obligatory obscure reference

self-deprecating yet still self-promotional witty comment


“Broken Windows” theory of crime has merit

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Politics — jet @ 17:18

Perhaps folks in local government can learn something from the success in Boston?


Researchers, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work – clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded.

In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

Then researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University sat back and watched, meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots.

The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated “bro ken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.


[tags]crime, pittsburgh[/tags]


Pittsburgh’s “Culture of Complacency”

Filed under: , The Future Of,Food and Restaurants,Pittsburgh — jet @ 19:35

On the way home tonight I stopped at a PCLB store (state owned liquor and wine but no beer store) to pick up a bottle of cheap sake. Good sake is hard to find here, but at least PLCB stocks Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, a fine table/drinking nigori. The PLCB I stopped at has a history of having “something other than gekkikan”, so I was checking out the good stuff and considering maybe trying a new ginjo or two.

Then I noticed bottles of Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama Nigori on the shelf.

Yeah, you read that right. “…Nama Nigori on the shelf”. I don’t know that non-refrigerated sake is bad for you, but it’s probably going to taste pretty foul.

What happened next is a wonderful example of what I think of as a culture of complacency.

Me: Excuse me, but there’s a problem with some of your stock.

Manager: What?

Me: This sake. It’s nama sake, it’s unpasteurized, and if it’s not refrigerated it will go bad. It’s probably not safe to drink either, I don’t think spoiled sake is something I’d want to drink.

Manager (showing no interest in looking at the bottle): They ship me stuff, I put it where they tell me.

Me: Right, but they apparently didn’t tell you this needs to go in the fridge.   

Manager (still no interest in looking at the bottle): Look, I told you, they ship me stuff, I put it where they tell me.

Me: Ok, but it even says on the bottle to “keep refrigerated”. If it’s gone bad, or if it’s a health risk, you aren’t going to at least take it off the shelf?

Manager: Nobody’s returned any of it yet.

Me: Well, you just started carrying this. I’ve been living here 3 years, this is the first time I’ve seen nama anywhere in a state store.

Manager: I’m telling you, they ship me stuff, I put it where they tell me. You don’t have to buy it if you don’t want it.

And yes, I’m notifying the PLCB and ACHD including store and date/time of visit…

I’d like to think that if I went to a manager/owner of a privately owned store and said, “hey, one of your products is definitely gone off and might be bad for someone to drink” that their response wouldn’t be “so?”

[tags]complacency, pittsburgh, plcb, sake[/tags]


Exactly what I was wondering…

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh — jet @ 11:29

Surplus? What Surplus?

And I never thought about it this way, but yeah:

“Brain-drain no brainer: Where do young graduates go when they leave Pittsburgh? To cities with viable public transportation systems, so they can work and play without having to buy a car on entry-level salaries or coffee shop wages”

[tags]future, pittsburgh, PAT[/tags]


Attention Pittsburgh Broadcast Media!

Filed under: Pittsburgh,Politics,Rants — jet @ 12:44

Given the number of negative attack ads running on the TV and radio, I find myself unable to watch your channel or listen to your station. Between now and the day after the election, I will only be watching national news that I’ve recorded on my TiVo DVR, and even those shows I will not be watching those in real-time.

This is something you, the local media, have a say in. You are able to refuse ads, so why not set some civil standards? Only accept ads paid for by the candidates and only those ads that spend at least 3/4 of their time talking about the candidate and not the opponent. Or only accept ads aren’t currently debunked by factcheck.org.

But you, the local media, have decided to take every dollar and any ad that comes along. I find myself regularly turning off KQV as soon as an attack ad starts and listening to NPR or a CD. Soon, I’ll stop turning in to KQV all-together and spend a few minutes looking at the traffic online before I leave the house rather than waiting for a traffic report on the radio.

Same goes for local TV stations — why should I wade through repeated attack ads that insult my intelligence and damage the democratic process on local TV when I can tune to an international news channel or go to my computer and get the news and weather there?

