Tuesday, February 27, 2007

You could already be a winner

Keep looking out the window. Yes, the Prize Patrol could soon come barreling into Burnt Hills, raining millions of lucky dollars down on one lucky resident who is among the finalists in the storied $10 million Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.

Breaking new lows rather than breaking news, The Saratogian reported Tuesday that the Scotia sales rep is among 210 finalists for the company's grand prize, which is to be dolled out sometime during NBC's nightly news broadcast Wednesday. To do the numbers, this means the woman has a 0.4 percent chance of winning the grand prize. In other words, her chances are a bit better than the odds she'll write a New York Times best seller, but a bit worse than the odds she'll be audited by the IRS.

Mind you, the woman's odds are quite a bit better than the odds ordinarily boasted by the sweepstakes, where the chances of winning are roughly one in 150 million. This means she's already substantially beaten the odds that a meteor will land on her house. And that was all it took to get the presses rolling on Lake Avenue.

For those readers who never spent much coherent time living in the later 20th century, the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes --not to be confused with a similar American Family Publishers contest once promoted by Ed McMahon --was one of the bastions of hope for contest-crazed folk.

The idea originated during the 1950s with a Long Island fellow named Harold Mertz, who was trying to find a way to more efficiently hawk magazine subscriptions. When he decided to couple mail solicitation with a sweepstakes drawing, he struck gold. By sending in bulk form letters that boasted "you could already be a winner" to millions of households each year, Mertz managed to play upon the get-rich-quick aspirations of middle-class America, thrusting his Port Washington-based company into roughly 75 percent of the nation's households by the mid-90s.

After a while, however, the most gullible among the populace started to take fault with Publisher's Clearing House for their oft misleading mailings. Though the now-hackneyed phrase was technically true --the company drew winners in advance of the mailing --it didn't stop several dozen lawsuits against the company during the 90s from irate contestants that failed to read the fine print. By the turn of the century, the company had shelled out nearly a tenth of what it had given out the previous five decades to settle lawsuits filed across the nation.

But all this history didn't stop The Saratogian's intrepid reporter, who must have felt some twinge of shame for affixing his by-line to such a non-story. Then again, The Saratogian is one of the more shameless news publications in the area --and possibly even the state -- prone to hosting their own cockamamie contests to drum up quarterly circulation numbers.

This year, they've simplified. Instead of trifling with a long and complicated contest, they hired a crew of high school students to hawk free trial subscriptions outside Purdy's Wine and Discount Liquor Store at happy hour on a Friday afternoon.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Your hometown paper

Live in Bethlehem and got the itch to write? Well, the blog-happy Times Union has a deal for you. Drop them a line and sign up to be the next online correspondent for the paper.

True, the pay isn't very good. In fact, you probably won't get anything but the satisfaction of feeding them news tips for the print publication. The theory is, the town's populace is best suited to report their own news, especially if their willing to do it for free.

Project Bethlehem was recently touched upon by Michael Huber, the paper's online guru and community publishing editor, when he spoke on Vox Pop, WAMC's daily afternoon call-in show. Paraphrasing his brief discussion, Huber said this community-based blog initiative is a sort of litmus test for and idea to establish similar sites for other Capital Region communities under the paper's masthead.

Lo and behold, the Times Union's Web site now carries an entire "local news section" for the Bethlehem area, as it does for the counties of Rensselaer, Albany, Schenectady and Saratoga. But when there isn't pathological sliver-spooned megalomaniac running loose with an ax and a penchant for whacking his parents, things around the Bethlehem area must get a bit mundane for the TU brass; or at least for whoever maintains the Web site, which hasn't been updated in nearly a month.

Here's where local bloggers come in. The TU enlists someone reliable from the working public to maintain a semi-daily blog, then merely monitors the posts for newsworthy content to turn into by-lined articles, thus absolving the Hearst Corporation of having to shell out ducats for a bureau in the town. The blogger gets bragging rights, the community gets its news, the TU saves money and everybody walks away a winner, right?

