Why my kids are not participating in the debate about race in America

My kids’ school held some debates last week about police brutality and racial injustice in the US. My kids did not participate. Don’t get me wrong, these are events that need to be discussed. The killing of an innocent man at the hands of police, the culture of policing in the United States, the underlying social and economic issues. The fact that the way of life of the economically suffering has been criminalized to a substantial degree. All that and more needs to be discussed, just not by 11 year old kids in Peru.

I lived in the US for the better part of 15 years, came of age there really. Unlike most people outside looking in I have a pretty good idea of the realities in the US. I also have a good idea of the realities in Peru. Decades of institutional failure, corruption, incompetence and yes, racism. You could argue that the institutional failures in Peru are in no small part due to racism among Peruvians. Institutional failures that are now painfully evident in hospitals all around Peru.

If kids in Peru are to have debates on the big issues of our time, let’s start with the issues right here in our own back yard.

UNSAAC study of Covid-19 mortality rates at high elevations

A recently published study by Anahi Cardona and Manuel Montoya of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC) concludes that there is a statistically significant difference in Covid-19 mortality rates at high elevations.

Here in Cusco there have been 3 fatalities attributed to Covid-19 to date but there is growing concern that the underlying infection rate is set to increase. Time will tell.

Stay safe.

Remnants of a boondoggle

A while back we took a drive behind Calca. We were just driving around the countryside with no particular place to go when we stumbled upon an unusual sight: the groundwork for what was supposed to be the Southern Camisea natural gas pipeline, passing a stone’s throw behind a small settlement.

The homes in this rural area are barely more than mud block huts with straw roofs. There are no paved roads, little if any health care infrastructure, and teachers from the city barely show up a few days a week to teach in the nearest schools. Yet somehow the powers that be thought that running a gas pipeline from pristine jungle over the Andes mountains was the best way to invest in the future of Peru. The powers that be in Peru during the first 2 decades of the 21st century sure loved their so-called “mega-projects”, with the most infamous of course the Interoceanic highway.

Eventually the Southern natural gas pipeline got cancelled in the fallout of the Odebrecht scandal, which it should be noted would have never existed if it were not for a court case in the US.

Now I hear she’s got a house with a fair view

The old house of my wife’s maternal grandmother, overlooking the main square in Accha. In the mountain you can see the so called “Accha Sihuina”, the pregnant woman laying down. In the old days the Incas believed the Apus (mountains) were the home of the Gods or had mythical powers. Even today the people of Accha believe the Sihuina looks out over them and some bring her offerings from time to time.

Suspected Covid-19 fatalities left to rot in Cusco (Updated)

Allegedly, unconfirmed, and I very much hope it isn’t true but word reaches that the corpse of a person who died several days ago here in Cusco has still not been removed from the home where the person passed. I cannot confirm this is true but the source is not an internet rumor.

There have been various other reports, some confirmed, of people with symptoms seeking help to no avail. Hope for a miracle.

Update 4/9: Authorities have now formally denied this was happening and it appears the deceased person did not have Covid-19. People remain nervous about the lack of resources to fight the pandemic. As of yesterday, fewer than 400 Covid-19 tests had been administered in Cusco.

Covid-19 transparency, please.

Forget about the wild conspiracies, I’m not going there. But I think as a society we can’t make smart decisions if we don’t have real data. Copy and paste this and email it to your local newspaper or civil registry office. It’s a sample SQL query that would show year-over-year nr. of death certificates issued by fiscal week.

Even with the inherent lag of counting deaths, I think this would provide a much clearer picture of the onset and evolution of the epidemic than most visualizations I’ve seen elsewhere. You pay taxes, you have a right to know.

-- YoY change by fiscal week.
    my_2019_data.fiscal_week AS fiscal_week, 
    my_2019_data.nr_death_certificates AS 2019_deaths,
    my_2020_data.nr_death_certificates AS 2020_deaths,
    CASE WHEN my_2020_data.nr_death_certificates IS NOT NULL THEN to_char( (my_2020_data.nr_death_certificates::numeric - my_2019_data.nr_death_certificates::numeric) / (my_2019_data.nr_death_certificates::numeric / 100::numeric), '999D99' ) ELSE NULL END AS yoy_change_2019_2020 
  ( SELECT fw AS fiscal_week, count(death_certificates) AS nr_death_certificates 
      ( SELECT extract(week FROM date_deceased) AS fw, * 
        FROM my_public_records.death_certificates
        WHERE death_certificates.date_deceased >= '2019-01-01'::date
        AND death_certificates.date_deceased < '2020-01-01'::date
      ) mydata_19
    GROUP BY fw 
    ORDER BY fw 
  ) my_2019_data
  ( SELECT fw AS fiscal_week, count(death_certificates) AS nr_death_certificates 
      ( SELECT extract(week FROM date_deceased) AS fw, * 
        FROM my_public_records.death_certificates
        WHERE death_certificates.date_deceased >= '2020-01-01'::date
        AND death_certificates.date_deceased < '2021-01-01'::date
      ) mydata_20
    GROUP BY fw 
    ORDER BY fw 
  ) my_2020_data USING(fiscal_week);

10 year time machine

If you could go back in time and do just one thing different for every decade of you’ve lived in, what would you do? Equal 10 year intervals, I’ll start:

  • 1979: Tell my dad not to buy that Oldsmobile diesel.
  • 1989: Be less dorky. Stop dreaming about the girl down the street who didn’t know I existed. Eat different food once in a while.
  • 1999: That was a tough year. I did so many dumb things and wasn’t very nice to many people. Hard to pick just one thing, in hindsight I’d probably change everything. Go to work for Microsoft, even if it was already a bit late.
  • 2009: The year my oldest daughter was born. I wouldn’t change a thing.
  • 2019: While taking that nice vacation in Panama, sneak on a freighter in the Canal headed for Shanghai. Hitch a ride to Wuhan. Find my way into the Wuhan wild foods market in the wee hours of the night, check nobody inside. Pour gasoline everywhere and light that baby on fire. Who doesn’t want to be a superhero for a day?

