Saturday, June 24, 2006

Boca Burgers

For $100 it ought to be a lot bigger than 20 ounces.

A hundred bucks might buy you more than six dozen burgers from McDonald's, but the the swanky Old Homestead Steakhouse will sell you one brawny beef sandwich for the same price.

Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams could barely speak between bites as he devoured the 20-ounce, $100 hamburger billed as the "beluga caviar of sandwiches."

...which does not mean that it tastes like fish eggs. (I hope.) It means that stupid rich guys will pay more ransom money, per ounce, than their lives are worth to the average kidnapper for the privilege of eating a big hamburger in some fancy pants dining room. This thing makes Denny's Pub specialty, the Beer Barrel Belly Buster, look like a great bargain. Would you rather pay $100 for a 20 ounce burger or $350 for a 15 pound burger?

Let's do some math:

-- At $100 per 20 ounces, the caviar burger is $5 per ounce. (Does the DEA know about this?)
-- The are 16 ounces in a pound, so the Denny's burger is $350 for 240 ounces. This comes out to $1.46 per ounce. That's still more lunch money than I can afford, but if I were in a higher income range I might be willing to pay that much, especially if it means that I won't have to worry about what's for supper (or breakfast, or lunch...) for a whole week.

Now consider this: I'm planning on burgers for supper tonight. Pre-cut, packaged, frozen patties. 80 ounces of beef for somewhat less than ten dollars. That's less than twelve cents per ounce. Am I the only sane person in the world? You've gotta be nuts to pay the price for either the Boca burger or the Denny's burger.

You know what incentive I would need to buy one of those big burgers? A happy meal type of prize, like a Hot Wheels car. But, instead of a little hand-held toy, I would want a full-sized, all-frills-included, sports car. Something nice and fast to drive to the hospital when I start feeling chest pains from eating several pounds of beef.

(This entry posted in memory of Honnistaibe, whose ghost somehow knew what I am going to be cooking this evening.)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Chicago Safe

If, as I suggested in my last post, the long-awaited earthquake along the San Andreas Fault finally drives California into the sea WHILE I AM THERE, I can take comfort in knowing that I will have several hours of daylight to kill near Chicago Union Station as I await a transfer to an LA bound train. I can see Lake Michigan, catch a glimpse of the Sears Tower...heck, maybe even visit the Sears Tower with the wife and kids if we have enough time. It's safer than traveling across a great rift in the earth, right?


(CBS News) MIAMI Seven people were arrested Thursday in connection with the early stages of a plot to attack Chicago's Sears Tower and other buildings in the U.S., including the FBI office here, a federal law enforcement official said.
The crazies are after me, I can tell. Every stop on my trip is fraught with danger. This is a nice relaxing trip with the family?

I hope my wife understands if I spend the entire vacation in bed with the covers pulled up over my head.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

California Here I Come

In a few days, I will be having a relaxing good time in warm, sunny southern California. Or I will be suffering amidst a crowd of human beings in some godforsaken amusement park. Maybe both. But which will it be? Will I love L.A.? Or will I be feeling Lost In Hollywood? Somehow I doubt that I'll feel like sticking around for very long -- unlike Minnesota. I could have stayed in Minnesota. Minnesota was nice.

As it stands, I will be riding out west on the train, which should be a real blast. Or it could turn out to be a real depression, if this article from Nature magazine (which I found via Hugh Hewitt's site) is any indication:

Southern California could be in line for a serious quake along the infamous San Andreas fault, seismologists have found. New measurements suggest that the region close to Los Angeles, the traditional earthquake location in Hollywood disaster movies, could feel the effects of a real-life tremor within the next few years.
Within the next few years? Is that when it's supposed to hit, you ask? That's not a date, that's a range of dates. Read on:
"It could be tomorrow; it could be ten years from now," says Yuri Fialko, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, who led the study. "But it appears unlikely to accumulate another few hundred years of strain."
The next couple of weeks, which is when I will be going out to Long Beach, falls sometime between tomorrow and ten years from now. I could be sitting back, enjoying the air conditioned comfort of Amtrak, only to find that the earth's crust has opened and swallowed me whole. If the quake hits when I'm staying at my in-laws' pad, I'm going to hope that Long Beach can float. Otherwise, the whole city is going to be boarding the Queen Mary like an infestation of ship rats.

If the BIG ONE is going to hit some day soon, why shouldn't it be when I am visiting the coast?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Border Control

Who comes up with these things?

The green area in the lower left hand corner of the above map of Pennsylvania is the 12th Congressional District, currently represented by John Murtha. That geographical area is the product of over 200 years of redistricting and outright gerrymandering. No one could have created such an entity out of an interest in logic or simplicity. Try to figure out what kind of sense it makes. On second thought, don't bother. It makes no sense, aside from all of Greene County lying within the district. The rest of it looks like a war room planning map as part of a campaign to surround and isolate Westmoreland County, with Allegheny as a possible next target.

In other words, it looks like it was carved out the same way that German principalities in the Holy Roman Empire were formed for hundreds of years: through internecine warfare and dynastic intermarriage. By odd coincidence, Murtha's district looks a lot like East Prussia and Brandenberg in the years prior to the accession of King Frederick the Great:

Is John Murtha a modern-day Prussian Junker? I don't know about that, but his district is out of control. Consider that the district that his threatens to engulf is the one that I live in, yet my home is nowhere near the encircled area. Give me time, and I'll find something to compare the 18th to.

