Thursday, February 28, 2008

Crime does pay - a lot

Not that we needed more evidence, but here's one more sign that a lot of things are rotten in Harrisburg. According to an Associated Press report, former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta of Ellwood City, who pleaded guilty recently for setting up his sister and niece with "ghost" jobs on the state payroll, will still be able to collect his generous state pension. Apparently, admitting to bilking taxpayers and pleading guilty to felony charges isn't enough to get one bumped from the good graces of the State Employees' Retirement System. The AP report said the system has a list of 23 crimes that require pension forfeiture. Raping the public trust, I guess, isn't on it. So LaGrotta, a 20-year legislative veteran who got not a single day of jail time when he was sentenced, can collect an annual pension of $48,000 after he turns 50 this November. Based on this story, here's my advice to youngsters just getting out of high school. First off, forget college. Then suck up to a sufficient number of people to get yourself elected to the state Legislature. Continue sucking up to people for the next 20 years, spreading Walking Around Money (also known as taxpayers' dollars) across your legislative district as if you were a cross between an ATM machine and Johnny Appleseed. Become a thieving scumbag. Get convicted of screwing your constituents. But don't worry, you won't go to jail. Instead, you can retire comfortably on the backs of the same people you just assaulted in a tender part of their anatomy. As boxing promoter Don King is fond of saying, "Only in America."


The city brain trust hard at work

A story in Thursday's paper brought the news that the city of Washington is nearly out of road salt and can't get any more, but if another round of wintry weather hits the area, have no fear. Councilman Matt Staniszewski, right, who heads up the city street department, said he and Mayor Sonny Spossey have put their heads together and come up with "Snow Plan B." No, I didn't make that up. That's what he really called it. Are you ready to hear about it? Are you sitting down, ready to be in awe of this brilliant strategy? OK, here goes. It's actually a two-part plan, a dual attack on those insurgent snowflakes. Part one: Spread cinders instead of salt. So far, so good. Part two (and this is where it gets interesting): The street department will attach plows to its vehicles and plow the streets. Eureka! Actually plowing the streets when it snows. What will they think of next? I know, I know. The city will tell you that it already plows when snow hits, but its past efforts, based on personal driving experience and the complaints of countless others ("The roads were fine once I got out of the city."), haven't been worth a damn. I'm willing to give Staniszewski a chance. He's just getting his feet wet as leader of the public works sector of city government, and there's absolutely no chance he could make things worse.


Standing still in Afghanistan?

It has been more than six years since U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to rout the Taliban, and while the terror group is greatly weakened, the government established with the help of U.S. military might and led by President Hamid Karzai (pictured) is hardly in control of the country. That's not my opinion. It's the opinion of National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell, who told senators Wednesday that the central government in Afghanistan, after the expenditure of billions of dollars and the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops, controls only 30 percent of the country. The Taliban still holds sway over 10 percent of Afghanistan, said McConnell, and the rest of the country is in the hands of local tribal chiefs. Afghanistan is also the world leader, by a wide, wide margin, in the production of illicit opium, and proceeds from the opium trade help to fuel the insurgency there. The senators also heard from the Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, who said Pakistan is trying to clean up the lawless region along its border with Afghanistan, a place where the Taliban and al-Qaida are believed to have set up shop. Just one problem: Maples says the Pakistani military and the tribal Frontier Corps aren't sufficiently trained or equipped to fight the insurgents. This after six years. And Maples says it will take another three to five years to get that straightened out. By that time, the U.S. effort to rehabilitate Afghanistan will be at the decade mark. More billions will have been spent. More U.S. lives will be lost. We obviously cannot allow the Taliban and al-Qaida to regain control of the country, but it's also pretty obvious that our approach to Afghanistan has been largely a failure. One wonders what could have been accomplished in Afghanistan if our troops had not been diverted to overthrow Saddam Hussein.


This is a real "downer"

As someone who has been eating meat since he swiped a ham sandwich off his Aunt Wilda's plate on Memorial Day 1960, I have always been somewhat bewildered by people who can subsist on tofu and vegetables, but for the first time in my life, I'm questioning my life as a carnivore. One big issue is food safety. As our food production shifts further and further from family farms to conglomerates, our ability to know what we're eating and feel safe about the way the food is produced is dwindling. The O-R had a story the other day about former U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors who say the agency's food-inspection efforts are sorely lacking. And then we had the disgusting video released by the Humane Society that, according to the Associated Press, showed workers at a California meat plant "shoving sick or crippled cows with forklifts to get them to stand." The story went on: "The video also showed workers dragging sick cows with chains, shocking them with electric prods and shooting streams of water in their noses and faces." A lawsuit by the Humane Society against the USDA said the workers were attempting to get the so-called downer cows to stand, even momentarily, so they could be considered fit for slaughter under federal rules. The USDA recently recalled 143 million pounds of beef from the slaughterhouse. That may address the immediate health concerns, but it's a safe bet that other plants are employing similarly inhumane tactics to produce the meat we consume, and can we really feel good about our complicity in the torture of these creatures? As someone who is descended from a long line or farm people, I was raised on meat and potatoes, and there are few things better, in my mind, than a well-cooked steak, but day by day, disturbing story by disturbing story, I'm getting closer to being just a potato eater.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Here we go again

The New York Times reports that the congressional committee that heard testimony from pitcher Roger Clemens and his former trainer, Brian McNamee, has taken the first step toward seeking a criminal perjury investigation of Clemens. In general, most folks would agree that we can't have people lying to Congress or to federal authorities, but I wonder if going after Clemens, and before him, Barry Bonds, is of great national import. Anyone who had watched Bonds play for the Pirates and then saw what he morphed into while playing with San Francisco could tell that he was taking more than flaxseed oil. Mr. Potato Head didn't get that huge on Flintstone's vitamins. But spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to prove that Bonds lied about his drug use seems like a wasted effort, considering the other challenges facing our country. It's much the same with Clemens. Most people believe he took steroids and/or human growth hormone, and they believe Rodger the Dodger is lying about it. These players and their accomplishments have been forever tainted, and when you're dealing with people with egos this huge, having their achievements dismissed by the vast majority of the American public might be the biggest punishment they could get. Are costly criminal proceedings really necessary on top of that? And if you believe McNamee's attorney, even if the government pursues a case against Clemens, there's the possibility that President Bush might issue him a blanket pardon on his way out the White House door. It could be money for nothing.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Patriotism is personal

The talking pinheads at Fox News and the Swift Boat gang are all over Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for a couple of his actions, or inactions, on the campaign trail. They're suggesting Obama is some sort of pinko commie because he no longer wears a flag lapel pin and once - once - failed to put his hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem. They've also sunk their teeth into Michelle Obama's statement that for the first time in her adult life, she is proud of the country. Taking the last issue first, the Obamas offered the explanation that Michelle Obama was talking about the political arena and that she's proud because this is the first time in a long time that she sees Americans excited about changing their country. That's fine. It's more likely she just said something off the cuff on the campaign trail that she now wishes she hadn't said. The Obamas are running for the White House. I'm not, so I'm not afraid to say that I definitely am not as proud of my country as I was 30 years ago, when I was in the military. I served in peacetime, though a Panamanian soldier once pointed a rifle at me (His sister definitely told me she was 18. Kidding! I walked into what the soldier perceived as a restricted area.) As for the national anthem hubbub, people have many different ways of showing respect. Some people do put their hands over their hearts, but based on what I've seen at ball games - Why is that about the only place we play the anthem? - most people simply stand respectfully, which is what Obama was doing on the day in question. My maternal grandmother used to stand for the anthem when it was played on television, but that was the last time I saw that kind of devotion to the national song. It really comes down to what's in your heart, not whether you cover your heart. And that's pretty much how I feel about the flag lapel pins and the "patriotic" bumper stickers. Obama said he quit wearing the flag lapel pin as the nation moved toward the most recent war in Iraq because he felt it was a "substitute ... for real patriotism." Well said. What I really have a problem with is the "I Support the Troops" or "I Love America" bumper stickers on cars. The people who slap on these stickers are essentially saying, "Look at me! I love the country and the soldiers." Guess what, people? Pretty much all of us love the country, and pretty much all of us support the troops. Even the folks who think the Iraq war is a horrifying waste of lives and money don't wish our soldiers ill. They want them to come home safely. They just don't feel it's necessary to feed their own egos in the process by slapping a cheap bumper sticker on the back of an SUV.


Saturday, February 23, 2008

He should be an inspiration to us all

I was talking the other day with my friend "Bill the Can Man," and he was quite excited to tell me about the new bicycle he had just received as an early 50th birthday present. And of course, that bike will be getting a workout as Bill goes about his business of gathering empty cans from many corners of the Washington area. I pass Bill on my way to work most days - I beep, he waves - and it's amazing the distance he travels from his home to carry out his work. Every time I see the "Can Man," I think to myself that if we all were as hardworking as Bill, had his accepting, trusting approach to all we meet and had a true appreciation for the many blessings we have in our lives, even something as simple as a new bicycle, how much better off we all would be.


It is really a death penalty or life in prison?

Patrick Stollar of Washington was sentenced to death the other day for the exceedingly brutal 2003 murder of an elderly Upper St. Clair woman. I have serious doubts whether I'll still be alive when that sentence is carried out. The reason for my doubts? For one, there are three Washington County killers - Roland Steele, Tippy Wallace and Thomas Gorby - who all have been on death row for the past 20 years. Secondly, the last person executed in this state was Philadelphia "House of Horrors" killer Gary Heidnik, and that was nearly a decade ago. Third, as of Jan. 1, 2007, there were 226 people on Pennsylvania's death row, and apparently not a single one of them has exhausted his or her appeals, even though some have been facing a death sentence for more than a QUARTER CENTURY. If we are to have a death penalty - and that's a whole other argument - what justice is there in it if the person sentenced to die is more likely to succumb to old age? My opinion is that people sentenced to death should be given every opportunity to challenge their conviction, whether it be through access to DNA testing or public financing of top-notch lawyers to handle those appeals. But they should be required to make any and ALL arguments they have in a single appeal, not a never-ending series of usually-frivolous filings, and never should it take 25 years for this process to be completed. In cases like Stollar's, in which he admitted killing the woman, though claiming a mental defect, the process should be a very short one. Perhaps those who contemplate a murder would be much less likely to commit the crime if they knew that the time lapse between their victim's death and their own could be a very short one.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Disrespecting the Queen

Aretha Franklin, the pretty-much-undisputed queen of soul, has found herself in the crosshairs of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for wearing what PETA called "yet another vulgar fur" at the recent Grammy Awards. Now, Aretha's outfit was nothing to write home about. The fur covered a dress that looked as if Miss Franklin had awakened from a nap with just minutes to spare before the Grammys started, ripped the sheet from her bed, wrapped it around herself and dashed out the door. Her ensemble was, to quote Simon Cowell, hideous. But I couldn't give a tinker's dam whether Aretha was sporting a fur coat. These nutjobs from PETA, had they been around in prehistoric times, would have been telling cavemen to shuck those animal skins and wear a lovely frock made from leaves. Like most single-issue advocacy groups, they do some good by working to stop the more egregious misdeeds when it comes to animal treatment, but they get a reputation as zealots and get tuned out by the average person as a result of their relentless push for people to stop eating meat, chicken, fish, etc., and to stop wearing products made of any animal hide or fur. Personally, I don't think it's necessary to kill animals for ostentatious coats when so many other options are available, but I have no problem with using leather for utilitarian items such as belts and shoes. It's essentially a question of overkill. If PETA really wants to perform a public service, perhaps they could persuade Aretha to quit showing us her ample cleavage. Nobody's wanted to see that since at least the 1960s, and even then, Aretha was doing her best to cram 200-plus pounds of stuff into a 10-pound bag. She truly gave new meaning to the term "stretch pants." On the other hand, if Aretha continues to dress as she did at the Grammys, we could post the photos on our refrigerators, and we wouldn't want to eat any fish, chicken or meat, or much of anything else, for that matter. It's a helluva weight-loss plan.


Look out for that mud!

