Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Tell Them Not To Travel To America"

Sherman Oaks, California

"I wanted to warn people about what can happen there, to tell them not to travel to America," Australian citizen Fazle Rabbi told the Los Angeles Times in describing his treatment at the hands of Customs and Border Protection officers at LAX. (The Sydney Morning Herald also ran a story.)

Rabbi and his family held valid Australian passports (having been naturalized from Bangladesh four years earlier), held valid U.S. visas (although, as Ozzies, they did not need them) but were refused entry to the United States. The reported reason was that he had been previously denied visas when he lived in Bangladesh.

We have the worst of both worlds: poor border security that alienates visitors.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Four Phases of U.S. Expatriation

The American perception of expatriates has four distinct historical phases, Professor Nancy L. Green said at UCLA yesterday.

Although the image of American expats is dominated by the literary bohemians who worked in France during the 1920s, Henry Miller and friends exemplified only one of this country’s varying views toward expats.

Since expatriation is a matter of perspective – who is leaving whom to go where and why – Green, a director at the School of Advanced Studies and Social Sciences in Paris, classified U.S. expatriation into four historical periods:

1. The British colonists who established the U.S.;

2. The mass immigration into the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century;

3. The steady flow of expats from the U.S. during the early twentieth century; and

4. The rise of dual citizenship from the 1960s to the present.

“Expatriation is a legal construct and a social construct, depending upon who is doing it and whether it is voluntary or not,” Green said.

The first crisis in U.S. views toward expatriation occurred during the War of 1812, in which the Royal Navy conscripted U.S. sailors, Green said. The British concept of “perpetual allegiance” – a person had one unalterable citizenship at birth – came into conflict with the Lockian notion of voluntary expatriation. The debate within the U.S. was limited to whether the British theory justified war; based on the pamphlet evidence, the American polity seemed to believe strongly that citizenship was a matter of choice.

In the second phase, the focus shifted from leaving the U.K. to coming to the U.S. The waves of mid-nineteenth century immigrants were legally accommodated, and the U.S. began to enter into treaties to protect its citizens’ interests abroad.

During both of these phases, Green argued, immigration and expatriation were generally seen as beneficial. But, in the next period, the overtones became darker.

As more Americans took advantage of cheaper and safer transport to move overseas for months or years at a time, policymakers became concerned with the loyalty of the leave takers, Green said. In 1907, Congress passed a law listing the actions which would strip a person of U.S. citizenship. In the case of women, marriage to a foreign national was sufficient.

And, while the image of the literati reigns in the popular mind, “most expats came to sell the U.S.,” Green said, noting that the community of Paris-based U.S. businessmen distanced themselves from the artists. The merchants preferred to be called “the American colony.”

Dual citizenship was a “self-evident absurdity,” in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, but that idea changed with the jet age, Green said. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1967 that the renunciation of citizenship was a matter of intent, and, under modern law, it has become difficult to lose U.S. citizenship. Thus, we are currently in Green’s fourth phase, a period of dual citizenship facilitated by transport and communications.

Still, while some Americans become temporary or permanent expats, very few trade in their passports.

“There have been many expatriates but few who have expatriated,” Green said.

Prof. Nancy Green is the co-editor, most recently, of Citizenship and Those Who Leave: The Politics of Emigration and Expatriation published by the University of Illinois Press. She spoke as part of the UCLA History Department's U.S. Colloquium.

Pictured: Elizabeth and Ernest Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Highlight of the Week

Sherman Oaks, California

Had lunch today at Hugo's while sitting one table away from Ed Asner.

That's typical of my neighborhood: No big stars but lots of character actors. You could hold a SAG vote at the local Whole Foods, where I recently saw Janel Moloney in the produce section.

And, on occasion, we mere mortals catch a glimpse of The Great Man himself, who lives up the hill but frequents our fine restaurants.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Aspen Miller

Sherman Oaks, California

She's a tiny slip of a girl.

Or maybe everyone seems small standing next to Meat Loaf.

But, as you can see in this clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live, singer Aspen Miller can stand up to the tubby, velvet-jacketed one.

My original point remains: Meat Loaf may be a cheesy retro rocker, but he's the rare performer who hires vocalists who are infinitely better than he is.

