Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving Travel

We journeyed to a distant state Wednesday to share Thanksgiving with relatives.  I put my camera in my handbag to document the crowds on what is supposed to be the busiest travel day of the year.

But things were not as I expected.  Here is what we found at the always-dreaded, usually long and snaking TSA line.

Since the scarcity of passengers seemed like a man-bites-dog event, I took a picture anyway.  This did not endear me to the crack team of TSA enforcers.  Two of them confronted me immediately, demanding to know why I was violating protocol.  I explained that I was taking a pictures of friends, pointing to a couple people who were visible at the far end of the line.  The TSA security agents dismissed me with suspicious grunts.

It is possible that my earlier offense had raised the hackles of the ever-vigilant TSA.  After my carry-on passed through the scanner, it was adjudged to require a more careful look.  I was ordered to stand by as its contents were examined.

A third TSA agent opened my bag very carefully, as if wary of a booby trap.  She examined my change of clothes, extra pair of shoes and three unread magazines.  There were no electronics, no small bombs, no box-cutters, not even a pair of tweezers.

This seemed to disappoint the security agent.  She pulled out a couple pieces of cloth and wiped down much of the interior of my suitcase.  Neither of the cloths uncovered dangerous contraband.  I was dismissed, again with suspicion, and proceeded to the gate.

When I got to the gate, I wondered again:  Where is everybody?  So I took another picture, and, happily, this time my bold action did not attract the gendarmes.  I share the photo below to document my surprise at finding the airport so empty.

We had been advised, repeatedly, by news reports on the day before our flight that we should arrive early at the airport because snowy weather was expected.  In fact, when we got on the plane, our takeoff was delayed a bit for de-icing.  But we got off in good time, made our connecting flight with 10 minutes to spare and proceeded to our destination.

I read the next day that thousands of flights were canceled after our plane took off.  Sometimes the early bird really does catch the worm, I guess.

In any event, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I hope you did, too.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Hamster Cars

Virtually all consumer vehicles are pitched to consumers based on buyer stereotypes.  Minivans are for mothers of small to school-age children.  Trucks are for gruff guys with tough work to do.  Luxury cars are for rich people or people who want to look rich.

To my knowledge, though, no other land mammals were used as pitchmen for cars until 2009, when the Kia Motor Company adopted three hamsters as its spokesanimals.

Somehow Kia has made it work for the Soul, its squared-off small car, which probably is more well-known now as the Hamster Car than by its model name.

In 2008, the David&Goliath creative agency studied the Soul's target demo -- Gen-Y young adults -- and developed the following advertisement for preview by Kia executives.

The commercial, which was set to hip-hop music, invited young adults to see the car as an "alternative to tedium."  But still:  Hamsters?

Kia bought the idea, and the commercial was aired.  Car sales took off.  Over the years, Soul cars have become the second most popular Kia cars, after the Optima.

Kia decided to stick with what worked.  The next ad featured hip hop music and the three hamsters dancing in hoodies.

Then came a Super Bowl ad in which the Hamsters broke up a stuffy ballet and danced Gangnam style.

Then the hamsters worked out to lose weight.

The most recent commercial, heralding the release of the electric Soul EV, has the hamsters, now fashioned as geeks, electrifying a car and, coincidentally turning a small hamster into a pretty female hamster.

Pieces of the youtube videos have run on television, and the videos have been coordinated with music popular with the Gen-Yers, attracting viewers in the millions.

As to "Why Hamsters?" I think I have an idea.  Hip hop music, while appealing to the young, can grate on older ears.  The car guys probably didn't want to alienate even the small numbers of post-40-somethings who might be attracted to the Soul with music associated with tough inner-city themes.  The solution: Add cute fuzzy dancing animals.  Win win.

Five years later, it's still working.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

Our popular guest columnist dishes the dirt and shares Thanksgiving memories.


All the girls at Giselle's were passing around the magazine with pictures of Bruce Jenner dressed like a woman.  This I needed to see?  He's got the mazuma, so it was no shmatte he was wearing, but all the same, a nothing of a dress -- a red sleeveless mini with the bra straps showing.

And those shoes!  Size 13 stilettos, and legs like zweigels.  Not age appropriate for a 65-year-old man. He was also wearing Spanx, which is like a girdle, but without the rubbery smell.  Kim Kardashian wears one to hide her gigantic tuchis, so go figure.

One big michegoss Julia Roberts is having with her in-laws is about Thanksgiving.  Her father-in-law's mortgages she stopped paying last month.  He's a schnorrer who's got more houses than Carter's got liver spots.  Her husband's family never liked her ever since she broke up his first marriage, which caused his mother Patti to drop dead from heart failure.  Julia's sister-in-law Jyl (yeah, like that she spells it) calls her "Satan."  So, Satan's presence they don't like so much.  But her presents?  That's another story.  Oy vey.

Listen, my family's Thanksgivings were no stroll in the park.  My sister-in-law Esther, when she was still a kalleh, once did something so farchadat . . . but I can't tell you now.  Wait till she's dead.  Anyway, our Thanksgiving table was always divided into two sections:  kvetching and non-kvetching, but by the end of the meal, it was one big kvetch fest.  So you can just imagine what all the simchas were like at the Schoen household:  shlemozzls!

Doris Day (below) turned 90, but she doesn't look a day over 83.  The schmoozers?  Who knows? The nuchschlepper with that piece of shlock on his head is probably named Barry.  They're always named Barry.  Feh!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wild Turkeys

Below is a picture of a wild turkey hen.  Some years back, one of these strolled across my lawn and over to the neighbor's yard.  I called the neighbor and said, "Did you see that?"
 "Yes!," she said.  "A wild turkey!  Neat!"

My next neighborhood turkey spotting was in stereo.  Two wild turkeys!

These days, I mostly see turkeys in large groups, like the one below.

America's native wild turkey population had a rough go for many years.  Turkeys were overhunted to the point that, in 1930, their numbers were reduced to a scant 30,000 nationwide.

Since then, turkey numbers have rebounded handsomely.  There now are an estimated 7 million wild turkeys in the United States.

This climb in numbers is the result of state-by-state efforts across the country.  The general procedure was to catch and transfer groups of turkeys to areas where they had died out or been hunted to extinction.

In Illinois, for instance, the effort began in in 1958 with the transfer of 65 turkeys from southern states.  By 1970, almost 5,000 had made the move.  By that point, the turkey population was healthy enough to allow for a hunting season.

In Minnesota, biologists doubted turkeys could survive the harsh winters, but the transplanted turkeys won out, proving themselves able to shelter and survive even at temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.

In 1973 the Wild Turkey Federation was born.  Members devote themselves to habitat preservation and also to hunting wild turkeys.  (Hunters maintain that wild turkey is much tastier than the Butterball and other specimens most of us consume on Thanksgiving.)

