23 January 2011

Who has the power?

The company that I work for is a relatively small company with about sixty five employees. However, almost all of the companies with whom we do business are very large U.S. corporations and since we are a service business operating hundreds and even thousands of miles from their corporate headquarters we have only a limited knowledge of their inner workings. Nevertheless, every now and then a tiny window opens and gives us a fleeting glimpse into their day to day operations and decision making and we are amazed at the internal struggles for power within their organizations. This generally sets off a discussion among us as to who really has the power in their corporate system. It seems as though these large organizations are giant crucibles who take people in and grind them up and spit out all except those who know the secret of power. I have sometimes wondered about power and if it comes mainly from money, or good looks, or influence, or family ties, or intelligence, or wisdom, or knowledge, or altruism, or greed, or divine appointment, or ruthlessness, or just plain luck. Perhaps it is a combination of all of these. I like to imagine that if one could get a handle on the formula for power one might be able solve some of mankind's most pressing problems.

The biggest question about power is how to regulate it. It seems to be a tenet of human nature that unregulated power leads to corruption and that is why we are now collectively questioning the wisdom of an unregulated free market. In our current democratic situation the strong seem do what they can get away with and the weak suffer what they must in order to get by. In our electoral process the average citizens or "little people" tend favor the charismatic contender whether or not he or she is the best candidate for the job. Is this how a country should be governed? If we allow the public to vote for those "in power" based on their emotions rather than on a well informed and carefully thought out decision making process it may only further the pickle that we seem to be in.

This morning I was listening Fareed Zakaria, the editor-at-large for Time Magazine and the host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS". He gave a simple definition of power that stuck with me all day. He said "Power is the ability to obtain the outcome that you want". That is simple but it is also genius in my opinion. Instead of asking "Who has the power?", we need to ask instead, "Who has the ability?". This Tuesday, January 25th, Barack Obama will give his second State of the Union address to Congress. We are at a critical point in time. Polls show that impatience, frustration and anxiety are at an all tine high. I think that I can safely say that not only American citizens but people the world over want the United States of America to return to a path of steady growth and prosperity because the American model is still the desired hope and dream for billions of people.

Does Barack Obama have the ability to obtain the outcome that we want? I think that he does. I will be glued to the T.V. set to hear what he has to say. Does the U.S. Congress have the ability (and the guts) to obtain the outcome that we want? I think that they do if they sincerely believe that the trust their constituents have placed in them to do the right thing is sacred. If that is the case...if both the President and the Congress have the ability ( i.e., the power) to obtain the outcome that we want then what are we waiting for? Let's get this show on the road!

16 January 2011

From Linear to Exponential

Back in 1973 a fellow named Merle Haggard wrote a song about the tender optimism of a working man dealing with economic hardship. I relate to this particular song because at the time it was written I was dealing with economic hardship myself. In October of 1973 we were hit with the Arab Oil Embargo crisis and by Christmas that year and it seemed as though the lights were going out all over North America. There were gas lines everywhere and there was a line from that song that was on every one's mind at the time and it went:

If we make it through December
Every thing's gonna be all right I know...

Here in Mexico there is a similar sentiment but it differs in that the month that is the hardest to get through is not December but January. By the end of the year the Christmas holidays have taken their toll on the pocketbook and there is still "El Día de Los Reyes Magos" (The Feast of the Three Kings) on the Epiphany, January 6th to deal with. Many Moms and Dads literally go into hock at a pawn shop (casa de empeños) to get enough money to buy clothing and toys for their children who are expecting Melchor, Gaspar and Baltasar, the three wise men, to bring them gifts. The prudent parents buy the gifts (regalos) on "el plan de apartado" or "layaway plan" to be redeemed on the night of January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, after the kids have been put to bed. To be sure, the Day of the Three Kings is a great day but after that there is a long hard climb out of debt. Many people who are caught off guard by emergencies during the holidays have had to borrow money from their employer or put off paying the rent or utilities and it is also a time when property taxes become due. That is why people often refer to January as "la cuesta de enero" or "the hill of January". A friend of mine noted recently that this year we will not only have "la cuesta de enero" to deal with but also "la cuesta de dos mil once" or "the hill of two thousand eleven".

