Author Archives: Hal Stern

The International Bank of Stern

I honestly forget who introduced me to Kiva — maybe my former co-worker Dr Jim, definitely one of the more socially minded people at Sun Microsystems in the pre-Oracle days. I just made my 140th Kiva loan, bringing my total notional amount to just shy of $4,000. With a 2017 resolution to do more social good and build bridges, I made a small donation to Kiva and topped off my account so that I was able to fund seven new loans today, primarily using the balance from previous repayments over the last six months.

Some interesting statistics, most taken from my private page, a few from my public lender profile:

  • Loans made: 140. Under 2% of them have run into payment delinquency, and less than 0.7% have defaulted.
  • Total amount loaned: $3,990 (this includes re-loaning funds that have been repaid). I’ve benefitted from six different promotions, and over the course of eight years as Kiva lender I’ve re-loaned each dollar about twelve times. That is a remarkably efficient velocity of money given the frequently retrograde payment, disbursement and records keeping mechanisms in play.
  • I’ve invited 26 people to Kiva and they have made an aggregate of 199 loans. More than half of the total I’ve invested in Kiva ($475 of the $770) has been in the form of gift cards – one of my favorite gifts to give for someone who has everything including elegance in giving their time and energy.
  • Of the $295 out of pocket I’ve invested in Kiva, about $25 has gone to currency loss and $25 to default. At about 0.7% each, those rates are less tha one-third of what you pay in credit card currency translation or the national average credit card default rate. In short, banking the unbanked is better business.
  • Demographics: 35 countries, 16 sectors, 64 field partners and 68% of loans to women. That’s what empowerment looks like – helping women start and grow their own businesses, with local partners interested in job creation and economic expansion rather than fees and interest rates.
  • If you’re wondering about that “International Bank” bit, it’s liberated from The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time which is an amazing introduction to the world of unbanked populations, microloans, and social impact.

    In this last batch of loans, I made sure I included a country in which I’d never made a loan before (Congo and Peru), and a segment I hadn’t funded (arts). Of course, I also made a few new loans in Rwanda, where I’ve seen excellent performance of the portfolio and have had a personal interest since our daughter spent a month in the hills teaching English. My investment strategy is simple: I am for loans that are under 12 months in duration (because it allows me to turn the funds over, and because I believe that limits the dynamic range of delinquency events). Look for field partners who have experience, low default rates, low currency risk, and make an about-market return on their funds (so they aren’t taking advantage of their local customers, but aren’t in the money losing business).

    High notional volume, low return, multi-party mutual funding — it’s the model that grew the American insurance businesses through the 1950s, and now it can grow small scale business opportunity. If you grew up in the Tri-State Area and remember Phil Rizzuto pitching for the Money Store, it’s that idea taken globally.

    Always Play The Over

    I have told my kids, half-jokingly, to always play the over in life. Most sporting events have a sports book line on the total score, with even money bets offered on the total being over or under the established line. An NHL game might have an over/under of 5.5 goals; Super Bowl LI’s over/under was 58 points (a record high); a boxing match over/under may involve the number of rounds before a knockout.

    Always play the over. If wager on the under, you’re betting on something not happening. You’re hedging against faith, spirit, confidence, and good luck. Those bets may pay off sometimes, but against a large cross section of people, over time, they lose. Jodi Picoult, a favorite author, wrote that sometimes a miracle isn’t what happened but what didn’t; that case is the strong exception. The Patriots coming back from 25 points down to tie, then win the game? You don’t bet against that. A Super Bowl that had a scoreless first quarter ending in 62 total points? The only thing that was freaking out Vegas odds makers was the Super Bowl ending with a sack in the end zone for a safety, New England by 2 and only 58 total points. But that’s a bet on a miracle; a bet on motivated teams produced a favorite covering, the over covered, and somehow, another Super Bowl title for New England. Like the Voldemort lookalike on their helmets: you count them out and they come return in some weird configuration to take the day, again.

