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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Posted By on Tue, Aug 31, 2010 at 12:46 PM

Today's Post-Gazette carries a reprint of a New York Times story about how banks are becoming increasingly wary of financing environmentally destructive mining practices like mountaintop removal. 

As the story puts it:

Blasting off mountaintops to reach coal in Appalachia, or churning out millions of tons of carbon dioxide to extract oil from sand in Alberta are among environmentalists' biggest industrial irritants. But they are also legal and lucrative.

For a growing number of banks, however, that does not seem to matter.

After years of legal entanglements arising from environmental messes and increased scrutiny of banks that finance the dirtiest industries, several large commercial lenders are taking a stand on industry practices that they regard as risky to their reputations and bottom lines.

The story notes how numerous banks -- including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley -- are taking a second look at mountaintop removal. Some are refusing to finance mining enterprises that use the practice, like Massey Energy. 

What neither the P-G nor the Times says is that among the banks who haven't stopped financing mountaintop removal is our very own PNC. And in fact, PNC is the target of considerable environmental ire. 

Both stories note a report issued in May by the Sierra Club and the Rainforest Action Network, studying nine banks that were "the primary lenders  for firms engaged in mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia." That report identifies PNC as the top financier of the practice, and gives it an "F" grade for lacking a publicly available policy on scrutinizing the practices environmental merits. (The bank apparently did not respond to the environmentalists' requests for information.) 

This should come as no surprise to anyone who was Downtown during last year's G-20, or to readers of this blog. Actually, come to think of it, it's hard to say which of those audiences would be smaller, so let me revisit the story.

Back in September, one of the lesser-noted demonstrations attending the global economic summit was staged by environmentalists upset at PNC's backing of mountaintop removal. The bank has a policy of not discussing its clients' business, so they didn't exactly confirm the accusations. But it's not hard to find evidence of its numerous financial dealings with companies like Massey Energy. Our very own Charlie Deitch wrote a follow-up story based on environmentalist complaints a few weeks after the summit wrapped up.

At that time, the Rainforest Action Network told us that although PNC's influence cropped up in "an awful lot of our documents as having ties to ... mountaintop removal," the bank was "not one of the top 10 banks that we are looking at." 

Since then, as other banks have scaled back their lending, PNC's profile has only grown. As the folks at the Rainforest Action Network said in a press release just a few days ago:

[E]ven as the nation’s largest banks have severed ties with Massey Energy, owner of the Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where an explosion in April killed 29 workers, PNC has maintained its financial support of the embattled company...

Over the past two years, Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo– the four largest banking institutions in the U.S. – have all adopted enhanced environmental review procedures for financing MTR mining and construction of coal-fired power plants ... None of these banks currently provide funding to Massey Energy, according to the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club.

Yet according to RAN, PNC has become the largest U.S. financier of [mountaintop removal] mining companies, providing $500 million in loans and bond underwriting to the coal industry, with an estimated $80 million going directly to MTR mining operations in Appalachia.

PNC has issued a statement boasting of its environmental sensitivity, but as we noted last year, its focus is almost entirely on green building practices. There's some nice stuff about office recycling policies too, which is great. But neither in discussions with City Paper nor in statements elswhere, have I heard the bank really address the issue head on. 

Then again, hardly anyone has asked. A Google search of "PNC" and "mountaintop" turns up no shortage of environmental groups decrying the bank's role ... but in the Post-Gazette, I find only two relevant stories connecting the words. One dates back to the G-20, and says nothing about the bank's role in the process. The other, ironically, is a story about how online activism doesn't always change corporate behavior. PNC's role is mentioned briefly, about halfway into the piece; the paper doesn't dig into the accusations, nor is PNC called upon to respond to them:

There also is a push on to pressure PNC Financial Services Group to avoid lending to companies involved in mountaintop removal mining. A recent report by the Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club criticized the Pittsburgh bank for being active in the business but not having an investment policy to address the issue, unlike Credit Suisse, which the group said adopted a policy last fall to "promote responsible mining practices that protect the environment, ensure worker health and safety, and engage the public through consultation and disclosure."

