A Lasting Legacy

When Lucille Rader died in 2015 at age 92, she left a large portion of her estate to an eponymous foundation she’d created in 2000 to fund college scholarships for girls.

The Lucille Rader Education Foundation Scholarship Program was founded in memory of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who devoted their lives to excellence in teaching. Rader, a former nun who left the religious order and married, taught at Immaculate Heart High School for girls in Hollywood and other schools. Scholarship candidates must be senior Catholic high school girls in good academic standing, with “good moral character” who have participated in team sports. The values that informed Rader’s life — Catholicism, education and team sports — moved her to create a lasting legacy with the wealth she and her husband had amassed in life.

“She left almost everything to the foundation when she passed away,” said Timur Berberoglu, a Santa Monica–based attorney and partner in Deering, Sands & Berberoglu who specializes in trusts, estate planning and litigation. “She created it while she was alive, and one of the board members was one of her former students. We had to get a conservatorship for her. When she died, we were able to sell her house in Pacific Palisades and put the funds into the scholarship.”

Making plans for what happens to one’s estate, or whatever is left over at the end of life, falls to the bottom of the to-do list for many of us. For some reason, it is a dreaded task. Even Aretha Franklin, who died last August with an estate reportedly valued at $80 million, never got to it. She died with no will. And she is hardly alone.

About 60 percent of adult Americans have no will or last testament, according AARP.org. That’s not surprising since it means pondering your own death. It requires planning. Gathering documents. Tedious record-keeping. But the alternative — your hard-earned savings going to probate court, where it goes before a judge who distributes it if there is no will — is a time-consuming process that can be even more dreadful. In order to control where your assets and funds go when you’re gone, you must put your desires in a will. Creating a legacy is a way to dedicate hard-won funds to a principle, value or mission that has lasting meaning, value and significance.

“My view of legacy is that you actually design legacy every day and it is a reflection of your values and who you are,” said Patrick Renn, a certified financial planner based in Atlanta and author of Finding Your Money’s Greater Purpose: How to Make your Legacy Count (Advantage; 2015). “Once you get past the stage of, do I have enough money and will it run out, then the question is, now what?”

If there are children, to what extent do you provide for them in your estate plan? That can be complicated, although most parents want to leave everything to their children, according to estate planners and financial planners interviewed for this story. But there are a number of parents who don’t want to give their children so much that they miss out on the gratification and sweat rewards of earning their own way in the world.

Similarly, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, both of whom have pledged to give half of their estates to charity, have said they want their children to work for what they have. But some context is in order here: Gates and wife Melinda are reportedly giving $10 million to each of their three children (a paltry sum compared to their total wealth, but to most of us unimaginable riches), and Buffett is said to have funded a $2 billion foundation for each of his three children. Sting, however, has said that his six children won’t receive most of his fortune, reportedly calling it “albatrosses round their necks.”

Plenty of people feel the same way about money spoiling their children’s ambition, drive and values, according to  Pasadena attorney Ali Smyser, a certified specialist in estate planning, trust and probate law. “I do have a number of clients who are either self-made and they want to make sure their kids have a work ethic, or they have an experience with a peer who had a trust fund coming so did not do much,” said Smyser, a senior associate in the Donald P. Schweitzer law firm. “Or they just want their children to work for what they receive.”

People who do want to leave everything to their children can accomplish that in a number of ways, and Renn said that parents should look at each child individually and not necessarily give each child an equal share. For example, a well-to-do child who is a doctor should not receive the same inheritance as a child who is a divorced teacher with a special-needs child. Some children don’t need any help. Some parents decide to leave college funds in trusts for their grandchildren, but very little for their affluent children. Once people decide on what to do about their children and grandchildren or extended relatives, then charities and legacies can be considered.

Some clients have what Smyser calls a “philanthropic heart,” and she encourages them to carve out a legacy and use their estate planning to make their lives and legacies more significant. She said that in these tumultuous political times where civil rights have been under siege, she has clients who changed their wills to include funds to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. “I make my clients aware of the possibility that if they would like to make a charitable gift, that now is the time,” she said. “Do they go to church, do they make regular gifts to a hospital or an animal rescue? Then I facilitate it.”

One client who inherited considerable funds from her parents and has no children set up a family foundation, Smyser said. Her parents then donated $1 million to the family foundation. She set up her own estate so that one third of it will go to fund the family foundation, which is dedicated to helping women and girls impacted by poverty and human trafficking. The Pasadena Community Foundation (PasadenaCF.org) helps many families establish and manage their charitable endowments.

But before anyone can consider creating a legacy or family foundation, Renn, the financial planner, said people have to figure out whether or not they have enough money to see them through to the end of their expected lifespan. After that, if  there are enough funds left after parents’ bequests to children or grandchildren, the balance can support a legacy inspired by values, principles and betterment of others.

“Typically, our clients are first-generation wealth, folks that did not come from well-heeled families, and they have some mileage on them,” he said. “They care about their church or school or hospital, or they feel some tie and they want to make life better for others.” The desire to improve things in their community is part of their DNA, he said.

One of Renn’s clients who’d never married and worked all her life was introduced by her parents’ friend to volunteering at the Salvation Army, a Christian human services nonprofit. When she died, she left everything to the Salvation Army — more than $1 million. “She had enough to live on, and she decided that other than a few requests from cousins and a couple of friends, she would leave everything to the Salvation Army,” he said. “She was a nice little lady, very self-sufficient and lived in a home by herself.”

Once an estate plan is drawn up or a will written, the task isn’t necessarily complete. It needs to be revisited again and again -— refreshed, if you will. That is because over time, elements in estate plans and wills change: Children grow up and guardians are no longer relevant. Money set-asides for the inheritance of a child who may now be an adult with a drug, alcohol or gambling problem, may warrant a change. Ongoing legacy donations can be impacted by tax law changes. And every two years, when Congress convenes, laws change. Many financial planners, some estate-plan attorneys and certified public accountants will calculate the impact of new tax laws on tax returns and estate taxes. So you’ll probably have to update your will and estate plan.

“We don’t want any surprises,” said Renn. “We hate surprises.” 

The bank of Mom and Dad

Like many comfortable parents of millennials, Jenny and Steven Lagos want to help their children get established as homeowners.

Both daughters, 37 and 35, are successful and live in San Francisco where astronomical home prices spike wildly in bidding wars. It is an expensive place to live, but neither daughter has plans to leave. “Once our grandchildren were born, we thought it would be so great if our kids could have a place to live [that they owned],” said Jenny Lagos, whose older daughter and husband have two young sons. “So we thought if they were willing to go in [together] on a duplex, they could afford it.”

So the retired couple secured a home equity line of credit on their San Diego house. They hoped to assist with the hardest home-buying stepping stone — the down payment. Their daughter and her husband, and their younger, single daughter, prequalified jointly for a mortgage in the mid-$900,000 range. The trio looked for a duplex, but right-priced duplexes were selling weeks later for up to $200,000 over the asking price. They are resigned to renting for now. Still, the Lagoses are keeping their home-equity line of credit, just in case the housing market takes a dive — even though Jenny Lagos acknowledged that’s unlikely. “It’s pretty laughable when you talk about the market going up and down in San Francisco,” she said.

More millennials (ages 23 to 38) are tapping their parents’ resources for help with a mortgage down payment because scraping up enough is an enormous challenge. Young adults have some unique financial disadvantages: They have lower incomes than baby boomers had as young adults, according to a Federal Reserve data analysis conducted by the nonprofit group Young Invincibles. Most of them also have skimpier assets, particularly those who are burdened by student loan debt. Indeed, just 30 percent of millennials are current homeowners, a historic low for the under-35 demographic, according to a recent Harvard University study.

Additionally, slow wage growth and a high cost of living makes squirreling away enough cash for a down payment next to impossible for many first-time homebuyers. Then there are the twin challenges of housing prices still rising year over year — though the pace has slowed — and higher mortgage interest rates that make buying a first home more expensive. Many millennials are waiting for the housing market to cool off before attempting to jump in.

“To put things in perspective, the median housing price in Pasadena is $800,000, but nationally the median housing price is $220,000, “ said Earl Jordan Yaokasin, CEO of Wealtharch Investment Services in Pasadena. “So Pasadena housing prices are about four times as much as the national average. But the income of millennials is not four times as much as the average national income. That is what is causing the affordability problem.” As a result, many millennials either have to borrow from their parents or have their parents cover the down payment outright, said Yaokasin, who is also a chartered financial analyst.

Home buyers typically need to put down 20 percent of the purchase price for conventional loans (more than 60 percent of buyers use a conventional loan) and pay closing costs of 2 to 5 percent of the home purchase price, said Yaokasin. A growing number of mortgage loan borrowers are making smaller down payments that range from 5 to 10 percent of a home purchase price; borrowers putting down less than 20 percent have to pay Primary Mortgage Insurance (or PMI), according to myhome.freddiemac.com, an information website exploring renting versus buying and the mortgage process. Millennial buyers need to factor in the additional costs of property insurance and property taxes when considering the entire cost, said Yoakasin.

But with high rents and payments for a car, insurance and gas, just saving for a 20 percent down payment on an $800,000 house — that would amount to $160,000 — is an incredibly difficult challenge. “Two-thirds of people I speak with who are millennials have debt and their saving habits are not great,” he said.

So many millennials turn to their parents for help. More than 26 percent of borrowers got help from a relative to make a down payment from September 2017 to 2018, up from 22 percent in 2011, according to the Federal Housing Administration’s 2018 annual report. The FHA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, insures lending institutions against riskier loans. First-time homebuyers with imperfect credit often secure FHA loans because they cannot qualify for standard loans that require a good credit history. Likewise, FHA homebuyers can put down as little as 3.5 percent of the home price, compared to conventional mortgage loans that require 20 percent. Riskier borrowers now make up about one-tenth of all home loans, according to the FHA.

