Explainer: The Federal Reserve, the Federal Open Market Committee, and Central Banking

Growing up, my family subscribed to the Toronto Star. I used to read the sports section exclusively. Eventually, I started to also read other sections — first Greater Toronto, then Entertainment, then the frontpage news section. Only now, when I visit home, do I occasionally starting to read the Business section. Looking back, I think that I started to embrace each section when I understood the domain; since I knew a lot about professional sports, I derived value from absorbing as much information about them.

For this assignment, I chose to try to understand the Federal Reserve, which holds a meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on Wednesday. The new Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen, will hold her first post-FOMC press conference to discuss the Fed’s view of the economy and the actions that it will take.

Interestingly, the Federal Reserve runs a website called Federal Reserve Education” which was very helpful for writing this explainer.

What is the Federal Reserve? What does it do?

The Federal Reserve was created by the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. It was charged by Congress to “to provide for the establishment of Federal reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.” Somewhat like the process of appointing a Supreme Court Justice, the President appoints the Chair of the Federal Reserve, but the decisions of the Federal Reserve are independent — they are not ratified by neither Congress nor the President.

Learn more: In Plain English: Making Sense of the Federal Reserve

Who is “in” the Federal Reserve? How is it structured?

While it’s commonly shortened to the “Fed”, it may be helpful to think about the full name, the “Federal Reserve System.” The Federal Reserve System includes the seven-member Federal Reserve Board of Governors (chaired by Janet Yellen), twelve regional Federal Reserve Banks, and the twelve-member Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)

Learn more: Structure of the Federal Reserve System

What’s happening at this Federal Open Market Committee meeting?

Observers are suggesting that the Fed will continue to taper its bond-buying program in place since the financial crisis. With interest rates near zero, this has been the Fed’s main instrument of stimulating the economy. Among other intended effects, buying government bonds reduces their yield, making other investments (corporate bonds, stocks, and other investment vehicles) more attractive. Despite possible signs of weakness in the economy, the Fed is expected to continue reducing its purchase levels.

Why does Ron Paul hate the Fed? Should we have a gold standard, Bitcoin, or some other kind of central banking system than the one that exists?

There is a lot to unpack in this question, but one fact that all sides can likely agree on is this: through the Federal Reserve System, the federal government has fairly powerful levers to affect monetary policy and, in turn, the economy as a whole. Some would argue that these powers can be abused; the current Federal Reserve System, is predicated on the argument that such powers are, on balance, useful and important for economic growth and stability.

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Pakistani laws and underage marriage

Last week, Pakistan’s Islamic constitutional body, Council for Islamic Ideology, decreed that Islam does not prohibit underage marriages. The council, which is responsible for giving legal advice to the government on Islamic jurisprudence, asserted that a minor girl could be married by her guardian, but she could annul the marriage before consummation as soon as she attains marriageable age. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reportedly gave tacit approval to the council’s recommendation on underage marriage.

The ruling sparked fury among women’s rights activists and civil society advocates.


“We are going backwards, instead of forwards,” said Humaira Masihuddin, a lawyer and a sharia expert, in a public program. “In sharia, state is the guardian of people’s welfare and a minor cannot enter into contract as per law. These recommendations will confuse people in the name of the sharia law,” she said.

The council should be abolished because it is extra-constitutional, said Dr Farzana Bari, a human right activist.

In contrast, conservative religious scholars defended the council’s recommendations to amend the Child Marriages Restriction Act of the penal code. Mufti Haneef Qureshi, a religious scholar, supported the suggestions made by the council. There is literally no age specified for the marriageable stage, he said.

Although Quran (VI: 6) directs that the required age at marriage is the age of intellectual maturity, the majority of early Islamic legal scholars did not hold such a reading of the Quranic text. According to one Islamic hadith, a reported tradition, Prophet Muhammad married Aisha, one of his wives, when she was six years old, and consummated the marriage when she was nine years old. Although this tradition is inconsistent with various historical facts, and modern scholarly work suggests we cannot confirm at what age Aisha’s marriage occurred. In Islam the content of a tradition (hadith) is more important than what actually took place. Hence, this particular tradition is the basis of a number of different legal traditions that sanctioned or supported child marriage. Some scholars are content with ascribing prophetic privilege to child marriage, thus proscribing it for other Muslims. There are others who argue that child marriages were a norm in the Arab social fabric of prophet’s time, therefore we cannot judge the past practice of child marriage using the norms of a modern liberal democratic society.


The Child Marriages Restriction Act was passed in 1929, prescribing penal sanctions where the bridegroom had not reached the age of 18 and the bride 14. The ordinance is part of the Indian penal code that Pakistan inherited after the partition.

Pakistan, like many other colonial states, has inherited its “ready-made” state structure from its colonial past. While the state structure is in many ways part of the western liberal democratic structure, the religious sphere in the country is still tied with Islam, which demands both public and private spheres of people governed by moral precepts of Islam.

Javed Ahmed Ghamidi— a Pakistani religious scholar who has emerged as a modern rationalist scholar and has been called “fundamentalist moderate” and “rationalist”— argues that numbers were spoken of as approximations in Arabic culture in the early Islamic period. Aisha, when speaking of her age, Ghamidi argues, was speaking in the same terms. In modern times, he says, scholars like Maulana Hakim Niyaaz Ahmad, have proven through historical reasoning that the age of Aisha at the time of her marriage and consummation was at least 16 and 19 respectively. Although Ghamidi’s interpretation of Quran appears to be “modern” and “rationalistic”, we find in his hermeneutics a tendency to singularize interpretation.  In this way, he is no different than modern conservative scholars of Islam.

“Both schools [modern rationalist and modern conservative] are entrenched in their views and have an essentialist reading of the history,” said Irfan Moeen Khan, a Ph.D. candidate in Muslim intellectual thought at the Harvard University, in an interview. A conceptual understanding of early Islamic history and tradition is essential for understanding how religion functioned in the early Islamic period, he said. The social norms, he argued, have changed now, so one would expect the paradigm of juridical reasoning to change as well. This is what many Islamic scholars like Fazlur Rahman thought, he said.

“However, I differ from him [Fazlur Rahman] in the assessment of medieval hermeneutic tradition, which he saw as static,” Khan said. “I still think that if political conditions permit, traditional Islamic law stands a better chance of creative innovation than any of the modernists.”

Understanding Khan requires a good deal of knowledge of “legal pluralism” that was characteristic of Islamic law.

In Islamic law, for any given situation requiring legal interpretation, there were “anywhere between two and a dozen opinions” and a “different jurist held each of them,” says Wael Hallaq, a leading scholar of Islamic law, in his book “An introduction to Islamic Law.

Islamic law not only took into account local custom, it also proffered a diverse range of opinions on the same set of particulars. In other words, the traditional Islamic law, if applied today, will fully take into consideration social norms and values our times. The legal pluralism, says Hallaq, “gave Islamic law two of its fundamental features, one being flexibility and adaptability to different societies and regions, and the other an ability to change and develop over time, first by opting for those opinions that have become more suitable than others to a particular circumstance, and second by creating new opinions when the need arose.”

Pakistan like other colonial states has not found an organic social and political configuration in its liberal democratic state structure. Issues, like child marriages, which are reprehensible by our standards today, can only find complete resolution in a social fabric that condemns these reprehensible acts using traditional legal precepts, which are not reactionary but rather more pluralistic and norm-based as they were in the early Islamic times.


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NBA Coaching Great Phil Jackson’s Triumphant Return to New York by Tammy Drummond


I used TImeline JS to chart Phil Jackson’s career as one of the most legendary coaches in the history of the NBA.

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This is an explainer for a Yahoo News story about the press conference Tuesday where Knicks officials introduced Phil Jackson as the organization’s new president.


Explainer:Do we really need Giant Seawalls? —-Revision after three years from 2011 Tsunami

Three years have passed since the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami which killed more than 18,000 residents of Tohoku region in northern Japan.
On a day before the memorial day for this big disaster, Japanese Prime Minister Abe made announcement at the Budget Committee of the Upper House of the Diet in Japan that he is positive about revision of the government led plan to construct giant seawalls along the coast line of the area, and will respect the intention of the local governments.

You might wonder why the government is not constructing the giant seawalls to save the lives of people in a hurry.
But stop and think. Would giant seawall, massive monolith of concrete solve everything? Let’s see what was planned, what happened to the seawalls on March 11th, and what people think now.

What is seawall
A seawall is a form of coastal defense constructed to protect inhabited areas .
At least 43 percent of Japan’s 18,594miles (29,751 km ) coastline is lined with concrete seawalls or other structures designed to protect the country against high waves, typhoons or even tsunamis. The average height of seawall is between 14.7feet to 25.6feet above the low water level.

What happened to the seawalls in Tohoku region –some survived and some not
Tohoku region has experienced 3 big Tsunamis during last 100 years, including the one in 2011. One of them came all the way from Chilean Coast (1960 Valdivia earthquake) and killed 147 people in Japan.
So they knew the importance of seawall.

There were two significant seawalls.
Fudai Village in Iwate Prefecture experienced Tsunami caused by 1896 Sanriku earthquake. The height of Tsunami was 50 feet high and killed (including missing) 1,010 villagers. In 1933, another Tsunami hit the village and took the life of six hundred people. After WW2, a village mayor insisted on construction of big seawall which is high enough to protect the village from Tsunami as high as the one in 1896. A giant seawall and lock gate was constructed spending 36 million dollar.


(Above:Left side area is the Fudai port hit by Tsunami. The village behind the wall was not damaged)
In 2011, 50 feet Tsunami hit the village. The fishing port and surrounding buildings which were out side of the seawalls were completely devastated. Tsunami was about 3 feet higher than the wall and water came into the village. But no houses nor lives within the wall was damaged.

Fudai village’s case was a lucky one. In 2011, 80% of seawalls in the area were damaged.
In Kamaishi City in Miyagi Prefecture, they had super giant seawalls. They were meant to protect both city and port and constructed at the bay entrance part. It’s seawalls were about 18 feet above sea level and its underwater parts were 200 feet depth. They costed 1.2 billion dollar and took 30 years to build. It was recorded in Guiness Book as “Super Seawall”. On March 11 of 2011, these giant walls seemed to stand fast against pushing power of Tsunami but could not resist its pulling power. Eventually 80% of the walls were broken and allowed Tsunami to hit the city center.



(Above Top: Super Seawalls at the mouth of Kamaishi bay /Above next: Seawall tore into pieces by Tsunami)
Government led project with huge budget
After the Earthquake of 2011, Jqpanese government together with 3 local governments of Tohoku region proposed Disaster Restoration Projects to build giant seawalls of 50 feet high, which are as high as 4-storied building. The total extention of seawalls would be  188 mile and the initial cost would be 10 billion dollar.
It seemed to be welcomed by people at the beginning. But as time passed by, people started to ask if they want to live near a huge wall where you cannot even see the color of the sea. No one can tell that the next Tsunami will never exceed 50 feet.
The towns near the coast line started to rebuild community on the hill, which left the areas on the shore deserted. Do we need expensive seawall to protect the place where no one lives
Two big industries in Tohoku area are fishing and sightseeing. People in the city of Kesennuma started to ask themselves “Would people come to visit the city surrounded by huge seawalls, where all you can see is huge mass of concrete?”

The Risk of Dependence on Seawalls.

It is pointed out that such hardened coastlines can also provide a false sense of security to property owners and local residents as evident in this situation.  People  narrowly missed being hit by Tsunami said, “I thought my house was safe because we had seawalls.”  Many volunteer firefighters rushed to the coast line to close the lock gate and lost their lives.

Kiyotaka Abe, 90 year old retired teacher, survived three Tsunami in his life time.”Just run up the hill as high as you can. Do not trust the words, << It only came as high as this level in the past.>>.Unexpected things do happen.”

For Whom the Wall will be built
Then media reported that there is a plan to build giant seawalls even around the uninhabited island. Municipal office of Shiogama City explained that they are meant to protect rice paddies on the island, which are not cultivated more than 10 years.


Why such a meaningless plan can easily presented.
Procedure for Disaster Restoration Projects is different from usual public undertaking.
In case of public undertaking, the verification of the cost-effectiveness,environmental assessment and  some time for consensus building with local residents are required. Disaster Restoration Projects are not required to do all these things thoroughly.

