Monday, February 23, 2009

In These Uncertain Times...

RANDOM ramblings:

I did a highly unofficial survey the other night which I will nonetheless use to draw several major conclusions.

In a two-hour period, I counted at least eight television commercials that began with the phrase "In these uncertain economic times."

"Uncertain"? There's nothing uncertain about it. The economy is in the Dumpster, it appears to be getting worse, no one is sure what to do about it and instead of mounting a unified attack, our lawmakers are playing two-hands-below-the-waist political football.

That doesn't stop advertisers from playing on our fears. Which is nothing new. Our homes smell bad. Our laundry is dull. Our insurance is inadequate. Our dreary lives would sparkle with the right car, the right beer, the right deodorant.

We are continually reminded that we are one step away from the horrors of identity theft, restless leg syndrome and erectile dysfunction.

And now the economy. Send in your unwanted jewelry. Get rid of that timeshare. Borrow money against your next paycheck.

There's one firm, however, that is flying in the face of all this gloom.

An ad in the Los Angeles Times sports section last Sunday promised to free us from the surly bonds of bad news if only we'd slide behind the wheel of their product.

That product would be a Rolls-Royce.

Which is great if you can come up with the $40,000 or so you need to plunk down at the inception of the lease. And handle the $4500 a month charge,

You have to wonder how many potential Rolls owners are out there in the land of foreclosures and layoffs.

Then it became clear. That ad wasn't aimed at the rest of us. It had to be aimed at our professional athletic class. Who else could afford a ride like that?

Speaking of advertising, there's a new cult classic out there brought to you by the good folks who produce infomercials.

Infomercials are to art what burritos are to fine dining but the cheesy acting and corny products have endeared them to many who find humor in such things.

Most of them have on thing in common: They offer to cure problems you didn't know you had.

The runaway hit of the season is the infomercial for the Snuggie, a kind of blanket with sleeves that you wear as a robe. It promises to keep you warm on the coldest of nights.

The commercial opens with a Women in Distress, a staple in the infomercial genre. This particular lass is struggling to stay warm under a normal blanket. It's too small and as she wiggles seeking warmth she becomes entangled trying to free her hands to answer the phone. Her only alternative is to crank up the thermostat which emits dollar signs when she turns the dial. What to do?

The Snuggie to the rescue. No matter that this article of clothing makes you look like a Druid or a member of a cult that worships comets.

Why, they're perfect for the entire family and one size fits all. We see one Snuggie-adorned family toasting marshmallows by a roaring fire and another enjoying a sporting event from the stands.

Of course, none of the non-Snuggie crowd will have anything to do with them since they look like they may be conducting an Inquisition sometime soon.

This informercial has become such a pop culture stable that a couple of 20-somethings in Chicago are organizing a Snuggie pub crawl next month.

Their aim: To get 1,000 people wearing Snuggies to walk down Clark Street.

It may come as a surprise but journalists have a human side, at least on occasion. Take Gay Talese, for example.

The reporter turned author was running errands the other day, according to his New York Times blog, when he encountered a number of panhandlers seeking money.

Most of them held signs reading "Homeless. Please help."

Under the theory that everyone needs an editor, Talese decided their message needed an upgrade.

So he went home and printed out a new message for them to use: "Please Support Pres. Obama's Stimulus Plan and begin right here at the bottom ... Thank you."

At least one of the panhandlers reported that the new message boosted his daily take by $10 or $20.

Given the state of the newspaper business in this country, journalists may want to consider creative panhandling as an income supplement.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Water Water Everywhere

It was a dark and stormy day.

Snow fell on the San Gabriel Mountains. Mud flowed into Sierra Madre. A cold, hard rain pelted us without stop.

Suddenly, a press conference broke out.

It was none other than Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who picked one of the wettest days of the year to call for increased water restrictions and the adoption of a tiered water rate that would punish Department of Water and Power customers who fail to conserve.

Sprinkler use would be restricted, Hizzoner said, to two days a week under the proposal and could be cut to one day a week if the drought continues. The restrictions and rate changes could be enacted by spring if approved by the City Council and DWP.

Sometimes it's hard to take Villaraigosa seriously. He grapples with a city in perpetual gridlock while his transportation deputy cruises around town in a Hummer.

He calls for water restrictions while, according to a Los Angeles Times article, the mayor and several other top city officials have long been heavy water users themselves.

In Villaraigosa's case, even if he had made a 10 percent reduction at the two homes where he has lived since winning election in 2005, he still would have used nearly twice as much water as comparable properties in the vicinity, the Times article said.

But timing and track record aside, Villaraigosa is on target this time.

We are in a drought, a serious one. The Metropolitan Water District - the nation's largest water agency and supplier of wholesale water to L.A., the San Gabriel Valley and all of Southern California - has warned that it may be forced to cut water deliveries by 15 percent to 25 percent.

Court rulings to protect the delta smelt in the Sacramento River Delta and a prolonged drought along the Colorado Basin also have reduced Southern California's water supplies from Northern California and the Colorado River.

According to Bill Patzert, a NASA climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "Mother Nature is converging with human nature. With population growth and the decline in water there are the elements in the equation which you could call the perfect drought."

