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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Yes, The Airlines WANT You To Suffer-- And Make Sure You Do

Airlines are making tremendous profits by selling their customers misery

Friday, The New Yorker ran a piece by Tim Wu, Why Airlines Want To Make You Suffer. It's not a comedy piece. Like us, he was disgusted with Jet Blue going over to the anti-customer dark side, lamenting now the airline had previously "distinguished itself by providing decent, fee-free service for everyone, an approach that seemed to be working: passengers liked the airline, and it made a consistent profit. Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.” In November, the airline, under new management, announced that it would follow United, Delta, and the other major carriers by cramming more seats into economy, shrinking leg room, and charging a range of new fees for things like bags and WiFi."
It seems that the money was just too good to resist. In 2013, the major airlines combined made about $31.5 billion in income from fees, as well as other ancillaries, such as redeeming credit-card points. United pulled in more than $5.7 billion in fees and other ancillary income in 2013, while Delta scored more than $2.5 billion. That’s income derived in large part from services, such as baggage carriage, that were once included in ticket prices. Today, as anyone who travels knows well, you can pay fees ranging from forty dollars to three hundred dollars for things like boarding in a “fast lane,” sitting in slightly better economy-class seats, bringing along the family dog, or sending an unaccompanied minor on a plane. Loyal fliers, or people willing to pay a giant annual fee, can avoid some of these charges; others are unavoidable.

...If fees are great for airlines, what about for us? Does it make any difference if an airline collects its cash in fees as opposed to through ticket sales? The airlines, and some economists, argue that the rise of the fee model is good for travellers. You only pay for what you want, and you can therefore save money if you, for instance, don’t mind sitting in middle seats in the back, waiting in line to board, or bringing your own food. That’s why American Airlines calls its fees program “Your Choice” and suggests that it makes the “travel experience even more convenient, cost-effective, flexible and personalized.”

But the fee model comes with systematic costs that are not immediately obvious. Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

The necessity of degrading basic service provides a partial explanation for the fact that, in the past decade, the major airlines have done what they can to make flying basic economy, particularly on longer flights, an intolerable experience. For one thing, as the Wall Street Journal has documented, airlines have crammed more seats into the basic economy section of the airplane, even on long-haul flights. The seats, meanwhile, have gotten smaller-- they are narrower and set closer together. Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports who worked in the airline industry for many years, studied seat sizes and summarized his findings this way: “The roomiest economy seats you can book on the nation’s four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s.”

Boarding for non-élite flyers has also become a miserable experience. There are far more efficient ways to load planes than the current back-to-front method, which is actually slower than random boarding. The process takes longer still thanks to the practice of letting flyers with status board out of turn and thanks to luggage charges, which compel fee-avoiders to cram their bags into overhead compartments. Airlines lack a real incentive to fundamentally improve boarding for everyone-- by, for example, investing in methods such as filling both ends of an airplane at once. It would make life better and also defeat the status racket."

And Tim was just talking about America, where airlines at least make some token gesture to concepts of vestigial democracy. Imagine what it's like in a traditionally authoritarian or feudal society like South Korea. In fact, don't imagine. Earlier today DWT carried an apocryphal post about KAL and feudalism in the 21st Centuries skies.

Too big to fire

My favorite part of the on-going Korean Air scandal is how it exposed the relationship between the plutocracy and the working class. First, meet Cho Hyun-ah, an heiress-- daughter of Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho. Part of her patrimony, apparently is an executive vice presidency at the airline-- and an attitude towards the little people that would make Leona Helmsley blush. As for her very own little people, Cho flew to Hawaii last May to give birth to twin sons so that they would have U.S. citizenship-- something wealthy South Koreans like to do... just in case something goes wrong (and so that they kids don't have to serve in the Korean military).

OK, first the facts in the more recent scandal that has led to Cho be fired by her embarrassed father. She was flying-- first class, of course-- from JFK back to Korea on December 5. She flipped out when a flight attendant handed her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of in a bowl. People in first class get their macadamias in bowls, while the peasants get their bags of peanuts in bags. She went nuts! She summoned the senior steward in charge and demanded an explanation, which didn't satisfy her. So she ordered the plane back to the gate so the flight attendant could be thrown off the plane. And the plane's captain obeyed! Ah... the power and arrogance of Korea's chaebol (family-run mega-conglomerates). Cho's family is especially hated in Korea, and Hanjin, the parent company of Korean Air, got its start serving the U.S. military in the 1940s. Several years ago, Cho's brother, Won-Tae Cho, another spoiled brat and another executive vice-president of the airline and other Hanjin subsidiaries, was investigated by police for shoving an elderly woman who confronted him about his reckless driving. Earlier the patriarch himself, who is a well-known crook, was convicted, along with his own father brother, of tax evasion.
The abused flight attendant who was attacked and berated by an airline executive when he failed to serve her nuts in a bowl on a flight from New York to South Korea is sharing his story.

Screaming Cho Hyun-ah, a senior vice-president at the airline and daughter of the airline's chairman, angrily demanded the removal of the crew member, Park Chang-jin, from the flight when he gave her macadamia nuts in a bag.

She then forced the Incheon-bound flight to taxi back to the terminal at New York's JFK Airport to kick the junior flight attendant off the plane.

Now, Chang-jin has revealed that several officials from Korean Air asked him to deny the incident ever happened.

'People who haven't experienced will not understand that feeling of being insulted and shamed,' Chang-jin told a South Korean television station on Friday.

He said after being berated by  Hyun-ah, he and a fellow flight attendant actually dropped to their knees in front of the woman begging for forgiveness, this as she 'poked the back of his hand with a corner of the flight manual book several times.'

Because she is the daughter of the chairman, he says he had no choice but to follow her orders, returning the plane and deboarding, taking a separate flight home.

  When he got home however, 'five to six officials from Korean Air came to visit his home every day and asked him to give a false account to authorities of what happened.'

What's more, they 'asked him to tell investigators that Cho did not use abusive language and that he voluntarily got off the plane.'
There was talk about Cho being arrested and the family firm did all it could to paper over the whole incident and contain the damage. The Straits Times was eager to give their side of the story.
While it is easy to write her off as another hoity-toity power-abusing chaebol heiress, the hotel management-trained Ms Cho undertook initiatives to improve Korean Air, which she joined in 1999.

Under her charge, the airline had a major image overhaul, complete with new uniforms, redesigned cabin interiors and improved inflight service and duty-free offerings. In 2005, it achieved US$158 million (S$207 million) in duty-free sales, reportedly the highest-ever by any airline at that time.

This figure is expected to hit US$190 million this year, according to travel retail magazine The Moodie Report, which described Ms Cho as a "highly driven individual by her own admission" in a 2006 interview.

Ms Cho was also credited with revamping the inflight magazine and giving it a much-needed feminine touch. She also spent three years convincing La Mer to join the airline's duty-free offerings-- a first for the luxury skincare brand.

"I try to be an ambassador to introduce new and great brands to Koreans who travel," she told Moodie Report.
Cho hasn't been arrested yet but... that could actually happen. A transport ministry official has been arrested for helping with the family coverup. I'm sure he assumed that was part of his job. He's in jail now. The relationship between government functionaries and the families that run the chaebols is, at best, unhealthy and the Cho incident is an opportunity for reform groups to shed light on the sleaze that permeates the whole system.
A local civic group asked the prosecution Friday to look into suspicions that government officials got free upgrades from the country's top airline, Korean Air Lines Co., which is at the center of controversy over an air-rage incident.

...The civic group's move came after allegations surfaced that several ranking transportation ministry officials were bumped up to business class regularly for free.

"Such allegations could be interpreted as bribery," People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy said in a press release, adding that Korean Air executives suspected of giving such privileges to ministry officials could face breach of trust charges.

