Water’s For Fightin’

userpic=plumbingI’m currently reading a very interesting book called “Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water” by Marc Reisner. It is very timely reading, given the drought that we’re currently facing in California. The book explores much of the relationship of the American West and water, especially the power, politics, and idiocy behind many Bureau of Reclamation projects and Army Corps of Engineer projects — such as the Central Arizona Project, the Teton Dam, or the proposed Narrows Dam — that are not economically viable and often built in unstable areas. There are two chapters devoted to California: one explores the story of William Mulholland and the first Los Angeles Aqueduct (here are some interesting maps related to that), the second explores the history of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Other chapters touch on some Army Corps projects that helped large farmers in the San Joaquin valley, the story of obtaining water from the Colorado, and the more surprising story of how they wanted to get more water for the Colorado / Central Valley from the Feather, Eel, Klamath, and even the Columbia river. What’s missing in the book is any discussion of San Francisco and its water, and the battle over Hetch Hetchy. It is a glaring omission.

In any case, this book has gotten me thinking about water, and a number of articles this week have emphasized that thinking. It’s also got me looking at many government projects a bit more cynically — when you understand some of the political battles behind them, you can see the waste. This is independent of party: both conservatives and liberals, Repubs and Democrats, have fought for water project boondoggles. Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower tried to cut them, but never succeeded.

So here are some articles on water, with commentary:

  • Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone. One of topics repeatedly mentioned in Cadillac Desert is how areas in the west have been over-pumping the ground water (similar to how we are over-pumping oil). We’ve been drastically drawing down a slow-to-replenish resource, and don’t have the water projects to replace it (and don’t get me started on how we’re contaminating the aquifers through fracking). A number of articles are bringing this fact home: the Las Vegas Sun has an article on how the groundwater loss in the Southwest is shocking: “Groundwater losses from the Colorado River basin appear massive enough to challenge long-term water supplies for the seven states and parts of Mexico that it serves” [combine this with the fact that more water from the Colorado River has been promised to the states along its path than flows through the river in a normal year]. The LA Times is reporting that farmers are having to drill deeper to find groundwater for wells. This indicates that the aquifer is getting low. The AAAS Science Magazine is reporting that the Western US states are using groundwater at an alarming rate: “A new study shows that ground water in the [Colorado River] basin is being depleted six times faster than surface water. The groundwater losses, which take thousands of years to be recharged naturally, point to the unsustainability of exploding population centers and water-intensive agriculture in the basin, which includes most of Arizona and parts of Colorado, California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.”  Yes, droughts are cyclical; but global climate change, combined with our misuse of what water resources we have, are making this one even scarier.
  • A Crappy Situation. Think about your personal water usage. Outside of irrigating your landscaping, where is most of your water used? The answer, of course, is the bathroom. One of the articles I saw this week was on why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design. There are a number of interesting points in the article. Thanks to the modern bathroom, the average water use per person went quickly from three gallons of water per person to 30 and perhaps as much as 100 gallons per person. Further, we’re doing silly things like storing medicine, open toothbrushes, and glasses in an environment where fecal bacteria are being flung around. That’s less of a problem if you’re the only person using your bathroom; more of a problem if it shared.
  • Go Jump in a (Concrete) Lake. Our house, alas, has a swimming pool. I don’t want it, but we liked the rest of the house. So here’s an interesting question: What uses more water — a swimming pool or the landscaping that replaces it? If a lawn is going it, quite likely the pool is water smarter (other than the fill, which is one-time). The pool only loses water due to evaporation; you pour water on the lawn regularly. It does make me think seriously about getting a pool cover to control evaporation, however. I just hate to think of the leaves that would accumulate on top of it.



