Friday, April 30, 2010

Scroll down

CNN has a neat graphic and interactive chart of the latest metrics on foreclosures by metro in the US

Scroll down.... way down.

Speaking of Pittsburgh real estate... the NYT highlights what $275K buys you in the Pittsburgh real estate market. You know.. folks in NY really can't understand most Pittsburgh real estate pricing.Even what seems incredibly expensive to us is still awfully cheap to anyone owning anything in Manhattan or environs.  When I moved back to Pittsburgh from Manhattan many years ago (and long before the uber inflation in NY real estate prices).. I was looking at apartments and when folks would tell me prices I once seriously almost asked if they were quoting me a price 'per room'.  and I imagine the price disparity between Pittsburgh and NYC real estate has only gotten a lot wider in the intervening years.

How long ago was that?  I remember wanting to research local rents before coming in one weekend and I remember having to find a newstand off of Times Square that sold the Sunday PG to find classified ads. 

Still... looking at the NYT piece I really wonder who in Pittsburgh pays $275K for that?   I checked the ebay listing I mentioned recently, but the ebay ad itself has expired.  The winning bid was around $3K I believe. That's about the amount you tip the doorman in some buildings in Midtown isn't it?


Thursday, April 29, 2010

the masses are demanding...

163 people are demanding a Maglev be built.................  in Chattanooga.

Now if those 163 people would pay for it, I am sure they would build it.  Otherwise they are going to look for money from their counties down there.  Funniest line in that: "There's a huge sense of urgency".   I don't think urgency applies to the whole maglev concept here.   What is the opposite of 'urgency'?


Bigger news than the G20

Sent in from the NS peanut gallery ok......   we have now officially entered the Yunzer twilight zone. Read the HuffPo on the Best and Worst Places for New Graduates... 

Seriously, I'm not making that up.  I can't even repeat it, you will have to go read it yourself.   Where are those Forbes folks with their best places for singles ranking?

update:  I was joking, but look what forbes now has on America's most livable cities. What is that picture they have there?   Looks like a bike trail??  A bike trail in the city??? Oh, nevermind.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Iron and coke and chromium steel

Someone needs to talk about the old economy...   Mineweb covers several topics that all have impacts here:

Steelmaking boom has sent nickel and hard coking coal prices soaring--Scotiabank

I really don't know the answer to this... but does any local coal get exported overseas? There is an international trade in coal.  I once had to inspect a coal ship while it was being loaded.  It was 'raining' this coal dust and I was in a white uniform.  Bad. 


More Marcellus Mania

I missed this entirely, but a couple weeks ago the Economist magazine has a whole piece looking at energy issues with a big focus on us and the whole Marcellus mania.  See: Energetic progress; There is every chance that in future energy will contribute less to America’s trade deficit.

That and today the USAToday has a similar piece, but with a pretty neat interactive graphic explaining the whole hydraulic fracturing method of drilling that is fueling (pun intended I suppose) the Marcellus Mania.  See: Natural gas supply, jobs and technique debate booming.


Political Tides

The state puts out some pretty detailed statistics on voter registration, including specific data on folks who change their party registration.   So I poked at that data a bit and came up with the time series below depicting the trends for the two major parties in terms of who is switching their voter registration over the last year+.

This deserves a lot more explanation than anyone wants to read but...   This graphic compiles the ratio of folks switching from Democrat to Republican and shows it as a ratio to the number switching from Republican to Democrat. Normalized to 100, so a value of 100 means the number switching from D to R and number switching from R to D are equal.  The higher the number, the more folks are switching from R to D compared to the other way around.  Numbers under 100 mean more folks are switching from Democrat to Republican.  Put simply:  high = good for Democrats  low = good for Republicans.

I summarized the weekly data into 4 week segments to get rid of some weekly volatility. I did the same for both the state as a whole, and then for Allegheny County by itself.  What isn't obvious is that the raw number of folks switching their registration is pretty volatile over the course of the year.  So some of the data points are calculated on just a handful of voters (such as in the period just after an election), while at other times there are a lot of voters (such as just before registration deadlines going into an election) being captured in this. Nonetheless you can see some of the reason D's might have cause for concern looking at fall elections since this is what I come up with.

So if you are a D, don't despair entirely.  No time to break it out the same way, but it looks to me that D's have had, and continue to have, a pretty decisive advantage in capturing the largest fraction of new voters as comapred to the party switchers captured above. Party switchers, by definition here, have to have been registered already and are not new registrants.  How it all nets out in the long run I dunno?? What else might be impacting these numbers?  I was curious if there might be some impact of the whole story from 2008 when Rush Limbaugh encouraged Pennsylvania Republicans to register as Democrats in order muck with the primary election... Remember that?  Maybe there is some residual impact of that in these numbers, but again who knows?


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Lots of legal wonks?

You know....   once you net out hits from local universities and then from city and state government IP's... the next biggest chunk of hits here has to be from law firms.  Not just local law firms, but law firms near and far.  I always wonder if it is all just idle browsing or case research?  If only we could capture some share of the $$ billed while reading here. 

Anyway... for our legal beagle friends, the Legal Intelligencer has a whole piece focusing on the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia legal economies


Monday, April 26, 2010


Remember a brief comment here last fall about the need for a Pittsburgh version of a a Jane Jacobs' walk? That and DNJ's followup in the PG on same.  Luckly someone had the energy to actually make one happen.  Here is info on a Jane Jacob's walk in Polish Hill this weekend.  Is this the only one? Or are there any other, or similar, walks being planned.  You would think Pittsburgh could almost have a Jane Jacobs' walk for every neighborhood.  Now that would be interesting.  Well, every neighborhood except Chateau I suppose. 
When:  Saturday, May 1st from 11am to 1pm.
Where: Polish Hill Civic Association, 3060 Brereton Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Polish Hill Blog Post:

Jane's Walk USA post:

Jane's Walk website:


There is an election coming up isn't there?

