Tuesday, June 28, 2011

There's No Substitute for Real Tomatoes (and You Can't Fake Them)

These are from my back yard (so's the basil). They're goooood.
I sat down to eat one of my vine-ripened tomatoes for dinner tonight with the Public Radio story on why tomatoes taste the way they do still ringing in my ears. The story (here) tells us that tomatoes have a number of natural flavor influences (about 15) called "volatiles." These chemicals in the proper balance give us the tomatoes we dream of all year and only get about three months a year (and not often from the grocery store).

Research is centering on trying to find the right balance and infusing those tough hot-house tomatoes that taste like paper with something similar to real flavor. My guess is that it'll never happen, but at least these guys realize there's a problem. According to the story, "The pressure for high-yield plants is responsible for the dismal taste of the supermarket tomato. Harry Klee, a plant biologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says it's a simple matter of economics.'The grower is paid for size and yield — and flavor is irrelevant, unfortunately,' says Klee."

Irrelevant my butt. That's why we wait so impatiently all year in order to pick one of these tasty beauties from a plant in the back yard. The one I had tonight (with some of Kathy O'Hara's extraordinary baby greens, sheep's milk cheese from Slan, sesame-seaweed and red onions) was simply heaven. You can't do that in a hothouse.

So, Who Pays Best: Medicare, Private Insurance?

So much for the notion that high-level professionals trust business, but not the government, to pay its bills. A new study from the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that the number of physicians in the U.S. willing to treat Medicare patients dropped from 96 percent in 2005 to 93 percent in 2008, while the physicians accepted private insurance patients at a rate of 93 percent in 2005 and 88 percent in 2008.

That's a five percent drop for private business and a three percent decrease for the government program. There was no change in those who accepted cash on the barrel head from the patient.

Other findings: 57 percent of Americans younger than 65 were covered by employer insurance policies in 2009 and 20 percent were covered by Medicaid or some other public plan.

The study's lead author, Tara Bishop, says that Medicare doesn't always pay as much as physicians want, but it almost always pays. Conversely, private insurance companies can be a red tape nightmare. Tell us about it, Tara.

It's a Gorgeous Deck, But Will It Fall?

Mine is a pretty deck, but is it safe?
If you have a deck on your home or are considering building one, a Virginia Tech professor has some advice for you: be especially careful how it is built and maintained. It can fall.

 The article in Virginia Tech Spotlight is here and it came out today online.

I have built a number of decks and from what Tech's Joe Loferski tells us about deck construction, it looks like most of what I built--even when I was sober--was wrong and could be dangerous. The 4X4 posts were too small; the notched guardrails could break; there probably wasn't a strong enough connection between the deck ledger and the house (a critical juncture where most crashing decks fail); I didn't put enough support intermittently beneath the deck.

When I moved into the house I live in now, one of the selling points was a wonderful deck, but the inspector for the sale told me it needed support in several places and the juncture between the house and the deck needed more bolts. There were no 6X6 posts, which are now required in most localities, but weren't when this deck was built. The deck looks great, but I will not put a hot tub on it, nor will I allow 20 people to gather out there at a time. 'Course, I could just fix it, I guess.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Civil Disobedience in Roanoke: A Visit to Cuba

(You can buy the Cuba print here.)
Among the federal government's irrational policies--and they are legion--is that of travel to and trade with Cuba. President Obama recently eased that a bit, taking it to the pre-Bush levels of President Clinton, but for many who want normal relations with Cuba--and that includes your favorite editor--that's simply not enough.

There is a group of ministers, allied in an organization they call "iireligious," who are protesting that policy, as they have for some years and they will be coming through the Roanoke Valley in July on their way to an unauthorized trip to Cuba. Among them are Roanoke's Quakers who are experts at giving a warm smile and a swift admonition in the butt--all in the name of peace. I love these people.

Let my friend Mary Bishop, who is with the Roanoke Valley Friends (Quakers), tell you about the event and what it means to all of us (and if you decide you want to be involved, call Herb Beskar, 989-6875):

For the eighth summer, Roanoke Friends Meeting (Quakers) will host a delegation of Americans and Canadians passing through on a yearly humanitarian trip to Cuba. A potluck and program honoring the visitors are open to the public Tuesday, July 12, Oak Grove Church of the Brethren, 2138 McVitty Road, S.W.

Rev. Thomas E. Smith, , board president of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization/Pastors for Peace, has traveled with Pastors for Peace to Cuba on many occasions and met with ex-president Fidel Castro during the 2009 caravan.

By refusing to ask for U.S. permission to take humanitarian aid there, the caravan protests through civil disobedience the 51-year-old U.S. economic blockade against Cuba and restrictions on travel there.

School buses, trucks and cars filled with people and medical, educational and construction supplies will make their way along 13 routes across Canada and the United States. The caravans stop at 130 cities along the way, giving talks about Cuba and picking up supplies, donations and volunteers. The delegations eventually converge in McAllen, Texas, and travel to Tampico, Mexico, where donated materials and equipment are loaded onto a cargo ship bound for Cuba. The travelers then fly to Cuba for 10 days of visiting and learning about the country.

President Obama recently eased some restrictions on travel to Cuba. The new regulations make it easier for American academic, religious and cultural groups to obtain licenses to visit Cuba. Pastors for Peace seek an end to the trade embargo and all bans on travel to Cuba.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

'Make Ed Walker King' of Roanoke

The new, improved Patrick Henry Hotel.
Ed Walker talks about how he did it and what it means.
Media surrounds Ed Walker at the ribbon-cutting.
Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill cuts the ribbon as the media blocks everybody's view.
Your favorite editor has fun with a Founding Father, Patrick Henry in person.
It was the question/answer session following a talk I gave at the Roanoke Kiwanis Club yesterday when one of those at a back table asked, "What would you do to make Roanoke a better place."