You need to have viewers and listeners to justify your ad rates, and to get us, you need to broadcast content we want. I don’t mind ads for things I might want, but ads that make me angry also make me change to another station, CDs, or the Internet.

[tags]media, pittsburgh, politics,[/tags]


Google’s Street View and Paranoid Movie Plots

Filed under: Hacking,Pittsburgh,Politics — jet @ 10:02

I wish this were in The Onion and not the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

A national children’s advocacy group is pushing to get Pittsburgh removed from the Street View of Google’s map search until the technology is refined so pedophiles can’t use it to pinpoint children’s homes, schools and playgrounds.

Street View, an addition to Google Maps that uses vehicle cameras to take 360-degree, street-level views of neighborhoods, allows users to virtually cruise down a street and across a city. In the process, the tool shows pictures of children, toys and family cars that could tip a would-be predator to an area where children could be found and potentially victimized, according to the group, Stop Internet Predators.

OMFG! I bet you could use Street View to find cars to steal! Or burglars could find houses with plate glass front windows surrounded by bushes that are easy to break into! Rapists could find bushes to hide in!

I mean, it’s not like people can drive around neighborhoods and find those things in real time, is it?

Sadly, this ignorance about crime is nothing new.

Quintilian, INSTITUTIO ORATORIA, II, xvi (first century AD):

“Doctors have been caught using poisons, and those who falsely assume the
name of philosopher have occasionally been detected in the gravest crimes.
Let us give up eating, it often makes us ill; let us never go inside
houses, for sometimes they collapse on their occupants; let never a sword
be forged for a soldier, since it might be used by a robber.”

[tags]google, idiocy, privacy[/tags]


Attention PA Amateur Radio Operators

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Pittsburgh,Politics — jet @ 12:51

I don’t follow PA state politics closely to understand why this is a partisan issue, but the claim is that Democrats in the house are trying to kill a bill that reflects current federal law regarding antenna regulation by sending it off to a subcommittee.

This from the Atlantic Division Director, Bill Edgar, N3LLR:

Please see the attached document from Joe, N3TTE. They’re sample letters to be sent to your local rep as well as Rep Dwight Evans, the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. After speaking to my local representative his office suggested that all interested parties contact Representative Evans urging him to bring the bill out of Committee and up to the house for a full vote. AB3ER also called Rep. Evans office and the staffer there commented that the Appropriations Committed was being “used” to kill the bill. We need to look like an 800Lb Gorilla who votes coming at these representatives to keep the special interest (PA State Association of Township Supervisors) from killing this legislation.

The full email, along with sample letters is here. Take a minute and write/fax/call your local Representative and ask that this bill be brought out of committee.

[tags]amateur radio, antenna, pennsylvania[/tags]


What do newcomers to Pittsburgh say when they’re back home?

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Rants — jet @ 16:12

Since moving to Pittsburgh I’ve been exposed to the constant refrain of, “How do we get businesses/people to come to Pittsburgh?” Since any answer requiring Pittsburgh to change is probably going to be ignored, I think there’s a different question we need to ask. That question is, “How can we make Pittsburgh, PA a place that new residents speak highly of when they’re back visiting their home towns?”

I’m one of those people — I spend a fair amount of time back in California or at least emailing/chatting with friends of mine in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto, etc.

Lately I feel like I’ve been as frustrated with Pittsburgh (and Pittsburghers) as not. For every sales pitch I make to a friend back in Cali involving low property prices and access to local farm produce I seem to have an equally horrid story about things like the idiocy of stopping on on-ramps instead of merging, the massive taxes with no open records laws or other ways of finding out where my money goes, or the state bureaucracy in general.

Today I got bit by a combination of two things — the Pittsburgher attitude of “what do you mean you didn’t know that, everyone here knows that?” and a state bureaucracy from hell. We’re (you’re) not going to be able to convince people that this is a great place to move to until stories like this stop being what newcomers tell when we’re back visiting our friends in other states. Maybe that requires changing state and local government or maybe it just means not treating newcomers to Pittsburgh like we’re aliens or mentally challenged.

