Sunday, November 01, 2009

NYT: "What a Difference a Year Makes" - Was 1957 Really a Lucky Year in Which to Be Born?

There was a piece in The New York Times that tried to make the point that 1957 was an exceptionally lucky year in which to be born, based on the experiences of one white male Republican who lives in upstate New York named Harry MacAvoy.

Speaking as a person who was also born in 1957, I don't completely disagree with him, but it's amazing how much he's missed. It's like this man has been sleepwalking for 52 years (or, say, 47 years, since most of us don't remember that much of the first five years of our lives).

On the one hand, he's certainly right that people who were in college between about 1973 and 1982 had it easy in so many ways. We had most of the advantages of the sexual revolution and almost none of its disadvantages. But MacAvoy managed to miss the whole spectre of AIDS that later hit many of our generation, and certainly impacted those who were in college after us.

MacAvoy said, “We completely missed the upheaval of the 60s, the Vietnam protests on campus, the draft...and (I consider myself) lucky to have been young in the 1960s, so as not to have been traumatized by the Kennedy and King assassinations." Did he live in a household without television or newspapers in the '60s and '70s? Many of us were very much impacted by the civil rights revolution, the feminist revolution, the frequent assasination of leaders. Many of us who had secure lives suburbs still felt some of that upheaval even if we were children at the time. Not everyone born in 1957 was so completely lacking in empathy.

It wasn't always an easy thing to buy a house in the '80s. After years of so-so jobs, my husband and I both got decent jobs, part of the great high tech boom in Massachusetts. We couldn't afford our first house until 1987. And as there was a housing recession in the early '90s, we lost money when we sold our first house when my husband took a new job in Pittsburgh. For that matter, we lost a little money when we sold our second house in 2006, and our current home is worth less than it was in 2006. Luckily, my husband's job is reasonably secure, and the Pittsburgh housing market hasn't collapsed the way it has in many other places in the country.

Unlike a man long employed at the public trough like Harry MacAvoy, our retirement certainly won't happen in our 50s.
But unlike many people in their 50s now, we still have the likelihood of a reasonably comfortable retirement when we're in our 60s. We have always invested in 401ks, and didn't panic last year when the markets collapsed. But I know people around my age who were wiped out by the market collapse, some of whom are unemployed on top of that. For them, being born in 1957 has hardly been lucky. They may remember good-paying jobs and employer-paid insurance as a memory. They may be hoping to stay reasonbly healthy until they're old enough for Medicare. Given the Republican-driven misinformation about government-run health care over the last 30 years, that's all they can hope for.

So, sure, it was great to be a kid when we had a space program that was regularly breaking new ground, and when the GE ride at the 1964-65 World's Fair (later copied at the Disney parks) promised us "A great big beautiful tomorrow." While many things have improved over time, we have to be realistic that as some parts of society has witnessed continued improvement, many groups in society are still being left behind.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

My Modest Disclaimer

The FTC has decided people should be up front when they are being paid to chat things up on the Web. Frankly, I think that's a good idea.

Yes, like many people who write for the Web, I have sometimes been paid or gotten freebies. However, since I generally don't review items, it doesn't happen very often.

As an independent contractor, I'm currently being paid to help support the All Things Human and Institute of Green Science Web sites. Most of the work I do is behind-the-scenes - research, testing, coding, revising material. Sometimes, I do post about these sites in my Facebook page or blog.

Earlier this year, I got two free tickets to see Up, which I loved and reviewed informally online. If I hadn't liked it, I would have said so anyway, despite the free tickets.

So, for this year, that's what I've been paid to write about. The vast majority of the writing I've done about movies, conventions, politics, Pittsburgh, travel, et.c. have all been as a person who's interested in these things, and not as a person who's been paid to help promote them.

Friday, September 25, 2009

G-20 - Early Morning Joggers and Some Flicks from "Fortress Pittsburgh"

I'd volunteered a few months ago to help out at the G-20, during a time when I was mostly unemployed. I'd hoped to work in the press center during the week, but I didn't get one of those jobs. I was beginning to think I wouldn't get any job with the G-20, then I got an E-mail to work the 6am-10am shift on 9/25 at the information table at one of the west suburban hotels. At about the same time, I got a really neat part-time contract job, doing various Web work for Chip Walter. So doing a day's volunteering for the G-20 turned out to work well.

I got up very early this morning, and was at the hotel just before 6am. The lobby was still fairly dark, but there a few state troopers and suited men walking around. I quickly found the info table, replenished the freebies from Visit Pittsburgh (mostly maps and local visits guides). There was a binder of various information, including which groups were blocked in each hotel. While I assumed a distant hotel would have the journalists from Wyoming staying at it, this hotel had the delegation from South Africa.

As you might expect, it was pretty dead in the lobby for the first hour. Mostly just security and hotel personnel of various stripes. The first person I greeted turned out to be plain-clothes security and not a South African attache. The next person I tried to talk to spoke to me in Spanish. Luckily, I could say, "Yo hablo muy pecano Espanol" (probably sic - "I speak very little Spanish"), and he laughed and said he didn't speak much English either.

But that meant we probably didn't just have the South African delegation in the hotel. So I went through the binder again, and found we also had the Spanish delegation. I'd had about three years of Spanish in high school, but that was a very long time ago now.

After about an hour, the lobby got very busy very suddenly. About eight Spanish men in jogging clothes and another few in suites came through the lobby and went out the side door. I wasn't sure who was jogging, but I knew typical joggers don't have plainsclothes security.

Some of the South African delegation came into the lobby. I mostly directed people over to the hotel restaurant.

