30 April 2013

Antique heroes

Rico wonders if, after enough years have passed, whether the Russians will ever look back fondly on the Old Bolsheviks as we do our Founding Fathers: as quaint revolutionaries who overthrew a tyrant, but whose time has come and gone. (We may have George Washington on the quarter, but they probably won't put Lenin back on the ruble...) They may, of course, view them as we do Jefferson Davis and the other Confederates; failed revolutionaries who didn't chose the right side...

Taken by servicemen

Rico says his friend Dave forwards these:

A balloon on a long string

Jason Bittel has a Slate article about new technology:
Robert Fulghum allegedly once wrote: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” (It was either him, or the bumper of a Honda Civic.) Well, I don’t know about the education budget or the going rate for gingersnaps, but I can tell you that the armed forces are indeed cutting back. As evidence, their newest weapon to combat drug smuggling in the Caribbean is a balloon on a really long string.
Okay, the balloon is actually the Aerostar TIF-25K—a helium-filled surveillance device equipped with cameras and sensors. The Aerostar can fly at altitudes of up to two thousand feet and is tethered to a Navy ship below. Though it’s a rather frill-less technology that’s been around for decades, the blimp boosts each ship’s radar range to fifty miles from five miles. It can even identify vessels up to fifteen miles away. Once the Aerostar detects something fishy, the Navy can then launch an unmanned aircraft system named Puma AE (photo) to get a closer look.
The Puma is no Predator. Its wingspan is just nine feet, and it’s launched by hand, but it too is packed with goodies like electro-optical and infrared cameras. The basic premise is that the combination of the Aerostar and the Puma will allow the Navy to gather intelligence about potential drug smugglers without leaving the ship. This is a huge boon as every time we send boarding crews out on false alarms we’re wasting time and resources that could be spent on the real bad guys.
According to The Associated Press, nobody’s saying exactly what the Aerostar/Puma tag team costs or how much it will save the American taxpayers, just that “each can be run at a fraction of the cost of the fixed-wing planes or helicopters usually dispatched to check out suspected smugglers.” These non-specifics were given last week when the Navy invited select media aboard the High Speed Vessel Swift for a demonstration. (The AP notes that on its first landing attempt, the Puma missed the 321-foot deck and plopped into the ocean, which must have been sort of awkward. At least it’s waterproof.)
Old-fashioned as it might sound, blimps aren’t out of place in today’s military. Before taking on anti-smuggling duty, both Aerostar and Puma did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in 2010, the Army commissioned three Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicles. (Don’t even get us started about the sperm-shaped blimps flying over Nevada last year.)
With the Navy forced to reduce patrols in Latin America, such low-cost/high-reward technologies seem like a good way to maintain effectiveness on the high seas. And maybe, if the Navy proves they can save their money and take care of these little blimps and hand-held drones, we’ll all chip in and get them the autonomous UFOs they really want.
Rico says ain't technology cool?

Virgin Galactic spaceship

Two articles about the Virgin spaceship (photos), the first by Raquel Maria Dillon in Time:

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo made its first powered flight recently, breaking the sound barrier in a test over the Mojave Desert that moves the company closer to its goal of flying paying passengers on brief hops into space.
“It couldn’t have gone more smoothly,” said Sir Richard Branson, who owns the spaceline with Aabar Investments PJC of Abu Dhabi. A special twin-fuselage jet carrying SpaceShipTwo took off at about 7:00 am PDT, spent 45 minutes climbing to an altitude of 48,000 feet and released the spaceship. Pilot Mark Stucky and co-pilot Mike Alsbury then triggered SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine. The engine burned for sixteen seconds, propelling the spaceship to an altitude of 55,000 feet and a velocity of Mach 1.2, surpassing the speed of sound. SpaceShipTwo then glided to a safe landing at Mojave Air and Space Port in the desert north of Los Angeles, said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO.
The ten-minute test flight was considered a major step for the program. “Having spaceship and rocket perform together in the air is a long way toward getting into space,” said Branson, who watched from the ground. “A few more test flights with slightly bigger burns every time, and then we’ll all be back here to watch it go into space.”
Until this flight, SpaceShipTwo had only performed unpowered glide flights. Several powered flights are planned this summer, culminating with a dash into space toward the end of the year. SpaceShipTwo is a prototype commercial version of SpaceShipOne, which, in 2004, became the first privately developed manned rocket to reach space. Since the historic flight, more than five hundred aspiring space tourists have paid $200,000, or plunked down deposits, patiently waiting for a chance to float in weightlessness and view the Earth’s curvature from 62 miles up.
Branson initially predicted commercial flights would begin in 2007, but a deadly explosion during ground testing and longer-than-expected test flights pushed the deadline back. No date has been set for the first commercial flight from a custom-designed spaceport in New Mexico, but Virgin Galactic executives have said it will come after testing is complete and it secures approval from the government. Branson previously said the maiden passenger flight will carry his family.
SpaceShipTwo was built by Mojave-based aerospace research company Scaled Composites LLC, which was founded by cutting-edge aviation designer Burt Rutan. His SpaceShipOne, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, made three suborbital flights into space, reaching altitudes of 62 miles (a hundred kilometers) or greater, and won the ten million dollar Ansari X Prize.

and the second by Phil Plait in Slate
Humanity took another small step forward yesterday: Virgin Galactic performed a successful powered test flight of its space plane, SpaceShipTwo (or SS2).
The rocketplane was lofted to a height of 14,600 meters (48,000 feet) by its mothership (White Knight Two), released, and then the rocket motor kicked in. The rocketplane then went to an altitude of about 17,000 meters (56,000 feet), breaking the speed of sound to achieve a velocity of Mach 1.22. The flight lasted thirteen minutes, with SS2 gliding back to the spaceport in New Mexico from where it was launched. This was a critical test, the first powered flight using the rocket motor, and it apparently went quite well.
Virgin Galactic plans on taking paying customers to space using SS2 (and four other rocketplanes based on it built by the same company, Scaled Composites). Like this test flight, they’ll be carried aloft by a plane, released, and then launched into a ballistic parabola, reaching a height of over a hundred kilometers— by definition, the boundary of space. The spaceplane will then arc back down, and when it’s low enough it will simply glide back to the spaceport.
Here's a short video with some footage of the flight, and a promo by Sir Richard Branson:

Like what you saw? Wanna take a ride? Tickets are $200,000 each, so there you go. Still, Virgin Galactic has sold a lot of seats, including several to researchers. A hundred kilometers is high enough, and three to four minutes of weightlessness long enough, to get some good science done. And it’s a lot cheaper than a standard rocket flight.
I’ve heard some grumbling about this, mostly from people who think it’s just a toy for the rich. I don’t see that. First, as I pointed out, there is good science to be done here. Second, everything starts off expensive; the first passenger airplanes cost a fortune and tickets weren’t cheap. Eventually, as tech gets better and flights more routine, prices drop. Certainly there is a minimum cost to a flight like this, and it’ll be dear, but it will be within reach of a lot of people.
And remember, we’re just starting out here. Eventually, this tech can lead to better rockets, easier access to space, and other benefits we don’t see just yet. That’s usually the case when it comes to space exploration.
There isn’t enough money in the world to strap me into one of those planes— I get sick on a kid’s swing set— but I am a hundred percent behind this sort of thing. Let Virgin, let SpaceX, let Orbital, let Sierra Nevada, and let all the others blaze this trail to space. Humans may have evolved on this planet, but that doesn’t mean we have to stick around here forever.
Rico says he won't be saving his nickels for this ride, either; he won't even get on a swing set...

Apple for the day

Jared Newman has a Time article about the new iOS:

The odds are looking good that Apple will ditch the textured, bubbly look of its iOS software in favor of something more modern. Citing “multiple people who have either seen or have been briefed” on iOS 7, 9to5Mac reports that the software for iPhones and iPads will sport a flatter look:
The new interface is said to be ‘very, very flat,’ according to one source. Another person said that the interface loses all signs of gloss, shine, and skeuomorphism seen across current and past versions of iOS. Another source framed the new OS as having a level of ‘flatness’ approaching recent releases of Microsoft’s Windows Phone ‘Metro’ user interface.
We’ve heard a similar story before. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, was pushing for a flatter look across iOS.
A few questions come to mind:
Given that both Windows Phone and Android have pushed toward modern software aesthetics, this seems like a rare instance where Apple is following the pack. Can Apple flatten out iOS in a way that seems fresh and original?
How big of a shift will this be for users? Will user-interface elements work differently, or is this strictly an aesthetic change?
To what extent will the changes affect third-party apps, and how much work will they have to do to flatten out their own software?
We’ll likely find out on 10 June, when Apple kicks off its Worldwide Developers Conference. The company is promising an “in-depth look at what’s next in iOS and OS X” during the event.

Rico says he doubts that Apple will 'follow the pack'...

