Thursday, October 9, 2014

Which automaker will be the last to produce a manual transmisson?

In the November 2014 issue of Automobile Magazine, journalist Lawrence Ulrich goes on a mission to find the last (North American) Ferrari ever produced with a three-pedal manual transmission. That he ultimately finds it hiding out in Vancouver, BC is to me somewhat irrelevant, since Modena long ago turned a cold shoulder to such rudimentary, human-operated devices; what got me was the prediction made within the article by the car's owner, Bryan Walley. "Within five to ten years," he says, "all manual cars will have disappeared from showroom floors.

Maybe it was the fact that I was reading the article in a print magazine, or just my fatalistic views on the matter of preserving the vehicular man-machine interface and its value to society at large, but something about this pronouncement struck me as prescient, if slightly pessimistic. Like baseball and black and white movies, the manual has been pronounced dead many times before, and, like baseball and black and white movies, there's reason to think manuals will persist well into the future, if only for an increasingly niche audience.

Just for the sake of sensationalism, let's assume that Walley is Nostradamus himself - if Nostradamus owned lots of commercial real estate in Vancouver and drove a red Ferrari 599. If his prediction proves true, that begs another question: Which manufacturer will be the last hold out? Who will keep the manual transmission flame alight, and also be the one to finally blow it out?

Here's my list, ascending in order of likelihood:
Audi is killing the manual in the next R8. VW already makes one of the best dual-clutch gearboxes and the take rate is such that all their manuals could be gone within a few years, even from the GTI. The last high-performance Mercedes with a manual was the 190E 2.5, which is older than Los Angeles Angels centerfielder and presumptive American League MVP Mike Trout. As for Porsche, though it introduced one of the more recent "innovations" to the old-style manual by offering a 7-speed in the 911, it's obvious such transmissions have a place in Stuttgart only for an unprofitable minority who will soon be kicked to the curb in favor of less demanding yuppies.

So BMW is the only German who appears on this list. It's really more of a honorable mention type of thing, given that Bimmer has tried for years to kill off manual transmissions in both its standard and M models. In the case of the M5, the company's flagship performance sedan, only American outrage on the part of clutch pedal adherents saved buyers from getting stuck with a mandatory DSG gearbox in its last two iterations. If the future of German-made manual transmissions is a theater on fire, BMW is merely the one holding the door open so the others can run out first.

Did you hear? The latest WRX is available with an optional CVT! Jeepers. The Legacy and Forester gave up on manuals during the last model change, and, starting with the previous-gen, the Forester XT is available only with an auto. Subie is on the same path to automation as BMW, only they're about a generation or two behind, which is the only thing putting them ahead on this list.

Lotus shouldn't be this low. Understand, I think Colin Chapman's company would still offer a manual even after everyone else gives up. I only put them here because I have doubts about their survival as a company. (Did it just get more depressing in here? Sorry, I'll open a window or something.)
We Americans are traditionalists, which is why the new, state-of-the-art Corvette Stingray comes equipped only with a manual or slushbox. The Viper has never allowed a self-shifter to penetrate its haven of hoonery. High-performance Mustangs have always been manuals, along with the GT supercar. And Wranglers still come with potato chip doors you can remove in roughly the amount of time it takes to finish a Lucky Strike. Did you know that, between them, Cadillac and Buick offer no fewer than three different models with a manual transmission? Cadillac and Buick!! As usual, it's up to the Red, White, and Blue to show the rest of the world the way.

That is, unless you count Japan.
With the introduction of the auto-only TLX, manuals have all but disappeared from Acura. Over at Honda, CVTs are infiltrating the ranks like a zombie epidemic. But there's still a few glimmers of hope. There's the Accord Sport, which seems to exist solely as an excuse offer a manual in a model whose owners consist almost completely of pensioners, salesmen, and yoga instructors. Honda is still the only company to offer a hybrid with a manual. There's the Civic Si - still available exclusively with a stick - and the elemental Fit. Most importantly, outside of attempting to cram the maximum number of screens and buttons onto its dashboards, there's a serious lack of innovation these days at Honda, which I think bodes well for the survival of manuals.

