National Pistachio Day


In the United States, today is National Pistachio Day, but my sources tell me that it’s also World Pistachio Day, which sounds more impressive, so let’s go with that. Pistachios are probably my third- or fourth-favorite tree nuts, so not too shabby. They’re a bit labor-intensive to eat if you buy them in the shell, which you should. (I suppose opening the shells will also burn off a tiny percentage of the calories found in the nuts themselves.) If you want to enjoy your pistachios in the form of ice cream or pudding or whatever, you’re allowed to do so today! If you need me to write you a note, just ask.

Image credit: Pixabay

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Author: Joe Kissell

Super Easy Vegan Babka Recipe

For those of you who’ve never had it, babka is a delicious Eastern European Jewish yeast risen cake that is filled with various, traditionally, either cinnamon or chocolate, and then twisted together to make a delicious dessert. If you’ve never had babka before, think of a fluffy cinnamon bun, except its made into a giant loaf. And sometimes its with chocolate filling instead of cinnamon.

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Author: Penniless Parenting

5 Essential Tips to Keep In Mind While Pregnant

Pregnancy isn’t easy! While I’m not pregnant now, I had four pregnancies, each very difficult. Here’s some tips from a reader how to be more healthy and comfortable during your pregnancies.

So you have a bun in the oven? Congratulations! Concern and emotions are bound to flow your way at this exciting time. It will seem like you cannot get away from smiles and well-meaning advice from every

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Author: Penniless Parenting

Goodbye Child Support Agency, you will not be missed

Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye, and sometimes it’s not so hard…

Last week the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) published the latest summary of quarterly statistics on the progress of the Child Support Agency (‘CSA’) child support schemes, to December 2018. The summary was very brief, but one of the statistics was quite significant.

But first a short explanation, for the benefit of those sensible enough (or lucky enough) to have had nothing to do with the CSA.

The CSA was established in 1993 to administer the then new child support scheme, which was effectively to replace the role of the courts in determining the amount of, and enforcing the payment of, child maintenance. There have actually been three child support schemes. That first, 1993, scheme was replaced by the 2003 scheme, which in turn was replaced by the present 2012 scheme. The 2012 scheme is administered by the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’), which replaced the CSA. Since then, CSA cases have been run down, as cases have been closed and new cases dealt with by the CMS.

OK, so what was significant about the statistics? Well the summary informed us that before the end of December the on-going liability (i.e. requirement to pay child maintenance) was ended on all CSA cases. So the CSA is no longer required to collect on-going child support maintenance. Sadly, this does not quite mean the end of the CSA, as it still has arrears to collect on its cases, more of which in a moment, but we are at last approaching the end of its sorry story.

So why will the CSA not be missed? Well, where to start? Perhaps with its delays in making and enforcing maintenance assessments? Or maybe its errors in making assessments? Or the interminable issues with its IT system? Well, yes, all of those, which caused endless misery, frustration and hardship for those dealing with the agency, or affected by its hopeless endeavours.

But the big issue was those arrears, which were of utterly staggering proportions. As the DWP itself noted back in December 2017:

“Significant policy, operational and IT issues beset the 1993 and 2003 schemes [i.e. the schemes administered by the CSA] which contributed to the build-up of considerable arrears of unpaid maintenance – currently £3.7bn of this debt is outstanding. Of this, a minimum of £2.5bn is owed to parents (approximately 970,000 cases) and £1.2bn is classed as owed to government (approximately 320,000 cases) … The published CSA Client Fund Accounts for 2015/16 make clear that £3.1bn of CSA debt is deemed uncollectable.”

Just let that sink in. Three point seven billion pounds worth of debt. Of which three point one billion is uncollectable. Remember, we are talking about the maintenance of children. How many children have suffered as a result of financial hardships caused by the ineffectiveness of the CSA? No, I will not shed a tear when the CSA is finally consigned to the scrapheap of history.

The big question, of course, is whether the CMS is any better. Or, more to the point, whether the current, 2012, incarnation of the child support scheme is an improvement over its forebears.