The WTF now has members in every state and a bimonthly magazine called, of course, Turkey Country.  And most states have turkey hunts that are popular with hunters and regular residents, including increasing numbers of suburbanites.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Over recent years, there are signs that the success of wild turkey repopulation is becoming a bit of a problem.   Here are a few official reports:

     -- In 2001, the state of Maine issued a document called "Feasibility Statements for Wild Turkey Goals and Objectives."  An early sentence ran like this:  "An increase in the Wild Turkey population will likely result in an increase in nuisance complaints and potential for some damage to agricultural crops."

     -- In 2003, Southern Illinois University Carbondale released a report titled "Investigations of Crop Damage by Wild Turkeys in Illinois."

     -- In 2004, Oregon's "Wild Turkey Management Plan" included a section called Nuisance and Depradation Problems.

     -- In 2008, Florida issued a "Strategic Plan for Wild Turkey Management" with state maps indicating low to high wild-turkey population areas and urging serious planning in cooperation with Florida's Wild Turkey Strategic Team.

What really seems to have set folks off is what I observed earlier -- wild turkeys taking up residence in pleasant towns and suburbs that humans have found so convivial.

By 2012, people in genteel Boston suburbs like Brookline and Newton were complaining about "aggressive turkeys."  The offending turkeys were charging in groups at pedestrians, who were advised to carry sticks or tennis rackets so as to fend off attacks.  Residents also were cautioned not to feed or photograph turkeys.

About the same time, in the Westchester region of New York state, a government publication advised  that "Turkeys can be very persistent, and efforts to control them must be just as persistent."  Homeowners were warned that turkeys might dig up planted bulbs or garden vegetables.  Citizens were advised to cover shiny objects, like windows, that turkeys found attractive.

Since 2008, a small agricultural town, Philomath OR, has been a sort of ground zero for wild turkey problems.  The turkeys have been tearing up landscapes and roofs.  State hunting has not addressed the problem, and so local police have been deployed to rid the town of turkeys.  As of earlier this year, the turkeys seemed to be prevailing.


There are many stories about other native animals that have worn out their welcome, including whitetail deer, which have destroyed Eastern forests and spread Lyme disease.

It seems to me that nature owns the earth.  We humans are squatters and only can hope there is a larger scheme that allows us to share the land, at least part of it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Roger Staubach Speaks!

Above is a photograph of Roger Staubach in 1963, the year he won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Navy.  He's been a pretty big deal ever since:  After graduation and four years of military service, he spent 11 seasons as the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.  During that period, the Cowboys won five NFC titles and two Superbowls, and Staubach earned his way into the NFL Hall of Fame.  After his football career, he remained in Dallas, built a successful real estate company and with his wife raised five children.

Staubach is revered among Cowboys fans, but once he left the game he pretty much stepped back from the limelight.

I spent a couple years as a reporter in Dallas, and I can't remember a single time his name came up in the newsroom.  Everyone knew he was working in town and that he remained a staunch Cowboys fan, but his name never made it into the paper, apparently because he wanted it that way.  A friend who continued reporting in Texas for many more years said much the same thing -- that periodically he'd phone Staubach to ask about his business or political activities.  Staubach never returned a call.

Staubach wasn't just averse to journalists.  There were reports that he was asked to run for mayor, for the Senate, to be Secretary of the Navy.  Any number of philanthropic organizations in Texas must have begged him to serve as a high-profile representative.

Staubach just said no, many times.

There were little breaks in the silence.  Last year he was photographed, smiling proudly, as one of his daughters gave her acceptance speech after being elected to the Dallas City Council.

And in November 1911, Staubach penned a Veterans Day column for the Dallas paper arguing that military veterans made excellent employees.  That same year, he founded Allies in Service, a charity to provide assistance of all sorts to military veterans in the Dallas area.  But even then, the board of his charity consisted of him, a relative and a longtime member of his firm.

Staubach still was playing things pretty close to the vest.

So I was interested when I realized recently that after more than 30 quiet years Staubach seemed to be coming out of his shell.

I noticed this first last summer, when he agreed to sit for a long Saturday interview piece in the Wall Street Journal.  I realized I'd never seen a Roger Staubach interview before.

Then came football season, and all of a sudden Staubach and what appears to be one of his grandchildren were featured on a television ad for a car insurance company that serves military families.  Roger Staubach in a television ad!

Curious, I googled his name and found much more.

     -- A February piece in USA Today in which he discussed his decision to retire from football after a what may have been his 20th concussion.  He said he did not join the current lawsuit against the league by other former players because he said he had not suffered the brain injuries others have.

     -- Another February piece in Forbes titled "Roger Staubach from Cowboys QB to Real Estate Mogul."  In it, Staubach was called the highest-earning retired NFL player.
     The Dallas Morning News chased the story the next day.
     This football-to-business-success meme is golden.  When editors and newspeople at publications and television stations realized that Staubach might make himself available for interviews his phone must have started ringing off the hook.
     The story still is reverberating through the sports and business press.

     -- A vignette in SIKids, a sports magazine for young people.  The feature was "Sports Figures and Their Dogs," and the picture was of Roger Staubach sitting cross-legged on the floor with his Labrador, Ryan.  Staubach revealed that he and the dog like to go together to Starbucks, where he said the dog was fondest of pumpkin bread treats.
     Pretty charming, that.

America's quarterback is back.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The State of New Jersey Doubles Down on Gambling

One day at the end of August, an armored truck left the still-open Revel casino with bag of $21,000 cash on its roof.  As the truck proceeded through the streets of Atlantic City, Jersey's gambling mecca, the bag was swept by wind out into the street. The money was lost forever.

This story can be seen as an omen for New Jersey's experience with legalized gambling, which has been on a downward spiral for some time now.  Just to reprise the events:

     -- With gambling revenues down almost 50 percent from their peak in the mid aughts, four casinos closed in Atlantic City this year.

     -- One of the closed casinos, the Revel, had cost $2.4 billion to build and was in bankruptcy for the second time since 2012.  It was sold at auction for $110 million.

     -- The auction winners declared a couple weeks ago that they were pulling out of the deal because of unanticipated expenses, including $1.7 in annual payments to the owners and bondholders of the system that provides the 1,400-room resort with electricity and hot and cold water.  Operating the system would cost another $1.5 million.  These expenses might be manageable if the hotel and casino were running at capacity, but no one including the buyers expected that to happen anytime soon.

     -- Caesar's Entertainment, probably the best casino operator in the business, has admitted that its most challenging property, worldwide, is in Atlantic City.  It has expressed no interest in buying the gorgeous but never-profitable Revel.

     -- Donald Trump, who opened two casinos in Atlantic City, has closed one and made no secret of his wish to close the other.  Failing that, he wants the Trump name removed from the Taj Mahal, the second property.


New Jersey's political leaders opened down-at-the-heels Atlantic City to gambling in the 1970s, making it the first such city outside Nevada.  The stated purpose was the revival of an aging resort town; also appealing was the opportunity to collect taxes, including 9.25 percent of gross gambling revenues.

This worked well for several years until other states decided to do the same thing.  Their new casinos siphoned revenues from Atlantic City as gamblers came to favor casinos nearer their homes.   Not much thought had been given to adding other attractions to bring tourists to Atlantic City even though the state had collected taxes for such "investments."