Not quite. The flailing industry of local journalism is taken down yet another notch. The paid reporters are reigned in just a bit closer to the mother ship, so instead of developing intimate relationships within the communities they live, their writing becomes increasingly fly-by-night; parachute in, grab the story and get the hell out.

But that's been the direction of local journalism recently. Gone are the days of reporters working a municipal beat and growing with a community. Then again, the TU's pilot program for a self-contained local news blogosphere might soon be the only alternative for small communities to get municipal coverage, as dailies continue to downsize and close bureaus across the region.

Who knows? Maybe the TU's pet project will spread to Saratoga County, where daily municipal coverage ends about 10 miles away from the Northway. That is unless the paper happens to be The Saratogian, in which case the trail of news usually stops less than a 100 yards away from Lake Avenue.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Taking cue from Amtrak

The inbound post of i-Saratoga has been inexplicably delayed on the tracks for little other reason than the engineer's lethargy and wanton lust for copious amounts of scotch. Yes, there's something about three feet of snow and wall-to-wall weather stories choking the press that seems to grind all the creative vitriol to a halt amid the hum of a pleasant Johnnie Walker buzz.

So pace the isles and maybe swing by the lounge car for a few cocktails. And while you're there, try to get a grip on the fact that the New York Times actually quoted a blowhard like David Bronner, as a fellow Spa-centric blogger recently pointed out. To make matters worse, they managed to misspell his name; an ironic footnote during Bronner's one flash in the pan of national media throughout his long and storied career of public blowouts.

Meanwhile on Lake Avenue, the collective genius of the editorial crew and the Journal Register Company brass have apparently returned photos to The Saratogian's Web site after a nearly four-year long hiatus of keeping it graphic-free. Maybe they finally realized the text of their stories simply isn't strong enough to carry much more than the piss-poor reputation their masthead boasts. Or maybe the tech-savvy Barbara Lombardo finally figured out how to turn on her computer.

But all these deep thoughts can wait for more sober and enlightened moments. So keep reading and hang tight. It looks like the engineer has finally polished off the remnants of his fifth.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It'll be a cold day in hell...

As promised, Spa City's mayor rolled out her "be kind" initiative during Tuesday's city council meeting. And as anticipated, she was met with groans from two out of four commissioners, who recognized the hollow promise for what it is: a superfluous pledge that's more of a waste of time than anything.

Governing the civility of government officials is more or less a fruitless pursuit that's best left up to Roberts Rules of Order and a meeting chair with an ounce if control, rather than of idle resolutions aimed in a round-about way at publicly humiliating the most egregious violators. For those in the know, there's little doubt that Public Works Commissioner Tom McTygue was the member of council who prompted Valerie Keehn to craft the pledge.

Also of little surprise was the fact that he refused to sign it, in essence making a public spectacle of something few among the voting public would place high on the priority list of local government. Truth is, government in all of its incarnations, is an ugly beast; its pawns are no different then a pack of wailing hyenas caged together at long prattling meetings.

Politicians, especially on the local level, are nothing more than a group of oversized school children kicking sand at each other on the playground of municipal government. Civility among politicians, if any exists at all, is forged through a series of furtive backroom deals, done out of the public eye as to mask the sinister nature of the aforementioned beast.

Keehn's pledge simply gussies up this beast up; festoon its mangy hair with colorful ribbons, file down the crusted claws and give the oily complexion a quick makeover. But the mayor forgets this isn't Queer Eye, and no degree of makeoverwill ever sap the vile nature from politics.

Meanwhile, more empty storefronts pop up on Broadway, while all around posh condos grow high in the sky. Every minute, diversity slips a bit further into the citywide policies that promulgate omnipresent gentrification. And in the city council, the mayor is taking backwards potshots at the commissioner she's butted heads with from the get-go. Smile for the cameras mayor, tell them this empty pledge will do an ounce of good.

