Wednesday, August 24, 2016

a better man for it

Keeping in touch with old friends has its rewards -- sometimes, very tangible ones.

I have known Al French for almost forty years. He was an assistant district attorney in Clackamas County when my law partner and I opened up shop in Oregon City. We had a few trials together, but not many.

Our common ground was politics and Coos County. He was raised in the big city of Coos Bay while I was chasing tadpoles in Powers.

Whether it was our joint interest in the Federalist Society or him introducing The American Spectator to me, we quickly became fellow debaters and, more often, political sympathizers.

It was a heady time with the elections of 1980 and 1984 -- along with property tax limitation initiatives that split our conservative consensus. When I ran for a seat in the Oregon legislature, he was there to assist.

So, it was no surprise when he offered to mail a Harding biography to me as part of my presidential biography project. It arrived the other day. Over $30 in U.S. postage. That is a true friend.

The book is Francis Russell's The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding in His Times. When I started my project, I researched the internet for the best biography of each president. Russel's book appeared on almost everyone's list. But it was not available in a Kindle edition. Al solved that problem for me.

Re-learning how to read a hard-bound book is an interesting process. I have heard other people say the same thing. They seem to read more books -- and read them faster -- on an electronic reader.

I concur. I am only on page 52 of this 663 book, but I have the flavor of it. I am hooked.

Harding is still a teen at this point. His father has purchased a cornet for him, and he is playing in the town band.

Russel comments on the role politics and religion played in Marion, Ohio. Most of his neighbors were Democrats. Harding was a Republican. "A man was born one or the other, just as he was born a Baptist or a Presbyterian, and gave an emotional allegiance to his church and party without, however, letting either interfere with his practical life."

That description helps to explain what would otherwise have been an anomaly. Russel describes how the town band, managed by Harding, would give street concerts every Saturday night, as well as providing background music at the local roller link, and playing at political rallies of both parties.

That last item on the list struck a familiar chord. The year was 1966. Oregon had an open United States senate seat. The two favored candidates were Republican Mark Hatfield (then governor) and Democrat Bob Duncan (a congressman). But both of them had primary opposition.

Duncan had announced enthusiastic support for President Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam. That drew opposition from an anti-war candidate: Howard Morgan.

I do not know how it came about, but our band, from a suburban high school, was invited to play music at a Howard Morgan political rally in Portland. Most of the band members arrived by school bus. My parents took me because the rally was on Sunday and within blocks of our church.

To the best of my knowledge, no one ever questioned the use of taxpayer money for the school bus or the non-volunteer time of students on a Sunday. My mother has always been a staunch Republican. And my father was in the process that year of leaving the Democrat party. But I am not certain either of them questioned our participation in the event. Maybe it was just one of those things that seemed normal then -- and now seems like a political land mine.

I asked the band teacher if I could wear my Hatfield hat (a cardboard derivative of an Uncle Sam topper with "Hatfield" written across the front) and a Hatfield button. He told me that was what the First Amendment was all about.

It turned out to not be much of a protest. All of the Morgan people I talked with said they were going to vote for Hatfield if Duncan won the primary.

Well, he did, and a lot of Democrats did just that -- electing Hatfield in one of the tightest elections of the year.

I need to remember that the next time I witness someone having a meltdown over partisan labels. Maybe we just need to be a little more adult -- like the Marion band -- and not let the labels of church or party interfere with our practical life.

And, once again, Al -- thank you very much. You are a true pal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

social security admits error

Well, the American government once again is doing its best to prove that incompetence is not a monopoly of the Clinton and Trump campaigns.

Earlier this month (breach in the chinese wall), I brought you a bit of bizarre news from the Social Security Administration. The federal government has spent years in trying to wean Americans from using paper. Instead, we are to trust the government and banks with direct deposit checks (a process I have used since the 1970s) and we are to transact our business with the feds over the computer.

That system appeared to be working well. Citizens had easy access to their accounts and information. Unfortunately, Chinese and Russian hackers found the access even easier.