Saturday Stew: Clearing out the Groupatwos before Pesach

Observation StewIn the Talmud, there is a learned Rabbi who opines that groupatwos are to be considered Chametz during Passover. Luckily, this week was so busy I accumulated a bunch of groupatwos. So let’s get that feather and that candle and get them out of the links list before Passover starts Monday night:



A Day Late and a Dollar Short

Observation StewIt’s the last Sunday of the year, and so I think you deserve some Saturday news chum stew, a day late. That’s what prompted the title to this post. However, looking at the articles, they all seem to relate to that notion: they are either past their time, or they are situations where there might not be enough cash, or both:

  • Lick It and Stick It. If you aren’t already aware, postage rates are going up, “temporarily” (yeah, right), to 49c for the first ounce, and 21c for each additional ounce (forever stamps are still whatever the current rate is, so buy them now). Postcards will go to 34c. A number of other rates will also increase. The rates will supposedly go back down in 24 months, but I’ll believe that when I see it.
  • Bookstores Gone But Not Forgotten. Kevin over at LA Observed has posted his list of bookstores that have closed in Southern California. We lost some biggies this year, including Cliff’s in Pasadena (which I thought would be around forever). I regret not getting over to Cliff’s before it closed.
  • Breaking Away. A bunch of Northern California counties want to secede from California because they have no say in the legislature. Actually, they do have the same say as every other voter in the state; it just happens that most of the other voters live in the big urban areas. They seem to believe that their votes will make it so. What they forget is that it has to be approved by both the state legislature and congress.  Further, they will need to pay for their share of the state-owned infrastructure and assume their share of the state’s debt… and being rural, they won’t generate enough taxes to pay for all of that plus the additional bureaucracy they will need for a new state’s government. Since the United States has been created, a state split has occurred only once, and that was during the Civil War (the Carolinas split before the revolution).
  • Double-Chined Barbie. There is a meme going around Facebook encouraging production of a stereotypically obese Barbie with a double chin. While I certainly agree that having a Barbie with realistic proportions would be a good idea, and that having Barbies that look like real people (including skin colors and facial characteristics, as opposed to a colored-skin white Barbie), this mock-up is not the answer.



Friday News Chum: Redistricting, Fonts, Liddsville, Dogs, Lawns, Apollo 11, Stomach Flu, and Postage

userpic=headlinesWell, it’s Friday at lunch, and you know what that means — time to clear out the accumulated links that couldn’t be formed into a coherent theme. Well, at least I couldn’t figure out a theme. Perhaps you can:

  • Impacts of Redistricting. Let’s start with a couple of aspects of redistricting. First, in California, the state senate districts have staggered elections and terms (just like the real senate). This means when redistricting occurs, there is a short period where some people might have two state senate representatives and others might not have a state senate representative at all. The state senate has just addressed the quirk, assigning senators to those areas that ended up without representation. If you are wondering how this happens, The no-senator areas, known as deferrals, stem from the interplay of the Senate’s election schedule and redistricting. One-half of Senate seats are up for election every two years and the 2011 remap moved some residents from odd-numbered districts scheduled to be on the ballot in 2012 to even-numbered districts on the ballot in 2014. The result is that those areas have no senator for two years. Here’s another redistricting issue: Redistricting in many states results in gerrymandering, where districts are created to have majorities in one party or another. The Republicans in Virginia and a number other “swing” blue states are attempting to take advantage of this by allocating electoral votes to the winner of the district. It’s one thing to allocate proportionally based on total state voting, but doing it by congressional district allows the gerrymandering effect to predominate, disenfranchising those in the minority in the district.
  • Readability. Let’s move away from politics. You’re reading this post on your computer, in a serif or non-serif font, depending on your preference. Mine’s serifed. We’ve always believed that serifed fonts were more readable because the serifs helped move your eye along the line. Guess what? Serifed fonts may not be more readable. Ariel or Lucida Sans for the win!
  • It Won’t Be The Same Without Charles Nelson Reilly. Those of us who grew up in the 1970s will remember Lidsville, a Sid and Marty Krofft series about talking hats. It may even live in that scary memory place with the Bugaloos, the Banana Splits, and H.N.R. Puffnstuff. Well, this article will really cause you to flip your lid. Alan Menken, composer of such shows as Little Shop of HorrorsBeauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and many others, is working on a live-action movie version of Liddsville (as well as a musical episode of The Neighbors). Dreamworks is producing.
  • Turning Wolves into Dogs. There has been a lot of debate of how the wolf was domesticated and became man’s best friend, the dog. A story in the Washington Post posits that it was moving to a diet of grains and potatoes that did it. A team of Swedish researchers compared the genomes of wolves and dogs and found that a big difference is dogs’ ability to easily digest starch. On their way from pack-hunting carnivore to fireside companion, dogs learned to desire — or at least live on — wheat, rice, barley, corn and potatoes. As it turns out, the same thing happened to humans as they came out of the forest, invented agriculture and settled into diets rich in grains. Co-evolution at work!
  • A Concrete Jungle. Los Angeles has been referred to as a concrete jungle. San Francisco, on the other hand, has a problem with concrete lawns. Specifically, under San Francisco city law, at least 20 percent of a front yard must consist of permeable surfaces with vegetation, mostly to allow for proper drainage and to keep the neighborhood looking green. Homes can be reviewed for compliance every time an owner does construction on the driveway or property. However, this is ignored more in the breach, and now the paved-over lawns in San Francisco are creating environmental concerns due to excessive drainage.
  • Learning from the Past. Another thing that those of us from the 1970s will remember is the Apollo Program and the launches to the moon. Bet’cha thought it was dead. Well, not quite. NASA has started testing a vintage F-1 series engine from the Saturn V.  The hope is that it could become a template for a new generation of motors incorporating parts of its design. Those of us who live in the San Fernando Valley remember well the roar of those engines — they were built in Canoga Park and tested in Chatsworth!
  • Getting Sick of It All. I’m sure you have all heard the exhortations about the Influenza going around the country, and you have gotten your flu shot (except those of you who don’t believe in vaccines — but that’s a different debate). There’s another “flu” going around (with “flu” in quotes since it really isn’t a flu), and this one doesn’t have a vaccine: There’s an epidemic of norovirus, a/k/a “stomach flu”, going around. It’s a pretty strong variant (from Australia, where they make things stronger). This variant causes nausea, forceful vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, accounted for 58% of outbreaks of norovirus nationally. Norovirus typically begins very suddenly and lasts one to three days. Most people recover without treatment, but some require rehydration with liquids or intravenous fluids. The disease is most severe in the elderly and can also hit young children hard. Norovirus is extremely contagious. The best protection is vigilant hand washing with soap and water. If surfaces may have been contaminated, the CDC recommends disinfecting them with a diluted bleach solution made of five to 25 tablespoons of household bleach to a gallon of water.
  • Stamping It Out. And lastly, first-class postage is going to 46¢ on Sunday, with postcards going to 33¢. I’m sure most of you are unfamiliar with postage and postage stamps, as you have never written an actual letter or paid a bill by mail. You see, people once communicated not via email, but by putting pieces of paper in an envelope, affixing a money-equivalent to the envelope, and giving it to someone to take to the recipient. Seriously, even those of us that use postage stamps forget the price of postage these days, as most first class stamps are “forever” stamps. So pick up some forever stamps now, before the price goes up. Those dollars you save might buy you a cup of coffee. I emphasize the “might”, given Starbucks’ prices. You’ll do better at McDonalds!



Tales of My City and My State

Huell-HowserRalph-StoryJack-Smithuserpic=californiaToday, my city and my state lost one of its greatest boosters, and his passing reminds me of other great journalistic boosters for my city and state. In their memory this post is dedicated.

Today’s news brings the sad report of the death of California icon Huell Howser. Howser, a transplant from Tennessee, grew to be one of the greatest booster of Los Angeles, Southern California, and all the quirks and oddities of California. Starting in the mid-1980s with Videolog, he rapidly developed a folksy style over a series of travelogue programs covering our great state. I know he was out to Orange Empire Railway Museum numerous times (which increased attendance every time), and even did a video report on the subway tunnels of the Pacific Electric. He was evidently as nice in person as he was on TV, and just enjoyed telling people about this wonderful state. I’m glad to see KCET will continue to air his shows.

