All posts by michaelraffety

Michael Raffety has been editor of the Montain Democrat in Placerville, Calif., since 1986, the longest serving editor since the paper began as the El Dorado News in 1851. Before coming to work for the Mountain Democrat in 1978 he worked for the Amador Ledger. Raffety has reported on the El Dorado Irrigation District since 2008. He has a BA from San Francisco State Universiy and and an MA from California State University, Sacramento. He also taught part-time for Folsom Lake College from 1980-2003.

Degas and the Paris Millinery Trade and my Aunt Rosie

By Michael Raffety


I recently took in the latest impressionist art show at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, called “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade.”

As soon as I saw the press invitation for the show that opened June 24 and runs through Sept. 24, the first thing I thought of was a woman myself and my cousins all referred to as Aunt Rosie. I always figured she was called an aunt because she was my grandmother’s best friend. However, there actually was a family connection via my mother’s younger sister Beverly.

Rosa Krann had a millinery shop in Baker, Ore. The eastern Oregon town, set in a valley surrounded by the Blue Mountains, is now Called Baker City, perhaps to distinguish it from Baker, Calif., and Baker, Nev.

At one time there were six millinery shops in Baker, Ore. Aunt Rosie, who had learned millinery work while attending high school in Austria, interned for one of those shops shortly after she arrived in Baker in 1882 with her mother, grandmother and sister and brother.

Once she knew enough people and learned English she opened up her own millinery shop. She operated that shop for 52 years. There is a studio portrait of my grandmother Viva Nordean as a stylish young woman in 1904 sporting one of Rosie’s hats.

Rosie’s sister, a year older than her, married her father Lawrence’s business partner August Meier. August was 42 and Marie was 18. They had five children. The fifth child birth eventually killed her. Just before she died in the hospital in Baker Marie asked Rosa to take care of her children, ages 12, 9, 7, 5 and 18 months. Marie was 31 when she died. Rosa had bought some medicine for her from the druggist to ease her pain. When she went to pay the druggist, Henry Levinger, he asked her to make him one of her fanciest hats. After picking up the hat about 6 p.m. he came back about two and a half hours later and said he had raffled off the hat for $300.67 “to help fund Miss Rosa’s new family.”

The oldest child was Betty, who married the father of the man my mother’s younger sister, Beverly, married. My mother’s youngest sister, Beth, actually worked in Rosa’s hat shop one summer in Baker. Though we all knew Aunt Rosie made women’s hats, we knew her as a friend of my grandmother’s who made us Rice Krispie cookies and would have us over for dinner. She liked children. Never married, she walked each morning to St. Francis de Sales Cathedral to attend Mass.

In 1952 Mamie Eisenhower happened to be traveling through Baker and saw a hat she really liked. She wrote Rosa asking her to make one like it for her, which she did.

A newspaper story noted that among the more lucrative hats she sold were $65 hats to ladies who were part of an element of what Rosa referred to when she said to the society page interviewer, “Well, Baker was a wide open town then.”

Speaking of wide-open town, Paris between 1875 and the First World War had 1,000 milliners working in the fashion capital of the world. Supporting these milliners were an estimated 24,000 artificial flower makers. There were a few milliners who were also clandestine “women of the night.” You’ll quickly note which Degas milliner’s portrait looks a little too fancy and décolletage to be just a hard working hat maker.

The show at the Legion of Honor features more than 40 impressionist paintings and pastels. Besides Degas, who had done 27 paintings of milliners, there are paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, Mary Cassatt and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The works came from the Musee d’Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the St. Louis Museum of Art. The latter art museum, with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, were co-organizers of the exhibition.

A key highlight of the show is the collection of 19th century women’s hats from collections in Paris, Chicago and gifts to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

The hat that got my attention the most was one by an unknown artist in 1890 made of nutcracker heads and golden pheasant feathers. As close as I can determine, the nutcracker is European, possibly Polish. The golden pheasant is a Chinese bird that has gone wild in the U,S. and Canada and is now considered a game bird, though not as prevalent as its other Chinese cousin, the ring-necked pheasant. My grandfather on my mother’s side and my dad would go pheasant hunting in Baker Valley. Grandfather Will Nordean, being a justice of the peace, knew a lot of ranchers who would let him hunt in their fields. The two of them would come back with a string of pheasants. There was no lack of pheasant feathers for Rosa’s Millinery. Rosa, though would go to Chicago for more exotic feathers, such as ostrich.

The art show at the Legion has some little seen and intriguing works by Degas. My favorites, though, were the Renoirs and a painting by Venetian artist Frederico Zandomeneghi.

Virtual reality invades business world


By Michael Raffety

Every time I see photos of someone wearing one of those virtual reality headsets all I can think of is, “That’s goofy looking and nerdy with little actual real world value.”

Dana Perino, former presidential spokeswoman and current Fox political commentator, described a recent experience she had with a virtual reality headset. It was obviously some kind of psychological test. The VR experience was to take an elevator up and get off. The elevator goes down but the door remains open and you are asked to jump into the shaft.

Well, who would do a darned fool thing like that?

Other than seemingly pointless experiments like that is there any value to virtual reality?

Apparently there is and it’s simply amazing. It is so astounding I have to quote the entire first three paragraphs from a June 6 Wall Street Journal article written by Betsy Morris:

“Gary Steinberg, Stanford University’s head of neurosurgery, has been operating on brains for more that three decades. Only in the past year has he been able to do something that gives him a significant advantage: preview surgery and practice it.

“Donning a virtual reality headset, the 64-year-old works through thickets of digital blood vessels in a precise computer simulation of a patient’s gray matter before he cuts into the real thing.

“’I can figure out how best to approach a tumor and practice it so that when I get into the operation, it’s as if I’ve been there before,’ Dr. Steinberg says. ‘It makes surgeries safer. Outcomes are better.’”

Practice makes perfect. Practice also increases the odds of success. Who wouldn’t like to have their surgeon practice with virtual reality before performing open-heart surgery or some other delicate operation?

I believe this VR practicing is going to be picked up by other brain surgeons and will spread to other kind of surgeries.

And the guy who started this is 64. There’s a doctor who is still open to technical innovation and is obviously extremely bright. I would have to give brain surgeons the edge over rocket scientists in the smarts department.

Are virtual reality headsets going to spread beyond surgeons? Apparently so, because the same article notes that Wal-Mart is using them to train 140,000 employees annually. At $800 apiece they are less than a new iMac computer but similar in price to an iPhone.

I wouldn’t want to go to a movie and experience it in virtual reality, but my guess is practical applications of virtual reality are going to bring about the productivity boost that computers did for the 1980s and the Internet did for the1990s.

They will also provide a boost to technical education. Think about teaching high quality welding by virtual reality before working with the actual materials. Think how it can enhance a student welder’s ability to read blueprints by converting those blueprints into 3-D on a VR headset.

When my wife and I worked with an architectural designer to create our custom home we had no difficulty visualizing it, but that is not always the case with all people who hire architects. To put on a virtual reality headset and take a tour of what the architect designed would be a huge benefit for not only potential homeowners but also school superintendents and school boards preparing to build a new school. It’s not just touring the rooms by VR but seeing how every door opens where all the plugs are, what the light coming in the windows looks like in different times of day and different seasons, and how the overhanging rafters may help cool a room in the summer.

When the Navy sent me to my first specialty school for a piece of UHF radio equipment I used colored pencils to mark out the different type of circuits to help me understand and remember how the entire radio worked. A VR tour of the circuits in that radio would have enhanced and sped up the learning process. Not only that, with VR I could have done the actual maintenance and repair before I got assigned to the base shop at Quonset Point, R.I. Fixing that radio required specialty tools to adjust the frequencies by loosening and tightening gears until each point on the dial lined up with the frequency counter. Not your modern solid-state electronics.

No longer just a gimmick or something for gamers, virtual reality will change a lot about how the civilian work force and the military are trained. In 10 years we’ll look back and say, What did we do without this virtual reality?

Erik Petersen — a hero in war and peace


By Michael Raffety

Before the El Dorado Center moved to Campus Drive off Green Valley Road it was housed in portable buildings along Ray Lawyer Drive. Everyone called it UBR – University Behind Raley’s.