Still, I'm putting Honda behind another Japanese company, one which both innovates and has a sense of nostalgia.
If this list were simply "The Last Mainstream Manufacturer to Offer a Manual", Mazda would obviously be at the top. The continued survival of the MX-5 Miata is proof enough (1990 model pictured above), but to that I also add that the company recently responded to customer requests by offering a manual in up-level Touring editions of the 6, is continuing development on a new rotary-powered RX, which we can safely assume will delegate its shifting duties, and is the last manufacturer to offer manual transmissions in a small crossover and a minivan.

Mazda might see themselves go out of business before they roll out a lineup without at least one stick-shift (just kidding, they wouldn't), which is why I don't think they'll quite be the last to offer one...

Here's the best argument for why manuals will never die: Because Morgan will never die.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Movie Cafe #11: Cool Hand Luke

Spidey: You know, sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

OMS: Sadly, "nothing" is exactly what our audience has been getting in terms of Movie Cafe. They probably don't know we operate on the inverse of Hollywood's movie schedule, which means we ramp up after Labor Day and go on vacation summer and Christmas.

Spidey: So, to kick our big fall season off with a bang, we're examining the evolution of the guy movie, from the sixties to today. We're gonna start with 1968's classic Cool Hand Luke, a guy movie's guy movie.

OMS: "A guy movie's guy movie." What does that mean?

Spidey: I don't know.

OMS: "Gettin' a little glib here, boss!"

Spidey: "Get a little glib there, Dragline."

OMS: Anyway, you were talking about the ways in which Cool Hand Luke is a classic guy movie.

Spidey: Indeed, they're almost all found in this film, along with a memorable cast and lots of iconic lines, but because Cool Hand is among the originals, it either avoids or pre-dates many of the clichés which seem so stale nowadays.

OMS: That struck me, too. Cool Hand is the trope-originator for lots of those guy movie clichés. By the way, when we say "guy movies" (which we will a lot), just imagine the movie that your wife or girlfriend would least want to see or that would get you the biggest eye roll.

Spidey: "Well, honey, I know you like it..."

OMS: Usually there's some quid pro quo involved, which usually obligates you to at least one Kate Hudson movie and a pedicure. Maybe it's easiest to say that guy movies, or at least the ones we're going to talk about, are on the opposite end of the movie spectrum from anything with Kate Hudson.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

36,000 Mile Test Drive: Coulda Had a V8

I'm coming up on a year of ownership with Freddy the Mazda6. Other than a squeaky A/C clutch shim (scheduled to be replaced), it's been a fine car. But after 12 months and nearly 12,000 miles, it seems fair to look back at the roughly $22,000 he stickered for and see to what other use that cash might have been put. No, I'm not talking about revisiting Four Wheel Fisticuffs, or the handful of pre-owned Civic Sis and VW CCs I considered during the course of that process. I'm talking about a nothing-off-the-table look at exactly what 70% of the average purchase price of a new vehicle will get you in 2014.

Let's ask Auto Trader:

The Heiress loves convertibles, so it's easy to imagine the sort of hero's welcome I'd receive after pulling up in this baby. Being a C5 Corvette, this lipstick red example comes with a 350 horsepower, 360 lb-ft torque version of Chevy's famed LS1 V8. The Heiress doesn't care about engines, but she does care about a place to sit, which means she'd be relegated to hearing the burbling center-exit exhaust as Daddy drive's off back to the dealership, having realized a car seat doesn't really fit atop those gleaming red leather seats.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Using Fantasy Football to Escape Football's Dark Reality

On my way to work this morning, I was listening to Kansas City's local sports talk station. Predictably, the conversation involved football. Not this weekend's games, mind you, which were nothing less than mind-boggling in their unpredictability; the conversation was about whether it was wrong to spank your child, and which forms of punishment amount to child abuse. This non-football conversation follows months of speculation and pontification about what the NFL should do to punish domestic abusers like Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, and now, Adrian Peterson. Finally the question was asked by the radio host: "Have you reached your breaking point with the NFL?" In other words, have the off-field issues distracted from the on-field issues to the point that you can't enjoy the games any longer?

