Review: Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live

I like classic cars. To me they are rolling pieces of art, and the pinnacle of car shows is probably the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Several months ago an article featuring that show popped up in my timeline. It was by Michael Mechanic and it led me to his book Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live – and How Their Wealth Harms Us All. It’s an entertaining and well-researched look into the lives of the very wealthy, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in such things.

TLDR; This is a very long post containing lots of personal stories. Feel free to skip and just buy the book.

Jackpot Book Cover

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina called Asheboro. I don’t really remember being exposed to very wealthy people back then. Of course we had our rich people, mainly business owners or doctors, and they lived up on Dave’s Mountain, or what we just called “The Mountain”. The poor people, mainly Black, lived in a section of town called “The Hill”. But in my solidly middle class neighborhood I don’t remember wealth really being a thing.

When I graduated high school I moved to Los Angeles to attend college. That was my first real contact with wealthy people. One of my friends was in a family that was considered one of the top ten wealthiest in the country, worth billions of dollars back in the early 1980s when a billion dollars meant something. My friend was very down to earth (he drove a ‘vette, a Chevette) and in the brief experience I had in his world I didn’t see much in the way of conspicuous consumption, it was more just the scale of things.

While I would get introduced to his friends wearing watches worth more than my yearly tuition, his house, while large, wasn’t extravagant, and the main difference between his bedroom and mine was the size (his was larger and had its own bathroom). He taught me a lot about how money worked in Beverly Hills, and the stratification even among the wealthy (the wealthiest families lived north of Sunset, and it went down as you moved south of Sunset, north of Whilshire and then finally south of Whilshire).

Me in Beverly Hills circa 1986

The school I was attending, Harvey Mudd College, was home to a lot of smart people, and several of my friends, upon graduation, moved to Seattle to work with this little start up known as Microsoft. Many of them are retired now, as they’d hit the jackpot. During the next few years Microsoft stock would split 8 times. So if you joined with, say, options on 1000 shares for one dollar, you now had 256,000 shares at 1/256th of a dollar per share.

The end of the 20th century was a lot like the end of the 19th century. In the latter businesses such as railroads and oil minted a large number of nouveau riche, and at the end of the former computers and the Internet did the same.

I was not one of them. However, even though I’m not in the 1%, or even the 2%, I have a number of friends who are and so I like to say I’m “1% adjacent”. I get to see some of the benefits and problems their wealth brings.

The title Jackpot refers to this, sometimes sudden, increase in wealth. The book starts off with an Introduction where we meet Nick Hanauer. In the early 1990s he put up $45,000 for a 1% stake in Amazon. As you can imagine, it is worth considerably more now. While Hanauer states he is “not a billionaire” he is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and unlike others who “spend the rest of their days trying to make their big pile of money even bigger” he wants to use his money for something more meaningful.

In addition to profiling the lives of the wealthy, the book aims to look at the social impact of wealth disparity. Most of the very rich are, indeed, focused on making themselves richer versus the improving society as a whole, and Jackpot examines the reasons why.

When large amounts of wealth is held in the hands of the few, it can lower the standard of living for the rest of the population.

As an example, when I was in primary school we learned about the difference between “mean” and “median“. If you have an array of values, the “mean” is the average of those values (add them up and divide by the number of entries). The “median” is the middle number of those values if they are arranged in order. For many distributions the mean and median are the same.

Suppose I have this series:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5

In this case the mean is “3” (15/5) and the median is also “3”.

But what if I change the last number:

1, 2, 3, 4, 10

Then the mean goes to “4” (20/5) while the median stays at “3”. The median is important in that it represents the value at which half of the samples are less and half are more. In many cases it is more representative of the “common” value than an average.

How does this relate to the super-rich? Well according to the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) by the Federal Reserve the median household net worth in the US was $121,411 in 2019. But due to the ultra-wealthy the average household net worth was $746,821, over six times greater. Looking at my simple example above you can imagine how skewed those top numbers have to be in order to cause such a difference.

One thing I love about Jackpot are the copious notes. I have pestered the author numerous times over the last few months to run down his sources that weren’t apparent from the appendices, and I like the fact that his book is well researched (and that Mr. Mechanic has been very tolerant of my pestering).

I can remember the Occupy Wall Street movement back in 2011 which was the first time I’d ever heard the term “The 1%”, referring to those people who are in the top 1% in net worth in the US. To many it means the very wealthy, but as we learn in the Introduction the bottom threshold for being in the 1% is $5.6 million (in 2019).

Being “1% adjacent” I can say that those who are just over that threshold aren’t the super rich. As Mechanic puts it “they are just 5 percenters with a nice house and a bigger security blanket”. My 1% friends don’t worry much about where their next meal is coming from or where they are going to live, but they aren’t out buying yachts. When we talk, the number one financial issue tends to be preparing for retirement. In North Carolina the average cost per person for assisted living is $45K/year, and by the time we reach the age where we might need it, it will be closer to $100K/year for a nice facility. Assume you might need it for 20 years and then you are looking at $2 million total, perhaps twice that for a couple. It takes a huge bite out of that $5.6 million.

When people think of “The 1%” I believe they are really referencing “The 0.1%”, which is a net worth of around $29.4 million. That’s when managing your money becomes a task in an of itself. It is above the level where you can avoid inheritance tax, and while you may have money worries retirement won’t be one of them.

The next tier is “The 0.01%” which has an ante of $157 million in net worth, where your wealth can take on a life of its own, and “The 0.001%” or the billionaires, even though admission to that club comes in at a paltry $800 million.

After the Introduction, the book jumps in to the idea of hitting the jackpot, which can take many forms. Most of the people I’ve know who have hit the jackpot have been in tech, or they’ve owned businesses that are related to tech, but you can hit the jackpot by winning the lottery or getting an unexpected inheritance. They all come with their own set of problems, but the common theme is going from “normal” money to crazy money. Apparently you end up with a lot of new friends when that happens, as well as relatives you never knew you had.

I have to admit that I play the lottery, but I have a particular rule. I can only spend $1 for every $100 million in jackpot prize money. Since the minimum ticket price for Powerball or Mega Millions is $2, I don’t play unless the jackpot is at least $200 million.

That limits how often I play but also gives me a certain level of entertainment. The odds of choosing the winning numbers in Powerball, for example, are over 292 million to one (close to picking a particular American adult out of the total population). The minimum jackpot is $20 million but to be honest even though $20 million would be life changing, it isn’t as life changing as $200 million (sort of like the difference between the 1% and the 0.01%). Part of my lottery fantasy involves calling my lawyer, who would assist in helping us remain anonymous. Another part involves hiring an Air Force friend of mine to pilot my private jet (grin).

Which leads us to the next section of the book, which is what to do with all this money. Of course the ultra-rich are known for owning multiple houses, exotic cars and boats, but what is funny is that extravagant spending on items is not common among my wealthy friends. They tend to be much more frugal, and when they spend money they spend it on experiences.

A couple of things to unpack here. When it comes to cars, as much as I love nice cars the most we’ve ever spent was $52K on a new Lexus, back in 2010. I really like getting a deal, and there are some amazing deals to be had in the secondary car market. I’m addicted to a website called Bring a Trailer, which is where I bought my 2003 Mercedes SL55. It was $129K new (or $183K in 2021 dollars) and I got it for just over $30K. Now $30K isn’t chump change but considering a new Camry will cost more it is a bargain. On Bring a Trailer I’ve seen pristine Bentley’s go for $50K as well as nice Aston Martins. Of course someone just bought an Integra for $112K so not everything is at the bottom of the depreciation curve, and now people who were kids in the 1990s have the wealth to buy the cars they wanted when they were young.

Even where I live in rural North Carolina it isn’t rare to see a high end BMW, or a Tesla Model S on the road, both $100K+ cars, but there would be a social stigma associated with driving, say, a Ferrari around town. A new Corvette or a high end pickup, sure, but conspicuous consumption is frowned upon.

