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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

McDonald's Ain't What It Used to Be

 
So I had a bachelor weekend recently and watched a lot of movies. One was The Founder, the biopic of the Ray Kroc, one of the co-founders of McDonald's as we know it today.

Let me get this out of the way first -- I LOVE McDonald's. I love it for the nostalgia, the family quality, the food, the decor, the smells. Those were the days of the styrofoam clamshells. I LOVE the fish sandwiches, mostly because of the tartar sauce. I would get a fish sandwich in place of a hamburger for my Happy Meal (my Dad would eat the hamburger). The house I grew up in was very close to one, not exactly walking distance but enough to get it about once a week. I had about 70-80% of the Happy Meal toys in a set. There were bins of them. (And my Mom sold them all at a garage sale for 25 cents.)
This was on Reddit's r/nostalgia page a few weeks ago.
In fact, I wouldn't be here if not for McDonald's. My parents first met while working there, at the one in Bloomington on Nicollet Ave. It's still there, next to Groth Music (which was a PDQ when I was growing up) and a 7/8 Liquors and what used to be a 1-Hr Martinizing. My Mom met Ray Kroc once (near the end of his life, when he was very old -- his daughter was with him). Anyway, this is my way of saying McDonald's and my life are intrinsically linked.

And watching the history of McDonald's, from the SpeeDee system to a massive franchise, was fascinating. The way Dick and Mac McDonald saw a need and filled a need. They saw desire for family friendly venues (not places where hotrodding teenagers hang out). They saw a need for fewer mistakes, so they eliminated drive-ins and extraneous menu items (and equipment, like plates). And these weren't business geniuses or trust fund babies. They had to come up with this stuff with classic "guess and check".

It wasn't without hiccups, it wasn't without disasters, it wasn't without do-overs. They started with goals and engineered solutions to fulfill those goals. It was so different, they had to lead customers by the nose at first ("no, you get OUT of the car to get the food") but the cream rose to the top, and they started making money like a cliche involving hands and fists. It inspired me to go to McDonald's and get a hamburger, just for a taste of that wistful time in the fifties.


It's changed, man. It's not the same system that made McDonald's its money. It's not even the same as when I was a kid. I don't think it's even nostalgia goggles, it's that it's too complicated. And that's irony because that's exactly what the McDonald brothers were forever trying to avoid.

McDonald's started with only two things: Hamburgers and French Fries. That's all you could get. That's all they offered. Now the menu is a mess, filled with junk. What are these "artisanal burgers"? You pick a bun, a "protein", a sauce. What is this? Creating a character in Skyrim? Why are you making me make the hamburger? Isn't that your job?

And McCafe. This is their attempt to compete with Starbucks. Half the menu is McCafe stuff I don't care about because I'm always there past 11:00 AM, which is not the time for coffee. It's time for lunch, and I don't want a 960 calorie caffeinated drink for my lunch. I mean, yeah, I don't mind that the breakfast menu is available all day. It would have been more useful when I was younger (like most adults, I'm not so into breakfast anymore). But now it overburdens the menu even more. So much that I couldn't even find the listings for just a hamburger and fries. Am I supposed to just know that's an option? Do you think you're so ubiquitous, McDonald's?

Even the menu of my days seems like overkill now. Certain things came and went, like the McDLT, the Arch Deluxe, and the Big N' Tasty. But how about you not make eight of the same chicken sandwich. Is there any fundamental difference between a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Double Cheeseburger, and a McDouble? And don't forget the extra junk, like Chicken Selects, McSkillet Burritos, Mighty Kids meals, and McFlurrys. And the thing is, they don't NEED any of this stuff. It's still a good burger. Convenient, easy to hold. The bun is a little dry and rubbery, but the meat and condiments are good.


The french fries are... well, I remember those being better. But maybe I'm influenced by this irritatingly melodramatic podcast that doesn't shut up about the good ol' days. The reason they taste different now is to make them healthier. They're no longer fried in beef tallow. So it's better for those people who have McDonald's fries for, like, every lunch. Those fast-moving businessmen going state to state.

