Taco Bell’s certified-vegetarian menu could win me back

Taco Bell logoSurely, you’ve heard the jokes – or made up your own.

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: Because there was a Taco Bell on the other side.

Q: What do you do after placing an order at Taco Bell?
A: Look the cashier in the eyes and say, “We never had this conversation.”

Or maybe when you heard Taco Bell’s former slogan “Run for the border,” you snickered and said “Run for the bathroom.”

Now, the company once famous for its talking Chihuahua mascot has taken a decidedly serious move. On Thursday, it announced a certified vegetarian menu, thus laying a claim as the first quick-serve restaurant to do so.

Among Taco Bell’s announced veggie items are the Cantina Power Veggie Bowl and the 7-Layer Burrito. The 35 ingredients that constitute the 13 all-veggie items also are certified by the American Vegetarian Association, and some of those ingredients can be swapped out to make the meals vegan.

All items are available now at each of Taco Bell’s 6,000 restaurants nationwide.

This matters to me because Taco Bell once was my fast-food place of choice. Their bean burritos and tostadas were better than typical fast fare, were less expensive, and they fit nicely into my family’s veggie-only lifestyle.

“We get it – being a vegetarian can be tough when you go out to eat,” Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol said in Thursday’s news release.

But not long after the chain trotted out Gidget, the Chihuahua star of its “Yo quiero Taco Bell” promotion in the late 1990s, Taco Bell’s image went to the dogs.

In 2000, Taco Bell, a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., was swept up in a Kraft Foods recall of taco shells made from genetically altered corn. In 2006 and 2007, it was accused of having unsafe sanitation practices after customers were sickened by E.coli contamination traced to lettuce and spinach in some meals.

And in 2011, the chain battled accusations that its seasoned beef was less than 40 percent real beef. (Not that I had a beef with their beef, but the controversy planted doubts in many consumers’ minds about the authenticity of other ingredients.)

By catering to a veggie crowd – and with an AVA-certified menu at that – Taco Bell may be taking additional steps toward putting all that bad news behind it, and maybe win me back as well.

If the Chihuahua trots back out, however, watch me trot away and never return.

Colin Powell: Digital transformation success requires leadership

2008 photo of Colin Powell

Colin Powell in 2008. (Photo by Rob Reed / Creative Commons)

Digital transformations rely on much more than technology and investment to succeed; they require buy-in from everyone involved, from the board room on down. Ensuring that buy-in requires strong leadership.

No less an authority on leadership than Colin Powell insists as much. The former U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs is on the record as a firm believer in digital transformation.

In today’s digital society, “if you do not get at the front of change, change will override you,” he said recently. “(The world) has gone from analog to digital, and we are in up to our ears.”

Powell’s acknowledges his motives in this regard are more personal now; he says he stays abreast of the latest tech to keep up with his grandchildren. For a large portion of his career, however, Powell lived at the nexus of both war and peace, first as an Army four-star general, then as the nation’s top diplomat.

In both roles, he led large numbers of people through times of significant transition. The Cold War ended on his watch, supplanted by a globalized economy driven by economics and the information revolution. Two monolithic institutions, the U.S military and the State Department, suddenly needed to change course, and Powell was in the driver’s seat.

He admits being intimidated at first by the size and scope of the disruption. Yet Powell believes that his years of Army training prepared him for the challenge of quelling it.

“When I became … a general, and I was running wars and large military operations, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who were experts in their fields: communicators, artillery men, you name it, and I drew on their expertise,” Powell said in 2009. “It was important to know what they think.

“After listening to all the experts, I was supposed to use that expertise to inform my instinct. … It is an educated, informed instinct that is daily shaped by my experts, but at the same time you’ve got to apply judgement to it. That’s where the human dimension comes in.”

The same strategy applies to digital transformation in the business world. Transformations are large engagements requiring risk and resources. A well-informed CEO will understand how to balance the two.

“You’ve got to have CEOs who not only apply their experience but are willing to take the risks that your data people and subordinates aren’t willing to take, because that’s not their job,” Powell said.

Good CEOs also train their staffs properly, recognize good performance, correct poor performance, allow staff autonomy, and remembers to treat everyone with respect and compassion, Powell says. Each of these elements factors into effective digital transformations along with the technology. Remaining mindful of all of them allows business leaders to stay ahead of the digital curve.

“You can’t just match change,” Powell said. “(Competitors) will be somewhere else by the time you match them, and you will still get left behind.”