I’m reminded of an apocryphal story about Rolls-Royce. In the late 1970s the company was not doing well, surviving mainly on its airplane engine business. In the car business they were seeing increased competition from competitors like Mercedes and BMW. The new Rolls-Royce CEO’s course of action was to triple their prices. Demand shot through the roof. While certain rich people could afford a $80K car, only the most wealthy could buy a $240K car. In microeconomics when demand goes up with price it is called a Giffen Good and these always reflect value external to the good itself, such as being able to broadcast one’s wealth by what car you drive.

It’s not all happiness, though. One friend of mine bought a McLaren. He loved the beauty of its engineering but the darn thing often wouldn’t start. He seemed really happy when he sold it.

The second thing to unpack is that another way to spend money is not on things but on experiences. Seen all those multi-millionaires going into to space?

Even my frugal rich friends are prone to spend more money on a prime experiences than on a nice thing. This reminds me of another great book called Happy Money that did research showing that the happiness that people get from buying things tends to fade a lot more quickly than the happiness they get from an experience, especially if that experience involves some form of anticipation.

Being 1% adjacent I’ve been able to experience some things the wealthy take for granted. I like fine dining, and years ago I was able to eat at my first and only Michelin three-star restaurant, the Alinea in Chicago. At around $600 per person, including wine paring, it isn’t cheap, but I thought the experience was worth every penny. Note that for me this is a once in a decade thing.

The other thing the very wealthy do is take elaborate vacations. Again, I don’t have the means to copy them but I did travel a lot for work, and using points and miles earned from that travel we have been able to experience how the other half lives. We’ve stayed in high end hotels in numerous countries and we get there flying either business or first class, but that involved a lot of planning and the judicious use of said points and miles.

For example, we had the desire to visit New Zealand. Using my American Airlines miles we got business class airfare but part of the trip was on Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways) and it took us through Nadi, Fiji. We decided to spend a few days there on a layover, and I found an amazing resort called Navini Island. It looks like the all-inclusive resort now runs a little over US$500/night but when we went it was less than $400/night per couple.

Meanwhile, there is another resort in Fiji called Turtle Island. While Navini is very small, about 6 acres, Turtle Island is 500 acres and was the site of the 1980 film The Blue Lagoon. Although I can’t find a current cost online I remember it running around five times that of Navini, more like US$2500/night per couple.

The reason I bring this up is that I first heard of Turtle Island from a 2008 blog post [link currently broken] by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He went there and had an amazing time, but I couldn’t understand what would make it five times better, so I sent him an e-mail asking his thoughts. He wrote back “I wasn’t in charge of Fiji island picking but it was worth the money.”

My guess is that at his wealth level the difference didn’t matter as much as it would to someone like me.

However, one of the nice things about being 1% adjacent is that sometimes it doesn’t cost me anything to take a vacation. Several years ago we went to Chicago. When I mentioned to a friend of mine who lived there that we were coming, he was like, hey, I’ll be out of town that weekend, why don’t you stay in my luxury high-rise apartment? So for the cost of an hour or so cleaning up after our visit and a nice bottle of tequila as a thank you gift, we got to stay in an amazing place costing thousands of dollars per month.

In another instance I was going to London on a business trip. I had another friend who had a Council Flat outside of Borough Market, but when I was going to be in town her and her husband were staying at their place in Paris. They offered to let me stay in their flat for the cost of a cleaning fee, about £50. Much less than the cost of a hotel and it was a nicer experience being in a neighborhood in London than in a city hotel.

This is another thing that is brought up in Jackpot. Rich people tend to have rich people friends, and so they often don’t have to spend much to take a vacation. Bill might want to visit the Maldives so he just stays at Jeff’s place, and when Jeff wants to take a vacation he might crash at Bill’s place in the Caymans.

One place where the rich are different from others is in their houses. If you want to buy a $400K car you can’t just park it on your suburban street, and expensive houses tend to clustered with other expensive houses. One thing these high-end neighborhoods pride themselves on is privacy, but another way to look at it is isolation.

In the firmly middle class neighborhood where I grew up, everyone knew everyone else. If I happened to be at Alan Bass’s house at lunch time, his mother would feed me. The same as if he were at mine, my mom would feed him. I can remember riding my bike down our hill at speed and I wrecked trying to take a corner (I think I was around five). I crashed in Archie Farley’s yard, who taught physics at the local high school, and he came out, calmed me down and took me home. I’m not sure this would happen in a rich neighborhood, or if such play would even be allowed.

Mechanic talks about the effect this has on the rich, and how things like houses turn into a competition with one’s neighbors. As Sam Polk states in the book “Most of the search for wealth is not about how good the stuff is. It’s about what the stuff says about how valuable a person you are.”

Now once you have the house and car, what else could you want? How about attention. Of course all this money isn’t worth anything if you aren’t around to enjoy it, so you need to stay healthy. The rich have access to all sorts of concierge level medical care that the rest of us couldn’t afford.

I have some friends who used to get yearly checkups at the Mayo Clinic. These were two-day “head to toe” affairs where all aspects of their health were evaluated. One thing they really liked about the service was that each different physician they saw shared information, so there were few forms to fill out and little repetition. If you are rich your time is important.

When I was in college hanging with my friend with the ‘vette, he told me that in addition to the green, gold and platinum AMEX cards that there was a special “black” card for the ultra-wealthy. At the time it was an urban legend, but in 1999 they decided to make it a reality with The Centurion Card. This invite-only card apparently gets you access to amazing concierge services. No one knows what it takes to get an invite, but I had a friend who spent $35K/month for years on his AMEX card and didn’t get one.

The second part of the book focuses on various aspects of being super-wealthy. In many cases it is driven by the desire to keep up with your peers.

At some point, your wealth requires both people to manage it and to isolate you from people who would seek you out in the hope of getting some of it. Can you trust the people who manage your money? One of the things that stuck out about this part was that people I know in the 1%, but not the 0.1%, are often affected by things out of their control but they don’t have the resources to, say, hire lobbyists to get it addressed. One recent change to the tax code involving foreign assets has a friend of mine looking at spending $250K just to properly file their taxes and that isn’t a negligible amount to them.

Tax law often has unexpected consequences. When it was made mandatory that public corporations report executive compensation, the idea was that by making it public it would shame them into keeping such compensation modest. The exact opposite happened, and executive compensation skyrocketed. From the book:

In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of the 350 largest public companies collected about twenty-one times as much compensation as the typical worker, on average. That’s a big difference, but people could still relate to one another. As of 2019, the ratio was 320-to-1.

Another issue facing the rich is interactions with those who have less than them. Being 1% adjacent I seem to be able to get along well with those both above and below my economic bracket, but I can remember one embarrassing mistake I once made.

We were out with another couple who we hadn’t seen in awhile, and we all liked good food. We were at a high-end Italian restaurant and we were getting treated very well, since I had been introduced to the owner through one of his relatives I knew from one of my customers. We had a long meal with several courses and a number of bottles of wine.

When the check came I just suggested we split it, as this is very common among my friends as it makes things simple. I realized my mistake the moment the words came out of my mouth, judging from their expression. I had forgotten that this other couple didn’t make as much money as we did. They were both in very respectable positions but some of those don’t pay as much as a job in tech. But once the words were out I couldn’t take them back. I should have at least offered to pay for the wine, since it was my idea to order most of it. I felt horrible.

I later made it up to them by taking them out to an even nicer restaurant and insisting on paying, but I can’t help but wonder if they had to do without something because of that first meal we shared.

Jackpot also talks about issues around romance and security. If you are wealthy and single, how would you know if someone was interested in you and not just your money? Most of the rich people I know found their partners before they became rich, but one multimillionaire I’m acquainted with has just decided never to get married because they simply can’t tell.

With respect to security, I knew a person who was working with a billionaire and brought him a small, wrapped gift, which he put down on the conference table they were using. Very calmly one of the billionaire’s security team discreetly picked it up to be opened and examined later.

In 1994 a rather controversial book called The Bell Curve was published that showed how society filters people out by cognitive ability. The first separation is between those people who finish high school and those that don’t, followed by people who go to college versus those who don’t. College students are further filtered by which schools they attend. One statistic, that I’m quoting from memory, was that if you distributed people with a Ph.D. degree throughout the population, the average person would know about two. I can name twenty without straining very hard.