Enter Mom and Dad. “Parents who want to help their adult children should really talk to an advisor before they do it,” said Neal Frankle, a certified financial planner at Wealth Resources Group in Westlake who specializes in guiding millennial clients. “You have to look at the whole situation, and there is no single, right decision for every situation,” added Frankle, who also counsels millennials in his creditpilgrim.com blog. “But the best way to do it is to have the children make payments immediately on the loan; the second is to defer payments until they get settled, maybe in 10 years, and the third is to make a gift, the worst alternative versus a loan.”

Unless parents are willing to gift it freely with absolutely no expectations, they should reconsider bankrolling the down payment, said Frankle, who is the father of three daughters, two of whom are millennials. If you are not clear about expectations, he notes, it could open the door to resentments and other family problems. .

Kathy Miles, a real estate agent for Keller Williams in Pasadena, has helped a number of millennials buy their first house in the past year. In her experience, young doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants or tech workers did not tap their parents for a down payment — but they did move back in with their parents until they’d saved enough to pay for it themselves. “I have worked with six millennials in the last 12 months and about half needed help from their parents and half did not,” said Miles, 31, who owns a house with her husband and bought it without parental assistance. “Two needed help with the down payment and those parents also cosigned onto the loan. The third millennial assumed the house from her parents who had dementia. But all of my friends who purchased a house in their 20s did get help from their parents.”

Homebuyers who need help with a down payment have been viewed as riskier because they have less of their own hard-earned cash invested in the property. If home prices drop, jobs are lost or some other financial calamity hits, the thinking is that buyers assisted with a down payment are quicker to walk away because the loss is less painful. In contrast, some lenders and financial advisors think that getting assistance from parents or a relative makes the buyer feel a sense of moral duty to protect their family’s investment. The evidence is mixed. Loan tracking data from the FHA that followed loans in 2010–2011 found that 7.6 percent of loans involving family assistance with the down payment are not in default for 90 days or more. That is less than the 9.3 percent of buyers who got down-payment help from an unrelated entity or the government. Only 5.2 percent of buyers who received no help with a down payment were delinquent on their FHA loans.

The big picture? It’s a good idea for parents to help their millennial kids — assuming they can afford to and the kids are responsible, said Frankle. But it is also a good idea to check in with a financial advisor before doing so. “It is better than waiting to die to give it to them, but you have to be sure that it does not create the wrong value,” he said. “From a relationship and financial basis, you are better off to make it a loan, but if that is not viable, then do it, let go and forget about it.” 

The cannabis component won’t get you high, but it might make you well

CBD is billed as the panacea du jour.

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is a non-intoxicating chemical component of cannabis, touted as a treatment for just about everything — anxiety, acne, insomnia, digestive problems, arthritis, epilepsy, nausea, pain, depression, headaches and tremors — and for overcoming addiction’s persistent urges. You name it.

My college-age daughter and friends use CBD sublingual (under the tongue) tinctures for anxiety flare-ups, from overwhelming academic demands and a too busy university life. My adult son eats CBD gummies for insomnia. A neighbor gives CBD to his arthritic Labrador retriever who, before CBD dosing, could not even stand up. Now she walks a mile a day, a slight hitch kicking her tail into a whirligig.

It is a half-billion dollar industry, projected to soon hit $22 billion, according to Brightfield Group, a Chicago-based market research company focused on cannabis. And that figure was calculated before the U.S. Congress legalized industrial hemp as a crop when it passed the 2018 Farm Bill last month. Growing hemp is already legal in California, and CBD is nearly everywhere — in Pasadena-area health food stores, foodie eateries, CBD-only storefronts, artisanal coffee houses and boutique hotels. You will find elegantly packaged CBD gummies in minibars, CBD-infused foods and smoothies, CBD tinctures, CBD-infused waters and CBD gel pills. There are also topical treatments like CBD-infused salves, lotions and body oils. I can walk to a health food store and have a dropper of CBD added to a juice tonic for $4. Pet food stores sell a range of CBD tinctures for beloved animals, lined up behind the cashier, beckoning as you buy premium-grade chow.

But there is trouble in CBD-land.

All ingestible CBD products derived from industrial hemp are being sold unlawfully, according to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control. CBD or CBD oil can be derived from both industrial hemp and cannabis. The distinction is this: Hemp or industrial hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa L. plant species, which has no more than .3 percent of THC (the psychoactive component). The only lawful places to buy ingestible CBD — as long as the CBD is derived from cannabis plants (which have 5 to 35 percent THC), not of the industrial hemp variety — are marijuana businesses that are state-licensed and locally permitted to sell marijuana products.

The prohibition on selling hemp-derived CBD ingestible products elsewhere is fairly recent. In July, the California Department of Public Health’s Food and Drug Branch stated that CBD is a prohibited food additive and that cannabis cannot be sold in any retail food operation such as restaurants, coffeehouses or grocery stores. CBD oil or CBD ingestible products derived from cannabis — that is, the non-hemp variety — can be sold only in state-licensed cannabis retail stores and businesses, according to the CDPC. The prohibition is based, in part, on the grounds that CBD derived from both hemp and cannabis is a federally regulated controlled substance. Cannabis and CBD is listed as a Schedule I Drug, along with LSD, heroin and cocaine. A Schedule I Drug is defined as a substance with no known medical use and a high potential for abuse under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, according to the federal Department of Drug Enforcement (DEA).   

“Until the FDA rules that industrial-hemp-derived CBD oil and CBD products can be used as a food or California makes a determination that they are safe to use for human and animal consumption, CBD products are not an approved food, food ingredient, food additive or dietary supplement,” the CDPH website states.

Ingestible CBD products derived from non-hemp cannabis plant species are legally sold in licensed cannabis retail stores and businesses, which are required by state regulations to lab test all products. Strictly regulated and licensed cannabis businesses protect consumers from mislabeling and contaminants like mold or pesticides, the state says. There is no regulatory agency that has oversight of CBD-oil production from industrial hemp, the CDPH website states.

None of the ingestible CBD derived from industrial hemp is being sold legally in brick-and-mortar stores or online. But you can probably still buy it over the counter at your local health food store, get a café latte with a shot of CBD in it, purchase tinctures online or cruise Ocean Front Walk in Venice, where there are two freestanding CBD-only stores in operation.

As for Pasadena, the city bans all sales of cannabis, including CBD from cannabis or hemp, said Lisa Derderian, Pasadena public information officer. “Cannabis operations have been prohibited from operating since 2005 and in [October], we shut down two of them and the city attorney charged them with operating without a license and operating illegally,” said Derderian.  “All of it, including CBD that is derived from cannabis or industrial-hemp CBD, is illegal.”

But that will change this year. Pasadena voters passed measures CC and DD in 2018, a move that allows the city to permit limited legal cannabis businesses within the municipal district. Pasadena will be permitting six cannabis retailers, four testing labs and four cannabis cultivators in 2019, Derderian said. A November workshop attracted 250 cannabis business interests, some from as far away as Canada, she added.

Confusion over regulating a market that has exploded well in advance of laws, permits and licenses needed to govern it, is normal for all things cannabis. But there is a multipronged effort in the works to push the state to address the lapse in regulation specifically addressing industrial-hemp-derived CBD ingestible products. “There is a very broad coalition of cannabis industry associations, individuals and legislators working to tackle hemp-derived CBD regulations,” said Josh Drayton, communications outreach director for the California Cannabis Industry Assn. (CCIA), a trade group based in Sacramento. “There has been hesitancy at the state Bureau of Cannabis Control to deal with this because they weren’t specifically tasked to do this. Everyone is so careful of the language used, because we don’t want to overtax, overregulate or overburden hemp and hemp-derived CBD the way cannabis has been.”

Refining the language in a proposal to write regulations for hemp CBD is one of CCIA’s top priorities for 2019. There is a new state legislature with many new members, along with a new governor, Drayton added, so many of the people the coalition had worked with have moved on and fresh connections must be forged to move proposed regulation forward.

Quality control and labeling accuracy is a reasonable concern. A November 2017 Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) study found that nearly 70 percent of all cannabidiol products sold online contained either higher or lower concentrations of CBD or THC than indicated on the label. What that means is these mislabeled products are ineffective or potentially harmful. Pure CBD should be THC-free, the study’s lead author Marcel Bonn-Miller, an adjunct professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in JAMA. Underlabeling was less concerning because CBD appears to have no serious harmful consequences at high doses, but “the THC content observed may be sufficient to produce intoxication or impairment, especially among children,” Bonn-Miller wrote. He called for manufacturing and testing standards and oversight of online medicinal cannabis. (Bonn-Miller and co-researcher Ryan Vandrey reported receiving personal fees from cannabis industry groups, nonprofits and pharmaceutical companies.)

The regulations simply have not caught up with the public enthusiasm for CBD and its potential to alleviate a raft of health issues without devastating side effects. One FDA-approved drug based on CBD is Epidiolex, made by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company. The drug, approved by the FDA in June, is the first prescription cannabis-derived medicine available in the U.S. It is used to treat two forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gaustaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.  Both are among the most difficult types of epilepsy to treat, according to the FDA. Lennox-Gastaut syndrome usually appears between the ages of 3 to 5 years old, and Dravet syndrome starts in the first year of life. Both are lifelong conditions that can be catastrophic. An estimated 30,000 children and adults have Lennox-Gastaut syndrome; fewer have Dravet syndrome.

Epidiolex was approved by the FDA after GW Pharma submitted beneficial results from three randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials conducted on patients with both forms of epilepsy. The medication is now available at local pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS. The DEA had to classify Epidiolex’s precise CBD formula as a Schedule V, indicating a low risk for abuse; this is the first time the DEA has listed a cannabis product as anything other than a Schedule 1 substance (i.e., the most dangerous) under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Epidiolex is proof of CBD’s promise. CBD, whether drawn from cannabis or industrial hemp, is being investigated for a wildly diverse array of physical and psychiatric maladies. Studies are ongoing, but it’s a slow laborious process getting a cannabis-based drug through research trials to final FDA approval. The time frame depends in part on delays in getting all of the federal regulatory approvals for the research and then gaining access to product. It could be four years before there are published results from a given cannabis study, according to J. Hampton Atkinson, a psychiatrist and co-director of UCSD’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR). U.S. and international clinical trials either completed or in the process of recruiting participants number 167, said Atkinson.