There's been some blogging about the issue and a couple of demonstrations, enough to associate the topic with the company's name on an Internet search.

Coverage in the Tribune-Review appears to be no better, but what stands out about the P-G is that its coverage of Massey Energy -- the recipient of that PNC financing -- has been fantastic. (It was, for example, recently lauded by the New York Times editorial page.) But while the P-G has been very aggressive about pursuing Massey, it has asked nary a question of the bank next door. And while the paper regurgitates a Times story about all the banks around the world that have stopped funding Massey ... it has devoted no effort to talk to the local bank continuing with business as usual.

Which, when you think about it, is a little conspicuous.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 10:31 AM

It's hard to look at this forthcoming volume featuring glossy color portraits of 93 Americans without thinking about the current immigration debate. But Clinton, a South Hills native who's ascended to the heights of the magazine industry, doesn't seem to have meant it that way: He just likes America's diversity -- looking at people's faces and hearing their stories. 

Clinton, 55, is executive vice president, chief marketing officer and publishing director for Hearst Magazines. He oversees 15 publications, including Esquire, O: The Oprah Magazine and Seventeen. The Pitt grad is also a photographer and inveterate traveler, with 120 countries on his passport and three other books to his credit, including Wanderlust: 100 Countries.

American Portraits (Glitterati Incorporated) was inspired in Lithuania, when Clinton saw a woman who looked like she could have been his grandmother's sister -- though arguably, the book really began in Pittsburgh, with visits to his Lithuanian grandparents themselves, who lived on the South Side.

On his return from Lithuania to the States, Clinton (whose father's side of the family is English and Irish) started asking Americans he met (most of them strangers) their stories and ethnic backgrounds.  

While he was "shocked," he says, how many Americans don't know their ethnicities, he collected great stories about families from all over the world fleeing persecution, seeking economic opportunity and more. Ancestries he documented in the book range from Native American to Turkish, Welsh to Bangledeshi, Pakistani to Haitian -- 100 in all.

One of the more complex geneaologies, in fact, is claimed by the book's lone Pittsburgh-born sitter, Adam Brunk. Brunk (pictured), a friend of Clinton's family from Mount Lebanon who's now in Philadelphia, has Cherokee, French, German, Sri Lankan, Swiss and Yemeni ancestry.

In Clinton's handsomely lit studio portraits, we see a wonderful variety of faces. On the whole, it should be said, the collection paints Americans as a decidedly photogenic lot; half of these folks could model.

Moreover, they're a pretty well-heeled bunch. A handful of teachers and an elevator operator notwithstanding, typical occupations include architect, real-estate broker, veterinarian and opthamalogist.

If you're thinking about immigration, it might strike you that our debate over things like Arizona's repressive new law aren't about such highly educated, well paid folks (all of whom are American citizens, so born or naturalized). It's more frequently waged over the heads of people looking to scrape a living together on a construction site or landscaping crew.

From the first European invasion on, "[W]e have always been a country of immigrants," says Clinton, by phone from New York.

"Every group went through its acculturation period when it was tough for them as a group," he adds, recalling, for instance, the nativist prejudice against 19th-century Irish newcomers.

I ask him whether putting the book together gave him any insight into today's immigration debate.

"Hasn't it always been a debate?" he says. "It's never changed. Yet at the end of the day, we welcome all people."

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Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Drive about 20 miles in any direction from Pittsburgh and you might as well be in Kentucky. So the brand of Southern rock Ellwood City band The Sparrows plays doesn’t really feel inauthentic.

This week's MP3 Monday comes from their album Back in Red. The track "Hitchhiker" is reminiscent of Dylan's "rock phase" with some loosely unison Grateful Dead-esque vocals, and tells the story of some wispy leather-clad biker chick rollin' into town and stealing our rock'n roll hero's heart.

The Sparrows will head into the city on Sept. 11 to perform in the SouthSide Works Summer Unwind Concert Series.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 5:06 PM

It's the moment we've all been waiting for: The Christian Coalition has released its scorecard ranking the voting records of seated Congressfolk.

