Friday, December 30, 2011

Rant: Class warfare, tax cuts and deregulation

I'm frustrated. You're frustrated. Everyone is frustrated. Don't believe me? Just read a poll. Any poll. The Tea Party is tired of big government and waste. Occupy [insert location of choice] is tired of big business and big money. The right wants more cuts in spending. The left wants more spending. The young want jobs. The old want more security. Throw a dart and you are guaranteed to hit something that ails this country.
Gas prices are rising, incomes are shrinking and jobs are hard to find. Business isn't hiring and consumers aren't buying (might have something to do with the lack of jobs and shrinking incomes, but that's just me).
And what are the solutions our elected officials offering? Tax cuts and deregulation. If I hear one more candidate claim that tax cuts and deregulation will create jobs I just might have to Occupy something. Either that or become a raving Marxist.
Let's start with deregulation. Its inconvenient to "job creators". It stifles their ability to do the best for their business. You shouldn't tell the job creators how to create. They're the best qualified to know. It kills jobs, etc.
The criminal code is inconvenient as well. My next door neighbor has a really nice car. I would really, really like that car. I am younger, stronger and a better driver and I could use it to get to work that much more efficiently. Too bad about that anti auto theft regulation.
But what  really gets my shorts in a knot is the tax cut argument. Basically, if you cut taxes businesses would create more jobs. Huh? Ask any business person and they will tell you that if you cut their taxes that does not mean that they will hire a single new employee. They'll thank you profusely for the additional income, but no one will be rushing out to put out the help wanted signs.
Demand drives hiring and that's the crux of the problem. No matter how much you cut taxes we aren't necessarily going to consume more. We will not be buying more food. We will not be buying more cars or more clothes. You might buy better food, a nicer car or nicer clothes, but all that means is that Whole Foods, BMW and Prada will gain, Aldis, Hyundai and KMart will lose.
And the ultimate irony is that even if we were, that will not create that many additional jobs. Even if demand rises, business will look to two places. Automation or offshoring since labor costs are lower (and guess what regulation much laxer). Neither of which will make any real dent in job creation. And as to those increased profits due to tax cuts? Businesses will more than likely invest those gains in stocks or sit on the money and not put that money back in the economy.

I love America. I believe its a great country. I believe that America's emphasis on the rights of the individual is what makes it great. To put it crudely looking out for number one is what makes this place tick. But its long time past that this was a country which looks out for number 1. Its now the country which looks out for Number 1%. In many ways economies are zero sum. In order for someone to gain, someone has to lose. Its well documented that the 1% have gained, but does it always have to be at the expense of 99%?
And the solution our leaders have to offer is lower taxes and deregulation? I don't see it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Red Sea - 1996