Thinking of Huell made me remember another lost icon of Los Angeles, Ralph Story. Story died in 2006, and I wrote up some recollections then.  Story worked for KCBS (then KNXT) and KABC. I remember Story from his award winning series “Ralph Story’s LA”, which explored the history of Los Angeles. I particularly remember the segment he did on the Pacific Electric Railway tunnels near Echo Park.

I tend to like to do things in 3s, so I wanted a third person who boosted LA and has passed away. My wife came up with the answer: Jack Smith of the Los Angeles Times. Smith was a columnist who did regular columns on Los Angeles and Southern California; many of these were collected into books such as “The Big Orange” (for you Bay Area folks, substitute Herb Caen). Smith died in 1996, and I’m not sure the Times has had a columnist like him since. About the closest is Steve Lopez.

While writing this remembrance up, one other booster came to mind, but it is neither dead or off-the-air… however, it hasn’t had the same impact. KABC’s program, Eye on L.A., is a long running travelogue series hosted by whomever KABC had on staff (I remember Chuck Henry hosting it, but there have been others). However, it hasn’t exclusively focused on Los Angeles, or even California.

So, Huell, we thank your for your love of Los Angeles and California, and for continuing in the tradition of Ralph Story and Jack Smith, bringing the stories of the people to the people. You will be missed.


On The Road Again

This weekend, I attended a bat mitzvah of a cousin in Fresno. This meant that I got to drive a fair portion of what used to be US 99 (now CA 99 and I-5) in both direction. Doing so reminds me of all the wonderful history on that road, if you just know where to look.

Let’s start with the pavement. If you know where to look you can find original concrete slabs that were lain down in the 1920s. We saw some of that pavement in front of the newly opened KK’s Restaurant, which just opened. KK’s is on Golden State, just S of 7th Standard Road in Bakersfield. You can also look for reflectorized medians, as you’ll see along the business route in Bakersfield, as well as along Blackstone in Fresno, which used to be Route 41.

Then there are the businesses. Many years ago, a co-worker of mine told me to look for the hotels. They are often a dead giveaway you are on the old road. Don’t look for the new chains. Look for the old motor courts, often U-shaped. Very often, you’ll see them of on a side road paralleling the freeway. That, my friend, is the “old road”. Take it. It is much more fun.

Look for the old restaurants, the old auto-dealers. Don’t eat at the chains. Go find the local joints and patronize them.

Alas, they don’t mark the old business routes like they used to. The only one I recall seeing marked as business was Union/Golden State through Greenfield and Bakersfield. But the old road is clear, especially S-bound, where you keep seeing it veering off the freeway to the side, without a parallel N-Bound onramp (often, the N-bound side loops when it hits 99). Drive through the old towns. See what real small town life is: a few markets, a few restaurants, a few chain stores here and there. Look for the signs of the old road: old gas station architecture, old signs.

Watch out for faux old road. You see these stores everywhere, with newly printed signs designed to ekoke nostalgia for what was, but when you look closely, isn’t. We saw a good example of that in Traver at Bravo Farms. This was supposed to be antique and old, but it was newly printed replicas, and loads of farm goods shipped in from elsewhere (I’m willing to accept the Olives from Lindsay and the Garlic from Porterville, but Maine? C’mon?).

As you come over the Tejon Pass, watch for the real old road. You can’t see much of the original Ridge Route anymore, but much of the 2nd or 3rd roads are visible down by Pyramid Lake. One of these days, I’ll have to go down there and explore.

This is the true state of California — the beautiful state you miss when you fly or just take the interstate. Savor it when you can.



