Friday, February 29, 2008

East Liberty Redux

From the East Liberty Post has the details on the screening of Chris Ivey's latest edition from his ongoing series documenting East Liberty. Showings tonight and this weekend.

If you want to dig into it some more. Some relevant stuff on my Pittsburgh Policy Document Collection includes:

From 1983 the East Liberty Image Study done by UCSUR for East Liberty Development Inc

and more recently and from 1999: A Vision for East Liberty. by East Liberty Development Inc. assisted by The Community Builders Inc., Perkins Eastman Architects.


Hard not to comment on the note in the PG that Steel Center Vo Tech has applied to get some slot machines for a new course in slot machine repair and maintenance. I guess you have to be real careful to never say you are in the business of fixing slots machines.


Why Vallejo matters

I hinted last week that the potential bankruptcy of Vallejo, California is worth keeping an eye on. Since NPR did a story on the Vellajo situation it has entered the public discourse more widely. But why does it matter? I have discussed the potential issues in a Federal bankruptcy filing publicly in the past. Also here.

Municipalities can declare bankruptcy in federal court under their own section of bankruptcy code. Local governments, and things that are quasi-governments (AHERF was actually a Chapter 9 filing which is worth keeping in mind) have declared bankruptcy under chapter 9 of federal bankruptcy code. Some refer to Act 47 here in Pennsylvania as quasi-bankruptcy, and in a very limited sense that may be true, but it is nonetheless a big step below what would happen if a federal court accepts a bankruptcy filing.

Does this matter for Pittsburgh? Without a doubt. There are too many preliminaries to get into in depth, but some say Chapter 9 bankruptcy is irrelevant because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would not allow the city to declare federal bankruptcy. Even if that were true, the logic implies that if the state wanted to let the city go bankrupt it could do so. But hold that thought because it is irrelevant. A fundamental question is whether the state would have any choice but to accept bankruptcy if for example a bond payment were to go unmet. Consider also the case of New York City. Many talk about its bankruptcy in the 1970’s yet the truth is NYC did not actually file bankruptcy because it couldn't. At the time, chapter 9 bankruptcy was quite strict in its criteria for filing. One requirement was that a government had to negotiate with every single one of its creditors before a bankruptcy filing would be accepted. For a government the size of NYC, with untold number of potential creditors, that criteria was unmeetable. Nonetheless, bond payments did go unpaid and those who are clear with their descriptions will talk about the “technical bankruptcy” that the city went through.

But is bankruptcy for Pittsburgh inconceivable? If you have listened carefully to the statements of the folks on the original ICA board you will have heard that they seriously considered federal bankruptcy as an option. That in itself is significant. If you listened closely you would find some inconsistencies in the explanations given for why the idea was not followed up. One answer is they were told by counsel that bankruptcy was not a legal option. I would say that if there is indeed a formal legal opinion on this matter in the ICA files it should be made public.

Here is the big problem, and why Vallejo really matters. Lawyers in general must act within the framework of precedents that define the law and how they expect judges to rule in the future. For Chapter 9 bankruptcy there are few precedents of note and fewer still that apply to the situation that the City of Pittsburgh is in. The biggest Chapter 9 bankruptcy is probably Orange County in California which did in fact have its bankruptcy filing accepted. I have said before that Orange county was in better shape fiscally when it entered bankruptcy than the City of Pittsburgh would be when it exited a bankruptcy. Orange county had solid finances but had invested in some risky derivatives that put them in a short term cash crunch more than anything else.

One precedent of note is Bridgeport, CT which attempted to declare bankruptcy in the early 1990’s but was told that it could not because it had the fiscal capacity to raise taxes or borrow enough to get through its situation. That precedent was clearly on the mind of Pittsburgh city officials in the early 1990s’s when money was literally running out and the sale of the water authority was the only thing that got the city through several years of severe operational budget deficits. City officials at the time would have preferred a bankruptcy I am sure, but am equally sure they were told by lawyers that they couldn’t. Since federal bankruptcy is very much dependent on the cash-status of a filer, vice how much one has in assets which are untouchable for the most part for a public entity, it was in many ways the perfect time to consider bankruptcy. I would say that the Bridgeport precedent is important, but the current debt in the city far outstrips the situation in Bridgeport at the time and some would argue that if Bridgeport had waited a year or two, the federal court would have had little choice, but to accept its filing and proceed. but that is a story unto itself for the lawyers to debate.

But where are we now. Why Vallejo matters is that it could potentially address some big unanswered questions about what bankruptcy could mean for a large municipality facing multiple debt costs and an unsupportable budget. Right now there is a pretty big question out here over how the various forms of the City’s debt would be handled if bankruptcy were to happen. To keep it simple there are two big chucks of debt out there, a big general obligation bond debt, and a big unfunded pension liability. I have talked to many a lawyer , and even some bankruptcy lawyers and there just isn’t a clear answer out there to the question of how those two debts would be treated in bankruptcy. Is one more senior than the other? Would one be liquidated before the other? That is the fundamental question that will determine what bankruptcy would mean for a large municipality such as Pittsburgh.

Consider that the pension debt is ‘senior’ to the bond debt. It’s not really a debt on any accounting of course, it’s a future liability documented by actuarial reports which is one of the problems. If the bond debt is at greater risk then the biggest potential impact of a bankruptcy filing would be on the bond holders. Most city debt is insured by bond insurers (refer to the whole bond insurer mess which is its own story these days) so they are the ones who are at risk. I suspect it is really the reinsurers on the monoline bond insurers who are at the real risk. If bond debt would be liquidated whole or in part before pension liability is addressed, the city could go through bankruptcy, clear out a large part of its unsupportable debt service and proceed. I would imagine many city residents and employees would like that idea, but the bond insureres would sue to say this can't happen. How that case comes out would determine the endgame.