Beginning in 1979 I taught photography there, first in a portable and then in a trailer that featured half a dozen enlargers, a film processing room and a small classroom space.

There was another 55-foot-long trailer that was all classroom space, which I used for lecture space at the beginning of the course. Many people took my photography course as their first college course. I made sure they learned to make a good print and guided them in making a successful composition. Everyone who finished the course came away with some black-and-white photographic prints that they were proud of. This success encouraged many students to take other classes after mine.

One year, in addition to teaching beginning photography I also taught portraiture and studio lighting. As part of that course Erik Petersen came in and demonstrated retouching and spotting (removing dust spots). Erik, a resident of Lotus, was a retired professional photographer who was very expert at retouching portraits and spotting .

He was also one of my personal heroes of the 20th century.

An obituary for Erik Petersen appeared in the May 19 Mountain Democrat. He had moved to Grants Pass, Ore., after getting remarried in 2008. He was 96.

What the obit missed was his service in World War II. It was because of that service that he came into my office in 1987 when the Mountain Democrat was downtown.

Erick brought in a National Geographic article in 1987 that said the Soviets liberated Plzen, Czechoslovakia. Eric was darned mad. He was a tank driver in Patton’s 16th Armored Division, which had liberated Plzen and western Bohemia May 3, 1945, when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered Patton’s Third Army to halt outside Prague. He was there. He knew who liberated Plzen. The town and the Army made a plaque commemorating the U.S. Army’s liberation of Plzen from the Germans. The Soviets later hid that plaque.

Erik persisted in his campaign about the truth of who liberated Plzen. Eventually we had a great photographic spread in our paper of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Plzen in 1995. Erik attended the annual celebration every year, going all the way up through the 65th anniversary in 2010. Furthermore, his enthusiasm seemed to accumulate friends who joined him for his annual May trek to Plzen. The town goes all out on celebrating its liberation in 1945, with everyone dressing up in period costumes and doing reenactments like this country does Civil War reenactments.

Among the friends that Erik swept up into his joyous liberation visits was George Patton Waters. Waters didn’t join the Army. He served five years in the Navy on a destroyer off the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. Then he started a real estate investment company that he operated in Louisiana. He also served on board of the Medal of Honor Foundation, which a little before 2008 issued a book telling the story of then-139 living and recently deceased Medal of Honor winners, with an introduction by then President George W. Bush and essays by Tom Brokow and Sen. John McCain.

His cousin Robert H. Patton –- grandson of Gen. George S. Patton — broke the family tradition and didn’t serve in the military. He became a novelist, then switching to nonfiction with a book in 1994 about the Patton family that relied extensively on letters and diaries held by the Patton family. The history includes service in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II and the Vietnam War. I read his more recent book called “Patriot Pirates.”

Gen. George S. Patton, a cavalry officer, decided the newly developed tanks were what he wanted to be part of in World War I. After attending French tank school he developed tactics and commanded the U.S tank battalion until he was wounded while walking in front of his tanks. He was promoted to colonel by the end of the war. Most people know about his WWII tanks and the speed with which his Third Army moved, relentlessly attacking and breaking the Battle of the Bulge.

Gen. Patton died Dec. 21, 1945 as a result of an auto accident.

Most recently I read a book about the cadre of generals that came out of World War I – George Marshall, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur.

I admire these generals, but the most inspirational hero I personally met was Erik Petersen.

A few juicy China tidbits and water thievery


By Michael Raffety

I’ve written about the huge hoard of aluminum shifted from Mexico to Vietnam by

China’s Zhongwang Holdings Ltd., amounting to 14 percent of the aluminum in the world.

But the world’s biggest producer of aluminum is China’s Hongqiao Group Ltd. That company, employing 60,000, is facing fraud allegations from two short sellers and is feuding with its accountant over the fraud allegations. An April 15 article in the Wall Street Journal by Scott Patterson in London and Brian Spegele in Beijing refers to complaints by American companies of “unfair tactics” and “could also reinforce the broader concerns over what many view as questionable business practices by China’s industrial giants…”

Hongqiao complained to the Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Industry Association, “saying the short sellers’ claims of inflated profits were forcing the company’s accountant, Ernst & Young ‘to adopt an extremely conservative and careful attitude,’” Patterson and Segele wrote.

