Archives for the month of: June, 2014

I commented to an article this morning in the British paper, the Guardian about lawyers who represented clients of nightmarish crimes.

I said, “Thank you – I find it interesting to see the word evil used in this day and age when so many are in denial about the existence of evil.

I talked to John Norman Collins in the late ’70s, about 10 years after he was convicted and began serving a life sentence for the mass-murder of 9+ coeds in Michigan.

Chronologically speaking, he was the second [convicted] serial killer in modern American history. Timewise he followed Richard Speck who was convicted of killing 8 nurses in Chicago. Those murders happened earlier in the mid-’60s.

So, Richard Speck was followed by John Norman Collins who was then followed by Ted Bundy, and who were then followed by many (many) others. Sadistic and impersonal.

Unlike Mexico. If you get your ass murdered down here it is highly likely you know who is killing you and why.

As J.H. Browne’s assessment that Ted Bundy acted very normal, so did John Norman Collins.

A few years ago I read a book on the nature of evil and the author stated that evil had three primary characteristics: evil was hidden, evil was fetid, and evil was banal.

Having been on more than one occasion in the presence of evil I find my mind at times weighing and measuring the nature of those encounters against those very same characteristics.”

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I am working on a new gadget bag design that is constructed from only the softest and richest of the natural vegetable tanned leathers that are locally sourced and available here in Mexico. In case you didn’t know, nearby Leon has been producing premium leather for 400 years.

The leather that I chose here is as soft as butter and this is the first prototype:

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The dimensions are roughly 11″W X 13″H X 3″T. I want to create the perfect bag for lugging around one’s daily personal stuff like electronics, a book, a magazine or two, a spare sweater, passport, etc.

And I am so tired of everything that I see out there. If you ask me, 98% of commuters and travelers are carrying  crappy bags. Everything that I’ve seen is either the wrong material (synthetic), mass-produced in a crappy way, too big, or too small, or too expensive.

Instead of putting lots of pockets and partitions into it, I thought that building 2 separate bags to fit inside of the bigger bag might be a better solution:

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You can keep all your travel documents (receipts, misc. paper) in the smaller bag and then use the largest of the insertable bags for your tablet, phone, cables, and whatnot. That way you don’t have worry about inadvertently dropping an adapter or losing a thumb drive while you are going through airport security while trying to fish your tickets and passport out.

And the insertable bags are modular, meaning that you can use them independently, or put them into other bags or whatever. The leather all comes from the same hide so everything matches. They’re not fancy; they’re not meant to be.

What they are meant to be is practical. These bags are designed for the long haul (like a lifetime). And the quality of these leathers means that the bags will age gracefully over time by getting that patina that only comes from quality natural materials like fine leather, antique furniture made from dense hardwoods, and other things like some of those ancient silver cutlery services that have been well cared for.

Also, I am [finally] finishing our leather dog leash this week. And next week I expect to have a prototype finished for a women’s woven leather moccasin; which we plan to introduce in different colors. And tomorrow I am going to begin work on a sling backpack that is also made from these natural vegetable tanned leathers.

I like fine leather. And I like handmade quality. And in the immortal words of an old buddy’s grandfather, “Buy the best that you can afford and cry only once.”

PS – But these new bags are all going to be very affordable. They’ll be priced in line with the handmade sandals that we currently have on offer.

 

I love these big rain storms that move slowly and majestically across the valley, approaching the city from the east-southeast.

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If I am not mistaken – preceding the storm – directly above the cathedral there was just the faintest hint of a rainbow. The weather here, rainy season clouds and storms like these are so elemental and primal that some, like this one, literally take my breath away.

Whenever someone asks me why I – a single man – rented a 3-story house. I take them up to the 3rd floor terrace and point to the east.

PS – The house itself is anything but special. In fact just the opposite. The place has all of the charm of 3 single-wide (15′ X 75′) house trailers stacked one on top of the other. And the first two floors, being all empty surfaces of concrete and tile has the ambiance (acoustics included) of a metro station.

