business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB Archive Search

Please Note: Some MNB articles contain special formatting characters, and may cause your search to produce fewer results than expected.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    by Kevin Coupe

    Enjoy looking at MNB this morning.  It is, I am happy to tell you, the last time it is going to look quite like this.

    That's because on Monday morning, MNB will feature a considerable redesign.

    I'm pleased to announce that MorningNewsBeat has taken on a partner with a significant investment from Accelerate, which describes itself as offering retailers and brands turnkey solutions ranging from Direct Store Delivery (DSD) to Direct to Consumer (DTC) fulfillment, and everything in between.

    Go figure.  MNB is part of "everything in between."

    The fact is, the folks at Accelerate have recognized that, to use a phrase that we often use on MNB, it is critical to be not just a source of product, but also act as a resource.  And I am thrilled that as they build out their platform, they want to use MNB as a foundation.

    The Accelerate team tell me that this is because they see real, tangible value in the way MNB has approached the marketplace for the past 18 years - my goal always has been to illuminate, provoke, and entertain with highly readable prose, disruptive opinion, and an irreverent sense of humor.  They don't want to mess with that.  Not at all.

    So what does this mean for you as the reader, and me as the writer of most things on MNB?

    I can tell you with enormous confidence that in terms of content and attitude, it means very little.  But in terms of delivery, I think it will mean a lot - for one thing, the MNB website now is going to be dynamic for mobile, which readers have told me is a high priority for them.  And, Accelerate is going to be able to provide the kinds of resources that I think will only expand our ability to cover the business climate and communicate in a multitude  of ways, including more video and podcasts, and who knows what else as technology evolves.  (Me, I'm counting on coming to you via hologram before I'm done.)

    One favor.  In a few weeks, we're going to send you a short survey to get a sense of what you like and don't like, and how you use MNB.  (Of course, you don't have to wait until you get the survey to tell me what you think…MNB readers have never been shy about sharing their opinions!)  MorningNewsBeat always has been a community, and your opinion matters.

    So that's my news.  I hope that on Monday when you see what we've been working on, you'll think it is as much an Eye-Opener as I do.  I also hope you'll let me know what you think, you'll inform me if we have any glitches we need to know about, and that you'll tell your friends and co-workers about the new and improved MorningNewsBeat.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    Advertising Age reports that Target-owned delivery service Shipt "is rolling out a new logo and brand campaign designed to attract more members … To attract more members, Shipt is swapping out its green spaceship logo for a shopping bag that better speaks to the brand’s predominantly female base."

    According to the story, "The new campaign, 'Over-delivering Delivery,' will include a series of spots featuring how Shipt shoppers go above and beyond in their quest to meet consumer needs. The campaign will be a mix of national and local TV commercials, and include digital, social and out-of-home advertising."

    The story notes that in addition to delivering for Target, Shipt "works with 89 other retail partners including CVS and Petco."

    KC's View:

    Not to pick a nit - though that's sort of what I do for a living - but I'm always a little skeptical when companies tell me that they are going to over-deliver on their promises.

    Maybe it is just me, but I always sort of think that it is up to me to decide if they've over-delivered or not.   Businesses should make promises and do everything possible to live up to them;  they can have over-delivery as an internal goal, but it should not be part of the ad campaign.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    Yesterday, MNB reported on how Barnes & Noble had to back down from a diversity-oriented project that it hoped would be seen as positive and would improve its tarnished reputation.

    On more time, here's the background…

    The company partnered with Penguin Random House to publish a series of classic novels -  including Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” and L. Frank Baum's “The Wizard of Oz" - for which the covers would portray characters from the books as being dark-skinned.  None of the words would be changed, but the covers were meant to pose a provocative question:  Did you ever consider the ethnicity of the characters in these classic books?

    The thought was that for the most part, ethnicity was never mentioned in the books or factored into characterizations, but the assumption always was made - regardless of the the color of the reader - that they were white.  The new series of covers - marketed as "Diverse Editions" -  were meant to suggest to people of color that these characters could look like them and help them engage with the classic titles.

