Orphan Vacuum


Another in an occasional series on the orphan vacuums of Berkeley. In these parts, this seems to be the most often abandoned home appliance. Every so often you encounter a microwave oven or iron left out on the street, and unwanted computer monitors are regular curbside finds, too. But vacuums keep turning up. This one graced the streetside lawn strip along Monterey Avenue not too long ago.

As with some previous finds, this specimen hails from the Hoover clan of fine vacuums. Hoover, hailing from the days when the United States was, no doubt, a world center of vacuum cleaner manufacturing. Cogitating on the picture, I wondered whether anyone keeps statistics on cast-off appliances–how many household machines and helpers large and small wind up in landfills every year? I looked briefly and found nothing. My mind then turned to vacuum cleaner production. Someone must keep track of vacuum cleaner manufacturing here and abroad.

Oh, do they.

“Household Vacuum Cleaner Manufacturing” has its own category number in the U.S. Census Bureau’s North American Industry Classification System (it’s 335212, if you want a truly arcane fact to trot out over cocktails). The category includes manufacturers of regular old electric vacuum cleaners (canister, upright, or handheld) as well as central vacuuming systems, floor scrubbing and shampooing machines, floor waxers and polishers, and electric sweepers. Unfortunately, the most current public Census numbers on U.S. vacuum cleaner manufacturing are from 2002. Back then, there were 10,400 workers engaged in the industry, and total vacuum cleaner shipments that year were $2.6 billion. (Be patient–I’m going somewhere with this.) The industry was essentially flat from the previous year for which a snapshot is given, 1997.

It won’t surprise you too much to find out that vacuum cleaners are also made outside the United States. The U.N. actually maintains an online database of worldwide vacuum cleaner manufacturing for the years 1995-2005, featuring such powerhouse producers as Belarus (which put out 6,600 units in 1995 and just 2,200 in 2005), Bulgaria (which apparently hasn’t produced a vacuum cleaner since 2000), and Chile (production in 1995: 257,000; production in 2005: 0). Iran made 257.000 vacuums in 1997 and just 200 in ’04 (wouldn’t you like to see the inside of that factory?).

So who makes all the vacuums? In no particular order, Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy and France make millions of machines a year. Having mostly apples and oranges statistics, it’s hard to rank those against the United States, though the value of U.S. vacuum shipments appears to be far higher than those of any country in that group; 10 times as much as Italy’s, for instance, and five times as much as Germany’s. Based on how many vacuums those countries, shipped, one might guess that the U.S. was producing 30-35 million vacuums in 2002. Just a guess.

One country I haven’t mentioned is the one that looms largest in our modern industrial world: China. According to the U.N. numbers, China produced 10 million vacuums in 2000; that looks to be far behind where the United States was. In 2004, the number was 50 million, almost certainly far ahead of the U.S., at least in unit volume. So the takeaway for this edition of the Vacuum Chronicles is that while those discards on the street today have a pretty good chance of having been made in the U.S.A., the next generation or orphan vacuums will likely have begun life far, far away.

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You know how it is: late to rise, to meet friends and to tackle the day’s chores, late to eat and late to bed.

Late, and still not done with whatever it was we thought we had to get done.

To bed anyway, and tomorrow, we’ll see.

My Walk to Work

Most days, I ride BART from Berkeley to the station at 16th and Mission streets in San Francisco. 16th and Mission is a tough corner in a tough neighborhood. When I was an editorial writer for the San Francisco Examiner in the early ’90s, I wrote a piece about an Irish immigrant who was beaten to death with a baseball bat at an ATM near the corner. That kind of mayhem is rare, I think, but a lower-level kind of chaos, characterized by drug dealing, purse snatching, prostitution, a large population of beggars hanging out, transient hotels, and hairy-looking bars and greasy spoons, is more typical. I’ve been accosted a couple of times in the past six months by women working the street. I spotted one trying to intercept my path one Friday night. She was in high heels, and I sped up to get past her. “Don’t walk so fast!” she shouted. “I’m not going to hurt you!”

For all that, the walk from BART to KQED is still pretty interesting and rarely induces uneasiness for the purposeful walker. In the daylight hours, the biggest hazard is red-light runners and stop-sign jumpes on the major thoroughfares I need to cross–16th, South Van Ness, Folsom, Harrison and Bryant. The walk is about two-thirds of a mile, and I use a route that avoids a vicious block of transient hotels and some very hard-looking dealer types. I wind up on 17th Street. To the west, it rises picturesquely to the Castro and Mount Sutro. Eastward–my direction going to work–it winds up in a knot of streets on the edge of the Mission before crossing a ridge and disappearing into the neighborhood at the northern foot of Potrero Hill. This part of town used to be warehouses and light industry, and today it’s a mix of real and pretend artist lofts, galleries, small theaters, and a few vestiges of the old workshops. Harrison Street, one of the main routes west and south out of downtown, seems to have become what passes for a prominent cycling thoroughfare. I see a few hipster-homesteaders (isn’t it tragic to go by appearances?) riding by every time I’m on the street.

