Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Fine Line Between Public and Private

What an odd world we live in. A world where Al Roker can give away millions of dollars in donations to charities and we hear about it in brief spurts in the Today Show and we all move on. A marriage hits the skids and we hear about it on every "news" show on every channel incessantly!
Even people who have never watched the TLC program "Jon and Kate Plus 8" know that the Gosselins are divorcing. Last week it was all about the Ensign affair. It would be almost impossible to turn on a TV yesterday or today and not hear the gristly details of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's marital troubles. Even the horrendous mess in Iran faded to the background yesterday as news shows waded in the murk of a troubled marriage. What a bunch of gossips!
I vaguely remember back to the media law class I took in grad school, something about obscenity being an appeal to prurient interest. There is such a fine line between reporting the news and gossip about private lives that appeals to the prurient interest. I think the media have crossed that line.
I can pretty much guarantee that Sanford is horribly embarrassed and truly contrite. Intimate details of his emails with his paramour are fuel for the news shows. His wife kicked him out of the house. He is suffering. When the news programs air all the dirty details, it is rubbing it in and it has elements of obscenity in that the intimate details have no intrinsic news merit aside from appealing to the gossip in each of us. If the media must address this, address it in the context of what it does to his career, how he fits on the long list of others in politics who have been in similar situations, in the arena of hypocrisy that someone who demanded President Clinton's resignation for extramarital affairs has himself had an affair. For those discussions, it is unnecessary to discuss the intimate details.
What is accomplished by revealing the contents of the emails? Is it a desire to further embarrass the people involved? Surely we are better than that!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Casual Dining -- Maybe TGIFriday does it Right?

A Stifel Nicolaus analyst recently said that the casual dining sector is still too overcrowded and estimated that as many as 12,000 locations may need to close for the supply of restaurants to match consumer demand.
"After years of too much growth in casual dining, compounded since 2006 due to a weak consumer, the supply and demand of units is extremely out of equilibrium, and will take years to correct," said analyst Steve West in a note to investors.
Early this decade, credit was easy to come by and many restaurant companies — particularly in the highly competitive bar-and-grill segment — took advantage of that by financing ambitious expansion programs. The growth of casual dining locations, West noted, has now outpaced that of the U.S. population.
And now that fewer consumers are eating out, there are fewer customers to go around.
West estimated that about 7,500 bar-and-grill locations will need to close. That's about four times the size of the total number of Applebee's restaurants, he noted.
The bar-and-grill segment — which includes Chili's and T.G.I. Friday's — has been reporting declining traffic for some time as menus became more similar and chains ramped up expansion efforts.

Recent visits to T.G.I.Fridays in Lone Tree Colorado lead me to think that they are on the right track. In 1965, T.G.I.Fridays, started as a singles' hunting ground, was a forerunner in the casual dining industry. Many of the early competitors are just memories. Once the casual dining category caught on, it grew exponentially until, as discussed in the above article, the industry is saturated and there will be bodies littering the streets as things settle out. I'm thinking T.G.I.Fridays may be one of the survivors. Yes, they were complacent and dropped behind the newcomers -- Applebees, Chili's and such in the late '90s, but by 2003, they were topping Nordstrom in customer satisfaction.
Our experience may be typical. We hadn't been to a Fridays in years, but in May, there was the $5 Fridays promos with a dozen or so entrees offered at $5 each. Our neighbors suggested we all meet up there for dinner one Friday. We were thrilled with the food and the selection at that price -- why buy a cheeseburger at Five Guys when you can get the burger with a salad or fries and sit in a relatively civilized atmosphere for the same price? The server really talked up the "Give Me More Stripes" club, so we signed on. Our next time at the restaurant, sadly we discovered the $5 menu was only for May, but we were impressed that the Kitchen Manager dropped by our table with homemade potato chips and dips and an invitation to the monthly "Stripes Club" party. Our reaction was that it had been a decade or so since we'd gotten such good service and special treatment in a restaurant not owned by a friend. Of course, because we thought we had been treated well and the food was reasonable in quality and price, we told friends. That kind of word of mouth is what every restaurant wants.
Tonight we went to the monthly "Stripes Club" party with reserved signs on the tables and a VIP sign on the streamers separating the party from the regular customers. How many of the customers watching us pig out on appetizers, chicken breast with choice of sauces, complimentary mojitos, margaritas and long island teas and obviously enjoying ourselves as we tossed darts for extra club points wanted to be on the other side of that curtain? We happened to sit with another couple about our age and we are making plans for a return trip to T.G.I.Fridays. And you are reading about this great deal on my blog right now.
So now we've got club members talking to their friends, customers finding out that getting the card means you get invited to special events, happy club members blogging. And the cost to the restaurant is surely less than a couple of snappy ads on TV. Granted, quite a few of us are baby boomers or slightly younger, but we are still the largest generation with the most expendable income, so don't discount us! There were younger folks there also and, as word gets around about the free food...
If the food were ho hum, the promo wouldn't work, but this restaurant is doing a good job staying on top of new restaurant ideas. They do, after all, offer the winners of the Ultimate Recipe Showdown on the Food Network a place on the menu. Some of those dishes are a bit too edgy to succeed, but they do suggest an edginess missing in the tired old nachos and spinach dip offerings at the competition. (Too be honest, the nachos and spinach dips are a bit tired at T.G.I.Fridays, too, but they have alternatives. And those blackberry mojitos are stellar!
Check it out and let me know if you agree.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Democracy Iran

