Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Tip to the Sacramento County Assessor

My wife and I own two properties in Sacramento County.   When property taxes come due we send them to be received on the 10th of December which is when the first installment is due.   This year for some strange reason I mixed the parcel numbers so that the first property had the second parcel number on it and vice versa.    This morning, as I was beginning some year end activity I noticed my mistake and checked to see if either check had cleared.   They did indeed.   And, wonder of wonders, the Tax Unit figured out which parcel to apply the tax to so that both properties paid their taxes on time.  Figuring out how to match these took a bit of effort - we hold both properties in a trust so the staffer who opened the check needed to find the appropriate property possibly by matching that the properties are held in the same name.   I realize that the tax unit gets a lot of checks in December; I am not sure how the match was made but I am appreciative.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Iron Lady

The new movie the Iron Lady is horrible.  I got a chance to see it last night.   The subject matter, Lady Margaret Thatcher, should be a good subject for a movie.   She was a transformative figure in British politics.  She was able to get into and lead a "boys club" as the Prime Minister for eleven years.   Yet she was unceremoniously dumped by the same "boys club."  She seemed passionate about recovering a nondescript set of islands that no one else seemed to care about.   She was a good friend and ally of Ronald Reagan.  She was a leading figure in keeping Britain out of the Euro - a move that looks better and better but which she was criticized for at the time.  She took on the labor unions in Britain and substantially won her fights.  She did some transformative changes in local finances in her country.   But this picture dwells on her after she had left office and attempts some surrealistic lapses into the beginnings of dementia.   What comes off is a disappointing confused and non-informative movie that simply drags out.

Meryl Streep gives, at least, a good portrait of Lady Thatcher at her best, unfortunately, those performances are interspersed so haphazardly that one almost has to dig for the effort.   I will admit that for part of the performance I kept thinking about Julia Child (Julie and Julia) but her bio part of the role looked like it could have been pretty convincing.

Lady Thatcher was often a divisive leader.  How  could she gain and maintain her position in power, what drove her to take positions that she did and what were the consequences of those positions could be the interesting stuff of celluloid.   But what we were left with was a muddled haze of nonsense.  Avoid this like the plague.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Distribution of Profits - ideas come first

One key concept in the new globalized world is how important ideas have become.   These two charts demonstrate that fact clearly.   The first is for the iPhone.  It divides all of the inputs into the creation of the iPad and iPhone among all the people in the chain that makes the product - from idea to manufacture and distribution.

In products like these the design takes place among Apple employees in California.  For the phone the device is then manufactured in Asia and then distributed throughout the world.   The carriers that provide the phone service derive some of the profits, so do the retailers.   But in the end the largest share of profits come from the ideas.

For the iPad the distribution is a bit different and the parts are a bit more expensive.  So the distribution of profits are a bit more distributed.

Politicians in Washington keep yammering about keeping production in the US and the supposed loss of our manufacturing base (although there is plenty of evidence that the US manufacturing base is beginning to come back as the value added of US manufacturing becomes more apparent).   What they should be concentrating on is assuring that we have the educated workforce that can continue to provide these benefits to our society - that takes a first class educational system - and at least in the K-12 arena - there is plenty of evidence that we are failing to provide that critical need.   The original graphs for this come from a paper by three economists at UC Irvine, Berkeley and Syracuse that was originally published in July of this year.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hyperventilation then damage....

The agreement that Congress came to before they snuck out of town was absurd on its face.   It continues the extension of unemployment benefits and the 2% reduction in Social Security taxes for two months. In his victory statement the President claimed that the average worker would save $1000 as a result of the agreement but that is a gross misrepresentation.  The real savings, based on average wages, will be about $20 per week or the price of five lattes in a week.  For the eight weeks of the extension that amounts to about $160, not the $1000 claimed by the President.

Besides politics what are the possible benefits of the temporary bill (or even the permanent one)?

An aggregate increase in demand - If the first version of this actually had a positive effect economic activity would have been  increasing proportionally - but it has not.   In many key areas of the economy growth is stagnant.  The stimulus bill has been a drag on economic growth.  Adding to that has been the uncertainty about tax policy - as John Taylor argued earlier in the week, the best tax policy is a stable one.  Like the original Bush Tax Cuts which the President likes to defame - uncertain tax policy tends to diminish the real incentive effects of any change.   This sixty day extension is a fantasy in terms of stimulative effect.

Employment growth - Labor force participation continues to trend down.  That has been caused in part by extended unemployment benefits - what seems like a humane policy is actually holding many people in dependency.   Were labor force participation at levels before this recession - the unemployment rate would be over 11%.

But as any good pitchman from TV would say - there is even more - The best description of the American political class on its response to issues in the Social Security System has been derelict at best.  This solution makes the long term viability even less certain - at the same time it increases the notion that Americans are entitled to something without contributing to it.  Neither is a consequence that is good for the long term.

The GOP should have stuck to its guns and tied the real growth in employment that would have resulted from the pipeline with a year long extension of the rate for FICA taxes.  This was not a proud moment for the American political system.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sherlock Holmes/Again

I was a fan of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.   In the 1950s he and Nigel Bruce defined the Conan Doyle characters in a number of black and white movies.  A couple of years ago, Robert Downey and Jude Law tried to redefine the characters into a more modern version (interestingly by going back in time from the period that the Rathbone/Bruce versions used - contemporary to when the stories were written.)  From my view, they did a marvelous job by not trying to recreate the prior performance.  The first movie (Sherlock Holmes, 2009) was great fun.

I looked forward to the sequel.  And again I was delighted with the results.  Many of the first themes are readopted and the rhythms of the first movie are recreated without trying to extend the first movie.  The plot is fun and engaging.  I cannot wait for the third version.

A Wise Man and a Fool in Public

This morning when I read about the death of Vaclev Havel I returned to a copy of his 1990 speech to Congress.  At the time I thought Havel had done a marvelous job of summarizing a very vibrant period in history.  The speech combined some inspiring rhetoric with a couple of superb references to US history (always a good way to put some ideas in context when speaking to an American audience like the Congress) with some very specific ideas about history was evolving.  As I re-read his words I found them to be both gracious and thoughtful.

But as inevitably happens I also found other references to the speech. One was from Noam Chomsky.  In my mind Chomsky is a small minded public scold (I would hesitate to call him an intellectual) whose early writing is revered by linguists but whose contributions to intelligent public dialogue have been non-existent for the last several decades.  Chomsky, in a letter to Alexander Cockburn, called the speech an "embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon"  The easiest way to understand the value of Havel's speech more than 20 years after it was delivered is to re-read it (or for the first time if you missed it then) - I have posted a hot link in the reference above.

