Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mr. Cool

Let me say right up front, I'm a weather wimp.

I'm Southern California born and bred and when the temperature dips below 70 or rises above 90, I become easily irritated, feeling like a slave to oppressive weather.

Oh sure, I've lived other places: San Francisco where summer never comes and the fog seeps into your bones; and Washington, D.C., a place so hot in July and August that the British Foreign Service once declared it a hardship post, considering it  harsher than Calcutta.

All things considered, I'll take Los Angeles, where the voices of songbirds waft on jasmine-scented breezes.

Alas, for the last week or so, the songbirds have fallen silent and the jasmine is wilting.  106 in Pasadena?  108 in Burbank?  Those are the kind of temperatures we see in Mecca.

And according to some scientists, it is the new reality.

Let us pause for a moment then, wipe up the beads of sweat that have migrated from our foreheads to the tips of our noses, and honor the memory of Willis Carrier.

Because if it hadn’t been for Mr. Carrier, life in Our Fair City during the summer would be like taking up residence in a pizza oven.

Carrier was notable for two things:  He had a relative described as the “Queen of Hell” hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692.  He is credited with inventing modern day air-conditioning. It’s unclear if one event led to the other.

Carrier was no tinkerer. He held a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University and in 1902 was called upon to solve a quality problem experienced at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing & Publishing Company of Brooklyn. It seems high temperatures and humidity was causing their paper to wrinkle.

Carrier submitted drawings for what became recognized as the world's first modern air conditioning system and was ultimately awarded a patent. Other factories eventually wanted in on the action so Carrier established Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America.

Carrier had produced one of the great inventions of the 20th century but success was a long time coming, interrupted by two World Wars and a Depression.  But by the end of World War II, business and booming. And by 2012, Carrier was a $12.5 billion company with over 43,000 employees serving customers in 170 countries on six continents.

Other great moments in air conditioning history:

200 A.D. The 2nd-century Chinese inventor Ding Huan of the Han Dynasty invented a rotary fan for air conditioning, with seven manually powered wheels 9.8 feet in diameter.

201 A.D.  The first fight over control of the office thermostat was reported.

In July of 1881, after an assassin shoots President James Garfield, naval engineers build a boxy makeshift cooling unit to keep him cool and comfortable. The device is filled with water-soaked cloth and a fan blows hot air overhead and keeps cool air closer to the ground. The device can lower room temperature by up to 20 degrees but it uses a half-million pounds of ice in two months.  And President Garfield still dies.

In 1914, the first home air conditioning unit was installed in a mansion owned by Charles Gates in Minneapolis. According to one report, it was 7 feet high, 6 feet wide, 20 feet long and possibly never used because no one ever lived in the house.

In 1931, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman invented an individual room air conditioner that sits on a window ledge but the cost was prohibitive ($10,000 and up) for most people.  If you wanted air conditioning, you found a movie theater with a sign out front that said, “It’s cool inside.”

Packard offered the first air conditioned car in 1939. Unfortunately, should the Packard's passengers get chilly, the driver had to stop the engine, open the hood, and disconnect a compressor belt.

In 1942, the United States builds its first "summer peaking" power plant made to handle the growing electrical load of air conditioning.

In the 1950s, residential air conditioning becomes just another way to keep up with the Joneses. More than 1 million units are sold in 1953 alone.

And, of course, thanks to Mr. Carrier, Phoenix morphed from a roadside gas station to a city of 1.6 million. The folks down there call it the Valley of the Sun which is like calling the South Pole a “winter wonderland.”

So how did we survive for thousands of years without air conditioning?

People built houses differently with high ceilings and deep porches that often protected windows from the heat of the sun. Windows were also placed to allow cross ventilation.

In cases where it wasn't possible to have two windows on opposite sides of a single room, architects would line up rooms in a row, allowing air to flow between them. You can see this in old shotgun homes in New Orleans.

Porches were important, not just for shading the windows of a home, but also for providing a place where people could sit outside, out of the glare of the sun, and perhaps enjoy a breeze. This led to a whole culture of people sitting outside on their porches after supper, which has essentially disappeared.

Some older houses were also built with sleeping porches, screened-in porches where one could sleep during the summer, enjoying the breezes but protected from bugs.

Best of all, people took naps.  People in parts of Spain still do this — they nap during the hottest hours of the day, resume work later in the afternoon, and then shop and socialize once the sun has gone down.

