business news in context, analysis with attitude

It was funny to see, since I was so negative about the PF Chang Chinese food restaurant chain this week, that Marketing Daily had a piece about two guys who are traveling around the country to visit different Chang units in seven different cities.

One of the cities is New York…and at the risk of being called a snob (again), I can't imagine why anyone would go to a PF Chang’s in a city with so many fabulous and authentic Chinese restaurants.

But, to each his own.

There was another story during the past few weeks about a guy visiting every Starbucks in the country, and getting annoyed because Starbucks is closing so many down. (You’d think he’d be happy about that.)

What I really want to know is, who are these people? And how come they don't have lives?

It was interesting to catch up with the recent issue of Newsweek in which it did something exceedingly rare – cast a critical eye on Oprah Winfrey and the influence she seems to have on the American public. The charge was that Winfrey tends to promote questionable (at best) theories about medical and scientific issues without ever scrutinizing their validity and the motivations of those who promote them. Furthermore, it is suggested that by offering certain people – like Suzanne Somers and Jenny McCarthy – a platform from which they can preach about certain issues without fear of contradiction, she actually is putting people in danger.

One has to be careful about criticizing the second most powerful woman in the world – a recent poll showed Winfrey slipping to second behind Angelina Jolie, for what it’s worth, which is nothing – but it seemed to me that the article actually was illustrative of the continuing tension between science and what might be called non-conventional science, some of which doesn’t strike me as science at all. It is important not to categorize all of these alternative approaches to medicine the same way, but it probably is safe to say that some of this stuff is quackery.

I cannot help but think that one of the things the article and Oprah’s recent career illustrate is that people are hungry for cure-alls and quick fixes, for magic potions that will resolve their emotional problems, tighten their skin, reduce their paunches, darken their hair, enlarge their brain power and clarify their thinking. That’s worth acknowledging if you are in the retail business, because it speaks to people’s aspirations and how they can be marketed to; it may be possible to talk to people in these terms, but to do so in a reality-based way that stresses personal responsibility.

I’m not sure that the bloom is off the rose that is Oprah Inc., but experience teaches that sometimes it is the first story – like the one in Newsweek - that begins the avalanche that sometimes can bring down a person or a career. I’m not rooting for that to happen, because ultimately she seems like a person of strong values who is a positive role model. But I do think she needs to be careful.

BTW…when the redesign of Newsweek was launched a few weeks ago, I hated it. Really hated it. In fact, I downloaded the magazine to my Kindle because I was curious … and thought it was interesting that it was far more readable on the Kindle than on paper.

That said, I’m moving off that position…a bit. The redesign is growing on me, though I’m still not totally on board.

But I can’t wait to read the latest edition, which was guest-edited by Stephen Colbert. It looks hysterical.

Which leads me to suggest that if you did not see “The Colbert Report” programs this week that were produced in Iraq, you should go online and download them. Not only were they mostly very, very funny (there was just one skit that fell flat, a piece with Tom Hanks), but they also drove home the fact that there are thousands of servicemen and servicewomen still stationed in Iraq, still in mortal danger.

Colbert was terrific…recalling Bob Hope as he strolled around the stage with a golf club, and managing to walk the fine line between his usual comic persona and genuine respect – even awe – at the soldiers in his audience.

Great stuff.

Speaking of stars…I was amazed, watching the Tony Awards last Sunday, how much star quality Neil Patrick Harris has. Sure, we all know him as Doogie Howser and from “How I Met Your Mother,” and my kids know him from the “Dr. Horrible” webcasts. But during the Tonys he owned that stage…joking and singing and dancing and absolutely in control of the proceedings, every bit the host that Billy Crystal used to be for the Oscars.

This is a big star in the making.

I have a movie for you to see on DVD…”Last Chance Harvey,” a lovely little romantic comedy with Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (who always reminds me of my friend, the equally fabulous Anne O’Broin). It wasn't much seen when it hit theaters last winter, but it is almost the perfect DVD movie. Hoffman plays a divorced New York jingle writer who, on the verge of losing his job, flies to London for his daughter’s wedding only to find out that she wants her stepfather (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle. He’s devastated and without a clue about how to put his life back together…until a chance encounter with airport employee Emma Thompson gives him a last chance for redemption. This isn’t high art or overly profound…but it is a nice little portrait of two people who fit into a demographic group not often treated seriously in the movies. (Maybe I like the movie because I’m in that demographic group…) Rent it, and thank me later.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote glowingly about the new Robert B. Parker western, Brimstone,” and one MNB user wrote into say that he’d loved it, too…and wished that Parker could publish a novel a week.

Well, Parker almost does…he usually comes out with three books a year (which leaves me in awe considering how long it is taking me to finish my end of the book that I’m co-writing with Michael Sansolo).

Almost simultaneously with “Brimstone,” Parker published another book, “Chasing The Bear” (Philomel, $14.95), which is described as a novel for young people. In fact, “Chasing The Bear” really is more of a novella that details the younger days of Spenser, the iconic Boston detective he has written about in 36 books (with yet another one slated to be published later this year). It is only a young person’s novel in that the language is cleaned up and there isn’t any sex; “Chasing The Bear” is sort of a tasty afternoon snack for those of us who devour new Parker novels as soon as they come out. I loved it.

Here’s my wine of the week: the Astica Cuyo 2008 Malbec from Argentina, which is delicious with spicy food…and costs only seven bucks, which makes it perfect for these recessionary times. Yummm…

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.


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