This brings me to the title of this blog post, "From Linear to Exponential". I first encountered this phrase in the late 1980's while investigating the maintenance cost cycle of railroad equipment. The monthly maintenance cost would start out at next to nothing and rise very, very slowly over the years in a gradually rising straight line or in a "linear fashion". This would go on for many years until at some point, usually predictable, the various components would begin to wear out more or less simultaneously and the the maintenance cost would take an abrupt upward turn in an alarmingly steep manner or "exponential fashion" and this would indicate the end of a useful life cycle. The owner of the equipment would then need to decide to either completely refurbish the equipment or replace it. We now seem to be at that point with the debts of many nations and the availability of resources. The cause of this linear to exponential change in direction was also generally predictable and we were first warned about it by a man named Thomas Malthus. In 1798 he published An Essay on the Principle of Population which said that the growth of population will eventually reach the limit of the resource base, this resource base, of course, being the planet Earth.

It is hard to get one's head around the math behind exponential growth because our lives are linear and our activities generally don't involve the powers of ten. My father used to explain it by using the story of the chess board with 64 squares. One day a man brought a new game called "chess" to the king and the king enjoyed the game so much that he told the man that he could have anything that he wanted as a reward. The king asked what he would like and the man surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square etc. The king readily agreed and called for the rice to be brought in. All went well at first but by the time they got to the thirty-second square they needed 4,294,967,295 grains of rice or in other words about 118 tons. This is enough rice to fill a modern jumbo railroad covered hopper car full to overflowing. Then, on the very next square the amount doubled and they came to the point that some people refer to as, "the second half of the chess board" where the increase becomes so steep that it is almost impossible to deal with. In fact, if the king had kept on rewarding the man with rice according to the agreed upon plan, by the time they reached the sixty-fourth square there would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice, weighing 501,270, 219, 565 tons, which would be a mountain of rice larger than Mount Everest.

The national debt of the United States is getting uncomfortably close to that "second half of the chess board". Not only that but scientists are telling us that the growing world population, falling energy sources and food shortages will create some almost insurmountable difficulties by the year 2030 if some drastic measures aren't taken immediately. Food reserves are already at a fifty-year low but by 2030 the world will require 50% more food, energy, and clean fresh water than we have available today. I think that more and more and more people at all levels are becoming aware of this all the time and that is why there is so much frustration with the world's leaders and politicians. No one seems to be able to step up and tell it like it is and do something about it NOW and for this reason there is a lot of built-up tension and the resulting strife. What occurred in Arizona recently may be an example. I don't think that what happened to Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other shooting victims was necessarily politically motivated but the tensions caused by the realizations that I mentioned above could very well have been a factor and this tension may be enough to push some people over the edge. I believe that we must take this underlying tension into account with all of our relationships, both business and personal. The best advice that I have heard in this regard came from one of the world's oldest inhabitants, Ms. Mississippi ("Sweetie") Winn, who died last week at the age of 113 years. When asked what her favorite Bible verse was Sweetie unhesitatingly replied "Be ye kind one to another".

And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you.
(Ephesians 4:32)

AMEN !!!

13 January 2011

A word about "bugs"...

