Archive for August, 2009

Isten Aldd Meg a Magyart

Many of you know that I speak Hungarian.  I spent two years living in Budapest beginning when I was 19, learned to love the country and the people, and to speak the language fluently.  Natively, almost.  I still follow Hungarian politics and (especially) sports, which means that my heart swells with joy to note that Videoton (Fehervar) is leading NB1 with 9 points from the first 3 games played this year.

But enough of that.  I want to tell you about one of my heroes.  His name is Bella Arpad (Hungarians reverse the given and family names, like the Chinese, so you’d call him Arpad if you were his friend, and Lt. Colonel Bella if you weren’t), and you’ve never heard of him.

August 20 is St. Istvan Napja (St. Stephen’s Day) in Hungary, also once called Felszabadulas Napja (Liberation Day) when the country was a Soviet satellite, the day, Hungarians joked in that fatalistic way of theirs, that Hungary was liberated from its freedom.  Twenty years ago today, on the eve of the biggest holiday on the Hungarian calendar, the Hungarian anti-communist opposition decided to hold a picnic.

The idea was that after the picnic the Hungarians would cross the border into Austria at Sopronpuszta, a crossing that had been closed since 1948, go to some historic sites – most of Austria at that crossing was once a part of Hungary – and come home.  Hungarians could, and did, cross the border into Austria fairly simply, though doing it often was not recommended, and of course some couldn’t do it at all, but as a symbolic gesture it was to have been a demonstration of growing power on the part of the opposition.

Then something wonderful happened.  Well, it’s wonderful now.  Then, it was mostly brave, and scary.

Some East Germans came to the picnic.  “Some” means 600 or so.

Now, as Hungary was definitely the most liberal, most West-leaning of the Soviet Bloc countries, so East Germany was the most conservative, the most East-leaning of them.  Getting out of East Germany to West Germany was next to impossible without a bullet in the back.  But the East Germans could go from Soviet Bloc country to Soviet Bloc country with only minor paperwork, so they came to Hungary for a picnic.  And when the time came for the Hungarians to cross the border, a whole bunch of the East Germans said they were going, too.

Here’s where my hero comes in.

Lt. Colonel Bella Arpad was on duty that day, guarding a border crossing that no one had crossed for over 40 years.  Up the road came about 150 East Germans, leaving their cars, their possessions, everything they had behind them.  They had no permission to cross, no visas, nothing but determination.

Now, to you and me, this sounds rather simple.  What’s the problem?  Just let the people go.  But you have to understand that to Arpad, this was not simple at all.  He was in charge there.  His superiors were, interestingly, on vacation or suddenly unavailable.  One of his 5 men was almost certainly an informant of the secret police.  He had no orders about any East Germans.  These were people from another country trying to use him as a bridge to get to the West, and as refusing them might lead to trouble, so letting them go could precipitate an international incident.  There were 80,000 Russian troops stationed in Hungary.  If the Soviets decided that Hungary was losing commitment to the Glorious Revolution, it would take them all of a day and a half to go through and kill everyone insufficiently committed.  There was precedent.

In 1956, Hungarians staged a great uprising against the Soviets.  Led by Prime Minister Nagy Imre and others, Hungarian students and protesters took over Budapest and had a brief – one week – festival of liberation.  Then the Soviets came back with their tanks, and crushed the rebellion.  25,000 Hungarians died.  Even owning newspapers from that event was enough to get one arrested.  I know.  I saw some of these papers, showed to me in the strictest confidence, with whispers and gestures, papers buried in storage, hidden under other, more innocuous paraphernalia.  The Hungarians didn’t forget 1956.  Hungarians still remember Mohacs, for crying out loud.  They’re still bitter about World War I.

The BEST that was likely to happen was that Lt. Col. Bella would lose his job.  And never get another one.  He could end up in prison (very likely).  His family could end up in prison, because communist governments resemble the Mafia – they take out everyone that might be contaminated by you, just as a precaution.  So here he is, at the end of a gravel road, and coming toward him is the Seventh Circle of Hell.

His weapon was loaded.  All his men were armed.  He only had to give the order.

So he didn’t.

In fact, he waved them through.  He gave directions, for crying out loud.  East Germans were running around, screaming, crying, unable to believe that they were, for the first time in most of their lives, free.  To do whatever they wanted.  Shop, work, travel, anything.  And it became obvious right away that this wasn’t some sort of aberration, a lucky break for this group that wouldn’t be tolerated again.  The East German people heard about this in about .4 seconds, and they started coming in droves.  You remember the amazing pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down?  That was three months later.  All dams eventually burst, and this one came down like all the others, but it was at Sopronpuszta that was the first serious leak.  Lt. Colonel Bella Arpad was there, and he could have plugged it.

He’s one of my heroes because he didn’t.

Hajra Magyarorszag!

P.S. Here’s the AP story on this, and it has this great passage in it:

Laszlo Nagy, one of the organizers of the picnic, was startled by the East Germans’ actions, who left behind hundreds of cars and other possessions near the border for the chance to make the short walk to a new life in the West.