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that the race for governor is just not registering with anyone yet? Uber-political junkies (which includes anyone who can name any party chair or ward boss) do not count.  And with the actual election just weeks away at this point so you have to wonder if, not when, the light will come. That is half of the theme of what Tom Barnes wrote on the governor's race over the weekend.  I guess I had expected at least some of these folks to drop out to provide some clarity to the field. Thus far the Democratic field has lost only one candidate when Chris Doherty dropped out, but gained a late entrant in Williams to net it out.  Given that each candidate seems to have something and nothing (at the same time) of a base, you have to wonder how low the plurality will be to win at this rate.  Maybe it's just going to be a Seinfeld election?

Also Tom Infield at the Inky talks about the changing center of gravity of politics in Pennsylvania.   So I will just be lazy and repost something I have had up before.   This is slightly out of date data on the distribution of voters by party and county across the state. The colors just highlight the Pittsburgh and Philly metro areas.  Interactive versions of the same I have put online via Manyeyes for Democrats and Republicans respectively.  
Democratic Party Registration in Pennsylvania by County - Fall 2009

Republican Party Registration in Pennsylvania by County - Fall 2009


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Radio numbers

Like many I am watching the machinations as Duquesne University looks to sell WDUQ.   I have to admit I don't quite understand radio-nomics these days.   You would think radio would be a dying modality, but it does not seem to be in as dire straits as many other broadcast media.  New competition from satellite services are out there, but don't seem to have subsumed the industry.  I still am curious who in town is listening to any of the HD radio stations that are out there?  Anyone? 

But Duquesne rationally wants to maximize the selling price for the station.  Buyers.   The debate seems to range between $5 and $15 million dollars.  What I've found a bit fascinating are some of the numbers.   The news accounts say WDUQ has an average 166K listeners per week, while the venerable WQED on radio had a comparable 97K listeners.  While I listen to WDUQ a lot more than QED, I just had in my head that WQED had a bigger listenership.  Perception based on it's TV presence maybe.... or possibly just that I figured there was a large classical music audience in town.

What I wonder about is what would make the value of the station change if it were to remain a nonprofit station.  I am presuming that if the station is worth on the high end of the range it is because of it's established market share and existing listenership.  Yet the listenership I presume is driven a lot by the NPR news programming WDUQ airs.  So what I don't get is what value exists if the station format changes.  I think I read WQED is interested in the NPR programming, but is there any reason WYEP could not do the same?   Thus what value can be traded in the market is curious to me.  Is a spot on the dial worth a premium these days in a Pittsburgh media market that has population-wise been declining for decades?  I guess that is the argument.

fyi... the most interesting thing I see out there with information on how this market for radio stations all really works is here:

and of course the real inside scoop on all things in Pittsburgh broadcast media is at:

Speaking of public broadcasting in Pittsburgh... just pure curiosity, but what is up with WQEX?  if anything? or are we forever doomed to have a local station airing the QVC junior varsity?  Does anyone make money on that deal?

and finally.. purely a coincident, but as I typed this it seems that Mediaweek updated it's Pittsburgh profile fwiw.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Always up in the air

Absolutely nothing is ever final in the airline biz these days.... but the (briefly) talked about USAirways-United merger appears to have fallen through as quickly as it appeared this time round.  United has shifted course to pursue a merger with Continental.  What that could mean here???  Who knows. If it really happens then you have to believe USAirways would be a player in some future merger with someone else out there.   But our friends up the Turnpike have a bigger Continental presence and they are fretting what a United-Continental merger would mean at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.  So the potential is for two major (or majorly) underutilized airports within 2 hours drive of each other.  Hmm....


Does this mean we are really cool?

CNN has a story on the backlash against bottle water.  It's just not cool they say.  I pointed out last week a recent ranking out there that shows Pittsburgh as one of the least bottled-water-friendly places in the US.

CNN's foil is the release of a film: The Story of Bottled Water.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Remembering Ashland

Just watching the news from the Gulf of Mexico brings to mind Pittsburgh's own major oil spill.  In January of 1988 an Ashland Oil Company storage tank failed and dumped 500K to a million gallons of fuel into the Monongahela... obviously closing the river for most uses and threatening the water supplies for us and many communities down river.  I am not sure anyone keeps a list of the biggest such spills locally, but it has to be near the top if there was.

Might be interesting for someone to take a look at how prepared we all would be if there was any similar event today on the rivers or elsewhere.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Whitman is still right

Caught this via Visualizing Economics... but this video on the meaning of data from WheresGeorge actually is awfully deep... At the end it focuses for a second on what the megapolitan Pittsburgh really means.  Worth watching in general, but see through to the end to the segment that really impacts us.   Anyone get the Whitman allusion?   put another way, the world isn't quite flat just yet.  Topography matters. 


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Grinding up a dream

I should stipulate that this dream actually ended a long time ago, but still the announcement that the East Busway is going to be reengineered ends any real thought that rapid transit could ever be built into the East End and beyond.

The idea that there would be a transit rail heading out of Downtown along the route of the East Busway was a core vision for local transit strategy going back as far as the Early Action Plan which the region coalesced around (for a time) as far back as the 1960's.   Skybus miasma and other things would impede progress, but at the end of the day the foundation of the East Busway was engineered with the intent that rail of some sort could be built along the corridor. (you can read some of those plans yourself here).  The news that the foundation is going to be literally ground up is pretty symbolic in that it ends any real hope of passenger rail ever going in along the route. 

Yes, I know the Port Authority's vision is that the busway is somehow going to operate like a subway by bus or someting like that.  Sounds nice, but we all know that just does not really work anywhere... let alone here.  Once you take out folks who can't travel by car either because of income or for other reasons, folks who have a choice will take rail who won't ever consider taking a bus. 

Such is what counts as progress in Allegheny County.


