Friday, February 9, 2018

FREE, FREE, Toulouse For Death

February 9th to the 11th, 2018

The Story:
This is the third book in this action adventure series, The Sharon O’Mara Chronicles. In TOULOUSE FOR DEATH, Sharon O’Mara is asked to help a friend’s dying godfather return four magnificent Impressionist paintings; the most important a large canvas by Toulouse Lautrec, to their rightful owners. Seems simple, but O’Mara learns these paintings were stolen during the final days of World War II from a plundered Nazi treasure trove. She is now confronted, seventy years later, with horrific events that throw her back into Hitler’s obscene war against the Jews. Her efforts to return these paintings forces O’Mara to combat the New Nazi Reich in a deadly race to find a secret key hidden in Paris that may enable these international criminals to restore the Nazi’s to their former vile glory. It is a race to the death.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Toy Train for Christmas

This blog was originally posted way back in 2010 (how times have not changed). This is a story about high-speed rail in California and it had so many comments (I've reposted almost every year) for my new readers. But now, even after seven years, nothing seems to have changed and, in fact, political positions have sadly become even more locked in place as the costs continue to sky-rocket. And technologies, such as the electric car and the autonomous auto, will probably kill the thing before it can reach its potential.

We've had Governor Brown now for seven years. It it weren't for the politics (one party rule) in Sacramento, this would have died years ago. When you complain about the current state of things in Washington, just look at what we have here.

It has been slightly updated . . .

A Toy Train for Christmas

The Parts and Players:

Santa Claus (The Big Guy) – Washington D.C.

Santa’s Helpers (Men and Women in Elf Costumes) – State Governments

Billy (Good Little Boy) and Tiffany (Good Little Girl) – California, Florida, Washington State, Illinois, New York, et all

Sally (Not so Good Little Girl) –Ohio and Wisconsin

Toy Train – High Speed Rail

Our Scene:

Santa’s huge toy shop in one of the big department stores; a long line of children wait to tell Santa what they want for Christmas.

The first child climbs up on Santa’s knee with the help of one of the elves. 

      “And what’s your name little boy?”

      “Billy, Santa Claus, Billy.”

      “Have you been good?”

      “Oh yes Santa, I have been very, very good.”

      “Excellent Billy, excellent, and what do you want for Christmas?

      “Oh Santa I want an erector set to build bridges for my brother, a whole village of affordable dollhouses for my little sister, and a turkey with all the stuff and stuffing for my dad, see he’s lost his job.”

      “I’m sorry to hear about that, I’ll see what I can do. Billy, you want so much for your family and that’s good, very good, but Billy, what do you want for being so good?”

      Billy thought for a moment then turned his head to Santa with a huge smile. “Santa I want a toy train. It would be the most wonderfulous thing in the whole world, a toy train that I can play with, run the track all through my room and maybe even in the hallway. It just has to be the most special and wonderous train, all shiny and sparkly and new. And, oh, oh, Santa that would be so great and it would be real cool ‘cause none of friends would have a train like it and they all would wan’na come over and see it and play with me in my room. Please Santa, please.”

      “But Billy I gave you a set of Hot Wheels and racetrack a few years ago and a really cool airplane and terminal set last year. Aren’t they fun to play with anymore? How about a nice electric car?”

      “Nah, Santa. I broke the racetrack and the planes just aren’t any fun anymore, but a toy train would be real cool, did I say the other kids would wan’na come over and see it.”

      “Yes you did, but Billy, that is a very big toy for someone your size.”

      “No. I’m a big boy, see!” Billy puffed himself up real big.

      “Yes, I guess you are, now that you are all puffed up. Yes, Billy, Santa has to agree that you are a big boy now and can take care of such a wonderfulous toy. Santa will see what he can do. Just watch for a big ‘green’ box under your Christmas tree.”

      “Oh thank you Santa, thank you.”

      Billy, with the help of the elves (who were all smiling and singing, I've Been Working on the Railroad), climbed off Santa’s knee and slid down the slide into a huge pile of ‘green’ cotton candy. Billy was in heaven.

      The next child in line wasn’t sure about Santa, he was so big and his suit was all red and furry. The bells on all the elves (who were scurrying about still talking about the good little boy, Billy), jingled and jangled creating such a wonderous din. This all scared the little girl. When the elves helped her onto Santa’s knee, Santa wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He was afraid for his suit.

