Monday, August 28, 2006

An Electric Moment


It is noble and admirable that electric car enthusiasts, a group usually comprised of idealistic actors with a lot of time of their hands, are rallying to save the city of Pasadena's fleet of zero-emission vehicles.

In case you have missed this unfolding eco-drama, Nissan Motors is trying to retrieve 11 Hyperminis that they leased to the city. Nissan declined to renew the leases after they expired in December and subsequently asked they be returned.

And although the city denies taking an activist role in this spat, officials have done everything short of throwing their bodies in front of tow trucks to prevent their fleet from being returned and ground up like so much shoulder clod. Or recycled, if you prefer.

For their part, Nissan says the vehicles were part of a temporary research program that was extended well beyond its intended lifetime and must be returned.

A company official said that the manufacturer of the cars' batteries would no longer be making them, and Nissan's relocation from Gardena to Nashville, Tenn., would preclude its ability to maintain the cars. "It's not just what you see on the surface: `Bad Nissan, they're just taking these cars back,"' the official said.

Pardon me if this sounds like the same song, different lyrics. General Motors leased more than 800 of its all-electric EV1 cars out of about 1,100 manufactured in the late 1990s with the provision that after the 3-year leases were up, the cars reverted to the company. Despite unfulfilled waiting lists and positive feedback from the lessees, GM stated that it could not sell enough of the cars to make the EV1 profitable. The company then proceeded to trash the entire fleet.

Do we see a pattern here?

In the meantime, the Pasadena cause has been taken up by a group called Plug In America, co-founded by, what else, an actor. They are promising Nissan "positive press" if they let Pasadena keep the Hyperminis.

While I'm not convinced that "positive press" is the kind of incentive to turns heads in a company with global revenues in excess of $80 billion, one can hope that his kind of activism indicates that the day may soon dawn when consumers demand, and get, an alternative to the fossil-fuel burning behemoths of today.

The bad news is that Nissan is considering entering into an alliance with Renault and General Motors, creating a mega-conglomerate that would damn near rule the world. How do you make your voice heard in an operation of that size?

Perhaps that voice will come from the Silicon Valley, where Tesla Motors has revived interest in the electric car with a new, sexy $100,000 roadster.

Sounds expensive. But since hydrogen cars are costing a cool million at this time, maybe it's not a bad deal.

The Tesla is nobody's golf cart. Powered by 900 pounds of lithium-ion batteries and an electric motor, it can go 0-60 in 4 seconds with a top speed of 130 mph and has a range of 250 miles.

Its first 100 cars, due to be delivered in 2007, are already sold to, guess who, actors for the most part.

The company has raised $60 million and identifies backers such as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, former eBay executive Jeff Skoll and Jim Marver of VantagePoint Venture Partners. PayPal co-founder Elon Musk is Tesla's chairman. The company was founded in 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, Tesla's vice president of engineering.

And yes, they hope to build bigger and cheaper cars in the near future. Its sexy project, Musk says, will allow the company to sell a four-door sedan, to be built in the United States, with a price of less than $50,000, by 2008.

Is this the car of the future? Only time will tell. But we can hope that cars like the Tesla, and the actors who own them, will change the way we drive today.

Inhuman Relations


THIS months's winner of the What Were They Thinking Award goes to Northwest Airlines, which offered some helpful suggestions recently to its employees who are being laid off.

Entitled "101 Ways to Save Money," the good folks at Northwest, motivated no doubt by pure paternalistic instincts, advised their soon-to-be-unemployed workers to buy jewelry at pawnshops, auto parts at junkyards and to take shorter showers.

Wait, there's more. The list included asking doctors for prescription drug samples, borrowing a dress "for a big night out" and giving children hand-me-down toys and clothes.

Also suggested: "take a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods," "write letters instead of calling" and "never grocery shop hungry" which seems like odd advice to give the newly poor.

And the capper: "Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash."

Now I understand that most airlines haven't always had warm and fuzzy relations with their employees and that bankruptcy in the industry is as common as lost baggage, but advising your employees to engage in Dumpster diving as a way to make ends meet may establish a new low.

Call it inhuman relations.

To give Northwest its due, the suggestions were prepared for them by an employee-assistance company called NEAS. On its Web site, NEAS describes itself as "people who truly listen, who genuinely care, who are available at all times, and who know how to enhance the lives of employees and support the productivity and profitability of employers."

It sounds more like people who truly and genuinely cooked up some of these ideas over beers after hours.

Nonetheless, the booklet went out with Northwest's stamp on it, forcing the airline to apologize before the ink was dry.