Beyond Ben

I am presuming that by the time this posts the news cycle will be blotted out by all things Ben.   I was going to say there has never been a Ben post here, but I had to check myself on this.  I did once comment on the prevalence of Ben baby names in a post it's fascinating to look back on:

Other than that I really have nothing to say other than I am getting old.  Who in the world is Vincent Chase?  I ask only because I came across the one Ben commentary that you probably haven't read. See:

Athletes must stop idolizing Vincent Chase

OK.  I lie.  Stray neuron sparked a memory.  Didn't Ben once have a blog?  Still out there in the ether it appears:

Very odd thing to read looking back. The agent probably lost the password.

....and after we all obesess on the good (well, there really is no good is there), the bad, and the ugly of all of this realize Americans are fighting in at least two wars right now, folks are suffering the aftermath of an earthquake unfortunately far from easy media access in Tibet and a whole lot of displaced people continue to suffer in Haiti as the rainy season escalates. 


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mapping 40

Just my observation, but it seems to me that the one thing people are less aware of than what state house district they live in, it's which specific state senate district they live in. They kind of know who the local state senator's are, but actually being able to place who represents what is not exactly on the front of most folks mind. 

So just noting the news of potential competition for State Senate district 40...  virtually uncontested by anyone with incumbent Senator Orie until recently, this map may of interest.  There are 203 legislators in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, but only 50 in the state senate, so the districts are not small.  Senate district 40 is much of the near North Hills:

View Larger Map


things that are not there any more

Christian Science Monitor's Sports Economist had an obligatory Pittsburgh mention yesterday.

I took these pictures myself one cold morning:

I wonder if the writer knew, or just found it not apropos, that we still have a Stadium Authority as well.. or a Stadium-less authority as it were. If you could only push a button to blow up the Stadium Authority as well. Amazing how much harder that is than takingout the entire structure.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Follow those posts - ebay real estate

So I mentioned a local property for sale on ebay that I noticed a few weeks ago.

Looks like the ebay auction did finish and the winning bid for the property was a little above $3K.

Sure would be interested to know who the counterparties are and whether this all worked out for either side. 



What SF can learn from..........

There is no discussion of Pittsburgh here at all, but note the main picture in this post on Streetsblog SF.....

What Can SF Learn from Other Cities’ Urban Water Projects?

I swear I was just looking for a link with some background on Nine Mile Run and the first thing I find specifically on topic is this:





Sunday, April 18, 2010

You can phone it in... for a limited time

One last chance it seems.  You should have mailed in your census forms by now and at this point it may be too late to do so.  But there is a limited chance to phone in your response...  just for a few days.  After that, they are going to come find you. 

Just because I don't want to risk any misinformation, this is literally what I have via the Census gnomes on how to phone in your response. Be warned that some have found the phone system they have to be less than user friendly.

April 16, 2010
DCED: U.S. Census Bureau Offers PA Residents Alternative Ways to Be Counted

Through April 22, Residents May Call Toll-Free Number or Visit Local Centers

Harrisburg – Pennsylvanians who did not receive a Census survey in the mail or who have yet to be visited by a Census worker can ensure they are counted by making a phone call or visiting a local assistance center, Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary George Cornelius said today.

Until April 22, Cornelius said Pennsylvanians can call the Census 2010 Help Line toll-free at (866) 872-6868 to either answer the survey’s questions over the phone or to request that a survey be mailed to their home. People can also find a local questionnaire assistance center at

“Everyone benefits by participating in the Census because – simply put – money follows people,” Cornelius said. “More than $400 billion in federal funds are distributed each year to communities for essential services based on population numbers. If post office box holders are left out, or if citizens decide not to participate, Pennsylvania will suffer lasting consequences.”

The Census determines each municipality’s federal funding levels for everything from road maintenance and construction to other critical public works projects, health care, and education. Municipalities across the state are already dealing with increased costs and decreased funding.
Cornelius said the U.S. Census Bureau is making this limited-time-offer to ensure participation is more convenient for citizens and gaining a complete count is less costly to taxpayers.
“By taking advantage of these limited-time alternatives, residents can help to reduce the cost of the Census. Remember, for every 1 percent of households that return their forms by mail, we save $85 million by not having to send Census takers door to door to collect information.”
Cornelius said that in the past, those not receiving a form had to wait to be visited by a Census-taker. This is the first time when people who have not received a form could still participate by calling or visiting a center.
Cornelius said that while Pennsylvania’s statewide participation rate of 73 percent is better than the national count (68 percent) many areas of the state are below those figures and that it important for the citizens there to participate.

To view a map and see the participation rate by area or municipality, visit

For more information, visit


on numbers

Required reading for all of us (the royal 'us') who obsess a bit too much on monthly ticks up or down in just about any economic statistic you can think of.  From the WSJ's Numbers Guy: 

It Is 90% Certain That Unemployment Rose. Or Fell.

And all those issues which are real at a national scale are much bigger deals for local statistics which will have larger inherent errors. 


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Harrisburg love

Well...  Harrisburg really loves us.   Too bad that it's more the harrisburg with the little h.... not the Harrisburg with the big checkbook. 


Facebook incognito

If you do not obsessively reread Potter's posts you may have missed this.  He has updated his post on the fictitiousTom Murphy Facebook page that is pretty funny in itself.  I still haven't quite figured out how you could have a facebook page on a guy who never existed in the first place.


Friday, April 16, 2010

No-Bottled-Water Burgh

This is curious...  Sent in from the NS peanut gallery. We are #10 in a ranking of Least Wasteful Cities.  Sounds good. 

Why?  Lots of factors it looks like.  Here is their Pittsburgh profile. We rank really high in terms of places that don't buy bottled water.   So does the PWSA get credit?   or are we just really cheap?


White collar immigrant Burgh...

Nothing we don't already know actually.   But here is something that goes along with our other news today. Per the NYT, a place called the Fiscal Policies Institute (FPI) in NY has a study just out that looks at the characteristics of immigration in large cities. The percentage of immigrants in white-collar jobs ranged from a low of 50.4 percent in New York to a high of 75.8 percent in Pittsburgh.

