I was born and raised in rural Australia but started moving about at the age of 20, chasing construction projects and have since lived all over the country - in Melbourne, near Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, many local towns and the "Australian Outback" with a few overseas places thrown in. This included about 3 years in Vietnam. But I really wasn't prepared for just how big LA actually is. When you consider that one city, Los Angeles, population has about 14 million people and the entire population of Australia is around 20 million people, you can see why I thought this.
Although I have visited big cities before and I can remember visiting Tokyo around 15 years ago for about a month on a 'study tour' facilitated between a local college and an engineering college in Tokyo, who reciprocated year on year with their students visiting Oz. Aside from the taste of rice wine, sake and that you could buy beer from vending machines on almost every street, what I can remember most of Tokyo, with its 12.4 million people was how big the city seemed when we flew in at night and how busy the subway system got. From the plane, the lights seemed to go forever and travelling the subway the expression 'wave or wall of people' is easy to experience if you try walking against the flow of a disembarking subway train. Tokyo is a city which goes mostly up (and down with its excellent subway system) with skyscrapers and high rise, high density living, whereas LA is incredibly spread out and trumps the footprint of Tokyo by a large margin. LA is a city set up for driving everywhere, a city of carparks and roads where the car parks take up almost as much space on prime real estate as the buildings they serve.
This makes the Los Angeles metropolitan area, with roughly 1.8 cars per person, the world’s most car-populated urban sprawl in the world.
There are more cars in California than people in any of the other states of the United States. The Los Angeles freeway system handles over twelve million cars on a daily basis.
My flight landed early in the morning, and after paying for the second time for a shuttle bus (gotta love travel agent stuff ups), I got dropped off at my Anaheim hotel around 9am in the morning. The first thing I found out was that check in time for hotels in the US, if they do not have a cleaned room immediately available, is 3pm. So after a flight of 12 hours, catching little sleep on the plane, and dressed in jeans and a jacket, unfortunately I was unable to catch a few minutes shut eye, take a shower or even get changed and freshen up.
My hotel was just over from Disneyland, so to fill in the 6 hours or so until I could get into my room, I decided to go over for a look. By the time I arrived at the Disneyland gates after a 15 minute walk, I was wondering why everyone else was wearing shorts and light clothing... except me. From the hotel I was staying in there was a courtesy bus available, but as I could see the rides of Disneyland across the eight lanes of road and it looked close enough, I figured it would only be a five minute walk and that people catching the bus might be just taking it extra easy on their holiday. However this was something I'd learn later on - nobody walks in LA, it is just too big and too far to get around.
View from the front of my Hotel to Disneyland
When I walked over to Disneyland the sky was overcast it seemed and a relatively cool wind was blowing so I figured I was dressed OK - what I had not yet learned was that overcast was what is known in LA as the “Marine layer” which lifts or burns off as midday approaches.
A semi-permanent area of high pressure dominates the eastern Pacific from May through October. That feature helps prevailing onshore winds trap ocean-cooled air throughout the metro area in summer. This "marine layer" lowers temperatures, raises humidity and helps form low clouds and fog near the coast during overnight and morning hours.
Disneyland I found to be at least 10 times bigger than I'd imagined. I spent more than 6 hours getting around trying to see as much as possible stopping to go on only a few rides. The Tom Morrow and other robots and electronics at Innoventions and I think it was a Yamaha instrument music display probably my favorite part, as being both a robotics programmer at one point and growing up playing in school Rock bands, both held a particular personal interest for me.
Being able to have 3 kids picked at random from the audience, completely unknown as to their musical capabilties, produce some semblance of an in time, in tune version of a song from the Lion King, is pretty impressive.
I didn't have a video camera, but I was able to find two videos taken by proud parents of this display at Innoventions to give an idea, albeit a little difficult to watch, of what I am talking about. One kid on guitar, another on the electronic drums.
In experienced hands equipment like the electronic drum pads, keyboard and stringless guitar could be made to do some pretty impressive things. Although, I must be getting old as I think I am from the 'old school of thought' in this regard, where I learnt the hard way studying Mel Bay and Carcassi and guitar books from Berkeley. So whether the kids were instant musical prodigies is a matter of opinion. I'm sure their parents thought they were which is a good thing if followed through on. Plus 'in the right hands' nowadays, with computerized everything, may just mean a champion at 'Guitar Hero', not actually someone who is yet able to play a Fender Stratocaster or Maton acoustic.