The ministry said it will launch an internal inspection into the mounting allegations and will take appropriate disciplinary measures against those who received free upgrades.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Heaven And Hell: Hawaii’s Magnificent Volcano Hotspot

- by Sally Fensome

Ah Hawaii… (let’s cue the tranquil wave soundtrack for a moment) a place which has a place in all our hearts, which lives in our dreams and usually sits in the top 10 of places to see bucket list. Hawaii-- that great tropical paradise which seemingly bursts with wildlife from the lush forests that cascade down from rugged cliffs all the way to the turquoise shores, lined charmingly with picturesque huts, cafes, and fishing boats. Yes, Hawaii-- that captivating archipelago that was once under the reign of Kamehameha-- would be the next stunning destination where I’d take my kids and get in some down time as well as revel in cultural delights. But most of all, I would be watching fire meet sky, when the ashes of Hawaii’s luminescent volcanoes unleashed their fury into the night.

The Idyllic Choice

There are a myriad of reasons why I chose Hawaii for my next port of call. One, it’s warm. Two. It’s absolutely, mind-bogglingly beautiful. The other reasons gravitated around my kids. As an adventurer/travel writer/mother, I’ve always believed in getting my kids to see as much of the world as possible, opening up their minds and imaginations to the endless possibilities out there. Hawaii is a great choice because I could show them part of the United States that would be completely different to anything they experienced before, and I could also show them not only the distinct and eclectic cultural scene which makes Hawaii so remarkable, but help them to garner a true appreciation for one of the most fragile and important ecosystems in the world. I’m about fun, yet responsible travel – and we all delighted at the prospect of exploring its dreamlike shores in leisure, not to mention fit in some whale-watching (my youngest is a huge fan of marine life). The remaining reasons are probably most resonant in my mind: My love affair with volcanoes is the thing which brought me closer to this geological hotspot.

Hawaii’s Spectacular Volcanoes

Hawaii’s giants of fire and magma have a lot to reckon for; about 70 million years of tossing and churning from the angry earth have carved out a place in the Pacific like no other, giving life to more than 150 ecosystems and some of the rarest species and land formations on the planet. These breathing monsters, these omnipotent and sometimes unpredictable takers and givers of life, are truly stunning. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was my ultimate stop for witnessing the spectacle of these seemingly impossible structures, responsible for sculpting out Hawaii’s intricate geological shapes; Kīlauea and Mauna Loa continue to carve out the land with their busy activity. As an avid fan of volcanoes (I had watched the National Geographic specials with the beloved Kraffts) I was interested not only in the shape of the land, but the environments given to flourish within them and even pay a visit to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

There is an incredible sense of anticipation in the region. I’ve lived in what I’d call vulnerable environments for a numbers of years-- the tornado-ridden Midwest, the flooding and hurricane-prone southern coasts and the heavy snowfalls of the Rockies which have shut down even the hardiest of places. But to be within the vicinity of such great bastions of power was something else altogether, and I felt myself in a kind of reverence to nature’s fire chambers. I could understand the sentiment behind the cultural followings of these beasts, once worshipped as gods – and I also felt almost a kind of gratitude and true appreciation for the beautiful wildlife which they created, or at least laid down the framework. My kids were particularly interested in the names of the gods like Pele, goddess of volcanic fire, and the festivals and celebrations associated with it (mythology has always been their passion). Like many natural wonders, the stories behind them would tell much more about the respective cultures which followed them, revealing a fascinating aspect of society, just as the incredible species which flourished within these environments have disclosed to us some of the earth’s deepest secrets and surprises.

I only had time for just a day’s worth in the national park, but it was more than fulfilling. It opened up my eyes to something which before only existed in my mind as a dream. But more than ever, my own pilgrimage of sorts to one of the most vital volcanic hotspots in the world has made it to the top of my bucket list-- not check marked, but underlined to do again.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Jet Blue Decides They will Suck Too-- But Not As Much As Delta

Are you a JetBlue frequent flier? Too bad if you answered yes. Thise skies are going to get significantly less friendly starting real quick. According to yesterday's Wall Street Journal, they're adding fees for checked bags and cutting legroom-- all in the name of squeezing a couple of more dollars into the bottom line ($450 million by 2018).
JetBlue said it would start offering new basic fares that don’t include a complimentary checked bag, as part of three new fare classes the airline is introducing next year. Along with Southwest Airlines Co. , JetBlue had been one of the last two U.S. airlines to offer all fliers at least one free checked bag-- despite widespread adoption of bag fees by their peers in recent years.

JetBlue also said that starting in the third quarter of 2016, it plans to increase the number of seats on its Airbus A320 aircraft to 165 seats from 150. The new seats will reduce JetBlue’s average legroom by almost 5% to 33.1 inches per seat, which is still the most average space among U.S. carriers. The new seating configuration will also require a fourth flight attendant on those A320 aircraft because of federal rules that require one attendant per 50 seats.
I wonder when they'll end the free Wi-Fi. Wall Street never approved of their client-oriented service approach and reacted very positively to the austerity announcement, of course, sending the stock up. New CEO Robin Hayes told happy Wall Street analysts that "Even with the changes we’re announcing today, I’m confident that our customers are going to still feel that JetBlue is offering a better experience than anyone else." He said he expects "a lot of noise" from customers but feels confident they'll shut up eventually and take what they're given. Their only rationale is, literally, the rest of the U.S. airline industry is much worse.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Last call for Open House New York Weekend (October 11-12)

Part of Prospect Park's restored Lakeside: The two Lakeside tours are booked up, but reservations aren't required for an OHNY visit to Lakeside. The list of no-registration events is here.

by Ken

I realize that a last call for Open House New York Weekend, which takes place tomorrow and Sunday, isn't likely to be of great interest to non-New Yorkers. It should be of paramount interest to New Yorkers, though, and I think others might, if only in the service of curiosity about the world around us, want to at least glance through the roughly a zillion listings on offer. (The event listing, sortable using all kinds of filters, is here.) EVen if you can't get to any of the events, the listing seems to me a fascinating guidepost to a way we've arrived at of looking at our physical past, present, and future.

And practically speaking, if it's too late for you for this year, there are way foolhardier things you could do than pencil in a descent on Gotham for next year. (Figuring on the second weekend in October, I would be looking at Oct. 10-11, 2015. The dates are actually announced well in advance. It's the list of events that's kept under wraps until practically game time.)

As for those who are within striking distance of the city, you still have hundreds if not thousands of events and sites available. It's true that the events that required registration were gobbled up by some 7500 of us, according to OHNY, beginning the instant that online reservations began on October 1. The thing to stress, however, is that most OHNY Weekedn events don't require registration, which you can simply drop in on tomorrow and Sunday. And the fact that they don't require preregistration doesn't make them any less interesting than the events that do.

By way of illustration of just how subjective the appeal of the multitude of attractions assembled by OHNY is, I offer my own experience of "reservation day." Last year I didn't even bother participating in the mad scramble. I always say I never expect to get higher than my fifth or sixth choices. Howver, I also say that, fortunately, my fifth and sixth choice are still terrific things to see and do. In fact, there are usually a couple of hundred things I'd be happy to do.

But this year I decided to give the opening-bell insanity a shot. I had prepared my wish list as best I could. I was online at the start of registration, and while I never even saw many of the events I'd noted on the list of things to click, and others when clicked turned out to be sold out, I did spot a number of "my" items, and by the time I scraped myself off my chair I had bagged five, four for Saturday and one for Sunday, and they're all things I'm really happy to be doing. Not content to let well enough, though, I checked back occasionally on some of the things I'd signed up for, expecting to find them booked up (wouldn't that have felt good?), and found that only one was. In fact, that night I checked all of "my" events -- and found that at the end of the day four of them were still bookable!