I admit, I see both sides of the coin. Healthier is fine, but if you're eating french fries at every meal, you deserve what you get. Why punish the rest of us? Back then, there weren't as many quick service options. I don't know why McDonald's thinks they were responsible for the health of America because one person complained. I say, why not offer both options -- old way and new.

Of course, I'd more prefer that McDonald's offered a better variety of sides in the first place. Even with all the other changes, you can't get anything with your sandwich besides fries. They can't figure out anything different to put with them? They shouldn't be worrying about fattening their customers, they should be worried about this fatass of a menu.


And because there are too many choices, now I have to wait for my food. WAIT. They give me a number and I have to step to the side. What is this, a deli? This is supposed to be fast food. I don't remember getting a number when I was a kid. Is this my new Happy Meal toy? I am supposed to get my food almost immediately. Now, if I order a fish sandwich, there's a 50% chance I'm going to have to pull ahead into the parking spot of shame. Is this what made Dick and Mac successful? Because it seems pretty much the opposite.

One thing they did right was staying a family place. They've still got the Happy Meals and Playlands. The problem is, I know no one cleans those Playlands, so I wouldn't let my kids inside one now. Not to say Playlands have no place at McDonald's. I have very fond memories of the playground behind mine. It was outside and had hard ground to fall onto, but at least you could hose down the fiberglass Mayor McCheese (BTW, Mayor McCheese was before my time so I had no idea who Police Hamburger was when I crawled into his head).

The Hamburglar slide! I 'member that.

But a Playland means bupkiss if you don't have a reason to go in the restaurant, and that's what these new fresher places are doing. If I want a burrito, I will go to Chipotle, because that is the only thing they do and they do it well. If I want a deli sandwich, I go to Subway. If I want deep fried shit, I go to Popeye's. Chinese food -- LeeAnn Chin's. Soup and sandwich -- Panera Bread. Ice cream -- Dairy Queen. Coffee -- Starbucks (or Caribou Coffee if you live where I do). Why does McDonald's want to be a one-stop shop? You end up falling short in every category. They feel they have to compete with EVERYBODY. That's why the menu is an indiscernible mess.

You want to see what McDonald's used to be? Go to Five Guys. What do they serve? Just burgers and fries (and hot dogs, but no one gets those). Are they healthy? Hell no. But I don't go to Five Guys to be healthy. I go to Five Guys to get a tasty burger (which is why I used to go to McDonald's). These burgers are delicious. They're thick and hot and freshly cooked. You drive while you eat them -- they're too big. They offer a combination of flavors and textures you can't get at McDonald's (like cheese, mushrooms, bacon, steak sauce, mayo, tomatoes, lettuce).

How can they do this? Because this is all they do. And they do it well. It's not fast, and the site decor looks awful (the wait line is blocked off by boxes of peanuts). Nonetheless, the principles are the same -- it's what's inside the bag that's important. But as Levar Burton said, you don't have to take my word for it.


McDonald's has become a far cry from the one of my youth and an even further cry from the genius and hard work it started as. In software engineering, we call this "feature creep", when your project managers start thinking "wouldn't it be nice to have this" or "what if we added this" and "as long as it's doing this it should do this" and now you've got a big bloated thing that's difficult to maintain and hardly efficient. McDonald's keeps tweaking things for the sake of appearing new and improved. The problem is, they became too big to fail. Maybe someday they'll go back to their normal ways. Maybe they'll make a "McDonald's Express" that goes back to the nitty gritty of the good ol' days.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My Promotion on Hidden Gems Romance


So today is the day the first promotion I ever bought goes up. If you're reading this, you may have come here via such a thing. I bought a day on Hidden Gems Romance for Dwarves Can't Climb Trees. This is the first promotion I ever bought, and it's my attempt to start actual marketing for things I've written. Apparently sending messages in a bottle reaches a limited audience. Also, I can't keep drinking all this Coke.

But advertising is expensive, so I'm keeping conservative at first, seeing what works and what doesn't. This is the first one because this is not so much advertising as review soliciting (cause man, the free sites suck). More reviews will help the sales, and I'd rather they be sincere anyway.