Who knows. The temperature continues to hover around zero out there and if it drops a few degrees centigrade, maybe ol' McTygue will fire up his pen and sign the pledge.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Fines and misdemeanors

Something that just drifted below the radar screen of the many reporters attending the Mayor's speech Sunday was a glib mention of a "vehicle and traffic law violation surcharge" that will be used to jackhammer home the Spa City's new public safety building by 2008. Basically, what this means is the City Court will impose an additional fee that will go into a slush fund to defray building costs.

For most law abiding citizens, this is probably a good thing. All the morons busted for doing high-speed fun-runs down the main drag over the summer will have to contribute a bit more cash to building a new police station instead of their neon undercarriage lighting.

This initiative could also have the effect of a new era of hyper-enforcement throughout the city. As the mayor less than succinctly explained Sunday, the police aren't to keen on their present locale. So as logic would have it, they'd do just about anything to raise money for a new state-of-the-art station, even if that means a pile more paperwork and issuing citations in cases that would normally be overlooked or dismissed with a mere warning.

Rolling stop? That's a ticket. Inspection three days expired? That's a citation. Run a yellow light? Book'em Lou.

And while no one in City Hall believes these surcharges will pay for the new structure, the realized revenue from ramped up traffic citations could give lawmakers another idea that is taking on steam many of the major metropolises in the North East. Instead of having the beat cops keep an eye peeled for violators, the city could have big brother do it for them, then reap the benefits of $75-per-violation fees that are as easy to collect as parking tickets.

So far, the cities of Providence, R.I., Boston, Mass., and New York City have all reaped the benefits of having cameras at intersections. In Providence, the monitored intersections are privately contracted out and cost the city about $4,600 per month. On average, each light sees about 17 infractions a day, giving the city an added revenue stream of roughly $403,000 per year per intersection. That's big money and cash that no municipality really cares to ignore. Of course, the system does have it's flaws.

The bottom line is using the law to fill city coffers is a bit of a slippery slope when it comes to civil rights, and one that shouldn't be treaded on lightly. From the outset, it doesn't sound like Keehn or the council have any ulterior motives, other than to help finance what will likely be an expensive project. But it's not too far of a stretch to think about future applications of these policies.

Monday, February 05, 2007

You've got to be kidding

Editor's note: much thanks to the anonymous tipster for the link. In the future, those who feel more comfortable amid the world of electronic mail can always use this link to send tips.

Memorializing a horse that should have been euthanized eight months ago? Weird. Writing three articles about a dead horse that never once raced at your city's race track? Even weirder. Biding $11.50 in an online auction for a 50-cent newspaper from a small city where the aforementioned dead horse was over-eulogized in print but never once raced? Well, that's just capitalism gone wild.

Yet as remarkably ludicrous as this might sound, there is apparently someone out there blinded enough by Barbaro fever that they're willing to pay 23 times the cover price for a hapless copy of an outdated copy of the Saratogian advertised on eBay. Perhaps even more frightening is the fact that four eBayers were dense enough to tender ANY bid for this overpriced fish wrap.

Sadly, had these folks simply call the folks over on Lake Avenue and requested a surplus copy, they probably could have secured one for nothing more than the cover cost and a self-addressed stamped envelope. As dense as they are over there, it's doubtful they'd give up a shot at self-promotion.

Even more asinine is the fact that the seller --an Albany-based eBayer calling themselves "spacity collectables" --is throwing out trifecta of The Saratogian, New York Post and Daily News "Barbaro in memory" editions for the low, low, buy-it-now price of $75, plus shipping and handling. Great googly moogly.

Before you rush to place your bid, do remember that Barbaro never once raced in the state of New York. And if you're honestly thinking about paying more than the advertised price for an old paper that's probably best forgotten among the annals of history, then first consider bidding on this ball-peen hammer. You'll need it to bash an iota of sense into your head.

Silly Council

Perhaps a Freudian slip by the mayor just three months removed from her bid to abolish the commissioner style of government? Don't be ridiculous, Valerie Keehn insisted after calling the City Council the "silly council" during her State of the City address Sunday.