I didn't hesitate: "Make Ed Walker king."

Simple thing, that. Just let him do what he wants because his record is such that everything would work as it should and the reasons would be the right ones. Ed does a lot of right things in developing Roanoke as a more liveable place, but it's not just that he develops, it's how. He's one of these rare people--and a developer at that--who does the right things for the right reasons. He takes care of people. He considers the future. He respects the past. He works across philosophical barriers and brings warring parties to his party.

The Patrick Henry is just the latest in a string of spectacular reconstructions of downtown landmarks--buildings destined for the landfill--that have captured the imagination of all of Roanoke. From what I can tell in my travels, Ed is the most respected man in the Roanoke Valley and maybe in a wider part of the state. Republicats, Democrans, liberals, conservatives, Walmart shoppers and Mercedes drivers, a wide assortment of people of many colors and body styles, crunchy and creamy peanutbutter fans, NASCAR and polo followers all think Ed Walker is a good guy. And they're right.

This hotel, where I stood reminiscing about some things I hadn't thought about in years this morning, could easily have crumbled into the street, leaving a parking lot that would benefit nobody. Instead, it will house probably 200 or more people of various income levels (some of them students at Jefferson College across the street), a few businesses and whatever else Ed can put in there that works for us all.

Ed once told me he wants buildings "where the lights are on all the time," showing signs of vitality. I suspect he'll get that with the Patrick Henry as he has with the Cotton Mill, the Hancock and the other buildings he's brought back to life. Next is the old Ice House in Wasena Park, a neighborhood desperately in need of a focal point. My guess is it'll get one with the renovation. And if it doesn't, Roanoke and Wasena lose nothing. Ed's the one taking the risk.

(The photo of me is by my old pal Don Peterson, a former colleague at a local daily. I took the rest of them.)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Another Murder in Texas by the State

And you wonder why we become so exasperated with Texas that we strongly recommend putting a fence around it to keep the Texans in and everybody else out.

The most recent example of barbarous behavior comes on the heels of the the 230th state-sponsored murder in Rick Perry's 11 years in the governor's office, this one of a retarded criminal, its sixth such execution of a mentally deficient in roughly 20 years. Milton Mathis, an African-American of course, committed some awful acts to land on death row, but there's more to state-sponsored murder than simply killing people for crimes committed. The justice system is supposed to be based on, well, justice. What is just about killing a man who doesn't understand what's happening? (I will also offer this: "What is just about killing a man who does understand what's happening?" The death penalty is simply wrong and not a result that leaves anybody better off. If you're "pro life" you can't be "pro death penalty" and make any sense at all.)

See the story here.

Rick Perry, who wants to be president, for god's sake, said he didn't have the authority to overturn the penalty. Prosecutor Fred Felchman said, "We don't execute people who are mentally retarded" shortly before Texas executed a man who is mentally retarded--in direct violation of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on that very matter. You'd think Antonin Scalia, one of three resident Cro-Magnons among the Supremes, might be put out by this.

How good a nation are we if we allow this to happen even once, let alone over and over in a state that has become an example of what America should never allow itself to become? It is simply shameful and Rick Perry needs to go back in his hole.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Very Personal Donation for Kids Who Need It

My friend Maggie Boyes (above and right) has taken the notion of giving of yourself so that others may prosper to an interesting level. Maggie has lovely hair and for the third time, she has grown it out (this time butt-length), had it cut off and presented the trimmed portion to people who don't have their own.

Here's what she says about it: "I donated about 22 inches to Locks of Love ... The hair is used to make wigs (or hair pieces as they call them) for children who do not have hair, due to some kind of illness ... If the person or family can afford to purchase the wig, they do; otherwise, they get the wig for free."

Maggie says this is "the third time I have grown my hair out and have donated it to an organization that makes wigs. Twice to Locks of Love, once to Wigs for Kids, another non-profit. It took three years to grow my hair out this time. I did not cut it but once about six months ago, because my ends were so bad that it could not go another winter without being trimmed. The 22 inches is also the most I've donated to an organization. My previous donations have been 10 to 12 inches."

Maggie has gorgeous hair and somebody is getting something lovely and filled with generosity. That's a good thing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Will Netflix Finally Kill the Grandin Theatre?

It's difficult to guess how much pressure Netflix is putting on arthouse theaters and those who call themselves that, but often fall short (like the Grandin in Roanoke), but after seeing "Even the Rain" tonight, my guess is the pressure is growing.

This is a powerful Spanish movie of the type you'd expect to see at the Grandin. It was nominated as Best Foreign Film by the Academy Awards in 2010 and stars Gael Garcia Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries"). It has all the elements of a movie that should have been at the Grandin. But it never made it. Instead, we got a string of second-rate mainstream movies that we could have seen at the multi-plexes and gems like "Even the Rain" were left to Netflix.

I normally don't watch much television because commercials offend me, but now, when I get a few moments and want to see a good movie without commercials, Netflix has my profile and can recommend movies like "Even the Rain," me a delightful surprise  for less than $10 a month The Grandin's prices are over $8 for a movie, putting it in the same price range as theaters with far more amenities and often the same movies.

Last week, I found "Easy A" through Netflix' suggestions and I'm sure many more will come when I want them. It's a brave new world, one that is taking advantage of the fact that a part of the old world that could have a wonderful niche--movies like "Even the Rain"--prefers "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Kung Fu Panda 2."