This goes along with something we have known for some time that the international immigrants who settle in Pittsburgh are proportionally some of the most highly educated among the immigrant flows across metro areas. 


the day after tax day......

Mentioned last month.. but much better for today.. Would have been better if I remembered yesterday.  Am not sure the original source is, but Visualizing Economics pointed me toward a copy of FDR's 1913 income tax return.   Pretty cool history. 

How did he do that without TurboTax?


Send in the Army (of census takers)

OK... this is the official note from the gnomes at the Census Bureau:
FRIDAY, April 16 - **This is it! Fill out and mail back your census form TODAY!*

If you do not mail back your census form, a census taker will visit your home in person to ensure that we accurately count each person in the country...

* Census takers are your neighbors - people from your community, hired by the Census Bureau, to go door-to-door and collect census information from residents that have not sent back their 2010 Census forms. Please cooperate with the census takers to ensure an accurate count of your community.

* A census taker will visit your home up to six times, each time leaving a door hanger. The door hanger has a phone number on it that you can call to schedule a visit and be counted. (emphasis added)
From what I can tell the participation rate the Census folks had for the mail in response is up into the high 60's percentage wise.  The thing is that I am pretty sure they had a goal well into the 70's just to meet their budget target.  The lower the resonse rate the more they have to spend sending people out looking for you in person.   Barring a last minute surge they might get to target, but it does not look like they are going to blow it away. 

Still might not be a budget issue for them in the end.  One story coming out of the census is that because of the recession they have been getting much better workers than they expected.. the result being that their individual productivity is a lot higher than planned for and they don't think they need as many workers to get the expected amout of work done.  The fewer workers are translating into real savings they say. 


Thursday, April 15, 2010


Time magazine teaches me a new workforce word:  Phonesourcing

The multiple mentions of Pittsburgh are a bit incidential to the story there.  They mention how the local AAA offices could not get their employees to work in February and had to rely on outsourced services from companies pooling lots of stay at home workers armed with their phones and computers.  I think homesourcing might be a better description of what they are talking about.

But even if the focus on Pittsburgh is incidential to the story it is not incidential to us.  February had all sort of labor force issues here in town.  If established firms could not get their workers to their job sites because of weather, I bet an awful lot of routine hiring was deferred at the very least.  AAA was even one of those places that I think would be needed a lot more during a snow storm than at other times.

Thus...  when you look at February's unemployemnt data which wasn't good, take it all as a snapshot of our semi-historic February snowfall. 


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Speaking of naming things

Should have caught this myself.  ER passes on an item from the Navy Times yesterday that there will be a ship named for the late John Murtha.

Said to be a San Antonio class amphibious transport dock (LPD).  Would make it a ship that will look like this. Neat ship.


earned media is earned media

Someone sent me a link to the supposed Tom Murphy facebook page some time ago and I had thought about mentioning it in a post.  Yet somehow my inner BS monitor saved me and I dithered until I forgot about it.  For some reason I don't think I used it (did I?).   Good thing

I've never quite believed the adage in politics that all news coverage is good, but that post by Potter is about as much coverage as the former mayor has had in the last year or more.  So I will piggyback on that or just use it as a cheap trick to generate consternation and comments.  For Mr. Google I will spell it out clearer than in some previous posts:

Name the Hot Metal Bike/Ped Bridge for Tom Murphy.

The argument is pretty simple.  I don't think there is any debate that the bike trail system that now exists in the city is his doing.  I really doubt a mile of it would be there if not for him.  Nobody was making much progress on any of it before he pushed for the trails to be completed.   Politics aside.  History aside. Emotion, or if you wish logic, aside. There really would be a certain authenticity to it all if nothing else. Think names are sacrosanct?  The actual bridge is not really the Hot Metal Bridge.  Technically its the Mon Con.

Yeah, I adopt stray cats as well.  Everyone needs a friend.

BP meds are in the cabinet Infi. Try and at least let someone else be the first to comment. 


another quiz

The state AFL-CIO is in town this week you may have noticed.  Brings to mind a quiz I posted once before. The updated version would be:  

In 2009 the private sector unionization rate of the workforce in the Pittsburgh region was:

a) 11%
b) 16%
c) 21%
d) 27%

I'll put the answer in the comments. 


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quiz: what is Betamax?

A funny story from CNN that someone in town might want to follow up on..  Is there anyone at all in town still in the business of repairing typewriters, let alone manual typewriters?  If such services still exist anywhere it is probably here.

Speaking of needing repairs.  Cook was an optimist.

addendum:   Speaking of Pittsburgh and Typewriters Visible Writing Machines...  Joe has the uber-illustration.  I'm not sure whether to comment on the technology, or the model.  What does that mean anyway?  Were there once invisible writing machines? Or invisible writing?


Monday, April 12, 2010

Once more - it's the unhistory of it all

Once more into the breach I suppose.   I see ER mentions that there will be some retrospective discussion of the whole Fifth Forbes thing 10 years ago and I presume some obligatory gnashing over Murphy himself mixed in there. 

Funny that there is more notice of that than a shindig a few weeks ago with the guy himself here in town.  Granted it was a closed event, but still you wonder whether anyone asks him to talk on that history, good or bad.  He may just decline, I really don't know.  When you think about it... lots of local pols go to ground when they are out of office, even the ones who don't have such negatives.. even some who were quite popular.   Anyone hear from Bill Coyne much at all?  Long serving congressman for the city and environs and he still lives here.  Seems like he would be good on all sorts of subjects, and I will add he is also responsible for the strengthening of the tiered (aka Henry George) tax in the city when he was on city council.   How about that staple of local political punditry Tom Flaherty who is amazingly quiescent, but that you can mostly explain by his honor's new job on the court and all.


and then they were gone

Just last week I commented on the train that has been sitting on the tracts along the Mon/Bike trail for several years  without movement.   Well,  reports are that over the weekend it went all kinetic on us and is gone.  Poof.  Disappeared.  Never to be seen again?

