Monday, February 23, 2009

Hollywood's big night

I'm a big-time movie fan, and also an awards show junkie, so you can well imagine how excited I get about the Academy Awards. I started watching the Oscars when I was a kid, pretty much forcing my parents to watch with me and fill out ballots with their picks for the winners in the various categories. Last night, I attended a party at which the attendees dressed as characters from this year's batch of nominated films and performances. My son and I dressed as the assassins from "In Bruges," and I can't even begin to tell you how frightening it was to see my friend George in a nun's outfit, his homage to Meryl Streep in "Doubt." Here are a few disjointed observations about the evening's proceedings.

- Note to Goldie Hawn: I'm guessing you're in your 60s now. When the "girls" start to leak out the side of the dress, it's a good time to start thinking about covering up a bit.

- Favorite line of the evening: I think Sean Penn is as big a jackass as the next person, but his line after winning the best actor award for his portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk was great. Said Penn, "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns."

- Miley Cyrus (above) wore a gown that looked like the skirt from my grandmother's Christmas tree.

- I don't think there's ever an excuse for a man to hit a woman, but every time I see Angelina Jolie, I want to slap her.

- Novelist Salman Rushdie took a few shots at best picture winner "Slumdog Millionaire," saying the film isn't believable because it "piles impossibility on impossibility." Yo, dipstick, it's not a freakin' documentary.

- Meryl Streep had the right approach to getting dolled up for the evening. When asked whether it was hard to pick a gown, she replied, "No, it wasn't. The dress fit."

- The dress did not fit presenter Whoopi Goldberg. In fact, it looked as if she was wearing a leopard-print couch cover that she had saved since the '70s.

- They totally butchered the part of the show where they honor those who died during the past year.

- The bit with the guys from "Pineapple Express" was hilarious.

- I wish Mickey Rourke had won, just to hear his acceptance speech.


Where do the hours go?

As you might have read on Park Burroughs' "Grumpy Old Editor" blog, these are trying times for the Observer-Reporter. Like virtually every other newspaper in the country, we're doing what we have to do to keep our heads above water. That has meant some buyouts of longtime employees and even some layoffs. And for those of us lucky enough to still be in the business, it's meant a heavier workload and changes in our jobs. This is a roundabout way of apologizing for my relative lack of blogging in the past couple of weeks. My duties here are changing, as have my hours, and my blogging routine has gone by the wayside. I wonder sometimes where the hours of my days disappear to. Even if we had all the money in the world, we can't buy time. But I was thinking the other day, what if I did have all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted? What would I do with it? We can assume, for the sake of this exercise, that I've just hit a major Powerball jackpot and have no further need to work. I think I would fill those now-empty hours by spending more time with my family, reading and napping. Doesn't sound like much, but it would work for me. Never discount the benefit of taking a nap whenever you feel like it. With these few minutes I have available right now, I'd like to send out a few words to a regular reader of the blog who has a little too much time on her hands right now to ponder weighty issues such as the future and her own mortality. Janice has been fighting a long and difficult battle against cancer, and I just want her to know that my thoughts are with her. Maybe some of you who are good with the "prayer thing" could take a few of your minutes to help her out a little, also. Hang in there, Janice. A lot of people are pulling for you.