Then consider the other option. If the bond debt is more senior and the greater risk in bankruptcy is that pension liability could be vacated… then what do you have. A lot of happy bond holders (or as I said bond insurers) but a lot of unhappy city employees who will see their anticipated pension benefits vanish whole or in part. If for no other reason than the sheer politics of that, let alone the story of leaving so many city pensioners in the poor house, that isn’t going to happen voluntarily. and even if that did play out, then they would sue to say the bond debt should go before they are thron under the bus as it were. Same situation just with different plaintiffs.

But which is the case? The unknown is the first problem. If Vallejo answers that in anyway then the political powers that be could change their perspective on whether a bankruptcy filing is either desired or permitted. As they say, watch out below.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

desperately seeking displacement

News is that lottery revenues are dropping.

A new story? Not here. And if you look at that post from last year you will find an ap story that points out how state lottery revenues were obviously plateauing. There were also a few other news articles out there that could give some clues as to what is going on. In North Dakota a news story suggested High Gasoline Prices were hurting lottery sales. And that was last year; little reprieve in gasoline prices since then. I bet if we look hard enough we could find some other places gasoline expenditures are being drawn from. The current debate is over whether and how much casino expenditures are just displacing lottery revenues. If that really is a factor, realize our casino hasn't even opened yet. And if casino revenue is impacting state lottery revenue, is it going to impact other legalized gambling in the state. Can you spell B-I-N-G-O? Might not be much from any individual bingo site, but given how many local organizations run bingo's the total effect could be palpable. The bigger question is how much will the casino will spur other economic activity. On that front there is a word of caution from Buffalo.

Speaking of gasoline... as I type the price is pushing $103/bbl.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shiny Rust Belt?

Worth a read:

Did The Rust Belt Become Shiny?: A Study of Cities and Counties That Lost Steel and Auto Jobs in the 1980s,” by James Feyrer, Bruce Sacerdote and Ariel Dora Stern in the 2007 Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs

It confirms a lot of the stylized facts that are accepted facts about Pittsburgh's economic history. It may dispute a few others. But a key conclusion is:

the steel and auto shocks were among the largest and most concentrated episodes of job loss in recent U.S. history.
And I would venture a guess, that even within the set of hardest hit rust-belt regions, Pittsburgh was one of the more harder hit regions.... at least among larger regions and especially Beaver County.


video interview Jerome White

Reuters has a video interview with Pittsburgh's Jerome White who I wrote about earlier. If you watch it, you will see there is a great intercultural story here. Watch this:

I have to say I thought this was a small but neat story about the Pittsburgh diaspora, but accordint to this ITN story: "The entry will apparently be the highest ranking Japanese folk and blues single debut ever", and somewhere I saw something about one of his singles hitting 3.5 million sales. So a big deal. Makes you wonder a bit what you need to do to get a little love back home. Maybe if he overpaid for a laptop or something.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not who, but what's your city?

I have to admit this was mailed to me gratis, I'm sure with the hope of getting some free attention. I try to disuade that or ignore such offers, but this turns out to be pretty cool. A new book: The Works: Anatomy of a City, by Kate Ascher, with detailed graphics and explanations on just about everything that makes a city physically tick. Focused on NYC, but still worth a look. I'd try to create Pittsburgh focused versions of parts of it, but it would take me years. Maybe some blog fodder in the future? But for your inner urbanophile see:

In that book is the map below. I know about the issues surrounding Pennsylvania importing trash from elsewhere for disposal in our landfills. The book says that 2/3'rds of NYC trash goes to Pennsylvania and below is the map of where it winds up. I didn't realize so much of it made it to Western PA. Even one site past Pittsburgh which is quite a haul for garbage. Not as long as the journey of the infamous garbage barge, but still. One factoid I remember from my days in NYC, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island was once the largest manmade object in human history. by volume that is...


Faith-space Mapped

In the news yesterday was this report from the Pew Foundation on the state of religion in American. Worth more than a thousand words is one of the best online and interactive graphics I have ever seen on the topic. See:

and if you really want to obsess on religion statistics


Monday, February 25, 2008

way way OT

I have ranted in the past a bit about how American media leaves most with the impression that the Middle East is some monolith. A peek inside the Middle Eastern blogosphere is A recent post has some musings on a trip to Egypt.

But in that post he makes reference to having "Met the one and only Sandmonkey" which in context sounds like he is talking about the somewhat controversial Egyptian blogger at I think, but really can't be sure if it wasn't intentional, that he made a typo and actually put in a link for which I would try to describe, but just can't. Suffice it to say I laughed, I cried and more than once choked going though the 40 or so pages. Think Borat or maybe it's like O meets Bill Bryson.... that or it really is an a new version of a Numbers Station.


biz past, biz future... biz present?

Future? Taxes high? Taxes low? I don't know, but there was a story in the Baltimore Sun last week about how Pennsylvania is trying to entice tech firms to leave Maryland due to a new tax on computer services there among other things.

Past: Today in 1901: US Steel was incorporated.

Present: I think I have seen my first true Smartcar sighting in the Burgh, I'm sure there are others. Looks like someone down the street from me actually owns one. Just guessing it exists, but is there a Smartcar club in town? Somewhere I have a picture of the first smartcar I saw in Germany a decade or so ago. Just wondering if the whole micro-car technology is going to be overtaken soon by air-cars. I also wonder whether it is technically legal in Pennsylvania for someone to park nose-in to the curb in a spot designed for parallel parking?


Sunday, February 24, 2008

explaining the Diasporan(san)

Now there are some former Pittsburgh residents who are repopulating South Dakota. See 3rd from last para in this story in the Johnstown Tribune Democrat. But I digress.

I cryptically put up this link last week. But it told the story of former Pitt computer science graduate Jerome White who is now considered the first Black enka singer in Japan. Don't ask me, but you can watch him on Japanese TV thanks to YouTube. You can read more on Jerome, also called Kurofune by the Japanese. Kurofune means Black ship and references Commodore Matthew Perry who compelled the 'opening up' Japan in 1854.

As of two weeks ago he now has his own wikipedia page. I'm sure his Japanese fans would love some early history that Pittsburghers could provide.

For more local history. He actually graduated from Perry High school which is more ironic than most realize. If you follow local city league sports you know that the Perry High School athletes compete as the 'Commodores'. You could be forgiven if you think that references Commodore Oliver H. Perry who was the victor in the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Yet you would be wrong, they were originally named for his brother who is the other Commodore Perry who may now forever be known for his singing.

and in case you wonder.. I didn't research any of that. Long ago a Japanese friend and colleague explained the whole Perry High school moniker to me. I may be odd in that I retained that factoid in my head, but I don't think the original reference is even known at the school anymore. I would sometimes quiz relatives who attended Perry if they knew who their mascot was, but rarely got an answer.

I wonder how many native born Pittsburghers are fluent in Japanese? I still think the best education reform that could happen to promote economic growth would be to bring in a Chinese language teacher for every school in the region.

update from Reuters: Jerome looks to be quite the hit.

more updates: and more with picture in Steelers garb.

and more from the USA TODAY

and a video interview via Reuters


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Light Rail in Kansas City, and some transit potluck

Funkwatch: Sam's favorite politician: Kansas City Mayor Funkhouser has been in the news of late talking about regional transit issues out there. For more it is interesting to take a look at local KC political blog Prime Beef. There is a Kansas moniker for you. Makes you think of dinner I bet; for me the first thing it brings to mind are my friends doing Air Force Civil Engineering. No joke. But part of that site is a link labled A hub of news, discussion and analysis of light rail in KC. A local version could be a task for Joe Grata?

Happy Birthday EBA: My lament over the demise of the Pittsburgh Transit blog has prompted many folks to point out some of the other transit focused blogs out there (Green is Good, Peak Direction and I am sure there are others) . Brent's PeakDirection had one of those historical factoids I should have caught: Last week was the 25th anniversary of the East Busway. For more on the historical underpinnings of all regional transit I point you toward my scan of the 1967 Allegheny County Rapid Transit Plan.

More on those inconvenient elasiticies: In case you missed it, news report show that Port Authority ridership declined year over year 7% in January . The news stories imply it all is attributable to the fare hike implemented in January. Really? That is far more hypothesis than fact. Any thought that fewer routes may just be a contributing factor, and how about colder weather that hit in January? In business you often see "same store sales" reported as a metric. Maybe the Port Authority could report "same route ridership" to sort out the trends? and remember Econ 101, long term elasticities are higher than short term elasticities. But I have a question, does 7% decline in ridership translate into 7% decline in revenues? Put another way, is the marginal rider more or less likely to be a full fare passenger? Just asking the question.

Bus Ridership Up: But also in the news, while Port Authority ridership is coming down, the Beaver County Transit Authority had its 6th year of record high ridership. The PG even has an audio report on that story. Not a knock on them at all, but before anyone begins any apples and oranges comparisons, BCTA has 7 regular routes total... PAT still has how many even after the route eliminations?

Some Transit History: Just seeing what else is new that is transit related.... AMCAP has put up this winter a Harmony Short Lines Pictorial. Best is this picture from WWII showing a Pittsburgh bus with wartime advertising to promote women joining the W.A.C.

Bonus: Another topic altogether, but we will sneak it in here just to see who is still reading. Some interesting news in California as the town of Vallejo considers formally going bankrupt. Just keep an eye. and I wonder... are Valejos bonds insured?


Friday, February 22, 2008

Journalism and Technology

Being webcast right now if you want to watch or listen.. from 1pm opn Friday Feb 22nd. Journalism 3G: A Symposium on Computation + Journalism. Will be going on through tomorrow the 23rd. The program is pretty interesting.


diaspora(-san) note


Think you know your Penguins History?

This is interesting: the most complete History of Hockey in Pittsburgh that I have ever read. What is interesting is that the author is pseudonymous. Maybe the viewers of that particular forum know who the author is, but how would you cite this work? It does claim to use (with permission) some material from this Ed Bouchette story. But it was last year around this time that the "will they stay or will they go" story with the Penguins was ubiquitous.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Steel's Future

This has been a glint in the eye of the commodities folks for a long time... but thanks to Steel Strip World for pointing out this story in the Guardian today: New era for steel as London launches futures, about the opening of a futures market in cetain steel products. It really is big news which still has regional impacts. Anyone know if the Chicago Merc plans to do anything similar?

I was going to title this post just "Plastics". Anyone know the reference I was thinking of?

It does say something about the region if big news in the steel industry does not rise to the interest of local news. We'll see if we can wake up the biz editors: ... - . . .-.. .. ... ... - .. .-.. .-.. .... . .-. .


Beyond the Burgh: Ontario, Canada, the Great Lakes, the Rust Belt...

Things I should not have missed myself, but Jim R. caught this new comment in the Globe and Mail with another Canadian perspective on the postindustrial Rust Belt economy and specifically a focus on Pittsburgh area firm Kennametal. It is interesting watching the Canadian interest in the Rust Belt, or the industrial Midwest to use less of a pejorative. They know it's a big part of their economy especially considering Canadian international trade into the region, especially for Ontario. I mentioned last month this Canadian article which also looked at the greater Rust Belt economy. I have long been saying that we ought to include our neighbor to the north in many of our discussions on not just the economy, but maybe on everthing. On a good day it's a shorter drive to Toronto than to Philadelphia with no tunnels or mountains in the way. For the obligatory historical factoid: late Pittsburgher Adolph Schmidt was once the Ambassador to Canada even.

and speaking of Canada. Statistics Canada has another great research paper out: Cities and Growth: The Left Brain of North American Cities: Scientists and Engineers and Urban Growth by Desmond Beckstead, W. Mark Brown and Guy Gellatly. You should read it, it really ought to have been titled: "Adopt a literature Major Today".

Might be a good time to point out a few related things many know about already. The indefatigable Jim Russell has inspired the Rust Belt Bloggers network and it even has an upcoming Rust Belt Bloggers convention in Erie this summer. Canada has to be a big part in that discussion. Drive north to Toronto and you will have to pass through Hamilton in Southern Ontario. It may look a bit familiar to many a long-time Pittsburgher. I was on a panel not long ago with Glen Murray, new CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, and his presentation talks a lot about the shared and divergent histories of Hamilton and Pittsburgh.

