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Filed Under: default || By jt3y

September 30, 2005 | Link to this story

A Positively Negative Reaction

Category: default || By jt3y

Pat Cloonan had a nice story in the News last week about Maglev Inc., which has its offices and R&D center right in Our Fair City. It seems the U.S. Navy has contracted with Maglev to use its equipment to scan recovered artifacts from the U.S.S. Monitor.

Previously, Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh had asked Maglev to scan images of dinosaur fossils. Pretty neat, high-tech stuff being done right in our backyard! (And if you were lucky enough to attend, you got to see it up close at last night's open house.)

But something about it bugs your Almanac editor. After 15 years in existence, Maglev Inc. still has time to scan Civil War cannon and dinosaur bones. That makes me suspect that it isn't doing a whole lot of work on magnetic-levitation trains, is it?

It also reinforces the nagging suspicion that I've had that maglev in Picksberg (the concept in general, not necessarily Maglev Inc. in particular) is yet another redevelopment boondoggle. We're building Skybus for the 21st century.

Let me take that back. With Skybus, we were able to ride around South Park on the little demonstration system. We haven't even had a public demonstration of maglev trains in Western Pennsylvania yet.

For crying out loud, Kennywood can get a roller-coaster built in the span of a few months, and even PennDOT can build a bridge in about 18. Shouldn't we at least be puttering around McKeesport and Duquesne on a maglev test route by now? It's not like the old mill sites lack vacant land, and I'd pay a buck or two to ride some hotshot supertrain of the future.

I can't seem to find anything on either Maglev Inc.'s website or the Pennsylvania High Speed Maglev Project website about just how much money has been spent on this over the last decade or so. My hunch is that most of the funding is coming from county, state and federal taxpayers; it seems to me that someone ought to demand an accounting of the dough, seeing as how Pennsylvania residents are hardly undertaxed.

For those of you who hear the term maglev, and still wonder what the hell it is, here's a half-vast explanation of magnetic-levitation trains, in a nutshell: You take an elevated track with high-powered electromagnets, and then build a train to ride on the track that has high-powered electromagnets of its own built in.

Because opposing magnets repel each other, you can make the train float and move back and forth by pulsing the magnets on and off. You can also make the train accelerate very smoothly and stop very quickly, and because the train doesn't actually touch the track, you don't need conventional brakes.

Frankly, it's a very expensive solution to the transportation problem, because it requires a lot of infrastructure. It also will take a lot of electricity to propel the trains. Theoretically, if clean nuclear power were developed, the electricity would be cheap to produce, and the trains themselves would create very little air or noise pollution. That's a concept obviously worth studying, but until we have a cheap, clean source of the amount of electricity needed to drive maglev trains, we're wasting time.

And money ... though of course, it isn't the only transportation project in Western Pennsylvania that's spending a lot of money without much in the way of results.

Allow me to digress for a moment. Julie Mickens of City Paper (who recently outed herself as an Almanac reader) wrote this week about the amount of money that Port Authority is spending to run Pittsburgh's light-rail system over to the North Side.

As Mickens points out, the new extension is basically just going to serve the stadiums (stadia?). It won't really serve any of the major population centers or employers like CCAC and Allegheny General Hospital. So it's going to cost $393 million to allow people from Mount Lebanon, Dormont and elsewhere the pleasure of riding to Steelers and Pirates games in air conditioned comfort, without changing trains.

But the extension will provide precious little traffic relief for people who work in dahntahn Picksberg or who live on the North Side or in the North Hills. No, we're not building a rail link to Cranberry, Ross Township or any of the other booming northern suburbs; or to Squirrel Hill, Swissvale and Monroeville to remove the huge traffic jams on the Parkway East. We're building it to the stadiums, to make it easier to get to PNC Park and watch the Pirates lose almost, but not quite, 100 games per year.

On the other hand, at least we'll have something tangible after spending $393 million on what Peter Leo famously called our three-hole, three-stop, Par 3 miniature subway. (We'll have a fourth hole.)

The first maglev train proposals in Pittsburgh were floated (no pun intended) back in 1987. Put another way, today's college freshmen had just been born when this idea was first discussed. What do we have to show for it? (No, scanning cannon and dinosaur fossils doesn't count.)

And, come to think of it, how much money has been spent on maglev research? I dare you to find an audited accounting statement, a profit-and-loss report, or even a budget proposal on either of those maglev websites. Your Uncle Charley who runs a lumberyard wouldn't accept that from the guy who does his taxes, and you wouldn't accept it from the Port Vue borough council. Neither should we be accepting it from quasi-public organizations.

I have no problem with doing scientific research for the mere sake of scientific inquiry; it's how some of our greatest discoveries have been made. Still, there ought to be some accountability, and at some point, even researchers in the most theoretical fields should have to produce something useful. It's called "publish or perish." (And no, press releases and websites don't count, either.)

Finally, to my knowledge, which is admittedly nowhere near complete, there is only one working, public maglev line in the world, in Shanghai, China, which connects an airport with a downtown business district. But China's population is considerably denser than Pennsylvania's. (Even though some of us are plenty dense. Rimshot.) There are also maglev test systems in Germany and Japan, but I haven't heard that either country has a working public system. (Of course, they have had demonstration tracks open, which is more than we can say for Pittsburgh.)

Until I see some real proof that magnetic-levitation trains are practical in Western Pennsylvania, I'd much rather see the money, time and research being invested into something we could use. Like conventional rapid transit to the North Hills or eastern suburbs.

Or maybe we should take the money and beautify the Par 3 subway. I'm thinking a windmill and some of those little plastic flags would be appropriate.


To Do This Weekend: Speaking of dubious technologies, the 21st annual Pittsburgh Record Convention is being held at the Radisson Hotel in Green Tree on Sunday. This is nothing but vinyl records --- 78s, 45s and LPs --- no CDs or videos. Admission is $3. Call (412) 331-5021. ... Closer to home, Steel Valley High School hosts its seventh-annual marching band competition at 6 p.m. tomorrow on the William V. Campbell Athletic Field on West Run Road in Munhall. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. ... The rock and blues band Boss Diablo plays the Versailles American Legion, 4919 Third St., Versailles, at 9:30 tonight. Call (412) 751-5760.

