Thursday, June 22, 2006

Hilton Heads For Trouble

For about two and a half years, a local restaurant in the basement of the Capitol Hilton hosted weekly dinners on Friday nights for wounded veterans and their families. The owners invited around 60 people a week from nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a full steak dinner including buffet and dessert. After awhile, various patriotic organizations including the American Legion started assisting with the costs – but originally, the $3500-$4000 weekly expense came straight out of the owners’ pockets.

The owners of Fran O’Brien’s Stadium Steak House recently lost their lease at the Hilton. According to this letter from Hilton’s Senior VP for Corporate Affairs, the owners had not paid their rent, along with various other violations of the lease. This may be true. Or it may not. Various other blogs, such as Black Five and Leslie’s Omnibus appear to believe that those health and safety violations mainly included the perils of hosting disabled veterans in a facility that does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act – a flaw that, according to those blogs, was Hilton’s responsibility to fix and that the restaurant owners had addressed repeatedly with their hotel chain landlords. Also, apparently the owners stopped paying their rent in an attempt to recoup the cost of the room service meals they provided to hotel guests, which the Hilton had refused to pay for four to six months. In fact, based on the numbers I saw here , the Hilton STILL owes the restaurateurs over $8,000 in room service charges after subtracting out that unpaid rent.

I tried a search of Hilton’s corporate website for any press releases or responses to this controversy and found nothing. The only thing I’ve found in Hilton’s defense was that letter – and it seems to have been amply answered. If Hilton’s detractors are incorrect, it seems to me that they are in serious danger of libel suits. In the absence of such suits, I rather suspect that the various friends of Fran O’Brien’s have their facts straight.

The restaurant is gone. It’s too late for to actually save Fran’s. Fortunately, others have stepped up to fill the gap. This story in Stars and Stripes tells me the Hamilton Crowne Plaza has hosted at least two of the weekly dinners, and apparently there are foreign embassies, including Italy’s, lining up to help out. This is wonderful – but it doesn’t change the fact that the Hilton Corporation cancelled the lease on Fran O’Brien’s. Until and unless I see much more specific information on why that lease was cancelled, I think I’ll be avoiding any hotels with the name Hilton, Conrad, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, or Homewood Suites. Yes, those are out of my price range today. That may not be true forever. And it may not be true for you. And I can hold a grudge for a long, long time.

Any of you out there staying in nice hotels from time to time? Or who has influence on locations for business meetings and conferences? Perhaps the Marriott would be a better choice.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Semper Fi, Mr. Snyder

Apparently, the father of a Marine killed in Iraq is suing the Westboro Baptist Church for protesting at his son’s funeral. According to this story in the Baltimore Sun, his chance of success is pretty low – but I think it is certainly worth a shot. The invasion of privacy portion of the suit is almost certainly not going to work – apparently, the protesters stayed on public property. According to various lawyers, the defamation issue is also going to fail – not because the church’s statements were true, but because the church has so little credibility that people’s opinions about LCpl Snyder have not been changed by them.

That’s where I think there’s a legitimate question. Certainly, MOST people’s opinions were not changed by the outrageous and stupid claims. I’d go so far as to say that no RATIONAL person was influenced. But some people certainly were. At the very least, the 75 members of that church had to take it seriously. I feel sure that a thorough search of the Internet could come up with comments on message boards in support of the church, their preacher, and their message - and perhaps the authors of those comments could be found. Does the law require that a LOT of people were influenced? My best wishes go to Mr. Snyder for the success of his suit. I hope it is a jury trial.

There’s something that surprises me about the Westboro Church. Every time they protest at a military funeral, they are directly attacking about a million and a half men and women currently in uniform. Plus several million more veterans who served honorably and remember that service with pride. That’s a whole lot of people trained to kill. With a certain fraction trained in special skills – sniper, demolitions, infiltration, police procedures. The fact that the church still exists and there have been no attacks on their protests or their homes could be considered a sign of our honorable nature and our respect for the Constitution and the First Amendment – but in all honesty, we know that some members of our military aren’t all that stable and well-adjusted. I, myself, DO respect their First Amendment rights to protest, and would not condone an attack on them – I’d much rather see them taken down by legal means. But I admit to surprise that everyone else is as patient as I.