Oh, yeah, good times are right around the corner

You have to love the management of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They're clearly convinced that they can continue to feed the team's fans chicken poop and make them believe it's chicken salad. The latest evidence of that is the team's decision to pick up the option on manager John Russell's contract, keeping him in the fold through the 2010 season. I have no issue with teams taking the steps necessary to keep their field leaders from being lame ducks. Players tend to mail in their performances more often if they think the manager has one foot in the figurative grave. But the comments that accompanied Russell's contract extension were hilarious. General manager Neal Huntington said "J.R. met or exceeded expectations in his first year as the Pirates' manager." A little background here. The Pirates finished 67-95 in Russell's first season. The year before, they finished 68-94. Sorry, but I'm having a tough time seeing the progress. Oh, wait, here's more from Huntington: "His club worked hard to play the game properly and battled from the first out until the last." Oh, I get it now. They lost in the "proper" manner and tried really hard. Here's the bottom line: The Pirates sucked last year, just as they did the year before that and the year before that and ... I could go on and on, 16 seasons' worth of losing. And in the offseason, here's what the Pirates did to improve the team for 2008: absolutely nothing. The notion that Russell has some magic pixie dust that he can sprinkle on the same collection of average and below-average players and turn them into contenders is laughable. The owners of this team refuse to spend money on the product they put on the field. They'll toss you a few bobbleheads and have the occasional fireworks display, but the baseball itself, well, that appears to be a secondary consideration. Remember how this was all supposed to change when the taxpayer-funded PNC Park opened? Happy days were here again. The owners would have the money to buy some real players. Or fill their pockets while putting a Triple-A quality team on the field. Hmmm. Wonder which one they chose. I went to the first night game at PNC Park. Until the day comes when baseball restructures its salary system to include a salary cap that's fair to all teams, and until the day when the current owners of the Pirates sell to someone who does more than pay lip service to putting a major-league-quality team on the field, I won't spend another dollar there. Anyone who does is a boob. But you'll have the Nutting family's undying gratitude. So there's that.


Common sense

A handful of Republican governors are saying they might turn down some of the stimulus money targeted toward their states because they question the program's ability to revive the economy. Enter California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who seems to think his fellow GOP leaders are crazy. Schwarzenegger, displaying a pragmatism missing in the posturing ideologues who want to spurn the money, says California would be more than willing to take their share. The governors who are railing against the stimulus plan are just following the lead of members of Congress - from both parties. As I recall, the stimulus bill passed the House on a strictly party-line vote, and in the Senate, only three Republicans crossed over to support the measure. It boggles the mind to think that no Democrats would oppose the legislation and that virtually no Republicans would see it as beneficial. This lock-step brand of governance is asinine, on the parts of both political parties, and we Americans should be both ashamed and angry about the quality of representation we're receiving.


Bridging the divide

Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, said recently that the United States is a nation of cowards when it comes to race relations, noting that while blacks and whites are shoulder to shoulder in the workplace, they largely segregate themselves in their social lives. The election of Barack Obama as president was a watershed moment in our nation's history, as was Holder's selection as attorney general, but those events, significant as they are, don't "trickle down" to average Americans. I hear often that we need a "dialogue" on racial issues, that we need to discuss our differences and bridge the gaps between the races. What I don't hear is how we get that process started and how we measure progress. Some people might tell you otherwise, but there still exists a huge level of distrust between blacks and whites, and one need only look at some of the words and deeds during the past presidential campaign to recognize that racism is still far from eradicated in our society. Heck, just look at the daily poll on the O-R Web site on any given day, and the racism is barely concealed, if it is at all. Whites have to recognize their own prejudices before any progress can be made, but blacks have to do their part, as well. Black Americans should spend less time overreacting to each and every stray use of the "N word" and pay more attention to things like the ridiculously high black illegitimacy rate, which spawns other ills such as poor performance in school, drug addiction and violent crime. The powers that be can help with the crime problem by refusing to coddle people who have no intention of conforming their actions to the accepted norms of society. The justice system should not be a revolving door that continually takes in and spits out the scum that walk our streets. The recent double-fatal shooting at a West End bar is testament to that. Most whites in this country are not dyed-in-the-wool racists, and they're willing to give black people a helping hand to improve their lot, but members of the black community have to recognize and admit their own collective failings and take steps to correct them before they can expect that hand to be outstretched.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Just what we've come to expect

