Sunday, November 29, 2009

Just mail it!

Every now and then someone invents a product or service that convinces people that the old fashioned way of doing things is much harder than it really is. By so fooling people they get them to spend much more than they need to.

Microwave popcorn is a perfect example. Making popcorn in a saucepan is almost as easy and just as fast as putting a paper bag of seeds into the microwave. But nobody knows that anymore because the stores have six tiers of shelves stocking microwave popcorn, and 12 inches of shelf space for plain seeds that cost about one-fifth as much per pound.

Another such product came to my attention today. A service, actually, called It's for people who have grandparents that don't own computers. If you want to e-mail Grandma, you just e-mail Sunnygram, which will take all of your e-mails for Grandma, print them out (complete with photos) and mail them to her via the good old United States Postal Service. Sunnygram provides this helpful service for just $9.95 a month.

It's as if you couldn't print it and mail it yourself for about 50 to 60 cents worth of paper, ink and postage. You do know how to do that, right? Please say yes.

But knowing how the world works, having worked with the general public myself, I'm certain there are people who will be convinced that Sunnygram is the most viable way to communicate with an analog Grandma in a digital age. What Grandma knows that they don't is that there's a sucker born every minute.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New history page in the Toy Box

I recently posted a new page in the Bits-O' History section of the Monterey Peninsula Toy Box. It provides an accurate and reasonably complete history of the crosses overlooking local beaches, focusing particularly on the Monterey cross that was vandalized last month, and which was the subject of my September 23rd entry.

The new page is called THE TRUE MEANING OF THE CROSS.

I decided a new page was necessary to counteract the misinformation that has been spreading during the debate over the constitutionality of the cross. After all, one can't have a good argument without good facts. I was particularly dismayed to read in the Herald, once in an article and twice in an editorial, that the cross marked the site where the Portola expedition "landed." Since they came by land, and not by sea, there was no "landing." The Herald should be ashamed for failing to do such basic research, especially since part of their argument against repairing the cross was based upon it.

Perhaps they should check with me before printing stuff.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Put trains, not busses, on the railroad tracks!

On October 28th the Transportation Agency for Monterey County will decide how to develop the Monterey Branch Rail Line between downtown Monterey and the junction with the Union Pacific Coast Line at Castroville. The choices are to restore the tracks as a light rail corridor, or pave it over for a dedicated bus rapid transit line.

I cannot stress strongly enough that we need to support the rail option. The original reason TAMC purchased the Monterey Branch Line was to restore intercity rail service between Monterey and the San Francisco bay area. Frankly, I have grown dismayed that TAMC has strayed so far from this goal, favoring mere enhancements to existing local transit services. I never hear people asking for more bus service, or local rail service, but I hear many people wondering when they'll be able to ride a train to San Francisco.

Only the light rail option would eventually allow for intercity rail service, so there should be no question on this matter. The rail right of way should be developed as a rail line and not a bus line.

California has some of the best and most popular regional rail services in the country. Three popular regional rail corridors, Caltrain, the Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Express, converge just 60 miles from here in San Jose. Connections from Monterey would provide local travelers with a wide variety of destinations from that hub, including San Francisco, Sacramento, Auburn, and Stockton, along with planned service extensions to Redding and Reno. It would also connect to the future high-speed rail corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It goes without saying that tourists from all over California could also ride to Monterey.

It would be pure foolishness to pave the right of way for buses and eliminate the possibility of linking Monterey to the state's growing intercity rail network!

Rail also has significant advantages for local service. Additional capacity can easily be added by adding cars to a rail vehicle, without increasing labor costs for additional drivers. A rail vehicle is also more comfortable and provides a much smoother ride than buses, making rail more attractive to a wider range of potential users.

If this concerns you, please contact TAMC and urge them to adopt the rail option. Also contact the TAMC representative from your city, and your county supervisor before they vote.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Feeling cross over felling crosses

Only a lawyer could find reason to declare two pieces of wood unconstitutional. It came to light this week that the ACLU, representing an anonymous plaintiff, is doing just that. A few days ago vandals cut down a wooden cross on the sand dunes near the Monterey Beach Resort. The City of Monterey may be unable to repair or replace it due to legal opinions that a religious symbol on public park land is unconstitutional. The cross, which stood for several decades, along with a second cross above Carmel River Beach, was erected to replicate a historic event.

In December 1769 the Portola land expedition, suffering from malnutrition and illness, failed to connect with a supply ship. Before returning to San Diego, they erected two crosses, one overlooking Monterey beach, and another overlooking Carmel River Beach. They were not intended primarily as religious symbols, but as easily constructed markers that would be recognized by ships at sea. Buried under the crosses were messages reporting on their situation.