“Some of them were waiting for this moment for 20 or 30 years,” Nagy said. “They left behind everything … because freedom has the greatest value.”


Thank you, my friend.

RateWatch – What Goes Down Must Come Up

Market: following last week’s meltdown, we were due for move movement higher in the bond market, and we’ve been getting it all this week.  Today we’re up a modest 25bps, but that follows three out of four days of decent gains.  We’re not back to two weeks ago, but we’re not far off it.  Still at about 5.25% on the FHA, with conventional in that range as well, depending on, as you know by now, several dozen factors.

Analysis: markets are funny things.  They’d be much more predictable if they weren’t being operated by humans, who tend to overreact to everything.  When economic data is less negative than expected, they buy things really fast, which leads to selling them equally fast when data is less positive than expected.  Right now, it appears the economy is starting to bottom out, or at least the rate of descent is slowing.  But it never slows in a gentle curve; there are bumps and bruises along the way.  Those bumps are what we’re seeing now.  It’s keeping rates generally down, and allowing us to lock on the dips.

Apropos of this, let me remind everyone that being able to lock your rate is a function of having a great deal of information about your loan already in the system when the opportunity presents itself.  Don’t be cavalier about this.  Especially in the current regulatory climate, I need far more data about what we’re doing with the loan than I once did.  If I have it, I can lock very fast.  If I don’t, I can’t lock at all.  The best defense against losing your sought-for interest rate is to work with me to get you into a lock-ready position, then we can pull the trigger at the best time for you.


Something Has Happened. What is It?

Once, I was a young kid.  I grew up in Virginia, where I got a really good education in some very decent schools.  I got fair grades, but not as good as I could have.  By far the most common comment on my evaluations from my teachers was “has so much potential.  Needs to focus.”

I was an underachiever.

My test scores were excellent.  I aced the SAT and ACT, only took them one each and almost got a perfect score on the SAT English half.  I got a good enough score on the PSAT to be a National Merit Semifinalist.  But I once failed a geometry final (although I wrote 63 pages of a post-apocalyptic romance novel in that class).  I got an F in French, for Heaven’s sake, despite the fact that I can reproduce even very complex accents and vocabularies on one or two hearings and that I learned to speak Hungarian with native radio-broadcaster fluency, following which I moved into the German house at BYU and started with German 201, speaking German full-time in the dorm, without ever having had a German class.

But I took 6 years to graduate, because I changed majors 4 times.  I got to a point in each major where I couldn’t make myself go to class anymore.  Finally I finished in Classics, Classical Civilization.  Advanced Latin and all that.  Very practical stuff.

I started in politics, because that was what my father did.  I even got an internship at the same think tank he worked at.  I hated it so much I faked getting sick to avoid going to work.  I liked battlefield politics, campaigning, so I did that a while.  Three straight campaigns, three straight losses.  I went into insurance and financial services instead of joining the National Guard.  I was Rookie of the Year there.  But by the end of my fifth year, I had one of the senior VPs of the company tell me “I don’t get you.  You do most everything right.  You have all the tools.  You should be one of the stars of the company, and I don’t understand why you’re not.”  And I wasn’t.  Eventually, I couldn’t pay rent on my very modest office and it closed.  I spent six months studying alternative currency theory, and didn’t have a job.

At the end of that period, I negotiated the sale of one of my friend’s companies to another friend’s company for $1 million.  Out of that, I landed a job with the purchasing company that lasted 2 years.  But it was a startup internet company, and it made payroll only once out of three pay periods, on average.  In there, I was hired to be the National Field Director for a presidential campaign, where my job was to parachute into trouble spots on the campaign and get people working together.  I was very good at it.  We lost anyway.  Eventually the internet company gave me stock instead of pay, and for one day I was a paper millionaire, but by the time they bought me out, the stock was worth about $100,000, and it eventually paid me about $40,000 on the sale of it.

I got fired from my next job.  On the way out, the owner said I should try mortgages.  So I did, and I liked it, and I was good at it, and it paid.  But I left the company that hired me – again, I was one of the top guys in the company – to get paid more at another company.  The new company was run by people that were, let’s say, unsuited to running a successful business.  I left just before they fired me for being unable to keep my mouth shut about it.  The next few years was round and round of hiring and firing employees, opening my own brokerage, then discovering that 2007 was not a good time to be starting a mortgage company.

But I have now landed at City 1st, and I like it.  I’m coming up on 7 years in the mortgage business, and I still like doing the work.  We’ve been in the same office now for 30 months.  During this time I’ve been the President of the Rotary Club, the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, started three other businesses (all still alive at the moment, and one of them thriving), and become a moderately sought-after writer on mortgage subjects.  We’re not rich, but we aren’t starving, either.  We’re still here, through one of the worst mortgage markets in history.

One of the things that happens as you get older is that you stop thinking that you’re going to go on getting better and better at everything.  When you’re a teenager, and even into your 20s, if you aren’t good at something, you know there’s time to improve.  Your potential is always out there farther than the place you are.  You get comments like “you have so much potential” and “one day, you could become really good at this” and “a little more experience and you could be dangerous”.

