BLOGH: City Paper's Blog |
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Posted By on Thu, Sep 30, 2010 at 12:27 PM

Wherever you are Friday night and Saturday afternoon and evening, look into the sky over central Pittsburgh and you'll be gazing at one of the largest canvasses any artist has ever had.

There, a skywriting outfit will replicate seemingly mundane but secretly poetic messages swiped from signs and billboards around Pittsburgh.

Imagine SPACE AVAILABLE in mile-high letters. (Space for what? Outer space?)

ALL SALES FINAL. (Will there ever be another?)

And the almost spiritual EVERYTHING MUST GO.

The perpetrator is Kim Beck, a nationally exhibited artist and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's School of Art.

Most of Beck's work is, you know, normal art-sized, stuff on paper and canvas. A while ago, she went bigger with the blank replica billboard that sits atop the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (even if many passersby have never noticed this work perched on the Shadyside landmark).

Beck wanted to go bigger still. She was inspired by those ubiquitous signs announcing both business closures and big sales -- and, it must be said, by the "Surrender Dorothy" message the Wicked Witch smokes out in The Wizard of Oz.

With help from The Andy Warhol Museum, The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Sprout Fund, Beck assembled a budget of about $10,000 to design the project and hire a skywriter.

There aren't many skywriters left; Beck's pilot flew in from Colorado, she says.

Beck even purchased ad space in some rag called City Paper, featuring the same messages.(See page 10, for instance, of this week's issue.) These ads, Beck notes in a press release, "will perplex readers, while also pointing to the changing nature of the newspaper industry." (Editor's note: We have no idea what she's talking about. We're doing fine here, just fine.)

The skywriting itself will be documented photographically, and prints will end up in area storefront windows, bringing things full circle.

Look for the messages starting at 5:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 1. Another round follows at 3 p.m. Sat., Oct. 2, and then at 5:30 p.m. that day. Flights will last from 30 to 60 minutes.

Then the letters, like sheets of newspaper on the sidewalk, will blow away fast, so look sharp.

You can also follow the venture at


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 2010 at 3:27 PM

First off, a quick heads-up: You may have heard about the Jed Davis/Reeves Gabrels show coming up this Saturday at Howlers. I just got word that the show's been postponed until December. Weird Paul, who was slated to open, will still be playing on Saturday.

Now then, a couple thoughts inspired by last night's Van Dyke Parks/Clare & the Reasons show, then I'll shut up about it. Though if you were there, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments section!

- While things loosened up a little when VDP took the stage (as happens often when the headliner appears, that's why openers are expected to warm up the crowd), I was put off by how stoic the crowd was during Clare & the Reasons. To be fair, their quiet pop wasn't raucous stuff that encourages a lot of interaction, but the band members were charming, and told jokes, and asked questions, and got barely a peep from the audience. It was reminiscent of the show Baby Dee played a couple years ago at Frick Fine Arts: an artist is striving to engage, and is genuinely funny, but the crowd doesn't respond at all. Why? Was it because the crowd was, erm, slightly gray-er and maybe not accustomed to rock shows?

- One of the moments that stuck out to me from Van Dyke's set was when he took the opportunity -- without being pressed -- to expound a little on his adaptations of the Uncle Remus tales for his Jump! album (and related children's books). As he began the intro to the second song he played from Jump! he ad-libbed "No shame, no shame!" Afterward, he noted that he was against censorship in all forms, and that he thought that preserving the stories without the racial stereotyping used to contextualize the tales in the Joel Chandler Harris book (and in Disney's Song of the South).

- Van Dyke ended the set (pre-encore) with a rendition of "Heroes and Villians" accompanied by Clare & the Reasons; the arrangement wasn't overwhelming, but the whole situation -- especially the slowed-down mid-song verse reprise that starts "I've been in this town so long/ So long to the city" -- had a heart-pounding excitement to it. The charming little man has a stage presence that can't be denied.

Anyone out there who was at the show have thoughts?


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Posted By on Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 10:16 PM

At the first meeting of the city's newly reconstituted Citizens Police Review Board, executive director Beth Pittinger made a surprise announcement tonight: Board solicitors Hugh McGough and William Ward are resigning, effective October 18.