It's a damn shame because this neglect and competition are going to ultimately close the doors of a Roanoke treasure and I don't see anybody in a position to do something about it getting up off his ass and moving.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Painting Newspaper Circulation with a Bigger Brush

Graphic Steve Greenberg: greenberg-art.com
Audit Bureau Circulation (ABC), which monitors newspaper circulations nationally for those papers that are members, has instituted a new math, which will give circulation numbers that have been declining for 15 straight six-month report periods a boost.

Beginning with the new report, papers will be able to use a lot of numbers they couldn't in the past as circulation, numbers like Facebook friends, Twitter followers and digital editions. They now can count those god-awful little zoned editions (which have the professional value of a middle school newspaper) with their own "brands" and other publications with separate name plates, like magazines and business journals owned by the newspaper, as part of total circulation.

Newspapers, of course, use circulation figures to set their advertising rates. The higher the circulation, the higher the rate, even if it is inflated. One local daily, whose numbers had been falling precipitously and consistently for years, has suddenly seen the numbers jump up 5,000, but as ABC points out, you can't compare the numbers. Wanna bet the advertising reps don't compare numbers--as long as they're up?

"The rules will probably be viewed, rightly, as liberalizing what counts as circulation," according to a story on the Poynter Institute's Web site (here). Poynter follows newspaper trends closely. The new numbers will leave potential advertisers with no point of reference for at least a year, says Poynter, rendering them virtually meaningless. After a year, their meaning will need to be explained in some detail.

It is the continuing process, in the newspaper business, of putting lipstick on a pig.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sports Pay: Is It Out of Hand Yet?

As has been the case in many years, Sports Illustrated's list of the highest paid athletes in the United States is led by a golfer whose winnings at the game are dwarfed by those from endorsements. Tiger Woods earned a bit over $2 million last year hitting a ball and more than $60 million telling you what products to buy.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus used to run those kinds of numbers, long past their prime as golfers.

Of the Top 16, Woods ranks last in pay for his sport and is doing worse than almost everybody in the NBA and a whole lot of average players in the Major Leagues. It is also obvious that he isn't suffering intensely from his embarrassing moral and emotional meltdown of the past year or so when he lost his family and his reputation. Congressman Anthony Weiner is going to take a much bigger hit for a much less significant infraction of sexual protocol and I suspect you can take from this that life isn't fair.

It isn't fair through much of this list, which has at least two people on it I don't know (and I'm a sports fan and former sports writer) and some others I would not have considered to be in the top earning levels of their own sport, much less all sports.

Consider a couple of young NFL quarterbacks--Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Sam Bradford of the Rams. Both have promising futures, but they haven't delivered significantly yet. Ryan produced a playoff team and Bradford got a lot of headaches last year. Two other NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning of the Colts and Tom Brady of the Patriots--the best two--make $38 million and $30 million respectively.

No. 2 on the entire list is Phil Mickelson at $61 million, a shade behind Woods' total, but double his earnings on the links. Still both of these boys make small change in their sports and monstrous amounts for endorsements. Labron James of the Miami Heat, the biggest name in pro basketball if not necessarily the best player, is third at $30 million, but his basketball pay is less than half that. Alex Rodriguez of the Yankess, on the other hand, makes $4 million from endorsements (he's not considered a marketable guy) and $32 million in a disporportionate Yankee salary (which is the mark of a Yankee salary).

Then I look at guys like golfer Jim Furyk ($16 million total, $9 million on the course--which is more than double what Woods and Mickelson make combined for golf) and football player Darrell Reavis (Jets) at $25 million, almost all of it salary. I've never heard of either of them.

Boxers don't seem to make these lists any longer because we're not having big heavyweight title fights that bring in 30 million for the winner and there's just one NASCAR driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and he's not the top guy, but his name strikes emotions up and down the good ole boy system.

Here's the entire list. It tabulates out to nearly $600 million for 16 athletes. By contrast, state legislatures contributed $327 million to the arts in 2006. That's all of the arts. I won't even call either of those numbers "shameful" because it doesn't rise that high.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Frogger" Is the Whole Package at Studio Roanoke

I've been waiting for months for everything to fall into place for one of Studio Roanoke's edgy and creative productions and I got in Adam Hahn's "Frogger" tonight.

Every bit of it was right. Hahn's writing, Cheryl Snodgrass' precise and inventive direction, a spot-on cast, Blue Herbert's set design and lighting and even Darlene Fedele's puppets.

The story here is complex and I can't tell you a lot about it without spoiling it, but the director and cast handle subtleties and nuances dealing with a troubled young man who tends to wind up in the hospital with serious injury with a depth of understanding that is impressive.

Kevin McAlexander's lead portrayal is especially impressive, but the largest cast yet (for the shortest play, about an hour) at Studio Roanoke is uniformally good. Special notice goes to the always watchable Stephen Glassbrenner (as an autistic child), Laura Tuggle Anderson and Brian O'Sullivan as foster parents, and Blair Peyton as a disinterested hospital administrator (who's really funny).

The play's time sequence is at times confusing, but there are many "Oh, yeh," moments quickly after you get lost and they are satisfying. There's a head-slapping conclusion and a standing ovation waiting to happen.

