Monday, October 26, 2015

Caliburger Seattle: In or Out?

I went to Caliburger so you don't have to.

Here's the lowdown on Caliburger, a fast food joint that just opened up in Seattle's University District (the first in the nation, with several planned around the world - claiming to bring California burger realness to different countries). Caliburger claims to replicate California food chain In N Out Burger's taste and tries to copy the restaurant any way it can.

First, a little backstory. After all, if you have no familiarity with In N Out, Caliburger won't make much sense. And once you know, you may be even more confused. Read on...

In N Out Burger is the preferred SoCali burger and fast food of the gods-- er, celebrities, and mere mortals. Here are just a few folks chowing down on INO... 

Becks... (note I mentioned food of the gods)


Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) told me that In N Out caters the Vanity Fair Oscar Party. So basically, stars spend months crash dieting to fit into these little dresses, then the second the Oscars are over, they chow down on some INO. They don't just do this at parties... Angelina Jolie famously waltzed into the Hollywood In N Out Burger post Oscars in her dress and had herself a meal. 

Oscar partyness...
Celebrities are just a small part of the legend of In N Out. I know many people whose first pit stop in LA is In N' Out. It is the best tasting fast food I've ever had, a fast food establishment that has no freezers or microwaves and prides itself on freshness, customer satisfaction (best customer service I've ever had at a fast food establishment) and some serious ethics (employees are paid far higher than minimum wage, managers have the opportunity to make six figure salaries, and there is plenty of room for advancement for good employees). This is a company that prides itself on delivering a great product, cheaply, while giving back to its employees and the community.Who doesn't want to stand behind that?!
Along with their ethics, In N Out burger chose to remain small intentionally. They didn't go the route of McDonalds - who started out at a similar time - which chose to compromise freshness and ideals to cash in and make billions. INO consciously chose to remain small and locally operated, and have moved beyond California to a few other states (Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas, and Oregon). Rumors often abound about the In N Out Burgers slated at other locations, but they often turn out to be nothing more than whispers. To have In N Out is to want In N Out. Britney Spears famously paid thousands of dollars to have In N Out flown out to her on tour. So what do us everyday people do when craving an In N Out fix? 

Along came Caliburger, not only claiming to replicate taste but stealing every idea and concept they could from In N Out, including similar logos, packaging, menu (and yes, even In N Out's legendary "secret" menu). It's so shameless it's actually embarassing.

In N Out Burger Logo                                              

Caliburger Imitation

In N Out cup

Caliburger cups

Many have tried but none have succeeded. Five Guys and Fries is also an INO imitator, but they at least pretend to hide it. Caliburger waved its shameless flag high for all to see. Unsurprisingly, they have already fought a lawsuit in 2012.

So, the question on everyone's mind, did it compare?

Let's start breaking down the experience...

I went to Caliburger on opening weekend (Day 4) to report back what I found.

Arrival time: 11:00am (when the website advertised it would be open)

One of the first five in line (yes, there was already a line), I was met with this sign. We were informed that they had run out of condiments like pickles and needed to restock. It seemed pretty surprising they hadn't done this earlier to meet what would clearly be a very busy customer demand based on their previous days of operation.

Noon rolled around and they did not open until 12:05 (no updates). The line had swelled down the street. Curious passerby's were inquiring what the line was for and had a hard time (understandably) believing that anyone would wait for this. They were right, this was crazy.

When I went inside, this was what greeted me. A friendly employee, who was stuck having to tend an endless line COMPLETELY ALONE. While In N Out prides itself on taking care of its employees, Caliburger seemed ready to set up its staff in a sadistic exercise. (Anyone who has ever worked customer service knows how much this sucks.) It was as if no forethought at all had gone into the madhouse that clearly was opening week. The line moved slower than a turtle's pace and all I could do was feel bad for this employee, who was doing a great job considering what she was being asked to deal with. The other register remained empty the whole time I was there.

Despite being among the first in line, my order arrived 20 minutes later. I shudder to think of how long the patrons in line had to wait.

Arrival time: 11am
Burger time: 12:25

Underwhelmed patrons killing time that seemed to stand still.

Here is the menu. Take note that the food is double the price of In N Out. A hamburger combo at In N Out is $5 versus nearly $9 at Caliburger. They claim to have a slightly larger patty, it seems like the very least they could do - yet still, not very noticeable or necessary.

This is what orders look like. If you've ever been to In N Out burger, you know this exact configuration - from the trays to the presentation - and yes, those are animal style fries - or Calistyle as they are referred to here. Again, blatant and shameless. I still don't understand how they can get away with this in such a litigious society.

I ordered the same thing I would at In N Out burger. For twice the price. Unlike INO, they don't have a sauce packet, when asked they just squirt some "special sauce" into a plastic cup.

The burger wasn't as pretty as an In N Out burger either.

These are the fries, which have been double fried. Unlike In N Out Burger, the nutritional information is not posted on Caliburger's website, so no telling how much more this clogs your arteries though double fried can't be a good thing.

I asked a patron how she felt it compared. She said the spice mixture of the meat was off, that the bun wasn't as good and was thinner, and that the special sauce wasn't right. I would agree on all counts.

Was the burger good? Yes. But there are a lot of great burgers around town, so that doesn't count for much. Burgermaster and Lil' Woody's come to mind for a great INO taste and food you can feel better about, supporting local restaurants.

My trip to Caliburger left me feeling overwhelmed on many counts.

