Saturday, November 29, 2014

Happy Landings

Just in time for the joyous holiday travel season, a highly unscientific but probably entirely accurate survey of America’s worst airports has hit the Internet.

And --- fasten your seat-belts and return your trays to an upright position --- LAX is right up there with the worst.

This sampling is from a website called Gizmodo and while the methodology falls somewhat short of Gallup standards, it’s hard to quarrel with the results.

Drum roll, please. Here are the eight worst airports:

Kansas City International. “You're packed into your gate like sardines,” wrote one respondent. “ I have terrible memories of literally pushing my way through the crowd to reach the men's restroom at which there was a line because there were only three stalls.” Another called it “the smallest, strangest, possibly least secure international airport I've ever been to in the states.” 

Personal take:  My first experience there was landing during an Old Testament-style  thunderstorm. It did everything but rain frogs. Amenities? I was just happy to be alive.

Another time, my plane had to dump fuel and return to the airport because of a bomb threat. When we landed, an airport employee told us we could go to the bathroom if we wished. One passenger replied, “I think all of us already did.”

I sensed my luck was running out at KC. I’ve never been back.

Dulles International (Washington, D.C.): “The whole place should be bulldozed and replaced with a modern facility,” wrote one traveler. Said another: “I vote for Dulles, solely based on two separate incidences of over-90-minute TSA lines.”

Personal take:  I’ve flown in and out of Dulles for years. If you land at 5, don’t make dinner reservations in D.C. at 6. It’s so far out of town, a lobbyist couldn’t find you if you were a freshly minted member of Congress. Hit the road and it could be hours before the Washington Monument comes into view.

Philadelphia International: “Philly is where dreams go to die while you sit in a wormhole of constantly cancelled or delayed flights,” writes one apparently disgruntled passenger.

Personal take: I’ve never had the pleasure. That’s because I could never think of a good reason to go to Philadelphia.

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta, Ga. “On your way to hell there's a layover in Atlanta,” writes on respondent. “Sprawling, crowded, not enough seating, not enough toilets, takes an eternity even with the stupid train(s) to get from gate to rental car,” says another. 

Personal take: The best I can say about it? Southern hospitality ends here.

Newark Liberty International Airport. “It's dirty, smells bad, has the worst food options, the pay-only wi-fi is actually still horrifically slow, and there was a single, four plug charging station for the entire terminal that I saw,” says one traveler.  

Personal take: The last time I was there, it was sorely in need of a facelift. But so did the entire city. 

O’Hare International (Chicago). “I hate O'Hare with a fiery passion that will endure through countless generations of my progeny,” writes one fan.

Personal take: OK, nobody loves O’Hare. But build an airport at the crossroads of America, throw in some of the country’s worst weather, and try to do better. Besides, it’s a great place for people watching.

LAX. The reviews are not kind. “This list starts and ends with LAX. The absolute, bar none, worse terminal I've ever been in.” “$5 waters and the $7 cronuts.” “The worst six hours of my life was spent at LAX trying to get to a different terminal.”

Personal take: Let’s get real. LAX is a sprawling, unwieldy monster where 66 million people touch down or take off every year. The traffic is terrible. The lines are long. The food is average to bad.

But it could be remade into a shimmering golden palace and people would still be unhappy.

It is a transportation megalopolis, a launching pad to the world. If you’re looking for serenity, go to a retreat. If you want to get somewhere, shut up and get in line.

No. 1 on the Gizmodo list (and most other lists I’ve seen): LaGuardia, New York.
Some sample comments: “I'd rather wake up in a bathtub full of ice than go to LGA's B terminal.”

“Last time there the bathroom in my terminal area overflowed drenching the waiting area carpet, so they had big noisy fans to more efficiently disperse the smell throughout the terminal. There was no escape…”

“What can you say about LGA other than it was built for DC-3's and used to be a garbage dump before that.”

“La Guardia will always be under construction until we finally kill it with fire.”