The same thing happens to rich people, especially their children. They go to private schools with other rich people’s kids, and then on to elite colleges and universities, thus often isolating them from people who aren’t rich. Plus, when it comes time to enter the work force, they have the connections to get those high paying jobs.

And what about the security of those children? While you might think the worst thing upon hitting the jackpot would be a shirttail relative hitting you up for money, what if a not so nice person wants access to your money through kidnapping.

Being the child of rich parents has its own problems. One often associates drug use with the poor, but one study of 1800 students in Texas found that 30% of both the richest and the poorest kids reported using drugs, compared to 18% of the middle income students.

As I don’t have offspring, the sections on the issues rich people face with respect to caring for their children as well as passing on wealth were interesting, but didn’t really resonate with me. However, at the end of Part II Mechanic begins to address how this wealth inequality affects society. One paragraph I highlighted

Successful people tend to feel deserving of their lot, research suggests, regardless of whatever advantages they may have enjoyed in life. As a corollary, they tend to view less fortunate people as having earned their lack of success. “So you’re more likely to make sense of inequality,” Piff explains, “to justify it, make inequality seem equitable”

The “Piff” in the above quote is researcher Paul Piff, who sometimes uses the game Monopoly to explain wealth disparity. People who lose at Monopoly tend to blame it on bad luck, whereas winners often brag about their superior strategy. Even though the game is heavily skewed toward random events, winners feel that they have earned their win.

I was exposed to this a lot growing up. Poor people were poor because they were lazy, not because of external factors.

Being a member of the oppressive color, language, age and gender, I was a beneficiary of the American Dream. My grandfather worked in a coal mine and died of Black Lung Disease when my father was 17. My father grew up in a four room house, not a four bedroom house, and supported his family by taking an apprenticeship at Westinghouse and attending night school at the nearby university. His seven year journey to a degree was broken up by a stint in the Reserves. To say he worked his ass off is an understatement, but that allowed him to to get a good job in manufacturing and to provide a nice existence for my mother, my sister and myself.

I used my middle class security to get options not available to everyone else. I was lucky enough to attend the NC School of Science and Math for high school, and that allowed me to get into good colleges. I didn’t do very well in school but I had a safety net in my family that did eventually see me graduate, and later in life my ability to take risks allowed me to start my own company which was sold two decades later for a modest, but not insignificant, payday.

Success is often a combination of hard work and a lot of luck.

The final section of the book talks about how wealth inequality skews the game in favor of the wealthy, and how wealth is skewed toward those in the highest percentile (remember my mention of median vs. mean wealth above). Wealth grants you access to politicians, who can, in turn, help protect and increase that wealth.

As someone who lives in the South, I am surprised at how many people vote for politicians who don’t have their best interests at heart. I think, in part, it is this myth that with hard work anyone can join the 1%, and in turn the 1% can join the 0.1%.

I can remember during the Obama administration he worked to implement tax cuts for the middle class. As I was driving to the office one day I got behind a dually pickup truck that had one a sticker saying “I’ll keep my guns, my money and my religion, and you can keep ‘the change'”.

This was an obvious criticism of Obama, and when I got closer I saw that the truck belonged to the owner of a local RV park. I couldn’t help but think that I probably paid more in taxes than this guy made that year, but he was of the opinion that Obama’s policies would hurt him.

The differences in wealth distribution are staggering. In 2019 if you were in the 90th percentile (the top 10%) you had an average individual (not family) net worth of $2.8 million. For the 80th percentile that dropped to $555K, for the 70th it was $293K and for the 60th percentile it was $152K. At the 24th percentile your net worth was around $199 and it quickly drops below zero after that.

Often when talking about wealth, annual income is referenced along with net worth. To be in the 1% you need to have an annual household income of around $481K per year (in 2019). I always discount that as I know a number of people who work in Silicon Valley who make very high salaries but due to the cost of living have little net worth. If those people can’t manage to generate wealth I think it would be very difficult for someone making a lot less to manage it, but there is still that dream.

The dream is perpetuated by any number of “wealth gurus” who promise riches to those who pay to attend their seminars. They fuel “false beliefs about wealth and mobility” that all you need to do to become wealthy is work hard. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

Anyone who builds a company works their tail off. But some founders are more clear-eyed than others. Jerry Fiddler worked one-hundred-hour weeks at Wind River Systems, but “anybody who tells you that they are wealthy because they work harder is either lying to you or they’re lying to themselves. My cleaning lady works harder than I do and doesn’t make as much money,” he told me. “The work is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.”

The book also addresses the differences in wealth and race. I found this particularly interesting considering the current outcry against Critical Race Theory (CRT). When the whole CRT outrage popped up a few months ago, I had never heard of it, so I did a little research. It is a bit esoteric, being a subject taught in graduate level law programs for those who are seeking a doctorate in jurisprudence, and isn’t a common subject for most law students. My interpretation of CRT is that, since there are no significant genetic differences between White people and people of color, the differences in outcomes concerning wealth and influence must be due to something else.

That’s it.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

I think part of the furor over CRT comes from this idea people have that the playing field is level for everyone and they “earned” their wealth through hard work, not realizing the indirect help they had along the way. I’ve worked very hard in my life, as did my father and his father, but we all had certain advantages that created an atmosphere where we could succeed. From the book:

“I run on the beach,” Paul Piff told me by way of illustration. “Some days I feel like I’m going particularly fast, and on those very same days, when I’m coming back, I feel like, ‘Whoa, that is a heavy wind and it’s making me go slower.’ I didn’t realize when I was going fast that there was wind pushing me.”

When people claim that race makes no difference in the US, all you have to do is look at the nation’s billionaires. In 2020 there were 788 of them, and considering the population of the US is 13.4% Black, we should have 105 Black billionaires.

There are seven.

Every week I meet up for lunch with some gentlemen who call themselves “The Old Farts Club”. Most are in their 70s and 80s, and in the past were involved in local politics. One week I brought up the idea of reparations, meaning a one time monetary payment to descendants of former slaves as restitution. I haven’t made my mind up on whether or not this is something we, as a society, should do, but as an extreme extrovert I tend to do my thinking out loud.

So I decided to do the math, but I had a lot of trouble finding consistent numbers for household wealth (or even the number of households). Using the numbers from the book, the median net worth of White US households is around $171K, and for Black households $17K, for a difference of $154K. So I asked myself, what would it cost?

The next step would be to determine the number of Black households in the US, and I get values from 10 million to 15 million. Taking the average, 12.5 million, I come up with $19.2 trillion, which is less than the current US debt of $28 trillion (as I post this) but it is still an astronomical number that illustrates the impact race has on wealth in this country.

Another minority impacted when it comes to wealth are women. Even though they make up more than half of the population, they only represent 7.4% of the CEOs in the Fortune 500. There are a number of reasons for this. It was mentioned that one way to financial success is to go to the right college, but the Ivy league schools were some of the last to go co-ed. Also, a lot of people who hit the jackpot do so in tech, and tech is a male dominated field (think of the “tech bros“). The irony is that evidence suggests that women make “superior stewards” of wealth but they are often excluded from the top ranks of finance.

The final part of the book talks about the options the rich have for giving away their wealth. There is a lot to consider, including how much to leave to family and deciding which organizations should get those funds. The Giving Pledge is a promise by some of the world’s wealthy to give away half of their fortune either during their lifetime or before they die.

I have spent a lot of time thinking of the impact the ultra-rich could have if they decided to part with even a fraction of their wealth.

I have a friend who is a policeman in Durham, NC, and I occasionally go on ride-a-longs with him. On one of those he had to respond to a shooting at McDougald Terrace (known locally as “The Mac”), a housing project that evokes Chicago’s Cabrini Green and is home to around 300 families. There have been a lot of issues with the buildings, and there is a plan underway to renovate them, at a cost estimated to be near $20 million.

