Considering a sailing adventure to Mexico? Just look at how engrossed that guy is in the book! Grab a copy of the Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico, and you too can find yourself sitting on a Mexican dock with an oversized (but very attractive) hat.

Unauthorized Guide to Sailing in Mexico

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You can also find me on G+ and twitter, and most of my photos get uploaded to radpin.imgur.com

Friday
Aug282015

myhikeplan.org - hopefully helping out one day

I'm in the unfortunate position of having some decent knowledge of what it's like to be on the receiving end of a complicated search and rescue operation. 

It's sort like being punched in the face. You basically want to avoid it as much as you can, but there is something to be said for knowing what it feels like. And if that knowledge can help someone else, then maybe the damage you took ultimately helped out in aggregate. 

I built myhikeplan.org because I wanted to bone up on my MVC and Azure skills. And if you're going to build something, you might as well aim to be helpful in the process.

So what does it do?

0.5) It's free, just to get that out of the way.

1) MyHikePlan lets you file a backcountry plan. When you head off into the middle of nowhere, it's a good idea to write down where you're going. But more than that, if you ask search and rescue (SAR) professionals, they'd like to know more. They want to know what your skills are. What any medical problems might be you started with. They want to know what type of weather and conditions you were expecting, as those are directly tied to how you prepared yourself. They want to know, in your words, what you were thinking.

2) If you're late coming back from a trip, a simple one-pager is emailed to your emergency contacts with instructions on how to notify proper authorities. And that one-pager is perfect for printing off and handing to everyone from chopper pilots to ground search teams. 

3) You can tweak it all from your mobile phone, so if you want to make some adjustments to your route or alert settings, you can do that right up until the last minute.

Example one-pager for SAR teams.I've been slowly adjusting the site, getting little bits and pieces of information from the search and rescue community and plugging in suggestions as I can.

Normally this information is handed over to a friend, but there are some subtle breakdowns that can happen with that. For starters, there's no clear format with required information when giving info to a friend. 

More broadly, it's not your friend's responsibility to ensure SAR teams have the info they need: it's yours. You need to pick a clear photo of yourself. You need to describe your route in your words. You need to describe your existing medical situation. 

Think back to the "telephone game" in grade school. While you or a loved one is dropping further into hypothermia, hours are wasted patching together and passing along information that should have been compiled in advance with nothing lost in translation between you and the people on their way help you out.

And before anyone asks, I registered myfloatplan.org ... that one's up next. 

Monday
Jul272015

austin stephanos and perry cohen currently lost at sea

Right now, there are two teenage boys missing in the Atlantic Ocean. Their exact fate is unknown and as the time goes on the most terrible of possibilities gains more and more traction: these boys aren't coming home.

I haven't bothered to wade through the horseshit that is certainly being shoveled at the parents right now. Without a doubt, critics from all circles are embracing that most American of pastimes: turning into a puritanical mob hell-bent on leveling moral vengeance. 

The clicks-and-eyeballs-ad-revenue news media fuels this behavior. People want drama and controversy, and modern "journalists" are happy to provide it.

Fortunately my fifteen minutes of fame is long over, so let me pick apart the critics of these families a bit. 

Leaving firearms, alcohol, and motor vehicle deaths aside, we'll just focus on drowning in general. Every day in the United States, roughly ten children die from drowning in swimming pools. Every two and a half hours, every day, a child drowns. Even more brutal is that plenty of life-altering permanent neurological damage occurs for children who survive but suffered lack of blood profusion to the brain for a sustained amount of time.

If the spittle-flying critics really are concerned with the safety of children then surely the shockingly high death rate from backyard pools would be the top of their list. But they're not, and the media doesn't really report it, and sort of like black people dying in Africa (5,500 children a day is the number, by the way), our whole society puts our collective fingers in our ears and ignores it.

But man-oh-man, when something juicy comes along like two boys lost at sea, or a family crossing an ocean, well now there's some info-tainment for you. I don't know about other countries, but here in the US of A we take a certain pride in publicly lecturing those who we feel step out of line. 

  • It has nothing to do with safety.
  • It has nothing to do with a true assessment of risk.
  • It has everything to do with novelty and the treating of our fellow citizens like they are a reality TV show for our entertainment. It's not just an opportunity to criticise, we feel like it's our duty. 