    To say the least, the effort backfired.

    The criticisms of the series focused on the fact that these novels were not representative of the black experience, and therefore minimized it by trying to suggest that the white experience was universal.  One critic called it “the classics in blackface.”  Others argued that it would have been more powerful and appropriate to republish and promote classic novels by black authors.  And it didn't help that the series was released for Black History Month.

    Barnes & Noble has pulled the books from its shelves and website.

    The company released a statement, saying that the new covers were "not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard."

    And I commented, in part:

    I have no doubt that their intentions were positive, that they wanted to make classic novels more accessible to children of color.  But it assumed that people cannot relate to characters who don't look like them or live like them.  One of the things that literature - and art in general - can do is give us access to lives and experiences unlike ours.  Our lives and insights are broadened, not narrowed.

    I totally agree that the companies would have been better off making books by black authors more available and accessible, which makes me wonder how many black people were in the room when these decisions were made.  I'm not judging here, because I don't know, but is it possible that this misguided attempt to be more diverse actually reflects a lack of diversity?

    I spent some time yesterday on the phone with Alex Ortolani, the company's director of corporate communications, to get a sense of how the initiative was conceived, and one of the things he told me was that the media - and this includes MNB - misunderstood one core fact about the issue.  The "Diverse Editions" were a) just new book jackets with new art that were being put on existing books, and b) were limited to only Barnes and Noble's Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan, and was initiated by that store's management.

    This fascinated me for several reasons.

    I was surprised that a single store in such a big chain could do something so ambitious (and, it ends up, controversial) on its own, though to be fair, this is exactly what new CEO James Daunt promised when he bought the company last year.  (Daunt promised to make the chain's stores more like independent bookshops, autonomous to a large degree and in touch with their local communities.)

    Ortolani said that the Fifth Avenue store could in fact do this because it is such a big and busy store … and agreed that even though the idea went off the rails, it was in keeping with the company's new mandate.

    One of the things that Ortolani conceded was that one of the company's original statements about the controversy - "the booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles…" - could be seen as blaming the Fifth Avenue store, but said that this was not the intent.  He also said that this misstep will not change the company's new strategic direction, and that individual stores will continue to be urged to be ambitious in their efforts.

    As I think about the Barnes & Noble situation, I have some additional observations:

    Especially after my conversation with Ortolani, I remain utterly convinced that this was a well-intentioned idea that just went wrong.  Barnes & Noble did the right thing by reacting fast, and it will do the right thing if iut does not over-correct based on the controversy.

    It occurred to me that all of the artists commissioned to do the new book covers were, in fact, people of color … and none of them objected to the project on moral or ethical grounds.  They did the artwork and they cashed the checks.  This doesn't let Barnes & Noble or Penguin Random House off the hook, but it does suggest that not everyone of color was offended.

    I also think that this is an easy fix for Barnes & Noble, and an enormous opportunity.  If  were Daunt, I'd announce - no later than Monday - that I am underwriting a major marketing program that will highlight the work or both major and less well-know authors of color, complete with in-store and online displays, readings, book signings.  And, I might even underwrite a) a project that would bring to the public the work of unpublished minority writers, and b) writing programs in schools around the country where they are desperate for this kind of investment.  Barnes & Noble, I would guess, could get a lot of publishers to get involved in such projects, and it could be winner for everyone involved.  All they have to say is, "We made a mistake.  We learned from it.  And here's what we are going to do about it."

    There is one silver lining in all this, and I must admit I am surprised by it - all the attention suggests to me that Barnes & Noble's brand has a lot more power and equity than I might have expected.  People may have been disappointed in Barnes & Noble, but they are only disappointed in brands they care about.  That is a foundation upon which Barnes & Noble can build.

    The good news for Barnes & Noble was that for at least a couple of days this week, it got more headlines than Amazon.  It also was the bad news … but I'd suggest that the company look on the bright side.

    As Robin William's literature teacher says in <i>Dead Poets Society</i>, "Carpe diem.  Seize the day."

    Every business can learn another lesson from the same movie, as expressed by Williams' character:   "I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way."