The studies are focused on various conditions, including CBD treatment for cannabis withdrawal and cannabis abuse, heart failure, bipolar disorder, acute schizophrenia, alcohol and cocaine abuse, Crohn’s disease, infantile spasms, various types of childhood epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic-stress disorder. At CMCR, Atkinson said, researchers plan to study CBD’s efficacy in treating early psychosis (in addition to conventional antipsychotic drugs); anorexia nervosa anxiety; low-movement tremor; and childhood autism-spectrum disorders. In childhood autism, for example, CBD has been shown to reduce anger and repetitive behaviors, like turning in circles and head banging, thereby improving a child’s social skills and ability to attend school.

“The published evidence lags way behind the enthusiasm,” Atkinson said in an email. “There is some evidence from two human trials that CBD may help reduce anxiety and negative self-talk in people with social phobia. There is some evidence that it may help with certain kinds of insomnia and conflicting evidence on whether it is effective in psychosis.”

Some physicians are already using cannabis medicine to treat patients. Sherry Yafai, an emergency medicine physician who is founder and director of Releaf Institute, a medical marijuana clinic in Santa Monica, treats patients for cancer, pain, insomnia, tremors, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety and multiple sclerosis. “My big gripe about this industry is we are allowing people who don’t have the expertise like I do or my colleagues do to advise people,” said Yafai, who credits licensed cannabis shops with at least lab-testing their products and following regulations that protect consumers. “The question about dosing is going to take into consideration, what else are you taking?  I am going to ask you 50 questions. You know, it really is a challenge because we have people who don’t know any better.”

So for now, when it comes to grabbing hemp-derived CBD ingestible products off the shelf at a health food store or ordering them online, it is buyer beware. Bonn-Miller advises consumers to buy from reputable sources or have the products tested yourself in an independent lab, adding cost. To be sure, a great many hemp-derived  tinctures are from locally based companies with compelling inception stories rooted in a desire to help an epileptic child, grandmother or cancer-stricken mother, and to avoid sometimes horrific side effects of pharmaceutical medications.

These admirable product narratives are compelling, moving and relatable. Still, consumers should be mindful that for now, when buying hemp-derived CBD tinctures, gel pills and salves, they are accepting product labeling at face value. Proceed with caution. Or head to a licensed cannabis store for tested and vetted CBD products.

NASA’s space telescope at Caltech has surpassed all predictions for discovery and longevity.

How are stars born? Where does that happen? What does it look like? What would a map of the Milky Way galaxy look like? Are there many more galaxies in space?

These are a few of the questions that NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which celebrated its 15th year in space this year, has been able to answer with visible imagery that is astonishing. Spitzer’s predicted lifespan was just 2½ years (in a best-case scenario, 5 years) because of the stressful environment of space, where temperatures range from well below freezing to planet surfaces as hot as stars, but it has lasted six times that forecast.

Spitzer is a can-do telescope, surpassing all predictions and then some. “It has been a bonanza and every day is a holiday,” said Michael Werner, project scientist for Spitzer Space Telescope, who has worked on the project for some 40 years. “Spitzer has exceeded all expectations for longevity and also discoveries.”

The raft of Spitzer’s otherworldly discoveries include: a stellar nursery, seven Earth-size planets, Saturn’s largest ring and the farthest and oldest galaxy ever known — all previously inconceivable, even to the astronomers and engineers who created and have maintained the telescope, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech’s Spitzer Science Center. “Our ability to find and observe exoplanets [planets orbiting around a star other than the sun] has been really phenomenal,” added Werner. “We did a deep map to study galaxies almost as far back as the Big Bang. We mapped the Milky Way. We didn’t plan on it doing any of this.”

Spitzer was the fourth and final one of NASA’s so-called Great Observatories to reach space, joining Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory and Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Spitzer has been described as the cornerstone of NASA’s Astronomical Search for Origins Program. Synthesizing data from various telescopes, which collect light in different wavelengths, helps scientists gain a clearer picture of the universe and wonders of the cosmos.

Spitzer was designed to observe the universe in infrared wavelengths of light, allowing a better view and retrieval of information about objects in space that are extremely far away or blocked by stellar dust. Infrared wavelengths of light are too long to be visible to the human eye and mostly emanate from heat radiation. The telescope’s infrared capabilities equip it to see through dust to detect and read stars and objects that are too faint or distant for optical telescopes, or that are obscured by turbulent clouds of space dust, said Sean Carey, manager of Spitzer Science Center. It is similar to what firefighters use to see through smoke, he added. “Spitzer told us how stars form,” said Carey. “We know they form in very dense infrared-dark clouds, [we] can see how many are forming, the spacing between stars and their sizes telling us how they form. Winds blow away the material they form out of so that you can see inside the stellar nurseries.” What creates the wind, said Carey, is light from massive hot stars, which pushes the material away from the stars after they form.

But Spitzer’s single most important discovery, scientists say, is the study of what is called the Trappist-1 system. Trappist-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star 40 light years away. Trappist-1 has more Earth-size planets (called “exoplanets”) than any other known planetary system. These seven exoplanets are rocky but potentially habitable and are the most studied planetary system outside of our own solar system because of Spitzer. “Studying planets around other stars was in its infancy when Spitzer launched, but we now often spend more than half the time each year on these studies,” Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, project manager for Spitzer Telescope, said in an email. “The observatory wasn’t designed to do this, but it is really good at it.”

Spitzer accurately detects planets orbiting other stars by measuring the tiny dip in light from the star as the planet passes in front of it, known as “planetary transit.” This is now a commonly used technique to detect the depth and shape of the transit which provides information about the planets around other stars, added Storrie-Lombardi, who has worked on Spitzer for 19 years. Discoveries like these are beyond the scope of what Spitzer was originally designed to do in 2003 when it officially began its mission in space.

Spitzer’s infrared vision has also allowed scientists to study the most distant galaxies in the universe. Light from some of these distant galaxies traveled for 13.4 billion years to reach Earth, according to NASA’s website. Using data from the Spitzer and Hubble telescopes allowed “scientists to see these galaxies as they were less than 400 million years after the birth of the universe,” according to JPL’s website. Spitzer identified many distant galaxy clusters previously unknown. What surprised scientists was the discovery of so-called “big baby” galaxies that were much larger and more mature than early galaxies were believed to be. These big baby galaxies indicated that massive clusters of stars came together very early in the universe’s history, the website notes.

Spitzer has also mapped the entire disk of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. “We initially thought that the Milky Way galaxy disk would just be too bright for Spitzer,” said Storrie-Lombardi. “We figured out how to do it and this program provides one of the most spectacular science legacies of the mission.”

With data gleaned from Spitzer, scientists were able to create one of the most extensive maps of the Milky Way galaxy ever compiled, including the most accurate map of the large bar of stars in the galaxy’s center. There is now a map of the entire 360-degree expanse of the Milky Way available to astronomers and the public. A continually looping view of the entire galaxy moving past can be seen at spitzer.caltech.edu by searching for a video titled “Panning Through the Milky Way.”

Other Spitzer discoveries include the largest known ring around Saturn, a wispy, fine structure 300 times the planet’s diameter, and the first giant gas exoplanet (a hot Jupiter) weather map of temperature variations across its surface, showing the presence of fierce winds.

What the future holds for Spitzer is yet to be determined, but the revolutionary telescope’s space mission continues through November 2019. Thus far, Spitzer has logged 106,000 hours observing space, and thousands of scientists around the world have used Spitzer data in their studies. Spitzer data has been cited in more than 8,000 published papers. For the social media– and virtual reality–obsessed public, NASA has created a selfie app for IOS and Android phones that “dresses” you in a space suit (or you might follow Storrie-Lombardi’s example and use it to snap your pet — Maria the dog is on Facebook floating in the Milky Way; she posted that in August and just made it public). The backgrounds for the selfie app include the Galactic Center, the Cigar Galaxy or Cassiopeia A. There is also an Exoplanet Excursions Virtual Reality Experience for Vive or Oculus devices, found at spitzer.caltech.edu/vr. And to highlight Spitzer’s greatest discovery, Trappist-1, there is a 360-degree video on Youtube titled “NASA’s Exoplanet Excursions 360.”

From the dawn of human history people have been trying to understand what we see when we look up at the night sky, and how we fit into it. “Seeing the incredible response and excitement, worldwide, to the discovery of the Trappist-1 planetary system was one of the most rewarding moments of my professional life,” said Storrie-Lombardi. “There were over 5 billion web hits on stories about it. I think the biggest contribution space astronomy makes is connecting so many people with the wonders of our universe.”

The diminutive but powerful Supreme Court justice is the subject of an unusual exhibition at the Skirball.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, when she was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, but the octogenarian justice is the first justice to become a cross-generational cultural phenomenon.

To wit: Ginsburg is the first to be the subject of runaway viral social media memes, a bestselling book, a tribute rap song, an action figure, tattoo art, manicurist-nail art, cartoons, Halloween costumes, coloring books, a children’s book, a fitness workout book and a wildly popular recurring Saturday Night Live parody by Kate McKinnon. Like other justices, she is also the subject of a recently released documentary and a forthcoming feature film. Ginsburg’s fierce dissents to Supreme Court rulings have even been set to music as part of musician Jonathon Mann’s 2014 “Song a Day” project.

So itonly seems right that in Ginsburg’s 25th year on the nation’s highest court and the so-called Year of the Woman (a nod to the wave of women running in the midterm elections), that an exhibition about her trail-blazing life opens Oct. 19 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The exhibition, which runs through March 10, 2019, is based on the 2015 New York Times bestselling book and popular Tumblr blog of the same name, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (HarperCollins; 2015), co-authored by journalist Irin Carmon and lawyer Shana Knizhnik. Using archival photographs and documents, audio and video recordings, contemporary art and interactive elements, the show looks at the American legal system and civil rights movement through Ginsburg’s personal experiences and public service. It was organized by Cate Thurston, Skirball museum associate curator, and the book’s co-authors.

