Thursday, July 30, 2009

Argentina - the life style...

If you have spent any time in Buenos Aires or elsewhere in Argentina then you probably have scratched your head as I have about much of what you encounter there.

1. A seemingly endless ability to eat and talk. Meals last for hours and conversations over meals (with no topic off limits) are endless. Rarely are there any strong arguments but there is a lot of cursing. Meal prep and consumption can easily take up half of a weekend.

2. The professional class in Argentina is wildly under employed. Every cab driver is an architect, doctors works three or four jobs or settle at part time.

3. Outside the main cities businesses open at 8:00 AM; close from noon until 4:00 PM and then close again at 8:00 PM. From noon to 4:00 towns are really quiet.

4. There are no mortgages. It can take people years to build houses, save a little, build a little.

5. The government and the unions are totally self serving, cater to populism (but in reality are elitists) and corrupt.

The post below from is a pretty good general overview.

Impressions and Lessons from Argentina

I’ve been in Argentina the last 1.5 weeks. Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls, and Cordoba. It’s a beautiful country, inexpensive, good food, friendly people, and functional transportation infrastructure.

It is not exactly undiscovered land. Buenos Aires has become the go-to place for laid-off Wall Street financiers to keep up their lavish lifestyle at half the cost. Argentinean women capture the imagination of men the world over (most recently, Mark Sanford). Even Iguazu Falls has become a stopping ground for Japanese tourists toting fancy cameras. (The litmus test for whether a non-Asia country is tier one is simple: Do Japanese tourists go there?)

Nevertheless, for those new to the country, here are some random high level thoughts and lessons from Argentina. Wield a salt shaker over the massive generalizations to follow.

1. National Pride and Brain Drain: Argentinians love the culture of their country – they especially love their beef and beauty. They do not love their country when it comes to politics or economics. Both sides of this sentiment coin seem well-informed. But the negative stuff is more consequential. When the people don’t trust their politicians or their banks, instability on both fronts follows, which slows overall economic growth and development. Slower growth means fewer opportunities at home, which means the most talented young people in Argentina want to leave for greener pastures abroad.

2. No Means “Not Yet”: The machismo of Latin men is legendary. Argentina does not seem exempt. The men are ridiculously forward in their advances on women. “No” means “not yet.” The women ask for it, though: they reward persistence, and will often decline advances three, four, five times before acceding, just to make a point.

3. Why Do the Buses Play TV Audio on the Loudspeaker? One of the more memorable experiences was taking a 20-hour bus from Iguazu to Cordoba. Steve and I had never taken a bus trip this long; we were sold on the novelty of it all. Novelty aside, the bus experience itself has much to recommend: comfy seats, professional staff, full-service amenities (two meals, drinks, snacks). The big downside? English language movies and music played for hours…on the loud speaker! No headphones requires. Passengers become an involuntary captive audience to the TV. Reading’s impossible.

Is it a stretch to draw a larger conclusion from this practice of blasting the audio through the loudspeaker, which I hear is the custom throughout all of Latin America? It would never happen in the U.S. Imagine getting on a 12 hour flight to Europe and having the TV audio playing loud the entire flight. People would go apeshit. What explains this? Do Americans prize individual preference more? Do Americans read more books or otherwise watch fewer movies and thus less interested in the TV?

4. Creativity and Culture. Buenos Aires likes to consider itself the Paris of South America. Visitors rave about its “creativity” and culture and cosmopolitanism. I noticed the European-esque architecture, but that’s about it. I personally have a low tolerance for self-important, self-styled “artistic” cultures, especially those with a hipster streak. I caught a whiff of this in BA.

5. Nightlife, Schedules, Work Ethic. Everything in Argentina starts late. On weekends, you’ll have dinner at 10 or 11, pre-game at 12:30 or 1, and get to a club around 2 AM and leave at around 5 or 6 AM. This is not an exaggeration. It’s insane. Meanwhile, the business world continues to operate more or less on international time standards – 9:30 to 6:30 workday. Ex-pats tell me being sleep deprived is just a way of life. Also, Sundays are spent sleeping. Of course not everyone parties and goes to clubs, but most young people do, and in the aggregate this must do serious damage to the country’s productivity.