Those of you who’ve never lived in Pennsylvania will probably be surprised by how vehicle registration works. First off, you don’t go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Public Safety to register your car in the state. Nope, the only thing you can do at a PENNDOT office is deal with driver’s licenses. All vehicle registrations must be done at the state capitol in Harrisburg, PA.

No, I’m not making this up. Vehicles can only be registered at the state capitol.

That’s pretty out of the way for most of us. To make things easier, the state has allowed certain companies, known as “messenger services”, to do the business of taking your paperwork to the capital for you. And no, it’s not free, nor even cheap.

This week I finally got around to registering a vehicle I bought while out of state after moving to PA. It’s a vintage bike, there’s only one dealer in town for this make, and it’s a good 30-45 minute drive away so I call ahead to see what I need to bring. Title, PA driver’s license, and proof of insurance, then pass safety inspection. Since it’s an obscure bike, I’m going to the dealer on the off chance I need some random part to pass inspection.

Today I roll into the dealership, paperwork in hand. First surprise: I have to pay PA sales tax on any purchase made in another state. (So, when I’m on vacation, do I need to pay tax for gifts I buy and bring back to my friends here?) It takes a good 30 minutes to do all the paperwork and then the clerk says, “ok, now I need two checks. One for $x for the state and one for $y for us.”

This caught me off guard, and since I rarely carry my checkbook these days I just kinda sputtered, “Uh, what? Nobody said anything about bringing checks when I called. Can’t I use a charge card or an ATM card or something?”

The clerk was not apologetic, but explained in that slow way you talk to people you think aren’t paying attention, “We can’t give the messenger service a credit card, we can only give them checks.” It wasn’t condescending as much as, “how can you not know that you need to pay for this by check? Everyone knows that you have to have a check.” Hell, I didn’t even know what a “messenger service” was until today, much less that I needed to pay for things with checks.

So, 3 hours driving/waiting and still no title transfer, no inspection, no nada. I go back tomorrow — with a checkbook this time — in hopes of finishing this.

This isn’t the sort of story that my friends back home need to hear. They need to hear how trivial it was go to to PENNDOT and drop off all the paperwork at once. They need to hear that when someone who didn’t grow up here is trapped in some sort of bureaucratic nonsense that the locals will be sympathetic, not just throw up their hands and say, “sorry, that’s just not how it works here”.

[tags]bureaucracy, penndot, pennsylvania, pittsburgh, rants[/tags]


Am I the Only Person Embarrassed by This?

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Politics,Rants — jet @ 14:56

So, yet another day where the single-party government’s fight over how many people should get free cars and how high the reimbursement cap for private use vehicles is front page news.

This is completely embarrassing.

Imagine, if you will, that a rich pal of mine is visiting from the San Francisco Bay Area this week scouting out potential business locations or startups to fund. They pick up the paper a few times while they’re here and they see the continual “battle” played out on the front page between the Mayor’s office and Council over use of city vehicles and high reimbursement caps and they ask me for some background.

What do I tell my pal? That things are so f-ing great here, that our roads are in such good shape, we have such good public transportation, the schools are so well run, and that the crime rate is so low that the only thing council has on their agenda is finishing off a few minor budget items? Or that years of single-party rule have created a government so inefficient and unconcerned with the City of Pittsburgh that feel the best use of their time is a long, public debate about how many city employees get free cars and how many hundreds of dollars a month they can be reimbursed for private use of vehicles?

No number of boards or committees or projects or events designed to convince business to move here can make up for our elected officials acting like petty children in public. Between this, the no-bids process for putting up signs, and giving the poor, penniless Steelers a few million to build new facilities while they pay Big Ben over a hundred million I’m beginning to see why Pittsburgh might have a problem attracting new businesses.