11 programming languages that will improve your life

11 programming languages you should learn nowNot long ago, I wrote a piece for Perficient describing how learning to write computer code can improve one’s life, no matter who you are or what you do. I explained code writing’s value beyond being a marketable skill – that it promotes technical literacy and instills a sense of community, and that it heightens critical thinking and teaches us how to deal with failure. The piece was well-received, and the feedback suggests readers return to it periodically for review.

Soon after it published though, people asked the inevitable follow-up question: “If I have to invest the time and money into learning a programming language, which one should it be?”

I thought about issuing a quick response, then hesitated – for weeks. What seemed like an easy question lost that quality as I realized no single answer exists; programming benefits each person differently, and at peak effectiveness no one language stands alone. In my early programming days, the languages one learned were created to communicate simple instructions to a computer. Now, programming languages are created to make our lives and the world around us better. How you work or play, or how you mix the two, determines which languages are optimal.

Currently, a dozen programming languages sit atop most should-learn lists. Some are broadly practical; some apply to specific needs. All of them interact with other languages, so learning two or more is wiser – and potentially more profitable – than sticking with one. In alphabetical order, they are:

C – A general-purpose language developed in the early 1970s, C retains market popularity and usefulness due to its small size and robust nature. Numerous other languages borrow from C, which makes it a bedrock language and the first for anyone who plans to develop operating systems or create embedded applications.

C++ – Designed in the 1980s to enhance C, this language now qualifies as a general-purpose language used to build application software, systems software, server and client applications, and video games, and is central to Adobe programs and Firefox, among other software.

C# – This newer language, pronounced “C sharp,” utilizes principles from C and C++ and was developed by Microsoft to build enterprise applications for the company’s .NET initiative, making it essential to Microsoft platforms and services such as Azure.

Java – Developed by Sun Microsystems in the 1990s, this language has gained a huge following because it was designed to work across multiple platforms. Java is considered a standard for games, mobile apps, and web-based content, and it is the main reason programs written for Mac platforms can run on Windows.

JavaScript – Despite the name similarity with Java, this language has C at its core and runs only on browsers, whereas Java can run at the machine level. Every modern website with interactive or animated features uses JavaScript, and it appears in game development and desktop applications.

Objective-C – This popularity of this general-purpose language was waning until it became a key building block for development of Apple systems. It powers not just OS X and iOS, but also is important for creating iPhone apps.

PHP – A server-side scripting language like JavaScript but with general-purpose programming capabilities, PHP (known also as Hypertext Processor) is essential to dynamic websites and content management systems such as WordPress because it can be embedded into website markup language instead of sitting in an external file. PHP appears on most of today’s data-driven websites.

Python – The true beauty of this server-side scripting language is its simplicity; programmers can do more things with fewer lines of code than other programs, making Python a good language for beginners to learn. Google and Yahoo use Python a lot, and it is useful for sifting through giant data sets.

R – This language is important in the statistical computing and graphics environments, and can be found anywhere the need for statistical analysis arises. If you enjoy math and deal with heaps of data, this language ranks high on your should-learn list.

Ruby – No, this does not refer to the gemstone or anyone in Donald Fagen’s playlist. Ruby is a dynamic though simple object-oriented language that lies beneath the Ruby on Rails framework. It has the power necessary for developing websites as well as web apps, and is gaining popularity among tech startups for its versatility and ease of use.

SQL – Called “Structured Query Language,” this special-purpose lingua franca is good for relational database management systems and quite effective at extracting small details from large data sets through its “query” function.

Remember Mike Brown – and William and Angela

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting.

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting. (Photo by David Sheets)

In Ferguson, Mo., at least three permanent monuments recall Mike Brown.

In south St. Louis, there are only stains on the street where William Crume and Angela Wysinger perished.

In Ferguson, a brass plaque bearing Brown’s likeness and another plate shaped like a dove flank where he was shot dead in the street at Canfield Green apartments a year ago. On the spot where the teenager’s body lay in the summer sun for four hours is a rectangle of new asphalt; Brown’s family had the old asphalt scooped up as a keepsake.

In south St. Louis, dark, greasy stains from candle wax remain on the pavement and sidewalk at 11th Street and Park Avenue in the LaSalle Park neighborhood. There, near a concrete light pole, is where Crume and Wysinger died in March, killed in their car during a drive-by shooting. Two days afterward, about 70 people lit candles and stood in silence around a 17-foot wrap of balloons, ribbons and stuffed animals tied to the pole as a memorial to the couple.

Brown died in a confrontation with police officer Darrin Wilson. Brown was said to be unarmed. Wilson shot six times at Brown for reasons that protracted scrutiny has not made entirely clear.