Here are the pictures, to be added to later:

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Two Takes on the Climb


A sort of cheesy Versus screen grab from Tour de France Stage 9, the first Pyrenees day, on July 13. In the foreground: Maxime Monfort of Cofidis. He never showed any expression as he attacked on a tough climb. Behind him: David de la Fuente of Saunier-Duval, who briefly held the polka-dot jersey of the Tour’s leading climber. De la Fuente wore the same dramatic grimace all the way up the hill.

(De la Fuente eventually lost the jersey to teammate Riccardo Ricco, who in turn was ejected from the race after a reported positive test for a form of EPO; which ejection, in turn, caused Saunier, with de la Fuente, to quit the race.)

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Remember when we landed on the moon? (That we comes very easily: not sure if I mean we humans or we Americans, who really made it happen, and then went on to other, much less grand things.) As Rob, among others, remembers, our initial visit to that rock out there happened 39 years ago today.

I’ll save the reminiscing for some other time. Maybe I can get my brothers to write parallel versions of our great 1972 expedition to Florida to watch Apollo 17, the last moon launch.

But until then: By way of my brother John: some nifty NASA video of the Earth and the moon, as no one had ever seen them back in 1969.

[Soundtrack below, by way of the late Nick Drake]

Carpooling, Casually

OK — the demands of a real, honest-to-goodness 9-to-5 week (at KQED-FM, where I’ve been working in the news department on and off since last December) and of my recent Tour de France blogging have kept me away from my posts here. Here’s a sliver of an update


During the past week, I’ve become reacquainted with the casual carpool. For the uninitiated, the casual carpool is a completely spontaneous system of catching a commute hour ride across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. It started back in the 1970s or ’80s (I’m sure someone has written a history). A single simple element of our regional A.M. commute regime seems to make the system go: the free lane that permits carpools and other “high-occupancy vehicles” like buses to skip the long backup at the Bay Bridge toll plaza. At first, the lane ran parallel to just the final half-mile or so of freeway lanes to the toll plaza; now it’s connected to an HOV lane that stretches all the way to Vallejo, about 20 miles north of the bridge.

But way back when, just that first little segment of carpool lane and its promise of a way around the backup created the incentive for people to pick up a couple of riders on the Berkeley and Oakland side of the bridge and drive them to downtown San Francisco. It was easy for drivers to figure out where to pick up riders: at BART stations and at AC Transit bus stops. In fact, AC Transit hated the casual carpool when it appeared because it was siphoning away morning ridership (for a variety of practical reasons, casual carpooling has not caught for the eastbound, evening commute). At one point, the agency prevailed upon the city of Oakland to put up “no stopping” signs at its bus stops, and police were on hand to ticket violators.

The most often commented upon aspects of the casual carpool are, first, the willingness of total strangers to pick up or ride with each other to work and, second, the typical silence of the casual commute vehicle. I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery about the willingness to cooperate with strangers. Everyone gets something out of the deal. Perhaps the level of trust people display is surprising–I’m guessing that very few people who casual carpool would pick up a random hitchhiker or thumb a ride themselves. But in the quarter-century or more this has been going on, I, at least, have never heard about a crime connected with the casual carpool (the much bigger risk is getting into an accident with some nutso driver). And as far as the silence goes, it is typical but not absolute. I’ve had a conversation with a federal appeals court judge and listened as a fellow rider told the driver, a doctor, all about his prostate condition. Every once in a while I still see that guy around the neighborhood and sometimes call out to him, “How’s your prostate?”

We live a couple blocks from the North Berkeley BART station, a long-time casual carpooling hotspot. Commuters and drivers start appearing at the Sacramento Street curb about 6 a.m. Carpooling hours last until 10 a.m., and it’s not unusual to see diehard drivers or riders waiting as late as 9:55 in hopes of a free ride. Every day is a study in the shifting sands of supply and demand. Many days, two or three hopeful riders will be lined up on the curb with not a car in sight. A sudden flurry of drivers can clear the backlog in 10 minutes or less. Other days, a dozen cars will be queued up around the nearest corner–maybe because potential riders have heard that there’s a monstrous backup over the bridge and BART is a better bet for the day.

