Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Starbucks Post-Script...

Just yesterday I put up a post called "Starbucks Seems To Be Trying, But..." which happened to note that my local 'bucks coffee shop seems to be having problems with supplies/suppliers. Later in the day I happened to go to the My Starbucks Idea website-blog where a customer named Jacqyet put up a post entitled, "a Pike Place Roast true story..." Jacqyet was in line at a Starbucks and overheard a customer being told that PPR was the only choice because, "We were short-shipped our weekly supply of bold."

Maybe this is just a coincidence. If not it is another sign of a troubling trend.

I hate to add this, except for the fact that it's true... I went to a different Starbucks yesterday - not my usual shop - and again found that the lid on my Tall Verona (the only bold they had, sigh) did not fit the to-go cup. At least in the photograph above the lid seems to fit the Tall (small) portable cup.


Poor Edison;
He just wanted to warn the fellow off.
My wife went into action right away.
"It's not a skunk! It's mace or pepper spray.
Call the police - call animal control!"

The cops were out in fifteen minutes.
Even the sargeant came out to have his say.
"Yeah that's a skunk" they said and drove away.

They'll talk about this downtown for a week;
Of the majesty of ordinary things,
And the travails late February brings.

(A poem by Ken Volonte. Yes, Edison is a dog.)

Photo: flickr (normy)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Final Edition: Sad, But Well Worth Seeing...

The death of a newspaper is sad news. You can see an excellent video, Final Edition, about the closing of the Rocky Mountain News paper - based in Denver - by going either to the Rocky Mountain News website (while it remains up) or by going to The film is shown in HD at Vimeo.

A Tale of Two River Cities...

Pictured above are two cities that sit next to rivers. The city pictured in the upper photograph is Sacramento, where Mrs. Bear and I work. Downtown is not doing well (some of you saw the city's downtown homeless on Oprah this week) and the scheduled increase in the California sales tax will certainly do nothing to help retail sales.

The lower photo is of downtown Portland, and this city remains vibrant and lively. Plus, there's no sales tax which encourages shopping by out-of-state visitors like ourselves. Finally, Portland has an extremely efficient public transport system - it costs a whole $2.00 to get from the airport to downtown - which several cities in California (including San Francisco and Los Angeles) could stand to study and emulate. Yes, Portland is a city that works!

Starbucks Seems to Be Trying, But...

The staff members at my local Starbucks shop seem to be trying harder. After a few months of being grumpy, they're friendly again, and actually smile and talk to the customers. And this shop now has more staff working during the morning hours; at least one and sometimes two additional "bearistas" brewing and serving. OK, so this is the good news.

The bad is that they seem to be having new problems with supplies of everything from coffee beans to...

For example, three mornings ago, the posted bold coffee was Ethiopa Sidomo. Now this sounded good! Well, by the time I got to the front of the small line, I was told they were out. What?

A bear-brewer ran into a back room and came out with a bag of Verona beans. This meant a wait of at least 8 to 9 minutes for this new, less bold, coffee to be brewed. Not so good.

Oh, and the coffee lids never seem to fit right now. This very morning, a staff member opened a second bag of lids for my Tall drink and complained out loud that the lids in stock are not fitting. (You'll notice this when your coffee drink spills all over your clothes as you walk away from the counter.)

Then there are the cheaper napkins in stock. They may be more natural but they also look and feel cheap. And then...

Well, there's no need to go on any further. Again, I feel like someone has instructed or trained the Starbuckers to work harder and be nicer. This is positive. It's just a shame that the resources they have to work with seem to be fading away faster than GM stock loses money (and our taxpayer-provided bailout funds).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Despite our very positive comments on the Portland Marathon...

There are some people who wonder if this run has gone to the dogs.

Photo: flickr (jasmine008) - Click on the photo to see a slightly larger version.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Never On Monday: Ice B. Reviews the Grand Old Lady of Tacos

Emma's Taco House is located at 1617 Sacramento Avenue in West Sacramento, California (zip code 95605).

You could eat at Emma's almost every day, except on Monday's when it is closed, and still desire to come back often for more. This is one of those classic places to go and eat in the Sacramento region. The food is great and far better than at the now-closed satellite site in downtown Sacramento.

Park your gas sipper on the private rock/dirt/asphalt lot close to the front door. The service is friendly, prompt and quick. The restrooms are clean. This is simply a great place to meet for a meal with a group of friends, family, co-workers or music critics; or just stop by on your own for a quick meal.

They have tables or booths plus a large meeting room that they'll hold for you and your guests if you call ahead. Look for the Emma's sign or you might miss it.

Notes: Ice B. is an artist, social commentator and a co-founder of The Purple Haze Alliance. Depending on whom you choose to believe, Emma's Taco House has been in constant operation at this location since either 1949 or 1950. (Munchy says to make sure to try the beef tamale plates! He's eaten take-out tamales since his kitten days.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Portland Marathon is a Calm Festival...