Answer that however you want, but I know my answer: Nope.

This response comes not just from being relatively new to the concept of enjoying football, but also because I spend very little of my time watching football. Oh, I'll turn on a game or two over the weekend. I watched most of the Chief's thrilling-but-typical-Chiefs loss to the Broncos on Sunday. But if I'm invested it's only due to two factors: My office Pick 'em Pool, and my Fantasy Team. I started doing the Pool two years ago and Fantasy Football this year. Both are great because they can be enjoyed through agencies other than television, which has always been a medium which courts overinvestment in certain players or teams.

As a Spurs fan, I've long known that through the lens of television, we sports fans start to believe there is a two-way relationship between ourselves and the men on the field. We feel elation when they do well and crushing disappointment when they do poorly. We call them by their first names and brag about them like a beaming parent brags about their kid making the honor roll. As it turns out, that synthetic relationship also affects us on a human and moral level in some cases.

Guys like Ray Rice affect people's relationship with football in an equally synthetic way, by interfering with our ability to enjoy sports in the proper context of escapism. Rice wouldn't have decked his fiancé in that elevator if there were millions of people in there with them. But the unintended consequence of the act is that millions of fans have retroactively been placed in that elevator with Rice and fiancé. Now that we've seen what we've seen, the image is ghosted in our vision, scrambling the innocent football images we once guiltlessly enjoyed.

(That is, if you could ignore all the concussions.)

Fantasy football, in particular, is a wonderful desensitizer. It's Clorox for the casual football fan, because it reduces men to avatars and spreadsheets. It's a sports cliché, but in FF, a player is truly no better or worse than his numbers. If you add or drop a player, you as coach/GM of your fantasy team are affecting nothing but your own bottom line. Nothing. For example, I had Greg Hardy on my roster last week. The real Greg Hardy and his team, the Carolina Panthers, have faced real questions as to whether or not he should play or be suspended while he awaits trial for assault of his fiancé. Carolina chose to sit him, but further down the line, that question could become whether or not Hardy should be allowed to resume his football career at all.

As the owner of his actual football rights, the Panthers face a lot of tough decisions. As a human being, Hardy's livelihood is at stake. As his fantasy owner, though? I can (and did) dump him without any repercussions other than it opening a roster spot for me to pick up some other defensive end. That is, FF allows me to pick up a headshot and a list of numbers which automatically update based on a game being played hundreds of miles away on someone else's television. Should I choose to watch, the games stay meaningful and enjoyable, because I'm not operating on the basis that these men are anything other than fictional characters in my fantasy league, their movements rendered in crisp 1080p and narrated by the voice of Jim Nantz (I also have him on my fantasy broadcasting team.)

Is this dehumanizing? I suppose. Is it blind to the actual problems in the world? Yes, and please don't hurt my feelings by talking to me about all those mean guys. While you're at it, don't talk to me about ISIS or ebola or Ferguson, either. Is it cynical? Definitely! And I wouldn't have it any other way. There isn't any other way. The alternative is to become an actual fan of an actual team and to actually get invested in the games. Think about all the people you know who fit that description. Think about the NFL fan closest to you. Is he or she happy about football? Ever? No! I don't care if you or the person you're imagining is a fan of the Patriots, the Bills, the Browns or the Seahawks. If your team is terrible, you feel terrible. If your team is good, you're worried about next week or mad that they aren't getting enough respect. Every true fan is miserable approximately 100% of the time they're thinking about football.

