Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Uneven buildings turn heads

Leaning buildings are in the news. Members of the British Parliament are meeting with engineers to discuss ways to straighten St. Stephen’s tower – affectionately known as Big Ben – with a tilt now visible to the naked eye. In Italy, the Leaning Tower of Pisa has recently opened after a decade-long “straightening.” The technique used in Italy is being mentioned as a possibility for Big Ben. It is complicated engineering but in simplest terms boils down to removing soil from underneath the higher side of the building, allowing it to catch up with the sunken side.

Here in Mexico City we have no shortage of tilting and sinking buildings into which we can wander. The oldest is the first of the successive renditions of the Aztec Templo Mayor. Over a period of only 104 years the Aztec’s most important temple was rebuilt seven times. Each edifice was superimposed on the previous one in an effort to straighten out the tilting and sinking.

This was an inevitable consequence of building on the unstable soil of a swampy island. The Spaniards paid no heed to the fate of the Aztec temple and began to build their grand cathedral on almost the very same spot. Even during construction sinking and tilting were obvious and had to be accommodated. It remains a problem for contemporary Mexico City architects.

Driving to the Templo Mayor from Cuernavaca we can enter the city on Viaducto Tlalpan, a modern day expressway, originally the Aztec causeway from the island Tenochitlan to the southern shore of the Lake of Mexico.

Along the way we pass hundreds if not thousands of tilting and sinking buildings constructed during the last sixty years -- essentially built on mud. It should surprise no one they are sinking. There are many cross streets running through tunnels under the expressway. Even though not seen, you feel them. Every time you drive over a tunnel you get a bounce. It’s not that civil engineers can’t build a smooth ramp over the tunnel, it’s that the tunnel is hollow and trying to float. The roadway above is heavy and trying to sink.

In the 1950’s Mexican architect brothers Leonardo and Adolfo Zeevaert, with structural engineer Nathan Newmark, designed the Latin-American Tower and the technology that keeps it from sinking. A sophisticated system using three hundred pylons and hydraulic pumps that pump water in as needed keep the building straight and level. The building itself sits on a huge concrete plate. This design not only corrects for the fluid subsoil but also protects against seismic activity. It has had no sinking while just across the street the Palace of Fine Arts, only twenty years older, has sunk nearly one floor.

Famed Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez also considered the fluid nature of the soil in Mexico City’s filled-in lakebed. He designed and built the new Basilica of Guadalupe only meters from the old and still sinking Basilica, and yet it remains level. Using pylons in combination with Archimedes’ Principle that maintains that an object will float if its displacement is greater than its weight, such as a plate floating on water, Ramirez Vazquez created an amazing circular space that allows worshippers unfettered views of Juan Diego’s cape as they essentially float safely in a basilica that will never sink.

Since beginning of the Templo Mayor archeological dig in 1978 with its necessary extraction of water to expose the prehispanic buildings, the pace of the sinking and tilting of the nearby Metropolitan Cathedral has accelerated. A graphic display under the central dome of the cathedral clearly documents this shift. From the dome hangs a giant plumb bob. On the floor is a diagram showing where the plumb bob would have pointed when construction began in 1573 and where it pointed in 1989 when the Cathedral was at its greatest inclination. A dotted line shows the progress made in straightening the building and the intended ‘path’ of the plumb bob as civil engineers attempt to eliminate the tilt. The method chosen is similar to that used on the Tower of Pisa – extraction of soil. It is successfully reducing the tilt and the results are impressive. However, it is doing nothing to halt the sinking of the cathedral. The source of the problem in Mexico City is different from that of Pisa.

Mexico City’s subsoil behaves as a fluid as seen in the design of the Latin-American Tower, the Basilica, and the hydraulic effect of the tunnels under Viaducto Tlalpan. Some years ago I asked an archeologist friend, Francisco Hinojosa, working on the Cathedral’s soil extraction, to present the civil engineers with my alternative idea. It was to take advantage of the large empty space in front of the cathedral and by using horizontal steel beams beneath street level ‘attach’ the Zocalo to the base of the Cathedral. The beams would disperse the weight of the Cathedral throughout the entire area covered by both the Cathedral and the Zocalo thus increasing its displacement and, according to Archimedes’ Principle, I theorize, allow the Cathedral to essentially float, be lifted, and straightened.

