copyright 2008 by George Johnson
Tate Museum, London. by George Johnson, copyright 2008
1. Retrofit Arithmetic (and Rainbarrel Economics)
2. The San Juan-Chama Shell Game
3. The Case of the Disappearing Aquifer
4. The Creative Hydrology of Suerte del Sur
5. The City, the County, and a Water Tax Revolt
6. Water Numerology at City Hall
(Our story thus far)
7. The Woman at Otowi Gauge
8. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
9. The Las Campanas Connection
(Our story continues)
10. The Engineering Solution
June 23, 2008
51. Summer Doldrums
A couple of days before Thornburg Mortgage's annual shareholders meeting, I was searching through stacks of paper for my proxy card. Mailed weeks before, it was my ticket to the much-anticipated event, June 12, at Hotel Eldorado. By the time I accepted that the card was lost, it was too late to get another. I voted my shares by telephone and listened to the live webcast.
The audio feed had been turned on early, and for several minutes I heard the murmur of anxious investors surreally accompanied by the Muzak-like sound of cool jazz. Earlier that morning Thornburg had announced a $3.3 billion loss for the quarter, and the shareholders filling the meeting room were being asked to make a Hobson's choice: sit back and watch Santa Fe's most renowned company go under or approve what seemed like an almost suicidal rescue plan. Like a third-world nation forestalling collapse by printing truckloads of new money, the company would issue 3.5 billion shares of new stock -- seven times what was already in circulation -- to be sold for a penny each to something called MatlinPatterson, "A Global Distressed Private Equity Fund." That would devalue the existing shares beyond any hope of recovery.
At about eight minutes past noon, the voice of Garrett Thornburg broke through the din. "Everybody find a seat that wants one? There's a few more here, and over here and in the second row -- if you want to get that close." What I took to be a self-deprecating quip elicited a few coughs, maybe some nervous laughter. It was time for the lamentation to begin.
In flat, measured tones, Mr. Thornburg apologized for all the money his stockholders had lost -- shares were trading that day for just above 70 cents, 2 percent of their 52-week high. "We wish it were otherwise, but that is the situation we're in. There is nothing we can do about it. We think we are lucky to be here today, that we actually managed to survive."
When his turn came, Larry Goldstone, the CEO, recounted his desperate hunt to find a buyer for Thornburg, this hapless victim "swept up in a crisis we did not create." No one would return his calls. Declaring bankruptcy, he said, would have offered no real protection. With the clock ticking and creditors bearing down, he saw only one way out: the draconian offer from MatlinPatterson that shareholders were being asked to swallow. "It's not necessarily pretty, not necessarily friendly," Mr. Goldstone conceded, "but on the other hand, why else would anyone want to make an investment in this company?"
I was eager to hear the questions from the audience, but after an hour the technician pulled the plug. I had to wait until the end of the day to learn that investors had grudgingly approved the deal. There were still bridges to burn: holders of Thornburg's preferred stock must agree to surrender their shares. But the worst seemed to be over. The stock rose a few pennies and hovered steady for days. Then on Thursday it plunged again -- to 23 cents.
My $8,000 investment is now worth $230. But what the hell. In the grand tradition of throwing good money after bad, I bought another thousand shares.
According to a brief item in Thursday's New Mexican, the upper canyon reservoirs are at 95 percent capacity and getting fuller every day. The most recently posted weekly water report, for June 8, showed 41.8 acre-feet a day still pouring in from the mountains. With the onset of summer the inflow is diminishing. But it is hard to understand why a fraction of that water -- one or two acre-feet a day -- cannot be let past the dams and into the lower river.
Instead the city is moving in the opposite direction: taking twice as much water from the river as it was two years ago, and half as much from its other primary source: the Buckman wells.
It's important, we've been told, not to over pump the well fields. But it's also important to keep the bosque from dying and possibly burning. It is important to begin recharging the aquifer that lies beneath the river. Instead of balancing these needs, the city continues on its narrow, destructive course.
As I write this, thunder is rumbling. Maybe we'll have early monsoons.
June 29, 2008
One morning in 1992, shortly after I moved to Abeyta Street, I was relaxing outside my house when I spotted a large truck creeping down the hill. A couple of burly men were standing in the truck bed, and every few seconds one of them heaved a large cardboard box over the side, one for each household. I thought they were distributing blocks of government surplus cheese. When my box landed, I waved to my benefactors and went to see what was inside. Trash bags, a whole roll of them, courtesy of the city of Santa Fe.
These were thick, heavy bags, and the idea, I later learned, was to help control Santa Fe's aggravating litter problem. The flimsier bags, readily available at the supermarket, broke too easily when lifted onto garbage trucks. Left overnight on the street they were torn apart by dogs and coyotes.
Over the years the city made it increasingly harder to get the free bags. For a while you could drive to De Vargas or Villa Linda Mall and claim your stash. Then residents were required to go to the city yards on Siler Road.