State officials are even more blunt.

"We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history," said Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

None of this should take us by surprise. I remember some years back putting bricks in the toilet tanks to cut back on water use and collecting water in buckets from our showers to use on outdoor plants.

We put water restrictors in the faucets. We learned to brush our teeth and shave without continually running water. We took shorter showers. We stopped hosing off the driveway and sidewalks.

Over the years, we bought more energy efficient appliances and used many of them at off-peak hours.

Now, it is time to relearn those lessons. And more.

Conservation efforts are increasingly focused on outdoor water use. That's because the majority of residential water use occurs outdoors.

A study by the Pacific Institute determined that outdoor water use could be reduced by at least 32 percent by using better irrigation schedules, smart irrigation controllers and drip irrigation systems. Further significant reductions could be made by the use of drought-tolerant or California native plants for landscaping.

The same study concluded that an estimated that 12 percent of indoor water use in California can be attributed to leaks. Since toilets use the most water indoors, replacing inefficient older toilets with newer, high-efficiency models would result in significant water savings. The report concluded that indoor water use could be reduced by 40 percent if everyone would fix their leaks, replace showerheads and inefficient toilets, washing machines and dishwashers.

Well and good. But will these efforts be enough this time? Or do we face brown lawns and dirty cars for the rest of our days?

The Pacific Institute concluded that California's urban water needs can be met in the foreseeable future by reducing water waste through cost-effective water saving technologies, revised economic policies, appropriate state and local regulations and public education.

That's a lot to ask for. But there aren't a lot of options.

In the meantime, enjoy the rainy season. It won't last for long.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Animal Acts

I love animals. I really do. With the possible exception of venemous cobras, flesh eating pirannahs, great white sharks and killer bees.

Come to think of it, I'm not crazy about large hairy spiders, mosquitos or bats either.

I lose patience, however, with animal rights organizations like PETA ( People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, not to be confused with another group calling itself People Eating Tasty Animals).

PETA has either raised the public awareness of animal rights or engaged in wholesale acts of terrorism, depending on who you ask.

I come down somewhere in the middle. They certainly have made the humane treatment of animals a compelling topic of discussion, if not debate.

But for whatever good the organization has done, it is often offset by acts of wholesale goofiness.

They have on occasion trotted out "Lettuce Ladies"' who appear publicly in bikinis made to look like lettuce leaves, and distribute information about the vegan diet. There is a lesser-known male counterpart to the Lettuce Ladies, called the Broccoli Boys. It is unclear how they dress.

In April 2008, PETA ponied up --- excuse me, offered --- a $1 million prize for the creation of "commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012." The announcement caused what the New York Times called a "near civil war" within the organization, since many of PETA's members oppose eating animal tissue even if no animals are killed in its creation.

According to one Internet report, PETA regularly asks towns and cities whose names, in its view, are suggestive of animal exploitation to change their names. In April 2003, they offered free veggie burgers to the city of Hamburg, New York, in exchange for changing its name to Veggieburg; the town declined the offer.

PETA also campaigned to have the town of Fishkill, New York, change its name, claiming the name suggests cruelty to fish. (The root "kill", found in many New York town names, is Dutch for "creek".)

If that's not enough, Chris Garnett, then a PETA youth outreach coordinator, changed his name to Early in 2008, activist Rachel Feather changed her name to Rachel Fishinghurts.

Now, in its never ending attempt to appear crazy as a loon --- excuse me, I mean nuttier than a fruitcake --- the PETA folks have cranked up a campaign to discourage the consumption of fish by renaming them "sea kittens."

"Would people think twice about ordering fish sticks if they were called Sea Kitten sticks? the group says on its website.

"...Fish need to fire their PR guy...," the group explains. "Whoever was in charge of creating a positive image for fish needs to go right back to working on the Britney Spears account and leave our scaly little friends alone.

"You've done enough damage, buddy. We've got it from here. And we're going to start by retiring the old name for good. When your name can also be used as a verb that means driving a hook through your head, it's time for a serious image makeover. And who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?"

PETA has even set up a webpage complete with Sea Kitten Bedtime stories for the kiddies (example: "With no room to swim, and no chance for escape, Tara looks forward to the end.")

Of course, we already have catfish but apparently that doesn't have the same ring to it. And I guess we can next expect cattle to be called Bovine Buddies or chickens Poultry Pals.

There are several possible outcomes for this campaign: People will stop eating fish. People will start eating cat smothered in tartar sauce. People will stop taking PETA seriously.

Speaking of food, here is something else for PETA to worry about.

According to an article in the Kansas City Star, raccoon is making it to the dinner table.

Simply brine the meat. Soak it overnight. Parboil for two hours. Then slow-roast or smoke or barbecue to perfection.

Raccoons, the story says, go for $3 to $7 each, not per pound, and will feed about five adults. Four, if they're really hungry.

"Those who dine on raccoon meat sound the same refrain: It's good eatin, according to the article.