A Catholic bishop in northeastern Pennsylvania got his panties in a twist because of last night’s scheduled appearance of Keith Boykin at Misericordia University. You see, Boykin is a gay-rights advocate, and Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino says Boykin’s beliefs are “disturbingly opposed to Catholic moral teaching.” Boykin was scheduled to discuss Proposition 8, the ballot measure that banned gay marriages in California, at least temporarily. He was brought to the college by the Misericordia Diversity Institute, which, according to the Associated Press, is “dedicated to promoting multicultural understanding and eliminating discrimination.” The school issued a statement saying it is committed to its Catholic mission, but also to its academic mission of exploring ideas “critically and freely.” Good for Misericordia. I have a couple of questions for Bishop Martino: Are the church’s teachings so weak that the church fears students will abandon them solely because they are exposed to an opposing viewpoint? Do you advocate not even trying to gain a better understanding of those who are different from you, or do you favor ignoring those people and hoping they go away? For your sake, bishop, I hope it’s not the latter, because pretty much as long as there have been humans on Earth, there have been gay humans. You say that Boykin’s beliefs are “disturbingly opposed to Catholic moral teaching.” I would say that the church's "teachings" are disturbingly opposed to reality and equality, and that they’re not the least bit moral. Gays and lesbians aren’t going anywhere, Bishop Martino, but your church’s shameful "teachings" certainly should.


Misplaced punishment

Shahar Peer, to the best of my knowledge, was not consulted when Israel launched a recent crackdown on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, but she’s paying a price for that action by her government. The 21-year-old Israeli tennis player, shown above, was denied a visa to participate in the Dubai Tennis Championships, solely because of her country of origin. Organizers of the Dubai event first suggested that security issues were behind the decision to bar Peer. Now they’re saying it’s because fans would boycott the tournament if Peer were allowed to play. Whatever the explanation, it’s still blatant discrimination. It reminded me of the days when the officials at Augusta National kept changing the requirements for players to qualify for the Masters in an attempt to keep black players off the course. Larry Scott, chairman of the WTA Tour, says the organization will be considering its response, which could include dropping Dubai from the tournament schedule next year. Said Scott, “Sports and politics should not mix, and the fundamental principles upon which the … WTA Tour are founded include open and fair competition to all, regardless of nationality, creed, race, religion, etc.” If it had any backbone, the WTA would have immediately canceled the event unless Peer was reinstated. The other players, if they had any integrity, should have refused to play without her. Tiger Woods has significant business interests in Dubai and carries considerable clout. Perhaps he will take a stand. Nah. There’s money to be made in Dubai. And money almost always trumps doing the right thing.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Are you kidding me?

It appears that no one in Washington School District has the requisite expertise to handle the delicate and extremely complicated task of hiring someone to show kids how to play football and be better humans. Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said the district might hire a “neutral football expert” to review applications from those interested in replacing Bill Britton, who was let go as coach last month. Are we to believe that the district will spend valuable taxpayer dollars to pay a football coach-hiring consultant? Are the members of the school board not qualified to hire an athletic coach? Are the administrators equally incompetent in this regard? Doesn’t the district have an athletic director who has been around since shortly after the Crucifixion? Said DiLorenzo, in explaining the idea, “It’s a critical position, a hot topic in the community.” Is teaching English considered a “critical position”? Is an outside expert required to hire a science teacher? If the district is hell-bent on going this route, I just heard that Brett Farve is retiring, again. Maybe he’d be interested in lending a hand to this all-important pursuit.


One hump or two?

Guys all across America are really starting to sweat. It’s just a couple of days until Valentine’s Day, and a lot of us have no idea what to get our significant others. Candy is tried and true. Flowers are an old standby. You can never go wrong with diamonds. But maybe this year, you’re in the market for some animal sex. I don’t mean you with an animal and a camcorder. For $50 a couple, the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Mich., is offering folks the opportunity to get what the AP calls “an unabashed look at how wild animals make babies.” Those who sign up for “Zoorotica” will get champagne, hors d’oeuvres, a video presentation (God knows what that entails) and a guided tour that will feature the private digs of snow leopards, giraffes, zebras and more. Now, I don’t bat an eye when people are into sex videos involving human actors, but it never occurred to me to say, “Honey, on this romantic day, whaddya say we go over to Uncle Bill’s farm and watch the bull have his way with the mama cow.” Maybe I’m missing out on something, but I don’t think so.