(Why the sudden interest in Murtha's district? Look here, and keep an eye out in the future for more.)

There Oughta Be A Law, Dammit!

Everybody wants something done about something these days, don't they? Plenty of demands for this and that in today's P-G, starting with cell phone freaks in their cars:

HARRISBURG -- Multitaskers beware: If you catch up with friends while you commute, it may be time to add hands-free cell phone equipment to your shopping list.

State Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, is introducing legislation to prevent drivers from holding cell phones while they drive.

Violators would be fined $250.
Now I am no big fan of "nanny state" legislation that tells people what they can and can not do because it's for their own good, but this Shapiro's heart is in the right place. Every time I get cut off in traffic, everytime someone slows to a crawl in front of me on the road, everytime some other driver seems to be having trouble controlling his steering...I see them holding a cell phone to their ear. They are dangerous. They can, and have, caused accidents. But is this reason enough to pass preemptive legislation that will make them criminals?

I have a better idea. Remember the controversy back in the early 1990s about Louisiana's "shoot the carjacker" law? A driver could shoot and even kill a villain during an attempted carjacking and get away with it. It was a wonderful piece of pro-victim legislation. Well, seeing as how cell phone drivers pose such a threat to human lives while on the road, I have thought about how nice it would be if a similar law pertaining to driving while on the phone were to pass. It would be less violent that the carjacking legislation; you would not be allowed to aim at the other guy's body, or even his phone, because you could easily miss and puncture him instead. My law would be known as the "shoot the cell phone user's tires out from under him" law. That'll teach the S.O.B. to pay attention to the road.

Yep, there oughta be a law.

And what about the ongoing debate over helmet laws in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania? The old helmet mandate was rescinded a few years ago, and has only just become a major issue in the wake of Ben Roethlisberger's helmet-free cycle accident last week. As it happens, there already is a law -- of sorts:

Mr. Roethlisberger, 24, suffered several broken bones, two lost teeth and a concussion. But he escaped heavy legal repercussions in the June 12 crash at Second Avenue and the 10th Street Bridge.

He will be fined $388 for the summary offenses of driving without the proper class of license and riding without a helmet.

To ride without a helmet under Pennsylvania law, motorcyclists must be older than 21 and either hold a license for two years or pass a state-approved motorcycle safety course.

So Ben broke the law and is being fined for his troubles. (As if hours of reconstructive surgery weren't enough.) But what about riders with a valid license for helmet-free cycling? Should they be forced to wear helmets from now on? Helmet wearing is a common-sense kind of decision. If you're concerned about your personal safety, you'll wear a helmet. If you don't like the government telling you what to do, you won't. Is is the business of the state to get involved? Some people think so. They think there ought to be a law.

For now, if you want to ride helmetless, you do so at your own risk. You have the option to don protective gear if you so choose. Don't blame the government for not doing enough to protect you if you get hurt.

Next up, my electric utility company is having problems. Duquesne Light is coming under fire for frequent power outages during storms. The good news about this -- for me -- is that these outages seem to take place in areas other than the borough in which I reside. The utility is feeling the heat from other customers, though, and is "in the midst of a $500 million upgrade to its system":

The utility company plans to replace aging circuits and equipment and improve power capacity before the end of 2007.

The upgrades can't come too soon for Duquesne Light power line workers, who spent yesterday morning and part of the afternoon restoring service.

Duquesne Light is responding positively to customer concerns, knows what it has to do, and plans to get it done by a certain date. Sounds good, no? Well, no -- not if you're the Pittsburgh Moist-Towelette editors, who in their outage outrage are demanding that the utility needs a kick in the ass to do what they are already beginning to do:

Duquesne Light's plan to spend $500 million to improve its delivery system -- a cost that will be borne mostly by its customers anyway -- is long overdue. The PUC and the state consumer advocate should hold the utility accountable for drastically cutting the number of outages, or else make it face the loss of a different kind of power -- the power of money.
Presumably that reference to "the loss of...the power of money" means that they should be fined. Question: If the Public Utility Commission fines Duquesne Light, how will they utility pay the fines? Where does that money come from? It seems to me that this is another "cost that will be borne mostly by its customers anyway".

Never mind -- there oughta be a fine, anyway!

Finally, there is another editorial that demands that Allegheny County, and indeed the entire commonwealth, should follow the example of Philadelphia, whose municipal government recently passed restrictions on smoking in pretty much every workplace except tobacconists'. This is a difficult issue for me. Like I said above, I oppose the nanny state at pretty much every turn. But smoking is another matter. It's not just that smoke is generally unpleasant to be around. My family has been affected by "the habit". Both of my parents died in their sixties from smoking related illnesses. They smoked by choice, but in so doing they deprived themselves of the opportunity to live long enough to know their grandchildren. Should they have had the choice to smoke taken away from them?

My wife is allergic to smoke. We can't dine in a restaurant that allows smoking, because no matter how hard a restaurant tries to keep the smoking section separate, the air flow always seems to deposit the stench in the clean part of the dining room. We choose to eat at smoke-free establishments. If only everyone else made the same choice, there would be no worries about being oppressed by smoke in bars and restaurants. But they do not, and so a lot of people who mean well think that there ought to be a law.

If such legislation passed, I must admit, it would not bother me terribly. But why not let decent people deal with smokers in their own way, without the government getting involved? I am thinking about another bit of "shoot the carjacker" inspired legislation. This non-violent -- well, less violent, really -- method requires the anti-smoker to carry a seltzer bottle on his/her person at all times, much like Clarabelle the Clown. I call it the "put that thing out!" law. You know what I mean.