And while it's not the same thing, there is overlap in the rebounding interest in the greater Great Lakes region as an economic region. Getting a lot of attention these days is the Great Lakes Urban Exchange which has an axis in Pittsburgh with co-founder Abby Wilson. It's been interesting watching a lot of the new interest in the economy of the Gret Lakes region. Much of that being sponsored at the Brookings Institution. Most talk about this as being something brand new. Great Lakes economic development was a big focus back in the 1980's and 1990's. For more on that read the history of the Great Lakes Economic Development (GLED) committee. You read the program from the very last conference in Buffalo to see what was on the agenda. I think one of the last GLED conferences was in Pittsburgh even before the rebounding economy in the late 1990's eventually waned some of the original interest that generated the committee in the first place. 20 years ago, shared economic miasma was the tie that bound many Great Lakes regions, which shared a taxonomy with much of the amorphous 'Rust Belt'. Something I am thinking about a bit is what are the ties that bind a post-Rust Belt Great Lakes Region. It's clearly a mix of old and new, take for example that the Great Lakes Manufacturing Council is still active.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

medianomics far and near

First off, Writes Like She Talks gives a heads up to this newsoid in Advertising Age stating that 1 in 4 media jobs have gone away since 2000. Must be the fault of all those citizen-journalists springing up.

Then if you have noticed the PG now going into video classifieds... here is a post explaining a bit more on Alan Jacobsen whose business it is producing that service for newspapers. The PG btw has broken into the list of top 30 newspaper web sites for the first time... first I know of at least. By size of MSA (which isn't the media market I do know), Pittsburgh is the smallest market represented on that list.

Speaking of video in the traditional ink media. I really am curious.. does anyone regularly watch the daily video news that is put up by the Pittsburgh Business Times? Wherever it is originating from that is. Also, PBT has a story relevant to the issue I mentioned of digital TV conversion. They report on a study saying that Pittsburgh is relatively prepared for the digital switchover.

Look out below... see the tiff that has sprung up between CP's CP and former Burghopolitan Rich Florida. First what was in the City Paper's new online political column Slag Heap, and RF's reply.

and completely non sequitur... but you may notice that the blog world is again recirculating a supposed "letter to America" from John Cleese with his explanation that the Queen is revoking the Declaration of Independence and repatriating the US. One problem is that the first version of the letter was years ago and even then its attribution to John Cleese is an urban legend. But with everything there is a Pittsburgh angle. One part of letter explains:
You will learn that the suffix ‘burgh’ is pronounced ‘burra’; you may elect to spell Pittsburgh as ‘Pittsberg’ if you find you simply can’t cope with correct pronunciation.
That logic of course does not recognize the presence of "L's" in "North Versailles" either. Thank goodness for Phonics. Speaking of which, I have been told to apologize to the pothole-deities for making light of their power. A crater pothole all but took out the front of my car yesterday in North Versailles. I bet Guy Costa gets pinged on about that one as well.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

PA state to state migration

The folks at the State Data Center have just put out a new research brief recompiling some data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey on state-to-state migration flows affecting Pennsylvania in 2006. Worth a look.


bonds and you

Think all the esoteric news on the bond market does not have that much local impact... Here is something even more complex than the confusion in the bond insurance market: A failed bond offering I read about last week has rolled into a crisis impacting UPMC to the tune of $500k per week. But they are working to unwind it. See this Bloomberg news item: Pittsburgh Hospital Redeems `Loan Shark' Auction Debt.

Update: An update and further context from Bloomberg as well: New York Bonds Cost Rise as Banks Let Auctions Fail.

Update 2: NYT has more coverage and more explanation today: Auctions Yield Chaos for Bonds . One quote in there says that the current crisis could "could push up the rates that cities and states must pay to borrow money". Some dots just spontaneously connect themselves. Anyone? And it may be interesting to reread where this all started which is Bill Ackman's treatise: Is MBIA Triple A?


Monday, February 18, 2008

Pittsburgh Dialectics

Someone likes us. The Moderate Urban Champion

Someone doesn't: The Last Straw for Pittsburgh.


There be potholes here

I honestly feel for my media friends a lot of the time. I can see how it goes. The snow melts and the editor says there is a story in the magnitude of potholes that abound across the city. Potholes in Pittsburgh in the early spring.. no way! Can it really be that much fun to go and do that story again? Actually I feel as much for Guy Costa who must answer the questions put to him about whether he was aware of the potholes that have cropped up so unexpectedly. I'd be so fired in that job in that I would be a little too honest in answering those questions.

Can you do something more creative on the pothole story. Maybe. Last year I pointed out some work done in Cincinatti to make this map of their pothole situation:

The original story link seems to be expired so I went to take a look at the CinciNavigator, which is a neat mapping tool being run by the Cincinatti Enquirer... to see if they have followed up and incorporporated potholes into their system... It does not look like they have, but it does have some other neat stuff. Forgetting potholes for a minute, on that site you can click on what are called "smoking complaints" to get a map of where such police calls were generated. They are also plotting out everyones dog licenses. Just seems to me that with the new 311 service up and running, if somone were logging the details of the calls coming in, it would not be hard for someone to make some maps like that.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Millvale St. Bridge reopens.....where is the Flying Fraction?

A note of very local interest, but I really don't believe everyone who cares knows that the Millvale St. Bridge has reopened after almost a year of reconstruction. It must have finished early. I really suspect I have gone over that bridge more times than most anyone alive, or at least anyone my age or less.

But on an historical note just a tad older than I am. Here is a great picture of a chartered streetcar along the Flying Fraction route (routes 54/77), so named by the late Rege Cordic, while traversing the bridge. The Flying Fraction would also be memorialized by no less than sportswriter Frank Deford in this essay on Pittsburgh boxer Billy "The Pittsburgh Kid" Conn in: The Boxer and the Blonde. Mentioned in that essay is how Conn "loafs with" legendary Pittsburgh streetfighter Joey Diven, who was the father of current politico and former councilman/state rep Michael Diven. Not only that, but that is said to be a Barry Goldwater for President sign on the side. Can you roll up so much history in a single picture? I honestly have no recollection of streetcars on S. Millvale St., but I do remember when the actual streetcar tracks were still extant. And many know the pitfalls of driving on streetcar tracks embedded in the roadway especially in snow and ice.