Eat at your own risk

In the wake of the peanut-related salmonella outbreak, a new Associated Press investigation finds that the federal government has been cutting back on food-safety inspections and leaving that work to the states. Just a few problems with that. The AP found that the state inspectors are overburdened, lacking in training and do shoddier work than the feds. This means you and I have a greater chance of getting sick from what we eat. In the case of the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Georgia, the AP found that a state inspection last fall turned up only a couple of minor violations. However, when the feds became concerned about a link between the plant and the recent salmonella outbreak, their own, more stringent examination found roaches, mold, a leaky roof and other sanitation failures. Just in recent memory, we’ve had major outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to tomatoes, bad beef, green onions and now peanuts. I’m sure there are more. Those are just the ones that come to mind. My guess is that no matter how much money we throw at the problem, these things are going to occur from time to time. Our food chain is just too unwieldy. Even if we could get a handle on the food-safety issues within our own borders, we get fruit from Chile, beef from Uruguay, fish from Vietnam, etc. It makes you want to go pick some berries off a bush in the backyard.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Safety first, fellas

American Airlines is caught up in litigation over an incident in 2007 in which the pilot of a flight from San Diego to Chicago decided not to take off, and instead taxied back to the gate, because of alleged suspicious behavior by five men of Iraqi descent who were on the plane. The men, of course, hired a lawyer and sued the airline, claiming they were the victims of discrimination. The airline says the way the men acted, not their nationality, was behind the captain’s decision. The five men had raised concerns among fellow passengers and flight attendants through behavior that included one man putting a blanket over his head, another taking off his shoes, another departing for the restroom and a fourth man glaring at a crew member during safety instructions. The pilot put all those concerns together and decided it was best not to take off. Police interviewed the Iraqi men, and everyone, including the Iraqis, left the next day on another flight. The Iraqi men’s lawyer, Lawrence Garcia, says his clients just wanted to be “treated like everyone else on the plane.” He added, “One took off his shoes. One went to the bathroom, and one put a blanket on his head … If a white or African-American person had done that on a plane, it would have aroused no suspicion.” Maybe Mr. Garcia has forgotten that on 9/11, it was people from the Middle East who hijacked four planes and killed thousands of Americans. And maybe Mr. Garcia has forgotten about the guy who was trying to blow up an airline with a SHOE BOMB. There are still plenty of Arab-looking people who would be tickled to death to do great harm to America and its people. I’m not for strip-searching every Arab-looking person before they get on a plane, but is it wrong to take a little extra caution when Middle Eastern-looking people start behaving strangely on a plane? A decision is pending on the airline’s attempt to have the lawsuit thrown out. Let’s hope the judge has the good sense to do so, and that the next time this particular group of Iraqi men decides to take a trip, they have the good sense not to act goofy and draw attention to themselves.


What, them worry?