      “And what’s your name little girl?”

      “Sally,” she said quietly, still shaking.

      “That’s a pretty name, have you been a good little girl?”

      Sally thought for a moment. She looked at the Big Guy and all the elves dressed in 'green' elf costumes, 'green' cotton candy billowed all around them, it was a wonderous sight.

      “Santa, I have not been a good little girl. I have saved my lunch money and not given it to my friends at school like my teacher says I should. I used it to help my dad and I bought him a new tie, he was trying to get a job, and he did Santa, he was so happy. And I yelled at my brother when he bought some ice cream just after he had a whole mouthful of candy. So you see, I have not been a good girl.”

      “I see, yes Sally, those aren’t good things to do, you should always mind your teacher.”

      “Yes Santa.”

      “But Sally, the elves and I know you can improve and be a better human being. I just know you want something for Christmas. Billy, that fine young man, who sat on this very knee just before you; see, he's playing in the 'green' cotton candy, said all he wanted was a toy train, all shiny and sparkly and new. Wouldn’t you want a toy train? Santa has a whole box full of them at the North Pole.”

      Sally thought for another moment then looked over at the next child standing in line, her name was Tiffany. She wore a bright dress and was all smiles. 

      “Can you hurry Sally?” Tiffany demanded, stamping her shiny Mary-janes. “I just have to talk to Santa and, unlike you, I have been a very good little girl.” Even the elves could hear Tiffany’s strong Valley Girl accent.

      Sally looked back at Santa. “Santa, I really don’t want a toy train; I know that if I get it my parents will have to buy more track so that I can run it down the hallway and then I will have to get more cars and a new engine and then I will have to buy one of those fancy train stations and I will have to get a little bridge to run the train over the other tracks and then a crossing thing with arms that go up and down and then I will have to get a huge box to keep them it and besides, it will be fun for a little while, then I will get bored and want something new and then it will just sit around and be in the way and besides it will only go in a circle and not really go anywhere really fast.”

      Santa was shocked; not because she said it all in one sentence and one breath, it was because everyone wanted a toy train, that’s why he had a box full.

      “Sally, you just aren’t a very good girl; you only think of yourself and not others.”

      Sally was saddened to hear that from Santa who had always been a hero to her. 

      “Santa,” Sally said, “why don’t you give the toy train to Tiffany, she is always a good little girl and wears really nice clothes, nice shoes, has a wonderful tan, and always has a smile. I think she gives her lunch money to the teacher who uses it for good things. Yes, Tiffany is a good little girl, give her the toy train. She deserves it and besides I have heard that her parents are real rich and can buy her all the tracks and stations she wants.”

      Santa was very pleased, he had so many trains to give away and the line of good little boys and girls disappeared around the ‘green’ cotton candy mountain.

      Santa, pulled from his reverie, felt a tug on his sleeve; Sally looked up at him with her sad eyes. “Santa I really don’t want anything for myself, but if you can, my little brother wants a Red Ryder BB Rifle.”

      Santa was stunned and outraged beyond belief as to what his ears had heard. He pushed Sally slid off his knee and past all the 'green' cotton candy and watched as she crawled to the slide and started down its slippery surface. But she stopped just for second and took one last look at the Big Guy and all the wonderous elves and the piles of 'green' cotton candy and heard them exclaim ere she slid out of sight, “Sally, you’ll shoot your eye out.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Stay Tuned . . . .

Friday, June 30, 2017

The De-Malling of America

Ten years ago, before the Great Recession, I was a consultant to one of America’s largest retail shopping center owners. The stated goal was to see if we could redesign, repurpose, and reprogram the concept of their existing shopping centers to include housing. We focused on two malls, one in Southern California and another in the San Francisco Bay Area. The idea was to include during the remodel of the mall, a significant number of residential units into the property’s footprint. There was all this delicious asphalt ready for housing; all we had to do was set goals and then a direction.

The effort failed, mostly because of the collapse of the financial markets, housing, and the bankruptcy of the client. However, I still believe that these sites are gold mines for the current and on-going realignment of retail and commercial space for two good reasons.
  • 1.     The sites usually have excellent access and are at important and critical transportation nexus points.
  • 2.     In most instances the underlying dirt is either free (paid for out of the old center’s previous life) or at a substantial discount to the nearby costs of land.