“I thought [Notorious RBG] would be perfect” for a museum exhibition, said Thurston. “It has a strong narrative and a point of view and it speaks to a moment in time. But you want it to be something people can relate to. That felt very true of Notorious RBG.”

The RBG cultural phenom grew, in part, out of Knizhnik’s hit Tumblr tribute dubbed “Notorious RBG” The blog was sparked by Knizhnik’s fury at the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder). Inspired by Ginsburg’s searing dissent, Knizhnik, then a law student in New York, launched the Tumblr and coupled it with T-shirts. She took the name Notorious RBG from a friend’s Facebook post about the dissent, and her friends and colleagues later joined in, writing lyrics about Ginsburg that played off the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s rap song “Juicy”; they made a rap video tribute and posted it on YouTube, according to a 2014 New Republic story. Meanwhile, digital strategists Frank Chi and Aminatou Sow, who were in Washington, D.C., at the time of the ruling, were also inspired by Ginsburg’s raging dissent. Chi took a photo of Ginsburg and added a red background and a crown, jauntily clocked to one side, in artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s style; they added the words “Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth,” printed stickers and posted them all over Washington and on Instagram. The now ubiquitous image grew into a meme, and the flurry of digital mashups was like a match to gasoline — it became an explosive Internet hit. The book would come later

“The name [Notorious RBG] is obviously a reference to Notorious B.I.G., who is this large imposing rapper, a really powerful figure; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is this 90-pound Jewish grandmother,” Knizhnik told The New Republic. “The juxtaposition of the two made it humorous, but also a celebration of how powerful she really is.”

Connecting the reserved, diminutive justice to the late 300-pound rapper is a playful thread that runs throughout the book in chapter titles inspired by the late rapper’s lyrics. The exhibit mirrors the flow and content of the book — lyrics also inform the show’s section titles.  The opera-loving, lace-glove-wearing Ginsburg is probably not exactly a rap fan, but she said, gamely, in a 2017 Charlie Rose Show interview, that linking her to the late rapper was “natural,” since both were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.

When the Skirball approached the co-authors about building an exhibit around RBG and the book, they were thrilled. “We hope that Notorious RBG, whether it is the book or the exhibit, provides an entry point for everyone to engage with the court, the history of women and civil rights in this country, and RBG’s inspiring story,” co-author Carmon said in an email. “There’s so much about Justice Ginsburg’s life and work that all of us can learn from, whether it’s her passion for women’s rights or her commitment to the rule of law.”

While American feminists were loudly protesting in the ’70s, Ginsburg was quietly and methodically turning words into action by arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She made life-changing gains for women, winning five out of six cases by expanding the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to include women. The rulings struck down laws allowing job discrimination for pregnant women, permitting the forced sterilization of black women and making women’s jury service optional, which led to unbalanced juries. Ginsburg also argued so-called “widower cases” to secure Social Security survivor’s benefits for men, ultimately winning two cases in 1975 and 1977. And as a justice, her fierce dissent in a 2007 case about gender pay discrimination led Congress to pass the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama signed in 2009.

Thurston, who spent 18 months working on the exhibit, examined Ginsburg’s papers at the Library of Congress and was able to obtain archival objects and several reproductions as well as loans of originals from 13 other collections. The exhibit’s sections include “an imagined, immersive environment” that recreates Ginsburg’s childhood Brooklyn apartment replete with vintage Nancy Drew books (Ginsburg’s childhood favorites), along with a scrapbook of childhood memories that visitors can leaf through, said Thurston. A recreated “hyper-real” living room of Ginsburg’s first home is decked with objects that visitors can touch and feel. “We were conscious of telling an accurate story, but there are moments where we can’t tell everything” because details have dimmed over the years, said Thurston. “In those moments, we have built in an experience around it. So when details are vague, we can be playful and fill it in.”

There is a partial recreation of a gray Chevrolet that the young Ruth Bader and the late Martin Ginsburg, Ruth’s husband of 63 years, drove on their first date. When visitors pull down the car sun visors in the reimagined 1930s/40s–style Chevrolet, a photograph of the couple at their engagement party is revealed. Visitors can also watch a video of RBG’s college graduation and honeymoon as they imagine riding along with Marty and Ruth.

The childhood section is juxtaposed against an area dedicated to Ginsburg’s serious law school studies, first at Harvard University, and then at Columbia University where she transferred when Marty Ginsburg, by then her husband, landed his first job as a tax attorney in New York City. The exhibit also explores her undergrad days at Cornell University where she met Marty, fell in love and received her bachelor’s degree.

“We have 10 audio-listening stations where you are able to actually hear her when she was presenting oral arguments for one of the five sex discrimination cases to the Supreme Court, taken from the actual moment,” said Thurston, adding that Ginsburg argued these cases for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which she cofounded in 1972. The audio is taken from the landmark Fronteiro v. Richardson case of 1973, the first time Ginsburg spoke before the Supreme Court. She was so nervous that she skipped lunch for fear she would vomit. She won. The court ruled that families of military women were entitled to the same benefits as those of their male counterparts.

The exhibit also includes video of Ginsburg reflecting on her important cases. “As much as possible we are dropping you into that moment in time,” Thurston said. “You hear her examining these important cases in her life. These sections of the exhibit are very concise. You see what the case was, the outcome and what was at stake and how it impacts people. ”

It is these engaging elements that make the exhibit “so magical” and important, achieving the organizers’ goal to “crystallize” Ginsburg’s important cases, said Thurston. Visitors can also sit at a facsimile of Ginsburg’s desk in the Supreme Court chambers. When the drawer opens, a video of her working is revealed. Several of her majority and dissent jabots (she coordinates fancy collars with decisions) are on loan and will be available for visitors to try on.

Though the exhibit is faithful to the book, it also delves more deeply into certain aspects of her career, such as the profound influence of the underrated and overlooked Pauli Murray, a lawyer, civil rights activist and founding member of the National Organization of Women (NOW). Murray originated the strategy of harnessing the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to include women as grounds for litigating sex discrimination cases. Murray’s work informed Ginsburg’s legal efforts with ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “We had the space so were able to do a deep dive into Murray’s story,” said Thurston. “She was an incredible woman.”

The show’s organizers say Ginsburg’s life and work is particularly relevant as the country continues battling over women’s reproductive autonomy, as well as voting and civil rights. Indeed, the 85-year-old justice has vowed publicly to stay on the bench as long as possible. “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will do it,” Ginsburg told supporters at a 2017 Equal Justice Works event. She told a CNN interviewer that Justice John Paul Stevens served until he was 90, and she thinks she can serve five more years. A two-time cancer survivor, she works out with a personal trainer twice a week, a regimen reportedly too rigorous for some of her younger associate justices. RBG fans joke about sending her bushels of kale and longevity tonics to keep her on the court as long as possible.

That’s good news to admirers like former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, whom The Hill quoted, saying: “She is an extraordinarily able, talented person. She remains so to this day…I have to say she is someone I have the hugest respect for. She is a hero in this country.”

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg runs Oct. 19 through March 10, 2019, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.  Coauthors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik will discuss the book and blog at 11 a.m. Oct. 21; attendees can sip coffee and sample pastry prepared from a recipe in Chef Supreme, a collection published by Supreme Court spouses in 2011 in memory of Marty Ginsburg, who did all the cooking in the Ginsburg household. Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs $12, $9 for seniors, students and children over 12 and $7 for children 2 to 12; members and children under 2 are admitted free. Visit skirball.org.

Pasadena may emerge relatively unscathed by tax reform’s negative impact on California’s housing market.

tax law

President Donald Trump may have dented the growth of California property values when he signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law last December, experts say. The new law sharply reduces deductions of mortgage loan interest and property taxes, and also caps other local and state tax deductions — gutting many financial incentives for home ownership. The state’s more than 6.9 million homeowners are grappling with the new law’s impact on their tax bills — both immediately and over the long term. The big question is, what will the tax hikes do to the housing market and property values?
“The 2018 tax reform bill is going to have an adverse affect on housing sale prices and housing supply in California,” said Oscar Wei, a senior economist for California Association of Realtors (CAR). “It may not be a significant impact, but it will have an impact. Prices will continue to grow, but the tax reform bill lowers the price growth.”
Both home prices and appreciation are expected to take a hit from the new tax bill. Before it passed, California home prices were predicted to grow 4.2 percent by the end of 2018, Wei said. Factoring in the slashed deductions, CAR has lowered its growth rate prediction to 3.2 percent, he added. By contrast, he noted, single-family home prices in 2017 grew at 7.2 percent. The median projected price of a California house in 2018 is $555,600 — $5,400 less than the median predicted before the new law. The 2017 median house price was $538,500, said Wei. (These projections don’t include condos, townhouses and new construction.)
Nationally, home prices are predicted to be 4 percent lower than they would have been without the new tax legislation, with the impact peaking in summer of 2019, according to a report by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody Analytics, a New York– based economic research company. “Any longer-run benefit from the lower marginal tax rates will be washed away by the fallout from the bigger budget deficits and government debt load,” Zandi, a critic of the tax reform plan, wrote. “Good tax reform is very difficult to do.” And the tax reform bill lawmakers passed did not get it done, he added.
Still, some real estate experts and economists expect house sales in Pasadena and other hot markets, where demand outstrips supply, to sell as briskly as before tax reform. “I have not seen any impact on the market yet,” said Shel Downing, a Keller Williams Realtor, who sells property all over Southern California. “I am seeing a slowing in outlying areas such as Upland in the last two or three months. But in the hubs like beach cities and Pasadena, I have not seen it.”
But tax reform may still impact demand for moderate-priced homes because some potential buyers may find that renting is preferable with the new increased standard deduction, said Wei. “The impact is small to this price segment, because the supply in this sector is extremely short,” he continued. “Since there is more demand than the supply can fulfill, the impact on sales is very minimal.” The most competitive housing sector is lower-to-middle-range homes for any given neighborhood, said Wei. The new law is not expected to impact that price sector because there are far more buyers than available houses.

