business news in context, analysis with attitude

It used to be that the sports pages – and sports in general – were a safe haven from much that was wrong with the world. It was where adults often played children’s games, where the rules were supposed to be the same for everyone, and where, ultimately, talent was what made a difference.

No more.

Right now, the sports pages are damned depressing. You have the referee in the National Basketball Association (NBA) accused of betting on games where he was officiating. You have one of the big quarterback names in the National Football League (NFL) indicted for his involvement with a dog fighting ring, and now at least temporarily banned from working out with his teammates. You have the Tour de France yet again tingled a cheating scandal. And you have a guy who probably has used so many steroids that he looks like his head is going to explode about to break the all-time home run record in Major League Baseball (MLB).

It is particularly bothersome in sports because it is where records and achievement are supposed to matter, and when the integrity of the games is threatened, it means that records and achievement could be illusory. And in this case, perception is reality.

And it isn’t just sports. Read the front pages and it is a little tough to believe almost anyone who says anything on either side of the aisle.

The message, when you pick up the newspaper or look at a news show, is that you can’t really trust anyone. Or anything.

In the food retailing business, I’m afraid things aren’t much better. Or at least, they are on a path to where things might be equally as depressing. CEOs use aliases to attack their competitors online. Executives don’t want to tell people where products come from, or what they may be made of, or how they’re being preserved so that they look fresher. Politicians don’t want labels that say “BSE-free” or “contains genetically modified ingredients” because they are afraid that these words might scare people or raise other issues. And then they wonder why trust may be eroding among consumers.

I’m not proposing for a moment that these executives are trying to hurt people. I am suggesting that they are guilty of a certain level of arrogance that says “I know better,” and that there are certain things the consumer doesn’t need to know.

Job Johansen of the Institute of the Future likes to say that we live in what he calls a “VUCA World,” which means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

It seems to me that when it comes to issues like food, it the retailer’s job to make the world less so. Less volatile, less uncertain, less complex and certainly less ambiguous.

The retailer that doesn’t do this simply isn’t doing his or her job. And today, I believe, complete transparency – making every possible bit of information available to consumers – is what is expected by a growing constituency of consumers.

There is an old Latin proverb that translates roughly to, “Trust, like the soul, never returns once it goes.”

The stewards of Major League Baseball and the NBA, and the politicians and executives who hold sway over much of our lives, ought to consider these words very carefully. Because once they lose the rust of the consumer, they and the institutions they represent will be irrelevant.

My favorite moment of the Democratic presidential debate sponsored by CNN and was when, after a discussion of global warming and climate change, the candidates were asked if anyone had traveled via private jet to the South Carolina debate site. Five did – Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson and Dodd. One – Mike Gravel, who probably will be known for little else in this campaign – actually took the train.

Good for him.

Personal congratulations to Senator Feargal Quinn, who won election to a new term in the Irish senate this week.

There are few people who are as charming and smart as Feargal Quinn. His book, “Crowning The Customer,” remains a classic of the business…and if you’ve never read it, you should order it now.

If he takes care of his constituents as well as he took care of his customers, then they are very well taken care of indeed.

Speaking of trains, I had to go to Washington this week for a couple of meetings, so I decided to take Amtrak’s Acela high-speed train instead of flying. In part, I was curious about the train service because I hadn’t taken it for awhile, and because I recently spent a number of hours traveling by train through the French countryside, and I was curious how they compared.

Not well, I’m sad to say.

I’m not sure if it is the trains or the condition of the tracks, but the trip was rockier and slower than anything I experienced in France. Not an awful experience, and I had a lot of time to work on a few projects. But hardly the kind of experience people would yearn for.

I have three suggestions for Amtrak.

One, put in free high-speed Internet service on the train. It would be a huge advantage of train travelers.

Second, cut a deal with Starbucks and serve better coffee and food on the trip.

Three, at night, you’ve got to have a better bar car. It doesn’t have to be on the scale of the Orient Express, but you could do a lot better than fake wood and aluminum.

That said, I have to admit that while I was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, another train pulled in, and the engineer blew his whistle. And I smiled. Maybe it is the kid in me – or the latent hobo – but there’s something incredibly romantic about the sound of a train whistle.

“Live Free and Die Hard” is exactly what you’d expect it to be. Which is terrific. Mindless action and violence, lots of wisecracks from Bruce Willis, and a decent plot. Not nearly as good as the first and second in the series, but better than the third.

And, as I say, you get what you pay for.

Interesting juxtaposition in the Washington Post the other day. There was a story about how the minimum wage went up this week, along with a story about how a union - the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters - is hiring homeless people to walk a picket line for them.

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that if organized labor really wants to show some backbone – in an environment where unions increasingly seem to be losing relevance and strength – the least it could do is have it members actually walk the talk.

Otherwise, when union officials complain about outsourcing, it might be a little hard to take them seriously.

Not sure if you’ve seen this, but they announced casting on the new ‘Star Trek” movie, and Zachary Quinto, who plays the evil Sylar on “Heroes,” has been tapped to play a young Spock. No casting has yet been announced for the role of the young James T. Kirk, but the producers already have said that Leonard Nimoy will appear in the movie and that they expect William Shatner to do so as well.

I’ve got goosebumps.

The new “Star Trek” premieres on December 25, 2008. Can’t imagine a better Christmas present.

I got an unfortunate surprise the other day when I decided to do a quick check of a marathon training schedule and compare it to the calendar for the Marine Corps Marathon, which I’m scheduled to run (if my knees, feet, and most of all my heart hold out) on the last Sunday in October.

And discovered that I’m three weeks behind on my training.


Which means while you’re sitting in your office reading this, you can think of me out there doing six or eight miles. And sweating.

If you haven’t seen the new Glenn Close series on FX, “Damages,” go watch the first episode (which they’ll probably be rerunning all weekend). You’ll be hooked. Guaranteed. Because it has all the trappings of a great thriller, with terrific performances by Close, Ted Danson and Rose Byrne. Because it has interesting characterizations of people with complicated and often conflicting motives. Because it has dastardly lawyers, murder and mayhem, wealthy bad guys and New York City as a backdrop. It’s just great.

I have a wonderful Tuscan wine for you to try – the 2005 Aia Vecchia Morellino, which goes wonderfully with a nice spicy pizza.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend.


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