“Conservative and careful?” That’s the very definition of accountants. Nobody, at least in America, wants an accountant to be wild and careless.

Ernst & Young suspended its 2016 audit, asking the company to commission an independent investigation of the short sellers’ claims. Without an audit Hongqiao could be investigated by the Hong Kong securties regulators and its credit rating has already dropped into junk status, putting at risk its $10 billion in debt, already $700 million of that facing default without relief from the creditors.

On Feb. 28 Emerson Analytics issued a report accusing Hongqiao of “abnormally high profits” resulting from underreporting producing costs.

. . .

Maybe China can control its bubble economy and maybe it can’t. Here’s an item from the April 1 Wall Street Journal: “Total credit in the Chinese banking system is now 106 percent of deposits, up from 80 percent in 2013. For midsize banks it’s 130 percent.”

From the March 30 WSJ comes the information that Chinese “banks and other financial institutions borrowed $6.4 trillion from each other last month.”

Uncollateralized interbank lending in China totaled $34 trillion last year. Chinese banks are selling “wealth management products” to customers that are backed by largely opaque bundles of debt and assets leveraging “everything from government bonds to garlic.” Now here’s a bet that will ward off vampires and the evil eye.

The nickel summary is Chinese businessmen and women work hard and take chances. Some of them pay off and some of them wind up being kind of shaky, even shady.

. . .

On a completely different subject, the state is trying to steal our water. It was only recently that the governor lifted the drought declaration. Never forget that Gov. Jerry Brown is a lawyer and a former monk. Only he could think of a way to get around the state Water Code and the state Constitution.

He is doing that by “making conservation as a way of life.” There are several bills that his minions in the Legislature are using to implement that scheme by empowering the state water board to impose permanent conservation on all of us by limiting our daily consumption to 55 gallons of water inside and 55 gallons outside.

Look at your EID bill and you will see where it identifies you daily water consumption. The only way I would get down to 55 gallons a day is to eat off paper plates and take out laundry to the laundramat.

That’s not the only way the governor is going to grab senior water rights, such as EID’s which date to 1850 and 1851. The State Water Resources Control Board wants water districts to release “unimpaired flows” from February through June. That would leave EID with not enough water to serve its customers.

For water purveyors throughout the state it is a year of living dangerously as they all battle back against the legislative onslaught.

Messing with sailors’ technical identity

Michael Raffety


Among the harebrained schemes from officials associated with President Obama’s administration was one cooked up by his Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.

Mabus thought it would be a wonderful idea for all 265,000 sailors in the Navy to drop their ratings. He thought sailors should have job titles like other military services.

If sailors wanted to look like the Air Force with just a bunch of stripes and only a piece of paper distinguishing a dog handlers from a sous chef they would have joined the Air Force or the Army.

For the general public it may seem mysterious as much as it may have to Mabus. But to sailors the rating insignia on the shoulder is a point of pride and also an important identifier on a ship. Everyone who achieves the rank of Petty Officer 3rd Class is entitled to display his or her rating with above his stripe and below an eagle.

The important ratings on a ship are Hull Maintenance Technician, Damage Controllman and Engineman. The elite ranks on a ship are Boatswain’s mate and Quartermaster. Boatswain’s mate is the senior rating in the Navy and Quartermaster helps steer the ship and plot its course.

Other ratings that are recognizable and unique are Musician and Journalist.

I was an Aviation Electronics Technician. My insignia featured electrons circling a bunch of protons with wings attached.

The Antarctic Development Squadron I was attached to my last two years in the Navy had an unusual collection of ratings. We had a Journalist’s mate, a whole photo lab full of photographer’s mates and a crew of parachute riggers.

The parachute riggers sewed colorful parka shells for all the officers and enlisted men. I don’t think there was anyone in our squadron below the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class (E-5). The parachute specialists prided themselves on making the highest altitude drop over Antarctica and over the South Pole. Anyone one brave enough to make 10 jumps could get their parachute wings. I was not among group of daredevils. But the supply officer made 10 jumps out of a helicopter to get his parachute wings added to his aviator’s wings.