It just felt like an expensive knockoff of a good thing, and I felt like I was supporting a chain that was up to no good. The lengths the restaurant has gone to in order to rip off In N Out Burger don't just border on ridiculous but rather completely absurd.  Even from a marketing standpoint, aside from obvious copyright issues, Caliburger also lacks the California glamour In N Out brings. No celebrity sightings, no mythology (from food wrappers to secret menus)... They can advertise a few local goods like local ice cream, but make no mistake this is NOT a local chain (it is Chinese franchise).

Seattlelites and Northwesterners are a highly socially conscious bunch, imbued with a critical eye for things that just don't look and feel right. Whether protesting oil rigs in the Puget Sound or not allowing ChickFilA into the city because of the political stands they have taken, which are not in line with progressive politics. Odd then that Caliburger would try to make a home here. 

The biggest mistake Caliburger has made is that it boils In N Out's success down to flavors.  In N Out is a champion and a winner in part because of its taste but largely because the company is so ethical and puts employees and customers first. Just because Caliburger can create a similar looking logo and packaging does not mean these two things are in any way equal or comparable. Caliburger has blatant disregard for what In N Out spent decades building and achieving to capitalize and profit off another company's ideas. There is nothing original here. The public is paying more for a chain pretending to be another company and pretending to be local in the hope of acceptance and adoption by taking in a few local products. This does not In N Out make. 

I understand that this is a "grand" opening, but nothing here suggested that all those profits are going back to employees, when they were grossly overworked and this chain lacked considerable preparation that caused many in line to leave (who are first-time customers that likely won't give it a second chance), and while I haven't been able to determine wages (and Seattle has passed a $15 minimum wage law) I would be hard pressed to believe cashiers are making well above minimum wage here or have the kinds of opportunities for advancement and salary range comparable to In N Out or values the In N Out brand upholds. 

In summary, I plan to avoid Caliburger and give my support to actual Seattle's burger chains and establishments. I have no desire to see this company try to ride the coattails of a company that earned their successes by living in accordance with its high standards as In N Out has. Caliburger has yet to prove itself and what can be seen is a lack of originality and shady business at best. Time will tell, but I have every faith that my fellow socially aware Seattlelites will see this experience for what it really is - not worth it. 

Seattle is better than this.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Dark Night in Aurora, CO

I am profoundly sad to hear of the tragedy that occured in Aurora, CO, during the midnight premiere screening of "The Dark Knight". This tragedy has touched my heart in many ways, for numerous reasons.

I, too, was at a July 20th midnight screening - and much like victim Alex Sullivan, I was ringing in a new year, celebrating my birthday. The difference was, I got to go home. 

I consider movie theaters sacred places. I am an avid fan of the "movie theater experience" which like many rituals, is at the mercy of change. Sure, people still attend theaters, though the process has become much less "ritual" and more of a chore. I remember the days of the movie theater ushers in vests, who ripped cardboard tickets to stubs, and the buckets of freshly popped kernels that shared your seat (or guarded one for a friend). Believe it or not, there really was a time when silence was golden, and people generally understood that the movie theater was a time and place to stop talking and indulge in fantasy in a dark cavernous air-conditioned space. Despite the rising ticket prices and more environmentally-friendly packaging used at concession stand, less people appear to see movies as simply an experience you lose yourself in - but rather a social space that allows you to keep one foot firmly rooted in the "real" world of gossip and gadgets. $15 dollars now buys you a chance to share a row with a glowing cell phone screen, ringing mobile, chatty guest, or the occasional patron who invested so little in hygeine preparation for a theater visit that he has failed to shower or decides to floss his teeth mid-movie (yes, this has happened). I am a big believer in the ritual of the movie theater and its innate magic, still present in an increasingly small number of screens (mostly art house establishments) tucked away in unassuming streets, overflowing with history and personality - as opposed to those homogenous cineplexes. To sum up the romanticism - movie theaters are meant to be fun and full of surprises - on screen. Audiences are meant to partake in their suspension of belief and let themselves go - real life isn't supposed to exist outside those four walls for the duration of the picture. Perhaps this made the unprecedented events of July 20th even more confusing to moviegoers watching an action sequence when rounds were fired that claimed innocent lives and injured countless more.

In the wake of such inexplicable and maddening tragedy, the public will undoubtedly scramble to find sense and meaning in such a horrific act where often, there is no logic or reason to be found. Talk will inevitably spread and fingers will be pointed. In such a scenario, the media is always the first to be blamed. Norway's mass shooter was reported to have played 'Modern Warfare 2' and the Columbine school shooters were known for playing 'Doom' and listening to Marilyn Mansion; violent puppets strung along by their addictions to modern media. (For the record, Aurora's shooter was reported to have an addiction to 'Guitar Hero' - yes, the innocuous rock and roll guitar game.) During difficult events, the public wants answers immediately, and they look for simple answers to complex problems and situations. No one is denying that media does have some impact on our behavior and perception - we can look no further than the real-life decimation of the shark population following the on-screen arrival of 'Jaws' or the insecurities many girls feel about their bodies as a result of being subjected to constant media portrayals that represent an unrealistic body type shared by only 5% of the general population. However, when someone commits a violent act, they are ultimately responsible. Many people are rushing to judgment about the killer's mindset, insisting he is insane. That is for a team of mental health experts and a courtroom to decide, studies have shown that those afflicted with mental illness are no less violent than any other segment of the population and these attacks were clearly pre-meditated and heavily calculated. Again, this is not for me to decide nor does gossip achieve fast answers, but there is a danger in assuming someone is simply crazy and writing them off as absolved of blame. Gun control issues and political debates will also swirl. The 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution allows citizens the right to bear arms. Certainly, America's Founding Fathers lived in a different time and couldn't have imagined such an event - or the advent of an AR-15. The debate will rage on, the public will pick sides and argue, and none of this banter can bring back the innocent lives lost or forever changed by these horrible cowardly acts.