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    The Associated Press reports that "the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration granted temporary approval for Silicon Valley robotics company Nuro to run low-speed autonomous delivery vehicles that were designed without any accommodations for human drivers. That means no side and rear-view mirrors, windshield wipers, steering wheels or brake pedals."  It is, the the story says, the first time that the government "has approved a company’s request to deploy a self-driving vehicle that doesn’t need to meet the same federal safety standards for cars and trucks driven by humans."

    The approval, the AP writes, "is the first sign that NHTSA is moving from abstract statements and voluntary standards governing autonomous vehicles to actual regulation, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies vehicle automation. It’s a signal that the agency, which has stated publicly that it doesn’t want to stand in the way of the new technology, is likely to approve more vehicles, he said."

    Nuro - which has deals with Walmart and Kroger - expects to have fewer than 100 vehicles on the road this year, but has permission from regulators "to eventually run as many as 2,500."

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    The New York Times this morning has a story about improving wearable technology is being designed to help commercial truckers avoid giving into fatigue, which "comes with the job of driving an eighteen-wheeler, even with rules requiring rest stops and limiting driving hours. Now, new technologies are becoming available to alert drowsy drivers, sometimes even before they feel tired … Biometric sensors are getting lighter, cheaper and more accurate, and new software systems can connect driver and vehicle data. The feedback loops these systems create could make the roads safer for everyone."

    Some examples:

    "New wearable technology monitors the drivers but in a more subtle way, and comes in a variety of forms including caps, vests, wristbands and eye wear.

    "Glasses made by Optalert measure the driver’s eye blinking with an LED light monitor.  Eyelids that stay down too long might point to a sleepy driver. The real-time measurements are displayed on a dash-mounted device with alarms and notifications.

    "A headset made by Maven Machines detects if a driver is looking forward through the windshield, up, down or sideways, and measures mirror checks, which can decrease in frequency if a driver is getting tired. The headset detects head bobs and jerks, signs the driver is falling asleep.  This system also notices and can deliver notifications on 'coachable' behaviors that can be improved, like hard braking, and delivers audible routing, weather and other messages as well."

    In addition, "The SmartCap device is a headband that fits into trucker caps, beanies or other head gear. The band measures electronic brain waves and translates them to a measure of alertness or fatigue. It notifies the driver and a central monitoring system if the wearer appears drowsy."

    KC's View:

    As someone who does a lot of long-distance driving, I'd suggest that this technology ought to be available for everyone … and maybe even standard equipment on every motorized vehicle.  (Except the autonomous ones, of course.  Computers don't get sleepy.)

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    From Bloomberg:

    "There are dozens of climate models, and for decades they’ve agreed on what it would take to heat the planet by about 3° Celsius. It’s an outcome that would be disastrous - flooded cities, agricultural failures, deadly heat - but there’s been a grim steadiness in the consensus among these complicated climate simulations.

    "Then last year, unnoticed in plain view, some of the models started running very hot. The scientists who hone these systems used the same assumptions about greenhouse-gas emissions as before and came back with far worse outcomes. Some produced projections in excess of 5°C, a nightmare scenario."

    The problem is, scientists couldn't figure out why the new models showed an acceleration of the problem, or the degree (no pun intended) to which they needed to be taken seriously.

    More from the story:

    "The reason for worry is that these same models have successfully projected global warming for a half century. Their output continues to frame all major scientific, policy and private-sector climate goals and debates, including the sixth encyclopedic assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change due out next year. If the same amount of climate pollution will bring faster warming than previously thought, humanity would have less time to avoid the worst impacts."

    Like I said.  Worth reading.  Here.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    •  In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that none of Hy-Vee's 240 stores no longer will be open 24 hours a day.

    “We have changed our hours to reallocate several team members to be available to assist customers during busier shopping times each day,” said Hy-Vee spokeswoman Christina Gayman.

    According to the story, "Although Cub and Walmart still have Twin Cities locations open 24 hours a day, overall numbers continue to decline locally and nationally for 24-hour supermarkets, discount stores and pharmacies. Analysts cite a number a reasons, including fewer customers in the early morning, online ordering and delivery, and an increase in shoplifting."

