Saturday, March 26, 2016

Bionic Burgers

I was in a hurry.

No time for a leisurely lunch.  If I was to be fed, it would be fast food, coronary ramifications notwithstanding.

So I happened upon a Carl’s Junior and while I’m no expert on fast food fare I remembered having a burger there once upon a time and thought it was decent. It sure seemed a better choice than the McMystery Meat they were serving at a competing joint down the street.

I ordered something called the Western Bacon Cheeseburger, a good sized patty slathered in barbecue sauce and topped with bacon and onion rings. With a Lipitor chaser.

It was tasty enough and met my high standards for a burger:  the juice ran down my arms and dripped off my elbows.

It was served up by a friendly staff that performed a continuous culinary ballet to produce a steady supply of eats for a long line of customers.

They were characters in an act that plays out across the country tens of thousands of times every day. But the curtain may be coming down soon.

That’s because many of the folks who served me my lunch that day will be out of work, if the chain’s CEO has his way.

It seems Andrew Puzder, boss man of CKE Restaurants, has been thinking out of the box lately. And he wants to develop fully automated, employee free restaurants.

He’s no innovator. Puzder’s motivation is to counter increases in the minimum wage. He doesn’t like the idea and explains, “If you're making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science."

Of course, there’s an added benefit of replacing people with machines: "They're always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case,” Puzder says.

Yeah, but if you want room temperature brie instead of processed American cheese on your burger, can a machine handle it? And what happens if a circuit blows and you get ketchup in your vanilla shake? Which machine handles the complaints? What happens if a less-than-computer-literate customer accidentally punches in an order for 25 burgers? Does he confront the soulless unblinking eye of a mechanized order taker?  

There are some more pressing questions.

CKE currently owns or franchises about 3,600 restaurants in the United States and 33 foreign countries, generates $1.4 billion in annual revenue and, with its franchisees, employs more than 75,000 people in the U.S.

That’s a lot of people to throw out into the street. It’s also a group that because of poor pay frequents cheap fast food restaurants which in a strange twist could see a loss of business if their clientele is unemployed.

And automating 3600 restaurants?  I’m betting that the considerable cost will be passed onto the customer in the form of higher prices. Why not simply raise prices to offset labor costs? 

I’m also thinking that Mr. Puzder will learn that machines need care and feeding, just like humans do. He won’t be hiring the army of technicians he’ll need to maintain his robotic restaurant chain at minimum wage.

Then there’s the fact that we’ve been down this road before. It was a dead end.

In the previous century, automats, restaurants where simple foods and drink were served by vending machines, were all the rage. There were 40 in New York City alone. But the novelty and the quality of the food declined and the franchises were sold to, ironically enough, Burger King. Which now could become modern-day automats.

Here’s something else to consider: Scholars at Oxford have predicted the computerization of almost half of the jobs now performed by humans, as soon as the 2030s. In the next two years alone, global sales of service robots are expected to exceed 35 million units, according to the International Federation of Robotics. 

And think about this scary morsel from Atlantic magazine as you savor your filet-o-fish sandwich: while robots are poised to help improve and even save human lives, people are left grappling with what’s at stake. A robot car might be able to safely drive you to work, but, because of robots, you no longer have a job.

A rational voice in this debate is provided by Darren Tristano, a food industry expert with the research firm Technomic.  He told CNN that digital technology will "slowly, over time, create efficiency and labor savings" for restaurants. But he guessed that work forces would only drop as a result by 5% or 10% at a maximum in the decades to come, however, given the expectations that customers have for the dining experience.

"If you look at the thousands of years that consumers have been served alcohol and food by people,” he said, “it's hard to imagine that things will change that quickly."

I hope he's right.  In the meantime, we have more to fear from the Andrew Puzders of the world than robots.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Trump and Truth

You would think that after eight years, the tinfoil hat community would have grown weary of cranking out vitriolic nonsense aimed at President Obama and his family.

He is a Muslim. Not just a Muslim, but a Jihadist. He installed a prayer rug in the Oval Office. He was sworn in on the Koran, not the Bible. He has a secret plan to take away our guns. He is using a Cold War-era mind-control technique known as "Delphi" to coerce Americans into accepting his plan for a United Nations-run communist dictatorship.  

He plans to deliver the country to Islamic jihadists who will convert our churches to mosques, veil our women, toss our liquor into the Pacific Ocean and pack the halls of Congress with radical clerics. He is a fascist. He is a socialist. He is in fact the Antichrist.

And while Obama’s term is almost up, the beat goes on.

No sooner did Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia die several weeks ago, than the cyber-wackos were all over the Internet speculating that he was murdered by President Obama.  Radio host Alex Jones spelled it out: “…you realize, Obama is just one vote away from being able to ban guns, open the borders, and actually have the court engage in its agenda and now Scalia dies. My gut tells me they killed him, and all the intellectual evidence lays it out."

Then, when the Obama daughters, Shasha and Malia, attended their first state dinner attired in designer dresses that cost an estimated $20,000 a piece, there was an outpouring of Internet outrage, damning the entire family for a frivolous use of taxpayers’ money.