Since I got home I have seen a segment on TV promoting the Beatles Rock Band Game, so I guess the future of music which was on display at Innoventions at Disney is here, now.
Posters in a shop window just off Sunset Boulevard
Walking back to the hotel about 5 pm I realized I'd been sunburnt by the harsh LA sun. I live in a very sunny area of Australia, but LA's heat and UV once the marine layer lifts is something else and prompted me, after the fact, to buy some sunblock on my way back. Although it only took me about 15 minutes to make it to Disneyland from the hotel, I lost my bearings on the way back finding myself wandering the streets of Anaheim around the massive park for a good 90 minutes before I found the original hotel I'd walked through to get into the park. This was not such a bad thing though as it made me appreciate something about Anaheim, and in fact most of LA, that is the extraordinarily clean streets and very well tended gardens. An after school job as a teenager for me was as a garden center or plant nursery worker, I know the effort that goes into maintaining a great garden and so appreciate seeing well tended gardens with not a blade of grass or leaf out of place. As big as it was, in the case of LA, Americans take good care of their cities.
The following day, my first full day in the United States, I was booked on a bus tour of LA and Hollywood 'star' homes. The tour was booked to give me an idea of LA and surrounds, as I would eventually be spending about 9 days in LA. So this tour was more to orientate myself with the city, not so much to see the homes of the rich and famous which I didn't really have much interest in. But as it turned out, this part of the trip was actually one of the most interesting. The bus driver gave us a lot of history associated with LA which was pretty informative. She talked about Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo being the first to land at San Diego, mentioned even that the first European, the same guy credited with Australias discovery, Captain James Cook, also mapped the Californian Coastline.
The first European to explore the California coast was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing for the Spanish Crown. He landed on September 28, 1542 at San Diego Bay, claiming what he thought was the Island of California for Spain.
Captain James Cook, FRS RN (7 November [O.S. 27 October] 1728 – 14 February 1779), was a British explorer, navigator and cartographer, ultimately rising to the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy. Cook was the first to map Newfoundland prior to making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean during which he achieved the first European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands as well as the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand...
He explored and mapped the coast from California all the way to the Bering Strait, on the way identifying what came to be known as Cook Inlet in Alaska. It has been said that, in a single visit, Cook charted the majority of the North American northwest coastline on world maps for the first time, determined the extent of Alaska and closed the gaps in Russian (from the West) and Spanish (from the South) exploratory probes of the Northern limits of the Pacific.
The bus driver also told us how important to California's development, the large immigrant population had been which had come over during the Gold Rush.
The Gold Rush resulted in massive foreign immigration to California from virtually every area of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. At first, immigrants were accepted by almost everyone, as land, gold, and other resources were plentiful.
But even back then there was considerable intolerance.
As those resources became less abundant, however, a minority of white racists played on miners' fears of foreign competition and came to dominate the legislature, setting up barriers to foreign immigrants. While some immigrants left, many others persisted, and set the stage for the vast cultural diversity seen in California today.
... as soon as the civilian legislature came along in 1850, a minority of racist white miners, who feared competition with foreign immigrants, influenced the government to abandon laissez-faire and institute the Foreign Miners Tax.
As soon as I got on the bus, a young lady travelling alone, who had just arrived from Orlando and sitting just in front of me on the bus turned around and introduced herself. She said she was visiting to see if LA was a place she would like to move to for work and to live. We chatted most of the day and had lunch together at a Mexican restaurant in the Kodak theater with another girl we'd met from Australia who was also travelling alone on the same bus. The number of Mexican restaurants in So-Cal was a fairly distinct difference from Australia, as where I am from back home I'd suggest no-one would consider refried beans as a breakfast food. This nice young lady took my photo at the Bee Gees sidewalk star on Hollywood Boulevard which my old man might get a kick out of. Sometimes I am sure he thinks he is a long lost Bee Gees brother after he has had a couple of beers, as he is pretty good at singing all the old Bee Gees songs word for word.