Crume, 23, and Wysinger, 26, were killed as shooters from at least one passing vehicle fired multiple times into their car as it rolled east on Park Avenue. The shots also injured one of Wysinger’s three children – ages 2, 7 and 9 – riding in the back seat. Police say Crume and Wysinger were unarmed and probably knew their assailants.

Brown’s death triggered weeks of unrest in Ferguson and turned a magnifying glass on the way some municipal governments and police perform their duties. In many communities around the country, officers now wear cameras on their uniforms to account for their actions.

Little has happened in the wake of Crume’s and Wysinger’s deaths. The authorities presume the shooting was an act of retribution but still do not know who is responsible.

This week, millions of people worldwide remembered the events in Ferguson on the first anniversary of Brown’s death.

This week, hardly anyone will remember Crume and Wysinger.

But the young couple also deserve our attention, our remembrance, as much as Brown. His death, though tragic, raised awareness of pervasive social and legal imbalances in our government and the courts, and hammers home the need for changes in how the public and police deal with each other.

Crume and Whysinger died in an act of rage that hammers home the stark reminder of our obligation to be just and civil to one another. Lacking that, we risk leaving a legacy that amounts to little more than wax stains on sidewalks.

“You see a family shot up like this needlessly – the car was riddled with bullets. Just senseless,” Metropolitan Police Capt. Michael Sack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March. “It’s frustrating to have to deal with and try to find those responsible for it.”

6 tips for using Twitter like a professional

Twitter logoTwitter has been with us for almost a decade, yet we remain amazed at the things people tweet about. Personal beliefs. Private conversations. Elicit behavior. Groundless criticism. Uneducated perspective. Even public relations people, journalists and other professional communicators are guilty of excess and irresponsibility in their tweets.

Of course, plenty of twitterers in these fields set excellent examples. People such as Kenna Griffin, Callie Schweitzer and Sree Sreenivasan employ the platform in ways the rest of us should observe closely.

But what remains out of billions of tweets often resembles boorishness and self-aggrandizement, impugning and assuming, snobbery and effrontery.

When I was a newspaper reporter and editor, any attempt to garner attention through public channels was frowned upon and seen as ethically dubious, if not forbidden by company policy. Today, persistent and effusive social media use is considered essential to one’s employment, if for no other reason than to continually trumpet a media “brand.”

This deep knee bend to branding is ominous, thanks largely to such popular social media measuring sticks as Klout assigning overstated significance to digital socialization — a significance weighted in favor of quantity instead of quality. If we agree to hold up these sticks as accurate, then news reporting and corporate communications via social media will suffer the same dearth of quality.

Media consumers derive a certain assurance from a professional communicator’s detachment. That assurance peters out when, say, news providers shout above the loud partisan polemic drowning out rational thought — a polemic they help create.

The solution, short of avoiding social media altogether, is to exert greater care in separating personal from professional Twitter content. Despite claims that a personal touch demystifies media and makes information more consumable, personalization also blurs the line separating judgment from fact. When journalists and corporate communicators get too personal, they damage their own credibility and the credibility of their employers and put their professions at risk of being marginalized.

So, preserve your credibility and avoid marginalization in the workplace by following these six tips for better Twitter usage:

Separate personal from professional tweets — If this means creating separate Twitter accounts, then do it. At the same time, refrain from using the company logo or any derivative as a personal avatar.

Exercise care with criticism — Do you love Danielle Steel’s latest novel? Do you hate the plot twist in “Game of Thrones”? Fine, but avoid posting those opinions unless they are relevant to the job. Opinions water down the objectivity that professional communicators need for peak performance.

Avoid discussing company matters — If discord exists between management and staff in the workplace, or personnel matters prove irksome, then venting discontent via veiled insults on social media will undermine others’ faith in you and could prove actionable in a court of law. Similarly, honesty and accountability regarding one’s own errors denote respectability.

Rein in the urge to be defensive — By their nature, news media and corporate communicators invite criticism. Some of that criticism can be mean-spirited and vindictive. Avoid driving a conversation further down the same dark road. As humorist Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people; they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

Resist posting vacation and food photos — It’s always good to get away from it all, but avoid dragging readers and viewers too far along with you. That beach picture showing Diamond Head in the background, while pretty, smacks of braggadocio, and may even suggest a laxity about work — especially if the picture puts you in one place while the calendar says you should be somewhere else. Food photos, on the other hand, pose a problem rooted in esthetics: Food never looks as good in social media as it does sitting on the plate in front of us.

Avoid making sales pitches — Ensure personal and business brand integrity by not distributing or re-tweeting sales pitches or links to special deals. Leave that up to the sales people at work who are supposed to market those products.

The last time I saw my mother

Me and my mother, circa 1964

Me and my mother, circa 1964.