Francisco bravely advanced my theory to the engineers but returned to tell me “They laughed at you.” Meanwhile, the Cathedral continues to both lean and sink. “Watch out Cathedral!” The tilting National Palace might get first dibs to be attached to the Zocalo.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The sound of archaeology

At Mesoamerican archeological sites you’ll frequently see groups of people facing long stairways and clapping their hands, listening for an unusual echo. Although indeed a strange sound, I always refused to clap with my groups. It seemed hokey to me, certainly not something to be encouraged on a study trip.

Why would the echo at an archeological site be different from any other stairway’s echo? For me this changed at the 1999 Palenque Round Table – an event that annually draws four to five hundred people with an interest in Maya archeology. The Round Table lasts a week – Monday through Friday.

Speakers start at the top of the hour and present for forty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of questions and answers. In 1999, so many people requested time to speak that organizers set aside Thursday and Friday afternoon for fifteen-minute talks – followed by five minutes of questions and answers – squeezing three speakers into each hour. Few speakers respected the time frame.

The only way to stay on schedule was to cancel the Qs & As. Tuesday I was the first in line for lunch. After making my way through the buffet I set off toward the most distant corner of the huge dining room hoping to eat my lunch in peace and quiet and not talk with anyone. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a man following me with his tray.

Before sitting down at what I already thought of as ‘my’ table, he asked if I spoke English. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that I do. After introducing himself, David Lubman proceeded to tell me that he was the last speaker on Thursday. Immediately I knew his presentation was important enough to be scheduled but that he had a lousy time frame.

Who was going to stick around for the last fifteen-minute talk on Thursday? He went on to tell me he had never been to one of these meetings before. In fact, up until two years earlier he had never even visited a Maya archeological site. Would I be willing to let him read me his paper and tell him if I thought it would be interesting to participants in the Round Table? “It’ll only take fifteen minutes,” he said. I already knew that.

I agreed, and he proceeded to read. On a Caribbean cruise with a stop at Cozumel he’d signed up for an optional overnight Chichen Itza tour. As was to be expected, his tour guide clapped in front of the stairway of the Castillo pyramid. Lubman was more intrigued than most by the strange echo because he’s an acoustical engineer.

He realized he needed to make a recording of the sound but it had to be when it was quiet with no loud tour guides, no noisy busses with their engines and air-conditioners running. Back in his hotel room he packed a high-quality tape recorder with directional microphones in his daypack. Serendipitously, his tour package included the evening light and sound show in Chichen’s main plaza. Along with his group, he returned to the site after dinner, daypack on his back. After the show he hung back, hid, and waited till all the visitors and park staff left.

Then he set up his recorder and microphones and clapped his hands. Satisfied with the recording’s quality he surreptitiously left the site – it would be just as bad to be caught sneaking out, as sneaking in. The following morning Lubman returned to Cozumel and reboarded his ship back to the United States. Back home, he obtained a recording of songs and chirpings of unusual birds of Mesoamerica and made a computergenerated graph of each recording.

The graph of the chirping of the quetzal bird was virtually identical to that of the echo! This is particularly fascinating as the quetzal’s long tail feathers were the most prized for headdresses of Mesoamerica’s ruling class. In fact in Nahuatl, ‘quetzal’ is synonymous with ‘precious’. Indeed, it is the first half of the god Quetzalcoatl’s name. David Lubman asked if I thought his paper would be of interest to the group gathered for the Round Table. I told him, “They’ll be fascinated.”

Over lunch I had an uninterrupted opportunity to ask him all the questions I wanted. I learned that this type of echo only occurs on stairways in which the tread is shorter than the height of the risers. This combination gives the echo a ‘chir-roop’ sound which first ascends, then falls nearly an octave.

I attended Lubman’s talk on Thursday afternoon. It was just as he had read it to me at lunch on Tuesday. I stayed for some of the questions and answers and then went to dinner. An hour later I returned to the auditorium; Lubman was still answering questions about this whole new facet of archeology.