You can buy scans of this image and lots of others at Mcnally's railroad collectables. (update: many more streetcar pictures are in the Pittsburgh Railways Co. section of Pitt's digital archives.)

and just to continue the stream of conscience, there is a new bio of Billy Conn out just last month:


Saturday, February 16, 2008

uncountable numbers

This delegate counting could be a quant's nirvana trying to figure out what will happen at the Democratic National Convention. Conventional wisdom (pun intended I suppose) is that it is likely neither Clinton nor Barack will have a majority of votes going into the convention. Certainly not without superdelegate support. Lots of muttering on the state of the superdelegate votes, but I honestly don't believe any of it. For example, I mentioned last month that this web site was listing Sophie Masloff in the undecided column. Yet you just needed to hear her on KDKA in this piece where she stated she had been clearly for Clinton all that time. And then the news of late is that she is now in the 'undecided' camp where that site always had her. So who knows where the collective body of superdelegates stand.

But if you are having a hard time keeping track of the blogosphere's take on the race? Try or their Also new to the scene is the superdelegate transparency project. But those sites had me wondering, is Mike Gravel still in the race? His web site is kind of there. I personally think it would be fascinating to have Ron Paul and Mike Gravel conduct some one on one debates and I bet it would generate more press than either has had of late.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Let them watch YouTube

As preamble, I won't name names but I really have a friend who does not have cable at home and really does not watch TV at all, yet at the same time seems to be up on all the latest video news and events. I asked how she knew of such things if she didn't watch TV and the answer was simple: YouTube.

But the news is beginning to catch up to this story, but until recently I wondered how many people really knew about the switchover to digital TV service coming exactly a year from this week. The Washington Observer Reporter and the AP have a good writeup today on the options for viewers. While it should not impact most cable TV subscribers, anyone receiving terrestrial signals will soon find themselves trying to watch a lot of white noise. I just wonder given the region's older population and other factors whether this will have a bigger potential impact here vs. elsewhere. Think that isn't so? I know my mother only signed onto cable in the last year because she moved into a residence where I think it was required. I'm pretty sure she has not scratched the surface of the panoply of channels out there. Trust me, for many getting the daily number live at 7pm may be the primary use of the TV and for that you don't need cable as long as you get KDKA (or back in the day it was WTAE that literally hosted the state's daily number drawing).

It was not that long ago (OK, a couple decades but still.. see my musings on QUBE TV) that residents of the City of Pittsburgh didn't have any cable service whatsoever. Even that could impact the incidence of cable-tv viewership here. It's not cheap for many to have even basic cable service. I really would be interested in the stats on the number of local households with/without cable service. The issue of education and outreach could be a good topic to be taken up by the City of Pittsburgh's appointed Cable Communications Advisory Committee. I presume that web page has not been updated, according to it many of the members had terms that expired a couple months ago.

There are digital channels already in operation. According to wikipedia, all of the digital channels in operation in Pennsylvania are in the Pittsburgh market. Seems a big strange to me that we are the cutting edge in this case. Tune into one of those channels without a converter in to see the future of rabbit-ear antennas.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Defense impact

A minor news story is that a Norweigan defense company is opening a manufacturing plant in Johnstown... Interesting in itself a bit. A new manufacturing plant? But it sparked a stray neuron in my head. People get upset on a regular basis over something or another in Pittsburgh code that is not being enforced or implemented. There are a lot of things buried in city code that are just plain overlooked or completely forgotten about. Something esoteric, but related to the defense story is this which is directly from Section 204 of the Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances:

4. The mayor shall present an annual report on the tax monies paid per capita and the citizens of the City of Pittsburgh to the federal government that is allocated to military spending. The report shall include an analysis of the impact of the military budget on the City's economy in relation to jobs and social services. The mayor shall advertise this analysis in two prominent daily newspapers in the City.

That all happened once I do believe. May be a unique legal opinion on the definition of 'annual'. A bottoms up review of the city's home rule charter might not be a bad thing at some point.


why don't minorities vote?

As we learn who is running for office in the primary coming up, there are at least 9 Republicans running for PA's 5th Congressional District.. Nine?! What do you think the winning candidate will need percentage-wise to pull that off? (update: The Centre Daily Times sums up the situation best with an editorial: Who's on First and even the CQPolitics leads off with the situation in PA5).

Here is one more followup from the fall election... but it could apply to any election really. With the biggest news coming out of the national primaries thus far being the surge in voter participation, you have to figure at least some of that is due to above average interest in the African American community. If true, then maybe we can get past the recurrent question that comes up every election cycle about why minorities don't vote. Questions like that have an implied premise that nobody ever seems to question.

Yet, even though the pundits will perpetually try to answer the question, they never really ask whether they need to. Is it true that non-minorities are more likely to vote than minorities? and even if true elsewhere, does that necessarily mean it's true here?

OK. the first question is what to measure? On election day, everyone is concerned with voter turnout: votes cast divided by registered voters. If you are a political operative turnout is the important metric because by election day, you are either registered or you are not. If you are not registered, you are not part of the equation in the short term. The more important metric in the big picture is voter participation: votes cast divided by voting age population.

OK. here is my scatter plot by voting district of % Black among the voting age population compared to voter participation rates (votes cast as percentage of total population age 18 and over):

Voter Participation vs. % Black
City of Pittsburgh Voting Districts, November 2007 General Election

Yes, lots of background to making that which I am sure you dont want to read about here.. but the methodology is similar to what I used here: If you have some other question let me know.