While that is a lot of cash, it’s “lunch money” to those worth hundreds of billions. Bill Gates once said he could spend $3 million a day, every day, for 100 years and not run out of money, and that assumes he doesn’t make another cent.

As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed this book, and I don’t read much non-fiction. When I was in school I studied Spanish, and with that came the study of countries that speak Spanish as their primary language. A lot of them, especially in the western hemisphere, have not been very politically stable. My teacher pointed out (in the late 1970s) that the reason these countries have such issues and the United States doesn’t has nothing to do with language but instead it is because the US has a large middle class. In countries where wealth is hoarded by the few, that wealth tends to get redistributed by revolution. But the middle class is shrinking which doesn’t bode well for the continued stability of the United States. The first step in stopping this is understanding why, and this book is a good start.

COVID Update

Today is Day 11 since I first showed symptoms of COVID, and I plan to stop isolating, but I thought I’d share some frustrations about the whole experience.

Once I tested positive my main concern was not infecting others, especially Andrea. I immediately isolated myself to the master bedroom and the study, which is a room off the master bedroom with its own door to the outside, while she kept to the rest of the house. We banished the pets from the master bedroom as well. I know cats can get COVID and I believe there have been some cases where dogs have it and I didn’t want to risk them getting infected from me. I only know of two confirmed cases where animals have given COVID to humans (minks and hamsters) but I didn’t want to take any chances.

My dog was not happy.

I reached out to my primary care provider with UNC Health Care, but as I get the opinion he tends to think COVID is no big deal, he wasn’t very helpful. So I turned to the CDC which gave me this advice on isolation:

  • Isolation can be discontinued at least 5 days after symptom onset (day 1 through day 5 after symptom onset, with day 0 being the first day of symptoms), and after resolution of fever for at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and with improvement of other symptoms.
  • These people should continue to properly wear a well-fitted mask around others at home and in public for 5 additional days (day 6 through day 10 after symptom onset) after the 5-day isolation period.

Hrm. I got the whole isolate for five days thing, but I was a little confused about the second half. Of course I minimized the time I was around Andrea and I was always wearing an N95 mask when I had to be out, but I wasn’t going to sleep in it so obviously I still needed to isolate for the full ten days, right?

After two years of this mess, I found isolation to be very difficult. It was easy to get through it when I could spend time with Andrea, but being apart sucked. We used text messages to communicate, and as we still have wired phone service it turns out that our awesome vtech cordless phones have an intercom function, which we ended up using a lot. My symptoms faded after about five days but Andrea came down with cold symptoms as well, and hers were worse than mine. The day after I tested positive she got a negative PCR test, and when our free government lateral flow tests showed up she took one of those and it was negative as well.

For me Day 5 was last Thursday, so I decided to take one of those government tests. If you haven’t used one, it is pretty simple. You take a nose swab and then you place that into a buffer solution. You then place four drops of the solution onto the test device. There is an absorbent strip that will pull the liquid over to the testing area which consists of two sections, a “T” or test section and a “C” or control section. The line for the control section is always supposed to appear in order to demonstrate the device is working, but the “T” line should only show up if you are positive for COVID. When the liquid on my test hit the “T” line it immediately turned red, so I knew I wasn’t ready to end isolation.

COVID Linear Flow Test

On Friday Andrea got a second PCR test as she was still having a pretty bad cough and sore throat, but it turned out to be negative as well. If she was exposed to COVID, either at the same time I was or through me, I think the reason she never developed enough of a viral load to test positive is that her booster was given just before Christmas while mine was back at the beginning of October.

One of the benefits of testing positive at a research hospital is that UNC was happy to enroll me in three research projects. Andrea and I are both participating in one that is studying how COVID might be transmitted in a household. Every day we both take nose swabs as well as filling out a questionnaire about how we are feeling and how much we interact. This goes on for ten days so I hope they get some good data out of it.

Another concerned the question of whether over the counter mouthwash could kill the virus. I ended up having to spit in a tube, then I used some mouthwash, then I spit in another tube as well as three more 15 minutes apart.

Finally, on Monday I start a long term COVID study where they will take various fluids out of me, periodically, for a year.

Science!

It’s a little inconvenient but I hope they get some useful information out of it.

As I am very eager to end isolation the next question I had was, when? I thought the best thing to do would be to get another PCR test at day 10 and if that was negative I could assume it would be safe to stop, but UNC doesn’t want you to get another test until 90 days after you last tested positive. I found some advice on a UK website that suggested you needed a negative test before stopping isolation, so I did find a place in Chatham County where I could get tested.

That test came back negative this morning. Yay! I really don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t.

So now I’m busy washing all the sheets I slept in for the past ten days and luckily it is supposed to be warm this afternoon so I plan to open up the windows and air out the bedroom and the study. I’ll still minimize all contact with others outside the home until at least Monday, but I should be recovered and non-contagious. On the upside, being triple vaxxed and having had COVID my antibodies should be as strong as ever.

A lot of places, including North Carolina where I live, are starting to drop mask mandates and I’m still a bit hesitant, especially due to my recent positive test. Even before that I came up with a metric that I plan to use to define “normal”, which is based on current hospitalizations in my State. When I started tracking them they were just above 4000, and as of yesterday they were 2215. Once it drops below 1000 I’ll feel more confident about being more relaxed about COVID, and as always I hope my three readers remain safe and healthy.

Feelin’ Pretty Positive

Despite my best efforts, I’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19.

COVID Positive Test Result

I am not happy with this at all, considering that while many people in my State have giving up on wearing masks I’ve continued to take all precautions when going out, including wearing a mask and hand washing. I’ve also had three shots of Pfizer’s vaccine, the last being on October 5th, and that pretty much lines up with the CDC reporting booster effectiveness fading after four months.

My infection started out like a cold. I have a pretty standard reaction to getting a cold. First, I get a mild sore throat which is soon followed by nasal congestion. Then my throat gets more painful for a couple of days and as that fades my congestion gets worse. Finally that fades and I’m done.

When I get that first sore throat I usually take Zicam. Of all the “remedies” recommended for colds, over the years taking zinc seems to shorten my cold’s duration. It could be the placebo effect but it seems to work for me.

On Saturday I noticed the start of a sore throat, so I started taking Zicam and paying attention to my temperature, which was normal. Saturday was beautiful, weather-wise, so I did a lot of work outside, but Sunday was gray and rainy. I started having mild nasal congestion and fatigue, so since the weather was conducive to staying in bed that’s what I did.

We had plans to visit with friends to watch the Super Bowl, but I cancelled them. I felt bad since they had prepared a lot of snacks, but after my positive test all that guilt went away (and they seemed relieved).

I still wasn’t feeling well so I ended up going to bed about five minutes into the third quarter. I did have a mild fever at the time, 99.4F, so out of an abundance of caution I scheduled a COVID test for Monday.

We live close to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, and they use an patient portal from Epic called “My Chart” that makes it real easy to do things like schedule a COVID test and get the results. I’ve had several done at their drive through testing site and the list of available appointments was wide open. I chose one for 11am.

When I woke up on Monday my fever was gone and I felt better, but I decided to keep the appointment. I was the only car there (one other showed up while I was filling out paperwork) which was quite a change from the other times I had been tested. The technician was very thorough (she got that swab up there) and the whole process took less than ten minutes.

About five hours later I got my positive result.

I was way more depressed and upset than I thought I would be, and Andrea and I immediately went into lockdown mode. My office is right off the master bedroom, so I took over those two rooms while Andrea stayed in the rest of the house with the pets. I do need to go out for food and drinks so I put on a mask to do that, and Andrea is on her way to take a COVID test as I write this.

If she’s negative, which I hope, I assume I’ll isolate through the weekend. If she’s positive, then I guess there is no reason to isolate from each other.

Being a geek I wanted to know as much as I could about my infection. The PCR test was performed using the “Abbott Alinity m Resp-4-Plex assay” and I did find mention that there was a chance of false positives in the past, but apparently that was due to the way the samples were mixed and has been corrected (fluid from one sample could get into another). My results also have a “Flag” of “A” but no one can tell me what that means. I asked my GP if the test could tell me the variant, and he said no, but I assume it was Omicron.