Let me raise an even more blunt point: oceans are better than swimming pools for raising children. Do you know anyone who developed lifelong confidence, connection with others and the environment, and a profound understanding of life via a backyard swimming pool? No, and you never will. 

But if you know any sailors (I use the term to include all who crew ocean going vessels), you'll know these people are deeply and permanently affected by the sea. It is a powerful teacher, taskmaster, and perspective-bringer. 

So not only are backyard pools (and firearms, and alcohol abuse) a much more serious threat (by any math) to the children of America, but you don't even get a lot of positives out of them. I digress, but the ocean doesn't have a lobbying group as where pools, firearms, motor vehicles, and alcohol do. 

So to those of you who shelter your children from, but at the same time expose them to, mortal danger, and then hop on your high horse to denounce others, I squarely write in big bold letters that you're a bad parent. 

Your children will enter the real world one day, and that world isn't the kumbaya singing fantasy land that you're conditioning them to grow into. It's a real world with life and death, beauty and danger, pain and comfort. No matter how much you want the world to be a safe place, it isn't. 

That the critics of this world don't jump all over you when your children are injured in a non media-publicized way simply means your life is in the same cattle chute with everyone else and while it's easy to throw stones at people unlike you, it's terribly uncomfortable to look at your own problems and see them as such. 

If the parents of Austin and Perry ever read this, first and foremost I hope they are found safely. As you've indicated in the press, sailors know the ocean and there are countless search and rescue operations that have yielded jaw dropping results

If your children are gone, I cannot even let my mind go to that place because of the anguish that it entails. But as parents I look at you through a lens that although not popular these days, is what even your critics regard as courageous and noble, when they can arrest their own desires to defend their complacency. 

Monday
Jul062015

i think i [still] want to sail a boat around the world

One year and some change has gone by since our big drama on the high seas. I've had a few people ask me, probably just trying to be nice, if I was going to write a book about it. For me, I didn't want the loss of our boat to be the end of a story. Maybe there would be an additional chapter padded on at the end with some obligatory nods to the future, but essentially it would be a story about loss and disaster.

A larger and more significant crisis averted, but a substantial loss none the less. I just can't square that narrative as being my story, even if anyone would want to read it.

Rebel Heart as seen from the HC-130, smoke grenades deployed to the right in the water.I went backpacking with a friend a few weeks ago for Father's Day. It was terrific, although I'm afraid I didn't shut up the entire three days. While rambling, I heard myself say out loud a truth that I've been formulating in my head for a while: my children will have a better life growing up as sailing kids. And I'm not being the father I should be by keeping them from that.

There are some realities that I'm sure you know better than I do. Realities that no matter what I argue, you know in your bones to be a certain way and you've arrived there through a lot of experience and reflection. The kids on the boat are one of those for me. 

My daughter picked up a penny yesterday from the ground and put it in my pocket, saying "Here dad, this will help buy our next boat." She already gets it: a goal that is so much more massive than nearly any other. A goal that not only consumes you but also one that's worth being consumed by.

And that version of life is frankly better than the alternative. Charlotte and I talk about it a lot: it's just so damn easy to live on shore. In a year's time sailing we would have made dozens of new and interesting friends. We would have had close calls, seen amazing things, turned our backs on not-so-amazing-things, and done it all as a family.

Some days being in boat world is quite terrible, even when you stop and smile for the cameras. Puerto Escondido, mid summer. The years we spent on Rebel Heart, especially our last two spent really sailing and putting miles on, were some of the best and hardest of my life. In not-that-many years from now, our youngest daughter will be-not-that-little anymore. There are some realistic reasons for waiting until kids are a little older: sailing life is hard with 0-4 year olds. But after a certain age, those reasons devolve into excuses. 

If you've never seen that the grass truly is greener in the sea, I can understand why it doesn't call to you. But for those of us stung with sailing heroin, we just can't shake it.

Wednesday
May272015

going (back) to kennedy meadows

My friend and I clinked our tequila loaded mugs together on the last night of a multi-day backpacking trip in the Sierras. It was a success on many levels. Our kids, both four-soon-to-be-five-year-olds, not only survived the 2-night/3-day adventure but by all accounts had a great time. 

We started out at Kennedy Meadows. Located in the South Sierra Wilderness, a day's travel north will take you (along the Pacific Crest Trail) right into Inyo National Forest. The South Fork of the Kern River runs nearby, and beyond all that it happens to be the first place that I went backpacking myself in 6th grade. 