I added a linear regression line to that. Does this show lower voter participation for Blacks compared to everyone else? It does actually, but just a little. If that was a steep line down it would show a big disparity between the two, but it really isn't much. It comes out to a few percentage point difference between the two groups. All done? Not even close. Voting districts differ in size, so here is a bubble chart of the same data with the size of each point scaled by the voting age population in the district. What does this tell me? I bet even that minimal correlation (negative correlation that is) between % Black and voter participation fades away if you weight for size of districts. You see that a lot of big mostly White districts have the lowest participation rates. That would pull down that linear regression line on the left and I bet make the disparity in participation rates fade away. Done now? Of course not.

Now we have to remember that younger people don't vote. OK OK before I get hate mail from PC let's rephrase that: young people vote just marginally less than those above the median age. Nonetheless, all election demographics are impacted by the disproportionate rate elderly vote. Now remember that there is this little issue of health disparities that impact the size of elderly cohorts by race. Black mortality rates are higher than for others. That means that on average the White population has proportionately more of its population in that supervoting age range. So even if there was some minimal difference in voter participation in Black and White districts, you can bet that is being caused by the different age patterns across districts. For example, in the City of Pittsburgh in 2000, 27% of the population was Black. For the population age 65 and over in the city of Pittsburgh, it's just over 20% Black. Think that difference does not skew the voter turnout numbers? Given the scale of the health disparities here, I would not be surprised if I could not engineer a positive correlation locally between %Black and voter participation once you control for some of these factors.

So even if you see some statistic that says Blacks are not turning out to vote, it just does not necessarily mean that if you pulled a random Black person of a given age from the community and compared their voting record to a random White person of the same age, you would expect to see much different. Think about that the next time you hear some long discussion of minority voting patterns.

and with all of that.... it will be interesting to compare those recent results with what happens in the Pennsylvania primary if indeed things are still unsettled on the D side at least.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

more foreclosure factoids

more of the same but money/CNN has updated data from RealtyTrac with 2007 numbers for foreclosures in the 100 largest regions. To stretch and parse something new from that. If you ignore the percentage decrease in foreclosures for Greenville, SC, and Baton Rouge, LA, the two regions with the largest percentage declines in foreclosures between 2006 and 2007 were both in PA: namely Philly and Pittsburgh. Worth noting that this isn't lagged data by much and reflects data through the end of 2007, which was just a few weeks ago.

That isn't to make any of this sound rosy. Just about 5% of all Detroit area households were in foreclosure in 2007. That's phenomenal. And the new center of gravity for the foreclosure mess looks to be the Washington, DC suburbs with the largest percentage increase in foreclosures being in places like Bethesda/Frederick, MD with +1288%, Washington, DC itself(+575%) and even Baltimore, MD (+544%).

I would not even want to paint an overly rosy here despire our relatively low ranking in all foreclosure metrics. An astute anonymous commenter here has pointed out that the difference in regulatory regimes here vs. Ohio may account for the big disparities in foreclosure rates here vs. Cleveland. I believe that.. but also wonder whether transaction costs coupled with the low value of many homes here makes strict foreclosure less of an option for lenders here vs. elsewhere.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cleveburgh watch: Regional Revenue Sharing Study

From our neighbors in Northeast Ohio: I have to admit I didn't know this was ongoing, but you can read about a fairly organized multi-county regional revenue sharing effort here:

I will have add that link to my Primer on Regionalism and Local Government Fragmentation in the Pittsburgh Region.



Worth a read with a few mentions of Pittsburgh is this article in Governing on the relative value of regional rankings. Do You Really Want to be the Best? Cities see both benefits and drawbacksto being ranked a top place to live. By Zach Patton.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Albany is not Harrisburg

here is something curious.. Obviously the experience of their Harrisburg colleagues does not scare them. The New York legislature is already paid more than the folks sent to Harrisburg, but according to the New York Times today are looking for a pretty big raise themselves. Will be interesting to see if their lead balloon floats any higher than Harrisburg's.


Brady Street Brimingham Bridge

News on Friday of an "emergent situation" on the Birmingham Bridge brought to mind two of the more dramatic events in Pittsburgh history. The Birmingham Bridge replaced the older Brady Street Bridge which was taken down by explosives in 1978. Technically speaking, the old Bridge was also the Birmingham Bridge at the time it was demolished, having been renamed not long before it's demise. Yet to this day I still will unconsciously give some of those incomprehensible Pittsburghese directions.. telling people to go over the Brady Street Bridge, typically prompting vacant stares.

A lot of the bridge's history is less than positive. A Homestead ironworker died during construction when he fell from a girder in 1976. Then on May 23, 1978, local ironworker Ralph Winner Jr. became trapped on top of the bridge while he was doing torchwork preparing the span for demolition, his leg trapped when the bridge shifted and then began to lean toward the new bridge. One of the more heroric efforts in town must be the work of Dr. Joseph Young who went up the bridge and amputated Winner's right leg in place. As an aside, I have no idea if it is the same Ralph Winner of Pittsburgh who has a patent for a device to help amputees. See US Patent number 4,587,865.

A week later the old bridge would be brought down by explosives, which was quite an event unto itself. My own childhood memories of the event are someone clouded. I had a clear memory that there was a problem with the explosives used in the demolition. Yet childhood memories are not to be trusted always. While I thought the first attempt to bring down the bridge failed, that is incorrect and on May 30, 1978 the span was dropped into the river. There was a problem with the span blocking the river to traffic which forced the Army Corps of Engineers to come in and take over from the PennDOT contractor for the final deconstruction of the bridge in order to expedite clearing a channel in the river.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Graduate! Pittsburgh?

A news story on a continuing education initiative out at the other end of the state. The program it is talking about is Graduate! Philadelphia. While the issues here may not line up directly with what is up in Philly, I bet there are some ideas to borrow. Note in the article it mentions how Philly has a Chief Education Officer, which is distinct from the school district there.

and here is a related idea from our neighbors to the south. West Virginia University has just received a $149K grant from Verizon to start a social networking site aimed at high school career opporuntities.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Get out of Pittsburgh for free

here is project for the vast Pittsburgh diaspora. h/t to Adfreak again for this: The Hasbro game (Monopoly) is developing a world edition, and is asking fans to select which cities make the game board by nominating and then voting on them online. An interactive map shows the cities that are in the lead. Is it fair to suggest voting often? 20 days left in the voting.