The pricier, higher-tax communities, where homeowners have jumbo mortgages and big property tax bills, are going to take the biggest hit in slowed price growth under the law, said Zandi and Wei. “The impact on house prices is much greater for the higher-priced homes, especially in parts of the country where incomes are higher, there are a disproportionate number of itemizers and where homeowners have big mortgages and property tax bills,” Zandi noted in his report. “The Northeast Corridor, South Florida, big Midwestern cities and the West Coast will suffer the biggest price declines.”
Affluent housing markets throughout California — including San Marino, San Francisco, West Los Angeles, coastal communities and Pasadena, where the median home price is $930,000 — will likely absorb the brunt of the bill’s impact, but lack of housing in those markets may soften the blow. For New York City, Moody predicts a 9.5 percent drop in Manhattan home values, whereas in Brooklyn and Queens prices could fall by less than 2 percent. Fifteen of the 30 counties hit hardest in the U.S. are in New Jersey, where housing is projected to lose one-tenth of its value, according to the Moody report.
There is a possibility that the pace of home sales where demand sharply outstrips supply may slow down, according to experts. Home owners could hold onto their houses even longer than planned because of tax reform, diminishing supply even further. For those who still want to sell, there should be plenty of buyers. “I just met with clients from the Northwest who are buying a house and they are pretty savvy about buying and selling houses,” said agent Steve Clark of Clarkliving in Compass real estate’s Pasadena office. “They are not happy about [the tax reform bill] but it is not a deciding factor in buying a house. People who want to sell their house and move to southern Oregon will be okay. But if you are trying to make a lateral move, where are you going to go? The real issue is lack of inventory.”
Here’s a summary of the new law’s measures and how they could affect home values, sellers, buyers and the overall housing market in your community.

Slashing the Mortgage Interest Deduction Threshold
People who want to buy or improve a home between now and 2026 (when the tax measure expires and the law reverts to pre-2018 provisions — barring new legislation) can deduct the interest paid on mortgages of up to $750,000 — down from $1 million. The lower threshold impacts all homes bought after Dec. 14, 2017. But buyers who secured a mortgage on or before Dec. 14 can still deduct interest on up to $1 million in loan debt, the previous cap. The new tax law also killed the deduction for home equity loan interest, including that on existing home equity loans, as of Jan. 1. But the interest for 2017 home equity debt can still be claimed on 2017 taxes. In 2026, the law returns to previous provisions: Mortgage interest on up to $1.1 million in and home equity debt, alone or combined, will be eligible for deduction, once again, as long as no new legislation is passed.
The law is expected to put homes worth $750,000 or more out of reach for some home buyers. The mortgage interest deduction is a prime selling point played up by real estate agents and described as a government subsidy to home ownership at a cost to the government of about $100 billion a year, according to housing experts at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.–based think tank. Reducing the tax incentive to buy a home is expected to rattle the market. When added to the sharp cuts in IRS deductions for property taxes and for other state and local taxes, the tax spike may cause some homeowners to gasp come tax time next year. The new law will also make selling homes worth more than a $750,000 potentially unattractive to many homeowners, who might hold onto their properties longer; the prospect of upgrading to another presumably even more expensive home without the traditional deductions may be too costly. All of this will tighten an already constricted housing supply.

State and Local Tax Deductions
All property taxes paid to state and local government agencies used to qualify as an itemized deduction, unless the homeowners paid the alternative minimum tax, which would preclude itemization. The old law also allowed deductions for state and local income taxes or sales tax. The 2018 law combines these state and local taxes (also called SALT) and caps the deductions at $10,000 for both individual and married couples.
Many homeowners in high-cost, high-tax states, such as California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland, pay far more than $10,000 in property taxes (in addition to income taxes). Nationwide, more than 4 million Americans nationwide pay more than $10,000 in property taxes alone, according to ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine-based property data research firm. Los Angeles County is among the U.S. counties with the greatest number of home loans topping $750,000 (i.e., 9,197) for 2017, according to ATTOM. Overall, 9.2 percent of L.A. County homeowners pay more than $10,000 in property taxes each year, ATTOM says.
Though some homeowners rushed to pay their property taxes for 2018 early, assuming their property taxes could qualify for deduction from their 2017 taxes, the IRS stated that only 2018 taxes that had been assessed would be eligible. Homeowners who made the early payment and were not assessed before this year will not benefit from the deduction.

Standard Deduction
The new law doubles the standard deduction to $12,000 for people filing taxes as an individual, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. For some couples, the increase in the standard deduction will outweigh the benefit from itemizing deductions; that would apply to homeowners whose combined mortgage interest and SALT deductions do not add up to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly or $12,000 for individuals (although adding other deductions, such as medical expenses, may put them over the top).
But the standard deductions may offer more of a tax advantage to renters than to many buyers, said Wei. “When the law increased the single deduction to $12,000 to an individual and $24,000 for a married couple, for many renters, it created a disincentive to buy,” said Wei. “People may decide to rent for a little longer so they can take advantage of the tax savings, and they may not think they need to be a homeowner now. That affects sales a little. Even though there will be a disincentive, there will still be a good amount of home-buying activity because of the limited supply and high demand for houses, say, that are priced $500,000 and under.” Wei said renters in the market for lower-priced property — a house for $350,000, for example — would likely be better off continuing to rent and taking the standard deduction.
A report released by Zillow, a home search and data website, found that 14 percent of U.S. homes have high enough market value and tax bills that a new buyer borrowing 80 percent of the home price would benefit from itemizing. But under the previous tax law, 44 percent of homes were pricey enough (the prior cap was $1 million) to warrant buyers itemizing deductions.

Federal Reserve Interest Rate Adjustments and Higher Mortgage Interest Rates
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December, the third time in 2017, due to a growing economy and improved labor market. The Federal Reserve sets interest rates — the amount banks will be charged to borrow money from Federal Reserve banks — in an attempt to control inflation and stabilize the economy.
The new tax legislation will result in higher mortgage interest rates for two reasons, Zandi noted in an email. “The Federal Reserve will need to raise interest rates more aggressively given that the deficit-financed tax legislation will lead to a temporary pick-up in growth, and since the economy is already at full employment, increasing price pressures,” he noted. “Second, because the federal government must borrow more to finance the tax cuts, the [U.S.] Treasury will sell more bonds, pushing interest rates higher.”
The higher mortgage-interest rates, combined with the greatly reduced mortgage-interest and property-tax deductions, will increase the true cost of buying a new home, Zandi added. The increased costs will weaken housing demand and drag down price growth, especially in communities where those deductions are important incentives for home buyers.

Capital Gains Taxes
Greatly reducing the tax incentive to buy a home is sure to rattle the residential real estate market, but the industry breathed a collective sigh of relief when the final bill didn’t tamper with the exclusion for capital gains tax from the sale of a primary residence. Homeowners selling their primary residence may exclude up to $250,000 of the profit from taxation — $500,000 for married couples filing jointly — as long as they have lived in their primary residence for at least two of the past five years.
Earlier versions of the bill would have increased the requirement of living in the primary residence to five out of eight years. That draft of the bill would have had an even more negative impact on an already tight supply of houses for sale, said Clark. Homeowners who need to sell a house after a couple of years due to circumstance (including relocation for a job or relationship changes, such as divorce or marriage) would likely sit on their property longer, said Clark.
About 6,943,000 California homes are occupied by homeowners, according to 2016 National Association of Realtors (NAR) research, and most of those homeowners are just now coming to grips with the new law’s effect on their after-tax housing costs. Certainly, these are volatile political and economic times and the housing market is intertwined with the overall health of the economy. Whether predictions and projections for 2018 are realized is yet to be seen. For now, the consensus is desirable housing markets are likely to stay desirable and there will be people with enough money to buy in those markets, but the rate of price growth is expected to slow. In other words, California’s out-of-control housing prices might just reset to slightly more affordable numbers — by California standards, that is.

Last year’s massive Equifax data breach underlined how vulnerable personal information is to cyberthieves.

When The New York Times published “The Biggest Tech Failures and Successes of 2017,” July’s massive Equifax hack topped the list of “epic failures” that “exposed your personal data to hackers.”

That so-called epic failure was unprecedented — cyberthieves breached the credit reporting agency’s repository of sensitive personal information for more than 145 million Americans, about 44 percent of the population. Exacerbating the personal risk to those Americans, Equifax executives waited nearly six weeks to publicly disclose the giant hack. Days after the breach was “detected” by the Atlanta-based company, but well before it was publicly disclosed, three senior Equifax executives sold almost $1.8 million of the company’s stock. Equifax has insisted that the executives were unaware of the breach at the time of those stock sales, but the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating. The July incident was the third hacking disclosed by Equifax for the year.

Equifax acknowledged that hackers gained access to the data by exploiting vulnerabilities in a web application, stealing names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, medical bill data and about 209,000 credit card numbers. The breach also compromised 182,000 “dispute documents,” complaints that include sensitive personal identifying information. More than 240 lawsuits seeking class action status have been filed against Equifax, and all 50 state attorneys general have ordered the company to hand over information. The Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, SEC and regulators in Britain and Canada have also ordered Equifax to provide information.

If you are still unsure if your personal information was compromised in the Equifax data theft, go to the website equifaxsecurity2017.com where you can determine whether you were among the more than 145 million people whose information was lost.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that no person opts in to Equifax (or the only two other credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion) and you cannot opt out. But anyone who has credit, meaning any adult American, was likely part of the breach, or vulnerable to identity theft. Credit reporting agencies calculate credit scores based on a consumer’s entire financial history to determine which consumers get loans and credit cards and at what interest rate. Credit bureaus scoop up consumers’ personal and financial information and sell it to banks and other financial institutions, even though no one gives them permission to do this. Oversight for credit monitoring agencies is lax at best, and they are scrutinized only when there is an epic transgression. Though the European Union is rolling out strict new privacy rules, called General Data Protection Regulation, in May, Republican lawmakers blocked all legislation proposed to better protect Americans’ privacy or to force credit bureau accountability for loss of people’s personal information.

In other words, you are on your own.

“Once the information is out there, it is out there,” said Clifford Neuman, director of USC’s Center for Computer System Security. “There is nothing you can do to keep it from further circulating. You can just make it harder for someone to use it and appropriate your identity.”

