Tuesday, September 29, 2009

PITTSBURGH: THRU THE LENS OF GARY GAYDA


The Fall has always been one of the saddest times of the year for me. You look out into your yard and the flowers have run their course. Meanwhile, leaves are coming down like crazy as are the "monkeyballs" from my Black Walnut tree. Yes, you really have to love the mess that Fall creates in your yard.


ABOVE: Black Walnut "Monkeyballs". I hate these things with a passion. I'd cut my tree down, but it's about 200 feet tall.

But along with the end of the summer comes the end of something else, the summer amusement season at Kennywood. I know, I know, they're still open during "Halloween Fright Nights" but this too will pass very soon too. Face it, winter will be here again before we know it. Yeah, I can't wait for that either.

This week, our photographer, Gary Gayda, gives us one last fleeting memory of Kennywood for another year.


Remember, if you'd like to order any of Gary's shots, you can contact him directly at GMGayda@yahoo.com. Just specify what picture number you're interested in along with the size. Gary will get back to you.

So now, with a great amount of sadness, here's this week's image of Kennywood in "PITTSBURGH:THRU THE LENS OF GARY GAYDA".




#19       "GOING, GOING.....GONE"



ABOVE: The coasters will be going into mothballs soon, that's the bad news. The good news is that there will be another new coaster opening at Kennywood next season. Maybe if Kennywood were to "slip" Gary and I a few passes we could do one of our special investigative "tours" on the construction. We might even settle for a couple "Fright Night" passes. Yeah, four passes should do it, that way we can take our wives too! Also, some Potato Patch Fry vouchers would be great too. We think of everything here at "P.B. & G"! We're also very cheap. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

"YOU BLEW IT!!!!!!!!!" ---Happy Gilmore


ABOVE: One of the many female fans of the Steelers expresses her outrage at the teams' generosity this season toward its' opponents...at least I think that's what this shirt means. The Steelers lost their second game in a row in the final seconds, losing to the Cincinnati Bungholes 23-20.

I had a queasy feeling about this game all week. For one thing, there was a lot of Bob Prince style "hidden vigorish" going in. Not only had the Steelers won eight straight in Cinci, but Ben was riding and undefeated streak against the whole state of Ohio (which of course would include Cleveland's own Bad News Browns). Sooner or later, those kinds of streaks have to end. But the Bengies hadn't been playing that bad either. Remove one miracle play and they're now 3-0.

The Steelers, on the other hand, are just not playing with the kind of hunger necessary to win in the NFL. Try as they may have tried to dismiss last season's accomplishments, this team still hasn't managed to come down off their SuperBowl cloud. They very easily could be 0-3 too! As Bill Cowher often used to opine, the margin of difference between winning and losing in the NFL is very slim indeed. The Steelers are finding that out the hard way right now.



ABOVE: The Steelers are trying to find their "Happy Place" as portrayed in the scenes above in the Adam Sandler comedy classic, "Happy Gilmore".

Some players' shortcomings are standing out more noticeably than others.

Limas Sweed, who has clearly been passed over in the depth chart by Mike Wallace showed everyone why yesterday: The guy can't catch. This is not good if your career is being an NFL receiver. Sweed should either get over this very soon or start looking for another career. His dropped touchdown catch would have won the game.

Rashard Mendenhall, another second year player from the so-far ignominious draft class of 2008. He is apparently so far out of it in practice that Tomlin benched him for the game. If Sweed and Mendenhall don't get their heads on straight soon, this draft could turn out to be one of the biggest disasters in recent memory.

Santonio Holmes has been dropping passes like crazy. Yesterday, he also miscommunicated with Ben and cost the team an interception and touchdown.

Jeff Reed missed another field goal. No one ever said that a field goal was a guaranteed thing. Reed did make two other chip shots, but in the combined melange that is a loss, you can't dismiss that three more points wouldn't have helped...not when you lose by three points.

The Defense has clearly looked mortal since Troy Polamalu's injury took him off the field. Yesterday, they couldn't hold off a fairly ordinary Carson Palmer at the end and missed out on three possible interceptions. Is Troy the only guy on that unit who can catch? Apparently so. The team did not get the kind of pressure on Palmer, a relative statue, that one would like to see.