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September 28, 2005 | Link to this story

Taste? No Thanks, We're From Hollywood

Category: default || By jt3y

News item from the Los Angeles Times, via Mark Evanier's News From Me: Sony Pictures refused to distribute Albert Brooks' new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, because they felt it might be offensive to Muslims. Never mind that the film is actually poking fun at American ignorance of foreign affairs --- Brooks plays himself as a comedian sent overseas to improve Arab-U.S. relations --- Sony was concerned that the title in particular was in poor taste. (It's a weak title, being too long and not very catchy, but it's hardly offensive.)

As the Times points out, this is the same studio that released (or did it escape?) Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, which was universally derided by critics as vulgar, scatological, and possibly worst of all, not funny, and which audiences avoided in droves. (Although I see it's still playing the $1 movie in West Mifflin, which caters to those most discriminating of audiences, teen-agers hanging out at the mall.)

Yes, a company that makes millions on video games that traffic in carnage that would have made Caligula cringe; and which released Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, which included, among other characters, a woman who had a working phallus for a nose, thinks an Albert Brooks political satire might be "in poor taste." And so it goes, as Linda Ellerbee used to say. They must purchase irony in carload amounts in Hollywood.

Along with ignorance: I recently saw the trailer for the remake of The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin. Mere words don't describe how awful it looks, and that fact that it's been delayed several times (it was originally supposed to come out this summer, and then this fall, and is now scheduled for "sometime in 2006") leads me to believe that early screenings went poorly.

Setting aside, if we can, the notion that they're taking a character inexorably linked to Peter Sellers and sticking another actor in the role, practically asking for a less-than-favorable comparison, the producers have inexplicably taken Inspector Clouseau and transported him to New York. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the heck are they thinking?

Is Hollywood worried that people don't already see Noo Yawk City on TV and in the movies enough? Or are Hollywood executives concerned that 'Murrican audiences can't relate to a movie set in Paris? Or, even more likely, can Hollywood executives not relate to a movie set in Paris?

Part of the charm of the "Pink Panther" movies (only two of which were good, the others ranged from mediocre to awful) was seeing the European backgrounds, people and cars. Inspector Clouseau was intended as a broad parody of everything the British think is funny about French people, up to and including their accents. Taking Clouseau out of Paris defeats the purpose of making an Inspector Clouseau movie. Instead, you're making just another dumb, slapstick comedy. I predict that it will be ... how you say ... a beum.

Alas, "charm" is something in short supply in Hollywood these days. Why settle for charm when you can have poop and fart jokes? Charm takes work. Whimsy requires subtlety. But even a second-grader can understand a poop joke, and that appears to be the mentality at which the entertainment industry operates these days.

Indeed, Hollywood can squeeze the charm out of almost any property, no matter how beloved, charming or whimsical. Being a big "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fan, I had high hopes for the feature film that came out a few years ago, especially when I learned that people who had worked on the original cartoons were being tapped to provide the voices. Alas, Hollywood had to ruin it by trying to plunk these gentle, whimsical characters into a live-action film with a standard, and dull, plot.

For crying out loud, you can do anything in an animated cartoon. If you have the chance to make a movie about a cartoon, why would you constrain it by using live actors? And sure enough, any time Rocky and Bullwinkle were on the screen, the film tripped along merrily. Any time that the focus shifted to the live actors, it ground to a halt. The movie died a quick and merciful death; if you didn't see it, don't bother renting it.

It's clear that when Hollywood develops clunker ideas like these, the people responsible have no sense of fun, or wonder, or amazement. They're like people who go to a baseball game and spend the entire time rattling off statistics and keeping intricate scorecards, but never actually get excited about the action on the field, or even spend any time just enjoying the sounds and smells of the park. They understand things on an analytical level, but not on an emotional level.

Some folks who read the Almanac might know that for a brief time, I was the radio-TV critic for the Trib. It was a job I thought I'd enjoy, but didn't for a variety of reasons. One was that while I very much enjoyed covering local radio and, to a lesser extent, television, something like 80 percent of the job should probably consist of reporting on national TV.

I enjoyed doing the local stories because the people were accessible, friendly, and (for the most part) down to earth. I found many of the national people were vapid, vain and out of touch, and every time I checked the trades or opened my mail, I'd see something even more vapid, vain and out-of-touch. I decided I wasn't cut out for the beat when "Survivor" appeared on the scene; I'd rather eat ground glass than watch another episode of any reality show.

It takes a particularly vapid person to come up with a show like "Survivor," and it takes people who are extremely out of touch to do things like make a live action movie out of "Underdog" or take Jacques Clouseau out of France.

Not everything coming out of Hollywood is krep, of course. I am very much looking forward to George Clooney's new movie about Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck. I've read just about everything about Murrow that I can get my hands on, and from the trailer, and the early reports on the film, it looks like Clooney has done the job right.

Clooney did months of research to prepare. He filmed the movie in black and white to capture the look of the times, and he's using real footage of "Tailgunner" Joe McCarthy to depict the ethics-challenged senator's dramatic '50s showdown with Murrow.

Another reason to admire this film: Clooney is really opening himself up to a merciless attack from the right-wing, which in recent years has been trying to rehabilitate McCarthy's image. The real Joe McCarthy was not a crusading patriot, fearlessly hunting down Communists; as Clooney's movie will no doubt show, he was a lying drunkard, a thick-headed clown, and a bully who made up his evidence as he wrecked the lives of hundreds of people for his own short-term political gain. But you wouldn't know that from reading, say, Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin.

There are no car chases, I'm sure, and no computer-generated special effects. The leading man is David Strathairn, who nine of 10 "Entertainment Tonight" viewers couldn't pick out of a police lineup. This film isn't going to attract a teen crowd, won't have any merchandise spinoffs, can't spawn a sequel, and will be mercilessly attacked by the usual suspects (talk radio, The Washington Times, Fox News, et al).