Rich people for the day

Damien Cave has an article in The New York Times about a Mexican bitch with money:
Andrea Benítez simply did what many rich, connected Mexicans have always done: she used her influence to step on the lower-born. Witnesses said that when she was not given the table she wanted at Maximo Bistrot, a popular Mexico City restaurant, she called in inspectors, who worked for her father at the country’s main consumer protection agency, to shut it down. “Dreadful service,” she wrote on Twitter, before announcing she had arrived at the agency to complain. “They have no manners.”
What followed, however, caught much of Mexico by surprise. Instead of enjoying the perks of privilege, Benítez and her father have become the targets of a broad and swift social media campaign— with tens of thousands of messages condemning them— that led the President’s office to announce a formal investigation into allegations of abuse of power.
This kind of response, it must be said, is exceedingly rare in Mexico. Murders are routinely ignored by the authorities here, and increasingly by senior officials who would prefer to discuss other topics. But the food at Maximo Bistrot apparently has the capacity to ignite public rage and government action like little else.
To many of its fans, the restaurant is the Chez Panisse of Mexico City, a gastro-paradise of fresh ingredients delivered with innovation for (relatively) affordable prices, in a simple dining room often populated by stars, from Mexican actors to visiting luminaries like Patti Smith. It is one of many new restaurants that have sought to reinvent Mexican cuisine, taking advantage of both a booming economy and the fact that food is an economic exception— one of the only industries where Mexico’s monopolistic tendencies do not hold sway.
Many of the restaurant’s regular patrons said the young Benítez clearly miscalculated, by assuming that all the smartphone owners at dinner would let her get away with such behavior. “It’s such blatant corruption that’s right in our faces,” said Max St. Romain, 42, a filmmaker who saw the inspectors slap an enormous 'suspension of activities' sticker on Maximo Bistrot that night. “It’s a connection to the corruption that ruled Mexico for decades— the fact that a child of someone in power can use it just on a whim, on a tantrum.”
Twitter users immediately gave Benítez a hashtag: #LadyProfeco. Profeco is the abbreviated version of the office that her father directs, and Lady referred back to another recent incident labeled #LadiesDePolanco, when some drunken young women in the posh neighborhood of Polanco were caught on video berating police officers for being “salary men”. Twitter has logged around 42,000 messages referring to #LadyProfeco in every manner of vulgar insult.
Benítez’ father, Humberto Benítez Treviño, eventually apologized, releasing a statement declaring that his daughter had exaggerated, prompting inspectors to overreact.
The Net vigilantism, nonetheless, has not let up. Few of the Benítezes’ critics seem to expect a real investigation, so they are again turning to digital outrage and humor. One artist even turned Lady Profeco into a satirical comic book heroine: “Is there a business that’s given you bad service?” she is depicted as saying on the cover. “Talk to me and I’ll tell my daddy to shut it down.”
Rico says you know you're doomed when you show up on a comic book...

Art history for the day

Nina Siegal has an article in The New York Times about Van Gogh:
The Bedroom, Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting, with its honey-yellow bed pressed into the corner of a cozy sky-blue room, is instantly recognizable to art lovers, with his signature contrasting hues. But does our experience of this painting change upon learning that van Gogh had originally depicted those walls in violet, not blue, or that he was less a painter wrestling with his demons and more of a deliberate, goal-oriented artist?
These questions are raised by a new analysis, eight years in the making, of hundreds of van Gogh s canvases as well as his palette, pigments, letters and notebooks by scientists at Shell, the oil company, in collaboration with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency and curators at the newly renovated Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which owns the world’s largest collection of works by that Dutch Post Impressionist.
The research did not lead to “earth-shattering new insights” that rewrite van Gogh’s life story, said the director of the Van Gogh Museum, Axel Rüger, but it could shift the understanding of van Gogh’s temperament and personality. The results of that study will be revealed in an exhibition, Van Gogh at Work, which opened recently and features about two hundred paintings and drawings, 150 of them by van Gogh and others by contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard.
“You discover more clearly that van Gogh was a very methodical artist, which runs counter to the general myth that he was a manic, possibly slightly deranged man who just spontaneously threw paint at the canvas,” Rüger said. “He was actually someone who knew very well about the properties of the materials he used, how to use them, and also he created very deliberate compositions. In that sense it’s a major insight in that it gives us a better notion of van Gogh the artist. He was very goal-oriented.”
By using an electron microscope and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, which reveals the parts of pigments without taking invasive samples, researchers found that, early on, van Gogh used perspective frames as a guide, and drew on the canvas to correctly render proportions and depth of field in his landscapes. Later, as he gained mastery, he abandoned these grids. Like many artists, he reworked certain paintings repeatedly to perfect his desired effect. The most important insight was into his palette, said Nienke Bakker, curator of the show. “We now know much more about the pigments van Gogh used and how they might’ve changed color over time,” Bakker said. “That’s crucial to our understanding of his works, and to know better how to treat them. The colors are still very vibrant, but they would have been even brighter— especially the reds. Some of the reds were much brighter or have completely disappeared since he painted them.”
Ralph Haswell, principal scientist at Shell Global Solutions here, which made its lab facilities and researchers available to the museum, said that, at the turn of the twentieth century, artists had just started buying pigments off the shelf rather than mixing them in the studio. “One of the disadvantages of living in a very changing environment, where pigments were very new, was that they didn’t always know how things would turn out,” he said. “The chemical industry was growing hugely, and they came up with all kinds of colors, but you never knew how long they would remain stable. Some pigments weren’t stable.” That was the case with van Gogh's violet, used to depict the walls of his room in Arles. Because the red in the purple paint faded prematurely, probably even during van Gogh’s lifetime, it left behind only the blue with which it had been mixed.
That may have been fine with van Gogh, Bakker said, since the largely self-taught artist didn’t regard any of his work as final. He saw pieces as studies that helped him find his style. “He wanted to express his individual way of seeing the world, and every work of art he made was moving him toward that goal,” Bakker said, “but he was never satisfied.”
The original hue— though seemingly a minor change— presents a more soothing image, said Marije Vellekoop, head of collections, research, and presentation for the Van Gogh Museum. The purple and yellow are “not a harsh contrast as we think of now,” she said. “That was something he wanted to express in that picture: tranquillity and a sense of rest.” In color theory, Vellekoop said, purple and yellow are complementary contrasts. “Theoretically they have to reinforce each other,” she said. “For me, the purple walls in the bedroom make it a softer image. It confirms that he was sticking to the traditional color theory, using purple and yellow, and not blue and yellow.”
In other paintings the disappearance of the reds had different consequences. For example, in images of blossoming fruit trees, blossoms are now white that were once pink, because the red faded away. That might lead to changing the identification of the type of tree depicted, Vellekoop said. In a way, his use of complementary colors places van Gogh strictly in the traditions of his time. Although he was radical in his use of bright colors, she said, “he follows the traditional color theory that was already written down in the first half of the nineteenth century,” she said, adding, “A lot of his artist friends were reading those books,” but didn’t use the pigments so boldly.
Van Gogh experimented with different techniques to applying color that were used by his contemporaries, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who thinned out his paints and used flat colors. Van Gogh also briefly followed the Pointillists, whose images were built up from many dabs of color. The high-contrast colors of van Gogh’s later paintings are associated with the moment when he came into his own as an artist, developing his own style, in the last couple of years of his life.
The fact that he may have used an even brighter palette, with more reds and purples, indicates that his work may have been closer to that of his friend Paul Gauguin. In that sense, his color choices might have been safer and less iconoclastic than we might imagine.
But, Vellekoop said, the new color insights don’t necessarily change our view of his psychology. “I don’t think it says anything about his state of mind,” she said. “In Arles, he was using a lot of colors and he was very optimistic about life and his future and his possibilities of selling his work.”
He was also looking forward to Gauguin’s coming to ArlesVellekoop said, but he was almost manic about it. “When the cooperation with Gauguin failed, and he was in the asylum, and he becomes more somber and depressed, his colors changed, he goes more towards the ochers, different shades of green and browns,” she said. “A more subdued palette. We do associate color with his state of mind, of course, but it’s not like the more blue, the more depressed he was.”
Starting in September, two of van Gogh’s renditions of The Bedroom will be displayed side by side at the exhibition, one from the Van Gogh Museum and the other borrowed from the Art Institute of Chicago. Van Gogh painted three versions of the room in 1888 and 1889, and all now have those pale-blue walls. Scientists and conservators have also created a digital reconstruction of what the painting might have looked like when van Gogh first painted it, with those violet walls, which will also be part of the exhibition.
“It looks just, different, and a bit strange,” Bakker said.
Rico says that, come September, he and the ladyfriend will be visiting his old friend Rob in Amsterdam, and hope to see this.

History for the day

On 30 April 1975, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to Communist forces.

Rico says he's old enough to remember this, and look how well that turned out...