So to answer the question: Have I reached my limit with the NFL? I don't think I ever will, not as long as I can live in the realm of fantasy. For the overinvested, I implore you to do the same. If you feel bad about that, about willfully desensitizing yourself when there's so much icky stuff going on, ask yourself this: At what point did this multibillion dollar industry full of filthy rich men squabbling over money and power with other fabulously wealthy men actually cross the line from reality to fantasy? Then ask yourself what's stopping you from doing the same.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A few words about the inheritance of fandom

This post originally appeared at Pounding the Rock

I was raised by two sports agnostics. This fact has always been strange to me, even though my mom is an author who writes fantasy stories and my dad's basketball career ended his freshman year in high school with a collapsed lung. It's not that they had no interest in sports: My mom coached my brother's t-ball team, and I've been to several Spurs games with my dad, who was always a big admirer of David Robinson. But I didn't grow up in a household that lived and died with the Spurs, or with any other team.

Yes, my parents' home was quite unlike the environment in which my daughter and her currently gestating sibling will be spending their childhood in. We're talking about a household in which their father will put on a Spurs shirt and run around the living room alternately screaming threats at the little men on TV, and dancing like revelers on the streets of Manhattan following V-J Day. My love for the Spurs isn't going to change. My kids will grow up immersed in it. Thing is, I'm not sure how to bring them along for the ride, or if I should even try.

You see, in terms of sports, my grandparents were entirely different from my parents. The paternal ones lived in San Antonio and the maternal ones an hour up I-10 in Kerrville (also known as the town that spawned Johnny Football.) Both sets of grandparents were Cowboys fans first and foremost. They wouldn't even talk about the Spurs until February. My paternal grandmother -- despite being raised in the West Midlands of England --  was also a diehard Atlanta Braves fan. She was almost single-handedly responsible for my early infatuation with baseball.

But basketball eventually became my game. After the baseball strike hit in '94 and the Spurs went to the Western Conference Finals the following summer, I became just as invested in Robinson and Company as the rest of my hometown.

But I never became a Cowboys fan, despite both sides of my extended family regaling me with the exploits of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and showering me at Christmastime with those horrible Starter hats and jackets everyone was wearing in the 90s, each branded with some sawtooth motif and a big blue star. If anything, my grandparents' efforts had the opposite of their intended effect. I grew to resent their assumption of my loyalty towards a team which played hundreds of miles away in what might as well have been Oklahoma. In time, that resentment evolved into a complete loathing of the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, and even of Dallas itself (which predisposed me nicely toward my future fan-hatred of the Mavericks.) Needless to say, the past 17 years or so have been endlessly amusing for me as a Cowboy-hater. Over that period their persistent mediocrity (except for their single blip of success) is one of the few things that's even close to being as fulfilling as rooting for the Spurs.

As  simple as that whole action-reaction sequence appears, however, I know there's got to be more to it than that. I say this because every summer my English grandma would sit me down next to her and we'd watch Atlanta Braves games on TBS. I never grew to resent that, and in fact became a pretty big Braves fan myself. Even now, I'll pull for them against just about any other team outside of Texas or Missouri.

So what's the difference? How did it happen that I can't stand the Cowboys and enjoy the Braves? And what does that tell me about whether I should purposely try to make Spurs fans out of my kids?
First off, I think players have as much to do with it as the team itself. I dislike the Cowboys for lots of reasons: their home white uniforms, their drab toilet bowl of a stadium, and their North Texas address. Because of their owner. I even dislike that blue star. But most of all, it was their players. That puffy-faced, personality-free quarterback. Their preening, mink coat-wearing wide receiver. And their ... well, I won't admit to disliking Emmitt Smith, but I at least thought he was boringly competent, like football's answer to Pete Sampras.

(The irony, right?)

By contrast, the Braves had lots of cool guys on their roster in the 90s. Their pitching staff was unhittable and full of guys who genuinely seemed cool, like Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine. They employed Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff. Their manager was the immortal Bobby Cox. Outside of the Braves, the same held true: I liked Tony Gwynn and George Brett and Wade Boggs, which meant I was a fan of the Padres, Royals, and Red Sox.

If the Braves' lineup had been full of guys like Albert Belle or Barry Bonds (or nine David Justices), I might not have followed them with as much enthusiasm. What does this mean for my kids? I think they'll become fans of players as much as fans of teams. This personal connection is even more emphasized in basketball than it is in football or baseball. All those Facebook Fan Maps showing the recent rise of Heat fans in all corners of the United States are obviously charting a phenomenon which has more to do with LeBron than with the Heat.