[tags]pittsburgh, rants[/tags]


So you’re thinking of moving to Pittsburgh — Restaurants

Filed under: Food and Restaurants,Pittsburgh,Restaurants,Reviews — jet @ 17:46

[Note: After I started writing this, Mike Madison, author of Pittsblog, wrote a nice piece on Sushi and Pittsburgh 2.0. His point of view is thinking about how to get people to move to Pittsburgh and develop an economy, I’m looking at it from reporting how things are and what to expect if you move/visit here.]

I’ve been told that if I’d moved here 10 years ago, I would have been seriously unhappy about the restaurant selection. While I don’t consider myself a foodie, I am a person that enjoys a wide range of dining choices, fresh food prepared properly, good service, and I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks to get it. Pittsburgh isn’t San Francisco or New York City in terms of range and quality of restaurants, but there are some really great restaurants in Pittsburgh. The trick is learning how to find them, learning whose opinion to trust, and, sadly, having access to a car.

Pittsburgh has benefited from a number of new restaurants opening up in the past decade that cater to both people like me and the real foodies. From the high-end restaurants like Eleven and Soba (owned by the misleadingly named Big Burrito Restaurant Group), Mio, and Willow to less-fancy-but-still-excellent places like Red Room Cafe and Remedy Restaurant and Lounge, Pittsburgh is catching up with other cities in the number and quality of contemporary restaurants.

It’s not as if there weren’t good restaurants here before — Pittsburgh boasts a number of high-end restaurants, many of which have been in operation for decades. The problem is that many of these places have been here for decades and really haven’t changed that much. The fare is often traditional Italian or continental cuisine with good but expected dishes: veal scallopine, fish-of-the-day Oscar, various cuts of steak with sides of potatoes, salads heavy on the dressing, and I think you can probably guess the rest of the menu. I’ve had dinner at Monterey Bay and Grand Concourse and the food was great, the service was excellent and there’s really nothing to complain about. Except that it’s pretty much the same menu that I’ve been looking at for most of my adult life. I think it’s safe to say that if I never had fish-of-the-day Oscar again, it wouldn’t upset me very much.

So what’s different about the newer restaurants and why am I so happy they’re located in Pittsburgh? It’s primarily because they are striking out in areas being ignored by the traditional establishments fixed in the 1960s American Dining Mindset. As an example, Eleven makes an effort to support the Slow Food movement by buying fresh greens and meats from local farmers and as a result their specials will vary with the season. They also create new dishes with ingredients that you might not recognize or that you wouldn’t thought of combining unless you’re a veteran of the original Iron Chef; for example sharp cheddar ice cream served with hot apple pie, or in-house cured lamb bacon served with a green salad. (I know, I know, “lamb bacon”? It is amazingly good, trust me on this.) At the same time, Eleven has a $12 hamburger on the lunch menu that is all the evidence you need for using good beef to make a hamburger.

Unfortunately, if you really want to enjoy the wide range of restaurants in Pittsburgh, you’re going to need a car, or at least a friend with a car. Many of the better restaurants are out in the ‘burbs or in an area of town not well served by the bus. (The taxi infrastructure is effectively non-existent, don’t think you’ll leave a restaurant, go to the curb and hail a taxi.) If you need wheelchair access, call ahead, as Pittsburgh is one of the least-ADA friendly cities I’ve ever lived in. Newer buildings are great, but a lot of restaurants are in older buildings that have never been updated.

Two things that I’m still getting used to are planning ahead for weekends and dealing with smoking. If it’s 2pm on Saturday, you’re probably not going to get a reservation at Soba, Elven, Mio, or any other place that isn’t a 9-10pm seating. You can go hang out in the bar and take your chances on a table opening up, but be prepared to eat at the bar. Which brings up another issue — smoking is still allowed in the bars of restaurants, so if you care about such things, you might want to scope out how far your “non smoking” table is from the smoking area. At Kaya, there’s only a few feet between where people can smoke and the handful of non-smoking tables and at some Mad Mex restaurants the bar is directly beside the non-smoking area with only a counter to divide the two. Things are changing, however, as Eleven and Soba both have smoke-free bars, meaning you can actually go out for a drink in Pittsburgh and not come home smelling like an ash tray.