The Impact of Laws

Today’s lunchtime news chum provides three examples of how laws significantly influence cities and lives in California:

  • Collier-Burns. Unless you’re a highway geek like me, you probably have never heard of Collier-Burns. But this act is the reason there are so many freeways in California cities. It was examined in a recent KCET Departures article. Collier-Burns was an act in 1947 that raised the fuel tax by 50%, vehicle registration fees by 200%, and centralized bureaucratic power in one agency — the California Division of Highways (which later became Caltrans). This, combined with the Federal Transportation cost sharing for highway construction, led to a massive construction boom of highways and freeways in the 1950s and 1960s that affects our lives and cities still today. Of course, today C-B raises a lot less money … and the money it raises doesn’t go as far, because there is a lot less gasoline being consumed (more cars, but they are also more fuel efficient), and highway construction costs are up.
  • Parking Requirements. A fascinating article from Los Angeles magazine looks at the impact of mandated requirements for parking spaces — and the impact of free parking — on Los Angeles. For example, the Disney concert hall holds 150 concerts a year primarily to service the debt it acquired in building the parking spaces. Buildings have massive at ground parking structures, which reduce pedestrian accessibility. Transit is less used because of the ubiquity of parking. All sorts of impacts come from the requirements for parking. Shopping centers have acres of parking because of requirements; the asphalt stretches make things hotter — and harder for street traffic. Houses lose lawns because of the requirement for 2-car garages moves them to the front of the house.
  • Gas Prices. As well well know of late, gas prices in California are high. One suspect, though, isn’t being mention: it is California’s unique blend of summer or winter fuel. This blend is only for California, meaning that California is its own fuel market, and can’t use fuel from other states. Thus, the costs for fuel are higher in California (at least 30c), and the loss of a California refinery has much greater impact on California prices than anywhere else.



California Budget Woes

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been reading more (LA Times) and more (SF Chronicle) news articles about California’s deficit. This is something of great concern to me. What infuriates me even more, however, are the comments to those articles, which are so misinformed and filled with rage and hate. So, instead of jumping into that pointless arena, I’d like to share my thoughts here.

The reasons for California’s deficit are structural and many. There are large mandates written into the state constitution — often by voters — and there are other mandates that are imposed by the courts. This limits what the legislators can do. There is also the notion different pots of money — that is, money that is legislatively allocated for a particular purpose that cannot be used for other purposes. These aspects are often not know by most people. I’ve heard (although I haven’t verified) that the only real discretionary spending is about 9% of the budget, and that goes to prisons and schools. If that’s the case, it is scary, as right now people seem to be willing to spend more on prisoners than students.

So let’s look at some of the comments that infuriate me..

Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for this idiot !!!!!

  • This is a common complaint. It’s the governor’s fault. Why did we reelect governor moonbeam? And so on. The reality is that the governor can do very little by himself (this is true for Obama as well). He can propose ideas (which he has done). He can use executive orders. He can exploit the bully pulpit. But the real onus for doing something is on the state legislature, who has proven themselves loath to cut in certain areas. They cut schools because they believe the money can be made up with tuition. But that doesn’t work for prisons or social services, so the schools bear the brunt of the burden. The culprit here is the undue financial influence of lobbyists, and the unintended side effect of term limits: that politicians are always running for office, and thus need to raise reelection funds.

Answer: National Guard, fix bayonets, march every non english speaking parasite across the Mexican border. Let THEM pay for their own citizens.

  • Illegal immigration. This is often blaimed as the root cause for California problems. The “illegals” (which is often a code word for the hispanic who is different from me — I never see complains against Canadians) are costing our schools, are filling our welfare roles, are filling our prisons. Rarely do I see facts, and when I do, often they are from biased sources. Snopes refutes a lot of common claims, But there are costs that cannot be denied. The question is: what can the state do about it. Many costs (such as AFDC) are Federal programs administered and paid for by the state: thus the state has their hands tied. Often, the problem is not due to the laws on the books (after all, we all agree it is illegal), but lax enforcement of those laws–often due to the cost of law enforcement and deportation. So what is the answer here? In reality, the answer is not “deportation”, it is legalization. Remove the fear of deportation, make them legal, get folks paying taxes and helping support the services they use. But mention any notion of this, and a large conservative lobby flies up in rage. Illegal immigration is like Marijuana: the answer is to legalize and tax, not keep it illegal and pay through the nose to enforce policies. That, however, is a Federal-level decision.

