Tube City Online

Filed Under: default || By jt3y

February 28, 2005 | Link to this story

Winter Storm Warning! Head for the Hills!

Category: default || By jt3y

Why are you reading this? There's a snowstorm a-comin'! The blizzard of ought-five! The kind of snowstorm that people will be talking about ... well, until the next snowstorm! You should be out buying toilet paper and bread!

By the way, I'm not sure why everyone in the Mon Valley buys toilet paper and bread during snowstorms. Unless they like to sit by a crackling fire, watch the snowfall and eat Town Talk and Charmin. Or maybe the fear of a snowstorm causes their bowels to loosen. In which case, just what the heck are they doing with the bread?

Since I was busy this weekend battening down hatches in preparation for this historic weather event, I'll turn the remainder of today's Almanac over to the author of the truly remarkable spam email I received over the weekend. Here it is, verbatim:

When the Sakala Brothers duet of Moses and Levy penned their hit song Sandra which spoke of a woman who became an instant millionaire after 'sweet-hearting' dogs, Chawama bizarre rumour mongers had their own humourous way of condemning the inhuman behaviour which was the main talking point at the beginning of this millennium. A 2002 report by the West Virginia Nursing Shortage Study Commission predicted that the region would need an additional 448 nurses by 2008. The report also said the region lacked a way to track how many nursing students were "in the pipeline" to meet the projected need. Stephen has said that, unless his agency changes the way it does business, taxpayers will no longer be able to shoulder the spiraling costs of caring for New Hampshire's most needy residents. The goal of GraniteCare is to reduce nursing home admissions by shifting to home-based care when clinically appropriate. Todd Roberts, a partner in the Redwood City office of Ropers Majeski Kohn Bentley, which is representing the Gorilla Foundation, told the paper his firm was still reviewing the suit. There is a township in Zambia that would produce many mystery writers in the world of stranger-than-fiction, it is Lusaka's Chawama township where residents have a very subtle way of adding their voice to the various issues affecting them. Haverty's is a full-service home furnishings retailer with 118 showrooms in 16 southern, central and south Atlantic states providing its customers with a wide selection of quality merchandise in middle- to upper-middle price ranges. But geez, if we spend too much time on that we won't have a chance to mull over, as Marv Albert used to say, the 'wild and wacky.' Therein lies the real story of this day.

Is that all perfectly clear to you? Good.

I'm not sure, but I think the computer that spit that out was possessed by the spirit of Hunter Thompson.

And I have no idea what they were selling, by the way, but I want some of whatever they're smoking.


Funny cartoon here, but you've got to have Macromedia Flash Player installed on your computer. It's by Jim McNeill, and it's called "Lap Dance," and no, it's not what you think, you sick monkeys. Cat owners will appreciate it, however. (Tip of the Tube City hard hat to the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.strips.)

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Posted at 12:03 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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February 25, 2005 | Link to this story

The Email Must Go Through

Category: default || By jt3y

Correspondence! We get correspondence! We get stacks and stacks of correspondence! Bad weather? We scoff at bad weather. Scoff, scoff! Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays our electrons from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

First-Time Reader Angela checks in to ask:

I am moving up to McKeesport sometime soon. I am curious to know where I could start my search for a job in reception. I have already looked in the local papers (well what I could find on here) and I just need some help from a local around there. And is there any shopping around McKeesport? Thanks ahead of time for any help!

Well, welcome to Our Fair City, Angela, and good luck! There are some challenges in the Mon-Yough area, but there are a lot of opportunities, too.

When you say "reception," I assume you mean a job as an office assistant or something similar. Two large employers in McKeesport right now are Dish Network (Echostar) and UPMC McKeesport Hospital. Echostar has a national call center in McKeesport, and they post job openings on their website. UPMC McKeesport is a large community hospital affiliated with University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

You should also check with McKeesport Area School District and Penn State McKeesport Campus.

Our Fair City is close to West Mifflin, Monroeville, and North Huntingdon, and only about 20 minutes by car from Pittsburgh, so you may also want to expand your job search slightly. You can find job listings from The Daily News and other local papers via Adquest.

As for shopping, there is a fairly new shopping development called The Waterfront up in Homestead, and large shopping malls in West Mifflin (Century III) and Monroeville (Monroeville Mall). Shopping in McKeesport itself is, unfortunately, pretty limited these days to supermarkets, florists, etc. --- no big clothing stores or stuff like that.

Good luck, and welcome to the area!


Alert Reader Arden wants to know:

Just read about this in the latest Wired ... have you ever thought about podcasting Tube City Online? Sorta like doing a radio reading of your blog ... which might be a interesting new frontier for Tube City Omnimedia.

Well, I have been told I have an excellent face for radio. Also, some of my friends say they like to hear me on the radio, because then they can turn me off.

One problem is that we lack the infrastructure here at Tube City Omnimedia World Headquarters, high in the hills above Our Fair City, to support a podcast. However, thanks to a donation of a new computer by Dementia Unlimited Technical Support, we have recently replaced our Timex Sinclair with a newer machine, and we are also looking to upgrade our 300 baud modem. So, something like that is a possibility in the future.

Of course, there is still a semi-dormant effort to bring a low-power FM radio station to Our Fair City, and I am involved with that organization, along with seven other people. We were rarin' to go until Congress kicked the legs out from under the FCC rules that would have allowed these small community broadcasters to go on the air.

However, U.S. Senators John McCain, Patrick Leahy and Maria Cantwell have introduced new bipartisan legislation that would relax the arbitrary restrictions that have hampered our effort, and those of so many other non-profit groups. As they say on the radio, "stay tuned"!


Alert Reader John says:

I thought I'd share with you some stuff I found on the internet while looking for other things. This website has information regarding St. Mary's German Church on Olive Street. I was depressed when I learned it was demolished back in 1997. I'm happy to find out that paintings in the church were saved, and are displayed at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pa. The site has some interesting information about the artist-monks who painted them in the early 1900's. I'd like to know where the very large image of God sitting at the throne is located. That image seemed so life-like when I was a kid.

Great website, John! Thanks.

I attended St. Mary's German School from second through fourth grades, and I don't remember that particular painting, though we went to Mass once a week. I do remember being surprised that there were swastikas carved into the marble pillars; of course, the church was built 30 years before those symbols would come to be associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany. I was later told that swastikas were originally benign and was a form of decoration that German Christians often used.

To a little kid, St. Mary's German was a dark, forbidding church. Unlike modern churches, which strive for a relaxed, informal feeling, St. Mary's made you feel the foreboding power of God --- as if he was not only present in that church, but he was ticked off. That's very Germanic, now that I think of it.

Like you, I found the demolition of St. Mary's disappointing, though McKeesport was definitely "overchurched" at the time. St. Mary's had very unusual architecture (historians considered it one of the best examples of Italian basilica-style church design in the U.S.), and had it been located in Pittsburgh, it undoubtedly would have been preserved for some other use, like a concert hall or restaurant. Once architectural treasures like St. Mary's are gone, they're lost forever. And what did we gain in place of St. Mary's? An empty, weedy lot.

On the other hand, the old Protestant church (Baptist, I think?) across Olive Street is still standing even though the congregation is long gone, and it's been sad to watch that building torn apart by vandals and homeless people. Sometimes I wonder if it's for the best that St. Mary's is gone, rather than watching it fall into disrepair.

John adds: "I just wanted to say I love the Tube City Almanac. I look forward to reading it every morning."

Thanks for the kind words. Some people like to print out the Tube City Almanac and take it into the necessary room when they have their morning constitutional. They find it comes in handy in case they run out of paper. In fact, Tube City Omnimedia is thinking about introducing a new quilted, double-ply version of the Almanac just for that purpose. Other people like to read the Almanac at lunchtime, especially if they're on a diet; it helps suppress their appetites.


Confidential to Professor Quackenbush: Just because you can't drive a rear-wheel drive car in the snow doesn't mean that the big kids don't know how. After all, the late Hunter S. Thompson used to tool around Colorado --- which gets a lot more snow than Western Pennsylvania --- in a Chevy Caprice convertible with a 454 V-8 and a racing suspension (the infamous "Red Shark"). And he was doing it high on God-knows-what --- we're sober. My advice, Quacky, is to keep the training wheels on your bicycle and stay on the sidewalk where you belong!


To Do This Weekend: McKeesport Symphony Orchestra presents "In Sousa Style," 7:30 p.m. Saturday at McKeesport Area High School auditorium. Tickets start at $12. Call (412) 664-2854 ... The Al Lewis Big Band plays The Palisades, Fifth Avenue at Water Street, 9 p.m. Saturday. Call (412) 678-6979 ... The Flow Band plays Beemer's, West Fifth Avenue near the Mansfield Bridge, at 9 p.m. tonight. Call (412) 678-7400.

And last but certainly not least, the girls' basketball team at my dear alma mater plays Clairton at 5 p.m. today at the A.J. Palumbo Center for the WPIAL championship. Serra Catholic is 20 and 1 and averaging more than 70 points per game. The Tube City Almanac, being the objective publication that it is, does not take sides. But I do. GO EAGLES!

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Posted at 12:18 am by jt3y | Click here and put your ad on Tube City Almanac!
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February 24, 2005 | Link to this story

Still Babbling By the Babbling Yough

Category: default || By jt3y

Sometimes I get really worried that someone might actually take the babble written in the Almanac and elsewhere at Tube City Online seriously. Like, for instance, a few weeks ago, I commented on two things that made me scratch my head about Our Fair City's website; namely, that the bridge pictured in the banner was obviously not in Our Fair City, and that a page about the history of the city made a very flattering reference to the former mayor.

About a week later, I checked the website, and both of those things had been corrected. Geez-oh-Pete, someone at City Hall isn't really reading this stuff, are they?

If so, I have four words for them: Get back to work!

No, seriously, to Mayor Brewster and anyone else who might be out there looking at this nonsense: Hello, and feel free to send complaints, corrections, bouquets and brickbats to me via email or snail mail. Don't hesitate to give me the business. (Everyone else already does.)

Also, I tease the Mon-Yough area because I love the Mon-Yough area; I hope that's obvious. It dawned on me the other day that I've never lived more than walking distance from the Monongahela River; the farthest away was three or four years when I was first growing up in Versailles. Even in college, I was only a mile or two away from the mighty Monongahela.

(Meaning for all of these years, I've been drinking Mon River water, which probably explains my dain bramage.)

That's why I'm always happy when I see a story like this one by Jonathan Barnes in the Post-Gazette:

Next month, Canady Technology will open its headquarters in the Industrial Center of McKeesport, and the firm's founder, who lives in McKeesport, as well as town leaders say a new Mon Valley legacy will start on this former site of the National Tube mill.

The town already is the birthplace of the Canady Catheter, which spawned the company and which is named after its inventor, transplant surgeon Dr. Jerome Canady.

During his residency at UPMC McKeesport Hospital in 1991, Canady developed the flexible catheter which bears his name.

According to Barnes' story, the Canady office will employ 10 people at first. Eventually, up to 300 people will be working there at a facility to manufacture the catheters.

And you wonder why they still call it the "Tube City."

You can read more about the Canady Catheter here. (This is a good time for one of those disclaimers: You know, the opinions expressed here are not those of my employers, my friends, my family, or the Commissioner of Major League Baseblog.)

Also from Barnes in the P-G: Efforts to rehab the Lysle Boulevard parking garage continue. Possible uses include parking for RIDC's industrial park, just across the railroad tracks, or a park and ride lot for Picksberg-bound commuters (as was suggested here in the Almanac some time ago).

In an item from elsewhere in the news, let's play "what if."

Let's say hypothetically that you had an alcohol problem and you beat your spouse. Then, hypothetically, let's say the cops showed up one night to break up an argument. Hypothetically speaking, you shot one of them in the chest at point-blank range with a .44 Magnum and blew him over the railing of your porch.

And then, again, strictly hypothetically, you were arrested, charged with attempted homicide, then convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Hypothetically speaking, do you think your employer would allow you to take an early retirement and collect your flipping pension?

At my alma mater, that's apparently how it works. I was reading the news stories this week (Post-Gazette, Tribune-Review) about the shooting of Mount Lebanon police officer Daniel Rieg and noticed that the person convicted in the shooting is being referred to as a "former" or "retired" professor. A quick search through the archives of those newspapers revealed that after his arrest he took early retirement.

Now, I'm assuming that this fellow had a contract that obligated the institution to pay his pension. But don't those contracts have morals clauses? Meaning that if you did something illegal that brought disrepute upon yourself and (by inference) the institution, like, oh, I don't know, for example, shooting a cop, the contract was no longer binding.

I appreciate the need for compassion, and I'm glad that my alma mater has some compassion for someone who's clearly having a rough time of things right now.

But I also wonder exactly what tiny fraction of those big student loan payments I make every month are going for this fellow's pension.

By the way, remember that disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, not those of my employers, my friends, my family, or the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which according to the commercial that runs every morning on the radio, was voted as having the "best-tasting water by the American Water Works Association."

Which brings up another question: Isn't water supposed to be odorless and tasteless? But that's a question for another Almanac, I suppose.

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February 23, 2005 | Link to this story

Your Tax Dollars At Something

Category: default || By jt3y

Up in Harrisburg, your state Legislature has been busy, busy, busy.

OK, they didn't find time to arrange funding for mass transit before they took off for a break. (State legislators don't ride buses --- get real!)

Yes, there are still potholes forming in the state highways around the Mon-Yough area that are large enough to form their own townships.

Maybe our school property tax system is as antiquated as a canalboat full of buggy whips.

And sure, our local municipalities are straining under the weight of providing police, fire and public works service.

But you're missing the point. The Pennsylvania General Assembly doesn't have time for that kind of penny-ante nonsense. Our solons are tackling the real issues:

Public schools would be required to start the day with the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem under a bill that would revive certain elements of a state law that a federal appeals court overturned last year.

Two of the bill's sponsors, Republican state Sens. Jeffrey Piccola and James Rhoades, said Wednesday they believe the new bill would withstand a legal challenge because it would not require students' parents to be notified if they declined to say the pledge or sing the anthem.

The parental-notification requirement of the law, which was passed and signed in 2002, was cited in a district judge's ruling that declared it unconstitutional in 2003. An appellate court upheld the decision in August.

Of all of the pressing problems confronting the Commonwealth, the shocking lack of patriotism among grammar schoolers is the most important, I think. I keep seeing gangs of elementary-school kids at bus stops sporting Che Guevara T-shirts and anarchist tattoos, don't you? Of course you do!

I'm not sure why, since in the same AP story, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association says that "only a few" school districts anywhere in the state don't require students to say the pledge.

Nevertheless, before this kind of rampant lawlessness got out of control, legislators swung into action, and they've struck an important blow for ... something. Their own re-elections, most likely. Can you imagine what would happen to any legislator who failed to vote for this law? "Joe Doakes doesn't think kids should say the Pledge of Allegiance. What does he have to hide?"

Nice work, guys! Take another leased car out of petty cash.

Still, Pennsylvania has a long way to go. Our elected officials are a group of pikers when it comes to tackling the important issues that shape our modern world. For real, hot, stimulating legislative action, one must turn to Pennsylvania's sister state, Alabama. The Montgomery, Ala., Advertiser explains:

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to review the constitutionality of an Alabama law banning the sale of sex toys, but that doesn't mean products are going to be pulled from Alabama store shelves.

A judge's injunction stopping enforcement of the law remains in effect, and the judge will have to decide whether to leave it in effect until other issues in the case are resolved, said Alabama Attorney General Troy King, who has been defending the law. ...

In 1998, the Alabama Legislature enacted a law that bans only the sale of sex toys, not their possession. Alabama residents may lawfully purchase sex toys out of state for use in Alabama, or use them if the devices have other recognized medical or therapeutic uses.

That's why they have those big signs on the Interstates leading into Alabama: "Sell a vibrator, go to jail. It's the law."

Now, there are those who would say, "When marital aids are outlawed, only outlaws will have marital aids." But I say to these people, "Please wash your hands before touching anything in this room."

Let's review: Enforced patriotism? OK. Sex toys? Not OK.

I feel safer already, don't you?

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February 22, 2005 | Link to this story

Things I Learned from the Internet

Category: default || By jt3y

Things I learned from the Internet while I was looking for other things:


Good grief!

It's been five years this month since Charles Schulz died. Feb. 13, 2000, to be exact. I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, and while I'm soft (in the head, mostly), I'm not too proud to admit I cried a little. I think the idea that he had died the night before his last comic strip was set to run was a little bit too much for me.


This is truly a bizarre waste of time. TV Party has posted a page of pilots and promos for '70s TV shows. The promo for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" includes a version of the famous "You've got spunk" scene that you've probably never seen before. You'll also get to see the original anchors of "20/20," who were replaced after the pilot.


Have you seen those online services that allow you to create a smaller URL? "Abcde ... Whatever" allows you to create the world's longest email addresses.


Why do the people at "Anti-Magnet" hate America?

We don't hate America, we hate that people think slapping a stupid magnet on the back of their car has meaning. Mostly everyone in this country supports the troops and hopes they will return safely. Maybe you should be telling them directly in person, on the phone or in a letter and not driving around with a big magnetic banner you probably got at Wal-Mart that simply attempts to prove to everybody but the troops that you support the troops more than everybody else.


Another fake journalist has snuck into a White House press conference, according to Denis Horgan of the Hartford Courant:

Reporter: Yes, Bill Jones here, a.k.a. Tom True, a.k.a. Rev. Wholey Rowler. My tough independent question is, Do you think that the President is even more handsome today than he was a week or ago? And, really, is there any end to how dashing and gallant he can be? Whatta hunk.


The Palm Beach man who bought Cracked magazine a few years ago has sold it to a group of Arab investors. One wonders how well poop jokes are going to go over in Bahrain.


Should Walt Disney's "Song of the South" --- an animated and live-action feature long believed to be racially insensitive --- be released on home video? An African-American animator who worked on the project thinks so:

Those old enough to have worked at the Mouse House back in the sixties might remember that Disney animated features were often loaned to employees for private screenings. Of course, the films were not meant for the general public. In order for my experiment to work, I had to fudge the rules a bit, but it was worth it. I borrowed a copy of Disney's "Song of the South," and filled a hall with dozens of black families. I threaded the 16mm film into my Bell and Howell projector, and the show began. The audience laughed, cried and cheered the film. It appeared the movie made by a "racist" named Walt Disney failed to enrage black people -- it delighted them. And, it seemed to me that Disney's fear factor was not real, but imagined.


Frequent Roger Ebert contributor Andy Ihnatko writes a very funny online column (I hate that word "blog!") called "YellowText."


I don't know who runs "Bizbag," but he or she's got a great collection of vintage cartoons from National Lampoon, The New Yorker, and other publications, along with texts from H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and other writers and funny, famous quotes. (Warning: Some of the Lampoon stuff is only marginally safe for work viewing.)


You can search for --- and purchase! --- photos and advertising art of your favorite GM cars and trucks from the General Motors archives at "GM Photo Store." And even if you're not buying, it's a lot of fun to look at images like this one from 1962 showing kids playing around the new Chevy Impala, Pontiac Bonneville, Cadillac Sedan de Ville, Olds Starfire and Buick Electra 225. (I'd darned near kill for that Olds convertible, by the way.)


And finally, Chef Boyardee was a real person. Hector Boiardi was a famous chef who finally opened his own restaurant in Cleveland, from where he began selling jars of his famous spaghetti sauce. He finally had to open a factory to keep up the demand; that operation was eventually sold, and is now part of ConAgra Foods.

Of course, Chef Boiardi would probably gag if he tasted the tomato-flavored library paste that's mass-produced now with his photo on the cans, but he died 20 years ago, so what can he do about it?

No word yet on what Mr. Spaghettios thinks of the products made with his name on them.


(OK, before you email me, of course there was no Mr. Spaghetti-o's. The inventor's name was Ralph Miller, but I guess they couldn't call them "Ralph-os," since that's more a description of what you do after you eat them than before.)

(And speaking of anniversaries, Spaghetti-o's are 40 years old this year. Whether that means the concept of Spaghetti-o's or the actual Spaghetti-o's they're selling right now, I leave to your own imagination.)

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February 21, 2005 | Link to this story

Teach Your (Grand) Children Well

Category: default || By jt3y

My brother called me Friday. "You know that today is grandma's birthday, right?" My unprintable response indicated otherwise.

Her birthday has only fallen on the same day for (mumble-mumble) years. In fact, for my whole life, as it might be apparent. You might think that I could find some space in what's left of my brain to remember it, but no, every year, it's a big surprise. Am I self-centered much? Maybe I should write it down --- with a tattoo on my forehead, for instance.

I was extremely lucky in being able to know all of my grandparents, and remain extremely fortunate in that my grandmothers are both still alive, at somewhere north of age 39. Or as birthday grandma said this weekend, "They say life begins at 40, but they don't tell you what kind of life!"

I learn something new every time I talk to my grandmothers. This weekend, I learned that she saw the infamous Dionne quintuplets during a visit to see my Aunt Marie up in northern Ontario during the 1930s. As grandma remembers, visitors were taken up to a balcony to look down on a nursery where the children were playing.

(As it turns out, her memory is spot-on --- that's exactly how the quints were exhibited.)

She grew up in Our Fair City's East End, in a neighborhood that's mostly gone now, wiped out when Fifth Avenue was widened and an interchange was built at the east end of the McKeesport-Duquesne Bridge. Their house was on Sylvan Avenue, two doors away from Crooked Run Creek --- close enough, as she's told me in the past, that every time it rained, they had to move their furniture to higher floors.

Afterward in those pre-flood control and pre-sewage treatment days, she and her neighbors had the disgusting job of cleaning the muck out of their rented houses. Most of the neighbors were German immigrants, including my great-grandparents; indeed, my great-grandmother learned English by helping her children (including my grandmother) with her homework. The landlady for my grandmother's family was widowed; she lived in one room at the back of the house and worked in a McKeesport department store as a seamstress, sewing beads onto gowns by hand.

Birthday grandma was one of seven children --- six sisters and one brother --- though one sister died as an infant, and another died at age 11 after an accident at the old St. Mary's German School on Olive Street. According to grandma, she was jumping rope when several boys tripped her, seriously twisting her leg. The nuns sent her home in a taxi after she passed out in class.

But the doctor, an incompetent, didn't treat the wound properly, and after several days it went septic. It was only when a visiting nurse from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. came around and realized that my grandmother's sister was dying of blood poisoning that the little girl was rushed to McKeesport Hospital. By then, it was too late.

A third sister died a few years later, shortly after being married and giving birth to two children. Such was life in a Mon Valley milltown before modern medicine.

Yesterday, grandma recalled peddlers bringing wagons of fresh produce around the neighborhood. One peddler might bring nothing but potatoes; another, nothing but watermelons. Often, they'd water the horses in the creek and leave the wagons on Sylvan Avenue.

"The horses would thank us for the water by leaving a mess in the street," grandma recalls, "and the men in the neighborhood would go out and shovel it up and use it for their gardens."

During the Steel Strike of 1919, she says, there were new visitors to Sylvan Avenue --- mounted Pennsylvania State Police, who also watered their horses in Crooked Run.

When my great-grandfather got sick and died, the children were forced to drop out of school and get jobs, although the city required them to attend an alternative school for one day per week until they turned 16. A "waste of time," grandma says. "We sat and read magazines."

Grandma worked at the lunch counter at the old G.C. Murphy five and ten store on Fifth Avenue near Sheridan Street, while her mother took in laundry until she, too, became too ill to work.

When I left, grandma said, "I'm sorry that I tell you these old stories. I know nobody wants to hear them."

I'd never tell grandma she was wrong about anything, of course, but I admit I'm sometimes sorely tempted.


Last week I wrote about how addicted I am to Google. On a lark, while I was working on this entry, I "googled" the first name of my cousin's husband in Canada, along with the town he lives in and the business that he used to be in. I didn't even enter their last name, mind you.

Within two jumps I had pulled up a complete family tree, including a picture of my great-aunt --- that is to say, my grandmother's sister, who's been dead now for 20 years.

What a weird world we live in.


Speaking of Canada, I'm not a hockey fan, but I have found the whole NHL lockout-slash-strike fascinating to read about.

The Toronto Star says Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky were badly misused by their friends when they were asked to broker a deal between the NHL and the players' union:

What has become apparent is that both Gretzky, a managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Lemieux, a star player and reluctant owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, worked tirelessly to try to bridge the gap and broker a deal between the two sides after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the season last Wednesday. Colorado Avalanche owner Stanley Kroenke and Vancouver Canucks president Stanley McCammon were also said to be working for a deal.

The involvement of Gretzky and Lemieux spiked optimism that the imbroglio could finally be settled.