Mike Tomlin didn't have his best game either. Early in the game he opted for a field goal from the one yard line. This didn't send the kind of message that you would expect to be coming from him. While the Steelers made the field goal, at that stage of the game, I don't see why you wouldn't want to go for the touchdown.

Then, as time was running out in the half, Tomlin "goes for it" on fourth down at the Cinci 35. The ball is turned over on downs and the result is a field goal given up near the end of the half. Thus a 13 point lead becomes a 13-3 lead.

On the positive side, I thought that Ben, the offensive line and Willie Parker looked very good. Ben was "operating" on the Bengals like the Surgeon general and the offensive line gave him an amazing amount of time. The run blocking was also greatly-improved and the resultant holes gave the aged, decrepid and nearly wheelchair-bound Willie Parker a chance to romp. The running game is going to steadily improve, but I have a feeling that Parker and Mewelde Moore are going to be sharing most of the workload. I don't know what Mendenhall did or didn't do, but I fear that he is squarely in Tomlin's doghouse as no doubt is Sweed now too.

Mike Wallace is the real McCoy and as Pitt's Dave Wannstadt likes to say, "This guy is fast." He's not only fast, he's scary fast and he can catch. Now all that we have to work on is him not running out of bounds when he catches a ball five yards beyond a defender. I really like Wallace though. Santonio's drops aside, I feel that the Steelers, right now, have the finest, most well-rounded passing attack in the franchise's history. Ward, Holmes, Wallace, Miller, Spaeth, Moore and even Parker give Big Ben a slew of targets to choose from. Ben, for his part, keeps getting smarter about looking-off defenders, pumping the ball and not forcing passes. His escape and subsequent touchdown pass to a wide open Willie Parker was vintage Ben.

Once this offense can get the short yardage part of the game worked out, they should once again be one of the toughest to defend in the league. I wouldn't be writing a suicide note quite yet.

But they have to finish. The team has not been crossing the goal line as they should be. Once they start accomplishing this, watch out.

Meanwhile, I have a completely different feeling about this week's San Diego game at home. The Steelers need the friendly confines of Heinz Field to get themselves untracked and I believe they will find their "Happy Place". They also have a tough opponent coming in, so there should be no lack of focus this week. Plus, the idea of starting off 1-3 is not an appealing prospect. Look for the Steelers to play with much more intensity and desparation this week.

That should give them that little edge necessary to bridge that infintesimally-small gap between winning and losing in the National Football League. Until then, this week we'll just have to keep thinking back to that Adam Sandler classic, "Happy Gilmore" and repeating that now infamous phrase, "YOU BLEW IT!!!"


ABOVE: Carson Palmer (here played by Bob Barker) delivers a gut-wrenching blow to a typical Steeler fan (played by Adam Sandler) with 14 seconds left in Sunday's game against the Bengalese. Sandler's colors are right, but that logo has to go.
BELOW: Sandler, just seconds before uttering his now classic line, "YOU BLEW IT!!!"


Saturday, September 26, 2009

EXHALE: SUMMIT OVER, NOW LET'S GET BACK TO NORMAL!


ABOVE: A whale exhales. Yeah that about sums it up.



"CLEARING MY DESK"
                                     EDITORIAL COMMENTARY

Now that the G-20 Summit is over, it's great that we can finally get back to normal. It's also wonderful that the greatest image in the collective consciousness is of a group of sub-morons shoving a garbage dumpster down a steep street in the Arsenal Park distict of Lawrence"burg" (as one network reporter kept referring to the Lawrenceville area).

What makes people protest in such a stupid fashion? That's a question for the ages. Thankfully, the President defended Pittsburgh in his post-conference remarks. "There were 5,000 protesters here in Pittsburgh. In London, when they have these things there, they usually have 100,000 protesters."

What really angers me is when people come into a city from, say Berkeley, California, (as a group did) and make it look like the people of the host city are hostile or rioters. I would venture to say that 90% of those protesters were from outside of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Do they have a right to gather and voice their opinion? Yes, most definitely. Do they have a right to damage property, attempt to start a riot and make the host city look bad? Definitely not.