Eric and Cora hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail.

What was really amazing to me is that the first place we set up camp, north of the first stock bridge, was the exact same location that I had gone to as a child. Perhaps quite literally my tent was in the same location as I slept decades before. Being there with my own child, and being able to share the whole experience with another family, was another one of those torch bearer moments that make the whole mortality thing a little less depressing.

The only thing more woodsy than a titanium spork is eating out of a titanium pot with your titanium spork.

We kept it to a simple out and back course (caltopo details, for anyone super interested). I had some big dreams about a loop but the problem with loops is that if you don't make the distance you need to early on then you have to make up for it in the end. Essentially if you screw up the mileage plans on your loop, you're going to have a death march.

A note on death marches: there's a knife edge on backpacking with kids, and you need to play with "pushing it" vs "at-the-moment-enjoyment". Indeed, these two factors are at work with adults as well, but adults can communicate better, train harder, and (typically, but certainly not always) complain a lot less than small children. Walking up mountains is tough, there's no way around it. That's part of what you're doing and it's important that children understand that it's perfectly fine to not feel comfortable all the time. 

Seneca warned that the optimal position of our lives should be general stress and discomfort. The idea being that comfort and excess stressors are equally toxic for us. One could effectively argue that he spotted the problems of a sedentary lifestyle roughly two millenia before it fully plagued the western world

All photo credits are due to my friend, and fellow dad backpacker, Frankie.

This might sound weird, but I want my kids to be uncomfortable. It's good for them to have a hard time. And not in some t-ball-bullshit-hard-time sense where everyone gets a trophy at the end before the pizza party.

When we walked back to the trailhead, after spending three days in the backcountry, I looked Cora in the eye and said something to the effect of:

Who did you see out there on the trails? Adults. Adults in good shape. People walking the PCT from Mexico to Canada. A generally hardcore group of people that are way higher up the bad-ass totem pole than your average Joe. And you, you do it too. You walked for miles and lived in the wilderness. And you did it well. You did what few people can do, and you can own that now because you earned it.

We don't get better by having an easy go of it. Our lives shouldn't be about exposing ourselves to the least amount of discomfort and danger before we drop dead. Stealing from Nassim Taleb:

This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

But have no fear, gentle hearted souls. In addition to a healthy dose of stoicism a few fun items were entered into the mix. Every night the kids got dessert, we made stick bread, I retold all the wilderness spooky stories I knew, and they literally spent over ten hours simply throwing rocks and sticks into the river.

Long day of walking + ice cold snow melt river = aaaaahhhhhhhhh.

Aside from the desire for a nice shower, I walked away from this trip with even more desire to get our family back to the sea. Back to a place where, like it or not, the wilderness is right up in your grill. Every day, all day. Reflecting between wilderness backpacking and sailing, I think the biggest distinction is that all backpacking trips end eventually. But with sailing, you can literally do it for your entire life. Years and decades can tick by where you are typically inches from the sea. 

Still, it's nice to be in the mountains and for as long as we have access to the beautiful wilderness in the United States we'll use up every minute of it that we can.

Sunday
May102015

my first backpacking trip with a four year old

It's not a sailboat, but backpacking is actually where I got my first taste of adventure. And it has a lot in common with sailing: 

  • Backpacking is generally uncomfortable. A common thought in both sailing and backpacking is, "Why the hell am I doing this and not home on the couch?" Spoiler: finding the answer is the point. 
  • The equipment can be fairly expensive.
  • The more adventurous you get, the more a mistake will cost you.
  • It's a blend of nature, your skills, and your equipment. No matter how hard you try, if you screw up any one of those three you're going to have a bad time: you can't make up for a lack of skills, you can't do without some essential equipment, and you can't tune out nature. 

 

My pack, Cora's pack, and all of our junk (a.k.a. expensive equipment).I was lucky enough to go on my first backpacking trip with a friend in 6th grade. His dad extended the invitation, and I really had no idea how fortunate I was to learn such a cool activity. 

Now that we're back on land, we're saving up for a boat, and letting the girls get a few more years of growing up. I'm committed to maximizing that time, and showing my girls how to spend days at a time in the wilderness is squarely on the list. 

