Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Doesn't hold water.

I have a small book called “Gumpisms” which is a collection of sayings by the movie character Forrest Gump. My favorite Gumpism (sanitized by me for your protection) says “Keep your B.S. detector in good working order.” That's good advice, particularly when reading the propaganda being put forth by our private utility companies of late. I've written about PG&E's B.S. in the past, and now it's time to take on Cal-Am, our water company.

An insert in our latest water bill attempts to explain away a sudden rash in inexplicably high water bills that some customers are getting. We're talking about bills that suddenly jump from under $50 to a couple thousand dollars with no detectable explanation. Cal-Am is blowing these spikes off as unrepaired leaks, even when licensed plumbers can find no leaks. One likely culprit, according to this flyer, is toilet leaks. Here's what they said:
“By far, the most common source of lost water in a home results from a leaky toilet. And unlike a broken irrigation line, it rarely leaves a trace. That's because all the water leaks back down into the drain unnoticed and can waste more than three gallons a minute. This can add up quickly.

“Let's say you have a modest leak at one gallon per minute. That's 1,440 gallons per day and more than 43,000 gallons a month. Add that to the water you're already using and you could be facing a very high water bill as a result. There's no puddle, no water damage and worst of all, toilet leaks are often intermittent which means they may be overlooked by a plumber.”
This sounds plausible because there is an element of truth to this. Toilet leaks are indeed very common. Chances are very good that you've had one within the past couple of years. Most likely someone on your block has a toilet leak right now, though it's not costing thousands of dollars.

But when they say that toilet leaks leave no trace, their logic starts to get murky. This is true only of the oldest toilets still in use. With old toilets, if water trickles out of the tank, the fill valve would open ever so slightly and refill the tank at the same slow rate, making no noise. But modern water-saving toilets, those made in the last 25 years and which nearly all of us have by now, are designed to alert us to leaks. The fill valve opens up only after the water level in the tank drops an inch or so, thus turning on the water full blast so you can hear it running. If you hear the toilet running and you haven't flushed it, that's the alert signal that you have a leak. So unless you have an very old toilet, leaks do, in fact, leave an audible trace that all but the hard of hearing can detect.

As we read on, Cal-Am's numbers on toilet leaks start to venture into fantasyland. Typical toilet leaks release a few gallons per day, an amount that won't add more than a few dollars to your monthly bill, as it has done to ours from time to time. The one gallon per minute leak in Cal-Am's example is not “modest” by any means. Unless you're on vacation, you'd notice it pretty quickly because you'd not only hear your toilet running almost constantly, you'd probably see the water running into the bowl as well. Furthermore, you'd notice that your toilet won't always flush properly because the tank would be half empty half the time. At three gallons per minute (a gallon every twenty seconds) water would be rapidly rushing through the bowl. You'd have to be blind, deaf, and thoroughly stupid to let that run more than a minute, much less a full month!

Finally, Cal-Am insults the plumbing profession by asserting that they will overlook intermittent leaks. This sounds like an excuse to dismiss reports that plumbers have inspected the homes of people with spiked bills and found no leaks. An experienced plumber would certainly consider this possibility and provide dye tablets to their customers to place in the toilet tank. If the dye shows up in the bowl without flushing, even after the plumber has left, you'll know you have a toilet leak. You can also do this yourself with dye tablets from the hardware store, or just ordinary food coloring.

So when Cal-Am tells customers that thousand-dollar water bills are caused by toilet leaks, their argument just doesn't hold water.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lawsuits I expect to see.