This is a play that deserves a good-sized and intelligent audience in the small theater, which has been re-designed for this play and brilliantly used almost as a character in the production. When you're this small and this creative, you use everything you have and Studio Roanoke does that as well as any theater in this region ever has.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Educated State Legislature Still Cuts the Budget

There is an interesting new study from the Chronicle of Higher Education that tells us how well educated our Virginia legislators are, but it fails to explain why they've cut the education budget by 12 percent in the past two years and by a lot more than that in the past decade.

Virginia's legislative body of 140 people in two houses has an 89 percent college graduation rate (the general population in the Old Dominion has a college graduation rate of 34 percent with 40 percent having no college at all). Fifty-eight percent of those legislators have education beyond college, though not necessarily another degree.

Thirty-eight of our legislators graduated from either Virginia Tech or Virginia and 79 percent went to college in Virginia (some of those same legislators also went to school outside the state).

Those are impressive achievements (No. 2 in the nation behind California). But the "I've got mine so screw you" mentality seems to prevail.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Brennan Energy Healing Method Works for My Back

Christine Ward: Energy healer
Some time back I mentioned my friend Christine Ward's Energy Healing practice as something that might work for those of you with a variety of disruptions ranging from depression to torn muscles. Christine graduated in something called the Brennan Healing method about a year ago and has been laying her hands on patients with some success.

Yesterday, she lay them on me. And I feel good! to quote my buddy James Brown. I'm not quite sure how this works because it seems to be so passive, but in a very quiet room I lay on a massage table and she put her hands in specific spots for about an hour and the muscles I pulled in my back last week felt immeasurably better. They feel good again this morning.

Christine, a registered critical care nurse with a spotless reputation, got into this practice because she believes some alternative medicines improve upon what we do in the traditional sense and this specific treatment helped with some problems she was having. She's one of the sharpest people I know and I can promise you she wouldn't waste her time on frivolous alternative medical procedures.

If you want to give her a try, she's at 540-521-1360 or hermiony33@yahoo.com. Her practice is in the building next door to Grandin Gardens on Grandin Road in Raleigh Court.

Congressmen's Sex Problem: These Are the Guys We Elect

An old girlfriend of mine once hypothesized that "the only explanation for men is that aliens left you here." I'm sure I had done something stupid to bring this on and likely deserved her verbal smack.

The New York Times, in a piece Sunday trying to explain why male politicians act like sex-crazed idiots on a frequent basis, came to some of the same conclusions as my old girlfriend.

But there was also this from Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and politics: “Women run for office to do something, and men run for office to be somebody. Women run because there is some public issue that they care about, some change they want to make, some issue that is a priority for them, and men tend to run for office because they see this as a career path.”

It is a career path fraught with temptation and moral minefields--one that men often negotiate badly, waking up one morning missing vital parts of their being in a public sex scandal. The losses in these instances outweigh the momentary gain of sexual conquest (something men seem to value far more than do women) in a massively disproportionate manner, especially when the sex is consensual and none of our business. So many men I've known over the years--especially the powerful ones--give off the aura of being bulletproof and, frankly, I think that attracts some women.

One of the ingredients in this sexual morass that the NYTimes didn't approach is that powerful men attract women (they'd be called "groupies" by a rock band) who are willing to do anything for and with them. Power, the cliche goes, is the greatest aphrodisiac. This, of course, is quite attractive to these men, who love to be worshiped.

The NYTimes piece talks about women's reluctance to serve in Congress or any other elective office and, frankly, I believe the story is remiss in not recalling that men of quality, solid moral underpinning and intelligence rarely go into politics. That's one of the reasons our various elected bodies have the collective college sophomore mentality and intellectual level, are as corrupt as any bananna republic dictatorship, and simply don't see the urgency in legislating. We won't even get into the obvious fact that people in elective office have the courage of a building full of opossums.

It's the sex though--always--that gets the nation's attention. The French laugh at our faux morality and they should. And we should take a little personal responsibility here and put better people in office. I'm not holding my breath on that last one because, frankly, people smart enough to be good legislators are simply not going to run.

(Graphic: whosright.com)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

'Super 8': It's for the Kids ... and Their Parents

This summer's first delightful surprise is J.J. Abrams' "Super 8," a movie that brings out producer Steven Spielberg's best instincts at combining 1950s B-sci-fi/horror flicks with a story centered on very funny middle school kids.

Abrams wrote and directed this little gem and he's the star, since you won't know anybody in the movie. It is an ensemble cast with a lot of new faces and five boys who form the core of the story with their efforts to make a zombie movie for a local competition. That's where the trouble starts. They're filming in a train station after midnight (these kids find it so easy to sneak out; where were they when I needed them?) when an Air Force train--carrying mysterious cargo--crashes (they get it on Super 8 film) and causes all kinds of mayhem.

Like the 1950s science fiction/alien invader movies, this one casts the Air Force as the bad guy and the alien as a poor lonely soul trying to get back home while he causes epic levels of havoc. The boys--and a pretty young girl they bring in to liven up their own movie--form the core of the action.

"Super 8" is for grandparents, parents and middle schoolers--going together and enjoying the movie equally for very different reasons. But enjoy it you will. It's a special movie.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Day at the Soap Box Derby in Roanoke

The long road downhill starts the Soap Box Derby. (Conner McKinney-right-won this heat.)
A whole crew gets the racers ready.
And they're off.
At the finish line.
Preparing the car.
William Mowles won the 1950 D.C. Derby.
This kid's mama was thinking ahead to the heat.
Olivia Dickinson boards her machine.
Olivia Dickinson: the face of a champ.
Official steps on the release and the cars go to racing.
This is a steering wheel.
Racers pass the crowd at the finish line.
Katelyn Harris raced with a broken arm.
Katelyn dismounts after a win.
Boys find a cool place out of the sun.
If you thought the FRONT wasn't everywhere, this proves it is.
The first Soap Box Derby in the Roanoke Valley since 2000 was held today in Roanoke County's Waldron Park and it drew two dozen competitors and a few hundred spectators on a hot day that got a little rain relief late.