6. Walk Aimlessly. Repeat. This was my travel philosophy in Argentina. Wander the streets and just look at stuff. Talk to people. There aren’t any must-sees in Buenos Aires or Cordoba, at least in my book. This lowers the overall stress. In Paris, if you don’t get to the Eiffel Tower, you’re pissed. You won’t have that feeling in Argentina. You walk around, eat steak, eat ice cream, and observe portenos do their thing. Day-to-day life seems quite pleasant and relaxed.

7. Non-Existent Banking System. Want to buy a house with a mortgage? Tough luck. All cash up front, baby. Want to do a commercial real estate deal in BA? All cash. U.S. dollars. In a briefcase. At the meeting.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pete Fornatale

Pete Fornatale's first show in July 1969 on WNEW FM is being re broadcast now on WFUV. It is essential listening. In 1969, I was 16, had spent the first part of the summer in Montana at an Encampment for Citizenship, watched the men land on the moon, and was about ready to head to Woodstock with my best friends. It was an amazing time, not to be debased or trivialized. If you listen to Pete's show, it comes back like a steamroller. Try to find it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Song Of The Week - Amadou & Mariam - Senegal Fast Food

A fantastic song featuring video footage shot in Africa from Amadou & Mariam, the internationally renowned blind musician couple from Mali, Africa. From the album Dimanche a Bamako. Watch the Video.

Friday, July 17, 2009

College is a Scam...

My admittedly provocative title is designed to get your attention. Immediately below is a letter to the four year college I graduated from explaining why hell will freeze over before I give them any money. It boils down to: it makes no sense to give money to the rich - support community colleges instead. In today's NY Times David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece, called No Size Fits All (great title!) in which he more articulately and in a much more rational way makes the same argument.
Dear Alumni Relations Directors of Innovative Four Year Liberal Arts Colleges,
Thanks for the invite to the alumni event and your kind offer to take me to lunch to talk about the College at which the subject of my contributing to the alumni fund will doubtless be discussed.

Here's the thing - I totally get your need for money and I have absolutely every confidence that you are still a good place for nice kids with nice ideas who maybe are a little off beat but very smart and I believe the world would be a better place if it saw education in ways that I think you do. That said, private colleges can (I think) without stretching, be described as related to, or even directly themselves, elite. That is, despite the financial aid and other assistance they provide, private college "customers" are (economically) in the top one tenth of one percent of the world's population (even the poorest students). Even if that were not reason enough not to give money - why give it to private colleges? How about to new and interesting charter schools in low income urban areas? How about to promote the growth of community colleges? How about to support early childhood education because if you cannot read by the third grade - you are probably lost in this world. In the hierarchy of education need around the world, fancy pants colleges do not seem to rank as needy or even worthy of "charity". This does not make them unworthy- just unworthy of charity.

By the time kids walk through your doors they are basically already fully baked (in terms of who they are as humans). I know some kids who went to college and are new grads - same great kids they were before they went to college. They have some new friends and they had a lot of fun and they learned stuff - yup - that's life - it goes on, here or there or this way or that, elite and privileged by world and other standards or not - life goes on.

And you should be given more money why exactly? I know your standard answer - financial aid - I do not believe that argument - I think its a ginned up rationale for growing your endowment and keeping you on par with your competition. Colleges should all give their endowments to a centralized fund that makes low interest loans and grants to students of need regardless of which school they go to. Colleges should live on tuition (paid by students of means and by the central fund) and manage your costs. This competition thing over money among colleges is total bullshit and its driving people nuts and is idiotic and makes no sense and you know it. Oh and by the way - the education colleges provide is OK at best - not really very good or original - ask anyone who has gone to Harvard - if they are honest.