Now that Samsung has to pay Apple a bazillion dollars for allegedly copying Apple's rectangular phone with rounded corners, a number of other companies have no doubt realized they can now sue their competitors for anything that bears a resemblance to their own products. I expect we'll soon see other lawsuits such as....
  • Ford suing GM, Chrysler, and Toyota for mounting their cars on four wheels like Ford does.
  • GM countersueing Ford for stealing their idea of putting a radio in the dashboard.
  • Post suing Kellogg's for stealing the idea of mixing sugar coated raisins with bran flakes.
  • Kleenex suing Scotties for stealing the idea of interlacing tissues to keep them popping up out of the box.
  • The Sunshine Cookie people suing Nabisco for stealing their idea of placing vanilla cream between two round chocolate wafers.
  • Boeing suing Airbus for copying their idea of mounting jet engines on each wing.
  • Aerospatiale suing Boeing for stealing their idea for mounting jet engines on the rear of the plane's fuselage.
  • Webster suing American Heritage for stealing the idea of listing words in the dictionary in alphabetical order.
  • John Kerry suing Mitt Romney for copying Kerry's strategy of being for something before he was against it.
  • The Republican Party suing the Deomcratic Party for stealing the idea of making false statements in attack ads.
Now that the precedent has been set, these sorts of lawsuits are inevitable.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Quote of the week

Nothing in Carmel is ever simple. There's been an ongoing debate over a plan to replace decades old porto-potties at the south end of Carmel beach with real rest rooms. Just when we thought the problem had been solved and designs were approved, neighbors came out with machetes and pitchforks demanding that the plans be scaled back.

So a special joint meeting of the city council, planning commission, and the hired architect, was held, according to the August 10th Carmel Pine Cone, and a most bizarre discussion ensued.

The architect was told to redesign the rest rooms to be small, simple, and at the same time "world class." He was further instructed that those were not contradictory concepts. 

One nearby resident said she and her neighbors had decided that the facilities should only include toilets, but not sinks for hand washing. Their reason being that a knee-high faucet (used for washing feet and dogs) already existed on the nearby beach stairway, making sinks unnecessary. One must assume these folks don't think it's all that important to wash after using the toilet. (Public health advisory: Steer clear of Carmel's southern beach-area residents when they want to shake hands!)

After further debate about size, shape, landscaping, etc., etc. one woman stood up and said “I’m assuming we want people to use this, so there’s got to be some way for them to recognize it’s a freaking bathroom, right?”

I'm glad there was at least one person there who had their head screwed on right.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A pocket guide to local water politics.

Is anyone besides me having trouble keeping track of the diverse cast of agencies trying to solve our water problems? Based solely on what I read in the newspapers, here are what I understand to be the major players in the ongoing failure to secure a legal and sustainable water supply for the Monterey Peninsula.

The State which decreed that we must stop most of the pumping of water from the Carmel River aquifer by 2016 or else.

Voters, who in 1993 and 1995 rejected not one, but two water supply projects which would have solved the problem long ago.

A Water Board which has been unable to come up with any significant solutions since voters rejected both of the projects it developed in the 1990s.

A neighboring Water District that is still licking its wounds after failing to take control of The Peninsula's water supply by pretending to be the agency that would save The Peninsula from the ineffective Water Board.

A County Board of Supervisors which has arbitrarily decided that any desalination plant in the county must be publicly owned.

A Private Water Company that is responsible for providing water to The Peninsula. After several failed attempts to work with public agencies, it has decided to ignore the county ban on private desalination plants and build one anyway.

A Prominent Local Businessman who claims he can build a desalination plant much cheaper than the Private Water Company.

A City Council that has taken it upon itself to be the public agency responsible for the Prominent Local Businessman's project even though it would be built in another community twenty miles outside its jurisdiction.

A variety of grassroots citizen groups and business associations, each of which say they have the answers if we just listen to them and not those other groups.

A Water Authority composed of a group of mayors from every city on The Peninsula determined to make sense of this mess, a process that looks more and more like herding cats.

So there you have it. There are too many cooks in the kitchen. If we can't get this list whittled down to one lead agency pretty darn fast we're gonna be toast.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The right words

From the very first days of The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box the following quote has served as our introduction:

"In six days God created the Heavens and the Earth. On the seventh He made the Monterey Peninsula."

I first heard words to that effect one weekend long ago while watching the Bing Crosby Pro-Am Golf Tournament (now called the AT&T tournament) on TV. I didn't know if the announcers were quoting someone or had just made it up on the spot. But the words, or at least the general message, stuck in my mind and it seemed appropriate to put it on the Toy Box home page from day one.