In fact, I'm starting to wonder how it got made in the first place.

You don't suppose the studio blackmailed Clooney, do you?

Well, if he turns up in the "Underdog" movie, you'll know why.

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September 26, 2005 | Link to this story

There's Nothing Like a Good Hobby

Category: default || By jt3y

Somewhere in my basement is a partially-assembled RCA 1-T-5J "Globetrotter" transistor radio that I bought at an estate sale for $3. It was beat to hell and back, but I took it apart, polished the plastic case with Brasso, stripped the chipped finish from the aluminum face plate and gave it a new coat of enamel. It's going back together just as soon as I find a diagram for restringing the dial.

I started that project in 1995, if I remember correctly.

There are also a bunch of model airplanes --- all commercial propeller-driven planes from the 1950s. There's a Douglas DC-6 and DC-7, a Convair 240, and a Lockheed Super Constellation, and another that I'm forgetting. There are also some postcard images, a couple of pictures from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's collection, and photos downloaded from various websites of old airliners at Allegheny County Airport and Greater Pitt. I also have some printouts of emails that I exchanged with some retired airline pilots here and there, trying to track down the exact Allegheny Airlines paint scheme of the early '60s. (If I remember correctly, an extremely light blue on top, with red and dark blue striping.)

Those emails are from 2000.

And please don't ask me about the blank card envelopes, paper and assorted other items I purchased from various office supply stores because I was going to make my own Christmas cards. Not only didn't I complete that, I finally broke down and bought store-bought cards at the drug store.

The store-bought cards are in the lower right drawer of my desk at home. They're from 2001. I wound up using the special Christmas postage stamps to mail bills. And I still am. (So if anyone from Duquesne Light reads this, that's why you're still getting the Nativity scene stamps on my payments.)

I always start these hobby projects in good faith, and then real life intervenes. Usually, I run out of time or money. Occasionally, I get stuck on a problem with no apparent answer, like fixing the radio, or figuring out the proper registration number for a Mohawk Airlines DC-3 in 1962. (Don't bother looking. Airliners magazine did a story on Mohawk a few years ago that had that very information. Now, if only I can find it.) The end result is a pile of stalled projects. Some of them, indeed, are stored at my mother's house, much to her lasting chagrin.

The biggest project staring me in the face right now is the Dodge Diplomat in my garage. It hasn't moved since the winter, when a friend and I installed a new ignition system and set the timing. By the time we were done, the car (which was driveable, though the idle was rough) was purring along at idle ... but it barely had enough power to move out of its own way, and left a thick black line of soot up the driveway when I tried to take it on a test drive. I have a feeling we someone reversed two of the spark plug wires, or else we completely bolloxed up the timing.

I need a free weekend to pull the Dodge out into the sunshine and check everything over again, but it just isn't going to happen any time soon. I have enough trouble getting the work done on the car and house that I have to do, let alone busying myself with hobbies. (I'm fairly good about the routine chores, like keeping the dishes washed and the bathroom clean, because I don't want to be attacked by the creeping crud in the middle of the night. But someday, real soon now, I've got to pull the dead flowers out of the front yard. At least before the new flowers try to come up next year.)

Occasionally, I feel like just forgetting about all of these projects; hold a flea market and sell the model airplanes, call the junkyard to come and get the car, and put the radio (and its many siblings stashed at various places around the house) on eBay. Either that, or just dig a big pit behind the house, line it with plastic, toss everything in and bury it. Perhaps 200 years from now, an archeologist will excavate it and be delighted (if someone mystified) to find a seemingly random cache of preserved 20th century artifacts.

On the other hand, having them around serves to keep me humble. Every time I complete something and smack myself on the back for accomplishing something, I turn around and see a model railroad engine that's waiting for me to find the proper gear train, or some old Kennywood posters I'm planning to frame and hang downstairs, or the photos and negatives I'm going to sort and catalog.

And the good news is that come retirement, which is only about 35 years away, I won't be one of those people who sits around and pines for things to do. I have all of these projects to work on, and some of them (like the car or the radios) will undoubtedly have increased in value by then.

The only thing that worries me is: How many more half-finished projects will I have by then?

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September 20, 2005 | Link to this story

Appearing for the Plantiffs: Kenny Kangaroo

Category: default || By jt3y

In their continuing effort to slay the goose that lays the golden eggs, West Mifflin borough officials have apparently stuck their foot into their own trap. (Always start your essays with a mixed metaphor: It keeps people guessing.)

According to The Daily News, Kennywood has learned that it's been virtually the only organization providing any amusement tax revenue to the borough for the past seven years ... and, claim Kennywood's attorneys, 100 percent of the tax for the past four years.

Kennywood is asking the borough to promise to stop its selective enforcement of the amusement tax ordinance, and to refund 80 percent of what Kennywood has sent the borough in amusement taxes since 1999; or else repeal the tax and not impose a new one. Kennywood claims it doesn't want the money (which amounts to nearly $3.5 million), and that it will be placed into an educational trust fund.

Borough officials aren't commenting, and it's unclear who leaked the letter to the News. (Kennywood claims it was a West Mifflin official.)

There's no denying that Kennywood causes a fair number of traffic congestion problems around West Mifflin and Duquesne each summer, or that West Mifflin police, fire and EMS crews often respond to incidents in and around the park. But it seems to the Almanac that all Kennywood is asking is that it pay its fair share --- not 100 percent.

This isn't the only tax issue currently dividing Kennywood and West Mifflin; the borough is also dinging Kennywood $250 for each of the antique 1-cent and 5-cent game machines in the park, reasoning that they should be taxed like a modern video game, even though (as anyone can see) that Kennywood doesn't receive anywhere near the revenue from a 1920s hand-cranked movie viewer that it does from a brand-new shoot-'em-up game that costs 50 cents or a dollar per play.

(In the interest of full disclosure: I repaired game machines for Kennywood for about two years. On occasion, I even emptied the money out of those penny and nickel machines. A week's worth of receipts from a "Mutoscope" wouldn't buy a decent meal at McDonald's. Let alone at Kennywood, now that I think of it.)