Of course the question is, if you were able to go back in time and light the Wuhan stinky foods market on fire would anybody believe you did it to prevent a global pandemic that would kill thousands in the year 2020? Would enough people be willing to step outside their comfort zone and really consider that possibility? Even with the not-too-distant history of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 or the Madagascar plague outbreaks? If we knew then what we know now, way back when in 2019, would we be willing to change our ways?

How about you, what would you do different?

The Mary Lou tragedy

When Billy passed away last summer his obituary was a one-liner, date of birth and date deceased. A sad fate to befall anyone for sure, but it felt even more so because Billy came from prominence. Like any such tragic stories it’s complicated and nuanced and I won’t pretend to have all the answers – nor do I know all the details of the story – but what I do know is worth sharing.

Billy’s father, Bill Sr, was a well to do farmer in the Deep South. He was believed to be a direct descendant of a famous Revolutionary War general. The family owned and farmed large tracts of land, some of which was said to have been deeded to them by the British crown before the Revolutionary War.

Tobacco farming was big in those days. Bill Sr. was an excellent farmer and managed his money well. The story goes that one day Bill Sr. went to buy a new car and the salesman asked him which bank he’d draw the check on. Bill Sr. shrugged and replied, “which bank do you want?” He had enough money in any bank in town to pay for that new car. But Bill Sr. was also a tough character, a childhood friend of Billy’s who knew him well said Bill Sr. cursed a lot, even by standards of the day.

Many of the subsequent details are vague or missing. Billy’s childhood friend once confided in me that he has little or no memory for a period of about a year in the late 1960s. Drugs, alcohol, social change, it was a turbulent time and perhaps even more so for rural area kids of a certain privilege. One night Billy’s childhood friend drove his muscle car home from the beach as hard as he could. In the haze of alcohol he thought he was going north of 100MPH on a county road only to realize when he pulled into his daddy’s farm that he’d literally never gotten that Mustang out of second gear. That night Billy’s childhood friend quit hard liquor forever, he later enlisted in the US Marines and lived well through his adult years, as he still does today.

Billy always claimed to have spent time in Vietnam during the most difficult years of that conflict. I don’t know if that’s true or not but there was a DD-214 in his belongings when we eventually cleaned out the farm. As best as I can tell during his adult years Billy dabbled in real estate and invested in various businesses. Most of the time he teetered on the edge of trouble, eventually spending time in Federal penitentiary on multiple occasions for drug and other offenses.

Other than drugs and alcohol there was trauma in the family too. Billy’s sister had been in an abusive marriage for years when one night in a struggle she pulled out a gun and shot her husband dead. Bill Sr. hired all the best lawyers in the state and eventually she was acquitted.

When Bill Sr. passed away Billy and his sister inherited nearly equal tracts of land but by then farming in that part of the state had largely given way to suburban sprawl. As it were, Billy’s farm was close to a popular beach town and by virtue of booming land values Billy and his sister were millionaires back in a day when a million dollars was still considered a small fortune. Cars, boats, women, expensive homes, motorcycles and shady friends. I don’t know exactly how or when but most of the family fortune was eventually squandered. Around the time I met Billy about a decade ago he was believed to have sold a piece of land for nearly $4 million dollars. Only a few years later when we tried to protect the family farm from foreclosure we were never able to account for any of that money other than a handful of cars and motorcycles sitting in various shady shops around the county.

After his last stint in jail Billy’s health was poor and he’d fallen back into drugs and alcohol. One day late summer this past year his childhood friend went to check on him and found him dead. When I wondered out loud how a young man with so much promise could end up living so much tragedy Billy’s childhood friend offered his opinion:

“Too damn much money” he responded.

You could certainly argue that having more money than you need to live comfortably tends to invite trouble but I’ve always wondered about another issue: the tragedy of Mary Lou.

You see, both Billy and his sister are believed to have been adopted. Mary Lou, a third sibling a few years older than Billy, was Bill Sr.’s only biological child. Things were different back in those days and farming was still quite dangerous. One day little Mary Lou wandered around on the farm when she was kicked in the head by a mule. Bill Sr. jumped in one of his many cars that were sitting around the farm but in a tragic twist of fate, one of his quirky habits was that he had many cars but every last one was low on gas all the time. On the bridge over the river into town, Bill Sr. ran out of gas. By the time Mary Lou finally got to the hospital it was too late. She was only 3.

I’ve always wondered how that damn tragedy affected Bill Sr, was his gruff character related to some horrible guilt feeling? Life and the hereafter are complicated issues but I think the Coco movie put forth a defensible theory: little Mary Lou is not gone as long as somebody in this world is willing to remember her story.