    Always play the over in life. Don’t bet against yourself, your peers, your friends, your like-minded but unknown teammates. Doing so is a lack of confidence and hope, both of which are in short supply in some quarters.

    Living Through The Narrative Arcs

    We are all more exposed and more immersed in celebrity deaths with the advances in social media because we get to gauge the reactions of our friends and family to events that may have only been tangential to our lives. Yes, I was saddened by the death of David Bowie, but immediately thought of college friends who idolized him in each of his musical phases; of friends’ bands who learned “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and not much else; of my fellow Phish fans who can generate a grin simply by saying his name with appropriate cadence. Prior to our ability to broadcast our feelings, I’m not sure I would have stepped backwards quite as far with his passing.

    Carrie Fisher threw me for a short non-infinite loop, and the timing having just finished “Princess Diarist” and the theatrical release of “Rogue One” was eerie.

    When the celebrities have loomed larger in our childhood hagiographies, when the heroines and stars and swashbucklers of the stories we idolized in our formative years die in real life, we are, suddenly, trying to see the next chapter in the story no matter how long it’s been relegated to the recesses of happy memory. Billy Crystal wrote that Mickey Mantle’s death forced him into adulthood; when we are faced with the narrative arcs in real life taking the dramatic turn where the hero, the inspiration, the leader dies, we are immersed in that story not as a character but as a contemporary.

    This is why Facebook amplifies these feelings — clearly, Facebook has become the narrative channel of the late boomers, while our kids use Snapchat and Instagram and more image based tools, we cling to the notion that we’re writing our own great American stories, all of the time. Facebook just lets us do it simply and immediately, incorporating real world events into the narrative arcs in a way that would make EL Doctorow or Jo Walton proud.

    We can argue that statistically 2016 was a rough year for celebrities, but it’s more likely that our longer term view of celebrity has been amplified by improved average life span, more media coverage, and franchise reboots that remind us of the earlier, simpler parts of our own stories.

    Do take events as turning points in the story line: What happens next is up to us, and that’s the thought I’m riding into 2017.

    A Snowy Hockey Morning

    We’re in the last weekend of youth hockey games before the Christmas break, the last few practices before the true winter stretch of tournaments and games bracketed by short days and weekends absent football. I woke up to a few inches of fresh snow yesterday, noticing the deer and rabbit tracks across the front porch, just enjoying the feeling of a true hockey morning.


    I’ve been slowly reading bits and pieces of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti’s A Great and Glorious Game and stumbled upon his perfect summation of the nation’s pastime: It’s about going home. The scoring, the imagery, even the neighborhood love we sprinkle on the grass of our city’s ball fields are all about home: home runs, stealing home, pitch reaching home plate, home team batting last.

    Football, on the other hand (and not to channel too much George Carlin here) is about defense. Protect the quarterback, block for the ball carrier, defend the end zone, tough pass defense, defend our house. It is indeed a game of inches, as that’s how turf is defended, a lineman’s step at a time.

    Hockey, especially on a snowy winter morning, is about going places. It’s about going to the net, going to the puck, going out when most would prefer to stay indoors in the warmth of bed and the light of a morning read. My favorite memories as a hockey parent and manager were about going places, whether it was a ride to a rink in which we lost a muffin in the luggage rack (don’t ask), or the long gentle drive to a weekend in Lake Placid. Hockey, like baseball and football, has boundaries of play, but you can play off the boundaries; even the boards take you someplace unexpected (ideally behind a unsuspecting defender).

    As parents, coaches, managers and spectators, we watch as the young hockey players are forever skating away from us, coming back a little older, a little more certain, a bit more self confident and hopefully grateful for the journey.

    30 Days of Giving 6 7 8 9 10: Giving Voices

    So much for the daily updates on this topic — I didn’t forget, I just got buried with work projects and post-Thanksgiving turkey recovery. Here’s a quick catch up to get us to the 1/3 point: I’m trying to fund voices that need to be heard.