Pictured: Aspen Miller, left, and Who Cares, right.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

World's Best Airport: Hong Kong

No surprise to Knife Tricks readers: Four of the top five airports in the world (according to Skytraxx) are in Asia, CNN reports. Hong Kong International Airport came out on top for 2008.

Pictured: The opening of the Armani boutique at Hong Kong International Airport.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Burmese Lesson In Superior Airline Service

Sherman Oaks, California

Reason contributor Kerry Howley was refused entry into Burma -- no doubt for her published criticisms of the military regime -- but the fascinating part is how polite and considerate Thai Air Asia was about the situation.

Will Wilkinson explains:

We waited and waited, with the pleasantly patient Asia Air [sic] staff, who apparently could not leave until we were processed one way or another . . . . We love Air Asia, who apologized to us for holding up their return flight to Thailand and kindly advised us on getting back through Thai immigration in the weird circumstance of having just left the country hours before.

Thai Air Asia is not a full-service airline; it's a scrappy, low-cost carrier very much in the Southwest model. Waiting on Howley and Wilkinson's immigration clearance cost Thai Air Asia time and money and probably screwed up its timetable for the day.

Yet, aware of the value of satisfied customers, the airline personnel were polite and professional about the situation.

The chances of having this occur with an American airline are zero.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism by Thomas Kohnstamm (Three Rivers Press 2008).

Drunks bore me.

I don’t like being drunk. I don’t like listening to drunks. I don’t like reading about or watching drunks. Barfly is the exception, but, if you’re going to base a screenplay on the pathetic romance of two alcoholics, you better write as well as Charles Bukowski.

Thomas Kohnstamm isn’t in that league. He doesn’t hold a candle to Bukowski or Kingsley Amis or his obvious idol, Hunter S. Thompson – authors who knew from their libations and intoxicants.

So I could have done without the first 50 pages of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? Apparently feeling the need for a framing structure, Kohnstamm’s travel memoir begins with a violent night of New York City bar hopping in the company of The Doctor, an unhinged inebriate. The Doctor plays the same role as did the attorney in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, except that the attorney was funny and the Doctor is not.

Kohnstamm eventually flew to Rio on a writing assignment from Lonely Planet, beginning his adventure in earnest. Kohnstamm’s tales of drug-dealing expats and gringo-gouging Brazilians were diverting enough while I read them, but that was several weeks ago, and, as I sit here typing, I can’t remember one of them. Travel book staples such as beach parties, dodgy companions and guesthouse hookups blend together unless the writing is exceptional, which isn’t the case here.

What I do remember is the minor controversy which publicized the book launch. As I noted when the story hit in April, Kohnstamm stated – or, perhaps more accurately, was interpreted to have stated – that he wrote Lonely Planet’s Colombia guide without visiting the country. Kohnstamm later clarified that LP had hired him to research and write a “desk update” of certain front matter in the guide (e.g., history, environment, food) and that no one had expected him to travel to Colombia.

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? isn’t about Colombia – it’s about an earlier assignment in which Lonely Planet commissioned Kohnstamm to revise its guide to the beach towns of northeastern Brazil. The coastline is about 1,000 miles long – roughly the length of the U.S. West Coast – and Lonely Planet wanted Kohnstamm to research about 60 cities in about two months.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a good deal:

If a trip to Brazil is all I really want, I’d be better off working for two or three months at Starbucks, getting its health insurance, smoking bowls every day, and then using my earnings to go to Brazil on vacation than I would be taking this job. Starbucks employees start at almost $9 per hour, plus medical and dental benefits, and the pay goes up from there. Lonely Planet, a company that sells some six million books per year and calls itself the only independent global publisher, claims that writers’ workload-versus-fee averages out to $600 per week. That would mean that working a basic forty-hour week, authors earn $15 per hour. Of course, if you read between the lines of what is expected of the writer for this project, it isn’t difficult to see that this job will take closer to every waking hour of my time, from weeks of pretrip preparation up through deadline. Of course, after the deadline there will be additional stages of edits, queries, map clarifications, and rewrites, which will tack on many extra days, if not weeks. That puts the hourly pay below minimum wage, and U.S. minimum wage is nothing nice. You can also forget about health insurance.

