Saturday, February 27, 2016

Weather Report

We have been snookered, hoodwinked, bamboozled and beguiled.

We bought a “Rolex” watch from some guy on the street corner. We believed we won millions in some foreign lottery.  We gave money to the nice young man at the front door who said he was supporting an orphanage. We bought mutual funds from Bernie Madoff.

We hunkered down for a really wet winter.

We repaired the roof and replaced the gutters. We laid in a supply of sandbags. We placed cisterns beneath the downspouts. We bought kayaks. We grew lax about conserving water.

We were ready for a powerful El Nino, a “Godzilla” weather event, which we were told would wash away all memories of our drought. There would be long showers and green lawns for everyone.

We’re still waiting, our eyes turned heavenward in hopes that our blue skies will turn gray. But you know you’re in trouble when forecasters start throwing around words like “miracle” when discussing the chances of rain.

In the meantime, the weather remains drier than the backyard bird bath.

It is in our nature to point the bony finger of blame when things don’t go as planned. 
So we take it out on weather forecasters  who run a close second to lawyers when it comes to tainted reputations.

Ask anyone. They'll tell you that we're relying on the word of a bunch an inept soothsayers who never look out the window to check conditions. Shame on us for believing them.

Except it’s a bad rap.

Sure, it’s easy to disparage many of our so-called TV weather experts who wouldn't know a dew point from a doughnut.

But the fact is that weather prediction has come a long way since the 1920s, when, working by hand, English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson needed six weeks to come up with a six-hour forecast.

Thanks to computers, the amount of information on the Earth’s climate at any given time is staggering.

Yet, even in skilled hands, predicting the weather remains an inexact science.

It is a complex phenomenon that depends on temperature, clouds, precipitation, wind and pressure. For good measure, throw in ground and sea temperatures, ocean currents as well as atmospheric pollution.

Mix it all together and come up with a forecast.

It sounds easy. It isn’t. Take it from Bill Patzert, the esteemed climatologist at JPL in La Canada Flintridge.  “You just have to stare at the data,” he said. “Stare at it until your eyeballs are black and blue.”

Jim Yoe, chief administrator of the government’s Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation, told Forbes magazine that he figures the theoretical limit on accurate forecasting with today’s technology is on the order of two weeks.

That means that seasonal data models are basically crap shoots, as anyone knows who this year brought out the sunscreen and put away the umbrella.

Patzert, the go-to guy on weather who gets more ink that Donald Trump, was a leading voice in predicting an El Nino condition this year.

Don’t knock it. He was right.  El Niño is being blamed for drought conditions in parts of the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia, as occurred in 1997-98.

Drought is also persistent in Central America. Water levels are now so low in the waterways that make up the Panama Canal that officials recently announced limits on traffic through the passageway that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

El Niño also influenced the heavy rainstorms that effectively ended drought conditions in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma, and has brought floods and mudslides to Chile.

But it hasn’t made an appearance in Southern California, thanks in large part to a high pressure ridge that deflected storms away from us to the north.

If there’s an upside to this it’s that since we import most of our water, it appears we’ll have a bigger supply to draw from.

Pazert remains optimistic that the rains may still come. "As we look back, the big show is usually in February, March — even into April and May," he said. "So, in many ways, this is on schedule."

And if it isn’t? We had better consider that a real possibility and jump back on the water conservation bandwagon and do it now. If we don’t, there could be hell to pay this summer.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A War of Words

In a fit of pique nearly a decade ago, I penned the following:

“History tells us that the first words ever spoken over a telephone were courtesy of its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, who said to his assistant listening in the next room, ‘Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.’

“I suspect history's second telephone conversation went something like this: "Mr. Bell, I'm calling on behalf of the Society to Eliminate Nose Hair. As you know, Mr. Bell, nose hair strikes thousands of adults in their prime, causing public displays of picking and plucking that are intolerable in this enlightened era. Remember, Mr. Bell, a nostril is a terrible thing to lose. Help us stamp out nose hair by giving us a generous donation. How much can I put you down for?"