As gambling revenues declined, more than 8,000 jobs were lost in Atlantic City.  More jobs still could disappear.

Gambling Going Forward

Now New Jersey is considering new, more audacious plans to revive gambling revenues, create jobs and, coincidentally, top up state coffers.  Here are the ideas:

     -- Opening a big new casino just across the river from New York City.  Two potential problems could arise with this.  First, it will pull more business from Atlantic City near the state's southeast border.  Second, if it is successful New York state is likely to respond by allowing other casinos to open near the Big Apple.
      Still, the appeal of taxes is high.  As soon as plans for the new casino were floated, a New Jersey legislator proposed a 66 percent state tax on its gross gambling revenues.

     -- Getting into the sports gambling business.  There seem to be federal barriers, and most sports leagues, from NCAA to the NFL to MLB to the NHL, are not keen on the idea.  (An NBA spokesman didn't rule the idea out completely.)  But the state's leaders seem to believe that if one kind of gambling isn't doing so well these days, maybe another kind of gambling will cure the problem.
     Obviously, this courts the same response as Atlantic City gaming did.  If it works, surrounding states will get into the sports gambling business as well.

State Revenue Ploys

Gambling isn't the only activity that has drawn the attention of states eager to collect more taxes.

Now states are opening up to recreational marijuana use, which formerly was illegal and causing a a lot of problems because there was little heart for enforcing marijuana laws.
      An amusing side show to legalization has been legislators trying to ascertain how high they can set marijuana taxes without encouraging competing black markets or motivating the mass of pot enthusiasts to get permits to buy less taxed "medical marijuana."

Sugar is now a bad thing.  (In fact, we may see states that used to ban marijuana pull back from that and instead consider bans on large sugary beverages; funny when you think about it.)  Recently, voters in Berkeley, CA, approved a per-ounce sales tax on sodas.  More such taxes appear likely.

This has happened before, of course.

Just about every state also adopted huge taxes on cigarette prices, all to discourage people from smoking, but coincidentally to  beef up states' general funds.

And, for many years, states have operated public lotteries and scratch-off games that offer even worse payouts than the one-armed bandits and blackjack games found in casinos.

People are free to do as they wish.  They don't have to gamble or smoke marijuana or drink large Pepsis or smoke cigarettes or buy lottery tickets.  Done to excess, any of these activities can be dangerous.  It is unfortunate that the states have set things up so that state coffers benefit most when people make poor decisions.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Youthful Mistakes and Consequences

Stupid things done during one's adolescence can have consequences that are great or small.

In my upper-middle-class town, we have young people who do drugs.  They seldom are caught, and so the consequences are limited or at least deferred.

A few years ago, two local students caused car accidents while driving drunk.  One ran a car into a tree, killing the passenger.  The other darted into a busy street and T-boned a small truck, killing its driver.  I believe both drivers were incarcerated, appropriately, but that their sentences were not prolonged and they can get past their problems and on with their lives while they are still young.

Second chances like these are not available to everyone, though.

A Harder Case

I went online the other day to look for an old friend with whom I'd lost touch.  I didn't find her, but I did find a nephew of hers whom she had mentioned once.  She told me he was in prison for killing his mother's boyfriend.

Here is the young man's story as recounted in court papers I found online.  At the advice of his mother, he confessed to what he had done.  The crimes were committed when the young man was 16; by then he had been abusing drugs for two years and had a record for unspecified violence.

"In 1999, defendant had left his mother's home in East Orange and was staying in Newark with __________, whom he knew as Fuquan.  Also living in Fuquan's apartment were Fuquan's girlfriend and her two toddler children.

"According to the defendant, at Fuquan's suggestion he agreed to assist in the armed robbery of a cab driver who was seeking cocaine from Fuquan.  They expected the cab driver to have $300 in his possession and intended to rob that money at gunpoint without ever obtaining any drugs for him.  When the cab driver arrived, Fuquan directed the cab to an isolated area, and defendant and Fuquan stepped out and walked around the corner as if they were going to buy drugs.  When they returned, Fuquan got into the back seat while defendant stood outside as a lookout.  Defendant then heard a gunshot in the cab, and he saw that Fuquan had shot the driver in the head.  Fuquan went through the driver's pockets and took money, only about $70 according to defendant.  Defendant received $20 and later, Fuquan gave defendant his handgun.  Defendant carried the handgun in his back pocket, he said, so that the children in the apartment would not handle it."

"A short time after the robbery, defendant overheard Fuquan telling his girlfriend that he wanted to kill defendant.  On the morning of Sunday, March 28, 1999, while the girlfriend was out of the apartment and the two toddlers were watching a Rugrats cartoon show on television, defendant and Fuquan got into a physical fight, each punching the other.  Defendant drew his handgun from his back pocket and shot Fuquan in the head, killing him.  He claimed he saw Fuquan reaching for his own gun, and defendant just beat him to the draw.  Defendant admitted that he fired two shots at Fuquan."

The 16-year-old was remanded to adult court and, at the advice of his public defender, pleaded guilty to the two homicides and other offenses related to the first robbery/homicide.  He was given concurrent 40-year prison sentences, ordered to serve 34 years before he was eligible for parole, and to five years of parole after his release.

The young man was sent to prison.

Six years later, he began to file appeals.  First he claimed he had had ineffective representation from his lawyer, giving no details of lawyer's failures.

Then he argued that he had not been properly informed that he would have to serve parole after his prison release.

Then he argued that his defender did not explain that he could have tried to convince a court panel that he should be tried as a juvenile, not an adult.

Not surprisingly, all the appeals failed.

The young man has grown up -- not physically; he weighs just 130 pounds -- but with time.  He is 31, has been in prison 15 years and must serve at least another 19 years.  If he qualifies for parole at that point, he will be 50 years old.

His Prison

I've met several people who have worked in prisons as teachers or counselors.  One is a woman who has taught at the young man's prison for many years.  She spoke once at a meeting I attended.

The prison, she said, was built in an inner city with the agreement that local residents would be employed as guards.  She said that many of the guards were themselves gang members who sold cellphones or drugs to the inmates.  She did not think highly of the administration at the prison.

Like the other people who volunteer in prisons, she sympathized with at least some of the inmates.  She described them as followers mostly, as men who had not had much attention or guidance in their early years.  She was giving her time because she believed that at least some of the prisoners, over time, could make something of themselves.

What Should We Do

I understand why the young man was not considered a good candidate for juvenile court.  Even if he had been sent to a juvenile program before the shootings, I doubt that such a program, as these are currently organized, would have helped him to get off the bad track he was on.

He certainly did stupid things, most notably adopting an armed criminal as a father figure.  (His own father does not seem to have been in the picture at all.)

By the time he was 16, nobody could tell him what to do.  He needed a structured environment with honorable people who cared about him and gained his trust. He needed tough love and to be able to see a personal future without chaos.

We don't have corrections systems like that.  We take people who have had terrible upbringings and who have done bad things and then worse things.  At that point, we exact vengeance.

I wish we had better answers.

Friday, November 21, 2014

New York Apartments

If you have a nice fortune, housing in Manhattan is widely available.  If you do not have a fortune, well, that's a different story.