The quote remained untouched for the last fourteen years and eleven months. It is now touched. A couple weeks ago a visitor to the Toy Box kindly informed me that the original quote was from Cal Brown, and was first written in a Golf Digest article. It was later re-quoted in the 1974 book Great Golf Courses of the World by William H. Davis. The correct quotation is:

"In the Bible it says that God made the world in six days and on the seventh, rested. But I think that on the seventh day he created the Monterey Peninsula."

Giving credit where it is due, I have now posted the correct original quotation, accompanied by Cal's good name, where my illegitimate version previously stood.

Cal Brown certainly had the right idea. I understand that he had several golf books to his name, including one called The Golf Courses of the Monterey Peninsula, which, evidently, he was somewhat familiar with.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Get the Golden State Theater back on track

During the 1980s there was a movement to construct a major performing arts center on the Monterey Peninsula. It was thought that that a theater of about 1,500 seats would be optimal. The concept had widespread support, and several locations were considered, but each proposal encountered significant hurdles that appeared insurmountable.

On July 23, 1989 I had a letter published in the Monterey Herald suggesting that Monterey's State Theater, as it was known in its days as a movie house, be purchased and restored for use as The Peninsula's performing arts center. I pointed out that the facility already existed, was originally designed to handle both live performances and motion pictures, and could seat 1,200. It was not quite as large as what people were hoping for, but arguably close enough. Numerous letters followed from others supporting the idea. Soon, a grassroots movement developed and the State Theater Preservation Group was born. I served on its board for nine years.

With the cooperation of United Artists, then the theater's owner, STPG arranged for the installation of Tom DeLay's Wurlitzer pipe organ and we produced several sold-out benefit shows in the theater. We also helped bring the building under the protection of the city's historic preservation ordinance. As a result of our work public enthusiasm grew rapidly. Unfortunately, there were disagreements within our ranks and a splinter group began working in competition with STPG. They ultimately met with Warren Dewey who had cash in hand to buy the theater just as STPG was making financial arrangements to make a purchase offer of its own.

It looked like Dewey saved everyone a lot of legwork. However, I had doubts as to whether he could keep the theater running for the long term. Funding and operating a performing arts facility is hard enough. Restoring and maintaining a historic building is a similarly demanding task. The combination is a lot for one person to take on, much less keep up with.

Time has demonstrated that my concerns were valid. Dewey turned over operations to a church a few years ago, and the theater has hosted very few public events since that time. Worse, a recent electrical fire has completely shut down the theater for an undetermined period. It didn't have to be this way.

STPG intended to set up a non-profit corporation to handle fundraising and operations. This sort of business arrangement has proven successful in historic theaters all across the country, including Carmel's Sunset Center. Such organizations are self perpetuating, and not dependent on any particular individual.

We also planned a multi-million dollar top to bottom renovation, including complete electrical upgrades (which likely would have prevented the fire), seismic retrofitting (which, to my knowledge, still needs to be done), modernized stage equipment, and restoration of architectural details in accord with the Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic preservation. To this end, we were consulting with an architectural and engineering firm that specialized in historic theater restorations, and we expected to engage them or a similar company in the project if we were able to acquire the theater.

For now, the community should make every effort to support and assist Warren Dewey's efforts to reopen the Golden State Theater as quickly as possible for a much-needed boost to the downtown economy. For the long term, I hope he will work with community leaders to develop a stable management structure for the theater so that this irreplaceable treasure may continue as “The Show Place of the Peninsula” for at least another 86 years.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Endorsing without endorsing.

Oh what fun it is to follow the ongoing feud between Paul Miller at the Carmel Pine Cone and the other local papers.

In this week's edtorial good old Paul informs us, with an air of moral superiority, that the Pine Cone doesn't make election endorsements. He says voters are perfectly capable of making decisions without being told by a newspaper editor how to vote.

So Miller doesn't endorse anyone. Not directly, anyway. Instead of making a case for a particular candidate as the Monterey Herald and Monterey County Weekly do, Miller did it sort of obliquely by analyzing the endorsements of those other local papers. This way he has made his preferences known without formally endorsing anyone. At the same time, he gets to engage in his favorite pastime, bashing the local "liberal" media. Two birds, one stone!

