Running with the Bulls—Trying to Understand the Culture

A poster from Pamplona, Spain

A poster from Pamplona, Spain

The small town of Pamplona, Spain is famous for its annual Fiesta de San Fermin, better known as the “Running with the Bulls” festival. Ernest Hemingway first brought international attention to Pamplona and the running of the bulls festival in his book “The Sun Also Rises.”   The plot of the book is not about the festival itself but he does describe it in great detail. Since I was in the neighborhood (nearby France) during the week long festival I decided to take time and spend a few days observing it and see if fiction fit with fact.  I stayed in the nearby town of Puente la Reina, close enough to check out the action but far enough away to have some peace and quiet. The following describes my own experience at the festival—what I saw, what I felt and, maybe, what can be concluded in a broader cultural sense or not. Continue reading

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Life in the Not So Fast Lane—The French Have a Different Approach

The French have a different take on road travel from the Germans and most of the rest of Europe for that matter.  For one they have speed limits no matter where you are the max being 130 kph (or 78 mph)—not intolerable even if you are in a hurry but not the daredevil approach of the Germans either.  The dominance of Mercedes and BMW is replaced by Peugeot and Renault so my little red Peugeot 208 stood a good chance in the “speed” lanes with the rest of France.  Road etiquette remains somewhat the same when it comes to passing—in general no one passes in the right lane and the slower cars and trucks always occupy the right.  So far so good.  There are, however two very big differences in traveling the roads of France versus Germany.  One, is the “invisible lane” and, two, is the “tolls-from-hell” that exist in much of France—make sure you bring a lot of cash and don’t assume that American Express (or Visa or Mastercard) will suffice. Continue reading

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Good Fences Make for Good Neighbors–Cultural Challenges in a Microcosm

 

 

Newly finished homes and back yards in housing development outside of Frankfurt, Germany

Newly finished homes and back yards in housing development outside of Frankfurt, Germany

In Frankfort I spent time with a young friend and his wife.  They had recently bought a brand new home in a new development just northeast of the city center.  Only a year ago the area had been made up of rolling hills, farm houses and luscious crops. The development is so new that many of the small yards associated with the new homes are still unplanted and construction of new homes is ongoing all around their home. In my friends’ house they are part of a eight unit row of attached homes (similar to our row or town houses) with shared walls and contiguous yards.  To date no fences have been built between the back yards still in the process of development.  Therein lies the rub. Continue reading

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Life in the Fast Lane—the German Autobahn

Jawohl Herr Muscle Car!

Jawohl Herr Muscle Car!

You haven’t lived until you’ve tried your hand at driving on the autobahn in Germany—at least you haven’t had the heart stopping thrill of watching a big, black Mercedes approaching you in the rear-view mirror at a hundred plus miles per hour as you are poking along at what you think is a respectable 75 to 80 mph.  The autobahn like all things German is very ordered with strict rules written and unwritten that you should obey or not, the later at your own peril. Continue reading

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Gone With The Wind–The Asarco Stacks Are No More

A belching giant among pigmy water cannons

A belching giant among pigmy water cannons

On April 13th, early in the morning, a major portion of El Paso’s skyline for almost fifty years, the Asarco stacks,  disappeared and,  literally, were “gone with the wind.”  First the 620 ft. smaller stack and then the larger 828 ft. iconic stack were felled within seconds of the detonation of hundreds of pounds of dynamite placed in both of them.  Hundreds (if not thousands) of witnesses got up early for the pre-dawn event, occupying key points around the Asarco plant to watch the historic demolition of these majestic stacks.  For some it was a moment of joy, a closing of an era with bad memories of pollution, bad smells and an old, dirty industry.  For many of us though it was a sad occasion, signaling an end to an era rich in history, good and bad, but also removing from our landscape a major symbol of that history and the cultural heritage it represented.   For those of us who wished to preserve the stacks it took away an opportunity to not only celebrate our past but to use the stacks as a lodestone to point our way forward into a new, vibrant future.  Unfortunately, it also continued a legacy by many associated with Asarco, including some of our local officials, as well as state and federal agencies to misrepresent, to obfuscate and to outright withhold facts and information from the public critical to their well-being, health and long-term safety. 