The principle of separation of church and state is intended to prevent government from forcing citizens to participate in religious activities, and to prevent churches from having undue influence over the affairs of government. It does not require that every square inch of public property must be sterilized of any religious reference.

The crosses overlooking local beaches were never intended to promote religion. Their actual historic meaning is more secular than religious. In no way do they require anyone to participate in religious worship, nor do they influence government business. Therefore they should satisfy constitutional requirements.

The fact that some people find Christian symbols offensive is not sufficient reason to remove them by legal or illegal means. Seeing offense where none is intended is nothing but a thought self-generated by the mind that is offended. It has no objective substance. Our community should not have to sacrifice cultural artifacts for the sake of a few who cannot put them into historical perspective. Nor should we reward the vandals who cut down the Monterey cross by allowing legal squabbles to obstruct repairs.
Addendum: September 30. The Monterey Herald has posted photos of the day the cross was dedicated, indicating it was erected as part of the city's bicentennial celebration. Click here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mental Manipulation.

Watch this brief commercial from the Republican National Committee and see if you can spot the ways they're trying to manipulate you.

The ad begins with a thinly veiled accusation that Washington Democrats are blaming citizens for opposition to health care reform, when they're actually trying to correct misinformation that has spread like a California wildfire.

The ad then builds on this misinterpretation of misinformation by presenting a seniors "Bill of Rights" relating to healthcare. These rights include:

  1. No cuts to Medicare to pay for another program.
  2. Make it illegal to ration health care based on age.
  3. Prevent any government role in end-of-life care.
  4. Stop bureaucrats from getting between seniors and their doctors.
The implication is that Democrats have proposed doing all of these things. But if you listen carefully, Mr. Steele never actually says Democrats are doing that - because they aren't! Had Mr. Steele said they were actually planning these things, the RNC could no doubt be fined or sued for false advertising.

Instead, the RNC has left those accusations to the far-right opinion commentators who are not obligated to tell the truth. These people have thrown the public into a panic over proposals that don't exist, at least not in the form described. The RNC ad simply gives a wink and a nod to the rumors and implies they are true.

From what I've seen, the Democrats have no reason to disagree with the RNC's points. In fact, these are exactly the sort of things health care reformers are working to accomplish! As I noted in my previous Mental Note, this isn't about telling the truth. It's about defeating the Democrats.

AARP has posted an excellent article Health Care Reform: The Assault On Truth which corrects the Republican distortions in clear language. I'm sure the AARP is more concerned about seniors than the RNC, because all of its members are over the age of 50, and cover a broader range of the political and economic spectrum.

As for the RNC's "Bill of Rights" I think Congressional Democrats should call the GOP's bluff, and pass a resolution endorsing those very same points. After all, Mr. Steele says in his commercial these are "things we can all agree on." I just wish the GOP would acknowledge that Democrats already agree.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

We Can't Do It!

Here is reason #652 why I'm no longer a Republican. Once upon a time, this country accomplished pretty much everything it set out to do.
  • Defeat the Nazis. We did it.
  • End racial segregation. We did it.
  • Put a man on the moon (during war time, no less). We did it.
  • Conserve energy during an oil embargo. We did it.
We used to be a "can-do" nation. But as the extreme right-wing nuts have taken over the once respectable Republican party, they keep telling us we can't do the things we need to do.
  • Let people marry whoever they choose, regardless of their sexual orientation? It goes against the Bible, so we can't do it.
  • Make our transportation systems more efficient and comfortable by modernizing passenger trains and developing high speed rail corridors? It's too expensive and government shouldn't be subsidizing trains (even though we subsidize roads, airports, waterways and shipping ports), so we can't do it.
  • Develop environmentally friendly energy sources to clean up the Earth's atmosphere? It will cost too much, hurt the economy, and besides, that's just part of the liberal agenda, so we can't do it.
  • Provide affordable health care for all? That would be socialism, which is bad, so we can't do it.
I notice the Republican party has no plan of its own for health care. During eight years of the Bush administration our energy policies focused on more oil, merely delaying the inevitable decline in oil supplies and ignoring global warming concerns. Bush also made several attempts to eliminate the few interstate passenger trains we have left. And those sticklers for strict interpretation of the constitution seem to conveniently forget that religious dogma can't be used as a policy making tool under the first amendment.

Right-wing blowhards on radio and cable TV have resorted to fabricating facts about health care reform, and have gotten their listeners to believe them without question, as evidenced by their behavior at many town hall meetings on the subject. The GOP used to be the more civilized party, but now they can't discuss anything without resorting to lies, name calling, and shouting.

They're treating every political issue as a sporting event where the goal is not to accomplish something worthy, but to defeat the opponent. They hide behind the Bible to profess their purity, and proclaim themselves as innocent victims. Yet, like the Taliban, their only goal is to attack anyone who tries to move forward to a better world. They have no constructive ideas of their own. Their ideology blinds them to the real needs of real people. If it doesn't fit within their narrow world view, we can't do it.