At about 8pm, a woman with a VisitPittsburgh button came over to the desk. Her name was Mina, and she was a Spanish teacher, who'd been providing translation work for the Mexican delegation on Wednesday. I was relieved she was going to be around the rest of the morning. She knew all about Spanish culture and politics. I described what I'd seen earlier, and she said, "Oh that's because President Zapatero is staying here."

A few minutes later, the joggers returned. Mina smiled and said, "Yes, that's the president."

Not long after Mina arrived, another info booth worker, Subash, joined us. Subash worked for the Allegheny Conference, the group that did most of the local coordination for the G-20. We chatted and Subash was sure we'd met before. We concluded that since we live a few miles apart, we've probably seen each other in the local groceries stores.

Very suddenly, the South African delegation was through the lobby so quickly they were practically outside before we saw them, followed by the state troopers. The Spanish delegation came through a few minutes later, and we had enough time to say "Buenos dias," to which the president of Spain said "Gracias." The first ladies of each country left separately a little later with much smaller entourages.

Once it got to be closer to 10, I said goodbye, ran an errand, then went to Ikea to wait for the bus to Pittsburgh. I was curious to see what downtown Pittsburgh was like today. It was a unique experience.

Welcome to Fortress Pittsburgh

A storefront in downtown opened up a "grafitti zone." After walking all through downtown, I left the "Welcome to Fortress Pittsburgh" note.

Looking at Mellon Park Through the Security Fence

A view of Mellon Park through the 8' tall crowd fence.

AlphaGraphics Welcomes the World (another photo in the ongoing irony series)

AlphaGraphics welcomes the world...even though it's closed and boarded up. There were very few businesses in downtown that boarded-up. Maybe only 50 windows were broken, mostly in Bloomfield, Oakland and Shadyside. I don't think there was any damage in downtown itself.

David Lawrence Convention Center - Site of the G-20 Summit (and Netroots Nation), 2009

A view of the David Lawrence Convention Center from the Sixth Street Bridge. Many news outlets reported from the balcony.

Many Travelers Come to Pittsburgh...So Travelers Aid Is Closed

Another irony alert - Travelers Aid also closed down during the G-20

It was pretty quiet in most of downtown between 11:30 and 1:30. Lots of cops and blocked streets. While I certainly understand why we needed the security, it was a pretty massive show of force (in fact, as I type at 11:05 on Friday night, there's a minor demonstration going on in the college area (Oakland) of Pittsburgh surrounded by about 200 cops).

About the only attaches I saw "outside the secure zone" were some of the Chinese delegates, who had some shopping bags with them as they walked back to their hotel.

I'll probably put up more photos tomorrow or Sunday.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Take a Deep Breath, Pittsburgh...

So the G-20 starts tomorrow and some of the folks in Pittsburgh are already getting hot and bothered. I mean both some of the anti-G20 protesters and some of the law enforcement agencies. If half of what the City Paper reported on yesterday, about the police harassing protesters who were just buying lunch(!), it bodes badly for the next few days.

Law enforcement certainly has the right to keep the delegates to the G-20 reasonably safe. Blocking off the area around the Convention Center makes sense, and, we know, we're going to have rolling roadblocks in from the airport area. Just stay off the Parkway West and avoid driving into town over the next couple of days.

Protesters have the right for peaceable assembly. So far, word is there's no real problem. Most protesters have quickly made their points and gotten out of the way.

I was in Oakland yesterday, and saw many more police than usual. Now, part of that might have had more to do with Bill Gates making an address up at CMU than "showing presence." But there were all kinds of peaceful protests going on in Oakland, mostly small, but still visible. For the most part, law enforcement just let people be.

I've been to about a dozen protests in Washington over the years and a few here in Pittsburgh. I was also at the Inauguration in January, and saw an amazing show of law enforcement. Well over 1,000,000 people came into Washington, and the vast majority were there to celebrate Obama's inauguration. The 300-500 counter-demonstrators were certainly there, they tried to be loud, and they had their little corner to protest in. Law enforcement pretty much left them alone, so long as they stayed in their designated area. Only a couple of people were arrested that day, of over 1,000,000 people who went to Washington. Damage to the city was minor, and mostly to the grass on the Mall.

It is usually a good thing for people in positions of power to get together to talk directly. Yes, I hope they do talk about the Darfur and poverty and climate change and environmental issues and establishing stronger laws over the banking and investment industries. Just let them talk.

Everyone - residents, protesters, law enforcement, just need to take a deep breath before doing anything over-the-top per the next few days. The eyes of the world are watching. We can try to be reasonable adults or reactionary children. If we are truly trying to reinvent Pittsburgh for a new generation, then showing a rational approach to the G-20 is the best thing to do.

Friday, September 11, 2009

There Is Also Something So Unamerican...

...about calling your president "a liar" from the floor the the Congress.

Democrats had MANY more reasons to do that during the Bush administration, and refrained from doing so.

As the latest viral Obama poster says, "Sush.../let the grown-ups talk!"

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

There Is Something So UnAmerican...

...about refusing to let your child hear the President speak.

We are being taken over by the Marching Morons. It's completely disgusting.

I think Reagan spoke on closed circuit TV at least once when Leslie was in grade school. While he was far from my favorite president, no one complained about that he spoke to the kids. He was the elected president, after all.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Dead People Server Turns Fifteen

Dead People Server was invented at some point in the late summer of 1994 by Richard Holmes. I'm not 100% sure of the date, as I didn't become the curator until March 1997. So this is, roughly, the 15th anniversary of Dead People Server. That makes DPS something of a senior citizen among Web sites, but what-the-hell; neither retired nor expired!