Changes to movie theaters will also inevitably be drawn up and discussed, as will policy alterations. Supposedly, the killer used an Emergency Exit though no alarm sounded when he entered, security detail was clearly lacking on this fateful night. The public will clamor for solutions; including increased security guards, bag checks or metal detectors, all too reminiscent of what happened in post-911 America. Is any of this truly "American"? Why has the instinct to tragedy been to overprotect and allow fear (the intention of those who commit terrifying acts) to win out? Many citizens have expressed fear at seeing the film or going to movie theaters. It's a sad fact that bad things can happen in any place, at any time - Yet we continue to wake up, leave the house, and go about our lives - we move forward. "Moving on" does not have to mean forgetting a tragedy or dishonoring the fallen. If they had a chance and a voice, I imagine those who perished would want their family and friends to continue to enjoy the precious gift that is time, breathing, and living.

Censorship at movie theaters will no doubt be discussed - paranoid reactions include comparisons to the Roman Empire that reveled in the sight of blood - only for them it was a stadium (and real) and not a movie screen. "Are movies too violent?" Parents and concerned citizens ask. They speak as though the world was once an idyllic place where violent acts never occured in the romantic past. (Nevermind the World Wars or gang violence that swept the country during the Prohibition Era... How many violent movies were people watching then? And what of music - There was a time when Elvis was blamed for causing juvenile delinquency for swinging his hips...) Naturally, investigators are combing through Batman comics trying to find references as to what might have "inspired" such a killing and will look for answers and a link anywhere they can - including new reports an old Batman comic features a theater shooting. Coincidence or comics as villain? As a proponent of media literacy, I must concede that media does have some impact on us, and that our individuality, sanity, and life experiences (and family intervention - or lack thereof) play a role in how we internalize what we see. Parents do have a responsibility to discuss violence with their children, who sadly will grow up in a world where violence and negative happenings do exist, regardless of the presence of media. Does shielding them from reality help or hurt? More debates. What is known is that a 3-month old baby was harmed in the event and a 6-year old girl was killed, both were taken to a movie that was neither G or PG, and past midnight. Clearly, these parents had no idea such a tragedy was waiting for them, yet one has to wonder why these children were there to begin with. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children what is appropriate, educate their children about violence - both in real life and on screen - and must take an active role in molding their children to be effective citizens and decision-makers, this is not Hollywood's job nor is it the role of the music industry or media. The killer was not inspired to go on a rampage because of "The Dark Knight" - he had not even seen it, it was premiere night. Naturally, the media will take full advantage of this awful night to promote their own agenda as only they know how - inciting more fear and sensationalism to sell papers and gain ratings. In the blame game, there are no innocents.

The bottom line is that no simple answers abound nor do instant solutions, and no quick fixes will bring the lost back. The best we can hope for (and do) is to not allow this tragedy to get the best of us or allow fear and evil to win. Even in the movies, the bad guy rarely comes out on top. Lets put down our pointed fingers and remember and honor those affected by such an unfathomable event. Lets embrace the cinema and continue to live our lives as we always have - with an awareness that tomorrow is never a guarantee, and thus we owe it to ourselves and those who are no longer with us to seek comfort in the challenges of creating new memories and experiences with those we love and to indulge in our passions, simple pleasures and rituals. This is how we win and overcome.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

There's Something about Salander...

The world can't seem to get enough of Lisbeth Salander, the main character of Stieg Larsson's
books (The Millenium Trilogy; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), whose adventures have resulted in international bestsellers, three Swedish films, and one new American remake (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or 'Men who Hate Women', as the book is titled in Sweden). Salander is one of the most interesting literary and film heroines to appear on the landscape in years, a goth hacker and Ward-of-the-State turned vigilante.

For those unfamiliar with the story, I will be careful not to reveal all its secrets - they are worth unraveling on your own. The first book/film tells the story of Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist trapped at the epicenter of media scandal, accused of libel. He finds an unlikely ally in cyber hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth, who believes he has been set up. The duo team together to solve the mystery of a tycoon's missing niece, believed to have been murdered 40 years prior by a member of her family.

Author Stieg Larsson met an untimely death at the age of 50 of a heart attack, himself having been an investigative journalist like character Blomkvist. The books were written as a hobby and were published posthumously to massive acclaim (Larsson was in the middle of the 4th book when he passed, and had supposedly outlined 10 books total for the series, forever leaving audiences curious about Lisbeth Salander's future). Larsson witnessed the brutal gang rape of a young girl he felt powerless to stop, which haunted him for years and supposedly served as the basis for his creation of Salander, a youth who falls through the cracks of a broken system and suffers a lifetime of abuse at the hands of family, guardians, and doctors. Lisbeth Salander doesn't see herself as a victim, she chooses to fight back, and exacts revenge on those who have harmed her (or seek to harm others).

There are countless reasons audiences are so drawn to the mysterious female protagonist of the books and films; Lisbeth is altogether different. Unorthodox and unapologetic, Salander is in a class all her own. On the exterior, she is anything but conservative - her gothic design seems to be a reflection of a life of hardship - her dark clothing, piercings, and tattoos intimidate while offering an inner glimpse at Salander's physical and emotional pain and societal disdain. Described as "boyish", about 4'9", with small breasts, anorexic weight, and the occasional mohawk, Salander seems to defy convention yet is accepted whole-heartedly by the mainstream, who seem to overlook her peculiarities and love her, regardless - and despite being an unlikely heroine or sex symbol, finds her place in the public's favor as both, quite the accomplishment.

