October, 2010


Where is the world's biggest zeppelin? Most people would guess that it's probably somewhere in Germany, but No, it's right here, flying around San Francisco Bay nearly every day. The "Eureka" is not a blimp but a true zeppelin, which means that it has a rigid frame. It is about the same length as a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. It was built 2 years ago for Brian Hall and his wife. Hall owns a Silicon Valley computer software company. In 2007, Hall rode on a zeppelin in Germany and decided on the spot that he wanted to own one of his own. (Silicon Valley computer moguls are famous for buying expensive toys, and a zeppelin is a very expensive toy!) The Eureka was built in Germany by the same company that built the Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin. The company is still in business, just making zeppelins. I have always been fascinated by zeppelins, but I am surprised that there is enough demand for zeppelins to keep the company going.

The Civil War. In 1863, a young German officer named Ferdinand von Zeppelin came to the United States as a military observer. All major European countries sent military observers to the United States during the Civil War. Zeppelin was fascinated by the hot air balloons being used by the Union Army, but he realized that the problem with hot air balloons is that you can't make them go where you want them to go. They just go up and down or blow with the wind. Zeppelin returned to Germany determined to build a steerable airship. He worked on the project doggedly for the next 40 years until he finally succeeded. Prior to World War 1, Count Zeppelin ran the largest airline in the world, flying over 35,000 passengers without a single accident. It was an astonishing record. How many airlines today have a safety record that good? Zeppelin died in 1917.

Cost. Zeppelin travel has always been expensive. A one hour flight around San Francisco Bay from Oakland Airport on the Eureka costs $500 a person. A 2 hour flight from Moffett Field costs $950. The Eureka can also be chartered for weddings and other private parties for trips to Los Angeles, Monterey, and Napa Valley wineries. Chartered flights cost $6,000 an hour. The Eureka seats 12 passengers, and every seat has a 360 degree view of the land below. And Yes, there is a bathroom on board.To book a flight, go to: Airship Ventures.

The National Helium Reserve. Zeppelins were a terrifying weapon in World War I. The Germans used zeppelins to bomb London, and there was little the British could do about it. Zeppelins could fly higher than airplanes of the day and were nearly as fast. Zeppelins could fly above the range of anti-aircraft guns, and the Allies had no zeppelins of their own. In 1925, Congress authorized the creation of the National Helium Reserve so that the U.S. would be ready in case the next war was fought with zeppelins. The U.S. government began buying helium and continued buying it for the next 70 years. In 1996, Congress finally voted to stop buying helium after the Pentagon concluded that "the risk of zeppelin warfare has diminished." They just figured that out in 1996??!! Most members of Congress would like to sell off the government's helium stockpile, but Congressmen from helium-producing states like Texas have prevented the sale. They argue that the U.S. needs the helium reserve, but that's ridiculous. We're not going to fight Al Qaeda or anyone else with zeppelins! The real reason these Congressmen want to keep the government's helium stockpile off the market is that it is so large that if it was ever sold, the price of helium would collapse, making helium production in their states unprofitable. About 80% of the entire world's helium supply is in the National Helium Reserve. So for the time being, the U.S. still has an enormous stockpile of helium ready and waiting for the next zeppelin war! (This is one of those stories that sounds so ridiculous that people suspect that I made the whole thing up, but it is all true.)


"Rhetoric 24.001: Arguing With Judge Judy ." Yes, this is a real for-credit course. It's been taught at U.C. Berkeley for several years now. Classes meet once a week at Dwinelle Hall. According to the catalog course description: "The seminar will be concerned with identifying apparently popular logical fallacies on 'Judge Judy' and 'The People's Court' and discussing why such strategies are so widespread." U.C. Berkeley is the only university offering this course.

However, my choice for the strangest college course being given anywhere in the U.S. is "Underwater Basket Weaving," which is taught a number of respected universities around the country. I find this course completely bewildering. Why would anyone want to weave baskets underwater? What's the point? "Underwater Basket Weaving" has been taught at Rutgers University, Reed College, and the University of Arizona. It is currently been offered at U.C. San Diego. It is not available at U.C. Berkeley.


In Berkeley, Oakland and most other cities around San Francisco Bay, garbage collectors will only take away garbage that is in your garbage can. They will not take away garbage that is left next to the can or on top of the can. It sometimes takes a while for U.C. Berkeley students who grew up in Southern California to adjust to this. In Los Angeles, for example, if you have more garbage than will fit in your can, you can leave the excess next to your garbage can in bags or boxes, and the garbage collectors will just take it away.


The Ove' Glove is a wonderful product with a stupid name. Unlike an oven mitt, the Ove' Glove is a real glove, with separate sheaths for each finger. That is a big advantage because you can get a much better grip on things with a 5 finger glove than with a mitt or a potholder, and a good grip is important when you are picking up a hot baking pan. The Ove' Glove can take temperatures up to 500 degrees without burning. It is machine washable. The Ove' Glove is advertised on long television 'infomercials,' and products like that are usually a disappointment, but this product really works, and its worth the price. I use mine all the time. You can buy the Ove' Glove at Walgreen's for $15. I think this would make a very good Christmas gift for anyone who likes to cook or barbecue.


I own a house near campus that I rent to members of the U.C. Berkeley marching band. I have always regretted that I never learned to play a musical instrument myself. When I was 6 years old, my mother tried to teach me how to play the piano, but without success. Then my Aunt Clara took a crack at it, also without success. Aunt Clara was a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory of Music. The problem was that I had no aptitude for playing the piano. I was terrible, and I knew it. To make matters worse, there was a large bust of Beethoven sitting on Aunt Clara's fireplace mantle looking down at the piano with an angry, disdainful, contemptuous stare. For some reason, most busts of Beethoven look like that. I tried not to look at the Beethoven bust, but I was always painfully aware that it was there, staring at me in disgust as I was mangling his music. I was very young, and that bust was very intimidating.


"I Have a Large Cat." Last month, a 100 pound mountain lion was shot and killed by Berkeley police near Chez Panisse restaurant. You may have read about this. It made national news. A lot of people in Berkeley are asking: "Where did this mountain lion come from?" No one knows, but my guess is that the mountain lion was somebody's pet, and that it got loose.

It is legal in many states to own a pet mountain lion, but not in California. Prior to 1990, you could own a mountain lion in California with a permit from the California Department of Fish and Game. I remember that time very well because in 1985, a man applied to rent a house I owned in Oakland, and he had a pet mountain lion. Initially he told me, in a very casual way, that he had a "large cat" named "Kitty Cat." I asked him to show me a photo of his cat. That's something I usually do when an applicant tells me that he has a pet. He showed me a photo, and that's how I discovered that "Kitty Cat" was actually a mountain lion. He had a mountain lion pet permit from the state and showed it to me. I had no idea that such permits existed. His plan was to put a big freezer in my garage and fill it with horse meat. A mountain lion eats 10 pounds of meat a day. He offered to give me a huge pet deposit and pay me much higher rent than I was asking. He was an heir to a San Francisco coffee fortune, and money meant nothing to him. He was having a hard time finding a place to rent. "Kitty Cat" had been rejected by a number of landlords before the guy saw my property. Frankly, I was tempted by the additional money. I don't remember the exact amount, but it was a lot. I seriously considered renting the house to him, but after thinking about the liabilities, I said 'No' and rented the place to somebody else.

A lot of people in this area have bizarre pets. I used to work for a real estate broker, and she once sold a house in Pleasant Hill that had concrete alligator pits in the back yard, but that's a story for another day.

Mark Tarses

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