Laurie Mann, curator

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Battling Polluting Waste Coal Plants In Western Pennsylvania

Politicians at the state and local level in Pennsylvania believe the residents should roll over and play dead when companies push for waste coal power plants. Some politicians take it for granted that we already have. However, waste coal power plants increase the amount of fly ash and other particulates in the air and the amount of mercury and arsenic the water. We, the people, must care about what happens to the environment, to the air we breathe and the water we drink. People living in Pennsylvania need to paraphrase John Paul Jones and need to constantly remind our elected and appointed officials...

We Have Not Begun to Fight:

Battling Polluting Waste Coal Plants In Western Pennsylvania

Many years of mining in Pennsylvania created large areas of waste coal, called gob piles. This is the Beech Hollow gob pile, just outside of McDonald, as seen from the western side (photo taken winter 2008):

Beech Hollow Gob Pile taken from the western side, 2/3/08

Here's what the Beech Hollow gob pile looks like from space, courtesy of Google Earth (photo taken late summer 2005):

Beech Hollow Gob Pile, taken from space, 8/05

The large glob of gray to the west of 980 (Robinson Highway) is the largest gob pile east of the Mississippi. It's in our backyard. Granted, it's an ugly mess, but in its current state, it isn't adding to the particulate problem in Southwestern Pennsylvania. However, if you live in places like North Fayette Towship, Oakdale, Carnegie, and Mount Lebanon, you live downwind of a proposed coal waste power plant for Beech Hollow, that will make electricity from the waste coal in this gob pile while spewing fly ash into the air.

For many years, Pittsburgh has been at or near the top of cities with the most particulate-polluted air. Yet our local politicians are giving permission for a waste coal power plant to be built just west of the area? This type of plant will only make a bad air quality situation worse, as anyone with asthma or other lung problems in our region already knows.

If you live in the Pittsburgh area, especially in the western and southern suburbs, you should be mad as hell and let your local officials know that you aren't going to take it.

To learn more about this proposed waste coal power plant, attend a public meeting in Mount Lebanon on Thursday, August 27, 7:30pm at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

NetRoots Nation Saturday

I left NetRoots Nation Thursday (even missing Bill Clinton's speech, which I would have loved to have heard) completely exhausted. After working my three hour airport shift, I went home and collapsed and missed Friday's events (including my cousin Alice's good friend Howard Dean).

So I returned to NetRoots today, and worked three hours at Registration, went to the Keynote Lunch, spent the afternoon videotaping a couple of panels, and am now at the evening Keynote.

The lunchtime keynote was OK, but not quite as forward-looking as I'd hoped. Most of the discussion was "it's better in Europe" and "we need more unionization." While these things are certainly true, they aren't making any new suggestions about how to handle the situation. Where are Paul Krugman and Charlie Stross, who spoke very interestingly on this very topic at Worldcon, when we need them?

After lunch, I was the videographer for a fascinating panel on DOJ extremes during the Bush years (that the Obama folks haven't fixed yet...*sigh*) and a very interesting panel on getting parents more involved in political organizing. I kept having to ask for help, but, luckily, my room was next door to the video office, so it was pretty easy to run next door and ask another stupid question.

At the evening keynote, State Senator Jim Ferlo gave a good speech, reminding us that peacefui assembly during the upcoming G20 meeting in Pittsburgh is Constitutionally protected - "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." - Benjamin Franklin. The city is way overreacting, saying that protests A MILE AWAY from the Convention Center during the G20 are forbidden. Much as I do believe that the G209 should continue unimpeded by disruptions, peaceful assembly is not disruptive. I'm very much opposed to muzzling peaceful protest.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thursday, August 13 - Live from NetRoots Nation in the 'Burgh!

After spending some time helping run my Dad's 80th birthday, vacationing in Canada, then helping run the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal, I'm back in Pittsburgh. My next "I'm underemployed and I'm bored!" project is working as a local volunteer for NetRoots Nation, which is here in Pittsburgh through Saturday. I've already linked up with "Drinking Liberally" and told them where they should go to drink.

I worked with another woman delivering today's tent cards to various panel rooms this morning, then helped out with Registration for a few hours. I'm now on a break, testing out the Acer WebBook in the exshibit hall.

While I have been fairly inactive on this blog for the last few weeks, due to doing work for Worldcon, I'm a proud liberal blogger and was delighted to hear that NetRoots was coming to Pittsburgh. I hope to make some contacts (beyond the "Drinking Liberally" folks!)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Visitors to, June 2009

My Web domain,, has been around for years. While the site that gets the most traffic is Dead People Server, I have about a dozen other sites.

The traffic pattern this month was interesting: traffic, June 2009

It's kind of ironic now that, just over a week ago on alt.obituaries, a number of us were complaining about how quiet "the world of celebrity death" had been. As I said at the time, "Good for celebrities, bad for people tracking deaths."

June 25 was a very busy day in celebrity death, with the long expected death of Farrah Fawcett, and the sudden (but not completely unexpected) death of Michael Jackson, which was a rumor for about two hours before it was confirmed at about 6:15pm that day. got nearly 3X as many visitors on that day as it had on its quietest day (on June 13).

That wasn't's busiest day ever though.

The busiest day ever was the day in September 2006 when Steve Irwin (aka the Crocodile Hunter) was killed by a stingray. Nearly twice as many people visited that day as visited on June 25.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Remembering Local Boy Billy Mays

At first, I thought the announcement of his death was another hoax. I first saw it on Wikipedia's death page, where hoax deaths can still creep through. It sounded like the recent fake death announcements of Jeff Goldblum (fell off a cliff!) or the one of pitchman John Basedow (Killed in the tsunami!).

