El Gringoqueño

All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Author: Jim (page 1 of 47)

So What Laws did the College Admissions Scandal Folks Break?

We’ve all been following the story of the college admissions bribery scheme. The reporters have continued to call it bribery and fraud without actually saying what laws were broken. It drives me nuts, because by themselves bribery and fraud or lying (except in specific contexts) are generally civil matters or not against the law at all. I can pass a waiter $20 to get a better table. Is that bribery? Yes, yes it is. Is it a crime? No.

There are other situations where bribery or lying are decidedly not crimes. Are they unethical? Sure, but criminal they are not. In many cases, things will get you fired. You violated a policy. You accepted a bribe for special treatment for a client. You get fired. The company may sue you for damages, but generally law enforcement doesn’t get involved.

So, I ask, what was the crime that Huffman and the rest committed? If people can donate directly to the school in a quid pro quo fashion to gain admittance for their children, how were these modest sums resulting in substantial federal charges for basically the same behavior?

Why are they throwing the book at these people?

Felicity Huffman, “pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud for paying $15,000 to have a proctor correct her eldest daughter’s SAT answers in 2017.

Because they used the mail.

If they had conducted these transactions in person only, they probably would have been okay, but because they mailed things and conducted the unethical behavior using the USPS, it’s now a Federal crime.

It really doesn’t seem fair to me honestly. Were they stupid? Yes. Are they terrible people? Yes. But these laws were meant to stop perpetrators of schemes to defraud retired Americans, stop multi-level marketing schemes, Nigerian prince, and other wholesale theft schemes. In my mind it’s a pretty big stretch to say these individuals deprived others of services. It’s an embarrassing episode, they should suffer repercussions, but I find the spectacle unnecessary and a waste of Federal resources.

9/11 Never Forget

It’s everywhere – all day long, “Never Forget.” I must admit it rubs me the wrong way and raises a question.

What are we never supposed to forget? Our anger? Who did it? The buildings? The lives lost? The endless war that followed? The thousands killed on that day and the millions more killed in the subsequent years? Is it a moment fixed in time that we are not supposed to forget, or is it the slow drag through time and in perpetuity of that thing called endless war?

Of all those things, I suppose the lives lost and the heroes rushing toward the disaster is the best “never forget” subject. I will remember the innocent people killed in a senseless attack, but we don’t really have to be so forceful with the “never forget” business. It sounds vengeful to me, which is why I suspect there’s an implicit “never forgive” there too.

If we need to heal and remembering is part of that healing, then I’m all for it, but I can’t help but think we are using the phrase to steel our resolve and appetite for endless war.

What I remember, and probably will never forget is how I felt in the days and weeks following the attack. Besides having my Reserve Army unit activated, I knew that we were going down the wrong path, that the US had thrown itself, foaming at the mouth, into a frenzy of bombs and troops and more young lives lost.

For what?

So we wouldn’t forget, stupid!

The Way Things Fail

Back in engineering school, we were taught all sorts of things, materials, statics, dynamics, math, factors of safety, design, even a little bit of public policy. We were taught to look for causes of failure, whether human (design, operation), fatigue, or even an act of nature. We walked through case studies of engineering disasters like detectives.

The takeaway: you can’t engineer away failure, and the cause of failure is rarely one thing.

In these case studies, there were usually small errors compounded by something unforeseen. Perhaps there was a bureaucratic process, a cost cutting measure, an edge case condition, and bam! you have achieved critical failure. How did it happen? Well, the pilot feel asleep. No that’s not it. The pilot fell asleep and there was a freak storm with tropical moisture at high altitude. No that’s not it, try again. The pilot fell asleep, there was a freak storm with high tropical moisture, which caused the air speed sensor to ice over and the junior pilot wasn’t able to deduce the problem with sufficient time to avert the tragedy of Air France Flight 447. We’ve got design flaws. We’ve got training flaws. We’ve got procedure flaws. We’ve got acts of God, all mixed up in a delicious failure soup.

The consistent commonality in these case studies was the fact that things go wrong. They will go wrong, and you should expect them to go wrong. See Murphy’s Law. Armed with this new knowledge, engineers must now ask themselves how they want fail. The engineer of the product or solution, must consider the modes of failure, how a thing may fail. It seems strange to plan for failure, doesn’t it? But you must, because you need to be able to control whether it will it fail gracefully or blow up in your face?

