Saturday, October 22, 2011

KBOQ bites the dust....again!

You probably know by now that our local classical music station KBOQ ceased to exist as of Monday. K-BACH as the call letters were pronounced, suddenly started playing pop stuff from years past. Nothing wrong with that per se, but the same thing has come and gone from so many other stations over the years that I lost count. 

This isn't the first time KBOQ listeners were subjected to an unexpected sound coming from their clock-radios, which, by the way, is a despicable way to awaken loyal listeners on a Monday morning. Back around 1994, K-BACH listeners were suddenly knocked out of bed by the sound of heavy metal on K-ROCK. K-ROCK, we were informed, was the only way the station could continue to make money. Yet it lasted just a few months before changing formats again to a 1970s rock format. 

Within a short time local entrepreneurs revived K-BACH on another frequency with most of the original KBOQ DJs. Despite the former owner's insistence that classical was an unprofitable format, the revived K-BACH remained a steady presence on the dial while other stations changed formats as frequently as the tides. 

Then Mapleton Communications took over KBOQ. Mapleton operates a handful of local stations, including the venerable KPIG, my personal favorite. As media companies go, Mapleton is a pretty decent one. After all, a counter-culture shop like KPIG likely wouldn't last long under just any ownership. 

But when Mapleton got its hands on KBOQ things started going downhill. The station relied on a classical feed from Boston, which was basically a "classical top 40" outfit, playing mostly catchy, familiar selections and avoiding many of the richer offerings. That's when they started to lose me. 

What finally drove me away was the commercials Mapleton was running on KBOQ. They were pretty much the exact same blaring commercials that were on KPIG. Such commercials work fine between sets involving The Waybacks and Dixie Chicks, but were offensively jarring after a Vivaldi concerto. 

In the days when K-BACH was successful, the commercials were low-key and tailored to match the mood of the music. Mapleton didn't seem to grasp the importance of that. I mean, really, who is going to turn on relaxing music if they know noisy commercials are going to disrupt the whole atmosphere every fifteen minutes? Not me. 

In my humble opinion, K-BACH's demise wasn't due to a lack of interest in classical music, not here where we have two symphony orchestras and one of the most famous classical music festivals in the world. In this sophisticated community, Mapleton's line that there isn't a market for classical radio is preposterous. But I couldn't stand the obnoxious commercials anymore, and I'll bet many other people felt the same way. Like me, they probably just switched to public radio, CDs, and Music Choice on Cable TV. 

I'll bet that a local entrepeneur could lure us back with a properly run classical music station.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Who misinformed who?

A recent garbage bill included an enclosure called Monterey County Recycler - Fall 2011 Newsletter providing useful tips and helpful hints about Waste Management's curbside recycling programs. 

One section of the flyer stated that "On April 16, 2011, the Monterey Herald printed a story about recycling in Monterey County that included some incorrect and possibly unclear information about recycling for waste management customers." 

I remember that article. I specifically remember reading that Waste Management was providing curbside recycling of household batteries in all Monterey Peninsula cities served by WM - which means every city except Monterey. All one had to do was place the batteries in a plastic bag and tape it to the lid of the recycling bin where the truck drivers could easily grab it. Great, I thought, no more hauling them to a recycling station. Then I remembered seeing a bag of batteries on a neighbor's bin during my daily walk a few days earlier, and realized that others knew about this even before the Herald reported it. 

Now WM says the Herald got it wrong. The flyer states that "household battery pick-up is only offered in select areas of the unincorporated county as part of their new service package." Shoot. I still have to haul them to a collection center after all.

So the Herald must have screwed up again. Typical Herald stuff, right? WRONG! 

My attitude towards any news report is trust but verify. After reading the article I went to Waste Management's website and looked up their recycling policy for Seaside just to be sure. Lo and behold, it said exactly what the Herald said. I found the same thing for other Peninsula cities as well. The Herald story was confirmed, I believed. 

So, Waste Management, why are you faulting the Herald for repeating what was on your own website??? Take responsibility for misinforming not only the Herald, but also everyone else who visited your website, like me and my neighbor. 

Last night I noticed that the Waste Management website has been completely redesigned since I last looked in April, and it no longer offers curbside recycling of batteries in local cities. The good news, if Waste Management is to be believed this time, is that they now recycle all kinds of plastics, not just those with "chasing arrow" number codes. They'll even take plastic toys. They also accept plastic bags for recycling, along with all sorts of "film" type plastics (such as bubble wrap and plastic wrap), provided they're bundled inside a plastic bag and not just thrown in your bin loose. That makes it easy for the sorters to set them aside. As of now, the only plastic they don't allow is styrofoam.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Did local shops give up too easily?