So, I scouted out a location and settled on the San Gorgonio Wilderness. Jointly managed by the BLM and Forest Service, it's not my perfect locale but for the purposes of a first-time backpacking trip it would do just fine. Mountain terrain, starting at 6,000 feet, and although in spitting distance of Los Angeles it's legitimate wilderness. 

Guess who's pack is who's.The first thing to realize about backpacking with a small child is that it's literally all on you. I managed to get a sleeping bag in her pack and a couple of colored pencils. Other than that, every item (including the water, since we'd be without a reliable water source), is on my back. I'm not complaining, and honestly the influx of ultralight backpacking has made a huge difference. My water+two-people's gear pack weighs as much as my first solo load out back in the late 90's. 

It's a fine line because unlike an ultralight purist, you don't have the option of telling your small child, "Relax, champ, if you get cold at night just do some crunches." (That really is a common piece of ultralight advice). 

But also, because you're going to be carrying so much crap, if you don't pay ridiculous attention to weight then you'll either be under far too much load or simply unable to do the trip. You basically need to care as much about weight as an ultralight fanatic but you don't get the payoff of a light pack. Such is parenting.

A friend and coworker of mine has correctly drilled into my head that the last thing you want kids to do is have a bad time with something that you want them to engage on. Especially with something like trekking around for days in the wilderness. You can't control all the variables, so I was constantly scanning for problems in advance and trying to think up ways to make things fun. I even had to change the dates to skip a storm that came through during our original departure window. I learned that lesson from sailing: skip as much bad weather as you can. Garbage conditions are eventually inevitable, but avoid as much of it as possible. No one's handing out trophies because you got the shit kicked out of you on a mountaintop somewhere, and they're certainly not handing awards if you drag your children with you on the escapade. 

I'm quite proud of this kid. For other parents out there, I'd recommend a few things. Initially, go car camping with them first to evaluate. This is the classic campground environment where you have your car, a bunch of heavy stuff, a campfire, bathrooms, etc. The main thing I was looking for here was discipline. Can she stay away from the stove when I ask? Can she keep herself (safely) entertained for a few minutes while I do something else? 

I know there is a current generation of parenting that doesn't put an emphasis on discipline, but a lack of self control limits what you can do as an adult and likewise as a child. 

Then there's the whole hiking-with-a-pack thing. Cora's pack weighed in around 5 pounds (including the pack), and consisted of the biggest and lightest thing we had: her sleeping bag. 

To be honest, I don't really think there's a material difference between a kid with a lightweight pack and no pack. It's not like you're going to get an extra mile out of them without the pack, so I personally wanted to know in advance that she could walk comfortably for an hour with no breaks. 

Plus, you're not a race car driver without a race car and you're not a backpacker without a backpack. My philosophy, to each their own.

The speed translated to an hour on the trail with breaks every ~10 minutes that lasted a couple of minutes, coupled with some bathroom stops, checking out wildlife, and general poking about. 

I think we managed maybe 1.5 mph, and we had a decent gradient

One thing I learned Cora can't carry is her own water. Water is heavy, and with the amount of breaks it was easier for me to just keep a small canteen clipped to my belt and keep offering it up to her. 

One of the deals that I made to myself is I would greet all bathroom breaks with cheer (so I got a chance to be quite cheerful), and that I would be getting her to drink up like a wino who just got dumped.

Breakfast with a cup of hot apple cider. Tents and packs in the background, kitchen in the foreground.

Another tip I would give a fellow parent (remembering that advice is free and you get what you pay for), and that I'll remember myself, is that at this age it really is about them. I think about my friend's dad who took us out in 6th grade, and I can only imagine the patience he had. I still remember him walking around silently picking up trash I had dropped: I'm still embarrassed by it. I realize he could have plowed through miles and gone onto routes that would have been much more rewarding for him personally. But the real reward he got was in transferring a tradition and set of skills to the next generation. He put up with our constant complaining, our constant rambling, and our foul breath and armpits. 

Cora at the trailhead, ready to take off.

Every time I go out into the wilderness, be it sea or land, I feel a little smaller and a little bigger at the same time. I feel smaller knowing that I'm nothing more than an evolved life form living on a turbulent planet in between ice ages, with most all of my (and your) accomplishments and cares being forgotten rather quickly in the march of time. 