Ahhh, but the terrace is an entirely different matter and covers half the third floor and provides this stunning panoramic view. And the weather is 300 days of perfectness giving the residents here almost year around outdoor living. 80 degrees just about every day; open doors and open windows from sun up to sundown. And there is something so positively liberating in being able to wander about the terrace outdoors dressed only in a pair of boxer shorts that practically shouts, ‘Freedom baby!’

 

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Sunset – view to the northwest – from a few nights ago

 

Anyway, I say guest chef very tongue in cheek. But I reckon it was sort of a coup to have probably been the only gringo in the Mercado’s 100 year history to have actually operated a cutting board and manned the burners; albeit if for only simple lunch. My friend, Maria who operates a Fonda inside the Mercado has opened up to the idea of maybe offering some different food on her menu and liked the idea of some simple Italian style food like a pasta dish.

So yesterday, I turned up at her place loaded with all the ingredients to make a basic rosemary tomato sauce: a couple of sprigs of rosemary from my terrace, serrano chilies, onion, garlic, and a kilo of fresh tomatoes. I also brought a package of linguine, a chicken breast, and a medium size piece of chorizo. I wanted the meat to show Maria that there could be some easy to prepare variations to add to a tomato sauce pasta dish and besides, chicken and any kind of spicy sausage cooks up pretty well together.

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A cloud – off to the southeast – just prior to last night’s sunset.

Making lunch was an easy affair. I took a stock pot, added a little vegetable oil, then put in some diced onion, garlic and chilies. After the onion became translucent I added the diced tomatoes and as it cooked down added a few pinches of salt and periodically worked on the sauce with a potato style masher. In a skillet we added the cubed breast to the already simmering chorizo and let it cook while we got a pan of boiling water going for the pasta.

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Last night’s sunset with a view to the north.

 

We put some of the chicken/chorizo mix over 4 plates of pasta, then ladled on the sauce, topping it with some of the good crumbled local farmers cheese. Mario, the man who cooks goat meat next door to Maria had a plate. And one of the ancient old-timers happened to have been ambling by and ended up also getting a free lunch.  And Maria seemed happy which was the important thing. Even though I had brought everything I still paid her 30 pesos for her standard plate lunch, which she protested, but I figured with the extra work she had to do cleaning everything up, the gas we burned; all said it was a good value.

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Sunrise – view to the east – a few mornings ago

 

 

It’s coming. The city is once again on the uptick and the American suburb – and bedroom communities at large – are in decline.

I have been giving the subject of just what the future American demographic might look like given the immediate realities of $6-8/gallon gasoline, existing soul-numbing 3+ hour commutes, and the fact that Americans sooner or later are going to have to give up their love affair with their big suburban homes if for no other reasons but the unsustainable economics.

I started thinking about the subject in earnest not long after I moved to downtown Washington, DC and took a job in the Virginia suburbs in 2006. It was a reverse commute; living in the city center but working out the suburbs. It was 1 metro train (Orange line), 1 bus and a 10 minute walk. It took 1 and 1/2 hours each way. 45 minutes of train, 10 minute gap for the bus, and then 30 minutes of bus.

Why did I do this? Real estate prices pushed the big government contractors out beyond the 395 Beltway. And it was these big government contractors that employed people like me. I was often asked why didn’t I move out to the suburbs and closer to my work. And my answer typically was that I liked living downtown (in the old venerable southeast neighborhood of Capitol Hill) and the commute was worth the pain.

Washington, DC is the exception and not the rule. Most regions in the United States do not possess the triple blessing of having multiple top-tiered universities, vital research facilities, and core industries and as such are at some stage in the process of undergoing a contraction. The suburbs are being abandoned in favor of the cities. This is a radical but necessary transformation – and with the exception of the interstate trucking commerce – it is undoing what began with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (the interstate highway system) and with it, the advent of the modern American suburb.