Salander's piercings and tattoos are her personal wallpaper - her war paint in a seemingly neverending battle of personal and societal torment.

In fact, Lisbeth physically dons war paint in both the American remake of Dragon Tattoo (in the infamous scene with character Bjurman) and in the Swedish film The Girl Who Played With Fire, while interrogating a suspect. It is as if Salander has to visually transform to mentally detach and work up the intensity to serve up her own dish of personal justice against societal predators.

How she is written in the books versus the Swedish and American screenplays differs slightly. Having seen all versions, my personal favorites are the original Swedish film trilogy -notably the first film, all portrayed to perfection by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace in one of cinema's most electrifying performances of recent years. I wondered if any actress could live up to such a tour de force - American actress Rooney Mara breathes an altogether different energy into Salander that while unique, does not quite capture Salander as pictured in my mind (I anticipate an Oscar nomination). Sweden's Rapace brings the unpredictability, uncertainty, frightening intensity, and a social awkwardness to this complex character while Rooney's Salander is overly matter-of-fact, perhaps a bit more designed for mainstream likability (telling the occasional one liner for audience kicks) and overall, more action hero than believable troubled girl. Both portrayals are noteworthy and intriguing, but Noomi Rapace seems to understand Lisbeth and inhabit her skin to an uncanny degree - her Salander is strong and guarded yet fearful - she reminds me of a squirrel - small but incredibly muscular, ready for anything, and convinced an attack is inevitable so she must be prepared - a ticking time bomb ready to detonate. The sculpting of Rapace's body for the role makes a great deal of sense and everything right down to her dragon tattoo is far more intense than the US remake.

Part of the success of the Swedish films comes from the remarkable chemistry of actors Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist. Both are actors who have the rare gift of saying a lot through mere glances, words are unnecessary to peg the complex relationship between the two. The backstory of the characters is more fleshed out in the Swedish film, where we come to understand the public's fascination with Blomqvist while Salander remains enigmatic. In the American remake, Daniel Craig portrays a far less charismatic Blomqvist [than Nyqvist] and plays the journalist as an extension of his character James Bond - an overly confident man with little vulnerability - and zero chemistry with Rooney Mara, though you'd never guess that from the racy promotional materials that seem to bring far more heat to the union than anything that materializes on screen. While the American version has a longer and more graphic intimate scene between the characters, the lack of screen chemistry, misconstrued relationship, and poor onscreen representation of their connection suggests that the point has been altogether lost in translation, as evidenced by the promotional materials.

Note the American poster of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I have censored it here). I can't recall an American poster for a mainstream film bearing this much nudity - which is often more of a problem for American audiences than European ones. Lisbeth Salander is an abused young woman yet here, she is being exploited by the very person who could perhaps be the only man in he life that would never harm her. If Lisbeth were a real person, she would never have allowed such an invasion of her privacy and would have been quick to kick the photographer - I'm certain this poster would NOT meet with her approval. The poster and subsequent photo shoots are completely out of sync with Larsson's brainchild and example, which sought not merely to entertain but also to draw attention to the societal issue of violence towards women (at the hands of men) and misuse of power by those in authority positions. The promos, like much advertising, use sex to sell Lisbeth Salander to an audience - cheapening her existence and dulling the point. The sex appeal Lisbeth harbors comes largely from the fact that she doesn't try to be sexy - her attitude, brains, and talents are enough to intrigue and attract. Compared to most of her contemporaries, Salander fascinates because what is inside of her is far more interesting than what is on the outside, so to see the poster and promotional materials err in such a fundamental way is tragic - Salander is about the prevention of abuse, not the encouragement or objectification of women, which her character detests.

In general, the Blomkvist/Salander connection was flubbed in the remake and their connection lacked credibility. In the Swedish version, one tends to see more of their personalities and backstory and can understand how such a seemingly mismatched connection (on the surface) could materialize in reality. Both Blomkvist and Salander are, in their own way, outsiders, both are sharp minds and intellectually curious investigators who oppose the establishment, and both find themselves in positions of vulnerability they don't simply accept - they are both defenders and speakers of truth, who believe in justice and understand it has an inherent cost and one they are willing to pay - both would die for their convictions. In the American remake they are wooden, cold and hollow cardboard cutouts trapped in an action movie who exude far too much confidence, ultimately making the characters less interesting and mysterious; The film is essentially an action movie peppered with sex to sell the characters, while the European version kept the focus where it needed to be and humanized its leads, while still allowing them to share a secret or two. The Swedish version focused more on Salander while never revealing too much, and the film enjoyed a more heroic ending for its lead. That said, both Mara and Craig's performances had impressive moments - even if at times misguided, and the American version is still quite good in an altogether different sense, especially if you have no point of reference for the story - and is an interpretation that, while entertaining, misses several points that made the Swedish films and books great, though it has its own strengths (notably the opening credits sequence, one of the best I've seen in a long time and the perfect way to set the tone for the film). Sexuality and violence are graphic in both films, yet the Swedish scenes appear to have purpose while the American scenes feel more exploitative. The books were written, after all, to draw attention to the plight of abused women - not to encourage it. As with many things in the American remake, the script also has misguided moments (When Blomqvist first meets Lizbeth, she threatens "if you touch me, I'll more than zap you" as she hides a taser, even though Blomqvist has pointed out "I'm the guy you know better than anyone." Indeed, Lisbeth knows no harm will come to her from Blomqvist, an innocent.)