So tomorrow morning at 10am I'm due at the Lakeside development on the southern end of Brooklyn's Prospect Park, where I haven't been since two Octobers ago, when I did a pair of tours as part of the Cultural Landscape Foundation's What's Out There Weekend in New York (the same weekend as OHNY!) with Christian Zimmerman, the park's chief landscape architect. First was a tour of the park's legendary Long Meadow and the contiguous Ravine, where Christian and his team had done some amazing restorations and rebuilds. Then came a tour of a massive project he was overseeing, the largest construction project in the park since it was built: a complete rebuild of its southern end to restore much of it to something close to the majestic and functional original design of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, which through decades of abusive misconstruction had been transformed into a travesty.

This involved reconstructing the whole southern end of the Lake, and a lot of the northern end as well, and around the Lake and in the nearby areas reinstalling many original features that had been found and re-creating most of the others that had been "disappeared." Tha part of the park was then within days of reopening, but there was an even more impressive venture afoot: the construction of a whole new multi-use facility, cunningly designed into the landscape of the park and incorporating two skating rinks, a water feature, a raft of amenities including rest rooms and paths for runners, and goodness knows what else. (You can read about Lakeside Brooklyn, as the entire "26 acre multi-purpose recreational destination" is known, at the link.) Christian showed us all around the building as it existed then, in an advanced state of construction but still more than a year from completion. The LeFrak Center, as it would be called, finally opened in December 2013, but I haven't been back to Lakeside since October 2012.

Tomorrow, I gather, the architects of the new building will be joining Christian as he shows us the whole completed Lakeside section of the park. I was thrilled that I was able to book the Lakeside tour, and figure it must surely be one of the prizes among the OHNY offerings. But no, it was one of my four "catches" that could still be had for the registering that night.

By the way, although the tour was booked up in advance, Lakeside itself is very much on the OHNY "available" list, both Saturday and Sunday, 10am-6pm:
Lakeside is the largest and most ambitious project in Prospect Park since the Park's completion nearly 150 years ago. Spanning 26 acres, this $74 million restoration by the Prospect Park Alliance honors the original design while transforming an underutilized section of the Park into a popular scenic and recreational destination. Lakeside features the Chaim Baier Music Island and Shelby White and Leon Levy Esplanade, and the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center, which provides the public with seasonal  ice skating, roller skating, water play, and boat and bike rentals; a year-round cafe and restrooms; beautifully landscaped viewing terraces.
From Prospect Park tomorrow I head to Hunter's Point, Queens, and while the easiest way to make the trip, as in the case of most mass-transit connections between next-door Brooklyn and Queens, is via Manhattan, I've figured out a route that, in the spirit of Open House New York, involves a quick subway trip to Downtown Brooklyn to catch the B62 bus, which eventually crosses the Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek into Long Island City, Queens. Then for me it's back to Manhattan, via the No. 7 and No. 6 trains, to the Eleanor Roosevelt House at Hunter College, and finally downtown to the Staten Island Ferry to catch the evening program devoted to the lighting plan of the extraordinary "Postcards" 9/11 memorial, which I've seen a number of times, but never at night. Sunday morning I'll be at the eastern end of 96th Street in Manhattan, on the Esplanade, for a look at "A New Edge for the East River Esplanade." After that, assuming I'm up to it, I've been looking at hundreds of non-registration things I could still do the rest of the day.

"A New Edge for the East River Esplanade": The Saturday and Sunday OHNY tours are sold out, but if you read the tour description, nothing stops you from visiting the site yourself.


It's one of NYC's great organizations, worthy of any support anyone might wish to offer. The most self-interested way to support OHNY is by becoming a member, which not only helps the organization financially but sets you up for all sorts of member benefits. As usual with these things there are various levels of membership, but even the basic one gets you notice of all sorts of events scheduled by OHNY throughout the year, some for members only, others offered at a member-discount price. I've had such a grand time in my first year of membership that I'm almost looking forward to renewing. For all information turn to the website, which is the impossible-to-forget

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Urban Gadabout: It's off to D.C.! ('Cause they're making me go!)

by Ken

Thanks to the miracle of modern blog scheduling technology (which works more or less like that great space-age technological innovation the alarm clock), by the time you read this (or don't), I should be back with NYC limits after my whirlwind descent on Washington, D.C. That's if all went according to plan, which is not one of those assumptions I like to assume, especially when the first part of the plan puts me on a sidewalk outside a McDonald's on Seventh Avenue at 6:15am.

Now I'll bet that when you first learned I was winging off to Our Nation's Capital today (this would be in the paragraph above), you probably thought I must be going with the express determination to knock some of those wooden Village heads together and maybe knock some sense into them. This is so close to the actual facts as to make the few trivial deviations hardly worth chronicling. However, for the record:

(1) There's no winging. It's such a hassle getting all the way out to the airport, and then getting from the airport into Washington. Who needs that? As we New Yorkers say, fuhgeddaboutit! No, I'm traveling the way people who are really in the know make the trip: by a tourist bus that, according to my best information, I will board outside a McDonald's on Seventh Avenue.

I think this qualifies as "tourist class." It is, at that, a class above the transport I used for my last D.C. outing, some years ago, when Howie had traveled east on People for the American Way business and wangled me an invite to a local soirée, which would give me a chance to see him, and I had the inspiration to do the trip via one of those Chinatown buses with the amazingly low fares. (Okay, yes, and also the not-quite-rock-bottom accident and casualty rates.)

The only thing was, the schedule clearly wasn't designed for day-tripping.

(2) I don't expect to be seeing any of Those People, those creepy D.C. types you're always reading about here at DWT. I don't know any of them, and I don't want to know any of them. I would have to check the itinerary again, but I'm pretty sure it includes the Capitol, and I suppose there's the remote possibility of incidental contact with some of those Villagers, but I suspect that the highest-ranking Washingtonian I'll be encountering is our tour guide.

And the fact is, the fact that the district is infested by those people is creeping me out, which brings me to this additional circumstance --

(3) I don't really wanna go. Oh, I had planned a trip for the day. Even scheduled a day off from work (which itself has to be done, according to the employee manual, weeks -- if not months -- in advance) for it. It's just that the trip wasn't supposed to be to D.C. It was supposed to be to "Historic Boston," where I haven't been in way longer than it's been since I was last in D.C. And I was really psyched for Beantown!

I had it all planned. I had bought an Amazon Local voucher for the "Historic Boston" tour, and kept checking the calendar for a suitable Friday or Sunday, the days when it's supposed to be offered. Finally, with the voucher's expiration date looming, I figured the crowd would be lighter on a Friday, and also some places that might be closed on Sunday might be open on Friday. So I took a hard look at my schedule, and went through the whole elaborate procedure for clearing a Friday off from work -- namely the one that turned out to be this Friday.

You might think that my trip to Washington has something to do with the subject matter of this tweet from Howie's and my old pal Milt Shook has something to do with my pilgrimage to Washington. Surprisingly, no!

Only, I appear to have overthought this. Earlier in the week I heard from the company that I was apparently the only one who had signed up for that date.

I was offered some options, not just for Boston, but for the company's Philadelphia and Washington tours. But my schedule doesn't allow for much in the way of options. I couldn't do a weekend tour, because Saturday I'm cruising across New York Harbor's Raritan Bay to New Jersey for Fall Fest on an apple farm and Sunday I'm doing Justin Ferate's Wolfe Walkers train trek to Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. All I had to play with was Friday, the day I'd already scheduled to have off from work. The vision of a day off began to dance in my head, but no, it turned out that they have an extra outing of the apparently very popular Washington tour -- normally offered on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, according to the online schedule -- going on Friday.