If you are middle class, rent will likely cost you more than half your income.  You will live in a much smaller place than your relatives from other parts of the country.  When they come to visit you, they will look at where you live and tell you that you are crazy.

The city of New York has tried for many years to come up with affordable housing for the poor and the middle class, without much effect.  Here are some stories about recent and past efforts that do not seem to have made much of a dent in the situation.

Micro Housing

In 2012, Michael Bloomberg, then the city mayor, sponsored a competition to build very small apartments at a location on 27th Street.  The winning submission is now being constructed in modules.  A layout below shows an example of the 55 units, each described as slightly larger than a college dormitory room.  They are designed to accommodate one to three people.

I believe this apartment measures about 300 square feet.  Others in the project were smaller.

When the building opens next year, 20 of the units will be set aside for low- and middle-income people who will pay rents between $940 and $1,870 per month.  Rents will be higher for the full-pay tenants.

So, this project will generate 20 "affordable" homes, very little homes. Perhaps it will be repeated on different sites.

Bloomberg is a generous man and not a bad person, but he is a billionaire with ll homes worldwide, including a sumptuous townhouse on the Upper East Side.  Watching him promote such itty-bitty apartments on a television news program was a bit disorienting.

Sugar Hill 

This new building in North Harlem, designed by a famous British architect, has just been opened to receive tenants.  Seventy percent of the units were designated for families with incomes between $13,000 and $43,000.   Twenty-five apartments were set aside for people who had been living in homeless shelters.

More than 48,000 families applied for the lottery that allocated its 124 units.  If the city could replicate the same project 387 times, all the applicants could be housed.

A local newspaper caught up with a family as it moved in recently.  The father, who worked as a building doorman, said that he and his wife were moving out of a smaller apartment where they shared a single bedroom with their two daughters.  Their new apartment has two bedrooms.

"It's like winning the Mega Millions," the man told the reporter.

Rent Control

Actually, the man above didn't really win the lottery.  The New Yorkers who could more appropriately claim that distinction are the estimated 38,000 people who have rent-controlled apartments and the million or so others with rent-stabilized apartments.

Rent-controlled apartments are the best deal, but the renters have to have been in place in older buildings since 1971.  This cohort is dying off.

Rent-stabilized leases also are highly prized.  These tenants can stay in place until their incomes reach above $200,000, and their rents are only deregulated when the regulated rate reaches $2,500 a month, which rarely happens.  The average rent-stabilized apartments costs about $1,2000 a month with city-mandated increases of about two percent annually.  This is a very attractive rate in New York.

A New York appellate court decision this week affirmed that rent stabilization is a public benefit, not a personal asset.

The case is interesting.  A widow in her 80s, who had been living in the same rent-stabilized apartment for 50 years, declared bankruptcy.  She'd kept up with her rental payments but had run up $23,000 in other debts.

Her landlord stepped in and offered to pay the full $23,000.  He agreed that the woman could keep her rent-stabilized apartment for the rest of her life, but he wanted her to agree that the apartment would be vacated at her death and not passed to her 50-plus year-old-son, who lives with her.

The bankruptcy trustee accepted the offer, but the widow challenged it in court, claiming that she feared eviction.  In fact, renters of rent-regulated apartments have statutory rights to renew their leases, and there are extra protections for people over the age of 62.

City bureaucrats lined up on the woman's side.  She won.  The woman's right to pass the apartment to her son was found not to be an asset that could be used to pay off her debts but instead a generational public benefit to be passed to an heir.

So she -- and, after her, her son -- get to keep a $703 two-bedroom apartment in the fast-gentrifying East Village.  At current market rents in the neighborhood, such an apartment could fetch a minimum of $4,000 a month.  Probably more.

This is good for her.  It is also good for the rest of the million inhabitants of rent-regulated apartments.  But it may not be good for all the other non-wealthy people looking for reasonable rents for their own families.

If those million apartments were offered at market rate, there might be a little competition among landlords for tenants, and overall rental rates might ease a bit.  Retired people who had benefited for decades from below-market rents might seek housing in less expensive areas.  Poor and middle-income workers might not have to spend decades on waiting lists for subsidized housing.  Young people might arrive to invigorate the local economy in knowledge-based industries other than finance.

This will never happen, of course.

Instead, the city will continue to require developers to build lesser numbers of affordable units when putting up dwellings for very rich people.  Worthy small efforts like micro apartments and the Sugar Hill building will be praised and received happily, but they will never catch up to demand for housing that normal people can afford.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

One Good Quote about Bill Cosby

"The accusations against Mr. Cosby have been all the more striking because his hit TV show, his commercials for Jell-O and his best-selling books about fatherhood helped him present an image of the ideal family man."

New York Times, Nov. 30, 2014


The numbers of accusations, all eerily similar and spanning many years, are growing impossible to ignore.

This is like 2011, when Joe Paterno, long valorized for moral character, was revealed to have done nothing after learning that a longtime member of his staff had abused children sexually.

We are awash in celebrities these days -- actors, athletes, models, politicians, billionaires -- but not many whom we respect personally.  They mostly seem to be managing their images, parading their wealth, promoting their "brands."  

We know that humans are flawed.  We expect creeps to be creeps.  But when the rare, admirable public figure shows himself to be less than we thought he was, the disappointment and sorrow run particularly deep.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Our Wine Boom

Before my last year of college, the country was in a recession and internships were not broadly available in the region where I lived.  So, to make some money, I went to a country club and talked myself into a job as a cocktail waitress.

My parents were horrified, but the experience was lucrative and useful.  I learned how to mix drinks and how to be nice to people (a challenge in my early years) while fending off drunk guys who were coming on to me.

At the clubhouse bar, most guys -- most of the customers were guys -- drank beer.  The older ones preferred shots of various spirits, sometimes laced with water or tonic.  Women drank sodas, beer or mixed drinks like screwdrivers or gins with tonic.  Wine was third on the order list.

This may be a skewed sample.  Perhaps all the dining room customers ordered wine and it all balanced out.

But I still think things have changed, and the facts support me.  We drink LOTS more wine now.

 Wine Drinking in America

Last year, for the first time, the U.S. consumed more wine than France.  To be fair, there are many
more Americans than French people, but still:  French wine consumption dropped 20 percent in the 10 years starting in 2002 while American consumption stepped up smartly.

Beer remains our country's favorite tipple, but mostly by men and not by much.  And millenials are reported to enjoy wine more than any previous generation.  So this wine thing appears to be a trend with legs.

American Wine

What strikes me is how many wineries we have now.  According to the Wine Institute, the United States had 2,904 wineries in 2000 and 8,806 by 2012.  Every single state has wineries, including several -- North Dakota, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada -- where I wouldn't have expected to find them.

This is how I view American wineries:  Some produce very good products, and then there are a lot of others.

My friends will attest that I am not a wine snob, but I do believe there are certain locations, including many parts of our country, that are fundamentally unsuited to viniculture.

To be fair, my suspicion extended to New Jersey until I had dinner last year at a local restaurant whose wine list included only local wines.  My glass of chardonnay wasn't the finest I ever tasted, but it didn't suck.