In summary, I applaud the efforts of both the European and American cinematic attempts to tell this story - which I consider to be an important one, and I am grateful for Larsson's contribution and wish he would have had more time to tell this unique story. Salander is an incredibly empowered, capable, and brilliant young woman who uses more than just fists to fight against societal corruption. She gives abused women a voice and options and I find her story heartbreaking and her journey compelling. I admire her, as much as you can any fictional character, and while I am personally glad I am not Lisbeth Salander, it gives me hope that there are women out there who can learn something from her. She doesn't simply accept circumstance or that she is "unlucky", she does what she can with what she has and uses her skills to try to find solutions to her most vexing problems (and those of society). She is also a reminder that you can't judge a book by its cover.

I am most reminded here of the jury's assumptions of her in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest and how she uses her ingenuity in the most horrid of human conditions to expose the truth and prove she is more than they can ever assume.

Indeed, Lisbeth Salander is a character that both men and women can respect - and they better, she won't have it any other way.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Justice served: Conrad Murray found Guilty.

I am proud of the jurors of the Conrad Murray trial for making a brave decision that I can only hope sets a precedent and sends a strong message to 'celebrity doctors' and other medical professionals who put profit over ethics, logic, and human life.

May Jackson's family finally get the peace they deserve.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

AMC Theaters Stubs card review: 0 Stars

Sadly, AMC laid to rest its beloved MovieWatcher card and replaced it with a major downgrade, otherwise known as the "Stubs" card. And yes, included in those changes are the disappearance countless 'points' MovieWatchers accumulated over the years as well as everything truly great about a discount movie card.

If you've been to an AMC Theater recently, you know about Stubs - it is shamelessly plugged to every patron that walks in - at the ticket booth AND at the concession stand. Naturally, it is touted as the greatest thing since bad 3-D made a comeback at your local cinema, but the deal is really more of a steal. (Perhaps you've seen one of the countless brochures lying on the table inside the theater - note the back of the brochure - an entire folded page lists nothing but endless small print, highlighting the countless ways Stubs finds even more ways to cheat customers out of good deals.)

For starters, movie card programs are successful as they offer incentives for patrons to return to theaters again and again as continuous swipes stack up to accumulated points, which turn into free concession items or movie tickets. The Stubs program, on the other hand, ensures more money for AMC Theaters while placing an increased cost on consumers (during pressing economic times, no less). Stubs offers several extras that consumers don't want or need. While rewards cards are normally complimentary, the Stubs program charges patrons $12 up front (also advertised as a dollar a month so it doesn't seem so bad). Considering the last AMC rewards program was free, this doesn't bode well. Charging customers for 'incentives' to come to an already overpriced movie theater experience does little to encourage customers to continue walking through the door and thus misses the point and defeats the purpose of an incentive-based rewards card).

Among the 'perks': For every $100 you spend, you get $10 back. As a patron, you are already charged $12 upfront, so by the time you actually make it to $100 (How often do you go to the movies?) and you get your first 'reward', you already paid for it yourself, and a few dollars extra. You also get free refills on soda and popcorn - just what our country needs when it's facing an obesity epidemic. (Would you like more butter with that? You'll have to get it yourself, because the butter is self-serve.) How much soda or popcorn does a person need? Too many liquids will send you running to the restroom during mid-movie and popcorn is simply filler - you can only eat so much of it (or would want to). Due to rising costs, most people eat prior to attending the theater - having healthier options available. Not to mention, it barely costs AMC a thing to pour more soda in your cup or top off your popcorn - this boils down to mere cents.

Another 'perk' is that patrons who order tickets online don't have to pay purchase fees. There are several websites where you can purchase your movie tickets without fees. (AMC's website adds fees for online ticket purchases - just so they can justify what a 'deal' your Stubs card is. Not to mention, ordering tickets online saves THEM money as they can lay off more employees and automate their system. As such, why are YOU being charged more money for this?

Also available through the Stubs program is an online stubs collection so you can keep track of the films you've seen. I don't know anyone who cares about this - if you are that interested in a collection, you can keep your paper stubs or save a copy of your yearly movie lists on your computer - this is a simple online application that sounds far more interesting (or useful) than it is.

Some AMC Theaters offer "Student Night" or "Senior Night" once a week, though there are terms and conditions (a midnight movie will be counted as the next day, sneak peaks don't apply, etc). Given that students are presently drowning in loans, it's unfortunate that not all AMC Theaters offer this, nonetheless one day per week. You can buy gold or silver passes, yet many restrictions exist on these - if you try to watch a new movie with a silver pass, you will receive a $1.50 upcharge that defeats the purpose of buying a pass to begin with.

As an avid moviegoer (and once AMC patron and fan), I couldn't be more disappointed by the introduction of such an awful program, far inferior to MovieWatcher and several movie rewards cards at competing chains (who now have my business and full attention).

In this economy, all consumers are watching their expenses. There is never a good time to implement absurd policies - though if there was, this certainly isn't it. Times are tough and customers want to spend their hard-earned money on chains that have policies which prioritize the consumer, not the corporation. After a long day, a customer wants to walk into a theater chain and have a relaxing experience, not hear employees forcibly try to dupe them into purchasing a Stubs card. I have no doubt that some consumers (those who fail to research the card or read the fine print) will purchase the card and the company will make some money off of the idea in the short-term, but this is NOT a long-term idea and will turn away the loyal patrons AMC had, MovieWatchers and film fans alike. Sadly, these new policies make it clear that consumers and their satisfaction are no longer the top priority.

Aside from Stubs, several areas at AMC Theaters could use improvements - not excluding the introductory experiences. The theater promo reel informs theater patrons not to use their cell phones or text, yet the commercials played in the theater are an endless barrage of cell phone advertisements, phone Apps, and products with web addresses. Is this ironic to anyone else? It certainly encourages cell phone use, making it unlikely consumers will actually turn off their phones. (Once again, revenue placed over consumer experience.)