Who ever thought we’d be able to graph sounds? It turned out he had the best time frame of all. With no speaker scheduled after him he continued answering questions into the night. I now unabashedly clap at archeological sites and always look forward to hearing the now familiar chir-roop of the quetzal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Wages and Elections

All 213 of Mexico's minimum wages went up 4.2% on January 1, 2012.  

Yes, Mexico has 71 different minimum wages in each of three geographic areas into which the country is divided!  The lowest general minimum wage is $59.08 pesos per day and the highest -- for daily newspaper reporters -- $186.73.  Wage-setting government officials seem to know who should be kept happy.  

Without getting into the issue of whether even that highest minimum wage is a living wage, it is an amount that affects our lives in Mexico regardless of where we are in the social scale.  

As a result of the high inflation of the 1980's, most government fees and fines are set as multiples of the federally mandated minimum wage.  When you see the unpronounceable acronym SMGDVDF it is referring to the applicable daily minimum wage in the Federal District:  $62.33 pesos.  You'll find it in the strangest of places.  Look in the glove compartment of your car to find it on your insurance policy -- it covers the equivalent of a certain number of days of minimum wage.  Traffic fines are set the same way, as are many other government fees.  

Even the amount of money spent in Mexico's federal elections is determined by that diminutive wage.

This year the United States and Mexico will be holding full federal elections; they coincide only every twelve years.  Recent changes in electoral law in both countries make it particularly interesting to compare and contrast these 2012 elections as both countries deal with the legacy of severely challenged recent elections and ever expanding, and penetrating, electoral advertising.  

In the United States electoral advertising is almost entirely paid for by private contributions.  In Mexico equitable and free access to radio and television advertising is controlled by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), effectively eliminating one of the biggest expenses in traditional elections.  Furthermore, private funding cannot be used to obtain greater access.  The IFE essentially requisitions each radio and television station to provide forty-eight minutes a day for political advertisements.  Additionally, a new electoral reform prohibits slander, denigration of the candidates, parties, or government institutions in all campaign advertising. 

Though federal elections in Mexico are barely six months away -- July 1, 2012 -- no campaigning is permitted until April 1st. What we are experiencing right now is the selection of candidates within each party.  Limiting the length of campaigns may be one of the most important cost-controlling features of Mexico’s electoral laws -- 87 days for presidential elections, 57 days for midterm elections (campaigning is not permitted the three days before an election). 
In the United States re-election to federal office is allowed (something Mexican law prohibits).  Elected officials in the U.S. estimate they spend at least half their working hours raising money to “amass a war chest” for re-election.  The combined result of lengthy campaigns and no campaign finance limit has led to consolidation of power by the wealthy.  They alone can afford to buy essential media time.

This inequity has been compounded by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.  Corporations were deemed to have the free speech rights of citizens, leading to a previously unseen huge infusion of cash into political action committees able to freely attack opponents without the appearance of the candidate paying for negative ads. 

In Mexico, the IFE oversees federal elections providing a uniform electoral process for the nation.  It finances recognized political parties' campaigns and distributes radio and television time. 

To perform these functions the IFE has a seemingly large purse. The annual amount given to the parties is determined by multiplying the number of registered voters -- of which there are over eighty million -- by 65% of the minimum daily wage in D.F.  In a federal election year that amount increases by 50%.  Thirty percent of this budget is distributed equally among all parties regardless of size; 70% is determined by the votes each received in the previous federal election.  Radio and television advertising time is distributed the same way.  Under this arrangement even the tiniest of parties receives enough money to be an active participant in the campaign.  Parties must receive 2% of the vote share to remain an official party and continue to receive funding.

A recent amendment to the Mexican Constitution states public funding prevails over private funding sources of electoral campaigns.  Although parties and candidates can, and do, solicit campaign contributions, their total income per year cannot exceed double the amount given to them by the IFE, placing a strict maximum on campaign expenses. 
If all political parties receive the full amount of campaign contributions permitted by law, their combined "war chests" are equivalent to less than two days worth of SMGDVDF, per registered voter!  The IFE's budget provides $60.77 pesos; campaign contributions could add $60.76, for a total of all political parties' expenses for the year of $121.53 pesos per registered voter.  It seems like a bargain to me -- less than the cost of a driver's license. 
Though there is frequent talk of U.S. campaign finance reform it is ultimately rejected as unfeasible.  Might the United States look to its southern neighbor for a model of true campaign finance reform?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mexico's electoral system

The word “democracy” will be tossed around a lot this year.  As happens every twelve years, both of North America's federal republics are holding full federal elections.