So folks, keep on saying that "there oughta be a law". It gives the papers something to write about, and bloggers something to mercilessly mock to death.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Purple Stains

Hmmm. It seems that my favorite Pro-Bobo Lawyer has gone and spilled Kool-Aid all over my Site Meter stats.

I can't promise anything as sophisticated as that -- I can set a pretty fancy photo slideshow to music -- but I will see what I can come up with. What exactly did you have in mind?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mean Spirits

A few months ago, during the lead-up to the Super Bowl (and for a brief time thereafter), I talked some trash on this blog about the Steelers, mainly because I'm not much of a football fan and I got pretty sick of hearing about football 24-7. Actually, I criticized the fans rather than the players. But at no time do I recall wishing death, dismemberment, or other serious misfortune on anyone.

In the wake of Ben Roethlisberger's terrible accident the other day, people all around Pittsburgh and the world beyond felt bad about the quarterback's physical injuries. Others -- mostly fans of rival football teams, which kind of illustrates the point that I was trying to make earlier this year about football fans -- celebrated. The Pittsburgh Moist-Towelette spoke to a professional about the anger, hatred and glee expressed by the anti-Roethlisberger community:

Dr. Paul Friday, the director of clinical psychology at UPMC Shady Side, said the posters of these comments are people with psychological problems whose brains never fully developed.
So the newspaper needs an expert to tell us, in a clinical manner, that these people are idiots. Lovely.

"The people who are blogging in Cincinnati, they're the ones whose brains never fully develop," Friday said. "They don't perspectivize human tragedy. They don't learn to think effectively. These people are not normal. We're talking about a fringe element. We're dealing with the screaming people who are venting. These are elements that are not representative of their communities. They are representatives of their own minds."
And, if you are a psychologist, they are good for business. But it's not just the people in Cincinnati who have problems.

Friday said posters on Internet message boards hide behind their keyboards and write things they would never have the courage to say aloud in public. He said posters who write tasteless messages use football and the rivalries between teams as a way of getting out their aggression in a non-violent manner. It's not necessarily a new phenomenon, just one that is more evident because of the instant communication that is available via the Internet.
Suddenly this is not just about football rivalries; it's about anonymous blogging in general. You can substitute, for instance, "politics" for "football" in the above excerpt and the message comes across just as clearly. Saying things in public that we normally reserve for blogging would be obnoxious. Blogs aren't right there, in your face, yelling at you. No one is forcing you to read them. People need to seek them on the internet to read what's on them. The psychologist gives much more credit to anonybloggers than we deserve.

One may well wonder what he must make of the Federalist Papers and that nut case with the pseudonym "Publius".

And, in an unrelated topic, elsewhere in this morning's Moist-Towelette, an editorial on legislative shenanigans in Harrisburg includes this delightful gem:

There's criticism from Common Cause Pennsylvania in a three-page list that shows how the Perzel bill copies two others already awaiting action in the House. Except his bill has lost more teeth than Big Ben Roethlisberger.
It's not spiteful, but it is tasteless and insensitive. I thought these editorial writers held themselves to higher standards than bloggers. On the other hand, these editorials are anonymous, available on the internet, and often express spite and anger -- just like us. The only substantial difference between an internet blogger and a newspaper editorialist is that they get paid for what they write, and we don't.

I'm in the wrong line of work.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Quickening Up The Pace

My apologies to anyone who can't get through four days without a post on this blog. I've been a little busy switching my ISP from cable to FIOS. So far, the new service beats the old one in every way imaginable -- including, unfortunately, in its ability to manipulate the end user's PC. But it is faster, it gives you a router for multiple hookups (plus wireless) and doesn't charge extra for them, and it doesn't employ the Governor of Pennsylvania as a sports journalist in the Philadelphia market. Yes, politics did play a part in my decision. (On the other hand, the new ISP did make big campaign contributions to Ed Rendell. Politics plays a part in every decision.)

I've been spending the last few days migrating all of my online content from the old ISP to the new one, and now that the FIOS is up and running, I feel like a kid with a ton of new toys at Christmas. I might need a Christmas vacation just to stay home and play with my fun new internet service.

Real vacation comes up in a couple of weeks, when I may not even have internet access at all. I'm going to some place called "Los Angeles". Where is that? Is there anything worth seeing or doing there? Please tell me it won't just be a big waste of time.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Model Of Progress?

Imagine, if you will, waking up one morning and looking out the bedroom window to discover that your neighbors' homes had been abandoned overnight, their fates unknown or undecided, and no apparent explanation for their sudden disappearance. Such was the feeling I had when I drove down West Liberty Avenue in Dormont a few days ago. A longtime cornerstone of the borough's business district, A. B. Charles Hobby Shop, had closed down and was (judging by a quick glance through the shop windows) in the process of being relieved of its fixtures. The merchandise was already gone.

Right away, I began feeling a little guilty for not patronizing the shop more often. But model railroading is an expensive hobby, and I have neither the time nor the money to indulge in a big layout, so the few N-scale pieces that I had remain safely stored in boxes.