Conventional wisdom says that when a big corporate superstore moves into town, locally owned shops can't survive the competition. Now that one of those superstores, Borders bookstore, is shutting down, I've been reflecting on this common assumption. Maybe the Big Boys aren't as invincible as many believe, and I can't help but wonder if local shops sometimes give up too easily.

Carmel's iconic Thunderbird, which was the Peninsula's largest and most popular bookstore before Borders, shut down a few years ago. If any local bookstore should have survived the competition from Borders it was the Thunderbird. It's primary customer base, Carmelites and Carmel Valleyites, are not prone to driving all the way to Seaside (the scary town, in their view) or Sand City when a more pleasant option is close at hand. But the Thunderbird's long-time owner was ready to retire. I believe it was her inability to find a suitable buyer rather than corporate competition that ultimately led to the store closing. It may be that potential buyers were afraid they couldn't out-compete Borders. What a pity, because if someone had faith, we'd still have a fair-sized bookshop on the Peninsula after Borders shuts down next week.

But at least the Thunderbird tried. Two locally owned shops actually gave up before the corporate competition even opened up. Does anyone remember H&H? It was a family owned hardware and home center that occupied the building in Seaside where Staples and Smart & Final are today. H&H was arguably the best hardware store the Peninsula ever had. They had everything you could possibly need, PLUS an extensive selection of arts and crafts supplies in the back. It was a wonderful store.

But the owners gave up shortly before Orchard Supply opened up in Sand City. News reports at the time indicated they didn't expect to survive the competition from Orchard, so they didn't even try.

Palace Stationery, an office supply shop on Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey, took the exact same attitude several years later when a McWhorters office supply opened in the former J.C. Penney building a few doors away. Palace owners assumed they couldn't survive so they shut down without even waiting to see how McWhorters would affect them. Funny thing, though, McWhorters had a very brief life in downtown Monterey before it disappeared into oblivion. I'm convinced that Palace acted too hastily because Palace Office Supply's Santa Cruz operation is still alive and thriving. It might still be in Monterey, too, had they not given up so easily.

So I've gotta admire one local business that didn't give up. When Home Depot opened in Seaside, everyone thought M&S Building Supply just down the street would be toast. Not so. Before Home Depot arrived M&S made itself more visible by painting a large red sign on their beige building indicating that they've been around dependably since 1962. More than six years later, M&S is still there and appears to be thriving.

When it comes to corporate behemoths vs. mom & pop shops, I'm thinking that the conventional wisdom may not be so wise after all. Those Goliaths aren't always as invincible as they seem.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Raccoons

The Monterey County Weekly's cover story this week was about the ever present raccoons that prowl The Peninsula. 

I remember my first encounter with a raccoon when I was three or four years old. It was at the Little Red School House, better known as Bay School, in Carmel. This was in the early 1960s. Someone brought a raccoon to show us kids. The one thing that fascinated me the most was their hands. yes, hands, not paws. They are miniature versions of human hands, complete with opposable thumbs. Interesting creatures indeed! 

Three or four years later I learned something else about raccoons. I woke up one morning to get ready for school and saw a huge smear of blood on our sliding glass door. And more blood all over the patio of our home in the forest overloooking Hatton Canyon. It was a disturbing sight to say the least. 

I asked my mother what happened. She said raccoons had attacked our dog Monty in the middle of the night. My dad had to use a shotgun to scare them off and he rushed Monty to the vet first thing in the morning. I slept right through it. 

Thus I learned that raccoons cute faces are deceptive, that they can be quite dangerous. I thought back to that cute creature with the tiny hands at school, and had some trouble reconciling that with the blood-smeared patio.

Ever since, I've had a healthy respect for raccoons. I've encountered a few over the years, and I always give them a wide berth. Sometimes they appear non-threatening and they ignore me. I met one such family about twenty years ago when I worked at the Golden Bough Cinema in Carmel. They would climb onto the roof and eat the bugs that were hiding in the shingles. Other times, they'll act more intimidating, like when they run down our driveway and one stops to stand up and say "Stay back, Mister!"

I always do.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Amazon dumps California

For the last three years I have been an affiliate advertiser for various companies, including Amazon.com. This relationship has allowed me to offer links to books, movies, and other products of local interest. In exchange I get a small commission for every sale the links generate.

On Wednesday Amazon affiliates in California were abruptly notified that due to a change in California sales tax law, all affiliate agreements involving California residents will be terminated effective immediately.