It should be interesting to see how Hillary Clinton approaches tonight's debate with Barack Obama now that Obama is beating her like a redheaded stepchild in state after state after state. To add insult to injury, it was announced hours before the debate that Obama had beaten Clinton in the "Democrats Abroad" primary, in which - and this makes sense - Democrats living abroad can cast their ballots. When you start losing primaries that nobody's even heard of, it's going from bad to worse. I think it's a pretty safe bet than Clinton will "go negative," start slinging mud at Obama to see what will stick, despite the inherent danger that she'll get splattered in the process by a public opinion backlash. Polls show that a relatively high percentage of Democrats, people in her own party, have unfavorable opinions of her, and if she goes into desperation attack mode, that number is likely to rise. People just aren't buying into her standard arguments that she's the best one to slay the Republican dragon and that she's best prepared to be president from "day one." I think voters recognize that she's barely been in the Senate longer than Obama and that simply being Bill's wife doesn't really count as "experience." There's also the dynasty factor. There has been a Bush or Clinton in the White House, either as president or vice president, since January 1981, and voters may be saying enough's enough. They want somebody - anybody - different. So while Clinton keeps talking about her experience and credentials, Barack Obama, wisely, just keeps saying the word "change" over and over. I'm guessing that many people who support Obama don't have the foggiest idea what he stands for. They just know he's not a Bush or Clinton.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fidel's farewell

There was word out of Havana today that Cuban President Fidel Castro is stepping down after nearly 50 years in control of the island nation. Castro, by all accounts, is a very sick man, probably near death, but he will go to his grave with the knowledge that U.S. efforts to topple him were entirely unsuccessful. The Bay of Pigs invasion was an unmitigated disaster, but the real joke in U.S. policy toward Castro's Cuba has been the decades-long embargo against the country. We'll do billions in business with China, one of the most repressive regimes on the face of the Earth, but our politicians, cowering in fear at the reaction of Cubans in south Florida, have consistently voted to preserve an embargo on Cuba that has succeeded only in hurting the people of that country. Do you really think Castro and his fellow leaders have been deprived of anything they wanted because of U.S. policies? The only thing the embargo accomplished was to drive Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union and create a threat against our security from Cuba that hadn't existed before. The United Nations has been condemning the embargo for at least the past 20 years. In 2006, the vote against the United States' policy on Cuba was 179 to 4. Supporting the U.S. were Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands. What a mighty coalition this is. We buy oil from Middle Eastern nations that serve as incubators for people who want to kill Americans, and we buy millions of gallons more from the raving, U.S.-hating lunatic Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but I can't get a good Cuban cigar from Havana. Does this make any sense?

Oh, the humanity!

The Pittsburgh television stations' obsessive coverage of "severe weather" might have reached a new low today. Channel 11, WPXI, spent about two minutes on a LIVE REPORT from Stu Brown in the Canonsburb/Southpointe area. Stu stopped just short of giving a complete history of Morganza before providing us with the bottom line: There were no accidents anywhere on any of the interstate highways in Washington County this morning. What the ...! Two minutes, at the very top of the newscast, to tell us that NOTHING HAPPENED!?! This is truly getting out of hand. As my boss and fellow blogger Park Burroughs has said time and again: This is winter. It snows in the winter, and unless it snows a whole lot, it's not really BREAKING NEWS. That's not to say that the O-R hasn't been guilty at times of overdoing it with weather stories. We have. No one hates weather stories more than I. But the TV stations are taking it to uncharted territory. I also could do without a five-minute weather segment on every news program. You don't need to tell me what the weather was like today. I experienced it. Just tell me, briefly, what you THINK the weather might be like for the next couple of days. Beyond that, you don't have any more of an idea than a groundhog yanked out of a hole in a hollow tree.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Justice delayed