29 April 2013

Drugs for the day

Ginger Thompson, in an article in The New York Times, explores the link between two DEA informants: one, a character played by Benicio Del Toro in Traffic, and the other, a former adviser to Mexico's drug czar, now living as a fugitive:
The forecast called for record snowstorms, and Luis Octavio López Vega had no heat in his small hide-out. Thieves had run off with the propane tanks on the camper that López had parked in the shadow of a towering grain elevator, near an abandoned industrial park. Rust had worn through the floor of his pickup truck, which he rarely dared to drive because he has neither a license nor insurance. His colitis was flaring so badly he could barely sit up straight, a consequence of the breakfast burrito and diet soda that had become part of his daily diet. He had not worked in months and was down to his last $250.
Going to a shelter might have opened him to questions about his identity that he did not want to answer, and reaching out to his family might have put them at odds with the law.
“I cannot go on like this, living day to day and going nowhere,” López  64, said one night last winter. “I feel like I’m running in place. After so many years, it’s exhausting.” López, a native of Mexico, said in Spanish that he has lived under the radar in the western United States for more than a decade, camouflaging himself among the waves of immigrants who came across the border around the same time. Like so many of his compatriots, he works an assortment of low-wage jobs available to people without a green card. But while López blends into that resilient population with his calloused hands and thrift-store wardrobe, his predicament goes far beyond his immigration status.
López played a leading role in what is widely considered the biggest drug-trafficking case in Mexican history. The episode, which inspired the 2000 movie Traffic, pitted the Mexican military against the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Throughout the 1990s, López worked closely with them both. He served as a senior adviser to the powerful general who was appointed Mexico’s drug czar. And he was an informant for the DEA.
López was once a powerful police chief in Mexico and a valued DEA informant. Today he is a fugitive, sought by the Mexican government after the arrest of his boss, Mexico’s former drug czar. His two worlds collided spectacularly in 1997, when Mexico arrested the general, Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, on charges of collaborating with drug traffickers. As Washington tried to make sense of the charges, both governments went looking for López  Mexico considered him a suspect in the case; the DEA saw him as a potential gold mine of information. The United States found him first. The DEA secretly helped López and his family escape across the border in exchange for his cooperation with its investigation.
Dozens of hours of testimony from López about links between the military and drug cartels proved to be explosive, setting off a dizzying chain reaction in which Mexico asked the United States for help capturing López. Washington denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, and the DEA abruptly severed its ties with him.
The reserved, unpretentious husband and father of three has been a fugitive ever since, on the run from his native country and abandoned by his adopted home. For more than a decade, he has carried information about the inner workings of the drug war that both governments carefully kept secret. The United States continues to feign ignorance about his whereabouts when pressed by Mexican officials, who still ask for assistance to find him, a federal law enforcement official said.
The cover-up was initially led by the DEA, whose agents did not believe the Mexican authorities had a legitimate case against their informant. Other law enforcement agencies later went along, out of fear that the DEA’s relationship with López might disrupt cooperation between the two countries on more pressing matters.
“We couldn’t tell Mexico that we were protecting the guy, because that would have affected their cooperation with us on all kinds of other programs,” said a former senior DEA official who was involved in the case but was not authorized to speak publicly about a confidential informant. “So we cut him loose, and hoped he’d find a way to make it on his own.”
These are the opaque dynamics that undermine the alliance between the United States and Mexico in the war on drugs, a fight that often feels more like shadow boxing. Though the governments are bound together by geography, neither believes the other can be fully trusted. López' ordeal— pieced together from classified DEA intelligence reports and interviews with him, his family, friends, and more than a dozen current and former federal law enforcement officials— demonstrates why the mutual distrust is justified.
López kept a newspaper clipping from 1997 about his boss at the time, General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo. “Institutions are not independent. They are controlled by the system. The judicial system, the attorney general, no institutions are autonomous, none are independent. So how could I go back to a place where they killed, kidnapped, and tortured friends, relatives, people who worked with me? As a last resort, if I had done anything, I would have turned myself in here, because here I might have at least had a chance.”
The absence of any facts to either condemn López or exonerate him of corruption has wrought havoc on the former informant, and his fugitive’s existence has been a ball and chain on his family, whom he sees during sporadic rendezvous. They all exhibit symptoms of emotional trauma, bouncing among flashes of rage, long periods of depression, episodes of binge drinking, and persistent paranoia.
During several long interviews, López repeatedly said he was not guilty of any wrongdoing. He said he has refused to turn himself in to the Mexican authorities because he believes he will be killed rather than given a fair hearing. But years of living an anonymous, circumscribed life have been nearly as suffocating as a jail cell.
He starts most mornings at McDonald’s, where breakfast costs less than two dollars for seniors, and free Wi-Fi allows him to peruse Mexican newspapers on his battered laptop for hours, his mind replaying the life choices that landed him there.
“I risked my life in Mexico, because I believed things could change. I was wrong. Nothing has changed,” López said. “I helped the United States because I believed that if all else failed, this government would support me. But I was wrong again. And now, I’ve lost everything.”
These days, López wonders whether he is losing his mind as well. In September of 2012, he took his troubles to a psychiatrist at a health clinic, telling her how his emotions were running erratically from hot to cold and about his difficulty sleeping. An hour later, he left with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and a bottle of pills he decided not to take.
Sipping a Diet Coke in a sunlit hotel room, López explained that he felt it was riskier to become dependent on medication that could be confiscated if he fell into police custody. More important, he said, the whole diagnosis was based on a lie— one of the many he tells to get by each day. When the doctor asked him what might be causing his stress, he told her that his family had turned against him. “Imagine me telling her what is really going on in my life,” López said. “Where would I start? That I once helped capture El Güero Palma, and now I’m being treated like a delinquent?”
Ballads were written in Mexico about the day in 1995 when the authorities took down Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, known as El Güero, the fearsome kingpin of the Sinaloa cartel. Palma met his fate on the outskirts of Guadalajara in suburban Zapopan, a nexus for everybody who was anybody in the drug war.
In the 1980s and ’90s, López was chief of the municipal police department in Zapopan, a suburb of GuadalajaraLópez served nearly two decades in the municipal police department there, most of them as chief. Politically astute and streetwise, he caught the attention of the DEA, which developed him as a confidential source during the mid-1990s and valued him for the reliability of his information.
Drug violence was raging. When things got too heated, López sought backup from General Gutiérrez, a powerful ally whose territory spanned five Mexican states. It was part of a secret arrangement, López said, in which his officers shared information about the cartels with the military and the general provided extra muscle to the Zapopan police.
At home, López' wife and three children lived surrounded by bodyguards and snipers. With her husband often absent, Soledad López had her hands full with the children. Their oldest child, David, got his high school girlfriend pregnant. Luis Octavio failed eighth grade three times. Cecilia, the youngest, did not understand the tumult around her, and Mrs. López worked to protect her from it.
By the time Palma crossed his path, López had retired to start a private security firm. Palma had been on his way to a wedding when his private plane crashed in the mountains near Zapopan. Federal police officers, who were on the Sinaloa payroll, swept him from the scene and hid him in a house belonging to a supervisor.
When López’ security guards began receiving reports of suspicious activity there, they alerted him and the military. No one realized they had stumbled across one of the world’s most notorious drug traffickers until López discovered a .45 Colt with the shape of a palm tree, or “palma”, encrusted on its handle in diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. “It could only belong to one person,” López said.
The arrest was hailed on both sides of the border to justify the unprecedented role the Mexican military was beginning to play under President Ernesto Zedillo. The DEA had long been pressuring Mexico to deploy the military against the cartels instead of the Federal police, which often worked with traffickers instead of against them.
The agency was already secretly collaborating with General Gutiérrez. Ralph Villarruel, a veteran DEA agent who had been working with López  said he pursued suspects the general believed were in hiding in the United States, and seized loads of cocaine moving across the border. In return, he said, the general allowed him “unbelievable access” to crime scenes, suspects and evidence.
After Palma’s arrest, López and General Gutiérrez let Villarruel make copies of names and numbers in the drug trafficker’s cellphone. An appreciative Villarruel said he arranged with his bosses in Mexico City to award the general a special commendation.
(Villarruel, while stationed in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the mid-1980s)
Ralph Villarruel (photo, above, today), was a veteran DEA agent who secretly worked with López and General Gutiérrez on drug cases. Villarruel has kept a photograph, taken in 1995, of Gutiérrez receiving a special commendation from the DEA for his assistance. “We were doing things we hadn’t ever been able to do, and I wanted to acknowledge that,” Villarruel said, pulling out a photograph of the closed-door occasion.
By December of 1996, President Ernesto Zedillo elevated General Gutiérrez to run counternarcotics efforts as the director of Mexico’s National Institute to Combat Drugs. The move was a victory for the administration of President Bill Clinton, which had put in effect the North American Free Trade Agreement and orchestrated a fifty billion dollar bailout of the Mexican economy. Cracking down on drug traffickers hardly seemed too much to ask of the United States’ neighbor.
In General Gutiérrez, who had the face and demeanor of a pit bull, the United States saw the no-nonsense partner it had been seeking. The administration invited him to Washington for briefings, and the United States’ drug policy coordinator, General Barry R. McCaffrey, praised him as a soldier “of absolute, unquestioned integrity.”
It seemed a head-spinning turn of events for a little-known military leader who could count his suits on one hand and had never traveled outside Mexico. When the general asked López to be his chief of staff, though, he was apprehensive about moving to the capital. But the general insisted. “Going to work in Mexico City felt like falling into a snake pit,” López said. “I had a bad feeling about the whole thing.”
Less than three months later, López was in Guadalajara for the birth of a grandchild when he suspected something had happened to his boss. He had been calling General Gutiérrez for days without success. Finally, he got the general’s driver on the phone. “I don’t know where he is,” the driver said, according to López. “You shouldn’t call here anymore. I can’t talk on this phone. Perhaps they’re already listening. What the hell, you need to know. There’s a problem.”
“Is it a bad problem?” López asked.
“It’s global,” the driver exhaled.
When López hung up and called the military base in Guadalajara, the commander there summoned him to a “counternarcotics operation.” “I didn’t know exactly what was going on,” López said, “but I knew that a trap was waiting for me at the base.”
He told his family to leave Zapopan, and warned his aides to stay away from the base. For several days, López kept out of sight, camping out in abandoned barns and beneath bridges while the military seized his house and searched his belongings.
On 19 February 1997, the Mexican defense minister, Enrique Cervantes Aguirre, held a dramatic televised news conference and accused General Gutiérrez of using his authority to help protect Amado Carrillo Fuentes, a drug baron nicknamed The Lord of the Skies, for his use of converted jetliners to move multiton shipments of cocaine. The defense minister said that, when General Gutiérrez was confronted with evidence of the association, he collapsed from what appeared to be a heart attack.
With checkpoints going up around Guadalajara, it seemed impossible for López to leave, and he was so well known he feared he could not hide for long. Borrowing a page from the drug trafficker’s playbook, López went to see a plastic surgeon to alter his appearance. Using a false name, he handed the surgeon two thousand dollars in cash and got a face-lift.
In Washington, the Clinton administration summoned Mexican diplomats, demanding to know why their government had not shared its suspicions about General Gutiérrez before his trip to the United States. Congress called on the White House to void Mexico’s standing as a reliable ally in the drug war, a move that could lead to sanctions against a country buying up American exports. The episode threatened security cooperation between the two countries.
The Justice Department ordered the DEA to explain how it could have missed evidence that General Gutiérrez was dirty. The DEA turned to Villarruel, who began looking for López.
Most of López’ staff members had disappeared, said Villarruel, who learned that the military had rounded them up for questioning and that some of them had been tortured or worse. “My sources were dropping like flies,” said Villarruel, a veteran agent and native of East Chicago, Indiana, who has family roots in Guadalajara. “One day I’d be talking to a guy, the next day he’d be dead.”
The DEA’s message reached López in May of 1997, just as he and his family thought they had run out of options. The scars around his face had healed and he had dropped seventy pounds, trading his “Vitamin T diet”— tacos, tostadas, and tamales— for salads and turkey sandwiches. He had dyed his hair blond and shaved his beard. Still, he said he feared the military would eventually catch up with him. Meanwhile, his family was struggling with an even more pressing matter. The grandchild born around the time of the general’s arrest was sick. Her complexion was turning blue and her breathing was labored.