What about the Spurs? I became a Spurs fan not just because they were the local team, but because I liked David Robinson. By the time my kids are old enough to begin consciously choosing who they root for, who knows which face will lead the franchise? Since that will be three to five years from now it's easy to speculate that Kawhi will be firmly entrenched in the role. But even if he is, Kawhi speaks through his game instead of his mouth, which might be too subtle for a kid to appreciate.
They need someone to follow on twitter. Joel Embiid won't play a minute of meaningful basketball for over a year, but he's already got 355,000 followers. If there's nobody left on the Spurs for my kids to identify with and retweet, the task of cultivating a fan becomes tougher. It's why so many political and military leaders throughout history have been the most charismatic people in the room. The concept of loyalty to a group or a team is too abstract for many, especially kids; they need to a face to look up to. They need the equivalent of Robinson's massive "Thou Shalt Not Score" Nike billboard which sat in downtown San Antonio 20 years ago.

Geography plays an important role as well. Even though I live in Kansas City now, my loyalty to the Spurs is very portable. My pride in the franchise, however, remains rooted in my connection to the city they play in. My kids have no such connection. Theie birthplace is Missouri, and though there are no competing NBA teams within 350 miles, there also isn't a critical mass of Spurs fans creating a multiplier effect. When they are at home, those toy basketballs and Spurs onesies start to look like desperate bribes rather than a welcome expression of organic fandom. In this part of the country, they're much more likely to encounter - and befriend - somebody in a Thunder hat, an MFFL t-shirt, or a Derrick Rose jersey. (And that's if they even care about the NBA; Big 12 basketball is a far bigger deal in Kansas City, with a de facto pro team in KU playing only forty minutes down the road in Lawrence.) If geography plays a role, the Spurs' mortal enemies of the heartland have more of a claim to my children's affections than some team in muted colors hovering around the distant, dusty bottom of the country.

Yep, kids will break your heart sometimes. But what I fear most is something more pernicious: What if my kids turn out like my parents? My grandparents failed to pass on their love the Cowboys on to me, but they failed first with my parents. What if my kids see my fanaticism for the Spurs, decide this old man's devotion is crazy or embarrassing or irrelevant, and choose no allegiance whatsoever? Then, like an aging robber baron, I'll be an island of fan capital with no way to spend it all, no one to share what I've spent most of my life storing up.

All of a sudden those Spurs onesies look not only tempting, but crucial.

Live and let live is just too risky an approach when it comes to sports. I became a Spurs fan through timing and dumb luck. It's going to take a bit more than that with my kids. For me, the seeds weren't planted until I saw the Spurs in person. Prior to that, I got hooked on baseball when my grandma took me to the old V. J. Keefe stadium to watch Missions games. That in-person connection is a bit more difficult to achieve with my daughter. Sure, we could drive 5 hours to see the Spurs when they visit OKC, but we'd also be in the middle of the bloodthirsty Thunder crowd. It's 6 hours to Minneapolis, where the Target Center is likely to present a more benign influence which will help her concentrate on the visiting team; but then, she might get scared by the giant Timberwolf logo in the middle of the floor and ask to go home. (Worst case scenario: she falls in love with Ricky Rubio.)

The good thing is, for the first five or six years of their lives, I'm my kids' primary sports influence. My daughter, who turns 3 this week, has already ridden on my shoulders as I ran through the house screaming "GO SPURS GO" on Father's Day. I've never loved that chant more: it's simple and proportionate, like the golden mean of sports chants. And it's easy for a toddler to repeat. She's already been exposed to the contagion. In 3 years, she's witnessed as many Spurs championships as I saw in 17.

She's starting to learn letters and numbers, so I think my next step is to teach her to spell the word S-P-U-R-S and recognize who's number 21, 20, 9, 2, and so on. Unfortunately, her favorite player (meaning, her favorite name to repeat) is Patty Mills, who isn't playing until at least February. Her second favorite is Matt "Red Rocket" Bonner, who barely plays at all. In the absence of any geographic ties to the Spurs, finding a player for her to root for is key. There's Manu, whose jersey I own, but I probably have at best a one or two-year window before he retires.