These events are a lot of fun to photograph because they feature the pageantry of a sport and the freshness and enthusiasm of young children and their parents who are doting on them. I was there with my friend Susan Ayers, who wrote a story on the Derby for Play-by-Play magazine and whose own enthusiasm for her stories is affecting. She's fun to tag along with at events like this.

This Derby was put together by Del Waldron, who apparently had four granddaughters running in it (interesting because the original SBD was boys only). He had run the Derbys in this area in previous years. The course is paved and quite nice and the cars cost between $400 and $600. Most of the kids had sponsors to help take care of those costs.

Here's what it looked like. The Web site for the derby is www.starcitysoapboxderby@yahoo.com.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Staying Thin With Cigarettes? New Study Shows Why

If you say you can’t quit smoking because you’ll get fat, you appear to have a point, but a new study is providing some evidence that excuse may be on the way out.

Yale biology professor Marina Picciotta led a study that has been published in the journal “Science” that outlines how “nicotine activates certain neurons in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus” and those neurons tell your body it’s had enough to eat.

Picciotta's team has pinpointed the brain cells nicotine triggers to reduce appetite and body fat. Nicotine activates different kinds of brain-cell receptors with widely different effects.

Picciotto says, in a news release, “"We found that nicotine reduced eating and body fat through receptors implicated in nicotine aversion and withdrawal rather than reward and reinforcement."

She added: "We would like to help people maintain their body weight when they kick the habit and perhaps help non-smokers who are struggling with obesity.'' The study was on mice, but researchers hope a similar result can come when people are tested.

The results actually came about by accident when a scientist “was studying nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which are on the surface of neurons, to see if an experimental drug to treat depression would have any effect,” according to the story. ''He noticed that mice given the drug ate less than those not on the medication.''

(Photo: bootstrapperboy.com)

WDBJ's Holly Pietrzak and the 'F'-word

Uh, Hey, Holly, don't you mean "more teens are having 'luck' ...?"

Watch it and weep here.

Morgan Griffith's Mouth Opens, Pollution Comes Out

The lovely and warm-fuzzy Morgan Griffith.
Leave it to 9th District Rep. Morgan Griffith to say something monumentally stupid when the opportunity presents itself. Today's gem is this:

"When they spend billions of dollars, we're going to pay every penny of that. It's a huge cost, and it's all because of the EPA." (Story here.)

What's "all because of the EPA" in this instance is the closing of a 90-year-old, coal-fired electric generation facility in Giles County that will be shuttered because it is so out of date and is a heavy polluter of the air. And yes, AEP will have to pay a lot of money to replace the facility and to convert another to natural gas, but I don't quite see how that is the EPA's fault any more than putting a thief in jail is the cop's fault.

Appalachian Power says your electric bill will go up 10 percent or so in the next three years (begging the question: would it not go up without this closing?) and the EPA says the closing of this type of plant across the nation will save nearly 20,000 lives. Ponder: 20,000 lives; 10 percent increase. Hmmmmm. Are we pro-life or pro-pollution? That's the choice. Griffith's choice obviously is pollution.

The EPA was established to protect us from polluters who were--are--ruining our air and water. Polluters  are not less dangerous if they aren't forced to do things they don't want to because it costs a lot of money and diminishes profits. But that's what nutcases like Griffith would have us believe. This is the guy who won his seat by convincing voters that cleaning up the environment by requiring certain actions from the coal industry was bad for the voters.

What Griffith is also not telling you is that this nasty air in our beautiful part of the work has a huge economic--and jobs--cost. The word on the street is that several large facilities have decided not to locate in our region because of the air quality and because of the coal used by our largest utility. Now that is a real cost.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Roanoke County To Present Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night'

The Roanoke County Parks and Rec Department is going at this Shakespeare thing again this summer, presenting "Twelfth Night" and an Elizabethan meal July 16 at AmRhein's Wine Cellar and August 20 at Camp Roanoke. It'll cost $17 for the show and meal or $7 for just the show.

You can order tickets by calling 387-6078 ext 251. The show will be performed without set and minimal props by Tailgate Shakespeare a touring troupe and it begins at 7 p.m. each evening outside. Could be an interesting evening.

Veranda Bistro: Another Reason To Eat on Williamson Road

Irene Karageorge with a lot of happy diners.
Irene Karageorge has heard the praise for her "new" restaurant over and over. She has to explain that she's been in the little strip center beyond Hollins University for more than eight years, but that she doesn't advertise, so she's a constant discover for Roanokers.

I discovered her Veranda Bistro, a Greek/Italian eatery with a whole lot going for it, today and I'm telling you to go eat lunch there asap. The prices are on the upper lunch end, but so's the food. It's fresh, tasty and in proper proportions. The ambiance inside is marvelous, even if the outside gives you no hint of anything but maybe a filling station.

Irene, a former banker with a long background in restaurants, has the marvelous Mediterranean dishes (which have the special benefit of being both tasty and healthy), along with brick oven pizza and a raft of pasta dishes. She does calzones and strombolis and she'll even do a custom cater for you.

Once a month, Irene does a celebrity chef dinner for the chef's favorite charity and she asked if I'd be the chef at one in the near future. Of course, I agreed to show up (anything for attention) and maybe bring my mac 'n' cheese recipe (with Kalmata olives and authentic Feta for the Greek effect).