“At which point Alexander Graham Bell hung up and immediately set out to invent call blocking.”

I was motivated to write the above when the frequency of telemarketing calls to my home had advanced from mildly irritating to infuriating to intolerable.

Indeed, I had registered my number with the federal do-not-call list in 2003. But like a lot of governmental agencies, the performance has been abysmally short of the promise. At one point, I thought I had mistakenly signed up for the call-me-anytime list.

I’d like to state that ridding the world of telemarketers through the power of the published word was an unqualified success. I’d also like to tell you that I won the lottery and bought the entire island of Maui as a vacation retreat.

Alas, neither is true.

As of this writing, I still receive on the average of 8 to 10 telemarketing calls a day on my home’s landline. Which is particularly amazing since I have never bought anything from a telemarketer.

I would just as soon give my bank account number to the widow of a deposed Nigerian prince who contacted me by email and promised she has $5 million ready to send my way.

Mercifully, I have caller ID that allows me to ignore many of the calls I receive and I’ve grown wise to the fact that many of these telemarketers attach a local area code to their calls to trick you into thinking it’s a friend or neighbor.

Which only adds to the irritation quotient.

A Los Angeles man, Roger Anderson, has decided to irritate right back. He is developed a robotic answering service that wastes telemarketers’ time.

It’s called ---what else? --- Jolly Roger Telephone.

In a typical call, the robot keeps the telemarketer on the phone for a few minutes, but in some cases they go on for much longer. The robot does this by exploiting a flaw in the telemarketer playbook: staying on the line if the person is agreeable. So the system leans heavily on  Anderson's voice saying repeatedly, “yeah,” “sure,” “okay” and “yes.” 

One conversation as reported on the Internet went something like this:

Cable company: “How many TVs do you guys normally use in the home?”

Robot: “Sure.”

Cable company: “And do you know if those TVs are also in high-definition, HD?”

Robot: “Uh-huh.”

Cable company: “Okay do you guys normally like to record with DVR services?”

Robot: “Okay.”

Cable company: “Do you know who is your current TV provider?”

Robot: “Yeah.”

Cable Company: “Okay great as well.”

It tied up the telemarketer for 22 minutes.

Anderson said he experimented with different personalities for his robot before deciding that an odd man who just woke up from a nap worked best. For instance, the robot burned time by telling the telemarketer they sound like a former high school classmate, rambling on about needing coffee or asking them to start over again.

In one recording, he told a telemarketer he couldn’t answer any questions because there was a bee crawling up his arm. When the bee was disposed of, he asked the telemarketer to again repeat his pitch.

For those who prefer taking on a telemarketer one-on-one, here are a few suggestions:

Speak to them in a foreign language, preferably one you just made up. If they ask, "how are you today?" tell them your dog just died. If you're a male and the caller is female, ask in a husky voice, "so, what are you wearing?" Imitate a recorded message saying you'll be released from prison soon.

If that fails, one wag suggested telling the caller that they have reached a murder scene, you are a detective, the person they are calling is dead and you want to know exactly how they know the victim.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Disaster Decades

We were tired. Dead tired.

Parents of a three-month-old daughter, we had stumbled through endless nights of breast feedings, diaper changes, colic and all those other assorted issues that called into question why having a baby seemed like a good idea. But as my wife continually reminded me, “you can’t send them back.”

So we laid sprawled on our bed, enjoying a brief few hours of blessed slumber.
It was February 9, 1971, 6:01 a.m. And at exactly at that moment, an earthquake centered in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Sylmar ripped along a 12-mile-long fault line resulting in a tremblor that measured 6.6 on the Richer Scale.

Even after 45 years, it remains frightening, devastating and deadly. And unbeknownst to all of us at the time, it was a moment that was to repeat itself all too frequently over the next two decades.

On that particular morning, our house suddenly lurched like it had been hit by a missile. I was born and raised in Southern California but this was like no other quake I had experienced. I sat bold upright, motionless, and watched incredulously as lights flickered off and on, furniture inched across the floor and a swag lamp in an adjoining bathroom bounced off the walls. The noise was deafening.