The family was so terrified of being discovered that it agonized for days before taking the child to the hospital. Doctors diagnosed pulmonary stenosis, which restricted the blood flowing to her lungs. She was breathing easier after surgery, but her father, David, was not. “I knew she was going to need a lot more care,” he said. “How could I take care of her if I couldn’t even give her a home?” Only 22, he was now the de facto head of a family on the run. For safety’s sake, he was the only one who knew his father’s whereabouts, a secret he hoped he could keep if the military found him. “I remember telling my dad, ‘If the military detains me, give me three days’,” he recalled. “The first day of torture would be the hardest. The second day, they might realize I was not going to tell them where he was and let me go. But if I didn’t appear the third day, I might never appear again.”
Later that May, the DEA opened an escape hatch, offering the family a haven in the United States and arranging work permits and visas. Making the trip were López' wife, three children, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The family members made their way to Utah, where they had a friend.
López followed a couple weeks later. Wearing a navy blue suit and a fedora he bought for the journey, he arrived in the United States with a briefcase packed with his life’s savings of $100,000, and visions of starting over.
In January of 2013, López and his son Luis Octavio headed to Wendy’s for a 99-cent hamburger special. When his son handed over two dollars for their order, a few cents short of the total, an embarrassed López had to tell him that he could not cover the difference.
Money, or the lack of it, has been the hardest part of living in hiding, López said. His savings ran out long ago, and most employers are not interested in a 64-year-old man with no Social Security card or documented work history. He has tried day jobs as a dishwasher and a construction worker, but his back is not strong enough.
Fortunately, he said, he has an eye for junk. He inherited it from his father, who ran a car battery repair shop. López has taken that talent up a notch, scavenging for discarded auto parts, office equipment, and home appliances that he restores and resells. But it is always a skate across thin ice, and López wakes up many days with no money and nothing left to sell. “Generally, when the police are going to conduct an operation, they locate a meeting place, they locate their units, they locate their target and they determine how to approach. I saw there was some movement. I didn’t know it was them. But I felt something was up. I don’t know if it is because of the work I have done all my life, or if it was a sixth sense that allows a person, at times, to smell danger.”
His dire circumstances reflect a precipitous fall from his arrival in the United States as a prized informant. The inside account he gave to Villarruel and other DEA officials amounted to a bombshell, according to former agents involved with the case and classified intelligence reports obtained by The New York Times.
He claimed that the Mexican military was negotiating a deal to protect the cartels in exchange for a cut of their profits. López specifically accused several top officers of being involved, saying some had asked the cartels for two thousand dollars per kilogram of cocaine that passed through Mexican territory. As a down payment, cartel operatives delivered satchels packed with tens of millions of dollars to senior members of the military, according to López  He also accused American-trained counternarcotics units of allowing kingpins to escape during sting operations.
“It is highly likely that military officials probably wanted to continue to profit from an ongoing relationship with the drug traffickers,” concluded one intelligence report.
López said he told the DEA that he did not believe General Gutiérrez was among those conspiring with traffickers. But the intelligence reports suggested that the general had ties to the Juárez cartel, and that the relationship may have posed a threat to other military officers who were being paid by rival drug-trafficking organizations.
By 1998, some of that information began appearing in Congressional briefings and newspaper reports, pitting the DEA against the White House. It was inopportune timing for the Clinton administration, which was now applauding the general’s arrest as proof of the Mexican military’s commitment to combating corruption.
The White House opposed any measures that would undermine the United States’ second-largest trading partner. The DEA accused Mexico of failing to live up to its security commitments, and it advocated taking action that could lead to economic sanctions. “There was definitely a split between us and the White House over Mexico,” a former senior DEA official said.
Mexico, which was still trying to track down López  intensified its search in 1999. The Foreign Ministry requested Washington’s assistance to determine whether he lived in the United States, a senior American federal law enforcement official said. United States marshals reported back that he did.
Villarruel, now retired from the DEA, has kept in contact with López and is unhappy with the way his onetime informant was treated by the agency.
Later that year, Villarruel asked López to meet him at a Denny’s in San DiegoLópez could tell something was amiss when Villarruel arrived alone, and had a hard time looking López in the eye. “I told him I had orders from Washington that I couldn’t have anything to do with him,” Villarruel recalled. “I could tell there was some kind of pressure, but I couldn’t tell if it was from Congress, or from Mexico, or where. All I knew was that if I had anything more to do with him, I could get in trouble.” The orders meant that “from that moment, the agency wasn’t going to protect me or my family,” said López, who was shocked and confused.
When Mexico ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000, an era of multiparty democracy did not clean the slate. The new government officially charged López, issuing an arrest warrant, and promptly asked the United States to find him, former American officials said.
Mexican officials discussed the matter with Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Secretary of State at the time, Colin L. Powell, according to DEA memos and emails. Federal marshals received two to three calls a day from the Mexican authorities asking how close they were to detaining López, one memo shows. Villarruel implored the DEA to ignore Mexico’s extradition request. López is “one of a few individuals remaining who can provide extremely damaging information on high-level, drug-related corruption within the Mexican government”, Villarruel wrote to his bosses. He warned that “if López Vega is returned to Mexican authorities, it is highly likely that López Vega will be tortured and/or killed.” But DEA officials refused to interfere with the arrest warrant
Defying orders, Villarruel warned López to watch his back. About five months later, López was meeting his sons at a relative’s house in California, when he noticed suspicious people hanging out in the neighborhood. He immediately jumped in a car and sped away.
Seconds later, SWAT teams, canine units, and helicopters from the Federal Marshal’s office descended. Officers tried to catch up with López, but failed. “I had a twenty-second head start,” López said. “When you’re on the run, twenty seconds is a lot of time.”
As López and his family contended with their new lives in the United States, a story with similar twists and turns began playing in movie theaters across the country. The film, Traffic, was hailed as a landmark for dissecting the cross-border forces driving the drug war. It featured the United States pinning its hopes on a mercurial Mexican general, inspired by General Gutiérrez, who is later caught working for the cartels.
The general was allied with a Mexican police officer, played by Benicio Del Toro (photo), who crosses the border and gives information to the DEA. The character was a composite of informants, developed with the help of a DEA consultant, and was not modeled on López  whose existence has never been acknowledged by the American government. The film ends with the officer returning to Mexico and using the money the agency paid him to have lights installed at a baseball field in a poor neighborhood.
Off screen, the real-life version headed in an unhappier direction. After López went into hiding, the American government revoked his family’s visas and work permits, forcing them into their own kind of stealth existence among Utah’s growing population of Mexican immigrants. López’ wife, Soledad, suddenly had to fend for herself, learn English and get a job. Their daughter, Cecilia, began drinking and dropped out of college, hoping that if she rebelled enough her father would return.
The couple’s sons, David and Luis Octavio, managed the family’s affairs and bore the brunt of the psychological trauma. “We’re all damaged,” said Luis Octavio, 35. “We don’t talk much about the times when we wish we could run away from our situation. But we’ve all felt that way.”
In the aftermath of the raid in California, the brothers fended off questions from Federal Marshals, who pointed guns in their faces and threatened to deport them unless they revealed their father’s location. For the next few years, the elder son, David, followed his father into hiding, rarely seeing his own wife and children. His movements underground were like something out of a spy novel. By day, he worked odd jobs. In the evenings, he ducked into gas stations, changed clothes, and hired taxis so he could see his father without being followed. He created a code for their pager communications, and rented places to hide. “I promised him I would stand by his side until this whole thing was over,” recalled David, 38. “I had no idea it would go on for so long.”
In Utah, Luis Octavio worked two jobs to help support his family. Because he had married an American after arriving in Utah, he did not have to worry about deportation. But he tried to find a legal way out of the ordeal for the others.
In 2002, he met with the same Federal Marshals who were looking for his father, hoping to make the case that the elder López had been betrayed by the DEA. One Marshal, Michael Wingert, told Luis Octavio that he sympathized, but that the United States could not shield his father from the Mexican charges, according to a recording of the meeting made by Luis Octavio. “We can only assume with a case like this that your dad’s got some enemies in really powerful positions in Mexico, and they want him back,” Wingert said.
Several years later, in 2007, the López family made their own power play. They shared their story with aides to Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the former chairman of the influential Judiciary Committee. The Senator’s staff members in Salt Lake City would not comment on their role, except to say that they referred the matter to the Justice and Homeland Security departments, which helped the family obtain political asylum in 2011.
By then, David had returned home to Utah, where his wife gave birth to their third child. With no consistent work history, he has not been able to find a full-time job. Luis Octavio got a bachelor’s degree and a recruitment job at a college. But his family’s history continues to hold him back. Last year, when he was profiled in a local newspaper as a model of how much Mexican immigrants have contributed to Utah, he lied about why his family came to this country. When approached about possibly taking a business trip to Guadalajara recently, he was tempted to go, if only out of defiance. “I feel a tremendous sense of impotence,” he said, “and the only tool I have to cope with that feeling is to separate myself, and act like my father’s situation doesn’t exist.”
López had settled into a booth at McDonald’s one recent morning when his cellphone rang. A woman on the line said she had a recorded message for him. The next voice he heard belonged to General Gutiérrez.
“They tried to finish me, but they didn’t succeed. I’m still here,” the General said, his voice barely above a whisper, according to LópezGeneral Gutiérrez, 88 and suffering from terminal prostate cancer, was speaking from a bed in the same military hospital where he had collapsed after his arrest sixteen years earlier. He has not quite served half of his forty-year sentence, but he had been released from prison, and his relatives said his rank had been restored so that he could receive military medical care.
“To respond to what you are asking, whether I ever thought about returning to Mexico? Of course not. That’s why I came here. And although I was part of the system, I was not the system. No, I was not the system. And that does not mean that everyone in the system was dishonest. No, there are honest people. There are good people. But I never once thought about returning. And I don’t have any plans to return now. I am going to fight here as long as it takes. They haven’t left us with much,” the General told López  “but we must protect the little we have left.”
In January of 2013, the Mexican government once again raised López’ case with the American authorities, according to a Mexican official. The Justice Department asked for confirmation that the charges against López were still valid, and the Mexican government is expected to report back within the coming weeks, the Mexican official said.
“Until then,” he said, “the case is not closed, as far as we are concerned.”
The Justice Department and the DEA said they could not comment on a case that involved a confidential informant. But an American law enforcement official who has fielded some of Mexico’s requests said Washington was stalling for time, hoping the charges would be dropped. The United States is no closer to understanding whether López is guilty or the target of Mexican officials who wanted to silence him, the American official said. “If it was up to us, we’d make this case go away,” the official said. “But if Mexico decides it still wants him, I’m not sure how the United States is going to say no.”
Security cooperation between the United States and Mexico has been strained since December of 2012, when Enrique Peña Nieto began his term as president of Mexico. His administration believes that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, allowed the United States to play too big a role in setting Mexico’s security agenda and in staging law enforcement operations, officials in both countries said.
The Obama administration has struggled to negotiate new terms of cooperation, the officials said, and President Obama is scheduled to travel to Mexico.
Meanwhile, the violence that has left about sixty thousand people dead over the past five years rages on. And the military has been so demoralized by accusations of corruption and human rights abuses that some of its leaders openly wonder whether to pull out of the fight against drug traffickers.
López religiously tracks these developments during his morning coffee breaks at McDonald’s, looking for clues that might help him make sense of his own situation. Villarruel, now retired from the DEA, is one of his few contacts from his former life. López said he sees public attention as his only hope for a return to something resembling a normal existence. “For better or worse, it’s time that I defend myself,” López said.
When asked what he would do if he ran out of money, López shrugged and said he would figure something out. He compares himself to Prometheus, the Greek mythological figure whose punishment for stealing fire and giving it to humans was to be tortured, surviving only to face the same torment the next day. “Every day is like the first day for me,” he said. “From the moment I wake up until the moment I lay down, I am thinking, thinking, thinking about what happened to me. I try to make sense of things that don’t make sense. And it eats away at me. And it eats away at my family. Then the next day, I wake up and start all over again.”
Rico says that there's your government at work. (And you wonder why Rico wouldn't live in Mexico on a bet...)