As it turns out, I need not have worried that A. B. Charles was going under because of lack of patronage. The business may not be open, but neither is it completely gone. It is in limbo. As an article in yesterday's P-G explains:

Number One Cochran Pontiac bought the Hobby Shop property at 3213 West Liberty Ave. and plans to display Nissan vehicles in a lot there and to provide additional customer parking.
Another familiar site on West Liberty Avenue for many years was the Hobby Shop's neighbor, McMinn Oldsmobile. McMinn switched to Toyotas a few years ago, and two years ago sold out to #1 Cochran, which owns two other dealerships in suburban Allegheny County. A few locals were traumatized by the loss of a well-known name, but times do change. One thing that is constant is the growth and expansion of the automotive selling trade all along the Avenue. West Liberty runs through Dormont from the Mount Lebanon border all the way into the city of Pittsburgh up to the Liberty Tunnels (a.k.a. the "Tubes"). This has been my daily commute for the last five years. You can not drive more than four blocks along West Liberty Avenue without passing a car dealer. And in my five years, new dealerships have opened while existing dealerships have expanded and/or changed hands. That does not even include the several small independent used car lots sandwiched between the big guys. It's suburban used car salesman sprawl. At the present rate, by the time I retire, the entire length of West Liberty will be end-to-end car dealerships. Perhaps even one owner to rule them all.

For now, however, one dealer at the southern end of the Avenue is taking over the property upon which sits a popular independently-owned local business and replacing it with a parking lot. And as unhappy as Dormonters may be about it, the fact remains that the future car lot is the property of #1 Cochran, and the borough has given both the sale and the demolition/paving project its sanction:

But it looks like a done deal. Council, the planning board and the zoning hearing board have given their blessings. Solicitor Thomas H. Ayoob III said the company complied with the requirements of the application process. "They satisfied all the requirements up to date."
One Dormont resident is quoted in the article as saying that this " will change the character of the borough" (quite correct) and that it will be "just another ugly car lot" (probably true, unless #1 Cochran also uses the lot for a bikini car wash). However, the main concern of the borough, indeed of any municipality, is revenue rather than aesthetics. What affects the value of the land for tax purposes? The building, the ground on which it sits, or the owner thereof?
Mayor Thomas Lloyd acknowledged later that the only millage on that property comes from the value of the land, although the new owner said he doesn't know what the millage impact is.
So -- will changes made by the new owner increase the value, keep it the same, or lower it? The borough seems to be satisfied with #1 Cochran's plans. As the owner, the dealership can do what they want with the property as long as they comply with local zoning laws. Like it or not, A.B. Charles is gone from the old location. Their new brick-and-mortar location is supposed to open in a few weeks. At present the only location is at the shop's web site. I look forward to visiting the new location after it opens...wherever it will be. And I might even be motivated enough to work on that model railroad that I have been wanting to create since I was ten years old.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Right Man

The Moist-Towelette has a profile of State Representative Daryl Metcalfe in this morning's paper. We learn that, among other things, he is:

up-and-coming darling of the Republican right: a military veteran, a husband of 23 years, a sometimes (he admits) overprotective father, the family breadwinner, a member of the National Rifle Association and a Bible-quoting Christian.

In other words, he's just the sort of guy that the left loves to hate. A few months ago, I had an opportunity to hear him speak about last summer's legislative pay raise. As the leader of the opposition to that measure, he gained quite a bit of notoriety. He wasn't afraid to identify who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. He can unapologetically tell you what's wrong not only with the Democrat governor, but also with the RINO-controlled legislature. (Remember, this is the state that keeps re-electing Arlen Specter to the US Senate.) His positions on all issues are constitutionally sound. He's 43 years old, and would make a fine Governor, Senator, or anything else that he might chose to run for. I like him, and would vote for him if I ever have the opportunity. He is rightly admired by folks on the right.

But is he the "darling" of the Republican right? When we start speaking like the Gabor sisters, or greeting one another like Frenchmen with kisses on each cheek, he will be our "darling". Don't expect that to happen anytime soon. Or ever. Daryl Metcalfe is someone we generally respect and admire, and whom we are happy to support in his political endeavors.

And speaking of guys kissing one another, there is another issue besides the pay raise that has brought Daryl Metcalfe into the spotlight: He is the leading proponent of House Bill 2381, which specifically defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman. The bill, which will become a constitutional amendment if passed, will ensure that "marriage" between same-sex partners will remain as legitimate as a Tom Thumb wedding.

As far as I am concerned, same-sex marriage shouldn't even be an issue. A lot of people feel uncomfortable with it, not out of sheer bigotry, but because understanding the very concept of same-sex relationships is as difficult as understanding what it's like to breathe without oxygen. It's not natural for us. We can't understand it. We may not celebrate it, but we can tolerate it. But we have a hard time accepting it as something equivalent to the legally sanctioned biological union between one man and one woman known as "marriage". People have plenty of reasons for marrying, but basically it's a spiritual union between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation. In other words, it is religious in nature.

Having said that, I have no problem with two or more parties entering into a legally binding contract centered around a personal relationship. Just don't define it as "marriage". To do so alters and cheapens the traditional definition of marriage. I hate the fact that this issue has resulted in a proposed constitutional amendment. But there it is. And, for what it's worth, I agree with it.

As the leading proponent of the amendment, Daryl Metcalfe is taking a lot of criticism from same-sex marriage supporters, the Moist Towelette reports. The opposition is calling Metcalfe and the majority in the state legislature "fear-mongering terrorists", wasteful "of taxpayer time and money", damaging to "nontraditional relationships", "self-righteous, Bible-thumping public servants" with "narrow-minded views and beliefs", and worse. It's hard being right. You take a lot of abuse.