My advice for this summer:  keep cool, especially when your utility bill arrives.

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, June 18, 2016

Is There a Future in Fatherhood?

I don’t know what Father’s Day will look like 50 or 100 years from now.  I suspect gender-specific celebrations will have fallen out of favor.

But for today, at least, it remains a time to doff our hats to the Defenders of the Cave, the Slayers of Dragons, Disposers of Scary Insects, Uncloggers of Toilets, Movers of Furniture and Grillers of Meat.

An old-fashioned notion, perhaps.  But I suspect in many homes that Mother’s Day still means long-stemmed roses and champagne brunches while Father’s Day means a new crescent wrench and a beer by the barbecue.

As a small boy once said of Father's Day: “It's just like Mother's Day only you don't spend so much."

That’s OK with me.  I don’t want to be fussed over on Father’s Day.  After all, when it comes to the gestation and production of a child, moms do all the heavy lifting.

When our little bundles arrived, I discovered that I had to man up or move out. So I changed diapers, read bedtime stories, fixed breakfast, lunch and dinner when called upon, rose at dawn on the weekends so my wife could sleep in and in my spare time made sure I imparted the foundation of my profession to my kids:  critical thinking skills, a healthy skepticism and a sense of humor.

Along with my wife, I went to what seemed like several million piano recitals, soccer games, back to school nights and PTA pancake breakfasts. In sickness and in health.

If I had to do it all again, I gladly would. I didn’t have to be prodded to be an active dad. If you loved your family, it’s what you did.

All of this is somewhat remarkable in that my wife and I came of age in the Eisenhower administration. Women wore aprons, stayed at home, tended the kids and joined book clubs. Men went off to work (or war, as the case may be), came home to their pipe and slippers and left for work early the next morning. 

By the time we were married in the late 60s, all of that was beginning to change. Parenthood and child rearing were becoming shared responsibilities, women were entering the work force, aprons had all but disappeared.  

So had the notion of Dad as a Sage Breadwinner who dispensed dollops of advice and little else.

Fast forward to now:  On the surface, things seem to be about the same. The ideal dad is married, invested and present in the lives of his children, living with his family, and employed in full-time stable work with good pay and benefits. 

Because his wife is also working full time, the sharing of responsibilities has become more than a moral obligation. It’s an economic necessity.

We see plenty of dads, happily carrying their babies in Snuglis and men’s bathrooms have changing tables, so all must be well.

Not so fast, say Oregon State University professor Richard A. Settersten Jr. and assistant professor Doris Cancel-Tirado in their study, “Fatherhood as a Hidden Variable in Men’s Development and Life Courses.”

There are disturbing social trends facing men, including the rise of men having children outside of marriage, the increase in men having children with numerous women and the growing numbers of divorced fathers, say the professors, quoted in the Huffington Post.

Divorce all too often reduces a dad’s time with his kids or cuts him out of the picture entirely. But men who have kids outside of marriage, often African-American men and those without college degrees, are even less likely to be involved in their lives than divorced dads, they note.

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that marriage, while declining among all groups, remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

The survey also finds striking differences by generation. In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all twenty-somethings were married. In recent surveys, just 26% were. How many of today’s youth will eventually marry is an open question.  For now, the survey finds that the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms — such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage — in a positive light.

All of which means that the ideal father isn’t nearly as widespread as we’d like to believe, the professors say. Instead, there are many more fathers today who are vulnerable — not in the sensitive guy kind of way, but in their ability to be present and provide for their children.

“In aggregate, men are becoming less intensely involved with and committed to children,” they write. Instead, the trends suggest “men’s family relationships en masse remain relatively fragmented and tenuous.”

This is a troubling trend. Research shows that that dads have a profound influence on their kids—socially, developmentally, economically, psychologically. They are role models and companions, and their positive presence is a big plus for kids.

Settersten and Cancel-Tirado argue that instead of policies that just strengthen marriage — which more and more people are questioning, and rejecting, as a valid institution — we should be supporting all intimate relationships as well as enlarging the legal and social definitions of family to reflect the many types of families we have today. Flex time, job sharing, parity in child support levels and legal benefits for unmarried fathers raising children in committed relationships are among their suggestions.

It’s hard to see how all this will play out in the future.  But if you see a dad today, give him a hug.  Because, at least for the time being, fatherhood matters.