Take the design of cars, for example. In the mid 20th century, cars were built as steel behemoths. No seat belts. Limited crumple zones. No air bags. We built cars, and we expected them to be rigid and sturdy. Engineers, unfortunately, underrepresented the driver and passenger systems, and the systems of other cars and drivers in their designs. What happens to a car when comes into contact with another? Engineers should have taken a holistic approach to the automobile, considering it as part of a complex and unpredictable system. They should have considered that cars were going to crash and crash badly. Just because a car’s intended mode of operation is not impacting other cars, doesn’t mean you don’t design for it.

The result in 1972 was almost 55,000 traffic fatalities; 55,000 people dead because cars were under engineered for failure modes.

Fast forward to mass shootings in these recent years. “It’s mental illness!” “It’s family values!” “It’s right-wing extreme ideologies!” “It’s video games! It’s toxic masculinity!”

Many of the mass shootings touch on these characteristics, and it would be easy to blame one thing. Maybe all of them and things we hadn’t considered are to blame for the desperate and aberrant outcomes we have witnessed recently. You are not wrong, but you’re hand waving. Remember our friend Murphy? “But but, cars aren’t supposed to crash! The driver was drunk. The driver was inattentive, going too fast. The road was poorly designed. The car was unsafe.” All of those things may be true, and yet still you’re addressing the accident as preventable instead of probable. American drivers experience on average one accident per every 165,000 miles driven. It’s probable that a driver will experience one or more accidents in their lifetimes. We can work to mitigate risk factors, but like an ashtray in an airplane lavatory, we have to assume some people are going to do the wrong thing.

But back to mass shooters – Maybe we have areas of sickness in our society. Certain facets of personal liberty and individualism create easy targets of isolated individuals looking to belong to something.

Whatever it is, I ask the following question: If you can’t stop car accidents from happening, shouldn’t you still look to control how they happen?

If mental illness, distressed individuals, violent video games, social isolation, and childhood abuse can lead to desperate acts, don’t you want to control how they happen?

We know weapons are not the cause of these terrible tragedies, but they do increase the severity of the failure. When things go wrong, there are no crumple zones. There is no air bag. There is no seat belt. There is only an AR-15 style weapon with a extended magazine.

El Paso Shooting

From his manifesto:

“Even if other non-immigrant targets would have a greater impact, I can’t bring myself to kill my fellow Americans.” The manifesto writer said he supported the Christchurch shooting citing the “Great Replacement” anti-immigration theory postured there. The writer says that his hatred of immigrants predates Trump so “don’t blame” the president.

Would this guy really have had to disavow Trump’s influence if their values didn’t coincide?

Hey guys, I thought of violence against immigrants first, so don’t give credit to Trump [even though we’re pretty much in lockstep with what we’d like to achieve, an America devoid of brown people].

Absolves Trump? I think it indicts him as morally complicit.

It’s Not Magic Folks – Recontextualizing the Precolombian

I had the privilege recently of visiting the Yucatán in México for a Suzuki music conference in Cancún. Jaimito and I and the group took the time to tourist around, visiting Mayan temples, ruins, learning the history, and the past and current political realities of the people. I have more to say on that, but I’d like to start with two particular things that really stuck out to me. Both of them reminded me that we humans are not so different, separated by time, distance, and culture.

First, the Yucatán is an arid place, dotted with limestone sink holes called cenotes. These water filled holes are entrance points to a vast reservoir system that runs beneath. Rains have been somewhat regular, but sparse and hard to predict for centuries.

Keep that in mind.

The other: The Mayan people were a highly developed organized society with a mature and systematized knowledge of agriculture, astronomy, and government. They were not the blood thirsty primitives portrayed in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (they hate that movie, by the way).

In Chichén Itzá I came face to face with something startling, a temple to the stars.

What does this remind you of?

It’s literally just an observatory, and even more incredible is that it looks just like modern observatories. These buildings and the others are well over 1,000 years old. What was Europe doing at this time?

The observatory was used to study the skies, predict cycles, determine when to plant, when to hold ritual celebrations. Think about it. This structure was practical. It was constructed at great expense, deliberately, with great precision to have a view of Venus and the stars and to track their paths across the sky. The structure wasn’t decorative. It wasn’t thrown together. It was engineered and constructed to last (over a 1,000 years and counting), all so that the Mayan people could understand their world better.

Science. Not magic. Not superstition. Not spirits and bogeymen. It was an achievement akin to the Greeks of the ancient world, the Arabs during their Golden Age, and later to the Europeans of the Renaissance.

Let’s leave that for a bit and head to the ruins of Tulún.