Irene's is yet another in that line of Williamson Road International Corridor businesses that I hope the city and county will recognize with their own flag soon. This is a real selling point for an overlooked section of the city. There is so much good food on Williamson Road that it must be recognized soon.

The Karageorge family (which owns or owned the Roanoke Weiner Stand, City Lunch, Pete's Deli and La Maison du Gourmet) has more than 100 years in the business.

Go sit on the Veranda. I think you'll like it, if you can find it. The address is 8201 Williamson Road in Roanoke and the phone number is 540-563-4445. The Web site is www.verandabistro.com.

Owner of Market's Newest, Euro Bakery, Has Paid His Dues

Bari Sinani at his nearly sold out pastry case.
Bari Sinani is ready for Labor Day to be here. That's the day his second Euro Bakery will open in the renovated Roanoke City Market Building and he will be serving his burek (pastry pie) and filled rolls, turnovers, baguettes and bakllava to people who work downtown in Roanoke.

Bari and his wife Elizabeta (he's Albanian, raised in Serbia; she's Bosnian) have operated the bakery at Lamplighter Mall--a thoroughly internationally little strip center on Williamson Road--since November and he says that the experience has made him feel like a full-fledged member of Roanoke's business community, a veteran, as it were.

Bari, dressed in a white shirt, shorts and covered in flour can be found signing in his kitchen at all hours of the day and evening and Elizabeta is there serving up the warm bread with an occasional kid running around the open space of Euro Bakery. It is a warm and inviting place, but the City Market facility will be quite a bit different in tone.

Barry says he's eager for people to buy their burek rolled up instead of as a triangular pie. The burek, which is filled with beef and onion or cottage cheese and spinach, comes from the oven puffed up like a chef's hat, but as it cools, it falls flat and becomes a flake-crusted, goodie-filled lunch item that is marvelous.

Bari's prices (ranging from 50 cents for crescents and pretzels to $14 for a full burek pie which costs $3.50 a slice) are on the under side of reasonable--a deal, in short, and something for the other lunch vendors on the Market to watch for pricing.

Bari's bakery is one of four food businesses signed up so far for the market building. Leasing agent Roger Elkins of Hall Associates says about 20 businesses have applied for spots (Barri says it's more than 60) and that Roger will release some more signees in the coming days.

So far Hong Kong restaurant, New York Subs and All Sports Cafe are in. Bari says the paperwork has been exhaustive, but he loves the quality control that will be exerted by Hall Associates. It will be clean, he emphasizes, "and that is very, very important."

The Medical Value of a Pack of Frozen Peas

So, I'm sitting in Doc Renee's office Tuesday and she's finishing off the exam and giving me my walking orders: "You'll need to put hot and cold compresses on your back for a while. You can use frozen peas."

I straighten up. "Frozen peas? For what?"

"As the cold compress."

And I'm thinking, "How do I pour them on?"

She sees that I'm thinking. "Don't open the peas. Just use the bag."


And it works. These frozen peas people should advertise as a great medical breakthrough. Maybe they should include instructions, too.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Apology from Target's Anti-Gay CEO

The Supreme Court pretty well turned the American system of government on its head with its ruling that corporations are people recently, but it looks like the market is making some adjustments corporations hadn't expected. My friend Pete Krull handles "ethical" investments for people and one of the stategies that makes putting your money where your ethics are is using your vote as a stockholder to influence political giving--among many other things.

I'm not certain that Target can be specifically pointed to as a company that has been influenced in this way, but it's looking a whole lot like it is. The Minnesota-based company has made gay rights support noises recently, even as its CEO was propping up political candidates who are markedly anti-gay with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The CEO, a guy named Gregg Steinhafel, has apologized for making the contributions.

That's not him speaking. It's the bottom line and the corporate board telling him to get the hell out of the limelight. Target has been the, uh, target of picketing and swirling Internet chatter all week and it can't help but suffer from the boycott. Being anti-gay marriage is being anti-marriage and Target encourages engaged people to register there. Not a good PR move to hate gay people, who are about 10 percent of the population and whose rights as individuals--including the right to marry whomever the hell they want to marry--are supported by most of us.

It's fun to watch people take control of corporations and regardless of what the hyper-partisan right-wing Republican Supreme Court says, corporations are not people, but they can damn well be run by people.

A Disrpution of Giant Proportion on Edinburgh Dr.

This is my yard at 3 p.m. today. The boys from Roanoke's water department have been working on the street and pipes under it since around the first of May (they were scheduled to finish May 31, but they're not even close). They came closer home today.

Apparently when the pipes were put into this neighborhood (which was built in the late 1940s), they were linked to the houses from the main in something of a random fashion and my outlet is in my neighbor's driveway. that seems to be common here and the city wants to correct it. Apparently the pipes are pretty clogged, too.

And, yes, I knew they were coming into the yard, but I hadn't counted on them digging up my prized hydrangea and setting it to the side. I've been pampering that baby for months trying to coax one of those gorgeous blue flowers from it. Now, my guess it'll be next year before it comes, if it comes at all. Dang.

But the City's boys have been thoughtful, courteous and willing to do what they can to accommodate those of us on the block. They have a lot of equipment parked here and it's noisy from 7:30 to about 3:30 every day. When it's not noisy, my neighbor takes the opportunity to mow her lawn and create a little excitement.

It'll be over soon, I keep saying. Soon.