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, June 11, 2016

Proof Positive

I’m a firm believer in science and its practitioners, specifically researchers hunched over their workbenches day after day in the dingy basement of some out-of-the-way building.

Without them, we would still be a rag-tag colony of hunter/gatherers living in trees.

“Hi, dear. What’s for dinner?”


“Not again!”

Thanks to scientific research, we have car alarms, automated telephone menus, mobile phone ringtones, pop-up ads, selfies, boom boxes, microwaved food, Twitter and Facebook.

Imagine life without them.

But sometimes researchers, in their never-ending quest to shine the bright light of knowledge on our dull countenances, do some weird stuff.

Consider this bit of breathless news that broke just this past week:

“New research from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom suggests that restaurants and bars that sell and serve wine in larger glasses cause patrons to drink more, even if the amount of alcohol doesn't vary.

“Over 16 weeks, researchers at the University of Bristol studied serving patterns at a dual bar and restaurant establishment called The Pint Shop in Cambridge. Over the course of the study, the space's owners alternated between three different glass sizes: the "standard" 300 ml, a larger 370 ml, and a smaller 250 ml.

“Not only did they find that people tended to buy more wine when the bar served alcohol in larger glasses, they also found that it was a significant amount more; patrons bought an average of 9.4 percent more wine when it was served in the 370 ml glass, as opposed to the standard 300 ml glass.”

And then this: “The researchers are continuing to study the effects to confirm their hypothesis.”

These guys are geniuses. Not because they came to the startling conclusion that people drink more when the glasses are larger.  But because they found a university to pick up their bar bill in the name of research. 


In a related development, a group of researchers asked people at bars to rate their own attractiveness. They found that the higher the blood alcohol content of people, the higher they rated themselves on attractiveness. Which I guess is why they put mirrors behind bars.

There is other notable research going on out there. According to the website Mental Floss, a researcher trained pigeons to tell the difference between good and bad paintings made by children. The pigeons were positively reinforced when they pecked at good paintings and after a while, they were able to determine which ones were good, even observing color and pattern cues in paintings they'd never seen before.  Practical application unknown.

Some other bon mots from Mental Floss:

 A study was conducted at the Babraham Institute to determine whether sheep were capable of recognizing the faces of other sheep. When the study concluded in 2001, the researchers had discovered that sheep could recognize the faces of 50 sheep about 80% of the time, and they remembered them for over two years.  Which is better than I could do.

A group of researchers did a study to determine whether the speed and flow of men's urination was affected by people being too near them. In order to do this, they left an observer with a periscope in a public restroom for extended periods of time. He found that the closer a man had to pee next to another man, the longer it took for him to start urinating. He also peed, on average, less if someone was standing next to him. I suspect the research was done at some random sports venue where guys are lined up shoulder to shoulder and 10 deep.

 At the University of Minnesota, scientists discovered that it is just as easy to swim in syrup as it is to swim in water. In order to conduct the experiment, they filled a 25 meter swimming pool with a liquid made of guar gum, a liquid that is twice as thick as water, and it turns out that you can swim in it just fine.  No Olympic records were harmed in the making of this conclusion.

Less we be accused of nerd bashing, scientists poke fun at themselves for quirky studies. In fact, there is something called the Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

In the past, honorees included two California scientists who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don't get headaches.

And another group studied why pregnant women don't tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Honors also went to researchers who investigated whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio. My guess is yes.

And Swiss scientists conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

Also saluted was a study that determined that lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating; and a woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards aren’t always bestowed for strict scientific research.

The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year’s prize in Economics went to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.

A few years ago, the British government unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much "impact" the research has.

The plans immediately came under fire from academics, who say that curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution.

Not to mention runaway alarm clocks.

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, June 04, 2016

A Lot to Loathe

I found myself in a tight spot the other day.

Boxed in. Surrounded by aggressive and unfriendly crowds.

Fearing for my safety, property and sanity.

Desperately seeking a way out.

 I was in a Trader Joe’s parking lot.

It doesn’t matter which one.  Every one I’ve ever encountered is so small that it wouldn’t accommodate a handball court.

As the old joke goes: Trader Joe’s real estate agent: “How’s the parking lot?”  Land owner: “Terrible.”  Real estate agent:  “Great, we’ll take it.”

