No Ferraris in the parking lots

A Facebook friend posted he was attending a conference at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., when someone immediately asked:
“Are there Ferraris in the parking lot?”

“No. I checked. That was the first thing I thought,” he answered.

Maybe only Priuses or Hybrid Lexuses, I thought to myself. These gazillionaires keep their Ferraris at home.

The question in a funny way attempts to take the temperature of our economy. It implies what a lot of people are thinking: That big companies in odd segments of the economy are cash-rich, while small businesses or manufacturing concerns can’t get a loan to expand. It’s a picture of a U.S. economy out-of-whack. The economy is like a knotted up garden hose with expansion points in the wrong places.

For example, take the Silicon Valley. There’s so much dough in that Northern California tech mecca that the digital giants can afford to give their employees Ferraris.
On May 10, Microsoft acquired an Internet phone service called Skype for $8.5 billion. Skype is free and used by college kids or folks living abroad to video chat by computer with friends and family living in the states. It doesn’t make any money. Incredibly, the Internet start-up bought by EBay Inc. in 2005 for $3.1 billion was sold because — you guessed it — it never made a profit. I even read in a national magazine that Meg Whitman, remember her?, defended the purchase she oversaw while at EBay. When asked if Skype was worth $8.5 billion today, she said yes, probably.

Now, there’s so much stored up capital in these select Silicon Valley giants that they’re buying up other companies just for the engineers. As reported last week, Facebook bought several small companies — “with names like Parakey, Hot Potato, and Octazen” only to kill their products and hire their engineers. The demand for information engineers is so high, Facebook is willing to pay up to a $1 million per employee.

All this while basic manufacturing companies in the Southland go out of business and unemployment in the county is still way too high at 12.1 percent.

Seems like only the whiz kids with a 4.0 from Stanford gets hired these days. The economy is feeding digital companies like Facebook and Microsoft, while it starves bread-and-butter ones making airplane parts, clothing, or building new homes. This is a problem. One I don’t know how to fix. But one that I don’t see our leaders working on.
Capital is hard to come by if you are a small business. Yet, if you’re Microsoft, you have $8.5 billion laying around to buy up unprofitable companies on a whim.

We need more investment in manufacturing and construction. Or we’re doomed to see the economy continue in a stop-and-go, sputter-and-explode, garden hose trajectory. That starts with capital or dough to grow.

Many criticized the Obama administration for loaning money to American car companies. Yet, that program has been a success. On Tuesday, Chrysler paid back the $7.6 billion it owed to the U.S. and Canada.

When our editorial board met with a delegation from China, they emphasized they are loaded with yuan but regulations prevent them from fully investing it in America. Why not let them open a Chinese auto manufacturing plant in Pomona that will put Americans back to work? “We’d like your government to encourage more Chinese companies to come here and open up more factories,” one government rep told us. We should be jumping at the chance.

The mayor of Toledo, Ohio is doing just that. He just signed a deal to sell a city-owned (redevelopment) dining and entertainment complex to two Chinese investors, Yuan Xiaohona and Wu Kin Hung, who hope to revitalize the recession-plagued site.

I’d rather see more investment in local shopping centers and job-producing plants than more money get siphoned out into cyberspace. That kind of revitalization — the Toledo kind — is what our Valley, our country needs. It may not put Ferraris in the parking lots, but we’ll settle for some new Chryslers.

Wildflowers at Santa Fe Dam

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THEY tower over the short San Gabriel River sage-scrub landscape like welcoming giants, almost beckoning people to come in and take a look.
Yucca whipplei. Foothill Yucca. The Lord’s Candle. Their columnar stalks shoot up on average 6 feet but can reach as high as 17 feet. Their creamy yellow flowers resembled candlelight to the eye of the Tongva, our region’s native habitants.

“They really light up the landscape,” said botanist Ann Croissant, who took me on a tour through the back trails of the Santa Fe Dam alluvial fan sage scrub.

It occurred to me last week to check out the yuccas while I was driving east on the 210 Freeway through Irwindale and saw the yucca stalk pop into view. I smile when I see the California poppies along the transition road from the 10 to the 57 freeways. I’ve gone chasing after wildflowers during my 25 years working for the San Gabriel Valley Newspapers. I spotted rare plants in the crevices of Clamshell Canyon and was the first to report the discovery of the endangered thread-leafed brodiaea up the Colby Trail in Glendora in the late 1980s. But I suspect for many, these “freeway flowers” are the only wildflowers they’ll see. And that’s a shame, since all it takes is parking the car and getting out into nature.

So today, I want to introduce you to the Santa Fe Dam backcountry, where one of the greatest arrays of wildflowers are on display.

“This is the purist area of the alluvial fan sage scrub in the county. We really need to protect it, yet still introduce people to it,” said Croissant, president of the San Gabriel Mountains Regional Conservancy (, which helped rebuild the nature center in 2004 and restore the habitat.

There is much more than those skyscraping yuccas, which are still my favorites. Prickly pear cactus cluster the landscape, their yellow, red and purple flowers blooming from each porcupine leaf. Scarlet larkspurs wave 18 inches tall in the wind, their brilliant flowers resembling a hothouse orchid. There are 150 or more species of flowers here, from foothill penstemons and dainty purple nightshade to yellow sun cups and bushes of buckwheat and black sage.