In a letter addressed to Pittinger and obtained by our very own Chris Young, Ward says their firm is stepping down because of a contractual dispute with the city's Law Department, which has frozen payment on their invoices. That would be the same Law Department, of course, that the review board has been battling in court over access to documents needed for an inquiry into G-20 security procedures. 

Let me make that a little clearer. The attorneys who have been taking on the city Law Department now say the Law Department is refusing to pay them.

In the two-page letter dated Sept. 17, Ward said the Law Department refused to pay the firm's legal bills unless it agreed to renegotiate terms of their contract -- even thought the contract was already in effect. According to the letter, the city began demanding changes to in April. And though Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed the contract as written in January, the letter says, the firm has not been paid at all this year. It now claims to be owed $32,000. 

According to the letter, the Law Department originally insisted that the contract would be changed to include a provision "authoriz[ing] the Law Department to immediately and without notice terminate representation of the CPRB." In other words, the Law Department would be able to terminate the attorneys representing the people arguing the other side of the G-20 case

The letter says the Law Department dropped that demand, along with a requirement that Ward and McGough increase their professional liability insurance -- which covers the cost of any negligence or other claims made against a lawyer -- from $3 million to $20 million. As the letter points out, $20 million is the amount of the insurance policy the city took out to protect itself against civil-rights lawsuits filed as a result of the G-20. (City officials have previously claimed that the review board's inquiry might cause the city to forfeit that coverage. Presumably, this requirement would have "made up the difference.")

But ultimately, the letter says, "the impasse remains" because the Law Department "demands that the [contract] include new language to the effect that this firm would be liable for damages" for any board actions taken "based in whole or in part on legal advice provided by" the firm. Such a demand would apparently apply to any advice the firm had already given, a demand Ward said had "no reasonable basis.

"The changes sought by the Law Department are unprecedented," Ward also asserts, saying they "deviat[e] from this firm's prior contracts over a decade ... and from comparable solicitor contracts for other city entities." 

The letter pledged that until Oct. 18, the firm would continue to provide "vigorous representation" while helping to "assure a smooth transition" to a new lawyer. 

We will seek comment from the city Law Department tomorrow, and post their response here. But the timing of this dispute is significant. The city began demanding the right to change this contract in April; in June, city officials began an effort to replace most of the board members themselves. In both cases, the board has lost advisors with years of experience, having to replace them with newcomers in the middle of a critical lawsuit.

"This is all running parallel," Pittinger told Chris Young at tonight's review board meeting. "It just smells." 


Posted By on Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 4:13 PM

You have through Thursday to help save the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

That's a slight exaggeration, of course: Preserving this embattled but invaluable asset will be a long process, and there'll be plenty of opportunities to donate and volunteer, and to advocate for more funding.

But Thursday is your last chance to help shape the library's future as part of the Carnegie Library's months-long Community Conversation process.

The most recent Community Conversation meetings held in libraries themselves were held Sept. 18-20, with some 250 people attending.

Attendees told what they value about the library, said what they'd change, and offered ideas about helping with the system's funding crisis.

An outline of the problems the library faces follows. But if you want to cut to the chase, a series of very short questionnaires and surveys (that shouldn't take more than a few minutes to complete) is online at

The Carnegie Library has faced funding shortfalls for years, with hours and services reduced and branch closings threatened. Last year, the worst cutbacks were avoided thanks to a big one-time cash infusion from the City of Pittsburgh.

By national standards, the Carnegie remains underfunded by city government. But given municipal government's own problems, that's not likely to change. State funding, while strong, is dropping. And money from the Carnegie's single biggest source of funds -- the county's Regional Asset District -- has flatlined. (RAD's revenues come from a sales tax.)

In short, the library faces a predicted $1.7 million shortfall next year, rising to $4.4 million by 2014.

If more funding is not available, how should the library proceed?

Currently, no branch closings are being considered. But while operating hours have already been cut, one option is to cut them some more.

For instance, in 2002, the Oakland main branch was open 69 hours a week. Now it's open 60 hours a week. A necessary cutback might whack that down to 50 hours. Other branches (whose hours are shorter to begin with) face similar cuts.

Should the libraries instead (or additionally) reduce programming, like special events and enrichment for adults, or kids? Off-site outreach programs?