I'll give you three guesses as to which Pennsylvania Democrat got the coalition's highest ranking. 

You can grab the scorecard yourself if you like; the site will ask you for an e-mail address and your state of residence, but as far as I can tell, you can lie about both. If you're reading this blog, chances are the Coalition regards you as a henchman of Beelzebub anyway -- they ought to EXPECT to be deceived.

Or you can just load it up from here

Among the Pennsylvania delegation, I'm happy to report that Bob Casey -- despite his pro-life Catholic status -- scored a palty 10 percent from the Coalition. That's actually better (or worse, from the Coalition's perspective) than Arlen Specter's 20 percent. Nice work, Bob -- keep those saints weeping.

On the House side, it's no surprise that Republicans scored much better. Four of them scored perfect 100s -- including Tim Murphy, who represents suburban areas surrounding Pittsburgh. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, five scored perfect zeros ... including Joe Sestak, the party's nominee for Senate. 

And which Dem scored the highest? Who else but Jason Altmire, whose 70 narrowly bested the 67 posted by newcomer, and heir to John Murtha, Mark Critz. 

It probably goes without saying that these scorecards are asinine. For example, one of the Coalition's litmus tests was on an amendment to the healthcare bill sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn: Among other things, the measure "would have reduced health care costs by preventing fraudulent payments for prescription drugs, prohibiting coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs to child molesters and rapists."

So ... do people who voted against amendment actually support Viagara for sex offenders? Of course not. Coburn's amendment was a transparent attempt to torpedo healthcare reform, using a wrinkle in parliamentary procedure to force Democrats to either vote against the amendment, or restart much of the legislative process on the rest of the bill. 

I don't expect anything better from Coburn. But to treat this measure as a key test of a candidate's morality -- when it was nothing more than a political gambit -- sort of demeans the Christian Coalition's seriousness. If that's even possible.

After all, the coalition also insisted that a moral Senator would vote in favor of a measure "bann[ing] the use of federal COPS funds fo sanctuary cities not obeying the federal law with regards to illegal aliens." Put aside whether it's fair to deny people access to police protection because of their elected officials' stance on immigration. A case can be made that the Christian Coalition's position on immigration is, well, unbiblical. 

After all, Leviticus -- which the coalition often cites for its precepts denouncing homosexuality -- says very clearly that non-natives should be welcomed:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Just remember that business of treating strangers "as one born among you" the next time you hear a Tea Partier talk about overturning the 14th Amendment. It's not just that the "Religious Right" is wrong. It's that it's not even religious


Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 3:58 PM

First, and most importantly: Wise Blood is a local feller who's getting some buzz in the Internet-world: he was featured today in Pitchfork's Rising section (I just linked to the Rising tag because the permalink to his story is kind of messed up -- he should be at the top of this page for a few days at least).

Prior to his Pitchfork splash, Wise Blood (real name: Chris Laufman) got some attention over at Pittsburgh Music Report -- that interview is interspersed with tracks of his that you can check out. It's sample-heavy, dreamy stuff with nods to other pop cult-pastiche artists like (as mentioned in the Pitchfork interview) Girl Talk (only less party-heavy). Dig!

Second, and also importantly, but not AS importantly maybe, weekend things you might consider doing:

Friday (tonight): In addition to those things highlighted in the paper (Ursa Major, My Morning Jacket, These United States), the biggest thing going is DEVO-Fest, a Devo tribute night at Howlers to benefit the Animal Rescue League. It's organized by the Ceiling Stares' Bill Julin and features bands like Microwaves and Test Slices (a hybrid of Slices and Test Patterns). It starts at 10 and there's a $5 minimum donation but COME ON it's for animals who need rescued for cripes' sakes.

Saturday: We've got a benefit at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern for restoration efforts in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil disaster -- this one features the Typewriter Girls, Phat Man Dee, belly dancer Olivia Kissel and Christiane D. Elsewhere, Karl Hendricks Trio headlines at Brillobox.

Jumping ahead to Monday, it behooves me to inform you that free jazz legend Henry Grimes is appearing at Thunderbird Cafe; we missed it in the listings, but it’s a Big Deal and you should probably go see him. His story is a pretty amazing one.

Have a good weekend, my children!


Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 12:31 AM

So I was on the listening end of two phone calls yesterday that summed up this November's election. In a nutshell: Democrats are reaching out to new voters with a message of optimism and hope. Republicans are reaching out to their traditional base with a message of fear and anger. 

Guess which side is expected to rack up big wins this fall? 

The first call took place yesterday afternoon. It was a conference call with reporters convened by state Democratic Party Chair Jim Burn, Congressional candidate John Callahan, and Kerri Axelrod of Organizing for America, the outgrowth of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. 

The talk was upbeat. This weekend, we were told, Democratic volunteers will be knocking on some 400,000 doors -- part of "the unprecedented grassroots activity happening around this state." The goal, Burn told reporters, was to reach out to independent and newer voters, "some of whom only went to the polls for the first time in 2008."

"I'm very excited about this," Burn said. "We're reaching out to our core voters, in addition to those  who voted for the first time, to engage them about our ... mid-term candidates."

It's admirable that Democrats are trying to reach out to voters caught up in the revolutionary spirit of 2008. The problem is that they are trying to harness that boundless, optimistic energy in support of candidates like ... Dan Onorato.

I'm not here to slag on Onorato. I think he's a skilled politician, and when I pick up the paper in the morning, I'm not expecting to read some wince-inducing disclosure about him. There are plenty of officials you can't say that of. But it's hard to imagine Onorato lighting the fire of political newcomers. The only time I've ever seen young people excited about Onorato, in fact, was at his campaign kickoff -- and they were on hand to protest.

And it seemed ominous that during the conference call, we were supposed to hear from campaign organizer Greg Myers -- but apparently he couldn't be brought to a working phone. Hard not to see a metaphor in that.

Burn rolled along with such setbacks as best he could. When a reporter asked about whether get-out-the-vote efforts were especially important "given what every poll shows ... is an enthusiasm gap," Burn answered that while he was cognizant of the polls, Democrats took all elections seriously. That struck me as a sobering thought. (You mean the party was giving its all in 1994 too? Uh-oh.) But Burn, of course, has the unenviable job of trying to solve problems like the "enthusiasm gap" without really conceding that they exist.

The Republican strategy, meanwhile, runs the opposite direction: scare voters shitless about problems that don't exist. 

I can say that because last night I got another call. This one was a prerecorded phone message from my old pal Dick Morris, and the people at Citizens United. (Yes, that Citizens United.)

I'm not exactly sure how I got on the Citizens United list, but it's not an isolated incident: In recent days, I've also received a heartfelt phone message from Newt Gingrich. At some point in my travels, I guess, I indicated a willingness to learn more about batshit right-wing talking points. Conservatives just assumed the rest. I understand something similar may have happened to Ken Mehlman. 

That the calls are chock full of unmitigated horseshit goes without saying. Gingrich, for example, called to let me know that it will be "up to good solid conservatives like you and I" to overturn Obama's "plans to overturn the United States into a socialist country." He also had a book he very much wanted me to read.

Last night, meanwhile, Morris too told me that if we elect a GOP majority this November, we can reverse "the socialist agenda that Barack Obama has put into effect." 

For starters, he said, a GOP majority could roll back healthcare reform. And you know what that means, right? "Public funding for abortion, gone," Morris said. "Death panels -- gone."

Well, I'll say this much: If Republicans take back both houses of Congress, it's true you won't have to worry about death panels. Then again, you don't have to worry about death panels even if they don't regain control of Congress -- because there aren't any death panels, for fuck's sake

It's actually embarrassing to have to write that last line. I mean, you and I not only know this -- we knew it a year ago. And whatever we may think of healthcare reform, we were probably relieved that the "death panel" argument, at least, was over. But for a lot of Republicans out there, it isn't over. 