Well, it’s pretty much impossible to make a direct comparison. And that is exactly how the government wanted it to be. When it came up with the 2012 scheme the government very cleverly shifted much of the responsibility for dealing with the issue of child maintenance from the state on to parents. Parents are now encouraged to deal with it themselves, with the threat of having to pay significant fees for the privilege of something that was previously free: having the state deal with it for you.

This means that the workload of the CMS is a fraction of what the CSA used to deal with. Which obviously means that complaints about the CMS will be fewer, and the amount of arrears accrued under its administration will be less. In other words, the government specifically designed the current scheme to reduce the huge number of complaints about the child support service, which had embarrassed so many previous governments.

Whether the new scheme and the CMS is actually an improvement is a moot point. Certainly, it is far from perfect. For example, the fees have caused hardship, parents caring for children have preferred to settle for less rather than use the service, and there have still been significant arrears, although nothing like on the previous scale.

So I am not exactly happy about the current system. But that will not make me hanker after the old one.

You can read the full statistics summary here.

The post Goodbye Child Support Agency, you will not be missed appeared first on Stowe Family Law.

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Author: John Bolch

Parliamentary research briefings: a useful resource

These days the first point of call for basic legal knowledge for most people is, of course, the internet. The problem, though, is finding information that is accurate, and that you can therefore trust.

There is plenty of legal advice available on the internet, but comparatively few places where you can find detailed expositions of the law, similar to what you would find in a legal textbook. One such place is parliamentary research briefings.

The research briefings are produced by the House of Commons Library, the House of Lords Library and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and are primarily intended to get MPs and members of the Lords up to speed with topics with which they are not familiar (although reading or listening to parliamentary debates one sometimes wonders how many MPs actually read them!).

The briefings cover a huge range of subjects, including family law, and related matters.

As the briefings are not written solely for lawyers they are particularly useful for the general public. They are authoritative, clear, concise and fully referenced, including having many links to primary and other sources.

Here are a few examples that readers may find useful:

“No-fault divorce”, published last October, which “considers the current basis for divorce, arguments for and against the introduction of “no-fault” divorce, and the Government’s consultation paper, Reform of the legal requirements for divorce”. You can find a link to this briefing here.

Children: residence and contact court orders and related matters for parents, grandparents and others, published in November 2017, which “looks at child arrangements orders for residence and contact under the Children Act 1989.” Note that it still uses the old, and perhaps less confusing terminology ‘residence’! You can find a link to this briefing here.

Children: Enforcement of child arrangements orders relating to contact, published in June 2014, which “outlines the powers of enforcement available to the courts when a parent does not comply with a child arrangements order regulating contact.” You can find a link to this briefing here.

Financial provision when a relationship ends, published just last month, which “deals with the law in England and Wales and relates to the division of a couple’s property and income when their marriage or civil partnership breaks down.” You can find a link to this briefing here.

Child maintenance: income in the CMS formula (including why gross income is used, and annual reviews), published last December, which “sets out how the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) uses, collects and reviews the income of the non-resident parent under the 2012 statutory child maintenance scheme.” You can find a link to this briefing here.

“Common law marriage” and cohabitation, published in June last year, which “provides general information about how the law applies to cohabitants, the number of cohabiting couples, and about the Law Commission’s proposals for reform.” You can find a link to this briefing here.

And that is just a very small sample. All currently available research briefings are accessible from this page.

I suppose I should urge a note of caution for non-lawyers using the briefings. They may be very useful and informative, but they do not make you an expert. In particular, there is a huge difference between knowing the law and being able to apply it to a given set of circumstances. And trying to apply just a limited amount of law, as you will find in a briefing, can be especially dangerous. In short, there is no substitute for proper legal advice from a trained lawyer.

And on that note there is one other briefing that I would like to mention, that is definitely of direct use to non-lawyers. If you want to find legal help and advice, the House of Commons Library has produced a paper Legal help: where to go and how to pay, published in June last year, which “provides information about sources of legal help and advice, and how to pay for it”. You can find a link to this briefing here.

The post Parliamentary research briefings: a useful resource appeared first on Stowe Family Law.

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Author: John Bolch

Mail Recovery Centers

Dead Letter exhibit at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.