And here's another thing. I know not all colleges have the biggest endowments on the block but the notion of giving college endowments more money to invest in private equity and hedge funds is nuts to me. I am always amazed when rich people give money to other rich people. Yet people do it - that leads me to wonder why? They have fond memories? They liked the school? What is that all about? First of all - my parents paid tuition, the college charged a fee for service and they paid it. I mean I like my plumber, Rich C, a lot but all I do is pay what he charges. I do not give him more money to support his "mission". And speaking of tuition - the amount that colleges charge in tuition is nuts and the out distancing of the CPI that tuition has risen borders on scandalous.

I hope this does not offend you, I get all the reasons why some people would feel differently than I do and think its a worthy cause to support . But believe me my not agreeing does not at all reflect any lack of respect for you and what you do or for the college and what it does or for the faculty and staff and students there. All really nice people doing good stuff. I wish the college all the best. - Your former student and graduate.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The David Foster Wallace Interview

If you click on the title of this post it should take you to the video of the Charlie Rose interview with David Foster Wallace. It's about 30 minutes long and is simply the best (however you want to define best) 30 minutes of TV I have ever watched. Minutes 18 - 20, "no apologies just an explanation", could be the subject of a PhD thesis on something (standing up for yourself for one thing).

There are a bunch of DFW related posts in the archives of Rough Fractals.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Rough Fractals Open Door Policy.

Recently one of the Rough Fractals team members went on what is called a medical mission in Guatemala with an organization called Women for World Health. A few months after the trip, the team members from the trip received the following e mail. Below the email is the Rough Fractals reply:

Hi Everyone! I hope this email finds you doing well. I'm working on a facebook page for Women for World Health and was just wondering if you could share any insight you gained from the trip, what it meant to be part of a team or anything else you'd like to share. Thank you so much!
All the best, S.

Dear S,

If you can bear with my round about approach to your Women For World Health questions ("insight gained from the trip, what it meant to be part of a team and anything else from the trip") I'd like to try to address them.

I took my daughter to the train station the other day for a trip she was taking to visit a friend for a few days in another state and I complimented her on her back pack which was a very interesting, large, old fashioned style that you do not see too often. She said it was her "possibility bag". Upon inquiry she explained that when she goes camping, in addition to packing what she knows she will need, she also packs for possibilities (e.g., rain, thirst, sun, hunger, darkness, getting lost, bugs) so now, whatever the environment, she tries to pack for what could possibly happen.

I replied that I try to do the exact same thing in my head - be ready for possibility - and I spend a lot of time packing my brain with the things I may need when I go out - flexibility, some humor, curiosity - all the stuff I can think of that might be needed at any given moment. Sometimes I am well provisioned, other times (too many) I totally left the bag at home.

Turning to our Guatemala trip. I think everyone brought with them their possibility bags loaded with tools - medical expertise, administrative and other skills, language skills, and clearly a strong desire to work hard. But something else also happened (and it's something pretty remarkable and in some ways what being "on the road" is all about).

Imagine what it's like to see a door in front of you that you never saw before. You have no idea what is on the other side of the door but you and a group of people you do not know are standing there and all agree "lets open it, walk through and see what happens". So you open the door. You are now all on the other side standing there together, tentative, taking small steps, exploring a new place, meeting new people who have also walked through their doors and all the time working hard and talking about it - how are we doing, how can we do this better, what does it mean?

And there you all are; exploring, and sweating, and worrying, and working and maybe even freaking out but always (above all) caring. And then it's time to go back. But amazingly the door you walked through does not close behind you when you leave. It's still open, maybe not as wide open as when you were there but still there remains this new place inside you that is also newly opened. And maybe when you first go back home it takes a few days to get used to being back on the other side of the door again. Or maybe you spend a few days wandering around, keeping the door open and running into other people on the same road and you talk to them and recognize in each other this thing that has happened: that you packed your bag of possibilities, walked through a door you knew nothing about and explored with a group of young people (everyone is young (no matter how old they are) when they go through the door).

The insight gained from the trip and what it meant to be part of a team? - That there are doors everywhere - could be across the globe, could be in your living room. Go through the door and you will always come back the better for it.

Warmly - Rough Fractals.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bumper Stickers...

I am not a 'bumper sticker' kind of person but I do notice them. Here are some that I liked:

"I'm not really a 'bumper sticker' kind of person."

"I could go either way on a lot of things."

"My other car is substantially similar to this one."

"I support one of the leading political candidates, but that's all I'd like to say about it for now."

"The benefits of environmental protection measures should be thoughtfully evaluated and the sound ones enacted."

"In most contexts, "what would Jesus do?" is not a particularly helpful inquiry."

"Yes, my child may be on board, but I recognize that you are already driving as safely as can be expected if only for your own protection."

"I don't feel strongly enough about any particular musical performer to put a sticker extolling him or her on my car."

And my two all time favorites: "Don't blame me - I'm from Massachusetts." and "BUCK FUSH."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Poem Of The Week - In the Month of May - by Robert Bly

About this poem, In the Month of May, by Robert Bly, J.B. wrote:

"... as I read and reread, resonance grew. It is a love poem, a layered weaving of season, spirit, the vivid life of an aging, unfinished, still changing soul waiting for - celebrating - the miraculous. I find such tenderness in his last lines: Along the roads, I see so many places I would like us to spend the night."

In the Month of May

In the month of May when all leaves open,
I see when I walk how well all things
lean on each other, how the bees work,
the fish make their living the first day.
Monarchs fly high; then I understand
I love you with what in me is unfinished.

I love you with what in me is still
changing, what has no head or arms
or legs, what has not found its body.
And why shouldn't the miraculous,
caught on this earth, visit
the old man alone in his hut?

And why shouldn't Gabriel, who loves honey,
be fed with our own radishes and walnuts?
And lovers, tough ones, how many there are
whose holy bodies are not yet born.
Along the roads, I see so many places
I would like us to spend the night.

- Robert Bly

Monday, July 6, 2009

My 10th grade report card qualifies me to have an opinion...

Starting in kindergarten I noticed something about my teachers. Most of them seemed bored. In small towns it's a bit of local chatter to know before hand which teachers are good in whatever grade your kid is about to enter. I suspect some parents are even good at getting their kids enrolled in the good teachers' classes (this is sometimes called "advocating"). **Foot Note N 1.
FN 1: My mother, who taught in our local school, got me and my sister into Mrs. Roxlau's 3rd grade class. Mrs. Roxlau was nuts (example: if you were talking in the back row she would throw a piece of chalk at you with deadly aim and speed often just missing an eye; she had an after school coin club and she would buy coins from kids - some pennies she would pay you a nickel for (hhmmm?). My mother said I would never forget Mrs. Roxlau and she was 100% correct. Best teacher I ever had in my entire academic (Monchatet Pre-School, K-12, college and law school) career.
There is very little systematic incentive to get better at what you do as a teacher and hardly any support for teachers who try (trying is sometimes discouraged by the union "police"). Teachers are encouraged to take in-service classes or earn more college credits in order to move up the pay scale. The theory is that these in service and college credit classes provide training and new ideas. I suspect that for the most part these are light weight make work classes that teachers simply go through in order to get a raise. ** FN 2.
FN 2: In service training for teachers is not unlike the requirement for lawyers that they take 20 hours of classes every two years (4 of which have to be in legal ethics) to keep up with developments in the law - this accomplishes nothing except a boondoggle for bogus organizations that offer the courses.
It's bad enough at "good" schools in middle class suburbia. In urban schools it's a nightmare. I put a lot of blame on the system but a lot lies at the feet of the teachers themselves too. The result is a vast amount of time in which unengaged students drift while their unengaged teachers feel hassled and semi-comatose.  Here's my strategic plan - teach - period, with some guts in as nutty a way as you want and kids will be inspired (maybe by the subject, maybe by the teacher - it doesn't matter). Teach to some asinine plan or goal and it's all over before it starts. Hire teachers who get that, fire those who don't. **FN 3.
FN 3: I have actually attended a lot of strategy sessions and meetings over the years. The only strategy that ever came out of any of them that made any sense to me was to stop having strategy sessions.
It's easy to be an outside critic and often not of much use but I  think something else is going on now that may have an impact on the system - state finances and the economy. Schools are funded by local property taxes and subsidized by state governments. Property tax revenue is, on a net basis, going down along with property values as have state revenues due to the economy (e.g. California). This will likely result in higher property taxes for those who do not move, sell or lose their house. Schools are going to get squeezed as a result (that started this year but is going to accelerate as school budgets are met with resistance from voters). Over the last ten years school budget increases rose significantly in excess of inflation, two reasons: increasing staff and a strong economy that enabled parents to indulge their materialistic impulse to "buy" the best they could (smaller class size, expanded after school stuff, more subjects.  A generation of parents who grew up with a sense of entitlement want nothing but the best for their above average children and they were willing to pay for it and bask in the status of their blue ribbon school accomplishments - this works as long as there is money to support it but I am not sure there is anymore. ** FN 4.

