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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?