Yet we flock to the stores in our never-ending quest for $2 wine, frozen quattro formaggio pizza, hatch chili mac and cheese, green olive tapenade and organic low-fat yogurt wildberry probiotic smoothies.

Topped off with a broken taillight.

So as I waited patiently behind a woman driving a SUV the size of a Space Shuttle fuel tank, I began to wonder. If all Trader Joe’s parking lots are tiny, we can reasonably assume that the chain’s management wants it so.

It’s owned by a German firm and I can envision the CEO slamming his fist on the boardroom table and shouting, “Jawhol! We must teach American shoppers discipline!”

Or probably not. The real reason is much more sophisticated than that.

According to several published reports, TJ’s small footprint --- stores and parking lots --- translates into to cheaper prices for consumers.

“Trader Joe’s sells twice as much per square foot as Whole Foods,” the investment firm JLL reports. “Trader Joe’s sells a whopping $1,734 per square foot… In comparison, Whole Foods sells $930 per square foot.”

It seems strange to me that food sales would be calculated in square feet.  I mean, watermelons are bigger than olives so how does that factor in? But if I was a math major, I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

Building smaller stores with small parking lots is part of the Trader Joe’s business model, it seems, a way to keep costs down and pass the savings on to customers.

They must be on to something. Whole Foods has giant parking lots but you need to refinance your house to shop there.

Speaking of traffic, both off and on road variety, I heard a traffic report on the radio a few weeks ago that said a motorist driving on Laurel Canyon Blvd. hit and sheared off a water main valve. The resulting flood caused mud, some ankle deep, to flow down the street, closing it from Ventura Blvd. to Mulholland.

For the uninitiated, this is a major thoughfare between the Valley and the West Side.
In the grand scheme of L.A. traffic, this was merely a footnote. For sheer psychological carnage, there’s nothing like an 8 a.m. trip down the freeway, any freeway.

But the domino effect was staggering. Commuters tried alternative canyon routes, specifically Beverly Glenn which became so clogged it took an hour to travel from Ventura to Mulholland, usually a 15-minute drive.

And if they were lucky enough to reach Mulholland, it was moving at creep speed.
Others took their chances on the 405 which, instead of being merely apocalyptic, had been transformed into a parking lot.

Ventura Blvd. was impacted.  So was the Ventura Freeway.

It occurred to me that if a terrorist or other maniacal malcontent wants to inflict pain on the good people of Los Angeles, he wouldn’t have to fly a plane into a building or hack our power grid computers.

He could just knock over a few water main valves or fire hydrants. We would be brought to a standstill. Our entire city would become one giant Trader Joe’s parking lot.

The good news is that all of this will be ancient history when we hop into our self-driving cars in the near future. They will whisk us to our destination and return for us when summoned.

No more traffic jams, no more parking hassles, no more accidents, no more road rage. The car will be our servile friend.

Then I read this week that Ford is recalling a total of 1,898,728 vehicles to replace defective Takata front passenger-side airbags.  The defective airbags have been linked to ruptures that can send metal fragments at the passenger, due to deteriorating propellant.

All told, recalls of Takata airbags in 14 different automotive brands currently stands at nearly 78 million to be replaced through 2019.  

Toyota said it would begin to replace defective passenger-side inflators but if parts are unavailable, it has advised its dealers to disable the airbags and affix “Do Not Sit Here” messages to the dashboard.

In the meantime, Toyota, Volkswagen, Fiat Chrysler and Mitsubishi continue to sell new vehicles with defective airbags that will need to be recalled, according to a Senate Commerce Committee report released this past week.

And it’s not just airbags.

General Motors in 2014 recalled more cars and trucks in the U.S. than it sold in the five years since it filed for bankruptcy, according to CNN.

Chief among them was 2.6 million of its small cars due to faulty ignition switches, which could shut off the engine during driving and thereby prevent the air bags from inflating. At least 124 deaths have resulted from the flaw which had been known to GM for at least a decade but never publicized prior to the recall being declared.

Ford once famously recalled 21 million vehicles from 10 model years for a problem that caused some vehicles to slip from park into reverse. Records show Ford’s solution for that problem, which investigators linked to 6,000 accidents and nearly 100 deaths, was to send drivers a warning sticker to put on the dashboard.

And these guys are going to build self-driving cars?  I think I’ll take a hike.

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.