Or maybe it should buy fewer books and DVDs, or reduce the number of public computers.

Aside from filling out the surveys, what can you do to help?

According to the library's website, the most important thing is to advocate for the library, pressing state and local officials to keep or increase funding, and recruiting friends to do the same.

One way to do this is to join a "Friends" group, such as most Carnegie branches have.

You can also volunteer at the library, to help staff do more with less.

You can even just donate cash. If just 5 percent of the system's 125,000 adult cardholders chipped in $25 each, the library says, it would raise $156,000.

That's less than 10 percent of what's needed to stanch the shortfall next year alone. But it'd be a start.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Posted By on Mon, Sep 27, 2010 at 12:09 AM

We last caught up with (climbed?) The Incline, it was spring of 2009 and they were releasing their first album. The pair of brothers put out Road to Home, an eclectic mix of songs, and I noted that they pulled off a rapped breakdown "better than you might expect." They seem to have taken that to heart -- the single they're pushing on their forthcoming second album, "Parmesan," is a number that's rapped by Brad Schneider with guitar licks by Brian Jump. It's funky and silly now and then, with a shout-out to Chuck Noll -- and we can all get behind that.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Posted By on Fri, Sep 24, 2010 at 1:43 PM

As promised, here's part two of my talk with Van Dyke Parks. Here we talk about stuttering Moses, the public domain, torque and pop. Nestled at the end you'll find an MP3 of Van Dyke telling a funny little story about Pittsburgh party-crashing in the early '60s.

City Paper: A lot of the work you've done in recent years has been studio work. How does the way you interact with music change when you take it out on the road?

Van Dyke Parks: I don't have the finesse of a formularized legitimate musician. Each performance is so entirely different; I always feel like Moses before a speech. You know he was a stammerer. I feel ill-equipped, and I'll tell you why. Because I don't think you're paid to repeat yourself. I think you are rewarded if you have found something out. So each performance is different. This, what I'm doing now, is absolutely 180 degrees from a large string section or an orchestra. It is, to me, an absolute minimum. It is a frugal musical gourmet. It is a violin, a cello, and a bass. Of course, the violinist can play the French horn, the bassist can play a clarinet, they play various tuneful percussion. But we're basically just four people -- I am on a piano. And that miniature chamber situation is really athletic. It requires a lot of each of the musicians. And musicians they are, these people called Clare and the Reasons. The three gents, each of them has perfect pitch, I do not. They're greater musicians than I. But they're musical dweebs. Who needs that? [Laughs.] Who needs to be a dweeb?

But they're very precise in their play, their character is congenial, it's everything that's nice about seeing people work. But in an aerial ballet without a net, it requires a lot from everybody. We all work very hard, and try to maintain some control over the incendiary results. But yeah, it's different.

CP: You've been interested in folk tradition, in music and literature. I wonder what your take is on contemporary musicians using sampling vis a vis folk traditions – borrowing, quoting.

VDP: On my first record – the one on which I made all the mistakes you could possibly make on a record, it's called Song Cycle – included on that are two songs, one is called "Van Dyke Parks," and the other is called "Public Domain." I've been very interested in intellectual property rights, because this is the way people feed themselves, feed their families, pay the pharmacy bills. This is the way artists make a living. For people to forget that is beneath my consideration. I just want to pursue my obsession, my commitment to working. And pursuing the song form – that's what I'm doing. The song, because it is to me the epic musical challenge. In doing that, I do borrow from the past, as people now borrow from their contemporaries. I'd rather not do that.

I think that what I look at as the static of human experience now – it's a mile wide and an inch deep. Where do you want to find something beneath the cosmetic layers? It's basically in the retro mode. Reverse is the most powerful gear, in terms of torque. My curiosity is: how did I get here? And what should I carry forward? That has to do with kids of music. What should I take with me into the future? How can they migrate forward to another generation? The way I do that is to make a living as an arranger and an orchestrator, and that has helped me migrate to another generation. And in the process, I learn a lot and take satisfaction in bringing an analog sensibility and an orchestral palette to a new electronic age of anxiety which can use the leavening of some more traditional approaches.

There's a moment when the extemporaneous process and the premeditate process meet, and when they do, and both flourish without any sense of loss, then something wonderful happens. And I try to find that place in the work I do. And considering how limited my ability and how enormous my desire, I'm actually pretty content with the results so far. I just need to do better.

CP: Tell me about the new record that you're working on that you mentioned earlier.

VDP: No, I'm not going to. I'm not gonna tell you about the new record because I don't know about the new record! All I know is that I'm nearing ten songs; I want to get some more work done. But I'm pursuing both retrospection -- I wanna go back in music -- and I wanna go forward. Demonstrably. It's got an absolutely post-9/11 sensibility. Absolutely, real Modern-Millie thoughts in there about what's going on today as I try to vent my outrage about what we have done to the world. And one place called America.

CP: Your show coming up in Pittsburgh is at the Warhol Museum. Did you ever work or interact with Andy Warhol?

VDP: No -- aw, my dear, he was so much older than I! [Laughs.] He was older. And also that whole world was a little too staccato for me. But Andy Warhol -- let's talk about the Campbell's Soup can for a second. What he did, people like him and Liechtenstein and so forth, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, what they did was create kind of a cartoon consciousness -- almost a totemic redux, reduction, of a more complex reality. Something that would appeal to the magazine or scattered mentality that was developing. People don't pay attention. You look at something like the Campbell's Soup can and you get the idea of what pop is all about. I really think that I participated for a while in a musical equivalent to that. To tell you the truth, it's something I thought I could flourish in, and that's what I wanted to pursue. The cartoon consciousness.

As a musical populist, it's very interesting to me, the difference between canned music and live music. The first canned music I remember was from 1948, that's Spike Jones -- of course, two years earlier he had recorded Cocktails for Two; it's filled with tuneful percussion. So tuneful percussion become part of the arsenal for popular music -- for canned music. So I used a lot of that. You'll hear it in the cartoons of Warner Brothers -- Carl Stallings, masterful work. A highly anecdotal -- that is, short-lived musical ideas colliding with one another, almost what Edgar Varese once called musique concrete, a tape-to-tape sensibility -- it's that kind of schizophrenic, cartoon consciousness that I pursued in my first record. As pathetic as it was, I also thought it was no less humorous than a Buster Keaton picture -- a man in crisis. That was what the '60s were. Crisis.

So, I think I may have spent an enormous amount of time investigating recorded music. And every premeditated value it can have. And now it's my turn to think small.

AUDIO: Listen to Van Dyke Parks talk about party-crashing in Pittsburgh in his college days.

Tags: ,

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Posted By on Thu, Sep 23, 2010 at 8:20 PM

"Only superheroes can afford to dream in color," said a young Alan Moore.

It's hard to imagine a time when Moore, a comics superstar, had the heart of an independent artist longing for validation. But the late '80s was that time, and In Pictopia was the comic.

These days, Moore's work is familiar from big-screen interpretations of comics like The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, V for Vendetta and Watchmen.

In 1987, however -- the same year the Watchmen series was published as a paperback -- he self-published In Pictopia, whose 13 pages go on display at Pittsburgh's comic-art museum, the ToonSeum, for five weeks starting Sat., Sept. 25.

It is a work of meta-text where strange animal creatures who don't fit the continuity of the comic-book world are "slated for demolition," bulldozed in favor of Technicolor superhero types.

Illustrated by Pittsburgh-based artist Don Simpson, In Pictopia enjoyed only two original printings, once in the benefit comic Anything Goes II and a second time in the anthology, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore. Anticipating a smaller audience, Moore took a risk, resulting in a scathing satire that represented the reality of artistic merit cast aside for the sake of corporate interests.

Some comics historians place Pictopia among Moore's most brilliant works. After 24 years of cult status, Toonseum direct Joe Wos decided it was high time to unearth the comic from the archives.

 "It's literally a statement about the comics selling out and ... cheapening themselves," Wos says. 

Today, with the famous San Diego comicon ruled by movie execs, and works like Moore's being turned into Hollywood blockbusters, independent comic artists interested in preserving the heart of the art form are resurfacing, says Wos.