My best bet is to buy my kids Kawhi shirts, hope he signs an extension, and convince them that cornrows are the world's greatest hairstyle. My wife won't like it, but that's a storm I must weather. My kids' sports future is at stake!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Adam Silver is just a teensy bit too eager to embrace sports gambling.

Mark Tatum Will Succeed Adam Silver as NBA's Deputy Commissioner
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
(This post originally appeared at Pounding the Rock.)

During his first several months in the office of NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver has generated a lot of good will for himself and the Association with his handling of the Donald Sterling situation, transparent policy-making, openness to new ideas for fixing the lottery and embrace of advanced metrics. That said, the honeymoon period has not quite ended, which made it especially interesting to hear his comments at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York:
It’s inevitable that, if all these states are broke, that there will be legalized sports betting in more states than Nevada and (the NBA) will ultimately participate in that. If you have a gentleman’s bet or a small wager on any kind of sports contest, it makes you that much more engaged in it. That’s where we’re going to see it pay dividends. If people are watching a game and clicking to bet on their smartphones, which is what people are doing in the United Kingdom right now, then it’s much more likely you’re going to stay tuned for a long time.
Silver drops a hornet's nest of buzzwords in that quote, touching on all sorts of political, social, and moral issues. While his words are pragmatic, as we've already come to expect from Silver, the tone is a bit off considering Silver presides over the NBA, which has dealt with gambling scandals both real and alleged just about the entire time Silver has been with the league. Among sports which capture national attention, it's arguable that only boxing, horse racing and baseball are more closely associated with gambling in this country, especially after the Tim Donaghy scandal.

Then there's former Commissioner David Stern's opposition to New Jersey's attempts to legalize sports gambling back in 2012. At the time, Stern characterized the plan as an attempt by the state and Governor Chris Christie to profit at the expense of the NBA and other sports organizations. Now, just two years later, Stern's successor is embracing the idea as a potential revenue stream. If gambling does become widespread outside of Nevada and New Jersey (which is attempting legalization again), the NBA's position might come across as a bit too opportunistic and greedy.

"Welcome to the world of organized sports," you could say, but this is potentially dangerous ground for a league which has battled money-related image problems since at least the 1970s. Even today, you don't have to look hard to find potential NBA fans who've been turned off by what they see as spoiled players and sticky-fingered owners tainting the sport. By embracing gambling in this way, Silver isn't likely to help that image problem among the middle-America households the NBA always claims to covet.

Of course, much of Silver's job as Commissioner revolves around not only maximizing the investment of owners in their teams, but also finding new revenue sources which benefit both the owners and the players. This happens either by increasing sponsorship dollars or increasing the league's exposure domestically and internationally. By being among the first to express a desire to tap into the $4 billion legal arm of the nearly $400 billion industry that is American sports gambling (in addition to the UK, which was not mentioned idly in the Commissioner's comments), Silver is displaying another facet of the progressiveness which has already defined his tenure as commissioner.
If everything works as Silver predicts and the "inevitable" does occur, the NBA can expect to grow its wealth exponentially over the coming years, above and beyond even what we've come to expect these days in the wake of the $2 billion sale of the Clippers and the expected monster television deal which is looming on the horizon. No doubt that, in the eyes of many, Silver is taking a shrewd business step by coming out in support of sports gambling; in the eyes of others, he's embracing a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance that's similar to the justification used by public officials who've embraced marijuana legalization.

Ultimately, it may cost the NBA some of the fans it's worked so hard to recruit. But if fans walking out the door are passed by throngs finally attracted to the NBA through the avenue of gambling, Silver and his owners aren't likely to lose too much sleep over it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Acura finally makes a good commercial, but have they made a good car?

Sid Vicious notwithstanding, I think Acura's new ad for its equally new TLX sedan is simply outstanding. Unlike some of their recent efforts - especially the mindbogglingly overreaching "Made for Mankind" films - this one hits the bulls-eye.