It looked for a while as if the jury in the case of Bobby Cutts, a former Canton, Ohio, police officer facing trial for the murder of his pregnant mistress, was going to rank with the O.J. jury for blatant stupidity. It took the jury four days to find Cutts guilty in the murder of Jessie Davis and related charges, even though it was obvious to anyone with half a brain that Cutts was, to use a phrase I first heard from an old country prosecutor in South Carolina, "guilty as homemade sin." The prosecution could scarcely have had a better case if the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir had watched Cutts kill the woman. The basic facts are this: Cutts killed the woman, disposed of her body and tried desperately to cover up the murder. Also, this solid citizen, after murdering the woman, left their 2-year-old son alone in the house where the killing took place. Cutts' tearful testimony in his defense, which was basically his entire defense, was comical. Police investigating the murder found a pool of bleach in the home where Davis was killed. Gee, you might think Cutts was using that bleach to destroy evidence of the murder. Not so, he told the jury. Cutts explained that after he "accidentally" struck Davis in the throat with an elbow, he tried to "revive" her with bleach, and apparently a gracious plenty of it. Do you really think that's something Cutts learned at the police academy or by observing emergency medical personnel at accident scenes? If in doubt, Bobby, hit 'em with some Clorox. I'm probably just woefully ignorant of the healing powers of bleach. Probably all around the country, every day, there are scenes like this: "Honey, Grandma just fainted. Quick, fetch me the bleach. And her skin's mighty dry. Grab the Downy, too." Gimme a break. That bullcrap story alone should have been sufficient for the jury to determine that this guy was lying out his ... uh, backside ... and that nothing he said was believable. They should have returned with a guilty verdict in about the length of time it would take to pick a jury foreman. The only real question they had to answer was whether the killing was premeditated. I guess, in the end, justice was served. It just took a helluva long time.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bullets are flying

America is a nation of guns, and I'm guessing that hundreds of people get shot across the country in any given week. The past few days have been particularly bloody as it pertains to school shootings. There were a couple of incidents in which high school students who had a gripe with a schoolmate decided that the best way to handle the situation would be to kill that person. Then we had the massacre on the Northern Illinois University campus, where an apparently wigged-out former student opened fire on kids in a college classroom, killing five and wounding more than a dozen before taking his own life. These sorts of incidents invariably prompt someone to suggest that we need tighter gun controls. Well, I'm no NRA member, but draconian gun-control laws won't get the job done. I believe it's legitimate to keep the average citizen from buying assault rifles and machine guns. There's just no reasonable need for anyone to have such weapons. The NRA, of course, would disagree, but they're on the opposite lunatic fringe from the people who want a total gun ban. However, I agree with the NRA in that taking the guns of law-abiding Americans would do very, very little to lower the rates of common gun crimes or tragic school shootings. Your basic street thug in Pittsburgh or Philly or D.C. is going to get a gun, and they're not generally going to walk up the counter of Ace Sporting Goods to buy it. And if some nut decides to shoot up a school, he's going to get his hands on a gun, whether it be by stealing one in a burglary or just "borrowing" grandpa's squirrel gun or deer rifle. We have millions and millions of guns in our homes across this country - I have one, myself - and the government is simply not, ever, going to try to gather them all up. There are some people who believe that if a candidate from a certain party is elected president, "they're going to take our guns." Get a grip, people. No politician who hopes to have any future - and all many of them really care about is their future - is going to back a gun roundup. But that doesn't stop the talk. During the 2000 presidential election, my son, who was then about 10, came home with word from one of his classmates who said that if Al Gore is elected, he's going to "take our guns." I'm guessing the kid heard that from his dad, who is probably now, eight years later, helping to spread the tripe about Barack Obama. You know, that Barack HUSSEIN Obama is an al-Qaida operative who, if elected, would sell us out to the jihadists from the inside. Keep those conspiracy theories coming, people. It provides amusement for those of us who don't wear tinfoil on our heads to prevent the space aliens from monitoring our thoughts.