Stop it and grow up.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Obama Way? No Way!

The Monterey Herald reported today that some folks in Seaside are asking the city to rename Broadway Avenue as Obama Way.

I'm as much a fan of President Obama as anybody. I support his work on health care reform, I support his efforts in the middle east. I'm behind him on pretty much everything.

But let's not let our excitement get in the way of good sense. So far, President Obama hasn't had time to accomplish much, and it remains to be seen how much he can do. He may indeed be the greatest thing since Abraham Lincoln, but he needs to accomplish something enduring before we start naming things after him.

Remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger first became governator? Republicans were so ecstatic that they wanted to amend the United States Constitution so that he, a native of Austria, could run for President someday. That was before the state crashed head-on into fiscal reality. Arnold has turned out to be just another mediocre governor in a long string of mediocre governors. Who wants him to run for President now?

Obama may very well do great things. He may not. He may make some huge blunder for all I know. Be patient. Let him make his mark on history before we start imprinting his name on street signs.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My brush with Robert McNamara

The recent passing of Robert McNamara, who was the U.S. Defense Secretary during the Vietnam war, brought to mind a brief encounter I had with him a few years ago.

I never got close enough to talk to him, but I was within eight feet as he sat at a banquet table in the hotel where I worked. He was scheduled as the after dinner speaker that evening. As the in-house audio/visual technician on duty that night, I was in charge of the microphone.

I don't remember the purpose of the event, but it was part of a larger multi-day conference. Most of the attendees were much younger than me.

As I was setting up that afternoon one of the meeting organizers in the group told me that the guest speaker would be Robert McNamara. I recognized the name before he proceeded to tell me he was President Johnson's Secretary of Defense. He was quite excited about the prospect of hearing someone of that stature speak at his event.

The fellow was visibly disappointed that I did not share his enthusiasm. It was not the time or place to share my personal views with a client, so I simply acknowledged the information in my best professional manner. What he didn't know was that I grew up watching the grisly details of "McNamara's war" on the news every evening during dinner. Even as a kid I had a pretty good idea of how messed up the Vietnam war was, and as an adult I learned how much McNamara was responsible. Thanks to him I lost my faith in American foreign policy at a very early age.

McNamara did not mention Vietnam that night. He was on a new crusade to frighten everyone about the prospect of loose nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands. His gravelly voice punctuated every point by repeating "I'm very concerned, and you should be too!"

I don't think anyone in the room was in a position do do anything about nuclear weapons, but he sounded scared, and he sure scared everyone.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Train vs Tornado

An engineer I know brought this video to my attention. The tornado occurred in Illinois on January 7, 2008. The camera was mounted in the last locomotive, facing the freight cars they were pulling. Watch the trees in the background as the rain starts. Then hold on!!!!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Squeeze Play

Now that the digital television age is underway, an interesting situation has come to my attention. Some people have widescreen (a.k.a. 16x9) TVs and some people, like us, have older TVs in the standard format (4x3). The problem is how do TV stations deliver their new widescreen pictures to people who have standard TVs.

I understand that over the air converter boxes, the kind they were telling everyone to get with their government coupon, have a zoom feature which enables the user to either crop the picture to fit their TV, or display it in widescreen "letterbox" format with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. All well and good.

But we have digital cable, without that feature. How the system is delivering the images is a mystery to me, but generally it works OK. Sometimes the picture is letterboxed. Other times it is evident that the image is cropped, because people's faces or some text is cut off at the edges.

Whatever the technique, somebody needs to explain it to the people at Monterey's KOTR cable channel 11, "The Otter" as they call themselves.

The Otter occasionally broadcasts Giants Baseball (or as we call it "Giant Spaceball") games and the station is having trouble getting it right. The first two games they broadcast this spring were not cropped or letterboxed. Instead they did the worst possible thing. They took a widescreen image and squeezed it into a standard TV shape. This has the effect of making everyone look tall and skinny. It is a gross distortion of the picture.

The first time this happened was the first game they broadcast this year. I turned it off and left a voice message with the station manager saying they had squeezed a 16x9 picture into a 4x3 frame and it looked horrible.

On the second game they broadcast, they did the same thing. This time I called the station and after finding other voice mail options I left a message with the control room, then turned the TV off in dismay. About 30 minutes later I looked again and saw they finally fixed the problem. It remained fixed for several more games, what few they broadcast.

Until today, when they screwed it up again. This time they started the top of the first inning with the picture letterboxed. That's fine with me, but it looked a little fuzzy. After the first commercial break the picture was no longer letterboxed, but they were back to squeezing the wide picture into the standard TV shape. My complaint this time didn't seem to get noticed, as the picture remained distorted for the entire game.