"We do realize that some of the information in there might be a bit insincere and, for that, we do apologize," spokesman Roman Blahoski said.

"There are some tips in there that are very useful and there are some tips that, looking back, were a bit insensitive."

Northwest's senior vice president of ground operations, Crystal Knotek, said in the statement that the company would make sure that "all materials are properly reviewed in the future."

That's the first good idea Northwest has had this month.

Of course, this kind of behavior isn't new in the airline game.

American Airlines several years back set an industry standard for insensitivity when it gave huge bonuses to its top executives shortly after flight attendants, mechanics and pilots had agreed to give back hundreds of millions in salary and benefits to keep the company from bankruptcy.

Chairman and Chief Executive Donald J. Carty would have gotten a $1.6 million bonus, based on his salary of $811,000, presumably for leading his company to the brink of financial ruin.

If that wasn't enough, American kept news of the bonuses a secret from its unions while negotiations over salary and benefit reductions were ongoing.

The resulting outcry forced American to scrap the bonuses.

All of this proves at least one thing: The airline industry is to public relations what Mel Gibson is to inter-faith understanding.

Idiot's Delight


AMERICANS seem to have an unnatural fascination with our collective stupidity.
Jay Leno has made it a staple of the "Tonight Show" by trotting out people who seemingly would have trouble remembering their addresses.
And usually, about once a year, some polling operation will release the results of a survey that shows that more people know Boy George than George Bush.
The latest example is a poll by Zogby International released this week which shows that three-quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White's seven dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court justices.
As if to underscore this blight on our collective consciousness, the two dwarfs most often named were Sleepy and Dopey.
And for those few who could rattle off the names of the current justices, Clarence Thomas was the most mentioned. Which shows you the value of having a lurid sexual harassment episode as part of your confirmation hearing.
Other findings: 57 percent of Americans could identify J.K. Rowling's fictional boy wizard as Harry Potter but only 50 percent could name the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Big deal. One's a prestidigitator, the other's a politician. Both practice slight of hand.
Asked what planet Superman was from, 60 percent named the fictional planet Krypton while only 37 percent knew that Mercury is the planet closet to the sun. On the other hand, besides being the name of Queen's lead singer and a poor-selling Ford product, Mercury doesn't get a lot of ink.
Respondents were far more familiar with the Three Stooges - Larry, Moe, and Curly - than they were with three branches of the U.S. government although that's a loaded question considering the kind of slapstick and pratfalls we see in Washington these days.
Twenty-three percent of those surveyed knew Taylor Hicks was the most recent "American Idol" but less than half that number were able to name the Supreme Court justice confirmed this year, Samuel A. Alito Jr. Personally, I'm willing to bet that Alito has a better voice.
And last but not least, just over 60 percent of the respondents were able to name Bart as Homer's son on the television show, "The Simpsons" compared to 20.5 percent who were able to name one of the ancient Greek poet Homer's epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."
This is not a bad thing. I believe that "The Simpsons" says more about human nature than any philosopher since Plato.

Ultimately, who says Americans are dumb? All we have done over the past few centuries is to knit together a diverse population to create the most powerful nation on Earth, one with a standard of living and educational system unmatched is most of the world.
There is something called the theory of "collective intelligence" that holds a large group of diverse, informed, independent-thinking people will almost always deliver the right answer to a question.
And who cares if we stumble over "who's buried in Grant's tomb?" More often than not, we get it right.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Flying Home