It is ironic that Detroit, the most extreme example of an urban area in need of transformation, was nearing the peak of its glory when the interstate highway system was being built. Detroit’s affordable automobiles enabled the interstate highway system which in turn enabled the American suburb; all presently coming undone due in part to the flattening of the global economy and unsustainable energy consumption habits.

It should have been more readily apparent to more Americans that even if one could seemingly afford the payments on 8-cylinder SUVs and a six-bedroom house; that larger intractable forces (sooner or later) would come to bear on the energy wastes. Like with any system, man made or otherwise,  waste is a byproduct of inefficiency and in some form or fashion, it’s always accounted for.

And anyway it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that the rising costs of heating and cooling a 5000 sf home for a family of three, affected in part by being loosely tethered a great distance from the core, is nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong.

 

 

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s well researched and wonderfully written book, ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’, on the 2007 collapse of the US housing industry and the corresponding collapse of the US investment banking system. And while I thought I was pretty well informed on the former – which it turns out I wasn’t – I also found out that I really knew nothing about the latter. Looking at it now from the perspective of an informed present, my ignorance was not surprising; as investment banking – at least from the bond side – is unregulated (even to this day) and as such is highly opaque.

In summary, there were three principal ingredients that created the two closely coupled financial disasters: Policy and the out of hand proliferation of subprime mortgages. The creation and unregulated spread of complex financial instruments called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). And lastly, the lack of oversight by the government, the banking industries and the rating agencies (Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s).

Subprime mortgages, for those of you that weren’t following along, were housing loans made to those people that were essentially credit unworthy. They started out as an intended implementation of government policy to extend home ownership to more people. The banks and mortgage institutions were more than willing to play along because more loans meant more revenue. The institutions got very crafty by creating the loans in the form of Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARMs) that were front ended by 2 year teaser rates that had little or no interest before ballooning into payments that carried interest rates that exceeded normal (prime) mortgages.
The underlying assumption was that these subprime mortgages would be refinanced at the end of year 2 for another mortgage that carried better terms for the borrower. The lending institutions loved this because refinancing meant more fees, revenues and profit.
Oh, and it is also important to note that the problem at this level – by using an untested lending model to uncredit worthy Americans – was that everything was further predicated on the assumptions that house prices would keep rising and as such the subprime home loan defaults would be contained in the sub-five percent range. Both assumptions as it turned out were not just wrong but damned wrong.

Like other debt, these subprime mortgages were packaged into bonds to be sold and later traded. This is where the big investment banks on Wall St. came in. Earlier on, one of these banks had developed a new financial instrument called a CDO into which these bonds were then bundled, ostensibly to distribute the risk. Wall Street loves bonds because those big chunks of debt are worth lots of money and buying and selling them creates lots of revenue. Packaging the bonds into CDOs made for even bigger chunks of debt money which were as yet another revenue stream that was even more ridiculously profitable.

As unbelievable as it seems, no one was watching what was happening. The lending institutions making the subprime loans to the consumers didn’t care what was happening upstream because they had hedged their risk to any bad loans that they had made when the debt was packaged and sold off as bonds. Wall St. didn’t care because everyone was getting filthy rich from both the bonds and the CDO trading.
The rating agencies – Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s – were conned partially by Wall St. and largely by their ignorance into rating those triple-B- rated bonds as triple-A-rated after they were packaged into CDOs. So, as the author pointed out, ‘the CDO in effect was a credit laundering service for the residents of lower class America. For Wall Street it was a machine that turned lead into gold.’

It came to be that the lending institutions and lower class America were not generating enough triple-B-rated product so Wall St. got creative again and the Credit Default Swap (CDS) was born. The CDS was in effect a way to ‘short’ the CDO and were sold to traders much in the same way generating yet another profit stream. And where Wall St. got really creative was by then taking the CDSs and packaging them into what were to be called synthetic CDOs; another Wall St. product with yet another gigantic profit stream.

The people that were on the other side of the CDSs was a company called the AIG (American International Group) who were in the beginning nearly the only buyer of the CDOs (actually triple-B-rated subprime mortgage bonds repackaged into triple-A-rated CDOs) and as an insurance company they also effectively insured hundreds of billions of dollars of more subprime loaded CDOs against default.