Additional bonuses are that many have modern infrastructure (more or less) and willing politics. Nothing gets a city’s attention faster than a decline in sales tax revenues. It is projected that a quarter of all malls will close during the next five years.

In some instances these old malls can be rebuilt as town centers, dense residential neighborhoods, or a mix of commercial, retail (service and restaurant), housing (rental and for sale), and even transportation hubs. The old concept of single use zoning is rapidly fading and new concepts are immerging.

The greatest difficulty I found with many of these development companies is a lack of expertise and imagination. They know housing, they know retail, they know office, but they refuse to understand each other’s land uses. This has to change.

It will also require cities to change zoning and land use models. Many communities built into their General Plans a long term program that is now inflexible and counterproductive. No matter how important, it can take years to modify and codify them – this while everything around them collapses and disappears. The market place is not a kind and benevolent beast. As Ludwig von Mises said in his great book, Human Action, “The market is supreme!” Believe it!

We are discovering that now, it is often a hard slap to the face. Amazon buying Whole Foods is just one example; the real examples are the high-end retailers such as Nordstrom, fighting loosing battles to just stay alive over 6% reductions in year to year sales. Shoppers? If you want loyalty, get a puppy.

I worked for an architectural design studio back in the 1970s that focused on the newest thing in retail shopping, the “enclosed” mall. Our clients were the big boys of the day (they are still around, but certainly not the big boys they were). These new malls destroyed the old town centers and main streets of America, especially in the Midwest and the East. And now, the Internet is doing the same thing; it is a revolution that is both cultural and financial. Sure you can point a finger at Amazon, that’s easy. But in reality, it is every brick and mortar retailer who is offering their products online and with a broader selection and home delivery.

The models are changing, the way we shop is changing, what we buy is changing, and most especially why we buy is changing. Even the way we live is changing.
During the last fifty years nothing has occupied architects, urban planners, and city officials more than what will become of our cities. We have had anti-suburbanists, neo-traditionalists, urban revivalists, edge city believers, survivalists, futurists, and even blow-the-hole-thing-up-ists, telling us how cities MUST be redesigned. Most without a clue or real plan.

I remember a science fiction story from my youth where everyone lived in their own little cell, it was a nice cell, comfortable, with entertainment and all the necessities of life, and everything arrived at the door—all you had to do was ask for it. Paranoia raged, we were defensive and protective of our cell—all because we didn’t go out anymore.

Are we there yet?

Stay tuned . . . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017


I apologize for not keeping this blog up to date - too much going on, as you can see from the blog below. I will try to be better.

I promised a report on our thirty days traveling Europe from London to Spain to France and Italy. Here are my observations, and they are based on a lot of travel over the years. Except two or three western Mediterranean stops, we previously had visited most of these cities over the last twenty or more years. I could have written ten thousand words, so consider yourselves spared.

We have been traveling to England and Europe since 1989. My wife has written four books on the gardens of England, and I’ve included many of these locations in my own stories. 

Sadly, a few events happened in England while we traveled – the Manchester horror, and the killings in London’s Borough Market area (we were visited just a few days earlier). We were also there for the British snap election, the ongoing Brexit issues, and watching their media treat Prime Minister May like Donald Trump. I have to say the Prime Minister reacts with a lot more style.

Regarding the terror attacks, the British seemed resigned, stiff upper lip and all. The press rants and raves but not once did I see a serious discussion of why this is happening, which requires a difficult level of introspection. The press wrings their collective hands and interviews every politician who will sit for their cameras. It was convenient that they were still set up for the post-election interviews only days after Borough Market, and many of these same talking heads – both political and media, said the same things. 

The Shard from Borough Market - London
I think my most interesting observation is that the Moslems in London (visitors, refugees, native born) were significantly more visible than in any of the other countries we visited. Women wore their hajibschadors, and burqas everywhere. I saw no other burqas and very few hajibs anywhere else on our travels, but they were ubiquitous in London. To stroll through Harrods (owned, as I found out, by Qatari royal family), one believes they are in an Arab souk, almost to the point of intimidation. I doubt that Moslems are any less devout in Spain or Italy, but they certainly are making their collective presence known in London. England, for more than a thousand years, has gone out of its way to accommodate everyone who comes to their island. There now appears to be a very palpable wariness and weariness on the part of the English toward Muslims. I believe there are many on both sides who are very afraid, and these “rogue” attacks only heighten that fear.