But the Spa City's mayor might not have been far from the mark after basically thumbing her nose at two of the four commissioners, one of which she's been at odds with even before winning her seat in office. Democrat Tom McTygue was told in short terms and in a very public way to quit his verbal sparring with the vitriolic Colonel David Bronner, a lakeside resident who takes great pleasure in clawing his way beneath the Public Works Commissioner's skin.

And while maintaining proper decorum might seem like a no-brainer for most people in the public light, Keehn clearly felt the need to pitch a professionalism pledge for the council to sign as an exclamation point on a largely unremarkable speech. What exactly this pledge will entail and whether it will be enforced in some form is a question that remains unanswered.

Keehn's slight of tongue oddly came as she plugged away at the council's other democratic member, Accounts Commissioner John Franck, when offered to restart the assessment meter for him. Since taking office, Franck has advocated a freeze on reassessments, rightly calling broken the property taxing formula proffered by the state Office of Real Property Services.

But the mayor believes the only way to make property values fair is to reassess them annually. That way, when some deep-pocketed millionaire with money to blow purchases a property for well over it's truly assessed value, all the properties around that home can look forward to having their assessments --and consequently their property taxes --boosted.

The end result? More rich people in Saratoga Springs, while the pursuit of property becomes vastly unrealistic for the rest of the population. Looks like it's back to renting for seniors, young professionals and members of the proletariat.

Of course, that's not the message the "affordable housing" mayor is trying to convey. Instead, it's a reaffirming her "commitment to work with our city council and county officials to address the real need for affordable housing for our young working families senior citizens and valued service sector workers," she pledged during her speech.

Well, it's been 378 days since Keehn's last state of the city speech, which is just a few weeks shy of the amount of time her administration has presided over a municipality utterly devoid of affordable housing. To map this out, that's 1.7 million square feet of development including 1,374 residential building permits since the turn of the century without a single inch that could be considered affordable to anyone outside of the upper-middle class.

So instead using a quote from Martin Luther King in her speech, perhaps the mayor could have barrowed from a less distinguished but equally well known figure in history, who said "if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." True, Keehn doesn't forge even a remote likeness in body or spirit of this nasty little propagandist. But to think she's going to somehow wave a magic wand and make property affordable for the working class while annually boosting assessments is simply laughable.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Editor's note: Congratulations to Bob Holt of Gaffney's for winning Chowderfest. The victory is the second for one of the Spa City's most stalwart and adept cooks. Let's not cheapen his victory by using the hackneyed term chef; Bob's got the scars to prove his skill.

Some folks just don't get it. Despite centuries worth of rich tradition --pun quite intended --there are those who simply don't understand that any chowder recipe must abide by a few basic concepts, namely that potatoes are a necessary if not vital ingredient.

Take for example the so-called chef of Wheatfields, who thought it proper to enter the city's annual Chowderfest with an entry of chicken, corn with lime and fried pepper linguine chowder. While this may be an original entry --and sounds on the border of a culinary disaster --it is certainly not a chowder.

But one can't castigate Wheatfields' epicurean for trying. Take instead the entry from The Bread Basket on Spring Street, which apparently won last year in the "Best Off Broadway" category with a spinach leek soup.

Soup? What is this soupfest? When you enter a pie-eating eating contest, you eat pies. When you enter a chili cook-off, you cook chili. So as logic would have it, when you enter a Chowderfest, you prepare chowder; not stew, not bisque, not soup, but a chowder. Say it Frenchie. Say Chowdah.

With downtown's ninth annual Chowderfest competition just hours away, perhaps some of the entrants could use a quick refresher, just in case they reached for the blender instead of the russets. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines chowder as "a thick soup or stew made of clams, fish, or vegetables, with potatoes, onions, and other ingredients and seasonings," which indeed lends to loose interpretations of what does and does not constitute the hearty soup.