So there is that.

A Change in the Landscape

Now, wineries are scattered across the fruited plain, and so are tasting rooms alongside almost every highway.  On a trip earlier this year, the Significant Other and I stopped at one such place and were amazed to find it packed, really packed, with families who seemed to have opted for a winery break instead of a stop at McDonalds.

This popularity has led to a new convention at winery tasting rooms.  Where in the past, there was no charge for tastings, now a nominal charge, usually $5, will cover the sampling of five wines of your choice.  This is probably a good thing because it allows tasters who don't like what they discover to exit without feeling obliged to buy something undrinkable.

And I will attest that this does happen.

Last fall, the SO and I went with friends to an apple festival in a northeastern state that shall remain nameless.  After we'd bought sacks of apples, had a nice lunch and viewed the crafts exhibits, we decided to end our visit with a stop at a local winery just outside town.

We paid our $5 tasting charges and began sampling.  The first wine, a recommended red, had a nasty kick that developed in the back of the throat.  The second and third, a white and a red, also had the same nasty kick.  There must be something in vineyard soils in that area.  Very unfortunate.

When the counter employee asked which wine we'd like to sample next, the SO looked at his watch and gave a frown.  "Uh oh," he said, "we're running late. Gotta go."

I'll bet that counter guy hears the same thing pretty often.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

More Fun with Time Zones

Yesterday I discussed the curious shifting of time zones in Russia, which have been rearranged twice in the last five years.

Russia is not the only country with unusual time arrangements in Asia, however -- not by a long shot.


 The big outlier, as you can see below is China, which is broader than the continental United States and has one time zone.  This of course is known as Beijing time.

(One way to think of this is to compare China with Russia:  Russia has one time zone for every 508 miles while China has one time zone for its 3,123-mile breadth.)

This was not always so.  Starting in 1912, China had five time zones running from 5.5 to 8.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, known now as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC.)

This was changed in 1949 when the Peoples Republic of China was established.  The reason given was a political one:  unity.

Unfortunately the earth's rotation did not adjust in response.  As a result the sun rises around 10 a.m. in the far west of China, and what we would call high noon actually occurs at about 3 p.m.  Farmers and shopkeepers seem to operate on informal different times, and the Uighur people are said to hold to their own time schedule, most likely for their own political reasons.

Interestingly, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan also operate on Beijing time, 8+UTC.  Each calls its time setting and administration by a different name -- Hong Kong Time, Macau Standard Time and National Standard Time, respectively -- probably for political reasons as well.


Like China, India adopted a single time zone, UTC+5.30, shortly after its independence in 1948.  

Also like China, India is a broad country.  People in different regions had their own ideas.  Kolkota and Mumbai (then Calcutta and Bombay), for instance, waited several years before signing up for India Central Time.

And this year, after several decades of agitation, the state of Assam in India's far northeast adopted its own time zone, UTC+6.5, one hour earlier.  

An Assam leader explained that the new time zone would make his people more energetic.  This puzzles me.  The number of hours each day did not change; why would the numbers on the face of the clock make any difference in personal energy?

Another strange thing:  Nepal, that tiny pinkish country approaching India's northern cap from the east, declared its own time zone in 1956.  Nepal is much smaller than one-zone India, but it chose to set its clocks 15 minutes earlier than Indian ones.  It has been explained that the setting is based on the longitudinal location of a mountain set almost perfectly in Nepal's center and therefore is the perfect time.

What a funny place Asia is.  Enormous  countries with 3,000-mile politically drawn time zones and one tiny country so devoted to geographical precision that it insists on setting a time 15 minutes different from that of its neighbors.

The Americas

Given the variety of time arrangements in Asian, the Western Hemisphere seems like an oasis of regularity.  But there is at least one amusing exception:  Venezuela.

Venezuela is the striped country in the north of South America on the map below.  It does not set its time based on an hourly distance from UTC but instead makes a half-hour distinction.  This is almost unheard of in the Americas.

This innovation came in 2007, courtesy of the late president, Hugo Chavez.  He set the time zone a half hour east, completely at odds with those of all Venezuela's neighbors.

Wags at the time speculated that Chavez did not want to share even a time zone with the despised United States, and there may be something to it.  

Perhaps in the service of socialismo, Chavez maintained that an earlier sunrise would help schoolchildren arrive for class each day with more energy.  No explanation why the schools couldn't just open a half hour later.

There was some resistance from other countries, but Chavez was a difficult fellow even on his best days.  Maybe the opposition decided it just wasn't worth the bother.


Below is a map laying out the longitude of time zones.  When they cross water, they often run straight, but land interrupts them all over the world.  So time is a fixed thing, except when countries decide it isn't.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Living on Russian Time

You may think that time is time -- if you look at your watch 24 hours from now it will be the same time as today.  You might also expect that if the sun is directly overhead, it probably is about noon.

But if you travel frequently to other parts of the world, you will find that time wiggles around from place to place.

Take Russia, for example.  I always had heard that Russia had 11 time zones.  This number was cited often to indicate the enormous east-west stretch of the country, 5,592 miles.

But I was wrong.  Until the end of last month, Russia had nine time zones.  On Oct. 26, the Russian government announced the addition of two new time zones.

Russia now has 11 time zones, just as I always had thought.

Above is a very helpful online map from the website   Each region is marked with a number indicating its distance in hours from a central time called Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC.

This UTC thing looks suspiciously like what used to be called Greenwich Mean Time.  I don't think the change in nomenclature is some kind of anti-Western Russian thing because UTC seems to be used worldwide now.

For some reason, I got to reading about this and learned several interesting things:

     -- In fact, Russia did not simply add two time zones.  It updated seven zones to accommodate a new plan, added three new zones and created a special time zone just for Belarus.  Net effect:  11 time zones.  This information comes from Microsoft, whose programmers have to fiddle with settings worldwide to reflect the vagaries of countries' time specifications.

     -- Up until 2010, Russia actually did have 11 time zones (so I was right, for once.)  In 2010, the country was rezoned into only nine time zones, apparently for the sake of efficiency.  My guess is that several zones on the far reaches were mashed together, but, really, why would it matter?  If you were a senior apparatchik in Vladivostock and Vladimir Putin wanted to schedule a phone call, wouldn't it all be on Moscow time anyway?
     (In fact, some Russian train lines operate exclusively on Moscow time, so be sure to check the next time you visit.)

     -- Russia made another time change at the end of last month.  After a three-year test run and many, many, many public complaints, the Russians abandoned Daylight Savings Time.
    This is not surprising.  Even in the U.S. and after many decades, people have their own points of view about the wisdom of the spring-forward/fall-back procedure.  Daylight savings time was adopted during the big wars as an energy-saving measure; I'm not sure I see how that works.

But back to my first point.  Why shouldn't time be a fixed thing?  The earth's orbit is pretty predictable, and the sun pretty much stays put.  Why is an enormous country fiddling with the sizes and hours of its time regions twice in less than five years?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Who Gets the Water?