Suppose there’s a company that is under investigation for allegedly performing shoddy work that killed American soldiers in Iraq. Would you feel comfortable about giving more millions in taxpayer dollars to that outfit? That’s exactly what’s happening with Kellogg, Brown and Root, which was spun off in 2007 from Halliburton, the company that was once run by none other than Dick Cheney and is now being investigated in connection with the electrocution deaths of at least two American soldiers. Just a few months ago, according to the Associated Press, the Pentagon “rejected the company’s explanation of serious mistakes in Iraq and its proposed improvements.” Senior Pentagon official David Graff noted the company’s “continuing quality deficiencies” and said executives of the company “were not sufficiently in touch with the urgency or realities of what was actually occurring on the ground.” Graff went on to tell the company that “many within the (Department of Defense) have lost or are losing all remaining confidence in KBR’s ability to successfully and repeatedly perform the required electrical support services mission in Iraq.” Sounds to me like that’s a company we shouldn’t be doing further business with. But no. On the heels of that scathing assessment, the Pentagon has given KBR a new $35 million contract to build an electrical distribution center and undertake other projects in Iraq. It gets worse. The same day that sorry news broke, there was a report that KBR is preparing to plead guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. KBR is accused of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes between 1995 and 2004 to Nigerian officials in exchange for getting engineering and construction contracts. An Army Corps of Engineers spokesman defended the latest contract, saying “KBR has not been debarred, suspended, nor have they been proposed for debarment from government contracting.” But the government’s own rules state that companies can be banned for a range of misdeeds that include “a lack of business integrity or business honesty.” Hmmmm. Maybe that pending guilty plea to bribery would fall under that category and, at the very least, someone will act then to “debar” KBR. And maybe there’s a better chance of that happening now that Cheney isn’t vice president. Some argue that KBR is the only company that has the necessary size and breadth of expertise to carry out some of the work in Iraq. If that’s the case, then the bid specifications - if the projects are even being bid out - should be changed, perhaps segmented, so that smaller companies could compete and allow us to avoid spending another dime with this band of misfits.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How about $50 for the hooker, $50 for the pimp and $25 for Rendell?

These are tough times, and I tend to give government officials a little leeway when it comes to thinking up ways to get us out of our economic mess. But I can’t get on board with Gov. Ed Rendell’s plan to allow video poker gambling in bars, restaurants and private clubs as a way to provide financial aid to college students. As you might know, gambling on video poker, at least outside the state’s new casinos, is illegal in Pennsylvania. And I’ve always considered legalized gambling to be an additional tax on the poor and stupid. But the Rendell administration clearly isn’t bothered by such trivialities. In fact, Stephen Stetler, the state’s acting revenue secretary and early front-runner for stupid statement of the year, says allowing tens of thousands of video poker machines in bars across the commonwealth would not be an expansion of gambling because, get this, that type of gambling already is going on in the state, albeit illegally. Stetler believes there already are about 17,000 illegal video poker machines up and running in Pennsylvania, and he said the state’s move to legalize the activity is just “a recognition that video poker is already a thriving industry in Pennsylvania.” Number one, if video poker gambling in bars, restaurants and clubs is legalized, we’ll have a helluva lot more than 17,000 machines in the state. So, that clearly is an expansion of legalized gambling. Also, if we’re going to “recognize” illegal activities that already exist in the state and co-opt them for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians, I guess the Rendell administration will very soon be pushing for the legalization of recreational drugs so they can be taxed (something I would be in favor of, by the way; if the state is going to sell and tax booze, why not marijuana?). And why stop there? The state could get in the prostitution business, as well. We’ll probably have to appoint a study committee to determine the appropriate state cut from oral sex, regular sex, kinkier activities and the various sampler packages one might procure. But, hey, there’s money to be made here. Damn the morality! Full speed ahead!


Not enough to do, sheriff?

Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff Leon Lott sure knows how to get his name in the newspaper. The sheriff told The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., that if he can get proof that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps puffed on some marijuana in his county, he’ll file criminal drug charges against him. A British newspaper recently published a photo that purportedly shows the record-setting athlete smoking marijuana during a November party at the University of South Carolina. Phelps already has apologized for “inappropriate” behavior, and university and Columbia police have made it clear they won’t be seeking charges against him, but Lott, the crime dog of central South Carolina, won’t give up so easily. “This one might be a lot easier (than the average drug case) since we have photographs of someone using drugs and a partial confession,” Lott told The State. “It’s a relatively easy case once we can determine where the crime occurred.” The only thing Lott’s grandstanding could possibly accomplish is to ensure that Phelps never again sets foot in South Carolina. I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be extradited to face a misdemeanor charge. As a former resident of Richland County, I can assure you that Lott has much more serious crimes he could be attending to. Maybe he should try to clear up some rape and robbery cases before he wastes everyone’s time by trying to charge some kid for hitting a bong.