In the meantime, I’ve thought of another legal way to attack them – I only wish I had the time and finances to make it happen. Get a few hundred or few thousand people together in Topeka, Kansas. Surround the Westboro Baptist Church – preferably right at the start of one of their services. Pass out sheet music. Start singing. I recommend a very short song list – “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Marine Corps Hymn,” “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,” “Semper Paratus” and possibly “The Star-Spangled Banner.” No other songs – just those that are nearest and dearest to those of us in the military. All the verses. Over and over. For hours. Days. Weeks. With enough people involved, we could set up shifts, bring people in for a week at a time on their vacations, replace them when they had to leave. I expect even a couple dozen would be enough to capture media attention – which would probably bring in help from all over the country.

I don’t think it would stop the Phelps family and their few additional followers. But it would annoy them, interfere with their hate-filled message, and might goad them into making mistakes, stepping across the border of legality – and allow us to get rid of them once and for all.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006


I don’t really have any subjects that rate a full-length entry today, but there’s a few items I want to make short comments about…

RenFaire – We went to the Virginia Renaissance Faire last weekend. This Faire needs work. The entire Faire was tents and portable booths in an empty field – no permanent buildings, no electricity or other services (useful for merchants who want to take Lady Visa and Master of the Card). It also failed to convey a medieval atmosphere. The “storyline” performers were weak, and the script was worse. Even the “professional” acts were weak – at least, the few we saw. The bellydancers weren’t bad, especially the one who WASN’T in traditional bellydancing costume – but they had not developed a real show, and spent most of their time watching the audience members they had brought up on stage, especially the three-year-old. The juggler was the absolute worst I’ve ever seen, so bad that he had quite a variety of prepared remarks for when his tricks failed. Admission to the Faire was only $5, so we weren’t surprised at the quality – but hopefully the owners plan to reinvest their profits over the next several years, to build this Faire into something worth attending. In the meantime…we still had fun. Any excuse to get into garb!

Immigration – The Washington Post recently published an article comparing the taxes paid by citizens born in this country and those paid by immigrants. An interesting answer to those foes of illegal immigration who say that the illegals are sucking up government services without paying their share – but why did the researchers find it necessary to combine illegal and legal immigrants into a single group? As far as I know, no rational person is claiming that legal immigration is a problem (members of the KKK do not meet my definition of “rational). So why are they mixing two completely separate cases? A possible explanation can be found in the article itself – the D.C. area attracts a large number of highly-skilled, highly-trained, and highly-paid legal immigrants. Since they make well over the national average, they pay well over the national average in income and property taxes…which, when combined with the sales and other such taxes that even people without a legal identity cannot escape, brings the average for this artificial group up close to the average for native-born citizens. While they did include some of the results that show that illegal immigrants pay less taxes than their percentage of the population, the very title of the article – “Immigrants Pay Tax Share” – tells the world what the point of the article is.

Gay Marriage – President Bush is pushing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. I would have a lot to say about that – but since it has absolutely no real chance of passage, it hardly seems worth it. Politics is supposed to be “the art of the possible.” It is sad that this administration is so far down that the only thing still possible for it is to throw out stumbling blocks to prevent consideration of policies that could actually be accomplished.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Indy vs. NASCAR

I learned some things last time I asked for comments to a posting. (Who knew that other staff got a cut of the tips in some restaurants, or that the ritziest places actually charge their waitpeople to work there? Everyone but me, most likely…) So, I’m asking for comments again. What’s NASCAR got that IndyCar doesn’t?

The Indianapolis 500 ran last weekend, and once again lived up to the title, “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” A great run by Dan Wheldon all day gave way to a photo finish between a driver who had never managed to complete 500 miles before, and the rookie grandson and son of the great Andrettis. And yet, when I came back to the office on Tuesday, nobody but me had a clue. Meanwhile, NASCAR is still growing, pulling in more fans, more sponsors, and more TV exposure all the time. I can go down to the mall and buy all sorts of NASCAR memorabilia – hats, jackets, bumper stickers…but if I ask about Indy, they may point me to the back corner to find a couple of Danica Patrick posters and a dusty Rick Mears sticker - or they may just look at me funny and send me to another store.