Fortunately, most Giants games are broadcast on Comcast Sports Network, and not KOTR. Comcast always gets it right, as does every other channel with every other program. KOTR needs some additional technical training.

If anyone from KOTR, or anyone who knows anyone who works at KOTR is reading this, please pass this message on to your control room: Either letterbox the image, or crop the image, but please don't distort my Giant Spaceball!
Addendum: KOTR got Monday's game right.

Another addendum: After that they didn't get any game right for the rest of the season, and they're screwing up football games, too.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Wednesday afternon UPS misdirected a package to our door. It was meant for somebody with a similar address. I called UPS to correct the problem and got stuck in a voice recognition phone maze that didn't give me any relevant options.

So I used my usual method of pressing "0" to speak to a real human. Unfortunately, unlike most other systems, it just put me into another maze.

I was not in a good mood to begin with, so in desperation I screamed "GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA" into the phone. The system politely replied "One moment while we connect you to a live agent."

I guess voice recognition software is more sophisticated than I thought. It can now recognize anger.

The story has a happy ending. The agent took down the information and within 30 minutes I got a call from the local UPS office saying the driver would return within the hour. He actually arrived one minute later with an apology and took the box away.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Grinch who stole gay marriage

The people awakened one morning to hear
That the Grinch of Prop 8 had stolen their cheer

So they marched in the streets to protest the decision
As victims of public discrimination.

But one of them said, in a voice starting low
“Maybe, just maybe, it need not be so.

“Does love need a license from officials of state
To affirm what our hearts know will never abate?

“Perhaps marriage is something that can't be constrained
By a book of religion or a statute ordained.

“Marriage is defined in the hearts of two lovers
And can't be affected by the thoughts of the others.

“So let the Grinch live by his own set of rules.
They need not define us unless we be fools

“Someday he will learn what we already know
That love's unconditional, and that's how we grow.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Susan Boyle phenomenon

It's nice to see an average person with talent being newly discovered, and I'm happy for Susan Boyle getting the exposure her voice deserves. What puzzles me, though, is how she got that recognition.

When this frumpy middle aged housewife with a flat nose and a horrible hairdo appeared on stage for the Britain's Got Talent show the audience looked on her with low expectations in their eyes, while the judges were openly dismayed to see someone like that on the stage.

When she opened her mouth and people realized she could actually sing with the best of them, everyone cheered like mad, as if they were watching a handicapped person do a pole vault. When the video circulated on You Tube Boyle became a worldwide sensation overnight.

What is really going on here? She defied expectations, that much is clear. What puzzles me is why expectations were so low in the first place. A pretty face is not a prerequisite for a pretty voice. The most rudimentary layman's knowledge of anatomy should have been enough for the audience and judges to give her the benefit of the doubt. But apparently they didn't see any reason to believe she could sing.

I hate to think that the audience and judges were so shallow minded as to judge a book by its cover, but after watching their rolling eyes when she walked on stage that seems to have been the case.

This story is not about Susan Boyle. It is about us.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

In memory of Memorial Day

I remember when holidays were tied to specific calendar dates, so Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc., could fall on any day of the week. In those days holidays were observed with a specific purpose in mind. After certain holidays were shifted to always fall on a Monday, they lost much of their meaning and morphed into three-day commercial extravaganzas. Try to remember the fallen soldiers as you party and shop this weekend.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

California Voters: A disapointment.

As a committed nonconformist I often find my votes on the losing side of the election. But I am particularly dismayed by the rejection of Proposition 1A. This is the second time voters have rejected a measure that would have helped even out the boom-bust cycles in state spending.

The biggest problem with the state budget is that legislators have often used increased revenues from good economic years to start new programs, instead of saving it for bad years. Prop. 1A, and the similar Proposition 56 in 2004, would have required the legislature to set up a larger reserve to keep things going in bad economic years. This week, as before, voters rejected the idea by a huge margin.

It appears that both times voters were just so angry with the legislature's fiscal irresponsibility that they voted NO as punishment. The irony, of course, is that by voting NO the voters were really saying no to the very type of budget discipline they say the legislature needs.

So just what are voters trying to say? Saving money for a rainy day is a bad idea? Given that on two occasions voters overwhelmingly said no to increasing the reserve fund, I guess that must be the case. If so, don't blame the legislature if your taxes go up and public services like roads, schools, parks, fire protection, unemployment benefits, and health care deteriorate in bad economic times, just when we need the services most.

"We have met the enemy... and he is us" -Pogo

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fun with Comcast: A free digital upgrade problem.

We recently took advantage of Comcast's free digital cable upgrade, finally freeing ourselves from the olden days of analog television. As a techie kind of guy, you may think it odd that we waited so long. We had our reasons, most notable being the fact that upgrades were previously very un-free. Also our small house had no place to put a VCR sized cable box without sacrificing CD storage space.

