Sunday, October 31, 2010

Name-Dropping the Constitution and Holding a Rally

      These mid-term elections have an unsettling quality to them, beyond one party losing power to the party currently in the minority. The new element in play is the Tea Party, which launched itself within the past 20 months or so and now counts a slew of likely successful candidates whose claim to power is being true conservatives. Okay, that's not a trend, that's just politics, and this blog is not about politics. But do you not see a trend here?
     I'm seeing two. One is the Constitution. The other is rallies organized by TV personalities.
     The Tea Party candidates and representatives sooner or later bring up the Constitution as their guiding light to get this country back on track. And who can argue with the Constitution?

    But we all might be arguing about it soon, if the new class of congressional leaders, in the name of the Constitution, start proposing and supporting legislation that flies in the face of basic tenets of life in America, as for example, the separation of Church and State. (It's been all over the news, but in case you missed it, Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell questioned where in the Constitution is the separation of Church and State established.)
      So, here's my thought on this "behold the Constitution" trend: I better brush up on the beloved document. Not only is it a good intellectual exercise, it might be my only grip on political reality for the next few years.
      As for rallies, I thought Glenn Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor" was bizarre. Then again, I think Glenn Beck is bizarre the moment you think of him outside the role of entertainer. But hey, a big crowd showed up, speeches were made -- not political, according to Beck, even though Sarah Palin was one of the speakers -- and a good time was had by all.
     Then this past weekend comedians Jon Stewart and Steve Colbert organized their "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," also not political, even though Arianna Huffington, founder of  the liberal blog that carries her name, hired buses to transport people to the event for free. By all accounts, this rally  was a display of humor and satire targeting some politics, but mainly targeting media for dumbing down political discourse. I think I would have enjoyed this one.
     But what does it all add up to? Apparently, when the economy is tanking and two wars keep us mired in ugly conflicts, the Constitution becomes generic political slogan, while entertainment morphs into a rallying call for protest.
     Maybe the next political movement will be inspired by Lady Gaga.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Five Guys and the Renewed Love for the Hamburger

     If you live in South Florida it's hard not to notice Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The red-and-white burger place has been popping up everywhere, making more than one shopping center landlord happy, I might add. Even if you don't live in South Florida, you probably have seen them in your city. If not, it won't be long til you do. I think we're going to keep seeing more of them.

     The family-owned chain's burgers were ranked No. 1 in Zagat's 2010 Fast Food Survey, beating long-time favorite In-N-Out Burger, based in California. Five Guys' claim to fame is all-fresh (never frozen), 80% lean, grilled burgers on grill-toasted buns, and freshly cut potatoes fried in peanut oil.  Based in Virginia, Five Guys has been on heavy expansion mode since the family-owned business began franchising in 2002. Somewhere along the line it got a $30 million loan from GE Capital. As of August 2010, Five Guys had 644 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and reportedly has 1,500 units in various stages of development.
      My daughter, who has never been much of a burger eater but rather a chicken nuggets kid, loves it, because "it's not greasy, and it's really fresh." (She really says it like that. Her grandfather was in advertising, there might be some genetic manifestation here.)
      I generally don't eat burgers unless they're homemade or the Cuban variety known as "frita", and Five Guys hasn't changed that for me, as I haven't tried their burgers yet. But I will vouch for their fries and I give them credit for having a veggie sandwich on the menu, said sandwich not bad at all, especially if you include the grilled mushrooms. Keep in mind, it's a sandwich (consisting of any or all of the trimmings you would put on a burger), not a veggie burger.
       Helping the chain is a renewed love for the hamburger and something of an infatuation with the so-called "better burger", which means at the very least a hamburger that doesn't start as a frozen patty, and at the most, an Emeril Lagasse gourmet burger creation. The celebrity chef late last year opened Burgers and More by Emeril in Bethlehem, PA.
      In that vein, restaurant chain the Melting Pot says it plans to launch more than a thousand Burger 21 locations, the name referring to the 21 different kinds of burgers that will be on the menu. Total servings of burgers in the U.S. in 2009 were 9.3 billion, an increase of 800,000 servings since 2005, according to market research firm NPD. This in a year when restaurant traffic experienced consecutive quarterly declines.
     What I do like about Five Guys is its trajectory as a family-owned business. It is owned and run by a father and four sons, who to this day control how things are done, including such defining decisions as sticking to what they do best, which explains why they don't serve coffee or chicken sandwiches, and using only fresh ingredients, which explains why they don't sell milk shakes, which would be too time-consuming and costly to make from fresh milk and ice cream.
      So far, patriarch Jerry Murrell says he'll keep it that way, as he told Inc. Magazine:
      "When we got pulled to Florida, I didn't want to go! Too far. I didn't want to go to Canada -- we're there now. Two princes came from the Middle East. They want us to go over there. We have another group that says, "Anywhere you want to go, we'll fund it." We've also had a few companies that want to come in and buy us. They say they would let us run it, but I don't think they would. Why would they put up with fresh bread and taste-testing 16 different mayonnaises?"
      But to be sure, lean beef and all, noone is claiming that the juicy burger with a side of fries, even if from fresh-cut potatoes, is what the doctor ordered for your cholesterol. In fact, Men's Health magazine rated Five Guys' burgers and fries among the most unhealthy foods for their amounts of calories and saturated fat.
      Somehow that isn't stopping burger lovers. Is Five Guys on its way to becoming the Starbucks of burgers?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Aaron Sorkin and Misogyny and Facebook