The Problem

One good way to understand how dry Southern California is is to look out the window of an airplane as it pulls in to land at one of the airports there.

Planes arriving at LAX enter from the east, and for many minutes as they make their approach, the view below is one of brown, dry land and then many, many roads and buildings with not a lot of trees or other greenery.

Once you get on the ground you see little patches of lawn and shrubbery, but still:  Without the water that has been piped hundreds of miles in for more than 100 years, Los Angeles would be mostly dry grassland, partially green only in the late autumn, with a lovely ocean at its western periphery.

The three metropolitan areas of Southern California are home to about 20 million people.  They don't plan to move, most of them anyway, and when they turn the faucets in their kitchen sinks, they want water to come out.

This is getting to be a challenge.

Coping With the Problem

For more than 30 years, the state of California has been preaching water conservation -- low-flow toilets and then lower-flow toilets, low-flow showerheads and time-limited showers, limits on landscape watering and an absolute ban on lawns in front of newly constructed homes.  You must ask to get a glass of water in a restaurant.  There is a hardly a gym in Los Angeles where you can take an apres-workout shower anymore.

It appears that people in Southern California do use less water, about 380 gallons daily per family, than the national norm of 400.  Not surprisingly, people with bigger houses (and, presumably, more landscaping) use more water than people who live in smaller houses or apartments.

As the state went into a fourth drought year with no end in sight this summer, the governor called for all to reduce water consumption by 20 percent.  People have been cooperating, but in recent months the reduction has been only 10 to 12 percent.  Even at that, water supplies are low and there is no serious rain in sight.

What to Do

What Southern California needs is more water, particularly during drought years when there is much less rainfall and not as much water flows across the mountains from inland rivers.  Scientists are saying now that 10-year droughts (the current one is less than four years old) happened in the region's past and are likely to occur in its future.

Southern California could try to get more water from the Owens and Colorado rivers, which flow on the even drier side of the Sierra Nevada.  Unfortunately this will not work because those areas too are suffering drought, serious depletion of groundwater, the drying up of the Colorado estuary and thick, lung-threatening dust storms.

Southern California could try to recycle water.  In fact, Orange County has been doing this for years. Once people got over the "ick" factor about "toilet to tap" water -- the recycled water is put through several filtration processes -- they began to accept it.   Water agencies in several other areas are now -- finally, now! -- considering similar actions.
        This is actually a good idea and deserves exploration.  But, if there comes a 10-year drought, and there might, available water for recycling might dwindle.

You get this impression that a bunch of people in the southern part of California are sitting on their lanais, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, and saying to themselves, "Gosh, if only we could find some more water!"

One Idea

I've said it, and I'll say it again:  Desalination.

Here are some facts:

     -- One percent of the world's drinking water comes from desalination.  It's a big deal in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East and the poorer countries of North Africa.  It accounts for 40 percent of Israel's domestic water. Plants operate from Germany to Spain to Aruba to Singapore to India.

     -- Many oceangoing ships have employed onboard desalination technology for years to provide water for their crews.

     -- Desalination is not cheap, but its cost has declined by many orders of magnitude over recent years due to mechanical engineering improvements that I certainly am not equipped to describe.

The Barriers

Australia, always dry in its interior, got interested in desalination during a major drought in aughts.  The country built six large desalination plants in metropolitan areas on both its coasts.  The plants in the east -- Perth, say -- came in handy as the dry years continued.  In the east -- New South Wales -- the rains returned and the new plants were not needed. This became a handy political issue used by politicians out of power to pummel incumbents about about excessive spending.

Here in the United States, the barrier seems to be the bureaucracy.  The newest and most technically advanced American desalination plant, set for completion next summer in Carlsbad, Calif., was first proposed in 1998.  Gaining the appropriate permits from the state and federal agencies -- and defending against opposition lawsuits took until 2013, at which point construction began.
        I'm not a patient person, and so I would not have persisted so long, but the company is proposing another plant in Huntington Beach, very similar to the previous one.  Nobody is making book on whether or when that plant will be built.


It seems appropriate that metropolitan areas near oceans should take some responsibility for providing water for their people.

Over the years, California's agricultural economy has used most of the state's water, providing billions of dollars in revenue and nourishing millions of people. Farmers have gotten progressively more efficient about water over time, but a certain amount of the stuff is necessary for any kind of agriculture.  In the current drought, farms have been plunging ever-deeper wells and pulling up only enough water for their highest-value crops.  Nobody knows when the drought will end, and so it is difficult to plan.

There are similar concerns in the nation's interior states, even those without droughts.  Aquifers like the great Ogalala that runs from Texas to South Dakota and was built with thousands of years of rainfall, are running perilously low now.  Atop the Ogalala sit 442 million acres of cropland in a dry climate.  Those acres may not count for many votes in a fight over water, but we may want to consider diverting some rivers inland in the next few generations.

We need water when we turn on the faucet.  But we also need food when it is time for dinner.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembrance Day

This is Veterans Day in the United States, when we honor military service members who fought -- and their fellows who were injured and killed -- in wars.   The day was first known in the U.S. as Armistice Day, when World War I armies agreed to lay down their arms on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

In England, the day was named and still is called Remembrance Day.  The British and their allies won the war, but at a horrible cost.  Nearly 900,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers died in World War I.

Also today, a British cadet planted the final ceramic marker in a remarkable installation at the Tower of London.  It involved the placement a hand-made red poppy for every Commonwealth soldier killed in the war.  I spoke of this project in an earlier post, "Poppies," on August 5.

A few days ago, the Telegraph newspaper sent an aerial photographer to document the scale of the project.  As you can see from the video, the installation was drawing large crowds even before Remembrance Day.

The project inspires many thoughts:

     -- That each poppy represents the loved son or brother, or daughter or sister, of a bereft family.

     -- That the enormous number of lost Commonwealth soldiers, huge as it is, represents far fewer than half the military deaths in World War I.

     -- That even after the horror of that war, a second world war, lasting half again as long, involving even more of the world's countries and leading to many more deaths, began just 21 years later.

Individual losses scar families, but the loss of much of a generation scars the world.  It has been observed often that many European countries were led by limited and often malign characters in the 1930s.  Perhaps many better candidates did not arise because they had died young in the Great War.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Immigration Policy -- What Do We Want?

Above is a map released last month by the National Immigration Law Center, a group that advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants.  It shows, in green, the increasing number of states that are making drivers' licenses available to these immigrants.

But now the law center will have to edit the map.  After last week's election, the state of Oregon will not be offering driving rights to immigrants without papers.

The law that voters rejected was broadly supported in 2013 -- passed 20-7 in the State Senate and 38-20 in the House, then signed by the governor.  The bill would have allowed illegal residents to obtain driving "cards," effectively licenses, after passing the regular paper and driving tests.

Supporters called it the "Safe Roads Bill" and argued that it would lead to better driver education and allow immigrants greater access to car insurance.

A signature campaign challenging the bill was organized quickly after its passage, and the popularity of the challenge last week was striking:

      --- 67.43 percent of voters opposed the driving card plan, and

      --- 32.57 percent approved.