After I wrote about my modest success growing cherry tomatoes here in Central Mexico a number of people mentioned that they have had little or no luck due, on part, to "bugs" or " la plaga" (lah PLAH-ga) as my wife Gina calls them, which means "the plague" in English. I must admit that there can be a problem but it has an easy solution and should not deter anyone from enjoying the delight of a ripe red, sun warmed cherry tomato bursting with flavor. Basically there are two types of bugs that injure these plants. One type is the chewing variety such as the "oruga" (oh- ROO-gah) or "caterpillar" and the other is the sucking variety such as the "pulgón" (puhl-GOHN) or "aphid". The sucking variety belong to the order "Hemitera". The Hemiptera are characterized by a beak called a "rostrum" with which they can pierce the outer covering of a plant and suck out the juice. There is a suborder of the Hemiptera called "Sternorrhyncha" which contains the subfamily "Eriosomatinae" or "Wooly Aphid" and also the subfamily "Aleyrodoidea" which contains the "White Fly". The Wooly Aphid or the White Fly are often what do the most damage to tomatoes and pepper plants.

Both the Wooly Aphid and the White Fly are innocuous looking creatures and most of the time people are unaware that they have an infestation until considerable damage has already been done. That's because these little pests are so tiny as you can see in the photos below. They look like little white specs of fly ash and only when you disturb them and they rise up in a little cloud like a miniature snow storm are you aware that they are even alive. They appear in the garden at this time of year because they like humidity and juicy plants. Fruit bearing plants are their favorites and both tomatoes and peppers are part of the "Solanaceae" or "Nightshade Family" and they are actually classified as fruits. We are between rainy seasons at the moment and the only place you generally find humidity and juicy plants from now until mid-May or early June is in a garden. The little buggers stick their snout into the plant tissue and suck out the juice. Little by little mold forms at the wounds and eventually the infested area of the plant turns yellow and then brown. The plant doesn't die but it becomes very stressed and may not grow very well or bear much fruit as a result. Eventually Lady Bugs and other friendly (to man) predator insects take care of the aphids and the white flies but in the meantime the damage has already been done.

What can be done about it? Well, the first thing you can do is bend over and look at your plants. Yes, bend way down and get to know them. For one thing it is good exercise and for another it is educational. You just might discover a new world. If you do have a pest problem with bugs the next thing to do, of course, is to get rid of them. Actually it is quite easy. A strong stream of water will knock them right off the plants. Keep doing this for a few days and the problem will be greatly reduced. A better method is to spray the plants with a solution of liquid dish soap and water, about a teaspoon per liter of water or so. It won't hurt the plants, especially if you rinse them off later, and you will drive the bugs completely away. Don't be tempted to use harsh chemicals because they are too hard to control. Oh, I keep a can of Raid Max around for zapping those big ugly cockroaches when they get in the house but that's as far as I go with chemicals. Like the beer people say, "Todo con medida"..."Everything in moderation".

Happy Gardening!

08 January 2011

A cheery cherry day!

Today I harvested the last of the "jitomates cheri" (HEE-toh-mah-tays CHAIR-ee) or "cherry tomatoes" that I had planted early last spring. The tomato plants were still green but they were getting pretty scraggly and weren't producing many new tomatoes. It was definitely time for renewal. I had already started some new seedlings before Christmas from seeds taken from these same plants so all I had to do is pick the last of the ripe tomatoes, rip out the old plants, and replace them with their offspring. Isn't that more or less what life is all about anyway? The past year was a good year for cherry tomatoes. In fact, just about every year is a good year for these tasty little treats and that is why I like them so much. There is nothing like walking out on the patio and plucking a ripe tomato, and after rubbing it between your hands (or on your shirt like I do) to dust it off, you pop it in your mouth and squeeze it with your tongue until it explodes. The combination of the fresh tomato taste and aroma combined with the warmth of the sun makes you feel like you are tasting a bit the sun itself. Alongside the tomatoes I plant a lot of basil which is called "albahaca" (ahl-bah-AH-kah) is Spanish and the scent of the basil combined with the smell and taste of the tomato is just heavenly. Just thinking about it makes you sigh, don't it?