While it's true that Sasha and Malia Obama wore two dresses worth about $40,000, American taxpayers didn't pick up the tab. In 2014, Michelle Obama's press secretary Joanna Rosholm said that the First Lady's (and, by extension, the First Daughters') gowns are generally paid for for out of pocket, although dresses are occasionally donated, then placed in the national archives.

All of this after a Republican congressional staffer caused an uproar several years ago when she chastised the girls for their appearance, saying, “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar.”

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has already been subjected to this kind of mudslinging.

She is a lesbian who once had an affair with Yoko Ono.  She once told a gathering of Goldman Sachs executives, “But we know the hopes that the little people have for their future — things like school, job, food, clothing on their backs– all of those little things would not be possible without your leadership and innovation.” She once said that children should be raised and trained by the state, and parents should have only a secondary role. She and President Obama were charged with being “accessories to terrorism” by the Egyptian government.

Absurdities, each and every one.

And Donald Trump?  He happily helps himself to large portions of this evil stew and presents it as red meat on the campaign trail.  He has been described as a walking, talking supermarket tabloid.

Or to quote him directly, “All I know is what’s on the Internet.”

While “truthers” were quick to declare Justice Scalia’s death a political assassination, Trump added fuel to the fire by saying “…but they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow."

That, of course, was Internet gossip which turned out not to be true.  The owner of the ranch where Scalia died explained that the pillow was above his head and resting against the headboard of the bed.

Trump has long sided with “birthers” who believe Obama was born in Kenya and holds the office of President illegally.

Despite the fact that these allegations have been disproven, Trump still won’t acknowledge Obama was born in the U.S. and in a CNN interview insinuated that the country has already had its first Muslim president. 

Last fall, Trump started to say that he was hearing President Obama wants to "take in 200,000 Syrians." He later revised the number up to 250,000.

The Obama administration is actually seeking to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees. The source for the 200,000 figure was a website that posts fake news called

Trump has also promoted the notion that vaccines cause autism, a claim that started on the Internet but has been widely debunked by doctors and scientists. “Just the other day, 2 years old, 2-and-a-half-years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic,” Mr. Trump said at a Republican debate in September.

National Review contributor Jim Geraghty, a well-known conservative blogger, wrote recently," We cannot be a party or a movement that gets its understanding of the world from chain e-mails from Uncle Leo."

But it’s worse than that.

Political discourse in this country, which used to be strident but civil, has been reduced to a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners exercise in which truth has become secondary to a desired outcome. The idea is not to debate but to destroy.

It would seem impossible for things to get worse. But Trump’s actions have done just that. We no longer deal in facts but cite malicious gossip created anonymously in the dark corners of the Internet.  In doing so, we give the stamp of approval to sinister extremists who are more dangerous than the people and institutions that they target.

These voices have always been with us. But now they are blindly embraced by a candidate who engages in locker room rhetoric while dignifying crass rumors as truth. To the cheers and applause of millions.

Let us hope that 2016 will not be remembered as the year racism, fear and paranoia gripped the country.

Perhaps we should heed the words of President John F. Kennedy:

“So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness…Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Strange Days, Indeed

Legend has it that when Lord Cornwallis and his British troops surrendered to the Americans at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, their band played a song called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

It may be time to revive that ditty as we view the downright bizarre events that are taking place on our planet right now. 

Future historians may look back on 2016 and think, “what in the world were they thinking about?”

For example, Donald Trump.

But enough about him.  There are other stories that illuminate the times in which we live.

In France, a workers’ paradise where strikes are the national pastime, labor minister Myriam El Khomri is proposing that the country adopt a provision that would give employees the right to ignore professional emails and other messages when outside the office.

In other words, when you walk out that office door, you are about as accessible as Seal Team 6.

As one expert explained, “Professionals who find the right balance between private and work life perform far better in their job than those who arrive shattered.”

At the same time, French President Francois Hollande recently pledged to redefine France's business model and declared what he called "a state of economic and social emergency," unveiling a 2 billion euro ($2.2 billion) plan to revive hiring and catch up with a fast-moving world economy.

Catching up may be hard to do with your workforce signed off.

The French newspaper Le Monde reported that a recent study found than approximately 3.2 million French workers are at risk of “burning out,” defined as a combination of physical exhaustion and emotional anxiety.

This, in a country with a 35-hour workweek where the average French worker can expect 30 days a year of paid vacation. 

Don’t expect this concept to cross the Atlantic. Here, exhaustion and anxiety are part of our birthright.  It’s the land of the fatigued and home of the stressed.

Maybe that's why we don't have the linguistic equivalent of "joi de vivre."

Speaking of the U.S.A., Whole Foods markets is considering adding tattoo parlors to its new 365 chain, which is targeting millennial shoppers and the budget conscious by offering smaller stores with lower prices.

While it may seem strange to sell tattoos at a supermarket, it is even stranger to see the phrase “budget conscious” in the same sentence as Whole Foods, known to many as Whole Paycheck.

This is the chain that was famously found selling a product called “Asparagus Water” which was a jar of water with three asparagus spears in it for six bucks.