    •  From Fast Company:

    "As more and more companies look to curb food waste, fruit scraps and ugly pieces of produce that once went into the compost bin or trash can are finding second lives. Juice pulp has been turned into popsicles, wonky veggies into soups, and now Dutch company Fooditive is turning leftovers from apples and pears, along with the pieces of fruit that are unfit for supermarkets, into a chemical-free sweetener."

    Fooditive, the story says, "aims to be a natural alternative to those other sweetener options in a way that’s healthy for the planet and our own bodies. Fooditive takes third-grade apples and pears - those ones with brown spots or off colors, which wouldn’t be sold in a supermarket - from local Dutch farmers, along with some fruit scraps, and extracts the natural fructose through a fermentation process. The final result is a calorie-free sweetener without many of the concerns of both sugar and other sugar substitutes."

    Those concerns are largely environmental:  "Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame, found in Splenda and Equal, aren’t absorbed by our bodies nor are completely removed by wastewater treatment plants, meaning these sweeteners end up in rivers and oceans, potentially harming aquatic plant and animal life."

    •  From Bloomberg:

    "Visa Inc. is planning the biggest changes in a decade to the rates U.S. merchants pay to accept its cards, hoping to persuade more people to abandon checks and adjusting its fees for new businesses such as ride-hailing services.

    "The company’s interchange rates - fees charged every time a consumer uses a card - will go up or down depending on the merchant and the way a consumer pays for their purchases, according to a document Visa sent to banks that outlines the changes. Higher rates are looming for transactions on e-commerce sites, while retailers in certain services categories, such as real estate and education, will see fees decline."  The company said it is "adjusting its default U.S. interchange rate structure to optimize acceptance and usage and reflect the current value of Visa products."

    Bloomberg notes that "while the changes amount to just a few cents on every transaction, those pennies add up. Swipe fees are already a flashpoint between merchants, banks and payment networks such as Visa and Mastercard Inc. Retailers have long complained about the more than $100 billion they spend each year to accept electronic payments, a figure that’s grown in recent years as fees increase and consumers flock to premium cards, which carry higher interchange rates."

    •  The National Retail Federation (NRF) is predicting that Valentine’s Day spending is expected to grow 32 percent compared to last year to a record $27.4 billion, with consumers saying they will spend an average of $196 apiece, compared to $162 last year.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    •  United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) announced yesterday that chairman/CEO Steven Spinner will remain in that role, having extended is employment agreement through the end of July next year.

    At the same time, interim CFO John Howard has been named the company's CFO … Eric Dorne, the company’s chief information officer and chief administrative officer (CAO), has been named COO … and Paul Green, chief supply chain officer, will take on a new role as president, fresh.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    The other day we took note of a <i>Financial Times</i> report that the Best Buy board of directors has completed its investigation into misconduct allegations against its CEO, Corie Barry, and said that it "supports the continued leadership of the Company by Ms Barry. To preserve the confidentiality and integrity of the process, the Board will have no further comment."

    I commented:

    I was considering just slotting this into the "FastNewsBeat" section, but thought that it would be fairer to give the story clearing Barry the same kind of position that I gave the story about the original allegations. 

    That's especially because we got a number of emails that sort of piled on Barry before we knew any details about the charges. I think sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue, and I would never minimize it, but not every relationship is harassment and not every allegation is true.

    I suspect that Best Buy's board took this very seriously because of the company's history, and so if it cleared her, it must be because she was in the clear.

    One MNB reader responded:

    Thank you for your comments regarding Best Buy and CEO, Corie Barry.  They were spot on. In this day and age we seem to rush to judgment when perhaps we should take care of our own “house” before judging others.  I too believe the Best Buy board would have done their due diligence.

    We keep getting email about the fake ice being used in places too warm for real ice.  MNB reader Grant Ainsworth wrote:

    On the fake ice note – my brother used to use for training on but never actually playing. The best part about it is it can be used like a treadmill with an incline. I do not think this is something you can do near as easy with real ice.