It sucks having to market one book and write another at the same time (plus totally unrelated day job). One role occupies enough time to eclipse the other. I'd be much more content just to write a manuscript, I could even handle formatting and prepping the Amazon upload, if someone else handled covers, promotion, and marketing. I've spent the last decade training to write, not to commercialize my work (not using "commercialize" in a negative way here). It's just not the skillset I practiced.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Books I Read: July - August 2017

 
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I expected this to be like Edith Hamilton's Mythology. And I got what I wanted. It's a tightly paced retelling of the old Norse creation myths. Problem is, there aren't many of them. I suspect that's more to do with lack of surviving source material, given what Neil Gaiman says in the foreword. Maybe a long time ago there were scrolls and scrolls of Loki and Thor stories. Now all we've got are comic books. And if you're any fan of Marvel's interpretations, this is required reading.

The nice thing is that the re-tellings are up to date. I expected something Shakespearean or textbook-dry, like Hamilton. But the narration feels like an old storyteller sitting down by the fire, telling yarns to the grandchildren. The details behind Ragnarok and Fenrir and Loki are fascinating. It's funny and suspenseful and creative. There are one-liners and drama and character flaws & flawed actions. It's flavorful.

If you haven't picked up Neil Gaiman before, this might be a good one to try. The content doesn't consist of his usual dreamlike, abstract faire (that I'm not too fond of either). And you can tell it's material he's passionate about.


Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith

One night, before going out, Kevin Smith asks his wife "Can I stare at your asshole while I jack off?"

So depending on your reaction to that line, you can judge your potential interest in this tome.

Kevin Smith is, uh, an interesting fellow. Well, what I can I say? He was one of the voices of a generation. You look at the nineties and people think Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Kevin Smith. The guy is, at heart, a storyteller. I could listen to him talk about Superman and the Giant Spider all day.

And that's what this book is. You get to hear how he met his wife, the making/publication of Red State, the Southwest "too fat to fly" fiasco, the up and down relationship with The Weinstein Company. The nice thing about Smith is he's able to admit his wrongs and justify his rights. He never assumes he's the smartest guy in the room and always gets feedback on if he's showing his own ass (because that's easy to do when your content consists of stinkpalming stoners and Carlin-esque religion satire).

The book is equal combinations of crudeness and heart, black humor and childlike wonder. It's a good book for insight on the Hollywood scene, especially for potential indie film-makers. And it gives more inspiration that "you can make it" than "this is how to make it" (which is really all luck more than anything).


The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Sharra
(unfinished)

I might have finished if I hadn't realized there were SparkNotes for it. Also a movie. Also, I didn't care enough about the characters to know if they lived or died. And these are real characters that I know if they lived or died (spoiler: they all died... eventually).

I put it on my to-read list because I heard that this is the book that inspired Joss Whedon to make Firefly. Well, I couldn't pass up that opportunity. But when I got to 40%, I realized I had gotten everything the book had to offer. The prose is dry and the characters read robotically. Maybe that's to do with their military upbringing, but it's hard to sympathize with the team that's not fighting for the right side, even if they may or may not "believe" in that side's cause (which is stupid, but I'm digressing).

If this was meant to teach me about war novels, I learned that they are boring. The plot is mechanical. Arguing about strategy--"take that hill." We took that hill. Our guys got shot. We shot their guys. Argue, argue. Decide on more strategy. It's how I imagine Warhammer novels are.

And then there's the constant self-doubt of anyone in power. I imagine that's true, but it gets annoying to constantly read about. The historical factor isn't enough to pull me in either. Plus I know how it ends. So what did I come here for?


Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The city government grants a con artist a second lease on life if he can get the post office up and running. The mail system's fallen into disrepair since the clacks (a telegraph/semaphore system) went up. But the evil business that owns them has been embezzling and employee safety has paid the price. So it's David vs. Goliath as the thief has to figure out not only how to eschew his criminal background, but also how to deliver floors full of letters as he avoids the shadowy businessmen.

This is an adventure story. It's not dissimilar to any other Pratchett - if you've read one of them, you've know what to expect. And this won't convince you otherwise. I picked it up because it's the highest rated/ranked Discworld novel in the series, and thought I should read this if not any others.