Alas, I'm wrong on this one.

Billy was kind of annoying, but kind of enjoyable. I couldn't hate Billy Mays. Pitchmen normally make my skin crawl. His whole undertone always seemed to be "I'm having a good time with this, and I'm making a pile of money." And, heck, that's American. You can't hate making a pile of money. Well, OK, most of us can't.

Billy Mays was from the same very small, very poor town that my husband called his hometown (and boxer Paul Spadafora, former "hair colorist to the stars" Bradley Johns, politician John Kasich, and footballer Chuck Fusina) - McKees Rocks, PA. Billy was two years older than one brother-in-law, and lived near my other brother-in-law (well, where "near" was "the same part of Florida").

Billy Mays was like Farrah Fawcett in that he made the best with what he had, which probably added up to millions of dollars before he died.

In many ways, his death is the most shocking celebrity death of a week filled with celebrity deaths. Ed was old. Farrah was sick. There was something sadly inevitable about Michael Jackson's sudden death at a middle age. But, Billy Mays? So full of life? So into promoting whatever he was selling? This one seems wrong. Is he selling some new product, that a fake death might help promote?

Probably not.

So, after about six weeks of making almost no updates to my Dead People Server site, I've gone and made another one for this week. Kind of sadly. I may not miss him that much, but there's something especially sad about this death.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Brainstorming for the G-20 in Pittsburgh

The local organization leading the organization for the G-20 in Pittsburgh this September is a group called the Allegheny Conference. They decided to have a series of brainstorming sessions and invite the public to them, to generate ideas for further discussion.

On paper, this is a great idea. And, to a degree, it was. There were some incredibly good ideas proposed, including:

  • Student ambassadors to observe and report on the proceedings (this from a high school student)

  • Welcome banners and audio greetings in all of the languages spoken by members of the G-20

  • A whole month of activities around the countries of the G-20, focusing on each of the countries and stressing educational programs

  • Various ways to present the arts and music of Pittsburgh

  • Stressing Pittsburgh's leadership as a green city

  • Name badges for Pittsburghers with the flags representing the country of whatever foreign language the person speaks

  • An event featuring foods prepared by foreign-born chefs who cook at Pittsburgh-area restaurants

But, an awful lot of the ideas started off with, "Hi, I'm X my company is Y, we make Z and here's how we can offer Z to the people coming to Pittsburgh for the G-20."

As a result, there was very little actual brainstorming. Almost no one's ideas seemed to spark other people's ideas, and that was somewhat disappointing. During the first brainstorming session at Point Park last week, 57 ideas were generated. At ours, I'm sure it was less than that because it was more about selling than idea generation.

I came up with some ideas, and presented them this way: "Hi, I'm Laurie Mann, I'm a blogger and I have nothing to sell. I just have a couple of ideas." My suggestions were to make sure that the G-20 uses the lovely rooftop terrace at the Convention Center. I'd been going to events there for years before I stumbled over the terrace at one event, which was being used informally that day. It has a great view of the city, the Allegheny River and the bridges. It's basically an unappreciated gem of the city. My other suggestion was to use some of the empty storefronts along Penn and Liberty as art galleries for students, robot makers and filmmakers.

There will be one last public brainstorming at the University of Pittsburgh, Alumni Hall in the Connolly Ballroom from 5:30-7:00 tonight (Tuesday, June 23).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why You Should Vote Out Bigots Like State Senator John Eichelberger (R-Blair)

One of the people currently reviving the "no gay marriage" fight is John Eichelberger, R (naturally) of Blair county. Recently, he said something particularly heinous in a hearing:

They’re not being punished. We’re allowing them to exist, and do what every American can do. We’re just not rewarding them with any special designation.

I've written the following to Eichelberger to take him to task for his bigotry:

I understand you said the following in reference to homosexuals in a hearing the other day:

They’re not being punished. We’re allowing them to exist, and do what every American can do. We’re just not rewarding them with any special designation.

Thank-you for living out that famous cliche about Pennsylvania: "It's Philadelphia in the East, Pittsburgh in the West and Alabama in the middle."

If anyone ever said "We're allowing them to exist" in reference to, say, white men or fundamentalist Christians, would you have agreed with THAT ATTITUDE too?

I thought Pennsylvanians got rid of that level of state-sanctioned bigotry when we voted out Rick Santorum.

I know people like you will never change your minds about bigotry. I can only hope to help educate your constituency that bigotry in a modern society is unacceptable.

Laurie Mann
McDonald, PA

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hey KDKA Radio - Why Can't You Cover Local News Competently Anymore??

We usually go over to Bocktown Beer and Grill for dinner and the Wednesday beer tasting. After that, the plan was to go out to Friendship to attend a planning meeting for Confluence.

When we got to Bocktown, it was threatening but not raining. By the time we got our beer, we could hear the loud thunder overhead. As we sat in the back, we couldn't see the storm, but it had gotten very dark outside in a hurry.

By about 6:15, we were done eating and went to the front of the bar to try some Abita beer. It was raining so hard that that we couldn't see the parking lot from the front windows. The rain was coming in sideways, and the wind whipped up for a while. Lots of lightning and thunder. The rain and lightning were so heavy that we didn't dare go to our car.

Unfortunately, some of the Bocktown staff were out on the partially covered patio. By the time they got in, they were completely drenched.