In a ham-fisted attempt to fix the weaknesses in its computer systems (defects the federal government has known since the Clinton administration), Social Security announced at the end of July that access to personal accounts will now require obtaining a code by text-enabled cell phones for each time a person wants to see his own information.

You all saw the weaknesses in that system when I wrote about it. The primary one is that a large portion of people on Social Security do not have text-enabled telephones. And, for many who do, the process of requesting a code and then using it, has baffled many American seniors.

To Social Security's credit, it has now called king's X. Hey, folks, we really did not mean it.

Well, that's my paraphrase. The official announcement is a bit less personal in its tone.

On July 30, 2016, we began requiring you to sign into your my Social Security account using a one-time code sent via text message. We implemented this new layer of security, known as “multifactor authentication,” in compliance with a Presidential executive order to improve the security of consumer financial transactions. SSA implemented the improvements aggressively because we have a fundamental responsibility to protect the public’s personal information. However, multifactor authentication inconvenienced or restricted access to some of our account holders. We’re listening to your concerns and are responding by temporarily rolling back this mandate. As before July 30, you can now access your secure account using only your username and password. We highly recommend the extra security text message option, but it is not required. We’re developing an alternative authentication option, besides text messaging, that we’ll begin implementing within the next six months. We strive to balance security and customer service options, and we want to ensure that our online services are both easy to use and secure. The my Social Security service has always featured a robust verification and authentication process, and it remains safe and secure. We regret any inconvenience you may have experienced.
Who writes like that? If I understand its thrust, the message goes like this.

"The president ordered us to improve our computer security. We were doing only what he told us to do, and we did it very well.

"Unfortunately, you, the people who we were attempting to help, are a bunch of whiny babies who still live in the 19th century. This is the age of Twitter, not of liveried footmen running around delivered perfumed notes. The fact that your eyes roll back in your head reacting to such terms as 'multifactor authentication' and 'consumer financial transactions' proves our point.

"Well, you have complained enough that we are now going to take our jolly good time in protecting your account information. For those few of you who understand how to use a cell phone, you can request a code. And you should.

"Of course, it will not matter because all of your non-connected fellow citizens will be sharing their information directly with Xi and Putin. Yours, too.

"Have a nice day."

But, it gets even better. When I tried to read the announcement on the Social Security web site, I was blocked with this message: "The owner of [Social Security] has configured their website improperly. To protect your information from being stolen, Firefox has not connected to this website."

Now, that hardly instills in me the type of confidence that the bureaublather announcement was targeting. And it puts paid to that reassuring tag line: "
The my Social Security service has always featured a robust verification and authentication process, and it remains safe and secure."

I am not surprised at the rollback. This is almost exactly what happened with the initial electronic registration for Obamacare. The program was put together to amaze computer programmers, and forgot that citizens would be using it.

The good news is that those of us who live in Mexico will now be able to deal with Social Security electronically as if the text-message requirement had never reared its head.

That is, until another new requirement rolls out. And it will.

Monday, August 22, 2016

what's the buzz?

"The heat and the bugs -- in that order."

I was having lunch with an acquaintance who had moved from Melaque before I came down in 2009. He was explaining why he had moved up into the mountains half way to Guadalajara.

He knew how uncomfortable summer heat and humidity could be; he had spent most of his life living in one of those midwestern states that begin and end with a vowel. But knowledge is not always a coping skill. He moved away from that weather, and had no desire to spend his retirement years reliving the title of Jorge Amado’s third novel.*

We didn't talk much about the bugs. But my eight years of living here has proven him correct. We have heat and bugs -- year round. The presence of the ocean offsets that for me. Not for him.

I thought of that conversation this past week. When I walk Barco in the morning, I wear my track suit to fend off the flying midges (what northerners call no-see-ums, and what my neighbors call jejenes). If I don't, the bites of those almost invisible flies will leave my legs looking like two yards of Swiss dot.