Going into Saturday, most media outlets in North America were predicting a deal was at hand, largely because they assumed that the two sides wouldn't risk dashing hockey fans' hopes once again.

But when the league and players actually sat down to talk, they discovered that the chasm between the two of them was wider than ever and both Gretzky and Lemieux, both firmly in the ownership camp, couldn't do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail says that several small-market hockey teams are breathing a sigh of relief that the talks collapsed again. The owner of the Ottawa Senators tells the paper that the proposed $42.5 million salary cap would have stretched his team to "the absolute limit."

Closer to home, the P-G's Bob Smizik says that despite the opprobrium being heaped on the heads of NHL Commish Gary Bettman and the small-market owners by the likes of the Noo Yawk media, they've done the right thing by holding the line:

What seems to be forgotten is that the NHL was something approaching a terminally ill condition before the lockout. Television ratings were a joke, public acceptance -- beyond hard-core fans -- was minimal. Hockey might have been considered by some to be one of the four major sports, along with football, baseball and basketball, but it has long since fallen from that group. Auto racing has a significantly larger following.

To have returned to that status might not have been the death of the NHL, but it would have been the death of the Pittsburgh franchise.

As a backsliding baseball fan, I hate to say this, but I almost wish something similar would happen in that sport. Without a major realignment of the game's priorities, and without someone restoring some sanity to the sport's salary structure, the Pirates, like the Penguins, simply cannot survive. It'll never happen, of course, as long as baseball has the lily-livered Bud Selig at the helm --- and more's the pity.

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February 18, 2005 | Link to this story

I Google, Therefore I Am

Category: default || By jt3y

Someone once described the Internet as being like a giant library, where all the books were dumped out on the floor. Google has gone a long way toward --- well, if not organizing the library, at least stacking the books in neat little piles.

I have no idea how many times a day I use Google at work, but it's got to be more than a dozen. It's become a public utility for me, like Duquesne Light. Just as I'm shocked (no pun intended) when my electricity goes out, I'd be just as stunned if Google suddenly went out.

I don't call directory assistance any more to get phone numbers, unless my dial-up connection is down. I just Google the name of the store or business (or, if it's a person, I use Verizon's site). Sometimes I come home and find a hang-up call on my answering machine. Press *69 and get the number, and then Google it: Oh. Why are they calling me?

The true sign of acceptance of a technology, I think, is when people start using it for frivolous purposes. Take telephones. Telephone calls were originally considered a special event --- if you had to tell something to someone, you wrote it in a letter and mailed it. No one in the 1920s thought of just picking up the phone to chat. You certainly didn't call across the country just to shoot the bull. And if you got a long distance telephone call, brother, something terrible had happened.

But a concerted marketing effort by Bell Telephone after World War II convinced people that they could afford to use the phone just to say "hi." "Let your fingers do the walking." "The next best thing to being there." "Reach out and touch someone."

Now, people have cell phones, and you can't get them to shut up. "Guess where I am right now? Yep! The bathroom!"

I use Google for similarly frivolous purposes. A while ago, I purchased the first two volumes of "SCTV" on DVD --- a frivolous enough thing in and of itself, but "SCTV" is just about the only TV show I would purchase on video. On one episode, there's a parody that turns "The Nutcracker" into a Neil Simon play set in a grand hotel, a la "Plaza Suite." Naturally, "SCTV's" version is called "Nutcracker Suite," and it features Dave Thomas as Neil Simon, Andrea Martin as Marsha Mason, Rick Moranis as Richard Dreyfuss, Joe Flaherty as Alan Alda and Eugene Levy as Judd Hirsch. It's better as a concept than in execution --- the sketch is a little long --- but it's entertaining enough.

"SCTV's" budget was so low that many sketches were shot on location, rather than on sets. In "Nutcracker Suite," there's a brief shot of the exterior of the hotel, and the marquee, which says "Hotel Macdonald." Hmm. Google came to the rescue, of course; sure enough, it's in Edmonton, where "SCTV" was taped for several years, and the reception desk and entrance are recognizable.

The same episode has a fairly well-known running sketch (at least to "SCTV" fans) where John Candy, playing blustering, blubbering, blowhard producer Johnny LaRue is forced to do a man-on-the-street interview show on Christmas Eve as a punishment. Again, it's got to be in Edmonton, but on what street? I got a glimpse of a restaurant sign in the background, Googled the name, and there it was: The Red Ox Inn. It looks exactly the same as it did when that episode was taped, more than 20 years ago.

The mind boggles. Millions and millions of dollars has been spent to install a technology infrastructure, so that I can sit in my stocking feet and looking up the address of a bar in Edmonton, Alberta, 2,000 miles away.

Actually, I just checked. It's 2,170.9 miles away. And don't get me started on how much I like online mapping programs.


To Do This Weekend: It's high school basketball playoff time --- is that "February Madness"? WPIAL Class AAAA boys' basketball quarterfinals, McKeesport vs. Mt. Lebanon, 12 p.m. Saturday, Ringgold High School, Carroll Township, Washington County. Class A boys' quarterfinals, Serra High vs. Leechburg, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Woodland Hills High School, Churchill. Class A girls' quarterfinals, Serra vs. Duquesne, 12 p.m. Saturday, Woodland Hills High School. ... Julius Falcon Combo plays the ballroom at The Palisades, Fifth Avenue at Water Street, 9 p.m. Saturday. Call (412) 678-6979.

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February 17, 2005 | Link to this story

Local News You May Have Missed

Category: default || By jt3y

Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Mon-Yough Valley, and all the barges in the river. Let's go to press!

Flash! Dateline, Mexico City, where we learn that the end has finally come for one of Fayette County's most notorious natives:

A fugitive child molester from Fayette County who violated a court order by trying to organize trips for youth choirs has died in Mexico.

John Shallenberger, 87, of Connellsville, had been wanted by Pennsylvania authorities since 1996, when he placed an advertisement in an alumni magazine, seeking young people to join him in Mexico where he claimed to be serving as a Christian missionary. ...

Shallenberger, a former choir director in Connellsville, was convicted in 1975 and 1985 of sexually abusing young boys during choir trips. He was ordered to stop organizing choir tours and recruiting children to sing on those tours. (Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette)

They're going to need to rent mourners, I suspect. I hope Mr. Shallenberger liked the weather in Mexico, 'cause it's plenty hotter where he's headed.

Flash! Dateline, Elizabeth Township, where a local district justice isn't getting any points for his efficiency:

After declaring that he was "not spending the day here," a district judge allegedly told defendants awaiting some 30 traffic hearings that they were all not guilty and ordered them to leave.

"What are you, a bunch of morons?" District Judge Ernest Marraccini asked the defendants when they balked at his order, according to a misconduct complaint filed yesterday by the state Judicial Conduct Board. (Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette)

In the interest of full disclosure, I've met Judge Marraccini, and found him to be professional. If this happened, I also can understand why the police officers were perturbed.

Let me just say, however, that if I had a traffic citation and the judge told me I wasn't guilty and I could go, I wouldn't "balk." I'd leave so fast that I'd get another traffic ticket on the way out of the parking lot.

Flash! Dateline, Elizabeth Township, where students at the middle school had an unusual visitor:

Elizabeth Forward Middle School students didn't get to meet Bill Cosby, but they got the next best thing.

To help celebrate Black History Month, the students sat down Thursday afternoon to listen to a presentation by Gregory Gibson Kenney, an actor and historical impersonator. Through the educational performance company EDUCATE Us Productions, Kenney takes on the roles of black historical figures. (Celanie Polanick, Daily News)

I happen to be a big fan of The Cos, but given his current legal problems, one might question the timing of this visit. I mean, what did Mr. Kenney do for an encore? The mind reels.

Flash! Dateline, Our Fair City, where they're singin' "how high's the water, mama?" out on Long Run Road:

When there's a heavy rain in McKeesport, there's a traffic jam on Route 48 as workers from Tom Clark Chevrolet drive the new and used cars to higher ground. They learned about the potential for flooding in their car lots in June 1996 and they aren't going to make the same mistake twice.

The city has been trying to get through a flood control project to stop the flooding of Long Run Creek, which caused the problems for the Chevrolet dealership. (Ann Belser, Post-Gazette)

I'll bet watching the employees at Tom Clark jockey cars around during a thunderstorm is significantly more interesting than this year's Pittsburgh Auto Show. And it's free.

Flash! Dateline, Our Fair City, which earned a dubious honor from the publishers of the Pittsburgh Business Times:

Every major city in the state ranks among the top quarter nationally for economic stress factors such as poverty, older housing and unemployment, according to research results released last week by American City Business Journals ...

Leading the way in hardship locally among smaller towns was McKeesport, which, out of 2,886 cities nationwide in that category, ranked 100th. (Dan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Business Times)

I hope American City Business Journals didn't spend too much working on that survey, because anyone could have told them that most of the communities in the Mon Valley are "stressed." Now, does anyone want to offer any solid suggestions about how we can unstress them? Maybe if we seed the water lines with Paxil?

Flash! Dateline, Irwin, where a friend in need is a friend, indeed:

Irwin volunteer firefighters were still buzzing Sunday afternoon about an unsolicited $5,000 donation they received from the Penns Woods Civic Association when an alarm sounded signaling a fire at Irwin Manor, a senior citizens high-rise.

Only their newly refurbished ladder truck was equipped to fight the blaze in a sixth-floor apartment of the seven-story building. ...

"Irwin fire department is grateful for the donation. It is an unexpected neighborly gesture that is deeply appreciated," said (deputy chief Shawn) Stitely. "After all, the Norwin community always has been about neighbors helping neighboring in time of need." (Norm Vargo, Post-Gazette)

No smarty-pants comment here, just admiration for the folks over at Penns Woods Civic Association --- which isn't even in Irwin, it's in North Huntingdon Township. Bless 'em for doing something so unselfish.

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February 16, 2005 | Link to this story

Blacktop Jungle: Next Year, I Auto Stay Home

Category: default || By jt3y

I've been going to the annual Pittsburgh Auto Show since I was a freshman in high school. And for the last several years, I have come home disgusted. Two years ago, you could have seen a wider variety of cars walking from dealership to dealership on West Liberty Avenue. Last year's show was slightly better, but still mediocre.

Well, the show may finally have hit rock bottom this year, which would be a good thing, I suppose, because there would be no place to go but up. As with 2003's auto show, there's an empty feeling at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center (motto: "Home of the $7 nachoes!"). The 2005 Pittsburgh Auto Show has very few concept cars and not even a particularly wide variety of current production cars for inspection.

This may come as a shock to some people, but most of the current cars at the auto show are taken straight out of the inventories of local dealers. I'm not naive. I know this. But one car still had a parking receipt stuck to its windshield, for goodness' sake!

(Also, I swear that one of the cars was taken straight out of a dealer's service bay. In fact, it still had a half-eaten doughnut on the dashboard, and I think I saw someone's feet sticking out from under the bumper. By the way, Mrs. Kowalski, the brakes on your Dodge will be done Friday. ... OK, now I'm exaggerating --- a little.)

It may be a measure of just how low the Pittsburgh market has sunk in importance that we now get concept cars that debuted two and three years earlier at auto shows in bigger cities. And damned few of them. For this I paid $7 to park and $6 admission? And that was with a discount --- the normal admission price is $8!

Maybe I'm just cranky because the quality of the swag has dropped so alarming over the past few shows. We used to get yardsticks, bandage dispensers, ballpoint pens and little fuzzy googly-eyed doo-dads with auto company logos on them. What were the giveaways this year? Trash bags from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and "Froggy 98" bumper stickers. Harrumph!

The only thing that redeemed the show was a chance meeting with a General Motors executive who didn't identify himself. We thought he was a low-level sales drone at first, but a friend and I did some careful questioning, and learned that the fellow was too well-informed. (I "Googled" him this morning, and I think I know who he was, but since I didn't identify myself as a writer, I'm not going to identify him. Suffice to say, he was legit.)

He said that GM is getting ready to move into alternative fuels vehicles in a big way. The company's experiment with pure electric cars --- the much ballyhooed EV1 --- was an expensive flop because consumers found them too slow and too inconvenient to recharge, he said.

And GM has decided that so-called "hybrid" vehicles --- half-gasoline, half-electric --- are not where it wants to be in the long-term. Instead, he said, GM wants to go directly into cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The company is already testing them in Europe, North America and Asia and is getting up to 350 miles on one fuel stop.

General Motors' president, he said, has promised to make gasoline engines "obsolete" by 2010, and while many inside the company say they're skeptical that they can meet that goal, it's where GM has decided it wants to be.

Even the company's current cars and trucks are compatible with alternative fuels, he said --- very quietly, GM has built 2 million cars and trucks that have engine computers and components that will run on a mix of up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. GM is also heavily involved in producing diesel trucks that will run on so-called "biodiesel" fuel, made from soybeans.

Now, our source said, GM is trying to prod the oil companies into installing the infrastructure necessary to sell ethanol, biodiesel or hydrogen for those fuel cells. General Motors, he said, is particularly worried that if it doesn't move quickly, the Japanese will get a jump on the alternative fuels market.

Given that our current model of fueling vehicles --- purchasing oil from crazy dictators and people who blow themselves up --- is not sustainable for very much longer, this is good news. And it's also nice to hear that Detroit is finally trying to out-think the Japanese, rather than just reacting to them. But I remain skeptical that "Generic Motors" is really taking a long term view of things, and not just a view of the next quarterly earnings report.

Well, I'll believe it when I see it, but our source was very enthusiastic, and he's convinced that alternative fuels vehicles are coming to GM showrooms --- and fast. Talking with him almost made the admission fee worth it. Scratch that --- it did make it worth it.

Unfortunately, I can't promise you'll bump into this guy at the Pittsburgh Auto Show. So, here's my advice: Stay home this year.

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February 15, 2005 | Link to this story

Somewhere West of Landisville

Category: default || By jt3y

They have a lot of diners in central Pennsylvania --- real, honest-to-Charley roadside diners with bottomless cups of coffee, pancakes served any time, and scrapple. And while that's not enough of a reason to want to move up there, it's certainly tempting.

I had to do some research up at the York County Heritage Trust and a couple of interviews for the book project, so I loaded up the old family truckster Friday morning and hit the Turnpike.

Do you know it now costs $11 to drive the Turnpike from Monroeville to Harrisburg? Good gravy. I felt like the guy in Abe Lincoln's joke who was tarred and feathered, and then run out of town on a rail --- were it not for the principle of the thing, I'd just as soon walk.

York is a funny old town. It's very, very busy --- or at least it seemed to be. The downtown area of Pennsylvania's Red Rose City is a strange mix of 1800s buildings and half-hearted '50s and '60s urban renewal projects. The parking garage where I left the car is right out of 1968, and most of the streets are one-way thoroughfares, which is another sign of '60s traffic planning (see also Greensburg, McKeesport, Washington, etc.). The central core of town has been thoroughly rehabilitated and gentrified --- it's all lawyers' offices, chi-chi coffee bars and antique stores, and there's a beautiful old hotel called the Yorktowne. But walk a few blocks away and you're in neighborhoods full of rusty cars and falling-down rowhouses.

York also apparently used to have a perfectly decent town square at the corner of Market and George streets. I say "apparently" because at some point they yanked it out and straightened the streets to get more traffic through the intersection. That's left the great old buildings on the corners with these absurd plazas in front of them between the new curbs and their old front doors, which are now set way back from the streets. Friday afternoon, someone was holding some sort of a protest rally at the intersection, and people were honking --- in support of whose rights or causes, I have no idea.

I would have liked to have spent more time poking around town, but unfortunately, I was on a tight deadline. York had been the headquarters of the McCrory-McLellan-Green five-and-ten stores, so I decided to see what was left.

Damned little, as it turns out. The entire McCrory archives fit into two small boxes at the Heritage Trust. The company had a big headquarters building and warehouse out in the east end of town, but the warehouse has been subdivided and the office building was torn down to make way for a Home Depot. There's also a shiny new Wal-Mart next door, which represents some sort of irony.

McCrory's had a long, ugly slide into oblivion (and two lengthy bankruptcies) as its owners drained its profits and funneled them into other enterprises. Still, the company hasn't been gone for that long (about three years), and it's a shame that an enterprise that was founded in 1882, and once numbered 1,300 stores, has left so little behind. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.

I had to be in Harrisburg early the next morning, so I headed north to look for a motel. I hit Elizabethtown at just about 8 o'clock and started flipping around on the radio, I hit on an FM station in the non-commercial end of the dial playing The Vogues' "Turn Around, Look at Me." Well, this was a nice break from the NPR sermonizing or Jebus preaching you normally find at that end of the FM band, so I kept listening.

The DJ came on. "From Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, those are the Vogues, and these are the Platters," he said. It turns out it was the radio station at Elizabethtown College, and they have a Friday night oldies party. And, it just so happens that Elizabethtown has a motel called the Red Rose.

Red Rose! Yeah, I know, it's as in "Red Rose City" (Lancaster is the "White Rose City"), but any Pittsburgh oldies buff would think of "Red Rose Tea" (the song, not the tea) first. What are the chances I'd be driving through a town I'd never heard of, listening to the Vogues and driving past a "Red Rose Motel"? It had to be fate, right? Or kismet?

No, it was probably just coincidence. The Red Rose Motel turned out to be old, but clean and well-maintained, with little tourist cabins bedecked with knotty pine paneling and steam heat. And the price ($41 a night) wasn't bad, either. I had dinner at the Elizabethtown Diner. The special turned out to be homemade macaroni and cheese casserole, stewed tomatoes, brussels sprouts, mixed vegetables, salad, and roll and butter for $7.95.

Normally, I can't stand stewed tomatoes.

I ate every bite.

On the way home Saturday night, I decided to try and beat the Turnpike Commission out of its $11, and took Route 30 home. We had taken a family trip across the state on Route 30 when I was a kid, and I remembered it being a little shabby, but relatively smooth sailing, except for some congestion where it goes through small towns like New Oxford.

Not any more. Every square foot between York and Chambersburg has been developed with really crummy strip malls --- the kind of crummy-looking cinderblock affairs that feature a Dollar Tree, a nail salon and a video store.

If your strip mall is anchored by Dollar Tree, you've got problems, you know. Do banks really lend money for these kind of real-estate projects, which are doomed to fall apart and wind up empty in a few years?

Never mind, I know the answer. Which explains why I'm getting 1 percent on my savings account.

Anyway, it was 75 to 100 miles of misery through what James Howard Kunstler calls "jive-plastic" buildings before the clutter finally went away and the highway opened up. My pain was alleviated somewhat when I found a public radio station out of Hagerstown that was carrying Garrison Keillor's program.

Keillor was interviewing a historian from Springfield, Ill., who was working as the curator for a new museum and library dedicated to the life of Abraham Lincoln. So there I was, listening to a story about Abe Lincoln while driving the Lincoln Highway through Gettysburg.

Maybe there's something to that fate thing after all.

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February 14, 2005 | Link to this story

Earl Muntz for President

Category: default || By jt3y

After writing Thursday's Almanac, I got to thinking about Madman Muntz.

Some of the folks who read this drivel know that I collect old radio and TV junk ... er, I mean, antiques ... from the era when electronics were actually made in the United States. One of the most colorful figures in TV manufacturing back in the 1950s was Earl "Madman" Muntz, who started his career as a used car salesman in California.

He got the nickname "Madman" for doing late-night TV commercials in which he'd come out wearing long underwear, a straight-jacket and a Napoleonic hat, bragging about how ridiculously low his prices were. "I wanna give 'em away, but the wife won't let me. She's cr-a-a-a-azy!" he'd say. Politically correct, he wasn't.

When TV took off, Muntz decided to get a piece of the business. In order to compete, he had to sell his sets at a price as low as possible. Nowadays, TVs are largely machine-assembled from microchips, but in those days, TVs were still largely hand-assembled from individual components. If you could eliminate a lot of the individual components, you could save money both on parts and labor.

So Muntz set up his factory out in California and started making TVs. Legend has it that whenever his engineers were working on a new design, he'd pop into their offices with a pair of wire cutters. And with the set on, Muntz --- who wasn't an engineer --- would cut components out of the circuit, one by one. Chop! There went a resistor. Snip! There went a capacitor.

Eventually, Muntz would cut a component that made the picture or the sound go out. "Put that back in," he'd demand. That way, supposedly, his sets had the minimum number of parts necessary to work --- and could be sold much cheaper than the sets that Zenith or RCA or Motorola were selling.

Pretty clever. And a Muntz TV worked about as well as an RCA or Zenith or Motorola set, for a much lower price.

As long as you lived in an area where there was good reception, that is. But because Muntz had clipped the circuits down to where they were working without any margin for error, his sets didn't work so well in fringe areas.

And some of the components that he chopped out didn't cause immediate problems when they were removed, but they had been put into the circuits by previous designers to prevent long-term damage. Those resistors, for instance, might have been designed to prevent other components from wearing out too fast. Eventually, of course, those other components would fail from too much voltage or too much heat.

Consequently, although Muntz sold a lot of TV sets, they eventually got a reputation for being "junk." So despite the fact that Muntz TVs were very heavily advertised in the Press and Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, I've haunted a lot of radio shops and swap meets, and I have yet to see a Muntz TV. I find lots of RCAs and Zeniths and Philcos and Motorolas and some Westinghouses, but no Muntzes. That leads me to believe that the owners of Muntz TVs got disgusted with them breaking down, and pitched them rather than fixing them.

On the other hand, some of those RCAs and Zeniths are ridiculously overbuilt and overdesigned, and yet they still work pretty well, 30 or 40 years after they came off of the assembly lines.

Our government is a lot like those early TV sets. For 200 years, "engineers" have been adding components to the various circuits. So many components have been piled on top of others that people have forgotten why they were installed in the first place.

That's left lots of room for amateur engineers to chop things out of the circuits. Snip! There go some Pell Grants. Chop! There go some veterans' benefits. Crack! There goes some public education funding. And now, the clippers are poking around in the Social Security circuit.

Just like Muntz and his TVs, eliminating components here and there doesn't make the entire picture disappear or malfunction. The other components in the circuit can carry the load ... for a while, anyway.

We don't know when the damage to the other components is going to become evident, but it's going to happen sooner or later.

An interesting thing about Earl Muntz: His TV business eventually went bankrupt. Stock in Muntz TV that had been worth $6 million dropped to $200,000.

Is it any wonder that when I hear that the President's plans for Social Security may add $4.5 trillion to the deficit, I some how imagine him dressed in long underwear and wearing a Napoleonic hat, running around in front of a row of used cars? "I buy 'em retail and sell 'em wholesale," he's saying. "It's more fun that way!"

It was funny when Earl Muntz did it. It's not so amusing right now.


No, there was no Friday Almanac because I was out of town. I know, try to contain your sorrow.

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February 10, 2005 | Link to this story

I've Got Mine!

Category: default || By jt3y

One of my most memorable high school teachers was my United States history teacher, a rock-ribbed conservative. He lived near the school and every day, as we arrived for class, we could see two flags flying in front of his house --- an American flag and one from The Citadel, the military academy in South Carolina that he attended as a boy. He also painted the rocks in front of his house red, white and blue.

His homeroom was decorated with battle scenes and model warplanes and he was rumored to carry a pistol. I'm sure the PTA, the school's insurance carrier and the teacher's union would blow several different kinds of gaskets about that now, but in those pre-Columbine days we kids viewed it as rebellious and quirky, not frightening.

My point, and I do have one, is that he was not exactly a flaming liberal.

Obviously, he had a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and a strong sense of duty to country. But he also had a strong sense of civic responsibility and our duty to take care of society, and our neighbors. He'd frequently ask a student their opinion on some societal problem, and woe betide those who gave some namby-pamby answer, or worse, said something selfish.

Then he'd snort derisively and point a piece of chalk at the class. "That's the problem with this generation," he'd say. "It's all 'hooray for me, and to hell with you! I've got mine!' Nobody cares about the other guy."

He passed away several years ago. Yet I've often found myself thinking about him recently, and wondering what he'd make of the current Republican Party. I think he'd be solidly in their corner on moral issues, but I have a strong feeling the rest of their platform would drive him crazy. Especially this whole Social Security debate.

There seems to be a real nihilistic streak in the national Republican leadership. The whole idea that someone, somewhere, might be getting something they didn't pay for just seems to drive them buggy. They have strained mightily to convince the public that there is some terrible crisis coming in Social Security, only to have others point out that, no, the system is solvent for at least the next 40 years.

So they switched gears. Social Security was going to add $3.5 trillion to the national debt, they crowed --- only to fall silent when several critics pointed out that the President's privatization plan would add $4.5 trillion to the national debt.

Now, they're back to their old standby: "It's your money. Why shouldn't you keep your money? Who is the government to maintain a retirement fund for you?"