Conceivably, no one could see this commercial and come away with a negative viewpoint of Acura or the product they've built (especially if they view it on mute.) For the car enthusiast, the various and progressive images of designers and engineers sculpting and testing their baby in its embryonic stages portray the notion that much craft and care went into the development of what will hopefully be a return to peak form for the company.

For the layman, the ad offers some intriguing insight into vehicle development, but it also focuses on the factor many corporations undersell and a message many bungle with attempts at highmindedness: Corporations, including those which produce vehicles, are made of up people making products for people. Not "mankind", not some ethereal philosophy which comes off more like LSD-charged solipsism - just people. To be sure, robots actually build much of the TLX, but it was people who conceived it. People with names like Larry and Mary and Jen and Tim. When they go home from their jobs, these people look an awful lot like you and me, only with advanced degrees in car stuff. We look at their smiling, happy faces, and innately feel happy and confident about the vehicle they've created.

However successful this approach might be, however, identifying the human connection in advertising is only one part of the equation. Acuras of the past decade have been staid, humorless conveyances, lacking both the vaultlike luxury of Lexus and Mercedes, and the adolescent verve of Audi, BMW, and Infiniti (though the latter two have become a bit wayward in that regard.) Acura of late has been a nonentity, a blank avatar. That the TLX won't have to be better than class-average to be a huge improvement over its predecessors, the TSX and TL, indicates how misdirected Acura has become about its sedans. After watching this film, though, I have to hope that the company's sense of direction is finally back, that Acura has at last become unchained from its mediocrity.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rationalizing My Irrational Hatred of Panera

I remember exactly when I first heard of Panera Bread. It was summer 2007, during my most recent residency in San Antonio, and I was splitting my working hours between a map shop called Mapsco and the McNay Art Museum. Once the buzz from the Spurs' fourth championship died down, all anyone on the Northside could talk about was the impending arrival of "Panera" to the Lincoln Heights shopping center on the corner of Basse and Broadway. If you're not from there, you have to understand that S.A. is a city of unremarkable economic indicators located near the bottom of the country, and we were used to getting things that the rest of America - and even the rest of Texas - had enjoyed for years. Which meant that, in addition to the chain itself being ill-defined (Did Panera just sell bread? Was it a bakery? A deli?), getting one meant us South Texans would once again be snacking on others' sloppy seconds.

This alone, however, did not predispose me to hating Panera.

Even in the wake of my first Paneradventure, I'm not really sure what got the hate ball rolling. Maybe it was the fact that their NW Barry Road location in Kansas City always gets my order wrong - one time they left out the meat from a turkey club, and one time they left out the sandwich altogether. More generally, it may be the bread, which, y'know, is kind of important to get right for a chain which started life as the "St. Louis Bread Company." In fact, their logo seems to be a woman clutching a loaf of bread like it's an infant which has just been rescued from the bottom of a well. Their website is crammed full of pages entitled "Craftsmanship" and "Lifestyle" and "History of the Bagel" which you must contend with even if all you want to know is the price of a half soup and sandwich. Cumulatively, this corporate enthusiasm has the effect of promising you the moon, baked at 325 degrees and sprinkled with love and asiago.

When it comes to the bread at Panera, I find that it ranges from nothing special (French bread) to tragically disappointing (anything baked with cheese) to nearly inedible due to being harder than Portland cement (the ciabatta). Maybe it's all the yuppie cred infused into each bite, or maybe the cibatta doubles as the router for the free wifi, which I'm pretty sure is responsible for at least 65% of Panera's purported popularity. Seriously, observe the crowd next time you're in there. Look past the over-the-hill scarf-wearers who fancy themselves environmental activists but who basically just drink organic tea and retweet stuff from Mother Jones occasionally, and the navel-gazing poetry clubs, and the housewives who drive Lexus hybrids and shop at Forever 21 with their daughters and own every Coach bag ever made, and you'll see them, the true bearers of the Panera banner: College students.