Oh, Paul, you actually think you're being clever. That's so adorable.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Can PG charge a tax on a sale made in Monterey?

The April 27th Carmel Pine Cone reports that the city of Pacific Grove wants to charge a $1.00 tax on every admission ticket sold at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The city's reasoning is that it needs the revenue (as all cities do these days), and that the aquarium has a presence in the city that affects PG's infrastructure and tidal zone. All well and good so far.

However, only 20 percent of the aquarium building is actually in Pacific Grove, the rest is in Monterey. It is worth noting that actual ticket sales occur on the Monterey side of the building, not in Pacific Grove. So my question is can a city impose a tax on a financial transaction that occurs in another city? Just wondering.

Addendum: The PG city council rejected the proposed tax at its May 2 council meeting. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to drive away local customers

I find it troubling that nearly all of the candidates for mayor and city council of Carmel are endorsing some form of paid parking. And this time, they're not only talking about putting up meters or ticket kiosks in the business district, but along the beachfront as well.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I can't think of any more effective way for Carmel to drive away local customers than to adopt paid parking!

City leaders are attempting to soften the blow by saying that Carmel residents would be exempt; they'd get a special bumper sticker immunizing them from the parking police. They forget, however, that the vast majority of local shoppers live outside the one square mile Carmel city limits. Local shoppers live in a much larger territory stretching from Marina to Big Sur. Those of us who live in this area shop in Carmel because we like to, not because we have to. Is Carmel really prepared to risk losing all of us? Can Carmel's resident-serving businesses survive on city residents alone? 

Carmel needs to remember the competition. Almost every shopping area from the Carmel River to the Salinas River provides free parking. Residents in the unincorporated areas surrounding Carmel will almost certainly take the money they now spend in Carmel to the shopping centers at the mouth of Carmel Valley. Residents of other areas on The Peninsula will skip Carmel altogether and go to Monterey or Pacific Grove. I certainly would! Why would I want to shop in Carmel when I can park free anywhere else? 

If Carmel adopts paid parking the remaining resident-serving businesses there will shrivel up and die. Tourist-serving shops will thrive, because after coming all this way to see Carmel tourists will pay the price. This is exactly what happens on Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row, the only other areas of The Peninsula that don't provide free parking.

So if Carmel wants to become just another tourist trap like Cannery Row, the surest way accomplishing that would be to adopt paid parking!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

We're not like Europe

"We're not like Europe" is a phrase I've heard a lot in recent years. It seems to have become the standard excuse for not getting things done in this country.

Take health care, for example. Pretty much everybody in Europe, rich or poor, is covered by some sort of health care program, and they spend about half as much per capita on health care as we do. It may not be perfect, no humanly organized system is, but it seems to work pretty well overall. Yet for some reason we can't do it here because "We're not like Europe." European health care, we're sternly told, is a heartless socialist program, and we're not socialists, so we can't do it here.

Or how about intercity rail transportation? Europeans enjoy a wonderful system - a mix of modern high speed trains between major cities along with scores of conventional trains serving smaller communities. These enable people to travel quickly, comfortably, and reliably from town to town, skipping the hectic freeways, saving fuel, and saving money at the gas pump. And their trains run on time, too. Many people ask why we can't have that here. "We're not like Europe," we're told. These naysayers argue that we don't have the same population density as Europe, as if that were the sole factor that determines a rail network's success, so we can't do it here.

The latest such insult to my intelligence came to me recently from a PG&E representative. Before I explain, a little background information is in order.

Almost a year ago PG&E was in the midst of a massive public relations campaign to educate wary customers about their new smart meters. Recognizing that some customers were concerned about the safety and security of the wireless data transmissions of these new meters, PG&E told me personally, and formally testified before the Seaside City Council, that the company was pursuing a wired smart meter option for such customers.

