Indian Demonetization of November 8th by a zugunruhe

The line outside of a bank in Jodhpur

The move and its effects

The evening of Nov. 8, as the American presidential election was beginning half a world away, President Narendra Modi announced that all current 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would be taken out of circulation beginning at midnight that night.

The move
made the notes immediately void, save a limited exchange at banks until the end of the year, and inspired hours-long line lines outside of banks across the country for the weeks to come.

Sign behind the counter of a small convenience store (Udaipur)

Every newspaper in India became filled with the stories of people affected. From the housewife who couldn't wait in line for the hours it took to reach the counter because she had to take care of her children and mother in law, to a homeless girl who was asked to break large bills with the smaller notes she had begged for.

Some of the more fortunate were able to act quickly to rid themselves of large amount of the soon to be void notes. A man in Delhi allegedly purchased 1,200 Rolex watches in cash and the Delhi Gucci location stayed open until midnight the night of the announcement and brought in $5 million USD in sales rather than the usual $500k it sees on a Tuesday. On the non-luxury side of things, many people rushed to buy airline tickets to later return them for cash. The government put an end to this practice the next day by making all airline tickets non-refundable.

Males and females line up in separate queues outside of a bank in the Old City (Jodhpur)

The move eliminated 86 percent of the hard currency in India and there was no shortage of people affected. Those who had the time to exchange at banks were met with strict paperwork to fill out and a 4,000 rupee exchange limit. Lines stretched out of banks and down streets. People waited the majority of the day to reach the counter, with entrance and transaction not guaranteed.

A man fills out exchange paperwork on the hood of a car (Jaipur)

Due to poor interbank infrastructure, competing banks had not linked their systems to track who had already met the limit. Many exploited this to exchange as much as possible at multiple locations.

Some banks began inking the index fingers of those who waited in line. This was in effort to make sure those who had waited were protected against anyone who attempt to skip the line and keep people from heading directly to another bank. 

A man has his index finger marked in ink by an employee (Jaipur)

ATMs helped ease the burden of the individual banks for the individuals who just needed cash rather than to exchange, but even those lines stretched down the sides of buildings and constantly ran out of money.

A guard watching over an ATM to inform people when it would be operational again (Delhi)

Government reasoning

This demonetization move came, as announced, as a way to combat a rash of counterfeit notes and to gain a grasp on the black money circulating throughout the economy.

The counterfeiting finger was pointed at Pakistan. It is suspected that smaller bills are bleached in order to print larger denominations on top of the blank notes. 

The other reason, to combat shadow economy activity, is a double edge sword. Shadow economies, or transactions that happen without record or taxes paid, exist under every society with taxes. The size of which is dictated by the efficiency of the economic and monetary policies being implemented. 

In an effort to stamp out untaxed business activity, officials have actually harmed those who keep money out of the banking system, which slowed the economy, in the midst of the booming wedding season no less.

Whether or not the quick rip of the bandage that this announcement was could be considered necessary, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have recently reported that tax collections are up 258 percent compared to a year ago. 

Guard over looking the bank line (Jaipur)

Everyone had a theory as to why the current administration did what it did. Whether it was accepting the stated reasons by the ruling BJP or slight conspiracy stories. Theory were put forth that Modi was attempting to cut the funding of black money to his political rivals in upcoming elections and concealing the announcement behind the election news coming from the United States.

Personal experience

On the morning Nov. 10, two days into the abrupt demonetization of the largest bills in India, six 1,000 rupee bills were slammed on the counter of our hotel as we walked away, not realizing the extent of what was happening in the country.

A couple I was with needed to pay their bill of 5,900 rupees but the hotel could not accept cards of any type. Only cash. And now, only 100 rupee notes. The staff was stalling on whether or not they could take our large bills, instructing us to exchange them for smaller bills. As this was 9 a.m. on the second day of the bank closures, in the small town of McLeodganj, there was no chance of finding enough people to exchange with before our ride to the airport needed to leave.

This is a direct outcome of running a small business in a cash-based economy, where there are no back up plans for a policy change of this magnitude.

I exchanged hundreds of USD for INR mere hours before the announcement. My combined company and I were stuck with more than 40,000 rupees in the recently abandoned notes when we were made aware. For two days after the announcement, the banks and ATMs across the country were closed by government mandate prepping for the coming days and stocking to the brim with 100 rupee notes.