There were two contingents in Antarctica – the air crew and aviation mechanics who worked on the ski equipped C-130 Hercules. They lived in canvas Quonset huts down on the ice. I was with the group assigned to “The Hill” since I worked in the electronics shop doing bench repair work on equipment. We also maintained the H-34 helicopter, which was primarily used to drop off and pick up scientists.

On the hill we lived in metal Quonset huts. All the petty officers lived in the “Lifer’s Lounge.” The Chief petty officers had their own quarters. One of them was in charge of banging on frozen piss barrels at the back of the hut to see if they were full and needed to be replaced.

Not part of our squadron but part of the scene on the Hill were Naval Construction Battalions. Their rating insignias were everything from a bulldozer for an equipment operator to a hunk of steel on a hook for a steel worker.

Not that we saw any of their ratings in Antarctica. Everybody was bundled up in parkas, specialized sunglasses and big “bunny boots.” Later in the summer it got warm enough that the snow melted on the Hill and produced little rivulets and a water shortage.

Electricity came from a nuclear plant. It was run by an Electronics Technician with a nuclear specialty. Within each rating there are often specialties. Mine was ATR, meaning Aviation Electronics Technician Radar. I also was trained to work on communications equipment.

When I was sent to learn a specific kind of radar, which required a secret clearance, I was kind of surprised to find some of my fellow classmates were Jordanians and Israelies. I guess that airborne radar wasn’t that secret.

The order eliminating naval ratings was issued September 2016. By December 2016 they were reinstated by popular demand.

President Trump has not successfully nominated someone as naval secretary yet. His appointees for Naval and Army secretaries have withdrawn due to the difficulty of disposing of their wealth in a way that would satisfy the Ethics Office. Whoever wins appointment to naval secretary, it’s a good bet he or she won’t mess with naval technical ratings.







Rain records, North Korea and the USS Enterprise

Michael Raffety


March wasn’t as rainy as it usually is. Often it is referred to as a March Miracle. This year the Mountain Democrat only recorded 3.02 inches in March.

Nevertheless it boosted the total rain for the year to 59.40 inches, putting it in the top nine of rain years, with three months left to go before the rain year ends June 30. This is the 144th year of rainfall statistics compiled by the Mountain Democrat and PG&E.

PG&E abruptly stopped recording its weather stats in 2011.

The Mountain Democrat follows the National Weather Service definition of a rain year starting July 1. Water project managers use the U.S. Geological Survey’s hydrologic year that begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30. The State Water Quality Control Board follows the latter water year, and therefore has different years it calls record water years and is more prone to call a year a drought when in the foothills we would merely call it a low rain year.

In El Dorado County the state gets its rain data from Pacific House. For a hint of what’s happening at Pacific House I look for George Osborne’s rain gauge. Osborne lives in the upper reaches of Camino’s Audubon Hills subdivision. As of April 7 he had recorded 80.92 inches of rain.

. . .

The administration diverted the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson from a port of call in Australia to the Sea of Japan off the Korean Peninsula. All aircraft carriers are nuclear powered. When I was in the Navy there was only one nuclear powered carrier – the USS Enterprise. It was inactivated Dec. 1, 2012, and decommissioned the same day my daughter gave birth, Feb. 3, 2017.

The Enterprise was the only aircraft carrier to have two nuclear power plants. I happened to bring up the Enterprise at the dinner table I was sitting at for the American Legion’s monthly dinner and meeting. That’s when I learned from someone who seemed personally knowledgeable who remarked that the Enterprise could go fast enough to outrun its destroyer escorts. Maximum speed was pretty fast, fast enough that I don’t think it would be wise for me to put it in writing.

. . .

I don’t know if the carrier group is going to do anything but look menacing. One of the most effective deterrents was when President George W. Bush cut off North Korea from banking. Bush later eased off the banking ban. The banking ban ought to be re-imposed. Even though North Korea has an isolated Internet, it has been able to reach out to the outside world with thievery and mayhem. I wrote in an earlier column about North Korea using Swift, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, to try to steal $1 billion from Bangladesh’s Swift account at the New York Fed. It got away with $81 million. The Hermit Kingdom is also believed to have stolen money from Ecuador.