The situation became more complex once Kohnstamm was on the road in Brazil. On paper, the job should have been manageable, not least because Kohnstamm had a master’s degree in Latin American Studies and knew Portuguese. In reality, Kohnstamm found Lonely Planet’s demands to be overwhelming.

The more I read, the more proposed changes that I discover. The chapter introductions need to be retargeted, rewritten, improved. The boxed texts need to be replaced. The focus of the entire book needs to be recalibrated. While Lonely Planet was once aimed at backpackers, the new primary market is British and American couples who hold full-time jobs, on a two- or three-week vacation. Yet we still need to appeal to the backpacker base, and the odd top-end traveler (often the former backpacker who is now a business professional, but still likes to travel in an independent manner), meaning that I need to research and write about attractions and destinations that are appropriate for each type of travel, including different classes of hostels, resorts, B and Bs, buses, car rentals, charter flights, ride shares, and more.

Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent to top-end. I also need to keep in mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view.

Kohnstamm was game, but he kept falling further behind schedule. It didn’t seem possible to personally visit every relevant hotel, restaurant, bar and tourist attraction – particularly while maintaining the spirit of Lonely Planet’s curiously worded Publisher’s Note that its writers “do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage.” Finally, Kohnstamm told himself that the Note merely prohibited an explicit quid pro quo and that, if Lonely Planet wanted the book completed in time, he would have to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

I now know that if you show up at the desk and surprise the clerk with a discount request, they may not be in a position to offer it to you, or may not know what you’re talking about. A phone call to follow up [an] email usually does the trick.

Once I am firmly ensconced in the room, I will contact the manager and ask for suggestions of restaurants and other hotels that will be of some help to me. I will delegate from there, find people who’ve been to those places and pick their brains for information. The days I spent hustling to try to make it to all of the places, to see them with my own eyes, are far away. Now the most important part of the job is determining who does and doesn’t know what they’re talking about and figuring out how I can best stretch my money to keep going until the end. The game is being played, and possibly even being won.

The question of Lonely Planet’s ethics is the most interesting aspect of the book, and Kohnstamm blows it. He doesn’t make much of an attempt to learn if other LP writers are piping it. He doesn’t explore the issue of whether LP editors are knowingly turning a blind eye. There’s no evidence that he asked LP owners Tony or Maureen Wheeler, or anyone else at the publishing house, for their side of the story.

Consequently, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? is like a watered-down drink. The flavor is there, but it’s too thin and a touch too smooth, and it doesn’t do the job.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gone But Still Appreciated

Sherman Oaks, California

Tuesday, January 13th, would have been the 78th birthday of Charles Nelson Reilly.

To readers under 35: Charles Nelson Reilly was a comedian known for his ubiquitous appearances on talk shows during the 1970s. Although he could hold his own as a performer (see this famous bit with Johnny Carson) and as a panelist on Match Game, he was known to every talk show booker in Los Angeles as a guy you could call at the last minute to fill out a show.

Reilly always had something interesting or amusing to say. He was the kind of guy you'd be happy to listen to over dinner. That may seem a small thing, and it was, but he did it well. Many of today's celebrities can't string two sentences together, as evidenced by these Letterman segments with Kristen Stewart and Lauren Conrad.

Charles, we miss you.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Devil At 37,000 Feet

Sherman Oaks, California

Precision technologies can make flying less safe, argued Vanity Fair international correspondent William Langewiesche in the January 2009 issue.

In reconstructing the events which led to a freak mid-air collision over the Amazon in 2006, Langewiesche noted that the precision of modern guidance systems contributed to the crash.