NPR commented that he struggled with "reconciling his moral principles with the pragmatic requirements of governing."   Not a bad place to be for a leader.  The LA Times in their article quoted his motto "May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred."  I tired long ago of Chomsky's rants, reading his sophomoric comments on Havel this morning only reinforced that fatigue.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Descendants

Last night we went to the new George Clooney movie which is listed as a comedy-drama.   I am not sure that is an accurate description.  But the movie is an interesting mix of pathos and some humor.   Clooney's character is from an old established Hawaiian family that has the largest remaining tract of land in the state. The land is in a trust and they need to make a decision about how to handle it.  (Trusts cannot last forever.)  At the same time Clooney's wife was injured in a boating accident and is comatose.  At some point he finds that his wife was engaged in an affair.   To compound the plot, her doctor says she is brain dead and so has to be pulled of the machines.   If all that sounds like a bunch of maudlin sentimental junk - don't get fooled.   As the plot evolves, it is an engaging story with interesting characters.   The supporting cast is superb but Clooney carries the story with grace and subtlety.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reflections on Medicare

Today I signed up for Part B of Medicare - which is where many of the costs of the system come from.  I also signed up for all the other coverages which will make my medical bills, when I fully retire, for my wife and I, about $1000 per month (including a part b,d and f policy).   I wondered what kind of a deal I was getting.  Coincidentally it was also a day when Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Wyden announced a pretty good plan for reducing the costs curves on Medicare - it correctly in my opinion begins to add some consumer discipline to senior health care without pulling the rug out from the social equity parts of the current Medicare system.

First, I should say something about Social Security offices.  I've had three encounters with Social Security offices - two yesterday and one about six months ago when I turned 65(which was handled on the net and with one phone call).  While there were some annoyances in the processing of forms (minor) I can say that the people I have encountered have been uniformly helpful and well informed.

But here is the question I began to think about when I filled out all my forms.  The company I retired from was charged about $1500 a month for our medical insurance. I required my employees, last year, to make both a $40 co-pay and a cost sharing of 10% of the premium.  Undoubtedly costs would have gone up had I continued to work for them.   But is the $1000 per month (for all of the coverages for both of us) actually worth it?  That depends.   I keep very detailed records on taxes paid and so I can go back and calculate the money that I have paid into the system over my working life.   The total amounts to a bit more than $48,000 in current dollars or something north of $70,000 in present value (that is a conservative estimate).   In any event the sum total of current payments (which continue to be made) and a conservative flow of the value of an annuity which could be used to fund part of our health care costs would produce a negative or severely negative investment.   Since the additions beyond Part A are significantly skewed for higher income payments - if our income drops significantly in the next couple of years, the net negativity will diminish by some.

I found today that at the end of my COBRA period I will also have to self insure for dental and vision coverage which would add to the negative investment over time.   The major difference however is that the government programs plus the supplement have purchased a set of benefits that are richer than I had when I was employed full time and ones that I would not likely choose for myself.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Government is too large - another example

The National Transportation Safety Board has proposed to ban the use of cellphones in cars to combat something called "distracted driving." In their press release they say this evil caused 3000 deaths last year on our highways. That number sounds small to me, compared to the total number of auto related deaths, but take it as a real issue.(For background the DOT says there are about 30,000 auto deaths a year or about 1.14 deaths per 100 million miles driven.  For another perspective the number of alcohol related deaths is in the range of 10,000 per year.)

The buffoons at the NTSB have cobbled together a classic bureaucratic response.  But even if you buy the premise that there is something called distracted driving that a change in policy can improve, there are several problems with the NTSB assault here.  First, is their evidence - if this were a significant problem one would expect a lot of recent data. In the Press Release the NTSB cited five cases  only one of which involves the allegation of involvement of a hands free device. (Which happened in 2004.).   If the problem is static why the push now?  If it is not why not present some relevant evidence?   Texting is already banned in many states.  The other four examples are all about texting and driving.  There is no mention of accidents caused by other forms of distraction - in the insurance data things like applying make-up and changing a radio station are cited as causes of accidents.

The public scolds who want to ban the use of cellphones continue to cite the statistic that using a cellphone is akin to being legally drunk.  That is nonsensical on its face.  Is that for hands free?  If it is then is a conversation with someone else in the car equally dangerous?  What bunk!

Second, is their sloppy use of definitions. A serious definition of distracted driving would establish some parameters. But the supporters of restricting freedom are not really interested in solving a problem. Were they interested they would attack areas where they are likely to have a significant effect - which in my opinion many states already have - prohibit non-hands free calling, texting and even the application of makeup - any action which disengages the drivers attention from the steering wheel and the road.

In the insurance company board that I serve on, we've had a couple of discussions about whether it would be a good idea to do a simple key combination for phones to prevent texting while driving.  A combination like #25 might issue a statement to a phone users who try to text a driver who has sent the sequence - "I am sorry but I am driving now and cannot receive your text when I arrive I will receive the text and respond."

Ultimately safer driving will happen with the right combinations of incentives and technologies which will allow people to make the right choices.   Restricting a useful tool at the whim of bureaucrats is unlikely to improve the situation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Keynesian Theory (Bunk)

We've been told that increasing government spending will have a "countercyclical" effect on unemployment.

Here's a chart (from Mark Perry) that shows what nonsense that idea is.

Next time one of your lefty friends claims that government spending has a positive effect on unemployment - whip out the chart - it won't convince them - but it will at least show up the folly of their "thinking."

This generation's Jack Kemp

During the time that I worked in Congress, I got to know Jack Kemp quite well.  He was an engaging fellow; smart, witty and well read.   But as I watched him I became convinced that he should not be president.   The qualities that the best presidents have are a strange mix - they need to have charisma but they also need perspective.  In one sense a person who is driven to be president, probably will not make a good president.  (Although it is hard to think of a successful president in my lifetime who was not driven to be president - perhaps Ike.)

In this election cycle Newt Gingrich seems to fit the mold of Jack Kemp.   I do not know Gingrich but have encountered him in a number of forums.  He is an engaging speaker.  He too is well read and smart. But like Kemp he seems to lack a sense of proportion.   I first noticed it when he was Speaker and he threw a hissy fit for not being included on the President's plane when coming back from Europe.  Everyone should have the ability to have one gaffe but Gingrich has had several.

Witness the following:
1) He called the Ryan health plan "right wing social engineering."  Paul Ryan is one of the few people in Congress who is thinking carefully about how to balance the budget.  There are elements of his budget plan that are not popular - but the low cut on a fellow member of his party and a leader in Congress is bad taste and bad policy.
2) Gingrich worked for one of the two Government Sponsored Enterprises (Freddie Mac) that helped us get into the housing mess.  He claims he was only a "historian" - a claim that is so spurious it is laughable.   In the most recent debate, Gov. Romney criticized Gingrich's post House employment - which involves a lot of work in and around government.  Gingrich shot back that Governor Romney should return the fees he earned with Bain and Co.    Bain's work was in restructuring American companies.  Gingrich seemed to have argued that all of that work was somehow negative - yet the economic growth in the 1990s came in part from the redeployment of capital.  Which is better experience - working for a company like Bain or lobbying?   In my mind that is an easy choice - even if Bain made mistakes. (which they certainly did)
3) Gingrich's personal life has not been a shining light.  He divorced his first wife when she had cancer.  His second marriage was rocky at best.