AMC’s policies should make moviegoing experiences more pleasant and customer-friendly, not the opposite. Want to share your AMC experiences at the website? You'll have to sign in and divulge all of your personal information and post your comments in public forums, making the process more complicated and invasive than necessary (bye-bye blank entry fields). You shouldn't have to join a website or sign up for anything to leave customer feedback, something most companies value, simplify, and privately communicate with consumers.

What a disappointing direction AMC has taken - this type of corporate greed and poor management will reflect in lost consumer base and detract from finances, not create loyal patrons. (Take a lesson from Netflix.) Support your local movie theaters and chains that have YOUR best interests at heart.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Jury's Still Out on Dr. Murray

Today marks the last day of testimony for the prosecution against Dr. Conrad Murray, cardiologist and former physician of Michael Jackson.

It has also been nearly two years since my initial post 'Why no hurry to nab Dr. Murray?'. The defense is set to begin arguments tomorrow.

I am struggling to understand how the defense plans on winning this case. The prosecution has done a terrific job showing the reckless abandon that was Dr. Murray's "care" of Jackson. That the defense planned on arguing that Jackson injected himself (or drank additional Propofol) is laughable in and of itself and numerous witnesses, including today's testimony from anesthesiologist Dr. Steven Schafer, have been quick to explain the improbability of this scenario. A defense team building a strategy blaming the victim for their death has their work cut out for them. How many scenarios can you think of where a patient dies under a doctor's care and it's the patient's fault? The defense has finally decided to toss out the theory that Jackson may have ingested Propofol, though that it was even suggested at all is preposterous, and that a segment of the population actually believed Jackson self-injected or drank Propofol is even worse. If the patient had any other name, I don't believe anyone would entertain that suggestion.

I believe name recognition has a great deal to do with the public's opinions on such matters. I have never seen a celebrity (or any dead man) be subjected to the claims and scenarios I have witnessed over the past two years in relation to this case.

Let's review the facts. Dr. Conrad Murray administered Propofol repeatedly to patient Michael Jackson. Propofol is a dangerous anesthetic, one that slows heart rate and depresses breathing, as such it is not supposed to be administered outside of a hospital setting, nonetheless for "insomnia". Even as a Cardiologist, Murray did not anesthetize his other patients - he had an anesthesiologist do this and he did not have the training or knowledge to properly administer doses. He did not have the equipment on hand to correctly monitor the patient or prepare for an emergency situation. He broke the cardinal rule for administering anesthesia - leaving the room to talk on the telephone (he claimed he went to the bathroom for two minutes, which contradicted his phone records and witness testimony). The patient was left unsupervised (which, given that the patient is unconscious and on a dangerous drug, heart rate and breathing must be constantly monitored). When Dr. Murray discovered Jackson wasn't breathing, he did not call 911 immediately, which is standard protocol, and the 911 call was not placed until 20 minutes after the discovery, which the paramedic on scene claimed would have saved Jackson's life. Despite his years as cardiologist, Dr. Murray did not know how to properly administer CPR and did so one handed (as opposed to using both hands) and on a bed (as opposed to the floor, a hard surface). The patient was already dead yet Dr. Murray continued to give CPR and staged a show, having Michael's eldest son Prince brought up to the bedroom so he could see Dr. Murray trying to 'save' Jackson and when paramedics came, Dr. Murray insisted they continue CPR, despite their belief that he had passed. Dr. Murray lied to paramedics about the IV bags, claiming they were filled with harmless saline solution, lied to EMTs, firefighters, doctors, and police, failed to mention Propofol as a drug he had administered when inquired, ordered hundreds of vials of the dangerous substance, lied to law enforcement saying he had comforted Michael's children at the hospital (a claim they refute), hid evidence, and fled the scene. Do these events sound like the actions of an innocent man? Dr. Murray can choose to blame the patient or other doctors, but he is clearly at fault - this was his patient, who died under his care, due to his negligent decisions. Dr. Conrad Murray took a Hippocratic Oath - and on all levels, failed to care for his patient, resulting in Jackson's death from "acute Propofol intoxication".

Despite all the testimonials and evidence from those who were actually there and who saw the events unfold, a significant percentage of the population continues to assert that Jackson killed himself and is responsible for his own death. Again, the name "Michael Jackson" appears to be the source of bias in opinions as these people negate fact. Some have apathy for the situation, suggesting no one should care, or insinuate that the trial is a loss of tax payer's money (they certainly weren't saying this when Jackson was on the stand). This is a human life we are discussing and the implications are significant for all patients who have faith in their doctors to provide adequate healthcare. If this happened to your loved one or certainly if it had happened to you (though you wouldn't witness the outcome), you would have wanted the truth to emerge, the facts brought to light, and would want to see justice served. Not to mention, Jackson gave a great deal of himself as an artist to the public and as a humanitarian to the world, to suggest the matter is 'irrelevant' or not worth taking the time to examine is a sad statement. How many public figures have to die at the hands of these 'celebrity doctors' who compromise health standards for blood money? Elvis Presley, Anna Nicole Smith, and Heath Ledger, to name a few, might still be with us if the were not enabled by their doctors, the very people paid (handsomely) to care for them.