Sign of the auto industry picking up?  One of those obscure economic indicators that are more important than what you hear about in the news from the talking heads?  or off to a railcar graveyard somewhere, or maybe just shunted off to a more obscure siding?  Who knows?

So we (the royal we that is) take full credit for getting the train moved whether deserved or not.  It is quite a coincidence that after I think several full years of sitting stationary it just picks up and moves.  I honestly did note a few pings on the site from what could have been CSX folks or related... but I will still chalk it up to pure coincidence.  If I really thought folks in general, let alone the rail industry power that be, read my ramblings I would get all self-conscious.  If I had any real power over the rail industry...  I don't think I'd waste it on moving unused rail cars.  Maybe we could build a passenger rail line to Cranberry or something?  You hear that mysterious rail lurker!


Manufacturing Möbius

A steel note from the "Pittsburgh of the South".....  or maybe we are the "Birmingham of the North" these days?    But something on steel/university relations and a comment in the Birmingham News from my friend Carey here in town.  Just shows that when people talk steel they still talk Pittsburgh.

Maybe we are the Hamilton of the states?  Labor/Management issues in the steel industry used to be its own beat here in town.  But a note of that from the Hamilton Spectator yesterday. 

But to complement old and new: San Diego is celebrating 50 years since the founding of the Salk Institute.  The polio vaccine we are all so proud of here.   A less talked about history is soon after the success with the polio vaccine Jonas Salk left to head to San Diego where he is responsible for a large part of the relatively thriving bioech industry there.  (a side note, but that picture of a Chihuly may look familiar, it was the piece hanging at Phipps when the Chihuly show was there). 

Can I tie that stream of consciousness together?  You bet.  Talk in town continues of a new vaccine production facility here.   From a pure wonk-accounting point of view, but if that happens at scale the jobs created at such an establishment ought to be classified as manufacturing jobs.  What is old is new again?  and in terms of the sheer number of jobs, such a facility has the potential on its own to employ almost as many as the commercial biotech industry in town does right now.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

the uber-pathology lurking in the Zappala/Orie imbroglio

AP has a piece looking at the general topic of how the census will impact political redistricting in Pennsylvania.  A few years ago I got more specific with the numbers on how redistricting will impact the state house including projected changes by county across the commonwealth.  See bottom of page 1 and map on page 7 of this. I'll put the summary map of those results below, but basically it's documenting the obvious:  Allegheny County is going to lose on the order of 2 whole state house seats.  Butler and Washington will gain a fractional seat each and most every other county in the region will lose a fraction of a seat. Seats are going to be gained in the SE part of the state except for Philadelphia proper and the NE part of the state.

But there is something really big looming out there.  Talking with a friend recently we realized the uber-pathology of what could potentially happen in Pennsylvania's redistricting process.  The redistricting process within the state involves the State Supreme Court in many ways.  The initial way is it could get involved is in how the 5-person Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission gets picked.  4 folks are chosen respectively from the legislative caucuses in the state house and state senate.  Those 4 then must choose the 5th member which would presumably be a deciding vote in many cases.   If they can't choose a 5th person then the state supreme court is tasked with appointing the 5th, and pivotal, member.

Think about it...   for the record this isn't a prediction in any way shape or form... but at least consider the possibility that any of this leads to State Supreme Court justice Joan Orie Melvin needing to step aside in any form then what do you have? Politically it would be a 4-4 evenly divided court.  What then?   Oh, and how do empty seats on the supreme court get filled?  Isn't it a gubenatorial appointment also needing state senate approval.  So with a D governor and a R controlled senate where does that go?

There are other roles the supreme court could play beyond that. The court would hear any appeals of the plan and if the legislature does not pass a redistricting plan then the supreme court again should step in to provide it's own plan.  All things that could become quite a scene if the court itself was deadlocked.  It's not like there is a default path that would result from split decisions in most cases.  The court's role in most of this would require majority decisions to effect anything.  Lacking that who knows what could happen... or not happen I suppose. Remember the US Constitution requires redistricting. 

Anyway, this is a map I did a few years ago of projected changes in state general assembly representation by county if census population trends were extrapolated through to 2010. 

Source:  PEQ, June 2006


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Right in time for that yuan appreciation everyone is calling for

The timing is exquisite.  
A small news item out there is that a firm is planning to land one flight per week of air cargo here from Shanghai and Vietnam. 

So I tried to look up the oldest reference I can find for "Air cargo" here.  In the PG there is this article from 2002 which says there isn't just one, but two new air cargo facilities to be built out there imminently.  Plus a few other contemporaneous economic prognostications of note in passing... and remember, this was well past the point USAir was showing an erratic heartbeat... this wasn't from the mid 90s groupthink years when people really believed USAir and the airport would be the economic engine to replace all of steel.    So much so that for years after that I would get questions predicated on some assumption that the loss of jobs at USAirways was equivalent to the loss of steel jobs here.   I'd usually say something like: sure, just add a zero.  Can't lose what you never had.


Friday, April 09, 2010

Follow those stories - Marcellus numerology and more

PG looks at the disconnect between the data and talk thus far on Marcellus jobs in the state.  And while fully conceding the skill set of miners and potential Marcellus workers are probably not direct substitutes, it's interesting to read that and the other energy related piece in the PG today.  Looking at the role of coal in the economy is the main theme, but it has a factoid in passing I had not caught:
" Last year's economic downturn hit Pennsylvania's workers especially hard, as the state's production (of coal) sunk to its lowest level in more than 100 years: 58.1 million tons"
So overall, whatever is happening with shale it is not great times for state energy workers which is belied by many things but especially the high unemployment in the areas of the region still most impacted by coal.  Greene, Fayette, Washington counties all have some of the highest unemployment around.  That and local coal barge traffic is now at a 15 year low...  which translates to real jobs in the region's river economy.