But the new Motorola cable box they're using now is sufficiently compact to fit in the space of a few knick-knacks. It was delivered within two days via UPS. Hooking it up took less than ten minutes, plus another 45 minutes to dust off and relocate the aforementioned knick-knacks.

The rest of this story gets kind of technical, so be warned. I soon realized that the cable box was not delivering stereo sound to the TV, at least not through the standard coaxial cable. After ruling out a variety of potential causes (audio settings, bad cables, etc) I then ran a set of RCA type audio and video cables from the color coded A/V outputs on the box to one of the TV's A/V inputs. Voila! Beautiful stereo sound.

But to do that I had to disconnect my secondary DVD player from the TV, which I didn't want to do. It also creates some other minor problems with the maze of home theater connections that are too complex to explain here.

It was late at night so I went on-line for a chat with a Comcast "technician," a clueless individual who at one point asked me to plug the coax cable into "the red port" of the cable box. This was a ridiculous request not only because the red output only carries the right audio channel, but also because it is a completely different type of connector, and quite incompatible.

After educating the "technician" on this point, he then tried to explain my problem as an account issue: He said I didn't actually have digital cable, even though I was at that moment enjoying all of its benefits.

45 minutes later I gave up and took my case to Motorola. They confirmed that the cable box, model DCH70, was perfectly capable of conveying stereo sound through the coax cable.

Armed with that I went back to Comcast, by phone this time. The maze of "press one, press two...." options led me to a dead end that I couldn't back out of. Fortunately, pressing "0" got me a real person who spoke my language and understood audio/visual jargon. He agreed to send a technician out tomorrow, which is now today.

The cable guy arrived late this afternoon. We ran through the troubleshooting steps, then he tried a new box with no improvement. Apparently this is not a hardware problem, but a software deficiency. The soft spoken but friendly cable guy suggested that this was not yet a "known issue" and that he would report it. Hopefully a software upgrade would be directly downloaded to the device in due time. OK.

Knowing that, and having successfully lived with the issue for a week and a half now, I decided I could work around it.

I'm telling you this in case you've recently switched to Comcast's free digital upgrade. If you're not getting stereo sound our of your stereo TV use the red, white, and yellow A/V outputs and plug into your TV's A/V inputs. And call Comcast to report the issue 1-800-COMCAST.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Night Owls vs. Early Birds

I've always been a night owl and late sleeper. Most of the jobs I've held in my life were night jobs. Yet I've often been subject to criticism from early birds for being lazy.

Today I feel vindicated. The Week magazine reported on research which discovered that we night owls maintain our alertness levels much longer than early birds. At 90 minutes after rising, early birds and night owls were equally alert. However, at 10.5 hours after rising (afternoon for birds, evening for owls) night owls were much better able to maintain their ability to focus and react than early birds. In short, night owls can be more productive towards the end of their day than early birds towards the end of theirs.

So there!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Town Square: Mission Aborted

A few months ago I set up a Monterey Peninsula Town Square forum, which I hoped would provide a place where local residents could engage in civil discussion on local issues. Regrettably, I am shutting it down as of today, due to a lack of interest and activity.

In looking over the site statistics, the vast majority of forum "visitors" were not even local residents, and not even human. They were spambots from Russia. Only one got through to make a post, but several more tried. If my actual human visitors, few as they were, had shown half as much interest perhaps the forum might have taken off. But it was not to be.

The rest of the Monterey Peninsula Toy Box is still in business, and I expect it to remain so for a long time to come.

I'd still like to find ways to make the Toy Box more interactive, but for now we'll have to make do with the "comments" feature of this journal.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I'm now cybersocial

I joined Facebook. After years of thinking such things were too frivolous for me, one random thought about an old friend got me wondering who I might find if I joined.

After less than 24 hours I had reconnected with half a dozen people I hadn't heard from in years. After 48 hours that number had more than doubled. I've had a nice e-mail exchange with my high school prom date.

A few months earlier I somewhat reluctantly joined LinkedIn, the businesslike version of Facebook, and found it potentially useful, but pretty dull. Facebook is just plain FUN!

Stuff like this was unheard of in the 20th Century. I'm glad I finally made it to the 21st.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Uncivilized Comments

Does anyone in cyberspace want to have a civilized discussion anymore? There was an article in the Herald of April 17th about some Monterey and Salinas area McDonald's employees suing their employer for allegedly demanding they work off the clock if they wanted to keep their jobs. Other alleged offenses were changing employee time records and requiring employees to use their vehicles on company business without mileage compensation.

