Letters for the week of December 15-21, 2004 

Taking us to task for perpetuating the biodiesel lie, and writing in support of the poultry rescue movement.

"Grease Flunky," Bottom Feeder, 11/24

Do the math
Will Harper's article about Jiffy Lube is the type of journalism I often see these days that is full of opinion but lacks substance and the use of pertinent facts. First of all, 66 complaints nationwide out of thousands of stores doing thousands of services is not too bad. Do the math.
Guy Schmidt, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

"Stalking the Senator," City of Warts, 11/24

An overdue comeuppance
Kudos once again to Chris Thompson for his fine piece on Don Perata. Finally, the Don is receiving some well overdue exposure as regards the many opportunistic deals that he has, as the ultimate insider, manipulated over the years. For twenty years Perata has been the unofficial mayor of Oakland though until recently he had always lived in Alameda. At least half of Oakland's pathetic city council has been in his hip pocket. Not to mention (please don't!) the insufferable John Russo, presently city attorney. The current city council President, De La Fuente, has always been Don's point man on the council, and his thuggish demeanor has had Perata's blessing. These creatures are the ultimate pull peddlers, to borrow Ayn Rand's memorable phrase from Atls Shrugged. It's a crime that the real producers in society have to get the permission of these assorted deadheads to function.

When Don eventually takes that perp walk, he should have plenty of company.
Michael Hardesty, Oakland

"You Say You Want a Resolution," Feature, 11/10

The biodiesel ruse
"You Say You Want a Resolution" sang the praises of biodiesel. "Powered by Veggies and Idealism" (2/11) was even more celebratory of this alternative fuel.

Its advocates ignore the problem with biodiesel: It's filthy. Diesel engines spew much more pollution into the air than gasoline engines. Biodiesel is just another form of diesel. It produces less of some pollutants than normal diesel fuel, but 10 to 15 percent more smog-causing nitrogen oxides.

When the We the Planet Festival, "an eco-friendly, zero-waste concert ... drew all its power from biodiesel generators operating entirely off the grid," it replaced the grid electricity -- fueled primarily by relatively clean natural gas -- with that produced by dirty, high-emissions diesel. Even worse, it moved the emissions from remote plants to a dense, urban area.

But even though we're fouling the air, at least we're replacing fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions with our biodiesel, aren't we? Probably not. If the biodiesel is made from recycled cooking oil, then it is replacing petroleum. But there is only so much used frying fat available. Recycling all of it into biodiesel won't make a dent in our energy budget.

Biodiesel and other biofuels can be and are made from plants such as soybeans and corn. However, we use so much fossil fuel in growing crops that it's not clear we come out ahead. Research at Cornell University has shown that ethanol produced from corn consumes more energy in its production than it yields in its consumption.

By all means let's recycle used cooking oil into something useful. If it's used as fuel, do it away from urban areas. Replacing gas-powered cars with biodiesel would increase air pollution. It's like that bumper sticker from long ago, "Split wood, not atoms" -- a quaint, romantic notion, but an environmental disaster.
Ric Oberlink, Berkeley

"From Transit Board to Jailbird," Bottom Feeder, 11/10

Nasty, but I loved her
Your story on Nancy Jewell Cross brought a chuckle as well as a hint of sadness. Miss Cross was my sixth-grade teacher at W.W. Brier Elementary School in Fremont in 1972. She must have been in her early fifties then, and looking back she looked like Marion Ross (Mrs. C. on Happy Days) -- big hair, and always wore a dress. She wasn't mean or crazy then, but she did nickname me Gilligan -- oh, how I loved her for that!

Seriously, it serves no purpose for an 84-year-old woman with obvious mental problems to be in Santa Rita. Poor old thing, can't somebody help her?! Mental hospital, rest home, etc. She's quite nasty, but can't help it seemingly.
Mark J. Baxter, Concord

"Free Your Turkey. Before Thursday." East Side Story, 11/24

Animal cruelty is the norm
We should all be appreciative of the efforts of humane-minded people who rescue animals from abuse. Unfortunately, animal cruelty is the norm, not the exception, in modern animal agriculture. Chickens have parts of their beaks burned off and are crammed in cages so small they can't even flap their wings. Pigs are castrated without painkillers while their mothers languish in crates too small for them to even turn around.