The current president is such a disaster that we cannot stand four more years.   I'm also not much attracted to any of the other candidates. Perry seems all hat and no horse.   Romney reminds me a lot of his father - a decent man but unable to generate enthusiasm.   The rest of the also rans are just that.   So we may be left with an uneasy choice.  So regardless of who the GOP nominates, I will end up voting for the person just to take us away from the current disaster.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Boys will be....

This afternoon my 9 year old grandson celebrated his football season.  Wasn't much of a season for him - he broke his arm early in the season and so missed most of his games.  He played in the championship round and was voted MVP for the tournament.

We went to a pizza joint near Roseville (very good pizza - Touch of Tuscany) but where was my grandson? He and a couple of his team mates went outside and engaged in what 9 year olds do - playing for the shear joy of it.

There are many things about youth sports today that I appreciate. Kids can get involved at a very early age.   But in playing many parents do not get that at his age and for a bit longer - the game should be fun.  Some parents - including a moron from last season - thought their kids should be playing at the highest level.

There is another thing about the current range of kids sports that I abhor - trophies.  There is a subtle line between encouraging achievement and forgetting that this level of sports should be fun.  Now every kid - regardless of commitment - gets a memento of the season which is a trophy.  That cheapens real achievement.

The kids outside today understood that they could enjoy the sheer experience of running and catching balls without wondering what the score is.   My grandson came in and got his trophy - but his real interest was in playing with his buddies.  That is as it should be.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Was Bob Cratchit a B level worker?

One of my traditions at this time of year is to see both versions of the Miracle on 34th Street (interestingly George Seaton is given credit in both movies for writing the screenplay although he died more than fifteen years before the second movie) and then a series of versions of a Christmas Carol.

This afternoon I saw the later version of Miracle and then in my afternoon  workout saw the Alistair Sim version (Scrooge) and began the Bill Murray version (Scrooged).  But as I watched the Sim version I was struck with a question - was Ebeneezer's clerk a B guy - using the definition that Steve Jobs used in evaluating people (he only wanted to work with A people).   I've worked for people like that (former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon was like that) and if you come up on their wrong side you may not be able to correct the problem.  One commentator said about the current business environment "Today, the bottom line is more important than the people who are out there in the stores making the money for the faceless money-mongers who dictate the policies.
"  From my point of view this moving characters ahead by a century and a half is just plain silly.

There has been a lot of writing about the inadequacies of Cratchit.   At the beginning of the story - Cratchit is a feckless person working for someone with a singleminded approach to business. (Scrooge)  Scrooge could either be an A or a B masquerading as an A.  But based on Dickens' description he seems to have been an A.

Cratchit seems to be a bit more laid back.  He wants to get off "the whole day" to be with his family.  He accepts Scrooge's miserly wages.   And he seems committed to his family.   But we really do not have a good impression of what kinds of skills Scrooge's clerk actually has.

In my mind Type A people in business have a single minded determination to succeed but they may also have human characteristics.  I've certainly found a lot of entrepreneurs who want to succeed but also have balance in their lives.

But the simple answer is we do not have enough information to decide.  Cratchit may or may not be a Type B - but regardless, A Christmas Carol is a type A story.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Steve Jobs Book

While I was in San Miguel I read the Walter Isaascon biography of Steve Jobs.   As biographies go it is interesting in many ways.   But here are three thoughts about the book.

#1 - I have not read the other biographies by Isaascon but if this one is any indication he could have used a good editor.  I got it in the first hundred pages that Jobs was prone to treat people badly.  But how many ways can you tell a reader that he was temperamental?  

#2 - There is a lot of good detail in the book even with the redundancies.  My history with computers, in many ways, parallels a lot of the story that Isaascon tries to tell.  I bought my first computer (an Osborne) at the Byte Shop in Palo Alto.   I was involved with an Osborne users group but soon found out I was more of a user than a geek.   As technologies grew and elaborated, I moved from one to another.  I bought the first 128 K Macintosh and have remained a loyal Mac user since then.   His discussions of the development of the various products of Apple and Jobs' role in those developments; the period between Sculley and Amelio; his explanation of Jobs' control of infinite detail on product launches - and a lot more - were fascinating.   I learned a lot.   

About a two weeks before Adam Osborne went bankrupt, I had the opportunity with a small group from the Osborne users group to have dinner with him.  Isaascon has a great quote from Osborne - Adequate is sufficient, the rest is superfluous - which sets up a division between people like him and Steve Jobs.   Isaascon's description of Bill Gates also seems to ring true.   

#3 - The author comes back to a dichotomy in the book between open (Microsoft) and closed (Apple) computer architectures in computers.  From that perspective, it is not clear to me how much Isaascon knows about computers.   Indeed, Gates was willing to allow his operating system to be run on many kinds of computers and Jobs was not.   But that does not make Microsoft any more open than Apple.   Their legendary ponderous nature of many Microsoft products is not an example of open versus closed.   Many of the mis-steps by Microsoft in both hardware and software are not the result of being open but if not demanding the same kind of attention to detail that Jobs obsessed on.

The differences between the two companies is not open or closed but one of integration of hardware and software.    Jobs saw the problems for a computer company as figuring out how to make the best experience for the user - Microsoft seems to be solving to create software only.

I enjoyed the book, even with the repetition and with the metaphor (closed versus open) which I thought was inapt. What worked best for me, is that Isaascon was able to gather a lot of information about one of the most interesting people in our lifetimes and present it in an organized fashion.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Final San Miguel Thoughts

Our month in San Miguel came to an end this morning.   But there are 5 things I would like to say about our month here.

#1 - The city is walkable - during November I walked more than 240 miles in the city.  Except for the hills it is a great place to be without a car (even with the hills it is pretty good).
#2 - Without stop lights or signs driving here is pretty polite.  Each morning and afternoon I would go out for a walk around the city.   Drivers almost uniformly stop to let pedestrians pass.  (Markets do work - if given the chance.)
#3 - We met some wonderful people.   For probably two thirds of the nights we were here we had dinner with the couple we first met.  They invited us to an Expats dinner on Thanksgiving.  They entertained us with fun conversations and lots of lore about the city and this part of Mexico.   At the same time we found a friend of my wife from kindergarten - who has made a life in San Miguel.  She is a contributing member of the community - as our friends who we met the first night at dinner are.   We found an Anglican parish which was also quite welcoming.
#4 - This is a buyer's market for real estate.   Yesterday we spent a good part of the day looking at five houses (a tiny jewel box, a dump/fixer upper, an architectural gem, a big place that was way too expensive, and a house which we ultimately did not connect with.   The real estate person who took us around was quite gracious.   We talked more about our future than about which house was appropriate.
#5 - I could live here and depending on what happens in other things I am pursuing we could well get something here soon.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cheepie Cheepie then Revisit and Dinner

This morning we awoke to what people in Xalapa call Cheepie-Cheepie.  Xalapa, like many areas in tropical areas of Mexico has a soft and gentle rain called Cheepie-Cheepie.  I went out for my morning walk and found that walking when the pavement and cobblestones are a bit wet is tougher than it should be.   We decided to stay in the house until the rain cleared away.  Rain at this time of the year is not normal - but this was not a substantial rain.