Mr. Metcalfe said all he's trying to do is to leave the definition of marriage up to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

He said he thinks it would be approved, because "natural law dictates that the foundational building block of society is the joining together of a man and a woman, which is practiced in

Exactly. And in the end, it's not up to "Bible-thumping public servants". They just write the legislation. The bill must pass each house of the state legislature twice, after which the voters of Pennsylvania get to decide whether to amend the Pennsylvania constitution. If it passes and you are unhappy with the outcome, blame the majority of your fellow citizens.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hairy Potato Salad

This morning's Trib has a fascinating article on potato salad:

Potato salad is like chicken soup. Every family has its own recipe, and it's the best.
Potato salad has something else in common with soup: You just never know what kind of unexpected surprise is going to turn up in it. Remember the classic diner's lament, "Waiter! There's a fly in my soup!"? Something similar happened to me about 14 years ago when I was eating some potato salad during my lunch hour at work.

Across the street from my then-workplace was a shop specializing in imported foods as well as store-made deli items, and baked goods. Rather than reveal it's true name, let's just call it "The Oddball Grocery". I didn't shop there very often, mainly due to the fact that imported goods tended to be out of my price range. When I did go there, it was usually for the deli sandwiches or for picnic-type salads -- ham, tuna, seafood, antipasto, or macaroni salads. And, in the rare moments when I felt like it, potato salad.

Potato salad had never been a favorite of mine. I love potatoes in just about any form, but chopped up and served cold in white goo with flecks of celery and who-knows-what-else just did not appeal to me. But I sometimes settled for the Oddball Grocery's potato salad just because it was, per pound, the cheapest of the salads at the deli counter.

On this one occasion, I decided to save myself the walk across the street for a couple of days by purchasing a nice tall one pound container of potato salad. Great move! It would last at least three days, possibly four. I was so proud of myself. I took it to my work lunchroom, sat down, opened the container, stuck my fork in, took a nice big chunk of potatoey delight, moved the fork toward my mouth, and bit down. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I made a face and reached inside my mouth in an attempt to pluck out whatever was bothering me. A young lady named Irene, who was seated across the table from me, asked if I had found a hair in the potato salad. She was as unprepared as I was for what she saw next. "Oh, that's gross!" she cried. "I was expecting you to pull out one hair, not a whole clump!"

Alas, it was true. Somehow a rather large clump of hair had made its way into the Oddball Grocery's potato salad. Whether this was through carelessness or through sheer folly, I know not. At the moment, I was simply disgusted by the the fact that I would have to throw away a tall container of food that I had just purchased, and would have to go out and buy lunch after all for the rest of the week. Irene across the table was just disgusted in general. I think her lunch ended at the moment she saw the hairy clump emerge from my mouth.

Once her stomach settled, Irene suggested -- nearly demanded -- that I march right back to the Oddball Grocery and complain about the big clump of hair in my potato salad. I didn't, for a couple of reasons. One was that I had been working retail long enough to be aware of the relationship between customer and server, and the delicacies thereof. I didn't want to turn into one of those pushy guys with a chip on his shoulder about the customer always being right. Besides, the Oddball Grocery was a local shop and I felt it best to maintain good relations with neighboring merchants by remaining silent on the matter.

Another reason that I kept quiet was the nature of the hair clump. It appeared to be white and curly. The only employee at the Oddball Grocery with white curly hair was a nice motherly sort of woman who usually dispensed salads at the deli counter. She was the last person there whom I would want to get in trouble. If I had taken the salad back, the shop's management would undoubtedly have recognized the source of the hairy clump and disciplined the older lady, possibly even fired her. I did not want to be an agent of something like that. I simply accepted my losses and moved on.

Besides, there were plenty of hair-free goodies at the Oddball Grocery that I enjoyed too much to not eat anymore. So I stopped going there for a few months, returning only when my cravings were too great to ignore. Needless to say, one thing that I never brought there again was the potato salad.

Nowadays I really do not mind partaking of some potato salad, so I have gotten over the hair incident quite well, thank you. There is, however, one way in which the clump has affected me permanently: I cannot see or hear the name "Harry Potter" without thinking "Hairy Potato Salad". (Don't tell Malfoy.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

"The Last Stand?" Yeah, Right.

Last evening (and into the first wee hour of the morning) I had the opportunity to view X-Men: The Last Stand in the movie theater. The reviews that I have been reading all week have been all over the place; either it's the best X-Men film, or the worst, or it's just a "popcorn movie" to be enjoyed but not lauded above all other current releases. Reviews of comic book-based films no longer influence me. Some of my favorite reading material for much of the 1970s and 1980s were Marvel and DC superhero comics. I have a pretty good idea of what to look for in a comic book movie, and it's not going to be Shakespeare -- although, in the X-Men films, the presence of venerable British performers Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan adds enough of a touch of culture to raise one's expectations a bit.

The X-Men have always served as allegorical stand-ins for shunned and oppressed groups -- racial and ethnic minorities, the handicapped, homosexuals, nerds, etc. The difference between these and the fictional mutants is that the latter have certain advantages over mainstream members of society via their special powers -- i.e., their "gifts". The allegory worked well in the first film; in X2, as both corny dialogue in the film and interviews in the special features section of the DVD inform us, the allegory was meant to be first and foremost about homosexuality. (Imagine Wolverine and Cyclops resolving their rivalry over Jean Grey by finding contentment in one another arms; you could call it Brokeback Mutation. "I wish I knew how to quit you, Logan!") The third film returns to the deeper meaning of the allegory; the mutant factor could stand for just about anything, and in a way the viewer can relate to. It could represent me belonging to a political minority among my peers. It could represent me belonging to the "wrong" religion around my in-laws. It could represent me having brown hair while my wife and children are all blondes. The allegory thus works on a number of levels, from the all-important to the ridiculous.