Temple to the Wind

This structure was described to us as the Temple to the Wind. I got chills when I saw it. It dawned on me that the word “temple” isn’t spiritual in our modern sensibilities of the separation of the physical and the so-called spiritual. Temple to the wind here is very clearly the place where they study the wind, the place wherein the knowledge of the wind is contained and studied. Knowledge may be communicated as spiritual, to know the essence of something, to own it, is as much a spiritual as a practical experience.

Look at it. Look at the palm trees bending in the wind. It was placed on a small peninsula jutting out to sea. It reminds me of a weather station. From this point, they would have the most advanced knowledge of coming hurricanes, changes in wind direction, temperature, and perhaps atmospheric pressure.

Learning about the Mayan people, seeing their land, putting myself in their context gave me tremendous respect for their accomplishments.

Less a bloodthirsty, primitive people for whom the world was a mystery to be feared, and whose response was resorting to human sacrifice and bloodshed to survive, I saw an organized, thoughtful people using science to support their civilization through observation and study.

If we call it superstition or belief in supernatural mojo, that’s on us, ’cause that’s not what I saw.

A Conversation I Have Had

“Europe? What does Europe have? We have the best of everything. I wouldn’t change America for Europe. They have stupid policies – socialist idiots who are driving themselves into poverty with free stuff.”

After a bit, the talk turns to immigration.

“We should be able to police our borders. Just try to get into a European country. Remember how hard it was for you to get a work visa in Spain? And you had skills. They had policies that chose their own people first. We should be able to do the same. We’re idiots for letting all these immigrants into the country.”

“I thought Europeans didn’t have any policies you admired”

Hope in the Face of Inevitable Loss

I tear up when “En Mi Viejo San Juan” is sung or played. I don’t know why. The song is a nostalgic lamentation from the point of view of a Puerto Rican living in the diaspora, far away from their beloved homeland, a reluctant refugee from their true love, their home. They hope one day to return to their beautiful isla, Borinquen.

Pero el tiempo pasó | But time passed by
Y el destino burló | and destiny mocked
Mi terrible nostalgia | my terrible nostalgia,
Y no pude volver | and I couldn’t return
Al San Juan que yo amé | to the San Juan that I loved,
Pedacito de patria | little piece of my land.

Mi cabello blanqueo | My hair whitened
Ya mi vida se va | and my life fades away
Ya la muerte me llame | and death calls for me,
Y no quiero morir | and I don’t want to die
Alejado de tí | away from you
Puerto Rico del alma, adiós | Puerto Rico of the soul.

My son, Jaimito made an observation after he had played it in a small ensemble recently. “Daddy, it’s funny, you’re not even Puerto Rican, and you have not left or plan to leave.”

“I don’t know what it is, Jaimito. You’re right. Why does that song hit me so hard?” I laughed, wiping my tears. “Damn these onions.”

I’ve reflected, and I think I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, I get emotional because everybody else does. This song never fails to impact a group of Puerto Ricans especially older. I cannot, not be impacted by the emotions of others. Like a contagious yawn, I think of all the scattered families, the years and distance between them, the struggles of making it in a new place, the worry of those in the mainland when calamity befalls others on the island. We will return, they say, and they hold out hope that we will be together again on their beautiful island.

And that leads me to the second and perhaps deeper significance in the song. An essentially hopeful and spiritual people, I can’t also help but reflect that the song touchs at what drives us all forward, keeps us going.

Hope.

Although, we know in our rational mind that the outcome is hopeless, our heart, our spirits will that it be not so.  This song captures it perfectly – hope in the face of inevitable loss.

One of these things is not like the others

Trump Tweet: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”

Later in a round table discussion on the economy, Trump called Notre Dame “one of the great treasures of the world,” and said it “looks like it’s burning to the ground.”

Less than a month ago, 3 historically black churches in Louisiana were torched by a white nationalist terrorist, the 21 year old son of a local sheriff.

*crickets*

Trump initially expressed sorrow and solidarity for the victims of the massacre at a mosque in New Zealand. Recounting a conversation she held with him, New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern said, “He asked what support the U.S. could provide. My message was sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”

*crickets*

Technology, Culture, and Knowledge Ownership

I’ve written about this topic before, that owning and using a technology is more than just purchasing it, but I’d like to delve further into this general topic using the Boeing 737 Max as a departure point.

But first, a little bit of backstory.