By mid-day our friends took us back to Atotonilco - with my sister.  I wrote about our earlier visit and the only thing different today was that it was a gray day.  There is also a Sunday market.  Our friend Federico - who has lived here for the last eight years - expressed regret that we could not sample some of the things that the vendors were selling(the food smelled great) - but we both decided that it would not be wise.    The market was nothing to write home about. There was a lot of ticky tacky in a fairly small one street town.

In the late afternoon we went to a restaurant that had been recommended to me by a friend in California called Restaurante de Andrade.   It is in an old hacienda a couple of miles out of town.  For most of the last month we have eaten in a variety of restaurants.   Many have been quite good but none hold a candle to this one.  The place does not have a menu.  We each ordered a salad (I had a caprese salad which was excellent).  I then chose lamb which was equally good.  Finally I ended with the best panna cotta that I have ever had.   There was a middle course of ravioli  with spinach which was prepared from fresh pasta - we watched it being made and then it was served with a superb sauce.  All of it was wonderful.  When we come back this is a sure repeat.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Los Pozos

Today we went to Pozos, which is a ghost town about 45 minutes outside of San Miguel.   Pozos, for a good part of its history was a very wealthy town - a lot of mining of silver and gold.   Under Mexican law, gold is owned by the government but silver is able to generate independent wealth (thus the market here for silver is much greater than for gold).

The original miners in this town were Jesuits.  As a result they generated a great deal of wealth.  (They eventually got ordered out of the country - with a demand that they get to Veracruz and then get out in about two days.)

Several decades ago the mines got abandoned and thus the town became the Bodie of central Mexico.  In the last few years, there has been some effort to remake the ghost town into an artistic community - a San Miguel2.  I remain a skeptic.

We first went to the old mine sites.  That is the top picture.  We spent about an hour looking around one of the open sites.  It is remarkably peaceful - more than Bodie (that ghost mining town in the Eastern Sierra) - but it is also high and dry like Bodie.  And like Bodie - it has wind.   We learned from our wonderful guide (Dali Amor) a lot about the growth of the town, the infusion of the French (about the time of Maximilian) and the eventual bust of the mines.  

But the second picture shows the town as it is today.  Again, it is very peaceful.  There is not much activity in the town.  Some investors have put a lot of money into making the town more of an artistic center.  Unlike San Miguel - where I found an immediate list of things I wanted to do - this place is boring.  Double of triple the size and it is still a snooze.

Our guide has a great idea of doing speciality concerts in the old mine site.   Groups would come to Pozos  on a first class bus and then listen to a concert and go to a restaurant for a first rate meal.  He has the sites picked out - all he needs is some investors.  (note go to my homepage and click on the email link in case you want to be that angel).

One other comment.  As we were at lunch a young student in tourism from Anáhuac de Queretaro.  She came up to our table and asked why we came to Pozos.  We had a good discussion about the town and its attractions.  She was doing research for a class.  She was well spoken and asked good questions.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

LaCañada de la Virgen and Expat dinner

One of the things I have enjoyed about Mexico is visiting pyramids around the country.  I have been to several in Oaxaca, Veracruz and the Yucatan.   This morning we went to one of the northernmost pyramids in the country.   Like many others this one was abandoned well before the Spanish arrived in the Sixteenth Century - and there is no particular explanation why they closed down.  This one closed about the same time as Teotihuican.

Like many other pyramids in the country this one seems to have been an observatory.   But unlike others this one did not revolve around the equinox.  This one, called LaCañada de la Virgen, has only been open to the public for about six months. The land was in private hands (and still is) and it took a lot of wrangling to get access for the government.   The owner is an Argentinian who is related to the Krupps.   It is one main pyramid and a couple of other structures at this point.  To get to it, because it is surrounded by private land, you have to go to a center and then are transported by bus.   It was a pleasant trip - about 20 minutes outside of the city.

There is a lot of mumbo jumbo around the archeological sites in Mexico.  Some of the guides we have had in the past ascribe all sorts of things to these areas.  There is some discussion about the role of certain numbers (13 especially) and cyclical calendars based on the lunar calendar. Some of their speculations may have been true.  But  I prefer to look at these things with a bit of a jaundiced eye.   These places a magnificent to see - even if we cannot explain all of the things that go into the places.  Remember, that many of these sites were remarkably able to project movements of the sun and moon.   (All this was done without a sextant.)   The sheer act of being able to produce these edifices which seem to have been pretty advanced in a number of sciences makes me want to walk the grounds.

The other thing which annoys me is the constant attention to sacrifices that were done in some places.  Our guide today did a wonderful job of explaining both the conception of these peoples of the individual and also of the afterlife.  (Both of which are very different from our current thoughts about these things.)

There is a lake below the city of San Miguel that is way down because there have been a couple of lousy rain seasons.   The lake is man made and so you can now see part of a church which was submerged when the lake was created.   Evidently, if there is a good rainy season next year the lake will fill up quickly.

At about three PM we joined with a group of Expats at a restaurant off the Jardin called Pegaso.  We've been there several times since we have been here.   Today they created a special meal.  It was superb - starting with deviled eggs and then a salad and some calabasa soup, followed by turkey, corn dressing, string beans, mashed potatoes, cranberries (arándano in Spanish).  The dessert had either pumpkin pie or poached pears.   It was very tasty.  We finished the night looking at the gallery of our friend Federico Correa which is in a former coach house near the Jardin.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

50% airlines and something silly...

For more than two decades I have flown more than 100,000 miles per year.  When you fly that much you begin to build enough experience on various airlines to form some conclusions.   For example, I will go out of my way to avoid flying  on what was once dubbed Hughes Air Worst (now US Air).   At the same time in Mexico I try to avoid Aeromexico.   (The national flag carrier of Mexico.)   Most national airlines were started when air travel was somehow romantic and many countries thought it was wonderful to have a flag carrier.  Fortunately, market forces beginning in the 1970s began to blow up those flag carriers and air travel improved as a result.

The last couple of days confirmed my prejudices about Aeromexico.   As I talked about in an earlier post, we went from San Miguel to Merida on Sunday.    We had a total of four flights to get from here to there and back.  (Many flights from one place to another go through Mexico City.)   A day before the Sunday flight we got a note from Aeromexico that they had cancelled the flight between Leon and Mexico City.   So we arranged other transportation to Mexico City and got to Leon on the original second leg of the flight. 

This morning, the airport in Merida was fogged in for an 8:20 flight.  The gate personnel were not very informative about what was going to happen but when we did take off two and a half hours late, we were told that we would arrive at 12:15 (all times with this airline are approximate).   We arrived about ten minutes after our flight to Leon left (or about a half an hour after the revised projected arrival).