Think it can't be done? Right now Voldendam, Netherlands is #7 among their wildcard cities. MUST BEAT VOLDENDAM.....


Friday, February 08, 2008

king coal watch

More insight into why US Steel is planning on putting a billion (or two?) into the Clairton Coke works: The price of hard coking coking coal has doubled of late. From a few years ago, but a good overview of coal in the US economy these days was in Slate: The Big Sandy. Obscure economic indicators, Part 4: Central Appalachian Coal Futures.

And it was 30 years ago this week that the region was in the middle of a coal strike that was impacting electricity supply as well as industry throughout the US. I'd be curious if anyone has studied the state of labor relations in the coal industry of late.


Pshrink-less P'Burgh

Well..... I should let this one pass since I am usually pretty critical of our hyper-sensitivity to rankings like this. But this one is too much fun and I have been quite surprised that no mention has been made of the lastest Forbes ranking that says Pittsburgh is 9th (out of 40) in terms of Best Cities for Couples. So I said, maybe we have gotten over our obsesession with these type of metrics, which would be a good thing. Even if this one showed us more on the positive side it would be a good sign if it was just ignored. After taking a look at the methodology for this one, I have another theory. I bet people did look at this for a story idea, but upon scrutiny couldn't quite figure out what it means, I sure am not not clear. It turns out that our relatively high ranking is all being driven by our high ranking for "affordability of first home". So its the same housing story that plays out in lots of other numbers. We were 3/40 there, which then begs the question of what we were low in to pull us down to 9th. There is the rub, we ranked 39th out of 40 in terms of counseling rank. What in the world does that mean? Since I am sure there is no real good data on who really 'needs' counseling it has to be something else. The Forbes folks created a metric for "access to marriage counseling" based on the per capita numbers of certified family counselors.... by zip code no less for the country. So if I understand it, we are considered the backwater of marriage counseling land because we have so few counselors around to help up. Of course, who knows if that supply of counselors is a consequence of a low demand for such services. Is marriage counseling a market in equilibrium? Maybe we have the same need as say San Francisco (ranked number 1), but our relative pay for counselors is so low we don't retain enough of them. Maybe we just don't have problems enough to justify more counselors. There is an implicit assumption I think that every region has the same incidence of demand for counseling, the ranking being determined solely by the supply of counselors. Man, talk about a lot of work to create a metric that is so inconclusive.

and with that, I have to say that it's just not clear reading their methodology if a high number of counselors is considered a good thing or bad thing in their rankings. It could all be the opposite from that depending on how they interpreted the data and you would have to reverse the logic for all of that.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Parlez vous Pittsburghese?

Ok... obligatory comment on the plan to inspire more Parisian cafe seating at Downtown restaurants. Yes, I like the idea. But I have to say that I had this optimisitc thought on the future of Downtown cuisine a couple years ago when I saw the crepe cart operating in front of the City County Building. But then to the best of my knowledge that enterprise ceased. To my good friends in the media seeking off-beat stories, I would track down whomever that was and ask them how that business got started, how it fared, and why it ceased... unless it is still operating in warmer seasons and I just have not been hanging out in front of 414 Grant Street enough.

update: Ha. Paris on the Mon is such an incongruous thought to the rest of the world that it has prompted coverage in the Governing Blog. I say we start calling the South Side the South Bank. or maybe the wards arrondissements.


Boarding a Greyhound to Pittsburgh

I just realized that I never made note of the fact that the Pittsburgh-Transit Blog has given up the ghost as Matt explains. It's too bad. Given that even the dedicated bikers of the Burgh have their own blog, you would think that the army of daily commuters would generate enough interest for a transit-focused blog here. I was recently looking at the Seattle Transit Blog which had some commentary on a plan being discussed out there recently to study new streetcar lines. But a new transit blog here could either be from a rider perspective as was Matt C's blog, or from the driver's which had also been served well by Shawn Bennear's (now defunct) web page on Pittsburgh Transit History.

But I have been transit-deficient of late... so I just took a look at he contractor's web page mentioning the still-under-construction Grant Street Transportation Center, illustration below. It says "Completion Date: December 2007". My calendar must be off. I suppose I should know, but when is the bus station (yes, it's a bus station... remember, this is a euphemism free zone) due to open?

Some (many?) may recall my tif with the pseudo proposal in the Post Gazette last year to save the Port Authority by eliminating the long squiggly line. Without getting into that too much, my main beef was that the cartoon'ish presentation so oversimiplified some serious issues facing mass transit to the point of being counterproductive... and most certainly enabled the opponents of transit more than anything else. But it did touch upon an issue that I would agree with in that there has to be a way to rationalize transit within Downtown. Toward that end I have to wonder if there is any real thought of leveraging the new 'transportation center'. Smarter minds than me would have to figure out what could mean, but I just wonder if the question has been asked.

Where is the Greyhound Sign?


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Cyberwar in the 21st.....

... district, not century, that is.

Given the news yesterday there is at least the potential that the Pennsylvania primary could matter. It's still pretty unlikely, but beware the invasion of the political operatives if it comes to that. Other than the potential presidential contest, its a bit hard to find local races that will generate much interest in the primary coming up. But the ACDC endorsement vote is coming pretty up pretty quickly. One of the few races that may inspire chatter is the 21'st legislative district. On the cyber-front that race is still pretty quiet, but still interesting to take a look at what may be up in the net-centric campaign for that seat: was registered long ago and used by Sr. for years, but looks pretty unused at the moment. has long since been taken by an Atlanta area real estate agent. was registered just a couple years ago by a Pittsburgh area registrant... but given the surfeit of Costa's around it's hard to tell if it has anything to do with the potential candidate in this case. was registered in November and had a placeholder up until early this week, but now is up and running it looks like. exists but is in Italian and has a picture of a guitar. Not our guy is a safe bet. is completely unregistered though it's last owner let it expire just last August. I bet Frank doesn't twitter either.

any other dark horses out there about to jump in the race? Anybody from north of the Allegheny?

and as for the incumbent.. now starts out pretty directly with a big label "Lisa Bennington-- A divorce lawyer" right on top. Is it me or is that a tad odd?

and there is new music at the redirect for:


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

too many polls....