The debate over how and where exactly chowder was derived wages on to this day. The Oxford English Dictionary roots chowder back to the Latin word "calderia," a term meaning "place for warming things" or the root of the ordinary English word "cauldron." But before the Brits could hammer down their new-found bi-syllabic term, a band of Frenchmen from Normandy wandered by and --in their quest to make ordinary terms sound more haute and pompous --threw out the word "chaudiere."

The derivative cup had almost fallen back across the English Channel when suddenly out of nowhere, a rot-toothed fishmonger from Cornwall region of Southwestern England
surfaced in the debate, insisting the term had indeed come from the British Isle. The rather dodgy fellow adamantly claimed the bloody Fracs had plucked the old-English word "jowter," meaning fish peddler, and bastardized for their own purposes.

In the meantime, the Puritans from the north had embarked upon a long scurvy-ridden journey to the New World, where they encountered a bizarre group of northern savages that took great pleasure in plucking mollusks from their shells. So much pleasure, in fact, they piled shells nearly 10 feet high. But being the slow learners they were, the interloping pilgrims ignored for years the bizarre concoction the natives seemed to take great pleasure in quaffing down.

It wasn't until nearly a century later when a voice of reason spoke amid the roiling colonies to declare that indeed, mixing fish with salted pork and potatoes wasn't a bad idea. And henceforth was born, the first precursor to the New England Chowder. The most rudimentary chowder took the form of simple boiled fish, crumbled crackers and a smidgen of salted pork. To this, they added potatoes, pickles, mangos, apple sauce or whatever wasn't nailed to the floor.

As fate would have it, the modern chowder didn't really take hold until the later 19th century or so, somewhere around the time New York was formally divorced from New England. The later of the two quickly seized the chowder mantle with gusto, dumping an artery-clogging amount of cream into their potion of spuds and bi-valves to create what many regard as the prototypical clam chowder.

With New England boasting proudly of their new creation, the bourgeois of southern New York roiled with the thought of being outdone by a pack of under-educated bean-loving woodchucks. Quickly in the posh eateries of Manhattan, a plot was hatched to again reign supreme over the rich dish. Dispatching with the cream and adding the more health-conscious tomato, New Yorkers hatched the Manhattan Chowder, which to this day, battles for supremacy over its northern neighbor.

Of course, New Englanders wouldn't take such a move lying down. So in a move of both stupidity and gusto, a Maine legislator known only by the name Seeder pitched a law that would make it both a statutory and culinary offence to introduce tomatoes into the traditional chowder recipe. Needless to say, the law never went into effect and Seeder --if that's his real name --was quickly ushered out of office and into obscurity.

Today, fierce competitions occur throughout the northeast in vain attempt to resolve the age-old disputes that chowder left in wake of its creation. In the Spa City, the challenge first took hold in 1997, when the Bureau of Convention and Tourism sponsored the event to replace the once heralded "Soups of Saratoga" competition. From there, the rest was chowder lore

Nine years later, the "competition," as they still call it, encompasses more than 40 restaurants across the city and now in neighboring Ballston Spa. So grab your spoon Saturday and hit the streets. Just remember to vote for an entry that actually boasts chowder-worthy ingredients, not one of the half-baked chowderheads that don't know a bisque from the hearty dish of goodness that keeps the greater northeast warm and fat on those frosty days.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Can you hear me now?

No one should have to endure the nightmare Barbara Langer experienced on the Northway, shouted angry legislators and editorial pages across the state this week. Cellular service along a barren stretch of road in the otherwise pristine Adirondack Park would have saved Langer's husband, Alfred, who succumbed to hypothermia 19 hours after the couple's car sailed off the highway and into an obscure swath of woods in rural Essex County.

Using words like 'outrageous' and 'incomprehensible,' these righteous lawmakers and editorialists brutally castigated everything from the chiseler service providers for being too cheep to install cell towers along the swath of forest to the environmentalist for rallying against 100-foot cell towers being built in New York's largest park.