It is the chain that was targeted for overcharging on certain products including covered prepared foods, the olive bar, and even meats and seafood. 

Shoppers were charged for the weight of containers at various stores, and some paid more than they should have because workers put "smaller amounts into packages than the weight stated on the label," while others were charged by the piece for some groceries rather than by the pound.

We can assume that a tattoo at a Whole Foods store will be more expensive than getting one down at the local ink joint.

But if I was going to get a tattoo from Whole Foods, it would show a wallet with money flying out of it.

Besides, if they really want to attract the younger folks, they should also set up marijuana dispensaries, free booze, a fast food outlet, body piercings, weekly raves  and counselors who can cheerfully explain why many consider millennials to be "lazy, entitled narcissists," and "the most high maintenance workforce in the history of the world.”

Meanwhile, in California, the November ballot is beginning to look like a bar exam on steroids.

So far, there are seven propositions have been certified for the ballot. But as of February 23, 2016, more than a hundred initiatives had been proposed and filed with the California Secretary of State, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

It is estimated that, between funding signature gathering efforts and campaigning, more than $452 million will be spent directly on ballot measures in California in 2016.

There are hot-button issues here including marijuana legalization, minimum wage, the justice system, education and others.

But the one initiative that caught my eye is being pushed by a businessman named John Cox. Inspired by a comedy routine by Robin Williams, he is suggesting that politicians should wear the logos of their corporate sponsors like a NASCAR race car driver.

Most would run out of room.

It’s unclear if forcing politicians to dress like money-grubbing dunces would be legal, but it will be fun while it lasts.

I’m not sure if this one will cross the finish line but nobody thought Donald Trump had a chance either.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The True North

I met a friend for a glass of wine in Old Pasadena recently, on a day remarkable for its warmth and beauty.

But he had something besides the weather on his mind. Instead, he announced he was seriously considering a move to Canada if Donald Trump was elected president. He had gone so far as to look into plane fares, employment opportunities and housing.

It was not exactly a shocking revelation.  After all, there are many people who view a Trump White House with horror. 

The likes of Miley Cyrus, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O'Donnell and Cher, have threatened to flee the country if Trump wins the election in November. 

Maybe they forgot that Ted Cruz hails from Canada.

But I dismissed my friends vow as so much political hand-wringing, born more of angst than determination.

After all, if we all hit the road every time someone we opposed was elected to public office, our country would be as vacant as a politician’s promise.

And abandonment in the face of adversity is a cure worse than the disease.

Then I read that after Super Tuesday, when Trump solidified his hold as the top Republican vote getter, search results for “how to move to Canada” jumped 350 per cent on Google.

If you signed on to a Canadian government site to determine you eligibility to immigrate, you were greeted with this prompt: “You may experience delays while using this website. We are working to resolve this issue. Thank you for your patience.”

This comes as no surprise to Canadians. Twelve years ago, as George W. Bush took a commanding lead over John F. Kerry in the polls, Canadian immigration applications tripled. Visits to the immigration department's website skyrocketed from an average of 20,000 per day to 115,000 the day after Bush won the election. 

And, according to one Canadian publication, American conservatives are not immune. “Move to Canada” +Obama spiked in 2008, and was most popular in southern states. It doesn’t appear, however, that many of them actually fled a Democrat in the White House.

That could be because a county known for higher taxes, universal health care and  stringent gun control may not have been the paradise they sought.

Perhaps an accurate reflection of the move northward is reflected in the antics of  Rob Calabrese, a radio host in Nova Scotia.  He told the New York Times he was inundated by more than 3,000 inquiries after he, on a lark, set up a website last month inviting anti-Trump Americans to move to Cape Breton, an island along the Atlantic coast that has lost population as industries have left.

One wag called it “The Land of the Flee.”

“People talk about Donald Trump. They talk about safety, security,” Calabrese said. “A lot of people say they’ve just been thinking about moving somewhere for a long time and this maybe was the nudge they needed to get the ball rolling.”

While Canadians are a friendly and welcoming people, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want you to move next door.

Unless you fall into certain categories, including students in higher education or someone trained in a list of professions found in the North American Free Trade Agreement, you could be out of luck.

“Sometimes I’ve had Americans who feel that they can just drive across the border,” said one immigration lawyer. “It comes as a surprise to them, ‘Oh what do you mean, I have to qualify?’ Yes, you do have to qualify.”

And even those who do can expect to spend six years or more doing paperwork and living on Canada’s equivalent of a green card to build up residency requirements. Of course, a Trump presidency could be over by then.

There are other obstacles and adjustments as explained by Margaret Wente, an American-born columnist at The Globe and Mail in Toronto. There is no good Southern barbecue, she said, a house in Vancouver will cost you $2.4 million and the brutal winters can last six months.

Then there are the cultural differences, she added: “You will have to learn some weird local customs, like saying ‘sorry’ when you bump into someone on the sidewalk.”

My advice:  if you want to live in blissful isolation, go to the North Woods of Maine or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That way you can maintain your citizenship even as you curse the country that bestowed it upon you.

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. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.