Watch out for the oblivious livestock

The other day, I nearly ran over two sheep, I mean W&J College students, who were wandering aimlessly smack dab down the middle of a public thoroughfare amid campus. I crept behind them in my car as one would do if one were waiting for a deer or 'coon to move out of the way. Eventually, a tiny light bulb must have gone on inside the pointed little head of the female member of the pair, for she took the male who was wandering with her by the sleeve and led him to the side of the street so I could pass. This is not a one-time gripe. It happens all the time. Apparently, the students are under the impression that the $25,000 or $30,000 (could it be even more now?) that they pay to the college every year also entitles them to unbridled ambling privileges on local streets. And it's not just the walking. My wife works for a local church, and college students see no problem with using the church parking lot as their personal lot, despite the sign telling them not to. You would think someone who gets into a well-regarded private school would be able to read. Or maybe it's just the feeling of entitlement that kids today seem to have.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Your tax dollars at work

The government is constantly spending my and your money to finance studies of things that could be figured out by a 5-year-old. The latest example I saw was a study by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission with the headline: "ATVs Deadly for Young Riders." Hmmmmm. The study found that in 2006, 555 people died across the nation in all-terrain vehicle accidents, and 100 of them were children. The agency's recommendations for kids: Stay off roads (you know, where there are cars). Wear a helmet. Kids should not ride on adult-sized ATVs. Don't put more than one person on a one-person ATV (There goes the Wallenda pyramid). Here's a quote from the report: "Collisions with cars and other vehicles ... can be deadly." Really!?!?! Did this really require the attention of a bloated bureaucracy? Any fool could tell you that when riding relatively unprotected on a fast-moving vehicle, it might be wise to put something on your noggin. Kids who don't wear, or aren't required to wear, helmets when riding ATVs, and aren't killed in the process, are the people who grow up to ride motorcycles without helmets on major roads and highways. I call them "future organ donors." And they don't have the common sense of the aforementioned 5-year-old. So maybe they do need the government's guidance.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who cares what they say?

It's rare these days to see a candidate for president make a speech without being surrounded by other politicians who have endorsed their candidacy. For instance, if John McCain is making an appearance at a rally in Texas, he'll be accompanied by various state political leaders - governor, congressmen, mayors, etc. - who are backing his campaign. Sometimes these endorsements might give a candidate a boost. Some say McCain prevailed in Florida because the Republican governor there endorsed him. But the endorsements of Ted and Caroline Kennedy didn't help Barack Obama win in the Kennedys' home state of Massachusetts. Overall, I doubt that many voters are swayed by endorsements from their governor or lawmakers. Would you vote for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary just because Gov. Ed Rendell likes her? I imagine I am in the majority in that I look at all the candidates, consider their positions on a variety of issues that are important to me and make my decision based on that. And while our newspaper and others diligently interview candidates and make their recommendations to the voting public, I pay no attention to that, either. If I'm ever at the point where I find two candidates to be absolutely equal on all counts, I'll just pull out my lucky penny and flip it, not ask, "What would Ed or Arlen do?"


Now THIS is collaborating with the enemy

Just when you thought the proliferation of ridiculously large, gas-guzzling vehicles such as Humvees and those monstrous SUVs that can carry entire soccer teams had reached its peak, a company called Alton Manufacturing has one-upped, or maybe even 100-upped, the competition. Alton has taken an already beastly Ford super-duty truck and turned it into the mother of all SUVs. It's called the Alton F-650 XUV, and it features a 42-speaker sound system, two 16-inch TVs suspended from the ceiling and, if that weren't enough, a 42-inch plasma TV. If you would like to take your work on the road with you, there are four computer work stations. Then it gets really ridiculous. The "vehicle" also is equipped with a train horn and features hardwood floors. All of this is hauled down the highway by a 7.2-liter Caterpillar diesel engine. There's simply no defense for, number one, building such a monstrosity, and number two, anyone actually driving one. We have seen the misery this country has suffered because of our virtual slavery at the hands of foreign oil producers, from the sheiks in the Middle East to the world-class lunatic Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. One would hope that those with the means to buy this vehicle - which goes for something in the neighborhood of $200,000 - or other similarly indefensible behemoths would instead buy the most fuel-efficient car, truck or SUV that meets their basic needs and put the rest of that money to a better use. In other words, maybe use some of that excess cash to help the less fortunate, rather than those already making fortunes from the stupidity, greed and egomania of millions of Americans. It sure beats shambling around in the afterlife, laden with chains like Jacob Marley's ghost.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Enough's enough