I understand that about 60 demonstrators were arrested. To my knowledge nobody got cracked over the head with a police baton. Too bad, there were a few that really needed it. Lucky for them, the police were very disciplined.


ABOVE: The cops meant business. Who in their right mind would take on this?

The President was very pleased with the way the summit was handled by the city and I have to say, the security  planning was extremely impressive. In fact, so effectively was the area around the convention center cordoned off that I would be surprised if more high security events aren't held here in the future. There are many kudos deserved and Mayor Luke Summitstahl and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato are to be commended (I couldn't resist the name gag).

Before your eyes roll out of your head about hosting more high security events, there's already word today that a Korean automaker wants to locate a plant here to build electric cars! They want to locate here because they will be working closely with CMU in developing a battery that will recharge more quickly. This will initially create 200 jobs. They're expected to announce the location of the plant within the next six months. I'm thinking that Braddock or Homestead would be great! Or how about Monessen or Donora? Can you imagine what the overall impact of the G-20 Summit being held here will be when we have a chance to look back on this event five or ten years from now?
_____________________________________


"Pittsburgh was a perfect venue for this work. This community has known its share of hard times. It picked itself up and dusted itself off. It serves as a model for turning the page to a 21st century."

                  -- President Barack Obama
___________________________________________

One thing that has become abundantly clear to me is that our many universities in the area are the "straw that stirs the drink that is Pittsburgh".
I'm looking forward to watching the Steeler game tomorrow and getting back to reporting on sports, but I'll always look back with fondest memories of being able to cover the CMU, Pitt, UPMC press conference and visiting the CMU Robotics Institute and Entertainment Technology center.

In fact, the tours were so well received that I'm planning on making a habit out of reporting on other interesting, seldom-seen things from around the city...things you're probably not aware of. Once each month you'll be able to look forward to seeing another special report showing up here, but the difference is going to be that in the future, I'm pleased to report that our pro photographer, Gary Gayda, is going to be along for the ride and taking plenty of pictures too!

If nothing else, the G-20 opened my eyes to the incredible things that are going on right here, things that are literally going to shape the future of our world. It also made me even more proud of this city than I was before!

Friday, September 25, 2009

PITTSBURGH G-20 JOURNALIST'S TOUR SHOWS HOW TO REUSE A FORMER STEELMILL SITE

--part three of a three part series
editor's note--As a writer, you learn early on that the better, more interesting your subject matter, the easier it is to write your story. From that perspective, I have been in "writer's heaven" over the past three days.



On Wednesday I reported on a press conference I attended featuring Pitt's Chancellor, Mark Nordenberg, CMU President,Jared Cohon and UPMC's Chairman, Jeffrey Romoff. It was narrated by "CNBC's" Howard Fineman, no less.


Wow, wow and wow. Those were some heavy hitters.


Yesterday, in part two of this G-20 Summit Journalists' story, I reported my findings on the incredible CMU Robotics Institute. Talk about having material!
But today's story will not take a back seat to the first two parts of this series at all (lucky you). So let's proceed now to the CMU Entertainment Technology Center (ETC for short) but there's nothing "etcetera" about it! 

When I first boarded the shuttle bus for my second and final tour of the day on Monday, I actually knew very little about what I was going to experience. I knew where I was going (the new development on the former J&L site)  but I had very little knowledge about what was actually going on there. All that I knew was that it was called the "Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center". Sounded like fun.

Upon arriving on the campus along the river (that I had driven past at least a hundred times before) our group was met by MK Haley, a thirty something "Associate Executuve Producer" as her card read. She wore an outfit somehow reminiscent of something the Beatles wore during their "Sgt. Pepper" period, but hey it's college, right?


ABOVE: This interactive entrance sign takes your picture and places it on the board. In the center it shows your picture on a live feed. So if you look closely in the middle you can see me taking a picture of the sign while the sign is taking a picture of me. Weird!


ABOVE: First and foremost this is "Steeler Country" after all. Let's make that perfectly clear.



ABOVE: Someone please tell me what movie this robot appeared in...it's driving me crazy. Was it an evil robot in "Lost In Space"?