Under previous law, the state could only require on-line retailers who had a physical presence - such as a store or warehouse - in the state to collect sales taxes on sales to California residents. This set up a major imbalance between on-line retailers like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Staples, Best Buy and the like, who have actual stores in the state, and retailers that operate strictly on-line from outside the state, like Amazon. The new law simply states that California based websites that have commission agreements with sites like Amazon, gives Amazon a physical presence in the state. It levels the playing field.

But rather than cooperate with the state, and comply with the law, Amazon threw every single California affiliate overboard with less than 12 hours notice! Evidently, Amazon felt it was easier and cheaper to break business agreements with thousands of individuals than to add the necessary lines of code to their computer system to process California sales taxes. It also appears that Amazon expected their dumped affiliates to call their legislators en masse to get the law repealed.

But that didn't happen. Judging from affiliate reactions on an Amazon message board (one only accessible to affiliates - don't go looking for it) a good many California affiliates actually supported the state and were tremendously upset with Amazon. The phrase "threw us under the bus" was used by quite a few people. I was among them. I figure if other on-line retailers - many much smaller than Amazon - could collect California sales taxes, then so could Amazon. Indeed, Amazon must surely collect sales taxes in states where they do have a physical presence, like Washington, so it's not as if they can't.

This experience shows Amazon's true colors. It was their way of saying their business relationships don't mean squat. If they don't get their way they'll just take their ball and go home to mama, regardless of how important the game is to the other players.

For me, my association with Amazon wasn't particularly profitable, but it did provide a unique ability to provide Toy Box visitors with links to specific books, movies, and other products of local interest. It took a lot more effort than with my other advertising partners, but only generated about 10% of my total commissions from all sources. Still, Wednesday's news was a sudden blow, and it has taken me a couple hours of work to remove all of my Amazon links and replace them with my other advertisers.

Amazon has promised that if the situation in California changes back to their rules, I will be welcomed back into the fold. Fat chance, Amazon. Now that I've seen how you treat your business partners, there's no way in hell I will work with you again.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Paper Feud

It is a source of continual amusement to follow the ongoing feud between Paul Miller, publisher of the Carmel Pine Cone, and the editorial staff of the Monterey Herald.

Miller is well known for his right-wing conservative credentials which, he constantly reminds us, qualifies him to determine whose reporting is biased (The Herald, obviously) and whose is completely fair and objective (The Pine Cone, naturally).

In recent months, The Herald has expressed considerable concern over the management of the proposed Regional Water Project. The project would build a desalination plant in Marina and a pipeline to The Peninsula which would, once and for all, solve our decades-old water shortage. It sounds straightforward enough until you look at the bureaucratic side of the equation. 

The problems are manifold. First, the physical plant's components - intake pipes, desal plant, discharge pipes, and the Peninsula pipeline - would each be separately managed by four different agencies. The plant itself would be run by the Marina Coast Water District, a dysfunctional agency that makes the useless Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (a.k.a. the "water board") look like King Solomon by comparison. But the worst part is that while Peninsula water users would pay for the project, they would have no representation in how it is run. Instead, the Marina Coast directors, would be running the show at our expense. 

And it gets worse, as the Herald reported in detail recently. Someone with a clear conflict of interest played a major role in hiring a contractor for a major part of the work. It turns out that he was employed by both a public agency involved in the project and for said contractor at the same time!

The Herald has wisely asked that this entire mess get cleaned up before any project moves forward. Paul Miller - The Objective One - took this as undeniable proof that The Herald is biased against any water project, and said so in his editorials.

In response the Herald wrote in a June 12th editorial:
We try not to pay much attention to the quaint weekly newspaper in Carmel, but Friday's editorial begs for help. Discussing the Peninsula's need for a greatly expanded water supply, it says "the media — in particular Monterey County Weekly and The Monterey County Herald — do their best to undermine any progress toward a new water supply."
There was no elaboration, no specifics and apparently no understanding of the difference between wanting new water supplies and wanting good ones that result from logical, professional and honest processes.
This Friday, in typical Whine Cone editorial fashion, Miller took that to mean “The Pine Cone is utterly insignificant.” 

No, that's not what the Herald was saying. The Herald was speaking in jest, pushing his buttons(it worked!), and exaggerating to drive home a point. It's not the Pine Cone they consider insignificant. That little weekly does some terrific reporting. It's Miller's incessant editorial whining about The Herald that is insignificant. Really. But I'm biased. I want to know that Peninsula ratepayers will have a strong voice in how the Regional Water Project is managed, so I'm delighted that The Herald is driving that point home at every opportunity.