    I referenced a Jeff Goldblum line from <i>The Big Chill</i> the other day, and a reader wrote in to say that a number of co-workers had never heard of the movie.  Prompting MNB reader John Rand to write:

    Which leads to a core question for those of us who have been around a long time: Is it still plagiarism if no one else remembers the source?

    Good question.

    Regarding the Barnes & Noble contretemps, from an MNB reader:

    It’s as though your commentary was reading my mind re: Barnes & Noble publishing white classics in blackface as an effort to “embrace diversity.”  As I was reading the summary, I thought to myself, “I wonder how many POC were involved in this decision.”  Alas, you had the same query.  I was in a conference earlier this week of about 200 regional commercial real estate experts.  Zero diversity.  Zero, and I’m not exaggerating.  Our city’s population is at least half non-white.  I see the articles about Goldman Sachs and the board diversity requirement for future investments.  I like the progress, but boy, it sometimes seems like we have a LONG way to go.

    MNB reader Dan Beard had a thought about yesterday's FaceTime about LL Bean continuing to look for innovative ways to reach new customers:

    On “never letting down your guard,” it’s not just he competition to have an eye on.  The business environment changes hold as many if not more permanent hazards. The demise of Kodak when digital photography changed the landscape is an example.  As always you spark thought invoking conversation, really enjoy your FaceTime.

    MNB reader Ken Robb, however, wanted to quibble with at least one of my observations:

    No question...LL Bean is an American success story.  I used to love their clothing and ordered items from them several times per year.  However, more recently it seems that the quality has least that is my perception.  Instead, now I order from Filson, albeit more expensive, but consistently high quality, with the durability I used to expect from LL Bean.

    I've not found that … but I suspect that having registered that observation here, you may hear from them.

    Regarding Instacart's unionization issues, MNB reader Jeff Weidauer wrote:

    Retailer support and acceptance of InstaCart has never made sense, a point you’ve made several times. This latest effort to unionize brings that point home: InstaCart, its workers, and the retailer each have different and divergent goals. The retailers who welcome this interloper into their domain have invited a Trojan Horse, and they should be prepared for the consequences.

    You're playing my song.

    From another reader, on another subject:

    Regarding Macy’s cost-cutting to invest back into their business, for the last 20-years of my working career I was involved in several cost cutting initiatives with plans to reinvest in the business.  Did it work? Yes, when we reinvested in the business AND did not do more of the same that got us into the cost cutting mode.  No, when we invested it to do more of the same or chose to drop the savings to the bottom line instead of investing back into the business.

    In my piece about Macy's issues, I asked who its target shopper is, which prompted MNB reader Michael D. Benghiat to write:

    In my opinion it's not "who is the target shopper" but rather "where is the target shopper."

    Your piece that follows,  Mall Owners Take Novel Approach To Retailer Bankruptcy, hits on this. Malls are looking like "ghost towns." With the exception of a handful of malls that are still driving traffic (like Somerset Mall here in Troy, MI), malls are just not where shoppers are going. Not to mention online having an impact.

    Second, I agree about the experience -- it's lacking. It is quite "vanilla" as you put it. But also, I feel the shopper wants something more personalized. My wife really has stopped shopping at the big box retailers such as Macy's and prefers smaller, more "boutique" type shops. Now this may be age-related but when you step into a Macy's or any like retailer and get the assistance you need that does indeed play into the experience.

    I met with Peter Sachse once, a former Macy's C-suite executive who held various marketing/sales/digital/revenue roles; he is a smart guy but no matter the strategy and shifts in business plans it didn't seem to change the outcome. It's happened to so many as you know and the don't need mentioning.

    It will continue to be a struggle for these once iconic retail brand names to remain relevant. Maybe the smaller brand extensions or "off-shoots" will prevail to keep those brands from permanently dying off.