London itself was extremely busy and almost chaotic, street traffic was the worst of all the cities we visited. To try and reduce the traffic, they tax you for entering the core of the city with cameras checking your license plates or something. A taxi driver said to us, “No one bloody cares, they still drive in!” The stores were crowded, young people were everywhere, the usual tourist venues were packed. The pound’s drop in value to the dollar made things, even in expensive London, more affordable to us. It was twenty-five percent higher during our last visit four years ago. 

The Ramblas in Barcelona
Barcelona was also busy and almost as crowded as London. The beaches (some of the best urban beaches in Europe) were packed, and the international tourists were in full throat and wandered in thick packs. Again the young dominated the streets and restaurants. Everywhere the Chinese (the latest mass tourist movement), moved in busloads, walked in groups, and as the Japanese of the 1990s, were everywhere. I assume that China’s travel agencies are having a great year. Many Russians and Eastern Europeans as well. There were also more families traveling together, from all countries and age groups, than I’ve seen before. Why someone would travel with children under eight years old is beyond me. Hardly the relaxing time you imagined. However, it is a sign of the world’s expansion of wealth; two travelers are expensive, but a family (often extended with relatives and grandparents) is something else again.

The Royal Princess in Cartegana
Our ship for the seven-day cruise during the middle leg of the journey (from Barcelona to Rome) was the Royal Princess. She is one of the twenty largest cruise ships in the world, and even though, at 3,500 passengers, it never seemed crowded. The smaller ships may have lower passenger counts, but there is also less ship square footage – I believe they seem more crowded. An inordinate number of our fellow cruisers were from Australia and New Zealand (it’s their winter right now). Great fun and attitudes, we seemed to have bonded with a few of the Aussies in the laundry room. I’ve never met an unhappy Australian.

We visited small cities on the Mediterranean. We docked at Cartagena, Spain and Gibraltar (still English and proud of it), Marseilles for Provence, Genoa for Northern Italy, and Livorno for Tuscany, and eventually Rome. The ship’s massive size requires significant port facilities, its one drawback for visiting smaller cities.

Cruise Travel Observations:
First off, I realize that there are many who think traveling on a cruise ship is expensive, boring, restrictive, and uncomfortable. I thought that at one time. Now, not at all. We spent far more on land costs (hotel, meals, entertainment) per day than we did on a daily basis for our cabin (which includes room, food, entertainment). If you throw in the air and land travel costs, from city to city, cruising is even less expensive. Essentially you can participate as much or as little as you want. You can engage other passengers or not. It is a wonderful hotel that travels wherever you want to go. There are hundreds, if not thousands of venues (countries, cities, historical locations), on dozens of cruise lines, at multiple price levels, that can literally take you anywhere in the world (including rivers and canals). We are hooked, try it. I’m sure that you will like it.

Gibraltar and Cartagena survive on tourists and the cruise ships. Beyond being entry ports to the inland regions of Spain and their long and important histories, today there is little else in these two cities of serious importance. Cartagena has an ancient Roman amphitheater and museum, a street of shops, and an interesting harbor. Outside of those, not much else. Gibraltar, because of its small size (3 square miles – most of it a mountain) needs to employ Spaniards from the nearby cities for its restaurants and services. We were told that the Spanish cities surrounding Gibraltar have high unemployment so this city is important to the region. The citizens of Gibraltar are concerned by the effects of Brexit – it could be significant for them. Spain is rumbling to take Gibraltar back, though I doubt it will happen. Over ninety-five percent of the residents voted to stay with Britain in a past election. Gibraltar and its famous monkey’s were on my bucket list, they are now checked off.

Portofino near Genoa
Genoa was a surprise; visually it’s a magnificent city that climbs the hills that wrap the ancient harbor. Traffic was intense and, as I found throughout Italy, seems to belie the reports that Italy is a financially sick country. The roads were busy with bright new cars, the restaurants wonderful, the trains beyond full, the people seemed happy – but what do I know. Italy is a major (if not the number one) world destination for travelers and tourists. The major cities are intense, noisy, and exciting. However, hotels are popping up that are marginal and some, absolutely god-awful terrible (we found this out in Rome and left one after one night), never believe the internet or even the reviews. Stick to the big hotels and brands – it is worth it, spend the bucks, you usually won’t regret it. Taxis are affordable, there is buses and transit in all the cities, but they are beyond crowded. Taxis, while costly, make better use of your time.