We watched the rain for a while. Then, it lightened up slightly and the torrents calmed to mere rain. Even though the storm was going east, and we were going to be following it, we figured it was probably safe to drive to Friendship. According to KDKA radio, there were severe thunderstorms and tornado warnings for our area. While the severe thunderstorms were obvious, the tornadoes weren't as the wind wasn't too bad and we hadn't seen any hail. But, following the standard news/weather check, KDKA went back to its regular talk shows. So KDKA did not view the situation as particularly dangerous. We changed the channel and listened to classical WQED instead of listening what passes for talk.

As we approached the city, we were back in the heavy rain again. Usually, we take Bigelow Blvd. to go to Friendship, but there's a tendency for rockslides in the heavy rain. I chose to go through Oakland. After all, most of the students were gone - how bad could the traffic be?

Oakland had a horrible traffic jam. It took us nearly a half hour to go about a mile. And we couldn't figure out why. We kept switching between "news radio" KDKA and WQED, the classical music station. KDKA had no specifics - their 7:30 "news" show lasted about 30 second before it went back to standard talk radio bloviation.

As we got through the Forbes/Bigelow intersection, we suddenly saw why the traffic was so horrible in Oakland - street flooding in front of Carnegie Hall. I thought I could get through it. Jim insisted that I could not. So, I pulled a U-turn (highly illegal) and got back to the road between the parking lot and the library (going the wrong way briefly; luckily, the PAT bus let me go by). Many cars were stopping, and the sounds of police sirens were louder than the thunder.

There was street flooding on that street too. However, it didn't look as bad, and past that bit of flooding was higher ground. I slowly drove through the flooding and turned left past the library to make the relative safety of Schenley Park. We drove up the hill and parked by Baker Hall at Carnegie Mellon so we could hit a bathroom and consider our options. Running the 50 yards from our car to the hall made us both completely wet.

Several people were standing by the door of Baker Hall, trying to figure out the best thing to do. We visited the bathrooms and waited for the rain/lightning to calm down. After about another ten minutes, it did. The woman who was left said she'd parked her car in Schenley Park and wasn't looking forward to walking to her car. We offered her a ride. There were branches down but it was not as bad as after the tornado in 1998. There was also minor street flooding in Schenley Park - maybe 1-2 inches rather than the 6 inches we saw in Oakland. We dropped the professor off at her car, and decided it was safer to skip the meeting and go home. We drove through Squirrel Hill to get to the parkway.

While KDKA continued favoring talk show crap over actually reporting the news, we felt lucky to find that Squirrel Hill didn't have the flooding of Oakland. The only street flooding we saw was near the parkway entrance. The rest of our trip was uneventful, and we finally got home a little before 9.

KDKA ought to be ashamed of itself for the way its "local breaking news" was so completely useless during this storm. I remember back in 1998, the same station focused on the local wind and rain damage following the Mt. Washington tornado. This time, "news" station KDKA provided almost no local news. So much for helping the public. If stations like KDKA were still reporting local news rather than blathering on, it would have been much more helpful. Luckily, it sounds like no one was seriously injured last night, but there were apparently dozens of cars stuck in flooded areas all over eastern Allegheny county.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Pew News Survey of Current Events

This is a really fast survey on your current news knowledge.

I scored 12 out of 12, which put me in the 94th percentile.

When you're underemployed, you tend to read the news...a lot!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tracking Your Medicines

A few years ago, I realized I was already taking a variety of supplements and some prescription drugs. I started tracking what I was taking, so I would always have a quick record for my doctor. Also, I'd always know what drugs did work and what didn't work for me.

I found it easiest to track this information in an Access database. However, I thought I'd share the list with others, and many people don't have Access. So I also created an .rtf table, that can be read in Word and other word processors. You can download the files from the links below and adapt the database or word processing table any way you want.

The drug history, if you maintained this information in Access, would have this general format:

Drug History (pdf)

Tracking Your Medicines in Access

This is a pretty simple Access database. It's written in Access 2003, but uses only tables, queries and reports, so it could probably be read in older versions of Access. The database does not have a forms-based data-entry screen, enter the drug information directly in the data table.

mydruglist.sample.mdb (Access file)

When you open up the database, click on the tables option to display the data tables:

o druglistblank
o druglistsample

druglistblank is an empty database table. You can open it and just start entering drug data. druglistsample is a database table with sample data. The tables are the same; one has sample data and one does not.

Here are the fields in these tables:

ID - an auto-numbered identifier field. You can ignore it.
Date Added - a date field that defaults to the current date
Drug Name - the name of the drug
Type - prescription drug, over the counter drug, supplement
Dose - recommended dosage
How Often You Take It - the possible values are Daily, Occasionally, Post-op, Stopped Taking It. Record how frequently you take the drug.
Date Started Taking It - when you first took the drug
Prescribing Doctor - who prescribed it for you.
Notes - What you're taking the drug for, if you had any side effects, why you stopped taking it (if appropriate)

I think it's best to sort this information so that the drugs you are currently taking always sort to the top of the report. So I've written a query to sort the information in this way. Display the queries:

o drugblank
o drugsample

drugblank is the query that sorts your information from the druglistblank table. drugsample is the query that sorts the sample data in the druglistsample table. The default sort field is the "How Often You Take It" field. When you run the query, the drugs you take every day will sort to the top of the query table, followed by the drugs you take occasionally, followed by the drugs you've taken after surgery or hospitalization, followed by the drugs you've taken in the past but do not take anymore.

Finally, display the reports:

o drugblankreport
o drugsamplereport

drugblankreport creates a report based on your information in the druglistblank table.
drugsamplereport creates a report based on the sample information in the druglistsample table.

Open the drugblankreport to see your information. At the top of the page, you'll see YOUR NAME, BIRTHDATE. Delete those strings and enter your name and your birthdate.