"Raccoon meat is some of the healthiest meat you can eat," says Jeff Beringer, a furbearer resource biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"During grad school, my roommate and I ate 32 coons one winter. It was all free, and it was really good. If you think about being green and eating organically, raccoon meat is the ultimate organic food," with no steroids, no antibiotics, no growth hormones.

I'll take his word for it. The only raccoon I see here in the big city is roadkill and that takes the edge off my appetite.

A Cold Day in Hell

Imagine, if you will, a street the size of Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena packed with people, jammed sidewalk to sidewalk for blocks on end.

Then imagine that this mass of humanity is pressed up against a fence, impatiently awaiting an experience so important to them individually and collectively that they are willing to wait for hours in freezing weather for it to begin.

Add to this scenario complete ineptitude on the part of authorities to control the situation, leaving thousands of people angry and clueless as to what to do and where to go.

This was no figament of imagination, however. This was no training exercise. This was no dispatch from the Third World.

This was Inauguration Day, 2009, Washington, D.C.

A combination of official miscaluclations and inadequate response combined to a breakdown in order at half a dozen ticket locations, entrances and intersections around the Capitol before the swearing-in of President Obama, according to published reports and eyewitness accounts.

The result left as many as 10,000 people abandoned and outraged.

And we found ourselves smack in the middle of it.

We had traveled to Washington to be with our younger daughter who had spent her weekends working for the Obama campaign and wanted to celebrate his victory with us.

We had originally decided to pass on the swearing-in ceremonies, wanting to avoid the crowds and instead attend a few select events. But at the last moment, our daughter secured prime tickets for the oath of office ceremony from a friend who worked for a U.S. Senator.

So we rose at dawn, walked miles to the designated entrance for our tickets and waited in the 20 degree weather for admittance to the grounds.

The tickets were color coded. Ours were purple and there was a gate designated for people with those tickets.

I knew we were in trouble when we arrived. Thousands of people milled about, unsure of where to line up. A handful of cops at the scene remained mute, sipping coffee, uncommuicative. There were no amenities.

But we dutifully joined a queue that wound its way toward to the Capitol in hopes that we would be allowed onto the grounds.

Without exception, everyone near us had tickets. Most of them had worked for the Obama campaign in one capacity of another. A person near me was a political consultant from Palos Verdes Penninsula. Another was a volunteer from Michigan, yet another from Ohio. Many in the crowd had traveled from every corner of America to be there.

In the midst of anxiety and chaos, people remained good natured and calm, even when an ambulance in our area tried to make its way through the crowd to help someone who was ill. People tried to clear a path but there was no place for them to go.

A Washington Post reporter said she saw two door-size openings at the entrance for purple ticket holders. Once through those entries, people were supposed to be routed through lanes where Secret Service or Transportation Security Administration agents ran magnetometers.

About 10 a.m., though, TSA agents were standing idly because Capitol Police officers weren't funneling crowds through the gate, according to the reporter. The Secret Service said there were two dozen magnetometers at the checkpoint, each machine capable of screening about 400 people an hour. But some security officials say that wasn't enough.

At another section, according to reports, there was one gate for 100,000 ticket holders.

Several sources reported that the Capitol Police had turned down an offer of National Guard reinforcement and additional volunteers. They said they weren't needed.

The reason for the chaos remains a mystery to this day.

As the 11:30 inaugural ceremony time approached, people began to panic. Some scaled the fence to scream at the police. The crowd began to chant, "2-4-6-8, Open Up the Purple Gate" and "Let Us In!"

Fearing trouble, I maneuvered my family to the periphery of the crowd. It became clear we were not going to be admitted. My daughter broke down in tears. I held her and rocked her as I did when she was a child with a skinned knee. It was all I could do.

She wasn't the only one. Many of those around us cried and hugged.

Forunately for us, my daughter lived close by. We were able to make it back to her apartment and watch most of the proceedings on television.

As we watched, she signed on to a Washington Post web site where the D.C. police chief proudly announced that everyone with a ticket had gotten into the ceremony.

The swearing-in event wasn't the only bad experience.

The night before, we had attended a black tie event presented by the Illinois State Society. Security managed to take two hours to get everybody into the hotel. And nobody even asked me for a ticket.

That afternoon, our very own congressman Adam Schiff had scheduled a reception at his office. When we arrived, we saw lines of people blocks long who had apparently arrived to pick up their tickets for the Inaugural ceremonies. I called Schiff's office to see if they were aware of the crowds outside. They apparently weren't.

So it sounded like one lousy time, right?

Not really.

For those few days, Washington was Woodstock. People were friendly and courteous often in the face of frustration. More than 500,000 people showed up at the pre-Inaugural concert and more than a million watched the ceremony itself on the national mall. There were no arrests.

After dinner one night, a man and I struck up a conversation while waiting for our families at the door. He was African American and from the Virgin Islands.

"Look at these people," he said, gesturing to all the restaurant patrons. "All colors, all ages, all having a wonderful time."

He went on to tell me he was a former undercover narcotics cop from North Carolina who was astonished that crime had ceased to exist in town this particular week.

"This is truly historic," he said. "Let's hope this is the first day of the world we all imagined."

I agreed, shook hands and we went our separate ways into the night. Somehow, it didn't seem quite so cold.