FN 4: I have no idea if the goods bought over the last decade of school budget increases has actually improved the quality of education. I think a reasonable argument could be made that a bad teacher of a class of 25 will not be a good teacher of a class of 15, a good teacher can teach to any size class, extra school stuff is more often playing to the college check list game than substance, as for more subjects - its become cliche - we need better, not more).
I do not think it would be unreasonable to look at this landscape and conclude that school budgets are out of control, the art of good teaching is too rare and the system has very few rational built in checks and balances to encourage any self correction. There are lots of good ideas out there about how to reorganize schools to encourage better teaching but change is rarely approved by the entrenched (unless changing economic reality forces the issue). But I have been singing this same tune since the 3rd grade. ** FN 5.
FN 5:  Actually even before the third grade I had a funny feeling about school.  I remember vividly my first day of pre school  - after screaming that I did not want to go and holding onto the door for dear life (while my Mother tried to push me into the van) the van driver told me that if I did not get in he would slam the door on my fingers - I believed him. Once in and on our way to the next victim, he showed me he could drive the van with no hands and that completely mesmerized me with fear that we would crash and distracted all the other kids who were kind of freaked out by the scene I had just made getting into the bus. I think I knew from that moment that school was going to be an iffy proposition.

Friday, July 3, 2009

How Far Is Heaven?

June 28, 2009
Jennifer Keen and Paul Sousa


PAUL SOUSA never imagined he would marry downriver from where he camped out many nights as a homeless child growing up with an alcoholic mother.

But on June 13 here at Discovery Park, about 50 guests, many covered in tattoos and at least one wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet, watched, riveted, as Mr. Sousa and Jennifer Keen exchanged wedding vows, the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers in the background.

Mr. Sousa, 41, had spent a fourth of his life in prisons, time he considered a respite from “the lash of addiction.” But Ms. Keen, 26, who had already had her share of relationships with criminals, said she “felt safer with him than anyone I’d ever been with.”

It was Mr. Sousa, who had misgivings when they met in February 2008 outside a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Sacramento. She was smoking a cigarette with friends on the sidewalk. He had just celebrated being out of prison and drug-free for one year.

“I thought this is one I need to stay away from,” he said of his instant chemistry with Ms. Keen, a blue-eyed blonde. “She literally had three days clean. She was lying about her boyfriend and all this stuff. All the red flags were there.” The last thing Mr. Sousa wanted was a distraction. He had relapsed dozens of times; one misstep could send him back to prison.

But the two kept noticing each other at meetings. And on a bright afternoon in April 2008 they found each other on the steps of the State Capitol during a rally for a state drug-treatment proposition.

“Our life tragedies got us to talk to each other,” said Ms. Keen, who grew up in Sacramento. She was brought up in a stable family with violin lessons and Girl Scout meetings. But she said she was also sexually abused by a relative. By 13 she was smoking marijuana and coming home from school drunk.

“As soon as I put a substance into my body — I instantly needed more,” she said.

By 16, she was hooked on methamphetamines, marijuana and alcohol. At 21 she found herself pregnant by a drug-addicted boyfriend. Her daughter, Alannah, was born healthy, but Ms. Keen could not kick her habits. Only after she was told she would lose custody of her little girl did she enter a treatment program.