Tracking Your Medicines in a Word Table

Download mydruglist.blank.rtf. After you've downloaded it, you can enter information directly into the table. You should save the modified table under a new name, so you'll always have a blank table available online. Be sure to add your name and your birthdate to the top of the file.

There's a government site with a recommended text file for collecting medical information. AARP also has information on collecting drug and medical information.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Not Closing Guantanamo - The Fear-Mongering of Republicans Never Ceases to Amaze Me

We have all kinds of dangerous Americans in prison.

And yet...

Republicans have brainwashed people (including, sadly, a bunch of Democrats) into believing that about 200 terrorism suspects can't be housed in American prisons.

These terrorism suspects don't have super-powers. They've not going to jump over the fences, mind-control all the guards or create an atomic bomb out of their tea. So why not house them in American military jails? Didn't we manage Germans and Japanese in American military jails without having them invade America? Maybe Americans were just smarter and braver during World War II.

I suspect the majority of the people remaining in Guantanamo probably do have ties to terrorism. We've released nearly 500 "terrorists" from Guantanamo over the last seven years because there was inadequate evidence (even by Bush administration "standards") to hold them.

What should happen is that the remaining terrorism suspects should be moved to at least two American military prisons and they should be tried. If they're innocent, they should be returned to their countries. If they're guilty, they should serve out their term in an American military prison. Obama has forcefully stated that America won't continue the heinous practices of the Bush administration, including terrorism. But holding terrorism suspects indefinitely in a third-party country has seemed, frankly, as un-American as engaging in torture.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some Signs of Life in the Pittsburgh Housing Market

The Pittsburgh housing market had a massive crash in the late '70s and early '80s when manufacturing jobs went abroad. I remember coming in from Ohio to visit Jim's family and seeing literally half the houses in some neighborhoods with For Sale signs. As a result of that massive crash, the Pittsburgh housing market has been on the cheap side ever since. So, while parts of the rest of the national housing market have been crashing, Pittsburgh's housing market hasn't lost too much value, though it has been on the quiet side.

We live in the country not too far from Pittsburgh International Airport, in a development of new houses. The oldest house in our development is about six years old, and most of them are in the three-four year range. I generally like it, except for the need to drive everywhere to get anything (*sigh*). But, it's quiet and we finally have the space to shelve all of our books.

When we moved out here three years ago, there were about 100 houses built, in an area where, maybe, something like 220 houses could be built total. While there was a fair amount of building activity for the first year, the last two years have only seen one or two houses being built at a time.

I took a longer walk than usual today, and walked up into the newest street. Where about six weeks ago, there were, maybe, two houses being built, there are five new houses framed-in and two cellars. A surprising increase in activity.

The builder builds big but not "luxury" homes, so they are fairly affordable. And there's maybe only about 10 existing houses in the neighborhood that are on the market. But that upswing in new construction is interesting and is probably some good economic news.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bach Choir of Pittsburgh Presents the American Premiere of David Chesky's The Agnostic

The Bach Choir of Pittsburgh has been performing a challenging selection of pieces over the last year. Each piece is tied to the overall theme "Journeys of Courage, Conviction and Conscience."

Last November, we performed Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, a vocal score to the famous silent movie classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. This event was part of the Three Rivers Film Festival.

In December, we sang Handel's Israel in Egypt.

In early April, we're performing the American Premiere of a very unusual piece, David Chesky's The Agnostic in collaboration with the Carnegie Mellon Wind Ensemble. It's challenging both musically and thematically. If you'd like to hear a truly unique work, we're performing it at Carnegie Hall in Oakland on Wednesday, April 1 at 8pm. On Saturday, April 4, at 8pm, we'll be performing it at the Richard E. Rauh Theater, Shady Side Academy, Fox Chapel. See the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh Web site for more information. You can buy tickets for the concerts from ProArts (412-394-3353) or at the door.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

PARSEC Field Trip to the Warhol for The Vader Project

At the March meeting, Gary came up with a good idea - visiting The Vader Project exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum. A bunch of us said we thought that sounded like fun, so we met up on Sunday March 22 and toured the museum.

The Vader Project ( was the brainchild of the founders of DKE Toys, Dov Kelemer & Sarah Jo Marks. They worked with 100 artists from America, England and Japan to envision a full-scale Darth Vader mask in a variety of ways. Sadly, random museum visitors were not allowed to photograph the renderings of the Darth Vader masks, but some artists have put photos of them online (

The one I thought was the most creative and the most subversive was "Carmen Mirandarth" (, created by Melody Severns, Anne Walker, and Debbie Bruce of GirlsDrawinGirls. While many of the Vader helmets had a heavy metal or military theme, Carmen Mirandarth was a big blast of color and plastic fruit.

While most of the Vader masks were plastic, at least one person created a plushie.

Another artist built a Tatooine action figure display around a sand-colored Vader mask (

Sometimes, the simplest mask was the most interesting. One Vader mask and was painted "Candy Cobalt Blue," a rich shiny blue with some subtle gray designs faded in the background.

One big disappointment about the exhibit for me (beyond not being allowed to take photos) was that none of the artists who were invited to submit were science fiction artists. I believe most of the artists involved in this project were either toy designers or comic artists. A shame. I would love to have seen what someone like Bob Eggleton would have done to a Vader mask!

If you like Star Wars or have an interest in toy design, this exhibit is definitely worth the trip. If you are a member of the Carnegie Museums, you can visit the Warhol for free. Check the Warhol Web site ( for admission information. The Vader Project is due to be at the Warhol until May 3.

Now, what about the rest of the Warhol, you may ask?

It's an odd mixture of good news and bad.