Report Says Many Employers To Cancel Health Care

The McKinsey Quarterly has just released a report projecting some of the reactions by employers to the new federal health care law (Affordable Healthcare Act) and a quick look will tell you that changes are a-comin', if this report is even close to accurate.

Early on, the report gives us this:

The early-2011 survey of more than 1,300 employers across industries, geographies, and employer sizes, as well as other proprietary research, found that reform will provoke a much greater response.

• Overall, 30 percent of employers will definitely or probably stop offering ESI [employee sponsored insurance] in the years after 2014.
• Among employers with a high awareness of reform, this proportion increases to more than 50 percent, and upward of 60 percent will pursue some alternative to traditional ESI.
• At least 30 percent of employers would gain economically from dropping coverage even if they completely compensated employees for the change through other benefit offerings or higher salaries.
• Contrary to what many employers assume, more than 85 percent of employees would remain at their jobs even if their employer stopped offering ESI, although about 60 percent would expect increased compensation.

The report concludes that "Our research suggests that when employers become more aware of the new economic and social incentives embedded in the law and of the option to restructure benefits beyond dropping or keeping them, many will make dramatic changes. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about 7 percent of employees currently covered by employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) will have to switch to subsidized-exchange policies in 2014."

At its most basic, says the report, "Health care reform fundamentally alters the social contract inherent in employer-sponsored medical benefits and how employees value health insurance as a form of compensation. The new law guarantees the right to health insurance regardless of an individual’s medical status."

Here's one of the major changes: "A Congressional Budget Office report estimated that only 9 million to 10 million people, or about 7 percent of employees, currently covered by ESI would have to switch to subsidized exchange policies in 2014. Most surveys of employers likewise show relatively low interest in shifting employees from traditional ESI.

"Our survey found, however, that 45 to 50 percent of employers say they will definitely or probably pursue alternatives to ESI in the years after 2014. Those alternatives include dropping coverage, offering it through a defined-contribution model, or in effect offering it only to certain employees. More than 30 percent of employers overall, and 28 percent of large ones, say they will definitely or probably drop coverage after 2014."

Fact is, there will be significant changes. But isn't that what the law was meant to do? A number of years ago my friend Dick Robers, a visionary in our midst, strongly recommended that employers simply drop health care coverage for workers and pay them to take care of their own insurance needs or simply put the money away to self-insure. He believed--and my guess is he still believes--that the sudden drop in income would force insurance companies to make dramatic--and needed--changes to the way they do business. My guess is he's right and that the new federal law takes at least a small step in that direction.

This is either going to work or it is not, but it will be different from what we are experiencing. The definition of insanity is to continue what you're doing and expect change. Change comes by changing. And I don't think many of us will say we don't need change in this area.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Need Some Work Done? Here Are a Couple of Able Teens

It's June now and a wet May has given even those of us who like yardwork our fill for the spring and summer. What to do? Rent a kid. That's the tried and true method, but if you don't have a kid or some healthy youngsters on the block, they can be hard to find.

I have a solution for you: Jonathan Bocco (540-589-3183, cell) and J.P. Harth (540-966-1384, home). These teen-aged boys come with my personal recommendation for work ethic, thoroughness, enterprise and general good humor. They've worked for me twice: moving furniture once and cleaning out a rough area in the back yard today ... one I just couldn't find myself doing. But, hell, that's why god made teenagers.

J.P and Jonathan live in Botetourt County, but each has access to a truck and they're willing to do what you need. Hire them. I think you'll be happy you did.

By the way, I found them on Facebook by asking for a couple of working teens. I know Johathan's mama and she replied.

Contemplating Mortality: "Pull the Damn Plug, Renee!"

The notion of age slipping up on you is, I think, a misrepresentation. This past weekend, I got a good look at the suddenness of the attack.

I had spent last week being especially active physically, riding my bike, kayaking, walking, gardening, mowing and happily sweating a lot. I was starting to feel sun-warmed and much younger than the guy who starts Medicare next month. But when my eight-year-old buddy Isaac asked me if I'd throw the ball with him so he wouldn't have to get in the pool with a bunch of girls, it all came to a head. Throwing a ball is something I've done--and done pretty well--since I was a good bit younger than Isaac and it's an act I haven't thought much about in recent years (save for when I threw out the first ball for a Salem Red Sox game a couple of weeks ago and blew the opportunity by pitching wildly). I haven't been active in throwing baseballs and footballs, but it's like riding a bike ...

Maybe not so much. Riding a bike doesn't take this much skill, coordination and suppleness of muscle structure--which is pretty much a thing of the past for me.

The more I threw with Isaac, the more pronounced the pulled muscle in my back (if that's what it is) became. I had hurt it a couple of days earlier by climbing too many hills on my bike without a rest. Old muscles don't react like young muscles, but nobody tells you that if you don't ask. So here I am asking an eight year old kid to throw the ball so I don't have to bend, turn, jump, lean, stretch or anything else that is normal when tossing a ball with a boy. When Isaac's ball missed me and rolled past on the ground that meant I'd have to bend over and pick it up. That meant pointing my right leg directly behind me and stooping gingerly as low as I could go and suffering that sharp pain as I reached for the ball.

Today it was putting on my socks. I couldn't do it. Too much pain. Fortunately, however, wearing my Weejuns without socks is as trendy today as it was in 1964, so when I show up at the birthday party for my 89-year-old "mom" in Lynchburg, I'll be extra stylish and nobody will know my back is in a sling.