I consider Pratchett to the be the fantasy equivalent of Douglas Adams. That means events take a backseat to world-building and situation-explaining. Plot pacing is sacrificed for humor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Written humor is hard because you lose all elements of timing. So if you can get a chuckle out of anyone, you've accomplished a great deal. And this got several chuckles from me.

The key negative is the unlikable characters. The con man doesn't really want to be there. The government is forcing him in this job on threat of death. His chief ally at the post office is an old man who'd rather see tradition served than do any work. Plus a young man who might be autistic (he collects pins and goes into fits when routine is broken). No one is particularly charming, but Iron Man seems to get away with it. The other problem is too many subplots, due to the too many characters, which is par for the course in Discworld.

It's a book of contradictions, but a solid four stars.


13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison
(unfinished)

It's full of cliches. The story makes a promise in the first chapter that doesn't get fulfilled or hinted at for the next four or five. Which means it's a cheat.

This girl is apparently the one who can see fairies and thus under their constant threat (because she could reveal their existence). This means a bunch of hijinks that can't be explained has already happened and the mother has no choice but to send her troubled child to live with her grandmother in the country. There's a neighbor boy who's kind of annoying, weird neighbors, parents who don't understand, falling in love with a library, and a witch who gives her a trinket for no reason. Didn't I see this already in Coraline?

There's more narration than dialogue. No one has any personality. The character makes no connections or relationships in this new setting. Events happen without being rooted in some cause. The protagonist has no "save the cat" moment. She's a whiny inactive protagonist. And lots of telling. There's even a gypsy woman (and I thought that term was racist).

This is just some thirteen-year-old's badly conceived fantasy.


The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

All the characters here are broken. And thus, interesting. But this is not a fantasy novel. This is a standard YA novel with real-life problems. Non-real elements are minor and don't affect the plot.

Something's going on in the background of said plot. Something "Harry Potter" or "Buffy" involving a Big Bad and Apocalypses. But that's not what the story is about. This is about the extras that end up in the B-roll, when the cameras pan over the ambulances. Who are those people?

One is gay. One is going to a war-torn third world country after graduation. One is a recovering anorexic. And one (the main character) has a compulsion disorder. There is magic in the world, but no one is using it. No one wants to. They've seen what happens to the kids who do. They're stressing about college, graduation, dating, whether he-likes-her-but-does-she-like-me. It's nice to see a deconstruction of the hero's journey, but hard to do well. This one does. The style reminds me of John Green writing a Harry Potter background character or A.S. King ("Please Ignore Vera Dietz").


Just After Sunset by Stephen King
(unfinished)

I read the first six stories. Only one provoked any reaction from me, thus I put it down. They're all typical Stephen King -- overwritten and full of generic description. I think he's said everything he's needed to say, and now he's repeating himself.

Plus the thing about short stories is that they never seem to matter to the world within. They're never important or epic. There's no point to invest in one because it's gone as soon as you do. They're just slices of life.

They're also not scary. He's gone from tangible horror to the existential slipstream hypnosis or something like that. There's a Family Guy joke where King's publisher is asking for his next idea. King looks around the office and grabs a lamp. "For my next book, um... this couple is... um... attacked by, um... a lamp monster! Oooh..." There is LITERALLY a story like that, but it's a stationary bike. "Ooh, look at the scary stationary bike. Ooh, you don't know where it's taking you. Ooh, is it making you hallucinate or is it real?" Please.


I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert

I enjoyed "Your Movie Sucks", and thought this one would be even better, because it might include more movies I'm familiar with. But that's not the case. It cuts off in 1999 and includes a ton of stinkers that I don't remember at all. (There's even a review of a MST3K movie, I thought that was a neat anachronism.)

This one seems to lack the vitriol that the sequel had. Probably because Ebert hadn't reached peak cynicism yet. I thought I'd enjoy hearing his witty evisceration of my nostalgic classics, but those were few and far between. It's too bad you can't buy just the reviews of the movies you want to read about.


The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I cannot remember why I put this on my to-read list. It's like a combo of John Scalzi and Leviathan Wakes. The characters are colorful, like a readable Firefly, but painted with a comic book brush. So they're actually happy--not sullen or brooding or grimdark. That's weird to me, but welcome. But after I finished, I was of two minds about it.