    From another reader:

    Cutting for prosperity would be known for what it is - a corporate death spiral. We’ve stopped shopping at Macy’s because of their greatest flaw and one that will be worsened by the cuts. Store staff, especially in Kansas City, has been cut to the bone. If you want to buy something, finding someone to actually take your money is almost impossible.  The KC store offered a form of ‘self checkout’ which I thought was a way around the lack of staff. Except the last step of the procedure when you had to find someone to verify your purchase. They would be better off finding ways to make it easier to buy rather than more difficult.  Off to Nordstrom’s, I guess, which is just 100 yards down from Macy’s.

    Except Nordstrom is moving. Dead mall walking?

    And from yet another reader:

    Macy’s has devolved into a shoddy discount store with no real message. I used to enjoy shopping there, but their ‘Backstage’ is a trash heap. If they want to be a discounter, then go all in and do it. Make it something innovative, tell me - the customer - what to expect. I’m not in the least surprised they’re closing stores.

    And there you have it.

    A note from MNB reader Bob Samples:

    Kevin, a few of your stories today had a common theme.

    Your blog today talked about how Macy’s announced a plan to go from 800 stores (at its peek) to 400.  Looking past that we see that:

    9,300 retails stores closed in 2019

    50 Earth Fare stores are closing 2020

    39 Lucky’s are closing in 2020

    120 Shopko’s are closing in 2020

    All while Amazon stock eclipses $2,050/share (it was $374 five yrs ago).

    See a pattern?

    Finally, yesterday I mentioned that "there are generations of people who have no idea who Jim Croce was and who never have listened to his music. Which is a shame.

    You don't tug on Superman's cape
    You don't spit into the wind
    You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
    And you don't mess around with Jim…

    MNB reader Kevin Watkins wrote:

    My 21-year-old son somehow stumbled across Jim Croce’s music and loves it.

    And, from MNB reader Brad Morris:

    For Christmas 1975 my grandparents gave me my first record player. I had just turned eleven, and they thought I would like more music than I could listen to on my little AM transistor radio. Now I needed some records to play on it. I only had $10 in saved allowance; enough to buy two albums. I bought Jim Croce’s Greatest Hits (he had passed two years earlier) and Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. While that record player and all the subsequent records are long-gone, I still listen to both of those albums today via Apple Music.

    There never seems to be enough time

    To do the things you want to do

    Once you find them

    I've looked around enough to know

    That you're the one I want to go

    Through time with…

    Great stuff.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    Digital strategies aren't just about creating alternatives to the bricks-and-mortar shopping experience.  Done effectively, they can actually bring people back to the store, while also eliminating customer anonymity, creating rich and actionable data, and deepen relationships between the store and consumer in a way that transcends the simple transaction.

    Our newest Retail Tomorrow podcast, which brings together a terrific panel of experts from a wide range of disciplines, was recorded at Google’s New York City offices during the recent National Retail Federation (NRF) Show.  Our guests:

    •  Matt Alexander, co-founder of Neighborhood Goods, an unusual and fascinating take on physical retailing with stores in Dallas and New York.

    •  Patrick Flanagan, senior vice president of digital marketing and strategy for Simon,  which has more than 200 properties in 37 states and Puerto Rico.

    •  Tom Furphy, CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners, a member of the Retail Tomorrow podcast family and a regular contributor to "The Innovation Conversation" on MNB.

    •  And Jalna Silverstein, a leader in Ernst & Young’s Transaction Advisory Practice and its Real Estate, Consumer Experience and Retail Strategy.

    You can listen to the podcast here.

    This Retail Tomorrow podcast is sponsored by the Global Market Development Center (GMDC).

    Pictured below are our panel members, from left:  The Content Guy, Matt Alexander, Tom Furphy, Patrick Flanagan, Jalna Silverstein.

    Published on: February 7, 2020

    Last weekend, as was mentioned here on MNB earlier this week, I found myself in a  New Rochelle, New York, movie theater watching a live simulcast of "Porgy and Bess," which was being performed at the same time at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

    To be honest, I wasn't there by choice.  Mrs. Content Guy's twin sister got tickets for a bunch of family members, and so I was persuaded that, if I were a good husband, I'd join them for the almost four hour opera.