But I feel bigger knowing that although I'm just a small link in a rather large chain, I am at least a link. I can connect the things that I've learned down to the next torch bearers. I have the opportunity to filter out the bullshit the best I can, and focus on passing down the better aspects of our world as I know them. A sense of adventure, the courage to do what you think is right, and a warm heart in a world that can often seem capricious at best and malevolent at worst. 

Back at the trailhead, our first official backpacking trip a resounding success. With that, dear reader, I thank you for your attention and will stop being long in the tooth. I'm doing the John Muir Trail in the fall with some friends, and have several daddy-kiddo backpacking trips lined up this summer. If you're interested in heading out with us or me at any point, please drop me a line. If we bump into you on the trail please feel free to go around us, we'll be walking slow and looking at the flowers. 

Thursday
Apr022015

one year later

Randomly, I found myself listening to the This American Life episode that we participated in. It's hard to believe it's been a year since we pressed the button on our EPIRB that changed our life in such a dramatic way. There of course is all the bad stuff: the loss our Rebel Heart, the mini-media-storm, and the temporary speed bump in our sailing plans.

But there's been a lot of good too. A line was cut with scalpel level precision between friends and fair weather acquaintances. We're much more tuned into our sailing style and our new boat goals reflect it. I saw such an incredible outpouring of decency that I was literally humbled to speechlessness from fellow sailors, friends, and people I've never even met. 

For me, I got a slap in the face as to my priorities. I've always been a big fan of Emerson: Self Reliance (and Tecumseh) are regular night time reading for the girls (after Brown Bear). 

I appeal from your customs.  I must be myself.  I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you.  If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier.  If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should.  I will not hide my tastes or aversions. 

I will most likely be dead in 50 years: it's a cold hard reality. Our children, within 15 years, will be either fully living independent lives or very much on the road. I don't have a lot of time to feel bad about things or lament about what could have been. And I don't have a single nanosecond to entertain the misgivings that random people may have about my life. 

What I can learn from the past, I try to. But the past can quickly can turn into fruitless speculation and endless second guessing, all while sand continues to run out of your life's hourglass. So what I've really learned, and what I've really been doing, is thinking a lot more about the next year then the last. The past as they say is the past, but the future has yet to be written and indeed is the only canvas you can paint on.

On a parting note, this is a video from our Pacific crossing that's never been seen. I stumbled across it from an old video card. We were a few hundred miles off of Mexico, becalmed. I think this is when we were about five or six days out. And this is what 99% of our sailing memories are: us as a family, together, adventuring around with smiles on our faces. 

 

 

Friday
Feb202015

12 hours to think in JFK airport

This morning I got out of bed at 5:00am NYC time in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, or 2:00am San Diego time. Oddly I couldn't find my departure terminal listed on Delta's online checkin. But no bother, I grabbed a cab and left the island, headed for the airport.

Whoops, it turns out that my return flight is for March 20 (next month), not February 20, which would be today. As the suicidal cab driver violated innumerable safety laws, I had a half an hour sans a functioning seat belt to consider the situation. Even better, after discussing the situation with a friendly Delta call center employee in India, and paying an additional $300, I only have to wait here at JFK for about 12 more hours. 

Fact: I make about 20 flights a year.

I checked, and that's about my average. I'm not one of the serious road-warrior travelers who spends most of their time away from home, but for a non road-warrior I'm gone a decent amount.  I've flown in little single engine prop planes, a sleeper from LAX to LHR, and more middle seats than I want to remember. I took a couple of sleeper train cars across the US, my bed right up against the window as I watched Main Street go by. 

Fact: I screw up about one flight a year, or 5% of the time.

What often happens is that things move. A meeting that was scheduled for one day shifts to another, then shifts again, and you have multiple trips you're juggling. Trying to line up with other people, trying to think about how to not be screwed when living out of a bag for a few days in a different town: these are the monkeys in the wrench. 

I imagine a lot of frequent travelers screw up, but they probably don't admit it. At least that's what I'll tell myself. I'm not a terribly stupid or irresponsible person, so my megalomaniac view of the world tells me, "Don't worry Eric, you're fine buddy." I smile and say, "Thanks, Eric, that's really considerate of you. By the way, you look terrific today."