One one hand, it's amateur hour. The entire middle could be removed without affecting the plot. Each chapter is episodic and self-contained. Some characters get a lot of screen time. Others you forget are there.

There's an illusion of consequences to character actions... but nothing really happens. For example, the main character has a "the liar revealed" moment, and it affects nothing because everybody is so nice. No one dies. No one loses an hand or a mentor. Nothing changes anyone or anything. Nobody gets to say "Man, I regret doing that thing" or "I was wrong to do that".

Finally, the "episodes" get transparently political. There is one that's an immigration allegory. One that's a LGBTQ rights allegory. One about religious freedom.

On the other hand, these are fun characters. They're enjoyable to be around. They're funny and smart, they don't make stupid decisions. They're practical and don't fall into space opera tropes. It's a little like Star Wars if it was created by the person who wrote My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It's not morose empire drama. But I don't think I'll read the second one.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"The Dwarves of Katie Elder" Has Begun

Yep, I started work on my next publishable (hopefully) novel. Just making a blog entry to mark the date that production officially started.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do I Want It Enough?

Pardon me while I show my straight white male privilege.


One thing holding me back from being a true writer (with a capital "A"... I mean "W") is that I am well-off. By day, I am a computer programmer. That's an in-demand position. I get a near $100K salary and comfy benefits. And the reason I'm a computer programmer is because I went to college. And the reason I went to college is because my parents paid for it (so add "no student loan debt" to that list of reasons to hate me). And the reason they paid for it is because they could, by saving and being smart with money and having no external thing to pay for. All this translates to the fact I have no base need for money.


But someone who writes for a living, they get the chops becasue they have no choice but to be good. Or they die. Neil Gaiman says that his motivation/inspiration came from needing to feed his children. Seanan McGuire came from a trailer. You don't live like that and think "When I grow up, I want the comfortable financial stability of a writer." I imagine she spent her life reading books one after the other (because they were cheap), then became a writer because it was the only thing she saw herself doing. Like Chinese gymnasts that start at two years old and do nothing but, then are thrown away at sixteen.

The short version of this can be explained in this parable: A Zen master was out for a walk with one of his students when they noticed a fox chasing a rabbit. "According to an ancient saying the rabbit will escape," said the master. "Not so," replied the student, "the fox is faster." "Never-the-less, the rabbit will elude the fox," the master stated. "How can you be so certain?" asked the student. "The fox is running for its dinner. The rabbit is running for its life."


In computer programming, you start off with a well-paying job out of college. Because you took that time gaining those skills. You are the computer whisperer. You can make it sing and dance the way companies want you to. You know how to make the lightning brain think.

In writing, you don't start off in any sort of job. First, you get a little work. Then a little more. Seanan McGuire had to keep writing and writing and writing because she had to. Otherwise she would earn no money.

You create art and hope someone purchases it. And the big hurdle is people purchase art because they want it, not because they need it. Companies don't need art, they need results. They need profit margins and cost-benefit analyses. And they pay the people who can provide that, because it takes special skills.


John Scalzi says you can quit your day job when you're making 30% more than your annual salary (to cover healthcare costs and retirement and such). I am going to have to be a superstar writer to match the salary of a software engineer working for one of the biggest companies in the midwest. I suppose it's a good problem to have, but it means resisting the urge to lay back and be a fat lazy dog.

Monday, September 18, 2017

My Kindertrauma: Faces of Death (Beetlejuice/Poltergeist/Indiana Jones)

No, not actually "Faces of Death". I wouldn't learn about that franchise until I was in high school. And then it was more fun figuring out which vignettes were fake and which were real (this was before YouTube). No these are the terrifying moments about kindertrauma to someone's face, usually in the form of it coming off.


The first was in Beetlejuice. I can't believe my mom took me to see this in the theater. I was seven years old. Did I express some kind of interest in seeing this? I must have. It was the same director as Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Maybe she just wanted to get me out of the house for a while. Anyway, I distinctly remember it not being terribly scary EXCEPT for when Geena Davis is hanging in a closet and rips off her own face.