I use the SlowCOVIDNC app on my phone, so I felt duty-bound to inform any other user who has been around me of my positive test. In order to do this you have to have a PIN, but when I went to the site to get one, it couldn’t find my positive test. I called the number as requested and was told it could take up to 24 hours for them to receive my test results.

This morning I got an e-mail from UNC with a link that lead me to a cute little “chat” screen that walks you through the “now that you have COVID” scenario.

UNC COVID Chat Screenshot

Basically follows CDC guidelines that you isolate for five days, and mask for ten.

I did finally receive an e-mail from the “NC COVID Community Team”, which is associated with the SlowCOVIDNC app, sending me more information about my positive test result. I figured. in that case, I should be able to get my PIN but once again the website claimed it couldn’t find my record. However, when I called the help number they were able to give it to me and now I’ve updated the app to notify anyone who was near me over the last two weeks. I really can’t imagine it finding any one but it doesn’t tell you the number of people it will notify.

As for symptoms it feels like a mild cold with the exception of body aches. My neck is really sore and as I was working this morning (yay, remote work) the pain spread through my joints to my arms and hips. I’ve decided to work as much as I can but it looks like half days for awhile, so I took a long nap after lunch and the pain seems to have subsided a bit. It’s apparently due to inflammation caused by my body fighting off the infection, and I’m going to take some Advil and hope that helps.

I’ve heard a lot of people that have had COVID say that it is no big deal, and compared to, say, my traffic accident, that’s true. But people are still dying from this thing and even young people have lost limbs, and the long term affects are still unknown. I’m a bit touchy at the moment when I read news articles that say it is way over time to just get back to normal, because I did almost everything I could to avoid getting infected and it wasn’t enough. I’m harboring a little anger at the person who gave it to me as now my productivity has been cut in half for probably a week and I had to spend Valentine’s Day separated from Andrea. Not huge sacrifices compared to some but what pisses me off is that this whole thing could have been avoided.

Anyway, stay safe, get your shots, keep wearing those masks and be kind to one another.

Hello 2022

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, second only to Thanksgiving. Even though the timing is arbitrary (it falls well after the winter solstice and a few days before perihelion) and nothing substantial really changes in my life from those few minutes before midnight until a few minutes after, I like the idea of getting a somewhat clean slate and a fresh start.

After the train wreck that was 2020 and the “not much better” that was 2021, I am cautiously optimistic about 2022. I’m going forward without resolutions except trying to become a better person, but I am trying to do that all of the time. But I am refraining from statements like “2022 is gonna be great!” etc. For example, where I live the high temperature today was 78.4F (nearly 26C) which is not what I expect on the first day of January. Is that just a nice day or the harbinger of something worse?

For me the main thing about 2022 is that it is the first year I’ve ever experienced that contained three 2s. It made me think about how often that has happened, and it turns out this is just the third time.

The first “three 2” year was 222, of course, and it took a thousand years before 1222 became the second year. Now eight hundred years have passed since then to get us to 2022.

The next one is a rather rapid one hundred years away to 2122, then eighty years to 2202 and then it is just eighteen years to 2220, which will start a ten year run of “three 2” years.

I kept trying to figure out if there was a pattern:

1000, 800, 100, 80, 18

and perhaps there is some sort of mathematical series that defines when these numbers with duplicate digits appear, but I haven’t been able to find one.

For example, for “three 1” years you get 111 followed nine hundred years later by 1011 followed ninety years later by 1101, followed nine years later by 1110, which starts its ten year run:

900, 90, 9

Seems like there should be some way to express this but I’m not seeing it. Note that if you multiply these numbers by 2 you get 1800, 180 and 18, which looks familiar (grin)

So there you are: my gift to you for 2022. Figure out if there is a way to express the distance between numbers with duplicate digits, and any case I hope that 2022 is a great year for you and yours.

Science as Truth

Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson posted the following on Twitter.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Twitter Quote

I don’t follow him, but this was brought to my attention by a frozen meat company who did, as usual, an excellent job of invalidating his premise, and I do follow them. As someone who loves science, the idea that it equates to truth has bothered me so much that I wanted to put down some of my thoughts. Now NGT has over 14 million followers and I have about three readers so I understand that this represents extreme navel-gazing, but there is so much wrong with this tweet I had to say something and it won’t fit into 280 characters.

One of the most formative experiences in my life was that I was able to attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for my last two years of high school. I had a number of influential instructors, and high on the list was Dr. John Kolena. He would never say something like “Science is Truth” but might have said that science is the constant pursuit of truth.

I can remember my first real physics class with Doc John, where he stood at the front of the room and stated “everything I’m going to teach you this semestre is wrong”. He was referring to Newtonian physics, which for the longest time was considered “the truth” until it was replaced with Einsteinian physics. Newton’s theories resulted in the ability to predict amazing things, until they didn’t. Einstein’s theories both matched Newton’s predictions and extended them, being able to correctly predict things that Newton couldn’t, but even now scientists believe Einstein’s work is incomplete.

So how is this “truth”? NGT doubled down with a tweet pointing to a post of his from 2016 where he states:

Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false. We will not be revisiting the question of whether Earth is round; whether the sun is hot; whether humans and chimps share more than 98 percent identical DNA; or whether the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen.

Without devolving into solipsism, I find it amusing that he illustrates “objective truth” with a list of “subjective” examples. Yes, the Earth is round, but compared to what? The ideal of “roundness” is a sphere but the Earth is definitely not that. The sun is hot compared to the surface of the Earth but it is downright chilly compared to blue stars and nearly frozen compared to quasars. The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen but is that 78.0% or 78.5%?

Now, more than ever, we need to get people to understand that science comes with a healthy dose of doubt, but that is normal and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. The power of science is not in its exactness but in its ability to predict, and to get things done.

We obviously don’t fully understand how sub-atomic particles work, but that doesn’t prevent us from making electronics that allow me to type this blog post. With the recent pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine in the US due to the potential for blood clots doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get the shot. Science is working to understand “the truth” and sometimes this takes time.

I had a friend who was a nuclear physicist and he pointed out that in the 1940s it was considered “safe” for workers to be exposed to 25,000 millrems of radiation per year. That was the “objective truth” as determined by the science at the time. This “truth” was corrected to 15,000 millirems per year in the 1950s, and in 1957 was lowered even farther to 5,000 millirems, where it remains today.

All of these “truths” are approximations, and what I love about science is that real scientists not only know this, they embrace it. The beauty of science, the science I love, is the quest for truth and not this smug, elitist attitude that we’ve found it.

WRAL Goes to the Dark Side

I’m a fan, or was, of WRAL news. I’m especially fond of their meteorological team headed up by Greg Fishel, and I often access the weather using the Firefox browser on my iPhone.

Over the past week, however, when I visit the Weather page I get the following pop-up:

WRAL Support Us Pop-Up

What struck me as odd about the pop-up is that I don’t use ad-blockers. I realize that WRAL has to make money and that they do this by serving advertisements, and I’m okay with it. So why was their website telling me I had an ad-blocker installed?

I decided to follow the link to “disable” my ad-blocker, and came across this section:

WRAL Privacy Blocker Pop-Up

Oh, so what is causing the problem has nothing to do with advertisements. WRAL is upset that I don’t want them to be able to follow my browsing habits once I leave their site.

That is not acceptable.

No reputable website should demand that they get to infringe on your right to privacy by tracking your online habits. Online tracking is pretty sophisticated but Firefox includes ways to block that by default. Apparently the software being used by WRAL requires that this feature be disabled before you can visit their site, which points to even more nefarious problems.

WRAL Admiral Logo

Apparently this software is being provided by a company called Admiral. Looking at their website, I’m certain someone at WRAL got a call and was told that they were “losing money” because they weren’t forcing their users to disable ad-blocking and privacy measures. Without thinking too much about it, they went ahead and installed the software.

Which is a pretty crappy move for a news organization. They should have at least spent some time investigating the impact of what they were installing.