Who pays for the giant seawalls?
Most of the cost for the Projects is covered by budget for reconstruction. Japanese government raised corporation tax, income tax,and residents’ tax to cover the budget.It seems only the construction plan for giant seawalls was moving fast and talked in a loud voice. One cannot but speculate that it is because it brings huge money to the construction industry
The future image of the community in Tohoku area is not clear. There are voices that the younger generation should participate more for the reconstruction of the areas. Because they are the people who will manage the future and keep paying tax for them.


The movements among the citizen started to understand the meaning of giant seawalls and to talk about what kind of community they want in the future.The voices of young generation are gathered.High School student, Naoko Matsuda looks back the experience of Tsunami and said .”Our sea betrayed us by destroying our town. But I also have all my good memories  with sea.I cannot hate it.The adults are arguing about the height of the wall.But height is not the matter. I think most important thing is that we all should know that you have to protect your own life by yourself”.

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FOLD prototype

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.51.26 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 11.51.40 PM

Kevin and I are working on a project called FOLD, which borrows the accordion metaphor for understanding the news that Ethan described last class, and tries to anticipate the reader’s contextual needs.

FOLD allows you to expand and contract elements of a story (to get more or less detail), and associates a context bar to each section of the story. A context bar can include many elements, including historical background, maps, photographs, citizen media, videos, or technical descriptions.

From observing many people consume news, we recognize that readers spend significant time acquiring contextual information in additional browser tabs, taking their attention away from the story at hand. FOLD offers journalists a way to provide readers with a curated “tangent.”

We decided to use the FOLD prototype to create an explainer of the current situation in Ukraine and Crimea. We chose this story because historical context is very important for understanding the political, economic, and social dynamics at play in the region.

The FOLD prototype is live at fold.meteor.com (works best in Chrome for now).

Contextualizing the Crimean invasion

Ukraine reports Russian ‘invasion’ on eve of Crimea vote

Ukraine accused Russia on Saturday of invading a region bordering Crimea and vowed to use “all necessary measures” to repel an attack that came on the eve of the Black Sea peninsula’s breakaway vote.


The invasion reported by the Ukrainian foreign ministry was small in scale and concerned a region that lies just off the northeast coast of Crimea called the Arabat Spit.

The dramatic escalation of the most serious East-West crisis since the Cold War set a tense stage for Sunday’s referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine in favour of Kremlin rule — a vote denounced by both the international community and Kiev.

The predominantly Russian-speaking region of two million people was overrun by Kremlin-backed troops days after the February 22 fall in Kiev of a Moscow-backed regime and the rise of nationalist leaders who favour closer ties with the West.

President Vladimir Putin has defended Moscow’s decision to flex its military muscle arguing that ethnic Russians in Ukraine needed “protection” from violent ultranationalists — even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday that Moscow had no plans “to invade the southeast region of Ukraine.”

But the Ukrainian foreign ministry said 80 Russian military personnel had seized a village on the Arabat Spit called Strilkove with the support of four military helicopters and three armoured personnel carriers.

The ministry in a statement demanded that “the Russian side immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine.”

“Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”

Footage released….  read more

Explainer: The Physics behind planes

I have spent quite some time, trying to explain the physics and science behind how a plane gets to the sky. I initially tried to do this using an animation and got to the point where , I just had the 3 d model of the plane. Unfortunately , I realized that I was just a third of the process of doing the entire animation. So I decided to do an Xkcd style explainer similar to the one on rockets but one for planes. I hope this is easy enough. At times Physics is just that Physics, finding other words can be challenging.

Here is the link

In-Class Data Visualization Assignment

The Somerville Happiness Project tried to assess how happy the city’s residents are


Groups of 3-4 people. You have 40 minutes to explore data from the Somerville Happiness Project. Use that time to:

1) Explore the data
2) Pull in other sources of data
3) Figure out what kind of stories could be told
4) For who? Who is your audience? Where would your story/viz be published?
5) Create a paper prototype of your data story or visualization method to share with the class

Data and Resources:

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