The root of the word "democracy" comes from the Greek "demos" -- people.  Government by the people is what it implies. However, in both countries, it is representatives of the people who exercise government at the federal level, leading to a more correct description of the USA and Mexico as representative republics.  Nevertheless in both nations there are local governments where true democracy is exercised. Communities in New England, Michigan and Minnesota hold town meetings to vote on local issues.  Some municipalities in Mexico rule themselves by 'uses and customs' (usos y costumbres) in which all residents in good standing are welcome to participate.    

While the US electoral system with all its quirks is fairly well known throughout the world, Mexico has a number of lesser known and frequently overlooked yet fascinating subtleties.

The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), in charge of Mexico's federal elections, gives elections uniformity on a national level.  State electoral institutes only oversee state elections.  Each state has its own electoral calendar and only a few coincide with federal election day.    

Parties are required to run a full slate of candidates.  This includes a candidate and alternate for each legislative position.  Though Mexico has no alternate for the executive at any level of government, it does have alternates for every senator and deputy.  If a senator or deputy leaves office for any reason, the alternate is sworn in. 
Mexicans will be voting for deputies, senators, and a president on July 1st.  No candidates are allowed to run for re-election.   Each polling station will have three ballot boxes corresponding to the three offices.  Voting is on paper ballots with one for each position for which votes are cast.  Candidates' names are printed on the ballots next to the emblem of their party.  No independent candidates' names are printed on the ballots although there is space for write-ins.  

Citizens vote in their neighborhoods.  If away from home they can vote at special polling booths.  If outside one’s electoral district a citizen cannot vote for deputy.  If out of state, one can only vote for president.  If out of the country citizens may vote for president by mail.   

Mexicans are not required to carry any identification document.  Nonetheless identification is needed for all kinds of reasons.  Voter registration cards are free and have become the identification of choice.  If you are not yourself a Mexican citizen then ask a Mexican friend to show you her/his voter's registration card – it's an impressively complete ID.  At the polls citizens are required to show this card.

Mexico's is a multiparty system.  Seven parties will compete in the 2012 election. Though five parties have chosen their presidential candidates, to date there are only two nominees!   Three parties aligned to run one candidate -- Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.   Two other parties aligned to run Enrique Peña Nieto.  The remaining two parties are still in the process of choosing candidates.  The presidential candidate who receives the most votes wins the election.  There is no electoral college and no requirement to win by 50% + 1 of the votes.  

By joining coalitions with larger parties, small parties are guaranteed by the larger party a predetermined percentage of the national vote, thus not risking their status as a legal party (requiring 2% of the national vote) and maintaining access to proportional representation seats in both legislative chambers.

The lower house of congress, the Chamber of Deputies, is made up of 500 members -- 300 elected by direct vote and 200 by proportional representation.  A complicated formula distributes 50 of the proportional seats to the parties that win the election in each of five geographical areas, and 150 seats are distributed among the parties who lose the election! 

The Senate of the Union is made up of 128 members.  Sixty-four are elected by direct vote (two from each federative entity), and 64 represent the second and third placed party in each entity.  Entities are referred to because, though not a state, the Federal District participates equally in the election.

Party (or coalition) slates of candidates cannot have more than 60% of the same gender.  In practice this guarantees 40% of the candidates will be women but does not guarantee they will make up 40% of the winning candidates.  The current Chamber of Deputies is 28% women.

When I as a US citizen vote by absentee ballot in Claremont, California, not only is my vote usually not counted (absentee ballots are only counted if they could swing the election), but my candidate for representative has never won in the decades I've voted.  The winning candidate does not reflect my point of view.  No one represents me in the US House of Representatives.  Mexicans, however, know that if the candidates they vote for do not win there will still be members of congress, chosen by their party, who represent them.  In my view, proportional representation, at the legislative level, moves Mexico closer to democracy than the United States.  

How's that for a controversial statement?