IT was one of those moments when you feel like you're a bug on the windshield of life.
I awoke last Thursday in my Washington, D.C., hotel room to the chilling news that dozens of Islamic militants had been arrested in a plot to blow up commercial airliners and that air traffic had been disrupted on both sides of the Atlantic.
As luck would have it, I was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles that very afternoon.
The images on CNN were not reassuring. Heathrow Airport looked to be populated with people who had just crossed the River Styx, condemned to a wait in line for eternity with no hope of escape. Armed troops patrolled airports in the United States, presumably ready to confiscate hair gel or hand lotion at gunpoint.
There was only one thing to do. Sort out luggage in accordance with new security measures and get to the airport as soon as possible, ready to endure unimaginable indignities as we fought through crowded check-in lines and air-tight security.
We arrived at Dulles Airport more than three hours before flight time and were greeted by a line of traffic as we approached the terminal.
My darkest fears were being realized. But the lines were not travelers nor additional security personnel but hordes of TV reporters who had descended on the airport like flies on a rib roast, their truck dish antennas pointed skyward as if praying for a few good quotes.
Then, as if the whole incident had been a practical joke, we checked our bags and got through security in no more than 15 minutes.
No toothpaste. No problem.
That gave me more than three hours, sitting in a sterile terminal, to contemplate two things: 1) Riding on an airplane with 200 people who may or may not have used deodorant (a banned substance), and 2) the status of commercial airline travel and what the future might hold.
A couple of thoughts right off. These are hard times for the airline industry. Aside from security concerns, high fuel costs have forced them to offer fewer flights packed with more people, certainly not user friendly but an understandable nuisance.
And people can be downright stupid. According to an Associated Press story, airport security people have confiscated a man-sized artificial palm tree and a sausage grinder along with piles of Swiss Army knives at airport checkpoints.
Pennsylvania turns a small profit by disposing of these castoff items, which it accepts from security contractors at 12 airports in five U.S. states, by selling them on eBay.
Most of the contraband merchandise is knives, nail clippers and cuticle scissors that were forbidden as carry-on items following the terror attacks 9/11. But there's also frosting-encrusted wedding cake servers, sex toys and a couple of chain saws.
OK, so there's enough blame to pass around.
But as grateful as we were to get on our flight back to Los Angeles, it was like hopping a westbound freight. Half the television monitors didn't work. There were no headsets available. Despite the fact that passengers had to dump their bottled water before they got on the plane, the servers were so short of beverages they asked for people to share soft drinks and served tap water. My seat reclined on its own.
Minor stuff, sure, but even in hard times, a well-functioning aircraft can make a five-hour flight tolerable.
The airline industry has in recent years encouraged people to purchase food and drink before boarding. That means the carrier saves money on food preparation. But new security measures could put and end to that. While cheeseburgers aren't on the banned list yet, they could be next.
When you think about where people could store explosive material, the possibilities are endless.
And carry-on luggage? That could be a thing of the past as well. All of which will most likely translate to higher prices.
For the near term, it looks like a bumpy ride. In the future, you may have two choices. The new Airbus A380 will carry 550 people in relative comfort. The new Boeing Sonic Cruiser will travel faster than today's jets, cutting travel time by 15 percent to 20 percent but in smaller planes.
And beyond that? Some futurists predict we'll all be piloting our own personal aircraft. Indeed, the Small Aircraft Transportation System, a joint project between NASA and the FAA, is trying to develop a system of more than 5,000 small airports connected by virtual "highways in the sky" for the use of a new generation of small, safe, easy-to-fly, and inexpensive airplanes.
At which time terrorism will be replaced by sky rage.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Prime Time

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is visiting our Fair State this week and
as is common when highly visible Brits come to call, Americans are ga-ga over
the prospect.

Blair is not royalty, no more so than Dick Cheney, for example, although
he has a spiffier title than the vice president. Officially, Blair is the
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,
First Lord of the Treasury, Privy Counsellor, Minister for the Civil Service
and Member of Parliament for the constituency of Sedgefield.

That sounds royal to our American tin ears so Blair is getting the
princely treatment by members of the public and press who find his visit a
refreshing distraction from the numbing carnage in the Middle East.

It as always been a bit of a puzzlement that Britons, usually preceived as
restrained and proper to a fault, nonetheless feast on media that display no
such traits. Indeed, most news outlets in England are loud, brash, and
irreverant, seldom letting the facts get in the way of a turn of phrase.

And true to form, the Brits coverage of Blairs visit to California is
colorful if nothing else.

"Tony Blair is to make a joint appearance in California with Arnie "The
Governator" Schwarzenegger, a menacing hulk with limited English and a
reputation for getting frisky with female colleagues," writes the Financial

The Guardian takes it a step farther, offering this advice to the Prime

"Never, ever go more than a few sentences without saying this word, dude.
Forget all the "Comrades, and I say to you" stuff. Dude is probably the most
totally awesome thing you can say while you're here.

"Like. Like is, like, the valley mantra. If you say the word like, like
every few words, you are totally telling your listeners that you are from,
like, the valley.

"Mexicans. There's a lot of them in the valley, picking fruit...Many of
these Mexicans are from Mexico, some are from other places that, dude,
without being heavy, may as well be Mexico...

"The governor. Don't call him Arnie. That's way too British. In California
he is known as Arnold, or The Arnold. And the addition of a comic Austrian
accent always brings laughs from a sophisticated audience. Mimic his
pronunciation of Kahl-ee-faw-nyah - a surefire vote winner. But remember,
Arnold was once in the movies. This makes him far more important than any

"Culture. California is home to some of your life-forming listening, Tony.
The Doors, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Albert Hammond,
singer of the bittersweet seventies hit 'It Never Rains in California' (he
wrote it in London). And nobody summed up the cultural finesse of living in
Los Angeles better than honorary Londoner Woody Allen, who in Annie Hall
described it as "a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can
make a make a right turn on a red light".