So for all appearances Wall St. was selling products that were both triple-A-rated and insured against default. And the CDOs were so complicated – each individual CDO carried with it a prospectus that was over 100 pages long (which no one could ever really read because they were so complicated in themselves, using financial jargon that was know only by a few insiders) – so it was that even 98% of the  insiders selling them didn’t understand the contents, let alone the risk.

Things really began to unravel in early 2007 when many lower class Americans began defaulting on the subprime loans once the teaser rate expired and they found themselves in a position of not being able to refinance when the housing market stalled and the unexpected happened and American housing prices quit rising. The defaults at the subprime consumer level set off a chain reaction that brought housing prices down nationwide. And like defying gravity, the proverbial shit ran uphill and anyone holding CDOs soon discovered that they were in possession of nothing but valueless crap.

The book was a great read and almost impossible to put down. Michael Lewis puts the names to faces in what was one of the greatest financial fiascos of modern times. I heartily recommend it.

The Internet of Things. Have you heard of the IoT? Maybe. But have you thought about what living in an all networked world might mean? And just in case you haven’t, there is a big push on by the likes of the big tech companies to get everything connected to the internet. That’s everything as in everything. Why? For them, obviously profit.

The world is reaching its saturation point in most of the comm/computing devices so it only makes sense (and it does) to expand the need by extending the market. So in the not to distant future we’ll be upgrading basic household commodities for the same reasons that we upgrade our mobile phones.

So what prompted this particular post was the absurd byline to an article on the subject this morning that said something to the effect of ‘what if your kitchen scales advised you on nutrition?’ No. Sorry. That was just about the stupidest example of what the evolving IoT really means.

The fact is the IoT is all about interconnected sensors. For example, all non-native computing devices  – like a door or a windowpane – don’t have anything to ‘say’ until they are enabled with some sort of sensor, a camera, or a microphone; a device that is capable of collecting (and then transmitting) data. With the coming of the IoT, everything is going to change. Forget about smartphones. Start thinking about smart chairs.

While the IoT enabled world changes, the sales spin remains the same. That by having all things connected, then we humans will reap the benefits of having less drudge work to do, more leisure time, have less stress and lead healthier and more enriched lives. But the inevitable reality of the IoT – the networked world of everything – is going turn out to be much more different than any of us [now] can really imagine it to be.

Back in the ’80s when I first started my engineering career in the oil and gas business there were, principally speaking, 3 measurable quantities that we in the petro-chem business were interested in, namely: pressure, volume, and temperature. Expressed in the Ideal (universal) Gas Law; PV=nRT where Pressure X Volume = number (quantity in moles) X R (constant/ideal) X Temperature. The industry obtained those 3 measurable quantities through sensing devices.

Fast-forwarding to the present and the IoT, imagine the convergence of new technologies that combine extreme miniaturization, new and improved sensors (capable of measuring much more than P, V, and T) wireless communication, the proliferation of System(s) on a Chip (SoC) everywhere, and all at ridiculously cheap price points.

Take the new and improved refrigerator as an example. It will have a tiny computer in the form of an SoC built into it that will perform input/output (I/O), have limited storage, process data (run the manufacturer’s applications), and communicate with 2 or possibly 3 built in miniaturized radios; all operating on different frequencies. These wireless systems will not just talk to the storage compartments in the refrigerator (to monitor and control the temperature and humidity) but will also talk to all your purchased food and beverage containers.

For example that tub of ice cream will have a miniature radio in some form of NFC or RFID chip. So will that 6-pack of beer. The frig in short will talk to your food which will then relay that info to your Wi/Fi router and then to some app on your mobile phone which will then inform you to stop at the store on the way home from work because there is only one beer left.

Also imagine that your refrigerator is running another application that talks to a website that we’ll call ‘RetailWorld’ which in turn talks to the grocery store where you bought that 6-pack. Keep in mind that the data stored on the RFID/NFC chip on that 6-pack would include things like point of sale and price.