Rico says his friend Kelley forwards this splendid piece of computer animation:

Blackberrys, Apples, and dongles, oh my...

Rico says the ladyfriend found this:

For those familiar with computers, it's a hoot; the 'dongle' is the best part...

Royalty for the day

Arnon Grunberg, a novelist, the author of The Jewish Messiah and Tirza, has an article in The New York Times about the Dutch Queen (no, not a gay guy in Amsterdam, though there are some):
On 30 April 1980, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands was succeeded by her daughter Beatrix. That day was marked by violent rioting in Amsterdam. Under the motto Geen woning, geen kroning ('No roof over our heads, no crown on yours'), squatters and anarchists railed against the new Queen’s coronation and the country’s housing crisis.
I was nine, and I sat with my mother watching it all on television. The smoke bombs and riot police made more of an impression on me than the coronation itself. My father was as unimpressed with the squatters as he was with the queen, and spent the day immersed in his stamp collection.
My parents, German Jews who fled to Holland in the 1930s, were not exactly what you’d call royalists. But my mother had a certain weakness for royal families, and especially for the scandals that go hand-in-hand with monarchies.
And when it came to Queen Juliana, my mother got her fill of scandals. Juliana’s husband, Prince Bernhard, was a notorious philanderer who sired any number of illegitimate children, and was accused of accepting bribes from Lockheed in the 1970s, forcing him to surrender his status as inspector general of the Dutch armed forces.
The 33-year reign of Queen Beatrix has been relatively free of scandals. The most significant blot on the royal reputation came when her eldest son, Willem-Alexander, who will soon succeed Beatrix, married a daughter of Jorge Zorreguieta, who served as Argentina’s deputy minister of agriculture during that country’s military dictatorship and, in all probability, knew about the systematic disappearances during the “dirty war”.
Another of Beatrix’ sons, Friso— in a coma after a skiing accident in Austria— married Mabel Wisse Smit, a former intimate of the drug lord Klaas Bruinsma, who was murdered in 1991 in front of the Amsterdam Hilton.
Beatrix herself remained above reproach. And her husband, Prince Claus, was seen as a moral beacon. He made a lasting impression on the Dutch public in 1998, during the presentation of awards to three African fashion designers, by calling on the “workers of the world” to throw off their “shackles”, “the serpent around their necks”— a reference to the necktie. He also called Nelson Mandela the best-dressed man he ever knew.
Riots like those in 1980 will probably not take place during the succession this year. Squatters in Amsterdam are few and far between these days, and the progressives of 1980 have shown growing appreciation for the royal house. This is due in no small measure to Beatrix’ disdain for the Party for Freedom, the extreme right-wing party led by the almost-forgotten politician Geert Wilders. Beatrix had little use for Wilders’ racist, Islamophobic thought.
But, beyond expressions of public reproach, the only real political power the Queen possessed— the right to appoint the individuals charged with forming a new government— was recently taken from her by parliamentary decree; she played no role whatsoever in the formation of the latest Dutch cabinet.
When NRC Handelsblad, a leading Dutch newspaper, recently described the royal house as “state theater”, it was telling. Indeed, the monarchy these days amounts to little more than a constitutionally compulsory form of performance art. In that same newspaper, a famous doyenne of the Dutch theater revealed that a few of her colleagues had been discreetly approached with the request to provide the royal family with acting lessons. Those actors, unfortunately, would not to be paid for their services; this job, after all, was an honor.
Today’s advocates of doing away with the monarchy are relatively weak. The Socialist Party is too small to wield real clout, and the Netherlands’ Republican Society makes a drowsy and generally fumbling impression. That latter observation need hardly come as a surprise: why, after all, would one put any serious effort into opposing performance art?
Perhaps because the remuneration for that performance art is a bit uncommon. The future king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, receives a tax-free annual salary of over a million dollars, as well as a $5.7 million allowance “for the costs of personnel and material expenses”. His wife, Maxima, also receives a minimal tax-free salary of $425,000, and an additional $750,000 or so as compensation for incidental expenses.
Such sums are a bit overdone in a day in which the Netherlands has imposed drastic cuts on government subsidies for other forms of theater. It does seem old-fashioned of the royal family to try and slip the leash of market mechanisms and meritocracy.
Now that theaters, opera houses, and museums cannot exist without sponsors, perhaps it’s time for the Dutch to resign themselves to having a royal family that, during state visits and official occasions, subtly drops the message that this visit was brought to you in part by Royal Dutch Shell. Or Pfizer, for that matter. In these days of globalization, the Dutch royal family shouldn’t necessarily be sponsored only by Dutch enterprises.
And wouldn’t it be nice if, from now on, auditions were held for the roles of King and Queen  One could probably find candidates who have far more acting ability than the current royal family, and would be willing to perform for a fraction of the salary.
Rico says that his friend Rob would be perfect for the role, and wouldn't ask for more than a million or so a year...