In the lobby was an interactive animated robot named "Quasi" that actually worked with a hidden person in the next room acting as the voice (the voice was distorted to sound more artificial). In the same area was a full size robot that was similar in stature to the one from "Lost In Space". It struck me as being sinister. I guess robots, like people, come in good, evil, etc. (See "Terminator I, II, III")



ABOVE: "Quasi" was a real show-stopper, dressed in proper Steeler attire. I didn't catch what number he was wearing.


ABOVE: International journalists Wang Shanshan (left) and Han Shu (right) of China Radio International interact with "Quasi". Shanshan is the Washington Bureau Chief, Shu a reporter.

Our first stop was to see a classroom in action in the "Randy Pausch Interdisciplinary Studio,"  so named for the now-deceased CMU professor of international fame. On this day the students were trying out their extemperaneous acting skills and having quite a rousing good time of it. Ah college...best days of your life!


We next boarded an elevator and after the doors opened at our destination, it looked like we had stepped on board the "Starship Enterprise". The students, MK explained, had decided that this effect would help put them in the proper frame of mind for the "out of the box" thinking that their "ETC" training demanded.



ABOVE: Hallway treatment desined by ETC students. CENTER: Bulkhead of typical Starship. BELOW: Room with a view! No sign of Picard or Number One though.






While walking down corridors that were covered with iconic images from space movies and fantasies such as "Lord of the Rings", MK explained the inner workings of this one-of-a-kind school. "The ETC is very intense," she began. "We have campuses in Qatar, Silicon Valley and Australia, but you have to do your boot camp here."

Boot camp is a crazy-intense period where students, working in teams, have two weeks to design a computer game world. "Their only restrictions are no shooting and no pornography." The students are so inundated during boot camp that they literally live in their workshop areas. They spend twelve hour days and work seven days per week. They eat, drink and sleep computer game designing. This is how computer geeks are formed.

"If one person on the team isn't present, the whole team is marked as being absent or late. This teaches the students how important it is for them to be on time and not let down their co-workers. It also teaches the importance of teamwork."


ABOVE: The halls of the ETC are "littered" with iconic images everywhere. If you can't get inspired by this...you're dead.


ABOVE AND BELOW: Iconic figures from "Lord of the Rings". This guy needs hair plugs bad.




We next entered into one of the classroom workshops. Students here were working on separate game projects. I was immediately struck by the strong Asian persuasion of the students although strength in computing among Asians is certainly no secret that I just discovered.

"48% of our students here are Asian," Mk responded to my query. "Many are sponsored by their governments. The cost per year here is $38,000. This is a graduate program and there are only about 150 students."


ABOVE: Computer brainiac and instructor MK Haley answers a question from China's Radio Network. I can only wonder how many millions of people heard this interview in China and how many billions more will read this in "Pittsburgh's Black and Gold". This type of a moment is exactly what the city was hoping for most coming out the G-20 Summit, not protestors shoving a dumpster down a hill. I wonder if MK could fix my "Blogger" formatting problems? Hmmmmm.

Everyone was very intense in their work, but there was a genuine air about the place that entertainment was being created here and that should be fun. But creating games that work and don't crash takes a ton of expertise that I certainly can respect..especially when your computer is equipped with airbags like mine is.





























ABOVE: Where the rubber meets the road in computer design work. In retrospect, I should have kidnapped one of these kids and brought them home to fix my computer. Better yet, I should have "borrowed" a new one from CMU. They're everywhere!

As an example of the types of things that students design, we went into another room and had a demonstration of a program that recognized shadows and then reproduced them on a screen. All of the programs and games we were shown had  been designed by students at the ETC. They were most impressive.









































ABOVE: An ETC student demonstrates how his shadow program works. He can get his computer to work and he's not even touching it! Doesn't say much for, ahem, you know who.

On a wall outside of another classroom were the names of ETC graduates and the major successes they had already had in their careers. Peeking out from behind a cactus plant was a full-sized replica of the "Terminator" robot. In another alcove was the "Robot Hall of Fame" that had C3PO, R2D2 and the imposing robot from, "The Day The Earth Stood Still." Now that guy really looked scary, but why the need for the tighty metallics, to conceal robot gentalia?



ABOVE: The ETC "Robot Hall of Fame". BELOW: I must admit that I was appalled that the "Terminator" robot was relegated to a separate area behind a large cactus. Why not just put him in a closet and be done with it! This just goes to show that even in the robot world sometimes there are major injustices done. I plan on demonstrating against this travesty during the Summit.