We got off the plane in Terminal 2, which is the domestic terminal at Mexico City.  It is not exactly the picture of efficiency.  We were told to go down a hall for connections and then that required us to go through security again (even though we had been checked in Merida) but by doing that we were able to stay on the same level (the other option would have been to go down to the first level and get with the agents downstairs.)  We quickly went to the first gate and explained that we had missed our flight to Leon and the agent told us to go to gate 65, when we got there we were told to go to 75, and then on return to go back to 65. The Aeromexico staff seemed intent on letting us get some aerobic exercise but I do not think it was out of concern for our health. I will admit that I do not have a high threshold for being part of human ping-pong so I grumped a bit. (Well actually a bit more than a bit.)   After a couple of other volleys we arrived at the real information desk – which is between 65 and 75 and they were able to get us on a flight at 3 (about 2 hours later).  So in the end Aeromexico was able to serve us on 50% of the original flights.    I am not sure how most people would grade their performance but in my book 50% is well below par. 

Adam Osborne, the computer entrepreneur once said that adequate is sufficient and anything beyond it is superfluous.   That certainly did not prove true in computers and it also does not apply to most other things in life including airlines.

So what was the alternative?  We could have avoided Mexico City by flying to Houston and then to Merida and then returning by the same route.   It would not have been the most logical route but then did I say I rank Aeromexico beside US Air?

Now to the silly; the room that we were in in Merida was a junior suite – thus it had a nice sitting room and a bedroom.  It was a very comfortable hotel room.   But the whole thing is probably about 600 sq.ft.  In the sitting room was a portable telephone.   There was an extension in the bedroom.   But then just in case someone called you while you were doing your business there was an extension in the toilet.  I do not want to get gross here but in those rooms with a potty phone I have always wondered about why they were necessary.   Explanations abound.   #1 – These rooms are only rented to people who are not very mobile so they need phones everywhere.  #2 – Some people think bathroom sounds are great accompaniment to their mundane talk.  They may be correct.  #3 – The nature of the room holder’s talk is so confidential that it must take place in a secure room and these special rooms are constructed to dampen noise.  #4 – Some people believe that the nature of talk is best when it is done in darkness (usually hotel room bathrooms have no window).  #5 - These people suffer from multi ringee-dingee phobia (discovered by an obscure Austrian psychoanalyst which found that some people cannot stand to have a phone ring more than once).   As I said there are plenty of explanations just none that I can find logical.

A better way

We've been in Merida for a couple of days.  I attended an international advisory board for a prestigious university (University del Mayab) and my wife got to see the area.   Her luck on weather held again.   About three years ago we went to Tajin, which is a great archeological site in Veracruz.   I've been there three or four times and each time was unable to get good pictures because it was so humid (steamy lenses do not make for good photography).   We got off the plane in Poza Rica and it was about 70• and low humidity.   So we got here, which is very tropical, and the weather was pretty nice.

We spent the day before the meeting visiting Progreso - which is a beach town about 30 minutes from Merida and then walking around downtown.  The photo is of a major bureaucratic mistake of a couple of hundred years ago.   The cathedral in Merida was slated to be built in Lima, Peru but the plans got sent to Merida, a much smaller town then.

The Zocalo in Merida is wonderful.  This magnificent cathedral plus a municipal palace with a salon on the second floor that is adorned with a series of paintings about the history of the region.  On Monday night they were preparing for a civic event but we got to sneak in and see the inside.   We also were given a private tour (by a guard who was very proud of the theater) of the Teatro Péon Contrearas which is a bit larger than the one in Guanajuato but dates to about the same time.

Yesterday, I participated in the board meeting.  The university is doing some very interesting things including developing an incubator for start-ups called Unico.  When I was last here, they were in construction and the building is now completed.   The project will encourage a group of start-ups by giving them space and advice.   One of the companies is about to negotiate a sale of its product to a major health company and a couple of others are growing concerns.   They will add the expertise of the university in design and law (for intellectual property issues) to help these companies grow.  They are also looking at some growth issues and like many of the best universities in Mexico are thinking about how do they develop and maintain standards that put them a the small group of universities around the world.

So what is the better way?   In the hotel we are staying in they bill you on the internet for usage.   I am often grumpy about paying for internet in hotels.   After all you do not pay for water or towels.   I've even had a series of exchanges with the CEO of Hilton hotels about the issue. They offer free internet to customers who reach a high level in their loyalty program.   I argued (to no positive result) that they would get more of my business if they offered (as some parts of the Hilton chain do) free internet.  Well, the Fiesta Inn, offers a series of plans that allow you to use internet for a period of time.  So we bought 24 hours - which was available for the entire stay.  We ended up, over the three days using only about half the time (between my wife and I) but from my perspective, for a little more than what most American hotels charge for 24 hours on the clock - that sounds like a fair price.

Today we head back to San Miguel for our last week there.   Dar Gracia - comes up tomorrow.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Reflecting on the Day of Revolution

The 20th of November is a day commemorating the 1910 Revolution in Mexico.   We were woken this morning by several blasts of fireworks about four in the morning.  That seemed to begin the celebrations.

 Last night in the Centro there were a lot of people hanging out - with a street fair and a couple of bands.  We chose to eat at a place called La Grotta - a small place with an interesting menu - I had a chicken breast wrapped in spinach very tasty.

But back to the revolution.  The three pictures that you see are of three of the principals of the 1910 revolution.  There were certainly more.  Basically the country was divided into three geographic factions led by Emiliano Zapata, Francisco Madero and Pancho Villa.   The relations between them were complicated.   Villa was given almost Robin Hood status in the US at the time.   There were all sorts of plots and counterplots.

Fundamentally the order of the country was breaking down as at the end of the long presidency of Porfirio Diaz who was pushed out of the country and then the power struggles began.  All of this would make a good opera.

Ultimately, Villa was gunned down in a small town.   Zapata was also ambushed. Madero was also assassinated.  One of the controversies about both Zapata and Villa was whether they were bandits or pursuing a social agenda (Zapata was a big force for land reform).   There are a couple of good histories of Zapata and Villa.  And there is a long but interesting treatment of all of Mexican political history done several years ago by Enrique Krauze.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The middle

In a recent book about the perils of higher education (Abelard to Apple) Richard DeMillo argued that the most vulnerable part of higher education was what he defined as the “middle”; those institutions without significant resources and with only nominal selectivity.   He argued that they are beset with a range of issues – competition for admissions, rising costs and a commodity like brand.

In one sense he is right.   Those institutions do have a higher possibility of failure.  Although any analytical person who looks at the flagships notices some significant cracks around their super-structure – huge demands on resources (as Howard Bowen once said “Institutions raise everything they can and spend everything they get.”), arrogant faculty who teach as a hobby while pursuing other interests,and students who demand every amenity.