Miller's "unbiased" mind, on the other hand, completely ignores these serious concerns and in his latest editorial he blows them off as obstructionism:
By constantly exaggerating its costs and downplaying its benefits, The Monterey County Herald is a major obstacle toward getting a new water supply for the Monterey Peninsula, thereby damaging the people and the community the newspaper pretends to serve.
He goes on to say that the only evidence one needs to prove his point is that in a recent water board election the Herald endorsed a different candidate than he did. OMG, how horrible. 

Thus we have the latest installment of the ongoing feud between the no-growth-no-progress-know-nothing Monterey Herald and the all-wise-perfectly-innocent-unbiased Carmel Pine Cone. I still read and learn a great deal from both of them, but these days I read the Pine Cone's editorial page mostly just for laughs. 

Be sure to read my earlier installment on this feud in my August 16, 2008 entry entitled Carmel Whine Cone.
 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To Eternity, but not From Here.

Perhaps the most significant on-screen kissing scene was when Snoopy smacked Lucy straight on the lips, causing her to run around screaming for disinfectant. But for some reason the scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, lying on a sandy beach as a wave washes over their entwined bodies, gets all the attention. Go figure.

The movie was 1953s From Here To Eternity which has long been on the official list of movies containing scenes shot on or near the Monterey Peninsula. It's a melodramatic depiction of the lives of soldiers and women in Hawaii just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 

Interestingly, residents of Oahu and residents of Monterey County both lay claim to the beach where the kissing scene was filmed. Hawaiians proudly promote Halona Cove on the southeast side of Oahu as "Eternity Beach" because they say the scene was shot right there. Monterey County residents like to boast that the Hawaiians are mistaken because Pfeiffer Beach (some say Garrapata Beach) in Big Sur was the site of the illicit tryst.

How can that be?

An article in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Carmel Magazine explained that the scene was originally filmed in Hawaii, but the director didn't like the lighting and he decided to re-shoot the scene. It was too expensive to return to Oahu so he chose a much shorter trip to Big Sur where the final version of the scene was put in the can. "It happened here, in Big Sur" the article emphatically proclaimed. 

Unfortunately, Carmel Magazine was wrong, and I have proof. Take a look at these two video stills (you may click on them to see larger versions):

Exhibit A: Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity.
Source:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1W6AGM-LxGY


Exhibit B: Halona Cove in Hawaii
Source:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4iaUY_ZkHc


Notice the rock formation just above Deborah Kerr's head. Although it is kind of fuzzy, it is clearly a match for the rock in the upper right of the lower photo. Note the slope is steeper on the right side than the left side, and the points on the left side are visible in both. The rock shows up twice in the movie scene, proving unmistakably that the scene was shot in Hawaii, not Big Sur. 


Other portions of the scene, which I am unable to show here, clearly show a guardrail on the cliff above the beach, indicating the presence of a road very close by. Google satellite maps show a road directly above Halona Cove. Pfeiffer Beach, however, has no roads above it, and the only road leading to it stops well short of the beach. Furthermore, the rocks in the scene do not quite resemble the craggy granite found on the Monterey County coastline. 

There may very well have been some production activity related to the movie in Big Sur. Most legends contain some element of truth. Doug Lumsden of Monterey Movie Tours said in a recent e-mail:
There are oldtimers in Big Sur who swear they saw Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach with the entire film crew for two days. I don’t think there’s any question that some sort of filming was done for that scene in our area, but we’ll probably never know the entire story. All the principals have died and the real answer will probably never be known.
A few possibilities come to mind. Perhaps the entire scene was re-shot in Big Sur, but the director ultimately decided the Hawaiian footage worked best after all. Or maybe portions of footage shot in Big Sur were edited in with the Hawaiian footage to make a complete scene. Or perhaps Big Sur was used to make some publicity shots that were never intended to be in the film itself. At this point we can only speculate.

Since there is still reason to believe that something between Here and Eternity happened on Monterey County shores, we'll keep the movie on our list for now. It's only fair, because another movie on the list, 1987's Blind Date also had scenes shot in our area that never made the final cut.

But I hereby declare that our local myth, which says the famous beach kissing scene as shown on-screen was really shot in Big Sur, is officially BUSTED!

Monday, April 11, 2011

"The Death & Life of Monterey Bay"

Sunday's Monterey Herald published the last installment of an excellent local history book called The Death & Life of Monterey Bay. Over the last several months I have been avidly following the saga of how our community's relationship with the bay evolved over the past few centuries from reckless abuse to loving respect.

