09.29.08

Only the second best

Posted in Society at 9:40 by RjZ

Tom Wolfe did some (limited, but at least real) research before arriving to the same opinion I had. The U.S. government is edging closer to putting the control for hundreds of billions of our tax dollars into the control of very few people.

One compromise being made on the way is to limit the salaries and golden parachutes of the CEOs formerly in charge of these failing banks. The logic of which is compellingly populist. Why reward these guys for failing? (Many U.S. Americans are already asking: ‘why bail them out?) Democrats are insisting there should be a limit on their future salaries equal to about what we pay the U.S. president: $400,000 per year.

As Mr. Wolfe already points out, the smart guys have already left those banks and found other vehicles to fuel their wealth and greed. If salaries are limited, why wouldn’t the very best go find other careers that can give them enough cash to wallpaper their living rooms? What these sharp witted politicians are saying, in essence, is that we don’t really want the best minds managing $700 billion in taxpayer’s money. We want the mediocre folks who can’t really warrant a top-class salary and therefore are glad to work for the highly regulated U.S. government with 537 micro-managers in Washington (House of Representatives, Senate, President and Vice President….)

But don’t worry, they won’t be greedy.

(1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
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09.24.08

Henry Paulson knows best

Posted in Society at 20:44 by RjZ

Simple question: if thousands of Wall Street professionals were unable to avoid the demise of their corporations as a result of bad decisions, what, aside from politics or enormous egos, makes anyone in government think they can do a better job? What, in our collective experience, gives us the impression that the Federal Reserve and the Department of the Treasury are better suited to predict the future of finance markets better than people whose livelihoods depend on it? Golden parachutes aside, many folks have already lost their jobs thanks to the current financial meltdown, and the majority didn’t see it coming.

Whether or not a bailout of these huge financial institutions makes sense right now isn’t even my point. My question is why would we think that, after bailing these corporations out, that they would be better managed by the government?

Am I suggesting there should be no regulations imposed on banks? Not exactly. The function of a capitalistic system requires rule of law. Banks and financial institutions must clearly state what they’re doing with my investment and then they have to do that. The government must regulate this to ensure that rule of law is followed and that transparency is maintained. Beyond that it’s buyer beware. The government goes beyond this and kindly offers insurance on certain kinds of investments. Those investments are more tightly regulated and offer, accordingly, lower returns. Regulations like the ones that ensure our food doesn’t contain poison don’t tell people how to prepare food or what we can eat. Regulations on our money supply should have a similar scope.

Even if we, U.S. taxpayers, take on $700 million in debt, nothing will change. Businesses will come into being who are outside of the regulations and they will offer better returns. People will decide that the risk is worth while and will invest.

Whether or not we find ourselves today in a situation where it makes sense to bail out wealthy bank owners, their employees, and in turn folks who for good or bad reasons made unwise investments is beyond this post. Politicians on the right and the left are taking advantage of the many mistakes that were made and demanding more power be concentrated in Washington, but they have given no justification for how that would actually avoid these mistakes in the future.

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We have many colors

Posted in Travel at 13:00 by RjZ

Walking past stall after stall in the mercados of Peru, your eyes wander from amazing woven blankets to detailed carved gourdes to myriads of ceramic sculptures and pre-Columbian replicas.

“We have many colors,” Cusco, Peru
Colorful woven blankets were stacked
floor to ceiling in nearly every market
stall in Peru.

Enthusiastic stall owners watch your focus and point out each of their wares in turn. “Baby Alpaca…very soft…” “Huy un Compromiso” (Good price today). Catch a glimpse of the woven blankets stacked giant in piles from floor to ceiling and they say “You like blankets? We have many colors.” Um, yeah, I guess I can see that. Still, Peruvians seemed to me a very polite people and even outside of the markets, several we’re willing to strike up a conversation.