As I've written before, it astonishes me that no matter how much Kennywood invests in the community, the boroughs nearby seem to do nothing in the area to make the park a more attractive place to visit. Nor do they capitalize on all of the traffic coming into the area to visit Kennywood.

A great economic development opportunity is being squandered along Route 837 through Duquesne, West Mifflin, Munhall and Whitaker. That stretch of road should be teeming with business; instead, parts of it are fairly depressing.

I don't think that local government should be in the business of real estate development (for more information, see also, "City of Pittsburgh, bankruptcy of" or "City of Pittsburgh, failure of Fifth and Forbes"), but I have to wonder if better zoning and traffic and infrastructure improvements along "Kennywood Boulevard" would attract some private investment.

To put it another way: Since 1999, West Mifflin has collected $3.5 million in tax revenue directly from the sale of tickets at Kennywood. Does someone from West Mifflin care to show me the $3.5 million in zoning code changes, tax incentives for commercial development, and improved signals and lighting on Kennywood Boulevard that have been made in that period of time?

Or is the borough balancing its budget (including the cost of that spiffy $2 million three-story municipal hall on Lebanon Church Road, formerly a taxable privately-owned office building) on the back of its only tourist attraction and one of its few claims to fame?

I may be way off-base here. Perhaps there are more costs to the taxpayers of West Mifflin caused by Kennywood than I'm aware of. Perhaps West Mifflin is acting solely in the best interests of its taxpayers. As a West Mifflin taxpayer myself, I sure hope so.

But I do know that Kennywood is one of the largest private employers (admittedly, it's mostly seasonal) in the Mon-Yough area. And I know that the amusement park business has become pretty cutthroat, and most of the operators are large conglomerates, not local family-owned businesses. So I hope that both sides reach a compromise fairly soon.

Otherwise, someday, Kennywood's owners are going to announce that they're selling the whole shebang to Six Flags; or maybe that they're building a new park out in Washington County or Butler County next to one of the interstates, and they're putting money there that could have been spent in West Mifflin.

And if that day comes, I hope the elected officials of West Mifflin don't look too sad.


By the way: the News' Jen Vertullo spanked the Pittsburgh media on that Kennywood story. Neither "One of America's Great Newspapers" or the paper that "Makes You Think" have picked it up, despite the fact that it's gotten play in national trade publications. Embarrassed, are they, that they would have to credit the News?

On the other hand, an "atta-boy" to Ann Belser of the P-G, who has been covering the hell out of Our Fair City and its environs recently. It's nice to see a Picksberg reporter who has an interest in the Mon-Yough area beyond the crime-of-the-week, and I hope she continues to get good stories out of the beat.

Meanwhile, Belser's colleague Dennis Roddy had a nice column in Saturday's P-G about the memorial service for the fetuses whose corpses were found in a garage that used to be owned by former funeral director Robert Winston Jr., who used to run Newman-Winston Memorial Chapel in Our City. ("Our Fair City" seems less than appropriate in this instance.)

I haven't written anything about this case --- Winston was supposed to cremate the remains and dispose of them properly, or, in the cases of babies lost to miscarriages, return the ashes, but didn't --- because there isn't much to add to the sad tale. I tend to agree with Roddy's sentiments about much-maligned coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht, however --- he's shown more compassion and ownership of this situation than anyone else involved.


From the Not Mon-Yough Related, But Funny Dep't., someone sent me a link to this David Templeton column in the P-G. This lady may have the most apt name of anyone I've seen recently. The town she's from seems appropriate, too. And that's all I'm going to say about that.


From the Not Mon-Yough Related, But Funny Dep't., Part II: Someone recently turned me onto a Web comic called "Scary-Go-Round," which is veddy British and also entertaining. The artwork is also several notches above the typical Internet comic strip.

I spent an evening the other night catching up on past installments, which run back several years. If you like offbeat British humor, and comic strips, you might give it a whirl, so to speak. (A warning: It's a serial with a large cast, and it will make no sense unless you start at or near the beginning, and work forward.)

Also, various sources are reporting that a Web comic mentioned recently in the Almanac, Owen Dunne's "You Damn Kid," has been optioned by Fox for a possible television show. "YDK" is not for everyone (think a slightly gentler, and usually funnier "Family Guy," or else a grosser, and always funnier "Family Circus"), but it's probably more accessible than "Scary," I'll admit.

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September 16, 2005 | Link to this story

You Don't Rant Me Love Songs Any More

Category: default || By jt3y

It is about time for Pittsburgh City Paper to take its "Rant" feature out behind the office and put a bullet through its head. When the rest of the columns in the tabloid ask, "Whatever happened to 'Rant'?" they can be told that they've been sent off to the farm to run and play with the other newspaper features that have outlived their usefulness, like columns on contract bridge and "Garfield."

Exhibit A, may it please the court, is this week's "Rant" by Melissa Meinzer. I have no problem per se with Meinzer's opinions, which concern her failure to keep up with current TV trends. (I know that it's in color now, Missy, if that helps, but I otherwise remain pretty clueless myself.)

The problem is that Meinzer is a staff writer for City Paper.

My understanding of the "Rant" is that it was supposed to represent a platform for the voiceless to complain about whatever bothered them --- a sort of screechy, obnoxious vox populi, if you will. Or for that matter, if you won't.

But given that Meinzer is a professional journalist who presumably has a platform every time she needs it, she hardly needs to take over the forum set aside for the simple farmers, people of the land, and common clay ("you know, morons") who supposedly need a "Rant" space to vent their spleens.

It would be like Michael Savage going to Market Square in downtown Picksberg, pushing aside the drunken bums, and beginning to shout his own gibberish. Someone would have to say, "Mike, bubbelah, let the poor unfortunates have this little piece of public space so they can talk about their paranoid delusions. If you want to voice your paranoid delusions, do what you always do, and use your syndicated radio program."