(As illustrated in Tuesday's Almanac, the very people pushing this privatization plan the hardest have lavish government retirement funds waiting for them.)

The very idea of Social Security just burns them up, I think. It's not about any possible deficit 20 or 40 or 100 years from now. They just don't want government paying money to anyone, because it bugs them.

So maybe the real Republican Party argument against Social Security ought to be my teacher's famous saying: "Hooray for me, and the hell with you! I've got mine!"

They've got theirs. Who cares if you get anything?

And why should the government make sure people have "social security"?

You know, that's funny, because it brings me back to my teacher. He grew up during the Depression. And used to tell us stories of having to eat fried dough for dinner because his family was on what was then called "relief."

See, there was no welfare system. If you lost your job, or your primary wage-earner died or became ill, you were out of luck, and dependent on charity. Maybe, if you were fortunate, your town would take up a collection and give the poor a sack of flour to make fried dough. Often, people who went on "relief" had to grovel and humiliate themselves before they'd qualify for a handout.

As for retirement, you worked until you got too old or ill, and then you moved in with your family. If you didn't have a family, you lived on the street, or in a shanty town somewhere, until you died.

When the economy was roaring along in the 1920s, things were OK, because most people could find work doing something. But when the crash came, American society ground to a halt. The country was flirting dangerously with Communism and socialism when the Roosevelt administration came along with radical ideas like unemployment compensation, welfare, disability insurance and Social Security. They didn't end the Depression, but they stitched together the national fabric just long enough to keep the country from collapse.

Franklin Roosevelt had this novel idea that forcing large numbers of people to go out and pick garbage or beg for charity handouts was bad, because eventually, it was going to cause American society to break down. So despite the fact that FDR very much had his, he didn't say to hell with the rest of America.

I'm not sure that certain elements in the national Republican Party really care that much about "society." They talk a lot about "moral values," but the idea of working toward the collective, common good of their fellow man just escapes them. They've got theirs. Hooray for them!

The worrisome thing is that they've implanted this selfishness into the national consciousness. If my teacher were alive today, he'd practically be a pinko. Just the other day, there was a letter to the editor of the Post-Gazette from a fellow in Hampton Township complaining about public transportation. Why, the letter writer demanded to know, should he be taxed to pay for buses? After all, he doesn't ride buses.

I suppose it never occurred to him that the people who work in the stores or restaurants that he frequents might rely on buses to get to those jobs. Some of them might even be former welfare recipients who were told to get off the dole, and go get jobs. (I happen to agree with "welfare-to-work," by the way.) But now that they've got jobs, maybe we can take their transportation to those jobs away.

Hooray for the letter writer, and to hell with the people who ride the buses! He's got his!

I'm not sure what it's going to take to smarten some people up. I just hope like hell it isn't another Depression.

Because I like eating fried dough at a carnival or fair, but I'm not sure I'd like it for dinner.

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February 09, 2005 | Link to this story

No Almanac Today

Category: default || By jt3y

The lingering aftereffects of the flu are still wreaking havoc with the few brain cells that I have left in operation, and the well is dry.

I did think "Something Awful"'s review of that classic film "Dracula 3000" was funny, however:

Overview: Next time you want to stump a movie buff, ask this question: "What was the worst movie released in 2004 about a man named Van Helsing who fights vampires?" If he says "Van Helsing", he may be right, because that movie reeked. But "Dracula 3000" is pretty bad too.

Directed By: Darrell Roodt, 2004.

The Case For: Recommended for obsessive fans who absolutely must own every single movie which stars Casper Van Dien / Erika Eleniak / Coolio.

The Case Against: No such people exist.

There's more --- much, much more --- at "Something Awful."

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February 08, 2005 | Link to this story


Category: default || By jt3y

I keep hearing about the President's plan to "fix" Social Security. Why do I suspect that he wants to "fix" it the same way my friend just had her cat "fixed"?

That cat still seems a little wobbly, and I am, too, when I hear about Social Security "reform."

According to "Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress," a report issued two weeks ago by the Congressional Research Service (an arm of the Library of Congress), the average pension for a retired U.S. Senator or Representative is $55,788 for those elected before 1984 (340 people), or $41,865 for those elected after 1984 (71 people). Here's how the system works:

Members of Congress who were first elected in 1984 or later are covered by the Federal Employees’ Retirement System unless they decline this coverage, in which case they are covered only by Social Security. FERS is comprised of three elements: Social Security; the FERS basic annuity, a monthly pension based on years of service and the average of the 3 highest consecutive years of basic pay; the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), into which participants can deposit up to 15% of base pay to a maximum of $14,000 in 2005. Their employing agency matches employee contributions up to 5% of pay.

For comparison's sake, the average annual wage in Pennsylvania in 2002 was $35,808, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics --- which is actually well below that for other mid-Atlantic states ($42,793). Nevertheless, the pension for members of Congress is not only well above most people's pensions, it's also more than most working people earn in a year.

And that's a guaranteed pension, of course --- a defined benefit plan, if you will. It's not tied to mutual funds or stocks, which fluctuate over time.

It gets better, of course. What do you think the President's pension will be when he retires?

We go back to the Congressional Research Office, and its Oct. 22, 2004 report entitled "Former Presidents: Federal Pension and Retirement Benefits," which says:

The Former Presidents Act, as amended, provides each former President a taxable pension that is equal to the annual rate of basic pay for the head of an executive department (Executive Level I), currently $175,700. The pension begins immediately upon a President’s departure from office at noon on Inauguration Day, January 20. The Secretary of the Treasury is responsible for making the monthly pension payments, as authorized by the FPA. A presidential widow is provided a $20,000 annual lifetime pension and franking privileges.

Now, what about those massive Social Security checks that all of these deadbeat old people are receiving? You know, the ones who are bankrupting the government, sponging off of the youth of the nation, and driving us into a "crisis"?

According to the Social Security Administration:

Retired workers in Pennsylvania received an average of $920 per month; widows and widowers, $887; disabled workers, $851; and wives and husbands of retired and disabled workers, $469. Average benefits for children were: $470 for children of retired workers; $615 for children of deceased workers; and $242 for children of disabled workers.

To save you the trouble, that means the average retiree in Pennsylvania who didn't have a company-sponsored pension plan is receiving an annual income of $11,040. Widows are receiving $10,644. That's half of what former First Ladies get while their husbands are alive, for comparison's sake.

So, whenever the President tells us that Social Security is in "crisis," keep in mind that paying the widows and widowers of the United States $11,000 a year is driving us to the poor house. It's not those big tax cuts of a few years ago; those are stimulating the economy.

I realize that this wouldn't save very much money, but if the President and all of the members of Congress want me to trust them to "reform" Social Security, wouldn't it be a nice symbolic gesture if they cut their own pensions to $11,000 per year?

And now, if you'll excuse me, I just started laughing so hard, I have to go change my pants.

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February 07, 2005 | Link to this story

And Now, The End is Near

Category: default || By jt3y

Eastland Mall has taken a turn for the worse. In fact, it's died.

Not just the flea market, but now everyone --- even Tony the Shoemaker --- is being given the cruel shoe by Benderson Development, according to Saturday's Daily News (the story isn't online). Jeremy Boren also had a story in Sunday's Tribune-Review.

In brief, Eastland's remaining tenants have until Feb. 28 to beat it, or else they'll have it beaten for them, though to be frank, I'm not sure what leverage Benderson has. ("Oh no! You're going to kick me out of Eastland Mall!")

Tony is moving to Great Valley Shopping Center up on Route 30. There's no word where the other remaining tenants --- most notably, the PennDOT driver's license center, District Justice Robert Barner, a beauty parlor, and Beer World --- are going to end up. (You've got your real circle of life there --- the driver's license center, the beauty parlor, the beer distributor and the magistrate's office.)

I'm taking bets when the demolition equipment rolls in (my guess is mid-April) though personally, I'd say one good shove ought to bring the whole thing down. They couldn't burn it down, because it's too waterlogged. I just hope the people up in Crestas are prepared, because if that joint is as vermin-infested as I think it is, the number of pests fleeing that place when it's demolished are going to be truly mindboggling.

I wonder if Benderson would rent the whole shooting match out for one last fling. I was thinking it might be fun to restage the Dixie Square Mall scene from "The Blues Brothers" there.