Personal take: I’ve never sampled the delights of LaGuardia. I’m told it’s a good news/bad news situation. Good news: it’s the closest airport to Manhattan. The bad news: it’s the closest thing to a Third World airport in this country.

And the best airports in the U.S.?  Not many, according to Britain’s stuffy The Economist: “We estimate that altogether 67% of people who fly out of America arrive at a better airport.”

On the other hand, several of the airports on Gizmodo’s “worse” list also appear on several “best” lists, including Atlanta, Los Angeles and O’Hare.

It's kind of like judging an ugly dog contest.

Happy holidays.  And happy landings.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Talking Turkey

Every year about this time, I’m amazed at what is about to take place:  Almost everyone single person in this country will sit down and eat what is essentially the same meal on the same day. Hundreds of millions of us.

It’s called Thanksgiving. And while our species has held harvest celebrations since the dawn of time, no one does it quite like we do.

Peek in any window, travel from sea to shining sea, and you will find people feasting on turkey, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie, with a few variations here and there. According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans have turkey on Thanksgiving Day.

Forget a menu, we don’t need one.

This celebration is as American as, well, pumpkin pie. Even though I would sometimes prefer veal parmigiana or moo shu pork, it seems downright unpatriotic to even consider.

American ingenuity being what it is, however, there are pumpkin pie Pop Tarts, Lays turkey potato chips and roasted turkey Doritos available for your dining pleasure.

The irony of our Thanksgiving menu is that it bears little resemblance to what was on the table at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. First, there was no turkey.  Historians say venison was a major ingredient (thoughtfully brought by our Indian guests) as well as fowl, but that likely included pheasants, geese, and duck.

Cranberries and currants would have been growing wild in the area but there’s no record of them having been served. In fact, the meal was probably a carnivore’s dream.

Shellfish and eel were common, so they probably played a part, as did beans, pumpkins, squashes, and corn (served in the form of bread or porridge).

But there were no potatoes, bread stuffing, pie or Aunt Ruth’s green bean casserole.

I’ll give the nod to the modern menu.

Thanksgiving is a time legendary for over-eating. So while you’re reaching for that second helping, here are a few things to consider.

According to a study by the New England Journal of Medicine, obesity can spread from person to person, much like a virus. When one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight, too.

The researchers reported that people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese. That increased a person's chances of becoming obese by 57 percent.\

It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between close mutual friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, too.

Save a friend. Pass on the mashed potatoes.

Then there’s this: By the time we get to Christmas, we're in capitulation mode. Any thoughts of dietary sanity are postponed until after Jan. 1. After all, isn't that why we have New Year's resolutions?

I did read one helpful hint about how to survive holiday feasting:

Simply tie a piece of string around your waist before the meal - under your clothes. It shouldn't be too tight. You should be able to get a fist between it and you. When it starts to draw blood, you should probably stop eating.

Now, as you stagger away from the table, legs buckled, eyelids heavy, to digest your meal, here are a few Thanksgiving facts to wake you from your somnambulant state collected from various Internet sites.

--- In 1953, someone at Swanson misjudged the number of frozen turkeys it would sell that Thanksgiving -- by 26 tons. Some industrious soul came up with a brilliant plan: Why not slice up the meat and repackage with some trimmings on the side? Thus, the first TV dinner was born.

--- In 1863, when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, it was thanks to the tireless efforts of a magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. Her other claim to fame? She also wrote a nursery rhyme called “Mary Had a Little Lamb."

--- President Jefferson called a federal Thanksgiving proclamation “the most ridiculous idea ever conceived.”

---- Only male turkeys gobble. Hens cackle.

--- In the US, about 280 million turkeys are sold for the Thanksgiving celebrations. Californians are the largest consumers of turkey in the United States.

--- Turkey was the first meal enjoyed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they were on the moon.

---There are actually 12 claims to where the “first” Thanksgiving took place: two in Texas, two in Florida, one in Maine, two in Virginia, and five in Massachusetts.