When I use Firefox on my desktop, I use a plug-in call “NoScript” that lets me control what software is executed on my browser. I wish I could say I was surprised when I saw all of the third-party software running on WRAL.com.

WRAL Third Party Javascript

Now there is no way that WRAL is aware of where all the data they are collecting on their visitors is going. They have no idea who gets access to your personal, private browsing data along with whatever else is being collected, but someone convinced them that this was a good thing in terms of revenue.

This whole experience has soured me on WRAL as a reliable site for news, so I’ve switched to CBS 17. At the moment I do not get a demand to turn of privacy controls when visiting their website. But I will miss Greg Fishel and the team.

Perhaps I should report this to “Five On Your Side“?

2017 Havana, Cuba

There are no mobile phone zombies in Cuba. That was one of the things I noticed right away. I don’t think that Cubans have any special resistance to the lure of the Internet, it is just that Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the world. I’d have to agree, since I’ve connected from places as remote at the Night Market in Siam Reap, Cambodia, and the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, yet had a hard time getting on the Internet from Havana.

But I get ahead of myself.

Many years ago I set the goal of visiting 50 countries before I turned 50. I didn’t make it. Cuba was the 40th country I’ve been in, if you include the United States.

Even though Cuba is very close to the United States, it has always seemed a bit mysterious to me because of the embargo. I do have friends who have visited, mostly from Europe, but one American friend of mine was able to go via Mexico. He was kind of upset – he arrived the day after Fidel Castro resigned. Last year I decided I was going to visit Cuba, but I wanted to do so legally, and thus I set out to find the requirements.

It turns out that one of the allowed reasons an American can visit Cuba is for “professional meetings”. As I work in both telecommunications and with free and open source software, I started searching for a conference I could attend. I discovered CubaConf, but was disappointed to learn that the conference had already been held for 2016.

So, I kept my eye out to see if the conference was going to be held again in 2017. When they announced November dates, I submitted a paper and was happy when it was accepted. I decided to take along my friend and coworker Alejandro. He was born and raised in Venezuela and thus speaks fluent Spanish, and while my Spanish is good enough that I might have been able to get by, it was extremely handy to have Alejandro around (plus I think he enjoyed the trip as well). I had wanted to spend as much time as possible in Cuba, but I also wanted to make sure I adhered to the travel rules, and since those forbid tourism outside of a registered tour we went down on Monday and returned on Friday (the conference was Tuesday through Thursday).

Due to the embargo, American banks cannot do business in Cuba, thus credit cards don’t work. Luckily, the two most expensive parts of the trip, airfare and lodging, could be arranged and paid for in advance. American Airlines has a number of flights to Havana, and AirBnB has a large presence in Cuba due to the tradition of “casa particulares” or “private homes”. There are hotels in Cuba but many people stay in rented rooms, usually in peoples’ homes. This matched perfectly with the AirBnB service and I was able to book a wonderful, three bedroom apartment in the heart of old Havana.

American Airlines Sign for Havana

We flew from RDU to Miami, and then took the short flight to Havana. Entering the country was pretty easy. You had to have a visa, which I bought beforehand, and you needed to fill out a health card, but outside of that the longest wait was for luggage. They do perform a thorough search of luggage, looking mainly for wireless electronics and other contraband, but as I had none of that my bag arrived pretty much unmolested.

Yaima, who was renting us the apartment, had arranged for a driver, so we were met after we exited customs. While Alejandro talked with him I went to the Exchange to get Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs (kooks). They map one to one with the US dollar, except they also charge an exchange fee (which doesn’t exists for euros or UK pounds). I had brought several hundred dollars in cash with me to cover expenses, and the whole process was pretty easy.

The airport is some distance outside of the city and so we got to see some of the area on our way to Old Havana. Our taxi was a later model car, I think it was a Nissan of some sort, and our driver was pretty quiet. We passed through the more modern section of Havana on our way to Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and you could tell when the buildings got older and the streets narrower.

When we arrived at the apartment building, the driver made a call and a large garage door came up. He drove in on the ground floor, which also served as the lobby, and we got out to check in to our room.

Our apartment was on the top floor, and it was very nice. It had three bedrooms. There was me and Alejandro but also my friend Elizabeth who I often see at open source conferences. She had heard about CubaConf from me and decided to attend as well, and so I offered up the last bedroom to her. There were two rooms with king-sized beds that shared a bathroom, and a smaller room next to the kitchen that Elizabeth took. On each end of the apartment was a balcony, and I spent a lot of time out on the front one enjoying the sights and sounds of Old Havana.

Our Apartment Balcony

Outside of the conference I had another objective. I wanted to visit three famous bars in Havana: El Floridita, Hotel Ambos Mundos and the Hotel Nacional. El Floridita was pretty close to our hotel, so as soon as we dropped off our bags, the three of us made our way there.

La Floridita

Old Havana is easy to walk, and we felt pretty safe for most of the trip, no matter how late it was. There were several “touts” trying to get you to go into a store or a restaurant, and one that kept coming up was “La Familia”. We were told by several people in the street, in both Spanish and English, that we should eat at La Familia. It was so prevalent that we made a group decision to never eat there.

El Floridita bar is known as the birthplace of the Daiquiri. I learned about it from Ted Haigh’s seminal book Vintage Spirit’s and Forgotten Cocktails and I had always wanted to visit. This is a place made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who used to drink there, so much so that they have a bronze statue of him in the corner of the bar.

Bronze Statue of Papa Hemingway

I have no idea what was going on with my hair in that picture.

The place was crowded but we managed to squeeze in right next to the statue. I wanted Hemingway’s signature drink, the Papa Doble, which is a Daiquiri with double the rum and the addition of grapefruit juice. The bartender told me, in Spanish, that due to the recent hurricane they couldn’t get toronja (grapefruit) and suggested a “Daiquiri Classico”. I figured it was the next best thing and had several (as did my companions).

I liked sitting there watching the bar. There is a sign announcing that this is “The Cradle of the Daiquiri”

La Cuna del Daiquiri

and I liked watching the bartenders (cantineros) prepare drinks. While they use shakers like most bartenders around the world, there is a style unique to Cuba where they pour the drink from one iced cup to another several times in order to mix it.

Cantinero Pouring a Drink

It takes skill and creates a nice airiness to the cocktail. We stayed there for some time, drinking, talking and listening to the band in the corner, and they we decided to get dinner there as well. It was good and a wonderful start to our trip.

The next day the three of us made our way to the conference. It just so happens that it was being held right across the street from the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Ambos Mundos is where Hemingway lived when he was in Havana. It’s on the opposite end of O’Reilly street from El Floridita. As that street can get busy with traffic we usually walked down Obispo, which was a parallel pedestrian street lined with restaurants and shops. After the conference was over Alejandro and I went to have a couple of drinks at the hotel.

Ambos Mundos Bar

I don’t remember anything special about the cocktails, but I do remember enjoying sitting in the open air bar and watching the people. I could see why Hemingway got attached to the place.

That night we asked the guy at the apartment where to eat for dinner, and he suggested a place called Habana 61. While I didn’t have Internet connectivity, Elizabeth had thought ahead and bought a Digicel SIM card off of Amazon that worked in Cuba so she was able to help us from getting lost. In trying to link to it I can’t find it on Amazon anymore so perhaps it has been discontinued.

I really liked wandering the streets in the evening.

Street in Old Havana

We found the place and they were able to seat us. I told the waitress that I wanted that most macho of Cuban cocktails, the Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford Cocktail

She laughed and made sure to get me a pink straw to go with my pink drink. Alejandro had a Mojito, which is something of the national drink of Cuba. I have never been a fan but the Mojitos in Cuba are extremely tasty. We talked about why and Alejandro suggested it was because of the mint. Whereas in the US and other parts of the world we use something like peppermint for the drink, Cubans use Yerba Buena which is similar but milder, so you don’t get that overwhelming mint taste. I am going to try to find some seed and grow it in the spring. The other bonus about Habana 61 is that while cocktails in Cuba tend to cost 6 CUC ($6) theirs were only 3 CUC ($3) and were some of the best drinks I had while I was there.