Or take my friend and estimable former colleague Jonathan Potts, who also wrote a "Rant" for City Paper not long ago. It seems to me that his status as one of the leading professional free-lance journalists in the region (hi, Jonathan!) should have disqualified him from participating in amateur competition, but perhaps there was a rule change that I'm unaware of. I'm emailing the International Olympic Committee to ask for their advice. (I helpfully scanned a photo of a $100 bill and attached it to the email, since that's what apparently motivates the IOC.)

What Jonathan and Melissa's appearance in the "Rant" tells me is that the quality of "Rant" submissions has either gotten so poor, or the quantity has become so scant, or both, that City Paper needs hired guns and ringers to pick up the slack. If that's the case, then the "Rant" needs to get it right between the eyes.

Frankly, I find it hard to believe that Western Pennsylvanians have finally vented all of the spleen they had to vent, and are now completely happy and content. There are plenty of things to be angry about, like the possibility that Big Ben might not be able to play this weekend. What would late summer be without a Steelers quarterback controversy?

And there are other things to stay angry about. For instance, it's been more than a week since I mentioned that several of your Mon-Yough area legislators, like state Reps. Ken Ruffing, D-West Mifflin, and Paul Costa, D-Wilkins Township, voted themselves a hefty pay raise this summer, along with state Sens. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville. (Is it too soon to mention that again? Nah, I don't think so!)

More likely, I suspect, is that loudmouth malcontents no longer need to write to the newspaper if they want to rail on against problems both real and imagined. Instead, they launch their own Web sites to talk endlessly about subjects no one cares about. Like I did, for example.

So, City Paper, do the right thing for all concerned. Put the "Rant" out of its, and our, misery. Surely that space could be put to a more valuable public use.

More strip-club ads, for instance.


The thought just occurred to me: If I had submitted this Almanac to City Paper, instead of publishing it here, I could have had it printed as a "Rant" and won a gift certificate. Curses!


Speaking of weekly newspaper rants (that's called a "transition phrase," you budding "Rant" writers might want to take note), I never fail to miss The Valley Mirror, the weekly serving Steel Valley and Woodland Hills school districts. It's chock-full of good local newsy tidbits, nostalgia, and photos of just-plain-folks.

My favorite part has to be Earle Wittpenn's columns, called "Earle's Pearls." I have a lot of respect for Mr. Wittpenn, former editor of the Homestead Messenger and founder of the Mirror, which he built up from literally nothing.

But you look at the smiling cartoon man who serves as the column heading, and the cheery, "That's Earle now!" that signs off each piece, and then you read the content in between, and you find just the teensiest contradiction in tone. The content of the typical "Earle's Pearls" column is as sunshiny and light-hearted as a rabid pit bull with an impacted wisdom tooth.

I couldn't wait to see what Wittpenn wrote about the disaster in New Orleans, and he didn't disappoint me at all, hitting all of the required Republican talking points. I would say he represents the opposing viewpoint to my Tuesday Almanac, but that's not quite enough. I tend to be left-of-center, but I'm also a tight-money, fiscally-conservative pro-lifer; while Earle Wittpenn tends to make Louis XIV look like a panty-waist bleeding-heart liberal. A sample of this week's "Earle's Pearls" (sadly, not online):

"Decades of socialist government in New Orleans has sapped all self reliance from the community, and made them dependent upon government for every little thing. ...

"The idea of banding together and helping one another was nowhere to be seen. It was utter chaos. So did Jesse Jackson, Nancy Pelosi, and other ilk among the left wingers stand up to be counted? Not on your life. They began finger pointing even before one person had been rescued. And the fingers pointed only to the President."

Of course Wittpenn cautions us that he's "not a Bush lover." Well, having read his columns weekly for going on 15 years now, I might have a little bit of a quibble, but he's entitled to his opinion, too.

And when he says that the levees in New Orleans failed because the "local levee board" didn't maintain them, I might point out that the levees didn't break --- the flood walls of the shipping canals broke, and those are federally-governed waterways. But I won't.

And when he writes that the President "did his job exactly as required," I might point to a few inconvenient facts recorded in places like here and there, but I won't do that, either. 'Cause everyone's entitled to his opinion.

He's got his platform, and I've got mine. And we don't even require gift certificates to go off on a rant --- we do it for no compensation at all.

That's Jason now!


Local News You May Have Missed: Speaking of Homestead, Chiodo's Tavern is all but a memory now. As David Whipkey reports in the Daily News (and, come to think of it, as the Mirror reported last week), the demolition is just about complete, and construction of a new Walgreen's drug store will begin by the end of this month.

On another sad note, the co-founder and former owner of Ann's Confectionery, a longtime landmark on upper Fifth Avenue in Our Fair City passed away Tuesday. Jerry Vondas writes in the Tribune-Review that the store had one of the city's first TV sets, which drew crowds of local kids. The candy was probably healthier than the TV, now that I think of it. (Tube City hard hat tip: Jon Potts)


To Do This Weekend: The Norwin Band-Aides host the annual Norwin Band Festival at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the high school stadium, 251 McMahon Drive, North Huntingdon Township. The marching bands from McKeesport, East Allegheny, Elizabeth Forward, Serra, Woodland Hills and Penn-Trafford are scheduled to participate, along with those of other schools around the region. Admission is $9 or $5 for students. Call (724) 863-4864. ... McKeesport Little Theater, Coursin Street near Bailie Avenue, presents Neil Simon's "The Dinner Party," tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call (412) 673-1100 or visit

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September 13, 2005 | Link to this story

Let Them Drink Tea

Category: default || By jt3y

I've decided I'm going to start publishing the Almanac on Tuesdays and Fridays, at least for the foreseeable future. I don't have time right now to keep updating it daily, but I want to retain some semblance of a regular schedule.

Yes, I know. Try to control your grief.

So, welcome to today's Almanac, in which ... I reprint letters from readers! Yes, having cut back to twice a week publication ... I'm using the opportunity to not write anything! What a work ethic!