--- Thanksgiving football games began with Yale versus Princeton in 1876, two teams that might be more entertaining than the Lions and Cowboys.

And with that, this column wishes you a perfect turkey, delicious stuffing, tangy cranberries and creamy pumpkin pie. But most of all, a year to be thankful for.  

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Can You Top This?

I had an Italian girlfriend back in my college days who was a wonderful cook.  This was important to our relationship because my life back then was often characterized by (1) hunger and (2) poverty.

There was just one flaw. She wouldn’t eat pizza. She insisted that pizza was merely leftovers tossed on some bread and covered with cheese and tomato sauce and swore that no self-respecting Italian would ever serve it to guests or eat it at a restaurant.

While I admired her ethnic sensibilities, turning up her nose on my favorite food was troubling. I worried she probably didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll, football and cigars either. Alas, we drifted apart. I wonder if she ever changed her mind and learned to love an extra large with sausage and pepperoni.

I’ve certainly enjoyed my fair share of what Bon Appetite magazine once called the “most perfect food.” Indeed, there are few places on Earth where pizza isn’t enjoyed in one form or another.

Pizza in Tibet? Sure thing. Iran? Yup. North Pole, Alaska? You bet.

Just how popular is it?  After spending two years in a North Korean jail, the first thing freed American Kenneth Bae wanted was pizza. Ditto Yale student Parker Liautaud who last year set a world record for the fastest unsupported walk from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. After completing the grueling trek, he said   the first thing he wanted to do when he returned from the South Pole was eat New Haven pizza.

 A 2012 report from the food and beverage research firm Technomic reported that 40% of Americans ate pizza at least once a week, up from a 26% weekly pizza habit two years prior. 

Yet there is trouble on Planet Pizza. The world’s largest purveyor, after several years of sales declines, is reinventing the pie.

Pizza Hut will focus on dozens of new flavor options as it mounts the 56-year-old brand's biggest-ever redo, according to USA Today. It will add 11 new pizza recipes, 10 new crust flavors, six new sauces, five new toppings, four new flavor-pack drizzles, a new logo, new uniforms and, yes, even a new pizza box.

That means the chain is more than doubling its available ingredients at all 6,300 U.S. locations beginning Nov. 19. Just in time for Thanksgiving.

This is troubling news for a guy who thinks putting ham and pineapple on a pizza is an abomination.

According to a press release, the choices are nearly limitless, with "more than two billion" ways to customize a pizza. Customers can choose from new toppings like Peruvian cherry peppers, crust flavors like Salted Pretzel and sauces like Honey Sriracha.

Even worse, they’ve attached silly names to their product. There’s Cock-a-Doodle Bacon (chicken and bacon with a creamy Parmesan sauce); Giddy Up BBQ Chicken (another chicken and bacon combo); Buffalo State of Mind (Buffalo sauce topped with grilled chicken, sliced banana peppers and fresh red onions); Pretzel Piggy (creamy garlic Parmesan sauce topped with hardwood smoked bacon, fresh mushrooms and fresh spinach – flavored up with a salted pretzel crust edge and balsamic sauce drizzle).

Could I really order out loud “an extra large Pretzel Piggy”?  I think not.

Then there’s Sweet Sriracha Dynamite, with a honey Sriracha sauce, grilled chicken, sliced jalapeno, pineapple and cherry peppers, with a Sriracha-flavored crust edge and drizzle. 

With that much Sriracha, it will probably be banned in Irwindale.

There is a positive here. The menu is also getting a line of “Skinny Slice” pizzas with about 250 calories a slice. Not exactly diet food but it’s the thought that counts.

This from a chain that once offered a Cheeseburger Crust Pizza that tipped the scales at 2,880 calories, somewhat north of an adult male's recommended daily calorie intake. It was only available in Great Britain, another blow to American prestige abroad.

Pizza Hut executives claim they are “redefining the category” and that they researched "hundreds" of ingredients. These are the ones customers told us they want.”

Not everyone is buying this spin.