Following is a list of the best ways to protect yourself after your information has been breached, and Neuman said that everyone should act defensively, assuming that their personal and financial information has been breached.

Freeze Your Credit

Freeze your credit with all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion; that keeps any new creditors from seeing your personal and financial information in a credit report and issuing a card or loan. You need to freeze it at all three agencies because an identity thief could use your personal information to apply for credit at a lender that checks files with just one of the agencies, said Neuman. “Freezing your credit blocks people from using your information to open a credit card account,” said Neuman. A credit freeze may require a small fee, usually about $10 per bureau.

After absorbing consumer rage and a lashing from lawmakers, Equifax dropped the charge to freeze consumers’ credit following the breach. The company offered a free year of its TrustedID Premier credit protection and monitoring service to all U.S. consumers who signed up by the end of January; that includes a credit freeze, credit file monitoring for the three bureaus, the ability to lock and unlock your Equifax credit report, identity theft protection and insurance and Internet scanning for Social Security numbers. At the end of the free year, charges apply, as they already do for customers who sign up in February or later. That has angered many consumers, who’ve pointed out that Equifax’s negligence created the need for the TrustedID Premier services that it is now selling or marketing to the very consumers victimized by the breach. Naturally, some consumers refuse pay a nickel to Equifax. The company has since announced the Jan. 31 launch of its Lock & Alert service; it’s billed as free for life, but the website doesn’t provide details.

Note About Unfreezing Credit

A small fee may apply when you want to unfreeze your credit in order to apply for new loan or a credit card. (Appalling note: credit reporting bureaus have fought all state laws designed to make freezes available, along with all other regulatory strictures. Freezes make it more difficult for credit bureaus to profit from selling Americans’ personal data.)

One problem with a credit freeze is that when you want to apply for a new line of credit or a loan, you will need to unfreeze your credit and then refreeze it, which may involve fees. You will be given a PIN number to unfreeze your credit, so be mindful of the PIN number issued with your credit freeze by each bureau (for a total of three separate PINs) ; you will need to access the PIN later if you want to open a line of credit. Consumer advocates at Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a San Diego–based consumer advocacy nonprofit, are circulating a petition on Change.org (#FreeFromAll3) to make credit freezes free for all Americans with one free thaw and one free refreeze per year.

Monitoring Your Credit and Accounts

Free credit reports are available once a year from all three credit reporting agencies by making an online request at annualcreditreport.com, checkfreescore.com and freescoreonline,com (the latter two websites offer a free seven-day trial, followed by a monthly fee of nearly $40 — of course, they bank on you forgetting to cancel). You can also request a free credit report at all three credit bureaus separately. You can space out your requests to get one report every four months.

Credit Karma is a website and mobile app that pulls your credit scores from Equifax and TransUnion (but not Experian) anytime, as often as you want, for free; it also offers  free credit monitoring, alerting consumers when there is any change in their credit report or when a new account is added to their credit report. (Credit Karma does not sell subscriber information, instead relying on digital advertising income.) Neuman uses Credit Karma.

“Once you set up an account, you get an alert when there is any activity on your credit file,” which helps detect signs of identity theft more quickly, he said, adding that you won’t have to search your credit file because of the alerts.

Review credit card and bank statements weekly for red flags. Many credit card companies and banks automatically provide some identity fraud protection and alert customers when a suspicious charge occurs out of step with a customer’s spending habits. You can learn about these services by asking your financial institution or credit card companies. Setting alerts at your bank to notify you anytime a transaction is made over a set amount, such as $50, will immediately alert you to any charge of consequence.

Identity Protection Services

For people who want to streamline their monitoring of all three credit bureaus into one subscription service, and do not mind forking over a monthly fee for expanded services like identity restoration services, instant fraud alerts and more, there are options such as IDShield and LifeLock, to name a couple. (Do read consumer reviews before subscribing.) But even these services have limitations.

“Consumer protection services can be helpful, but they can’t stop identity theft,” warns Neal O’Farrell, executive director of The Identity Theft Council, a consumer advocacy nonprofit based in Walnut Creek, California. “They… just let you know that it might be happening and help you resolve it.” 

Identity protection services will monitor all three credit bureaus, send fraud alerts when your identity is being used, scan the Internet for potential threats to your information, restore a secure identity if stolen and resolve disputes and losses resulting from identity theft. Prices generally vary from $10 to $30 a month, depending on the level of protection. The Equifax breach has been a driver of panicked consumers signing up for identity protection services, and for the record, Equifax is one of LifeLock’s credit monitoring providers. Since the Equifax breach, LifeLock’s web traffic increased sixfold, with enrollments jumping 10 times the pre-hack rates, according to Bloomberg News. Equifax has not stated what it will do to prevent another breach.

Strengthen Your Passwords

“Good password habits are essential and especially not using the same passwords forever or for multiple accounts,” noted O’Farrell, also author of a new, free ebook,  Double Trouble — Protecting Your Identity in an Age of Cybercrime, a broad examination of consumer security, privacy and identity issues (GetDoubleTrouble.com). “Protecting your personal email password is critical. If hackers get that password, they can delve through years of your personal and professional life, stuff you can’t change.” And once personal information is lost, there is no getting it back. That’s why passwords and PINs require hypervigilance to outwit hackers’ attempts at cracking them.

“The information that has gone out with the Equifax breach has gone out and it is out there,” said Peter Reiher, a UCLA adjunct professor of computer science. “It is more likely that any info that you think is private is somewhere that it shouldn’t be. And somebody can get it if they want it. It is worse when you think about passwords and credit cards and anyone with a cellphone, or Alexa, where anything you say and do is being sent up to Google and, hopefully, they are not doing something bad with it.”

Chilling. This is why making your passwords more difficult to cyber-crack, and changing them regularly is a good strategy. Avoid a short password, or an easily hackable word or name (no family members), according to Money magazine (time.com/money/collection-post/2791981/how-do-i-create-a-secure-password/?xd=emailshare). For guidance on creating a hack-proof password and a more secure login, go to “How do I create a really strong password that I can actually remember?”

Lock Your Devices

Make sure all your devices (phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers) have password protection or fingerprint protection. Sign up for remote locking or wiping your phone clean, so that if it is stolen you can still remove any personal information lost to thieves.

Avoid Clicking Links

Do not click on potentially virus-contaminated links in emails, a common and easy way for hackers to access your computer and steal personal information. Instead of clicking on a link, Google the webpage in the email and click on that entry instead.

Hypervigilance: The New Normal

The Equifax breach is only one of many breaches. According to a Javelin Strategy and Research study, more than 15 million people were victims of identity theft in 2016, the highest number of victims in one year ever recorded, and 2 million more than the previous year. More than 800 data breaches were reported in the first six months of 2017, according to Identity Theft Resource Center. And almost 1.4 million data records were compromised worldwide in 2016, according to the cybersecurity firm Gemalto. This suggests that identity thieves are highly adaptable to the latest iteration of cybersecurity tactics. And that means consumers, whose data is presumably out in cyberspace, have to live defensively, take every measure to secure personal data against hackers and stay hypervigilant.  

Can gene tests determine the best, customized treatments for your skin-care regimen?

Mapping the human genome was completed in 2003, and researchers, drug makers and biotechnologists have been racing to develop ways to treat disease more precisely, based on individual patients’ genetic information. In the past few years, at-home DNA tests like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have become readily available, aimed at helping consumers discover all or part of their genome and its variations.

Enter the skin-care-industrial complex, a $121 billion global industry in 2016, projected to reach $11 billion in the U.S. alone by 2018, according to MarketResearch.com.

Walking into Tracey Cleantis’ home office in Pasadena’s San Rafael district, one encounters all the elements of a relaxing spa — soft lighting; the aroma of a scented candle in the air; plush, inviting couches and chairs. It’s an appropriately welcoming, stress-free place. As a licensed marriage and family ther, C If eer If there ever        More than a dozen skin-care-specific at-home DNA-test kits, ranging in price from $12.95 to $299, are available for purchase on the Internet, and some, in brick-and-mortar stores, like London’s Gene U skin-care clinic. The DNA tests for skin care 

More than a dozen skin-care-specific at-home DNA-test kits, ranging in price from $12.95 to $299, are available for purchase on the Internet, and some, in brick-and-mortar stores, like London’s Gene U skin-care clinic. The DNA tests for skin care are marketed with tantalizing claims that genetic sequencing technology can be applied to customized skincare concoctions that will moisturize, plump, dewrinkle and rejuvenate, making up for genetic failings writ large on our skin.

The manufacturers — with names like Orig3n (orig3n.com), SkinShift (skinshift.com) and Skinome (skinome.com) — send a kit that instructs you to swab your cheek for saliva, slip the swab into a tube, seal it and mail it back. Later, you receive advice pinpointing your skin’s shortcomings, based on your DNA results. The company also directs you to a regimen of specially formulated skin-care products that, the theory goes, will meet your skin’s greatest needs, determined by your genetic information. Think: rapidly degrading collagen, skin cancer susceptibility, lost elasticity, wrinkles, brown spots.

But dermatologists and geneticists say consumers should be cautious. The American Academy of Dermatologists does not have a position on the at-home DNA tests, and none of the dermatologists contacted for this story use them or know of any colleagues who do. The industry holds promise, but is still in the first stages of development. “This is a very infantile area and you have to treat this with a great deal of skepticism, especially since the company providing the testing [also] provides the necessary materials needed to fix it,” said Dr. Whitney A. High, associate professor of dermatology and pathology at University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver and director of the school’s dermatology clinic. “I have been a clinical director here for 20 years and I don’t know anyone doing it.”