The system hasn’t changed much since I first used it in 1990. The one refinement I’ve noticed happened in the late ’90s, when drivers started soliciting riders going further west than the usual drop-off location at Fremont and Howard streets. Soon, two lines of riders started forming: one for downtown, one for Civic Center. During my last stint of employment in the city, I took a Civic Center ride nearly every day. My dropoff point, at Eighth and Harrison streets, was a five-minute walk from work (it’s about 15 or 20 minutes from KQED).

Last week, I found the system as quirky but reliable as ever. Still two lines. Still no telling how long one might wait for a ride. Stiil nearly no conversation among those going in to work together, not even about prostates.

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Dog Geography

Scout, a.k.a. The Dog, is full of surprises, especially when it comes to what we think of as him memory and awareness of where he is when we’re out on walks.

Since he’s a border collie/retriever mix of some kind, our program has been to walk him three or four times every day. But these are not long walks. Most of his world lies within a radius of about a mile and a half of our house. Still, that’s an area of about seven square miles.

When we bipeds traverse an area that size, we notice and remember remarkable or useful features: Peet’s Coffee, the house with the unusual water fountain in the front yard, the parking lot that offers a shortcut, the beautiful tall Norfolk pine.

The Dog has some of the same thing going on. There are certain places on our walks where he loves and expects to stop: outside the chicken coop in the garden at the local middle school and a certain Monterey pine where squirrels are always eating sunflower seeds after a dish on the ground.

How do we know The Dog remembers these places? He stops when we get to the nearest corner and more or less points in the desired direction. The fact he does this after many repetitions doesn’t surprise me.

But here’s something that does: About a month or six weeks ago, we had Scout out for a walk. We got a corner I don’t remember having walked past with him before. He stopped and stared into the yard of the house at the corner. There were a couple of pet rabbits loose out there, and he was transfixed. In fact, we’d still be out there if we hadn’t compelled him to leave after about 10 minutes.

The next day, we approached the corner from a completely different direction; in fact, no part of the path we took repeated the way we had come the day before. But when we got close to the rabbit house, he headed directly for it. OK, maybe not shocking. Still, I was impressed that he made the connection–maybe he smelled the place–when we were coming from a different direction.

We didn’t return to that block for a couple weeks. When I did, we were taking another route that didn’t come closer than about 100 yards to the rabbit place. But as soon as The Dog got to the closest point, he stopped and looked up the street toward his desired destination. Yesterday, needing to take him on a quick walk and wanting to keep him away from the rabbits, I took yet another route, but had the same result. When we got to within a block of the rabbit house, he stopped and pointed for it.

I’m not sure how he’s doing it. But I think it must be a combination of visual and olfactory recognition (though he knows we’re close even when the rabbits are downwind) and some sort of ability to guess the relationship of one location to his target even if he hasn’t walked the precise path before. In other words, he’s using something more than rote memory.

I’m not suggesting The Dog is capable of planning out his own trip itinerary. But en route he’s got the capability of connecting a remote location with where he happens to be and heading there.

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You’ve got to click on the above to appreciate it (don’t worry–I’m not surreptitiously signing you up for a $10,000 Ukrainian stock brokers conference).

That’s what the next few days look like in Red Bluff, near the head of the Sacramento Valley, 170 road miles from climatically bland Berkeley. I’m not sure of the reasons, but the northern end of the valley is one of the hottest places in the state. During one heat spell in the ’90s, Redding (30 miles north of Red Bluff) hit 117.

The week ahead in Red Bluff: temperatures above 110 for the next three days. And lots of smoke from the fires that won’t go out (and hey, how would you like to be on one of the fire crews trying to put the fires out in that weather?). I’m reading Dante’s Inferno right now. He didn’t know the half of it.

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The New Blog

As I said to an important advisor earlier today: Just what I need as a further diversion from the serious business of life–a new blog. It’s called re: Cycling, and I’ve been noodling around with it for awhile. Not that you can tell, necessarily: to the untrained eye, it resembles a blog just like the one devoted to your aunt’s pet cat’s colon surgery. What prompts the “announcement”–sure to propel waves of consternation across the far-flung Infospigot empire–is the onset of the 2008 Tour de France. For the most part, I’m going to make my Tour posts at re: Cycling. The extra special Tour posts with the added, deep existential dimension: those will appear here, too–if there are any.

The new thing is a work in progress. I have it in mind to ask a couple of riding and writing friends to become co-editors, contributors, and maybe do a couple little spin-off projects based on what we put together there. That’s a longer term project, though.

Any thoughts, suggestions, encouragement or condemnation: please send it my way.

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