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Along the bicycle and walking trails of Santa Fe Dam, these flowers are everywhere. Thursday morning’s 90-minute walk/ride with Croissant easily out-wowed my two-day experience at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park last month, proving you don’t have to drive hours to see nature if you live in the San Gabriel Valley. It’s right here off the freeway. But you’ve got to exit and take it by foot.

Croissant, a botanist who teaches at APU and Cal Poly Pomona, stopped to show me her favorite plant, the cobweb thistle. “It’s absolutely gorgeous — a natural thistle. This is the first year I’ve seen it multi-stemmed.”

The dudlea, which is sending up stalks of fluorescent yellow-red flower buds from a succulent leaf base, also is flourishing. “I’ve never seen them this high,” she said.
The rains of winter — not just heavy but spaced out throughout the season and into spring — are partly the cause of the wildflower bounty. But sometimes, the rains can have the opposite effect and limit a species’ appearance, she said.

“You need to taste these — these are called lemonade berries,” she interrupted. A lemony tang rang my taste buds as I touched a tiny red berry to my tongue.
It’s relaxing to stroll amid these ancient landscapes and discover new sights, sounds and tastes.

Another rich wildflower area is the Colby Trail in the Glendora foothills, where the once obscure brodiaea is in bloom. “You see purple everywhere,” she said.

Back at Santa Fe Dam, we came upon still more yuccas as we closed in on the two freeways. “They really thrive in poor conditions. Adversity is something they are attracted to. Maybe there is a message there,” she said.

The conservancy’s master plan includes more hiking trails behind the dam — some as dirt paths for mountain bikers and some improved trails for wheelchair access. “We need to make learning about nature entertainment,” she said.
After emerging from the bumpy ride, she turned to me and said: “I think we’ll name that trail after you: the Yucca Valley Trail.”

It’s freeway close but foot accessible. That’s the secret of the Santa Fe Dam backcountry.

One New Yorker says: bin Laden’s death makes no difference

The death of Osama bin Laden set off celebrations in Washington, D.C., and at Manhattan’s ground zero. But, though all Americans have strong feelings this week, I still suspect it means less to you and me, 3,000 miles away.

Back on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, I turned to my best childhood friend from East Meadow, New York, Dennis Morgan. We grew up together and are still close. Morgan lives in a leafy suburb just 15 miles from Manhattan. My column “It’s not over in New York” (Sept. 6, 2002) chronicled the feelings on his block after Bill, his neighbor, was killed when the World Trade Center collapsed. Bill left behind a wife, who was pregnant, a 3-year-old son, and friends who cared. I remember writing that his green Ford Explorer remained in his driveway.

I had never heard my friend so shaken, so vulnerable. He was in Manhattan on 9/11 – in Midtown – and left the island by walking across the 59th Street Bridge with many fellow New Yorkers. On Wednesday, just days after the Navy SEALs raided bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and shot him dead, I asked him: How does this news affect you and your neighbors?

“I’m glad he’s gone. But that doesn’t bring Bill back or Ann’s Uncle Herman,” said Morgan, 52. Ann, his wife, lost a relative she called “uncle” who was her father’s first cousin. Like Bill, Herman didn’t come home that day 10 years ago. Their family never heard from him again – not a phone call, not a memento found in the rubble, not a scrap
of clothing, nothing. Living with that kind of loss can’t be erased through a 40-minute helicopter raid and probably not even after seeing a corpse photo of the man responsible.
“It just doesn’t pack the same emotions as when I talked to you then,” he said. “This (news) is totally different. Besides, as a person, I am not big on revenge.”

Although other New Yorkers celebrated and many were buoyed by bin Laden’s death, Morgan was not. Nothing could reverse the pall cast on his life.

Ann’s uncle was in the south tower of the World Trade Center on the 78th floor. The plane plunged into the 77th floor. His wife’s family was told a vague story from witnesses who said Uncle Herman started down the staircase and then went back up to help someone. “It was the exact same thing as Bill” (his neighbor), Dennis explained. “He just never came home.”

Bill had helped Dennis install his air conditioner. He and Dennis shared lawn and garden tips. The day before 9/11, Bill had missed his usual train and was very late for work. On the morning of 9/11, Bill made an extra effort to get to the train station and was at his desk in the WTC on time.

My friend said New Yorkers held on to hope, half expecting their missing loves ones to return home. “I kept hoping he’d rode a beam down … that was the kind of thought that went through your head.”

Dennis continued working in Manhattan at the American Bible Society as chief financial officer for five more years. But the anxiety that blanketed New York City like a fog in winter took its toll. He decided to become a tax consultant and work with clients in the suburbs. The last straw was the New York City blackout of August 2003 when he didn’t make it out of the city for 48 hours.

“I went through a time … when I’d be walking to my office and ask myself `Why am I doing this? I could get killed.’ ”

Dennis only visited ground zero once, and that was by accident. A client’s office was nearby.

“It was a big, ugly hole in the ground. It was very sad,” he said.

We caught up a bit and then he told me he had to hang up. His wife had asked him to pick up some groceries and he had arrived at the neighborhood market.

He intimated that truly big events, from 9/11 to bin Laden’s death, take time to sink in and “evolve.” He was glad that our government did what it did and hopeful new intelligence gathered from the raid would stop future attacks. But in his heart, I could tell that not much had changed.

“I was walking my dog past my neighbor Bill’s house. I thought that would bring some closure …” Then my friend’s voice trailed off.