Back in Delhi, our driver took us from the airport to a very nice hotel in order to exchange money. This was our first encounter with, what would later be referred to as, “White/Western hospitality” as we were escorted to a separate counter down the hall to exchange. There were only two people in line, and the exchange still took nearly an hour. 

A few days later, a connected friend of a friend allowed us to unload 20,000 rupees in large bills for two bricks of stapled 100 rupee notes. In what felt like the shadiest transaction of recent memory, there was a meeting table, an exchange of envelops, and a hasty handshake before walking away and never looking at each other again. 

Removing the staple from our stacks of 100 rupee notes (Udaipur)

Punit, the interesting young man who ran the hotel I stayed at in Jodhpur, stated at check in that he could take a few 500 notes but had changed his mind by the next day. His partner had taken 40,000 rupees ($586 USD) to Delhi the weekend before and was denied outright the opportunity to deposit or exchange them. This killed their income for the last month.

A man on a train from Jodhpur to Jaipur exchanged one of my 500 notes just out of kindness. I bought a new bag solely because the dealer would take the older bills. Hostels and hotels managed to bring themselves to accept one or two of the larger denominations. Slowly, I was ridding myself of the cash that otherwise would have been easy to spend.

In my fifteen days in India after the announcement, it took thirteen to get rid of every large bill that I had received hours before their demise. This was accomplished by a combination of legit transactions, kindness, and luck.

What my experience doesn’t show is that of someone without the privilege of being able to skip a day-long line or of someone who runs a business and is now unable to realize any profit for their services. I’m not someone who earns 1,000 rupees a week who kept their savings in cash and is now finding the time to spend all day in line so that saving wasn’t in vain. 

It's hard for me argue against a move that actually will benefit the country in the long term, but the potential short term effects on a sizable part of the country's population could prove disastrous. The move needed to be a surprise in order to accomplish a large part of what it was intended to do, it's just the unfortunate circumstance that India has remained a largely cash based economy for so long which compounded the negatives.





EPMA's Modern Masters Series Debut by a zugunruhe

    On the night of October 2nd, the El Paso Museum of Art held a small reception for the opening of a new exhibition that showcases two works by Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. The exhibition, titled The Birth of Cubism, is to be held in the de Wetter Gallery and is the first of six masterwork exchanges between apartnership with EPMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York City. The reception featured short talks from the likes of the director of EPMA Michael Tomor, Jack Maxon (on behalf of Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim), Charles de Wetter (Son of Peter and Margeret, the namesake of the gallery), and Teresa Bustamante.   


    The Modern Masters series is the product of a few years of negotiations between EPMA and the Guggenheim. It is part of an outreach by the Guggenheim foundation to send a portion of their more important pieces to regions whose residents don’t typically have access to such monumental works. The lending of masterworks such as these is rare in the museum world and El Paso is incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to experience an exchange such as this. 

    The pieces on display are Paul Cézanne’s Still Life: Plate of Peaches (1879-80) and Picasso’s Carafe, Jug, and Fruit Bowl (1909). As the title of the exhibition implies, these pieces showcase the work and expressions of artists around the time that Cubism was popular in France. Cézanne’s piece came decades before Picasso was at the forefront of the movement proper (roughly 1907), but the style, angles, and interpretation of volume do foreshadow the coming movement. The Picasso is a sample of his work just before moving into full on analytical cubism. Here he truly alters perceptions of depth, representing the objects from multiple angles and forming a dynamic view of what is stationary. 

    The opening of The Birth of Cubism comes as the EPMA has opened two other major installations in the past month. Aleksander Titovets’ Past and Present in the Dede Rodgers Gallery on the ground floor showcases the impressionist landscapes from the local Russian transplant, including a handful of El Paso landmarks. While Renoir to Remington: Impressionism to the American West in the main Hunt Gallery upstairs holds many works showing the effects that Impressionism had on the art of the American West and Southwest. This author’s personal favorites were two pieces by the Fremont F. Ellis, Yuccas and A Passing Storm. The former using the Pointillist style of Paul Signac to paint a desert scene using a color palette more fitting to the Southwest.



 The Birth of Cubism runs from October 3rd - February 1st while the Modern Masters Series: Highlights from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will run through October 4th of 2016. Admission is free and highly encouraged. Here is a link with more info.

    As pointed out during the talks of the evening, having a museum like this is the cornerstone of helping a city rejuvenate a downtown area and any money coming in helps EPMA bring incredible exhibits like this to El Paso. A year membership for students is a meager $20 and can do much for the museum as well as for your own understanding of art. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

The Atari Dig of 2014 by a zugunruhe

This is the full article I wrote for Regional Identity which appeared online in May of 2014:

    I don't always hang out next to a desert landfill while being bombarded by a sandstorm but, when I do, I watch a documentary crew prove a thirty year old urban legend true by unearthing millions of dollars worth (1983 value) of E.T. Atari games.