Now, though, I know that my best days on the basketball court are behind me, for instance.  I know that I very likely will not learn Russian, and I won’t ever be a quality jazz pianist, and I will officially never be on the cover of the local business magazine’s “40 under 40″ edition of top young entrepreneurs.  There are still a zillion things to improve at, I know, and this is not to minimize those things.  But for a couple years now I have felt creeping up on me a sense that the sky really is not the limit, that I have in fact reached some of my limits already, and started drifting back.

When you’re young, you don’t know how good you can be at anything.  You can always get better.  I’m just 41, but I can already see areas where I have been as good as I am ever going to be, islands of peak performance rising up out of a shrinking sea of possibilities.

But there is something not-so-tragic-about this, too.  Twice in this last couple of weeks, people that know me well have used a word to describe me that has never been used, not by anyone, not in reference to me, in my whole life.

They called me an “overachiever“.

Well.  I’m still a bit disoriented by that.  What happened?  Was my potential revealed to be not nearly as incandescently bright as my elementary-school teachers thought it was?  Have I learned to work sufficiently hard now that I can actually reach some of my potential?

I don’t know if the trend will last, obviously.  But I’ll tell you this: having all my life been labeled as a kid with unlimited potential, most of it squandered by my lack of focus and discipline, to have arrived at a point where people start to believe that I have exceeded my potential in certain areas is downright satisfying.

Being young and talented is great.  This is better.

Close, But Not Close Enough.

As I’m sure you can tell, this post refers to the US/Mexico match, which Mexico won 2-1.  They deserved to win.  I wish they hadn’t.  Below are my lessons learned from this match.

First, Charlie Davies was excellent again, and has pretty well established himself as the best US striker. That’s a pretty good rise from almost total obscurity just a couple of months ago.

Second, Brian Ching and Clint Dempsey ware both entirely invisible. Ching has amply demonstrated his complete inability to do anything useful up top, and he needs to be released with a vote of thanks and never invited back. If we demand a target forward up top, then move Dempsey there, because when he’s in the midfield, he looks lost.

Third, the midfield was very bad. Clark, Bradley, even Donovan, did nothing at all. Feilhaber was better, and Holden twice showed that as a provider of service he has no equal in the US system – too bad neither time was a forward able to take advantage.

Fourth, Bob Bradley’s subs were almost exactly what I would have done (I would have subbed Altidore for Dempsey instead of Davies, even though Davies pretended to be hurt). They worked pretty well. He obviously went for the win, which I approve of, but of course in hindsight you would have subbed on Spector to add defense and played for the draw. A draw, only the second one in history, would have been in retrospect a good result. Alas.

The US was better. But not good enough. This is a game that could have been won, but Azteca is a terribly hard arena to win in. And we are also just not quite that good.

This Is Why I Blog.

I got this from my most faithful reader.  She blames it on my last post.  I blame her mother.  Nevertheless, I’m so proud of her I could bust.

I just sent this email to my manager


I have an idea that I need your help with.� I want to work for free.� Not all the time,
but a shift here or there, maybe once a year, maybe more.� When I go to the grocery store
and they’re asking for donations for Primary Children’s� my response is always,” I
work there, I think I donate enough” but the fact of the matter is that I don’t feel
like I donate enough.� The economy is bad (this isn’t news to anyone) healthcare is
prohibitively expensive (again, not news) but here I am with a good job that (I hope) I’m
not in danger of losing, and I have insurance and .. well, I’m really blessed.� So I want
to give back.

I certainly could donate a few bucks at the grocery store, but the fact of the matter is
that I have more time than I do money, and even if I didn’t I want to do more.� I’m a
good reader, I could volunteer to read to kids, or hold hands, or wipe snotty noses but
the fact is that I have a skill (how skilled I actually am is a matter for a later
debate) both my time and my skills are valuable so why not donate them?

What’s more, I don’t think I’m the only one who does, or would feel this way.� I’d like
to try to put some sort of mechanism in place for myself and for others who would be
willing to donate their time and their skills.

I know that there are certain logistical and legal implications involved in working for
free so I’m asking for your help to get the ball rolling.� I understand that as a manager
you probably can’t publicize or encourage this kind of thing (you certainly can’t ask
your employees to work for free) but I’m not in charge of anyone, I can.� I don’t need
your encouragement but I’d like your help, if only just to point me in the right
direction and tell me who I need to talk to.

Thanks- Al

I’m holding you personally responsible.�

And when I need the encouragement that I disdained from my manager (and I’m pretty sure
that I will because even though letting me do this is pretty much a no brainer for
humans, the blood sucking fiends who run IHC are not human, and I anticipate
difficulties), and when I need help with the PR, you know who I’m coming to.� Because
let’s face it, that’s really what you do best.

Love from the workshop-Al

Please go to her blog and tell her she’s amazing.  She deserves it.