The plot of The Last Stand centers around a medicinal "cure" for the mutant gene. One shot of this substance, and your mutant powers are gone forever. (Maybe.) Mutants (as well as, perhaps, those who suspect that they may be mutants) are offered the chance to step forward and receive the vaccine. Long lines of soon-to-be-former mutants willingly line up around city blocks to submit themselves to the cure. Allegorically, this would be equivalent to me changing my part registration, or converting to my in-laws' religion, or dyeing my hair blond. None of those things are an option as far as I am concerned, but someone else in my place might make those changes in order to feel less like an outsider. This is the choice made faced by mutants; either take the cure, or don't. Magneto offers them a sinister third option: Join my brotherhood, and together we can live in superiority over the human race.

The X-Men, under Charles Xavier, prefer to live as a part of human society without setting themselves above or below it. Magneto's underground mutant terrorist movement threatens to shatter Xavier's dream of mutants and humans co-existing peacefully. Naturally, the tensions between the two mutant factions -- with the United States Government loosely aligned with the X-Men -- lead to deadly armed conflict. Yes, the mutant "cure" really does work, and we get to see what happens when several mutants lose their powers. We also see quite a few important characters lose their lives. The final conflict between the X-Men and Magneto ends in tragedy, loss, and...hope.

Hope? Yes, in the wake of much death and destruction, we see hints that neither the dead nor the depowered are through with one another. That's as much detail as I'm going to give. Just keep in mind that comic book deaths have more in common with Snow White than they do with Bambi's mother, and that sequels to comic book movies are considered viable options are long as the money keeps rolling in.

Now for some random observations about the film:

  • "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!" For as much time as I spend surfing the internet, I'm surprised that I missed this popular meme. I only learned of it after seeing a clip of Juggernaut spewing the line from the new film. The nine-minute overdubbed cartoon clip is foul-mouthed, raunchy, and hysterically funny. Just as funny is the stone-faced serious Wikipedia article that earnestly attempts to describe the clip in some detail.
  • Happy Birthday! We finally get to find out once and for all whether Mystique was wearing a costume or if she was completely naked in all that blue. What a lovely suit she was wearing underneath.
  • "Oh my stars and garters!" I loved seeing Kelsey Grammer in this movie. In addition to playing Frasier Crane for more than twenty years, his voice has become well known from animated roles like Sideshow Bob, Stinky Pete, and one of my daughters' favorites, the evil Rothbart in Barbie of Swan Lake. He made an excellent Beast; I just can't believe that the "stars and garters" exclamation made it into the script.
  • The Brute, the Intellectual, the Monster or the Hedonist? The characterization of Hank McCoy, the Beast, has changed in comics over the years. In the first ever issue of X-Men, he is a dull, crude brute who tries to swap spit with Jean Grey the minute she steps through the door. Within a few issues, he has become an intellectual bookworm who rarely uses words of less than four syllables. He retained this personality for several years until some genetic self-testing further mutated him into the hairy blue creature like the one seen in the film. Initially, during this phase, he was an angry monster who felt more like an outcast than ever before. He soon came to accept his new appearance and became, somewhat literally, an oversized fun-loving teddy bear. Eventually the Beast became more professorial in nature, though less pretensiously loquacious than in his early X-Men days, and without losing his sense of fun. Grammer's Beast has much in common with the recent professorial version of the character, though portrayed more like a diplomat than a scientist. As long as they were going to have him refer to his "stars and garters", they might as well have had him bounce into the room, leap onto Wolverine's chest, plant a big kiss on his mouth, and announce, "Hi honey, I'm home!" But they couldn't, because the Beast would immediately die of puncture wounds.
  • Somebody scraped off the Master Mold! You have to wonder what sort of adventures the team might have had in-between films. They certainly seem to be more accepted by society in the third movie than in the second movie. Had they, perhaps, encountered comic book menaces like the mutant-hunting Sentinels? The early scene in Captain Picard's holodeck Professor Xavier's danger room would seem to suggest so. When I recognized a Sentinel head from the trailer, I thought for sure than Sentinels were going to play a major part in the film. Instead, to my disappointment, they were just a danger room simulation -- based, perhaps, on something that the team had encountered in an unseen adventure.
  • Why Jean, the blotches on your skin match your hair! The "Dark Phoenix" subplot turned out rather differently that I had expected. So did her face. I thought that Phoenix had a nice evil look when she went bad in the comics, but she never contracted advanced eczema like she does in this movie. Instead of kissing her and going down on her, Wolverine should have recommended a good dermatologist. With a mutant immunity to Jean's Phoenix powers.
  • "Blew" eyes! One eye blew this way, and one... Hey, what the heck happened to Cyclops? These movies aren't long enough for him to go into long-term exile like he did in the comics. On the other hand, perhaps it is best that he wasn't shown meeting Madeline Pryor, marrying her, moving to Alaska, and then coming back to be reunited with Jean at Alkali Lake. There wouldn't have been time for all of the fanboy-thrilling minor mutant character cameos.
  • "Lady Lightbug? You mean the use real superheroes but they gotta make up the villains?" Magneto must have seen the retro-cartoon special feature on the second disc of The Incredibles DVD set. His trick with the Golden Gate Bridge was copied from what Lady Lightbug did in the cartoon. I half expected to see Iceman replace the Golden Gate with a bridge of ice a la Frozone.
  • The famous thirty-second coda. I admit it! I couldn't wait until the movie. I searched for half an hour yesterday so that I could find out what was so special about the alleged "best part of the movie". It wasn't that big of a deal to me, but like I said above, I'm quite familiar with comic book death.
Overall, not bad. I finally got around to seeing Fantastic Four last week, and I thought it was a very good comic book movie. The same with The Last Stand. Don't set your expectations too high, suspend your disbelief, and remember that it's just a comic book come to life. You'll find it to be much more enjoyable to watch than you might have expected.