Was looking for something on USENET and found this thing I wrote way back in 1996. Figured might as well add it to the blog.
Just got back from a three day diving safari of the Sinai with the Red Sea Sports Club/Manta.  In short, I had a great time and the money was well spent.
On our first day we took a Land Rover from Eilat to Sharm Al Sheik.  The dreaded border crossing at Taba, which I was warned can take hours, proceeds smothly.  Except for a short delay while I try to explain to the border official where Latvia is, I have an American passport but was born in Latvia and put down Latvian as my nationality, we are through in about 15 minutes.   Next time, ethnic pride be damned, I will stick to American. First rule of travel: K.I.S.S.  Keep It Simple, Stupid.
The drive from Taba to Sharm takes a little over an hour.  It is hot and raw, but the countryside is so savagely beautiful that the physical discomfort just seems to intensify the beauty of the land.  Afterall, this is the desert.  It is easy to imagine ancient trader caravans traversing the red mountains that surround us on both sides.
We arrive at our first dive site, Ras Um Sid, around 9am.  The reef itself is about a 100 feet from the shore.  We gear up and hit the water. Incredible.  The abundance of coral and marine life is fantastic.  This dive is meant as a check-out dive to test our skills and abilities, but there is so much to see that you quickly forget that this is basically a shakeout dive.
Our next dive site is at Ras Nasrani.  We have a quick lunch on the beach and then take to the water.  We descend to 80 feet.  The amount of fish and coral is mindblowing.  Lion fish seem to be everywhere.  After the dive we load up and head for Shark's Bay where we will be spending the night, having dinner, and in the morning boarding a boat for Tiran.  Our lodgings for the night are to be simple cabanas, but it is simply too hot to sleep in them.  Most of us opt for sleeping on the beach.  I highly recomend the beach option.  A gentle, cool breeze and a giant star filled sky beats a steamy four walls everytime.
In the morning we board the boat for Tiran.  Tiran has four major reefs.
We decide to dive Thomas and Jackson.  At Thomas we see a White Tip Shark and a couple of Sea Turtles, and a ton of fish and corals, but it is Jackson that takes your breath away.  The topography of the reef is amazing.  It seems to stretch into infinity and bend and twist into fantastic shapes.  By far,  the highlight of the trip.  Between dives we have lunch on the boat and snorkle in the South Lagoon.  Fish, coral and more fish and coral.   In more variety and colors that I have ever seen. After the boat ride back we load up the Land Rover and head for Sded where we will be spending the night and doing a night dive.  To kill time until night fall, I do a little snorkeling.  Lion fish, Puffers, Stingrays as far as the eye can see.  To top it off, heading back to the shore, I catch sight of a giant Manta Ray as it glides over the reef and disappears into the deep.  In contrast, the night dive is almost a dissapointment because there are not nearly as many fish.  However, the colors of the coral under the light of the torches are magnificent, and at the end of the dive - once we turn off our torches - we watch the plankton glow like a million fireflies.
We have dinner by the campfire and sleep on the beach.  There is nothing at Sded save for a flagpole marking the spot and the night sky is even more immense than before.
In the morning we head for Dahab, our final destination.  Our first dive is at the Island.  It is a shallow dive, 25 feet, but the amount of coral is incredible.  It feels like being in an underwater forest.  You are surrounded by coral on all sides.  There are also many nooks and crannies to dive through and explore.
Our final dive of the trip is at the Canyon.  Next to Jackson Reef, this is my favorite dive. However, it is more of a cerebral experience, than a visual one.  The Canyon begins at about 60 feet and descends to a depth of 163 feet.  There is a chamber at 100 feet that is used as an exit if you don't want to go all the way down.  For most of it's distance the Canyon is about 8 feet wide with a sandy bottom.  You can see the sky through the cracks overhead.  Overall, it has the effect of diving a cave.  The light is incredible.
We went all the way down to 163 feet.  Resting at the bottom you feel as if you are on the surface of the moon.  The complete stillness and silence is eerie.  The only sound is the sound of your breathing through the regulator.  The only motion is the rising of your air bubbles to the surface.  The ascent seems to take forever.  It is awhile before you can distinguish the surface from the surrounding depths.
After the dive we stop by for a swim with a dolphin at Mahmood's Dolphin Beach.  It is both exciting and sad.  There were about thirty snorkelers and one dolphin.  She didn't seem to mind, but at times the press of the swimmers to reach her seemed to resemble a wolfpack descending on a deer.
Overall, I had a fantastic time.  This was the best time I have had in many years.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.  The staff at Red Sea Sport Club/Manta was highly professional and courteous.  Our guide, Hen, and his lovely assistant Natasha, were excellent and alot of fun.  Hen allowed us to dive to our limits while also keeping a close eye that we didn't exceed them.  And all of this, while nursing a really bad cold.  (I should know because I managed to catch his bug.  It's been a week and I still can't shake it.)  He also has great taste in music.  You haven't lived until you have driven through the Sinai while listening to some trance and acid tapes.  The total cost for the trip came to around $350.  This included tanks, guides, transportation, boat ride to Tiran, border fees, food and lodging.