During the tour we visited Santa Monica beach and the pier, Hollywood Hills, Pacific Pallisades, Brentwood and Bel Air, Amalfi Drive and the Kodak theater where they hold the Academy awards. As far as houses go the driver pointed out a large 10 acre estate which she explained belonged to Arnold Swarzenegger, who she then went on to tell us is not that appreciated at the moment in California. She told us that Joan Collins, Demi Moore, Jack Black, Sly Stallone and Tom Hanks have homes close to each other, with Bill Cosby and Steve Martin across the road from each other. That Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler live next door to each other.
We went past Riviera Golf Club where I am sure she said he coaches but when I checked that Tiger Woods has never won the tournament there. We had the Gettys museum and UCLA pointed out to us. Saw where Nick Cage, Al Pacino supposedly live, Leonardo Di Caprio's new place with Clint Eastwood a near neighbor. Were shown where Hughes playboy mansion is along with homes of Michael Jackson and Elvis eerily opposite each other. And Mick Jagger and Matt Damon also live on the same street. Now I can't really say for sure whether this tour guide was just coming up with names of famous people and pointing out houses, but I will say it was an interesting tour and she certainly did 'spin a good yarn'. In fact she told us she was also a casting agent in Hollywood and kept singling me out asking which soap show I was from on Australian TV.
The tour guide talked about how California had one of the largest agricultural and dairy industries, had a massive oil boom which drove a lot of growth in the area.
LA is a great, big freeway," go the words to the song. It is also one of the world’s great oil provinces, with historical oil extraction over the past 110 years of something near 9 billion barrels, and still counting. This volume easily places the oil production from the Los Angeles Basin in the ranks of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (near 10 billion barrels), and about 50% greater than the East Texas field (about 6 billion barrels).
The guide touched on the creation of the gated community of Bel-Air where a lot of famous people now reside and discussed how oil money had a hand in its creation as an exclusive estate at a time when there was some animosity directed at the oil barons. Now I have tried to find some more information on this, as it seemed like an important part of LA's history with oil money being responsible for much of California's wealth and growth, however the best I could find was a short interview about Upton Sinclair and a movie I will talk about in a future diary.
Los Angeles during the 1920s was a laboratory of the future. It was the first city created to serve the needs of the automobile -- it's where the car culture was born. And for a brief period, it was the center of world oil production.
We stopped mid afternoon at the Los Angeles Music Center plaza and I took a photo of the fountain in the square, however was much more interested in the solar roof carpark which had been installed across the road at the department of water and power. I think all cities should look at ideas like this as it is an excellent use of urban space.
We all went our seperate ways at the end of the tour with a few of us being dropped at the Universal Studios to wait for a bus back to Anaheim. I filled the 1 ½ hours here with a few beers at a wild west saloon bar.
The following day I decided to venture out and see if I could get out to a place called Lancaster via public transport. As Americans drive on the wrong side of the road (in Australia we drive on the correct side, the left hand side of the road), I was not keen on trying to drive around LA, nor did I have enough loose cash to pay for a taxi out to the area as Lancaster from Anaheim is a long, long way. So I did a Google map search to find that the guys at Google had created yet another excellent free tool which allows people from LA to get directions to their destination via public transport.
Check it out here.
This had me at the correct bus stop at the correct time and on time to catch a train at the metrolink railway station at Anaheim. The ticket machines are not so self explanatory, but someone was kind enough to help me here. What I wasn't prepared for is how much security there is at a Metrolink train station. At each entry point to the platforms were two security staff stopping people to check their bags and person, with another couple of guards patrolling the platform. After a while, this probably does provide peace of mind and is a necessary thing on the metrolink, but it was one of the few times a striking difference between our countries has made me a little nervous. The reason being it brings the prospects of what can happen right to the front of your thoughts.
The Metrolink train line finished at Union Station where I had an hour or so to kill before the train to Lancaster was due. So I walked the streets of LA finding an underground mall and had a scrambled egg breakfast. I took a few photos of Union Station and what I think is the LA courthouse right in front of where a number of homeless people were pushing their possessions, their homes and furniture around in shopping trolleys they had borrowed. Then boarded the train to Lancaster.