But we were discussing the middle.    Last night I was honored by one of those in the middle, in Mexico, Universidad del Pedregal.   At the entrance of the University there is a statue of a man with a sledgehammer breaking rock – indeed the university refers to its job (as many universities in Mexico do) as formation of students.   The university has a relatively young rector who has just completed his third year.   I first knew him when he was a student.  
On an annual basis, most Mexican rectors offer an Informe, which sets out the accomplishments of the last year and proposes some plans for the future.  This is a formal meeting, where the Rector gives an address and then a senior member of the board responds.  As you can see from the picture, in this instance the auditorium was beautifully decorated. (I counted more than 600 roses.) What I heard about last night was a university on the move.   They are determined to stay true to their mission, which is to educate middle class students.   But they have grown in size (both in terms of matriculations and graduates).   They have improved the academic qualifications of their faculty.   They have used their resources carefully but they have taken some risks.   In short, while many other universities talk a good game about continuous improvement – they are working on it.

So was DeMillo right?  As I look forward on higher education, I believe that all universities face some real challenges.  I fully expect that the sector faces, especially the independent sector, a pronounced set of issues that will sink some places.   I fully expect that some of those failures will come from among the most prestigious universities.   But I look at a place like Pedregal and think they will continue to “stick to their knitting” (as Waterman and Peters – In Search of Excellence once said) and continue to serve their market quite well. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Expats and coffee

Yesterday we had lunch with one of my wife's friends from her grade school.  This woman moved to San Miguel 27 years ago.  She and her now ex-husband were trying to reconcile and it did not work.  She was left in a foreign country with two small daughters.  

But she built a life.  First, she developed a riding academy.   Then she met an old guy who offered to help her get her business up and running.  He mentioned that a son was finishing veterinary school and they eventually met and married.   They built a house slightly out of town which is really quite wonderful.   It is built around a patio like a classic hacienda.  The place is all adobe construction.  She is in the process of doing a lot of work on sustainable flora and fauna.  She is active in the community being especially mindful of neglected children.   By the way, it turned out that the old guy she met actually ran the other riding academy in town - which he did not mention.

We've met a lot of ex-pats here.  They are a diverse lot.  Yesterday we also heard about when Starbucks came to town.  A lot of people here were glad to have a place in town where teenagers could congregate without alcohol.   And indeed, at some times during the day the place seems to serve the function of a soda shop.  The store is right off the Centro - sort of diagonal from the Parroquia.

But a group of the ex-pats protested the store.  Mind you that the company that runs the franchise is a Mexican company which employs Mexicans.   But the silly Americans grumbled none-the-less.   One of our new friends here (who did not protest) said a) he enjoys the coffee and b) some of the grumps now frequent the place a lot.   I do not drink coffee so I cannot comment on their product although I sure like their iced green tea.

To Mexico City

This morning we are going to Mexico City on an ETN bus.   As we have travelled in Mexico we have been on a couple of classes of busses, including the third class ones where the goats and chickens included at no extra cost.  But before you sigh, this is a first class bus.  We were able to make reservations on line and when you arrive at the bus station you check in electronically.  The bus has about 24 seats and movies and WIFI.  In addition they give you a drink and a sandwich.  Nothing like this in the US.

We have about 10 people on this trip but I have been on trips where the bus is full.  You are given an assigned seat.  The accommodations are comfortable.  The flight from Leon to Mexico City is about an hour and change but the drive to the airport is an hour and a half.  So the differences are pretty clear - no airport security, relaxed travel and we get to Mexico City in just a bit more time.  The cost for the trip is considerably less than the corresponding flight. All in all, as I said, nothing like this in the US.

One irritation raised its head this morning.  Aeromexico sent us an email that the first leg of our flight to Merida on Sunday (We are going there for a board meeting on Tuesday) has been cancelled.  I have found Aeromexico's service to be spotty.  What would you expect of a government airline?   But then we are on the bus.  We thought about bussing to Merida but the trip is a very long one so we will figure out how to get to Mexico City to pick up the rest of our flight.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Singers at Dinner

One of the traditions at many restaurants in Mexico is to have strolling singers - sometimes solo and sometimes a group (often a Mariachi) - come to your table and offer songs.   I've always had mixed feelings about that tradition.   Most Americans mark themselves because their list of songs is short.   There are perhaps ten songs that I believe we choose about 99% of the time - Cielito lindo and Béseme mucho; not so much Las Mañanitas (which is sung at birthdays).   My mixed feelings come from a couple of thoughts. First, the singers can be pretty wide in their abilities. Second, especially with Mariachi, they can be loud. But third, I suspect that many of these singers get tired of singing the songs from the ten most requested.

The singer last night (there is a short clip here of one of my wife's favorites which is also in the top ten -  just to prove the point) was excellent.   More importantly, he offered up a couple of songs I had not heard before.  The music is often sentimental.  The song he offered last night is from Guanajuato and very sad.  Germans have their Heimat Filme and Mexicans their ballads.

Mariachi originated in the state of Jalisco - also the state of Tequila.   Some suggest that it comes from a corruption of the French word for marriage.  A lot of this music comes from celebrations.  But WIKIPEDIA says the word comes from the native language Coca.   I was told once that the addition of brass to the bands came when the music was first played on the radio - the guitars and other stringed instruments did not pick up well on the primitive microphones.  There are other branches of Mexican music which Americans mix into traditional Mariachi music.   They each have their own distinct traditions.

One of the major singers of Mexico, Pedro Vargas, was born in San Miguel.  As we talked with our singer last night he said Vargas seemed to get better as he consumed more adult beverages.   Vargas actually started his career as an opera singer in Cavelleria Rusticana in Mexico City.   There are a couple of statues to Vargas in San Miguel.

In Mexico City there is a zone where the Mariachi bands congregate called Plaza Garibaldi.  It is a large plaza which also has a wonderful restaurant close by called the Salón Tenampa.   In this large hall each time I have been there there are four bands playing in each of the corners of the room.   Oddly, each time there have been three Mariachi and one band playing in the style of Veracruz - which is without brass.   If you want to hear those guys you have to sit close.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wonders in the morning

I generally get up before my wife to read and do email.   This morning I looked out the window and saw the following scene.   With Mozart on my iPod seemed like a perfect start to the day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fountains and Doors

This afternoon we went on a doors and fountain tour.  San Miguel's downtown requires wooden doors (although like some other requirements in Mexico - this one is not always enforced).   The fountains abound in the city.  There is even a place where there are spaces for people to wash their clothes, children and pets- which seems to be busy on the weekends.

 One of the things which intrigues me about the city is the architectural features that seem to pop out in many places.   One of the interesting features on many doors is the fanciful door knockers.  We found big hands, lions, dogs, cows, dragons and a host of other types.   I put a set of photos up at my Flickr site with 82 photos.   But here are some examples of what we saw.

Traffic in San Miguel

I have been walking twice a day for the time we have been here. This is probably only the second time in fifty years that I have not driven for more than a couple of days.   There are no stop signs in downtown and precious few in the outskirts.   The average speed on the streets is probably less than 20 miles per hour.  (This is a place with narrow cobblestone streets and lots of topes- little traffic mounds).  