ABOVE: MK wraps up our tour while "The Batman" and a bemused Heath Ledger look on. I don't know why, but I just kept singing to myself, "Sargeant Pepper's Lonely, Sargeant Pepper's lonely, Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

The ETC was another example of one of those great things about Pittsburgh that most Pittsburghers aren't really aware of. I would venture to say that if you asked 1,000 Pittsburghers what went on at the former J&L plant site a hundred might answer "CMU's Robotics" but that would be the extent of their knowledge.

My hope, when I first decided to get credentials for this event (that was originally intended just for international journalists) was to learn some things about Pittsburgh that I could share with you, my readers. In retrospect, I feel that the past three days have managed to show me that there's a lot about Pittsburgh that most of us don't know about. From time to time it'll be a lot of fun bringing you more of these articles in the future. I hope that you enjoyed this departure from our normal sports coverage as much as I did!
       


ABOVE: As our group was leaving, two young visitors were just entering and they too were enthralled with "Quasi". Seeing the thrill on the faces made me realize how important entertainment is in all of our lives.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

G-20 SUMMIT PART II: CARNEGIE MELLON OPENS UP ITS' TOYBOX FOR ALL THE WORLD TO SEE

--The Second installment of a three-part series.

Do you remember running down to your living room as a child on Christmas morning, being excited at seeing a pile of gifts while hoping for more toys than sweaters or underwear?

On Monday, the City of Pittsburgh rolled out the red carpet for visiting media from around the world. While we at "Pittsburgh's Black and Gold" didn't have to travel nearly as far as (everyone else) there, your dogged reporter managed to attend despite having only a distinct Pittsburgh accent. My thinking was that it would really be interesting to see what the leaders of three of Pittsburgh's major institutions had to say (see yesterday's column) and also to see what the visiting media thought of our city (they loved it by the way). But the really big treat would be getting to see the "toys" that CMU is developing over at their cozy confines, just a stones throw from the sprawling environment that is the Pitt campus. Oh, and I wasn't disappointed either and it wasn't even December 25th!

I had my choice of several tours such as Children's Hospital, several UPMC and Pitt research facilities. However, I chose CMU's Robotics Institute and followed it up with a tour of the new Entertainment Technology Center that's been built on the old Jones and Laughlin Steel plant along the Mon River. The result was one of the most amazing days I've ever had. Believe me, if the visiting journalists are even half as impressed as i was, Pittsburgh's going to be getting a lot of phenomenal press. Don't worry about the disruptions going on now, this event is going to pay gi-normous dividends for the city.

Since 1979, when it established the nation's first Robotics Institute, CMU has been developing many different robot applications. Some look very practical. Others are a result of taking on a challenge such as, "Do you think we could ever get a computer to balance itself on a basketball?" That sort of thing. But it's all research and all very, very, valuable towards future projects.


ABOVE: The "Balance Bot" can take a shove and keep standing, by  balancing on a basketball! This technology could prove to be invaluable someday for the many bars on the South Side.

Since we have all been raised with a good deal of Hollywood special effects throughout our lives, in retrospect some of these creations looked almost primitive. But the difference is that these are robots that really work!

The first thing that caught my eye was a tricked-up car named "Boss". This s.u.v. had recently won $2 million in a competition for devising a self-navigating vehicle. Those smart guys over at CMU's "Tartan Racing Team" brought home the bacon on this one. The logos splattered all over "Boss" bore silent testimony to the level of cooperation between institutions that this adventure required.





ABOVE: "Boss" is a "tricked-up" s.u.v. that brought a lot of bacon home to the CMU campus. The Parkway East could use a ton of these every day.

Inside the display area, informational areas were set up featuring CMU's other toys. One of the most compelling was the "Snake-bot". It looked like a bunch of motors that had been screwed together, but it moved exactly the way a snake does and it even had a very bright halogen light for a "head". The intended purpose of this bot is to be used in search and rescue missions for earthquake victims. However, it is also being miniaturized for use in heart operations! It was unbelievable watching this "snake" climb up a piece of slick pvc pipe in exactly the same way that a real snake would!