“The way things were going, I thought I’d be burying my daughter, not marrying her,” Pam Keen, Ms. Keen’s mother, said at the reception at a nearby picnic area. “I didn’t think she’d ever clean up enough to think life was worth living.”

Mr. Sousa grew up homeless — bouncing around with his mother from shelters, to cars, to river camps. At 15, he was on his own and hooked on heroin. He was repeatedly locked up over the next 24 years, chiefly for drug-related offenses. He said he had tried to commit suicide more than once. In August 2006, he was dealing drugs out of a girlfriend’s apartment when the police arrived. He was given one last chance at rehabilitation. “I can’t do no more time,” he decided. “I can’t live like this any more.” He went into treatment.

He enrolled at American River College, a community college in Sacramento, and studied to be a drug counselor. He was awarded a Pell Grant and started both working and volunteering as a health educator, going to recovery houses and health fairs to teach about diseases transmitted sexually and by IV needles.

“He has such awesome morals and values,” Ms. Keen said. “Where did he learn that? Not from the state penitentiary, I’m sure. I know he’s had a long road, but he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

Mr. Sousa says she provides “something that I lost earlier in life: innocence,” adding, “She has a youthful joy about her that is so endearing and so attractive, so invigorating.”

Yet the couple couldn’t get too serious. Twelve-step programs always counsel participants to avoid big decisions in the first year of sobriety. Still, she stayed sober and “the red flags were turning into pink hearts,” he said, laughing. But one day, Alannah, now 5, told Mr. Sousa, “Paul, I want you to be my stepdad.”

He teased her: “What do I have to do? An application? Interview process?”

She looked at him and said confidently, “You have to marry my mom.”

On Feb. 13, Ms. Keen had been clean for a year, and Mr. Sousa took her to a steakhouse to celebrate. He was completing his first year at the community college, where she had also enrolled to study business and marketing.

After dinner, he led her across the street to where the pink lights of the Capitol were shining in the foggy night. Although he had already received the enthusiastic blessing of her parents, he was incredibly nervous. Finally, he dropped to one knee and proposed with her grandmother’s diamond ring. She screamed. Then she cried.

In April, they learned she was pregnant. “God is good,” Ms. Keen said. “Perfect timing.”

And as the Rev. Bill Williams, a North American Baptist Conference minister, concluded the nondenominational ceremony at Discovery Park, she exclaimed: “I do! I do! I really do!”

Mr. Sousa, who never thought he would live past 30, wrote a few days before the wedding that every day with Ms. Keen, “the aloneness I once knew so intimately dies a little more.”

It was the first wedding he had ever attended.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Shortest Short Story Ever Written...

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

--- Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Miller Hemingway (July 21, 1899 — July 2, 1961) received the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 for The Old Man and the Sea, and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Hemingway's protagonists are typically stoical men who exhibit an ideal described as "grace under pressure."

Here are some other wide ranging attempts at capturing a lot using only 6 words. The last is a duplicate from RF's immediately preceding post.

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
- Joss Whedon

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
- Margaret Atwood

Lie detector eyeglasses perfected: Civilization collapses.
- Richard Powers

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
- Orson Scott Card

To save humankind he died again.
- Ben Bova

Tick tock tick tock tick tick.
- Neal Stephenson

Easy. Just touch the match to
- Ursula K. Le Guin

K.I.A. Baghdad, Aged 18 - Closed Casket
- Richard K. Morgan

whorl. Help! I'm caught in a time
- Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel

Nevertheless, he tried a third time.
- James P. Blaylock

Thought I was right. I wasn't.
- Graeme Gibson

Three to Iraq. One came back.
- Graeme Gibson

Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.
- David Brin

In the beginning was the word.
- Gregory Maguire

Dorothy: "Fuck it, I'll stay here."
- Steven Meretzky

"...where love and need are one..."

- Justice David Souter quoting Robert Frost in his farewell note to the Supreme Court.


Add to Technorati Favorites