The seventh floor was a particular waste of time. There was a loud video running constantly, and there was a strikingly bad exhibit called The End. So, if you go, do yourself a favor and skip the seventh floor.

Much of the museum displayed a small portion of Warhol's massive collection of celebrity ephemera. Some of the photos of celebrities might have been a bit more revealing than the subject intended. While his photo of OJ Simpson was taken in 1977, it looked oddly like the profile view of a mug shot.

There are also a few interactive exhibits, including a room with large fans and big silver balloons you can bounce off the ceiling.

After our trip through the Warhol, we went over to Soho (at the Marriott Springhill Suites) and had a late lunch. I walked into downtown to take photos of a large metal work at the corner of 7th & Ft. Duquesne Boulevard - It was a huge Transformer-ish sculpture comprised of the bridges of Pittsburgh:

Large Metal Sculpture in Downtown Pittsburgh

We enjoyed our field trip, and hope there will be more in the future.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

2009 Oscars - What Should Win, What Will Win

My annual thoughts on the Oscars.

I'll probably be Facebooking/Twittering during the Oscars.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Gutting Money for Scientific Research from the Stimulus

Shawn Otto, one of the organizers of Science Debate 2008, just send around some depressing E-mail - there's a move to remove money for the National Science Foundation and other science/energy-related appropriations from the stimulus package.

These are areas that can use more money, so to hear that some additional funding is being deleted is frustrating.

I sent the following E-mail to my senators, as well as a somewhat edited version to Senator Nelson and Collins:

I was shocked that Ben Nelson and Susan Collins are calling for gutting funding completely for NSF and for the DOE office of science and reducing funding for other science and energy-related areas from the Senate American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. We've suffered through eight years of scientific illiterates running the federal government. We need to keep funding up for the National Science Foundation, which leads in getting more research money to colleges and universities. We need to do more research into renewable and clean energy. Must our research infrastructure be in as bad shape as our roads, bridges and public schools?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Economics Isn't Physics - What Politicians Don't Get About Recovering from a Severe Recession

While I am not an economist, it's clear that we're in a severe recession. We're in this recession for many reasons.

  • Economic Cycles. No matter what we do, the economy will always have some down times. A wise government would have had adequate controls in place so that the economy wouldn't crash and burn very much. However, we haven't had a wise, forward-thinking government in years

  • Unfettered Greed. We've been in a period of economic irrational exuberance that encouraged massive greed

  • Lack of Oversight. Companies and individuals have engaged in massive fraud and just plain stupid behavior on a scale we haven't seen since the '20s since there was very little governmental oversight (the Republicans were also in control of the federal government for eight years before the Great Depression, another time of little governmental oversight over companies)

Unfortunately, we're dealing with "fundamentalist economists" - people who will always tell you that there is only one way to do something, regardless of empirical evidence. Conservative economists will insist the trickle-down effect of lowering taxes on the rich is the way to go. This may have worked in the early '80s and early '00s, but it clearly hasn't worked in a few years [2012 update - Actually, I'm wrong about this - there's evidence that "trickle down" did not work in the '80s either]. If anything, this may have sent the economy more into the tank. Liberal economists will insist that massive spending programs are the only way to bolster the economy. That might have worked some in the late '30s and the late '60s, but it doesn't work for very long and can lead to additional years of recession.

Different times call for different solutions.

Much as I abhor federal deficits, we need massive but targeted federal spending and that taxes must be raised on people making more than $100,000 a year. This is not the time for trickle-down - this is the time for building up. Our infrastructure is in horrible shape after years of governmental neglect. How many more bridge collapses are we going to have to have before people wake up and see how badly we need another big roads bill? Our government should also be employing more modern methods, such as green energy plans, online medical records and modernizing public education.

Economic isn't physics. Physics describes laws that are consistent. Economics is a much softer science than its practitioners would care to admit. If I drop a ball from the Empire State Building and one from a 737, it's going to always fall at the same rate of speed. Gravity is a constant. But economies do not fall or rise at a constant rate. Psychology plays heavily into economics. After years of irrational exuberance, we seem to in a state of near-irrational economic despair.

Americans deserve some of that despair. Both the investing market and the housing market went completely bonkers over the last few years, because there was almost no oversight. Common sense by governments, institutions and individuals went completely out the window.

My husband and I have been doing pretty well over the last few years. While I have been unable to remain reliably employed, my husband has a good job and we've always been careful about spending. We have savings and a diversified portfolio of investments.

We bought our first house in 1987 and our second in 1993. We put 5% down on the first house and 20% down on the second. We had good a good credit rating. Of course we sweated getting our first mortgage a little, but we knew we'd get it.

We sold our first house during a housing downturn in 1994 and lost money. We had a lasting lesson that housing prices don't just go up. And, this was in Massachusetts, a place where the housing market, after 1994, went from being expensive to being extremely expensive.

In 2006, we decided to buy a new house. As my husband manages his group from home and I was unemployed, we could have moved anywhere. After looking at housing prices in several areas, we decided to stay in Pittsburgh, where we have family and friends and could buy much more home for the money. For the same money that bought a largish, new house in rural Western Pennsylvania would have bought a 50 year old ranch in eastern Massachusetts or a one car garage in the Bay area of California. We wanted the space and the quiet, so we stayed here. We're very glad we did!

We put 20% down on our new home. Our mortgage broker tried to talk us out of putting that much down. We were stunned by this attitude, but put 20% down anyway, and later paid most of the money from the sale of our old house (which took nearly six months to sell) against the principal of the new. We also worked to keep the costs of our mortgage as low as possible. Selling stock to buy a house in early 2006 turned out to be a very good move, and staying in the Pittsburgh area was a real win. While the housing prices peaked around then, our house has lost much less value than our stocks have. Since the Pittsburgh housing market had a huge bust back in 1980-1981, it's lost very little value during this housing bust.