About six plants are all we need to supply ourselves and all of the relatives with cherry tomatoes and at the height of the season we will have tomatoes coming out of our ears. I grow some plants in large "macetas" (mah-SAY-tahs) which are clay flower pots about the size of a five gallon bucket and I grow some in large two or three liter plastic pop bottles that I hang on the garden wall. Other than regular watering and a bit of fertilizer now and then they need very little care. I am always starting new plants that I give away to friends and then listen to them rave about how many cherry tomatoes they are getting. There are two groups of people who love these tomatoes the most...little kids and old people. My "suegro" (SWAY-groh) or "father-in-law" and Gina's little "nieto" (NYET-oh) or "grandson" are always in competition to see who can pick the most tomatoes. I think that God must like cherry tomatoes too, and that is why He made them so delicious, prolific and easy to grow. Thank you God for loving us enough to share your cherry tomatoes with us. I love you back.

06 January 2011

Today is a special day.

Today, the sixth of January, is a special day for me. Today I celebrate my 12th anniversary of coming to Mexico. I had only intended to stay for a few months to help a friend named Federico Chio, but one thing led to another and I am still in Mexico. On the first few days of January back in 1999 a powerful winter storm had blasted the Chicago area from whence I came. All across Northern Illinois the storm had raged, dumping anywhere from nine to twenty-two inches of snow on the holiday traffic. The wind blew out of the northeast and it gusted well over thirty miles per hour causing considerable drifting. The storm set a Chicago record for the most snowfall in a single calendar day. Almost nineteen inches were recorded by the official weather reporting station at O'Hare Airport on Saturday, January the second. As if the snow and the wind weren't bad enough the temperature began to fall steadily. By Tuesday the fifth, the day I was hoping to leave for sunny Mexico, the temperature fell to more than ten below zero (Fahrenheit). It felt even colder because of the wind chill. My flight wasn't scheduled to leave until six thirty in the evening. During the blizzard everything came to a halt and many travelers had been stranded at the airport over the weekend.

By noon on Tuesday some semblance of order had been restored but the main problems were the cold and the wind. The unfortunate but valiant men and women of American Airlines, whose job it was to service the planes, were suffering terribly and could only remain outdoors for short periods. The airplanes had to be sprayed with de-icing solution before they could take off and the people who had to spray them with de-icer must have been super human. Once we finally took off about ten thirty, the three hour flight to Monterrey was relatively uneventful. I alternately read and dozed my way through the flight and as we made our approach to the Monterrey airport our pilot announced that the outside temperature was in the mid sixties. What a relief! I realized how miraculous it was that in just three hours I had been able to change my environment by going to a place where the air temperature was seventy five degrees higher than at the place I had left. It was a vivid reminder of the technology that we sometimes take for granted. I had never appreciated modern air travel more than I did that night.

I didn't get to bed until sometime after 2:am on the January 6th after arriving at the airport well after midnight. The next day I went to the shop where I would spend the next year working to help them obtain an international quality assurance certification. On the way to the shop we stopped to buy a couple "roscas" to share with the workers. I am referring to "la rosca de los reyes" or king's bread. It is an oval shaped loaf of sweet, twisted, fruit studded bread. Baked inside is a small ceramic or plastic figurine in the shape of a baby. The baby, of course, represents the Baby Jesus. It is a tradition for families, friends, class mates, or co-workers to gather together in mid to late afternoon for "la merienda" or afternoon snack to partake of the rosca on January 6th. My friend Federico called the workers together for the partaking of the rosca and took that opportunity to introduce me.

Before I left home I had asked Federico for a list of names of all of his workers, about thirty names in all. It is the custom in Mexico to use the father's last name followed by the mother's last name so including their first name, everyone has at least three segments to their full name and often four or sometimes even five. During the time that my plane sat on the ground in Chicago awaiting take off and later during the three hour flight to Monterrey I took it upon myself to memorize all of the names. This turned out to be a great idea which I realized soon after we reached the shop. I asked my friend to introduce me to his men using their first name only and I would fill in the rest of it. The result was magical. It produced instant smiles all around. The men were very impressed and I had a lot of fun breaking the ice that way. I discovered right then that names are very important in Mexico and it is a sign of great respect to remember them in full. From that point on I made it a habit to write down a person's name in a little notebook whenever I am being introduced to them. People don't seem seem to mind at all and because I meet so many people the help that this gives me later on is immeasurable.