“Obama or Bush?” he asked. I thought it was an odd choice from a drunk man riding on a collectivo through the Peruvian Andes. “Given that choice, Obama,” I said. It’s unlikely he got the nuance but that doesn’t explain his quizzical response: “But he’s black…”

I think this raises an unusual question. Was he surprised I would prefer Obama to Bush because U.S. Americans have a stereotype as being somewhat racist? Or is he the racist, finding it difficult to conceive of why someone would select a black president? “We have many colors,” applies to blankets, but less so to people: there aren’t many black people in the Andes, so it wouldn’t surprise me if some Peruvians sometimes felt this way. After all, deep feelings often come to the surface of drunk people. I just don’t have enough experience to even guess? Anyone reading have an idea?

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09.22.08

We’ll let you know in November

Posted in Society, Travel at 17:23 by RjZ

Traveling frequently gives one the opportunity to meet people not only from the destination country, but also fellow travelers from around the world. How you travel, however, is an effective filter on the kind of fellow traveler you’re likely to meet. Sitting in  the hotel bar of fine hotel in Chicago guarantees I’ll run into other folks, usually men, going to the same trade show or conference that I am attending. But stay in a $15 a night hostal in Peru and the clientele is completely different.

One thing most travelers to cheap hotels in remote destinations have in common is an interest in the world around them. I think I share that with them, but during a few community dinners at mountain lodges, I started to wonder if all of our interest isn’t a bit misguided. 

I wondered, for example, why does anyone care about Obama and McCain? Sure, there were loads of arguments about how the president of the United States is one of the most important people on the planet. Almost universally, these people were intensely concerned that U.S. Americans might pick another George Bush, bent on destroying the world order. Mr. Bush, it turns out, really is a “uniter” and not a “divider.” Just about everyone I met was united in their dislike of him.

At first, this makes perfect sense, but after thinking about it a bit I realized I don’t know who is running for the leader of Italy right now, or even when their elections are. Of course, you could blame that on my typical American ignorance about anything outside of U. S. borders, but none of my fellow travelers were following the elections in Peru, even if they knew all about our obscure electoral college system. 

Of course, they said, United States’ policies have a much greater effect on the rest of the world than Peru’s. Really? How, exactly, has this horrible, costly war in Iraq effected the lives of the average citizen in Germany? Gas prices, they shouted! Even before the war, Iraq has developed less than 10% of their reserves, or about 2.5 million barrels per day. That is a lot of oil, but even Alaska produces 750 thousand barrels per day on their own. No, the real culprit is increased demand, above all, in China.

One of my dinner colleagues suddenly said that she almost missed her transfer to Peru because she was forced to go through U.S. customs even though she wasn’t even going to the United States. Alright, I’ll concede this one, although she should try flying through, I don’t know, Egypt. The point is, that as horrible as the war is for so many people and as expensive as it will be when the next generation starts paying for it, all of the ill-conceived policies of the present administration in this country and in every country have only incremental effect on our day-to-day lives.

And even if you don’t buy that, don’t you still have to wonder why an ex-pat Brit living in a remote part of Peru would even waste his time following the U.S. election race? Sure, it’s entertaining, but let’s face it, we’ll let you know who we’ve elected in November; there’s not much he can do about it until then.

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09.18.08

How not to climb a mountain

Posted in Travel at 16:56 by RjZ

This is a story of how not to do it. I really thought I knew better, but ‘peak fever’ is a strong motivator. 

We got a late start. After all, we weren’t in a rush to hike up to Laguna Chirrup in the Peruvian Andes. The alpine lake was only a few hours from the Way Inn Lodge, which is already high up on a mountain plateau at around 12,000 feet (~3,660 m), so getting started at around 9 in the morning was no problem at all.



Laguna Chirrup, Peru. Chirrupita
is the little peak on the left.
That’s really the last picture I got
that was worth showing. The snow
started about 30 minutes later.