Friday, June 02, 2006

An Ordinary Day In Downtown Pittsburgh

Good grief!

A woman stripped naked and sprinted into Downtown traffic Thursday morning after trying to shoplift a bag of peanuts from the Smithfield News, police said.

Where did she try to hide the peanuts?

Foolish criminal -- doesn't she know that if you are going to steal stuff, you need clothes to hide it in? Never go into a shop naked unless you are planned to pay for what you take. You'll never get away with it.

Oh -- she's not in jail now; she's in a mental hospital. Good luck with that.

Banned Old Flag

Q: What do suburban white high school kids do when they pay a surprise visit to an inner city high school?

The superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District yesterday apologized for the Baldwin High School students who drove onto the Brashear High School campus last week, waving Confederate flags.
Q: How bad was it?
Pittsburgh Public Schools officials said "several carloads" of students from Baldwin High School drove onto the Brashear campus May 25. They said the procession was led by a pickup truck, and that the truck's occupants waved Confederate flags.
In other words, it looked like people showing up for a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Which leads me to ask another question: Has Skynyrd ever had to apologize on behalf of their fans because of all the Confederate flags in the parking lot? A few years ago, I went to see Ted Nugent and Deep Purple on the same bill as Lynyrd Skynyrd. The car in which I rode seemed to be the only vehicle without a giant Confederate flag sticking out the top.

Not being suicidal, I didn't take anyone to task over it. But something inside of me wanted to cry out, in the words of Basil Fawlty, "Who won the bloody war, anyway?"

City Of Champions Again?

Cripes. The Pittsburgh Pirates sweep a three game series against the Milwaukee Brewers and celebrate like they've just won the World Series.

And why not? Why should the Steelers be the only game in town? I might actually start following baseball again.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Beware Of Teenage Hippies In Bookstores

You might think that this post is going to be a memoir of my past life as a professional bookseller. It isn't, really, but in a way, it is, just for the following background information.

During my ten years working at a Borders location in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I mingled with many leftist radicals, young and old -- and those were just my colleagues. Since anyone could see what reading material was being purchased by anyone else, it would have been futile to try to hide my own political leanings. Other right-of-center people came and went while I was there, but due to my staying power, I was generally labeled the Republican guy, or the conservative guy. I felt rather good about that -- it made me unique, and I didn't feel like I was going along with the crowd. Aside from a couple of psychos flipping out, no one really gave me a hard time about it, either. (One of them was a lost cause, but I gained revenge on the other by marrying her.) Some of them actually seemed amused to have me around. It must have been because I was a "minority" and these "progressives" felt that they needed to be "sensitive" towards me.

Our customer base was much more diverse in terms of political views, and might have even leaned right due to the demographics of the surrounding municipalities. I shelved and merchandised the Political Science books for
a few years. We kept running out of conservative titles, while liberal books sat around for months before being called back for reassignment at the remainder warehouse. Either most of our customers were Republicans, or Democrats were the majority and preferred fantasy books. (It would explain a lot.) When one of Rush Limbaugh's books came out, a lady came up to the checkout to pay for her books and expressed disbelief that Borders would carry anything by him. The guy who waited on her, an Assistant Manager, just shrugged it off in an unsubtle manner. He could have delicately pointed out that we carried books by all kinds of authors, or that Rush's book was already on the NYT bestseller list, but instead he chose to abandon any pretense of neutrality, as if the lady in front of him were the only person within earshot. He must have forgotten about me.

On the other hand, there was the lady whom I assisted in finding a copy of P.J. O'Rourke's Republican Party Reptile. She couldn't wait to buy it because "He's funny! Republicans must really hate him!" Because, you see, P.J. is obviously a Democrat who mercilessly taunts Republicans for a living, and everyone who works in book shops that sell his book must also be Democrats, including me. I saw no need to disabuse her of her laughably incorrect assumption. Ka-ching!

From time to time the store would host author events of political significance -- Oliver North, for example. He was one of our top five attractions in terms of turnout. We expected controversy to accompany him: parking lot protests outside, and line-jumping critics inside. Nothing happened. It was a good night. In fact, the employee who handled hosting duties that evening was a Vietnam Vet who returned home and became a peace activist. He was no fan of Ollie, but he was very gracious about greeting and announcing our guest. Perhaps he felt a bond due to the shared experience of Vietnam. It was a very civil affair.

A couple of years earlier, in 1992, the store hosted an event that was geared toward community outreach rather than promotion of any specific book. A freshman Republican from Mount Lebanon was running for reelection to a
hotly contested Congressional seat. The district had been gerrymandered following the 1990 census so that the Democrats should have had no problem ousting the neophyte. The Congressman's name was Rick Santorum. His opponent, Frank Pecora, was a longtime Republican State Senator who saw an opportunity to go to Washington that year. He turned Democrat (partly due to redistricting problems of his own) and joined a field of around half-a-dozen contenders for the party's nomination. Most of these candidates were liberals from the heart of the new district, the very pro-union and very left-wing Mon Valley. They ended up splitting the liberal vote in the primary, giving the opportunistic Pecora the chance to run against Santorum. The local Borders management and publicity folks saw an opportunity of their own: Invite both candidates to the store on a Saturday afternoon for an informal "town hall" type of outreach. People could come to the store, interact with the candidates, and buy lots of books on the way out.