Undead letter offices

Mail used to be one of my favorite things in the world. I was always excited to see what might be in the mailbox today: a letter from one of my many correspondents, a magazine, a check, photos I’d sent out for processing, a gift from a friend or relative, a catalog full of interesting things, or a package containing one of the interesting things I’d ordered from the catalog. Some days I got nothing, and many days I got only bills or junk mail. But the tiny thrill of finding something interesting in my mailbox was always something to look forward to.

Times have changed. Although the U.S. Postal Service is still doing brisk business, my love affair with mail has faded. I still have lots of correspondents, but we communicate electronically. I receive and pay most of my bills online too. Photos, of course, go straight from my phone or camera to my computer and/or the cloud. And the whole notion of “mail order” seems quaintly anachronistic, even though the mail carrier is sometimes the person who delivers the stuff I order online. Yes, I do still get the occasional check or letter in the mail, but for the most part, the spark is gone.

Addressing Concerns

One day, though, I was in a library looking at a book from the early 1900s in which there happened to be an extensive discussion of the Dead Letter Office. All at once, childhood memories came racing back: stern warnings from teachers and parents to address mail properly, always include a return address, and, when sending a package, put an extra copy of the address inside. Were we not to do these things, the grown-ups cautioned us, our mail may end up in this mysterious and spooky room where it would, so we were led to believe, be unrecoverable for all eternity. And I remembered fantasizing about visiting that sacred vault, wherever it may be, wondering what incredible treasures I might find among its misaddressed envelopes and parcels. The century-old book provided a rather more prosaic description of how the Dead Letter Office had functioned at that time. And that got me thinking: is there still such a thing today? Where do letters really go when they die?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is Atlanta. There, the U.S. Postal Service operates a large facility called a Mail Recovery Center (MRC), as the “dead letter office” has been known officially since 1992. (Formerly, there were also MRCs in St. Paul, Minnesota and San Francisco.) The Post Office established the first dead letter office in 1825; from then until 1917, all undeliverable mail was sent to a single, central location in Washington, D.C. Then, for nearly a century, the operation was decentralized, but now the Atlanta facility handles all of the nation’s nearly 90 million undeliverable items per year.

Bring Out Your Dead (Letters)

Items arrive at the MRC when they can be neither delivered nor returned—meaning both the recipient’s address and the sender’s address are incorrect, illegible, or missing. There, the pieces follow one of two paths—one for letters, one for parcels. Letters are scanned by machine for currency, checks, or other items of obvious value. If such enclosures are discovered, the envelopes are opened and examined. (Incidentally, Mail Recovery Center clerks are the only people who can legally open someone else’s mail—for everyone else, it would be a federal offense.) The Post Office makes an effort to locate either the sender or the recipient, using any clues available in the letter itself; if successful, they return the valuables. The rest of the letters are unceremoniously shredded—love letters, poems, manifestos, everything.

Packages are a bit different: every one must be opened and inspected by hand. Again, postal workers look for an enclosed address or some other kind of clue—a name, a phone number, or anything they can use to discover the item’s rightful owner. If they do find the owner, which happens about a quarter of the time, they normally forward the item without charge. If not, the contents of the package are stored for 30–180 days, in case someone files a claim. Unclaimed items left longer than that are recycled, given away to charities, or sold at auction. At these auctions, which are held online periodically, bargain-hunters can bid on large lots of merchandise—the quantity is simply too great to auction each item individually. Income from the auctions pays for just a portion of the MRCs’ operating expenses, which are considerable.

Although a great many of the items that arrive at the MRC are truly dead, the purpose of the facility is in fact to resurrect as many as possible—it’s really an undead letter office. MRC employees have found an astonishing variety of items—not only common items like books and CDs but jewelry, computers, live animals, drugs, guns, human remains, and everything else imaginable. And, from all accounts, they find it quite rewarding to reunite lost belongings with their owners. It sounds like the perfect job for someone who still loves getting surprises in the mail.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 21, 2005.

Image credit: Billy Hathorn [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

National Chocolate-Covered Peanuts Day

Chocolate-covered peanuts

I’ve always thought that the combination of chocolate and peanuts is one of the more perfect food pairings, making chocolate-covered peanuts a delightful snack. Whether you go for the old movie theater favorite Goobers, Peanut M&Ms (the dark chocolate variety is my favorite), or a more artisanal offering, today’s the day to treat yourself to some chocolate-covered peanuts.