Republicans aren't offering a political vision. They're offering a delusion instead, and hoping no one will notice the difference. But as of yet, I haven't heard anything from Democrats to compete with it. 

I mean, I assume Democrats will soon be launching the scary Pat-Toomey-wants-to-privatize-Social-Security-and-throw-Nanna-out-into-the-street ads. Such ads are scary, appeal to a Democratic base of supervoters -- old folks who would prefer not to be thrown out into the street -- and have at least a passing acquaintance with the truth. (Republicans aren't dumb enough to screw this generation of retirees out of their benefits, but over the long term, Pat Toomey is a greater threat to Social Security than Barack Obama is to capitalism.)

Then again, maybe Democrats won't use the issue: They seem to have a hard timing punishing Republicans who make reckless, offensive, and demonstrably false statements about Social Security's viability. The message we're getting is ... you can't trust Republicans with elected office, but they'll do nicely for a Presidential commission charged with ensuring the long-term viability of a beloved government institution. 

But I guess that we're all supposed to gamely ignore that stuff. I got an e-mail from Barack Obama's spam robot the other day -- look at all the name dropping I'm doing in this post! -- asking if I would "commit to voting in the 2010 elections." Campaign veteran David Plouffe followed up with a blast e-mail of his own, reminding me that "Studies have shown that when people pledge to do something they're much more likely to follow through" -- a fact that "helped us make history in 2008." 

"Yeah, sure, I'll make that pledge," I wrote back. "Just like the president pledged to repeal Don't Ask/Don't Tell. That's good enough for you, right? I mean, you feel comfortable taking my word on that, don't you? After all, as you say, 'when people pledge to do something, they're much more likely to follow through.'"

That e-mail went right into somebody's "junk items/lefty whining" folder. And rightfully so, I guess. In the end, you have to hope that whatever the Democrats' shortcomings, these e-mail campaigns and door-knocking efforts are enough to stem the tidal wave of bullshit emanating from jokers like Newt Gingrich. 

I just wish, though, that Republicans had a little less imagination -- and Democrats had a little more. 


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Posted By on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 at 10:16 PM

A show of political poster art opened to the public minus a work apparently deemed too provocative.

Paper Politics, a nationally touring show, opened at Downtown's SPACE gallery on Aug. 13. Mary Tremonte, who curated the exhibit's local component, says that two days earlier, Wood Street Galleries curator Murray Horne had told her to remove "Tea Baggers," by local artist Stewart Williams.

The poster spoofs the right-wing "Tea Party" movement by parodying a recruiting poster. "Are you pissed-off, ill-informed, and easily influenced?" reads the text. "Scared Shitless? Well Good!"

Visually, the 11" by 17" poster is dominated by the floating heads of two white-haired people. But in the lower right-hand corner is an indistinct black-and-white photograph depicting the sex act known as "tea-bagging," with one man's face under another man's genitals.

"Accept no substitutes!" reads a big blue arrow pointing at the photo. "While often mistaken, Tea Baggers are not affiliated with similar associations of the same name." 

"It was really funny," says Tremonte, herself an artist with work in the show. Mocking the Tea Party, she says, is "a really easy shot, but [Williams] did it really well."

Tremonte liked the work so much she cited it in the large-scale wall-text introducing the show, which describes posters that are "brazenly humorous, as in Stewart Williams' Teabaggers silkscreen print."

But the poster isn't among the 200 works on SPACE's walls, which also excoriate such evils as greed, repression, militarism, racism and environmental destruction.

Horne did not return several voice messages and e-mails. Wood Street Galleries is the "sister gallery"of SPACE. Both galleries are operated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.  

The bulk of Paper Politics is a traveling show curated by Josh MacPhee, a printmaker who launched the nationally known Just Seeds artist collective (whose headquarters moved to Pittsburgh this year). The show has visited 12 cities and inspired a book version.

Tremonte, a printmaker who works with local youths through groups including The Andy Warhol Museum, chose about 50 locally made posters for the show. Most were by youths, and 18 were by adults including Williams.