So it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that every last item in your refrigerator is blabbing to RetailWorld. Then RetailWorld knows your food and beverage consumption habits. Like how many beers you drink per week and that you like fatty foods because you buy things like lots of cheap 80/20 hamburger every week.

And maybe RetailWorld talks to a website called HealthWorld which in turn talks to your insurance provider and suddenly your insurance premiums just went up because you have been tagged as a health risk.

Now take that one step further and imagine that most every inanimate object in your life will all at some point be upgraded with the same wireless comm systems and multiple sensors and hence will share that same capability to rat you out. Oh, I’m sorry – to better serve you…

Welcome to one imagined future of the IoT.

 

 

 

I’m going to open with a quote from a very important Guardian article published this morning entitled ‘Privacy under attack: the NSA files revealed new threats to democracy.’

“The power of that Roman empire rested in its leaders’ control of communications. The Mediterranean was their lake. Across their European empire, from Scotland to Syria, they pushed roads that 15 centuries later were still primary arteries of European transportation. Down those roads the emperor marched his armies. Up those roads he gathered his intelligence. The emperors invented the posts to move couriers and messages at the fastest possible speed.”

I don’t know how much you have been following the Edward Snowden case but it was this British paper, the Guardian, that had the courage to ‘out’ Mr. Snowden so many months ago. This recent article suggests that there is much (much) more to the attack on our privacy than just those coming from the likes of the NSA.

The article says, “The situation at Facebook is different. Facebook is strip-mining human society. Watching everyone share everything in their social lives and instrumenting the web to surveil everything they read outside the system is inherently unethical.”

And, “What the US data-mining companies basically believed, or wanted us to believe they believed until Snowden woke them, was that by complicity they had gained immunity from actual thievery. But we have now learned their complicity bought them nothing. They sold us out halfway, and government stole the rest.”

The article goes on to say what in fact defines privacy – “Our concept of “privacy” combines three things: first is secrecy, or our ability to keep the content of our messages known only to those we intend to receive them. Second is anonymity, or secrecy about who is sending and receiving messages, where the content of the messages may not be secret at all. It is very important that anonymity is an interest we can have both in our publishing and in our reading. Third is autonomy, or our ability to make our own life decisions free from any force that has violated our secrecy or our anonymity. These three – secrecy, anonymity and autonomy – are the principal components of a mixture we call “privacy”.

I urge each and everyone of you to read this article. It is deep and comprehensive (not too mention quite long). It is without a doubt one of the most sobering things that I have ever read. It hits you in the gut, hard, like in a ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ kind of way.

But thankfully the article offers hope – ”

“We face two claims – you meet them everywhere you turn – that summarise the politics against which we are working. One argument says: “It’s hopeless, privacy is gone, why struggle?” The other says: “I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care?”

These are actually the most significant forms of opposition that we face in doing what we know we ought to do.

In the first place, our struggle to retain our privacy is far from hopeless. Snowden has described to us what armour still works. His purpose was to distinguish between those forms of network communication that are hopelessly corrupted and no longer usable, those that are endangered by a continuing assault on the part of an agency gone rogue, and those that, even with their vast power, all their wealth, and all their misplaced ambition, conscientiousness and effort, they still cannot break.

Hopelessness is merely the condition they want you to catch, not one you have to have.

So far as the other argument is concerned, we owe it to ourselves to be quite clear in response: “If we are not doing anything wrong, then we have a right to resist.”

Edmund Burke once famously said that “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing.”

PS – I am crossing back into the US in July to renew my Mexican visa and I will say it here and now that I am fearful. I am fearful that some of these posts that I have been publishing that have been critical concerning issues like our nation’s stance on foreign policy, the way in which our borders and airports are policed could possibly put me in harms way. In fact I am way more fearful of the TSA than I am of some of my present neighbors here in Mexico, namely the narco-cartels. ‘To me, ‘to serve and protect’ has become both fraudulent and hypocritical.