If you only read one local history book in your lifetime, this should be it. I've read a few, and this is by far the most fascinating and engaging of them all. The authors form a palpable link between the places we know and love today and long-forgotten (until now) events of the past. Along the way we meet a host of colorful characters, like Julia Platt, a feisty Pagrovian who managed to make protection of offshore ecology official city policy, which in turn helped the bay recover from decades of abuse by the sardine industry. We also learned about the friendship between Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck, and Joseph Campbell before they became famous. And because the narrative takes place in locations we are intimately familiar with, it is not hard to imagine ourselves witnessing the events in our imaginations as if we were really there. 

More importantly, The book's lessons of the consequences of ecological exploitation and the benefits of environmental protection are applicable to environmental issues everywhere, so it's not just for fans of Monterey.

The Death & Life of Monterey Bay is available at local bookstores.

Friday, March 18, 2011

When more means less

With much fanfare KSBW TV in Salinas is rolling out its newest product line. In addition to their regular NBC programming on channel 8 (Comcast cable channel 6) they will soon be adding ABC programming on digital channel 8.2 beginning April 18th. Channel 8.2, which KSBW used until recently to provide round-the-clock weather reports, will move from cable channel 186 to channel 7.

Until now ABC programming has come to the Monterey Peninsula on cable channel 7 from KGO TV channel 7 in San Francisco. In addition to the ABC programs, we have been able to enjoy excellent San Francisco Bay Area news reporting and original content like 7 Live in the afternoons, things that KSBW is not equipped to provide. 

KSBW has been spinning this change as a great opportunity for Monterey County. For the first time since San Jose lost its ABC affiliate, ABC programs will now be available over the air locally. That's great for the relatively few people who still use rabbit ears. For most of us who use cable or satellite, it is a clear loss.

KSBW has nothing to compare with KGO's excellent bay area and state capitol news reporting, 7 On Your Side consumer advocacy, or the aforementioned 7 Live, which covers everything from the tech industry to entertainment to consumer news in a friendly afternoon talk-show format.

In place of 7 Live we get a game show. In place of KGO News we'll simply get a duplication of Dan and Erin on two channels instead of one. There's nothing wrong, mind you, with Dan and Erin. They're part of the best news team in Monterey County. But we don't need them cloned.

In an e-mail to me today, KSBW President and General Manager Joseph Heston spun my concerns thusly: "In each TV market, there's one network affilate for each network (LA, NYC, SF, Chicago, etc).  The local affiliate for ABC here will now be Central Coast ABC on channel 8.2 (channel 7 on Comcast and satellite).  The "plus" is that if you were watching Dancing with the Stars on KGO and a local fire, tsunami, or tornedo [sic](like today) happened down here, you'd never know; now you will, since KSBW Action News 8 will provide news for the new station.  Best regards and thanks for writing. Joe Heston, President."

Such spin may sound good to Joe, but his obvious lack of consideration for my point of view is disappointing to say the least. So in these next few weeks whenever you hear KSBW boasting that we're getting more, remember that by taking away a bay area news source they're really giving us less.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Angry 4 ARTS

There was an article in Friday's Monterey Herald about groups promoting special California license plates that help fund the arts. In exchange for a higher vehicle license fee you get plates with a pretty picture and a good feeling knowing you're supporting something worthwhile.

The story reminded me of something that happened back in the mid 1990s when these plates were first introduced. I was working as the assistant manager at the Crossroads Cinemas in Carmel. We had a small display promoting the arts plates on a counter in the lobby. It held brochures that enabled people to order the new plates from the DMV. The front of the brochure had a picture of a sample plate with "4 ARTS" as the plate number.

Seeing this, a woman brought the brochure to me and asked if she could get license plates that had "4 ARTS" on them. I explained that every plate had to have a unique combination of numbers and letters, so probably not.

Well, she threw a fit and accused us of false advertising. Mind you, we were just providing display space, and our company was not directly marketing the plates. She didn't care, in her eyes we were accomplices. She insisted that we remove the display immediately because the DMV shouldn't put a sample plate on the brochure cover if that specific plate wasn't available to her. It was misleading, deceptive, and probably illegal. No amount of reasoning - I said they had to put something on there as an example - could placate her. She was on a crusade, and I was as stubborm corporate mule who couldn't see what a fraud this was.

She finally gave up on me, convinced I was a lost cause. But the license plates are not. If you support the arts, they certainly need your help these days. If you can afford the special plates, get a pair for your car today.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Strangling Carmel to death

The February 11 Carmel Pine Cone reported that the Pilgrim's Way bookshop on Dolores Street had attempted to brighten up their storefront only to bring the aesthetics police to their door. This skinny little independent bookshop felt that their business was difficult to notice and needed a little boost to catch people's eyes. They decided to repaint with a “tan-ish orange” hue, topped with a nice textured topcoat of a somewhat brighter color to catch the eyes of passers by.