Now we learn that the program will be eliminated altogether. Having cleaned up my share of Eastside trash, I found the news disappointing, but I guess it makes sense. The New Mexican reports that all but 3 percent of the city is now on automated trash pickup, and -- this came as a surprise -- the system will be expanded by July 1 to the windy, narrow streets of old Santa Fe.
I'm finding it hard to imagine one of those automated trucks getting up and down Camino Sin Nombre or Victoria Street or even around the hairpin turn on Abeyta. But I'm hoping that Bill DeGrande, the director of Solid Waste Management, has it figured out. Under his watch, trash and recycling pickup have been running like clockwork. Getting the bags off the streets, even the thick black ones, is bound to keep the city cleaner. Now if there were only a way to hunt down and capture the goons whose discarded Budweiser bottles sparkle up and down the avenues.
Some of the revenue the New Mexican has been losing on real estate advertisements (today's weekly section shrunk by another four pages ) has been recouped in recent weeks by full-page ads attacking the real estate transfer tax. The campaign was a flop. Last week the City Council voted unanimously to put the surcharge -- 1 percent earmarked for affordable housing and affecting only property priced above $750,000 -- to a public vote.
As the special election approaches, we can look forward to more ads claiming that the tax will have a pernicious trickle-down effect, raising prices throughout the market and burdening families trying to buy their first homes. Prices, of course, are rapidly headed in the opposite direction. What the realtors are more likely worried about is the burden on their pocketbooks. The sales commission on a $1 million dollar house is $60,000. The affordable housing tax would add $2,500. Just for sport, a shrewd seller (or buyer) might suggest that the agent absorb the extra cost.
Throughout the debate, the local realtors association (through its misnamed subsidiary, the Santa Fe Housing Opportunity Partnership) has been referring readers to a website, mentioned here before, that unabashedly promotes false information: a chart listing the tax on a $150,000 house as $1,500 when it really would be zero. If realtors, supposedly bound by a strict Code of Ethics, are willing to lie about the transfer tax, why should they be trusted to provide truthful statistics on housing sales -- data that is used to set public policy?
It is puzzling how much these people are willing to spend to oppose such a modest proposal. This morning I watched the group's campy video portraying a typical middle-class family whose dreams of a new home are supposedly threatened by the transfer tax. (Does anyone recognize the voice of the narrator? I have my suspicions.) As the couple ponders the decision, they punch the numbers into a calculator. The camera zooms in on the amount: $5,127, meaning they are bidding on a $1.25 million home.
The height of the entertainment surely came at last week's hearing, when a realtor, who specializes in luxury property, denounced the tax as a Communist assault. She quoted Karl Marx: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Mayor Coss said he thought the words were from the Bible. The New Mexican's Julie Ann Grimm delved into the matter. Marx, it seems, may have been influenced by the Acts of the Apostles.
On a final note, City Hall issued a news release noting that the deadline has been extended for landlords to enter the lottery for short-term rental licenses. According to the release, only about 325 operators of these businesses applied to be grandfathered-in, leaving 25 slots up for grabs. We still haven't learned from the newspapers why the number was so low. Did the big rental agencies, who are suing over the restrictions, refuse to comply? Or were all the vacation rentals at Quail Run, the Scottsdale-like golf resort on Old Pecos Trail, counted under one license? That possibility, ridiculous as it seems, was under consideration by the City Attorney, but again there has been no followup.
July 7, 2008
If you click on the link for the Tom Ford webcam, you will see the image frozen at 12:05:32 A.M. That was the time early Monday morning when burglars stole the camera from my home office along with more than $7,000 worth of electronic and photographic equipment, including a two-week-old Mac Pro computer with two 20" Apple Cinema Displays. They stole my backup hard drive and my backup power supply, two digital cameras, a digital recorder. Every time I look something else is gone: my iPod Touch and cellphone, the two older monitors I was replacing, a copy machine . . .
My office is on the second floor of the house, accessible only from the outside, and I was oblivious to the break-in until waking this morning to find the Internet connection down. The router is upstairs, so I walked outside and up the steps to see if it needed resetting. Sometimes it becomes confused by lightning. As I was opening the back door, I glanced at the window and saw that a drawer had been pulled out and emptied onto the floor. Anyone who has been burglarized knows what followed. Your left brain -- the logical half -- starts yammering at your right brain, trying to concoct an explanation. Maybe I'd left the drawer half open and somehow it slid out. Then I saw another overturned drawer and another -- and, a moment later, the vacant surface where my new computer had been.
The other door to the office had been left slightly ajar, but that was not the means of entry. Officer Padilla, a gentleman and a pro who arrived within the hour, noticed that the cord for the slatted blinds was hanging outside the bathroom window and that the screen was gone. My neighbor later told me that he had been awakened by a car peeling out of the drive at about 1 a.m.
