability/optimism. Unsurprisingly, San Francisco came out on top. (Clearly they didn’t adjust for affordability…) Tied for second were Seattle and DC. Baltimore ranked 20th out of the 36 cities, just a little bit less futuristic than Chicago but more than Dallas. (Last place, as always, goes to poor Detroit.)

The sad news is, Baltimore isn’t much better than Detroit, at least when it comes to what the study calls “livability and optimism.” Out of a possible 100 points, Detroit got 0. El Paso, Texas got 85. And Baltimore got 12. That’s the second-lowest in the entire country. This is mostly because of the metrics the study used — rates of unemployment, violent crime, and property crime — aren’t our city’s strong point. Still, it’s hard not to look at the other numbers and wonder if there’s a way we could do things better. After all, despite the good news around town, certain neighborhoods in Baltimore are scary places to grow up in. Our scores in the innovation and efficiency categories were quite high; if all our other numbers had measured up to these levels, we would be a top-ten city. But we don’t get to pick and choose which neighborhoods are “count” — for better or worse, we’re all in this together.

This jibes with the study’s findings that Americans are more likely to be optimistic about job prospects and economic growth than a decline in violent crime. Basically, things will get better for some of us… and more violent for everyone else. But as the numbers indicate, Baltimore can’t just focus on bolstering our higher-ed sectors and adding more free wifi spots if we hope to truly be a city of the future. Doing so will mean taking a hard look at where our city stands today — even the hard-to-look-at parts. And making plans to bring all of Baltimore into the future — not just the shiny, happy neighborhoods.

Baltimore Team Makes NCAA Tournament

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Seventeen years is a long time to wait. So it’s a good thing that last night, Loyola University (of Maryland, natch) won a basketball game that just happened to be kind of important. After beating Fairfield 48-44, Loyola clinched the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) title, earing them a spot in the 2012 NCAA tournament for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.

This is fresh territory for the Greyhounds, who have only made it to the conference finals once before, back in 1994. Since then, times got tougher. In 2003-4, the team won one game (yes, one) and lost twenty-seven, giving it the worst record in all of college basketball. But this year has been different in a lot of ways, most of them very good. Consider that if the Greyhounds win just one more game, they’ll tie the school’s record for victories in a single season… which was set back in 1948-49!

Of course, those victories become harder-won in the NCAA tournament. But head coach Jimmy Patsos believes in his team. And recent years have seen surprising upsets by smaller, lesser-known teams. Why not put them all the way in your office bracket?

Watch a video of the team celebrating here.

Parental Recommendation Letters: Creepy or Helpful?

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College recommendation letters should ideally come from someone who knows the applicant well — someone who can speak to strengths, weaknesses, hidden triumphs, and personal ambitions. Who better than mom or dad?

There are a lot of reasons why recommendation letters from parents might not seem like a good idea. That whole bias thing, for one. But an increasing number of colleges (including Smith College, the University of Richmond, and Holy Cross) allow parents to submit letters on behalf of their children. While the letters are optional, they’re proving to be popular; admissions officials at Smith estimate that nearly half of all applicants included a parental recommendation.

And though it may seem counterintuitive, the admissions team has found that parents are sometimes the best ones for giving an honest portrayal of their child. While teachers and coaches may be overwhelmed by recommendation requests and provide a letter that’s not much more than standardized praise, parents are writing only one letter. And it’s for someone they know quite well. “You might think they do nothing but brag,” said Deb Shaver, Smith’s director of admission. “But parents really nail their kids. They really get to the essence of what their daughter is about in a way we can’t get anywhere else.”

Some have objected to the parental letter practice by saying that it “advantages the advantaged,” in that lower-income applicants (especially families where English isn’t spoken at home) might be dissuaded from penning a glowing letter, and thus at a disadvantage. But Smith has found ingenious ways around that problem. Shaver remembers one parent who drove several hours to campus to give his recommendation in person, because he wasn’t comfortable writing in English.

And perhaps most importantly, the practice allows parents to feel like they’re a part of the college application race. They sing their children’s praises directly at the admissions committee and not feel like overbearing weirdos. And the heartfelt letters become family mementos in some cases. (No one’s going to read their senior-year chemistry teacher’s recommendation in ten years and start crying.)

Would you write a recommendation for your kids? Or would you want your parents to write one for you?