Anyway, Alert Reader Dave writes:

Jason, thank you for publishing the Tube City Almanac. It is interesting that you have also taken a shot at President Bush. My goodness! Let's also blame the President for untrained potty babies. Friends in the flood plain of WPA tell me how little response they have received from local politicians from last year's tragic event. Someone said that you have not learned from 150 years of recorded local politics. New Orleans has been one of the most politically corrupt cities in the nation with a crime rate to match. Many of the evacuees say they will never return. Isn't that what the people in the Mon Valley say as they pack up to leave in huge numbers? How can anyone blame President Bush without blaming the local and state politicians in Louisiana?

Well, Dave, thanks for writing. As I pointed out to someone in the comments a few days ago, I am not blaming the President for the hurricane. I am blaming him for diverting federal money from the Army Corps of Engineers to pay for his splendid little war in Iraq. I blame him for gutting the Federal Emergency Management Agency because the deep neo-conservative "thinkers" (and I use that word loosely) with which he has surrounded himself don't like it for ideological reasons. I blame him for spending two days piddling around on vacation after the levees broke in New Orleans. I blame him for making utterly clueless and despicable comments once he did decide to come out of his hole and greet the sunlight.

I didn't much like Bill Clinton, and like most Americans, I think, I was very willing to give this President a chance. But he has blown every opportunity he's had, and his sloppy response to the latest crisis is the last straw for me and many others. (The latest polls have his approval rating under 40 percent, and his disapproval rating over 50 percent.)

And since I brought up Clinton, it's instructive to look at how the federal government responded to hurricanes during both Slick Willie's administration and that of Bush the Elder:

Clinton made disaster declarations even before the hurricane hit. And oh yes, he did something else: He cancelled pleasing vacation plans so he could be at his desk when the hurricane hit. Last week, of course, Bush 43 still lounged in Crawford as Katrina bore down on the U.S. coast; on Day 2, he flew off to make a speech in San Diego even after New Orleans’ levees had breached. (The levees gave way on Monday; Bush flew to San Diego on Tuesday.) No, our cursory review doesn’t make us experts in federal reaction time. But we thought we saw a difference in the way these presidents acted.

(Tube City hard hat tip: The Daily Howler.)

The hurricane was an act of God. The failure of the federal government to be prepared was an act of President Bush and his lap-dog, rubber-stamp Congress. And yes, there's plenty of fingers to be pointed at the local yokels in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, but the governor of Louisiana doesn't control the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The mayor of New Orleans doesn't control FEMA. And neither of them have the resources and equipment that can be brought to bear on disaster relief that the federal government has historically had ... but either doesn't have since President Bush took office, or was unwilling to use.

Keith Olbermann said it much more eloquently last week in an editorial on MSNBC:

All that was needed was just a quick "I'm not satisfied with my government's response." Instead of hiding behind phrases like "no one could have foreseen," had he only remembered Winston Churchill's quote from the 1930's. "The responsibility," of government, Churchill told the British Parliament, "for the public safety is absolute and requires no mandate. It is in fact, the prime object for which governments come into existence." In forgetting that, the current administration did not merely damage itself — it damaged our confidence in our ability to rely on whoever is in the White House.

Here's what the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader --- traditionally one of the most conservative newspapers in the United States --- editorialized:

A better leader would have flown straight to the disaster zone and announced the immediate mobilization of every available resource to rescue the stranded, find and bury the dead, and keep the survivors fed, clothed, sheltered and free of disease.

The cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited in his first term, particularly in the months following September 11, 2001, has vanished. In its place is a diffident detachment unsuitable for the leader of a nation facing war, natural disaster, and economic uncertainty.

(Hard hat tip, Olbermann.)

I have a lot more to say, and like many Americans, I'm still very angry about this. But since this is primarily a Web site about Mon-Yough issues, I have avoided writing about this.

Listening to the news last week, I finally figured out (I think) why the President's responses have been so tone-deaf. He keeps talking the way many wealthy people respond to problems: "We'll spend money," "we'll give you money," "the federal government is going to spend whatever it takes."

The conceit is that money can solve any problem, and that as long as you get your cash at the end, you'll be happy. But the promise of a federal no-interest loan is of no help to someone who's starving, or whose house has washed away, or whose loved one is dead. At that exact moment, they don't necessarily want money ... they want dry clothes and protection from looters, and maybe a sympathetic ear. The President, who ran as a "compassionate conservative," is sorely lacking the first virtue.

The President has always been convinced that you can buy your way out of trouble, because he always has been able to --- whenever one of his businesses failed, his dad's cronies bailed him out. I think that's why so much of the war in Iraq has been subcontracted to private vendors. But some problems can't be "bought off," and Hurricane Katrina is another one of those.

Now, some wealthy people are raised with a sense of "noblesse oblige." Take the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts. That was apparently not instilled in the Bush family. More's the pity, as we're finding out.


Whew! All that indignant ranting wears me out. How about something lighter, hmm? Alert Reader Geoff writes:

I wanted to let you know that, in iced tea as in so many things, Western Pennsylvania and Western New York are kissing cousins.

Where I grew up, around Buffalo, a number of dairies marketed iced tea in paper cartons and plastic jugs, along with a variety of colored bug juices. They were pretty common at picnics when I was a kid and later at teenage drinking events. But by the time I worked construction after college, they'd largely been replaced by the little glass bottles of iced tea and buckets of pop. Occasionally someone would pull out a carton of Charlap's or Wendt's iced tea from the front seat of the car, but ever more rarely.

Certainly it is not so ubiquitous as it continues to be around Western PA -- it's something I noticed as soon as I moved to Pittsburgh, and it continues to remind me how many things Buffalo and Pittsburgh have in common.

The Almanac is proud to become Western Pennsylvania's source for iced tea carton information, and I've often felt that Buffalo and Picksberg were so similar that you could take a Picksberger and a Buffalonian (Buffaloite? Buffaloer?), blindfold them, drop them into each other's city, and they wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Even the downtown areas look similar.

Speaking of iced tea, I tried something called diet peach iced tea from (I think) GetGo the other day. Bleah! Run far, far away. I had to drink some cough medicine just to get the taste out of my mouth. Nasty stuff.