The article mentioned that many McDonald's employees are immigrants who don't know the law all that well and are thus easily intimidated by their employers. That is not at all far-fetched. Heck, I've seen situations where all-American white skinned people with college degrees feel intimidated enough to work off the clock because "company policy does not permit overtime" even though there's more work to do. It does happen.

Several of the reader comments on the Herald's "Topix" forum were nothing short of racist, and others stated that the employees must be stupid. One person wrote:
"Just another ambulance chaser at work. And, the victims....well, they were fortunate to have any job at all. After this lawsuit, any employer would be afraid to hire time.....potential problems."
Yesterday I posted something more thoughtful:
"Businesses hereabouts often do intimidate employees to work off the clock, usually by a manager indicating that overtime is not allowed under company policy but still insisting that work be completed before anyone is allowed to leave. It's more common than you might think.

"According to the article, "The suit says workers were forced to work "off the clock" and had work hours shaved from their time records. It contends that workers were given inadequate time for rest and meals and were not reimbursed for using their cars to deliver supplies between restaurants."

"All of those things are illegal, but apparently that doesn't seem to concern many of you. Instead you assume the workers are illegal just because they're immigrants. I worked with legal immigrants in a local hotel for 12 years, and they were the hardest working and the most conscientious people I've ever worked with. The McDonald's employees have a every right to their day in court."
I checked that forum today and found my comment labeled with two Judge It icons, one for clueless and the other for disagree. Apparently civilized discussion isn't valued anymore.

I've been trying to establish a civilized forum for discussion of local topics. According to my web statistics, there have been numerous visitors, but almost nobody has signed up to participate. I'm beginning to think that civilized debate has gone the way of the dodo, in every sense of the word. Sigh.

Help me build a civilized discussion forum for the Monterey Peninsula at

Mr. Toy Recommends

Here's a video about my favorite news publication. I grew up with the Christian Science Monitor, and I recommend it to everyone because of its unbiased, solution-oriented approach to reporting. It doesn't just tell you what's going on, it helps you understand why. It's entirely free on the web, and you can subscribe to their portable weekly magazine.

<a href="">LinkedTube</a>

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Magic disappearing act

I've never understood why radio stations change their formats with no advance notice. One popular station, KIDD, better known as Magic 63, did just that last week, unleashing a flurry of fury from upset listeners.

Magic 63 presented an easy-listening format for a good 20 years, playing classic recordings of people like Nat King Cole, Petula Clark, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra, along with some newer artists like Diana Krall and Peter Cincotti.

When it started long ago, Magic 63 was playing the music that was popular with the 50-somethings to the 60-somethings of the day. Now that these people are in their 70s and 80s, the station has gone back to serving the 50s to 60s bracket as "Oldies 630." That is not too radical a change in my estimation, and even allows for a little overlap in the offerings.

Still, quite a few people wrote angry letters to The Herald saying they'd never listen to the new "rock & roll" format, which now features such blatantly contemporary artists as The Beatles, The Supremes, America, Bread, and Neil Diamond. Let's be clear, this is mostly not rock & roll, it's 1960's and 1970's pop and soft rock. In fact, Neal Diamond was played on Magic 63 as well as Oldies 630.

However, none of this should imply that I am pleased with the format change myself. I like '60s and 70's pop, but I also liked the easy listening stuff, too. I often listened to Magic 63 before getting out of bed because it reminded me of what my parents listened to in the morning when I was a kid. The oldies format is better for later in the day, but so is the higher fidelity of FM radio. Listening to my favorite hits of the '60s and '70s on the tinny AM band is not my cup of tea.

But the big question in my mind is why do radio station owners think it is a good business practice to make significant format changes unannounced? On day one they immediately disappoint everyone who tunes in expecting something familiar, while their intended audience doesn't have a clue that the new format even exists yet. What other business thinks it is a good idea to alienate all of their best customers, and do so without lining up new ones? It would be like walking into Safeway expecting to buy groceries, only to discover that suddenly the store is now a carpet dealer!

It truly boggles the mind. And so does this. Two of those people who wrote letters to the Herald vowed never to listen to Oldies 63. They also vowed to never patronize Oldies 63 advertisers. How will they know who is an advertiser?

Maybe there needs to be a station that plays the Looney Tunes theme.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fear of Lamb

Evidently sex sells fear even better than it sells beer. Convicted child molester James Lamb was officially released from prison a year ago, but it wasn't until last week, after two aborted attempts, that the government was able to find a home for him that satisfied the requirements of the law.

No sooner than the news broke as to his whereabouts, the neighbors came out with their knives and pitchforks demanding he be moved elsewhere. They say they can't let their children out of the house now.

Let's get real. James Lamb did some horrible things, but he's unlikely to be a danger to anyone now. First of all, he's been castrated. He's also been through ten years of treatment, he's shackled to a GPS device that monitors his whereabouts 24/7, his home is under guard, he's subject to random searches of his home, and his face has been plastered on every newscast and newspaper in the county so everyone knows who he is.