Despite pronouncements to the contrary, the felling of the stacks did not go well.  It was not a “clean drop” as predicted.  Continue reading

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Made in the USA – The Prison Industry and Its Profits

4796934The prison population has grown nearly-exponentially in the last few decades, and the US now holds 25% of the world’s prison population, yet has only 5% of the world’s population. The incarceration rate per capita is far higher than any other industrialized nation.  According to the World Prison Population list, the United States has the highest prison population rate in the world, 743 per 100,000 of the national population. The next closest is Rwanda at 595. Why is this?  Is there something about US society that produces such massive numbers of criminals, or is something else going on?  Former Senator Jim Webb of Virginia tried to ask this question, by establishing a commission to recommend changes to the criminal justice system, only to see his efforts blocked in the Senate, despite widespread support from law enforcement groups as well as civil liberties organizations such as the ACLU. Continue reading

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Save the Stacks–Last Chance, Part II

Asarco stacksIn previous blogs concerning the Asarco stacks slated for demolition in early April we focused on the historical and cultural issues surrounding the Asarco stacks and surrounding property.   In this article we look at serious new issues related to environmental and health concerns that arise from the Trustee’s decision to bury the contaminated stack remains onsite.  This has the potential for spreading the toxic wastes into the groundwater and Rio Grande water basin adjacent to the site.  This will have profound impacts not only for US residents downstream along the Rio Grande river but for Mexico and Mexico’s citizens who strongly rely on these waters for their uses as well.   These concerns are just now being raised as regional leaders become increasingly aware of the details surrounding environmental remediation plans to “clean up” the Asarco site and the potential for a long term environmental  and health disaster should they be carried out. Continue reading

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Save the Stacks–Last Chance!

Asarco-Concept

Conceptual vision of mixed use of ASARCO property

We wrote in an earlier article (“Save the ASARCO Stacks–Create a Sustainable Future“) of the historical and economic importance of preserving the smoke stacks associated with the now closed industrial complex just off Interstate-10 near downtown El Paso, TX.  We discussed possible mixed uses of the property, including academic research,  a “Green Technology” research park, an international cultural heritage museum,  and outdoor recreational uses of the property all centered around the cultural and historical heritage represented by the stacks.  A small, non-profit organization—Save the Stacks –has led the fight to keep these iconic structures as part of our border skyline.  Made up of concerned El Pasoans  with no political or commercial interests in the stacks or the approximate 400 acres on which they stand, Save the Stacks has advocated using the stacks as part of a monument dedicated to all the individuals impacted by the regional industries and activities represented by them.  However their backs are against the proverbial “wall” as they must convince authorities to stop current plans for the stacks imminent demolition in early April.  This is the last chance to save the stacks or they will be destroyed and a bit of our border’s history lost forever! Continue reading

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The War on Drugs–Going Forward

This is the last of a multi-part series on illegal drugs and their impact on our society with a special emphasis on the US-Mexico border region, exploring how we got here, what are the economic and social impacts of our policies, and exploring alternatives to our current policies going forward.

Illustration by Victor Juhasz, Rolling Stones Magazine, Dec 2012

Illustration by Victor Juhasz, Rolling Stones Magazine, Dec 2012

This past November much of our attention was riveted on the election of a new President along with the other political contests up for grabs for our national, state, and local representatives.  Almost as a side event was the decision by the electorates of the states of Washington and Colorado to legalize and regulate the use of small amounts of marijuana for personal recreation.  For the first time since the early part of the last century state law made it legal for individuals to use marijuana subject only to the same kind of restrictions and regulations that have been applied to alcohol or tobacco, including taxation, abuse (DUI) and age restrictions for use.  The US Department of Justice officials were quick to point out that federal law still classified marijuana as an illicit narcotic, use or possession of which was subject to federal criminal prosecution.  Is this the tipping point, allowing the personal use/possession of marijuana, or simply an aberration in the decades-long war on drugs where the feds will simply step in and squash any attempts to legalize these drugs?  So far the feds have not really taken any action one way or another but there has been no visible change in the enforcement program, including the prosecution of medical marijuana patients. Continue reading

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The War on Drugs–Societal Costs

This is the third of a multi-part series on illegal drugs and their impact on our society with a special emphasis on the US-Mexico border region, exploring how we got here, what are the economic and social impacts of our policies, and exploring alternatives to our current policies going forward.

Unlike federal budgets and other statistical economic data, trying to measure the societal costs of illicit drugs is not as objective or always easily demonstrated.  It is however no less real and in many senses far more important given the broad impact these costs have on entire regions and even nations, e.g. the current drug cartel war being waged in Mexico today.  Entire books and volumes of  literature have been written on social costs of illicit drugs and it is not the purview of this writer to try to cover all of the possible issues but simply point to a couple of areas that seem particularly relevant to our border region and our relation with Mexico.

Drugs  and the illicit drug trade have been a way of life in the US-Mexico border region for many generations but it has been only in the past five years or so that it has raised its ugly head in such a way as to suggest the drug cartels could threaten not only individuals or border towns or even states but entire nation states.  The recent book by Congressman-elect Beto O’Rourke, co-authored with El Paso City Council Representative Susie Byrd, “Dealing Death and Drugs–the Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico”1–highlights a number of key issues related to drugs, drug cartels and their impact on our border region with a particular focus on marijuana. Continue reading

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