Both candidates received invitations well in advance of the event; Pecora never responded. Rick Santorum, usually in tandem with his young family, was a not infrequent customer at the store. He accepted the invitation right away. Without the Democrat, the informal debate became a Santorum solo campaign appearance. I would love to give my impressions of the event, BUT...for the first time in two years, I took a Saturday off. My plans for the day were set long before the Borders event was scheduled. I really regretted having to miss it.

I did, however, have a mole, a self-described "Reagan Democrat" who later became sort of a laissez-faire Naderite. (You need to know the guy for that to make any sense.) At the time, he was more favorable to Republicans, and was very impressed with Santorum. He thought that Rick made some good points, and that he gave intelligent responses to the crowd's intelligent questions. The sole blemish on an otherwise civil event was another off-duty employee who had nothing better to do than come in on her day off to yell things like "What about a woman's right to choose?" Rather than ignoring her and going on to someone else, Santorum calmly explained his positions on the issues that she challenged him on. Based on my mole's account, I gather that Rick must have made her look like the village idiot.

His opponent that year, Pecora, was more like a jerk than an idiot. His sole issue in the campaign was Rick Santorum. All he seemed to talk about was the Congressman's youth, inexperience, and party registration. He was arrogant, campaigned as though the seat was already his because of the party registration advantage...and he lost.

To sum up: In a year when a President named Bush was losing support left and right, Rick Santorum faced a tough reelection campaign against a moderate Democrat who defeated more liberal opponents in the primary, and many observers were sure than Santorum didn't have a chance of winning again. All that's missing from the formula is another Santorum victory, and it will be deja vu.

Speaking of deja vu, Rick Santorum was making bookstore appearances last year, this time as a published author promoting his book, It Takes a Family. As a high-profile United States Senator who says all of the right things to send demented lefties into conniption fits, Santorum had no trouble attracting moonbat critics the way that a bug zapper attracts flies. Zzzzt! Not all of them got close enough to the Senator to do or say anything strange. A small band of dissenters who were refused entry to a Santorum book event in Delaware last year have enlisted the aid of the ACLU to sue over the incident. The Associated Press report is short on details.

Via Alex at Santorum Blog, we learn that one interested blogger has done some homework and pulled details of the incident from a Google cache. The most important point that I can make, based on my years of retail experience, is that a business is a private property. No one has the right to just walk in to a shop. Retail shops are open to the public as a courtesy, but by no means does it mean that the management of a shop is conceding private ownership. If they don't want you to come through their doors, they have that right. If you are on the shop's property, they have the right to ask you to leave -- and if you refuse, they have the right to have you removed by the civil authorities. There is no specific list of reasons that a business needs to refer to when it wants you to leave and stay out. It just can, because it owns the property and you do not.

In the Delaware incident, some Santorum campaign people overheard the moonbats joking about getting Rick to sign a book by a goofball whose biggest claim to fame is defaming the Senator. That was cause for concern, but not enough reason to bar the jokers from the shop. One Santorum staffer pointed out that the Senator was only there to sign his own book. This is common for authors on book tours; these personal appearances attract large lines of customers, and there is a limited amount of time for the retailer to allow everyone to meet the author. The best way to do this is to keep each visit brief and limit the signings to the author's own books. The staffer was right to point this out.

The cached article (told from the point of view of the moonbats) goes on to say that in addition to Santorum staffers, "members of the store" were concerned enough to inform an off-duty state trooper who was hired as security for the event. Santorum's people would not have been able to kick the moonbats out of the store. If the behavior of the moonbats was cause for the store's employees to be concerned, the store had the right to bar them. We don't know the exact details of everything that they were doing and saying. If you are a store employee and there is a group of disruptive teenagers who strike you as potential troublemakers in the store, of course you are going to be concerned. I would like to heard the story from the points of view of the employees and of the security guard. They must have had very valid reasons for denying the moonbats access to the Senator.

To put it another way: Supposing Rick Santorum comes to my house. Let's say that one of my loony colleagues finds out and decides to come over to give him a piece of her mind. But the Senator is an invited guest. My colleague is not. If I know that she is coming over intending to be rude and disruptive, I will not allow her inside. If she comes inside, I will ask her to leave immediately. If she refuses, I will call the police and have her arrested. She is trespassing on private property.

Trespassing on private property is against the law.

The security guard in Delaware explained this to the moonbats. They asked why they were being arrested. He did not need to give any reason other than trespassing on private property. That's it.

The ACLU is filing the suit on behalf of the moonbats because their civil liberties were allegedly violated. Powerful political entities were crushing their dissent, the ACLU says. Wrong. You can dissent all you want on public property or on your own property. You may do so on private property only with the consent of the owner.

The ACLU is violating the civil liberties of property owners, and is obviously using the suit to discredit Rick Santorum in an election year. (Note that this all happened before Santorum had even shown up for his appearance. He was not directly involved.) If the truth ever comes out (don't hold your breath), it's the ACLU that will be exposed as corrupt, not the Senator or his campaign.