My mother’s last words to me weren’t words, but a wan smile and wave.

She was propped upright in bed by an armada of fluffy pillows tucked inside starched white slipcases. Her blue, flannel nightgown was a hand-me-down from her own mother; she loved it so. It was as crisp as the slipcases.

The hospice workers changed her bed sheets every four hours to keep her comfortable because my mother loved the smell and feel of laundered linen. She looked like a used toy nestled in a new package.

I had flown home to sit by her bedside when she was awake and tidy up her affairs when she wasn’t, which was often. A few days earlier, in a long and tense phone call with my uncle, I had agreed with him that she would never leave the hospice, and that the clean sheets and pain medication were the only things left to offer.

“I know you’ve been busy,” my uncle said. “But maybe you should come see her as soon as you can.”

This was a frequent refrain. For months, my mother seemed on the edge of the abyss, then I would visit and she would pull back, just not far enough to get her out of hospice. I had mounted each trip to see her as if it were my last.

Something’s different this time, my uncle said. He was by my mother’s bedside two days earlier trying to engage her, trying to determine if she was still aware of the present amid her incomprehensible mumblings about the past. The conversation was, as usual, one-sided, until my mother halted mid-mumble, looked at him and said with unusual clarity, “I’m never going to leave this place, am I?”

When I arrived straight from the airport, she was sleeping so deeply not even the hospice workers could rouse her. A desert breeze wafted through open windows to freshen her small room.

“She does that,” a hospice aide told me, shrugging. “One day, she’s awake and her appetite is good. Next day, she sleeps through everything and won’t eat. It’s getting harder to wake her when that happens.”

She slept through the first day of my four-day visit and the second. On the third, she was awake when I arrived in the morning. We talked – rather, she talked, and I tried to make sense of what she was saying. Much of it seemed to be about her upbringing in Utah and Hawaii, about her own uncles and aunts and cousins I never met, about events that occurred more than generation before I entered the world.

The whole time she talked, I was one of those uncles or cousins. She spoke as if I had been a witness to each event she recounted.

“I’m David, Mom,” I repeated several times that day. “I’m your son.”

At each, she would bunch her brow, look at me and say softly, “Oh.”

At each, a knot formed in my chest.

The fourth and final day of my visit started like the first two. My mother was deep asleep and stayed that way past noon. Attendants bathed her and changed her bedclothes, yet she did not stir. My time with her was trickling away. I looked around the room at the few belongings she had left – a framed watercolor that once hung in my grandmother’s house; pictures of my uncle’s children and a 20-year-old picture of me; a gray, stuffed cat that resembled her real cat, which she had to give up upon entering hospice. I bought the stuffed cat when she began spending more time in hospitals than at home.

At last, an hour before my flight was due to leave, she opened her eyes and stared at me. No words, just a long stare from eyes that were tired and dark and dull. I tried spurring conversation by recalling pieces of the broken stories she had strewn across her mind. I pointed to and described the watercolor, the family pictures, the cat.


Finally, I rose to leave and leaned over to kiss her forehead. Her skin was smooth and cool. Her white hair was pushed against the pillow. I pressed her knotty hand into mine.

“It’s time for me to go, Mom,” I whispered. “You take care of yourself. I’ll be back to visit very soon.”

I headed toward the door, and as I opened it to leave I turned around to wave goodbye. She had raised her hand slowly to wave back, grasping at the air as if reaching for a knob. The sagging corners of her mouth turned up and her lips formed a slight smile. For a moment, my mother’s eyes also appeared to brighten.

I have thought of that moment each Mother’s Day since. I probably will remember it each Mother’s Day hereafter, and I wish I had swept up and bundled as many better memories of her that I could summon.

But the smile and wave told me more than all she had tried to say in words. For in that instant, I believe she remembered who I was, why I was there, and what I meant to her.

And there were no words that could express those things any better.

In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

The Five W'sIn a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, our words demand special consideration before displaying them in public.

For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and preserve credibility.

So, consider putting patience high on your list of obligations each time you write online. Armed with it, writers and editors are more likely to catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding that patience. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help to install social media speed bumps — a set of objectives that forces introspection. If you’re not sure where to start with that, employ journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Although social media networks permit users to put followers into groups, most users don’t do that. The result: their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances where one post intended for a particular group of followers insults or offends all the others. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly. Make certain whether you’re eschewing or embracing conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume that the faster we post, the more likely other people will think we’re reporting “news.” Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” were just as important as the information itself. In reality, no newspaper stopped printing and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we believe Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have the same audiences, the same reach. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

(A version of this blog post originally appeared in The Freelance Journalist, a blog managed by the Society of Professional Journalists.)