"[In Pictopia] is in that spirit," says Wos. "This is a comic about stepping back and saying, 'Wait a minute where are we headed? Is there anything we can do to stop this and preserve our legacy to preserve the voice of the independent comic creator?'"

A special limited reprint of In Pictopia is slated for mid-October.

Simpson, the illustrator, was one such independent creator. Described by Wos as an "outsider," Simpson dropped out of the comics scene years ago, after creating "Megaton Man," his most well known series.

Simpson remembers distinctly when he first met Moore, at a DC Comics banquet in 1985. "'By the way," Moore said, 'I'm ripping off Megaton man.,'" Simpson recalls.

When Simpson asked what he meant, Moore told him he was writing the script for a new comic (the one that became Watchmen) and that one of its principal characters (Dr. Manhattan) was a reincarnation of Megaton Man.

"That was his humor," says Simpson, but with none of the outrage one would expect.

In Pictopia, after all, was not Hollywood.  It was not dreamt in color. It was precisely this: one independent artist who had something to say and another one who helped him say it. 


In Pictopia exhibit opening reception 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 25. Exhibit continues through Oct. 31. Toonseum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Free. 412-232-0199 or

Tags: ,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Posted By on Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 4:28 PM

Last week I had a chance to catch up with legendary arranger, producer and songwriter Van Dyke Parks, who plays at the Warhol next Tuesday, Sept. 28. Since space is at a premium in the newspaper, we could only run a short version of the interview -- but I tend to feel like you deserve to hear more when I think an interviewee has a lot to say, and Van Dyke definitely has plenty to say. I'm posting the less-abridged version of the interview here on FFW>> in two parts this week, and you'll get a little audio nugget as well before week's end. Here's part one!


Van Dyke Parks: What's up, doc?

City Paper: Well, we're hanging out here in Pittsburgh and you've got a show coming up here – and you spent some time living here in college, correct?

VDP: I went to Carnegie Tech for two and a half years. They called it Carnegie Tech then. I know Pittsburgh very well; my family, though I was born in Mississippi and my family spent most of their time in the South, my father spent almost a decade in the Pittsburgh area working at various hospitals as a doctor. Then I chose Carnegie Tech because I loved the school, and I loved the man who taught me, a professor by the name of Nelson Whitaker. What a great man, to realize that I was going back to the age of Beethoven and Czerny and the dynasty of teachers from whom he came. I was at a wonderful school.

CP: Would you say that your time at Carnegie had a profound effect on your career as a musician?

VDP: Well, yes, not in the ways it intended. They intended to make me legitimate but what they did was create an illegitimate man. By my own desire to get back into things like melody and the physicality that good ostinato rhythms can offer. I wanted to be a part of pop music, I wanted to be serious about un-serious music. That's been my distraction all my life. I've been in both worlds – the legitimate one, so-called legitimate, and also the illegitimate world. And it's interesting to me; I almost, in my work, try to combine those forces. As an arranger, if you look back, early, when I was arranging for people like Ry Cooder. He had a street sensibility, a blue-collar reality, that still, I think, benefitted from an orchestral arrangement. And we ghosted his works on mandolin and bottle-neck guitar with a large string section or something. I always try to keep the plain and the fancy in view.

And when I went to Carnegie Tech, basically all the music was atonal and polymetric, and all the music was beyond the reach of the audience. You'd come out of a room listening to some serious music at that time, and you had not one melody in your head. I know it doesn't sound like much right now, maybe it sounds like a very trivial thing, but serious music – which was basically serial music at that time – was abstract to the degree that it just alienated me from study. And when I got out to California in 1963 to play guitar in a coffeehouse, I was dreaming of things like the Beat poets and John Steinbeck and the California frontier welcomed me with that poetry and that illumination. THey called that generation "Beatniks," and the reason they called them "Beatniks," "-nik" is the operative syllable, was to brand them as Commies. It was to paint them pink. In fact they were people of inquiry and they were wonderful. They Beat generation was something that was dying when I first came out here. But to put it bluntly, the music at this time that we were playing, it was folk music, from all different languages and so forth, but it was music with a driving force. It was memorable, and you could come out of a room and you could remember it. At that time, I'd be playing a coffeehouse and I'd be following a steel band, or a gospel group, Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls. Had to follow these incredible musicians. Black and white and brown people all gathering in a wonderful place where the arts collided. I was influenced by all that and it became my heart's desire to one day be able, after a long time in a recording studio, to have the opportunity to go on tour, to be able to afford the time to do that. And just play. And that's what I'm coming to Pittsburgh to do.