But as tragic as this accident was, Alfred Langer's ultimate demise could have been thwarted by something a lot simpler and less costly than a 70-mile row cell phone towers. Were the Langers to employ even an ounce of common sense, chances are pretty good they both would have escaped their ordeal with at least their lives.

At one point in the not-so-distant past --before the advent of cell phones and GPS systems --motorists prepared themselves for long trips. Some may even remember outfitting their cars with blankets, flares and even fire extinguishers before going on long journeys. These were staple items that could be stowed easily in any car and could come in handy at an accident scene, regardless of the circumstances.

Another simple tact motorists once used was a few calls on the good ol' land line. Call someone before you leave, tell them when you're going to arrive and then call someone when you finally get there. Then, if you don't arrive at your destination, someone can dispatch help or at least sound the alarm. Before the massive proliferation of cell phones, mothers across the nation routinely employed this technique to ensure their progeny wasn't bleeding off to the side of the road; after all, it's a common sense move.

But now, with automobiles safer than ever and with the conveniences of everything from roadside assistance to robust state police patrols, many drivers forget how perilous it is to traverse the highway. This is especially the case when it comes to barreling through nearly a hundred miles of desolate mountain terrain, where help will take a while to come even if they know where an accident is.

In Albany, the answer to this tragedy is more legislation. Make sure there's cell service on the Northway, because that will save lives --just like the call-boxes located at every quarter mile along the way. Then in a few years, when an accident victim dies because their cell battery expired, these same legislators can mandate that all automobiles be outfitted with OnStar systems. Maybe in a few decades, they can commission a 30-foot rubber wall running the length of I-87 so that no motorist will ever unexpectedly leave the highway.

The bottom line is you can't legislate common sense. And common sense is what saves lives, not cell phones, not cell towers and certainly not legislators.

Mark of the beast

Once you let the gorilla out of his cage, good luck in convincing him to jump back in. This is especially the case when that gorilla happens to be a 55,000-square-foot behemoth having a pretty randy time running amok on the Spa City's south side. Now some of the politicians who freed this snarling beast --otherwise know as the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway --are confused as to why it's suddenly not playing by the rules.

By 2008, Gov. Eliot Spitzer's state budget proposes to eliminate the city and county's share of revenue from the racino's Video Lottery Terminals, The Saratogian reported Thursday. The move would trim away an estimated $4.9 million --$3.7 million from Saratoga Springs and $1.2 million for Saratoga County --both entities were tucking away for a rainy day.

Republicans in the state Legislature claim this is nothing out of the ordinary, noting prior attempts to remove this funding under the Pataki Administration. In a rare displat of vitriol, Assemblyman Roy MacDonald, one the Saratoga County supervisors to approve the racino in 2002, claims he'll fight the cuts "come hell or high water."

Well Roy, the water is rising fast. Not to mention, it doesn't take much more than a glance down the rows of pasty-faced seniors pouring their social security earnings into a string of beeping VLTs to realize there's a little slice of hell that has bubbled up off Jefferson Street.

That little slice will be much bigger come spring, with $15 million expansion project plugging away on the facility's north side. Visitors can soon expect an additional 431 video gaming machines, a new two-story nightclub and a 300-space feeding trough racino officials are falsely boasting as a "restaurant." Much to their chagrin, City officials were all but stunted from having any input in the racino's plans.

Meanwhile, the city's downtown business owners can expect a bit less traffic, a bit less business and a bit less revenue, as the racino continues to siphon tourists off Broadway. But don't worry about all those empty store fronts, assures Gavin Landry, president of the Saratoga Cheerleading for Tourism Bureau; business in Saratoga is good.

Yes, business is good at the racino. And pretty soon, it will be a lot better, as the last of the $25-per-play VLTs are wheeled into the north wing. While legislators like MacDonald battle to restore the city and county's funding, the folks on Jefferson Street will continue to reap the rewards of their rampaging gorilla. Even if the Legislature restores the funding this year, at some point the lucrative cash-cow the city and county were offered for opening the cage will eventually be gobbled up this chest-pounding primate.

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