Let’s just spend another billion or two on High Speed Rail.

  • High speed rail is a common whipping boy. However, what the people complaining about High Speed Rail forget is that it is being paid for with funds that were exclusively authorized for that purpose. We have the choice of not spending them, but we can’t take that money and use it for something else.

Were tired of hearing the sky is falling, meanwhile California is locked into these high paying union agreement with the Prison, Guards and others. If California declares bankruptcy, they will free themselves from the shackles of these lucrative union obligations and pensions and will have breathing room to begin again.

  • Well, first and foremost, states are not legally permitted to declare bankrupcy. Let’s talk about those union agreements and the prison guards. I’ll agree that the pension arrangements in these agreements are often egregious, and that unions have often moved beyond their original purpose. The problem is, however, that the governor cannot change them alone.  He has made proposals to deal with the pension mess–and the legislature has let those proposals die. We do need to fix the pension problem. Ideally, the approach should be to have a stronger tie to length of service to the state: I have much less of a problem paying a full pension to a 20 year employee than a 5 year employee. We also need to address ridiculous provisions in union deals that are more protectionist than cost effective. But I rarely see the discussion at that level. Further, such actions often require long-term negotiations and don’t solve the problem immediately.

California needs to get the Socialists out of office but the people who don’t care, people who work for the state and those on welfare all vote for these idiots.

  • Many commentors seem to believe “socialists” are running the government, without knowing what socialism is. According to Wikipedia, “Socialism is an economic system characterised by social ownership and/or control of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy, and a political philosophy advocating such a system. ” I have yet to see California (as a state) owing the means of production, or having the workers making the decision of what and how to produce. Rather, we seem to have the opposite, where there is excessive influence of for-profit companies and concerns.


  • This is a common complaint. No more taxes. The answer is cutting. It’s not. If you have a household and you’ve cut your expenses, what do you do? You don’t solve the problem by cutting more. You get your family members to go out and get jobs: in other words, you bring in more income. Solving the deficit problem means addressing both sides of the equation: reducing expenses where you can, and bringing in more income where you can. That means enforcing laws on the books (pay your use tax folks on those online purchases), as well as raising taxes. It is foolish to look only at cutting as the solution to the problem.

You guys can spend thousands of dollars per week on fancy shoes that you might wear once ,but you can’t afford to provide the people who do the work that provides you with your excessive income with even basic services.

  • There’s a lot of class warfare here at work. We hate the rich “politicians”, we hate the rich “union bosses”. Yet, these same people want to vote for a group that wants to further intrench the power of the “rich” — but this is the rich of private industry that they like. Why is one acceptable and the other not? Note that I’m not saying both are acceptable. I think we need a part-time legislature — they spend far too much time on pointless and costly bills just to show they are useful. I also agree that many union leaders often line their pockets at the expense of their members. But we also need to increase taxes on the very wealthy so that they can do their share as well.

These are just some examples. Everytime I read comments (which I must stop doing), I have to remind myself that comments often reflect the 10% radical lunatic fringe, and many people get their jollies by commenting and being critical, instead of doing something.

California does have problems. They aren’t easy to fix, because they are all defended by special interests who often have more sway than the individual voters. We need to fix Prop 13 — not to change the tax rates, but to do a periodic reset so that people are paying taxes on a realistic valuation of their properties… and businesses pay taxes on the value of their properties. This might actually result in a reduction of overall rates. We need to fix the pension system (and more importantly, pension abuse and union rule abuse). We need to increase state funding. We need to address the illegal immigration problem in a cost effective way, but this is more of a Federal problem than one under state control, other than enforcing rules on the books. Most importantly, we have to realize this isn’t a “liberal vs. conservative’ problem–we need to realize that the problem is politicians (of whatever party) working more for particular interests than the good of the state as a whole.

Music: Dear Edwina (Original Cast): Put It In The Piggy