    I am not, to be clear, an opera guy.  I recognize that this my failing, not opera's.  It just doesn't resonant with me, or touch my soul or heart in any way.  Probably because I'm an ignoramus.

    (I am the guy who wrote here on MNB back in 2004, after having attended a CIES event in Rome at which Andrea Bocelli sang - I was reliably informed that people would've donated kidneys to hear him sing in person - that he seemed to have a nice enough voice, but lacked the kind of stage presence that allowed him to connect with the audience.  I swear - I had no idea he was blind.  But I got a ton of email the next day, all of which I posted on MNB, informing me that I was a moron.  They weren't wrong.)

    That said, I found "Porgy and Bess" to be an interesting and provocative experience, though it had nothing to do with the music (which includes songs like "Summertime," "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York).

    Credit: Metropolitan Opera

    Written in 1935 by George and Ira Gershwin and DeBose Heyward, the English language opera features an almost entirely black cast, and takes place in an impoverished black community on coast of South Carolina.  I found myself troubled by what I was seeing almost from the beginning;  I was aware that "Porgy and Bess" was written by three white men, and yet its dialog is what I think of as being stereotypical and sort of insulting black dialect.  It just bothered me, and it was almost worse that the lyrics were projected on the screen as subtitles - hearing people speak that way was one thing, but seeing the words written that way was simply awful.

    And yet … the opera was being performed by black actors and singers who clearly were not insulted by it.  It was introduced onscreen by actress Audra McDonald, who not only was not insulted by it, but won a Tony for playing Bess in a Broadway production several years ago.  If they weren't bothered by it, why should I be?  

    I actually sound the most interesting part of the simulcast to be a series of interviews that took place onscreen during the intermission, in which Audra McDonald spoke to some of the artists and creators, and discussed the fact that "Porgy and Bess" has been a controversial theatrical work.  (At least I wasn't the only one who was bothered.)

    The most interesting interview was with Camille A. Brown, who choreographed the piece, and she spoke about the fact that while seen from a 2020 perspective it might seem anachronistic and maybe even offensive to some, the fact is that it does represent one part of the black experience in America, specific to the south and the early part of the 20th century.  Black people, she said, have "blood memory" about such things - they connect to it precisely because it represents part of their past.  Not their whole past, to be sure, and certainly not their present.  And she suggested that while it is important to see it through 2020 eyes, it is equally important to understand the context in which it was written and produced.

    After all, when the show was originally staged in the mid-thirties, the Gershwins insisted on an all-black cast, which was highly unusual for the time.

    I was intrigued by this, and it allowed me to see the second half with a different sort of mindset.  It still sort of bothered me, but the words "blood memory" stayed with me for the duration, and still do.  They helped to illuminate the importance of seeing things through other people's eyes, and why it is critical to go beyond the top layers of any situation and try to get a deeper sense of understanding.

    I still don't like opera.  I told Mrs. Content Guy that if the offer gets made again, I respectfully decline.  And again, I know it is about me, not opera.

    "Star Trek: Picard" is now three episodes into its 10-part first season, and I continue to be thoroughly engaged by the fresh look at Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, who was captain of the starship Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Next Generation."  This is Picard in the late autumn of his life, finding new meaning as he confronts a United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command that have become fearful and intolerant, xenophobic and flirting with amorality, attitudes contrary to how he has lived his personal and professional life in the service of both.

    Watching Stewart's Picard awaken from the apparent lethargy in which he's been spending his later years, ensconced on his family's vineyard in France, is pure pleasure - the character may be almost 90 (Stewart is almost 80), but there is a sense of resolute decency, intelligence and compassion in every fiber of his being.  Watching him come to life, finding new well of energy to propel him - far more than warp engines - into this new and possibly last adventure, is enormously entertaining.  Not to mention thoughtful.  Provocative.  Even timely.

    If you haven't watched "Star Trek: Picard," on the CBS All Access streaming service, you should.  It is wonderful.

    My wine of the week - the 2016 Terre di Chieti Pecorino, which is a lovely Italian white wine, full bodied and tasty, and perfect with seafood.

    That's it for this week … have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.