Amazingly what I have found is that with few exceptions the drivers are courteous.  They yield to pedestrians almost unfailingly.  That is certainly not true in other parts of Mexico or in the US.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reflections on San Miguel and Mexico

One of the interesting paradoxes I have experienced in the last couple of years has been the US perception and reality of Mexico.   We've treated the drug problem as Mexico's but as the Ambassador to the US said to me in a lunch about six months ago - the drug problem has both a supplier (Mexico) and consumer (US).

Tonight we had dinner in an Argentine type restaurant (what we would call in the US a good steak house) and for most of the meal we were the only ones there.   This afternoon, we visited the Mask Museum in San Miguel and spent an interesting hour and a half with the owner - who has assembled a fine collection of traditional masks with some great explanations of how each of the indigenous cultures uses masks.  There is a huge collection in Zacatecas, but this one is better because it puts all the collection in context.

You might wonder what these two events have in common.  Both reflect the relative condition of tourism in San Miguel.   My wife and I have walked throughout the town at all times of day and night.   One of the interesting things about the city is how well people seem to get along.  The Episcopal parish that I discussed in earlier posts has Spanish and English speakers together. We've found the people in shops and on the street to be uniformly friendly and helpful.   But as the owner of the B&B/Mask Museum said to me this afternoon between the economy and the over-reaction that news sources have had about violence in Mexico related to the drug cartels, business is off.  This is clearly a buyer's market in real estate.

When we were getting ready to come for our trip - we asked a lot of friends to come visit us.  We have a huge house so we could accommodate guests.  Some had schedule conflicts but more than a few said they were afraid to come to the city or to Mexico.  That is not denying that there has been some significant violence in Mexico City and north of where we are.  But as a city, this place is tranquil.

Eating in San Miguel

One thing I never seem to do is get hungry in Mexico.  There are tons of restaurants in San Miguel from simple to elaborate.  We've been here for a bit more than 2 weeks and have not found a bad place yet.   At the same time we have not found a place that was thoroughly compelling.  We had some great fresh fish at La Felgura which is in the Hotel Posada Carmina.  It is an outside patio with great service.   There is a nice informal restaurant off the Centro called Pegaso where the tables are close together and we've met some nice people there.   There are a couple of Argentine and Italian places that we have liked (notably Cafe Vivoli one La Garufa).   We've also been to a couple of tapas places including Cafe Iberico.  There have been several others including Casblanca that were fun and the food was good.

We thought the food at the Rosewood was a bit pricey and bland.  Rosewood is a new development in town associated with a hotel.  Their condos are very well done.  They have completed on phase of the development and are working on another.  One attraction is that there are four restaurants nearby (in the hotel) for residents of the complex.

One of the odd things about some of the restaurants is that they keep erratic hours.  So it is best to check before starting out.   Some restaurants that we like (including the Restaurant and Chamonix - both of which were excellent) are closed on Sundays.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Gospel in Two Languages

One of my favorite gospels is the Parable of the Talents.  The church we attended this morning reads the gospel in both english and spanish.  I have always liked the parable because it says two things.  First, that one should use what we have been given and second that we should take risks in life.

In the english version a master brings together three servants and gives them one, two and five talents.   He comes back after a while and two of the servants have doubled their master's money.  The third had buried it in the ground and so returned only the talent he got.  I've liked this gospel because it encourages us all to take risks in life.  We come into life with a set of things that come to us without regard to our needs or desires but regardless we should take risks to make the best use of what we are given.

The spanish version has two major differences.  First the servant (servidor) becomes and employee (empleo) and the master becomes a boss (jefe).  Second, the amount is expressed in thousands so one becomes one thousand.  I am not sure it makes much of a difference theologically.

They also did a baptism this morning, which was done in Spanish.   I was able to keep up with the responses reasonably well.

Eternal Verities and telephones

This morning we were down to the Starbucks (to use the WIFI in order to be able to make a couple of phone calls - more on that later) and my wife was in the restroom.  There was a young family in the courtyard with two boys about 3 and 5 and a girl who was probably in between.

There was a small puddle in the void between four bricks that had less than a shoe full of water.  The two boys were immediately drawn to it and their sister looked at them as if they were crazy.  But there they went stomping it until the water was all splashed about.  No cultural nuances here - just gender ones.

I have tried three ways to phone in Mexico - Google, Skype and Ooma.  All three use WIFI to connect and then depending on the connection are quite inexpensive.  For example, the Skype for a call to a Mexico City cellphone was 8¢ per minute.   The Google was about 15¢.   I have only used the Ooma service to call US numbers and there the service is free.  But their Mexico rates are about 9¢ per minute.    AT&T on a cellular call is 60¢ per minute.   All three of the nontraditional providers have superb voice quality.

The Mexican phone system continues to confuse me.   In some places you are required to put a prefix in and in others not.  Cellular calls (to and from) require another prefix (usually 44).   So the addition of the WIFI services has been a great boon.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jazz times two/times two

On Wednesday afternoon we at a restaurant for lunch that had two guitarists who played a lot of Django Reinhardt.   I first encountered his music at the Sacramento Jazz Festival several years ago.  These two guys played some enjoyable music.   Last night we went out to dinner to a place called Casa Rama which is near the Rosewood development - which was featured in Sunset magazine.  The food was good and so was the music.

The life of an artist

I've always wondered about how and why people create art.  On Wednesday night we went out to dinner with friends who are visiting (one is an artist) from Sacramento and with the couple we met on our first night here (ditto).

We had a good discussion in the SMdA artist's studio about how he works through images and also about how things eventually come back in many iterations.  He showed us a collection of images, drawings, paintings from many years that are works in progress.   The best description I heard from both artists was how their activity evolves - it does not simply go from idea to completion.


Yesterday we got a guide and went to Guanajuato (the largest city in the state that holds San Miguel de Allende.   I first went there almost twenty years ago and before he became president, I met Vicente Fox there (when he was governor).   The city is much larger than San Miguel and grew up initially as a mining town (you can still see the walls of a working mine - near the top of one of the hills that surrounds the city).

On our way out of San Miguel we encountered a pilgrimage that happens about this year which brings people to a ranch away from the city where there is a small church, where miracles happen.   People make the trek to this place annually either seeking miracles or expressing thanks.   They come by horse, foot and bicycle as well as car.  The walk is about a three day trek from San Miguel.

As you come into Guanajuato your are struck with three things.  First, there is an observation area from the top where you can see the beautiful colors of the buildings.  Second, the downtown area, which is very old, has a lot of streets that are pedestrian only.  Third, as you enter, from at least one part, you actually go under the city in a series of tunnels that were designed to divert traffic but also to handle water (originally).   When you come to see the sights - you park and walk.

