Palm trees in Pittsburgh

Every reporter at the Trib had to come up with a few holiday brights — or stories that entertain while they educate. Here’s one of mine. I had seen this Strip District body shop in the summer and noted that it looked like it belonged in Florida, with palm trees planted in front. I wondered how the owner keeps them alive during the harsh Pittsburgh winters. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t.

Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Steve Schaffer dreams of the day he buys a second home in Key West, Fla.

Until then, the native Pittsburgher makes his own tropical paradise for as long as it lasts — planting palm trees in the spring and then, at this time of year, watching them wither and die.

By Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

By Keith Hodan, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“It creates the illusion that we’re somewhere we’re not,” said Schaffer, the owner of City Collision II auto body shop in the Strip District. “I call it a cheap vacation, every time I look out.”

A few hardy Pittsburghers are willing to do what it takes to bring a little bit of the tropics north of the Mason-Dixon line — even if that means keeping up the Sisyphean task of buying tropical plants each spring.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

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DIY body-hackers can’t wait for future

When you meet a group of guys working in their basement to build a device they hope to implant in their bodies, it’s easy to dismiss them as eccentrics. But I found the members of Grindhouse Wetware to be thoughtful about our future interactions with machines. Unlike most of us, they’re not willing to wait for it. They’re doing it.

Tim Cannon (left) with Shawn Sarver in the basement workshop of Grindhouse Wetware. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

Tim Cannon (left) with Shawn Sarver in the basement workshop of Grindhouse Wetware. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

Tim Cannon says he would cut off his arm if he could replace it with a stronger, more adroit mechanical upgrade.

For now, he must be content with a homemade digital device implanted under his skin that records his body temperature, interacts by Bluetooth and has LED lights.

Some swelling is evident around the electronic device that Tim Cannon had implanted under a tattoo on his arm.  Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

The electronic device that Tim Cannon had implanted. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

About the size of a stack of business cards, it bulges from his left forearm, still tender and swollen with fluids his body secreted to expel the foreign object. A body-piercing specialist implanted the device beneath a tattoo of a mechanical gear holding a DNA double helix.

Called Circadia, it turned out cruder and larger than Cannon hoped, but the device represents to him a step toward humanity’s union with machines.

“We did exactly what we set out to do, which was to inspire — to say, ‘You can do this,’ ” said Cannon, 34, of North Fayette.

To read the rest of this story, click here. My entire Cyber Rattling series is here.

Pittsburgh Hustle

Courtesy of American Hustle.

Courtesy of American Hustle.

American Hustle never happens without a little Pittsburgh hustle first. The movie that comes out today tells a story inspired by a 1970s super-swindler named Mel Weinberg who ended up working with the FBI to nab members of Congress in a bribery scandal. Investigative journalist Robert William Greene Sr. first told the story in his book The Sting Man. Weinberg ends up working with the feds only after first getting nabbed in Pittsburgh.

The story goes that Weinberg scammed a Pittsburgh real estate guy, Lee Schlag, who needed money to purchase a dairy. Weinberg offered to line up the financing but had no intentions of coming up with a loan. So when Schlag paid for the loan application and never received the money, he turned everything over to the feds.

sting manI talked this week with several of Schlag’s family members. He, unfortunately, died several years ago, never married and had no children. Until I called, the family had no idea about his connection to Weinberg, the book or the movie. The full story appears in today’s Tribune-Review.

I’m loving the book and can’t wait to see the movie. Hat tip to my friend Salena Zito, who often says that all roads lead through Pittsburgh.

Gutting out a Christmas story

Every reporter knows that feeling of coming up against deadline without a story. Point Park student reporter Emily Balser dealt with that pressure by following her gut instincts. She wandered into this Blawnox restaurant and found a nice holiday story. The piece ran in today’s Tribune-Review, and another version appeared on the Point Park News Service.

Spirit of Christmas volunteers prepare for the start of a fundraiser at Bob’s Garage Lounge in Blawnox on Dec. 7. From left: Heidi Corwin, Norma Marencik and Bob's Garage bartenders Melissa McKown and Geneva King.