CP: You're revisiting some stuff from Song Cycle that you wrote a good 40 years ago, and you're revising, revisiting some of that music. I'm curious as to how you interact with those songs at this point, and whether you've worked with them constantly since then, or if you took a break and are just revisiting them now?

VDP: Of course, I've had to support my family and put three kids into college in the meantime. I've done other things in the song form, it's not like I'm sitting here – this is a matter of open self-examination. It would not be true to say that I'm coming out to promote some songs that have past their expiration date. What's true is that I haven't played these songs [in a long time]; I want to, I consider them durable goods, and something that relates to our common human condition now in the present tense. I think that this is a process of inquiry for me, but it's also because I think that I will provide validation for this material. I don't think you have to Charleston or disco your way through life. I don't think you have to be branded generically to find relevance as a songwriter or a singer. And it's not that I only want to sing songs that I've written; I want to sing songs that others have written, or that I've written with others. I run the gamut in doing it, from absolute shock and awe to immediate contentment, but it's a test case to me to revisit the past, to be able to do that openly, stripped and bleeding, for the casual observer to maybe get some simple pleasure or realization from it.

Thomas Jefferson said that he was loath to unveil his true affections to the vulgar public gaze; and someone asked him why, and he said "If you show men your depth, they will ford your shallows." That is to point out – what Jefferson said I thought was wonderful – that's to point out that I think that it's a high risk area to reveal yourself in the song form, because you do show people your depth. You show people whether you care about it or not, whether you give a damn. Give a damn about the poor. Give a damn about ecological outrage. Give a damn about racism. Give a damn about war. People will know whether you give a damn when you write a song. I give a damn about those things. I want that urgency, that exhortation, to leap out of this creed for greed and its smug materialism. I think that whatever I can do in my work to jar people into another place. To agitate with my songs. To have them have a sense of purpose that is beyond myself. It's too late for me. I'm not a brunette. But it's not too late for what I observe.

And I want to be a friendly persuader. I want to be part of that friendly persuasion that insists that we do better toward each other. And quite frankly, I don't feel like a messiah, but I think I'm part of that necessary process of confirmation and encouragement in a cynical age.

There's so much to do, and the song form, to me, is epic, and there's nothing I like better than the song; it's the most portable piece of cultural goods. You don't have to tote a thing. I have such great respect for the song form. Now this is what I want to do with my life – this is my first excursion. I can't tell you right now the exact year I saw my last lightning bug. Or crocus breaking through the ground. I want to discover America. I wanna take a look. I want to be there and do that and get east of the Mississippi and this is all a great adventure for me. Isn't that funny?

Tags: ,

Posted By on Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 1:51 AM

If you can get yourself Downtown on Thu., Sept. 23, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., look for the US Steel Tower. (It's not hard -- you can see the damn thing from like I-79 South, in Washington County.)

Then look up ... and if you get the timing right, you should eventually find yourself in Carngegie Mellon University's Public Gigapanorama.

According to CMU spokesman Eric Sloss, it's the first-ever attempt by the folks at CMU's Studio for Creative Inquiry to take an "ultra high resolution" 360-degree image of the city.

The digital cameras Gigapan cameras, developed by CMU's Create Lab, have previously been used to photograph things like neighborhood street scenes and big open landscapes. Formatted for computer screens or other slick monitors, they have "searchable" imagery with a seemingly infinite zoom capacity.

Last year, the SCI crew did a 30-gigapixel Gigapanorama from the Steel Building. But this one's for all you lens lice: SCI is encouraging people who want in to wear a costume, carry a sign or strike a pose. The shoot itself will last two hours. SCI will post updates on Twitter every five minutes starting at 11 a.m. to announce which direction the camera will be pointing at what time. (It will move through its circuit in 10-degree increments.)

The photo will be posted online by the end of October.

CP staff would go, but we have our modeling careers to think of.