Fact: I've been working really hard lately

Sitting in my uncomfortable airport terminal seat, and last night staring at my laptop, it occurred to me that although going sailing on Rebel Heart was a pretty decent accomplishment (minus the part at the end there), the current bar is a bit higher: do it all over again. Except better.  Starting with less money, bigger bills, and more baggage (literal and figurative).

And so with that I must end this post and go back to work. My shitty twelve hours at JFK is 12 hours more that I get to dig and scrape towards where I want to go. I will have plenty of time to screw off later, spending a week at anchor in some tropical locale with a decent long board break. Work like a pack mule now so I can exist like a three toed sloth later. 

 

Monday
Feb022015

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

We're not here to save the fucking manatees, guys.I've been reading the phenominal book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It's one of those rare reads that really lays bare a topic, piles hundreds of years of research into the mix, and unfortunately leaves the reader with a cold reality that they might not want to know. 

A fundamental tenant is that the rate of return on capital always grows faster than wage increases. It's a documentable and research backed argument that makes clear the case that so many of us have been wrapping our heads around: the rich get richer, and actually the poor get richer too, but not at the same pace. Or said otherwise, the gap between those who make a return on capital is ever widening over those who earn wages. 

For millions of people, “wealth” amounts to little more than a few weeks’ wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture. The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities. That is why it is so essential to study capital and its distribution in a methodical, systematic way.

Trust me: I like money as much as the next guy, and probably more. But even if you'd like to entertain the idea of pulling one's self up via the proverbial bootstraps, arguing ideology against data typically has results on par with chieftans claiming magic shields that will stop bullets. In short, you argue against reality to your detrement. 

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is alreadying being regarded as a seminal work, and has ushered forth a new dialogue. One in which we're not foolish enough to adhere to laissez faire capitalism nor find solace in Marxism, but instead are forced to confront the data and trends that our decisions have brought to us.

We should be beyond arguing ideology, or at least entertain reality as much as we do our political fetishes. 

Friday
Jan162015

nothing good to write, hello 2015

Like most people, I have nothing important to write about these days. But like most writers, I won't let that stop me from clicking away at the keys.

There have been some rather heavy things on, but like normal when I compare my big list of problems they pale in comparison to that of others. While one of our biggest goals is to get back on a boat, a good friend of mine is fighting for his life.

I lack the eloquence to describe my last year. It's been a time of amazing adventures. Almost exactly one year ago I had crossed the Sea of Cortez for the third time, and made amazing new friends on the mainland of Mexico. 

The biggest concern for us was whether we should go to New Zealand or Australia, and I think Charlotte and I even had an argument about it one classically hot and sticky tropical Mexico night.

I rode a horse (alone) around a tiny Mexican town dodging dogs and cars at night, I've peed into the great big ocean, and I've seen such magnificent beauty that I try not to think about it during the day because it drags me out of my needed focus and reminds me of where I want to get us back to.

Another thing to remember is that we had lived onboard for around 8 years at the point where we lost Rebel Heart. Charlotte and I both kicked around ideas of things we would do when back on land. Simply put, some things are much easier to accomplish when you aren't sailing around. We had planned on doing those things in ~5 years or so, hopefully after we reached the east coast of the United States. 

So once the shock wore off, I realized for me that the time to feel bad was done and the time to seize the opportunity was here. It's corny as hell, but it's true.

Boatless might mean we can't go offshore sailing, but plenty of people with boats can't go offshore sailing into the sunset forever so it's not really just a boat thing. It's about your money, your lifestyle, your expectations, and how you structure yourself overall. If you live like a normal person you will continue to do so, and you'll die as such. If you want to break the mold, get a fucking hammer out and start smacking shit up today.

The biggest and scariest thing I learned from our two years at sea was that I really could do something I put my back into. It might not be easy, it will be harder than I imagine, I'll need help, and I'll want to quit along the way. But I have the ability to change my life and point it in the direction I want it to go.

And knowing that fact, knowing that I am indeed capable of making manifest that which is in my head, is a really powerful thing. The side effect is that if I do have the control, then there's no one to blame but myself if I don't get to where I want to go.

If I was writing a 10K and spelling out my yearly aspirations, I would put it like this:

  • I hope I can see all of my friends again on a beach somewhere tropical. I want them happy and without fear or pain. Extra points if there are no mosquitoes.
  • I hope my family continues to stay healthy and strong, and we can appreciate every day for just how special and fleeting they are. Raising two young children is really quite difficult but Charlotte and I will look back at these years with a special fondness, for the rest of our lives.
  • I hope that I remember how powerful and significant every single day is, and try to fill those waking hours with work towards the future and appreciation for what we have at present.