Gubs for the day

J. David Goodman has an article in The New York Times about defending oneself:

The first armed robbery attempt was in October, on a residential Bronx block near an elevated train stop. The victim fought back. He was shot in the leg. The next came a month later and roughly a mile away. Once again, the victim resisted and was shot.
After the third robbery attempt, in February, two distinct patterns became apparent. The police suspected a single group was to blame, a group that cruised in cars and attacked lone men at night. But a more unusual pattern was seen among the three victims: when faced with a gun and a straightforward proposition— your money or your life— they had opted to take their chances with their lives.
“Being held at gunpoint, for some people, is not that scary,” said Brian Melford, 21, a Bronx youth activist and student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Around here, people think they’re strong. They just say: ‘I’m not going to give it up’.”
Criminologists have for decades studied the responses of victims to violent crime. Robberies in particular became a topic of scholarly research in the 1980s and 1990s, as random street crime spread through urban areas, with those studies mostly confirming the obvious: if you resist a robber, you are more likely to get hurt or, possibly, killed.
“From any perspective of rationality, the thing to do with a robber is to cooperate politely,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a criminologist at Berkeley Law School. But, he added, both robbers and recalcitrant victims have never been the most rational actors.
“You don’t have much money on you; it’s nuts for the victim to refuse,” he said. “Here’s the second layer of nuts: you’ve got a rational robber. If the victim refuses, why doesn’t he just find somebody else?”
National victim surveys in more recent years suggest little change in the number of people standing up to their muggers, or even a slight decrease. But, with a decade-long decline in crime, some scholars have noted a change in the nature of robberies. A 2009 study of national victim surveys taken since 1993 found that, not only were robberies becoming less frequent over time, they were also becoming more violent, in part because of what the authors describe as “victim hardening”.
“Softer victims take precautions,” said Rajiv Sethi, a Barnard College economist and one of the study’s authors. In addition, he said, many people who may have become robbers in the past may instead have gotten jobs as urban economies improved, leaving the more-hardened criminals to encounter more-hardened victims on the streets of certain neighborhoods. “You get more resistance in high-crime areas than low-crime areas,” he said. “People who would not resist have left the areas. Those who stay can’t afford to leave, or to give up the little property that they have in their possession.”
The general perception of bad guys may have changed as well. Decades ago, many harbored an understandable fear that a gun-wielding assailant, fueled by drugs or desperation, would shoot at the smallest provocation. But a spreading sense of safety in many areas of the city, fostered by the falling murder rate, may lead some to doubt that a gunman these days will pull the trigger. “It does sound plausible that when you have less of a climate of fear, you have more resistance,” said Sethi, though he cautioned that research has not been conducted in this area.
In the Bronx, ballistics tests last month matched a nine-millimeter handgun from the first two botched robberies to the one in February, also on a deserted residential street in the middle of the night. In that case, too, the 31-year-old victim held on to his valuables— and was shot in the leg. Another attempted armed robbery, in December, involved a different weapon but the same behavior by the assailants. It was not certain that the same men were responsible for that shooting, said Paul J. Browne, the NYPD’s chief spokesman, but the reaction of the 28-year-old victim matched the others: “Tough guys who said: No, I’m not giving up my stuff.”
None of the attempted robberies resulted in any property being taken, Browne said. “They’re batting a thousand in their lack of success,” he said.
The first mugging, on 15 October, involved a 42-year-old man, singled out as he returned home shortly after 11 pm. The police said at least four men in two cars— a dark-colored Toyota Land Cruiser and a two-door Honda Civic with custom rims— pulled up alongside the victim before a passenger in each car got out and confronted him. With the gun visible, the men demanded money from the man. They fired a single shot when he refused, then climbed back into the cars empty-handed and drove away. The next month, the same group fired a bullet into the leg of an eighteen-year-old.
Around the neighborhood, many offered theories for why four of their neighbors, when confronted with a gun, had decided to put up a fight. “You figure he worked hard for his money and it’s rightfully his,” said Margaret, sixty, who declined to give her last name because the site of the first shooting, on Light Street and Harper Avenue (photo), is only steps from her home. “It’s not fair.”
A crumpled police poster describing the crimes, and offering a $12,000 reward, hung low on a nearby pole. Several doors down, Maureen Peddler, 49, described how her husband had been held at gunpoint in the fall at the gate of their single-family home, where she also operates a day care center. “I heard the commotion, and came to the door and he ran away,” she said, adding that her husband and the man had been locked in a violent struggle but that no shots were fired. “He was grabbing the chain off my husband’s neck.”
Browne said that the police have seen fewer crimes in the north Bronx than in some areas of the city. “It’s not the 7-5,” he said, referring to the precinct in East New York, Brooklyn. But, he added, it is among the higher-crime areas of the Bronx. The 47th Precinct has recorded at least 118 felony assaults and 107 robberies this year. Over the weekend, the precinct had its first murder of the year, the shooting death of a 34-year-old man; the police said it did not appear to have occurred in the course of a robbery.
“We are not under siege by the vigilantes and the criminals that come out at night,” said Andy King, a city councilman whose district includes the area. He offered his own theory as to why some in the community resisted armed robbers. “The pride, the respect factor” takes hold, he said. “It’s a violation, and some people are at a stage in our communities that they will stand up for certain beliefs.”
Leaning in the doorway of a home on Paulding Avenue, Gareth Wilson, a thirty-year-old graphic designer, said he could understand why some of his neighbors might put up a fight. “Sometimes people catch you in the wrong mood,” he said. “There’s times when you’re not going to do it. Even with a gun.”
Others expressed shock that anyone would think to tangle with an armed robber in defense of a little bit of pocket lucre. “You only live once,” said Omar Dailey, 35, while cutting the hair of a local tailor at a Bronxwood Avenue barbershop near the site of one of the shootings. “I’m giving up everything. What you want?”

Rico says he's all for this, but would prefer it if he had his concealed-carry gub with him at the time... (But a Honda Civic with custom rims? How stereotypical.)

History for the day

On 29 April 1992, deadly rioting that claimed 54 lives and caused a billion dollars in damage erupted in Los Angeles, after a jury in Simi Valley acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of almost all state charges in the videotaped beating (photo) of Rodney King.

The songs in Rico's head

Don't know why, but there you jolly well are, aren't you?