This situation doesn't have much to do with mortality, but on my walk this morning (yep, managed to do that), I was thinking about what I'd tell my doc if she said I couldn't be saved and it would require respirators and all this electronic crap they have these days that keeps you breathing, if not necessarily alive. "Pull the damn plug, Renee!" I found myself saying out loud with a smile. And I meant it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Hesher": Worst Movie of the Year? Let's Hope So

The problem with "Hesher," which I hope is the worst movie of the year because I'd dread the thought there might be another of these lurking out there, is not in the moviemaking. That's just fine. Good direction, cinematography and acting. The sound could use some work. It is the story that is completely lacking in humanity, warmth, grace, dignity, life lessons of value, humor, even something as simple as a bath.

Here's how the synopsis describes the plot: "A bullied little boy grieving the death of his mother strikes up an unlikely friendship with a Metallica-loving anarchist in this tender yet unsentimental childhood drama." That's not what the movie is about and to call Hesher anybody's "friend" is to stretch the truth to lengths that would embarrass a politician. "Tender"? Where? "Unsentimental"? You have to reach a certain level of humanity to find anything sentimental.

I sat there (at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke) as the titles scrolled wondering why the story was written, how it got published and what in the world possessed a lot of talented people to work on making it a movie. It has absolutely nothing of any value to relate to any of us, unless our day has been so joyous and blessed that we need to be brought down a notch or 10.

What we have here is a worthless slacker who insinuates himself into the lives--and home--of a grieving family (Mom has just died in an auto accident) at its most vulnerable and weakest moment. Dad has become totally dependent on anti-depressive drugs, Grandma is obviously dying of something and stays high on medicinal marijuana all the time and the young son--small for his age and bullied--is so stupid he can't do something as simple as tell a cop or anybody else in authority that a nutcase has moved into his house and taken over and that a truly nasty kid at school is bullying him.

Throw in a Natalie Portman (how the hell did she get in here?) portrayal of a part-time grocery clerk whose life is crap and you have everything this movie offers: nothing. There is no saving grace (that's a spoiler, but I don't care; you should not waste your time seeing it) in the beginning, middle or end and nobody comes out better in the end, when the wrecked car in which Mom died winds up in the driveway after being crushed by the recycler. Yippie-do. A positive moment. Relatively speaking.

Let's let this tomato die on the vine, un-sampled. It was spoiled before being picked. "Hesher" was so bad it made me angry.

Doing Harm to Journalism in Franklin County

Kim Wagoner did her paper in particular and journalism in general a disservice yesterday at a rally in Rocky Mount meant to show discontent with Franklin County Sheriff Ewell Hunt, whose actions appear to have contributed to the killing of a young woman by one of his deputies last week.

Wagoner, according to this report in a Roanoke daily newspaper, interjected herself into a speech at the rally by organizer Joe Stanley, questioning him during a speech he was making, all because, she is quoted as saying, "I'm here to get to the truth." She could have done that after the speech was done, one-on-one with Stanley, as is normally and properly done. By interrupting the speech, she injected herself into the fifth through 10th paragraphs of the story where she did not belong.

The truth she would do well to pursue is whether the sheriff is capable of doing his job and whether his actions contributed to the death of the woman.

The story says Wagoner is a "former Republican political campaigner" and Stanley has been a "Democratic strategist." That would make for a good private conversation and some feisty reporting and questioning. It makes for embarrassment of a profession--mine--when the Republican browbeats the Democrat during his speech, claiming First Amendment rights. That's bullshit.

Partisan politics has a place--too big a place--in our society, but this was not one of them. She would have been fine asking hard questions of Stanley after he finished his speech. But if this report is correct--and that is an important caveat--then she was wrong and should apologize to her readers and to Stanley.

This is not about whether the sheriff's actions were proper. It's about whether the newswoman's actions were in accordance with her job description. Franklin County's newspapers have a colorful history of doing things their own way and there's a certain charm to that independence in many circumstances. This is not one of those circumstances.

(Image from echomedia.com)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Some New Guidelines for Crooked For-Profit Colleges

For many years, for-profit colleges have been the 600-pound hog at the government trough, swallowing up all the food and delivering almost nothing in return. These schools, which are often business or technical in nature, are so often referred to as "unscrupulous" that you get the idea that the word is part of their name.

The government has been looking into their "unscrupulousness" for two years and the Obama Administration has come up with some minimal guidelines that could eventually make them move a little closer to honesty in what they do. (Read the story here.) As much as most of us dislike government regulation, this is a case where it would have been easily and readily avoided (and has been) had it not been for crooks in the business. These colleges often charge outlandish tuition, have graduation rates far closer to 0 than to 100 percent and leave students with big debts and no chance in the job market.

The Obama ruling, which follows intense lobbying from the industry (as does any regulation attempt of any industry) has a glaring fault: it gives these jerks three more years to rip off the students and the government before they have to comply with three mandates:

  • At least 35 percent of their former students have to be replaying their loans (and $1 decline in the balance over a year is enough).
  • The loan can't exceed discretionary income by more than 30 percent (generally indicating the student has a job).
  • The loan payment can't exceed 12 percent of total earnings.

That's not much of a demand, but it far exceeds what is expected now, which is nothing in the way of performance. These schools, quite simply, would not exist without government loans for their generally low-income students. It is especially cruel to raise the expectations of those in poverty with the promise of a good education that is mostly subsidized by the rest of us and then deliver a large suitcase full of disappointment in its place.

There is a place for these schools and the truth is that some of them are quite good. This kind of regulation, minimal though it is, should help bring some more of them in line with the norm of education. As long as there are crooks out there, though, it will be a problem and I don't expect those people to go away soon. They have too many effective lobbyists.

(Chart: The Economist)