Though DNA tests are typically not employed by dermatologists, High said that perhaps in 30 years today’s skin-DNA test kits, or some version of them, will seem like a step in the right direction, and using DNA information to create personalized skin care will be common. After all, no one’s skin is exactly the same as anyone else’s. Different people have different skin structures, including various matrix matelloproteinases (MMPs), the group of enzymes responsible for most extracellular matrix proteins during growth and normal tissue turnover, High said. Among the many types of genetic variants within human DNA are the so-called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). There are roughly 10 million SNPs in the human genome; some SNPs predict disease risk and others bear a regulatory effect on how a gene functions. A company called SkinShift, based in Austin, Texas, examines 16 SNPs that SkinShift claims are linked to collagen formation, sun protection, glycation protection (against harmful sugar-protein bonding), antioxidant protection and inflammation control. Based on the results, the company claims, SkinShift can tell you what specific ingredients and products to use. But High indicated that such claims may be premature. “We really don’t know enough to fully employ what we know,” he said.

GeneU (geneu.com), a London-based company founded by Christofer Toumazou, an electrical engineer, does “skin genetic tests” in its store, looking for genetic variations in how fast collagen degrades in an individual’s skin and for genes involved in the skin’s antioxidant protection. DNA-test results and answers to a brief lifestyle questionnaire are run through an algorithm, after which two concoctions are recommended. SkinShift, founded by an internist and based in Austin, also uses a fixed number of serums; based on individual DNA tests, the company suggests a combination of purchasable serums and nutritional supplements.  In other words, DNA results are not taken into the lab, where a concoction is made to order.

“It is not like you spit into a tube and they make a skin-care product based on your DNA or genetic results…truly personalized skin care,” said Dr. Ava Shamban, a dermatologist in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. “Here is the hundred-billion-dollar question: What is the actual expression of genes in your skin? Certain genes turn on and off based on the environment. There are people who are prone to rosacea, but they don’t develop it in certain exposures, and do in other exposures. So a lot depends on environment and ultraviolet light.”

Exposure to ultraviolet light ages skin and degrades collagen, the primary protein responsible for maintaining elasticity and skin’s structural support, according to a 2015 article on molecular health in the journal Nature. Collagen-producing skin cells called “dermal fibroblasts” become less productive over time, resulting in wrinkles, sagging and irregular pigmentation. Tretinoin, the prescription vitamin-A-derived cream marketed as Retin-A, is the first substance recognized by dermatologists as an effective wrinkle treatment. It was co-invented by Dr. Albert Kligman, who was also the first dermatologist to show that ultraviolet light caused skin to wrinkle. It was approved to treat acne in 1971, but off-label use proved to diminish wrinkles, so dermatologists began prescribing it for that purpose. Thus began the research field on the reversal of skin aging. Tretinoin counters some destructive effects of ultraviolet light by stimulating procollagen (collagen’s precursor) and supporting the skin’s structure, according to the Nature article. But how this happens is not understood and whether it actually reverses the degradation that happens with skin aging is not known.

“What is happening appears to some to be a premature translation of new technologies into the marketplace, and it is confusing to people,” said Dr. Robert C. Green, professor of medicine (genetics) at Harvard University Medical School and director of Genome2People Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There is a lot of good science behind linking genetics to collagen, skin color, eye color and predisposition to sun damage, but companies’ claims that by measuring this genetic marker, you can do something about it with this product” are unsubstantiated.

“To my knowledge, there is no pharmocogenetic [regarding gene variations that affect one’s response to drugs] or dermatologic application that can be used to personalize skin care,” said Green. “There are clearly skin-related medical conditions and there are a lot of genetic diseases that affect the skin in horrible ways, and there is an opportunity to look at those diseases using genetic information. But there are no genetic biomarkers that would influence skin and beauty care. And the kinds of claims being made of individual improvement based on a product that is somehow supported by DNA information is completely unsupported by science.”

Green added that genetic markers aren’t necessarily expressed; that is, having the genetic marker for a physical trait, or a disease, does not necessarily mean a person will develop it. Genetic biomarkers only increase the probability that a person will develop a trait, such as freckles. A gene variation can mean you have a lower risk for a disease such as melanoma, for example, but estimating risk based on genetic variants is likely to confuse consumers, cautions Green. But most consumers understand that wearing sunscreen is an important tool for protecting skin from ultraviolet light -— no DNA test required. Though the idea of individualized skin care routines gleaned from at-home DNA testing is exciting, the validity of using genetic testing this way is questionable. “It should make people nervous that these ‘skin DNA tests’ are not offered by skin-care companies on every corner,” High said “It has not permeated the industry to the degree that medical associations have taken a position on it, which is another reason for caution.” 

The International Rescue Committee’s Martin Zogg talks about resettling refugees, under siege by the Trump administration, here and around the world.

The world is witness to unparalleled levels of human suffering, with the numbers of displaced people exceeding even the devastation of World War II, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.  More than 65 million people, or 24 per minute, are displaced by conflict and persecution. For refugees who can flee, resettlement in countries offering safe haven and a new start saves lives. Many die trying to escape war, poverty, famine, drought and oppression. The German newspaper Der Tagesspiegal recently published the names of 33,293 refugees who drowned en route to Europe from 1993 to 2017. Last year proved the deadliest on record — 5,000 migrants died or disappeared while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

But here in the U.S, the Trump administration has stopped welcoming refugees, drastically cutting the overall number allowed in and banning arrivals from certain Muslim-majority countries who lack ties to the U.S., while battling a series of court rulings blocking the country’s most restrictive travel ban, primarily impacting Muslims.

President Trump slashed the total number of refugees allowed into the U.S. for the year that started Oct. 1, imposing a limit of 45,000 — down from 110,000 — the lowest number in more than three decades, according to the Pew Research Center. Though the move resumed the refugee admission process (Trump had suspended it by executive order soon after assuming office in January), a partial ban on refugees from six majority-Muslim countries is now in effect and a complete ban could still be enacted, reducing refugee numbers even more, depending on future court rulings. The partial ban bars arrivals from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen who lack a “bona fide” relationship to family, a company or a university in the U.S. Family ties are defined as “grandparents, grandchildren, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.” The latest ban also bars entry by certain Venezuelan government officials and most North Koreans. Administration officials also announced that 11 unidentified countries will be subject to a 90-day review for possible threats. The 11 impacted countries remained unnamed at press time.

Advocates for refugees strongly object to the administration’s new order reducing the number admitted to the U.S. and the implementation of the partial ban. They point to the exhaustive vetting process already in place for refugee applicants, the strictest security scrutiny applied to any traveler to this country. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says that over the past 40 years, only 20 refugees out of 3.25 million resettled in the U.S. have been convicted of committing terrorist acts or attempting to do so. Just three Americans have been killed by refugees — all three by Cuban refugees in the 1970s. Americans have a 1 in 3.64 billion chance of being killed by a refugee in a terrorist attack per year, according to the Cato Institute’s risk analysis. But since the U.S. established the resettlement program with the Refugee Act of 1980, there has not been a single lethal terrorist attack by a refugee among the hundreds of thousands resettled in the U.S., says Martin Zogg, executive director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s Los Angeles office based in Glendale.

Zogg has been working with persecuted asylum seekers since the early 1990s.  IRC is a highly regarded global aid, relief and development nongovernmental organization rated 4 out of 4 by Charity Navigator and A+ by Charity Watch. Currently led by David Miliband, a former British Foreign Secretary, IRC has been responding to the world’s worst humanitarian crises since World War II, helping people flee devastation, oppression, war and religious persecution. The organization was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, himself a German refugee, who recruited 50 additional American intellectuals including philosopher John Dewey, writer John Dos Passos and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to join him in helping refugees. IRC’s humanitarian relief operations are now in more than 40 war-torn countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs are in 28 American cities.

Here in Los Angeles, about 1,459 refugees were initially resettled in 2016-17 compared to 2,250 for 2014-15, according to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). From 2000 through 2016, the agency says, 34,278 refugees had been initially resettled in L.A. County through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. (There is no way to determine how many refugees who come to L.A. still reside in the county.) Arroyo Monthly talks with Zogg about IRC’s Los Angeles refugee assistance effort:

How long have you been working with the International Rescue

Committee and specifically, IRC’s L.A. office?

I started with IRC in 1992 as a country director in its international humanitarian relief program in Bosnia as the war there began, then worked in international programs for several years. I’ve been the executive director of IRC’s office in Los Angeles for nearly six years.

Tell us about the work the International Rescue Committee does with refugees in Los Angeles.

IRC is one of just nine agencies authorized by the State Department to resettle refugees in the U.S. In Los Angeles, it’s the largest of those agencies, resettling hundreds of refugees each year. For the past 10 or so years, about 2,500 refugees have resettled here every year.

How long has IRC been working with refugees in Los Angeles?

IRC opened its office Los Angeles in 1975, even before the U.S. established its formal resettlement program [with the Refugee Act of 1980].  The first refugees IRC resettled here were from Southeast Asia following the end of the war in Vietnam.

Where do the refugees come from?

The refugee community in Los Angeles is as diverse as any in the country, with Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong; Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian; and Iranian, Salvadoran, Honduran, Iraqi and Afghani, among many nationalities. All have fled persecution, oppression, deprivation and violence, and the overwhelming majority are women, children and the elderly. As a rule, it is about 80 percent or more women, children and elderly.

What countries are refugees currently fleeing and what circumstances are driving them to leave their countries of origin?

Since 2004 the primary population of refugees resettled in the Los Angeles region is from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Syria, Honduras and Burma, with some very small number of additional refugees from Eritrea, Russia, Somalia, Cambodia and North Korea.

Why are they arriving in Los Angeles?

Iranian refugees enduring religious persecution have the opportunity to resettle here through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Most Iranian refugees are Armenian, and the large Armenian community in Southern California is supportive and welcoming.

All refugees meet the definition in the 1951 U.N. Convention: someone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” In some unique cases, the State Department will allow persons who’ve otherwise met the definition but remain in their country of nationality. All of the refugees resettled in Los Angeles through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, whether from Iran or another country, meet the convention’s definition.

In addition to resettling refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, we resettle Special Immigrant Visa holders from those countries, which are granted through a long process similar to the refugee-vetting process to Iraq and Afghanistan nationals who have been employed by the U.S. government and have experienced or are experiencing ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment. 

How does the IRC help refugees and immigrants in Los Angeles?