“Pizza Hut may be doing too much too quickly," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic told USA Today. “It would appear that the brand that has lost touch with the consumer is trying to change too much overnight."

“It’s a fear of irrelevance,” he said. “But the potential to negatively influence their current customer base is certainly there.”

In a related development, Australian chef Johnny Di Francesco took the top prize at the Pizza World Championship in Parma, Italy.

And was his creation topped with foi gras, caviar and lobster soaked in Napoleon brandy?

Nope. Competition rules in this category are very strict, as only peeled tomatoes, certain types of mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, salt and fresh basil leaves can be used to top the pizza.

Give me simple every time.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Christmas Creep

In 1863, Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, history tells us. He proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states.

 On Dec. 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. He reasoned that an earlier celebration of the holiday would give the country an economic boost.

In November, 2014, Macy’s announced it would open for “Black Friday” sales starting at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, two hours earlier than last year’s 8 p.m. opening time. Kohl’s and Sears, among others, are opening the doors to shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, while J.C. Penny is trying to trump the competition with a 5 p.m. opening.

Kmart, which will throw open its doors at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day will stay open for 42 hours in a row, according to Money magazine.

If you get the idea that Thanksgiving is being transformed from a day of feasting,  family and blessings counted to a launching pad for the Christmas shopping season, you would be correct.

Actually, you would be partially correct. Kmart aired its first Christmas ad in early September, according to Money. Walmart, Target Toys R Us and others then rolled out various versions of the season’s “Hot Toy” list, long before kids had visions of sugar plumbs dancing in their heads.

The Kmart ad is "unprecedented" in its prematurity, said the advertising news site Ad Age, adding that retailers typically wait until late October to hit consumers with holiday-themed commercials and offers.

What we have here is a phenomenon called “Christmas Creep” and it threatens to gobble up every holiday from the Fourth of July forward.

Bill Martin of the store-traffic research firm Shopper Track said that stores are increasingly feeling compelled to open on Thanksgiving.

“Retailers say that consumers are clamoring for them to be open on Thanksgiving, but that’s not the case,” he said. “They’re just attempting to get to the wallet before the money is gone. That’s what this holiday creep is all about.”

Needless to say, this isn’t sitting well with a lot of folks.

At least two dozen or so stores have confirmed they will remain closed on Thanksgiving. The list includes warehouse membership stores Coscto, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club, home improvement giants Home Depot and Lowe’s, department stores Dillard’s and Nordstrom, specialty retailers like GameStop, DSW, and PetCo, and discount chains such as Burlington Coat Factory, Marshall’s, and T.J. Maxx. 

A spokesperson for TJX, which runs retail brands such as Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx, recently was quoted as saying:   “We consider ourselves an associate-friendly company, and, we are pleased to give our associates the time to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends.”

Translation:  Any retailer forcing employees to work on Thanksgiving is flying in the face of American traditions and values.

A spokesman for a Iowa-based department store chain offered this assessment: “Some things are sacred, including spending time with family and loved ones on Thanksgiving and other holidays. We profitably run our business during the remaining 358 days of the year, so we don’t have to sacrifice tradition for the sake of sales.”

Translation:  Anyone open on holidays is greedy and uncaring.

All of which means nothing if customers swarm to stores on Thanksgiving like soldiers establishing a beachhead.

But even the bargain-hunting fanatics among us are having misgivings.

A social media website called Boycott Black Thursday has 60,000 followers.  A petition initiated by a Target employee asking the company to “take the high road and save Thanksgiving” has been signed by 300,000 people, both employees and customers. A Best Buy employee posted a similar petition that currently has 14,000 signatures.

Their voices may go unheard, however.

Retailers rarely misjudge their customers urge to shop, especially if bargains are involved.  It’s not a stretch to believe that within a year, or two at the max, all retailers will throw open their doors on Thanksgiving and the crowds will come, tradition and turkey dinner be damned.

As one shopper told the Wall Street Journal, “The shopper in me is like, 'Yay.' But the human in me is like, this is wrong.”