Navigational precision poses dangers not immediately apparent. In the Legacy [example pictured], it was based on three systems. The first was an ultra-accurate altimeter, capable of measuring the atmosphere with such finesse that at Flight Level 370 [a.k.a. 37,000 feet] it could distinguish the Legacy’s altitude within perhaps five feet. The second was almost as accurate. It was the airplane’s satellite-based G.P.S. receiver, a positioning system that kept track of the airplane’s geographic location within a distance of half of its wingspan, and that, linked to a navigational database, defined the assigned airway with equal precision. The third was an autopilot that flew better than its human masters, and, however mindlessly, worked with the altimeter and G.P.S. to keep the airplane spot-on. Such capability is relatively new. Until recently, head-on airplanes mistakenly assigned the same altitude and route by Air Traffic Control would almost certainly have passed some distance apart, due to the navigation slop inherent in their systems. But this is no longer true. The problem for the Legacy was that the Boeing coming at them on the same assigned flight path had equipment that was every bit as precise.

Another reason to trust human pilots more than computers.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Matt Smith Is The Eleventh Doctor

The big news this week was the BBC's announcement that up-and-coming English actor Matt Smith had been cast as the Eleventh Doctor. Many more posts on this topic to come.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Marco Polo Didn't Go There By Rolf Potts

Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade As A Postmodern Travel Writer by Rolf Potts (Travelers’ Tales 2008).

Anthologies have become difficult to read.

I blame the internet. Short-form writing thrives on the web. You can read a 2,000-word essay in a few minutes. Then you can read another and another and, before you know it, the work day is over.

At home, your brain craves books – sustained stories or arguments with characters, twists, complexities and resolution. A good book might take several days or weeks to read. If well written, it lures you back time and again until you reach the back cover.

Anthologies – books of short pieces – are the odd man out. On a normal diet of web surfing, you don’t want to add another plate of small servings. And anthologies are hard to finish. After reading one chapter, there are no unresolved questions enticing you to pick up the book again.

All of which is to say that it took me two months to read the 20 essays in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, an anthology of Rolf Potts’ travel writings, and that’s not a reflection on the quality of the work. I can’t be alone in this, so, sooner or later, the sheer abundance of essays on the web may render anthologies as anachronistic as Big Little books or penny dreadfuls.

Potts is the author of Vagabonding, the book that convinced me and thousands of others to take time off and travel the world. He’s written for WorldHum and The New York Times Magazine, and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There collects many of these pieces. In an illuminating touch, each chapter is annotated with bloggy postscripts that discuss the writing of the article.

Potts’ attention is evenly divided between his travel experiences and the cultural baggage which he brings to his experiences. “The people of Ban Na don’t conform to the sentimental tourist’s idea of what isolated villagers should look like,” Potts wrote from Cambodia. “Instead of colorful ethnic costumes, they sported tattered t-shirts, rubber sandals, Chinese-manufactured woolen trousers, and grimy army jackets.”

A tour operator in Australia continued, “When you run a business like mine, that’s the trick: balancing people’s expectations of aboriginal culture with the real thing. That’s why a town like Alice Springs has galleries full of paintings from a culture that never had houses to hang them in.”

The brevity of vacations bears part of the blame for the disconnect between expectations and reality. “To truly immerse yourself in nature, you need time and patience, yet short-term tourists rarely have much time to spare,” Potts wrote. “The ‘product’ of ecotourism, after all, is experience -- yet a meaningful experience of nature is not something that can be delivered in quick, standardized packages.”

Travel magazines don’t necessarily help. Potts grew increasingly frustrated with an editor at a famous glossy who kept insisting that Potts work helicopter services and other expensive consumables into his copy.

“In time, I discerned that adventure itself was far less important to the magazine than creating a romanticized sense of adventure – preferably with recommendations on where to buy a cappuccino and a Swedish massage afterwards. The Major American Adventure-Travel Magazine, it seemed, wanted me to create a tantalizing recipe for the exotic and the unexpected –- but only the kind of ‘unexpected’ that could be planned in advance and completed in less than three weeks,” Potts wrote. In addition, “death-of-travel” stories, he concluded, “essentially serve to reassure working stiffs that they aren’t missing anything by staying at home.”

You miss a lot by staying home. You miss the world. But, if you can’t make it this year to Cairo to celebrate the bloody festival of Eid al-Adha or to the Ottowa County Historical Museum in Minneapolis, Kansas, you can read Rolf’s book.

Although, given contemporary attention spans, it might take a while.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Blogger Problems

The last two posts were eaten.

Jack Hanna and I will investigate.