I'd feel safer living next door to James Lamb than I would living anywhere in Salinas these days. Salinas has had a drive-by gang murder almost every week this year, and no neighborhood seems to be unaffected. Salinas residents are understandably anxious, but they haven't reached the emotional feelings of panic that were unleashed when James Lamb moved in to a rural area.

Drug dealers, gang members, armed robbers, and sometimes even murderers who have served their sentences (with scant behavioral treatment) are routinely released from prison. They move back into neighborhoods where hardly anybody blinks an eye. But when someone with the label "sex offender" is released all sorts of panic ensues. It is completely irrational.

Some people say Lamb shouldn't have been released in a rural area where police patrols are infrequent and response times are slow. They may have a point, but consider that voters approved a law which makes it virtually impossible for sex offenders to live anywhere else. Be careful what you vote for, you just might get it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Unnecessary Flak

The Monterey Herald has taken a lot of flak this week for a headline in last Monday's paper. It read "Cop killer was depressed, struggling."

Apparently several people read this and thought the Herald was somehow justifying or excusing the actions of that guy in Oakland who killed four police officers last week. I didn't see it that way at all.

Making an observation is not the same as making a judgment. Making note of the killer's mental health hardly constitutes an endorsement of his behavior.

What I saw in that headline was not an excuse, but a warning that mentally ill people aren't getting the help they need. An ounce of prevention or intervention might have kept four Oakland police officers alive.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Take away their right to use Photoshop!

One of those knockoff phone books landed on our doorstep a few days ago. It's the one called "Valley Yellow Pages." I don't know whose valley they refer to, but we're on a peninsula here.

Phone books usually have a nice photo or illustration of the community contained within its pages. At first glance, this one has a nice photo of the Pacific Grove shoreline. But somebody with no sense of scale decided to blend in a separate scene of seals and sea gulls perched on a rock. The result is a rocky shoreline with seagulls larger than the trunks of mature cypress trees.

I think Valley Yellow Pages should lose their right to use Photoshop.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Thank You, PG&E

I hadn't intended to drag a PG&E lineman out to my house at 9:00 at night. It was Friday, and I noticed all of our lights were flickering again, as they had been for a little over a week. I kept making mental notes to call PG&E during the day, but since the lights weren't on during the day I kept forgetting.

Friday night I figured I would call PG&E's 24 hour service center and report it, thinking they would look into it the next day. Much to my surprise, they sent someone out almost immediately.

The repairman was a very friendly guy. After introducing himself he shut off our power, got in the bucket on top of his truck and rode it up to where our service line connected to the pole. After working for about 30 minutes in the night air he came down and said the connector had worn out and he replaced it. He said we were good for another 25 years.

Wow. I hadn't expected such prompt and courteous service, but I was certainly grateful. When our lights came back on they were glowing steadily and have remained so.

I don't remember the man's name, so I'll just say Thanks to that guy in the blue PG&E truck who came to my house on Friday the 13th.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Another BANG!

In my January 31st entry I discussed hearing occasional loud explosions around Seaside which leave no trace that they ever occurred. There was another one last night, also around 1:30AM. The police scanner indicated that it was somewhere in the eastern portion of Monterey in the vicinity of Casanova Street.

I still suspect pranksters. If anyone else is hearing these things, please leave a comment below. With enough eyes and ears maybe we can help solve the mystery.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Launching the Monterey Peninsula Town Square Forum

The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box has launched a new feature, a Town Square forum where folks like you can get together and chat about issues of the Monterey Peninsula, rate local businesses, or just shoot the breeze.

I decided to start a forum because I have always wanted to make my website more interactive. In looking around I realized there are no longer any truly local discussion forums available anymore. The Monterey County Weekly had one, but they've since dropped it in favor of comments on individual articles rather than an open discussion. The Herald has one, sort of, but it's mixed up with a national forum making local topics hard to locate.

So it seemed like a logical step. We now have an on-line forum run by a local webmaster for local residents. I intend for the Town Square to be a friendly place where each member shows respect for others, even when they disagree.

The Town Square is off to a slow start, but you can help. I invite you to go to, register as a member, and post your thoughts. Then invite your friends to join in. Before long we just might put together a thriving on-line discussion community for our community.

See you there!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Goodbye, Captain

I opened the newspaper one recent morning to find an obituary of a good friend. It was not a good way to start the day.

From 1996 to 1999 Don Nivling and I worked together providing audio/visual services in a local hotel conference facility. We became close friends and we stayed in touch. In 1999 he ditched the rat race and became self-employed as "Captain Connector," a superhero to Monterey Peninsula residents who needed help setting up and learning how to use today's modern home entertainment equipment.