In a country where any candidate or measure getting over 52 percent of a vote is said to have achieved a landslide, I find this remarkable.  More than two-thirds of voters said no.

It does not seem to reflect a Republican/Democrat divide.  Oregon is a blue state; its governor, both its senators and four of its five congressmen are Democrats.  This was a major election, with re-elections of the governor and a senator on the line.  The ballot also carried a recreational marijuana measure that passed with more than 55 percent of the vote.

New York

The Oregon results seem at odds with efforts on behalf of immigrants in New York.

Starting in January, New York City will begin issuing identification cards to illegal immigrants.

Several Democrats in the state legislature also have introduced a bill to issue NewYork State Citizen numbers that would allow people without papers to obtain drivers' licenses, apply for professional certifications, sign up for Medicaid, serve on juries, vote in local and state elections and hold elective office.

Supporters of the legislation see it as an issue of rights, rather like same-sex marriage or medical marijuana.

I don't think New York politicians have any idea how people will react to the proposed legislation.  I don't know what to make of it myself.

President Obama

The president announced earlier this year that he planned to use his executive authority to make changes to immigration policy.  When pressed by members of his own party, he said that he would delay making his changes -- whatever they were -- until after the election.

The Big Issue

Here are two observations that I think most of us share:

       We have a large number of undocumented workers in our country.  They work very hard and for not much money.

       We also have a large number of young citizens whose careers are starting slowly or not starting at all.  An estimated 15 percent are unemployed, and a much larger proportion are underemployed.

For all the talk about economic growth and declining unemployment, things are not going well.

If you only read in the newspapers about legislation in states like Oregon and New York, you would be tempted to conclude that illegal immigration across our southern border is the only immigration issue we face.  In fact, there are many others: chain migration, H1B visas, refugees, citizenship versus green cards.  I am not expert in any of these matters.

When and if we finally get around to "having a conversation" about immigration, I hope we will balance our needs as a country with the understandable wishes of many people to come here.

For starters, we need more well-educated and technical people -- trained scientists, engineers, medical researchers, inventors, artists -- who will start companies that expand our knowledge base and our economy and increase opportunities for all our people, immigrants included.

Second, we need young families.  As in other developed countries, our birth rate is trending below the replacement level.  Watching the long-term aging of Japan's population and its failure to open itself to new, non-Japanese immigrants should motivate us to make a better plan for ourselves.  The money for baby boomers' Social Security and Medicare has to come from somewhere.

When those new children arrive, we must give them good schools, an imperative that we have avoided facing head-on for decades.

We always have understood ourselves to be a country of immigrants.  It is a source of pride and, I believe, strength. Our challenge now is to handle immigration in a far-thinking way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Influential People

On this day 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down and the successful reunification of West Germany with East Germany, for decades a puppet state of the Soviet Union, began.

Four weeks ago, Time magazine released its list of the world's 100 most influential people.

Interestingly, two of the top five people on the Time list were in East Germany on that important day in 1989.

The first is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president from 2000 to 2008 who was elected to a third term in 2012.

The fifth is Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor since 2005 and, effectively, the leader of the European Union.

Back in 1989, neither of these people could have been expected to rise to such heights.  They worked hard but not in areas of political leadership.  Yet, when opportunities arose to shift careers in mid-life, they stepped up and have put their mark on history.  Their stories are interesting, if murky in places.  The full effects of what they have done will not be understood for many years to come.

Vladimir Putin

In 1989, Putin was one of a handful of KGB officers based in Dresden, Germany, a mid-level office at best.  The group seems mainly to have tried to recruit spies for the Soviets and to keep check on the loyalty of members of the East German government and Stasi, its notorious secret service.

As unrest grew in East Germany during the second half of 1989, more than 20,000 people massed the Dresden train station trying to leave for Hungary or Austria.  They were confronted by East German policemen with machine guns.

According to one story, when dissidents gathered outside the KGB Dresden office, they were held at bay by Putin, who was armed with a pistol and said, in fluent German, "This is Soviet territory, and you're standing on our border.  I'm serious when I say that I will shoot trespassers."

In 1990, Putin moved to St. Petersburg, resigned from the KGB and took up a new job with the city government.  Russian leaders were alarmed at the amount of money that was flooding out of the country at the time.  According to various reports,  Putin signed thousands of licenses that accommodated the activity.  Particular mention has been made of money sent abroad to pay for food imports that never were delivered.  A commission of the Russian parliament tried to investigate the documents Putin had authorized, but only 12 ever were released.

In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow, where he became a protege of President Boris Yeltsin, who nominated him for prime minister in 1999.  Putin became acting president when Yeltsin resigned at the end of the year and was elected to the office in spring 2000.

Beside the graft opportunities in St. Petersburg, Putin's control of the Russian economy has been profitable if mysterious.  His net worth is widely estimated at $70 billion, but nobody knows how he came by the money or, really, how much of it he controls.

More importantly, he controls Russia, which has a huge nuclear arsenal and also fossil fuels that are badly needed in Western Europe and give him leverage against neighboring states.  He has made clear, in Georgia and Ukraine, that he wants to re-establish the Soviet empire.  He prefers strong-man governments in places like Syria to squishy and unreliable democracies.  He is flexible in the methods he uses to pursue his goals.

And, according to Time, he is the most influential man in the world.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel seems to have been the brightest student in every school she attended.  A physics PhD, she was working as a researcher at the (East) German Academy of Sciences in Berlin on the day the wall was torn down by jubilant mobs.

She did not join the efforts -- that was her weekly sauna day, she explained later -- but went later that evening to see the remnants of a barrier that had separated the city for 28 years.

Merkel became active in the reunification of German politics and was elected to the Bundestag in 1991.  She became a protege of longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who made her Minister of Women and Children.

In 1998, Kohl was defeated.  After the election, he admitted that he had accepted illegal campaign donations.  Merkel wrote a widely publicized denunciation of her party's leadership, including Kohl, and became the party leader.

After losing a 2002 election, Merkel was elected chancellor by a narrow margin in 2005 and formed a coalition government.  She is the first chancellor to have been raised in East Germany and the first female leader the country ever has had.  Political leadership in Germany, unlike in Putin's Russia, does not appear to have led for her to great personal fortune.

Germany has led the European Union through the Great Recession and come out of it better off than most countries.  Merkel's economic policies have been criticized, but her ethics have not. She is steady and careful and appears to enjoy broad support in Germany.  The last times she lashed out in anger were when she discovered that American intelligence agencies had been tapping her cellphone and that the Russians had been lying about their activities in Ukraine.

By Time's reckoning, she is the most powerful woman in the world.

A Tale of Two Leaders

The quote below comes from an article published last year in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"When (Merkel) visited the Kremlin for the first time as Chancellor, Putin gave her a plush toy dog as a gift.  Merkel became deeply afraid of dogs after she was bitten in the mid 90s.  But Putin didn't stop there. The next meeting, at his residence on the Black Sea, he let in his black Labrador Kony, an intimidating species.  Merkel sat frozen, and pictures show Putin with a sardonic grin on his face, legs widely stretched."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Salt and Water
Behold the ocean.  As you no doubt learned in school, oceans make up 71 percent of the earth's surface.  This is true, but it seriously understates the amount of saltwater on the earth.  