On energy and employment numbers.. Trib looks at the state's wind industry. One note there is that they highlight the Spanish firm Gamesa that moved into the state to make windmill blades.  It mentions just that Gamesa had opened a manufacturing plant in Ebensburg just east of Pittsburgh, but last I heard most had been laid off not long ago????  Althought this local tv report says the plant has 250 folks... so I don't know the status...  Funny how none of the reports add up to a consistent number...  the Trib article says the firm has 250 folks employed statewide including HQ in Philly and another plant out east which would not leave many folks here.  and I'm not the only one confused. A very recent letter to the editor out in Johnstown says there are 300 folks working at the plant in Ebensberg.   So who knows the very latest?  If they have ramped back up, I'm surprised I didn't catch news of that.  Overall Gamesa is  not doing great on Wall Street either of late.  Anyway,  all gets to the same big disconnect between perception and reality in the economy. 

So who knows about the present, looking toward the future it's still worth keep watch on how far natural gas prices are plunging ever more.  Am not implying all natural gas fields in the US are impacted the same by that.. in fact you could think of an argument that if price stays low the relatively low cost producers could benefit some if higher cost production shuts down.  Was what has happened within the coal industry historically around here, but natgas production is not coal obviously.  Even if there is some bounceback, the range natgas is trading in these days is actually off the chart (on the low end that is) on the range of prices the big producers were planning on.  That's gotta mean something.  While the (local) miners may still not have ramped up... all this real estate activity I know has been a boon for a lot of lawyers..  Waiting for that story in the news next. 

Lest anyone say I am ignoring other news.. it's not like there is not real activity with regards to Marcellus stuff... including this $1.7 billion dollar deal hitting the wire as I type (literally)..  Still the issues of the jobs (or lack thereof) resulting from all this financial activity which sure feels like speculation......   and btw.  the 300K acres mentioned in that PR comes out to about 10 times the size of the entire City of Pittsburgh.  Almost as big as all of Allegheny County.
Anyway...   maybe we can help the natgas price out.   If the state was not so broke you would think that they could take the lead in building a natgas distribution infrastructure for autos in the state. Forget electric hybrids, I think natgas cars could be made all around right now.  Anyone remember when the city of Pittsburgh ran a fleet of natgas cars?  But is there a commercial natgas pump in the city anywhere any more?


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Work to do

I know folks are excited about Pittsburgh's green building momentum.  But an extract from Melissa Hinca-Ownby lead me to look at the Green Building Opportunity Index that is recently out.  She looks at one of the categories driving the ranking and there is this:
Green Culture – Downtown New York City

A city’s green economy, city innovation, planning & land use, and transit ridership data from SustainLane was used to rank cities in this category. (Pittsburgh, Pa., and Detroit, Mich., both received a score of zero in this category.)
A zero?   See page 5 of the actual report.  


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ghost in the slag

At the risk of further irking Mr. Infinonymous (and a few others in town no doubt)...  what is missing in this story.

Also in the Trib, I would recommend folks take heed of this short newsoid.


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

caveat emptor

Last year I looked at an ebay sale for a property near my home in Garfield.  Not quite sure what happened to that.  Was just curious what the state of the ebay real estate market is in Pittsburgh. The only property I find quickly on ebay being offered for sale in Pittsburgh is this property from the North Side.

Yet...   it really is a profile in blight.   First off, looks good right?  35 bids up to all of $1,300 for what looks like a solid structure even if it needs work.  What problems could there be?  What problems could this deal not have.  First off, it sure looks like property taxes have not been paid in at least 4 years.   The county's web site only lists the county-owed property taxes which we all know are the lowest of 3 taxes most parcels accrue taxes for.  In the city of Pittsburgh the city itself and school district both have levies that presumably are unpaid.  So there are at least $5K there in taxes due on this parcel which would wind up being owed by a new owner.

Then it gets weird.  First off the ebay offerer of this property has no other ebay activity ever.  No other information on the advertisement is obvious that would allow for contact with the seller or even basic due dilligence.   The county web site lists a contact for tax billings.  "NRG MANAGEMENT GROUP, LLC, 38 POLO CT,CHARLES TOWN, WV 25414. 

To begin with I can't get google maps to identify the address at all, but maybe I am map-challenged.  Then I can't find any evidence of a business named NRG Management in Charles Town, WV.   One D&B entry from 2006 listed a single employee company at the time is about as close as I can get.  I'm understanding why those tax mailings are not responded to. There are a number of firms around the country and beyond named NRG Management, but nothing that jumps up as being connected to this property. 

But the ebay listing is interesting.  It says to add $549 to any bid to cover costs. Intresting amount.. any brokers out there want to comment on whether that amount makes any more sense than a number chosen at random?   It also gives a brief explanation of how it says the process would work. It says you will be mailed a quit claim deed which I am not sure is going to work easily in Pennsylvania.  I really would love to hear from a local real estate lawyer as to whether the idea of doing a real estate transaction that way would really be feasible and not cause more legal headaches than it would solve... assuming everything else is on the up and up that is. 

and by the way... the property I looked at last year which had been for sale on ebay does not appear to have a transaction record at any point since then. 


existential numbers

This from the AP begs for parsing.   Numbers I pull from it include: 
  • 6  = Ratio of Yankees total payroll to that of the Pirates
  • -29% = Pirates decline in payroll from last year
  • 0 = Number of teams with lower payroll than the Pirates

The NHL sets a lower limit of the payroll range for teams which acts as the opposite of a salary cap… so it's a minimum that each team must pay out. If such a thing existed in baseball, would not the Pirates be below it? Maybe it's time for MLB to set a payroll minimum.  In the end it's kind of a metaphysical question, but how little can you spend and still be counted as a major league professional sports team?

But if we rank teams by operating income??   and then update with the latest numbers, what would you get? 