28 April 2013

There'll always be an England

Sam Borden has an article in The New York Times about an unusual soccer (sorry, football) team:

About ninety minutes before kickoff on a recent Saturday, Guy Morris sped through traffic near the northwest edge of the city on his way to an important game. Munching on an apple as he wove his way toward the field, Morris considered what seemed to be a relatively simple question: Just how Jewish is London’s all-Jewish soccer team?
“Put it this way,” he said as he pulled into the parking lot. “We don’t keep kosher. But we do sometimes celebrate a big win with a horah and some dancing.”
For years, there has been a perception that Tottenham Hotspur, the Premier League team whose fans sometimes refer to themselves as the Yid Army, stands apart as the so-called Jewish soccer club of London. But such a label is badly outdated.
While the Spurs’ roster (not to mention global fan base) now includes ethnicities of all kinds, the true Jewish team of the capital is in the borough of Barnet on the northern outskirts of the city, where the London Maccabi Lions play, and host community dinners, and bar mitzvah parties, at the quaint facilities of Rowley Lane.
The Lions, who compete in the tenth level of English soccer’s 24-tier system, are different from the Spurs— and, really, most other clubs— in a number of ways, starting with their restriction on who is allowed to play for them: by rule, all players on each of the club’s numerous teams must be Jewish.
So what makes someone Jewish? The answer is that the club has no rigorous set of rules; it instead trusts that if someone considers himself Jewish, then he is, whether or not he grew up with any religious training.
There are about 285,000 Jews in England, according to the 2011 census, and roughly two-thirds of them are said to live in or around London. The Lions were initially known as Maccabi Association London, and played in a Sunday league with other Jewish teams, but changed their name before the 2000 season when the club decided to enter into England’s more formal soccer structure.
At that time, there was some resistance from leaders of Britain’s Maccabi Union, who said it was not appropriate for the team to continue using the Maccabi name if it was going to play on Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath), as is customary for most leagues in England. Club management considered several alternatives, and ultimately settled on Lions as a tribute to the lion of Judah, which is a symbol of one of the biblical tribes of Israel.
Despite that liturgical connection, though, the players on the London Lions represent a wide swath of Jewish identity. The club’s success— it clinched this season’s South Midlands League Division One title with three matches to go, ensuring a promotion to the ninth level of the pyramid this fall— has attracted players from as far as Manchester (about two hundred miles away), which is particularly remarkable given that the players are unpaid. In fact, first-team players have to pay roughly £150 (about $230) to be on the roster and must juggle games and practices with the demands of their outside jobs.
That has often been the most difficult part of running the team, said Tony Gold, the team’s coach. Many players work in real estate or for headhunting firms, and some have high-level management jobs. Getting out of work for a midweek evening match becomes a challenge. “It’s our Achilles’ heel,” Gold said. “We’ll have the same team for a few games and then we’ll have nine changes. It’s difficult.”
Jewish backgrounds among the players also vary. Some players had bar mitzvahs when they were younger; others did not. Some belong to synagogues and worship regularly; others, like Morris, who is the team’s captain, grew up in split-religion households and consider their faith rooted more in spirituality than ritual. “Do I walk out on the pitch and think, this is a representation of Judaism? No, I don’t,” Morris said. “But being part of this matters. And I do feel something.”
In many ways, the Lions are representative of the larger differences— and contradictions— among groups of Jews throughout the world.
Yes, they have a Star of David on their jerseys, but during a recent game, no one wore a skullcap. Yes, they play on Saturdays, but no, they do not play on Yom Kippur. And yes, some of them adhere to the dietary laws of Passover (several players passed on cereal bars before a recent game), but no, they do not say a blessing over the wine at their postmatch parties.
“What we’re trying to do is bring in all denominations,” said David Kyte, a founder and vice president of the club. “The idea is to build a community where people feel comfortable.”
That is not always easy. Though the Lions have had tremendous success in expanding— there are 26 junior teams and seven adult teams playing under the club’s umbrella— the response from outsiders is not universally friendly. Intolerance remains a persistent problem in Europe, especially as it pertains to soccer, and Lions teams have not been immune to anti-Semitism.
Often, the worst of the incidents are in the youth games, according to Andy Landesberg, the club’s director of football. But even the first-team Lions have experienced abuse. Gold said there had been relatively few problems this season, but smiled when asked how he has instructed his players to deal with overt bigotry. “We tell them, do it on the field, don’t give in,” Gold said. “Then, afterward, when you’re shaking hands, you can say: ‘You’ve been beaten by a bunch of Jews... How do you feel now?’ ”
Beyond the scattered anti-Semitic comments, there is also the larger issue of whether an exclusive club, of any kind, should exist. The Lions are hardly the only English team with an ethnic theme— the Lions have played against teams that are predominantly Muslim or Catholic— but it is believed that no other club in the formal soccer pyramid chooses to self-impose such a rigid restriction.
In an odd twist, the Lions take criticism from both sides: recently, other Jewish clubs protested that one of the Lions’ players was not Jewish enough to play for one of the club’s teams that still participate in the all-Jewish Sunday league (the player’s registration was suspended pending verification). On the other hand, there are those who believe that, by refusing to let non-Jews join the Saturday senior team, the Lions are simply fostering another line of societal division. Even some Lions players wonder whether the message is correct. “I know some might not necessarily like hearing it, but should non-Jews be allowed to play for Lions? Maybe,” Morris said.
Kyte said that Lions executives understood the controversial element of their rules, but were committed to fostering strength among Jews through the soccer clubs. Rowley Lane is at the heart of that mission, and the ground is charming, with a number of soccer fields, a social hall and, of course, a box in the front foyer holding free copies of The Jewish News.
Support for the first team is decent. On a recent Saturday afternoon, a crowd of about thirty fans crowded into the rickety bleachers at midfield to watch the Lions play Amersham Town in a driving rainstorm with a blustery wind and frigid temperature. The play was expectedly ragged, though the Lions are one of the few teams at this level that try to keep possession and play the ball up the field on the ground.
Players slipped often. Gusts blew lofted passes awry. Everyone’s nerves were a bit frayed; at one point, the Lions’ goalkeeper, Mario Cenolli, threatened to stomp off the field after engaging in a shouting match with his teammate Sam Sloma.
Ultimately, though, Sloma and Cenolli reconciled, and Sloma scored to help secure a 2-1 victory. The team celebrated, as usual, with some drinks in the social hall.
The Lions have already become the first all-Jewish team to win a match in the F.A. Cup. Could they someday cross the coveted line of demarcation in England, and be promoted to one of the top four leagues? It is, of course, a dream. But if they ever do reach such heights, it almost surely will not be because they have changed their rules about which players can join the team, Kyte said.
“Obviously, I’m restricted because I can only pick Jewish players,” said Gold, the team’s coach. He shrugged. “But I do think,” he said, “that, in terms of Jewish players in this country, we’ve definitely got the crème de la crème.”

Rico says surely there's a better Jewish comparison; קרעם פון די גערעטעניש, maybe?

History for the day

Julie Satow has an article in The New York Times about a Holocaust-related mystery:

When Roman Blum died last year at the age of 97, his body lingered in the Staten Island University Hospital morgue for four days, until a rabbi at the hospital was able to track down his lawyer.
Blum, a Holocaust survivor and real estate developer, left behind no heirs and no surviving family members; his former wife died in 1992 and the couple was childless. His funeral, held graveside at the New Montefiore Jewish Cemetery in West Babylon, New York, was attended by a small number of mourners, most of them elderly fellow survivors or children of survivors.
Much about Blum s life was shrouded in mystery: He always claimed he was from Warsaw, although many who knew him said he actually came from Chelm, in southeast Poland. Several people close to Blum said that in Poland, before World War Two, he had a wife and child who perished in the Holocaust, though Blum seems never to have talked of them, and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany, has no record of them in its database. Even his birth date is in question. Records here give it as 16 September 1914; identity cards from a German displaced persons camp have it as 15 September.
But perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding Blum is why a successful developer, who built hundreds of houses around Staten Island and left behind an estate valued at almost forty million dollars, would die without a will. That is no small matter, as his is the largest unclaimed estate in New York State history, according to the state comptroller’s office.
“He was a very smart man, but he died like an idiot,” said Paul Skurka, a fellow Holocaust survivor who befriended Blum after doing carpentry work for him in the 1970s.
Gary D. Gotlin, the public administrator handling the case, sold Blum's home on Staten Island, auctioned off his jewelry and his furniture, and is putting other properties that he owned on the market. Gotlin’s office, which is overseen by Surrogate’s Court in Richmond County, is also using Blum s estate to pay his taxes, conduct an in-depth search for a will, and hire a genealogist to search for relatives. If none are identified, the money will pass into the state’s coffers. That, Blum's friends said, would be a tragedy, compounding the one that befell him as a young man in Eastern Europe.
“I spoke to Roman many times before he passed away, and he knew what to do, how to name beneficiaries,” said Mason D. Corn, his accountant and friend for thirty years. “Two weeks before he died, I had finally gotten him to sit down. He saw the end was coming. He was becoming mentally feeble. We agreed. I had to go away, and so he told me: ‘Okay, when you come back I will do it.’ But by then it was too late. We came this close, but we missed the boat.”
Roman Blum was, by all accounts, an emotional man with a large personality. Six feet tall and handsome, he was a ladies’ man, a gambler and a drinker. He was also enterprising and tough in business. “He had deeds on his desk piled up to the ceiling of properties he owned,” said Vincent Daino, who was Blum's neighbor for 25 years, and became his unpaid driver when the older man’s eyesight began to fail. “There were royalties from oil rigs in Alaska, money from his stocks; about once a month he would have me drive him to the bank so he could deposit $100,000 checks.”
Much of what is known about his life comes from a circle of fellow Holocaust survivors who met in displaced persons camps after the war. They said that, when war broke out, Blum was in Poland and, fearing capture, ran alone across the border to Russia, where he was briefly detained and placed in prison. The Russians soon released him, along with thousands of other prisoners, to fight the Nazis. The fate of his wife and child, if they existed, is unclear.
In the months after the war, Blum met a family of survivors with two daughters. One of them, Eva, had been in the Auschwitz concentration camp. He married her, although by all accounts it was not a love match. “It was immediately after the war— he thought she was the last Jewish woman alive, and she thought there were no more men,” said a friend and fellow Holocaust survivor who met Blum around that time. The friend would speak only anonymously, for fear that he would seem to be trying to make a claim on the Blum estate.
In 1946, Mr. and Mrs. Blum made their way to Zeilsheim, a displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Frankfurt. In the chaos of postwar Germany, Blum became a smuggler, as many Jews did, Skurka said: he pirated cigarettes into Belgium while biding his time waiting for a visa to the United States. During that period, Eva remained in Zeilsheim while Blum preferred the livelier Berlin.
Skurka related a story from those days that, he said, Blum had told him. One day, while in Berlin, Mr. Blum walked into a barbershop and asked the proprietor for a shave. When the barber finished, Blum said he had no money, shrugging his shoulders and smiling as he walked out the door. “He had chutzpah, that’s the kind of man he was,” Skurka said.
In 1949, the Blums came to New York City and settled in Forest Hills, in Queens. There they joined a tightknit community of survivors, many of whom they knew from the Zeilsheim camp. “They all lived the same type of lifestyle, going to the bungalow colonies together, the Catskills, everything was done as a group,” said Jack Shnay, a child of survivors who grew up in Forest Hills with the Blums. “Initially, they all lived in apartments in Rego Park; then they starting buying or building private homes.”
“Every weekend was a party,” said Charles Goldgrub, the child of survivors and Blum’s godson, who also grew up in Queens. “They had survived Hitler, so they thought they would live forever.”
On weekends, the survivors would often gather to play high-stakes poker and drink plum brandy. They rarely discussed their wartime experiences, but sometimes, as a group and tipsy, they would grow emotional. Blum's favorite tune was the 1968 single by Mary Hopkin, Those Were The Days, recalled Michael Pomeranc, a hotelier who grew up in Forest Hills and whose parents, also survivors, were close to the Blums. “He was always singing that song, and especially if he’d had a bit to drink, he’d try to get everyone to join in with the lyrics,” Pomeranc said.
Many of the men started businesses together, the majority becoming homebuilders and hotel developers. They referred to themselves as griners, a Yiddish term meaning greenhorn or newcomer. “They were known as the griner builders,” said Robert Fishler, a Staten Island real estate lawyer who represented Blum for nearly three decades.
The men also had affairs. “There were lots of women on the side,” Goldgrub said. “It was a way of life, everyone knew; the wives just closed their eyes to it.” By many accounts, Blum often had female companions other than his wife. “It was really more like growing up in the Mafia than your typical Jewish upbringing,” Goldgrub said.
While the people in the group liked having fun, they were not showy, despite their growing wealth. Most drove the same Buicks and Oldsmobiles for years, and remained in the same middle-class neighborhood. Their modesty might also have been a desire to keep their wealth under wraps. “They didn’t want anyone to know what they had. They had been so scrutinized they didn’t want to call attention to themselves,” Goldgrub said.
The Blums struggled to start a family. Mrs. Blum told her friends that she was unable to have children, and the couple spent thousands of dollars on doctors’ visits. According to stories that swirled around the couple, Mrs. Blum had been a subject of the dreaded Dr. Josef Mengele while at Auschwitz, and his experiments had rendered her infertile.
In the 1960s, on a five-week trip to Israel on the Queen ElizabethBlum found a boy, an orphan, whom he wished to adopt. But friends who were with them said Mrs. Blum begged him not to go through with the adoption, convinced that her doctors would ultimately be able to help them conceive. They did not adopt the boy, and never had children.
Then, in 1964, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened, linking Brooklyn and Staten Island, and many in the group, including Blum, began buying land on Staten Island. Prices were low, and Blum began developing land and building homes in neighborhoods like Eltingville, Huguenot, and Manor Heights.
“Everybody knew Roman. He built hundreds of homes over the years,” Bruno Betro, a broker at Volpe Realty, said. “Last time I tried to sell a piece of property for him, I’d give him an offer and he’d tell me he wanted a million more.”
By the 1980s, with his business thriving, Blum decided to relocate to Staten Island. He built a large brick house in the upscale neighborhood of Southeast Annadale, with four bedrooms and five bathrooms, a two-car garage and a pool.
Mrs. Blum did not want to move. “He wanted her to go live with him in his big house with a swimming pool, but she loved the city,” said the friend who wished to be unidentified. “All her friends were there, and with his lifestyle, if she went with him, she knew she would be alone a lot.” Mrs. Blum stayed in Queens, and Blum moved into the new house.
“Fifty years of marriage, and he just left,” said Sherri Goldgrub, who married Charles Goldgrub in 1980 and knew the Blums well. “He would sometimes come back and bring her his laundry, but she sat home waiting, thinking he’d be back for dinner.”
The Blums eventually divorced, and Blum lived the life of a bachelor. There were women and lots of poolside parties. “Every Sunday we would swim in the pool, drink and eat, he’d like to make steaks this thick on the grill,” said his friend, holding his fingers five inches apart.
As for the group back in Queens, the divorce caused a rift and many distanced themselves from Blum. “People were offended,” Goldgrub said. “People took sides, and our family took Eva’s side.” The last time Goldgrub saw Blum was at the bar mitzvah of his son in 1995. Blum was furious that he was not asked to light a candle for the boy, an honor, and told Goldgrub’s father he was taking his godson out of his will.
But Blum's business on Staten Island was growing. Known as shrewd and hard driving, he could often be found early in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting in the garage of one of his model homes, displaying sample materials and giving prospective buyers the hard sell.
As the years went by, Blum became increasingly stingy and, according to those who knew him, paranoid that people were after his fortune. He hid forty thousand dollars in the ceiling of his bathroom, according to Daino, and, when it went missing, Blum accused another neighbor of stealing it. “He told him: ‘Give me back thirty thousand, and I’ll let you keep ten thousand’,” said Daino.
Months before he died, Blum fell down the stairs of his home and broke his leg, lying on the floor for four hours before a cleaning woman found him, according to Daino. It was Daino who took him to the hospital and who eventually signed him out. “He had no one else, I was the only person he had,” Daino said. The leg never fully healed, and Blum, who remained at home in a hospital bed with 24-hour care, died in early January of 2012.
After the hospital rabbi found his body in the morgue, he notified Fishler, the lawyer, who then notified Blum’s old friends from Queens. To the surprise of many, Blum had bought a cemetery plot next to his former wife’s. He was buried there.
“It is a heartbreaking story, a tragedy,” said Pomeranc, who was one of the few people who attended Blum’s funeral. “I spoke with him three days before he died. We were going to get the whole group together and take a ride out to see him that weekend. But it didn’t happen, and then the next week he passed away.”
None of Blum’s friends know why he never wrote a will. Those close to him say it may have been superstition or, after coming so close to dying during the War, a refusal to contemplate his own mortality. He may also have been unwilling to share the full details of his estate with a lawyer, the desire for secrecy a holdover from his experiences during the War.
Had the Blums had children, the estate would have gone to them, even without a will. While Mrs. Blum, as his former wife, would not have been eligible— only a current spouse or a blood relative can claim an inheritance in the absence of a will— his friends hope that Blum had siblings back in Poland with whom he was not in contact or that, if he had had a child before the war, some distant relations are still living in Europe.
“It wouldn’t be that uncommon to uncover collateral heirs,” said Burt Neuborne, the civil liberties defender who was the lead counsel in recent Holocaust litigation against Swiss banks. “We often found that someone, like a third cousin twice removed, would come forward.”
Yet despite a worldwide search that included Poland and Israel, Gotlin said, “to date, there is no evidence of any living relatives.” Gotlin continues to work on liquidating Blum’s estate. According to people familiar with his accounts, Blum had about four million dollars in cash in his checking account. His house was put on the market for $729,000 and is now in contract, and an eight-acre parcel he owned on Forest Avenue, worth about $4.5 million, is also in contract. A safe deposit box had more than seventy $100 bills, coins from Canada and South Africa, and gold jewelry including a watch, a bracelet, cuff links, several necklaces, and a ring.
Blum’s few remaining personal items, including photographs and a book on the Holocaust, have been put in a box in the basement of the public administrator, where they will remain sealed unless claimed by a blood relative.
Once Gotlin completes liquidating the assets and, if investigators fail to find a will or surviving kin, whatever money is remaining from Blum’s estate will be passed to the City’s Department of Finance. If, after three years, no one comes forward, the money would go to the state comptroller’s office of unclaimed funds, which has twelve billion dollars in its accounts, dating to 1943. That office keeps a portion of the estate and transfers a portion to the state’s general fund. If an heir comes forward, the entire amount is returned.
The last time his old friend from Zeilsheim saw him, the man pushed Blum to discuss the topic of a will. “I told him: ‘Look, I know you don’t want to talk about it, but’— and he was already a little bit drunk— I said: ‘You have to do something’,” the friend said. “And he told me, he said: ‘I promise you, if anything happens to me, you are going to be proud. You’ll be proud of me.’”
The friend still clings to hope. “I believe a will is written,” the friend said. “Somewhere there is a plan: he made arrangements to use the money to build a home for children and to dedicate it to his child from before the war. I am sure of it.”

Rico says pissing off rich people can be costly; that bar mitzvah candle would be worth a lot of money now...

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