My wife cried out, “the baby” and I dashed to the nursery where, her crib still rocking from side to side, our bundle of joy was smiling as if I was bouncing her on my knee.

An uncle here on business from Missouri ran outside his motel room when the quake hit. He said he watched as the water in the pool spilled over the sides. After 45 years, he still refuses to come back to California. This from a guy who lives in tornado country.

We were lucky. We lived in an older home with lots of unreinforced brick and our chimney came down but did no damage to the house. Inside, a large mirror over the fireplace fell but strangely enough, while the fame broke, the glass did not.

In the kitchen, cabinets flew open and dishes crashed to the floor. A bottle of good whiskey fell from a cabinet and shattered into a pile of Quaker Oats that had rocketed off a counter. Too bad, I could have used a shot or two of Old Courage even at that early hour.

While we were fortunate, many others were not. 64 people died and more than 2,500 were injured. The estimated damage cost exceeded $550 million.

Freeways buckled. Sewer lines broke. Gas lines exploded. Power lines fell, telephone service cut. Chimneys toppled. Windows shattered. And thousands of homes, businesses, hospitals and government agencies were turned upside down, according to reports in the Daily News.

Contractors, some legitimate but many who were bogus, poured in to neighborhoods soliciting repair business. If they asked for cash in advance, it was wise to walk away.

Then there was the Van Norman reservoir near the L.A. Aqueduct.  It threatened to burst, spilling 3.6 billion gallons of water into nearby Granada and Mission Hills neighborhoods. More than 80,000 people below the dam were evacuated for three days while engineers pumped out its water.

If the earthquake had struck a year earlier, engineers later said, the dam topped with 6.5 billion gallons of water would have likely collapsed, killing more than 100,000 Valley residents, the Daily News story said.

It was as though we had suddenly found ourselves on another planet, one where danger lurked at every turn and our fears were punctuated by sharp aftershocks. It was the day the myth of laid-back Southern California died.

And it was just the beginning.

The Whittier Quake struck on Oct. 1, 1987 at 7:42 a.m.  I was standing on my driveway waving goodbye to my kids as I left for work when it struck.
I think it was the first time I had ever been outside in a major quake.

Two memories stand out:  the street in front of our house undulated as if it was built atop a layer of Jell-O. And shortly afterwards, a number of dogs from the neighborhood who fled their homes ran wildly up the street in fear.

Again, we were fortunate. Minimal damage. But a large number of homes and businesses were impacted, along with roadway disruptions.  Damage totals amounted to $358 million with many injuries, three directly-related deaths, and five additional fatalities that were associated with the event.

In 1991, the Sierra Madre quake struck, a 5.6 temblor with its epicenter 7.5 miles northeast of that city. At least three roads leading up to Mount Wilson were blocked by landslides and Pasadena City Hall suffered moderate damage. A woman was killed when a steel beam fell on her at the Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia. A basketball backboard, shaken loose in the tremor, hit a 10-year-old boy in the head, driving a nail into his skull.  He survived.

Once again, we dodged the bullet. The only damage was to our nerves and peace of mind. Surely, I thought, this would be the end of it. The chances of another major earthquake had to be small.

But one year later, the Landers quake struck. It was centered in a remote area of the Mojave Desert but at 7.2 on the Richter Scale, it was felt throughout Southern California.

A 6.5 magnitude Big Bear earthquake, which hit about three hours later after the Landers mainshock, was originally considered an aftershock. However, the United States Geological Survey determined that this was a separate, but related.

The shaking lasted from 2 to 3 minutes. I had time to get out of bed, throw on a pair of jeans and shoes, soothe the kids and walk through the house and into the front yard before it stopped.

Two years later, the Northridge quake hit, a 6.7 temblor that produced ground acceleration that was the highest ever instrumentally recorded in an urban area in North America. The "official" death toll was placed at 57; 33 people died immediately or within a few days from injuries sustained in the earthquake, and many died from indirect causes, such as stress-induced cardiac events.