Tremonte says Horne told her Williams' poster had to come down because the show had to be suitable for public viewing. (SPACE is located on a busy stretch of Liberty Avenue, and admission is free.) Tremonte says that previously to that, Horne hadn't told her that any type of imagery was off-limits.

In fact, the show contains two other posters depicting drawings of bare-breasted women. In other posters, there are such overtly disturbing images as dismembered limbs and a severed head lying on a table.

Williams, 44, is a freelance book-designer in Lawrenceville who moved to Pittsburgh two years ago, after stints in Seattle and New York.

He says "Tea Baggers" was previously hung publicly in Pittsburgh, in June at a show at Garfield's Space gallery. He says the "teabagging" image, rendered blurrily in large, newspaper-style half-tone dots, is small enough that "most people didn't even see it at the other show."

Its removal from Paper Politics "seemed pretty knee-jerk to me," he says. "It's a very hot topic and people should be able to say what they want."

Interviewed four days after the show's opening, Williams said he was upset that no one from the gallery had called him to explain the removal. 

"I don't think political posters should pull any punches," he said. "I think that kinda goes against the concept of free speech"

Williams also said that in terms of provocativeness, Paper Politics is pretty mild. "The show was intended to be more family-friendly," he says. "I think family-friendly and politics don't go together very well."


Posted By on Tue, Aug 24, 2010 at 1:44 PM

This may be as close as politics gets to a kumbaya moment in the entire 2010 election season.

This morning, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a moderate Republican, endorsed Democrat Joe Sestak's bid for Senator.  

Few Pennsylvanian's could pick Hagel out of a line-up, of course, and he retired from the Senate in 2008. But the event was freighted with significance. Hosted near a statue of George Washington confabbing with Indian chief Guyasuta, the point of the event was to distinguish the moderate politics of Hagel -- and by extension Sestak -- from the tea-party right. 

"When heavy winds blow ... you want steady guys at the tiller," Hagel said, later adding, "I have never felt ... that trying to degrade your opponent really has any value."

More than once, Hagel denounced the emergence of "reckless" and "irreponsibile rhetoric," and said that Americans "want responsible leaders who speak responsibly."

Hagel was clearly not endorsing Sestak's stance on all the issues -- "I don't know all of Joe's positions [and] I suspect I disagree with him on a number of things" he acknowledged -- but rather a less divisive approach to political discourse. He lamented the possibility that people might be "intimidated out" of politics "by all this wild rhetoric." 

Implicit in all this, of course, is that Sestak's rival, GOP nominee Pat Toomey, is part of the problem. While Toomey has moderated his message this election season, he's long been the choice of the GOP wing that never forgave Rick Santorum for backing Arlen Specter in 2004. But when asked by a reporter to comment on Toomey's own record, Hagel demurred, calling Toomey "a good man [whose] views are his views."

Sestak picked up on the theme. He lauded George Washington for being "willing to reach out to the other side," as demonstrated by the sculpture nearby, and pledged to do the same. In fact, Sestak sounded sincere enough that local politico John DeFazio spoke up from the audience, urging Sestak not to go easy on his rival: Toomey, said DeFazio, "was a terrible Congressman for the middle class and the poor."

DeFazio needn't have worried. Even as Sestak and Hagel were speaking, the Democratic National Committee was sending out a blast e-mail that noted

an Associated Press story reporting that Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul got money from the operator of a pornographic Web site. the reason it mattesr here? Republican Senate nominee Pat Toomey also got $4,800 from the site's owner ...

Toomey's campaign hardly hurried to distance itself from the donor in question. 

"We have over 50,000 indivudal donors," Toomey campaign spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik told the AP. "Many of those supporters do not agree with Pat Toomey on every issue ... We're happy to have those supporters, even if we differ on some issues."

Well, I'll say this: The fact that Pat Toomey relies on smut peddlers for financial support may be the one thing he and I have in common. 

But political cycnicism was intruding even before Hagel and Sestak made their appearance. Some have wondered about Hagel's motives. The Washington Post, for example, has suggested that Hagel's support was really a "me for me"  endorsement:

... [I]t seems clear that Hagel's endorsement is more about his own future political prospects than those of Sestak. The simple fact is that Hagel is virtually unknown in Pennsylvania and his endorsement of Sestak won't even register with most Keystone State voters.