Mrs. Bear and I now head up every year for the Portland, Oregon marathon; held either at the end of September or during the first weekend in October. In 2008, there were a total of 7,786 finishers for the 26.2 mile distance. Most of these entrants came to Portland with a partner and/or a child or two; thus, some estimate there are an additional 10,000 to 16,000 people in downtown Portland during the long (late Friday morning through Sunday afternoon), event-filled, weekend.

It is no surprise then that people often ask me if it isn't "simply crazy" staying downtown during this period. The answer is no, it is actually quiet and peaceful. The great majority of the entrants have trained for weeks and weeks (generally, 16 to 18 or more) in order to complete the run and avoid the dreaded DNF - did not finish. Some of the runners want not just to finish but to qualify for the world-class Boston Marathon.

All the runners are nervous before the Sunday run and spend hours at the Expo looking at the latest shoes, sports apparel and gear. They also do their best to eat well during the final 48 hours and some will join the event-organized pre-race pasta feed at the Portland Hilton.

So, the hotel rooms are quiet with these "early to bed, early to rise" athletes, amateur and otherwise. On race-day Sunday, the one noticeable thing you might hear is the sound of hotel water pipes running - for showers - as early as 4:00 a.m. and extending through close to 6:00 a.m. Most of the marathoners are getting up one to three hours before the race to eat breakfast, shower and walk over to the downtown starting point.

After the race, you see literally hundreds of finishers limping around downtown; sometimes they're being helped up stairs by their friends and family members. Usually they want nothing more than a good warm bath, a bold coffee, a beer or two (Michelob Ultras and Bud Lights are available for free to finishers of the 5-mile run and the marathon), and a big dinner. Then it's back to bed to catch up on the sleep lost to nerves and worry from the prior two evenings.

In summary, the thousands of visitors in downtown Portland during the marathon weekend are better behaved than a convention of elementary school teachers in Anaheim. Trust me on this.

Photo: flickr (pkripper503)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Contentment, thy name is cat...

Photo: flickr (SoundsGood) - Click on the photo to see a slightly larger version.

A Business Publication Questions Starbucks' Strategy

The current issue of Business Week contains an article questioning Starbucks' current marketing strategy. As noted in the sub-title: "By itself, instant coffee could work... But coupled with word that value meals are coming, it suddenly feels... ill-advised." Amen to that!

I certainly don't agree with BW's conclusion that Starbucks should refrain from lowering prices during a recession. I do concur, of course, that the 'bucks should try to retain its former luster by returning to its old mission of serving good, strong, bold coffees.

Here's an excerpt from the article by Rick Wartzman:

The Seattle-based company has been in the news a lot lately. ...It announced that it would soon introduce discounted pairings of coffee and breakfast food. It also launched a new line of instant Joe. ...It's hard to imagine that one won't affect the other.

In isolation, peddling packets of VIA Ready brewe would be a chancy - but potentially rewarding - move for Starbucks. But the company's effort could be tripped up by its other recent goal: Persuading recession-weary consumers that its offerings are, in fact, light on the wallet. Though VIA was in the works for many years, (Howard) Schulz said, its unveiling "happens to... coincide with the downturn of the economy."

It feels as if the company is simply trying to reposition itself as a place to find a "good deal" - an image that... runs directly counter to what made it so special to being with. "I think they run the risk of confusing the brand," says a professor of marketing, "(when) Starbucks no longer competes in the coffee connoisseur market... it competes in the convenience market - a very cluttered and highly competitive space."

Whenever an executive "tries to impose what he considers rational on an apparent irrationality... he is likely to lose the customer," (Peter) Drucker (once) cautioned. This is precisely the danger for Starbucks. While the company may attract some folks with its new approach, it could alienate just as many - or more - who feel as if Starbucks has compromised its character. What Starbucks should do, even in this downbeat economy, is to keep prices where they are and focus instead on retaining its fast-fading luster.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's Still Standing...

Next month I'll be attending a multi-day business meeting in Los Angeles. The meeting will be held at the Wilshire Grand Hotel, which is now owned by the same corporation that owns Korean Air. Way back in the late 1950's, the same hotel was the centerpiece of the great Hilton lodging empire (after Hilton had acquired the Statler chain) and was known as the Statler Hilton Los Angeles.

The top photograph is from 1959. I believe the hotel continued to be known as the Hilton Los Angeles until the early to mid (and perhaps even late) '70s. The second photograph shows a view from one of the Wilshire Grand's rooms, taken in more recent times. This photo is taken from the rear of the hotel, so the white tower building you see (towards the middle) is likely the same one that is more visible in the 1959 photograph (to the left).

Note: "On October 27, 1954, the Hilton Hotels Corporation officially acquired control of the Statler hotel system. It consummated the greatest merger in hotel history, the largest real estate transaction the world (had) ever known. It brought the number of Hilton-operated hotels in the United States and abroad to twenty-eight." From the book Be My Guest by Conrad N. Hilton, written in 1957.

A.C. Newman's "Guilty" Pays Tribute to Younger Days...

First, let me be clear that I'm not going to attempt to be impartial about this CD. I think that A.C. Newman's latest solo album, Get Guilty, is amazing and I'm giving it a score of 89 on a 100 point scale.

I became interested in Newman after reading an interview he gave to a Canadian newspaper in which he cited his musical influences. This is a young man who talked about boomer bands/musicians like the Dave Clark Five, Harry Nilsson, Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson and others whose sounds are readily identified in this album. Oh, Newman is either the Paul or John - depending on your perspective - in one of the biggest bands to ever come out of Canada... Fans of the band will know, the others who have never heard their work (like me) can put that aside for now.

Unlike the new CDs that take 70 or 80 minutes to listen to, this one flies by - like an old cassette - in just 42 minutes and 14 seconds. Here are my song by song impressions, in bits and pieces rather than full sentences.

There are Maybe Ten or Twelve - The D.C. 5 influence is readily apparent and it slides by in a D.C. 5-like 2:40.

The Heartbreak Rides - If Nilsson had sung with 10,000 Maniacs... hints of Thunderclap Newman ("Something in the Air")... Wilson lyrics ("all I really wanted was to go downtown, and so we ride... we want the good life, 'L.A.!' she cried.")... a theremin (actually a melodian) from Pet Sounds. I love this life-affirming track.

Like A Hit Man, Like A Dancer - Roy Orbison meets R.E.M. but with added youthful energy (R.E.M. got very tired sounding very quickly). Bowie attitude... "I owe my soul, like a changed man, but not a changed man."

Prophets - Here's the Townshend anthem, like a track from Who's Next or Tommy. See me, feel me... "I found myself with the rabble who stood on the mount... There are too many prophets here. I stood divided."

Submarines of Stockholm - McCartney, Beatles, Donovan, Ray Davies and the Kinks. This would have been a beautiful late '60s - early '70s single. "Our submarine pulls into Stockholm..." Yellow submarines, mellow yellow.

Thunderbolts - Like a lost out-take from the Police's Synchronicity.

The Palace at 4 A.M. - British invasion music... the Hollies, the Searchers, Dave Clark drums and baritone saxophones. Glorious.

The Changeling (Get Guilty) - A Bowie ballad meets Elton John... "There were front row tickets to the public burning"... Handing tickets out to God... White Album guitars... This song would also have fit perfectly on Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend album.

Elemental - "It's elemental, come sunset's gun." If a slightly bitter John Lennon had recorded with Badfinger... "I fought my way through... not because I wanted to."

Young Atlantis - Yes, like the latter-stage (mature) Donovan. It sounds like one of those classic Mickey Most productions but with - get this - Ventures guitars and Pet Sounds rhythms. Pretty close to genius.

The Collected Works - Like a great rockin' Pink Floyd track that just jumps out and grabs you (the gold it's in the...). Fans of XTC will also love it.

All of My Days & All of My Days Off - Ray Davies meets the Heartbreakers... "Reminded why I love this one... And now I give you all my days, and all my days off." This also reminds me of Bowie's cover of Friday On My Mind. Which makes this a good place to close this review.

On Pin-Ups, a youthful Bowie looked back at the music that preceeded his and injected it with love and energy. A.C. Newman does the same thing here. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Flash News: A.C. Newman plays at Harlow's in Sacramento, at 2700 J Street, on the evening of Tuesday, February 24, 2009.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What the holy heck is Starbucks up to? (continued)

For those of you who may have missed it, an Associated Press (AP) article on Starbucks ran on Wednesday, February 18, 2009. My local paper ran this article with the headline: "Struggling Starbucks puts image at risk by offering instant coffee."

Before running the abridged summary of the article below, I need to ask the question - Is it still possible to buy stock in Peet's Coffee? OK, here's the short version of the AP article:

Starbucks Corp. has delivered a jolt to its devotees and rivals: It's embracing instant. The chain that helped create the gourmet coffee industry and became the industry leader began selling its new instant coffee online Tuesday, ahead of a nationwide launch to coincide with the company's first major ad campaign.

Called Via, the water-soluble product sells in packets of three for $2.95 or 12 for $9.95. Just Columbia and Italian roast varieties will be available at first.

Critics say the move smells of desperation as the chain closes locations in the United States and overseas and cuts about 1,700 jobs.

Andrew Hetzel, the founder of coffee consulting group Cafemakers, said the new product could denigrate the premium positioning that helped establish Starbucks. "I see it as... a very short-term approach to a long-term brand problem. They're throwing things out there to see what hits."

Even competitors seemed surprised. Micheal Fell, president and founding partner of Biggby Coffee, a premium coffee chain of about 100 stores mainly in the Midwest, said he follows the company closely so he knows what his biggest competitor is up to. He called the announcement "shocking."

"We try to make sense of out of everything that they do," McFall said. "This one I'm having a hard time making sense of."

Sad to Say He's Sorry?

My most recent post about the automobile industry was on Valentine's Day Eve, when I disagreed with the assessment of the L.A. Times that the Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice was an exception to the bad designs coming out of Detroit. The Times called that two-company model a hit and I called it a miss. Now, according to the ChattaBox website: "GM has announced that they will be shutting down Saturn dealerships, and that no other Saturn(s) will be manufactured after 2011. They are also planning to begin phasing out the Pontiac (brand)."

This is sad news, which I don't really think is simply an outgrowth of poor design; more of poor manufacturing and bad decisions that came from CEO Rick Wagoner on down. The poor manufacturing issue may actually go back decades with Pontiac. Think about the '60s-era classic Mustangs, Camaros and Firebirds. I don't know about you, but I still see a lot of the original Mustangs on the road, along with a few of the Camaros. The Firebirds - nope.

So more American jobs will be lost, at both the manufacturing and retail end. Will Rick Wagoner ever be sad enough to say he's sorry?

Note: The photograph, above, is of the Pontiac Solstice coupe, an allegedly better looking version of this car; and one that I have never seen on the roads/streets of the U.S.

Visalia Lands a Big Catch in Music (Him of She and Him)...

I'm not sure if there's a Hilton or a Marriott in Visalia, but I'm likely to find out soon. That's because M. Ward, the noted singer-songwriter-musician out of Portland, Oregon is playing at the Visalia Fox Theatre on Friday, May 15, 2009.

If the name M. Ward does not sound immediately familiar, he's the Him of She and Him. She, of course, is Zooey Deschanel and their CD She & Him, Volume One is brilliant, with songs that reflect the evolution of American music from 1940 through 2000.

M. Ward also releases solo albums and Transistor Radio, released in 2005, is generally considered to be the highlight of his career. Transistor Radio received three out of five stars from Rolling Stone, four out of five from All Music, and a near-masterpiece rating of 88 out of 100 points from the Los Angeles Times. Radio, interestingly, began with Ward's instrumental cover of Brian Wilson's You Still Believe In Me from Pet Sounds. He also included a Bach selection...

Bach and Wilson, we like his tastes. Ward's Post-War CD came out in 2006 and his brand new CD, Hold Time, was released just three days ago.

Tickets for the Visalia show can be purchased at the Fox Theatre box office, Velouria Records or The Cellar Door in Visalia, or at Valentino's Rock 'N Roll Apparel in Fresno.

Him hits Visalia... You read about it here, first!

Friday, February 20, 2009

the body

The body is the mystery we know nothing of; it works its own will and goes its own way, like a cat or a god. Stephen Mackenna


Being carefree is of the essence in this world. Anton Chekov

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Author Weighs In On Ice B.'s Book Review...

Yesterday we posted Ice B.'s review of the new book by writer John Einarson, "Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers," co-written with musician Chris Hillman. Today we received a very nice comment from Mr. Einarson as follows:

Great review! Nice to read someone who 'got it' in terms of what the book is trying to do. Thanks for the tips on further books. One of those women is already on my future books list. I'm currently writing a biography of enigmatic 60s cult figure Arthur Lee of (the) legendary band Love. It'll be with Jawbone again. They did a terrific job with Hot Burritos.

John E.

Sleeping Close to Coffee Heaven...

This year the Portland Marathon falls on Sunday, October 4, 2009. The host hotel for lodging, registration and the two-day pre-race Expo will continue to be the Hilton Portland and Executive Tower. This is a fine hotel (ranked #55 out of 133 Portland hotels by Trip Advisor) but there are some other interesting choices downtown.

One of my favorites is the Portland Marriott City Center - ranked #23 by Trip Advisor - located at 520 Southwest (SW) Broadway. Officially, this is a four star, 20-story highrise, but with just 249 rooms it provides the feel of a relatively cozy, boutique-style, hotel. This feeling is enhanced when you first walk in and see that the lobby is quite small; space being at a premium in larger cities. But the good news is that the lobby is small because most of the ground floor is dedicated to a magnificent Peet's coffee shop.

This special Peet's at 508 SW Broadway has authentic mission-style chairs and couches, with enough open space to feel calm and relaxing (unlike, perhaps, a competitor's often smaller shops). In fact, it feels like you're sitting in a quiet lodge, but one with good food and extremely fresh coffee.

On weekday mornings this Peet's opens at 5:45 a.m. and closes at 7:00 p.m. It opens at 6:30 a.m. and closes earlier on weekends. The actual brewing of the bold and bolder coffees begins hours before the shop opens, so you find yourself waking up surrounded by the smell of coffee seeping through the Marriott's walls and floors. It doesn't get much better than this.

Oh, I could discuss the great spa in the hotel or the world class chocolatier across the street, or how close this hotel is to Nordstrom... But all that really matters is how very close you are to Peet's when you wake up. Throw something on and it's a short elevator ride down to a coffee-laden paradise!

Old Major Dickason, here I come.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ice B. Reviews The True Story of the Flying Burrito Bros.

With the release of the new book "Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers" by John Einarson and Chris Hillman, another door has opened on the history of what some refer to as country-rock, but I call rhythm and blues folk country rock (R&B/CR). This book is 326 pages of music history and entertainment. Everyone recognizes Hillman as one of the founders of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers (FBB), Manassas, and The Desert Rose Band. Hillman's contribution to music is also legendary.

Einarson has previously written "Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrd's Gene Clark," "Desperadoes: the roots of country rock," "For What It's Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield (with Ritchie Furay)," "Neil Young: Don't Be Denied," "Magic Carpet Ride: The Autobiography of John Kay and Steppenwolf," and several other books on contemporary music.

"Hot Burritos" is a book that covers not just the history of the FBB but also the universe swirling around the band during its creation, life and demise. The book is one of the first to be written critical of the myths and roles assigned to Gram Parsons. It is also one of the first books that places Roger McGuinn in a positive light regarding his service as one of the creators of R&B/CR. While much has been made of the mythical Parsons, more needs to be written about the involvement of McGuinn, Hillman, the Dillard Brothers, Clarence White, the Gosdin Bros., Young, Stephen Stills, Furay & Poco, and Rick Nelson & the Stone Canyon Band. All of these shaped the special style of music that was to come.

As stated in the film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence": "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." If not for "Hot Burritos" and Einarson's other books, we would simply know about the legends of CR music. This book is about more than just the FBB, it is a continuation of his work on how the music was forged. Sadly, too many people today believe the era began with The Eagles; in fact, the Eagles were only a small cog present at the creation of the CR era.

As this book delves into the music's roots, we learn of the great bands of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Buck Owens and the music of Bakersfield, California. Bakersfield's music rivaled that coming out of Nashville. All of this music was imprinted on the Burritos and their progeny and led to the development of R&B/CR.

It's always a shame to look back to see how alcohol and drug abuse interferred with the creative forces of so many musicians and song writers. Then there were the accidents that claimed the lives of some of the best. Where would the music of Nelson, White or Clark have gone if not for their untimely deaths?

My hope is that Einarson next explores the roles of Judy Collins, Billy Holliday, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Odetta Holmes, Linda Ronstadt, Emmy Lou Harris and countless other women who were also integral creators of this style of music.

And, of course, would any of this have been possible without Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, Holiday, Pete Seeger, Elias McDaniel or Bob Dylan? "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me..."

Notes: Ice B. is an artist and social critic based in Sacramento, California. Also recommended is "Are You Ready for the Country: Elvis, Dylan, Parsons & the Roots of Country Rock" by Peter Doggett.

Next: Sleeping close to coffee heaven.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cramer is Mad About Money Not Starbucks...

Jim Cramer is the "love him or hate him" host of Mad Money on MSNBC. I like the guy and lately he's expressed some of his own feelings about what's going on at Starbucks. One of his points is that Starbucks has gone from being the Nordstrom of coffee to being the Wal-Mart of java. Another good point he makes is that a proper restructuring of the 'Bucks would have resulted in lower prices preceding a reduction in services and coffee offerings. Instead, we've seen the reverse, which has alienated the company's base customers; the high prices remain in place despite promises to the contrary.

Cramer's third important point is that during this recession... Well, you can read his words below, which were excerpted from an online column he wrote for Main Street:

I'm done with Starbucks, at least for now. That $4.99 triple-venti-cappucino-with-skim-wet that I had the other day will have to be my last one. ... The ultimate arbiter of taste, my friend Danny Moyer, who runs the best restaurant chain in New York, told me that it's not the right moment to flaunt expensive coffee.

Danny's got a good eye for stores and for product so I asked him about Starbucks. I wanted to know if there could be a turn in the fortunes of the company. No, he said. Not any time soon.

This is a moment in time where people want to play it cool. They don't want to be seen as big spenders. The $4.99 Starbucks drink has become our everyday corporate jet!

Beyond that, the service at my Starbucks leaves a lot to be desired. I got served the wrong coffee the other day, without an apology. I waited for what seemed like forever to get a cup...

Now, maybe Starbucks will get its act together. Maybe it will improve hospitality and service sometime soon. But with times this tough... you don't want to show people that your are made of money... and a $4.99 drink at Starbucks now gives that impression.

Starbucks, I'm told, is conscious of the problem and is trying to cut the price. Until they do, however, they're too expensive for someone who wants to be really low key about wealth during this incredibly difficult period.

Next: Ice B. reviews "Hot Burritos: The True Story of the Flying Burrito Brothers."

Monday, February 16, 2009

I thought I told you media guys, NO MORE INTERVIEWS!

The Indirect Costs and Benefits of Blogging...

Every now and then I notice these family messages posted as comments on blog posts, like those between relatives, spouses, boyfriend - girlfriend, etc. This reminds me of a true story...

A few months ago, I had just begun this blog and was sent on a business trip to a conference in beautiful downtown Burbank, California; OK, so it was actually at the hotel just to the east of the Bob Hope Intergalactic Airport. The conference had nothing to do with the internet or writing or blogging. But at lunch a young attendee began to explain how blogging helped him repair his relationship with his mother. You see, she called him far too often, at least five or six times a week to ask him what he was doing, who he was seeing, etc., etc.

Finally, he started a blog where he reviewed the events of his life each day. His mother posted a comment that went something like this, "I used to worry about you. But now I read your blog and I know if you're home or traveling, if you're dating, what you're reading, what movies you've seen, the music you're listening to... It's great!"

From then on, his sainted mother called no more than two or three times a month. It saved them both quite a bit of money on their phone bills, although this young blogger began to miss actually speaking with his mother on most days. Sigh...

Beware of those unintended consequences!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

a Venti for your thoughts (a poem by The Web Laureate)

Morning. Rolling out of bed.
Coffee in palm,
Yawning. Now up.
Interacting with those
Browsing, email, rss... and,
Patrons of places I'd not been.
To share vote discuss.
But, interacting, See what changes are brewing.
Nonetheless, Free wifi; more smells; Lower prices for all --
Because the Internet,
This thing...
Isn't it all just about
Making new friends?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I'm not posting about Starbucks today...

Except to wish that I could find one where I could get a bold brew past 12:00 noon: a Casi Cielo, or an Ethopian Sidamo, a Gold Coast, or a Komodo Dragon, a Sumatra or Verona or a Yukon. Any one of these would bring me closer to coffee heaven.

Oh, well, where's the nearest Peet's?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Starbucks Continues Its Campaign of Shock & Huh?

Now it seems that not a day goes by without Starbucks releasing a piece of news that leaves its customers, like me, shaking their heads in surprise and dismay. So, today The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age and The Seattle Times broke the news that next Wednesday Starbucks will begin selling a product that we've apparently all been clamoring for...

Oh, it's instant coffee. What? Yes, instant coffee.

Wrote Bryan Corliss in the BNET Industries/Food news, "It seems a strange departure for the company, which made its name in Seattle by offering a bold alternative to the bland instant coffee many Americans grew up drinking in the post-War era. I have yet to walk down to my neighborhood Starbucks this morning, but I can only imagine the... indignantly dismissive sniffs of my fellow Emerald City coffee snubs as they digest this news." LOL!

The Starbucks instant brew will be known as "Via." OK, I'm about to fall asleep with excitement (or as Sting sang, I'm so happy I can't stop crying) but a WSJ reporter, Janet Adamy, taste-tested a cup of "Via" and said, "It didn't have all the flavor of a regular cup of Starbucks. And the smell wasn't as robust. But it was a lot better than traditional instant." Oh, wow, "Via" may be as good as Nescafe or Sanka!

What in the heck is Starbucks going to tell us tomorrow?

When is a Hit a Miss?

Recently, Bob Lutz, a vice chairman of global product development and de-facto design chief for General Motors, retired. The Los Angeles Times produced a photo-essay of the many cars developed under Lutz' watch and split them into hits and misses. One of the cars they listed as a "hit" - the Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice - is to me a definite miss.

The first thing that's clear when you see a Sky or Solstice pass by on the street is that the front end and the back end not only do not match, they seem to have no relationship to each other. The front is low, thick and busy; the back is high and plain except for some odd accents that call to mind Bruce Wayne's Batmobile.

Then there's the black convertible tops that seem far too small, as if they'd been snatched off of the Mazda Miata production line. Yes, the alleged Solstice couple looks better, in photographs, but I've never seen one in the real world.

The Miata is still classic because it was meant to look like a '50s era British roadster. The underpowered English roadsters managed to cut through the wind due to their simple aerodynamic designs; the fewer lines and bulges the better. Sad to say, the Sky and Solstice look like Saturns and Pontiacs, products of busy American design. They may be better looking than your average Ford Mustang, but that's damning with faint praise.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Finally, some common sense... (from Steven Korman)

Steven H. Korman is the CEO of Korman Communities, a 500-employee real estate company in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. On Thursday, February 6, 2009, he ran a full page open-letter advertisement in both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times urging executives of top companies to halt lay offs and "keep... employees working."

In this letter addressed to several companies in which he holds stock - including Apple, Caterpillar, Chevron, Cisco Systems, Coca-Cola, Dow, DuPont, General Electric, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Nokia, Oracle and Pfizer Inc. - Korman wrote, "I own stock in many of these companies [that are laying off workers] and would prefer that the company make a smaller profit and the stock fall, in the short term, rather than affect the lives of our neighbors and their families as jobs are lost." He added that laid-off workers and those fearing layoffs are reluctant to spend money, worsening the impact of the recession.

In a follow-up interview on MSNBC today, Korman noted that when companies avoid lay offs they not only keep their line staff but also their executives. He made the key point that when companies are loyal to their employees and administrators, that loyalty is usually re-paid. Studies indicate that executives who feel that they've received strong support throughout their careers will often turn down higher paying offers at other companies. Yes, loyalty is its own reward.

Korman Fed-Ex'd signed copies of his letter to the heads of each of the companies listed above. How many have responded to him? None. Let's hope he also sends copies to companies such as General Motors, Nike and Starbucks. Who thinks that GM CEO Rick Wagoner would read his copy?

All in all, Mr. Korman represents a breath of fresh air at a time when we seem to be drowning in a sea of old and ineffective ideas.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Follow the Adventures of Stella...

The Havanese puppy at the Pook & Lexi blogsite listed in My Blog List to the left. She's awfully cute!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Does This Make Sense?

According to the Associated Press, General Motors (GM) has already received $9.4 billion in government bailout funds - that's money that came from you and me - and expects to get $4 billion more in March. In other words, GM is burning through money like there's no tomorrow. Perhaps there isn't because, as explained in the book Burn Rate, the closer a company gets to dissolution the faster it burns through money in a failed attempt to stay in business for another day, week, or month.

However, after taking this type of money - and, remember, we're talking billions not millions here - you would think that GM would be SAVING the jobs of its workers. Not so, as GM today announced an immediate reduction of 10,000 autoworker jobs worldwide, with media sources reporting that these workers will not be offered buyout options. So then what is OUR money being used for?

Oh, we're told, calm down because GM CEO Rick Wagoner is going to work for just $1 a year. Too late, the bad decisions made by Wagoner and his management team have already resulted in these tragic job losses and what appears to be a continuing dim future for what MSNBC said was formerly America's greatest company. Wagoner could elect to work for a nickel this year, and it wouldn't change the fact that the flight of the once-mighty GM is about to come to an end. Brace for impact.

Reaching the light...

You reach the light at the end of the tunnel only after passing through darkness. Kevin Nelson

Monday, February 9, 2009

Starbucks Gives It Another Go...

According to an article in today's Wall Street Journal - "Starbucks Plays Common Joe" - Starbucks is set to announce that it will soon be selling discounted pairings of coffee and breakfast food for $3.95; "a type of promotion long used at fast-food chains." 'Bucks customers will be able to order a 12-ounce latte with oatmeal or coffee cake (I assume they actually mean a slice of cake) or a 12-ounce brewed coffee with either a breakfast sandwich or a breakfast roll.

As the Journal stated, "Starbucks's sales have been in steep decline" recently. The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, said in an interview, "I strongly believe we are going to be in this environment for years."

The WSJ asked Michelle Gass, the "executive vice president of marketing and category" for the Seattle-based company whether Starbucks would consider simply lowering its drink prices. She replied, "Today, no. But never say never."

It appears that more - or should I say even more - interesting times are ahead for Starbucks, its competitors and its customers. In the interim, could I please get a bold blend cup of coffee? A tall Sumatra would be nice.


What is the meaning of life? Finally, an easy question. Be decisive.

Goh Nakamura

(Click on the photo to see a larger version.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Looking Back at the Great Johnny U...

As noted at, "Quarterback Johnny Unitas was one of the greatest professional football players in history, his storybook career coinciding with the rise of football as television entertainment." He threw for over 40,000 yards and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF) in 1979.

A number of us grew up watching the great Lithuanian-American athlete from Pittsburgh playing on black & white TV for the then-Baltimore Colts. Unitas was a hero to many, including a young kid from Pennsylvania named Joe Montana. As noted in the book Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas by Tom Callahan, Montana later said: "Talking to Johnny U, listening to his experiences, almost made me wish I had played in the fifties. You had to love him... didn't you?"

Raymond Berry said the following at Unitas' funeral in Baltimore:

For all of us who were fortunate to be a part of the Colts - whether as team members or fans - by now we all realize it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And all of us know the main reason was John Unitas, a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. I think I can safely speak for all of us in saying, "Thank you, John. You elevated us to unreachable levels - both on the field and in the stands. You made the impossible possible. You filled our memory banks full. Those images of your performances are still there and will never fade."

And HOF quarterback Dan Fouts was later to say:

He was real. There was nothing phony about John Unitas. In this day and age in sports - in anything, in life - knowing exactly what you're getting is almost impossible. That's what he was. He was almost impossible.

The Dharma Youth League (a poem by Ken Walden)

I went to visit several thousand gold buddhas
They sat there all through the war, --
They didn't appear just now because I happened to be in
Sat there six hundred years. Failures.
Does Buddha fail. Do I.
Some day I guess I'll never learn.