There is a classic theater there which was completed near the end of the reign of Porfirio Díaz.    We sat in this magnificent smallish theater and discussed the relative merits of Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz.   Juarez was president from 1857-1872.  He is credited with a lot of things - but from my perspective his presidency evokes more founding traits than substantive results.  A lot of what he did was to redefine the nation.   Díaz was President from 1876-1911.   He ruled as a dictator but he also completed a lot of infrastructure during his presidency including public markets, roads, and transportation systems.   He was eventually deposed and spent the last four years of his life in France.   There are plenty of good histories about the evolution of the presidents of Mexico.   My favorite is a book by Enrique Krause.   What you are struck with is how uneven the histories become.   Many of the presidents of Mexico ended their terms violently.

One of our first stops, after the Teatro, was the Museum of Don Quixote.  The museum was funded by a publisher named Pedro Garfias who emigrated to Mexico from Spain.  He spent time in Spain in one of Franco's concentration camps (as a Spanish Jew) and at one point traded cigarettes for a copy of Cervantes' novel.   When I read Don Quixote, I was struck by the notion that it is hard to tell who is crazy in the book.   On the surface, Quixote is nuts - going on these quests.   But the book can be read on quite a different level where Quixote is the sane one.   Garfias read the book as an inspiration about the possibilities of life.  When he reached Mexico he became very successful but also began a collection of Quixote-ana in all sorts of media.   This is a first rate museum with hundreds of Quixote artifacts - paintings, weavings, sculpture, ceramics.

We also went up to the main building of the University of Guanajuato, which is one of the most prestigious public universities in Mexico.   It's main building is famed for its steps - which are many and steep.

We also visited two of the churches in the city - since this is a large city there is a bishop here.  From my view the smaller church next to the Teatro (San Diego de Alcala) is more impressive.

We then went up to the Aldondiga.   When Mexico began to separate from Spain four major figures started a movement.  They eventually amassed a group (mob) of about 25,000 people and went to Guanajuato.   They stormed the newly constructed (1809) grain exchange.   There are lots of heroic stories about this relatively short encounter - and lots of violence.   The mayor of the city first blockaded the city then decided to gather the 200 most prominent citizens in the Aldondiga along with 300 soldiers.  The building is built around a patio - so the rebels were able to lob stones into the center.   But for a while the soldiers were able to hold them off until (according to legend) one person strapped a large rock to his back and was able to avoid the soldier's shots and burned one of the main entrances.    During the siege the mayor peeked out and was shot in the eye.  The rebels eventually broke through the burned door and killed everyone inside.

Eventually the four main protagonists against Spanish rule were betrayed and captured and executed.  As a sign to the population they were beheaded and their skulls were placed in four containers (second photo) where they stayed for a decade.    When you enter this building all that history is omnipresent.  Like the GPO in Dublin, you can still see bullet holes in the outside masonry.   The building now houses a pretty good museum.  Yesterday there were a couple of groups of school children so you could get an idea of what it might have been like to be shut in with 500 people.

The city has a third attraction, which is out of downtown.  Like much of Mexico, the state of Guanajuato is in the desert.   For much of the city's history people were buried above ground in wooden caskets.  Some of those bodies were eventually exhumed when the descendants were not able to pay taxes necessary to maintain the cemeteries.  What they found is that, as opposed to those buried in the ground, the bodies above ground mummified.  The city has a museum of some of these remains.  The museum is eerie, tragic and a bit macabre.   In the middle of the museum there are some infants in this condition and a series of photos, that were common at one point, of mother's holding their dead infants all dressed up.

What struck me about the day is how all those things we saw tied together.   From the pilgrims in the morning to all the things we saw in Guanajuato they involved the possibilities of the human spirit - some elevated, some optimistic, some violent.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Oomaing from Mexico

One of the real frustrations in Mexico is the phone system - you need a separate three number code for cellular calls and you also need a city code.  I have never been able to master it.  At the same time, costs for US users are high.  Even with a discounted rate the costs can be 60¢ per minute to the US.

But here comes my Ooma which I mentioned in an earlier post.  This afternoon, I set up my Ooma mobile APP (about $10 on the APP store).  I then tried to make a call over my WIFI network in the house.  Cost for three phone calls of about 10 minutes each - $0.  The voice quality is outstanding - better than Skype.   The system also works on 3G but the usual call costs apply.

As I said in the earlier post on Ooma - this device is simple to set up.  What was more interesting is that I asked one family member to call me on our home number - it rang on my cellular phone.   I am a techie but this device blows me away.

Night and Walking

This evening we went downtown for dinner and finished about 9 PM.  For a good part of the first week we have been here, there has been something going on in the Centro - first Halloween, then Dia de Los Muertos - then the weekend.  But tonight, as we went down to Starbucks to get some coffee ground the Centro was quiet.

One of the things I like best about Mexico is the surprises of finding a place of interest unexpectedly.  Here is one shot from tonight (iPhone photos) that caused me to think about those serendipitous situations.   This was on the way to the men's room at a restaurant that we found on our first night here.

Since the first morning I have been here I have done about 2-3 miles of walking.  At the end of the day I have done between six and seven miles of walking between our other explorations.  That has allowed me to explore the town.  This morning I set out on a slightly different route from our house and found a beautiful park and cultural center.   The Parroquia is a good landmark that is visible from many parts in the city - so every time I have been a bit lost, I simply try to find that and then recalibrate on next steps.

To Market, To Market

There is a serious tradition in Mexican towns of the market.   My first experiences with these were in Oaxaca where there is a superb market near the central bus station on Saturday and then a huge one a few miles out of town in Tlacalula on Sunday.

These markets are a mix of social gathering, place to shop and a bazaar.  One can get all sorts of food - superb fresh fruit and vegetables, usually many kinds of cooked food, clothing, auto parts, hardware, sometimes antiques and rummage.   The two in Oaxaca are interesting places.

They differ a bit from the in town markets that are present in many Mexican towns which often mix food, clothing and souvenirs but not auto parts.   (The Tlacalula market was for some time called Tokyolula but the natives because you could buy new cars there.

In 1995, I first noticed how slick the vendors were.  The peso was under tremendous burden and yet each of the vendors seemed to have understood the international monetary flows.  Let me offer two examples.   You often get a small coin purse to hold spare change.  For about a year I watched the price of the purses fluctuate with the value of the peso.  I also noticed that if an American came when the peso was really in the dumps (just before the devaluation) that they would offer a premium that was close to 20% for dollars.  About a year later, when the peso had stabilized that discount disappeared.   What amazed me about those two trends is that most of the vendors do not look like they studied international finance.

This morning we went to the Tianguis del Martes or Tuesday market.  It is done on the edge of town in a huge space.  I wanted to present a short video with three intents in mind.  #1 - Contrary to the notions that many Americans have of Mexico - not all music here is enchanting.   #2 - To give you an idea of the hustle and bustle in Mexican markets.  #3 - This will give you an idea about the variety of options in the market - the picture above gives you an idea about the colors.

Compared to some of the other markets we have been to in Mexico (including the Saturday market in San Angel in Mexico City) we did not find any exciting treasures.