But, endorsing a Democrat in a high profile Senate contest could well help Hagel -- sending a clear signal to the Obama Administration about the very loose ties that he retains to the Republican party.

Hagel has made no secret of his interest in serving in the Obama Administration ...

After the press conference broke up, I asked Hagel to respond to this characterization of his motives.

"What's to respond to?" he asked. "I came out here for Joe Sestak. The White House didn't ask me to come here. Joe Sestak did."


Monday, August 23, 2010

Posted By on Mon, Aug 23, 2010 at 1:08 PM

Parents usually want their children to learn. But sometimes kids just want to watch TV.

John Pollock, an associate professor of biology at Duquesne University, has found a way to please both generations. His new WQED-TV television show, Scientastic!, teaches adolescents about health and social issues in live-action 30-minute episodes.

Often we learn the most when we're not aware we're being taught. Think about those songs filled with rhyming animal facts that get stuck in your head at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Or the interactive screen at the Carnegie Science Center that lets you look up what was happening in astronomical history the day you were born.  

Officially, this is called "informal science education," the National Science Teachers Association's term for all science education outside the classroom. And it's Pollock's method of choice: He's helped create popular exhibits and multimedia projects for Phipps Conservatory, the Carnegie Science Center and the National Aviary, among others.

"I try to create things that add to what an institution already has and create some new lessons for people to learn," Pollock says. "People can pick up more about the fundamental principles of science and do so in a way that's really fun and engaging."

Scientastic! is Pollock's first television broadcast. It follows 12-year-old Leah as she encounters everyday issues relating to health, friends and the ins and outs of life in middle school.

Pollock wants the show to encourage teens and their families to become active participants in their own health care. That requires knowing both the right questions and how to ask them.

"The way I look at it, our health literacy is intimately linked with our society's science literacy and our general literacy -- how well we read and collect information," Pollock says.

"For example, nowadays when most people are faced with the challenge of finding the answer to something, they Google it. In Scientastic!, Leah learns briefly about using the web, but she wants to use the library. She wants to talk to experts. And that's what we're trying to show people -- that kids can find the docent or the curators and ask questions, that they can talk to their doctors about medical issues and expect reasonable answers."

In the pilot episode, one of Leah's friends breaks a bone playing soccer. That launches Leah on a quest to understand how bones work, how they heal and how our diets effect bone health. The episode also confronts the issue of bullying among teens.

Funding for Scientastic! comes from UPMC Health Plan; The Pittsburgh Foundation's William K. Fitch Fund and Lewis H. & Jess Morgan Kelly Fund; and the Science Education Partnership Award of the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health; Duquesne University; and the U.S. Department of Education.

Pollock hopes to produce the rest of the 12-episode season and broadcast it weekly on WQED. Meanwhile, Scientastic! has traditional classroom applications, too: The show will be made into DVDs and lessons plans available to teachers throughout the region. 

Scientastic! premieres on WQED-TV at 8 p. m. Thu., Sept. 2.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2010 at 10:53 AM

Today's Post-Gazette follows up on a story I broke earlier this week: The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents natural-gas drillers who've taken an interest in Pennsylvania, is lining up legislators behind such causes as ...

  • lower taxes for the industry
  • less leverage for local officials trying to regulate drilling in their communities
  • "encouraging" government agencies to find expanded uses for that good ol' Marcellus shale gas.

This and more is part of the industry's "holistic" -- or should I say "hole-istic"? -- agenda for reshaping state law to be more drilling-friendly.

I hope to have more on the memo, and the implications of some of its proposals, later today. In the meantime, though, I thought I might as well post the memo itself, for anyone interested. 

UPDATE: The folks at the Marcellus Shale Coalition kindly took the time to notify me that the Scranton Times Tribune reported on this memo's existence on Aug. 10. Apologies to my brethren in Scranton if I slighted their work.