Finally, Alert Reader Janos sends along several items of interest, clipped from the newsy newsletter of the McKeesport Heritage Center, of which I have been a long-time member:

AUGUST 9, 1929, OPEN STORE TOMORROW: Everything is in readiness for the formal opening of the new Sears, Roebuck and Company retail store at 135 Fifth Avenue ... When the store's personnel was made up over 98 percent of local residents were selected to fill the various positions ... the location was chosen by the company because of its easy accessibility from all parts of the city.

Unless I miss my guess, that store was where the Family Dollar store, facing Lysle Boulevard is now (formerly a Goodyear tire store and Kelly & Cohen).

MAY 12, 1930, MAKING WAY FOR NEW BUILDING IN FIFTH: Blair & Mack today began the work of razing the old building at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Tube Works Street, where the contracting firm will erect for the G.C. Murphy company a modern business house.

That building was long home of G.C. Murphy Co.'s "Number 1 store" on Fifth Avenue, as well as a large banquet room and restaurant upstairs. It's currently a blood bank. (Deposits only, no withdrawals.)

MAY 14, 1930, START WORK ON NEW STORE IN TEN DAYS: Construction of a new two-story building at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Blackberry Street will begin in about ten days, J.G. Esch of the Esch Construction company of Cleveland said. The new building will cost approximately $75,000 and is to be completed by September 1, Mr. Esch said. It will be occupied by the W.T. Grant company and the Kay company.

Now, this one's got me stumped ... unless it's the building that later became Jaison's Department Store (no relation) and is now a bingo hall. Anyone want to correct or illuminate me?


Oh, and before I forget ... me alma mater is 3-0 on the football season so far. Hee hee hee! I'm going to enjoy this while it lasts, because it's been a long, long, long time.

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September 08, 2005 | Link to this story

And Another Thing

Category: default || By jt3y

There was $2.939 gas last night at one Mon-Yough area town.


Well, you'll have to read the Mon-Yough Gas Gauge to find out.

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September 08, 2005 | Link to this story

Briefly Stated

Category: default || By jt3y

I had to go out of town for a few days. Mea culpa. I actually had to drive to Philadelphia, and then down to Cape May, N.J. It cost $3 at the Walt Whitman Bridge to get out of New Jersey, and let me tell you, it was the best $3 I've ever spent. (Rimshot.)

Actually, I'd never been to the Jersey Shore before, and although this wasn't a pleasure trip, I liked it much better than I thought I would. I'd been to the Delaware Shore years ago, and I wasn't impressed; the Cape May area was surprisingly uncruddy, and I could see vacationing there. Perhaps my impressions were colored by the fact that one of the people I had to meet with lives literally directly on the beach (he bought the house for $38,000 in 1973. It's now worth a few million ... eeek), but I also enjoyed killing time in the towns of Avalon and Stone Harbor while waiting for our appointment.

It always surprises me how rural much of New Jersey is. Pennsylvanians tend to think of New Jersey as ugly abandoned industrial areas, declining cities and beat-up highways, but it's more than that. It's also toxic waste dumps. (Ha! I slay me.) But seriously, there is a lot of unspoiled land in New Jersey. On the expressway between Camden and Atlantic City, there are practically no towns of any size, but there is a lot of preserved wetlands.

I also have to admit that I couldn't get Hurricane Katrina out of my mind, particularly after I saw some of the houses around Stone Harbor, which are built right to the edge of the beaches and causeways. Have these people learned nothing from, oh, 150 years of recorded weather events in the United States?

Anyway, I'll try to cough up a new Almanac soon.

In the meantime, Officer Jim says people should stop blaming President Bush and his political appointees for botching the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. The President's just an optimist, he says. Many people see New Orleans as half empty, Officer Jim says, but the President prefers to see New Orleans as half full.

And David Letterman says he's enjoying the new HBO miniseries "Rome." According to Letterman, in this week's episode, Rome was burning while Nero refused to cut short his vacation. He can't wait for next week's installment, in which it takes FEMA five days to show up in Pompeii.

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September 03, 2005 | Link to this story

When That’s Where You Left Your Heart

Category: default || By jt3y

In 1999 or 2000 (I don't remember which exactly, because the years are starting to run together ... another sign of old age) I took a road-trip with some friends to Manhattan. We had a grand total of seven hours to spend in the city. None of us had ever been there before. We had almost no money, so we planned to walk around, sight-seeing.

Manhattan being as large as it is (but flat and easily walkable), we got dropped off down by Greenwich Village and had to decide which way to walk ... up toward Rockefeller Center and Times Square? Or down toward the Battery and the World Trade Center?

We made a quick decision. In retrospect, I wish we had chosen differently, because seeing the Time-Life Building wasn't that much of a thrill.

That's something like what I've been feeling this week, and I'm ashamed of myself because of it. New Orleans has always been high on my list of places I'd like to see (others include London, Sydney, Chicago, Montreal and South Bend, Ind., the latter for reasons best left unexplained). Late at night, while I've been obsessively reading the news from the Gulf Coast, which has been equal parts heartbreaking, frustrating and inspiring, I keep hearing a little pouty 5-year-old version of myself whining, "What if New Orleans isn't there any more? Now I'll never get to see it!"

Never mind the fact that hundreds of thousands of people who live there may never get to see their homes or loved ones again; my subconscious is worried about future tourism possibilities. So I yell at the 5-year-old, and he goes off in some corner of my brain and sulks. (And probably crayons the inside of my skull.)

I'm also embarrassed to admit, but when I heard that thousands of people were missing and that the Ninth Ward of New Orleans was under water, my first thought was: Did Fats get out?

I know next to nothing about New Orleans, but I do know who lives (or lived) on St. Charles Avenue, in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, in a pink and gold house. It's a man who I think clears his throat better than most people sing, 77-year-old Antoine "Fats" Domino.

So on Tuesday, I started running searches for "Fats Domino" on Google News. Nothing. Wednesday, nothing.

Well, that's good, I thought. He's still alive. Right?