While I understand that mortgage brokers and banks were trying hard to get people to buy houses a few years back, their "you don't need to put money down" attitude was incredibly short-sighted. Many people don't understand the importance of paying principal on houses and other investments. While laws should encourage home ownership, they also need to encourage people to put money down, to actually own a percentage of the property.

We could have probably gotten a million dollar mortgage in California or New York, but we would have had barely invested 5% in a house in one of those markets. Living that far beyond our means was completely unacceptable to us. Unfortunately, it wasn't unacceptable to many Americans who did just that over the last 10 years or so.

And that goes for government spending too. The federal government has been mortgaging our children's and grandchildren's future without making the rich pay more taxes. Over the last few years, the number of yachts and luxury mansions owned by Americans skyrocketed. Why do you think that happened? Because the super-rich were the biggest beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. Wealthy Americans who can afford to pay more taxes should be paying more taxes. Much as I respect President Obama, his refusal to kill the Bush tax cuts for the rich and give the rich yet more tax breaks was a horrible way to start off his administration.

So what we need is a rational tax/stimulus package includes:

  • having genuine governmental oversight (laws with teeth) over industries and over any stimulus money that goes to companies

  • spending to improve our infrastructure (and education is infrastructure)

  • training everyone, from children through adults, on responsible decision-making about money

  • gradually reducing the number of troops abroad

  • a small tax cuts for households making less than $60,000 a year

  • a small tax increase for households making $100,000-$200,000 a year

  • a larger tax increase on income over $200,000 a year (and maybe even an additional tax bracket for people who make over $200,000 a year)

We need to look at new, logical ways to manage the economy, without being rigidly bound to the theories of the past. And by "economy," I don't mean merely at the government/industry level - I mean the economy of individual families too. In the case of families, returning to the old theories of living within their means, saving for the future and avoiding using credit cards may help prevent another mega-recession in the forseeable future.

Many individuals are in the midst of personal financial failure. They've lost their houses and their jobs. In some cases, it really wasn't their fault. People who did their best to live within their means and made reasonable choices deserve society's compassion and support. They deserve the chance to refinance and not be foreclosed upon, if there's any hope they might be able to manage the payments.

But let's take a look at some outstanding cases where individuals need to take some responsibility for their incredibly illogical choices:

  • Anyone who put all their financial eggs in one basket, from the folks at Enron to the folks who turned over all their money to people like Bernie Madoff. Diversification has been the primary rule of investing for generations. That's one thing that hasn't changed.

  • People who support others no matter how ludicrously they behave. Sorry, the woman in California who went bankrupt helping her daughter have 14 children is as certifiable as her daughter is. (I have a bad feeling some cable channel will launch a reality show around these folks, but the proliferation of "reality" shows that do nothing but promote irresponsibility is a wholly separate rant.) People need to make rational choices. Parents need to tell their children "NO" sometimes.

We need a country that was once generally based in common-sense behavior and personal accountability from the individual, through businesses and up to the very highest reaches of the government. I hope that will happen again, but, unfortunately, we have a very long way to go.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sing-a-long in the Hay-Adams Bar: My Trip to the 2009 Inauguration

Why I Went to Washington

In the 1960s, I grew up in a lily-white, mostly middle class small town in New England.

About the only black people I ever saw where ones on TV, being hit by water from fire hoses and being attacked by dogs on the evening news. Those scenes made me dislike white southerners in power, and made me feel something was really unfair about the way some people in our country were being treated.

I remember hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak on TV. When he said, "I hope that one day my four little children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," I understood why he said what he did. I was six years old, and that made complete sense to me. It was possible to understand a little bit about racism without having experienced it personally.

When I was nine, I went to summer camp. Robin slept in the bunk over me. I wrote to my parents, "A Negro girl named Robin is in my cabin. No one is making fun of her." At camp we learned that we could all live in the same cabin without any problem.

At about the same time, riots broke out and cities burned. I didn't understand poverty and hopelessness could drive people to such lengths. I have to say, It didn't make any more sense to me than the white policemen setting fire hoses on teenagers, or some nut bombing a church.

Most of America has made great strides in race relations since the '60s. It's not perfect. but it is getting better. To paraphrase Rev. Theodore Parker and Dr. Martin Luther King, "The arc of a civilized society is a long one, but it bends towards justice."

The election of Barack Obama was one of the most civilized things our society has done. As an American and an Obama supporter, I wanted to be in Washington to help celebrate his Inauguration.

Sunday, January 18 - Washington Monument

I drove to DC from Pittsburgh on Sunday morning. It was snowy over half the way down, so it took nearly six hours to get there (usually, it takes about four and a half). I got to my brother and sister-in-law's house in Silver Spring. I dropped off my stuff, and my brother took me to the Metro. I went to town to watch the Inaugural Concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Sunday, January 18 - Crowd Downhill from the Washington Monument

I walked towards the Lincoln Memorial, but the line into the concert wasn't moving much. I walked up the hill to the Washington Monument. There was a crowd on the Lincoln Memorial side of the Washington Monument, but there was still plenty of space.

Sunday, January 18 - Police Lift

Some of the Jumbotrons were set up on the Lincoln Memorial side of the Washington Monument, along with an odd police vehicle that looked like a viewing booth atop a huge scissor-lift.

Sunday, January 18 - Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial was pretty dead during the weekend.

More About My Inaugural Trip