I also got to check something else of my list. I wanted to eat Ropa Vieja while in Cuba.

Ropa Vieja

While Ropa Vieja is sometimes considered the national dish of Cuba, the main ingredient, beef, is not readily available. You are much more likely to eat pork, chicken or fish, but I was happy to be able to eat it as least once while I was there. If you ever go to Havana, do your best to find this place.

On Wednesday I had to do some work. My hosts at the conference had learned about my cocktail hobby, and they asked me if I would be willing to do a presentation on cocktails to a group of students learning to become cantineros. In Havana they have a number of trade schools for young people, and they wanted me to address a group of them training to be bartenders.

While I had never done a formal presentation on cocktails before, those who know me know I would never pass up an opportunity to run my mouth, so I did a bunch of research and decided on a presentation on the grand history of Cuban cocktails. I think it turned out pretty well. I focused on four main drinks and their history. I started with the Cuba Libré, which includes Coca-Cola. I drank a lot of Coke (and Coke with rum) while there because Coke made with Cuban sugar is just superior to what we get in the States or even from Mexico.

Cuban Coke

I then talked about the Daiquiri, as well as one of my current favorite drinks, the Hotel Nacional Special (which I’ll discuss later). I finished up with a discussion of the Mojito and how Sir Francis Drake (El Draque) used it to combat upset stomachs and scurvy.

To get from the conference to the school (bar) where I would be giving my talk, we rode in a Lada.

Lada Automobile

I had never been in a Russian car before. It wasn’t in the best shape, and my host apologized but pointed out that it was extremely hard to get parts to fix things in Cuba. It was kind of a theme for my visit. The embargo does hurt the Cuban people, yet I’ve never met people more determined to improve their situation with so little to work with.

My presentation was held at a bar off of “Barber’s Alley” which is a pretty “hip” street near the water. There were a couple of cool murals along the way, such as this one about barbers:

Barbers Mural

and another one nearby by the same artist:

Mural with Scissors

We walked down the alley, went upstairs and set up for my presentation. I think it went well and I got a lot of good questions from the students afterward. I felt weird given a presentation that was a little out of my comfort zone, but they were very kind and seemed to like it.

Bartender Class

It was now about 11am and I figured I was ready to return to the conference, but I was told that the students would like to make a cocktail for me. Sure, I never turn down a cocktail, but then I learned that all 22 of them wanted to make me a cocktail.

Well, the one thing I strive for when traveling is to never be the rude American, so I sucked it up. (grin)

Of course I didn’t drink all of them, but I did taste each one, and Alejandro helped a lot as well. In addition to classics like the Daiquiri and the Mojito, I had one called the Canchanchara. It had honey in it and was very nice, and I hope to make it at home soon.

Afterward we walked back to the conference (not necessarily in a straight line). After the conference ended for the day we wandered around a bit. It is real easy to walk around Old Havana, although it can be jarring to go from an area of well maintained, brightly painted buildings

Street in Old Havana

and then in the next block see things turn residential and perhaps not nearly as well maintained.

At one point in time we stopped in a bookstore and I saw the following poster:

Bookstore Poster

I read the words

Nada tiene sentido cuando tú me miras con esos ojos que quieren decir no te conozco

and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The phrase translates to

Nothing makes sense when you look at me with those eyes that mean I do not know you.

and it was like I’d just read the saddest thing ever written. I was unable to find out more about it on the web, only other people talking about seeing it and how it affected them.

There is a lot of art in Havana. You have your usual “statues in parks” like this one of Simón Bolívar

Statue of Simón Bolívar

to just random installations on street corners.

Corner Sculpture

There was a mural depicting life in colonial Havana that took up a city block

Colonial Life Mural

as well a artistic graffiti.

Fidel 90 años

They even use old cannons to block the pedestrian streets which is artistic in its own way.

Cannon Barriers

There are also the old cars. One of the things many Americans associate with Cuba is the image of colorful, antique American cars still being used. They are, mainly as taxis

Old Car Taxis

although I did see a mid-1960s Mercedes as well.

Old Mercedes

By Wednesday evening the local cuisine was starting to take a toll on my system. Elizabeth had a much worse case of “Castro’s Revenge” and ended up resting in the apartment for the last half of the trip. I can remember telling Alejandro that I wish I could find something to settle my stomach when it dawned on me that the Mojito was invented as a medicinal beverage. The evening conference event was hosted at a bar so I decided to enjoy some 1 CUC mojitos that did help settle my stomach (although Vitamin I, Imodium, may have played a role as well).

Havana Club at the Bar

The weather in Havana was weird. One moment it would be sunny and blue skies, and a few minutes later it would be raining. We managed to keep dry and since it never rained for long we were still able to walk around. It added a nice touch to the scenery, such as a park

Park After the Rain

or the plaza in front of the Catedral de San Cristobal.

Catedral de San Cristobal

Thursday was the last day of the conference and our last full day in Cuba. I still had one place to mark of my list, the Hotel Nacional.

I learned about the Hotel Nacional from the Smuggler’s Cove cocktail book, specifically the recipe for the Hotel Nacional Special. The National Hotel of Cuba is just outside of Old Havana, and while we could have walked it we decided it was far enough away to merit a cab.

As we were walking down the street I saw a taxi and I flagged him down. What I didn’t realize is that we were standing in front of some sort of police station. As the taxi pulled up a uniformed man started asking the driver all sorts of questions in a rapid-fire Spanish that I couldn’t follow. When he looked at me I pointed to the car and asked “permiso?” and he waved us in, but we still couldn’t leave. I could hear the driver getting out some coins which I assumed was for some sort of payoff. Another man, obviously the boss, approached the car and when he saw us in the back he just waved the taxi on. From there to the hotel Alejandro got an earful from the driver about his poor treatment at the hands of the police (or whatever they were) and I caught “I drive by there every day”. It was one of the few examples of any form of corruption I saw during my visit.

The Hotel Nacional is a grand old hotel located next to a motorway across from the water.

Hotel Nacional Lobby

It was once the scene of an intense battle during a coup, but it seems to have been restored to glory.

We walked in and were seated on the patio. In five minutes I saw more Americans than I had seen the entire trip.

Hotel Nacional Patio

I ordered a Hotel Nacional Special and looked over to the bar to watch them make it.

Hotel Nacional Bar

While rain was once again threatening, it was otherwise a lovely day and I enjoyed relaxing with my drink.

Hotel Nacional Special

I will say that I think I make them better, however. (grin)

We then wandered around the hotel a bit to soak in the atmosphere

Hotel Nacional Exterior

and continuing in that vein we decided to take an “old car” taxi back to Old Havana.

Classic Car Taxi

Our driver was Pablo, and as he drove us back we passed some Havana landmarks such as the Great Theatre

National Theatre

and the Capitolio.

Cuban Capitolio

This building, which greatly resembles the US Capitol, was the seat of Cuban government before the revolution. It currently houses the National Library of Science and Technology, among other things, and is undergoing a restoration. Cubans like to say it is three feet taller, three feet longer and three feet wider than the US Capitol.

As we approached Old Havana I took one of my favorite pictures ever:

Pablo Returning Us to Old Havana

It is just such a nice composition of Pablo, the old purple car and the buildings in the background.

Our last evening event was held in a brewery. We sat at large tables with others from the conference, and I sat next to a woman named Inauri. I’m not sure how the discussion came up, but we ended up talking about race in Cuba.

One thing I noticed, outside of the lack of mobile phone zombies, was that there didn’t seem to be any real racial divides in Cuba. Cuba was such a focal point of trade in the New World that people from all over met, settled and had children in the country. There are blond-haired, blue-eyed Cubans as well as Cubans with skin so dark it is almost blue. Yet they seem to intermingle way more than in any other place I’ve been. Whether in a restaurant, a bar, walking down the street or in groups talking on street corners there was always this glorious mix of skin tone.

Inauri told me that before the revolution there were schools for rich “white” children, schools for poor white children and schools for everyone else. After the revolution it was declared that no matter your skin color, you were all Cubans, and while I’m sure it took some time it seems to have worked. I have no doubt that there are racists in Cuba but from my experience it was the first truly integrated culture I’ve seen.