Am I the only one who is revolted to see a virtual army of media - photographers, videographers, cameramen in helicopters - every time Britney Spears drives to McDonald's to get a Big Mac? There's a big market out there for celebrity news. Just look at the magazine racks when you check out at the grocery store. But when it comes to Britney and the other Hollywood tartlets - Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins, Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, etc. - we've reached the point of overload. And the only discernable talent Hilton or Kardashian ever displayed was on sex videos. Britney Spears took a smidgen of talent and the fact that she was, at one time, built like a brick, um, outhouse, and took it to the bank. As her looks decline and her mental state crumbles, she becomes less and less marketable as an entertainment entity but more and more valuable to the media's vulture sector as a walking train wreck. The coverage of Britney's woes ranges from that of newspapers like ours that run the occasional blurb about her latest court appearance or meltdown to freelance photographers who use zoom lenses to get snapshots of her unclad crotch, then sell the photos to the highest bidder. Britney is a cash cow for shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood." If they have a choice between a story about a catfight on the set of "Desperate Housewives" and video of a crazy has-been singer attacking an SUV with an umbrella, which one do you think they're going to lead the show with? Even the venerable Associated Press is not above regaling us with the misdeeds of the young, rich and stupid. An AP story that hit the wires recently about a pre-Grammys party had the following sentence about Ms. Hilton: "Hilton shimmied and stuck her middle fingers into the air as the band One Republic performed." And we needed to know that? It's apparent to everyone that Britney Spears is either heavily addicted to drugs or mentally ill, or both. But it would be fruitless to suggest that all the media just back off and at least give her a chance to get her life straightened out. There's too much money to be made, especially if she pulls a Heath Ledger.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Too many teams

People used to make fun of the National Hockey League for setting up a system that let way too many teams make the playoffs, but the NHL had nothing on high school sports in Pennsylvania. The current WPIAL basketball playoffs are a case in point. Some of the teams playing in the opening round of the playoffs had twice as many losses as wins, and at least one team had three times as many losses as victories. Sixty percent of the girls and boys teams in the WPIAL made the postseason. And it's not just basketball. Last fall, one of our local high school football teams had one victory heading into the final week of the regular season and, by winning that game, made the playoffs. There's something wrong with a system that allows a team that finishes 2-8 to continue playing. Except for the occasional miracle, these teams are just getting set up for a monumental thrashing in their first playoff appearance. They might have a brief feeling of high self-esteem by being a "playoff team,” but how do they feel when they get manhandled (or womanhandled, as the case may be) in their initial playoff game. An example: In a first-round girls playoff game on Saturday, the North Catholic girls demolished Cornell, 61-6. That was not a typo. Cornell scored six points. Of course, there is a reason for expanding the playoffs to the point where really crummy teams make the postseason: It's so the WPIAL can rake in more money. The playoffs should be about the best teams challenging one another to determine who's No. 1, and the less-talented kids shouldn't get pummeled in the process for the sake of a few bucks.


Missing Mitt

The race for the Republican presidential nomination got a lot less interesting with the departure of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. All of the candidates try to put the best spin on their performances, but Romney's efforts in that area were almost comical. After getting hammered by John McCain on Super Tuesday, Romney talked about his big victories in the states where he had lived - Massachusetts, Michigan and Utah - while conveniently ignoring the fact that he was getting his hat handed to him virtually everywhere else. He vowed to keep running right up until the convention. Of course, a couple of days later, he was out. It was reminiscent of “Baghdad Bob,” the spokesman for Saddam Hussein, who insisted during the second U.S. invasion of Iraq that U.S. troops were nowhere near the Baghdad airport. At the same time, CNN was showing U.S. troops ... at the Baghdad airport. Romney discovered that in this day and age, when everything you've said and done in the past in public life is on tape, it's not easy to pull off a total political makeover. When Romney was running Massachusetts, he was a gay-friendly, pro-choice type of guy who distanced himself from the Reagan legacy. He obviously knew that wouldn't wash with Republican voters in a national race, so he repackaged himself as a Reagan heir who was staunchly anti-abortion. We all struggle with major moral issues, and as young people our views often evolve. However, most of us have been able to sort out our beliefs before we approach 60 years old. A total lack of credibility is typically a fatal flaw for a candidate. Romney knows that now.