The midges have never been a problem at my house. I do get the occasional mosquito at night while I am standing in the pool reading. But I have not seen too many of them -- before last week.

Because we were not heading to the sports park last Monday, I decided to forego my track suit. That was a mistake.

I was convinced I had walked into a re-enactment of the fourth plague of Egypt. There were mosquitoes everywhere -- including on me. At one point, I counted eleven of them on my legs. That was far more than I ever experienced living directly on the laguna in Villa Obreg

Most were marsh mosquitoes -- those pesky runts that remind me of no-see-ums on steroids. But not all. A large portion were Aedes aegypti. I call it the Egyptian mosquito -- simply because I cannot remeber the latin name.

Aedes aegypti is incredibly easy to identify. Just look for those white knees.
They are a nasty piece of work. Not only do they leave large welts behind after their blood feeding, they also carry the virus for some serious diseases. Dengue. Chikungunya. Zika. Yellow Fever.

Yellow fever is not a problem in our area. Nor is Zika -- yet, even though it seems to be working its way up from southern Mexico. Dengue and chikungunya we have aplenty.

For four days, the plague raged. All day long. Most mosquitoes prowl primarily at dawn or dusk -- like the vampires they are. Not these guys. They were willing to fill up on plasma just like a 7-11. 24/7. And they did.

Then, they were gone. Thanks to the marvels of chemistry.

Within two days of the onset, the local spray truck came through the neighborhood. I do not know what cocktail is used for the insecticide, but it works.

The day after he passed through, my courtyard was filled with the carcasses of bees, dragonflies, moths, cockroaches, scorpions, butterflies, beetles, and assorted other insects. Most of my neighbors throw open their doors and windows when the truck passes through to take advantage of the vector control.

Inevitably, the only survivors are the mosquitoes. Or so I thought, until I worked it over in my mind. The spray undoubtedly kills the adult mosquitoes. But, their life cycle is so short, another generation metamorphoses into adults
from their watery nurseries as soon as the truck departs.

But the driver, knowing the wily ways of the mosquito, was back in two days to wipe out that lot.

This week, the mosquitoes were gone. At least, around my house. They still hang out in the sports park. The moisture and grass of the fútbol field are a perfect hangout for them. Plus, the spray truck never reaches them.

Some people cannot deal with the flying midges and the (understandable) fear of
Aedes aegypti. The insects are a nuisance. Sometimes, a frightening nuisance -- especially if Yellow Fever takes another turn on the world stage as it is doing in Africa.

Fortunately, there are self-defense mechanisms. Mine is Off! When I remember to use it. I am one of those people who dislikes the feel of lotions. Hand creams. Sun screen. Massage lotions. (Well. massages in general.) Insect repellent. They are not my natural thing. But they are effective.

Unlike my acquaintance, neither the heat nor the bugs are going to drive me away from what drew me here in the first place -- the beautiful ocean that daily reminds me there are more adventures just over that horizon.

I think I'll stay a few more years.

* -- Sweat, in case you were wondering.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


My blogger buddy Kim loves big cities.

The fact that he has decided to settle in Mexico City makes a lot of sense for him. His blood runs urban.

Not mine. It would stretch the point to call myself a country lad. After all, I love visiting big cities, but, when it comes to choosing a place to live, my preference runs, as the song says, "land spreadin' out so far and wide."

I played with the idea of living in Puerto Vallarta until I realized it had all of the drawbacks of an urban area without any of the cultural amenities. So, I headed south until I ran into Melaque and Barra de Navidad.

Farm living may not be the life for me, but I am a lot closer than I was in Salem. After all, I never would have had two goats greeting me each morning if I still lived in the house on Summer Street. We even had a resident pig for a couple of days until it was invited to be the guest of honor at a big family get-together.

And then there are the chickens. Everywhere.

My neighbors have a rather off-hand approach to raising fowl. A couple of chickens are brought home to be turned lose to fend and forage for themselves. Where there were two chickens, there will soon be a flock of yellow fluff ball chicks. Those who survive will keep the cycle going until there are, as I said, chickens everywhere.