I have to say I am rather ignorant of Iranian politics. I had good friends from Iran when I worked at the Kansas Geological Survey during my grad student days. I tried to avoid political discussions with them. It seems to me they were in the US, in part, to avoid the "unpleasantness" associated with the overthrow of the Shah. I'm not even sure I know if they supported the Shah or not. Today, I remain somewhat ignorant, but a bit more educated and dramatically more cynical.
It is amazing to see the pictures of the protests in Iran and to follow the tweets from Iran. How good it is to see so many people passionate about democracy in any country that they risk their lives to protest. How insane of the power structure in Iran to believe that no one would question the highly suspicious vote counts produced almost immediately and released equally quickly! It is crazy to think the vote came in that quickly and that support for Ahmadinejad was so lopsided. I have heard reliable reports that no candidate other than Ahmadinejad won his own hometown and then I see the crowds and I have to question the reported election results. The results were so poorly constructed, even the "Supreme Leader" had to backpedal a bit and ask for an investigation. Of course, the investigation will be conducted by the same men who conducted the election, so a great deal of backpedaling will be necessary for there to be any change in the end result.
I find my reactions ranging from amazement at the arrogance of the power structure to cynicism about just how much change Mousavi would produce if he were elected. After all, his history is quite conservative and he has had his turn in the power structure in the past. Sometimes I look at the pictures and remember Tiananmen Square protests. At the time, we really thought those protests would force change in China, but the change, if any, was very minor and very slow to appear. One can hardly expect the Iranian protests to be much more successful.
Without regard for the long term prospects, my final reaction is support for democracy and for the thousands of protesters in those pictures and on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Murder at the Holocaust Museum

Just 9 days ago, I lamented the death of Dr. Tiller in Wichita. Today, I mourn the death of Stephen Tyrone Johns, a guard at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C, and a man I never met. Johns' murderer, whom I will not dignify by the use of his name, was a virulent hate monger who hated Jews, blacks and pretty much anyone who did not look like him and share his views. I've heard any number of pundits saying he was working alone. They said the same thing about Dr. Tiller's murderer. In fact, Dr. Tiller's murderer was apparently unemployed with little cash available at the time of his arrest. One has to wonder how he could afford the gas for his trips to case Dr. Tiller in Wichita. Realizing that Johns' killer was 88 years old, one wonders if he built his own web site of if one of his fellow haters did it for him.
No matter if these fellows worked alone or as point men for others, the fact remains that they were motivated by hatred inflamed by others who shared their hatred.
This world of cable news with its insatiable need for news to cover (or create) undoubtedly contributes to this environment. I've been watching this afternoon as various cable news networks fill their news, and then their opinion shows, with information, mis-information and speculation about the events at the Holocaust Museum. If one has intense hatred for a group, one would certainly want to bring others to their way of thinking and what better way to do that than to carry out an activity that gets hours and hours of news coverage. It is easy to blame gun control, or lack thereof, for these murders, but guns are only tools used by people whose insane anger and hatred are promoted with news coverage. Someone once said (and I'm too lazy to research it), "I don't care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right." Even negative news coverage offers promotion for hate mongering.
I don't have answers. I don't think gun control is the only answer. I certainly don't want to see censorship of the cable news media. But my spirit cries out for a way to end these murders.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tiller's Murder Sad on Many Levels

It saddened me to hear about George Tiller. It did not surprise me however. I met Dr. Tiller once a few years ago when he visited the church I belonged to in Lawrence, Kansas. He did not wear a sign saying "I perform late term abortions." He was a visitor like any other in our little church. At that point, his clinic had been bombed. A short time later, we all talked about his visit when we heard he'd been shot in both arms. I don't know if I approve of late term abortions, but I do not think my approval or disapproval is important. I know I believe that each of us must make a decision for our own lives and that none of us has a right to judge another's choice in their lives. Judgment is God's, not mine or yours.
That same little Lutheran Church that Dr. Tiller visited some years ago was torn apart because the ELCA took the stance that abortion was regrettable, but a personal decision developed by a women in conjunction with her pastor and doctor. People left the church because they wanted a firm statement that abortion was a sin. It seems that there are always folks who think they know God's will and choose to pass what they view as God's judgment on other people. The murder of George Tiller yesterday was such a case taken to the extreme. Ironically, someone who felt Tiller's abortions were murder became himself a murderer.
There is additional poignancy that Dr. Tiller was murdered at his church. Last fall, just before the election, some volunteer from the Randall Terry "Operation Rescue" group stuck in our cars brochures calling Barack Obama a murderer because of his pro-choice stance. Many of us felt violated that the violent brochures appeared on our cars while we were in church. That someone advocating such hatred was in our parking lot offended us. How much worse that the hatred entered Reformation Lutheran Church with a gun and murderous intent!
Apparently the man arrested for the murder is active in Operation Rescue which leads me to wonder if the seed of this murder was planted from a pulpit somewhere, nurtured by the hate literature so common today and further fomented by cable "news." What a sad commentary on modern culture!