(Me with the first cartridge out of the heap)

   The legend, as it was always told to me, was that the E.T. video game that was released by Atari in the early 80's was so bad, the decision was made to bury all unsold copies in the desert in order to forget it ever existed.

  The E.T. Game for the Atari 2600 is often referred to as being the worst video game ever made. This distinction is due to its lack of continuity with the movie, ambiguity on what to do, and the tedious task of figuring out HOW THE HELL TO STOP FALLING INTO THE HOLES. This title was one of the fastest games ever produced, spending only a few weeks in production before shipping for the Christmas rush. It is also commonly credited with being one of the main factors that eventually sunk the American video game industry in 1983 (when revenues dropped nearly 97% due to consumer backlash over faulty hyped titles and non-backwards compatible new consoles).

  As the story goes, during the industry crash in late 1983 Atari loaded between nine and twenty trucks with loads of games, consoles, accessories, and prototypes from an old Atari plant in El Paso, drove them to a landfill outside of Alamogordo, and buried it all under a slab of cement. The figure usually associated with this story was that the cargo contained 3.5 million copies of the E.T. game.

   On Saturday, a documentary crew from Fuel Entertainment and Microsoft that included Zak Penn (writer: X-Men 2, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers) finally started the dig after numerous attempts of filing for approval to the City of Alamogordo. This was a one shot deal. If the crew missed, they missed and that would be the end of the story. Luckily these guys put in the work necessary to pinpoint where the landfill was operational during the assumed time of the dumping. Also in attendance was Howard Scott Warshaw, the man who created the game in five weeks all of those years ago.

    I arrived around 11:30am as the dig had already been underway a few hours. The crowd had been thinning at this point but there were plenty of things to do. Selfies in a DeLorean that had a life sized E.T. doll in it, playing the E.T. game in the back of someone's car, or the main event: staring at a bunch of trash.

   The crowd in attendance by the time I showed up was a few dozen strong and roughly half bloggers/news media and half fans of the myth/curious locals. This ratio lead to nearly everyone in attendance being interviewed multiple times. This includes yours truly being filmed and asked about the game (for two separate sites) while I played it for the first time. There was a good sign early on when a newspaper from November 1983 was found being blown around.

    Around 12:45pm MST, crew were seen dusting off multiple boxes and what seemed to be cartridges. A few minutes later the announcement was made that they had indeed found multiple copies of the fabled ET game. Warshaw, someone who had never believed the myth of this burial, was called over to check out the find. It's safe to say he's a believer now.

"We didn't come out here for nothing!”

    There was a frantic, yet very polite, rush to the scene where the found objects were displayed. Everyone was overjoyed that the legend was true and numerous high-fives were exchanged. All of the tripods were set up while networks rounded up anyone who seemed to know what they were talking about to be interviewed on camera. All of this while people not from the region where given first-hand knowledge of what sporadic sandstorms feel like. After the initial rush, things died down a bit and people mostly stood around talking shop. 

    The digging continued and eventually various popular titles from the era could be seen in the piles of rubbish being unearthed. Included were Centipede, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Asteroids, and Defender. All could be seen from the viewing area roughly twenty feet from the dig where the public were allowed to stand. After the initial cache of games, crew could be seen lifting handfuls of cords that eventually lead to numerous joysticks and other accessories. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to walk off with anything. 

    This was the only day the crew was permitted to dig on this property as, per request of the city, the pit had to be filled up on Sunday. With this short of a time frame, very little of the treasure found could be excavated. The deal struck between the Fuel crew and the city allowed Fuel to keep 250 cartridges or ten percent of what was found, which ever is greater. A portion of the remainder kept by the city will be sold while some may eventually go towards a small museum covering the legend and its place in Alamogordo.

    It was a fun end to a decades-old urban legend that will solidify Alamogordo and the El Paso region in pop culture history. It was kind of fitting that the end to this story comes when everything is dug out of a pit that was carefully calculated when the objective, and a major complaint, of game was to continuously drop into random pits. No word on NSA agents dressed like Dick Tracy hauling people off to jail and stealing their Reece's Pieces.


If you're some sort of sadist, you can play the game online here:

Here's a link to a NY Times article from 1983: