Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's Annoying After All

I feel duty bound to overjoy/alarm you with the news that there’s a charming/dreadful event scheduled next month that will be a cause for celebration/despair.
Disneyland’s It’s a Small World, the famous ride that features dolls in ethnic attire singing a kitschy tribute to the elusive concept of world peace, will mark its 50th anniversary. Folks around the planet will join in singing the attraction’s theme song that’s No. 1 in the all-time Earworm Top Forty.
This will cause some to dance in the streets, others to pour beeswax in their ears lest they hear one bar of a song that will remain in their heads for weeks, months, even years.
I am firmly in the latter camp. To me, no matter how heartfelt the lyrics, the song conjures visions of an ice cream truck parked in front of my house for hours on end.
Indeed, I believe that, played on a continuous loop, it could be piped into jail cells and the most hardened criminals would confess just to make it stop. Call it musicboarding.
There are, of course, various opinions on the “small world” question.
“We took our 2-year-old on it yesterday while in Florida. He loved it and it’s one of my only memories of Disney from my first visit when I was 3,” wrote one mother on a Facebook page.
But another had a different experience. “Worst nightmare! Stuck in the broken down “small world” for 45 minutes with two 4-year-olds that had to pee and the song playing over and over and over. That was in 1995 and I still cringe at the thought of it.”
She was not the only one. A man who was forced to listen to “It’s A Small World” over and over again for 30 minutes sued Disney and won.
The disabled man got stuck when the ride broke down. His lawyer said the music continued to play and never stopped playing. Workers were able to evacuate other passengers, but the man’s boat was stuck in a cave. He had to remain in place for about a half hour and then required several hours of medical assistance.
He was awarded $8,000 in his lawsuit.
The annoyingness of “It’s a Small World (After All)” is so well-established that even Disney has acknowledged it with a self-referencing wink, writes Jason Richards in the Atlantic.
In a scene from “The Lion King,” the movie’s villain, Scar, asks Zazu, who he has captured, to “sing something with a little bounce in it.” When his prisoner breaks into “It’s a Small World (After All),” Scar quickly interrupts: “No! No. Anything but that.”
So who’s responsible for this legendary opus?
The It’s a Small World attraction was originally designed for the 1964 World’s Fair. The tentative soundtrack featured the national anthems of the countries represented throughout the ride all playing all at once, which resulted in a cacophonous noise.
Walt Disney showed a scale model of the attraction to his staff songwriters Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman, saying, “I need one song that can be easily translated into many languages and be played as a round.”
The Sherman Brothers then wrote “It’s a Small World (After All)” in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which influenced the song’s message of peace and brotherhood.
It’s the fault of those damn Russians again.
Of course, there is one school of thought that suggests no matter how the Shermans crafted their song, it was doomed. That’s based on an online poll conducted in 1996 that surveyed approximately 500 people about their most and least favorite musical sounds. Children’s choirs were on the “hated” list, along with bagpipes, accordions, banjos, synthesizers, harps and organs.
So is “It’s a Small World” the most annoying song of all time?
Not even close, in my highly unscientific and off-the-top-of-my-head opinion.
Number one would be “I Love You” sung by Barney, a purple and green dinosaur character who appeared on a PBS children’s show for a number of years.
How bad is it? A U.S. undercover operative told Newsweek in 2003 that he was forced to listen to the song for 45 minutes during training. “I never want to go through that again,” he laconically stated.
Then, in no particular order: “McArthur Park” by Richard Harris; “Your Having My Baby” by Paul Anka; “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” by Brian Hyland; “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits; “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window” by Patti Page; “Achy Breaky Heart” by Bill Ray Cyrus; “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder; “Jingle Bells” by the Barking Dogs; “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim; and, of course, any rap song, anything by Pat Boone, anything by Justin Beiber.
Matched against that lineup, maybe Mr. Disney’s creation wasn’t so bad. After all.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Auto Erratic

This is a tale of unrequited love, of affection rejected, of suitors seduced, then abandoned.

It is the story of the American public’s love affair with the automobile. And how the industry rewards that love and loyalty with a callous disregard for our safety and well being.

The latest example of this twisted tale is the shocking disclosure that General Motors is recalling 1.6 million vehicles because of a faulty ignition switch.   The flaw can cause the car’s engine to switch off leaving it with no power steering, no power brakes, no airbags.

Even worse is the revelation that the defect was first discovered in 2001. But the public was never told.

Six people have died in ignition switch related accidents, according to GM, and six other deaths are linked to problem. As many as 303 deaths could have been caused by a defect, according to a report commissioned by an independent consumer watchdog group and reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Federal prosecutors and two congressional committees have opened an investigation into the matter.

At the same time, GM announced the recall of:

- 1.18 million SUVs because their side air bags, front center air bags and seat belt pretensioners might not deploy if drivers ignore an air bag warning light on their dashboard. The recall includes the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia from the 2008-2013 model years; the Chevrolet Traverse from the 2009-2013 model years; and the Saturn Outlook from the 2008-2010 model years.

— 303,000 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans from the 2009-2014 model years because the material on the instrument panel might not adequately protect unbelted passengers' heads in a crash.

— 63,900 Cadillac XTS sedans from the 2013 and 2014 model years because a plug in the brake assembly can get dislodged and short, increasing the risk of an engine compartment fire.

While the motoring public was reeling from this news, the Justice Department announced this week that Toyota will pay a $1.2 billion penalty to settle the criminal probe into its handling of unintended acceleration problems that led to recalls of 8.1 million vehicles beginning in 2009.

In the meantime, Toyota's lawyers are in settlement talks over hundreds of civil lawsuits alleging wrongful deaths or injuries, potentially adding hundreds of millions to the tab, according to published reports.

None of this should come as a complete surprise. We’ve been down this road before.
 In 2001, the infamous Ford Explorer, prone to rollovers, was equipped with Firestone tires, prone to shredding.   That combination led to an estimated 200 deaths.   Ford recalled the vehicle for a tire change.

In the 1970s, Ford brought us the Pinto, a car so badly engineered that the fuel tank was placed behind the rear axle with a fuel-filler pipe that was vulnerable to bursting in a rear-end collision.   According to published reports, an internal memo at Ford indicated that better protecting the fuel tank would cost about $11 per Pinto over its production run, but that it would be cheaper for the company to pay settlements for injuries and deaths from the resulting fires instead. Ford ended up doing both:  re-engineering the fuel tank and paying our millions in settlements for injuries and deaths.

In the 1980s, GM produced the X-Cars. One of these, the 1980 Chevrolet Citation, has been recalled nine times. Glitches on that car included everything from faulty fuel lines to a steering gear that detached from its mounts.  That almost beat the dubious record set by the Chrysler corporation which in the 1970s produced the Aspen and Volare, two models that were recalled eight times in one year.

Just this past year Hyundai recalled more than 1 million vehicles due to brake-light problem also affecting its sister company Kia. 

And Chrysler recalled 2.7 million vehicles due to a potential fuel-system problem that could cause fires in a rear-end crash.

Does this mean that the century-long love affair between motorists and manufacturers is nearing an end?   It depends on who you ask.

According to some automotive experts, GM's new car sales are unlikely to take a big hit. The company's current vehicles have received much better marks on quality than in the past. GM was named highest quality automaker by J.D. Power in 2013 for the first time in its history.

Yet, aging boomers and especially millennials are a reason why public transit demand is its strongest since 1956. New transportation systems are being built across the United States, witness light rail and subway construction in Los Angeles.

Why?  Today’s young people simply don’t drive like their predecessors did. According to one report, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America in 2010, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down and the proportion of teenagers with a license fell by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.

It could be a statistical aberration.   Cars are expensive, the job market remains shaky.  But what if it’s a fundamental change in thinking?

Consider:  According to a report in the Atlantic,  Zipcar is the world’s largest car-sharing company, with some 700,000 members. Zipcar owes much of its success to two facts. First, gas prices continue to rise which makes car-sharing alluring. Second, smartphones have become ubiquitous, which made car-sharing easier.

In all likelihood, cars and trucks will never disappear from our world.  But our torrid love affair with them shows signs of chilling.  And as a result, the how and why of our driving habits could change forever.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Everyone's a Critic

The first food critic I ever observed up close and personal was a woman named Lois Dwan who plied her trade at the Los Angeles Times.

It was from her I learned that food critics were like undercover cops. They travel under assumed names and embrace anonymity.   They do this to insure that they experience the same food and service as everyone else.

Lois held down the job by herself, remarkable in a city the size of Los Angeles, and managed to write dining guides and other food-related books in her spare time.

She was never reluctant to criticize a bad dish but wrote with enough style and grace to avoid taking a linguistic chainsaw to an establishment if the soufflĂ© fell. 

She was also the mother of five.  You might say she had a lot on her plate.   But it must have agreed with her.  She lived to be 91.

Elmer Dills was a high visibility foodie on local television and radio for a number of years in Los Angeles.   I first ran into him at in a buffet line at a Pasadena restaurant.   I asked him what was good and he said everything since he didn’t have to pay for it.  I think he was kidding.   I hope so.

He learned his craft as an officer in the CIA, a job that took him on extensive travels though Europe and the Middle East.  He must have been the guy who put the “secret” in “secret recipes.”

As a radio host, Dills read commercials for restaurants on his show, which some critics considered a conflict of interest. He disagreed, saying in an interview, "I will not accept a commercial until I personally have evaluated the restaurant, and I actually reject about 70% to 80% of the restaurant commercials that come to the station."

He passed in 2008 but there’s still a pizza place in Pasadena that proudly flies a banner out front displaying Dills’ favorable opinion of their cuisine.

Jonathan Gold, the current food critic for the Los Angeles Times, brought an egalitarian touch to the art of food criticism, often choosing small ethnic restaurants to review.    His approach brought him a Pulitzer Prize, the only food critic to ever win one.

Other name critics --- Ruth Reichl, Irene Virbila to name two --- have successfully plied their trade here. But there’s a critic in town that could be a game changer.

That critic is You.

Is your chowder cold and your chicken medium rare?   Does the waiter call you “dude” and pour your wine into a water glass?   Does the bus boy spill leftovers into your Kate Spade bag?

Thanks to the Internet, you can now praise or savage just about any commercial establishment under the sun, be it a restaurant or a car dealership or an entire city.

Your tool for this endeavor is a website called Yelp.   The word itself is defined as “a sharp quick shrill cry” and you’ll find plenty of that wherever you look. 

When it comes to dining, there seems to be little in-between when Yelpers offer their opinions.
You’ll find either five star reviews (the highest) that appear to be written by the mother of the owner;  or a one star review usually written by someone who’s mad because he and 10 friends showed up without reservations at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and had to wait to be seated.  

It’s easy to trash talk when writing reviews.   To underscore that point, some Yelp contributors take a meat cleaver approach to their posts:

“I would rather pay $5 to chew on an old lady’s chin mole than eat this ever again.”

“If you're up for waiting around over 90 minutes for an order that looks like a failed 4th grade chemistry experiment, go for it.”

 “The place is dirty. I shudder to imagine what the kitchen looks like. Save your money. Go lick a bus seat to get the same gastrointestinal experience for free." 

All very funny but at the end of the day, is Yelp just a source for a belly laugh or does it really influence the restaurant business.?

 First, a word about credibility.   Over the years,   Yelp has been accused of   manipulating the website's user reviews based on participation in its advertising programs.   These charges have been denied and several class action lawsuits against the website have gone nowhere..  Questions linger but given the nature of the beast, they probably always will.

Second, Yelp ratings do move the market.  Two economists from UC Berkeley surveyed 300 restaurants in San Francisco and correlated their evening reservations rates with their rating on the company's website. They concluded that an upgrade from 3.5 to 4 stars caused an increase of 19 percentage points in the sellout rate.

But of even greater interest, Yelp has taken the haute out of cuisine.  In a story that appeared in these pages recently, Yelp listed the top 100 places to eat in American.

Number One was a tiny seafood joint wedged into a condo complex in Hawaii called De Poke Shack, which features salads that combine Japanese-inflected spices and greens like seaweed or kimchi with generous chunks of fresh, raw Ahi tuna.  The cost?  About $8.

The top Los Angeles choices were Porto’s Bakery which has locations in Glendale and Burbank featuring Cuban fare.  Next was Joe’s Falafel, a Mediterranean place in Studio City.  And next was Ricky’s Fish Tacos which operates out of a food truck.

Not a linen tablecloth among them.

Fine (read expensive) dining will always be with us.  Indeed, Yelpers share their opinions of upscale bistros and steak houses along with the mom and pop diners..

But Yelp and websites like it open up a menu as vast and fascinating as the city we live in.  And that's a recipe for success   

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Myth of Los Angeles

“All come from somewhere/To live in sunshine/Their funky exile/Midwestern ladies/High-heeled and faded/Drivin’ sleek new sports cars/With their New York cowboys.” — Billy Joel, “Los Angelenos”
Where do the myths, the stereotypes, the cliches begin? Neighbors chatting over the backyard fence? Water cooler conversation at the office? A conversation over a beer at the local bar? The Internet?
I wondered about this while reading an obituary of Harold Ramis, the once-in-a-generation comedic genius who died way too soon this past week.
In a Chicago Tribune piece,  Ramis, a Chicago native, explained that he moved himself and his family back to his hometown after his successes as an actor/director/screenwriter in Hollywood because “There’s a pride in what I do that other people share because I’m local, which in L.A. is meaningless; no one’s local.”
And that quote, along with the words of Connelly and Joel and many more, answered my question.
The people who perpetuate the myth of Los Angeles as a city of soulless transients seeking fast fame and fortune are the writers and filmmakers and musicians and actors and authors who have grabbed the golden ring in the very same town, then condemned everyone else as shameless opportunists.
It’s time to bury the image of Los Angeles as the home to the vapid and rootless. It has never been true and it never will be. It is fiction perpetuated by the same people who engage in fiction as a livelihood.
I guess I’m a little sensitive about it because I was born and raised here. With the exception of college and a stint in the military, I have lived here all my life.
My father came from “Somewhere Else.” He moved his family here in the late 1930s from New Orleans. It was the post-Depression era when any job was a good job. He found his in Los Angeles and became the ultimate “local,” one of the biggest civic boosters you would ever want to meet.
He had no particular financial motive for his boosterism. He was just a hard-working guy with a family to feed who honestly believed this was the greatest place to live on Earth. He never kept a bag packed. He never made a break for it. The concept would have puzzled him. And I guess it wore off on me.
Nobody claims this is paradise. Drive through some areas of L.A. and it’s a depressing journey through miles of shoddy apartment buildings and sleazy strip malls. We must be the mattress store and nail salon capitol of the world.
There is beauty, too. The beaches, the mountains, the canyons, the 300 museums, the 80 stage theaters, the dozens of parks. We have a breathtaking skyline that continues to grow. Los Angeles may not be Paris but it’s not El Paso, either.
The traffic is terrible. It takes and hour and a half to get from Point A to Point B almost anywhere in the city on a bad day. But we are on the verge of having a first-class public transportation system in spite of ourselves as subways and light rail expands. We should have done it 50 years ago but the freeways were less crowded then and the motivation and foresight was lacking.
Most importantly, despite the myth that we are a mass of people who are just passing through, we are fast becoming a population with local roots.
According to the new demographic projections conducted by USC’s Population Dynamics Research Group, the majority of Los Angeles residents will be California natives, rather than immigrants. By 2030, two-thirds of new residents will have been California natives, the report says.
Civic pride? Yeah, we have that. We’ve hosted two Olympic Games, seven Super Bowls and are home to World Series champions, NBA champions, Stanley Cup champions, NCAA champions.
We have survived earthquakes, fires and floods but our population and median income continues to increase. More than 20 million people come here every year on vacation.
Do we all come from somewhere else? Certainly we do. So does everyone else in the United States unless you’re an American Indian.
The difference is when people come to Los Angeles, they stay. We are the most ethnically diverse city in the nation.
About 48 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, nearly 13 percent is Asian and nearly 9 percent African-American. There are Armenians and Ethiopians and Iranians and Pakistanis in large numbers. More than 200 languages are spoken here.
And we all get along. Why? Because we love L.A.