Oh well, what the heck, Washington it is, I guess. Assuming that this crack-of-dawn pickup outside McDonald's actually comes (or rather came) off. Which makes for three consecutive days of out-of-state schlepping -- by bus, boat, and train. Not to mention after-work outings Monday (the second part of a two-part Historic Districts Council walking tour of Park Avenue with Justin Ferate) and Tuesday (first I pop in for a few minutes of the Municipal Art Society's members' open house in their new digs, in the landmarked Look Building, en route to Astoria for an evening at the Museum of the Moving Image honoring Marlo Thomas for That Girl, moderated by Gloria Steinem, with Debra Messing also on hand). I already feel exhausted.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Urban Gadabout:The schedule for OHNY Weekend (Oct. 11-12) is out today, and registration begins tomorrow!

"Overview" from the Open House New York website: "For two days every October, OHNY Weekend unlocks the doors to New York’s most important buildings, offering an extraordinary opportunity to experience the city and meet the people who design, build, and preserve New York. From historic to contemporary, residential to industrial, hundreds of sites across the five boroughs are open to visit, with tours, talks, performances and other special events taking place over the course of the Weekend. Through the unparalleled access that it enables, OHNY Weekend deepens our understanding of the importance of architecture and urban design to foster a more vibrant civic life and helps catalyze a citywide conversation about how to build a better New York."

by Ken

I think I did post the crucial dates: schedule for Open House New York 2014 available to the general public on September 30, with registration for events that require registration (lots don't, but lots do) starting the next day, October 1, at 11am. I suppose I should have provided a reminder as those dates approached. Well, here's a reminder.

The full schedule for what I think can safely be called the most exciting weekend in the annual New York City calendar is now posted online, and New Yorkers can pick up copies at designated locales, in preparation for tomorrow's craziness. Rest assured that even once the most sought-after events are booked up, there will still be roughly a zillion options open for those two days, Saturday and Sunday, October 11-12. Note that this year for the first time there are evening programs both days: tours of the lighting systems of storied structures around the city (all requiring advance registration).

Here's what OHNY sent out this morning to the mailing list:

Today is the big day! As of this morning, the Event Guide for the 12th Annual OHNY Weekend is officially available to the public. Click here to download a digital copy right now via We Transfer; stop by one of our distribution hubs around the city to pick up a printed guide; or get a copy of this week's issue of Time Out New York where the Event Guide is a special insert. 


Listings for the hundreds of sites and tours offered during this year's OHNY Weekend are now live at Web listings include full site descriptions, as well as all of the vital info for sites and tours, like dates and open hours for Open Access Sites, and times for Advanced Reservation tours. Read below for information on Advance Reservations, which begin at 11 am on Wednesday, Oct 1.
As an OHNY member I had a peek at at least part of the schedule; even we members, though, didn't get to see schedule information for the events that require advance registration, which made it kind of hard to "plan." For help in sorting through the truly mind-blowing range of options, you can view the list applying all sorts of filters -- for borough, kinds of events, etc., etc., etc. None of them happen to correspond to my interests, and so this morning I started plowing through the alphabetical list, and when I came up for air I was still in the "F"s.

Frankly, as of the time of writing, I still haven't figured out my "strategy" for tomorrow. So far I've encountered an alarming number of events that sound terrific, and get us into places that aren't likely to be publicly accessible most of the year, but (luckily, perhaps!) I don't think I've stumbled across any of the kind that make me think, "If I can't do that, I'll die."

So don't panic. If you want to just take your time working your way through the materials, there will still be all sorts of fascinating things you can see, many of them presented by people who played or play a crucial role in their creation or operation. See you on October 11!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Can Florida Congressman Alan Grayson Save The Airlines' Frequent Flyer Programs?

Few people know that Congressman Alan Grayson clerked for both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively the most right-wing and the most progressive justices on the current Supreme Court. We first started to get to know Grayson when he began a primary campaign against Charlie Stuart, a Chamber of Commerce type good ole boy conservative Democrat for the Orlando congressional seat held by Republican Rik Keller. Blue America endorsed Grayson, who was running as an anti-war candidate, but he dropped out well before the primary and prepared to run in 2008 instead. He was a top Blue America candidate in that winning race, again running on his peace platform and on his record of holding war profiteers accountable, and to this day he's the candidate our donors have given the most to. We're backing him again this year and encouraging him to run for higher office in the future as well.

We're raised well into the six figured for Grayson. In Republican circles donors get all sorts of special favors for that-- primary special interest legislation, earmarks in bills (although Republicans stopped calling it that a few years ago) and even the ability to write their own pet projects into federal bills. Democrats who raise that kind of money get favors too-- like sleep-overs in the Lincoln bedroom or, to be completely honest, the same type of shady. slimy business the Republicans are up to. But that isn't what we get from Grayson. I can call him up for travel advise. Grayson's been to every country in the world-- and Antarctica. When Roland and I went to Mali, we didn't ask him where to stay in Bamako, the capital city, or Timbuktu, the biggest tourist draw-- you can find those on dozens of online travel sites-- but Grayson was able to tell us where to stay in off the beaten track towns like Bangiagara and Sangha.

Grayson, a Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the most well-traveled Member of Congress. He serves on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa and on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. He's racked up something like ten million frequent flyer miles. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that he's paid attention to some of the shenanigans perpetrated by the airlines who systematically mislead consumers-- Delta is the worst-- and misrepresent their offerings to the public. This year, Grayson introduced legislation to regulate the programs and keep the airlines from cheating the flying public. A crafty spokesperson for the airline industry trade organization claims that "Carriers are completely transparent regarding loyalty programs both on their websites and in direct communication with their customers." Do you know any travelers who would agree?
In the 33 years since American Airlines (AAL) launched the mileage craze with its AAdvantage program, frequent-flyer miles have become a critical revenue source for U.S. carriers. The airlines sell billions of dollars worth of miles each year to banks, retailers, and other marketers that use them to entice customers. Today, more miles are earned from credit cards and other loyalty programs than from actual flying. Millions of people who rarely fly are keenly attuned to boosting their mileage balances.

The top frustration of frequent-flyer program members is needing more miles than they expected for an award, followed by sudden rule changes, according to a survey of 1,600 miles collectors earlier this year by, a credit card comparison site.

...Grayson maintains that airline competition kept the programs relatively unchanged for mileage collectors throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with most award travel seats offered at starting rates of 25,000 miles. In recent years, especially as airlines have gone bankrupt and restructured, the carriers’ push for profitability has made the programs far less generous to consumers than they once were.

Irate members of Delta Air Lines’ (DAL) SkyMiles program began calling those miles “SkyPesos” several years ago, owing to difficult redemptions and their perceived lack of value. Delta has announced several changes for 2015, including offering more seats at lower mileage levels, to try to make SkyMiles more competitive with the programs at United Airlines (UAL) and American.

Next year, Delta and United will begin considering annual spending in their rewards calculation, not just the distances that travelers cover, so customers who spend more money will get more miles. Awards for most international business- and first-class seats on partners of the Big Three U.S. carriers have also soared within the past year. Those changes and others in recent years have caused many miles collectors to rethink the value of trying to amass miles for free airline travel.

Regardless of how much consumer irritation airline miles generate, the Transportation Department probably lacks a “leverage point” to delve too deeply into new regulations for the programs, says Tim Winship, editor of But he says the department will be able to push airlines to offer more advance notice of program changes that are negative for consumers.

Grayson says many of the recent program changes have been made with little or no warning, which often requires travelers to spend more miles for an award trip. American made such a change on June 1. “Announcing a program change today that takes effect today sticks in the craw of most consumers, and rightfully so,” Winship says. Eric Fraser, a miles collector and Phoenix attorney who specializes in federal regulatory issues, says the department is likely to be most interested in whether airlines properly notify program members of pending changes. “This is an area where the DOT sniffing around could just have an immediate benefit, even if they don’t start to write rules,” Fraser says.

Ideally, Grayson says, the airlines should be forced to give at least one year’s notice of major program changes and to offer at least one seat on every flight available at the lowest mileage level. “If you’re going to have a program like this at all, it’s got to be an honest program,” he says. “Every human being comes with a built-in cheat detector. They know when they’re being cheated; they know when they’re being deceived.”