It is the "those who survive" that amazes me. The chickens have no pens or coops. They are truly free range. Wandering through vacant lots and neighbors' lots in search of anything that a chicken might find edible.

The survival rate is low. Anyone who has ever watched a line of ducklings follow her mother on a snapping turtle pond knows what I am talking about. They soon become characters in an Agatha Christie mystery. One duckling will disappear. Then another. Often a forlorn mother duck is left to paddle solo around the pond.

Chicken is on the menu for a lot of local predators. Feral cats. Raccoons. Coatimundi.

But the top hunter is Barco's dog pal Güera. A few months ago, the three of us were out on a walk together. The chickens, for good reason, are wary of four-legged creatures. But they were more intent on breakfast than running away.

That was a mistake. I have seen Güera walk right past the chickens without paying them any notice. This time, she ran at them. They scattered. That must have triggered her basic instinct. She was off after a teenage bird while the rest of the flock clucked and fled.

Güera disappeared around a corner. I called her to stop. But she was gone. I was not too bothered because the chickens appeared to know what they were doing to survive.

Güera knew better. She soon caught up to us with the now-limp chicken in her mouth. Since then, I have seen her dispatch at least a half dozen birds. Barco is impressed.

Up north, Güera would be a dead dog. Dogs who mess with livestock are just minutes from having a bullet between their eyes.

Here? The putative owner of the chickens and Güera's owner seem to accept it as the cycle of life in Mexico. After all, the chicken guy does nothing to raise the birds. I am certain he takes advantage of the eggs and the occasional fryer -- even though I haven't seen him do either.

For me, they are simply part of life and death here on my ever-greener acres.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

golden arches on the beach

The lot has sat empty since I moved to Mexico.

Well, not exactly empty. It has occasionally been used as a parking lot for one of the beach hotels. But the gates' stare toward the street was blank as Botticelli's Aphrodite.

No more. The gate is down and workmen are sweating away in our August heat. Something new is going to be wedged between Rooster's restaurant and the new Kiosko in San Patricio.

I did a little spadework of my own. A lot of property owners are a bit cagey about their building projects. Why? I don't know. But, they are.

My first working hypothesis was that Kiosko's primary convenience store competitor, Oxxo, was building a store cheek to jowl with the Kiosko that popped up last year. But the building footprint did not look right.

Almost anything else could go on that lot. The most obvious candidate would be a couple stories of apartments with retail space below. If I had extra pesos, that would be my bet.

But an acquaintance, who has lived in Barra de Navidad for a couple of decades and sports Mexican citizenship, has a far more novel idea. He had heard about a year ago that McDonald's was going to build a franchise in Melaque -- and this could be it.

I chuckled. That is how rumors get started.

And so is this.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

odds and ends -- tourists, meteors, and air conditioning

The high tide of tourism is about to recede from our villages by the sea.

I have been told this is the last week of school vacations. The children will soon be headed back to their regimen of textbooks and marching.

For the past several weeks, our villages have been filled with SUVs,vans, and tour buses. Most of our visitors come from the surrounding mountains to spend a week, two weeks, or a few days sunburning themselves with pleasure amongst the waves.

Traditionally, Melaque and Barra were destinations for working class families, who would arrive in convoys of buses. They still come.

But a couple of years ago, the mix changed. Large numbers of SUVs started showing up in the first wave -- filled with the statistical average of two parents and two children. All of them turned out in the latest designer label casual wear. They were perfect representatives of a Mexican economy that was expanding. For some. And a reminder that Mexico ha the 15th largest economy in the world.

My impression this summer has been that the number of visitors was quite high. Around here, we tend to use Christmas and semana santa (Easter week) as the top benchmark for tourists. For the full school summer vacation, it appeared we were celebrating an extended semana santa. The business people I have talked with say it was a good season.

But it is now almost over. Before everyone leaves, though, there is an event we can all enjoy tomorrow night -- free.