Alert Reader Tom from Belle Vernon liked my Eastland Mall song:

Very good one ... however you should have included the burnt cheese smell as you entered the east side entrance. I still think of the mall every time my toasted cheese sandwich goes up in smoke.

I had forgotten about the burnt cheese odor. On the other hand, if I had included every smell from Eastland Mall in that song, it would have gone on for another 40 stanzas. Entire epic poems could be written about the odors in that place, if only it wasn't so hard to find a rhyme for "mildew."

In a slightly related matter, Thursday's Almanac --- in which I discussed people who buy an eighth of a pound of lunchmeat --- prompted this recollection from Tom:

I remember back in the early '70s buying lunchmeat at the old Farmer's Pride near the Memorial Theater. There was a crusty old timer there arguing with the lady about the lack of meat on the chicken necks that she was getting for him ... they were 10 cents a pound. The whole store busted out laughing after hearing his rant.

Can we agree that the old guy was ahead of his time? He needed a blog.

In other business, remember a few months ago when Alert Reader Ed wrote in to say that he had found tape of a Mon Valley band called The Oncomers, and I put him in touch with Bill Scully Jr., drummer for The Hi-Frequencies?

No? Well, just trust me on this, OK? Sheesh.

Bill sends along this update:

I just want to thank you again for getting me in touch with Ed Kearney. I visited Ed at his home a few weeks ago, and he let me hear the Oncomers live recording from the Cove Club. Ed's Sony reel-to-reel captured about 2 sets' worth of material that night (including a few R&B hits of the day mixed in with their vocal and instrumental songs). Elements of surf, country/honky tonk, doo-wop, and dance/R&B are all apparent. Most bands today would never dream of covering such a wide mix of music, but dance hall and bar bands in those days were expected to cover the gamut of popular music.

Some of the music is a bit sloppy and out of tune, and even the tightest songs have an off-the-cuff quality to them that is lacking from a lot of bands. This is a very charming recording, a great document.? I wish that more tapes like this would turn up (I know you're out there somewhere!). This tape captures highlights from just another 9 pm to 1 am night at this bar in pre-assassination/pre-Beatles Pittsburgh. I really dig the recording for all of these reasons.

Bill has put Ed in touch with another member of the Oncomers, and they're planning to meet.

I guess the only additional question we can ask is, are there any plans to make excerpts of this tape available to the public? Stay tuned.

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February 04, 2005 | Link to this story

One Flu Over the Dodo's Nest

Category: default || By jt3y

It dawned on me this morning as I shuffled back and forth in the kitchen that not only do I have the mind of a crabby old man in his 80s, this damned flu has left me with the body of one. I was walking like Tim Conway used to shuffle around on "The Carol Burnett Show" --- taking tiny sliding steps, hunched over, clutching my carton of orange juice so I wouldn't spill it from my shaking hands.

Being sick always leads me to have goofy dreams. I woke up convinced that my neighbor two doors down was draining her swimming pool into my back yard, causing it to sink. Because that's what I had been dreaming about; I dreamt that I had looked out the kitchen window and found the back yard filled with water, and when I went downstairs, the neighbor had routed a hose from her pool directly into my yard.

I went inside to fetch a camera, but I couldn't find one, and by the time I got back outside, the neighbor had hidden the pool.

Can you think of a dumber, more pointless dream? I doubt it. Other highlights of last night's somnolent million-dollar movies include a dream in which I was stacking cans of paint --- no particular reason, just stacking cans of paint --- and one in which I was either a private investigator or a crook. I'm not sure which.

Isn't it bad enough that my life is dull? Do my fever-ridden fantasies have to be dull, too?


Some crafty vandals in Hornell, N.Y., have changed the "Welcome" sign at the town's entrance to proclaim that it's the "Home of Alfred E. Newman." It previously said it was the home of ... wait for it ... Bill Pullman.

Hornell, N.Y.'s so proud of being the hometown of Bill Pullman that it put it on the "Welcome" sign? Speaking of "dull," that's it.

Hell, Our Fair City was the hometown of Murph the Surf, but you don't see us making a big deal out of it.


I don't know much about smut, but I know what I like. Ahem.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster threw out obscenity charges filed in Pittsburgh against a California porno peddler. The Bush administration's Justice Department has been filing these kinds of cases in Western Pennsylvania in the hopes that the jury boxes will be filled with little old ladies wearing babushkas who will be shocked, shocked! at the filth on display.

They don't know what lurks behind the pale exteriors of those studabubbas, but I digress.

Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix explains how Lancaster turned conservative philosophy on its ear in his ruling:

And if Lancaster is upheld, you can send your thank-you cards to Supreme Court justices Scalia, Rehnquist, and Thomas.

You may recall that, a few years ago, the three conservatives dissented in Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned anti-sodomy laws. Scalia --- who actually wrote the dissent --- fumed that the majority decision could pave the way for obscenity laws to be overturned as well. It turns out that Lancaster read Scalia's dissent and agreed. Wrote Lancaster:

"In a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia opined that the holding in Lawrence calls into question the constitutionality of the nation's obscenity laws, among many other laws based on the state's desire to establish a 'moral code' of conduct.... It is reasonable to assume that these three members of the Court came to this conclusion only after reflection and that the opinion was not merely a result of over-reactive hyperbole by those on the losing side of the argument."

You've got to love the way that Lancaster is willing to twist the logical knife into the conservative Supremes.

Lancaster's opinion is a great victory for free speech and privacy. It's also a challenge aimed directly at the right-wing agenda being pursued by George W. Bush's Justice Department.

To quote that great legal scholar Tom Lehrer: "Bring on the obscene movies, murals, postcards, neckties, samplers, stained-glass windows, tattoos, anything!"


To Do This Weekend Art Space 303, Eighth Avenue in Homestead, presents "Revised," black-and-white photographs by Ryan Gorman. Call (412) 476-0755 ... Hungarian Social Club, Walnut Street at 30th Avenue, holds a Valentine's Day dance at 8 p.m. Saturday, featuring Dorothy & Co. Call (724) 864-0042.

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February 03, 2005 | Link to this story

Gripped By La Grippe

Category: default || By jt3y

It started Saturday night. I felt tired. Now, this could have been because I was out late Friday night, and then up early on Saturday, so I brushed it off. On Sunday, I was still feeling worn down. But Monday morning, I got winded walking to my office from the parking lot, which is unusual, even for someone as lazy as I am.

Monday night, I barely had the strength to drive home.

It would stand to reason that the year I didn't get a flu shot would be the year I got the flu ... although that's a theory that's impossible to prove, isn't it? "Well, it would stand to reason that the day I didn't buy a lottery ticket was the day that I didn't win the lottery." No, actually, it wouldn't.

This was the neon-lettered electric death flu, which manifested itself Monday night and Tuesday morning with pain in every joint and knuckle, and then changed into a hacking cough and slobbery nose by Tuesday afternoon. I ran out of cough syrup and didn't have any food in the house, so I decided I could brave a trip to the bottom of the hill and the House of Rancid Lunchmeat.

Who would be at the grocery store at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon?

About 1,000 little old ladies, as it turned out. All of whom wanted 1/8 of a pound of lunchmeat.

"Give me about an eighth of a pound of chipped ham ... not too thin ... and let me see ... about an eighth of a pound of jumbo ... is it the Kahn's jumbo? And about an eighth of a pound of roast beef?"

An eighth of a pound? That's just about enough for one sandwich. You might as well eat it there; it's a waste of wax paper to wrap it.

So, I dragged myself back home and hid in bed with the covers over my head for the next 36 hours. Didn't go out and get the mail; didn't even feel like watching TV. Besides, what was there to watch? Something about Punxsutawney Phil coming out of his hole and seeing six more weeks of Social Security.

Last night, I did roust myself long enough to warm up some soup, and flicked on the tube as it heated. It was a public service announcement for Black History Month, sponsored by Pittsburgh Public Schools, and it featured Alma Speed Fox, who was identified as a "Civil Right's Leader."

That said something about either the advertising agency that did the spots, or the Pittsburgh Public Schools, I suspect. Whatever it said wasn't good.

The good news, of course, is that if I felt well enough to complain about typos on TV, I was probably getting better.


The city is thinking about selling the Lysle Boulevard parking garage, or renovating it for use as a park-and-ride for the Port Authority bus terminal, according to Pat Cloonan in The Daily News.


Eighteen thousand people showed up to see a guy in a top hat drag a rodent out of his hole, according to the Punxsutawney Spirit.

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