But a word of warning, and I’m not just talking about peanut allergies here. Who among us has not, at one point or another, incautiously popped a small chocolate morsel into their mouth, expecting to bite down on the crunchy goodness of a peanut, only to find a raisin inside? Nobody needs that sort of trauma today, so be careful out there.

Image credit: Ural-66 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

Saint-Pierre & Miquelon

Saint-Pierre, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon

France’s North American territory

As a product of the Canadian educational system, I thought I had learned the country’s geography pretty well. But I was surprised to learn, years after I finished school, about a geographical quirk that I’d never heard of. After watching the French/Canadian film The Widow of Saint-Pierre (La Veuve de Saint-Pierre), which I assumed was set somewhere in the maritime provinces of Canada in the 1800s, I discovered that its actual setting was the island of Saint-Pierre, part of a group of islands controlled by France off and on since 1763.

Other than being nonplussed about my failure to realize that the Saint-Pierre of the film title referred to a real place, what really struck me was the fact that these islands, officially called Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, are still under French control, and their inhabitants are citizens of France. It shocked me to realize that as a Canadian I would need a passport to visit these islands, located less than an hour’s ferry ride from the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and that I would need to stock up on Euros before I got there.

How had I missed this fact in the course of my education? It seemed amazing to me that I didn’t have to travel to Europe to visit France, but could do so closer to home. I also found it fascinating that Mexico, the United States, and Canada were not alone on the North American continent; this corner of France joined the others as its smallest territory. But, although it is small in size, I learned that Saint-Pierre & Miquelon played a major role in the history of its much-larger neighbors.

The Isles Have It

Technically, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon is a collectivité d’outre mer, or overseas community of France. It comprises the islands of Saint-Pierre, where the main port of Saint-Pierre is located, as well as the island of Miquelon, which was once three separate islands (Le Cap, Miquelon, and Langlade) now joined by sand dune land bridges. Saint-Pierre & Miquelon’s population is around 6,100, with the majority of inhabitants descended from Breton, Basque, Normand, and Acadian settlers who originally came to the islands as fishermen.

Followers of Cod

In the late 1400s, the explorer John Cabot returned to Europe with the news that he had found a rich fishing ground off the coast of North America. Now known as the Grand Banks, this series of underwater plateaus located at the intersection of the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador Current just southeast of Newfoundland was home to immense numbers of fish, including the much-valued Atlantic cod.

Although known earlier to the Portuguese, it was Cabot’s announcement that ignited interest in the commercial potential of the Grand Banks, and there were soon many European countries sending ships to the area, including France, Spain, Portugal, and England. Because of their proximity to the Grand Banks, the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon became the bases of operation for fishing fleets, most particularly those of the French regions of Brittany, Normandy, and the Basque Country. By the late 1600s, French settlers had established cod salting and curing facilities on the islands.

However, these settlements were short-lived; because of wars between France and Britain in the early 1700s, France ceded Saint-Pierre & Miquelon to the British as a condition of the Treaty of Utrecht.

Dually Deported

Throughout the 18th Century, the fortunes of Saint-Pierre & Miquelon were decided by the larger conflicts playing out across the eastern part of North America, as Britain and France (along with various groups of Native Americans) grappled for control of the continent. Over the course of two centuries, the French had built up the colonial territory of New France, which at its peak encompassed much of what is now Eastern Canada (the maritime provinces and Québec), as well as a swath of land west of the British colonies on the Atlantic coast, running from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1754, a dispute about which country would control the land around the Ohio River led to a larger conflict between Britain and France which came to be known as the French and Indian War. Around the same time, from 1756 to 1763, much of Europe was engaged in the Seven Year’s War, which pitted Britain, Prussia, Ireland, and Hanover against France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony, and the conflict in North America became part of this larger war.

With the British gaining the upper hand, and having captured many of the French strongholds, the conflict ended in 1763 when both nations signed the Treaty of Paris, giving Britain control of all of New France, with the sole exception of Saint-Pierre & Miquelon.