While most of us don't go into factory farms to rescue these animals, we all can still take a stand against animal cruelty. Whenever we're at a grocery store or in a restaurant, we can either choose compassion or cruelty. Please, make your next meal vegetarian.
Josh Balk, Takoma Park, Maryland

Caring, not curing
Thank you so much for writing a fair and factual article that shows the East Bay Animal Advocates as the caring people that they are and not the "terrorists" that most media makes animal-rights supporters out to be. I hope you continue your great work of writing great articles on great organizations like the East Bay Animal Advocates.
Cassandra Gephart, Clayton

Animals deserve dignity
Thank you for your article profiling the work of Christine Morrissey and East Bay Animal Advocates. The open rescues they carry out not only give aid to suffering animals, but they help expose the cruelties of factory farms, which practice the most appalling animal abuse in the world. Ms. Morrissey and her organization are to be commended for their dedication to the moral premise that all animals have the right to be treated with dignity and compassion.
Mark Hawthorne, Rohnert Park

Go veg
Kudos to the East Bay Animal Advocates for exposing the miseries endured by billions of birds raised for food each year. As a former animal control officer in our nation's capital, I handled countless cases of heartbreaking cruelty and abuse -- but none as violent or horrific as the routine mistreatment and slaughter of factory-farmed chickens and turkeys. Although these gentle birds experience pain and fear just like cats and dogs, there are virtually no laws to protect them. Consequently, they are crammed inside filthy sheds or tiny wire cages, mutilated without pain relief, and deprived of everything natural to them -- most will never even set foot outside or breathe fresh air. At slaughter, many are scalded alive in feather-removal tanks.

Luckily, for those of us opposed to cruelty to animals, a vegetarian diet is perhaps the most effective way to express our compassion. For a free vegetarian starter kit packed with great recipes, call 1-888-VEG-FOOD or visit GoVeg.com.
Erica Meier, staff writer, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Norfolk, Virginia

"Building a Better Elephant," Feature, 11/17

It's enough to give one a genuinely bad attitude
As a former employee of Elephant Pharmacy, I appreciated your article on the company and its founder Stuart Skorman. Not only was it interesting to read about a company I had been affiliated with, but it also resonated with me and echoed the experiences I had as an employee of Elephant.

I joined the company a few weeks after they opened the store in Berkeley. In addition to needing a job, it was an exciting and interesting opportunity to work with such an idealistic and ambitious company in the entrepreneurial stages. I quickly made fast friends with many of the employees, and your article reminded me of the atmosphere of enthusiasm and empowerment that was prevalent in the early days.

As time progressed, however, it became more and more apparent that the company management was in over their heads. I have a deep background in business management, expertise in inventory management, and experience in the pharmacy business, and so I freely offered my advice and expertise. I was made responsible for the inventory management for the store, and despite making half to one-fourth of the pay that this responsibility would normally get, I viewed it as a long-term relationship and did my part to make Elephant the best it could be.

I was one of a handful of employees selected to serve on a committee with the company's pharmacists, herbalists, and executives to continuously develop Elephant's direction in the marketplace. On many occasions I expressed my concerns about the inventory process, several times in writing, to the store's GM, CEO, and COO. It soon became obvious that every statement, and every promise, that came from management was merely lip-service. They would acknowledge issues, and were always positive about suggestions, but continuously fought any change in business practices. Over several months, my frustration grew as management ambled ever forward blindly.

In my duties I worked closely with VP Sandy Sickley, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning, and in this close working relationship I was starting to build a friendship. One day over coffee I shared with Sandy my fears and frustration over the state of operations at Elephant and what I thought would happen if immediate and acute changes were not made. She suggested I take this up with store manager Al Briscoe, my immediate supervisor. I voiced concern about my job, noting that several dissenters had already been dismissed. She told me explicitly, "This is not the kind of workplace where people are fired for speaking their mind."