Like Panera, college students walk around with an unearned sense of superiority, take themselves far too seriously, and mostly rely on others to clean up their messes. What do I mean by that last one? Well, in case you hadn't noticed, Panera takes your hard-earned grownup cash in a very sincere and professional manner, invites you to sup in a very beige and staid environment, often with poor sightlines to promote something of a hushed, secluded, library-like environment for pensively consuming your baked potato soup or term paper research, then makes you, uh, bus your own table.

"So what, Oldmanshirt?" you say through mouthfuls of Steel-Cut Oatmeal or bread-sandwich and breadbowl soup with a side of frickin' bread, "Chipotle makes you bus your own table, and you love Chipotle." Yes, they do. And yes, I do. But Chipotle is resolutely fast food. They don't really pretend to be anything more than a higher-quality, Tex-Mex alternative to In n' Out Burger or something. Sure, Chipotle prints stuff about recycling and antibiotic-free beef on the napkins and stuff, but all that is kept below eye level psychologically if all you really want is just a big ol' burrito and a side of chips (extra guac and hold the lifestyle adjustment, please.) The restaurants themselves are sparse, blank-canvas, the perfect setting for projecting your own views on life, politics, or carnitas.

Panera is different. They give you glassware and softly-padded booths and indirect lighting. There's that big pasty counter near the door (the bagels are pretty good, I must admit.) So they want you to think they're a restaurant, even if the overall concept is a really just that of an overpriced, fancy short-order diner. Of course, even the cheapest diner doesn't make you stick your hands into a vat of everyone else's dirty dishes. But there's more to the story. By which I mean less. Know what else is missing at Panera? Waiters. "Big whoop," you say. "Everyone sees through the veneer. Panera is still fast food. In fact, it's a prime exemplar of the fast-casual concept of dining. Who would expect a waiter to be part of the deal?"

Hey, I wouldn't. Having a waiter means you're either in Waffle House or you're paying twelve bucks for mac n' cheese and at least another three for a smile. But here's the deviousness of Panera. They haven't truly done away with waiters, they've just saved a lot of money by substituting someone else: you. That's right, at Panera you are the waitstaff and the busstaff, but they cleverly disguise the whole operation to make you think you're paying fast-casual prices for a restaurant experience. There's that slightly-elevated counter behind which the cooks/artisans/GED-hopefuls do their thing prior to condescendingly calling out orders. You're even given the little buzzer thing which real restaurants use to alert you that a table is ready. But Panera uses it to alert you that your food is ready and that you need to drag your skinny-jean and wallet chain-clad posterior up there to get it.

Which leads me to the most rational part of my irrational dislike of Panera. Objectively, the dining experience is a horrible value. This is made most clear when I break my bread somewhere else, like Jason's Deli, which offers just as many, if not more, tasty sandwich and soup options, has a killer salad bar, comps you unlimited frozen yogurt, doesn't pretend to be some sort of coffee bar/utopia for undergrad students double-majoring in Liberal Arts and Bagel History, is competitively priced and - this is significant - both brings you your food and cleans up your disgusting artifacts when you're done filling your food hole.

For those not in a hurry, there's also decently-priced sitdown places like Cheddar's, which offer full service, an environment that's more visually engaging without being distracting, and a much more diverse, though still high-quality, menu. And before you say those places probably cost a lot more, take four people to Panera and then four people to Cheddar's (not on the same night, please) and compare your bills. I think you'll be mildly shocked.

If this were Pyongyang and Panera was the only place to eat, I could probably live. Their panini and soup selections are okay, and the pastries are a nice indulgence. This isn't Pyongyang, though, and Panera isn't the only place to eat, though I swear they act like they are. Food isn't supposed to be complicated, but somehow Panera claims an ability to turn a pile of flour into a tower of accomplishment. What you eat may say something about who you are, but I wish Panera would shut up about who they are, and that they would get rid of whichever thumbsucking Creative Director devotes their time to penning online essays such as "Hummus: How do we love thee?" and get down to the business of hiring some bus boys and remembering the turkey on my turkey club.