I’d already spent a week in the Sacred Valley area above 10,000 feet (~3,000m) and a night in the lodge, and it looks like acclimatization works! We marched upwards including a final rewarding scramble up to the lake perched in a bowl at 14,600 feet (4,450 m). That’s already a personal best for me and I was pretty excited—I felt great, no altitude sickness at all. A few other hikers were enjoying the crystal clear lake and the views were holding even as a few clouds were building. Rumor had it that the peak of Chirrupita, Mt. Chirrup’s little sister at a mere 16,430 feet (5,007 m) was only a half hour hike from here, if you walk fast…. We were both feeling strong, not the usual breathless effort of climbing a Colorado Fourteener, but we weren’t foolish enough to believe the peak, easily visible above the lake, was only 30 minutes away!

We looked at our watch: about 2 in the afternoon now that we finished lunch. Even if we doubled the time, we’d still be back at the lake by about 4:00. We have headlamps, we’d be able to scramble down and make it most of the way back before we even had to unpack them. Let’s give it a go!

There aren’t always very good trails in Peru; mostly game trails criss-cross their way around the mountains and you’re job is to choose the best one. We began our trip up and quickly discovered we hadn’t really picked a winner, which forced us to double back. As we made our way to a higher lake about a quarter of the way up we had committed to finding our own route as the description appeared to guide hikers over a much more difficult path than just making the ridge in front of us. I figured it was about 10 – 15 minutes away. 

There were rain clouds over here and over there and precipitation was coming from several clouds around us—but none near us! The peak was steadily getting closer now, and secretly I was worried about those clouds, but I told myself we’d be back down again before it rained much on us. We made the ridge just a bit slower than I expected, mostly because we kept stopping to be sure we were going the right way and that continuing made sense. It clearly didn’t, but the peak kept getting closer so we pressed on,

We pressed on even as the graupel (snow pellets) started to come down. We were nearing 16,000 feet and the pace was slowing as the sky was darkening. I kept setting goals: ‘to that rock in ten minutes, to that ridge in 15 minutes.’ We kept missing our goals (even if only by a little bit) but the graupel was turning to snow and visibility was dropping fast. When the snow started to stick, I realized that we had to break out of this obsession with the peak. My altimeter said we were only 50 meters from the top, but it was clearly 10 to 20 minutes hiking from here. The top was so close it looked like we could run up and touch it. We had to turn around!

And so the arduous journey began. The once sticky slabs of granite we climbed up on were slick with snow and and shoes were building up a nice ice pack on the soles. The route itself was blotted out by clouds and swirling snow. Our job was to make it from one adventure to another. First off the high mountain to where we should pick up the trail again (no luck, but plenty of time searching for it.) Then to scramble back down next to the waterfall in the darkening evening. (Ever noticed how much harder down-climbing is compared to going up?) Passed that hurdle, now keep to the trail until it gets too dark and we turn on our head lamps.

Whoops, I’d forgotten this little bit we scrambled up on the way! The 10 foot slab of rock was sure much easier to climb up than to slide down on in the rain and the dark. We helped each other passed that stage, and all that was left was to find our trail back to the lodge. No such luck, of course. We walked right passed the faint turn off and had to navigate across ridge after ridge, rocks, boulders and farmland to the road we think we’ll lead us back to the cabin. More than an hour later we find that road, and even that doesn’t seem sure when we hit a junction in it as it switches back and forth down the mountain. We chose correctly and the lodge’s barking dog finally greeted us a couple of hundred meters from the door, the rain, conveniently, finally letting up as we walk in.


We were pretty well prepared. We had rain gear and almost enough warm gear and food. It seems the only thing we left behind was common sense. This didn’t have to be that bad a hike. If we had planned on going to the top, we’d have left early enough and been careful about our path. Instead we let the tantalizing peak hypnotize us into ignoring signs of weather and impending darkness in a foreign country where a twisted ankle wouldn’t have meant helicopter evacuation, but a darn cold night and a ruined vacation. 

The sheer time it took (around 12 hours) was enough to turn a little hike into an epic trip, but of course, all we had to do is think sensibly about how long it would take and should take. We were making good time, but be serious: the peak was 2000 feet above us? In what alternate reality is that only an hour away?

Don’t try this at home. Better yet, don’t try it on vacation either! Peak fever is stupid!

Meanwhile, ha! ha! I made it to around 16,240 feet (4,950)! A new personal high! Woo hoo!

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