Spirit of Christmas volunteers prepare for the start of a fundraiser at Bob’s Garage Lounge in Blawnox on Dec. 7. From left: Heidi Corwin, Norma Marencik and Bob’s Garage bartenders Melissa McKown and Geneva King.

Bob Paganico spends about $2,200 a year to transform his Blawnox eatery into a spectacle of lights and ornaments for the Spirit of Christmas, a nonprofit that raises $50,000 yearly to donate gifts to children in need.

Bob’s Garage Lounge on Freeport Road has become known for its elaborate Christmas decorations — lights, garland and ornaments to attract customers and their charitable donations throughout December.

“You’d be surprised at how many grandparents and mothers and dads say, ‘This is all they have,’ ” Paganico said of the gifts his team distributes on Christmas Eve.

Photo 3Paganico hosts 50/50 raffles, prize giveaways and celebrity guest bartenders at the lounge during the fundraising drive. This year’s bartenders include Craig Patrick, former Penguins general manager, and Bill Hillgrove, play-by-play announcer for the Steelers and University of Pittsburgh.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

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The money behind organs & tissues

A common thread throughout our Donor Dilemma series has been that survivors do not like to think about the money that follows their gift of organs and tissues. A Virginia surgeon whose son died and became a tissue donor told us he didn’t want to make any money from it — but he didn’t want anyone else making money either. This latest story, with Luis Fabregas, looks at the tissue side of donation…

Beenie and George Smith of Greensburg lost their only child, Megan, in a car accident in October 2001. They donated her body for organs and tissue recovery.

Beenie and George Smith of Greensburg lost their only child, Megan, in a car accident in October 2001. They donated her body for organs and tissue recovery.

Companies worldwide cash in on a $2 billion-a-year trade in human skin, bones and other tissues obtained for free from deceased donors and later sold, and resold, at a premium.

Compared with vital organs such as hearts, kidneys and livers, these body parts can be major moneymakers for nonprofits and businesses. About half of the sales come from the United States.

“Most people don’t realize this industry is explicitly profit-driven and it’s explicitly commercialized,” said Michele B. Goodwin, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches bioethics and studies the trade of body parts.

Beenie and George Smith of Greensburg said they had no idea… To read the entire story, click here.

Whirl finds fashion to go

I enjoy taking my students into the community to meet with local, working journalists. Christine and Jack Tumpson have been gracious to talk several times about how they have built a publishing powerhouse around Whirl and Edible Allegheny magazines. Starting this month, they are running some of the students’ best stories on their newly redesigned website. Reporter Emily Bastaroli found this gem on four wheels…

The Broke Little Rich Girl fashion truck parked in the South Side. Photograph from Sarah Cunningham, Point Park News Service.

The Broke Little Rich Girl fashion truck parked in the South Side. By Sarah Cunningham, Point Park News Service.

A blue blouse with glimmering gold buttons hangs on a rack of colorful, unique clothing outside the Style Truck, enticing shopper Brittany Bauer to take a closer look. Inside, the truck holds even more fashion treasures, from patterned dresses and sweaters, to workout gear, handmade jewelry, and handbags. A “cat dress” catches Bauer’s eye.

“It’s just so cute and unique,” says Bauer. “There’s a big variety — something I could wear, something my mother could wear. The prices are good. I know I’m getting good quality. I know I’ll get a good wear out of [the clothes].”

The Style Truck, typically parked near 23rd Street and Penn Avenue in the Strip District, is one of four “fashion mobiles” launched in Pittsburgh. Owner Jackee Ging of Scott Township was one of the first to stake a claim on this trend. After seeing a New York City fashion truck in InStyle Magazine a year ago, Ging decided to start one in her city. She “pimped out” her truck to resemble a boutique with cabinets built into both sidewalls, shelves for jewelry displays, a fitting room, and hardwood floors. “It seems to be a trend popping up in different cities,” says Ging. “I thought the idea was brilliant.”

To read more of the story, click here. It also appears on the Point Park News Service.