It wasn't unusual for me to leave a window partially open. When I was home I often didn't lock my office doors. Located off the street and surrounded by good people, I've felt sheltered. And surely I'd hear an intruder clomping around up there. (Minutes before the intrusion, I was finishing a chapter in Norman Rush's novel, Mating, about a failed utopian colony in Botswana.) I mean who would have the nerve to sneak to the end of the driveway, past two other houses, then walk up the steps, in full view of the street, and carry out large pieces of computer equipment?
It's not just equipment. It is the cybernetic shadow of my life. The stolen hard drives are full of files -- letters, emails, photos, music, ideas, the manuscripts and notes for every book and article I have written since at least 1996 -- all arranged over the years into a personal space that felt like home. The thieves left behind my old computer, so I still have my data. But so does someone else.
The worst part is worrying that this wasn't random. In a neighborhood with an increasing number of barely occupied second homes, there is much easier prey. This block is one where people live and work. Many have been here for decades. We know, or at least recognize, each other. Did some stranger case the joint from the Cristo Rey parking lot, waiting until the downstairs lights went out? Has someone been reading my postings, analyzing the images from my webcams, triangulating my footsteps here in the parallel world? Was it a vengeful graffiti goon or someone else I've crossed online?
Oh, probably not. I am trying to concentrate on what wasn't stolen or destroyed: My antique geissler tubes and induction coils (including the one I used to shock Stephen Colbert), my Wimshurst machines, my Curta mechanical calculator, the J. J. Thomson apparatus for measuring the charge/mass ratio of the electron . . . Things that are more valuable to me than the cheap copy machine or the second-hand monitors, but not so easily fenced.
Also left behind were my wireless routers, which like my office doors have customarily been left unlocked. I consider open wifi to be a simple courtesy -- a convenience to a neighbor or a passerby. Recently I had been studying ways to maintain public access while minimizing abstract security risks. Just last week I implemented something on my network called Stateful Package Inspection and started logging connections -- just in case some hacker might decipher my passwords and siphon my identity. What a joke. So much easier just to reach through a window -- a real, not a virtual one -- crank it open, and step inside.
July 13, 2008
Detective Matthew Martinez called on Thursday. The police had apprehended some suspects and recovered what appeared to be stolen photographic equipment, including a Canon camera and three auxiliary lenses. As it turned out, it wasn't my stuff, but I was impressed that he made the connection (two of my cameras were Canons) and so quickly followed up. Knowing that people like him are on the force makes me a little hopeful.
Since the burglary I've received a stream of sympathetic messages from friends, colleagues, and other readers of the Santa Fe Review. Councilor Rosemary Romero called to see if she could help. Soon afterward I heard from Councilors Rebecca Wurzburger and Matthew Ortiz and Mayor David Coss. All three have been burglary victims and I was touched by their kind words.
Recovering from the loss has occupied my entire week: filing the insurance claims, issuing an identity theft alert to the credit bureaus, changing credit card numbers, closing and reopening bank and brokerage accounts -- and then updating the information for all my automatic and online payments. The people at Los Alamos National Bank were, as usual, real pros. Charles Schwab, on the other hand, was such a clown show that I am closing and moving all of my brokerage accounts.
T-Mobile was also a disappointment. Since I only use a cellphone when I'm traveling, I have one of those pay-as-you-go plans. I called customer service to request that they lock my number and send me a new sim card. T-Mobile's computer system was down so the agent promised to call back. She never did, and by the time I called again two days later the thief had changed my pin, blocking me from my own account.
I continue to notice more missing items -- a bluetooth headset, an older iPod (big as a tank). Meanwhile two theories of the burglary compete in my mind. The first, described here earlier, holds that the burglars were masterminds and their caper consummately planned. (The window they breached was just 10 feet above my head.) But now I wonder if they were just lucky. Last week there were two more house burglaries and an auto break-in just blocks away on upper Canyon Road. One of the factors that had made me feel safe -- the ease with which my office can be seen from the street -- may have been the Achilles heel. The open window was easy to spot.
Just this morning I realized that I am also missing a glassy green piece of Trinitite -- sand fused to rock by the heat of earth's first nuclear blast. It was a gift to my father from a family friend. Unfortunately the rock is only mildly radioactive.
July 17, 2008
The Tom Ford webcam was stolen just as construction activity at his hilltop estate was getting interesting. Today a giant concrete pump hovers over the site. At the same time, things have been pretty calm on the northern front, so I have temporarly relocated the Andrew Davis cam. Soon both will be back online.
on to Part 52 . . .
Coming soon: Back from the U.K.-->
The Tom Ford Webcam (stolen July 7, 2008, back online July 17)
The Andrew and Sydney Davis Webcam
Who Owns the Plaza? (this may take a minute to load)
The Santa Fe Review
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See the current flow of the Santa Fe River above McClure Reservoir with the USGS automated gauge.
The Otowi gauge shows the flow of the Rio Grande north of Santa Fe.
Santa Fe water information, a collection of documents and links