IRC supports newly arrived refugees by providing immediate aid, including food, housing and medical attention. It also serves as a free one-stop center for refugees’ needs during their pivotal first months in the U.S. IRC staff members and volunteers help refugees learn about American customs, secure jobs, learn English and eventually become citizens. In short, IRC provides most of the basic things refugees need to restart their lives here and helps them overcome cultural barriers so that their adjustment is as easy as possible. 

Does Los Angeles have something specific to offer refugees that other cities do not?

A long history of immigration, deep respect for diversity and enormous community support.

Are there challenges to refugee resettlement particular to Los Angeles?

Many. The primary challenges are the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, but there is also a shortage of affordable ESL classes and limited public transportation. What is striking is that refugees are undeterred in the face of these challenges and establish strong foundations in their new homes despite them.

With lack of affordable housing ranking as one of L.A.’s most pressing problems, how hard is it to house refugees?

Housing is one of the greatest challenges for resettlement agencies. Fortunately, Los Angeles is a remarkably welcoming community to refugees and IRC has developed wonderful relationships with landlords and property owners across Southern California who know the reliability of refugees as tenants and support refugee resettlement.

What do refugees contribute to Los Angeles?

Aside from obviously enriching the cultural diversity of our region, refugees actually start businesses, are employed and pay taxes at rates higher than those for native-born Americans. Over just the past decade, refugees in the U.S. have contributed $63 billion more than they cost, according to a report commissioned by President Trump’s own administration. 

What is the impact of President Trump’s indefinite travel ban on refugees?

The ban prevented refugees — the most vulnerable people in the world — from finding safety and showed a stunning cruelty toward those fleeing our common enemies, enemies who intend to paint the U.S. as indifferent to refugees’ suffering.

Can you describe the vetting process?

The hardest way to come to the U.S. is as a refugee. They are vetted more intensively than any other group seeking to enter the country. All refugees must first be registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency, which identifies those most vulnerable. The U.S. then hand-selects every person who is admitted. Security screenings are intense and led by U.S. government authorities, including the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and multiple security agencies.  The process typically takes up to 36 months and is followed by further security checks after refugees arrive in the U.S.

Why do you think the general public appears to misunderstand the depth and complexity of the vetting process refugees go through before gaining admission to the U.S.?

Perhaps it’s simply the fear of the unknown, because once one knows the exacting details of the process, no amount of misinformation about it would be credible.

Why does a perception that refugees are more likely to commit acts of terrorism persist in some sectors of the U.S.?  What percentage of refugees commit such crimes?

Zero percentage of refugees commit such crimes. Since the U.S. established the resettlement program with the Refugee Act of 1980, there has not been a single case of an act of terrorism among the hundreds of thousands of refugees resettled in the U.S. According to the Cato Institute, the chance of being killed by a refugee is 1 in 3.6 billion. And according to the New American Economy research, there is no link between resettled refugees in the U.S. and crime rates. Even more telling is that over the past 10 years, in cities that received the most refugees relative to their size, crime rates have declined after refugees moved in, and nine of 10 cities on the list had property and violent crime levels decline precipitously.

Does the U.S. Diversity Visa program impact refugees?

The State Department program known as the Diversity Visa Lottery is utterly separate from the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and has no effect on refugees.

How can people help refugees and immigrants in Los Angeles?

Everyone can help refugees by welcoming them as new and valuable members of American society. They can also help by volunteering at a local resettlement agency, or by donating money, furniture and household items, or by urging elected officials to support refugee resettlement, or by employing or encouraging local businesses to employ refugees. 

Is there anything IRC urges concerned citizens to do to urge the administration and elected officials to support a rational refugee admission policy in the U.S.?

President Trump and his administration have actively sought to prohibit refugees from reuniting with their families. They have restricted resettlement agencies from fulfilling promises to refugees who have already been approved to come to the U.S. and left thousands of vulnerable families to question their futures. This cruel cessation of resettlement has to stop. Every day, refugees who have completed security screening continue to wait for their travel to be approved and their lives to be saved. Any further delay would be negligent and contrary to our American values as an immigrant nation.

Congress needs to know that Americans believe in refugee resettlement and that we won’t stand for further unnecessary delays in their arrival. The House Judiciary Committee has oversight of refugee admissions and needs to know Americans value refugee resettlement. Every Representative needs to know it. Call Congress today at (855) 472-8930 and say: “I am a constituent living in Southern California. I am extremely disappointed in the president’s decision to drastically reduce and delay refugee arrivals to the U.S. I am calling to urge you to tell President Trump to start letting refugees in and to stop delaying the process.”

Everyone should also share messages of solidarity on social media. Tweet “I #StandWithRefugees & @theIRC. Join me. Call (855) 472-8930 & tell @HouseJudiciary to demand refugee admissions now!”  

To make a donation, visit help.rescue.org. Visit gifts.rescue.org for holiday gifts in your recipient’s name, such as a year of school for $58, four temporary shelters for $54 or a baby goat for $90. Ninety-two cents of each dollar donated go directly to help refugees and others in need.

Caltech is part of a team developing a “bionic suit” that will enable paraplegics to walk and feel movement by harnessing their brain waves

Loss of the ability to walk is one of the most devastating consequences of spinal cord injuries, destroying paraplegics’ independence and sense of agency. But all of that is about to change as fantasy becomes fact.
Scientists and physicians from three Southern California universities recently received an $8 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to collaboratively develop a mind-controlled “bionic suit,” similar in concept to Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, enabling paralyzed people to walk and feel the movement.
Pasadena-based Caltech, USC’s Keck School of Medicine and UC Irvine share the five-year award, an NSF Cyber-Physical Systems Frontier grant, to fund development of an implantable brain-machine interface device designed to restore ability to walk and sensation in the lower extremities. The brain-machine device will transmit commands to a prosthetic exoskeleton for walking, enabling a paralyzed patient to walk by intention and loop sensory information back to the brain, thereby restoring lower extremity sensation information — or the feeling of walking — to the brain.
Caltech neuroscientist Richard Andersen, director of the new Caltech Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Brain-Machine Interface Center (named for its Singapore-based benefactors), will lead the Caltech team in developing the brain-machine interface for controlling prosthetic legs. Andersen and colleagues first reported successfully implanting a device in the brain of a paralyzed man in 2015, which enabled the
patient to move a robotic arm with his mind. Andersen has devoted years of research to encoding the region of the brain that governs movement, including the posterior parietal cortex, a cognitive area that encodes the intention to move. He was unavailable for an interview, but he explained his team’s role in the revolutionary and innovative collaboration in a prepared statement about the NSF award:
“People with spinal cord injuries do not have sensation in their legs and must look at their feet when using manually controlled prosthetic legs since they do not receive normal sensory feedback,” said Andersen. “The brain-machine interface we are working on will be bidirectional: it allows neurons to control an exoskeleton and also gives neurons the feedback of sensation in the region of the brain’s cortex where the leg is represented. The stimulation-based sensory feedback is the main component of our lab’s involvement in the project.”
The first phase will involve decoding the brain signals that command the legs to walk, an effort that will be overseen by the principal investigator for the USC team, Dr. Charles Lui, professor of clinical neurological surgery and director of the USC Neurorestoration Center. To gather brain recordings of walking, Lui said, the study will recruit epilepsy patients who have undergone a presurgery workup that involves having electrodes implanted in their brain so doctors can locate where in the brain the seizures originate. Patients will be asked to walk for five minutes, Lui said, during which time their brain signals for walking will be recorded and collected for the project.
“This is a great opportunity to use some of these recordings of the brains to help more people,” Lui said in an interview. “It has to be decoded and the electronics have to be refined in a way so that paralyzed people are not walking around with a heavy cumbersome exoskeleton suit. This particular project, this robot exoskeleton, this whole concept is something teams of people have been working on for years.”
The decoded brain signals gathered from epileptic patients will be used to control a wearable robotic exoskeleton designed by the UCI team, led by principal investigator Payam Heydari, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Zoran Nenadic, professor of biomedical engineering and Dr. An Do, assistant professor of neurology at the UCI School of Medicine. Heydari, an expert in analog circuit design, will be creating an implantable system that will enable people with spinal cord injuries to walk and regain the sensation of feeling in their legs by bypassing the damaged spinal cord.
“I am designing a revolutionary integrative circuit in nanoscale for brain-signal acquisition that can be implanted into the brain and that can send that signal from the brain to the prosthesis,” said Heydari, who added that healthcare for people with spinal cord injuries costs the U.S. $50 billion a year. “The size is important, obviously, but most important is being able to operate in the harsh environment of the brain where you have all these biochemical signals.”
Do, an expert in neurorehabilitation, will work on understanding how the brain governs walking and not walking. “My role is to understand — in those people who are paralyzed whose brain turns off during a period of time — if we can turn that brain back on with biofeedback,” said Do, who added that he will be conducting clinical testing after the brain device is implanted in paralyzed patients.
A proof-of-concept study conducted by the UCI team in 2015 helped the three universities win the $8 million award. The UCI team tested an electroencephalogram-based system on a man who had been paralyzed for seven years and whose brain was able to send messages directly to his legs, commanding them to walk. But the system was cumbersome, with the EEG-based system attached to his head via a cap; the man was suspended five centimeters from the ground to demonstrate walking motion without needing to bear weight.
“The idea is to think walk, and then the robotic exoskeleton does it,” said Lui, adding that the team expects to have a prototype in five years. “It is a really daunting engineering challenge to do this. The collaboration that exists between all of us had been ongoing for years, the walking project between USC and UCI and the artificial sensation with Caltech with the bidirectional brain-computer interface” that not only allows neurons to control the exoskeleton but also generates a signal of sensation in the brain’s cortex, which governs voluntary movement.
Until now, people living with paralysis have been able to relive walking and feeling their limbs only in vivid dreams. The creation of a neurally integrated bionic exoskeleton would be a life-changing assist for the 250,000 Americans currently living with spinal cord injuries. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes reports that 12,000 people suffer these injuries yearly, and 80 percent of those stricken are men.
“This is an exciting emerging concept of neurorestorative medicine and this robot exoskeleton is an entirely new approach,” said Lui. “This exoskeleton is analogous to giving a human wings to fly.”