But the planning commission came along and said “No” to the faux finish and pointed out that city regulations require storefronts to have “muted” colors that “blend with the natural surroundings.” In other words, don't stand out from the crowd.

This incident reminds me of another one a few years back when a motel owner made a simple little fence out of posts with a rope strung between them. The city decreed that it looked too “industrial” and ordered the rope replaced with common wooden rails.

I know these regulations are intended to protect Carmel's image, keep the commercial district from looking too urban, discourage tasteless designs, and prevent the invasion of formulaic corporate architecture. In short, to keep Carmel Carmelish. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, but Carmel's rules have become so rigid, so locked into its own design formulas, that they have stifled the very sort of creativity that made Carmel a unique village in the first place.

Starting in the 1980s, when pricey galleries and tacky T-shirt shops began crowding out mom and pop stores, stricter regulations were enacted to preserve Carmel's way of life. In reality, however, those rules have changed Carmel so radically that today's regulators would throw hissy fits if anyone tried to bring back the things that once made Carmel a real town.

Back in the '60s Dolores Street had a movie theater, a hardware store, and a sleazy tavern. On the SE corner of 7th there was a modern bank with bright yellow tile covering the facade from sidewalk to roof. Speaking of bright facades, Kips grocery on the NW corner of Ocean and San Carlos was painted bright green on both street-facing sides. That building is now plain vanilla.

Ocean Avenue had a fabric shop, a hobby shop, and a barber shop in a block that was anchored by Sprouse-Reitz, a chain variety store. Believe it or not, the townsfolk begged the corporate owners to keep the “dime store” open when the company left town in the mid 1980s. Across the street was an ice cream parlor with purple and white striped awnings over arched windows. Next door, on the corner of the block, was a Chevron station, one of seven service stations (as they were then called) up and down San Carlos. The only one that survives is the Shell station at 5th, but at 6th there was a 76 station (NW corner) and a Phillips 66 (NE). At 7th there was a Texaco station (NE), a Mobil station (NW) and a Ritchfield – later called ARCO - station (SW) where my dad bought tires once. Full-color corporate logos adorned every one of them, mostly on metal or wooden signs, scaled down to Carmel-appropriate proportions.

On Mission and 6th, where the library annex stands today, there was a small supermarket of the Purity chain, complete with automatic electric doors. On the opposite side of Devendorf Park, at the entrance to Carmel Plaza, Sambo's pancake house, a popular chain restaurant, served their famous tiger butter with every meal. And down across from the Pine Inn, my dad had a candy store with the name “Toy's Candyland” emblazoned in red and white striped letters on the storefront advertising his hand-made candies, popcorn and Cecil's ice cream. While it caused a stir among the town's more conservative residents, the law saw no need to intervene. Years after the store was gone, people were still coming up to us telling us how much they missed it. 

Friends Lois and Chris Robinson outside my dad's store at
Ocean and Monte Verde in the early 1960s
That was the real Carmel. Few of those businesses would be allowed now, much less their facades. Today's Carmel is so locked into its formulas that visitors often come away with the impression that it's an artificial town, manufactured to look cute just for them – and their money – like Disneyland without the rides.

I have tremendous love for Carmel's quirky and sacred traditions, and I have spoken out from time to time to protect them. But this notion that Carmel must look picture postcard perfect from every conceivable angle is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is just as disruptive to Carmel's character as standardized corporate chain store architecture would be, precisely because it is itself a form of standardization.

There's a fine line between protection and overprotection and it was crossed sometime in the last twenty years. Architectural review and historic preservation are important, but it's time to put some slack in the reins. Just as you have to let children at some point define their lives on their own terms, Carmel needs to let its community members express their creativity in their own way. Business owners need to respect their surroundings, but they also need the freedom to run their businesses and maintain the appearance of their shops as they, not the bureaucrats, think best.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What I've learned about smart meters

I learned some more about Smart Meters over this past week, and I'm no more comfortable with them than I was before. PG&E held an open house in Seaside last Wednesday. The people who were there were friendly and explained their program fairly well despite my surly attitude going in. The two impressions I came away with were that they really wanted to get this right, but that the company is acting too overconfident for my comfort.

As a technological innovation, smart meters are definitely cool. The things they can do now and will be able to do in the future certainly make a strong case for their deployment. However, some of the smart meter features can also be obtained with over the counter products, so smart meters aren't essential for consumers to monitor their own energy usage. 