However, PG&E never followed through on that plan, and has now given us only one alternative to wireless smart meters: Keep your analog meter and pay a hefty fee for the privilege of having peace of mind. Being disappointed by this turn of events, I called PG&E's smart meter information line and asked what happened to the wired meter program. "I've never heard of it," the nice lady explained, but she was happy to pass my question along to persons higher up.

About a week later a gentleman from PG&E called to explain why wired smart meters won't work here. Yup, you guessed it! He used the ol' "We're not like Europe" excuse on me. He had a well rehearsed statement about how our line voltage is different here than in Europe, as if that somehow made a difference. It was bullshit and I called him on it. I explained that Idaho Power installed wired smart meters for all of their customers, and last I heard Idaho was not in Europe. I also explained how Idaho's meters worked, and offered one or two alternative ways they might also work. He stammered and said "I did not know that."

When people use the excuse "We're not like Europe," I don't know if they're being deliberately misleading or are merely ignorant people who lean too heavily on cliches when forming their opinions. I suspect, however, there are some of each in the mix. Either way, they are standing in the way of progress. 

There are no technical or economic reasons why we can't have universal health care, decent train systems, wired smart meters, or anything else the Europeans do well. The problem is that a substantial portion of Americans are so emotionally attached to their particular ideologies that they can't put them aside to get the job done. Their attitude is that if it can't be done a certain way, it can't (or even shouldn't) be done at all. In that respect, though, they're right about one thing: We're definitely not like Europe.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Contrails over Monterey

On Tuesday afternoon I was listening to former KGO talk show host Bill Wattenburg, who has found a new home on KSCO in Santa Cruz. For those who don't know, Dr. Bill often talks about science stuff, because he's a famous scientist and engineer. He had a couple of kooky callers who insisted that jet contrails are a government conspiracy to destroy our lives. They called them "chemtrails" and these people claim that these normal vapor trails that form in the heat of jet exhaust are actually loaded with chemicals designed to make us sick.

The Monterey Peninsula is actually a fertile breeding ground for these theories. In fact, every day large numbers of jet contrails can be seen over Monterey, coming from over the ocean from the Northwest, and headed towards the Southeast. Evidently, some folks can't understand why so many planes would be flying from what appears to be nowhere into California. It must be a sinister government plot!

Long before
I ever heard of these conspiracy theories, I noticed the same thing. Binoculars revealed that almost all of the planes were Boeing 747s. And when the light is hitting them just right, I can sometimes make out the airline markings. But where were they coming from? There's nothing out there in the ocean Northwest of here.

Or is there?

It so happened that the front of our then-apartment faced almost perfectly towards the North. This made it really easy to look up and estimate the approximate angle the planes were coming in. I then immediately consulted my trusty globe, which I acquired when I was 19 by cashing in my S&H Green Stamps. I put my finger over Monterey, and traced my finger Northwest at roughly the same angle as the planes flying in over our heads. My finger arched up and over the Pacific Ocean, following a Great Circle, and I found my finger arriving squarely on Japan.

I then returned to Monterey
and traced a line in the opposite direction and landed less than half an inch later upon Los Angeles. How interesting! It turns out that Monterey is almost in a direct line between Japan and Los Angeles! What we're almost certainly seeing are flights between Tokyo and LA. That would explain why the planes are almost always 747s, which are best suited to such long overseas flights.

You can do this yourself,
but you need a globe. The rules of geometry are different on a spherical surface than a flat surface. If you try it on a flat map you'll end up somewhere in Western Canada or even Nowhere Alaska, where government conspiracies are hatched. I suspect the conspiracy theorists started with a flat map, if they looked at one at all, and jumped to conclusions.

More recently,
I noticed a contrail coming over Monterey from the Southwest, more West than South actually. The plane passed over our house and headed slightly Northeast. OK, I asked, what's out that way? Hawaii, which surprised me, because I figured the angle would be farther south. And in the other direction? Denver and Chicago, take your pick.

So, we're in line
between Honolulu and Denver and Chicago as well as a line between Tokyo and Los Angeles. That's why we see lots of contrails over Monterey. We're really at the crossroads of the world. Who knew?