This Week in Research: A Complete Meltdown on Earth; Corporations Have Too Much Cash

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This one was hard for me to wrap my head around:  so, Earth used to be much smaller than it was. Geochemists at the University of Maryland can tell this from studying Earth’s mantle — the rocky layer between our planet’s metallic core and its outer crust. But back in those wild days of planet formation — that is, ten to twenty million years after the formation of the Solar System — we were getting knocked around quite a bit. And some of those collisions made our planet bigger. At some point back then, researchers posit, Earth smashed into another planet-sized body whirling through space… and thus our bratty little sister orb, the Moon, was born. But despite the many collisions, a part of Earth’s mantle stayed solid, and is part of our planet to this day. Lucky for us it worked out this way:  “Prior to this finding, scientific consensus held that the internal heat of the early Earth, in part generated by a massive impact between the proto-Earth and a planetoid approximately half its size (i.e., the size of Mars), would have led to vigorous mixing and perhaps even complete melting of the Earth.” Complete melting of the Earth! It sounds like an action-adventure movie. But when the UM researchers found volcanic rocks in Russia that were 2.8 billion years old (yep, billion with a b), they found complicated differences in isotopic composition that indicated that Earth’s mantle (or at least part of it) was able to withstand that early battering. In other words, we’ve never had a complete meltdown. Good to know.

Even in our sluggishly-recovering economy, U.S. corporations have money. Approximately $508 billion, in fact — and that’s their excess cash holdings, meaning the money they don’t need for normal operations. And while that may be less than the $2 trillion figure that gets thrown around, it’s still more than three percent of our country’s GDP. “Spending even a fraction of these cash reserves on capital investment could substantially boost economic growth and employment,” says Jeffrey Werling, who heads the University of Maryland’s Inforum Research Center. That doesn’t mean giving each American her share of the excess cash ($1,623 each!). Instead, the UM economists crunched some numbers and found that if that money was spent wisely over the next three years, it could boost the workforce by adding 2.4 million jobs in the next two years — thus reducing the employment rate by 1.5 percent. A nice added effect would be to bump the U.S. GDP up by 1 percent in 2012, 1.5 percent in 2013, and 1.6 percent in 2014. Or corporations could work together to create an “Infrastructure Bank,” which would support investing in infrastructure projects throughout the country. According to the economists’ models, this could boost investment in local, state, and federal structures by as much as $250 billion by 2016 and adding 1.1 million new jobs. How would you spend the money?

Baltimore’s Outdated Office Towers Are an Inner Harbor Problem

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When people talk about Baltimore’s vacant real estate, they’re usually referring to the blocks of dilapidated rowhouses in some of the city’s hard-hit neighborhoods. But there’s another kind of structure that worries city planners:  the 1970s-era office tower.

“Several Downtown buildings do not meet today’s standards and are considered functionally obsolete for office use, even with substantial investment,” according to the Office Vacancy Task Force. Which is a big problem, since Baltimore’s tallest building — 100 Light Street, the former Legg Mason building — is one of those outdated models. “Stuck in between the perceived coolness of early 20th century facades and the newness of all-glass towers,” Mark Byrnes writes in the Atlantic Cities blog, “these buildings are having a hard time retaining existing tenants, let alone attracting new ones.”

Another worrisome structure is 2 Hopkins Plaza, built in 1970 and smack in the middle of the Inner Harbor. It’s currently 42 percent vacant, and that’s including PNC Bank, which is scheduled to move out this summer. Some developers hope that renovations and mixed-use use residential conversions will save the buildings. Or does something more drastic need to be done?

Ten Years Post Wire: David Simon Looks Back

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David Simon’s invitation to speak at MICA last night was pegged to a new course being offered by the art school, The Wire & American Naturalism. So it was perhaps appropriate, then, that Simon himself made a comparison between his critically beloved five-season HBO program and that famous (and famously hard-to-read) American masterpiece, Moby Dick. They’re both, in Simon’s words “slow starters.”

Simon reminded the standing-room-only crowd that the show was never a fait accompli. Ratings peaked in the second season and went down from then on. The show found new life in DVD box sets, which allowed audiences to watch at their own pace — but the show wasn’t available on DVD until the third season was on air.  Many TV critics ignored the show entirely (“I don’t want to name names,” Simon said. “Nancy Franklin from the New Yorker”). And once the show started gaining momentum, that caused some problems, too. Then-mayor Martin O’Malley got “petulant” and took it out on the state’s film industry.

But in general, Simon seemed loath to talk about the show that’s brought him so much adulation and attention. Instead, he apologized for not being able to help turning every speaking engagement into a stump speech against the drug war — “a war on the underclass,” and one he says makes him ashamed to be an American. This rhetoric is familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to Simon’s work, but it’s still compelling to watch — Simon is angry and smart and happy to tell us what is wrong with the world he sees. (Simon says that it’s not so much that he’s angry, but that his family’s dinner table discussions featured rousing discussions of the day’s issues, and so he grew up with a healthy enjoyment of arguing… a quality that wasn’t so appreciated, he says, by his bosses at the Baltimore Sun.)