PG&E is promoting these devices to the public on coolness alone. It worked for the iPhone, right? Well, not everyone is sold on the iPhone, either, and nobody is forced to buy one. It is clear now that PG&E grossly underestimated the public's suspicions of smart meter technology. Worse, by making smart meter installation rapid and compulsory for all PG&E customers, people feel imposed upon in a very un-American, Big Brother fashion. (Note to PG&E: People resent that - think Tea Party.)

It doesn't help
that PG&E downplays people's concerns. The two biggest worries are whether the meters' wireless transmissions may cause health problems and the challenges of maintaining a secure wireless network that contains private data.

On the health issue,
it is clear from reading the technical data that the RF (radio frequency) transmissions from individual smart meters is incredibly low, as low as or even lower than many other common RF devices. The meters use these transmissions to send your electric and gas usage to PG&E primarily for billing purposes.

According to all of the data provided by PG&E, the power level of these transmissions is way below the maximum exposure levels allowed by the FCC. However, I notice the scientific documents provided by PG&E only reference power levels at a given moment in time, and the maximum exposure over the course of a day from individual meters or other individual transmitters in the system. PG&E's studies do not discuss the cumulative impacts of blanketing entire cities with these transmissions from thousands of new sources, nor do they discuss any potential long-term effects of same over the many decades they will be operating. I also notice the studies do not address the effects transmissions may have on much smaller creatures, such as birds and other wildlife.

Isn't this the sort of thing that would normally require and Environmental Impact Report?

While signal strength is one issue, a related one is how frequently smart meters make transmissions. PG&E says meters do not transmit constantly, but intermittently, and ever so briefly - transmissions last just a few thousandths of a second. They say a given meter compiles usage data every hour, and transmits the data every four hours. But because individual meter transmitters have such low power, they can't all reach the company's access points. So each meter also acts as a relay for other meters, sometimes thousands of them. So while each meter only transmits its own data every four hours it can be relaying data from other meters anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times per hour, which means a transmission rate somewhere between every four to forty seconds. Technically speaking, that may be "intermittent" but to most of us that would be considered "constant."

A report was prepared by Richard Tell Associates, Inc. for PG&E on this subject. It states "The actual duty cycle of the meter transmitters will only be known once the system is in place and statistics can be obtained on its operation...." In other words, we do not know how often meters will actually be transmitting until after the meter network is fully in service.

If PG&E itself cannot determine such basic information, why are these meters being deployed statewide in such a hurry before all the facts are known? If these things don't work as advertised, we could have a statewide nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, there's another problem. Sending data wirelessly means that anyone can intercept it without being detected. Should a hacker decipher the information, and it's more a matter of when than if, a hacker might disrupt power to individual homes, to entire neighborhoods, or even determine who is home and who isn't. And what's to stop a foreign government from monitoring and analyzing PG&E's transmissions? Hackers from some undetermined government managed to create a worm called Stuxnet that reportedly disrupted Iran's nuclear program and set it back a full year. If hackers can do that to a supposedly secure government program, how hard would it be to disrupt a wirelessly managed power grid?

PG&E seemed particularly overconfident
on the security issues, which scared the hell out of me.

Now, I'm not an expert.
Maybe my concerns are overblown and smart meters are the greatest invention since the transformer. But what's the hurry? Why deploy these things statewide before really knowing how these things work in real-world conditions? Let's demand that PG&E put the brakes on this technology long enough for the public to be sure it's safe, secure, and really in our best interests.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Seaside to discuss Smart Meters

In my last entry I noted that Monterey will be discussing a possible ban on PG&E's Smart Meters on Tuesday, February 1st. 

I just learned that Seaside will be discussing Smart Meters at its next city council meeting on Thursday, February 3rd.

If this concerns you, write your city councils a letter or show up at the meetings and let your views be known.


Monterey to consider Smart Meter ban

I thought my readers might like to know that the Monterey City Council will consider a ban on PG&E's so-called "Smart Meters" at the February 1 city council meeting. I hope other local jurisdictions will do the same.

Click HERE to see a copy of the city staff report and proposed ordinances.