From the bus to the double decker train to Union Station, through to the train to Lancaster, I have to say I never felt worried, or threatened by anyone. Finding my way was easy thanks to Google maps, people went out of their way to help and the train was one of the cleanest, well air conditioned, comfortable, reasonably priced metro systems I've been on. With limited bias, I'd say on par or slightly better than the city or suburban trains in Sydney, Australia (not so much other capitals). It was a very scenic trip out to Lancaster through the mountains. Below are a few pictures of the landscape from the train heading out to Lancaster.
My trip to Lancaster was for a reason - to visit a brand new thermal Solar installation being built by a company called E-Solar. Note : I'll leave the plant visit and pix for the end of this diary.
When I got off the train at the end of the line at Lancaster I thought I would need a cab to get to the E-Solar plant. According to my recollections of the Google map it was only a couple of miles to the plant. I told a cab driver the address and asked whether he knew where the plant was.
He pointed me up the road and seemed to think I could walk, without a cab, to the street I had quoted. However, I think he misinterpreted my Australian accent (our G's and J's must sound the same) and I ended up walking in the wrong direction for half a mile or so. After not seeing the E-Solar towers I knew should be there, I stopped at a Mexican restaurant on the main road, ordered a coke and asked the young lady serving if she'd seen a solar plant with lots of mirrors and towers on the road we were on.
She didn't seem to know, but started a conversation in Spanish with her two Aunts who worked in the kitchen out back. After much discussion and after I'd finished my second coke, we finally figured out I'd have to walk back to the train station, catch a cab and go the other way to that which I was walking.
The original cab driver was gone, so I checked with another one if he could take me to the streets I mentioned and pointed in the general direction, and jumped in the cab. My intent from Lancaster was to check out the E-Solar plant, which we did (see the end of this diary) take a few photos and then have the cab driver take me to Palmdale 15 – 20 miles away to check out what I thought was the E-Solar factory.
On the way to Palmdale, the driver who was more conversant in Spanish than English told me that the road I wanted to visit was not being found by his GPS. Once again the family social knowledge network went into overdrive. As had happened getting directions from the two Aunts and their niece back at the Mexican restaurant in Lancaster, this cab driver rang three of his friends or relatives in succession to try to see if their phone-a-friend directions would get us close to the E-Solar Palmdale building. One of the home contestants came through with the goods, and I was able to take a couple of photos and figure out what I think the E-Solar building located in Palmdale purpose was.
The cab driver dropped me off at the Palmdale railway station for a couple of hours wait before the next train back to Union station and connection to Anaheim was due.
I've told the next story before in a couple of comments but will relate it again here as it was probably the strongest good memory of this day.
Being on lots of planes, buses, trains and automobiles, I bought a book before departing Australia called "Dreams from my Father". I wont go into the book in this diary, as I would hope most Americans have taken the time to read the book as it is about the life of your President. I am very aware of the polarization within American society in relation to this president, and have been concerned that carrying this book around may start a conversation with someone who decides to start an argument. Not something I seek, particularly on vacation, so I often also carried a newspaper to hold the book in so no one could read the cover.
As my wait for the train from Palmdale back to LA Union Station was about 2 hours, I let down a bit of my guard and I returned to reading the book openly in public.
An African American young adult about 15 or 16 or so sat down with his sister opposite me on the train benches. He had the obligatory baseball cap, short sleeved tank top and tatoos on both arms.
He must have seen what I was reading as he said something I missed but I looked up to see him and his sister staring at me. His sister then said, "my brother wants to know what that book is like".
He again said something to his sister and she added "do you think we could have a look at it?".
So I handed over the book which she read the back cover in about 20-30 seconds, he took a little longer, maybe 2-3 minutes.
He then asked me where I'd purchased it. I told him Australia but maybe Barnes and Noble sells it in the US.
If I had not been marking the book up for the passages I want to come back to, likely in another diary, I'd have given the book to this guy on the spot because it is a life changing story.
To me it was a demonstration of the change which is possible when a teenager with tatts on his arm asks his sister to ask a stranger to look at his book because he is genuinely interested in what the President of the United States had to say about his life.
If I had been quicker I'd have figured out to ask for their email address and I'd send it to them when I was back in Australia, but I somehow suspect that he has by now gotten hold of a copy of the book and is reading it as we speak.