Monday, February 2, 2009

Super and not-so-super

As everyone knows by now, unless there are still some Japanese soldiers from World War II living in caves, the Steelers have picked up the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy with their last-minute comeback victory over the Cardinals. A few thoughts on the game, the pageantry and the aftermath:

- This will not qualify as groundbreaking information for anyone who has watched the guy, but is there a bigger doofus on TV in Pittsburgh than Channel 11’s John Fedko? Amid his postgame screaming, Fedko declared that the just-completed contest was the “greatest Super Bowl ever.” Really? That thought never crossed my mind. A good game, no doubt. But best ever? Huh?

- Not to pick on WPXI, but who directed their postgame coverage? Chimps? It was one of the most disjointed messes I’ve ever witnessed.

- A woman interviewed by one of the Pittsburgh TV stations after the game said it was “the greatest night of my life.” Lady, you’ve had a really sad life.

- I thought the ads, on average, weren’t as good as in some years past. I did enjoy the CareerBuilder ad with the screaming lady, etc., the Denny’s ad touting their free Grand Slam Breakfast offer, the baby stock trader ads and, especially, the Doritos “crystal ball” spot.

- Larry Fitzgerald may someday be considered the greatest receiver in NFL history (yes, even better than Jerry Rice), but Santonio Holmes sure had a coming-out party last night. This guy is going to be a major star in the league, provided he confines himself to playing on the grass and not smoking it.

- The school districts that imposed two-hour delays on classes today have made it clear that, at least in their areas, a sporting event is more important than children’s educations.

- Bruce Springsteen, whom I’ve seen several times, still puts on one helluva show, but unless he was suffering from an upper respiratory condition that wasn’t disclosed, I’d say his voice is shot. That sure doesn’t encourage me to drop $50 or more for a future concert.

What are your thoughts on the game and everything that went along with it?


This is just wrong

When I see couples who, through the use of fertility drugs, have six or seven children in one fell swoop, my first thought is generally, “Damn, if that were me, I’d be looking for a rope and a strong beam in the basement.” But, hey, if those couples have the patience and resources to handle it, more power to them. However, the recent story about the woman in Southern California who gave birth to octuplets provoked an entirely different emotion in me: anger. It turns out that Nadya Suleman, who already had six children through in vitro fertilization, had some “leftover” embryos implanted in her womb last year and delivered the octuplets a week ago. The initial “wow factor” of the births quickly wore off when details about Suleman emerged. Her own mother painted a picture of someone who is a little unhinged, noting that her daughter is not married and has been obsessed with having kids since her teenage years. Angela Suleman is taking care of her daughter’s six older children for now, but she says she’s bailing out when her daughter gets out of the hospital. Nadya Suleman is 33 years old and has no visible means of support, as best as I can tell. I heard that medical treatment for the octuplets will run upwards of $1 million. Wonder who’s paying for that? Also, one of her previous children is autistic. Does a person who has a special-needs child who requires lots of attention really need eight more kids to occupy her time? After reading about this woman, my guess is that she suffers from some variety of mental illness. An acquaintance said Suleman told her that she was being paid for going through the in vitro treatments that produced her first six children. Gee, no ethical concerns there. And what sort of medical people would implant more embryos in this woman, given her background and a grip on reality that clearly is tenuous? These doctors and/or technicians are borderline criminals. Two investigations are in order: one to determine whether Suleman’s children are being properly cared for and another to decide whether someone should lose his or her medical license over this mess.


They were asking for trouble

I’m not a picky eater. That’s clear by looking at me. But I think I would draw the line at a so-called delicacy that recently sickened seven people, three seriously, in northern Japan. It seems the life-threatening ailments were caused by eating improperly prepared blowfish testicles. Blowfish poison is said to be 100 percent more poisonous than cyanide, so it would take a certain level of bravery, or stupidity, to eat even a fillet. But testicles? It gives a whole new meaning to “fish nuggets.”