Along with this trial come accusations that Jackson was an unhealthy drug addict. What is known about Jackson's past is that he began to take painkillers in 1984 due to pain from burns he suffered on the set of a Pepsi commercial. As he had numerous surgeries, he was not a stranger to undergoing anesthetics for procedures. In the early 90s, spurred by the initial allegations, he had a painkiller addiction for which he went to rehab and overcame in 1995 (he references his addiction to Demerol in the song "Morphine"). While no other mention was made, Jackson was known for his insomnia and chronic back pain. While it isn't known what his exact habits were in his last years, Jackson was said to take painkillers regularly given physical (and presumably some emotional) pain and his family did claim to have had interventions with him, so he must have relapsed at some point. He was taking painkillers prior to his death as Dr. Murray recorded audio of Jackson's slurred speech (a sad recording was played in the courtroom). Why the doctor secretly recorded him, nonetheless kept the recording, is highly questionable and disturbing, a clear breach of patient/doctor confidentiality clause and ethics).

Was Jackson addicted to anesthetics and/or painkillers in the midst of his last months? This Is It" director Kenny Ortega did notice some health problems at one point upon which he confronted Dr. Murray who denied there were any problems, while Michael's manager Frank DiLeo mentioned that Michael had "an episode". Dancers and crew working on "This Is It" didn't notice anything wrong and if you watch the concert film footage, Jackson appears hyper-focused, able to intensely concentrate and multi-task, and seems like an artist not only at the top of his game, but clear-headed and able to carry out his vision of a great show. As such, perhaps he had a bad reaction to medication, if he was using drugs at this very busy time that required so much physical and mental focus and stamina, it was most likely sporadic and not a constant. This was certainly not a man who was drugged beyond rationality every day he was preparing for his final concerts, he had too much to do.

If Jackson was an addict, does this still make his death his fault? It is a doctor's responsibility to know their patient's history. If Dr. Conrad Murray's sole patient at the time was Michael Jackson and they had a working relationship, he knew better than anyone what Michael's habits may have been and bore the ultimate responsibility of ensuring his patient's healthcare needs were met. Jackson didn't inject himself - Dr. Murray injected him and had hundreds of vials ready. For what?! Let's entertain the hypothetical fantasy that Jackson did inject himself (which, anesthesiologists and the coroner have already explained didn't happen). Jackson was left alone in a room, something you don't do when a patient is under anesthesia nonetheless if a patient has a drug problem, therefore it would have been Dr. Murray's responsibility regardless of scenario as his physician. The doctor broke countless rules and procedures, leading to this tragic passing.

To assert that Jackson was physically unhealthy is problematic. Despite Jackson's frail figure, he was always known for his poor appetite and struggled with anorexia throughout his life (if you observe footage of him during the Thriller era, he is just as painfully thin). Perhaps with the appearance of age, this was even more superficially noticeable. However, all reports peg Jackson as healthy, despite his low weight. The autopsy report confirmed how healthy he was (aside from his cause of death) and the coroner noted in court that he was healthier than a 5o-year old would normally be. Personal Trainer Lou Ferrigno trained Jackson several times a week for his tour, insisting that Michael was very strong, and AEG, the company involved in Jackson's last would-be concerts ensured that he passed a battery of tests and rigorous physicals to ensure he was in good physical condition to perform. Addict or not, Jackson's physical health was in good form.

I am also most disturbed by images of Jackson's corpse that continue to surface both through the trial and in other avenues (such as autopsy photos shown by VH1). I have grappled with this, trying to determine a reason we are subjected to this constant inappropriate viewing - often without warning. I can think of no other entertainers where such graphic photos were openly displayed for all to see - sure, there is the supposed photo of Elvis in his coffin, which is a far cry from a corpse lying nude on a sheet. Like Elvis, Jackson was the largest star of his time and the most famous man on the planet, though I doubt the King of Rock N' Roll would have ever been publicly displayed in such a manner (regardless of era). I also shudder to think of Jackson's children coming across such images, that corpse doesn't simply belong to a megastar - but also a father, brother, and son. Initially, I suspected this came out of Jackson's level of unprecedented fame and global recognition, but I recognize it as an extension of the blatant disregard and disrespect consistently bestowed upon him by the media and further attempts to exploit his name and image unethically for continued ratings and profit, a recurring theme. Even in death, Jackson is not allowed to peacefully rest or avoid scrutiny on the most invasive levels.

In summary, this is not a trial about the name "Michael Jackson". It is irrelevant whether or not you liked the man, whether or not he was a "junkie", or what you think he did or didn't do in the past. This trial is simply about a human being that died as a result of a doctor who was engaging in unethical behavior and treatment (or lack thereof) of his patient. Dr. Murray has had two years to carry on with his life, while Jackson has been deprived of breath altogether. (Consequently, on zero evidence and based on an accusation alone, Jackson was dragged out of bed, handcuffed, and thrown into a police station for allegations while upon his death, the man responsible has walked free without being subjected to any such indignities. I'll leave you to speculate what's wrong with that picture). Among reasons for the lengthy delay, the LAPD did not treat the scene as a crime scene, perhaps due to the patient's name and their assumptions, they assumed a crime wasn't committed, so the evidence was not correctly collected and processed and sloppy mistakes were made, as evidenced in the courtroom upon several interrogations. Who knows what facts may have been brought to light if these procedures were properly handled?

It is my understanding that Dr. Murray can face up to 4 years in jail if found guilty and that he may be allowed to undergo house arrest at some point during that sentence. The outcome of the trial remains to be seen. In any event, he will most certainly lose his licenses to practice medicine and will forever be known as the man who killed Michael Jackson. Given that Jackson has millions of adoring fans spread around the globe, it's a safe bet that Conrad Murray will never have a smooth ride through life, regardless of the jury's decision.