The April 11 Wall Street Journal reported that the state-owned Union Bank of India was infected with malware that allowed theft of $171 million. Investigators have linked the hacking modus operandi to the Bangladesh theft, and prosecutors are targeting North Korea. India blocked most of the transfer last July and recovered all money transferred to other countries within 24 hours. In recent months cyber attacks have targeted banks in Mexico, Poland, Great Britain and the U.S. Cyber experts have tagged North Korea for some of these. Remember that North Korea hacked and ruined the computers at Sony Pictures over a slapstick spoof of Kim Jong Un.

This is how the Hermit Kingdom makes its living – bank heists and counterfeit money, along with nuclear weapons and missile sales. The U.S. needs to disrupt North Korea’s hackers and its Internet.

. . .

The Enterprise has a long history beginning with a Revolutionary war sailing vessel on Lake Champlain. It was burned July 5, 1775, to prevent its capture by the British. Benedict Arnold commanded that navy and succeeded in preventing the British from using Lake Champlain to conquer New York State.

The more famous Enterprise was the schooner used in the first Barbary Pirates War. The first Enterprise carrier, CV-6, was built in 1938. It became the most decorated ship from World War II. The next Enterprise will be CVN-80, a Gerald Ford-class carrier due to begin construction next year and delivery due in 2025.

The aluminum caper

Michael Raffety

April 3, 2017

In 2015 someone flew over central Mexico and discovered a huge cache of aluminum stacked up and fenced in. The Mexico stash represented 6 percent of global inventories. After the stockpile was brought to light in the Wall Street Journal it was moved to Vietnam –- about 1.7 million tons has been stored there since 2015. It is valued at $5 billion.

The $5 billion aluminum cache belongs to Chinese aluminum magnate Liu Zhongtian, age 52. He is chairman of what the Wall Street Journal describes as an aluminum “behemoth” -– China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd.

To get around the limit of taking no more than $50,000 out of the country annually Liu has used different companies, including one run by his son to shift boatloads of aluminum out of the country.

In a Dec. 29, 2016 Wall Street Journal article by Scott Patterson, it was revealed that Liu’s real motivation is to see the aluminum stockpiles as his retirement plan. He already spent 650,000 Euros to buy citizenship from the Mediterranean island of Malta, a member of the European Common Market. Liu’s real plan is to retire in Switzerland. This was uncovered in some emails. Of course, Liu denies all this and denies he knows the law firm working on his retirement plan.

Trying to import some of his vast horde of aluminum to the U.S. from Mexico or Vietnam is a different matter. The Commerce Department found the company received illegal Chinese subsidies and was “dumping” the aluminum below market prices. That puts it in the category of a 374 percent tariff.

Chinese aluminum production in 2015 added up to 55 percent of global output, up from 24 percent a decade earlier. U.S aluminum output accounted for 2.7 percent from five aluminum smelters operating at the end of 2016, down from 23 smelters in 2000.

Just before the inauguration of Donald Trump the U.S. government seized a “vast aluminum trove,” according to the headline in the Jan. 14 Wall Street Journal. The value of the seized aluminum was $25 million. The aluminum belonged to a company founded by Liu’s son and now run by one of Liu’s “close business associates.”

Liu’s spokeswoman denied Zhongwang Holdings Ltd. had any connection to the company.

The Vietnam horde by this time amounted to 14 percent of global inventories, shipping records show.

The seized aluminum, in shipping containers, was actually aluminum pallets, something airline shippers use to reduce weight. And others use the aluminum pallets to hold heavy weight. The pallets are actually exempt from the anti-dumping law. Pallets are shaped aluminum welded together. Homeland Security released 164 containers but retained 552.

The aluminum pallets were shipped from Vietnam.

The seized shipping containers remain so, as far as I can determine. Also left hanging is Zhongwang Holdings Ltd..’s $3.5 billion bid to acquire an American aluminum company. President Obama’s Treasury secretary was set to do a review of this acquisition as detrimental to national security. Both the seized containers and the corporate acquisition are left hanging by the transition and Senate Democrats’ slow walking every Trump nominee.