My concerns about smart meters are as follows:
  1. They record data about your personal habits by recording when you use electricity and gas minute by minute. As I understand it, there are at present no safeguards on how that data may be used.
  2. PG&E is likely to use the information to charge you more for gas and electricity during certain hours of the day.
  3. The data is transmitted wirelessly from your meter to PG&E and can be intercepted by hackers who could use the data to determine when you are home or away. 
  4. The data will also be available on PG&E's website, supposedly only to the customer who resides at a given residence. However, this data could also be hacked. 
  5. Wireless data can also be corrupted by radio interference from other sources, such as cell phones and other wireless devices, possibly resulting in erroneous billing.
  6. Some people have expressed concern about the health effects of adding tens of thousands of wireless devices to every city in the state. Some say RF (radio frequency) radiation can cause anxiety, sleeping problems, and other disorders in sensitive persons. Even if only one person out of a thousand is affected, that would still harm well over 100 Monterey Peninsula residents who would be unable to escape their effects. 
According to the latest information on PG&E's website, Smart Meters are scheduled to be installed on the Peninsula beginning in April. This is two months earlier than reported by PG&E last month. However, local news reports and the Monterey city staff report indicates that installation may begin as early as February. It's all very unclear.

I used to think PG&E was a reputable company, but events over the past year (gas explosion, reports of poor record keeping, diverted safety funds, the self-serving Proposition 16 PG&E had on last June's ballot, and forced introduction of smart meters) have destroyed my trust in the company. Personally, I plan to lock my garden gate, and not allow PG&E access to install a smart meter.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Only a bureaucrat could make this excuse

I took a look tonight at the City of Monterey's latest version of the new Waterfront Master Plan. My primary interest, as an advocate of rail transportation, is to see that the legal railroad right-of-way (which includes the historic passenger depot near Fisherman's Wharf) is properly used in accord with the city's agreement with Caltrans. This agreement requires the city to actively support the reestablishment of rail service between Monterey and San Francisco. To that end, the city must keep the former Southern Pacific railroad right-of-way available for that purpose, or other other transit uses, such as light rail.

I also have a strong interest in historic preservation. Fortunately the city is dedicated to preserving and restoring the passenger depot building. Unfortunately, Monterey has in recent years grown reluctant to fulfill its obligations to support the return of passenger rail service. This has become increasingly evident in Monterey's waterfront planning process.

When I read the last page of the waterfront plan, I was dumbfounded to find this explanation as to why city planners did not want to use the passenger depot as a terminal for TAMC's proposed light rail service. Under the category of Alternatives Considered (and rejected) it said:

"Light Rail Terminal Station at Passenger Depot: 
This location is too close to the gateway, too visually
prominent, and may detract from showcasing the
historic Passenger Depot."


Read that again. How exactly does using a passenger depot as a passenger depot "detract from showcasing the passenger depot"?

Sorry, Monterey Planning Department, but that just doesn't fly, not from a transportation perspective and certainly  not from a historic preservation perspective. Using the depot for its designed purpose would enhance its status as a historic resource. Indeed, any other use would detract from its historic function and remove the building from its historic context.

To be fair, the planners preferred to place the light rail station near the maritime museum. The alleged advantage here is that it would be slightly closer to downtown, but only by two or three hundred feet. As a practical matter, that's not significant.

If the city really wants to showcase the historic passenger depot, don't convert it to a restaurant, or make it into yet another lifeless museum. Use it as what it is, a passenger depot!


Monday, January 3, 2011

Clover is not a weed

"We must look deep into realism instead of accepting only the outward sense of things." -Mary Baker Eddy

One learns interesting things when one does a little research.

Fifty years ago the presence of clover in one's lawn was the sign of a good gardener. In those days, grass seed was actually sold with about 5% clover seed in the mix. Why? because grass needs nitrogen in the soil to grow thick, healthy, and green while clover has the magical property of taking nitrogen out of the air and putting it into the soil. Clover and grass are a perfect match for each other.

But the grass seed makers also made fertilizer. They figured that they could sell more fertilizer if they took the clover out of the grass seed mixes. So when people's lawns started looking bad the neighbors would repeat the new suburban mantra "You need to add nitrogen." So homeowners trotted off to the garden shop and bought bag after bag of nitrogen fertilizer.

Then a new weedkiller came out on the market, one that only killed broadleaf plants including clover, but not grass. The lawn seed/fertilizer/weed killer manufacturers then hit upon a brilliant idea: classify clover as a weed to sell more weedkiller! So homeowners spotting clover in their lawns dutifully obeyed and bought bottle after bottle of broadleaf weedkiller to kill the very thing that would make their lawns grow healthy.

Monocultures, places where only one thing grows, are not self-sustaining. A monoculture lawn requires tons of labor and expense, while a lawn with clover requires far less of either. But when people are made to believe that a good thing is bad, they will toil mightily against their own self-interest.

The clover lawn story I have presented here is not only a fascinating story in itself, it is also representative of how many things in our economic and political culture works. One must ask, in how many other ways are we being deceived by those who will be enriched by our ignorance?