The question implicit in all of Simon’s pessimism (about Baltimore, sure, but also about past and present presidents; gas prices; the movies we choose to watch) is well, what can we do about it? Predictably, Simon doesn’t advocate change via established methods like voting or calling your senator. “What can you do?” he says. “If you’re a resident of Baltimore City or Baltimore County, and you’re called to serve on a jury for a non-violent drug case, you can nullify that jury. It is your absolute American right.” By refusing to flood the prisons with non-violent offenders, he says, we can all play our own small part in rebelling against a failed drug war.

Loyola Offers Innovative Online Counseling for Students

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Everyone knows how you’re supposed to deal with crushing depression:  exercise, take a walk with a friend, talk about it. But the problem is, all of those require getting out of bed, and in the toughest times even that is sometimes too much to ask.

Which is why the idea spearheaded by Loyola University’s counseling center is such a great one:  they’re using an online program intended to provide immediate, 24/7 help for students coping with trauma. The new and innovative program offers a host of benefits. It allows the school’s therapists to reach those who might not otherwise step foot into the counseling center — either because they’re too depressed to get out of bed, or because they’re embarrassed to admit they need help. Furthermore, it allows counselors to meet students in a place they’re eminently comfortable:  the internet. “They’re communicating in different ways than we grew up with,” says Jason Parcover, who oversees the center’s outreach program. “So we have to evolve with them.”

When the program launched last November, it was an immediate hit. More than 1,500 students — some from other campuses — used the program in its first two months. The program offers privacy and instant access. What it doesn’t offer is an intimate one-on-one conversation. Instead, visitors to the site can watch videos of counselors offering tips and defining terms. When users indicate they’re suffering from a certain symptom, the program reassures them that their reaction is completely normal. In this way, REACT is less of a replacement for counseling than a useful stop-gap measure that’s available 24-7, no questions asked.

It’s Final: Ripley’s Odditorium in the Inner Harbor This Summer

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The carousel’s out, so families searching for fun in the Inner Harbor this summer will be strapped for options — at least until Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (exclamation point mandatory) opens its “odditorium.” Despite eye-rolls from some quarters, the plans have been finalized and the two-story festival of wackiness is set to open its doors this June.

Ripley’s, based in Orlando (somehow not surprising) is known for its ostentatious facades and showcases of strange things. One of those strange things was the gigantic sea serpent sculpture that was planned for the museum’s exterior. Ripley’s wanted the neon-green monster to burst out of the building, its teeth bared, its tentacles coiled around a three-masted ship; city officials balked at the tackiness, and Ripley’s has agreed to tone it down. Now the giant sea serpent will appear to be devouring only the museum’s second story. Much more tasteful.

Inside the museum itself, visitors will find a 3D movie theater (although aren’t all movie theaters showing everything in 3D these days?), a mirror maze, and hundreds of “oddities,” including a mysterious yet-to-be-revealed centerpiece that’s valued at more than $1 million. If you’ve happened into the Ocean City boardwalk building that’s got a shark sticking out of it (also a Ripley’s property), you’ll have some idea of what to expect.

Christopher Schardt, senior general manager of the Harborplace calls this “the biggest change since the grand opening [of Harborplace].” Also anticipated:  Bubba Gump shrimp company taking over the former Phillips Seafood spot, a new food court, and a re-opened Johnny Rockets. So, will you be spending your summer at the Inner Harbor?

Coolest New College Minor: Space

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Having a college minor always seemed a little silly to me. It was like officially declaring a hobby — here’s something I’m interested in only enough to take six classes in it. But a just-announced program at Johns Hopkins may have changed my mind.

Because now you can minor in space. Yes, space. Not physics, or Earth and planetary sciences, or engineering, or astrophysics, or whatever. Space! More broadly, “space science and engineering.” Space-minors will have to take an introductory course, plus four extra classes that fit around a particular theme. (The program’s website offers a few awesome-sounding ideas:  exoplanets! exosolar biology! spacecraft design!) To cap things off, students will find an internship that allows them some hands-on practice with all their cool new space knowledge.

Hopkins students have reacted to the new minor with predictable, endearing, nerdy enthusiasm. “Dinosaurs and space are my two passions,” said Hopkins sophomore Jessica Noviello, who gets to take dinosaur classes as part of her Earth and planetary sciences major. Now that she can be a space minor, she is, as she says, “living the dream.”

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