And then on Thursday, reports began leaking out: "Fats Domino is missing." His daughter said her dad had decided to ride out the storm in his house on St. Charles, but that she hadn't heard from him since Monday. The water was up to the rooftops on St. Charles.

My stomach twisted up into a knot, and not for the first time since the hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi. While the destruction and loss of life in New Orleans was bad enough, it's hard for me to imagine. Fats dead? That I could understand, and it hit me hard. It was like an old family friend was gone.

There are a lot of reasons I like Fats, and it's not just because of his music. (Which, despite what the oldies radio stations seem to think, is more than "I'm Walkin'" and "Blueberry Hill," and includes a large body of work, no pun intended, like some beautiful ballads and wonderful rollicking blues tunes.)

I happen to think he's a good person; there's been not a whiff of scandal around him. The subject of his song "Rosemary," for instance, is Fats' wife. They've been married for five decades and have eight children together. And supposedly, he's been very generous over the years to the people who've worked with him. They, in turn, are very loyal to him. Call me naive, but I hope that's all true.

But stories about Fats are not easy to come by, because he's very private, and that's something else I frankly admire about him. And despite being fairly wealthy (especially by the standards of other '50s R&B artists) he still lives close to his roots, in a poor neighborhood. About his only concession to being famous has been the house painted in the wild 1950s hues, which is now apparently destroyed.

Supposedly, he's been very approachable to other people in the Ninth Ward (especially kids and aspiring musicians), and while he still plays concerts, he's not doing big "rock and roll reunion" concerts. He plays clubs and music festivals in New Orleans.

So when a friend asked me this week, "with all of his money and connections, why wouldn't he leave?" I said it was simple: If you know the legend of Fats, and the strength of his character, you'd know that he would stay with "his people," who didn't have the means to get out.

Then came the rumors on the Internet. A newspaper photographer had snapped a picture of someone in the Ninth Ward matching Fats' description being helped into a boat. And today: Exhausted and upset but safe, Fats, his wife, two daughters and a son-in-law indeed were rescued. They went to a shelter and are now staying with LSU's quarterback in Baton Rouge.

Is he worried about his house, with all of the music memorabilia?

Maybe. But that's not what he told the Washington Post. "I'm worried about all the people in New Orleans," Fats said. "Tell them I love them and I wish I was home with them. I hope we'll see them soon."

I almost cried. And I swear that's true. Except for the "almost" part.

Make no mistake about it, the news from New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulfport and other communities is still very bad, and there is a long way to go before the people who lived and worked there can put their lives back together.

Yet in some little way, the news that Fats is alive and well made me a little happier, and gave me a little hope that things are going to turn out OK.


P.S. I've added a link to the Salvation Army's donation page. The experts are saying that if you want to help, don't collect food or clothing, which are hard to distribute. Give a little bit of money, instead. The Sallie Ann and the Red Cross are two of the better agencies, in my personal experience, and if you're inclined to donate, I have no hesitation about recommending them.

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September 01, 2005 | Link to this story

Can You Say ‘Gouge,’ Boys and Girls?

Category: default || By jt3y

Someone called me yesterday to report that gas prices in his neighborhood had gone up twice during the day ... once in the morning, once in the afternoon. I didn't believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. (Details at the Gas Gauge.)

It is not true, by the way, that "Pay at Pump" signs are being replaced by "Rape at Pump," but you might want to keep your car keys poking through your fingers, and your pepper spray within easy reach, just in case.

By the way, does anyone but me think that it was a bad idea for the government to allow all of the big oil companies --- Chevron and Texaco, Exxon and Mobil, Conoco and Phillips, BP and Amoco --- to merge? If competition lowers prices, then it seems to me that a lack of competition causes prices to go up.

Anyway, I don't like it, but I'll deal with it, probably by cutting out some non-essential activities, like bathing. (Rimshot.)

It's going to be harder to face the inflationary pressure this is going to put on everything else, especially food, most of which moves by truck. It's not sufficient to just tell people to "carpool" or "use public transportation." Should they stop eating, too? When milk (which is hauled in tractor-trailers and comes from cows raised by dairy farmers who use trucks and tractors) hits $4.50 a gallon, should we tell the kids to put water on their cereal?

Luckily, salaries are rising to keep pace with costs.

What's that, you say? They're not? Oh, never mind.

One could say that we're too dependent on automobiles and fossil fuels, and one would be correct, but pointing out that obvious fact doesn't help in the short term. (That doesn't stop some people, of course.)

On the other hand, bloody little is being done in the long term, either, and maybe another gas crisis will finally motivate people to demand that the government develop alternative fuels.

And maybe they'll demand better public transportation and zoning codes that encourage dense development with sidewalks that people can actually use.

And maybe monkeys will fly out of my earholes.

In a related story, Pat Cloonan reports in last night's Daily News that the Port Authority is cutting nearly half of the daily runs that the 61C bus makes from Our Fair City through Duquesne and Homestead to Picksberg via Oakland.

The Port Authority says that people can still use the 56C or the flyers to downtown Picksberg, but that's not who uses the 61C most heavily, in my experience. The usual riders from the Mon-Yough area are students commuting to school in Oakland and people commuting to jobs at the hospitals and the Waterfront in Homestead. The 56C helps them not at all.

So, let's review: The same week that gas prices jumped 50 cents a gallon, the Port Authority is cutting one of the few alternative means of transportation for people from the Mon-Yough area to get into Allegheny County's second-most important business district.

The Port Authority is making these cuts to reduce costs at a time when the state Legislature refuses to find funding for public transportation.

Is this a good time to remind everyone that many of your local state legislators, including Rep. Ken Ruffing of West Mifflin, Rep. Paul Costa of Wilkins Township, Sen. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, and Sen. Jay Costa Jr. of Forest Hills just voted themselves giant pay raises?

Why, I think it's an excellent time!

(That's "Ruffing", two "Costas" and a "Markosek." You may want to keep those first two names handy next year when you go to the polls.)

It is nice to see, of course, that the public sector is finally taking lessons from the private sector. In this case, the state Legislature has apparently taken a lesson in gouging people from the oil companies.

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