Don looked and sounded like a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and a reformed hippie. But what I enjoyed most was his intricate cultural knowledge spanning everything from 1970s exploitation horror movies to the finer points of classical music.

Don taught me how to set up a champagne quality home theater on a beer budget (his words). He was a master of employing used electronic equipment that others had tossed aside for assembling thundering home entertainment systems that rivaled major concert halls.

At one point Don had a record collection that put most radio stations to shame, and he loved to play every sort of music. He loved the album art as much as the music inside.

He and I shared an interest in model trains, but when he realized he wouldn't ever have time or space to set up a proper layout, he turned over much of what he had acquired to supplement my modest in-home railroad.

A mutual friend, our former boss actually, wrote to me a few days ago and said "He was good people." Don had a heart of gold.

Curiously, the night before I discovered his obituary, I thought of Don, recalling our daily routine of going over the day's events as I was coming in to work and he was ready to "blast off." It wasn't the first time that some happy memory of a friend came to mind just before I learned they were gone.

Captain Connector blasted off for the last time on January 19th. A new star was placed into the sky that night.

Here is a link to Don Nivling's obituary.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Things that go BANG in the night.

At about 1:30 AM on Friday night, er, Saturday Morning, I was working at my computer when BANG! I was jolted out of my seat by an explosion. It sounded like a building blew up. Scared the crap out of me!

It wasn't the first time I've heard such explosions, but it was by far the loudest and closest.

Now, you're thinking, this has happened before???? Things are just blowing up???? Why isn't this in the newspaper????

To answer these in order: 1. Yes. 2. Apparently not. 3. Because these explosions leave no trace that they ever occurred.

I've been hearing these loud explosions in Seaside for several years now. They are few and far between, about once or twice a year, but they're as loud as artillery fire. They almost always occur late at night, and they seem to be happening all over the city. Sometimes they sound very close, as the one did last night. Other times they sound like they're on the opposite side of town.

After hearing this one I turned on the police scanner, as I usually do at such moments. Seaside Fire was called to investigate in my neighborhood, but found nothing. They attributed it to fireworks. I don't think so. Fireworks are a routine annoyance in Seaside, particularly in the spring and summer, so much so that we've nicknamed our city "Baghdad-by-the-bay."

But what I'm talking about is twenty times louder than any fireworks. Sometimes I'll hear a police officer report hearing the BANG. The last one several months ago was reported by multiple officers and was apparently near the north end of Sand City. Other times, like last night, the police seem oblivious, which seems odd in itself considering that these things can be heard across town.

One might consider that these explosions are electrical transformers blowing up, which make a similar sound. But transformer explosions tend to result in a power outage somewhere, and that isn't happening. So at this point I suspect these BANGS are the product of a prankster. A little internet research indicates that Seaside isnt the only place in the country that experiences these things. Apparently there are at least two ways of generating an alarming sounding explosion without leaving a trace.

One is with a device called a propane cannon, which is used in agricultural fields to scare away birds. The other method involves filling balloons with flammable gas and attaching a fuse instead of a string. The prankster will light the fuse before launching the balloons which then rise to a fair altitude over everyone's heads before going BANG. Either one of these methods would explain why Seaside police and fire can find no trace of any explosion. Unless someone is looking in just the right direction when the device shoots off, which is unlikely in the late night hours, nobody will see it happen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

I want more cheerleaders!

I'm a sports widower. I grew up with sisters and learned to cook. My wife grew up with brothers and learned to watch football, basketball, hockey, tennis, NASCAR, and ask "What's for dinner?" So I am forced to endure hour after hour of sports action on television when I'd rather be watching reruns of Star Trek and Gilligan's Island. I do enjoy Giant Spaceball (and only the Giants), a couple hours per year of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Golf Tournament, and small doses of the Olympics, but that's about as far as I go sportswise.

One thing that makes football tolerable are those hardworking NFL cheerleaders. They're very pretty, they're highly trained, and from what I understand they are paid very well.

Men, who make up the vast majority of sports fans, are generally known to enjoy looking at pretty girls. So why are NFL cheerleaders given so little screen time on TV? About the only time you see them are just before commercial breaks with corporate logos hiding their best features. What's the point of having pretty cheerleaders if you don't show them? This is madness!

It's not as if there are no opportunities to take the cameras away from the players
during football games. The cameras spend plenty of time on sweaty players on the bench with their helmets off and a paper cup in their hands, or standing around on the field between plays. Some of this time could be put to much better use by showing the cheerleaders doing what they spend hours training to do. Those fleeting two second glimpses just don't do them justice.

At least my wife is gracious enough to let me know when the cheerleaders are on, so I can look up from whatever I'm reading for a look. I count my blessings every time, because I know she loves me.