Finally, two pieces of advice.  If you are the type who is used to air-conditioning, indoor toilets and soft beds, this is probably not the trip for you.  It is hot and sticky and bathrooms and showers are few and far in between.  If you are the type who likes roughing it, then do it soon.  Civilization is fast approaching.  Everywhere we went you could see construction underway.  In a few years this will probably be another Cancun or Florida, so enjoy it while you can.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

There's something about Cancun

The pool at Live Aqua
Those of you who know me know that my tastes usually trend towards the lower end of the creature comforts scale. Not big on linen napkins and room service and pampering. Service staff hovering over me attentively make me nervous. I guess I see myself in their shoes and all things considered you can always blame my Soviet Latvian upbringing.
Some of my best vacation memories, memories that I truly love and cherish, might sound like vacation nightmares to others. There was the time in Dahab when the room we stayed in was so dusty and hot (and then there were the fleas) that we just dragged the straw mattress off the bed and down to the beach and slept under the stars. There was the time in Guatemala (for which Hector still keeps apologizing when he really shouldn't) when after some interesting bus mix ups we found ourselves stuck in some small town in the middle of the night waiting for a ride watching the local constabulary and ladies of the night playing chicken across the main drag. Then there was the time in Cayman where we ended up doing a forced seven mile march expecting the restaurant we were going to to be right around the corner which never quite came (all ended well and we even got a ride from the owner back to our hotel when he heard our story).
Long story short I am not really about the finer things in life. You know that line about the luxuries and comforts of home? Well. If that's what you want then why leave home?
And Cancun is anything but the above. When you think of Cancun think of Las Vegas but instead of casinos you have the beach as the main attraction. Instead of slot machines you have the timeshare bandits. Instead of the strip show shills you have the tour and excursion shills. And both places have buffets and scantily dressed eye candy. Both places are designed to separate you from your spending cash as effortlessly as possible. So what is it about Cancun that attracts me? I've been around 6 or 7 times now and each time I seem to upgrade to a higher level of creature comforts.
Part of it is that its just so easy. Here in the US try any travel site and you'll see an endless list of packages for Cancun. They say that competition leads to savings for the consumer so here's your proof. Then there's the beach and the water. Its one of the few places in the world where I find that the reality of the place matches those glossy pictures in the travel magazines. And then there's the diving. While Cozumel is the place for the diving its only a short ferry ride away.
Live Aqua
This time around we stayed at the Live Aqua. There's something about Live Aqua as well, but almost in the reverse. Don't get me wrong. Its a great hotel. Elegant and beautiful. Great service and good food, etc. But there's something just a little bit off that I just can't put my finger on it. As most resorts in Cancun it has a "theme" and for some reason they selected a semi "asian" theme. It just didn't seem to work for me. Cancun to me is a "hot" place. Its a city on the make. It makes no bones about trying to hustle you, but its done with a nodge and a wink. You know you are being hustled but your in on the joke. Live Aqua is something I'd expect in Japan or Norway but feels out of place in the city of "almost free today" and Senior Frog and Carlos and Charlie's.

Ben is either counting the sharks or making sure he still has all of his fingers.

 The highlight of the trip, however, was finding Scorpio Divers. Since the local diving in Cancun isn't the greatest usually I don't spend too much time looking for a dive shop. I just go with whatever is closest to the hotel and offers at least one trip to Cozumel. According to google Scorpio Divers was the closest (turns out it really wasn't), but google's mistake was my gain. Scorpio Divers is run by Ben and Jorge and both of them just love diving and it shows. Its the nature of the beast that most people who work in the diving industry start getting a little jaded when they dive with their customers since they dive the same spots day in and day out. It becomes a job. I dove with both Ben and Jorge and each time they seemed just as excited about the diving as the paying guests. Just ask Ben about sharks and he gets as excited in anticipation as the greenest of divers prior to his first open water dive. The best sign of a good business is how much repeat business they get. When ever I get back to Cancun and plan to go diving I promise they'll get mine.

More pictures.