     In my previous post about the movie The Social Network, I commented on how the movie made me wonder if our society has gone back three leaps in how it regards women. The observation was prompted by what I perceived to be quite a bit of misogyny in the movie. I liked the movie a lot, just not all its characters.
     I wasn't the only one who felt that way. The outcry has been loud enough that the movie's screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has responded, posting an answer to a comment in comedy writer Ken Levine's blog. You can read it here:
     I liked Sorkin's response. What I mean is I like Sorkin's honesty and the tone of his response, and I don't think he personally is misogynystic. The world depicted in his screenplay is, he says, and I think that's probably true. To quote from his response:  "Facebook was born during a night of incredibly misogyny. The idea of comparing women to farm animals, and then to each other, based on their looks and then publicly ranking them. It was a revenge stunt, aimed first at the woman who'd most recently broke his heart (who should get some kind of medal for not breaking his head) and then at the entire female population of Harvard."
      So my beef is not with him.
      What I find disturbing is that misogyny finds fertile ground among the most intelligent, best educated and highly privileged, which is what Harvard is. It's disturbing because these are people who will  lead organizations and corporations and call the shots in so many ways. We've come a long way baby, but, unfortunately, the reality is that misogyny keeps creeping up, and I'm afraid that in a post-feminism era, it goes largely unchecked.
     I wonder what would happen if all women decided to de-activate their Facebook pages. Could Mark Zuckerberg have created the ultimate comeback for women to make a powerful statement against  misogyny?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Facebook -- Acceptance Redefined

         When most of us confront the stinging bite of rejection, we suck it up best we can and move on. It might be one of the hardest exercises of human experience, accepting somebody else's right to decide we don't measure up to their personal taste.
         But if you're a gifted computer geek/genius pursuing an undergrad degree from Harvard University, you take your rejection and let it course through your whole system, from heart to brain to fingertips, using it as nuclear power to fuel the creation of a multi-billion dollar phenomenon that has changed the way we communicate, market and relate to the rest of society.
         Yep, I just saw the Social Network.
         Before going to see this movie, I was skeptical, same as I was about joining Facebook, which I did just a couple of months ago. I thought the movie was hyped. As a Facebook newbie, I think Facebook is hyped in our lives. But Facebook won, and I'm still on it. And the movie makers won, and I went to see the movie.
.         And OMG, what a good movie. Pick your theme: ambition, talent, classism, meritocracy, establishment, anti-establishment, betrayal, pride, digital revolution, social isolation, need for belonging, ownership, and even, though not least, sexism. (By the way, has our society gone three leaps back in how it regards women? See this link:
         The movie, based on the non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, crafts the story from the various depositions that were part of the lawsuits against Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, now a 20-something who is the world's youngest billionaire. The story begins in 2002, when he was a sophomore in Harvard.
        His main antagonists are two other Harvard undergraduates, the Winklevoss twins, members of the WASP establishment, who zero in on Zuckerberg for an idea they had. His programming skills, they figure, make him an ideal sort of partner to create an exclusive online social network only for Harvard people. That's how it would make it different from MySpace or Friendster.
       Zuckerberg, portrayed as socially inept and painfully aware of his lack of membership in any of the elite clubs to which Harvard's WASP establishment is privvy, accepts. But then he runs with the idea, makes it his own, executes it and makes it a reality, a huge, gigantic, never-ending reality. He does this with the help of Eduardo Saverin, seemingly his only real friend, and a talent in his own right. But while putting it together, he leads the brothers to believe he was still working on "their" project. When the network goes live without any of their involvement, the brothers feel cheated and dishonored, and pursue restitution through the courts, claiming intellectual property.
       The movie doesn't tilt your sympathy either way. True to real life, there isn't a clear villain and there isn't a clear hero, but I was hooked until the end to see who wins. As much as I admired Zuckerberg's talent, I couldn't totally sympathize with him as the wronged outsider for many reasons, not least of which is his nasty blogging about his ex-girlfriend when she breaks up with him. He then hacks the computers of all the girls' dorms to download pictures of the girls and create a site in which people -- people as in guys -- can click to rate who's hottest. Charming.
      I wasn't rooting for the twin brothers necessarily, but I found myself not disliking them either, and I kind of thought I would. As a Hispanic woman who attended Wellesley College, a school that gravitates in the social periphery of Harvard, I'll tell you that I have never encountered a man who can make you feel more invisible than a blue blood Harvard jock. But at least in the movie, the brothers' earnestness in academics and in their chosen sport of rowing rings authentic. (They represented the U.S. in the latest summer Olympics.) So, didn't love them, but in a way found them a little more sane than Zuckerberg. (I don't know if this is a manipulative effect of the movie.)
     In any case, the way the story goes, both real and cinematic, is that they ended with a $65 million settlement. And the way the story also goes is that Zuckerberg alienates if not downright screws Saverin, his real friend. He's one of the two characters I did actually like, sympathized with and rooted for. The other is his ex-girlfriend, Erica. If both of them got the worst of Zuckerberg in real life, I feel the movie makes it up to them. They each get at least one character-full-of-dignity scene, and they are portrayed as people who understand and value the give and take of genuine, real-life, non-virtual relationships. It isn't entirely clear whether Zuckerberg does or doesn't.
     Which brings me to the whole bizarre-ness of Facebook. As cool as it can be, doesn't it also have a kind of remoteness to it? The whole Facebook thing of "asking" and "accepting" friends seems to be Zuckerberg's comeback to Harvard's clubs' tradition of "tagging" potential members. Did he create the ultimate acceptance standard?
     The fact is I don't know what Zuckerberg is like in real life. His talent is undeniable. His lastest public statement was to donate $100 million to the Newark, NJ school system, which of course is a commendable deed. According to David Kirpatrick, another author writing about Facebook (The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World), Zuckerberg isn't as angry and isolated as the movie portrays him:
    So let's just say it's the movie's Zuckerberg who is that way. It's still about acceptance. Because as the movie shows in the last scene, wholehearted acceptance by another person is something you can't get on command, even if you have $500 billion and 500 Facebook friends. It has to be given freely, and not through a click.   