ABOVE: The "Snake Bot" just blew me away. Watching it climb up a pole was practically a surreal moment, something you'd expect to see in "Terminator 4". UPMC is currently working on an antivenim. 

I was shown a vehicle that is programmed to travel through an apple orchard to retrieve boxes of apples that have been harvested. This is already being field tested at Soergel Orchards in Pittsburgh.



ABOVE: The technology behind vision and recognition is being bridged by the techno-wizards at Carnegie Mellon.


ABOVE: This "harvest bot" can travel an apple orchard and pick up stock along the way. This vehicle can see and is not migratory.


ABOVE: CMUers David Gump and John Thornton stand in front of a vehicle that can recognize shapes.

Just in the nick of time, a very friendly "domestic bot" came around with a serving tray of fruit. CMU thinks of everything! Then there was the robot that would be able to lead you around a hospital where you practically need a GPS now in some instances.



ABOVE: I was ready to order one of these to bring the beers around during the Steeler games, but alas, they're not quite ready for the public...yet.

I even had a chance to meet the "rocket scientists" who are heading up CMU's "Red Rover" team. The exciting competition they're involved in has a little prize attached to it...$20 million from Google. All they have to do is be the first non-government team to land a rover on the Moon! It's that easy!!!

I asked two of the team participants if CMU is planning on launching their rocket from The Point, but they smiled and shook their heads no, sadly. They're really missing a great p.r. opportunity there. The plan is to actually revisit the actual site of the original Apollo 11 lunar landing. According to Boris (great rocket scientist name BTW) Sofman, a PhD student at CMU, the original footprints in the dust will still be there since there is no wind! But seriously, didn't you think that they filmed the landing on a Hollywood set?







ABOVE: Plans are changing so quickly that the wall poster (above) manufactured six months ago is already out of date. Plans call for a May, 2011 launch from Florida. CMU will also "retrieve" an additional $5 million for traveling 5 km, visiting a historic artifact, surviving the night, finding water and having diverse team membership. According to "Astrobotic Technology", a new CMU spinoff company, "The expedition intends to land about a kilometer from the Apollo 11 site, travel 550m to win the Google prize, and then proceed on to witness one of humanity's greatest achievements."



ABOVE: (Left) Bradford Neuman and Boris Sofman (right) pose with two rover models.











ABOVE: A collection of lunar vehicles. Solar power should be plentiful on this side of the Moon. CMU is well advised to avoid the "Dark side of the Moon."

According to CMU's Bradford Neuman, the team is really anxious to see what type of damage has been done to the rover that has been sitting on the moon for 30 years. With no atmosphere to protect it, they want to find out how miniature meteorites (that normally burn up in our atmosphere) will affect equipment in space that has been exposed to them for long periods of time. These are bullets traveling thousands of miles per hour.

As I said folks, this was really interesting stuff. It might not affect what you and I are going to do tomorrow, but it certainly can have a tremendous impact on the direction that our space program takes in the future and how the human race one day goes about space travel.



But this next little guy was stealing the show. Designed to be used in libraries or in classrooms, he was a "story-telling bot" complete with voice inflection, facial expression and full body movement. They couldn't get me to leave here, I just kept asking for "one more story, pleeeaaasse".

ABOVE LEFT & RIGHT: "Anubis" was certainly the convincing storyteller. If every library had one of these, story hour would be standing room only. Of course then kids will stop reading altogether.

Overall, the amount of genius at work at CMU is way beyond comprehension. After seeing these expensive "toys" revealed, I realized that Pittsburgh's future is quite secure. We may not have a booming robotic manufacturing industry here now, but you can bet that sooner rather than later that there are going to be CMU devised robots rolling off the assembly lines in places like Homestead, Braddock and Monessen very soon. Pittsburgh will one day become the robot supplier to the world. We have the infrastructure, the workforce, the available sites and the world will supply a never-ending hunger for more and more robots (see "Terminators I, II, III).

I'm certainly glad that I got a chance to view CMU's toybox. It's a rare opportunity indeed when one gets to peer into the future and realize that it's not a computer animation, it's the real thing and it's right here!!!

TOMORROW: PART III The absolutely amazing "CMU ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY CENTER".