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sure, you've traveled everywhere worth going, but have you been to -- North Korea?

You haven't been to Mount Myohyang (and its scenic parking lot)?

"A lot of people don't know they can even come here, and then when they get here they say it's not what they were expecting. They think it's going to be all doom and gloom and death and sad faces."
-- 27-year-old Australian Rowan Beard of Young
Pioneers, a pioneering tour operator in North Korea

by Ken

If planning your next destination fills you with dread because you've been to everyplace good, and especially everyplace your friends have been to, take heart and think of these magic words:

North Korea

What? you say. Nobody can go to North Korea, and even if they do, they get arrested and put on trial, don't they?

Apparently that's the old North Korea, except for the part about being put on trial, which is ripped from the headlines. You remember the old North Korea, the surviving Communist outpost that functions as a sort of lockup in the strangling authoritarian grip of a thuggish dynasty of crackpot Kims, a land where the elites live swell and everyone else counts themselves lucky to live, and where, especially, prying eyes are kept out.

No, we're talking about the new North Korea, which is pretty much identical to the old one except that now, Washington Post Tokyo bureau chief Anna Fifield reports from Mount Myohyang ("a beautiful hiking spot about a two-hour drive north of Pyongyang"): "Under a new policy, North Korea has set a goal of luring 1 million tourists, although it has not set a time frame for doing so."
A growing number of Western tourists — called “Europeans” in North Korea, even though they more and more often include Americans — are coming here to see whether this last remnant of the Cold War really is as bad as it’s made out to be.

“I wanted a new experience and wanted to see this place with my own eyes and to form my own views,” said Victor Malychev, a Russian-born telecommunications expert who has lived in Washington for 13 years.

“And I guess I wanted to have a kind of check mark next to it, too,” he conceded while on a tour organized by Young Pioneers, one of the newer travel companies operating in North Korea.
The pioneering tour operators, Fifield reports, "are offering an increasingly diverse array of experiences -- including skiing, cycling and golf." Just think of it, golf thrill-seekers: playing a course that may have been personally enjoyed by the world's least charismatic dictator, Kim Jong-Un.


Mostly, however, it appears that your North Korean funfest will involve a good deal of "traips[ing] around monuments to the Kims and their communist dynasty."
Take Mount Myohyang, a beautiful hiking spot about a two-hour drive north of Pyongyang. The main attraction here, a regular stop on the tourist trail, is the “International Friendship Exhibition” — a six-story marble-floored building constructed to house the 100,000-odd gifts given to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who remains its “eternal president” even two decades after his death.

It’s a real rogue’s gallery: Stalin, Mao, Assad, Gaddafi, Castro and Tito, and the tchotchkes they gave Kim. All of them show how much the world adores Kim and his heirs, or so the official tour guides say.
Plus you'll enjoy the special excitement of having your shoes "encased in special covers so they don’t come into contact with the hallowed floors." I bet you're getting goose bumps already!

The million-tourist mark -- over whatever time frame it's projected -- looks to be something of a stretch.
Even those working with North Korea’s tourist industry say this number is “aspirational,” estimating that the country has 100,000 outside visitors a year. The vast majority of them are from neighboring China, which has the advantage of being not only geographically close but also not far removed from communist ways.

Furthermore, tour operators report that the number of Americans visiting the country has dropped noticeably since two American tourists, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, were detained in April. Both have been charged with “hostile acts” and Miller is set to go to trial Sunday.
And apparently progress is being made:
Official figures are not available, but Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper in Japan, reported that there has been a 20 percent increase in foreign tourism in North Korea in the first half of 2014 compared with the previous year, although it did not give numbers.

Simon Cockerell, the British general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the first Western travel companies to start tours to North Korea, estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 “Europeans” a year are visiting North Korea.
Among those who believe increased Western tourism is good for North Koreans is none other than Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours (who, Fifield notes, "is about to make his 140th trip to North Korea") With reference to the long history of propaganda to which North Koreans have been subjected demonizing foreigners, he says, "The value of exposing as many North Koreans to as many foreigners as possible is inestimable because their image of foreigners is so negative."


Of course it doesn't seem likely that reeducating its citizens is among the motivators for the North Korean regime's sudden new enthusiasm for foreign tourism. What, then, might those motivators be?

How about, say, money? Here's Anna Fifield again:
Tourism is something of a risky proposition for North Korea. The regime has survived for decades by shutting off the country from the outside world, strictly controlling the information its citizens receive so that it could uphold the notion that North Korea was paradise on Earth.

But it also brings in much-needed revenue for the state. Although North Korea is one of the poorest countries, tours here don’t come cheap. An eight-day cycling trip organized by Uri Tours this month costs $2,850.
Andrei Lankov, described by Fifield as "a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul," sees the regime's logic: “For decades, the North Korean leaders have been engaged in a hectic -- and usually unsuccessful —-- search for some ways to get easy money without changing the system and/or creating political risks for themselves." But he doubts that there will be enough demand among foreign tourists to stay in what he describes as an "uncomfortable ghetto" to register a significant payoff for the regime.
“So far, the major attraction of the country for the Westerners is its political weirdness: It is a place to go and then boast to their buddies about this exploit,” Lankov said. “But I do not think 1 million admirers of this extreme tourism can be located every year.”
For the moment, they'll have to be recruited from the ranks of tourists like Young Pioneers tour-taker Victor Malychev, the Russian-born but now Washington-based telecommunications expert we heard from above explaining to Fifield that he wanted "to see this place with my own eyes" -- and maybe "have a kind of check mark next to it, too."

As Fifield points out, on your North Korean jaunt you can expect to be closely minded by official minders, and "tourists are never going to see labor camps where as many as 120,000 political prisoners toil, or the villages where children don’t get enough food because it has been diverted to the military." Still, another taker of that Young Pioneers tour, 26-year-old Felicity Bloom from Madison, Wisconsin, says, "I think I've seen part of North Korea."
I think the idea that we have in the States is that everyone you interact with will be an actor, but it’s not true. We traveled six stops on the metro, and we interacted with school children who were just as curious about us as we were about them.
So what are you waiting for? Get those bags packed, 'cause it's North Korea or bust, right?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Urban Gadabout: Curiosity (Plus news from OHNY, MAS, the NY Transit Museum, and Jack Eichenbaum, including another trek on the No. 7 train)

On Saturday, September 6, Norman Oder leads the MAS walking tour "Long Island City, Queens in Flux: Court Square and Hunters Point." I've done at least six or seven tours with Norman now, and they've all been tremendously rewarding.

by Ken

If you look among the newly announced September, October, and November walking-tour offerings of the Municipal Art Society at the description of Francis's Morrone's September 28 tour, "Then and Now: Jane Jacobs and the West Village," you'll see that it --
looks at the life and work of Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities so sharply and logically articulated many people's inchoate misgivings about the city rebuilding of the preceding decade and the orthodox notions of city planners. (The book, not least a literary masterpiece, is highly recommended reading for this tour.)
I think the tour should be pretty much self-recommending. I've already registered. (And contrary to the incessant complaints about certain MAS tours, like Francis's, being impossible to book, the fact is that if you take the trouble to look at the schedule early in the registration period, they're all available.) In addition, since I'm embarrassed to say that I have never in fact read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I've ordered myself a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition.

Which I bring up because of that phrase Francis uses in the description: "highly recommended reading for this tour." This is a stepped-back version of a formulation Francis experimented with awhile back, which again I'm embarrassed to say I flunked on my very first opportunity. It was a tour, naturally down in the Old Seaport region of Lower Manhattan, devoted to Herman Melville's and Joseph Mitchell's New York, and I must have decided to register for the tour without properly reading the description, which contained a notice that two pieces of the legendary New York-centric New Yorker writer, at least the opening section of "Old Mr. Flood" and the story "Up in the Old Hotel," both of which bear directly on what we now think of as the South Street Seaport area.