For more information, see


Monday, September 20, 2010

Posted By on Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 8:13 PM

When we last left the bizarre story of how the state apparently keeps tabs on environmentalists and other activists, Governor Ed Rendell had terminated the state's contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, the private-sector outfit that tracked these "threats." State Sen Jim Ferlo, meanwhile, wants to terminate the guy who hired them:

State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville) is demanding the immediate resignation or firing of Pennsylvania State Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. Senator Ferlo said Mr. Powers crossed the line by surveilling the general public when they were participating in legitimate and appropriate democratic activities that were without question nonthreatening.

Is that good enough?

Maybe not. 

Let's remember that ITRR and Powers apparently weren't acting entirely on their own here. This whole fiasco started with an Aug. 30 "intelligence bulletin" issued by the state. And while ITRR compiled the material, as ProPublica points out,  not all the information came from them. In fact, the bulletin's assertions "relating to the threat of 'environmental extremism' was originally from the FBI, and was extracted into the Pennsylvania bulletin."

That document, you'll recall, states that

The FBI also assesses -- with medium confidence -- extremists will continue to commit criminal activity against not only the energy companies, but against secondary or tertiary targets. This assessment includes the use of tactics to try to intimidate companies into making policy decisions deemed appropriate by extremists

So, can we fire the FBI too? 

That might be a good idea. Because this is the same agency whose investigation of Pittsburgh antiwar protesters was the subject of this report. Issued earlier today of the Office of the Inspector General, the report is titled "A Review of the FBI's Investigations of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups" -- and it suggests that the Harrisburg fiasco may be the tip of the iceberg. Pages 36 through 92 of the report document the FBI's highly problematic -- and at times laughable -- surveillance of Pittsburgh antiwar activists.

I'm having a sort of hard time summarizing this thing for you, because when I read it, parts of my brain start yelling at other parts of my brain. Suffice it to say the whole thing would be hilarious if it weren't so creepy. Among other things we learn ... 

  • FBI agents investigated the Thomas Merton Center and the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) because they literally didn't have anything else to do. An FBI agent surveilled and photographed a 2002 Merton Center rally, because "work was slow" the Friday after Thanksgiving. The agent, a new hire on probationary assignment, began taking photos of Merton Center activists leafletting in Market Square to "show his supervisor that he was 'earning his pay'." Similarly, an agent confesses that an investigation into POG got underway because "work is light ... [W]e are looking for work, which is why folks in POG even get on the radar."
  • When the ACLU demanded records relating to FBI surveillance of the Merton Center event, a cover-up apparently ensued. Someone in the agency wrote up a "routing slip" -- which seeks to redact certain information before a document is released publicly -- that made it look like the FBI was really tracking individuals suspected of terrorist ties. The report makes a pretty convincing argument for why that isn't true. And it surmises that the routing slip was intended to make "a stronger justification for the surveillance of the Merton Center anti-war rally than was in fact the case." The routing slip became the basis for a misleading press release issued by the FBI in the matter, and for false Congressional testimony made by FBI chief Robert Mueller.
  • Among the FBI's informants was the friend of an agent's kid. As page 91 of the report spells out, "[T]he agent recruited a friend of his son and gave him surveillance assignments with at best thin relevance to any open investigation or to preventing terrorism." Why go to the trouble? The report asserts that the agent's motive was "not the detection or prevention of terrorism but rather to enable the case agent to 'get into the source program' and 'show some more tasking and reporting.'" In other words, this had everything to do with some bureaucratic ass-covering -- an effort to bolster the agent's "performance statistics."

I've got a feeling that this ain't an isolated incident. I've got a feeling that after the 9/11 attacks, a whole new sector of government and private industry sprung up. And that huge chunks of this money are wasted on bullshit investigations of activists who pose no threat to anybody except themselves.Simply to justify people's paychecks.

I'll have more to say about the state's Intelligence Bulletins soon. In the meantime, you gotta wonder just how far down the rabbit hole this is gonna go. I mean, Senator Ferlo isn't just calling for Powers' head. He also wants to file a complaint with the Department of Justice. That would be the same DOJ whose agents have just been cited by the Inspector General for doing the same thing Ferlo faults for happening here --"conducting surveillance activists without appropriate pretext of threat [of] violence."