So if you’re thinking of moving here and you like contemporary continental and American food, you’re in pretty good shape. Some of the restaurants are as expensive as those in SF or NYC, but others are cheaper or have larger portions. If I order a steak, I plan on only being able to eat half of it and using the rest for a sandwich the next day. It’ll take a few trips to various places, but soon you’ll enjoy some of the Pittsburgh friendliness that people talk so much about, the waiters will start to remember your names and you theirs.

Now the bad news.

If you know your sashimi from your nigiri, like your Thai food “Thai hot”, or enjoy a good ceviche as an appetizer instead of nachos, things are a bit bleak.

So-Called “Ethnic” Food

“Ethnic”, and by that I mean anything not European, Eastern European or American, is where things start to go sour. Pittsburgh suffers from a mid-20th Century view of “ethnic” food — bland and Americanized. It’s not that Pittsburghers are stupid or malevolent, they just haven’t benefited from a large immigrant population opening up restaurants and therefore haven’t developed the taste and experience that goes along with a large, diverse, ethnic restaurant scene. The European immigrant cultures that have been here for a century have really done well with their own cuisines with places like Lidia’s and Grand Concourse and the like; but Pittsburghers haven’t been exposed enough to non-European immigrant cultures to understand that there should be a difference between a pirog and a gyoza or that not everything should be smothered in sauce.

I don’t think it’s all in my head, either. Part of what drove me to write this was an amazingly ignorant review of a new Japanese restaurant. The well-meaning reviewers complain about bland agedashi tofu and factually state that udon noodles are made of buckwheat. The thing is, agedashi tofu is a very light dish based on the delicate flavor of tofu and comes with a very light sauce so that you have a chance to taste the tofu. Contrary to the reviewers’ statements, udon noodles are made of wheat, not buckwheat. (It’s soba that are made of buckwheat.) It could be that they knew what they were talking about and the editor introduced these mistakes; in either case, I’d be embarrassed if this was the first restaurant review one of my visiting friends got their hands on. “No, really, not everyone here thinks like that!”

So it should come as no surprise that Nakama Steakhouse and Sushi Bar is regularly voted “best sushi” by Pittsburghers. Truth is, it’s easily some of the worst sushi I’ve ever had, and that includes sketchy, all-you-can-eat sushi places. Nakama is basically a big bar on one side with a lot of hibachi tables on the other and a tiny “sushi bar” in between. If I lived on the south side, it’d probably be a great place to have a beer with friends, but that’s not the same as “best sushi”.

Like Thai food? There’s decent Thai here, but set your expectations low in terms of prices and service. I finally convinced Noodle Hut that I like my food “Thai hot”, but it took a few attempts and explaining that I learned to eat Thai food in California before I got anything reasonably spicy. Bangkok Balcony is pretty good, but there’s often no correlation between the “scale of 1 to 10” and how spicy my food is and they usually up-charge us to call drinks even when we ordered well drinks.

How about Mexican? There’s Mad Mex, a tex-mex chain owned by Big Burrit, with several restaurants spread throughout the area. I like Mad Mex plenty and go there often, but I’ve yet to find a place in town that serves a good mole poblano or fresh ceviche. Mad Mex is great tex-mex, but I also like Mexican cooking based on seafood or good marinades and taco places that make their own tortillas or buy local, fresh tortillas.