Francis mentions Joseph Mitchell pieces frequently on his walks, for the obvious reason that Mitchell explored New York City the old-fashioned shoe-leather way, and listened to the people he met -- in places that fancy writers rarely venture to -- for a sense of who they were, who they had been (and where they had come from), and who and what they wanted to be.

Not long afterward, while doing another walk with Francis (Greenpoint and Williamsburg open spaces, as I recall), I confessed my guilt but told him I had been doing my remedial Joseph Mitchell reading and brandished my copy of the lovely immense Mitchell anthology -- four books in one! -- whose name was taken from none other than Up in the Old Hotel. Which prompted a story from Francis. I've never seen anything yet that didn't prompt a story from Francis.

He mentioned that for his upcoming tour of Brooklyn's Boerum Hill neighborhood, which has seen barely imaginable gentrification since the '70s, he had included more required reading in the description which had simply vanished from the published version. A couple of us who were registered for the Boerum Hill tour asked what that was. It was, he told us, two Joseph Mitchell pieces, "The Mohawks in High Steel" (from 1949, when the neighborhood included a packed enclave of those Native American daredevil ironworkers from upstate New York, whose union had its headquarters on Atlantic Avenue, on the northern edge of the district), and -- are you ready for it? -- "Up in the Old Hotel," plus a novel by Jonathan Lethem.

We'll come back to the Lethem novel in a moment, but having just read "Up in the Old Hotel," which deals primarily with the proprietor of a humble South Street eatery that, much against his will, had come to be called Sloppy Louie's, I puzzled initially at the Brooklyn connection. And then I remembered Louie's story of the restaurant in Brooklyn where he had learned the business as a waiter, and been drawn into the social history of the city.

As to the Lethem novel, I had to trust to memory, despite the enormous risk of trusting to my memory these days, since that day I wasn't carrying anything to write with. So imagine my chagrin when, back at the computer, I discovered that Lethem, whom I'd never read, is a Brooklyn boy, and the novel in question could have been either of his early novels Motherless Brooklyn (1999) or The Fortress of Solitude (2003). I figured it wouldn't kill me to read both, and naturally -- since this is the way my mind works -- I attacked them in chronological order

I loved Motherless Brooklyn, a grisly story told from the perspective of a grunge-level detective who suffers from Torrrete's syndrome, which is built into the fabric of the book and the way the story unfolds. But I had a feeling it wasn't "the" book, since the office out of which the narrator worked was in the sort of no man's land between Boerum Hill and adjoining Cobble Hill. It's a sensational book, though, and I was delighted to have been led to it, however accidentally. The result, though, was that by the time the tour came round, I was only about two-thirds of the way through Fortress of Solitude, which does in fact deal directly with Boerum Hill pre-, mid-, and post-gentrification.

(And the Francis story about Jonathan Lethem? When a German TV company was doing a piece on Brooklyn, they choose as their experts on the subject -- Jonathan Lethem and Francis Morrone! And I gather they've kept in touch.)

Do I have to tell you how much those readings enhanced my sense of what we saw on that Boerum Hill walk? Because the tour description hadn't included the "required reading," Francis took the time, while we were standing opposite the site where the restaurant Louie had worked in once was, to read a passage from "Up in the Old Hotel," which gave a sense of what the location and the people had meant to Louie while he worked there and took his lunch breaks in the area.

Later still, when Francis scheduled his Cobble Hill walking tour, he included as required reading a novel whose name and author I've forgotten, but which I bought and read, even though while I was deciding whether to do that walk again (I had found the Cobble Hill tour one of my most enjoyable with Francis, but as a result I thought maybe I remembered it too well for the time being), it sold out! So I wound up doing the required reading without doing the tour -- but it was a remarkable book, and not just an on-point Brooklyn book, with a chillingly icy slant on our supposedly closest relationships. (I'll think of the name.)

On a tour not long ago, I finally asked Francis what had happened to those reading assignments. The problem, he said, was that nobody was reading them. He reflected a moment, then said he should probably get back to that.

And he should. I've come to understand that it isn't so much the tour leaders' knowledge that I'm looking for on these tours, although the good ones are overflowing with it. It's their curiosity I treasure -- the curiosity that has driven them to acquire the knowledge they've acquired and the ways they've found to satisfy and further stimulate it. They're very different people, people like Francis and Matt Postal and Justin Ferate and Jack Eichenbaum and James Nevius, but in the few years I've been doing this, I've tried to walk in the path of their curiosity -- and learned more than I could have imagined on my own about the world around me.


It's the time of year when everyone is announcing fall plans.

Before we get to actually announced plans, I should mention that the 12th Annual Open House New York Weekend is scheduled for October 11-12. "More than 300 sites and tours. 75,000 visitors," the Facebook page says. The website says:
Celebrating the city’s architecture and design, the 12th Annual Open House New York Weekend will once again unlock the city, allowing New Yorkers and tourists alike access to hundreds of sites, talks, tours, performances and family activities in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. From private residences and historic landmarks, to hard hat tours and sustainable skyscrapers, OHNY gives you rare access into the extraordinary architecture of New York City, while introducing you to the people who make the city a vibrant and sustainable place to live, work, and play.

Please note: Sites and tours for the 2014 Open House New York Weekend will be announced in early October. Be sure to check back in October for the 2014 list or follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates.


As I mentioned up top, the September-November MAS schedule is posted now (or you can just go to and click on "Tours"). I have it on the authority of a source whose judgment I respect immoderately that this is the best MAS schedule he's ever seen. That's not quite my response, but then, that's just me. No doubt you'll find an enormous range of offerings covering a large chunk of NYC. And the last time I looked, every one of them was still available for registration.


The fall schedule of programs and off-site tours is here. As always, there's a two-day pre-registration period exclusively for NYTM members, on August 20-21, beginning at 9am, with registration thrown open to all on August 22.

Remember that two popular tours are open only to members:
• The visit to the long-abandoned, ornate old City Hall subway station ("The Jewel in the Crown: Old City Hall Station," offered at 1:30pm and 3:30 pm on Sunday, October 12)

• And a walk through the old subterranean space, now contemplated as a possible underground version of the High Line, that once housed a busy trolley terminal leading out onto the Williamsburg Bridge ("Trolley Ghosts: The Terminal Under Delancey," offered at 6:30pm on two Thursday evenings, October 23 and November 6).
Yes, you can register in time to use the early-registration period. For membership information, check here.

Among the tours open to all are:
An evening fall Nostalgia Ride, for Halloween season, to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx

• A look at the Flushing Meadows site of the 1939 and 1964-65 World's Fairs considered from the standpoint of their transit options, with the always-interesting Andrew Sparberger, whose Transit Museum offerings I try never to miss (Sunday, October 19, 1pm, or Saturday, November 15, 2pm). Note: Andy will also be doing a free program at the museum on Wednesday evening, December 10, 6:30-7:30pm, in connection with the publication of his new book, From a Nickel to a Token ("a microhistory of New York's transit system," which "examines twenty specific events between 1940 and 1968, book-ended by subway unification and the creation of the MTA").