Here’s what Indy has.

Speed – The top average speed for a NASCAR race is 188 MPH, with qualifying at 213. That was back in 1988, before the addition of various rules to slow the cars to safer speeds. This year’s Daytona 500 pulled an average speed of 143 MPH, with the polewinner qualifying at 189. That’s on a 2 ½ mile oval with banking on the turns up to 31 degrees. The Indy 500, on a 2 ½ mile rectangular oval with only 9 degrees of banking, ran a 157 MPH average, with the top qualifying speed at over 229. I’m scared to look up what speeds they get on a track with real banking!

Skill – I’m sorry, NASCAR fans, but bumping and nudging is not a measure of skill. In Indy’s open-wheel cars, a bump, nudge, tap, or any other form of contact usually means BOTH drivers hit the wall – so even the worst driver on the track is good enough to avoid that most of the time. If you want to see real white-knuckles racing, look at the picture I posted with this entry – four-wide on the straightaway, fighting for position at 220 miles per hour. None of them touched. Dan Wheldon in the red-and-white car went on to win the race. IndyCar drivers have the skill to stay within a few inches of one another WITHOUT scratching up their paint jobs – or the wall.

Diversity – Indy brings drivers from everywhere. We’ve got drivers from all over the world. A lot of our drivers come from Formula One racing, and find out that turning left 800 times is more challenging than they thought. We’ve got the most famous woman in racing, Danica Patrick – we’ve had women drivers from time to time over the last 30 years, but Danica has the skill and the backing to truly be competitive. She’s still young, but she’s learning fast – I expect her to win some races in another year or two. And we even enticed NASCAR’s own Jeff Gordon into an IndyCar several times. Still not a lot of black drivers…but we’ll get there.

Spectacle – Let’s be honest, some racing fans are watching to see accidents, and even the best driver miscalculates sometimes. This year, two-time winner Helio Castroneves pulled off a rookie mistake and sent himself and Buddy Rice into the wall. I don’t watch NASCAR, so I haven’t seen many of their crashes, but I can’t believe they could be more spectacular than an IndyCar hitting the wall – that usually brings a burst of flame and pieces flying everywhere. To add to the fun, the car may then bounce off and come shooting across the track to the infield – across the path of the other cars still running at 200+. Best of all, those spectacular crashes only rarely result in serious injury – those pieces flying off and the SAFER barriers developed at Indy absorb most of the energy and let the driver walk away, disappointed, but ready to try again at the next race.

Tradition – This year was the 90th running of the Indy 500. There’s not a motor race in the world that can touch that. It’s the most famous race in the world – period. Most people may not watch it, but everyone has heard of it. It has unbreakable traditions, like the playing of Taps, singing Back Home Again in Indiana, drinking the milk in Victory Circle, and of course, the ugliest trophy in sports. We’ve got famous driving families – this year we had a second-generation Foyt, a second-generation Unser (coming back from retirement!), a second-generation Luyendyk, a second-generation Jones, two second-generation Laziers, and a second- and a THIRD-generation Andretti. We have the team rivalries between Penske and Rahal-Letterman, Penske and Ganassi – well, really, Penske and everybody. We even have ongoing stories like the Andretti curse, now 37 years old – which reared up again this year to bite Michael and Marco on the last lap. I realize that the rest of the IRL schedule doesn’t have all of that, but there’s no race anywhere with more tradition than the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

The only thing I can think of in NASCAR’s favor is the stock car tradition – and that is long gone. If they really want to make NASCAR interesting, give the drivers and mechanics new cars straight off the showroom floor and a limited budget at NAPA Auto Parts to buy improvements. Okay, make it an UNlimited budget – as long as the final result is both street-legal and something I could theoretically build in my garage. Now THAT would make for some interesting racing.

So I ask again – what’s NASCAR got that Indy doesn’t?