However, the British attacked the islands in 1778 because of France’s support of the American Revolutionary War, and deported all of their inhabitants. The French eventually took back the territory in 1783, but lost it to Britain once again in 1793 when France declared war on Britain during the time of the French Revolution. For a second time, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon’s inhabitants were deported from the islands.

Pierre de Resistance

France gained control of Saint-Pierre & Miquelon again in 1816 after the second abdication of Napoleon, and has retained control since that time. The islands continued to play an important role as the base of operations for French cod fishing in the Grand Banks throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.

Saint-Pierre & Miquelon also briefly became the base of operations for another kind of commerce; during Prohibition in the United States, American gangsters, including Al Capone, used Saint-Pierre & Miquelon as the launching point for their liquor smuggling activities.

Although it was far from the mainland of France, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon could not escape the conflict in Europe during World War II. When the Vichy government was formed in response to the German attack on France, the islands were also governed by the Vichy leaders, However, in 1941 they became part of the French resistance to the Nazis, when Rear-Admiral Muselier of the Free French forces led an attack on the islands, bringing them into the resistance movement spearheaded by Charles de Gaulle.

Cod Lover Ills

Saint-Pierre & Miquelon is currently facing a new challenge to its economy and livelihood. Overfishing in the Grand Banks has led to the closure of the fishing industry by the Canadian government in hopes of restoring these stocks. In response, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon is pursuing other sources of revenue, including agriculture, fish and crab farming, and tourism.

I think these islands are a great draw for tourists, letting them experience the novelty of visiting a European country without crossing the Atlantic, and allowing them to see first-hand these small islands that nevertheless played such an enormous role on the world stage.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 7, 2006.

Image credit: Thejust13 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Morgen Jahnke

Twin Peaks Day

Salish Lodge (a.k.a. The Great Northern Hotel), overlooking Snoqualmie Falls

Thirty years ago today—February 24, 1989—is the date on which, according to Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer was murdered (just after 1 A.M.). Now, those who watched 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return (which was effectively season 3 of the series) will know that some temporal shenanigans occurred, but I think it’s safe to say that from the point of view of Cooper’s personal timeline, February 24 will always be that day.

It so happened—and I promise, it was just a coincidence—that nine years later, on February 24, 1998, Morgen and I went on our first date. That means our relationship is officially old enough to drink today! So we’re celebrating with cherry pie and coffee, as one does. Let’s rock!

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Author: Joe Kissell

Are you making your divorce harder than it has to be?

Moving forward with the decision to divorce is not easy. It can involve complex feelings, the threat of losing some of your property and the possibility of seeing your kids less. As a result, it may lead some Texas readers to act out of emotions and stress. This can lead to decisions that are not actually in your best interests.

If you are facing divorce, it is smart to learn about ways you can protect your interests during this process. One way is to keep your emotions in check and keep your eyes on a strong post-divorce future. When you allow your feelings to dictate how you are acting, you may say things you will regret, agree to terms that do not suit your needs and make your divorce more difficult that it has to be. 

How do your actions affect your divorce?

The things you say and do during your divorce may make sense in the moment, but they can have repercussions that can impact you for years to come. The process of ending your marriage and extricating your life from your spouse’s life is not easy, but there are a few signs that may indicate you may be adding more complications by allowing anger, stress and sadness to lead your decision making. Some of these signs include:

  • You want to fight for it all. Fighting for everything in a divorce leads to stress and costly litigation. It is much more practical to fight for a reasonable, sustainable final order.
  • You do not consider that kids need both parents. Fighting for an inequitable parenting plan or lopsided custody order will ultimately only bring harm to your children.
  • You are not honest with your kids about the other parent. Being dishonest with your children can disrupt an important relationship and cause difficulty in the future.

These are just a few of the ways that you may be adding complications to an already difficult process. When you keep your focus on what is best long term, you will be able to make choices that will benefit you and your children for years to come.

The need for experienced guidance

You do not have to walk through the divorce process alone. You will find it beneficial to seek experienced legal guidance to help you make smart decisions and pursue a final order that will work for years to come. A complete evaluation of your case can help you understand your options and how to move forward to a strong post-divorce future.

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Author: On behalf of Katie L. Lewis of Katie L. Lewis, P.C. Family Law