Monday, April 05, 2010

Pittsburgh 2 degrees rule - pension edition

The news headlines last week actually had the one big number to come out of the biennial reports on the city's pension system.  A shade under an even billion dollars in total pension liability. For a city of 300K people and less than 150K households that is a lot. Ho hum it would seem as far as how much notice it really got. I suspect opening day of a baseball team predicted to lose over a hundred games will generate an order of magnitude more interest.  Who says this isn't a baseball town?

Is not the state of the city's pension system the single biggest policy issue impacting the city of Pittsburgh now and into the future? Not just the size of the liability, but it's intractability that makes it issue #1. Nowadays it is driving the entire effort to monetize all of the parking assets currently owned by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority.  Impacts go beyond the city of course.  Just one example:  Legacy costs facing the city of Pittbsurgh may be the single biggest thing in the way of further city county consolidation and a host of other things that can't be addressed as long as there is a billion dollar elephant in the room.  I say it all ties together.  I want to make one of those omnibus schematics that are in vogue to show how all the financial problems in the region are connected....  but that is beyond me for the moment. 

Yet for what is arguably the biggest policy issue in town...  how much does anyone really ever know about the pension system? I challenge anyone to find much useful information on the pension system on the city web site.  You may have to work harder than you should just to find any the web page for the pension system at all.. and when you do there isn't much there that has been updated in 3 years, or so it seems to me.  We are now, and have been for some time, way behind that paragon of fiscal responsibility:  Detroit, in terms of how much transprency the pension system has.  I've pointed out before the web site of the Retirement Systems of the City of Detroit.  Lots of info there down to the minutes of their pension board meetings, a recent annual report, even all their past auditor's reports.  Anything remotely like that here? For just about any local government around?  I know there are some, but not many.

Look at the Detroit site. It shows that transparency is not about funky web sites, nor gimmicky of any kind.  I actually suspect that Detroit page was written in MS Front Page or something equally dated.  Yet it has infinitely more data on it than what we have here.

Anyway.  Could go on forever on the numbers themselves.  All that is just my preface to the longer wonkish jeremiad that needs to be written.  I've updated most of my iPension page for those who want the gory details on the state of the city's pension system. Could obsess on each chart I suppose.  Some other day.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. It's a web site that ought not to exist.  There is nothing there that the city couldn't put online tomorrow if it wanted to with no more cost than a few hours of an intern's time. Beyond that and for the moment those numbers will have to mostly speak for themselves.


Sunday, April 04, 2010

More Marcellus Mania

Jim R. caught a bit of rethinking to the Macellus hype from the Houston Chronicle.  See: Gas drilling won't goose economy all that much, says study.  Follows up on some thoughts I had last week.  Lots going on and I doubt we know where this will all really go in the end.  But the Chronicle also links to a valuable meta-analysis page listing studies of shale gas drilling studies compiled by some place called EnergyInDepth. I would think they all would be required reading around here given how much talk there is of Marcellus impacts all around. 

Jim adds some comments on the potential supply chain impacts natgas drilling could have, in particular on pipelines.  No doubt there has been talk of the demand surge for steel resulting from drilling activities and the eventual distribution of gas in production. So it's a real source of new demand for sure, but you sure sense a strong feeling of deja vu.  Didn't US steel once sense a glimmer of hope in oil pipeline sales a quarter century ago? 


Still Seeking Words

Some readers from afar may not know it's a sad anniversary here.  I'll just link back to what I posted at the time: Seeking Words


Saturday, April 03, 2010

train mystery

This is a very long set of rail cars that have been seemingly abandoned on the rail lines along the Monongahela and visable from either the bike trail and 837...   The thing is they have been there for longer than I can remember..  2+ years.. I think it's 3 years by now?? and they are still there. Anyone know why?  

They all appear to me to be the same type of car.. I thought they were for cattle or something, not that I know much about anything rolling stock beyond what we put tanks, HMMWV's and shipping containers on.  But I was told they are all clearly autoracks for cars. 

So I would say they were all casualties of the recession which has hit the auto industry hard.. except I still think these have been in place here longer than the recession has been official at least.  Still is good theory, but I just wonder why it makes sense to leave them here for so long.  I guess anyplace is as good as another though I would think there would be better places to minimize depreciation. No desert for rail cars like they do with planes I suppose. Is CSX getting paid rent?


Hiring Homers

Boston Globe has an uber-relevant article for us today:  Alarm over shortage of nuclear experts

Long before Westinghouse started it's latest expansion I calculated that the concentration of the nation's nuclear engineers in the Pittsburgh region must be higher than most anywhere else.   Not just Westinghouse, but Bettis and other factors all fed into that. In fact, I can make a simple argument connecting our industrial past to nuclear today.  Yet now with Westinghouse trying to expand as fast as they can, they are in the center of this labor supply conundrum....  How to grow a workforce that has been moribund for almost precisely a career-length?


and Google says.......

No.  Not yet.  Relax.  

But Burgher Jon caught Mr. Google's first official comment last week on the competition for Google Fiber.   Below is their map of where they received popular 'nominations' from and we did well it seems.  The bigger circles are where they received 1,000 or more such resident inputs.  1,000 does not seem like a big threshold given the hype, but we are among a very small number of places to have even that.  Thinking like Jim R., I wonder how many folks nominating Pittsburgh were not actually residents here.  If Google would tell us it might be a diaspora story unto itself.

Anyway, the map.  


Friday, April 02, 2010

Grading transparency

Just noticing this article from SF on local government transparency.... I wondered what our grade is from this group grading local governments on usefulness of their  web pages.  All I find on Pittsburgh is this which seems to say it's an I for incomplete or that the review is incomplete??  Who knows?