Why I thought about this exchange all the way home was because not only did this young man talk to a stranger he would otherwise have no reason to, but he also changed my perspective on having any concern about reading this book in public areas. This interaction in some small way made us both think a little differently about the world. And that possibly it is through an accumulation of these small changes in the way we think which may be cause enough to at least keep trying to reach out to others. Because if we think differently about these things eventually we will act differently towards each other. Maybe it is possible for civility and tolerance without fear between neighbors, between all Americans, to be something everyone respects, if experiences like this are actually do occur.
Later that evening after returning to the Anaheim hotel, I decided to turn on the television. It was automatically tuned to Fox with Sean Hannity and something he had labelled the 'Great American Panel'. He had on three guests including Rickey Medlocke from Lynryrd Skynyrd, the new CEO of Greenpeace, Phil Radford and a Republian Strategist, Noelle Nikpour.
As is the current debate, the discussion went to health care reform. With the guests that agreed with Sean Hannity's position that Medicare for all is some form of social evil, Sean was courteous and polite. However, preconception of his guest from Greenpeace had seriously tainted Sean's capacity to be even the slightest bit impartial and he was impolite, insulting and I would have to say disrespectful towards the man from Greenpeace.
Go to the 2:10 mark for where Sean goes after Phil labelling him a 'you Liberals'.
This interview ruined the day for me. I had arrived home believing in the capacity of Americans, to be considerate, helpful, kind, generous and respectful to others, particularly strangers and here was someone from Fox News spewing venomous talking points at a guest for no other reason than he was the leader of an environmental organisation. Trying to get Phil to admit to being a 'Liberal' as if there was something to be ashamed of, something there that made this American less than the other members on that panel. It made me wonder whatever happened to the American ideal that if you study hard, work hard you can achieve great things. I would say becoming the international president of a sustainable environmental organisation qualifies as a decent aspiration. Particularly achieving this position at age 33.
So what annoyed me most is this – Sean Hannity it seems does not want people to believe they should pursue great things, things which are important to them, that they should not try to achieve, particularly if it can be construed that it may be a career that is doing something to improve our living environment. It appeared to me that Sean Hannity does not respect generosity of spirit, that there is something wrong with this concept, that trying to do something good for the environment means that you have no positions worth respecting, that you should not be heard but talked over and at all times ridiculed.
This interview and the way he treated Phil Radford in comparison to his other guests, made me realize something, Sean Hannity, but more specifically, Fox News proved they want to destroy the concept of the American dream - The one that says that 'if you work hard at something which is important to you in America, you can be whatever you want to be'.
What ever happened to respecting achievement, no matter the political spectrum it had come from?
As Grassroots Director, it was Phil's vision and leadership that built Greenpeace's $9 million Grassroots Program and our cutting edge online to on-the-ground organizing, as well as a robust student organizing and training program and the national street and door-to-door canvass program. "Greenpeace is the organization that works with people rather than paper," Phil says. For many years, Phil was leading the team that was out in the field, talking to the people, gaining their support, and building stronger alliances for the environmental movement to march onward.
Maybe to some people, this will seem thin skinned, but at the time I wanted to throw something at the television. It just didn't sit well with me. Sean Hannity and Fox News did not reflect the reality on the ground. Where people were just trying to get on with life, make things better for themselves. Not existing only to find things to criticize relentlessly , judging people on a sound bite not their entire character and contribution they have made to make the world better, complaining about everything wrong with America without trying to find realistic solutions.
For the remainder of this trip I decided to pay special attention to the two messages, the one that I saw and interacted with on the ground such as the story about the waitress in the Mexican restaurant getting her family to help me find the place I wanted to get to, the taxi driver drawing on his social network to do the same or the teenager asking about the book his President wrote. Contrast this with the intolerance on television for other Americas, for the President, the incitement to hatred coming from Fox News. I am a tourist in America and this one segment made me feel bad for Americans, that you have to have these people going out of their way with the express intent of tearing down other people. Only one of these Americas would any rational, caring human being, those just wanting to get on with living a productive life which contributes to the well being of a community and Americans, ever wish to be a part of.
Fox News is creating an intolerant society with shows like this.