When Laura and I lived in the Basque Country I learned an interesting concept. An euskaldun is a person who has the Basque language, Euskera. The morpheme -dun connotes ownership, to have and to own, but it goes deeper than that. It’s an intrinsic “have” that is more than simple acquisition. It’s the kind of ownership an inventor has, or someone who was born into something. English speakers might use the word, “native” to communicate a similar sentiment. The Basques have various words for describing those who are new speakers of Euskera, those that are fluent, perhaps even perfect, but were not born to it. The -dun communicates an intrinsic knowledge that cannot be separated from the person. You know it, you own it, it is a part of you.

The term helps us, I think, when we consider how to design technology exported for use outside of whatever culture. It would also be important to consider the hidden biases and assumptions baked into a product whether it be software or a jet aircraft or software on a jet aircraft. No matter how much we try, exported invention and knowledge will always contain unexpected challenges to those that use it outside of its native context.

Let’s put this all in the context of commercial aircraft operation in the US. The US has the largest military air force in the world. The US has the highest quantity of pilots and ex-pilots. The US invented the airplane. There are certain assumptions that go into aircraft operation, like there’s a good chance that the pilot has spent some time in the air force, has flown many types of air craft, is male, is white, and is older and more experienced. But it also goes without saying that the aircraft was probably designed for him by people that look like him. Engineers have long struggled with biased assumptions in design.

I have confronted numerous challenges trying to integrate technology knowledge in Puerto Rico among non-native English speakers. There are cultural and social factors that play a role in how a person sees and uses the object. If it wasn’t birthed from their values, their assumptions, and their social construct, there will always be unexpected gaps. The best they can do is to learn to adapt themselves to its construct and its context. The Puerto Rican people are very adept at context switching between two cultures and languages, but it’s still a band-aid solution.

Back to the Ethiopian Air 737 Max crash. Boeing has said, that “…experienced 737 pilots needed little training for the new Max 8.” What is an experienced pilot? Is Boeing basing this recommendation on what it knows about American pilots, that they are generally more experienced and older?

Boeing engineer says, “Yeah, if it gets dicey, flip the switch and turn off the MCAS system. It’s really not necessary anyway, Bill, it’s mostly to make you feel better about the new handling characteristics of airframe.”

We now know that there were incidents where the MCAS system had responded adversely in US airspace. The pilots turned the system off and filed a complaint. No crashes, but it pissed off a few pilots.

It may also be the case that US manufacturers all ordered the optional second redundant sensor model. Other carriers around the world may have less money or may interpret “optional” in a different way. Optional may mean unnecessary to them. How optional is it? Well, apparently it’s only optional if you don’t care if your plane stays in the air.

So we go down the list, how well written was the training manual? Was it translated properly into Ethiopian? What was that person’s cultural knowledge? Was it not translated at all, relying on the Ethiopian engineers’ knowledge of English? I can tell you first hand, that no matter how well you speak/write in a second language, there will always be gaps. I have done a master’s degree in Spanish, have lived in Puerto Rico for over 20 years, and there are still things I learn every day, things that my kids already know at a high school level. So, in order for our Ethiopian pilots to have the same performance characteristics as our American native pilots, they would have to have complete and total ownership over the culture of flying, American specific cultural nuance, all the tacit and implicit meanings of the terms found in technical manuals, and the assumptions made in order to achieve parity. It’s a tall order, and even if our Ethiopian pilots were twice as talented, twice as smart, and bilingual they are still hamstrung by a technology they didn’t invent and they don’t own. Their knowledge no matter how spectacular will be degraded by a context and assumptions that are not their own.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

So in the spirit of St. Patrick’s day, Laura whipped up a delicious dish of corned beef and cabbage. The interesting part was the conversation about how the dish came to be, what goes in it, and the dynamic of families that might have shared it together. We meditated on the Irish immigrant families in America that didn’t have access to their preferred pork, and suffering economic hardships, resorted to using cabbage as way to extend the cheap and somewhat familiar corned beef. Add some onions, carrots, and potatoes and it’s a complete and healthy meal.

“You know,” Laura observed, “I just cannot believe that nobody mentioned garlic in this dish.”

“I know, who doesn’t put garlic in a dish like that. It’s sacrilegious,” I replied. “Throw it in. It’s a family dish.”

“Should I add some corn?”

“Oh yeah, definitely, a hint of sweetness, and a native American staple, peasant food with a dash of this and a dash of that, borrowed, available, and left over.”

It doesn’t necessarily look great, but ours was delicious.

The verdict: I don’t know about you, but I could happily survive on family style poverty food.

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