Anyway... more on government transparency here on Monday.  Why spoil a nice weekend with any nattering.

addendum micronatter:   I just noticed that in addition to the page for the city linked above they have also poked at the Allegheny County Web page and give it a B-...  which isn't the worst of grades.  It also has something I can't even figure where they found it on the county web site...  They seem to care a lot about lobbying issues and have found the time series for county lobbying expenditures.  A peak was 2005.  And they have detail on which agencies or authorities were expending money on lobbying. 



or I suppose Troutology would be more accurate.   Pennsylvania trout season starts tomorrow in Eastern PA... but you need to wait a few weeks out here.  Seriously, I bet your chances of being ticketed for illegal fishing are an order of magnitude higher than for speeding on the turnpike. 

For those of you think I am nuts obsessive... I give you the cult classic from 1992: UCSUR's Pennsylvania Trout survey and report by the late Norm Hummons.  97 pages of single spaced text interspersed with 126 tables.   In other words... no fluff.

Trout people are serious.

addendum:  I may have succeeded in my quest to foster a neologism.   Other than through bad spelling that is.  The only google reference to troutonomics refers back to this post.  Ha.


Thursday, April 01, 2010

I forgot.. Census Day

I really did forget.  Census Day.  Some news reports seem to be saying today is a 'deadline' for sending in the form which isn't really right. You should send the form in tomorrow even if you had forgotten... and if not you will even be getting another one in the mail to send in.  April 1 is the reference day for the census... so what you report should reflect the state of your household as of today. 

But a question popping up.  Why are you getting a 2nd form if you already sent in your form? Basically for lots of areas its easier and cheaper to mass mail a 2nd form to everyone than to sort out who did or who didn't send them in.  and there are printing issues that would prevent spot printing on demand at this scale.. All these forms were probably printed years ago.

Gotta give the marketing folks at the Census Bureau some credit.  Lots of play with their map showing response rates.   Realize that a lot of areas and neighborhoods really can't rank high in terms of their response rates.  Everywhere the Census could identify a mailing address gets a form and in places where there is concentrated housing vacancy there can't be anyone to respond.  That will show up as a low response rate. Just the way it is.  In fact I suspect the final results will be mostly a proxy for vacancy, but we will see. 

That and if you are confused why some areas are not showing up on the map.. long answer, but it's an artifact of how the Census Bureau accounts for local municipalities in Pennsylvania.  they wind up itemizing data for boroughs and not townships.. 


Sometimes a cupcake is just a cupcake

There was once an April Fool's Day that fell on a Sunday which allowed for some fun in the paper.  Below I figured I would reprint (re-something) the great cupcake post the PG printed a few years ago.  Actually, I don't think April Fool's was the real genesis of this nor of the articles that went with it, but providence being what it is.....  One article was by Mike Madison: The Cupcake Class and its Discontents and the other by Rachel Kramer Bussel: Why Cupcakes are Hot!   This all came right at the crescendo of the cupcake mania sweeping the local media and the manic overinterpretation of it all as a sign of new Pittsburgh alighting.  We were a bit desperate for signs of change pre-G20 and all.  Now we are just picking up the pieces in our post-cupcake world and all.

Personally I think it was all Mike's fault because he was never taught what 'custard' is supposed to be.  If you get that reference you read too many blogs.  80 degrees outside.  Head to the mountains and far from wifi or 3G of any kind. 

So just in honor of April Fools day here it is...  though I point out that there is not a single fictitious factoid in there.  Every number is real. 


Cupcakes by the Numbers.  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 1, 2007

By Christopher Briem

Census figures shows that 81 retail baked goods manufacturers form the backbone of the region's entrepreneur-based cupcake production.

Pittsburgh has a long way to go before it reaches its full cupcake potential. As the first graphic on annual spending shows (click link at right), the average Pittsburgher consumes a mere $399 per year in cereal and baked goods. The challenge is in competing against regions that have much larger appetites for the sweetened carbohydrate. The regional champion is Boston, which consumes $579 per capita on baked goods, 45 percent more than we do. Do these regional disparities reflect disparate tastes or merely the priciness of living in Beantown? Further research is required.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2,080 local bakers comprise the core of the region cupcake workforce. An aging cupcake workforce needs to be replenished lest we be forced to import less-than-fresh baked goods from Cleveland and beyond.

At an average annual wage of $19,940, bakers in Pittsburgh lag the rest of the country who earn $23,150. Low relative wages make it difficult to grow a quality cupcake work force. As a region we must succeed at attracting and retaining those students currently enrolled in cupcake baking courses. They will soon become the next generation of cupcake workers.

The United States is facing a widening cupcake gap as consumers buy more foreign-produced pastries than U.S. bakeries are exporting. According to U.S. International Trade Commission statistics, the United States currently imports over $775 million more in baked goods than it exports each year. This cupcake trade gap can only be narrowed by enhancing cupcake productivity and the quality of cupcake output across the nation.

Business leaders already know the downside of rampant cupcake cost inflation. Greater cupcake costs means the local work force must devote larger shares of their disposable income to meet pastry budgets. If left unchecked, regional cupcake cost disparities could inhibit the attractiveness of the region as a place to live and work.

How can Pittsburgh capitalize on new cupcake-induced investment? For a region with a storied history in the creative preparation of fast-food meat patties and french fries, the transformation into a cluster of pastry excellence will take bold initiatives. Policies must foster collaboration among public and private sector pastry initiatives that benefit the entire region. Not all communities are equally served by the cupcake economy and many subregions remain underserved cupcake deserts.

Baking innovation must become a part of the region's culture.

Cupcake tastes are fleeting and investment must not be limited to butter cream or devil's food. No one cupcake will capture consumers' interest for long. Cupcake targeting risks betting the future on yesterday's recipe. A disruptive technology is always on the horizon. You can never know when chocolate chip cookies or other retro-deserts will come into vogue.

Can cupcakery help Pittsburgh achieve its economic potential? What spinoffs will cupcakes have in our neighborhoods and communities?

If Pittsburgh is to grow and prosper, it must become a pastry-friendly investment zone across the region. Only our collective effort will ensure that we retain a cluster of quality bakeries to meet our growing cupcake appetite.

Then again, sometimes a cupcake is just a cupcake