It is customary for the person who receives the piece of rosca with the baby to give a party for everyone else on February second, the feast of "The Presentation of the Lord". As I was soon to find out, getting the piece of rosca with the baby hidden inside is not always considered good luck. Parties are expensive and despite the feeling of good fortune one might experience from discovering the baby more often than not the joy is partially canceled out by the realization that a party requires the expenditure of hard earned cash. It is natural for people to hang back, especially the males until someone else finds the baby. I was a little shocked that some of the more macho types referred to it as the "mono" or monkey. Once somebody finds the baby the rest are not so reluctant to dig in. For this reason people sometimes ask the baker to put two or more babies in the rosca. It catches some of those who have avoided having to give a party over the years and it is also a little easier on the pocketbook if there is more than one person to bear the cost of the party.

By the time the rosca ceremony was over I was completely exhausted and felt a sense of being overwhelmed by everything. However, before I drifted off to sleep later that night I reflected on all that had happened in the twenty four hours since I had left Chicago. I was dizzy with wonder of it all for it felt as if I had journeyed through a kaleidoscope. Little did I know that my adventures in Mexico had barely begun and the things to come in the next few weeks and months would make this first day seem average. That is one reason why the Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, "Los Reyes Magos" is a very special day for me. That, and realizing so vividly how time flies when you are having fun. I love Mexico and I am very grateful to the Mexican people for all of their kindness to me.

¡ Viva México !

02 January 2011

La Villa de Santa Georgina

Before I let the holiday slip away by I want to tell you about "La Villa de Santa Georgina". When I was a little boy in Chicago my great aunts Harrieta, Flavia, and Pelagia (Hattie, Flo, and Peggy) used to make a Christmas village every year at the base of the Christmas tree behind and to the sides of the nativity scene. The village that they made was quite detailed and spread out around base of the tree like a tiny community. Later on my sisters Suzanne (Suzy) and Kathryn (Kathy) carried on the tradition and Suzy's Christmas village in particular is realistic to the point of being spectacular. Of course, when my wife Gina learned about this she wanted one too and it just so happened that I came across some little ceramic houses of the Christmas style at Waldo's for only fifteen pesos each and I ended up buying a couple dozen. Then I made a little platform to hold the village and I covered it with unicél (oo-nee-SELL) which is what Styrofoam is called here in Mexico. I painted a background on a piece of plywood and attached it to the base. The whole thing sits below the counter of the arched divider that separates our kitchen area from our living room.

The name that I gave the village, "Santa Georgina", I took from real life. Gina's first name is actually "Georgina" and whenever she and her mother Carmelita start picking on me I start singing the litany of the saints in Latin in the old Gregorian chant style:

Sancta Georgina, ora pro nobis.
Saint Georgina, pray for us.

Sancta Carmelita, ora pro nobis.
Saint Carmelita, pray for us.

Ab omni malo, libera nos, Dómine.
From all evil, deliver us oh Lord.

This is just to remind them that they really aren't saints...YET!! I had a lot of fun working on this little project and I never really finished it because for one thing, I had too many supervisors. Fortunately, a good thing about Christmas is that "si Dios quiere" (if God is willing), it will come again next year and I can work on the village some more. My sisters have been working on theirs for almost forty years and they tell me that they are never quite finished. I guess the only time that when you are truly finished building a Christmas village is when you die. Anyway, I am pleased with the results so far even though it is one of the most eclectic Christmas villages that I have ever seen. That's okay though because everyone here seems to like it...especially "Santa" Georgina.

(Click to enlarge)
"And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!'."

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About Me

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.