Some counts factor in related events such as a man's suicide possibly inspired by the loss of his business in the disaster. More than 8,700 were injured including 1,600 who required hospitalization.

 Earthquake-caused property damage was estimated to be between $13 and $40 billion, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

The quake soon became my life. I worked for the Los Angeles Times Valley Edition located in Northridge when it struck. I spent the next year and beyond helping to produce stories on the near and long-term effects of a disaster that even in retrospect seemed shocking.

What have we learned in the 45 years since Sylmar?  That the “Big One” still hasn’t struck. That when it does, we will have to survive on our own for at least three days and should be prepared. That scientists can now better map fault motions and the probability of future quakes. But not the when. That it took state legislators until this month to help fund an earthquake early warning system that has been under development for years. That we need to remember to drop, cover, and hold on.

That maybe we should heed the words of Johnny Carson after an aftershock of a quake rumbled through his “Tonight Show” set:  “The God Is Dead rally has been canceled.”

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Grown to Order

How do you like your steak?

New York?  Rib Eye? Filet Mignon?

Rare? Medium? Well done?

How about lab grown from fetal calf serum?

Suppress that gag reflex. It could be on your table soon.

This week, a company called Memphis Meats which is growing meat outside a live animal, made an appearance before potential investors in San Francisco.

According to published reports, Memphis Meats is already growing real meat in small quantities using cells from cows, pigs, and chickens. The company’s first products—hot dogs, sausages, burgers, and meatballs—will be developed using recipes perfected by award-winning chefs, if its press clippings are to be believed.

It also presumably means no more drumsticks, wings or ribs.

The founders, which call their product “cultured meat,” expect to have products to market in less than five years.

“This is absolutely the future of meat,” said Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti, M.D. “We plan to do to the meat industry what the car did to the horse and buggy. Cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable.”

While that may be slicing the baloney a bit thick, there seems to be some momentum behind this and similar products.

 Rivals including Mosa Meat and Modern Meadow Inc. also aim to bring such “cultured meat” to market in the next several years.

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams have invested in plant-based protein companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods Inc.

The first public demonstration of a “cultured meat” meal was held in London several years ago.  According to those who were there, which included a handful of scientists and invited journalists, the product looked and smelled like a burger.

And the taste?

Hanni Rützler, an Austrian nutritional scientist, who sampled a bite, said it tasted “almost” like a conventional one.

“It’s close to meat, but it’s not as juicy,” she said. “I was expecting the texture to be more soft. The surface was surprisingly crunchy.”

Then in what must be the ultimate in left-handed compliments, she added: “I would have said if it was disgusting.” 

The five-ounce burger patty cost more than $330,000 to produce and was paid for by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Currently it costs about $18,000 to produce a pound of Memphis Meats’ ground beef, compared with about $4 a pound in U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That might make your Fourth of July barbecue a bit pricey.

So just how is it produced?

It involves a type of stem cell called a myosatellite cell, which the body itself uses to repair injured muscle tissue, according to scientists. The cells, which are found in a certain part of muscle tissue, are removed from the cow neck and put in containers with a growth medium. Through much trial and error, the researchers have learned how best to get the cells to grow and divide, doubling repeatedly over about three weeks.

“But we need billions,” said one technician.

Would I try it? I look at it this way:

I am a carnivore. I was born into a family of carnivores whose lineage for thousands of years was intertwined with other carnivores.

I like my meat red, white or otherwise.

But even and old dog can learn a new trick or two and I could certainly get behind a product that promises to be humane and healthy.

However, when it comes to reinventing food, the quest has been as tough as a $2 steak.

Artificial sweeteners are suspected of exacerbating, rather than preventing, metabolic disorders such as Type 2 diabetes, based on several scientific studies. There have been reports of some products causing seizures, headaches, mood disturbances, and reduced mental performance. 

Then there was Olestra, a fat substitute product developed in the 1990s that added no fat, calories, or cholesterol to products such as potato chips.