I am not sure what the definition of "justice" is within the context of such a situation. Three children must grow up without the only parent they knew and adored, a family continues to grieve, and the world was deprived of a singular talent that can no longer grace the stage. I can only hope that this trial sets an example for other "celebrity doctors", too often it is their patients who pay the ultimate price. Patient care is the number #1 responsibility of a physician, perhaps this case will remind all doctors how important it is to remain vigilant and prioritize ethics in treatment, to not anesthetize if you don't have the training or equipment to do so, and to learn CPR, which seems obvious but clearly can't be emphasized enough. I can only take comfort that this man will most likely be rendered unable to provide medical services or anesthesia to patients again and hope something is learned in the wake of this tragic event, so we don't continue to see history repeat itself in Hollywood.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ancient Aliens on the History Channel

The Great Pyramid of Giza. Machu Picchu.

How do we account for numerous wonders of the Ancient world? How could "primitive" humans, without the technology we take for granted today, have created such vast and mysterious creations? For some, the answer lies in science, in archaeological digs and theory. For others, the only explanation is that we were visited by extra-terrestrials who gave us the tools to achieve these great feats.

While history is undoubtedly filled with misunderstandings and miscommunication rife in our historical media, I find it personally disappointing that The History Channel would give into such outlandish fair. Don't get me wrong, the series 'Ancient Aliens' is as amusing as watching the film 'Stargate' or indulging in any fun science fiction. It's also a clever demonstration of Individual Selection Theory, which posits that viewers essentially "see what they want to see", gathering information that supports their perspective (in the Technological Age - especially on the internet, there is no shortage of information to support any view humans have - no matter how far-fetched).

I have heard quite a bit about this show and have even met a few individuals who strongly subscribe to the belief that ancient civilizations were built by alien visitors. I understand why humans are so baffled and bewildered by ancient treasures, they stand the test of time and leave us in perpetual wonderment. But I am sad to see these theories play out on a channel dedicated to historical education (though I am sure there are several embellishments and errors portrayed on the channel with respect to other events and happenings for entertainment purposes). I am also concerned as to what such beliefs truly say about those who believe such theories, with respect to the potential of our species.

The show indulges in speculation as to how these ancient structures were built during times when humans seemed to understand so little. Many of the guests have little credibility (as could be expected), such as citing an 'investigative journalist' as a source or a host practically forcing a stonemason to indulge in the notion that aliens gave ancient humans the tools to cut through granite. The stonemason proceeds to say that it would take an incredibly long time to cut such intricate patterns and essentially suggests that he wouldn't have the time to do so because he basically has a life to return to. He has also been cutting through rock for 40 years and can't explain how the ancients were able to master their craft. What is life without a few unsolved mysteries?

Suggesting that aliens either built ancient civilizations or gave humans the tools to do so, simply because we modern humans can't explain some of the mysteries of the past, is unfortunate and frankly, lacks human imagination. I believe that most of our difficulty to comprehend these scenarios lies in extreme judgment of our ancestors, human capability, and a lack of empathy and understanding of those who lived in other eras.

Flexing our empathy muscles, it's not hard to conceive that ancient people had lives drastically different than our own, and their concept and use of time greatly differed from how we spend our days. Ancient civilizations sustained themselves, they grew their own food, and while many worked, the definition of "job" wasn't the usual 9-to-5 system we are accustomed to. (Nor do we have leaders that force thousands of us at a time to work on projects of their choosing.) The modern stonemason is correct to suggest he doesn't have the time to devote decades to carving out intricate patterns on the mass scale as done thousands of years ago. However, ancient people had a great deal of time on their hands and while they weren't staring at a blaring screen, they had to fill their time with creative and intellectual pursuits or were often subject to forced labor in mass numbers. Our ancestors most likely spent a great deal of time pondering mystery, problem-solving, and making due with the resources they had available, not unlike their modern counterparts.

To suggest that we needed an alien species to "show us the way" to correctly build and create suggests a profound lack of faith in our ancestors' ability to be independent thinkers and strategists. Why is it so hard for the modern human to believe in our own species? Did aliens build our airplanes, light bulbs, and computers or cure Polio? No, human ingenuity did. What makes us so certain that our ancestors did not have the same capacity to use logic and reasoning to find practical solutions to their problems and to enjoy amazing feats and accomplishments as a result? OK, so they didn't have
power drills, forklifts, and computers to engineer and build. This doesn't mean they didn't have expert knowledge and utilize their definition of "technology" to make ends meet.

Per Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation tends to be true. What is more plausible - that man was intelligent and made the most with what they had or that ancient aliens visited us and gave us tools and then whisked off (with the tools) later, that they had flying machines, and that obelisks could communicate with satellites that beamed across the globe? Humans are brilliant creatures and always have been. Suffice to say, ancient people were far more intelligent and resourceful than we credit them for. Humans are far more capable than they expect of themselves on a daily basis. I have had the wondrous experience of seeing DaVinci and Michelangelo works in person, pieces of art that continue to fuel the human imagination and defy explanation hundreds of years after-the-fact. Art and architecture will always inspire other humans to push the boundaries of possibility and think outside of the limitations we often impose on ourselves. After all, man has rocketed to the moon, taken to the skies, and found solutions to numerous global and geological challenges, and we didn't need E.T. to do it.

Were it not for the burning of the library at Alexandria, we may have a few more pieces of the puzzle as to unlocking some secrets of the ancient world (though fortunately, we had duplicates of many texts). However, our endless curiosity and wondering as a species inspires further investigation and innovation. We have, after all, survived thousands of years for a reason: We have the capacity to use our minds, think critically, and forge ahead, regardless of the obstacles that lie ahead. Perhaps hundreds of years from now, our descendants will wonder some of the same questions about us.

I can only hope 'Ancient Aliens' finds a home on a different channel and that humans restore faith in one another and continue to forge a unique path in our history, one of advancement and exploration.