And if the employees don’t like it?  Well, there are a lot of people out there looking for jobs.

So much for goodwill toward men.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Bob in Chains

News and views:

News: I will soon be arrested for attempting to defraud the IRS. Even as I write this, jack-booted authorities are on their way to break down my door take me away in chains. They will sell my family into slavery and level my home.

Views:  At least that was the gist of a phone message that awaited me when I got home the other day.

And for good measure, one more the next day.

Fortunately, I understood that despite a deservedly sinister reputation, the IRS doesn’t declare you guilty of felonious financial shenanigans without a lot of written correspondence not to mention hearings at which you can explain/defend yourself.

So will I soon be sharing a cell with Bernie Madoff?  Thankfully, no.

It’s apparently a scam that has been making the rounds for a couple of years.  

According to the IRS, victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer.

If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license.  

“If someone unexpectedly calls claiming to be from the IRS and threatens police arrest, deportation or license revocation if you don’t pay immediately, that is a sign that it really isn’t the IRS calling,”  said an IRS spokesman who noted that the first IRS contact with taxpayers on a tax issue is likely to occur via mail.

We’re too smart to fall for this ruse, right?

Alas, no. IRS officials say the phone calls have convinced thousands of taxpayers to give up millions of dollars across the country.

According to one report, California has been a cash cow for the scammers. 

 Investigators say they have tracked more than 60,000 of these calls across the US since last October and scammers have collected around $4 million, with a quarter of that coming from California.

Of course, this scam wouldn’t work if folks weren’t terrified of the IRS and its meat cleaver approach to the public.

This time, however, the calls appear to be coming from India. Apparently, we’re now outsourcing fraud.

News:  More and more theater chains are selling booze.

Views: Why produce quality entertainment?  Just get the audience loaded enough and they won’t care what they see.

Irritated at the guy behind you who talks out loud during the movie?  Wait until he gets a couple beers under his belt. He’ll drown out “War of the Worlds” in Dolby digital sound. But you won’t care. You’ll be on your third margarita and slipping into sensory deprivation.

The fact is theater chains are resorting to liquor sales to boosting sagging revenues.  Apparently, $20 popcorn isn’t enough.

A report from the Motion Picture Association of America said that domestic movie box-office sales rose to $10.9 billion last year, from $10.8 billion in 2012.
But the increase was the result of higher ticket prices, not attendance. Indeed, the number of tickets sold slipped yet again, this time 1.5% to 1.34 billion from 1.36 billion.

That extends a longstanding trend: The number of tickets sold fell nearly 11% between 2004 and 2013, according to the report, while box office revenue increased 17%.

With home-entertainment options such as streamed movies and television, video games, or mobile apps people are less likely to head to their local multiplex.

Maybe so.  But the bottom line is a lousy product. The top grossing films of 2014?  “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “Captain America:  The Winter Soldier,” “The LEGO Movie,” “Transformers:  Age of Extinction.”

I may not be in the show biz demographic bulls-eye. But I wouldn’t watch any of the above mentioned boffo box office winners if they were showing on my garage door and the drinks were on the house.

News:  Political ads are filing he airwaves.

Views:  The worthiness of the ballot propositions or those running for elective office notwithstanding, it’s interesting/amusing to see what buzz words define the issues.

Want to discredit someone who is running for office or supports an initiative?  Easy.  Just mention they are in the pocket of “special interest groups.”

 No need to mention who these shadowy groups are.  The implication is that they are evil even though they include lobbying groups such as the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association and the California Cling Peach Growers.

“Politicians” is also a good term to throw at an opponent. One ad I heard used the term, uttered by a woman whose voice dripped with sarcasm, at least four times.

 Another upped the ante by mentioning in a vile voice “Sacramento politicians,” which rolled off his tongue in a tone usually reserved for axe murders or auto mechanics.

Then there was the triple dip:  power hungry Sacramento politicians beholden to special interests.

There’s a lot to be said for reading the ballot issues.  With the radio and television turned off.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.