But there is hope

There are a handful of good ethnic places if you’re willing to look. Chaya in Squirrel Hill serves some of the freshest sushi and tastiest Japanese food I’ve ever eaten, and I’m including the decade or so I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area when I make that comparison. It’s cramped and BYOB, but I’ll gladly wait in line and BMOB to enjoy their food. Noodle Hut in Regent Square is amazingly tiny with a long wait, their takeout service is amazingly well-organized. Silk Elephant is a Thai tapas place that opened recently, and while it’s pricey, the food is excellent. Across the street from the exceptionally underwhelming Lulu’s on Craig St is the amazingly good Little Asia. We haven’t scoped out all the Indian places yet, but I’ve heard there are some good places outside the city limits and that the same is true for middle eastern cuisine.

A note about service

After living here a couple of years, I am finally beginning to understand what “entitlement culture” means when it comes to customer service in stores and restaurants. We used to eat at Bangkok Balcony on a regular basis, then one evening we were seated for dinner, waited 10 minutes to have our order taken, then have the table next to us get seated, order, and served food and pay their bill before our food even showed up. Twice I had to ask a manager where our food was, and by the end of the evening, we just got a “sorry about that” from the manager. We’ve had similar bad service at a couple of other places and again, only a brief apology, so I don’t think it’s just Bangkok Balcony. I think it’s something in the local culture where customer service isn’t necessary for a business to keep its customers. I’ve never lived in a city before where a manager didn’t at least comp your drinks or something if your waiter severely screwed up your dinner.

The high-end places (Soba, Grand Concourse, etc) have amazing service, and the service in smaller places like Remedy and Point Brugge Cafe is just as good, but upscale is no guarantee of service. At Azul one evening we watched our waitress eat dinner at the bar and chat with her friends, back turned to us, while we waited to order, have our drinks refreshed, etc. The manager (owner?) sat nearby the entire time this was going on, so it’s not as if the waitress was unsupervised. Her boss simply didn’t care about making sure she paid attention to customers.

I don’t know if Pittsburghers simply don’t know what good service and therefore fail to demand it or if they have just grown used to it and are willing to tolerate bad service. Either way, be prepared to make a fuss from time to time and don’t take it too personally. Like I’ve said before, Pittsburghers can be amazingly friendly one-on-one, but in business situations that can easily change. If you’re treated poorly in a restaurant, don’t immediately assume it’s because you’re not from around here or that your skin’s the wrong color, it could just be that the place has extremely bad service.

A few final thoughts…

Pittsburgh has some amazingly good American, Italian and continental restaurants and a handful of equally good ethnic restaurants. Good restaurants are not always easy to find, and you can’t always trust the local reviews and restaurant polls, but as you start making friends, ask them where they go and why they like it. It won’t be long before you start making acquaintance with many of the staff at your favorite places, and they’ll often recommend other places or tell you where they eat and what they order. You can’t put much faith in the way the restaurant looks from the outside or through the window, as there are a lot of restaurants opening in everything from bars to old churches, but that’s part of the fun of exploring, right? Get used to calling ahead for weekend reservations or to find out the BYOB status, scope out the smoking situation in advance, and you’ll have an easy time of things.

We’ve had some wonderful experiences in restaurants since moving here, it just took a little bit of effort and a little risk taking.



Pittsburgh gets spy cameras, London decides they don’t work

Filed under: Pittsburgh,Random and Pleasing,Rants — jet @ 20:10

It looks like Pittsburgh is going to take $2.6 million in federal funds (aka “taxpayer money”) to deploy surveillance cameras around the city.

Meanwhile, London has discovered after spending 200 million pounds (US $300 million) of taxpayer money that surveillance cameras aren’t that useful:

“A comparison of the number of cameras in each London borough with the proportion of crimes solved there found that police are no more likely to catch offenders in areas with hundreds of cameras than in those with hardly any.”

So, why is city government so ready to waste taxpayer money to spy on law abiding citizens? Is it because it’s “someone else’s money”, aka federal tax dollars? Is it so they look like they’re doing something to solve local crimes in the future rather than deal with the current crime probem?

[tags]crime, Pittsburgh, suveillance[/tags]

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