For those who have not read any of my other diaries, I am a control system commissioning technician and have spent many years in control rooms on all sorts of process plants, mainly power stations, getting them operating for the first time. One of the things I have been trying to ascertain over the past few years is whether burning the stuff that comes out of the ground, be it coal, gas or oil is the only way we can obtain electricity. Whether cost competitive, renewable or sustainable means of electricity production is feasible. Whether it is possible to meet our energy needs without consuming finite and polluting resources.
So part of my trip to the US was to see what newer technologies were out there, which if scaled up could make a dent in the fossil fuel/electricity co-dependence model we currently operate under and have done for a hundred years plus.
The E-Solar plant at Lancaster was one such plant I wanted to see for myself whether this was for real or just a whole lot of great PR.
Backed by venture capital, a major utility and Google, the E-Solar concept design is a modular solar thermal plant with a field of heliostats or moving mirrors, reflecting and concentrating sunlight onto a nominated target. Working on the premise of approximately 1MW of generation per 1,000 homes, the first plant E-Solar have built, a 5MW pilot plant, should be capable of providing enough electricity for 5,000 homes when fully operational.
The first plant comprises 24,000 mirrors, according to the NY Times and Fox Business network, and began operation in August. Below is a picture with reference to the NY Times article from 6 July where E-Solar programmers have programmed the mirrors to form a patter which looks like the US flag and the continents.... or the statue of Liberty.... or Jimi Hendrix?
E-Solar have teamed with NRG and appointed Fluor Corp, a major industrial plant design and construction firm, to design the first modular 46MW plant. Each 46MW block will consist of 16 towers and mirrors spread over 200 acres. The process itself replaces the fuel heated boiler component of an ordinary power station with a sun/solar heated boiler. NRG will operate up to 11 plants throughout the SW of the United States as they would 'coal fired' power stations without the 'coal fired' component.
Coming up on Tuesday 29 September is a National Geographic "World's Toughest Fixes" episode featuring the tower assembly, mirror tracking and alignment programming and turbine installation.
Link to a promo video of this episode can be found here.
E-Solar have also struck a deal with an Indian technology firm, ACME, to build, own and operate up to 1,000 Megawatts in India over the next few years with the first 100 MW getting started on later this year.
So to get those figures into perspective, that is 1,500 Megawatts of generation capacity and if we add those 3 zeros again to the MW part, we get total homes covered as 1.5 Million homes. But the Indian homes capable of being supplied with this technology, will likely be much higher than 1.5 Million as per capita, Indians use much less energy than the average US citizen.
My visit was at the very start of August. I had contacted E-Solar and had originally intended visiting their Pasadena offices, but when I started researching whether they had an operational plant, the Lancaster facility returned a search and it was a spur of the moment decision to test out LA's public transport and see if I could make it out into the desert unscathed.
Here are my photos of the site. All have been reduced to a small size, but are bigger on my website.
The first 3 shots show the boiler towers and what appear to be secondary frame towers. There appeared to be no piping to these secondary towers and yet there were a lot of them. The mirrors were pointed both at the boiler towers, the big ones, and the smaller structures. I have a theory on the smaller towers and sent the theory through to the E-Solar PR email address, but did not receive a confirmation whether the purpose of the smaller towers was correct or not. I'll come back to my theory in another diary.
The second 3 photos show the Sierra Tower constructors as well as the power block. The power block being the place where the steam and water side of a rankine cycle turbine alternator set come together and where the power comes out. From what I could gather, it appeared the condensor cooling will be evaporative air cooled. But I could be wrong and couldn't walk the site to confirm this.
The last 3 shots show the expansion of the site with the construction already underway on the smaller towers. And of course the office/warehouse in Palmdale which I had suspected was a factory, but now think more likely a distribution point and possibly design and administration office. The office is in what appears to be a new technology park with some other high tech neighbors. Lockheed Martin one of the other major tenants so there are some big names in the area.
So first impressions were that there are two distinctly different Americas. One where people are trying to get along, doing what they need to make a dollar, people learning something new, talking with other people without expecting to be judged, and where new technologies are providing jobs and opportunity through new industries into the future.
And the other one being created by the media, Fox News, the direct opposite of the above.
As a tourist, in fact as a human being, I prefer the first America, thats the place I'd be happy to call home.