Tomorrow will be one of the best meteorite showers of the year -- the Perseid meteors. Earth is passing through the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet. Tomorrow it will be encountering one of the thickset parts in years. The patient will be able to see up to 200 meteorites an hour.

In our area, the moon will set around 1:45 AM. That will be the optimum time to see the most "falling stars." If you stand looking true north, the best view will be slightly to your right.

Happy watching.

1:45 AM is a good time for me. We are not only in peak tourist season, we are in peak summer heat season -- or, at least, the start of it. September should be hotter yet.

Barco is struggling with the heat. For his sake, I have decided to have air conditioning installed in my bedroom.

The contractor, who built this house as her dream home, had the foresight to plumb the walls for air conditioning. Had she not done that, the installer would have been forced to drill from the roof of the pavilion upstairs, through two stories of concrete, to install the regulator in my bedroom and the compressor on the roof.

With this information, I can now hire an installer to give me an estimate. I would be less than honest if I told you I was not looking forward to reducing the humidity in my bedroom.

But, tomorrow night, I will have a good reason to be up late (along with a large group of Mexican tourists) watching one of nature's truly spectacular shows. I can watch from the swimming pool.

Barco will be asleep.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

lyndon b. trump

"I am willing to let any objective historian look at my record. If I can't do more than anyone else to help my country, I'll quit."

The sentence made me stop reading my Kindle to see if I had accidentally opened a political column in The Oregonian. Nope. I was still reading my latest installment in my presidential biography project.
Robert Dallek's Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President (an abridgment of his two-volume biography).

The quotation is pure Johnson. He had stopped in Alaska in 1967 on his way to Asia, and was reassuring the public he was the man to stop the war in Vietnam while he simultaneously wiped out discrimination and poverty in The States.

On that same trip, he visited the troops in Vietnam. While crossing the airfield to board Marine One, the Air Force protocol officer told him: "Sir, your helicopter is over here." Johnson looked the young officer straight in the eye, and swept his hand across the air
field: "Son, they're all my helicopters."

This is another election cycle where we hear political commentators, hoping we are deceived into believing they are in the know, telling us there has never been an election like this. Admittedly, there have been some odd events this year. But the oversized egos of both candidates certainly are not new.

Lyndon Johnson often makes Donald Trump's outrageous comments look entirely amateur. LBJ was a political wizard wrapped in the crassness of a Texas hill country rancher.

That is one of the advantages of studying past presidents and campaigns. It helps us to put matters in perspective.

Not that the perspective makes my concerns this year disappear. I did not like Lyndon Johnson's Great Leader rhetoric that was dialed just one notch south of being
Kim Il-sung. Trump's ("I'm the guy") is not much better.

Several of our presidents have suffered from the man-on-the-white-horse syndrome. In their minds, only they can save us from the forces of evil that besiege the people. I suspect a person could not be in politics without suffering from that heresy, which is the polar opposite of the philosophy espoused in the Declaration of Independence.

And they are exactly the people who we should not choose as leaders. Both of this year's political candidates are advocates of the heresy. 

By the way, I do not recommend the abridged version of Dallek's biography. Whoever edited it did a terrible job. Names pop up without any introduction. I assume the transition paragraphs had simply been removed without regard to the information they contained.

At one moment, we are talking about Ambassador Lodge, and, all of a sudden, Bunker pops up -- without any introduction. Maybe we are simply to remember the news from the 1960s.

He makes a passing reference to Johnson's belief that the Castro brothers were involved in John Kennedy's assassination, something I already knew. But Dallek offers no support why Johnson believed this interesting theory. Of course, people believe all sorts of crazy things about the Kennedy assassination, but we do not need to trot out the denizens of the fever swamp here -- or in the comments.

That now leaves me with only one more dead president biography to read: Warren Harding. And it is on its way to me in the mail.

Until I finish the project, I am going to do what I can to avoid the Punch and Judy show on offer in The States.