"Things not to mention: earthquakes, drought, fires, Charles Manson,
George W Bush, Enron, the Lodi terrorist cell, Richard Nixon, the death
penalty, how hot it is in England, Warren Beatty, the prison system,
immigration reform, Ohio, looted antiquities, smog, the price of petrol,
community farming, New York City."

While this kind of stuff may have them rolling in the aisles back in merry
olde England, serving up tired cliches with a side of bad taste is about as
funny as Mel Gibson after a few shots of tequila.

Surfer talk? Valley girls? Charles Manson? Woody Allen? If you're going
to toss around stereotypes, at least try some that didn't fade away 30 years

Racial stereotypes? What a hoot.

Can you imagine this kind of dispatch appearing in a U.S. paper?

"Dear President Bush. Should you visit Great Britain in the near future,
prepare to encounter the following:

"The country is populated by painfully conservative people who are largely
characterized by pale skin and bad teeth.
"Bring your own food. Britons subside on blood pudding and kidney meat,
usually boiled and washed down by warm beer or vast quantities of gin.

"The weather ranges from awful to unbearable. The country's great
literary tradition was born of the fact that there was nothing to do but stay
indoors and write.

"The country's greatest export is expensive automobiles whose beauty and
luxury are only exceeded by their complete unreliability.

"The national past-time, aside from oppressing the Irish, is football.
Not real, man-on-man football like we play, but dull contests played by guys
in short shorts who do nothing for hours on end but feign injury. The sport is a mere excuse
for the real past-time: alcohol fueled riots staged by participants called
hooligans who mame hundreds of fans each season."

Now that we understand each other, welcome to California, Mr. Blair. And
have a bloody good time.

Warming to the Issue

The announcement this past week that British Prime Tony Blair and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have agreed to work together to explore ways of fighting global warming is either:
(A) A bold step in combating global warming:
(B) A slap in the face of the White House;
(C) A symbolic gesture;
(D) A cheap political stunt:
(E) All of the above.
The two agreed to collaborate on research into cleaner-burning fuels and technologies, and look into the possibility of setting up a system whereby polluters in California and Britain could buy and sell the right to emit greenhouse gases.
While "bold" may be too strong a word to attach to this non-binding agreement, it most certainly shows that Schwarzenegger is taking an active role in combating what is increasingly perceived as an issue that could soon reach a crisis stage.
To be truthful, the prime minister and the governor aren't breaking much new ground here. Former President Clinton and big-city mayors from around the globe, including Los Angeles, have joined in an initiative to combat climate change and increase energy efficiency in everything from street lights to building materials.
But the idea of using market forces and market incentives to curb pollution is a step worth taking.
The White House was conspicuous by its absence when the announcement was made and many saw the agreement as a rebuff to President Bush who in the past has dismissed Blair's calls to focus on global warming as a critical international environmental issue.
The governor didn't mince words. ``The message is that we do not wait for the federal government to act. ... We see there is not great leadership by the federal government when it comes to protecting the environment,'' Schwarzenegger said. ``So that is why as a state, we will move forward because we know it is the right thing to do.
Is this a mere symbolic gesture? It could be if California, the 12th-largest source of greenhouse gases in the world last year, doesn't do something to cap greenhouse emissions in the state.
The group Environment California, which said that unless a mandatory and enforceable cap is established, ``promises to do something about global warming are nothing more than a lot of hot air.''
Business leaders don't want strict limits on emissions. The governor has called on California to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010.
Stay tuned.
And lastly, was this a mere political dog-and-pony show? Schwarzennger's Democratic opponent, State Treasuere Phil Angelides, certainly thought so.
The event was ``classic Arnold Schwarzenegger: a promise to talk about, and perhaps someday do something, on an issue,'' Angelides said. ``The governor's always a showman ... never getting things done.''
Perhaps. It is an election year after all and incumbents have been known to use their offices as a bullypulpit.
But there seems to be genuine momentum behind combating global warming and the Blair/Schwarzenegger agreement hopefully signals a continuing committment to focus on the issue.
So the answer to the quiz?: (E) All of the above.
But no matter how you view it, we can hope that the actions taken this past week will lay the foundation for meaninful action in the near future. And that local government entities and even individuals follow suit and redouble their efforts in helping to avoid what could be a looming environmental disaster.