    Day 6: CaringBridge. When my friends Kevin and Sari’s son was critically injured in a late season ski accident, we were able to his treatment, recovery and progress via CaringBridge. When you want to communicate with a large audience but don’t have the emotional or physical strength to be on email or the phone, CaringBridge provides a mediated, modulated voice to inform those who want to know, and to receive their good words without further taxing your mental reserves.

    Day 7: The Electronic Frontier Foundation. You have a safe voice online because of the work of the EFF, who have been fighting since 1990 to protect encryption, privacy and individual rights. I’ll admit to spluring on this one, going for the $65 funding level so I can get a cool encryption t-shirt.

    Day 8: Immigration Equality, through my friend Alan’s fundraiser. What if you came to the United States seeking safety and asylum, knowing that giving voice to your true identity as LGBQT or HIV+ would effectively be a death sentence in your home country? Immigration Equality provides legal assistance to those people who need it the most.

    Day 9: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. Not just once voice but hundreds, carefully restored and playable in what is now the Macys in Center City Philadelphia. I’ve been fascinated with pipe organs since discovering that the late Chris Squire (Yes bassist) made his musical debut on the church organ, and some of the most complex polyphonic classical pieces were written for organ (Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, long before it was adapted by Jaco Pastorius for bass):

    The former Wanamaker store holds something of a place of honor in various parts of my family, and the organ is cranked up for a fairly regular holiday concert schedule starting about now.

    Day 10: Wikimedia Foundation. The voice of reason in online content, Wikimedia Foundation are the people who bring you Wikipedia, and do so without a single display ad or sponsorship. Wikipedia represents one view of democratic voices: crowdsourcing content such that the truth slowly converges not to what one person or one writer thinks, but to what the most people find the most reputable, corroborated and reliable over time. Imagine if all of life had “citation needed” or “This article needs improvement” overlays: we’d cut down on a lot of misinformation and encourage people to discover facts, figures and forces for themselves.

    30 Days of Giving 5: Heinlein Society

    I was introduced to science fiction by the Laura Donovan Elementary School librarian, who picked out a Robert Silverberg book for me to read. I’m pretty sure I read it at least three times, given the rather narrow selection of the genre in 1969 — but then I was introduced to the Monmouth County Library system, where Robert Heinlein, Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and others awaited. Science fiction has continued to be a staple of my life, with John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, and a host of others filling my head with visions of what is possible, impacts of the future on current policy and politics, and how we might bridge the present and the near present.

    I discovered the Heinlein Society through a posting on John Scalzi’s annual holiday postings, where he allows readers to represent their artistic and charitable works to a wider audience. The Heinlein Society attempts to pay forward the legacy of one of the greats of the genre, and my donation supports its educational efforts. Hat tip to both Scalzi for networking good works, and to friend Marc for renewing my interest in my first sci-fi literary crush over a series of breakfasts.

    Day 5: Support the Heinlein Society with a one-time, one year membership.

    30 Days of Giving 4: Movember

    I’ve been supporting Movember for three of the past five years. Movember exists to raise awareness and funding for men’s health issues, in particular testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and mental health. The Movember motto is simple: stop men dying young. I’m reminded of Billy Tucker, guitarist of Regressive Aid (for those of you in the Princeton/New York area in the early 80s), and guitar teach to Michael Melchiondo (a/k/a Dean Ween) who committed suicide after a prolonged illness for which he could never find sustained pain relief. More recently, keyboard and prog rock pioneer Keith Emerson also took his own life rather than face diminishment of his virtuosity.

    I’ve supported my own campaign (I’m committed to doing 50% more physical activity this month than usual; rather than growing some gnarly facial hair that scares small children at the onset of the holiday season). But if you want the true experience of supporting someone with a great ‘stache, who does good work in addition to being a good role model, hit up Devils forward Adam Henrique (yes, I supported his campaign too, because I find it weird I’m out pacing him in anything in life — until he chips in his contributions for his work on the ice).