Here are the facts:

     -- 96 percent of the earth's water is saltwater.

     -- 4 percent of the world's water is freshwater.  Of that, more than two thirds is held as frozen water in glaciers and ice caps. Much of the rest is vapor in the atmosphere
     --  The remainder, less than 1 percent of all the water on earth, is freshwater available for the sustenance of land animals, plants and, today, more than 7 billion human beings. 

In early times, humans located their communities near rivers or lakes or wells, for the obvious reason. 

As human engineering allowed for diversion of water, the settlement of large cities in other places became possible.  Recently I have discussed how this came to pass in two American cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles.   The phenomenon was a worldwide one, however, and certainly not limited to cities on the American West Coast.

Engineering progress also allowed for deeper excavation of wells and, with it, increased agricultural production that fed growing populations.

Over thousands of years, several problems arose.  First was that climate changed from time to time and from one area to another.   It turned out that droughts were unpredictable elements in climate cycles.

The second problem was that, also over time, industrious humans drew water out of underground wells faster than rains could replace it.

There are not easy solutions to problems like these.  Cities and states are taking the obvious steps -- limiting household water use, recycling gray water and promoting dry-weather plantings.  

Another less obvious but promising step is desalination -- taking the salt out of some of the ocean water.  This might provide insurance against severe droughts and reduce the raiding of inland water sources that are essential for animal habitat and agriculture. 

This is actually a very old idea, dating at least to the time of Aristotle.  His thought was similar to the one sketched below.  In it, ocean water is collected in a container, evaporated by heat and then condensed into a tank, leaving the salt behind.


I am not old enough to have discussed this procedure with Aristotle, but my guess is that he may have been at least as eager to collect salt for the preservation of food as to gather fresh water for drinking. Who knows?

In any event, the idea offers possibilities.  Groundwater tables have been drawn down to dangerously low levels in parts of the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia.  Some countries have committed major resources to desalination, and even slow, slow America is starting to dip its toe into the water.

More about that later.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Dry California

The California drought, now in its fourth year, just keeps getting worse.

The image below shows the decline of groundwater -- water stored below rivers and the state's land mass -- over the last 12 years.

NASA/JPL-Caltech University/University of California, Irvine
Each year since 2011, more groundwater has been lost than has been used by all 38 million residents in all California's cities.

California's central valley, a breadbasket for much of the nation's crops, uses most of the state's water, but it, too, has been affected by drought.  Cultivation of high-water crops like cotton has been abandoned, with scarce water devoted to high-value crops including almonds.  This has cost at least 17,000 jobs, as well as more than $2 billion in the state economy.  Still, the farmers have been pulling water out of wells just to keep in business.

NASA Earth Observatory
Decoding the map above is not difficult.  The red areas indicate declining amounts of ground water, and the very red areas, which cover almost all of California, indicate the areas of greatest water losses.  The Colorado River, which runs through dry country itself, provides water across seven Western states, and its own water levels are declining rapidly.

Previous hopes for a rainy season this fall have not come to fruition.  In fact, it would take three to five years of very heavy rainfall to return the state to what used to be called a normal situation.  Odds against that are not good.

When a government agency asked state residents recently what they could do to save water, the people came up with answers like turning off water between swallows while brushing their teeth.  Most homeowners face restrictions on watering their gardens, and car-washing now must be done using buckets, not running hoses.  The state for years has mandated the use of low-flow shower heads and toilets (flushing accounts for about 27 percent of household water usage), and even more efficient potties may be required soon.

Unfortunately, none of this is going to make a real dent in the situation.   Tomorrow I will discuss one idea.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

New Product

Here is an interesting product that keeps popping up everywhere I go on the internet.  I am sharing it with my readers in a personal effort to help it find its market.  

Called the Ostrich Pillow, it appears to be a burrowing tunnel for the faces and hands of office workers needing workday naps.  The cost is $99.  

I am a big fan of the occasional siesta myself, but this does not suit my lifestyle.  If you want one, please contact The Grommet website and say I sent you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How Los Angeles Got Its Water

San Francisco was the first big metropolis on the American West Coast, but once the westward migration got going, Los Angeles was not far behind.

The U.S. census of 1890 counted about 50,000 people in LA.  By 1900, the population had doubled to 102,500.  Ten years later, in 1910, the population had more than tripled to 319,000.

As in San Francisco, water was a problem.  The Los Angeles River was estimated toward the end of the 19th century to be able to support a population of 250,000, but city fathers expected much greater growth.

Like San Francisco, Los Angeles found its water from land to the east.

Around 1900, prominent Angelenos began buying up property in the Owens Valley, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, near the state border with Nevada.  What they sought, and received, were water rights to to the Owens River, which was fed by snowmelt from the mountains.

The city put a proposed bond measure in front of Los Angeles voters to build a Los Angeles Aqueduct, 233 miles long, to bring Owens River water into LA.  The measure passed.

Here are some Los Angeles Department of Water and Power historical photos of the construction and the opening of the aqueduct in 1913.

Los Angeles Aqueduct Opens, 1913

This provided a lot of water, but Los Angeles kept expanding its boundaries and attracting new residents, to a total of 577,000 in 1920 and more than double that, 1.23 million in 1930.   More water was needed.

In 1931, California voters approved a bond measure for an even bigger project, the Colorado Aqueduct.  A new state agency, the Metropolitan Water District, organized the 242-mile project that also created Lake Havasu and the Parker Dam.  The Colorado Aqueduct water accommodated further population growth as far as San Diego and also supplied irrigation for the state's large agriculture economy.

Other projects, including Hoover Dam, also drew from the Colorado River.  Today the Colorado supplies water for 40 million people in seven states from Wyoming to California.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration has documented a serious depletion of groundwater beneath the Colorado River between 2004 and 2013.  Similar groundwater depletion has been noted also in California, especially since the recent drought began several years ago and farmers pulled more water out of wells to protect thirsty crops.

Over the last 90 years, the size of the Colorado River Delta, which empties into the Gulf of California, has dropped from 3,000 square miles to 250 square miles, causing harm to sea life.

Back in the Owens Valley, groundwater also is being pumped at levels that scientists say are unsustainable.  Heavy dust storms in parts of the valley in recent years have blown tiny particulates at 100 times the EPA recommended maximum.

California has been resourceful in diverting water from the dry interior to its coastal cities.  But as the state enters its fourth drought year, there is no new water source to tap.  Reservoirs are low, and water restrictions for farms and cities are expected to get tougher as the state draws down further its diminished store of water to get through the crisis.

In the middle of the country, the Ogalala Acquifer, a great underground sink running from Texas to South Dakota that accumulated rainwater over thousands of years, is being drawn down rapidly and not replenished.   More dry decades may be the future; scientists calculate that, even with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the 20th century was the Midwest's rainiest for thousands of years.

This is not just an American story.  World populations are battling with water scarcity.

More on that in a later post.