Visit Lucca; it is worth the quiet and the chance to reflect and wander a city that once was an important Roman city. During the Renaissance, it had a history of battling Florence and other of Italy’s city-states. It has surrounding defensive ramparts and earthworks that are now trails and parks, all very cool. Some famous Italian musicians and composers came from Lucca.

Rome is eternal—there I said it. Unfortunately, I grew tired of the rough cobblestones of the streets and sidewalks. The number of sprained tourist ankles has to reach the thousands every year. The buzzing of a million scooters and motorbikes, tiny cars, taxis, buses, and crowds all add to the cacophony. Everywhere there are tour guides holding up some type of flag, pompon, or number. They (yes, we did it in Lucca) all wear little radios around their necks to listen to the live commentary in their own language. Some are very good, others not so much.

The Pantheon - Rome
A fun moment was over a pizza we were having in Piazza Navona. We were in a corner bistro watching tourists – and Rome is very good for watching tourists, even if you are one yourself. Groups, one after the other, came through a nearby passage, stopped, took a breath and then collectively raised their two hands in adoration of the magnificence of what lay before them. Like a prayer was being offered to the gods that were once worshiped here. Well, actually they were all raising their phones to take a picture or a selfie. The preening and posing, especially by the girls before a selfie, is actually quite humorous – we are a very self-absorbed species, I can tell you that. Must see locations are the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, and the small neighborhoods that make up the city’s older parts—but be prepared for crowds.

The Vatican

Regarding my comments that led off this article, I saw little of the ethnic and religious posturing in Spain and Italy that I saw in England. Why I’m not sure. Italy has absorbed ten of thousands of refugees from Africa (and buried thousands that drowned trying to escape the strife of the North African nations). Every plaza and venue in Rome and Florence had well-armed police and army personnel patrolling. While there’s some petty crime, pickpocketing, and the usual gypsies, I never felt the same fear that one can get in some big American cities. Maybe it’s the swarm/school mentality of travel; in great packs of tourists you feel safer, it’s the old and wounded that get picked off.

Florence, Italy and the Arno River
Florence and Venice are delightful, but I suggest traveling in winter or early spring. Like other places, they were crowded. Food, when traveling can be hit or miss. We were lucky, and the best meals were impromptu affairs. A delightful discovery is the Padua, Italy made, Aperol aperitif. This spritzer is a bright, orange-colored aperitif, mixed with Prosecco and club soda, add an orange slice for effect. I’m a scotch drinker, but in London, we were offered an Italian martini made with Sabatini gin. That and another discovery, Vallombrosa gin, are now on my menu.

The ability to travel and see the world is a luxury we have during this brief period of world history. There were times during the last century when our adventures were almost unheard of and impossible. Today, the common person can pack up, safely and economically travel almost anywhere in the world. We met people from Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, American expats in Barcelona and a couple that spends six months a year on cruise ships. The staff on the ships and at the hotels are from dozens of countries. Conversations were often too brief, we wanted to know more.

I saw more expensive automobiles in London than anywhere else I’ve traveled. There were more Bentleys, Ferraris, Rolls Royce’s, Maybachs, Aston Martins, Porches, and other types of autos I never knew existed; we watched four (with very stupid drivers) Lamborghinis race through Hyde Park in London. The highpoint was the Bugatti Chiron (3+ million dollars) parked in front of our hotel. This is “in your face” display of wealth, and may also contribute to the tensions…just saying.

Never stop traveling, get out of your rut, look around, talk to people, eat strange food, discover gins made in Tuscany, realize that there are hundreds of types of wine out there (beyond California boring basic four kinds), and sit and watch the people. And above all, enjoy.

We traveled on a Boeing 787, an Airbus A-346 and two A-319s, sped across Italy on high-speed trains at almost 200 kph. Jumped in and out of taxis, limos, buses, escalators, elevators, ferries, water taxis, vaporetti, and our 1083-foot long cruise ship. The hotel rooms were suites and one-room disasters. The bathrooms were always an adventure; the showers, an exercise in cautionary entering and exiting. However, all were clean and very neat.

And someday, we will learn to travel light.

Bon Voyage!!