It was hailed as a dietary breakthrough but came with a FDA mandated warning label that said “This Product Contains Olestra. Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools (anal leakage). Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients…”

That label was eventually removed but the damage was done. Even today, Olestra is prohibited for sale in many markets, including the European Union and Canada.

I hope the scientists developing cultured meat succeed. It could be a formidable tool in the fight against hunger.

But for the time being, I’ll stay on friendly terms with the butcher.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Bowled Over

We Americans like to party.

In fact, we like to party so much we have rolled the Christmas and New Year’s holidays into one week-long orgy of food and drink culminating in a form of gladiatorial combat we call football.

The ancient Romans would be proud of us.

Take Pasadena, for example. It’s not exactly a let-your-hair-down-and-boogie-your-butt-off kind of place. Indeed, the word “staid” comes to mind. Yet once a year, the city throws a giant New Year’s party complete with a sometimes maudlin but always spectacular parade and a football game played in the nation’s most iconic stadium.

After which, the days grow dark and cold. Americans have little to celebrate unless you circle Fruitcake Toss Day or Houseplant Appreciation Day or National Kazoo Day on your January calendar.

Faced with this daunting prospect, Americans do what they do best. They invent something.

In this case, we invented the Super Bowl, ostensibly a football game but in reality a reason to party.

Thanks to billionaire team owners seeking to further pad their wallets, it rolls around each February and has to keep us in a state of merriment until St. Patrick’s Day.

This year’s contest features the Denver Broncos versus the Carolina Panthers and will be played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, hard by San Francisco. Game time is 3:30 p.m. Pacific Standard.

Long before the ball is in the air, however, we will be bombarded by hype that will rival an El Nino storm in intensity.

This, after all, is Super Bowl 50, its importance underscored by the fact that the NFL is using Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals it has historically shared with the Papacy and assorted royal families. We’re guessing Super Bowl L (the Roman numeral for 50) lacked a certain gravitas.

The event will be preceded by a four-hour pre-game show in which a panel of concussion survivors will explain the intricacies of the game.

The population of two competing cities in question here is a shade over 1.5 million. So why should the rest of us care?

There are two answers:  gluttony and gambling.

If you were to add up the calories per serving for every food item a household purchased during the week of the Super Bowl, it would equal more than 6,000 calories, according to a Washington Post story. That's the largest number of calories for any week through the year — more even than during Thanksgiving — and it's not even all that close. 

The second unhealthiest week, when people purchase closer to 5,500 calories per serving, is the week before the week of the Super Bowl, at which point people are just getting warmed up.

The National Chicken Council estimates that 1.25 billion chicken wings will be consumed during the Super Bowl. There are expected to be 48 million take-out pizzas ordered. Some 80 million avocados will be consumed along with 11 million pounds of chips.  It will be washed down with 325 million gallons of beer. 

 In a related development, the diet business will take in millions the following week.
And when it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, American Gaming Association President Geoff Freeman said that his organization expects the Super Bowl to elicit $3.8 billion in illegal wagers compared with Nevada’s legal $100 million.

The bets know no bounds. For example, you can bet on what color Gatorade will be dumped on the winning coach. Or the jersey number of the first player to score a touchdown. 

You can also put your hard earned cash on who the Super Bowl MVP will mention first in his speech:  Teammates are at 2/1, followed by God (5/2), Fans (5/1), other team (7/1), coach or family (12/1), owner (25/1) and none of the above at 4/1.

You can also wager on who will win the coin toss, who will call the first time out, who will be the first player called for holding, whether the first player to score will have an odd or even number jersey, whether the first missed field goal will be wide left or right.

Of course, you can develop your own bets right at home. Who will be the first to take a bathroom break, who will be the first to dump a plate of nachos cheese-side down on your new couch, who will be the first to say "I don't get it" after a multimillion dollar commercials screens, who will be the first to doze off in the middle of the game after consuming hot wings, chili, pizza and beer.

Note to gamblers: 26 percent of people say that God plays a role in determining the outcome of a game, the Public Religion Research Institute found.

Let the festivities begin.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.