Emboldened, I pulled the GM aside later that day and shared with him the critical need I saw to upgrade the store's inventory processes and POS systems. He nodded and seemed to understand, but it was clear to me that this was more of the same, and no material changes would happen.

Later that week, I was unceremoniously terminated for having a "bad attitude." I was shocked, angry, and saddened. Despite the fact that I felt I did nothing wrong, it reflected badly upon me. In order to console myself I fell back on the fact that in twelve years of work experience this was the only job I was ever fired from.

It has been over a year and a half since I was employed at Elephant, and I no longer bear any resentment. I hope that the management at Elephant has learned from their early mistakes, and your article makes me think that this may be the case. I wish the best of luck to everyone at Elephant because, after all, it is a great idea and has the potential to be a great business.
Kurt di Sessa, San Francisco

Shop Rite Aid first
Your story contained the surprising assertion that CVS stores are "nonunion, like the rest of the chain drugstore industry." That overlooks a huge exception. Rite Aid stores were union shops last time I checked -- at least here in California, where Rite Aid assumed the Thrifty chain's union contracts when it bought out that chain.

If you want to shop at a big-box drugstore but shop ethically, head for Rite Aid first. They may not have the industry's spiffiest or most welcoming stores, but they do respect their employees' collective-bargaining rights. That means their folks can earn a bit more, stress out less about arbitrary firings, and waste less of their wages buying jive "wellness" potions from the boss.
Michael Katz, Berkeley

A modern-day robber baron
The article seems to portray the founder of Elephant Pharmacy, Stuart Skorman, as a flawed startup savant with good intentions that can take wrong turns. Well-documented evidence ignored by the author suggests otherwise. The $17 million profit Skorman made in selling Reel.com is presented as an honorable part of his startup résumé. However, Reel.com was a dot-com business fiasco as notorious as they come even in that era of excessive business hubris. Reel.com had a fatally flawed business model, and the startup owner cashed out with a handsome profit based on hype while leaving others to go down with a sinking ship that ultimately burned up several hundred million dollars. No doubt many investors and workers were financially ruined in this process while Mr. Skorman made out like a robber baron.

How can this be neglected when casting his methods as successful? Or do we define success merely by personal profit at the expense of others? I, for one, do not. An honorable businessman should feel some responsibility to those who worked effectively for him. The past actions of Mr. Skorman suggest that he takes care of himself but not his workers. How can he now be believed when he suggests that he will pay significant stock options and health benefits that were never concretely defined? Is he suddenly going to become charitable with financial assets in his pocket? It seems to me that Mr. Skorman has found a new business model: Taking advantage of idealistic Berkeley youth in pursuit of personal profit. Shame on the Express for not exposing this more clearly and becoming an apologist for Mr. Skorman.
Steven M. Lund, Berkeley

"Jello's Silver Lining," Down in Front, 11/10

Not really insane
In response to Rob Harvilla's review of the Slim's AT show: I agree that Comets on Fire, the Fleshies, and Jello and the Melvins were entertaining. Comets, in my opinion, were far more interesting than the Fleshies, but the elves were fun; I'm sure they fit some people's tastes more than mine. Jello was fun but by no means INSANE.

It's painfully apparent that Rob is making the genre comparisons of one only familiar with music from skimming the sections at Amoeba. Handsome Family is nothing like Cessna; the comparison is so weak it barely passes the laugh test. Slim and crew, true to form, fully engaged the audience. Case in point, Munly (who Rob compares to Stipe's skeleton -- a weak pop reference that underlines his sensibilities) pierced through the crowd and at least three adjacent buildings with his wicked gaze in his trance-like diatribe about the fish hook dangling from his neck.

On the other hand, the Bellrays were, as Borat would say, "Boring." It was an ideal time to swig down a couple more drinks. A line actually formed at both restrooms as bored members of the audience tried to find something to distract them from the nonevent onstage.
Clay Newton, Richmond


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