....making it a land of confusion.

Yeah yeah, I can't sing either.

But for those trying to make sense of where the candidates stand as super Tuesday exegesis reaches a crescendo....I have mentioned it before but the blog Political Arithmetik has a great consolidated info graphic on the state of super Tuesday polls at a glance that all political junkies have to check out. As of today it looks like this figure which I have borrowed, but you should check out their site for the latest and greatest:


Black History Month: Pittsburgh and Black Aviation

This week WQED is airing it's special on: Fly Boys: Western Pennsylvania's Tuskegee Airmen . From the Nullspace archives: Pittsburgh has more to contribute to the history of Black Aviation than just that. See the post from last year on the impact of Pittsburgher Charles Wesley Peters in the history of Black aviation.

and just one of those odd small world comments. My father served on the ship Tuskegee Victory (later renamed the USNS Dutton) at the end of World War II. The ship was named for the university and he served as a member of the ships Naval Armed Guard. The ship is actually still afloat in Texas but slated for disposal imminently. As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of data transparency all around... nonetheless I have to say that pictures like this of the mothballed fleet down in Texas freak me out a bit. You can zoom right onto the deck of those ships.


Monday, February 04, 2008

sad history

For those who are shocked over the conviction in the fall and sentencing today of former councilwoman Twanda Carlisle, the sad truth is that it is not the first such conviction of a local politican. It was only in 1989 that Ben woods was convicted and sent to jail for a pattern of behavior just as systematic as Twanda's while serving as city council president no less.

It's hard to figure where most rogue public servants go bad. It's not like they start out with a plan to end up as they do. There is early history of Ben as a Henry Jackson supporter for president in 1976. Jackson would actually have his presidential campaign collapse because of how badly he did in the Pennsylvania primary. (Does that mean the Pennsylvania Primary mattered in 1976?) I'm not sure there was much advantage locally to expending effort for an underdog from a far western state. It just does not add up.

One of the scariest angles to the TC case is that she didn't try too hard to conceal the behaviors that would lead to her downfall. It's as if she didn't even realize such behavior could lead to trouble. In the end the criminal case had nothing to do with the odd para-report that made the news early on, but it was probably the bread crumb which forced the scrutiny that followed. Long ago I mused on how strange that whole initial episode was in: What is there to say?

One last bit of history. Were the Woods and Carlisle cases similar? The US Supreme Court's briefing spells out the details so you can decide that yourself. That brief is actually the solicitor general's brief in the appeal of the case before the supreme court. You should recognize at least two of the names of the US attorneys who signed the brief.

Makes you wonder what happends to politicians after these things are all over with. What is Jeff H. up to these days? or Joe C. for that matter?


Sunday, February 03, 2008

oh the muckraking we will do or Can you imagine that those bureaucrats know about the secret tubes?

in the swirling nexus of the political world and the internet... should someone in Pennsylvania attempt to replicate which brings together data on campaign contributions and how legislators vote in California?

and local news has hit on the fact that some government employees are spending their hours editing wikipedia entries. I have to point out that this is old news at this point. See these old Null Space posts: Erudite and Expansive Bureaucrats or more broadly in Information Warfare - burgh style. The WTAE report says they discovered this after an actual investigation. They might just want to call up the Wikiscanner site to save themselves some time. What was one of the key discoveries of all of this:

One state employee took time out of his day to edit the Wikipedia page for Lurch, who was the butler on "The Addams Family" TV series. The person wanted to point out that Lurch did not actually play the harpsichord himself.

Deep. I am sure that entry took just hours to bang out... hours that could have better been used denying a building permit or something.

I would point out that while this little hunt is going on to find those local ne'er-do-well government internet prosumers... the military is going in the other direction with one senior general has in the news recently advocating that even soldiers should be allowed to blog. Something that just never happens now.

Just think, if all this wiki-editing and blogging is eradicated from all public offices, it will be a boon for all the high paid consultants who will need to be paid down the road once governments figure out they all need to be using the same tools. It's all a conspiracy I tell you.

Oh, I just can't resist... let's see what some of the wikipedia entries being generated by WTAE's corporate parent look like. See those Wikiscanner results here.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Gus for State Marmot.

I really thought I had Punxsutawney Phil fired last year. Governor Rendell must not have gotten my memo. I say we start a campaign to name Gus the official Pennsylvania Marmot. Before I would have quibbled with having such a gambling lush representing the Commonwealth, but given the headlong rush into casino gambling Gus may be the de facto state mascot already.

Honestly I am in awe of the amount of contrived tourism and publicity that is generated by the whole Punxsatawny Phil thing each and every year. For more information read up on the imminent (or past by the time you may read this) happenings at:

But in his defense, Phil has achieved a level of academic scrutiny above all other forward thinking groundhogs out there. See: Punxsutawney's Phenomenal Phorecaster by Michael A. Aaron, Brewster B. Boyd, Jr., Melanie J. Curtis, Paul M. Sommers, The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 26-29.


Friday, February 01, 2008

Arts/Economics/History in the Burgh

Next American City has it's cover story this quarter all about the nexus of arts, economics and history here in Pittsburgh. See: Art Company, Inc. -- the history that once defined Pittsburgh and the questions that nearly every Rust Belt city currently faces by Matthew Newton. You can get the print version in large bookstores in town.


State of Subprime in the Commonwealth

... and more on housing. The Keystone Research Center has put out a report with some of the most comprehensive stats on the subprime crisis within Pennsylvania. They have some extensive mapping of the usage of subprime mortgages across the state and the map below is just their zoom on Allegheny County. You can look at other counties via their interactive tool.