• A "behind the scenes" visit to the Bergen Sign Shop, "New York City Transit's only locale for sign production (Saturday, October 18, or Sunday, December 6, at 10am or 12n either day)

A Staten Island bicycle tour, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge, from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal to Fort Wadsworth and the anchorage of the bridge, with a stop-off at the Alice Austen House (Saturday, September 13, 11am-3pm)

• "Power Play: Steampunk and the Transit System," an after-hours event at the museum on Thursday, October 2, 7-9pm, held in conjunction with Atlas Obscura, in which "we examine the marvel of engineering that transformed the city from steam to electric at the dawn of the twentieth century"
Among the mostly free (but reservations recommended) programs at the museum are:
• A "Bus Bonanza!" clustered around NYTM's 21st Annual Bus Festival (Sunday, September 28), held in conjunction with the always-lively Atlantic Antic on nearby Atlantic Avenue, 12n-6pm, celebrating its 40th anniversary, and including $1 museum admission

• "The MTA's Next Big Thing: Fulton Center" (Wednesday, October 29, 6:30pm; $10, $5 to NYTM members)

And several conversations with authors of bound-to-be-interesting new books:

• With former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch (Thursday, October 9, 7pm), author of So Much to Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics, and Confronting Fiscal Crises

• With power super-whiz Joe Cunningham (another longtime NYTM tour favorite, Wednesday, October 15, 6:30pm), author of New York Power

• As mentioned above, with Andy Sparberger (Wednesday, December 10, 6:30pm), author of From a Nickel to a Token
Again, for the full list of events scheduled, check the NYTM "Calendar of Events" page.


I've written about Jack's "World of the #7 Train" a bunch of times, and was signed up to do it again on May 31, when disaster, aka New York City Transit, struck, with a last-minute announcement of the shutdown of the western half of the No. 7 line for that date. Jack was able to reschedule the outing for June, but I wasn't able to do the makeup date. I've already sent in my check for September 20!
Saturday, September 20, 10am-5:30pm

This series of six walks and connecting rides along North Queens’ transportation corridor is my signature tour. We focus on what the #7 train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service in 1914. Walks take place in Long Island City, Sunnyside, Flushing, Corona, Woodside and Jackson Heights and lunch is in Flushing with a great variety of Asian restaurants. Tour fee is $40 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address)

The full day’s program and other info is available by email

The tour is limited to 25 people.
You can keep up to date on Jack's event plans on his website -- where you can also sign up for e-updates. The tour-info page is here. For his upcoming MAS tours, you'll be directed back to the MAS site for registration information. To bring this full circle, I've mentioned that Jack was the person who turned me on to MAS, when I took his "Three Transit Hubs" for NYTM!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Watch: In the course of a 6000-mile trans-Eurasian horseback journey, a technological time warp changes lives

Central Mongolia is where Tim began his 6000-mile westward horseback journey across the steppe to the Danube. With both Russia to the north and the Chinese "autonomous" province of Xinjiang to the south closed to a foreigner in 2004, he continued into giant Kazakhstan, the second-largest of the former Soviet republics (after Russia). There he met Bakhetbek, a Kazakh born near the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi who had fled back to ancestral Kazakhstan because of anti-Kazakh violence (the murder of his brothers) tolerated, if not actually encouraged, by the Chinese regime. Bakhetbek's wife reveals to Tim that her husband learned only a year before that he still had a niece alive and living in Urumqi.

by Ken

Basically, I was drawn to Tim Cope's On the Trail of Genghis Khan -- the story of his 6000-mile horseback odyssey from Mongolia to the Danube, begun in the fall of 2004 when the Australian adventurer was several months shy of his 26th birthday -- because I thought it might plug a geographical gap in my mental geography, the vast Eurasian steppe sprawling more or less between Siberia to the north and the rest of central and southern Asia to the south.

Oh, I had no expectation of the book making me an expert on the subject, just giving me, well, something to occupy that space a little more specific than sheer blankness. In other words, the sort of thing that Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia for the gaping expanse of taiga (that is taiga, right? of course giving way to tundra farther north -- I have a sort of general notion about the geographical entities steppe, taiga, and tundra, but they're not exactly crystal clear in my head) to the north). It gave me some places and people to fill in what had been not much more than a map blur with a sprinkling of familiar place names.

To be sure, I'm learning (and probably soon forgetting) a lot about the many ethnic groups -- starting with the Mongols to the east -- who over the millennia have practiced the nomadic way of living across the enormous expanse of the once-largely-borderless steppe. Tim himself was fascinated, or more likely obsessed, by the nomadic way of living, built around herding animals over these inhospitable lands, living a pack-up-and-go life based on horse transport. (It was, after all, in what is now northern Kazakhstan that men are thought to have first domesticated horses, somewhere between 3700 and 3100 BC.) But, not surprisingly, the journey -- and therefore the book -- engages Tim on a host of levels.

I came to this anecdote I have to share. It comes in the second leg of Tim's trip, in today's Kazakhstan. In Mongolia Tim had had the company of a girlfriend, Kathrin, but according to plan she then headed back to Germanys to take up a new job, leaving Tim to travel alone -- or, early on, in the company of a guide. At this point, he's traveling with Aset, a Kazakh villager, and a puppy belonging to Aset's young cerebral-palsy-afflicted son which Aset has insisted on bringing along. (When they part, Aset insisst that Tim take Tigon with him for companionship.) In terrible weather they have been given shelter by Bakhetbek, a 50-something Kazakh householder who promptly passes a test of Aset's (p. 129)
Aset pulled me aside. "Trust him and watch carefully -- a sign of a Kazakh host who respects his guests is that he will feed the guest's dog before his own."

True to Aset's words, Bakhetbek fed our ribs-on-legs dog a pot of lamb innards and stale bread, sinking his boots into his own dogs when they tried to join in.
The next day Tim wakes up to find that they're snowbound. "What I had assumed to be bright sunshine through the small window of our window was the glare of a snowdrift creeping up the windows." Which gives him a chance to get to know the family better. From pp. 131-32:
Bakhetbek had been born near Urumqi in China's Xinjiang province, and fled to Kazakhstan after his brothers were murdered in the 1960s. Later, his nephews, who remained behind, were also murdered. At his wife's gentle prod, Bakhetbek began telling his story himself, hesitantly, but was swiftly overcome with emotion.

"They killed us simply because we are Kazkahs," he said. "Back then, and even now, Chinese authorities don't protect Kazakhs. Actually, it was probably the police who did the murdering."

There was a bitter irony in Bakhetbek's return to Kazakhstan that he was well aware of. His own grandparents had originally fled to China among two hundred thousand others when the Russian imperial army violently quashed the 1916 Kazakh uprising. At the same time, though, Bakhetbek acknowledged that the tragedy of his family had been the experience of his ancestors through the ages -- whenever the Kazakhs found themselves under oppression or attack, they would historically flee to Chinese Turkmenistan, Sibera, and other parts of Central Asia, only to find themselves under another oppressive regime.

After telling his story, Bakhetbek looked spent, but there was a sparkle in his wife's eye. "Actually . . ." She looked over at her husband. "We still have one relative alive in China. She is Bakhetbek's niece, and she is studying in Urumqi. She wrote to us one year ago, but we have never met. She gave us a phone number, but we have never been able to call."

It was dark by the time everyone assembled outside in winter coats and fur hats. I pointed the satellite phone aerial to the sky and experimented with a few prefixes until the call went through. A woman answered. After a brief initial silence, all of Bakhetbek's family members took turns talking, struggling to hold back tears but smiling.

The occasion called for a feast, and after the phone calls it was all hands on deck. Bakehtbek's brother, who due to his bald head was nicknamed "the Kazakh Gorbachev," raced to get a sheep. In an outbuilding the men gathered with cupped hands to say a prayer before its throat was cut. Had I been of the Muslim faith, I would have been asked to bless the sheep, since traditionally guests were required to ask permission from the animal's spirit to partake of its flesh.

Late into the night we sat around gorging on meat and being plied with vodka. A dombra, the traditional two-stringed mandolin of the Kazakhs, was passed around. When Bakhetbek played there was a fire in his eyes, and he sat with his back even straighter and prouder than usual. Strong fingers moved instinctively up and down the instrument's neck. In Kazakh they say a good player can make the dombra sing. I was sure I could hear the beating hooves of horses. It was as if a stoic, unfaltering rhythm prevailed through the harsh realities of life and the land. I looked across to Aset, who was welling up with pride. The last beat ended, and Bakhetbek looked at me. His eyes arched into crescents; from the tears spread into the many channels of his weathered face and disappeared.