(Written by Ken Walden in Kyoto, Japan in 1966.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Is Starbucks Entering Its Death Spiral?

We've all recently read about the Starbucks staff members that are losing their jobs, and the seemingly ever-increasing number of shops that will be closing. As I've written about earlier, one reason for the company's lack of success appears to be its failure to meet the needs of its base customers, such as bold coffee drinkers. (I went to a Starbucks today and was offered a choice between a Pike Place Roast regular brew or a PPR decaf. Oh, joy.)

At the BNET Industries website, reporter Katherine Glover had some additional thoughts to share on this topic, as follows...

In an economy that increasingly favors cheap deals, Starbucks has been flailing while its competitors take advantage. McDonald's is expanding its McCafe into more and more markets, while Dunkin' Donuts is running various promotions as well as investing in advertising and new stores. Both companies are aggressively targeting new customers.

But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz this week announced an offensive play: the company is launching its own value meals. The details are still vague - Shultz said only that there will be "several breakfast pairings" at "attractive" prices.

But a Starbucks value meal may be a hard sell to those who aren't already Starbucks regulars. As one analyst told AP, "people automatically see Starbucks as being more expensive." McDonald's has been making the best of that reputation and going out of its way to portray the coffee chain as upscale and pretentious. It ran billboards in Seattle that said "four bucks is dumb" and started a website at the url ""

Plus, the new Starbucks deals won't be the only debuts. Dunkin' Donuts also introduced a new breakfast special this week - a waffle sandwich for $2.99. And it got aggressive on coffee in the New York Tri-State Area, offering 99-cent lattes all day there. (Dunkin' sold 99-cent lattes in a previous promotion, but only in the afternoon.)

Burger King has its own new breakfast special as well, but the Whopper-maker isn't really a player in the coffee game. ... And when Consumer Reports tested coffee from all four chains, McDonald's beat Starbucks, while BK's coffee was described as tasting "more like hot water."

Did Under Armour Come In Too Late and Too High?

Speaking of running shoes... Under Armour (UA) entered the market with a set of five new models on the eve of the Super Bowl. I was earlier excited about this, but the question is whether UA waited too long and came in with prices that are too high. The just released shoes start at $84.99 for a basic trail shoe, then rise to $89.99 for the base running shoe, zooming quickly up to $119.99 for the flagship UA Revenant (pictured here).

Most runners are looking at paying somewhere between $90 and $120 plus tax at their local running shoe, at least the ones that will carry UA gear. This is simply a lot in this economy. Even worse, the large sporting gear outlets that carry these UA running shoes are not offering discounts; it appears that UA is not authorizing them.

The comined bad timing and the lack of needed discounts may make UA's entry into the lucrative running market problematic. It's as if a Detroit automaker were releasing a new line of SUVs. All in all, it will be interesting to see if UA is still competing in this niche market a year from now.

Friday, February 6, 2009

You talking to me?

This photograph shows a major stare-down between a Norwich terrier and a border collie at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in The Big Apple.

Bad News on the Doorstep for Runners...

If you haven't yet seen the new Runner's World (RW) magazine, there are two negative developments for runners in these tough times. First, according to RW: "Running shoes just keep getting softer. While this may sound like sweet relief for your... joints, there can be too much of a good thing. ...cushioning that's too spongy can compromise a shoe's stability."

Yes, too much bouncy cushioning - moving you vertically rather than horizontally - actually makes you work harder while reducing traction; this is wasted motion (and wasted energy). I personally preferred the Nike models that were developed in Europe with firmer cushioning. And I'll no longer buy any of Nike's runners with Zoom Air, which is like trying to run on top of two small air beds (one in the forefoot, one in the heel). Hopefully, Nike and other major running shoe companies will eventually learn that when it comes to cushioning, less is...

Secondly, a number of the new running shoe models are "zooming" up in price; a development that is the last thing needed during this recession. Here's just a sampling of the price increases: the Etonic Minado goes from $100 to $115; the Saucony Progrid Stabil from $95 to $115; the adidas AdiStar Salvation from $130 to $140; the popular Brooks Adrenaline from $95 to $105; the Pearl Izumi Syncrofloat from $90 to $110; and the Asics Gel-DS Trainer from $100 to $110. We'll have to wait and see if these very unwise price increases result in the reduced sales of running shoes in 2009.

There is one shoe, however, that has captured my eye and this is the adidas AdiZero Tempo II (pictured), a beauty of a lightweight stability trainer (RW: "a daily trainer for lighter runners who need added pronation control") that comes in at just 9.8 ounces; 8 ounces in the women's version. I'm just going to hope that there'll be a pair waiting for me at the Portland Marathon Expo in October. If so, life will be good... Very good.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Even cats have pajama parties!

(Click on the photo to see a larger version.)