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Between-You-And-Me Marketplace

     I knew that eBay and Craigs List are big, and they both strike me as a fascinating execution of a simple idea: regular folks like you and me selling and buying goods and services via the Internet. They're like gigantic electronic bulletin boards where you post what you've got or check for what you want.
     What I didn't know is that they belong in a much larger and still growing category of Internet sites in which people like you and me become the merchants, transacting directly with other people like you and me who are the customers. Then my 20-something colleague at work called my attention to the term "collaborative consumption."
     Community marketplaces like Craigs List are referred to as peer-to-peer, which describes one essential characteristic common to all of them: transactions via these sites are between equals, rather than between a small consumer and a large organization. (Tech savvy readers might take issue with me here, so let me clarify that I'm aware that peer-to-peer networks also has a very specific technical connotation having to do with sharing of computer files in a way that doesn't happen outside peer-to-peer networks, and that the classic example of peer-to-peer networks is Napster.) But for the purpose of what I'm talking about, I'll use peer-to-peer marketplaces. Authors Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers have examined this trend in depth in their book What's Mine Is Yours -- The Rise in Collaborative Consumption.
What's Mine is Yours, Book Cover
     The trend is manifest in a growing variety of such peer-to-peer Web sites. There's peer-to-peer lending sites, e.g. and, in which you can lend money to any Joe Schmoe who's on the site, basing your choice on the information provided about that Joe; and you can also borrow from any Joe Schmoe, based on the various Joe Schmoes who are willing to lend you money at the interest rates they deem reasonable, given your credit history. Hmm, who needs Wachovia and all that intrusive paperwork?
    There's also peer-to-peer car rentals, in which you can rent your neighbor's car when he's not using it. Presumably, you get cheaper rental rates than you'd get with Hertz or Avis, and your neighbor makes money on a car that would otherwise sit idle. One such car rentail site in Boston is called One in Australia is called, although this one seems to cover quite a bit of territory. Interestingly, I didn't find one for Miami, FL, but it may be a matter of time. Or maybe here in Miami we're too attached to our cars to share with a stranger, just for a few bucks.
    Then there's, a peer-to-peer rental site for everything, from tools to wedding dresses. For rooms, apartments, studios, and all manner of places to stay while visiting another city or town, there's Closer to my heart is this website,, where you can self-publish  your novel and market it to your peers.
    Peer-to-peer sites go beyond buying and selling to bartering and trading, as for example,, a site where people can exchange clothing that their kids have outgrown.
    I think the peer-to-peer commerce trend speaks to individual and community empowerment and connection, with an accompanying dose of variety, flexibility and serendipity that makes it interesting, fun and maybe more personal and human, even if you're dealing with strangers. I mean, if you need $1,000, wouldn't it feel more George Bailey-ish to borrow it from 10 individuals each willing to risk $100 on you at 6 percent interest, than from Bank of America, whose CEO frankly couldn't care less about your endeavor or dilemma? Or to rent a car from your neighbor down the street than from Avis?
     I think it's incredibly refreshing to have the option.