The next morning we took another “classic” car to the airport. It was based on a 1953 Pontiac and was in incredible shape.

1953 Pontiac Taxi

The driver was obviously proud of the condition of his car, and he even offered to turn on the air conditioning, which I don’t believe was stock in 1953.

Pontiac Taxi A/C

It was a rainy morning and quite humid, so the A/C was nice. I took a few pictures on the ride, including this mural “Faithful to Our History”

Faithful to Our History Mural

and sat back reflecting on my visit.

I was extremely happy I went. The people in Cuba are amazing and I sincerely hope that the political situation both inside and outside the country warms up so that they can get access to the things they need to be great. I’m certain what they would create and share with the world would be wonderful.

Cuba from the Plane

Anniversaries

Twenty-five years ago today my life changed. At lunch Andrea and I had our first date at a place called Irregardless Cafe. A few months afterward we had moved in together, and on April Fool’s Day, 1993, we eloped.

When I look back on my life, I can identify a number of times where I could have made different choices. There are times of stress, failure and sadness I probably could have avoided, but if I had I might not have ended up in that cafe with this amazing woman. I’m happy, and thus I have no regrets.

As I reflect on the past quarter-century, I’d like to offer some advice to any of my three readers who happen to be single.

First of all, I had bought in to the myth perpetuated by television and novels that when I first met my soul mate, our eyes would lock across a crowded room, the heavens would open and a chorus of angels would sing Hallelujah. That didn’t happen. What did happen was I was lucky enough to meet this intelligent, funny, beautiful and kind woman, and over time I came to realize I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. So instead of waiting for fate to intervene, look around you – perhaps the person of your dreams is closer than you think.

Second, live together before you get married. Now if this goes against your religious upbringing or your moral compass, I won’t push the issue, but the way people date, at least in the US, can present a different picture of life than actually living together. My first major relationship was somewhat long distance, so whenever we got together it was for a special occasion, like a concert. When we actually got to spend “normal” time together, things weren’t as interesting and we didn’t get along as well. Living with someone is a big change. How neat are you? What is your tolerance level for the cleanliness of the bathroom? Can you just “be” together?

Due to a series of circumstances, Andrea and I ended up moving in a little sooner than most. We rented an apartment together, and she, being the smart one, insisted on two things: we both be on lease and the lease be six months long (the shortest the apartment complex offered). When that worked out, we ended up renting a house with a yard so that we could get a dog, and the rest is history.

I actually proposed to her around Christmas time that year, but she, again being the smart one, wanted to wait until we had been together for at least a year. Since getting married on April Fool’s Day fit my personality to a “T”, we set that as the date. We had met over motorcycles (she rode a nicer bike than me) and so we took our honeymoon in Key West, Florida, riding our bikes down ostensibly for Bike Week but going further south. We camped at the Sugarloaf Key KOA and rode into town each day.

We actually had a huge fight before the trip, I think mainly due to stress related to our impending nuptials, and we had decided to call off the wedding. This was easy since we had decided to elope, but something happened on that trip and the wedding was back on when we returned a week later.

Now, I wasn’t ever going to get married. I don’t believe the State or the Church gets a say in with whom I chose to live my life. But there are certain social contracts that fall in place when you are married. I had a good job and she was still a student, so she could get health insurance through my employer, but more than that it was how people perceived our relationship.

For example, let’s say it was Andrea’s birthday and we had made special plans. If I was at work in a meeting that was running long, if I wanted leave with the excuse “I made plans with my girlfriend” they wouldn’t exactly tell me “no”, but you could see it was close to “sit back down until we’re finished”.

After I got married, if I said something like “Sorry, I have to run, I promised my wife …” I’d get interrupted with “go! go!” from the other guys at the table (back then tech jobs were almost entirely held by men). Same situation, difference reaction.

You can’t just elope in North Carolina. Back then you had to get both a license and a tuberculosis test. We also decided to get rings made. I found a goldsmith who helped us design matching rings. She bought a dress she liked and I bought a tie to match it. Of course we wanted pictures, so we hit Sears Portrait Studio before going to the courthouse.

Andrea and Tarus Wedding Picture

Of the pictures we had taken, we only liked this one, and since back then we didn’t have cameras with us at all times it is the only picture we have from that day.

I was the only white male at my wedding. We didn’t tell anyone, so our witnesses were two ladies from the courthouse offices and the judge was an African-American man. Even though I didn’t put too much stock in the whole ceremony, when I looked Andrea in the eyes and said my vows, I was overcome with emotion. For a moment the only thing in the universe was her and me.

Of course, no one believed us when we told them we were married. The formal marriage certificate shows up in the mail many days later, so they give you this cheesy certificate with a pink border and a pair of clasped hands coming out of the clouds like something you might get at Spencer’s Gifts. It wasn’t until we showed off our rings that people started to believe us.

We married on a Wednesday afternoon, and for that night we drove to Asheville to spend the night in a nice Bed and Breakfast. On Thursday we told her mom, who I think was happy but a little disappointed that there was no wedding, and on Friday we told my parents. My father, who had just gone through my sister’s large wedding the summer before, was so happy we didn’t have one that he went to his study and came back with a check for the amount he had spent on it. It was a nice way to start a life together.

So my final piece of advice is to elope. Of course, we didn’t want to miss out on seeing friends, so we held a big party on Memorial Day. Because of the holiday, most people we invited were able to come and since it was very informal (we cooked a couple of pigs ’cause that’s what we do in NC) it was a lot less stressful.

Now, if you want a wedding, that’s cool too. Invite me, ’cause I love weddings, but most importantly have the wedding you want. There is going to be a moment when you and your partner are the only two things in the universe that matter, and nothing should take away from it. Plus, it is our imperfections that make us special, so if something goes wrong, so what? Twenty-five years on it won’t matter, and it might even make the memory stronger.

My relationship with Andrea has made me the person I am, and I can’t imagine life without her. My truest wish for everyone, no matter who you choose to love, it that you can find someone as well and regale me with stories of a lifetime together.

Ramadan Part 6: Isha’a

The final of the five formal daily prayers is the Night Prayer, Isha’a. It is now offically night and the day is over.

And so is my Ramadan experiment. It was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. I didn’t really get hungry, about six hours in my stomach would grumble but then the feeling just faded. I was thirsty, however. The cotton mouth and lack of liquid gave me a slight headache, and I can see long naps being part of my routine during the month if I had to do it every day.

I did learn a lot more about the holiday, and it kind of reminded me of when I was first really exposed to Islam in Damascus.

I can remember talking with Safwan, who read to me the 99 names of God. But then he had me look at my hands. If you look at your left hand the lines kind of make an upside-down “V” (٨) followed by a “1”. This is reversed on the right hand. In Arabic, the ٨ character represents the number 8. So your left hand reads 81 and your right 18. Add them together and you get 99.

Cool, huh?

I have new respect for people willing to fast for an entire month for their beliefs. I was happy that I don’t have a job that requires a lot of manual labor out in the heat for my single day of Ramadan, and I can imagine it represents a true test for many.

I would make a poor Muslim. Pork BBQ is a cultural tradition where I live, and I make cocktails as a hobby. I also share my house with dogs. But by some standards I make a poor Christian so there’s that.

I do think I’ll make my #onedayoframadan a yearly tradition, although I probably won’t be so verbose about the experience next year.

السلام عليكم‎‎

Ramadan Part 5: Maghrib and Iftar

The fourth daily prayer is the Maghrib (west, for sunset) prayer. It also coincides with Iftar which is Arabic for “eatin’ time” (well, breakfast).

Fast update: over and completed.

I was surprised I wasn’t overwhelmingly hungry, but I was very thirsty. I went to my friend Mohammad’s restaurant, and although he wasn’t there I did get my platter half price since I had fasted. I broke my fast with a salad, falafel, dolmata, hummus and tzatziki. I also had some dates that I brought with me, since that is what the Prophet ate to break his fast and I thought it was appropriate.