    30 Days of Giving 3: American Special Hockey

    While football is the typical Thanksgiving sports association, once the Bubba started playing travel hockey we took our post-meal show on the road in ice rinks around the Northeast. Hockey tournaments are a unique bonding experience – you can feel just about every emotion from joy to fatigue to friendship to frustration to amazement. I believe that the players I’ve coached and managed benefitted from hockey tournaments by learning how to represent our club, our team and themselves in public, in charged situations, and with grace in both victory and defeat. Each calendar demarcation carries some hockey tournament association – our annual Mites Shamrock St Patrick’s Day weekend, the Thanksgiving “shoot outs”, President’s Weekend, and the last weekend in March, which we historically spent in Lake Placid.

    Along the way, we got to know some of the players and coaches with American Special Hockey, a program that provides hockey experiences for players with a variety of disabilities. Our New Jersey Devils Youth club has created the Dare Devils Program that matches junior mentor coaches with players and hosts an annual Halloween weekend hockey tournament for other special needs teams, so that players of all abilities get to enjoy this unique experience, forever tied to a holiday weekend. Get a personal look at the impact of the program in this (now 10 year old) clip from Linda Ellerbee’s Nick News and yes, you may recognize one of those junior coaches in his much younger days.
    If you want to cut to the special hockey segment, it starts at 19:11

    Day Three: I’m giving to American Special Hockey (you can choose a specific local club to support; I’m putting my donation to work for our NJ Dare Devils).

    Fighting the Loss Of Peoplehood

    Thanksgiving seems an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be part of a people – not a person, but a member of a group that provides some context for your life. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to provide a respite in the fighting of the Civil War, a much needed break to reflect on a tortuous path to the present.

    I became fascinated with the idea of peoplehood five years ago when my wife and I participated in a two-year project to explore where we came from with cohorts from Israel and northern New Jersey. Our group included those of Ukranian, Georgian, Moldovan, Russian, Moroccan, Yemenite, eastern European, western European, Latin American and Israeli descent. For two years we wrestled with the question of “what does it mean to be a people” – not a race, not a religion, not a geography, not any physically identifying characteristic – just a people. It’s a hard question. It gets to the issue of what it means to be part of the American people.

    Things crystallized for me over the course of just a few months. In April 2013 we visited Babi Yar, the site of a WWII mass murder of Jews on the outskirts of Kiev. I lost my composure; I could not help but think, as we stood on the side of a ravine while people pushed baby strollers and skateboarded through the park, that I was standing grave side for some members of my family that never left that part of Russia in the early 20th century. Our peoplehood survived that horror.

    Two days later, we were back in Israel, celebrating Independence Day, when my Twitter feed lit up about the Boston Marathon bombing, an attempt to strike fear into the very city that had been so critical in defining American peoplehood. Our Israeli hosts, most of whom had been literally under rocket attacks over the previous months, instantly knew how to comfort us. Our peoplehood bridged that horror.

    It wasn’t until months later, during a family celebration that involved reading the Torah portion Ki Tavo that the pieces fell into place. Ki Tavo starts with a celebration of all of the wonders that the promised land will bring the Jews, if only they can act ethically and morally. The passage contains a long and Biblically colorful list of curses — not verbal but life-affecting disasters — that befall those who fail to keep their end of the behavioral bargain. The last curse is that you’ll be returned to Egypt – the implication is that you’re reverted to slavery. You have to read the passage in an undervoice so as not to call undue attention to it.

    The worst curse in the Torah is that you lose your place in a people, your sense of peoplehood, your personal set of tribes.

    That’s why I’m dedicated to standing up and working with those who feel that their peoplehood is threatened. Whether skin color or country of origin or the way you express your faith, your love, your gender, your desire to control your own body, your need for healthcare, your need for chronic care, or just your eating preferences, the most American – ethical, moral, leading the world – thing I can think of is to help protect your rights of being and belonging.

    [Ed note: if you want an interesting take on the need to co-exist within peoples of all stripes and shapes, read the interpretation of “exile” in this Torah portion.]

    [Ed note 2: I decided to transcribe this into a blog post after reading this piece in the Times (NSFW language), h/t to Alan and others for sharing it]