Kazakhs believe that when a guest walks through the front door, luck flies in through the window. It is a good omen: the sheep will give birth to twin lambs in the spring. Looking back on this occasion, the magic of this belief was embodied by my meeting with Bakhetbek.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Movie/Museum Watch NYC: Coming up at the amazing Museum of the Moving Image -- "2001" in 70mm!

For 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick tapped both of the supreme Strausses. For the approach to the space station it's Johann II (the Waltz King) and his Blue Danube; it'll look (and sound) way better in 70mm at MoMI. Below we'll hear (the unrelated) Richard S.

by Ken

For months now I've been meaning to write an update to the piece I wrote last September about the Museum of the Moving Image, to catch up on the large number of terrific experiences I've had in the last half-year. No, the museum isn't convenient for me, since I live in Far Northern Manhattan and work in Far Downtown Manhattan. But I've been to a whole bunch of special-event screenings, including a number of pre-release screenings, often with terrific guests and panels. And they've been so consistently rewarding that I now give Chief Curator David Schwartz close to carte blanche when a new event is announced.

Oh, I couldn't be dragged to the thing about kung-fu films, but I gulped hard and plunked down my modest member's fee for Particle Fever, a riveting documentary directed by physicist-turned-moviemaker Mark Levinson dramatizing the work of some of the physicists connected to the supercollider in Geneva, during the period of the discovery of the Higgs boson, work that wound up overturning physicists' understanding of the universe, to be replaced by they-still-don't-know-what. It was presented in conjunction with the World Science Festival, being held then in NYC, and the panel that followed included some of the physicists we'd seen in the film! I can't claim to have really understood the physics involved, but the basic issues at stake were explained clearly enough that I got a powerful sense of the personal and scientific stakes of all those brilliant physicists.

Among other MoMI screening events I can think of:

• Alan Alda being honored for his work in comedy on TV's M*A*S*H, talking about those years, with appropriately selected episode clips, proving as smart and funny and charming and passionate as you might imagine.

No kidding, I left the MoMI evening with Alan Alda -- in conversation with Jeff Greenfield -- feeling like I was walking on air.

* Jason Bateman speaking with predictably charming incisiveness, candor and (again) passion -- he was, if you can imagine such a thing, even more charming than Alan Alda, which means astoundingly charming -- following a screening of his first film as a director, the wickedly hilarious Bad Words, a sleeper hit at the Toronto Film Festival; he explained, though, that he had been preparing himself this "first" his whole career, having earned his SAG card in his teens while working on the TV series The Hogan Family -- in the audience was Hogan Family cohort Steve Witting, who has remained a lifelong friend and plays a juicy role in Bad Words. (Jason explained that nearly all the adult roles in the film were cast with friends; it's nice to have such friends!)

• Griffin Dunne appearing with writer-director Justin Schwarz after the screening of their new film, The Discoverers, followed by a screening of his most famous starring vehicle, Martin Scorsese's 1985 After Hours (yes, a double feature!).

• an extraordinary evening, which I wrote about in May, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who had subsequently outed himself as an undocumented alien, presented his powerful film Documented.

• another double feature, of wildly different films directed by Bobcat Goldthwait in his second career, so different from his screaming-comic first career, again a new one, Willow Creek, and an earlier one, World's Greatest Dad (with Robin Williams).

"An Evening with Bobcat Goldthwait" in early June, featuring two of his films and a conversation with Bobcat himself, was just one of the many riveting and delightful evenings I've spent over the last year at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.

• another far-more-absorbing-than-expected documentary, Life Itself, which director Steve James was making in cooperation with Roger Ebert (based on his memoir of that name) and his wife (now widow, of course), Chaz, at the time of Roger's death, followed by another great panel, which naturally included the remarkable Chaz Ebert.

• a pre-release screening -- just a screening, with no added frills, but free for members -- of Darren Aronofsky's highly entertaining and stimulating epic Noah, shown in conjunction with, naturally, regular museum screenings of all of Aronofsky's earlier films!

• and, of course, the memorable evening -- memorable despite torrential rains that didn't dampen audience spirits -- when creator-mastermind David Chase was on hand for screenings of the first and last episodes of The Sopranos.

Jason in Bad Words
(I should note, by the way, that when the discussions are opened to audience questions, MoMI audiences ask the best questions I've ever encountered, questions that are often quite perceptive in their own right but more important trigger all sorts of information and revelations. For example, the night Jason Bateman talked about Bad Words, a questioner asked if he had always planned to play the not terribly sympathetic lead character, and it turned out that he originally assumed he wouldn't, and didn't reconsider until he'd sent the script to three "very well-known actors, all better than me," who told him to go fuck himself. However, once he made the decision to play the role himself, he found it a considerable saving of time from not having to direct his lead actor -- time he desperately needed for all the other things he was dealing with as a first-time director.)

Clearly curator Schwartz has an extraordinary eye for -- and ability to snag -- films that are not only of unusual interest in their own right but lend themselves to "events" those I've mentioned. At the Sopranos event I learned that he had in fact been the curator who arranged MoMI's 2001 screening of the complete first two seasons of The Sopranos, on the big screen, with eight episodes a weekend -- free to members. You better believe I became a member, and had my first exposure to the show (I didn't have HBO then), and therefore knew from the outset how terrific it looked on a big screen.

And I've focused on "events," touching on in the case of the Aronofsky series on the museum's vast series of "regular" screenings (free to members, who can pre-reserve tickets by phone). Or the museum's extensive permanent and rotating collections and exhibitions (which I did touch on in my report last September).

Since I've been mostly attending those "event" screenings, which I have to get to straight from work, I haven't had much recent opportunity to explore the museum's current offerings, so I'm hoping to arrive early enough tomorrow to do so before I settle in for the first of a series of six screenings this weekend and next of a 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey.


"Sunrise" from Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA, recorded Mar. 8, 1954

Which is, er, that this weekend and next MoMI is offering six screenings of 2001 in 70mm. You'll note below that regular members can get one ticket free. Since I booked mine as soon as I received the e-announcement, as I've come to do with most MoMI events (I still kick myself for missing out on the December screening of American Hustle at which director David O. Russell appeared for a discussion), I have no idea what the ticket situation is like. But I don't want anyone to say I didn't tell you about it.
2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm
Part of See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two)

Saturday, July 5, 3:00 p.m.
Saturday, July 5, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 6, 3:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 6, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 12, 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 13, 3:00 p.m.

Don't miss your chance to see this classic in glorious 70mm! As brilliantly engineered as the space program itself, Kubrick’s mysterious and profound epic—“the ultimate trip”—is about nothing less than the beauty and banality of civilization, blending cool satire, an elaborate vision of the future, and passages of avant-garde cinematic inventiveness.

Tickets: $12 ($9 seniors/students, free for Museum members). Ticket includes access to the Museum's galleries and other screenings on the same day. Order online or call 718 777 6800 to reserve tickets. For more information on membership and to join online, visit our membership page.

Brainstorm in 70mm
Part of See It Big! Science Fiction (Part Two)

Saturday, July 12, 7:00 p.m.
Sunday, July 13, 3:00 p.m.

Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 thriller about a device that can record thoughts and dreams features stunning visual effects to portray telepathic experiences, cutting between widescreen and standard size. It also features the last performance by Natalie Wood, who died during the making of the film. Brainstorm has not been shown in 70mm in New York for more than 20 years.

Free with Museum admission on a first-come, first-served basis. Museum members may reserve tickets in advance by calling 718 777 6800. For more information on membership and to join online, visit our membership page.