Her eyes fall out of their lidless sockets. Her musculature glistens around her lipless mouth. And then there's that blood-curdling scream. I think this was the first jumpscare I ever had. And it's a direct contrast to the... well, not lighter, but at least not grosser tone that preceded it. Nothing promised in the movie so far indicated that we'd be getting gore like this. It didn't turn me off from the movie - it's one of my defining works. Nothing afterward made me jump -- not the faces stretching or the sandworm business. I never see it on lists of kindertrauma so I wonder if it was just me. Or maybe others had moms with better sense.

But I do see the face-picking scene from Poltergeist on lists. This takes any face trauma you might have had and turns it up to eleven. After seeing a steak wriggling on the counter, one of the ghost hunters goes to wash his face and sees a skin tag. He pulls it off. And then more and more. He can't stop. It's like a compulsive's worst nightmare. As the water runs, the sink fills up with bloody chunks of flesh until his face is just ragged meat. Eyes bulging, teeth grinning.


The funny part is, when you see it as an adult, you can see how fake it is, especially the ending with the torso and head jiggling like a mannequin. I don't remember where I first saw this scene. I think my Dad must have been watching it on TV and I might have been younger than seven. But it turned me the fuck off so I couldn't even look at the word "Poltergeist" until I was in high school. The scary clown toy and the kid getting eaten by the tree didn't help. (I thought he was covered in blood, but my dad told me it was sap. I'm still not sure I buy that.)


And finally, the piece de resistance is Old Man Toht's face melting like wax after seeing the Ark of the Covenant (don't forget your eclipse glasses, kids!) For some reason, it's Toht, not Dietrich (the other guy) that I remember most. Maybe it's because of the hat and glasses, makes it more human, more real. Maybe the way it was shot, or the colors in the shot -- black background, red blood, white skull, orange fire lighting. But, like Poltergeist, I refused to watch this movie until puberty set in. Late stage puberty.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The New Pennywise is Scary, and Thus, Not Scary





I haven't seen it, but reviews on It are mostly positive. However, some movie buffs I follow had mixed responses. They said it's a hodge-podge, a "curious mess" (which is much like the book). The characters are given scary scenes with real horrors like child abuse, nightmares, alcoholism, animal abuse, gun threats, pedophilia, psychological drama, etc. And then a clown shows up. So we got some tonal dissonance here.

I had a feeling this might happen as soon as I saw the new design for Pennywise. It's just too scary. And thus, it's not scary.

In 1986, clowns were not scary. They were funny, jovial, friend to all children (like Gamera). They were Clarabell and Ronald McDonald and Marcel Marceau and Red Skelton. If you were lost, you could go up to a clown and they'd help you find your family. They were like comedy superheroes. That's why the Pennywise in the It novel was scary. Because he was a demon dressed up as something childlike and innocent.

To further illustrate, we can even examine their visual designs.


The clown on the left? Not scary. It looks very inspired by Bozo, the most popular clown of this era (bald, puffy red hair, high eyebrows, red nose, white makeup, circus outfit including puffy red buttons). Just looking at it, you can't tell if this clown is scary or not. It just looks like a clown. Not until the sharp teeth come out do you think something might be wrong here. The fear comes comes from its actions, not the look. It's meant to lure you in with a false sense of safety and joy, like an angler fish. (And it didn't hurt that he was played by Tim Curry who can turn it off and on like a faucet).

But the clown on the right, you know immediately to run away. It doesn't even need to inside a sewer grate to know something's wrong here. I know that's not a clown, that's a murder-thing.


And even if they didn't screw up the visual design, the "scary clown" is cliche now, partially due to It itself. The phenomenon originated with John Wayne Gacy. He was arrested in 1978 and sentenced in 1980, giving two years for all the sordid details to ingratiate into the public consciousness. Add some time for creators to add scary clowns into their books and movies. Look at any list of scary clowns, they are ALL 1982 and later. There is nothing before that. The one exception might be Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" which was more about a carnival than clowns (but note the movie came out in 1983, at peak clown).

My point is, Pennywise was scary because of what he did, not how he looked. If you change his look to be scary, you miss the point.