To my friends, I'm sorry for being a shut-in and not really doing much of anything but working and parenting. Please know it's me over here, the same guy you know who would much rather be laying on a beach somewhere nursing a cocoloco than in the heart of American business. But money makes the world (and boats) go 'round, and you need to build a big ladder to climb out of the rat race and escape the laboratory. 

 

Monday
Oct272014

the tale of maria darling's credit card fraud

A few months back, I helped to set up the e-commerce site for Nutrimart. It's a great family owned business in San Diego, I've been a customer for years, and I was able to knock it out pretty easily. 

This weekend I just randomly saw an email flash by about an order, and it piqued my interest a little bit. On first glance, it looked pretty normal.

The stolen identity. The card and address is Maria's, but phony contact info is supplied.She had purchased a gift certificate for $100, which is great. People have health fanatic friends, and a gift certificate really isn't a half bad idea (wink wink, in case you're ever wondering what to get me for Christmas).

I checked the IP address and it came back as being from NYC; so that checks out to some degree.

But then I checked the phone number and it belongs to the Pulaski Public Library: a quick phone call revealed that no Maria Darling worked there. Still, no smoking gun. Maybe she just typed the phone number in wrong. 

A classic dead drop: out in the middle of nowhere, easy to see anyone who's watching you.Then shortly thereafter, like within 12 hours, the gift certificate is redeemed by someone in Aurburn, Washington. I google the address, and a dead drop shows up: a location where deliveries can be made and contents picked up. The classic un-inhabited rusted out old business where drug deals happen in a movie.

The people who stole Maria's info are racking up orders all over the Internet, having them shipped to locations like this. If the police are there, no one bothers to stop. If the coast is clear, the inventory is loaded. 

Other details start falling in line as well. The shipping phone number rings directly to an un-setup voicemail. The email seemed a little weird too, and googling it brought up the glaring red flag of references to Russia. 

Russian reference in the email, dead drop shipping address, phone that rings to voicemail: spooky.Also if you note the shipping method, they paid $32 to have a jug of protein mailed to them. This could have been $10 if they had gone with UPS ground, but when you're spending other people's money who really cares?

So armed with this information, the first thing I'm thinking is Maria Darling, out there in New York, needs to know that her identity has been stolen. Someone has her credit card and her address, and a rather sophisticated con is going on. It's borderline guaranteed that these folks are racking up huge tabs on her account, and she's going to have a nasty mess of a problem to solve.

Remember, all the contact info (minus her adddress) is fraudulent, so I can't contact her directly in a quick manner.

My first call is to the San Diego police department.

Unfortunately I was told that since the crime happened out of state, it's really not their jurisdiction and I should talk to to the FBI.

So then I call the FBI in San Diego. A very nice lady said I should fill out the report online, to which I replied that we have evidence of a crime currently being committed and this lady is actively being defrauded right this very minute: perhaps someone should let her know. I ended up on hold, shuttled around between half interested parties for 20 minutes, and eventually hung up on.

Then I ate a cookie and thought about what else I could do. 

Visa! In an ironic attempt to prevent fraud detection, I don't have access to the card number, but certainly if I call up Visa with a lady's name and address, and inform them they're being defrauded, they will contact the card holder. No.

I'm sorry sir, without the card holder's card number I can't help you.

Try as I may, I could not get the local police, the FBI, or even Visa to care enough to do anything in this case. So to Maria Darling, short of booking a flight and waiting at your doorstep with the news, there is absolutely no way I can let you know in a timely manner that right now, as I type this, your finances are being ransacked. 

The next time you hear about identify theft and wonder why it's happening at the scale it is, let me provide the answer to you: because it's easy. The distributed nature of these cons, the insulating techniques like dead drops, and the high volume economy we live in makes most of these things incredibly resource intensive to solve.

My guess is the product that would have gotten shipped probably would have ended up on eBay or something similar. Purchased for free, sold at 100% profit, so many steps and layers between all the movements that it would take days of investigative work to put the pieces together. 

I wish there was a positive spin to this story: the best I can offer you is to make sure you practice good identity and finance discipline and hope you never fall into the cross hairs of folks like this.